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.

Into the Wilderness

Today I need the wilderness.

I woke too early, with too little sleep, my eyes swollen nearly shut. I don’t know what set my allergies off again; it frustrates me. After breakfast I dozed on the couch until the senile dog set up a flurry of mad barking, at nothing, and I jumped up. Laundry. There’s always laundry to do on Mondays. I am tired of the dog and the laundry, of writing my novel and not writing my novel, of all the work I have to do, and of the fact that if I chose I could ignore it for another day. It’s hard to feel anything matters much, today.

Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.

What happens in our wilderness? This weekend my husband watched a survival show, in which contestants were sent naked into the Panamanian rain forest for twenty-one days. He didn’t tell me why they did it. I assume there must have been a prize.

Our prize is the Resurrection. It’s a pretty big one. On days like today, my grumpy self has trouble even imagining it: the gates of Heaven flung open in welcome to sinners, to me and to everyone else. An atheist friend once asked me, curiously, “So, your God requires that you not eat meat on certain Fridays? And that you give up playing computer games until Easter?”

“It’s not required,” I replied. “It’s discipline.”

“Ah,” she said. “Why?”

Because, like me today, we tend to get caught up in ourselves, in our tiredness, our work, our laundry. We attach too much importance to things that don’t matter. If we can brave the wilderness, if we can strip our souls bare, we can begin to remember what we need to survive. Exactly what, and no more.

The Gathering

DSCN3534Many years ago I awoke and made ready for the day ahead. Spirits soared at the prospect of ascending the lofty ridge towering high above Glen Kingie. My heart leapt in anticipation of standing atop Sgurr Mor to survey the wild and piercingly beautiful handiwork that has emerged from the celestial crucible. A herd of deer leapt with me. Rugged mountains plunged breathlessly into the depths of shimmering sea lochs as the gulls swooped silently below my feet. From the sparkling, tumbling burn I could hear an orchestra of sound as sunlight shimmered and danced on its bustling surface to the ambrosial conductor’s quickening tempo. Isolation amidst raw beauty- wind; sun; rain; river; sea; mountain ridge; the silence of solitude. A time of rejuvenation; of communion with God; of self-discovery.

By the end of the week the silence felt louder than the shrieking winds that seemed to slice through rock itself. My senses were heightened- high mountain grasses thrust skywards like individual spears of rusty red and burnished gold; the cold and hunger made for unwelcome bedfellows; the imposing flanks of Sgurr Mor appeared as monstrous tidal waves looming through the gray and damp mists, threatening to engulf me as readily as the wild beauty was ready to consume me. I felt alive, joyful, and afraid in equal measure.

Following Ash Wednesday, we take those first tentative steps into the lenten journey. Each year as I look inwardly and outwardly, I am reminded again and again of that heady sensation of fear, of joy, and of life I experienced in the mountain wilderness. I bring on this path my successes and my failures, my joys and my sorrows. Every year that we gather we are each drawn, week by week, closer and closer, to our own high mountaintop and to the parapet of the Temple where we feel the tension as our own failings meet with the path Jesus has set out for us to follow. I am not yet ready to gaze upwards at that blood encrusted cross- but at this early stage of the journey I give thanks for the gift of life and the people in it with whom I share its glorious mysteries. And I thank God for the gift of the Church in holding love, grace and forgiveness as lanterns to guide us.

He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Luke 4:11 NIV)

daybreak

As light broke the horizon, Jesus began to stir.

Zadkiel looked up at his companions. ‘You can go. I can manage, now, but thank you for staying with me.’

Last night, he had needed them. Once the snake fled and the desert ceased its hissing, Jesus had collapsed in exhaustion. All through the darkness, the angels tended him and kept him warm. Michael took watch and warned the wildness away. Gabriel knelt, and called to Word and Wisdom through the stories of the stars. Jophiel sang lullabies, and Zadkiel sheltered Jesus in his wings.

The hills blazed red as the angels rose. Jophiel bowed and left without speaking. Gabriel and Michael masked themselves in splendor, till they were indistinguishable from the light. As his form shifted, Gabriel called out: ‘Courage, Zadkiel. Make him laugh.’

Zadkiel nodded to him, and smiled: their days together never lacked laughter.

Jesus rolled over, and opened his eyes. For a moment, he sensed the shimmering –a presence he’d known from childhood. Then, it eluded him, and he turned to the familiar face of his friend.

‘You’re here!’
‘I am always here.’
‘But you weren’t — these 40 days. I had only the birds for my friends.’

Zadkiel ruffled his feathers, and looked at Jesus coyly.
‘Yes. I’m sure that’s how it seemed.’

Jesus scowled at him and laughed.
‘Oh well, if you insist. Were you the partridge I thought of roasting, or the kestrel who tore at the shrew?’

Zadkiel narrowed his eyes, and sought retaliation.
‘So, what next? What does God’s Beloved want to do today?’
‘You’re not going to let me forget that, are you?’
‘No. I’m not going to let you forget that.’

Laugher hung in the air, but Jesus sensed Zadkiel’s seriousness.
‘And that’s why you’re here?’
‘That is why I am here.’

Jesus thought back across the forty days. He had liked being alone. For a while. He sensed the freedom of it, and there was joy in the huge spaciousness of God. But, if truth be told, it was only nice sometimes. Sometimes, it was frightening and confusing. Sometimes it was far too cold.

‘Well, I’m glad that you are.’ Jesus said, as he reached out to stroke Zadkiel’s feathers, ‘though that day with the partridge? … it was a close run thing.’

Zadkiel chose to ignore him.
‘Since you can’t have partridge, maybe fish?’ Zadkiel asked, eager to be on their way.
‘Fish. Of course. To Capernaum. To the Sea!’

Jesus rose and ran down the valley. Zadkiel watched him joyfully, then took to wing.

Not having and having

‘When I first came here,’ said the old man to his companion, ‘I really thought this was just a temporary place, somewhere I was passing through. I did not value it. Then, after a little, I realised it was a good place for taking one’s time. That was the first step.’ Silence fell. His companion shifted uneasily, and the old man looked at her with some concern.

After a while, he continued, ‘I soon realised that it was a place which was teaching me as much as it was teaching my companions. That was a great leveller. Then I came to see that in this place I could be near God, really near him, in a way I had never managed in the settled land.
Are you all right Rachel?’

Rachel did not speak, but silently got up, moved a little and settled with a small sigh. The old man waited, then went on, ‘I used to think that – this sounds silly. I am not sure I would tell anybody but you. I used to think I could kind-of manipulate God. Go back to places I had once found him, and find him there again. Do things he liked, and then have him protect me because of it. It was in this place I grew out of that. And the odd thing, Rachel, the really odd thing is that after I stopped looking for Him in that one place where I found a burning bush, I found him in every bush.

‘To me’ said Moses, excitedly, ‘every bush, every flower here is full of His glory.’ His companion looked at him disapprovingly. ‘Sorry, said Moses, ‘You are the important one just now. I’ll keep it a bit quieter. You know, I have never been happier. Every day, I feel closer to Yahweh. It is easier and easier to feel Him all around me.

‘I loved my people, I really did, but there was no space, and no peace. Now they are not here, it is as if a great burden is lifted. I am free to be myself for the first time ever. It is,’ he cast a glance at Rachel, and quietened his voice, ‘It is as though my spirit expands to fill all this space now I am alone. I know life in the Land is easy, but this is the place to be aware, to know Yahweh. You know, I think people will always come here when they really want to know Yahweh. I think it is here, and in places like this, that people can find him most easily. It is not a place to hurry through, hoping to get to an easy place. It is a place to come, and stay, until you can see small things, and enjoy small pleasures, and hear Yahweh without him needing to shout. It is difficult here, but if you can only love it, the very struggles of it make life sharp, true. Not having is the great richness.

‘And to think I used to fear being alone here! It is laughable. I have so many companions, not just Yahweh but all of you!’

The goat let out a small distressed bleat, and Moses sprang round to her tail, ‘Ah, not long now, Rachel,’ he comforted her.

On a ridge, far above the oasis and to the left, two men paused. ‘I wonder what terrible thing he did for his tribe to abandon him?’ asked one, ’Is he not a distant kinsman by marriage?’

‘Yes,’ replied the other, ‘he married the old chief’s daughter. I do not know what he did wrong, but it was no failing in his herdsmanship. He has the finest goats for cashmere that I know of, he tends them like a father, and his sheep have thick soft wool and spectacular fertility. He hardly loses a lamb. Yet he is old.’

‘One day he must die,’ agreed the other, ‘The right thing to do then would be to give him honourable burial as a kinsman, and afterwards to care for his flocks.’

‘Surely so fine a herdsman would want that,’ agreed the other, hopefully.

By the oasis, Moses was delivering Rachel of a second daughter. ‘Another fine, healthy kid,’ he assured her, ‘and your sister looks as if she will kid in a day or so. This year we have had a good time of it, haven’t we?’

He looked to the sky-line, and chuckled. ‘You know,’ he told Rachel who was ecstatically licking her twin daughters, ‘I used to worry over what would happen to all of you when I do die, but now I think that Yahweh has that sorted. Though I will put off dying for a year or too yet. There is still much to learn, and life is so good.’