Those who know the documentary on the Carthusians, Into Great Silence, which many of us saw in 2007, after its release in December of 2006, recall the beauty of Grand Chartreuse, the elegance of the mountain monastery, holding the simple lives of those soldiers of Christ who dedicate themselves to prayer, sacrifice and suffering for the rest of us in the noise of the world. The silence of the daily life of the monks is something I wanted to enter, when I asked to be part of the great symbol of suffering in London, Tyburn Convent. For a time too short, I was “in”, joining in the prayer and life of those women who, like the Carthusians, but with a larger world of hospitality to those who come to stay with them on the busy edge of Hyde Park. The Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre enter into silence, praying daily 24/7 before the Eucharist in the Monstrance, the Hidden God, in ten locations in the busy world—London, Rome, Scotland, Peru, France, Australia and other convents where silence is marked by the singing of the hours.
As those of you who followed me in my blog know, I wrote of how sad it was for me to leave as God had not given me the type of physical strength to endure the hardships of Tyburn. Like the prayer warriors in Chartreuse, the harsh life of the nuns form the vanguard of prayer and sacrifice which make them the Marines of the battles of spiritual warfare—the first line to “hit the beach” as we follow behind, moping up.
I was sad to leave my little cell, but God had another plan for me. Only today, did I realise what this plan was—to have my own cell in the world, I knew when I left Tyburn—but today, the cell was enlarged revealing a new plan. Years ago, I made private vows publicly in order to deepen my own insignificance in the world, and to join with the spirit of all nuns, in poverty chastity and obedience. That was the first step to creating, what St. Catherine of Siena calls, the little cell of the mind, where one can live daily while being in the world, as she was. Today was an extension of those vows.
This little cell of the mind is a place of silence, where one can pray almost constantly during the day while doing other tasks—writing, waiting for the bus, cleaning, listening to others, and, of course, praying. If one is fortunate to attend daily Mass, the Mass becomes the outward sign of the interior silence, an extension of the little cell, out into the world.
However, in the past month, God has entered my little cell of the mind and made it larger. How He has done this is by allowing me to now experience daily discomfort because of the cancer He has allowed me to endure.
In a book I wrote this past summer, which you all can pray for me to somehow get published, I wrote of my herbal pathway and Catholic spirituality. This little book is ready to go out into the world. It is a book of hope, as well as one of the practical and spiritual approach to healing.
When I wrote it, I was at Tyburn, where the Assistant Mother General, Mother Xavier, arranged for me to stay while I plowed my way through the traditions of the Church in prayer and healing, applying ancient traditions to my own small cell of the mind, putting into words on paper what I had learned and was learning daily about healing and suffering.
Today, the cell grew even larger. God entered the cell of my mind with a new realisation that discomfort, yes, even pain, was part of the silence of Chartreuse and Tyburn.
When one is in pain, one becomes separated from the rest of the world. Those in hospital know this. They are isolated if the pain and illness is serious enough. We call that “isolation” critical care, or even one is put into the “Isolation Unit.”
God does this to some of us in the world, where our pain is not yet indicative of something serious enough for ICU. Some people enter into the cell of pain when they experience daily severe arthritis, or slowly becoming blind because of macular degeneration. Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book, The Power of Silence, begins with a story of a young monk dying a painful death in silence, as this he, Brother Vincent, could no longer speak. The silence of his long suffering and the clarity of his holiness impressed the Cardinal to begin a journey into silence which culminated in the best-selling book.
My own journey into silence has been a long, long trek, beginning almost fifty years ago when, in my really twenties, I discovered the wonderful book by Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, which I gobbled it up, and then read, Seeds of Contemplation, New Seeds of Contemplation and other books of his. As my parents had The Seven Story Mountain, his life, on their bookshelf, I had read that as a young person, of about fourteen. I was slowly getting prepared for today. Then, in my late twenties, I discovered Bernard of Clairvaux, and began to sit at the foot of the Master of Silence. For years, I contemplated the Cistercian life, culminating in my first visit to the ruins of Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire, England, in 1980, when I was 31, an experience of silence and wonder which brought Merton’s words to life. As the hills and streams pushed me to write a book on Fountains, a book of poems, never published, but one of my best efforts in my own mind, I encountered how silence was destroyed by the Visitators of Henry VIII’s hatred of silence. Standing in the ruins, the words of Merton may ring like the silent clarion bells of Fountains Abbey. Where went those bells? They have been replaced by birds.
Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is in all. — Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton
The hills and valley resounded with the sound of birds, who dare to continue to sing praises to God which the monarchs of England tried to suppress with violence, with martyrdom, with the noice of false pageantry, which mocked that of the Church. They did not succeed, as those little birds continued the songs of praise, chirping out vespers in the ruins, under the broken walls of the once great halls of silence, now silent in ruin. Shakespeare had a similar moment of truth about the grandeur of the Cistercian way, of the Benedictine stones which still sing of God’s glory.
This is my sonnet. When Shakespeare writes of the second self dying, he means not only the night, in which I am writing at two in the morning, but the death of the soul, the giving up of one’s self to God in silence. Our first death is in baptism. Some call physical death the second death, but the mystics tell us of the death of self, the nada of St. John of the Cross. Prayer in the night is what is done in Chartreuse, in Tyburn. As noted by several writers, and in Sarah’s book, the prayer of the night is more powerful than the prayer of the day, as at night, one rests in the arms of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, who in their mythology, was the brother of Thanatos, the god of death. Earliest philosophy and poetry recognised the overlap of sleep and death, which the monks and nuns understand deep, deep within their beings. Such is the rhythm of the saying of Compline, the end of the day night prayer, before some sleep, followed by Matins, said or sung during the night, also called Nocturns or Vigils—the Night Office. Perhaps the most poignant of prayers are those of the Night Office, reminding one, by the very darkness of the womb of the abbey or convent churches, that death of the self brings light, but is a process long and hard for most of us. This second death is actually a second rebirth.
The other day, I spoke to a Protestant of Sister Death, referring to St. Francis. He became upset, stating that Death was an enemy of God. I replied that Death was a servant of God, at the biding of God, a slave doing his duty until Christ’s Second Coming, where there will be no more Death, except the second death of those in hell, who die daily without hope or comfort. Sadly, with ignorance of the saints, a purposeful ignorance perpetrated by the same type of men who trampled the Eucharist under the hoves of their horses in the ruined nave of Fountain, had deadened the imagination of some of our Protestant brothers and sisters. He does not know St. Francis or his Canticle of the Sun. I chose one section.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Francis, Shakespeare, John of the Cross, you and I, dear readers, share this knowledge of the second death, one of many deaths, because we share the Catholic Faith, which enables us to see Death as a gift, a gateway to heaven, and not merely a curse. Those who wake in the night to pray, who memorise death’s visits in the Scripture, even, perhaps knowing that the Jewish commentaries see the Angel of Death who killed the firstborn as the same Angel Gabriel, who brought the message of New Life to Mary at the Annunciation, sing of the joy of daily death and that last day. Gabriel announced the Incarnation and the coming of the First-Born of Life, Christ.
Silence allows, no, pushes, these meditations.
The psalms repeat over and over the communion with God in prayer, and the prayer of silence is the most profound.
The noise of hell is what Cardinal Sarah calls the “dictatorship of noise,” which we all experience daily in this world.
However, in the enlargement of my cell, God has brought pain, another servant of his, to remind me of my death, but more so, to allow me to enter into the new cell which the separation of pain builds. One who experiences pain of any sort, be it physical, or psychological, or emotional, one becomes separated from mankind—pain is a barrier to communication, to thinking like and with others, to enjoying normal daily activities. Again, the person in ICU has been take away from us and put into a visible cell of separation. Sad is the patient who does not understand the gift of that moment.
So, now, at three o’clock, I think of one section from Sarah’s book in which the author quotes a French writer, who called Mary, Our Mother, the “Basilica of Silence.” Noting that Mary is hardly referred to in the Scriptures and that her life after the Ascension was one of silence, one is reminded that Mary is our model of meditation and contemplation, being the person of excellence and perfection who lived, while on earth, in the dictatorship of noise, in silent constant communion with Her Son and Lord, Christ, as well as in the complete indwelling of the Trinity, Who she knew personally from both Faith and experience. God as Her Father and the seed of Her Son, and the Spirit which dwelt in her before all other humans so intensely that the Love which exists in the Trinity became Man at the Incarnation, were the daily occupants of Mary’s cell, especially in Ephesus.
As the Sorrowful Mother, who from the moment of Simeon’s prophecy knew of all the coming sufferings, rejections and crucifixion of Our Lord, her Child, Mary, as the Queen of Martyrs, experienced pain beyond what one can imagine—not pain because of sin, which we all experience, the consequences of our own failings, but the pure suffering of Her Son. Mary’s pain was not her own, but that of Christ’s. Her own perfection joined with Christ’s sacrifice, which she carried in her own cell of her mind for thirty-three years.
Can there be any other example for us than the Sorrowful Mother in enduring pain in the small cells of our minds and bodies?
So, in the middle of the night, when a storm is blowing and some people in this land are experiencing dangerous conditions, I write of the grace of my new cell, no longer merely in the mind, but in my body. For almost two years, I have prayed for a healing of this cancer. In the darkness of this night, I realised that this grace of my re-made cell was much more profound—a grace to enter into the new cell where I meet Christ in a new way.
One of my favourite poets is John Donne, whose book of poems was by my bed for my seven years in graduate studies, and in my time teaching and being a lay light to university students in London, until I was married and eventually had my precious baby, when other things, like tissues, wipes, and nappies replaced my books on my bedside table. Let me close with a meditation on Christmas, which connects with my meditation on the cell of pain, where I meet Christ daily now. In this sonnet, John Donne reminds us of the suffering of Baby Jesus and His Mother, referring to the reality that “He”, Christ, “Which fills all place, yet none can hold Him, doth lie,” reveals the immensity of God’s love. Born in the middle of the night, Christ came at the time of mediation and contemplation. In the darkness of Christmas, in the Midnight of Midwinter, Christ came to His earth to meet us in our own pain, which He allows in order for us to understand our insignificance and His Crucified Love. Donne invites us “with Him into Egypt go,” which for me this night is the new, enlarged cell of my mind and now body, to accommodate the Coming of Christ and to join Him and His little family in Egypt, the Land of the Dead, only to wait for the call, which is echoed in Christ’s life, “That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son” Matthew 2:15. The returning to Nazareth after the sojourn in Egypt resounds in the return of Christ to life in the Resurrection, thus joining the Old and New Covenant, the covenant of faith of John Donne, you and me, celebrated at Christmas. That Christ was both born at night, (do we not say, “the dead of night”), and was raised from the dead in the darkness of night, reveal the importance of the night being a sacred place for us to meet God. Night and cells, solitude and silence—the gifts of the Child Christ.
Stop It Snowing, by John Donne.
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
JMJ, pray for us!
God is Good,