The actor David Suchet, famous for his portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, tells a really interesting story about his first ever encounter with his future wife, the actress Sheila Ferris. They were both appearing at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, and he describes how the moment that he set eyes on her – a woman he had never met before, and knew absolutely nothing about – he knew without any shadow of a doubt that this was the woman he was destined to marry. As proved to be the case. They married in 1976, and have since enjoyed over 46 years of wedded bliss.
What on earth are we to make of a story like that, which seems to defy all rational explanation? Was it simply luck or coincidence – or the ultimate example of wish-fulfilment – that David Suchet saw a woman and knew instantly that he would marry her – which he then did, and very happily? Or is it possible that there was something else going on there? Something to do with a particular kind of profound recognition that goes far deeper than our own rather limited and all-too human attempts to make sense of the world around us. You see, there have been some occasions in my own life when that kind of sudden and dramatic recognition has happened to me too – and in my own experience, far from representing some form of wish-fulfilment combined with good luck, they are usually the precise opposite of that. Let me illustrate what I mean.
I was serving my curacy in Oxford Diocese in the late 1980s, and was firmly committed to a life in parish ministry – to the extent that in those days I was scathing about the kind of clergy who do a first curacy and then turn their backs on parish life and slope off into some cushy academic job, or sector ministry of some kind. My spouse had been appointed to a university lectureship in Birmingham, so I knew that my next post would be in a Birmingham parish. And the then Bishop of Birmingham invited me to an interview to think about possible openings in his Diocese. But rather than talking about parish churches, as I had been expecting, he told me instead that I ought to think about applying for a post that was about to come up, lecturing on the staff of a theological training institution. I was very surprised, rather disappointed, and absolutely certain that it wasn’t for me – because I was clear that I wanted to go into another parish – as I made clear to him.
So I was very surprised when a couple of weeks after that, an application pack for the lecturing post arrived through the post for me, totally unsolicited. I put it to one side, having no intention of applying for it. But it sat on my desk looking at me over the next couple of weeks – until on a sudden whim, I thought – ‘What the heck!’ – filled it in, added a covering letter which carefully listed all the reasons I could think of as to why they should not appoint me to the post, and I submitted it.
There were over forty applicants for that job, so it is little short of miraculous that they decided to shortlist me, and invite me for interview. I arrived at the appointed time, stepped over the threshold of an institution that I had never visited before and knew very little about, to be interviewed for a job that I was certain I didn’t want – and yet in an instant I knew, without any shadow of a doubt, that this was my job, and that this was the place I needed to be.
As indeed proved to be the case. I was appointed to that post, and over the following years I never doubted for a nano-second that I was in the right place. I loved the job, I believed in the institution and in what it was trying to achieve, and in many ways it was the making of me. I learned so much there at a time when I had so much to learn.
You will perhaps understand why, in the example I have just given from my own life, that experience of sudden and dramatic recognition was for me the very opposite of wish-fulfilment. Because I genuinely did not want that job – every fibre of my being told me that it wasn’t the right thing and that it wasn’t for me. Until that is, I actually went there, and for some irrational and inexplicable reason, I knew the second I arrived, that it was where I needed to be. And I should add that I am the very last person on earth to be guided by my gut feelings – indeed, I am one of those people whose approach to life is emphatically: ‘let’s review all the options rationally, and come to a sensible decision purely on the basis of the hard evidence’. So I simply cannot explain that kind of experience at all – I can only testify to the fact that it unquestionably happens. I have given you one example from my own life – there have been others, too.
In this morning’s gospel reading, John the Baptist describes how words previously spoken to him by God suddenly and dramatically come to life when the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus at his baptism. In that instant the earthly and the heavenly come together; there is revelation; there is recognition. The following day, seeing Jesus walking nearby, John proclaims to the two disciples with him, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. And what do they do? Unquestioningly, unhesitatingly, they leave what they are doing, drop everything, and follow him. Not because anyone has told them to; not because they were expecting to do so; but simply because they have an overwhelming inner compulsion to do that: they have glimpsed that truth for themselves.
And it is a recognition goes both ways. Andrew, one of those two disciples, subsequently takes his brother Simon to meet Jesus. On that occasion it is Jesus who, on meeting him for the first time says, ‘So you are Simon, the son of John. You shall be called Cephas, which means Peter’ (a name that means a rock or a stone), Jesus sees him, and instantly recognises him and names him as one of his own.
Which is why true recognition, of the kind I have been describing, is a moment when, in situations where we least expect it, our lives suddenly and dramatically coincide in some way with the purposes of God. They are moments when we are offered a gift of God and are able to see it for what it is, and understand the overwhelming need for us to grasp it – even when it is the very last thing that we are wanting, or expecting, or hoping for. Which is why such moments can be so very difficult to explain, or to justify, or even to describe adequately to others. It is just that sometimes God knows us better than we know ourselves.
The important thing is never to let such moments pass us by. Hence our need to be attentive; to be ready to recognise and to receive God’s gifts when they appear before us. That is why somewhere at the heart of all of this prayer has a hugely important role to play. Prayer, properly understood, should never be regarded as an occasional activity, which is only to be used as a last resort in moments of crisis. Rather it is a way of life, which enables us to develop of that skill of attentiveness. And the more attentive we are, the more likely we are to experience such moments of true recognition – and the less prone we shall be to let them pass us by. Because that kind of attentiveness; that kind of recognition; brings with it a glimpse of eternity – a glimpse of God.
One of the best known poems by the priest and poet R.S. Thomas, is called ‘The Bright Field’, and it expresses perfectly and beautifully this kind of encounter with the divine. It goes like this:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past, it is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Attentiveness; recognition; and a readiness to seize the moment and act upon it. When we are able, and willing, to align our lives with the purposes of God – however unexpectedly – a whole new kind of life can begin to unfold, bringing with it riches of a kind that far exceed all that we can desire or deserve.
And thanks be to God for that.