Don’t just do something – sit there! Reflections on a weekly practice of silence


magnificat chapel sunshine

The Magnificat Chapel at Villa Maria

During my two month working retreat this past summer with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, Wednesday was my day in silence. Silence defined as not only no in-person conversations but also no cell phone, no iPod, and no laptop. Each Tuesday night, I turned off my devices (which, as a typical member of my generation, I generally treat as extensions of myself) and stuck them in a drawer.  I unplugged from my normal way of being in the world with the hope I would plug into that larger Voice which is so easily drowned out by noise and activity. Knowing my own tendency to binge-read, I made the rule of no books during my days in silence – since I know I could spend a day reading about prayer…and not actually pray.

So what exactly did I do on those Wednesdays?

Mostly, I prayed.  That is to say, I listened.  I felt my mind slowly unwind and my soul slowly expand. I prayer-walked the Sisters’ cemetery. I swam laps. I sat in the meditation attic, my hands open on my lap.  I journalled. I walked – sans earbuds – among the blue heron by the pond, the geese by the labyrinth, the yellow finches back in Billy’s field. I painted and drew in the art house – aware of but not heeding the nagging inner voice that told me this whole endeavor was ridiculous, self-indulgent and a waste of time.

You see, I’m a US North American, a life-long social activist, as well solidly extroverted according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. None of these traits make me a natural fit for a day of contemplative silence and solitude. The thought of going more than an hour or two without a to-do list makes me a little nervous. Moreover, I was conscious of what a privilege it is to take a day in silence.  Given years of ministry on the margins – in rural Latin America and among the working poor here in the US – I am acutely aware of how much of humanity lives in works sixty or seventy hours a week to just scrape by. In light of that, how could I justify the “luxury” of a day each week given over to silence?

Of course, a practical case can be made for silence, prayer and contemplative practice. There are numerous studies that show that prayer is good for our health – lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system, and lots of other things that will win you praise from your doctor. But the practice of a day in silence can’t – or shouldn’t – be on par with eating leafy greens or climbing on the Stairmaster for half an hour of cardio.

Nor is the practice of a day in contemplative silence simply about charging one’s battery to go out and do more apostolic work. Of course, it is true that our service to the world is nourished by our spiritual practice. This is the model we see over and over in Scripture – Jesus going off on his own to prayer, and then preaching and healing. But contemplative silence is not the spiritual equivalent of plugging in one’s laptop or filling one’s car with gas.

After practicing a weekly day in silence for a summer, I believe that the only way the counter-intuitive and counter-cultural practice of  contemplative silence makes sense is if it is based in both Scripture’s exhortation to pray (both the Christian Scriptures as well as sacred texts from other great traditions), in addition to science with its wild and wonderful theories of quantum entanglement, strange attractors, and the like.  Both Scriptures and science use their own language to point to the same reality: that our thoughts and intentions and energy are real and make an impact.

The motivation for contemplation is trust that somehow mysteriously God can take our “wasting time” and “doing nothing” in contemplative silence as an offering for those most in need, for the transformation of the pain of the world.  It takes a leap of faith to believe that my silent, open-hearted hours logged in the chapel, on the cushion in the meditation attic, and on the land can mean something for this beleaguered, beautiful planet and the seven billion human beings residing here.  It takes trust that being – mirroring that ground of Being – can mean as much if not more than doing.

After a summer of this practice, it seems to me that contemplation is an end in itself and not a means to something else.  Contemplative silence through/with/in God is not to be undertaken as part of a health or self-improvement regime.  Nor is it an obligatory battery-charging pit-stop on the road of apostolic work. It is – or at least aspires to be – uniting one’s own heart with the heart of God. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, reflecting on the words monk-and-activist Thomas Merton, puts it beautifully:  “in contemplative prayer, according to Merton, we pass through the center of our own being into the very being of God, where we see ourselves and our world with a clarity, a simplicity, a truthfulness that are not available in any other way.”

Of course, I will not give up seeking to practice the works of mercy and resist the acts of war and encouraging others to do the same.  Action and contemplation certainly relate as both/and, not either/or.  I invite you, dear reader – especially if you identify as an activist or are a super-plugged-in Millennial like me – to take the leap of faith into a moment, an hour, or even a day of contemplative silence.  Not as an escape from this beleaguered, beautiful world but as a way of diving more fully and deeply into it – through/with/in our awesome and mysterious Creator.

About the author: Rhonda Miska is a partner in mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her ministries have included accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.  She is based in Villa Maria, PA and will attend CTA’s conference next week in Nashville, TN.

Absence and presence

It is in this darkness,attachment-461086018

when there is nothing left in us

that can please or comfort our own minds,

when we seem useless and worthy of all contempt,

when we seem to have failed,

when we seem to be destroyed and devoured…

It is then

that the deep secret selfishness that is too close

for us to identify is stripped away from our souls.

It is in this darkness that we find liberty.

It is in this abandonment that we are made strong.

This is the night which empties us and makes us pure.

–Thomas Merton

When I was a teenager, Lent was a competitive sport. I wanted not so much to walk the way of the cross as to strut the way of the cross. I wanted to achieve. I wanted people to say: “He is like Jesus. He is a tough [expletive deleted].”

As a freshman in high school, I decided giving up chocolate was passe. Instead, I ate nothing between meals, and this despite the fact that breakfast and lunch combined already constituted no more than a Carnation Instant Breakfast and six mozzarella sticks. As a bottomless pit in the middle of a violent growth spurt, I went from being chubby to looking like a rail in six weeks.

I got headaches. I liked headaches. They made me holy. Headaches were Jesus-ish. I imagined each one as a liturgically-appropriate purple ribbon bearing the words “Honorable Mention.” I decided to do it again next year.

And so it happened. But sophomore year, the headaches were skull-splitting. My head pounded with spiritual pride, and probably hypoglycemia, as I translated Latin homework at my kitchen table. My mother told me I was making myself sick and should stop right now. Perhaps a week later, as if on cue, I went down with chicken pox.

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On sheep, wolves, sheepdogs and a Good Shepherd

“Let my trust be in your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources.

If I trust in You, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven. If I do not trust You, everything will be my destruction.”Thomas Merton

I am a sheep.

How you doin'?

How you doin’?

Now in different climes, this could mean different things. To people of faith, I could be acknowledging my desire to follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd. To hipsters, punks and other breeds of nonconformist, I could be admitting that I fail to deviate from the societal norm. To physicists, I could be declaring myself to be a computer program that calculates General Relativity.

In the gun world, I am a sheep, and apparently that’s not a good thing.

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Catholic Journals

I’m co-leading a series at my church about spiritual practices from Protestant and Catholic traditions. When I saw that journaling as a spiritual practice was coming up, I told the pastor, “Don’t worry, I’ve totally got this.” (Or maybe it was, “Um, can I send you some notes?”)

I’ve never thought of spiritual journaling as a distinctly Catholic endeavor, but apparently a lot of Catholics do it, if the amount of Google hits I returned are any indication.

Although I do consider writing in my journal to be a spiritual practice, I don’t write about religion outright all that much. In that regard, this is more my spiritual journal than the spiral-bound notebook beside my bed is. But I absolutely love to read the spiritual journals of others. Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, and St. Augustine immediately came to mind. Even Paul’s letters might be considered a spiritual journal of sorts — I’m sure he worked a lot of things out for himself in the process of working them out for the Philippians or the Colossians. I also came across Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, which I put on my to-read list, especially when I found out he wrote it as a way to reconcile his struggle with depression and his Catholic faith. (I once chose a church because the priest gave a homily about that very subject, which I’ve wrestled with myself.)

I love to read journals in general — there must be quite a voyeur in me — but especially those of a spiritual nature. Catholic? Even better. I think it’s because so much of Catholicism feels like a religion of “knowing the right answer.” We all walk that line between what we know we’re supposed to believe, and what we really do believe — and then between what we do believe and what we’re willing to admit we believe. By its nature, journaling is about the questions — the process would be lifeless if you already knew the answers. It’s affirming to see Catholics like St. Augustine and Thomas Merton in the midst of the struggle to make meaning of it, just as I do. And I find so much more comfort there than in the Catechism, perhaps simply because there’s room for uncertainty.

Are there other spiritual memoirists or diarists I should add to my list?