Tag: Nouwen

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Practicing Silence

It happens like clockwork. Thursday rolls around and that checklist in my head starts to flash red. So many tasks to be completed, so many things to write, and read. So many people to visit and call. Class to attend, work to be done. Each week, right about now, I start to breathe a little quicker, my eyes begin to dart and my heart rate kicks up a notch. For some people it’s the start of the week that causes the most stress, for me it’s the end. On Monday, I usually feel organized and prepared. By Thursday, the wheels have come off and I’m playing a dangerous game of organizational triage. It’s so dang predictable.

This is when I need to remind myself that there is a peace to be found in the chaos, and its name is silence. I don’t mean simply turning off Spotify while I write a paper or clean the house. I mean silence inside and out. Silence that fills my entire being, body and soul. This is my antidote.

Silence is part of nearly all spiritual practice, because the ancients and mystics of all faith backgrounds understood that peace is found in the silence. St. Benedict had very strict feelings about silence in the monastery, saying, “Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk” *. Benedict reminds us that a flood of words most often leads to problems. Gossip, slander, complaining. Thus, when we refrain from speaking we build up sturdy walls against such dangerous floods. This is true also for interior silence. When we allow our minds to spin wildly around the business and negativity of our weeks and our days, our work and our relationships, we find that we are unable to know inner peace. We simply spin out of control. This is what happens to me on Thursdays around 10 A.M.

Joan Chittister speaks of silence in her book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, saying:

“Monastic spirituality says it is the clamor of the self that needs to be brought to consciousness. Monastic spirituality says it is the cry of our own passions that mute the cry of others. Monastic spirituality says people who cannot live comfortably with silence can never live comfortably with noise.

But silence is a frightening thing. Silence leaves us at the mercy of the noise within us. We hear the fears that need to be faced. We hear, then, the angers that need to be cooled. We hear the emptiness that needs to be filled. We hear the cries for humility and reconciliation and centeredness. We hear ambition and arrogance and attitudes of uncaring awash in the shallows of the soul. Silence demands answers. Silence invites us into depth. Silence heals what hoarding and running will not touch.” (Chittister **)

This is the healing I need, and I am fully aware of the ways in which I hoard and run in my own life. Running for me often looks like procrastination. It offers moments of relief in a world too full of tasks and relationships for me to manage. I feel so overwhelmed that I just turn on Netflix for an episode…or two…or a season. But eventually the world snaps back into focus and I have less time maneuver it than I did before. This is where I start to say “I have no time for silence”, which is a complete cop-out, but an effective one nonetheless. However, all the practitioners of silent or centering prayer that I have read; Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, they suggest something in the area of 40 minutes a day. 20 in the morning, 20 in the evening. If I have time to watch one episode of Ancient Aliens, I can manage 40 minutes of silence a day.

This is not simply a spiritual notion, as the science of silence has started to back up the claims of the desert fathers and mothers, the yogis and mystics. An article on Huffington Post discussed the number of ways that noise and distraction harms our physical and mental health. Studies have shown that noise pollution can raise blood pressure and risk of heart attack, and create a greater sense of stress. A 2013 study, focusing on the effects of noise on mice, found that silence might actually lead to the creation of brain cells in the hippocampus. This Psychology Today article links to a number of studies that illustrate the benefits of silent meditation, with results like decreased pain, decreased anxiety and stress, and an increased sense of compassion and empathy. The mystics have had it right all along.

We live in a world that values production and hard work. We see people who work themselves to death, and we celebrate their dedication and come to believe that this is what success looks like. But this is a dangerous way to live. When we don’t take the time to settle our bodies and minds we soon find that we lose whatever sense of control we were aiming for in the first place.

Ultimately, silence is a settling into the experience of God, into the Ground of All Being. It heals us because this presence is itself healing. Thomas Keating in Open Mind, Open Heart, says:

“The root of prayer is interior silence. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and feelings – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions. We do not resist them or suppress them. We accept them as they are and go beyond them, not by effort, but by letting them all go by. We open our awareness to the Ultimate Mystery whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing – closer that consciousness itself. The Ultimate Mystery is the ground in which our being is rooted, the Source from whom our life emerges at every moment.” (Keating ***)

This freedom to settle into the experience of Mystery and silence is one that offers us peace and healing in a world that demands certainty and offers cacophony. It is a way for us to care for ourselves, and to claim our identity as Beloved, and to extend that love out into the world. Whether we enter silence as a way of being good to our own bodies and minds, or as a way of resting in the presence of the Mysterious God, it is clear that it is a wise thing to do. So, now I’ll shut up, get up from this desk, and start taking my own advice. Peace.

*The Rule of St Benedict

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily”

***Thomas Keating “Open Mind, Open Heart”

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Beloved and Broken

The thing I am looking forward to most about attending seminary is all the incredible books I am going to have the opportunity to read. This is the material I love to read about, think about, and talk about and I love the fact that I will be exposed to authors and topics that are new to me, and also authors and topics that are already dear to me. This anticipation has been well rewarded in my first week, as my first assigned reading was Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. Nouwen has been one of my favorite writers for a couple of years now. The Return of the Prodigal Son was very formative for me, and I was thrilled when I saw his name on my assigned reading list. Not surprisingly, Nouwen’s words in The Life of the Beloved have been affirming and challenging and I wanted to reflect on one of his major points at the end of his book.

Life of the Beloved was written primarily as a response to a request by one of Nouwen’s friends that he write “…something about the spiritual life…” (Nouwen) for he and his friends who did not consider themselves Christians. Nouwen endeavored to do just that, though his friend felt that the completed work still felt firmly Christian. Nouwen encourages his friend, and the reader, to affirm their identity as Beloved. He says, “We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself” (Nouwen). For Nouwen, this is simply a given; it is the starting point for the spiritual life. We start by claiming our identity as Beloved. For the rest of the book Nouwen reflects on how we claim that identity, centering his reflection on four words; taken, blessed, broken, and given. Mirroring the language of Eucharist, Nouwen suggests that these four words describe the processes by which we become and live as the Beloved. The last of these words is the one I’d like to focus on.

In the chapter “Given”, Nouwen discusses the way in which our identity as Beloved is only fully realized when we are given to others. This chapter was simultaneously affirming and challenging, and raised issues for me about love, service, selflessness, and boundaries. Not only that, but I was challenged by the way Nouwen suggests that our brokenness and our ability to give are intermingled.  Nouwen, in his gentle way, invites us to befriend our brokenness and place it under our blessing, so that we may “…discover how much we have to give – much more than we may have ever dreamed” (Nouwen). My instincts have always been to fix my brokenness first, and then to give to others out of my mended and healthy self. However, Nouwen suggests that it is the very fact of our brokenness that allows us to give without reservation. For me, that can be a scary proposition. I have found that my ability to embrace my own brokenness or to allow myself to be vulnerable with another person or persons, depends so heavily upon who it is I am giving myself to. It may feel safer to give freely from our brokenness to a friend rather than a family member, or a spouse rather than a church community. And it is this safety, or lack thereof, that often determines if and how I am able to embrace and befriend my own brokenness. I think Nouwen might suggest that I have it backwards, and that is what challenged me most from this chapter. By deciding there are some communities and relationships where I will befriend my brokenness, and others where I will not, I may be hindering my ability to realize my own identity as Beloved. And, he contends, it is this realization that makes us truly able to give ourselves to others. This is quite the cycle.

This topic is one that has often come up in conversations with friends, and I find myself wrestling with it as I engage with Benedictine spirituality. In the Rule of St Benedict, Benedict reminds his monks to deny their own will, to serve each other selflessly, and to compete in obedience. Rule 72 states “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else” (RB). For an introvert like myself, this rule sounds like my absolute nightmare. Am I required to blow up all of my personal boundaries? Do I throw away my own needs for the sake of others? Can I keep just a little of my quiet alone time? Or is that pursuing what I judge better for myself? Christ often recites similar, stark commandments that sound too heavy to bear. Sell all you have and give it to the poor. Whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me. I read these commands and I think, “How the hell do I do that?” What does it look like to give ourselves to others? Is it really as daunting as it first appears?

Nouwen says no, and as always has a way of gently reminding us not to be too hard on ourselves. He says “As I grow older, I discover more and more that the greatest gift I have to offer is my own joy of living, my own inner peace, my own silence and solitude, my own sense of well-being” (Nouwen). Nouwen’s giving is not a call to abandon our own health and boundaries for the well-being of another, it is a participation together with another in our mutual brokenness and our identity as the Beloved. This, to me, is why the Church continues to be such an incredible gift. The worshipping community is that place of safety where we can lay bare our brokenness, embrace it as part of our identity, and reach out to each other in hope and mercy, realizing that in giving we receive. I hope that the Church can be a place where we can learn to carry this identity as Beloved and broken into our other relationships and interactions. We may encounter a more gentle and honest political landscape, a renewed sense of love and mercy within our family and friends, and a fuller sense of self that resists the urge to define ourselves by our failures and our differences. We are Beloved. That is our identity first. Know it, claim it, and may we never forget it.

lifeofthebeloved

Nouwen, Henri J. M. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. 1992

The Rule of St Benedict. The Liturgical Press.