Challenge 10: 40 hours of silence

“Silence precedes, undergirds and grounds everything else. Unless we learn how to live there, and abide in this different phenomenon, everything – words, events, relationships, identities – become rather superficial, without depth or context.” Richard Rohr

“We can be still and know that God is God or stay very busy and wonder if we are” Nicole Johnson

“The ego gets what it wants with words. The Soul finds what it needs in silence” Max Picard, (The World of Silence)

After several postponements I finally embraced the challenge of being silent for 40 hours (albeit orientated much more as an experience and something to cherish)

I began my series of 10 challenges with a 40 mile cycle and have played on the 40 theme for some of the others. It was good to complete the series of 10 with another themed 40 challenge.

I am by nature an external processor, who has in more recent years developed my more introverted and reflective side, to the point of shifting from being an extrovert to an ‘ambivert‘. I have long desired to create some genuine space to be silent for a sustained period, but in finding it hard to carve out the time I realise that despite deep down desiring to create more space and opportunity for silence and reflection, I am not at all good at it.

Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher and mystic, said centuries ago, “All human evil comes from this: our inability to sit still in a chair for half an hour.”(If you think this is an exaggeration, a recent study at the University of Virginia said that 67% of men and 25% of women would sooner endure an unpleasant electric shock rather than be alone in silence for even 15 minutes!)

Technology and the noise of social media have made me aware that I do find it difficult to create space to be disconnected and more still. When I took up my 2nd challenge of the year last August to go screen free for a week I was left with the question, How do I create more regular rhythms of being phone/tech free? Linked to that is the question of how do I seek to learn the unforced rhythms of grace and create consistent space and intention to be still, to pray and to be more present to rest and to silence?

I know that when I have engaged and embraced opportunities, inspired by the the work of Brian Draper and Richard Rohr, in exploring ‘Soulfulness‘  and in creating space to retreat on a poetry walk back in April, that I have tasted and seen that this is so good. So good in fact that I want to live more soulfully and not compartmentalise the spiritual with the ordinary, for all of life is soulful (spiritual)

I decided to frame my silence around a short series of reflections on the theme of silence by Richard Rohr from his devotional book ‘The Spring Within Us’. This series within the book was 6 short reflections on silence. The opening reflection was titled ‘Silence as the foundation of reality’ in which he writes “Silence is at the very foundation of all reality. It is that out of which all being comes and to which all things return. (f the word “silence” does not grab you, you can interchange it with nothingness, emptiness, vastness, formlessness, open space, or any undefined reality.) If you can first rest in the nothing, you will then be prepared for the something. When nothing creates something, we call that grace!”

I began at 5pm on Thursday 1 June and had 7 hours of wakeful silence until Midnight. I was very grateful that earlier that day a colleague had led us in a 30 minute Lectio Divina reflection based on John 4. I was conscious that it took most of those 30 minutes to still my chattering, buzzing, overactive mind, but it did enable and set a much better tone and perspective for the day. I was nonetheless daunted as well as expectant, and the news of Donald Trump making the call to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement made shouting and wailing a very tempting option, but silent I remained.

Richard Rohr brilliantly observes that silence can hold impossibilities together – It stays with mystery, holds tensions, absorbs contradictions and smiles at paradoxes. Poets, musicians, artists are perhaps more naturally willing to embrace these aspects, but how can we seek to embrace more of this across a wider sphere of society and professional and public life as well as in our more private and creative spheres?

My second period of wakeful silence on Friday 2 June was 6am through to Midnight. I was mostly at home taking time to slow down and intentionally be still. I found some exercises, reading and a short mediation using the idea of ‘Be’ ‘Be Still’ ‘Be still and know’ ‘Be still and know that I am God’ from Psalm 46 to be very helpful. I initially felt the temptation to ‘do things’ and ‘check things’ in the mode of silence, but I was glad that I decided to have a tech free day and simply be fully present and not get distracted whilst being in silence. It was also good to walk and be outside in the beauty of nature. I’m very thankful that I have the green space of Osterley park within close walking distance from home and it was beautiful to spend some time there in the afternoon and early evening. Not a bad view to take some time to reflect, pray and be silent in! 

One of the things that really struck me through the day was the idea of embracing the reality of paradox and tension. Much of life is mundane, absurd, full of questions, lament, bewilderment even, and yet I was equally struck my just how much I have to be thankful for and how much I simply and so often take for granted in terms of freedom, joy, access to resources, health, family, a home, friendships, meaningful work, inspiring and caring colleagues and so much more.

This year has been fraught with turmoil politically and in society with the death of Jo Cox, The Brexit Vote, Trump’s election and just this week his intent to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s also been a very challenging one for us as a family and life in that sense has taken quite a significant hit in terms of pain, discovery and reimagining and embracing a very new chapter and season. In the midst of all of this I am very thankful for so much and for the opportunity to have taken this 40 ways adventure.

My Third and final session of silence was a retreat day on Saturday 3 June at St Cuthman’s near Horsham.  It was a beautiful sunny day and the venue and surrounding were absolutely stunning. There was an organised retreat taking place over the weekend and I joined in with the first session soon after I arrived, which was helpful and insightful as it focused on contemplation, meditation and centering prayer, but for the rest of the day I decided to roam free in the grounds. I wrote quite a lot during the day, including 2 reflective meditations in response with what was emerging. I spent some time praying, some time just simply still and silent, some of it walking and engaging with the beauty of the nature all around me. It was a very restful, refreshing and restorative day.

It’s an absolutely beautiful space and a day’s non residential retreat is exceptional value at £25 per person which includes morning coffee, a 2 course lunch (which was delicious) and afternoon tea along with access to the house and grounds. I would highly recommend it as a place to have a retreat.

As well as desiring to cultivate a way of life that addresses the two questions I raised, I am keen to dig deeper into Soulfulness, into ways and practices that embrace silence and as well as creating that rhythm I am keen to take the time to have 1 or 2 ‘retreats’ a year. It was good to embrace a period of sustained silence and a great way to to end this series of ‘challenges’.

During the day at St Cuthman’s I experienced a very deep and profound sense of just how much I am loved. There is nothing I can do that will make God love me any more, and nothing I can do that will make God love me any less.

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