Friday, 6 November 2015

All Saints, All Ears


"Listen:" the first word of the Rule of St Benedict, one of the oldest rules of life for monks and nuns. One word, carefully chosen, one simple order given as the basis for the entire spiritual life. Benedict could have chosen another word, like obey, or pray, or preach, or work, but his experience told him that all that comes later. First, just listen. I think it's harder than ever really to listen, there's so much to distract us nowadays.
We do spend a lot of time pretending to listen, though. How many times have you heard politicians being interviewed saying "I hear you?" - and you know full well that what they really mean is, I hear you, but I haven't got time actually to listen to you. Your words have passed through my ears, but I'm not going to bother to process them now, because what I've got to say is more important.
But it's not just politicians - most of us are guilty. You visit an ailing and elderly relative, and you're sick of hearing about their cocktail of afflictions, what medicines they're taking, and it doesn't help if they're slow of speech or hard of hearing, so if they talk too much you shut them up or if they don't talk enough you fill in the awkward silences by blathering on about the weather, or Corrie, or the kids' achievements, or anything - except them. And when you leave (because there's always something important to do right after the visit, isn't there?) you console yourself that you've been and "cheered them up." But might it just be, if we're honest, that actually, we dread expending the emotional energy of being with people in their pain and their grief? We change the subject, we watch the clocks, we make excuses. Anything but listen.
The saints are people who spend their lives listening: not just with their ears, but with their whole being, completely receptive: to God, of course. Receptive in their prayer, in their study, in their work, but also in their relationships, especially with the suffering and the needy whom they serve. So open, listening so deeply, that they become like antennae, receiving God's love and then transmitting it into the world. Note the order: you have to be a receiver before you can be a transmitter. Hence the priority in St Benedict's Rule of that first word, right at the top of the list for the spiritual life: "listen."
Listening for God like the Saints is something we can all do. OK, our attention might be consumed by work, children, bills, ringing telephones, SMS, emails, Facebook. But the saints weren't exactly layabouts, and they managed. St Francis, St John Vianney, Mother Teresa, weren't cloistered up, but lived serving the poor in harsh conditions, and yet were profoundly still and spiritually receptive. St Ignatius of Loyola founded and led the entire Jesuit society, and yet is famed for the insight of his Spiritual Exercises.
OK, you might say, but none of them had children. But there is a long line of married saints, in fact, starting with Mary and Joseph. Think of someone like Rowan Williams, who has a wife and children and yet has somehow managed not only to be one of the stillest, holiest people I have met, but also to knock out a best-seller every year even while he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Or, indeed, of children who were saints themselves, like Saint Bernadette with her visions of Our Lady in Lourdes.
I know, first hand, that singles and married, children and pensioners alike, can learn to love the stillness and silence of prayer. You don't have to be a monk or a nun, and you don't have to wait until your hair's turned grey. We can all be people of deep prayer, listeners to God, saints.
I'd go so far as to say that prayer is the whole point of being Christian. Just last week, I was in a remote Anglican friary in deepest, darkest Worcestershire. It's near my parent's house, and I often drive over there for mass, praying that my tyres will make it up the unmade road (and I did have a lucky escape one frozen winter morning). This time, I was only there for about an hour and a half. There were about ten people in the chapel, including the Franciscan brothers, keeping silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, preparing for the Eucharist. But the silence wasn't empty. They say you could "cut" the silence, generally when it's of the negative sort, but this was a positive silence, even radiant. It was silence you could drink, and still be left panting for more. It wasn't just an absence of noise: it was a silence with substance, a silence that you could tell came from within the people gathered there: no twitching, no clockwatching, no playing with mobile 'phones. I took some of that wonderful silence with me, and as I drove home saw the world in brighter colours, calmly aware that God was there in all of it and all would be well. And I thought: if only I could see the world like this all the time. If only we all could. If only we could make the space, take the time out of our often pointless busyness, and see the world and each other as the gift that they are.
This vision doesn't have to be a fantasy, for you or for me. St Benedict counselled dividing the day equally into three parts: prayer, work and rest. We might not be able to make quite that balance, but we can surely make some. We can prioritise and make time for some silence - silence in our environment that will feed our inner silence. We can make time not just to hear but to listen to God. Our own Anglican tradition, enshrined in the Prayer Book, gives us a very practical rhythm for doing this: the Daily Office of psalms and readings every morning and evening. It and the modern Common Worship office are available free, online or as an App for computers, tablets, and 'phones, so you don't even have to flick through the pages, and you can pray anywhere, at home, on the train, in the car park waiting to pick up the kids. Or you can pick up a short version from the back of church, and all you need is a Bible to go with it.
Advent is coming, our time of spiritual preparation for Christmas, of calm before the irruption of God into the world. How are you going to find that inner silence, silence like the Virgin's womb, silence like the empty tomb, to make way for God to be born and reborn in you? There are so many ways to train the soul to be like the saints and listen.

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