What a child taught Kathleen Norris about silence

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Amazing Gracen this past Sunday night in the sermon, I offered a bit of reflection as to why we structure worship the way that we do at saint ben’s, and specifically why we use silence, contemplative music, and the kind of slow and steady pacing that we do.  I suggested that these things are important as a way of shaping us as the kind people who know something of how to focus not on the things that normally grab the attention, but rather on the places where God is most likely to be doing something; at the edge, on the margin, just out of view.  The key biblical text for the evening was that of “water into wine” – John 2:1-11 – in which Jesus’ first miracle is performed in such an understated, almost “off-stage” way that only the hired help and the disciples even know that anything unusual has happened.

And so we build some silence and space into our liturgy, which in a culture filled with noise and endless bit of information is a fairly subversive thing.

I ended the sermon by reading a paragraph from Kathleen Norris’s meditation on “Silence” in her book, Amazing Grace.  Norris describes her experiences of visiting elementary school classes to offer sessions on writing, and how she would often tell the children they could first be as loud as they wanted if they would then make a try at being totally silent together.  She would then get them to do a bit of writing about those experiences.  “What interests me,” she writes, “is the way in which making silence liberated the imagination of so many children.”

Very few wrote with any originality about making noise.  Most of their images were cliches such as “we sound like a herd of elephants.”  But silence was another matter: here, their images often had a depth and maturity that was unlike anything else they wrote.  One boy came up with an image of strength being “as slow and silent as a tree,” another wrote that “silence is me sleeping waiting to wake up.  Silence is a tree spreading its branches to the sun.”  In a parochial school, one third grader’s poem turned into a prayer: “Silence is spiders spinning their webs, it’s like a silkworm making its silk.  Lord, help me to know when to be silent.”  And in a tiny town in western North Dakota a little girl offered a gem of spiritual wisdom that I find myself returning to when my life becomes too noisy and distractions overwhelm me: “Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, p. 17)

Silence, in other words, really is a deep and counter-cultural practice.  Which is why, week in and week out, we do it.

Jamie Howison

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