Silence is golden for group at local church
A Calgary church is trying to break the fear of silence.
Each Wednesday morning, a group of between 25 and 40 people gather at Hillhurst United to experience an unusual type of service, one that attempts to bind people together without uttering a single word.
Everyone is welcome at these morning sessions, whether they are Christian or from another faith or have no religious belief at all. The gathering begins at 7 a.m. and runs for an hour — the first 20 minutes in total silence — before participants are given the chance to meet and mingle with fellow worshippers.
Susan Cooper leads this daybreak contemplative ministry at Hillhurst. It is a labour of love and one that required a personal journey of her own, stretching back many years.
For Cooper, such silence now comes naturally, but she understands that for many people there is an initial fear of being alone with their thoughts.
“Often, at first there is quite a bit of trepidation or resistance. People act as though they are stepping off a cliff.”
“There are many reasons people are afraid of it. You can’t be in the experience of your own life because you are so busy all the time in leaping off toward something, and having something stimulating you and taking you away from that exact moment you are in. Choosing to experience the moment exactly as it is — when you get a taste of that, it really is quite exquisite,” she said.
When she first arrived at the Kensington-area church 12 years ago, the idea of leading others in a contemplative weekly service was the furthest thing from her mind. Back then, she thought she was simply taking a break from a media career, as she was hired part time to publish the regular church bulletin.
Years later, she helped lead minister John Pentland with a book he was writing as she gradually became more engrossed in the affairs of this increasingly popular and vital church. She realized she’s become part of the Hillhurst community.
“I could not have imagined where I am now. Back then I was barely Christian. I knew little about church or ministers but then I got a front-row seat to watch this community evolve. It was amazing,” said Cooper.
She had been influenced by Buddhism earlier in her life and, with Pentland’s encouragement, she tapped into some of that religion’s contemplative traditions to begin the weekly, early morning meditative session.
Her impetus to get directly involved was a desire to do something personal to improve the world by making it a little safer — both her son and brother are gay, and Cooper worries about them.
“I actually had first gone into politics because I thought that’s where thinking happens and that’s where you can change things, but it was not the case.
“Then I thought the church might be the headwaters and Hillhurst was a place of dynamism. I wanted to change the world so it would be safer for my kid and my brother, and then this presented,” she said.
The people she now sees sitting around her in silent reflection each Wednesday morning are a varied group.
“We have a community that can include anybody; different denominations, people who are atheists, people who are just seeking and don’t know where they might land — it can accommodate all of that and all of them.”
“Yet it is a powerful little group. The teaching we follow is not about getting quiet as much as it is coming into contact with something deeper within ourselves. Once we get a taste of that, then our lives really begin to shift and change, and I believe that is the beginning of the spiritual life.”
“People do feel different afterwards and over the long-term deeper transformations take place. There is lots of deep storytelling and sharing afterwards. It doesn’t come because they think they should. It just arises,” Cooper added.
Often, at first there is quite a bit of trepidation or resistance. People act as though they are stepping off a cliff.