A GHOST ORCHID, the rarest wildflower in Britain, has been found
in the depths of a Herefordshire beech wood. The tiny translucent
plant had been presumed extinct for 23 years. For botanists, it
seems like the discovery of the Holy Grail.
To descry God in the rare, glorious,
and beautiful is not difficult. The smile of a child, a moving
rendition of Messiaen's L'Ascension, a joyful family
reunion after a soldier's return from Afghanistan, or a timeless
moment between lovers are all rich sources for revealing the divine
presence. So, too, is a pilgrimage to a holy place such as
Walsingham or Iona. But the Christian journey makes far more taxing
demands than this.
Paul ups the stakes in the letter to
the Colossians. He says of Christ, "all things were created by
him," and "in him all things hold together." He is claiming that
the Christ-presence is infused into every facet of existence, not
just in those aspects of it which we find favourable. The challenge
is to unearth it. The deprivations, cruelty, violence, prejudice,
and sheer sadness that confront us as we view creation make this a
daunting, if not impossible, task. But that is being
When I was an inexperienced curate in
the early 1950s, my vicar gave me the task of conducting the
funeral of a ten-year-old girl. I approached her house in fear and
trembling, and was immediately asked whether I would say a prayer
over the open coffin.
To my surprise and bewilderment, I
found myself being upheld by the unmistakable swirl of prayer
filling the room, the pervasive sense of peace, the compassionate
love and bravery of the parents, and the serenity of the dead
child. The presence of God in that house of sorrow was
Years later came a bleaker scenario: a
top-security prison and a young man serving life for murder. Not
much room for God in all this, I thought, as I joined the
tight-lipped queue of waiting visitors. I was wrong.
The young man told me that he was torn
apart with remorse for the crime that he had perpetrated during a
bar-room brawl, and longed for divine forgiveness.
There was more. Seeing my clerical
collar, his girlfriend waylaid me in the waiting room. She had been
loyal throughout his trial and the years of his imprisonment, but
was under familial pressure not to marry a killer. What should she
do? I asked the obvious question: "Do you love him?" and was
greeted with a resounding "Yes".
Some time later, she wrote to tell me
that they were happily married. Even in this unpromising setting,
there were sparks of the divine to be found in the man's penitence,
and the woman's faithful waiting.
There are situations so depraved that
they seem to be intrinsically evil, and devoid of any potential for
redemption. I think of genocide, torture, brutality to children,
and mass killing. Here, there is only one possibility, and that is
to lift what we find unbearable up into the presence of God, and to
let the light of the Holy One take over. Human love has its limits,
but God's love is infinite and all-embracing.
The point at which we reach spiritual
maturity and fullness comes when we can discern the redemptive
power of Christ within the heart of the world's pain and
wickedness. Few achieve such exalted and prayerful heights. As so
often, it is the poets who point the way. "But deep in the darkness
is God," the German mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke, said. The Welsh
priest R. S. Thomas echoed those words: "The darkness is the
deepening shadow of your presence."
Perhaps they were both well on the way
to discovering the Holy Grail.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired
priest living in Yorkshire.