3 March 2019 Sermon (Robinson College, Cambridge)


1 Kings 19:9-14

Matthew 6:5-8

Last September I spent a week on placement with a prison chaplaincy team. For anyone who has never visited a prison, they are very strange places indeed. One of the strangest things for me was giving up my mobile phone each day, phones being contraband in prison. I expected to feel lost, but the experience was liberating. I could focus on others in conversation without electronic interruption or distraction. Idle moments could really be idle moments, without the fear of missing out endemic to social media. I could greet each thing in front of me with attention.

Someone who writes brilliantly about attention is the American poet Mary Oliver, who died only a few weeks ago. This is her short poem “The Summer Day”.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

The poem turns what seems like a straightforward ode to nature to a meditation on prayer. Prayer in The Summer Day is paying attention, being idle, strolling through the fields.

Not quite what we imagine. Prayer is one of those things beset with different conceptions and misconceptions, as we heard in the reading from Matthew’s gospel.

When you pray, don’t pray outside, so that you’re seen by others.

Go into your room, and shut the door and pray as if in secret.

So, what’s going on here? At a surface level, this is telling people not to pray for the wrong reason. At this level, Jesus tells his followers not to pray in public seeking public approval for their piety. Rather, go into a room and shut the door. Prayer is something between you and God, and it’s nobody else’s business.

As well as at this surface, practical level, this might also have something to tell us at a psychological level. The outward trappings of prayer are not important, it’s about what is going on inside. This is certainly how these verses were interpreted in Christian antiquity.

So for Saint Augustine, the room in this passage stands for the human heart. The door to the room is the bodily senses, so shutting the door in prayer becomes a shutting out of the world to focus on God. Rather different from prayer in the Summer Day, which was paying attention, being idle, strolling through the fields.

Similarly to Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom interprets the room as the heart, but the door of the room is not the senses, but the mouth. “Shut the door” means “shut your mouth”. So Chrysostom says we should pray “not with loudness of tone, but silent heart”.

So, is prayer about outward attentiveness to the world, or inner stillness? Is it about naming the wonder we find in the natural world, or resting with God in silent contemplation? Or might these all be related?

There is something about being silent or alone that can sharpen the attention. That can take us to quite a disconcerting place: there is a reason we talk about awkward silences in conversations. Alone and in silence, we have to decide whether we really like being in our own company. Who we are when we are alone and silent might be quite different from the persona we put on every time we open the door and go out. Are we happy about that?

Silence can also be profoundly damaging. Prisoners kept in conditions of sensory deprivation frequently experience hallucinations and delirium. Going into a cell and having a door shut on you is a rather different prospect from retreating from the world into a room in the comfort of your own home.

There is also something profoundly problematic with the silence that comes from being silenced. Injustices continue to be perpetuated in the world, often because the victims are given no voice: they have been silenced. Silence is the sound of a cover-up, the sound of denial.

Silence can take us to disconcerting places, it can be damaging, it can be oppressive and abusive, but it can also be creative.

Rowan Williams in his recent book “The Edge of Words” writes compellingly about this. Considering the question “Can silence speak?” he draws attention to the pregnant silence at the end of a musical or dramatic performance. That silence says something – although we might struggle to say what. It says something about what has gone before, and something about what follows. It is a silence framed by the performance and the audience’s response. It is a highly specific silence, a silence that speaks of the audience’s rapt attention to that specific performance, in that place at that time. It is a silence that leads from something and to something: it keeps things going, in other words.

Anyone familiar with Mendelssohn’s Oratorio will know the story about Elijah from our first reading. Elijah is alone and at the end of his tether. He throws himself before God in prayer. The response is extraordinary: a great wind, an earthquake, a fire, and then a faint sound, sometimes translated as “the sound of sheer silence”. That silence may just be Elijah’s terrified response to the wind, earthquake and fire – it is a silence that leads from something. Ot may also be Elijah’s deepest prayer – he has finally been forced to stop in silent awareness of what is going on around him. At that point he also becomes aware of God’s presence – it is a silence that leads to something.

Williams’s treatment of silence has something to tell us about prayer – that in prayer silence and attentiveness are not opposed, but sides of the same coin. The idea that specific silences punctuate and frame events and utterances in the world means we cannot use silence to ignore the world. Rather, silence obliges ever deeper and deeper attention to the world.

This is so even where people have been oppressively silenced. Their very silence cries out for others to question why, and take up their cause and help them speak.

A place of silence and stillness, and what that might lead to, brings us to the centre of what Christians have to say about Jesus Christ. At that centre we find not an utterance but a body. The body of Jesus, that would lie in the still silence of death. A body silenced by oppressors. A silence that asks what led to the silencing, and what comes after. Christians have a fairly specific response to the latter question: silencing is not final, Christ has broken the chains of death for himself, and also for us.

We are released into wild and precious life. What is it we plan to do with it?


Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us a renewed appreciation of the world around us. Help us to see its beauty, and to suppress our desire to dominate and control it. Give us grace to know you in our idleness as well as our activity.


Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us how to pray. Help us to follow the example of your Son Jesus Christ who dedicated his life to you in prayer. Give us confidence that time spent in prayer is not time wasted.


Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us the value of all human life. Help us to see goodness in all we encounter, however different they are from us. Give us wisdom to know how to respond well to those we find difficult.


Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us to have insight into situations of oppression where people are silenced. Help us to give others a voice when they cannot be heard. Give us courage not to give in to cultures of silence, cover-up and denial.


Almighty God, found in silence…

Teach us that to speak is not enough. Help us to see what to do with our lives. Give us your Spirit so that we do may be offered to your praise and glory.


Almighty Father,

whose Son was revealed in majesty

before he suffered death upon the cross:

give us grace to perceive his glory,

that we may be strengthened to suffer with him

and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.