Monday, March 12, 2012

The art of shutting up

Yesterday morning was our community's monthly ‘house family breakfast’. We meet, eat, talk about communal practicalities, I or someone else will usually share a thought or two on community life, we pray or worship...

SilenceBut yesterday was different. For the first half of our breakfast, by prior arrangement, we were in complete silence, not a word spoken.

The seed for this novel arrangement came from a conversation I’d had earlier in the week with Penelope Wilcock, author of a series of novels set in a Medieval monastery called ‘The Hawk and the Dove’. (Read her account of our meeting here.) I asked her what she felt we could learn from an ancient community rule such as the Rule of Benedict.

Her answer, perhaps surprisingly, was that the Rule of Benedict can teach us common sense. We might think of the founding document of Benedictine monasticism as a lofty, spiritual masterpiece – as indeed it is. Yet, as Penelope pointed out, many of its injunctions have a ring of good plain sense about them.

An example Penelope gave was ‘the great silence’ – the rule Benedict laid down that after evening prayers the whole community observes silence throughout the night until after the morning service the next day.

‘What a brilliant rule for fostering harmonious community,’ Penelope enthused. None of those too-late-at-night conversations when things can get fractious and irritable (and things can be said which are regretted the following morning). Likewise, no demand for communication while still waking up (one of my favourite biblical proverbs springs to mind: ‘If anyone loudly blesses their neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.’)

Common sense, yes, which fosters the health and harmony of a community. It got me thinking because as a leader in a residential Christian community, I give quite a lot of thought (not to mention what goes on in my subconscious) to the issue of how to foster healthy, fruitful community. And this issue – silence – is part of that. (I’ve mused about it before here and here.)

We’re a very active community. Activist, one might even say (and one recent blog called Power Activism has already featured us three times!) That’s good and it’s what God has called us to. And yet. Without silence our minds and spirits become noisy and overcrowded.

DeafeningThere is stillness and silence in our community life, but it mainly happens on our own, out on the fringes of community life – a personal prayer hour, a walk in the park... a bath! And sometimes we will have a pause for silence before a meal or during corporate worship.

I think we should integrate shared silence into our life more, for the sake of health and harmony.

It was silent in the temple’s holiest place. And the New Testament speaks of the ‘unfading beauty of a quiet spirit’ (our spirits, God’s dwelling like the temple, ought to be silent, still, poised). We want our community house to be a place people find the presence and peace of God. Silence must play its part.

So we passed the first half hour of our breakfast in silence. It wasn’t a 'religious silence' – we weren’t praying or meditating, just eating breakfast together. There was quite a bit of signalling (a wave meaning ‘pass me the honey?’ A thumbs up meaning ‘thanks!’), some winks and smiles. Most of us found it refreshing; some rather hard work.

I’m convinced it’s something we’ll explore. Ideas anyone? What can a busy, bustling community do to foster shared silence, shared stillness in the midst of it all?

Watch this space (space! ah!) – I’m sure this is a theme I’ll return to again in this blog.


Rachel said...

I'd love to explore this more. It's not easy to do though as so many are uncomfortable with the idea, as it does seem a bit restrictive and religious, especially to the young 'uns. I love monasteries but the rule would kill me - even more than ours does. Despite that - there must be a way to explore this that goes beyond a private journey/expression. I'm sure some of this deep spiritual stuff can be experienced in a healthy way, communally and doesn't have to kept to the sidelines.

n0rma1 said...

As I say, I intend to work it into White Stone life more. But it's the question of quite how...

Rachel said...

One thing I like doing when I stay at a monastery (and I'm in the mood) is to join in with the 'exposition' where some of the guys sit around for an hour in silence, around a communion wafer. Sounds comical, but because they think the wafer is really a piece of Jesus, they sit in awe of the real presence. And because I believe that Jesus really is present anyway, I can join in, in awe. Could easily do this around the bread and wine.

Lionheart said...

Rachel, I think part of the function of Monastic rule is to teach and manage death...but then unto life. Death has been redeemed, and whilst it's not pleasant it now has purpose...Silence is a dying to business as false activity and noise as a distraction so that we can re-orientate and really just be...
I agree with yourself and James that it needs to be integrated into our communal life, recaptured and normalised

Rachel said...

Sorry - don't mean to monopolise your comments page, but it's a matter close to me heart. Lionheart - think ur right when you say it needs 'normalising'. Had a few more thoughts.

Further to the bread and wine idea, may be an idea to have it out in a room before agape so people can pop in for a silent moment of reflection during the day before getting into the routine of the evening.

Battery is just about to run out..bye
Getting back into the habit of missing a meal to pray is another idea - doesn't mean you have to fast but just reclaim some time.

Shared silence would be good if it wasn't compulsory.Some people freak at the idea of meditation, so having times of group 'soaking' may appeal more to our charismatic house-church thinking.

Turn your dining room/any room into a prayer room/sacred space between uses if you don't use it very often.