Thursday, June 10, 2010

Venturing Into the Silent Land I

And the dialog begins. Robin of Metanoia and I are spending some time this summer having a blog dialog with each other about the book Into the Silent Land, by Martin Laird - an Augustinian friar.

Robin, a recent M.Div. who is on the path toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church, writes evocatively and beautifully, about prayer and silence, studies and family and heart-wrenching grief. About God present and God absent. Her eye for the world, as she captures it with both camera and words, catches reflections of God and holds them still enough for the rest of us to enter into them. I'm delighted and honored to have her as a guest here!

My first question to Robin was about what Laird calls the Second Doorway of the Present Moment - the spot where a sensitivity to the patterns that elicit the feelings which steal away attention begins to emerge. This the place where we recognize the stories we tell ourselves about people and events that can pull our minds in a thousand directions. Yet who we are, and so what we bring to God, is shaped by events.
Theophan is a 19th century Russian Orthodox saint and contemplative (who I wrote about in a column earlier this year). He holds that the use of a prayer word is not merely a refuge from distractions, but "will draw you together" (p. 65 if you are reading along!)— out of the stories. Who are we without our stories?

Meanwhile Robin wondered about what it might be like to be part of an Augustinian community. You can read my answer at Robin's blog.

Here is Robin's response to my first question:

It is an honor to visit Michelle's blog. Her exquisitely gentle writing is a grace-filled reflection of the contemplative life: attentiveness to the minutiae of daily experience, whether in the laundry or in the college chemistry classroom. That said, she has hardly made it easier to attend to my own life with her first challenging question: I might ask you about your sense of what it might mean emotionally and spiritually to let go of the narratives, of any need for the stories -- yet at the same time to let the prayer, as Theophan suggests, "draw you together" into a whole? Are we still ourselves without our stories?

My religious upbringing was a hodgepodge of other people's priorities and did not lend itself to a prayerful experience of God. I was a little girl in a small town Methodist church in which we made things -- plaster of Paris praying hands, for instance -- but I am not a successful craftsperson. Sunday School was a tortuous experience for me. I was a young teenager in a pre-Vatican II Catholic boarding school, fascinated but baffled by shiny rosaries and golden chalices and Latin ritual, and intrigued but confused by the blend of a Catholic convent commitment to a faith of mystery and a Protestant family indifferent to all matters religious. I was a high school student in yet another boarding school, that one founded by a famous evangelist in which religion was presented as a blend of German scholarship, New England preaching, and alignment with social justice. When my husband and I found our way into a Methodist church in our late twenties, it seemed that faith was about familiarity with the Bible and participation in the community, and that prayer was a matter of petition and intercession. And when I wandered down the road to the Presbyterians, I discovered much the same.

I suppose that it was inevitable that such a conglomeration would produce a woman initially more curious about all religious paths than wedded to a single one, and one who would eventually become intent upon engagement with the God behind (and over, and under, and around, and beside, and within) it all. The God of prepositional being! It was perhaps also inevitable that someone who learned to read, like Scout Finch, by osmosis, and who became a student of literature as a college English major and a wielder of words as an attorney, would be drawn to the narrative of faith: the sacred writings and interactions of all faiths, the history of Christianity, the stories of its proponents and purveyors and, woven through it all, the Biblical texts: as revelation, as history, as literature, and as the foundation of prayer.

A couple of months ago, in a class focused on the work of ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (formerly at Notre Dame University and now at Duke Divinity School, and most recently the author of the very readable autobiography Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir), my classmates and I debated his sense of the foundation of faith: narrative or church? I argued vociferously for narrative: without the story ~ no church. Many of my friends argued persuasively for church: without the tradition to canonize, transmit, and interpret it ~ no story. I don't think that we ever reached a conclusion as to what Hauerwas thinks, but the debate occasioned a recognition on my part of how attached to narrative I myself am.

No surprise, then, that I should also have become, over the past few years, glued to Ignatian spirituality as a venue for exploring and expressing faith. While Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises suggests a multitude of possibilities for prayer, imaginative prayer is a hallmark of his approach ~ prayer as a movement into the story of Scripture and into the story of one's life. Prayer as an experience of companionship with Jesus by imagining the texture of his life; by observing or participating in the events of his days by seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, tasting the meals. Prayer as an invitation to Jesus to enter into my own life, via an ongoing and endless conversation with him.

I knew that behind the prayer of imagination, of conversation, of petition and intercession, of ritual ~ behind the revelation of God in the stories of Scripture, of tradition, of nature ~ was the silence of the God who is I Am. Other than through a brief flirtation with centering prayer, however, that silence seemed neither accessible nor particularly appealing to me. I was all for narrative, all for words ~ and as, eventually, a Presbyterian, the Jesuit tradition of "contemplatives in action" spoke directly to me. Prayer grounded in the stories of Scripture that propels us outward; prayer that helps us get to know God through the words and actions of Jesus and encourages us into the world in service of others. I was well versed in prayer as listening, and I tried to spend more time listening for God than talking to God ~ but I was listening for words.

And then. And then my son died and I was enveloped in silence. Excruciating, all-enveloping, deafening silence. For many, many months, I experienced and described it as the absence of God, as complete abandonment by God. I didn't stop listening for God, but I heard nothing in response. Nothing that I, at least, could interpret as being from God. And how, I think now, could it have been otherwise? Not only because the experience of a mother's grief is akin to the experience of a seabird drenched and weighted down by impenetrably viscous oil, but because I myself was so attuned to word and story, and those no longer provided adequate illumination.

I see things a little differently these days, as the second summer without my child begins. I see a God who is profoundly silent in the face of agonizing catastrophe, but a God who continues to labor ~ perhaps outside, or alongside, the stories we think we know. One of the ways God works is to make God's own silence more available, to enfold us in something greater than the stories we hear and tell and though which we have tried to understand ourselves.

Yesterday afternoon, as a friend and I walked to her car after an overnight stay at a workshop for spiritual directors, she mentioned having gotten up early to go for a walk, and asked me how I sleep. "I don't so much, not anymore," I said. "I don't usually sleep for more than a couple of consecutive hours at a time since Josh died." We continued to walk, in silence. Later, I told her what a gift it had been to me, that she had heard what I had said without any compulsion to provide words of support or to suggest solutions ~ she simply offered silent companionship. Perhaps that was the silence of God at work.

This book, Into the Silent Land, came into my hands via another spiritual friend, a Jesuit and former spiritual director of mine, who said that he had been told that it is the best book on prayer that there is. I tend to listen carefully to his eighty years of experience, and so I read the book, and told him that I wasn't at all sure that it's the best book, but that the last sections are, really, quite wonderful. I am so looking forward to unpacking the whole work more carefully and with Michelle this summer.

The photo is of dawn at Eastern Point Retreat House.


  1. Thank you, Michelle and Robin.

    You are richly blessing your readers.

  2. Marvellous to hear of someone else having encountered Martin Laird's beautiful book. It truly has blessed me, though I think I'd be hard put to it to call it "the best" - or any other of my beloved books on prayer either, come to that. Thank you both for this!

  3. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Hope you don't mind but I've just linked yours and Robin's discussions over at my own blog.

    If you don't mind me asking, which parish do you attend? I feel like you've told me this before but if so I forget...just wondering if I know your priests :) Anyway, great job with the commentaries. I've just finished reading it for the second time. Really wonderful book!

  4. Thanks for the link, Michael!