I Kings 19:11-13; Psalm 46
“Be still and know that I am God.”
As mid-winter approaches and the days grow shorter, so the splendid sunrise of summer has been replaced by early morning darkness. But suddenly, at precisely 6 a.m., the lights in the sanctuary chapel below our house shine through its lead latticed windows. The monks have started their vigil of psalms, prayers and meditation. There are still four more times of prayer, or “offices” during the day when the monks will practice their daily discipline of prayer, reflection on Scripture, and communion. Sometimes some of us living here will join them, invited by the ringing of the bell to do so. This sound is also a reassuring sign that whatever else might have changed, whatever other uncertainties face us, the essential service of prayer for the world continues. Monks do more than pray, but for them prayer is at the centre of their daily work: ora et labora as St. Benedict insisted.
At noon, the ringing of the bell invites us to join in silent prayer. No psalms are recited, no scripture is read, no bread is broken, there is only silence until the final brief blessing. This midday interruption in our daily lives is like hitting the pause button on your TV. The time has come to stop and become more aware of the mystery of the One “in whom we live, move and have our being.” “Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalmist wrote, not as a command but as an invitation to get life into perspective. We need that daily reminder. Stop and remember that this is God’s world, not one in which we can do as we please. Stop and remember that God loves this world and wants us to reciprocate. Stop and reflect on what this means for us in relation to the environment, the poor, one another, and living both during this pandemic and beyond it. Stop chattering and enter the silence filled with real presence. For contemplation is not navel-gazing. It is lifting up of heart and mind in order to listen to the Word beyond words that was “with God in the beginning” when the world was born in cosmic silence, the Word that becomes flesh to redeem and transform us.
It is my custom to read the newspaper headlines on-line each morning. Quite apart from being curious to know what is going on, I take seriously the dictum that we need to read the Bible and the newspaper side by side in order to make sure our faith in God is connected to reality. But I was taken by surprise last week as I paged through the Guardian to read the following headline: “After the restlessness finally there’s stillness: my last stage of coronavirus isolation.” Ah, yes, I said to myself that must surely be the theme of my meditation this week: “Finally there is silence!” After being bombarded by information about Covid-19, both true and false, after catching up on all the statistics, after all the “war talk” and stories of restlessness, anxiety, frustration, and suffering, along with some comic relief and creative innovation, “finally, there is silence!” Ironically, this headline rang bells as loudly and clearly as the noon-day bell.
The article in the Guardian was written by Brigid Delaney, an Australian journalist who, so she tells us, had often been “to monasteries and religious retreats seeking calmness” but now, during the pandemic she had the “same experience at home.” In fact, she observes, “This might be the first and only chance we have the time and mental space to experience true and prolonged stillness” because we have all been forced to settled “into a slower-paced rhythm. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to be.” Some might be horrified by this shutdown, for it is not easy to enter silence, but Delaney turned it into opportunity. “Panic, grief, then wonder: the virus has taken away my old life and replaced it with something new.” She had, she says, “dropped down into stillness.”
Mystics compare this stillness beneath the surface of our lives to our experience of a turbulent sea. On the surface we are pushed and pulled by currents and wind. But if we dive deep beneath the surface, we discover what the Bible calls “the sound of sheer silence.” The phrase comes in the story about the prophet Elijah hiding from the wrath of Queen Jezebel on Mt. Horeb after having destroyed the prophets of Baal. As he stands on the mountain side seeking guidance for his next move, he is buffeted by a wind so great that it could split mountains and break rocks, but “the Lord was not in the wind.” Then came an earthquake followed by a roaring fire, but the Lord was in neither. But finally, we are told, “after the fire” there was “a sound of sheer silence.”
Many people have experienced a distressing loneliness during the pandemic lockdown, especially those who live on their own, or lie in a hospital bed unable to be visited by family or friends, even anticipating dying in isolation. For them, the silence has become unbearable. Others, living in crowded shacks or in apartments with partners and children, have also found the noise unbearable. They have longed for silence; any silence would be better. But the “sheer silence” Elijah experienced is neither the silence of loneliness, nor is it the silence of escape from others or responsibility. It is a silence we can experience whether we live alone or in families and community. It is the silence of presence and discernment.
The core business of Volmoed is to provide space in which people can enter that silence. And because we can offer this space to those who want to come apart during this pandemic lockdown and beyond, we have decided to set aside several houses on Volmoed for people who want to spend isolation time here in a meaningful way. The terms and conditions of the lockdown apply, but Volmoed offers space for walking, an opportunity for being alone or as a couple in beautiful surroundings, as well as daily prayer in the chapel (where social distancing is practiced) and spiritual direction if requested. And nearby restaurants are providing and delivering uncooked meals! If this speaks to your need, or that of someone you know and may even wish to sponsor, please be in touch and come “drop into silence!” But whether you come to visit or not, may you also “finally have some silence” during this time of plague.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 7 May 2020