Encountering Stillness and Silence a Little at a Time

11 September 2020

By Revd Phil Wales

John’s Gospel ends with the words: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). That’s an absolutely astonishing thought. It so clearly shows the Gospel writer’s passion to tell others of God’s message of hope and love, not only to those 2,000 years ago, but to all generations yet to come. Words are vital for John and even an infinite number of them wouldn’t be enough it seems.

In our hyper-connected, technology-rich world we have become very skilled at communicating with one another in many different ways. The benefits of these various ways of keeping in touch have been very apparent in recent months. Yet, as we adjust to the new ways we now need to live, there have also been many more opportunities to encounter silence than would otherwise have been the case. At times, these may have been welcomed. But perhaps they may also have been viewed less positively, a space too quickly filled by feelings of loss and so, perhaps, something to be avoided rather than experienced.

This may be because silence can sometimes be thought of only in terms of an absence of sound, of words. Anyone who has chosen to enter into a time of silence, however briefly, will be able to recognise the practical difficulty of finding and resting in that place of inner stillness. Silence, and its companion stillness, are gifts from God. But like all gifts, we need to learn how to appreciate and make use of them. Poetry may help us to do so.

Some ideas from a talk I attended some time ago by Dr Chris Southgate still resonate. He was exploring the place of poetry in church and worship. First of all, he said for those who might find poetry ‘difficult,’ that an appreciation is more likely to be ‘caught’ than ‘taught’. We can grow to love poems by sharing our responses to them with others rather than trying to figure them out alone. Next came the obvious but profound point that the poet has chosen to convey their ideas (in Dr Southgate’s case aspects of his relationship with God) using fewer words rather than more. It is this dispensing with words, a paring down of language to the bare minimum, which defines poetry and reveals something that words alone are unable to do.

Given time, when reading poetry, it may be that our secret longing for ‘more words’ and a sense of there being a ‘gap’ which needs to be filled, is transformed. Between the words, phrases and lines of a poem are small spaces; the stillness and the silence where God may be found.

 

Compline

Into thy hands

I commend my spirit

It fits them

Exactly.

Christopher Southgate

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