catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 13 :: 2012.06.22 — 2012.07.05


Into the silence

Drive three hours. Arrive at monastery. Check in. Unpack duffle bag consisting of proper amounts of toiletries, clothes, choice books and journal. Read for ninety minutes. Pack up bag. Drive three hours home.

The moment was rather embarrassing although it’s definitely advantageous for my job. As a pastor, part of my weekly duties is to develop some sort of interesting story or analogy to illustrate whatever point is necessary. Therefore it was easy to take my inability to take a sabbatical and turn it into an amusing anecdote.

The reality was that I was absolutely ecstatic to have several days to myself to read, write, study, pray and immerse myself into the spiritual world I so easily dismiss with my busy schedule. A concept like Sabbath is so easy to forget about, considering I’m so busy doing God’s work. Pulling into the driveway at the monastery and its campus seemed to be a spiritual dream come true. After all, endless paths through peaceful woods next to an equally placid lake…it’s perfect for such a time as that.

But I couldn’t do it. I nervously stood in my window and looked out and realized how much time I had ahead of me. I read for a half hour and wrote in my journal for another twenty minutes. Glancing to and fro completed my first hour there and I was already mentally panicking. No Internet. No access to the outside world. Just me, a few gathered belongings and my Creator. And I learned it sounds much better than it really is.

I got home and made a joke of it. While at the monastery I developed many reasons why this was poor stewardship of my time and how I needed to be present at home. There were articles I needed to write. There were people I needed to meet with. I can’t deny doing God’s work and just relax like I’m living in my parents’ basement. The moment I got home, I realized what I’d done in wasting this planned moment and coming home to the hustle and bustle that made me want to leave in the first place.

So I used it as a story that Sunday morning. People nodded their heads as they understood and it was a nice moment where we all realized that we are just busy and it’s hard to unplug. I felt okay with my illustration. “Ha! That funny Matt. He’s just like me.” And I was going to be fine and forget the whole episode until one friend chastised me.

“You failed. And don’t paint it any other way. You were afraid. It’s not a joke and it’s not something to pass off lightly. I’m disappointed in you because I know that you needed this. But you’re afraid of being alone and you left out of fear.” He was right. I’m afraid of what I look like when there’s nobody to impress. I’m afraid of what God might say to me or ask of me when I give him all the time in the world. I’m afraid of being…well, naked and ashamed, as humans can tend to be.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I look around and it’s hard to find anyone willing to endure the silence. I am surrounded by a culture refusing to allow stillness to find their soul, to allow themselves to be re-created. Wendell Berry says it best in The Long-Legged House, I believe:

There is indeed a potential terror in [silence]. It asks a man what is the use and what is the worth of his life. It asks him who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he’s doing, and where he thinks he’s going…. In the face of that silence…no wonder he turns on the radio. No wonder he goes as fast as he can. Pursued into the wilderness by questions he is afraid even to ask, no wonder he finds his comfort — to his bewilderment, surely — in what he thought he wanted to be free of: crowdedness and commotion and hurry and mess.

Berry describes what I was truly facing that weekend. The silence was asking me about the substance of my own life. It was peeling back the layers that the busyness creates and reinforces. It made me feel naked and ashamed — and I reached for the fig leaves as quickly as possible.

A few years have passed since that shortened retreat, and I’m happy to admit I am less afraid of the silence. Further attempts to enter into the solitude have revealed a love present there that is willing to accept me at my deepest levels. I’m still learning to peel back those layers, but the sensation is a welcome one now, albeit a foreign one.

One day we will all realize the ways in which we cover ourselves out of fear. Until then, we must recognize our fears, label them accordingly and refuse to give in simply because the dominant culture will allow us to do so. 

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