URC :: Spirituality

broadening and deepening prayer
United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

“The word became flesh, became word again” or “Why are we so wordy?”

Mark Argent
9 August 2018

I guess that wordiness counts as the Reformed vice. I remember a conversation about sermons between a Catholic Priest and a URC Minister: the Catholic reckoned that his congregation thought a 10 minute sermon “very long” while the Minister said his would see that as very short. More sharply, I’ve known people in the Reformed world talk of the sacramental significance of preaching in a way that Catholic colleagues find surprising. Hence the longer sermons.

A little more sharply, there can be a fair criticism of some worship, that the words “let us pray” are often followed immediately by someone speaking: where’s the space for the prayer (other than in the words of the one speaking)?

The implication is that the Reformed world is a wordy one, ill at ease with silence, which might suggest that it is also ill at ease with itself. Is that fair? It might explain why we once felt the need to call what became the URC Retreat Group the “Silence and Retreats Network”, advocating for the use of silence, as if it was something to be aimed at rather than inhabited. I am exaggerating: there are many within the URC who are nourished by deep contemplative experiences which include silence, and some of those who were uneasy when we changed our name from “Silence and Retreats Network” were uneasy because of a feeling that silence was a gift to be shared. Yet ours does remain a wordy tradition, noted more in the popular imagination for activism than contemplation.

So far, so conventional. But a string of encounters recently have made made me start to question this story. In giving retreats, I’ve found people from churches in the Reformed tradition seeming to fall eagerly on the opposite — the wordless, imageless, silent prayer that is usually referred to as apophatic. The term itself is simply a Greek term meaning “without images”, as opposed to the kataphatic, meaning “with images”. Inevitably this won’t be everyone’s preferred way of prayer, and it is not only found in the Reformed world, but I’ve seen it taken up sufficiently more often by people from a Reformed background to mean that I am wondering whether there is a direct connection with the tradition and the prayer style.

A simple answer is Denys Turner’s suggestion that the apophatic is the space you enter when you run out of words: so the more words a tradition uses, the sooner it runs out of words.

I am beginning to wonder whether it might be more nuanced than this. The words and the activism are not bad things in themselves, but I wonder whether part of their function is to keep God at a safe-enough distance. I’m thinking of the number of institutions in the Reformed world whose logo is a burning bush, which carries a sense of Moses, busy fleeing away, who is called up short by a miraculous, burning, raw encounter with the divine. That’s the same Moses who will later ask to see the face of God, and is politely told that none can look upon the face of God and live. In Jung’s lectures on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, he repeatedly quotes Hebrews: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” That’s not to see the words or the activism as bad, but perhaps to see them as reverencing the divine by acting out the need to keep it at a distance.

For those who find themselves in flight from the wordy and the busy, maybe the invitation is to see the deep stillness of the apophatic as core to our tradition, but not talked about, because it has no words, so it is a spiritual gift passed on by not being named — the ultimate apophaticism of the un-nameable.

The Reformed world is also well-known for its critique of idols — of objects experienced as in some way standing in the place of God. Maybe it’s no surprise to find a tradition which places great emphasis on the majesty of God being profoundly wary of idols, yet simultaneously using words to hold the divine at a safe-enough distance, and holding the space for those things that can’t be talked about by not talking about them.