Deafening and Re-creation

During the season of Lent this year my church has offered a series of prayer workshops. We recently moved into a sprawling, beautiful old place full of pockets, stained glass, and mystery. One of her secret compartments is a little chapel I have started to slide into more and more often. The place smells of candles and oldness; there’s a makeshift altar in the front to draw the eye forward. I feel in this room a special sense of Jesus being there with me; the dark beauty of it has drawn me back to practices I had abandoned for a time. So I developed these workshops to extend an invitation into these practices to the people I worship with on Sundays. As Lent draws to a close in these next few weeks, however, I’ve found that I’m not quite ready to leave these practices just yet. So I decided that I would write a little bit about these experiments in the land of prayer, in the hope that maybe someone else might catch a similar desire for slowness, stillness, or whole-personness in prayer.

The logical place to start thinking about practices of contemplation seems to be with silence and solitude. Richard Foster says that these practices are two sides of the same coin, that silence is “solitude in action.” I think I agree that the two really can’t be separated from each other. Silence without solitude is just not talking; solitude without silence is just a lack of company. Both require a sense of intentionality; oddly enough both can be practiced even in a crowd of people. In many ways prayer lives in our inner silence, so it is with silence that we begin our journey.

I talk a lot. I mean a really lot. I have so many things to say, so many thoughts buzzing between my ears all the time that it’s hard to choose between them as I rant and rave and wax philosophical. I use big words, obscure words, quoted words, and “dirty” words. I talk too fast, often when I shouldn’t, loudly, and sometimes without enough thought behind the words I use. I can be profound, silly, wrong, simple, poetical, or mean with my words. Words have been my tool, my weapon, my protection, my downfall, my worst enemy, and the fullest expression of my personhood. Wisdom says that a word chosen well is worth more than a hunk of gold the size of an apple; I don’t know that I have often used my words so well.

On the other hand, I can withhold my words pretty effectively. I can do so to punish, to retain mystery, to sulk, out of ignorance or spite or very occassionally wisdom. While this non-use of words is intentional, it’s not the same thing as practicing silence for the sake of drawing into the peace of the presence of the Almighty.

Foster says that if we are to move beyond superficiality – in life, relationships with others, and our journey toward Christ – we have to choose to descend into “recreating silences.” I have to wonder what that means, a “recreating silence.” When I was a child, my fears hid in the silence. My home was filled with noise, the clamor of violence and hate and brokenness. I learned to fortify myself against the accosting volumes by surrounding myself with noise of my own choosing. This meant music playing all the time, even as I slept in the night. If there was a moment of stillness, a pause in the constant cacophony, torments and fears and a million destructive thoughts would swarm like so many demonic and lethal wasps. Silence was a place to be torn apart, not a place to be recreated.

Over the span of a decade, however, I discovered spaces in which a different kind of silence dwelt. By a lake in the earliest mornings of dawn, on a rock left there just for me over the centuries. In a Colorado prayer room, cut into a nondescript office building and marked by a map of the world. In the small stone sanctuary of a monastic community tucked into the farmland of central Illinois. And now in my chapel. In these places the wasps are given no permission of entrance. In these places an altogether different sort of heaviness awaits me. I hear all of the self-loathing and mean thoughts that are running through my inner monologue just below the radar of my conscious mind as they form the crumbly foundation for my worldviews. I become aware of the insecurities and fears driving so much of my behavior. I tune into the weary droning of to-do lists and obligations that drain me of passion and life. I feel the words of others ever washing over me, providing justification for all my self-pandering and self-loathing.

And I remember that none of these things need define me. All of the tearing, ripping, stroking, corroding, pleasuring words that flow in and over me are products of broken and half-blind creatures all straining toward truth that to some extent eludes each of them. I am exposed to peace – not the kind that results from a lack of conflict but that erupts from a place that is true and eternal, like a powerful river rushing from the center of a Temple and into the world. This peace fills all the nooks and crannies of sickness in my soul, tearing down the deeply-rooted oaks of self-deception and lies believed. It cleanses all that’s ill inside of me, filling me with cool, sweet truth. This peace refreshes dry places, revives that which languishes for want of spiritual hydration; it stands against the strongest onslaughts against my thinking and my feeling. If I allow it, this peace will spill over from my insides to splash out on the ground around me. It can wet the toes of those I meet, reminding them of their own need for refreshing in the withering depths of their own souls. Peace will drip as I walk the world, absorbing into the soil of an earth that already knows the beauty of the silence of God. And I will remember that I am part of this soil, of these people, of this peace. I will return to my right mind for a moment, that awareness that Yahweh created me to house a grain of Him and feed that grain to His world.

In that moment, I am recreated.

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1 Comment

  1. Jessamyn Luong said,

    April 15, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I really enjoy your contrasts–the dark noisy youth, the noisy present (that we all live in)–contrasted with the solace you currently seek in silence. It’s kind of interesting and ironic that a person for whom words are particularly important would seek refuge in wordlessness. In one way, it’s (perhaps) kind of a Sabbath for you; your work, your reality, your relationships in many ways are built of words, but then you find you are “recreated” when you rest from the use of words for a season. In the Sabbath, we commemorate God’s act of creation, God, who created with his words.


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