Photo credit: Barbara Royal. Used with permission.


The scary wonder of stillness

A brief experiment

by Ken Rummer

Tiny blooms of frost aster show white along the trail, leaves on our maple tree sport a crazy quilt of orange and green and red, and the mid-morning temp is only in the 50s. Here in Iowa, where we take pride in hosting four distinct seasons, autumn has arrived.

Hardy souls are hanging on to summer, keeping the top down on the convertible, wearing shorts under jackets, seeing who can hold out the longest before turning on the furnace. But outside the flower shop, a rain-weakened cardboard crate has given way, spilling pumpkins onto the sidewalk.

Through our back window, I spot a large mantis on the stair railing. The down angle of the handrail transposes the standard tilt-up stance of the insect into one more suitable for a hood ornament: back, level to the ground; legs, braced forward.

The mantis faces east, toward the sun’s first rays. I can’t tell if it is preying or praying, but it stands very still, as motionless as those street performers who dress up like statues and startle the crowd when they suddenly bend down to shake hands with a child.

I step away from the window, but when I return, the mantis is still there. What does it see through those unblinking, cabochon eyes? 

At my grandmother’s one hundredth birthday party, a grandson-in-law took a portrait of her in profile. The black and white photo turned her weather-wrinkled face into an Ansel Adams landscape, her eyes looking toward the light, as if seeing things beyond the horizon of this world.

My grandmother used to tell me to be still, but I continue to resist. When a moment seems in danger of becoming completely quiet, I reach for my phone or the remote.  Maybe someone has posted something. Maybe there’s a Hallmark movie on I haven’t seen. Maybe there are tunes to be cranked up.

The threatening stillness passes, but I suspect I am missing out. 

From a world marked by trouble, where even dependable things like mountains might wobble like card tables with loose legs, a poet dared to speak for the Divine. “Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10 NRSV).

Is settling into stillness a way to know God better? Is this what mantises and ancient grandmothers get that I have yet to grasp?

Though I tend to fill the empty places with noise and distraction, I think I might be ready to dip my toe a little deeper into the quiet, to risk a close encounter with stillness. 

But for how long? An hour? Ten minutes? I know from the silent prayer time at church that even one minute can be a challenge. Maybe I’ll start there. You’re welcome to join me if you like. 

Phone timer set to one minute. 

Pressing Start. 

Breathe in. 

Breathe out. 

Be still and know. 

Like the mantis. 

Like the grandmother.

Too quickly, the ring tone sounds. And the mantis is gone.


Ken Rummer, a retired Presbyterian pastor, writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. His previous posts can be found at