Learning not to speak

Oct 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Ministry

“Remember”, said the GP as he walked out of the door, “it all depends on having a right view of Jesus”.

He hardly noticed a twenty-six year old curate standing hesitatingly in the doorway, not knowing what to say.  What do you say to a couple who have lost two of their children?  The doctor obviously felt he knew.

If the doctor could say something, a priest being a tongue-tied was obviously hardly acceptable.  For some years, there was the temptation to always have some comment, to always have an answer.

Mary Ann taught the skill of silence.

Her son had died of cancer in his fifties.  To compound the pain of the loss, a legalistic cleric had insisted upon the family observing episcopal regulations, which had no force in civil law, but which said that his ashes could not be scattered on the land of the farm that he had loved, but must be buried in a churchyard or cemetery.  Cremation was alien to the culture of that rural community; he had only been cremated to allow his wishes to be fulfilled.  It seemed no more than a detail in her grief, but for her it was a very significant one.  There grew the realisation that trying to suggest that the colleague was only doing as bidden, did nothing to resolve the matter.  When she pondered her son’s death, silence became the appropriate response.

When her husband of more than six decades died, there was a sense of inevitability, but also a sense that a gaping hole had opened up in her life, that no words could possibly close.  To sit and listen when she spoke, to sit and say nothing if she did not speak, were important.

Mary Ann was good at providing non-verbal cues.  Sitting either side of her log fire, there would be the chink of china cups on saucers and she would turn and look into the fire, remembering moments long past and reflecting on the disappointments; the comments were observations, captions under the pictures in her mind. The most that was required was a ‘yes’ at appropriate points.

It was when her great grandson died, not yet two years old, the firstborn of a new generation, that the silence reached its most profound. With big tears in her eyes she looked across, “Mr Poulton, I wish I were in the grave and he were alive”.  There was no response, no possible answer.

Mary Ann’s quiet dignity came to mind visiting a lady who pondered the death of her own son.  She stared at the hearth and said, “Things would have been different if he had lived”.  A nod was sufficient.

The doctor’s parting words to the young couple still echo down through the years:  “Remember, it all depends on having a right view of Jesus”.  There would have been clergy in times past who would have taken him by the lapels and put him out onto the street.  Jesus has no part in two little children dying and in the face of grief over the death of Lazarus in saint John’s Gospel, he stands in silence.  Sometimes there are no words; sometimes knowing to just shut up is an important skill.

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  1. Nice article – you are absolutely correct. Knowing when to be silent is a great skill. If I may impart a little personal experience – I lost a little boy some years ago. From that time I am very aware of people’s verbal reaction to death. I won’t go into it here, you would be very aware of the type of thing; “It was his time”, “He’s in a better place” etc etc etc. People mean well, they just cannot put the right words on it.
    So why am I making this comment? Wel in your piece you say “Jesus has no part in two little children dying”, and I understand what you are saying. But it’s hard, very hard for a parent to be told such things. It’s like Bertie claimimg credit for the celtic tiger, but not the aftermath.
    There are times when silence is perfect. But there are times when one must confront one’s beliefs. Anything else would be to deny oneself.
    I don’t get upset at people who try to sympathise or empathise with clumsy words. It’s the professionals I have a problem with. More articles please! I can’t drive to the pub!

  2. To lose a child must be the worst thing that can happen in life.

    I take your point about giving God the credit and not the blame. Your argument is good theology. Traditional Jewish understanding believed in a supreme God from whom all things came – the good and the bad, viz. the book of Job. The dualism whereby good things were ascribed to God and bad things to a force of darkness arose from Greek thought.

    A couple of weeks ago, I tried to address the problem of God’s tolerance of evil through Einsteinian physics: Einstein argues that past,present and future are merely illusions. If everything happens at once in space-time, then God sees everything in a flash. The science professor in the church choir thought it was an interesting line, but had inconsistencies. When I reflected, I realized that by arguing that God could not intervene to prevent evil, so equally, he could not intervene to promote good.

    The more things I see, the less I know.

  3. Thank you for the kind reply. Did I comment on your Einsteinian piece ? I think I did. No matter. (What’s matter? never mind).
    I’m genuinly impressed with “The more things I see, the less I know”. It could be used to typify or characterise some Anglican priests, but I do not do so.
    How many of your parishioners would be happy with less than certainty? I ask out of curiousity, not from any position of scorn or ridicule. You see I am frightened of people who are imbued with certainty.

  4. My apologies, you did indeed comment. I’m afraid I was a model of inattentiveness last night. I sat down to our Friday evening fish and chips with my son and daughter and said grace and my daughter said, “Dad, we have already said grace, were you not listening?” Obviously not.

    Uncertainty is biblical. The line from the Letter to the Hebrews that says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” is always worth unpacking – assurance is in faith, not in certainty. Certainties lead one to a model of the cosmos and understanding of God that are on a line divergent from reality; so the Creationists become increasingly bizarre from the perspective of science, and those who gather at Knock today in the hope of an apparition appear deluded.

    I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus (I think the redemption of matter is important) but I do so from a position of faith. Were I to start confronting my congregation with propositional religion, I would quickly be in trouble having a theologian, an emeritus professor, a couple of academics, and various other very well qualified people in my pews. Almost every congregation now has thinking people in it, the days when one could stand and recite things and expect people to just accept one’s words are long past.

  5. 🙂

  6. All I can reply is 🙂

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