Stumbling onto new Rhythms

Dear Matthew,

As I read through the rhythms that you have put into place, I realized that I had also adopted some new practices in midlife. While your practices seemed to be intentional choices to address specific needs, mine seemed to evolve more organically. I stumbled onto them, and then as I moved deeper and deeper into them I discovered how and why they were helping me to make sense of my new season. So at this point in my journey I could list them out as you have done—I am now intentional about these practices. But I don’t want to give the impression that my path was like yours. For the sake of diversity, then, I’ll give a bit of my wandering tale.

I mentioned before that I hit a point when everything that had always worked for me was no longer working. About that time a friend of mine said that she had recently discovered a spiritual formation curriculum that was based on the Ignatian Exercises. I had never heard of The Exercises, but I was intrigued, and bought the book. A whole new world opened up to me—ancient spiritual practices breathed new life into my experience of God and scriptures.

The most transformative discipline that I have integrated into my daily routine is the discipline of silence. A friend explained the experience of silence like this: Life is like a dirty fishbowl that is constantly being stirred. In silence the stirring stops. Eventually the water stills and the debris settles, and finally, there is clarity. We live in a world that is filled with words. If I wasn’t listening to a podcast, I was reading an article or a book or having a conversation. Before going through the Exercises I had never heard of Contemplative Prayer, or Silence. I had lived my entire life in the stirred up fishbowl. Now I begin each day with twenty minutes of silence—because it takes at least ten minutes for the swirling to stop! And in that place, God ministers to me in ways that words cannot explain. Richard Foster has a great chapter on Contemplative Prayer in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. As a mild extrovert, I have to admit that silence sounded painful at first and I resisted it for a long time. It IS a discipline; ie, not easy for me. But oh. So. Worth it.

I, too, have found that working with my hands has ministered to my mind and soul. I signed up for a calligraphy class—not because I was aware of this need to do something with my hands, but because I wanted to find a way to engage in our local community center, and they were offering courses. I have always loved words and writing, but I consumed and produced words in mass quantity through the medium of a computer. In my calligraphy class, instead of composing a 1000-word article, I would spend two hours perfecting a single letter. Concentrating on having the right amount of ink on the bamboo tip, applying a consistent amount of pressure to the paper, paying attention to how a stroke was initiated and terminated, even attending to my posture, how I held the bamboo pen, and my breathing—all forced me to grow in my awareness of my own body. Calligraphy connected me to myself in ways I did not anticipate. But that connection brought a freedom/discipline. I can’t even put an AND between those two words, because in learning calligraphy, I learned that the two (freedom and discipline) are inextricably linked. That realization has had implications for every single aspect of my life. It has become a landmark on my new map.

Finally, I am learning to incorporate the practice of disponibilité into my life. The French word disponibilité translates as “availability” but it really goes way beyond that. It means actively ready to do whatever is needed whenever it is needed. I have always tried to practice the concept of “servant leadership.” But what I had failed to learn was the practice of serving without any leadership agenda at all. Serving to simply serve. To love. When no one was looking. With no possible remuneration. I had excused my lack of service because that just isn’t my gift. I had not realized that I was the one who needed selfless service to do its work in me. It is an emptying of self that cannot be accomplished on my own terms. This practice is hard to integrate into regular rhythms because it is best expressed when responding to an unexpected need that presents itself—an interruption to my plans, if you will. But I’m convinced that this is what it really means to “take up my cross.”

In order to learn disponibilité I have to leave blank space in my agenda. I have to make sure that in any given week, I have some time that has purposefully been left unaccounted for—and I have to know what other items in my agenda are flexible in terms of when they will get accomplished. In this way, when a need arises, I have room to respond. This practice connects me to people and to my community like no other. I find, in fact, that the most meaningful interactions I have in any given week are the ones that weren’t on my agenda, whether a conversation with my kids, an opportunity to help a neighbour, or a phone call from a young woman in tears.  

Silence, calligraphy, and disponibilité are all aspects of my current Rule of Life. A Rule of Life is simply a way of becoming intentional about incorporating life-giving practices into our regular rhythms. I’d be happy to tell you more about creating a Rule of Life, if you’d like. I can also share my own Rule and point you to some helpful resources. It’s a great thing to do in the place of New Year’s resolutions, as I find a Rule of Life to be much more practical and achievable.

As for the panic attacks, well I still have them from time to time. As you noted, these practices are not necessarily a cure, but they are more than coping mechanisms. They are allowing me to yield to a process that is beyond my control in ways that are productive instead of destructive. They are making me flexible, teachable, and malleable. And perhaps that is what keeps midlife from becoming a crisis in the first place. 

Take care friend,