Saturday, October 1, 2011

The silent land

I am reading a book called A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation, by Martin Laird, who is an Augustinian monk. I like it already. One of the first things I found out when I started is that it is the companion volume to another book by Martin Laird, called Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. I intend to get that book, too.

I thought of two things while reading. One was a blog entry my sister wrote last year called Just Sitting, where she wrote, "If I don't listen to something while I walk or exercise my brain seems to absolutely lose its ability to think. After a while I start mindlessly counting my steps. It's agonizing. Even when I've tried to use that time for prayer, after a while I can't think of anything more to pray about and it's 1, 2, 3, 4, aaauugh. You'd think I could be alone in my mind for a while!"

This book describes a practice, which I've read about elsewhere (in an online resource about centering prayer), where you focus on a prayer word or phrase, such as the name "Jesus," or the Jesus prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," or a Bible verse.  You keep repeating that "prayer word" in your mind to keep it focused. Inevitably your mind will wander, but you don't get upset when that happens, you simply return to your prayer word:

The basic instruction in the practice of contemplation remains fundamentally the same throughout its seasons of practice: whenever we become aware that our attention has been stolen, we bring it back to the prayer word united with the breath. The practice is not to sit there trying to have no thoughts or only certain thoughts. As St. Teresa of Avila put it centuries ago, "by trying not to think, we hopelessly stimulate the imagination. . . . The harder you try not to think of anything, the more aroused your mind will become and you will think even more." Nor do we push away thoughts in an attempt to generate a dull blankness. Instead we simply bring our attention back to our practice whenever we find that our attention has been stolen. The challenge lies in its simplicity.

The second thing I thought of while reading was that a certain passage spoke to me quite directly. ("Are you there, Jan? It's me, God.") You see, yesterday at work the window was open and while I was alone in the office I kept hearing a noisy leaf-blower. I even got up and went and looked out to see if I could see the person running it. There is a parking area below the window and I wondered if he was leaf-blowing the whole area. I wondered why leaf-blowers have to be so noisy. I'm sure we have the technology to make them quiet, but I speculated that the extra labor and parts involved in doing so would make them prohibitively expensive.

Anyway, there came a description of a man at a retreat who had a similar irritation issue because someone near the retreat center was using a buzz saw to cut wood at the same time the retreatants were sitting in silence in the afternoon. His retreat guide advised him "to use the ordeal as an experiment in cultivating interior stillness in the midst of irritating noise." Here is another quote:

Coping with disruptive noise that we simply cannot do anything about does not so much call for praying to the patron saint of noise reduction as for being resolved that it's okay for the noise to be there if it happens to be there and nothing can be done about it. To get caught up in a buzzing commentary on how irritating the noise is makes for a noisy relationship with noise. The irritation is something the mind adds.

Later the author states, "silence is wide and gracious enough to allow sound, even irritating sound, to be present." He also gives similar advice as for wandering thoughts: "instead of trying to push disruption  away, we shift our attention away from the disrupting noise to our prayer word."

I like to read books about prayer, but I don't always put what I read into practice after reading. I'm like an armchair traveler, reading about it but not actually going there. But I still have hopes that I will journey "into the silent land." If I recall correctly, Teresa of Avila was a nun for 18 years before she developed a strong prayer life. My good professor at Regent College, James Houston, encouraged us not to despise our own prayer lives. He said we probably pray more than we realize.