In the last twenty years there has been no publishing phenomenon to equal the success of J.K. Rowling’s series of ‘Harry Potter’ novels, gobbled up excitedly by children and adults alike.
I well remember queuing in Coleraine with my daughter one midnight, waiting patiently for Waterstone’s to open their doors for the launch of Rowling’s latest volume.
How she struck upon the idea of a young boy enrolling at a magic school is instructive. The idea of Hogwarts came to her while on a commuter train from Manchester to London. She had no pen to make a note of her idea, but for the four-hour duration of the journey she worked through in her mind the particulars of the story. Never was Alistair Cooke’s phrase about ‘the loneliness which breeds ideas’ more wonderfully exemplified.
The old Latin maxim, ‘Solvitur Ambulando’ asserts that by the exercise of walking and thinking we can straighten out our problems. A famous preacher once advised students that when they had arrived at the rough outline of a sermon, they should ‘take their skeleton for a walk’. William Wordsworth found that advice to work for his poetry; and it was when wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ that he caught a glimpse of dancing daffodils. He lamented that ‘the world is too much with us.’
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once observed that many of our human problems arise because people simply cannot sit quietly in a room, but must forever be speaking or doing. Nowadays, It has been estimated that people look at their mobile phones hundreds of times each day, and are constantly communicating through social media, even though much of the content is trivial.
I wonder what the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson would have made of it all. During his lifetime, much was made of the opening of a transatlantic telephone line to allow London to speak to New York. “But what” queried Emerson, “has London got to say to New York, except that Princess Euphemia has got a cold.”
Silence and solitude are keys to inspiration, but they are also the key to knowing God. Elijah, although emerging as victor in a monumental struggle against false religion, was so drained of energy that depression set in. While in retreat God spoke to him, not by earthquake, wind or fire, but rather in a ‘gentle whisper’(1 Kings 19 12). Likewise, Isaiah advised his people, ‘in quietness and trust is your strength’(Isaiah 30;15).
The author of Psalm 46, though living in tumultuous times, put it best of all, ‘Be still and know that I am God’(Psalm 46; 10). Switch off the television, put the phone on silent, and give God a chance to speak to you.