Stumbling through Silence

I attempted to have a retreat day today.

I say attempted because nothing quite went as planned. It was my original plan to spend the day with the Benedictine sisters at the monastery a couple of zip codes over. That was actually my plan B; my original plan was to spend the weekend at St. Anselm’s abbey in downtown DC, but I’m broke and I didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t pay the suggested donation. Plan B ended up not working out, as I woke up a full two hours after my alarm went off, then had to deal with a faulty tire on my car. By the time I ended up leaving the house it was already 11:00AM, and I had told the sisters I’d be there around 9:00.

After driving around aimlessly for some time attempting to get into an appropriate frame of mind (and largely failing), I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a Roman Catholic parish on a back road in rural Fairfax County. Even though the cornerstone pegged it as being built in 1990, the stone construction and rough-hewn, lichen-covered celtic cross at its pinnacle gave it an old world aura. I checked the website just to be sure it was open, and indeed it was, so I let myself into the church, rubbed a few drops of holy water on my forehead, and found a seat in a pew to begin the quiet day I was supposed to have started almost six hours ago.

And then I hit a wall.

Quiet days are a difficult discipline for me because they put me in close contact with the shadowy places in my own heart that largely wallow in self-doubt and self-loathing. Not only that, but “quiet time” was a staple of the civil religion of my evangelical past; if you didn’t have regular quiet time, you weren’t doing Christianity right. It became a major source of guilt–I would hear stories from peers about how “God met” them in their quiet time and apparently gave them some kind of divine revelation, or supernatural comfort, or some other such nonsense. But my quiet times always resulted in me either sitting with my thoughts, as I now was, or falling asleep. Some spiritual giant I was.

Okay, I thought to myself, time to let the Holy Spirit work. So I sat there for a few minutes trying to collect myself and enter into that mental “thin place” where the numinous is right there, breathing on you–but nothing happened. I sat for a few more minutes, waiting. Nothing. Slowly I let my eyes wander around the sanctuary, taking in the statues, the stonework, the flickering sanctuary lamp, all veiled in the grey-blue light of a cloudy sky wafting its way through a canopy of poplar and maple. You’re really bad at this. Your prayer life sucks. Are you sure you’re supposed to be a priest?

Being in the silence of that chapel today was difficult not only because  it was reminding me of my perceived spiritual ineptitude; it was also as if I had been listening to an old mix CD I found buried in my car, a mix of all my shadow-side recordings, all the ones reminding me of how much of a screw-up I am, how unqualified I am to be in ministry, how unloveable I am. When I can keep myself distracted, I do alright, but sitting in quiet puts that mix CD in the player once more. Those thoughts are painful. And here I was, in the midst of what was supposed to be holy time, and they were having free rein.

There came a point in the midst of this when I remembered that my therapist and I had been working on the idea of self-compassion. In that moment I let go of trying to silence the thoughts, and instead I let my gut be moved for myself.

Self-compassion is a strange feeling. The feeling you have when you see an injured animal, or a crying child, or a poor person begging for food–there’s a peculiar feeling right in the pit of your stomach that stops you in your tracks, as if your soul is lurching out of your gut towards that person or animal. Think about that feeling, then think about turning it in on yourself. It’s weird. And it’s holy.

In the midst of that chapel that’s exactly what I tried to do. I expected it to make the thoughts go away, but it didn’t. As I let myself feel compassion towards myself it was as if the volume was turned down on the thoughts and I could allow myself to listen more deeply to the silence of the holy space I was in. It wasn’t perfect, just a taste of silence. But it was enough. Enough to pray, enough to soak in the numinous that was right there, breathing over me. Enough to let the words of the Veni Creator come to fruition, just for an instant, to hear the Holy Spirit speaking for the Father once again: you’re my beloved.

Perhaps there will come a point when I can let my shadow-side tapes become part of my prayers. I know that even in the midst of my frustration with the whole practice of retreat that the Holy Spirit is praying through me and my thoughts with groans that I can neither hear nor understand, and that is comfort.

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