One Day of Silence and Solitude | Part 2
It’s now 12:03. I want to pray.
20 minutes have passed. Almost 12:30. I’ve been on my knees, believing God enjoys seeing me there. I’ve been slowly praying and thinking about Lewis’s “festooned” version of the Lord’s Prayer. The words were in my conference packet. It goes like this:
I join with all the angels and the saints in hallowing Thy name
May Thy Kingdom,
there in obedient nature, there in the lives of the most obedient humans, and there in heaven, Come here.
May Thy will be endured, obeyed, and celebrated;
May it be done, by me, now; I humbly submit to all future afflictions, And I open myself to receive all future blessings.
Give us all we need today.
Help us to go on forgiving and confessing;
and help us to ignore an uneasy conscience or uneasy feelings which may either vaguely accuse or vaguely approve, and to go about our business.
Make straight our paths;
and spare us, where possible, from all crises,
whether of temptation or affliction; and even from our previous prayers
if we have asked anything which would be for us a snare or sorrow.
For thine is the sovereign goodness which claims
my obedience, thine is the sovereign power, thine is the beauty so old and so new and thine is the light from behind the sun.
I prayed the words again just now as I wrote them. Almost 12:30 now is 12:30. I’m off my knees, back on the chair by the desk in room 419. No visions. No overwhelming joy. No deep sense of bringing God pleasure. Maybe some awareness that I’m on a good path. But nothing more.
George MacDonald was right: “…the better the gift we pray for, the more time is necessary for its arrival.” I want expensive gifts. I’m already saved. That gift’s all paid for. But now I want to be so immersed in the rhythm of Trinitarian life that I feel no pressure to “pull it off” when I teach or write or counsel, that I am rather consumed by a fiery, relaxed, yearning to represent the kingdom well for the pleasure of the Father.
That’s the gift I want. Apparently its arrival will take more than the several weeks it took God’s angel to reach Daniel with the gift he prayed for.
Time for a nap. I’m tired. 5 minutes later. I just had to get up and write this: two noisy kids have been happily (for them) playing in the hallway. I felt annoyed, put upon, interrupted, by their noise. I don’t think Paul would include this intrusion into my comfort under “momentary afflictions”, those severe but somehow still light and passing trials that the hope of glory empowers us to endure. And yet it still required teeth-clenching restraint to not yank my door open, scold those ill-mannered pests, and, to make my point, slam the door shut again. I guess my goal of a spiritually formed soul is still a long way off.
As I’m writing this, I just noticed – the kids are gone. The thought crosses my mind: God just honored my self-restraint. I am so superstitious, so manipulative, so obsessive, so possessed by the spirit of entitlement. While I’m beating myself up, it just occurred to me – I picture God patiently smiling. Back to bed, in welcome silence.
I just woke up. It’s 1:20, a short nap. But I feel refreshed. What next? Exercise!
That was a good decision. It’s now 2:30. I returned to my room a few minutes ago after a pretty good workout in the hotel’s fitness center. For 40 minutes on the treadmill, I read as much as I could (not hurriedly) in my favorite commentary on Daniel. Good thoughts flowed into my mind as I treadmilled that I now want to “lectio”.
I’m a bit leary of two things: one, “lectio-ing” unstudied passages of Scripture. Unboundaried imagination too easily produces eisogesis. It runs the risk of perverting the Bible into a Rorschach ink blot or, worse, into a Ouija board. Two, emptying one’s mind as part of the discipline of silence. I certainly don’t want to give the Spirit a map I charted for Him to follow, but neither do I see value in stepping off foundational convictions then listening with a blank slate mind that believes nothing and with a lost heart willing to go in any direction. When my mind is thinking over something I’ve seen in Scripture and my heart is stirred in a direction determined by that thought, then I seem to approach silence neither mindlessly nor aimlessly, which minimizes the risk of “hearing” God say something He may not be saying it all, but provides greater confidence that I’ll see the next step on the narrow road and get excited about its destination.
An hour (almost) of simply sitting in God’s presence letting Daniel launch my spirit in whatever direction had energy has left me with quiet hope. I think it has to do with realizing that no Jew in Daniel’s day anticipated that Jerusalem would be destroyed, the temple torn down, and David’s throne left empty. I can see how naturally I expect God to conform to my expectations, to my “wisdom” about what my journey towards maturity should look like. In nearly 10 hours so far of silence and solitude, one epiphany would not be an unreasonable request. Instead, I have a headache, and I feel an almost irresistible urge to see if I can find an episode of Law and Order to watch.
The good thing is the unfamiliar sense that the Father is enjoying my struggle, not sadistically, but the same way I enjoy watching my grandkids struggle to eat their vegetables. What’s even better is the dim awareness that what looks like broccoli to me is really apple pie. That awareness helps to keep my hand from reaching for the TV remote and instead to keep my pen in writing position. I’m feeling quiet hope that what I’ve believed is really true, that God is up to something good whether I experience His presence or absence.
It’s now pushing 4. My mind drifts, as if being pulled by a thread-like rope, toward a sermon I heard a few weeks ago. The Lord’s point in the parable of the good Samaritan is not, the pastor suggested, that we should go looking for poor people in the ditch that we can pull out, but rather that we, all of us, are the ones in the ditch. We are in desperate need of rescue by the only Good Samaritan who can lift us to solid ground. I recall that morning jotting in the church bulletin the words “ditch of deceit”. I’ve not fallen into the ditch of adultery or pornography or integrity-compromising materialism, but I’m lying in an even deeper ditch.
Like everyone else (I wonder why I said that), I deny the truth Lewis expressed so well, that if we discover within us a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, it’s time to consider the possibility that we were made for another world. I don’t disagree with that; I believe it. But I don’t always enjoy feeling that desire. Doing so leaves me out of control, cornered into dependence. It leaves me empty, stabilized only by hope that one day my desire will be fully satisfied. So I let myself feel only those desires for which I can arrange satisfaction, now. I’m lying face down in the ditch of denied desire. I need to look up and see the Good Samaritan’s face looking tenderly at me.
And even as I wriggle in the mud at the bottom of the ditch, I feel both entitled and victimized; entitled to a lounge chair on the beach and victimized by circumstances that keep me in the mud. The ditch of deceit, I’m now realizing with fresh force, involves not only denial of desire but also denial of guilt. I know I sin, but surely not so wickedly that I deserve such consistent inner torment and occasional outer affliction. I just had an allergy-triggered sneezing jag. Now my nose is dripping and a sinus headache is coming on. I don’t deserve this. I’m reminded of Luther, secluded in a castle for several weeks to write a commentary on Galatians, saying something like, “My friends think I’m breathing in the pure air of a spiritual mountain top. Instead I’m struggling with gout and stomach cramps.” I went Luther one better. Like him, I don’t like feeling crummy while I look for God in His Word. But I so easily deny that I deserve nothing more. The light from my Good Samaritan’s face is exposing not just my guilt but, more significantly my denial of guilt. This ditch is deep.
But His light is exposing more than my denial of desire and guilt. A thought is emerging from the shadows. It isn’t simply satisfaction I want, it’s Him. George Orwell’s hero in 1984 had it all wrong. Before having sex, he asked the woman “You like doing this? I don’t mean simply me; I mean the thing in itself.” He wouldn’t continue until she reassured him, “I adore it.” Orwell’s pathetic hero was after satisfaction without relationship, pleasure without intimacy. He was aware only of a desire that an orgasm would satisfy and he was unaware of the sheer awfulness of using a fellow image- bearer to provide that satisfaction. The man was in the ditch.
Lewis’s comment (that I just read this morning) comes to mind: “We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman’. Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition.” Then Lewis seals the point: “one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes”.
Denial is lifting. I’m still in the ditch but now I’ve somehow been turned on to my back, looking up. Desire is awakening. I want Christ. A stronger power is shoving pride out of the center. I don’t feel entitled to “getting” Him, nor do I think I deserve the satisfaction that “getting” Him brings with it. I feel like a man who, after 20 affairs, realizes his wife still wants him. Or like the prodigal son whose dad ran out to welcome him home. Right now I think I could resist any pleasure that would take me away from Christ. Am I experiencing an epiphany of grace? I know the experience itself won’t last. But I can hope that something solid is forming in my soul that will survive the inevitable fading of passion.
A phrase I heard yesterday at the Lewis conference comes to mind: sing yourself to where the singing comes from. I’m discovering that no noise is so emphatic than the noise I’m trying not to listen to. The cacophony blaring in my ears, even now, that I wish I could block out, is the hideously off-key dirge with endless verses about where I fail, where I’m weak, where I’m discouraged, where I lack, where I’m not changing, where I don’t fit in, where I demand to be noticed, where I hold grudges, where I love poorly. And the chorus after each verse is the same. It’s an accusation: the love you desire is an illusion, a mirage in the desert of your ugliness.
I recently read again what I first read a decade ago, that Alexander Whyte, the severe Scottish preacher, once told his congregation, “As long as I stand behind this pulpit, you will never escape Romans 7.” Apparently, he thought it was a good thing to listen to the noise I would prefer not to hear, and not just to listen to it, but to listen to nothing else. That seems to me a mistake, one I’ve leaned toward too often. The music of conviction that comes from the Spirit is crushing, yes, but it crushes false hope to revive hope that is true. Satan’s noise accuses. The Spirit’s music, though it begins in the minor key, invites; it invites me to sing myself to where the singing comes from.