Thursday, September 01, 2011

Column: Calming storms

Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they aren't after you. Could I extrapolate that to just because I'm anxious, doesn't mean that there isn't actually something to be anxious about? Who knows, but out of 4 classes this week, I've had serious tech fails in 3. The teaching week is over for me, but next week brings travel for the course on contemplation. I'm about to discover the difference between being a retreatant on a silent retreat and a director on a silent retreat. I suspect the former is more restful than the latter.

The music is Margaret Rizza's Exaudi Nos Domine:

Exaudi nos Domine. Dona nobis pacem. Hear us, O Lord. Grant us peace.

Just listening to it, calms the storms....

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 1 September 2011.

A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. Mk 4: 37-39

The wind runs up the canyon most afternoons at my dad’s, sending anything imprudently still hung out to dry sailing into the hillside rosemary patch.

Late one day, I sought the solitude of the old lath house by the south pasture. The silence was so profound I could sense the wind gathering strength at the bottom of the canyon, a mile or more away.

I could hear each gust hit the almond trees at the canyon's mouth, set the live oaks shivering in the gully below me finally tumbling through the high barley until like a giant's breath — or perhaps the Spirit's — it burst through the open wall of my temporary hermitage. Not even the chapel at Wernersville in the depths of a winter's night is this silent, this still, this pregnant with possibility.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of the way in which silence teaches us to be in “the grip of the present,” to be alert and aware of what might be possible in this moment. The contemplative, Merton notes, attends closely to what is, not what might blow through the door in the next moment. It is a silence that doesn’t cling to itself, that doesn’t “demand light instead of darkness,” or even, I suspect, soundlessness instead of noise. It “waits on the Word of God.” Silence is open to possibility.

I’m tucked in my silent study at the moment, literally and figuratively in the calm before the storm. Hurricane Irene’s clouds shroud the sky, and a multitude of new students are ready to pour through the college’s hallways, their voices rolling like thunder off of the stone walls. Like the disciples bobbing in a tiny boat on the Sea of Galilee, I’m anxious about possibilities. About my flood prone basement, about the course I’m teaching for the first time, about the tumult the fall will inevitably bring.

St. Cyril of Alexander, a fifth century bishop and theologian, is not critical of the storm wracked disciples’ nerves — and perhaps by extension, mine. He suggests instead that such anxiety “sharpens our sense of what is to come.” My start of the semester jitters remind me, even after a quarter century of teaching, to be attentive to what is unfolding in the hubbub. We become watchful in storms of all sorts, alert to ports where we can shelter, open to stepping into places where we can be still with God. Storms, too, are open to possibility.

The winds of Irene batter at my study window and questions from students and colleagues pop in and out of my inboxes. Suddenly I am sharply aware of my need for Jesus to speak His Word to the churning sea of my life, “Quiet!” and keenly alert for God’s invitation to be still within Him. I can’t cling to the silence much longer; I wait instead on the possibilities.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,While to that refuge clinging;Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,How can I keep from singing? — From the traditional hymn “How can I keep from singing?”


  1. Michelle, I love the invitation into the quiet; complete with risks. It is a good place to go; I wonder why I avoid it so...

  2. Fran, I sometimes wonder if I'd known about Carthusian nuns when I was 29, if I might have gone. But I suspect that God had other plans. Silence is both empty and full for me - if that makes any sense at all.

    But I can see why, even if you feel invited, you might not go. I sometimes find myself sitting in the parking lot, arrived physically, but not quite ready to walk into the silence.