Monday, January 31, 2011

In search of the mute button

I started a last post in the book discussion that Robin and I have been having off and on since the summer. That post (like my prayer) is still in pieces, but I decided that posting this bit from the cutting room floor might help me see more clearly where the piece for Robin's blog is going, as well as the piece on distractions for my column in the Standard.

The photo is of a snowstorm on the Long Retreat; Braces Rock in the background.

On Friday it will have been two years since I finished the Spiritual Exercises. Blizzards came and went over the time I was on retreat at Gloucester, and the current run of snowy weather brings with it memories of the profound silence that enveloped those days.

When I came back from the 30-days, I found the relentless soundtrack of suburban Philly to be, well, relentless. I sought out pockets of silence where I could find them. The radio in my car remained resolutely off. Television had even less appeal than the radio. Everything was a bit too loud, a bit too bright and a bit too bristly. Urban Spiritual Director summed it up well, my skin felt as if it were on inside out.

The sense of being battered by the soundscape gradually faded, but the other night as I slid through the snow shrouded darkness to retrieve Barnacle Boy from the far side of the township, Elton John spilling from the speakers, it returned full force. I hit off on the radio, and drank of the bracing silence.

My prayer of late has felt tattered, like a flag snapping in the wind until its edges shred. My to-do list plays in my head like a top 100 countdown when I sit to pray, and I can't seem to find the mute button. In Into the Silent Land (the book that Robin and I have been discussing on our blogs over the last few months) Marty Laird suggests that distractions in prayer are an "education by ordeal," a metaphor I would definitely endorse at this point.

I can't control the weather — real or metaphorical, exterior or interior — but perhaps I can seek out more of those pockets of silence. To turn off what I can, and contemplate in stillness what I cannot. To become what Catherine deHueck Doherty called a poustinik (after a dweller in the poustinia, the desert): someone who walks in inner solitude, immersed in the silence of God.


  1. I have no idea if this fits for you, and I'm sorry to hear about the distress. But--likely since I recently acquired a set during a powerful visit to the local sangha--the image that came to mind when you mentioned the tattered, whipping flag is Tibetan prayer flags. Every time they flap in the wind is considered a prayer, and those that are hung outside do end up pretty tattered from it all. Seems sort of Ignatian, somehow.

  2. Silent and battered, yes.

  3. Rev Dr Laura - that's a good image - and perhaps a helpful one...

    Robin - I think I need to dig out the Donne poem that starts: Batter my heart....

  4. A big YES to this one--I so understand it. There's always so much background noise to the day. I breathe a big sigh of relief when my family all goes off to school or work--not because I don't want them around, but because I need respite from the noise. And then I don't turn on the TV or radio, but enjoy some very quiet time with only the hum of the refrigerator and the click of the furnace. Ahhhhhh...

  5. Michelle, this afternoon at the art program I met the young man who writes the blog Going Forth (in your sidebar). He called me "ma'am," so I guess I can refer to him as "young man"! It was very much fun!

  6. Robin, that is cool!

  7. Barb, I get the same sense of exquisite relief when the students head off to dinner and the science building quiets until I can hear the radiators clanging and lights buzzing....

  8. lately I have been picking up a drum while praying, not exactly creating a pocket of silence