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A Quiet Day

This talk by Paul Geraghty was offered in February at the Cathedral parish Quiet Day and is reprised here on Saint Benedict’s Feast Day (July 11) for your summer reading and contemplative pleasure.



Cathedral Quiet Day, February, 2019

Talk #1 by Paul Geraghty



Begin the song exactly where you are.
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air.

 Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

 And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.

 Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

 Become an open singing bowl, whose chime/Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

 And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

 –Malcolm Guite, “The Singing Bowl”


Poetry has the capacity to move us, without much effort on our part, into a different part of our consciousness just as  silence can.  The part that is less linear, less fact-obsessed or information clogged.  This poem by Anglican priest/poet Malcolm Guite has that power to move into a different space, the space of prayer. The line To clear and keep for Love a sacred space, is also Guite’s from his sonnet for the feast of St Benedict.

 It’s a line that reminded me of a short chapter in St. Benedict’s rule, under which I once lived, entitled “The Oratory of the Monastery.”   In it Benedict writes:  “The oratory ought to be what it is called and nothing else is to be done or stored there.”

To clear and keep for love a sacred space.  Both Guite and Benedict provide us, I believe, with an image for what we are about in this Quiet Day, clearing space, making room but I believe they also point to a more lasting need than just these few hours–point to the need to reconnect with or to deepen a connection with the sacred space at the heart of our life, the space the contemplative or mystical dimension of Christianity has seen as the space of our encounter with God.

Those  words contemplative and mystical carry a lot of baggage in our Christian history conjuring up images of saints caught up in ecstasy or in extreme lifestyles and they tend to carry connotations of superiority or of an elite, but the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, in an oft repeated sentence, said that the Christian of tomorrow would be a mystic or they would not be at all.

We seem to need sacred spaces and sacred times to remind us of this call to depth, but what we are called to discover there is that all of our life is sacred.

If I learned something of that in the nine years I spent In a monastery, I also think I deepened my experience of it in the 26 years I spent in a tertiary level pediatric hospital. Since I retired from that work I have had the great gift of time to be able to refocus a little more on the rich contemplative tradition of the church and the great teachers of that tradition including my own teacher John Main.  On this occasion I would like to acknowledge the great debt I owe to one contemporary teacher still living , the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross whose vision of priesthood and kenotic or self-emptying Christianity literally saved my spiritual life at a very difficult time for me. She can be a challenging read but her latest book that came out a year or two ago is called Silence: A User’s Guide. A young Episcopal priest in New York state called Matthew Wright has also been very inspiring recently.

At the outset I would like to offer a little  reassurance that even the greatest contemplatives are still human by sharing the opening words of one of the great classics of Christian spirituality. Some of you will recognise it but it would be interesting if those who don’t can discern who the author is.

Rarely has obedience laid upon me so difficult a task as this of writing about prayer; for one reason, because I do not feel that God has given me either the power or the desire for it, besides which, during the last three months I have suffered from noises and a great weakness in my head that have made it painful for me to write even on necessary business. [Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle]

I  love this passage  because what it tells me is that contemplation is not about trying to escape from where we are and nor is it about becoming other than we are.  We don’t have to clean ourselves up to come into God’s presence. (if you don’t believe me, ask the Prodigal Son!)  Back to Guite:

Begin the song exactly where you are.
Remain within the world of which you’re made. …
Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,

That is the contemplative invitation – not that we have to get anywhere except perhaps to that place we are often most absent from which is right here, right now.  Contemplative prayer is not an escape from life, on the contrary it teaches us that all of life is revelatory of God, God’s presence permeates all of life and reveals that presence to be the one in whom we live and move and have our being .

No one bears better witness  to this for me than the young Jewish woman Etty Hillesum whose profound and joyous insights were achieved under the shadow of the concentration camps where, of course, she would die.  It is amazing that someone in precisely the situation she found herself in could have the insights she had.  This is what she wrote:

Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields–there must be cornfields and they must wave in the breeze–and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and the now, that I must find them. 

In another profound insight she writes:

Before, I always lived in anticipation . . . that it was all a preparation for something else, something “greater,” more “genuine.” But that feeling has dropped away from me completely. I live here and now, this minute, this day, to the full, and the life is worth living.

That is what I think of when I think of contemplative sensitivity to life.  I find it profoundly moving and as I think about it I can’t help feeling that that was probably the way Jesus lived most of the time. If I may just offer one last quote of hers which I think needs to be heard.

 I don’t want to be anything special. I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise.

This reminds me of one of my favourite lines from the psalms:

I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me, as a weaned child on its mother’s breast even so is my soul.

 In a world that often seeks escape from the ordinary in the extraordinary, the contemplative vision grounds us in the revelation of the extraordinary depth of the ordinary. It’s a vision that our scriptures open up for us in passages like the great prayer from Ephesians.

I kneel in prayer to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name, that out of the treasures of his glory he may grant you strength and power through his Spirit in your inner being, that through faith Christ may dwell in your hearts in love.  With deep roots and firm foundations, may you be strong to grasp, with all God’s people, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge.  So may you attain to fullness of being, the fullness of God himself.

That is the Christian vision of our potential, of that within us that is seeking its fulfilment, nothing less than the fullness of being, the fullness of God’s own self. And the human image of that fullness is Jesus.

If in our prayer we are keeping and clearing a space, making our heart an oratory that is clear and uncluttered, it is in order to be able to experience and enter into that vast spaciousness of God. The breadth, the length, the height and the depth of the love of Christ. The space that we must clear and keep – which is our part of the work –  is our commitment to our prayer,  which opens up onto that which is never other than sheer gift. The contemplative path opens up that infinitely spacious world for us.  When the ego has usurped centre stage, we experience, instead, a world of constraint and narrowness, one that we feel the need to protect, to build a wall around. (Sound familiar?)

By contrast what we are invited to experience is the spaciousness of love, love made known and made real in the capacity we humbly discover in ourselves to loosen the grip egoic consciousness has on us and to root our lives more firmly in our identity in God – an identity that unlike the ego is kenotic or self-empting and can give itself away – in love, in forgiveness in compassion, sharing in the kenotic or self-emptying energy of Christ.

The mystical vision is always rooted in union and one of the exciting ways many of us see this reflected today is in the parallel that many are drawing between the expansive depths of our inner world that prayer opens up for us and the new understanding of the expanding world of the physical universe that modern science is making available to us.  The world that God created. The universe that reflects its creator. The universe I live in is not the universe my grandmother lived in but even though the story is new with its elements of infinite expansion, interconnectedness and omnicentricity, the revelatory nature of the universe is not new. The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands, wrote the psalmist.

Years ago I picked up a prayer card.  I am pretty sure I got it in the Episcopal cathedral in Burlington Vermont which had a great bookstore. The text on it was Hindu not Christian and interestingly it pre-dated by many years my interest in cosmology in words that echo for me Malcolm Guite’s cleared space and Benedict’s uncluttered oratory:

Now in this city there is a dwelling place a tiny lotus flower, within it a tiny space.  Seek what is within it… as wide as that space outside is the space within the human heartWithin it lie heaven and earth, fire and wind, sun and moon, lightning and the stars, everything…..

As wide as that space outside is the space within the human heart.  Seek what is within it.  We need to do that.  Our world needs to do that so badly.  Our Christian faith amongst others has profound wisdom to offer the people of our modern world but the only real wisdom we can offer is the wisdom we are living by ourselves. Even the most sacred of words are not meant to be kept in books but to come alive as the living word in the hearts of those who are seeking too.  The path of prayer is personal – we can only walk it for ourselves but it is never private because as we discover our own identity in God we help to bear witness to others to their infinite value and preciousness. People want to be awakened to the infinite depths of their own identity, we do ourselves and whilst creeds or dogmas rituals and practices all have their place and our journey of prayer is nourished and shaped by them, even they can lose their meaning and their power if they are not grounded in the encounter with silence at the heart of our being in which we wait on God. One of the most moving and insights into this way of seeing things occurred to a modern monk, not in the somewhat protected and privileged world of his monastery but on the corner of a busy intersection in a North American city, not Union and St. Catherine in Montreal, although it could have been but Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville where Thomas Merton, to whom we all owe a huge debt in my opinion had a 20th century mystical experience. It was as if the veil was lifted and he had a profound realisation that he loved all the people milling around at that busy intersection and out of that experience he wrote these powerful words:

In the centre of our being there is a point of nothingness/which is untouched by sin and by illusion/a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God,
which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.

This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty
is the pure glory of God in us. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven.
It is in everybody and if we could see it
we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun
that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

I have no programme for this seeing.
It is only given.But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

The gate of heaven is everywhere.  One of my favourite poets who knew that deeply was Mary Oliver who died just a few weeks ago. This is her poem “Prayer”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

For Merton the gate of heaven is everywhere.  For Oliver a blue iris or a few small stones can be the doorway into thanks and a silence in which another voice may speak.  And I dare to add that something my twenty six years of chaplaincy taught me which is that even an emergency room of a children’s hospital at three in the morning can be the holy of holies.

I would like to conclude this reflection by suggesting that the gate of heaven is everywhere  accessed through the doorway of silence.  It is a silence that is less an exterior silence… so difficult to find in our modern urban world…but more a deep well of inner silence that our practice and discipline of prayer is making space for and which gradually perhaps becomes a resource from which we can draw great strength.

Listen to what a great contemporary Benedictine Joan Chittister has to say:

Silence…is that place just before the voice of God. It is the void in which God and I meet in the center of my soul. It is the cave through which the soul must travel, clearing out the dissonance of life as we go, so that the God who is waiting there for us to notice can fill us…A day without silence is a day without the presence of the self… To be a contemplative we must put down the cacophony of the world around us and go inside ourselves to wait for the God who is a whisper, not a storm. Silence not only gives us the God who is Stillness but, just as importantly, teaches the public self of us what to speak.

The God who is waiting there for us to notice. That to me is such a poignant image – God is indeed waiting for us. God is present; it is we who are absent.  The path of silence brings us back to ourselves and in the Christian vision back to that God who longs for us to know the breadth and length and height and depth of the love revealed to us in Christ.


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