The quiet is palpable but not heavy. In the way the warmth of a fire eases down into your very bones, the quiet here is the bearer of a strange kind of comfort. It isn’t the absence of sound. Every tiny noise reverberates off the white stone arches of the abbey. A monk coughs in the expanse between prayers. The squeaking of the wooden pews betrays the stillness. But what is found here is far deeper than the absence of sound.
“Silence is spoken here,” say the signs on the silent-dining-room tables. That’s it. The silence speaks. The Cistercian brothers that live in community in this monastery have carefully crafted and maintained it. They are the curators of silence. It’s what I come here time and time again to find. The silence has been built into something tangible and it speaks to your soul if you let it.
It’s never quiet here. The buildings fit together in this city like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The construction noise from the high-rise going up next to us is endless. Bang. Steel beams drop from a truck at one am. The next day we see more bricks have been added and are amazed that another building could be squeezed into that space. Millions of lives are tangled up together like the electric wires that supply the sometimes-sporadic power to the city. I forget what quiet sounds like in a place where noise creeps into every room like the mosquitoes that craftily find their way through the holes in the nets.
I miss quiet walks in the park, the way a tree can speak to me of the Creator. I miss hearing the silence speak. The clanging of construction, honking cars, ringing rickshaw bells, and barking dogs steal the quiet. They are the thieves of silence. The noise can drown out the sounds of your prayers if you let it.
I didn’t notice it until the third day I was here. The weekend was a blur of activity but when the house was finally quiet for one morning, four small children finally dropped off at school, I hear it...
You've caught glimpses of Michelle Derusha's new book True You and how impactful it has been in my life in my Lifelong Journey of Listening series the past couple weeks (The Movement Toward Stillness and Still).
I never noticed that oak trees are the last to lose their leaves until I began a daily practice of sitting still.
It all began with a whim. One sunny November afternoon while I was walking my dog, I decided to stop and sit on a park bench. As I rested there for a few minutes with Josie sprawled at my feet, I decided I would make this bench-sitting part of my daily routine.
I vowed I would stop at that same spot along our walking route every day, and I would sit for five minutes. I would sit in silence, I determined – without music or a podcast in my ears; without dialing my mother or texting my sister; without snapping photos with my camera phone or scrolling through Instagram or Facebook.
I would simply sit in silence for five minutes. It would be good for me, I reasoned.
Turns out, five minutes on a park bench seems short in principle, but is a surprisingly long time in reality.
The first afternoon I sat on the park bench, I looked at my watch after two minutes and then again after four. The next day I took a cue from Josie, who sat still, ears pricked, nose quivering. I looked at what she looked at; I sniffed, trying to smell what she smelled. When she twitched her ears, I turned my head too, trying to hear what she’d heard.
I noticed a little more of my surroundings that second day, like the fact that the leaves of the burr oak on the edge of the ravine still clung stubborn and tenacious to the branches. Unlike the maples, birches, elms, and ash trees, which had dropped their leaves like colorful confetti more than a month ago, the oaks were still fully dressed, their dry leaves scraping together in the wind like sandpaper.
I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing there, just sitting. All I knew was that I felt compelled to do it, even though I didn’t particularly like it, and even though I knew, after only two days, that I would resist it in the coming weeks.
At the same time, I knew this sitting in stillness was something I had to do. Somehow I knew that the stopping, -- the interruption to my daily routine and my incessant push to get from Point A to Point B -- was important, maybe even imperative.
Turns out, I learned over the weeks and months of sitting in quiet solitude that I am a lot like the oak tree that clings so fiercely to its leaves. In fact, I suspect a lot of us are.
We, too, clutch our camouflage -- the person we present to the world, to our own selves, and even to God.
We, too, are unwilling to shed our false selves, to let go, to live vulnerably and authentically. We are afraid of what might happen if we drop our protective cover, afraid of how we might be seen or perceived, or how we might see or perceive our own selves.
We spend a great deal of our time and energy holding tight-fisted to our leaves, simply because we are too afraid to let go, too afraid of what, or who, we will find underneath.
The thing is, though, even the stubborn oaks have to let go of their leaves eventually. New growth can’t happen until the old, desiccated parts fall away. Spring only comes after winter. There is a rhythm here – relinquishing, stilling, rebirth.
The truth is, God does not wish for us to stand stubborn like the autumn oak tree, cloaked in a façade of protection, our truest, most authentic selves obscured beneath a tangled bramble of false security.
Rather, he desires us to live open and free, our true essence revealed and flourishing, our true self front and center, secure and thriving.
God yearns for us to live wholeheartedly and truthfully as the unique, beautiful, beloved individuals he created us to be. Most of all, God’s deepest desire is for us to know him, to root our whole selves in him like a tree rooted by a stream, and to know his deep, abiding love for us.
God yearns for us to live in the spacious, light-filled freedom of Christ and to know ourselves in him, through him, and with him.
As we slowly begin to let go of our false selves, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, and layer by layer, as we finally begin to relinquish, open up, and allow God to prune us from the inside out, we will grow in ways we never imagined: in our relationships with loved ones; in connection with and love for our neighbors; in our vocation; in our heart, mind, and soul; and in intimacy with God himself.
Our true, essential self, the one beautifully and uniquely created by God, is there, deep inside, hidden beneath layer upon layer of leaves clinging fast. Within each of us is a spacious place, waiting to be revealed.
Letting go is the way in.
This post is adapted from True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created, by Michelle DeRusha, releasing January 1 from Baker Books.
(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
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...