Lent Course Reflections: The City is My Monastery – Scripture
Reflections given at Bread for the World, delivered by Fiona MacMillan, on the fourth week of Lent.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen
A few years ago I was heading to a silent retreat and got stuck in a snowstorm. Out of the blizzard a man appeared, offering to help, and began to push me in my wheelchair. After a while he seemed to talk, but not to me. Words erupted from his lips, half-muttered and half-held in. Each time we stopped to check the way he didn’t stand still but was jumping, moving and waving in a way I immediately recognised as my own. I have Tourette’s and he was the first person I’d ever met who also had Tourette’s. As we shared experience over the rest of the journey I wondered, ‘What are the chances of meeting someone else with Tourette’s in the middle of a blizzard in Milton Keynes?’ At that point, I decided that if this was possible, then anything was possible. I emptied my mind and let go, wholly opening the space of this retreat to see what God would send.
And what came were words, seemingly just waiting to be written down. Not the unintended words of Tourette’s – a sometimes amusing but often painful projection from a part of my brain. But simple sparse poem-prayers that arrived, snuggled in and fitted. They spoke to and from my heart. And after them came an understanding: ‘All the words you need are already within you’.
Some words speak directly to the heart, seeming to bypass our minds. Calling out to us so clearly it is almost as though they were written from and of the fabric of our lives. Poetry can bring a particular resonance, an instinctive knowing and often surprising response coming from somewhere both deep within and beyond us. As a teenager I discovered the wonderful words of TS Eliot, and still carry this snippet within me:
‘Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word’
There’s something about the silence, stillness and space, and of waiting for the Word to speak. This Word which puts our silence into words, and us into the world. The Word of God, Scripture not just as a text within a book but as a living Word, the action of God in the world.
Reflecting on today’s reading in ‘The City is My Monastery’, Richard Carter writes –
‘ Jesus is found listening and asking in the temple. Part of our own rule of life will be to enter into the scriptures in the same way – listening, asking, wondering about its meaning for our lives… finding Jesus in the temple is not a sign of disobedience but of a greater obedience – the meaning of obedience is to hear and to trust – to learn, to listen to the word of God …. Like Jesus, we need to listen, to question, to discover for ourselves and to return to the Scriptures again and again. We seek an openness to the word of God, a spaciousness in us so that we allow the Scriptures to dwell in us and ourselves to dwell in the Scriptures. The Word made flesh. An obedience to God’s Spirit within us… Reading the Bible is like life itself; it’s going to take all of your life… You will return to the same stories again and again, always with new questions as you bring your life to the Scriptures and the scriptures to life.’ (p97/98)
Richard describes the ancient monastic tradition of Lectio Divina – a divine reading of Scripture which seeks communion with God. He writes:
The text is seen as a gift to be received
The passage of scripture is read slowly
It is given time and space
it is allowed to filter into our own life and context
It is repeated, each time taking us deeper
The text questions us and opens possibility
It is a means of discovering God
it is a means of discovering our hidden selves’ (p100)
When we practice Lectio Divina together, as we often do after this Wednesday service, we do it in listening groups. We take a passage of scripture and read it slowly three times. The first time listening to the whole,
‘in the knowledge that the text is written for each one of us.’
The second time we listen for a word or a phrase which seems to be speaking directly to us. Not to our minds, although sometimes this is true, but more often to our hearts. The word or phrase which calls out to us, perhaps quietly or challenging, perhaps exciting or disturbing us, prompting a response from within. After a short silence, we share the word which has spoken to us, and then read the Scripture a third time. We then share what the word is saying to us – to each of us in our own experience. It may be prompting something from our lives, it may have triggered an issue or a memory or have asked us a question, but
‘It is an opening up rather than a dispensing of knowledge’ (p102)
We speak without judgement, response or discussion, but simply listen to and accept the gift of each other’s words. Each brings the gift of our presence, our self and our experience. We are present to one another and to the Spirit within each one of us.
‘…in this listening group, we see the text through different lives – one person may bring the grief she is experiencing for the loss of a loved one, another his experience of homelessness, another her experience and advocacy for those with disability, another his longing for asylum and belonging, another the insights and excitement of a recent conversion, another the academic study of Greek, another the wisdom and truthfulness that has come from living with their own mental health difficulties, another their creative response as an artist. No-one voice holds the monopoly on truth. God can speak through us all, and by listening to one another we guide each other back into the Gospel – into the encounter with the Word made flesh.’ (p103)
The effect of listening, of being present, of allowing the Word to dwell in our hearts, is of a quiet transformation. Somehow we are bringing the Gospel to life, in our lives, in our world – because God is bringing the Gospel to life within us.
‘… we begin to realise that we are not explaining the Word
Rather the Word is explaining us, speaking out of our very souls, telling our own story
As we tell his” (p104)
It is a practice which requires of us only these simple things: presence, attentiveness and response. We are called to respond not with our intellect but with our hearts, to open the space for God to respond within us. We seek ‘To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the scriptures, to make a space for ‘God to dwell in our hearts richly’. And through this
‘We are called to reflect deeply about our faith and understand its meaning within the context of our own lives… Our aim is to express our understanding of God’
We seek ‘ to discover God already in the world, and to see the signs of his immanence and transcendence in everyday experiences and encounters. .. the beholding must take place in us’
It is a process of allowing ourselves to become living words.
This same sense of Scripture and of the Word alive within us is wonderfully brought to life in Carla Grolsh-Miller’s long poem “The Word made Flesh” * It tells the story of the Word of God acting in the world from the very beginning of time, and today. This is part of the final section…
‘God had given the family of ha’adam a vision, a picture of a time when lion would lie down with lamb, infants play over the poisonous snake’s next, when they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord; a time of a new heaven and a new earth, when every tear shall be wiped away, and death shall be no more.
‘The children of ha’adam wrote down the words, recited them to their children, bound them in a Book… living words, dancing on the page, bringing life and hope as clear, cool water does in a barren land. Grasped by a new reality, the church gathered around the Book and the table of the Word made flesh, drenched itself in the water and wind of the spirit, and set about manifesting God’s love for the world in the flesh and blood, bricks and mortar of their communities.
‘Fast forward through the centuries’ earnest endeavour, stunning success scarred by pride of power, turbulence of war and gall of dispute, past the power of words to harm and hurt. The time has come for the Word to heal…
‘All around the world, bands of faithful contemplate a changing landscape. Above the din of commercial clatter and cynical conversation, amidst competing claims of divine inspiration, the call to remember is heard. Small groups gather to hear again the Word, to ingest its immensity, to feast on its fire. Fed with the bread of life, bound together by the Way, swept up into the Spirit, they dare to love as God does – self-giving, unconditionally…
‘…The people become clear words, spoken and lived, of the power the living God and the possibility of a reconciled human family. They have learned to live with difference, to honour and respect one another, and carry their ministry of reconciliation into a world that is dying to learn. Leaven enlivening the bread, goodness spreads throughout the land….’
Whether in listening groups or in solitude, when we find ourselves in blizzards or in pandemics, may we listen to the Scriptures, be present to the word of God within us, and become living words in the world. Amen.
(1684) * from Lifelines: Wrestling the Word, Gathering up Grace – Carla Grolsh-Miller (Canterbury Press, 2020)