Gift of silence

by
06 April 2010

Andrew Norman reflects on finding inner calm after a brain haemorrhage

On the last day of a family holi­day in Scotland, I was up very early, having a shower before we drove back down to Surrey. I felt fine, and was looking forward to the journey home. But the next thing I remem­ber is coming to on the bathroom floor, having collapsed and been unconscious for half an hour. Surrounded by paramedics trying to revive me, I was informed that I had suffered a brain haemorrhage caused by an aneurism.

What I do remember, though, is a surprising calmness. “You just sur­rendered yourself into our hands,” one of the nursing staff said after­wards, “which is the best thing to do.” Frankly, I’ve always been scared at the thought of illness and being in hospital. But in that situation I felt entirely peaceful. I was able to reach out and find my rosary, another tangible object to hang on to while lying in bed.

It was a while before I felt able to pray regularly again. But in those first days in hospital, I was at least able to hold on to the rosary. Later, I struggled out of bed and walked, somewhat fazed, along the hospital corridor. I held my rosary as I walked, and my steps became a sort of prayer.

I made it as far as the hospital chapel, and found there a place of silence. I was able to keep a time each day for meditation. I was half asleep as soon as I sat down; yet my surface mind continued to produce patterns of thought even more distracting than usual. But what I did sense was that the deep inner calmness I had felt earlier was somehow a product of the regular discipline of stillness. It was an inarticulate reassurance that meditation really had opened access into that level of being where the Holy Spirit dwells.

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I felt reassured that, although my attempts to pray always leave so much to be desired, the point is not in our own evaluation of that prayer, but in the wholeness that it helps to develop — a simple and totally personal acceptance of reality as a oneness with oneself.

I was signed off from my work as a Church of England parish priest for three months. One of the first things I wanted to do was to get back to our own parish weekly meditation group. Being with them again in the silence was a great encouragement, although my mind whirred on as much as ever: tomor­row’s meals, letters to write, what the weather might be, and so on.

I was signed off from my work as a Church of England parish priest for three months. One of the first things I wanted to do was to get back to our own parish weekly meditation group. Being with them again in the silence was a great encouragement, although my mind whirred on as much as ever: tomor­row’s meals, letters to write, what the weather might be, and so on.

And yet I had an appreciation that, despite all the distraction, a vital inner work was in hand. I was often on my own in those quiet days of convalescence, while the family were at work and school, with time to read, rest, enjoy walks in the countryside, and, for once, to get on with mundane household tasks.

I was reminded again of the value of being fully present in the moment. Again, it was the daily practice of stillness that encouraged me in this. In hospital, grateful for the care of nurses and doctors, and then, back home, overwhelmed by the love and support of so many people, I was struck by the fact that what really matters in life is people, and having time for each other. This, too, is the purpose of the regu­lar practice of stillness, in slowly liberating us from the insecurity of egoism.

Throughout the period of convalescence, I felt that I had touched, and was touching, an inner constancy that is the gift of life in us. The importance of the daily practice was decisively reaffirmed for me: making time to listen, to be open to the Spirit, and to know ourselves.

This is an edited extract from Learn to Be at Peace: The practice of stillness by Andrew Norman, published at £2 by SLG Press, the publishing house of the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres, Oxford (www.slg.org.uk).

This is an edited extract from Learn to Be at Peace: The practice of stillness by Andrew Norman, published at £2 by SLG Press, the publishing house of the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres, Oxford (www.slg.org.uk).

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