This year marks the first time that I have ever tried to observe Lent. I come from a church background that generally eschews tradition, and while I very much agree with my church’s desire not to bind the people of God with the laws of men, I also enjoy my freedom to partake in spiritual traditions which I personally find helpful. Thus, I decided to use Lent as a time to deliberately focus on my relationship with God. The thing I really wanted to work on was my prayer life. My morning prayers have gotten somewhat rote and shallow, and they leave me spiritually thirsty afterward. I told God all this, and then reread the chapter on prayer in one of my favorite books, Celebration of Discipline. I thought that was a good start.
Then, on the morning of Ash Wednesday, I got up early, sat curled up on my love seat, where I usually have my quiet time, and prepared myself for some renewed prayer. Only…no words came.
I decided not to force it. So I just sat there and watched the sunrise.
A few minutes later, Anna came wandering sleepily into the room. I greeted her brightly, and she came to snuggle with me. The way we were sitting, she perfectly mirrored me: we faced the same direction as she rested against my chest. I absently played with her hair, and in that moment, I was reminded that my love for my daughter was just a pale reflection of God’s love for His children. I also saw that what Anna was doing to me, I was doing to God while sitting in the love seat watching the sunrise:
We were both resting in the presence of our parent.
It was very nice. And peaceful. I enjoyed it immensely.
And then, a funny thing started happening:
Anna started to talk.
She was jabbering really, about nothing. About the designs on her pajamas and things like that. It didn’t even feel like she was talking to me (indeed, she probably wasn’t), but rather talking to herself.
And it was funny, because I love my daughter very much, and I love to hear her sweet voice, and to know what is on her mind…but in that moment, I thought, “I do wish she would stop prattling on and just enjoy the silence.” I wasn’t even annoyed, really–more like amused.
And then I smiled…
because it seemed like God was trying to tell me something.
And I realized that maybe to improve my prayer life, I should stop twittering on about whatever is in my head each morning, and start listening more to God. Maybe I read the wrong chapter of Celebration of Discipline; maybe I should have read the chapter on silence instead.
During the next few days, I became aware of how little I let silence into my life. In the morning, I start writing my prayers to God with little thought or meditation. When I eat alone, I read a magazine. If I’m in the car alone, I listen to music. If I have a spare second in the day, I am on my phone reading a blog. I realized that I had literally gotten to the point where I could not just sit still.
Why was that?
The more I thought about it, I realized that, at the heart of it, my need for distraction reflected dissatisfaction. Sometimes I would use distraction to avoid some unpleasant chore. Sometimes I used it because I didn’t have anything else to do in the moment, like when I was waiting the last few minutes of my planning time before walking down the hall to teach class. Sometimes it was because I was really tired or wasn’t feeling well, and I wanted to distract myself from my fatigue or my sickness. But whether I was trying to escape a chore, boredom, or unpleasant feelings, the bottom line was that I found reality dissatisfying and thus, I sought to distract my brain.
The desire for distraction is understandable, I guess, but there were a few side effects that I hadn’t noticed. For one thing, my brain never had time to rest. Any spare moment was spent reading something or listening to something, and the lack of downtime slowly exhausted my brain throughout the day. One result was that there was much less space in my day for creative thought. Once I started to remove so many of my distractions, I was able to spend more of those spare moments just resting in God’s presence. And then a funny thing happened: when I started resting my mind during the day, I found that afterward, it was teeming with thoughts and observations and ideas–and a seemingly unending supply of blog posts!
Even more importantly, I realized that all the noise around me kept me from appreciating the little blessings of this God-given life. My desire to distract myself had robbed me of all the little, exquisite details of this life that I so easily ignore: a morning chill, a light breeze, the curve of a lampshade, the miracle of my daughter’s hands. When I quiet my mind and take time to look at my world, I notice the beauty in the ordinary…and often, beautiful thoughts come from those observations. Letting quiet back into my life has, perhaps paradoxically, improved my communication with God.
The picture at the top of this post is of the squashed handfuls of wildflowers my children brought to me a couple days ago. Those flowers are so evocative of the little blessings that I receive when my eyes are opened and my mind is focused to receive them. When I silently enjoy the presence of God, I find that my life is full of these little flowers.