Suddenly, the sunlight was blotted out by the angry smoke that curled toward the sky. A row of cylindrical chimneys signaled our entrance into the brick factory district on the outskirts of Dhaka. The air hung heavy with the texture of coal emanating in dark clouds from the kilns. As our family rode by we watched workers stack bricks six high on their heads to carry them to trucks. Their back-breaking work of making bricks sent an endless supply of construction material back into the city.
But the work of building didn’t end there. In the year and a half we lived in the capital of Bangladesh, we watched the skyline around our flat constantly shifting. Our building would shake in the middle of the night as truckloads of bricks were emptied into the street. The next morning we would emerge to wave at the construction workers as they sat on a growing pile of rubble. They were already hard at work shattering those very same bricks.
With only one source of stone in the country, bricks were used for construction but also broken down to make the ingredients for concrete. We daily watched clouds of red dust darken the site as women and children shattered the bricks by hand and carried them into mixers to build the foundations of new apartment buildings.
We always said, “What a waste of hard work to make those bricks! I can’t believe they’re just breaking them now!” But it was the only resource they had. And so, they continued to build with what they’d been given. They built up and tore down and built up again. Day by day we watched the city slowly inch higher on the backs of these workers.
When God gave me “build” as my word of the year for 2020, I anticipated starting out with finished raw materials and seeing progress rise all around me. I mean, I was ready. I’d spent long enough tearing down and living in limbo. I’d down deep soul work and was ready to see changes in my life. I promised to let go of plans and to and accept whatever came next, laying brick upon brick as God unfolded the next season.
I started the year with hesitant excitement, still adjusting to being back in the U.S. I'd started a new job in digital communications. My husband, Lee, was still looking for work. We had moved into a home we thought would be a temporary arrangement but then decided to stay, planning renovations and additions. Possibilities to create a future nearly from scratch seemed promising.
I had long been yearning for a more contemplative approach to community worship, a place my wandering heart might belong. I'd attended church in eight (some wildly) different denominations/traditions throughout all my moves. I'd visited so many others around the world and gone on retreats annually to a Trappist monastery for years. Amidst so much shifting faith practice—I didn’t feel like the church “home” I was coming back to in the U.S. was home anymore. I fought it for my family, but I knew I couldn’t stay.
In January our church visiting as a family had stalled and we decided to pursue two different avenues. Lee and the kids would attend what had been our home church before we moved to Bangladesh, and I would attend an Episcopal church we had visited during Advent. I felt like I had found a place, at last, I could belong.
The kids were starting to feel settled in their new schools and we had a solid routine down where I worked while they were at school and wrote on weekend mornings at a coffee shop in the early hours while they slept. Lee started his new job and I was talking with an editor about a book idea that was consuming my thoughts. I could just see this new future rising toward the sky.
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. Continue Reading
(Miss Part One? Read A Movement Toward Stillness)
“Let there come a word of solace, a voice that speaks into the shattering, reminding you that who you are is here, every shard somehow holding the whole of you that you cannot see but is taking shape even now, piece joining to piece in an ancient, remembered rhythm that bears you not toward restoration, not toward return – as if you could somehow become unchanged – but steadily deeper into the heart of the one who has already dreamed you complete.” – Jan Richardson, Blessing for a Whole Heart
“The dark night of the soul is the pivot point.” – Michelle Derusha, True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created
Like my slow journey toward stillness, I have been on the road to understanding my belovedness in God for years. When fellow writers spoke over me, assuring me I was God’s beloved, I wept. But I didn’t truly understand it in my core. I gobbled up Brennan Manning’s words to his Abba earlier this year and longed for that kind of knowing and being known with my Father. When my counselor gave me one assignment for my entire vacation this summer, it was to internalize the words of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty Savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”
Always it was a movement toward acceptance and stillness: Accepting that I don’t have to earn God’s love; accepting that the Spirit is ever present even when I can’t feel it. I’ve been slowly learning how to climb up into the lap of my Daddy and knowing I am his beloved and rest in that. Slowly. Learning.
As this long year of was drawing to a close, I couldn't explain a new feeling I had. It was like the scratchy woolen blanket that had smothered me for months was being replaced by the gentle down of a comforter that kept me warm but let me breathe. It felt like being a sapling breaking through the crackling ground above. From the outside, it didn’t look like there was any growth. But slowly green was unfurling, proof that indeed life was still happening in the silence.
Then I read the words of Jan Richardson and a mirror was held up to my soul. If the words of her Walking Blessing spoke about this year I have spent walking in the wilderness, this new blessing (Blessing for a Whole Heart) spoke to the path ahead: deeper into the heart of the One who loves and knows me.
Next, I was given an advance copy of Michelle Derusha’s new book on the heels of slowly digesting Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond on shedding the false self and living into the true you. And the place from which I was emerging finally had a name – what St. John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Soul.
As I read about Derusha’s journey into doubt and her analogy of the dark night as the painful pruning of a tree before there can be new growth, I sat in silence for a long time. I didn’t exactly want to thank the Lord for the darkness but I knew it was the place where I began to find the light…so I did.
“Your identity comes not from what you do, but from who you are in God. Once you understand at the core of your being that you are truly God’s beloved – delighted in and cherished by God – everything else falls into place,” I read in Derusha’s book that was like a lamp shedding light on the way forward.
Derusha talks about her practice of stillness, how she would spend a few minutes a day on a park bench amidst her daily walks. Those moments of stillness grew into longer periods of silence on a writer’s retreat in which she came face to face with her own dark night of the soul.
The day after I finished her book, I opened the sliding door that leads onto the veranda outside of my bedroom. I sat on the hammock that has remained unused during the long months of tropical heat and felt the cool breeze of late autumn on my face. It felt like the hand of my Mother saying, “Be still, my child. My beloved.” I said thank you for experiencing pruning and being laid bare, for whatever lays beyond the dark night.
The first day I sat in stillness I felt the usual restlessness rising up in me. I felt a need to control my thoughts, to do something. The second day I watched the delicate black and white magpies building a nest on the ledge of the building next to me. I watched the construction workers slowly stretching their arms to the sky, still shaking off the weariness of morning. I felt a twinge of sadness when the timer dinged ten minutes later, calling me back inside.
I didn’t have any profound revelations. I didn’t feel any movement. I felt stillness. I felt I was right where I should be—still enough to listen. Quiet enough to hear.
I don’t have any magic formulas to offer after several years of walking the path toward stilling the noise of the world and the noise inside my own head long enough to hear God speak. I finally realize there aren’t any. There is the daily showing up to listen and the acceptance of the journey, that it is a lifelong trek.
“There is an anxiety incompleteness to be sure. But there is also peace in the relinquishing, in knowing that God continues his good work in us and through us, even when we can’t yet see what will be,” Derusha promises. And I believe her.
My One word for 2019 is an obvious one, the next progression in my movement toward solitude and silence. It is the intention I am setting over the next year of my life: Still. Even though I feel a momentum moving me out of the darkness, I know that there is still more growth that needs to happen in the quiet, still places underneath the surface. I know this is the place to which I always need to return. And so I do—I finally stop. And then I begin.
Let's encourage each other and I'll be praying for your journey this coming year. You can also share it at the official #oneword365 community.
Interested in stillness/contemplation or finding out more about crafting a rule of life? Here are some good places to start (some I mentioned in this series) as you journey into the new year:
Sacred Ordinary Days resources for Rule of Life, the liturgical calendar, and more
True You - Michelle Derusha
Flee, Be Silent, Pray - Ed Cyzewski
Sacred Rhythms - Ruth Haley Barton
I’ve always said I want to be a lifelong learner; I just didn’t realize that I would spend my whole life learning one thing.
I have spent a large part of the last four years writing about listening and learning. I’ve watched my faith becoming an ever-evolving plunge into the Mystery of God and others have come along with me on the journey. I am so grateful for those who have.
I have been fighting the downfalls of my perfectionist, ISFJ, Type A tendencies for years. Being highly driven is an asset in some parts of my life but the quest for the contemplative is not one of them. The need for control is not conducive to a life lived in abandon to the God who rarely reveals the path before we walk it.
Four years ago I began focusing more on reordering my life around the ancient and the mystical, longing for the transformation of my always-hustling soul. A denominational mutt due to many moves, I have attended Baptist, Episcopal, non-denominational, Coptic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal churches. I found beauty in each of these traditions. As I was drawn deeper into the contemplative by my time spent at a Benedictine monastery, I craved the intersection of structure and freedom found in a Rule of Life.
(A Rule of Life is a personal or corporate commitment to live life a certain way, the most well-known Rule being the 1500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict that guides much of monastic life Next week I will share more resources if you are interested in diving into crafting a Rule of Life for yourself).
I’ll let you in on a secret. My Rule of Life is still just a draft, a work in progress like me.
But all my attempts at knowing God intimately still felt like more striving, more tasks to check off my to-do list. The more I tried to meditate on God’s word or character, the more I believed I was doing it all wrong. I read more, tried to figure out the missing ingredient.
I can’t tell you how many times I have re-read Ed Cyzewski’s Flee, Be Silent, Pray (a second edition to be released in February). An evangelical turned contemplative, he gets me. “Contemplation is about doing less so that God can do more,” he says. Doing less. Letting go. It feels so upside down from everything I’ve ever known.
Like everything else in my life, I have approached finding God as a project to complete. I love to see a goal broken down into tasks I can check off, progress I can mark, and finally set aside as completed. Job well done. My evangelical faith reinforced this desire. Complete this discipleship program. Read that Bible study. Serve. Lead. Repeat. You’ve arrived.
When I started trying to build a Rule of Life I also came across the idea of choosing a word to be your focus for the New Year (instead of setting resolutions that I felt would only be swept aside quickly). I would pray and ask God to reveal a word to me. It is no coincidence that my words have gotten increasingly more focused on slowing down, on smallness, always a movement toward stillness.
The more I tried to move forward, the more God said, “stop.” Finally, this year I didn’t have a choice but to listen. When I was forced to my knees by anxiety and depression, I was finally still long enough to hear it.
“The deepest communion with God is beyond words, on the other side of silence,” said Madeleine L'Engle. Yes, this is what I long for, I cried. Where can I find it?
The answer was always there but I couldn’t let myself see it—on the other side of silence. Silence isn’t the answer; it is the beginning. One I kept trying to bypass.
I wanted movement, progress, results. God said, be silent. Be still. Be.
I started the year with Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms and breezed through it as I do with most books, looking for the answers and missing the ones right in front of me. Speaking of the other spiritual disciplines she suggests later in the book, Barton says, “We really can’t engage any of them until solitude becomes a place of rest for us rather than another place for human striving and hard work.”
I didn’t listen to the small urges to first find a place of peace in solitude and silence, to stop trying to manufacture God’s Presence but be comfortable just acknowledging it. Finally, after a whirlwind few weeks in the US this fall dealing with a family crisis with very little time for solitude, I came back to my quiet little corner room overlooking the most densely populated city in the world.
Literally above all the hustling, I took what felt like my first deep breath in three weeks. I read Michelle Derusha’s words in her forthcoming (hitting bookstores January 1 but you can pre-order now with some free bonuses) book True You: “Silence and solitude are an absolute necessity if we truly desire to know and understand our true selves and enter into intimate relationship with God.” Okay, Lord. Okay.
I took another deep breath and closed the kindle app on my phone, set a timer for ten minutes instead. I sat alone in silence.
I didn’t worry about my thoughts wandering and try to wrangle them to the ground. I didn’t think about doing it right. I didn’t measure my progress. I just did the first thing. I finally stopped. And then I began…
Have you felt a tug towards a more contemplative faith and what have you found difficult about a less results-oriented spiritual practice? How have you found silence and solitude in your daily life?
Join me next week for Part Two. I’ll be sharing more about my journey of listening and my word for 2019.
If you spend time this week praying about the next (or first) thing in your journey, your word or thoughts to guide your year, I’d love to pray with you.