Martha had just turned 50 when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1997, and I was 52. We had a son and daughter in college and a daughter still in high school. I was an entrepreneur running the regional business magazine I’d started 13 years earlier. Martha was actively involved in civic and political activities, such as chairing our county’s Juvenile Welfare Board and serving on the St. Petersburg city council a few years earlier. The year before her diagnosis, she’d run a hard-fought campaign for a Florida legislative seat, losing the primary by 20 votes.
With the pressures of work, family, and finances, we hardly had a moment to breathe. Or sleep … what’s that?
Of course you’ve never been busy, have you? LOL!
Immersed in such stresses, Martha and I took the advice of our friend Rev. Lacy Harwell and visited a Catholic nun in Kentucky, Sister Elaine. Among several suggestions, she encouraged us to check into Christian meditation.
When we returned home, Lacy came by to see us. “What can you tell us about meditation?” I asked him. “Sister Elaine suggested we look into it, but she offered little more than that.”
Lacy said Sister Elaine introduced him to meditation as a possible help for his high blood pressure. “I practiced a few days with her and actually saw my pressure drop,” he boasted. “Then Elaine told me, ‘That’s good. Now let’s see if you’re disciplined enough to meditate the rest of your life.’” Lacy burst out with that full-throated laugh of his.
I hadn’t met a Protestant Christian, let alone a minister, who practiced a contemplative form of prayer. Lacy was Presbyterian. “Catholics have a rich heritage of this,” he said. “Protestants don’t.”
He told us to check out a Benedictine monk named John Main. “He’s the best I’ve found. He’s really good at making meditation understandable to the average person.” John Main teaches you to use a prescribed word, silently repeating it twenty to thirty minutes in the morning and in the evening, Lacy said. “There are a few other guidelines, but that’s basically it.”
So I went searching online and found John Main’s book Word into Silence. I also bought a set of tapes, In the Beginning, which Martha and I began to listen to; each side was about 15 minutes.
John Main spoke and wrote with an authority borne from experience, not from any office he may have held as a Catholic monk. We soon got into a rhythm of meditating in the morning and evening, and after awhile we found our fears starting to subside.
In his book, John Main says many people are encouraged to meditate as a means of relaxation from the urban pressures all around us, which is “not essentially wrong in itself.” But he describes that view as “very limited.”
He explains why: “The all-important aim in Christian meditation is to allow God’s mysterious and silent presence within us to become more and more not only a reality, but the reality in our lives; to let it become that reality which gives meaning, shape, and purpose to everything we do, to everything we are.”
And so it has for me … over time. And it continues to do so. There’s nothing sexy about this daily practice. In fact it reminds me of an ol’ mule pulling a plow back in the day on my grandfather’s farm. That mule trudged along turning up a row of fresh dirt about 50 yards long and then came back turning up another row roughly parallel to the first. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth they would go, the mule, the plow, and the farmer. And when working a new raw field, they often turned up all sizes of rocks and roots.
That’s what I feel as my word moves back and forth across the fields of my heart and mind. It turns up stuff I never realized was there—good and bad, fertile and barren.
The need to be still and quiet is a lesson that I learned rather late in life. And one I’m still learning.
Our daughter Rachel was able to grasp this lesson at a much earlier stage in her life.
She shares this story in my forthcoming book A Path Revealed: After graduating from college, Rachel spent a dispiriting year at home. It not only was tough confronting her mother’s growing disabilities, but she also was disheartened about a career. She’d majored in international studies.
One evening Lacy Harwell had dinner with us, and Rachel and he got into a conversation about her confusion and frustrations as well as her upcoming plans to travel through Europe for the summer.
“Have you heard of Taizé?” Lacy asked. Rachel said no.
“When you get to Europe you might stop by there.” Lacy explained that Taizé is an ecumenical monastery in France. It attracts thousands of youth each year who seek the silence and solace offered by the community.
That piqued Rachel’s interest, so she and her friend included Taizé in their travel plans. “We were going to stay for a weekend.”
Rachel recounts one of her first nights at Taizé. “An image came into my mind, an out-of-body experience in which I saw Mercedes and me praying together in a chapel.” Mercedes was Rachel’s best friend at UNC. “We often prayed together at Chapel Hill,” Rachel says, adding that this was a strong period of faith and spirituality for both. But much of that was eroded during Rachel’s last year of college and her year at home.
“In this vision at Taizé,” Rachel says, “I heard God’s voice say: ‘Your prayers were not in vain.’ As I reflected on this, it seemed like our prayers in Chapel Hill had dug trenches into the future, trenches through which those prayers flowed to protect us in our years of doubt and difficulty.”
Rachel shared this encounter with one of the monks. After their conversation, she says, “I had the impression that I wasn’t done with Taizé, and it wasn’t done with me.” She decided to stay for a week’s silent retreat.
“The main thing I realized out of this week of silence,” she says, “is that I felt abandoned by both Mommie and God. I was hurt more deeply than I thought. I hadn’t understood how intertwined Mommie and my faith were. I cried a lot.”
But her crying, she says, “was good because I’d been numb for so long.”
At the retreat’s close, Rachel says she heard God’s voice again, saying, “You will know when the time is right.” This prompted another conversation, for which she sought out a Taizé sister.
After that, Rachel knew that she was ready to go. “When I left Taizé I had a hope and peace that I hadn’t felt in a long while.” She traveled three more weeks before coming home. “I enjoyed Europe much more after Taizé than I did before.”
As you reflect on your need for silence, or not, you may want to consider John Main’s small, powerful book Word into Silence. You can find it here or on Amazon. Also, you can find his CDs for In the Beginning here.
God bless you good.
I am offering a free guide, "How Can My Crisis Be Turned Into A Spiritual Journey Filled With Meaning?" which shares my experience in learning how to negotiate such a trek. To receive it, and sign up for my weekly newsletter, please fill out this form:
P.S. In closing, I remind you that I’m neither a licensed psychologist/psychiatrist nor an ordained minister. What I’m sharing in this post and others is drawn from nearly two decades of experience wrestling with the consequences of Alzheimer’s disease on our family. Each person’s odyssey is unique. As you travel your own path and encounter serious obstacles—be they mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual—I strongly encourage you to start an ongoing conversation with a trusted counselor, guide, pastor, or doctor.