Silent Retreat

As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t written anything for a few weeks. It wasn’t just that I needed a rest——though the rest was nice. It was more that I don’t believe in speaking when I don’t feel I have anything to say. At least not something of value. The trouble is that the underlying reality of blogging and tweeting and working social media is that you need to be “out there” all the time. It doesn’t particularly matter what you say or show or do, or if it’s meaningful, or if the world is enhanced by your thoughts: it’s not personal, it’s math. The algorithm of search engines is designed to favor the sites and keywords and names that show up more often, regardless of the quality of the content. Which means that I undercut the whole value of having a blog by taking a few weeks off from blogging.

I can live with that.

There is a deepening in the detachment. Freed from thinking about how to present an idea in an instant, the silence begins to have its way with me.

Two things have happened during my online silence that have been significant. One, my husband Lon gave me a Kindle for Christmas, which I didn’t ask for and wasn’t sure I wanted. (He actually got it as a gift from his workplace and was delighted to pass it along). I wasn’t sure if I would like how the use of it would change the act of reading but I quickly discovered how much more easily I could engage with a broad selection of material and make it my own. On Christmas day, I found a gem of a book in their 99 cent bin. The Life of Pi is almost a decade old, but somehow I had missed it. That small but magnificent story, flipped through as if by magic, returned me to the all-consuming reverie of fiction, and the sure knowledge that there are people in the world with the courage and imagination to bring the Word of God to life in wholly original and unexpected ways. Bless you, Yann Martel.

I also began my required course in Historical Theology, which I was not at all sure I was going to like. I imagined a lot of names and dates and men making decisions that would somehow make me feel less confident in my faith. Wrong again. The textbook The Story of Christian Theology is as good a read as The Life of Pi. It begins, quite simply, as a story of writers and philosophers and ordinary people of faith feeling called to get the story right, wrestling with the testimonies of people who had walked the earth with Jesus, struggling to give shape to the teachings, to reign in the flavor-of-the month sects and cults, to formalize and defend and articulate “that which passes all human understanding,” and to ensure that if——in the grand narrative of mankind——God had intended Christ as the pivot point, they did not allow his truth to fall through the cracks.

We are assigned a half dozen excerpts each week from a range of sources: apostolic fathers, apologists (those who explain Christianity to non-Christians), persecutors, and polemicists. Last Friday, I arrived at a reading by a man named Clement of Alexandria, whom I knew nothing about— only that he wrote in the late 2nd century/early 3rd century and was not the same as Clement of Rome. I knew because I had Wikipediaed the names when I downloaded the pages so I could make data tabs that would be of some use in sorting. And so I began to read from his Stromata (roughly translated, a patchwork of ideas) and as I did I began to sit up. My fingertips pressed down on the page as if to know the source better. I began to rise, needing to move, to respond as I felt myself—-what, what was it? Quickening was the word that came to mind, the sensation so familiar to a mother’s body and a writer’s spirit. “This is my guy,” I said aloud, instantly abandoning the idea of making my central paper for the course a subset of my thesis plans. Whoever this guy Clement was, I needed to spend more time with him.

I opened my textbook and found myself at the chapter that described Clement’s life and philosophy and place in the larger story. It was there in those few pages that I found the one thing I’d been looking for almost since the day I’d become a Christian: some understanding of the radically different ways that people who claim the same faith seem to behave and express their worldview, and where and how I fit in. “Clement is the prototype of the broad, liberally minded, intellectual and philosophical Christian theologian who seeks to synthesize Christian belief with culture as much as possible.”

And in that moment, I knew where I belonged. And in the silence, I am stirring.

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