Because we’ll be here in Thailand for a solid two months during our trip around the world, I can meet with Nora, my new spiritual director, at least six times. There are other things to do in Chiang Mai — night markets to shop for cheap art and phone cases, hikes through the hills to the highest point in the country, elephant sanctuaries to visit. But after my first session, I sense an unveiling — these spiritual direction sessions are a primary reason we’ve been drawn here.
In our third meeting, Nora ends our time together, as customary, with silence, her reading a Psalm. To signify our time is over, she snuffs out the candle. The hour is spent as it was the previous two meetings: silence and candle-lighting to start, Nora asking me what God is speaking to me today, more silence from me, then an unexpected outburst of tears as I share what comes to mind, usually some sort of frustration with my work as a writer. I pour out details of specific burdens and cultural movements that tie me in knots. Nora is a safe person with thousands of miles between our daily worlds. She will park when there is inward movement, help lift a stone when she senses treasure underneath.
At the end of our third meeting, snuffed candle smoke still rising in the air, Nora says, “Before you leave Chiang Mai, I have a prescription for you. I want you to visit a monastery in town for a day of silence.”
She hands me a brochure with a picture of a labyrinth on the front. I open it and find a smiling priest welcoming me to come for the day, the night, or for a week, to hear from God and get away from the city noise. There is no talking permitted on the grounds.
“You live in a world of noise,” Nora says. “Your work is noisy. Your home life with three kids is noisy. God speaks to us best in silence, in nooks and crannies when we’re willing to ignore the cacophony.”
I take the brochure with me, walk out of the living-room-cum-lobby with a tired grin on my face, get in the passenger side of the car where Kyle and the kids wait for me, and thrust the paper in front of him. “Look what I get to do,” I say. I wipe the tear smudges from my face and he backs out of the gravel driveway.
A few mornings before we leave Thailand, I arrive at the monastery armed with supplies for a day of silence — water bottle, snacks, pencil, journal. There will be meals offered in the dining hall at set times, silent, so I need little else. I check in at the front desk and they nod me through the open-air entrance hall and out into the gardens. Paths twist this way and that, through bamboo enclaves, interspersed by an occasional bench or tree stump for sitting. In the center are six gazebos, each with a simple wood-hewn table and bench. Dormitories outline the monastery. In the far distance lies the labyrinth.
It is astonishingly hard to sit in silence right now. Bamboo creaks, wind rushes through banana leaves, car horns honk on the highway beyond the garden. I wander the grounds, claim a gazebo, and arrange my provisions in organized piles around the table. For an hour, I stare at them. I have thoughts, but none worthy of journaling.
I wonder what my brother is doing at work in Austin today.
These pants need washing.
We need to make travel plans for France.
I could use a latte.
I sit. I listen to traffic in the distance, nod at the other spiritual pilgrims meandering by on the paths, and fidget on the hard bench. The apple on the table, instead of leading me to prolific contemplation, stays an apple, stares back at me. I start to formulate a thought about the morning breeze and its symbolism, wonder if there is a poem there, but then an airplane thrusts overhead, and like a toddler I shift my attention to the shiny object in the sky. The first hour ekes by.
I go on another walk around the path, return to my basecamp, open my journal and turn to the next blank page. Nora has given me homework—write a lamentation during my monastic day, a poem of mourning in order to fully flesh out a grieving process that needs skin and bones. So far, though, my thoughts are little more than a swirling mental distraction of annoyances and a vague inkling that something muddy wants out.
I know this: I am weary of playing games, of the games I am asked to play in order to succeed as a writer. These travels for a year are admittedly part-escapism, a desperate plea for a sabbatical from expectations, pressure, noise. I want to get lost in myself, I want to stop thinking so much of myself, and I want to see in the flesh how many people there are in the world and how many don’t know me or really, care about me. I want to remember my smallness. I want to be a prophet in the wilderness, shouting from jungles and deserts and foreign cities that we are all small, and to remember what a tiny place we each take up in the world. Small might be insignificant, but it does not mean unimportant.
In Chiang Mai, I have already passed by millions of street vendors — all of whom I will never know — and I think of how many more there are in the world. Their daily lives matter, but how am I any different, any more important, than an old woman selling key rings and water bottles at the Kung Fu show? I long for God to show me where I belong, where my home is in the world, and my smallness in it.
Before I write my lamentation, I read this from pastor and writer Eugene Peterson: “We are caught off-guard when divine revelation arrives in such ordinary garb and mistakenly think it’s our job to dress it up in the latest Paris silk gown of technology, or to outfit it in a sturdy three-piece suit of ethics before we can deal with it.”
A quiet awareness surfaces, and I sense that it is ordinary. It’s for me. I do not need to make it big, or dress it up by sharing it on social media, or deconstruct it with a three-part explanation. I need to capture it, tackle it to the ground as it flies in the wind through the banana trees. My pen grows pregnant with words. The lamentation flows.
The first draft pulses with a respectable anger, and I set the pen down. I can barely decipher my own scribbles. But this feels good, freeing, a bit rebellious. Frustration quivers out my fingers and my body begins to strengthen as a poison leaves. Being on the other side of the world is becoming a blood-letting. I am fraught with self-imposed expectations about motherhood and writing that need to be released, and the crowded buses, the holding of my children’s hands through makeshift markets, the sunsets over suburban Thai rooftops are my medicinal leeches.
I walk to the labyrinth, step in to the entrance, and start to methodically pray. Turn right, one step in front of the other, then the narrow path snakes and leads back out, then back in closer to its center. There is a plan, a prescribed path to the middle, but how slow or quickly I arrive is up to me. I can stop mid-step if I want, and pause, admire, adjust. These steps, one in front of another, are an expedition of its own. They mimic this year. First, leave your home, your familiarity. Then board your transport. Traverse through China. Step into Hong Kong. Into Thailand, and next, onward to Singapore, Australia, New Zealand.
When I arrive in the center at last, I tear out the lamentation in my notebook, crumple it into a ball, and set it on the waist-high rock serving as the labyrinth’s centerpost. I unearth a smaller rock on the ground and paperweight it on top of my offering to keep it from blowing into the banana trees. This rock is an Ebenezer of remembrance. I am free to scream to God my grievances — at least on paper — but when I am done, I must leave them and remember that my Maker knows me, will watch over my offering, and will return with me. I wind back out the labyrinth, faster this time.
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Excerpted with permission from At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider, copyright Tsh Oxenreider.
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Does your life feel noisy? If it feels impossible to find quiet, perhaps God is inviting you to find a monastery of sorts in the midst of your chaos. What could this space look like? Even if it feels uncomfortable, invite a space of silence in your life, and ask God what you might need to contemplate in the quiet. Perhaps you’re meant to write a lamentation. Perhaps your soul is longing to sing a song of praise.
Come share your thoughts with us on our blog! We would love to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full