It is in the silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together
High above the Harr Gill Road at Nappa Scar in the Yorkshire Dales is a chapel dedicated to Joseph, Mary, Peter and Paul and built in memory of Charlotte Brown (1956-1998) It is a solitary place of prayer. The chapel stands in silence, gathered into, witnessed and surrounded by a silent woodland. The chapel is simple and very small, there is room enough for two people standing or kneeling or sitting on its beautifully tiled floor. There is a small bench outside the chapel which rests in the land at the end of a wandering path, and I sit awhile and take in the view as the dale stretches out cradling the crookedness of the River Ure. Crookedness is a theme I will return to sometime again.
The chapel was designed, built, blessed and consecrated by many hands. Stones dressed with a sedum and timber roof are pierced with great nails fired out of the Passion itself, or so it seemed to me. Inside there is a simple cross of light welcome the outside in; it tells me that this is sacred ground, marked off, solemn, holy. It is a place to kneel, to meditate, to contemplate, to receive and to pray.
The sense of reception and receptivity reminded me of an essay by the German philosopher Joseph Pieper on the principle of Leisure. Pieper wrote the essay at the end of the second world war, an apparently unpropitious time for such an effort. He did so to address a profound question in the face of the tremendous activity that was taking place in the re- building of Germany and it sought to address a profound existential question:
What are we building for?
The idea of Leisure has its roots with the Greek and Roman civilizations and the word, Scola which means leisure gives us the root of our word school. School, education, leisure. Pieper is questioning the very roots of our attitude to these things. Whatever we build comes out of our understanding of what building means, for what purpose do we build?Peiper asks us to think here about how we come to our knowledge, how we determine the ‘rightness’ of our purposeful efforts. In the face of our cultural preoccupation with activity, the via activa, leisure is radically counter-intuitive because it speaks about our capacity to receive. For Pieper, receptivity is at the very heart of proper education and it reflects our capacity to listen as Hereclitus would have it, to ‘the essence of things’, it is a form of silence that allows us to perceive more fully the reality of the world. Pieper felt that this was a capacity sorely needed in the post war world and there is little doubt that it remains true today.
Thomas Aquinas described the two faculties that give us the experience of leisure as Ratio and Intellectus. Ratio represents the fully human capacity for discursive thought, the hard work and study required for learning that is familiar to us all. Ratio speaks to the qualities of intellectual comprehension associated with our Cartesian framework for knowing the world. Intellectus on the other hand is described as simple apprehension (simplex intuitus), giving us;
‘the simple vision of the truth that comes like a landscape to the eye-effortless’
By his reckoning we need both to embrace the real work of education. Out of this balance of our capacities comes the experience of leisure which is rightly understood as giving us a mature mental and spiritual attitude to the world
With this in mind I entered the chapel.Tucked inside the door was a dog eared copy of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4.25-5.2). This was the gift that I received on entering the chapel through its tight old wooden door; I read it slowly.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body.
The letter offers instructive guidance for community living, calling for mutual respect-calling for awareness of our essential unity. Any community is bounded by the guidance it is willing to receive and adhere to, the guidance in this case offers us touchstones, a way across the thorny ground of our relationships with one another, that allow us to apprehend each other as same and other, as mystery, as worthy of respect for simply being alive. At the heart of this guidance, it seemed to me was a quiet confidence in the human capacity for love and with it a profound sense of peace. I knelt awhile. Silence was everywhere. Silence, is our first language said Samuel Beckett. Its a thing the poets understand in the way the mystic does.
Stepping outside and taking in the view of the Dales I was connected to some lines from Edwin Muir’s poem ‘The Days’
And now we see in the sun
The mountains standing clear in the third day
(whence they shall always stay)
And thence a river run
Threading clear cord of water all to all.
I love the idea that in looking out at the mountains we are somehow looking back in to our own creation myth, living and livid still, unmoving and unchanging, always as it will be and must be with ourselves, the newcomers, the younger brothers and sisters, latecomers into that ancient world which lies chronologically at a distance that is beyond immense both behind and before us and yet somehow is paradoxically absolutely present. Here is the sense of time stretching out and we and the world entangled beautifully in it-a feeling of symbiosis.
Muir talks too of a more terrible estrangement. In Adam’s Dream, Adam and Eve have stepped irredeemably across the threshold between Eden and the flooding in of temporality and striving; ‘this is time’ he declares part way through the dream.
They say he dreamt lying naked on the ground
The gates shut fast behind him as he lay
Fallen in Eve’s fallen arms, his terror drowned
In her engulfing terror. In the abyss
Whence there no further fall and comfort is..
Is this what Heidegger was getting at when he asked what the poet is for in destitute times? What are we to do when the gods have forsaken us and we turn towards the midnight of our own dark world night? Is this what Hopkins saw and knew and felt in his own desperate blackness- Adam’s own terror..is this not Adam’s own voice in the modern man belling forth-our ‘god-bereft’ inheritance;
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.
Adam sees figures running, like men and women yet so far away he could not see their faces;
multiplying addition without meaning, joining only
Number to number in no mode or order
Weaving no pattern. For these creatures moved
Towards no fixed mark even when in growing bands
They clashed against each other and clashing fell
In mounds of bodies
Here too shades of Dante, and of Eliot in his Unreal City,
They had a form and sequence past their knowledge;
And that was why they ran so frenziedly
Thinking on these things I was struck by the way the tiny chapel holds itself in the face of these forces and we might ask ourselves why and how that can be. What is the chapel for?
The chapel matters because I think it is in such places that we are able to give space to that which we cannot hope to understand; to acknowledge the incomprehensibility of our situation, and our lives, not in desperation but ultimately perhaps with a sense of confidence which is the fruit of our incomprehension fully realized. The chapel is gathered into silence as an act of recognition. What matters most is not the word but the spirit. We cannot name or speak about what is beyond our ken, what is uncanny to us, because it lies beyond language, beyond words. Still we know that what is uncanny is essential to our lives and we are called to develop attitudes that give us access to the great oceans of our experience in ways that allow us to grow and mature.
In that silent world, that simple woodland and chapel at Nappa Scar, I could rest my mind intimately in place untroubled by time and come in so doing, to a richer sense of myself, the feeling for others and and my brief life. Here is a place for Pieper’s understanding of leisure, a place in which we might receive the world. We can wait here with patience, humility, obedience, in its sense of profound listening for what the world has to share with us.
Times, places and spaces of silence are a gift to us, places of dwelling and in-dwelling, are necessary for the workings of that most holy thing we call the soul. It is only in the soul that we can find a foothold in the frenzied world and for this work we need places available to us that sustain our confidence and our faithfulness. The tiny chapel is important because of the very fact of its existence. It is quirky, singular, steadfast and free; it stands up with an open door in the face of all that is abysmal psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, in ourselves and the world. it does so in silence and as such it imitates the workings of the soul intimately. A silent meal, a silent day, a silent place or space, marks it off, charges it with qualities of feeling not found elsewhere in the noisy world. We are free to put off thinking; we are free as Eliot would have it to kneel and to pray-in the silence we might add, where prayer has been valid.
Muir finds redemption in his poem One foot in Eden. It is in the world beyond Eden that Muir encounters and reconciles a remarkable paradox, that we must lose ourselves and our innocence in order to find ourselves in the more profound sense of our lives lived. In our exile from Eden, indeed only through this necessary loss and separation are we able to receive Muir’s ‘strange blessings’ that fall from ‘beclouded skies’ that mark out the meanings of our days and lives.
It seems to me that Edwin Muir and St Paul bear the same messages to us on this matter; that our healing, our wholeness lies at the heart of the embrace we make with our own humanity, alone and in community. The chapel at Nappa Scar sits in the landscape precisely as a marker for our most profound human experiences. It is a place that contains and reconciles the tremendous tensions that run through our days, our separateness and unity, life and death, of home and our sometimes abysmal loneliness. Finally, we discover that we cannot find ourselves in any Eden, we need the colour and crookedness of our humanity, our own experience in the company of others to live a life fully as Muir points out;
What had Eden ever to say
of hope and faith and pity and love
What keeps us from being hopelessly lost in times of destitution, what kindles and renews our faithfulness with the world is this insight, that the workings of the soul, the great tidal movements of hope, faith, charity and love are profoundly human experiences born from living and engaging fully in the world. They are what make the experience of a lifetime so important. We must become quiet to really hear this but i think it is so. Holderlin saw this, he understood that mankind’s gift was our capacity to reach first and deeply into the abyss, an act of courage in the face of impossible odds. This was what was gifted to us by the gods even as they left. Mythologically this is what the stories tell us. We cannot, paradoxically be free in any Eden since we are not free to suffer. It is the fruits of the world and not paradise that give us the gifts of hope and faith and pity and love, as Muir points out these are;
Flowers in eden never known