My favorite poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, begins with these four lines:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
I always loved the sense of silence, stillness and peace that Yeats paints for us in this poem, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I was really aware of what it might be like to live in a bee-loud glade. Yesterday we hiked Craggy Gardens Trail, a path right off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, which promised a trail to “craggy flats through a high mountain Rhododendron bald.” I had never been surrounded by the bone-like Rhododendron before, and I became mesmerized by the bare branches clawing their way skyward, seemingly dead and yet holding life in the glossy leaves at the end of their limbs. Perhaps another word for another day…
When we arrived at the top and walked out onto the bald of the hill, I found myself virtually encircled by bees busy doing what bees do, not caring a buzz that I was tramping through their livelihood. But the sound! It took me a few seconds to realize that the roar in my ears was the chorus of the workers. Going about their life and livelihood, I wondered if they knew the sound they made. Yeats’ words immediately surfaced and I smiled. Bee-loud glad indeed. He knew. He knew because he paid attention, as I was doing now.
So often we don’t act because we don’t think we make a difference, as if one voice doesn’t matter, as if the buzz that comes off of our lives is insignificant. But that mindset negates the power of community — of people who put their heads down and work and get the job done, of singers who lift one voice and form a chorus, of worshippers who gather around a common table and form one body in Christ. That’s the buzz of our lives, the bee-loud glade of our existence. We are not made to be alone.
Ask yourself in silence: When do I feel insignificant? When do I feel alive and part of something larger than myself?
“Geography is simply a visible form of theology.”
- Jon D. Levenson
I’m traveling this week through the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. At the same time, I’m reading my new friend Belden Lane’s book (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality [Oxford Press]) on the power of landscape in our spiritual lives. Belden’s book takes an especially close look at the rough and barren landscapes of the American southwest and Israel. He is drawn to these mountains and deserts (the word toou in the Coptic language stands for both mountains and deserts, I learned) just as the early church desert fathers drew inspiration from the via negativa, the negative or opposite way of thinking that uses no analogies for God since they are all “ultimately inadequate.”
In the negative space of the deserts and mountains, we come to find God and ourselves for what God and we are not. Belden writes: “Only at the periphery of our lives, where we and our understanding of God alike are undone, can we understand bewilderment as occasioning another way of knowing.”
It’s a beautiful, insightful, ancient way of thinking about God, and I have felt that sense of nothingness and yet everything important standing among the red rocks and dry earth of Sedona, Arizona. And yet, here I stand in the opposite of all that, in the resplendent and verdant ridges and valleys of the Appalachians. So where is God in all this green and fecundity, in these rivers and streams and orchards and fields? God is here, too, of course.
Belden’s book and his other writings have opened my eyes to the role that landscape plays in our spiritual lives, in the ways that we see and sense the sacred all around us. Again, he writes: “[Landscape] plays a central role in constructing human subjectivity, including the way one envisions the holy. The place where we live tells us who we are — how we relate to other people, to the larger world around us, even to God.”
I don’t live here — I’m just visiting for a week — and yet this larger world around me is so big that I cannot take it all in, cannot begin to fathom the Creator and the extent of the creation. And yet I know it to be true, feel it to be truth at the center of my being. I need this landscape like I need the air that I breathe, like I need sacred scripture and the community of others and the bread and wine offered on the table of thanksgiving.
There’s nothing magical about these mountains, just as there is nothing magical in the toou of Belden’s book. We find God when we open ourselves to God, in that place where we allow ourselves to be empty enough to allow God to enter and be present. God, as Belden writes, “cannot be had.” And as the unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing once wrote: “God is a desert to be entered and loved, never an object to be grasped or understood.”
Wherever we are, whatever our landscape, at our core we must not be possessors of God and faith but rather empty vessels, ready to receive the flowing love of an incomprehensible God.
Ask yourself in silence: What landscape speaks to me of God? Why?
“Truly, Yahweh was always in this place all the time, and I never knew it.” Genesis 28:16
Two things — among others — that most greatly affect our vision are perspective and optics. Where we stand and what we look through as we view the world around us create very different versions of the same thing. Last year as I stood on the street outside of my hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, all I saw at first glance was a wall of towering concrete and steel buildings. Interesting, to be sure, but not what I would immediately think of as beauty. Only later, from my perch on some impossibly high floor and looking through a telephoto lens, was I able to see the beauty of the city, spot a number of tiny, exquisitely planned rooftop gardens or see the mountains in the distance. Perspective and optics.
We cannot see what we don’t put ourselves in the position to view. Nor can we envision the finer details of beauty and grace with eyesight that needs correction. We can’t see the molecule without the microscope or the faraway galaxy without a telescope. And we can’t see the speck in our neighbor’s eye without removing the plank from our own.
We sometimes cannot see and understand the pain and the needs of others — especially those somehow “different” for any myriad of reasons — unless we have the courage to change and challenge our own comfortable position and perspective and perhaps correct or enhance our vision. The adage that we cannot trust our own eyes just might be true. Sometimes our most deeply ingrained prejudices are simply those things we’re not willing to look at more closely, seeking a new perspective and clarity of vision that allows us to see others for what they are: children of God.
And the same goes for our ongoing search for God. God never leaves and does not change, yet we often fail to see the Divine as it intertwines and insinuates itself in our lives. Faith is not about God “coming” to us, for God is always present. Faith is about turning toward some whisper, some gentle nudge and acknowledging, “Ah, there you are. Why didn’t I see you sooner?”
Ask yourself in silence: What can I do to better see God and others in need? What perspectives do I need to change? How does my vision need correcting or enhancing?
“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Psalm 95:7-8
If any of us were to hear the voice of God — really and truly hear it and know for sure what was being said and who was saying it — who among us could harden our hearts against it? Even an atheist would have a hard time resisting the pull and call of such a certain God.
But hearing the voice of God is, unfortunately, not so simple. Hearing the voice of God demands listening for the voice of God, an act of active contemplation that demands silence, attention and a willingness and openness to receive the divine. That in itself is an act of faith. We will never hear the voice of God until we get it in our heads and hearts what God might sound like — and not sound like. God is never the voice of anger, telling us to hate or kill in his name. God is not the voice telling us to judge others, to segregate and separate, to give privilege and abundance to some and allow disadvantage and poverty to others. The voice of God is much more challenging than that.
The voice of God is the voice that tells us to love beyond all else. It is the voice that calls us to union with itself and communion with all those around us. The voice of God tells us we have meaning and purpose, that we can be forgiven regardless of the sin and that we should forgive others over and over again, even if we cannot forget or accept what they have done. God’s voice calls out into the wilderness of our lives (and, yes, we all live in the wilderness…just watch the news): “There is a better way. There is more than all this. Come to me. Follow me.”
When you hear this today — and you will hear it in a dozen different ways if you will only listen — open your heart to it. Take it in like a breath of fresh air on a crisp fall morning and let it fill your life with a new message of love, hope, grace and peace.
Ask yourself in silence: What’s keeping me from hearing the voice of God?
One of the most often-repeated statements in the Bible is some version of “Be not afraid,” and it is usually said to humans when they are about to encounter the divine. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says, “it’s just something you’ve never seen before, something you can’t fathom, something that will both scare you and change your life. That’s all.”
What God says with “be not afraid” is not, “don’t worry, everything will always be okay. Your children will always be safe, your parents will never die, and you will always be healthy.” That’s not the fear and hurt from which God delivers us. That would be an empty promise, indeed, for we all know that those heart-rending moments are a part of life. The fear that God delivers us from is the fear of being alone and helpless when these things happen. That life is fragile and always ends in physical death and separation from those we love is one of the harshest realities we learn.
But “be not afraid” offers hope and a glimpse behind the temporal confines of life and death. “Be not afraid” says there is more, and that “more” is grace-filled love, mercy and a new kind of life that doesn’t end and bring grief. “Be not afraid” asks us to look beyond what we can see and believe beyond what we cannot see. “Be not afraid” suggests that we grasp the hand of God when it is offered, which is always and everywhere, even and especially at the depths of our worry and fear.
None of this is easy, but we never have to go it alone, and through Christ we can possess a hope and a faith that leads us to a different kind of beyond.
Ask yourself in silence: What am I afraid of? (Really, make a list.) Which of these things are beyond the touch and love of God?
We live in a world where we really have to purposefully “unplug” and plan our days accordingly if we want to find even a moment or two of silence. Unless we live far away from the human-driven noise pollution of the cities and suburbs, these moments of quiet can be hard to come by. And because we don’t experience them often, we sometimes forget what to do with silence when we finally find ourselves in the midst of it. Quiet can drive us crazy if we don’t see it coming. Some folks can’t stand to NOT have the TV or radio on because they need something to tell them that they are alive and not alone.
But if we can learn to nurture quiet in our lives and seek it out on a regular basis, we can allow ourselves to be embraced by it and all that it holds. And what does it hold? It holds a better realization of our most authentic selves. It holds the opportunity to listen to our own hearts beating and feel the breathing in and breathing out of our very beings. It holds awareness of God, of the One who was and is and always will be, the One who sees and knows us just as we are and welcomes and loves us anyway. It holds a message of meaning and purpose and call. It holds everything that matters, but only if we can quiet ourselves enough to listen.
Ask yourself in silence: What’s the role of quiet in my life? Do I run from it or embrace it?
We seem to live in a world of “never enough.” That’s certainly what television, movies and advertising tell us. No matter how much we have, a little (or a lot) more would be better. We are told over and over (whether we think we’re listening or not): “You will never be truly fulfilled and happy until you get that one job, that one car, that one house. Then you’ll be happy and have all you need.”
Except it’s all a lie created to make us want even more. There’s no way out of that cycle of greed and “not enough” if we stay inside it. Those who create it make sure of that. If we’re not careful, if we don’t learn to find our “enough” in something that lasts, there will always be something knocking on the door of our hearts saying, “more, more, better, better.”
But we do, in fact, have access to enough. Henri Nouwen wrote that he often prayed a prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “Solo Dios bastia.” (“God alone is enough.”) Praying these words slowly and out loud helped him enter into God’s presence, he wrote, “where there is peace and certainty that God is always with me and loves me.” (Nouwen, Discernment, p. 27). The whole text of Teresa’s prayer is:
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
Those who cling to God
will lack nothing.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
God alone is enough.
Or, if you like your poetry a little more modern, how about these words from contemporary worship songwriter Chris Tomlin?
All of you is more than enough for all of me.
For every thirst and every need.
You satisfy me with your love.
And all I have in you is more than enough.
This is the call and challenge of the Christian life, to find in God — Father, Son and Spirit — all that we need, our daily bread and cup of sustenance. For our thirst and hunger for the “more” of this world can only truly be filled by the One who transcends all time, the One who brought all into being and continues to move and work among us.
Ask yourself in silence: What “enough” do I need to let go of so I can cling more firmly to the “enough” that God offers freely and completely?
Yesterday I shared with my spiritual direction peer supervision group that the last month or so I have experienced a lack of energy to do the things I really want to do. Following a period of intense prayer and productivity (I just finished a nine-month Ignatian 19th annotation retreat and a graduate program in spiritual direction) I was experiencing difficulty and dryness in both prayer and writing.
At that point, one of my wise colleagues pointed out the need to “remain fallow” once in a while, to step back from even the best of things in order to replenish ourselves. When I looked up the definition of fallow, I was amazed at how well it matched my own situation:
Fallow: Plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.
The truth is, I all too often equate my spiritual health with what I am “doing.” How many blog posts? How many pages in my journal? How’s that book project coming along? The planning for next fall’s retreat? These are all important things that need to get done, but they need to flow from my “down time” with God. They are the result of silence and prayer, not the source.
What I’ve come to realize is that it’s okay to not be productive for a while (and that’s a tough one for me). It’s okay to simply sit “fallow” with God in prayer, without agenda or even words, knowing that God is plowing and harrowing me, leaving me unsown in order to restore my fruitfulness at the time only God controls. God’s work, God’s time.
Ask yourself in silence: Do I need to make some time to just “be” with God?
As a child, I watched my father plant his annual vegetable garden in our backyard in urban north St. Louis. It wasn’t a big garden (perhaps 15×30 feet), but he went about the whole thing methodically and with a sense of hope for what the garden would bring. For that’s what planting a garden is all about – it’s about hope and faith, about knowing that when we plant a seed or put a small plant in the ground it will eventually become so much more.
I’ve never been much of a gardener, although something within me desperately wants to be. But about a month ago I planted a tomato plant and some herbs (basil and oregano) in containers on our back deck, the place we most like to spend time during the summer. And as I planted and watered, I realized that what I was most looking forward to was the feast – I looked ahead to that day when I would turn the basil into pesto, make one of my favorite pasta dishes, and then cut open a beautiful ripe tomato and garnish it with some fresh oregano. I saw beyond the plants to a table surrounded by friends savoring the meal. That’s the beauty of growing your own food, even on such a small scale. What we plant, we get to enjoy and share.
And so it is with all good things we bring into our lives. We get to choose these things. We decide what goes in our favorite places and how much time we will give them. But it’s our responsibility to choose well, to select things that bring long-term joy, that do no harm, that create life and shared experiences with others. On numerous occasions in the Gospels, Jesus uses the metaphor of the seed to remind us of all that is good and all that comes from him. The kingdom of God — which lives in our hearts right now and extends into our eternal future — is a seed that must be planted and cared for. It is the word of God and the body of Christ in all its forms (scripture, family, community, Eucharist) that lives and grows around us, moving us always toward a feast that we cannot quite imagine and yet continue to hope and long for.
Ask yourself in silence: What am I planting in my life that will lead to a feast?
Last night, sitting in church for the Good Friday service, what kept running through my mind were those words we are asked to shout out, as if we, too, bear some responsibility for his death: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And I wondered what it must have felt like to hear your own death proclaimed, your fate sealed by a mob…
I suspected it was coming, I suppose, but I kept silently hoping for a reprieve, for them all to come to their senses and realize what they were doing to an innocent man. I kept hoping for the best that was in them to come out, for the spirit of God to come alive in them so they could see the truth before them. But I heard instead my death sentence, a proclamation that resonated within the people and echoed off the stone of the city.
I looked up at them as they cried out and wondered where the fear and hatred came from. What is it in me that threatened them so? These were my people — God’s chosen ones who had been promised a Messiah — and yet they were unwilling or unable to believe because I didn’t fit their expectations. When the truth of the promise stood before them, dripping with sweat and blood, they decided it was easier to fall back on what they knew for sure. Perhaps I cannot blame them for that, so I will not. Perhaps I was to them just one more failed and false prophet, threatening their relationship with a God who had seen them through some very dark and difficult times. Why rock the boat? Why believe in me?
But that word — crucify — is so vulgar and cold and harsh, so filled with a hatred that I could not imagine, so foreign from the idea of a powerfully loving God, so opposite of what I had been trying to teach them all. But even in that moment I knew that this evil and violent way would be the way for many, that the cry of “death” and “kill” in many different languages and cultures would echo down through history, depriving so many of simple joy and peace of mind and existence.
This day is so far removed and so estranged from the love that my Father has for all of these people. It is the absence of God in their hearts — even though God can never be truly absent — that fills them today, for the absence of God will always be filled by some other thing, a void that demands response, an itch that must be scratched.
O Jerusalem, I weep for you and your children.
Ask yourself in silence: What do you put in God’s place in your moments of confusion or weakness?