"A time to keep silence, and a time to speak". (Ecclesiastes 3:7b KJV)
In 1986 a young priest, who at one time had been my assistant, took his new canoe out onto a Berkshire County, MA lake. It was late winter/early spring and there was still ice on some of the shallower coves. Later in the day his canoe was found, but he was missing.
Word spread like wildfire. The next day I called the community of St. Stephen’s together for prayer and Eucharist. I chose not to preach. I simply said “there are no words which are adequate to our fear, all we can do is to hold on to each other”. The congregation sat in silent embraces.
His body was found later in the week. The grief of his girl-friend, his family, and of the two congregations in which he had served knew no bounds.
I had a friend who was murdered. He was in fact the brother of one of my very best friends. I will never forget the Saturday morning when this friend called me in my Church office to relay the news. Once again I entered into grief unbounded.
In due course his alleged murderer was placed on trial in Springfield, MA. I drove down every day from Pittsfield to sit with them in the court-room. That was all except for on the last day when the jury found the man guilty and the judge pronounced a sentence of life without parole.
Back in Pittsfield I watched the report of the guilty verdict on Springfield’s Channel 22. A T.V. reporter said to another brother “well, I suppose that your family will go home now to celebrate”. I will never forget his reply. He said “we are not going to celebrate. We will go home to think about what all this means in our lives”.
The two tragedies I have described were cause for silence and/or thoughtful reflection. Those two commodities are now very rare, at least in public life.
I read about yesterday’s Tuscon murders via facebook, on which a couple of my friends posted the story. Scarcely had the news broken before facebook “pundits” began than the comment and analysis began (much of it has already be proven false).
One “friend of a friend” drew a direct line from Tuscon to Sarah Palin. I have no brief for her, and little respect for her views, but I suggested that even in this midst of this tragedy we were called (to use Prayer Book language) “to respect the dignity of every human being”. For that I received a Facebook tongue lashing!
The larger point that I was trying to make was that our first reaction to such horrid violence should be thoughtful reflection and not instant punditry. The President, the leader of the House, and the Senate Majority Leader each made wise and cautious statements, but how I wish that they had called us to twenty-four hours of national mourning. How wonderful it would have been if these three leaders had come together and called upon the American people to reflect.
Regular readers of the blog will know that I spend a lot of time in silence. That can be dangerous for it is easy for me to lapse into “stinking thinking”. Yet I long for more public and shared silence. I especially long for this in Church.
Back in 2004 I was at home in Bristol on November 11th - Remembrance Day/Armistice Day. I I took a ‘bus from Staple Hill where my family lives to go to the Centre of Bristol. At precisely 11:00 a.m. the bus drew over and parked by the kerb on West St near Old Market. The driver turned off the engine, and in a very respectful manner, asked us each to observe the traditional two minutes of silence.
There followed a most profound experience of public and shared silence. I wish that we had more.