A sermon on St Hugh of Lincoln for the Lichfield Cathedral English Saints series
Twenty-one years … of silence.
Twenty-one years a Carthusian monk.
Twenty-one years of absolute austerity, in the hardest, most solitary, ascetic order of the Christian Church, the only religious order that can boast, numquam reformata quod numquam reformanda: never reformed, because never in need of reform. That was S. Hugh’s qualification for elevation to the episcopate. No membership of a talent pool, no “commitment to engagement with a wide variety if worship styles,” no proven track record in implementing effective diocesan outreach initiatives and strategies, but twenty-one years of silence, wilderness, uncompromising prayer.
Perhaps a fruit of those decades of meditation, Hugh chose as a spur to his ministry as Bishop of Lincoln a text which may seem odd for someone who had spent most of their life enclosed in a monastic cell: 2 Corinthians 3.17, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
What liberty does a monk know, you might ask? One who has yielded his liberty entirely to Christ, in vows of poverty, chastity, obedience?
Well, physically, for sure, Hugh spent those years enclosed in cell and cloister. Yet spiritually, Hugh stood stripped absolutely bare of self, of all delusions of pomp and satisfaction before the winnowing fire of his maker’s gaze. And so he stood in absolute freedom – from the slavery to desire; the slavery to power or promotion; the slavery to please himself or men, even the kings among them; fearing God alone, free from the fear of this world.
Yet Hugh’s freedom was not merely a ‘freedom from,’ that absence of constraint by which we moderns tend to judge our ‘liberty.’ Rather, his was a ‘freedom to,’ a freedom not from restraint, but a freedom to act, a positive rather than a negative freedom: and such was the freedom he exercised in his episcopal office.
The freedom by which he banished corrupt courtiers without fear of the king who sent them. The freedom by which he defended the Jews in our country without fear of the people, who hated them. The freedom by which he embraced and kissed lepers without fear of disease or even death.
To serve God as S. Hugh did is to fear only God as Lord and master, much as we might fear the sea in all its primordial power; and so to be free from all fear of this world. Then, like him, we might be truly joyful. But first we must seek God in the desert where certain men and women of every generation like S Hugh have heard His silence speak with far greater eloquence than any words.
The world needs no Church of Chatter. There are times when the Church should speak, for sure; but more, perhaps, when she would be wiser to stay silent. Our churches need no helter skelters, no jolly distractions, no noise: the House of God must be a house of silence to school us in the building of our inner temple. In a world so addicted to cacophony that even the British Library has launched a podcast called ‘anything but silent,’ perhaps the Church really is the last institution with any chance of resisting the modern tyranny of noise.
May S Hugh pray for more vocations to religious life in the Church of England, Especially to contemplative communities, And for all of us to become contemplatives in our daily lives, To find God’s silence and to listen. And might we make time to go on retreat, Perhaps to an Anglican monastery or convent, and even consider whether God is calling us to join them?