The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I rather spontaneously—or perhaps, I’d like to think, by the work of the Holy Spirit—got on a night bus and went to church. I arrived at St. Mark’s Cathedral to a contemplative Eucharist in their beautiful chapel. It was soft and lovely and quiet.
I love the quiet. I sought it out when I came to college in Seattle, living in “the big city” for the first time this fall, more than a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people everywhere. I looked for and found spaces where we pray in quiet to hear our own God answer. And now I have come to a season in which we encourage each other to come into the quiet and the rest and peace it brings.
But I noticed something else in the quiet that evening. Perhaps because I had just returned from a trip back home, I realized that my quiet does not belong to me. It belongs to my sister. My twelve-year-old sister has severe developmental delays and serious sensory processing issues. Anything and everything is liable to be too bright, too loud, too much for her, and so I grew up with the quiet. With subtitles on muted TV screens, with an empathetic dread of ceiling fans, with a constant, chiding shhh.
My quiet is active. My quiet encompasses all the work it takes to make the world safe for my sister. My quiet is an act of love. My quiet was enforced for years, and my quiet puts her needs first.
My quiet is heartbreaking. Quiet is unanswered questions and the words she can’t say. Quiet is the sound before “Ellen, call 911.”
My quiet, in short, is complicated. My quiet is already part of the prayers I bring into those spaces. And it is drowned out by the noticing. (Their quiet is not quiet. I can hear the building humming and feel the vibrations of little human noises in the stone floor of the chapel. She is home, a hundred miles away. She is home, she is safe, she is cared for, and yet I cannot shut my mind.)
I cannot still my mind in the noise or the quiet. I am living away from home for the first time, and maybe someday I will not be on alert, always, for the hum that sends my world crashing down. But I don’t know if that day will come as long as I’m still loving. The quiet is the work I cannot put down.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. Maybe I just need to say out loud that the quiet itself is not always the answer. Not for all of us. Maybe I need to whisper in your ear, if you too pray for quiet as much as you pray in quiet, that you are not alone. That our quiets do not have to be perfect or even restful to be filled with the Spirit. But I suppose you know this; you are used to love without perfection, aren’t you? Come sit by me in the silence, cautious and complicated as you are, and, side-by-side, we will work on our quiets and the thoughts that are always too loud.
Photo via Unsplash.
About Ellen Perleberg
Ellen Perleberg is a student from Washington who has been active in developmental disability advocacy, as well as support for siblings of children with special needs. Her sister has mitochondrial disease and major sensory integration challenges. The sisters love Frozen, swimming, and playing jokes on their brother.