I want to return to our discussion of the Thomas Merton poem, “When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple.” If you have not read the full poem or need a refresher you can find the complete text here. The previous stanza rings with relational tension as “Friends as well as stars are angry with the noble ruin” and “Saints depart in several directions,” but the next stanza begins to bring comfort, “Be still . . .”
This is, as I have written previously, the starting point of the spiritual practice that forms the basis of the Serene Disciple Project. Start with stillness… not repentance, not worship, not proclamation, not Scripture… begin with stillness. Without the foundation of stillness, nothing else you do by way of spiritual practice, will bring your soul to stillness. But in the poem, stillness is more than a beginning point, it is a response to relational stress in general and relational stress caused by the disappointment and disapproval of others in particula. Again, if you are unfamiliar with the full text of the poem I urge you to go back and take a look at it.
Stillness as a response to criticism, condemnation, and the disappointment of others is as rarely tried as it is difficult to pull off. Anger in response to anger is the typical default. Self defensiveness is a common response even when we know we are actually deserving of painful critique. Unpacking a litany of self justifying excuses and explanation of extenuating circumstances meant to deflect blame is the norm. Evasion can also go the opposite direction with fantastic self derision in an effort to make the accuser feel sorry for the accused.
Stillness in the face of the shaking finger of judgment or the frown of disappointment is a liberating response.
In humble silence there is an acknowledgement, an owning of the ruins of my life’s towers of ego. Repentance, the making of amends, even appropriate explanations can come later if the first response is mindful stillness. But then, Merton makes a daring claim, “It was a lucky wind/ that blew away his halo with his cares/ It was a lucky sea that drowned his reputation.”
Earlier in my life I would certainly not have associated luck with loss of respect and reputation! My halo and all that it implied were very important to me. Doesn’t the Bible say that a good reputation is better than wealth and that being held in high esteem is better than gold and silver? (Proverbs 22:1) As a young man, I memorized that verse and worked to achieve reputation and esteem. How can losing those things be in any way lucky? That’s the problem with pulling a verse from a larger context and making it a motto. Every verse is modified by those around it. I failed to memorize the next verse, “The rich and poor have this in common, the Lord made them both.” In the end, we all stand before God without the benefit of all that we hoped would impress. And, we are shocked to discover that we stand before God as His loved children.
About a decade ago I had been living in secret and significant failure convinced that if my failures became public my life would be over. And then they became public. The typhoon of confession swept away my halo and drowned my reputation and it was not until they were gone that I realized how heavy had been their maintenance. In the stillness that followed the storm I discovered the quiet relief of having the worst things about me become public knowledge as well as the quiet, powerful grace of being loved in spite of those failings. While I do not minimize the pain I caused to myself and others, it was a lucky wind and sea that finally relieved me of the burden of self-created and sustained reputation and esteem. In the aftermath of that season I found, to my utter surprise, the delight of having nothing to prove and no one to impress. I walk now with the easy breathing freedom of finally understanding that even when my faults and failures are discovered and exposed – I am still loved, accepted, and forgiven. In fact, I have learned that the vulnerability of letting my weaknesses be known is actually powerful and persuasive. I really do understand that vulnerability is tough and can be terrifying, but I can also tell you that it is not only survivable but empowering.
Whatever storm you are in or fear may be on the horizon… be still. It might, contrary to all expectations, be a lucky storm.