Space for discernment - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Space for discernment

Our churches are to open again for silent prayer from tomorrow and anticipating that perhaps, I realised this week how often in times of lockdown I have imagined the interior of an empty church, be that St Bride's, one the churches in Sussex that I pass on my walks or a more generalised imaginary space.

Whilst I have longed to enter these familiar spaces over these days I have also been reminded of the words of R.S Thomas who wrote of 'a great absence that is like a presence'.  I've then struggled to identify why those words seem so apposite.

I've noted that it is significant to know that there are holy spaces set aside in our world, even when we are prevented from entering them.  In his book Finding Sanctuary, which was our Lent book this year, Christopher Jamison, former Abbot of Worth Abbey, reflected that in the turbulence of life it is very difficult to see the real state of things.  The existence of places of solitude and silence, and indeed of the religious life, provide an anchor.  They prevent us from losing our bearings, from wandering from the way. 

Our churches are sacramental spaces, they are where we welcome new members to the body of Christ in the waters of baptism and where we receive and share Christ's sacrifice in the Eucharist.  They can also be thought of as outward and visible signs of another inward and invisible grace, namely the spirits continuous prayer at the altar of our hearts.  In silent, prayerful, contemplation we can enter this place as our usual preoccupations drift away.

At the start of lockdown I had thought I might find rather more time than usual for solitude and silence.  In reality they have proved as challenging as ever.  I am increasingly aware of their importance though, particularly as we have begun to ask ourselves what life might be like after the pandemic.  This crisis and its effects have prompted a recognition of the need for change, resonating as it does with calls for environmental protection, climate justice, for gender and racial equality.  More than at any previous time I can recall in my lifetime, there are many voices calling us to recognise our own complicity in these issues and prompting us to image how we might do things differently.

In this morning's Gospel we hear that when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers.  What is the labour that we are called to in these days?

The crisis that we are living through is an important moment for our world and for our church.  The impacts have already been enormous in lost lives, both directly from coronavirus and as a result of delays in other urgent care.  It has challenged mental health and caused enormous economic and financial hardship.  There is inevitably, it appears, more to come but the eventual scale of those impacts, the extent to which they are born by the most vulnerable in our world and whether we are set on paths of division or cooperation are yet to be determined.

Jesus charged the disciples to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  The language here may be difficult for us.  Our understandings of health and sickness are completely different from what they were in 1st Century Palestine.  Leprosy is thankfully beyond most of our experience although of course it is still present in some nations of the world despite being entirely treatable.  Talk of demons is obscure beyond the fantastical imaginings of book and screen.

If we get beyond these differences, we can see the wisdom in this passage.  We are in need of healing physically, mentally and spiritually to make us whole.  Many in our world have lost any appreciation for the spiritual dimension of life.  We can be possessed by pride, greed, envy, selfishness.  We are called to respond to these needs and to proclaim afresh the Good News in our day.  We require to discernment to recognise where the spirit may be guiding us.  We need places of solitude and silence where our prayer may become receptive.  

With all the talk of isolation in recent weeks it occurs to me that there is much to recover in Christian teaching about solitude.  The growing societal concern in recent years over social isolation is essentially a product of diminished community and familial networks on the one hand and expanded individualisation on the other.  These forces too often leave people cut off from family and friends, but this is quite different from intentional solitude and religious communities may have much to teach us.  Brother Ramon, a Franciscan who spent long periods living alone, reminds us that true solitude is the home of the person, false solitude is the refuge of the individualist.  He writes of the experience of solitude as leading him into ever greater loneliness and compassion.  He draws a connection between the two suggesting that in isolation, focused on life in God's presence, he grew closer to his brothers and sisters despite his absence from them.  This dynamic is one that is increasingly alien to modern experience.  We may have much to recover.

Our churches will open their doors again in the days ahead.  Many of us will look forward to the opportunity to visit.  Others will be unable to leave their homes because of their vulnerability.  Whilst we cannot worship together I hope that experiences of solitude and silence can be places of discernment, inspiration, consolation and assurance that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

 Thanks be to God who is father, son and holy spirit.



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