If you’ve ever had the experience of having your exact spoken words written down by someone else, you will know that we rarely speak in perfectly honed sentences and you will see, in black and white, the redundant little words and verbal tics that pepper our everyday speech. All those ‘ kind ofs’ and ‘you knows’ and ‘ums’ that give us a little time to find the right word look strange when we see them reflected back to us on a page, though if we get too self-conscious about them, our speech will turn into something unnatural. Indeed, all sorts of things get problematic when we are too self-conscious, but I’m jumping the gun – more of that later.
There’s one little word that appears to be redundant and, therefore, often gets left out of modern biblical translations but which appears many hundreds of times throughout the pages of scripture. We had one such appearance just a couple of minutes ago, but the wise translators of the New RSV saw fit to render it more or less invisible. It seems to be one of those ‘filler’ words that operates more like a piece of punctuation than a proper word in its own right, but I’m not so sure. The word I’m talking about is most often translated in the older versions as ‘behold’. Given that, in this instance, it opens the way to a parable that’s all about the way we see or don’t see what is most important in life, I wonder if that little word actually stands for something rather central to the whole business of the life of faith.
The parable in question is very familiar to us, indeed maybe so familiar that it’s hard to hear its message afresh. It’s very unusual for a parable because it comes with an interpretation. I won’t bother you with the complexities that New Testament scholars have found in this apparently simple passage, but those complexities centre on the fact that this parable is presented to us as a story about how we hear or interpret the message of life that we call the Gospel. Perhaps more vitally, it also tells us something rather important about what it is that makes it very hard for us to receive that message.
What is it that inhibits the seed from growing? What is it that gets in the way of our apprehension of the true purpose of life? Our ancestors in the faith were in little doubt about this. If you read the extensive and psychologically subtle material that came out of the reflections of the earliest Christian monks and nuns in the deserts of Syria and Egypt, they are of a mind that the biggest problem we face in the spiritual life is distraction. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that they saw distraction as a greater evil than some of the behaviours that have been the preoccupation of Christians in more recent centuries. Like the seeds that are choked by the weeds around them, we fail to heed the word of life because we are distracted by the cares of this world. Our simple, mundane, repeated, trivial inner preoccupations are a problem more insidious than great big hairy sins that we might imagine to be the biggest threat to our spiritual wellbeing. And they are a problem because they make it very hard for us to behold.
Subtle writers like Maximus the Confessor suggest that we look not to our spectacular misdemeanours, but to our minor irritations as the cause of our spiritual difficulties. Left unheeded, these irritations can grow into anger and even hatred, but even before they get out of hand, our distractions prevent us from being present in the here and now; present to the person in need in front of me, present to myself, present to God who is within me. These writers knew what they were speaking about because they faced these inner distractions day by bay, hour by hour in their dedicated life of prayer. Their message can seem gloomy – there is no way to prevent distracting thoughts from arising within us. But it is actually very hopeful because it offers a way round this most human of problems, and it lies in the fruitful soil that Jesus describes in his parable.
What is it that makes the fertile soil so productive? Simply that it has space for the plants to grow. It is uncluttered and receptive to the life-giving seed. So what is it that allows us to be receptive in this way? What is it that helps us to behold? What is the space within which the word can be heard? It is silence. Silence is not the absence of sound nor even the absence of distracting thoughts, but the absence of our preoccupation with these things. Silence is the space we allow to grow within and between us that is receptive, fertile and generous. Silence is the discipline of letting go of our cares and concerns, not because they are unimportant, but because we won’t solve them by fretting about them.
There’s a simple, everyday example of this that I’m sure you’ll all recognise, and it’s the phenomenon of having a word on the tip of our tongue that doesn’t come to us until we stop thinking about it. In the same way, we don’t make the word of life come to fruition for us by carefully formulating it in our minds, but by being silent enough to receive it like a seed falling into simple soil. The way to spiritual growth is the way of silence, the way of beholding, the way of letting go, of receptivity and self-forgetting openness. It is a path that is beautifully depicted in the baptism that Locke will shortly receive. As an infant, he receives it as a gift, not as an attainment, and it’s the same for all of us. We receive the fullness of life when we are open to receiving it as a gift. Behold!