O Father, give my spirit power to climb
To the fountain of all light, and be purified.
Break through the mists of earth, the weight of clay;
Shine forth in splendour, you who are calm weather,
And quiet resting-place for faithful souls.
You carry us, and you go before;
You are the journey,
and the journey’s end.
Boëthius (c.480-524), trans. Helen Waddell
SOME time before my ordination, I was part of a small church group that met for mutual encouragement. What drew us together was that each of us, with our own outlook, skills, and background, were in some way thinking of ministry.
Our conversations focused on sharing our experience of hearing God’s call to engage more deeply in the life of the Church — whether putting ourselves forward for ordained ministry, joining mission agencies worldwide, or some other project in the church community in our area. These were conversations of deep wrestling with what it means to travel with Christ, and to say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38).
Through those discussions, one theme came back again and again. As much as we liked to speak of “discerning God’s will”, our overwhelming sense of travelling with Christ was of trying to walk through an endless mist or fog.
We imagined our path as a strenuous walk across the highlands or moors, and setting off in fair light, seemingly well-prepared, and feeling positive about the way ahead. Then the weather closes in on us, the clouds come down, and, suddenly, we can scarcely see the next step.
And yet, even then, a shaft of light might penetrate the mist, enough for us to look a short way ahead, and see a small cairn marking the path. We do not see the destination; for the illumination is fleeting; but it is just enough for us to keep going. And so it is, step by step, from one cairn to the next, that we walk through the hills, and are enabled to travel much further than we might have thought possible.
Coming across this fifth-century prayer was such a moment’s illumination, a reminder of the journey that I have already taken, and of what might lie ahead. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius was a Roman senator, consul, and magister officiorum — and one of the most influential philosophers of the early medieval period. His best-known work, The Consolation of Philosophy, was written in the last two years before his execution for treason.
It is an imagined dialogue with philosophy itself, and proposes that there is a higher power, and that our struggles and suffering in this life serve a greater purpose. He argued that neither money nor power, but only the otherworldly virtues, could bring true happiness.
The opening line of Boëthius’s prayer takes us straight into our hilltop walk, and the recognition that all our travelling requires the strength of God: “O Father, give my spirit power to climb.” And it is the purpose of our walk, the nature of the destination, that is brought into clearer focus as the prayer goes on.
In seeking God’s will and the path that our life’s journey takes, it is often too easy to think of the different stages as being a decision between this job or that one, this location or another, this university, or none at all. And yet, this is to view the path from a worldly standpoint, concerned more for outward and practical considerations than our spiritual progress (cf. 1 Samuel 16.7).
If we look at things from that human perspective, our gaze is lowered to “the mists of earth”, and we reveal our humanity, descended from Adam, the man who was himself fashioned from the weight of clay.
The prayer reminds us that the strength that we truly require is the strength to rise above these earthly considerations, “to climb to the fountain of all light, and be purified”. If you have ever climbed a mountain high enough to break through and emerge above the cloud cover, or have experienced take-off in an aircraft, you will know something of the invigorating strength of that light.
The path that we take, the challenging terrain and the cairns along the way are nothing compared with the true revelation of our destination. Even beyond the sun’s brightest rays is the promise of God’s glory. “Shine forth in splendour, you who are calm weather, and quiet resting-place for faithful souls.”
This is not to say that we don’t have to make these earthly decisions: we do, and they are difficult at times, requiring us to contemplate the unfamiliar, take risks, and make compromises. But we are reminded that, amid these earthly storms, we should seek a quieter resting place, free from turbulent soul-searching. We are to look higher, to the eternal splendour of God’s presence with us, within us, and around us.
Only then do we realise that the particularity of the decisions that we make does not matter, if our true focus is on our eternal destination. There may be no right or wrong turns, if Christ is with us at every step. In that sense, the only wrong turn is one that draws us away from God.
Thus, the prayer ends where it begins, trusting in the strength of God to guide us by his eternal presence: “You carry us, and you go before; You are the journey, and the journey’s end.”
Wherever your current path is leading you, may you see beyond the mist to know that the journey itself is Christ’s presence with you. Amen.
The Revd Catherine Lomas is Pioneer Vicar of Irchester with Stanton Cross, in the diocese of Peterborough.