Speaking Out of Stillness
by Allison Giles
I find Kathleen Norris’ chapter on “Church,” in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, particularly relevant now. “Church” is one of the words she’s had to come to terms with, especially since for her and for so many of us, it’s a word that can make us cringe. Not unlike the post-election climate, the church is full of people with varying opinions. People can behave badly, and as a result, others can react in unhelpful ways. If we haven’t yet been hurt ourselves, we all know someone who has been hurt by the church. However, if we take a page from Norris in this chapter, we may find that the words that come out of silence might surprise us all.
In “Church,” she tells about the time her pastors, a couple that had become her very good friends, were forced to leave. Instead of talking out against those who forced them out right away, she waited seven years. When she was asked to give a sermon to the same congregation seven years later, the words that came were clearly shaped by that long silence. In the sermon, Norris refers to Mark 4: 35-41, when Jesus calms the storm. She refers both to the storm the church endured when the pastors left, as well as to her own storms of doubt. Jesus says to his disciples, “Why are ye so fearful?” For Norris, Jesus’ question acts as a reminder against reacting in the storm, and from “talking out every nook and cranny of some dispute, rather than allowing silence to do its work of healing” (274).
In sharp contrast to the busyness in the storm that seems to be our default, Norris is speaking out of a stillness.
After seven years of waiting, she is able to look at this divided church and see the church Christ loves. She is able to recognize that some of the same members who sent her friends packing are mentors she couldn’t do without.
Norris credits the Benedictine tradition for teaching her the importance of waiting and praying before responding. She explains that “it was the Benedictines who had taught me a bit of patience, the discipline of waiting, and to not always rush to speak out, assuming that my perspective on a situation was the whole picture let alone the ‘right’ one. That is a path that too easily allows us to condemn other people” (275).
We are used to lashing out in the moment against those we believe are wrong, but what if we waited? What if we waited in prayerful silence? What if we waited and prayed and didn’t speak at all, until our words were conditioned by that silence? For Norris, the discipline of silence and waiting did two things: It gave her valuable perspective, and it allowed her to speak constructive words to the church, rather than divisive ones.
This is something that hit me: If in trying to defend someone and we end up hurting someone else, we are no better than when we started (276). I remember recently bemoaning people in the church to an unbeliever, who had been met with unwelcoming stares. Instead, I could have directed her to Jesus, but I ended up making things worse. Perhaps waiting before speaking could have given me words that centered around Jesus’ own welcoming mercy and grace.
Maybe another advantage of waiting is the perspective it gives us of ourselves. In a later chapter, entitled “Hell,” Norris quotes one of Sartre’s most famous lines: “Hell is other people” (315). But she also reminds us of the danger in this line of thinking. By calling someone else a fool, I am not recognizing that they are made in God’s image, and that they are a person God loves. If I do that, maybe I am the one who is the fool.
Let’s Make More Art
by Kate Nesheim
What if the best thing we can do to ensure wisdom in our government policies is to write music? And make films? And paint?
Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor of Image, calls himself a “recovering political junkie,” and argues that his career as a champion of art is a greater vocation. That doesn’t make his divorce from direct political involvement any less painful. He paints this internal struggle vividly through the form of his essay, “Some Questions about Politics and the Imagination”, a self-interview. For this he has constructed an interviewer persona from the part of himself that is skeptical of this life decision. Among other things, he accuses himself of luxuriating in a “palace of art” when he could be “tackl[ing] political issues.” He prods himself to make a statement about the binaries of the U.S. presidential election and of Brexit. Why does he shy from commentary on the politicians that have become central to our national conversations?
Why, after securing a hard-won niche in politics during his youth, did Wolfe instead dedicate his life to art? He has a great deal to say about this choice, even in a short essay, but the key seems to his conviction that imagination can help us become wiser with all the big decisions that spin around in the political scene. With every political dilemma the playwrights and sculptors and poets have channeled our imaginations to show us complexities that extend beyond our own lived experiences. Who else can help us feel a stranger’s pain? Make real the costs of hesitancy during a crisis? Help us to grasp “the unintended consequences of our actions”? Imagination can help free us from ideologies that lock us into unhelpful mindsets. Good art does so, I might add, without imposing its own biases upon the participant. Art that enables us to make better political decisions does so because it opens our minds to truths that are conveyed best to the imagination, not just to reason.
I highly recommend Wolfe’s essay in Image. And I’d love to know what you think:
What piece of art—film, visual, written, or heard—do you think had the greatest influence on how you viewed a specific event or issue? What was its effect?