Lent 2 Year C 13 March 2022
Christ Church Cathedral
Fr Richard Peers SMMS, Sub Dean
I know what God looks like.
Would you like me to show you?
Well, I thought I’d start with three volunteers. Just to make sure that it’s not too much of a shock.
Henry, Beni and Pascahl are going to help me out.
[Choristers: look in the box one at a time]
Are you surprised. Don’t tell anyone until the end of the sermon.
One more test for you:
“I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say ‘hello, goodbye,’ I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”
Who said that?
The White Rabbit in Alice is late for his own life. he has no time.
In the gospel we have just heard Jesus uses three words for time. Today, tomorrow and the next day.
In my imagination Jesus has a rather wry sense of humour which is well demonstrated here. I can just picture a half smile on his lips. he is not going to hurry for anyone. he has all the time in the world. Which, of course, quite literally, he does.
As we know this church was for 400 years or so the home of a community of Augustinian Canons. As well as the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo who lived in Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries – which they would have read daily they would have been familiar with the other writings of Augustine. We can be sure that they would have known well his most famous book, the Confessions.
Sometimes the Confessions is described as an autobiography, even, perhaps, the world’s first autobiography. Although it does include much autobiographical detail it is very much more than just that. The second part of the book is a theological treatise. In it Augustine is concerned in particular with memory and time.
It is time I want us to think about today.
Time passes. Sometimes it passes slowly, sometimes it runs away with us.
The time from the writing of the book of Genesis to the the writing of the letter to the Philippians, mere centuries, a tint moment in the history of the universe. The time since the writing of the Gospel of Luke to our time now two millennia. the time since the Augustinian canons left here til now half a millennia.
But it’s not these great arcs of time I want to think about but the time of our own lives. the moments that make up our days and months and years and how we use them.
Centuries after Augustine at the time when there were Augustinian canons here at St Frideswide’s Priory, there was a great flourishing of spirituality here in England, particularly in the English Midlands and East Anglia. I’m thinking, of course, of Julian of Norwich, Marjory Kemp of Lynne and the unknown author of a little book The Cloud of Unknowing.
In their own way each of these fourteenth century writers was deeply influenced by Augustine of Hippo. But it is particularly the author of the Cloud and his understanding of time that I think is so fascinating.
The Cloud describe how there is a sort of cloud obscuring our view of God, stopping us seeing God. he (most people think it was a man) writes:
“Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.”
And he describes a technique of prayer for doing just that. Beating again and again at that cloud.
The way he suggests is choosing a word to repeat over and over again in our prayers. Most writers and commenters have misunderstood what the author of the Cloud is suggesting. This is not a phrase, it is not like an Eastern mantra, it is not like the Jesus Prayer. He is insistent that the prayer word should be a single syllable. he hives some examples God or Love, or even, and here I think he has the same wry smile on his face as Jesus in the Gospel, even the word ‘sin’.
The point is that the meaning of the word is completely irrelevant. It is the length of the word that is significant. I think that the Cloud is trying to help us reach awareness of the very shortest possible length of time, the moment in which we can wake up and experience the whole of that moment. To switch analogies it is a bit like the subtle knife in Philp Pullman’s book that can cut into time and experience something more.
I first started practising this ay of prayer just a few years ago, I use the word God and repeat it out loud over and over again. I sometimes start by doing this quite quickly but soon get into a rhythm that matches my breath.
Last week two small groups of people gathered in my dining room to meditate together. I’ve been teaching meditation for over 30 years.
Two things strike me about what happens when people meditate. Over and over again when I’ve taught meditation to children I child will say “It’s like there’s somebody there.” Yes!
And whatever state of anger of resentment people live in when they meditate they experience a sense of kindness. I was Head teacher of a tough inner city school in Lewisham and taught meditation to the whole school. even the toughest, most streetwise pupil experienced this sense of kindness in meditation.
Augustine knew what God is like. Augustine took seriously the beginning of the book Genesis just a few Chapters earlier than the reading we heard today.
God created us, Genesis tells us, in his image and likeness.
[Get the choristers out again: what is in the box? a mirror]
God’s first revelation of Himself is ourselves.
Augustine famously described elements of the human personality as reflecting the nature of god as Trinity, sometimes referring to the three elements of memory, understanding and will in this way. I don’t think we have to worry too much about labelling those elements. What Augustine knows is that when we examine ourselves, reflect on ourselves, we will find God.
This is why he is so obsessed with time, like the White rabbit we lose ourselves in our busy-ness in the endless flow of events. When we stop and experience just now fully and completely then we can see God.
Augustine would have known the Delphic aphorism ‘Know thyself’ through the writings of Plato. In his Confessions he is not interested in the details of his own life for their own sake but only in so far as God reveals himself in them.
Today, tomorrow and the next day Jesus says coolly in today’s Gospel.
There is far less biography of Jesus than we would wish in the gospels. Even less an examination of his personality. We have to glimpse this as we do here in his coolness in the face of those who will lead him to his death. In his sense of being completely at home in his own skin. Nothing is going to deter him.
The final editors of the book of psalms chose a very beautiful text to begin the psalter. Psalm, it is a reflection on the Torah God’s law which as Augustine would say is imprinted in the very fabric of the universe and of our human nature. When we meditate on that law day and night as Jesus did we will be like a tree that is planted by flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade.
Dear friend, we are exhausted by plague and war. the world is weary.
I promise you that if you practice this way of prayer you will be deeply refreshed.
Please indulge me this morning and let’s spend some moments in prayer. I am often amused in church that those of us who lead worship ask for a few moments silence and then start talking straight away. When I pray I often use a sand timer to measure the silence in my prayer.
One minute, two minutes, three, five or ten … !
Well, I will be kind this morning! Just two minutes.
Will it go slowly or quickly for you? In the silence what ill you find? The psalmist says: Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am God.