Last week I interrupted my lectionary thoughts with an interview from Face to Face (the journal I edited more than a decoade ago). Here’s another interview, also archived at IsaacsPress.com:
An Interview with Wendy Wright
Wendy Wright is a professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She is a frequent contributor to numerous spiritual journals and the author of books including Seasons of a Family’s Life: Cultivating the Contemplative Spirit at Home and Sacred Dwelling: A Spirituality of Family Life. She was interviewed by editor Rich Brown.
In your book, Seasons of a Family’s Life, you mention that life is not so much a problem to be fixed as a mystery to be plumbed. How do you plumb the depths of mystery in a culture that not only demands that things be fixed but that it be done immediately?
Real solutions often don’t come out of the information we have at our immediate disposal. In other words, when we approach situations as fix-it people, we may come with an idea of what’s wrong and how to solve it, then apply stale analyses and possibilities. But if we come more open to be surprised and more open to hear information from unexpected places, we may discover new creativity that leads to rearranging things into more organic solutions. I think we resist living in mystery because it hurts too much or it’s too joyful. But when push comes to shove, I think we do need to live there because that’s probably our truest self.
Where in the depths of mystery do you look?
I have found myself basically so disenchanted with the kind of shallow vision, expectations, structures, and solutions that we live in that I have looked elsewhere. I’ve looked at the monastic tradition, at the traditions of prayer, at a variety of contemplative traditions, and they’ve seemed to be more reflective of the reality of our lives. It takes practice. You have to start by claiming and owning those glimpses of mystery that we have, not just whip by them as though they were strange things but gather them up and hold them as the things that are most real in your life. Eventually, you’ll become more accustomed to them as what deserves attention.
Those glimpses will slip away if we don’t pay attention.
They will. Or we’ll overly sentimentalize or pathologize them, or dismiss them entirely. We do that very easily, being such a workaholic society. We need to cultivate a certain spaciousness about life, and that means taking some of the moments that are between things and not fill them up with the radio, the TV, or another job to do. That requires becoming accustomed to quiet moments. Now, I’m no different from anybody else. When I get to my office it’s relentless—phone calls, meetings, this thing or another. But I do make a concerted effort to just drop out periodically: turn off the phone, take a walk, not take work home, go to the baseball game with my husband. I didn’t take work home when my kids were little, because I would rather be behind at work than behind there.
For some parents, the question is, “How can I take time out when there’s so much I really have to do?”
I don’t think you need to take time out from family responsibilities, but you do need to take time out from the unnecessary things we do. We all have to cook food, but we can really spend time together cooking the food. Sometimes those special times together come when you’re driving someplace with the kids. Turn off the radio. Make it a time when you actually are together. We don’t have to have a trip to the shopping mall every weekend.
What about families who, because they’ve been so busy or for whatever reason, just don’t have many family memories? What ultimately happens to those families?
It’s very hard. I do a workshop that includes a little family ritual—laying the table of a family altar—where they discuss the sacred times and places of their family’s existence. That often is a really good thing, because it awakens people to what they already know. There’s a real power in that. The hardest time I ever had doing it, though, was with a group of divorced and widowed people. What they associated sacred times with were very broken and disruptive memories. They had to find new ways for it to emerge. You know, if you’ve completely missed your children’s childhood, I can’t imagine that would be anything but really painful. You’re likely to have a divorce at the same time. The amazing thing is that people manage to find sacred meanings in all kinds of configurations of things they do.
Are “sacred” meanings associated only with religious experiences?
I don’t think so, but I do think religious traditions point us very distinctly in that direction. They give us a language, a vocabulary, ritual practices, and an understanding that helps us to perceive the deepest strata of life. That’s part of what religions, after all, are supposed to do.
They give seasoning to life.
Absolutely. They give texture to life, along with the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God. That is a core idea, even if it just floats around in the language of liturgy. There are not many places outside a religious community that are going to affirm the really deep, profound dignity of the human person as inviolable in that same way. That’s really kind of essential stuff. Certainly, you can have a humanistic, deeply moral vision that affirms life, but I really find that religious traditions help us plumb that depth. They give us a language for mystery.
Secular life offers texture too. Mention “Nebraska” to many Americans and the first thing they think of is college football.
As much as I’m not a football fan, I’ve lived in Nebraska long enough now that I can’t help but be swept up in Huskers football. Before I moved there I never would have dreamed I’d even feel remotely interested. But it’s one of the things we do as Nebraskans. There’s something about what we do together that makes us community. That’s the hard part of the fragmentation of American life in that we all go off to our separate places, in age-appropriate things, and we don’t have the same experiences.
Your neighborhood in Omaha is very special to you. How does it help form you as a person?
Omaha is a “big small town,” and it has a lot of really distinctive neighborhoods. Mine is surprisingly stable, with people whose family has lived there for five generations. This is just astonishing. Before we moved in, people were saying it was graying, but then there was a sudden influx of new families. I love looking at the old houses and thinking about all the people who lived there before. I feel accompanied by those people.
The houses we live in have a lot to do with our personal stories, and stories are very important for Christians. How do we connect our personal stories with the Sacred Story?
The story of Jesus gives incredible depth and resonance to one’s own story. In other words, I could have a personal story that’s quite interesting, but I’m also part of a larger family somehow connected across the globe by this same Sacred Story. One of the things I like about being a Catholic is being able to walk into a church anywhere in the world and the Mass is the same. I love the liturgical year for that same reason, because we move through time together. Time has texture; it’s not all just flat. Advent is full of expectation, waiting, and kind of quiet, then you have the wonderful, joyous season of Christmas. Soon that’s followed by Lent, a distinctive time of reflection and somberness that leads us toward the incredible Paschal mystery of Holy Week and out into Easter. I love connecting in that way. My own life experiences are shaped by that. If you live according to the liturgical year, what happens to you during these times is associated with the year. It’s happening all over the world, and it’s been happening that way for centuries. It really does create this rich, huge family story. Like any family, it’s got its cranky old uncles and its skeletons in the closet, as well as its wonderful, saintly grandmothers.
After Easter and Pentecost there’s a long period called “Ordinary Time.” For some people ordinary means “blah, boring, common,” just space to be filled. But isn’t there a lot more to Ordinary Time than hanging around until Advent?
Yes, absolutely. It’s just like our regular time. The weddings and the funerals and the graduations offer the high points, but it’s the daily stuff where we come to God the most profoundly in some ways, although probably not as dramatically. Ordinary Time is when we read the Gospel accounts and learn about the life of Jesus—not just his birth and death, but his teachings. We learn about the communion of the saints, all the great Saints Days. I think of Ordinary Time as akin to what we do in our daily lives, which sometimes seems boring and dull and repetitive and quiet. But it’s often there that our deepest sense of mystery is encountered. My dad used to “rain walk.” We lived in Southern California where it doesn’t rain often, and when it does it’s not like the Midwest with thunderstorms that make it unsafe to be outside. I remember going with my dad when we’d have one of those desert storms. He was a great one to say, “Let’s go walk in the rain!” So we’d go walk in the rain and take an hour, just getting drenched. We’d sing songs; we’d talk about things. That wasn’t like a birthday; it was just part of the fabric of our everyday lives. It was something we did together. When our kids were growing up, the best conversations we had were not scheduled—when you actually plan to go out and have a great conversation. Something would come up at bedtime. Everybody’s gone to sleep and you have a kid walk in who has something to talk about. That’s “ordinary time.”
If life were just big celebrations and festivals, we’d be exhausted, so those ordinary times can help us recoup our spiritual energies. How does our need for silence fit into this?
It’s in those times, the in-between spaces, when you really learn to pay attention because you’re not being bombarded with information. You have to learn to listen to unexpected voices, just to look at things. A couple days ago I was with a group of Presbyterian pastors, and one fellow was talking about his experience of canoeing. He had beached his canoe and gone up to sit on a rock for an hour. As he was sitting there, he saw some deer and birds come out. He saw things emerge that if he’d been moving all the time, they wouldn’t have come out. I don’t expect people to become monastic about silence, but I do think we fill up our lives with too much noise. Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid to listen to our hearts. When kids are little they usually go to bed before their parents, and when they’re asleep there’s a lull in the house that’s lovely. When I had teenagers I enjoyed the lull before they got up on a Saturday morning. I tried not to fill up the quiet, not that I was always successful, but I tried.
This idea of not filling up quiet times seems almost countercultural in our society, and even in the church.
Often church services are full, and if it’s quiet people think something’s been forgotten. But you can be intentional about introducing very short periods of silence and educate people that this is not just blank time. It’s not the kind of time we have waiting in a line at a bank or a grocery store. It’s a time to listen to our hearts, to pray quietly, to just be glad we’re there, to be aware of tension in our bodies and breathe. This is a gift time. Some denominations are better at doing that than others.
Isn’t that what the contemplative life offers as well?
Yes, although out of the stillness comes enormous activity—not frenetic activity, but doing something out of a place that is deeply energized, deeply owned. Often when we’re in our fixing mode, we’re acting out of a part of the self that’s either script driven, or ego driven, or guilt driven. It comes from a fairly tenuous place in us. It’s an “ought” place. The action that springs from that deeper, contemplative place is often rooted in a convergence of a sense of the world’s need, our gifts, and God’s call. There’s an energy and strength in that place. It’s very hard to sustain actions that arise just from an “ought.”
You mentioned that a sense of call can arise in the silence. The Spirit can whisper, “Be still and know that I am God.” Yet, once again, so much of our culture is “anti-stillness.”
We often think that young people are the ones most caught up in that, but I’ve been surprised how often students will talk reflectively about “the drive home from work.” They’re hungry for this, and say something like, “I love the drive home because it’s quiet”; or, “I love it when I can go off to a camp.” Christian camps are powerful places of encounter precisely because they provide the opportunity for people to not have everything all filled up with sound. Usually there’s a beautiful nature-filled aspect to it, too. The setting encourages people to go for a little walk, sit by the lake, be in the chapel. People tell me that Protestant camps especially have this strong tradition of being sacred space. They’re generally contemplative places, even though there are lots of things to do.
This may help explain why adults, too, are drawn to retreats.
Even if people are uncomfortable with silence, there is the possibility of renewal at a retreat. That can be awkward or hard to find in the rush of our daily lives. Sometimes I like to stay home alone. I have that luxury now, but I don’t do it often enough. For a couple hours, a half a day, just to stay in the house—to be where I’m not supposed to be. It’s like being out of school when you’re a kid. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t use this as some big spiritual event, except that it really is; it’s deeply renewing. It’s quiet. I’ll put a load of laundry in the washer and go take a hot bath. It’s just a gift.
Those times can come, too, when we’re ill and need to heal not only our body but our soul.
Our culture is so production oriented, in contrast to the ancient wisdom of letting land lie fallow, of keeping a sabbath. We’ve ceased to remember that our spirits, like our bodies, need time to regenerate. There’s no spiritual Viagra. It requires letting things go for a while. The fact that we have twenty-four-hour daylight, seven-day work weeks, that we run around the clock trying to be productive seems to me to really rob us of shared time. In the university we schedule classes all day long from early morning to late at night. We do this for economic reasons, to get the best utilization of facilities, to get the most bodies in the classrooms. But there’s no shared break, no time when everything stops, and very little shared space where everyone tends to gather. That’s very destructive to community. And that’s very true of the family, too. If you’re just running around the clock, and there’s no time when everything’s just off, you might as well shoot yourself in the leg. Family vacations, of course, are one way to counter that. My husband and I are both readers, so once dinner’s over things are pretty quiet. Even when the kids were there and it was noisy because of that, there were still shared times of stillness.
Some couples face a crisis when the empty nest happens. The kids have been the focus for so long that when they’re gone, these two people may discover they’re strangers to one another.
I can understand that. The strongest thing in a marriage is that you have a shared vision of life. It’s not just about your children, although it’s very important to have bonding with them. If you have nothing walking alongside that’s larger than just that, then I think a marriage is very hard to sustain. Maybe it’s your faith tradition that you share, being in the church together and sharing that vision, or a sense of social justice ministry—the two of you care about the poor or care about peace—there must be something larger than you. Perhaps it’s art or music. I don’t know how you sustain a relationship without a larger context for it.
Is that part of why some people long to have grandchildren?
The grandchildren are part of that, of course. But it seems to me to be very sad to be living in a house, with all the tasks involved in that, and somehow you wouldn’t want to share the fruits of that experience. It’s so sad to consider couples who divorce once their children are gone. How could you go all those years nurturing those children and not want to share watching them flower into adulthood? I can’t imagine it.
So much goes into getting children to the point where they’re able to be on their own. Of course, it almost seems like the purpose of kids when they hit high school or middle school is to find their parents’ “hot buttons.” They get very good at it, but as frustrating as it is, parents have to let them do that.
They’re going to do it anyway, of course, whether you let them or not. When kids emerge from that, even if it’s been a destructive time for them, life begins to take on a bigger, more satisfying aura. When they actually call you up and ask for your advice, it’s because they really do value it—finally.
Can you give some examples of kids coming “full circle” after the high school years?
At one point our middle daughter, who’d been out of college for a while, said to us, “You guys did a really good job raising us.” We were like, Oh my!” Along the way it didn’t feel at all like that; there was no feedback like that through all those years. But adolescence is a time of terrible self-consciousness and self-absorption. It’s hard to win at that point. Our oldest daughter, who is almost twenty-six now, told us she had confided to a good friend a few years ago that she was always so embarrassed and humiliated when her dad would drive her to high school in our old blue, rusty Chevy. And her friend, who was from a very wealthy family, replied that she was humiliated, too, but it was because her mother drove her to school in their gold Lexus.