This article was published in the May to August 2017 issue of Rapport magazine.
Bridget Macauley recognises those everyday moments of life which are charged with God’s presence
It has been said that poetry can enable us to connect the spiritual and material worlds. Perhaps poets and artists are seeking to give expression to our human, and faith, experience by housing these encounters in the ordinary stuff of our everyday lives (for example R S Thomas’s The Bright Field or Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Swan or Galway Kinnel’s Saint Francis and the Sow).
In Graham King’s wonderful poem entitled Matter of Great Moment this connection is made explicit: the first few lines remind us, ‘For God, matter matters: for the Word became flesh. In the beginning was the Meaning, And the Meaning became matter …’
The Creation accounts tell us that God chose to fashion his creatures out of earth, which was brought to life by God’s breath (Genesis 2:7). God made something whole, healthy and connected by pouring His breath, His Spirit, into matter. So why then did church teaching over many centuries get us all disconnected again, creating hierarchies of flesh and spirit at war with each other, elevating heaven high and above earth?
Thankfully in the Christian church, more recently, we have given credence to our physical life and recognised that God can meet us in our human experience and through our personalities and passions. Whilst scripture teaches that there will be struggle between matter and spirit as we seek to follow God (Matthew 26:41, Galatians 5:17, Ezekiel 36:26), it seems to me that we still make that struggle about proving the superiority of the spirit, rather than the struggle that is an inevitable part of real dialogue. It took getting burnt out in ministry and a bout of depression for me to reconnect body and spirit and really let body, mind and spirit have a proper conversation.
Scripture is full of connected ‘opposites’: mountain-top and wilderness, heaven and earth, the now and the not yet, creation and redemption, faith and works. Perhaps it is the movement between these polarities that offers a dynamic, an energy for our Christian discipleship. Possibly my favourite story in the Bible is the account of Jacob wrestling at the Ford of Jabbok (Genesis 32:22–32). It says that Jacob wrestles with this mysterious divine figure until daybreak. It makes me think of the judo class I attended as a child. Two opponents circling each other, getting the measure of the other’s strengths and vulnerabilities, followed by moments of tension and strange intimacy when we grab the other by the lapels and hold on, dancing cheek to cheek. For Jacob this continues until the One seeing and knowing him uses the momentum of the struggle to bring him to his knees. In that struggle Jacob encounters God and he carries the blessing in his body as
he limps into the new day, carrying his new name.
The Bible tells story after story of God’s dealings with his people in the ordinary mess and muddle of their human journeys: A bored Moses turns aside to check out a burning bush which had disturbed his mundane routine herding sheep in the wilderness. Or Jonah, angry and avoiding his responsibilities, encounters God in the tomb of the fish’s belly and is raised (regurgitated even) to a new life. And Job from the depths of his loss hears the poetry of God spoken through the natural world around him. Two friends on the road to Emmaus recognise Jesus as they pour the wine and break the bread for supper.
So perhaps we might look for God in unexpected places, perhaps he might turn up, dressed down, in human skin? Perhaps He might even choose to inhabit us, His creatures, whom He has gifted with humanity, humour and humble earthiness. If matter matters enough to God to send His Son to incarnate it, to become that ‘Matter of Great Moment’ then perhaps we might be saved, redeemed, made whole in and through our earthiness, not despite it.
If matter matters in this way, then it can also provide the raw material of our life of faith and prayer. It means that God will call us to serve Him, to share the Good News of Jesus with and through all the character, peculiarities, woundedness and gifts that have shaped our human journey. Then we can meet God and respond to Him everywhere. What might this look like in practical terms?
- Perhaps when we get up in the morning, we stretch and remember God stretches back to us, extending His grace to us
- Or as we wash we remember the blessing of being made clean, of being forgiven.
- As we dress we give thanks that we have been robed in righteousness and remember that overall we must wear love.
- We stand listening to the to the lunchtime news and let the rising steam from the kettle be our prayers for the world.
- We light the fire and ask God to use the heat of all we feel passionately about to build His kingdom here on earth.
- We hold our coffee mug in our cupped hands like a chalice and we lift up to God all that our human lives are full of.
The gift of our humanity is partly that it insists we live in time and place. The Presence of God is not simply encased in the past and in historical tradition, nor merely hoped for in a prophetic future. We follow God in the here and now with all that our lives are full of, with all that trips us up, with all that makes us laugh, with the mess, the muddle and even the mundane. This is where God is: the Holy Here.
When you take up the bowl of prayer
and fill it with your petitions
that beneath the form you hold
your hands make their own bowl.
This bowl will be filled
with the habits of your hopes,
with your tears sometimes
and with the golden liquid
of your particular joys.
This bowl is shaped, scarred and smoothed
by the unique work of your living.
The lines and creases
of your soul are here
and (enlarged by prayer)
will make their own Magnificat.
No one else can open this book before God;
it is your story you must pray with.
This opening, filling, lifting emptying
are peculiarly yours.
So pray the prayer your hands
And leave fingerprints everywhere
The Holy Here
On a wet day in Lutton Place
I hear the door to the close swing shut
and school shoes scuffing up the stone steps.
The girls are home,
falling through the door.
I shout from the kitchen as I wash
‘Take your dirty shoes off before
you come in’.
My days drip like the rain
gathering somewhere in a vast reservoir of routine.
So why today? why today
should I come out to greet them
and find them standing straight
breathless from the stairs,
ablaze but not consumed
Today I notice the scatter of shoes on the dry ground of our hall
the insight like a sabbath.
A presence has invaded the house.
The dining table is a wasteland of homework books
and half empty lunchboxes
There’s a crease in the carpet of our life
as if the earth beneath our feet
has shifted its focus
and turning aside
the fire is everywhere:
burnt fingers from sibling squabbles,
damp feet peeled pink from wet socks,
the vase on the dining table
a vessel of red wine pussy willow,
and orange tulips
dropping their wide open petals
like scorch marks on the edges of my attention,
smoke signals until I wholly hear.
Here in the hall, the girls home from school
I see flames
in the holy here.
Poems and painting by Bridget Macauley – used with permission.
On this topic at Lee Abbey Devon
Pray the Prayer your Hands can Hold and Leave Fingerprints
everywhere: Meeting God in the Whole of Life
Mon 12 to Fri 16 June 2017
with Bridget Macauley
Making use of visual image, poetry and Scripture, this week will explore how we might come to God with the whole untidy, passionate, uncertain, angry and tender span of our human journey – and still find a welcome in His presence. In addition to the talks there will be creative workshops and reflective prayer resources available.