just loving spring this year - the blossom is amazing, and yesterday i went for a walk and noticed some bluebells. i have made various attempts to photograph them - my best so far is probably here. my favourite attempts always seem to be to play with the colour and push into more abstract shots...
i recenty spoke about soulwork. forgive the wordplay but more recently i got to visit s korea for the first time and take part in some seoulwork (!) with the diocese of seoul. i have added a set of photos to flickr here (though i didn't have much time to get out and about on my own with a camera). and i have written about the trip here - pioneering in seoul.
jen and i got to compare notes on our jet setting this evening. this doesn't happen often (if ever) but while i have been in s korea she was running a marathon in bethlehem organised by amos trust! it sounds like it was a wonderful experience and challenging (both in terms of the running and seeing the situation in palestine/israel). she took loads of photos which are here in a set on flickr.
this is the fourth in a series of blog posts on silence. see also:
i have added a set of photos to flickr which includes the self portraits in the last post but a bundle of other photos as well - in the Presence of Silence.
a few people have asked a bit more about how a silent retreat is structured. i am sure they vary immensely and i think there would be a lot to be said for just booking a remote place and being in silence alone. that is certainly how sara maitland went about it. but the retreat i went on is guided so you are in a place and team used to helping people navigate silence. the place i went to is st beunos in n wales. you can see from this picture that is in a fantastic location. in one direction is the snowdon mountain range and in another the sea. st beunos was featured in the tv programme the big silence if you saw any of that. as you'll see from the web site you can book in to retreats of varying lengths - 3 days, 8 days, 30 days... i was on an 8 day retreat. it's 8 full days. we arrived the night before and left the morning after.
st beunos is an ignatian retreat centre. i'll say something another time about ignatian spirituality which i think is amazing. it is roman catholic run by a community who share an approach to spirituality that is full of wisdom. i don't think for a moment this should put you off if you want to do some silence - it's a great place for silence whether you are christian or not, or indeed whether you are roman catholic or not.
the structure of the retreat is called an individually guided retreat. what this means is that anyone on a retreat meets with one of the team, a spiritual guide, for about a 40 minute conversation each day. this can take whatever direction you like. my guide was wonderful (as i suspect they all are) and it usually began with a conversation about how i was doing, how i was finding the silence, what had been happening, and if i wanted some suggestions for what might be helpful to think about or to pray. i discussed what i was experiencing or noticing, dreams, contemplative prayer, and my fragmented self amongst other things.
then the rest of the time is silent. mealtimes are slightly weird but you get used to it. as everyone else is there in silence it's easy enough as everyone is in the same boat. each evening there was the option of attending mass which i did - i enjoyed hearing the stories of the resurrection appearances (it was the week after easter) which sparked my imagination in prayer. and later each evening was an optional group silence in the chapel for about 30 minutes. it seemed to co-incide with sunset when i was there so i often watched the sunset and then crept in late. the group silence was a bit of a surprise - i found it had a different feel or thickness to it and enjoyed resting in that space with others. i went to that every day.
then the rest of the time you can do as you please. you are encouraged to leave work stuff behind, leave technology behind, and not to take lots to do. i read a couple of books - they were on silence or devotional rather than books to get lost in. i think i listened to 3 music tracks all week and even then that was because they related to what i was thinking about (they were jon hopkins fourth estate - a 30 minute ambient piece, lamb's gorecki which described my experience of union with the Presence of Silence perfectly, and bruce cockburn's mystery whose lyrics were just so fitting). other than that i sat on benches a lot, listened to birdsong, walked the labyrinth every day, went for really long walks most afternoons, prayed (though that was mainly being in the silence rather than a hugely active conversation), used the art room to do a few pastel drawings. and that was it really. that's how it works. what is extraordinary is that making space for silence seems to allow space for stuff to happen that either you don't have time for normally, or are not noticing or giving attention to. i'll say more in another post about some of what happened or surfaced for me when i switched the noise off...
this is the third in a series of blog posts on silence. see also:
sorry about the ridiculous title of the blog post. but one of the things people say about the Presence of Silence is that it is hard to talk about. the big word for that is ineffable. here's what the dictionary says about it
with synonyms such as unspeakable - inexpressible - unutterable - nameless.
sara maitland points out that if you can describe what happened and what it felt like then you have not had an authentic mystical experience! so this series of blog posts is probably utterly pointless - feel free to move on. but i do intend to try and describe a bit more my experience of silence in this series of blog posts.
i was in two minds when i went whether taking a camera would be encouraged. but my rationale for taking it as an aid rather than a distraction is that i think it helps me see, to pay attention, to look at things, to notice. and since thomas merton was into photography and awareness i figured that was a pretty good excuse! i blogged a few quotes about that here - a day of silence: photography and contemplation when i had been on a day's silence before. i tried that day to photograph the silence i experienced but i remember one member of the ealing photography group saying that they just seemed to be of a nice garden so clearly i didn't do too well. which brings me to the point or question of this post - if silence is unspeakable it is most likely unrepresentable in image and in photography - it's inephotographable. i realise that is not a catchy word so if anyone out there who is into etymology can come up with something better that would be cool. when i was googling around this sort of theme lots of the sites use the term capture for a photograph in this way - capturing the night sky or whatever. the more i think about it the more horrible a term that is - how can you possibly capture it? you might notice it or represent it or open up its gift but not capture - it's free.
all this by way of saying that one of the things i tried that is a great reminder for me personally of the time in silence was to take photographs of me in places where i encountered the Presence of Silence. but without the stories i doubt they open up silence to anyone else? i already posted the photograph of my coat which is actually my favourite because of what it came to represent, and me sat on a bench in the forest listening to birdsong. the photograph at the top of the post is me on a 3 hour walk in amazing countryside, snow and forests, but en route i crossed the A55 and it struck me that the stillness of my shadow on the bridge contrasted with the noise of the traffic below (that was probably the noisiest moment of my retreat) was a moment saying something about silence and turning the noise off, or finding inner silence when there is outer silence.
this one above is me in a forest with snow on the ground - i went for lots of really long walks. what i love about that photo is that it reminds me of how at home in the world i felt in the silence - connected with myself, god, creation, the trees - an experience of oneness or something and here i seem to blend into the landscape. apologies if i am sounding a bit hippy like!
this one is me in the rock chapel. it's a lovely little chapel that you can get the key to and wander across the fields to be in on your own. the idea is that if the key is gone no one else will disturb you. there is one bench and a range of coloured windows which represent different moods - i am literally bathed in the colours from those windows as you can see here. i went there about three times and had quite significant encounters with the Presence of Silence in that space - i called that photo 'held' because i felt held in the silence somehow.
i walked a labyrinth everyday. i absolutely love labyrinths - walking, slowing down, letting go, resting, breathing, being, praying, thinking, not thinking and so on. sometimes it took me an hour.
i went out at night several times. i suspect there is no one on the planet who has not looked at the stars and felt a sense of awe in the Presence of Silence. in n wales they are a lot clearer than in london that's for sure. i didn't have a tripod so rested the camera and this shot is an exposure of around 475 seconds. it's a bit blurry because the wind was blowing so the camera probably wasn't still. but to me this is an amazing gift that the lens sees of the earth actually spinning on its axis - the naked eye can't detect it but the movement in the star trails shows the gentle turning of the earth in space held in silence. what an extraordinary thing. i wish i had persevered and got a better photo but i was also trying to be in the silence and not get obsessed with photographing it.
there are a few others in this set here. see what you think. how would you photograph silence or is it an utterly pointless exercise?
i am taking part in small adventures, a photography exhibition in ealing in may which i am excited about. thought i'd post it now so you can plan ahead. there is a private view which is invite only. let me know if you'd like an invite and i'll invite you!
i am part of the team that is curating the exhibition and helped put together the proposal and so on. i have a book of photos and 4 photos which will be on display along with around a dozen other photographers from the ealing LIP group
on the silent retreat i lived outside. it didn't rain in n wales for 10 days! but it was cold. so this coat was wrapped around me almost permanently often with hood up. (since i have got back i have found i want to be outside more - in fact the first day i had to get out! i decided that outside is my chapel.) i came to experience silence as something to be enfolded in or by and the coat became more and more a sign of that sense of being wrapped. so in a strange way i think that while this photograph may not be magical in and of itself it is my favourite from the retreat. i had in my mind the phrase 'a cloak to mind your life' which is from a john o donahue blessing...
before i went on silent retreat most people who i mentioned it to said something like 'i could never do that' or that it sounds scary. i realised that all these comments had combined in me to think that i would experience it as difficult. maybe it's because it is unknown, or maybe it is because it's so different to our lives (at least in london), or maybe it is because we think of silence as absence. i found the opposite to be the case. i loved silence. in a way what is there not to love? i had set messages on phone and computer to say i wouldn't be responding, i had left all tasks behind, in fact i had no agenda whatsoever even for prayer, i was in a beautiful place, it was safe with people experienced at navigating silence. i found it like breathing or drinking in - and i was incredibly thirsty after three years pretty much non stop with the start up of pioneer training. of course it took a couple of days to stop twitching (as my guide put it). but it was pleasureable, had an ease about it.
one of the companions in my week was sara maitland's a book of silence. in it she explores silence in a much more radical way and in much more solitude and length of time than i was. it's a fantastic book and i found i identified with many of her experiences albeit in a smaller way. she too did not experience much darkness or difficulty. but one of the things that set her on her quest was wanting to address this thing in peoples minds of silence as absence. she says she found it to be the opposite and in her research others who have navigated silence have found the same. here are a couple of things she says
As time passes i increasingly realise there is an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void, but a rich space.
I did not see lack or absence but a positive presence. Silence may be outside or beyond the limits of description or narrative language but that does not necessarily mean that silence is lacking anything. Perhaps it is a real separate actual thing... not a lack of language but other than, different from language; not an absence of sound but the presence of something which is not sound.
i came to call this sense the Presence of Silence. i think it relates rather well to terrence mallick's the love that loves us! it's hard to describe (which i'll probably come back to in another blog post - ineffable) but i sensed this Presence of Silence many times - walking in the hills and snow, sat quietly listening to birdsong on a bench, in the chapel in prayer, walking the labyrinth, and she came to me in dreams which i proably don't normally notice. to give one example each evening was an optional (everything was optional) group silence. at this you simply sat with others in the chapel in silence. the first time i went to that i was late because i had watched the sun go down outside over snowdon (tough eh?!) but here's what i wrote in my journal
After supper I watched the sun go down - such a beautiful day. So I was late for quiet prayer with the group in the chapel. That silence surprised me - it was weighty, the air was thick and when people left it thinned...
a thickness, a cloak, a blanket, an almost tangible something in the air - a cloak to mind your life? from now on i know this as the Presence of Silence.
the irony of this is that my experience of god, of life, of faith in the last few years i would say has been characterised by what i have come to call unknowing. by that i don't mean that i don't know things but i know a lot less than i used to. there is much more mystery at the heart of things. and whereas in my younger years (wow i really do sound old!!!) the experience of the sense of the presence of god was really important, i have now simply set my life's direction to follow in the way of christ and that won't change. i take what epiphanies i am given as gifts on the way but also what i have been given is enough. there is no better story to live a life by. i guess i am no longer adolesecent in my spirituality?! i have tried in my own way to pass through the veil of the senses. so i was very happy for the week's silence to just slow down, to be quiet, to still, to unwind, to be, to be in god, in the world. and not expecting to experience this sense of presence. but i bumped into her almost everywhere i turned! now i am back into london, into life, into noise, i am sure this will evade me but it was an extraordinary tangible thing. i will recognise her more clearly now...
i am back from an 8 day silent retreat. inevitably i will try and offer some reflections on it over the next few weeks or maybe months though i think it will take me a while to process and it's also possibly impossible to say anything meaningful about silence! i successfully managed to unplug from everything - phone, email, internet, texts. i didn't see news or an advert even the whole time i was there. that in itself was good for my soul. it was an extraordinary time. this is me in a typical pose sat doing nothing other than being - yes you guessed it - silent!
i was on a guided retreat so there were others with whom i was sharing the experience though we hardly spoke other than at breakfast on the day of departure. we were gathered on the first evening and one of the guides for the week, a lovely woman who you could tell knew something of the power of silence, shared a few words to set the tone for the week. poem is probably an overstatement but i wrote this piece afterwards and for me it set the direction - this was somehow what i was trying to do or be or let happen...
Whose outer and inner worlds have fused on the horizon of stillness
Who have waited like a bird watcher to receive the gifts that come towards you
Whose wounded soul has found healing in love's presence
You have been asked to say a few words about silence...
In a whisper only heard by leaning in with attentiveness,
but laced with the depth of oceans
Let the silence enfold you
There is an outer silence which is good
But you have come also to find an inner silence
That can be scary
Be kind to yourself...
last night i went to see the film chasing ice which was put on by ealing transition. it's well worth seeing if you get a chance. if you are in doubt about the shifts in climate, after watching james balog's time lapse movies of glaciers you will have a visual picture that is at the same time utterly compelling visually and will make you want to lament. it's what he calls the extreme ice survey. the commitment to place 25 cameras in extreme positions and conditions to take hourly photographs of glaciers is amazing...
james balog gave a TED talk in 2009 and towards the end of this you see some of the time lapse movies. it's well worth 20 minutes of your life.
i have been meaning to go to a gathering of ealing transition for a while so it was good to finally go and meet people and hear of local initiatives in response to climate change and shifting our dependency on oil. it's an extraordinary movement. one of the anglican 5 marks of mission is care for the environment. one brilliant way of doing that would be to join in with transiition if it's going on near you.
i had a photo project on the go in december for an exhibition i am taking part in next year called small adventures - more about that another time - but it turned out to be a dark, wet month so photos were quite a challenge. i will be adding some photos from that time over the next couple of months probably. here's one i took on the beach in devon where we were for christmas with my wider family...
for what in 2012 are you most grateful?
what brought you the most grief?
what was a gift or a surprise?
what moments stand out the most?
and as you think about 2013...
what are you waiting for?
what is coming towards you?
what journeys will you go on?
who will you travel with?
we're just off out for a meal with friends to see out the old year and in the new. i hope you have a great evening/day and hope you also get to reflect and dream with friends. have a brilliant 2013!
i really enjoyed tim and vanessa's wedding on saturday. they were so happy - it was wonderful! i took a few snaps (not many as i was too busy chatting) and this one captures the relaxed and joyful nature of the day. the procession out of the church was quite something - a choreographed dance out by the bridal party to a gospel tune.
tim and vanessa are members of moot in london. and it was also really exciting to see their dream of a café being realised as it's now installed. the café is called host - do call in if you are anywhere near mansion house tube - it's at st mary's aldermary. i really admire ian mobsby's patience, tenacity and vision - he has been dreaming of this for probably 15-20 years now! (it was great to have ian in at cms yesterday teaching a day as part of the pioneer training).
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