Saturday, April 10, 2010

Into the Silent Land

I have been reading this book by Martin Laird for several days, meaning that I've read it through and now I'm reading around in it, a paragraph or two at a time. My former spiritual director recommended it, saying that someone else had told him that it's the best thing that's been written about prayer.

I'm not sure about that. I'm still partial to Anthony Bloom's Beginning to Pray and Henri Nouwen's The Only Necessary Thing. In fact, I like the latter so much that I've used it to teach a class on prayer at my home church, and another friend has just run with that idea and used it as the basis for an entire retreat day at hers.

But Laird does offer an amazing chapter on meeting your pain in the silence of God. He uses fear, physical pain, and compulsion to illustrate what he means, but his thoughts are applicable to any kind of affective torment -- mine being anger, sadness, and overwhelming and indefinable emotional pain. The point is to move from reactivity to witness, from endless inner commentary to direct gaze. As a person who moves constantly within the dimensions of story, I find it quite challenging to subtract narrative and imagery from my inner life. But perhaps that is exactly the invitation I need to heed right now.

The other night, having had something of a meltdown at school and witnessing the shock and dismay on the faces of others who perhaps have not come face-to-face with this depth of grief before (in part because I, myself, for instance, have kept most of it to myself), I looked up some material online. Mostly I just needed to be reminded that there is nothing unusual about my feelings. And, indeed, I read repeatedly that deep and pervasive grief last much longer than most people are aware that it does, especially in situations such as ours, where the multiplier of two of life's worst traumas is in effect.

That said, however, the groove worn by the endless replay of memories and of things that might have been different becomes unproductive at some point. The therapist I saw for some months at the beginning said that for a trauma like loss to suicide, you need to find "a good enough story," something close enough and accurate enough offer some peace. She's an excellent therapist, but I'm not sure that there is a good enough story. Perhaps what there is instead is the very thing which was the source of so much anguish for so long: the vast silence of God.

I just glanced at the book to see whether there were some words more precise than mine. And here they are:

"Now we can see how afflictive thoughts and feelings play a rather important role. They provide an invitation to be still and gaze into the vast silence they manifest. This is how Eckhart could say, 'what used to be a hindrance now helps you most.' Such is the simple sifting of silence."


  1. As one who has practiced meditation (off and on) since I was 19 - so for some 35 years - I can say that the silence is an amazing gift. I don't know why, exactly. But somehow when I was able to meditate again a few months ago I felt something inside, a peace, a gentleness with myself and others, a grace, that I had not felt in ages. Perhaps that is how God is speaking into and through my being, my anger and grief. Nothing has chanaged, but then again, it has. True some days I really struggle with my feelings about the twists and turns of my life. But there is something speaking into the silence and it is a gift.

    I think I need to read these books.

  2. I thought I knew all of Nouwen's works, Robin, so thanks for mentioning The Only Necessary Thing. I'll have to get it.

    May the 'vast silence of God' offer what comfort it can to you this day...

  3. You stop me here, and I thank you. I did not know that grief could last so long, only that mine has. I think I would agree with you .... there isn't a good enough story that can offer some peace for me.

    But these days the Stillness of God soothes, and that eases a great deal of pain and offers peace where I never thought to find it. I hope that it may be so for you also.

    I will offer my evening prayers for you tonight.

  4. You are travelling in a country unknown to me, one difficult step at a time. Maybe a few have gone before you, and they are trustworthy. It also seems a lot of other so-called experts give advice for something they know nothing about. You are fast becoming the expert on grief and the silence of God. I would trust you and few others.

  5. There is nothing unusual about your feelings.

    Our griefs are our griefs. Some people get that, and some don't.

    One thing I find is that people are often quite uncomfortable, and even 'put out' so to speak by the paradox of very deep grief.

    I guess when some people see a smile, or a hike or a painting they think "it's all in the past." If they but ask I could let them know.... it's not.

  6. This is beautiful and profound.

    I also love that book by Nouwen - and Nouwen's writings in general. When I read him, I sense that he lived with an unmet longing, though he also experienced great solace. That's a kind of parallel to a mother's grief, I suppose.

    You are so right to question the assertions of others who do not know what they are saying by experience. I'm now frequently put off by writings and musings that, in the past, I would have mirrored and enjoyed. BEFORE.
    Theoretical spirituality is completely different from spirituality that is forged in true suffering - not the suffering of small things, but the things that change a life FOREVER. Seeking transformation is not the same as being transformed by life events that occur against your wishes. Submitting to God in the midst of suffering is not the same as submitting to God in the midst of joy; it's just not the same.

    Thank you for your HONESTY; I know I keep saying this to you. It's absolutely clear, and vitally important. It's also, to me, a part of Josh's legacy and his gifts. I'm sending love to you.

  7. As Cindy said, our grief is our grief, our own and no one else's, and I continue to be flabbergasted that anyone dares to suggest there is a "should" to the experience. I appreciate how you hold fast to your truth. It must be f@*#ing exhausting.

  8. of course we all wish things were different... meaning that things had not happened as they did... and it all reminds me, that so often, soo sooo often we underestimate the spiritual depth and value of silence... and as the church we are not good at teaching about it, modeling it or being in it... *sigh*