This week the world wide church celebrated Ascension Day when Jesus left his earthly ministry and started working from home! Although it is a time of celebration I’ve been stuck with a real sadness this year as, at St Mark’s we should be joining with other churches in the area to sing and worship together, and of course we can’t do that this year. My plan is to watch the service at St Martin in the Fields in that spirit of visiting other churches but it isn’t the same however wonderful their services are.
In this season between Ascension and Pentecost when we are made very aware that Jesus is not just a good man who told us to be nice to people but God I’ve been wondering about how we encounter the divine today.
For me that encounter can happen in thin places and sacred spaces. My favourite thin place is by the sea where the waves roll onto the beach and the seagulls call overhead – there the barrier between the everyday world and the divine feels more porous and prayer is deeper and more immediate. I can’t visit that place at the moment and that is a loss. I can pray in the supermarket and I do, but it is different.
I wonder where thin places are for you? Perhaps in nature, in Bushy Park, in a forest or up a mountain? Maybe it is about watching clouds or smelling the grass or the sounds of the rain. Or being with people – at a big gathering for music or worship. It will be different for everyone but those thin spaces are out there.
Sacred spaces can be thin spaces too. I’m a huge fan of cathedrals which are sacred spaces. They were designed to be sacred but they can be thin as well. There is a big baptismal pool at Salisbury Cathedral that I love to visit and see the reflections of the building in the water. There is a statue in the crypt at Winchester Cathedral that has a quality of stillness that I can spend hours with.
Perhaps being apart from our sacred and thin spaces is why staying at home can feel hard right now.
St Marks is a sacred place. It feels prayerful. It isn’t just the simple architecture although I’m sure it helps, but the place has been prayed in for 80 years and somehow it has seeped into the walls. There is a quality to the silence there which I noticed the first time I walked in.
There are plans to open up the churches when the government allow but for now perhaps it is enough to mourn the loss of our thin and sacred spaces and to wonder if there might be a way to find them closer to home. By spending time being and not doing in the garden. By stopping in our walks in the park and remembering that God is with us. If you are not used to praying in this way take a moment as you set out on your walk to imagine yourself in the presence of a God who loves you more than you can know. Perhaps imagine Jesus walking with you or the Holy Spirit as a flame or breathe of wind accompanying you on your walk. Keep focused on the everyday and notice how beautiful the trees and birds and flowers are. If you feel able have a conversation with the one who is walking with you. At the end of the walk thank them for their company!
At a time when we can’t travel to sacred and thin spaces we can find them closer to home.
Is living in the middle of the story one of the hardest things we are living with? Is the uncertainty of how it all turns out for us, our loved ones and our communities almost unbearable?
This week I was in a webinar about loss and one of the speakers talked about the four responses to trauma and we are living in a trauma right now. It isn’t a sudden trauma like a fire or terrorist incident but it is overwhelming many people’s ability to cope whether that is acknowledged or not. Here are the four responses. Do you recognise any of them?
Fight – perhaps you have a short temper. Have you got cross with people not keeping 2m apart or the government or the local foxes who consistently dig up your plants? The later is me but it is real.
Flight – do you have surge of energy and are doing lots of stuff, learning a new language, doing 5000 piece jigsaws in a couple of days? This could be your flight reflex in lockdown.
Freeze – are you feeling heavy? Weighted down? How does your body feel?
Faint – this is subtly different but it is the depression and slump and both this and freeze may lead you to sleeping more or having disturbed sleep as the brain tries to make sense of what is going on.
One of the key lessons I took away from the webinar is that naming the uncertainty helps. We might try and think our way out of a crisis but it pays to listen to how our bodies are coping as that is where our stress is held. If you need to sleep, sleep. We are living through unprecedented times and we need to take care of ourselves.
In the reading from the gospel for Sunday Jesus is in the middle of the story. The text is below and it is part of what is called the farewell discourse. Jesus is reassuring his disciples that all will be well. That events will happen, that it will feel as if they are left alone but help is on its way. This help is named as another Advocate who will be with them and us forever.
This passage from the gospel of John has always struck me as desperately sad. Jesus is expressing such compassion for his followers who he knows are uncertain and in the middle of the great story that he is part of. In his kindness he tries to reassure them but we know they are going to face the pain and trauma of his death and the end of all their hopes and dreams. Jesus sees the big picture, the cosmic perspective. His followers are here on the mortal plane putting one slow foot in front of the other. In the end all will be well but that is not yet.
In this time of uncertainty can we have the courage to take care of ourselves as well as others because we are in trauma? Can we dare to hope that in the end all will be well because the Advocate, the Holy Spirit is with us? We are not at the end of the story yet. We have a long way to go which is why looking after ourselves is so important especially if looking after others is part of what we do.
So this weekend maybe take some time to be kind to yourself. Smell the flowers. Listen to the birds. Do something creative. Rest in the knowledge that God is with us in the mess. Breathe.
John 14 15-21 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
On Mothering Sunday we thought about the reality of family life and how forgiveness can be difficult at times. We remembered that we have an example of compassion and forgiveness in Jesus. We placed flowers in front of the altar to remember someone who has cared for us or to ask God to help us to forgive someone who has hurt us. After the service the flowers were put in the Family Chapel.
Mothering Sunday is over, but we can still carry the thoughts and reflections of the day with us as the year progresses. You may find this prayer from the St Anselm, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, useful as a guide to reflection.