“In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end, Your holy presence.”
– Saint Benedict of Nursia
He intimidated me on that first day I met him. He must have all the answers, I thought. Surely he knows the secret things of God, learns them in his five daily prayers.
I sat in the back of the room as the Trappist monk spoke about how his free-form writing had helped him encounter the dark spaces of his own soul. He’d stroke his chest-length white beard as he laughed. He seemed so casual and approachable at that moment. I imagined if I were to see him out in regular clothes, I might wonder if he was a biker. Yet here in this place, he seemed otherworldly.
Brother Mark is one of the dwindling number of Cistercians that make their home at the monastery I visit a couple of times a year. It’s less than an hour from my home and yet when you enter the sprawling grounds, you feel like you are entering an inherently sacred space. From the Abbey Church’s towering ceiling to the rolling lawn and lake nestled between massive Georgia pines, you truly feel minuscule against the backdrop of the testament that the monastery is to God’s majesty.
I had come for a retreat in which several of the brothers taught about writing and journaling. Brother Mark shared with our small group about his struggles with anger and the temptation to squabble with the men he chose to live his life among.
What—monks arguing? Of course, deep inside I knew this must be true. They are only human, after all. And yet, I had this image in my mind of the holiness that must set them apart, the pedestal these men must belong on for having chosen this life. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the paradoxes of Brother Mark.
That evening my mother, sister, and I sat in the common room of the retreat guest house. It was the period of “the Great Silence,” the time after compline—the last prayers of the day—when the brothers retreat to their cells until the bells again call them to prayer well before dawn. Yet Brother Mark sat chatting with us about writing, faith, miracles, and dreams. I don’t know what all we discussed; I just know it was the night my illusions shattered...
The new leaves look as small and fragile as a baby’s fingernail. I smile in wonder as I water the miniature umbrella tree that sits as a quiet reminder to me in my window sill. The bonsai sits soaking up the morning sun doing its slow work. Changes are subtle and take days to notice. It looks like nothing is happening for a long time; then suddenly what appeared dormant emerges.
I am the farthest thing from a gardener. Though I love plants, I can’t keep them alive. Yet, after years of admiring the bonsai garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit which I visit several times a year, I finally bought one of the minuscule trees last year. I took great care the first few weeks to make sure it was watered and fertilized. In short order, the leaves drained of their color and started collecting in heaps around the base of the tree.
I read more about the specific type of plant and realized I was over-saturating it. I purchased a humidity tray to keep subtle moisture always nearby. I started watering it only once a week. Yet, I feared it was too late as the branches remained bare for weeks. I kept pouring water into the ceramic, turquoise base every Monday. I didn’t think there was any hope for the weepy branches, but I kept trying.
And then one day as I was watering the apparently dead tree, I saw those tiny leaves beginning to emerge. Something had been happening beneath the dark, moist soil that I couldn’t see. Life had been pulsing inside the branches all along, quietly, imperceptibly.
I started working on a rule of life four years ago sitting under the high arches of the very same abbey church where my little bonsai started its life as a sapling. I sat at the monastery and dreamed of a well-ordered life like the ones the brothers who live there know—one that prioritizes prayer and community, faith and action. One that finally makes sense.
“A rule of life aims to create a framework for being and becoming, rather than checking something off a list. Practical and spiritual goals fit into this framework as prayer and Bible reading can get sidelined into another item on the to-do list.”
I first learned about living by a rule at the monastery but found that followers of Christ have been creating personal rules individually and in community for years. St. Benedict himself, who wrote the most famous rule which orders the life of monastics around the world, summarized the rule as “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
I’ve struggled to complete or live by a rule in the years since because it feels rigid in my ever-changing life. I would get a draft together of spiritual practices I wanted to pursue and ways I wanted to fix my life around anchor points that didn’t shift when my circumstances did. A few months into the year, just like with resolutions or goals, I would abandon the attempt, only to try again later. 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.
When we read and talk about presence, there are usually peaceful undertones to the conversation. We can be talking about slowing down, self-care, and finding holy in the mundane. I imagine the beautiful farmhouse of Ann Voskamp. Not that she has an easier life than anyone else but to gaze upon her poetic words and photos is to believe she has found a way to choose presence over productivity. We believe we too can mine the deep wells of life for beauty in every day. I think of Emily Freeman’s admonition to find life in simple Tuesdays. I picture her park bench imagery of sitting still when the world around us asks us to hustle.
It was with these images of letting go and letting joy into life in the back of my mind that I chose I present to be the word to guide my year in 2018. My life was far from peaceful (nor did I have access to a park bench or farmland) but I imagined metaphorically finding this kind of place to be present in my own life. Thoughts of presence begat images of foundness, of knowing my place and finding my way. I dreamed of relishing in the beauty of diversity and even in the difficulties of a different kind of life than I’d ever known having moved my family 8500 miles away from home.
But less than two months into the year I could already feel myself going under the ravages of culture shock, language study, anxiety, and depression. I not only didn’t know where I fit anymore, I wasn’t sure who I was. Could I still be a writer on top of being a wife, mom, non-profit-worker, and immigrant? The dark parts of me that rose to the surface under the stress made me question everything about who I was…and consequently who God was. Plainly said, I was lost.
It was then that Jan Richardson’s words (from her Walking Blessing) became the soundtrack of my life. I wrote them in my journal. I cried them in my prayers. I read them while I washed my face in the mornings. I dreamed them when I slept fitfully at night…”Let yourself become lost.” Being physically lost (as someone with little navigational sense) is one of my greatest fears. Whoever enjoyed the feeling of not knowing the way ahead? Who lets themselves become lost?
A life-long achiever trying to find presence instead, lostness was just what I needed. And the last thing I ever wanted.
“Progress is not the goal anyway,
to feel the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you…”
Instead of on a peaceful park bench, I found myself becoming present in the eye of a hurricane. Instead of writing words for others to read, I drowned in the reading of ancient prayers and scribbled out my confusion to God alone in my room. How could You call me beloved when I am not producing anything? How could You call me beloved when I am falling apart?
The places I wanted to run from, there I stayed. I wept and I raged. I prayed and I remained silent. I asked for help and I talked endlessly to a counselor, to my journals, to friends that never missed a day to text me even if just to say, “I love you.”
I never expected the places that God asked me to stay present to be places of such deep rending and stripping of all I knew before. But as I dug my feet into the ground and forced myself to stand when I wanted to collapse, my loving Father held me. My gentle Mother consoled me.
Just as I had reordered my life around lostness this year, found my peace with not knowing…the storm continued. A family crisis back home reminded me that we never truly know the way forward. It doesn’t take an international move to plunge us into the ravages of unknowing. And yet we move forward, assured of God’s love for us and of His knowledge of the paths that will shape us into our truest selves.
I experienced the coming of two autumns this year, my favorite time of year. My unexpected trip to America allowed me to stand still for a few moments on familiar soil, the soothing crackling of dead leaves underfoot a song that has long eased my soul. I stood in the woods and breathed in David Wagoner’s words from the poem Lost:
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Two weeks later I returned to Bangladesh to the first cool morning breezes of Hemontokal, the late autumn season. More like Spring in America, hemontokal brings clear skies and the songs of the magpies, the blooms of marigolds, and the rice harvest. I reminded myself to stay present to this autumn and what God is saying in it, divided though my heart may be. It is this path that God is using to reshape me. My Father knows where I am. He knows who I am.
I am not lost when I remain Here.
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