Enjoy the silence

26 01 2011

So yesterday I wrote about listening to the radio less. This is essentially about reducing the amount of background noise, both sonic and intellectual. But toning down the wallpaper is not the same as knocking a hole through to the other side.

So what have I done to actually make time for silence?

Well I think it’s fair to say that I’m working my way into a daily and weekly rhythm that includes time to be intentionally still. Each morning, my colleague and I spend twenty minutes in silence as part of our morning office. And before Christmas I was more and more reliably including a midday office with ten minutes of silence and night prayer with a further twenty minutes. Over the Christmas break, I let it go. And it’s been more difficult to reinstate since coming back. I’ve been struggling more with another old habit – staying up late.

So it’s a work in progress, but I think there is real progress.

I’m realistic about where I’ve got to, but I’m approaching this with a sense of joy and freedom. I am not experiencing a ‘hardening of the oughteries’! It’s in response to a sense of invitation and call that I am engaged in this journey, not duty.

So what difference does this make?

Perhaps first I’d better reflect on what the experience of reasonably frequently (I can’t quite yet truthfully use the word regularly) spending time in quiet has been like. I know this is a well worn path. Many have been this way before. And my experience has been very similar to the little I’ve read of others entering into a contemplative way of life.

The first word one has to speak is ‘distractions’. We are so trained by our lives to live either in the past or the future that the mind very quickly wants to inhabit that territory. It’s difficult not to go over some incident that has been. Or to start to plan something that is to come. The ironic thing is how often those thoughts are about how I will share with others the beauty of silence and stillness!

You might notice, though, that I haven’t used the words ‘struggle’ or ‘frustration’ in reflecting on that. It seems to me that so much of our lives is cramming stuff into our consciousness (and in me thereby fermenting this sense of near dread that there’s something I’m missing). It’s not unreasonable to expect that given a bit of space, some of the excess of psychic noise will begin to bubble up and out. (I use the word psychic here in its psychological rather than parapsychological sense.) So I actually see this as a positive thing. That doesn’t mean I let the reviewing or planning instinct take over. I try to acknowledge it and draw myself back to simply searching for stillness.

The way that I do that is again very well known. I repeat a simple phrase or word in my mind, in time with my breathing. Mostly I use the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ; Son of God; have mercy on me; a sinner’ or occasionally: ‘in God I live and move and have my being’ or as in Advent: ‘mar-a-na-tha!’ (one of those deeply mysterious Aramaic words we generally equate with ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’). That does allow me to re-centre when the mind wanders.

It’s out of that experience, partly, that I have sought to reduce the level of ‘noise’ with which I surround myself (hence listening to the radio less, watching a bit less TV).

The other thing to say (again?) is that stillness is a better word than silence. It would be difficult to achieve with huge amounts of external noise, but on the other hand, true silence is not possible. There’s always the noise of the rain, or the hum of the fridge, or the sound of a car door being slammed, or birdsong. The essential thing is not to tune it out but to gently suppress the sort of categorisation I’ve just done. To be present to the unique sonic qualities of each vibration, without naming what it is. It’s about the unique gift of each sound actually being a doorway to being present to the immediate present moment.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I am brought into a deep sense of inner stillness, calm and presence.

So what difference does it make?

It doesn’t make me one of those annoying, superhuman, people who never lose it, are never phased or upset or worried. But there is a just emerging sense for me that there is a still centre to my being and that in that still centre I connect with Being and that there I am loved; utterly constantly and faithfully loved.

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What difference does it make?

25 01 2011

According to Mozza, of course, it makes none. But I’m a little more positive than the mercurial Manc. Only a little ;-). I’m not talking about some dark secret revealed to a friend, but the thing what I blogged about yesterday – my desire to enter more deeply into a contemplative rhythm of life; to live a life permeated with silence.

So what difference does it make, this strange new sense of calling? I have responded in some practical ways. I have taken some real steps.

First, I will reflect in this post on one seemingly tiny thing that is actually, I think, quite significant.

I listen to the radio less.

Great, you might say, so now you’re less well informed. Well you might think that (unless you thought I was listening to Radio 1 or local radio). No. I was listening a lot to Radio 4. So I was, even if I say so myself, incredibly, magnificently well informed. But this was my routine — I would get up and put on the radio, then go downstairs to make breakfast, and put on the radio, then get in the car for the school run; and put on the radio.

So the upshot of all that was I was stupendously, fantastically well-informed. And that during those mornings with my family my head was somewhere else. At times I even shushed my children because there was something so interesting, so informative that I wanted to listen to on Radio 4. I was so concerned with the big world out there that I missed the entire universe of wonder right in front of me, every time my wife and children sat down together to eat.

I was not present.

So I took a decision. I turned the radio off. I listen to it much less. I am somewhat less well informed and somewhat more present.

How wonderful! Well, yes and no. Being present is hard. It’s scary, actually.

Being confronted with the reality of ourselves in the present moment can be mightily uncomfortable. That’s why most of us avoid it.

And I have been astonished to discover how addictive a simple thing like listening to the radio can be. There are times when it takes a conscious mental effort to leave it off. I don’t always manage it.

Why does it matter? Surely it’s okay to listen every now and again? Well maybe, but I feel that until I can actually manage to do without it, that I must do without it.

Does this sound mental? Maybe it is, a bit. But I do feel that it’s spiritually significant –this little skirmish with this little habit. It’s about how much I am truly prepared to truly embrace the gift of discipline.

And it’s interesting that when I do manage to be firm with myself, other things take the radio’s place. Like games on the iPhone. I had to delete one before Christmas because I found myself playing it in every spare moment, and even in some moments that weren’t spare.

But in the main, sticking to this small commitment is making a difference. I actually manage to complete things like preparing the breakfast in a reasonable time. And so I am not quite as much of a source of frustration for those closest to me in the mornings. And I give those closest to me much better attention than they were getting before. I am more present to them. They and I feel more valued, appreciated, loved.

And so I am just beginning to experience, in a small way, how simultaneously rewarding and challenging is giving up something good for something better. I suspect this little skirmish is going to lead me into others. I’ll let you know.





Got religion?

24 01 2011

Quite apart from my deliberations over my Sunday night conversations in the pub, I have been in the grip of something of a crisis. I don’t mean I’m having a breakdown or anything like that. Or maybe I am, of a sort. I think it’s more like what I understand the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to mean when he refers to a ‘krisis’. It’s a moment of realisation, a sort of existential confrontation with a bigger reality.

I have been feeling increasingly like I am playing at being a Christian. And that far from working as a priest being an expression of my discipleship, it’s actually a hindrance. Because being a priest can make you feel like ‘of course I’m following Christ’, whilst simultaneously evading the all-consuming implications of a life of discipleship. But this cognitive dissonance can’t persist indefinitely without reaching a moment of krisis. That came for me late last year.

I found myself increasingly troubled by the same insistent question:

Am I really prepared to live my life as if God is at the centre of reality?

That’s scary on a number of levels.

First it sounds like I’m a religious nut. There are people, I know, who read this blog, who don’t share my faith who are probably feeling a little worried, scared or disappointed. Maybe you thought that despite my faith, I was at least in other respects fairly sensible. But no, turns out I’m just as much of a nutjob as the rest. To those friends I say bear with me, it’s not going to make me into a relentless and annoying preachy sort who talks about nothing but God. And you might even find a point of connection with what I think this all means in practice.

The other level on which it’s scary is that I don’t wholly know the answer. I’m not sure I am prepared to live like that. What might it mean for my family? Will it be another thing drawing us apart, or might it be something that draws us together? On the other hand, the alternative is not particularly attractive either. I am finding it less and less tolerable to be a sort of nominal follower of the Way (I wouldn’t have said I was before this). But giving up and embracing a materialistic lifestyle isn’t much of a draw either.That seems to me to leave people exhausted, broke and broken.

But what does it mean in practice? What am I actually talking about if not that I will just bang on about God the whole time?

Well what it comes down to is a call to embrace discipline as a gift not a burden; to live in a rhythm of life that makes prayer the centre of everything. And I’m not talking about prayer in terms of nagging my invisible magic friend to give me what I want, not even what I want for MIMF’s sake over my own. No this is prayer as contemplation. This is about making proper time at set moments each day to be still and silent — that sort of deep and intentional silence and stillness that opens up the possibility of a real encounter with the Divine. I am hungry for that experience for myself and I am increasingly persuaded that it’s the most important thing I can do for the people of Somerstown and the city centre.

It’s good if there are effective managers and leaders of organisations and projects around. It’s good (but rare!) if Christian clergy are similarly ‘effective’, but I am finding myself more and more taken with the view that what people need me to be, whether they are members of the local Christian community or not, is a deeply spiritual person. They need me to be someone who has sunk deep wells into the Greater Reality, the Mystery of Being, the Wellspring of Life or if you prefer — God. Because people here, as pretty much everywhere, are so caught up in the daily grind and rush of life, of living in the painful past, the uncertain future or anaesthetising themselves with extremes of experience; they are so caught up in that that they cannot be truly present to themselves or the present moment or to the Eternal in that present moment. And most of the time, neither can I. But what people need is not someone with a load of good arguments and ideas about how that’s all wrong, but someone with a genuine and compelling story of a different sort of experience — the sort of experience that seems to be available to anyone who takes silence seriously.

And so prayer (or if prayer sounds too narrowly religious for you, think: stillness and silence) is not merely the thing that will sustain me in the primary work of Christian ministry. It is the primary work of Christian ministry. Because people see through bullshit. They’ll know if I’ve really been there or if it’s someone else’s story I’m trying to pass off as my own.

So I am in the process of attempting a re-ordering of my life. I am trying to get more religious; religious in it’s best sense: a commitment to a rhythmic life. Because the experience of monastics and mystics alike is that the reconnection (another meaning of religion) I desire is not achieved casually but through persistence. Have I ‘got religion’? Not nearly so much as I hope to yet.

There’s more to say on this, but for now, I think I need to stop. And be still.