“Your solitude will be a hold and home for you even amid very unfamiliar conditions and from there you will find all your ways. All my wishes are ready to accompany you, and my confidence is with you.”
–Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
When I was in my thirties, I lived in the perennial hope of Helen Gurley Brown’s myth that a woman really could have it all. For me, this entailed happiness and wealth and professional prestige and contentment in family life. It was a list connected by ‘ands’ — not ‘ors’.
But no matter how hard I played the game of life, I never landed on the space marked “All,” even though I packed life to the gills and then some. Too often, my ‘some’ slipped through the cracks of a sad busy life; and ultimately, this led me to reassess who I was and what I wanted out of life.
Seeds of salvation were sown in the quiet moments of a retreat with good friends. Being surrounded by the deep piney woods of Texas — at a point when I was wondering whether some essential part of me had gotten lost in the chase for worldly success — was a rich metaphor that I failed to grasp until later.
Too focused on digging down to the core of my being — preoccupied with figuring out who I was and who I was becoming – I then had little appreciation for the birds-eye view. But what is most important to who I am today, I walked out of that quiet weekend with a new sense of direction and a longing for something more.
It is good to retreat from life to take time to reassess life priorities, choices and actions. However, to find a quiet place to think is not easy where societal noise is so portable, with cell phones and laptop computers, not to mention trains, planes and automobiles.
Away from the whirlpool of noise that drowns out any ability to think, the quiet waits to give life. The quiet invites me to catch my breath and to expel whatever darkness threatens to eat away at my soul; it helps me to breathe in the aroma of fresh possibilities and reconnect with the truth of my being and the deepest longings of my heart. The quiet allows me to let go of unwieldy props and masks that make me clumsy and allow me to hide and forget my true self.
There in the quiet, pretense is unnecessary. I am free to once again seek my truest self and longings. And to know and claim and wear my true self is so very important, because as Thomas Merton writes, “To know ourselves is the other side to knowing God.”
The Bible tells us it was in the sounds of sheer silence where Elijah heard God when Elijah was in retreat, running for his life from the wicked Queen Jezebel. It is no surprise then, that it is in the quiet where we best discover out true selves.
But what is the quiet? — what does quiet look like?– and how does quiet differ from silence? Frederick Buechner offers us answers, as he draws this shimmering definition and contrast out of his book Wishful Thinking:
“An empty room is silent. A room where people are not speaking or moving is quiet. Silence is a given, quiet a gift. Silence is the absence of sound and quiet the stilling of sound. Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is still.
“…The quiet there, the rest, is beyond the reach of the world to destroy. It is how being saved sounds.”