Making Space for Silence | Sojourners

Making Space for Silence

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Editor's Note: The feast of St. Isidora is celebrated on May 1 in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church.

When I am alone, and everything is quiet, I feel the weight of the holy pressing in like a warm comforter tucked up tight around me. When I am alone in this quiet, God feels so close, so tangible — so present.

But I am rarely alone, rarely surrounded by quiet. Living in the city, parenting, partnering, working — all these things ensure noise and clatter and cluttered places. It can be debilitating, and I find myself lost in some fantasy about leaving the working world, entering a hermitage, beginning a life of quiet contemplation in an attempt to get back some lost connection to the divine. But it is a trick of the culture to suggest that in this loud and crowded life I lead, God is absent, and the holy has receded.

When my children were young, after the long, loud days, after the push and pull of bedtime, I soldiered through until — at last — quiet would settle in the house. I would clear the sink in the kitchen and then run hot water, as hot as it could come. Dipping my well-used mop in the steaming water and wringing it with my reddening hands, I would softly wet down the tile, scrubbing in one spot or another — this one jelly, still sticky from the morning, this one dried mud from an adventure in the garden. I did this every night without exception. There was a holiness there in the quiet, in the scrubbing. Everything else faded away.

When I finished, I dipped my hands quickly into the dirty water to release the drain plug and rinse down the stainless steel sink, ready for morning and for the daily work of parenting to begin again.

Until the mid-third century, those called to a monastic vocation lived alone. They sought the wilderness, living the life of a hermit in a desert or forest. But around 325 A.D., St. Pachomius was said to have started what is referred to as a cenobitic monastery in Tabenna, which is near Thebes in Egypt. Here, monks and nuns come together and live in community, still set apart from the world but supported — alone, but together. In the quiet of this place the monastics sought after God. They cherished the holy they found in order, in hard work, in prayer and fasting, and in communion with one another.

St. Isidora came into the Tabenna community in the fourth or fifth century. She most likely arrived, as most novices do, ready and willing to enter into her monastic calling. But as time wore on, she began to act as though she was insane. The nuns had no patience for her behavior and relegated her to the kitchen where she wore a dishrag on her head and even eschewed food, drinking dirty dishwater instead. I can picture it — I can almost see the clouded water, almost feel it on my hands. This murky mess, a mixture of the day’s grime and dinner scraps making a kind of soup for the ascetic’s soul.

Isidora’s behavior was puzzling and unsettling for the rest of her community. I wonder what it felt like to be inside of her head. I like to imagine her as someone who, when looking at the whole of the world, sees the tree, the grass, individual rays of sunlight streaming into the field, the wide connections of everything made from the hand of God. Perhaps she saw and heard and felt everything, every breeze, every bird song, every breath taken by living things — all things clamoring, all things clattering alive and noisy. I’m just guessing here. But what if the world suddenly, somehow, became both infinite in scope and exquisite in detail all at once? Where does one go after having this sort of communion with the Creator? I’d wear a rag on my head and drink dirty dishwater, too.

It was St. Pitirim, a desert monk, who changed things for Isidora. An angel appeared to him, saying, “Go to the Tabenna Monastery. There you will see a sister wearing a rag on her head. She serves them all with love and endures their contempt without complaint. Her heart and her thoughts rest always with God. You, on the other hand, sit in solitude, but your thoughts flit about all over the world.”

When Isidora saw St. Pitirim, she dropped to his feet. She asked for his blessing, and he said, in front of the sisters who had disparaged her, “Bless me first, venerable mother!” The sisters were astonished, and the elder told them, “Before God, Isidora is higher than all of us!”

And with that proclamation, Isidora is no longer a collection of quirks and odd behaviors, outsider and crazy woman. Now we can see her then in a new light — fool for Christ, holy and chaotic and ridiculous and lovely. She is the least of us. She is the best of us. Eyes on Christ, everything else fading away.

And I think, in moments, that I understand this. In the midst of the overwhelming quotidian, my daily list of things to do in a busy life, I went to the dirty water. The sound of it, the song of it, this small act of worship saved me. I never resented the floor washing, the rice cereal spilled under the table, the crushed crackers that gathered around the legs of the table. I would kneel there each night scraping away the daily-ness, the distraction, the world-weary worry, and I prayed. That one act centered me and lit the steps ahead one at a time.

When the ocean is too much, too big, too deep, how do I get to shore? One breath at a time. One stroke at a time, arm over arm, legs kicking — steady motion forward, and singular focus. It is here, with this singular focus, that God’s voice comes clear —a reminder that God is not absent, but whispering always, infusing life and breath into everything, every cell, every moment.

St. Isidora reminds me today of this. Fool for Christ, the least of us, the best of us, her heart resting always with God. She feels like family.

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