Watching Cat Stevens perform recently at Glastonbury Festival brought back memories of one of the first albums I bought, Teaser and the Firecat. The album included a song with the lyrics: “I listen to the wind, To the wind of my soul. Where I’ll end up, well I think only God really knows”.
Music brings back memories and I remember listening to that song on my little transistor radio as I looked out over the Moray Firth from the window of the Outward Bound school. A 17-year-old thinking about life and the universe. Sailing the waters of the North Sea, walking in the Cairngorm mountains and canoeing on the River Spey exposed me to different sights and sounds from those that were familiar to me back home in Harrogate. Being outside brought lots of listening experiences, times of silence and, yes, contemplation.
At a level beyond my comprehension, such elements contributed to my coming to faith. I remember wild camping on my own in Monaughty Forest, hearing the sounds of the forest at night, lying awake in my bushcraft shelter leaning against a magnificent Scots Pine tree, marvelling at the wonders of the created world and pondering whether there was a God behind the universe. That I have discovered that there is has been life transforming. I had learned to ‘listen to the wind of my soul’.
John Muir, who was instrumental in establishing the National Parks in the USA, said “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking about the mountains.” That was me, more at home in the open spaces than in the confines, and in much of the religious protocol and practices of many a church service.
I might be an introvert, but I enjoy the company of others, (as long as I have space alone before or after!). I appreciate gathering with other people who love God, but I find many congregational services too prescriptive, predictable and disconnected from the world beyond the church walls.
I find, and it’s a me statement, that a lot of contemporary worship leaves me cold, irritated or just bored. Its ‘noise’ leaves little time or space for quiet reflection or prayer. It was the writer, W. H. Vanstone, observing people in the swimming pool, who said that all the noise seems to come from the shallow end.
I love the silence of worship when alone or with others. I love the chapel at Nether Springs, our Northumbria Community’s mother house., (see: www.northumbriacommunity.org ) Saying Daily Office with Companions and Friends online or in the same room, sitting alone in the Poustinea at Old Bewick or in the prayer hole on Lindisfarne. But I’ve come to appreciate the discipline and habit of cultivating a silence that is not broken by the sounds of others. In the city, finding a park bench, sitting in a café, surrounded by people who are talking, texting or typing. Cultivating the gift of stillness and listening amidst the surround sound of noise.
There’s the story told of a Native American being hosted by a friend in New York. They were walking together near Times Square, and the city was buzzing with people, crowds going about their daily business. The noise of traffic, horns blasting, vehicle brakes squealing, sirens wailing. Amidst the deafening noise, the Native American turns to his friend and says, “I can hear a cricket”. His friend looked at him in disbelief that an insect could be heard with all the noise of the city. The Native American, listening, carefully walks down the sidewalk and comes across one of the shrubs that had been planted over 20 metres away. Looking into the bushes and beneath one of the branches, he locates a small cricket. His friend is staggered at the discovery and declares that his friend must have incredible hearing powers, to which he received a memorable reply, “My ears are no different to yours. It all depends on what you’re listening for.” The American Indian then went on to illustrate what he meant. Pulling out some coins, he dropped them on the sidewalk where they were standing. In an instant, among the crowd of people, many turned their heads and looked to see if the money dropped on the pavement was theirs. The Native American said, “You see, it all depends on what’s important to you and what you’re listening for”.
The story challenges me; what am I listening to?