Lent 1 2011
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…
I was in Seal School leading an assembly on the story we’ve just heard in the Gospel earlier this week. I began by showing the children a picture of a desert, the same picture as is on your pew leaflet. It is actually the Judean desert, the wilderness that Jesus went into. “What can you see in the picture?” I asked. “Rocks, a mountain, sand…” they said. “And what can’t you see?” I asked. That was harder. They looked puzzled for a while – you could hear the cogs whirring. “A road” said one – it was interesting that that was the first thing she thought of. “People” said another. “Water, plants, houses…” Once they got the idea there was no stopping them. Pretty much anything you’d normally see around you just wasn’t there. And that’s the point, of course. A desert is a place which is deserted, a place of absence, a place where the things which are normally part of our lives are missing. And because of that, though it can have a stark beauty, a desert is not necessarily a peaceful or a comfortable place to be. All the props we usually depend on are removed. There is just silence and solitude, no one else around, none of our usual occupations to distract us. And Jesus spent forty days and nights there. He didn’t even have food to take his mind off the vast emptiness of this space – there was an inner emptiness as well as an outer emptiness.
Forty days silent and alone, with nothing at all but his own thoughts for company. I wonder when we last spent time like that – any time at all? I’m not talking about forty days. I wonder when we last spent even forty minutes, in silence, alone, without an agenda of our own to get through. “Chance would be a fine thing,” I expect some of you are saying. Many people’s lives are relentlessly hectic, full of demand, noise and busyness. But even those who live alone and those who are retired or unemployed rarely, it seems to me, experience that intentional silence and solitude that Jesus has in the desert.
Mobile phones and emails can make us feel constantly accessible to others – often people find that their families, friends and employers expect to be able to contact them around the clock. The flood of information coming at us through the television and the internet means we can be aware of what is happening in distant corners of the world at all times, invaded by news of trouble and disaster, distracted by adverts, lured by gossip and sensation. It can be hard to resist the temptation to add our own voice to the clamour too, to offer opinion and speculation, even if we have nothing meaningful to say. It’s hard to switch off those devices. It’s hard to switch off ourselves too, to decide not to be available to others for a while. The end result, though, can be that while we are constantly in contact with the world around us, with friends, family, workmates and neighbours, we find we have lost contact with ourselves, and because of that we’ve lost contact with God too.
“Silence is the gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God,” said one wise commentator, Christopher Jamieson, who is the Abbot of Worth Abbey. He said those words in the course of a television programme called The Big Silence, which was shown last autumn. It made quite an impression on me. He took 5 people – ordinary people, most of whom had no particular religious faith – and helped them to build some silence into their lives. They built up gradually to an eight day silent retreat. Silence is a fundamental part of the lives of monks and nuns, built into the pattern of the monastic day but for Christopher Jamieson’s volunteers, this was all new, and I think they were surprised at how hard it was. It was hard to find the time and space in their crowded lives, of course, as it is for many people, but it wasn’t just that. It was also that when they did make space to be with themselves, they didn’t always like what they found there. Fears and regrets surfaced; they became aware of the things which weren’t right in their lives. They realised that in some ways they’d chosen to let their lives be busy and noisy so they didn’t have to be aware of the deeper issues which lurked beneath the surface. In the end, every single one of them was changed for the better though; they worked through those uncomfortable realisations and found a new sense of peace and purpose. They didn’t necessarily find religious faith in the conventional sense, but they became aware of a greater dimension to life, something beyond themselves which was now vital to them.
It was a very thought provoking programme. It revealed just how little silence and solitude most people’s lives contain and how foreign this “desert” experience is to them. Many people today never spend time intentionally being still, just with themselves. The idea of turning off the mobile, being out of contact with the rest of the world is unthinkable. And yet the programme also revealed just how desperately this space was needed – all the volunteers found in the end it transformed their lives.
Silence is something which we both long for and dread; something we say we want, and yet seem to go out of our way to avoid. Silence is the gateway to the soul, but do we really want to go there?
Jesus’ experience of silence was uncomfortable too, of course. I don’t know what he expected when he went into the wilderness, but if he thought he was just going to listen to himself and to God – to find a bit of peace and tranquillity - he was mistaken, because the voice he actually heard out there was that of Satan. It doesn’t matter whether we think of Satan as a literal person, or as the personification of his own doubts and fears, the message is clear. This voice calls into question his perception of himself “Are you really the Messiah?” It questions his priorities and his values “why not just take the easy route to popularity? Give people free food and of course they’ll love you.” It questions his relationship with God. “What if things go wrong – will he catch you if you fall?”
These weren’t messages Jesus wanted to hear – no one would – but they were messages which, he knew he need to hear and to deal with if his mission was to be one which brought genuine healing to the people he met rather than just more trouble. Leaders without a healthy ability to question and doubt themselves are very dangerous; we’ve seen that in recent weeks as the trouble in Libya has unfolded. But honest reflection can often be painful, so it’s no wonder we often avoid it.
Silence doesn’t come automatically. It is something we often have to work at, to seek out, to learn how to handle, to press on with, if we are to find its benefits in our lives. It is harder for some than for others; sometimes it’s an issue of personality – introverts find it easier than extraverts. But it is worth the struggle. Jesus discovers that for himself. At the end of this story Satan departs, and the angels come to wait on him. Jesus finds he is isn’t alone, even though he’d felt as if he was. He has learned things that are vital for ministry. He knows himself better, and his relationship with his Father is strengthened too. If we persist in silence, we won’t regret it.
That’s why this Lent here at Seal, as well as the usual opportunities for study and action, I am also offering a chance to join in with a programme of planned silences. Every Sunday afternoon, starting today, there’ll be an hour of silence here in church from 4 pm. It will be what it says on the tin – an hour of silence. I’ll provide a sheet with a few questions for each week if you want a prompt for your thoughts – but you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to. What happens in your silence is between you and God. At the end of the hour there will be a short piece of music to draw us out of the silence, and a prayer, but that’s it. – It’s just silence – a small desert of our own here at church for an hour. You can sit still, walk around, pray, think, write, draw, go outside – anything you like, so long as you don’t interrupt other people’s space and privacy. You don’t have to come for the whole hour either, or come every week. Do what you feel you can manage - ten minutes of silence, just once in the whole of Lent may be the start you need.
Of course you might say that you could just as easily keep an hour of silence in your own home – and if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine too. If you can’t make it here on a Sunday or prefer not to, the material for reflection will be available in church and on the website. But I know what homes are like – full of distractions and tasks which suddenly seem very urgent, the phone ringing and people coming to the door. And though we could be still and quiet we often find we somehow don’t get around to it. Providing this planned opportunity – a particular place and time – gives a focus and a spur to help us actually do this.
I have no idea where it might lead you if you take up this challenge. I’ll be around if your time of silence throws up things you want to talk about afterwards. What I can promise is that silence will change you. It will bring you to yourself, whether you like it or not, but in doing that it will bring you to God too, who dwells in the deepest places of our lives, beneath the fears and the doubts, and longs to meet us their with his love and his healing.
For more information on silence and prayer: http://www.growingintosilence.com/