by Linda Ryan
One of the things I like most about Education for Ministry is the theological reflections that we do. We look at an object, picture, Scripture, quote, or piece of music and try to see it from different personal and group perspectives. The goal is to consider where we are in the world of this metaphor (the picture or other artifact), where God is, what we are called to do, and what we can do in our lives and ministries (which are often the same). It is a fascinating process, and the core of the EfM program
The picture that we looked at this past week in our group is the one shown above, a picture of a person standing in front of a stone ruin and looking upwards. We knew beforehand that this was the ruin of a monastery or an abbey on a small island off the coast of Ireland, and that it had been abandoned for a long period of time. There was no glass in the windows, no roof over the empty space inside, but it appeared so solid and, in some ways, solid, permanent, and stable.
Despite the fact that it had been abandoned for whatever reason, there was also a sign that people took care of the site, and that it was a place where people still came to visit. It was noted that on the other side of the structure was a graveyard with tilted stones, and people often came with their blankets and their picnic baskets and their children to sit among the stones to have a picnic lunch. It was, in a way, like a family place, unlike an amusement park where you’re always supposed to be busy. In this place you could sit quietly or walk around and look and feel a part of a different but welcoming world.
The thing that struck me with the stones. Being from a place back East where history is a very important thing, I’m rather used to old buildings, even reconstructed old buildings. The church I attended at home was built in the late 1600s. The walls are the original walls, and they have a permanence about them. I remember sitting in the pews on Sundays back in the days when we did morning prayer three weeks out of the four, chanting the canticles, and feeling the presence of people who had worshiped in that church since its founding. It was a very thin space, and touching the stone of the church wall reminded me of all that had transpired in the life of this church. Touching the stone brought me in contact with the past. It was a feeling of stability.
I look at the picture and I have the same kind of feeling. I want to touch the stone. I want to feel the presence of those who lived and worshiped there, and the essence of all the prayers that had gone up from that place and, possibly, that still go up from that place.
The stone walls of the monastery or abbey represent a part of our tradition, part of our history. Our culture today is quite different, and I can see where some people would think keeping this old ruin is a waste of time, money, and even space. It’s more logical to take the stones down and build a conference center, or a hotel, or something that will bring in money, at least for the owners. I think that comes partially from the rootlessness many of us feel these days. For some of us, we have to be constantly pushing ahead, looking to the future, shedding things that no longer work for us or represent who we perceive ourselves to be. On the other hand, though, some of us cling to some of the old ways (not necessarily all of them, i.e., slavery, droit du signeur, and the like). We are comfortable hearing the Bible in the English of the 16th century, find the music of the 16th-19th century both soothing and invigorating in a way the incessant sub-sub-woofers of today can’t be, and we look with pride at buildings that have survived for centuries that give us a feeling of comfort, stability, and permanence.
Jesus was, in a sense, a very mobile person for someone of his time. His roots were deep in Judaism and its history. Yet in many of his sayings, sermons, and talks, he often spoke of a new world, a rebuilding of God’s kingdom on earth, that would change everything. He had plenty of critics, and he had plenty of people who didn’t want to hear the message because, like the old unofficial Episcopal motto used to be, “But we’ve never done it that way!” They wanted to do things exactly the way their ancestors had done That was their stability in a troubling time. Some people today go into monasteries and convents because they want simplicity of the life, the structure of the prayer times and the work times and the meditation times, and the close connection to God. Others, though, just want to keep moving keep moving especially up when it comes to the corporate ladders.
Sometimes it takes getting a bit of distance from the everyday and the mundane to make us understand what this world is about. Jesus often retreated to quiet, secluded, places to play and to meditate and communicate. Maybe for others it would be a church, or garden, a forest, an ocean view, or any one of a number of things. As long as there is a time to retreat, even if just for a few hours, to reconnect with ourselves and God, in peace and perhaps solitude. It was true for many of our saints who lived as monks, nuns, hermits, anchoresses and anchorites in the past. There are those who still follow that, who find their roots in God, and stability in scheduled hours of work, study, and prayer.
The challenge this week is to find a place that resonates with me, to find something old, that has an aura about it, that speaks of stability, peace, and sanctity. I may not find it here, but as long as I have images like the monastery or the abbey, I can put myself into the picture and become part of what it represents. I can feel the presence of those who have sent prayers heavenward from that spot, and join with them in spirit as well.
I challenge all of us to follow Jesus to sacred places where there’s room for permanence, stability, silence and meditation. I hope we can all find a place like that because in this current world, a little silence and a whole lotta feelings of stability would be a true gift from God.
Go thou and find thy space. God bless.
Picture: Copyright: Laurie Gudim, used by permission.