‘There was silence in heaven for half an hour’ by Canon Jim Foley
‘There was silence in heaven for half an hour’ by Canon Jim Foley
A reflection for Lent by Canon Jim Foley
Surely the above quotation from The Book of Revelation can lay claim to be among the most endearing in the entire Bible. The author has just led us through the company of thousands upon thousands of elect who sing the praises of God in the highest heavens. At first he counted 144,000 from every tribe in Israel, but when he looked behind his back there was ‘a crowd beyond all numbering’ from all the nations of the earth (Rev 7.4ff). Between the hymns of praise, the trumpet blasts, the harps, the congratulations, the cheering and the exchange of pleasantries, it must have been bedlam. Then silence suddenly fell over the whole place for half an hour. After that, the racket started up again. If the angels and saints couldn’t contain themselves for more than half and hour, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Silence used to be golden. Not any more. Today a new alchemy is at work and silence has turned to lead and weighs heavily on us. Some of us have even been known to talk in our sleep. One of my parishioners remarked that her husband talked more sense when sound asleep than he ever did when wide awake. In his autobiography, A Mingled Chime, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) mentioned that, dead or alive, he was determined to master the trombone in order to face down those upstart trombonists in his orchestra who argued that certain passages were simply unplayable on that instrument. As a result he was banished from one set of lodgings to another by the complaints of the neighbours and their domestic pets. In the end he hired a rowing-boat in the middle of a remote loch in the north of Scotland. There he hoped to practice to his heart’s content without fear of upsetting other living creatures, with the possible exception of the Loch Ness monster.
It now looks as if there is no escape from noise. Silent trips on trains and buses, with the pleasure of admiring the countryside to the accompaniment of our own thoughts or even engaging, from time to time, in uplifting conversation with our neighbour, are a thing of the past. We are obliged to share the innermost thoughts, the highest expectations and the deepest fears of all fifty-four passengers with mobile phones grafted to their ears. ‘I have now reached Caldercruix, by the way’. I really don’t need to know that. In fact I don’t believe anybody does. Wouldn’t it be tempting to smuggle a trombone onboard and treat the passengers to a few staves of the Marseillaise as they do in the Paris Metro.
The distinguished French Philosopher, Paul Valery (1871-1945),was ahead of his times when he postulated that every word that was ever spoken and every sound that was ever made on earth is circulating somewhere in the ether, just waiting for some genius to capture it and play it back to us on some infernal contraption. I hope to be gone before his prediction comes true, unless perhaps to discover what Mrs Job, a woman of few words, really said to her husband to bring him to his senses when he was down and out. Was it simply the rather blunt ‘Curse God and drop dead’ as in the original Hebrew text and all modern versions, or was it the much longer soliloquy attributed to his wife and to be found in the ancient Greek translation of the same passage, lamenting her fate rather than his (Septuagint Greek Job 2.9a-d) ?
Of course there are silences and silences. There is the sullen silence that you can hear a mile away and could cut with a knife. Charged with pain and resentment at some perceived offence given long ago but festering away, never to be forgotten. This silence gets louder with the passing years. But there is another kind of silence that also speaks volumes. It is the silence of a loving relationship, of complete understanding that needs no words to give it expression.
If we move into the world of the New Testament we learn more about silence. There is a beautiful antiphon which features during the Octave of Christmas. It is taken from the Book of Wisdom (18.14f) but applied to the arrival of the Word of God on earth in the following terms:
For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone,
your all-powerful word leaped from heaven
from the royal throne
into the midst of the land that was doomed.
I can’t resist the temptation to include the Latin Plainsong version of the text in the conviction that it not only sounds good but it looks good and that there must still be survivors of Vatican II who continue find that this antiphon captures the spirit especially of Midnight Mass and consequently of the Incarnation:
During the first day of his public ministry Jesus confronted a demented man who was at the mercy of a loud-mouthed demon who pulled the synagogue about his ears. Addressing his words to the demon, Jesus said: Be silent and come out of him (Mark 1.21ff). He later imposed silence on the raging waters of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4.35ff). Dare I say he also put the noisy flute-players out of the room in which a young girl lay dead (Matthew 9.23)? On the vigil of his condemnation to death Jesus remained silent before the accusations of the scribes and Pharisees and in the face of Pilate’s interrogation (Matthew 27.12ff).
Jesus’ personal silence is the silence of the Suffering and Glorious Servant of the Lord whose portrait is painted so movingly by Isaiah 53.7:
Ill-treated and afflicted,
he never opened his mouth,
like a lamb led to the slaughter-house,
like a sheep dumb before its shearers
he never opened his mouth.
Saint Paul, as usual, takes us to the limits of this silence when he dedicates an entire chapter of his letter to the Romans to the gift of the Spirit and our response in silent prayer:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness,
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
And God, who searches the heart,
knows what is the mind of the Spirit,
because the Spirit intercedes for the saints
according to the will of God. Romans 8.28ff)
Likewise, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews also takes us into this world of silent prayer with his description of the priesthood of Christ inspired by the memory of the Agony in the Garden (Hebrews 5.7ff and Matthew 26.36ff):
During his life on earth,
he offered up prayer and entreaty,
aloud and in silent tears,
to the one who had the power to save him out of death,
and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard.
The silent and prayerful tears of the High Priest in Gethsemane, recorded in the Letter to the Hebrews, would soon give way to the joyful fulfilment of the glory of the angels and saints in heaven celebrated in the Book of Revelation.