MUCH OF today’s worship and prayer seems to be a closed system which does not allow for the validity of silence and solitude. I have been in that place myself where people told me silence and solitude was important, I tried it, but it did not seem to work.
But the work of silence and solitude may be the most important thing we do as disciples of the Still One.
It is interesting but if you look at things in the world slightly differently you can see how silence and stillness is built into the fabric of existence around us.
At the beginning of everything God spoke into the silence. From the beginning of our lives we have the connected silence and solitude of the womb, where the first sounds a baby will hear are her mother’s heartbeat and the sound of her blood pumping at around 16 weeks, two months before the ears are fully formed.
The mysterious process of quiet sleep is a place of silence and solitude making up a third of our life. The silence and stillness of a spider, or crouching tiger are God-given signs in the world that we just don’t see. Silence is more important to our well-being than we realise.
The attentiveness we develop in art or poetry which makes the world more fully present is another sign God has placed in the world to draw our attention to the importance of stillness.
Not being able to find a place of silence, as for tinnitus sufferers, can feel like a madness. We live in a kingdom of noise where there is almost nowhere to go to find silence. We are drowning in noise but we do not know it, we think we are waving.
A small amount of silence can be wonderful, but stretch it out a bit and suddenly it becomes a fearful place. A number of times in prayer meetings I have said ‘let’s wait on God in silence’, and within twenty seconds someone prays out loud.
The Desert Fathers whose work was silence tell us that a prolonged period of silence and solitude means we will have to ‘wrestle with our inner demons’. In fact when Abbot Moses was asked for a word of life he replied, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ In other words the silence and solitude of the cell will teach you everything.
Silence and solitude especially within monastic settings has often been criticized as a withdrawal from life. But it is in silence and solitude we become aware of our connectedness to all things. It is in the kingdom of noise that we feel isolated and disconnected.
When Jesus healed the paralytic in Luke chapter five he was able to read the hearts of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. This is often attributed rightly to a prophetic gifting through the Holy Spirit, but just before this passage we read, ‘ Jesus often withdraw to lonely places and prayed.’ It is that work of silence and solitude that also enabled him to read hearts.
I have only begun to put the tiny crescent of a fingernail into the doorway of silence and solitude which is how we develop a contemplative self. It is a tiny splinter of sunlight in my heart that refuses to leave.
The goal of developing our contemplative self is to become awake and aware and compassionate like Jesus. The fourth century Syrian Ephrem said that in baptism we ‘put on the Wakeful One’. Noise puts us to sleep, silence and solitude awakens us to be like the ‘Wakeful One’ we have put on.
Perhaps the most important thing is that silence and solitude is our umbilical cord to God. Just like babies we can hear without having to hear through our ears. Without that guiding thread we lose our way in the competitive maze that is western culture.
We are so preoccupied in our minds with our own selfish chatter we have forgotten how to listen to God with our hearts, we do not know how to hear the words he tries to form in our inner being.
Another way of saying that we wrestle with our inner demons in silence and solitude is to say that the illusions about who we are are stripped away.
If the voices who say that silence and solitude are the turning point in Christian transformation are right then we need to find a way to get all Christians to embrace the vision.
In that silence and solitude we are ‘blessed’ with the greatest blessing of all, the gaze of a loving God and his loving presence when we ‘take to heart’ the word of God that has been revealed to us (Revelation 1:3).
The greatest challenge facing the church today is to get all Christians to take to heart this landscape of interior solitude, planting within it the transforming Word of God.
ODILON REDON’S painting The Mystical Boat is a picture of hope, wholeness and integration. The colours and the two people in the stern of the boat speak of reconciliation and unity. It has real power to evoke meaning for us because of the buried feelings it draws out of us – the longing and yearning for such a picture to represent our own life course.
The symbolic paintings within us that speak of our own sail boat journey of life are then brought into focus.
Redon (1840-1916) is one of the outstanding figures of French Symbolism. During the 1890s after a religious crisis and serious illness he turned to painting and a dormant talent as a colorist emerged.
I saw The Mystical Boat recently for the first time and it spoke to my deep self, that part of me made in the image of God. It resonated with great power because over the last few months I have started drawing sail boats with me in them.
Since Noah’s ark boats have been a powerful sacred symbol. When they emerge in our consciousness it is worth looking at the reasons. There is a strangled Argonaut in each one of us, and a golden fleece we need to seek.
Except we have to journey on our own. One of the highways of the sea that lead us to God is the awareness that for much of the journey we are alone and responsible alone.
Often the golden fleece is only found in darkness. We usually flee from that darkness rather than seeking it out. Which is why the bright yellow of the sail, symbolic of God’s presence is so comforting, for we need to take His light with us into the dark places of our soul.
I started drawing small sail boats with me in them after reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea this summer. Written in the 1960s for children it is a book that can lead anyone to their deeper self. The hero, Ged, who is everyman or everywoman, lets loose a shadow in the world that hunts him and from which he flees.
The turning point of the book is when Ged receives a word of life from a wise old man, that he must turn around and hunt the shadow, ‘the hunted must become the hunter’.
He makes a small boat with a sail and sets out on the sea and the shadow flees from him, as it begins to take on his likeness.
We all have a shadow side that we deny, but needs to be reintegrated. The Mystical Boat is the journey after that hardest work has been done. When Jesus stands on the beach of John 21 and says to Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ Simon Peter is forced to face the shadow of his betrayal, and his words of love to Jesus in response now include the painfully acknowledged dark thread of betrayal as well as the deep blue of faithfulness to follow.
In religious life we are all prone to creating a shadow, the parts of ourselves we have repressed for fear of rejection or being judged. Another way of looking at it is to say Christians often have a front-stage that conforms to the perceived morality of their community, and a back-stage where the hidden life is. Hidden addictions like alcohol, drugs or pornography is shadow work which has not been done.
This summer I realised I needed to launch a boat and sail in it to track down my shadow, with the fear of rejection lurking at the heart of it. Only then can we begin to move on from Paul’s cry, and all of our cries, ‘For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ (Romans 7:15). Only then does the cry, ‘I do not understand what I do’, become a cry of understanding and metamorphosis.
We can use the language of sin and old self but our task is to find new words to say those things, words that resonate with people in our culture without watering down the meaning God intends. The water must still be salty sea water that stings and heals us.
And not all of our shadow is about sin. I have repressed creative aspects of myself like writing poetry or painting pictures to express what I feel because I have been told these things are not ‘real’. How many of us have these parts of our self waiting to be released?
In the last few weeks on retreat at Worth Abbey I felt I had to paint a second picture of me in a sail boat, but this time in an embrace of reconciliation. The embrace was inspired by a sculpture at Coventry Cathedral, a duplicate of which is in the Peace Garden in Hiroshima, Japan.
This picture too is one of hope, a picture of now or a picture of the future. The embrace could be with my shadow, someone I love, or God, or all of them.
It was after I had painted my two paintings, hunting my shadow, and the embrace of reconciliation that I came across The Mystical Boat. I was suddenly filled with tremendous hope that wholeness, reintegration, reconciliation was possible and could be the next painting representing my journey towards God. I suddenly had insight into what my paintings might mean for me.
In The Mystical Boat the person sitting next to you could be your shadow, someone you love, or God. The sail is the golden fleece of God’s presence. It is only by His light that we overcome the darkness and our wounds are healed.
Redon himself wanted to ‘place the visible at the service of the invisible’ and in this painting he has done that.