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Last week was the first half of my own experience in attempting an extended time of silence and solitude. If you missed it, you can read that here. If you missed the previous posts on the necessity of practicing 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 pray that writing about my own feeble beginnings with this Habit are encouraging to you. As I wrote last week, 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.
For my second period of retreat with God, I went to a local church. I almost left before I even went in because of signs threatening dire consequences if I parked there. I could feel a war waging inside of me, but I had nowhere else to go so I entered the church with a quick prayer that my car would still be there when I returned.
A lady in the church showed me the sanctuary and was very hospitable, making sure I had what I needed, even offering to find a minister with whom I could speak if I so desired. After assuring her that I truly did simply want solitude and silence, I sat in a pew and again tried to simply be still.
I find that I am most drawn to the presence of God in the presence of beauty, and so my eyes and my heart were drawn to the stained glass on either side of the sanctuary. It was a rainy day, which made the figures in the glass difficult to see, but I attempted to discern the story each section was telling. I asked the Spirit to speak to me through each Biblical story depicted. I again struggled to still my thoughts so that I could hear God.
There was a striking cross on the wall at the front of the room, with a glowing light coming from behind. My eye, however, was drawn to another cross. It was a plain, rough-hewn wooden cross, lying on its side on the floor. There often seems to be an inner beauty to a rugged cross that is missing from one that is more ornate.
Henri Nouwen suggests using just one word or phrase over and over in an attempt to bring your mind down to your heart. I used a phrase from Elizabeth Goudge’s writing: “Lord, have mercy. Into Thy hands. Thee I adore.” Again, either my thoughts took over or I repeated that phrase in vain, without any success of emptying myself so that God could fill me.
I don’t know what to expect, neither do I understand exactly for what I am hoping. I pray that I will know it when it happens.
I ended my wilderness time by participating in an Ash Wednesday service. Included in the service was a liturgical confession spoken by the entire church. This drove home to me both the terrible heft of my sin and the truth that all of us in the Church are sinners together, falling short of the glory of God. I will never understand the reasons why Jesus bore our consequence, and all I can do is to offer my thanksgiving to our Father.
I went forward to receive the ashes. The priest marked my forehead with the ashy shape of the cross, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “You are marked by the cross and the forgiveness of Christ.” The weight of that struck my heart and, at least in that moment, I understood that if I never in my life hear from God except through Scripture, He has given me more gift than I deserve.
Whether or not I ever have the joy of having a tangible experience of God’s presence, I trust in His promise to always be with me. He asks me to spend time in the wilderness with Him, and so I will obey, whether or not He ever chooses to allow me to experience His presence in ways that I can comprehend.
Art credits: all cathedral photographs are by the talented Kirk Sewell; candle photographs are copyright 2018 by the mediocre Made Sacred