Rest for the word-weary

“Thanks for giving me your email address. I will keep it on file for use in case of an urgent need for correspondence with you, as I consider it best if we stay away from the continuous contact so overwhelming in our digital era.”

Those lines from a letter I received via post last month were balm to a spirit wearied by words. The weeks since I wrote my last blog entry have been filled with myriad duties requiring much oral and written communication, some of which has produced seemingly little fruit for the energy expended. So it was that the message cited above was a welcome one, not only because it recognized the exhausting nature of communication in this age, but also because it was a rare voice of restraint in a milieu where “can” means “do.”

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Letting the words speak for themselves: Destiny and Decision, Sermon Nuggets, and More Sermon Nuggets, by Fred Zimmerman.

The writer of my letter is Fred Zimmerman, a retired minister and author who has been around long enough to remember a different sort of life than the one to which we all have become sadly accustomed. He uses electronic communication sparingly, as indicated above, and still takes the time to write and send letters on paper. In publishing his books – a memoir and collections of excerpts from his sermons – he employed a similar strategy, deciding to let the words speak for themselves instead of seeking to advance them through interviews and social media posts.

Although some might consider his style anachronistic in our media age, I love its bold, yet gentle, countercultural stance. And I think it explains why he is able to pierce the clutter of words and images inundating us today with his incisive insights.

From his writings, I know that he values solitude as a time to commune with God. Without it, he writes in his second volume of sermon excerpts, “we cannot hope to live a meaningful life and perform meaningful work.” He goes on to quote William Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us . . . getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

In our day, the world that is “too much with us” is one peppered with words, images, and opportunities to interact with each another, all vying for attention day and night on our computers and smart phones. Unlike the characters in Jane Austen’s novels who take time to write and read their letters, carefully discerning and reflecting on the meaning of the words, we have no leisure to process our missives. The instant – and insistent – nature of text-messaging and email urges us to read and respond immediately so that sometimes we miss or misinterpret our correspondent’s meaning. Or we get so many messages that some are lost or forgotten as we deal with what seems most urgent.

This has affected us in ways I suspect we do not even realize. Our thoughts and conversations are scattered, and our preoccupations often trivial. Our minds are noisy and crowded, with scarcely any room for or recognition of a profound thought should one float by, and our speech frequently is a sad reflection of this disorder. It is no wonder that many of us seek solace in nature, where we can quietly gaze on birds and sunsets, P1010498for only there can we escape the barrage of words and digital images that constantly bombard us – provided a cell phone doesn’t beep or buzz.

Quite simply, we are talking too much and taking in too much. Although it’s tempting to simply withdraw from the digital world for a time, as some do as a means of fasting during this season of Lent, I prefer my minister friend’s approach of moderation, making use of technology’s gifts without letting them rule our lives.

Other friends have done similarly. Some only answer emails at certain times, rather than whenever they happen to get a message. Another friend removed the Facebook app from her phone so that she does not check it as frequently. One method I use is to mute my phone so that I’m not prompted to look at it every time it announces a text, email, or call.

Although all these are helpful in setting boundaries for interfacing with the electronic world, they are mere steps to something greater and worth pursuing — what the spiritual classic Divine Intimacy calls exterior and interior silence. These do not mean we never speak or think, but that we avoid idle chatter, prolonged conversations, and talkativeness and keep watch over the imagination, feelings, and thoughts in the interest of preserving a state of receptivity to what is most important. The author of Divine Intimacy, Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, lived from 1893 to 1953, well before the Internet’s entry into our communal space, but his words – and those of my minister friend – are timeless. They speak to every person’s sense of restlessness and yearning for peace, one that is universal, regardless of the times and circumstances in which we live.

Lessons in solitude from Jane Austen

. . . It required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.” — From Persuasion by Jane Austen.

One of the things I have noticed and come to appreciate about some of Jane Austen’s best-known characters is their habit of taking time alone to think about things. After unsettling encounters with other people, intriguing letters, and jarring experiences, they recognize the need for personal space to sort out their feelings and thoughts.P1010295

Some of them never discuss these matters with another soul – especially when bound by a promise of confidence – but in the course of “solitude and reflection” they review the details and determine how they will respond, what they will convey to others by their behavior, and the significance of what has been said or done.

While re-reading a few of my favorite Austen novels this winter, it has struck me that this practice might be useful in a world that urges us to tell all – and to do so now. What if, instead of rushing to the phone or computer to announce anything and everything, we applied a bit of solitude and reflection to the matters at hand?

When Austen’s characters do that, they benefit in bounds. In Pride and Prejudice, no one was closer to Elizabeth Bennet than her beloved sister, Jane. But though she wishes Jane were with her, she is alone when she receives Mr. Darcy’s letter after refusing his offer of marriage. Left to read and ponder his words on her own, Elizabeth realizes that she was wrong in her prejudice against the man she rejected. She may have reached the same conclusion in an email exchange or conversation with Jane, but the point is that something happened in her silent reflection. Without another’s voice or opinion to soothe or advise, she came face-to-face with herself.

Reflection like that takes time – time that stretches out on long walks or in extended periods of sitting without a phone to tap or earbuds to adjust. It is found in the “be still” admonition of the Bible that ends with “and know that I am God,” suggesting there is something or Someone we cannot know unless and until we are still and removed from human interaction.

With so many ready ways to contact others in our technologically rich society, it can be difficult to resist the impulse to reach for a communications device when we are upset, troubled, or confused. And even if we pause to reflect alone, we may grow impatienIMG_1702t and feel like we are wasting time when an answer, resolution, or insight doesn’t emerge as quickly as we would like.

Sometimes, we have to trust in the process to do its work, and provide us with healing, clarity, or just a time of rest that gives us the strength to carry on.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Margaret Hale sits “long hours upon the beach” after a series of traumas that include the loss of a dear friend and both her parents. Those who pass by wonder what she finds to look at and her family worries about her silence at dinner. Yet, Gaskell tells us, her time by the sea helped her see things in perspective. “She was soothed without knowing how or why.”

When we pause to sit, whether before an altar or by the water, or take a long walk without the filter of another’s thoughts, things have a way of putting themselves right, if only we can be still enough to wait.