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?
When I was a young evangelical who was new to faith and the church, I learned to speak about Jesus with passion. When we praised someone who was “on fire for God,” we were describing a person who was vocal about their faith, who talked about experiencing the presence of God, who served in big ways. These were those kids at youth camp who raised their hands or the ones who showed up for the small groups and service projects. We talked about their fire because we could see external evidence of something burning inside them.
So we all worked harder to show our faith. We wanted the feeling of being so consumed by something that it changed our lives. Duty and devotion were intertwined in the inner workings of our faith. If we loved Jesus, then everyone should know it. Our goal was to be sold-out, on fire, radical. Young and fearless, we prayed the prayer of Jim Elliot: “God, I pray light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn up for thee.” All passion and fury, we forged ahead…and some burned up but most burned out.
The nature of fire is that it constantly needs to be fed or it fizzles out. I equated faith with feelings and looked for mountaintop experiences with God to fill me. I understood the Lord’s presence as something to be felt or God must be absent. As we prayed “God, be with us in this place,” I learned to invite God into my worship as if He wasn’t already there and if I felt some stirring within my heart then I must be pleasing Him.
But when the music stopped and the lights went out, I didn’t know how to hear Jesus in the quiet of my own heart. When I heard no answer and felt no rousing emotions, I wondered—had my fire gone out?
I had a language for fervor but not for the doubt, or the dark night of the soul waiting on the other side of anxiety. I didn’t have a place for God in the brokenness or even in the mundane that made up the moments between being lit up. For years I struggled with feeling like I was just living among the dying embers of something I had lost a long time ago. I kept going through the motions of the truth I knew, hoping one day I would feel again.
Just like I can’t pinpoint a time when I entered the wilderness, I can’t remember emerging...
Where do you experience God? If you can't feel His Presence, do you know He's still there? Come with me to SheLoves today as I share how I'm relearning how to experience God in the silence and in the noise...
I felt the pull to reflection deep in my spirit. As soon as the light through the stained glass of the Romanesque chapel fell on my face, I felt I was transported into a tangible awareness of the presence of God. I knew I needed time alone in this place. Over the course of the two-day writing retreat I was attending, I filled my time with as many interactions with my fellow writers as I could. After all, we had traveled from all over the country to be together. This was a unique opportunity full of divine appointments, prayers whispered, stories shared, and wisdom imparted. I didn't want to miss a moment, but I was missing something else.
As the retreat was coming to a close and dear friends were whispering goodbyes in the hushed lobby as people brushed by us into mass, I wanted to stay but I felt the tug on my heart that I had been denying all weekend. I cracked open the heavy wooden door, stopped a moment to kneel, and quietly slip into the back pew just after mass began. I hoped nobody would notice the tears streaming down my face during the lectionary readings that resounded off the stained glass prophets who spoke their words over and into me.
I met Jesus that weekend in the laughter of my friends, in the impassioned preaching of some of the strongest women I've ever known, over the dinner table, and in the prayers of the friend who scooted close knowing my heart was aching for someone to pray over me. But He was waiting in that chapel all along, too—waiting for me to quiet myself long enough to just be still before Him. Silence tugs at me and repels me at the same time. I know the need and I know the pain of the pruning that awaits there.
Not cold enough to be called winter but dreary enough to still make all life lay dormant under the piles of fallen leaves, this has been a strange season. At the end of it, I am forcing myself to press into the silence. I found the practice of Examen last year (the daily prayer practice laid out by St. Ingatius Loyola), realized what thousands before me have known using this attitude of prayerful reflection for 500 years - that an examined life is a life of growth. Whenever I have practiced Examen daily, I have found such peace and guidance from God. But, in all honesty, I haven't practiced it very often. Because I've also found the dark places of my heart, the places I'd rather avoid. I've heard things I need to lay down that I desperately want to cling to.
The end of this particular season lends itself especially well to reflection as we also leave Ordinary Time for the Lenten season in which we focus especially close on our own sinfulness and cravings, preparing our hearts for the redemption that is to be celebrated at Easter. I love the practice of reflecting on what we've learned at the end of a season (be it the seasons of the calendar year or the church year). As I was preparing to join Emily Freeman and her community in sharing what we've learned this winter (don't forget to hop over to Emily's place to read some of the other "What We've Learned - Winter Edition" posts), I wanted to share cute and light lessons. But again I felt the tug to something deeper. This year, as the end of winter and the end of Ordinary Time coincide, I am noticing how looking back on what we learned is another form of Examen. I want more than just to reflect back on the season; I want the reflection to turn to prayer and the prayer to change the next season of my life.
If you too are wanting to look back on the past season before you head into the next, join me in examining your life before God, turning what you learned into a prayer of thanks, of repentance, of an openness to grow in yet deeper understanding in the next season. Spend just a few minutes or as much time as you can allow. There is nothing mystical about Examen. It is simply an attitude of reflection that leads to prayer. Traditional Ignatian Examen is done mid-day and at the end of the day. I have started using Examen at the end of the week during Sabbath and planning for the week ahead, or at the end of the month or season. You can journal your reflections if it helps or simply find a quiet place and be with God. Sit in the stillness for a little while. Listen before you speak. Look back. Look ahead. Most importantly, look up.
Leave a comment for me and the benefit of others or send me an email (for my eyes only). I'd love to hear what you're learning, how you're hearing His voice in the noise, and how we can pray together into this new season. Blessings!
I have a secret addiction.
It started out as this little thing. Everyone else swears it is harmless, even helpful. But its influence grew stronger in my life. It became indispensable . It’s my smartphone and I want to throw it out the window!
I was pretty late to the whole world of being connected to the Internet 24 hours a day via an electronic device that makes you prefer chewing off your arm over forgetting it at home. I swore I was sticking to a paper calendar, to checking my email only at my computer.
I only caved two years ago. Now, like everyone else – I am hooked on something I both need and despise. I see a room full of people mindlessly checking social media instead of talking to those next to them and I want to burn every last phone in the room. But then I find myself sneaking my phone into the bathroom so I can just check that one email I need to get to.
Technology is supposed to make our lives simpler, right? A smartphone is a minimalist's dream. You can have your contacts, books, calendar, directions, work, shows, and even your Bible all in one place. So much in one little device. Right at your fingertips.
It may have everything I think I need in one shiny little computer that tucks neatly into my purse, but I find that it creates more chaos than it eases in my life. My phone may save me space for all the functions it does for me, but it is my mind that has become a tangled mess of more junk than I need. The clutter in my soul has become overwhelming.
The voices I let into my head have been magnified and are just one little swipe away. There are really only a few voices I need to listen to every day.
I have this pretty little print by Lysa TerKeurst on my mirror that reminds me of the voice I need to seek first: “We must exchange whispers with God before shouts with the world.”
I don’t look at those words often. I usually glance past them to the phone sitting on the counter. It’s this little portal to all the to-do lists screaming for my attention, the dings from my calendar telling me I better get moving or I’ll be late, the opinions waiting to shove their way through all the noise to assert themselves as the right ones.
Then there are those little voices that don’t shout above all the noise. They just quietly try to edge their way into all my mental chaos, the million things running through my mind that I have to attend to. They are the voices that ask, “Mommy, look?” or “Honey, how was your day?”
Being connected to the world all the time is easy, but it is anything but simple. It’s complicated and tiring. We are not designed for constant connection. I know this but I am ever so slowly learning to live it...
Do you feel overwhelmed with all the voices shouting for your attention, find yourself hating the chaos and longing for peace and rest? Join me in the Mudroom for a look at cleaning out the clutter in your soul. Join me there?
I stared into the tiny flame that danced in brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. Everyone else had gone back to the bus, ready to move onto the next site in our pilgrimage through the Holy Land, but I stayed behind. I knew there wasn’t anything more holy about this place, that I wasn’t any closer to God’s presence on this mountain than anywhere else on earth. But I stayed anyway.
It was on this very mountain that Elijah called down fire from heaven. On Mt. Carmel God showed up in the fire, consuming everything. The Lord’s power was so visible for a moment, proving God was real and cared about the prayers of the people. Now a monastery stands in the place of that fire, a little chapel that serves to remind people of the God who answers prayer.
There was a heavy burden on my heart that day. Someone I loved back home was hurting and I felt compelled in that place to kneel before the little altar and light a candle—calling out light in the darkness. It was just a tiny reflection of the fire all those years ago but it was a visible representation to me that God hears when we call.
So I lit a little flame in the darkness and I cried, believing that the God of Elijah could still rain down fire and show up in mighty ways.
In the quiet of the morning before my family awakens, downstairs in my living room, my mind wanders to my to-do lists for the day. I try to focus on a word to center me, bring me back to what I am trying to find—the Presence of God that I felt on that mountain. I grasp for it like a parched traveler in the desert. I can see it up ahead. Like a mirage in that scorching desert, it remains just out of my grasp.
I can remember the way an aching need called me to prayer, the way I found God there. I try to muster concentration, grasping for stillness in my mind to match the silence of the house before all the noise begins. It’s like a flame I try to light with no matches, trying to will it into existence. I can’t find the spark, and my attempts at waiting quietly before the Lord sputter out. I sigh and get up to start the day.
There are moments I have grasped the holiness of God, felt the Presence so strongly. It was like a fire in my soul burning orange and hot, and my prayers the incense that rose from the flames. I remember those moments with longing.
More often than not these days, prayer is work...
Do you ever feel like you can't find the presence of God, like sometimes prayer is work? I am over at SheLoves Magazine today sharing what God is teaching me about contemplation and prayer, even when the presence of God feels elusive.
Join me there.
“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” - Madeline L’Engle
I love contemplation – in theory.
The year began for me in the aching beauty of an abbey church. The very architecture spoke to me of stillness. The concrete columns towering into arched rafters above were solid, sturdy, glorious. The scene around me reflected what I want my interior life to look like. That still, solid, steadiness is what I hope to embody.
I know that only comes with the contemplation and prayer that the inhabitants of those very walls live by. I began my year learning from the Benedictine monks that lived within the abbey, wanting to practice more of that kind of stillness in my own spirit.
But away from those warm and inviting walls where a single sound is magnified into echoing responses due to the silence – there is so much noise. Inside my head and heart - noise.
A third of the way into the year, I have been on more planes than in the past few years combined. I have been running so much and that isn’t to say I haven’t had moments of extreme clarity when God’s voice has broken through the noise.
I have heard Him in my journeys and in spite of them.
My scene today is a very different one than the dimly lit monastery. Noises and music rise together inside the coffee shop I sit inside, a shelter from the crisp Chicago day. I can’t pick out a single voice, the sounds more of a symphony of chatter than a single conversation.
It’s full of noise but my heart can still find space to be quiet here. There is something beautiful to me about being still in the middle of the city bustling around me.
Whether I am traveling or at home, in the quiet or in a crowd I can find a place for stillness if I will just stop running. The problem is I don’t often stop long enough to do the very thing I know my heart so desperately needs.
On my way to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, three days in which I am sure I will find little time for stillness, I am so grateful to have time to stop running if only for a moment.
My journey to FFW is starting with a writer’s retreat in which there will be time for prayer, contemplation, and writing. I think I am most looking forward to and most resistant to this part of the journey, all at the same time.
I have been trying make contemplation part of my daily life but it is so contrary to my evangelical church experience. Though I have often stepped outside of the tradition in which I first discovered Christ and still belong, the tendency to place worship in the neat little boxes I learned there are still so ingrained.
Stillness is still an effort for me. I want it to just feel easy but it is work at the same time. The two seem contrary to each other, so I often throw up my hands and walk away from the very practices I long to explore like centering prayer and examen.
In The Contemplative Writer, Ed Cyzewski (one of the people organizing the retreat tomorrow) talks about contemplative prayer as something that “removes us from the spiritual rat race where we’re always trying to make ourselves worthy of God or proving our mettle as disciples of Jesus.”
The rat race had been my life for so long that as soon as I remove myself from the endless cycles of striving, I find myself wandering right back to it.
Just like it is hard to let myself be known by others, it is so hard for me to be still and know. To be and not do. Everything in me fights against it but all I am longs to know how, too.
In this coffee shop I try to be still in the midst of the noise. Tomorrow I will practice contemplation with others, struggling to love it more in practice than in theory. I know it won’t be easy. Not much that actually brings us closer to truly knowing God is.
So here’s to knowing and being known this week…
This year I am not making New Year’s resolutions. I am not jotting down goals and dreams, in hopes of becoming a different version of myself. Instead, I am exploring something new this year—or rather, something very old.
It all began when I visited a local monastery for some quiet reflection. Being a busy working mom, I was feeling out of touch with time for my own spiritual development. Driven by to-do lists, I felt the need to set some spiritual goals instead of just practical ones. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit, sitting on 7,000 acres of untouched Georgia woodlands, became the perfect retreat for New Year’s Day reflections a few years ago.
I was taken by the beauty of the place and intrigued by the life of the forty monks in community there. I attended a retreat at the monastery later in the year, praying and learning alongside the monks. The common prayer and meditative readings were unknown to me as an evangelical, but still sparked a deeper contemplation around God and his gospel truths.
The following year, I returned to the abbey church, listening to monks singing midday prayers while asking God to guide my year ahead. I have always loved how New Year’s puts us in a mindset of reflection and reordering. It’s especially needed as another year comes to an end, and we’re left feeling more defeated than inspired...