I sometimes reflect on living the monastic life – how all-consuming it can be. There is always the next thing, and it can be very demanding. But the other week I was talking to my niece Katharine. She had a baby last year and she adores him, but she was telling me what hard work it is – day and night looking after a young child, on call 24 hours a day. Many of you will have had that experience and know exactly what it is like.
I remember a remarkable woman in my parish in England. She had five young children. When I used to visit there it was a maelstrom as they all came bounding up to the front door to greet me. So much energy! So much noise! I said to her once, “Gosh, how do you manage? How do you cope?” She said, “Well, I’ll show you.” We went into the hall and she opened the walk-in cupboard under the stairs, where most people stored their vacuum cleaners. I looked in, and there was a cushion on the floor and a candle. She said, “Every morning I go in there for 20 minutes, and spend time with God.” The children all knew that that was Mum’s special time. In fact, she put a sign on the door when she was in there. The children would never disturb her for those precious 20 minutes. “And that,” she said, “is what keeps me not just sane, but actually very happy.”
Our Gospel today from Mark describes one day in the life of Jesus. And what a day! It was a Sabbath. In the morning he went to Capernaum to the synagogue. While there he taught and healed a man with an unclean spirit. Then, leaving the synagogue, he entered Simon and Andrew’s house and healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Then later in the day and into the evening, the whole city gathered around the door of the house and he cured all who were sick or possessed by demons. Then we imagine he collapsed into bed! (It reminds me of a day in the parish. You may have had such days!)
How did he cope with that kind of punishing activity day after day? He coped by getting up very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and going to a deserted place to pray.
When the woman in my parish went under the stairs for her quiet time with God, her children knew they weren’t to come looking for her or to disturb her. But not the disciples! The disciples came looking for Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel the verb used to describe them looking for him is an extraordinary one. It’s only used here – nowhere else. The Greek word literally means “to hunt down.” So we read later in the Gospels, of Jesus going a long way off, and even up a mountain, to pray, to be alone with his Father.
Why was this time with his heavenly Father so important to Jesus? It wasn’t, I think, about needing a bit of rest, replenishment, a bit of peace and quiet. It was something more.
You may know the expression “Oh, I was all bent out of shape!” Life bends us out of shape. Whether it’s bringing up children, living together in a monastery, working hard to provide for your family – life bends us out of shape. When we are bent out of shape by the demands and knocks and struggles of life, we can actually change our shape! Life’s stresses can change our faces, change the way we walk, how we hold ourselves. We’ve literally been bent out of shape. But more seriously, life can damage the shape of who we are. Our sense of identity can be distorted and bent out of shape.
I believe that Jesus’ deep need to spend time alone with his heavenly Father was above all about his need to re-establish his sense of identity. Remember when he was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The temptations were about his identity: “If you are the Son of God…” And all through his life Jesus needed, day by day to, as it were, touch base with his Father to re-establish and strengthen his deepest knowledge of who he most truly is. He needed to hear every day those divine words spoken at his baptism: “You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And of course, if that is true for Jesus, it is even more true for each of us.
One of the joys of offering retreats at Emery House is seeing folks arrive, perhaps on a Friday evening for a weekend retreat. So often they arrive looking, well, “all bent out of shape”! But the joy is to see them Sunday afternoon as they leave: shoulders relaxed, faces peaceful, renewed and back in shape.
It is partly to do with walking in the lovely countryside, eating good food and so on – but it’s something more. I often say to a guest at the start of a retreat that if you’re glad to be here, God is delighted you are here, because God’s got you all to himself for a whole weekend! For in those precious days of quiet, so many hear those gracious words addressed to them: “YOU are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words telling them again who they most truly are! They come to know again their truest identity as beloved children of God. They hear again how much God loves them.
Well, we don’t all need a retreat, or are able to go on retreat. But we can, each and every one of us, find our cupboard under the stairs! It doesn’t have to be under the stairs, but some place where we can be still and undisturbed for a few minutes every day, to “touch base” with our God, and to hear again who we are. To say, “My Lord and my God!” and to hear “You are my beloved child and I love you.” To come, just as we are, all bent out of shape, to experience being held by our heavenly Father, being comforted, being forgiven, being strengthened, and being loved. And who doesn’t want that!?
What a gift! What a blessing! We only have to ask for it. We only have to be still enough to hear it and receive it.
What I’m talking about is actually what’s happening now. Each one of us has set aside this precious hour on this Sunday morning to come to church. We are here after a busy week. What has this week been like for you! Have you been battered about by demands, stressful situations, pain, or worry? Where do you feel out of balance, even a little bent out of shape? We come here to be re-formed, re-shaped into our true shape, our true selves, which is the image and likeness of God.
As we praise God in our singing, hear the Word of God in Scripture, and receive Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion, God’s gentle hands are re-shaping us, re-forming us, like a potter with the clay.
But we can allow God to restore us, not just on Sunday, but every day, as Jesus did, going to our cupboard under the stairs, to be held by God, to be comforted, forgiven, strengthened and loved.
Just being still… in the presence of the Lord, and waiting upon God, as God restores us to whom we most truly are – beloved children of God.
The text that I so often use in my own time of quiet is one that we heard earlier today. It’s from Isaiah, and it’s so beautiful. You may want to write it on a card and take it with you into your time of quiet. As we close, I commend it to you:
“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.
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