Tag Archives: silence

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Not the cheeriest subject for this time of year – or any time of the year really, but a weekend’s training, curtailed somewhat into an intensive one-day session due to an outbreak of Norovirus at college, saw us gathering on a very cold and frosty morning in Diocesan Church House, Oxford to contemplate our own and other’s mortality and our responses, as part of our pastoral training.

Having to face death is part and parcel of being a priest; the initial contact to the bereaved, the nuts and bolts of organising a funeral service and the continuing pastoral support to all those affected are skills that can be taught but that can only be developed, unfortunately, through practice, which is always at the expense of someone’s grief.

We may therefore have expertise, but we will never truly be experts. So, hard as we might wish to, we can never honestly say that we know exactly what someone is going through or what they are feeling, as each person’s experience of the death of a loved one is unique. What we can do is to come alongside the bereaved, not shying away because we fear we’ll get it wrong and make things worse, but offering to listen or just to sit in the silence,

Gravestones blogAnd I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away’
Revelation 21:3-4

Accepting the reality of death for many people can be particularly hard and there are many euphemisms that are used to try to alleviate the finality of human life. Phrases such as the deceased having ‘passed away’ or ‘gone into the darkness’. Believing that they’ve ‘become a star’ or ‘gone to a better place, to be with Jesus or Granny’ etc. are all quite commonplace. Humour also features in sayings such as the cockney rhyming slang ‘brown bread’ for dead or ‘sleeping with the fishes’ with it’s undertones of Mafia involvement. It’s also interesting to discover the origin of some of these phrases; for example ‘kicked the bucket’ actually refers to the grotesque history of lynch mobs standing their victims on upturned buckets, which were then kicked away, or the more practical ‘popped their clogs,’ where the Lancastrian meaning of ‘popped’ equates to ‘pawned,’ so that in order to afford the funeral, the deceased’s family would place their clogs in hock until they could afford to redeem them!

However, death is a reality and needs to be faced, and as Christians we have something that offers a unique reassurance – a hope for the future. When we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ – a euphemism courtesy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – we look to Christ’s promise of eternal life. Just how that will look can differ enormously depending on your theology; but one beautifully imaginative description of what this might be comes at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, a book that is often considered an allegory of the Book of Revelation.

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before

Out of death comes life - tiny cyclamens planted in the graveyard

Out of death comes life – tiny cyclamens in the graveyard

It was also important that we contemplated our own mortality so that we could become aware of our own thoughts and understanding about death because no-one is immune to the physical and emotional aspects of grief. Time spent in reflection enabled us to work through these attitudes in order that we can be better placed in the future to support those who will rely on us doing our ‘job’  both professionally and pastorally.

What is clear in all of this is that when death is not the end of life then death takes on a whole new meaning however it occurs

Death Comes

Death comes out of the shadows,
padding with stealthy footsteps;
like a thief in the night
to steal away life’s breath.

Death comes tumbling on the wind,
choking with gritty determination;
like a sudden desert sandstorm,
to obliterate hope and dreams.

Death comes with iron jaws,
lurking among the undergrowth;
like a hidden gin,
to bind and snare.

Death comes after sentence quashed,
counting the endless days;
like a prisoner of conscience ,
to bring welcome release.

Death comes in the shape of a cross,
sacrificing innocence;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
to redeem and bless humanity.

Grave Flowers blog


Coming Into The Presence of God

Out of the Window blog2

Coming into the presence of God

Another weekend at Cuddesdon brings new insights and experiences. Whilst not my first choice, the title of the workshop ‘Embodied Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality’ filled me with a sense of intrigue.

I would class my churchmanship as neither high nor low, but rather open to a smorgasbord of traditions. I therefore, was quite receptive to finding out more about what some might class as the high end of the church where orthodoxy is concerned.

In fact where orthodoxy is concerned the Western church is somewhat of an upstart according to the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims to use the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity. However, I digress…

Our main purpose of the day would be to explore contemplative or noetic prayer as well as embodiment prayer – the former both involves silence and stillness (hesychia) and monologistic prayer (i.e. repeating a word or phrase such as the Jesus Prayer) – whilst the latter included prostration and the sign of the cross.

Standing to pray

Standing to pray

As the latter was more unfamiliar to me I will mention that first. Embodiment prayer, as the name suggests involves using the body in prayer and there are many ways of doing this – whether standing or kneeling or prostrating yourself – all the while offering prayer either using a set form of words or your own words. Some of which postures may seem unfamiliar practices to your average Anglican!

The Sign of the Cross

The Sign of the Cross

When it comes to making the sign of the cross during worship, it is a gesture that very often gives an immediate clue as to people’s Anglican tradition – that is those of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion. Again, this was something that I was not used to doing either in worship or prayer. Nevertheless, when it was explained using an illustration of an icon based on the baptism of Christ I was able to better appreciate its meaning.

The Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ hand written by Tamara Rigishvili *

This beautiful icon [which is written not painted] shows the Trinity as a straight line from the heights of heaven to the depths of the waters – we can therefore image our bodies when we are standing upright representing that line. Our heads are warm because of the activity of our brains, from which flows creative energy (the Father), our stomachs are the watery region (the Son submerged at his baptism) and our lungs breathing air in and out (the life giving Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost)

Imagine if you will then, your thumb and first two fingers, held together as a trinitarian symbol, tracing a line from your head to your stomach up to your right shoulder then across to your left and then resting in the middle by your heart – ‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.’ – its symbolism becomes clearer and more affective.

However, it was the practical session on contemplative prayer that was to prove the most rewarding. Noetic prayer, as it is also known, uses a form of silent prayer (hesychia) in which the body is stilled, the ‘chattering mind’ silenced, thus creating a space where you are open to receive God. Of course it’s never that easy to just switch off your thoughts, but it allows an awareness of both intrusions and physical discomforts and lets them be by bringing yourself back to the awareness of the sense of stillness within your whole body. External noises also become absorbed so that they don’t become a distraction. It is into this space that prayer subconsciously occurs.

Psalm 46:10

Psalm 46:10

There is plenty of biblical evidence of being called to stillness in order to hear God’s voice… within many of the Psalms for example – ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) or ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence‘ (Psalm 62:1) – and Jesus takes time to be alone with his Father, no doubt in silence as well… whether in the desert or drawing apart from his followers on occasions.

Of course, I would not, after only a couple of sessions, claim in any way to be an expert, but the technique is basically to find a comfortable place to sit, with both your feet on the ground and to work your way up your body, recognising the sensations in each part as you still yourself, drawing back to your feet, your knees, your hands, etc., should thoughts intrude; all the while becoming aware of your breathing and its natural rhythm……

What was the prayer that formed inside me during this time? Well it actually turned out to be a piece of poetry… from out of the stillness and the silence by which I came into the presence of God

Coming Into the Presence of God

Warmth suffuses the window pane,
As sunshine splashes, in gold and yellow rays
on the cushioned sill;
Sharp shadows are softened and shimmer.
I draw my knees closer
and sink into silent stillness.
The world is on pause.

Invisible neurons continue to fire;
exposed in intermittent patches of tingling energy
through soles of feet and top of scalp.
Pain ebbs and flows,
absorbed in gentle eddies;
while breath synchronises
with the ticking of the mantel clock
and thus fades as if time is motionless…

Even so the heartbeat of the earth
still pulses in sounds it offers;
received in encoded messages,
yet unencrypted to the keen ear.
A solitary bird, unseen, chirrups its joy,
and wood pigeons coo in rhythmic metre,
unfazed by passing traffic’s intrusion.

A creak, a sigh,
the door and I hold our breath;
but the inevitable slam is muted;
fading away, as calmness interrupts
and a sense of presence grows.
Like a glimmer through closed eyelids;
which open as a breeze brushes my skin

Outside, the tender branches of the trees,
laden with buds and burgeoning leaves
ripple and vibrate, echoing the silent force
of life and spirit.
Springtime flowers bend to the earth,
then dip and bob like cheery marionettes;
all proclaiming divine mystery

Recalled back into the room
by gentle chink of plate and cup,
a signal of beckoning refreshment,
and congenial chatter….
Still hold the moment a little longer
to remember another meal
and revelation in broken bread,
gone and yet forever present

The day’s workshops were led by the Reverend Jim Barlow, presently the Assistant Curate at St Peters, Burnham, Buckinghamshire and previously a student at Ripon College, Cuddesdon

*Tamara very kindly gave me permission to use her beautiful artwork in this piece. To find out more about her work please look on her website http://www.tamarapaint.com/

Oh For A Quiet Day!

Psalm 46:10

Psalm 46:10

Most of us long for a few moments of quiet in our lives, when the constant noisy demands of work and family fade away into the background and we can fall into silence; silence that may last for a few minutes or a few hours if we are lucky; silence in which we can hear ourselves think.

This might not be at a time we choose; it might just be a few snatched moments. It might not even be a true silence, as our thoughts whirr and chatter away in our head still. So what might it be like to voluntarily place ourselves into silence for a longer period of time – say a whole day – the whole 24 hours?

For some that could be scary and unsettling. What are we not going to say? Who are we not going to talk to? Why would we want to spend a whole day with our own thoughts?

Last week the college at Cuddesdon ran a quiet day, which was a day to momentarily put aside our studies, and spend time in rest and reflection, under the guidance of the college chaplain, Father Raymond Tomkinson. For some this was a very new unknown experience, for others a real chance to take time to recharge the batteries. No doubt all who took part got a lot out of having a day like this in many different ways, and these are just my reflections on some of the inputs that we were given to consider

Falling into silence

David J Evans’ hymn ‘Be Still For The Presence of the Lord’ contains the lines “How awesome is the sight – our radiant King of light!”. As a writer, I am always searching for just the right words to describe things, but the awesomeness of God somehow eventually leaves us clutching a redundant thesaurus and we can do nothing but lapse into silence thereby allowing ourselves to be fully in the presence of God

Listening with our hearts

Without living in a complete vacuum, it is almost impossible to place yourself in complete and utter silence. Yet by slowing and becoming aware of our breathing; by acknowledging the sounds that still intrude – the click of a door shutting, the rhythmic ticking of a clock, the muted sounds outside our windows – and putting them to one side, we can concentrate on allowing ourselves to listen with our hearts.

Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise,
    and apply your heart to my knowledge,
                                                      Proverbs 22:17

Where God is concerned, our hearts and not our minds are to be the centre of our listening.

With sighs too deep for words

For we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
Romans 8:26

If a picture paints a thousand words, then a sigh ‘speaks’ more words than are contained in God’s Encylopædia Cosmou! We do not always have to approach God with words, and it may not be through words that God speaks to us. He knows what is on our hearts and minds, he is aware of what we long for and he will provide answers for us. I cannot say what shape or form those answers might take, but I do know that any time spent getting to know God a little bit more, just as he knows you, can only be worthwhile.

Perhaps twenty four hours is a luxury that some of us cannot manage to set aside, but I would urge everyone to just try and break away from their busy lives to make more time for silence – and if you think you’ve never spent any reasonable amount of time in silence, as Father Raymond pointed out, you spent the first nine months of your existence in relative silence, being formed and created to then come kicking and screaming into the world!

~~~~~~~~~~

As a post script to this blog – what does a silent community do when the fire alarm goes off whilst you are at breakfast? it would appear that you sit quite still for a time, looking at each other and wondering if it actually is a fire alarm. Then when the bell doesn’t stop, you all very calmly pick up the important things to hand that you wish to save from the imagined inferno – namely your cup of tea or piece of toast and calmly leave the building in complete silence by the nearest exit, gathering in a light drizzle outside (without your coat obviously!) and hoping that by the time you are let back in that your sausages and egg won’t have gone too cold. Maybe someone could keep an eye on the toaster timer next time?