A meditative reflection — what you might tremblingly call mystical theology, if you didn’t mind making a fool of yourself — for the community at Cliff College, Sheffield, on 28 January 2005.
Well, here we are at the beginning of another day. For some of us that thought produces eager anticipation. We can’t wait! For others right now (and for all of us at some point) the reaction is more prosaic. What will “get us through till nightfall?” as a former Methodist president, Colin Morris, once asked. (1)
This morning we are going to reflect on three very simple gifts that God imparts to us so that, along with food shared and friendship offered, we have all the resources we could possibly need to keep going. They are song, speech and silence.
Song is about the strange way in which we are carried towards heaven by the sheer poetry of music: lyricism beyond thought, sounds beyond noise, and feelings beyond words. A mystery that – if we will allow – fills our lungs, animates our bodies, and brings us into the presence of the Holy One.
[Hymn or song]
OK, that’s one example. If it doesn’t do it for you, I’m sure you have your own, and that you can play it in your mind’s ear when things get tough. Or when you want to be brought back into God’s presence. Maybe it’s even one you can share with someone else. In African-American culture the result of this process is ‘Spirituals’: songs that turn our ears and eyes towards hope, even when our minds and bodies are mired in despair. They don’t just ‘take our fancy’, they re-shape our mind and imagination.
So take a moment to think what your song might be. Think, hear… don’t sing. It doesn’t matter how crazy what’s playing in your head seems. It can still become God’s song in a strange land.
And what of the speech? Well, it goes on all the time. It’s a constant hum. We can’t avoid it. But what, really, is speech? It is truly addressing, and being truly addressed by, another. It’s encounter. In those terms, many of our words and much of our talk isn’t speech at all.
Real speech requires few words. God speaks just one word to us. God speaks a word and the world comes into being, says Genesis. From St John we learn that this one Word has become flesh, full of grace and truth. In Hebrews we discover that God’s one word is ‘yes’. And in the Book of Revelation this one word is fulfilled in the great ‘amen’. It is done. We are made whole.
God’s one word in three. A word in which we are invited to share. And the name for that participation is prayer, the word that is given to us so that it may be given back and forth in endless loving exchange. This word is beyond our manipulation, but it never returns empty. So prayer is discovered to be both the condition for, and the summation of, all authentic speech.
God speaks us into being, speaks us beyond death, and speaks us into life. To which the only word that can sum up an adequate response is: praise.
Take a moment to think what your one word of praise might be today. Think, don’t say. It doesn’t matter how crazy that word in you head is. It is your secret with God, refreshing a dry land.
As we begin this day, and hear this word, we are mindful of the pain of the world, the longing of the church and the needs of all those we love and who love us.
So let us offer all with whom we wish to be united in prayer in the words that Jesus gave to us.
[The Lord’s Prayer]
Song. Speech. And what of silence? Silence is of three kinds, as we shall discover from our Scripture reading in a moment.
• The silence brought about by disaster
• The silence brought about by not knowing what to say
• And the silence brought about by unexpected recognition
Now I am an Anglican, and it has been uncharitably (but not entirely unfairly) said that in the Church of England ‘silence’ is often little more than a moment of unspeakable anxiety between a prayer and a hymn.
You and I live in a culture where silence is difficult, suspect, worrying, a bit renegade. More a threat than a promise. Why? Because silence reminds us of what we do not know, what we cannot say, what we cannot understand and what we cannot control. It reminds us of God. As the Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez has rightly observed, silence is therefore the only appropriate starting point for anything that aspires to call itself theology.
Where we start is not with our own cacophony, but the with the utter, un-nameable mystery of God. The still, small voice that is but a murmur, barely audible. Not a shout, but a whisper. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given” – as the Word becomes flesh, is silenced on the Cross, and is raised beyond the hubbub to re-deem it with new life.
And then comes the Spirit, who turns our silence into words again; who silences the powers-that-be with glossalalia; who silently enters our hearts, and who (says St Paul) gives silent voice to the prayers we cannot find in the face of pain and loss.
Strangely, God’s silence turns out to be the condition of our speech. And God’s speech reduces us to silence, if we have any sense. So we listen to God’s word to us in silence, and invite it to become a song in our hearts.
[The Journey to Emmaus: St Luke 4. 13 -32]
Let us now spend a brief moment in deep silence, allowing this story to pour itself into our souls.
Nicholas Lash writes:
The disciples on the road to Emmaus were not, strictly speaking, silenced by the shattering disaster of Jesus’ crucifixion. As they walked those ‘seven miles’, they were ‘talking with each other about all these things that had happened.’
But they don’t know what to say. The stranger who joins them on the road does not change the facts… Jesus of Nazareth remains, as they say ‘condemned to death and crucified’.
What the stranger does, as he takes them back through the history of Israel, and the Scriptures which they thought they knew so well, is to give them an entirely new sense of what has been going on. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us?’ they say later, as they gradually began to see the point; began, we might say, to speak a quite new language, to glimpse a world quite different from the world they thought they knew.
At the end of the road, the context is one of hospitality; they invite the stranger in. He is the guest; they are his hosts. At least, this would have been so, in the world that dies on Calvary. What they discover, when they are at table, is that it is they in fact who are the guests; and it is he who is the host.
And then, at last, ‘they recognised him, and he vanished from their sight.’ That last phrase is, perhaps, misleading, because the one who ‘vanished’ was the kind of man you meet along the road; one in the figure of a human being bounded, as all human beings are, by mortality. What they ‘recognised’, as they began to see the point, was his new presence as the bread he broke, the life he shared, at the beginning of this new conversation which is, for all eternity, uninterruptible. (3)
God’s song. God’s speech. God’s silence. May they shape who we are this day, and for all eternity…
(1) Colin Morris, Get Through ‘Till Nightfall (Fount, 1978).
(2) The Hebrew word, meaning ‘pause for thought’, as used in the Psalms of David.
(3) Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God Today (Ashgate, 2004).