“What would be helpful for you this summer? What do you need?” my therapist asked. All I could think about was sitting somewhere beyond the city, in silence, alone. “So a silent retreat, maybe somewhere up the coast, might help,” she added.
I need silence, solitude, and contemplation, like I need water, these days. Silence, solitude, contemplation are hard to come by in a busy season of life, in a busy city, where so many things move forward too fast to notice. Paying attention to so much seems better left for the next day.
On Monday, I will graduate from Yale Divinity School. I’ll walk across the stage with a red master’s hood on and receive my degree. Studying religion, with no intention of joining a religious institution, could be advertised as sure fire way to unemployment. It is unpopular in the places I find myself and impractical, but these two years have been enriching in ways I cannot fully comprehend now. Leaping before one is ready is much like faith, trusting, not that there will be no difficulty, but that there will be support through whatever difficulties may come to be. Trust, along with the conscious act of contemplation, is the stuff of a spiritual life.
In divinity school, we use the word “discernment” often to discuss the process of finding purpose, in work, in relationships, in community. Theologian Henri Nouwen describes discernment as the process of “spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life that is acquired through disciplined spiritual practice. Discernment is faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so that we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission. When we are truly listening, we come to know that God is speaking to us, pointing the way, showing the direction. We simply need to learn to keep our ears open. Discernment is a life of listening to a deeper sound and marching to a different beat, a life in which we become ‘all ears.’” Listening, an orientation of receptivity, begins the process of discernment, which results in new ways of seeing and new ways of being.
I conceive of discernment as the process of sifting through the matter of my life, the way an archaeologist sifts through ancient ruins looking for treasure. To sift through the matter of one’s life, to find what is truly essential and worth our time, requires intention and consciousness. I let the impulses of my ego, my own pain, and daily suffering fall away, so that I can see what is at the root of what I resist and what I love. Through contemplation, I begin to sense what action I must take to better live in integrity, to find more joy, to begin again, to become braver.
Last night, I could not fall asleep, thanks to jet lag and my habit for diving into important considerations as I’m getting ready for bed. An unexpected interview for a job in New York, the looming decision about a cross-country move, and other more sensitive matters weighed on my mind. I felt too awake, and yet too exhausted to fully process it all. I laid on the couch in our apartment, listening to the holy sounds of the water in the dishwasher moving like waves on the shore and of our cat breathing heavily in sleep. I began to think about graduation, about our recent trip to California, about the prospect of being a teacher, about journalism school, about our financial planning, about Jack’s next step. Sifting.
“Maybe this is the near silence, the solitude, the space I need,” I thought, as the hums of the familiar mundane, not masked by the bright and busy Manhattan days, lulled me to sleep.
Henri Nouwen, in another of his works, writes, “We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new.” With the space to breathe and be still in contemplation, we can find ways to make all things new and trust that all will be, eventually, well. In the gap between this movement and the next, there is peace.