SILENCE IS THE WINTER NAME OF GOD
Sr. Linda-Susan Beard
Emmaus Monastery, Vestaburg, Michigan
Bryn Mawr College
Wednesday, August 28, 2002
The essay was written to fulfill the first of the assignments for the Spiritual Direction Certification Program, run jointly by the Haden Institute of North Carolina and Mt. Carmel Monastery, Niagara Falls, Ontario, a marriage of Jung and contemplative Carmelite spirituality.
Thursdays have always been my favorite days of the week; they represent key moments of birth and rebirth in my half-century of living. I was born in New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital at 11am on Thursday, October 3, 1951, in the heart of an especially exciting World Series season -- or so my father has always remembered the event. My mother, an émigré from the migrant fields of Georgia, was the parent of a daughter, Patricia, a little more than four years my senior. In the next few years the family swelled to include another little girl, Diana, born in 1954 and the son my father was hoping for, Stan, whose birthday marker is 1956.
On another Thursday, half an hour before 11am a quarter of a century later, I remember waiting, with intense nervousness and great anticipation, the 30 minutes before my appointment to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation after having been away from the Church for almost 5 years. As a graduate student at Cornell, when I returned to the lush, bittersweetness of my childhood prayer life after a self-imposed exile, I had been attending Quaker meetings for almost a year searching for a religious community that was intellectually respectable and historically defensible in terms of its slave past. The road home was made possible entirely by grace and curiosity. A friend asked if I would like to visit a nineteenth-century Quaker meetinghouse in the rural community outside Ithaca. I misunderstood the invitation and thought we were making an anthropological excursion into the countryside. Once in place I realized, too late, that we were visiting the meetinghouse as silent worshippers. A community gradually filled the square layout with the ebony potbelly stove in the center. Having assiduously and conscientiously avoided prayer (since, as I explained to God, I no longer had any faith), I found myself that Sunday afternoon trapped in circumstances that required that I be still for an hour. It was autumn then, too -- my favorite season of the year -- and, in the spirit of consistency and integrity I told myself I would look out the small windows of the meetinghouse and try to make some use of the time, but I would not pray. Fatigue and grace conspired and I found myself in the rich stillness with eyes closed, but I tried thinking of equations to keep focused on cognitive activity. In a very short time I fell into deep, seductively embracing contemplative prayer -- the prayer of my earliest days, and I was moved to silent tears. When I opened my eyes, the complex casuistry of communicating obliquely with a God I had spent an undergraduate lifetime denying and avoiding, melted into the beginnings of a fall sunset. From that day began the journey that brought me home to prayer and, eventually, to the sacramental life for which I hungered.
The desert exile was the product of a number of paradoxical variables: my peevish, pouting disappointment with my parents' refusal to allow me to go to a high school juniorate in order to prepare for religious life; my sensitivity to the seeming incompatibility between high intellectual achievement and Christian, especially Catholic, faith; and the effect of a series of shaming events which mocked my childhood piety and prayer life. These have been the themes of much spiritual struggle over the course of my life. In each new decade the same confrontation takes on new aspects.
At the age of 5 my parents bundled me one evening and took me to Sydenham Hospital, the local Harlem Hospital about 10 minutes' walk from our apartment. I had a fever of 104 and Mom and Dad decided that the doctor's phone suggestions were no longer adequate. I remember the unusualness of being carried in my father's arms in my bed blankets to a waiting taxi. It was very late at night or very early in the morning -- and the conversation at the reception desk was brief. I was put to bed, separated from my parents, and given into the care of white strangers who woke me often to find out vital signs or to give me painful shots or unappealing medicines in various forms. I remember the thinking processes that went on that night as clearly as if they happened this morning. I felt alone, somewhat frightened, and yet safe because I knew my father would never abandon me and I felt enveloped in the loving care of a gentle God.
That was the beginning of several childhood hospitalizations for pneumonia, some lasting for several weeks at a time. I was in Sydenham long enough to remember, even now, the daily horarium of life in the children's ward: from hot face cloths after morning toileting, to unsalted, unsweetened oatmeal, and 30 minutes of children's cartoon programming each night before final needles and individualized medicine cup portions. That experience -- and the long hours of bed rest after successive asthmatic and bronchial episodes -- nurtured the contemplative dimension of my being. I learned to pray and to be at home with aloneness, though I had yet more to learn about the mutuality of the exchange.
As a young student I used to stop by the church (then unlocked) on my way home from school. I loved the solitude and stillness of the church, with all the aesthetic satisfaction my senses took from the aromatherapy of beeswax candles and flickering vigil light dances against deep-dyed stained glass windows. I remember at age 9 kneeling in the back of the left side of the church and telling the man on the huge crucifix all the things that had transpired that day in school. There were siblings at home with whom to talk and to play, but this man was very special to me. I wanted to be alone with him as much as possible -- and at church I could do so without arousing suspicion or risking unwanted correction for what my parents were beginning to call my "fanaticism." One afternoon I was talking with even more energy than usual when I heard my friend say that, if we were going to have a relationship, I couldn't do all the talking. Part of the intimacy could just be being still together. In that silence, my friend said, I would be able to hear him speak. I had never thought of the idea before. I sat back and spent some part of the time, as much as I could at age 9, in quiet. That was another significant moment of insight and intimacy.
That relationship grew despite the tension at home. My father was a willing convert to Catholicism; my mother left the Baptist Church only because she was required to do so in order to get us into the Catholic school at St. Joseph's on 125th and Morningside Avenue. Dad loved the discipline the nuns imposed that extended into seriousness about intellectual work. He used to come to the schoolyard at noon just to watch the children stop playing as soon as the bell sounded. Mom, on the other hand, was suspicious and critical of the nuns whose observations, when repeated at dinner in the evening, usually met with critique or question. On the surface, it seemed as if it were their childlessness that made them suspect for her as experts; in retrospect I think mom was having a hard time adjusting to the fact that all the nuns and priests were white. Even though we were being educated by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Katherine Drexel's nuns whose entire apostolate was to Native American and "Colored" children, mom was uncomfortable with and untrusting of these strangers.
Mom had no complaint, however, about the educational commitment and focused learning demands of the sisters. Education was the pearl of great price for this very young, courageous and over-worked woman whose greatest disappointment had been having to follow crops and, therefore, not being able to attend school with any regularity after the fourth grade. In her twenties, Mom spent most of her evenings assiduously studying in order to take the GED exam. (She felt that TV was for those who had nothing else to do with their lives.) That was how she deliberately moved out of the fields and into the bureaucratic offices of the Internal Revenue Service where she served as a Revenue Agent until her death from stroke at 49. Following the nuns' examples as learners was one thing; bringing home the quiet, evolving news that I wanted to be a sister was another. She and I fought about the convent for most of our life together. Mom pinpointed and articulated every physical and psychological defect she could detect and accused me of wanting to run away from the world, my imperfections, and, in particular, from her. The real rub was that mom teasingly suggested that I might not be as smart as my teachers indicated because I seemed so susceptible to brainwashing. That helped form the foundation for the Cartesian split between religious commitment and intellectual achievement, one too easily exacerbated by scholastic success as one way of confronting and vanquishing racism.
The wrangle over the convent somehow subsumed many other struggles. My parents insisted that we have the best educations they could afford, sending us to schools that my siblings and I integrated after the move from Harlem to the Bergen County, New Jersey suburbs in 1960. Yet the all-white world in which we were schooled also shaped the social contacts we made. My siblings have found ways of returning to the Black community that we first knew in Harlem. My life has been in the white world throughout. Part of that is a function of comfort with the familiar; part of that is a result of the choices I have made in terms of lifestyle, areas of interest, location. My siblings live in or near major metropolitan centers. I live on an 80-acre farm in the midst of rural central Michigan. For a decade I lived in a monastic community of shepherds and goatherds. My siblings have echoed my mother's strong sentiment that the quality of life is to be measured by its distance from agricultural fields. The world in which I felt at home was, for my parents, an unfamiliar and antagonistic one. Some of the struggle over the question of vocation was tied to race. In its most sophisticated form, the confrontation was also tied to the issue of seemingly voluntary genocide. It was inconceivable to mom that I would allow white folks to tell me about the "holiness" of refusing to reproduce a child for the Black community. To some degree, too, the choice of a religious vocation was part of my own way of rebelling and of severing the umbilical cord. None of that was conscious to me, but when I took my parents to a cloistered Carmelite convent that I was thinking about entering, my mother cried as she spoke to the prioress on the other side of the grille. Afterward mom told me that she never imagined I would go so far in order to assert my independence from her.
I dealt with the confrontations that grew from mom's internal struggles and her probable sense of my rejection of her choices in two ways. I tried hiding my religious observances. When I went off to church to be still before the Blessed Sacrament, I lied about my itinerary. I remember one humorous time when I could not possibly have gotten away with the fraud. It was on Good Friday afternoon in an era when both young and old females had to have their heads covered. I nonchalantly headed to the church -- a 15-minute walk from home -- wearing a skirt and blouse and a hat. One of the neighbors, Mrs. Gunthorpe, asked me to say a prayer for her while I was there. I denied that that was where I was headed and then instantly remembered the story of Peter and the denial, another mainstay story of my spiritual journey. The most immature way of facing the extraordinary pain my mother was experiencing was the use of a convoluted logic which said, in essence, that I would hurt her most by doing damage to myself in that area of my life which was most important to me, my prayer. I stopped being faithful to quiet, to conversation, to relationship. I remember with total clarity the room I was in in our home in Englewood when a gentle voice warned that we would become distant without fidelity to time spent together. I didn't take the wise insight seriously. For a short time I coasted on old familiarity. Then I began to recognize that there was a sense of distance that I knew I could always bridge. Somehow that knowing became a kind of presumption and when there was, at last, a significant sense of space (what I would call today my breaking of covenant), other voices entered and sang songs to me of intellectual pride and of growing beyond childish things that, unfortunately, I listened to intently. By the time I was a junior in high school I didn't know (and didn't want to know) how to find my way home. I argued about the existence of God with my schoolmates and became class agnostic. I was reading Bertrand Russell's arguments questioning the classical proofs for the existence of God. At last my intellect won the battle over the puerile world of childish belief. (I've been making up for this ever since; in God's good humor I teach at an institution where my presence on campus in a religious habit sometimes makes me the focus -- and often the confidante -- of young folks going through the same turmoil. We've simply changed sides.)
Twenty years after both my mother's death and after my entrance into religious community, I still believe and trust that this is the vocation to which I was called from the earliest years. I do not mean to suggest that I have been consistent in that trajectory toward religious life, however. There have been several "detours", other attempts at avoiding the vocation that has providentially pursued me despite my stubbornness. One of these included an engagement to a man I cared for, even when I was certain that marriage was not my vocation, but I hungered for an ordinary life and one that didn't seem to ask for my swimming beyond the known. Nevertheless, one of the most common recurrent dreams of my life, even in those days, has been of participating in vespers in a monastery chapel. I am asking the nuns for a choir stall so that I may pray the Office with the community. This vocation, which is the treasure of my life, was a choice made against the odds, one that drew on the earliest intimacy of the relationship with Jesus that I knew from my youngest years. Whenever I am asked about the multiple places of identity that I occupy, I usually say, at this point in my life, that I am a religious, a contemplative woman, and that everything else flows from that. I participate in a group called The Contemplative Mind in Society Project, a group of folks involved in education, law, media, business, and so forth, who hope to transform these institutions by introducing contemplative practice in a variety of traditions from the East and the West. We will be meeting at the end of August; in preparation, each of us was asked to write a biographical statement. Mine is particularly short and is worth citing here as a way of underlining who it is that I say I am at this half-century mark:
I am a contemplative nun, farmer, musician, teacher-scholar who spends half her year as an Associate Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College. At the College I teach courses that deal with suffering and the triumph of the human spirit (e.g. the haunted literatures of survivors of slavery, apartheid, and the Holocaust). At home I serve as a spiritual director and as coordinator of our retreat ministry. I had the advantage of contemplative settings for my education: the Green Mountains of Bennington, Vermont, and the hills and Finger Lakes of Cornell's Ithaca.
These two decades, however, have been the site of much struggle, doubt, fear, tenderness, hope, and wonder. Sr. Diane Stier and I were asked by Indianapolis Carmel to experiment with new ways of living contemplative life outside the walls, a walking-on-water project that has resulted in Emmaus Monastery. The monastery took its name from Luke's Gospel and the story of the two disciples disappointed by the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. We were both hoping to make optimum use of the centuries of custom and infrastructure available in cloistered life in order to follow the contemplative calls for which we were born. The establishment of the monastery -- from finding a physical location without any resources to negotiating the appropriate legal whitewater with both civil and canon lawyers -- has been the work of our youth. On Pentecost 1999 the 80-acre farm known as Emmaus was canonically erected in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In the very midst of the project my only nephew (at that time) was murdered at 2 am in a New York City street, the nineteen year-old victim of a hit set up for his best friend. His mother, Patricia, works at Covenant House in New York City, and for a year I could not reconcile those ironies. I went off to a 30-day retreat inside a 3-month monastic retreat to try to find a way to trust the Lord again. Sr. Diane was diagnosed with a pernicious strain of breast cancer. She has been in remission for a decade, but we know that there are no guarantees for any of us. My Jungian therapist has helped me tremendously with dream analysis as a way of letting me know what my psyche feels and fears, a major feat given all the cognitive over-training I've received and my Catholic schoolgirl socialization to comply and to please.
In response to the need for more space than a simple farmhouse and a reconverted garage, we accepted the physical and financial challenge of moving two former clinics to our property. At the time we were $25,000 away from being out of debt. The additional space, which has made retreat ministry feasible, also meant a leap of faith into a world of more numbers on the left side of a decimal point than I could ever have dreamed. Just last night about fifteen folks from several different communities were here to celebrate the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit in preparation for the new year of learning and teaching. We have the space to meet the hospitality ideals of our Benedictine vows of stability, conversion of life (including poverty and celibate chastity) and obedience. There are still many days, however, when I cannot believe that this huge 4-house, 3-barn complex is here to be enjoyed and to be tended.
With all the large institutional concerns, the most significant inner battle has been to try to remain faithful to my 'marriage', giving it the time that intimacy demands, lest I fall into the slow erosion I experienced in my childhood. One of my closest friends pointed out to me, at a time when I was "going through the motions" of my religious life, that I seemed, to him, like a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Grace has always rescued me in one of many forms: in the very frequent use of reconciliation (my favorite sacrament), in the access to Eucharist in the communities of sisters with whom I have lived when I am away from home during the school year, and in the clinging to God (through the Jesus prayer) that helps me through the cycles of despair in the depression phases.
There is a running commentary that I hear much of the time, one associated with the bi-polarity, which most often tells me about my limitations, my inadequacy and my ugliness. Thanks be to God there is another that points me to several very key memories of visions. On my way home from the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, the place where I made the 3-month retreat following David's murder, I had an Easter Sunday afternoon encounter with the Lord. I had been wrestling, as usual, with the seemingly incompatible and irreconcilable expectations of my intellectual and contemplative prayer lives. In the "vision" I experienced all of a sudden the image of Thomas asking to touch the wounds of Jesus. What Jesus said to me directly was that I should place the tip of my pen into those wounds, that the ink I should use was the blood in those sites of violence and pain, and that, once I learned how to do that, the painful dividedness I experience would dissipate. I tell myself these days that that advice not only fits with the subject matter of my teaching, but that the Lord may also be telling me something about making suffering life-giving for me and for others. I look to soul mates Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen to help me with the balancing of thinking and of prayer, of being and of doing, of advocacy and of withdrawal into the silence from which true prophecy emerges.
And I trust in the long-term call I have heard, a vocation-within-already twinned vocations to companion others along their spiritual path. It is in close, intimate listening to another's journey with God that I have found another important experience of the presence of the Unnamable and the Holy. I sit in awe of God's working in another, attentive simultaneously to the whole of the story being narrated in language and body language and affect. But I am also listening with as open a heart as possible for the movement of the Spirit in the question that suddenly comes to mind, in the silence that I feel invited not to trespass, or in the gentle challenge that pushes itself into non-judgmental articulation. Sitting in a room with another, a lit candle between us, takes me back to the days of childhood when I sat in stillness before the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. I am aware of the living tabernacles sitting side by side and I am praying with all my heart and soul that I can be, for a moment or two, the reed of God. In that experience I know with every fiber of my being that I am in the presence of an incarnational God, and I feel like Moses standing before the burning bush.
When I am in my office at Bryn Mawr, much of the conversation I have with students is about spiritual companioning. One of my dear colleagues, a Quaker named Anne Dalke, meets with me once a month or so. We have shared silence sometimes in the living room of her Radnor Meeting House and then we talk from our deepest centers about our fears, our celebrations of God's goodness, and our responses to God's overwhelming love. I have trusted in the power of the Spirit in all such encounters, but I feel called now to deepen my awareness of the actions of the Spirit to better discern the voices and notions that come to me in such a holy conversation. Our community charism is to bring a contemplative ministry of presence to the least likely places. I hope to be prepared to bring more wisdom as a director to those experiences as well.
On Thursday next I will see my confessor again and talk about my not-yet-radically whole responses to the unwavering fidelity that Love keeps calling forth. I am excited. Life keeps begetting life.