A Thought for Friday

I shall be spending much of today in London at various meetings. It will be all roar and rush and I’ll probably feel like the proverbial fish out of water. (The habit tends to attract some very odd types — the only people who don’t come anywhere near are usually wearing clerical collars!)

Is it possible to maintain an inner silence, a spirit of recollection, in such circumstances? My answer would be ‘yes’. Have all those years spent learning the discipline of silence perhaps begun to bear fruit? I now know that it is not exterior noise but the endless babble of interior thoughts and feelings that causes all the trouble. Cultivating interior silence isn’t easy, but I think it is necessary for both psychological and spiritual health.

This week scripture has been urging us to go out into the desert to seek Jesus. Today, however, romantic visions of a vast and starry sky, rock, sand and a luminous silence must give way to the reality of the modern desert, the urban landscape of concrete and steel, full of clamour and bustle. Is it possible to seek and find God here, among the fast-food outlets and the diesel fumes? Francis Thompson is not much read nowadays, but I cannot help recalling the concluding lines of his ‘Kingdom of God’:
. . . lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Today, wherever we are, is full of hope.

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Silence Days

Either before or during Advent, we try to have three days of complete silence: no noisy machinery or unnecessary conversation of any kind, no digital noise, no nothing. While this gift of physical silence can be helpful, it is the interior noise that causes most difficulty. For it is from within that the real trouble comes.

The idea of freeing ourselves from every distraction in order to concentrate on God and the things of God may seem wonderful, but as soon as one has switched off the computer, one thinks of writing a letter; one goes into the oratory to pray and immediately contemplates the tasks one hasn’t completed. We cannot escape ourselves, however much we try, so the trick is to bring ourselves into the situation and then let go; register the distraction and then dismiss it. That is especially important during Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, and a time when we revisit the whole of salvation history. It is in silence that we hear the Word speak, but attaining that silence is a struggle.

I tremble slightly before writing the next few sentences because I fear they will be misunderstood. It is absolutely essential that we remember that God is in charge of our Advent, not us. We are likely to fail again and again in the matter of recollection. One of the old Desert Fathers used to say of monastic life, ‘I fall down and get up; I fall down and get up.’ In other words, it is not success in our own terms, or in the terms of our peers, that matters. Our growth comes from humility, and very often the only way of learning humility is through the experience of failure.

So, as our thoughts turn towards Advent, let us be encouraged by the goodness and kindness of God rather than discouraged by our inability to respond adequately to his love. Let us read and pray the scriptures so that when Christmas morning comes we too can say, ‘To us a Son is given.’ Then we can dance with the angels and sing. (cfr St Basil.) Our Advent will have brought us into the ‘now’ of Eternity.

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Control of Speech

Earlier this week I wrote about silence, but control of the tongue, which Benedict addresses in the portion of the Rule we read today, RB  7. 56 to 58, refers to something different. It is, so to say, a preparation for silence, a precondition. It requires effort, self-knowledge, discipline; and it is an essential component of humility because, of course, we naturally think our own ideas and viewpoints interesting, worth sharing with others. To choose not to speak or write (or blog or tweet or whatever), is not an act of negativity but a deliberate choice of something other, what Benedict elsewhere calls taciturnitas, restraint in speech.

Now the interesting thing about restraint in speech is that it implies understanding and communication, but sometimes without words, without being voiced, and at other times a very careful choice of words, an apt expression of what we think or believe. The words we do speak must always be good and wholesome, such as build up. To ensure that they are, we need time for reflection. How many of us have spoken before we thought and lived to regret it? What Benedict is urging upon us today is precisely that weighing of our words which will sometimes lead us to speak out and at other times to keep quiet. It is all about speech, not silence; and until we have learned something about speech, I do not think we can ever begin to understand silence.

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The Blessing of Silence

Yesterday was full of appointments and meetings. At the end of the day to go into my cell (room) and experience its silence was a blessing in the natural as well as supernatural order. Why do we so often fear silence and surround ourselves with sound, any sound, rather than allow ourselves to be lapped in silence?

Perhaps because I am a nun and silence is for me as natural as breathing, I don’t quite ‘get’ the desire for sound. (I refuse to call it noise, because that is disparaging.) Maybe it is something to do with the connection between silence, sleep and death. All three, in different ways and in different degrees, make it impossible for us to exert our will over others. Silence equates to powerlessness; but I’d want to say, it is not powerlessness as commonly understood. The deepest, most complete silence the world has ever known began on Calvary and ended with the Resurrection. We experience it afresh every year on Holy Saturday and in times of prayer when the Word silently transforms our being.

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Love of Solitude

As a community we are happy about using the internet to share something of our monastic life with others. Our use of Facebook, Twitter, Google + and so on isn’t random (though it may sometimes appear so): we are doing our best to exercise the traditional hospitality of Benedictines in all the ways open to us. So why am I writing about solitude, and more precisely, love of solitude? For the simple reason that our online engagement presupposes an even greater degree of engagement with God and the things of God in silence and seclusion. Love of solitude is an important element of monastic life that no amount of ‘connectedness’ can or should obscure, but I think it may be something those not called to live the monastic life might gain from thinking about.

One of the problems contemporary culture confronts us with is that of discerning how much of ourselves to share with others, especially online. Do we ‘do’ social media, and if so, what limits do we need to observe? Are professional/semi-professional networks like Linkedin or BranchOut as necessary as having a business card once was, or do they blur the distinction between public and private? During the last few months there has been an explosion of interest in the use of social media by the Churches and some very acute observations have been made. I particularly commend anything written by P. M. Philips (Methodist) or Antonio Spadaro (Catholic). However, I’m not sure that we have yet covered all necessary aspects. Worrying about our personal safety, the security of our online data, or the longevity of some of our sillier postings/comments on blogs and so on, is essentially self-regarding. As Christians, we are called to look beyond ourselves, to God and others; and that’s where it all becomes a little complicated. Is all this online buzz really good for anyone? What part does solitude play in our lives?

Solitude, as we all know, can be good or bad: it can be selfish or selfless, creative or destructive. A lot depends on our attitude and intention. That is why I emphasize the need for a love of solitude. Some people are afraid of silence, of being alone; yet we all need to experience what it is like to do nothing in particular, to spend time being receptive rather than assertive, otherwise whatever we  say or do, online or offline, will be shallow or vapid. A solitude which is not loneliness or emptiness is not achieved without some sacrifice, but in a world where we are endlessly available to others via the internet/smartphones/whatever, solitude seems to me increasingly necessary.

Prayers please
We heard this morning that our founder and Ordinary, Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, has bowel cancer. Please keep him in your prayers.

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The Importance of Sabbath

Sundays are very busy days for monks, nuns and clergy. That doesn’t mean that they lose everything we mean by ‘sabbath’: sacred leisure, silence, joy in the Lord. We have the custom of saving the best of what we have for Sundays, so even the food we eat marks out this day as special; and because Benedictines often work in solitude at their appointed tasks, we try to make this day one on which we share something as a community — a walk, perhaps, or that most British of institutions, tea at four o’clock.

I wonder whether many Christians have lost the sense of the importance of sabbath. We are so busy with all the multitudinous activities that fill the week-end that Sunday can end up being just another day with church on top. If so, it would be a good idea to think again about how we keep the Lord’s day holy. ‘The sabbath was made for man’: we are meant to have time to enjoy it.

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