As I approach my ordination to the priesthood, I am surrounded by occasions for reflection; really I feel like I am in the middle of a place where ripples cross over one another and water does strange things… If you’ve ever seen the gradual emergence of chaotic dancing droplets as ripples cross a Tibetan ‘singing’ bowl, you can imagine the sort of thing… if not -look up ‘charging water in a singing bowl’… and watch a video of the strange and exciting effect.
As I sat in Bristol cathedral earlier today, in the quiet of the lady chapel, I rested in the welcoming and hospitable feeling of God’s presence and just opened my thoughts to him. I mean, I wasn’t ‘talking’ to him in my mind, I was just sitting there with God, in the acknowledgment that I was sharing my wandering thoughts with him.
I was feeling all anxious about what kind of a person I was going to turn out to be as life went on, feeling very earnest and serious, in fact my eyes were rather red… and all I seemed to get back from the great Almighty was a little mental nudge as if to say, lighten up – y’know, in that stained glass window, Jesus looks like he is ascending on a rocket … It was true that Jesus was rising on a cloud surrounded by baby-faced cherubim and the little ‘cherubim’ in the glass all had shiny rays of light pointing away from their little faces, so that the row of cherubim beneath Jesus’ feet therefore looked like they were jet-propelling the layer of cloud upward… ‘Jet-pack Jesus’… I smirked.But then I thought, as I continued smirking quietly in God’s presence, about the past…
I let the sounds of the city and the smell of damp plaster occupy my thoughts, I looked around me with new eyes at the unfamiliar building – I’ve only been inside it twice -and felt the hard seat which I sat upon. I looked at the surface of the stonework -shiny with age in places -rubbed by the close proximity of thousands of strangers. And I remembered.
Just for two minutes I remembered, as surely as if God had left the building -what it felt like before I knew God… what it felt like when I was a stranger everywhere and alone all the time, and crying out to God to make his presence known to me. What it felt like when I was looking for God but thought I had not found him… when the world was opaque and hostile.
I looked within at the passion in my heart, with which I had sought God, and without, at the embroidered altar-front, where Mary Magdalene knelt in a garden before Jesus -and they greeted one another, ‘Mary’ -‘Teacher!’ And I almost cried again, because I had forgotten how alone one could feel.
‘We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send thy Holy Spirit to strengthen us’ these words are from the collect (the daily prayer) for the Sunday after ascension, we pray them every day this week…
We beseech thee… Mary looks beseechingly at Jesus in the garden. Leave us not comfortless…
I thought about some of the ways in which God had met with me, over the years… some very dramatic… and then I thought. ‘But I suppose I needed that then, I was like a sleepwalker, or a blind man, unheeding, unseeing… it would take a miracle or two to wake me, to make me see… But now I have sight, and now I am awake’, ‘And now you do not need to startle someone who is already awake, you only need them to listen to you, you don’t need a miracle to make a sighted person see -you need only draw their attention to something.
I am very much awake, I realise. I have been for years, and God probably won’t be startling me with any more prophetic words or miraculous visions… but I didn’t feel wistful, because the whole world feels different when you know God is with you- when you know Emmanuel. But that is down to the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter… because without God’s abiding presence, WITH us, it doesn’t make a difference at all if the whole earth is full of the presence of God and NOT MY HEART… no, one might as well be asleep or dead, the whole earth can sing of God’s glory for all eternity, but if it sings loud enough to wake the dead, still it won’t wake me unless God is in my very heart.
It is always and only about love. It is all about love… but there are so many things that clamour for attention besides the still small voice of love. And some of them are important because the work FOR love and with love and toward love. But other things really do not matter.
AN ASIDE: …There was an experiment a couple of years back, by some neuroscientist, trying to recreate, with a helmet full of electro-magnets, the sense of ‘presence’ that he believed religious people were talking about when they spoke of ‘God’s presence, or when (equal in this particular scientist’s mind) superstitious people spoke of an unseen and ghostly ‘presence’ near them.
He managed (unsurprisingly) to create, with the right electromagnetic fields near the brain, a sense that somebody else was in proximity to the subject. A feeling that there was someone ‘standing just behind them’. Big whoop… I get the same feeling under high voltage power cables… but I know what that is.
The thing is, a ‘sense of God’s presence’ is not the same as a ‘feeling you’re being watched’ or a feeling that someone else is nearby, unseen… those feelings would be about an unknown person or entity -a stranger -who’s thought and intent you do not know but who just lingers physically near.
In my experience, that experiment is nothing like an awareness of the presence of God… which is more like being ‘known’ in an unspeakably intense but gentle way… I can only liken it to the close ‘presence’ that you can get -no matter how physically far or near -when someone you love and trust, and who really loves and trusts you, shares a silence with you… over the phone, or at the same table, or across a room… you need not be looking at one another -but in that warm silence there are volumes of unspoken love more intense than any words. And the truly miraculous thing is, that in the presence of God -two (or more) people who do NOT really love and trust one another, can be drawn into the presence of love and trust and their relationship can be amazingly healed, at least for a time.