Category Archives: Solitude

Made of Yearning and Rumors of God

In the past year I have lived deeply into two books. I returned over and over to taste and savor their wisdom, as though I were sucking on a bone, which had simmered all day long in a crock pot.

In my writers’ group, The Topeka Writer’s Workshop, I marvel at the swiftness of the group’s feedback, their pithy responses, useful suggestions, and on point critique.   My cohorts are all “real poets” in my mind and more knowledgeable about literature and the craft of writing than I am. At our workshops, they leave me in the dust, reading and rereading the rich words on the page.

I am  still at the third line rolling the author’s word choice or images in my mind, chewing at the wonder, and licking the juice off my fingers, when they are ready to move on to another poem or story. I feel the same way at public readings. As the audience softly murmurs admiration and claps politely, I want to holler and whoop, rise to my feet, pump the air and shout: “Wait a minute here! Please stop and let us all think about what you just read! This is magnificent.” And then turn about in a little dance.

Thus, you may understand how taking a year to read one or two book s of poetry suits me well. When I am not dawdling with poems, I devour mysteries, fiction, and spiritual/theological nonfiction. To be honest I am getting my fill of the spiritual/theological/what-should-we-do- about- the-church nonfiction, and plan to branch out into zombies and urban fantasy this year.

Here is one of the books of poetry I lived with last year: Mark S. Burrows’ translation of Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet . I will share the other book with you in a later post.

orthodox monk

As the seasons of last year passed,  I looked over the shoulder of a young monk composing his prayers to the  Dark Mystery who courted him in his small cell. I watched his struggle for words to name the Unnameable, and for color and line to write an icon that might lift a corner of the curtain that covered his shy Beloved.

I followed the poet/monk into the forest and onto the ever expanding heath, as he entered into the secret intimacy of the One who would not let him go. I sat up with him late at night and tasted that ache of loneliness that borders solitude and finally becomes the gate which springs wide open onto union. The key to the gate is losing that pesky self, which seeks always to assert its primacy to grasp and to possess. I watched the monk’s continual surrender to and reverence for the holy beauty of his own weakness and deep need, where, wonder of wonders, the vast and luminous Dark Mystery makes its home.

It is true that half of what Rilke writes I do not understand, but neither do I understand God. Burrows beautiful translation of Rilke’s poems opened me to the passion and nakedness of soul of the young monk, which Rilke creates for us. The monk, smitten with what he cannot fully contain in his prayers, or comprehend, enlarged my appreciation of the ultimate hidden poverty  of God in the human soul.  I am more comfortable now with my own inscrutable self. And  I am more trusting of the exquisite beauty and uniqueness of God’s presence in the lives of those I counsel.

Here are some lines from the poems in this book I take with me into the new year:

But through it all rumors of God wander
in your dark blood as if along dark alleys.       p.73

Carry that that line around in your pocket for a week or two. Or  write the ones below on a scrap of paper and tuck it under your pillow:

He teaches you to say:
You my deeper sense
trust that I won’t disappoint You;
there’s so much clamoring in my blood –
but I know I am made of yearning.       p 74

And this from the young monk’s letter to his superior:

I live a pious life. I don’t call upon any court,
and my prayer with which I sometimes exalt myself and which I sometimes speak and sometimes live
is: “Make me simple
that I might become ever more whole in You.”  p. 101

In this new year may you be met by the the Mystery of Love in the alleys of your own dark blood.

We all are made of yearning
and the Yearning Itself is Holiness
aching for wholeness in us all.

   Oh, Great One, make me simple, make me little, make me small!                 

                                                                                                                          Loretta +

carthusian nus

 

For any who would like to read the latest issue of Holy Ground, here it is :Autumn 2014 – Let Go and Keep at It  It is about the ongoing task of the spiritual life: surrender. What do you need to let go of and leave behind in the new year?

Your gifts to the Sanctuary Fund and subscriptions to Holy Ground keep us going and are deeply appreciated. Thank you!

A Prolonged Hesitation – Meeting God in the Spaces

Ireland Upland

Silence is God’s first language. – John of the Cross

Spaces captivate me. The spaces between things – pauses, silences, rests between notes, empty rooms, expanses of prairie, moors, and highlands.  A friend of mine from a large urban center once came to Kansas for a visit. I drove her out west on I70. The empty space terrified her. She much prefers the human made canyons of New York City, than places where the land itself dominates the environment and asserts its untamed, mysterious vitality.

In my work as a listener to the stories of others, I find the spaces between the words, the sudden silences, or the time a person takes for thinking to be where the treasures lie, where holiness abides.

flintyhills3

I recently found a friend in the poet, Rilke. I drove south through the stunning space of the Flint Hills to Wichita to The Magnificat Center. This haven of hospitality and spiritual nurture hosted a retreat led by Mark Burrows, scholar of medieval Christianity. Mark had recently translated some of German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s early poems.  Prayers of a Young Poet, Paraclete Press.

For an evening and a day Professor Burrows opened up Rilke’s poems like small packets of compressed holiness. Once set free by Burrows’ translation and our imagination, the poems awakened us to the immense and voluminous God this young poet had discovered.  In the spring of 1899 God had wooed Rilke during the Russian Orthodox holy week services at Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition.  By the end of our brief time together I felt the room we gathered in enveloped by presence and I, too, felt holiness pulsing in me.

The resonance of Rilke’s images and Mark Burrow’s masterful interpretation slowed me down, and ushered me into in the mystery of Rilke’s God. I was taken out beyond myself and the horrible cold I had brought with me to a more spacious place. The image Rilke used to express his desire to touch into God’s immensity was heath, the open, treeless landscape of moor and bog.

Whatever you yearn for, my soul, say it
Be heath, be heath, be wide.
. . . .
Be heath, be heath, be heath

Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark Burrows, p 30.

Heath view

What is it in us that allows God to meet us with fullness, depth, and beauty? The potential is always present. Love or loss of love may do this, preaching may do this, sacraments, art, music, nature, beauty, may do this. Yet we must offer the space, the openness, the inner heath or expanse of Kansas Flint Hills to become the altar for this dancing God.

As the psalmists, prophets and Jesus knew, poetry may offer such an altar for the sacrament of presence.  Paul Valéry defined a poem as “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.” That is also not a bad definition for a parable. Parable and poem both dis-orient, surprise, stop us in our tracks, and expand our awareness beyond our previously known world.

Poetry invites, even demands that we hesitate, off balance, scratching our heads, to teeter between sound and sense. Most things which reveal Transcendence (that which is beyond our selves) require us to enter the unfamiliar and wait on the edge of not knowing, without having to rush in and fill the moment with a refutation, argument, praise, or anything to end the awkward, uncomfortable “dead” space. It seems to me that good art makes us hesitate and allows what we may perceive as dead to rise up before us. Surely good preaching, celebrating sacraments, and prayer ought to do the same.

Moor
Yet hesitation is seen as a flaw, a lack of confidence, or making someone have to wait. Thomas Merton wrote that we live in a time of no room, in which we are “obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within [us] by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, acceleration.” Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours, ed. Kathleen Deignan, p 32 

We live in a time of no room with no space for a soul’s edges to roll out, unconfined by agenda. Hemmed in by a culture which has convinced itself that time is a commodity, of which there is great scarcity, our souls become cramped, stunted, and deformed by the crushing weight of  having to produce and fill every moment with sound and human activity.

communion cup

Time is the sacred vessel of encounter with divine presence.  Where else do we think it is going to happen, if not here, now in this moment? We put little, if any, space between and within the words we speak to one another. We have little available “random access memory” in our minds.  Words pile upon words. Life is reduced to thirty second sound and image bites. Minds are crammed and obese with knowing, calendars booked solid, days filled with activity, and hearts full of oneself.

Who among us will be bold to hesitate, to linger in the land of uncertainty on the shore of wisdom?   Who will offer shelter for silence to collect itself, curl up and hum to itself in the sun? Who will be heath?

________________________

Please note Praying Life Readers: I will be leading a retreat at the Magnificat Center in Wichita, Kansas on March 22-23, 2013.  For more information and to register: Retreat led by Loretta F Ross  It would be great to see you there!

Exploring Solitude: Meeting the Crucified One

God is simplicity and one-foldedness,
inaccessible height and fathomless depth,
incomprehensible breadth and eternal length,
 a dim silence and a wild desert.

So wrote John of Ruysbroeck in the 14th century.

God is also a man, whose name is Jesus,

born in a middle eastern city,

of a woman named Mary.

Firmly anchored in time and space,

he walked the paths of Nazareth,

ate,  and laughed,  and loved.

God is also this same man,

now beaten,  bleeding,  and dying,

executed on a cross.

For in Jesus

the Inaccessible Height and Fathomless Depth

had inserted

itself into

the messy specificity and limitation

of humanity,

and consented

to occupy

suffering,

injustice,

cruelty,

fear,

defeat,

and death.

So now,  all that suffers,  loses,  messes up,  and bleeds finds welcome in that dim silence and wild desert of the cross.  All that is lost or broken is gathered and folded into the height and depth and breadth and length of God. Every precious particle of God’s making  is held with infinite tenderness in the simplicity of love.

There are moments,  days,  even years for some,  where the work of solitude involves suffering.  Alone with God,  we are presented with painful truths. We are refined and purified.  We gradually learn to be present to God,  not on our terms,  but on God’s terms in the context of our own specificity.

This is the work of letting go and letting be. This is the journey of ever deepening faith and radical trust. This is the door that sets us loose to roam forever free.

During the observance of Holy Week,  the specificity of God made known in Jesus,  enters into the lonely anguish of surrender to the terms of his Father.  The one who has been surrounded by crowds and encircled by his chosen disciples,  makes the solitary journey into death to return to the heart of all being.

We find an account of this journey in the gospel of Mark.  Mark’s gospel is characterized by a simple,  direct,  unpretentious style.  The gospel has an urgency about it.  Mark’s  frequent use of the dramatic present tense contributes to the immediacy.  The emphasis is on the action – the deeds and words of Jesus – as he confronts and responds to the religious establishment,  the disciples,  and the crowds.  This action moves compellingly to the crucifixion.  The story unfolds in a hurry,  as though the very presence of Jesus has set in motion forces which lead inevitably to the cross.

Then at the cross,  in striking contrast to the preceding scenes,  Jesus becomes the receiver of the action in total surrender.  The syntax changes from active voice to passive voice,  as the Greek word,  paradidomai,  appears more and more frequently.  Paradidomai means handed over,  or to give into the hands of another,  to be given up to custody,  to be condemned,  to deliver up treacherously by betrayal.  This is the same word the gospels,  as well as St. Paul, use repeatedly to describe the crucifixion.

As the resurrected Jesus tells Peter on the lake shore,  there comes a time when we will be carried where we do not wish to go. (John 21: 18)  Then we find ourselves being handed over to our life circumstances,  the limits,  sins, injustices,  and frailties of human existence.

At the cross in Jesus the Limitless,  Inaccessible,  Unfathomable God makes things very plain, very simple:

Watch me. Trust me. Do it like this. All is forgiven. Surrender. Allow yourself to be carried into darkness. There is a place beyond your knowing or naming, where I am and you are. Follow me.

All transformation,  all redemption require moments such as these:

the passivity of the seed buried in the earth,

the passion of love poured out to the last dregs for the beloved,

the prostration of oneself in the dim silence and wild desert,

where all things are born anew.

The moral revival that certain people wish to impose will be much worse than the condition it is meant to cure.  If our present suffering ever leads to revival, this will not be brought about through slogans, but in silence and moral loneliness, through pain, misery and terror, in the profoundest depths of each person’s  spirit.      Simone Weil

 

Solitude Practice:

  • What do you need to surrender, let go of, or let be this week?
  • Not all, but much of our suffering may be tied to our defiant resistance to letting go and refusal to accept the suffering of self denial. Do you agree with Simone Weil that broad social change could be gained, not by imposition of morality, but through the struggle in the depths of individual souls?
  • What is it like for you to shift from being the prime mover and actor in your life story, to becoming the receiver of the action of others? How might God be handing you over this Holy Week?
  • Is there a relationship between your consent to being carried where you do not wish to go and experiences of healing and redemption in your life?

Next post in this series –  Exploring Solitude:  Leaving solitude, gone to Galilee.

______________________________________

 News for Praying Life Readers!

I am leading a workshop in April here in Topeka, KS. Hope to see some of you there!

Look and See: Nurturing a Shining, Festive Life of Prayer

Saturday, April 21, 2012
8:30-12:00
$20.00
First Congregational Church
1701 SW Collins, Topeka, KS  

Please register early to assure a place by calling or emailing First Congregational UCC. 785-233-1786; info@embracethequestions.com

 

Exploring Solitude: Learning to Be

So What Do You Do Out There All Day Alone?

 “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,
with all your strength, and with all your mind . . .” Luke 10: 27(CEV)

“Why not? I thought this is what it is all about. I have this list. I told some of the people I would. You are not making any sense!”

I was on my second circuit around the lake arguing with God. This was the first day of an extended period of solitude at the hermitage and things had started off with a big fight.

I had made arrangements for my family, shared my plans with friends and clients, packed my provisions, gathered up my good intentions, and stepped into solitude with considerable self importance.

God went right to work on me. On the first day I ran into a wall. That was why I had thrown my journal on the floor and stomped off to the pasture. That was why I was walking around the lake pleading and arguing with the Holy One.

The word of the Lord that had come unto me was this:

Thou shalt not pray for other people or projects or events while here. Thou shalt not worry and fret about them or their futures. Thou shalt not dwell on the past.

 

Thou shalt pray on my terms.  Any intercession will be at my invitation,  not your over-functioning,  good intended, works righteous,  anxiety ridden,  guilty, controlling ego.

 

Thou shalt partner with me in bringing in my kingdom not by being available to the world, but by being available to me. Thou shalt get the first commandment well established in thy heart before thou shalt be ready for the second.

So it had come to this. My will versus God’s will.

I had planned to pray for others and for the needs of the world, while I was at the hermitage. God’s word to me shook my very foundations. Huh? What am I going to do out here then? This is a question people often ask me when I tell them I take a day a week for solitude.

It has taken me years to untangle myself from relationships and assuming too much responsibility for others’ well being. The notion that just being with God without doing anything in particular is foreign to many. It may take us a while to learn how to simply be present to God and enjoy our relationship with the Source of All Being.

We learn to detach ourselves from the things of creation in order to more fully attach ourselves to the Creator, in whom we rediscover the creation. In this new context my relationship to the world is transformed. Where my attachment to the creation was enmeshed, codependent, grasping, urgent, and possessive, it becomes freer, less sticky, as I allow others to be as they are. No longer do I demand things of people or of the world. No longer do I attempt to control or manipulate them, because my deepest needs are being met my God.

So what does one “do out there all day long?” All kinds of things: read, listen, watch, pray, walk, rest, create. . . .as one slowly is weaned from “doing” itself. One gives up the addiction to producing, efficiency, and ego enhancing, controlling behaviors in favor of the freedom of being, to joining with the One who gave the divine name to Moses as the holiest of names: I am. One discovers the gratitude and joy in sheer being. In this shift of perspective the things of creation are no longer “objects” for me to manipulate, persuade, desire, or possess, but holy beings themselves, each shimmering in their own goodness and beauty.

How this transformation occurs, I believe, is a process over a life time. It is different for each person, according to the work of the Holy Spirit. You may be called to suffer, to face hidden truths about yourself, to encounter evil, to repent, to grieve, and to experience ecstasy and bliss. You may also have periods of very ordinary, grounded experience with little drama or fireworks.

The common thread through the variety and intensity of experience and activity that may occur in solitude is surrender of the self, a kind of dying and letting go of whatever you may be hanging onto in place of God, who wants no less than all of you.

Whether you argue or whine, pout or throw your journal across the room, the task, over and over, is to forsake all other lovers and lay down your life before the One Shining, Sweet, and Unfathomable Power without whom you are nothing.

God has no need of our works.

God has need of our love.  

Therese of Liseaux

 

 

Solitude Practice:

  • How does the need to produce and “do” express itself in you? Through overworking, anxiety, fear, trying to control others?
  • Recall a time when you were able to just be with God. Where were you, what enabled that kind of awareness and presence? How did such a time affect your subsequent presence to your work and other people?
  • When they were little, my children used to tell me at times: “Mom, you need to go out to the cabin.” What helps you become aware of your need for solitude?

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Meeting the Crucified One

Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real

Here is what I want you to do:
find a quiet secluded place so you won’t be tempted
to role play before God.

Just be there
as simply and honestly as you can manage.

The focus will shift from you
to God,
and you will begin to sense his grace.
                                                 Matthew 6:6 MSG

Nobody is watching. Go ahead. Be yourself. Relax. You walked off the stage of your life performance and the audience has all gone home. Feel the weight of that armor, the heavy guard you wear night and day about your shoulders and neck? You won’t need it now. Lay it down.

Oh. Wait a minute. It appears that not all of that audience has gone home. A few hitched a ride into the hermitage in your mind. Take that broom in the corner and chase them out. As long as you do not invite them to sit down, and then start feeding them milk and cookies they will leave. Their harping and commenting will begin to sound sillier and sillier to you in the context of your wilderness.
Go ahead. You can’t hurt the furniture here. Put your feet up and settle into that delicious and utterly joyful place of being yourself, your true self.

A wonderfully freeing aspect of solitude is that nobody cares what you look like. Nobody is there to comment upon, critique, approve, or disapprove of your actions, attitudes, words, mannerisms, personality preferences, and quirks. No one has expectations of you or needs they want you to meet. No one is going to call or drop by unannounced.

Go ahead. Remove that hot stuffy mask.

We have a public face we present to the world. In some cases it is brittle, artificial, and controlled. We put on the mask of a happy person, a competent person, a funny person. But a mask is a limited snap shot of the person we really are, which may include being happy, competent, and funny, but who we really are also has depth, texture, responsiveness, and spontaneity, which masks cannot communicate.

When the face we present to the world is the same nuanced face within us, people call us authentic and real. What we show on the outside has integrity with what is in the inside. The phoniness, pretension, and the effort of maintaining a façade are gone.

I loved taking people out to the hermitage. I would show them around the grounds and cabin, give them some orientation, and, leaving them alone for a few days, drive back to town. Then later, they arrived at my doorstep to drop off the trash, the empty water bottles, and return the key. When I opened door, I was amazed at the differences in the guests. The tension and stress were gone, and an ease and lightness filled their movements. And their faces, soft and smooth like a child’s, wore a refreshing, unguarded openness and simple presence to the moment.

After I spent a long period in solitude, a friend reported that I looked like the Velveteen Rabbit. “Worn and soft. Well loved, and real,” she said.
There is nothing like solitude for peeling off the layers of pretense and inviting a soul into deeper authenticity.

In the days of silence and company kept only with crows, meadowlarks, and the possum, who comes looking for food under the moon, one becomes aware of the vast amount of energy and time, which may be spent on building facades and presenting a particular face to the world. The hours of calculation and strategizing to strike the right note in a speech, the stress filled preparation and rehearsals to achieve a certain affect. We have all been encouraged to become marketers and publicists for our careers, our work places, and even our very lives.

Here relationships degenerate into a potential sale, or a possible connection to a step up the ladder. Social media invites us to fashion our lives on a global stage, where our preferences are watched and matched to product ads which pop up before us.

In contrast to the world of hype nothing is for sale in the wilderness. Further, in the wilderness your stuff and your “brand” start to become embarrassing — all that lipstick in your purse, the three jars of face cream, the books you lined up on the book shelf, those clothes you shopped for.

The wilderness around you takes on a depth, beauty, and fascination that cannot compare to that iPad you just had to have or that “outside the box, edgy high concept” project you have been working on. The world beyond your wilderness begins to  seem artificial, crass, and out of sync with a deeper more profound rhythm.

Oh course, it makes sense that the natural world would inspire you to drop off what is unnatural and false in yourself – those postures and attitudes you take; that pride that you use to hide your vulnerability and need.

Besides, you are not going to fool that turkey vulture soaring over the pasture. He may be pecking at your bones one day and won’t give a damn about what kind of car you drove. The lake, teeming with turtles, bullfrogs, fish, and dragonflies is unimpressed with your credentials.

Yet a few creatures may be curious about your presence. There is nothing you have they desire. All they can offer you is their own mysterious being.
The cows, snuffling at the window, wake you at dawn. A large black angus is peering into the cabin. Her face is framed by the window and the chintz curtains.
You go out barefoot in your pajamas to shoo the cows back into their pasture. There are several mamas with their young ones. You stand still gazing at each other. You watch their massive ribs expand as they breathe, their dark eyes, and pink tongues. They watch you, seeing how your feet are getting damp in the dew, considering your breath, your two legs, and your white silk pajamas.

Your being interpenetrates with their being. A conversation and exchange occurs beyond words. Atoms shift, energy moves, recedes, and gathers in the spreading light. Then they turn, their hooves sinking into the damp earth, swishing their tails, and go back through the broken fence.

Nobody in the wilderness cares what you did last week. Or what you didn’t do. One of the calves looks back at you, slowly chewing grass, hanging out both sides of his mouth.

You feel you need to get right down on your knees in your pajamas and repent of something you do not have the words for.

Oh my God, forgive me for not seeing,” you pray.

Solitude Practice

  • Do you find yourself caught up in playing a role or meeting others expectations and needs unnecessarily?
  • What is it you let go of, when you let down your guard?
  • How does being alone in nature help you be yourself?
  • In what way might the wilderness call you to repentance, or seeing in a new way?

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude:
So What Do You Do Out There All Day Long?

Exploring Solitude: Deadly Acedia, or Too Bored to Care

Sooner or later even the most devoted hermit or spiritual seeker will discover that this solitude and silence shtick does not seem to be all that it is cracked up to be.
Saintly souls and books far and wide, which recommend and extol solitude, may not include the whole truth of the experience. At some point the solitary pray-er is likely to ask this question:


What on earth do I think I am doing out here
in the middle 
of nowhere by myself!

Next the individual may pace back and forth in his holy abode, while the walls begin to close in. A suffocating boredom descends upon the person like a choking cloud. Her whole spiritual exploration takes on the character of a really bad afternoon spent as a child with an insufferably tedious old aunt. You sit fidgeting in the rocking chair with your feet wagging in the air looking at old Readers Digest magazines and listening to tiresome adults drone on and on about dead relatives.

Now your lovely hermitage grows dull and lifeless and smells faintly of mothballs and Vicks VapoRub. You are sure all your friends are going to wonderful places and having exciting experiences, while you are trapped at Great Aunt Hannah’s and doomed to a lackluster life of gradually increasing obscurity and dull mediocrity. Your back itches. Your tummy hurts. Your neck has a cramp in it. Your brother keeps sticking his tongue out at you. And you realize now that you actually hate him. Your mom ignores you, even when you fake a faint, slide off the rocker, and lie on the floor in a lump.

It can be like this, my friends, as some of you know. You pick up a Bible, read a verse, and it leaves a taste in your mouth like an open bottle of soda that has been in the fridge for a month. A kind of angsty horror rises up in your craw and an overpowering desire to get out of there floods your being.

If someone has not seriously questioned Love’s call, and has not encountered an all- encompassing indifference, even, perhaps at times, revulsion, toward the things of God, I would suggest they simply have not been at it very long. When we enter solitude, whether we find it in the bathroom or at the lovely cottage on the beach, we bring along our retreat provisions, books, journals, music, food, as well as our illusions, expectations, hopes and dreams of what this time will be like. Here we may be in for a rude confrontation of fantasy with Reality, or my will with the will of the One I am seeking.

When I hosted guests at The Sanctuary Foundation hermitage, I watched them haul bags of books and provisions up the slope to the cabin.

“I hope to plan my sermons for the next six months,” some would tell me brightly.

“I hope not.” I would say to myself.

We bring an agenda to our solitude: I want to deepen my awareness of God. I need help in discerning the next steps of my life. I am looking for peace and resolution of conflict.

We come hoping to accomplish some task, relieve pain, even to be entertained. Then lo and behold, we are met with dryness of spirit, dullness of mind and heart, a ho hum listlessness, and growing sense that nothing fun or good is going to happen to me here.

What we fail to see is that God comes to the hermitage as well us. And God has an agenda too. At some point God’s agenda may include a healthy dose of the demon of the noonday sun.

The name the early Christians gave for the dullness can settle over us is acedia.
The desert fathers and mothers called this oppressive state of spiritual apathy the demon of the noonday sun. Evagrius warned, AThis demon attacks the monk towards the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving or not moving at all, and the day has at least forty hours. Ardor and passion for the things of God are replaced by indifference and boredom. The miserable soul is sick both of God and self.  

Acedia, engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th c...

 

The purpose of this dry discontent is seen as part of the final purification of the will so that it may be merged without any reserve in God. Acedia abolishes spiritual gluttony as it strips us of our fascination with glamour, ease and sensory delights. Since God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit, a soul’s worship of God grows over time to be less founded in the satisfaction and entertainment of the senses and more in the dark knowing called faith. Through the harsh succor of the demon of acedia the soul is weaned from its attachment to sensory gratifications to a more mature love.
From my book: Letters from the Holy Ground, Seeing God Where You Are (Chapter 24)

As unpleasant as it is, I believe that acedia helps to rid us of the three tendencies of our age, which militate against contemplation, according to Ronald Rolheiser. Rolheiser identifies these tendencies as our narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness. The Shattered Lantern – Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God  (Chapter 2)

The excessive self preoccupation of narcissism makes everything we encounter about us and our needs. The cult of the individual deifies the personal and encourages focus on our private concerns and preferences.

“Pragmatism,” Rolheiser writes, “asserts that the truth of an idea lies in its practical efficacy. What that means is that what is true is what works.” We become obsessed with what Thomas Merton identified as the leading spiritual disease of our time: efficiency.

Our unbridled restlessness fuels our driven, compulsive, hyper lifestyles of multi-tasking and instant gratification.


So what’s a body to do? You have come all the way out here. Are you going to turn tale and sneak back home?

Try this: Sit there or go for a walk. Watch your discomfort. Settle into your body. Be curious about your indifference and learn from it. Breathe deeply, as the anxiety and pain of withdrawal from narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness grip your soul and cramp your body.

Surrender your agenda. Stop demanding things to be different. Cease resisting what is so, what is real for you.

Gradually a shift will occur.

Perhaps you notice the splotch of light on the wall across from Great Aunt Hannah’s china hutch. Where did the light come from? The late afternoon sun is stretching its long arms across the carpet and up the china hutch, where it touches a crystal goblet which has sat there for thirty years, and just now catches fire as your eyes lay upon it, dazzling you with brightness. You lean back in the rocker, feeling your back sink into the cushion, and watch the dust motes moving lazily above the carpet. You notice the pictures woven into the carpet – a man on a white horse, a house with a red roof, people in olden clothes walking down a lane.

The light splotch on the wall moves and dances. Why? You look at the flaming goblet across from the wall and back to the wall. Then you see through the window in the wall tree branches swaying, sweeping back and forth covering and uncovering the path of the sun.

For a moment you and the dancing splotch and the fiery goblet and the man on the horse and the tree branches swaying, and your great aunt are all laced together with tiny tendrils of light and you yourself catch fire. And you say to yourself, oh this is the way the world is. Everything is all hooked up and intertwined together.

The grown ups are still talking. You feel safe. You see your brother reading his comic book. A sudden rush of love and gratitude for him pours over you. You decide to take a nap. As you doze off, you think, I really like that mothbally VapoRub smell.

Come to me all you who are weak and heavy burdened.
And I will give you rest.     Matthew 11:28

 

Solitude Practice:

  • Have you been afflicted by the demon of the noonday sun? How did it manifest in your life. How did you respond?

  • Does it help to learn that the negative experience of indifference might be a necessary part of your deepening love for God?

  • In the essay above what do you think happened as the child character moves from fidgeting to discovering peace. Do you see anything here that might help you in your acedia attacks?

  • How do narcisscism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness hinder your contemplation?

  • Want to learn more about acedia? Here is a good article: Acedia, Bane of Solitaries  See also Katheleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real

Exploring Solitude: The Wild Things Within

He said to the disciples, “Stay here while I go and pray over there.” When he took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, he began to feel sad and anxious. Then he said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me.” Then he went a short distance farther and fell on his face and prayed . .              Matthew 26: 36- 38 (CEV)
 


The season of lent invites us into wilderness solitude to encounter the wild things and places within us.  In a world of extraversion, solitude allows space for introspection and encounters with untamed and little known parts of ourselves.

On her way out of church one Sunday morning, a member told me a story about her granddaughter, who had come with her that day. My custom is to invite the congregation to a period of silent prayer before I offer the pastoral prayer. At the conclusion of my prayer, five year old Lindy whispered to her grandma, “Loretta took so long before she started praying, that I had to start praying for people I didn’t even like.”

Yes. Silence does that to us, doesn’t it? It brings us to the end of the list of our own needs and concerns and opens out our prayerful awareness of people and inner realities, which we do not even like. Many avoid solitude for this reason. When I stop doing, accomplishing, distracting, and numbing myself with various opiates, I am left with my wounds, enemies, and alienation. The wilderness of the self opens before us and we reach for the phone, turn on the television, or pour ourselves a glass of wine. 

He came back to the disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you stay alert one hour with me? Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26: 40-41 (CEV)

The work of solitude includes the slow, patient task of befriending the darkness, of being present with compassion to my inner wildness, and of staying awake one hour with ourselves in our misery, as Jesus asked his disciples to do for him.

The followers of Jesus were unable to offer him such companionship. It is likewise very difficult for us to offer ourselves such gentle, present love. Yet if one can manage it, if only for a few minutes, that ache, that knife in the heart, the sick all encompassing grief  will begin to lessen just a bit, and a peace will slowly seep into the space of your silence.

This is where the deep work of contemplative transformation begins. The pleasant, consoling moments of contemplative prayer are important to our growth and infect us with the love of God. Sometimes they arrive unbidden, unexpected as sheer gifts. Other times we enter deeper communion with God through the ongoing practice of contemplation in some form: centering prayer, lectio divina, prayer of quiet, meditation.

Several years ago a friend confessed to me, “I am so over spiritual “disciplines.” She had reached a point beyond practicing prayer, because she wanted something from God, or because she ought to, or because it was interesting, or helpful to her daily life. Prayer for her was becoming much more demanding than a nice idea or exercise in personal improvement.

Thomas Merton wrote, “True prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes intolerable and the heart has turned to stone.” The deeper work begins when silence and solitude may be the last thing we want and the only thing we cannot live without. When just sitting still reveals to us a pervasive sadness, or the reality of a loss or truth we are denying or running from, silence is not some syrupy, cozy me-and-Jesus picnic. Silence is a summons to face into who I am and who God is becoming for me in a perilous confrontation with the truths of my life and who God will or will not be for me.

Again he came and found them sleeping.
Their eyes were heavy with sleep.
But he left them and again went
and prayed the same words for the third time.
Matthew 26: 43-44 (CEV)

Yet it is here – when facing fear, betrayal, or deep sorrow– that the encompassing and spreading love of God begins to open within us with its healing balm. Sometimes we need a companion to help us, as Jesus asked for from his friends in his hour of need. We may need to enter the silence in small doses at first. Tiny little sips of God may be all we can manage. Gradually that contact with God will begin to soothe our souls and bring a peace that will exceed our understanding.

It may not seem like much, this tiny bite of calm. You are still in your wilderness, up against a wall, facing an impasse, with little hope. Yet you keep going back for little sips of silence, as quiet fills you and you surrender to the moment.

My Forty Days in the Wilderness
One autumn over twenty years ago I spent forty days in the wilderness. I was sick and doctors were unable to diagnose or treat whatever was causing the unrelenting headaches and fatigue. Weary of the tests and drugs, I went off alone each day and several nights. I did not watch television, use the computer, talk on the phone, read mail or much of anything, except scripture. My only human interaction was with my immediate family.

Day after day and into the night I waited for that little sip of calm, that spark of life and hope. I learned to tend the spark, gather kindling, shavings, combustible scraps of living goodness: birdsong, the quail feeding along the lakeshore, the way a spider walked up the side of my tea cup. These and the stars over my head began to fuel the flame, which grew and illuminated the way for me.

Here is some of what happened as I tell it in my book, Letters from the Holy Ground:

I came to the wilderness in part because I heard Jesus crying and saying he was lonely for us.  I came out of a growing sense of God’s hunger and need for us and for one who would stay with him one hour.  I came to discover how it would be to delight in and enjoy God for God, and not for what God could do for me or the world.

And I found along with my brother, Simon Peter,  that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  And to pray with Christ is more difficult than praying to Christ.

Are there some among us who are willing to watch with Christ one hour? Are there some willing to turn in radical trust toward God and away from the forces within and without that seek to deny Christ?

Is there one willing to pay the cost of staying one hour, of tasting and knowing God’s suffering in her bones, of being bereft of all mortal assistance, of contending with a near constant onslaught of devils, of serving as a bridge between heaven and earth and thereby, bearing in his body, mind, and psyche on the one hand, the immaculate tenderness and the surging ferocity of Divine Love; and on the other hand, the immense ocean of mortal sorrow?

Like Peter, I couldn’t do it. For along with my good intentions I brought my weariness and poverty and dependence on God’s mercy.  And my eyes grew heavy and I slept.

But God slept too.  Christ rested too.  For Christ brought to the wilderness the same as I:  weariness and poverty and dependence on my mercy.  And so like two homeless children huddled in an alley, like two lovers entwined, we slept while the owl hooted and the bullfrogs boomed and the little grey mouse nibbled bread in the corner.

In the wilderness of solitude our suffering becomes bound up with, informed by, and transformed by the suffering of Jesus in his solitude.

By such fierce mercy and vulnerable love are we redeemed.

 

Solitude Practice:

  •  Have you had the experience of hurting too much to pray? Or have you avoided praying because you do not want to be still long enough to start feeling your pain?

  • What are some of the ways you distract yourself from entering silence and solitude?

  •  Have you found that place of peace in the midst of your chaos and suffering? How do you describe that experience? What would you tell someone who has never been there and is afraid to be alone in seeking it?

  •  Take some time today to be still and alone. Be with yourself with all the gentleness and love you can muster. Be with yourself as you would want to be with Jesus in his suffering. What do you notice or learn?

Next post in this series:
Exploring Solitude: Deadly Acedia, or Too Bored to Care 

I would love to hear about your experience of silence and facing the wild things within yourself, what you have learned, what helped ease your suffering and what did not. We offer our companionship to others as we tell our stories. You may comment below, on our Facebook Page, or email me at lross@fromholyground.org