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In the transcendent silence

31 May 2013

Angela Ashwin celebrates the quiet witness of the Julian Meetings

THERE is hidden treasure in the churches, largely missed by the general public, and by many Christians, too; this is the existence of small groups of people who meet to pray in silence.

Earlier this month, I gave a talk at the 40th-birthday celebration of the Julian Meetings. These sprang up after Hilary Wakeman, who was later to serve as a priest in Norwich and then in County Cork, wrote in 1973 to church newspapers of various denominations, expressing frustration that many people, especially the young, were following the Beatles into Eastern forms of meditation, while we Christians have a rich and ancient tradition of meditation or contemplative prayer of our own.

Hundreds of letters came in response, and soon there were groups meeting for silent prayer in 11 cities. Taking the name "Julian Meetings" (JM), after Julian of Norwich, the great 14th-century woman of prayer, these blossomed into the 300 or so groups that now exist in the UK and world-wide.

In a world wedded to action, productivity, and instant results, it is counter-cultural to sit around doing nothing, and there is often a lurking temptation to abandon our stillness before God in order to go and do something "useful". But our inner life is crucial, and we can produce good fruits for Christ only when we are also rooted and grounded in the divine love.

The busier we are, the more urgent it is that we sometimes stop and re-engage at a deep level with the love-relationship that is prayer, so that we can receive into our inmost being the inflowing grace and healing energy of God.

One well-tried way of doing this is by becoming still in body and mind, entering our "inner room", where we encounter God in the silence beneath all words and thoughts. This is not for an imagined spiritual élite, but for any of us, in all our ordinariness and distractedness. Categories of success and failure do not apply here; we are not trying to achieve anything, but are simply seeking to be as receptive to God as we can.

In my talk at the JM celebration, I described an earthenware pot, full of holes and with a candle at the centre, which sometimes forms the visual focus at the contemplative prayer group to which I belong. This pot can speak to us in several ways.

First, it is an encouragement, because, no matter how full of gaps and holes our spiritual life may be, the light of Christ can still shine in and through us. Even when our chatterbox minds rattle away relentlessly, that quiet flame is still burning steadily, representing our underlying desire to be open to God, in spite of surface distractions and over-complicated lives.

Our desire for God is always met by God's infinite desire for us. But this is no escapism into cosy piety. Silent prayer may fill us with peace, but it can also feel bleak at times; what matters is perseverance and our trustful surrender to the work of grace in us.

Second, when the room is darkened, the rays of light from the pot beam out brightly on all sides; this reminds us that our prayer is always for the world, as well as for ourselves. Whenever we expose our inner being to the divine love, we are offering ourselves as channels of that light and blessing for humankind, whose frailty and needs we share.

Finally, the image of the pot with a light shining in the centre is something that we can take into daily life and recall at odd moments. This is another gift spilling over from a regular practice of quiet prayer because we can dip into our still centre at any time, reconnecting with the transforming energy of God, as we gather together our scattered attention, and become once more present, whole-heartedly, to where we are now.

In an age when many describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious", the Julian Meetings, along with other ecumenical groups such as Christian Meditation, Contemplative Outreach, and others, offer nourishment for hungry souls. It is the genius of these gatherings that all are welcome, whether or not we are part of an institutional church.

The silence wonderfully transcends all boundaries of doctrine and religious practice. Perhaps, with more gentle publicity and networking, offering a gift rather than marketing a product, these groups will prove to be one of the mostvital elements in the continuing life and witness of the Christian com-munity.

Angela Ashwin is a writer and speaker about the spiritual life. Her most recent book is Faith in the Fool: Risk and delight in the Christian adventure (DLT, 2009).


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