Sermon at Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity 2019

The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 11th August 2019 at 3.00 PM

I recently returned from holiday in rural Herefordshire. One of the great joys of being away from the hustle and bustle of London is to experience the silence of the countryside and to have the space and time to listen quietly through the natural world.

Whether sitting in a little country church or having a picnic in the middle of nowhere, one’s ear is attuned to the silence and distinctive music of the countryside, focusing upon wildlife or the distant sound of a tractor or combine harvester.

“About 100 years ago, a great scholar writing a book on Christian prayer, said that if he wanted to explain to somebody what the Christian faith was like, he’d simply say:

‘Go and live for three months in this little village in Switzerland that I’ll tell you about, where most people go to church and get on with it, and then we can talk about the ideas. Don’t let me waste your time with theories; just go and see it done. Be there; build the relationship. And things begin to make sense. And you will know things you wouldn’t otherwise know.’

Well, that is one of the ways in which rural life connects very, very deeply with the sort of thing that faith is. Faith isn’t either a set of clear, certain conclusions, nor just a set of vague ideas.

Faith is slowly and steadily feeling your way into the place you have before God. Sensing it; not dissimilar to the relationship between the farmer and land and livestock.” (Rowan Williams, Spirit of the Countryside, 27 May 2013)

Another great joy of being on holiday, is the opportunity for “accidentally catching interesting broadcasts  on the radio. One such programme was Radio 3’s Sunday Feature, RS Thomas: Always Seeking Greater Silence.

Someone called Jon Gower was talking about a chance meeting (when he was 16) - and thinking of dropping out of school. He was on his way to a job in North Wales, as an assistant bird warden on Bardsey Island, and waiting for the ferry.

Along came a tall, rangy man, with “flailing grey hair,” carrying big binoculars. It was RS Thomas, a serious Welsh poet and priest going to Bardsey to watch birds. They got talking.

The two became great friends and on his final visit Gower took a tape recorder. What he captured on it was rare, Thomas talking about the freedom of being alone in nature, his doubts about an afterlife “I leave it to God” the tensions of faith, how he learned to sit still and watch.

Other voices in this programme spoke about his poems, his life, how he looked, and why, when he gave up his last parish, he burned his cassock on the beach. Gower’s script and gentle narration brought an unexpected intimacy to this snapshot in time.” (The Telegraph, 13 March 2013)

The message that came through loud and clear was a grappling with belief that “God actually knows what we need. How God instinctively knows where we’re hungry, where we’re suffering, where we’re doubting, where we need assurance, where we need his presence.

And it’s out of that deep, age-long, eternal, instinctive knowledge of what we need and where we need to be built up, that God takes the action that he does in stepping into our world in the life of Jesus Christ.

What we need to know is that we’re loved without condition, loved without any forms to fill in, loved without any standards to satisfy, just loved. God knows us from inside and He knows we need to know that.” (Rowan Williams, Spirit of the Countryside, 27 May 2013)

Interestingly another Welshman, Rowan Williams, with “a deep understanding of the countryside describes prayer as being a bit like birdwatching because it involves being very still, very attentive and expectant, since something is liable to burst into view without warning.

Being like a birdwatcher, watching attentively, opening the eyes of your eyes, letting your sight pass through what you are seeing in order to espy the glimpses of God’s glory, of heaven.” (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples, 27 April 2007)

This insight resonates closely with R. S. Thomas.

So we are lead to the natural conclusion that the kind of silence we find most clearly in the countryside is an extremely important dimension to the Christian life.

“In a sense, we are all contemplatives; each of us has a deeply hardwired capacity – a longing, even – for encounter with God. We may not realize it, we may not always respond, but it is there. Or to put it more specifically, He is there, in our inmost being.

In a sense -we are all searching and we cannot leave God out of our self awareness. If we truly live in God’s presence, we will be able to discern the signs of it, however secret and silent they might be.

Silence is one of those special ways to finding ourselves, to getting to know ourselves, who we really are; and this is one of the reasons we tend to flee from silence whenever it makes an appearance in our life.

In terms of faith, silence creates a space for us to begin listening, to begin to learn the posture of prayer, which is a posture of attentiveness and openness.

Without silence, it is not possible to develop this sacred space inside of ourselves. Much of the world sees silence as emptiness, but as Christians – we should see something different.

For us, silence is a place where encounter can flourish. This is so important because our encounter with God develops a relationship with Him, and this relationship is the beginning of heaven, it is the unfolding of God’s gift of everlasting joy, which is to know Him, to live within His courts, as His children.

In this place of encounter, we also come face to face with our own weaknesses. Silence, then, represents the opposite of emptiness: through it, we find the very purpose of our existence, which is to develop a real, living relationship with our Creator.” (Silence and Prayer, Mount St Joseph Abbey, ND)