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Silence Might be the Way

By October 31, 2019Spirituality
Silence of the sun breaking through clouds

When I was a girl, I used to watch skies like this and long for Jesus to return.

Seth Haines writes, “I’ve found myself giving into the noise in my pocket these days, failing to do the work to lay hold of silence.” When I opened this, annoyed that I had yet another email, to read, I paused. Yes and again yes. And he’s not preaching at me. He does too much phone, too much noise, too. It’s so simple and mindless to open the phone and check off emails, read up on the latest FB controversy.

Screens–the phone and television–have been a problem for me since I joined Facebook. I’ve subscribed to blogs, store notices, journals and ticking off those emails gives me a sense of accomplishment. My email list is my to do list. When I was teaching it took an hour to work through. Now it takes me several. It’s too easy to feel obligated to read someone’s content because I know what it means when someone reads mine.

Then I discovered the National Review, with it’s reasoned conservative perspective, and I devoured their posts like there was no tomorrow. (Maybe there won’t be.) All the progressive voices on my early Facebook feed troubled me because my wiring told me otherwise, but I had no community to support those views until I found the magazine.

I became a charter member of NRPlus, a paid subscription that allows me access to a Facebook group, the digital version of the magazine and short articles. Our politics look like a slow motion train wreck that hasn’t stopped twisting and turning.

It was easier to think about the slow motion train wreck than it was to let my brain wind up with my own fears of abandonment. But I couldn’t shake these fears, despite therapy, despite journaling, so I began reading about politics.

I felt more grounded than I had in a long time and didn’t feel the need to argue with progressives. The National Review criticized Trump, but also said where he did things right. They helped me think about other issues from a conservative perspective. The group offers interesting conversations without the push to convert that I have found on my open newsfeed. People don’t agree but they are polite. There is such a variety of perspectives that I don’t feel like I am stuck in a bubble.

I look forward to watching TV at night because it takes me away. It is a luxury because for years I’d have to prepare what I was teaching the next day or grade papers.

But reading my phone, paying attention to politics, watching TV can be numbing. The cliche “political junky” describes a real addiction. As a child, I was very aware of politics and would argue from a conservative perspective in Social Studies and English, until that side of me was squashed. Once in college, I avoided the news and studied. In grad school I wrote about nature and was inspired by Carolyn Forche to pay attention to the atrocities in El Salvador. My novel A River Caught Sunlight is about how I was appalled by how evangelicals became enamored with political power. As a young professional I saw it up close, escorting my authors to meetings with powerful government officials. At the time it seemed like they were drunk on power, not filled with the spirit. They seemed to be redefining the gospel. (If you weren’t an anti abortion activist you weren’t a Christian.)

Silence with the decaying sunset

Decaying sunset

A few days after I read Haines’ newsletter, a friend and I were talking about our husbands. She said she knew she needed to be present towards him but their silence made it hard. I too have felt the need to put the phone away and just be present to Bruce, especially in the car, but I had all those emails to read, those FB notifications I needed to check. Oh and that fascinating article. And this one. And that long thread I started that has been going on for days

But it’s painful to sit in silence. Painful I tell you. Boredom rises. Or self pity swarms. Or gratitude so intense I want to cry out with T.S. Eliot, “Ecstasy is too much pain!”

Haines goes on to say, Silence offers us a true reflection of our truest selves.

If we are sorrowful, silence reflects it.

If we are full of glory or lack of it, silence reflects it.

If we are joyful or joyless, silence reflects it.

If we are luminous or pitch black, silence reflects that too.

These days, I’ve found myself full of sorrow. There’s a story there, though I’ll not share it, but this much is important to know: If I spent enough time in the silence, I’d be confronted with that sorrow, and sitting in sorrow’s reflection blows (if I might be candid). And because I’d rather not sit in the wind of my own sorrow, I do what so many do. I turn to noisier endeavors, hoping to distract myself from the pain. There’s a corollary to the tricky truth, though. If I don’t sit in the silence, I might not catch the glimpse of joy, glory, or some sort of luminous beauty. I might not see the full reflection of my truest self. Wouldn’t that be a damned shame?” (Seth Haines is writing this to interest us in his new book: The Book of Waking Up: Experiencing the Divine Love that Reorders A Life.)

And yet this sitting in sorrow, or complaint or boredom or joy might be the only way through. It seems to be something God is trying to tell me. But I’m not sure I have ears to hear.

I was at Barnes and Noble the other day and picked up Pema Chodron’s Welcoming the Unwelcome because I have been unwelcome. A few weeks ago someone announced on Facebook she was done with me because of my politics. Other people dear to me have unfriended me. I refuse to to do this, if someone’s narrative is different than mine, even if their politics bite.

Chodron describes the Buddhist take on waking up–Bodhichitta, “In Sanskrit, bodhi means ‘awake’ and chitta means ‘heart’ or ‘mind.’ Our aim is to fully awaken our heart and mind, not just for our own greater well-being but also to bring benefit, solace, and wisdom to other living beings” (2).

I thought of what Paul said in his letter to the Romans. “And do this, understanding the occasion. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12The night is nearly over; the day has drawn near. So let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13: 11 – 12). He urges us to get rid of numbing agents like “orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and sensuality, or quarreling and jealousy.” Every one of these things dulls us to what our bodies are really telling us. They dull us to our friends and loved ones’ heart cries. We become numb to the plain beauty in the world. The earth is full of the glory of God. How do we suss that out if we are sound asleep? I’ll admit it’s my phone, my attention to politics, to the giant statue that is our government, bidding us come, worship. I’ve gotten sucked in. I’ve fallen asleep and need to wake up.

The silence of sunrise against dried corn

Wake Up. The Night is far spent.

The Apostle Paul tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.” When I read these passages about putting on Christ I think of white linen robes, sweeping, feminine (because I’m a woman) and full of light. Christ as clothing, these robes covering me, somehow from the outside in, an act of shrugging on His Light.

From a Buddhist perspective, Pema Chodron, says “Trungpa Rinpoche said the way we arouse our bodhichitta (an awakened heart) is to ‘begin with a broken heart.’ Protecting ourselves from pain, our own and that of others has never worked…Shielding ourselves from the vulnerability of all living beings–which includes our own vulnerability–cuts us off from the full experience of life. Our world shrinks. When our main goals are to gain comfort and avoid discomfort, we begin to feel disconnected from and even threatened by others. We enclose ourselves in a mesh of fear” (5).

It seems as though our angry politics are driven by this fear, which is driven by our need to preserve our comfort or gain comfort. And yet even the idea of putting on Christ can also mean putting on a kind of vulnerability and openness to pain. The people he sought were people we’d call toxic–the filthy rich, the unclean and smelly, the demon possessed. He pushed against discomfort, lay down in vulnerability. After all Jesus said, “The foxes have holes but the son of man has no place to lay his head.”

In Healing the Heart of Democracy Parker Palmer also takes up the theme of a broken open heart with regards to our political discourse. “If we try shield ourselves against life’s teachable moments, our hearts–like any unexercised muscle–become more vulnerable to stress. Under stress, an unexercised heart will explode in frustration or fury…But a heart that has been consistently exercised through conscious engagement with suffering if more likely to break open instead of apart. Such a heart has learned how to flex to hold tension in a way that expands our capacity for both suffering and joy” (59 – 60).

Maybe we should put away our fear, our anger at people who see things differently than us. Maybe seeing them as a nazi or communist or white supremacist gives us a false sense of righteousness that will break under our feet like half inch ice over a cold, flowing river.

Seth Haines suggested we take fifteen minutes in the morning and evening away from our phones to begin to listen to what God has to say. He urges us in the morning to ask, “What do I notice about myself.” And in the evening to ask, “Where did I notice noise intruding on my day?” He urges us to take notes. I just might try this and see what comes.

I’ve been taking time during chores to turn off podcasts and the phone to talk out loud to the Lord about what’s on my mind. It helps to voice requests and thanksgivings, complaints and worries. I ask him to be a Presence to my friends and people who have asked for prayer. As Mark posted in the comments to another post, a quote from The Shadowlands movie about CS Lewis. “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes us.”

As far as my screen addiction goes? I have discovered that as soon as I post an intention, I’m likely to do the opposite. It’s the struggle Paul the Apostle talks about in Romans 7: 19 – 20. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” So I can only say I will strive towards more silence and less screen time in my life, but I’m not real confident how successful I’ll be taking less time on Facebook, doing political reading, and watching TV shows that don’t mean anything to me. But I wanted to let you know what has struck me in the past week or so, in case it might be useful to you.

And if you have any suggestions of things that have worked, feel free to suggest away.

Silence of dry corn and Peterson's oak against a fleeing storm

Peterson’s tree against a gray sky

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  • Mike Frosolono says:

    One simple on the surface but extremely difficult to implement is my contention, as a theological reductionist, that has become my mantra: If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s because no circumstances exist under which we can be separated from the Love of God in Jesus Christ. Sometimes, especially when I am under duress, e.g. my Beloved Andrea’s untimely death, I hold on to this mantra as a life- and soul-affirming reality that often transcends my scientific and Presbyterian background.

    • Mike, thank you so much for this word, which speaks clearly to me with regards to this struggle. I shared it with a friend because I thought it would help her. I’m so sorry for your loss of your Beloved Andrea. How very heartbreaking and hard. What a good verse to hold onto. This is a very kind, very powerful word that shifts my focus to the Lord. The peace of the Lord be with you always.

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    This was really a wonderful, thoughtful piece Katie. Very deep and thank you for your vulnerability in revealing your struggle, one I share. I even had trouble staying silent alone at our cabin, and kept listening to Christian radio and even the debate on NPR. I am hopeless. What difference does all this make?! Much better to draw nearer the Lord. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you so much for stopping by. I hear you so loudly because it’s so easy to look at the phone, to blunt our voice with those of FB or emails or podcasts. I hear you on drawing near to the Lord. Yes…