Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Lenten Quiet Day: Following God's Lead

I was very lucky this past weekend to participate in a Quiet Day at our church, something they only offer once during Lent and once during Advent. I've wanted to attend a Quiet Day for some time now, but it seemed like life was always trying to get in the way (which is especially ironic because the whole purpose of a quiet day is to take time away from life to be with God in silence... but whatever). During the last Advent Quiet Day, I spent the entire morning trying to return a pair of stray dogs to their family.. which I did, and they were VERY grateful for it. The experience itself was quite rewarding, even if I did miss the Advent meditations and the chance to spend the day in prayer. The Lenten Quiet day before that, I was taking my MCAT, the entrance exam used for medical school applications. I could have used a quiet day because I got a flat tire while driving to another city to take the exam and almost didn't make it to the testing center in time. I raced in with about two minutes to spare. If you check in late, you don't get to take the test. And the MCAT costs $210 each time you take it. But that story is for another time.

I don't remember the reasons I didn't attend the quiet days before that, but the point is that something always came up and I just never could make it. Since we're moving for the military to another state this summer, I knew this would be my last chance. So I told my husband that I would be going this year even if the house burnt down, to which he sarcastically remarked that I would probably need a quiet day if the house burnt down. Ha. Ha. 

So I went. As I walked up to the church doors, there was a sign posted that read "Quiet Day. Please observe silence." Silence? As in, I'm not allowed to talk to anyone all day long?? Uh oh. I may be in trouble with that. I went inside and went to sit in the right transept where a few chairs had been set up for us. There were only a few people who came, maybe six in all, so it was a very intimate atmosphere despite the grand size of our worship space. Our associate rector, Mother Jill, came in and explained how the day would go. She would be reading to us from "Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words" by Stanley Hauerwas throughout the day. She would read the first two meditations, then we'd have an hour or so of personal prayer time, then the second two, then another hour of prayer, then lunch in the fellowship hall in silence, then the third two, an hour of prayer, the last meditation, an hour of prayer, then we'd celebrate the Eucharist and go home. I was a little overwhelmed with how much "empty" time there would be between meditations. I wasn't sure I was prepared for that. But then, what did I expect? It was a gloriously beautiful day (temperature in the low 70s with a bright blue sky) so she suggested that we spend some time outside in the memorial garden during our personal prayer time. What happened next was more than I'd expected.

I won't try to explain or even verbalize all of my experiences that day. I don't know that I could do them justice even if I tried, but I think I'd prefer to keep them private for now anyway. After Mother Jill read the first two meditations, we all split up in silence to give ourselves the physical space to be alone with God for a while. One of the things I adore about our church building is the massive labyrinth designed into the ceramic tile floor (in Episcopal blue, of course). I've walked the labyrinth many times before and it has always been an enriching experience. So I pulled my rosary out of my purse, went to the front of the labyrinth, and began to pray as I started along its winding path. 

There are a few things I always notice when I walk the labyrinth. I always start out walking so fast, it's just my natural gait. In whispering my rosary prayer as I moved, I became even more acutely aware of how frantically out of breath I was. How stupid, I thought, so I tried to slow myself down. It's funny to say that I tried to slow myself down. If I'm in complete control of my motor skills, which I hope I am, then I would think I'd be able to just slow down. But I couldn't. I never can. It's as if I'm in a rush to get to the center, like I'm being drawn in and am unable to resist the pull. Once there, I turned to face the altar and sat cross-legged on the floor. I finished my rosary and I sat in silence, ear shattering silence. And then I began to pray. I prayed for those I always pray for. The little girl we lost and her misguided and spiritually lost mother, the new mothers and mothers-to-be in my life, friends and family who are ill or injured, those struggling spiritually or struggling to find their paths, those who have asked for prayers, those who need them, and lastly for myself.

I started having this conversation with God, one-sided as it was, about the direction I'm supposed to take with my life. I've made peace with the things that have happened in my life that didn't fall neatly into my plan for myself because I know that my plan could never compare to His. And I've been standing at a crossroads for about three months, trying to make up my mind which direction to take. I can see how each might be the one God means for me, but I still don't know how to decide between them. I've prayed for discernment, for Him to show me the way, but it still seems obscured from me and I don't know why. So I prayed, and I begged, and I pleaded, and I cried. I don't want to make the wrong choices. I don't want to squander good opportunities. I don't want to make God disappointed in how I turn out, or how I choose to live the life He's given me.

Taking in a very deep breath, I lifted my eyes from the cold tile floor up to the processional cross sitting in front of the window. With such a bright blue sky and so much sunlight behind it, the black wrought-iron cross seemed to stand out in my view and would have drawn in my eyes even if I'd been looking elsewhere. And as I'm sitting there staring at it, trying to clear my head, a feeling of warmth and reassurance washed over me. Of course it doesn't matter which path I decide to pursue. God will still love me regardless of which I choose. He will love me if I make the right decision and He will love me if I make the wrong one. He will love me if I am a success and He will love me if I am a complete and utter failure. If I get turned around and lost along the way, He will be there to point me in the right direction, even if I'm too inept to understand. So long as I have good intentions in my heart, I could never be a disappointment to God because He loves all His children. It's why He gave Himself in sacrifice for us on the cross. 

Feeling refreshed, I stood up and began to make my way back through the labyrinth at a much slower pace with my eyes focused on the floor just in front of my feet. I felt more confident. I still had absolutely no idea what I was going to do, but I felt sure that God would guide me in the right direction. I just have to be mindful of the signs He sends my way. So I began to repeat a mantra of "Lead me and I will follow" in time with my breath as a walking meditation.

As I walked, I became suddenly aware of a unique texture in the tiles themselves. The base tiles are a creamy color and the inlaid labyrinth tiles are blue, both with a wispy white that reminded me of clouds. By now, the others are beginning to take their seats again, some placing chairs back on one corner of the labyrinth. I was suddenly aware of how long it had been and that they would probably start without me (which was okay because I could hear Mother Jill reading just fine from where I was), but more-so that they might be in my way. I might have to move off my path to go around them, but then I might get turned around and just start walking back toward the center again! I started to panic (which is totally stupid, but that's what happened) and suddenly realized that I hadn't been paying that close attention to where I was walking as I fretted about all this. What if I was already turned around and going the wrong way?! 

No, I thought, no... I just need to keep going the way that I am... keep my eyes on what's right in front of me and not worry so much about what might or might not be around the next turn. If I get turned around, then I'll just be turned around and I'll figure out a way to get back on track sooner or later (BINGO!). As a symbolic exercise in trusting the path laid out before me, I just kept walking. Amazingly enough, my path never crossed into where the others were gathering and I never really was turned around. I made it all the way back to the beginning without incident as I'd hoped (imagine that).

Although the rest of the day was not nearly as mystical, if you could even call the first experience that, it was just what I needed. During the second prayer time I sat outside in the garden. I sang some of my favorite hymns to myself (which are actually more like medieval chants) and prayed another rosary while soaking up the warm sun (a welcome contrast to the chill of the tile floor inside). After lunch I read all the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection, and during the final prayer period I was moved to create some spiritual art in crayon (which I will spare you the pain of having to see). After we celebrated the Eucharist, I spent a little time talking to my dear friend Mother Jill about this and that, and I went home to my husband feeling refreshed, renewed, and SO excited about Easter (only 12 days to go!). 

Although it's not what I would have imagined for myself, I really do love my life and I am so thankful for it and all the blessings I've been given.

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