Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Give us today our daily silence

On a cold winter's day I stopped at Friend's House Euston, the spiritual home and administrative centre of the Religious Society of Friends near Euston Statation in London.  Hot and wholesome organic soup and excellent fair Trade Coffee sustained the body and soothed the spirit after navigating the London Underground a skill that after 20 years in another country does not return easily. Later I sat in the beautiful Meeting Room next to the bookshop, a place of luminous silence.  This was a circular, windowless space with simple wooden benches but drew one deeply into a silent space and to the heartbeat of an awareness of the Inner Light of Christ. I was fascinated to note that each day there is a ten minute Meeting for Worship for city workers, visitors and travellers. I had never come across such a brief meeting but the Spirit works in all times and spaces. Yet there was another grace, the opportunity to buy a copy of Pierre Lacout's 'God is Silence' which I read early during my sojourn with Friends.

This for me is an amazing and trans formative booklet, beautifully written by a Swiss former Carmelite Priest who later became a Friend. he died a few years ago. It has been long out of print but now is available again at the London Quaker books for just a few pounds sterling. For any philosopher of silence and for a Christian drawn to the mystery of silence this is a wonderful gift. God is silence and we pray, 'Give us this day, our daily silence'

Inviting Earth

Just recently I was part of a conversation between a group of people exploring how the Christian community might respond to the current indications of ecological catastrophe.  There were some beautiful ideas and I suggested the title 'Inviting Earth' as words of enchantment and encouragement. Another title was chosen which I think will speak more deeply and resonate with the theme of vocation.

I reflected with the group that the recovery of a day of silence, perhaps on Holy Saturday, a sabbath of listening to the Earth might be a powerful experience.  On this day or longer fast speaking and emailing, blogging and texting, driving and even reading might be laid aside to listen to the soundscape deeply and with a sense that in every square metre there is a unique experience of the material and living world.

Holy Saturday and the whole concept of Sabbath might help to cool the fires of our commercialism and especially from our noise. If a day of silence can be practiced in Bali then what a blessing it would be in our society. It will never happen because leaders in religion and in society know that when people move into silence then radical ideas can emerge as people begin to wake from their stupor and ask themselves and of others deep and profound questions.

Holy Saturday carrying with it the deep silence of absence and yet of hope is calling me. What about you?

Pyrrho of Ellis a teacher of Silence

This year I have made a spiritual journey to become the spiritual leader and teacher of a Uniting Church in Adelaide after a year of discussion and discernment.  My arrival in this place has astonished me but feels deeply right.  I thought I would never return to church ministry but sojourn on the edge of the Church, exploring philosophy and mindfulness, being part of silent Quaker Meetings and Anglican Eucharists while working in the wider world.

For some of my friends and those in my wider circle there have been searching questions.  These have been directed towards my practices of Pyrrhonism and interest in ancient scepticism.  My return to a community where language of faith and the exploration of spirituality takes place in a community setting has been of some interest and others have been disappointed thinking that I might well become a more committed Buddhist.

These questions serve to underline the subtle scepticism practiced in the ancient world. Those influenced by Sextus Empiricus who looked to the enigmatic Pyrrho of Ellis saw themselves as practitioners of a middle way.  They suspended belief in the non evident while living lives of reflection and inquiry in daily life. Unlike the Academic sceptics who doubted everything and the materialist philosophers like the Stoics and the Epicurians, the Pyrrhonists gently indicated that usually what passes as doubt involved taking up another belief. Perhaps they practiced mindfulness where often we experience the inter relatedness of all things and can suspend the kinds of thinking that is always categorising experiences into abstraction. Suspension of belief invites a process of insight, investigating the thoughts and emotions that arise rather than taking those thoughts and emotions and beliefs literally.

When once again we live in a society where abstraction and the world of the everyday have become separated, ancient Pyrrhonic scepticism can prove a path back to balance and a sense of flow. We have to remember that Pyrrho never rejected religion, was honoured as sage and priest and learned from both the ascetics of India and Greek philosophy.

David Gamez's book on 'Positive Sceptism' also invites me to move between the worlds of belief with equanimity without constantly having to engage in an internal battle of deciding what is true. Here in this placement I can honour and practice this ancient sacred way of Pyrrho in ways that are liberating for myself and I hope for others. Here I can explore what Socrates and the Platonic tradition called 'Aphoria' that astonishing experience of living with the indefinable and the mystery of being.

When we move beyond constraining literal isms and can circle back to gently explore the mysterious power and enchantment of words there is the discovering of a sense of liberation and of inner silence.
There is a modesty in this ancient and seldom explored path where ego and the desire to justify through stating belief and opinion becomes the beautiful silence of refusing to choose, of remaining balanced in the paradox between flowing everyday moments of discovery and the contingency of abstract ideas. In Pyrrho there is a spark that leaps across between Asia and the West and in gently blowing on that spark in everyday encounters and in ministry practice maybe some of those dangerous and destructive forms of literalism may find a way to track beside each other in a great and abundant silence.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist

A reader from across the globe invites me to share further memories of my visit to the Orthodox community of monks and nuns in rural Essex in January.

I dismounted from the green country bus after its labyrinthine journey through freezing English country lanes with hedgerows partially clothed allowing the fine wintry wind to course through woven branches with a feeling of anticipation.  I set off on foot down the narrow muddy lane pointed out by the friendly driver. This monastery has no web page and no email but a telephone enquiry had resulted in an invitation for me to come and see the monastery established by Father Sophrony a Russian born monk who after leaving a career as an artist in Moscow and then after the revolution in Paris had travelled to Mount Athos between the wars and had met his own geron or elder, the Russian born Silouen. Silouen was canonised in 1987 by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The famous Cistercian monk, author, hermit and prophet of the 20th century Thomas Merton says that Silouen was the most authenitic monk of the 20th century. I would like to write later on Sophrony who I see as one of the most interesting people of our time, a seeker after truth and beauty who like many of us struggle to reconcile the big questions of life. He is a truly a teacher and philosopher of silence who invites us to reflect on the silence of beauty in the Holy One to which all are called alongside the empty silence of the abyss which we have created in the West, allowing knowledge to fragment and reifying the single dimension of having and doing over value and connection, the loss of the Platonic and Neo Platonic vision.

Deeply unwell after years in solitude on Athos and now ordained priest Sophrony tells in one of his books of his return to France and of disciples gathering around him in the nursing home to practice the prayer of the heart after an experience of rejection by the Orthodox Academy over allegiance to the Church in Russia.

The Prayer of the Heart is a prayer that moves away from mental images, bringing mind into the heart, the place of life and imagination, of emotion, the very centre of the human person. In the Abrahamic religions the heart is the very epicentre the place of meeting between the Holy and the Seeker. Sophrony with friends came to the United Kingdom and the monastery was established in an old Anglican rectory and the ancient church building was used for worship. This was established in the year of my birth 1959.  Here the ancient ways stretching back beyond the desert fathers and mothers into the vibrant life of the early Christian movement met modern Britain on its own journey into secularism.

Walking down this lane with winter fields and the restless calling of blackbirds I came to the monastery which is bisected by the lane and outside tall iron gates was a nun in full black Orthodox robes showing just her face walking with a small group of young people who I discovered were Cypriot students studying in Britain. I was expected although I had not been able to forecast my time of arrival and outside the tall black gates I was warmly invited to lunch with the community.

This leads me to the sense I know is right although I can't seem to find the words that here is a community moving in several dimensions of experience. Outwardly there is the passing of clock time and space is measured in the world of the material. Inwardly there is a greater dimension where time and space and materiality are transcended and there is an inner knowing and awareness, an experience of interconnectedness.  I too move between these dimensions and am grateful for this passport although its a gift and not an achievement.  Intuition or spirituality does not do this justice but the concept of the music of silence seems to resonate deeply with this sense of flow. The graceful monastic robes are a symbol of gracious moving between dimensions and like icons those who wear such robes, as I do myself from time to time are framed in a tradition that does not obliterate or suppress our sense of individuality but enclose it in a place of invitation of depth and purpose.

Lunch was shared in the Refectory which is on the nun's side of the monastery and Sister pointed out the award given to the best conversion of hen houses into dwelling places granted by some bureaucrat from the Essex Country Council.  I wondered if the creator of such an award nurtured a sense of the ironic.  That said its hard to build in areas such as rural Essex as cities continue to sprawl outwards into rich irreplaceable land cultivated for centuries. Our group viewed the winter fields farmed by the community. Every member of the community obviously had to work hard to sustain this simple ascetic way of life.

The Refectory was decorated by iconic depictions of saints in the desert and hesychast tradition. All the chapels and the other refectory were decorated in the same way. My guide the gracious and hospitable Sister S explained that in the hesychast tradition icons were written that way (painted) to preserve the sense of the hidden way, the movement through images into the silence of the whole person in the presence of the holy whereas 'normal' icons are brightly written.

I stood among the monks dressed in my own black clerical uniform with white collar that I wore for most of my stay in the UK as an indication of pilgrimage and of discovery and also as a way of honouring my own tradition ordained within the Church of England the 'seed' Church of the Anglican Communion. It was of course a delicious, healthy sustaining lunch and afterwards I briefly greeted the Hegumen with the other guests.  It was a brief greeting but I felt very warmly accepted and affirmed, the true expression of hospitality where words were few but the experience was rich and gracious. All day I felt deeply grateful, not a gratefulness based on dependence or guilt but a sense of receiving and of hospitality.

Sister S then came to be my guide for the afternoon and slowly we toured the buildings, stopping to pray in the chapel in the old rectory, going down concrete steps to the underground mausoleum - the only way said Sister that the dead of the community was permitted to be buried by the Country Council. I was moved to stand beside the tomb of Father Sophrony and Sister Elizabeth and I placed my own Chotki on the tomb as a symbol of connection and of honouring this beautiful and trans formative way of prayer. Since visiting the UK I have carried this with me each day as a reminder and an encouragement to the silence of the heart.

There was no sense of hurry in this visit.  I was concerned about taking away this nun from her work but it was clear that I was her focus that afternoon and we finished with an agape of biscuits and tea in the other refectory. I experienced from Sister S what I hope to bring to this sense of call as a priest and philosopher of silence which is silence as availability and presence to be the frame for activity and speech.

'May I come and put the lights on for you' she asked when it was time for her to take her leave and I indicated some time for prayer and meditation in the chapel where Sophrony prayed each day. I responded that I like to pray in the darkness.  'Of course, the hesychast way' she responded as we parted. So after some time in the chapel and a visit to the shop to buy some icon reproductions of Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain it was time for me to complete the circle and travel back to London.

I am deeply grateful for the hospitality I received at Tollshunt Knights and the experience will remain with me of abiding in a great silence where the world of the senses and the material world, of time and space are taken up, transformed and renewed in the greater silence of the unity of the holy God, the ground and origin of all being.

As always such encounters take me back to the sense that I am always a beginner in the adventure of the spiritual journey and that my many mistakes have their origin of failing to live and work from an inner sense of being at home and of inner connection.  My constant unwisdom originates in a desire to live from the expectations of others and this always lacks this sense of holistic hospitality experienced at Tollshunt Knights.

Thanks to those who asked me to write on this theme.

Music that evokes silence

Silence and Music dance together like binary stars in the universe, holding each other in place and illuminating the sky in a great fire of movement and participation. This is the silence and melody which is transforming and renewing of the human spirit and of the environment not the music and silence at war with each other that forces apart our inner sense of rhythm and connection.

As I sit here this early autumn morning looking into a view scape of trees along a creek bed with a kookaburra hunting before my window, a gentle breeze stirring golden leaves on european trees I listen with delight to music by Toshio Hosokawa, JS Bach and Isang Yun and played by Thomas Demenga, an ECM new series CD.  This music seems to be deeply embedded in the natural, to flow and move like water in the creek flowing by, evoking the music of the soul.

How does music speak to you? It may be music you make for we like songbirds seem created to sing and make music and for many of the same reasons, the most important of which is that music expresses the soul with great lamentation as well as thankfulness and adoration, immersion in the ebbs and flows of life and to express our migratory flights in faith and imagination. Music may also be the music we listen to which we may choose to surround our moments of meditation and silence, of resting and being.
I am less inclined to use music as a background these days unless I am tired or on long car journeys where music can sharpen my senses and attunement.

May I commend to you the small group of readers who sojourn here possibly by mistake that you may explore the ECM catalogue? Pax Vobiscum!