Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 12th February 2012
12 February 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
What are the coordinates of Silence? Where can you locate it?
An hour out of the city along the Cairo Alexandria Desert Highway, heading north-west to the coast, you begin to realise where the road gets its name from.
The Pyramids of Giza are a distant blip on the horizon and the modernity of Sadat City appears on your right, still nestling in the fringes of the western Nile Delta.
But then to your left in the West, the vegetation so lush at first, gradually fades. Rows of Palm trees give way to bougainvilleas; shrubs thin out to grassy knots, and they too dissipate, like the last drops of water in a pan boiled dry; and just sand remains.
I am put in mind of that great poem of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'Ozymandias', which pictures a shattered statue in the desert and tells of the inevitable decline of all civilizations:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This is the outer rim of the great Western Desert, a vast expanse of some 1.2 million square miles, an area the size of western Europe, from the west bank of the Nile to Libya, from Sudan in the south to the Mediterranean Sea in the north.
A marginal territory with an arc of seven alkali lakes, the Wadi Nitrun, which provided the ancient Egyptians with the sodium bicarbonate they needed for mummification.
It was to this place on the edge that one by the name of Macarius ventured. No, more than that, he purposefully fled in the middle of the fourth century. A holy man, unwilling to accept the adulation others wanted to pour on him, Macarius left the security of his home to visit first St Anthony in the desert, and then, at the age of forty, established the monastic community which bears his name and has lived in continuous witness for over 1650 years.
But before getting to the ministry of this great monastery and what it might mean in the present day, I want to try to describe an experience that I had never had, and perhaps will repeat. The coordinates of Silence.
I should perhaps say that though I am a social being, never happier than in company, yet I have for twenty years and more hugely appreciated the silence that comes from monastic retreats. The opportunity to draw from the deep wells of spirituality within the confines of a religious order has, over the years, refreshed and renewed my own spiritual life.
But this was different, and not just by degree. This was a silence not born of the community but of the environment. I have never experienced silence of the like: heard silence? Yes, many, many times. Been still enough to hear the clock ticking in a distant corridor; silent enough on a summer evening to feel a bat swooping by.
But not this. Nothing. No sound. No wind in the trees. No birdsong. No rumble of traffic. No voices of excited children in a playground. Deafening yet utterly liberating: Silence.
So now let me paint you two pictures, which tell how the saint has inspired his church and ponder whether this is about fleeing from the world or witnessing powerfully to it.
The scenes we are seeing at the moment in the Middle East and Africa seem to many of us to be an aberration. The oppression of Coptic Christians in Egypt, some quite literally mowed down by elements within the army, looks to be of a piece with the inter-religious violence erupting in Nigeria, or indeed the support being given by many Christians in the Syria to the Assad regime as a bulwark against what they fear may replace it. Yohana Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, was yesterday quoted as saying 'definitely the Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad. They hope that this storm will not spread.'
But, for the long memories of the ancient churches of the Middle East, these trials are anything but new. The ancient monastery of Macarius has, in reality, two hearts: the one is liturgical, a beautiful church where the Saint is venerated, the other is a massive fort, a keep, a tower buried deep beneath which lies a life-giving well that can sustain the community for two months.
My question about the rise in violent aggression towards the church was met with an invitation to pray, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury on his visit to Macarius, in the Chapel of the Forty-Nine martyrs. These were the faithful witnesses, forty-nine of their brothers, who were killed by Berber raiders in the fifth century.
The Christian faith is a calling to take up your cross and to follow Christ, whether it is the Romans or the Berbers or the Vandals or the Vikings who wield the sword. Our inheritance of Establishment and monochrome faith creates a luxurious existence where we have indulged the fantasy that it is the conflicts between Christians which are of significance.
And you would be forgiven for thinking that the fortified monastery, the desert location away from civilization, the harsh existence and ascetic life, were all signs of an escape from the world and an inward-looking spirituality.
But the reality is rather different. After decades of decline, twelve monks arrived in 1969 under the leadership of a new Abbot. They had spent the previous ten years preparing themselves together entirely isolated from the world, in the desert caves of Wadi El Rayyan, about fifty kilometres south of Fayoum.
A programme of rebuilding, physically and spiritually, has created a community of over 100 monks living a cenobitic life.
So, what might this tell us about the Saint and his Church? And can we learn anything for ourselves here?
The first thing that strikes an outsider is the same as any monastic community: the sense of perspective, of standing back; engaged, not aloof, but with sufficient distance to where the land lies. Living on the margins can seem to be squeezed out, marginalised, of little account. But this tradition reminds us of its positive purpose: a rich and wise reflection on what is important.
Secondly, and really the heart of this sermon series, it brings into sharp focus the way in which an ancient, truly ancient, spiritual tradition – this time of a monk who sought refuge from the world at the edge of the desert – can infuse a vision relevant today. In a world which is fragmented, containerised, consumerised, the realisation that it does not have to be so is immensely liberating. True human flourishing does not need the kind of deracination we associate with modern living.
And lastly, the Silence. Not merely quiet enough to attend to the sound of nature. Not even the absence of mechanised intrusion. But, 'Be still, and know that I am God.'
So, what are the coordinates of Silence?
Look up 30.292267° latitude, 30.475353° longitude and you won’t go far wrong.