Silence, prayer, and listening. Sabbatical update

I arrived at the Guesthouse of the Society of St. John the Evangelist mid-afternoon on Election Day. When I was planning my sabbatical last summer, I had no inkling that I would be traveling from New York City to Boston on November 8 and that I would be on retreat in the monastery as the election results began to roll in. My schedule was dictated by meetings I had in New York on Monday and by tentative plans I had made for the Boston area.

Thanks to Amtrak, I spent the trip from Penn Station to South Station following Twitter. Like so many others, I was both anxious and hopeful during the course of the day. My first worship in the monastery was the Tuesday evening community Eucharist. It was wonderful to be together with the brothers and their larger worshiping community as polls began to close. Dinner immediately followed in the refectory. All of the guests join the brothers for meals. Tuesday’s supper was a talking meal, the only one I attended during my stay. It was an opportunity to exchange pleasantries with other guests and with the brothers but the conversation naturally turned to the election.

After supper, I returned to my room and to my twitter feed (my retreat didn’t include the suggested “technology fast”) and by the time the bell rang for Compline at 8:20, it was clear that things weren’t going quite as everyone had expected.

As we gathered for silence before compline and then as the chanting began, my anxiety and fear were enveloped by the sacred beauty of the space and by the ancient words of the service. The chanting, the stone walls, the candlelight brought us into the sacred presence of God, in a place beyond and above the worries and noise of the world around us. But it wasn’t escape—we could still hear traffic from the streets, the sirens of ambulances on their way to Mt. Auburn Hospital, and the heaviness of our own hearts.

All of those feelings, the inner tranquility created by the Nunc Dimittis, were gone as soon as I returned to my room and to Twitter. The outcome became clear but I turned off my phone and went to bed before final results were in. A restless followed, ended by the sound of the alarm clock for Morning Prayer at 6:00 am.

It was as we prayed the Angelus and then moved into the familiar words of the Office, “Lord, open our lips. And our mouth shall proclaim your praise,” that I began to experience what a blessing it would be to be on retreat in the first days after the election. Worshiping in a chapel that was almost 100 years old, its thick stone walls suggesting permanence and timelessness, spending most of my time in silence, broken only by our common worship 4 times a day, offered space and time to reflect on the election and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian and an Episcopal priest in this nation that turns out to be very different than I had imagined it to be.

The psalms appointed for Morning Prayer in the Ordo of the SSJE were Psalms 36 and 37 (I think). We chanted these words (Psalm 37:6-7)

Be still before the LORD *

and wait patiently for him.

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *

the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

I thought of the Psalter, the Daily Office, the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and the chapel in which we worshiped. All of these things are evidence of the durability of the Christian tradition. The SSJE was founded 150 years ago; its rhythm of the Daily Office, silence, work, and hospitality has its roots in the western monastic tradition going back 1500 years. Its chapel draws on millennial-old architectural styles. All of it symbolizes the tradition’s strength and permanence.


Of course, the strength and permanence are illusory. My sabbatical has focused on the enormous changes taking place in American culture today, the changing demographics for religion; the catastrophic decline in mainline Christianity, the very uncertain future that lies ahead. To put our trust in thick stone walls, or in a worship style and practice that have their roots 1500, 2000, or 2500 years ago are false hopes.

Nevertheless, I found hope and inspiration in those stone walls, in the chanting of the Daily Office, in the community created in silence and in the brothers’ hospitality. The silence of last week gave me space to pray and to think. As the week went on, the importance of prayer, the centrality of prayer, became more obvious. To reach not for my own words but for the church’s words; to say and chant psalms that were written 2500 years ago; for the doubts and fears, the faith and trust of an author so unlike myself, who lived in a world imaginably different from, for his words to speak for and to me, to speak of and to God; was comfort and consolation in this difficult and anxious. To rediscover the power of prayer, and especially of a community at prayer, was just what I needed. It may be what Christians across the country need in this time.

Putting our trust in the permanence and strength of institutions and walls of stone may be misguided, even idolatrous, but I learned something else from my retreat among the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

As I listened to their chanting, and as I raised my voice to join theirs, I thought about all of the monks across all of the centuries, who had raised their voices for the Daily Office. I thought of how monastic life had changed and adapted over the centuries. I thought of those times when it seemed like monasticism would come to an end—the turbulence of the 1960s, the violence of the French Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, those centuries when monasticism continued to carry Christianity and the classical tradition in the midst of the turmoil of the early Middle Ages, and even earlier, as the order and structure of the Roman Empire collapsed in the West. Through all of those centuries, monks continued to pray, and chant, and work. Their lives, the institutions in which they lived, the world around them, all changed dramatically in those times. Their faith was shaken, but their prayer continued.

For many of us, the world has changed. Our hopes have been shattered. We are full of anger, fear, and grief. When I return to Madison, I will engage with members of our congregation, clergy and other leaders as we continue to work for justice and peace, for reconciliation, and to create a community where people of all races, national background, religious commitment, and gender can flourish. I’m sure I will have more to say about that in the days and weeks to come.

I hope that all of this work will emerge from and be grounded by prayer—my own prayer and that of my congregation and others.

As I reemerged from silent retreat and traveled to Seattle, Portland, and now San Antonio, I have been overwhelmed by the noise of our media, news cycle, and social media. I have found it difficult to read the news, to follow closely on social media, to witness the anger, fear, the outrage left and right. For all the immediacy and connectedness of the internet, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the way it invades and obsesses us. I am learning that for my own spiritual and emotional health, I will need to keep much of it at arm’s length.

At the same time, as I seek to ground myself in prayer and silence, I also want to commit myself to holy listening—to finding ways of hearing the hurt, anger, and fear of all those who feel threatened by this new reality, and to find ways of hearing the hurt, fear, and anger of all those who thought their only recourse was to vote for Trump.

We are in a new world. We are citizens of a nation that has revealed itself for what it truly is and always has been, deeply racist and deeply committed to the project of white supremacy. How we, how I, will negotiate this present context remains to be seen but hopefully my way will be guided by prayer, silence, and holy listening.

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