Some years ago now, I discovered the value of silence, especially in the context of prayer.
My practice of silence as a regular discipline has varied over the years – I’ve been thinking recently that I could do with making more of an effort to build it in to my daily routines.
I was brought up in the Open Brethren. For all their faults, there was so much that gave me a healthy foundation for my own spiritual life. One of those was the importance of silence in worship. We had no pastor, no paid leaders, and there was a degree of openness that encouraged every member to play their part. (Like many churches – as long as they were male, in those days)
Our morning meeting on a Sunday had no written liturgy, and what happened would be different each week. We would be guided, we prayed, by the Holy Spirit. There would be hymns sung, scripture read, and prayers prayed. No long sermons – maybe a brief thought, usually related to one of the scriptures that had been read. And quite a lot of silence.
The value of silence
I remember particularly a book by M.Basil Pennington – Call to the Centre that helped me establish a way of praying with silence.
The other key moment was watching a series on BBC – The Big Silence – sadly no longer available on BBC iPlayer, but no doubt available on DVD.
When on Sabbatical in 2009, and during the time that I was discovering again the value of silence, I attended a Quaker meeting and wrote a bit about it here. The meeting reminded me of my own early experience of church with extended periods of silence. This kind of silence can be generative – lead to new thoughts and actions that work for the good of all. You know the phrase – ‘a pregnant pause?’ I suppose a pause is a kind of silence, and the pregnant pause is one that’s full of meaning, waiting to come out. It reminds me that silence can be generative, and that out of this silence, something new can be born.
Those with social privilege have the option to remain silent.
However, not all silence is helpful. The silence experienced by many people will not be chosen but coerced. I remember being a part of conversations where the subjects of religion and politics were outlawed – and yes, they can get boring and unproductive. But part of the reason why these discussions are out of bounds is because the privileged and the comfortably secure don’t want to have their position challenged, and because of their privilege they can choose not to have the debate anyway.
I was listening to a programme on the radio yesterday – ‘Green Inc’. Unpacking the multi-billion-dollar industry that’s rebranding the oil and gas industry as green. Whilst investing huge amounts into prolonging the oil and gas industry, there’s an attempt to persuade us that it’s not so bad after all. One way of silencing others is to shout louder and longer using the best of modern media in an attempt to drown out alternative voices.
Many of us have experienced this in our church life. We’ve heard the dominant voices and wanted to speak, but somehow there hasn’t been a forum for that conversation, or we have lacked the courage. In churches that are led by strong willed clergy, it may be hard for other voices to be heard. Even in more egalitarian faith communities, it’s often the most confident who speak the most, and they may not be the best voices to listen to.
Women, the Gay community, Black voices, the Poor generally – all have struggled to resist the forces that have threatened to silence them. There’s a verse in Exodus chapter 2 that I have mentioned recently in another post, where over many years, the Hebrew voice has been silenced by oppression.
“The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.”
The period of slavery in Egypt left them voiceless. In desperation they cry out in the hope that someone will hear them. The road to freedom started with that cry, but they would need determination to follow through on that path.
So what about those who do not have a voice – those who are forced in one way or another to stay silent. We may not even realise that it’s happening, but in any situation where one voice, or one set of voices are dominant, it’s likely that other voices are not able to speak.
You may recognise in your own experience times when you have wanted to speak, but not felt able to.
You may remember times when you have tried to speak, but found that your voice is drowned out by others.
Conversely, you may recognise in your own words and actions times when you have prevented others from speaking.
May we move to a place where all voices can be heard and listened to, and that we pay attention especially to the voices that are coming from a different place to our own.
Grace and Peace, and good listening.