“A Walk”

Statecollege1I wrote this back in college during a time when I was reading a lot of Thomas Merton and learning about silence and solitude. I was also grieving the loss of a sort of friend. I think I should also add that though there are many places and seasons in which to experience solitude, there may not be a more beautiful one than fall in central Pennsylvania.

“A Walk”

Today, I’ll just move on

like I woke up and stepped from my bed.

I don’t feel as quiet or alone,

but I still fear these things

in prayer. I found warmth as sharp and low

as a small bright candle.

In prayer I found reason for friendship

and contemplated God’s motherly and fatherly love.

In prayer I found silence and solitude,

the remembering of swollen voices of past pain,

and the acceptance of these and all love’s fallen leaves.

When we watch the sun set down through the branches

we forget the clouds and the cold, cold rain.

We remember the sharp breeze in our face,

the moss and the frozen mud underfoot.

Only with closeness with God can I trust for more closeness.

And I’ll always remember you and count you as one

of my closest friends.

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When Solitude is Hard: The Furnace of Transformation, Part 2

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This is the second in a series of my reflections on the spiritual discipline of solitude. This post was also the first one I wrote, and the experiences I describe gave me the idea to write down more than just these thoughts below. I think there is something more to be said (by someone else) about the connection between the practice of solitude and the impulse to connect with community–this impulse being the reason I am writing here. 

In The Way of the Heart Henri Nouwen draws lessons from the life of St. Anthony, the “father of the monks” who chose to spend twenty years in solitude during the 3rd century.

He had to face his enemies–anger and greed–head-on and let himself be totally transformed into a new being. His old, false self had to die and a new self had to be born. For this Anthony withdrew into the complete solitude of the desert.

On days like today (I’m trying to write this now because the experience is still fresh–like a toothache), Anthony’s struggle in solitude–the furnace of transformation–feels especially believable to me.

Days where it doesn’t even feel like a struggle in solitude but a struggle with solitude itself.

Days where–hours where–several aspects of my false self–the one I thought I had died to–and oh, how painful is any death–feel too present, too desperate and urgent, and at the same time too impossible to uncover.

Days where I step from the corner of my bed to my laptop to three pages from three different books to unfinished prayers in five minutes, afraid to step into silence–because isn’t that the cause of all this?

Afternoons where I can’t even write in complete sentences–every thought seems too ugly when I decide to write it down.

The Psalmist, I think, was acquainted with this when he said:

So I remained silent, not even saying anything good. But my anguish increased. My heart grew hot within me. While I meditated, the fire burned…(Psalm 39:2-3)

Underneath my feverish thinking are the usual, bland, and sickly worries, and also the falsified accusations: Why don’t you care about me? (to God and others), Why won’t you give me your rest? Why can’t I be the person you want me to be?

But if I can get there, my solitude is a place where I can ask God these things:

  • How can I experience your comfort today?
  • How can I pray for my sister–and for that matter, my brother?
  • Can you give me some advice?

When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin, you consume their wealth like a moth–surely everyone is but a breath. Hear my prayer, LORD, listen to my cry for help; do not be deaf to my weeping. I dwell with you as a foreigner, as a stranger, as all my ancestors were. Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again before I am no more. (Psalm 39:11-13)

So the Psalm ends, with restless energy. It still feels far off from what I tend to hope for when I pray. I believe God has done more work in our world since the writing of this Psalm, which gives me reason to trust in Christ’s comforting presence with me in his Spirit. But there are things I can learn from this Psalmist’s experience.

Even though it can still be painful to be close to God in these times like earlier today, to cry “Lord have mercy,” I want to be more like the person who can say in the same moment, “Look away” and “Be not deaf.” The person who can fear God’s discipline and yet can say–with more seeming ease than with any other line in the poem–that he dwells with the LORD.

Silence as Freedom: The Furnace of Transformation, Part 3

1872735-08I don’t enjoy enjoy hiking in the Western Sierra Nevadas, specifically the Lakes Basin of Plumas County.

If you don’t like a dramatic landscape, a variety of life and sound and shadow, a harmonious feeling of connection with nature, then you might try hiking in these mountains I grew up with.

There are no sheer cliffs, very few monstrous peaks with vistas of plunging canyons, hardly any lush hillsides with twisting roots to climb over–just the endless rippling of too-dry pines and firs, a mountainside as pale as the blank sky, and trails as empty and unremarkable as foot prints on the moon–if maybe a little itchier.

When a friend, from Connecticut, told me she liked this kind of hiking, not in spite of but because of it’s barrenness, my view of these mountains started to shift, like when the wind picks up and lifts the dust off the meadows and rocks and dry creek beds.

Hiking in the Western Sierras, to me, is like silence.

And here’s why. Not only do I take in very little speech from these mountains and their valleys–words like starkness, nakedness, and emptiness are richer than the places they describe–but my own speech is silent to these hills. If speech is “our most powerful weapon of manipulation” (says Richard Foster, who has written much on the discipline of silence), what can my voice do to impact this massive and incomprehensible landscape? People feel small when they look at familiar stars, but how could I breathe out a name for each stitch in the ever-widening pattern of boulders and sun-scorched trees?

I’ve been learning in my reading that silence has two components: freedom from speaking and freedom from hearing. My growing acceptance with hiking in the Western Sierras (this is the most affirmative word I can use right now) accompanies my growing awareness of how experiencing silence and solitude help me listen to our Creator.

Silence as freedom from speaking

There are so many times I’ve wished I had not spoken too quickly and ended up hurting others or misrepresenting the truth. It takes time and silence to find the right words. And in our silence we give over control.

One way I see this giving over of control is when I am challenged to take extra time to pray for someone. Instead of telling things to God (as if I needed someone to rant to), I have felt the Spirit prompting me, even inviting me into those moments–at first uncomfortable–of waiting to hear what this person needs from God. I don’t know how much of my payer is still a reflection of my opinions and sometimes judgments of a person, but the impulse to wait to hear from God what I should say feels pure and truthful.

If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me.
Till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood… (Psalm 73:15-17)

Silence as freedom from hearing

Many people have suggested that the goal of practicing silence is to hear God better.

There are so many things we can hear instead which can make this harder. The prophet Elijah experienced first wind, then an earthquake, and then a fire when he stood alone in the cave of a mountain waiting for God, but God wasn’t in any of these. He heard God in a gentle whisper.

God can speak in many ways. Silence and solitude help us hear God’s gentle whisper.

I think listening looks different for different people. For instance, some people find silence in the great outdoors. As an introvert, I won’t find silence when walking around the park or watching a sunset. I’ll quickly find myself composing a bad poem in my head. There is too much stimulation. Better to pray in my inner room, as Jesus said. But even alone in my room, I can spend quite a bit of time reclining in the comfy couch of my internal world (or, the bristly couch of my fears and anxieties) without actually listening to God.

Again, I need to try to let go of the control of my thoughts in order to experience the deeper freedom that comes with listening to God’s voice.

Says the poet John Donne:

Churches are best for prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I goe out of sight:
And to scape stormy dayes, I chuse
An Everlasting night.

Why I Try to Practice Solitude: The Furnace of Transformation, Part 1

desertRecently, I’ve been stirred to write down some of my thoughts about the spiritual discipline of solitude. In this first post, I describe some of my experiences in solitude, exploring the reasons I keep going back to it as a way of being with God. In my second post, I reflect on the times when solitude feels especially painful and troubling. In my third post, I will share some of my latest thoughts on silence. I hope these reflections are helpful to people interested in taking steps into solitude or to anyone who wants to get to know God better. I also hope to hear from others on the path who can shed light on our journeying together.

When I was fourteen, there were nights when I would lie on my back, gazing up at my bed at the circling fan for whole hours. One Sunday morning, I was surprised to hear my pastor tell us the virtues of silence and solitude–of turning off the car radio, of silencing the TV, of trying to get off AOL instant messenger after school when it becomes a compulsion. He said that these moments of quietness, of separation from others, can be times of attentiveness to God’s voice.

“Just like last night,” I thought. But I think even then I realized there was more to solitude than listening to the buzz of a ceiling fan when I couldn’t think of anything else to do on a Saturday night. Moments like these, Richard Foster writes, are glimpses of solitude and should be celebrated and savored. But I believe that the solitude God intends for us–the solitude that Elijah experienced at the cave, that Jesus sought at critical junctures in his ministry and that he taught to his followers–is richer and more transformative.

Why I try to practice solitude

First, solitude–like fasting–makes me aware of the condition of my heart. It brings to the surface the parts of my life that I have ignored and that often need to be confronted. Who can say it better than Henri Nouwen?

Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs. (In The Way of the Heart)

And this is a struggle. I remember committing to learn to practice solitude during a winter break back in college. When I woke up each morning and thought about my planned walk outside–away from uncles and aunts and bacon frying and Bob Dylan playing–I was afraid. Solitude felt to me like a great darkness, a ripping myself away from the “safety” and familiarity of my house.

I would be alone and would be asked to confront sins and–I was already afraid–even more fears. And there seemed no promise that I would be met on my walk, that I would be comforted, that my challenges could be overcome. But literally taking this step outside each morning taught me to trust God to be there for me, even to walk with me as we wrestled with my sins and fears.

It is not without reason that Nouwen calls solitude “the furnace of transformation.”

Trust

This trust is another aspect of my experiences in solitude. There is great vulnerability in solitude. It is like asking a question and waiting for an answer, or giving a gift and not knowing how it will be received, or praying for someone and not knowing how God will respond. I’d like to think that my practice of solitude is preparing me and has prepared me for times of dependence on God–when I’ve been more conscious of needing to trust him more.

“Only with closeness with God…” I wrote once in my journal after another solitary walk I had to talk myself into, “Only with closeness with God can I trust for more closeness.”

Compassion

Finally, solitude has taught me–or I should probably say–in solitude, the Holy Spirit has taught me to pray for others. There is a natural sensitivity to the needs of others that comes with our withdrawal from our community. And I have found that God gives special grace to these moments of solitude.

Like the time I was walking a prayer labyrinth during high school, with each step more consumed in my own anxieties (because #adolescence) but when I reached the center found myself kneeling down praying without reserve for my sister.

There comes a new freedom to be with people. There is new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness.” – Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline

I pray that we find God in our solitudes. And may we feel, like the travelers on the road to Emmaus, “our hearts burning within us” because of our encounter there with the Lord. Amen.