Relearning contemplative practice in the
life of a worshiping church
An address given by Jamie Howison at
Telling the Truth ’07: a conference on the arts and the worshiping church, October 27, 2007, Victoria, B.C. This is a transcript based on the text as delivered, but is really only a shadow of its original self, in that it is missing the songs of praise and contemplation which Gord Johnson wove in and out through the address.
he title for this address can be attributed to a former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Howard Clark, who at some argumentative synod or gathering stopped the proceedings by saying, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” In other words, stop the words and the posturing and the combative entrenchment of what you take to be self-evidently true, and just be still for a bit… advice that might well be offered in just about any meeting of just about any church at just about any time. Of course, it runs counter to our basic instincts as children of the Western world; we are conditioned to do as our default setting.
As Ghandi once remarked to the American missionary Charles Andrews, “The trouble with you Americans is that you start doing before being.” Not only do we “start doing,” but we have terrible trouble with spaces in which “nothing happens;” we tend to do our ‘vegging’ out with the TV on – firing non-stop audio-visuals into our brains – we plug ourselves into MP3 players when we are alone, we click on the stereo every time we get into the car, we spend countless hours surfing the net… input, input, input. What we’re going to suggest here this morning – and demonstrate in practice tonight at the Hear the Silence liturgy – is that one of the things that Christian communities might profitably do is relearn some things about stillness, silence, and contemplative practice.
Sadly, often the clergy get as caught up in a culture of utility as does anyone else; in fact, we sometimes cultivate it. Some 40 years ago, Martin Thornton wrote:
“One calls in a plumber because he understands plumbing, not because of his wide experience of life, and one is coached by a golf professional because he is not a week-end amateur. One is suspicious of a doctor who has read no medical book for twenty years and knows nothing of modern drugs, and I suspect that intelligent modern Christians are getting suspicious of clergy who are for ever engaged in something other than prayer, learning and such-like professional occupations…. It is precisely by not being busily activist that we may really learn to serve and love those who have to be. It is because the priest has time for prayer, study and reflection that his guidance of those in the world’s hurly-burly is likely to be worth having. If the priest is to have any loving impact on modern people in a modern world, then he must take his job with dedicated seriousness and not make himself ridiculous by making an amateurish mess of some other job.”
This is echoed by Eugene Peterson, in the book he co-authored with Marva Dawn, The Unnecessary Pastor:
“If (the cultural forces of the day) don’t turn us into merely nice people, they turn us into replicas of our cultural leaders, seeking after power and influence and prestige. These insistent voices drum away at us, telling us pastors to go out and compete against the successful executives and entertainers who have made it to the top, so that we can put our churches on the map and make it big in the world.”
Lest you think Peterson is exaggerating here, I once heard a bishop tell a group of teenaged confirmation candidates that “a bishop’s job is like a CEO of a corporation;” an image so driven by contemporary culture it makes the head spin.
Peterson went on to comment that when he “first proposed the phrase ‘The Unnecessary Pastor’ as the heading for the conference at Regent College, I was told, ‘You can’t call it that; nobody will come. No pastor in North America wants to be told that he or she is unnecessary. Get a phrase that is more positive, more encouraging.’” He doesn’t tell us who so actively discouraged him from using the title, but he does add: “But then it sold out, filled with men and women seeking to strip away the cultural plaque and get on with biblical ministry.”
I think that we in the ordained ministry intuitively know this, but we get so easily overwhelmed by a sense that we need to do, do, do; it usually lands us up as hopelessly overwhelmed sanctified social workers, fried from trying to meet the non-stop emotional needs of those around us, or as great attenders of all manner of committee meetings. I have witnessed more than a few area clericus meetings, in which the point seemed to be to demonstrate who was busier, whose church was doing something bigger or better or more innovative, whose Sunday School was booming… the pastoral version of a spitting context, and about as sad a sight to behold as one can imagine.
St Gregory Nazianzen wrote of the madman as being the one who is breathless, to which the theologian stands in contrast as one not out of breath. The theologian is one whose prayer is true, which means in part that prayer is the thing that keeps us from getting out of breath, from running around like so many of those proverbial headless chickens. But it is hard to do in a society that wants us to do, do, do. Prove yourself. Account for your hours and your salary, and what it is and who it is you are.
Kenneth Leech, another English writer, say this:
Our society is filled with functionaries. And the church has conformed to, and colluded with, the managerial, secular models, so that priests and ministers come to be seen as religious functionaries. On this model, prayer, silence, fasting, and the study of theology are valued, if they are valued at all, only as aids to a more efficient pastoral functioning. But priesthood is not a function: it is an identity, a solidarity with Christ crucified and risen. The only kind of priests who can be of true Christ-centred service in the world are those whose priesthood is interiorized, integrated into their humanity, and constantly strengthened by prayer.
Now, I need to be clear here that I am not by nature a contemplative sort, and so I read these lengthy quotes as much to keep schooling myself as to shape your thinking on this stuff. Some people are quite contemplative by nature, maybe by nature and training, but while I very much like, even crave, solitude and silence, my mind very seldom stops ticking. The tradition has tended to make a distinction between two basic approaches to the spiritual life, and if you’ve read much of the material on prayer and contemplation you’ve probably bumped into this.
1. There is first the kataphatic way – the positive way, or the way of affirmation. It is a path which uses images, language, feeling, symbols and signs and other sensate ways of experience. Do you pray with music and words? Find inspiration with visuals like icons or Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal? Find that a church with stained glass, incense and loads of visual stimuli is prayerful? That is the way of affirmation
2. The second is the apophatic way – the via negativa or way of negation. This way emphasizes “the truth of God that lies behind, beyond, or hidden within all sensory or intellectual representations.” This is the way of seeking God by dropping any and all reliance on word, symbol or experience; it is the kind of contemplative prayer that is taught, for instance, in the medieval classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and in a different manner by John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul. It is the kind of prayer cultivated by a practice such as centering prayer, in which one tries to locate oneself in the presence of God by using but a single word or phrase – or no word at all – as the means of prayer.
I am, by nature and nurture both, a person most at home on the kataphatic way; the way of images, and so it always sort of bugs me to find that the literature on prayer tends to privilege the apophatic, presenting the kataphatic as a kind of school for beginners! More problematic, though, is the suggestion sometimes made that since prayer of contemplation and of silence is only for seasoned and mature veterans, a contemplative approach is in fact dangerous for the beginner. That was what a trainer in centering prayer said to me when I inquired about doing some instruction for interested folks in our church; “Oh, they aren’t nearly mature enough for contemplation; it would be spiritually dangerous.” Almost as if moving into the silence is only for realized spiritual giants, and not – and let’s be honest here – for the rest of us. But, says Martin Thornton,
“…we have seen with crystal clarity from the Bible that this retreat into the desert, rather than being only possible after the defeat of sin, is in fact the battle itself. There is a strong case for the view that it is the sinner not the saint for whom such prayer is meant, yet in the text-books it is the sinner who is precluded from attempting it.”
“We have seen with crystal clarity from the Bible…” Lets get ready to hear from the Bible, and see what we can discern.
Let me set this up for you. The prophet Elijah, after a major confrontation with the reigning powers of his day – Ahab and Jezebel and the religious functionaries they have surrounded themselves with – flees to the wilderness, where he actually lays down and wishes that death would take him; a failure, he sees in himself, and only a failure. Yet Elijah is met there – an angel comes to him, first with food and drink, and then with a commission to travel further; this time 40 days into the wilderness, to Mount Horeb. It is there that this narrative opens:
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ Elijah Meets God at Horeb
“11 He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” (1 Kings 19:9b-13a, NRSV)
What Elijah hears in “the sound of sheer silence” – that is the translation in the NRSV – or in “the still, small voice,” is a new commission, a new beginning, a new song to be sung against the killing powers. This is not the end for him, but rather beginning.
Of this narrative, Thornton observes that it follows a common pattern; a common biblical pattern, but also a common pattern in our own lives: “fear and danger, followed by rest and safety, followed by creativity, prophecy and victory.” And then he continues:
“The desert of silence will at first be frightening and dangerous, and considerable tensions will develop. Everything seems strange and artificial, and of special consequence to modern Christians there may be a sense of false piety, of religiousity. In spite of everything previously explained, here I am devoutly saying my prayers in apparent isolation from the world. It is all very uncomfortable. But the Bible has explained this as normal, as the proper start of the creative prayer of silence: it is Elijah giving up and petitioning for death; Christ sweating blood in Gethsemane. It is all part of the game.”
Silence and stillness are very much a part of what we need; at times desperately so. Elijah needs to be still, so that he can hear past the whirlwind and past the earthquake to the still, small voice. And how often does Jesus go into the desert, into a quiet place, up on a mountain, away from the crowds, to pray? It is not just Gethsemane, with the crisis building and his courage flagging. It is steadily there in his ministry, from that first long 40 day sojourn alone in the desert, facing epic temptation and finding out just who he is. It is steady; and if it is steady for him, why would we think it shouldn’t be steady for us? All of us need to go into the desert; sometimes life takes us there, sometimes we need to step aside from the busy-ness of life to go there, almost against the grain. But we all need to go to the desert and to be still and to know – or try to know or be open to knowing – that God alone is God. But I don’t do silence like that; not naturally. I’d have to take a book, and maybe a journal or a laptop so that I could do some writing about my experience of silence in the desert; maybe I’d prepare a keynote address! All the more reason, then, to build silence and stillness into my discipline and – and here is what I’m increasingly convinced is indispensable – into the discipline of our community’s liturgical life.
We’ve begun to seek ways at saint benedict’s table to build silence and stillness – to build opportunities for wilderness – into our common, shared liturgical life. We do that around the liturgical year, and most obviously the season of Lent, which lends itself to a kind of voluntary movement into the desert. Every year coming into Lent, I speak about why it might be important to give something up or take something on just to change the pattern and rhythm of life. For the past two years, I’ve stopped having the radio or stereo on when I get into the car. If you’re someone who routinely clicks on the stereo every time you get in the car, you’d be struck by how not doing that reminds you daily of being in a different season. Those kinds of little pattern changes help us move into different rhythm. And liturgically, we build a different kind of sensibility into our collective Lenten observance, offering even more space and more silence and more contemplative music than at other times of the year. It is built into the fabric of our Sunday night Lenten liturgies.
But beyond that we also have this thing called Hear the Silence. It is a time of music, song, stillness, periods of absolute silence, prayer, a couple of brief readings. It takes about an hour; an hour which lets people move into that alternative space, and to shift gears from the usual pace of life. Two things: I love those evenings, and I need those evenings. At the last one, I quickly became aware that I simply could not get my mind to stop racing. I had 101 things on my plate, and finally this hour to just sit still and be… and my brain went into overdrive trying to cover off a whole bunch of tasks that I’d been putting to the side. It took… well, it probably took about 55 of the 60 minutes to finally get slowed down to the point where I was able to simply indwell the liturgy; to just pray and sing and be; to be more deeply aware of the God in whom I always dwell. That’s the thing, of course: God didn’t arrive after 55 minutes, when I’m finally quiet. God is there all the time; where else could God be? We live and move and have our being in God; how could we be anywhere but in the presence of God? Sometimes, though, it takes guys like me 55 minutes to finally slow down sufficiently to be aware of that.
Someone once asked Michael Ramsay, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, how long he prayed each day. “Oh, about 2 minutes,” he replied, “but I spend an hour preparing.” I get that. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24); from all of the limits that I wear? I get that too! On my own, I can’t do this very well; but with training and discipline in a community that understands that its liturgy is, among other things, a school of prayer and a time apart? That is a different thing. That is the point that I really begin to enter this stuff, but I need the discipline.
We’ve learned in our community to build silence and contemplative music – space – into all of our liturgies; not to be in a hurry. To realize it is okay to sit for 60 seconds after the reading of scripture – just be with it – before the preacher has to stand up, and sometimes be tempted to explain it all away… To my surprise and delight, over the years I find that the gears are shifting, and that this space, this silence, this room to be before doing – is actually undoing and remaking me. Among other things, it is remaking me as someone who has been able to be impatient with so much of what society tosses at us; critical of the claims that advertising constantly tries to make, suspicious of the whole array of idolatries that so narcotize us, self-aware of my own weaknesses, in a growing realization that another way and another rhythm is actually possible. It has allowed me to do things like look at a painting like James Nesbitt’s The Hospitality of Polycarp, and actually see it, and find myself being really taken apart by it.
You see, the thing is most of us know in our hearts that much of what is sold to us in the broader culture is a lie. We know that you can’t consume your way, you can’t buy your way, you can’t accumulate your way, you can’t shop your way to anything; we know it. Many in the church, and many who have never crossed its threshold, suspect that all those promises with which we’re bombarded day in and day out – those idolatrous promises –are worse than hollow; they’re cancer. So when we’re driven to do and to prove and to be productive; to show what a shining example of success we are, one of the most subversive and daring acts, one of the most gospel-driven acts that we can do as Christian communities is to cultivate the alternative, and together – not just all alone in some sunny corner of our living room with an icon and a prayer book – but together, when we gather, dare to hear the silence.