Good morning, Friends. Our message this morning could also be called, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” I mentioned to a friend last week that I was hoping I would have a week of “prayerful gardening.” And it turned out to be that and more.
I’ve been feeling peaceful and quiet internally, which means I haven’t been full of a lot of words and thoughts and plans. There is an ease that comes—a peace that really is beyond description—when we let ourselves settle into the quiet like an embrace of an old friend. For some of us, relaxing into that open space feels a bit uncomfortable… especially if we are most accustomed to schedules and to-do lists and things we can feel good about having completed at the end of the day.
I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older and gained some perspective that that was my mom’s way of being in the world, but I have a choice about whether I want it to be mine. Mom always seemed to measure her performance by some kind of what I would now call an arbitrary standard. She always had her to-do list, spelling out all the things she thought she should get done during the day. And if she did those, she would good about things when she rested at night. But if she didn’t complete them, well, she had failed that day. She hadn’t lived up to her own standards. And she wouldn’t be easy with herself about that. She spent a lot of especially her early life, I think, feeling that she continually fell short.
And that may sound either familiar to you or perhaps a bit too black-and-white. Life is rarely either/or and the ways we come to understand our experiences—through the stories we tell ourselves about them—become part of our history that rarely gets questioned. But I witnessed in my mom a continuing need for self-kindness—she was always so hard on herself. I don’t think she ever really understood that she was her own harshest judge, but I am glad to say that as she aged, she grew softer, more open to others, and she did seem to be enjoying the moments of her life more. I saw evidence of more grace at work.
So my intention at the start of my vacation was not to have a set of goals or a plan or a to-do list. I wanted to simply be open to God, listening prayerfully, doing what seemed right as the moments unfolded. I did have a book that I intended to read as a kind of prayerful guide. It was mentioned recently by a hermit monk in the UK who I follow on Twitter (yes, there are hermit monks on social media apparently—I was surprised too). He mentioned the book, Poustinia, by Catherine Doherty, and something bubbled up in me and said, “This is the book for me.” The description of the book says:
“The modern spiritual classic for those seeking the open heart and listening soul of silent contemplation. Poustinia, a Russian word, means ‘desert,’ a place to meet Christ in silence, solitude and prayer. Catherine Doherty combines her insights into the great spiritual traditions of the Russian Church with her very personal experience of life with Christ.
Men and women who desire communion with God can discover how the poustinia powerfully fulfills their yearning. Readers are invited to leave the noise and harried pace of daily life to enter a place of silence and solitude. Catherine writes from her own experience with refreshing and startling Christian authenticity and a strong personal sense of spiritual authority. (She) emphasizes a ‘poustinia of the heart,’ an interiorized poustinia, a silent chamber carried always and everywhere in which to contemplate God within.”
It turns out that Catherine Doherty’s book—and that inner nudge I got from spirit to buy it—were the perfect signposts, pointing the direction for my week of rest. One of the first entries I read in the book was this quote:
“All this standing still can be done in the midst of the outward noise of daily living and the duties of state in life. For it will bring order into the soul, God’s order, and God’s order will bring tranquility, his own tranquility. And it will bring silence.”
Sounds like the perfect map for a retreat, doesn’t it?
- Stand still in your life for a little while.
- Let God’s order fill your soul.
- And God’s order will bring tranquility, peace, and silence.
On my very first day of retreat, I was given another spiritual treasure. It was one I’d had under my bed for at least a dozen years. There, wrapped in a rough old fabric grain sack was my great-great grandmother’s 1883 bible.
I was reading a passage in the book that talked about how the merits of our time in solitude with God can flow outward to our families, friends, communities and world when suddenly the image of my great-great grandmother’s bible appeared in my mind. I literally had not thought of this bible in years—beyond liking the idea that it was under the bed where I slept, which seemed a kind of fit foundation for my life. But the idea that I might study with it, actually open it and let it speak to my heart, had never occurred to me. Feeling very much led by spirit, I went upstairs and gently pulled the big bundle from under my bed. As you might imagine—this is how they did it in those days—the bible is huge, weighs probably five pounds or more. I carefully unwrapped it from its linen shroud and placed it on a small, tabletop lectern in my front room—it felt like a place of honor that would bless everyone who entered or exited the front door.
The book itself is quite an impressive object, with a thick, heavy cover, black and embossed with gold on the top scrollwork. The gold has long since chipped and faded, but still hints at its earlier glory. The spine for the most part—at least on the cover—no longer holds. The first signature of pages had come loose and freed itself from the binding. It included a beautifully illustrated introduction to the Old and New Testaments; and lots of tables and figures offering interesting facts, like the chronology of the Old Testament, the Jewish calendar, a listing of the miracles of Jesus, names and titles of the Holy Spirit, and much more.
I first gently opened the book to the center, where I knew my great-great-grandmother Alice had kept a record of births, marriages, and deaths in the family. The first entry is her marriage to my great-great grandfather, Singleton Brown. They married on January 3, 1883, in Meade County, Kentucky. She also records the marriage of her parents, in 1861, and then on the death page shows that her father, Blancit Wimp, died just two years later, when Alice would have been only six months old.
I turned to the opening page of Genesis and noticed that someone, at some time, had written the word “God” in big, orate letters just beneath the title of the book. I took it to mean, “In the beginning, God.” I wondered who wrote that. Alice? Her daughter, my great-grandmother? Only history and God knows the answer to that question. As I began to read the scripture, I was listening inside to hear the verse or verses God was offering me just them. In the traditional form of Poustinia, people went into retreat and would find only very simple provisions. A loaf of bread and water—enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a single book: the bible. This simplicity aids the seeker in spending time listening and praying, removing all the distractions that get in the way of truly connecting –or having a heart that is earnest about connecting—with God. The book says that people might read a single verse, a page, or a chapter—it was another form of nourishment; read until your soul says “enough” and then simply let yourself hold and ponder and truly feel what you read.
And those on spiritual pilgrimage are not reading with their minds, feeding their intellects, analyzing the words and sentences they see. Instead, as the book says,
“The seeker reads them in deep faith. He doesn’t analyze them. He reads them and allows them to stay in his heart. He may read only one or two sentences or maybe a single page in one day. The point is that he puts them all in his heart like Mary did. He lets them take root in his heart and waits for God to come and explain them which he inevitably will do when he finds such a deep and complete faith.”
This is something we Friends know quite well. It’s one of the deepest beliefs of our tradition. Christ does come to teach his people himself.
That “enough” point happened for me almost immediately as I began to read. Right after the big, ornate letters announced the opening of Genesis, I found myself moved by Genesis 1:2:
“Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”
So often we hurry past this verse in the creation story because we want so much to get to the light. To reach the point we recognize, where life makes sense. In fact, “Let there be light” is the next verse. But here, in the two simple sentences of this verse—sentences that courageously attempt to describe the state of divine life before the world came into being—we get a glimpse of not only God’s process of creation but what could be a roadmap for how God works with each of us as well.
I was aware, early on the morning of my first day of retreat, that my inner life was all full of mystery that was really beyond my conscious story-making mind—churning with shaping patterns and experiences and influences that extend far deeper than the stories that bring meaning to my days. This deep place of life in all of us could be the point at which we are all connected—Carl Jung called it the “collective unconscious”—and at the very least it is a rich treasure trove of energy and inspiration and motivations that help to shape our daily experiences without our even knowing. The unconscious mind is something that has been studied by scientists and psychologists for more than 100 years. We know it is beyond our intellectual reach, outside our figuring or control. We often get glimpses of what is being stirred up in the deep formless void inside up by getting glimpses in our dreams or noticing the synchonicities in our daily lives.
So reading “Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep,” said something to me about the deep nature of God’s creating, in this realm and in me, personally. That idea that it all arises from beyond us, through us, with us and for us, was important. I felt this verse would be a kind of guide for my retreat and I wrote in my journal my intention to honor, respect, and make space for the deep, formless void in me through the experience. Leaving space for God was important—maybe most important. I wanted to befriend that mystery and make an effort to recognize and welcome God’s mystery in my life as an act of creation and love.
Next, the second sentence of this verse, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters,” reassured me that God was present there, God cares, God is nurturing the spiritual growth in us that begins to move toward taking shape from the formless mysterious void. God has a vested interest in our emerging. It is all God’s work we’re doing. I love the image from the Talmud’s idea that over every blade of grass an angel bends, whispering, “Grow, grow, grow!”
With the spirit of God hovering over the surface of the deep in each of our lives, God is bringing forth something good in us, nurturing our life and growth in him, whispering over the mysterious soul within us all, singing, “Grow, grow, grow!”
Friends, when I began writing this message I wondered how I would possibly put into words the deep and prayerful and lovely experiences I have had during this week of rest with God. I now see that I’ve written my entire message based on only the first hour of the first day! I don’t know exactly what that means: You may be hearing about this spiritual retreat in one form or another for many weeks—of perhaps the whole rest of my life. We shall see what God has in store.
But I hope from this small glimpse into what I did with my summer vacation, you get a bit of a uplifting sense that God is continually doing something new and rich in each one of our lives. God is always drawing us close—it’s what I believe the heart of God wants most of all—and that when we allow the space for stillness and peace to open in our lives, we can easily hear God’s whispers and feel God’s gentle tug on our hearts, showing us the way that we should go. It is deeply, demonstrably true that God does indeed come to teach his people himself. All we need to do is quiet our minds and turn our hearts in God’s direction.
I am so thankful for this week of rest, for the divine leading and companionship I experienced, and for the beautiful time of solitude, connection, and joy I found. I highly recommend it. And on your way to your own poustinia—which is always with you, in the silence of your own heart—may you also discover as I did the tender, sweet, always-open embrace of the Father who has been waiting so patiently and so long to welcome his beloved prodigal home.
Thank you, Friends.
- OT: Psalm 139: 7-12
- NT: Mark 6: 30-31
- Doherty, Catherine. Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer (Madonna House Classics, 2000).
- This morning’s streamed meeting for worship at Noblesville Friends: https://youtu.be/tbiDWmUf0EI