02 September 2008

Silence, Solitude, and Swearing.

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
to bear
the beams of love,
what else

through the leaves, I am here to endure the
bells tolling

Like you a guest, a ghost

Everything will be forgotten

And either I am too alone
or I am not
alone enough
to make each moment

(No one bats 1.000, friend
no one
bats .500)

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


kirsten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kirsten said...

wow, kurt. i feel like i could have written this myself (except for the part about actually being at l'abri in england, of course. not that i'm jealous. really.).

the whole thing about being so good at distractions, that solitude is a struggle.

the whole thing about being single at this age (gasp. ok that was a wee bit sarcastic. but there are days where i really hate it. conversely, there are days where i actually like it.)

the whole thing about avoiding the actual experience of loneliness and solitude.

that whole thing about swearing during prayer. though i too figure that God knows it's in my head anyway, i'm glad to hear i'm not the only one who does it.

and yeah, that thing about God's silence. the questions mount up around us with no answers to satisfy them. and instead of watching the life of those questions ebb away for the starvation of answers, they become bigger and fiercer, kicking and screaming with life.

and then the voice: have courage. i will sustain you.

these days, his voice tells me: trust me. i am faithful. trust me.

i forget sometimes that the ancients couldn't see the arc of their stories like we can now that they're immortalized in scripture: moses' mom couldn't know how the whole sending-the-basket-down-the-river thing would work out. abraham couldn't know how it'd work out when God said "go" and he just starting walking (um, where??). maybe it's the same with us. living with and in these questions, trusting that God is with us in them, trusting & seeking Him rather than clarity & answers.

this is way more than i thought i'd write, but this just grabs me where i'm at & what i'm walking through lately.

thanks for writing this.

(p.s. sometimes, blogger is just evil.)

emily grace said...

I am another in the midst of wrestling with silence and solitude... my next mission in life is to track down that book. Thank you for sharing this.

St. Joseph said...

It feels like yesterday that you were at l'abri... Crazy that it was last summer. So much has happened since then.... I don't know about you but that Franz Wright quote sticks it to me again and again. I'm glad that you had that opprtunity to share this at Biola... What was the response? Did they release you to Claremont? :D That would be very mean!!! Kurt I've got your back!!!

Deborah Laurin said...

Kurt, I really enjoyed this. I read Nouwen's Reaching Out a few years ago and I believe you really captured the essence of the spiritual life. It is a difficult thing to trust that small quiet voice sometimes. I am reminded of when God presented himself to Moses, there was sound and fury till finally the Lord arrived in the midst of the quiet.

On a side-note: I can only imagine some of the horrified faces when you mentioned that you swear at God in chapel!haha, I love it.