“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
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.