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During my time as on the staff at St John’s Dumfries, there was a project to restore the bell-tower (not unlike the one next to us here) – during which I had a couple of climbs up on ladders into the new bell-loft to see the construction of new support work and the structure to house a new set of 8 bells – a major undertaking. One detail I remember was that the structure of the church tower itself had to be strengthened to safely allow for the entire building to move/sway slightly in sympathy with the movement of the enormously heavy bells. In a book I’ve been reading in preparation for Lent, there is an account of a homily for the start of Lent, from Russia. It’s a story about very big bells. There are peals, it is said, in Russia that are so large and so celebrated that they have names and are associated with patron saints. They are respected almost as persons. The largest ones are so big that one cannot simply grab hold of the clapper and ring them at will. The sounding of such a bell has to be preceded by a process of steadily enlarging the radius of the sway. It takes considerable time and strenuous, focused effort. It begins with a gentle push by several people, then a gradual coaxing into greater and greater swings; the enormous brass clapper begins to make a larger and larger arc, until it finally makes contact with the bell’s side. People who have been near such a bell when the Clapper strikes speak of a profound visceral effect, a seismic change of atmosphere, a multisensory event of strange beauty “heard” by the whole person, which often provokes weeping. The message is that Lent is like that: seven weeks of gentle pushing, quietly, patiently watching and following the swing that somehow involves both our effort and a powerful momentum that now lies outside ourselves. And then comes Easter: the great resonant peal of the resurrection.
Lent is the time during which many Christians choose to deny themselves certain pleasures and reduce distractions; the goal is to reorient priorities, to sensitise bodies and minds to deeper, quieter things. Down in the village where we have a cottage in the hills, the council have started switching some of the street lights during the night (there are only about 6) – presumably to save money. This has the added advantage of switching on the stars. Lent is a chosen darkening of the night in order to brighten our perception of the stars. Nearly every spiritual discipline, Eastern and Western, promotes similar kinds of renunciation in order to redirect and sharpen the senses.
We might understand this to be the way of Jesus as he ventured into the wilderness – A time to redirect his life, sharpen his senses… a time for Jesus to be tested, honed, purified, made ready for all that lay ahead. And all of it in the silence of the desert. Clearly, it was a life-changing experience for Jesus. Whatever it was that he experienced in the extremis of fasting (mirroring Moses’ 40 days on the mountain) – it was something he must have talked about in detail with his friends (otherwise we would not have the story). We pay homage to this story in paying attention to our 40 days in Lent.
On each of the next five Sundays I will ponder the various meanings and experiences of silence and stillness as they lend shape and context to our own Christian journey. I should say that I am not attempting to teach a course on the subject (I would not be capable of that) – these are indeed brief reflections only. I will be referring to two books: ‘Out of Silence’, by Bouteneff, which describes and explores the music of Arvo Part – and ‘Silence’ – a discursive meditation on the subject by Sara Maitland. I’m not proposing that you read these, but I will provide gobbets from them both here and in the discussion materials for the Lent Groups.
What is silence?
Silence is a word that you think would be easily understood. But as soon as you attempt to answer it you find that it is applied to a range of meanings. The OED defines it as ‘Complete absence of sound’…. Which pretty much means nothing. Sara Maitland describes going into a sound proof room (anechoic chamber – no reflected sound waves) and being amazed at the sound of her own body….. and spending the night in the Sinai desert and being overwhelmed by the sound of the universe. The manner in which we experience an absence of sound has a complex bearing on whether we’re happy about it, or unhappy about it. Most of us would relate to the desirability of finding a bit of ‘peace and quiet’ from time to time. And yet, in an increasingly noisy world, absence of sound that has not been chosen is often experienced or interpreted as unsettling or distressing…. I’ll be saying more next week about our culture’s fear of silence and the compulsion to fill it.
The OED provides an alternative category in the definition of silence, which is to do with the absence of language.. (ie not speaking). This strand of meaning might be summarised as ‘keeping silence’ – that is, in the realm of behaviour. If we choose to keep silence, it may be as a voluntary and desirable act of deference to others (ie when listening to a performance, or as part of a ritual like we do today, or in the shopping centre on Armistice Day) – or as an expression of rage or a form of taking power over another (the controlling sulk). When silence is not chosen, and is imposed, it can be a powerful form of oppression – to ‘silence’someone, or to ‘be silenced’ are aspects of human interaction that are unlimited in their potency. Silence can be an unwelcome absence after the loss of a loved one. Silence can force us into reckoning with ourselves – a positive event that we may seek out, or an uncomfortable experience we strive at all costs to avoid. I have developed the habit of filling the silence of the house with Radio 4… but as it happens Anne and I have decided to give up the unremitting gloom of the Today programme for Lent…
We often talk of ‘awkward silence’, and beyond the ritual of worship and of performance, large gatherings of people keeping silence are either impossible or imbued with amazing power – think of the silence imposed by Hitler before he spoke at Nuremberg rallies, as captured in Riefenstahl’s films. It is true also on a personal scale. I remember one awkward silence in a lift, when I was helping Anne run a Sticky Kids stand an educational trade show in Aberdeen… Having gone to the venue early to set up, I went back to our nearby smart hotel to collect something we’d forgotten. By then, I was sporting one of the stickers we hand out to children at shows, that proclaims ‘I’m a Sticky Kid’. I shared the lift with a stylish Latin-looking gentleman, who wore an immaculate cashmere overcoat…. He looked like he might be off to a photo shoot for a Versace advert. It was a particularly smooth and silent elevator (no musak), and as we came into land at the ground floor he glanced across and without any expression on his face, broke the silence (in an Italian accent), ‘So, you are a sticky kid’. Not waiting for any reply he strode out across the lobby of the hotel and I found myself compelled by the existential significance of what it might indeed mean, to be a sticky kid. Which is a small example of how the real significance of silence is the context it creates for what will emerge from it.
There is an important theological idea behind this, which is what I would like to offer as the subject for your consideration and discussion this week. Namely:
That 1) all of creation is a response to silence – and that 2) we, consequentially, who are the embodiment of the divine self-expression may learn to allow for redemptive creativity in our own lives by nurturing a context of silence and stillness from which such living can emerge.
1) all of creation is a response to silence
Pӓrt – ‘For me, ‘silent’ means the ‘nothing’ from which God created the world’.
As light shines out of darkness, sounds come out of silence. Silence and darkness can both be thought of as contexts of potentiality. God’s creative word “Let there be light” represents both: God’s word comes out of silence, and makes light to shine out of darkness. The silence, the darkness, were not things-in-themselves, but were those states out of which something came. The silence and darkness represent non-being, the context out of which the world was created, ex nihilo, out of nothing. They do not represent God, for God is Being, beyond silence and sound, beyond light and darkness. The early Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, that the universe was created out of nothingness, with no pre-existing matter, was a vital way of establishing the radical distinction between the created cosmos and the uncreated God (ie God who just is – who says ‘I am).
Silence as quiet, as stillness – can therefore be the context generally for the divine presence. Silence is the appropriate context for God’s presence… for God to speak into. Last week we read about Jesus on the mountaintop of transfiguration – and that there was an appearance of Moses and of the prophet Elijah with him. I imagine a divine silence – perhaps signified by the cloud. In a passage in I Kings that strikingly describes God’s appearance to Elijah the narrative emphasizes that there were many great portents, such as rock-splitting winds, earthquake, fire, as elsewhere in the scriptures. But these were not where God was. Where was God, and from where did God speak? The Hebrew text lends itself to several possible translations involving ‘voice’ or ‘sound, stillness, motionlessness’, or ’silence’. While the RSV renders the divine presence as ‘a still small voice,’ the NRSV translation more arrestingly has God appearing within ‘a sound of sheer silence.’ The contradiction here is consistent with the eternal mystery… of God who is beyond us, and yet God who is intimately with us.
Sara Maitland: ‘the God who creates everything from nothing by speaking is a desert God (back to Jesus in the wilderness). The silence of the desert has a horror to it, as well as, born of the horror, a deep and joyful beauty. The desert is vast, cruel and very silent. Perhaps there is an inevitable attraction to a God who speaks to creation through sound’.
2) we, consequentially, who are the embodiment of the divine self-expression may learn to allow for redemptive creativity in our own lives by nurturing a context of silence and stillness from which such living can emerge.
Silence, which may to some seem to intimate God’s absence, may also present the context in which God makes himself/herself known. This partly has to do with our own silence, for one must quiet oneself to be alert to the divine. As the psalm has it, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. It’s consequential – the latter depends upon the former; the knowledge of God is contingent upon our stillness. If silence is the appropriate context for God’s presence, this is to be distinguished from the silence of God – which is often experienced as the absence of God (where were you God when this happened?).. but I’d like to come back to that another day.
Silence, says Arvo Pӓrt, is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed to be planted and cultivated. Pӓrt identifies silence with a potentiality out of which something may sprout. He distinguishes between external silence (measurable decibels, peace and quiet) and interior silence. This latter is an internal stillness – an inner composure which must be cultivated, so that it might produce a right word, a right sound… ‘Before one says something, perhaps it is better to say nothing….. My music has emerged only after I have been silent for quite some time. Literally silent. For me, “silent” means the “nothing” from which God created the world’. Here there is a natural kinship with ECM Records who first championed Pӓrt’s music , who have used the slogan “The Next Best Sound to Silence,” and all of whose recordings since the 1995 begin with five seconds of silence. I’m going to suggest two or three short pieces of Pӓrt’s music during Lent that we’ll hear during communion (including today), or at the Lent Groups. Whether or not the music is your cup of tea, there is a stillness in the compositions, in the actual spaces between notes; and in the composure of the compositions, and in the ethos of silence that his work seems to exude – a sense that the music has emanated from silence.
Sara Maitland argues that the human creative act is consequential upon silence:
‘Creative individuals – in both arts and sciences – are supposed to be detached, to withdraw into a silent introspection and self-examination, which is not simply about practice and experiment, but somehow a brooding process, which gives birth to new ideas or creative works…. it seems curious to me that the three monotheistic religions want to claim both that we are ‘made in the image of God’. George Steiner (American literary academic, critic, and philosopher) has suggested that all artists set themselves up as ‘rival gods’ – that they are in creative competition with God…. God creates by breaking the silence in a single abrupt instant – God speaks. But when we mythologise ourselves as creators we seem to accept that silence plays an indispensable part in the process.’
Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46)
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for God (Ps 37)
On the back page of this week’s Church Times – an interview with Alison Wooley, Director of Seeds of Silence – an organisation that supports and encourages Christians in developing a spiritual discipline of silence.
‘Nearly 200 years ago, Kierkegaard wrote: “The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence.” A century on, Max Picard (mid 20th century Swiss philosopher) wrote that nothing had changed the nature of humanity to our detriment so much as our loss of silence. Perhaps each new generation has to discover this for themselves.’