Encountering God in Holy Places

I have prepared this series of talks under the banner of “Encountering God” because I want to convey something of the unexpected as well as the looked for opportunities to draw close to God or to be a little more aware of God’s presence on occasion.

The Bible is full of examples of people encountering God and the experience of Christians throughout history has been one of longing for, seeking and finding encounter with God. Some biblical encounters are about conflict with God. One thinks of Jonah squaring up to God or Jacob wrestling with God. In the gospels, post-resurrection encounters with the Risen Lord bring peace, healing, but also commission to go out into all the world spreading the good news of salvation. I wanted, therefore, to set these talks in an ambience of encounters that might challenge us as well as encounters which might console or encourage us.

How we feel about encountering God will depend, to some extent, on what we believe about God: what God is like. Perhaps your God is high and mighty and lives in incomprehensible light. Perhaps you prefer God to be in heaven and you don’t bother God if God doesn’t bother you! I suspect, however, that as you have come along this evening, your God is perhaps more like the one in psalm 139 who has sought you out and knows you.

Hopefully you believe that your God is a God who loves you unconditionally and wants to draw close to you: the God of St John who states that “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.”

It is not so much about how close we feel we are to God but how close we actually are.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote that God is nearer than hands and feet; nearer than breathing. But perhaps that idea is just too awesome to contemplate, at least, a lot of the time. If we were perpetually conscious of the presence of God we never get a thing done!

But, if we cultivate a disposition of openness to the possibility of owning the presence of God, becoming more God-aware, perhaps learning from our Christian heritage in order to do so, we may find that we do two things:

First, we might the better fulfil the first part of the answer Jesus gave to the scribe about which is the first of all the commandments: He said: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

and secondly, we shall allow ourselves to receive the grace we need to continue our discipleship, reaching out to the world, fulfilling the second part of Jesus’ response to the scribe, in loving and serving our neighbour.

This second point is what I call the ‘I.O.T. principle’: the ‘in order that…’ principle. We come to the fountain of life ‘in order to’ drink deeply ‘in order that’ we might go on: get on with all that God has given us to do. If we neglect the invitation to draw near to God we are more likely to try to do things in our own strength and, further, we deprive ourselves of the quiet joy of a relationship with God.

When I was a curate a very elderly and rather stern deaconess warned me that the busier I got the more time I would need for prayer. She didn’t mean that the more I was engaged in parish ministry, the more intercessory prayer I would need to make. She was referring to the essential ‘isness’ of relationship with God which vitally balances the ‘doingness’ of serving the needs of our neighbour.

This close and life-giving encounter is not self-indulgence. That would be like saying “I only eat breakfast because it tastes delicious” whereas the truth is that I eat breakfast because it gives me energy for all I must do during the morning, however it can taste delicious.

In the course of the next few months I will offer reflections on some of the different ways Christians have encountered God over the centuries.

Encounters with God in the Bible have something of the extraordinary about them but the experience of Christians in the past two thousand years is that encountering God need not be accompanied by bright lights, visions, or by ghostly apparitions. There are accounts of witnesses, in every generation, for whom encounters with God have been without sound effects or spiritual CGI graphics. Ordinary folk encountering an extraordinary God in ordinary ways.

Crucial to my approach over these talks is the concept of God as reaching out to us in unconditional love. Supremely, that reaching out came in the person of Jesus Christ and the subsequent out-pouring of his Holy Spirit, not only on the Day of Pentecost but continually.

Since the coming to earth of the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, in his life, his passion, death and rising, creation cannot be the same. God, in Jesus, has left his signature in all creation: of which you and I are a part. God is not a distant potentate. God is deeply engaged with the world. Encountering God has taken on a whole new richness.

If we think about it, there are times, seasons, circumstances, places, when or where we can catch a sense of God’s presence. But what do I mean by sense? I call it using our ‘inside eyes’ and ‘our inside ears….’

Such inner sense is cultivated by four, possibly five things: disposition, preparation, anticipation, and patience. And who knows what it else just makes that sense of the presence of God that tiny bit clearer? It is sometimes called ‘numinous’.

Times when we are aware of the closeness of God are sometimes called ‘thin places’ (an expression which comes from the Celtic and Northumberland Christian traditions). ‘Thin places’ are those occasions when the veil drawn between us and God seems especially thin.

But what, you may ask, if I sense nothing of the presence of God? What’s wrong with me?

Periods of time when we sense nothing of the presence of God are also the common experience of God’s people. The sixteenth century Spanish mystic, St Teresa of Avila, was without the consolation of sensing the presence of God for twenty three years. It is said that during the hours of prayer she would shake the hour glass to make the sand go through quicker! Then, one day, praying before a crucifix she burst into tears and, filled with consolation, she set about reforming the entire Carmelite order.

In this first talk I would like to offer a little reflection on how ‘holy place’ has been important to Christians in fostering encounters with God.

A sparse hillside and a flock of sheep doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a holy place but when Moses encountered God it was made clear to him that it was indeed a holy place. “Take off your shoes”, says God, “for the place where you are standing is holy ground”. Even if I were to offer no other examples, this account tells us that what makes a place holy is the presence of God in that place and in that personal encounter.

The road to Damascus was likely to have been quite unprepossessing yet it was the place of encounter for Saul of Tarsus (later St Paul). The beachside barbecue to which the post-resurrection Jesus invited his disciples was just a beach, but what makes it a holy encounter is not the place, as such, but the presence of the Risen Lord.

A word in passing here in case anyone is thinking that Moses, Saul, or the eleven disciples were very special people and not like us. I should remind you that Moses was on the run for murdering an Egyptian guard; Saul had been persecuting Christians and was complicit in the murder of St Stephen, and the eleven disciples had much to answer for! However, one thing they all had in common, was the I O T principle. God spoke to Moses in order that he should go and rescue the Israelites. Saul was challenged by God in order that he might now stop persecuting Christians and indeed, be a leader among them, and that motley crew of disciples met with Jesus in order that they would go on in peace and do great things for the kingdom of God.

So, it would seem that places are holy because God is present but we have already acknowledged that God is everywhere so does that mean all places are holy places to us? In theory, yes of course, but our experience is that thin places, special places, favourite places to meet with God, may be precious few. Some places touch our senses more than others: perhaps a sunset, a raging sea, a quiet corner of the house or garden, a church or chapel.

Having a disposition of openness to being surprised by finding ourselves in a thin place is one thing. Knowing of a place, a space, a locus, where we have found, or where we believe we might find that thin place, is another and requires of us, not only disposition but, preparation and anticipation.

I am not a bird watcher but I know a spiritual writer and poet who is. She has been known to come up to Rutland Water where she, and others, patiently wait to spot a particular species of wildlife.

In her book, Watching for the Kingfisher, she remarks that drawing close to God is a bit like watching for kingfishers. Sometimes one just has to turn up and be patient, and not get worked up if a kingfisher doesn’t appear. In that analogy Ann Lewin demonstrates the disposition of openness to the possibility of encounter, she implies preparation and travelling to the place of encounter, and the anticipation that an encounter will happen, but being philosophical if it doesn’t.

Here we might reflect on how, in our Christian heritage, and rooted in our Jewish heritage before that, is the notion of travelling to a holy place. We call it ‘pilgrimage’. Perhaps we think of pilgrimages to the Holy Land or to Canterbury, but part of our tradition, too, has been pilgrimage to our local cathedral. Do we ever think that when we come to church, on Sunday, for example, that we make a pilgrimage to a place where we are open to the possibility of encounter with God, especially, perhaps in the sacrament of holy communion? We don’t expect to be moved to tears or to be moved at all on every occasion but, is church-going, for you, pilgrimage to a thin place, at least occasionally?

Most of the encounters with God recorded in the Bible were one-to-one encounters even though the consequence of them might have involved many other people. But pilgrimage has something important to say about the people of God travelling together: sharing their hopes and aspirations; the joys and trials of Christian discipleship. (Here Raymond read from his book Life Shaping Spirituality, p182, a pilgrim’s account of his experience).

I mentioned the Jewish history of pilgrimage. There were, as you may know, rules and regulations that required God’s ancient people to visit the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the psalms allude to the journey being made to the Temple. These are echoed in words in preparation for the Eucharist: “I will go unto the house of God, to the house of my joy and gladness”.

The reading we heard earlier is a description of Isaiah’s pilgrimage to the Temple and how the sights and sounds of the worship created a thin place: a sense of the presence of God and of the heavenly host. Interestingly, some 700 years later, the cry of “holy, holy, holy”, was in use in early Christian Eucharistic liturgy (Attributed to St James). The Sanctus, as we now call it, is the oldest surviving piece of Christian liturgy.

Setting that ancient vision of Isaiah to a 17th century French carol, and to the beat of a drum, and introducing a saxophone into the mix, might sound like a strange thing to do, but I want to offer you that in the form of a CD track (5½ minutes). It might attract you. It might repel you or challenge you.

To aid your reflection I have prepared a sheet of paper with the text from Isaiah and the words of the carol as well as the scrap of first century liturgy. Don’t use it if you don’t want to. You may want to reflect on where have been for you holy places. Or you may just want take the opportunity to draw close to God or to be aware that God draws close to you.

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the threshold shook at the voices of those who called and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Isaiah 6:1-8 NRSV

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us, now and always. Amen.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of Kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of Lords in human vesture –
In the Body and the Blood-
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads it vanguard on the way,
As the Light of Light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of Hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraphs,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia! Lord most high.

Liturgy of St James Tr. G. Moultrie.

Raymond ended his talk with the playing of: Christian Forshaw: Sanctuary, track one, Mortal flesh: a rendition of the hymn Let all mortal flesh keep silence.

© Raymond Tomkinson
5 February 2017