The value of silence…

Last week a pilgrim, who had worked as a volunteer at the Taizé Community in France, stayed with us in the parroquial albergue in Logroño. As he helped wash and dry the dishes after dinner we spoke about his time at Taize and he explained a little about the community´s Mission; to help unite the Christians of the world in one true message of Love.

Curious to know more (because I believe wholeheartedly in any movement to unite people who understand that God is Love) I visited the Taize website today and found this article on ´the value of silence in our relationship with God´.

Silence forms a massive part of the time I spend in prayer and it´s in this silence that I most deeply and profoundly feel the overwhelming and unconditional Love that God is. I hope you find something in this article that speaks directly to your heart, as it did to mine…

Silence and prayer

Three times a day, everything on the hill of Taizé stops: the work, the Bible studies, the discussions. The bells call everyone to church for prayer. Hundreds or even thousands of mainly young people from all over the world pray and sing together with the brothers of the community. Scripture is read in several languages. In the middle of each common prayer, there is a long period of silence, a unique moment for meeting with God.

If we take as our guide the oldest prayer book, the biblical Psalms, we note two main forms of prayer. One is a lament and cry for help. The other is thanksgiving and praise to God. On a more hidden level, there is a third kind of prayer, without demands or explicit expression of praise. In Psalm 131 for instance, there is nothing but quietness and confidence: “I have calmed and quieted my soul … hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”

At times prayer becomes silent. Peaceful communion with God can do without words. “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.” Like the satisfied child who has stopped crying and is in its mother’s arms, so can “my soul be with me” in the presence of God. Prayer then needs no words, maybe not even thoughts.

How is it possible to reach inner silence? Sometimes we are apparently silent, and yet we have great discussions within, struggling with imaginary partners or with ourselves. Calming our souls requires a kind of simplicity: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.” Silence means recognising that my worries can’t do much. Silence means leaving to God what is beyond my reach and capacity. A moment of silence, even very short, is like a holy stop, a sabbatical rest, a truce of worries.

The turmoil of our thoughts can be compared to the storm that struck the disciples’ boat on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus was sleeping. Like them, we may be helpless, full of anxiety, and incapable of calming ourselves. But Christ is able to come to our help as well. As he rebuked the wind and the sea and “there was a great calm”, he can also quiet our heart when it is agitated by fears and worries (Mark 4).

Remaining silent, we trust and hope in God. One psalm suggests that silence is even a form of praise. We are used to reading at the beginning of Psalm 65: “Praise is due to you, O God”. This translation follows the Greek text, but actually the Hebrew text printed in most Bibles reads: “Silence is praise to you, O God”. When words and thoughts come to an end, God is praised in silent wonder and admiration.

The Word of God: thunder and silence

At Sinai, God spoke to Moses and the Israelites. Thunder and lightning and an ever-louder sound of a trumpet preceded and accompanied the Word of God (Exodus 19). Centuries later, the prophet Elijah returned to the same mountain of God. There he experienced storm and earthquake and fire as his ancestors did, and he was ready to listen to God speaking in the thunder. But the Lord was not in any of the familiar mighty phenomena. When all the noise was over, Elijah heard “a sound of sheer silence”, and God spoke to him (1 Kings 19).

Does God speak with a loud voice or in a breath of silence? Should we take as example the people gathered at Sinai or the prophet Elijah? This might be a wrong alternative. The terrifying phenomena related to the gift of the Ten Commandments emphasise how serious these are. Keeping or rejecting them is a question of life or death. Seeing a child running straight under a car, one is right to shout as loud as possible. In analogous situations prophets speak the word of God so that it makes our ears ring.

Loud words certainly make themselves heard; they are impressive. But we also know that they hardly touch the hearts. They are resisted rather than welcomed. Elijah’s experience shows that God does not want to impress, but to be understood and accepted. God chose “a sound of sheer silence” in order to speak. This is a paradox:

God is silent and yet speaking

When God’s word becomes “a sound of sheer silence”, it is more efficient then ever to change our hearts. The heavy storm on Mount Sinai was splitting rocks, but God’s silent word is able to break open human hearts of stone. For Elijah himself the sudden silence was probably more fearsome than the storm and thunder. The loud and mighty manifestations of God were somehow familiar to him. God’s silence is disconcerting, so very different from all Elijah knew before.

Silence makes us ready for a new meeting with God. In silence, God’s word can reach the hidden corners of our hearts. In silence, it proves to be “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit” (Hebrews 4:12). In silence, we stop hiding before God, and the light of Christ can reach and heal and transform even what we are ashamed of.

Silence and love

Christ says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). We need silence in order to welcome these words and put them into practice. When we are agitated and restless, we have so many arguments and reasons not to forgive and not to love too easily. But when we “have calmed and quieted our soul”, these reasons turn out to be quite insignificant. Maybe we sometimes avoid silence, preferring whatever noise, words or distraction, because inner peace is a risky thing: it makes us empty and poor, disintegrates bitterness and leads us to the gift of ourselves. Silent and poor, our hearts are overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit, filled with an unconditional love. Silence is a humble yet secure path to loving.

Home thoughts from abroad…

Early this morning the clocks sprang forward one hour, symbolically reflecting this time of change and our forward movement into Spring.  I hear birdsong all around me (all the more audible for the lack of vehicle hum and city noise that usually fills the streets here).

I frequently see storks overhead, making their way to the cathedral turrets, building their nests and ‘clacking’ the news of their arrival and the blossoming of another, new, vernally-eternal season of growth and renewal.

I’m in the Northern Spanish city of Logroño, slap bang on the route of the Camino de Santiago, which I cross every day on the way to the supermarket to buy groceries and other essential supplies.  And I feel at home here.

I’m sharing an apartment with 3 fellow pilgrims from Korea who started walking the Camino on the same day as me.  Life, the ‘Coronavirus crisis’ and similar temperaments and goals threw us together at the time that Spain announced its State of Alarm and we decided to stop here temporarily, to take stock and to see what would come next.

We’re not permitted to leave the apartment to exercise (police patrol cars cruise the streets with loud hailers urging people to respect the ‘lock-down’ and motorcycle cops stop and question anyone not obviously out shopping or walking their dogs) but the weather is still beautiful and sunlight floods in through our windows each day.

Within two days of moving-in our boiler broke down, leaving us without hot water or heating.  Our landlord was profusely apologetic and did all he could to solve the problem as quickly as these strange times allowed him to.  Five days, three engineer visits, the installation of a replacement pump and several cold showers and bucket baths later, the boiler was fixed.  In true Camino fashion we made jokes about the lack of creature comforts we’d taken for granted only a few days before; were grateful for the fact we had an electric cooker, which enabled us to prepare hot meals; and savored the pure luxury of hot water again when it finally returned.

But during the ‘cold shower’ days I found myself thinking “How many people in Refugee Camps around the world would be overjoyed at the luxury of being able to just turn on a tap and have instant, clean, plentiful cold water to drink and in which to bathe?”

Thousands.  The answer is thousands.  Thousands of fellow human beings who feel sadness, joy, gratitude, frustration, pain, despair and hope, just like us; regardless of their nationality, their language or their beliefs.  People far from home and desperately in search of somewhere to call a safe and secure home once again.  It was a reality check and a sobering thought.

When the lock-down first started the people of Logroño (like people around the world I’m sure) seemed to go into a state of emotional and psychological lock-down too.  The things that I’ve come to truly love about Spain and its people (their openness to others, their enthusiasm for greeting and talking to complete strangers in the street; their relaxed and appreciative attitude to simple pleasures like food, a good cup of coffee or ‘chupito’, conversation, nature and the outdoors) all these seemed to vanish overnight.

I found people suddenly reluctant to make eye contact, unwilling to smile or return a greeting, unable to look around them and just appreciate the beauty of nature or the fine weather with which we were suddenly blessed.  It was public fear manifested on a grand, disconnecting and disconcerting scale.  But it didn’t last.

No doubt it was the shock of adjustment to the lock-down, the uncertainty about how long it would last, and the worry about what would be the ultimate cost to individuals, families, communities and the world at large.  These uncertainties remain but, being human, resilient, sociable and open by nature, people here have started to relax, to smile and to greet each other once again – as a new ‘normal’ settles in.

People seem to have quickly adjusted to this new reality, to be feeling more at home with it and this, to me, is what the word ‘home’ really represents.

‘Home’ isn’t a physical place for me (although I appreciate that for many it is), it’s the feeling that that place provides.  A feeling of safety and of ease, a place where we feel able to breathe, to relax, to kick off our protective boots, loosen our social ties and just ‘be’; knowing that we’ll continue to be loved and accepted for exactly who we are and that the sky won’t fall in.

One of the principle reasons that I’m able to feel at home here in Logroño, sharing a flat with 3 people who were complete strangers to me less than 3 weeks ago, is because I have the emotional safety and security of the love of family and friends.  Many of whom are very different to me, but all of whom accept and love me as I am.

Family members who initially were keen for me to return to the UK but who understood my reasons for staying here when I explained them after serious reflection and thought.  Friends who keep in touch with me via the miracle that is modern technology and the social media platforms that connect us.  Platforms that can be used so easily to generate and spread creative, positive messages of love, compassion, hope and understanding, or destructive messages of fear, drama, judgment and hate.  The choice is always ours.

Just as the choice for how we react to and engage with the world and the people around us is a daily and infinitely renewing choice; a metaphorical Spring if you like.  Every day gives us the choice and chance to blossom into something more, to grow into a way of being that is bigger than we were before, if we’re prepared to embrace the (sometimes painful) growing process and allow it to occur.

Now is a time of crisis in the world but the Chinese symbol for crisis also means ‘change’ and I’ve found myself reflecting on the fact that how we choose to interpret and respond to this change will determine the lasting effects of it on us and the world around us. 

If we allow ourselves to be placed in ‘emotional and psychological lock-down’ by our fear then it will underpin all of our decisions and responses, leaving us feeling unsafe and ‘far from home’.  We’ll be more likely to experience ‘dis-ease’ within ourselves and disharmony or disconnection in our relationships with others.  And it’s my belief that the world needs less dis-ease and disharmony right now, not more.

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”

– Gandhi

I’m aware that if we begin to divide our thinking into forms of “them and us” and start to target our fear or anger (which is just the aggressive face of fear) towards any “them” that we may have created in our imagination then we’ll only be contributing to the epidemic of destructive dis-ease in the world, not helping to heal it. 

But I don’t believe that any of us want to consciously do that.  I believe we all have the ‘homing device’ of our hearts calling us to lean into our fear, to support one another and to spread harmony, compassion, understanding and connection…in any way that we can.

We are a brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow human beings however diverse, on the surface, we may seem to be.  We bleed the same blood, we cry the same tears, we feel the same pain and we’re all on the journey that will, ultimately, lead us all home.

“I am an incurable romantic.

I believe in hope, dreams and decency, love, tenderness and kindness.

I believe in mankind”

– Leonard Nimoy