I’ve lived on the banks of a river that is the stuff of legends—those storied waters that cradled civilization and was the bridge between life and death for the ancients. It is obvious why Egypt is called “the gift of the Nile” once you spend a couple months in the sandy, dry heat. No life could exist in such a desert without those blessed waters.
I conversely now live in one of the most lush deltas in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the fertile plain that lies between the melting Himalayan snow, the waters of the sacred Ganges flowing out of India, and the largest bay in the world. Here the 700 rivers mean life—and death. When the monsoon rains come and the rivers flow outside their banks, many people who have nowhere else to go in this overpopulated land, have to move and rebuild—again.
I’ve seen the same waters meant to bring life, carry destruction instead. How can it be?
I’ve always loved order. I think that is what drew me to organized religion as a teenager who hadn’t been raised in the church. I finally had a set of rules I could follow. There were lines in the sand dividing the good and the bad and I knew just what to do to stay on the right side of that line. It felt like freedom was in the certainty.
I didn’t act like someone who was free, though. I used my freedom to condemn, separating myself from those who didn’t stay on the side of the line that I called good. I became a stagnant, festering pool; there was no living water flowing through me to others.
So, I thought if rules brought death, I’d live free of them. I ran from the church of my youth. I pushed back against the limits to see what being boundless felt like. It felt utterly terrifying. I became a flood, destroying everything in my wake. That wasn’t freedom either.
I’ve lived with a carefully measured faith and no faith at all. Both were destructive. I searched every place I could for a real taste of liberation, but I still felt chained inside...
The quiet is palpable but not heavy. In the way the warmth of a fire eases down into your very bones, the quiet here is the bearer of a strange kind of comfort. It isn’t the absence of sound. Every tiny noise reverberates off the white stone arches of the abbey. A monk coughs in the expanse between prayers. The squeaking of the wooden pews betrays the stillness. But what is found here is far deeper than the absence of sound.
“Silence is spoken here,” say the signs on the silent-dining-room tables. That’s it. The silence speaks. The Cistercian brothers that live in community in this monastery have carefully crafted and maintained it. They are the curators of silence. It’s what I come here time and time again to find. The silence has been built into something tangible and it speaks to your soul if you let it.
It’s never quiet here. The buildings fit together in this city like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The construction noise from the high-rise going up next to us is endless. Bang. Steel beams drop from a truck at one am. The next day we see more bricks have been added and are amazed that another building could be squeezed into that space. Millions of lives are tangled up together like the electric wires that supply the sometimes-sporadic power to the city. I forget what quiet sounds like in a place where noise creeps into every room like the mosquitoes that craftily find their way through the holes in the nets.
I miss quiet walks in the park, the way a tree can speak to me of the Creator. I miss hearing the silence speak. The clanging of construction, honking cars, ringing rickshaw bells, and barking dogs steal the quiet. They are the thieves of silence. The noise can drown out the sounds of your prayers if you let it.
I didn’t notice it until the third day I was here. The weekend was a blur of activity but when the house was finally quiet for one morning, four small children finally dropped off at school, I hear it...
You've caught glimpses of Michelle Derusha's new book True You and how impactful it has been in my life in my Lifelong Journey of Listening series the past couple weeks (The Movement Toward Stillness and Still).
I never noticed that oak trees are the last to lose their leaves until I began a daily practice of sitting still.
It all began with a whim. One sunny November afternoon while I was walking my dog, I decided to stop and sit on a park bench. As I rested there for a few minutes with Josie sprawled at my feet, I decided I would make this bench-sitting part of my daily routine.
I vowed I would stop at that same spot along our walking route every day, and I would sit for five minutes. I would sit in silence, I determined – without music or a podcast in my ears; without dialing my mother or texting my sister; without snapping photos with my camera phone or scrolling through Instagram or Facebook.
I would simply sit in silence for five minutes. It would be good for me, I reasoned.
Turns out, five minutes on a park bench seems short in principle, but is a surprisingly long time in reality.
The first afternoon I sat on the park bench, I looked at my watch after two minutes and then again after four. The next day I took a cue from Josie, who sat still, ears pricked, nose quivering. I looked at what she looked at; I sniffed, trying to smell what she smelled. When she twitched her ears, I turned my head too, trying to hear what she’d heard.
I noticed a little more of my surroundings that second day, like the fact that the leaves of the burr oak on the edge of the ravine still clung stubborn and tenacious to the branches. Unlike the maples, birches, elms, and ash trees, which had dropped their leaves like colorful confetti more than a month ago, the oaks were still fully dressed, their dry leaves scraping together in the wind like sandpaper.
I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing there, just sitting. All I knew was that I felt compelled to do it, even though I didn’t particularly like it, and even though I knew, after only two days, that I would resist it in the coming weeks.
At the same time, I knew this sitting in stillness was something I had to do. Somehow I knew that the stopping, -- the interruption to my daily routine and my incessant push to get from Point A to Point B -- was important, maybe even imperative.
Turns out, I learned over the weeks and months of sitting in quiet solitude that I am a lot like the oak tree that clings so fiercely to its leaves. In fact, I suspect a lot of us are.
We, too, clutch our camouflage -- the person we present to the world, to our own selves, and even to God.
We, too, are unwilling to shed our false selves, to let go, to live vulnerably and authentically. We are afraid of what might happen if we drop our protective cover, afraid of how we might be seen or perceived, or how we might see or perceive our own selves.
We spend a great deal of our time and energy holding tight-fisted to our leaves, simply because we are too afraid to let go, too afraid of what, or who, we will find underneath.
The thing is, though, even the stubborn oaks have to let go of their leaves eventually. New growth can’t happen until the old, desiccated parts fall away. Spring only comes after winter. There is a rhythm here – relinquishing, stilling, rebirth.
The truth is, God does not wish for us to stand stubborn like the autumn oak tree, cloaked in a façade of protection, our truest, most authentic selves obscured beneath a tangled bramble of false security.
Rather, he desires us to live open and free, our true essence revealed and flourishing, our true self front and center, secure and thriving.
God yearns for us to live wholeheartedly and truthfully as the unique, beautiful, beloved individuals he created us to be. Most of all, God’s deepest desire is for us to know him, to root our whole selves in him like a tree rooted by a stream, and to know his deep, abiding love for us.
God yearns for us to live in the spacious, light-filled freedom of Christ and to know ourselves in him, through him, and with him.
As we slowly begin to let go of our false selves, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, and layer by layer, as we finally begin to relinquish, open up, and allow God to prune us from the inside out, we will grow in ways we never imagined: in our relationships with loved ones; in connection with and love for our neighbors; in our vocation; in our heart, mind, and soul; and in intimacy with God himself.
Our true, essential self, the one beautifully and uniquely created by God, is there, deep inside, hidden beneath layer upon layer of leaves clinging fast. Within each of us is a spacious place, waiting to be revealed.
Letting go is the way in.
This post is adapted from True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created, by Michelle DeRusha, releasing January 1 from Baker Books.
It’s true what mother’s say about forgetting the pain of childbirth. My births are now seven and nine and a half years ago and I have to strain to remember the details. Giving birth is a moment we spend countless hours preparing for. It is the culmination of reading and birthing classes, showers, reordering our lives and homes, taking growing baby bump photos, and long months of waiting.
Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. There’s a new life to care for. There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of childbirth. Just moments ago we screamed, “I can’t do this!” in agony but somehow, like millions of mothers before us, we did.
This time of year we talk a lot about birth. We read and sing about it, talk about it at our parties, reorder our lives and homes with decorations celebrating it, look at photos and miniatures of the place of the birth, and spend the long month of Advent waiting for the day of birth to arrive. Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. We spend a month pregnant with the anticipation of the Savior’s imminent arrival.
There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of his actual coming. Life rages on and we forget the incarnation means God actually lived among us, that Jesus didn’t just go from angelic baby in a manger to resurrection. In between he cried out to the father in agony “I can’t do this!” and asked for the cup to pass from him. He lived in the pain with us. He still does.
Reading Lauren Winner’s Wearing God right before Advent this year had me thinking more literally than metaphorically about birth. I squirmed uncomfortably, as I am sure others do when they hear the graphic details of other’s birth stories, when I imagined Jesus’ birth truly for the first time in my life: “As the contractions pick up, Jesus would sense that he was being squeezed. His head helps stretch Mary’s cervix open.”
“Do I really want a God with a body?” Winner asks. “Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?” It’s easier to hold Jesus at arm’s length, to live a sanitized version of Christmas. If he peacefully slipped into the world one silent night long ago, I can relegate him to the corners of my life, packed away with the manger scenes to be brought out once a year...
The walls of a monastery have held the echoes of my thoughts for the past few New Years. The cold, smooth stone became the embodiment of silence and peace for me as I reflected on the year behind, dreamed of what lie ahead. I have always been able to hear God so clearly in the silence carved out by the Benedictine Brothers that have informed so much of my spiritual life for the past few years. I crave this kind of silence in my daily life but outside the abbey walls it seems unattainable.
This year my New Year’s Reflections were anything but clean and cool and silent. We were traveling by train outside of our new home in the most densely populated city on earth, where silence is but a dream. I was thrilled to be in a rural area over the weekend that stretched across the New Year. I dreamed about sitting under the stars that I can’t even see from the hazy capital city sky. My aspirations of a tidy time for reflection were met with disappointment as yes, the moon and stars were beautiful, but I could only sit under them for a minute before the mosquitos drove me back inside. Yes, I was in a place of beauty but even in this wild area of jungle and tea gardens, voices and songs filled the night with noise.
So much like my desire for the perfect place for reflection, my daily spiritual life always feels lacking. My works-focused evangelical faith has often provided a goal, an unachievable standard. I can say I believe in grace all day long but still try to heap up works that prove how much I love God. If I can’t seem to hear God’s voice in prayer, I give Him the silent treatment for days to follow. If I can’t have my ideal 5 am quiet time of silence and journaling, prayer and Bible reading, I just throw in the towel all together and call myself a failure. Nothing is ever enough. It was striving, burned out faith that led me to seek out contemplation and silence in the first place.
On my weekend away I started reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms, hoping to find a little peace. It was like I was reading my own journal: “Our longing for a way of life that works is most often met with an invitation to more activity, which unfortunately plays right into our compulsions and the drivenness of Western culture.”
I said I was giving up resolutions a couple years ago but never really let go of my unattainable aspirations of perfection. I dressed them up as a Rule of Life, something that felt more holy. But they were still goals with a timeline attached, something to strive for—something to fall short of. Every broken promise was a reminder that I couldn’t seem to change my life.
I started choosing one word to guide my year as a means to focus less on goals and more on what I wanted the year to embody. In 2016 I chose the word practice, exploring spiritual practices that I hoped would draw me closer to God. It was a year of leaning into silence and contemplation but I felt like all my learning never turned into something that could sustain me.
In 2017 I felt exploring led way to establishing, rhythm becoming my guiding word of the year. I hoped to establish unforced rhythms in my life, take some of what I was learning and make it part of my every day (practicing examen instead of just reading about it, finding ways to weave silence into my daily practices). But 2017 was a year that would prove to bring the most upheaval into my life I have ever experienced. Changing plans, shifting dreams, moving four times and finally settling 8000 miles from home—my plans to grow deeply rooted felt thwarted when all I knew was uprooted over and over again.
So tired of feeling like a failure at the end of every year, worn on from the striving, I settled onto the train to return home on the morning of the first day of 2018. I watched a world so exotic to me roll by. Women precariously balance jars of water on their heads as men plucked the rice plants from the water logged paddies. Extraordinary to me. Utterly mundane to the people who live day to day in these villages stretching out before my eyes. It seemed the whole of humanity passed before my eyes in those hours. Beggars and the lame. Children and the old. Women in their best getting ready to board the train for a holiday. As I watched them I thought God are you here? Are you with them as you are with me? Are you with me?
Something breathed into my spirit and in the least silent moment I can imagine, God met me there, assuring me that He was with me. That He was in this place in more ways than I can possibly imagine. “Solitutde is a place inside myself where God’s Spirit and my spirit dwell together in union,” says Barton. I was truly alone with Him on that ride and for a few minutes I could let go of my need for the perfect. I was just there. So was my loving Father.
My 2018 word settled into my soul in those moments. I am done trying to drum up the perfect plan, with the striving, the goals, the failure. I can’t hear Him if I am running ahead all the time. I can find a still place in the noisiest city on earth, in my always-churning thoughts.
I just want to be where I am. I just want to be where He is. Present.
Join the conversation: Do you have One Word you have chosen for 2018 and what ways are you weaving it into your life this year? What ways do you find to let go of your perfectionism? How do you find stillness in a chaotic world? How do you find ways to be present each day?