Sunday, September 9, 2012

Prayer and silence

 May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

On Monday I visited Jerpoint Abbey, the ruined Cistercian Monastery not far from here … it is quite moving to stand in the well-preserved Chancel where the original altar stone is still in place, imagining the thousands upon thousands of celebration of the Mass that would have taken place in that spot over the hundreds of years before the dissolution of the monasteries … or to walk in the semi-ruined cloister, feeling the presence of the generations of tonsured monks who would have spent time there daily in quietness and in prayer …

Because of course for Cistercians, also knows as Trappists, silence is an important part of their daily routine. It may be difficult for us in our busy world to remember the importance … the vital need … for silence when it comes to prayer and worship … while I was in Jerpoint there was a bus full of American visitors taking a tour and that was one of the points they made to the woman who was explaining the history of the Abbey: how could these men spend so much time in silence? They seemed to find the concept awe-inspiring, almost super-human … And I do not believe their difficulty in relating to the prayerful silence of our long-departed brothers in Christ had anything to do with their being Americans … but more to do with what seems to be our modern terror (which I do not think is too strong a word) with silence …

Reflecting on this experience, I thought it might be a good idea to preach on the subject the next time one of the Sunday readings seemed appropriate to that theme … and it seems that perhaps that the Lord agrees with me that this is something that I ought to preach on, because our Gospel today shows us Jesus attempting to find some quiet time … and being denied it!

In our reading from St Mark today, our Lord arrives in the region of Tyre, goes into a house, and wishes that no one should know that he is there. If we go a little further back in Mark's Gospel from where our reading begins, we see that he has come from the region of Gennessaret, which is near Lake Galilee … a journey of around 100 kilometres as the crow flies … but of course, he didn't have wings, so he would have had to travel by foot on the dusty roads of his day, so the actual distance travelled would have been considerably longer … so he has been walking for the last six or seven days at least, accompanied by his companions. He is tired from the journey, no doubt, but all that time he has had little time alone. And so when he arrives in Tyre, he wishes to have some time alone, to rest I'm sure, but also to have some time for quiet prayer … how often we see Jesus often seeking out quiet places for prayer in the Gospels …

We should not be surprised that Jesus frequently by his own example teaches us the importance of quiet prayer. If we look at scripture we are told many times to seek God in silence.

The prophet Zechariah says 'Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD' (2:13); the prohpet Zephaniah says: Be silent before the Lord GOD (1:7 ); and the prophet Habakkuk says :the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him. Quolleth in Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time to keep silence; and the Psalmist says: For God alone my soul waits in silence.

The Church fathers & other spiritual writers, mindful of the witness of both scripture and our Lord, and their own experience of the experience of other faithful Christians, have had much to say about our need for prayerful silence:

Elder Ephraim of Philotheou tells us 'Love silence, which gives birth to all virtues and fences in the soul so that the evil of the devil does not touch her' and he also says 'When we keep silent, we have the time for interior prayer which brings full assurance and for luminous thoughts which fill the understanding and the heart with light.'

Prayerful silence is not the same as to simply stop talking. John the Solitary says: ' I am not speaking of the silence of the tongue, for if someone merely keeps his tongue silent, without knowing how to sing in mind and spirit, then he is simply unoccupied and becomes filled with evil thoughts: ... There is a silence of the tongue, there is a silence of the whole body, there is a silence of the soul, there is the silence of the mind, and there is the silence of the spirit.'

In such silence the devoted soul will find much benefit. St John Climacus says 'Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer'; Nikitas Stithatos says 'silence is the fastest path to virtue;' and St Seraphim of Sarov says 'From solitude and silence are born tender contrition, and meekness.'

Is it easy to engage with prayerful silence? Of course not … we are a naturally talkative species. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says: To achieve silence: this is of all things the hardest and the most decisive in the art of prayer. Silence is not merely negative — a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech — but, properly understood, it is highly positive: and attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.

The listening is important … because prayerful silence is above all else our listening to God. Eberhard Arnold reminds us that: 'Before we speak to him, God must have spoken to us. And he always speaks. His Word is always active. But we do not always perceive it. This is why we need to be quiet in the depths of our souls where we hear his voice and see his light.' Without silence we can not hear God speaking to us. And how much we lose if we refuse to allow ourselves to listen to what he has to say to us personally: Benedict xvi says 'Silence has the capacity to open a space in our inner being, a space in which God can dwell, which can ensure that His Word remains within us, and that love for Him is rooted in our minds and hearts, and animates our lives.'

So how do we find this vital silence in this busy world of ours? It is always useful, I think, in a sermon like this to make a practical suggestion. And my suggestion is that one place we may find it, indeed should expect to find it, is in God's House … it is unfortunate that our churches in the union are locked during the week … that may be something for us to look … but there still remains the few minutes before and after a service that can be devoted to prayerful silence … so if I may make a suggest … perhaps even stronger than suggest … that all unnecessary talk and chatter be avoided before and after the service during the time you are in the Church itself … and as you enter, start to mentally prepare yourself for the worship that is to begin by maintaining a prayerful silence … sit or kneel as you wait for the service to begin and spend the time in quietness before the Lord … and even if you find it difficult for your own sake, think about the fact that others present may wish to spend the time in silent prayer … and have no need to have their prayers disturbed by overhearing conversations about the weather or the chatter of others as they catch up on the local gossip that could easily have taken place before entering … or could wait until leaving … and as you leave, also try to keep silence … extend the time of prayer and worship for as long as you may … allow the words of the prayers, the hymns, the readings, and indeed the sermon a moment or two longer to sink in, to speak to you … give God those extra few moments to speak to you … spend a few more moments listening for what he might say … and give others those extra few moments also so that they might hear what God has to say … surely anything that you might wish to say can not be more important than that?

Finding a quiet place may be difficult, as our Lord found into today's reading … but once you find a place, keeping silence it is not impossible, as the Cistercians of Jerpoint found out all those years ago … and it is something that I pray that you will find out, with the help of God, + Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sermon notes: 9 September 2012 (14h after Trinity) 

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