It baffles my husband, how I can focus on writing amidst a room full of noise. I often get up before the rest of my family rises and write for hours on a weekend morning (I’m writing this now from Starbucks on a cold, rainy Sunday morning). Other people’s conversations fade into the background and I can hear clearly the words I am supposed to be putting down on the page.
When I chose the word “Still” to guide my year, I imagined a place more like the monastery I visit for retreats yearly than the coffee shops in which I write. I envisioned crafting a quiet place in my life to focus on God and the path ahead in another big transition year as we moved back to the U.S. from South Asia.
As is usually the case, that is not at all what I found.
This year was less like the holy quiet of the abbey church and more like the strange solitude of the writer in the middle of the noisy coffee shop. This year was the life raft somehow still upright while the winds of a squall raged around it.
I started off leaning into the stillness. Shortly after we returned to the U.S., I spent a beautiful weekend in the holy quiet of the monastery in my first fully silent retreat. I lapped up the silence like a parched animal. The path before us felt hard but full of possibilities.
But as our transition wore on and reality set in, I couldn’t run away to quiet places removed from the new life we were supposed to be building. And stillness in the middle of that kind of chaos wasn’t just hard to find; it was painful. It showed me that I thought coming “home” would fix a lot of broken things in my own heart. But like you can’t run away from yourself, you can’t expect her to be waiting for you in a place you left. I longed for answers and thought I’d find them in the quiet. I found more questions, more tender and broken places that needed tending.
We encountered renovating a home, joblessness, a family that looked very changed than when we left them, a new school, a lack of community (people changed; you change), and a whole lot of aching for what we left behind in South Asia. After a couple of months when the ache hadn’t left and the stumbling around in the dark remained, it was time to face that we weren’t going to walk into a new beginning and find wholeness. We found things a lot more shattered than we had left them, instead.
It felt like every person in my life was bearing the same kind of weight as I groped around for hope: caregiving, chronic illness, mental health issues, financial, job, or marriage strain. I stacked these weights upon my own and felt my knees buckle.
This wasn’t the peaceful glade kind of stillness I hoped for, where family and the U.S. and a new start gave me all the answers that had been evading me. This was the stillness of a waiting room full of people shifting uncomfortably. Every movement of the clock’s minute hand resounds through the room like a gong. It serves to remind those waiting they are not in control of the answers or when they will receive them.
Most days I filled my time with the new work I found or the kids or whatever distraction I could and let the noise take over. I didn’t want to face any dark, quiet corners and the questions that sat there waiting for me. Some days I stopped and took a deep breath, set a timer on my phone and trembled through twenty minutes of centering prayer that hurt like hell.
Some days I found places to rest but I had to fight for those places. I had to get outside when I wanted to stay under the covers. I had to meet that friend for coffee when I didn’t want to talk about my broken heart another time. I built something beautiful that would endure.
I did find one surprising shift waiting for me in my spotty centering prayer practice. Since I started practicing centering prayer years ago the word I have focused on is “beloved.” In my first weepy experiences of extended silent prayer, I saw how distant God felt from me. I couldn’t grasp his love for me, his closeness even when I didn’t feel it. This year practicing centering prayer from these broken, waiting places I found that whenever I would come back to the word “beloved” to center myself, a person’s face I love (and who I knew was struggling too) would appear in my mind.
I started to hold onto that image and breathe the word beloved in and out. It was my prayer for that person. It was my reminder that I am not alone in this brokenness and pain, that it is all around me and it is universal. And Jesus cares for each and every one of our hurts. He’s present in them. He’s working in ways we may never understand. And we can still trust him.
I realized I don’t struggle anymore to see myself as fully loved by God. I am not harboring anger because of these difficulties and shouting “why?” and “how long?” at an empty sky. Somehow quietly in the still moments of prayer over the past few years, without knowing it, assurance of my belovedness seeped into my heart and I just know it.
So I stopped praying this for myself but started holding out this hope for others. I can’t take away their chronic illness or shoulder their daily burdens. But I can hold them out to God and ask in the mysterious way that I received assurance of a presence I can’t always feel, that they would receive that too.
Yes, we’re enduring some hard things that seem to have no end. This year I also walked in four countries on three continents, moved into a beautiful home next door to my best friend of twenty-four years, navigated a significant transition with two happy, healthy children, started a new job that I enjoy, and hugged the neck of some family members I wasn’t sure I’d ever see again. And I did it all holding onto the quiet assurance that the God of the universe has a furious longing for me and never leaves me.
No, I didn’t find what I expected to this year, that kind of serenity all of us would love to call our lives. When I see someone I haven’t seen for a while and they ask about how we are and I mention a few of the things going on in our lives, I see their eyes glaze over and they say, “wow, that is a lot.” And I know I need to shift my focus to say, “Yeah it is, but we are still standing. Our little boat is enduring storms you’d never imagine and it’s upright. That’s the grace of God.”
Did you pick a word to guide your year in 2019? As you look back, did you find what you were expecting? Something better? How did God speak to you through your guiding word this year?
What about stillness – is it a goal? Is it a lifestyle? Is it something you feel like you can find amidst the chaos? How?
Listening with you,
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