Sunday, January 23, 2011

Venturing Into the Silent Land: Robin on The Doorway into Silence

My scars (mostly) don't show, I tend not to wear shorts so you can't see the surgical scars that cover my right knee and you might know me for years before you learn that I was widowed. Like Robin, the word "healed" sounds a bit too simplistic for me most of the time (and I'm similarly allergic to "closure").

I rather firmly believe that God grieves and rejoices - that the silence with which we engage in prayer is not a bland equilibrium.

Here is what Robin has to say about suffering, silence and contemplation, in her last contribution to our discussion of Marty Laird's book Into the Silent Land:

I hate the word wound. I hate the sound of it, that "oooo" sound. I hate the look of it: those three open letters in the middle. It sounds and looks like vulnerability, and I don't want to acknowledge how vulnerable we are.

I am suspicious of the word heal. It sounds and looks like the word easy. It seems too easy. Many, many people have used that word in addressing my life experience of the past two years, and I basically think, as they speak to me, "You have lost your mind. There is no healing here."

Those conversations and this book have made me think about what healing is, however ~ or about what my unexamined assumptions about healing are.

I have a huge scar down my middle. A physical scar down my physical middle. It's from the car accident when I was seven, from an emergency laparotomy done to determine whether my spleen was bleeding and needed to be removed. (It wasn't and didn't.) It's thick and ugly, made worse by a twin pregnancy and several decades of living.

I never even notice that scar. I remember well the day the doctor yanked the stitches out ~ the terrible pain, the screaming. But it's completely healed: I can't feel it, it has no impact whatever on my life, and I don't care about it one way or another.

Is that what I think healing means, I wonder? No feeling, no impact, no concern about something that was once a gaping wound?

I think that I am wrong.

I wrote a brief introduction to Michelle's last post on my blog, in which I said that I remain fascinated that there seems to be a direct, albeit often obscure, pathway leading from crisis and loss to silence and contemplative prayer. And then I opened the book in preparation for writing this final post, and was surprised to the point of laughing. Look at what Martin Laird has to say:

The doorway into the silent land is a wound. Silence lays bare this wound. We do not get far along the spiritual path before we get some sense of the wound of the human condition.

It occurs to me now that what this book articulates, at least in part, is that healing is the opposite of what I have been taught and assumed. And it tells us that healing is discovered in silence.

Opposite? Well, like many people, I grew up in another kind of silence: the silence of avoidance and denial. A family in which stiff upper lips and movement forward were encouraged. And my family was traumatized. Believe me, when a young mother and her baby are killed in a car accident, trauma hardly begins to describe the consequences. And yet, you would think, to look at us a couple of years later: no feeling, no impact, no concern. We must have been all healed, right?

Now I am not seven, I am all grown up, and I have had to contend with sadness in the last two years such as seems indescribable and incomprehensible. And what do I now think leads to healing?

A direct gaze.

As complete a degree of feeling as is tolerable, and then some.

An acknowledgment of the impact.

Caring very much.

Healing, in other words, does not mean that pain is eradicated. It means that we learn to integrate it into our living so that it is no longer disabling, stopping us in our tracks. It means that we learn to integrate it into our living so that we recognize it in others and can stop to offer presence and companionship.

And where did I learn this? Where did I come by this knowledge that I cannot yet apply?

In silence. The silence of God.

I come from a religious tradition in which word ~ language, speech, proclamation ~ is central. I learned a lot about words and Word in seminary: Greek words, Hebrew words, preaching words. Jesus as Word. The Word. I am engaged in and with words and Word every day.

But silence I learned about in other places, and I have learned about it most of all in the vast silence which has been God's response to my child's death. There are no healing words for such a terrible thing. And the Word, who for all time is God, responds accordingly.

Only in silence is there space for genuine healing to occur; healing that makes it possible to feel, to accept impact, and to care.

I wonder, now, whether I would have found my way into this silence of God in other, more preferable circumstances. To some extent, I can answer in the affirmative. I recall the first time that I became convinced of the presence of God: in the vast and wild silence of the world that lay before me in the midst of Glacier National Park, during a week of backpacking in which that cathedral of granite and sky and long stretches of wind-blown grass affected me in ways that no written or spoken words ever could.

But alongside that silence, the silence which communicated creativity and goodness, lies another. A silence which communicates sorrow and compassion for the pain of our human experience. Laird tells us that "there is deep conversion, healing, and unspeakable wholeness to be discovered along the contemplative path" but that, paradoxically, "this healing is revealed when we discover that our wound and the wound of God are one wound."

Is there a wound of God? Some of my readers know that I have been engaged in an on-and-off discussion with one of my professors (for nearly two years now!) with respect to whether God suffers. My professor distinguishes between the human Jesus who suffers and the divine Jesus who cannot because, he says, for God to participate in our suffering as we do would subvert the perfect goodness of God who overcomes all suffering. I am not sure whether Martin Laird would agree, or what to make of that distinction myself. But I do believe, although my own experience has been one of halting and unsure steps both backward and forward, that "contemplative practice places us . . . where the balm of divinity annoints broken humanity."

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