I`ve sometimes heard it said that “It`s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and leave no room for doubt”. Perhaps we all know something of the truth of that.But sometimes words just trip off the tongue don`t they? We wonder, “Why did I have to go and open my big mouth?” We cringe at the thought of that unguarded remark… those unkind words… that `slip of the tongue` which caused such offence- or indeed made us look such an idiot… “If only I could learn to keep my mouth shut” we say.
In a well-known part of his letter, Saint James tells us….“The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James. 3.5-6)
But despite this warning, there is, it seems an almost compulsive need for us to `say something`. So, for example, at funerals people tie themselves in great knots; desperately seeking `the right words`. Indeed, in the presence of the grieving person, we bemoan the fact that we just `don`t know what to say`. Our wistfulness and imperfection in this matter is well summed up by the Prophet Isaiah who, you may remember was grief stricken that he was what he called, such `a man of unclean lips ` and who dwelt among `a people of unclean lips`… (Isaiah 6.5) A passage, which, if nothing else it tells us that we`re not alone. I mean, this sense that we are a `people` who have a mixed relationship with words is all too obvious in our own day isn`t it?
So, for example, our Politicians and others, regularly have to say something don`t they? And it seems that almost anything will do, because what they say often has little to do with the question put to them anyway. And so urgent is the demand, their words can only ever be of the unclean sort. That is; spontaneous and ill-considered words. Statements that are rarely if ever the fruit of quiet reflection…. And this I want to suggest, is where our Gospel reading leads us this morning.
Firstly, could I just invite us to have a little sympathy with poor St. Peter. He`s privileged to join James and John on this journey up the mountain of Transfiguration. (Mark. 9.2-9) This is where he and they are given a profound insight into the identity and mission of Jesus…. But what does he do? He goes prattling on about putting up some tents so as to somehow preserve the experience(!) Mark tells us, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified”. (Mark 9.6) And yes, we can excuse his over excitement, if that’s what it was. But I wonder if this moment in the Gospel isn`t actually an invitation to pray with this compulsive need to say something…. And maybe to reflect on the blessings of a well-chosen silence…
There was a famous Christian called St. John Chrysostom (who lived in the fourth century) who was such a renowned preacher that he earned the nickname `golden mouth`. He once said, “Let us always guard our tongue; not that it should always be silent, but that it should speak at the proper time.” And that`s it isn`t it? The problem for St. Peter was that he had been taken into territory where he was out of his depth. He was in a situation where he wasn`t in control… And his inner uncertainty comes out in some very misguided words. Many of us I`m sure know exactly what that`s like. When we`re nervous or unsure of ourselves…. it`s easy to prattle on…. To want to fill the silence; to say something (anything!). Until some wise person tells us to `pipe down`. So, what do we learn from this?
Well, firstly let`s just remind ourselves that Peter discovered that he was on holy ground. In the face of all his prattling on he`s told that he must listen: “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him”. It`s a very simple point really but I wonder how it might be if you were to think of that encounter with someone in the street, in the shop or wherever as having the same quality to it? How would it be if you were to hear those same words, “This (this person before you) is my son, or my daughter… Listen to them…?” How would it be just for a moment, if you were to stop prattling on and to stand before the mystery of another? And rather than attempting to control things (setting up tents like Peter) making every conversation `your territory`; you just enter a space where they have the floor… And you just listen to them…?
Certainly, in the second half of Mark`s Gospel, this is exactly how we see Christ acting. As the time for his arrest and execution drew near (and in particular in his encounter with Pilate) everyone was amazed by his silence. He didn`t need to justify himself, to control events or demonstrate his value by having an opinion on everything! So, I want to suggest that the silence of Christ is a pattern to ponder as we enter into Lent.
But secondly, notice that we have this curious command given to the disciples. The Lord tells them that they shouldn`t tell anyone what they had seen…. (notice)…. “until after the son of man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9.9).Now the usual reason we give for this instruction is because people would inevitably get the wrong end of the stick; as they always did regarding Jesus and his true identity. But I sometimes wonder whether part of the reason is that Jesus knew that for the disciples themselves the vision and its significance still had some way to go before it would really dawn on them… It would take a while. In other words, I suspect that Jesus knew they were still at the knee-jerk, prattling on stage. Like the politicians I mentioned earlier… they would be prone to speaking without thinking; commenting without first reflecting.
And here`s the point. I wonder whether, especially when in the presence of the holy, we honour the Lord far more by our silence than our words? It`s not just that in an all-too-talkative world, keeping silence can have a considerable impact. It`s more that well-chosen words; words which come as the fruit of silence, of reflection, of listening to the Lord, are what we are really called to offer.
This is by no means a modern challenge. Bernard of Clairvaux was concerned about this back in the eleventh century. The problem is that, as he out it, “we hasten to outpour ourselves on others when our own soul is only half-filled.” It`s not just that without first listening to the Lord, we have nothing to give. That`s true enough. But he gives us a picture. He says, “If you are wise you will show yourself a reservoir and not a canal. For a canal pours out as fast as it takes in; but a reservoir waits till it is full before it overflows.” Bernard says, “We have all too few reservoirs in the Church at present, though we have canals a plenty.”
My prayer for us all at the beginning of this Lenten season is that we will hold onto this picture of the Transfiguration; this encounter which Peter, James and John had with the very holiness of God. Pray that our speaking in particular, would be purified of the well-meaning prattle of Peter. That we would take time to listen; embrace silence. That we might become vessels; reservoirs; overflowing with the grace of God.