Thursday, January 13, 2011

Venturing Into the Silent Land: Robin on Meeting Sadness with Silence

Robin (of Metanoia) and I began this project in the hot days of summer, now I look out at my window at branches coated in snow and wonder whether I can endure a walk with a windchill in the teens. Robin's eloquent post below begins to tease out what I think is one of the key points of Laird's book, that contemplation does not leave us unchanged at our deepest levels. As C. S. Lewis said, "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God — it changes me."

Links to the complete conversation are under the "Book Discussion" tab at the top!

Now, over to Robin:

Last summer Michelle and I embarked upon an ambitious plan for guest-blogging discussions of the book Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, O.S.A. If you take a look at the links in the tab above, you'll note that we ran out of steam and became distracted (irony of ironies) by other things. But I have at least two posts left in me, and I'm offering the first of them today.

Chapter Six of Into the Silent Land is entitled "From Victim to Witness: Practicing with Affliction" and is the chapter in the book most securely nestled into my heart. It presents three scenarios in which individuals wrestle with prayer in the context of great suffering caused by different factors: fear and anxiety in human interaction, insurmountable physical pain, and the hold of addiction.

Al of them -- fear, physical pain, and addiction -- have been dropped on my doorstep by grief.

"If you want to make fear grow," Laird says, "run from it." Alternatively, you might engage in a practice of watchfulness, a combination of looking directly at the source of your anxiety and simultaneously letting it go. Contemplation has been described as a "long, loving look at the real" by Walter Burghardt, S.J., and it seems that Laird is describing much the same practice. Rest, observe, absorb ~ let go of the natural impulse to react spontaneously and impulsively, even in an interior sense.

With respect to physical pain, he urges us to be still before its predations, to become a witness, rather than resisting it or seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome. I was profoundly surprised, for at least the first year, by how physically painful grief is: by the pounding head, the ache in the small of my back, the burning joints, the sleepless nights. But as I began to observe it, it began to make some sense. Each aspect of physical pain was in some way connected to the loss, and became a venue of recognition: Yes, there is it.

Unlike many grieving individuals, I have not responded to my sadness with alcohol or drugs. (Although there has been some joking around among my online group of bereaved mothers with respect to margaritas and Southern Comfort!) Food continues to be my issue and the sokution would appear to be the same: Let go of the stories that support the compulsions, and look directly into the emotion behind them.

I remain ambivalent about the practice of letting go. I still find narrative in contemplative prayer to be, on the whole, much more personally satisfactory. But what has been interesting to me is how meaningful this practice of stilling the internal drama has become to me in the ordinary course of my days. I have given it enough thought that it is becoming, while not second nature, maybe fourth or fifth.

One of the things that we bereaved parents all struggle with is the feeling of the knife in the gut when we are reminded, concretely and daily, of what we will never have. Earlier this week, I ran cross a wedding announcement in an alumni magazine. The groom is someone with whom my boys began preschool; they all followed a similar educational trajectory well into high school. He's finished law school, gone to work, and married a beautiful and accomplished young woman. My momentary response was that familiar feeling of being crushed by sadness, envy, and despair. And then -- okay, maybe it took some time, but eventually: I was able to breathe freely and simply absorb the pain of it.

I cannot muster up the least bit of excitement about being a victim of anything. I am choosing, by becoming increasingly attentive to God's silence, the alternative posture of compassionate witness. It's a long, long road, but it seems to offer a more loving witness to God, too, as well as to myself and my companions on this journey.

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