Qualities of a summer’s silence in a burnt-out mind

Amid the muddle of trying to rest enough to recover from burnout, the stress and chaos of having our kitchen/diner refurbished, the plans for our son’s wedding, and a host of other things (which I am very aware do not sit well in combination), one of the trains of thought I keep returning to is about the qualities of silence that I find helpful. I have experienced several in the last few weeks. My reflections on my reactions to them are contributing to the spiritual journey I am taking away from ‘burn-out’. I share some of them here because capturing them helps me, and may help a few to understand ‘where I am’. If they help anyone else on they’re own journey to rebalancing life and creativity, then that would be a bonus.

I have encountered several silences this summer caused by a lack of electricity, both at home during the renovations, and on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. This is the sort of silence that successfully cuts out the noise of much that is going on the world, because there’s no access to internet or TV. When we were in Malham, even the 4G mast was taken offline by a local outage across the villages… and I have to say it was bliss. So much so it inspired us not to use the TV all holiday, at least not as a TV, only to get the occasional BBC Prom on the radio settings. Don’t get me wrong, the internet, online news and weather, social media etc. all have great benefits which I enjoy and make the most off, but not having them gives me space to focus on things like scenery and bird calls, conversation with others (particularly my husband and friends), the voice of inspiration that I call God: Holy Spirit. This silence is calm, giving quiet for pictures to emerge in my mind for creativity, often based on what I’ve seen in the natural world, as well as space to read for pleasure without distraction. It is a relatively healthy silence, but prone to adding to the frustrations of things I can’t currently action or don’t have the equipment to achieve.

There have been other silences that focused my attention more closely still on the creation around us. On the first of the two hottest days of the year we were wakeful despite the stone of the cottage we were staying in, so we used the cool of the early day to walk to Malham Cove. We had the place to ourselves at 7am, and in the echoing amphitheatre of the millennia-old cliff face, the gentle flow of the waters rising beneath our feet, the stream they form, the sounds of the wonderful array of birds that inhabit this oasis echoing off the cliffs around us. There’s a whole post of videos and soundscapes that I could create from this, but it will have to another day, and via YouTube links. It lifted my spirits and inspired us to climb the 400 steps to the limestone pavement above, before we returned to the village before the worst of the day’s heat. This was a silence of joy and delight, an eye-opening silence, the silence of achievement.

Malham Cove before 7am, Monday 18th July 2022
Stump Cross Caverns, Yorkshire Dales

On the second morning of the heatwave we chose to journey into the depths of the earth, needing a jacket to be comfortable in the consistent 7 degree cool of the cave system at Stump Cross Caverns. Here, where we were again alone (at least to begin with), the silence was more focused, no sound at all, except the muted sound of dripping water permeating into the cool through the limestone above, the mechanism by which the shapes around us were created. Yet for me, this silence was far more oppressive: I’ve been down caves before and know I don’t find them scary as such, but this more complete silence was not uplifting in the way the previous morning at the foot of Malham Cove had been; rather it intruded into my thoughts, driving out the ability to relax and enjoy the fascinating formations around us.

Unfinished details of my ‘Beach Labyrinth’ piece that has journeyed both in my mind and at times physically with me through the summer months as ‘work in progress’; more about this soon.

They say a city never sleeps, and a week in Woolston (which isn’t even in the centre of Southampton) proved the truth of this. We were dog-sitting and cat feeding for our son, future daughter-in-law and their friends. Even at home in Yateley, in the small hours of the morning there is silence, but not so in urban areas. There are more people working unsocial hours, more people to enjoy their leisure (often with less than sociable loudness), constant to-ing and fro-ing. This busy silence gave me space to complete a project that was already on the go, because that seems to me to be what city life demands – the need to get stuff done, to be going somewhere, to be constantly moving on. Despite evening dog-walks in the woods or on the sea-shore, which were beautiful but required a constant alertness to other dogs, roller-skaters, cyclists, loony-drivers, motorcyclists etc., there wasn’t a relaxing silence to be had anywhere. It at least made me appreciate the relative quiet and occasional silences of small-town Yateley when we returned home!

The silence that has been hardest to find, unsurprisingly given everything going on at home, has been a silence in my mind. I am very good at thinking about what needs doing, considering how to approach a forthcoming situation or problem, magnifying in my imagination conversations and scenarios that are never as dramatic in reality as I worry they will be. There is the major ‘noise’ of a to-do list, mostly driven in recent years (as today’s sermon at a church we were visiting reminded me) more by a sense of duty to parishes and people, than by my calling as a priest and minister. Far from finding the anxiety this creates diminished by my current ‘time out’, I’ve found the requirement of house renovations to live in a more and more confined space, have frustrated the need for mental silence; the visual noise of physical things (like the piano my feet are currently resting on in front of a telly we can’t currently see), encroaches into my head, crowding-out not only the ability to do things, but also to bring enough silence to my mind for God to speak, to direct, to enable, to guide.

Unfinished refurbishments, reflections, creativity and clutter amid the domestic chaos – yes those are willow rings created in the relative cool of recent evenings ready for future creative endeavours.

Which is I guess the best explanation I can give of why I’m taking (yet another) month out of ministry – this unplanned, unexpected and sporadic ‘sabbath’ that will now finish (I think) in early October. The patterns of life, the spiritual, physical and familial requirements of the future are emerging, but they need to be given more time, more space, more creative silences, more Godly silences. So in the space that will come after the renovations are complete and our son’s wedding celebrated, I’ve built into this extra month periods of formal retreat, and time to ponder a ‘Mk1’ re-formation of the pattern in my ministry and weeks. Hopefully, this will help give a renewed will to not do things only out of duty, and an ability to shut out from my mind the noise of those elements of parish life that are not designed to be my responsibility as a non-stipendiary, associate priest.

I have been encouraged to read “Sabbath” by Nicola Slee, which is slowly providing nourishment and space for my noisy mind. There are two particular images that have initially emerged as being important for me at this time:
a) the image of a beggar-God outside the door of my mind and my heart, desperate to be let in so that he can direct, inspire, and encourage, but unheard because of the sounds of anxiety and concern over things which (rightly or wrongly, willingly or otherwise) need not fill my mind, let alone my life;
b) the need to make permanent space for the soul-food of taking myself into those spaces (woods, heaths and other rural spaces) where healthy silences can continue to cleanse me of unhelpful noises that ordinary life can so frequently fill me with.

If you’ve bothered to read this rambling, thank you. I hope you too can find the right sort of silences to nourish your soul, your journey with God. If you’re local or otherwise see me in the ordinary way of things, thank you too for your understanding, your encouragements, and the space you may well have contributed to me silencing the noise that fills my mind.

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