St Bride's: Sermon Series

"Touching the Rock"

Finding God in Human Loss

 
A while back I went on a cookery course. If you work on the magazine Good Housekeeping, as I do, then this is very much the sort of thing that composes your daily life. And I have, as result, been on quite few cookery courses.
 
And while I may not be a great cook – I have learned a bit about the theory of cooking. But this particular course was really back to basics in that we started off learning how to fry onions, which, to be frank, was something I thought I knew how to do already.
 
But this was different… this was learning how to surrender onions, which involves cooking them incredibly slowly over a very low heat until they turn into a pulpy mash.
 
It takes around 30 minutes if you do it properly, which is a consideration, but you really can taste the difference in the finished dish. So now, as a result, I always cook onions that way and every time I do, the inherent contradiction always strikes me afresh and it is this
 
The most truly onion-y flavour of the onion – it’s very essence if you like – is only released through surrender.
 
Now SURRENDER is not a word that has featured very greatly in my life.
 
Far from it. I have always been a very busy, active person. Like most of us I was raised to believe that activity was everything. The more you did, the more you achieved. Doing something always made things better.
 
To be “doing” was good. To be inactive was to be lazy - and ergo not good. God helps those who help themselves. I think we all know that one…
 
As a diligent person, I passed O levels, A levels, a degree, post-graduate training I worked. I got promoted and then promoted again. I became an editor. I won awards. I was “doing” as much as anyone possibly could do.
 
But something happened in my life that all the “doing” in the world couldn’t stop - an almost unbelievably terrible tragedy in which first my husband then my eldest daughter both died from a very rare disease of the blood.
 
I won’t talk here about the whole process of grief and mourning but suffice it to say it was the first time in my life when doing made absolutely no difference whatsoever. Nothing could take the pain away. I had no choice but to experience it…To let it happen….To surrender to it.
 
Eventually, I wrote a book about that period of my life and in the opening chapters tried to explain how I felt.
 
I wrote:
 
As a young woman I didn’t know what to expect of grief, and I fought and fought and fought it every inch of the way. There is a phrase I have had cause to use over and over again. It describes the period when you are absolutely at the lowest ebb. When the full horror of the death has sunk in and you can see no reason for joy or pleasure ever to exist in your life again. I call it crawling around on the seabed of despair. It is as if you are one of those dark creatures that lives on the ocean floor and has never felt the sun on its back. You can’t go upwards to the light because you can’t ever remember knowing the light. The only comfort is that you can’t go any lower because there is nowhere else to go. All you can do is crawl around on the ocean floor with thousands of fathoms of water between you and the world where other people live.
 
As it turned out, I spent several years on that seabed of despair before finding that somehow, one day I had begun quite naturally swimming to the surface again.
 
The resulting book, not surprisingly, was called Living On The Seabed and seemed to touch a chord with many other people who had been bereaved; in particular the idea that in the face of enormous and overwhelming grief, sometimes the only thing to do is to stop fighting and just let it be.
 
At the time, I had written purely from the heart, in what I now know to be quite an unsophisticated way. Because what I didn’t realise then and have only subsequently discovered is just how often this idea of reaching rock bottom and thus discovering the beauty and strength in surrender, does in fact crop up. It’s there…
  • in literature
  • in theology
  • in psychology
and in just about anything else you care to mention.
 
It was Archdeacon David Meara who alerted me to the concept in the writing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Of course, I hadn’t read The Gulag Archipelago at that point, because if you have been going through hell yourself that’s not the sort of book you choose to read as escapism
 
But I knew that The Gulag Archipelago tells of the writer’s life in labour camps where he is robbed of everything that makes life meaningful. He has no name - he is known only by a number. He is stripped of his clothes and dressed in filthy rags. He is even robbed of his health when he succumbs to cancer.
 
He, sinks as it were to the bottom, to very base of being. And of that he writes,
 
“I felt it firm under my feet."
 
OK, I thought so that was his “seabed” moment then. He was at rock bottom and yet he says:
 
“I felt it firm under my feet"
 
For the person I was before I had experienced tragedy for myself that would have seemed an almost unbelievable statement. But I had been there, I knew that the hidden strength of that rock bottom, the seabed or whatever you choose to call it, is that you can go no further. You can just rest there a while safe in the knowledge that you have sunk as far as you can go.
 
And therein lies the contradiction… that when you reach rock bottom, when you cease struggling, when you surrender, something is released, some strength or power that is greater than before. And I was starting to see that this wasn’t just personal to me.
 
And once I started looking, of course, I found it everywhere.
 
We all know about the 12 Step programme used by Alcoholics Anonymous, which is generally agreed to be the most effective way of dealing with all kinds of addictions – not just alcohol. And there it is that idea of surrender, right there in the very first step, in which the addict states:
 
I admit I am  powerless over alcohol—that my life has become unmanageable.
 
And in that particular surrender, literally millions of people have found the strength to turn their lives around.
 
And, of course, it is right here in our Christian faith as well.
 
Probably most of us have at some time or another been given a copy of that prose poem Footprints. You know, the one where the man has a dream that he is walking along the beach with God and he sees scenes from his life.
A version written in 1963 goes on:
For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand. One belonging to him and the other to the LORD.??When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of his life.??
This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it. LORD you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.??
The LORD replied, my precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you! During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.
It’s a bit sentimental that poem as evidenced by the fact that it has been released as a single by Simon Cowell - but it always brings a lump to my throat and I think its enduring popularity is because it speaks of an eternal truth, something we all hope deep down to be true. That we are carried. We are supported. Although often we are too distressed to recognize it.
 
This idea is, perhaps, more eloquently put in that  deservedly very popular hymn Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind, which expresses beautifully the power of ceasing the struggle and surrendering:
 
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still small voice of calm!
 
 
That still small voice of calm, which can be heard through the horrors even of an earthquake is always there is only we know to listen out for it. And it is that which sometimes we are only able to hear when we are at rock bottom on that seabed.
 
Which presupposes the questions of whether there is a way of accessing this strength, listening to this voice without first experiencing unbearable tragedy or loss. Can we learn to surrender without first reaching rock bottom? For myself, I found the nearest point of access to this comes in the practice of meditation, which forms the central theme to many Eastern religions. The practice of meditating is about trying to do nothing. To still the chattering mind and allow – well, whatever happens to happen.
 
It sounds simple but if you have tried it you will know it is fiendishly difficult to do. I have been practising hard for several months and still can’t manage more than a few minutes. The trick, as I understand it, is to catch yourself thinking and then try consciously to empty you mind.
 
If you can manage it, then it is a very powerful device.
 
I found this poem on a meditation CD and it describes the process very well:
 
Dispose thyself so that the air about thee does not move
Make thyself small and quiet
Withdraw into the cell of thought
Where consciousness of him who is thy star bestirs thy love
And let the unknowing past be reconciled to earth
 
Meditation is not used so much in the Christian faith - although it is many ways very close to prayer. And has been for centuries.
 
St Julian of Norwich, was a 14th century mystic who claimed that God had spoken to her and told her of a prayer - which is used to this day not only by the Christian faithful but also by those using meditation in their quest for truth or enlightenment or just a sense of peace.
 
I heard it first at a cancer centre where it is used as a mantra that brings profound comfort to people very much at rock bottom, living on their on particular seabeds of sickness and despair.
 
It is simplicity itself - just three lines:
 
All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of things shall be well
 
That’s all there is to it.
 
All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of things shall be well
 
 
Now delivering sermons, is not my usual thing so I don’t know if it’s sacrilege to mix the metaphor of cooking an onion with the words of a Nobel-prize wining author, with the Eastern practice of meditation and with some of our oldest prayers and most popular hymns. But I was struck by how there is one message there that certainly chimes with my own experience.
 
Which is that whether you cease the struggle because you have
reached rock bottom and so surrender to that higher power
 
Or whether you can train yourself consciously to quiet the chattering mind, so as to listen out for that still small voice of calm – or whatever you choose to call it.
 
Then, ultimately – and I think this is What St Julian of Norwich was getting at – the still small voice does in fact answer back.
 
And what it is saying is this:
 
All shall be well.

 

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