The Sounds of Silence

New day on shoulder of Ben Lomond, 14 Aug 2022

Recently I have been reading the book ‘Ljudet av Tystnad’ (‘The Sound of Silence’). It is written by Tomas Sjödin, a Swedish pastor and author. Sadly only available in Swedish. Sjödin explores the many ways in which our lives need and are enriched by what he calls ‘good’ silence. Not always, possibly rarely, is such silence experienced through an absence of sound.

good [meaningful] silence is more about finding the [right] tone than being silent, not about what you want to avoid hearing, but what you long to hear”**. 

(My rough translation from Tomas Sjödin’s book ‘Ljudet av Tystnad’. Bracketed and bold words are mine. See end of post for the Swedish)

In our noisy world I lose my bearings and often cannot articulate what I long to hear. Instead a thousand noises and voices compete for attention. There is a need to recognise the voice that speaks in the silence.

And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The Sound of Silence (verse3), Paul Simon

A while ago I discovered that the English word ‘absurd’ comes from the Latin absurdus. Apparently the root of the word comes from being ‘out of tune’ or ‘deaf’. It struck me that to not experience ’good silence’ is to live an absurd (deaf, out of tune) life.

I struggle to hear but below are some ways I have been blessed with good silence.

The comforting silence of being understood

Praying should be like sharing with a good listener. It should be the one place to go where there are no expectations, where I can truly be myself. Yet much of the time my prayer is driven. I ask for change in people and situations, for God to answer my concerns and needs. Of course there is a time and place for this. Yet the first and greater need is to come as a child to the Father. To know I am understood. In recent years I have found the Ignatian practices involving silence helpful and refreshing spiritually. 

The many faces of longing

Sjödin cites the Reggio Emilia approach to education which says a child is born with a hundred languages. Sadly most of us grow up to discard all but a few. Nobody teaches a child to cry, scream, laugh, babble or gurgle with joy. Similarly Sjödin makes the point that we begin life equipped with many ways to pray but these ways often disappear as we go through life. So much for becoming older and wiser!

There are many languages, postures and ways of prayer. Hands clasped, hands open, hands raised, eyes open, eyes closed. It can take place while we sit or in bed, while we walk, stand, kneel, run or even swim. (The latter reminds me of a friend who said he prayed for me on the seventh lap of his daily swim. As his family grew and grandchildren came along he said I had been relegated to being prayed for, I think, on the 13th or 14th lap instead. Even though he is dead his prayers live on and I am grateful). 

Prayer can be praise, worship or song. It can be wordless. Asking, seeking, knocking. It could be a cry of joy, of sorrow, of anguish, of thanks, of need, of delight, of despair, of hopelessness. It can take place anywhere and in any of the 6,000+ languages spoken or those known only to God.

“God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.”

Genesis 21:17 NIVUK

The sacred silence of exhaustion 

“I lay down, strangely mesmerised by the tree branches overhead. Maybe it was my stress hormones but at 0200 the night was utterly quiet. Words can’t describe but I could ‘hear’ the silence and it was deafening”.  (from my West Highland Way Challenge – Race Report 2021). 

This was a silence of no strength. I had been moving, trying to run, for about 15 hours. On my own in the middle of the night in a wood near Crianlarich, Scotland. No doubt my blood sugar was very low and my senses and reactions were impaired. I was also very cold and so was vigilant about not resting or sleeping for more than a few minutes. I was fixated on my goal of going another 60km or so to Milngavie, Glasgow for 9pm that same day. Blood was pounding in my ears. In the midst of all that I lay down on a picnic bench and heard the silence.

The awesome silence of the heavens

“It was a balmy night with the occasional light wind to cool things a bit. It was keeping the midges (small, biting insects) at bay. Lying in my bivouac I kept looking up at what looked like the Pleiades cluster of stars directly overhead my mosquito/ midge net. To the southern horizon on my left the near full moon shone its reflected glory. I felt the immensity of space and time above. This coupled with the sense of my fragile head resting on the ground evoked both wonder and smallness. It was an ‘awe-full’ time. Eventually got to sleep about 0100 I guess.”

Journal entry, August 2022.
Camping on shoulder of Ptarmigan, overlooking Loch Lomond. August 2022. 

The refreshing silence of slowing down

With social media and the torrent of information around today mental capacities become overloaded, at least mine. There are little or no reserves left to give attention to what we are exposed to or going on around us. To focus is not easy and to ‘pay’ attention implies a cost. Sjödin observes that in the past people spoke at a slower speed than today. Nowadays we also apparently read 10% faster. All this doesn’t necessarily lead to more effective communication. There are times when I need a ‘sabbath’ break from mobiles and computers. Giving some space to create my own thoughts and not those that come from others. If these are too hard to come by then a good substitute is giving attention to the sounds and sights in nature. The silent, gentle progression of day to night is surely a calling to recognise a bigger picture.

Sunset over Loch Lomond, 13 Aug 2022

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** “Den goda tystnaden handlar mer om att hitta tonen än att bli tyst, inte om vad man vill slippa höra, men vad man längtar efter att få höra”.

Elastic Band Training

Port visitors to the MV Logos

For 6 months when I first joined the MV Logos my work was in the deck department as an AB (‘able-bodied’) seaman. Then for almost a year I was a member of two consecutive training programmes each lasting 5-6 months. Long before the widespread use of computers the programme was known as IT (‘intensive training’). The idea was that a group of men (women in later programmes) would be stretched in a variety of spiritual, mental and physical ways. It involved committing to a variety of goals. Most of the time it meant for very full days trying to achieve these targets. The philosophy was that the experience would stretch us like elastic bands. Hopefully then when the course was over our capacity for all kinds of things would be enlarged as a result. Whether this proved to be so is open to discussion. A few faltered under the stress, as if the elastic had been stretched one time too many. 

So it was in April 1978 whilst vessel was in Singapore I began this course that would dominate my life for coming months. 

An ingredient in the make up of the group was to make them as culturally challenging as possible. Plenty opportunity for misunderstandings and the need for frequent forgiveness! We were 10 young men from 10 countries and 4 continents. We had an older, more experienced and mature leader who graciously led this diverse group. The final ingredient in the mix was our accommodation. We were together in the bow (foc’sle) of the ship. Tiers of bunks fitted to the keel in a small triangular shaped cabin that came to a point at the bow. Each bunk had a curtain to provide some privacy. The confined area was made more claustrophobic with the ship’s anchor chain locker housed in the middle. Enclosed in a large box like structure most of the time the chains were a quiet but ominous presence that dominated our living space. Whenever the heavy anchor was dropped these large chains flew making a huge noise with bone jarring vibrations. Perhaps it was a misperception but it often seemed to me the ship arrived at anchor in ports early in the morning. Our dramatic living environment was further enhanced by being at the bow of a ship designed to slice through icy water. With its sharp bow the ship pitched severely in rough seas. You could literally be thrown in the air from your bed. The MV Logos had been designed to travel from Denmark to Greenland. She was originally known as the ‘Umanak’, after a town in Greenland.

Crowds visiting the MV Logos on board book exhibition

Days usually began about 6:00 am with morning exercises – a port run if in port or aerobics on the aft deck at sea. Whilst the rest of the crew might have time off in the evenings we were taking meetings, studying or doing jobs that no one else would do. Anytime our team could be called on to do whatever was needing done practically. The 15 hours / week goal of practical work were usually spent doing jobs unpopular with the rest of the crew. They included manually moving many tons of books around the cargo hold or setting up or taking down the on board book exhibition ‘tent’ on the foredeck. We were also employed using rags to remove grease from the engine room machinery. I remember once having to crawl into the water tanks to clean them. The tanks were located in the ship’s keel. Feeling that I could not back out was a fearful experience. To this day I have no interest in caving! 

Once a week we had to report ‘progress’ to our team leader on almost 30 different tasks. Long days were filled with trying to achieve these goals. This suited some temperaments more than others. I found it for the most part quite fulfilling. A few goals were only possible due to the unique opportunity a floating bookship afforded. We often had many thousands visit on board every week we were in a port.

Weekly ‘IT’ Report

We’d usually sleep relatively early at 10:30 -11:00 pm but once a week there was an extended time of prayer with the rest of the ship’s company. This went from 7pm till sometimes 2 or 3am or even later. It was mandatory for ‘IT’ people to always attend and stay to the end (one of our goals). The rest of the crew were more or less free to leave when they wished. Follow that with 1 or maybe 2 hours sleep before exercises and another long day. The training certainly lived up to its ‘intensive’ description. We did have to work as a team but there was also a lot of goals to be achieved individually. I suppose this led inevitably to competition between us. Despite our differing cultural and personality types we did form a bond between us and remain in touch with several to this day. 

A sad memory during this time of training was to lose one of our number. Abel, a Mexican, had gone swimming whilst we were in Taiwan and tragically drowned. I had just a few days before been talking with him. He in retrospect had seemed strangely at peace talking about the future in comparison to my uncertainty. In an amazing way several years later in 1985 I was again on board the LOGOS. This time it was in Abel’s homeland Mexico. His family visited the ship and sought me out as one of the few people that had known Abel just before he died. It was an honour to share with them my memories of Abel.

In September 1978 in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia we completed the course. I was then ‘rewarded’ with an invite to lead the next group of volunteers in IT. I was honoured but also felt weary and a bit bruised by my own recent experience. My immediate future was uncertain and initially thought I should leave the ship and work with the mission in India. However, after some weeks break I agreed to take on this task. This time I was asked to lead 7 Indian men. If I wasn’t going to leave the ship and live in India, India was coming to me! Again this was thought to make for a challenging cultural mix – and that it certainly was. India is like a continent in itself and my companions came from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds speaking several languages of which English was only one. Six were from south India and one from the north. What we all had in common was our sense of calling as Christians to serve each other as well as reach out to the world around. The programme would try each of us in our commitment to this in the ensuing months. So we began the course in the beginning of Nov’ 1978 in Tuticorin, South India. We set sail with the rest of the ship’s crew on a 9 day voyage to the Middle East.

One of the ongoing challenges from early on was the aforementioned weekly extended prayer meeting nights. We were supposed to stay till the end. Occasionally I would do a midnight round up in our dormitory to waken those who had succumbed to sleep back to prayer. It is not something I am proud to recall and it certainly reflected my inexperience and immaturity. My hope is team members have forgiven me for these and other instances of poor leadership. Suffice to say I was out of my depth.

One of our number before he became a Christian had been in the habit of taking cold baths at 3:30 am. Thankfully he stopped the bathing. However he did not see any need to stop rising at that time, switch on his light and read his Bible for 2 – 3 hours. This had some considerable effect on the sleep patterns of the rest of the team. Once again addressing this issue challenged my leadership abilities or lack thereof! Nonetheless I had great respect for him and his deep hunger for the Bible. I remain in touch to this day.

Intense learning experiences I suppose have the potential to reap both positive and negative effects. To me the positives are the discipline and some habits that have been helpful in subsequent years. The negatives were a legalistic approach to goal orientation and time management. Trying to achieve things which may or may not be important. Nowadays you might call it a tickbox or checklist mentality. It took many years to return to a more normal and phlegmatic way of life. When restless and feeling guilt for no particular reason I need to remind myself God is not standing over me with a clipboard ticking off a ‘to do’ list.

It might sound that this was a year to forget. Yes it was not easy and some things were very tough. Yet it was also an experience for which I am thankful. Those I learned with became companions and brothers. We also laughed, we celebrated and we enjoyed each other’s company.

I also know that in God’s plan broken elastic bands can be tied together and reused. In fact that is His business…

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:3a NIVUK

Strangers and Pilgrims – Coming Home

For some weeks in 1979 I visited what was then Western Samoa in the South Pacific. An independent state it became known in 1997 simply as Samoa. Not to be confused with the American territory of American Samoa which lay to the south east! W. Samoa consists mainly of two inhabited islands in the midst of a vast ocean. I first visited on my own and was doing the job of ‘line up’, preparing for the visit of the ship MV Logos. See ‘line up’ tag links if interested to know more. Before going I had been given the name of one man that would introduce me to people who could help me with accommodation and contacts. Problem was that I only had the name and no address or phone number. This was before the days of mobile phones and social media so it wasn’t clear how I would find him. On arrival at the airport in the capital Apia I decided to take the airport bus which made a tour of the island’s hotels dropping people off. Money was very tight so was a bit anxious about taking a hotel but couldn’t think of any other plan. Anyhow got off at I think the last hotel on the route and went to reception to book a room for the night. While signing the visitors book whose name should I see but the one contact I was looking for. His room was next door to mine! What an answer to my prayers.

It was arranged for me to stay with an extended Samoan family. Their gracious hospitality was in accord with their culture and traditions. Three generations all slept on the floor in one room but I was given the privacy of my own room. At mealtimes I would eat first, watched by the father of the family. Then it was his turn to eat, followed by the boys. Then the mother and womenfolk. Finally, the poor girls ate whatever was left. I felt honoured but also the responsibility not to eat too much so as those following had enough to eat.

Western Samoa lies near the international date line. It is no mistake that this rather crooked line between north and south poles weaves its way through the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the earth. Mainly between remote islands and ocean. Imagine the chaos if the date line went through the heart of Greenwich, London instead. In 1979 W. Samoa was just to the east of the dateline** and was proud of its status of always having the last sunsets of any given day. Not to be outdone I noticed that the local newspaper in Tonga (west of dateline) had the strapline ‘where time begins‘.

Living and travelling near the dateline plays havoc with your diary. On one occasion I flew from Western Samoa to Tonga which was on the western side of the date line. Diary entry says I left Apia at 3:15pm on Sunday 28th October 1979 and arrived Tonga 4:50pm on Saturday the 27th. It was weird having 2 Sundays that week! About a month later I was on board the MV Logos. We set sail from Western Samoa on Sunday night at 11:10pm on the 25th November. Our destination was Fiji to the west of dateline. My diary has the words ‘NO MONDAY’ scribbled for the 26th November.

Such novel (to me, not to locals!) cultural and geographical experiences were of course exciting. However living for some months in such remote parts and often alone did leave me feeling vulnerable and lonely at times. One of W. Samoa’s most celebrated visitors of a bygone age was Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a Scot and a famous writer who spent his last days on Samoa. He was the author of much loved and world renown classics including ‘Treasure Island‘ and ‘Kidnapped‘. His writing never impressed me as a boy. It might have had something to do with his works being prescribed English reading for most Scottish school children at the time. My interest however was awakened during my stay in Samoa. Despite dying over 90 years previously I was intrigued that his memory was still revered by locals. Known in Samoan as ‘Tusitala’ (‘teller of tales’) he had been buried in Samoa.

So while there I resolved one day to visit his grave. It was reached by climbing Mt. Vaea. Stevenson had written an epitaph as a poem which was inscribed on his tomb. Reading the last few lines spoke to me profoundly. Poetry can give space to feelings in the journey of life you can’t describe, awakening longings you are scarcely aware of. 

Home is the sailor, home from the sea, 

and the hunter home from the hill. 

RL Stevenson

About a year after my visit to Samoa I flew back from the Far East to the UK. After 30 countries and over 3 years away my thoughts were much on coming home. Although I’d had many separate travels during these 3 years there was also a sense of having completed one long journey. When leaving the UK in Sept 1977 I had no idea how long my time away would be. Here are my notes then of the return trip back to UK…

The journey to the U.K. was interesting: From Bangkok I flew via Delhi, Bombay and Rome to arrive somewhat weary in Frankfurt, West Germany to discover the airline had lost all my baggage. Truly forsaking all was becoming a reality – thoughts of returning home after over 3 years away with a Bible and a few notes as sole possessions filled my mind. I spent a night at the Int’1 HQ for both MV DOULOS and LOGOS in Mosbach, West Germany. The next day saw me travel luggageless on to London via Paris. In the air approaching London I was awakened from slumbers by my name being called on the plane’s tannoy system — surprise luggage was on this plane: False alarm as it didn’t materialise on the airport’s conveyor belt. Eventually it came on another plane — it was all quite a test as in 3 years of travelling no such thing had happened. Nov’ 1980

These experiences evoked a variety of contradictory emotions. The following is a short poem I wrote during that homebound journey. Like Stevenson’s poem it helped give expression to my feelings at the time.

In Christ we are always coming home

As coming home is our hearts meeting the object of our treasure

For we who love Him what joy to know this daily experience

Of meeting the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever

At whose feet our hopes are never disappointed

However many ‘homecomings’ I have in this life the true calling is that ‘here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (Hebrews 13 vs 14).

** At midnight on 29th Dec 2011 Samoa moved west of the dateline and missed out on 30 Dec in the process. It was said to help trade with Australia and New Zealand.