A reflection on Mark 1: 9-15 by Imogen Nay
Sara Maitland writes in A Book of Silence about her own journey into silence as a modern day, somewhat alternative hermit. In one particular chapter Sara describes some time she spent in the Sinai Desert and this leads her into some specific insights. In an engaging paragraph she writes:
I started to think that perhaps silence is God. Perhaps God is silence – the shining, spinning ring of ‘pure endless light’. Perhaps God speaking is a ‘verb’, an act, but God in perfect self-communication in love with the Trinity, is silence and therefore is silence. God is silence, a silence that is positive, alive, actual and of its ‘nature’ unbreakable.*
It is the first Sunday of Lent and a time when the Church year invites us to enter into the desert with Jesus and to face Satan, our demons and temptation. Through fasting, discipline and prayer we are encouraged to have faith in the power of God to overcome our weakness and also to accept forgiveness: it is a period of repentance, of self-discovery and sacrifice. As the Book of Common Prayer collect puts it:
O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy Godly honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.
Sara’s reflection on silence in the desert made me wonder about the relationship between the desert and God’s creative silence. It’s true that we spend a lot of time in the Church reflecting upon the Word – the act of the Father in Christ the Son. But if what lies behind that act is God’s silence, what is the implication for our devotional practice, for our seeking of wisdom in the Holy Mystery of Divinity?
In Powers and Submissions, Sarah Coakley addresses the charge of whether ascetic practices have been used to encourage women’s submission, disassociated introversion, apolitical anaesthesia and ultimately the silencing of women**. She argues that contemplative practice should be at the centre of feminist theologies, as being that which leads to a proper disciplining of self as well as assisting freedom from all that binds and manipulates. She writes: ‘the means of peace, and indeed of the final gender equity that must attend it, are patient practices of transparency to God, by whose light political strategies must ultimately also be illuminated.’***
Such a feminist theology of contemplative practice as a philosophy of religion fits neatly into the Lenten themes of fasting and prayer. If the ‘Church’ and religious tradition have been guilty of subjecting women to various limiting stereotypes and models, freedom from religious misuse of power and subjection comes for Coakley through the patient practice of silence.
It is perhaps no coincidence that two very different but similarly engaged contemporary (feminist) writers on religion should be drawn to silence and contemplation as a means of liberation. It is perhaps only from the deep creative silence of God that a proper religious renewal can emerge, one that re-generates religious language and practice.
The question of the language we use to speak of God and to God is at the heart of course of the practice of religious belief and doctrine. In my own Church (the Church of England) the work of organisations, like ‘Inclusive Church’ seek to employ language as a means of expressing the inclusive love of God. In their commitment to diversity, play, creativity, freedom and novelty in liturgy, prayer, poetry and theology they hope to translate a theology of inclusion into a practice of inclusion.
If communities find that language is a barrier to communion perhaps sitting in silence together (for a time) is a strategy for renewal. At a recent Inclusive Language conference I was very moved and challenged by the idea of a silent Eucharist which one woman told me she had been involved in. I imagined being part of such a service, where the actions of Christ are brought into silent focus, as we keep silent and remember the story through mime. What possibilities of renewal of liturgical language might come through such a discipline?
I hope this Lent to pursue contemplative silence as a waiting on God in the desert – a place, yes, of possible temptation, but also one of possible renewal. Christ comes out of his forty days in the desert not a broken an exhausted man, after all, but one ready to boldly start his ministry, to proclaim the Good News. He comes out of the desert ready to speak – not to remain silent: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1: 15)
*Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence, (Great Britain: Granta 2008), p.221
** Sarah Coakely, Powers and Submissions, (London: Blackwell 2007), Prologue xviii
***Ibid., Prologue xx