The Luminous Silence of Advent

Christmas Dawn

How ironic that my 1,400th blog post on iBenedictines should be about silence! After so many words, to use yet more words on something that implies the absence of sound and speech is, at best, paradoxical. But it is a paradox worth exploring, especially during Advent when we are confronted with so many images of the Divine Word leaping down into our world and creating it anew. Silence is to sound and speech what presence is to absence, a way of knowing and understanding that surpasses human language. Our faltering words cannot encompass the mystery of God, but they try. If we always end in failure of some kind, there is no loss because with God all is gain. We know that; and so, as we begin our journey through Advent, we are buoyed up by hope and joy. Israel’s redemption is close at hand. A Saviour will be born to us. Our deafness will be healed. But first, we must be still, we must be silent; we must listen. And like anyone taking their first steps in prayer, there is the distinct possibility that all we’ll hear to begin with is the sound of our own heartbeat and the cacophony of voices pulling this way and that in our own minds.

If we persevere and make the effort to allow the interior noise to fall away, if we set a guard over our lips as the psalmist says and check the tendency to give everyone the benefit of our opinion, we will discover a store of silence within. At times, it may appear bleak or barren, sheer emptiness; but it is a silence waiting to be filled, and as Advent goes on, we may begin to see that what at first seemed like emptiness is a kind of fullness and our silence, far from being bleak, is warm and luminous. Alas, that is not everyone’s experience. For many there is only the dark and terrible silence of war and violence, exploitation and human misery — the enforced silence of not being heard, not being allowed to speak. How do we reconcile the beautiful silence of Advent I have written about with this oppressive and ultimately destructive silence?

I think the answer lies in what we do with our silence. We can luxuriate in it, hug it to ourselves, thinking that we are in some way being ‘spiritual’ because we are not being noisy. That is self-indulgence and will lead to nothing but disgust and weariness. Alternatively, we can use our silence to embrace the world’s pain and bring it before God for healing. That is to enter into the dynamic of God’s own redemptive love, the reason he became man for us. It isn’t easy. Our own words, our own ideas about how things should be, the good advice we long to give others (even God), they all have a way of creeping in and creating an inner din that drowns out the whisperings of the Spirit and clouds our vision of the light. We get in the way when we need to step aside. Learning to do just that, changing direction, so to say — metanoia — is what our Advent obsevance is meant to teach us. Our practice of silence should not merely change us; it should transform us.

For me, personally, the challenge this Advent is to be quieter, more attentive, less full of my own words (or anyone else’s) so that the Word of God may find a welcome in my heart and mind. Here in the monastery we begin Advent with three days of total silence — three days of intense listening. They are usually the most difficult and distracted of the year — not because we don’t want to be silent (after all, much of our daily life is silent) but because once one has decided to be silent, everyone and everything conspires against it. Place oneself in the front-line, so to say, and the devil will attack; and because he is clever and an angel of light still, the attack won’t be obvious, but it will be exhausting. Advent is one of those wilderness experiences we have to go through and we must expect it to be arduous.

As the community here goes into Advent, we carry with us the hopes, fears and  longings of all who have asked our prayers, and the hopes, fears and longings of those who cannot or will not ask but whose need is known to God. May the luminous silence of Advent lead you to the Word made flesh this Christmas. Amen.

Please note: during these three days of silence, all tweets, FB prayer intentions and blog posts are pre-scheduled. We do not respond to emails, letters or messages or engage online during these days. This time is for the Lord.

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Wilderness Time: Preparing for Advent

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less; and the less talking means, for example, that we don’t write personal letters or emails or have people to stay at the monastery.

Our use of the internet and Social Media is always governed by the restraints we have agreed upon as a community, but during Advent it is, if anything, even more disciplined as we try to focus on the coming of Christ. The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen.

Perhaps there are a few ideas in this monastic approach to Advent you might find helpful yourself? Of one thing you can be sure, the nuns here will be praying for you as we go into our wilderness time.

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Benedict, Beowulf and the Voice in the Wilderness

The famous opening ‘Hwaet’ of Beowulf and the ‘Obsculta’ of the Rule of St Benedict have much in common, if Dr George Walkden is to be believed (see http://ind.pn/18jQ2AE). Both were drawing attention to what they had to say, but not in an aggressive ‘Oi, you’ fashion, but rather in a dignified, measured manner, equally suited to poetry and religion. I think Isaiah is doing something of the same in the lyrical passage we read today (Isaiah 40.1-11).

When we are most deeply moved, we don’t use exclamation marks (known to printers as ‘shrieks’, with good reason). We are quieter, more thoughtful, often overwhelmed by the import of what we are thinking or feeling. The voice crying in the wilderness is simultaneously the voice of God and the voice of his disciple, the prophet. It is John the Baptist preparing us for the coming of the Word; and when the Word has been spoken, there is no need of further speech.

This would be a good day to read quietly through those lines of Isaiah and allow them to sink into us. In silence we await the Word.

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Screaming v Listening

Some days I wonder how the human race has managed to survive so long when there seems to be such an immense amount of anger and hatred inside even the most mild-mannered of people. Yesterday I was the reluctant eavesdropper of a conversation about Edward Snowden. ‘Whistleblower’ to one and ‘traitor’ to the other, the conversation generated more heat than light. Indeed, at one point I wondered whether I’d need a tungsten boiler suit to protect myself, so fiery was the debate becoming. It was at that point that I realised neither was actually listening to the other. There was no dialogue, only the statement of opinion; and given that neither appeared to be any more ‘in the know’ than any other consumer of internet/broadcast news, I think ‘opinion’ is the correct word to use. It was an argument without real substance which appeared to leave both men cross and out of sorts.

It also left me wondering how often I act in the same way. Those things I care about, that engage my passions so to say, may be precisely the ones about which I need to do more listening to others. Screaming at someone, whether metaphorically or literally, may be an indicator of how deeply something is felt, but it isn’t an argument and does nothing to advance understanding or agreement. Perhaps we are screaming at each other too much these days. As my mother used often to remind me, God gave us one mouth but two ears. He must have meant something  by that.

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Contemplative Pause

Every now and then I stop what I am doing and pause, just listening, looking, absorbing what is going on around me. It is probably an overstatement to call these moments ‘contemplative pauses’ but that is, essentially, what they are: moments when I withdraw from the hurly-burly of all that has to be done, the many people and things clamouring for attention, and simply register God’s existence and my own. I hesitate to call this resting in God prayer, but it is definitely a turning towards him in the course of the day. Does it achieve anything? Probably not, because it is not about doing; but I think it helps to focus mind and heart at the times appointed for individual or communal prayer. It helps to keep one within the orbit of prayer, so to say.

On this midsummer day, may I commend to you the idea of not doing, of pausing, just being, and allowing the Sun of Justice to scatter whatever darkness lingers  in your hearts and minds?

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Listening

We begin the new year by celebrating the oldest Marian feast in the calendar and re-reading the Rule of St Benedict, starting with the Prologue. Just as the Rule begins with the word Obsculta, ‘Listen’, so Mary’s whole life was a constant listening to God in humble obedience to his will. Now that the fireworks and the partying are over, how will you spend 2013? Will you be listening, or will you be doing all the talking? If you want to know the answer, take a look at your new year resolutions (if you’ve made any). If they are mere wishes, things you’d like to happen, but with no serious attempt on your part to make them come about, it could be that you are mainly talking. If, on the other hand, they are serious attempts at improvement, which will require effort and commitment on your part, it could be that you’ve begun listening. Prospere procede!

Note
Last year I wrote about today’s feast as the hinge of the year. I think it’s still valid, see here.

 

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Good Advice

Have you noticed how often Twitter users give each other good advice? Quotations from the Bible jostle for place with pithy aperçus de nos jours, most of them worth thinking about and all of them producing, in me at least, a vague sense of failure. There are times when I want to shriek, ‘Enough!’ It is not that I don’t know what to do (usually), but the fact that I am clumsy/got out of bed on the wrong side today/am counting pennies/just plain cantankerous that makes it impossible for me to follow all that counsel so freely given. Perhaps we could declare a holiday from good advice, just for today, and only tweet what we ourselves would like to receive. It won’t change the world, but it might change us. It might make us gentler, kinder, more thoughtful people, quicker to listen than to speak. It might.

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Nothing to Say

I haven’t blogged for the last few days because I’ve had nothing to say. That is the luxury of blogging, as distinct from preaching or teaching. When the well of inspiration runs dry, one is under no obligation to try to find an alternative source of hydration. One can just go silent (which, as someone will probably want to point out, is an anagram of ‘listen’).

Maybe it is because I am a nun, or maybe just because I am ‘built’ that way, I think the most important thing any Christian blogger can do before sitting down at the keyboard is to pray. We are so busy filling our minds with information, we sometimes forget the need to digest it all and ask the Light of God to shine on the areas we don’t understand or, worse still, think we understand but don’t. Slow prayer, slow blogging: I am a fan of both. Much better to go quiet for a little than to find one has become entrapped in one’s own noise.

The Monastery and the Internet
(The video presentation I did for the Gott im Web Conference is still available here and will be as long as the bandwidth we bought holds out: it has been viewed by more than 250 people so far.)

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