Event Name Sermon given on Ascension Day 2017
Start Date 25th May 2017 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

How much can we know? I am told there was a time when a well-educated and intelligent person could more or less know everything there was to know. That was perhaps 500 years ago. One of my predecessors as Dean in the early 17th century, Lancelot Andrewes, was said to have spoken six ancient languages and 15 modern languages. But nowadays I can’t imagine anyone has ever read the whole of Wikipedia let alone mastered it. Even academics may know a lot about a lot, but they aim at depth in knowledge rather than breadth, knowing a good deal about a little. Of course there are the brilliant general knowledge contestants on University Challenge but even they show remarkable ignorance in some areas of knowledge.

Where does this reflection lead? It seems to me that, although we have a huge database of knowledge available to us, there are enormous areas of knowledge and understanding that are mysterious to us. The spotlight leaves great dark patches. We live in mystery. So it has always been. So it is now. The amount of knowledge and understanding has expanded and we may suppose that we know so much more about the universe and everything. But that is a figment of our imagination. To most of us, most of it is a mystery. And there is no greater mystery than the mystery of human beings, other than the mystery of all mysteries, the mystery of God.

We celebrate today one of the great feasts of the Church’s Year but we do so against a background of tension and anxiety. We are all troubled by the horrific bombing attack on Monday evening in the great city of Manchester in the north west of England. We grieve for the 22 people who were killed, including an eight year old girl, and we pray for their families and friends, and for all those who were injured. The great mystery is how anyone could possibly think that committing such horrific violence could be pleasing to God.

It seems to me important to express two particular points. The first is this. The Muslim faith leaders whom I know have explicitly and absolutely condemned acts of violence of this kind. They have said that such acts of terror are not supported by the faith of Islam and that those who perpetrate such acts have no part with them.

The second point is this. The intention of acts of this kind is not just to kill innocent children, to condemn to death people enjoying a pop concert or otherwise going about their lawful business, but to divide communities, to set one community against another, one faith against another. I believe the various faith communities of this country are not only strong in their own faith but are also strong together, with mutual understanding and respect. These vicious attacks will not drive us apart but bring us closer together in mutual support and concern.

One important aspect of the mission of the Abbey is to bring together the different Christian denominations and the major faith communities of our land in mutual dialogue and encouragement. We see this as explicitly part of our Christian duty as we stand here at the heart of our nation, celebrating the Christian faith and drawing others into the precious space we occupy. Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed that all who believe in him may be one but he also explicitly reached out to those of other backgrounds, non-Jews whom he encountered with generosity and love. We must seek to follow his example.

Of course there is nothing straight-forward or easy about following the example of our Lord. He told his disciples that in the world they would have trouble, they would face persecution, ‘but take courage. I have overcome the world.’ The wonderful message of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and of his glorious ascension into heaven is that nothing, not even death itself, can defeat us. In Christ is life and in him is hope. But how we can know this for ourselves, take it into our hearts and into our lives? How can we be confident in our Lord’s promise of life beyond death?

There is much for us that is mysterious in our faith, much that we cannot understand. Above all, it is hard for us to conceive or imagine let alone see what the promise of eternal life in Christ might actually mean. We are so constrained by the dimensions in which we exist, of time and space, that to live beyond time and space in a quite different state of living is impossible for us to picture. The bible gives us images, such as the vision of the prophet Isaiah at his call, who saw the Lord high and lifted up, surrounded by the angels of God singing Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty, or the promise of St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians that now I see through a glass darkly but then I shall see face to face. To see our Lord face to face. Is that really possible? Can we imagine such a thing? To see the Lord himself, to see him and to know him, as he sees and knows us.

How might we get close to this notion? We celebrate today the last of our Lord’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. St Luke gives us the account. The risen Lord Jesus promised his disciples that they would be given power when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them and that they would be his witnesses. Then a cloud took him from their sight.

The cloud is significant. The people of Israel in the wilderness during their escape from Egypt were led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And the cloud settled on the Ark of the Covenant, signifying the presence of almighty God himself. So, the ascension of our Lord in the cloud speaks to us of Jesus Christ returning to be with God the Father. But the cloud itself is mysterious. It cloaks. It hides.

In the latter half of the 14th century, an anonymous Englishman, almost certainly a priest and probably a monk, thought to be from the east Midlands, wrote a book for those who wished to embark on a journey towards the contemplation of almighty God, called the Cloud of Unknowing. His book is widely available today.

Between us and God, he says, is a cloud of unknowing, which is not however impenetrable. But if this cloud is to be penetrated it will not be through thought or effort or being clever or well educated. It can only be penetrated with love. So the one who would know God can only know God through love. And even to approach that, it is necessary to focus everything on the goal itself. When you come to this cloud of unknowing in prayer, it is necessary to put everything and everybody you know under a cloud of forgetting and focus your thoughts on the Lord himself and his love for you. You must place any concern for yourself, any petitions you might wish to put before God, any longings, similarly, under the cloud of forgetting. And abandon thought, even good thoughts. ‘By love God can be taken and held but by thought never.’

‘And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you shall step above it stalwartly, but mistily, with a devout and pleasing stirring of love, and try to pierce that darkness above you. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.’

This way of contemplative prayer requires commitment and practice and is certainly not easy. To banish thought, to ignore our own longings and needs and desires, to focus our love totally on the thick darkness above us, is strange and surely unfamiliar. But there is some comfort for us: ‘a short prayer’, he says, ‘pierces heaven.’

God is mysterious, hidden in a cloud of unknowing. The ways of other human beings are mysterious. We are mysterious even to ourselves. Our deepest reality, and the only lasting reality, is to be found in God, God in Christ, Christ in us the hope of glory.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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