Sunday, 9 March 2014
Enjoy the silence
"The Lord God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being." Jesus' journey in the wilderness takes us right back to the beginning of creation, to that passage of Genesis we heard in our first reading. The ancient Jews thought we were made from the dust of the earth, with God breathing life into us, and while that doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny nowadays, our modern ideas about the origins of existence are not so different. The Christian doctrine is that God created ex nihilo, from nothing. He didn't have some stuff to hand from which He made us, like playdough: God is the name we give to that which is beyond all matter, all space and time. The closest we can come to describing His creative act is to say with St John, "in the beginning was the Word:" as Word, God breathed all being into existence from indescribable silence and nothingness. So, in a way, we do all come from the same "dust": from the same nothingness as everything else in the universe. And to dust we shall return, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday. Our bodies are not going to last forever, and nor is the universe. God made us from nothing, and to nothing we shall return.
Now Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into a dusty, empty place: the silent and primordial wilderness, an arid place, where there is no life, no bustle, no noise. Jesus, the pinnacle of existence, God Incarnate, is led back towards nothingness. Jesus, the Word of God, the Word spoken to bring all things into being, is led back towards silence, and there He starts His journey towards the silence of the grave.
There are different kinds of silence. For example, there's that peaceful silence of a soundly sleeping child, for example. Or there's the tense silence, the sort you can almost cut, between two people who've been arguing. There's the silence of expectation, of the drawn in breath, as the conductor lifts the baton and you wait for the first note of the concert to sound.
The kind of silence we are guided towards in Lent is the sort that Jesus was guided into in the wilderness. But it's a chameleon silence, a silence that can take the form of any of those kinds I just mentioned, and maybe others too. It can be peaceful, as we rest in full knowledge of God's love for us and his forgiveness for our faults and sins. But at times it may be stressful and tense, as we wrestle with that Devil in our heads or in our hearts who tests us with difficult and unwanted questions about ourselves. It may even be the silence of waiting, uncertainty, doubt: is the Kingdom really coming, do I really believe in the promises of Easter that are to come? It might be any of these kinds of silence at some time or another, depending on where you are and how deeply you enter into it. But one thing that all these kinds of silence has in common is that they are honest.
There's an ancient Christian story about three friends who wanted to give their lives to God's service. One became a peacemaker, going between the leaders of the ruling tribes to turn them from war. The second became a healer. The third retreated into the desert to spend his life in prayer as a hermit.
Some years later, the peacemaker found that for all his efforts, there was still war in the land, and he became despondent, convinced that his efforts were futile. The healer, for all his work, could not cure all the sick who came to him, and was exhausted almost to the point of mental breakdown. So they went to see their hermit friend in his tent in the wilderness. They sat down inside, and he looked at them, saying nothing. And saying nothing. Just looking at them. Finally, the peacemaker broke: "why aren't you talking to us? Can't you see that we need your help?"
The hermit placed a bowl in front of them and pulled a waterskin from its hook. He poured the water into the bowl and asked them what they could see.
The water was still sloshing about, bubbling a little, and murky with dust. The friends, somewhat irritated by this little game, said that they could see nothing. The hermit remained silent.
After a minute or two of silence, the hermit invited his friends to look again. What could they see?
The water had settled. It was still and calm, and the dust had sunk to the bottom. And in the bowl, what the friends saw was themselves, reflected, their faces tired, drawn, angry, depressed.
Silence is a mirror which shows us as we really are. Silence shows us our sins. Silence is unrelentingly honest, which is why it can be hard to bear. But we need silence. The Word spoke from silence in creation, and if we nurture inner silence, that Word can speak in us.
Jesus had to enter the wilderness to confront the Devil, because that was his preparation for the empty silence of the tomb that awaited Him after the Crucifixion. Yet He goes into that emptiness, that dead space, and by the Holy Spirit breathes from it a fuller life than we can imagine. If we cannot understand the extent of the nothingness that creation came from, how much less can we understand the joyful fullness that awaits us at the end of time!
We will fully understand the fullness of Jesus' Resurrection joy at Easter, we will fully feel the sheer power of His love which saves us and gives us eternal life even though our bodies return to dust, only if we too pass through the wilderness and look at ourselves in the mirror of silence. So I urge you, make some time for silence this Lent.
We now enter the mystery of Jesus' sacrifice which is beyond words, but which He rather taught us in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine.
Posted by Tom Plant