Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Monday, November 21, 2005

Silent Incarnation

by Christina Turner

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul, O child,
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.
-15th century carol

I can hear the creak of the floorboards. Each time my mother stays out late like this, I grow nervous in the silence. I have been watching television for two hours, the sound echoing through the empty house, but the laugh tracks and forced humor have made me anxious, and I have turned off the set. Now, alone in the living room, staring at the blank screen, I realize that the television sits in the same spot where my father’s hospice bed sat three years ago.

When I was a child, whenever I found myself unexpectedly alone at home, I was afraid that Jesus had whisked the rest of my family away to heaven in some secret Rapture. He had forgotten me, or he was getting back at me for not talking to the girls at church with greasy hair and dirty sweat pants.

As the chiming clock in the living room strikes twelve, my old fears are back, not that Jesus has raptured my mother away but that he’s harmed her, by a car accident or some perverted janitor that has seen her light on during the night rounds at her university office building and decided to take advantage of the situation.

I like to have sound. Whenever I have music playing, I sing. I take comfort even in the vapid church praise tunes that I refer to as the “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend-songs.” Singing the songs, I praise a good God. Saying the creeds, I praise a good God. Listening to the preaching, even though it sometimes winds around like a dog chasing its tail, I praise a good God. But as the clock dongs and the floorboards creak and my heart throbs and I remember my father lying in the bed in the living room, I feel the mound of faith that I’ve buried myself in beginning to blow away in the wind. In the absence of singing, God does not seem good.

I dial my mother’s office number.

“Hello?” She sounds weary. I can almost see her sitting in her office, typing on the computer, her desk littered with coffee mugs, student papers, and Bible meditations. She is wearing a pantsuit, and her short hair is probably by now tousled and cowlicked like a little boy’s. She has been working overtime this year to grade papers, finish her dissertation, and distract herself from thinking about my grandmother, who passed away a month ago.

I sigh. “Mom.”

She sighs back. “I know, I need to leave. I just have a couple more of these things to grade.” I hear music in the background at her office. Like me, she likes noise and activity.

“Come home soon,” I tell her, and I place the phone back on its cradle. She works to forget, to avoid the silence. The garage door will grind open in an hour or two, and she will come into the house to fall into bed, rising the next morning to do it all again. It is hard for her to be still with moments steeped in memory.

* * * * *
I sit in the halfhearted woods and listen, the wind rustling the branches and blowing against my face. This is a strange place, a clearing in a patch of woods in middle-of-nowhere New York, next to a two-lane highway.

I am here for a retreat, and this morning, we all gathered in a room to sing before we separated for our two hours of silence. Already, I am eager to hear noise. After a few minutes, my ears become accustomed to the stillness, and I can identify the almost artificial sounds of insects with their chirp, buzz, and hum. A car passes by, its blaring music mixing with the sound of the insects, and I wonder if the sound of the cars is our chirp, our buzz, our hum.

“I’m not good at this,” I whisper.

As I write in my journal, the cars and the chirping birds become a psalm. I listen and write them. After an hour and a half, I decide I should be still. “Lord, I’m going to be quiet now,” I whisper, and after the words escape my mouth, I realize that it sounds more than a little presumptuous. “Speak to me,” I add with what I hope is humility, but sounds more like demanding.

Then I close my eyes and hug my knees against my chest as I sit with my back to a tree. The wind blows the branches; there will be a storm soon. It is beautiful and frightening now, like the silence in which God may or may not speak. I shut my eyes tighter as if I am squeezing a dishrag, trying to coax out the last bit of water.

Though I try to keep my mind clear, my thoughts scurry around like puppies. I take each one by the scruff of the neck and hand it to God, making a gift of my lack of focus. “I am afraid,” I pray when the thought comes to mind. As I present this thought, another one replaces it.

My grace is sufficient for you. I open my eyes, trying to figure out if I have made this up myself.

Be still and know that I am God. It is no new revelation, but I feel privileged, unforgotten, and pray a thank you. Opening my eyes, I look at the sky above that is pulling a mask over the sun, preparing itself for rain and winds. Each time I look at the sky in New York, I hope for snow, eager for the quiet beauty to fall around me and blanket the earth like manna. Even this pensive grayness, though, is the character of God, I think as I pack up my journal and walk from the woods.

* * * * *
The clock in my college room reads 2:00 am. “You’re ridiculous,” I tell myself. I want to sleep, but I must work first. I have decided that I need a break in the middle of it, to keep the time of silence that a few friends and I have agreed to.

“I should be able to do this, to be quiet for a little bit,” I whisper, and I am not sure whether I am talking to myself or God.

Sitting down, I intend to get quiet, spend my fifteen minutes, and leave, my duty completed. It takes me twenty just to clear my thoughts and steady my breathing, and it strikes me how silly it is that I think I can live a noisy, busy life and yet escape into silence instantly. I have always considered time as the greatest enemy of my waiting before God, but maybe it is the loudness: a loudness not just of sound but of spirit, rising from the schedule I have given myself.

The absence of sound prods me, and I realize how unnatural it is to be sipping coffee after midnight, long after night has set and the rest of those I know have gone to bed. I try to remember the last time I had a truly restful night or a truly lucid day, the last time I have read myself to sleep with a children’s novel or a book of poetry, or the last time I have read the Psalms and offered my honest prayers along with the psalmist’s.

“I’m sorry,” I pray, and I am. The only sound I hear is the heater beside my bed humming. There is no word from God, only the realization that I want more than the noisy life I am letting myself lead. Maybe that is word enough.

* * * * *
Here in Idaho, I can almost see the constellations from my window. The car hum lulls us as we pass through the Idaho foothills filled with pines, along the river that is clearer than any we have in West Virginia. It is serene here. My uncle and brother have fallen asleep on the drive home from the restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, a small town in Idaho, near where we are staying with my aunt and uncle. My grandmother has died, an event that should make me miss her and mourn for her life. Instead I mourn for the fact that, other than knowing about her cravings for sliced avocados and good cheeseburgers, I never really knew her.

My brother and uncle wake when the engine grows suddenly silent and my mother insistently whispers that we are back. As I step sleepily out of the car, my breath is stolen by the passion of the burning stars. White as opals, they cluster together. I picture lines connecting the stars into constellations.

I rarely look at the stars. My house at home lies near the interstate highway, lit by enormous lights that throw a jaundiced glow on the road and somehow into the air. One of the strip joints nearby has recently bought a searchlight, and every night, it roams the air, inviting people to the land of booze and topless girls. The sky is loud with light.

Here, near my aunt and uncle’s house in a clearing in the Idaho pines, the sky is silent with stars. Sometimes the silence is not darkness; it is a night sky in full bloom. Sometimes silence is not dead quiet; it is stillness in sound. I realize that silence is a type of order, an order that I am missing in my life. This order draws me, the stars joyful and neat as a Mozart minuet, tranquil as my soft footfalls padding inside my aunt and uncle’s house, even as my breathing as I lie down to rest.

* * * * *
For the past two hours, I have been talking and staring out the window, the full moon glancing out behind the clouds as my friend drives us north and back to college. On breaks, Josh and I drive eight hours from college in western New York to our homes: mine in West Virginia and his in Kentucky. As we pass the sign for Erie, Pennsylvania, I realize that we have been talking nonstop for six hours about Thanksgiving break, our families, God, and the movies. Now he is telling me about graduate school applications and The Future, a phrase that I always mentally capitalize.

“I just don’t know where to go or what to do,” I say. “I don’t know.”

For me, “I don’t know” is usually a gateway phrase, a signal that I will take a breath and elaborate or finish my thought. But this evening, I am trapped there.

“Have you thought about taking a day to spend some time in solitude and meditation about it?” he asks.

I want to smile at his polysyllabic words, but instead my lip curls in frustration at myself. “I just don’t think it would work,” I say. “Every time I try to be quiet, I just get anxious or distracted and then find out things that I don’t want to know.”

He tilts his head back suddenly in a kind of backwards nod, almost like the words have given him a little push. “What sort of things?”

“When I was out in Idaho for my grandma’s funeral, my mom and my brother missed their plane and had to come the next day.” I stop to bite my thumbnail and peel away a cuticle that is hanging loose like a hinge. “And I was sitting there, just trying to be quiet, when I realized that I was thinking about my dad and his cancer, and I had this fear that my family’s plane was going to crash or something.”

Pausing again, I touch the cool glass of the window. “It’s like I’m afraid to be happy because then I think that God will send me some other tragedy. I don’t like finding that out. Some things I’d rather not know.”

We stay quiet for a while, and I want to add more. The skin between my eyebrows is furrowing in the helpless way it does when I have no words. I don’t know how to explain how I am feeling, that I am not just afraid of God. I am also afraid of God’s people, specifically the ones who would rip everything physical out of my arms and give me only spiritual fluff to hold. I remember people telling me when I was younger that spiritual things are what matter, not physical things. I think of the preacher hired to give my grandmother’s eulogy, who mispronounced her first name and stumbled through her obituary, using her life as a brief vignette in his sermon about salvation. I remember ladies hugging me at my father’s funeral, telling me that he would always be with me in spirit--that it would be just like he was there in person.

Every time I am quiet and alone, I almost fear that everything I love will go away, that some shabby brand of Gnosticism will invalidate all the ways in which I wonder at God. The light reflecting obliquely off the purple taffeta dress of a little girl. The hundreds of pouches of fluid inside one slice of peeled orange. The mournful loveliness of the Poulenc clarinet sonata I played in high school.

“I don’t know,” I tell Josh.

We say nothing, listening to the whir of the car tires on the road. A few minutes later, he speaks again. “Maybe you could just start small, five minutes or so, and see if that’s better for you.” He pauses. “And maybe that won’t be the way God speaks to you the most.”

I do not voice the thought, but I do not want to be one of those people. When others talk about what God has shown them, I want to be shown. Some of my longing rises from genuine desire to know God, some from a desire for others to think of me as one who thinks and lives deeply.

I change the subject back to details, things concrete and physical, the place where I feel most at ease. “The moon looks beautiful,” I say. “Whenever it’s full, it always makes me think that something important must be happening.”

Outside the car, the weather is surprisingly warm for late November. As we keep driving north, I wonder when it will arrive: the snow we have all been awaiting for weeks, the snow that must be coming soon.

* * * * *
On Saturday mornings, I sleep until my eyes open without effort. Saturday is my idle day, when I immerse myself in the pleasant work of cooking a homemade meal for my friends, washing my dishes, and folding up the clothes that I have hung from the posts of my bed. I let myself jot incoherent phrases in my journal, read poetry, write letters, and page through the Bible that has sat unopened on my bedside table for days.

I turn to Luke, to the passage about the Annunciation. The Mary I have always pictured speaking with the angel is not the vague Mary of a Renaissance painting but a frail girl, her body not comprised of curves but of jutting lines, her eyes growing wider to hold mystery. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says to the angel. “May it be to me as you have said.”

I have been helping first-year students with their essays in the writing center for the past few weeks, and I nearly underline the passage and mark it with the words rewrite in active voice. I catch myself and laugh at the ridiculousness of trying to change the phrasing of inspired words. I want Mary to say, “I will make it happen,” or “I will do what you have said,” but she does not.

After the angel calls her blessed, the only response of Mary is praise. She accepts her situation, quiet before God, before she does anything. She walks around with the weight of a child in her, faces the snide comments, and gives birth, but first she says, “May it be to me as you have said.”

I bless Mary for being quiet and holy without ignoring the world and its simple, tangible beauties and pains. She says, “May it be to me as you have said,” but then she finds comfort in the embrace of Elizabeth. She breaks the quiet night, screaming in childbirth, and she nurses God. She treasures up all these things and ponders them in her heart, and I realize that stillness is not something to be discovered but nurtured.

Quiet, like sleep and rest, is a form of humility. When I am quiet, I accomplish little. Just to be still is an obvious act of faith that there is someone or something worth being still for, that the world will not end when I stop darting around.

Perhaps the entire Christmas narrative depends upon the grammar of receiving. I repeat Mary’s prayer. “May it be to me as you have said.” I invite my anxieties into the prayer, and to my surprise, it does not seem like clutter but adornment.

“May it be to me in my mourning,” I say. “May it be to me as I worry about my family. May it be to me in my confusion about love. May it be to me in my exams and the papers I have to write.” I feel silly as I always do, applying the mystery of the enfleshed God to myself, a girl living in a messy dorm room with a flickering overhead light. But I keep on because maybe this is itself the mystery: that God loves even my silly anxieties, validates my worries by holding them to the breast like a mother. “May it be to me as I try to get in shape. May it be to me as I figure out what to do about the future. May it be to me as I try to find your compassion.”

I reach the end of my list of worries, and I find that I can sit there, still. “You can speak if you want to, Jesus,” I say. “But if you don’t want to, that’s all right.”

I am too busy enjoying the moment to realize that I’ve stopped striving. The silence is not empty; it is full of presence. I close my eyes and smile at the simplicity and joy of sitting there, bringing my doubts almost as a gift.

* * * * *
I decide to take a nap to escape the lazy fretfulness of mid-afternoon. As I open my eyes an hour later, I can hear laughter down the hallway of my dorm and the spray of the shower. A pot boils in the kitchen. Rubbing my eyes, I walk to my computer to check my emails and begin to consider starting my reading.

I delete two junk emails and open one from a friend who is away this semester. “To get you in the mood for silence and contemplation,” she writes, “here’s a poem.” She usually sends me long, witty emails and signs them “Love, glad tidings, etc., Rachel.” Today she sends me Denise Levertov, and I feel my eyes welling up as I read the poem:

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

As the icons on my computer screen blur, I feel completely present in a way that I have not felt for days. I want to chide myself for crying in front of the computer at nine lines of a poem, but I feel like breaking the moment would be a small ingratitude, a tiny blasphemy.

I walk to the window in the corner, pull the cord that opens my blinds, and stand there, my palms cupping my face. I take a breath, and as I exhale, its warmth travels up my neck and back through my shoulder blades. It is dark outside, but it is snowing, the flakes of it falling as soft and light as powdered sugar.

“That there is anything, anything at all,” I whisper at the window.

As I stare at the snow that I have been awaiting since August, I am aware of everything. The still hum of my computer. The catch and release in each breath. My heart, suddenly so life-giving, so essential.

“You still, hour by hour sustain it,” I repeat, awed at the otherness of the moment. I run my hand across my fissured lips, and every crack and imperfection feels strange and foreign, a wonder.

I imagine doubt and faith as a quarreling couple beginning to reconcile, one tentatively holding the other’s arm. “I am afraid of you, but I love you,” I tell God.

It is a quiet revelation, as quiet as the snow accumulating outside, and maybe no one else would see it as a word from God at all. I open my mouth, but before I move my lips, I discover that I don’t want to speak. I let my breaths pray for me, and as I watch, the falling snow seems more and more a silent incarnation.