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

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Going Slow

‘Lord, it is good to be here’ says Peter. ‘Let us make three dwellings: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’ – not knowing what he said or why he said it. The disciple blunders in, nearly exploding the divine moment with a rush of activity and words. He is arrested by the Voice that comes from the mysterious, threatening cloud: ‘this is my Son, the beloved.  Listen to him’. 

To listen in any serious way means paying attention. The transfigured Christ and his companions on the mountain top knew what this meant. Moses learned it at the burning bush, Elijah in his cave, and Jesus in the desert. Peter had not yet learned it. He could not walk slowly enough. This is one of the most important of life’s lessons. And I speak about it this morning because on Wednesday it will be Lent, and Lent can be our teacher, and I guess that we shall not learn about slowing down unless we have some kind of discipline to guide us. Lent prepares us to celebrate the cross and resurrection of Christ at Easter. This means knowing cross and resurrection ourselves, paying attention to God’s work within us. This is more than a yearly Lenten practice. St Benedict says that all of life should be Lent, reaching for and growing towards the God who invites us to know him as truth and love. So I am speaking about all our days, not just the forty days of fast that lie ahead. But those forty days focus what all of life should mean. And one of its aspects should be our ability to slow down and listen to what the voice of God has to say to us.  

In 1878 Mark Twain was in Switzerland.  He had climbed high up a valley near Zermatt from where, below, was a glacier.  He thought he might travel down with it:

I took up as good a position as I could upon the middle of the glacier – because Baedeker said the middle part travels the fastest.  As a measure of economy, however, I put some of the heavier baggage on the shoreward parts, to go as slow freight.  I waited and waited, but the glacier did not move.  Night was coming on, the darkness began to gather – still we did not budge.  It occurred to me then that there might be a timetable in Baedeker; it would be well to find out the hours of starting.  I soon found a sentence which threw a dazzling light upon the matter.  It said, ‘The Gorner Glacier travels at an average rate of a little less than an inch a day.’  I have seldom felt so outraged. I have seldom felt my confidence so wantonly betrayed.  I made a small calculation: one inch a day, say thirty feet a year; estimated distance to Zermatt, three and one-eighteenth miles.  Time required to go by glacier, a little over five hundred years!  The passenger part of this glacier – the central part – the lightning express part, so to speak, was not due in Zermatt until the summer of 2378, and the baggage, coming along the slow edge, would not arrive until some generations later….  As a means of passenger transportation, I consider the glacier a failure.
By now, Twain would have travelled about a kilometer.  It’s not the slowest form of travel - continental drift takes longer. But the glacier’s message is the same as that of looking back in time as we gaze at the stars, or the timescales of geological strata and the origin of species,or waiting for your first grandchild to be born. They will not be hurried, for God has plenty of time. A friend of mine said that it was like walking a toddler in the park and forever waiting for him to catch you up. Perhaps you hadn’t considered the two year old as an image of God.  The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama called him ‘Three Mile an Hour God’.  He points to the 40 years it took God even to begin to teach the Israelites the single lesson that we do not live by bread alone.  Maybe we shall not come close to learning this even after 40 Lents. On the mountain of transfiguration, he calls to the disciples out of the cloud and tells them that to pay attention and listen hard. ‘This is my Son, the beloved.’  It’s as if the Glory is inviting them into a differently calibrated kind of life, a way of being that is not governed by the breathless sprint of our ordinary days but that paces itself according to divine time, a spiritual ecology that cherishes and cultivates the inward response to a greater reality that surrounds it, discovers its own rhythms through living reflectively.  

I am trying to learn, late in life, that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong.  Ours is an age where speed is everything.  Wherever you turn, in business, in industry, in education, even in the church, success is measured by this: that you fill your diary, work every hour God sends, work both smart and fast.  When I was in Sheffield and trying to raise funds for the Cathedral, I asked a wealthy businessman to help.  As he wrote out the cheque, he said to me: ‘Michael, it’s really important that the church models something different from the hectic pace at which we in the public and private sectors expect to see results.  The cathedral has been here for centuries. It has a perspective sub specie aeternitatis: it looks at things from the vantage point of eternity. It can help us take the long view, learn the meaning of patience.’  Perhaps this is what St Benedict meant by stability in his rule for monks: not running feverishly from place to place either physically or metaphorically, but being committed to the present where God has placed us, living according to that long view. 

A gift of Lent could be finding equanimity, equilibrium, balance among the world’s destabilising, capricious changes and chances. And help is at hand. If you go to www.notbusy.co.uk you will find resources put together by Canon Cherry and Sacristy Press based on his book Beyond Business. The idea is to give up business during Lent and regain control of our lives by living more at God’s pace than our own. You can ever a wristband telling the world that you’re not busy. For me, the first sign of success will be not to agree with anyone who says to me ‘You must be so busy’. Indeed, authentic Christian ministry means the very opposite: having time for other people and for God. I see this as the work of love: ours for God and for others, but most of all, God’s love for us. If Lent means anything, it should be that we become more aware of Love’s work in us and all around us, and learn to live it for ourselves. As everyone who has loved knows, love has its own speed.  ‘It is ‘slow’, yet it is lord over all other speeds.  It goes on in the depth of our being, whether we notice it or not, whether we have mountains to scale or torrents to span or are crossing the quieter welcome prairies of our existence. If you ask me about the speed God walks, I would say: Adagio, lento, sometimes andante, but not often presto or vivace; the still small voice, not the earthquake, wind and fire.  

It’s true that occasionally, ‘he is such a fast god’ as R.S. Thomas says: baffling, elusive, strange.  But most of the time he is so slow his movement is undetectable except to those who stay still for long enough. To see it, we need to become more contemplative: sit on the glacier and travel at God’s speed; lie prostrate on the mountain top and listen to the voice of glory.  Try it this Lent: paying attention and seeing into the life of things. It will bring to its relentless flow and flux the gift of stability and peace.  Love works slowly but God has plenty of time.  We can afford to wait for him.  Spring is nearly here, Lent’s slow awakening, forty days for the wilderness to blossom, for us to listen and pay attention and find a new happiness in our souls. For then we shall know the hills where our life rose and the sea where it goes.

Durham Cathedral, 10 February 2013 (Sunday before Lent)