Desert Island silence

My desert island hymns? Well, I think I would choose… No, let’s be controversial. What about having silence instead? Now, please don’t misunderstand me; I love music (possibly a little too much) and wish in no way to belittle the dedication and expertise of our own musicians. Hymns have at times – when the music and the words have melded together in that strange, almost alchemical transformation – moved me to prayer, to praise, to tears even; but seldom, if ever, to silence. Real, inner silence I mean, where what is going on is beyond words and music both.

Beyond music because the emotional push music may well give us only carries us so far; a useful boost from the launch pad, but there is the danger that it might simply put us in orbit round our own feelings, while our true destination is the Infinite. (Perhaps not an altogether happy illustration, because the deep God-space I’m talking about is not “out there” but rather “in here”.)

And beyond words? Because God is beyond words even while they may faithfully point towards him, in the same way that a city is in all senses beyond the signpost that directs you to it. The poet T. S. Eliot described each of his constant struggles with words as “a raid on the inarticulate/With shabby equipment always deteriorating”. Words serve to crystallise thought, yes; but they can be notoriously inexact crystals, even actually misleading. And when thought itself runs ridiculously short of enough space to encompass God, what use are words then? When the Word himself was revealed to us, he came first as a speechless babe and not as a walking mass of verbiage. And when, thirty years later, he did begin to speak publicly it was often in riddles. I wonder if he did that sometimes deliberately to stun our limited, word-obsessed and earthbound minds into a sort of silence-via-bafflement – a bit like the famous Zen puzzle of trying to imagine the sound of one hand clapping – again to launch us beyond the gravitational pull of our own verbal arrogance and off into the mystery of stillness.

Rowan Williams writes, “Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.” So what would happen, if every so often, we committed ourselves to, say, twenty minutes of silence together instead of singing our usual quota of hymns? It wouldn’t kill us – the Quakers do it every Sunday for an hour and emerge surprisingly undamaged – and neither the steeple nor the bishop are likely to fall upon us in outrage. So… what would happen?

Perhaps to begin with there might be “the growing terror of nothing to think about” – that’s T.S. Eliot again, who must have known first hand the difficulties of this adventure, and its enormous rewards as well. He also spoke about “the still point of the turning world”, which is a wonderfully resonating phrase. “At the still point, there the dance is”. With a little training on how actually to enter the silence – it is a country we have become strangers to although it is our birthright, our intimate home – and with a little practice, many of us would start feeling our way back to that still point; which is where we stop hiding from God and allow him to find us and to woo us into joining him in the dance.

I believe everyone needs times of silence in their own lives, but there is an added dimension when silence is a shared “activity”. If we agreed as a church family occasionally to set aside a period within a Sunday service simply to wait with one another and listen and be attentive to our God, almost as though it were the sharing in a sacrament, then I believe we could expect to find ourselves caught up together in some remarkably rich and profound worship.

The desert, rather than the desert island, has always been seen as the place of spiritual challenge and growth. So my favourite desert island hymn? Any one you like, but omitting verses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…

Richard Evans

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Last revised 29th May 2005