Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Listen – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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.”

Amen.

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20 Comments

  1. Tracy Baron on October 17, 2017 at 18:09

    Particularly since my husband died in the last year I have surprised myself as to how comfortable with silence I have been. Perhaps it’s very, very true that God is silence and therefore silence that surrounds those who mourn is actually how God embraces us? There are no words because there can’t be… our heart is broken… communication is beyond language. Perhaps even the best of communication is… because it’s just ‘being’ and ‘united’. There is an understanding that is just as deep as it can be. It’s a lovely place in a way because I feel resilient and in touch with who i am. My mood is stable, neither one thing or another. ‘Hear Israel’….‘Be still and know that I am God’

  2. Claudia Booth on October 17, 2017 at 09:29

    Amen.

  3. Chris on October 17, 2017 at 08:40

    Each morning I rise at 4 am. I read the daily liturgy and daily meditations from several sources in solitude and silence to start my day. I have been doing this for several years. I find great peace in this habit.

  4. Marta Engdahl on October 17, 2017 at 08:23

    Perhaps the silence is one of the many blessings of aging. To be able to turn off the media, tune into silence, find peace, and go to Godde’s “Rest”.

  5. anders on September 6, 2016 at 10:52

    Thank you for this. Silence is threatening, and its scarcity reveals my aversion to the sense of vulnerability. But the math is also clear: No silence + no vulnerability = no grace. Churches seem to follow the rule of media—not even a pause—for a smooth worship event. They leave no room for quiet, wilderness or uncontainable wildness in which God speaks and changes lives. I struggle with this but have no answers for the church as an organization.

    It’s a big enough challenge to face my own silence and to realize that the din of overwhelm and the pangs of anxiety that often accompany are also my heartbeat, the flow of God. I am threatened by silence even as I know it’s my journey and good. My simple theology seems to hear this God-song at the bottom of silence, but it takes a lot of work to hear it:

    Listen
    Do you want to know a secret
    Do you promise not to tell, whoa oh, oh
    Closer
    Let me whisper in your ear
    Say the words you long to hear
    I’m in love with you

  6. judy on September 6, 2016 at 10:14

    “quiet the thoughts of our heart….. that we may perfectly love thee” It took me years to come to the realization of “thoughts of our heart” and not of our mind. In that silence, which can be found in the chaos of life, means that I must try to keep my thought on Thee and not me. Thank you for these uplifting words.

  7. Melanie on September 6, 2016 at 08:21

    I am on a journey of faith to discover silence through Centering Prayer. I have been trying to achieve silence for over a year now, trying, although not yet succeeding. My mind races with so many thoughts, I am constantly “talking” rather than listening. Thank you for these encouraging words.

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  9. Susan Moore on December 10, 2013 at 06:53

    During this Advent season when it is so important to find silence to listen, I loved reading your homily on silence and listening. Walking, gardening and watching nature do its thing are wonderful ways to experience silence and listening. Thank you for the lovely reminder to bring listening for God’s guidance in our lives.

  10. barbara frazer lowe on December 6, 2013 at 13:30

    Br. Tristram – Thankyou for the blessing you give us with you enriching ‘synopsis of our Bible history, and pathway to ‘sheer silence’. I am hoping to find you ‘Word’ printed in Cowley. barbara frazer lowe

  11. Sarah R on March 4, 2013 at 18:45

    As Fr. Tad Meyer reminded some of us in a class he was leading yesterday, we have to look for God, and if we do, we will find Him/Her. It is very hard to hear God with the ears of your heart in the din of life, or see God with the eyes of your heart in the endless visual assault we deal with every day. Silence, yes. And a candle or icon to focus on without distraction.

    Thank-you.

  12. Ruth West on March 4, 2013 at 17:53

    A wonderful gift from my pastor/priest sets on my window ledge which says,
    “Be still and know that I am God.” I live alone and enjoy many hours of silence every day. I pray that I can listen more with the prayer that God can “open the ear of my heart.” Thanks for this good word.

  13. Selina from Maine on March 4, 2013 at 10:45

    Is it possible that my chattering and business and interior obsessing are ways of running away from You? Oh,God, being close to You frightens me.

  14. Lynn Paff on March 4, 2013 at 10:35

    Thank you, Br. Geoffrey. This could not have been more timely for me.

  15. DLa Rue on March 4, 2013 at 08:15

    Amen.

  16. jane goldring on January 4, 2012 at 14:00

    thankyou geoffrey for the homily on silence i will try and sit quietly after i have done my office and tune out all the noise. i always come back from Holy Week very much refreshed and thinking how i could be trying to do better with my spare time. i can see that it is part of prayer. thanks again. jane

  17. Greg Capaldini on January 3, 2012 at 09:29

    Attributed to Mother Teresa: “The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.”

  18. Polly Chatfield on November 8, 2011 at 07:30

    Thank you for the reminder that silence is not emptiness but rather a fullness unimaginable.

    • barbara frazer lowe on March 6, 2013 at 21:27

      polly chatfield , lately of Bradbury behind gthe Monastery? If so, I am your friend from Riverview; now PA. hope you could contact me , per this ‘silence’ of Br. Tristram?

  19. martha holden on July 19, 2011 at 16:46

    what! no reponses yet??!!?? Ahhhh, we are all blissfully, blessedly slipping into ssssilence.

    Thank you

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