Tag Archives: silence

15 April, Good Friday: a Compassionate Presence.

Strasbourg Cathedral

Here is an extract from last year’s Good Friday homily of Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark. Every day is somebody’s Good Friday. Let us pray for the grace to respond if it falls to us to be beside them in an hour of need, like Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene and John, silent beside the Cross.

Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ

A few years ago I read an account of medics working on the border between Cambodia and Thailand in the midst of dreadful warfare. With bombs falling uncomfortably near, two doctors, one older, the other younger, attended to wounded refugees. Their first patient was a young woman. She was barely alive, her body almost severed in two by a mortar fragment. The older doctor made a quick diagnosis: ‘I thought there was nothing to be done, he said, ‘and went to another victim. When he looked back, the other younger doctor had knelt down. He was cradling the woman’s head and caressing her hair. In the older doctor’s words, ‘He was helping her to die. He did it very naturally. There was no public, no cameras, no one looking. The bombing continued, and he did this as if he was all alone in his humanity.’ 

Certain events render us speechless. They may or may not be overly dramatic or especially tragic. But some experiences are literally beyond words. There is nothing that can be said to make any sense. There is no difference to be made by talking. The only possible response to some situations is to be present to them: a compassionate presence, a loving presence, a silent presence.

+ John Wilson, Archbishop of Southwark, Good Friday 2021

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7 February: Zebedee, Part III

Mrs Turnstone’s two little fish from Aberdaron, Wales. Reminding us of a pilgrimage.

Sister Johanna concludes her reflection on Zebedee. Thank you Sister!

For two days, we have been considering the call of James and John through the eyes of Zebedee, their father. If you are just joining us today, it’s advisable that you scroll back two days to see how we’ve arrived here. Today we’ll begin our reflection with the silence of Zebedee, as he acquiesces to what Jesus has just done. This is what Mark seems to wonder at, I believe – the text suggests this to me. If the evangelists had gone in for textual emphasis, then maybe the words, LEAVING THEIR FATHER ZEBEDEE WITH THE MEN HE EMPLOYED IN THE BOAT would have looked something like that, with everything else in lower case lettering. And I wonder at this, too: Zebedee himself was not asked by Jesus to follow him. Only his sons were asked. Zebedee, in fact, wasn’t asked anything – he was not even acknowledged by Jesus, and James and John didn’t even say good-bye. They all acted as though Zebedee wasn’t there. What does Zebedee think? How does he feel? He doesn’t say. He is silent.

But maybe this silence itself says something. Maybe Zebedee is silently saying, “I will not interfere with my sons’ relationship to Jesus”. This is remarkable because his non-interference involves the loss of something extremely precious to him – his sons. Their presence. Their help, Their daily expressions of filial love. But Zebedee doesn’t interfere,

either now or later. Whatever in Zebedee’s silence that could have been attributed to shock does not change once Zebedee gets over it. There is no record of Zebedee turning up at Jesus’ camp later and saying, “Hey! I want my sons back!” Zebedee’s acceptance of this strange turn of events is total.

Where does this reflection on Zebedee leave me? I suppose it leaves me with the recognition that sometimes Jesus’ actions toward those we love are unfathomable and leave us in a state of incredulity. We see that Jesus is requiring something of someone we love, and we see them responding. Maybe it looks crazy to us – looks contrary to all that they’ve been prepared for and to everything we expected of them. And, worse, maybe we’re required to give them up now, or change our relationship in a way that hurts us. What will we do? How will we manage? Nor do we understand Jesus’ actions – actions which leave us with a lot of very good questions, and no answers. We simply don’t understand what is going on or why.

How would I react if I were Zebedee? How am I reacting now to the unfathomable aspects of Jesus’ actions toward those I love? He’s not asking me for my opinion; he doesn’t seem to be taking me into account at all. Could I, can I be as silent and trusting as Zebedee? Could I do this long-term? Perhaps Zebedee is one of the New Testament’s greatest saints.

Knowing when not to interfere … that’s wisdom!

Here’s another look – or looks – at this story from the Visual Commentary on Scripture, ‘Fishing for People.‘ VCS is a free series of reflections through works of art.

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26 January – the year is under way again!

My friend Thomas sent an email to say, ‘We are not failures’ if our New Year Resolutions have not borne the fruit we’d hoped for. So be good to yourself: ‘if only for a moment, let yourself be at home with yourself’.’

One place I am at home with myself is the kitchen. The school Thomas and I attended expected us to master basic cooking, but many of the lads can do better than basic. My January therapeutic special activity is making marmalade. Not much foraging to this one but come Autumn we can make October marmalade using citrus peel, sugar and windfall or crab apples to supply the pectin that helps the preserve to set.

In January the set depends on long boiling and added pectin, using most of the stored jars from under the stairs. That’s our label up above. Friends and relations look out!

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11 January: Brownings XXV and silence by the shore

In her long poem, The Soul’s Travelling, Elizabeth Barrett Browning is by the sea as well, though not at Broadstairswhere we were yesterday. In a previous stanza she described a hollow where she could hear, but not see, the ocean ebbing and flowing across the beach. Broadstairs is a bit more open than that, but in the next bay after the pier I used to snatch a few minutes of silence in a hollow at the foot of the cliff. The curlews and other sea birds were calling right through winter, but the silence was still all around.

Except that sound, the place is full
Of silences, which when you cull
By any word, it thrills you so
That presently you let them grow
To meditation's fullest length
Across your soul with a soul's strength:
And as they touch your soul, they borrow
Both of its grandeur and its sorrow,
That deathly odour which the clay
Leaves on its deathlessness alwày.

from The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Volume II.

Another beach for silence in the sounds of the sea is Aberdaron in West Wales – follow the tag to read more posts about it. The church is at the top of the beach and the sea’s singing accentuates the message embroidered on this seat runner. You don’t need external silence to be still; the Lord is on your side wherever you are, you vessel of clay, holding his treasure! (2 Corinthians 4:7)

WT

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 8 January: It’s behind you!?


Eddie from the Irish Chaplaincy sees us into the New Year. I have to admit that we did not make it to the book launch here in Canterbury, but a copy turned up in my stocking and Mrs T and I are enjoying dipping into it. We reviewed the book earlier. You can find it on line or through local bookshops. Meanwhile, where are my keys? (later: in the very deep pocket of my new coat!)

All yours, Eddie, and thank you.

I don’t know if it’s just me but I seem to spend large chunks of my life looking for things, big and small, and oftentimes searching in completely the wrong places.

How much time and energy and frustration there is bound up with this endless quest: for missing objects (that, when finally located, I realise I maybe don’t even need!); or for contentment or recognition or success or intimacy or whatever.

How many prayers are said in supplication to St Anthony, who, it has to be said, rarely if ever lets me down.

I suspect it’s not just me, and I’ve noticed the ever-increasing use in the media of the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out).

So many people doing so much searching; and, so often, looking in the wrong place. Sometimes we completely miss what might be right in front of us; or, as in the pantomimes, what’s right behind us!

As another Christmas comes and goes I find reassurance in the incongruity of God being revealed where few were expecting it. Many were waiting for a mighty king to come and bring liberation from an occupying force. Who, then, would have been searching for the messiah in Bethlehem, a back-water town on the edge of the Roman empire? And who would have suspected it would have had anything to do with an unmarried couple who were far from home and soon to become refugees? And in a stable? Surely not there! And what of those who did know where to look?

Shepherds, who were often rough hired hands, and who were outcasts in their community because having to be out at all hours meant they were unable to observe all of the rituals of the Jewish faith and who may well have been a bit tipsy due to having a little tot or two to shield them from the cold night. Then three mysterious characters who had followed a star and who turned up with the most unusual, but most fitting gifts.

I’d been invited on January 2nd, on which the feast of the Epiphany was being celebrated, to give a presentation of my book at St Paul’s church in Camden following Mass and a shared meal. It was a motley group of people gathered there which included a couple of regulars from the Irish Centre. The church itself is a rather run down and sorry looking 60s style building, albeit with a lovely, prayerful chapel at one end, but the interior had been transformed for the banquet to come. It is situated at the opposite end of Camden Square to the Centre and I began my talk by explaining how I’d discovered it on my very first day at the Irish Chaplaincy. I was feeling totally overwhelmed after the first morning and went out and strolled in the square and saw a poster advertising a half hour of silent prayer in the chapel every Thursday lunchtime and I knew that all would be well. I went to the prayer in that first week and almost every subsequent week for the next three years, until Covid put a stop to it, and it was an anchor in my week.

There was a good crowd there on the 2nd but although it seemed that the presentation went well I sold hardly any books; which is what I thought I’d gone there for. I was bitterly disappointed. Getting rained on when walking back to the station didn’t help my mood, nor my arm getting sore from carrying my guitar (and the still almost full box of books)! Then early the following morning I saw an email from Judy who organises the silent prayer at St Pauls, and I will treasure her kind words to me:

“We are such a diverse group of people, but everybody was spellbound. The things you say and the way you say them really do affirm human kindness (and God’s kindness to us) and encourage people to notice the life that goes on between them and among them that’s too deep for words. I don’t know how your sales went, but you made a whole lot of people very happy. I hope your journeys from and back to Canterbury went well and that you didn’t get soaked in the afternoon.”

As ever, I had been looking in the wrong place, or seeking the wrong thing; or maybe just completely missing what was right in front of me. I had taken part in a true feast, with lots of people having brought a variety of delicious dishes to share. I had been served an assortment of drinks, including a glass of Irish coffee, which I love. I had spoken to a range of colourful characters. At the end of my presentation, after singing ‘Be Thou my Vision’ I had been asked to sing one of my own songs, and there was a request for “something upbeat”! I did the song I’d once written after a night out in Belfast, ‘Fibber McGees’. And Kilkenny-born Enda got up and did some Irish dancing to the delight of the crowd, and was joined by Funmi who is of Sierra Leone heritage (and who had provided the Irish coffee) and it was one of those little ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ moments.

I doubt that I’ll be able to curtail my endless search for things, and I’m sure I’ll continue to get disappointed and discouraged when I don’t find what I thought I was looking for. But please God I’ll learn one day to discern more clearly the things that are truly worth seeking, and maybe occasionally find something I didn’t even know I was looking for and in a place where I least expected to find it.

PS If you’re not fed up with Christmas songs by now then you might like to listen to one I wrote some years ago: A Stable in Bethlehem

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7 December: One man went to mow.

John cutting the grass.

John was not the only student at seminary who enjoyed mowing but he favoured this monster while my preference was for the heavy green model with the seat over the roller. I could switch off from daily cares whilst cutting smooth pathways through the rough grass that John left behind. Fr H used the boundary path to pace up and down saying his breviary, we met regularly during my afternoon working hour.

When Fr P asked why he did not see me in chapel very often, I told him it was about the most distracting place in the premises, with continual creaks and groans from the benches and the floor, which had been a NAAFI (Military club) dance hall during World War II. I was better able to meditate behind the mower.

I have a feeling that my poor physical co-ordination was cancelled out by the power of the mower, removing one source of anxiety, and the constant noise of the engine was paradoxically quieter than the chapel, which Fr P thought of as silent. Well, there’s no going back; the place was demolished years ago.

Dead, too, is Fr Marcel, who received a ribbing when he could not find the spark plugs on the college tractor, used for the football pitch. His turn to gloat came when ‘my’ mower lost its grip on a sloping lawn – the motorised roller was a weak point – and landed itself and me in the goldfish pond. Marcel came along with the red tractor to haul the mower out. I splashed some oil about, checked the filters and all was well.

Why remember this now? Well, the afternoon of my writing, Thomas Quartier OSB was talking about saying the Divine Office when not in community. ‘My car becomes my oratory’, he said, ‘and incidentally my driving improves.’

Let’s allow silence to find us wherever we are.

Fr Thomas was speaking at Saint Stephen’s Canterbury’s celebration of the anchorite Dame Loretta, who was enclosed at Saint Stephen’s Church in the year 1221 by Archbishop Stephen Langton. Follow the link to hear the day’s talks.

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24 August: When …

When Thou whisperest to me,
As Thou wilt some day,
That Thou hast need of my company,
Be Thou the strength and quiet of my spirit.

from Hebridean Altars by Alistair Maclean, 1937

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20 August: A little cool air seeps in.

It’s the feast of Saint Bernard, one of the founding fathers of the Cistercian reform of monastic life. Our reflection is from Thomas Merton, writing in 1952. The celebration of the Eucharist has changed in religious communities as much, if not more than in parishes; there is one Community Mass each day, but there is still room for silence with God.

Our picture is from the trailer for Outside the City, a film by Nick Hamer about the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire. Read on for Thomas Merton’s reflection on this day.

This week it is my turn to say the brothers’ Communion Mass, Our Lady’s Mass. It is always a Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin, always the same. I like it that way.

In the summer time, this Mass is said at three o’clock in the morning. So I leave the choir after morning meditation to go and say it while the rest of the monks recite Matins and Lauds. I generally finish the brothers’ Communions by the end of the second nocturne, and then go off into the back sacristy and kneel in the dark behind the relic case next to Saint Malachy’s altar, while the sky grows pale outside over the forest and a little cool air seeps in through the slats of the broken shutters.

The birds sing, and the crickets sing, and one priest is silent with God.

Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, Hollis & Carter, London, 1953, p336.

https://wordpress.com/post/agnellusmirror.wordpress.com/25775

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15 July: An energetic life.

A kneeler at Aberdaron church, Wales, where the poet RS Thomas was parish priest.

In another age, in another life, Thomas Traherne might have made a monk. In another age, in another life, another Thomas found his vocation as a Cistercian monk and writer. That’s how it was beginning to look in 1947 when Merton wrote the following journal entry. The message of the kneeler above contrasts with Traherne’s message in the last two days, ‘The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it be employed’; at least superficially. But Traherne was also counselling the practice of meditation which begins with stillness. How that is achieved depends on the individual to a great extent; the fact that I came to stillness when cutting the grass was not appreciated by all my superiors… Over to Merton, who had chosen, been called to, a life of silence but not necessarily one of stillness.

The Cistercian life is energetic. There are tides of vitality running through the whole community that generate energy even in people who are lazy… We go out to work like a college football team taking the field.

Trappists believe that everything that costs them is God’s will. Anything that makes you suffer is God’s will. If it makes you sweat, it is God’s will. But we have serious doubts about the things which demand no expense of physical energy. Are they really the will of God? Hardly! …

If we want something, we can easily persuade ourselves that what we want is God’s will just as long as it turns out to be difficult to obtain.

Reading the two Thomases together, I wonder that any of us ever find any stillness in modern life. I no longer have access to a big, noisy, green, ride-on mower. But I do have the garden to turn to: news from there tomorrow.

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28 June: The last night that she lived

Tomorrow we remember Saints Peter and Paul, apostles. Peter famously tried to persuade Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and his cruel death; he eventually followed Jesus to his own violent death in Rome. Here Emily Dickinson remembers a natural death which yet ‘made nature different.’

May the Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end. Amen.

The last night that she lived,
It was a common night,
Except the dying; this to us
Made nature different.

We noticed smallest things, —
Things overlooked before,
By this great light upon our minds
Italicized, as 't were.

That others could exist
While she must finish quite,
A jealousy for her arose
So nearly infinite.

We waited while she passed;
It was a narrow time,
Too jostled were our souls to speak,
At length the notice came.

She mentioned, and forgot;
Then lightly as a reed
Bent to the water, shivered scarce,
Consented, and was dead.

And we, we placed the hair,
And drew the head erect;
And then an awful leisure was,
Our faith to regulate.

from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete.

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