Good morning. I'm glad you're here. I know that it wasn't easy to be here. Especially at this time of year. All of us have many pressing things to do-- things that have been put off, or won't get done-- or, if we are very lucky-- will be done by others just so we can be here. To do what? Nothing-- everything.
It's difficult to explain to people-- your spouse, kids, friends, bosses, and employees why you have to be here--"You're doing what? Spending a day without talking? Why do you have to go to church to do that?" "What has that got to do with religion?" "Are you becoming a Buddhist?" "We're Episcopalians-- we do Church fetes not days of silence."
Yet it is meet and right, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that we gather together now--in Advent--to spend some time in Silence--in waiting--for the Lord. What we are doing ties us, in all four dimensions, to the Church Universal.
Monks and laity throughout both the Eastern and Western Church--Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox as well as some Lutherans--in every part of globe-- are now, at this very moment, entering into silent prayer with Our Lord.From Carthusians in Vermont who live hermit lives and never leave their mountain valley monastery to Massachusett's very own bishop who, despite his overwhelming schedule, has an hour each day and a day each week devoted to silent prayer. When we enter into the silence we are joined with them in a profound way in the worship of and communion with the Almighty.
It ties us to the Church Eternal. The tradition of silence runs deep within the Christian church. For some here, that is not what is thought of as "church". Those of you who are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of the Reformation, place a primary emphasis in one's spiritual hierarchy, on the Word. Text, whether it is the written revelation of the Scriptures or the oral teaching that which is coveyed through your preacher's sermon, is the preferred method for the understanding and worship of God. Silence, then for those so inclined, seems an odd notion--anti-intellectual at best, and perhaps even dangerous to one's spiritual life-- what is the old saw about lazy hands as the Devil's workshop-- well to that theology how much more spiritual damage could a lazy mind do? It makes one shutter to contemplate.
But that is exactly what the Church, following the example of the Lord and his commands in the Gospels have done since the time of the Desert Fathers in the Third Century. Whether it was going away for forty day retreats or praying in Gethesemi the night before the Trials began, Jesus continually absented himself from society to be quietly with the Father. The In Matthew we are told to pray alone--
When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father, who is unseen.
In the 46th Psalm it is even more direct: we are commanded to "be still and know that I am God."
"Be Still and Know That I Am God." That is what we are going to try to do today. We are going to slow down--like the Jews who are commanded not to work on Shabbat-- we are not going to work--including our minds. We are going to something this world considers profoundly radical, indeed dangerous-- we are going to be completely non productive.
We are not going to figure out God,as theologians try to do. We are not going to plead to God-- as we do during our prayers of the faithful. We are not going to determine what God wants us to do--as our spiritual directors would have us do. We are not going to speak about our transgressions and ask forgiveness--as we would do with our confessors. We are not going to try and repair the world-- as the social gospel directs. No,we are going to do none of those things-- as worthy and important as they ae. We are going to be still--that is, to rest in God's providence-- and just know that the Lord exists.
This sort of "knowing" is beyond reason. It is the knowing of a lover-- you know, just know, in the deepest recesses of your core being, that you have and will always have your mom and dad's love. It does not need, indeed, such a love resists, intellectual dissection. It is a feeling, an enveloping, a presence and consciousness that fills one's being. Those os us who have been married for a long while know this with a spouse. Perhaps the physical dimensions of love are not as frequent as in earlier days and the vocal utterances less automatic, but the ability to be, just be--without the need to say a word --for hours in your partner's presence is proof, if any proof would be required, that one is loved--completely.
So that's it then, eh? Ok, right. Let's get on with it. Time for you, Nuzzo, to shut up and let the silence begin...where is that bliss???
Well, unfortunately, it's not that easy. Silence for us is not something we are used to and so we need help, we need examples of those members of the Church who have gone before us, to act as guides along the way. Fortunately as I mentioned before, there have been many saints who have perfected this ability-- Julian of Norwich, Bruno of Grenoble and in our own time, Thomas Merton from whom we can learn.
But this is Advent and so it is appropriate that we learn from the Church's greatest mystic--Our Lady, The Blessed Virgin Mary. It was in her silence that she awaited the Angel. It was in her silence that she awaited the death of her Son, it was through silence that she bore the burdens that a mother must know, it was through silence that Love came into the world.
The silence that we seek needs to be, like Mary's, both external and internal. By not talking, not communicating, we become receivers not transmitters. It heightens our perceptions of our senses-- the clock in the back with its metonomic tick, the smell of candle wax or Pledge, that small arthritic ache in my little left finger, the color of the stained glass, the sheen of the marble--all take the place of the conversation and all of them are distractions from the task at hand.
See, I just told you that this silence stuff is not as easy as it looks. As with Mary, the silence we seek is more than external quiet. It is a sense of receptivity to the "small, still voice of God." It will require taking on the characteristics of the Blessed Mother: a heart that is calmed of passions and appetites, that possesses a sense of meekness and compassion that eliminates the filter of a preening ego that wishes to place its will upon the universe--indeed, upon God. Instead it is a soul that waits in ready hope and anticipation of the call of the Lord. Recall that Mary did not have knowledge of what would lie in store for herself or her Son when she said yes to Gabriel. But she trusted in God's plan with a humility of faith and abandonment of will
Thus we seek a soul which bends its essence to that of the Divine will and receives all that it has through His Graces. That is what Mary did. That is what Mary does and that should be what our model should be. As Gerald Manley Hopkins, the Ninetieth Century English Jesuit and poet put it about the life of Our Lady:
This one work had to do-- Let all God's glory through
Now, such a sense of receptivity, this self emptying to God's will, does not happen in a day, a month or a year. But like Dorothy was told by Glenda the Good Witch of the North, when she asked how to get to Oz, "It is always best to begin at the beginning."
Today we do begin at the beginning, now for some of us, this will be a fresh second or third or more beginning--which is as it should be no matter how much experience we have . Indeed, the Zen master, Soen Suzuki, was fond of saying that we should always have a beginner's mind. For others of us this will indeed be a new experience.
Now just before I noted that exterior silence is not our end-- and indeed it is not-- but it is our means.
As Christians we understand, as Our Lady knew better than anyone, that ours is an immanent faith--it is lived through and by our bodies. To achieve internal silence, we must have control over our external selves-- our bodies. Find a place to be still. For some of us that will be a pew, a chair maybe a couch in the Rector's study. For others it may be the floor of the sanctuary or a back aisle sitting or kneeling on a pillow. It doesn't matter. What matters is that it be a place that you can just BE for a period of time.
Now after you settle into that place become conscious of your body--feel your self breathe, your heart tick, the weight of your arms on your thighs, the tilt of your head on your neck, the straightness of your spine. This is where you are--right now.
During this period of quiet, let your mind focus upon the Life of Our Lady, bring yourself into to room when Mary hears the Angel Gabriel, when she rushes to the door to meet her kinswoman Elizabeth to give each other the news of their pregnancies, be there as Mary hears the fortune for her Son at his presentation at the Temple, as she watches him wither in pain upon the cross.
When your mind wanders from these thoughts, when the fly that lands upon your nose diverts your attention, pay it little mind--don't be cross with yourself, brush the fly off, feel the ache of your legs, but get it go like water rushing by. And return back to the emptying of will that is Mary.
One last point. For some, this period may be just too long and you might be a bit nervous about "sticking it out" . There are no grades and there is no graduation but the grave. Whatever you can accomplish-- great. If you need to go outside to talk, you know where the doors are-- just please do it gently and speak quietly. If you want there are some books in the Rector's study to read.
There is no good, better, best here.
As John Mortimer, the author of the wonderful Rumpole of the Bailey books, once wrote-- an old criminal had just been given a 20 year sentence for robbery and the judge asked if he had any last words before he was remanded into custody. "Yes," he said. He told the judge that he was approaching 70 and didn't think that he could finish his sentence. "Well, "the judge replied,"just do as much of it as you can."