Be Still In The Presence of the Lord- Lent

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Feeling the tug at his elbow, he moved forward. His heart pounding hard, he stood there, hesitating on the threshold of the cathedral sanctuary.

“Come on!” Looking up to see where the voice came from, he caught a glimpse of a figure darting through the doorway opposite him.

He closed his eyes and leaped forwards,  plunging into the darkness. Eyes squeezed tight shut, he could smell the tang of sea air. Gentle fingers of breeze eased their way across his forehead. Counting to ten, he opened his eyes and gasped. It was the most beautiful sight to behold. Inches before his eyes a shimmering wall of water danced its way downwards, light sparkling and gleaming like bright jewels in the sun. Stepping sideways from behind the cascading wall of water, he climbed down and onto the hot sand. Eyes darting to and fro, he thought he heard the sound of laughter and singing. Or was that the waterfall? Then silence.

“Who are you?” he asked. No response. After wandering around for what seemed like an age, a tingle of fear crackled down his spine. The view was stunning and the breeze welcoming. But he realised that there was no sound. It was though the world was mute; he was mute. Rocks that should be home to puffins, herons, ducks, geese- all were empty. No birds sang from the trees or bushes. No music being played by the wind.

“Who are you?” He called out again into the shimmering horizon. “Why have you lead me here?” Silence.

Sitting on the edge of a steep cliff, he put his head into his hands. Without warning, thoughts and memories trickled into his mind, slowly at first, then faster and faster, beginning like snowflakes; building into an avalanche of the past. The weight of it was unbearable. Looking around him, there was nothing but the silence.

Then it came to him. That soft and gentle voice, caressing and soothing.

“Be patient, my beloved. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Be patient.”

The young man shivered uncontrollably in the hot sunshine. He could wait. He must wait.

And he began to pray.

Waiting for the angels, perhaps.

I remember those days and I think of the huge throng that dragged around behind us. A great train, men and women, young lads. People you felt honoured to meet and people you would not introduce to – well, never mind you would not introduce them to your aunt. You would not introduce them to your street-wise uncle.

Several of us tried to warn him. I am tempted, now, to say: ‘Judas tried to warn him,’ but that would be a lie, or rather, I am sure Judas DID warn him, but so did I, and several others, and I can imagine the cool, funny, witty rebuke that would have followed, if Jesus heard me just blame Judas. So I won’t.

Jesus has taken us twelve off out of the press. I know, to my shame, that that particular day it was me who tried to warn him. He was sitting with his back to an olive tree, not very comfortably, but cool in the shade.
‘Um,’ he replied, ‘so let me get this clear. You are – well you USED to be – a fisherman.’ He stopped and looked at me. I nodded, no idea where this was going. ‘Right, so you used to throw out a net, and you caught just the fish you could sell, right?’

I grinned ruefully. I am no fool, and now I was second-guessing him. But I played along. It was best to. He liked that. And well, he had that way with him, that somehow you wanted to make it easy for him. ‘No Rabbi, all sorts got caught in the net.’

‘Ah, so once the net came near the surface, you could see what was what, and only bothered to haul in the good.’
‘No, we just hauled the whole lot in. You cannot open the net under water without losing the whole catch. Well, really you can’t open it at all.’

‘So as soon as you got them in the boat, then you sort them?’
‘No, in the boat you just had a great flapping confusion. We took them to the land, and sorted them there, into baskets. Valuable, saleable but not valuable, worthless.’
‘Where you could take time, and judge what you had?’
‘Yes, where we could make a good calm decision.’

And then he confounded me. I thought he was going to say some of the people were good and some worthless –but no. He said: ‘Each time I meet somebody, their lives are a huge mix, a bundle of fish in a net. Some of the things in their lives are good, valuable. Some are run-of-the-mill, needing a lot of work to make much of. And some parts of their lives are worthless, and some are utterly poisonous, deadly. One day, maybe, they can throw away the parts which are poisoning them, and dispose of the boring parts to some good use, and take the exciting valuable bits and build on them. But asking them to do that too soon just means that everything gets muddled and lost. We have to wait, and perhaps for a lot of it, we have to wait until the angels come and do it for them. Perhaps. Meanwhile, we take the struggling bundle along with us.’

a task given

It was always easier when they looked like they needed to be healed…

Raphael sat on the roof beam, watching. Peter had already overturned the washing basket and torn all the straw from the bed. He was now lying prone on the floor, padding his hand along the shadows behind the bed frame.

Nothing. Peter arose, dusty and annoyed.

‘Loose something?’ Raphael said, as he hopped down from the beam.

Peter spun round, and looked to the door. Surely, he had closed the door? But apparently not.

He wasn’t sure he liked this Raphael. He’d appeared a few days ago, and now wouldn’t leave him alone. Yet, Jesus welcomed him, so…

‘No, no. I’m fine. Just sorting a few things.’
Raphael laughed, and said, ‘here, let me help you.’

Together they began re-laying the straw and tidying the clothes. Peter’s eyes kept straining along every shelf, every door frame.

‘What were you looking for?’ Raphael asked again, once Peter had settled down.

‘Keys.’ Peter said, in defeat.
‘But you have no locks…’ Raphael said, almost innocently.

‘No — never any need.  Not here.  But… ‘ Peter went digging through his pockets again.

‘But you found some?  Offered to keep them safe, maybe?’
Peter got defensive, then saw the mischievous glint in the man’s eyes.

‘You know, don’t you?’ Peter said, as he slumped on the bench.

Raphael nodded and quoted, ‘You are Peter, and on this Rock…  So, has he given you the keys, then?’

‘No, not yet. But it’s a big responsibility, and I’ve… well, I’ve been practising.’  Peter walked out into the yard, and pulled out his tools. There, half-whittled, was a wooden key.

‘This is the fifth one I’ve made. I keep loosing them…’
Raphael nodded. ‘Tricky things, keys…’
Peter scowled, and turned away from him again.

‘But that not all, is it? What are you doing here today? Why are you whittling keys instead of going with the others.’

‘You heard him! “Get behind me, Satan!” I’m a stumbling block. I get in the way.’

‘You know he didn’t mean it.’
‘But he did. I act too fast. I make a fool of myself. I get in the way.’

‘True enough– but he didn’t mean it. What he has to do is hard. He needs you to understand that — not try to talk him out of it. And that day — well, that day you said the very thing he was trying not to allow himself to think. You said he should go a different way.’

‘No fear of that. I could never influence him.’
‘Oh, Peter, don’t you see? You can. You do. He needs all of us around him — but sometimes he sees things you don’t, and you misunderstand.’

Peter had never thought of it this way — and he wasn’t sure if he trusted this Raphael yet. But it was true:  Jesus chose to stay with them. Maybe he did need them…  Peter began to feel better.

Raphael let Peter relax into the silence. He still wasn’t quite sure what his task was with Peter… but he trusted it would become clear in time.

‘Do you remember the day you walked on water?’
Peter looked up, swiftly.  How did Raphael know that?
‘They day I learned to drown, you mean. Another bit of folly.’

‘Well, yes. But there was a moment, wasn’t there, when the water held?’

Peter remembered it. Jesus, calm as could be on the waves, and Peter stepping out — crazy, wild, trusting. The first step held and he walked on water, and then his nerve broke, and he forgot even that he could swim.

‘Yes.  There was a moment.’

‘Right then. Hold onto that. You are Peter…’

‘I am Peter… and perhaps … maybe Andrew is good with keys?’

The angel smiled and led Peter out of the village.   His first job was done.  Now, it was time to climb a mountain.

 

always a choice

Bethsaida.

As Raphael appeared, the waters were dark — still sleeping against a night sky. The people were sleeping too: some slumped in the doorways, others stretched out on the stones, one — more peaceful– trailing her hand in the waters and dreaming dreams.

‘Who will it be today, Ramiel?’ Raphael asked, already sure of the answer. Ramiel turned from his drawings, and waved his wing towards the girl. ‘She is ready: look.’

Raphael came to see the sketch pad. A girl, standing tall in the market square. A girl, radiant and laughing with her friends. All around them were rainbows — ribbons of light that seemed to dance on the wind. Raphael leaned in and strained his eyes against the dark.

‘Oh, Ramiel. You have done well.’

The ribbons were formed by words of friendship, words of kindness, the language of joy and hope and connection. And there, in tatters at her feet, were the words she had set down. Words of cruelty of wounding. Words that silenced her and drove her to Bethsaida: mute, afraid, alone.

The first rays of light were reaching the pool, and it was almost time for Raphael to stir the waters. But as the shadows lifted, he knew he was being watched.

‘What about him?’ Raphael asked, nodding to the old man who was staring at him. He didn’t like being watched. Mostly he was invisible. But at some point over the 38 years, the man had learned to see, and had been scowling at him ever since.

‘Still, no.’ Ramiel said sadly. ‘He won’t sleep. He won’t dream. When he does doze off, he blocks me as soon as I lift my pen: restless and angry. It gets harder every year.’

Raphael sighed and dropped his head. He would like to help the man — but not today.

Instead, he turned to the girl. ‘So be it. She is ready: it will be her turn.’

Raphael stepped down into the pool as the last of the sleepers woke. Some of the companions sensed him, and began hurrying their loved ones to the water’s edge. The girl sat up: wide eyed and expectant. The old man did nothing but glower, defying the rest to be healed.

As Raphael stepped into the water, the light changed. He rose his wings, and a thousand golden feathers reflected on the pool. The waters danced as he trailed his wing and turned: stirring the waters, stirring their dreams.

The girl barely needed to move to be in the pool, but as she saw him she rose. She walked deliberately into the waters, holding the angel’s eyes. At once she was surrounded with light and transformed by it. She waded out to meet him and let her head slip down beneath the water’s surface. As she rose, he took her hand, brushed the water from her face, and sheltered her in his wings.

‘Thank you.’ she said. ‘Thank you,’ as tears and laughter mingled.

Raphael released her and set her free. ‘Go in peace. When you need me, I will be with you.’ The girl nodded, and walked form the pool. All eyes were on her, and those who could ran to touch her. A healing. Hope for them all.

Except for one. Raphael saw the old man shift and turn away from the girl.

Raphael felt his own emotions stir — not compassion, exactly. Frustration? Anger? Nothing he liked, certainly. He fought it, and began walking to the man. There was nothing to stop him. He could stir the waters again if he wished. He sent out a beacon of gold, and begged the man: ‘Look, I can help you. Please, won’t you come?’

The man set himself in stubbornness and turned his face to the stones.

And then, suddenly: Jesus was there. He had come as the girl rose from the water. He had stood and shared her joy. But now, his face had changed. He waked swiftly to the man and forced his attention.

Jesus’ voice rose: ‘Do you want to be well?’

It was not harsh, exactly — but it was close. Raphael was bewildered. Here was this man, who had suffered for so many years, and Jesus was…

Challenging him.

The man looked up, too shocked not to respond. ‘There is no one to help me. Someone always gets there first.’

It was true: he had no one. And once — a terrible day — he had tried to get to the pool, and someone pushed past and threw him to the ground. Raphael had snapped his wings shut, and no one was healed that day. But was that what this was about, all those years ago? Was he still harbouring blame?

Jesus stood firm against the man’s excuses. He looked at him without judgement, but without collusion.

‘Stand up. Take your mat, and walk.’

It was a command. And the man heard it as such. But he knew too that he must choose.

He hesitated only a second, and then got to his feet. He walked — stumbled — towards the pool, and washed his face. Then, he rose quickly, took his mat, and left.

Raphael stood, open mouthed, in the middle of the pool
Confrontation?’ he asked Jesus, utterly bewildered.

‘Sometimes.’ Jesus said calmly. ‘Sometimes, it is necessary.’

change of guard

The sun was hot and Zadkiel sheltered in a doorway. Inside he could hear women’s laughter and the clatter of pots. Outside, the the dust stirred, as the young boys ran to and from the well: the place of safety where they couldn’t be tagged out.

Jesus watched, and scratched the ears of the small dog who had been with him all morning.

Zadkiel was getting restless. He wasn’t sure what they were doing there –nor that Jesus knew either. But there they sat, at the height of the day.

The boys saw her first. The youngest froze, and broke the rhythm of the game.

The woman came out of the shadow and glared at the boys in defiance. The air around her shimmered, and Zadkiel suddenly knew why they were there.

Zadkiel stood and bowed to Michael, as the light settled around him. Michael nodded, but said nothing: he had work to do.

The woman walked through the midst of the boys, straight for the well. At first they made way for her, but then they began whispering. Their voices rose and laughter broke as they grew bolder. Then it began: the mocking, the pointing, the name calling that followed her every day of her life.

The youngest picked up a stone and hurled it at her.

Michael rose to her defence.  He very nearly became visible, but decided not scare them. He breathed his wrath slowly, and the boys felt the wind shift. They sensed danger and fled.

The woman drew breath and her shoulders dropped. Michael let his wings drop too, and for a moment she was unguarded: nothing but pain and weariness on her face.

Just then, Jesus stepped forward. She startled, and recomposed her charms.

‘Woman, Give me a drink.’

She assessed him,then rose her chin.

‘How is it that you — a Jew –ask a drink of me?’  She waved her hand in practised gesture: commanding him too see every inch of her, and defying him to look her in the eye.

Zadkiel heard the unspoken words: ‘How do you — a man– ask of me: a woman?’ Zadkiel wondered the same thing.

Jesus was unphased. He laughed, and moved to stand beside her so that they both faced the well.

‘If you knew who asked you…’ Jesus said, still laughing too much to be clear.

Zadkiel listened to them. They spoke of God, and the gift of life. They spoke of endurance, and surviving thirst. Finally, they turned to face each other, and Zadkiel saw Jesus touch her face. He named the thing she was hiding, and her last defence broke. She told him of all the men — all the times she had sought safety, and found nothing but disgrace.

Suddenly, they heard men’s voices in the distance, and her terror rose. ‘Please: don’t let them see me.’

Jesus nodded, and went to deflect them.

The woman looked up, and saw the small dog. She went to him and knelt in the dust to scratch his ears. He jumped up and licked her face till her wild laugher turned to sobbing and the pain was eased away.

Michael stood beside Zadkiel. ‘Watch,’ he said, ‘I am going to lose her.’

And just then, Raphael appeared: wings soft with gold.

The dog tugged on the woman’s skirts, and then ran to his master. Raphael came, and helped the woman rise from the ground. The time for pretence was over. She looked into his eyes, and chose to trust.

‘He told me everything I ever did.’ She said, her eyes wide with wonder.

‘And what will you do now?’ Raphael asked– infinitely gentle.

‘I will tell the others. I will go home.’

They walked together from the clearing, with the dog running at their heels.