THE parish retreat is in full swing. The Bible readings have a
luminosity that overwhelms us, and the speaker's words fire the
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
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