Want to learn how to pray? Forget words. Forget about getting the right name for God. Forget fidgeting about how to sit or stand or hold your hands. Forget whatever you have been taught about prayer. Forget yourself.
And go gaze upon something or someone you love. Look long and deeply at something which gives joy or peace –
that penetrating lime green of the spring woods, and the wet black branches like some ancient language of scribbles and runes scrawled all over the forest
the path of the sun, trailing like a golden ribbon across the floor, climbing up the table and caressing your tea cup
the sleeping boy in his Superman PJs, smelling of grass and child sweat
Next: Let yourself be held there in your looking and wonder. Do you feel that subtle magnetic force that seems to gently grasp and suspend you before your beloved?
Notice what wells up in you and what recedes. Various feelings and thoughts – some positive, some negative. Simply observe the play of your inner life as you gaze upon beauty.
Notice the voice which says, “You need to get moving. There is a lot to do. Should I fix potato soup for supper? I really can’t stand that woman.” Keep returning to what you love. Just let your love and appreciation of this portion of the world draw you in to its Creator and Author, that pulse of the Spirit which animates all of existence.
For that is what Holiness is doing in the creation – luring us, catching us up, and reeling us into the Heart of Reality and Divinity through the things of this world. God threads us through and beyond what we love to deeper love and freedom in the realm of Grace that is called God’s kingdom.
Really. God will use anything, anyone to draw us into God’s self, God’s being, and into truth, into love, into amazement, and wonder. What draws you into this prayer will likely be something uniquely suited to you, your aspirations, your interests, your peculiar, and particular existence. So specific is God’s summons to you. So beloved are you by God.
All that is required is your consent – your yes, your willingness to put down your agenda, and participate with the creation with awe.
After looking at God in this way for a while, a word or two, a spoken prayer may emerge from your heart. Something you want to say to God. Something you desire from God. Go ahead and whisper your words to God. Then be silent and listen.
A Peace will come and settle over you, a calm, perhaps, a gentleness, an assurance of some kind.
Afterwards, before you turn back to getting things done, do a little self inventory:
Have you changed in any way after this time of gazing? Is there a difference in how you are feeling or thinking? Is there something from this time you need to stay with or return to? What would you like to say to God about this time? What would you like to hear in response from God?
And this, my friends, is a prayer.
This is a way God speaks.
This is a way the Word Made Flesh calls our name.
This is a way we answer.
I entertain myself by spying on the hidden mystery of how the Holy Spirit shapes, purifies, and refines souls for God’s purposes. This work of caring for souls has been my focus for over thirty years. I figure I have spent several thousand hours listening to people tell me about their lives in God.
In some cases I have been privileged to walk with individuals for many years, observing periods of suffering, impasse, joy, and growth. Trained in the practice of spiritual direction, I offer my presence, love, and attention to ones, who share the intimate and profound desires of their hearts.
I have learned a lot about the way of God in a person’s soul and the way of a human being as he or she struggles, resists, and seeks the One, beyond his or her control or manipulation. I have seen the common traps and temptations, and the unfailing grace of Christ. I have learned to recognize common patterns of deepening spiritual maturity. What I have to give, which seems the most important at this point are my prayers and my faith.
In this poem I explore Jesus’ final words to Peter on the shore on the Sea of Tiberius (John 23) and some of what I have experienced in feeding Christ’s sheep.
CHILDREN, HAVE YOU ANY FISH?
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, AChildren, you have no fish, have you? John 21
After breakfast -
did they push back the plates
brush away the crumbs
and leaning on their elbows
drain the last of the coffee?
when they had finished breaking
that knot that moored them
to the earth -
did they hear the crack
as lack was smashed
and denial strewn in shards
all round their dawn drenched faces
while Fullness rose before them,
a grinning fry-cook,
presiding at the flame?
So when they had completed that shattering
that breaking of self-imposed want
and self itself
and tasted, savored, chewed, digested
who had eluded their nets all night
then Feast asked:
Do you love me?
Peter takes the bait.
Do fish swim? Is the sea wet?
Feed my lambs.
A second time Feast casts the net:
Do you love me?
Yes, Lord. You know.
Peter turns, twisting in the webbing.
Tend my sheep.
And then the charm:
Do you love me?
Flailing, inextricably caught
flesh straining, tormented -
I am putty in your hands. You know me.
Why press me up against the edges of this love
to lie gasping, gills seared by sanctity
on the far shore of heaven?
You who have lured me here,
you know, you know.
the deft Cleaver
a swift slash of blade
and he is flayed open
on his soft underside
from gullet to dorsal fin.
And it comes:
Feed my sheep. Again.
O Peter, Peter
once you swam where you would
through silent green darkness
in and out of rotting keels among the stems
lying in wait for your supper
to enter your heart=s snare.
Now you are trawled
where you do not wish to go
where you will be filleted
in the bright morning sun
for someone else=s breakfast.
O Peter, Peter there may still be time
In some nook
you will lean across a table
and another's hunger will tear out your entrails
and you will wash down your cheerios
with each other's tears.
The line is forming, Peter.
Hear their cries.
See them coming,
heaving themselves out of the waters
like great sad whales
beached on this foreign strand.
Tend them, Peter. They are mine.
Be gentle with their wounds
the raw red
seeming so incurable.
Teach them to clean
to bind up the hurt
with these stained winding cloths.
Give them a poultice
for drawing out the poison,
a potion for a contrite heart.
Wipe their tears.
Sing their lament.
Carry their ache in your heart
long after they leave
and wake to it when you rise.
You will not wish to meet such suffering.
You will look for ways to turn its tide
to swim back to your ancient watery grave
where life eased slowly into you once removed
through gossamer wings you wore waving on each side.
Now your lungs screech
as the air
slams into you
as this picnic breakfast, Pete.
You have seen me
now you will be food for them to eat.
A woman stops on her porch at dusk.
Sifting through the branches
Grace greets her.
Dare she kneel?
What will the neighbors think to spy
her caught in prayer on the threshold?
Grocery sacks spill down the stair
crispy critters, wonder bread,
instant breakfast fill the air.
The man searching for peace
having lost his love
now paces through the word
hunting for the key.
Another flops over and over
trying to get her bearings.
Which way is up?
The shy awkward magician
in a dazzling burst of courage
pulls out the hidden emerald of her heart
and bows triumphant
while drums roll and rabbits scamper all around.
The one who never stops talking
weaves his fear in rambling fables.
The one, awakening, sings possibility and promise
and perches on the edge of wonder,
enchantment, waiting to be opened.
All beached, scarred, encrusted with barnacles
thrust up against each other in the hush of dawn,
gasping, lungs laboring, gulping at the Spirit.
Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.” (John 21: 18-19)NKJV
In accompanying others on their journey into the heart of God –
making our way together through the clotted underbrush
the heavy growth of jungle foliage
trekking across the endless stretches of barren tundra
waiting out the storms in bus depots
napping in the meadows –
what seems most apparent now
is the oneness
the mutuality of laughter shared
and anguish felt.
I have seen myself hesitate on the frontier
keeping myself in reserve
Let's have a nice holy talk and then we can all go home.
But Jesus never was much on talk alone
and like some mother determined to get her children off to a good start
fries up some fish for breakfast
and sees we must take in,
carry it in our bellies,
eat the pain of one another
feel it ease into our blood and bone
and, tasting theirs, so we embrace our own.
Fish out of water,
our task is learning how to breathe in two worlds
to walk the treacherous path
that cuts an ever widening swath in our hearts,
the gorge of sorrows where compassion feeds.
You there singing in your prayer
I do not know where the way leads
into what dark forests, what caves, what dizzy peaks.
I only know I go along
and where once I went alone,
swam girded solitary in the reeds,
charting a course myself
now am lifted
swept by this net of love
even as I carry you in me,
carried into bright and alien lands
carried toward the One
who ever holds our breakfast
in his hands.
Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and I will save. Isaiah 46: 3-4
• How do Jesus’ words to Peter in John relate to you as you care for the souls of family, friends, clients, and those Jesus sends to you?
• What have you observed about how people develop their faith and love for God?
"Don't be afraid. I know you're looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He's been raised up; he's here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now—on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You'll see him there, exactly as he said."
They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone. (Matthew 5: 6-8 The Message)
Contemplation is the world becoming luminous from within as one plunges breathlessly into human activity, wrote paleontologist, and priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Eventually, that which calls us into solitude will also send us out of solitude. Communion with God by ourselves leads to communion with God with others and everything that is. The longing to connect with God returns us to all that is in God. As Jesus prayed:
I pray that they will one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us…I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. John 17: 21-22 CEV
Solitude deepens our appreciation and concern for all that is in God’s creation. Thomas Merton wrote that it was in solitude where he became capable of deep love for others.
I do not mean to imply that entering solitude means that we are without companions there. A jostling, rowdy, crowd of the saints and angels may join you from time to time. I believe the saints approve of our going off alone to pray and will show up to share their love, make wise cracks, and steal our cookies. Or - maybe it is the mice you hear in the night, muttering and munching your Cheetos. Yet other energies come and go - ancestors, spirits, the great chorus of prayer lifted night and day throughout time and space, the Trinitarian exchange of love that holds the stars in their courses. Call it what you may. We are never alone. Yet one day, an angel of sorts will intrude on your cozy peace and tell you to go back to the crowds of Galilee.
Time to Go?
Many of us may live for long stretches with little major change in our lives. We complain and fret about the way things are, but we are comfortable in our complaining. Some kind of restriction, suffering, or limitation has become as familiar and predictable as on old friend. Or perhaps, we have grown beyond a wineskin, which once served us well, yet we continue to conform to it, cramming and squeezing ourselves in something which no longer serves us well.
Ways of living end. Even the lovely gifts of solitude come to an end. And it is time to go back home, or wherever home will be for us now. I have come to recognize an organic sense within me, which sits up, looks around, and begins to think of the world beyond my solitude. New energy, clarity, and purpose quicken within me. I know it is time to go back to the world. I am ready – rested, realigned, and serviceable for God’s good pleasure.
Or perhaps we wake one morning, rub our eyes, and say, “Well this is enough of this!” Maybe it’s the cross we are stuck on, clutching at our suffering, reviewing, blaming, nursing resentment, and bitterness.
So, we put down our fork and decide to stop eating sour grapes. And we go out to see if there is somebody who needs a hand to help them climb down from whatever they are hanging from or hanging onto.
Or maybe, you are stuck, numb, and passive in the tomb, playing out some kind of death drama. Then one day you sit up, look around and say, “Oh Rats. Guess I better get up. This is just plain silly. The door has been wide open for days. And I am missing out on all the fun.
The Summons to Life
The Word of the Lord goes out to the mountains, the lake shores, the forests, and deserts. The Word of the Lord seeps under doorsills, writes itself upon your mirror, and grabs you by the throat in the doctor’s office.
Come, come! Follow me. I am not here. I have risen! Come plunge into the heart of the world, the hurly burly, the bustling shove and rush of life. Come, dive into the chaos. Let go of the death in your life. Follow me down the main streets crying, “Life is winning! Love is winning!”
And you, once basking in the silence and beauty of your Love, now ignite, burn incandescent, and, running with fire, immerse yourself in the midst of the darkness, blossoming like the night sky on the Fourth of July.
Isn’t this why you have been made, to be a rag, soaked in God, burning hot with truth and molten laughter? What good is all your suffering, your losses, and solitude, if they do not thrust you into the throng, wearing the fragrance of God?
People can tell you know, that fragrance, that scent of holiness, that wafts from you, when you have been spending time with God. Dogs and children will follow you. Birds will sing for you. And love-starved souls will line up at your door.
The world does not need your knowledge, your money, and competence. The world does not need your fear, your anxiety, your worry, your pitiful soul sagging from a cross, and your grim tales of death and woe.
The world needs your faith. The worlds longs for one authentic God-smitten soul, who can no longer hold back the Spirit, rising like an orange sun, like a soaring bird, like a great flag unfurling, shouting from every cell, “He is not here. He is risen. He is gone. Gone. To Galilee!”
Get over yourself. Stop sniveling and cringing.
Be a flame in the darkness, faith in the unfaith, hope in the despair, love in the hate, laughter in the gloom.
Go ahead. Rouse the dead! Stomp your foot, and cry, out, “Live!”
Pass out roses. Prepare a feast. You have died and risen with Christ. Nothing can stop you now from bearing grace into the world with every breath you breathe.
So good is this Good News.
So good is this raucous community filled with light.
• In a world full of fear, anxiety, and efforts by many to amplify that fear, how and where do you convey a different message?
• Have you noticed ways in which your solitude practice helps you to love others more?
• What has you sniveling or cringing? Is it time to let it go for faith and trust in Christ?
This is the last post in the Exploring Solitude Series for now. I am sure I will take up to topic again in the future. Thank you for all the shares, retweets, comments, and emails. You are each a beautiful treasure to me.
Next post: Something You Do Not Want to Miss
Praying Life Readers,
I am leading a workshop in April here in Topeka. Hope to see you there!
Look and See: Nurturing a Shining, Festive Life of Prayer
Saturday, April 21, 2012
First Congregational Church
1701 SW Collins, Topeka, KS
Please register early to assure a place by calling or emailing First Congregational UCC. 785-233-1786; email@example.com
Something strange is happening - there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still, because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
from an ancient homily on Holy Saturday used in the monastic tradition
Holy Saturday is one of my favorite days of the church year. I want to savor the richness of this day, but our rush to Easter Vigils, Easter Sunrise Services, Easter Breakfasts, Easter Cantatas, Easter Dramas, and Easter Egg Hunts does not give one much opportunity to enter the soundless, solemn peace of Christ asleep. I want to halt the parade of Easter soirees to discover the grace of this moment in the story of saving Love.
Such a pause doesn’t seem to be in our nature.
Over ten years ago US News and World Report solicited readers’ answers to the question, “Does America have ADD?” According to the article, “Since 1965, the average news sound bite has shrunk from 42 seconds to just 8. The average network TV ad has shrunk from 53 seconds to 25. Fifteen second ads are on the rise. Multi-tasking is in. Downtime is out.” Millions of children and quite a few adults have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, a brain imbalance that is thought to be the root of unusual hyperactivity, impulsivity, and poor concentration. Wired magazine calls ADD the “official brain syndrome of the information age.”
What does it take to sit us down, stop us in our tracks, and shut our mouths? When have you been brought to your knees and cast face down, prostrate, by some overwhelming mystery of suffering love? Have you been able to stop the frenzied round of your life’s demands without feeling guilty, lazy, or neglectful?
What is alarming to me about our culture’s distracted, harried quality is that, as I understand redemption, transforming love requires a lot of focus and concentrated effort. I really cannot participate with Christ in his death and resurrection, and simultaneously answer my E-mail, pick up the dry cleaning, plan supper, and listen to my teenager. Not that any of these activities cannot hold saving power, but servants of transforming love need to be able to act with attentive one-pointed concentration, and a wholeness of mind, heart, and body that require our doing one thing at a time. What is implied in such loving attentiveness is that this task, this person here, now, is worthy of my entire attention. As I am able to set aside or die to other competing calls for my concern, greater love and healing may pour through me.
Tradition holds that after Jesus died on the cross, he went to preach to the souls in hell and retrieve Adam.
I certainly hope not. Hadn’t he already done enough preaching, enough sacrificing?
I’d rather think he rested. After all it was the Sabbath. Surely his ministry and the hard saving labor of his passion and death had worn him out. What wondrous grace then to be placed in a soundless chamber safe and secure from all alarm - not to mention, answering machines, faxes, cell phones and pagers.
Not all silence is the graced silence of Christ’s tomb. Silence is the expression of a multitude of experiences: embarrassed, sweaty-palmed pauses, numbed shock, dissociated trauma; dull tedious droning; the excruciating stillness of shunning, loneliness and betrayal; the thick pouting silence of blame and resentment; the angry choking silence of the oppressed; and the isolated silence of the deaf.
In contrast –
The silence of the grave has a solemn feel.
After great pain a formal feeling comes-
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs, wrote Emily Dickinson.
The solemnity of Holy Saturday carries a weight that presses us down to the earth where we are no longer able to flit and flutter away from truth.
The flimsy props we use to hold ourselves upright slide to the ground and we along with them. Like sheets stretched across a sagging clothesline until the wet and windblown linens drape upon the earth, the weight of death drags us down, lays us down in a voluminous sweet surrender.
The Resurrection Power of Truth Telling
Truth is a friend of this silence. The silence of God reveals what is false, what words confuse, conceal, deny, or destroy. I love how Jesus just stands there when Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Truth is right before us, standing in this present moment. Truth simply offers itself. It does not argue its case, defend itself, or plead. It just gives itself to us in love for those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to know. As I embrace the truth of the present moment with love, the next moment is redeemed.
“The power of the kingdom is the spirit of the Risen Christ seen in the strength of truth as it continues to break through human limitation and sin” writes Jacqueline Bergan. The Risen Lord enters my world with his redeeming grace and power through the door made my truth telling. What truths have I entombed in silence? I meet the Risen Lord as I speak truth as best I can moment by moment.
The silence of the tomb is full of freedom. One feels a releasing and relaxing throughout one’s whole being - like taking off your shoes, loosening your belt, slipping into comfortable old clothes. You are not in charge. You do not have to make things happen. You do not have to figure things out. This silence is the celebration and sanctification of being itself - your being.
So how do we get there- off the cross and into the tomb? How might we enter into such a silence and know its sweetness and its eternal freedom? I do not think we do a very good job of teaching ourselves how to surrender. We may move through lent and Eastertide watching and reflecting on Jesus who dies for our sins - trying to figure out just what it really means and what difference it makes, working up an appropriate attitude of contrition and sorrow - yet somehow distanced from it all.
Lent and Easter become a sort of mythic cardboard backdrop to our lives as unreal and one dimensional as a child’s drawing. What we may miss is that the paschal mystery played out before us in scripture, hymn, and ritual is simultaneously going on in our own lives and hearts. Jesus is dying and rising in the circumstances of your life. Knowing that, believing that transforms your every act, every thought into something holy with sacred potential to give new life.
So to what do we surrender? Evil, sin, death - a rabid crowd roaring for someone to crucify? We surrender to Love - to how Love is having its way with us in our lives - through the tedious, joyful, painful days of getting up in the morning, fixing breakfast, setting out to do what needs to be done. I know many saints who quietly surrender to love and love’s inscrutable purposes day after day, until spent with loving in the simplest, most unassuming ways they are drawn into Love itself.
A freight train sounded its mournful whistle as it rattled past my father’s window at the nursing home. Sometimes a light behind his eyes would ignite and for the briefest second he remembered trains. Love had hallowed him out. He was getting ready to enter the final tomb. Every time I see a hawk I remember when he told me how he loved to lie in the fields as a boy and watch the hawks ride the currents of the wind. My mother called the place where my father waited for God, the “rest home.” Its actual name is Pleasant Manor Care Center. We have modern names for these places - skilled nursing facilities, residential care, assisted living. I rather like rest home myself.
The tomb of Holy Saturday is a kind of rest home where we wait to be lifted into resurrection.
Go ahead. Surrender to Love. You have nothing to lose, but death.
• Look around the tomb. What truths have you hidden away?
• Do one thing today slowly, attentively, mindfully. Perhaps you prepare a meal, listen to a child, take a walk or a shower. Open yourself fully to the task with loving generosity. What do you learn?
Next post in this series - Exploring Solitude: Leaving solitude, gone to Galilee.
God is simplicity and one-foldedness,
inaccessible height and fathomless depth,
incomprehensible breadth and eternal length,
a dim silence and a wild desert.
So wrote John of Ruysbroeck in the 14th century.
God is also a man, whose name is Jesus,
born in a middle eastern city,
of a woman named Mary.
Firmly anchored in time and space,
he walked the paths of Nazareth,
ate, and laughed, and loved.
God is also this same man,
now beaten, bleeding, and dying,
executed on a cross.
For in Jesus
the Inaccessible Height and Fathomless Depth
the messy specificity and limitation
So now, all that suffers, loses, messes up, and bleeds finds welcome in that dim silence and wild desert of the cross. All that is lost or broken is gathered and folded into the height and depth and breadth and length of God. Every precious particle of God’s making is held with infinite tenderness in the simplicity of love.
There are moments, days, even years for some, where the work of solitude involves suffering. Alone with God, we are presented with painful truths. We are refined and purified. We gradually learn to be present to God, not on our terms, but on God’s terms in the context of our own specificity.
This is the work of letting go and letting be. This is the journey of ever deepening faith and radical trust. This is the door that sets us loose to roam forever free.
During the observance of Holy Week, the specificity of God made known in Jesus, enters into the lonely anguish of surrender to the terms of his Father. The one who has been surrounded by crowds and encircled by his chosen disciples, makes the solitary journey
of death to return into the heart of all being.
We find an account of this journey in the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel is characterized by a simple, direct, unpretentious style. The gospel has an urgency about it. Mark’s frequent use of the dramatic present tense contributes to the immediacy. The emphasis is on the action – the deeds and words of Jesus - as he confronts and responds to the religious establishment, the disciples, and the crowds. This action moves compellingly to the crucifixion. The story unfolds in a hurry, as though the very presence of Jesus has set in motion forces which lead inevitably to the cross.
Then at the cross, in striking contrast to the preceding scenes, Jesus becomes the receiver of the action in total surrender. The syntax changes from active voice to passive voice, as the Greek word, paradidomai, appears more and more frequently. Paradidomai means handed over, or to give into the hands of another, to be given up to custody, to be condemned, to deliver up treacherously by betrayal. This is the same word the gospels, as well as St. Paul, use repeatedly to describe the crucifixion.
As the resurrected Jesus tells Peter on the lakeshore, there comes a time when we will be carried where we do not wish to go. (John 21: 18) Then we find ourselves being handed over to our life circumstances, the limits, sins, injustices, and frailties of human existence.
Here in Jesus the Limitless, Inaccessible, Unfathomable God makes things very plain, very simple:
Watch me. Trust me. Do it like this. All is forgiven. Surrender. Allow yourself to be carried into darkness. There is a place beyond your knowing or naming, where I am and you are. Follow me.
All transformation, all redemption require moments such as these:
the passivity of the seed buried in the earth,
the passion of love poured out to the last dregs for the beloved,
the laying down of oneself in the dim silence and wild desert,
where all things are born anew.
The moral revival that certain people wish to impose will be much worse than the condition it is meant to cure. If our present suffering ever leads to revival, this will not be brought about through slogans, but in silence and moral loneliness, through pain, misery and terror, in the profoundest depths of each person’s spirit. Simone Weil
• What do you need to surrender, let go of, or let be this week?
• Not all, but much of our suffering may be tied to our defiant resistance to letting go and refusal to accept the suffering of self denial. Do you agree with Simone Weil that broad social change could be gained, not by imposition of morality, but through the struggle in the depths of individual souls?
• What is it like for you to shift from being the prime mover and actor in your life story, to becoming the receiver of the action of others? How might God be handing you over this Holy Week?
• Is there a relationship between your consent to being carried where you do not wish to go and experiences of healing and redemption in your life?
Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Leaving solitude, gone to Galilee.
Praying Life Readers,
I am leading a workshop in April here in Topeka. Hope to see you there!
Look and See: Nurturing a Shining, Festive Life of Prayer
Saturday, April 21, 2012
First Congregational Church
1701 SW Collins, Topeka, KS
Please register early to assure a place by calling or emailing First Congregational UCC. 785-233-1786; firstname.lastname@example.org
So What Do You Do Out There All Day Alone?
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,
with all your strength, and with all your mind . . .” Luke 10: 27(CEV)
“Why not? I thought this is what it is all about. I have this list. I told some of the people I would. You are not making any sense!”
I was on my second circuit around the lake arguing with God. This was the first day of an extended period of solitude at the hermitage and things had started off with a big fight.
I had made arrangements for my family, shared my plans with friends and clients, packed my provisions, gathered up my good intentions, and stepped into solitude with considerable self importance.
God went right to work on me. On the first day I ran into a wall. That was why I had thrown my journal on the floor and stomped off to the pasture. That was why I was walking around the lake pleading and arguing with the Holy One.
The word of the Lord that had come unto me was this:
Thou shalt not pray for other people or projects or events while here. Thou shalt not worry and fret about them or their futures. Thou shalt not dwell on the past.
Thou shalt pray on my terms. Any intercession will be at my invitation, not your over-functioning, good intended, works righteous, anxiety ridden, guilty, controlling ego.
Thou shalt partner with me in bringing in my kingdom not by being available to the world, but by being available to me. Thou shalt get the first commandment well established in thy heart before thou shalt be ready for the second.
So it had come to this. My will versus God’s will.
I had planned to pray for others and for the needs of the world, while I was at the hermitage. God’s word to me shook my very foundations. Huh? What am I going to do out here then? This is a question people often ask me when I tell them I take a day a week for solitude.
It has taken me years to untangle myself from relationships and assuming too much responsibility for others’ well being. The notion that just being with God without doing anything in particular is foreign to many. It may take us a while to learn how to simply be present to God and enjoy our relationship with the Source of All Being.
We learn to detach ourselves from the things of creation in order to more fully attach ourselves to the Creator, in whom we rediscover the creation. In this new context my relationship to the world is transformed. Where my attachment to the creation was enmeshed, codependent, grasping, urgent, and possessive, it becomes freer, less sticky, as I allow others to be as they are. No longer do I demand things of people or of the world. No longer do I attempt to control or manipulate them, because my deepest needs are being met my God.
So what does one “do out there all day long?” All kinds of things: read, listen, watch, pray, walk, rest, create. . . .as one slowly is weaned from “doing” itself. One gives up the addiction to producing, efficiency, and ego enhancing, controlling behaviors in favor of the freedom of being, to joining with the One who gave the divine name to Moses as the holiest of names: I am. One discovers the gratitude and joy in sheer being. In this shift of perspective the things of creation are no longer “objects” for me to manipulate, persuade, desire, or possess, but holy beings themselves, each shimmering in their own goodness and beauty.
How this transformation occurs, I believe, is a process over a life time. It is different for each person, according to the work of the Holy Spirit. You may be called to suffer, to face hidden truths about yourself, to encounter evil, to repent, to grieve, and to experience ecstasy and bliss. You may also have periods of very ordinary, grounded experience with little drama or fireworks.
The common thread through the variety and intensity of experience and activity that may occur in solitude is surrender of the self, a kind of dying and letting go of whatever you may be hanging onto in place of God, who wants no less than all of you.
Whether you argue or whine, pout or throw your journal across the room, the task, over and over, is to forsake all other lovers and lay down your life before the One Shining, Sweet, and Unfathomable Power without whom you are nothing.
God has no need of our works.
God has need of our love. Therese of Liseaux
• How does the need to produce and “do” express itself in you? Through overworking, anxiety, fear, trying to control others?
• Recall a time when you were able to just be with God. Where were you, what enabled that kind of awareness and presence? How did such a time affect your subsequent presence to your work and other people?
• When they were little, my children used to tell me at times: “Mom, you need to go out to the cabin.” What helps you become aware of your need for solitude?
Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Meeting the Crucified One
Nobody is watching. Go ahead. Be yourself. Relax. You walked off the stage of your life performance and the audience has all gone home. Feel the weight of that armor, the heavy guard you wear night and day about your shoulders and neck? You won’t need it now. Lay it down.
Oh. Wait a minute. It appears that not all of that audience has gone home. A few hitched a ride into the hermitage in your mind. Take that broom in the corner and chase them out. As long as you do not invite them to sit down, and then start feeding them milk and cookies they will leave. Their harping and commenting will begin to sound sillier and sillier to you in the context of your wilderness.
Go ahead. You can’t hurt the furniture here. Put your feet up and settle into that delicious and utterly joyful place of being yourself, your true self.
A wonderfully freeing aspect of solitude is that nobody cares what you look like. Nobody is there to comment upon, critique, approve, or disapprove of your actions, attitudes, words, mannerisms, personality preferences, and quirks. No one has expectations of you or needs they want you to meet. No one is going to call or drop by unannounced.
Go ahead. Remove that hot stuffy mask.
We have a public face we present to the world. In some cases it is brittle, artificial, and controlled. We put on the mask of a happy person, a competent person, a funny person. But a mask is a limited snap shot of the person we really are, which may include being happy, competent, and funny, but who we really are also has depth, texture, responsiveness, and spontaneity, which masks cannot communicate.
When the face we present to the world is the same nuanced face within us, people call us authentic and real. What we show on the outside has integrity with what is in the inside. The phoniness, pretension, and the effort of maintaining a façade are gone.
I loved taking people out to the hermitage. I would show them around the grounds and cabin, give them some orientation, and, leaving them alone for a few days, drive back to town. Then later, they arrived at my doorstep to drop off the trash, the empty water bottles, and return the key. When I opened door, I was amazed at the differences in the guests. The tension and stress were gone, and an ease and lightness filled their movements. And their faces, soft and smooth like a child’s, wore a refreshing, unguarded openness and simple presence to the moment.
After I spent a long period in solitude, a friend reported that I looked like the Velveteen Rabbit. “Worn and soft. Well loved, and real,” she said.
There is nothing like solitude for peeling off the layers of pretense and inviting a soul into deeper authenticity.
In the days of silence and company kept only with crows, meadowlarks, and the possum, who comes looking for food under the moon, one becomes aware of the vast amount of energy and time, which may be spent on building facades and presenting a particular face to the world. The hours of calculation and strategizing to strike the right note in a speech, the stress filled preparation and rehearsals to achieve a certain affect. We have all been encouraged to become marketers and publicists for our careers, our work places, and even our very lives.
Here relationships degenerate into a potential sale, or a possible connection to a step up the ladder. Social media invites us to present our live our lives on a global stage, where our preferences are watched and matched to product ads which pop up before us.
In contrast to the world of hype nothing is for sale in the wilderness. Further, in the wilderness your stuff and your “brand” start to become embarrassing -- all that lipstick in your purse, the three jars of face cream, the books you lined up on the book shelf, those clothes you shopped for.
The wilderness around you takes on a depth, beauty, and fascination that cannot compare to that iPad you just had to have or that outside the box, edgy high concept project you have been working on. The world beyond your wilderness seems artificial, crass, and out of sync with a deeper more profound rhythm.
Oh course, it makes sense that the natural world would inspire you to drop off what is unnatural and false in yourself - those postures and attitudes you take; that pride that you use to hide your vulnerability and need.
Besides, you are not going to fool that turkey vulture soaring over the pasture. He may be pecking at your bones one day and won’t give a damn about what kind of car you drove. The lake, teeming with turtles, bullfrogs, fish, and dragonflies is unimpressed with your credentials.
Yet a few creatures may be curious about your presence. There is nothing you have they desire. All they can offer you is their own mysterious being.
The cows, snuffling at the window, wake you at dawn. A large black angus is peering into the cabin. Her face is framed by the window and the chintz curtains. You go out barefoot in your pajamas to shoo the cows back into their pasture. There are several mamas with their young ones. You stand still gazing at each other. You watch their massive ribs expand as they breathe, their dark eyes, and red tongues. They watch you, seeing how your feet are getting damp in the dew, considering your breath, your two legs, and your white silk pajamas. You impact each other, a conversation and exchange occurs beyond words. Atoms shift, energy moves, recedes, and gathers in the spreading light. Then they turn, their hooves sinking into the damp earth, swishing their tails, and go back through the broken fence.
Nobody in the wilderness cares what you did last week. Or what you didn’t do. One of the calves looks back at you, slowly chewing grass, hanging out both sides of his mouth.
“Oh my God, forgive me for not seeing,” you pray.
• Do you find yourself caught up in playing a role or meeting others expectations and needs unnecessarily?
• What is it you let go of, when you let down your guard?
• How does being alone in nature help you be yourself
• In what way might the wilderness call you to repentance, or seeing in a new way?
Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: So What Do You Do Out There All Day Long?
Sooner or later even the most devoted hermit or spiritual seeker will discover that this solitude and silence shtick does not seem to be all that it is cracked up to be.
Saintly souls and books far and wide, which recommend and extol solitude, may not include the whole truth of the experience. At some point the solitary pray-er is likely to ask this question:
What on earth do I think I am doing out here in the middle of nowhere by myself!
Next the individual may pace back and forth in his holy abode, while the walls begin to close in. A suffocating boredom descends upon the person like a choking cloud. Her whole spiritual exploration takes on the character of a really bad afternoon spent as a child with an insufferably tedious old aunt. You sit fidgeting in the rocking chair with your feet wagging in the air looking at old Readers Digest magazines and listening to tiresome adults drone on and on about dead relatives.
Now your lovely hermitage grows dull and lifeless and smells faintly of mothballs and Vicks VapoRub. You are sure all your friends are going to wonderful places and having exciting experiences, while you are trapped at Great Aunt Hannah’s and doomed to a lackluster life of gradually increasing obscurity and dull mediocrity. Your back itches. Your tummy hurts. Your neck has a cramp in it. Your brother keeps sticking his tongue out at you. And you realize now that you actually hate him. Your mom ignores you, even when you fake a faint, slide off the rocker, and lie on the floor in a lump.
It can be like this, my friends, as some of you know. You pick up a Bible, read a verse, and it leaves a taste in your mouth like an open bottle of soda that has been in the fridge for a month. A kind of angsty horror rises up in your craw and an overpowering desire to get out of there floods your being.
If someone has not seriously questioned Love’s call, and has not encountered an all- encompassing indifference, even, perhaps at times, revulsion, toward the things of God, I would suggest they simply have not been at it very long. When we enter solitude, whether we find it in the bathroom or at the lovely cottage on the beach, we bring along our retreat provisions, books, journals, music, food, as well as our illusions, expectations, hopes and dreams of what this time will be like. Here we may be in for a rude confrontation of fantasy with Reality, or my will with the will of the One I am seeking.
When I hosted guests at The Sanctuary Foundation hermitage, I watched them haul bags of books and provisions up the slope to the cabin. “I hope to plan my sermons for the next six months,” some would tell me brightly.
“I hope not.” I would say to myself.
We bring an agenda to our solitude: I want to deepen my awareness of God. I need help in discerning the next steps of my life. I am looking for peace and resolution of conflict.
We come hoping to accomplish some task, relieve pain, even to be entertained. Then lo and behold, we are met with dryness of spirit, dullness of mind and heart, a ho hum listlessness, and growing sense that nothing fun or good is going to happen to me here.
What we fail to see is that God comes to the hermitage as well us. And God has an agenda too. At some point God’s agenda may include a healthy dose of the demon of the noonday sun.
The name the early Christians gave for the dullness can settle over us is acedia.
The desert fathers and mothers called this oppressive state of spiritual apathy the demon of the noonday sun. Evagrius warned, AThis demon attacks the monk towards the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving or not moving at all, and the day has at least forty hours.@ Ardor and passion for the things of God are replaced by indifference and boredom. The miserable soul is sick both of God and self.
The purpose of this dry discontent is seen as part of the final purification of the will so that it may be merged without any reserve in God. Acedia abolishes spiritual gluttony as it strips us of our fascination with glamour, ease and sensory delights. Since God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit, a soul=s worship of God grows over time to be less founded in the satisfaction and entertainment of the senses and more in the dark knowing called faith. Through the harsh succor of the demon of acedia the soul is weaned from its attachment to sensory gratifications to a more mature love.
From my book:Letters from the Holy Ground: Seeing God Where You Are (Chapter 24)
As unpleasant as it is, I believe that acedia helps to rid us of the three tendencies of our age, which militate against contemplation, according to Ronald Rolheiser. Rolheiser identifies these tendencies as our narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness. The Shattered Lantern – Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God (Chapter 2)
The excessive self preoccupation of narcissism makes everything we encounter about us and our needs. The cult of the individual deifies the personal and encourages focus on our private concerns and preferences.
“Pragmatism,” Rolheiser writes, “asserts that the truth of an idea lies in its practical efficacy. What that means is that what is true is what works.” We become obsessed with what Thomas Merton identified as the leading spiritual disease of our time: efficiency.
Our unbridled restlessness fuels our driven, compulsive, hyper lifestyles of multi-tasking and instant gratification.
A little more from my book:
As we begin the spiritual journey we relate to the Holy as it is revealed through the created order and experienced through our will, intellect and senses. Yet Jesus and the saints tell us there is more to the spiritual life than meets the eye or satisfy our senses. Just what this might be is hard to describe. Some call it unknowing, the worship of spirit and truth, being born again in the spirit, or, simply, faith. Though it was the miracles that brought out the crowds, Jesus repeatedly said that was not why he had come. And, further, he praised those whose trust in him came not from facts and objective data, but from the more obscure and intangible certainty of faith. However it is described, there appears to be a way to be with God that transcends the limitations of ordinary human experience. Yet it is not in itself extraordinary. It does not involve visions, ecstasies or any kind of spiritual fireworks. It is a more refined and subtle, deeper being with God.
Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are (chapter 24)
So what’s a body to do? You have come all the way out here. Are you going to turn tale and sneak back home?
Try this: Sit there or go for a walk. Watch your discomfort. Settle into your body. Be curious about your indifference and learn from it. Breathe deeply, as the anxiety and pain of withdrawal from narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness grip your soul and cramp your body.
Surrender your agenda. Stop demanding things to be different. Cease resisting what is so, what is real for you.
Gradually a shift will occur.
Perhaps you notice the splotch of light on the wall across from Great Aunt Hannah’s china hutch. Where did the light come from? The late afternoon sun is stretching its long arms across the carpet and up the china hutch, where it touches a crystal goblet which has sat there for thirty years, and just now catches fire as your eyes lay upon it, dazzling you with brightness. You lean back in the rocker, feeling your back sink into the cushion, and watch the dust motes moving lazily above the carpet. You notice the pictures woven into the carpet – a man on a white horse, a house with a red roof, people in olden clothes walking down a lane. The light splotch on the wall moves and dances. Why? You look at the flaming goblet across from the wall and back to the wall. Then you see through the window in the wall tree branches swaying, sweeping back and forth covering and uncovering the path of the sun.
For a moment you and the dancing splotch and the fiery goblet and the man on the horse and the tree branches swaying, and your great aunt are all laced together with tiny tendrils of light and you yourself catch fire. And you say to yourself, oh this is the way the world is. Everything is all hooked up and intertwined together.
The grown ups are still talking. You feel safe. You see your brother reading his comic book. A sudden rush of love and gratitude for him pours over you. You decide to take a nap. As you doze off, you think, I really like that mothbally VapoRub smell.
Come to me all you who are weak and heavy burdened. And I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
• Have you been afflicted by the demon of the noonday sun? How did it manifest in our life. How did you respond?
• Does it help to learn that the negative experience of indifference might be a necessary part of your deepening love for God?
• In the essay above what do you think happened as the child character moves from fidgeting to discovering peace. Do you see anything here that might help you in your acedia attacks?
• How do narcisscism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness hinder your contemplation?
• Want to learn more about acedia? Here is a good article: Acedia, Bane of Solitaries See also Katheleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life
Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real
He said to the disciples, “Stay here while I go and pray over there.” When he took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, he began to feel sad and anxious. Then he said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me.” Then he went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed . . . Matthew 26: 36- 38 (CEV)
The season of lent invites us into wilderness solitude to encounter the wild things and places within us. In a world of extraversion, solitude allows space for introspection and encounters with untamed and little known parts of ourselves.
On her way out of church one Sunday morning, a member told me a story about her granddaughter, who had come with her that day. My custom is to invite the congregation to a period of silent prayer before I offer the pastoral prayer. At the conclusion of my prayer, five year old Lindy whispered to her grandma, “Loretta took so long before she started praying, that I had to start praying for people I didn’t even like.”
Yes. Silence does that to us, doesn’t it? It brings us to the end of the list of our own needs and concerns and opens out our prayerful awareness of people and inner realities, which we do not even like. Many avoid solitude for this reason. When I stop doing, accomplishing, distracting, and numbing myself with various opiates, I am left with my wounds, enemies, and alienation. The wilderness of the self opens before us and we reach for the phone, turn on the television, or pour ourselves a glass of wine.
He came back to the disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you stay alert one hour with me? Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26: 40-41 (CEV)
The work of solitude includes the slow, patient task of befriending the darkness, of being present with compassion to my inner wildness, and of staying awake one hour with ourselves in our misery, as Jesus asked his disciples to do for him.
The followers of Jesus were unable to offer him such companionship. It is likewise very difficult for us to offer ourselves such gentle, present love. Yet if one can manage it, if only for a few minutes, that ache, that knife in the heart, the sick all encompassing grief will begin to lessen just a bit, and a peace will slowly seep enter into the space of your silence.
This is where the deep work of contemplative transformation begins. The pleasant, consoling moments of contemplative prayer are important to our growth and infect us with the love of God. Sometimes they arrive unbidden, unexpected as sheer gifts. Other times we enter deeper communion with God through the ongoing practice of contemplation in some form: centering prayer, lectio divina, prayer of quiet, meditation.
Several years ago a friend confessed to me, “I am so over spiritual “disciplines.” She had reached a point beyond practicing prayer, because she wanted something from God, or because she ought to, or because it was interesting, or helpful to her daily life. Prayer for her was becoming much more demanding than a nice idea or exercise in personal improvement.
Thomas Merton wrote, “True prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes intolerable and the heart has turned to stone.” The deeper work begins when silence and solitude may be the last thing we want and the only thing we cannot live without. When just sitting still reveals to us a pervasive sadness, or the reality of a loss or truth we are denying or running from, silence is not some syrupy, cozy me-and-Jesus picnic. Silence is a summons to face into who I am and who God is becoming for me in a perilous confrontation with the truths of my life and who God will or will not be for me.
Again he came and found them sleeping. Their eyes were heavy with sleep. But he left them and again went and prayed the same words for the third time. Matthew 26: 43-44 (CEV)
Yet it is here - when facing fear, betrayal, or deep sorrow-- that the encompassing and spreading love of God begins to open within us with its healing balm. Sometimes we need a companion to help us, as Jesus asked for from his friends in his hour of need. We may need to enter the silence in small doses at first. Tiny little sips of God may be all we can manage. Gradually that contact with God will begin to soothe our souls and bring a peace that will exceed our understanding.
It may not seem like much, this tiny bite of calm. You are still in your wilderness, up against a wall, facing an impasse, with little hope. Yet you keep going back for little sips of silence, as quiet fills you and you surrender to the moment.
My Forty Days in the Wilderness
One autumn over twenty years ago I spent forty days in the wilderness. I was sick and doctors were unable to diagnose or treat whatever was causing the unrelenting headaches and fatigue. Weary of the tests and drugs, I went off alone each day and several nights. I did not watch television, use the computer, talk on the phone, read mail or much of anything, except scripture. My only human interaction was with my immediate family. Day after day and into the night I waited for that little sip of calm, that spark of life and hope. I learned to tend the spark, gather kindling, shavings, combustible scraps of living goodness: birdsong, the quail feeding along the lakeshore, the way a spider walked up the side of my tea cup. These and the stars over my head began to fuel the flame, which grew and illuminated the way for me.
Here is some of what happened as I tell it in my book, Letters from the Holy Ground:
I came to the wilderness in part because I heard Jesus crying and saying he was lonely for us. I came out of a growing sense of God's hunger and need for us and for one who would stay with him one hour. I came to discover how it would be to delight in and enjoy God for God, and not for what God could do for me or the world.
And I found along with my brother, Simon Peter, that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And to pray with Christ is more difficult than praying to Christ.
Are there some among us who are willing to watch with Christ one hour? Are there some willing to turn in radical trust toward God and away from the forces within and without that seek to deny Christ?
Is there one willing to pay the cost of staying one hour, of tasting and knowing God's suffering in her bones, of being bereft of all mortal assistance, of contending with a near constant onslaught of devils, of serving as a bridge between heaven and earth and thereby, bearing in his body, mind, and psyche on the one hand, the immaculate tenderness and the surging ferocity of Divine Love; and on the other hand, the immense ocean of mortal sorrow?
Like Peter, I couldn't do it. For along with my good intentions I brought my weariness and poverty and dependence on God's mercy. And my eyes grew heavy and I slept.
But God slept too. Christ rested too. For Christ brought to the wilderness the same as I: weariness and poverty and dependence on my mercy. And so like two homeless children huddled in an alley, like two lovers entwined, we slept while the owl hooted and the bullfrogs boomed and the little grey mouse nibbled bread in the corner.
In the wilderness of solitude our suffering becomes bound up with, informed by, and transformed by the suffering of Jesus in his solitude.
By such fierce mercy and vulnerable love are we redeemed.
• Have you had the experience of hurting too much to pray? Or have you avoided praying because you do not want to be still long enough to start feeling your pain?
• What are some of the ways you distract yourself from entering silence and solitude?
• Have you found that place of peace in the midst of your chaos and suffering? How do you describe that experience? What would you tell someone who has never been there and is afraid to be alone in seeking it?
• Take some time today to be still and alone. Be with yourself with all the gentleness and love you can muster. Be with yourself as you would want to be with Jesus in his suffering. What do you notice or learn?
Next post in this series on Exploring Solitude: Deadly Acedia, or Too Bored to Care
Come away by yourselves to a lonely place," Jesus
God then told Elijah, "Get out of here, and fast. Head east and hide out at the Kerith Ravine on the other side of the Jordan River. You can drink fresh water from the brook; I've ordered the ravens to feed you." Elijah obeyed God’s orders. He went and camped in the Kerith canyon on the other side of the Jordan. And sure enough, ravens brought him his meals, both breakfast and supper, and he drank from the brook. I Kings 17: 2-6 (Msg)
Nothing better expresses the urgent call of the wild for me than John Masefield’s Sea Fever.
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, . . .
I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; . . .
I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife; . . .
Wild places and wild things invite us to themselves. If not the sea, perhaps, the mountains, the desert, the plains, or the forest draw you. The trout in the stream, the grizzly bear turning in his sleep, the mushroom popping up in the moist woods, the redwood tree dwarfing all else in its magnificence summons us to gaze in wonder and appreciation and share in the communion of all beings.
Shifting from Virtual Reality to Reality
In the wilderness we smell, and see, and touch, and hear, and taste – not a virtual reality, but reality. And here, we are likewise smelled, seen, touched, heard, and tasted. We not only change and act upon our surroundings, we are also changed and acted upon by those same surroundings. In the wilderness, we find again our place as a member of one of the species of beings on this planet. We leave our thermostatically, controlled environments and modern conveniences to feel the bracing chill of the wind in our face, the tickling blurred vision through snow dusted eye lashes, the heavy ache in our calves after walking several miles. In the process of wilderness dwelling, we shed the heavy brittle shells of our self importance and settle in with all our relations – brother sun, sister moon, and cousin fox. We discover the deer we are watching is also watching us.
Solitude may occur, of course, away from wilderness in the midst of a noisy crowd, in a beehive high rise apartment, or on the back porch with city sirens screaming past. However, many of us find solitude most easily and fully in a place apart in some natural setting. For over twenty years I found my wilderness solitude in a one room cabin with a stone floor, built into the side of hill on a small lake in northeast Kansas.
The call to the wilderness runs deep in some people, and expresses itself as unappeasable longing, or a palpable need to be in wild places among wild things. These persons often feel compelled to seek out remote spots away from power grids, traffic, concrete, and housing developments. Some struggle to explain and justify their desire to family and friends.
Wilderness as Arena for Spiritual Growth
The Biblical Hebrew word for wilderness is often used interchangeably with desert and includes many varied kinds of terrain, arid and semi arid, pasture land, mountains, and the sea.
The wilderness, a place uninhabited by the human species, is a significant location for the spiritual journey, both in its literal and figurative senses. The Bible understands transformation and spiritual growth as a process, which involves the experience of both physical and psychic dis-location and re-location. The experiences of being lost and being found, of moving from a familiar land to a strange new country appear over and over in the Biblical narratives.
An important aspect, then to solitude and our development in faith, is that exposure to wilderness, both in the physical geographic sense, and in the internal experience of the self. I will set aside consideration of internal wilderness to another post, and focus here on the external physical places and settings in which we find solitude.
As a species and as varied races and ethnicities, we have been formed in part by the land in which we and our ancestors have made our living. The lay of the land itself, the richness or poverty of its soil, the vegetation, wild-life, presence or absence of water, winds, and temperature have shaped our economies, our languages, our diets, our health, what we value, and our religions.
David Abram in his masterful book, The Spell of the Senses – Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, writes about this relationship of humankind to the earth and its features and all that dwell upon, within, above, and in its waters.
our bodily rhythms, our moods, cycles of creativity and stillness, and even our thoughts are readily engaged and influenced by shifting patterns of the land. Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses – once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth – become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. p. 267
Abram writes of our relationship with the whole of creation as an interpenetration and mutuality in which all parties are affected, changed, and interdependent. The creation is not something I act upon, seek to dominate, or control, but rather the creation is a whole gathering of life with which I may enter into a relationship of mutual benefit.
In the past seven years the consequences of our lack of communion with nature as has received attention and comment as Nature Deficit Disorder. The lack of time spent out doors by children and adults has been suggested as factors influencing several illnesses, including obesity.
Starving for the Undomesticated God
Over many years I have observed person after person starving for such connection and communion. Some would trek across the country just to sit in a simple cabin without running water in a Kansas pasture in order to touch in to such a relationship. With some notable exceptions, namely camp and conference ministries, the church has largely ignored this fundamental need. Though our faith was formed in our forefathers and foremothers in deserts, tents, mountain tops, sea shores, ship wrecks, storms, and many solitary encounters with the Holy One, we insist that most of our faith be nurtured in buildings and classrooms under florescent lights. We further claim that knowledge of God may be gained by memorizing a set of propositions articulated by theologians, who gained most of their credentials in similar buildings and classrooms.
In contrast, we meet an undomesticated God in the wilderness, an unpredictable, wholly other God, who is neither tamed by sedate doctrines, nor penned in up in church polity, nor leashed to political issues. The waves and meadowlark give testimony, the stones hold the stories of the ancient ones, the Spirit hovers over the waters, the prophet emerges from his cave, and hears the still small voice of the Lord.
Most pastors have heard from the person, who apologetically recounts the familiar reason for his Sunday morning absence. “I am closer to God on the golf course or in my boat out on the lake.”
But can’t you do that on Saturday, wonders the pastor, whose district superintendent keeps count of his worship attendance. He needs to show an increase this year. “You need to worship with the community too, and we need to have you with us,” he tells the fisherman.
Both are right, of course. We need the solitude and nature and we need the gathered community of believers. Yet, perhaps, rather than feeling defensive, our pastor could become genuinely curious about her parishioner’s life in God and what he is telling her. “Could we get together sometime? I’d like to hear about what these times mean to you and how you experience the Lord.”
A Cabin in the Woods
My brother and his wife recently moved and their first project was to build a small cabin in the woods behind their new home. The one room cabin perches part way down a steep ravine in the woods, above a pond and a river beyond. My brother spends hours down there and confesses, most of the time he just sits and looks out the window, watching the birds and critters, and resting his sore eyes on a vista absent of manipulation by his own species. Formerly a hunter of deer, my brother is now living in more intimate and complementary relationship with his relatives. He rises early each day to put out food. Keeping track of them, he gives some of them names. He is respectful of the space they need and watches for signs of illness, or overcrowding of the herd. He worries about the invasive mustard grass, which chokes out the native plants.
Likewise the animals of this ravine are more intimate with my brother. They are eating well, unafraid, and willing to share more of themselves with this human. My brother is changing too. He has lost weight and strengthened his legs from making the steep climb down and back from the cabin to the house. He has become an evangelist for the gifts of that little structure. “Solitude is magnetic,” he tells me. Yes, indeed. He shows me a little book he keeps for guests to write their impressions of time spent in his cabin. I open the cover and read the longing and gratitude in their comments.
The Force which Draws All Things Together
Solitude and the wilderness, where we find it, are magnetic. The wild things and places draw us to them by the force of our common relationship with each other as creatures on this earth. We are drawn by our desire to connect with and to enter into communion with Reality in a deeper, truer way than we find in the glib, sound bite assessments that surround us constantly. Such communion changes how we see ourselves and one another. Thomas Merton writes in his second chapter of Thoughts in Solitude that the wilderness invites us to stand back from our lives so we see things in a new perspective.
We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them, we begin to appreciate them as they really are. Only then can we begin to see God in them. Not until we find Him in them, can we start on the road to dark contemplation at whose end we shall be able to find them in Him.
“Get the Stink Blown Off”
Do you postpone going down to your wild places until the time is right, until you have several days free, until you finish this or that project? I will tell you a secret. You don’t have to wait. Just go with whatever time you have. As Eugene Peterson, paraphrases I Kings 17: 2, “Get out of here and fast!” My mom’s version was, “You kids go on outside right now and get the stink blown off ya.” God receives what little time you can offer, a day, an afternoon, or ten minutes, and turns it into abundance with enough leftovers for you to eat on for the rest of week.
So go on. Get out. Go for a walk. Drive over to the lake or the beach. Take a blue highway home. Look around. Breathe. Smell. Feel. Gaze into the eyes of a deer. Watch the eagle land and fold its wings on its perch above the river. Be seen by the squirrel, be blown by the wind. Be changed and shaped by the interplay and exchange of the animate world of which you are a beloved part.
• To what kind of wild places are you drawn? Have you been there recently?
What keeps you from going?
• What happens when you go? What changes or shifts do you notice in yourself?
• Take some time to pray about your need for solitude and wilderness places. Listen for God’s response.
Next Post in this series on Exploring Solitude: The Wild Things Within