Tag Archives: silence

Learning to Sit in a Room Alone

..all man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly
in a room alone.  Blaise Pascal

After living over sixty years in the same house, my ninety six year old mother recently moved. We had cajoled, pleaded, and argued with mom about a move for some time. The more we talked the more resistant she became. We brought in her pastor, a beloved nephew, her doctor, and her friends to convince her of the merits of assisted living. Once I tricked her into visiting a place “just to check it out, mom, see what it’s like.” She pronounced that the wallpaper was horrible and remained adamantly against moving anywhere beyond her own backyard.

Home health aides came five days a week. She received meals on wheels and wore a bracelet on her wrist with a button to connect her to emergency assistance. She spent most of her time alone in her room drinking her tea, keeping an eye on the neighbors, and watching the birds and squirrels through the long Iowa winter.

“I know what these places are like,” she told me. “They dope you up. I’ve spent a lot time in these homes.” She had – first, with my bedridden, great Aunt Ethel, then my grandfather, and finally my father. She chuckled telling the story of going to see Dad one time and finding a resident sitting next to him holding his hand. My father, even with Alzheimer’s, always cut a fine figure with the ladies. As mother walked up to bring him some ice cream, the woman looked at mom sternly and asked, “Well, who are you?!” “I am his wife,” mom told her.

The last time I tried to convince mom to move, she silenced me with the words, “Why should I leave here when I am so content? I have everything I need.”

Well, yes. Why should she leave? How rare to be content and feel you have everything you need. She lived through the Great Depression and missed out on many things most of us would call necessities. In her deprivation she had mastered the priceless art of being content with what she had.

As my siblings and I prayed and fretted, God intervened. Compression fractures in her back and being in so much pain she couldn’t leave her chair accomplished a move for mom. She was carried off to a place, as Jesus told Peter, “You do not wish to go.” (John 21: 18) A week later, settled in at the care center, mother said, “This is a good place. They are very good to me here. The food is good. It is wonderful they have places like this.”  When we asked her if she wanted us to get her a TV for her room, she declined saying, “Oh I watch TV out in the common area. I have everything I need here.”

Some days I look out on the world and see a bunch of self righteous, entitled brats, all pushing, shoving, and scheming to get what “what’s owed them.” Other days I see the fear and desperation of people with shallow roots, who must hold themselves up with external supports of power, influence, possessions, and success.  I recognize the brats and the shallow rooted, because it takes one to know one. Daily I face the temptation to shore myself up with the perishable things of this world. I know the thirsty grasp for water of those with shallow roots.

Without a vibrant interior life and a self deeply connected to Goodness in whatever name one gives it, we do not fare well in seasons of loss, storm, and disaster. Without the ability to be self reflective and to enjoy the company of one’s self, I am a prisoner chained to a cell built of my own insatiable neediness.

I heard a story recently about psychologist Carl Jung who once advised a very busy and successful man, who came to him for treatment, to spend time each evening alone. The man returned to the Dr Jung to report he felt no better. He had shut himself up in a room, read, and listened to music. Jung told him, no – no reading, no music. He was to do nothing, just be with himself. The man protested that he could not possibly do that. He didn’t like being with himself. Dr Jung responded, “Why this is the self you have been inflicting on others for fourteen hours a day. If you cannot stand to be with it, how can you expect others to?”

You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen. Simply wait. You need not even wait. Just learn to become quiet and still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.     Franz Kafka

When the time comes, when I am carried where I do wish to go, I want to be like mom.

So I practice. Each day I sit in my room, learning to become quiet and still and solitary. By golly it happens: the unmasked world rolls in ecstasy at my feet, whooping and hollering. I do not lie. I feel as indulged and pampered as a first class tourist on a cruise ship. I have everything I need. The world has no choice. It will scintillate, dance, and shimmy in delirious exaltation of its creator.

Go ahead. Take a seat and wait for the show to begin.

Be still and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.
I am exalted in the rooms of the old.
I am exalted in the cell of the prisoner.
I am exalted in the ruins of the city.
I am exalted in the penthouse and palace.
I am exalted in the peasant hut.
Everywhere and always
I am exalted in my kingdom
which you will find within you.
Be still
and know. Based on Ps 46:10

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Kids with Knives

Jesus pumpkin 3

Nine kids: nine pumpkins. Grandpa and Grandma, with a pot of taco meat and fixings. After the dumb game where I make them interview each other and then introduce each other to the group, we get to work.

Knives: Five boys around a table covered with newspaper. Two girls in the kitchen. Two more on the patio. Seeds. Lots of seeds and stringy pumpkin innards. Laughter.  scooping

“I am making a bat.”
“I’m gonna have two faces on mine.”  
“Hey, where’s the knife?”

Then – that studied silence of creativity and focused concentration. Grandpa helping with the finer points of carving. Grandma taking photos, hunting up a toothpick to save a broken piece, helping set up the food.

Through it all – a barking puppy named Elijah, confined to his kennel in the kitchen, itching for a wild rumpus. We let him out and some of the kids take him for a walk.

Supper: tacos, chips, salsa, apple slices in caramel dip. Mrs. Miller’s yummy bundt cake with black and orange sprinkles. No leftovers.

Lesson:  We take off our shoes and gather in the prayer room. The sophisticated high school juniors sit down with the middle schoolers. One or two stretch out on the floor. Others wrap up in a prayer shawl. We turn out the lights. We settle down. Elijah does not. He is back in the kennel and very much wants to be in on this lesson. The little prophet, still early in his ministry, has not yet heard “the still small voice.” aleah

What does Jesus mean when he tells us to deny ourselves and to die? We watch a Nooma video about how death is the engine for life. We think about how parts of ourselves can get in the way of our ability to love or to be compassionate. Like the part of ourselves that always has to be right, to look good, or to impress others. The video is pretty sophisticated for this age group. I wonder if it is making any sense. The kids are quiet and listening intently.  

Elijah keeps barking. I bring him in and try to calm him. He only gets worse. I take him back. Grandma, who is not all that keen on dogs, goes out to the kitchen, kneels down before his kennel, and entertains Elijah with a paper towel.

I ask the kids what desire in them might need to die, what desire is getting in the way of God’s work for them and through them. One by one we bring an unlit candle forward to where there is a small statue of Jesus carrying a cross. We light the candle and place it near Jesus as a symbol of what we want to let go of. While we are praying, we listen to Dona Nobis Pacem sung by Beth Nielsen Chapman. Some of us sing along. We are silent for a little longer, gazing at all the candles around Jesus. We say amen. One sixth grader, wrapped in a shawl stretched out close to the candles, announces loudly, “I just love that chant!”

We go outside, light our pumpkins, and carry them home into the dark.Bill smith helping

I say I am too old for this. My youth group days are long over. I say I cannot devote the time and energy these kids deserve. I say we should be having lock-ins, going on mission trips, meeting more frequently. What I do seems so small. I teach them how to be still, silent, and prayerful. And I love them, wholly, and with a kind of wild desire for their highest good in God now and always.

I go to bed deeply grateful for grace in the midst of chaos. I think about the kids in Chicago where knives are wielded for a completely different purpose. At church this Sunday we had celebrated Children’s Sabbath. Some of these youth shared information with the congregation about the horrible neglect and suffering of many children in our country. The kids I work with are deeply loved and cared for by large extended families and a whole church pretty much totally gaga about their every move. My heart aches, thinking of kids for whom a knife is only a weapon, for whom school is a crime scene, and a walk down the street an invitation for murder. What needs to die in us for our children to stop dying?

As we were cleaning up Grandpa told me, “It is a miracle no one got cut!” Hmm, I think, no. Grandpa and Grandma, the miracle is that you are here. 

Jesus pumpkin 4

Special thanks to Bill and Sharon Smith, Eleanor Miller, Jean Schultz, Dave Strobel, “the pumpkin man,” everyone at Crestview UMC, and all of you who try to be present to children wherever they are.

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Invitation to Silence

Lake and leaves 

 Prayer of Thomas Merton

I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it
the word of your peace
and the word of your mercy
and the word of your gentleness to the world:
and that through me perhaps your word of peace
may make itself heard
where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.

 

 Tomorrow is Hermit Day, Sabbath – a day of solitude and silence. No phone, email, social networking, television, radio, or gadding about doing and consuming.

 A day of fasting and withdrawal from the addictive worship of the gods of productivity and commerce, the altars of words, the energy of anxiety, and the illusions of personal power.

Somebody has to do it.
You come too.

Perhaps you and the rest of us will hear something we have not been able to hear for a long time.