Into the silent land

"A young prisoner cuts himself with a sharp knife to dull emotional pain. 'As long as I can remember,' he says, 'I have this hurt inside. I can't get away from it, and sometimes I cut and burn myself so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside.'"

Realising this in himself, he approached the Prison Phoenix Trust, that teaches yoga and meditation in prison, that allows a person to reconfigure the unlikely site of a prison cell as a place of retreat and reflection, and after only a few weeks of diligent practice begins to see something new, beyond the pain and the pain displaced in self-harm and, "for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something in myself that I can like."

This moving example of the potentially transformative nature of contemplative or meditative living is given in Martin Laird's beautiful and concise book, 'Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation' that I read yesterday on the plane to and fro Amsterdam (that speaks for its conciseness).

This example struck me in a three fold way.

First because as the co-founder of Prison Phoenix, it was a delighting acknowledgement of what valuable work we embarked on (with a mixture of insight, faith and unknowing, particularly in the latter camp of the mechanics of running a charity and the awful slog of raising money).

Second because it stands out as a testimony that this way of life, however approached, is for everyone because we all of a communal nature anchored in the one sacred reality that births us into shared being. 'Into the Silent Land' is written helpfully from a wholly Christian focus but like fitness is to any sport, meditation is a practice that fertilises all traditions though this is an analogy I recall 'inventing' for an uncomprehending Chaplain General to the UK Prison Service and we often found our route into prison was through the education department rather than the chaplaincy service. Silence then, as now and ever, is not always perceived as a friend to our ego bound religious orthodoxies.

Third, because I became aware of what a profound metaphor self-harm is for what we all do - an extreme version of daily happening. We find ourselves immersed in some repeating, distracting, harmful pattern of inward fear or anxiety or outward anger or aggression (or merely irritation or spite) because we cannot sit with an aware regard for that pattern without the impulse to act or bury it in commentary or replay in a looped video in the mind but to see beyond and around it, to a reality in ourselves that we can like. A reality that is embraced in a deepening mercy that is at the heart of things.

Reading Laird's book was a beautiful reminder of the invitation to go deeper into that mercy and learn the liberating forgiveness of sins that accompanies it, You discover that you are always forgiven because, as Julian of Norwich startlingly remarked, 'In God there is no forgiveness'.

In God there is no change, loving now and always, 'all' one need do, in the simple yet difficult act of contemplation, is to let oneself sink into that unchanging awareness.


  1. What a beautiful and inspiring post. Thank you, Nicholas.

    1. Thank you. Yesterday was one of those moments when the right book falls into your hands and carries you along to a renewed place. Very good on distraction too!


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