A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 28 February by Revd Catherine Duce.
Readings of address: Mark 8. 31-end
May I speak in the name of the living God –Father, Son and Holy Spirit
In the centre of the chapel at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, Limehouse, is a huge compass. Around it are inscribed these words by St Augustine of Hippo: We come to God not by navigation but by love.
For the past three days 75 members of St Martin in the Fields online congregation have been participating in a retreat focusing on the life and ministry of Madeleine Delbrel. Madeleine was a French woman born in 1904, whose live was lived in two very distinct parts – two distinct directions on the compass of her journey with God.
Up to the age of 20 Madeleine was a committed atheist. She grew up in an artistic, irreligious family. By the age of 17 she was convinced of the absence of God. There was only this life and its threatening futility. In an article entitled “God is dead – long live death!” she writes dramatically:
The great, indisputable, and reasonable unhappiness is death. Faced with death, we have to become realistic…Revolutionaries interest me, but somehow they have missed the point. They may be able to change the world. But all the same one day we will still have to leave it. The scientists are smart, but somewhat naïve. They think they will be able to conquer death just because they have overcome some of the causes of death such as rabies or smallpox. But death does just fine. I sympathize a lot with the pacifists, but they are weak in their calculations. Even if they had managed to muzzle the war of 1914, those whose lives would have been spared would still be laid in their graves by 1998….
Here Madeleline is placing herself at the centre of her compass. She throws herself into writing and illustrating poetry, studying philosophy and art at the Sorbonne in Paris. In the face of her own mortality, it was only the now that gave her life meaning and she knew that her life was like a burning candle that one day soon was going to extinguish forever.
However, when her fiancé suddenly decided to join the Dominicans and her father went blind, her life fell apart. At the same time she noticed that her Christian friends had a hope in the future and a hope in the existence of God that anchored them. Madeleine decided to try kneeling and praying, remembering Teresa of Avila’s recommendation to silently think of God for five minutes each day.
These experiments bit by bit led her to the place of saying yes to God which she did at the age of 20 years old. She tried her calling as a Carmelite nun but that wasn’t right for her.
She discovered that her calling was with the People of the Street and she set up a house of hospitality in the impoverished district of Paris. Here she encountered a God quietly at work in the ordinary lives of men and women, with whom she chose to live. She began to see that these ordinary lives were not futile, they were windows on to a deeper mystery at work. By removing herself from the centre of her own compass, and relinquishing her status and power in favour of service to others, By suddenly seeing the interconnectedness and the aliveness of all life as being part of God’s compass, she discovered a deeper freedom; an eternity in the now. She writes:
From morning to night, every day of our lives, between the shores of our home, of our street, of our encounters, flower the word in which God seeks to dwell. The phrase from the Lord that we picked up from the Gospel at church in the morning, or during a ride on the metro, or between two chores, should no more depart from us than we would depart from our life or our spirit”
Here is someone desiring to be immersed in the eternal love of God – her new way, her truth, and her life:
Lord let the thick skin that covers me not be a hindrance to you. Pass through it. My eyes, my hands, my mouth are yours. This sad lady in front of me: here is my mouth for you to smile at her. This child so agitated and angry: here is my patience. This man so tired so weary: here is my place so that you may give him a seat. This lost man, so tormented, so unfriendly, so alone: here is my prayer that God may love him more strongly than he has ever been loved before.
So from a starting place of fear at the futility of life, Madeleine grew to see that life was intricately caught up in the wider compass of God’s loving activity, a Love alive in each living encounter. ‘We come to God not by navigation but by love’. Madeleine rooted herself in the Church, which she described as “the crossroads of love”. A love that transcends death. A love that transcends distance.
At the heart of today’s gospel is a choice for you and I, captured in these two distinct parts to Madeleine’s life. The question that confronts us is this: Are we content to live only for tomorrow or are we courageous enough to live in the context of forever?
Each of us is invited to receive the kingdom in our midst, writes Madeleine. But we can only receive it if we give ourselves as we are, if we give our lives as they are. We can receive it only if we hand ourselves over with all of our interior energies, with all of our spirit, to a God who leads us…..
Madeleline gradually began to realise that the more she gave her life away to others and to God, the more she was gradually transformed in every aspect of her life. It shaped her response to pain, fatigue and joy.
When we turn our heart towards God, she writes, he gives us “a heart of flesh” that sets everything it touches ablaze with the same fire. To say “Our Father” in truth means to renounce death’s inroad into us in order to allow ourselves to be born into eternal life.
In Mark’s Gospel we read ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it’. This is the heart of today’s gospel. These words can seem frightening. Who wants to risk losing everything including their mortality? And yet is it not precisely in this pandemic that we have acknowledged this truth more deeply. Care workers. Shop assistants. Bus drivers. Ordinary people with an ordinary vocations to risk their lives for others.
There are people whom God takes and sets apart. Writes Madeleine There are others he leaves among the crowds, people he does not “withdraw from the world”. These are the people who have an ordinary household, or an ordinary celibacy. People with ordinary sicknesses, and ordinary times of grieving. People with an ordinary house, and ordinary clothes. We, the ordinary people of the streets, believe with all our might that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of holiness.
In the gospel it is so often the hidden characters who witness to this truth: the self-denying widow who gave her last coins. Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross, the woman who anointed Jesus for burial; blind Bartimaeus, who received his sight and followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. However obscure or ill-prepared or underserving we might feel, this gospel passage presents us with a choice and with a gift.
Madeleine shows us that when we step aside and no longer compete for God’s glory what emerges is a new compassion, a new attentiveness to others. We begin to see with God’s eyes. This is our invitation this Lent.
Shortly after her death these words by Madeleine were found.
In my early years you were alive and I was completely unaware of it. You had fashioned my heart to your size, you had made my life to last as long as you and I did not see it. Because you were absent, the whole world seemed to me tiny and ridiculous, and the destiny of man stupid and cruel. When I realised that you were living, I thanked you for having given me life.
In the centre of Canterbury Cathedral there is another compass. A symbol of the worldwide church. This compass points east and not north. It’s Greek inscription reads ‘The truth will set you free’. So as we ponder our place and orientation before God, let us come to God not by navigation but by love.
George Herbert, priest and poet, whose day was celebrated in the church yesterday, captures this invitation in his hymn King of Glory, King of Peace.
Seven whole days, not one in seven
I will praise Thee;
In my heart, though not in Heaven
I can raise Thee
Small it is, in this poor sort
To enroll Thee:
E’en eternity’s too short
To extol Thee.