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A Pandemic of Noise: By Prasanta Verma

“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure,” writes Henri Nouwen.

In silence, in the desert places, words develop a skeleton, flesh, and bone. Wandering in the wilderness, words develop greater fullness and depth. Faith grows a stronger backbone and a fresh set of wings. Our spirits flourish with greater sensitivity and nuances of understanding. A cacophony of endless words is meaningless; meaning grows out of the silence from listening in quiet, lonely, spaces.

By quiet, lonely spaces I am not necessarily referring to physical spaces, but those thin and empty places in our lives marked by loss, grief, pain, and suffering. Were it not for the silence of those places, I may not have learned or appreciated the full meaning of those words and the full meaning of their opposites. Indeed, joy is much better understood when underscored by seasons of grief. Health is enjoyed more deeply after seasons of illness. The opposites, the pain that I (and maybe you) want to run far away from, is often the very circumstance that teaches me.

So few in our world are prone to listening, yet we truly learn in the silence of listening from each other. Is it any wonder we talk past each other in political discourse, then? We speak too much and listen less. This is no different in our daily lives, too. In my conversations with neighbors and acquaintances, fewer people ask questions of the other. We are too busy, unavailable, judgmental, or self-centered. No wonder we ebb and flow in a sea of longing and loneliness.

Nouwen writes,

It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and to discover there the small intimate voice saying: ‘You are my Beloved Child, on you my favor rests.’

We are living in an era where the daily barrage of boisterous news and continuous flow of information is almost like an insult to our systems. We are bombarded, and I can’t help but wonder that we need silence all the more. Eden was not a noisy place, I surmise. I imagine serenity, beauty, and the sounds of water and wildlife. What voices were speaking there in Eden, but of God speaking to His creation and of His creation speaking back? Yet today, the more prevalent voice is creation speaking to itself, or rather, screaming in blaring voices, all the time, all around us, so there is no escape. Are we hearing the voice of the One who calls us Beloved, amidst all the other voices? 

We are living in a pandemic of noise, silence is the treatment, and Christ in heaven is the cure.

***

Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

 

 

 

THOMAS MERTON’S PRAYER FOR PENTECOST

This Sunday, May 31, is Pentecost, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus and in the life of his followers today. To prepare, let’s pray Thomas Merton’s prayer for the Vigil of Pentecost. It’s long but worth reading and praying in its entirety.

***

Today, Father, this blue sky lauds you. The delicate green and orange flowers of the tulip poplar tree praise you. The distant blue hills praise you together with the sweet-smelling air that is full of brilliant light. The bickering flycatchers praise you together with the lowing cattle and the quails that whistle over there. I too, Father, praise you, with all these my brothers, and they all give voice to my own heart and to my own silence. We are all one silence and a diversity of voices.

You have made us together, you have made us one and many, you have placed me here in the midst as witness, as awareness, and as joy. Here I am. In me the world is present and you are present. I am a link in the chain of light and of presence. You have made me a kind of centre, but a centre that is nowhere. And yet I am “here,” let us say I am “here” under these trees, not others.

For a long time I was in darkness and in sorrow, and I suppose my confusion was my own fault. No doubt my own will has been the root of my sorrow, and I regret it merciful father, but I do not regret it because this formula is acceptable as an official answer to all problems. I know I have sinned, but the sin is not to be found in any list. Perhaps I have looked to hard at all the lists to find out what my sin was and I did not know that it was precisely the sin of looking at all the lists when you were telling me that this was useless. My “sin” is not on the list, and is perhaps not even a sin. In any case I cannot know what it is, and doubtless there is nothing there anyway.

Whatever may have been my particular stupidity, the prayers of your friends and my own prayers have somehow been answered and I am here, in this solitude, before you, and I am glad because you see me here. For it is here, I think, that you want to see me, and I am seen by you. My being here is a response you have asked of me, to something I have not clearly heard. But I have responded, and I am content: there is little to know about it at present.

Here you ask of me nothing else than to be content that I am your Child and your Friend. Which simply means to accept your friendship because it is your friendship and your Fatherhood because I am your son. This friendship is Son-ship and is Spirit. You have called me here to be repeatedly born in the Spirit as your son. Repeatedly born in light, in knowledge, in unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence and in praise.

If I have any choice to make, it is to live here and perhaps die here. But in any case it is not the living or the dying that matter, but speaking your name with confidence in this light, in this unvisited place: to speak your name of “Father” just by being here as “son” in the Spirit and the Light which you have given , and which are no unearthly light but simply this plain June day, with its shining fields, its tulip trees, the pines, the woods, the clouds and the flowers everywhere.

To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart is to be a centre in which all things converge upon you. That is surely enough for the time being.

Therefore Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.

To study truth here and learn here to suffer for truth.

The Light itself, and the contentment and the Spirit, these are enough.

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FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Hello and welcome to Friday Favorites! This week, the links that Prasanta Verma and I chose take us from prayer and reflection through silence, a bit of church history, and the redeeming power of art. A few of these are on the long side, longer than what we usually share — one is a full-length film! But they’re worth a deep dive to bring some beauty, wonder, and joy to your day.

Enjoy, and be blessed.

***

Praying: An Invitation to Silence via Andō (Andō shares a meditative poem from Mary Oliver)

In Pursuit of Silence via Patrick Shen (this film on silence is screening free during this pandemic time — so restorative for the soul)

Reading Hope in Trying Times, with Parker Palmer via Writing For Your Life (Parker Palmer shares about the lessons of depression and hope)

Permission to Ponder via Chris Alford and Tracy Balzer (Balzer encourages us with the beauty of creation as seen through the lens of Celtic Christianity)

The Nuns Who Wrote Poems via Nick Ripatrazone (get a taste of some divine poetry from literary nuns)

The Soul in Paraphrase via Joy Clarkson and Matthew Rothaus Moser (in this podcast episode, Moser explores transforming love in the poetry of Dante, a wonderful guide for our pilgrimage through life)

 

 

 

My Sunday With the Quakers: A Guest Post from Traci Rhoades

This week, I’m happy to feature a guest post from writer and blogger Traci Rhoades. Traci’s new book, Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost, just came out; it’s a memoir about going to church and mostly about finding common faith ground in the midst of our differences. Christian unity is such a worthwhile topic to explore right now!

Traci’s post features a subject we’ve discussed many times at The Contemplative Writer: silence. Some historical forms of prayer, such as centering prayer, involve sitting in silence with God. Below, Traci writes about how she came across an entire church service service that met her “deep hunger” for silence. I invite you to savor Traci’s words and maybe to think about where in your own life you’ve encountered God in moments of silence.

***

Never in my entire evangelical existence has my church family sat in silence for sixty minutes. In fact, I recall only one time of silence during any worship service and that was because someone missed her cue. The staff heard about it on Monday morning.

That’s how the Quakers do it though, or so I’d been told. Months earlier, an online friend put me in touch with Jason, a “Friend” in the Quaker sense. He attended unprogrammed services (a time of silent waiting for the Spirit) on the campus of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. After a few messages back and forth Jason encouraged me to visit when I had an opportunity to do so. They meet on Sunday mornings so it would need to be a time when I didn’t have any obligations at my own church.

A snowy day last December showed itself to be the right time. Surprisingly, my daughter agreed to attend with me. We asked another friend of ours, who asked a friend of hers. The four of us met up on the Catholic college campus to attend the Quaker service.

At first we weren’t sure we were in the right place, until a man rode up on his bicycle and put the sign in the ground by the front steps. The Friends Meeting was in session. A nice man greeted us at the door and asked us to sign the guest book. He assured us they frequently have guests. We took our places in the roughly-formed circle of about twenty individuals, and promptly at 10am, silence fell upon us.

Rhoades blog post
What do you do for sixty minutes of silence? The Spirit didn’t prompt anyone to talk the entire time. I took my prayer rope out of my purse and prayed the Jesus Prayer. I offered up lots of intercessory prayer, for individuals God brought to mind and for each person seated around that circle. I sung a few hymns in my head. I wondered what other people were thinking about. A prominent thought kept popping into my head, you could never leave from here angry. Pacifism came to mind. Quakers are pacifists, correct? My daughter sat pretty still for the first fifteen minutes or so. After that, she fidgeted off and on. The few times I caved and made eye contact with her, she mouthed the words, “how much longer?”

We made it. After the service of silence, we went around the circle and gave our names. When it came time for my daughter to give her name, she gave a made up one. I asked her why and she said, “I wasn’t going to give a roomful of strangers my name.”

After going around the circle giving our first names, a man asked why we don’t divulge our full names. It occurred to me I knew this one. “If we’re a circle of friends, we’re on a first name basis.”

Afterward I talked with my contact, Jason, some more. He shared with me he’d grown up United Methodist. He missed the music offered in a more traditional worship service the most. I thought for the 3,017th time, why can’t a worship service offer it all?

Following this experience I read a couple books I had on my bookshelf, written by Quakers. One author is a Quaker pastor, certain branches of this church tradition do have clergy. In The Same, but Different, Phil Baisley explains that moments of silence are part of every Quaker gathering. “When Friends gather for worship, no matter whether a pastor is present, they are gathering with Christ to worship God in spirit and in truth.” Indeed, this extends to business meetings, classroom settings and basically every conversation a Friend has with another human being.

I enjoyed my first unprogrammed service and will attend again. The people were kind and encouraging, but I left feeling as if I hadn’t gone to Sunday church. Was that a programmed response or do I personally need more? It’s hard to say when you’ve only visited one Sunday.

In Brent Bill’s book Holy Silence, he paints a vivid picture of how God has spoken in moments of silence throughout his lifetime; on Sunday mornings, in his home, at weddings, when he leads moments of holy silence at ecumenical services in their vacation town. There’s more to corporate silence I need to explore. Bill writes, “The deep silence of the soul is our Eucharist.” Maybe that explains my deep hunger for silence. I am thirsty for a word from the Spirit. I love the idea of Him speaking corporately in communion of another kind. The Quakers are teaching me. We need each other. We really do.

 

 

WEEKLY PRAYER

Today’s prayer comes from the Book of Common Prayer, collect 24.

***

Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory
and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the
earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service
of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in
truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of
him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Happy Friday, friends! Prasanta Verma and I hope you enjoy this week’s round-up of favorite links. You’ll find reflections on life during the pandemic and some articles/resources about important spiritual practices – daily prayer, spiritual mentoring, and letter writing. Enjoy, and be blessed.

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Daily Prayers for Uncertain Times via Richella Parham (a prayer guide for you to download)

Breaking via Nichole Woo (when things break all over again)

Pandemic Journal: An Entry on Cutting Your Son’s Hair (and the Lilac Bush) via Laura Boggess (gifts during this pandemic season)

We Must Cure the Global Pandemic of Loneliness via Andrew Vanderput  (the pandemic helps us realize anew that we need our neighbors and they need us)

Help Wanted: Imperfect Mentors Only via Michelle Van Loon (wisdom about the practice of spiritual mentoring)

Letter Writing Isn’t a Lost Art in Egypt. It’s an Ancient Ministry via Phoebe Farag Mikhail and Bishoy Lamie Mikhai (letters re a physical connection in times of discouragement, loneliness, and grief)

 

 

 

Oneing with Julian of Norwich

The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich has taught me many things about hope, faith, and divine love. Recently she’s also taught me the value of words. I was reading Julian’s work, the Revelations of Divine Love, when I came across this sentence: “Prayer ones the soul to God.” This passage awakened my inner grammar queen. The last time I checked, “ones” wasn’t a verb.

Evidently Julian didn’t read the same grammar books that I did. Examples of oneing infuse her work, such as:

In our making God knit us and oned us to himself . . .

And the conclusion of this idea:

By the virtue of the same precious oneing, we love our Maker and seek God . . .

Julian’s oneing would not have sounded as jarring to her audience as it does to us. “To one” was a Middle English word meaning to unite or to join. But words change. If used today, oneing would constitute an egregious case of verbing — the act of turning a noun into a verb. You’ve probably seen many examples of this. Adulting is hard. Or, It’s time to introvert!

I think this is why some translators of Julian’s work don’t use her original wording: they’re concerned that she’s breaking today’s grammar rules. These translators often change the word “oned” to “united.” So, Julian’s phrase “prayer ones the soul to God” becomes “prayer unites the soul to God.”

JulianBut I much prefer Julian’s strange little verb. How much lovelier oneing is than uniting! The unfamiliarity of this word makes me pause, reread, and really grapple with its meaning. Uniting implies a joining of forces, but oneing suggests a knitting together that can never be undone, a union so seamless that you can no longer distinguish its individual parts.

Oneing implies more than intimacy. In the works of Julian of Norwich and other medieval mystics, it describes union with God himself. It encapsulates the mystery of our creation and our very being. Oneing is divine, in every sense of the word.

Not all examples of nouns-cum-verbs are as poetic as oneing. But Julian’s treatise has made me look at words differently, especially the trend of verbing. I haven’t always appreciated this trend. But thanks to Julian, I’m looking at it with new eyes. I’m ready to be surprised and disrupted, ready to see something new and possibly divine in the way we use words and break the rules. I’ve been bejulianed.

Perhaps we could all stand to be bejulianed. In an age of increasing verbiage and decreasing attention spans, we need language that disrupts; we need words that teach us about ourselves and the world instead of words that fly under our radar. In fact, it’s a thrill to discover that the English language can still trip us up. So when you see a strange word, perhaps even an example of verbing, pause, reread, think, and imagine. Above all, ask yourself this question: have I been oned with the divine today?

***

A version of this post originally appeared in the journal Upwrite.

WEEKLY PRAYER: JULIAN OF NORWICH

The English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) is remembered on May 13 (in the Catholic Church — and on May 8 in the Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches).

This week, let’s pray one of her beautiful prayers:

 

 

Julian of Norwich

 

In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and Savior.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvelous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.

 

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FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Friday Favorites is back after a break of several weeks. We hope you are keeping well and sane. This week, Prasanta Verma and I have some beautiful posts, podcasts, and videos for you. They include thoughts on navigating the pandemic in our spiritual and writing lives, suffering and the church, and the ancient spiritual practice of remembering our death. We hope these words bless you this week. Be well!

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Ask A Spiritual Director via Kimberly Pelletier and Samuel Ogles (Pandemic Series Part 2: How do I deal with people who think differently than me about this pandemic?)

Reading Hope in Trying Times with Barbara Brown Taylor via Writing for Your Life (thoughts on the pandemic, online experiences, and books)

Memento Mori: Memento Vivere via Raymond (Randy) Blacketer (remembering our death so that we can remember to live)

The Tender Way via Marlena Graves (God doesn’t cause our suffering, but uses it to change us)

Can the Church View Disabled Bodies as Jesus’ Body? via Amy Kenny (it’s time for the church to start treating people with disabilities as full members of the body of Christ)

Writing the Pandemic: Your Morning Walk with Sophfronia, May 1, 2020 via Sophfronia Scott (taking small steps in our writing lives during this time)

 

 

 

Setting the World on Fire

April 28 – Wednesday of last week – was the Feast Day of St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century saint, mystic, reformer, and Doctor of the Church. I wanted to post about St. Catherine last week, but I was swimming in book edits.

On Catherine’s Feast Day, I noticed the quotations everyone was posting, especially this one: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” This is surely Catherine’s most popular saying today. We see in it an encouragement to fulfill our destiny and bring our unique spirit to the world. Very good. Except this isn’t what Catherine said. Not exactly.

The quote we know is a paraphrase from one of Catherine’s letters to a nobleman named Stefano di Corrado Maconi, one of her disciples. For a long time, she tried to persuade Stefano to enter the monastery because she saw his spiritual depth. She also needed his practical help. In a letter, she asks him to use his influence on the Sienese government to support Pope Urban VI against the antipope (Clement VII). At the end of the letter, she says,

If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder.

Setting fire to Italy is no small thing. Italy was Catherine’s and Stefano’s primary sphere of influence. But she adds the words “and not only yonder,” by which she perhaps means the larger Christian world as well.

Stefano is to light this fire by being who he “ought to be.” But not on his own. Reading Catherine’s letter, it’s clear that Stefano should be who he ought to be in Christ. He needs to be filled with the remembrance and love of God and so embrace his true identity. He is to do this in two ways. First, he needs to stop monkeying around about his faith. Catherine quotes the time Jesus warned Christians about being lukewarm:

I, Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood: with desire to see thee arise from the lukewarmness of thy heart, lest thou be spewed from the mouth of God, hearing this rebuke, ‘Cursed are ye, the lukewarm! Would you had at least been ice-cold!’

CatherineofSienaAnd second, Catherine urges haste. Stefano seems to be dithering in his support of the Church and in what Catherine believes to be his true vocation. She writes her letter to him with an urgency that I love. I read her words as if written to us today. The time is short, she seems to say. The day draws to a close. And I —you, we—are called to step into being who we are in Christ. Don’t be lukewarm! Be on fire for Jesus! Be filled with gratitude. God needs us, so let’s get to work. Now!

Being who we are in Christ is no small thing. It is, in fact, one of our biggest tasks in life. The world needs what we, each of us uniquely, have been gifted. It needs our God-given passions. It needs our fire. It needs us to illuminate our little spheres of influence, “and not only yonder.” But to set our Italys on fire, we need first to be filled with the fire of the Spirit. We can’t do it on our own.

It was only after Catherine died that Stefano embraced his vocation and became a Carthusian monk. How about us? Will we dither? Or will we embrace our God-given fire? Why do we delay? The time is short. The world is waiting.