There are times I've heard people say they crave being ‘left alone’ and long for ‘a bit of silence’. And that’s understandable. But being left alone so that one can enjoy a bit of peace and quiet is only OK, for most people, for so long. Then it’s back to wanting a bit of distraction, especially when there’s nothing much to do. Which may be why the kind of solitude and silence of a monastery can be rather intimidating. Because, as brothers and sisters of the Society of St Francis or the monks and nuns of Mucknall, Burnham Abbey, Fairacres etc. can tell you, silence and solitude also provides the place to encounter self and to work towards that inner conversion – the ‘conversion of the heart’ – which lies at the centre of religious faith. Having helpful spiritual experiences is one thing but this way of conversion where the old ‘self’ can die and a new self be born is quite another!
Yet this ‘new birth’ is the essence of the Christian story. The trouble is we live in a society which has become overly-attracted by the sensual and gives little attention to the internal. So it’s hardly surprising that the church seems to be giving most of its attention to this external world: ‘growth’ movements often seem to be about numbers and ‘Church Planting’ can sometimes lack sensitivity. We may recognise the need to be 'reaching out' but are we 'reaching in'? Is the growth of violence among young people in part due to having ignored their spiritual needs? At the very time when western society is gradually awakening to the effects of excessive consumption and the need to develop a profoundly deeper awareness of the relationship between humanity and the planet many in the church are looking west and embracing some of the suspect forms of American evangelism rather than looking east and re-discovering the riches of Christian, Sufi and Buddhist spirituality. Jesus, the Buddha and all the great teachers of spiritual wisdom – Teresa of Avila, Aelred of Rievaulx, Julian of Norwich and all those who see and can speak into the heart – have realised the need for periods of solitude and inner silence. But does the church? Does it really? Because, if it did, it might put the same kind of resources into developing what people really, in their hearts, need.