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Silence with ceremony, anger, and joy

20 April 2018

David Wilbourne looks at two very different books on being still

AS I lay prostrate in St Albans Abbey on dark Good Friday, Maggie Ross sprang to mind. I was with the cathedral clergy, voicelessly venerating the cross. Then, encouraged by a soigné invitation from the Dean, hundreds came forward, pausing before the crucifix in a heartfelt and deep silence. “Clergy are terrified of silence, and it is futile to look for help from that quarter,” Maggie Ross declares in this book.

The previous night, the eucharist and foot-washing had proved deeply kenotic, echoing two millennia of Catholic practice. Ross derides clergy faithful to such practice as defensive, threatened, and “guardian gargoyles”. Instead, she proposes a lay-led rite in honour of silence, whose officiants bear strange names like animator, shills, and speaker of the epiclesis, with strict instructions not to depart from the rite’s rules, or discuss it with anyone afterwards. It is ironic, therefore, that she labels the clergy as controlling, infantilising, and superior.

We much maligned clergy, with theological qualifications honed by years of ministerial experience, are actually best-suited to appreciate Ross’s dense theological allusions in her multi-layered hermeneutic. “Every time I read the long text, I find something new,” Ross declares, eulogising Julian of Norwich. She applauds (and indeed reflects) Julian’s skill at word knots and the use of paradox, opposite points on a circle’s circumference whose centre is God.

Ross meticulously charts biblical “portals into silence” particularly clustering in the Psalms. She bemoans the near extinction of the word “behold!” in modern translations. “Behold me!” Proto-Isaiah actually said in his vision in the Temple, one of 1300 times the scriptures stop people in their tracks to find epiphanies in the white space between the words. For Ross, modern translations and liturgy lack poetry, merely “having the effect of listening to someone falling down the stairs”. They miss the perverse wisdom of the Gospels and epistles, which champion glory in self-emptying. “All God has ever asked of us is to behold,” Ross concludes. Both liturgy and lectionary recall us “to stand humbled, stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.”

Demonising of the clergy notwithstanding, her second volume is as arresting and bracing as her first was.

Brother David’s delightful The Way of Silence struck me as a contemporary and cheering Benedictine Rule. Angry neither with the modern Church nor the clergy, he is steeped in the present, settled in his skin, and a true monastic, attuning himself to the harmony to which the whole universe dances. Ten short reflections, with a natural authority akin to scripture, focus on prayer, the human heart, mysticism, true life, the senses, grateful joy, dynamic love, holy ground, ultimate meaning, and organised religion.

Christian truths are seasoned with insights from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism, and any critique bears the gentle humour of a seasoned fellow-traveller. Just three bons mots with which this book teems: “You are the music while the music lasts” (T. S. Eliot); “Make your ears so alert that the silence of God’s presence sounds like thunder” (St Benedict); and “When the bell rings St Benedict wants the monk to put down his pen without crossing his t or dotting his i. Such is the asceticism of time.”

Ross’s righteous indignation and fierce anger fitted my Holy Week perfectly. Brother David I left until the Easter Octave: supremely apt, since his book is pure Easter.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.

Silence: A user’s guide — Volume 2, Application
Maggie Ross
DLT £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

The Way of Silence: Engaging the sacred in daily life
Brother David Steindl-Rast
DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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