Dr. Ruth Haley Barton "Strengthening the Soul" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen, or perhaps even a recording of Henri himself. We invite you to share the Daily Meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we continue to reach our spiritually hungry world with Henri’s writings, his encouragement and, of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Today on this podcast, I have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ruth Haley Barton. Ruth is the founder of the Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors, Christian leaders and the congregations and the organizations that they serve. Dr. Ruth Haley Barton has authored some really excellent books, and we’re going to discuss a couple of these today. But before we get started, I would like to know how Henri Nouwen’s books and teachings in life have impacted your life, Ruth.
Dr. Ruth Haley Barton: Oh, Karen. Thank you. What a great question, because I pulled all my Henri Nouwen books off my shelf in preparation for this podcast, and I realized I had 20 of them! Twenty Henri Nouwen books on my shelf, and all of them read, annotated and underlined. And it was really beautiful to remember the different times and ways in which Nouwen’s writings intersected with my own journey. And so I think the first one I read was The Way of the Heart, which was my first introduction to the desert fathers and mothers, and the way of praying that involves more solitude and silence. And I mean, that book just changed my life and out of my practice of solitude and silence, then I actually wrote Invitation to Solitude and Silence, which I think you’ve read. Then, In the Name of Jesus would be another one that has impacted my perspective on ministry, especially Nouwen’s discussion of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and the temptations of Christian leadership. Such an amazing, clarifying book about the spirit and the nature of leadership.
And then, I have recently read Sabbatical Journey as part of my own sabbatical journey, and I have lots to say about that one. Of course, The Return of the Prodigal Son is a metaphor that all of us think about when we think about the spiritual journey, whether or not we’re the son or the older son or the younger son, and the journey towards becoming a father who can embrace. And so, so many of his books have intersected with my life at just the right time, even the compilation of his writings about discernment. I remember that book coming into my life at a moment when I was really discerning important matters, and so many of the categories that he described really mattered to me. Then finally, I would say that just this summer, after having lost my dad and having lost my mom previous to that, I took some time on my sabbatical just to really be present to the journey of grieving and transitioning into life without my parents.
And at that point, his book A Sorrow Shared came into my life and it was just lovely to have someone write about their own journey with their parents, just to commune with someone else around a spiritual journey of losing one’s parents and finding oneself in that completely predictable and yet unlikely place of no longer having a parent on the planet. It was very, very tender to read that during my sabbatical, as I took some time to do the work of grieving. So, in so many ways Nouwen’s work is important to me and matters to me at all points along the way.
Karen: It’s interesting, because I could feel it in the way that you write. And I have to say, I found your books – I read two of them – I found them so inspiring. In fact, the first one I want to talk about is Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. I had the strangest experience and it’s the best compliment I could pay you. I get to the end of the book, and I want to go back and start all over again. I just feel like it was peeling away at me inside, and I thought this is a wonderful book. And I could find bits of Henri on some of the pages in terms of quotes, and favorite people of mine are all obviously influencing you as well. I found it a rich, rich and important book, and I’m so grateful our paths have crossed and that I have the opportunity to say thank you to you.
I want to ask you just, I know your gift is to speak to Christian leaders, but I want to say, as I read this book, I felt so stirred by it. I think anyone would enjoy it, and I have to say that as we enter into this, I know it’s especially for Christian leaders and that’s important, but I just want to say, as people are listening, we’re going to be talking about stuff that I think our podcast audiences will really enjoy. I want to start at the very basic, because you say “strengthening the soul of your leadership”. What is the soul? What do you mean by that? What are you talking about?
Ruth: Yes, well, biblically and theologically, the soul is the part of us that is most real. It’s the part that God knew before the foundations of the earth, in Psalm 139. God knew us before he brought us forth in physical form. There’s a very essence of ourselves that exists prior to life, even in a body. It’s the part of us that will exist after the body goes into the ground and then will exist in God’s presence. It’s the part of you that exists beyond any role that you play, any success you’ve achieved, any failure you’ve experienced, beyond the relationships that we allow to define us. It transcends all of that. It is the part of us that is most real. And Bob Mulholland, a New Testament theologian, one time I asked him how he would define the soul and he gave me, I think, the best definition of all.
And he said, “Well, that’s just the place where God is present to you.” Romans 8 talks about the fact that there’s a place where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirits about the fact that we’re children of God, and from that place, we cry “Abba, father.” That’s the soul of us right there, where God’s Spirit and our spirit commune together. And so, in that way, it is the part of us that is most real, because even though our bodies feel so real to us, because we can see and touch and feel them, the body will come to its end, but the soul will not. And so, the attention to the soul, I believe, is the attention to the part of us that is most real and is most able to sustain us. We’re sustained by being in touch with the place where God is present to us, and so, it’s a very important aspect of the self to pay attention to. And of course, Jesus says that it’s possible to gain the whole world, but lose your own soul or lose your connection with that within you, which is most real.
Karen: Well, yeah, that’s profound. That’s the truth. Can I ask you, because both the books I’ve read look at solitude and silence, what difference does solitude and spiritual seeking make in the life of any of us as followers, but especially as leaders?
Ruth: Well, I use the story of Moses and strengthening the soul of leadership to illustrate some of the things that I see. And what we see in Moses’s life is that he had a very arduous and difficult experience in leadership. There was a crucible, I used the word crucible in the subtitle, more demanding than anything he could have ever imagined. And when you look at his life, you wonder, how did he do it? How did he make it to the finish line without blowing himself up or giving up, or ending up in a fetal position in the corner? And you look at his life and you see that there’s this rhythm of solitude or seeking God in solitude, God seeking him in solitude sometimes. There’s an encounter and Moses waits for the encounter. He doesn’t leave until he gets the encounter.
There’s an encounter, and oftentimes God would communicate with Moses or strengthen him in some way or give him some sort of perspective, and then he would emerge from that place and do exactly what God told him to do. So, he didn’t have any other grand strategies for leadership, except what I would consider to be the most profound and sacred rhythm of his leadership, which was seeking God in solitude or God seeking him out, experiencing the encounter, then emerging from that place and doing exactly what God called him to do. And that is the connection that I see between solitude and leadership, is that that time spent in solitude is where we understand our calling. God tells us who we actually are. God gives us the guidance that we need to guide others in really difficult and complicated situations, and leadership these days is really complicated. And you can think your way through a lot of stuff, but eventually what most needs to be known in our lives for our leadership and in any other way, is going to come through this listening to God in solitude and silence, versus thinking really hard and trying to figure stuff out on a human level.
Karen: I really enjoyed the way you use the story of Moses. It’s woven throughout this book, and it really gives us much meat, in a way, to consider. I particularly like the idea of the burning bush and that we’ve got to start looking for the burning bushes in our lives. Tell me a little bit about what you meant by that.
Ruth: Well, I believe that we all have burning bushes in our own backyards and that the burning bush, the way I see it in Moses’s story, was that it was this very ordinary, scruffy little bush in the middle of the wilderness, but it was made extraordinary by the presence of God. God was in the bush and the bush was burning with the presence of God, but the bush was not consumed and God had something he wanted to say to Moses out of this very ordinary thing that had been made extraordinary by the presence of God. And by that definition, I think all of us do have burning bushes in our own backyards. It’s just that most of us don’t take time to pay attention, and so it’s something often very ordinary that’s made extraordinary because God is in it wanting to speak to us. It’s shimmering with the presence and the guidance of God.
And so, what I encourage for people in general, but also leaders, is that we have some time where we turn aside to look, because the scriptures create a cause-and-effect relationship between Moses’s willingness to turn aside to look and God’s willingness to speak. So, the bush is burning and Moses says, “I must turn aside to see this great sight.” And then when God saw that Moses had turned aside to look, then he called to Moses out of the bush. So, there’s this cause-and-effect relationship between our willingness and our ability to create space, to pay attention, and God’s willingness to speak, because I think generally God does not want to compete with all the other noise in our lives. God waits until God knows God’s got our attention, and then God speaks that thing that God has been waiting to speak.
Karen: It’s interesting because throughout both the books that I’ve read of yours, I mean, clearly you have heard and understood that call of solitude, that call into God’s presence, that call that steps aside from a busy path and takes time to listen. But I sort of sensed as I read through, I felt this great identification with you. I went, “This is a busy woman; this is a woman who could fill her life out to the edges.” I could feel that kind of reality. So, it must’ve been quite a transforming experience for you, yourself, to find and embrace solitude.
Ruth: Yes, and you’re right to feel that tension, which ironically, I think is also a tension that we feel in reading Henri Nouwen’s work. That he writes eloquently about solitude, silence, and prayer, but then he struggles to actually do those things. And so, I think for many of us who are sort of activistic by personality, that the call for solitude and silence is not only counter-cultural, but it also goes against perhaps our personality patterns, and so I do experience that tension all the time. And yet in my early thirties, which is when God began to call me into solitude and silence and to move beyond just being busy and activistic all the time, it was because I felt the emptiness of a life that was busy without attention to the deeper things. And I was experiencing my own driven-ness and I was experiencing the fact that I wasn’t living well because I was so driven, and that while I would have liked for there to be a simpler, more straightforward solution to my driven-ness, it was really this counterintuitive solution, if you will.
And that was the invitation to let go of all the doing, at least for moments in every day. And of course, eventually once you practise solitude and silence in moments, your capacity for it increases, and you do want more, and God enables you to find even longer periods of time to be alone in God’s presence, because I do think that solitude and silence in some ways, it’s effectiveness. Or, I shouldn’t say it’s effectiveness, because God is faithful to come into any space we create for him, but there is a dynamic of time, that the longer you’re in solitude and silence, the quieter it gets on the inside, the more other concerns fall away, the more you begin to touch the center of your being and God at the center of your being. There’s a function of time in solitude and silence in terms of what you get. And so, God increases our capacity. But you know, I think sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that people who teach and write about solitude and silence are actually good at it. Rather than that people who write about solitude and silence are people who just are extraordinarily in touch with their need for it, you know, and the struggle for it. And so, to assume that someone practices solitude and silence simply because they have a certain personality type is really a mistake, because it’s typically quite the opposite.
Karen: I think you understood it well when you were describing Henri Nouwen. I mean, he really did know it was important, and yet there was this struggle going on in him. I mean, as he would describe it, there were monkeys in the trees in his brain. Here you want to have this quiet with God, you want to have this moment, you want to enter in, and then your brain is going every which way. It’s an interesting challenge and I think your books are very, very helpful in that area. I love this line that I read, you know, having that experience, “we will have bread to offer that is warm from the oven of our intimacy with God.” It’s a beautiful line. In other words, we’ll have more to give to others if we literally can stop the busyness and actually dwell in God’s presence. I think that’s something that you’ve grasped, and I think it’s one of the reasons I see you writing to leaders and I see you writing to all of us and I love it. Can I ask you something? You mentioned something in your book that said, “We all have a shadow side to our leadership.” What do you mean by this, the shadow side of our leadership?
Ruth: Well, there’s two ways that we can think about shadow and I’ve talked about one way, in strengthening and solving your leadership. And the shadow is that part of you that you have not addressed yet. The part of you that has found ways to cope in the world, very human ways of coping in the world. All of us are born into a sinful world as fragile, vulnerable human beings. And every human being begins from the get-go and probably before, probably in utero, each of us as human beings begins to understand whether our environment is safe, whether we’re loved, whether we’re wanted, whether our situation needs protection in some way. And we start creating and cultivating human programs for getting what we need, from very, very early on and unconsciously. And so that develops over time and that becomes a shadow side, because most of us, until we’re made conscious of it, don’t know the ways in which we have tried to secure our safety and security, our affection, approval, power and control, and a sense of agency – how we’ve tried to secure those things on human terms as fragile, vulnerable little beings. But then eventually in the spiritual life, God begins to expose those things and to say, “I don’t want you any longer to rely on your own human-made programs for all those things. I’m asking you to surrender yourself and abandon yourself to me.”
And it is by God’s grace that we actually can see the shadow side and sometimes see its destructive nature. And so, in strengthening the soul of your leadership, I do give some examples of the destructive, shadow side: the person that was raised in a violent and volatile home, and so is very subject to fear and has never been able to overcome that consciously in their lives, and so they’re unable to take risks with God. Or someone who was raised in a scarcity mentality and becomes narcissistic, always having to draw all the limelight to themselves, because there’s just never enough limelight, there’s never enough attention to satisfy what was missing early on. Or the person who perhaps was abused or very vulnerable in ways, and so develops this need and attachment to controlling every single situation and is unable to give themselves in surrender to God. Or perfectionistic tendencies from someone who was raised in a situation where perfectionism and good behavior were essential and they were punished, and so now they’ve got a perfectionistic streak that just keeps them from trying new things or letting themselves be out of control, ever.
Those are all shadow sides of the personality. And in a true spiritual journey, God is going to expose those for what they are and invite us to greater abandonment and surrender to his control and to his way of making us secure. And that’s a very hard transition to make, and again, I think Henri Nouwen wrestled with this quite a bit, understood it and wrestled with it; understood the shadow side that develops from what is missing in our families of origin and then how God guides us to surrender and abandonment later on. But how challenging it really is.
Karen: I can understand why you’re inspired by Henri, because you both as psychologists come at a great understanding of human nature in all of this and that human nature, how it plays itself out as we’re trying with all our hearts, longing to have that relationship with God, longing to have that intimate walk with God.
Ruth: Yes, and I think that’s why Nouwen’s writing is so powerful for people, is because he actually opens that up and he actually lets us all see the struggle.
Karen: Yeah, it’s true, it’s true. You read Nouwen and we forget the fact that people weren’t writing like that when he was writing like that. This kind of intimacy that you see in Henri’s writing, it really goes long before people were giving that much revelation of themselves personally. It was always out there, a safe distance, but it’s interesting because Henri takes you in and what you find yourself saying is, “Oh, this is just like me. I’ve felt this, I’ve been there, I know.” And it’s an amazing gift to give, because in the midst of it, you have this earnest, wholehearted desire to connect with God that Henri keeps coming back to, that center line in his being, and that’s where I think I found what you were writing was of real, deep joy to me, because I could feel underneath that this hunger and thirst in you, for more of God, for the heart of God. I could feel it in your writing, and I found it so moving, because I found I could identify with that. But this honesty, too, about, “It’s not easy.” You have an expression here: “Solitude is where we fight it out with God all the way down to the mat.” And I love that.
Ruth: Yeah. The other thing about Henri though, too, is that he was a priest. I think today we have lots of people doing a lot of self-revelation in many, many books. That’s actually all it is, just self-revelation. But Henri was a priest revealing himself in this way, and that’s another thing that I think it was and is unique and also was very compelling to someone like myself, who was in leadership, was to see another spiritual leader acknowledge these kinds of struggles while still being seen as a leader.
Karen: It’s interesting, because one of the things that I’ve come across is the reality that – and I know you’re evangelical in your background and I actually am in mine as well – and I’m amazed at how many evangelicals will read Henri Nouwen and kind of feel like, “I don’t even see the Catholic there.” They don’t recognize, because they feel so understood and connected to him, and it’s because of his incredible Christocentric reality. He really was determined. The center point for him was Jesus. You see it in his writing and you see him coming to that – and it resonates right across the denominations – you find, here’s somebody who’s seeking the heart of God. That’s really where he’s coming from. Interestingly enough, on the covers of his books, it doesn’t say Father Henri Nouwen. It’s just Henri J. M. Nouwen and J.M. is “Just me” Nouwen. Anyway, it’s kind of interesting. What brought you to the place of seeing solitude and silence as being so important? I love, and I’m going on now to your second book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence. I loved the illustration you used of the river water in a jar and that debris. Tell me a little bit about that metaphor, because I think it was really helpful.
Ruth: Yes. I had a wonderful spiritual director at the beginning of this journey and it was desperation and desire, and I oftentimes talk about desperation and desire being twin engines of the airplane that kind of lift us up so that we can move to someplace else, and oftentimes it is desire that deepens into desperation. So, you begin by acknowledging that you’ve got the desire for more, but then eventually you get to the place where you are desperate in the best sense of the word, and what I mean by that is that you’re willing to go anywhere and do anything in order to have that desire met. And that is a very uncomfortable dynamic in the spiritual life. And it’s also essential for us to actually move on the spiritual journey, because otherwise we would just stay right where we are in the status quo. But a desire that is deepened into desperation moves us forward.
And that’s definitely what drew me in. I’d been a Christian for a long time and I’m a pastor’s kid. So, I was raised in a Christian home and I had all the knowledge, but I wasn’t changing. I was in my early thirties, on staff at a church that I loved. I was already a young mother of three and I was working in a church that I love, but I was noticing that even while I was teaching other people about the spiritual journey, that I was still struggling. And I had to name the fact that I had emotions that I couldn’t control, especially anger and sadness. I could manage them sometimes, but I couldn’t control them. They would just well up sometimes, in surprising ways. I was recognizing a driven-ness that I didn’t know how to curb, but it wasn’t good for me.
I wasn’t living well in my body and I wasn’t living well within my family and so, it was the desperation to change. And then finally, it was that acknowledgement that, even though I’d been a Christian for a long time, I wasn’t really changing. I was still basically the same selfish, self-centered person I’d always been, and that preaching and Bible study and small group times, and even praying the way that I was doing it, wasn’t actually bringing about real change. And so, it was transformation, in the end, and my desire for it that eventually propelled me to try some new things that were outside of my Protestant evangelical tradition.
Karen: I’m reading here a quote from Henri in your book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, and you quote, “Without solitude, it’s virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. We do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and to listen to him.” It kind of breaks it right down to the basics, doesn’t it? You have an expression in here and you call it, “the spiritual law of gravity.” What do you mean by that?
Ruth: Yes, well that goes back to the jar of river water. It’s that the law of gravity ensures that if a jar of river water sits still long enough, sediment will settle and the water will become clear. That’s the physical law of gravity, and it’s a part of our physical world. I believe there’s also a spiritual law of gravity that functions in much the same way, and that is that when a human being sits long enough in the presence of God, the sediment settles and the waters of our souls become clear. And most of the time we are so riled up and busy that inside our own souls, it’s like the jar of river water with all the sediment and the debris swirling around. It’s the emotions and the unanswered questions, and everything that gets triggered in us through our different human experiences.
But when we sit still long enough, the spiritual law of gravity will take hold and we will settle eventually. And the water of our soul will become clear and we will know God beyond words, and we will know that we’re loved. And eventually, even discernment and guidance will come, because we seek a God who comes, and God is always waiting right outside the borders of the busyness of our lives to come to us and to give us what we need. And so, there is a spiritual law, so a lot of times when I teach about solitude and silence and get ready to send people into their first experience of solitude and silence, I never teach anything that I don’t guide in experience. I just don’t do that. As a matter of integrity, I don’t give people inspiring messages, but then not give them a chance to practice. So, when I teach about solitude and silence, I’m always going to give people an experience, and sometimes it’s only going to be 10 or 20 minutes, but in our ministry, we give people four hours in the afternoon in our retreats.
They always get four hours in solitude and silence, and when people either get nervous about entering into that much solitude and silence (because many in our culture have never experienced that before), or they come back and they say, “Well, nothing really happened,” I will always speak about this, because the sediment settling is something that we can’t always perceive. We don’t always know that it’s happening, but it is happening. And the first thing we become aware of, though, is the swirl, is the sediment, is how chaotic we are on the inside, and so it’s uncomfortable at first. But I always encourage them with the spiritual law of gravity to say, “If you sit still long enough the sediment will settle. It will. You might not perceive it, but it will start to settle.” And that there’s so very little for us to do in those moments.
As we enter in, you don’t have to think about “what am I going to do?” You’re going to be still, and this law of gravity, this spiritual law of gravity will function, and then when you come out of solitude and you want to judge it and evaluate it, that’s completely inappropriate, because most of what happens in solitude and silence happens outside of our awareness and outside of our perception. And so those experiences, of course, are why I think it’s so important to have an experience that’s guided, because then you’re being held. You’re being given some guidance for how to be, and then when you come out, you have someone who can debrief your experience with you. And that’s why that experience is so important, because these are the kinds of things that we need and want to process, as we enter into this kind of unsettling discipline.
Karen: I noticed that the Transforming Center has retreats that you offer and teachings and counseling that you can give. How have you been able to continue this through the midst of the pandemic? I mean, clearly, in some ways we’re encountering solitude, but in some ways we’re really kind of avoiding, it unless we’re called into it. Tell me a little bit about how you’re getting along right now in the midst of the pandemic, with the ways in which you can help people come into solitude and help people, in a sense, see the resources that are there for them.
Ruth: Yes, well, that’s, of course, all of our questions. There are so many people who do work that has at its core convening others to be together, and so that’s our ministry, too – convening people on retreat. And so early on, when we didn’t know how long this was going to last, we actually went into a period of dormancy. I actually took a sabbatical because I hadn’t had one and it gave our organization, after a very difficult season, a chance to go into a period of dormancy. But then we got back from that three or four months later, and we were still in it. We were still in the pandemic and what our ministry is, is leading transforming communities, which are groups that make a commitment for nine quarterly retreats. And so we still had these communities that needed to be shepherded and guided.
And so, we have done all sorts of things. We’ve done some retreats completely virtually; we’ve done some in a hybrid fashion. What we do is: I do the teaching that I typically do. We do pray, we have found a way to do six-hour prayer using Zoom. And then we encourage people when they come to the retreats, to go ahead and still come apart if they can. So, if there is a retreat center that’s letting people come, if there’s a hotel, or if someone is willing to let you use their home or something like that, then we still do encourage people to try to find a way to come away. I’m more and more convinced that the “come away with me and rest a while,” that the away part of that is really, really important. So, we’ve tried to help people brainstorm how they can engage the retreat with us, at least in a place that’s “away” for them.
They still have to open up their computers, but we asked them to turn off their email and all their notifications and things like that, and just be present to the teaching that we’re bringing and the guidance that we’re bringing. So, we’re coming to the end. We have three more retreats right now that we’re going to be doing, either . . . well, they’re all going to be hybrid right now. And then in July, we’ve sort of established that as our point of coming back to a place of saying, “Hey, what we know how to do is to convene people in retreat centers. And that’s what we’re going to get back to doing.” It’s been hard, though.
Karen: I can imagine. Well, it’s been hard for all of us. We’re all problem-solving, aren’t we? You know, in the midst of all of this. Can I ask you something? Why do you think people fear solitude? I mean, I think some of us may not voice it, but why do we fear it?
Ruth: There are several answers to that. One is that it’s a place of the great unknown. I think in our culture, particularly right now, we’re so used to complete distraction all the time that actually solitude and silence had become more challenging than they were 20 years ago, when I first started entering in myself. Dallas Willard – who’s another writer that I enjoy – says that silence is frightening because it casts us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, when there’s just me and God. And what happens if there’s nothing there between me and God? And I think that that’s very real, that it’s very psychologically and spiritually challenging to enter into the “nothing,” the emptiness, you know, solitude and silence. Also, in solitude and silence, we have to face those things that we can keep out of our awareness when we’re being distracted.
So, we face our own inner emptiness. We face what may not be working so well in our lives. We face the issues in our relationships that are hard, you know, that we’ve distracted ourselves from. Perhaps we distract ourselves from the fact that we don’t love our job or that our existence feels meaningless, and so all of that is what we face when we walk into solitude and silence. Psychologically, it’s very, very challenging, because now there’s no barrier between me and what’s really happening in my inner world and in my inner life. And Nouwen talks about this a lot, about how being in solitude causes him to face his longing for love and his deepest questions, the deepest questions of his life. And he does a good job of understanding that he uses relationships and distraction as a distraction. Even ministry we can use as a distraction from what’s really going on between me and God.
So, it’s challenging psychologically. I think it’s challenging spiritually because then we do have to face, “What is my real situation with God? What’s my real relationship with God? Do I really believe that God is there and that God exists for me?” We face our deepest questions. And I also think that the evil one comes against any attempts that we have to enter into solitude and silence, because Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Well, the evil one doesn’t want that to happen. The evil one doesn’t want us to be in touch with the ultimate, orienting reality of our lives. And so, the evil one comes against these attempts to be in the presence of God as our ultimate, orienting reality, because that experience unseats all other powers in our lives. So, it’s very challenging spiritually. I think there are spiritual powers that come against this practice. And then finally, I think it’s very challenging relationally, because we have to say to the people that we love in our lives, “I’m going to be unavailable for a while,” and that’s uncomfortable in our culture. We’re really used to being available to one another now all the time. So, to go on a retreat and to really unplug means that I’m going to be unavailable to those to whom I’m usually available, and that’s uncomfortable all the way around.
Karen: It’s interesting, because one of the things I was reminded of is, as I was reading this book, I was reminded of Henri’s clarity about, “I’m not what people say I am, I’m not what I do, I’m not what I have.” And it is that peeling away of all of those things and finding out, you know, “God, I am loved by you and I have my belonging rooted in you.” And that’s so incredibly, incredibly important.
One last thing that I thought you spoke of so beautifully was exhaustion, and I have some feeling that perhaps where people are today is in a place of exhaustion. How much more can they handle? It’s been a rough year and here we are at the end of a rough year, and we don’t know for sure that it will completely get better where, you know, we’re all so hopeful. There’s a part that says, “I want to go back to normal,” but I don’t think normal will ever look like normal looked before. I think it’s something new that we’re entering into. What’s your feeling about the exhaustion factor, and what can God do with that?
Ruth: Well, thank you for naming that, because I think it is true. I think leaders are exhausted from trying to lead as well as deal with their own human selves, because leaders have their own human experiences with their own families and in their own bodies and all of that, and then they’re also trying to manage other people’s anxieties as well and trying to solve it for other people, too. And so, I think all of us are exhausted and I agree that I don’t think we’re ever going to return to the normal that was pre-COVID, not in our generation, not those of us who have been on the planet during this time. I don’t think we’ll ever be exactly who we were before, and I don’t think that vocations and ministries will look exactly the same as they did before, either. And I think that’s why solitude and silence are particularly practiced as a place of rest in God.
And in the book, Solitude and Silence, I talk about the difference between being dangerously tired and being good tired. Good tired is when you’ve given your all from a rested and replenished place, you’ve given it out of your own real gifts and callings. You’ve done it through the power of the Spirit and you leave it all on the field. But then you go back into a place of rest and you allow God to replenish you, and you’re in that rhythm all the time. Whereas dangerously tired accumulates over time, when we don’t have these good rhythms in place. And so, to cultivate solitude as a place of rest in God became the most important thing to me in the beginning, and to cultivate it as a place of rest and God for the body, for the mind and for the spirit.
And I talk about what it means to rest each aspect of the self in solitude and silence. And I think that’s why solitude and silence – true solitude and silence, not just aloneness and isolation, but solitude defined as being present to the one who is always present with us, solitude defined as being a place of rest in God – that solitude becomes a place where we let go for a bit and we stop working so hard to figure things out. We stop working so hard at the level of the mind, because our minds are worn out from trying to figure things out. But we allow ourselves to rest in God like a child. That true solitude right now is more important than ever, because we are more exhausted than ever. But to cultivate solitude and silence as a place of rest versus a place of achievement, even in terms of reading things, checking books off the list, trying to read through scripture in a year, you know, these big, heavy prayer lists. But instead, to cultivate solitude and silence as a place of rest.
Karen: I think I actually have found, in my own life, I think it’s been a “cha-ching,” you know? It’s been a reordering. I could pack my life out to the edges, but I’ve begun to find new edges, and they are closer to the center. I’m not expended as I think I had got in the habit of being. I love something you wrote about our capacity to connect with God as a human soul is the essence of who we are before we’re even aware of it, is our desire for God. And God desires us. And I find that at the core of what you’ve written – and I think it’s at the core of what you’ve understood – I hear the Matthew 11:28 verse: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I’ll give you rest.” The reason for all of this is that God knows how incredibly weary we are, how incredibly uncertain we are, and we all want to know what we’re called to. We all want to know, “What do you want out of my life, God? How can I give it back to you in the best way possible?” And I think you’re giving us tools that equip us to do that in a more powerful way. I’m really grateful for that.
Ruth: I pray that that is so; thank you for saying it.
Karen: I think so. I think it’s rich and good. You are obviously a person who’s leading leaders and you are impacting the days that you’re living in. What kinds of things are on your heart at this point, Ruth, in terms of going forward? What do you desire to see happen?
Ruth: Well, I do desire for us to discern God’s way for us, going forward. Like I actually pray that we won’t go back to normal before we actually ask God, “What’s our way forward?” One of the things that I get nervous about is that leader types are going to emerge from this COVID-19 crisis, and we’re going to just try really, really hard to strategize and to brainstorm and just go back to utter busyness, without taking a moment or a season to say, “God, what was that? What was the meaning of that? And what are we supposed to carry forward and what is supposed to be changing? What needs to change? As we move forward, what do we need to let go of, because it’s no longer relevant? What do we need to take hold of, because now we know some things we didn’t know before?”
And so, I think discerning the signs of the times and what God is saying to us in and through what we’ve experienced is a deep desire of mine, versus just all of us struggling to get back to “normal.” I think that’s going to just frustrate us, and I think God has something else. God has something new to unfold, but we’re going to have to perceive it. We’re going to have to do the work of discerning and perceiving what God is doing now as we emerge from the crisis that we’ve been in.
Karen: You know what I find so fascinating about it: It’s a universal experience. It’s probably one of the first times in our lives that somebody in Timbuktu and somebody in Wisconsin and somebody in Nepal are experiencing the same limiting, frightening change in their world, and we are all experiencing something, which I think we are right to say, “God, how do you want us to come out of this? How are we to emerge? What are we to let go of as we go forward? What has encumbered us?” And an awful lot of it was getting caught up in, “I am what I have. I am what I do. I am what other people say about me.” That old kind of Henri thing that said, “No, you’re not, you’re not that. You are God’s beloved child.” And if you receive that and can operate out of that, you’re going to be living in a way that will benefit you, but also benefit the world that you’re called into. That’s really, I think, our calling: to live as that beloved child of God.
Ruth: Right? So, we have this overarching experience that we all share of COVID-19, and we also have this overarching experience of being the beloved that we can touch into, and I think that you’re touching on another really important aspect of what I hope we emerge with. And that is a sense of the human community. The fact that we do live in this web of mutuality, as Martin Luther King Jr. would say. And I think we experienced that in this crisis, more than we’ve ever experienced it, that we are in a web of mutuality and that all of our decisions affect other people. We are not an island, and so even the decision to wear a mask or not is for somebody else, you know? The mask doesn’t protect you, the mask protects other people, and are you willing to do that? Are you willing to participate in this web of mutuality in ways that are others- focused versus self-focused? I hope those are some lessons that we carry with us, too, that we never experience ourselves as being so distinct and separate, but rather, experience our shared humanity.
Karen: Oh Ruth, what a great pleasure to talk with you. You’re a wise woman, you really are, and I’m just going to encourage all our podcasts listeners, to be sure and go to our website. We’ll have links to Ruth’s books, and honestly, I’ll put four-star ratings, five-star ratings beside them. They’re excellent. You will be encouraged, you will be informed and you will be challenged. Well worth the read. Thank you, Ruth. It’s just been a joy to talk with you today.
Ruth: Oh, well, thank you, Karen, for your good work and keeping Henri Nouwen’s legacy alive, because he means so much to so many.
Karen: Thank you. Take care. Blessings.
Oh, thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I hope this interview with Dr. Ruth Haley Barton has inspired you to seriously consider how silence and solitude can be part of your spiritual life. I highly recommend Ruth’s books. You’ll find links to these and to all the things mentioned in this podcast, on the podcast page of our website. We hope you’ll share this podcast with your friends and family, and if you’ve enjoyed it, please take time to give us a thumbs-up or a good review. That’s always a wonderful help. Really appreciate you listening. Until next time.
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