St Paul and Silence

Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.

How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.

In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.


Reverence in Prayer: RB 20

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 20, is one I should like to quote in full. Alternatively, you can listen to it being read, as in community, on our main website here.

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realize that we shall be heard not for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore, ought always to be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together. (Trans. Wybourne)

Even in translation, I think you can catch a hint of the poetic quality of the original. It is good sixth-century Latin in which not a word is wasted. Note that there is nothing rarified about the underlying concepts. Benedict starts by considering something with which we are all familiar. When we want to ask a favour of someone who is more powerful than we are, we do so with humility and respect. Prayer, too, begins with our neediness, our recognition that in the sight of God we have nothing that he has not given us. So often we approach prayer as though it were a meeting of two Superpowers, God and self, where we address God with a list of ideas we think he might usefully implement. (I exaggerate, but not much.) Benedict will have none of that. We come before God with nothing, awaiting his favour.

Next, Benedict warns against garrulousness. We don’t need to repeat ourselves over and over again. Indeed, no words are necessary. As we saw earlier this week, words often get in the way, bend under the weight of meaning, splinter and divide. Our prayer must come from the heart, and a repentant heart at that: a heart pierced by the sense of sin, laid open by God himself. It follows that prayer will be short and pure. This paradox often causes a lot of difficulty. Go back to that first sentence again. When we want to ask a favour of someone, we may spend ages preparing but the actual asking is likely to be the work of a few seconds. So too with prayer. Much of the time that we give to it is a kind of preparation. We consider the beauty and holiness of God, we are grateful, we may be moved to praise, but prayer itself is the work of a moment.

Benedict is very aware of the pitfalls in prayer, the ways in which we can deceive ourselves. He is insistent that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. In community especially, he knows that prayer can be manipulated for irreligious ends; so even here, at this most intimate moment of our religious lives, he establishes an order, a way of acting that overrides personal preference. The superior decides when prayer in common is to end and all must obey.

It is no accident that this chapter comes at the end of the liturgical code, in the course of which Benedict has set out the parameters for community prayer. The prayer of the individual is always part of the prayer of the community, the one feeds into the other. There is no opposition between contemplative prayer and liturgical prayer since both flow from the same source. The only bar to prayer is one that Benedict notes again and again: lack of humility, a failure to accept our creaturely condition. That is not to say that we won’t find prayer difficult, even distasteful at times, but there is a serenity and confidence about his writing on prayer, as there is in the lives of those who are prayerful, that the rest of us may find encouraging. Ultimately, God is even keener on prayer than we are. He will not withold himself from us.


Information Overload and Compassion Fatigue

Two phrases which have become commonplace, ‘information overload’ and ‘compassion fatigue’, strike me as having enough truth to make them useful and enough untruth to make them dangerous. At the moment, it is difficult not to be caught up in the tragedies unfolding across the world: Japan, of course, but also Libya and Bahrain, Ivory Coast; and those by no means over but already gone from the headlines, the floods and earthquakes which have wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands if not millions. We know too much, but we know it only briefly; and though we do our best to respond, there comes a point when the wallet is, if not empty, at least not as full as it used to be and we are faced with making hard choices: life for you, but not for you.

In the monastery we are, to some extent, protected from both information overload and compassion fatigue. We don’t have unrestricted access to the media and we don’t have much material wealth to share with others. On the other hand, as anyone who has lived this kind of life will tell you, whatever we see or hear makes a much greater and more lasting impact precisely because our access to the media is limited, while not being able to help materially can be painful. So what do we do?

Our first response to any tragedy is prayer. For some people, prayer is a last resort, something one tries when everything else has failed; but to pray perseveringly, committing the outcome to God, trusting him absolutely yet ready to accept that prayer may not be answered as one would wish, is harder than it may seem, yet it is open to any Christian by virtue of the gift of prayer poured into our hearts at baptism. It is not a soft option, a cop-out. It means taking seriously Christ’s role as Eternal High Priest and uniting our prayer with his. It means taking time, wasting time. When we think we can’t take any more, can’t give any more, there is always that inner jar of nard to be broken and poured.