On Finding Stillness

I know…. I know. It’s been too long. I started a half a dozen updates since I began school but simply couldn’t bring myself to post them. Entering a doctoral program near the age of 40 has been one of the most vulnerable, humbling things I have ever done. The liminal space I had been suspended in for most of 2021 did not suddenly end with the beginning of school, as I had hoped. Rather, I went into that new space stripped bare, raw, and unarmored. I knew getting a Ph.D. would be challenging, but I didn’t realize that the many ways in which it would be so would have nothing to do with the actual work of learning. There’s simply so much conflict in the world right now, and it’s bleeding into every facet of life. Corporate life and academia seem to be suffering to an exceptional degree. It’s been eye opening and life-changing. 

But… I have learned so much. And the first year is done. 

So here we all are in 2022, trying to figure out wtf is going on in the world and what we’re supposed to do next. I feel as though I’m poised on the edge of my seat, waiting for the news to deliver the next unfathomable event. By now, most of you have probably seen the videos of WHOLE HOUSES disappearing into the sea along the coast of North Carolina. They just… floated away. Ukraine has allowed us to forget about Afghanistan. Racial violence has bled into something as mundane as grocery shopping. Our political system has all but collapsed in on itself. And… since I began writing this… an elementary school shooting took the lives of 19 students and two adults (I have many thoughts and feelings about this but will share them separately, if at all). 

It’s as though human civilization and mother earth are collectively shuttering down. I don’t think it’s an accident that all of this began with the quiet, slow sigh of Covid- one that, despite its many challenges and losses, allowed us to feel what it’s like to be truly present in our own lives. Do you remember those early months, when the sky was clearer than most of us had ever seen, and birdsong was abundant? It was as though the earth was unfurling. Now, it has snapped itself shut again. We’re hobbling back into life attempting to hold onto that precious sense of connectedness we had for a fleeting moment, bartering for hours and space and the right to choose how much of ourselves we hand over to the demands of our work culture. It’s hard to give too much when we suddenly understand how fragile all of this really is and how little any of it actually matters. 

I don’t know about you, but something was awakened within me over the last two years. Perhaps it was COVID. Perhaps it was my brother’s death. But something deep inside of me began to yearn for a silence that is seldom found in America. Everywhere I turn, there is noise. Even the church is its own cacophony of sound, arguing over rules and laws and theological posturings, drowning out the still, small voice of the Creator. 

I’ve spent a lot of time over this past year figuring out how to protect a space that allows me to connect to the Spirit and remain grounded. I’ve been trying to orient my desires in light of what our culture tells us is obligatory. What I have found is that it is exceedingly difficult to step outside of the rush and roar of the culture we live in. I’ve touched on this before, but I think most of us carry a general sense of failure around a list of aspirational shoulds that we often perceive ourselves to fall short of. Exercise, prayer/meditation, home cooked meals, incorporating play into our lives and with our children, keeping our living spaces organized and clean. I’ve spent the last two years considering what it would be like to prioritize those elements, and let me just say… it is an absurdly daunting task. It isn’t that we are all failing. It is that our system is failing us. Those very human elements that are so crucial to human thriving are wholly antithetical to the way our system was formed. Instead, we prioritize productivity and success, monetary gain and power. 

What would it look like if we, as a society, prioritized the task of being human over the task of being productive? Where does that begin? If our schools don’t teach it, and society doesn’t teach it, when do we learn it? And how do we implement it when our work demands 40-50 (or more, for many) hours of our lives each week? 

For me, this has begun by stalwartly protecting a daily space for silence and contemplation, to be present with my own emotions, fears, and gratitude, and by leaving room for the voice of Elohim. This has been brutally difficult to do, especially during the demands of grad school of which there are seldom enough hours in the day to meet. I’ve had to combat real guilt around using my time for such touchy-feely activities; I too am deeply programmed to believe that all my hours should be productive or social. 

But I learned something this past January that was profoundly life changing. As Christians, we are often left with the impression that GOD is out there in the ethers of heaven, above us, and outside of us. This, despite the frequently emphasized point of the New Testament that the work of Christ was to allow for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of GOD residing within us… think about it. We are taught to pray by presenting a list of petitions. To speak, to make noise, to make ourselves known. I don’t think I was ever taught to sit in stillness and hear/trust the internal voice of the Holy Spirit. How would you know if it was GOD or just your own inclinations? 

Oddly, it was a week-long venture at the Hoffman Institute that yielded this lesson. I’m still learning it, haltingly. To get still and turn inward, where the Spirit resides. I intermittently attended an online Quaker church during COVID, drawn to the collective silence and openness to the Spirit. I think it was the beginning of this yearning. My attempts to return have left me dismayed. Like many others, I’ve struggled to make sense of what is happening in the church right now. And it seems that, from start to finish, we spend our time together making a whole lot of superfluous noise- singing, praying, preaching, and proselytizing. When and how do we hear the still, small voice of the Spirit?

I’ve been conflicted. I still long for the community and the strength found in collective worship. Yet I cannot seem to find a church that matches what was modeled by the early church of the New Testament- a place of collective learning, a place of humble confession, a place where members give of themselves to the surrounding community and one another. And most importantly, a place that embodies the silent contemplation that Christ modeled throughout his time on earth. 

I see whisperings of these same longings throughout the world. In fact, I recently stumbled across a congregation in Ireland experimenting with 20 minutes of collective silence as a part of their Sunday service. It is my hope that the church is moving toward a reformation, an awakening and a return to what once was. But I don’t know. Our church and society and politics have become so intermingled, so single-mindedly focused on output, production, wealth (hello prosperity gospel), and happiness that it seems impossible to shift one element without shifting the others. And the others seem solidly unmovable. 

Perhaps, though, this is exactly what the early church itself experienced. It was formed by uneducated, low-income individuals who defied the norms of religion, society, culture, and the government. It preached radical ideas that mainstream religious groups- the Sadducees and Pharisees- disagreed with. It welcomed everyone and sacrificed much (ultimately, their lives). It was a church that lived and breathed its beliefs. 

It sounds so much like what we need right now. Maybe it just starts individually.

I’ve encountered a bevy of faith-based resources in the past year to help direct this new path. I am sharing them here for those who are interested. What is clear to me now more than ever is that we- our country, our church, and our children- are in crisis… and something needs to change.  

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