This is the second of three addresses by Carol O’Connor given at a Quiet Day, directed by Carol and musician and spiritual director Cath Connelly, for the Institute for Spiritual Studies. The title of the Quiet Day comes from Psalm 72: ‘Put your ear to the ground and listen.’ The Day was held at St James Anglican Church, Point Lonsdale, on Saturday the 25th of March 2017.
A hedge of trees surrounds me, a blackbird’s lay sighs to me, praise I shall not conceal,
Above my lined book the trilling of the birds sings to me.
A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me in a gray cloak from the tops of bushes,
May the Lord save me from Judgment; well do I write under the greenwood.
This is one of the earliest extant Irish poems. (Davies 259-60)
In this second address, I want to focus more on our being earthed in God, and on the action of stretching down. The large Celtic stone crosses of Ireland are held steadfast upon the land on stone plinths. This tells us something about being held secure in God. Likewise, God himself has come down to us on earth in the Incarnation and walked amongst us as a person. God knows what it’s like to be one of us. And, like the well the Samaritan woman stood beside when she met Jesus, ours is a faith that we can go down into, to draw up God’s life. This being earthed and being able to go down inside ourselves and draw up, requires a real listening out for God’s presence at work in our lives and in the world. And for the Celtic Christians it meant also a faith that wherever we are on this Earth the Trinity is there encircling us:
The path I walk, Christ walks it. May the land in which I am, be without sorrow.
May the Trinity protect me wherever I stay, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Bright angels walk with me - dear Presence - in every dealing.
From a Prayer Book in the late 8th century (Davies 300)
LISTENING TO THE WORD OF GOD
Rowan Williams speaks about listening in Spirit in the Desert. In Sydney, in 2001, he gave a series of address on the Desert Fathers and Mothers for the John Main Seminar. These addresses became the basis of his book Silence and Honey Cakes. I have chosen to cite his spoken words from the actual address because the language here I find more visual, poetic and direct. It is worth noting, though, that when he makes this same this point in Silence and Honey Cakes he reflects that here he is borrowing an image of God that comes from ancient Hindu texts. In the address he says:
God speaks into darkness the word of creation and the word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonics of sounds in the world. And as we speak, or try to speak truthfully, perhaps what are doing is far less having to hang labels around the things of the world than to try and find these harmonics, to try and speak in tune with that world first spoken into silence and darkness. The image often comes to me of creation is of first God makes a great cave and then reaches into it, speaks into it a Word. And from the cave the echoes come back - differently pitched, differently aimed, a world of Word. And we find our place in that .…by listening for the harmonics, trying to speak in tune with them. Not to speak from our will and our passions to control, but almost as if to speak as if we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the music of the spheres.
There’s a resonance here I think in Williams description of the relationship between Word and harmonics, with the Celtic Christian understanding of our own relationship with God - in scripture and in Jesus in whom, we are called to listen. ‘My song is Love Unknown’ opens Samuel Crossman’s 17th century Passiontide hymn. Jesus is the song of love and with him and in him we can listen out for the dissonances and harmonies and silences of our own life and our lives together every day.
LISTENING IN THE WORLD
Listening to the music of the spheres here implies a willingness to develop a more finely attuned appreciation of our environment. And for the early Celtic Christians local environment or place was very important. Our bodies belong in a geographical landscape. In putting our ear to the ground and listening, we become aware of all sorts of nuances not perhaps even noticed before. Language itself has edges. In the act of listening there’s a drawing back of self, a holding back of thoughts and feelings, so that another sense can become attuned. There is withdrawal so something else is invited into the space. The Celtic Christians were so naturally at home in this type of attunement with their environment. Sensitivities to the world meant that edges and boundaries were as credible to them as any materiality; this is their inheritance from the nomadic Celts. These were a people familiar with the world not seen, at home in the blurry and the obscure. They knew that these liminal spaces were deeply creative places to be. Here, all sorts of crossovers and connections could be made.
This depth of understanding about the Celtic Christian tradition is written about particularly well by John O’Donohue; the importance of paying attention to the not visible, hearing in the silence, is an ongoing theme in his work. This is the place where prayer is born. Its natural movement is downwards. In his book Anam Cara O’Donohue says, ‘If there were a spiritual journey it would only be a ¼ inch long, though many miles deep. It would be a swerve into rhythm with your deeper nature and presence ...You do not have to go away outside yourself to come into real conversation with your soul and with the mysteries of the spiritual world. The eternal is at home - within you.’ (O’Donohue 120) This echoes to me of something Carl Jung in his seventies said to a student: ‘My journey has been to climb down 10 000 ladders so that now at the end of my life I can reach out the hand of friendship to this little clod of earth that I am.’ Conversations within the human soul happen in a very deep silent space. Anam Cara is the only book I know where the author in the prologue confesses to a ‘silent hidden seventh chapter which embraces the ancient namelessness at the heart of the human self.’ After the sixth chapter which is on Death, there is no chapter 7 because it is silent and hidden deep within ourselves.
Silence also has very real healing properties, not often acknowledged even today. It gives us the gap of reflection.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SILENCE
“This was a time of transition for the Church, and life was not easy within the community on Lindisfarne. There were dangers of continued divisions and factions over the Celtic and Roman usages. Cuthbert had to be a great diplomat and steer a very careful path. The rule of life that he introduced at this stage was a mixture of the best of both worlds, the Celtic and the Benedictine. If arguments amongst the monks over the old and new ways became too heated, Cuthbert would calmly arise from his chair and leave the room, thus dissolving the chapter. He would return the next day as though the wrangling had never happened, and the brethren would be given a chance to sort out their differences peaceably. If they again resorted to heated argument, again Cuthbert would dissolve the meeting. This would continue until a more peaceful settlement was found. Amid frequent and great difficulties, Cuthbert remained calm and cheerful. His humour was something that often helped to win the day.” (Adam 62)
These words aren’t only about St Cuthbert’s cheerful, calm, humourous temperament. They tell us something about a wise human temperament. Cuthbert knows how to handle disputes and arguments. When things get hot and impasse happens, we all need cooling off times. Cuthbert knows the hidden grace of silence. We all need this wisdom to know when to let go and let the spirit come in. The monks on Lindisfarne needed time together to air their differences. But they also needed time apart. How much time before a peaceful decision could be made? Cuthbert didn’t know. He trusted the process and knew that these periods were imperative to the finding of a truthful outcome for the community. For all his qualities of calmness, letting go of his own agenda, having a sense of humour, and listening widely and seeing more deeply, he recognised that he was not in charge, God was. At the same time, Cuthbert’s leadership needed to be dynamic and vital. In a recent sermon given by Bp Graeme Rutherford, I liked his inversion of the well-known expression from Let Go and Let God, to it actually needing to be: Let God and Get Going. We all need to be energised and engaged in the day-to-day rhythm of our lives; and, at the same time, pay due honour to the need for gaps, for silence. Let God and Get Going is a recognition that whilst God is overseer of the journey of life itself, we too need to fulfil our role as participatory and engaged.
GIVING SILENCE TO ONE ANOTHER
Cuthbert is teaching us here about the value of time for engagement, and of time for silence. So much of our speech today (my speech) is quick and impulse-driven; we’re often in the pursuit of a rapid outcome. We fail to offer the gift of silence to one another. Or, the benefit of revisiting a conversation in a changed way, after time of reflection. Completing a list of tasks so easily becomes our only agenda. Even in conversation someone may tell us a personal problem and we feel it’s up to us to solve it now.
Misunderstandings can abound because we fail to take the necessary time to be silent and listen, to reflect upon the words we use; the possibilities concerning what other people are hearing; properly hearing what they are telling us; and even our own felt responses. Being caught up in the impetus of the next task, or driven by unquestioned assumptions, we fail to be mindful to one another. We forget to mind the gap, to mind the holy silence between one another.
TRUSTING THE SILENCE AND GETTING GOING