THE VOICE OF SILENCE
There is the silence of air and space In which breathing is a momentous act And contemplation stretches like a long beach in the sun Of limitless horizons There is the muffled deadness which descends like the padded ceiling of a too-small room left windowless to the imagination which can no longer sing This is a desperate desert pilgrimage No stones mark the exit from the valley Where music is dumb and words fall limp From the trees: will we ever touch meaning again? When freedom comes, will we be capable Of walking out to face beyond ourselves The sun that burns and dazzles the presumption And the poverty of all we thought we knew Listen as harmony and dissonance Converse and rampage in our souls Play havoc with our ritual comfort certainties And call us to the terror of new freedoms Or will we turn away and stumble blind Among the ruins of our childhood building blocks Forever numb, imagining we can contain The voice of silence
Your name weighs heavy on the tongue, some days It has been taken hostage by a foreign power And rendered unpronounceable Light years away from those simple lines Traced in Aramaic on red sand That say, without pretension, ‘I am here’ Melting the heart of violence With forgiveness Buried under layers of gold leaf Or dazzling with the neon Vegas touch Moulded to fit the fashion of the times Your name is traded, branded, owned Nailed to the edifice of certainty To ward off those you do not love, at all, As knees bend fast To pick up the first stone Dragged through the mud of our self-interest The pasted overlay of our imaginings Is peeled away by time from all its lettering Restoring it to barefaced nudity Which calls out in the core of darkness To the poor, defiled and dispossessed The letters of your name Sketched out in seeds Deep-rooted in our soil Slow-growing into trees with healing leaves Breathe life into our tired skies And the windows of our souls.
This year May we risk believing That old bruised fruit Can grow new skin That the tables in our temples Can be overturned Dust shaken from rugs Threadbare and worn Their colour, renewed. That the fragile pier of faith Which juts into the sea Will hold up when we walk On turbulent waters Its rotting wood Lovingly Excised and restored
Into the absence Inert chaos of nil A word falls Fires the cosmos With pure presence Extracts from grey nonbeing Energy of light Divides it from the dark Crystal shards Suffuse the universe In flowing colour Reflect in liquid movement Essence of life Give shadow from the heat Retire behind ebony For the sleep of night Fists reach and fight To grasp the rays that seep Between clenched fingers And elude all violation Greedy palms pose concrete tiers Woven with lies up to the skies Vain attempt to take light captive In the prism of cheap desires Oil-stained hands Toughened by power Sinewed Through manhandling Mark their spot A million silhouettes Deaden the light across the universe Dealing out absence once again A pinpoint pierces The centuries Insignificant To the naked eye Unwelcome presence Insistent morning star Invites to the risk That hope demands The light at the end Of the tunnel of this year Broadens if we dare to look As it shines on the inertia Of our own dark places That have allowed this world. Eternal constant Unquenchable source One day there will be No sun nor moon No standard lamp nor neon No fireworks nor sparklers No Christmas illuminations The pinprick of light Will banish the night By total presence
My husband John has just finished composing a Te Deum in 12 movements, juxtaposing classical and contemporary modes. Over the months of hearing extracts of the text through the study wall, the music gradually coming into form around it, I’ve grown more familiar with it, and been asking myself how it computes with our times.
In an age where we believe that mankind is all, and controls all, but are confronted by the weight of the failure of our management of the earth’s resources, global conflict, poverty and migration, the two words, You God, come like a respite, a pause, a glitch in our systems analysis.
You God, words sometimes used in blame, but also in release. Relief in the idea that the energy of the world may be made to move in rhythm with this one thought. You, God.
The Te Deum is an unusual hymn of praise, which doesn’t skirt around the problem of doubt. It also contains concepts that are difficult for us.
Apostles, prophets and martyrs, white-robed or not, sound archaic and severe, particularly in the light of recent hijacking of the term ‘martyr’. But these are simply people who will not, in order to save themselves, be false to what they believe to be true. Rare company, these days. It could actually be quite refreshing to hang out with them.
The holy Church has not always done a great job being holy. The term ‘holy’ here perhaps says more about how forgiveness and grace work than anything else. But despite it all, the church continues to speak of the mystery of one God whose power is shared and shareable between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in dynamic movement, without hierarchy, domination or coercion. It speaks of the God our society perceives as irrelevant and remote showing up right here among us, defeating the finality of the death which awaits us all by total self-giving, opening new ways of being, of living, and of seeing, with a limitless future. No mention of geography, race or gender, no small print to sign, no concept of national exceptionalism. Just, ‘you opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers’. But… belief is hard.
Belief is also unattractive when it is not accompanied by humility. Asking God to help, to save and to bless, is not staking a claiming some kind of ‘right’ to blessing, but an acknowledgment of frailty and dependence, a request to be kept from messing up yet again, today. Rather than culminating in a blaze of triumphant certainty, the Te Deum ends with an acknowledgement of the fragile nature of our trust: you are our hope, God, please don’t let us down.
A lot of us can relate to that.
The image is the East window of St Martin in the Fields church in London, by Shirazeh Houshiary
NEW YEAR SPEED BUMP
I drag my case over the man-made border Between one year and the next A sleeping policeman Lying in the road Marks time in yellow and black Opens an eye and speaks ‘New Year! No room for baggage! Ditch it in the past! Shade your eyes Against bracing skies Look resolutely into The brand new morning Of the virgin year! Get on, get on, get on!’ As I cross into unblemished time My load has already carved a trace in the soil Shot through with the double skein silk Of joy and bruising, disillusion and hope It is heavy and beautiful With memory and experience Acute wonder and the crushing reality Of life in a world out of sorts with itself Fragments of past too precious to be left behind The years at my back outnumber Those at my face The cake will sag with the weight Of yet another candle But I am not ready to start falling upwards As the eyes brushing my face Consign me to the wings reserved for age I have not finished painting the name you gave me On the roof of the world While singing against the wind
Dieu dit J’en ai marre : De plus en plus cons Les hommes creusent la terre En extraient la moelle, Minent le sol sous leurs pieds. Il ne restera plus Que des trous du gruyère D’ici peu. Les voilà assis, Enfants sur un manège Armées jusqu’aux dents Faisant leurs jeux Rien ne va plus Faut faire une descente, Intervention musclée Leur montrer qui est boss. Mon Dieu-mobile doré Devrait faire l’affaire Ce vaisseau spatial De la taille des US XXL Remplira le ciel On ne verra que ça, Engin dominateur Ses finitions diamantées Certes un chouia vulgaires Sont en plein dans le mille Du tape à l’œil qu’ils adorent. Maison Blanche, d’abord ? Ou alors chez Poutine ? En tout cas, il me faut Rediffusion mondiale De mon speech d’arrivée Ecran géant encerclant Le monde tout entier Effets spéciaux grandioses Machines à fumée Son et lumière, … la totale, quoi. Côté musique L’ange compositeur Doit prévoir du couillu. Mélange imposant de Marche militaire Russe Façon Wagner et Orff, Générique Happy End de film Outre Atlantique (Vous voyez le moment – Quand le héros salue Le toutou aboie Et la famille rigole) Le tout joué à l’orgue D’une puissance de tonnerre Qui envahit l’oreille Une chorale - 100 000 voix ? Une commande difficile … il va se débrouiller Pour parler, il faudra Un mégaphone mal réglé J’ignore pourquoi, Mais ça leur fait de l’effet Retransmis sur les ondes Emanant des hauts lieux Stations télé, temples, mosquées Sièges gouvernementaux De Bruxelles à Beijing Sydney à Toronto Pour annoncer comme suit : J’envoie sur le champ Une multitude d’anges Tout vêtus de blanc Et de gilets pare- balles ONU genre céleste (J’espère, plus efficace) Avec comme atout Unité spéciale de classe : Police de la pensée Pour implanter au besoin Une puce sous la peau Qui programme et assure Qu’on se tienne à carreaux Et voilà les problèmes du monde … Résolus Vous m’avez cru ? … sérieux ? Non mais c’était pour rire Et désormais j’en pleure. Je vois bien que Vous ne me connaissez pas. Je ne suis pas celui Qui impose de loin Je suis venu chez vous Dépouillé de toute Parure d’empire Par l’amour qui me place Au-delà du pouvoir. J’étais nu Enfant de réfugiés En territoire occupé Mes anges ont donné Un concert impromptu Pour des gens Sans statut Dans un bled paumé Du Moyen Orient Peu savaient que j’étais là Mais ceux que j’ai croisés N’ont pas oublié. J’ai côtoyé ceux Qui marchaient tête baissée Je leur ai montré les étoiles, Comment rire, pleurer, aimer. J’ai donné de moi-même Pour semer une graine Petite, infinie Qui prend racine Au cœur de l’existence humaine Et invite à la vie.
Based on reading books by Rowan Williams, Graham Tomlin, Richard Rohr, Susan Cain, and places and people visited.
Much of my sabbatical reading turned out to be connected with issues of power, control, and vulnerability. Not surprising then, that I simply had to take a photo of this massive installation on a wall in the MACBA museum of contemporary art in Barcelona. A lot to chew over in it. You’ll have to click on the picture to see it properly (Apologies, collective MACBA exhibition, I cannot find the name of the artist.)
In the last few months, I have read that, strangely enough, the omnipotent God would seem to be beyond power, at least in the sense that we know it.
It is when Christ is stripped of all worldly accompaniment of power that he reveals who he is. Through his unwillingness to wield power to magic up our idea of a happy ending, he achieves, with this seeming ‘failure’ that leads to resurrection, something more important than power. ‘The recreation of a relationship of trust on the far side of the most extreme of human suffering and death’.* It would seem that the power of God is the power to love to the point of sacrifice.
This thought is inconvenient to us Christians, because we like the idea of surfing on the power of God, (which we equate with BIG IMPRESSIVE STUFF) as if riding to victory holding on to a dolphin’s fin. But the death of Jesus puts paid to the idea that God’s power is like ours only bigger, and that we need to cling to it, since he gave it to us. If it is his kind of power he invites us to seek, it is a counter-cultural gift which we are invited to allow to take its place inside us.
The relationship of trust is important to God. He does not coerce like a dictator. Richard Rohr calls Him ‘The great allower’ and says ‘we need to forgive God for being too generous in freedom’. Often we want God to just MAKE humans behave right. Or even make US behave right, instead of allowing us perplexing choice? Perhaps this reflects our own desire for control over aspects of our lives that escape us, and over other people’s lives, choices and emotions. And how often do we say, ‘If Christianity were true, this or that wouldn‘t be happening’.
So in struggles with idealism, disappointment with areas of failure, I have to remember that God does not impose from the sky, but restores from within. That Jesus takes his stand in the middle of two realities, came to live in our world among chaos and disappointment (Judas was one of his closest friends), and that Christians are called to do the same. We have contradiction at our core but Jesus meets us there, and that is where we need to meet others. The coast at Freswick spoke to me strongly about grace: beauty has emerged in a landscape sculpted by conflict of the elements. ‘The crucifixion tells us that God is not dethroned by any extent of failure’*.
How do we find words to convey the reality of this ‘unconventional triumph’* of Christ? Our vocabulary is smooth, full of short cuts, media soundbites. How is it that the church speaks so often with a vocabulary of power, rather than from a place of vulnerability? And ‘How do we wear our Christian identity ‘?+ Like the badge of a club, we have the power to belong, they do not? ‘The Christian identity can never be a way of separating myself from others, placing myself against the ‘ungodly’ but an identity which invites me to be for them’+.
While at Lee Abbey I was lent Susan Cain’s book ‘The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century, exploring how deeply it has come to permeate our culture and, in one chapter, our churches. A church leader tells her quite frankly that should he receive an application from a pastor who showed up in tests as an introvert (it is illegal to use personality tests in job selection procedures, but that apart) he would reject the application out of hand since Jesus was clearly an extrovert. Really?
The contemporary western church knows the power of extrovert communication, social media, talking up the numbers, and the use of a uniform power-dressed style of music in worship. Is there room for a counter-cultural art that lifts the spirit in a different way? For allowing introverts, and people who have little power, the space to have a voice? How do we account for the power-struggles and spiritual one-upmanship we encounter in our churches? Which way are things happening? The church’s alternative type of power renewing society, or the church being moulded by society’s concept of power?
We have visited Barcelona 3 times, and each time the Monastir de Pedralbes, with its angel on a fountain, singing or conducting into a corner, has moved us. Singing into a corner could actually be not bad, since the sound will bounce back out into the courtyard, but it isn’t guaranteed to give you a great sense of self-worth. Breaking the alabaster flask was also a strange thing to do, a misunderstood gesture of devotion.This Monastery feels like a place in which God has been loved. It would be great to create a musical space, a home, a text, where God has been loved, in which people can wander in a similar way.
There are too many threads that came out of reading and discussion and too many rich experiences to link them all together here. The inexplicably strong sense of God’s love, in the landscape of Scotland. Meals with friends. A comment on the good wine being last, that the later years of a career can produce the best work. That being wholehearted for God does not represent imprisonment and limitation, but the opposite. An impromptu post-dinner rendering of traditional Basque songs. Being asked to represent in clay the story of our lives. We worked out what motivates us, what stresses us out, and where we need to draw some boundaries. We will need help in that, but in the relationship of trust God chooses to build, we ‘dance with a partner’**, not alone.
I found this phrase in the chapel of The Society of Mary and Martha, in Devon.
‘Servant Christ, renew your spirit in our hearts’. Seems like the kind of thing we ought to be praying ….
*Rowan Williams: meeting God in Mark and Baptism, Eucharist and Prayer
+Graham Tomlin: Looking through the Cross
**Richard Rohr: Breathing under water