“I want to sink back into a certain innocence.”
My friend Ruth is describing what leads her to visit a place of natural beauty and to walk among trees. For the first time in her life she has been doing the kinds of things that social activists do: gather information about an issue, make phone calls, organize meetings, distribute leaflets, hire a lawyer, talk to reporters, voice opposition, articulate a vision. Never before has she been so acutely aware of the need for ordinary citizens to band together and to work for a better future, and never before has she participated in that effort with so much vigor.
Yet she also notices that the more active she becomes, the more she needs the solace of prayer. The more she moves forward to engage with other people in the effort to heal the world, the more she needs to draw back into periods of silence and solitude, of gazing and reflection. What Ruth so wonderfully calls “sinking back into a certain innocence” means being willing to relinquish for a while the impulse to figure out, plan, and analyze, to assess, define, and control. When we sink back into a certain innocence, we invite our hearts to be unguarded. We let go our agenda, drop our defenses, and open in childlike trust to the present moment. We allow ourselves to gaze, to rest, to be encountered, and to be changed.
I know that spending time alone doing nothing is anathema to most Americans. In unstructured moments, many of us whip out our cell phones, snag a cigarette, grab a snack, or get busy with the next task. A remarkable article published last month in the journal Science reports that, in one study, when participants were left alone in a room for a while, most of them chose to administer painful electric shocks to themselves rather than to sit silently, in solitude. Clearly it goes against the cultural grain if we recognize and honor our deep need for solitude, stillness, and contemplation.
This week I spent a couple of days on retreat with my husband Robert Jonas at our old farmhouse in Ashfield, in the hills of western Massachusetts. For two days it rained heavily. Clouds rolled and churned across the sky. Wind tossed the branches of the trees and blew wild patterns across the pond. Torrents of rain kept falling. For a long time my husband and I stood on the back porch, taking it all in. We weren’t alone, but we were quiet together, absorbed in watching and listening as rain pounded on the roof overhead and as it poured in sheets over the field and pond and woods beyond.
Standing on the porch, I noticed two ways of paying attention to the rain. One was to think about it. For instance, I could reflect on the fact that intense deluges seem to have become more frequent in my corner of the world. I could think about climate change, and how some places are flooding while other places are going dry. I could think about the fact that because of carbon dioxide emissions, the atmosphere now holds 5% more moisture than it used to, and that extreme downpours are another sign of a warming world. Thoughts typically generate more thoughts: I could then start thinking about the condition of the gutters or the roof; I could look to the past and reflect on my memories of rain; I could look to the future and start making plans for the next climate rally.
Thank God for thoughts and for the capacity to think. It is good, even essential, to know such things and to think such thoughts. Having a basic grasp of facts is a prerequisite to knowing what actions we need to take. But on that rainy day in Ashfield I didn’t want to think about the rain, to analyze or strategize – I wanted to perceive it with imagination and intuition and with all five senses, to encounter it in the present with the innocence of a child. What are you saying? Speak, Rain – I am listening.
Standing on the porch with my husband, I remembered the words of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and social activist, who wrote:
What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.
In the midst of the storm, Jonas and I listened to the rain’s “wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech,” and watched as rain splashed all over the deck. The rain’s song was wild and wordless, an insistent oratorio. Patiently we listened. Eventually I grinned at my husband and pointed out how the water was dropping on the horizontal wooden boards, landing quickly like notes upon a staff. “It’s like reading a piece of music.”
Jonas took up the idea and before long he’d created a short video. I don’t know what he plans to name it, but I’m calling it Sonata for Deluge and Porch.
When it comes to addressing climate change, I want to speak up for the need for concerted, smart, and effective action. But I also want to speak up for the need for prayer and contemplation. Creativity, playfulness, and a fresh perspective arise in the space beyond thought. Wisdom emerges as we learn to sit quietly with ourselves and with the world around us, open to reality, just as it is.
I grew up dividing the world into two camps: “spiritual” people and “activists,” people who pray, and people who actively pursue social and environmental justice. Of course that is a bogus split. Contemplation and action are both necessary if humans are to flourish on this planet. Moving gracefully between them is as essential for life as breathing in and breathing out.
Back in the 14th century, the Christian mystic John Ruysbroeck described God as “absolute repose and fecundity reconciled.” Rusbroeck goes on to say: “The Spirit of God breathes us out that we may love, and do good works; and draws us into [God’s] self, that we may rest in fruition, and this is Eternal Life… Action and fruition never hinder, but strengthen one another… They are the double wings… that take us home.”