Are You Simmering?

by Amanda Petersen

I have had a lot of conversations this week about darkness and shorter days. When those I have spoken to are really honest, the inner call this time of year is to pull in and cherish; to spend time with those one is closest to and to spend time nesting. There is a sense of drawing in when the days are short. I am a lover of rhythm and the way the seasons honor the universal expansion and contraction of life.

The shorter days for me are a way of concentrating life. Like in cooking, when I let a sauce simmer down until it is thick and rich. The soul needs these simmering times too. To pull in and concentrate on what is rich and deep. To sit in the dark reflecting and gathering what is sacred in order to cherish them. To take the time to restore the soul and rest just like all the plant life around us. To sit in the silence and be with all that stirs the soul, pleasant or not, honoring all is held in Love.

In a world that is capable of 24-hour daylight, this simmering in the dark can be challenging. Yet from the conversations I have had recently, if one is still enough, one can hear the whisper to simmer, to pull in, and surround oneself with deep relationships, reflection and love. A whisper to simmer or cherish the joy of connecting with oneself, God, and others in a relaxed and real way.

From this deep rich place as the rhythm of life expands again, one will draw on its richness in the activity of our lives. I invite you to spend some time this week sitting in the dark. Lingering under the covers just a bit more. Turning off the electronics when the sun goes down earlier and earlier, even for a little bit, just to recognize the soul’s call to simmer and cherish.

Blessed Stillness

by Amos Smith

The writer Kathleen Norris tried to get some kids in a classroom to sit in silence. When asked to sit silently a second time one fifth grader retorted, “I don’t want to!” He continued, “It’s like we’re waiting for something, it’s scary.” 1 Silent prayer is not only scary. It’s exceedingly difficult. On the surface, it seems simple, yet anyone who’s tried it will attest to its difficulty. It’s perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken. Yet, it’s also the most rewarding.

The nature of the untrained mind is like a wild monkey, jumping from branch to branch. The mind’s always clinging to one thing or another. Rarely, will it let go of the numerous stimuli and settle into silence. Because of its distracted nature, the mind has to be trained to focus. This training takes time. A challenge is that training the mind is less tangible than training for a marathon or practicing a musical instrument. Training the mind is more primal and less concrete than other kinds of training.

Because training the mind seems insubstantial and doesn’t produce any immediate measurable results, the Western mind usually dismisses it as “navel gazing” or “self-hypnosis.” “Don’t you have something better to do?” Yet, the mind is the root of our existence and our experience. Our state of mind is everything. So changing habits of the mind is powerful! At times it may seem insignificant—as if anything else is a better use of time. Yet, mystics the world over tell us this kind of training is the key for dismantling hidden addictions and the key to freedom.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated from all worldly affairs. They sojourned into the desert to behold blessed stillness. And Quakers through the ages have written that deep listening to God requires stillness and silence. We can’t pray unless we pause and listen for the “still small voice of the Lord” (1 Kings 19:12b, NKJV).

1 Norris, Amazing Grace, p.17.

image credit: Rich Lewis

Why Doing Nothing Can Be Good

by Amos Smith

A number of my peers are devoted to fishing and sailing.

I’m convinced the primary motivation for these activities is an excuse to do nothing – to just sit waiting for a bite – to just get carried by the wind. Rarely, in our industrialized world, are we afforded the time required for our minds to still – to settle into the desert quiet that fertilized the minds of the prophets – the minds of shepherds like David who wrote “God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).

Christian tradition, especially Protestant tradition, emphasizes revelation from scripture. Yet, at its root, revelation in scripture begins with silence. Silence is the fertile soil where God’s word originates. To discover the revelations of scripture we expose ourselves to scripture. To discover the revelations of silence, we expose ourselves to silence.

In silence there is revelation – revelation about ourselves. We come to the frontiers of silence and we find a number of things. Some feel discomfort, some anxiety, some feel tension in their bodies, and still others feel emotional turmoil. And most will discover above all else the wondering monkey mind and how difficult it is to still it. What we experience reveals something about our nature. The revelation of the wandering monkey mind is itself a great gift of awareness.

When our mind finally stills and enters deep silences we come to understand more and more about ourselves.

When the Mind Becomes Silent

by Amos Smith

When I was growing up in Virginia, there was a large open meadow up the hill from my childhood home. Even though most of the acreage in my neighborhood was well developed, the meadow was left wild. After I climbed over a dilapidated wood fence and made my way through a thick barrier of trees, tall green grass sprang, resembling an overgrown alpine meadow. At night, the sky above the meadow opened into the great expanse. The distinct stars illumined the darkness as though I was far from habitation. In the summer the fireflies added lights to the deep blue.

The meadow gave me the space I needed when my little house and family began to close in. As with all families, sometimes things got claustrophobic. At those times I headed out the back door and started the slow walk toward the meadow. When adolescent insecurities mounted and there was no outlet, I started the slow walk…

After I pried through the wall of trees I would walk several paces then lay back against the thick grass. At first my thoughts raced, as they had throughout the day. Then, slowly my thoughts settled like particles of dirt floating to the bottom of a glass of water. If I stayed there the water became still, all the dirt settled, and the murky water of my mind cleared. Space between thoughts lengthened. My breath slowed. And a homesickness I struggle to articulate softened.

I was only yards from home, yet I had another home akin to silence.

Chair Number One –A love letter to yourself.

by Amanda Petersen

Last week I mentioned Thoreau’s three chairs.  Over the next few newsletters, let’s explore them more closely.  The first chair is solitude.  

I remember the first time I went on a silent retreat.  The first 3 days didn’t feel like a silent retreat because there was so much chatter in my mind. The conversation never stopped.  This is the reality of our lives.  There is an unending dialogue happening every minute in our heads.  Like most consistent chatter there is the gift of tuning it out.  Yet the chatter is there influencing our sense of self and the world.

When the idea of silence is mentioned for some it is a welcomed with a sigh of a longing.  For others, it is a look of panic.  “I could never be quiet for any length of time.”  The thought of being left to ourselves is frightening.  When our inner life is ignored, then what are we bring to the world, to our connection with God?  Where is the depth of understanding? Who is truly dictating our days?

It is in taking the time to still ourselves and become aware of all the conversations that are flowing in our minds and hearts that we begin to really understand our walk in this world.  

“Look not outward but within. Self-knowledge is at the root of all real religious knowledge. And this is why the beginning of true religion cannot lie in a book, or in science, or in arguing or in listening to sermons. To look into the soul is to begin to find God. However able the sermon, however sacred the book, it will teach nothing to the person who has not started to look inward.” Owen Chadwick, Newman: A Short Introduction.

No matter what is found as one sits in solitude, they are welcomed by the Divine with open arms. Whether one feels totally at peace and in the flow of grace, or sees themselves as a total failure with no hope, or somewhere in between, they are welcomed into Love’s embrace. That is the gift of solitude. To realize that Love into one’s bones and then to move out into the world around them.

Try it this week. Spend some time in solitude. What do you notice as you pull up this first chair? After you time in solitude, write a love letter to yourself from God.

The Gift of Listening

by Karen Richter

We’re all about listening when it’s children doing the listening and we wise grownups are doing all the yappin’.

We tell them they have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

“Listen” and “pay attention” are just behind the word no in their frequency in young humans’ lives.

It seems we teach our children all about listening because

  1. We teach the things we need most to learn ourselves.
  2. We are so desperate to be heard that we ask children to play the role of listener in our families and communities.
  3. We don’t think that we need to be listening to children.

I came home from my first two weeks at Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction with the overwhelming insight that, in every setting of my life, I talk too much. With friends, over coffee. At work, in the staff meeting. In the car, with my kids. Over dinner, with my spouse. At church, teaching and leading.  Too. Much. Talking.

So Hesychia was something of a remedial crash course in the art of listening to another human (of course it’s more than that too, but that’s where I needed to start). It’s a gift when we focus our attention on another’s story, not to fix or respond or correct but just to be present. We know this… I’ve read some variation on this theme on this very blog before. But it’s hard work and little valued in our culture.

I’m taking little baby steps. The other week in our Lenten study, one of our small groups asked if I had anything to add to their discussion. “No, I’m just listening,” I replied. They were a tiny bit surprised, but continued their exploration.

Another baby step is watching and expecting surprising examples. I was at Wal-Mart the other day and the customer in front of me was telling her life story to the cashier. I don’t know what prompted her sharing, but she spoke very vulnerably about the end of her marriage, her struggles to find her equilibrium on her own, and her sadness that her life was different from how she always imagined it would be.

I smiled, nodded, listened; the cashier did much the same – adding a small ‘hmmm’ at appropriate times. After the customer finished her transaction and left, I asked the cashier about this experience.

“I guess you’re a little like a bartender… People tell you their stories,” I asked.

“Happens all the time,” she said with a smile.

“Maybe people need someone to listen,” I prompted.

“I guess. Folks need to know that they’re going to be okay, that what’s going on with them is normal… I just try to listen, not jump in with advice or get them more upset. I just listen.”

I started to tell her that she was a spiritual director, or perhaps a retail chaplain, but I didn’t want to add to her stress. But what a gift she gave that morning – a compassionate voice, a nonjudgmental presence. It was certainly a gift to me, just observing and now sharing with you.

On Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago, the children at Shadow Rock talked about the command from the voice of God: Listen! We discussed how often adults in their lives are like Peter in that story, bumbling about, making ridiculous plans, and missing the point of what’s happening right in front of him. I asked them how often they wanted adults to stop and listen. Their answers were sad and unsurprising.

So in the spirit of teaching/blogging about what you most need to practice, I suggest a Holy Week discipline:

More listening, less pontificating.
More presence, less judgment.
More gentle nodding, less interrupting.
More compassionate silence, less thinking about your own response.

There are holy stories all around us.

Bad Theology, Good Riddance

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I have loads of bad theology. It’s rotten. It reeks. It’s spoiled. It’s bad. I came by it honestly, though. I wasn’t rooting around in another person’s garden to get it. I lived amongst it and couldn’t even tell that it was so rotten. I don’t think it would behoove us for me to display it here as though I am posting my lunch on Instagram. I think it would help to just say, “There is a lot of rotten stuff here and it needs to be cleared out for some new life.”

Back in 2008, I spent a week at Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, Arizona. I like to call it DHOP and borrow the tagline, “Come hungry, leave happy”. I chose to enter into silence for that whole week with not really any agenda besides an openness to God. I brought some books along, primarily Marcus Borg and Shelby Spong. Their words merged within me, creating space for questions I had long stopped asking. I prayed a great deal that week. I hiked, even getting on top of a huge rock that was next to impossible to get down from easily. This is  indicative of how I have lived much of my life, actually, setting out for a stroll and encountering unexpected “adventure”.

Borg and Spong (who I lovingly blended into the word Bong for that week) made room for me to think, talk and explore who Jesus was to me. I had spent the seven years before unpacking who Jesus wasn’t and I really hadn’t done much more than that since. I thought the church that I came from, for all intents and purposes, owned Jesus. I thought they were right that I was unacceptable. I thought they had the ability to determine insiders and outsiders. I didn’t consciously think these thoughts, mind you, but I lived my life as if they were true.

Now, here I was, in silence, no external voices to tell me if I was right, wrong, or crazy. The last three days I only had silence as my companion. I even refrained from reading more of Bong (it’s growing on you, isn’t it?). I was aware of an aching, deep void that was left in the dissolution of friendships from the church I once adored. The aching deep void that God could not be accessed by me anymore. Here’s the beauty, though. It is in voids that God speaks and creates. It was in that void that I began to ask questions and seek Jesus once more.

Let me be clear that I do not have anything profound to say about who Jesus is after this soul searching. I don’t really think we need to have yet another voice on the topic entering into the “Nah-ah” and “Uh-huh” debate that gets played out all the time. This isn’t actually about the theology that I ended up embracing. This is more about the unexpected grace I experienced when I became willing.

Over the last three days of my time at DHOP, I cried a lot. I wrote letters to people I love and who love me. I wrote letters, too, to the people I loved who rejected me in the name of God. I held space for the really hard stuff and found that as I did, it started lifting. It wasn’t a tangled mess of anxiety, sadness and anger anymore. It was becoming just an experience that I had, not the only experience I ever had which is what it had felt like before. As this clearing happened, I was able to access love, goodness, forgiveness, kindness again. I prayed for the people who had rejected me and  I actually, finally, meant it.

The last evening I was there, I sat on the front porch with my eyes closed, just enjoying the sound of the birds, the gentle breeze, the freedom from city noise. As I sat there, I heard someone gasp. I opened my eyes and not even a foot away from me was a beautiful, perfect deer. The woman who gasped was on the sidewalk about three feet away. Neither of us moved. The deer did not look at all frightened. She gazed back at me gently. I began to cry without realizing it, just silent tears pouring down my face. She moved on from us and went back toward the desert area. I looked at the stranger, made friend by a powerful moment we had just shared, and all she said to me was, “Wow!”

I have found that once I am willing to relinquish the places within that are causing decay and pain internally, there is not much else I need to do except be present with my God and present with creation all around me. When I am experiencing openness of heart, generosity of spirit, kindness of thought things just happen. I become the deer, I become the stranger, I become the silent one in waiting. It feels as though I am bearing witness to my own life in these moments rather than being the agent that controls and launches them.

I have been struggling again with parts of theology that are life-snuffing versus life giving. It comes in an ebb and flow for me, this realization of theology that hurts. A dear friend of mine shared his own experience with recognizing a bad theology he had that was impacting his choices daily. I relate to that, the underlying moral imperative that is neither moral nor imperative. In the spirit of willingness, I get to work on clearing the bad theology out. For me, this means honesty in prayer, honesty in writing and honesty in talking. This work is not easy, there are reasons some may never attempt it. For me, though, it just hurts too much not to work on clearing it out.

Here’s what I do know to be true and it is the driving force behind the hard work of excavation: All it really takes is willingness. That’s really it. A recognition that it hurts and a willingness to simply just let it go. Because you see, dear one, there’s just something about willingness that grace can’t get enough of.