This is from Josh Luton of the Apprentice Institute. I encourage you to check out their work and subscribe to their blog, here.
I walked in and the receptionist greeted me. I didn’t catch her name, one of many sisters who call the convent home.
After a brief wait, another nun came to get me. This spiritual director came highly recommended.
She walked me to the end of a very long hallway and invited me to a seat by the window. She even gave me the chair with a view of the pond and fountain. Generous of her, she is a nun after all.
“I’ll light a candle to remind us of the presence of the Spirit.” Great, I like candles.
Then she read a passage of Scripture. Truth be told, I don’t remember which passage.
My mind was racing. What would she ask? How would she relate? Could she solve my spiritual problem in one session?
After the reading and a brief prayer, she looked up and smiled, “So, tell me about yourself.”
Uh, ok, sure. Fit my whole life (more pressing, my call story) into a 45 minute session and then you tell me something about it?
She waited patiently as I gathered my thoughts.
I tried to give her the high points: background, college, married, divinity school, ordination track in the United Methodist Church, work for a spiritual formation institute.
And then we got into the question that had brought me here in the first place. When we prayed at the beginning she had asked for a word to pray for.
“Clarity” was the best I could come up with.
Clarity about my call. The ordination process has been anything but beautiful, sure there have been glimpses of beauty, but it’s been a slog for the most part.
After some recent developments, I’ve been wondering what this call on my life is all about.
Does it have to be lived out as an elder in the UMC? What about Christian unity and all that? Why not just become Catholic?
Those are the high points, I won’t bore you with the details.
As I laid out the situation and my desire for clarity to this sweet old sister, I was more than half-hoping she’d reply, “Come home, son, to the true church. Leave behind your failing Protestant trappings. All will be well.”
She didn’t. “How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer?”
And we sat in silence and she appeared to be listening intently. Not to me. I was scared speechless by the fact that I work in spiritual formation and I had just confessed to a nun that I didn’t spend much time in silent/listening prayer.
For those new to spiritual formation, a rough definition: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of self and others (Not satisfied? Click through and explore).
Silence should be old hat. It’s a cornerstone discipline.
She asked me to describe God. I choked. I’m a “master of divinity” according to the diploma in my office, and I didn’t know what to tell her.
“Ok, describe your wife.”
“Vivacious, funny, loving, beautiful…” I rattled off in an instant.
“I hear God saying ‘Listen to me, Josh.’ Your ministry is an overflow of your relationship. Your relationship with your wife overflows who you are and so will your relationship with God.”
“Just spend time in the presence of God, no agenda. Set a timer and just be.”
Shot to the gut.
And from a nun no less. She was extremely gentle in delivering words that were hard to hear.
The hardest part: I know her words are true.
I’ve got a little altar set up at home. There’s an icon of Christ the Pantocrator and a Bible and a little rug. It’s been set up for a few months and I haven’t been down there more than a handful of times.
Don’t get me wrong, I get down with liturgical prayer (Book of Common Prayer, Common Prayer), but sitting in front of that altar and listening just seems like a waste of time.
So much so, that you know how many times I’d done it a week after she instructed me to practice silence,
Do you know how much effort it would take to do that one thing? Not much, just sit on my butt for 10 minutes or so. We Americans are pretty good at that, I should be a natural.
Why do I avoid it? I don’t know.
Maybe I’m scared God will speak a word that keeps me on this painful path of ordination. Maybe God will speak a word that spurs me to leave the only denomination I’ve ever known. Maybe I won’t hear anything.
Sometimes this whole Christianity thing can get too “do” oriented. Pastors, authors, bloggers, all encouraging you to do more. They’re often good things to do.
In the twitter/blog-o-sphere there’s a daily inundation of words. Words, words, everywhere. There’s so much crap out there, so much to take in. So much to be bombarded by.
Sometimes you just need silence.
In the words of famed Catholic priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen:
“What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us. Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with utmost care. It is not so strange that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring, petty ideas and feelings. Sometimes it seems that our many words are more an expression of our doubt than our faith. It is as if we are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people: we have to help him out and, with many words, convince others of his power. But it is precisely this wordy unbelief that quenches the fire” (The Way of the Heart, 54).
Another shot to the gut. The Catholics really have me on the ropes this month.
Joking aside, he’s right, too.
Even if you’re not a professional Christian, you may fall into the trap of speaking many words. To the burnout that comes when we talk about God, without spending time listening.
The problem? “Silence teaches us to speak” (56).
Don’t believe him? (I didn’t at first).
Think about a recent event in your life or the life of your community: a lost job, a dramatic life change, a death. How did you or people around you respond?
With quick and canned cliches? “You’ll find another job.” “Everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.” “The hurt will heal with time.”
Or with slower, measured responses. Maybe with no words at all, just presence?
Silence teaches us to speak because it allows us space to be comfortable with silence.
Silence helps us tend to the inner fire of the Spirit. My fire has been closer to almost burnt out coals, not even warm enough to toast a marshmallow.
Probably not worth speaking words out of. They wouldn’t be words that could warm your fire.
But silence also teaches us to speak because it trains us to listen. Regular silence opens our ears to the voice of God (these words are written more out of hope than recent experience).
Silence creates space. Space where I learn to strain to hear the prodding and calling of God. And when I open myself up intentionally, I’m more likely to hear that call, even in the bustle and noise of daily life.
I’ve voiced the complaint, “I never hear God speak.” When I think about it, how could I?
I pray every day, but those words (well-intentioned though they are) are all motivated by me. Even the people and situations I pray for are my desires. How transformative might it be to listen for a word from God, instead of just catapulting more words at God?
I took the plunge this morning. It was probably more motivated by the fact I had to confess in the first draft (written yesterday) that I hadn’t heeded the nun’s counsel.
I read a passage from the Gospel of Luke and set my timer for 10 minutes (big start, I know).
And then I spoke these words, “Here I am, Lord.” And I waited. And stared at the icon. And waited some more.
And you know what I heard? Nothing.
But it was only day one, and I’m hopeful for the rest of today. For the listening that may come from that time. For the days ahead.
I tended the fire, here’s hoping it erupts to a blaze.
How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer? Could it transform your speaking? I’d especially love to hear from He Who Must Not Be Named. I’m sure the dark lord has some keen insights on silent prayer.