St Margaret's Last Sunday after Trinity 2008

26 October 2008 at :00 am

“Speak to the congregation… and say to them, ’You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’”

Where do we begin? How do we move beyond our exhaustion, busyness, bitterness, loneliness, and (perhaps) bad habits to become gracious, happy, self-sacrificing, adult, holy, Christians? What do we do when, as Henri Nouwen puts it, “ we are too tired to read the Gospels, too restless to have spiritual thoughts, too depressed to find words for God, or too exhausted to do anything”? [Beyond the Beauty of the Lord: praying with Icons]. Many of the things that stop us developing as Christians are all around us, part of the very fabric of our lives and, let’s be honest, there is often little room for God in our work, in our play, or in our lives as the pressures of our consumerist society tempt us away from prayer, from self-sacrifice, from being prepared to follow Christ on the road to Gethsemane, in order to keep our integrity and commitments; or little time and courage to enter deeply into our own souls.

And yet while we know that our society is obsessed with self- “self-help”, “self-fulfilment” - we also know that this deep spiritual hunger within us is often unmet. Part of the problem is, I think, that we are always chasing after something new. I am personally convinced that television has a lot to answer for here. The images are constantly changing before our eyes and there is no chance to stay with any image, or indeed train of thought, or even TV programme for long as image changes to new image rapidly, as we flick idly from channel to channel . But in this we lose something very important for we actually need the spaces and the gaps – we need time to “be”. The RC write Karl Rahner once said that today one is either a mystic or a non-believer and I think he is right. Not filling the gaps & spaces with another novelty can feel like starving, but actually it allows the genuinely new to be disclosed. You may remember the 16th Century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul”. In his extraordinary life he experienced both the God who gives himself, and the need for space to receive that gift – “todo”, everything, the gift; and “nada”, “nothing”, the space to receive that gift. The gift is everything, but there has to be the space to receive it.

O Holy Spirit, give me stillness of soul in you.
Calm the turmoil within with the gentleness of your peace.
Quiet the anxiety within with a deep trust in you.
Heal the wounds of sin within with the joy of your forgiveness.
Strengthen the faith within with the awareness of your presence.
Confirm the hope within with the knowledge of your strength.
Give fullness to the love within with an outpouring of your love.
O Holy Spirit, be to me a source of light, strength and courage so that I may hear your call ever more clearly and follow it more
generously. AMEN (Source unknown)

There is always a temptation to flee from the world, and we know that this was so even in the 1st Century Palestine of Our Lord’s time for the Jewish Essene Sect at Qumran was almost completely withdrawn from the society of that time into pietism. But as we contemplate Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane we find him praying to the Father: “If it be thy will let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not my will but thine be done”, and so we know that a pietistic escapism is not the answer. Rather, we need as Christians to foster a radical engagement with the world . We see this for instance, in the 1st World War Poets when poets such as Wilfrid Owen confronted face to face in the trenches what has become the basic reality of modern life – a world constantly on the brink of disaster. On another level and in a quite different way John Betjeman stands as a prophet to protest against the forgetfulness, short-sightedness and denial that characterise our daily lives. In his poem, “St Saviour’s, Aberdeen Park, Highbury, London N.” we read:

“Wonder beyond Time’s wonders, that Bread so white and small
Veiled in golden curtains, too mighty for men to see,
is the Power that sends the shadows up this polychrome wall,
Is God who created the present, the chain-smoking millions and me;
Beyond the throb of the engines is the throbbing heart of all-
Christ, at the Highbury altar, I offer myself to Thee.”

This is no true piety that takes one away from the world. Rather, the very point is to be immersed in the whole life of the world: the moving shadows, the chain-smoking millions, and all. To be connected to God is to be connected to the universe through its throbbing heart, and the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.

The great 20th Century Monk Thomas Merton said, “Not to accept and love and do God’s will, is to refuse the fullness of my existence.” Are we content to live half-lives, not even glimpsing the fullness of existence which is God’s will for us, or are we prepared to enter fully into life, accepting God’s will for our lives ( whatever that may be and wherever that may lead us)? - responding to God’s will lovingly? - and following that through generously? That is the continuing challenge that is offered to us as the friends of Jesus.

The transformation, which is wrought in me by a merciful God, will never be possible until I desire it and work to find it with God and in God.

Teach me, good Lord,
To serve you as you deserve.
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labour and not to ask for any reward
Except that of knowing that I do your will. ( St. Ignatius 1491 – 1556)

And so I finish with some words from an Orthodox hymn of praise written by Protopriest Gregory Petrov, in a Soviet prison labour camp. Not perhaps what we would expect from such a source, but immensely important in that they remind us of the ground and source of our being:

Glory to you for calling me into being.
Glory to you, showing me the beauty of the universe.
Glory to you, spreading out before me heaven and earth,
like the pages of the book of eternal wisdom.
Glory to you for your eternity in this fleeting world.
Glory to you for your mercies, seen and unseen.
Glory to you through every sigh of my sorrow.
Glory to you for every step of my life’s journey, for every moment of glory.

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