Posted in Sermons, Writing

“How to be Alone”: a sermon on Mark 1:35-39

Mark 1:35-39 Common English Bible (CEB)

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.  Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!” He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

 

Today, dear friends, I invite you to consider solitude. Yes, even at VDS, we can gather together and consider solitude, even we can slow down from our rushing days and sit in the silence, even we can turn off our dinging phones and buzzing social media notifications and adopt a contemplative spirit, even we can pause from wondering “what in the world is the construction crew doing now?!” and rest in what Kelsey Davis says, “is the sound of the new world being built.” And, I’d add, even we can ask an extrovert to offer a word about solitude. A friend texted me the other day and said, “often it is introverts advocating for solitude when in reality it can be helpful for all people…it’s good to hear about solitude from an extrovert.”

And y’all. I am an extrovert. I may be speak in a quiet voice sometimes, or think for a long time before speaking, but I love people and I love being around people and I get my energy from spending time with people. Solitude for me has sometimes been very unnerving, because I equate it with isolation. I recall a favorite five-year-old friend of mine who cried when her grandparents told her she had to sit in the corner (of the same room) so she could calm down to eat at the dinner table. Her grandpa said, “I think you just need a bit of alone time so you can calm down.” My friend Sofia, with great big alligator tears said, “But I don’t want lonely time!” Alone time…Lonely time. How often do we get alone and lonely confused and wrapped up in each other? The connotations that we conjure when encountering these words are sometimes, but not always different.

For me, “isolation” brings to mind images of friends living “off the grid” and “Into the Wild” and hermits choosing to live away from a community. Isolation seems to always come with a relationship in tow–being isolated from something or to something, always gaining a definition in view of another thing. People’s experiences of isolation can be very different, affected by mental health, social ostracism, racial segregation, and incarceration. Though in this message today, we will together consider benefits of finding solitude in alone-ness, we must consider the ways in which our society strips and withholds contemplative, chosen solitude from some folks and forces isolation.

Considering solitude, however, for me, brings up images of kayaking alone at dawn, sauntering along a quiet path at Radnor Lake, finding stillness in the midst of a warm summer day at Centennial Park, and even, drinking wine alone in my room watching reruns of the West Wing. I name these experiences as solitude because I choose it, because I have agency over how I am alone. I used to never choose to be alone if I could help it, even now preferring to be “alone” in one room…within reach of my best friend on the other side of the wall. Being alone is hard, hard enough that a book entitled “How to be alone” by Sara Maitland, was published in 2014, examining how people in Western, American culture vilify alone-ness. The American dream is individual achievement, agency and freedom…and yet people who are alone creep us out, garner strange looks in the street, cause us to worry about them, and even fear them. Maitland considers that “normal people” do not live alone, unless they are individual intellectual, the solitary writer, the singular scientist working alone in a lab; we scrupulously hold our introverts to a standard of extreme giftedness…otherwise we ostracize them.

However, Jesus, though ostracized in his own time and we ought to consider how we continue ostracizing Jesus in our time, Jesus knew how to find solitude. And let’s be honest, it was hard for him. The gospels are chock full of him trying to get a moment’s rest, a moment without crowds following him, a moment to take a nap, a moment without his cell phone vibrating in his pocket telling him to read CNN to find out the latest media blitz or letting him know his mom wanted to talk to him or reminding him it was time to do his homework. Maybe it’s anachronistic, but let’s face it: Jesus was a busy dude. He had a lot on his mind, and that’s why it’s so important to see him in Mark 1:35-39 finding some time to himself, even if it was before dawn, so he could pray. Alone. In solitude.

When I was a first year at Oberlin College, three friends and I spent two weeks in France with the Taize community. In case you’re not familiar with the monks of Taize, they are an ecumenical Christian community that ministers to people all over the world, seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. At that time in my life, I had no intention to be a serious Christian, to seek theological education, to answer a call to ministry. I was on this trip with my friends and I was interested in contemplation, and so, hey, I found myself at a monastery in southern France, in January. I spent a good bit of time singing, drinking tea with folks from France, Indonesia and Colombia, writing in my journal, and walking around the nature paths the monks had fashioned over the years. One evening, my friend suggested that we go into a silent retreat for the last six days of our trip. Everyone agreed and looked forward to it…and I wasn’t so sure. Me? Be quiet for SIX DAYS? That didn’t only sound BORING, that sounded SCARY. I was afraid to be silent. Afraid for those around me to be silent. Afraid to be faced with myself.

Those six days turned out to be some of the most important days of my life. While I was in silence, I truly felt “IN” the silence–it surrounded me, not with an overwhelming pressure like that of isolation, but with a warm, soft solitude. Though I still went to communal worship and ate communally, I did not speak to anyone, and no one spoke to me. Initially frightened of this experience, I discovered in that time that I was not alone, that in the silence I was faced with myself but I was also faced with God. God was with me in the silence, and we were alone together. When it was time to leave the silence and return to the world of conversing aloud together, I was ready to speak, yet I also did not want to leave. How could I maintain this spirit of solitude within myself, even as I returned to the hustle and bustle of collegiate life?

When the disciples finally find Jesus alone, praying in a deserted place, they were relieved. “Lord, we’ve been looking everywhere for you!” “Why would you go off by yourself?” “There’s people who need to talk to you!” “We need you!” I imagine that Jesus shook his head calmly as he told them that they would travel together to a new place, as he dusted himself off and prepared to preach, for that is what he came here to do.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Solitude is the garden for our hearts, which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit. It is the home for our restless bodies and anxious minds. Solitude, whether it is connected with a physical space or not, is essential for our spiritual lives. It is not an easy place to be, since we are so insecure and fearful that we are easily distracted by whatever promises immediate satisfaction. Solitude is not immediately satisfying, because in solitude we meet our demons, our addictions, our feelings of lust and anger, and our immense need for recognition and approval. But if we do not run away, we will meet there also the One who says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you, and I will guide you through the valley of darkness. Let’s keep returning to our solitude.”

Friends, let’s consider solitude, along with Jesus, as a time or space or mindset in which we process our experiences in preparation to return to the world to do what we were meant to do. Solitude, meaningful as it is in so many ways to so many different people, must often be cherished as a time of preparation. My partner put it this way: “Solitude is quiet time away from everybody to just revert to your sole self. Away from the world and it’s quiet. It’s important to value that because the rest our time we are blasted with information 24/7: we have phones that constantly buzz and ding, social media apps to update, news to read. It’s important to trust who you are without all of that before engaging with those outlets because they can affect so much in powerful ways. It’s important to value who you are without all of that; as just a person existing; it is the most important thing in the world that you are centered and love yourself fully before bringing anyone or anything into your life. That starts with being ok with, truly comfortable with solitude and appreciating it for the rare times one can find it.” We must consider how our time of solitude, in which we renew ourselves, prepares us to do the work which we are meant to do: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Naturalist writer Wendell Berry writes, “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”  How do we find the balance of alone and together? Picture a dandelion, all white and puffed up in the summertime. As the wind blows, the seeds scatter. Each of them has the memory of belonging together, but each of them has their own work to do. They carry their communal identity with them, their identity of “dandelion” literally written in their DNA, but they scatter to the four winds and begin a new process of creating together-ness from alone-ness.

At Vanderbilt Divinity School, we have the opportunity to create community together by learning together. In some ways, this means we must learn how to be alone together. In All About Love, bell hooks writes, “ many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” There is a community aspect of solitude, in which we respect each other’s individuality while seeking flourishing together.  Once we inhabit solitude and let it inhabit us, once we enter into being alone not as something to be feared, but as a path to renew ourselves, we can consider the ways that solitude prepares us for living communally. Henri Nouwen writes,  “Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.”

Often, perhaps because I feel at home in nature and love gardening, there are no better illustrations for theological concepts than ones from creation. Though I have not always known, and still do not expect to master the concept of “being alone” for some time, if ever, I look to butterflies. Butterflies know how to be alone. They actually spend most of their life as a caterpillar, prompting many social media memes about self-love, self-image and transformation. These monarch caterpillars, a lovely delicate lime green color, spend their time munch-munch-munching along on milkweed leaves, drinking the sweet leaf milk and growing nice and round because this time is a time of preparation. Caterpillar prepare physically to enter a space of great solitude: they enshroud themselves in chrysalises. Here they stay for a couple of weeks, their bodies changing and gaining different colors and their tummies full of milkweed fueling them as they become what they were meant to be. After a time alone in their chrysalises, these miraculous creatures emerge as butterflies. But, they are still not ready to join their siblings in flight: first they must dry their wings, often still wet with the orange dye from their transformation. After that time of solitude, the butterfly is still preparing to take to the sky. They strengthen their wings, flapping slowly, and then–they alight, fluttering with such abandon, traveling towards their destiny, whether it be the beautiful lupines in the garden next door or the mountains of Mexico. To transform within their time of solitude, preparing to take to the sky, requires that they lean into their choice of alone-time, that they lean in to the possibility that being alone will give them what they need to flourish. They must give themselves over to becoming. This is the risk of solitude. Actually being prepared to do what you were meant to do.

In a canoeing memoir entitled “Listening Point,” which my father read to me at bedtime while I was growing up, naturalist writer and Minnesotan Sigurd Olson describes the meaning of the book’s name: He says about the location that inspired him, “I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but someplace of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”

Friends, today I invite you to explore solitude. Whether that means taking a break from noise, from social media distraction; relocating yourself physically to an environment where you feel comfortable; or drawing into yourself, into your own inner chrysalis, I invite you to find your own “listening point.” Where you may be present, alone with yourself and that which is Holy to you, enshrouded in a love that prepares you to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. May it ever be so.

 

This sermon originally preached at Vanderbilt Divinity School, March 21, 2018.

Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized

No Heart of Fear

Scripture: Psalm 27

When I was little, I was afraid of a lot of things: being separated from my mom in the supermarket, getting in a car wreck, breaking a bone, losing teeth, the dark, spiders– things that I heard on TV or saw on the covers of cheap tabloids in the grocery aisle would stick in my brain until I was sure they’d happen to me too. Once, when I was too scared to sleep in my own bed, I wound up sleeping on the couch and my mom came in and said something that I will never forget:, “How are you ever going to live if you’re so afraid all the time?”

—-

Flash forward: I had just turned 19 and, having just finished my first undergraduate semester at Oberlin College, was visiting the ecumenical monastery at Taize in southern France on a winter term trip. My first semester of college had been hard: living away from home, getting used to a roommate, a high school relationship breaking up, and right before Christmas, my grandfather, to whom I’m extremely close, had a stroke that ended my grandparents’ independent living. To be honest, I was terrified about being out of the country for the month of January. You might have heard the term “FOMO”, “fear of missing out”? Yeah,  that was me. FOMO big time, but for huge scary reasons like fear of losing my grandfather. It felt like all of my life was converging in a huge, hot wave of worry and fear, and I was losing control. I was forgetting who I was and Whose I was. I remembered what First Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a heart of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” But in my heart, it just didn’t feel true.

So there I was, on my knees in front of a small carved wooden cross, my forehead bowed to the ground, weeping. I wept out of fear, out of worry, out of terror that I didn’t know what was happening in my life, where I was going, if my family would be ok, if my grandpa was going to live. I was praying as I’ve never prayed before.

Suddenly, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. I heard beneath my sobs a whisper of “It’s going to be alright. You’re going to be alright.” I felt held, felt cradled in the arms of the Holy. I reached next to me and grasped a Bible, and did one of those “open-it-to-any-page-and-maybe-it-will-speak-to-me” things. In fact, I turned to Psalm 27, our text for today.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

I’ve held these words close to me for six years, through college and graduation and moving to Nashville and beginning graduate school this past fall. These words continually help me contextualize my fear.

There is a lot of fear in the world, not just my own. As individuals, we might list: spiders, small spaces, snakes, heights, airplanes, the dark. As a western, United States American culture we might list: people who are different from us, terrorism, people who don’t speak our language, nuclear war, losing our material possessions, just to name a few. We have plenty of tangible fears like these, but also existential fears: as a Christian, one of mine has always been: “How do I know I’m really saved? Am I saved ‘enough’?”

What do we do with all this fear?

I believe that fear is often paired with a longing for something…when afraid of heights, we long for groundedness and stability. When afraid of terrorism, we long for security and safety. When afraid of the dark, we long for clarity and enlightenment. When I was afraid of missing out on important moments in my family’s life or losing my grandfather, I longed to be close to my family, geographically and emotionally.

Similarly, Psalm 27 is thought to be written out of the Israelites’ fear and pain when they were held captive in Babylon, away from their homeland and their god. Articulating this fear, the psalm writer describes the longing Israelites felt for their temple. Before the exile, the people of Israel understood their god as being a local deity, residing in the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel had not yet written about his vision of God sitting on the wheeled throne that symbolized God’s mobility, and thus God’s presence everywhere, even with the exiles in a different land. The Israelite exile community wished and hoped and prayed to be with their god in the temple: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple…I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.”

Psalm 27 combines two psalm genres: psalms of trust and psalms of petition. And you can really hear that pairing of fear and longing, petitions and trust here: “Though an army encamp against me” –and, reading this, we must imagine that this community has indeed experienced this personally, or at least in recent historical memory– “my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” Wow. What a deep confidence in their God. Reading this in the monastery chapel, I let myself dwell in the comfort of people who lived two and a half thousand years before me.

Let’s return to my mother’s question: “How are you going to live if you’re afraid all the time?” And I still don’t know the answer to that question. My problem is that the world is scary. Climate change,  extreme weather events, natural disasters, domestic and global terrorism, systemic violence, hatred and bigotry and internalized oppression, and even loving people, all make for a really, really scary world sometimes. And fear seems to be an appropriate response to some of the events we read about in the news, and some we experience firsthand. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, that “The real problem has far less to do with what is really out there than it does with our resistance to finding out what is really out there.” Sometimes we don’t even want to think about maybe possibly venturing outside our comfort zones to find out what the truth is about this fear–what are our deepest longings trying to tell us, hiding behind our fear? Is it our longing for security, connection, consistency? Do we have a choice of what to do next when facing our fears–do we run away and hide, putting up our walls and forgetting the interwoven community of creation of which we are all a member? Or do we lean into it, embrace it, learn the shape of the fear, befriend it and try to transform it?

Frederick Buechner simply writes, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” But I say, yes! the world is beautiful and terrible, but–it’s ok to feel afraid. But we must not let it define us. It’s what we do with the fear that matters. I don’t think we honestly acknowledge fear enough; often when hearing someone describe their fears, we can so easily brush them off with a “Well, it’ll be ok. It’ll all turn out in the end. Don’t worry so much.” Or we can judge people with different ideologies from our own who pay attention to their fear such that it multiplies and inspires terror in others, while not examining our own fears in turn.

So whether our fears include not being able to pay our rent, getting bad grades, leaving our homeland, losing our parents, or experiencing prejudice because of our race, gender identity, sexuality, class or citizenship status–know that each of these fears are legitimate. But also think about what happens if we were to let our fears stop us from truly living? Or let our fears stop others from truly living?  We must not lean away from embracing the God who hears our cries aloud; who calls our name; who invites us into the holy tent of community; who sets us high upon a rock, sure and strong; who holds us as we weep and walks alongside us in solidarity with our pain and anxiety and depression and terror–we can’t let our fears stifle our heart’s deepest call to living and loving.

The end of this psalm carries one of the most beautiful promises I’ve read in scripture, and, incidentally, these words have been turned into two Taize chants: “I am sure that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

And, before I finish, just a word about waiting: waiting in the Bible is always active. Remember Mary’s waiting before Jesus’ was born, or any of the other mothers who had to overcome huge obstacles before they conceived children (Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Rachel and more) who became significant parts of God’s promise for the Israelites. The waiting was always anticipation of God’s handiwork, and in fact, God was already working in their lives, active and creative, and most of all, was present with them. Sometimes when we are engulfed in fear it is hard to wait for it to end, hard to see out of that deep, dark hole.

Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that  

“…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”

It starts with waiting. So as we wait to feel God’s presence in the land of the living, be assured of God’s presence, and how God has already prepared you for your life—not to live without fear, but to continue living into it. Again, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor:

“When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there – not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene – promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall.”

God has given us no heart of fear, but a heart to live in spite of, because of, in and with and through our fear.

No heart of fear can get in the way of the good that God is creating in our lives.  

No heart of fear can cause God to leave our side.

No heart of fear can convince us that we are not worthy of God’s love–that truth is too powerful and vast.

No heart of fear can separate us from the love of God.

 

(This sermon was originally preached 2/16/16 at the Scarritt Bennett Center.)

Posted in School, Uncategorized

Formations #4: Humble Feet

(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

One of my very favorite stories from the Desert Fathers is from Abba John the Persian. “It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to harm him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet.  But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.” This is more than a scene of “kill them with kindness.” This is a full-blown response of humility and love towards someone who is “other,” who exhibits violent tendencies, towards someone whose life is very different. Instead of calling the authorities (if one could even do so in those days), or rebuking them, or even preaching at them, Abba John simply bends down in front of them and washes their feet. No kidding, these bad dudes were confused! What would you do if you were making fun of someone or were trying to fight someone and they wouldn’t cooperate, but instead humbled themselves before you and began to wash your feet?

foot washing.jpeg
Michal Splho

Foot washing is a very old practice that dates back to times before Jesus. In my church, we practice footwashing at the Maundy Thursday service before Good Friday, in memory of the night that Jesus gathered his community around him, called them friends, and washed their feet. The symbolism within the actual act is important to understand. Feet in ancient times were considered unclean, a part of the body that touched the ground and could be contaminated by all sorts of things–plants and dirt and decaying things. And remember that before the last century or so, people were not bathing all that often, especially if you weren’t a rich person. So, these feet that Jesus was washing were pretty stinky. It was considered a low-class job to wash feet because you were touching the most undesirable part of the body, so the task required someone to do it who was not very worried about status.

Abba John, in this story, is similar to Jesus, was not worried about status or class, and concerned himself with spiritual things. He knew that his life was just as valuable as the lives of the bad dudes who intended evil against him, no matter if he was a spiritual leader or not. As Brother Roger of Taize wrote, “Only compassion allows us to see others as they are. When we look at them with love, we discern in each person the profound beauty of the human soul.”

The Simple Way community, founded by Shane Claiborne and others in Philadelphia, PA, holds as one of their principal values “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.” That means that the community values the people around them, the churchfolk who are the body of Christ. They also value racial reconciliation, shared economics, and care for the earth, each issue necessitating a humble attitude. If racial tensions are going to be healed, we must recognize that #blacklivesmatter and that white folk don’t experience the racism that black folks do. If the hefty gap between rich and poor is going to be narrowed, we must get used to the idea that the wealthy will come down from their thrones and help increase the minimum wage and work to eliminate cycles of economic injustice that have existed for centuries. If the earth is going to be delivered from the plight of climate change, and if we are going to still be here to see that, we must get used to the idea that we cannot continue to violate the wealth of the forest, mountains and plains by extracting lumber, coal and natural gas.

foot washing ceremony.jpeg

If we truly believe in being humble before God, we must be humble before one another, as the ancient ascetics taught us through their practices of welcoming, feeding and healing the poor. If we are to be humble before each other, we ought to be humble before the earth which sustains us. Shane writes, “The kingdom of God is not just something we were to hope for when we die. It is something we are to live out here on earth.”

For this week, practice humility by remaining attentive to any unkind thoughts that might pass through your mind. Be aware of when you are passing judgment on others. Practice sending out “good vibes” to those around you. Recognize any inclination you might have to think of yourself as “better” than others. Remind yourself that you, like all those around you, are a child of God, beloved, and beautiful to behold!

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How do I want to be a humble servant of God in the world?

Peace be with you!

 

Posted in School, Uncategorized

Formations #3: Shhhhhhhhh! It’s Quiet Hours! Contemplative Silence in Monasticism

 

(This is part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

When I was a guest of the Taize community in southeastern France during my first year of college, my companions and I were invited to take on a week of silence. Yes, a WEEK of SILENCE. No talking, no communication of any sort–even when meeting people on the road, we were supposed to avert our eyes. My three companions and I were assigned a small area of one of the women’s houses, each given separate rooms, and instructed that we would have Bible study with one of the Sisters (a nun associated with the Taize community) each morning. We would still participate in worship morning, noon and night with the whole community, but we would spend days and nights in solitude.

To this day, I don’t think my parents believe that I actually was silent for a whole week. I love talking and communicating with people, especially when we were in France and surrounded by a bunch of people from all over the world! But I was scared, and didn’t think I could do it. That’s a LONG TIME to not speak. And more than my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), I was terrified to be left alone with God. The first semester of my freshmen year of college had been filled with a rough break-up, a grandparent’s stroke, and friend troubles–going into this period of silence, I knew that my soul had a lot of work to do and it would be a difficult week.

Here’s the truth: silence is not easy. It is an intensive spiritual discipline and, though difficult and alienating at times, it can be very rewarding. The Desert Fathers and Mothers sometimes took on practices of contemplative silence, the virtue of which was not only in their refraining from communication with the outside world, but was in learning to be intentional with what words they do choose to speak aloud.

The Desert Father Abba Poemen said, “If we remembered that it is written, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned,” we would choose to remain silent.” By saying this, he was reprimanding those who were tempted to speak unjustly. Did your parent ever tell you to “Say something nice or say nothing at all?” Yeah. If Abba Poemen had been a family guy, he would have been one of those parents.

Here’s another one: Abba Poemen also said,

“A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others, he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent, that is, he says nothing that is not profitable.”

Here, the carelessness in the internal spiritual practice that leads to judging others in your heart is what is bad–even if you appear to be pious on the outside. And, conversely, people whose hearts are focused on God can speak a lot and be dropping wisdom all over the place! So, translated into parent aphorisms, that means “mean what you say and say what you mean.”

So if we can be intentional about how we talk, how can we be intentional about how we are silent? Isn’t that kinda the same thing? At the time I went into the silence in Taize, I didn’t know how to pray. Weird to say, right, for someone raised in the church like I was? Not really–I thought praying was saying the Lord’s Prayer with your congregation, listing your sins and saying “thank you” at the end. But Brother Roger of Taize, quoting St. Augustine, offers some help on this matter of silence and prayer:

“There is also a voice of the heart and a language of the heart…That inner voice is our prayer when our lips are closed and our soul open before God. We remain silent and our heart speaks, not to human ears but to God. Be sure that God will listen to you.”

contemplative prayer.jpeg

Even in silence, and perhaps especially in silence, we are not distracted with the words coming out of our mouths or even the words from someone else. We are trusting that God knows what our hearts are concerned with, as long as we can be present and open before God. This can take some practice for those of us who grew up in Western United States American culture and have many technological distractions at our fingertips. One of my college roommates would always be watching Netflix on her computer while playing a game on her phone and maybe brainstorming about her homework on her iPad, when all I wanted to do was hang out and talk with her. God wants us to rest in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is always with us, in silence or in chatter.

Something that surprised me about my time in the silence (doesn’t it sound like a movie? “In the Silence”–horror and intrigue, ooh!) was that people could be silent together. This shouldn’t have been surprising for me, since I loved sitting around my loved ones and not talking but enjoying the togetherness quietly. But this time, having no distractions (no technology! no talking! woohoo!) left me and my companions to be alone…together. A member of the Leb Shomea community in Texas offers this thought on communal silence, “Silence is not ‘me and God’ but a way of being present to each other in God.” From the desert of old into the modern college campus, this remains compelling: if we can turn off the noise around us, turn off the internal distractions of worries and comparisons and judgments, and rest in the presence of God, we can share in God’s peace, alone or together.

prayer around the cross

For your practice this week, try on some silence. That doesn’t necessarily mean not answering a question your professor or TA asks you–it can be, if you want!–but maybe try setting aside several morning hours on the weekend (wait, are you even awake on the weekend, you college students out there?) to practice not talking or communicating with anyone around you. You might want to let your roommate and your family know that you are taking on this practice for a few hours, so they won’t be offended if you brush off their “good mornings” or miss the weekly phone call from home. Remember, silence does not necessarily mean solitude–there are plenty of spaces where public silence is held (think of your school library, public vigils, contemplative church services, and annoying coffee shops where everyone is on their laptops). Some things you might want to do during your time of silence are:

  • walk outside–what do you notice that you’d usually pass by because you are texting or talking to friends?
  • meditate/sit contemplatively–centering prayer might help here.
  • journal or draw–challenge yourself to use as few words as possible while expressing yourself.

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How can I continue to be engaged in my life (doing school/work/family, etc.) and carry this practice of silence with me?

 

Peace be with you!

Posted in School, Uncategorized

What Do Monks Have To Do With It? (Formations Blog #1)

(This post is part of a series of blog posts I am writing for my Formations of Christian Traditions class. They are aimed towards progressive Christian college students!)

The January dawn was dark and chilly. I slept in my wool socks and a sweater inside my sleeping bag. My college friends and I roused ourselves from our bunk beds and pulled on extra sweaters and hats and trekked into the pale French dawn. Upon arriving at the Chapel of Reconciliation, we entered into a warm room smelling of cedar and incense, picked up our multilingual prayer books and found our seats on comfortable prayer stools. The morning worship at the Taizé monastery in southern France was quiet, contemplative, and moving. The worshippers sang repetitive chants with simple melodies and single phrases led by the ecumenical brothers of the Taizé community, shared silence, and contemplated short passages of Scripture. When all singing had ended (for it can go on quite a while, as long as there is someone who wants to sing), we would emerge into the bright sunlight and transition to a simple breakfast of bread, jam and spice tea before a Bible study and chore time. In two weeks of praying, singing, communing and working (what I like to call “scrubbing toilets for Jesus”), I, like many visitors to the historic ecumenical monastery, experienced a small taste of what monasticism looks like in the 21st century–and maybe even what it has been like for many centuries.

taizeThe main branch of the Western-style of monasticism seems to have originated, or at least taken a familiar form, in the lives and communities of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These were men and women ascetics (people who practiced simplicity in physical and spiritual life–e.g. eating bread and water only, etc.) who lived in the 4th-5th centuries AD, scattered across the Nile watershed in Egypt, Syria and Palestine whose lives and works are preserved in the Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers!]).[1] These sayings were collected and penned from stories circulating in the oral tradition by a monk named Cassian in the 6th century AD. From reading the Sayings and examining what kinds of stories were preserved about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we often can discern the ancient editor’s point of view about solitude, community and theology, and sometimes even get a glimpse of what life was like for the early monastics. With these teachings as a starting point, monasticism in the Western Christian world[2] (the Roman Empire and then Europe, primarily) got a move on, and throughout the medieval times and Middle Ages crystallized into different threads of traditions: Basilian (from St. Basil of Caesarea), Franciscan (from St. Francis of Assisi), and Benedictine (from St. Benedict of Nursia) being some of the most famous and widespread strains.

My visit to Taizé was almost five years ago, and contemplation in the style of certain monastic traditions has continued to be part of my life. This is in part because of the “new monasticism” movement, which now is about 20 years old and gaining in popularity among young progressive Christians of both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. I have witnessed and participated in several communities engaged in “intentional” or “new monastic” communities. These communities are united by some basic similarities: generally they are governed by a community covenant or rule of life that expresses the values the community wishes to practice. The basic concept of intentional living is cohabiting with others who are collectively dedicated to practicing certain values (spiritual, ecological, vocational, etc.) in a cooperative setting. Common life is important as it is the setting for exploring and expressing the values held in the community. This could be anything from holding all money in common to sharing all food to using politically correct language and practicing healthy conflict transformation styles–many communities all over the world practice their versions of living in community differently. Some intentional communities focus a lot on both individual and community development. Some focus on practicing “downward mobility” and living in solidarity with the poor and people experiencing homelessness. Some focus on able-bodied folks living alongside differently-abled folks and the ways in which these types of relationships can help all involved get through life.

communitysculpture

Last year, I participated in the Belle H. Bennett House Fellowship hosted at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee, an intentional community program for young female-identifying people recently graduated from college who want to experience intentional living and do social justice work through unpaid internships in local nonprofits. This was a transformational time for me, where I was challenged and supported in ways I could never have imagined. I learned a lot about myself (trust me, A LOT) and also was able to set apart time for vocational discernment, all the while figuring out what community means to me. This trend of bringing young people recently graduated from college to live intentionally and do good work for their community is growing in popularity and is shared among many denominations (find more out about these wonderful faith-based volunteer programs here).

Here I have compiled a chart comparing some examples of the values of the early ascetics to the values of the “new monastic” movement as expressed by the founders of this movement, including one founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, PA.[3] This list is by no means exhaustive of all of the values that ancient monastic communities observed and new monastic communities live by, but they can give you and idea of some of the similarities important to these models of shared life that transcend time.

Desert Fathers and Mothers[4] Basic Philosophies of New Monasticism
Renunciation: of the world, namely, bodily pleasures like eating decadent food, drinking alcohol, sexual activity 1) “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.”
Inversion of Social Norms: rejecting Empire and drive to self-betterment 2) “Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.”
Hospitality: early ascetics would often take in novitiates and visitors and serve them humbly 3) “Hospitality to the stranger.”
Pursuit of the Divine: following the pattern of Jesus the Christ 4) “Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.”
Humility: placing oneself as a servant to others and to God 5) “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.”
Voluntary Social Death: for solitary monks, renouncing the world such that one does not exist there anymore (ex. leaving the city, living alone, not participating in commerce, etc.) 6) “Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.”
Common Life: early ascetics would have mentors with whom they’d address spiritual matters and from whom they’d gain encouragement or reprimanding 7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
Celibacy (another form of renunciation of the world) 8) “Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.”
Community (for some early Egyptian monks, they would live in solitary cells but in communities along the Nile River Valley) 9) “Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.”
Simplicity: early ascetics would use only what they needed, nothing more and nothing less (a practice that is now called “enoughness”)[5] 10) “Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.”
Pacifism (sometimes related to humility, sometimes seen to show the strength of the spirit as dominating a human brute instinct to conflict) 11) “Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.”
Spiritual Transformation: the ascetics had many spiritual practices that they would use to try to achieve spiritual purity and union with God (one important one was the practice of Silence) 12) “Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.”

Looking at this chart, you can possibly imagine the ways the values of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have been interpreted over the centuries, as well as imagine how the “new monastic” values could be interpreted in the future. And, the most interesting thing is, there are not too many differences in the origin of these values and practices: humility, simplicity and community seem to be the basis for both columns.

As you read these values, I encourage you to think about what kind of community you are experiencing currently. Are you living at home and going to a vocational school or a community college? Do you live far away from your family and attend a small liberal arts college? Who makes up your community—is it primarily 18-22 year olds or are there older adults and young children in addition to people your age? What guiding principles create cohesion in your community? Are there practices that you regularly engage in with people around you?

Here’s my challenge to you: try on one of these values for a week! Look at your life and make a list of what activities, practices and rituals you complete during your typical day (i.e. Do you pray in the morning and at night? Do you serve food in soup kitchens? Do you journal? Do you try to use your money sparingly and for good causes?) Try to fit any of those practices into the categories named in the columns above. Then, pick an item from the list of monastic values (either ancient or “new”) that you want to experiment with. Do some research (yeah, just Google it, ok? J) on what kinds of everyday practices you could try that complement the value. If you’ve never done meditative contemplation, try out a lectio divina or a centering prayer. If you mostly keep to yourself during meal times, exercise some hospitality and have a friend join you—or vice versa: eat a meal alone or in silence! Or, for some real challenge [J] try out “voluntary social death” in the form of taking a technology Sabbath and limiting your presence on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Also, follow this blog for the next four weeks, and I will post more about several of the values listed here: Solitude/Community, Silence, Humility and Hospitality. Each week, I will suggest spiritual practices to help you dig deeper into both the history of monasticism (as explored through the Sayings) and the living practices of modern “new monastics.” I do hope you will join me in learning more about the life of contemplation and service to God! If you have any questions, comments, would like to share insights or meditations that really work for you—feel free to post a comment publically or send me a private message!

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. What practices do I find myself yearning for? Create your own spiritual practices and rituals! (For example, mine include baking and drinking tea on my porch–run with your ideas!)

Peace be with you!

[1] Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1984).

[2] Though monasticism has taken various forms around the world (Tibetan Buddhism, Islamic ascetics, Confucian monks, etc.) I am choosing to focus on the (more or less) direct lineage of the new monastic movement, which gathers its heritage from the Benedictine Rule and models such as the Taizé, France and Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

[3] Found in Josh Anderson, “The 12 Marks of a New Monasticism,” Sojourners.com, accessed October 21, 2015, https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2007/12-marks-new-monasticism. Also found in Shane Claiborne, “Marks of New Monasticism,” in New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church, ed. Graham Cray, et. al. (London: Canterbury Press, 2010), 19-36.

[4] These values are based on Dr. David Michaelson’s Paper 1 Assignment Criteria handout, as well as gleaned from William Harmless (William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, Cary, NC (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004), ProQuest ebrary, accessed 22 October 2015) and by my own reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[5] Bill McKibben, “Enoughness,” Resurgence.org, accessed November 3, 2015, http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article658-ENOUGHNESS.html.