Archive for September, 2008

Silence

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Je suis de plus en plus frappé par le vide des mots, des discours, des livres où l’auteur, où les auditeurs, où les lecteurs demandent à une ferveur qui ne leur coûte rien et qui ne les engage pas, une dispense de vivre. C’est pourquoi je ne suis sensible, au fond, qu’à la grandeur de vie que le silence, presque toujours, exprime le mieux.

(Boissière, Bernard De, and France-Marie Chauvelot. Maurice Zundel. Presses de la Renaissance, 2004. p. 340)

[I am struck more and more by the emptiness of words, those  discussions, or books where the author, or the readers demand, with a fervour which costs them nothing and which does not engage them, to be dispensed from living. That is why, basically, I am only sensitive to the wonder of life which is, almost always, best expressed by silence.]

I have been struck, for some time now, by the unwillingness, I would almost say the inability, of people to tolerate silence. Everywhere you go people walk about with their ears plugged by their iPods. Even here where I live they walk along the cliffs, or by the shore, with the music of the waves, the wind and the birds obliterated by electronic sounds. In supermarkets and bars, restaurants, hotels and lifts, practically everywhere, you are assailed by recorded sound. Silence, the natural sounds of life and living, the hum of conversation, the voices of children at play are not allowed. Silence, especially, must be filled with something, anything. It is not to be endured.

Why, I wonder, are so many so afraid of silence? I do not suppose the answer is simple or straightforward. There are many factors, not least the urban environment in which most people live, with its incessant noise. On all sides we are assailed by sounds which distract us from ourselves, from thoughts, from thinking. It seems as though we do not like being simply with ourselves, simply being aware – aware of thoughts as they come and go, aware of the lives of others, aware of life unfurling within and without. Silence for so many is like waiting for a bus, a barely tolerable hiatus in the onrush of doing, to be avoided if at all possible. 

Silence, and wonder, and awe, and love all go together. They are sisters inducing an inner stillness which plumbs the depths of being. The initial response may be fear, even terror, caused by a sense of vertigo before empty depths.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

And, perhaps, this is why so many avoid it if possible, want to be dispensed from simply living in the present now. In the silence there is nothing to distract, nothing to draw the attention away from thoughts and feelings that surge from within. And so, they never discover that when the thoughts and feelings have unfurled, when they have emptied themselves out, there is left a deeper inner silence. This is the hushed silence, the expectant silence, before the mystery that we are to ourselves, the mystery of being.

Jesus after Jesus

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Reading Frederic Lenoir’s Le Christ philosophe, one of the books I picked up on our recent holiday. The other is Jesus apres Jesus by Mordillat and Prieur. What attracted me to both of these books is that they promised to say something about a Jesus detached from all the trappings loaded on him by subsequent people, by the Church itself, by theologians and exegetes, fundamentalists and liberal Christians. I particularly like the insights of Lenoir. He begins with Dostoyevsky’s story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. It illustrates very graphically and directly how far the Church has drifted from the teaching and example of its founder – assuming that Jesus did in fact found the Church – so much so that were he to return he would be in danger of being accused of being a heretic. He concludes with a long discussion of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in Chapter 4 of John’s Gospel. His thesis is that, beginning with Paul, the ecclesia became an institution and an end in itself. Jesus’ very simple message that religion, based on faith and love and stemming from an interior encounter with God, was not about institutions, or cultic activities, or elaborate moral codes and  subtle distinctions. Religion is love – simply that. Loving God, loving one’s fellows, acting always with the knowledge that the Spirit is the unifying force within each of us. The elaborate rules, hierarchic distinctions, procedures and ceremonies of the Church get in the way of religion as Jesus understood it. These were the very things he criticised and condemned the Jewish establishment of the time for.

Reading Jean Sulivan – Le scandale n’est pas la dégradation des mœurs, il est dans l’annexion de Jésus par un système de pensée. The striking thing about Sulivan is that he looks beneath the surface. The clerical scandals have shocked everyone and set everyone talking. Blame is attached to the institution – the way it is organised, its preoccupation with power and control, to the insistence on celibacy, etc. And yet, institutions and their preservation would seem to be the dominant motive force throughout the world today. This applies not just to the Church but to politics and economics as well. You only have to look at the American elections – it matters little which candidate wins, the establishment will still be in charge. Similarly with the mess the financial institutions have caused – yet no one is suggesting that the greed of the relatively few should lead to their being censured. The attitude of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor applies not just to some of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church but to many administrators of major institutions. ‘We, the elite know better. We can handle freedom and the empowerment that goes with it. We will provide you with an economic system, with heroes and role models, with material security and, in return for your obedience, relieve you of the need for decision making. You will be happy… well, relatively content.’ And so in return for acceding to the three temptations of the ‘wise and dread spirit’, material security, celebrity heroes to worship and the miracles of technology*, we choose not to consider that there might be a better way of living, a more sustainable and ecologically beneficial economic system, a value system based on love rather than greed and want.

For a short time, before Jesus was ‘annexed by the system’, Christians, liberated by belief in Christ and the Resurrection, lived an alternative life style which so impressed their contemporaries that over the space of a couple of hundred years they transformed society. They accepted the freedom that comes with belief in the Resurrection of Christ. They dared to live that freedom, freedom from fear of suffering and death, from fear of opprobrium and being ostracised, from fear of poverty and insecurity, from fear itself. No, that is putting it a bit too strongly – no doubt they felt fear at the prospect of all these, but it was a fear they could deal with. It did not paralyse them, or inhibit them. They could deal with it and face the prospect of suffering because of their faith in the Resurrection. Their values were based not on the immediate material, physical and emotional here and now, but on human relationships – with each other, with the beautiful world in which they lived and, above all, with God. This love transcends the immediate here and now. It transcends the awkwardness and difficulties of personal relationships, the intransigence of others, the ennui of dark, grey days and the bitterness of sickness. It transcends even death itself. 

And so, for a few tens of years the courage of comparatively few Christians shone like a beacon in a world dark with superstition and dread fate. The world of the late Roman Empire was decadent and effete. It  had lost its way and was too tired to cope with crumbing structures and the barbarian invasions from the north and east. The contrast with the vigour and enthusiasm of the local Christian churches, with their concern for the poor, the old and the sick was marked. It made sense for the Emperor Constantine to reverse the restrictions against them and hand over to them many of the administrative functions of the Empire. Overnight being a Christian no longer meant a person was in danger of arrest, torture and death by execution. Overnight being a Christian carried with it political, economic and social advantages and people began to seek baptism for these reasons. Overnight the Church began to change. Bishops acquired power and wealth and as this increased their freedom to live according to the values of Jesus diminished. The Good News became commonplace and clichéd. Too many compromises – no longer were bystanders shocked and challenged by the absolute commitment of ordinary people taking the Gospel seriously. Oh, there were still ‘authentic’ Christians, those prepared to make any sacrifice for Christ crucified, the Christ who continued to be the stumbling bloc, not only for the Jews and Gentiles, but now for these social Christians as well. These men and women in seeking to live the Gospel became the latest voices crying in the wilderness, in the Western Desert, from the Isle of Lerins, and from the caves of Cappadocia.

* cf Matthew 4:1-10