“Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”
That's where I want to want to nest. Near the altar of my King. To be near my God.
But that's not where I find myself most of my days.
We've been house hopping for the past two months, blessed to stay in the beautiful homes of gracious friends. But also feeling weary of living out of suitcases, of trying to remember where we put certain items. And then attempting to leave homes just the way we found them. One of the worst feelings is discovering a scratch or stain or break as we're preparing to leave. Was that here when we got here or is this something we did???
Last week I found a book on the bookshelf of the house where we are currently house-sitting by one of my favorite authors, Ruth Haley Barton. The title really resonated with me, Invitation to Solitude and Silence. That's been a growing desire for me in this hectic summer season of our active boys being home from school, along with the unsettledness of moving all around. As I dug into the richness of this book, I was struck with the way she differentiated between a desire just to get time alone and a desire to connect with God.
“Solitude and silence are not self-indulgent exercises for times when an overcrowded soul needs a little time to itself. Rather, they are concrete ways of opening to the presence of God beyond human effort and beyond the human constructs that cannot fully contain the Divine.”
The following is an excerpt from my favorite chapter in her book called "Pure Presence," with an introductory quote from Parker Palmer:
“Solitude eventually offers a quiet gift of grace that comes whenever we are able to face ourselves honestly: the gift of acceptance, of compassion, for who we are as we are. As we allow ourselves to be known in solitude, we discover that we are known by love. Beyond the pain of self-discovery there is a love that does not condemn us but calls us to itself. This love receives us as we are.” Parker Palmer
To stay on the journey into solitude and silence now is to stay with the experience of seeing ourselves as we are in God's presence, as challenging as it is. In solitude we stop defending against the reality of our condition, we give up our attempts to control the outcomes of our journey because we can finally see it is quite beyond our ability to control. We let go of our attachment to the pieces of ourselves that we have allowed to define us. We endure the storm created by the old self as it frantically tries to maintain control.
While these patterns may have developed in reaction to very real traumas and enigmas, they do not serve the journey that God is inviting us to now. We need to take responsibility for having allowed these patterns to shape our lives and responses to others, so that we can choose a different way within the intimacy and safety of our love relationship with God.
Accompanying this self-awareness is a desperate desire for healing and communion that is painful in its intensity. To truly see, with the eyes of the soul, our need for transformation at the very core of our being elicits a longing that is beyond words. This part of the spiritual process is so demanding that we may be sorely tempted to turn back. The problem with this possibility is that there is no place to go back to once we have seen ourselves for who we are, enslaved to patterns of relating and being and doing that are ultimately antithetical to the life we are seeking.
Where do we go once we realize that we have been living in bondage and we have glimpsed the way of freedom? The only real option is to face it bravely, knowing that truth-seeking will ultimately lead us into freedom. This is all we can do. It does no good to try and fix what we see. It is cowardly to blame others for what we see. And denying what we see just puts us right back in the mess. The only thing we can do is keep our whole selves turned toward God even as we endure the grief and unsettledness that seeing brings.
But if we are faithful to the seeing, to the grief, to the letting go...if to the best of our ability we cease striving, stop kicking and fighting...if we release our grasping and clinging...
All of a sudden it becomes very quiet.
At first the quiet may feel like just another place of emptiness. We may even feel a sense of dread or fear that we are going to be judged or punished for parts of ourselves we have now brought into the light of day.
But if we stay in this moment, eventually—like Elijah—we begin to notice that this silence is qualitatively different from the emptiness we experienced before. The silence that comes after the chaos is pregnant with the presence of God.
Like Elijah, we may be surprised that at a point of painful self-awareness God does not chide us or scold us or give us a motivational speech inspiring us to pull ourselves together and get back at it. No, in Elijah's willingness to be there as he was—open and raw and receptive—and in our willingness as well, God grants a most powerful experience of his loving presence.
The silence is unlike all other silences, for it is full of a presence that makes itself known as a subtle stirring in the soul, a gentle blowing, a quiet whisper...
It takes time and experience to recognize this God who reaches out and seeks to communicate and commune with us. Who knows what it was that caused Elijah to recognize God's presence in the sound of sheer silence? But the fruit of Elijah's willingness to remain open to God in the midst of inner chaos created by self-knowledge was that he came to understand through experience that he was loved and valued just as much when he was alone and exhausted and not performing very well as he was when he was standing on a mountaintop calling down the fire of God in front of heathen prophets and fickle followers.
When Elijah experienced “the sound of sheer silence” that was full of the Presence of God, there was no need for words or any kind of cognitive response. He wrapped his face in his mantle—a sign of absolute reverence—and he went out and just stood in that Presence and let the Presence wash over him.
I know of no better response.
Let me nest near your altar, O God
Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the theme of "Nest"
Photos credit: Jenny Prosser