Saturday, March 22, 2014

Back from Greece

It is probably true that one of the last places that one might look for quiet and solitude is on a March Break international student trip to Greece. International field trips with teenagers are many things. They are both rewarding and challenging in roughly equal measures. The sheer joy and enthusiasm that a group of teenagers can produce when confronted with something new and cool (like ancient ruins!) cannot fail to lift the hearts of those around them. The teenaged interpersonal drama and testing of limits which are inevitable on these kinds of trips are equally challenging. None of this is surprising to those who know and love teenagers, so no one really comes to a trip like this with an actual expectation of peace and quiet. There aren't any dull moments on tour with students. That is a good thing...mostly.

Yet, to my surprise, I found myself, on this trip, reflecting on the importance of silence and solitude in my life. Not just as a 'Gee, I wish I had some', but experiencing little moments breaking into the busyness of a student tour. That solitude, the solitude of the heart that the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, talks about in his many books, is one which calls my attention to what is real and important. It is a solitude in which we are"no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but [are] able to perceive and understand the world from a quiet inner centre." It is a reality check and a reminder of the ties which matter, instead of the trivialities of our busyness, fears and anxieties That kind of silence come just like a river of grace, unexpectedly and joyfully flowing through our hearts.

 It comes as a few moments shared with a colleague sitting atop a Bronze Age citadel with only a few students around, who, oddly, were respecting our space. Gazing over the valley ahead of us and right down to the sea, the beauty of what was set out in front of us became a reminder to me about the goodness of this world and the wonder of being there. That quiet and the landscape before us, I think, became a restorative moment for two busy and conscientious teachers. The silence and solitude allowed us to "strengthen each other by mutual respect, by careful consideration of each other's individuality, by an obedient distance from each other's privacy and by a reverent understanding of the sacredness of the human heart" (Henri Nouwen). It should come as no surprise that our conversation on the way down from the citadel was about that sense of restoration and healing we found in the silence a short time before.

Or it comes as a few minutes on a headland, surrounded on three sides by the sea. In the late morning sun (the first extended period of sun for that trip), the chance for quiet came as the students filed down the hill for gelato in the restaurant down below near the gate. Up there on the cliffs, almost surrounded by the sea, the silence called me to prayer. More specifically, it called for praying Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they display knowledge
There is no speech or language 
    where their voice is not heard. 
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
     their words to the ends of the world
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom 
coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
  and makes its circuit to the other; 
nothing is hidden from its heat. 
At that moment, at that place, the silence called me to worship, to seeing the touch of God on the earth in front of me. The sheer joy of feeling the sun on my face, watching it run its race and looking out over the life-giving sea connected me with the joy behind God's creation. How can one not respond with gratitude and happiness?

Or it can happen in a crowded city square, sitting at rest and watching the life of a strange city go by. As I sat there, I kept remembering that famous quote of Thomas Merton on the streets of Louisville: 

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”

I can't say I reached that level of exaltation, but I felt the wonder of being here and I found myself wondering what the lives of all these people around me were like. What was that mother and child and friend doing there right now at this moment? Do those skateboarders always come here to film themselves doing tricks? Who is that man waiting for? I knew, amid the bustle, that God loved this city and its people as surely as He loves me. As my students trickled back to return to the hotel, I felt a bit less tired and a lot more at peace. The things that divided us weren't as important anymore and I knew that these were the people I was meant to be with at that moment.

I wish I could say that I could sustain this solitude of the heart the entire trip, or even for a substantial time in it. Each of these moments of solitude and peace only lasted minutes; fifteen minutes here, a half an hour there. For so much more time, I remained in the busyness and anxiety which is also a part of these life on student tours.Yet, these moments of peace and solitude of the heart remain precious to me because they represent a life-giving river in my life, connecting me to what is important- my students and the joy of being in the moment. The healing and restorative power of even a little bit of quietness was crucial for my peace of mind and my capacity for enjoyment of the trip itself, allowing me the chance to quiet down, listen and return to the tour with a truer sense of who I was and the wonder of being where I was. It is, as Henri Nouwen, says

                             "The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement 
                               which allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions 
                               for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities
                               a vocation instead of a burden, and which creates the inner 
                               space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow 
                               human beings becomes possible. The movement from 
                              loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out
                              to our innermost being to find there our great healing 
                              powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as
                              a gift to be shared with all human beings." 

I recognize, as Nouwen himself did when he wrote this, my own incapacity for achieving this solitude of the heart for any extended time. Those glimpses I get, on this trip and other times, are moments of grace from God, but, perhaps, it is their quality as sheer gift which makes them so valued and important for me. My hope and prayer, then, is to stay open to these gifts of silence and solitude and ready to take back into my life what I learn at those quiet times.