catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 2 :: 2011.01.28 — 2011.02.10


Staying in to tend the fire

Leaning into a biting wind, I pressed through the dark towards the hermitage I’d been nesting in for a few days.  Relying on the map of each turn and ascent that my memory had charted in daylight, I navigated the 17-minute walk away from the forced air heat of the retreat center, relishing the delight of my return to solitude and the companion warmth of the woodstove in my waiting nest.

Back inside, the brisk walk with its crescendo of anticipation was already solidifying into a gift I’ve grown to treasure, and for which I gave immediate thanks: not only was I safely sheltered from the bleak cold and snowy ghosts outside the hermitage windows; in that moment I knew myself in a fresh manna way as just who I was, a child loved and held by warm silence.  It was an early, wintry beginning to Lent that year, and it just felt so good to be in!

This gift has grown to be more than metaphor.  Time and again I’m reminded of how impossible it is to resist the consistent, impulsive distractions prompting me to go out — unless I counter with an equally consistent and calm determination to stay in.  Nowhere has this been more evident than in my efforts to keep up a daily meditation practice, when staying put becomes a navigational necessity when aiming towards the stillness needed for knowing that God is God, and we’re not.  Whether it’s the Jesus prayer, or the Benedictine Maranatha, or Brennan Manning’s “Abba, I belong to you,” or Mary’s “Let it be to me,” staying with your mantra traveling companion begins to quietly reinforce the value of staying in, of remaining present to your deepest self.

I perennially find this reality takes deepest root in the permafrost paradox of winter.  The other seasons offer more consistent distractions to go out: the thawing garden in spring, summer’s allure of travel and recreation, and the impulse to ingather as much of autumn’s bounty as we can.  Winter’s sabbatical from the rhythms of seedtime, growth and harvest presents itself as a time to bring in the wood that you split and stacked earlier on.  The bleaker the weather, the sweeter the woodstove’s rolling flames contrast with the swirling snow outside, its steady glow becoming a torch against the growing darkness of shortening days.

It’s a good time for staying in to tend your inner fire as well, for staying with the silence and loneliness until they speak, for not letting go in the intercessory wrestling match until some blessing appears, as it will.  And as you do, you picture yourself approaching a rural mailbox, barely able to reach it because of the depth of piled up snow.  You bring in the mail, and there you find a brightly illustrated seed catalogue; it’s time to sit by the fire and browse this catalogue of promises, wondering within what you might like to plant.

Last night, Blue Monday’s Eve, a niece living several time zones away returned my call checking in with her.  I’d heard that her husband no longer wants to engage in their marriage of less than five years.  I wanted to know how she’s been handling their separation through Christmas, far from siblings and parents.  She answered that the active ingredient most helping her through the loneliness and devastating disappointment has been learning to persistently stay present to her own self as one suffering through these unwelcome states. 

This answer took me aback at first, but soon put me in mind of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, a book that helped me some years ago though some challenges of my own, effectively becoming a segue for me into Benedictine meditation.  As the title suggests, the way to live through the full Monty of what life’s dealing you is by staying mindfully present to what you’re experiencing — by “staying in,” if you will, no longer evading the moment by moment opportunities for growth being cast up in front of you.  

My niece admitted this was no easy task, but the providential gifting of a lovely loft in which to be on her own is helping make it possible to stay with it.  Having her own place from which to face the full catastrophe of separation enables her to redouble the daily effort to dismantle the devastation that feeling unloved and unwanted can bring on.  The gift of this loft creates a place where she can stay in, tending the sacred blaze of her deep worth, even as unrelenting circumstances threaten to cause her to give in to giving up.

This moment-by-moment work of staying present to the joys and sorrows of our true inner selves has obvious parallels to the work needed to nurture cohesive community.  The spiritual skill sets learned from staying in the secret place are not only translatable to our lives in community; they are an asset without which healthy corporate life is probably impossible.  The difficulty we often have maintaining meaningful cohesion in Body life may well be traceable to our own inability or unwillingness to stay with what can only be learned at the micro level of the closet:  receiving, then being able to show intimacy; listening in the silence for what God would show us through the pain, loneliness or disappointment we are experiencing; the enduring beauty of simplicity and stillness; and how each of us is infinitely valued in God’s sight.

Conversely, whether it’s staying in a marriage or community, or staying faithful to the vow of stability in a monastery, our growth and success will be more likely as we ourselves are growing in our capacity to stay, to wait, to be patiently present.  A redemptive love begins to emerge from the hidden place that each of us is able to furnish and occupy.  As writers, we increasingly discern the enduring truths worth taking down to express in fresh ways, while learning to ignore the distractions that keep us off message and off target.  In all we do through our days of liturgy and laundry, it’s from the secure place each of us can have in the Beloved that we can bring blessing and cohesion to the communities we so often find challenging to stay in.

Many of you will recognize Kathleen Norris in the liturgy and laundry reference.  I’ve been deeply enriched by her writing, and her example has inspired me to enter the novitiate to become a lay Benedictine oblate.  While admiring how her great writing has been influenced by being an oblate herself, I also recognize a kicking and screaming desperation in myself as I prepare to go next month to Mt. Savior Monastery in Elmira, NY — heading out, ironically, even as I’ve been extolling the virtues of staying in.  This may well be a reflection of the great difficulty I continue to have with being still, the back-story of much of my desperation. 

One of the guardians over my oblature process wrote me yesterday with finishing hammer words gently hitting the nail where it most needs to be hit.  Encouraging me to stay on the path I’ve started on, he challenged me to be vigilant in listening to God’s guidance in silence, “because other sources of encouragement can often take us off the path and onto the path of our own desires.”  He further encouraged me to be “constantly looking inward and silently allowing the Lord to do His work in you and not your work for Him.” 

This is right where the kicking and screaming can so easily resume: as many of us do, I too often default to going out to gain encouragement from others, or to set to work on whatever I think needs to get done for God.  I’m thankful that it’s becoming clearer that the best clarity I can have into my true self, and the best blessings I can bring to the Body I’m called to be part of can only be found by staying in, allowing God to do His work in me.  I already know I’ll be sent home from my novice retreat with more of the same medicine.  In yet another crescendo of anticipation, I’m thankful to be having this fresh dose of it administered in winter!

your comments

comments powered by Disqus