For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…
I can’t help thinking about the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes with all the current interest so many of us have in dates – with the return of children to school this week and next (a relief from home-schooling for some, anxiety about the increased potential for virus-transmission among others); speculation and hopes about when shops, the hospitality industry, and of course hairdressers will be open again; when we’ll be able to gather again with families and friends, worship and meet together again face to face, arrange holidays or know if existing bookings will materialise; and so on. It’s natural to want to know firm specific ‘dates’, and what we’re being given to guide us are described rather as ‘road-maps’; isn’t this a bit ironic in this age of sat-navs, when road-maps are rather old hat?
But there are many hopeful and positive signs around. The days are getting longer; the spring flowers and even the lovely pink blossoms on our camelia tree are coming out; bird-songs and occasional brighter days lift our hearts; and ‘the numbers’ are encouraging, with the roll-out of vaccinations and the clear downward trend of hospitalisations. And, as we journey on through this period of Lent, Easter comes ever-closer, the season above all of hope, promising new life and abundant joy.
And within Lent we are encouraged to reflect as well as to look forward. With Wellington’s Lent booklet and the weekly Bible studies many of us been helped greatly and had increased opportunity to do so. Of course for those who are ‘home-working’ (especially if home-schooling is happening as well) and who have an unrelenting series of zoom meetings most days, lockdown may have brought additional pressures. But others of us have had the chance to adopt and adjust to a more relaxed ‘rhythm of life’, largely free of the discipline and tyranny of the diary.
In my late teens and early to mid-twenties I was a voracious reader. Somehow since then, while I’ve always had at least one book ‘on the go’, other commitments and preoccupations have reduced the time I have spent reading…..until this past year…..And over the past couple of months especially I’ve been reading a succession of thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating, thought-provoking, sometimes challenging books – at present Humankind – a hopeful history, by the Dutch philosopher RutgerBregman – arguing intriguingly, optimistically and very readably, in the face of the doctrine of original sin, that we are hard-wired to be friendly and compassionate and we need to recover our creativity and ability to trust; before that David Attenborough’s A life on our planet – my witness statement and a vision for the future; The elephant whisperer by the South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony; the Booker prize-winning novel, semi-autobiographical and set in Glasgow, Shuggie Bain; and the wonderfully gripping and moving Where the crawdads sing, which topped The New York Times fiction best-seller list of 2019 and 2020 for a striking 32 weeks.
But the deepest impression of all, a little to my surprise, has been made by a different kind of book, Rowan Williams’ Silence and honey cakes, based on a series of lectures he gave in Australia, drawing from the wisdom of the fourth and fifth century desert fathers and mothers. Among many very helpful insights that he offers, highlighting the importance of our belonging together in the community of faith, and reflecting in particular that it is in being faithful in the specific, the local, the material of the here-and-now that we grow spiritually, he says
Our life and death is with our neighbour, the actual here and now context in which we
live…..Only the body saves the soul. It sounds rather shocking put like that, but the
point is that the soul (whatever that is) left to itself, the inner life or whatever you
want to call it it, is not capable of transforming itself. It needs the gifts that only the
external life can deliver: the actual events of God’s action in history, heard by
physical ears, the actual material fact of the meeting of believers, where bread and
wine are shared, the actual wonderful, disagreeable, impossible, unpredictable human
beings we encounter daily in and out of the church. Only in this setting do we become
holy – in a way entirely unique to each one of us.