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I have always been a five year-old about birthdays. I love them, and I get very excited about celebrating the day that God in His mercy chose to give me life. The most ordinary things seem tinged with magic, and I pray I will never grow out of that. But I am also very awed by the shining, unwritten gift of a new year. There is something a little untame about the enormous possibility that stretches before me, and a deep unction rises to take responsibility for my choices in the spinning round of days to come—to name my year with purpose and intention and love. To mark each age with significance and deep attention to the subtle ways in which God is bringing me into my own, as a woman and as His child.
So, while all birthdays are important to me, this one seems especially so. Today, I enter the final year of my thirties. I’ve joked with Philip about how I’m turning 39 for the first time, but, in all seriousness, I’m not bothered a bit about growing older—I love the increasing freedom that comes with the passing of years, and the gradual shedding of non-essentials—be it the shedding of ideas or possessions or insecurities. My thirties have been a remarkable decade. I have had adventures and opportunities my 29 year-old self could not have imagined. It’s also been a quietly turbulent decade, in the good way that all true soul-growth is turbulent. I have been stretched in ways that sometimes seemed past endurance, and I have found God more loving, more tender, more unreasonably patient with me than I ever would have let myself hope He would be. My joys, too, have deepened into this widening space within, so that I begin to feel that all the tugging and pulling and broadening—which can be so uncomfortable in the moment—has only been God’s secret design of making room for even more joy.
And so, as I enter into this last year of my thirties, I want to pay close attention. To listen to the story my own life is telling me. To pause long enough to see a pattern and notice how divinely suited it is to my personality. I cannot help feeling that I am on the threshold of something very important, and I don’t want to miss it. One thing that has been growing on me steadily of late is the thought that I want to live this last year of my thirties the way I really wish I’d lived all of my thirties: namely, actively believing the things that God has said about me. Believing that God loves me as wildly and extravagantly and unconditionally as He does. Believing the names He has given me. Believing that acts of love, howsoever small, are undying. Believing that it’s allright to say ‘no’ to things my heart is saying ‘no’ to and to live in a way that, as Macrina Wiederkehr so beautifully put it, is kind to my own soul.
I have mentioned here before, to great empathy from my fellow introverts, a passage from Elizabeth Goudge’s A City of Bells, which I first encountered with a rush of tears and a burst of camaraderie, both for Goudge herself (whom I know the words describe) as well as her petite heroine:
Henrietta, at heart a contemplative person, enjoyed alarums and excursions for a short while only. For her a background of quiet was essential to happiness. It had been fun to stay with Felicity, to be petted and spoiled by all her friends…to have lovely things to eat and to go to the zoo whenever she liked, but it had completely upset her equilibrium and she felt as though she had been turned upside down so that everything that was worthwhile in her mind fell out. She, like everyone else, had to find out by experience in what mode of life she could best adjust herself to the twin facts of her own personality and the moment of time in which destiny had planted it, and she was lucky perhaps that she found out so early…
…she found herself listening only to the lovely silence and it seemed to her that in it she came right way up again and her dreams, that had deserted her in London, came flocking back, so that with joy she flung open the doors of her mind and welcomed them in. Never again, she vowed, would she live a noisy life that killed her dreams. They were her reason for living, the only thing that she had to give to the world, and she must live in the way that suited them best.
I am learning—again, and yet, as never before—how crucial it is for me to live in the way that suits my dreams, not only for my own equilibrium, but because this is the place in which I find God. When life gets out of hand—whether by excitement or stress or illness or over-commitment—two things happen in me, immediately and insidiously: I stop writing, and I stop dwelling in the peace of the love of God. You would think I’d see it coming, it’s happened so many times before. But it always takes me off guard and pulls the rug out from under my soul. I get muddled so easily, yanked off center by the varying forces at work in our age, and find myself wondering where my dreams went. Or, worse yet, wondering if they ever were.
It’s because of this tendency towards muddle (“Beware of muddle!” warns Mr. Emerson so poignantly in A Room With a View. “Though life is very glorious, it is difficult.”) that I am taking the passage into 39 very seriously. I am taking heart to look more keenly into the things that make me alive—and to guard them with my life. I am willing to own, perhaps as never before, that what may not be “too much” for another person is justly “too much” for me. I am learning that I am much more of a sailboat than a steel trawler, excruciatingly (exasperatingly?) sensitive to the breezes and currents of life, but that when my sails catch the wind of the love of God, my work becomes seemingly effortless. Becomes, in the words of Kahlil Gibran, “love made visible.”
In order to catch that wind, however, to know that divine conveyance, I must be out on the open seas with Him, riding wild waves of that Spirit which “blows where it listeth…,” in a solitude that can be terrifying at times.
In recent weeks, I’ve felt a desire kindling that seems nothing short of a dare:
What if, it whispers, you do indeed give the last year of your thirties to an unprecedented level of solitude with Him, for the love of God? Of communion and intimacy and wonder? What if you venture into the contemplative life you’ve dreamed of, a life that is a little more cloistered and a lot more loving? What if you actually took the time to recalibrate the compass of your life?
What if you took a Sabbath Year?
For me, a Sabbath Year means an intentional rest from the things that pull me off center, chief of which is my expectations of myself. It means laying aside, if only temporarily, some of the things I love in order that I may tend my soul more carefully. I’ve already made my little list of “offerings,” which, candidly, I’m excited about. (Though, equally candid, I’m tempted to say with each emerging item, “Ah, Lord! That too?”) But for as long as I can remember, I have not only admired, but panted after the monastic ideal: the dream of a cloistered heart that retreats from the world in order to love the world. More than that, even, a heart that values silence and solitude with God over all the “showier” aspects of religious life. A heart that is not afraid to love God extravagantly, whether other people see it or not.
I have been drawn towards this ideal for years and years, encountering its recognizable essence in the people I most admire with a gasping sense of validation and joy. And I have been drawn, likewise, in these foothills of my forties, into the conviction I need to segue into this Sabbath Year with the great Christian tradition of a 40-Day Fast. This whole idea has been growing on me since last week, when one of my best friends sent me an email that said, in all simplicity, “Go dormant, Lanier.”
All day yesterday I felt the longing growing within me, a living thing. A thing I am both exhilarated by and terrified of: the longing for the Great Silence. The specific longing to retreat for a time from the internet world and fully inhabit the smaller world of a bounded life. I realize, even as I’m naming it, that I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time, but I’ve lacked the courage. Suddenly, perhaps out of my great need, the courage is there, and the knowledge that the world is not waiting on tenterhooks for the next words to fall from my fingers and splash (or drip) out into the internet. It’s okay to be silent for a while.
And so, kind friends, beginning Monday, July 29th, I am going quiet on the internet. For forty days, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter (which I actually have no idea how to use anyway). No browsing about on Ruche and accidentally buying things. No obsessing over Instagram pictures. No drinking from the great, flowing fountain of words and ideas that make the internet such a miracle to me. I need to step back into silence and heal from the trauma of “too much” for a while. I want to use this time to pray for clarity and wisdom in the choices my husband and I are making with our lives, to remember what it means again to be a child of God. To not only hear His voice, but know what questions to ask. In short, to find my bearings once more.
And, that done, to put out to sea with Him.
I dearly appreciate all of you, and the ways in which you have contributed to my journey. Hobbit-like, I wish I could give every one of you a present for my birthday. But know that I am sending my great love out into the great world of this crazy internet, and that I am looking forward to connecting once more in a few weeks.
(I’d cherish your prayers, if you think about it.)
Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.