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.
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.
Isaiah’s image of a voice crying in the wilderness is one of the most evocative in scripture. No wonder that John the Baptist allowed himself to be merely the voice that precedes the Word. I often think that a blogger must also be just a voice: the message to be proclaimed, the essential Word, comes from the Holy Spirit. Our business is not to get in the way of that Word, not to falsify it, not to shrink it to our own comfortable assumptions about how things should be.
Reading again Isaiah chapter 40 this morning, I was reminded how the tenderness of God is not inconsistent with a wilderness experience, with huge efforts, much patience and uncertainty about results. We are called to make a highway for God in our hearts, and that means some exhausting labour to level the mountains of pride and fill in the valleys of fear. Those of us who blog from our Christian experience must expect it to involve us in hard work, misunderstandings at time, results quite the opposite of what we intended or hoped for: a kind of be-wilderment in fact. But we know that it was in the wilderness that Israel found God; that being a voice is important because we have the greatest of all messages to proclaim, Jesus Christ our Lord.
A couple of times this week Bro Duncan and I have been viewing Hendred by night because he has been in agony (sic) with his tummy. You don’t think those 3.00 a.m. walks through the village were a sign of mere eccentricity, I trust? No, they were initiated by a large wet nose nudging me awake and indicating that, whatever the clock said, it was time to go OUT.
There is nothing like accompanying a hound to make one think. There is the eager-beaver approach to going walkies irrespective of time or place. All that dancing around and scooting up and down the corridor belies the kohl-rimmed eyes pleading, ‘I’m sick. I need to get out.’ But I fall for it every time and off we go. First there is the obligatory charge down the road and some lawn-mower-like chomping at the grass, which goes on for ages because ‘I’m sick, see, I need medication.’ This quickly passes into ‘How interesting this place is at night. Let’s explore.’ And so we do. We plunge into deeper darkness and hear only the strange, snuffly sounds of night.
In this deeper darkness, Duncan leads. We spend several minutes standing at a gate while he traces the scent on a single blade of grass, savours it, commits it to memory and moves on, regretfully, as though there were a history he cannot share with me. Medieval rooftops look magical at night, even when there is no moonlight, but the biting wind does not invite lingering. So we walk and walk and I become a little suspicious about the upset tummy.
Seeing the village by night impresses me with how remarkable ordinary things are when viewed under different circumstances or from a different angle. Dare I admit that the familiar can become spooky, yet what was ugly by day can take on a strange beauty at night? The change of perspective may be of no more than passing interest but sometimes it can lead to a reassessment of accepted values. I’m certainly not claiming that Duncan’s nocturnal ramblings have led me to any profound insights, but I will say this. Wisdom 18 verses 14 to 16 comes alive in a way it never has when read. The leaping down from heaven of God’s all-powerful Word is an event in time as well as beyond time, to be expected now as it was two thousand years ago.
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.
One of the (many) things I have never managed to be organized about is the Friday #ff on Twitter. It is a brilliant idea: letting other people know whom one has found interesting/entertaining/stimulating, but for anyone wearing a cowl or clerical collar it is a bit double-edged. It is as easy to give offence by omission as by commission.
Today’s saint, Jerome, would not have thought twice about letting everyone know his opinion of anyone or anything. I suspect he would have been an active user of Twitter and Facebook for he burned with zeal and tended to scorch those he considered lacking in faith or commitment. It is one of the things I like about him (plus the fact that he got on well with nuns), but all those lonely hours spent grappling with the text of scripture surely taught him an important truth, one that Benedict XVI highlighted when he set the theme for next year’s World Communications Day. Silence, taking in, suspending judgement, allowing the text to master us rather than thinking that we should master the text, are essential if we are to allow the Word of God full scope in our lives.
I think Jerome would make a good patron saint for Twitter. He was pithy, wise, opinionated, all in one. Above all, he loved God and made God’s Word his constant joy and study. Not a bad model for twitterati to follow.