Many years ago I read a thought-provoking short story by the German writer Heinrich Böll. The central character in the story is a radio producer who, during his career, has gathered a large collection of tapes of the programmes on which he has worked.
One day a friend asks him which tape is his most precious. The producer roots through his collection and takes out one. He places it in a cassette machine and presses the start button. What follows is 30 minutes of silence.
His friend, somewhat perplexed, wonders why the tape is so special. The producer replies that in his long career he recorded all the moments of silence that occurred on his programmes and they amounted to just half an hour.
The story seems to me to be an apt metaphor of modern life.
Background noise pervades our lives. We have 24-hour television and radio. Many of us are obsessed with the social media. We have forgotten the value of silence. As TS Eliot puts it, we are distracted from distraction by distraction. We have experiences, but in the flurry of noise we miss the meaning.
The liturgical season of Lent provides an opportunity to retrieve the creative experience of silent reflection. Viewed from the Christian perspective, such reflection can enrich our lives by deepening our appreciation of the wonder of God. As Christians, we believe that wherever we experience goodness we touch the divine.
The Gospel of the ‘Transfiguration’ is proclaimed in church on a Sunday during Lent. It tells of a special experience that Jesus provided for the apostles Peter, James and John.
The apostles had suspended their everyday lives to follow Jesus. They were attracted by his charisma, fascinated by his actions and intrigued by his words. However, they did not fully understand the purpose of his life. From the ‘Transfiguration’ story we learn that they had heard Jesus use the phrase ‘rising from the dead’, but they had no idea what it meant.
So Jesus took them away from their daily frenetic activity to a high mountain where they could be by themselves. Here they sensed the overwhelming presence of God. They were both exhilarated and terrified. Yet they wanted to stay with the experience, Peter going as far as to suggest that they should camp there for a time.
In much less dramatic ways, I sense that we can also experience transfiguration. Call it meditation or mindfulness, in quiet reflection on the events of our lives we can discern the whispers of the divine presence.
The Welsh poet RS Thomas puts it well in his poem, ‘In a Country Church’:
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
There are whispers of the divine presence in friendship and love. Friends encourage and inspire us. They share our pain. We can cry and laugh with them. There is a special wonder when friendship deepens into love.
There are whispers of the divine presence in the good things that happen to us; the birth of a child; his or her first smile, step or word; the conversation and laughter around a dinner table; the exhilaration given us by a work of art or a piece of music; the joy of a hard-earned sporting victory.
There are whispers of the divine presence in the wonder of nature. For many, nature is a storybook of God. Patrick Kavanagh has written of the spring sunlight lifting to importance his 16-acre farm.
Lent is an opportunity to put the jigsaw pieces of the divine presence into picture that can enrich and inspire us.