Bishop Murray Chatlain says that silence is one of the major gifts he has received from being in the North.
December 19, 2011
Following is the text of the talk by Bishop Murray Chatlain of Mackenzie-Fort Smith presented at the Dec. 9 session of Nothing More Beautiful.
Since I will be speaking about the centrality of Sacred Scripture in the life of the disciple, I wanted to start with a joke that includes Scripture references.
Back 900 years ago, as Archbishop Joe MacNeil would say, when I was a young, enthusiastic parish priest I was visiting my parishioners. I came to one house and I rang the doorbell. Though I could hear someone moving about inside, no one answered the door. I took out my card and I wrote on the back of it Revelation 3.20: "Behold, I am at the door knocking."
I went on to visit other homes but that Sunday my card was in the collection basket and something was written underneath my writing. It said, Genesis 3.10: "I was naked so I hid."
All discipleship begins with listening. We are in the season of Advent when we pay particular attention to the special discipleship of Mother Mary. One of our retreat masters, Father Tony Gittins, invited us to look at artists' depictions of Mary's Annunciation.
Several of the artists will point out Gabriel's angelic state by having rays of light emanate from him. Some of the artists will have one of these rays go from the angel Gabriel to Mary's ear. Real discipleship begins by listening. He calls us. He speaks to us. For many of us we have best been able to listen through the gift of Sacred Scripture.
SILENCE . . .
Listening to God and his Word sounds pretty simple, but all of us know how challenging it is to be a really good listener. I believe it starts with silence. This is one of the major gifts I have received from being in the North.
In the Dene world people do not knock when you come to someone's house. Probably this stems from the futility of trying to make sound by tapping on the wall of a tent or teepee.
In the Dene world you simply open the front door and stand in the porch area. You wait there for a bit or after a while cough. If no one comes to the porch then you leave and try another time (if someone knocks, they know it is the RCMP or a nurse).
Many a time, I would be in my rectory with some music on and finally hear a cough. It made me spend more of my day without music or the TV. I grew comfortable with the silence to the point that the furnace fan or fridge running would be noticed.
Something about this silence did something to the silence within me. I noticed that I could sit still more easily; that I was more attentive to things and people and even myself. The biggest benefit was that God seemed a little louder.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, "Where there is silence there is prayer, where there is prayer there is faith, where there is faith there is love, where there is love there is God. It all starts with silence."
In order to follow someone and not lose them, we have to keep hearing or seeing where they are. Maybe we can increase the silence in our lives a little. Silence can help us to see and hear God more consistently.
FEWER WORDS, PLEASE . . .
Discipleship and listening are also connected to how we normally communicate with each other. I have somewhat learned from the Dene how to not fill all the quiet moments with words. Have you ever been talking with someone and you cannot get a word in?
Being a football fan, during such a monologue I want to call a timeout so the conversation can get balanced again. I wonder if that is how God feels sometimes with my prayers and conversations with him. The Dene, the Inuit and often the Cree have much more silences in their communication than we are comfortable with.
I will give you a couple examples. I was in Camsel Portage in northern Saskatchewan for a funeral. The body was being waked in the little mission Church.
About 10 in the morning I was alone there when another young man joined me to sit with the body of a relative of his. We sat together for an hour and talked for maybe five minutes during that time.
After the funeral we were visiting as a group. Someone mentioned a fellow nicknamed Gilligan. I asked who Gilligan was. The young man who had been vigiling with me spoke up and said, "Don't you know my name. We visited together for an hour." It was clear to me that in his mind our visiting was much more than the few words we spoke to each other.
Many of you here have served on pastoral councils. Sometimes those meetings can be good, sometimes they can be painful, but in my experience they are always full of many words.
This was not the case at pastoral council meetings in the Dene community of Fond du Lac. I would present an issue and the group would talk about it in Dene for a few minutes. Then there was often a period of silence.
I am not talking about 30 seconds. Three or four minutes would go by as a group of 10 or 12 people would be sitting there. In my impatience I would say, "Shall I go on to the next item?" "Not yet Father," they would respond.
A little more time would go by then more discussion would happen and then they would say, "OK, what is the next item?"
I cannot tell you how much it went against my expectations of how a meeting should be run. Slowly I continue to learn that "visiting" or discussions do not have to be filled with words.
MY POOR PARENTS
My poor parents often take the brunt of my cultural struggles. I remember one time they picked me up at the airport after I had been in the North for a lengthy stint. In their good spirit of hospitality they tried to catch me up on all the latest news.
After about 20 minutes I remember my rudely saying to them, "Do you two always talk this much?" They looked at each other somewhat bewildered, but to me the rapid words felt like the staccato of machine gun fire.
Now do not let me mislead you; some Dene are down right chatty especially in their own language. I know a couple of Dene whose nickname is Beya yati or radio.
GOD IS RARELY CHATTY
But overall much more silence is part of the aboriginal ways of communicating. As disciples perhaps we can approach others and God with a few less words recognizing that communication happens in many ways. Little morsels of Scripture can be powerful. In my experience God is rarely chatty.
I now ask you to remember a Scripture passage that has been powerful for you. In the aboriginal world, when you have fasted or prayed in a particular place, you often take a rock or branch from that area and keep it in your room back home. In the course of the year, especially when you may be struggling, you look at or pick up the rock or branch and reconnect yourself with the graces you were blessed with during that prayer time.
I think special passages from Scripture should be like that for us as well. They are beautiful in that the passage has the power to shift us from a place of anxiety and self-absorption to a place of peace and trust. The power also lasts in that, years later, we can recollect the passage and still be touched by the grace of our encounter with God years ago.
One example from my own spiritual journey was back when I was in the seminary. I was always a reluctant vocation. I desired to be a good Christian, but I was not very eager to be a priest.
I appreciated being at the seminary and the tremendous gift of studying theology, but I was hoping to have a wife and family. My wrestling with God came to a head in second year theology. I was arguing that if I became a priest I would become lonely and bitter and so I would not be able to help anyone.
I remember that prayer time and reading from the first chapter of the Book of James. When I read the line "You will lack nothing," it had the power to convict me and stay with me that only God's word possesses.
PROMISE FROM GOD
For me it was a promise from God that anytime I freely choose to respond to his call, I will lack nothing that I truly need. Certainly I will not lack love; certainly not significant relationships.
I would now ask you to take a moment to think of a significant passage of Scripture in your journey of discipleship. It may be from your wedding or a significant funeral. It may be from the lyrics of one of your favourite hymns. Whatever phrase or line has had the power of God's Word for you. We are going to practise now with a moment of silence. Try not to get too uncomfortable.
This may offend some of the liturgists, but the most important book I carry with me is my Living With Christ missalette. I take a perverse pleasure in how dog-eared and well-travelled each month's edition is by the end of the month. Canoeing, hunting and snowmobiling trips have not been easy on my body, my breviary or my missalettes.
Each morning I need to begin with some quiet time, preferably before the Blessed Sacrament, and very often I look with eager anticipation to discover what Jesus is doing today; who he is talking with and how he is relating with his Father and the people. It is a richness that I know many of you share.
"And turning to his disciples Jesus said privately, 'Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see, for I say to you, that many prophets and kings wished to see the things which you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things which you hear , and did not hear them'" (Luke 10.24).
WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN
Bishop Murray Chatlain has been the bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith since May 2008.
For me, reading the Gospel of the day is a chance to watch and hear someone I love. The Gospel seems to stay "fresh" for me and although my prayer is often dry, it still offers me new insights and glimpses into the person of my Saviour.
If you are looking for more from your prayer life or if you get a chance to go on retreat, I recommend trying St. Ignatius' style of prayer. Ignatius reminds us that our imagination is a gift from God and it is one of the key ways that we communicate.
If I want to tell you about the goal that was scored in the hockey game last night, I imagine the play in my mind and, as I am describing it, you also imagine how it looked, sounded, etc. Our communication requires the use of our imagination and so God will use the gift of our imagination as well.
Sometimes he will speak to us in our dreams as our aboriginal brothers and sisters are well aware. In this style of prayer it begins by our quieting ourselves before the Lord in whatever way works well for you. Then we take a Gospel scene and read through it. Then we pray to be open to God's inspiration and we seek to use our five senses to be present in the scene with Jesus.
CHARACTER IN THE SCENE
Asking for God's help we choose to be one of the characters that are present in the scene. Try not to rush choosing which character you will be but try to be inspired. You may find yourself as the blind man being healed, or as one of the disciples, or a vendor selling falafel by the road, or even as one of the Pharisees or scribes.
Then you simply try to be in the scene; to try to hear what it sounds like, to smell the aromas, to feel the sun or the crowd pushing in on you. You let the scene unfold around you always asking to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Like a golf swing, it seems kind of strange at first but if you keep trying, you will get the hang of it. The benefits of this form of praying are that it engages us at many levels and we have an openness that is not always there in our prayer.
The Scriptures can come alive and we can have a richer sense that these are real people many of whom we are still in relationship with as the communion of the saints. This prayer can be particularly fruitful when the people in the scene begin to interact with us. Again we pray these encounters are inspired by God.
I will share an example. Several years ago I was privileged to be able to take a 30-day Ignatian retreat at Guelph, Ont. There was a lot of silence and not too many words. As I became accustomed to this style of prayerful imagining, I found it very rewarding.
In one prayer time I was meditating on the birth of Jesus in the manger. In my prayer it seemed right that I would be the stable boy who was helping look after the animals. I really felt that I was with Mary and her newborn. I asked if there was anything I could help with and in my prayer Mary said to me, "Murray, it is just good to have you around."
While this is not a line you will find if you look it up in a biblical concordance, it was given to me while I was praying with Scripture. And like Scripture, it had the power to cause a shift in me and that power continues whenever I remember that prayer time. My relationship with Mary has been so much more real and significant since that prayer time.
There are many ways to pray. I just offer this as one of the gifts of our rich Catholic spiritual tradition.
WHO HAS THE POWER? . . .
One of our priests in the North will often say, "The first five years of my priesthood I thought I was Jesus. The next five years I saw it as Jesus and I working together. After that I finally realized Jesus is the one scoring all the goals, I just hope to get the odd assist." It is so important for us to keep recognizing where the real power comes from.
As I mentioned before, for the last several years I have lived out my discipleship among the Dene and Inuit of our vast North. It has been a challenging time, but also full of adventure and highly touching and rewarding. As God promised, I continue to lack nothing of real importance (though good fresh fruit and vegetables are difficult to come by in Tuktoyaktuk or Deline).
Living in a different culture and studying a different language helps me to look at our Scriptures with different eyes. We are called as disciples to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. When trying to translate the Gospel to speak to the people of our northern communities, it makes me really consider what the initial stories are saying and how can it make sense in Ft. Resolution or Tsiigehtchic today.
LAMB OF GOD
The initial translation of the Sacred Scripture into languages which evolved on our northern tundra must have been daunting. One example I often refer to is how "lamb" was translated in the Cree language.
During the Mass I was struck by the translation in the Lamb of God prayer. Puzzled, I mentioned it to an elder how the word "lamb" was translated seemed odd to me and he said, "Yes, it means little ugly caribou."
It begins to show the enormity of the challenge of translating animals and farming practices, let alone Jewish religious contexts, into local languages. Yet our love for the Scriptures reveals this cultural wrestling is not only worth it, but incredibly continues to bring a power to all listeners.
I identify my cultural "baptism" into Dene culture when I was invited to join a group of men from Black Lake on a caribou hunt. It is way different than going out hunting with your uncles or buddies.
I remember after travelling for hours by skidoo we came to an old cabin on the land and camped there for the night. The elders told story after story until I was falling asleep.
Then they asked, "What stories do you know?" I struggled to think of a story similar to their traditional stories. I wracked my brain to try to think of a Bible story they may not be familiar with but I realized that one of the elders read every night from the Dene syllabics Bible he takes with him everywhere. His Bible looks more worn than my missalette.
Still in first contact the stories such as Noah and the Ark, and David and Goliath found a welcome audience in teepees and igloos where storytelling is a huge part of life on the land.
Virtually every priest had an old picture of the two roads. There were many little images that depicted different stories in the Bible. The people would look at the picture and ask what story went with the particular little image. The older people still remember the Two Roads picture and, although it was influenced by the theology of the time, I think the aboriginal people like us have benefitted from the many stories of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
Some priests have also appreciated the traditional stories of the Dene. These stories originate from life in a very different climate and culture. The Dene people are a very spiritual people and I am sure that God infused some of their stories with important wisdom about himself and his relationship with his people.
Another critical element of discipleship is recognizing that we have not been abandoned to our own devices. Jesus has sent us the Advocate who always pleads our cause. Do we really trust the Holy Spirit? Will the Son of Man find any faith?
I have always liked the story of the fellow who was looking over the edge of a cliff when all of a sudden the ground crumbled and he started sliding over the edge. At the last second he was able to grab on to a root and found himself hanging in midair with nothing but rocks a thousand feet below and the top of the cliff above him; too high to climb back up.
Recognizing his predicament, he yelled for help. A voice from above said, "What do you need?" He replied, "I need help to get back up on the top of the cliff."
The voice said, "Very well, I am God. Just let go of the root and I will send a wind that will lift you up and carry you back on to the top." The fellow looked up for awhile, then he looked down for a long while, then he looked up again and said, "Is there anybody else up there?"
That is so us or at least it is so me. My faith is little, especially when a bit of a storm is brewing. The waves do not have to get very high at all and I am panicking way before St. Peter did.
How do we strengthen our faith? I think it is by sharing our faith stories; those of the Bible and those of our lives.
I was recently visiting a couple and the husband is dying of cancer. I asked them if they trusted Jesus was with them in this time. The wife told a story about what happened years ago. Her husband was away and she was alone with her young children. She was getting ready for bed and there was a strong sense that she should lock the front door.
She said, "I tried to shrug it off, but the sense was strong. We did not even have a lock on the door! I went to the kitchen and got a butcher knife and stuck it in the door jamb. Sure enough at 1 a.m. I awoke to the sound of someone trying to break in."
I teased her that she had left him a weapon right by the door. She laughed and said there was no window for him to break and grab the knife. She became serious and said, "I have often looked back on that night and realized that I am not alone and he is looking out for us. At least a part of me knows that is also true now."
We are called to be living Scriptures for each other. The power, any real power, always comes from God. I am reminded of this anytime I give a talk or homily. As St. Paul says, "I can have all the eloquence of people," but if the love of God is not active in my words then it will mean nothing at all.
So often I have given a well-prepared talk and it has done little. Often I have given a homily that I did not think much of and it has had power. I remember one lady coming up to me and saying, "Bishop, that homily was one of the best I have ever heard."
I thought I better find out what it was I said that really moved her so that I could say it again. When she told me what she had heard me say I had to smile because I know I did not say those words. Lord help our lack of faith.
So my prayer tonight is that all of our Bibles and missalettes may become a little more dog-eared. That by having a little more silence and using a few less words we may become better listeners. That in our listening, we may find the words and deeds that challenge and model for us our call to discipleship.
May we continue to draw from Ignatian spirituality and other elements of our rich tradition. May we be always aware of where the true power comes from and may we be stronger in our trust and faith in the presence of that power. Thank you, Lord, for your gift of Sacred Scripture and thank you, Lord, for calling each of us to follow you.