Some long trails made me feel like I was making progress on the “walk” and others wound back on themselves, veering away from the center. If you’ve ever trekked a labyrinth in prayer (or walked a smaller version with your hands), you know that there is only one path but it is not a straight one. This ancient prayer tool is made of serpentine lines winding in and back out again, helping the pilgrim focus. There is no guessing if you are heading in the right direction, no worries about taking a wrong turn. You can just focus on the walk, focus on the presence of God with you.
As someone who loves to know the plan before I begin, not knowing what lies ahead makes me uncomfortable, even anxious. Somehow in that moment, not knowing where I am going or how long it would take me to get there made me feel free instead—free to trust that I would make it to the center when it was time and back out again safely. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going because I could trust that the maker of the labyrinth had laid it out correctly and the whole goal was to just walk.
As I’ve accepted that I am a good halfway through an ordinary span of life, I have become more profoundly affected by the twists and turns of life. Half of them behind me now, I can look back with insight on a life that has turned out where I supposed it should have, though not without much pain and many unexpected detours along the way. Nothing has turned out the way I imagined it would. But I have the benefit now of looking back and recognizing where God was at work.
My own way has wandered through countless forks and roadblocks. Early in my faith, I met the unexpected moments in life with trite answers and pretended it was enough. I swallowed more well-meaning “when God closes a door he opens a window” answers than I could stomach through the years and they began to rub me the wrong way.
Two distinct moments in my life, I can remember raging back against simple answers to life’s complex twists. Barely three months into my dreamed-of life in the Middle East, already rattled by culture-shock, the call that shredded my insides came. My husband entered the room, his face void of color. I don’t remember much except dropping to the shower floor and wrapping the towel around me to absorb the tears when he told me my father had experienced a “widow-maker,” a massive heart attack. That was 13 years ago this winter and my dad is still with us, but our dream of living overseas is not.
We launched out again, believing we were following God’s particular route laid out before us only to find ourselves again in the wilderness. A shockingly similar call came when we were living in Bangladesh. It was my mom’s voice again on the phone, telling me of my brother-in-law’s ruptured brain aneurysm. The same fears arose inside of me, the same feelings of obligation to my family and the need to be by their sides. The same anger—not at God, but at those who would pin the pain my family was going through on God.
The same words ripped through my throat in those startling incidents a decade apart: “My God did not do this!” When others gave me that, “there, there” look and told me it was all a part of God’s plan or that the Lord was testing our faithfulness, anger surged through me..
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.