Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book review of The Language of Silence

One of the deep themes in Celtic spirituality is the desert tradition from Egypt which includes such towering figures as Antony and the desert fathers and mothers. Follow this rustic path and envitably one discovers the Camaldolese tradition, a strict form of the Benedictines which emphasizes solitude and separation. Peter-Damian Belisle's The Language of Silence (2003) provides an excellent starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the Camaldonese tradition. The book is part of the Traditions of Chrisitan Spirituality Series, a series which has a wonderful volume on Celtic Spirituality entitled Journeys on the Edges: The Celtic Tradition featured earlier on this blog. A warning. These books are like candy. Eat one, and you will want to devour them all. These are well written and provide wonderful snapshots of great Christian spiritual traditions. To my surprize, I've already read five other volumes including ones on the Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines and Cistercians. 

Belisle's book is focused around the theme of "the monk within", a theme I might add that we also encountered in Ed Sellner's book Finding the Monk Within (2008). Belisle writes: "We are all drawn inward, towards the centre of existence. We come to know ourselves as drawn into a presence. Solitude ushers us into presence, towards which the language of silence is most attentive. If we find ourselves in relation that presence at the centre of our being, we will move our hearts, indeed, our lives, outwardly in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters througout the world" (pgs. 171-2.)

The book outlines how solitude is a longstanding theme in God's holy history-since forever. Solitude has always been an important ingredient of the spiritual  life, featured in Old and New Testaments and throughout the history of the Christian Church. Belisle seems to be tapping the modern reader on the shoulder saying "listen up to this ancient Christian practice, you might just learn something"!

A survey of Old and New Testament figures includes Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus and Mary and stresses the solitary in each. A pivital chapter on Athanasius's Life of Anthony is a must for all Protestant leaning readers, followed by a section on the desert solitaries. The tour of solitude moves then to several of the great Patristic writers including Basil the Great and John Cassian. There are also chapters on Benedict of Nursia and notably writers in the Camaldolese, Carthusian and Cistercian traditions. A final chapter includes fascinating portrayals of contemporary solitudes including Charles de Foucauld, Dorothy Day and others. This is an impressive list of folks, all weaned in the school of silence. We would do well to listen.

The Language of Silence provides an excellent starting point for anyone interested in contemplation, and monastic solitude. Lets face it, we live in an age which features a noisy, wordy world, and noisy, wordy Christianity. And with all this noise, when does one really have the time to listen for that still, small voice? This book makes the convincing case that a different way, perhaps even a better way can be found within the walls of quiet reflection and solitude. This is how God has worked in the past, and this is how God works today. It is a compelling challenge to our noisy and gadgety culture. Another case of addition by subtraction.

On the negative side, The Language of Silence may try to cover too much ground in one swoop-there are a ton of personalities presented here, too many in fact. I think it would have been more effective to have longer chapters on fewer individuals. Yet even so, along the way, one may find a hermit that one can relate to.

We all have a "monk within" and this book helps us to answer how we can nurture and develop that important side to our spiritual personality.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In praise of trash

This past week I had a radiator replaced on my Chevy truck. Not exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do on a holiday, but what else can one do? And anytime I have a block of three to four hours to do something, I always have a good book with me to pass the time. This time, it was Peter Damian Belisle's The Language of Silence, a great book on monastic solitude which I will review in a later article.  Perhaps it had something to do with the monastic stress on "awareness" but something strange happened. Let me share it with you.

To pass the time of day, I parked myself at one of the local bus stops-to get out of the sun-and to have a place where I could read some of Belisle's wonderful book. While reading, I noted that several people stopped by to sort through a nearby trashcan, searching for bottles, cans, anything they could redeem for cash. Even though I was reading, I kept my inner eye on what was taking place around me. It was fascinating! The people didn't even seem to notice (or care) that I was there. One person even sorted through the trash can, picking out odd letters and notes, which he read and kept, and then went on his way.

This got me to thinking. What struck me was how such an activity-people sorting through trash-has now become an accepted part of American life. I would even go onto venture that can diving is now part of one's everyday experience. This was not so in the past, when such behavior was seen as "odd" but now I've noticed how frequent it is to see people from many different social and ethnic backgrounds, searching for bottles and cans, pushing shopping carts full of bottles, or to be seen walking with plastic bags, and doing whatever it takes, just to get by and make a few extra dollars.  Trash diving is now the norm. No doubt it is a sign of the difficult economic and social times we now live in. I can remember a time-not long ago-when I heard about this kind of thing in far away places like India, or Dickens's London, where people sort through all the trash looking for any and all items of value. But now I am sad to say that such practices  happen in the USA as well. These are interesting times indeed!

These are difficult economic times, and people will do whatever they need to do in order to survive, so we should not be surprised. Most importantly of all, these experiences reminded me that these persons, these "trash pickers" are people too, who are made in God's image. They are people with whom I have something in common, and not strangers. And even though some might suffer from mental illness or have an addiction, they are of great value. They are my brothers and sisters!

I have experienced this on a local level for years. At St. Aidan's Church for example, there is an individual who calls himself "the bottle and can man" (he even has a business card with that printed on it) and one of the things he does is recycle. He is willing to go anywhere at any time, just to make a few extra dollars, and collect empty bottles and cans. Bless that man, and bless those who are merely trying to get by. God's word reminds us that these folks are our extended family, and that it is our responsbility to reach out to them, care for them, and be Christ's heart and hands. Curious, isn't it, that in reaching out to the stranger and the poor, that we find the face and presence of Christ. Our natural inclination might be to run or turn our back from such a person. Yet the divine imperative is to reach out.

Coming to a trash can near you! A human being trying to survive. And coming to you, the wonderful opportunity to experience God's grace. Do the right thing and show that person the respect and dignity they deserve. In so doing, you will open yourself to the great gift of God's presence.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Blessing a building

Clergy are frequently to bless homes, condo's and townhouses. In December I had a first- blessing a building! Some friends invited me to bless their new business in downtown Honolulu. They opened a medical clinic and I was happy to oblige! We had a great time and I've included a photo so you can see my able assistants, Nema and Armon.
This got me to thinking about the idea of "blessing", a theme we addressed in a previous blog artice. What exactly do we mean when we say "blessing"? For some, "blessings" are things performed only by priests. For others, "blessings" are something which occur ocassionally, and are typically restricted to such events as meals, or church related events such as baptisms, weddings and the like. 

Celtic Christians share a larger notion of "blessing". For the Celts, all of life is a "blessing", and moreover, this "blessing" extends to the most mundane aspects of life. Nothing is left out. Such a perspective was previously discussed in my last article on the Carmina Gadelica, that great collection of prayers and blessings by Alexander Carmichael. There, as we noted, prayers, blessings, and thanksgivings take place at every moment and movement throughout one's day; while waking, walking, working, eating, resting, waiting, and even in death. By contrast, for the Celt, blessings are a regular occurance, something to be anticipated numerous times throughout the day. One last thing. We are meant to be a blessing for other people. St. Augustine once remarked we are "to be taken, blessed, broken, distributed that the work of the Incarnation may go forward". We don't often agree with that Bishop of Hippo, but here we give him the nod.