A few months ago I wrote an article here about singing. In this article I want to discuss silence and stillness. The world in which we live today is often described as ’24/7′ – a world that seemingly never stops twenty – four hours a day, seven days a week. We have twenty-four hours news channels, supermarkets allowing us to shop at any time of day, and email that never stops pinging our computers or mobile phones. Don’t get me wrong, I would be one of the first to recognise the benefits of just the few of the examples I have mentioned. However, so often with a benefit there can a disadvantage. Being busy and productive is a quality highly regarded by industry and commerce. It seems there is a lot of pressure to be busy at work and in our personal life; the purpose of leisure time now seems to be more about activity than relaxation.
Writing almost seventy years ago, the artist and poet Jean Arp said,
“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation…tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding and trilling bolster his ego“.
Where is the silence, the quiet time, the stillness in your daily life? When do you get the time to think- do you make time for yourself to think? You may well have a daily ‘To Do List’ ensuring you complete all the tasks of the day and nothing is forgotten. But I am almost certain that the one item not on your ‘to do list’ is ‘Be still for fifteen minutes’.
Our twenty-first century society makes us almost afraid of silence as we were afraid of the dark as children. Yet when we experience a period of stillness and silence we give ourselves time and space to think and, as Christians, to pray. In our church services there are places where silence is observed; for example, just before we say the words of the ‘confession’ as part of communion preparation or at the end of the intersessional prayers. This silence gives us just a short time and the space to call to mind those things that are in our hearts and minds- known only to us. It’s good to have these periods of silence but in public worship they are difficult to observe. You may be familiar with the phrase a ‘deafening silence’, a striking absence of noise. This absence of noise is so profound that it brings a quality to silence that we rarely experience and allows us to refresh our thoughts, and feel close to our creator God.
I remember hearing a story about a school teacher in South Wales who translated the well-known hymn ‘Be still for the presence of the Lord’ from English to Welsh for her pupils. The teacher wasn’t a native Welsh speaker but she did her best to produce a good Welsh translation. Imagine the teacher’s surprise when her pupils giggled as they sang the slightly mistranslated version- ‘Shut up, for the presence of the Lord’. In our busy lives may be we too need to “shut up”, be still, to make room for the ‘presence of the Lord’.
John Rutter, the composer of many popular modern Christmas carols and other music says his” music grows out of silence” and may explain why I’m as drawn to silence as I am to music. I think it’s not without coincidence that the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, written by American Quaker poet John Whittie, is one of the most popular hymns we sing. Quaker services are predominately silent with those present only speaking when moved to speak- maybe other religious traditions could learn a lesson here!
Let me leave you with these beautiful and inspirational words that speak of a right mind, of calm and silence, and of stillness and quietness. The version printed below includes a verse often omitted in many hymn books. I pray these words allow us to experience a calm and stillness in our busy lives so that we may hear God and feel God’s presence.
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our works and words that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
(This article by Phil Taylor was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in March 2015)