A New Encounter

an excerpt

Martin Thornton

Authorized Reissue


Chapter 14

Contemporary spirituality is suspicious of "withdrawal" into acts of prayer, and the modern world is frightened of that silence which goes with it. This is understandable, even laudable, if it is an attack of religiosity, a rebellion against pushing God out on to the perimeter of life. But we have forestalled this interpretation by reversing the process-product relation of the old regula: acts of prayer are not so much framework and preparation for life as life itself in concentrated form. Periodic acts of prayer do not sanctify life since life is in God, and therefore sanctified already; prayer underlines and articulates the fact. withdrawal into silence is no escape but concentrated confrontation with reality. Nevertheless the process-product relation, whichever way round we put it, is reciprocal; the disciplined use of silence is one of the tradition means towards contemplation and its value cannot be gainsaid. But we speak of contemplation as, primarily, guide to life and decision in triune Being, not as an accomplishment in its own right.

If withdrawal into silence is focus or concentrate of experience, then it is a necessary and natural need, not an artificially imposed religious duty. Silence is the environment of creativity, the essential condition for letting-be, the birthplace of love. One does not usually compose poetry on Paddington station in the rush hour, although such experience may well provide the initial inspiration for a poem. Sleep and waking, incubation and birth, winter and summer, rest and action, habitual awareness of Being and acts of penitence and praise: this is the natural order of Things. Those who run from silence are the real escapists for they dare not confront reality.

It is common experience to ordinary Christians in retreat, or after a prolonged period of silent prayer, for things, beings, creation, to take on a new and more vivid appearance. The cultivation of a deep interior silence issues in a new look towards everything, the presence and manifestation of Being in the beings is constant, but here is a positive response to that constancy. Under such conditions Julian contemplated her hazel-nut; to George Fox things had 'another smell than before'; Saint Francis called wind and water brother and sister, not out of sentiment, but as a theological expression of contemplation; to John Scotus Eriugena the world became 'a theophany.' In Buber's terminology they all had moved into an I-Thou relationship. In Macquarrie's, human being became united with other beings and glimpsed Being. In all cases it is prayer, emphatic and contemplative.

We have spoken of the cultivation of a deep interior silence, but that is misleading, for silence, like contemplation, ultimately precludes method and technique; one can only understand, experiment, and risk. Silence is positive, it is not the absence of noise, or in any case there is no such thing in nature as noiselessless. It has to be deep and interior, and it may be achieved against a background of din, for the sense of hearing follows the same pattern as the other senses. The constant, pin-pointed gaze at the mandala — or tree or pylon or Daisy — the constant touch of the rosary bead, the enveloping smell of incense or soap; all these may integrate and concentrate. So may a constant background drone. If this interior quiet, which is active response to the disclosure of Being, cannot be induced by method, it can be experimented with, and it is of assistance if the process is psychologically and theologically understood.

The word anapauo — I rest — is fundamental to the biblical understanding of contemplation. We must now introduce another biblical word as the typological foundation of withdrawal into silence: the word is eremos -- desert, lonely place, devastated country, or more commonly, wilderness. This word has a wide variety of meanings which for present purposes may be considered under three headings. First, it applies to a wilderness or desert as the scene of danger and desolation. It is the haunt of the Gadarene Demoniac in Luke 8:29. It is a place of physical peril for Saint Paul [1] and for the multitude of the faithful. [2] It may also mean a city or country devastated by enemy action: 'And Jesus knew their thoughts and said unto them, every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation' (eremoutai). [3] Or it can be a place abandoned by its inhabitants, 'Behold your house is left unto you desolate.' [4] In Matthew 12:43, both keywords are found in conjunction: 'When the unclean spirit is gone out of man, he walketh through dry places to seek rest (anapausin — resting place) and findeth none.'

It is not difficult to translate this into spiritual-theology. From danger of demons and wild beasts to spiritual danger is a short step, desolation is the opposite of consolation, and perhaps it is not too far-fetched to see dry places as the outcome of desolation, dryness or aridity of spirit.

Secondly, the word also carries the opposite connotation of safety and, again, rest. It is the refuge of the persecuted, as in 1 Kings 19, where Elijah flees from Jezebel into the wilderness, there to find rest and spiritual refreshment typified by the miraculous cake and cruse of water. But, looking back to our first heading, Elijah first gives up hope and pray for death; looking forward to our third heading, it is here that ultimately God appears, or if you wish Being is disclosed in the still small voice. To our Lord the wilderness is a special place of communion with the Father: 'And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.' [5] It is also a direct instruction to the disciples: 'And he said unto them, come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while.' [6] Again eremos and anapauo in conjunction.

The third meaning is a synthesis of the preceding two, in that it emphasises the aspect of fruitfulness, creativity, and victory. In the stories of Moses and Elijah the result is prophetic insight, divine disclosure, and the retreat into a silent desert brings Jesus victory. How important, and how significant, are things, beings, physical manifestation, in these desert stories: the manna, [7] the water from the rock, the bitter water made sweet, [8] Elijah's mantle, [9] and so on. Later the wilderness becomes the expected scene of Messiah's advent. John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness with the greatest prophetic message ever. Eremos takes on an eschatological significance for it is out of the desert that Christ will return in glory, finally to vanquish the powers of darkness. It is in the wilderness that the Church should remain when the terrible signs of the end appear and here the community of faith are to live, listening in silence for the disclosure of the silent God.

That is very sketchy and no doubt the biblical scholars could produce minutely documented tomes on the significance of these two words alone. Here it suffices to note the curiously constant progression: fear and danger, followed by rest and safety, followed by creativity, prophecy and victory. Not infrequently the order follows in the same story: Elijah wants to die in despair, then refreshment, then the disclosure of the still small voice. Out of Egypt into the wilderness is the beginning of Jewish religious consciousness. But the Exodus led to heartsearching, temptation, desolation and sin. Yet hope remained, and through the silent wilderness was the way to that good land, flowing with milk and honey. If we take out typology serious, Isaiah's great hymn to silence remains very pertinent indeed: "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God." [10] I do not quote that because it sounds nice, or in case the reader has not heard it before, but because it takes on a new twist: out of silence shall come fragrance, even the trees shall manifest God's presence.

The supreme exemplar is Christ himself. Gethsemane starts with tears and fear and bloody sweat, then the peace of God, then the victory: "thy will be done." So with the temptation narrative: the long frightening vigil, the battle, the victory.

What does this mean? Neither silence nor contemplation are reducible to method but here is understand of what might be expected if the experiment is risked. Suppose a man, a modern man brings a period of silence into his weekly scheme of prayer, preferably three hours, as concentrate of the experience of Being in daily life. What is he expected to do? And what might he expect to happen? I cannot answer the first question, for there is no method: I can only say sink into Being, relax, recollect, look, feel. The answer to the second question is easier. The desert of silence will at first be frightening and dangerous, and considerable tensions will develop. Everything seems strange and artificial, and of special consequence to modern Christians there may be a sense of false piety, of religiosity. In spite of everything previously explained, here I am devoutly saying my prayers in apparent isolation from the world. It is all very uncomfortable. But the Bible has explained this as normal, as the proper start of the creative prayer of silence: it is Elijah giving up and petitioning for death; Christ sweating blood in Gethsemane. It is all part of the game.

There is also likely to be a temptation of a particularly virulent kind. The desert as traditional haunt of the demons is full of existential meaning. It was not by accident that our Lord suffered temptation after a silent a solitary sojourn in the wilderness: it was why he was there, being "led up of the spirit." [11] And it was this example which was followed in the experiments of the Desert Fathers. The flight to the desert was no negative rejection of the world but a positive search for God, but it was first a positive search for the devil. It was assumed, with curious optimism, that Satan had been driven out of the cities, to be persuaded into the desert for a final mopping-up operation. It was as purposeful as Christ's self-initiated temptation and victory, and it is unlikely that Saint Anthony and Saint Jerome were surprised to find themselves assailed by carnal temptations. They knew what they were doing and courageously sallied forth to battle.

This discomfiture, awkwardness, and temptation can last a long time, and it is obviously a concentrate of a common state of life; a fight against alienation and disharmony which in the busy world easily gets shrugged off and left to fester. With perseverance it will pass into the second stage of rest, peace, contentment and contemplation. This is a concentrate of life in its better moods, and this stage can also last a long time.

The third stage is victory, inspiration, prophecy and discernment, but this, like God himself, cannot be sought. We can only respond to the divine omni-presence and omni-activity, omni-active-contemplation, or in less clumsy terms, to God's continuous letting-be. This third stage is likely to be carried back into everyday living, it is the seed-bed of that discernment which is the third aspect of decision-making. Like sacramental grace, discernment does not come to us in semi-Pelagian doses, it gradually develops with our response to being let-be.

Nevertheless, after a prolonged period of silence the world looks different, things appear in sharper reality, and Being may be disclosed in them.

This kind of prayer is under attack from three quarters and some defence should be offered. First, the text-book, which frequently places it under the third of the falsely chronological Three Ways. In order to attempt such contemplation in silence one must be half-way, or perhaps nine-tenths of the way, to heaven. Here the object of contemplation is God in himself, not Being in the beings; a confusion with which we have dealt. And we have seen with crystal clarity from the Bible that this retreat into the desert, rather than being only possible after the defeat of sin, is in fact the battle itself. There is a strong case for the view that it is the sinner not the saint for whom such prayer is meant, yet in the text-books it is the sinner who is precluded from attempting it.

It is attacked by the modern radical, who sees this prayer as the epitome of self-centered pietism, as escape into religiosity. This criticism is overcome by our basic thesis that all prayer is relation and that acts of prayer are foci of life itself. We have also seen that false piety, like sin itself, is overcome as we persevere from the first stage into the second. In the modern world the escape from reality is not into the desert but into the crowd; not into silence but into the din.

Silent prayer demands long periods of time and serious Christians look upon it as too difficult for them. This stems from the text-book approach with its Three Ways confusion and its platonic-mystical slant. It is demonstrated as false by the remarkable record of the Retreat Movement. Year by year many thousands of people, schoolgirls, undergraduates and professional men amongst them, not only manage to survive a three days' retreat in silence, but discover a new medium of creativity. Their eyes and ears are opened to the disclosure of Being.

The principle of annual retreat, however, suffers certain disadvantages when it is placed within our new-map framework. Prayer is life in concentrate, and one must question the feasibility of a three-day concentrate of twelve months. What we are advocating is more like a weekly, or monthly "quiet day." The trouble with the conventional quiet day is that it is not very quiet, being generally prostituted by services and addresses. A quiet day, moreover, is notoriously difficult to manage infrequently, and it is well-known that, to the beginner, a full three-day retreat is very much easier to cope with. Retreat, therefore, might well play in proficient Christian living. But it would have to be fairly frequent. That is by the way; we are concerned with principles not rules. We are still building upon our premise: I live in this world and I believe in the creed; what do I do next? From this existential-ontological basis, from living experiences in the world, from Christian discipleship, from the fundamental religious experience of awareness of Being in the beings; from all this the need for silence has arisen. "Be still, and know that I am God" [12] is no pious exhortation but a pastoral-theological fact.

1. 2 Cor 11:26.
2. Heb 11:38.
3. Mt 12:25.
4. Mt 23:38; Lk 13:35; Acts 1:20.
5. Mk 1:35; cf. Mt 14:13; Lk 4:42; Jn 11:54.
6. Mk 6:31.
7. Ex 16:14ff.
8. Ex 15:25.
9. 2 Kings 2:8.
10. Is 35:1-2.
11. Mt 4:1; Lk 4:1.
12. Ps 46:10.


© Akenside Press and Matthew C. Dallman, 2016. Reissued with permission of Monica Thornton. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, Akenside Press.