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Learning to shine as a light in the world

23 January 2015

Creation contains the seeds of the future, and we are co-creators of the Kingdom, writes David Bryant


Blaze of glory: candles at the Basilica della Salute, Venice

Blaze of glory: candles at the Basilica della Salute, Venice

PARISH pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham end in an emotive blaze of glory. The high altar is awash with candles, as the priest blesses the congregation with the holy sacrament, amidst the ringing of bells. It is a spiritually uplifting, Christ-filled way to start the journey homewards. So, too, the candles in our churches sparkle with hope. They are a reminder that not only is the light of Christ with us during the dark winter days, but that soon will come the burgeoning time of spring, when the world will awaken to renewal. "All creation is gifted with the ecstasy of God's light," as Hildegard of Bingen puts it.

There is a powerful corollary to this, and it is found in the uncompromising words of the Sermon on the Mount: "You are the light of the world." This really takes our breath away. The Johannine claim that God is the inextinguishable light is one thing but, if we weak, fallible, frightened humans are codisplayers of the light of the world, we need to do some hard thinking.

Being the light of the world is incompatible with a passive going along with what is, a resigned negativity that shrugs its shoulders at passing events. Opting out, being indifferent, or withdrawing into the security of a comfortable existence is not the way of Christ. The gospel demands that we make a dynamic, prayerful response to all the rawness that life throws at us.

Each moment presents us with a multitude of choices, considerations, and potential courses of action. If our neighbour is sick, we can ignore the problem, ring the Vicar, make a trip to the hospital, or offer to help with the vacuum cleaning. To put it bluntly, what we choose literally shapes the world. O'Shaughnessy's words ring true: "We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams."

This is the point at which all those unnerving doubts intrude. Life has no purpose. Why bother? The philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead injects a gleam of hope into this uncertainty. He incorporates the divine into the equation: "God is the poet of the world with tender patience leading it."

That throws an entirely different slant on it all. We are not lone forgers of the world. The presence of the Eternal God is with us on the crowded roads of the temporal. That is a profound encouragement and relief.

The Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, went a step further. He wrote that the entire cosmic, evolutionary process was progressing, slowly and painfully, forward towards a "Christogenesis", an omega point at the end of time, when the world would have been transformed into God's Kingdom.

This has deep implications for human behaviour. Every destructive, inhumane, and selfish act retards that onward-going process. Conversely, we have the potential to create beauty, love, hope, forgiveness, and kindness; indeed, all of St Paul's fruits of the Spirit.

There is a tendency to think that our efforts are so trivial as to make no difference. My modest cheque will not even dent the Ebola-virus crisis. World starvation lies far outside my remit. I am helpless to transform the pattern of the world. That is to cut out the enormous power of prayer, which lies at the centre of all faiths. Positive thoughts and words can realign and enrich the unfolding of life.

If you doubt that, turn for a moment to quantum physics, which hints that everything is interconnected, and that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in North Yorkshire can affect events in South America. Or think of the Russian dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was imprisoned in the dreaded small zone for women political prisoners. She felt the prayers of her fellow, worldwide Christians, and survived because of them. Crouched in a freezing isolation cell in the dead of winter, fearful and sleepless, she sensed a ray of warmth, an effusion of love, and her thankful words were:

Someone is thinking of me now,
Petitioning the Lord for me.
(Pencil Letter, Bloodaxe, 1988)

The flickering candles on our altars are a reassurance that creation contains the seeds of a future Kingdom of Christ, and that we, in co-operation with God, are called to build it. As Teilhard de Chardin says, "Let us then for love of our Creation and of the universe throw ourselves fearlessly into the crucible of the world of tomorrow."

We, as a Church, need to get on with it.

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

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