Sunday, March 29, 2009


"As hard as it is to believe that the dry desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding unknown beauty. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play." - Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

See that snow? We got a foot on Thursday. It's our first precipitation of the year, and the only really significant snowfall of the season. It's been sunny since late December, and I've been exhausted. If you know me, you know that I need - truly need - cloudy weather to center myself and be productive. Continual sunshine makes me feel scattered and frantic. I feel pressured to run errands, play outside, do all kinds of things - a midwestern reaction to sunshine that gets blown out of proportion now that I live in Denver, in a town that gets 300 days of sunshine a year (more like 350 - not that I'm counting or anything).

So the snow day was a reprieve for me. I was able to rest. We didn't go anywhere once the snow started flying, I made bread all afternoon and we had slow-cooked beef stew for dinner, and I got a lot of knitting done. Finally!

My state of exhaustion has been exacerbated lately because the Doodle has been in the habit of waking up for a couple hours every night, crying at the bottom of the stairs (she sleeps in the basement and we sleep upstairs), "Mama, come down!" in a piteous little voice. I spent part of Wednesday night on the couch and part of it in her bed, while she slept in my bed. No one slept well. She and I have both been crabby all week - according to My Hero, I've been worse than she has. I've had to say "I'm sorry" a lot, and she's been in Time Out a lot.

What does this have to do with Nouwen and Lent and giving up the Internet, you ask? Just this: even though I had so little sleep on Wednesday night, when we started our day on Thursday with gray, restful skies and the assurance that we wouldn't have to do much, our day was quiet, comparatively harmonious, and fulfilling for me. When I am rested - physically this week, but emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well - I am calmer and able to provide for those who ask something of me. Rest and stillness provide me with the solitude of the heart that Nouwen constantly refers to - not necessarily a physical isolation, but an inner resting place that gives me the resources I need to be productive and nurturing. Sure, I can operate without rest for a while, but when I do so, my resources are limited and I feel frantic, frenzied, jittery.

I find that for me, rest does not usually mean vegging out in front of the TV or taking a nap or reading trashy novels. I do all those things quite frequently (hooray for Battlestar Galactica!), but it's usually a verbal rest that I need. Spending all day with a two-year-old takes a lot of talking! Giving up the internet has cut down my word consumption too, and it's been such a blessing in that regard. If I need to rest, to center my soul and relax, I am drawn to the nonverbal - knitting, or cooking, or sketching. Things that involve my body and my mind, but not my vocabulary. Then I can come back to my book or my daughter or my computer and engage meaningfully.

Rest is closely linked with solitude and silence - I considered naming this post "Silence", but have been focusing on rest a lot more this week, probably because I've gotten so little. I have become very aware of how my restfulness affects my attitude and how I treat those around me. I've been convinced of my need to rest more often, in order to reach out from a place of fullness and peace. I'm also quite sure that this culture we live in (and which is promoted on the internet I've given up) abhors the silence and self-knowledge that accompanies rest, and does everything in its power to minimize and demonize our need for rest. Ever try to find a free, quiet, relaxing indoor place that isn't your own home? Hotel lobbies and libraries are all I can think of. How sad that we have to fight to rest. I will, though. Rest allows me to hear from God, to be healed of my wounds, and to fill my heart with solitude, so that I can serve my family and friends humbly and joyfully. It's worth the struggle.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


"It is not so difficult to see how 'reactionary' we tend to be: that is, how often our lives become a series of nervous and often anxious reactions to the stimuli of our surroundings. ... it seems of great importance to know with an experiential knowledge the difference between an action that is triggered by a change in the surrounding scene and an action that has ripened in our hearts through careful listening to the world in which we live. The movement from loneliness to solitude should lead to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response. Loneliness leads to quick, often spastic, reactions which make us prisoners of our constantly changing world. But in solitude of heart we can listen to the events of the hour, the day and the year and slowly 'formulate,' give form to, a response that is really our own. In solitude we can pay careful attention to the world and search for an honest response." - Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

I've been thinking a lot over the past few months about pendula. Or, more accurately, how common it is (among my friends anyways) for people to swing like a pendulum from one viewpoint to an opposite one. If our family raised us as "good evangelical conservatives" and we don't feel comfortable with that, we lean toward something less evangelistic and more liberal. If our background includes emotional distance, we often respond with emotional neediness. If we are lonely, we do whatever we can to fill our lives with people, noise and activity.

Even though these circumstances and reactions are opposite, they have one thing in common: they represent excess. They demonstrate the swinging of our personal pendula, when "perfect peace and rest" is found most often in the center, in a middle ground between the two opposing ideas. I've been struck by Nouwen's observations about reaction and response as it relates to this concept of excess - when I react, I generally do so in excess of what the situation warrants: if I don't want the Doodle to feel suffocated, I leave her to her own devices, and conversely, if I feel like I'm not spending enough time with her, I dedicate so much time to her that I'm burned out and grumpy at the end. A more moderate solution would be to spend several smaller chunks of time with her throughout the day, so that we both would enjoy each other's company and our solitude. Moderation takes thought and deliberation; I have to be attentive and responsive to her moods and needs so that we can both spend our time well.

This sense of constantly overcompensating, always missing the mark is part of the human condition: since the Garden of Eden, we have wanted what we don't have. We think that if we just tweak this behavior, or eliminate this problem, things will be good. The grass is always greener, and we say to ourselves, "If I only had/were/did something else, I could be at rest." So we work the longer hours, we get another degree, we vote for a different party, we buy the bigger house, we espouse a different doctrine, and nothing contents us. This "longing for home", as Frederick Buechner puts it, is a legitimate longing that can only find its fulfillment in Christ (N.T. Wright also discusses this at length in his book Simply Christian). Just as a pendulum longs to rest at the center, pulled to stillness by the force of gravity, so we long for the quiet rest of God's peace.

Ironically, giving up the internet for Lent has caused me to swing to excesses. I gave up the internet because I was bothered by how much time I was spending online, doing nothing constructive. Now, though, I make it through my week and then gorge myself on Sundays on all the blogs and emails and threads that I "must" catch up on before the end of the day. As a result of being "chronic" (a term my husband and his friends use for hours- or days-long video gaming), I'm cranky, distracted and mostly absent from my family on Sundays. I've been thinking hard about how this abstinence will affect me after Lent is over; I hope that I'll be able to be more moderate in my surfing, not swinging from fast to binge, but using this medium as a tool when I need it and not just indiscriminately or compulsively. And it's made me more aware of the excesses I allow into my life when I'm operating from a frenzied place of reaction (which is most of the time) instead of the quiet of solitude. When will I recognize that binging on anything, be it the internet, lunch dates, or Girl Scout cookies will not bring me the fulfillment and satisfaction that a moderate, thoughtful enjoyment of the gifts I've received will? As the pendulum slows, and the heart settles into its solitude, God promises an abundant, rich and meaningful life. That's the life I want. That's the direction I want to head.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


“God is not necessarily asking you difficult or profound things – to go on missions or to give all your money away – that seldom happens. God is usually saying, ‘Why don’t you do this little thing: just don’t get so mad with your wife’, or ‘Maybe you should start reading a book’. It suddenly becomes clear to you, very clear, ‘That this little thing I really should do.’ It’s amazing when you do one or two a day of these tiny little things. It starts carving a new place in your life and you find yourself – introspectively – having made a whole journey.” – Henri Nouwen, Beloved

I’ve always struggled with knowing what it is God is calling me to. I’ve lived my entire life in an environment where God calls people to “The Ministry” or “Missions” – a calling from God generally resulted in extensive sacrifice for the average Christian, or, if you were really spiritual, you might heed God’s call with joyful obedience. Generally, I’ve avoided asking God what I should do with my life because I haven’t wanted to know the answer. I’ve pictured Him rubbing His hands together: “Okay, boys, now that we’ve got her, should we send her to deepest Africa, or should she be a pastor’s wife at the most dysfunctional church we’ve got?”

On one level this is obviously a trust thing – do I trust God to know how I can best be used by Him, and allow Him to use me that way? But hearing God’s call is also about the contemplative life, making space and time to listen for those very small calls that make a vocation. Vocation is born from silence – “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

This Lent is about my experience giving up the Internet. As I realized last week, however, I’m very skilled at keeping myself occupied, even if it doesn’t involve DSL. This week has been no different; my mom came into town for a week on Wednesday, and we spent Friday and Saturday painting the bedroom. But this week, I’m noticing more my need for solitude, and the Voice I’m missing out on because so much else is clamoring for my attention. Having company tends to do this to me anyways, and I think it’s more prominent because of my Lenten discipline. I know that God wants to speak to me through this fast, and I feel the time slipping away – I am not making the effort I should (should! Again with the guilt!) to set aside quiet, contemplative time. Tomorrow, I say to myself. Tomorrow I’ll do devotions, I’ll listen for God’s calling, I’ll discover what it is I’m supposed to be doing with my life.

I can sense the depth, I can almost feel the richness. The vision has been cast: what Life could be like if I would die to myself. Maybe God isn’t calling me to Africa. Maybe my vocation is just loving my daughter, or playing outside, or having lunch with someone who’s intriguing me. Maybe it’s all those things. This is my chance to stop and find out.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


"Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. ... Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter - the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the susbstance of the new self." - Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

I was pleased to have solitude this week. I have had very intermittent work over the past several months, and this week was no exception: The Doodle was at daycare for three days, and I was at home by myself. I love having the time to get things done, to meet with friends, to just think. The additional isolation of no internet meant I would be even more productive and self-aware, right? No blogs to read, no email to check, no celebrity foibles to laugh at - Susie Homemaker was in for her comeuppance. Dr. Phil, too.

Or something.

Sure, I read a couple books, finished a couple knitting projects, had dinner on the table every night. I played with the Doodle, I learned how to knit two socks at the same time on one circular needle, I exercised regularly, I even wrote a note to a friend whom I've been meaning to write to for over a year.

In short, I did everything I could to avoid my solitude.

Nouwen predicts this - I ran away from solitude in an effort to deny my "naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken" real self, choosing instead to "restore my false self in all its vainglory."

I've been thinking a lot about my identity and where my value lies, especially as I've looked for a job and contemplated staying home full-time. The struggle between accepting (by the grace of God) my real self and assessing my value (or lack thereof) by my work, my family and my friends has been real and difficult over the past few weeks. So it kills me that I had three days at home by myself with nothing to do but consider my value as the Beloved of God, and I chose instead to mop the floor. Not that mopping the floor has no value (especially when it's done as seldom as it is at our house), but I know that what I need right now is to sit at Jesus' feet.

I ended my week dissatisfied. I have very little solitude to look forward to in the next few weeks, and I had cheated myself of some serious self-examination, which is the whole point of Lent. There was also the incessant temptation to hop on the net - What's the weather? What's our account balance? And for goodness' sake, how's the poor Sri Lankan cricket team holding up? I persevered this week, and I have hope that I will continue to do so, but as I wryly noted to myself, it's distressing to discover that merely eliminating the internet from my week is not enough to make me holy. What do you know?! I can't do it all by myself!

Of course, this is what Lent is all about - remembering that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. Victory is not ours, but His - every victory. So I suppose it would be just as apt to say that while I am dissatisfied with my "performance" this week, I am thankful for a God that honors my meager efforts, that helped me find those flashes of solitude that did come up. Just as I am perfectly content with my daughter's efforts to put away the clean silverware from the dishwasher (even if it means the spoons are with the forks and the butter knives all face the wrong way), my Lord is content with my fumbling attempts to hear His calling and to spend more time with him. It is, after all, a process, and requires practice to get better at it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lent, and an Irony

If you are ever in contact with me in any other way on the web, like email or Facebook, you probably know by now that I've decided to give up the Internet for Lent. For those of you who only follow my blog, you may wonder what difference it will make, since I post so rarely anyways. It's a valid point. I keep trying to be better about posting, but I mostly find I have nothing to say.

The irony of giving up the internet for Lent is that it's providing me with lots of blog fodder. The church fathers had the foresight to allow for Sundays (Feast Days) off from Lenten disciplines, which is fortunate for me on a lot of levels: I can keep my emails and blogrolls manageable, and I can write down the things I need to check out online so that when Sunday rolls around, I'm not only celebrating Christ's resurrection (which is the point of the Feast Day - how can you fast when the Bridegroom is with you?), I'm also able to get my various questions answered that I have been accumulating throughout the week.

Lent started Wednesday. It's Sunday, and I've had some pretty major withdrawal, but in a good way. We've put the computer in the loft, so it's less accessible in general and doesn't draw my attention. I still wonder every day what's in my inbox, and whether my secret swap partner on Ravelry has emailed me to tell me that I'm getting a package in the mail this week, but I also have the "time" to play with the Doodle more attentively and do some stuff around the house that I would normally put off. I've also rediscovered Henri Nouwen this week, which is excellent timing - he's all about solitude and silence as means to build community and to serve, and between the internet being gone and me still being without work, I've got lots of solitude and silence these days.

I'm hoping I'll post here every Sunday between now and April 1, sometimes with pictures (I'm getting loads more knitting done too!), but with some kind of reflection on the prior week and what my web silence has been teaching me. It's an odd way to observe a Holy Lent, since traditionally it's considered tacky at best to tell people what you're giving up, but this is an odd season in my life, and this is a way for me to document it. Narcissistic? Possibly. Cathartic? Probably. But growth is not achieved in isolation, no matter how self-aware you may become there. Blogging is a way to connect to a community, and community is absolutely imperative for growth. So. Let's dive into the stillness of Lent together.