Transfiguration

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be able to share this beautiful November reflection as a guest post by Carolyn, a fellow writer whose thoughts formed the July 11, 2014 post, Giving children room to wonder. The photo of the ice-encased crabapples was taken by her oldest son, Francis, whose pictures also were part of the earlier post. 

As I sat on the tractor, in the chill of the frosty November morning, it seemed as if neither the world nor I would ever warm up. But, watching from the edge of the field, I saw a slow transformation begin to unfold. The sun had been making a late appearance on these fall mornings. Now, just in time for my mid-morning break, it was finally rising over the tops of the leafless trees. Meter by meter, the dark, cold field was illuminated, reminding me of a shade being opened in a dim room. The Goldenrod, Joe-Pye, and Ironweed looked a little dull and “seedy,” but as the sunlight kissed them they caught fire. IP1080696 watched in awe and realized that each flower in the field, each stem of grass, was encased in its own very fine layer of icy frost. What had seemed a dead, wet, dull brown field was awakened into a warm palate of late fall color. Cinnamon, umber, ochre, and mahogany shades materialized as I realized that I, too, was beginning to warm up. My eyes hungrily attempted to take everything in before the angle of the sun changed and the magic dissolved. And then, there seemed to be a pause in the stillness as if an artist were taking his breath before painting the final and most difficult part of a scene. The sun reached a copse of crabapple trees. I never saw a diamond that dazzled me as much as each single ice-encased red or yellow crabapple. The light entered the ice at the top of an apple and kindled a halo of liquid fire around each one.

As if attracted to a beacon, a flock of birds alighted in the first tree. The bright red feathers on their wings and yellow-dipped tails seemed to want to find understanding in the clusters of red and yellow berries. But, at the same time, the bold, black mask and flashy crest of the Cedar Waxwings asserted their singularity.

Sitting back in my seat, overwhelmed by emotion, I realized that a corner of my heart had a profound sadness. I wanted to be able to capture the moment in a painting or picture, but would never be able to recreate in any way even a portion of the beauty I had just encountered.

When I sat on the edge of that field, I was 20 years old. My lifelong faith was just beginning to be caught by that transforming fire that turned it into something beautiful and alive. When I experienced the beauty of that field, I sat still and knew that God’s loving hand was touching my face. And I was thankful.

Now almost 20 years later, I look back on the encounter and see many more layers. Each year since then has been an unfolding of some new aspect of the beauty of God’s love. Little by little, the shade has been opened in my darkened room so that I can now begin to see the transformation of the events of my life. Things that would have looked at best, mundane, and at worst, like overwhelming suffering, I can now see as having their own profound beauty.

The sadness I felt on the seat of that tractor is still tangible. I am constantly faced with the depth of my inability to share the beauty of God’s love. But I also live a great hope. I know if I offer him this cold, dull, dark field, he can transform it into something that will reflect the splendor of his love — something even more dazzling than an ice-encased crabapple.

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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.

Engaging silence

“Silence, like the sunlight, will illuminate you in God.”

These words from the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton once greeted visitors to a barn in Monroe County, Michigan, that had been set apart as a place of quiet and prayer. The barn was closed a few years ago and has since been razed, but I thought of the sign on the door recently as I was reflecting on those among us who cannot live without constant sound. In their cars, they must have the audio system playing, and at home, the TV is always on, sometimes even as they fall asleep.

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Wood thrush. (This one is recovering on our deck after striking a window.)

In talking with friends who live or spend time with such people, I have pondered why this is so and, indeed, why all of us are uncomfortable with silence at times.

A writer friend tried to puzzle it out in an email as we were discussing the beginnings of this blog. She wrote, “What you’ve said reminds me of something I learned in Aristotle where he says the reason people are afraid to be alone (i.e., to be silent) is because they’re afraid of seeing who they really are. So, they fill their life with lots of distractions . . .”

Silence, as Merton suggested, does shine a light onto who and what we are, showing us things we would rather not see or consider. But perhaps it is just as true that our fondness for noise and stimulation is rooted in our fear of the seeming nothingness of silence and stillness – the vast abyss that looms before us when our tools and toys are set aside or turned off. The sheer magnitude of the quiet unsettles us and so we rush to fill it with something – anything – that can momentarily distract us and assuage our discomfort.

When blogger Kim Smith (NatureIsMyTherapy.com) wrote recently about her quest for more stillness and her struggle with distractions, she cited a piece in the Utne Reader on “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” In it, Christian Williams talks about “losing the ability to sit and do nothing” because he, like everyone around him, now habitually turns to a smart phone to fill down time. In urging us to “spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen,” he suggests that silence and stillness are breeding grounds for new ideas and solutions. I would add that being still is not so much a state of nothingness as a canvas ready to receive a different design or even a moment of delight. Silence is really a preparation, a cleansing, a clearing of the ground for something new or better that we will never hear or see if we constantly fill in the background with noise or stimulation. Some friends who have recently gone on silent retreats engage in this kind of purging when they agree to refrain from speaking, except to pray out loud or meet privately with a retreat leader. This discipline has a purpose: so they can hear the still, small voice of God that is often drowned out by the clamor of our lives.

The other morning, as I was waking, I heard a wood thrush singing outside. It is a sound I typically hear earlier in the spring and so I wasn’t especially listening for it, but the conditions were right: the window was open, the clock-radio was set for prime bird-singing time, and when it did go off, it was not blaring, but set to play gentle music at a low volume. I was also able to hear and enjoy this bird’s reedy song because I had made space to listen to and identify it some years ago. One spring evening, I followed the sound through the woods, eventually training my binoculars on its source and pairing the wood thrush I saw with the splendid sound I had been hearing. Had I not stilled myself and carved out some times of quiet to become an observer of birds, I would have missed this auditory treat, part of a rich feast of bird song available to anyone willing to listen and experience the enrichment it brings to life.

This is just one example, but in offering it, I mean to say that those who master silence and stillness lead lives that are anything but hollow. They may not have filled their minds, eyes, and ears with a panoply of ready stimuli that form the stuff of social chatter, but having confronted and engaged the seeming emptiness of silence and the initial discomfort it brings, they hear and see what so many miss – another layer of life that lies beyond and above the pressing business of what we call living.

 

The still life of a birdwatcher

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Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Kim Smith

The year I ventured into the world of serious birdwatching, I probably spent as much time observing the birders as the birds.

Something about the people who were able to discern the presence of a particular bird, first with the naked eye or ear and then through binoculars, fascinated me, as did the near-magical atmosphere of the wildlife area where they had flocked to seek out birds during the spring migration.

I saw serene, thoughtful countenances, felt a sense of quiet anticipation, and heard a whole new language spoken mostly in subdued tones: “Cooperative male Canada warbler with a nice necklace. Around 10 o’clock, where that branch with the clump of leaves forks. See? He just dropped down. There, to the right of that tangle.”

Like a star-struck groupie, I was drawn to these longtime avian enthusiasts who had the air of experience about them, yet would take time to help me through my early awkward efforts at birding, guiding me to my first sighting of a spectacular bird.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Kim Smith

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Photo by Kim Smith

They won me over not with flashy personalities, but with serene and generous spirits that beckoned me to share in the knowledge they had developed over years of keen observation. Although like every other group, birders are diverse, I noticed that some of the best are quiet types who don’t have the trappings of a big personality or the gift of clever repartee. They seem to possess an inner repose and so bring to birding a receptive spirit that settles in to listen and watch, easily tuning out distractions.

From watching and interacting with these tranquil beings, I wanted to be more like them, much as a young disciple looks to a spiritual father or mother as a model. I remember especially a man with a disabling physical condition who identified a Prairie warbler for me during my first year of birding. In succeeding years, he has no longer been able to easily navigate through the clusters of birders on the trail and so has done most of his birding from a folding stool, but whenever I see him, I am assured of hearing a report of some splendid sightings. I always have the sense that he sees and hears things the rest of us miss because we have to keep moving.

Regardless of their religious beliefs, birders have confirmed what my own spiritual tradition teaches: that the stillness, quiet, and attitude of listening birders bring to their pursuit are essential if we are to hear or see anything of lasting value. As Rumer Godden writes in the book, In This House of Brede, referring to an artist who has come to the monastery to work, “It was the silence of Brede that pleased him. ‘I can hear life,’ he said.”

White-throated Sparrow by Kim Smith

White-throated Sparrow. Photo by Kim Smith

In a world numbed by its attachment to technology and noise, the birders I have observed and emulated hear and see life, whether they are delighting in finding a tiny Blackburnian warbler with its brilliant orange “fire throat” or an American Woodcock whose brown camo coloring allows it to blend into the woodland landscape.

I share in this richness of the bird trail when I slow down enough to listen to the simple, soothing song of the White-throated Sparrow on these spring days, notice an Eastern Phoebe patiently waiting for the movement of an insect in my garden, or spy a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on a branch outside the kitchen window.

But I reap even more when I apply the lessons of birding to my daily life: when I am willing to wait and watch for something wonderful, when I listen for the sound of a distant song, and when I am still enough to believe in the Goodness of it all.

 

Where the birds are: If this post has piqued your interest in birding and you can travel to northwest Ohio, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” a great once-a-year opportunity awaits you during the Biggest Week in American Birding, which begins Tuesday, May 6, and continues through May 15. Also, Kim Smith, who blogs at natureismytherapy.com and graciously provided photos for this post, will be blogging from the Biggest Week and coordinating the efforts of the event’s blog team.

The habit of being quiet

Some of the most serene people I know have a habit of being quiet at home.

Whether they live alone or with other people, these souls seem to prefer and practice living without the constant background noise that pervades many of our dwellings.

One such person rises each morning and makes it a point not to turn on the radio or television while getting ready for her job in a busy, production-driven office. Another who is at home during the day also keeps the radio and TV off, lets an answering device catch most of her phone calls, and, if she does play music, chooses soothing chants.

For these quiet-keepers, the stretches of silence and stillness in their lives spill over to those they meet. Despite whatever stress threatens to disturb their peace, both manage to convey a sense of repose in which they are receptive and willing to listen to people. In conversations, they do not interrupt or finish sentences. They ask questions that reflect a genuine interest in the other person. Being in their presence is peaceful and affirming.

Such people are models for me as I seek to live more quietly, yet struggle with a temperament that is more prone to jumpiness than calm. (My quiet mother lamented throughout my early life that I was in “perpetual motion.”) My profession did little to settle me down, thrusting me into an atmosphere of nearly constant stimulation that fed those natural tendencies. Today, removed from that setting, I sometimes still find it challenging to maintain quiet while working out of my home. In that, I do not seem to be alone. Increasingly, it seems, many of us think we need some kind of ambient noise to be productive and creative whether it’s music or an app like Coffitivity, which delivers the sounds of a coffee shop to our computers. Coffitivity, by the way, claims research shows that ambient noise, like the sound mix of “calm and commotion” found in a coffee shop, can aid creativity.

I have written with some success in such settings, yet I find value in silence. So for me, instead of giving in to the impulse to break it by introducing sound, I am working on developing more of a taste for quiet.

Rather than turn to electronic sound or even the kind of visual noise the Internet offers with its insistent invitations to look at a picture, video, or the latest trend, I am challenging myself to accept and live with the discomfort silence sometimes brings.

In the 40-day season of Lent, which began this week, I am joining others who are fasting by unplugging some of their media connections to admit more silence into our noisy, distracted lives. Unsettling though this can be, I am hopeful that, as I experience the hunger of silence, I will begin to cultivate a mind and spirit that is less cluttered and more receptive to the gentle whispers I fail to detect when I stuff myself with the junk food of noise and information.

The need for quiet

Some of us thrive in stillness and others in motion.

Whichever you are, I’d like to think that both of us share a need to be quiet. For the incessantly busy person, perhaps it is nothing more than an unidentified longing seeping through the adrenalin rush of activity. For those who flourish amid long stretches of silence, it is a known entity that leads us to insist on a life with spaces of rest from the race.

The thought that everyone requires or desires some degree of quiet, however, often eludes us in our noisy and busy world. As our milieu grows increasingly loud and obsessed with activity, quiet is a rare commodity. No longer are there pockets of peace in the places we frequent.  Medical waiting rooms, once havens of quiet where the only sound might be the pages of a magazine turning, now have blaring televisions, sometimes competing with music from an overhead sound system. Even the relative silence of libraries is interrupted by clicking keyboards.  Places of worship, too, have become stimulating, noisy spaces in their congregations’ quest to become relevant. And, when was the last time you saw a sign that said, “Quiet. Hospital Zone”?

As someone who spent the greater part of her career in a noisy, wired environment, I have come to value silence, stillness, and quiet.  It is out of this realization that QuietKeepers was born.  Over the last decade, changes of employment and residence have brought me to a place where I have had to learn to be more still. Through writing about what I call “quiet keeping,” I hope to share something of my own struggles to preserve the quiet and to capture the great beauty that flows from this practice.

I am beginning in a season of stillness, when it is quiet and cold – at least in the part of the world where I live. It is a time when the rhythms of nature urge us to be still, to read, to sit by fires, to watch and to listen.

Whether you are racing through life or moving at a slower pace intentionally or out of necessity, I invite you to join me as I explore ways to live a more quiet life in this frantic time rife with electronic media, activity, and distractions.  Among the topics I hope to develop are the importance of order, the use of technology, socializing and conversation, finding quiet spaces, making the home a serene place, and living in harmony with nature. Choosing to live quietly is no easy thing for those of us who are creatures of a culture of doing. It requires resistance and discipline, often minute-by-minute. It also benefits from support.  Perhaps we can keep the quiet together and learn to enjoy it more.