Meditation at the heart of life

The Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton (you might just remember him as Nick with the long hair, one of the retreatants on the 2005 TV series The Monastery) is a priest in Newcastle upon Tyne and the author of a very readable book about ‘Meditation and modern life’ called The Wilderness Within.  Reacting to an article on Anglican-Quaker relations, he recently wrote of a predecessor of his who 100 years ago introduced the practice of silent prayer and went on, as Canon of Winchester Cathedral, to write an account of his encounters with Quakerism, published as The Fellowship of Silence in 1917.  In it he relates how he once met someone in church who did not otherwise attend services, but came to the silent-prayer meetings and had brought no less than 30 of his colleagues in a nearby office with him!

Nicholas Buxton comments:

“A century later, when many mainstream church congregations are in decline, and yet interest in mindfulness and meditation has never been greater, I find it enormously encouraging to know that we have an authentic tradition of contemplative spirituality that can – and does – engage people who might not otherwise want to have anything to do with the church.  Perhaps we should be making more of it.”

The article (link?) which spurred this reaction, entitled Following the Quanglican Way, was in the Church Times of 7 October and tells of people who hold to both Quaker and Anglican traditions, best-known of which is probably Terry Waite.  Of those who move between the two, it says that ‘it is observable … that the general  direction of travel is towards the simple and contemplative: the flow is downstream, to Quakerism.’  Many Anglicans have also been drawn by the Quaker belief that action is more important than doctrine, ‘evident from the earliest anti-slavery campaigners … through to current Quaker leadership in addressing the challenges of climate change.’

There are of course Quaker meetings at Charlbury, Burford and Chipping Norton and they are open to anyone.  But you don’t need to be a Quaker to feel drawn to silence and contemplation.  We all know the urge to get away from the freneticism of everyday life and we know that as Christians we need to seek periods of retreat where we can be quiet with God, just as Jesus did.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu practises a daily period of an hour or more of ‘quiet time’ and he once said, when asked how he could keep this up in his hectic schedule,  that he was far too busy not to have a couple of hours of silence every day!

‘Be still and know that I am God.’  Much of our working life and leisure time is filled with words, as well as noise and distraction, not least with a variety of screens at our beck and call at every moment of the day.  We might even feel that the same could be said of our worship, cluttered as it is with text and activity.  The more contemplative tradition is associated with monasticism and a vocation to life-long single-minded devotion.  But it need not be so.  We all can, and maybe should, seek out time to be quiet and to listen.  This may mean meditating or practising mindfulness or praying silently, and it can be done on our own or together.

The silence, said the Abbot of Worth Abbey (hosts of that TV series), is ‘like a wonderful spiritual bath, which we invite you to get into to relax your spiritual muscles, so that you can start listening to God, listening to other people, and listening with the ear of your heart to your own deepest self’.  For the non-church-going as well, as Nicholas Buxton’s book will tell you, meditation enables you to take a step back from yourself and put things in perspective, or even ‘to connect with reality’:  ‘Meditation is seeing things as they really are, rather than as we think we want them to be’, and so ‘belongs at the heart of life.’  It is about being and not constantly doing.  It is about stopping and not constantly moving.  It is about listening and not constantly talking!

Some of us see regular silent meditation as a desirable discipline but one we constantly put off.  To attend a meeting along Quaker lines, where the emphasis is on silence and listening, can offer a set period and place which we can commit to.  For that reason a group of us meet once a month at Ascott Church for a Mid-Month Meditation (a small step towards a midweek or even daily meditation).  It lasts less than 40 minutes and starts with some sentences or a poem as a jumping-off point;  but it is essentially a time to sit quietly, clear the mind, pray or listen to the birds in the churchyard.  Quaker-style, someone might offer a shared thought inspired by the moment, or there might be a full 30 minutes of silence until the meditation bell gently brings the time to an end.

The MMM is not a service, nor necessarily a Christian event, though it takes place in a church.  It is therefore open to anyone who might care to walk in and sample it.  We’d love you to join us – and maybe bring 30 neighbours or colleagues with you, perhaps not all at once!  We currently meet on the third Wednesday of every month at 6.15pm at Ascott Church.  Other times and venues could obviously be considered.


David Soward

Nov 6th 2016