The Feast of Saint James

25 July is the feast day of the patron saint of our parish, Saint James the Greater. As such, I felt somewhat obliged to learn more about the man who inspired the founders of our church to name the parish in his honour.

James bar-Zebedee was a man of critical events. He was first to be called a disciple, along with his brother John. These two brothers, along with Peter, witnessed the Transfiguration of our Lord. He witnessed the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (I was unaware of Peter’s marriage) and the raising of the daughter of Jairus. Jesus summoned James to pray along with him in Gethsemane’s garden on the night of the great betrayal. Imagine witnessing one of these events?

I wonder if Jesus knew about the personality of James before he selected him as a disciple. Given that Jesus nicknamed James and John the “sons of thunder” my imagination is stirred with images of fiery, loud, impulsively passionate workers. James wanted a hostile Samaritan village ruined by heavenly fire invoked by Jesus.

The end of James was dramatically predicted by Jesus. When the bar-Zebedee boys asked Jesus for a special place of honour in the Kingdom, the response was that a place of suffering is that place of honour. James was beheaded in the 40’s of the Common Era by the grandson of the Herod who has been attributed with attempting to have Jesus the Infant killed. James was the first disciple to be martyred.

After the first Pentecost, James went to Spain and preached the gospel. And, apparently, this is the origin of the mythical elements of the veneration of St James. The body of James was carried back to Spain and interred at Santiago de Compostela. The story goes that a rider on horseback saw the ship carrying the saint and attempted to swim out to the ship. Rider and horse sunk in the attempt before miraculously rising covered in scallop shells.

Thus, the symbols attached to our patron saint are a scallop shell, a pilgrim hat, a sword, the sacred scripture. Artists often depict him on horseback. James is also the patron saint of Spain, equestrians, veterinarians, blacksmiths and tanners.

For myself, I prefer the literal James who is recorded in the New Testament; a man so passionate about his faith that Jesus includes him in the inner circle. The best thing that I can attribute to the mythical saint is a wonderful dish, Coquilles St. Jacques…shells of St. James. Here’s a thought: let’s honour our patron saint with a Coquilles St. Jacques feast…what a fundraiser! I can almost smell the garlic and gruyere now; baquette, white wine, a tantalizing green salad, some medieval pilgrimage songs, re-enacting the horse and rider story in the Avon River…sign me up!

The Web Scribe

Take Your Seats

When we take the seat, we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things. So Jack Kornfield (A Path With Heart) begins his chapter on preparing to worship – or, in his lexicon, to meditate. Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are) continues with his thoughts on the same topic: there is a strong sense of honouring place and placement of body and mind and moment (as we take our seat).

To the uninitiated, the un-mindful, perhaps even the disrespectful, the time (and space) before ritual is just that – room to chatter, to finish up last minute bits of business, to diffuse the nervous energy that sadly pervades our culture when its occupants are confronted with silence. I sit in theatre as the ‘show is about to begin’ and am amazed, make that appalled, by the residual ‘chitch’ (as a colleague is fond of naming idle prattle) that floats in the air once the lights are dimmed and Richard (or James or whoever chastens the noisy patrons to shut off the watch alarms and cell phones) has intoned his solemn prohibition. I (used to) stand at the start of a foot race and hear incidental accounts of last night’s pasta feed, the projected splits for two, five and eight K, the commentary on Mary’s new shoes – all intruding on the attempt to centre, focus, ground, to set fully for an important (in those days) ritual.

The capacity to listen unspeaking and indeed, to respect the individual’s need to prepare him/herself for ceremony has sadly been lost to the compulsive urgency to ‘communicate’. With the latest ‘innovation’ in communication technology –- whatever version of I-phone we’re now up to – the Globe & Mail reported text messaging to have increased ten fold in the past few years. I am passed by all manner of pedestrians (and cyclists!), oblivious to their surround, bent forward, sending or receiving what I can only assume to be mindless and largely unnecessary bits of dialogue, text. That Blackberries are now more aptly described as ‘crackberries’, that PDA-free zones are being established in resorts, and cell phones use banned or limited in a variety of venues bear testament to the near-addictive, ubiquitous, and frowned upon nature of these compulsions.

At a gathering of friends recently, a serendipitous set of circumstances thrust us all into five (seemed like fifty-five) minutes of unplanned silence. As an opening to the evening, several of us had been assigned ‘roles’ within a ‘modified liturgy’ – with the expectation that as one finished another would take up the baton. As luck would have it, not all shared the same ‘script’ – injecting a protracted ‘gap’ into the sequence. It was not long before fidgeting commenced, watches were covertly eyed, nervous glances cast at the next (presumed) presenter, himself sublimely oblivious to the ‘order of service’. Ultimately our host provided the requisite nudge to get things going again – but not before those present had opportunity to move through a surprisingly complex sequence of thought – given that ‘nothing’ was going on: an expected moment of reflection?; is it my turn?; is this a test of some sort? And with it the chance to share responses to the experience. We broke into two camps: those whose discomfort grew as the seconds ticked by, needing to scratch that compulsive itch (to speak); and those who settled into a resolve of sorts, bent on embracing the time and ‘emptiness’ for reverie – a preparation for the balance of the evening.

Like the sacred bow as one prepares for practice, settling, ‘taking one’s seat’ to begin service – be it a ‘full Sunday event’ or simple gathering in chapel, shared (what’s that expression) ‘where two or three are gathered together’ – is part and parcel of the sacred space, the reverential preparation for a special event. I suppose I can and should (no, I needn’t go that far) tolerate the public compulsion, the twitch to check that incoming text message, email, or phone call – wherever, whenever, and in whose ever presence.

What is becoming difficult to countenance is the incipient ‘chitch’ encroaching upon sacred events, space, and times, creeping in and squeezing these very core elements into a corner that diminishes the experience for the participants and the respect for the ritual. I expect a chapel to be a ‘no fly zone’ for those very, very brief periods through the week when a sacred event is not only in progress – but is being prepared for. I would hope that the silence that precedes a service is treated with like deference to that afforded silent prayer, interpolated into that service. A practice that I have long valued is the sounding of the tingsha, little brass cymbals whose resonant, lingering tone calls participants to collect themselves – and by implication, to fall silent. Perhaps that’s what those church bells mean?

David Howard

The Sounds of Silence

Chapter 42, St. Benedict’s Rule…Silence should be sought at all times by monks and nuns and this is especially important for them at night time.
I mustn’t get out enough. Trends come and go before I am even aware that they are a trend. Take for example reception areas for the public. My recent sojourn into SGH had me in a waiting room for a reasonably short period of time. If knitting does not accompany me, a book does. Comfortably seated, number in hand (the Privacy Act precludes hospital staff using your name in the waiting room; one becomes a number to protect one’s privacy. Unfortunately, when one is in the next stage of the process, nothing is private, including one’s ‘privates’; an irony shared in humour by the nurses).
Anyway, back in the waiting room that I am sharing with two anxious mums with their equally anxious very young daughters and few other old timers such as myself, I am bombarded by CNN on the overhead big screen television monitor that peers down at us like some modern-day gargoyle. The volume is overly loud; the very earnest newsreader is incessantly updating us with reports from a U.S. manufacturing facility where a disgruntled employee has shot seven fellow workers and his supervisor. No details were spared. Desperately attempting to concentrate on my book, I couldn’t help but think what my very young and innocent companions were thinking as they eyes were glued to the TV monitor. By the time that my number was called, I was quite relieved to leave the area.
Post-surgery visit to surgeon’s office was another audio blast. The doc was an hour and one-half late; his receptionist whispered to me as I checked in ‘that things were really backed-up and she still hadn’t been able to locate him yet’. No problem; I had my knitting. Out in the waiting room, six other patients were vocally grumbling and visibly irate. Unfortunately, the country and western station was blaring loudly to us about heart-broken cowboys in pick-up trucks; it didn’t help the mood.
Today, I had an appointment with my G.P. The building has been under renovations for some time now. The new reception area is huge, well-lit and yep…there it is, up there peering down at me again…the audio-visual gargoyle of reception areas. I was relieved to see that it’s not operational yet. Unfortunately, the sound system is quite operational. This time, my host is a Kitchener soft rock station with ’96 minutes of commercial-free sounds of my favourites’. Sorry folks, my favourites include my new Mahler 10th symphony recording and music from the renaissance and baroque periods…not Annie Lennox, the Eagles, Amy Grant et al.
No problem, I have my knitting. However, as the pattern is quite simple and the music quite loud, I am incessantly distracted by the chatter with the commercial-free period. Every second song, I am reminded by the station that this is a commercial-free time. Well, I am almost answering out loud, ‘what’s your definition of a commercial, mister?’ The announcer, as well, keeps telling all of us, how much better our work environment is because we have the radio blaring at us. Really? If I am having some issues concentrating, then what about the staff who are in the same area and exposed to all of ‘these great sounds’ while attempting to work.
The clincher came from another non-commercial commercial. A personal testimony of a listener who could not possibly manage driving on today’s stressful roads without the station’s music lulling her into a state that ‘allowed her to zone out so completely that when she pulled into her driveway, she had no idea how she got there’.
This meditative state for which the listener is so profoundly thankful is very disturbing to me. A novice at meditation, I look forward to the time when ‘the complete zone-out’ occurs; but, not while I am in control of a very powerful mass propelling amongst others at high speeds, thank you very much.
I am called to a brand spanking-new examination room. After the short interview, the nurse practitioner readies things for the doctor which includes turning up the sound system as she leaves. I request silence, please.
In 1952, the American composer John Cage wrote a three movement piece entitled 4’ 33”. It is a composition for any instrument or combination of instruments. ‘The performer or performers come out onto the stage and take their places. And then, they sit. They sit for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. They sit and sit and sit; the audience sits and sits and sits. After the initial uncomfortable period, after the coughs and nervous shuffling settle, people start listening. From the sounds of silence come gentle but subtle sounds…fabric rustling, breaths, paper shuffling, even the subterraneous rumbling of a subway. John Cage’s goal was to teach his audience to listen by actually programming silence’.
More than fifty years later and with the technology today, silence is a lost art form. Full awareness listening is not trendy. Much better that one should be listening and driving or working as well as talking to co-workers simultaneously.
Nearly 1600 years before John Cage, Saint Benedict understood the need for silence in daily life. Chapter 42 of his monastic rule programmed silence into the lives of monks and nuns.
As Joan Chittester OSB writes, “Silence has two functions. The first effect of external silence is to develop a sense of interior peace. The second value of silence is that it provides the stillness that enables the ear of the heart to hear God who is ‘not in the whirlwind’. The constant blaring breaks the peace of the heart and agitates the soul. Day after day, month after month, the incessant noise thickens the walls of the mind until it become impossible to hear the talk within us that shows us our pain and opens our mind to the truths of life and the presence of God. We live with noise pollution now and find silence a great burden, a frightening possibility. Muzak fills our elevators and radios are set into wrist watches and TV’s blare from every room in the house from morning until night. We say that we do not have the time to think but what we actually lack is the quiet to think. Yet, until we are able to have at least a little silence every day, both outside and in, both inside and out, we have no hope of coming to know either God or ourselves very well.”

I leave you with a poem by Rachel M. Srubas from her book Oblation.

Catching Your Breath
I hear the twilight falling, soft a linen over the earth.
I hear the soil drinking its dew.
I hear my own ear receiving you,
The shell of my flesh catching your breath,
Its concealed canal and deeper drum humming
In answer to your prayer for the world,
More music than word. It sings inside me.
My silence, at its finest, harmonizes.

July 11, Saint Benedict Day; for Fiona
The Web Scribe