When I applied for the Transforming Community program last summer and attended my first retreat in October, I did so with the knowledge that my soul was dry as dust, and I attributed its deprivation to the cumulative effect of all the many losses I'd sustained in the previous three to four years.
And that was true. That series of losses did, over time, deprive my soul of so much hope and life.
But it wasn't until the midpoint of that first retreat in October that I realized another factor also at work in this picture. I sat outside during an afternoon given to several hours of solitude and realized, for the first time, that at the same time the series of losses began to fall like dominoes upon my life, I had also made a significant change in my daily life.
It was the spring of 2013.
I was working as a freelance editor on a mix of book and magazine projects, and my work life was primarily project-based and deadline-driven. Clients would contract me for projects, send me the content, and give me a deadline. It was up to me how I got the work done by the time the work was due.
This worked well for me, given my natural rhythm (which is slow) and my sense of vocation as a contemplative.
For the previous few years, I had increasingly made room in my life for silence, solitude, and prayer. I would spend about four hours each morning, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., tending this contemplative space, and I would use my remaining time to get work done for my clients and take care of our life at home. It was out of these practices of solitude and silence that my soul flourished and my ministry flowed.
Then, in the spring of 2013, a client asked if I'd be willing to take on more daily work as a copy editor for their multiple online platforms. This work would require being at my desk, inbox and content-management platform open, by 9 a.m., with articles rolling in on the half-hour until 5 p.m. My task would be to copyedit each article as they went up on the sites.
As a freelancer, stability is key. Recurring income is a gift.
I said yes.
I gave myself to that side job for a year and a half, and I am experiencing the consequences of that decision still today.
Immediately upon agreeing to the work, I lost those four hours of morning stillness and prayer. I would sometimes wake early enough to enjoy a mug of coffee at my desk with the Scriptures, but it was nothing compared to the deep and slow rhythms of prayer and quiet to which my soul had become accustomed and out of which my sense of vocation and my ministry had flowed in the preceding years.
The pace of the work affected me. Making a simple trip to the grocery store or to the post office now evoked anxiety. I hurried through each errand with an eye on the clock, worried I would not be home, in front of my computer, by the time new articles went live.
The content affected me, too. The majority of the work was news-based, so headlines mattered. We worked for clicks. The content needed to command attention. I felt like I was operating at a high-intensity vibration of sensationalism and spectacularity all day long. Such a fever pitch alarmed my soul.
In the end, letting go of the work was not my decision.
Internal decisions at the company led to their bringing more of the responsibilities in house, so most freelancers were let go. And while I was initially alarmed by this decision, given how much stability that work provided each month to the financial bottom line of our home, I was also quite relieved. I knew the work was not aligned with who I am.
Here's the thing, though.
You would have thought, when that work came to an end, I would have returned to the slower pace and prayerful routines I had cultivated with great purpose and commitment before taking on that role. That is not what happened. Instead, I found other habits and activities to fill those hours. Along the way, I became addicted to my phone. I loved the dopamine rush of finding new messages in my inboxes and notifications on my social accounts. I wanted more and more of that. The thirst overwhelmed me.
When I say I am still experiencing the effects of the decision to work that intense online gig four years ago, this is what I mean. Its daily pace and activities rewired my brain and my habits of being for this kind of technology- and information-addicted life. It is not my natural state of being, but I allowed it to become so. And the more I gave myself toward those seemingly small activities, even after the online gig had left my life, the more it did become who I was.
Actions — even seemingly small ones — have consequences.
I began to connect these dots during my first retreat with Transforming Community this past October. During that afternoon of solitude, I saw the greater reality of what had happened.
Yes, that long series of losses had depleted my soul over time. But so did the slow draining of my soul's well that happened as I gave myself to a constantly connected life these past four years. The drying-up of my soul happened through the symbiosis of these things. The losses happened, one after another, and I was not giving myself to the contemplative practices that most sustain my inner life.
Now, once I connected these dots, I wanted to bang myself over the head with a frying pan. The truth is, I should have known better. My vocational call for nearly ten years has been that of bringing contemplative wisdom to online spaces. I directed the thesis research for my graduate degree toward a study of the internet's effect on the soul. As a result, I proposed ways to help the soul flourish in the face of such realities, and I brought some of those solutions to life.
Rather than bang myself over the head that day, though, I chose to look with compassion on my soul for its sad state and on myself for having fallen down the same rabbit hole most of us do these days, one slow, small action at a time, never realizing just what it is doing to our insides.
And I decided to make changes in favor of recovery.
When I got home from the retreat, I started to reincorporate contemplative practices into my life. I made a decision to take a sabbatical from my work with Still Forming. I started exploring the concept of deep work and created a deep-work schedule for myself.
All of this is still in development. But slowly, slowly, I am on my way back to myself and to God.
This past week, I attended my second retreat with the Transforming Community.
On the second night, as part of our evening prayer service, we were given ten minutes of silence to practice centering prayer. Before we began, we were reminded of the reality of the Trinity residing within us, and we were invited to use this time of silence to be present to this reality. We each chose a word — mine was Jesus — to which we would return when we noticed our thoughts had strayed from the simple practice of being present to God.
In front of the altar was a table that held an assortment of candles. One of the collections of candles was a trinity of tea lights. I stared at the trinity of those flames in the silence and connected to the reality of the Trinity residing with me, at the center of my being.
I was reminded of Rublev's icon of the Trinity that depicts Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seated around a table, their postures indicating a continual flow of love that both gives and receives. Some have come to believe the open space at the front of the table was intended to be an invitation to the viewer to join the Trinity at the table and to participate in their flow of love.
As I practiced centering prayer in that silence, I began to notice that it felt as though each member of the Trinity inside me — each one a flame — turned toward me with a gaze of welcome.
"Return," each one beckoned me from their place in the circle, a smile on their face. "Return to us."
Over and again, in those ten minutes of silence, they offered this invitation of welcome to me.
Return to us.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. If any season in the church year marks an invitation to return, it is this one. And while last week's retreat with Transforming Community was not meant to be an entry point for Lent, it has become that for me.
The retreat opened with a declaration from Isaiah 30: "In returning and rest shall be your strength." Then the Trinity invited me to return to them and to join them at the table in their flow of love. And now Lent is here, inviting return again.
And so I am responding. I am returning to my God.