“Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
This is the great prayer in Judaism – often just called the ‘Shema’ after the first word –‘hear’ or ‘listen’. ‘Hear O Israel’. It is the prayer we heard read in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is the prayer which Jesus utters in our Gospel today when asked which is the greatest commandment.
It’s the first prayer a Jewish child is taught, and the last words a Jew is to say before death. The ‘Shema’ is recited at the start of synagogue services, when preparing to read from the Torah. The ‘Shema’ is, as Deuteronomy prescribes, placed inside the mezūzah which is fixed to the doorpost of Jewish homes, and it is placed inside the tefillin which many Jews bind to their arms and on their foreheads. And it is a mitzvah or commandment, that the words of the ‘Shema’ should be recited twice a day, morning and evening.
So when Jesus, as a faithful Jew, is asked by the scribe which commandment is the first of all, Jesus answers, “Shema Yisrael.” “Hear, O Israel.”
And coursing through the pages of the Old Testament, the word ‘Shema’ appears again and again as a great ‘leitmotif’ in God’s dealings with his people. Through the prophets God pleads, ‘Hear , O my people listen to me! O my people, you will not listen to me: you have shut your ears to the words of my mouth.
The Psalmist cries out in Psalm 87, ‘Hear O my people, and I will admonish you. O Israel, if you would but listen to me.’
For Israel, the beginning of change, of repentance leading to conversion – the beginning of their healing – came through listening. “Shema Yisrael.”
Obsculta o fili. “Listen, my son.” Listen, obsculta, is the very first word in the Rule of St. Benedict, which for 15 centuries has been the guiding principle for western monasticism. The opening words of the Rule are, ‘Listen O my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.’ “The ear of your heart.”
For Benedict, as for the Old Testament prophets, the way of conversion was primarily through listening – listening carefully and deeply, with “the ear of your heart,” to the word of God.
So, how should we listen? Well, in the Old Testament, in order to listen, we are enjoined first of all to be still. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Psalmist.
You will know that extraordinary account in the First Book of Kings when the prophet Elijah stands on Mount Horeb as the Lord is about to pass by. There was a great wind which split the mountain and broke rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. But then, ‘ a sound of sheer silence.’ And there was God – in the sound of sheer silence. It sounds a contradiction, an oxymoron. How can God speak in sheer silence? It is a contradiction – until you know it to be true. The 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, famously said, “God’s first language is silence – and everything else is a poor translation.”
God was not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. But at the sound of sheer silence, Elijah “wraps his face in his mantle.” It is a wonderful image. In the sheer silence he encounters the numinous, the mystical, the otherness of God – and he has to hide his face before the Holy One.
In the New Testament, St. Mark tells us that after he is baptized, Jesus is “driven by the Spirit into the wilderness” – not for some peace and quiet, but into that place of emptiness and silence to encounter God, to hear the voice of God. And in the 4th century, St. Anthony and those other pioneers of Christian monasticism went out into the searing silence of the Egyptian desert to meet God and to hear the word of life.
Shema. Hear, O Israel.
Obsculta. Listen, and attend to my words with the ear of your hearts.
I wonder, what part does silence play in your life? Do you enjoy silence? Can you tolerate silence? Many people are “noise addicts.” Silence can be threatening and frightening.
This monastery is a place where silence is valued. We have what is known as the “Greater Silence” each day from after Compline in the evening, that is 9:00 p.m., until about 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Some people who come to the monastery think silence is a kind of penance we brothers have to take on, that really we’re dying to be talking all the time, but we mortify ourselves by this silence! Whereas in fact, silence is one of the best things about the monastic life – and probably the greatest gift we offer to those who come here on retreat.
Without silence, it is hard to truly hear, to truly listen to God’s voice – to hear God speaking God’s “first language.”
But it is so hard to find silence these days. Everywhere is so noisy. Our Rule talks about this, and says how important it is to weave silence into the fabric of our daily life, to take delight in our closeness with God, undisturbed. But our Rule also says, “Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls and one another, through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation. Technology has intensified our risk of becoming saturated with stimuli.”
Think about your own life. Where do you weave silence into the fabric of your daily life? When there is silence, do you instinctively turn on the TV or radio or Internet?
If God seems distant or uncommunicative these days, maybe you’re simply not listening. God doesn’t shout: God’s first language is silence. Maybe in your prayers you are doing too much talking and not enough listening. Maybe God can’t get a word in!
The great mystery is that God in Christ dwells in the very depths of our souls. But to reach those depths requires disciplined listening. The noises of the world, and the clamor of the self must be stilled. But it is there, deep within, by the grace of God, that we too may hear the sound of sheer silence in all its fullness and all its energy: the creative word that gives us life.
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
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