Tonight, in fact from Friday night after Compline (night prayers) through to Sunday night after Compline, the Anglican monastic Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield are holding a prayer vigil.
A vigil is a wait for God. A wait to slow or cease our own earthly activities and offer time back to the Lord of time. A wait to show obedience to his command over our own wills and ideas. An opportunity sometimes to hear his still voice in the silence.
The Community of the Resurrection has been making an appeal for the funds to repair and reorder the church building which has always been the focal place of worship for both Community and College. The heating is broken and the electrics are dangerous, the stepped floor makes parts of the church inaccessible for the less mobile brothers and visitors. Building work was supposed to start last year but legal objections (mostly to removing some of the steps) hampered the process and the whole appeal had begun to grind to a standstill. In the meantime, the Community worships in what was their dining room -consecrated for the purpose, and joined by the College for evensong and at Sunday worship. The plainchant is still sung, but the acoustic of the small, carpeted room, is nothing in comparison to the church; and liturgical processions are much smaller and cosier and less awe-inspiring affairs. Of course, on one level it shouldn’t matter where a church gathers to pray and worship -God sees the intentions of the heart whether in a cathedral or a cafe.
But for those human beings who have made great sacrifices of comfort and lifestyle in order to devote themselves to prayer, it is undeniably hard to have their consecrated meeting place put out of bounds; to have the place of space and silence, song and solitude -which attracted many to live and study here over the years… stand empty and unused.
It is a blow to morale, and a test of obedience, to have to give up even one’s place of worship and prayer -when worship and prayer are the main components of your life. But it is hardly unbiblical to be in exile.
Exile from the place of worship -and specifically the temple of Jerusalem- is a core theme of the Old Testament. There are prophecies foretelling it; songs lamenting it; stories about it. And through the course of the Bible, one comes to see that God’s involvement in the history of his chosen people is perhaps even more evident when they are in exile. When the temple is occupied, the Bible is full of accounts of the misuse and abuse of the place by kings, leaders and figures of authority. Some set up idols in the temple, in violation of the number 1 commandment -worship God alone. Others steal consecrated goods and hand them out as bribes; still others embezzle or misuse temple offerings… and in Jesus’ time, we see the temple courts full of market stalls and moneychangers.
It’s hard not to see a parallel with the modern church… because the parallel is most definitely there. My least favourite cathedral (apologies here if this is your cathedral but it is only my opinion) is Liverpool Cathedral. Built recently(1904-1978) , at great cost, the largest cathedral in Britain, it towers over surrounding flats and small industrial buildings. Built through two wars and the Great Depression, in a massive neo-gothic style, it looks like a stage set -and feels very similar. The main body of the Church is empty -the thick walls rendering the building surprisingly dark -not unlike Cologne Cathedral in this aspect. It contains a purpose built cafe and a well stocked book/gift shop… as well as a few museum cases along the sides for tourists. The main body of the Church just doesn’t feel like a living house of prayer. It is as though a massive blimp were constructed, before anyone new how much gas it would take to fill it; the space is largely a void -waiting to be filled with prayer -but at the moment, the most prayerful spaces seem to be the underground meeting rooms where the business of church life goes on day to day.
This is not true of the Community’s church. The church here is far more like a light and airy factory building, where the work done is tangibly the work of prayer and worship. Spacious, functional and formerly fit for purpose. But time moves on and now it needs some refurbishment -not to impress, but to make it usable now and into the future.
And so the prayer vigil goes on -and the Community, along with Companions and many students, wait before God. Are the Community’s plans in step with God’s timing? Has God planned a longer Exile -or even ultimately a Dispersion? Will he bless this place in hoped for or unexpected ways… one thing is certain, the vigil itself is a blessing -and one that is taking place because human efforts alone achieve nothing, and even the efforts of individuals seeking God is not enough -in order to rebuild this Community Church, the community of prayer must seek to do God’s will together.
There will be many things on people’s hearts tonight as they wait for God, in the small candlelit chapel, or in the vast empty church: each person will surely think about their vocation -God’s calling on their life; about the community of people around them -many of whom are presently suffering in very human and private ways; about their home countries and regions -and the difficulties facing people there; and about their own small humanity -and how that contrasts with the divinity of God… but how God has come near to our smallness, come partly within human comprehension, in Christ, and how we are brought into relationship with God by his Holy Spirit in us…