Isaiah 30.15, 18
Uncomfortable, isn’t it? That awkward silence. At least, awkward for us humans: though less so for rabbits, apparently. I want to start with a passage from Watership Down, the epic children’s tale about a rabbit warren fighting for survival. Some rabbits are just meeting for the first time.
“The rabbits mingled naturally. They did not talk for talking’s sake, in the artificial manner that human beings – and sometimes even their cats and dogs – do. But this did not mean that they were not communicating; merely that they were not communicating by talking. All over the burrow, both the newcomers and those who were at home were accustoming themselves to each other in their own way and their own time; getting to know what strangers smelt like, how they moved, how they breathed, how they scratched, the feel of their rhythms and pulses. These were were their topics and subjects of discussion, carried on without the need of speech.” Now, it may sound silly, but I think we might have something to learn from these rabbits. I’m not suggesting that we stop talking and start sniffing at each other instead; but I do think it’s true that we can learn more about each other, about ourselves, and about God by spending time in silence.
But the truth is, we’re scared of silence. We’re just so used to the noise – the hubbub of people talking on the streets, the cars and buses or the aeroplanes overhead, the ‘muzac’ playing while we shop, the roadworks, the sirens, the air-con, the mechanical hum of the computer or the fridge. The list goes on. And the sound goes on! So when it stops – we feel rather empty and alone. So we try to fill the silence with stereos and iPods, mobile ‘phones, or the TV in the background that we switch on just to ‘keep us company.’
Of course, sound can be a good thing: music can help us to relax, the TV can inform and entertain us, having a laugh with friends can help to strengthen those friendships. But I reckon a lot of the noise in our lives is just a distraction, there to clutter up our minds and keep them busy so that we can escape from that uncomfortable silence. The silence of doubt. The silence of loneliness. The silence of the grave?
Three friends, out in the deserts of the Middle East, decided together to devote their lives to God as monks. The first was inspired by the Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ and so he set out to reconcile enemies and try and forge peace between the nomadic tribes. The second felt called to a ministry of healing, and spent all his time tending the sick. The third, though, retreated into the desert to live as a solitary hermit.
Many years passed. The first monk realised that, for all his efforts, he simply couldn’t bring together all the warring tribes, and gave up, exhausted and frustrated. The second found out that he couldn’t heal everybody – countless people he’d tried to save ended up dead, and more and more just kept coming to him for help. He, too, ended up broken and depressed. So these two went to visit their old friend in his tent in the desert. They sat with him on the floor, and poured out their troubles.
For a while, the hermit remained silent. Then, he took a broad bowl and put it down on the floor in front of them. He took his leather flask from where it was hanging and poured some water into the bowl. “Look inside,” he said, “what do you see?” “Well, it’s all murky and blurred,” said the peacemaker, looking at his friend the healer, puzzled. The hermit sat back and was silent again.
A minute or so later, he told them to look again. The water had settled. And this time, they could see themselves as clearly as in a mirror. They looked up at the hermit, and he said: “Because of the turbulence of life, the person who lives in the midst of activity does not see his sins. But when he is quiet, he sees the real state of things.”
Silence is a mirror that shows all our blemishes; a mirror too honest for many to bear, and that’s one reason why it’s so frightening. But it is a mirror that we must look into if we really want to know ourselves–– not just the selves we like to think we are, or the masks we wear when we deal with other people–– but our real selves, with all our fears and anxieties, all our questions and doubts, and yes, with all our sin. And only when we have started to know ourselves, with this radical self-awareness, can we start to open those selves to God for his healing, his love. Silence is frightening because it shows us how we really are, but while it may not be easy, it clears space within us to let God do his work.
“So, what’s the point?” you might ask at this stage. What difference does it make? Well, let’s take another example. There is an order of Roman Catholic monks and nuns who take a vow of silence which they break only to say their prayers together or on their once-weekly community walk. These Carthusians, as they’re called, really know the importance of silence, and one of the rules of their order sums it up far better than I could: “The fruit that silence brings is known to him who experiences it. In the early stages of our Carthusian life we may find silence a burden; however, if we are faithful, there will gradually be born within us of our silence something that will draw us on to still greater silence… that we may the more ardently seek, the more quickly find, the more perfectly possess God himself in the depths of our souls; thus with the Lord’s help, we may be enabled to attain to the perfection of love.”
The perfection of love. Now, outside Church, you’ll find meditation classes, yoga, pilates and so on, advertised in newspapers and shop windows all over the place, offering peace, tranquillity, relaxation. And these are all well and good. But that’s not the point of Christian meditative prayer. Sure, in the depths of Christian prayer, you may well get the odd ‘high,’ moments of intense peace and tranquillity, feelings of reassurance and warmth. Great. But the acid test of Christian meditation is not how it makes us feel: it’s the effect it has in our daily living. In increased patience and sensitivity to others. In being ready to listen to God and to each other, not just with our heads, but in the depths of our hearts; not just in the silence, but even in the noise of everyday life. In being ready not just in church, but at any time, anywhere, to let our voices, our needs, our will go, and to make room –in the words of St Paul– for the Holy Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words. In short, to be always open to the influence of our God, who is love; and to show that love to others.
So where do we start? Well, first we start by setting aside a time when we can switch off all the background noise. For maybe five or ten minutes, every day if possible, in the morning, or the evening, or both. We turn off the TV, the radio, and what-have-you, and we get some peace and quiet.
The next thing we need is a place, somewhere we won’t be disturbed. Somewhere we can sit comfortably, with our backs straight– perhaps on a big cushion or a prayer-stool in the corner of a room. We make the time, we make the space, so we settle down and close our eyes.
But wait – what’s that I can hear? “Must go and collect my pension… Wasn’t Daniel Craig good in that film last night… Wonder what we’re having for dinner?…” All these voices – thoughts, racing around in my head! The problem is, we’re so used to noise, that even when we’ve got silence outside, our heads are still full of distracting sounds within. We have to weed these out to let the flowers of God’s loving presence bloom. And so perhaps we want something to help us focus, to concentrate on our time of silent prayer: a candle, maybe, or a cross or an icon. And as we look at it, or hold it, we can then start counting our breathing, like we’ve done for the last couple of weeks, then maybe recite the Jesus Prayer, just letting those distracting thoughts flow away. And eventually, we let even our counting, even the words of the Jesus Prayer, drift away too, quieting and stilling our soul, like the hermit’s bowl of water. And we just leave it there. We let it be. Eventually, when five minutes becomes easy, we can work up to ten, or twenty, or half an hour – or as long as we like.
Those of you with children may be wondering how you’re going to find this quiet time– but there’s no reason at all why they can’t do this together with you. I’ve meditated with assemblies full of primary school children, and an increasing number of church schools are making five minutes meditation part of their daily routine. Our culture tells us that children can’t be silent, that we should expect them to be noisy all the time– but if I may be so bold, our culture is wrong. It’s good for them to learn self-control, and I’ve found that it can help to make them more peaceful with others and in themselves. It may take some determination to train them to value stillness and silence, but their gain in spiritual well-being will be worth the effort. Don’t just take my word for it, give it a go.
And that’s pretty much all I have to say about silence: not because I’m some expert on it or on prayer– I’m not. I often find it difficult, I often find myself distracted. But I can honestly say that my own practice of silent prayer over the years has helped me: like the hermit with the bowl, to see myself more clearly; like the rabbits in Watership Down, to stop thinking about what I want to say and to listen to other people more deeply, with my heart as well as my ears; and like the Carthusians, to know God’s loving presence within my soul. And that’s why I wanted to share this practice with you. I pray that you might find it as helpful as I have.
So come, Holy Spirit, still our souls, grant us quietness and trust in the Lord, and bring us to the perfection of His love.