September 2016

Let’s have a bit of quiet

Michael Ramsey, the saintly if somewhat eccentric Archbishop of Canterbury, was once asked Sir Kenneth Grubb, chairman of the House of Laity of the General Assembly, to stay behind after a meeting at Lambeth Palace. He and the Archbishop sat down in the study. Nothing was said. After a long and embarrassing silence, Sir Kenneth left. In the morning, he received a letter from the Archbishop, who wrote ‘I much appreciated your companionate silence’.

Silence is a rare and precious commodity, and I somewhat doubt whether what the Archbishop and Sir Kenneth exactly experienced that. I sometimes practice a meditation, in preparation for which I do exercises to slow down everything like heartbeat and breathing. As part of that, I sit and focus my attention on sounds outside the room and then on sounds inside the room. And, even in this secluded part of the world, sounds are always there. What we are aiming for is not really silence, but quiet. And that is something we can achieve wherever we are.

I was minded of all of this when, over the previous two Sundays, we celebrated first the Feast of the Transfiguration and secondly the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On both of these occasions, the message of the need to take time to withdraw from normal activity and allow oneself the space to ponder and reflect was loud and clear.

Having time to oneself in quiet to ponder and think about matters and get things clear in one’s mind, runs so contrary to popular culture where instant answers and instant solutions are regarded as the norm. But there is so much in life, including our response to the gospel story, which does not allow of such ease and does require a degree of time and space. And while being quiet on one’s own is an enormous boon, being quiet with others is even more special. Curiously, and possibly counter-intuitively, this is something which young people seem to find easier than adults. In a previous incarnation, I would sometimes at morning chapel ask the school to sit in quiet rather than respond to spoken prayers, and the effect of 600 teenagers sitting in stillness was really very powerful.

For the last two months, we have had a service once a month of Meditation and Compline which has combined the opportunity to sit together in quiet with a celebration of the service of night prayer, which many people love. I have found it immensely moving - and helpful - to have been together with a goodly group of other people in stillness and quiet, listening to the still, small voice of calm. This service will continue in September and October. I do not intend to continue with it during the winder months, and coming out for a 40-minute observance at 8.30 of a winter evening is clearly going to be less attractive. But it would be good after October to find other ways in which we can be quiet together. I would love to hear any ideas from you.

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