Glimpses of God in Godzone
Perhaps you are one of those busy people who have to check their diary before accepting an invitation? Occasionally you might find you have competing invitations and you struggle on how to choose one over the other, with the implied preference of one friend over another. Or perhaps you try to squeeze both in; even if you have to arrive late and leave early.
Today the Church's diary has just such a clash. Today the Church remembers the Transfiguration of Christ, the manifestation of his divinity on Mount Tabor. This is the end of the season of Epiphany, when we reflect on a series of revelations about Jesus. I could not, with a clear conscience, turn down this invitation, however another invitation has landed on our metaphorical doormat.
Today is Waitangi Day, when we New Zealanders celebrate the founding event of our nation. If we look at equivalent days in other nations we see that our national holiday is a somewhat muted reflective affair. There is very little of the patriotic flag waving and pageantry of nationhood that marks the 4th July, none of the military parades and fly pasts that the French celebrate Bastille Day with, and we don't quite manage the full on day at the beach or at the stadium that characterize Australia Day.
There is of late always some anxiety about how the day will go; or at least how the official ceremonies up in Waitangi will go. Who will be pelted with mud, spat at or hassled this year. Most of the nation just gets on with it and uses the day off as it sees fit. More and more, enjoying the day has become an affirmation and quiet celebration of our increasing diversity as a people.
The liturgical purist in me wonders how I could possibly feel conflicted between the Transfiguration and Waitangi Day as themes yet, on reflection, I do not think there is a conflict. In our celebration of the Transfiguration we celebrate the truth behind the appearance of things, the Divine light that broke through and shone. Our national angst about Waitangi Day in part reflects an unease with the official history and a concern for justice. It is healthy, I think, that our national day has these reflective undertones. I for one am glad we avoid the self congratulation and complacency that, in part, characterizes the other national days I mentioned.
Both invitations on our metaphorical doormat today are a call to see beyond the apparent truth of things. Perhaps because of an accident of the calendar they form a joint invitation to revelation and insight?
If that is our context then it seems appropriate to share with you my story about coming to New Zealand and how I moved from knowing I had arrived here to feeling it.
I arrived in New Zealand on 2nd March 2000. The sports trivia fans amongst you will know that was the day that New Zealand won the Americas cup for the second time. A good day to arrive in Auckland.
On the seemingly endless flight from Los Angeles I had alternated between napping and watching a televised route map; with a little plane icon creeping across a vast expanse of blue. So arrival on terra firma, even if it was Auckland airport at 5am was something of a relief.
I had two days in Auckland before heading off to Lower Hutt, where I had a job. Realising I would not get the chance to see much of the country until I had settled in I decided to take the train from Auckland to Wellington. It was that train journey that provided me with a revelation.
My stay in Auckland had been very pleasant, a chance to enjoy some fine weather after a British winter and a chance to get over the journey from England. On arriving in Auckland I knew I had arrived in New Zealand of course but it was the train journey that brought it home to me as emotional knowledge. As the train passed Ruapehu I could see right across the Whanganui valley to Mount Taranaki. Faced with the majesty of that kiwi icon I felt emotionally that I had arrived in New Zealand.
It would be absurd, pompous and self-referential to draw connections between this emotional sense of place at the sight of Mount Taranaki with the glimpses of God on Mount Sinai and Mount Tabor described in today's readings. Yet we all have glimpses, eureka moments, glimpses of the big picture that inspire us and keep us going.
At the most trite level sometimes the penny will drop, half way through reading a murder mystery, who the killer is. More profoundly we might realise our sense of calling; that being a teacher, nurse, doctor, journalist or landscape gardener is the best fit for who I am as an individual and what I need out of a job.
There is that realisation that you are 'in love' with someone, be that eyes meeting across a crowded room or a friendship that you realise has crossed the Rubicon into something deeper.
Glimpses of insight, moments of intuition, glimpses of God are of the essence of the spiritual life. Those moments when it all makes sense, when we are gifted with a sense of peace. When we share in the revelation of the English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that 'all will be well and all manner of things will be well'. These moments are often not found in that part of our lives we separate as religious, in church on a Sunday but in the humdrum, ordinary, day to day routine. In my former life as a Benedictine monk, while I spent a fair part of my waking hours in church, most of my time was spent in the humdrum ordinariness of things. If you saw me on my knees in church odds on I was polishing rather than praying. Yet there was no hierarchy of value; no difference between prayer and polishing.
There is a very old piece of monastic advice to monks who crave novelty in the belief it will teach them something profound: 'Stay in your cell, it will teach you everything.' The whole ascesis or discipline of monastic life is that if we are not open to finding spiritual insights or glimpses of God in the given ordinariness of life then you will not find this enlightenment in a religious practice, however exotic or demanding that might be.
It was Julian of Norwich who, through the discipline of life as a hermit, was gifted with the insight to see all the world in something as simple as a hazelnut.
He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was answered thus: 'It is all that is made'.
At this point you might think that fourteenth century English mystics are a long way removed from Waitangi Day. However I would like to suggest that Julian's attentiveness to being open to the moment is a worthy lesson for the day. If Waitangi Day should be anything it should be a celebration of our life together as a people. A life that constitutes a lot more than a day of partying every February. We want to see our country develop. We know we will never be a great power or even a medium sized one. In fact we rather relish our smallness and the advantages of being citizens of a small country that is not perceived as a threat by anyone. However national greatness is about something other than showing off shiny toys for the armed forces or about collecting a huge tally of Olympic gold.
How good is this as a place to live in? Do we feel connected to or excluded from the
processes that determine our national future? Do we support talent and creativity by valuing diversity or are we still afflicted with tall poppy syndrome and crave uniformity, even if that means mediocrity?
All good questions for Waitangi Day and the only way we will answer them is to live with the discipline of place. To be active participants rather than passive consumers. If we want a better, fairer, greener future as a country then we must accept that it will not simply fall in to our laps. If we want it we must accept responsibility for creating it.
Can I promise you that being good citizens will lead to deeper and more profound religious insight?
However the habits of good citizenship; the discipline of place. The commitment to valuing the present moment and what is happening now are beneficial if you bring them to your spirituality and religious life. Taking the moment seriously, being attentive to the task at hand rather than what you would like in an ideal world. All of these can teach us openness and help us grow in discernment.
Even when we have the most profound of religious experiences we still need to cultivate discernment. Look at today's Gospel reading. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain. Once they are there Jesus seems to undertake some miraculous change:
As they looked on, a change came over Jesus: his face was shining like the sun, and his clothes were dazzling white.
Then they had company; the three disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. So Peter spoke up and said to Jesus,'Lord, how good it is that we are here! If you wish I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.' Then what do you know? A shining cloud appears and a voice comes from the cloud:
This is my own dear Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him!
Untold gallons of ink have been shed over this account by the church fathers and by generations of theologians. Of course the obvious parallel is with our reading from Exodus where Moses climbs Mount Sinai and the dazzling light of the LORD'S presence came down on the mountain.
There is plenty of raw material for the preacher here, I could go in to all the parallels and come to the obvious conclusions about what the Gospel reading is saying but today I want to draw a different lesson as I draw to a conclusion. This is my last piece of food for thought today.
Peter sought to cling on to the moment, no doubt overwhelmed by the complete otherness he lost sight that this was the insight of a moment. His offer to run up some tents rather suggests the blathering of someone who doesn't quite know what is happening and is trying to manage their anxiety about this. The miraculous visitation did not last long and then he was sworn to secrecy after all that!
We do not live in the Divine cloud. We may have our mountaintop experiences but they are, by nature, fleeting. Yet if we are open to the touch of grace these moments of insight, our glimpses of God, will sustain and heal us. Like the woman with the haemorrhage who manages to fleetingly touch the hem of Jesus' robe we find this is enough.