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Lent series: A glimpse of the holy fire

by
31 March 2023

For Lent, Azariah France-Williams continues our series of specially chosen prayers

Alamy

Father,
Forgive me, and help me regain my confidence.
Let me find out the truth.
Protect me and my friends from the darkness.
Amen.
 

A GREAT many intercessions have been documented over the centuries. Beautiful language, powerful rhythms, and evocative vocabulary stir familiarity while pointing to mystery. Prayer books abound as repositories of grace. The prayer that I have chosen, however, is not well known, but is all the more special, as I was present when it was first spoken. I was there as its golden thread was woven into the living tapestry of sacred words. This is how it happened.

In recent weeks, a group of about 60 children from Trinity C of E High School, Hulme, in Manchester, visited our church. During the visit, I gave the children time to compose a prayer, and then invited a few brave souls to share their work. From the hard pews, a soft voice emerged, as this prayer was uttered. The bodies in the room turned towards the sound. The half-century-old stones also strained to hear 11-year-old Tomas pray, as he spoke these words.

 

THE prayer moved me and all who heard it. It contains an element of regret, a readiness to pursue truth, and a desire for safety. There is little certainty, but much humility. This is no Aladdin, and God is no genie in the lamp, but, rather, burns as holy fire that may not be handled. The God-seeker approaches with trepidation. Like Moses, stunned before the burning bush, the prayer is infused with a sense of awe.

Like Elijah witnessing the flaming comet (1 Kings 18.38), the child author of this prayer seems to recognise his diminutive size in comparison with God’s magnitude.

The cry for help captures the divine ear. It is a request for a former glory. The loss of confidence has left this young soul with a limp. I wondered whether there had been some injury — of heart, body, or mind — which this appeal for confidence might have been signalling. I like the fact that the prayer is not for strength, but for confidence, and a courage to tackle the grasping fear that threatens to paralyse. Think of a brave athlete drawing near the end of a period of rehabilitation, as she sets out, pre-dawn, to train. Gently at first, she continues in earnest.

Now that the orientation is corrected, the destination comes into view. Truth. I admire the prayer’s desire to seek “out” the truth. The truth is dynamic and agile, and must not be merely received, but, rather, chased, wrestled, and reckoned with. Jesus comforts with the maxim, “The truth shall set [you] free.” But that is the end point. First, the truth, once held, holds the holder, and carries them off deeper into its own country — a hostage in a strange land, with strange tongues.

Once truth is found out, so is the seeker. There is a transfiguration of sorts. There is an unveiling of what was always there, but undetected, until its own chosen epiphany.

 

TRUTH and dare. With the resurgence of confidence and the discovery of new evidence, the boy is made vulnerable again. The interior meditation prompts an external exploration beyond the familiar, into denser vegetation, as he stumbles over giant vines, and through inclement weather.

What about the call for protection? Is this a dip in confidence? A truanting of trust? No, I hear a quiet resolve. The protection is necessary; for the journey has already begun. The speaker is emboldened by peace with God, and held by truth: a vigorous truth, which unbuttons our disguises and nudges the masks loose, leaving the seeker more exposed, but less afraid.

The darkness that the prayer speaks of is as inevitable as the dawn. Is this darkness the “old friend” that Simon and Garfunkel rhapsodised about? I need a hand to hold during those times in the shadows. I need to be found by others, who call my name.

There are some rural communities with a particular practice for finding a child feared lost in the long grass. The villagers hold hands and, in a line, walk slowly forward in order, using their connection with one another to ensure that the child is not missed. The human chain increases the likelihood of rescue and recovery.

As this season of Lent draws towards Easter, I hope I continue to take the opportunity to become aware of my vulnerability, my breaking with truth, my misalignment from love, and my desire for embrace.

 

THIS simple and thoughtful prayer is now in print. It is no longer ephemeral; it belongs to whoever chooses to use it, and to the future. Tomas spoke for many of us. A child spoke the truth to his peers, in the company of Christ.

May this prayer accompany us through Holy Week, and — as C. S. Lewis wrote — take us “further up and further in”.

 

The Revd Azariah France-Williams is Rector of the Ascension, Hulme, in Manchester, and the author of Ghost Ship: Institutional racism and the Church of England (SCM Press, £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £16)) (Books, 28 August 2020).

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