Sermon for Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday), Mark Laynesmith
Everything has changed. Who imagined a week ago that we would be here?
Back then, as I planned to preach this Sunday I had begun to think about speaking of Julian of Norwich. Julian was a female English mystic – she lived in (surprise surprise) Norwich and she wrote a book about a series of 16 visions she had on May 13th, 1373. She called them The Revelations of Divine Love.
The connection was going to be Mother’s Day or ‘Mothering Sunday’ as the more finickity will emphasise: that middle Sunday of Lent when a drop of Catholic devotion to Mary descends upon the Lenten liturgy and in some places more daring clergy sport rose-coloured vestments.
The link (if you’re wondering) would have been Mothers. In something totally daring for her day, Julian addressed God and Jesus as ‘Mother’:
“Jesus Christ … who … overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.”
And so, I was expecting the sermon might have been about the way in which care – and especially maternal care – finds its root in God. I would have said that it is divinely beautiful. I have seen that up close in the miracle of birth and in the miracle of Jo’s my wife’s care for our kids. And of course that sermon would necessarily also have included reflection on the absence of mothering – the aching yearning for being a mother than many women have; or the ambivalent feeling of being a mother that some experience; or, indeed, the terrible sense of betrayal and confusion where someone’s mother has been unable or unwilling to play that role.
So much for a normal mothering Sunday. Current events have thrown everything up in the air.
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, chapter 9, we hear of a man born blind. ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?’ ask the disciples, doing what we often do in the face of chaos and suffering: wanting to find a reason. John’s account has Jesus replying that the man was born blind ‘so that God’s works might be revealed’. I think it would be a mistake to hear this as if God intended the man’s suffering in order to make him a prop in Jesus’s teaching ministry. Rather, I think John’s Jesus is saying he isn’t interested in what has brought us to this moment, he’s interested instead in how we move on from it: in the moment of chaos it is possible to act in a way that God’s works are revealed…
And, indeed, some of us have may have noticed some unexpected signs of goodness emerging from our current darkness.
I have noticed a remarkable flourishing of intentional communication – reaching out to people in need; deliberately contacting people who we might otherwise only see by chance. I have found myself adept at Zoom (well reasonably) and noticed my heart lift when I’ve seen someone who I have not seen for a while. Using this technology in the Chaplaincy we’ve held four online prayer meetings in two days – and, curiously, more people have attended these prayer sessions than would normally do so in the physical world. These social ties, these acts of community, that we take for granted now seem surprisingly precious and vital.
I have noticed that our attitudes to social and economic well-being are being reassessed in radical ways. Once there was no magic money tree and talks of a guaranteed minimum income were a Scandinavian fantasy; now a right of centre government is (apparently) guaranteeing a certain level of income. What precedents, I wonder, might this set for the future and our views of what is possible? What might being forced to work from home or work flexibly have on our views of what we do, how we do it and why. Is it possible that greater wisdom might emerge?
I notice, too, that many of us are now realising how enormously dependent we are on what it now appears are all too fragile social structures: on key workers in hospitals, in schools, in local government, in frontline emergency services. Might it lead to a rejuvenated desire to value the whole of our social network, rather than just isolated individuals?
And I have been noticing nature, too. Just as the crisis has caused many of us to stop and reflect on what is important and drop what is not, the very waters of the Venice Lagoon have dropped their sediment from the stirring up of continuous tourism, and fish and dolphins are again seen. A porter on campus told me how he was noticing birdsong, no longer drowned out by flights and cars. Emissions of C02 and pollutants are down – there are places where people are literally breathing easier. Could it be that we might just realise now how dependent we really are on taking our environment seriously?
In other words, I find myself wondering what good, out of all this awfulness, might we discover, preserve and develop?
None of this is to ignore that many of us are struggling under enormous stress: some people are finding themselves overwhelmed with work; some face the terror of too little; many look at financial uncertainty; there is the fear for self and for relatives; the suffering of isolation and its effects on mental health; the greed and selfishness of some; the deaths of loved ones; and we cannot forget that there are countries far poorer than the UK that will find it far harder to respond. These too are true and real experiences.
As I mulled these things over this week I found that Julian of Norwich remained with me. For what I didn’t mention earlier, though some may already have seen the connection, was that Julian was writing in isolation. She was what is called an anchorite, a hermit, who voluntarily cut herself off from society remaining in a cell attached to her local parish church where she spent her days in prayer and study. What I also failed to mention was that Julian was living in the same century as the Black Death. She was six when the plague first hit England. It returned when she was nineteen and again when she was twenty-seven. Historians estimate that these recurrent waves wiped out somewhere between a third and two thirds of the population. (Compare that with the perhaps less than 1% mortality rate of Corona).
And yet, from this isolated woman living in the midst of catastrophically awful illness, you will not find a single reference to the Black Death in her book. On the contrary what you will find there, among much else, are the famous words: “all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well…” Her visions are so remarkably positive for she was saturated in the ultimate revelation which is that God is love. So in touch with that caring mother-like love was she, that all else seemed to slip away.
Another scriptural passage has been doing the rounds in my head. It’s from Acts chapter 3. Like John’s blind man, this too concerns a beggar, this time a crippled man who is sitting helpless by the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem when the apostles Peter and John pass by. The man calls out for help. ‘Silver and gold I have none…’ says Peter ‘but what I have I give you’ (before healing the man!). Silver and gold I do not have either. Waves of feeling useless and fearful periodically sweep over me, as they may do you, too.
But what, at our best, we have is this, and it is what Julian had: a belief that when we are in touch with the love of God, when we have spaces in prayer for that encounter, more often than not, more often than not, we find a presence there that meets us amidst the chaos, that helps us to stand up and walk and do good.
What that encounter looks like for each of us will be different. For some it happens in silent stillness; others in words and liturgies; for some it happens in the active creative work of writing or making; for others it may involve appreciating art, music or nature; or a million other ways. But each of us can do this thing called prayer and find ourselves met. I’ll share some links to a couple of on-line resources if you’d to revisit how you pray best.
Stephen Dilley, our talented pianist, and an English teacher has been sharing poems this week (another unexpected moment of goodness). I end by sharing one of my own favourites written by P J Kavanagh. The death of Kavanagh’s first wife, Sally, forms the backdrop to this poem’s description of solitary darkness. Such grief can take personal forms – like that now being felt by our vicar Claire and her husband Chris at the loss this week of their nephew; or it might take social form – the shock we’re all feeling. Kavanagh speaks of being met in the midst of such darkness. I take from it that prayer can help us not to be overwhelmed by fear, to live courageously and with compassion for others. The poem is entitled Beyond Decoration.
Stalled, in the middle of a rented room,
The couple who own it quarrelling in the yard
Outside, about which shade of Snowcem
They should use. (From the bed I’d heard
Her say she liked me in my dressing-gown
And heard her husband’s grunt of irritation.
Some ladies like sad men who are alone.)
But I am stalled, and sad is not the word.
Go out I cannot, nor can I stay in,
Becalmed mid carpet, breathless, on the road
To nowhere and the road has petered out.
This was twenty years ago, and bad as that.
I must have moved at last, for I knelt down,
Which I had not done before, nor thought I should.
It would not be exact to say I prayed;
What for? The one I wanted there was dead.
All I could do was kneel and so I did.
At once I entered dark so vast and warm
I wondered it could fit inside the room
When I looked round. The road I had to walk down
Was still there. From that moment it was mean
Beyond my strength to doubt what I had seen:
A heat at the heart of dark, so plainly shown,
A bowl, of two cupped hands, in which a pain
That filled a room could be engulfed and drown
And yet, for the truth is in the bowl, remain.
Today I thought it time to write this down,
Beyond decoration, humble, in plain rhyme,
As clear as I could, and as truthful, which I have done.
(From ‘Collected Poems’, Carcanet Press 2001)
Some related online resources
On Julian of Norwich: http://juliancentre.org/
Forms of written daily prayers: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/join-us-service-daily-prayer
Daily podcasts / audio prayers: https://pray-as-you-go.org/
A practical book on different kinds of prayer by a former bishop of Oxford:
John Pritchard: How to Pray: A practical handbook. (Kindle version here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Pray-practical-John-Pritchard-ebook/dp/B008MXZ674/)