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?
You would think the concrete walls would feel cold on this winter day. Instead, the white stone exudes warmth and peace. Towering overhead, the arches reflect the colors of the stained glass. The warm hues of the filtered light add to the calming atmosphere of the Abbey church as I pause to run my hands along the cool stone underneath a wooden cross. This building always reminds me of the eternal, both in its carefully crafted features meant to direct attention to the God Eternal and in its unchanging strength. It has stood here for nearly 60 years, a testament to the lives of the brothers who enter each day to pray—lives that look much the same as those of the earliest Benedictine monks of the 11th century.
And I have stood under its sheltering pillars on one of the last days of the year for seven years now, sitting in the shadow of the same nativity scene each year. My annual retreat to the Monastery each December marks the passing of one year into the next.Though the scenery is my constant, adding to the feeling of ritual in my year-end reflections—the person kneeling at the altar today looks vastly different than the one who first entering through the heavy wooden doors seven years ago. Than the one who prayed here just a year ago.
Last year I came to the Abbey confident in where I was headed in 2016. God had given me the word "Practice" for 2016 and as my journey with contemplative practices deepened, I sought to craft a Rule of Life in My Year Without Resolutions. I had a busy travel schedule planned for the winter and spring, knew the places I wanted to publish in the coming months, and planned out a second half of the year with plenty of time for reflection and creation. I wanted to grow into new spiritual practices, deepen my writing practice, and out of the overflow of the rich experiences in South Asia, Israel, and connecting with my tribes at The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing growth would flow.
As is usually the case, my roadmap of the year ahead took a significant detour, only six weeks into the carefully crafted year. My husband and I left South Asia with burning questions in our hearts, ones that would change the entire trajectory of not only the year ahead but our entire lives. We were launched into a world of transition as we followed step by step what God asked of us. As the path to an international move became clear, the margin in my life disappeared. I explored a lot of practices that moved me and sustained me in the year of upheaval but none of those practices grew into habit. I tried to use the fledgling Rule of Life I had established to guide me but I never found sustainable rhythms in the hectic schedule I was keeping. When the motion of life got to be too much (like it did in this recent season of Advent) I abandoned the life-giving practices I had explored and just felt like I was floating through my days, aimless.
I felt the call to contemplative prayer, to silence and stillness, to Holy Listening, to morning rituals to guide my day—but I didn't grow deep in any practice. In all the hustle and trying to force rest, I found none. I couldn't find the line between doing and striving, between a practice and a rhythm, between knowing Christ and abiding in Him.
As I reflected on all the changes (and the inability to change in the midst of them) in the Abbey, I already knew the word I would choose to guide the coming year: rhythms. It had actually come to me early in Advent as I reflected on these thoughts on the shallow growth in my 2016 practices. As I left the church and ventured to the greenhouse nearby where the monks lovingly nurture bonsai saplings into miniatures of deeply-rooted, well-established trees, I thought about the verse I have often reflected on as how I long for my life to look:
But blessed is the man who trusts me, God,
the woman who sticks with God.
They're like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roonts near rivers -
never a worry through the hottest of summers,
never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts,
bearing fruit in every season.
-Jeremiah 17.8, The Message
Many of the fragile baby bonsai were attached to guides. A thin stick and some string don't look like much of a guide, but attached to a growing tree they provide the guidance needed to show the branches how to turn and help the limbs find their space to grow. I ran back to my journal as quickly as I could, drawing a trellis and vine as the framework for all that was churning in my heart and soul. The Rule of Life that had seemed so elusive last year, that never felt like it took shape—it all began to flow out on paper.
The word "Rule" has roots in both Latin and Greek as the word "trellis." I was first drawn to crafting a rule of life as I watched the structure of prayer in the monastery and felt the peace in my heart when I joined in praying the hours with the brothers, when I read Stephan Macchia's words describing it as "the well-ordered way." My hectic life cried out for order, my soul for a framework on which to grow. I quoted Henri Nouwen in my piece in which I first sought to craft a Rule:
A rule offers creative boundaries within which God's loving presence can be recognized and celebrated. It does not prescribe but invite, it does not force but guide, it does not threaten but warn, it does not instill fear but points to love. In this it is a call to freedom, freedom to love.
As the new year dawns, I am clinging to the words of Matthew 11.28-30:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.
My rule of life is taking shape. A pencil sketch gives way to color, to words that make up the trellis on which I want to hang my very being. It took a year of living with a half-formed idea to let it germinate into a promise from God, a hope for living freely and lightly, for "being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others" (Robert Mulholland). The way the trellis guides the vine gently, directs it's path towards the life-giving sun, I am seeking to establish unforced rhythms to guide me to the place where life is found.
For the past few years I have tried to pick a word in January that I felt would guide my year ahead. It would be a word I hoped would encapsulate my attitudes and actions, what I wanted to do in the next twelve months, as I set resolutions and goals.
Last year I picked more of a thought, a poem that as soon as I heard it - I knew it was exactly where I was in my life:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
"Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown!"
And he replied:
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way."
-Minnie Louise Haskins
I felt like I was stepping into something unknown, some darkness that God was lighting a way into. I didn't know what.
Awakening was not the word I picked in 2015 but as the months moved on, I realized that it was the word that best described my life. It kept appearing in my journals, in my heart. I felt like I was awakening from a long slumber, like there were layers of rock being chipped away from around my heart.
Anxiety and worry, perfectionism and feelings of failure had built up these hardened places. Hurry and busyness stifled my creativity and my prayers were all but smoke blown away in the rushing wind of all the things I felt I had to do to live up to some imaginary standard of what God wanted from me.
I began to move again, teaching dance classes to refugee children. I have always hated teaching, never feeling like I was "expert" enough to have anything to offer. These kids bright smiles awakened something in me, reminding me of dance for the pure love it, of how simply creating together connects us beyond borders and differences.
I began to write again, hesitant to call myself "writer." My heart quickly ignited as something dormant in me for so many years found it's way to the forefront, awakening a calling in me I had suppressed for the busyness of life. I had acted like it wasn't there, this dream inside of me. I really just wasn't brave enough to walk into the unknown until I took God's hand and said, "let's go..."
At the end of that year of awakening, I sat in the dim light filtering in through the stained glass windows of the Abbey Church where I always spent my end of the year reflection time. A new word found me. Continue Reading