Enjoy the Silence



Last night, at Olafur Arnalds’ concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre, the Icelandic musician introduced the song Nyepi from his latest record Re:member. The song is named after a Hindu tradition he encountered whilst in Bali, Indonesia. (The same tradition is known as Ugadi in India.) Nyepi is a Day of Silence, when usually busy roads and beaches are empty, houses are quiet—and the internet is switched off—lights are kept low, and people are encouraged to spend their time in reflection and fasting in preparation for the new year.

Here is the song, performed in Berlin…

Lag fyrir Ömmu

Interestingly, the concert was full of silences, most notably at the very end, when the song Arnalds played as an encore, Lag fyrir Ömmu, from his Living Room Songs, subsided into a long time when nothing happened. The song, he explained, was written for his grandmother, just after her death. At the end of his performance of the song last night, the however-many-hundreds of people in the concert hall sat totally still, absolutely silent, for three/four/five/more? minutes. It was unusual, strange, rich…

Unlike in this video, filmed when he played the song at London’s Royal Albert Hall, in Melbourne the audience fell into silence…

The great silence / The sermon of stillness

Many liturgies invite experience of silence. For example, here’s the note from the Church of England’s Morning and Evening Prayer:

But in the age of personal computers, and the possibility of orders—or sequences for screen— being put together locally, notes like this, and rubrics that enact them, are easily lost. And even where present in books where books are still used, they are widely ignored. To great loss.

Here are two lovely examples. First, from the (Anglican) Church of Ireland’s Book of Common Prayer of 2004. After communion, “the great silence”:

Then, from the Uniting Church in Australia’s Uniting in Worship 2 of 2005, Service of the Lord’s Day 3, with its “Sermon of Stillness”. After the reading of scripture:

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(Note the suggested length of time—”at least five minutes”—and encouragement of posture “conducive to meditation.” And note above the sermon of stillness itself, a “bluebric” (right-hand side historical or source note to accompany the red choreographical rubrics) commending the kissing of the Bible—a practice approved by Zwingli, a Protestant Reformer often cited for his bare ceremonial sense!)

We need artists to remind of the beauty of these practices which religions prize.

A review of Arnalds’ concert at the Sydney Opera House last week:

Enjoy the Silence / “Live-streamed Compline” at Ampleforth Abbey


June 25 2018

When I lived in Britain, I would regularly go to on retreat to Ampleforth, a Benedictine monastery just north of York. When a parish priest in and around Durham, I would sometimes also drive the hour or so journey south just for Compline, night prayer, with the monks—a sublime experience.

When in York in June, I decided to travel up to Ampleforth for Compline (and a meal in the good pub just along the lane), intrigued by a note on the abbey website that due to the refurbishment of the monks’ dorms, they were temporarily staying elsewhere but that services would be live-streamed to the abbey church. This sounded interesting, given I had been to “live” compline many times, and often listen to recordings of the service. A live-stream seemed like an experience in the middle of these my familiar ways of joining in.

So I sat in the abbey church and waited. The bell rang for quarter past eight—the time of prayer—and no one else had arrived. It soon became clear that neither was there to be any live-stream. 

It was good to sit in silence in that that vast, austere, space as darkness fell, even without the warmth of the monks’ voices singing their prayer. Here are some photos, and a recording of the service...


Images: around the abbey church, the choir space from which compline is sung, and the ecumenical “Ampleforth Covenant” of church leaders —including Alan Smithson, of blessed memory— across the north of England which was signed at the abbey. Photos: Stephen Burns.