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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Now Voyager

This may not be an anniversary you have noticed. 70 years ago in 1942, a classic film saw the light of day, Now Voyager.  It starred Bette Davis and became one of the top love stories of American cinema. If you want a good weepie for a Saturday night, you can’t do better unless it is Brief Encounter. I showed it to the Bishop’s Staff residential conference last week and it worked its magic.  The last words of the film became one of the most quoted tags in the history of film: ‘O Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars’. But the title is all I need for now.  It comes from a poem called ‘The Untold Want’ by the American poet Walt Whitman:

            The untold want by life and land ne'er granted,
            Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

Those words are about stepping out towards far horizons, leaving behind the known, the familiar and the safe and heading for the unknown region. It involves crossing thresholds, going through an open door and discovering what lies on the other side.  And this is the image we have in today’s second lesson, in the Letter to Philadelphia.  ‘Behold I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.’ 

This beautiful letter is a favourite among the seven letters to the churches that begin the Book of Revelation. That is because unlike all the others, this one finds no fault in the Christian community in that part of Asia Minor.  This little church has been faithful and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ and has earned the delight of him who walks among the golden lampstands.  ‘I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.’ ‘You have kept my word of faithful endurance’.  ‘Hold fast to what you have so that no one may seize your crown.’ These are rich endorsements of a church that has not been deflected in a time of pressure, that has been true to its name Philadelphia, ‘love of the brotherhood’.  And that faithfulness has led to a door that is held wide-open by him who is holy and true, the One who ‘has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open’. 

Open and shut doors, thresholds that can and cannot be crossed: these are in the hands of the Holy One. It is he who disposes, who creates the environment in which a journey can take place, sets its direction and its pace. By implication, this church has garnered the courage and the will to push at that door and cross that threshold.  It would be easier, and more secure, to stay where it is, satisfied with its quality of life, its achievements, its faithfulness.  Yet precisely because of these, the Lord calls them forth to new endeavours of faith, hope and love, to travel new paths and do new things because he, the Lord, with the new name the resurrection gives him, is creating a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem, indeed is making all things new.  ‘Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find’: this is the invitation to the church at Philadelphia.  Enfolded in it is a promise: that the God who for his part has been faithful and true will come soon to lead, to guide, to accompany his people as they travel on. 

I want to make a connection between this letter and the position we are in right now as a Cathedral.  As you know, we have embarked on a big development project called Open Treasure, and as we speak, the contractors are on site delivering the first part of its first phase.  I don’t have time to speak about the detailed plans to move the shop into the former Treasury, release the beautiful space that is the Great Kitchen so that we can exhibit our priceless Cuthbert treasures there; develop our marvellous Monks’ Dormitory as an exhibition space as well as a library so that we can show more of our treasured books and manuscripts; and link the two with a gallery that will help us better appreciate the relationship between these buildings that are almost unique in England.

Why are we doing all this?  That goes back to the open door.  We have called the project Open Treasure because we believe we should open up to our guests, pilgrims, visitors and the wider public the treasures that we are privileged to have inherited here.  But ‘treasure’ means more than heritage buildings and artefacts.  In the New Testament, Jesus speaks about how we must bring out of our treasures things old and new.  He says in the Sermon on the Mount that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. So in a deeper sense, heritage is about the lived Christian community of this place: Cuthbert’s community, the Benedictine community, the Anglican community of the Reformation era, and the community that we are today, the people who belong here because we pray here, live here, work here, volunteer here, receive guests here, witness to the gospel here, help the needy here, offer sanctuary and care for others here.  All this belongs to our treasure: it concerns the whole Cathedral’s mission.  It is about all that we do and are, past, present and future.  And as we attract people to enjoy the fruits of the project, their admission fee will help stabilise the finances of the Cathedral, and that in turn will ensure that we do not have to contemplate charging admission to the church itself. 

In this letter there is an intriguing reference to the Philadelphian church being ‘a pillar in the temple of our God’.  In our statement of purpose, we have developed the ‘Six Pillars of Durham Cathedral’ to be an image of what we are: worship and spirituality; welcome and care; learning, nurture and formation; outreach and engagement; buildings, treasures and environment’, and ‘finance and stewardship’.  You can see the complete text in today’s Sunday sheet.  So just like the letter in Revelation, our project links an open door with the image of the pillar, something that is stable and trustworthy and keeps the building standing.  And like the church at Philadelphia, we believe that God has set before us this open door, this wonderful opportunity to make a difference to what our guests can see and enjoy here and help them to understand the gospel of this place. 

What does God ask of us?  The same things he looked for at Philadelphia: faithfulness, courage, hope, holiness, perseverance.  What else could it be in a Christian community pushing at an open door, longing to go through and discover the God-given landscapes on the other side.  Like them, we have already faced difficulties and pressures, and there will be more to come: there always are when we embark on a journey.  But as an African proverb puts it, ‘he who never travels thinks mother is the only cook’.  So I want to encourage us, invite us, urge us, to take the risk of becoming a people on a journey of the spirit, ready to embrace the future that God sets before us. Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.  ‘Behold I have set before you an open door.’ It will be our own fault if we do not seize the day and go through, and on, and up.  

Durham, 6 May 2012
(Revelation 3.7-13.)

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