[prose#16] Silence and Small Groups

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I love to go to monasteries. There are two near my home, and I enjoy going to them for different reasons. One has many trails that take you up into the woods surrounding the Abbey. They’re each marked with ribbons and colored arrows, and because I haven’t spoken to the nice old man in a sweater who sits at the information booth and drinks orange juice, I have no idea what any of the arrows mean. I just choose one and start walking, hoping that I’ll get to see Mother Mary’s shrine. This strategy hasn’t worked thus far, so I’m still in pursuit of the peace I find when I sit next to her. I also like to walk around this monastery’s garden. It’s large and wild, with no clear path through the plants, but it looks happy and free instead of contained.

The other monastery has the Stations of the Cross leading up to the main buildings, and I like to walk them backwards, wondering at what the story tells this way. I like to sit in the church, kneel in the pews, and listen to the monks sing, but my favorite part of this monastery is the cemetery. It’s just a small one, off the side of the main campus where the library and dormitories for the seminarians are. The old crosses are placed in nice neat rows, some with rosaries. I like to sit with these old men, quiet in their graves, and when I get tired of the silence, I go into the small prayer chapel and talk to Mary or Jesus, depending on whom I feel closest to at the time. They’re both in there, frozen in a statue of suffering – Mary’s heart breaking while holding her son, whose heart has stopped. I love Jesus, but sometimes I need to talk to a woman, a human one.

My friend Jay went to the Taize monastery in France during his travels through Europe a few months ago. During his time there, he spent a week in silence, only speaking for about an hour a day with a monk to discuss his time of quiet. I was relaying this story to my friends Heidi and Caleb, and I could see in Caleb’s eyes what I felt in my own – a sparkle. An interest. Heidi’s eyes, on the other hand, widened in horror. Naturally vivacious and admittedly chatty, she said, “I could never do that.” Caleb and I found the idea to be challenging but not impossible, in contrast, because he and I tend toward silence and solitude.

I realized recently that most of my spiritual endeavors are solitary ones. Going to monasteries, reading, praying, writing – all of these I do without the company of anyone else. I am a very solitary and quiet person, who enjoys the silence and will spend whole days marinating in it. It’s what I need, it’s what my dear introverted soul and independent spirit need to keep going. The silence, though it can get heavy and burdensome, is comfortable to me.

While that’s not a bad thing, it can be a crutch. It is safe, and so often I avoid stepping out into new spiritual experiences. So I’m trying something new, some crazy and a little bit scary:

I’m joining a small group.

Okay, so I know it’s not very crazy. It’s Protestant Christianity’s favorite thing ever! Create accountability and community by breaking the church into smaller churches and getting people connected. It really is a good idea, and it’s pretty normative, as church experiences go.

I’ve been in small groups before, but usually just because it was the thing to do. It was high school, about friends, not about actual spiritual growth. It was a place to gossip while sharing prayer requests and talk about school instead of God. No real accountability sprung out, and as a more timid individual, I tended to be silent during these gossip sessions, finding my place in the corner of the room and content to be there. I smiled and chatted as needed, but I never opened myself and let my spirit out.

That’s why this concept of small groups is far scarier to me than a week-long time of silence or a solo hike through the woods to find the shrine to Mary. Silence, to me, is normal life. Small groups are out of the box. It’s a risk. I have to step out and open myself up to a group of people who I do not know and do not understand. I have to get to know these people and let them know me. I need to share my life with them, my spiritual experiences, how I feel about God. And I have to trust that they will not be disgusted by my inner workings.

It’s terribly difficult for me to go into a group of strangers and say, “Here I am.” But I’m going to do it. Because God doesn’t just speak in the silence; he also speaks in the voice of angels and small group members, and if I’m never around them, how am I to hear him?

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