At daybreak, far from the ranting and raving that hurt my ears, I’m alone with The Book of Common Prayer. I’ve come here for silence, interrupted only by the calls of the loons and the pair of trumpeter swans that return every spring.
For generations the swans’ inner compasses have brought them back to this unspoiled place to hatch their young before flying south again for winter. The swans and I are a lot alike; we both come back when the ice is almost gone.
I settle into the hickory Amish rocker Jacob Miller crafted to fit my slim dimensions 40 years ago back in Millersburg, Ohio. Though its measurements are the same, It feels narrower. But we’re still made for each other. The rocker is where I rock awhile, like Jacob on his front porch after a hard day’s work, until he had to light the kerosine lamps inside.
I reach to the lamp table next to the rocker for The Book of Common Prayer that belonged to Sue Kahn until the day she gave it to me. Sue had relocated to Cincinnati to be nearer her daughter after macular degeneration had left her functional sightless. A lifelong Episcopalian who savored the language of The Book of Common Prayer, she joined her her daughter for worship with the Presbyterians. She asked one day whether I had a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. A week later, Sue stayed after worship. “I want you to have this,” she said, placing it in my hands. “I know you’ll treasure it as much as I.”
I open to the appointed Psalm for this Wednesday of Holy Week, Psalm 55.
Hear my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my petition.
It’s the day before release of the redacted report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a report that may answer my prayer for full disclosure of the truth I suspect has been hidden.
Listen to me and answer me;
I have no peace because of my cares.
The arrogance — “listen to me; answer me!” — disturbs me. Prayer is not an exercise in telling God what to do! The psalmist is arrogant and it’s selfish, more than a little Narcissistic, like the man in the Oval Office who might push the button on the red phone after typing the letters into th unsecured iPhone he uses to tweet.
But I have come to the wilderness because I have no peace watching Ari and Rachel and waiting for the nightmare to end.
I am shaken by the noise of the enemy;
and by the pressure of the wicked…
I don’t like talk of ‘enemies’; it puts me off. “Love your ememies and do good to them who persecute you.” Framing one’s opponents as ‘wicked’ is the less develped morality that has not yet recognized the inertwining of good and evil. But the psalms express the vicseral feelings of the heart unfiltered by the cerebral cortex. Like the psalmist, I am shaken to the core by the noise of an enemy; the pressure of the wicked. The noise hurts me ears.
For they have cast an evil spirit upon me,
and are set against me in fury.
l do not stand on solid ground. The cloud of evil and wickedness I routinely ascribe to ‘them’ hangs over me. I cannot claim to be righteous, right, or good as opposed to the unrighteous, wrong, and evil. I live under an ‘evil spell’ – the fall from essential goodness that comes with the presumption of the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge that belongs to God alone. There is no escape from the pressure and the fury.
My heart quakes within me,
and the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling have come over me,
and horror overwhelms me.
I quake as a fish caught in a net. I thrash and tremble in darkness at noon as at midnight. The snare of terrors encompasses me.
And I said “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee to a far off place
and make my lodging in the wilderness.”
The crackling from the fire and the trumpet calls of the trumpeter swans across the wetland break the silence of daybreak. In this far off place, I am at rest. II make my lodging in the wilderness beyond the snare and blare of right and wrong, good and evil.
— Gordon C. Stewart by the thawing weland, April 18, 2019
I remember standing with my classmates at Marple Elementary School for a period of silence on November 11. It was Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I.
Observing the silence was hard! It wasn’t happy; it was sad. It was an enforced unhappy silence to remember what none of us kids wanted to remember: those who had died in an antique time in service to their country, and the horrors of war itself. I must have wondered why our teachers would enforce a sad silence that made us unhappy. In 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day in America. (Click HERE for information about the change.)In Canada, Europe, Great Britain, and Australia, November 11 is called Remembrance Day.
On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio . . . when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking . . . clicking on the title.
November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
— Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons
All these years later, I still struggle with silence on November 11, and on days like yesterday, the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Yet, as a person of faith who knows darkness as well as light, I have learned over the years to silence the radio for an unenforced Two Minute Silence.
Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2018.
Sixty-three years ago, the American Legion recruited two 12 year-old trumpet players to play “Taps” for the Memorial Day Service at the Glenwood Memorial Cemetery in Broomall, Pennsylvania.
It was a rare privilege granted the few. One of us would play a short refrain — “da ta daaaah…”; the other would echo it from below the wall. The next refrain would follow, as would the echo until the special rendering of “Taps” had moved everyone to the respectful silence appropriate to Memorial Day.
It was a nice idea. We practiced. All went well. Very dramatic! Until Memorial Day when Alex’s echo came back in a different key.
The 12 year-olds lost it!!! The only sounds were a few choked back laughs. There was no “Taps” that year. The 12 year-old weren’t invited back when they were 13.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 29, 2017
Memorial Day calls more for silence than for speeches — the silence of the living standing before the graves of fallen soldiers.
Silence alone is golden today — a deep silence broken only by the haunting sound of a bugle calling us into the presence of that which is deeper than many words.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Memorial Day, May 29, 2017.
I have two hearing aids. I need them both.
I went home. Changed the battery. Nada. Changed the little white insert at the end of the receiver thinking it might be clogged. Still no sound.
Monday morning, while waiting at the hearing clinic for a verdict on the problem, an older man and his daughter took the seats across from me in the waiting area. They started a conversation. I pointed to my left ear, saying I couldn’t hear. The daughter said something and pointed to her father who also said something I couldn’t understand. Then I said, “I can’t hear,” and smiled. “Sometimes I like the silence. The world is very noisy.” The man laughed. The daughter nodded and smiled knowingly.
It was a momentary communion of glorious shared silence.
The result? The hearing aid has been sent off to the manufacturer for repair of a twisted wire inside the hearing mold. My left ear now wears a loaner, a rental from Herz until my vehicle returns at the cost of $250. I re-imagine the text of the sermon I couldn’t hear:
“Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.” – Proverbs 17:28
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 28, 2017.
He slinks down Pennsylvania Avenue, head down in a knit cap, at 3:00 A.M. disguised as a homeless man escaping the watchful eye of the Secret Service, his administration, and the cameras, on his way to a dilapidated tenament in the poorest part of the city.
The tenement dweller who owns nothing has been waiting for him. For a long time. The door is ajar, as it always is, in anticipatory welcome of his and others’ coming.
“Welcome, Donald,” he says. “It’s been years. I wondered whether we’d ever have a visit.” He lifts the visitor’s heavy coat from his burdened shoulders. The tenement dweller points to two chairs he’s rescued from a dumpster in the wealthier part of the city, and, without words, invites his guest to choose between the small wood folding chair and the high red-leather wingback that face each other in the small room. The guest pauses …and then, reluctantly, chooses the small folding chair.
The room is dimly lit by a small table lamp, the kind of late-night or early morning ambiance that engenders a kind of intimate calm. They sit in silence.
“I’ve been concerned, Donald. I see you’ve been tweeting a lot – more than normal. What’s that about?”
“It’s all I have. My mind won’t stop. I don’t sleep. I don’t rest. I watch television to distract me but it’s only making things worse. I’m a mess. I feel very alone.”
But you’re not. You’re surrounded by people in the White House. Why did you come here?”
“I remembered you from childhood. My mother taught me the song I used to sing about you. I used to end my bedtime prayers on my knees in your name.
Jesus is silent.
“And now? What brings you here at this hour of the morning?
“I don’t know.”
The table lamp next to the chairs flickers.
“It feels pretty dark, doesn’t it?”
“Very dark. Very dark!”
“Why is that?”
“I have all the power in the world but I’m helpless to help myself. I can’t stop tweeting. It’s like it’s not real. I could destroy the world with the push of a button. The power scares me. So do my advisors. My mind never stops.”
Silence. The silence of truth.
The tenement dweller’s eyes look through him, but are soft and compassionate, as well as penetrating. His posture is relaxed but completely attentive to the man-child in the smaller, folding chair. Finally he speaks quietly.
“Maybe it’s time to get down on your knees again? Time to recognize that your homeless disguise is not just a disguise? You’ve been homeless in that gilded tomb of a tower. Time to sing the song you loved to sing in Sunday School, submit yourself to a power greater than your self, and get a good breakfast in the morning instead of tweeting. And, do something about Steve Bannon. He got it all wrong. He’s thrives on anxiety. I’ve been waiting for him, too.”
They sit together in silence. The tenement dweller reaches out his hands; the president extends his hands in response. They sit in silence – a wordless kind of prayer of the Deeper Silence – by the flickering light until they rise from their respective chairs. The host lifts Donald’s heavy coat up to his lightened shoulders and watches the homeless president leave for another day on Pennsylvania Avenue, humming in the silence, “Jesus loves me, this I know… Little ones to him belong. He is great but I am small” in anticipation of a return visit, and a word at the White House with his lesser advisors.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 12, 2017.
“Every day that you attempt to see things as they are in truth is a supremely successful day.” Vernon Howard
“It seems to me that the most basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics…. My own peculiar task in my Church and in my world has been that of the solitary explorer who, instead of jumping on all the latest bandwagons at once, is bound to search the existential depths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities, and in those certainties which lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety. In those depths there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to anything. It is…
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You’re reading a blog post. Blogging is talking. Sometimes it’s downright t-a-l-k-a-t-i-v-e. Chatty. Pointless. Silence is to be preferred to word pollution.
Two photographs in The Wood of Our Lady, Dennis Aubrey’s Via Lucis post, give reason to talk about talkativeness. Open the link and scroll down near the bottom to see two capitals: 1) two figures with their heads in their hands, weeping, and 2) what Dennis calls “The Punishment of the Talkative”.
The weeping figures of 12th century Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité strike a chord of familiarity. How many times a day does the news cause us to put our head in our hands in despair? But “the punishment of the talkative” capital evokes no such sympathy. It strikes us moderns as barbaric, the art of a Christian first-cousin of ISIL with grotesque figures excising the tongue of the talkative. Yet it served to remind the worshipers in the 12th century, as it still does in its startling way, that talkativeness is no virtue. Words are sacred. Dennis Aubrey puts it this way:
Perhaps the most famous capital represents the punishment of the talkative, presumably by excising the tongue with tongs. I don’t know if this condemns lying, calumny, or verbal abuse, or if it is a more generalized censure of chattiness or language in general. While this punishment somehow seems fitting for the slanderers who fill our public lives, I would prefer these thoughts of Voltaire, … les anges m’ont tué par leur silence. Le silence est le just chatiment des bavard. Je meurs, je suis mort. “The angels have killed me with their silence. Silence is the just punishment for the talkative. I’m dying. I’m dead.”
It was poet Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, whose first published book (1918) was titled The Madman, who used words to say, “I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerative from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”
Thank you, Dennis Aubrey and P.J. McKey for bringing the teachers to light.
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 20, 2015.
A contemplative reflection on Psalm 62 at Saint Augustine Beach, Saint Augustine, FL.
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. I wait in silence. [Psalm 62:5 NRSV]
I wait in silence.
Withdrawing from the noisy men next door in Saint Augustine, I am like the Hermit Crab crawling into the borrowed snail shell on Saint Augustine Beach.
This is the same beach brave souls dared to integrate in 1964, a place where then there was no place to hide, the public white beach where the Hermit Crabs refused to hide when the billy clubs swing to drive them from the white man’s beach. There are no billy clubs on the beach today but the shouting of the world we call civilized still hurts by ears.
How long will you assail a person,
will you batter your victim, all of you,
as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? [Ps. 62:3 NRSV]
The world is noisy. Loud. Cacophonous. Bellowing blasts, bewailing, and bedlam in Beirut, Baghdad, and Boston hurt my ears. Hoping to leave it, I come to the beach where the tides know nothing of the color of my skin, my income, my worries or fears.
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. [Ps. 62: 5-7 NRSV]
At low tide I crawl inside the borrowed shell looking for a respite from the noonday heat, my deliverance, my refuge, my fortress. But, even here, the noise follows me.
The blasts, buzzes, and bellowing echo inside the shell. Silence eludes me. Even here, I am a poor man, a mere breath, walking among the vendors and hawkers, resentful, angry, beset, a man of low estate.
Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them. [Ps. 62:9-10 NRSV]
Here I am a breath stripped from the delusions of high estates indulged on the other side of the sand dunes that separate the beach from the street.
I wait in silence.
I ponder the speed outside the Hermit Crab’s temporary home, the abandoned snail shell, the speed that is itself an illusion, a flight of hubris washed away by the tides of time. I remember the race to nowhere, the myths of ownership, invulnerability, control, and superiority that race through the minds of low and high estates alike.
I hear the distant shouts and screams from the integration of Saint Augustine Beach that still plunge the despondent men next door into the oblivion of cheap booze, dope, and, maybe, crack. But the longer I wait and listen, my heart grows strangely calmer. Quieter. More at peace.
I come into the deeper Silence of the Breath once heard by the psalmist.
Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
according to their work. [Ps. 62: 11-12 NRSV]
In the wordless silence I hear the Word I’ve come to the beach to hear:
“Be still, and know that I am God.” [Ps. 46:10 NRSV]
– Gordon C. Stewart, Saint Augustine, Florida, January 31, 2015