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?
I felt the pull to reflection deep in my spirit. As soon as the light through the stained glass of the Romanesque chapel fell on my face, I felt I was transported into a tangible awareness of the presence of God. I knew I needed time alone in this place. Over the course of the two-day writing retreat I was attending, I filled my time with as many interactions with my fellow writers as I could. After all, we had traveled from all over the country to be together. This was a unique opportunity full of divine appointments, prayers whispered, stories shared, and wisdom imparted. I didn't want to miss a moment, but I was missing something else.
As the retreat was coming to a close and dear friends were whispering goodbyes in the hushed lobby as people brushed by us into mass, I wanted to stay but I felt the tug on my heart that I had been denying all weekend. I cracked open the heavy wooden door, stopped a moment to kneel, and quietly slip into the back pew just after mass began. I hoped nobody would notice the tears streaming down my face during the lectionary readings that resounded off the stained glass prophets who spoke their words over and into me.
I met Jesus that weekend in the laughter of my friends, in the impassioned preaching of some of the strongest women I've ever known, over the dinner table, and in the prayers of the friend who scooted close knowing my heart was aching for someone to pray over me. But He was waiting in that chapel all along, too—waiting for me to quiet myself long enough to just be still before Him. Silence tugs at me and repels me at the same time. I know the need and I know the pain of the pruning that awaits there.
Not cold enough to be called winter but dreary enough to still make all life lay dormant under the piles of fallen leaves, this has been a strange season. At the end of it, I am forcing myself to press into the silence. I found the practice of Examen last year (the daily prayer practice laid out by St. Ingatius Loyola), realized what thousands before me have known using this attitude of prayerful reflection for 500 years - that an examined life is a life of growth. Whenever I have practiced Examen daily, I have found such peace and guidance from God. But, in all honesty, I haven't practiced it very often. Because I've also found the dark places of my heart, the places I'd rather avoid. I've heard things I need to lay down that I desperately want to cling to.
The end of this particular season lends itself especially well to reflection as we also leave Ordinary Time for the Lenten season in which we focus especially close on our own sinfulness and cravings, preparing our hearts for the redemption that is to be celebrated at Easter. I love the practice of reflecting on what we've learned at the end of a season (be it the seasons of the calendar year or the church year). As I was preparing to join Emily Freeman and her community in sharing what we've learned this winter (don't forget to hop over to Emily's place to read some of the other "What We've Learned - Winter Edition" posts), I wanted to share cute and light lessons. But again I felt the tug to something deeper. This year, as the end of winter and the end of Ordinary Time coincide, I am noticing how looking back on what we learned is another form of Examen. I want more than just to reflect back on the season; I want the reflection to turn to prayer and the prayer to change the next season of my life.
If you too are wanting to look back on the past season before you head into the next, join me in examining your life before God, turning what you learned into a prayer of thanks, of repentance, of an openness to grow in yet deeper understanding in the next season. Spend just a few minutes or as much time as you can allow. There is nothing mystical about Examen. It is simply an attitude of reflection that leads to prayer. Traditional Ignatian Examen is done mid-day and at the end of the day. I have started using Examen at the end of the week during Sabbath and planning for the week ahead, or at the end of the month or season. You can journal your reflections if it helps or simply find a quiet place and be with God. Sit in the stillness for a little while. Listen before you speak. Look back. Look ahead. Most importantly, look up.
Leave a comment for me and the benefit of others or send me an email (for my eyes only). I'd love to hear what you're learning, how you're hearing His voice in the noise, and how we can pray together into this new season. Blessings!
I don't even know what I was doing when I burst into tears. I was busying myself with yet another task that needed to be done right then. Maybe I was washing the dishes that inevitably pile up in the sink. I swear, no one else was in the kitchen when I washed the last one and another cup appeared out of thin air. Perhaps I was sweeping the crumbs off the kitchen floor - again. All I know is I was frantically cleaning so I could get to the other endless tasks waiting for me - writing deadlines, bills to pay, or emails to answer.
In an effort to get it all done I was rushing around the kitchen when the scent of Georgia summer invaded my senses. I stopped near the bowl of gardenias I had brought into the house earlier that day.
If you haven't lived below the Mason-Dixon line, you won't understand how the aroma of this flower signals the coming of summer in the mind of a child of the South. The Gardenia is a staple of the southern garden. The plant itself is a bush, it's leathery leaves shiny and thick. One day there will be tight green buds, nothing more than the promise of a flower waiting to unfurl. The very next day there is an explosion of white, the smell of the Cape Jasmine flowers thick in the air.
When I was growing up we would find the biggest white blossoms, the velvety soft petals -- thicker and smoother than the rose and more fragrant than even the honeysuckle that grew wild in the woods -- and pluck them from the bush outside our back door. We would place a bowl full of the blooms floating in water somewhere in our house. Before the thermometer reached 100, before we broke out the bathing suits and sprinklers -- this scent floating gently through the house told us summer had arrived.
That night in all of my busyness, the captivating aroma caught in the air for a moment and took me back in time. All at once the memories of so many summer nights spent on the back porch came flooding in. I would sit for hours talking on the phone (yes, the kind that you actually had to dial a real number to call and that either had a chord or a battery that would beep incessantly if the cordless phone had been away from the base too long).
I can't tell you what drama was unfolding on any given night as there were so many -- from friend to boy dramas, school or parent problems. But it always seemed like the problem of the hour meant the world as we knew it caving in on us. Everything seemed to be life or death, so urgent. I think now, with regret, how I missed so many little moments caught up in all the things that never really mattered at all.
And here I am -- years later and supposedly so much wiser. I am doing it all again. That pile of dishes has to be conquered or I will go insane. If I don't meet that deadline my writing career will certainly come crashing down all around me. The lie of scarcity says there is never enough time. I must get it all done - today!
Meanwhile, the love of my life -- the one I could only have dreamed of as the boy-crazy, headstrong teen that I was back then -- he is sitting in the other room, waiting for just a few minutes with me before the day ends. My two little ones are upstairs sleeping peacefully, replicas of another child that wanted nothing more than to catch just some fireflies in a mason jar before summer's end.
I can teach them the joys of a Georgia summer - of gardenia blooms and fireworks set against the backdrop of Stone Mountain, of whippoorwill calls and rootbeer floats. Or I can miss it all by being caught up in all the tasks marking up my overly full agenda, even the necessary and good things that distract me from what really matters.
The sobs caught in my chest and I dropped what I was doing in the kitchen and, before I knew it, I was sitting on my front porch surrounded by gardenia blossoms. Some were in full-bloom and others were waiting to spring into the world tomorrow. The clean, tropical smell mixed with the humid night air and enveloped me like the sultry voice of Billie Holiday, who used to wear a gardenia in her hair whenever she performed. I don't know how long I sat out there, stroking the velvety side of a flower until I had rubbed a hole in the petal. Memory mixed with prayer, tears with laughter. Continue Reading
“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” - Madeline L’Engle
I love contemplation – in theory.
The year began for me in the aching beauty of an abbey church. The very architecture spoke to me of stillness. The concrete columns towering into arched rafters above were solid, sturdy, glorious. The scene around me reflected what I want my interior life to look like. That still, solid, steadiness is what I hope to embody.
I know that only comes with the contemplation and prayer that the inhabitants of those very walls live by. I began my year learning from the Benedictine monks that lived within the abbey, wanting to practice more of that kind of stillness in my own spirit.
But away from those warm and inviting walls where a single sound is magnified into echoing responses due to the silence – there is so much noise. Inside my head and heart - noise.
A third of the way into the year, I have been on more planes than in the past few years combined. I have been running so much and that isn’t to say I haven’t had moments of extreme clarity when God’s voice has broken through the noise.
I have heard Him in my journeys and in spite of them.
My scene today is a very different one than the dimly lit monastery. Noises and music rise together inside the coffee shop I sit inside, a shelter from the crisp Chicago day. I can’t pick out a single voice, the sounds more of a symphony of chatter than a single conversation.
It’s full of noise but my heart can still find space to be quiet here. There is something beautiful to me about being still in the middle of the city bustling around me.
Whether I am traveling or at home, in the quiet or in a crowd I can find a place for stillness if I will just stop running. The problem is I don’t often stop long enough to do the very thing I know my heart so desperately needs.
On my way to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, three days in which I am sure I will find little time for stillness, I am so grateful to have time to stop running if only for a moment.
My journey to FFW is starting with a writer’s retreat in which there will be time for prayer, contemplation, and writing. I think I am most looking forward to and most resistant to this part of the journey, all at the same time.
I have been trying make contemplation part of my daily life but it is so contrary to my evangelical church experience. Though I have often stepped outside of the tradition in which I first discovered Christ and still belong, the tendency to place worship in the neat little boxes I learned there are still so ingrained.
Stillness is still an effort for me. I want it to just feel easy but it is work at the same time. The two seem contrary to each other, so I often throw up my hands and walk away from the very practices I long to explore like centering prayer and examen.
In The Contemplative Writer, Ed Cyzewski (one of the people organizing the retreat tomorrow) talks about contemplative prayer as something that “removes us from the spiritual rat race where we’re always trying to make ourselves worthy of God or proving our mettle as disciples of Jesus.”
The rat race had been my life for so long that as soon as I remove myself from the endless cycles of striving, I find myself wandering right back to it.
Just like it is hard to let myself be known by others, it is so hard for me to be still and know. To be and not do. Everything in me fights against it but all I am longs to know how, too.
In this coffee shop I try to be still in the midst of the noise. Tomorrow I will practice contemplation with others, struggling to love it more in practice than in theory. I know it won’t be easy. Not much that actually brings us closer to truly knowing God is.
So here’s to knowing and being known this week…
It’s a running joke in my office that I am always hurrying everywhere. My co-workers are not surprised to see me barefoot (shoes just slow me down) jogging between my office and the print room. Two small children make it difficult to slow down at home either. Sure, I am still for hours in front of a computer every day.
But real stillness of the heart and mind also? I admit I don’t find much time for that. But, oh, how I crave it!
My sister, mom and I talked for years about carving out the time to go on a retreat at a local monastery we love to visit. We finally went to sign up for it and I will never forget the look of disbelief on my mom’s face when they told her that silence was required in the dining room and living quarters! She looked at me and said, “What have you gotten me into?”
Silence and stillness are not things that come easily to us, especially in our super-charged culture. But God knows how much we need it and commands in Psalm 46.10 to “Be still and know that [He] is God.” The New American Standard version of this verse tells us to “cease striving.”
By nature, I am a doer but my heart is revived when I am still. As the busyness of the holiday season rolls around each year I find myself looking forward to my New Years ritual with increasing intensity. After Christmas it is like an itch under my skin, pulling at my harried heart and telling me that I need to slow down.
I go to that monastery and sit for hours in the abbey reflecting on the year past, dreaming about what is to come. I pray and journal, enjoy the stillness and time for reflection. The place itself is quiet but it is the attitude of my heart that I can find in that place that I crave.
As much as I love those days of stillness, it is not something I am good at infusing into my every day life. I want to learn to bring the abbey into my living room. My heart can’t function with a still day once a year, a retreat when I can make the time.
“The stillness in which we find God is not superficial,” says Elisabeth Elliot, “a mere absence of fidgeting or talking. It is a deliberate and quiet attentiveness – receptive, alert, ready. I think of what Jim Elliot wrote in his journal: ‘ Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation to be the will of God.”
Deliberate. Stillness is something we must train ourselves to do, that our busy hearts must learn.
I am sure you will see me barefoot and running through the halls tomorrow. But I am hoping you might also see me still sometimes - knowing, expecting, ceasing to strive.
Thank you for joining me in this journey towards keeping a quiet heart. As we head into the final week, I want to give away a copy of the book that God used to prompt me to seek hard after the qualities of a quiet heart. Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway and a winner will be chosen at random on November 1 to receive Elisabeth Elliot's Keep a Quiet Heart.