I once had a time of stillness, complete spiritual stillness such as the Sufis might describe as ‘Enlightenment’. Like the dawn light, it stole over me slowly… over several days suffusing me within and without with newness, a sort of rebirth in which nothing was altered but everything had changed. It began with a journey, I thought of it as a holiday with God… just to be, I had no expectations, I just went. I knew I was going for a week -for Holy Week… and I hoped I would be made welcome, and I knew that it would be good.
As the week went on, I continued to simply follow the timetable of prayer and services and silence, and I still had no expectations, only gratitude for the time and space and gratitude that God had called me there… and I did not expect anything, but was content to accept anything and everything. I suppose my hands were completely empty and my heart open.
And on that Thursday night, after the altars were stripped and all the decorations of the upper church removed, and complete silence fell, I went down to where the flowers were, in the cold candlelight of the lower church, to the altar of repose.
I decided in my heart that I would stay up all through the night and keep vigil… I said aloud in the silence of my heart, that I would do it, I did not expect anything, but I was determined that I would do it, because it was not required of me, and that meant I could do it of my own free will, I could do it and offer it to God and he could have that time… because I chose to give it, regardless of whether or not he wanted it, and because, perhaps for the first time ever, I really didn’t expect any acknowledgement or approval or permission… I even felt slightly naughty to start with, because creeping down in the darkness, even when others will also be keeping the vigil for hours at a time, seems sort of illicit.
So I sat… quite still, on a wooden bench and gazed at the flowers and the candles on and round the altar… I tried to keep my mind quiet, but quite often it began to wander and I had to remind myself that I was just going to sit there and be. People came and knelt or sat silently, in ones or twos… and several hours passed. I began to silently pray for the people there, as I could not keep my head totally empty, and then as I sat there I realised I would not be able to do it… I would not be able to stay up all night in that ice-cold church… I would fail… strangely, that thought made me smile, of course I would fail… but it didn’t matter, God wouldn’t mind in the least.
So at that point I gazed round at all the candles, there must have been more than thirty of different lengths and sizes and found the shortest little stub… I decided that I would just stay until that candle burned out, maybe half and hour or so, and then I would just quietly get up and leave… ‘know your limits’ I thought to myself.
So now, as the candle stub flickered and melted lower towards its base, the time began to move more easily, I felt warmer, now I could imagine the hot shower I would soon have, and was laughing inside at my diminished vigil offering… I had never been alone, as the vigil was being kept faithfully through the night, in half hours and hours, by students and retreat visitors, and I had not ‘signed up’ to cover a session, so I was really an extra… in fact at first I had, had to overcome my sense of guilt as though I were intruding upon the vigil, after all I was not ‘on the list’ but there secretly, at the back.
Now as I watched the shortest candle slowly burning down, there was one other visitor kneeling rapt over his Bible, on the carpet in front of the altar. And as we sat silently in the glow of candles, we were even less alone. ‘I will fail,’ I thought, smiling inwardly, ‘I will always fail won’t I Lord, just as this frail flickering candle will fail… I will fail’. And my thoughts turned to those old allegorical still-life paintings that so often appear in galleries, with skulls and flowers and snuffed out candles, depicting the transience of human life.
‘I will fail, as all human beings fail’, my thoughts were not morbid, or gloomy, just completely accepting of my own weakness and mortality. And so I watched the candle flame as it flickered and guttered just above the rim of the candlestick. Christ died, and I would also die… though in a considerably less spectacular way… and I watched for the dipping, guttering candle to go out.
But it didn’t fail. I watched and time passed and the light grew stronger… until all other candles, and until the whole room seemed eclipsed by its light… and now the transparent flame was the most real thing, the most solid thing in the room, in the whole world, and the whole room, the whole church was like a picture on a panel of beaten gold framing this single candle flame.
And then I knew, I really understood, that it was not about the provision of wax, nor the length of the wick, nor the length of time, that would decide the life of this candle. It was, as all things are, entirely in the hands of God and we live by Grace, not by providence. The glorious beaten gold faded and the candle flame dipped to nothing.
Several moments later, the flame reappeared, resurrected and I almost laughed aloud… this candle would not go out until God decided it would, and just for a moment I wondered if he was perhaps going to make my vigil last all night after all! It disappeared again, and I counted several seconds, before it reappeared, and then finally, it went out.
At the end of Holy Week, when the ‘Greater Silence’ was over and we guests and students had resumed speaking I met the young man who had been kneeling before the altar, out walking in the monastery garden. He smiled and said ‘How can we tell people what we know?’… I replied that I didn’t think such things could be expressed in words… but only in whole lives.
So I pray I may live out my whole life to the Glory of God.