Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Prayer as Service II

[Sermon given at Holy Apostles Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 20 October, 1985]

This past week as I drove across southern Utah and Wyoming, the high peaks were already covered with snow. The plateaus lay empty but for the skeletal snow fences waiting for the storms to bury their bones, and the howling blizzard to sing their Dies Irae. They seemed vast and lifeless. The cattle had been shipped in long lines of hurrying trucks and railroad cars; the few head kept for breeding had been brought down from the high country to shelter near barns stacked to the ridgepoles with hay. Stubble lay harsh and bleached under the angled autumn sun, and all the land was quiet as it waited for the snow that soon would blanket its every feature, freeze its fertility until another spring.

As the miles passed I couldn’t help thinking of our selves as that stripped prairie: our selves searched out and known by God, a sense of exposure and potential futility; sometimes, even, a sense that all that was once familiar and sweet is frozen, as we near despair that another spring will come when our service will take more tangible, visibly fruitful forms.

But it is within this very winter of our lives that we learn to know Christ our Sun rising on each day of our willingness to use our tears to light the divine fire upon the earth, our tears which fall drop by drop upon our hearts like sparks in the stubble; tears that melt our hearts and thus enable the Spirit’s pouring out through us, anointing the earth.

Often it doesn’t feel that way. Often we see our debility, our illnesses, our powerlessness to avert tragedy, our ageing as useless when in fact these are the times when we are offered an opportunity to render the most service by our willing powerlessness, our willingness to allow God to empty us of the self-consciousness that remains, now that the noise and distraction of activity is stilled.

This summer I was doing research in the tormented lands of the Middle East, and in one lecture was reminded again of the significance of anointing, the symbolism of oil with which we are so often touched in these times of being at the mercy of our bodies, events, and the hands and wills of others. The oil with which we are anointed is not only the symbol for burial: it is the anointing of kings and queens; it is the anointing of self-emptying that even now, if we are willing, can help bring eternity into time, to pull creation through the needle’s eye, into the kingdom of heaven.

So when we think of service, let us first think of this service of willingness, not willingness to do but willingness to be done to, to be handed over, to not know, to let go control, to be emptied so that we may be fulfilled and become the healing power of God on earth and in time.

We need not be in a state of physical incapacity: it is vital that we understand that we enter this willingness each time we hush the noise without and within us, and are still before God in wordless prayer, in the silence that wells up from our hearts and from which we learn to speak and to do.

This has been the immeasurable service of my Cistercian friend; this is the vocation, the privilege, the bounden duty and service, which each of us is called to render.


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