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Dark vision reordered

09 November 2012

Then there are showers of divine sparks, says David Bryant

THE parish retreat is in full swing. The Bible readings have a lumin­osity that overwhelms us, and the speaker's words fire the heart.
The final eucharist is a prayer-filled power­house, which leaves the par­ticipants with a palpable sense of the Christ-presence. The whole world seems charged with the grandeur of God.

The final meal comes; there is a chorus of farewells, a flurry of suitcases, and all head for the road and distant home. On the instant, the vision dies; the dream ends, and we are back in the harsh world of the secular. Once we are on the way home, bleak housing estates come and go, industrial decay shows its ugly face, and all is sound and fury.

Pressing down suffocatingly on our shoulders, extinguishing the last flickers of our heightened spiritual­ity, is the thought of what lies ahead: the daily chores of running a house­hold, the demands of those who depend on us, the inexorability of having to earn a living. I have often returned with a car-load of retreat­ants, glanced in the mirror, and seen them tearful at the memory of what they have so abruptly lost. They seem overwhelmed by the chal­lenges now confronting them. God has vanished.

There is a fallacy here. It is not the case that God is present in all his fullness during a retreat or parish trip, and absent from the world outside. Such a stark division between the sacred and secular belies the reality. What is at fault is our perception. We are seeing through a glass darkly.

Do not despair. It is possible to sharpen our vision of the world so that the spiritual apex of the retreat stays with us as an abiding reality. Take a supermarket. At first sight, it appears to be the epitome of secularity. Tills ring, shelf-stackers labour, shoppers stagger with overflowing trolleys, and the security man looks on inscrutably.

Look beneath all this, and a different picture is revealed. You see an elderly man with a small basket of ready-cooked meals: perhaps he feels lonely and bereft. In the next aisle, a mother, probably on an extremely tight budget, struggles to control two way­ward children. A young man reaches for a pack of potent cider, his features glazed.

Gradually a picture emerges of a needy world desperate for our prayers. The super­market has become a holy place, because we have recognised within it the presence of the Lord.

This continuing search for God in the mundane and profane has unexpected results. As the hours slowly unfold, we will find a kaleidoscope of divine sparks. To our amaze­ment, we discover that God can be found in every human situation, each facet of creation.

We are in good company on this journey. St Augustine found God in the sexual mis­demean­ours of his youth. St John of the Cross thought out his great Spiritual Canticle after being tortured in a filthy Toledo prison. Kagawa, the Japanese Christian reformer, discovered God in the dunghills of a Kobe slum.

This reordering of our vision has an immediate and positive spin-off. We no longer have time to bemoan the world's secularity, or our own hardship. We are too busy un­earthing glimpses of the divine presence everywhere.

Persevere on this spiritual odyssey, and it will lead to some­thing of the boundless joy of St Francis of Assisi, who saw the whole world as immersed in the presence of the holy one: "Such love does the sky now pour, that whenever I stand in a field, I have to wring out the light when I get home."

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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