I was invited to give the devotion at the faculty meeting for the School of Arts and Sciences today, because of my experiences last summer at the English L’Abri. The text of the devotion follows below:
I went to L’abri with a somewhat specific set of questions, and as I found out happens to many people during their time there, I soon discovered that those questions simply opened up into much larger questions… and it became clear that none of them would really be answered. but as one of my favorite songs by my favorite band, Over the Rhine, reminds us, “we need questions, forget about the answers…”
In my 2nd or 3rd day at l’abri, my mentor invited me to join a reading group that was going through Henri Nouwen’s “Reaching Out.” As a huge fan of Nouwen, I was familiar with this book, but had never read it. Turns out it was exactly what God wanted me to read while I was there, and it prompted exactly the right set of questions for me, even if they would be questions without answers.
If you have not read it, the book talks about three movements of the spiritual life: from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer. It was the first movement, from loneliness to solitude, which was a critical theme for this time in my life… after all, I was about to turn 30 as a single man. For the first week of my time at L’Abri, I spent a lot of my time reading about my questions, studying about my questions… before it became clear that in order to struggle with my loneliness I needed to be alone and stop filling the time with seemingly healthy distractions like reading and studying. And for the first time in my life, I actually did desire to be alone, because it was a beautiful place to be alone… The 17th century manor house sits on a large patch of land, with many quiet fields surrounding it. My favorite place to spend time was inside the small chapel beside the sunken garden, which had been converted from a stable house warming room.
Three hours of the day at L’Abri are set aside for study, so for three hours at a time, I would sit in places like that chapel, journaling, praying, listening, and generally struggling with the attempt to have solitude… something that is awful difficult to find if you are as good at distractions, busyness, laziness, and sleeping as I am. I didn’t know what I was expecting… some kind of voice-from-heaven experience… I don’t know. A little bird, a busy little wren, did keep me company every time I was in there, however. And I did hear from God, but I have no idea how to talk about it because a cynical kid of my generation is still too afraid to use trite words that sound like Christianese.
But one day, when journaling some hard questions and angry frustrations, God responded. I would read from my journal from those days, but I swear a lot when I’m talking to God. I think he’s okay with it, he’s never stopped me from it and I figure he knows it’s going through my mind anyway. He does want us to be vulnerable after all, and sitting there in that space for 3 hours a day, I felt the vulnerability of His Presence. And that’s when I heard the words that were clearly not from my internal monologue: “have courage, I can sustain you.”
I wish I could say that an amazing peace descended upon me… I wish I could say that I learned how to be still and make the time for solitude every day. But the reality is much more human than that. I have struggled with this experience ever since. But in those hours in the chapel in the garden, I was reminded of the need to listen… to be still… to listen for questions, or answers, or neither… I learned that what some call the silence of God is really a wonderfully frustrating mystery to experience.
I had brought a book of poetry with me to L’abri that summer entitled “God’s Silence” by Franz Wright. So I’ll close by reading my favorite poem as a prayer and a reminder to us. So listen and pray with me:
Introduction, by Franz Wright (2nd half):
I am here to learn
the beams of love,
through the leaves, I am here to endure the
Like you a guest, a ghost
Everything will be forgotten
And either I am too alone
or I am not
to make each moment
(No one bats 1.000, friend
And I heave heard God's silence like the sun
and sought to change
I'm just going to listen to the silence
till the Silence