The Headless Marys



It sounds like the title of a zombie-esque film noir: The Headless Marys.

It is in fact the name of a contemplative prayer group to which I belong. At 48, I am the youngest of the bunch. Most are retired nurses or teachers. In other words, they are women who have been active, other-focused, do-gooders most of their lives.

They are not women who indulge in hours of bonbon-eating leisure. The group’s name, while conjuring macabre horror-film images, actually refers to our collective desire to move from our heads to our hearts as the focused centre of our spiritual lives—a la Mary, Lazarus’ sister, who sat at the feet of Jesus while her active, “do-er” sister scurried about in frenetic activity (Luke 10).

As women all sympathetic to Martha and thus inclined toward frenetic activity, our coming together is something of a radical act. We are pushing against our culture’s obsession with stimulation and information and noise and distraction.

As a society, North Americans are so obsessed with sensory input that, when surveyed, 67% of men and 25% of women would rather receive mild electric shocks than sit in silence for 15 minutes.

Ummmm. Hello?

Our little group has enough collective wisdom to recogonize the deep neurosis hidden in these statistics.

And so we hold a monthly day of silence.

For the more linear out there, curious about how our day works, here’s a sketch of our time together:

15 minutes: Visit over coffee (we get to talk!)
20 minutes: Corporate silent centering prayer
20 minutes: Lectio Divina
3 hours: Solitary silence (some sit alone, some go for a walk, some journal)
20 minutes: Corporate silent centering prayer
20 minutes: Daily Examen (we get to talk again!)

For an evangelical girl raised on a steady diet of spoken prayer, I was taught to be suspicious of so much silence.

My prayer menu was based around the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication—all tasty morsels and useful in communicating with God, but terribly one-way and overburdened with words and thoughts and effort, and, dare I say, personal agendas.

Conversely, silence as the ground of prayer requires the letting go of agendas. It requires the stilling of thoughts and the “dialing in” to a Presence that—surprise!—was there all along.

Silence is not an emptiness, but a fullness, containing the very breath and life of God.

In this silence I have found an expansive kingdom within.

No, really.

I know this might sound airy fairy, but perhaps only as airy fairy as Jesus’ words—the Kingdom of God is within you. Silence has been the path into this Kingdom and silence has shown me the terrain.

And it is beautiful.

Looking back on my ACTS years, I feel like I was offering God (and myself) bread crumbs of cerebral effort-full prayers, when in reality I was being invited to a feast. A feast of the presence of God.

Crazily, each month, I want to forgo this feast. I’m a fickle friend of God (and therefore a fickle friend of myself). And this is why I need others–I need a community of women who hold me in a circle of friendship and attention. I need guides—women older and wiser, who remind me it’s not about the arriving and accomplishing, but just the coming, again and again. It’s about approaching the table because the feast is always waiting.

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.
Come, yet again, come, come.

– Rumi