First Week in Advent — Retrospective
Advent is the season of the readings of Isaiah, that masterful poet whose words reach a crescendo as the month passes.
During a week in Advent I went to five very different churches. On Monday I arrived at Westminster Cathedral to find that Mass was to be held in a side chapel. Why there I wondered. It seemed a somewhat dark, even dreary side chapel. Then the priest arrived and explained. Of course, it was St Andrew’s day. This was his chapel. The priest described it as, in the opinion of some, the finest chapel in the cathedral. He discussed the mosaics depicting where St Andrew had lived out his life of the Gospel. I realised how the subtle understated nature of the chapel captured its beauty. It occurred to me that this was a sort of parable of our faith – what seems to be ordinary, even banal at first comes to life with faith.
On Tuesday I was invited to St Paul’s for Evensong to mark English Heritage giving £250,000 to Lincoln Cathedral for much needed repair and maintenance work. There is no slowly awakening hidden beauty to be found here. As I walked up from the crypt and sat in the choir, the Renaissance glory of the richly gilded and exuberant ceiling hit me like a blow. The Magnificat was in Latin and echoed across the giant space. Here was a parable for me – that faith can hit one like a thunderbolt, not always something slowly awakening, as on Monday.
On Wednesday I went to the Brompton Oratory where I meet a friend for a little prayer meeting every month. I happened to read the account of John Sullivan, an American Deacon who was lecturing recently on his amazing cure from an excruciating back illness through prayer to Cardinal Newman. I had been under whelmed by his story before, but his prose was so moving, so transparently honest and so accurate in its description of an inexplicable pain that I was moved to tears. Here we find a parable that faith can come from prayer and not always like on Tuesday with an invasion of the senses
On Thursday I travelled up to Lincolnshire to go to a carol service at the tiny church of Upton. As we walked towards the church the bells were peeling, the village was dark, the church lit, the readings much loved, the carols familiar. Here it seemed to me that faith can be something deep within us. Traditional, sometimes comfortable seeming and no less good for that than any sudden revelation or insight.
On Friday I went down to Downside for an oblates retreat. The moment I walked into the Abbey I felt as I always do; that this is a second home. That evening as I sat alone in this vast space, with the lights turned off and only a hint of moon light coming in to the sanctuary I felt close to God. Yet even this great building is but a dot of architecture in stone, our galaxy lost in hundreds of millions of other galaxies? Once more the old doubts returned. How could the God of Abraham have created all this? Faith is therefore not a fixture in our minds. It ebbs and flows.
On Saturday I got up early for Vigils. Again the church was utterly black but one of the young Novitiates came in to light a single candle. Its lonely light seemed to hover and flutter for a moment and the rose up, confident – as in the light of Christ. “Lumen Christe”. It reminded me of the single light being lit at the start of the Easter Vigil.
Later on we were asked to read Hebrews 11.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seem… By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of god, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.
It seemed to sum up the week.
When it was dark again after Vespers I sat alone in the church. For the first time I felt that God was close. I didn’t try and pray or talk to God. One doesn’t always need to talk to someone you know and love well, a spouse or an old friend. You can sit in companionable silence. And it felt like that then. No words came or were necessary. I have often found that in a monastery, even staying for a short time, one’s spiritual awareness is brought to a new plane.
Later that night I lay awake thinking about this experience. I wondered if it was chance that in difficult times God brought me to this quiet place.