I recently attended a moving service at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, that included times of silence as part of the liturgy. It was arranged by Corrymeela and was entitled “Courage of Lament”. After set prayers we were offered silence, to apply these prayers and let them sit and marinate into our souls. A little chime indicated we were moving on.
I’m contemplative in my spirituality; I appreciate the use of space, nature, environment, words, music, and silence to connect with God. This stillness, to enable us to be close to God is a treasure worth pursuing. I realize that it is not every believer’s spiritual cup of tea, but there is a richness of God to be discovered.
We are naïve to think that we can completely change the rush of the world, in many ways the church has contributed to the spiritual ‘hamster wheel” of exhausted Christians. Our Lord often took his disciples aside to teach, prayer and be present with him. Hey, doesn’t it sound lovely to “be present just with him.” We have a model to be examples of.
The practice of Centring Prayer helps me be silent. For 10 minutes each morning and evening (ok most), I sit in the presence of God, the Lord looks at me, and I look at him and I am present with God and God is present with me. Inevitably my mind drifts to the more mundane, so I use the word “love” and I am centred again on God. The more I practice the more I’m aware of the Graces of God in my life and I am more thankful.
Then I had an epiphany in St Anne’s- while there is a good quietness, there is also a silence that is bad.
Corrymeela had given an opportunity to lament that churches were silent when they should have been more vocal in the quest of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. While the question was asked to God …“where were you when the hatred started… where were you when neighbour turned on neighbour” really it was a rhetorical question. Where were we? We are upset by the answer but still there is time for the people of faith to speak up.
Psalm 85 is a one of lament, the writer asking God to respond and stop withholding, salvation, and settle from His anger. Then we find these lovely words – as paraphrased by the Message;
Love and truth meet in the street
Right living and whole living embrace and Kiss
Truth sprouts from the ground
Right living pours down from the skies.
That the people of God can challenge the injustices of the day being equipped with righteousness from on high and them being faithful sounds good to me.
Have you noticed that we are surrounded constant crisis? There is the cost-of-living crisis, the health crisis, the homeless crisis, the war in Ukraine crisis, the industrial relations crisis, and the drugs crisis. Surely the church cannot be silent in the face of these local and international issues.
I think the church can respond in two ways.
1. Respond to the present needs. When the UK government withdrew the uplift of Universal credit of £20-00 per week it was clear that the people receiving it, still needed it (cost of essentials had risen) and the gap in a family’s income would be met by the charity and faith sectors. Many churches have shopping trolleys for supplies to the local food bank, have taken in refugees to their homes and reached out to street sleepers to ensure that their basic needs are attended to – this all speaks of care.
2. To Challenge the Issues Causing Crises. To take Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s phrase “we must also sail upriver to challenge the causes of the many crises”. I am closest to the poverty crisis, and I am heartened that denominational leaders and parachurch groupings are bringing leaders together to challenge the causes of poverty. We recognise this is a complex issue, with many contributing factors and no quick fixes. We must not, and will not remain silent in the face of injustice.
It is so frustrating that we have no functioning Assembly at Stormont, mainly for reasons to do with relationships elsewhere. In the meanwhile, many families are struggling to put food on their tables, which could be addressed if the NI Executive met and, inter alia, release monies into people’s pockets. I suspect that support for staying out of the Assembly can only be sustained for a certain length of time, until people cannot cope with the choice between what is portrayed as a principled stance and their practical realities. And is this justice?
So, silence, is good sometimes and not good at other times. We must raise our voices to challenge and also demonstrate compassion to the injustices people are facing around us.
In Lamentations Chapter 3 we read these words: when life is heavy and hard to take go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Be in prayer. Don’t ask questions. Wait for hope to appear. Don’t run from trouble. Take it full face. (The Message)
Rev. Brian Anderson is the Mission Superintendent East Belfast Mission, and Past President of the Irish Council of Churches.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.