Showing posts with label silence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label silence. Show all posts

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Silence: Waiting for God’s Word

I go back to the time when it was considered “just normal” for Christians who were serious about knowing God to have some structured silence each day for prayer and meditation. Catholic Christians prayed the Divine Office reflectively as a framework for prayer, and evangelicals would rise early to have a “quiet time” with the Lord (or young mums were encouraged to do it after lunchtime when the toddlers had been put down to sleep). Of course everyone found it a bit of a struggle some of the time. And in the spiritual warfare which is part and parcel of living for Jesus, we were taught that the most successful ploy of our ancient enemy was to persuade us to skip our time of quiet with the Lord. “Seven prayerless days make one weak” may have been a corny way of putting it, but those old fashioned catholic and evangelical teachers knew what they were talking about. I’m astonished to discover that a disciplined approach to this is considered “quaint” at best and “legalistic” at worst by some modern catholic and evangelical clergy. The idea seems to be that we should pray only when we feel like it.

Well, that’s a recipe for disaster in the spiritual life, not to mention the way we forego the blessings we need to survive and overcome our difficulties. Intimacy with the Lord, waiting on his Word, knowing the healing power of his presence, are just as important today as they ever were.

Reading the Scriptures or rattling through the Divine Office mentally from an iPhone on a crowded train or bus when on a journey or when called out to an emergency is better than not doing it at all. Indeed, I’ve occasionally resorted to that myself! But I know clergy who now routinely read the Office and Scriptures in that way, without ever really drawing aside into silence in order reverently to prepare for receiving the Word, and so to allow the Lord to impact our hearts and minds afresh. 

Here is a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) about this. It is taken from page 12 of God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, an anthology of devotions drawn from his writings which takes us thematically through Advent and Christmas, from waiting and mystery to redemption, incarnation, and joy. (Most of the reflections in the book were written by Bonhoeffer during his two year imprisonment which came to an end when he was hanged in 1945 for his opposition to Hitler and the Third Reich. In fact, he had written to a friend that “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent . . . one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”)

We are silent in the early hours of each day, because God is supposed to have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep, because to God also belongs the last word. We are silent solely for the sake of the word, not in order to show dishonour to the word but in order to honour and receive it properly. Silence ultimately means nothing but waiting for God’s word and coming away blessed by God’s word . . . Silence before the word, however, will have its effect on the whole day. If we have learned to be silent before the word, we will also learn to be economical with silence and speech throughout the day. There is an impermissible self-satisfied, prideful, offensive silence. This teaches us that what is important is never silence in itself. The silence of the Christian is a listening silence, a humble silence that for the sake of humility can also be broken at any time. It is a silence in connection with the word ... ln being quiet there is a miraculous power of clarification, of purification, of bringing together what is important. This is a purely profane fact. Silence before the word, however, leads to the right hearing and thus also to the right speaking of the word of God at the right time. A lot that is unnecessary remains unsaid.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mary's "YES" and "NO" (Canon Arthur Middleton)

Arthur Middleton who spent 10 years in Sunderland and 24 years as Rector of Boldon is an Emeritus Canon of Durham. He was a Tutor at St Chad's College, and served on the College Council being Acting Principal in 1996-97. He is an Honorary Fellow of St Chad's, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Patron of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He is on the Church Union Council Standing Committee and Publications Committee. As a prolific writer of books and articles, he has completed three lecture tours in Canada and Australia. I had the privilege of hosting his two visits to Brisbane. He preached this sermon at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, on 9th September, 2001.


Mary is the bearer of the God who comes and is given the name the Theotokos or God-bearer by the Greek theologians of the early Church. In his poem Gabriel to a girl Unwed, the late Anglican priest and theologian Austin Farrer puts Mary's response to Gabriel in these words:

'My only prayer is to be a handmaiden of heaven.'

We remember that it was to this she was born. It was by no means an easy option and started in the unlikeliest of circumstances, by having to accept an unmarried pregnancy. Mary must have talked about this experience with its accompanying thoughts and problems, joys and anxieties. The ponderings of her heart would focus on that bundle of potentiality she carried within, those hidden purposes of God, as she was kicked awake in the early hours, and her morning sickness would not let her forget it. The unmarried Mary would know the tension in relationships with her parents and the gossip of neighbours, as well as the strained relationship with Joseph who didn't know who the father was. Her imminent marriage was threatened with cancellation. This drastic step was only averted when that same Spirit to whom Mary had pledged her obedience, led Joseph to share her understanding and obedience.

From birth Mary must have been overshadowed by an invisible go-between, stalked by the Spirit of God. A moment of recognition and awareness moved her mind and life of Mary in another direction drawing Joseph with her. This is what it means to have your life sealed by the Spirit of God. He it is who really awakens and helps us to see in a way previously unknown. He it is who gives the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and knowledge.


Julian of Norwich speaks of this kind of experience in chapter 5 of her Revelations. She wrote:

'God showed me too the pleasure it gives him when a simple soul comes to him, openly, sincerely, genuinely. It seems to me when I ponder this revelation that when the Holy Spirit touches the soul it longs for God rather like this; "God of your goodness give me yourself for you are sufficient for me. I cannot properly ask anything less, to be worthy of you. If I were to ask less, I should always be in want. In you alone do I have all". '

Previous to this Julian is given a vision of Our Lady, St. Mary, at the moment of the Annunciation, and tells how at once she understood something profound about Mary which had not been so obvious to her before. In this vision Mary appeared in surprising simplicity. She was not the 'queen of heaven', but a simple peasant girl of humble birth. This was the whole point: Mary's greatness lay in her deep humility and her simplicity. In Julian's vision Mary simply said, 'Behold God's handmaid'. Julian goes on to tell us that two other points were being made to her; first, that God (who is almighty, and maker of all that exists) desires to make himself known to simple creatures; secondly, that he can make himself known to us (as he did to Julian) because of his own self-emptiness or humility. The humility of God deliberately chose to be born of a common woman, in divine humility, and because of this there is now a permanent bond between his own being, and humanity. God is one with us. 

Julian learned that God - who is all-powerful - is already with us in this life. Furthermore, she discovered that He, who is all-holy, wants to be known to us in this life in an intimate and personal way, rather than merely through doctrine and rules. She writes in ch. 7:

'For truly it is the greatest joy that could be, as I see it, that he who is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is also lowest and gentlest, most humble [homely] and courteous. ' 

In other words, God is not only homely and personable but also friendly. The point of this vision, beginning with the image of Mary at the moment she became the Mother of God, was to show that God is both humble and kind; wanting to communicate with his creatures, and also capable of it.


This kind of knowing, a deep interior, intuitive love-knowledge is the fruit of attention, and attention, is not something that can be compelled. It is an involuntary state of mind, a concentrated gaze towards the object of attention. It requires the art, the ability to be still in silence.  One of the most obvious characteristics of Mary is her stillness and silence.  Continue reading . . . 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Prayer and the words we use

There is an age-old argument in some circles as to whether in the personal prayer life of Christians "written" or "spontaneous" prayers are best. Famously, Abbot John Chapman said: "Pray as you can; don't try to pray as you can't." Of course, the kind of praying we do changes as we change, and according to our circumstances. But in practice, the personal prayer life of most Christians is a blend of silence, spontaneity and set prayers. This ought not surprise us, for the Gospels clearly indicate that such was the experience of Jesus himself.

In his book, With Pity Not With Blame, Fr Robert Llewelyn (1909-2008), who was a much loved Anglican spiritual director, expressed perfectly the relation between even the most beautiful of our words and the movement of love which is the essence of our praying:

"The important thing is that the intention to pray remains,
ourselves meanwhile attending gently to the words
as the Holy Spirit enables us,
knowing that the heart is at prayer
even though the mind may wander from time to time.
We have to remember
that the real prayer lies beyond the words
in the inclination and the offering of the heart,
and the function of the words
is to set the heart free to pray.
The words may be seen as banks of a river
enabling it to remain deep and flowing.
Without the banks,
the waters would scatter
and become shallow and even stagnant.
A similar danger is open to prayer
when the framework in which it freely flows is removed.
Yet the prayer is not the framework,
but lies beyond.
And just as when the river flows into the sea,
the banks are left behind,
so when prayer flows more deeply into God,
the words,
having served their purpose,
will drop away."