Silence can be a moment of revelation, writes Eddie Gilmore of the Irish chaplaincy. Here’s a paragraph from his reflection, where a hike across Wales opened that possibility to him. As ever, the whole article is worth reflecting upon, but here’s that taster.
When I was fourteen I was on a school trip to North Wales and we were hiking one day across the high and remote moorland when the guide asked us to stop dead still and to listen. Having grown up in a city, and in a house where my sister liked to have Radio 1 playing all the time, and where the TV was usually on non-stop, it was probably the first time I had heard that sound of silence. And what an amazing sound it was. It lasted just a few seconds before some of the others started giggling but it was a little moment of revelation for me.
What revelation could we receive if we stopped the noise for a few minutes? That said, I used to find silence following a noisy lawnmower around some extensive grounds, part of my mind concentrating on the machine and the grass, the rest, eventually turning to silence.There are many entries to the bliss of solitude.
Eddie Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy has been reflecting on people with depression and how to help them get free of the blues, starting from research at Ohio State University that focused on 122 adults with moderate or severe depression. The results were published in The journal of Positive Psychology in January.
We know in our work at the Irish Chaplaincy that that little act of kindness can be transformative; and in the case of people in prison, who might be in particular despair, an act of kindness can be life-saving.
What this new study concludes is that the person giving the act of kindness is also helped. The participants were split into three groups. One group was required to carry out kind acts for others twice a week for ten weeks; a second group participated in planned social activities; and the third group were subject to a cognitive behaviour technique known as cognitive reappraisal. This involves the person being helped to recognise when their thoughts follow negative patterns and to make the thoughts more positive. As for the kind acts, they included things like baking biscuits for friends, offering lifts to people and writing notes of encouragement for housemates.
For those in the ‘kind acts’ group there was a greater improvement in depressive symptoms than for those in the other two groups. Dr David Gregg who led the study concludes, “Something as simple as helping other people can go above and beyond other treatments in helping people deal with depression and anxiety.” His colleague, Dr Jennifer Cheavers added, “We often think that people with depression have enough to deal with, so we don’t want to burden them by asking them to help others. But these results run counter to that. Doing nice things for people and focussing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves.”
After all, Jesus did not send individuals to preach the Good News but pairs, and he told them to accept the gifts they were offered. (Luke 10) So let’s not wait till we are depressed, or they are depressed, but get on our feet and walk a little way alongside our friends and family members, or invite them to tea; to cheer them up, and get out of our own head for a while.
The exercise class were discussing different approaches to pain control, the teacher advocating the gentle tai chi regime for various reasons, including putting the patient actively in the driving seat, instead of being a passive recipient of treatment.
He explained: ‘I didn’t want to just be doing things to people, giving them some relief from pain, only for them to come back again and again, having done something silly and reawakened their problem. Again and again the same silliness, the same problem.’
He calls patients to take personal responsibility for attending classes and practising the exercises when alone in one’s room or standing at the station, sitting at table or a work desk. Other people would not observe many of the exercises being performed as they are small in scope, even invisible under clothing, but over time they bring real change.
Some new patients were discouraged when they were not asked to do anything dramatic, when the movements were small, the immediate effects imperceptible. ‘Have patience, give it six weeks at least’, he advises patients. Six weeks is forty-two days, just two more than forty days, the time we are offered every year to bring about real change in our hearts, the time taken by Jesus to prepare for his ministry. And he declined the chance of dramatic gestures.
What little change can I work on for the next six weeks?
Soon amid the inviolable places Will green, rustling steeples chime again With the sweet, glassy bell-notes of the wren. Soon the plain shall lie beneath blue spaces– Bold and broad and ruddy in the sun, Long and lean to the moon when day is done.
Soon will come the strange, heart-lifting season When through the dark, still dawns, where nothing was, Steals the mysterious whisper of growing grass; And a joy like pain possesses the soul, without reason, Between the budding of day and the lapse of night, With the clear, cold scent of wet starlight.
‘Soon’: a word of promise. Observe the signs of the times: the wren singing amid the brambles, the red, ploughed soil, blue sky. Soon will come joy so intense it hurts. Let’s try to see the signs of the times this Lent, and look out for Easter Joy.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. (Matthew 24:33)
Sometimes we have to trust that the dawn will come, despite the seemingly endless dark night. The orchid and bluebells in the picture were putting out roots through the winter to be able to flower in the Spring.
Ah, hush! Tread softly through the rime, For there will be a blackbird singing, or a thrush. Like coloured beads the elm-buds flush: All the trees dream of leaves and flowers and light. And see! The northern bank is much more white Than frosty grass, for now is snowdrop time.
Mary Webb, Snowdrop Time
Mrs Turnstone and I had just left the train at Edinburgh Waverley Station and were making our way into Princes Street Gardens. It was one of those warm February days when Scotland feels almost temperate. We walked down beside the Scott Monument and stopped as one. We were not expecting scent in February! The bank to our left, west-facing, was in full sun, with thousands of snowdrops at head height, releasing sweetness whether anyone was there to appreciate it or not.
Later in the week we visited the Botanic Gardens, by no means bereft of snowdrops. There was one, a specimen, that had a greenhouse all to itself. It was raised up on the shelving the better for us to see its golden stripe on the inner petals, gold instead of the classic green. I don’t know if someone deliberately crossed two flowers in their collection, or else got down on the ground, close enough to discern this special snowdrop. Thanks be to them!
Mary Webb’s north bank would, of course, have faced south, so plenty of time in full sun to add scent to the glory of the flowers’ appearance. Snowdrops do belong together in hundreds and thousands but it is worth looking at a singleton to appreciate its graceful form. Look, and see, and wonder; laudato si’!
Rime is a ground frost; the snowdrops here were growing in Fletcher Moss Park, Manchester.
I had a few posts left to prepare for February’s blog but lacked inspiration. Mental fog had descended upon me! One afternoon Mrs Turnstone and I had been invited to a wassail party at the Glebe after which we walked home beside the River Stour. Robins, blackbirds, and even I think, a blackcap, were singing their dusk chorus. Mary Webb sprang to mind. Here we find her in melancholy mood.
The birds will sing
The birds will sing when I am gone To stranger-folk with stranger-ways. Without a break they’ll whistle on In close and flowery orchard deeps, Where once I loved them, nights and days, And never reck of one that weeps.
The bud that slept within the bark When I was there, will break her bars– A small green flame from out the dark– And round into a world, and spread Beneath the silver dews and stars, Nor miss my bent, attentive head.
A close and flowery apple in our two-treed orchard; a few weeks ago both leaf and flower buds were still dormant, along with most trees. Valentine’s day, the birds’ wedding day may not easily lift that Seasonal Affective Disorder, but the small green flame of a bursting bud breaks the bars in the writer’s heart, a heart attentive to the world of Spring.
This picture was not chosen for its top left-hand corner but it was good to see the hazel catkins shaking out their ‘lambs’ tails’, a sure sign that something is stirring, sap is rising, spring is coming. Below them, dark green behind the makeshift greenhouse is a bed of something in the cabbage family; the leaf broken over one plant’s head suggests a cauliflower. The pigeons are less likely to ravage the white curds if they do not see them from on high.
We liked the dancing scarecrow there at the back, and the green manure around the site. This is a fancy name for letting the ground green over in autumn, with the new plants being dug in to improve the soil when Spring arrives. But someone has moved on, there’s a bed dug and raked in the centre of the picture, possibly with onion or garlic sets coming through; there seems to be a hint of green at ground level.
The gardeners of Fordwich are co-operating with their creator, working with the seasons and the soil. next time we walk this way, who knows what we will see?
What will you be growing this year? A few pots of peas, or dwarf carrots, or runner beans or radishes, or cucumbers or even tomatoes will provide food and fun in a small space. And the seeds are in the shops now!
Let’s try to grow something beautiful and edible this year, maybe letting a supermarket pot of mint or basil get bigger on a window sill if you have no other space. When God saw the plants he had made, it was good. It would be good to join him in the story of creation this year.
We don’t have a library photo of an albatross but this gull from Folkestone is a commanding presence, by Leigh Mulley. Today is traditionally the birds’ wedding day so a good one for this story.
Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner kept one wedding guest in three with his cautionary tale of the consequences of his crime in killing the Albatross. Two centuries later, as well as sympathising with the guest, we can take the last two verses as a prayer for creation – and for us to realise and fulfil our duty towards it.
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been Alone on a wide wide sea: So lonely ’twas, that God himself Scarce seemed there to be.
O sweeter than the marriage-feast, ‘Tis sweeter far to me, To walk together to the kirk With a goodly company!–
To walk together to the kirk, And all together pray, While each to his great Father bends, Old men, and babes, and loving friends And youths and maidens gay!
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell To thee, thou Wedding-Guest! He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.
Bill Bryson spent many years living in England, so many that he felt the call to reconnect with his native America, a call he answered by driving across 38 states out of 50. He visited the two Oceans, the mountains, prairies and deserts, until he crossed the border into his home state.A book worth looking out for, an interesting insight into America in its many guises.
It was wonderful to be back to the Midwest, the rolling hills and rich black earth … I passed back into Iowa. As if on cue, the sun emerged from the clouds. A swift band of golden light swept over the fields and made everything instantly warm and springlike. Every farm looked tidy and fruitful. Every little farm looked clean and friendly. I drove on spellbound, unable to get over how striking the landscape was. There was nothing much to it, just rolling fields, but every colour was deep and vivid: the blue sky, the white clouds, the red barns, the chocolate fields. I felt as if I had never seen it before. I had no idea Iowa could be so beautiful.*
Marie Curie said that the present moment is a state of grace, and so it proved for Bill Bryson when the sun came out. But all those moments he documented when his pilgrimage took him through inhospitable landscapes and inhospitable towns, motels and diners, they too were moments of grace – at least when seen in hindsight.
This pilgrim’s progress brought him home. May we be grateful for our holidays and thankful to be able to come home among family and friends. And may we all meet merrily in heaven when our journey is done.
Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent, Travels in Small Town America, New York, HarperCollins, 1989.
Or should I say, an encouragement for pilgrims? This particular stretch of Wales’s Pembrokeshire Coast Path winds down only to go almost straight uphill, or up 121 stairs – I counted them. At the end of the day you can discover how many metres you have climbed overall. If you began at sea-level you will have descended a similar amount. We were not counting.
Fellowship is one of the gifts of pilgrimage, as yesterday’s picture showed us. Christina Rossetti reminds us that in our life-long pilgrimage we have also the support of the Church Triumphant, the saints who have gone before.
And “Yea, beds for all who come”, though “travel-sore and weak.” She does not specifically mention blisters!
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come."