Thought for the week - 6 February
To many people in the world at large, what we are doing here this morning is a waste of time. Some of course may value the music, or the companionship or a few other things. But the religious elements of what we are doing, the liturgy, the prayer is at worst misguided at best a psychological prop. Many people find their fulfilment in other religious, social and or cultural activities. Perhaps sometimes, if we are totally honest, we might feel like that too. Do I need to be in church? Does prayer work? Is God there at all?
Such doubts, such concerns are a common feature of pretty much every spiritual journey. Some Christian writers have made exploration of those times of doubt and waiting a focus of their spiritual quest. One such writer, St John of the Cross, along with others, described these spiritual experiences as ‘The Dark night of the soul.’ These experiences and their ramifications are far too complex to explore here, but sometimes we are told, to put it very very simply, God hides himself in order that we mind find him again anew, and sometimes experience his presence more clearly. In very simplistic human terms, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder.’
This theme comes up repeatedly in Biblical literature, especially in the poetic sections including the psalms.
Psalm 10 “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
Isaiah 45 “Truly you are a God who hides himself.”
At recent conference one of our speakers talked about a slightly different understanding of ‘Dark Night.’ He spoke about how, on a dark but moonlit night, our senses can be better attuned. We begin to see things we do not normally notice as our eyes become accustomed to the semi-darkness. In other words, God reveals himself through darkness or seeming absence. Sometimes we need to peel away our common expectations and assumptions to reveal hidden meanings.
But and this is very very important, to experience God anew, to see him in the dark as it were, we need to be where he most often is.
Jesus knew that his disciples, the ones he was calling in this passage, would experience profound times of darkness in their following of Jesus. There would be deep deep times of darkness.
Perhaps Jesus is giving these fishermen disciples an insight into this truth. The fishermen had been out all-night fishing and had caught nothing. Jesus tells them to put out again, to do what they had been doing all night. They resist of course, perhaps they are even a little cross. But they do as Jesus tells them. Then completely contrary to their expectations, they catch a huge haul of fish. The disciples have experienced what Jesus can unexpectedly do when they do what he asks them. So profound is this experience, so life-changing, that when Jesus asks them to follow him, they do – leaving everything else behind.
In this period between Epiphany & Lent, the Church is preparing us for the difficult times we shall experience as we walk with Jesus through his passion and death.
When we feel that God is far away, when we are bored with coming to church perhaps, or feel that Jesus has abandoned us, when like the fishermen, you feel washed up on the shore. Listen to Jesus, do what he tells you.
“Pray like this” says Jesus. And above all, “Do this in remembrance of me.” When you next find yourself in the dark night of the soul, try to relax into the moonlight of sacrament and scripture.
As T.S. Eliot so wonderfully put it:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.