|3 Jun 2020|
|SHSK Society - Staying Connected|
The Chapel Service forms an important part our SHSK Society reunions for many of our Old Girls. Returning to the place where they once found a quiet place for reflection or a place to explore their faith and to try and seek answers to some of life's big questions can be an extremely profound experience.
Whilst we couldn't be together in person to enjoy the SHSK Society Garden Party Chapel service, we hope you will listen and enjoy these reflections from our School Chaplain, Reverend Elizabeth. Her words are also written below for you to read.
You may also like to listen to our accompanying recordings from Chapel Choir to recreate a more complete experience!
One of the things characterising the last months is that we have been thrown back onto our inner resources in an unexpectedly profound way. We have had to inhabit a much more closeted, even convent-like existence than most of us ever anticipated and, as monastics have found since Christianity’s earliest days, withdrawal from the hustle and bustle of the world into the desert, either literally, as many early monastics did, or more metaphorically into communities set apart from secular life, a number of truths rise to the surface.
Truths about who we really are; truths about from where we draw energy and life; truths about God - his presence or absence and about his communication with us. Some of these truths may have surprised us both negatively and positively. If we habitually draw energy, bounce and optimism from being with others and real-time community, we will have found being deprived of that a heavy burden, as the days of isolation have lengthened to weeks and weeks to months. Conversely if we habitually draw energy and refreshment from solitude, we may have found our wells unexpectedly replenished. Because we are complex creatures we may have found both at the same time!
Our perceptions of God may well have changed too – we may have found him unexpectedly present in our strange new reality, or unaccountably absent. We may have found our conventional habit of prayer a comforting anchor in hard times, or that it has become increasingly difficult to pray, or again both! We may feel that God has been intently listening to us or that nobody seems to be there. None of this would surprise a monastic – either a contemporary or from the past – withdrawing from the world has always been , and will always be, a crucible whose intensity exercises dynamic change in us and on our perceptions. But the fact that it should not surprise us does not diminish the fact that immersion in a crucible of this kind is a very tough and demanding experience. We may emerge stronger and more resilient, more authentic perhaps, but it is not without cost.
In the Bible there are a number of figures who provide some help with coping with that, I think. Elijah is one and Job is another. I’ve been thinking particularly about Elijah recently – possibly because of his encounter with the widow of Zarephath with only a handful of flour left in her jar which, in light of the fact that flour is very difficult to obtain at the moment, has felt a bit close to home in recent weeks! Of all people, Elijah has every reason to feel God’s presence with him – he hears God speak to him and finds he can rely on what he says; he is able to call on God and find that he answers promptly and effectively, whether that’s to keep the widow of Zarephath’s jar of flour and jug of oil going, to restore her son to life, to ignite the sacrifice on Mt Carmel with consuming fire (despite being drenched with water three times beforehand) or to send rain to the land of Sidon after years of drought. He is so energised by the power of God’s spirit within him that after the business on Mt Carmel he tucks his cloak up into his belt and runs the 25 miles or so to Jezreel ahead of Ahab, riding hell for leather in his horse-drawn chariot. But Elijah suddenly loses his confidence; he’s worn out perhaps, or the extreme nature of the situations he’s found himself in just takes its toll. So he runs away to the desert, sits down under a broom bush and gives up. God who has been so present and sustaining suddenly seems no longer there for him and in complete exhaustion he falls asleep. But God is just as much there as he has ever been – he sends an angel, not just once but twice, with water to drink and freshly baked flatbread, hot from a kind of portable BBQ. He encourages him to sleep and catch up on much-needed rest. Fortified by recovering some of his physical strength, Elijah looks around for God and a sense of his presence and God surprises him – a storm-wind tears across Mt Horeb, loosening and shattering great rocks and battering the landscape but God is not in the wind; an earthquake’s tremors shake the ground Elijah is standing on but God is not in the earthquake; wildfire breaks out in the arid scrub of the Sinai desert but God is not in the flames; once the fire has died down there is silence, a ‘still small voice of calm’ and against all Elijah’s expectations, suddenly God is palpably present to him again.
Elijah reminds us both that God is powerfully and reliably present in human life but also that he is elusive and sometimes hidden, however strong our experience of him may have been in the past. He reminds us very importantly, I think, that it is possible to retrieve our experience of him or indeed to encounter him for the first time after many years.
The 20th C poet RS Thomas was very familiar with God’s presence interspersed with his absence – he refers in one poem to the frustration of ‘God always before us and leaving as we arrive’1. And 1 RS Thomas, ‘Pilgrimages’, Collected Poems 1945-1990, (London: Phoenix, 1993) p364 in another to the fact that ‘We never catch him at work, but can only say, coming suddenly upon an amendment, that here he had been.’2 Our current context has thrown up many paradoxes - the fact that virtual communication stands in so well for live face-to-face communication and yet is no substitute for it, is just one of many. Space to be still and freedom to go about life more slowly sometimes seems wonderful and at other times massively oppressive. God may seem both closer than ever before and yet more remote. Encountering and weathering all this is exhausting and we may be tempted to follow Elijah and just sit down under a metaphorical broom bush and give up. To do so would be premature. As RS Thomas puts it, in another poem, ‘Sea-watching’, ‘Grey waters, vast as an area of prayer that one enters. Daily over a period of years I have let the eye rest on them. Was I waiting for something? Nothing but that continuous waving that is without meaning occurred. Ah, but a rare bird is rare. It is when one is not looking, at times one is not there that it comes.’3 In these long strange weeks may you catch a glimpse of the rare bird of God’s presence, or at least find ‘an amendment’ in your own life that prompts you to say ‘here he had been’. The Revd Elizabeth Birch Chaplain of St Helen and St Katharine’s School June 2020
2 RS Thomas ‘Adjustments’, Collected Poems 1945-1990, (London: Phoenix, 1993) p345
3 RS Thomas ‘Sea-watching’, Collected Poems 1945-1990, (London: Phoenix, 1993) p306