When I Stopped Having Something to Say

By September 25, 2015My Thoughts

When Henri Nouwen studied Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” he sat in front of the painting for more than three hours. He studied the figures and the way the painting changed as the angle and intensity of the sunlight shifted throughout the day. He would have stayed there longer, but the museum was closing, and he had to leave.

Nouwen was captivated by the people in the painting, and he found himself relating to many of them – from the younger son-come-home, to the angry elder brother, to the outside observers casting their own judgments about the homecoming.

Currently, I am reading through Henri Nouwen’s book of reflections on this painting with a group, and as we discussed Nouwen’s encounter with the painting, someone asked, “Has anyone here ever sat in front of a painting or another form of art for three or four hours?”

I have done this exactly twice.

Once, in college as part of an art history course, I intentionally positioned myself in front of a Jackson Pollock painting because I hated abstract art and thought the best way to overcome that was to familiarize myself with it. (It helped a lot, actually.)

The other time was at a convent as part of a seminary retreat.

We had traveled to Indiana to spend a few days learning about spiritual disciplines. Our companion for the journey was Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline, and our classroom was the darkness-to-light spaces of the convent where we were staying.

One of the disciplines we would immerse ourselves in was the discipline of solitude. As an introvert, I didn’t expect this discipline to be a problem for me. So, when our teacher invited us to find a quiet place to sit in solitude for three hours, I thought it would be a good time for me to wrestle with some of the thoughts I had had on the retreat up to that point. Maybe I would write a poem or a journal entry while I was alone.

I wandered through the dark halls and found myself in the sanctuary. The ceiling vaulted to such heights that suddenly I felt like a speck of dust in a sprawling desert. The enormity swallowed me up, and I felt overwhelmed. Overwhelmed, yet I did not want to leave. So, I looked around and found a small icon. I positioned myself there, and I sat.

I opened my notebook and readied my pen. I looked at the icon as though I expected it to inspire me to write something meaningful. I fumbled words around in my mind, but everything I wrote seemed broken, imperfect, hollow. After about half an hour passed, I closed my notebook and put my pen down.

I stared at the icon. I looked at it for so long that you would think the image would be emblazoned in my mind. It’s been ten years since I sat in that sanctuary, and I’ve since forgotten what the icon looked like, but I will never forget what happened in the moments when I realized that I had nothing to say.

My three hours of solitude went from trying to turn my solitude into productive work, to discomfort, to an experience of being washed over with love and intensity. I went from ready to write something profound to the feeling of being held in the embrace of God.

And I wept.

Was it the solitude? The silence? The beautiful artwork? The immense and ornate sanctuary? Had I done something that led me from wanting to distract myself to being attentive?

I’m a do-er. I like to do things and busy myself. My to-do list is always long, growing, and usually impossible to complete. I make myself crazy with all my doing.

And as I think back to this experience, sometimes I wonder what I did that got me through the fidgety, awkward, frustrating moments and into receptivity, openness, and connection with God.

The truth is, I did nothing.

Nothing.

I can’t capture that moment in a list of easy steps. I couldn’t recreate it if I tried, nor could I market a fool-proof strategy to anyone who was seeking to have a similar experience.

What I experienced in that moment was that, though I was in solitude, I was not alone. I am never alone.

I like to fill the silence, fill in all the empty spaces in my day and in my life to avoid the feeling of loneliness that is truly homesickness. I fill it with things I’m doing, and I fill it with my words.

Something holy happened on the day when I no longer had anything to say.

Something happened when I wasn’t filling in every gap and space and silence.

Something happened when I no longer tried to wrestle the minutes for whatever productivity I could squeeze from them.

It moved me.

And sometimes I wonder if I need more days like that.

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • You should read Ruth Haley Barton’s “Invitation to Solitude and Silence.” She writes about something similar, and suggests that we all need at least one entire day each month in solitude.

    • Oh that sounds like a great read, and one that I really should read. Thanks for suggesting it to me!

  • oof. convicting. I love reading your words April!

  • I love this, April. Thanks for sharing.
    Several things I want to draw attention to:
    First, Celebration of Discipline is a great book. I actually have to read it again for my Servant Leadership class this semester. So good.
    Second, I can really relate to what you’re saying here about being a “do-er,” having a to-do list a mile long, and making yourself crazy knowing you’ll never get it done.
    I do the same thing myself. I’ve been learning about the Mary & Martha story in Luke 10 for my Spiritual Formation class here at Asbury (I’m in Kentucky for the on-campus part of the class right now), and it’s really the difference between “being” and “doing.” It’s a struggle for me, I want to get stuff done, want to be productive.
    On a deeper level, though, questions I have to ask myself are like this: “Is my self-worth tied to what I produce, or do, or Who I am loved by?”
    As “do-ers” we go and we go and we go for so long until we can’t go anymore, until we feel like we are empty spiritually, (which we probably are), and it’s not until we stop “doing” and start simply “being,” or “abiding” (in John 15 language) that we can really experience the love and joy of Jesus Christ in our lives, and ever hope to share that love and joy with others in ministry as pastors.
    I’ve got a quote from my Spiritual Formation class that is helpful, I think. The first time I heard it, it wrecked me in a big way. When I encountered it again two weeks ago, it wrecked me in a whole new way.
    Here it is: “The Mary in us must rest at the feet of Jesus, if the Martha in us is to do her work.”
    We need to just stop, and be, and recognize that God love us for who we are (as created people), rather than what we do, or produce, or who we serve, or where we serve in ministry.
    Like Os Guinness says in his book, “The Call,” “We are first called to Someone, then to something.” We are God’s children first, and pastors/ministers/teachers/ insert responsibility here second.
    That’s not to say I’m an expert.
    I’m not. I still stink at it.
    But I’m grateful that grace is always greater.

    Peace,
    Nick

    • Here it is: “The Mary in us must rest at the feet of Jesus, if the Martha in us is to do her work.”

      THIS. All of this. Thank you!

  • Elizabeth Jones

    April, you described your experience before the icon in such a vivid way. I appreciate it. I could tell how intimate, how deeply moving that experience was for you. Thanks so much.

    I’ve been struggling with centering prayer myself, for the month of September. I am in the midst of my daily prayer journey for 2015. Each month I am trying a different way of praying, daily, and then I blog about it. I have done meditative prayer before, but never for so many days in a row. (!!!) Me, such a wordy wordsmith, trying to wordlessly center and focus on God. With greater or lesser success. I am striving. And, I’m coming to an end, as the month comes to a close. Interesting experience. @chaplaineliza

    • I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. Thank you for reading and sharing your own story. I join you as a fellow wordy wordsmith. It’s one way I express myself the most clearly…but sometimes it really does get in the way!

  • Susan J. Hetrick

    Oh April! I love this so much. I have also sat in front of a piece of art and had no words, only tears. The first time was in Madrid, at the Prado in front of “the Little Princess” by….El Greco? (Not sure.) The second time was in Paris, in front of an untitled huge painting by some artist I’d never heard of. THAT one was abstract; just layer upon layer of color….and it completely broke me. To be undone by the Presence of God is so amazing, and utterly indescribable….thank you for putting words to this experience. 🙂