Give: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the fourth and final post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Give

As I was reflecting on this final action of giving, I realized something I’d not noticed before.  In each of the three Gospel accounts where the Last Supper is described in very similar detail, (Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23) one thing is not made clear to me…did Jesus take the bread and wine and give it all to his disciples, or did he keep some bread and wine for himself, too?    It wouldn’t matter that much, of course, if these actions of his at the Last Supper weren’t, for me, so closely tied to his actions throughout his life.

Now I am left wondering here, how do I interpret this act of giving in the Last Supper?  Is it an act of total giving?  Or is it his final act of sharing (where he gives others nourishment, but also takes some nourishment for himself) before finally giving it all on the Cross?

Here I have only questions.

Theologians everywhere are probably rolling their eyes because there is a common knowledge among them to which this housewife is not privy.  No matter.  In my readings right now, I do not know for sure.  Still, even in my not knowing, I find meaning in my closing this four-part blog series with more questions.  Doing so best illustrates, I think, a final and frustrating point for Christians everywhere regarding the life of Jesus and all his actions:  an invitation into God’s Mystery.  Because in our world of instant money, instant streaming and instant access, sitting with questions and allowing a mystery to unravel can leave one feeling highly unsatisfied and uncomfortable.  After all, this is America, for crying out loud!  We need answers!

My best example of the gift of asking questions and waiting for answers, though, is Jesus himself.  In my reading of the Gospels, Jesus asks far more questions than he answers;  and what answers he does give generally come in the form of parables or similes  (“The kingdom of heaven is like…”  Matthew 13:24, 31, 33, 44) which are, in their own special way an invitation into further Mystery.

Indeed, the more time I spend with Jesus in the Gospels, he is almost never about giving answers. He is instead always about drawing us deeper.

Deeper into ourselves.

Deeper into God.

Joining the part of ourselves that is spirit, to the part of God that is human.

For me, it is where “deep calls to deep.” (Psalm 42:7)

But, regardless of whether Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper were of total giving or of sharing (lest we forget that John skips over the details of the meal itself entirely and reminds us that Jesus’ final act was to kneel down and serve  [John 13:1-20]) what we can see in Jesus is that he does leave us with one final shocking example of just how far we have to go before we may fully understand what it means to give.  It was only days after sharing (or giving away?) bread and wine with the apostles in the Last Supper, that he showed us what giving of ourselves—fully– really looks like as he allowed his arms to be hammered open on the Cross.

And so it is these four actions in the Last Supper:  take, bless, break and give, that I try to be open to every time I celebrate the Eucharist.

Like life itself, it is a process.

Like life itself, I do not do it well most of the time.

But also, like life itself, thankfully, I have Jesus to lead me through it and draw me in to the Deep.

And on this final day in the week of Thanksgiving, one thing of which I am certain is this:  whether we are offering gratitude, sharing our lives with others, or giving ourselves up in an act of service or love to our fellow-man, our actions echo those of our Lord in his final hours.

And that is reason enough for us all to give thanks.

Break: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the third post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Break

As I was praying for insight regarding the meaning of “breaking” in my own life, two ideas came to me.  First came the memory of those moments when things just happen to us, and in those moments even time itself becomes broken, in a sense, from their experience.  There is only a “before” this event, and an “after” this event.  Those moments may include things like the loss of a loved one, the end of a friendship or relationship, or the relocating of our families.  But there are also times where we notice we need to “break open” in a sense to new thinking and new ways of seeing others and ourselves.  It is this latter type of “breaking” that I want to illustrate for you today,  because these moments are very often moments of “subtraction” and the “second half of life” experiences that I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

(Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, the story I’m sharing today was originally posted on my blog in November 2012 under the title “I Will Always Be a Rule Breaker,” but even now it best illustrates, I think, why we can find reason to give thanks for those moments where we find ourselves broken…and humbled…and perhaps in the truest sense of the word, “blessed.”)

Over the years, through a process of prayer and discernment I’ve become more aware of how I judge others.  Don’t let the word discernment intimidate you.  Discernment is really a fancy name for taking notice of our choices in life, and asking for (then interpreting and following) God’s advice.  In many cases, it’s where our gift of human reason gets sprinkled with some Divine Intervention.  Through this process we learn a lot (sometimes painfully) about others and ourselves.

One painful experience I had with this process took place a few years back.  I was waiting to pick my kids up at school and saw a young mom standing with a child on her hip, waiting for her other children to be dismissed from school.  On her shoulder, I noticed a tattoo of a giant feathered wing of some sort (I presumed part of an eagle) and some writing as well.  I couldn’t read the writing at all, but upon seeing this enormous (and, in my opinion– obnoxious– tattoo) I did a mental eye roll and turned away at the sight of it.

Ugh.  Tattoos!  I thought , Why do people think they need these??  And what kind of mother goes around with a giant one on her shoulder, like that?

It was that second sentence that, moments later, stung me the most.

As the woman moved closer to me, I could make out the words on the tattoo.  It turned out the wings were not those of an eagle, but of an angel.  And the letters spelled the name of her dead son.  I knew his name because it was unique, and I’d noted it as I’d read about him in the newspaper only a few weeks before.  The article had been about his battle with brain cancer, and their family’s struggles as they balanced jobs, three other children, and his illness.  It ended with his losing the battle before he’d celebrated his second birthday.

In that moment, my own thought came back at me with a stinging slap and I realized exactly “what kind of mother she was.” 

She was “the kind of mother” who had experienced depths of sorrow and grieving beyond anything I could even imagine.  She was “the kind of mother” who had seen her infant son’s face twist and wrench into pangs of terror and shrieks of agony beyond anything humanly imaginable.  She was the “kind of mother” who had to answer the difficult questions of “why” from her three other children, as they struggled with the loss of their brother,  when she herself couldn’t even really know.

And I wondered why I’d thought it logical and acceptable to cheapen and limit the depth of her motherhood all because of a tattoo.

In that moment of facing my horrible judgment of another, I realized I had a choice.  I could either dismiss and defend my thought by saying to myself something as ridiculous as, “Well, even so, I would never get my child’s name tattooed on my shoulder!”   (I mean, while that’s probably true because as a matter of preference I still don’t like tattoos–I also don’t like skinny jeans or crocheted toilet covers– that was hardly the point).   The point is that her tattoo, in memory and honor of her angelic son, was also a simple matter of her personal taste. 

The fact that I’d tried to judge her personal taste to be a reflection of her ability to parent, was my problem not hers.

I could only think of one thing to do.

I searched deep within my heart and asked, What would You have me do now?   And the answer came so swift and sure, I had no doubt:  pray.

So I did.

Every time I saw her.  (And, not by accident I’m sure, I saw her nearly every day).

Of course, I’d see her mostly at school pickup, but sometimes randomly around town, too.  And each and every time, no matter what kind of frenzied pace I was keeping in order to conquer my day’s activities, I would slow down, at least for a moment, and pray.  I prayed for her, for her children at home, for her spouse, for their health, and for their son in heaven.

I also prayed for me.  I prayed for forgiveness of my petty judgments (including those yet undetected), for the blessing of motherhood, for the gift of healthy children, and for the need to be reminded (often!) of the fact that despite our personal tastes, despite our harshest criticisms of others, the truth of the matter is
that most of the time we’re all just doing the best we know how with the cards we’ve been dealt.

As a result, I no longer worry about “breaking” the rule that says, “Do not judge.” (Mt 7:1)  In my fallen human state, I doubt I’m any more likely to follow that law to the letter than I am of driving the speed limit.  Instead, I do the only thing I know to do:  I observe my judgments as I become aware of them, and I ask in the depths of my heart, What would You have me do now?

And what I get in return is never the finger-wagging reprimand with a harsh command to stop judging, that I feel I deserve.  No.  Instead, I most often get the simple gift of seeing how my harshest, pettiest judgments can be turned into loving actions for others (and even myself).

And that is a “breaking” of a whole other sort.

It is judgment transformed.

Bless: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the second post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Bless

It has taken me every bit of my forty years of life to see that God sent Jesus—God became human! – because we just couldn’t see how to live.

Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it is in our very nature to want what we cannot have, and to try to find a shortcut to getting there.  The bible shares stories over many centuries of God warning us and telling us that there really are no shortcuts to the human experience; that shortcutting it would not get us what our truest selves really crave.  And so God lovingly provided us examples to follow of people who tried really hard to do as he said:  Abraham, Noah, Moses, David…the list is long.

God was very patient.

But to me it seems like we just couldn’t see what it was we were supposed to do.  And so, after years and years and years of saying in essence, “Don’t make me come down there!” our behavior gave God no other choice but to do just that.

And so Jesus came.

It seems clear to me that Jesus’ actions in the Last Supper (and later on the Cross) are a “show and tell” of sorts on how to “take,” (or accept) our lives and “bless” them.   The first definition of the word “bless” in most dictionaries is either “to hallow” or “to make holy.”  Jesus accepted his life, up to and including death on a cross.  That same act– though only recognizable to a few at the time– was also the best example of how to live a life of holiness.

For most of us, obviously, it’s not what we’d expect or choose.

But what does this look like for me?  I wondered.  How can I “make holy” my own life?  Well, certainly adding prayer to my life, and following (as best I can) the rules of my chosen religion are a good and healthy start.  But, for most of us, I think, those two things alone are just not enough to satisfy the deeper longing— The Holy Longing, as Ronald Rolheiser calls it—of our spiritual selves.  In spite of ourselves and every common-sense notion we’ve been taught about hard work equaling success, at some point most of us (particularly in mid-life) are faced with the reality that any “success” that we are going to experience has largely already been achieved.  It’s no surprise then, that at this point in our lives we are faced with a new choice.  And the choice, as I see it, is to either wish and hope for something or someone to “save” me while I wallow in misery about my failings and shortcomings, or to accept and pick up the Cross of my life and begin my own journey to Calvary, following the Way.

And, perhaps to no one’s surprise but mine, I found a simple set of directions for heading there nestled in the verses of Matthew 5:

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 Blessed are they who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the land.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me.   

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

From my vantage point now, forty years in, I see that this journey for my “second half of life,” as Richard Rohr calls it, is not one of addition but of subtraction.  Rohr calls it Falling Upward.  And what it has done for me is helped me realize that while I spent my earlier years striving to answer the world’s definition of success (Supermom, domestic diva, and volunteer extraordinaire); I have found freedom in this “second-half” of my life to let go a little.  Let go of expectations (my own and others’).  Let go of perfection.  Let go of the world’s view of everything.

And in that letting go, I have found a new sense of freedom.

I am free to not take myself so seriously.

Free to try.

Free to fail.

Free to define success for myself, through God’s eyes.

And while I would have never guessed in my twenties that the road to success and the road to Calvary are the same road, my spirit now sees the truth in it.  And with that realization I have come to understand and experience for myself why this particular teaching from Jesus in some bible translations does not call the people who follow them “blessed.”

Instead, it calls them “happy.”

Take: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

A few years ago, I was studying the history of the eucharist for a presentation I was going to give to my adult faith formation group.  As I prepared for my presentation, I was forever changed by the words of Tad Guzie in The Book of Sacramental Basics when he said:

“Most people, when they are asked what are the eucharistic  symbols, will answer ‘Bread and wine.’  (What answer did you just give?) That is the answer that medieval theology gave.  Bread and wine are the matter of the sacrament, the words of institution are the form.  But the original eucharistic symbols are actions, not things.  The original eucharistic symbols are breaking the bread and sharing the cup.” 

This got me thinking about the four actions of Jesus during the Last Supper when he took, blessed, broke, and gave bread and wine to the apostles.  (Matthew 26: 26)

Since eucharist is a word deriving from Greek that is generally translated as “thanksgiving,” and since here in America we will be celebrating a national day of Thanksgiving this week, I wanted to spend some time looking at how some of our most difficult moments can be celebrated, through Jesus’ example, as an offering of “thanksgiving.”

As we head into our Thanksgiving holiday, I will touch each day on one of these actions of Jesus, and what they might mean for us as we prepare ourselves to “give thanks.”

Take

I have read a few reflections by others on how we can interpret Jesus’ directive to his apostles when he said, “Take it;  this is my body” (Mark 14:22, NIV)  For instance, Henry Nouwen interprets “take ” as “choose”1 and Ronald Rolheiser and Joyce Rupp interpret “take” as “receive;”2 but,  to me, what Jesus is saying here is “accept it.”  And the “it” that we are to accept?  Well, I believe is whatever life we’ve been given.  For instance, in my life, when I follow Jesus’ directive to “take it” it means I am accepting that in this moment I am a white, middle-aged, middle class, female American wife, mother and housewife who also blogs and writes.  Some of these things could change.  Some of these things cannot.  But the only way to truly “give thanks” for the life I’ve been given, is to accept my life (in this moment and in all future moments) for what it is in each moment.

One of the best ways to do that is to follow God’s example through the life of Jesus and apply his experiences to my own.  As a result, through Jesus’ example, I know that the human journey is one that contains moments of deep love (John 13:1) , and great joy (Luke 2:10), where some of us will be fortunate to see –and even participate—in miracles (John 4:48).  (Try telling any mother that the experience of childbirth isn’t a miracle. I’ve given birth three times!)  The human experience is one in which I will also know wonder (Mark 9:15) , blessings (Mark 5:34) , and friendship beyond measure  (Mark 2:1-5).  Accepting the life I’ve been given, however, means I cannot deny—because Jesus certainly didn’t–that part of the human experience will also involve temptation (Matthew 4: 1-11), suffering (Matthew 26: 37-38) , agony (Luke 22:42-44) and death (Luke 23:46).  It will likely include experiencing what it means to be misunderstood and misjudged and unappreciated, too (Matthew 27:27-31), but it will also include resurrection (Luke 24:5-6).  From this vantage point– this “big picture” view–  it is easier to see that every part of our life, both the so-called “good” and the so-called “bad,” is God’s gift to us.

It is ALL gift, or, as Richard Rohr says, “Everything belongs.”

Accept it.

“Take it,” urges Jesus.

And give thanks.

1.  Life of the Beloved, by Henri J.M. Nouwen

2.  Our One Great Act of Fidelity, by Ronald Rolheiser and The Cup of our Life, by Joyce Rupp.

Knock and It Shall Be Opened

“…and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  (Matthew 7:8)

Unlike asking and seeking, which are easily done in our minds or our hearts with little consequence or true commitment, knocking is a physical action with consequences.  When we knock on a door, we are anticipating, first and foremost, that the door will be opened (but we also take the risk that it may not). Secondly, we may wonder who or what we will find behind the door, (though we also run the risk that it may just be an empty room).  Finally, we anticipate that when/if the door is opened, we will be required to take ownership for our actions (why were we knocking?) and maybe even state our purpose for doing so.  We may wonder what we will say.

My brother and I grew up in an era where school fundraisers were still expected to be sold through door-to-door sales, that is, literally knocking on our neighbors’ doors and stating our purpose for being there.  Neither my brother nor I were good salespeople.  Even before the door was opened, we realized we hated asking our neighbors (or sometimes total strangers) for anything.  Why would they want our candy bars?  we’d think.  Why should they support our school?  Before we even asked, we were always anticipating a “no” (but still hated hearing it).  At the same time, we were surprised (and maybe a little disappointed in ourselves at our lack of belief) when the answer was “yes, please.”  As we grew older, we had a greater awareness of how awkward it could be for others to be put in a position of having to tell us “no,” because we believed that even when their budgets or nutritional  limitations didn’t allow for such purchases, many still hated to tell a child seeking charity “no.”  My brother, being older, came into awareness of this fact sooner than I, and so he tailored his sales pitch to one that made it easier for our potential customers to say no.  His stellar line?  “You don’t want to buy any candy bars, do you?”  That way, saying “no” was more of a confirmation of the obvious, than a rejection of our inquiry (and perhaps, by extension, a rejection of our very selves).

With that experience in mind, I am convinced that through his final directive to “knock,” Jesus wants to make sure our spiritual journeys are ones of action and risk, not just contemplation.  Lest we forget, the Israelites were all too content to ask… and ask… and ask God to deliver them from their life of slavery, so much so that they nearly missed the opportunity (could not “see”) to escape when it was presented to them.  Even Moses, at that point seemed to be convinced that all they needed was a deeper faith in God, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today…the Lord will fight for you and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14:13-14)  But God makes clear what is needed at this point in their journey is not greater faith, but action.  God responds to Moses, a man of the deepest faith, “Why do you cry out to me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward.”  (Exodus 14:15)  I think it is easy to convince ourselves that since Jesus has won the battle over evil, that greater faith is all that is required of us.  For His part, though, our Triune God makes it clear to us, time and time again, that very often the only way that we can know the depth of our faith is through our actions.

The God of the Old Testament says, “Go forward.”

Jesus says, “Knock and it will be opened.”

And the Holy Spirit itself is God in motion.

One thing is clear to me in all of this:  that we are called not just to have faith, but also to act on our faith, even when– or perhaps especially when– we cannot know the outcome of our actions, or what remains hidden behind each and every door.  The only thing we can know for sure is the level of commitment we have to our relationship—both God’s and ours—when we dare to take action, even while questions remain.

For, like the wounds of Jesus for Thomas, who says, in essence “unless I touch and see his wounds I will not believe” (John 20: 25), we will likely never understand what it is we are meant to “ask” and “see” in our own spiritual experience unless we also move forward and knock…and feel our knuckles against the wood.

Seek and You Will Find

“…seek, and you will find…”  (Matthew 7:7)

Have you ever had an experience where you know you put something in a spot, but when you go to find it again, it’s not there?  You begin to search then, more frantically, checking other possible spots but as you come up empty time and time again, you continue back to the spot where you were sure it was in the first place, only to find it still not there.  It’s a frustrating experience to say the least.

Spiritual seeking can be this same way.  Once we have asked for God’s help in something, we begin to look for ways in which he is helping.  But, much like searching for a misplaced item, we become so busy looking for him to reveal himself to us in the ways that we expect we quickly forget that God has his own process for helping us, and that it may appear differently than we imagined.

When we do not see nor receive what we are expecting, it can be frustrating.  It takes patience and persistence to broaden our vision, to “open our eyes and see” (2 Kings 6:20).  Much like a misplaced item, spiritual seeking requires us to be willing to retrace our steps and try, try again.   Often, we must change our expectations and open ourselves to the possibility that what we are looking for may be revealed to us in a way very different from what we were expecting.

I find it interesting that Luke and Matthew tell almost identical word-for-word stories of Jesus’ “ask, seek, knock” instruction, but lead up to that sequence with different events.  Matthew opens in Chapter 7 with Jesus warning us of the danger of judging others.  In his version Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not see the log in your own?” (Matthew 7:3)  Luke on the other hand, starts his chapter with the apostles asking Jesus about proper prayer and Jesus teaches them not only how to pray, but also how we need to be persistent in our prayer (Luke 11:1-13).

So, whose version are we to believe?  Is the “ask, seek, knock” instruction meant to curb us from judgment or is it meant to strengthen our resolve?  The obvious answer, of course, is both!  Our ego can easily blind us from seeing things that are so clearly in front of us.  In my experience, it is always my ego that is the log in my eye.  There have been times where I have been so focused on how I would open arms in reconciling with another, that I fail to see that they, too, have open arms and are waiting for me to make the first move.  Or, I have at times become so focused on my charitable work for others, that I fail to see my own family suffering as a result of my charitable over commitments (at which point it is arguably no longer “charity” but a distraction from my primary ministry in life:  that of wife and mother).  The list goes on and on.

One thing is clear though, if we are seeking God to join us our lives in any way—large or small– we must be willing to look beyond our own ego for Him in places we did not expect and to not give up the search.  Because much like a lost possession, unless we do both, the only thing we can be sure of is that we will never find it.

Ask and It Will Be Given

It is easy for many of us to think that somehow Jesus is lying when he tells us that all we have to do is “ask and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7). How can this be true? we think.  I’ve asked for so many things over the years and they were not given.  Dreams I’ve wanted to come true.  Wishes and hopes and even prayers that never came to be.

Over the years, of course, I’ve come to realize that my requests going ungranted was not so much because God wasn’t willing to grant what I was asking, as much as it was that I wasn’t willing to change to make it so.

Now, when I find myself asking for the same things again and again in prayer, wondering and doubting what power God has over the universe or what love he has for me, I find myself asking other questions.  What is stopping you, God?  Why do you not answer me?  And eventually, I come to realize that, in many instances, my asking has gone unanswered only because God is holding true to his promise.   He is bound by his one and only kryptonite: my will.

It is enough to help me realize that in that moment, I am standing at the threshold of a new opportunity:  the opportunity to change.  And it is only then that I hear Jesus answering my questions with questions of his own, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41 )  and “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6).

Creating Silence and Solitude

Many of us, I think, understand and appreciate the idea of silence and solitude.  What we lack, really, is the understanding of how to create time for it in our day.

Personally, I am the kind of person who can think about silence and solitude all day long, but putting it into action is much more difficult  for me, because there’s always “something else” that seems like it needs to be done instead.

If, like me, you suffer from this desire to always be reaching for the next thing on your list, here are a few simple ways I’ve discovered I can “make room” for silence and solitude even on the busiest of days.     I will warn you right now it is far from perfect.  I have read many books and articles about setting aside a certain amount each day for prayer and meditation.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with that, I found that I needed to take baby steps to get me there.

I know for years I thought, “If only I could get away to a monastery and spend a long weekend, then I would surely make the time to pray!”   But the truth is, many of us have either missed our calling as monks or have (more likely) found our calling amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  If you are striving to be a monk then I suggest you join a monastery;  but the rest of us, I think, would find it much more beneficial to look for ways of bringing the “monastery” into our everyday lives.

As a busy wife and mother, this is a sampling of what I’ve found works for me:

  • Look for the moments when silence and solitude naturally occur:  Impossible!  You have no idea how busy I am!  You may think.  I won’t argue.  It’s true.  I do not know how busy you are, but… do you take a shower each day?  Do you spend time commuting around in your car or another form of transportation to get to work or run errands?  Are you ever waiting in a checkout line or waiting for an appointment?  Do you make the time to crawl into a bed each night for sleep?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, pay attention to what you do with that time.  Are you jamming with the radio, checking emails, calling friends, or playing online games on your mobile device?  Or… are you soaking in the silence?  Observing others around you (or saying a prayer for them)?  Observing your breathing, your mood, and your thoughts?  As you prepare for sleep, do you fall asleep to the TV, or do you take time to unwind and relax with no distractions?
  • Use your time differently.  Once you’ve made some observations about what you do with the times that you are alone and or it is naturally quiet, set your sights on using those times for the purpose of silence with God.  (You can even begin with just one of those times—the one that seems easiest for you—i.e.,  every time I’m alone in the car I will not turn on the radio.)   For me, I rarely have the radio on in the car, and I try to use any time I’m forced to wait (stop lights, checkout lines, waiting rooms) as God’s invitation to observe and pray for those around me or to mentally count my blessings.  I have found that shower time and bedtime are actually much more difficult times for me to embrace the moment, but perhaps you would find it easiest to start there.
  • Set your alarm ten to fifteen minutes earlier than usual.  I am a morning person by nature, so when I am the last one to wake up I tend to feel as though I’m already behind.  This is not a good way to start the day!  I’ve learned that during the week it is important to me that I am up before my kids whenever possible.  That means I set my alarm for 5:30 AM or sooner.   During that time I make myself a cup of hot tea and sit down to read the Bible, but for a moment (sometimes a few minutes, sometimes ten or twenty), I sit with the quiet.  I do not pray with my thoughts or words.  I just sit.  Yes, inevitably my mind tries to speed up, flood itself with thoughts, worries, concerns, and distractions, but I try to just observe them and let them float on out of my brain the same way they floated in.  I choose not to embrace them!  This is the moment of the day when I feel united with the psalmist to, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46:11)  It is an amazingly calm and refreshing way to start the day!

 

  • Schedule your day.  For years as a housewife, I didn’t think this was all that important.  There were things to get done and I had faith that I would get them done as I went about my day.  But, over the years I had the same complaint…there was never enough time for the same three things: exercise, fixing a healthy meal, and spending time with prayer.  I eventually realized that I made myself the victim of my schedule instead of the creator of it.  Many of us know the story in Genesis of how God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:2)…so why do we think we are so special that we need to keep doing and doing and doing with no rest or down time to care for ourselves at all?  Once I realized this, I made a commitment to change.  Now, I schedule my days in a simple notebook.  I pencil out the timeframes that are reasonable for certain chores and when my time is up, I am either done with the chore or (*gasp*) I make myself STOP!  Admittedly, this is not a perfect system, but if I at least stop long enough to reassess the rest of what I had written down for the day, I can make a more informed decision about whether it makes sense for me to continue past the allotted time and finish the task, or whether it is more important to move forward and reschedule the remainder of the task at hand for tomorrow.  (This works better than you might think!)
  • Hold your tongue.  I am a self-professed windbag, so this is a true struggle for me.  But, over the years I have come to realize that not every comment needs a reply from me, not every story that pops in my mind needs to be shared with the person next to me, not every anecdote, quip or silent moment needs to be filled with my chatter.  Silly as it sounds, this was a real shocker for me!  For years, I thought my chatter and input showed others that I was enthusiastic and interested in the conversation we were having.  And sometimes chatter does that.  But, you know what shows even greater interest?  Listening!  I realize that shouldn’t have been the shocker it was for me when I first started applying it, but it really was.  I thought for sure if I didn’t fill every silence with some sort of story or question or comment that the conversation would be full of awkward silences and dissolve.  What I found instead was that it gave others the opportunity to contribute more!  (Go figure.)  This also meant that I didn’t have to do all the work.  What a relief!  If, like me, quieting down is a struggle, try to let just one or two comments pass through your mind without passing out of your mouth.  This, I believe was probably one of my first real exercises in that wonderful fruit of the Spirit:  self-control.
  •  Finally, be patient with yourself!  Many of us do not live in a country or culture that embraces or even encourages silence.  It takes a certain self-awareness and discipline to bring silence and solitude to the forefront of your consciousness, so berating yourself or trying to hold yourself to some high standard of “perfecting” the silence and solitude in your life will probably only backfire.  Instead, have fun with it!  Consider it a challenge or a new adventure and you will find yourself much more likely to enjoy the many hidden moments of silence and solitude that await you.

This list is far from complete, so if you have other ideas or examples from your own experiences, I’d love to hear them!

A Lesson in Solitude

“Today I went into my laundry room, shut the door, filled three buckets of water, and lined them up against the door to keep it shut,” my friend said as soon as she picked up the phone, knowing it was me.  “What in the world happened?” I asked with some alarm.  “Oh, nothing really,” my friend replied, “it’s just that sometimes Mommy really needs a Time Out and there are never enough locks on the door.”

No doubt, few people can know the desperation and longing for solitude like mothers of young children. We go from being our own people, on our own schedules, doing our own thing and dreaming about the joys and beauty of motherhood, only to find that day after day, hour after hour, year after year without any time to ourselves, the reality of raising children can leave us feeling ragged, weary, and sometimes forgotten.  What we fail to realize is that very often, the first one who neglected to take care of us, was ourselves!

There are valuable lessons for everyone, though, found in the spirituality of motherhood.  For us onlookers, it is obvious that in order to be effective in what she does, the mother must always be sure to take some time away—in whatever form she can find it.  Jesus demonstrates this so well throughout his ministry.  In order to heal others he must separate himself from the crowds and pray.  Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew “in a boat to a deserted place by himself” after hearing of the murder of John the Baptist, but the crowds follow him and gather on the shore.  After taking his time away, he returns to shore and is able to perform a miracle—the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-23).  And Luke tells us after Jesus cleansed a leper “many crowds would gather” to hear him and be cured of their diseases, “but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5:16)

What is going on here?  We may wonder.  Why doesn’t he just heal them all at once?  While that is a question best answered by God in your own quiet time of solitude, I can share that, for me, it has become obvious that silence and solitude are the food and fuel for my soul.  The more I let my soul rest in silence “away from the crowds” with God, the more I am filled with patience and compassion for others.  For years, I was mistaken in my thinking that as a young mother my life of sacrifice and service to my children and family was, while a wonderful blessing, also my “cross to bear.”  I neglected to see that making time (because it is up to us to create the schedule, after all) to be alone in silence with God was not, in fact, my “cross to bear” but rather, the God-given “daily bread” of my human journey.  Many of us mistakenly view our service to others in this same way, in whatever way we serve.  We think the service itself is the “cross,” but I think that’s because we neglect to fuel up for the journey!  In its proper order, we soon come to realize that our service to others is not the cross we bear, but rather, the fruit we share that ripens through our time spent “laboring” in silence and solitude. What kind of labor is that?  You may wonder.  Sitting around and doing nothing?  I’d love to do that if I had the time!  (I invite you again to take that very question to God.  I would love to hear what you discover!)

Perhaps, like me, you have avoided silence and solitude for such a long time because somewhere in your depths you already know what you will discover.  It is the same thing that Jacob discovered when he was left alone and “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Gen 32:24)  But, there is hope for all of us in Jacob’s story, too.  For at the end of the struggle we realize it was never God’s demand for Jacob to hold on, but rather Jacob’s refusing to let go of God, that resulted in his being blessed. (Gen 32: 26-28)

A Lesson in Silence

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

Years ago, my husband and I read the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  We weren’t far into the book at all when we learned that while a kind or heartfelt word or sentence for me is the equivalent to a warm embrace, my husband would much prefer the physical embrace of a hug to loving words of affection.  What we learned from the book was that each of our primary “love languages” (the gestures and behaviors in which we best understand love) differed for each of us.  With that new awareness, we began to make an effort to “speak” each other’s primary love language more often.  While our marriage had been strong before, we found that understanding this about each other and making a few changes to the way in which we behaved towards each other took us to a deeper level of appreciating and understanding our marital connection.

That’s why, when I read the words of St. John of the Cross defining God’s “first language” as silence, I believed that if I wanted to get to experience God on an even deeper level, I needed to make some adjustments to my habits and behaviors.   I understood that making time for silence in my life  was the equivalent to making time for God.  As a result, over the past several weeks, I’ve changed my behavior in such a way that I’ve deliberately “penciled in” quiet time with God.   And by that, I mean I spend time in absolute silence.  It is time spent outside of my “normal” time with God (the times when I read Scripture and pray or meditate), so when I started I hardly knew what to expect.  It seemed silly to be nervous, but, at the same time, absolute silence is really not something many of us are used to.  What if I started hearing voices?  Or, even worse, what if I drove myself mad?

No doubt, silence can be uncomfortable.  Especially in comparison to the “normal” hustle and bustle of our daily lives.  Most of us hit the alarm clock in the morning, swing our legs out of bed and go, go, go all day long hopping from one task to another with hardly a breath in between.   In addition, electricity and technology make it all too convenient for us to spend any time in solitude (silence’s close friend).  As a result, when we do stumble into a moment without being “plugged in” to something outside ourselves, it is understandable why we may quickly grow uncomfortable, restless, and fidgety.  In addition, even if our body has built-in times of rest throughout our day, our minds usually still zip around checking off all the things we got done, the things we still need to do, and things that we plan to do “some day.”

When I embraced the idea that God’s primary language is silence, I realized that while I’d spent my life fully expecting (and at times, even demanding) that God come to me and speak my primary language of love (“Just give me a sign! Any sign!”), the thought had never occurred to me to make time to learn to “speak” His language.

I had doubts that I was even up for the task.

I quickly learned, however, that my “faith the size of a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20) was all I needed to bring.  That is why, with great confidence, I encourage and invite you to make time– even if only a little– to spend with God in His “first language.”  I have found silence with God to be not only a welcome–but also a very necessary– part of my daily life.  By implementing this practice into our daily lives, it is my prayer that we will grow to learn what Job has known from the beginning, “If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!”  (Job 13:5)