A man pulls down his pants and takes a leak on the beach near Fullerton and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He has streaks of pink running through his matted dark hair, black tattoos twisting around his arms, and a midriff-baring New York Yankees t-shirt. The beach is full of Saturday sunbathers, and more than a few folks are vocally opposed to his exposure. He responds by yelling, “The Cubs suck!”, takes a bow, and continues strolling nonchalantly down the beach.
Smaller, subtler havoc is wreaked along this beach for the proceeding hour that I sit there.
A very tan, very fit man running with his shirt off trips and falls right in front of a gaggle of bikini-clad coeds. Perhaps it was intentional, perhaps not, but he ends up staying down a while, chatting and sharing a discreetly poured contraband beer. A woman on foot cuts suddenly across the narrow running path and gets slammed by a cyclist. Neither the cyclist nor the woman were cued in to the busy-ness around them. He swears at her, she swears at him. His chain has fallen off and he fiddles for a minute or two while she proceeds to the beach and tends to the fresh scrape on her knee, crimson bright against hot white sand.
A toddler drops a snow-cone and wails in agony. A dog jumps up, startling an elderly woman. A cop rides past on horseback. An animated group speaking Spanish. Another, French. Another, Japanese. This is the mess of the world at work.
I observed all of this in the midst of my annual eight-day silent retreat. Our retreat master said over and over that our goal in prayer for these quiet days was to “listen for the whispers of God.” After a year of stumbling along in philosophy studies, acquainting myself to a new city, new university, new community, new friends, with a summer in India on the horizon, and with the perpetuity of being in between all things and never fully settled I wanted silence, time to listen.
Normally, our retreats are made in environments conducive to silence, long meandering nature paths to walk, a multitude of nooks and crannies to nestle oneself in for prayer. Comfort food, daily naps, early bedtimes. My retreats have always drawn out of me reflections on the chaos of the past year by allowing me to be in a quiet place for processing the madness of it all, my life. Setting off little explosions within myself, a battlefield in private, a containment of chaos from the outside world so that when I emerge, I’m all the stronger, all the wiser, all the more ready to serve. It is safer in the quiet. Things don’t fall apart around us, only within.
But this retreat was different. The city — with its cacophony of car horns, bars and bright lights, youth out and about, alive and free, the hustle, bustle, and rustle of life as it flies past my window — is unavoidable and loud. Colum McCann says in his book, Let the Great World Spin, “It is necessary to love silence. But before you could love silence, you had to have noise.” It is necessary to love peace, but before peace, chaos. Silence and peace are altogether different when the outside world forces its way in.
The chapel at the retreat center is almost perfectly quiet, except for the gentle, pleasant hum of the building’s insides. It is almost perfectly symmetrical as well — a welcome repose from the mess of Chicago just outside the doors. The lighting fixtures on the ceiling line up front to back and side to side, the sanctuary backdrop sweeping equally on both sides, the statues and stations perfectly placed across from one another on the side walls, decorative columns of windows lined up, eight on each side, the candles flanking the altar burned to equal lengths, and the crucifix, with Christ’s arms wide, two halves of a broken body, and at the center a sacred heart.
The symmetry is offset only by the stained glass windows. They are loud, colorful, vibrant, irregular, unorganized; they offer no recognizable image. They are utter chaos. The order of the chapel architecture makes way for a deepened sense of the beauty of this chaos. The space creates and contains both order and disarray–the symmetrical frame encircles the chaotic and each give form and substance to the other.
So often, we choose certain ways of moving along–ways of stable predictability–to keep ourselves safe amidst the chaos of the world. A comfortable home with a privacy fence, a regular spot for coffee, a new pair of running shoes every six months, a routine before bed. I’m coming to realize more and more that my order, my quiet, my desire for security ought not to shelter me from the world, but rather, free me to more deeply embrace the chaos of life. On this retreat — in the city and in that chapel — it became clear to me that God labors in the messiness of life because that’s where God is (and where we are to be found!); God is holding us in tension, wrapping us in goodness, and leading us lovingly into the chaos that surrounds.
The cover image, from Flickr user Jason Mrachina, can be found here.