El Silencio

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“There sometimes springs an interior peace and quietude which is full of happiness, for the soul is in such a state that it thinks there is nothing that it lacks. Even speaking . . . wearies it: it would like to do nothing but love.” (Teresa of Avila)

Why does it sometimes feel like there is so little time to breathe, to think? Or even to pause and enjoy what is unfolding before us? To pay attention to the things that really matter?

These are  common and recurring questions in contemporary life. Certainly many of us from the U.S. feel the pressure of trying to fit too many things into too small of a space. That sense of always being behind, always catching up. But it is also true here in Argentina, especially in this time of economic instability when many are forced to work more than one job, often in different parts of the city, just to get by. It is not really possible to slow down. You have to keep moving.

Even so, the rhythms of life here are in many ways less frantic than what we commonly experience in the U.S. Córdoba is a busy, vibrant city and people seem always to be on the move somewhere. But there are also more moments to pause, to catch up with friends, to enjoy conversation. Time is not so pressured. Argentines seem to take real delight in spending time, lots of time, with each other. Often with no particular purpose or agenda. And with little sense of the need to rush off somewhere else. They are generous with their time. Or so it seems to us.

When I commented on this recently to an Argentine friend, telling him how much I appreciated his generosity in spending all afternoon with us at his home, he laughed and said: “no, you don’t understand, we prefer to spend our time this way.” So, yes, it can be seen as a kind of generosity. But if you dig deeper, it appears to be something else: pure, unalloyed pleasure at spending time with others.

We sometimes laugh at how long it takes to arrive or depart from a place here in Argentina. Mostly this has to do with the sheer time it takes to exchange besos or kisses. Whether arriving or departing, everyone kisses everyone. No exceptions. If there are a lot of people, this can take a while. And of course, it is not just the besos. It is the exchanges of little greetings. Taking a moment to ask after the other person, his or her children, maybe the weather or the recent fortunes of the local futbolteam. There is really no rushing through this. And really, when you stop to think about it, why would you want to? But for many of us from the U.S., it requires some getting used to, a willingness to let go of our sense of time as a kind of commodity to be closely guarded.  Easier said than done.

Still, it is a good reminder of why we are here: to enter into the life of the place, to allow ourselves to be touched and changed by it. This may not seem like much. And in a way it isn’t. But beyond all our so-called accomplishments, all the things we hope to achieve in our program, this is in the end what matters most. To learn to  really be here. This sounds so simple. And in some ways it is. But learning to practice this kind of awareness can be challenging. It requires us to make a conscious effort to slow down, to pay attention, to breathe. Sometimes it means suspending our natural inclination to fill up all our time with activity and purposeful behavior; pausing and noticing what is unfolding before us in that moment. Learning be present–to our own life and to the lives of those around us.

This is a value, a sensibility we are consciously working to cultivate here at Casa de la Mateada. It is a central value to the Ignatian spiritual tradition in which the program stands. And it finds deep resonance in some of the values so deeply woven into the cultural and social traditions of Argentina.

Contemplivus simul in actione. This is one of the ways the early Ignatian tradition articulated its own commitment to paying attention or learning to be present–to God, to others, to the needs of the world. The simplest translation is: “contemplative in action.”  But it is probably better rendered as “contemplative while at the same time in action.” Or “contemplative in the midst of everyday living.”

This latter expression suggests the continuous practice or habit of awareness that is at the heart of the Ignatian ideal of “finding God in all things.” This is not a slogan. It is a way of experiencing the world, born of the disciplined practice of paying attention every moment. As if it were the last moment. Paying attention because the moment unfolding before you is so fraught with possibilities.

Why does something that seems like it ought to come naturally to us require so much practice? Well, that is a difficult question to answer. But it is a question that shows up sooner or later in nearly every spiritual tradition. How to be aware? How to be present? By which is usually meant: how to be more aware, more present. We sense it is possible. We experience it in fleeting moments. But it doesn’t seem to last. In the very asking of these questions, we stumble upon a hard truth about our existence: we are so easily distracted. We are so filled with anxieties and fears. So we turn our gaze every which way but straight before us. And we end up missing so much.

We try in our program to keep this challenge before us. To practice slowing down and paying attention. In the pause before meals when we join hands and sing grace together. In the practice of always making sure in our comings and goings we don’t forget to reach out to give and receive besos. In the structured time on Tuesday evenings when we enter into a silent, reflective space to gather ourselves a little and consider what is happening in our lives that is calling for our particular attention. In class, when the expression of thought or feeling from someone seems to require a deeper kind of listening. And in the moment by moment practice of presence required of each student during days spent with their praxis communities.

Retreat (sitting)

This is also why, once a semester, we step outside of our usual rhythms of living to enter into a space of complete silence. For three days, we move together in that silence and stillness. We share the space, and the intimacy of that sharing is striking and beautiful. But it is also true that each person must find her or his own way. And little by little we do, gradually learning to become still, quiet, attentive.

We do this for ourselves, to discover a space where we can reflect on and learn to cherish what is most precious to us. We also do it for the sake of learning how to attend more carefully and compassionately to others, to the needs of the world. To rekindle our capacity to love.

We are in now the midst of Semana Santa; also the season of Passover. The city is a little quieter these days. Life is moving more slowly. We are too. We are taking a little more time to enter into the silence, opening ourselves (again) to the work of paying attention. Especially today, on Viernes Santo, a day given over to watching and waiting, in silence and stillness.

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