The Place of Silence

Thursday is the feast day of St Anthony of The Desert, an extreme ascetic hermit, living in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th Century. He is often referred to as the Father of Monasticism, although that title is somewhat qualified in this account of his life.
Click here for more information and here and another here. 

Despite his desire for a solitary life many people began to seek out Anthony in the Egyptian desert, keen to glean some wisdom and for spiritual direction.

He was recognisable by a staff of birch carried in his hand, and a pig, which would never leave him, at his side.I like the idea that when Saint Anthony listened to their various problems and promised to help, the pig allegedly let out a grunt.

You can read a great story about the pig and St Anthony here.

The idea of renouncing all worldly joys, and living the life of a hermit in the Arabian desert may sometimes appeal but Anthony had some terrible times.
In these paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Michelangelo respectively, he is being attacked by a motley crew of some formidable looking demons hovering around; truly the stuff of nightmares.

This article has many other paintings inspired by the temptations of St Anthony. I wonder how many people associate this famous painting by Salvador Dali with St Anthony ?

The need to get away from it all and go into the Big Silence of retreat and the interest in pursuing some type of monastic rule or life has never been more popular.

The BBC documentary series called The Big Silence was a great success and there are several interesting follow up retreats at Worth Abbey this year. 

This one titled Wisdom of The Desert scheduled for November this year says :
 "Our deserts can bloom! The monastic desert tradition can seem long ago and far away, but contains a wisdom that can both challenge and bring healing to our fragmented society and distracted lives. The goal of the desert fathers, and the less well-known mothers, was continuous prayer. The abbas and the ammas spent their time in lectio divina, reciting the psalms and the breviary, and cultivating the prayer of the heart. We will look at the main features of desert spirituality and seek to slow down, be quiet, listen for the voice of God, and reflect upon how to sustain such a spirituality in our daily lives"

Several friends are on retreat this month and my blogging friend Chris Goan wrote this lovely post today at his blog This Fragile Tent, as he prepares to go on retreat at the wonderful St Bueno's Ignatian Spirituality Centre in North Wales.( seen left)

I find it intriguing that someone can speak for six hours on the subject of "Silence."

The Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, Diarmaid MacCulloch, has done just that in six one hour slots on the intriguing subject of the importance of "silence" in Jewish and Christian Scripture.  

Professor MacCulloch swept to some prominence recently with his book on the History of Christianity [LINK], which was made into a BBC television series.

The lectures formed part of the Gifford Lecture series delivered at The University of Edinburgh in 2012 with the overall title - Silence in Christian History.

 I've only watched the first one and but I have found it really good, so I have put the whole series in one place for easy access and for use as and when people like. A short summary of the content of each of the videos prefaces each one.

Towards the end of the first lecture in the section on the Christian Gospels, he makes some interesting comments that might sit well with those who have been mulling on the Gospel where the deaf man's ears were opened, and Christ's advice to his followers was to "keep quiet" about what they had witnessed.
This Introductory lecture discusses a change in emphasis between the Hebrew Scripture (the Tanakh) and what Christians made of what is arguably a minority positive strand in Judaic thinking on silence; 

MacCulloch surveys the growth of a consciousness of silence, particularly in the cosmos, in Jewish religion. The voice of Jesus is heard behind the text of the New Testament, with His distinctive use of silence and silences; the place of silence in the first Christian attempts to understand the significance of Jesus Christ, and its relationship to the formation of the Church.

Video 1

Video 2: 

Catholic Christianity and The Arrival of Ascetism, 100-400 AD.

 Counter-strands to silence in the early Church, encouraged by its congregational worship and cult of martyrdom, and the effect of gnostic Christianities in shaping what the emerging Catholic Church decided to emphasise or ignore.


Video 3 

Lecture 3: Silence through Schism and Two Reformations: 451-1500
 The significance of the threeway split in Christianity after the Council of Chalcedon (451). The purposeful Chalcedonian forgetting of Evagrius Ponticus and the contribution of an anonymous theologian who took the name Dionysius the Areopagite. 
The role of Augustine in the Western Church: a theologian of words, not silence. 
The transformation in the use of silence and its function after the Carolingian expansion of Benedictine monastic life (together with the West's discovery of pseudo-Dionysius), and the further development through the great years of Cluny Abbey.

Counter-currents on silence in the medieval West, and the significance of the Iconoclastic controversy, and later hesychasm, in the Byzantine world. Tensions between clerical and lay spirituality in the late medieval West. 

Video 4
 Lecture 4: Silence Transformed: The Third Reformation 1500-1700
 The noisiness of Protestantism, particularly exacerbated by the end of monasticism, unsuccessfully countered in the Church of Zürich but transcended first among radical Reformers (especially Caspar Schwenckfeld and Sebastian Franck) and a century later by the Society of Friends. 

The difficulties of contemplatives in the Counter-Reformation, where activism was the characteristic of the new foundations of Jesuits and Ursulines, and the problems faced by such revivals as the Discalced Carmelites. The troubles of Madame Guyon and Quietists.

Video 5

 Lecture 5: Getting Behind Noise in Christian History
So far, the story has largely been about overt history: the positive utterances and actions of public Christianity. We turn now to further and more complex varieties of silence: first the phenomenon of 'Nicodemism', simultaneously audible to those with ears to hear, and not to be heard by others.

New politic silences were caused by the fissuring of Western Christianity, through efforts to sidestep the consequent violence and persecution; a rediscovery of classical discussion of silence took place on the eve of the Reformation in the writings of Italian civic humanists, and this tradition fused with the debate about Nicodemism and the place of quiet versus overt toleration.

Over the centuries, particular groups who represented the 'Other', some Christian, some not, have made themselves invisible simply in order to survive: crypto-Judaism and its effect on Christianity are discussed, together with examples of Christian Nicodemism, notably the Reformation 'Family of Love' and the growth of a distinctive gay sub-culture within nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglo-Catholicism.

We move to those things best left unsaid in order to build identity in Christian organisations and newly-evangelised regions, and the way in which themes and dogmatic position once considered vital and central for the Christian life have been quietly abandoned without much acknowledgement of their one-time importance. We scrutinise Christian problems in dealing honestly with sexuality, with a specific example.
The confused reaction of Churches to shame over past sin, the example being complicity in the slave trade.

Video 6

Lecture 6: Silence in Modern and Future Christianities

The democratisation of the quest for silence in industrial society: the tangling of a secular society with the silences provided by Christian tradition, through for instance the popularity of retreats, or the observance of silence in remembrance. 

The importance of 'whistle-blowing' to modern Christianity, and its use of the historical discipline. 
The relation of agnosticism to silence; the role of music in silence and Christian understanding; the relationship between Word and Spirit in the future of Christian life.

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