Sun 17 Nov
Feast of St Margaret
Psalm 139, particularly in the old language with the ‘thou’s and ‘knowest’s, is familiar to many of us. You will notice though the G_d in the first and fourth verses is different for the ‘Lord’ in the authorised version. G_d is more reflective of the Hebrew script where the name of God was so sacred it was not said aloud, but a substitute inserted. By writing G_d we keep alive the tradition of sacred mystery as well as the uncontainable nature of the divine in any language.
Sacred mystery pervades Celtic spirituality. We catch glimpses of God in us, in community, and in the earthed and ordinary, but they are still glimpses, hints, suggestive of the ‘more’, the ‘other’, the mystery beyond the veil of our knowing. When Celts talk about ‘thin places’, holy sites, where the feeling of something beyond pervades the now, what is ‘thin’ is the veil. We do not see clearly. There is no certainty when it comes to God, for with certainty comes human control.
Psalm 139 is quite radical in its theology. Consider verses 11 & 12: “If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”
Dualisms like good/bad, saint/sinner, holy/profane, heaven/hell, and God/devil pervade much religious thought in Christianity and in other world faiths. They demarcate between those deemed acceptable, and the practices deemed acceptable, and the people and practices deemed unacceptable. The saint/sinner divide, for example, was a way of extolling human virtue and condemning human frailty by means of labelling. Is St Margaret more of a saint than anyone here this morning? The answer is that ultimately we don’t know. As the Psalmist says (75:7) it is God alone who judges, for it is God alone who knows the human heart. So, we need to be kind and respectful to one another, avoiding judgement, assumptions, and labelling. ‘See each other with the eye of the heart’.[i]
Dualisms not only divide the material visible world but the spiritual invisible world: Heaven (the realm of God and the angels) is ‘up’, and Hell (the realm of the Devil and his minions) is down. The theological problem though is the question: “Is there a place where God is not?” Indeed is there a divide between the material and spiritual?
These first twelve verses of Psalm 139 answer those questions very clearly. G_d knows all we do, all we say, knows us in way that is scary! And where can we flee from such all-knowing? Where? Well… nowhere. Distances, death, darkness… none of these are barriers to the sacred mysterious ‘energy’. I use the metaphor of God as an energy because such pervasiveness transcends the metaphor of God as a being, even a supreme being.
The psalmist of course is using metaphorical language – beautiful language – throughout. Indeed the beauty of the language, the cadence of the sentence structure, I would argue is as much part of the theology as the ideas conveyed.
Darkness and light is a metaphor long-used in religion. Nowadays there is some critique of it because of our consciousness of negativity being associated with darker human skin tones. I’m talking about our modern understandings of racism and the presumptions contained within our language.
Interestingly in the ancient Mediterranean world, maybe due to the frequent warring and conquest and subsequent incorporation of races and ethnicities, the assumption that every Roman would share the same skin tone, or every Greek, or every Jew, was not as common as we might think. Culture and language was not associated directly with a skin tone.
Darkness as a spiritual concept is associated with experiences and feelings of loss, grief, suffering, and pain, where the mental and physical often combine. It’s a path of human experience that we all in time walk, albeit differently. For some it’s a long path. For others it is mercifully shorter. It is the ‘valley of the shadow’, where light only occasionally comes. For those on that path words often seem inadequate, though poetry and music can be a solace for a while. The final blessing today is about this path and the shelter we seek, or as often happens, finds us.
In Psalm 139 G_d is on this path because there is nowhere where God is not. So God is there in the loss, grief, suffering, and pain. And, again, the metaphor of God as a supreme being doesn’t work. For surely the super, loving parent would relieve us, rescue us, and restore us, rather than stand by, watch, and tell us how all this pain is somehow ‘good’ for us. Such a God is a manipulative monster.
We can though borrow from other authors of Holy Scripture and think of G_d not as a being but as love, the energy/power of mutuality. Such love is ‘weak’. By that I mean it is not a super independent being. Often that love is experienced through others – so this energy of love is dependent on humans and human communities of love, on you and me. That is why some think of love as weak, because it’s dependent. Others, like me, though think of dependency, like love, as strength.
Such energy of love is a shelter, a staff to hold, a soft light… through which we might experience a movement of grace. So in the desolation of our darkness, in the quicksand of our fear and insecurity, this ‘energy’/‘movement’/‘light’ sometimes finds us, offering a hand of hope.
There are a number of us who seek to emulate the best of the Celtic spiritual tradition, and find Psalm 139, 1 Corinthians 13, and other parts of the Bible encouraging of that quest. Celtic spirituality rejoices in our very bodies, our bodies-in-relation (community), and the ‘body’ of this earth, organisms, and ecology as sites, localities, of the presence of God. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, as is a tree, a bird, the earth. Heaven is with us, within us, all pervasive. Call it panentheism if you like, or mystical spirituality, or immanence.
Genesis 1:27 boldly asserts that we are ‘made in the image of God’. It’s a very provocative phrase when you think carefully about it. It seems to be saying that we are a reflection of God, and that the mysterious loving energy of the universe is here within even you and me.
It also seems to be saying that men and women are in God’s image, as are also children, as are also grandparents, teenagers, and those with disabilities. The poor are in God’s image, and so are the rich. The whole kaleidoscope of genders, sexualities, and identities are in God’s image. All manner of races and cultures are also in God’s image, as are we when our hair turns grey and falls out, are parts don’t work like they used to, or bulges appear where we don’t want them.
So we can turn towards the person beside us, whether friend or stranger, and see God. To be kind and courteous to that person is to be kind and courteous to God. To harm another is to harm God. To praise another is to praise God.
‘Made in the image of God’ is thus a very radical and far-reaching affirmation of our common humanity. Or put in church language: every human being is a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.
So too our bodies-in-relation; our bodies as community.
When we are together – and especially for the purposes of affirmation, care for the least, fixing past mistakes, honouring one another, and celebrating goodness – we are the body of G_d. This body of G_d comes ‘alive’ when it breathes and enacts hospitality and kindness, when it embodies that power/energy of mutuality and love.
So too the world about us.
Consider this poem by Mary Oliver:
“When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
The poet is on maybe her morning walk and listening. And the trees are talking.
Is this so different from an ancient Celtic prayer that Esther De Waal talks about[ii] as a woman starts her daily chore to stir into life the fire banked down the night before? As she works, she prays aloud to herself:
“I will kindle my fire this morning
in the presence of the holy angels of heaven.
In the presence of Ariel of the loveliest form,
in the presence of Uriel of the myriad charms,
without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
without fear, without terror of any one under the sun…”
(The angel Ariel is to be found in Isaiah 29:1, and the archangel Uriel, meaning ‘the Light of God’, and is to be found in the Book of Enoch).
Such praying was a practice handed down from generation to generation (and known to us because it was orally collected at the end of the nineteenth century). It was a practice in which ordinary people in their daily lives took the tasks that lay to hand but treated them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality that lay beyond them.
This understanding of spirituality is one of connection, of sacramental oneness, of the harmony of all things, of seeing and touching God through all and in all. Like Psalm 139. The everyday things, the everyday creatures, become symbolic of the presence and grace of God. The prayers are poetic and meditative. Form is as important as content, the way we do things as important as what we do.
Our liturgy this morning is full of ancient and modern prayers, poems, and songs which follows this Celtic (and not just Celtic) tradition of discovering and being discovered by the whispering ethereal beauty and mystery of the Holy.
[i] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
[ii] Esther de Waal, “Living the Sacramental Principle: Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.”