Last week, as I wrote here on Sunday, March 5th, our meditation together focused on the meaning of sanctuary. I've always loved, as I remember writing here many moons ago, the deeply intimate resonance, the sense of safety and nourishment, the diversity of experiences and places, that word evokes. I recall my wise age-mate Parker Palmer movingly capturing its evolution, nuance and importance in his own life. "Sanctuary," he wrote, "is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival... [The sanctuary] I need may not be in a church, but in the silence, in the woods, in a friendship, in a poem, or in a song [like that of Carrie Newcomer in her album "The Beautiful Not Yet."]
Used as a noun most commonly, derived from the Latin sanctum, sanctuary typically describes a sacred or holy place, a refuge. Although I find that quality in church and temple services, I like also to sit in churches when no service is occurring, treasuring in silence just those qualities of refuge. And like Palmer, I've found sanctuary among trees, along barely perceptible trails, and in shorelines.
When I first thought about vocation as a child, my two ambitions were forest ranger and architect. In the first, I imagined inhabiting a tower, a simple square room above the forest, and caretaking for the silent arboreal surround, requiring both a soft alertness and a keen eye. In the second, thinking of what I would draw − and later working with board, drawing paper, T-square and triangles − I had most in mind homes, open and U-shaped like a three sided square or rectangle, with the fourth side a courtyard or patio open to the natural world beyond.
My current home, a cosy apartment in a community of folks sharing with me the later stages of adult life, has close kinship with both of those early images. I look out − through sliding glass doors − upon greensward, a courtyard with trees now in early spring coming into leaf and flower. The courtyard in turn leads into marsh land with circuitous tidal streams, trails and walking bridges made of salvaged redwood, and hills beyond.
The community part of my circumstances is a relatively new experience for me: starting in Norway at Modum Bad, the last home that Leigh and I shared before her final illness; and then, fortified by the gift of those years and guided by the wisdom of my family, I came to The Redwoods. I occasionally say to others that I taught about community for thirty years before I knew what I was talking about. I wasn't way off the mark, thankfully: a gift of God.
Which brings me finally to my subject, sharing silence. As I recall, The Buddha himself is said to have said that of the triad central to Buddhism − the sangha, the Buddha, and the dharma, the first among equals is sangha: the community of practice.
Gunella Norris − to whom my teacher sent me − puts it well: "Sharing silence with others is a profound act of trust, love and courtesy. It is a gift, a necessity, a helping hand, a path, and a discipline." I've wished since childhood, in my heart, that I had been raised a Quaker, because its tradition embodies shared silence in community, and is deeply, compassionately political. As Parker Palmer writes, "For centuries Quakers — though few in number — have been disproportionately represented in movements for peace, truth, and justice." Norris says, in words worthy of careful meditation (read contemplatively, as one would a fine poem, more than once):
Within each of us there is a silence
—a silence as vast as a universe.
We are afraid of it…and we long for it.
When we experience that silence, we remember
who we are: creatures of the stars, created
from the cooling of this planet, created
from dust and gas, created
from the elements, created
from time and space…created
In our present culture,
silence is something like an endangered species…
an endangered fundamental.
The experience of silence is now so rare
that we must cultivate it and treasure it.
This is especially true for shared silence.
Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.
When we can stand aside from the usual and
perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.
Our lives align with deeper values
and the lives of others are touched and influenced.
Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses,
to our selves. It locates us. Without that return
we can go so far away from our true natures
that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.
We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.
We endanger the delicate balance which sustains
our lives, our communities, and our planet.
Each of us can make a difference.
Politicians and visionaries will not return us
to the sacredness of life.
That will be done by ordinary men and women
who together or alone can say,
“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,
remember to care,
let us do this for our children and ourselves
and our children’s children.
Let us practice for life’s sake.