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Before I wrote a few essays for Lent, I had been writing about the Spiritual Discipline of silence and solitude. I wrote here about the necessity for silence and solitude in a world inundated by words. I wrote here about why silence and solitude are necessary for our souls as well as for the souls that surround us.
I thought it might be helpful (and amusing) for you to read about my first experience with an extended time (eight hours) of practicing this Discipline of silence and solitude.
For any who, like me, are just beginning to explore this idea of retreating with God, of spending “wilderness time” with Him, I don’t want you to come away with the idea that I am any good at this. I am experimenting and stumbling in this new Discipline, yet am convinced that the practice of it is worth my fumblings. Whichever new Discipline you are determined to begin, do not be discouraged when you are not proficient from the beginning.
“I think of what the Desert Fathers said of the spiritual life. We are always beginners. We fall and we rise, we fall and we rise.” Judith Valente in Atchison Blue
As it was my first time to spend so many hours alone with God, I strove to hold my expectations for this wilderness time lightly, but I will confess that I came away disappointed. I had hoped to experience God in some way, to feel that I had truly met with Him, but I ended my time feeling more like I had failed. I was encouraged afterward by my professor who confessed that he, too, struggled when he first began this Discipline. It was encouraging to know that I am not the only one who didn’t have intimate moments on the first try, that I only need to persevere. This is one of the few areas in which my stubbornness can serve me well.
I began my time wandering a path through some woods that are a short drive from my home. It was cold and snowy, and I was struck by the stark beauty of the bare tree limbs against the bright blue sky, the kind of blue that only seems to happen in the crisp cold of winter. I spoke to God as I walked and tried to listen. The silence all around me helped, but it was difficult to still my thoughts. I considered the imagery of walking a path as I wandered, praying that the Holy Spirit would guide me in this pursuit of Him.
I sat for a long time on a large stone, watching a stream that was mostly frozen over. Just below the icy surface I could see the water racing furiously. My mind kept trying to consider how I could use this experience in my writing, and I kept trying to rein it back in. I felt fairly disgusted with myself for trying to use my wilderness time for non-spiritual gain, but I simply kept confessing my struggle to God and asking His Spirit to help me keep my thoughts on Him.
As I walked, I came across an outdoor chapel. There were large logs lined up in rows for seats, so I sat and tried again to be still. A rough-hewn cross was set up at the front of the chapel and I tried to keep my eyes and my heart focused on it. I don’t know how long I sat there, but after awhile I felt that I should kneel before that cross. So I obeyed and began confessing my sins as I knelt. For a brief moment, I felt an overwhelming gratitude for all that the cross meant, for Christ’s death and forgiveness. Then I was distracted by the creaking of the trees in the breeze and the moment was lost.
My path took me across the road to a cemetery. It is almost impossible to wander through a cemetery and not be filled with thoughts of life and death. As the path meandered around the tombstones, I read the messages of hope inscribed on many of them, messages of hope in the coming life for those whose lives are hidden in Christ. The small stones with dates that spanned only days or months were weightier than those whose dates spanned full lifetimes. I spoke with God about my own children, asking Him to give me the courage to remember that they belong to Him and not to me.
Just next to the cemetery is a chapel. It is a small, white, clapboard building, with a simple beauty to it. There are two aging family Bibles set under glass and I wondered what sorts of people had handled those pages, what tears and laughter had fallen over those words. I sat in the wooden pews for a long time and attempted to just be.
I tried so very hard to empty out my own thoughts so that I could hear God speaking to me. It is difficult to know what to expect when listening for an unseen Spirit. I am a very solid introvert, and a mother of four little ones, therefore I cherish my snatched moments of being alone, yet my introvertedness also gives me a rich inner world and I often have a difficult time stilling that world. I did not succeed this time. It is difficult to quiet my thoughts and listen to a voice deep underneath my own self. I left the church and walked slowly back through the woods to my car.
I had to break my wilderness time into two parts. As this post is already too long for most of you to reach the end, I will share the second half of my time next week.
Art credits: Photographs of snowy woods with cabin and snowy woods with fence are by Kirk Sewell; all other photographs copyright 2018 Made Sacred