Saturday, January 10, 2009

Solitude (disciplines for the inner life)

"Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment."

- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline

I wish I could remember the name of the record album -- or even the song. I remember the faux-brick linoleum pressed to the floor of the drafty room and that it bubbled up in a few warpy spots. I remember the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall handmade wooden bookshelves overflowing with books. I remember the over sized metal desk with the mid-century rounded corners that had belonged to my mother's father and took up the largest space in the room. And I remember the record player sitting on top the cherry wood cube that housed my parents record collection and held the mishmash of dogeared liner notes and plastic cases storing new record needles.

The only part of the recording I can remember is a man's voice quoting Psalm 91:1:

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
He kept going through the Psalm, but I don't remember the in-between words because I would always get stuck trying to picture God's shadow. Would it be big? Bulky? And since my mom and grandmother often quoted, I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, my mind would get busy trying to figure out what in the world an india-rubber ball would look like. My feeble imagintation could only picture as one of those red, pimply inflated spheres that made the most satisfying sound when my sneaker connected with it solidly during my ups in a P.E. class kickball contest.

Eventually, though, with all these wandering thoughts my attention would once again be arrested by the warm male voice still narrating Psalm 91 in between the hisses and whirs of the vinyl rotating round the small metal prong poking up through the center of the dizzying spins of the coffee-black, grooved platter:

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust...

And with that my poor, Baptist-school stunted imagination would begin to combust. God has feathers?!?
1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

Last week's theme of Solitude involved reading Psalm 91 every day. The kids were back to school from Christmas break, my husband was headed back to work from his vacation. On his last day home, he and I sat together over gyros and meatloaf at the Greek diner around the corner from our house. The mood between us was light, two friends comparing notes on the upcoming week. He asked, "So what does this week hold for you?"

I held the silvery-foil wrapped meat half-way to my mouth and paused to answer the question. Breath to form words moved through my teeth and then, like it had seen an unwanted surprise, scuttled right back into my mouth. What does this week hold for me? What does this week hold for me? No more job to hurry to a couple mornings a week. No more Christmas musical deadlines to fret. No more Christmas anything, for that matter. Think of something...quick!

Taking a bite of gyro, I chewed a moment, sipped my water, and answered with bright assurance, "Well, I asked Stacey if I could stay over at her house Thursday night to spend all day Friday in solitude and prayer for the upcoming ministry season." Whew...that was good. Big. Grand. Spiritual.

Later that day I read Psalm 91, recalled the peaceful moments alone listening to record albums in my father's home-study, and journaled: Psalm 91 is beautiful. Beautiful.

Then night came on that first day of the new week. My next journal entry:

A very bad day. I think there may be some kind of attack going on here because... I went to bed so content and happy and eager and in the night I felt like 'something' came over me. I had a nightmare which woke me up enough to let Brian know, but I don't remember it. Then I had the kind of exhausting dream that puts me in a situation where I am completely failing a simple task and tons of people [often all mixed up from different seasons of my life] are watching and becoming increasingly angry with me. In addition I woke up about 4am coughing and blowing my nose and I couldn't get back to sleep until I propped myself up on a mound of pillows. I'm stressed about life starting back up again after Christmas; about keeping up with housework and relationships, etc. I can't stand being 'me' any longer. I absolutely want to no longer exist. I realize it's selfish and self-absorbed and slothful and sensual. I've got to break out of this. Help me, God. Please, please, please help me.
Toward evening, a sense of peace became solid with this perspective:
The only way I can think out of this is that, yes there is attack, and, yes, there is immaturity and sin. But I'm making it through the day. It's 4:45 pm and I've made it this far without blowing it, without leaving town, without doing any irreversible damage. And Psalm 91 says...

Once again this psalm full of metaphor and angelic assurance arrested my imagination and calmed my numerous fears. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High /Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
During the week I was reminded of something Kathleen Norris said in Acedia & Me:

“Psalm 91, from which the early monks coined the term ‘noonday demon’:You will not fear the terror of the night
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the plague that prowls in the darkness
Nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.
While we are all too familiar with nighttime terrors, we might well ask: What scourge that lays waste at noon?

Andrew Solomon explains that he chose "The Noonday Demon" as the title for his book because he found the phrase ‘describes so exactly what one experiences in depression…Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance. There is almost no other mental state of which the same can be said.’”

For, perhaps the first time in my life, I began to understand that God's rescue at noon and at night might possibly look like me laying in my bathrobe, propped up on pillows, kept company by a box of tissues and my journal. It was not pretty like an extreme close-up of a pink, tear-stained face at the end of a movie, but I'm quite certain that if I could have seen into the spiritual realm that afternoon I might have been able to see a ten thousand demons fallen by my side and a thousand at my right hand. I had made it through the day.
5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.

About midweek the entire family was fighting one aspect or another of the flu. Any meaningful activity I had managed to schedule into this mundane week I had to cancel -- a trip to Syracuse for the funeral of dear friends' mother and grandmother, lunch with my sister-in-law, a first appointment at a new gym, and the solitude retreat. All week I had read accounts of Jesus getting away to pray. To ask for direction, comfort, correction and sustaining from His Father in hidden-away desert places. I got to my living room chair. So I didn't get to keep my well-intended plan of going away from the normal distractions of home and family to pray and listen for the voice of God. But I chose to hunker down anyway with Bible, notebook, pen, hot tea and a decent dose of optimism. And nothing happened.

I couldn't focus. I couldn't figure out what to say first. I couldn't hear God. I felt like an idiot. I needed back-up. Moral support. Like Jesus asking Peter, James and John to keep watch with him that horrible night of solitude in the Garden, I called out (via email) to close friends. In essence I asked them the same question: Would you keep watch with me?

Soon, words began to formulate in my mind and bubble up into prayer formation. All of them came to the same conclusion; I was deeply afraid. In a matter of minutes I was able to scribble a notebook page full of the fears keeping me mute. In the quiet buzzing and whirring of the house while steam evaporated from the mouth of my tea mug, words came back to me. Psalm 91 words again:
9 Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation
Photograph #1: Photo titled Psalm 91 by "LauraZ" on
Photograph #2: Photo taken in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

Photograph #3: Jesus Prays in Gethsemane station, Good Friday experience at Union Center

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