A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with two of my daughters on the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland in the north Atlantic. When one visits Iona, go prepared to hear history and learn about an ancient community. However, there is another opportunity—one found in stillness and silence—to learn when one is there, and which both my daughters experienced as we spent time after all the tourists had left. Both said it was like the Creator was standing next to you. On Iona there is a spiritually of presence. As you stand on the island, one knows and feels being on Holy Ground. As George McLeod said, “You are on a thin space where the distance between heaven and earth is but paper thin.”
Earlier this year, during the February snowfall, I was on retreat in the community of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. I felt that presence again—here on this small island off the coast of mainland BC. It was as if the Creator was standing next to me. It was a time of refreshment and renewal for me, and I was struck by how, with so many distractions in our lives, as a society we need to rediscover place and presence.
After this experience, I jumped on the recent opportunity to audit a course at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. Although, we were only in a traditional classroom for one day. I was honoured to be able to experience this unique way of learning: the classroom was a Big House, the beach, the forest, and many more places. The course, “Land as Life,” is taught by Laurie Meijer Drees, Ph.D, Indigenous/Xwulmuxw Studies Department, but also helpers who brought wisdom and knowledge, and Elders who were the keepers of knowledge. The teaching in preparation for going out in these environments was excellent: I learned a great deal from the pedagogy of the class, but one thing stood out for me that I believe is the core of any spirituality. It was described as SWL: silence, waiting and listening.
Silence or stillness allows us to focus and not be on the run all the time. I have found that the hardest thing is to bring stillness to the mind. We are always thinking about what is coming next or about schedules and meetings. Stillness and silence is the beginning of any learning opportunity. This is a posture to be learned by a culture that thrives on debate and critical thinking.
Waiting is another posture we need to be attentive to as we seek to grow and learn. All too often we want to rush to the end rather than learning to live in the moment. How we live in the present time and be attentive to the now as a gift?
Finally, the act of intentional listening. We listen generally to respond, or we listen to critique or even debate. Sometimes we are so intent on telling our own stories, we fail to be engaged in the story we are being told.
As a spiritual practice, I invite you to focus on SWL as an opportunity to be in the present and be centered on place and presence. If we take this opportunity, we will find that we look at the places we find ourselves and the folk we meet on our journey in a new and different way. We can re-enter our world in a healthier way for us, our environment, and those with whom we journey. You may even be surprised to find the Creator standing next to you.
The Right Reverend Logan McMenamie is the Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of British Columbia
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, June 15th 2019