On quieting the not-so-gentle spirit


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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photo © 2008 ahp_ibanez | more info(via: Wylio)

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.” (1 Peter 3:4)

I have to admit that the jar of contention filled up a little faster than expected.  I’m up to 56 cents now, which translates into nearly an hour of rooftop penance at the end of the month.  (You guys were right. I should never have added snark to the list. On Tuesday I had to put a penny in the jar for simply retweeting someone else’s smart-ass comment!)

In fact, by the middle of the month, I realized the jar wasn’t really working.  Sure I was successfully avoiding some of the character traits of the “contentious and vexing woman” found in the book of Proverbs, but I wasn’t really cultivating a gentle and quiet spirit, which is the focus of the month of October.

My resolve was further tested when my big announcement about the project brought out some rather nasty comments on the blog. (Most were positive, yes, but every blogger knows that it’s the mean ones you remember.) Whenever I feel insecure, my heart curls up into a little ball and grows sharp porcupine needles out its sides. I become the opposite of gentle and quiet. I become frightened and whiny and mean.

I knew that in order to actually learn something from this month of gentleness I had to take another approach. So I began incorporating contemplative prayer into my morning routine, particularly breathing exercises, lectio divina,  and centered prayer. I focused on words, passages, and prayers that spoke of quietness.

The results were…amazing.

Until this week I’d always thought that cultivating a gentle and quiet spirit was a nice goal for thatother kind of woman— you know, the kind who doesn’t care about politics or theology or college football. But the images and words that flooded my mind each morning during prayer were not docile or weak, but rather strong, powerful, unyielding. As I meditated on Psalm 23, Psalm 131, and the prayers of St. Teresa of Avila, it felt as though my feet were extending deep through the ground and growing long, winding roots, while my torso stretched like a trunk and my arms and fingers like branches and leaves.

With every prayer and every silence, the image of a great big tree kept coming back to me, again and again and again.

I don’t know for sure, but I think that maybe God is trying to tell me that I’ve got to stop reacting so much, that I can’t allow the little ups and downs in my day to affect me to the core. Gentleness begins with strength, quietness with security.  A great tree is both moved and unmoved—it changes with the seasons, but its roots keep it anchored in the ground.

We live in such a reactive culture.  Everything from Facebook to Twitter to the 24-hour news cycle rewards the loudest, most dramatic reactions.  And I’ve learned the hard way that this kind of environment can easily turn someone like me into a one-stop freak show—grotesque as a bearded woman one moment, light as a flying trapeze artist the next.  It’s easy to lose my identity in the midst of it all.

Contemplatives have long taught that mastering the volatile human spirit is the key to serenity.  “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles,” the Buddha said.  “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city,” says Proverbs 16:32.

I think this poem from St. Teresa of Avila perhaps says it best:

Let nothing upset you,
Let nothing startle you. 
All things pass;
God does not change.
Patience wins all it seeks.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is enough. 

Maybe cultivating a gentle and quiet sprit doesn’t require changing my personality, just regaining control of it—growing strong enough to hold back and secure enough to soften.  

Maybe it’s not as much about the pennies that are in the jar but the pennies that are not.

***

So what does a “gentle and quiet spirit” mean to you? Ladies, has that verse ever been used against you to suggest you have to change your strong-willed, fiesty personality? 

And have you ever practiced contemplative prayer?

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