Thursday, February 18, 2010

Column: Measuring Contemplation by the Inch

The scarf in progress in the photo is a contemplative one - knit on the Spiritual Exercises for one of my fellow retreatants (one of the two other women making them with me). My Lenten intention is to take my version of Hemingway's advice and apply the seat of my pant to my zafu in my prayer space and sit still. As Patient Spiritual Director advised at my last visit, after reading a draft of this: physician heal thyself.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 18 February 2010.

Be still and know that I am God, supreme among the nations, supreme on the earth.
— Ps. 46:10

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong outfit,” says my Swedish neighbor as our paths cross walking in weather that has driven more sensitive, or perhaps more sensible, souls inside. I’ve got the right outfit for this bitter weather — my bright red coat and a hand-knit scarf that wraps several times round.

The scarf was a gift from a student who knit as she listened to recordings of my quantum mechanics lectures. Every time I take it out to wear, its length reminds me of how long Julia was willing to sit still and listen to what I had to say.

My own knitting project is similarly a measure of my time spent sitting and listening — my contemplative time. When I took the sweater out to work on in the midst of the storm-enforced stillness of last weekend I was struck by how little progress I’d made of late. Only an inch since Advent ended? I suddenly have a vision of some angelic bookkeeper measuring my contemplations by the inch and wince.

I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers: “First, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair” and suspect it is easily adapted to contemplatives as well: First, sit still.

It’s advice the early desert mystics heard and heeded. Fourth century Roman senator — and later anchorite — Arsenius prayed, “Lord, lead me to salvation.” God’s response? Fuge, tace, quies. Fly, be silent, rest in prayer. Arsenius abandoned his post tutoring the emperor’s sons and fled to Alexandria, where he immersed himself in silence and peace and prayer.

I hear God reminding me it’s time to move as well, not from Rome, or even from the bedlam that is part and parcel of parenting teen-aged boys, but from Ordinary time into Lent. The sweater, lying unheeded all these weeks in my knitting bag, is issuing a call to silence and stillness — tace, quies.

I tend to associate stillness with Advent, not Lent. While Advent’s stillness carries with it a sense of expectation and encourages a silence that lets the quiet voice of a newborn be heard, Lent often seems to bustle noisily, generating its own spiritual to-do list. We give up, take on, confess, convert. But do we sit still?

In reflecting on this verse in Psalm 46, St. Augustine offers a different perspective on our need for stillness, one that ground me more firmly in Lent’s call to conversion. He draws our attention to what we can notice when we sit still in God: “You are not God, but I am. I created you, and I recreate you; I formed you and I formed you anew.” Augustine’s reading echoes my favorite translation of this psalm, which renders this verse as “Let go and know that I am God, I loom over the nations, I loom upon earth.”

God is not far distant, but hovering close by us — calling us to let go, acknowledge our powerlessness before the God of the universe, and fall into His hands that He may recreate us. Salvation is immanent and imminent, if only I can sit still for it.


Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
— from The Habit of Perfection by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

2 comments:

  1. I just finished listening to a lecture on mysticism and forced my mouse to "remain [mostly] still" - then saw this. May you have both stillness and scarves this Lent.

    [oh, that color! It invites an embrace.]

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  2. thank you!

    I loved that color,too...and it took forever to get the knots out of that skein of ribbon yarn -- a contemplation in its own right!

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