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.

Seventy times seven

3 11 2010

I am on a quiet day today, reading ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’ by W.H. Vanstone. His reflections on the ‘phenomenology of love’ — the title of his third chapter — have set me thinking in the nature of forgiveness and fidelity.

What does forgiveness mean? I guess I would start by saying that it is a willingness or a decision (of the heart) to cut out an offence. I use that metaphor deliberately, as I think talking about brushing aside or sweeping away, for instance, would not do justice to the pain or cost involved in forgiveness. It is surgery. Without anaesthesia. It restores a relationship as if the offence had not happened.

But what if the offence is the utter betrayal of infidelity? Would we consider a wife who responded to her husband’s adultery with forgiveness seven times (let alone seventy times seven times) a heroine of love or something else?

I am trying to be careful here as there may well be people out there reading this who are tolerating a serial adulterer, perhaps even people known to me. I do not pretend to have any right to comment on your decisions.

But we might be more inclined to say that such serial forgiveness might be a failure of that other sort of love, implied in the traditional summary of divine law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour *as yourself*. It might be said to be a dereliction of one’s duty to love one’s self to allow such betrayal and abuse to be perpetuated. And it is the same Christ of the gospels who both sets such a high standard of forgiveness and appears to accept that infidelity invalidates the covenant of marriage. Is it possible to have both forgiven and divorced an unfaithful partner? Surely it must be so. Otherwise we ask that forgiveness robs us utterly of our dignity and self-esteem. I am not saying here that there is no way back for a relationship when there has been adultery. But I am saying that I think that living out the demands of the prayer that daily asks us to forgive others as we are forgiven does not mean that we must endlessly tolerate betrayal.

But what does forgiveness mean if the broken relationship is not restored as if the offence had not occurred? Perhaps it means that we do not place that person in a category other than ‘person’ in our own heart and mind. That we continue to view them as a person of unique and infinite worth, even if we have concluded, with sadness, that it is not healthy for either of us to remain together. And perhaps it means that we do not allow that experience of betrayal to so distort our understanding of ‘persons’ that we can no longer trust or love. Perhaps it is a restoration of innocence, if not relationship; something that is for our own benefit and for the benefit of others, as much as it is for the benefit of the one who has betrayed us.

That is all very well if we are talking about the utter betrayal of adultery. That sort of betrayal is not ‘all very well’. What I mean is that this understanding of forgiveness does not touch my experience as I have not needed to offer it or ask it in those circumstances.

But what is infidelity? Is ‘marital unfaithfulness’ merely a question of adultery or should we draw its bounds more broadly. I have lived up to my vow to ‘forsake all others’ but have I loved and cherished in times better or worse? Or have there been times when I have been indifferent, unkind or even cruel? I confess that there have. And not merely as that perhaps understandable sort of sulking or lashing out in the emotional heat of receiving offence, but through prolonged periods of self-absorption. It is clearly a deeper betrayal to withdraw one’s love and give it to another. But simply to withdraw it is on the same trajectory. What sort of forgiveness can I ask for in those circumstances? Is this not a sort of infidelity — a lack of faithfulness?

I am fortunate indeed to have been forgiven this more than seven times. Slowly perhaps, this forgiveness is transforming me; making me better able to love in a truly faithful way.

And perhaps this is a way too to understand the relationship at the heart of faith. Time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, the nation is ‘hewn by the prophets’ for their spiritual adultery. They literally engaged in the ritual worship of gods other than Yahweh. As a follower of the Way, I am not, I think, drawn off in idolatrous worship of false gods. (Though I do lust after the idols of consumer capitalism — iWant.) My infidelity is more along the lines of that self-absorbed indifference. Even the work of a priest, pioneer or otherwise can be a way of avoiding the call of God. So today I am taking time to reflect in silence; to be still and allow myself to be found; to experience and receive forgiveness and perhaps grow in faith/fulness.

Yurt’s the way to do it!

5 02 2009

One of Barbara’s colleagues came for supper this evening. He is not someone who would say he’s a Christian. But he’s always been interested in what I do. He’d been a visitor to the Fridge about 3 times. He was asking me how it was all going and the conversation turned to the Guildhall Square.

Night time in the Guildhall Square wasn’t something either of us had found to be that great an experience. We could both remember being in bars that were absolutely rammed. Not so good! But we both recognised in our different ways a need for conversation and refuge-type space.

He suggested using a tent or gazebo structure on a Friday or Saturday night to create something that was a bit like the Fridge. This was intriguing. One, because it’s yet another suggestion that Fridge is a good model for work in the city centre and two, because a tent had been on my mind as a real possibility to explore. How cool would it be to set up a yurt as a space for spiritual chill-out alongside the street work of the Street Pastors…

The other thing our conversation touched on was something that’s actually pretty fundamental. I was reminded as I heard myself speak with some passion about what I valued about working in the Fridge, just what I think it is I, with others can bring into that sort of environment. It’s twofold, as follows:

  1. Conversation
    creating space for people to grab some refreshments and then share in some conversation with people who want to listen is hugely valuable. What was always unique about those conversations for me was that it gave people permission to explore the deeper questions of meaning for themselves as they increasingly realised they weren’t going to be hit over the head with someone else’s faith.
  2. Grieving/celebrating
    It was amazing how often those conversations (in the Friday Fridge) would reveal some hidden grief for people. Not usually hidden from them, but they felt the need to keep it under wraps in order to keep their lives together. The ‘sacred’ spaces we created 
    were less well used than the café overall, but there was something tremendously powerful for those who found their secret grief could be aired, acknowledged and held in a simple ritual way in the presence of another who didn‘t want them to hide it away. Even less frequently but no less profoundly were moments that people wanted to celebrate. These too were sometimes kept out of view, but people again found it a profound experience to have space given over so that they could express their gratitude.

This is not about me trying to convince you that you need to think what I think. This is about me loving you for who you are – who you really are and sharing your grief and gratitude in such a way that you feel it’s okay. Through that, people find a sense of their connectedness.