No whispering or noise is to be heard, only the sound of the reader.
It is a sign of God’s grace and goodness that in a week which began with a blessed retreat with close confidantes as means of recovering from mental illness but before I can fully say I’m back to fitness, He grants that I have a relatively straight forward passage from the Rule of St. Benedict. Whilst on retreat I was able to apply my mind to theological study and reading and have made much needed headway on my writing project (which has been on the back burner for some months now!)
This week’s chapter outlines St. Benedict’s vision for meal times: silent and prayerful. This flies in the face of our culture’s understanding of meal times. It is a current trend within the life of the Church to have food and fellowship (they always go together!) In our church, the youth work is centred around a shared meal where we chat and find out about each other. I’d feel pretty insulted if someone judged what we did at these times of eating as ‘idle chatter’ because the work of relationship is multi layered and complex with use of various means of communication; ‘chatter’ being just one of them.
Having said that, there is a need in the specific example of our youth group and in the general point of meal times for more awareness of listening. Where, in our culture, do we encourage one another to be silent with others?
On my retreat with close friends we spent several times in silence. They were not long but they were rich. I treasured the times when we fell into silence together. Of course it wasn’t pure silence for we were all clearly communicating with God in prayer but it was a wonderful moment to have sat next to people where words did not need to be expressed.
Some of the most beautiful moments I have spent with my wife have been silent (this is not to say that I get bored of the sound of her voice or of what she has to say!) The time that comes to mind is last summer in her hospital room when she was lying staring into space and I sat looking at her. She was very ill and we’d run out of words to express frustration, anger at God, sadness of the situation and ultimately, a way to explain what the future held. Silence was the most appropriate sound and we sang it together beautifully.
As part of my recovery programme, I have embarked, with a counsellor, on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. I have looked at mindfulness before but in the context of contemplative prayer exercises. For me, mindfulness is a form of contemplation; contemplation on the present moment and where it is being punctuated by God’s grace and mercy. I’m reminded of Thomas Merton’s description of contemplative prayer,
Contemplative prayer is, in a way, simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty… Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005)p. 111-112)
One of the exercises for this week is to be intentionally conscious of the process of eating; to eat a meal and be aware of the texture of the food, the sensation of the need to swallow and the echoes of taste on the tongue. It is in this exercise that I am aware of the power and need for silence at meal times.
We must be careful, however, to remove the Rule of St. Benedict from its context. If we are to truly reflect on how the Rule may be utilised in a current, un-cloistered culture then we must ask some important questions. For this particular part of the Rule it would foolish to blindly take the guidance without asking whether there is any worthy benefit of encouraging conversation at meal times.
To go back to the specific example of our youth group: it may be an interesting experiment to try one meal time in silence but the reason we gather round the table is to engage in relationship. We remove all mobile devices and encourage them to connect with others over the very tangible and present reality of food. We have established, after much reflection, prayer and consultation that it is important for our young people (some more than others) to have a place, each week, to sit and have a family meal where they are encouraged to listen and to be heard with no distractions and no where to rush off to. ‘Idle chatter’ at the table is counter cultural for some of them where silence fills their meal times but a silence poor in listening due to the distraction of technology and relationships being fostered remotely.
A brief note on the requirement of quality in public reading:
Coming from an arts background I have often been asked by colleagues and church readers for practical advice and training in how to read effectively. We’ve all been in services or groups where someone goes to read (Scripture particularly) and puts on this strange voice which makes the reading sound as dull as dishwater! They have no passion for what they are reading and/or they have no sense of what the words are saying. The opposite is often just as bad; someone, wanting to make it sound interesting, puts such emphasis on the reading that it becomes comic and (to use a theatrical term) ‘hammy’.
There is a comfortable middle way which is achieved by knowing what it is you’re reading; knowing the specific words and what they mean, knowing the context it was written and the context into which you are reading, to know the genre and general point of the piece. This takes preparation and then certain skills and experience to translate all that knowledge into your voice to communicate beyond words the meaning of the words.
With these skills, developed through experience and training, words are open to having life breathed into them and are then able to change people’s lives. It is these trained or experienced people, who have gone thorough a process of reflecting on their practice, who should be encouraged to stand up in public and read for it is in their ‘ministry’ that people will be invited to hear and respond to what is being read for the building up of their souls.
Part of my theological study whilst on retreat was to bring together my years of thinking around the need for a new form ecclesiology for the Church of England; one that would encourage and grow discipleship amongst our people. Part of the solution, I believe, can be found in the discoveries of the New Monastic movement. It was Alan Roxburgh who wrote,
Discipleship emerges out of prayer, study, dialogue and worship by a community learning to ask the questions of obedience, as they are engaged directly in mission. (Alan Roxburgh, Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1997) p.66)
I love that vision for the church: to be a place of ‘prayer, study, dialogue and worship’. Often the church, I find, devalues study; individuals palm their responsibility off to academics and the local congregation is starved of intellectual rigour as it gets trapped in the academy. I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observations of the monastic movement before the Reformation,
Monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate. By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard – a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995) p.47)
Although Bonhoeffer is discussing the complete task of discipleship I see a distinct lack of study within modern congregations. Not only do they resist participating in it but they belittle its worth to justify their lack of desire for it. There is a common thought that you don’t need to study to grow in discipleship, there is no need to wrestle with difficult questions or, if you do need to, it is to be done by understanding how you feel rather than learning how to think. This develops into teaching which is authorised solely by emotional feeling rather than intellectual truths.
There needs to be a place where a community learns to sit in silence and listen to teaching and to listen with their hearts as well as their ears; to receive teaching and the wisdom of the Church, to be challenged to grow and to be inspired to study the words and works of God. This study needs to be shaped and directed so that we do not fall into heresy and worldly wisdom.
Yes, there is a place for discussion and dialogue but where are the times of silent study, together, as a community?
Teacher, you taught us that there is no other teacher but you and so we commit to sitting at your feet and receiving bread from heaven, every word that comes from your mouth. We want to learn how to be expectant to hear from you, to answer your invitation to enter the desert, to be emptied, to become poor in order to meet with you, to be filled by your Spirit and to be rich in knowledge and love of you.
Come, Lord Jesus.