Friday, March 09, 2018

THE SCENT OF HIDDEN SPRINGS – Some Thoughts About Roots and Flourishing


 “What’s it all about, Alfie?”
So sang Dionne Warwick in a famous song, which became a major hit for Cilla Black way back in 1966.  It was written for the film of the same name – Alfie – and she went on to ruminate about life: what was all about? A moment’s pleasure? Making more than you give? And then asked if it’s it foolish to be kind, wise to be cruel? Does life only belong to the strong? The turning point came when she admitted that she believed there was a heaven above, that there’s much more to life and that even non-believers can believe in love. In one poignant line she sang:

‘Without true love we just exist, Alfie. Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie.’

            The song may have been written over fifty years ago but the question remains: what’s it all about? It’s the kind of question that we’re suddenly faced with at times of crisis. Teenagers, when they hit upon that existential phase, often stumble upon it. Lovers wonder at it. As we gaze on nature we find it can ask us – what meaning does life have …? Is it really all summed up as ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die’?

‘Love is our true destiny.
We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another.’
Fr. Thomas Merton (1915-1968), monk and writer. From: 'Love and Living', Houghton Mifflin, 2002
This book isn’t meant to be a deeply philosophical tome or intellectual or theological critique of modern Britain but a reflection – a meditation, an exploration – into some of the fundamental questions about life and death each of us can find ourselves facing. Many of the fundamental questions about the nature of our being touch on the religious dimension of life and yet many have no time for religion and many of the questions which we have always asked – ‘Who am I?’, ‘Is there any purpose to life?’, ‘Why does there have to be pain and suffering?’, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ ‘Who is God?’ – all these and more were and are matters with which Christianity has struggled.  But the wisdom gained by that struggle is no longer accessible to a generation cut off from its ancient roots as it loses interest in religion, a generation which has little sense of having a soul in need of nurturing and nourishing, a soul which bears the image of divine beauty. That is what we are – women and men who bear such beauty within us that needs to be revealed. So that is what this book concerns.

Religious abuse
Perhaps your memory of being taken to church as a child and the words or actions of those who call themselves ‘Christians’ has left you cold or scarred you for life. I remember, when I was a child and had been taken to church, thinking that I never wanted to go there again.  Or you or someone close to you has been deeply hurt – physically, emotionally or spiritually – by the church. This is tragic and anyone who has been abused in this way will rightly feel anger, bitterness even hatred. And when, so often, what is reported is the way Christians have exercised power for their own ends, denied people their sexual or gender rights or refused to accept minority’s people rightly become disillusioned. Whilst many faiths can be narrow-minded, bigoted or homophobic it is Christianity that is seen to be offering simplistic answers to life’s deep and complicated questions. And the kind of worship offered in many churches doesn’t really appeal to the soul, doesn’t nourish it. Rather some churches seem to offer ‘candy-floss’ worship – appealing to the senses but having no substance – and even prayer has too often been taught as a means to achieve what you want; it’s about asking for things, celebrating success and God’s apparent ‘power’ rather than offering a means to encounter the deep mysteries of God or provide us with anything more than a five-minute after-glow.
            Christianity, like any religion, isn’t exempt from corruption, misuse or a fundamentalist interpretation. Something which offers a way of life that can unite us with that which is most noble and creative in our humanity can be, and has been, abused and used as a means of control over others. Of course, we are all ‘fallen’, broken people but it would not be wrong to say that Christ weeps at the inhumanity some in the church exercise and which can prevent people from encountering His compassion. Thankfully God is not limited to the churches and the knowledge that a person is held in the mystical love of a higher power can still be realised. Those who practice the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, will know the importance it places on a deity – ‘God’, ‘Him’, or ‘a Power greater than ourselves’ — or to religious practices such as prayer. And the ultimate goal of sobriety, as the final step states, is to achieve a “spiritual awakening”, a goal that is set before all of us but discovered by few.

“Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity.
Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
Pope John-Paul II (Inaugural Homily)

Spiritual, not religious
Because there are some who will say “I’m spiritual, not religious” this book will try to re-connect us with some of those spiritual roots of that faith which nurtured and nourished our society for two thousand years yet now seems irrelevant (what an over-used word!). We’re detached from faith – or semi-detached at best. But the house we inhabit has forgotten cellars containing vast hordes of wisdom for us to explore. We’ve hidden springs for refreshment, caves containing treasures, yet the doorway to these can have become ignored and covered in cobwebs – “we don’t want to go there, what’s the point?” But if we lose touch with our roots – with our soul – we’re in danger of becoming destabilised, a shallow generation satisfied by superficialities. And always, when we descend sufficiently, is a still, small voice which says:

LORD, you search me and you know me.
You know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
Behind and before, you besiege me,
your hand ever laid upon me.
O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn
or dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me;
your right hand would hold me fast.
If I say, “Let the darkness hide me
and the light around me be night,”
even darkness is not dark to you,
the night shall be as bright as day,
and darkness the same as the light.
For it was you who formed my inmost being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;
how wonderful are your works,
which my soul knows well!
(Ps.139 – extracts)

In depth living
Much of my life these days involves sitting and listening to people who are trying to make sense of God in their lives and explore all the movements that happen within them as they try to give attention to God – it’s called ‘spiritual direction’ and if you want to know more then there’s some notes at the back. Many of the issues that people want to explore and which seem to be around in society, both sacred but mainly secular, concern matters that the great Traditions of Christianity, for want of a better term, have always addressed: ‘Am I simply re-acting to life?’  ‘Life’s so full I don’t have a chance to slow down.’ ‘Why is X having to suffer?’  ‘What will happen when I die?’  ‘I’m doing so much but life seems empty.’ Just because someone may have jettisoned religion, faith, God etc. these questions don't go away. Getting rid of God just means we’ve blocked off a source of wisdom and insight; ignoring Christianity might mean we don’t have to bother with deeper questions but it also means that we’ve lost the ability to access that ‘wisdom of the ages’ which has helped people to live and not just survive.  As someone wrote to me:

            ‘As you know I am one of your acquaintances who does not have a faith, is not a believer. Neither am I an intellectual in anyway shape or form. However, I do question where our humanity has gone, I love the wisdom of the ages from those spiritual leaders, be it religious or pagan. I think the past has so much to             teach us; so much in this modern age is being forgotten. Everything is so shallow and meaningless.’

So this book sets out to look at matters such as what it means to be human and why we’re here; why the God questions don’t go away; what gives meaning and purpose to life; why we resonate with ‘spiritual’ things; why people suffer; how we can become more beautiful and, perhaps most poignant of all, aging and death. And throughout I’ll try to look at what that ‘wisdom of the ages’ might have to offer us for religion, down the ages, has looked at all these matters, and more, and tried to make sense of them. At its best religion doesn’t attempt to provide answers but to shine a light on the path that leads into the heart of our being, into the heart of that which we call God, where we can discover the truth of who we are and how we connect – and realise ourselves, with our unique wonder, as part of a vast whole which finds itself embraced in a mystery.  The mystery of God.

Has religious faith any appeal?
The transcendental appeal of religion remains and still tugs at the hearts of many, in-spite of a chorus of cynical disapproval. It’s certainly not cool to be a Christian, or even to talk about Jesus, God, the Saints, prayer (spirituality is OK), worship and so on.
            But Christianity has rarely been popular; as G. K. Chesterton wrote: ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’1 (1‘What’s Wrong with the World’, Part I, Chapter 5). Yet the heroic lives of saintly men and women continue to have an appeal; they are like beacons shining in the dark. Of course, sportsman and women and ‘celebrities’ can have an instant and greater glow about them, but have you noticed that their appeal is often passing? And many of our ‘gods’ also turn out to have feet of clay. But true holiness, that which takes us out of ourselves so that we are living in the light of the Other, lasts and we can continue to savour it long after a holy one has disappeared from this earth.

‘Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.’ 
Pope John-Paul II (Evangelium Vitae)

Religion re-invented    
What I find so fascinating is the way that so much of our religious past hasn’t actually disappeared but has been taken over – Advent calendars now offer us chocolates rather than insights into waiting for the birth of the Man who can lead us to life in all its fullness; All Saints now offers fashionable clothes rather than being men and women clothed in holiness; Halloween isn’t a way of lovingly remembering the dead but a chance to go a bit mad. Incense is now a costly perfume to enhance our bodies rather than a mystical aroma which announces the presence of holiness, of God; and the ability to make your Confession is now rewarded with an invitation to appear on some ‘reality’ TV programme rather than the ability to find real absolution. And we’ve drained the great mysteries of the Faith – the birth of Christ and his death and resurrection – into times of excess governed by the gods of commerce, holding out nothing more than a plastic Santa or chocolate bunny. Can these satisfy our real needs, our deepest needs? Or are they part of a culture which has to make us feel we need ever more and more to make us happy and find … contentment … but is basically about making a profit for shareholders and never satisfying our needs for fear we won’t spend our money? Yet all the while, dimly maybe, behind it all and almost masked by the deafening clamour of commerce and entertainment can you hear that quiet voice asking: ‘What do you seek? What do I seek?’
What do we seek – what’s it all about?
Have you ever thought of that?  Isn’t it such an important question and doesn’t it often get ignored – what do I seek in life? It’s another way of wondering ‘what’s it all about’? Does my life have any meaning or purpose or am I just a creature of evolution waiting to disappear off the face of the earth, to be forgotten in a generation or so (if that)? Those aren’t the sort of questions that often get aired on TV or discussed in the pages of the tabloids (or, come to that, the broadsheets) but aren’t they important questions to ponder? But where do I go to explore them? And do I want to?

‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate,
to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
            It has been the task of religion to help us do that, to open us to those questions and explore the meaning and purpose of life. For some, that purpose is to be happy; no one, normally, wants to be un-happy. For others it might be to live in a close and loving family or find a satisfying career (which is OK until that comes to an end. Then what?) But, and here is the question again, is that all I seek? There's a famous affirmation by someone called St Augustine, who was born in what is now Algeria, north Africa in the 4th century AD which somehow seems to get at the nub of all this: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
            Now if the real task of religion is to help each of us grow into this fullness of life something’s got in the way and managed to palm us off with thinking all we need is a better car, bigger house or a win on the Lottery. That a make-over will, somehow, answer our needs. Surely, unless we’re re-making the heart of who we are anything else is like playing with the deckchairs on the Titanic.

"Love is a one-way street.  It always moves away from self in the direction of the other. 
Love is the ultimate gift of our-selves to others.  When we stop giving we stop loving,
when we stop loving we stop growing,
and unless we grow we will never attain personal fulfilment;
we will never open out to receive the life of God.  It is through love we encounter God.”
 (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Where there is Love, there is God, p. 26)

 Do I realise that I am made for love and to be love for others? As one of Jesus’ closest friends said: ‘let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ (I John 4.7) So, might love be the way whereby sacred and secular find common ground? Might it be that it is as we learn more about love that we are drawn out of ourselves to encounter the mystery of the other – and of the Other (the greatest Other)? Well, there’s nothing new in that reflection: "We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become” declared St Clare of Assisi way back in the 13th century, “If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others." And St Thomas à Kempis, who lived just over a hundred years later, wrote in his famous book ‘The Imitation of Christ’: ‘Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger or higher or wider; nothing is more pleasant, nothing fuller, and nothing better in heaven or on earth, for love is born of God and cannot rest except in God, Who is above all created things.’  So we come to the point, I hope, where believer and unbeliever can discover a language which communicates a divine narrative and agree with what that remarkable woman Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), the first of her gender to write in the English language, said in her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’: ‘Understand (this) well: love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold yourself in this truth and you shall understand and know more in the same vein.’ (Ch.86)

So let’s begin by turning to the vexed question – just what do we understand by that three-letter word: God?

‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ (I John 4. 16)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018


The Christianity I was originally formed in was not very ritual-minded: it was both intellectually alert and emotionally intense – the best of a style of Welsh Nonconformity now almost extinct – but tended to look down on physical expression of belief (other than singing, which I suspect was regarded as not really physical). Only when the family joined the Anglican Church when I was in my early teens, after we’d moved to another town, did I discover a sense of worship as a physical art, involving gesture, movement and colour. I still have a vivid memory of my first experience of a solemn Mass with procession at Easter, when I was, I suppose, about 12 – the awareness of a deliberate strategy of involving the senses at many levels.

The mild High Church atmosphere of those years was, for me, an environment that made strong imaginative and emotional sense, and indeed is still the kind of setting where I feel most instinctively at home, rather than in more simply word-oriented styles, or in the heated atmosphere of “charismatic” worship, repetitive song and unstructured prayer – although I’ve learned to be nourished by that, too, in many circumstances. But the ritual that is most significant for me apart from the routines of public worship and the daily recitation of the fixed words of morning and evening prayer owes more to non-Anglican sources.

Readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey will recall the somewhat unexpected appearance there of an account of the traditional Greek and Russian discipline of meditative repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”). Practically every Eastern Orthodox writer on prayer will describe this, and many in the tradition also describe some of the physical disciplines that may be used to support it – being aware of your breathing, sitting in a certain way, focusing attention on your chest: “bringing the mind into the heart”, as the books characterise it.

The interest in uniting words with posture and breath is, of course, typical of non-Christian practices also; and over the years increasing exposure to and engagement with the Buddhist world in particular has made me aware of practices not unlike the “Jesus Prayer” and introduced me to disciplines that further enforce the stillness and physical focus that the prayer entails. Walking meditation, pacing very slowly and co-ordinating each step with an out-breath, is something I have found increasingly important as a preparation for a longer time of silence.

So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.

The prayer isn’t any kind of magical invo­cation or auto-suggestion – simply a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts. These will happen, but you simply go on repeating the words and gently bringing attention back to them. If it is proceeding as it should, there is something like an indistinct picture or sensation of the inside of the body as a sort of hollow, a cave, in which breath comes and goes, with an underlying pulse. If you want to speak theologically about it, it’s a time when you are aware of your body as simply a place where life happens and where, therefore, God “happens”: a life lived in you.

So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again.

The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story. 

(New Statesman: 8th July 2014)

Saturday, February 17, 2018


This poem by All Thieves (featured in the Grey's Anatomy Episode "No Good at Saying Sorry") seems very appropriate for the beginning of Lent and for those reeling from another mass shooting in the USA:

Worn from walking this far
So worn from talking this much
And what we found and what we've seen
As the road curves down

And the lights come up to meet us
Silent for the evening
We enter this town
Like new born creatures

Those I know I see anew
And the space between us is reduced
For I am human
And you are human too.

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen
Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every draw
So we can turn
And turn again

Only priests and clowns can save us now
Only a sign from God or a hurricane
Can bring about
The change we all want

And we've done it again
This trick we have
Of turning love to pain
And peace to war

We're just ash in a jar

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen
Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every draw
So we can turn
And turn again 

Friday, February 09, 2018


‘Rouse yourself, man, and recognize the dignity of your nature. Remember that you were made in God’s image; though corrupted in Adam, that image has been restored in Christ. Use creatures as they should be used: the earth, the sea, the sky, the air, the springs and the rivers. Give praise and glory to their Creator for all that you find beautiful and wonderful in them. See with your bodily eyes the light that shines on earth, but embrace with your whole soul and all your affections the true light which enlightens every man who comes into this world. Speaking of this light the prophet said: ‘Draw close to him and let his light shine upon you and your face will not blush with shame.’ If we are indeed the temple of God and if the Spirit of God lives in us, then what every believer has within himself is greater than what he admires in the skies.’ (Pope St Leo the Great: Sermo 7 in Nativitate Domini, 2.6; PL 54, 217-218, 220-221).
            Humanity is capable of the greatest acts of kindness, generosity, selflessness and creativity – and we are also capable of their opposite. Looking at the world many often see only the negative effects of our humanity rather than the most beautiful or people who claim to have faith in a creative God seem to be inspired by the dark forces that lurk in the shadows. We have a capacity for good and ill and often forget that we have to strive for the good for the latter comes easily. For centuries the wonders of which we are capable have been attributed to God and, affirming that we have the image of God within us, saints like Francis of Assisi, Charles de Foucauld, Teresa of Calcutta and a myriad of others have striven to emulate and incarnate the grace of God in their lives. The power of the opposite to truth, beauty and goodness has also been recognised and named as evil or the work of Satan. As western society has rejected, denied or ignored the notion of God and Godliness the notion of evil, of dark forces which can corrupt us, has continued to catch peoples attention and worked on their imagination and  examples of wickedness can seem to be more apparent than those of goodness.
            Into this condition St Leo’s words echo: Rouse yourself, man, and recognize the dignity of your nature and I wonder if we have we forgotten the dignity by which we can live, a dignity that needs working at because it’s easy to fall victim to hatred and violence – physical, emotional or spiritual. Our age is one which needs saints – women and men who place a premium on living out of our human dignity and who are prepared to spend time and energy cultivating goodness in their lives; who hear the call to live out of our blessedness rather than our selfishness.
            Jesus said:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, 
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5.1-12)

Saturday, January 27, 2018


I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures -
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.


Father, I abandon myself into your hands. 
To be abandoned is a terrible thing, 
an act of carelessness 
that takes no account of what may happen to the one abandoned.  
Only an adult can abandon themselves, 
a child does not have the ability to make this reckless act.  
For it not to be reckless requires trust in another 
and a belief that the process of abandonment has a purpose. 
Jesus abandoned Himself into the hands of His Father;
He did so with faith in the One whom He had come to know and trust.
Every aspect of who I am I gift to You with no strings attached. 
I cut all ties; I entrust myself to You and let go of myself in Your absolute care. 
I place myself before You as a child before its Father, leaving myself at the doorway of your house. 
I hand over all power to You and entrust my future to You whatever happens.

do with me what you will. 
As I give myself to Him, God tells me to trust Him, 
trust that in saying ‘thy will be done’ I will be held safe 
and that God will never desert me whatever may happen. 
What matters is to live in the present moment. 
I need to turn to my Father as a child might turn to theirs and look into His loving eyes. 
There is something liberating in living in the Divine Will, whilst needing to resist evil – 
‘Jesus, I trust in You’.
To know God’s will means turning to Him in prayer, and simply saying
 ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’.

Whatever you may do, I thank you:. 
Let me live thankfully, eucharistically, whatever may happen to me. 
And when my heart becomes overwhelmed by sadness and anxiety, 
or desolation begins to cast a shadow over me, 
inspire me to give thanks that the darkness may be turned into light.
In all places and in all things let me see your hand and give thanks. 
In every blade of grass and every mountain peak may I see your glory and give thanks.
And when I cannot see you or sense your presence, teach me to thank and praise you.

I am ready for all, I accept all.
I know that both good and evil will come my way; teach me to accept them
with a necessary detachment and not be blinded by them. Teach me to love through them.
Give me a freedom of spirit to greet them and wisdom to know how to respond
as you responded to those who were the cause of your Incarnation, Passion and Death. 
Grant me gratitude and patience, courage, fortitude and detachment in the face of good and evil.

Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures -
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
My one will and desire must simply be this: ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
For in that prayer is encompassed all that God desires and it expresses all that we can desire:.
that the divine good might be accomplished in me and all that exists.
It is what Jesus taught us to pray for and we can pray for no more or less than that:
‘Thy will be done’.

Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
Take, Lord, and receive all that is your own
For I long to live in you,
to be enfolded in your love,
for my love to be your love
that I may flow with you.
Take my heart and mould it into the form of your most Sacred and Compassionate Heart.

for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
‘From Love in Love the leaping flame of Love is spread,
for none can love except by Love possessed.
The love that is outpoured was first Love’s gift of love.
Give, give, and give again is Love’s own song.
For Love is giving love and there is no end to Love.’ * 
 Lord, you continually awaken love in my heart; you who are the source of love and life.
When I gaze upon your revelation in Jesus
my heart is moved and I so want to give myself to you,
to let love flow through me –
love for the one I love and love for the whole of your creation,
especially the most unloved.
Yet it is hard to love those who seem unlovely
and only by your grace can I do this.
Let me gaze on all things with your inner eye of Love
as you gaze upon me and all things

that I may give myself to all that I encounter.

* Fr. Gilbert Shaw: A Pilgrim’s Book of Prayers

Sunday, January 21, 2018


Many people do not know of the riches that are to be found in periods of silent adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood.  The small, white consecrated Host placed in the monstrance contains the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph.1:23) and saints down the ages have adored Him who is present to us.  "What wonderful majesty!” declared St Francis of Assisi, “What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation … In this world I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes, except for His Most Holy Body and Blood." (Letter to a General Chapter)

When we place ourselves in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament we place ourselves before the gaze of Christ who loves us and wants us to know that love.  As St John says, ‘This is what love really is: not that we have loved God but that he loved us.  We love because he loved us first.(1 John 4:10f)  When we celebrate the Eucharist we are taking the first step to being caught up in the divine life.  As with the Prodigal Son, as soon as God sees us coming home and, a long way before we even get home, God comes rushing up to welcome and embrace us and we need to let our heart welcome His extravagant, self-risking love that flows from heaven. 

In the silence of the Eucharist we taste and enter the silence of the Father from whom the Word eternally springs.  In Andre Rublevs icon of the Trinity the three Persons are gathered around the Eucharist and we, who gaze upon it, are the fourth.  We are enfolded into the silent, loving gaze of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit upon each other uniting each to the other and to the one who is before them.

St Jean Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars in France, tells of asking an old farmer why he came into the church every day to sit before the tabernacle: “I look at Him” he replied “and He looks at me and we tell each other that we love each other.”  This is the prayer of loving regard which seeks to fulfill Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart and mind and strength. And, in order to realise this command, we need to be still, silent and attentive on God.

Silence is a rare gift in today’s world. Those who live alone can experience enforced silence and crave for communication with another human being. T. S. Eliot recognized the emptiness that we can know when silence suddenly descends:

As, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too
long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness
But there is another type of silence, a silence we can long for, when all those competing voices cease, the silence that comes at the end of a war or when two lovers let go of each other’s bodies and rest.  Silence can provide the space in which we realise what is present, the silence that is sought by those who desire to prevent themselves being distracted from attending to the great silence in which God is present.  As St Teresa of Calcutta wrote:

‘We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence.  See how nature -- trees, flowers, grass -- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.’ (‘Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta) 

This is a reminder of the way Elijah encountered God in silence after he had fled to the cave on Mt. Horeb to escape his persecutors:

‘God said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’ (1 Kings 19:11-12) 

St Benedict, who also sought out desert places, used two words for silence: quies and silentium.  Quies is quiet, physical silence, an absence of noise not banging doors, not coughing or unwrapping sweet papers.  It is a physical self-restraint that respects the presence of other people.  Silentium, however, is not an absence of noise but an attitude of consciousness turned towards others or to God.  It is attention, and what greater attention can we pay to God than that which we give in the presence of the Eucharistic Presence. As Mary Oliver wrote:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed. (The Summer Day)

To listen deeply, to give oneself in the act of attention is in fact not to judge, or fix or condemn but to love.  There is indeed nothing so much like God as silence because God is love. Meister Eckhart, the 13thc. German mystic, knew how God is clothed in silence:
‘It is the nature of a word to reveal what is hidden.  The word that is hidden still sparkles in the darkness and whispers in the silence.  It entices us to pursue and to yearn and sigh after it.  For it wishes to reveal to us something about God.’

This silence is not the absence of noise but the abode of God. 

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation my fortress; I shall never be shaken Psalm 62 : 1 – 2

Religious, especially contemplatives, have always recognised the importance giving themselves to long periods of silence, a silence that is lovingly welcomed and which interweaves the rhythm of their days, weeks and months. These act as reminders of the importance of giving loving attention to God and remind us of Jesus’ words to Martha when she complained about the way her sister was simply sitting at his feet: “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41f)

Eckhart doesn’t say God likes silence or likes silent worshippers but that God is like silence.  St Teresa of Avila said that silence is God speaking to us.  It is like God as nothing else is. When we pay attention to God we come to know that God is paying attention to us. Indeed it is Gods attention to us that allows us to pay attention to God.

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be there where he is like to appear, and
Often nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible signs, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared
But when you’ve almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.  (Ann Lewin)

‘The tree of silence bears the fruit of peace.’
Arabian proverb

 ‘The heavenly Father has spoken one Word: It was His Son. And He speaks it eternally in an eternal silence. And it is in silence that it can be heard by the soul.’
St John of the Cross, Watchword 217

‘Preserve spiritual peace by lovingly gazing upon God. If you must speak, do so with the same calm and peace.’
St John of the Cross, Watchword 198

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)