A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 27 February 2022 by Revd Catherine Duce
Reading for address: Luke 9: 28-43
Tucked amongst the scenes of horrendous warfare on our media screens this past week, was another story of violence that captured my attention.
In 1999 Dr Towler was dragged from his house and stabbed nine times in a random attack, the final blow missing his heart by two centimetres. In his witness statement in court this past week Dr Towler spoke movingly about feeling no sense of anger towards his attacker, just sympathy. Not only that, he also felt a sense of connection with the man. “He and I were two individuals connected in this event”. “And my immediate outlook is now rather more comfortable than my attackers”. Speaking of his response on BBC Radio 4, Dr. Towler said: “If (my approach) stimulates a thought in some other people, perhaps gives them some tools to think differently about a difficult situation they’re experiencing, then that’s good”. The judge praised the doctor’s response saying “Whether it is the effect of intellect, or faith, or kindness and understanding, I don’t know. If it is the consequence of intellect, I admire it. If it is the consequence of faith, I envy it.” Either way, Dr Towler was able to emerge from a harrowing situation seeing, judging and acting very differently from the prevailing more punitive culture in which we live.
This power of seeing, judging and acting differently is integral to our gospel reading today. Today is traditionally known as Transfiguration Sunday. At the heart of our gospel is an account of what happens when we pray, or at least, what happens when we orientate our hearts with a desire to pray. The whole passage begins with Jesus and his three most trusted disciples going up a mountain to pray. From this disposition of openness and reception, the mystery of the transfiguration unfolds, and they receive the command “Listen! Listen to your beloved”. Listening to God is at the heart of prayer. God in the mystery of silence, in the cloud of unknowing, transforming our seeing, our judging and our acting. Peter, James, and John, saw afresh Jesus’ true glory; a revelation that would strengthen them to endure the crucifixion, and eventually to live resurrection hope.
When we look at the church today, what do we see? Do we see people seeing, judging and acting differently as a result of their thirst for prayer?
It can sometimes be hard to defend parts of the church that seem to glory more in condemnation than a universal, unconditional love of neighbour, as demonstrated by Dr Towler. There is much that can cause us dismay; a seemingly overwhelming gulf between secular culture and church tradition; stories of the pandemic accelerating decline, huge reorganization of dioceses due to financial strain, and scarcity mindsets about the future that can make us inward-looking.
Yet in this sermon I’d like to share with you a different story. A more hopeful story. Albeit a seed ‘for such a time as this’. It’s a story in which a thirst for authentic relationships and acceptance, and a commitment to prayer, is slowly but surely enlivening old patterns of worship, disrupting ecumenical boundaries, and nurturing new connections across time and space.
In the past month I have had the privilege of speaking with individuals right across the globe – in Finland on the border with Russia, in the mountains of Assisi, in Washington DC, in Copenhagen, in rural and urban pockets of the UK –people who all share one thing in common – a desire to go deeper in prayer, to discover a trellis or rhythm of life that can help them discover Christ-like habits. Accompanying their desire for companionship is a desire to be global in reach and not inward looking. A desire to strip away the externals and live truthfully, honestly and lovingly, ‘heart to heart’ with fellow Christians, no matter the denomination. The pandemic has enabled many more people to be touched by the ministry of St Martin-in-the-Fields and to hear of the fruits of the Nazareth Community which is resourcing and sustaining many individuals and congregations. It’s a privilege to be part of this ministry.
And this weekend 52 Companions of Nazareth gathered at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine for a retreat entitled Finding Nazareth. People flew in from the States, Ireland and Denmark to be together, others travelled to London for the first time in five years. Since November 2020 when this predominantly online community was launched, many of us have prayed together 3-4 times a week in silence, sharing sacrament at Bread for the World, and Nazareth Contemplative prayers on Saturdays. We have known each other by name on computer screens, but many have never met in the flesh, until this weekend.
It was extraordinary to experience the palpable sense of connection that the gift of a shared desire to pray brings. When we prayed together in chapel on the first evening and read the psalms – it wasn’t, as you might expect, a cocophony of strangers voices getting to grips with a new liturgy in a foreign land, but rather an attentive chorus, almost like a choir. A group of people that knew each other already, that knew how to listen, each somehow in tune with the other because they themselves were seeking to be in tune with God. It was one of the most moving Eucharist’s I have ever presided at to be distributing the body of Christ to a group of people who have been so faithful for so long online, journeying with us through the pandemic.
I want to share with you how prayer is helping these Companions to see, judge and act differently.
Praying on the mountaintop changed what Jesus saw and how he appeared.
As Rowan Williams writes: Contemplation is the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.
Prayer and a desire to pray lifts our vision to see beyond the prevailing divisive, competitive and punitive cultures in our society.
Prayer also shapes the way we judge others and our world.
Time and again the Companions commented that they valued the radical acceptance and inclusivity of the Nazareth community; the sense of feeling at ease and listened to in lectio groups, the invitation to come and see and not feeling judged. Curiously, this welcome, and the prayer that underpinned it, opened people up to being remarkably vulnerable. People spoke of their own crucifixions and crosses. Caring for husbands with dementia, struggles with mental illness, the horrors of warfare, as we prayed for peace.
Theologian Kenneth Leech writes these words about the contemplative life:
It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that contemplatives pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things. The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.
As Moses and Elijah spoke of Jesus’ imminent departure the disciples were given a glimpse of essence, not mere existence, as Sam often speaks about. A way of viewing the pain of the world through the lens of eternity, through the possibilities of God, rather than the impossibilities of humankind.
Finally prayer, over a life time, can shape the way we act in the world.
As soon as the disciples came down the mountain the crowds returned and the work commenced. The disciples made mistakes. Their faith wavered. But their desire to pray remained steadfast. Their desire to act in a Christ-like way kept them close to the father’s heart. Seeing, Judging and Acting differently.
So as we turn our own hearts to contemplate the start of Lent, there can be no better starting place than nurturing a desire to go deeper in prayer, and not only nurturing a desire, I wonder what it would take to find the courage to put that desire into action?