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Enter At Your Own Risk – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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Today is the Eve of the Feast Day of St. Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This monastic church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and tomorrow, August 15, is the 75th anniversary of that dedication.  So a great cause for thanksgiving.

You may not have ever looked behind the organ, but there, on the wall, is a very large and splendid plaque with these words: “To the glory of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In veneration of our Lady St. Mary the Blessed Mother of God, this conventual church of the Society of St. John the Evangelist was built in the year of Our Lord, 1936.”

In England, there are so many churches dedicated to Mary, and in the Middle Ages, England was known as “Mary’s dowry.”  I was ordained priest in the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin in Salisbury, and before coming to America, I was rector of the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Welwyn, Hertfordshire.  And so in my own Christian pilgrimage it seems providential to me that the church, in which so much of my life is now spent, is also dedicated to Mary.

Looking around, what I think speaks most powerfully of Mary are the windows, especially now they have been so beautifully cleaned.  The beautiful blue, so reminiscent of the blue found in the great cathedrals of the Ile de France which were built to honor Mary – Notre Dame, in Paris, Rouen, Reims, Amiens.

Our lovely rose window representing heaven, with Mary being received into heaven, right in the center of the window.  Then below the Rose, in the central panel the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child: robed in sapphire blue and as described in the Book of Revelation Chapter 12, with the crescent moon at her feet, golden rays about her and 12 stars surrounding her head.  In the Lady Chapel there are 5 lancet windows representing the 15 mysteries of the Rosary.  Mary is in the window behind the high altar on my side, with John the Evangelist on the other.

What I really like is in the small window to my right dedicated to Luke the Physician. Traditionally, Luke was also a painter, and here he is painting a portrait of Mary.  It is Luke alone who describes the Annunciation, Mary’s extraordinary encounter with the divine.  The Angel Gabriel imparts the wondrous news that she is to be the mother of the Lord.  Such encounters with God are not things that can be easily hidden.  After Moses had encountered God, his theophany, his face continued to shine with reflected glory.  And when Mary went to visit her cousin Elisabeth, the glory of God shone in Mary, so that even as she approached the house, Elisabeth’s child leapt in the womb.  Even before Mary had said anything Elisabeth knew.  She saw her cousin and cried out “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Lk 1:42)

Mary’s encounter with God at the annunciation, her theophany, was to be the means by which God’s life entered the world in Jesus Christ.  And so for me, Mary is an extremely appropriate patron for a church, because a church, set apart and consecrated as a house of God, is supremely a place of encounter – encounter with the divine.  “Surely the Lord is in this place,” said Jacob.  “This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28)

And this monastic church has, over the decades, been for many, many people, a very real place of encounter with the divine.  At the heart of our sense of mission as Brothers of SSJE is that the doors of the church are open to everyone – whoever you might be, you have a home here – for this is the house of God and God’s love embraces all of humankind.  In our reading from Isaiah today (Isaiah 56:1, 6-8), we hear that marvelous vision of God’s salvation offered to all.  “My house,” we read, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” says the Lord.  You may remember those words displayed in many different languages on a board just inside the narthex, welcoming everyone in.  That board is being renewed and will again be placed at the threshold of the church, welcoming everyone in the name of the Lord.

And yet, I rather wonder if we should put another notice up next to that one.  “Enter at your own risk.” For to encounter the divine can be a risky and even fearful thing!

When I was a student, I remember my first visit to Notre Dame in Paris.  The organ was playing, and it was a bright spring day, and the glass shimmered brilliantly in the clear light.  Suddenly, I saw on the floor next to a pillar some words engraved: “Here Paul Claudel was converted.”  I was intrigued and read about the life of this French playwright.  He was not a believer but wrote that one day he was standing in Notre Dame half hiding behind a pillar and watching the Mass taking place.  He felt that the pillars were like great trees in a forest, and as he stood there, something extraordinary took place.  He said it was as if the Holy Spirit was hiding in that forest, and it suddenly came out and ambushed him, and he believed, and fell to his knees.

Churches can be dangerous places!  God can ambush you here!  My first ever visit to this monastic church, I sat as a visitor at a midweek Evening Prayer – and quite unexpectedly felt that I had come home.  And I’m still here.  Dangerous places!

Because of course it’s not just aesthetics that gives this church its power.  It is the very real presence of God.  This is the place where thousands upon thousands of prayers have been offered.  It is a place where solemn vows are made: monastic vows, baptismal vows, marriage vows, ordination vows.  A place of encounter: men and women who, like Mary, have encountered God, have been ambushed by God, and can never be the same again.  An encounter is so real that we long to express and enshrine it through the making of vows, binding us to God and to each other.

Have you ever known what it is to be ambushed by God?  Have you had an encounter with the divine, which changed your life?

At worship, we are often at our most vulnerable, and most open to such an encounter with God.  But worship can be dulled by repetition.  I think one of the most important ways of revitalizing our experience of worship, is through anticipation – coming to worship full of expectancy that we are about to encounter God.  Coming into church many people take holy water on their forefinger to remind them of their baptism, make the sign of the cross, or bow, or simply pause on the threshold, aware of entering a holy place.  “This is the gate of heaven” – a place of encounter.  So come with expectancy.

Another way of reawakening expectancy is to come to each Eucharist with what is traditionally called an intention: something quite specific that you long for, for yourself or for someone else.  It might be a desire for healing, forgiveness: ask the Lord for some particular gift or grace, and offer that desire to God during worship, full of faith and expectancy.  I wonder what that might be for you today?  What do you most long for – what is your deepest desire?  When you come forward to receive holy communion, offer that prayer, that intention to God.  For it is in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ that we can know the most profound moment of encounter with God.

Praise be to God for this monastic church which has glorified God for 75 years.

Praise be to God for Mary the mother of our Lord, to whom this church is dedicated.

Praise be to God for inviting us into this church where God longs to encounter us – for this is none other than the house of God – the very gate of heaven.

 

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12 Comments

  1. Faith W Turner on November 10, 2016 at 21:47

    I had a spiritual experience in the chapel about 20 years ago. I was praying for guidance about my former husband who lived in Boston. I had re-married and was happily so. I was thinking I should call my former husband while I was in Boston. God clearly said to me, don’t call him I am looking out for him and you must trust me. That was so powerful and I did not call him but let God look after him.

  2. Marsha Wilkins on November 9, 2016 at 14:50

    Your writing really hit home for me today. The repetativeness of worship does lead to, I guess, a certain passivity for me. My church attendance has decreased in the last few months. I will go to church this Sunday with an expectation. I will also walk up to receive the Eucharist with intention.

  3. Rhode on August 16, 2016 at 08:16

    Concealment, surprise, encounter..all of what makes an ambush. That has happened in scripture I have passed by a hundred times and all of a sudden the words jump out at me and I am surprised as I encounter God in a way I never thought of. The very first time this happened I was 17, reading Isaiah 6 …where the prophet describes his vision of God. It was as if I was there. It was the first time I felt, right to the core of me, the very greatness and holiness of God. He must delight in our surprise encounters. (as the scales fall from our eyes).

  4. Christopher Engle Barnhart on August 29, 2015 at 14:08

    Today is special day for my wife. Today she started a process of becoming a Deacon. It will take three year of study. As I have told others, she has been called. I am her support. I have her “back”, I am her support. in this process. This is my calling and I accept this role.

  5. Pam on October 10, 2014 at 16:39

    The gate of Heaven – a place of encounter. Thank you – to go with expectancy. There is much in this.

  6. Mary Dixon Hutcheson on October 10, 2014 at 10:28

    For Brother Curtis.
    Greetings from Alexandria. I just read the lovely note from the Bishop and we will continue to pray for Bishop Tom. I ask that you and the community continue to pray as Genie Wilmer goes through her chemotherapy.
    Thank you.
    Peace, Mary Dixon

  7. Joanne Wilson on October 10, 2014 at 09:44

    Some years ago , my soul nodded yes the first time I sat in your chapel….an affective grace for sure.

  8. Jodi Benson on October 3, 2014 at 10:39

    “come to the Eucharist with intention” 10/2/14…
    At first it was unanticipated: I saw the Spirit hovering over the wine after it was consecrated. After it had happened three times, I began to look for it. I don’t see it at every Eucharist, but I know now it’s always there; it’s just that my eyes may not be fully open to see it. When I do see that disturbance over the raised cup, I tell the priest. Sometimes they are indifferent, but on a few occasions it has been accepted with awe and wonder. That received sharing is worth any number of scoffers!

  9. Jennifer on July 19, 2014 at 12:47

    I did not grow up in the Episcopal Church, and I half-heartedly worshipped my way through a couple of denominations for a portion of my adult life. One evening in New York City as I was walking home from work, I walked past Grace Church Brooklyn Heights. It was Ash Wednesday, and a service was beginning shortly. I went in, and knew right away that I had just come home. God very clearly spoke to me in that place, that night, and my life was changed forever. I never thought it would happen to me, and I’m thankful every day of my life that it did!

  10. June on July 19, 2014 at 09:27

    Ah, Br. Geoffrey,
    How beautifully expressed. How true! I have experienced call in the midst of the Eucharist…on several occasions. We come to the gate, God stands at the gate and knocks, waiting upon our readiness. When we are ready, we are invited in. Thank-you so much for reminding us of the sacred spaces that await our desire.

  11. Selina from Maine on February 25, 2013 at 10:12

    I never knew that the monastery was built the year of my birth . So many terrible and wonderful and ugly and beautiful things have happened since that year in the depths of the depression! Maybe I should make a retreat next year on/around my birthday(1/4)? (Please give my greetings to Jamie.)

  12. Yves Samson on September 8, 2011 at 08:12

    Can you help me dealing with the place of Mary in our prayers? I am incline to think of Mary always in relathionship with her Son. I taught that the rosary was a practice of the roman catholic, not of the anglicans …

    Thank you for you light!

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