It is the final evening of the residency. For three full days we have listened to instructors, listened to one another, and listened for the still small voice of the Spirit.
Now, there is silence. We listen to ourselves.
At six o’clock, dinner is served; we begin 13 hours of deliberative non-communication. There are few instructions, only that there is solitude and silence available.
I walk into the dining room, wait in line to fill my plate and find a seat. I gravitate toward the classmate who sat with me earlier in our final session of spiritual direction; she, in the role of director, listened to me, the directee, while an instructor and two other students observed. On seven occasions in these three days I took on the role of directee, each time sharing something true and real about my life. While rewarding, it was also emotionally exhausting – like sharing with a counselor repeatedly, unpacking emotions, examining motives. Seven thirty-minute segments of unpacking my stuff.
For someone like me, who is often up in my head, it was a welcome opportunity to air out my deepest thoughts and experiences. But the focus, each time, was on the director, as he or she ‘practiced’ navigating the art of spiritual direction. It really wasn’t about me, save for the times I sat in the director’s seat. We were there to be coached and encouraged, redirected as needed. The stories were incidental.
But my heart was emptied, time and again. Incidental, but authentic.
I sit next to Deborah; we don’t acknowledge one another, but I feel deeply connected to her. We are silent.
The corn chowder is too hot to eat, I set it aside and take a bite of the turkey breast. The slight hint of herbs remind me of Thanksgiving.
The macaroni and cheese is homemade; thick, wet curves of pasta wrapped in finely shredded, barely melted bits of cheddar. It’s gooey and warm; comfort, by the mouthful.
I chew slowly, carefully. I hear the rain falling on the roof, the click and clatter of silverware. A man’s voice speaks a few unintelligible words and laughs – I turn to see who is breaking the rules.
It’s someone from a different gathering, not our group. I am oddly relieved.
A tiny bite of the braised collard greens reminds me of my eldest daughter; the sharp taste of vinegar and the bite of hot peppers brings her to mind. She cooks like this, with brave, distinctive flavors, and the sharpness speaks her name to me. I think of her, slowly, as I chew, slowly; I hold her presence in my life in that space. I am thankful for her existence. I don’t particularly care for collards, but I eat slowly, and I think of my girl, and I am filled.
Music is playing from somewhere – a recording of piano instrumentals. Nothing I recognize, until hints of a lyric come to me.
la la la la…..this heart adore you…la la la….life spent with you
I can’t place it at first, not until the melody of the chorus begins and the words fall into place from wherever they were hiding in my memory.
Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down…
An old song. Old memories for me.
A man comes in and sits across from me; he nods and smiles briefly. I exist; he acknowledges it.
We are still eating. I chew slowly, moving from the turkey to the mac and cheese and back to the fiery vinegar of the greens. I smile, thinking of my husband’s indulgence of my preferred style of consuming food – I devour it, hastily, hurried, hungry. Often I have cleared my plate of food as he takes his first bite. He teases me.
You eat too fast. Slow down. Enjoy your food!
He tells me this, every time. I smile as I remember him, think of him, imagine him.
Grateful for him.
A hint of a new melody invades: Be still and know that he is God…
These songs are familiar to my hands. My fingers sing these songs on the piano, know them by heart. They are within me. I think of the small keyboard in the chapel next door and consider whether I might walk over, through the darkness and the rain, and play for a bit.
I determine that I can, indeed, do that.
I consider whether or not I really want to do that.
We sit in silence. I think of worship, of encountering God; usually this is tied to the visceral experience of creating sound and offering it to him, of emptying my heart heavenward. Of leading a community in song. That is my authentic self, the place where I feel most comfortable and most connected.
But something new presents itself to me now, a different sort of invitation.
Around me, people continue to eat. Silverware clatters, plates slide across wooden
tabletops. One woman sketches in her journal; another gazes out the window as the light fades and the trees disappear into darkness. The rain falls.
Next to me, Deborah begins to hum.
El Shaddai, El Shaddai….
She knows the melody. I smile, looking down at my almost-empty plate.
I think about the food I have eaten and realize that I tasted every bit of it, slowly. It was delicious – so good that I want more, only to taste it again.
But I don’t need to taste it again. I was present to every bite and it was enough.
I have never thought this way about a meal.
Deborah stands up and I keep my head down; eye contact is awkward when you’re not supposed to talk. I feel her hand on my shoulder and I glance up – she smiles slightly and walks away.
This silence is filled, is bursting with taste and sound and memory – it stretches all around me and I feel like I could explode, and it’s like nothing I ever expected or imagined. Throughout these few days, again and again it happens – something I never expected or imagined. We are talking and thinking and learning about a more contemplative life and I sit dumbfounded to realize that what I supposed would be emptiness is instead a vast empire of awareness that is unlike anything I have ever experienced.
And everything I ever wanted.