L’Abri Fellowship has the unpredictability, fragility, and sacredness of conversation —real conversation— at the heart of its day-to-day life. But every Monday, the L’Abri community pushes a pause button on its traditional daily “discussion lunch,” and we all eat in silence. Together, but in silence. Monday also happens to be the international L’Abri day of prayer. So from 1-2 p.m. in a Manor House in Greatham, England we try to still our racing minds and anxious movements in order to just “be.”
The L’Abri worker who heads the table always plays a CD of music — usually sacred, often choral — that lasts the entire lunch hour. Some of us read a book, some of us pray, some of us just sit, wondering, thinking. Although we are free to sit elsewhere on the property, as long as we are silent for an hour, I enjoy it most when the majority of students stay in the large dining room; a community of 30-40 people sitting together in silence is something so intimate and fragile and beautiful. And as I sit in the beautiful dining room, sunlight spilling onto the faces of those sitting near the windows, the entire scene becomes somehow more Real.
Immersed in crowded solitude, I am forced to be present, forced to notice. This forcefulness is gentle, not violent, and it comes from simply making a space to be still, to look, to listen. As the scene is filtered through the rich compositions of Tavener, or Part, or Preisner, I see things that I have not seen before, such as the simple, stunningly beautiful red skin of strawberries sitting in a bowl before me. It’s almost like I momentarily gain the attentive eyes of the artist, and I see, as Wordsworth says, “into the life of things.”Looking around at the dining room’s four crowded tables, I am amazed by the diverse beauty, the life, the animating “Image-of-God” soul of each individual. The only response to the overwhelming fullness this gift of seeing brings is a simple “cup runneth over”prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The director of English L’Abri, Andrew Fellows, often speaks about how contemporary Western culture has become “utterly banal” because the capacity for experiencing “things that are rich and profound” has become dulled. We are dulled down daily by repetitive excess consumption, by an endless desire for frenzied entertainment, by the lack of any ability to slow down, contemplate, and savor the present moment like a steaming plate of lovingly made food from a friend’s garden.
Fellows’ comments and my own frequent inability to “see” reminded me of a conversation that I recently had with my doctor after I had started a diet devoid of any sort of processed food or sugar. He told me that once the artificial has been cut out, one can actually begin to really taste again. Fruit will become much more sweet and delicious and we will lose our cravings for the false surrogates.
We all know that the “banal” world of artificial stimulation can dull our taste buds. And it can take away our sight. I am amazed that just by stopping to pause for one hour during a Monday lunchtime, I could taste — and see — again.