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

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Seashore of Endless Worlds: on childhood and mystery

My last ever sermon at the sung eucharist in Durham Cathedral...

When Jesus brought a small child into the circle of disciples it was a beautiful gesture in a life filled with beautiful gestures. And the words that went with it were beautiful too: ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’

This was Jesus’ response to the disciples when he asked them what they had been talking about on the road to Capernaum. Maybe it took even Jesus aback, for they had argued about which of them was the greatest. In his gospel, Mark doesn’t spare the reputations of the disciples: they never seem to grasp what the gospel is about. And even afterwards, the lesson of the little child is not learned. On the next page, two of the most prominent ask Jesus to place them on either side of his seat of glory in his kingdom. Once more he has to help them to grasp it. In the kingdom, self-importance has no place, only being humble, simple and childlike. ‘Whoever would be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

I have thinking about that child. Was it a boy or a girl? What was his name? How old was she? Quite small if Jesus took her up in his arms. (I am trying to spread the pronouns even-handedly: in the Greek it is neuter.) We should love to know. And in later life, when he was not so little any more, did that child remember what had happened on that day? You would think it was unforgettable to be held safely and tenderly by the strong Son of Man, gaze up into his eyes and see God there. All the evidence tells us that Jesus loved children and could not bear the thought that anyone would hurt or damage these little ones so precious to him.

Now that my working life is almost at an end, I’ve found myself looking back to my own far-distant childhood and have been surprised how vivid some of the memories are. Sights, sounds and smells conjure up long-vanished worlds. On the Antiques Roadshow last week, someone produced a clip of Uncle Mac giving his immortal Children’s Hour greeting: ‘Hello children everywhere’. The same day on the wireless, as we called it then, they played the Berceuse from Faure’s Dolly Suite for piano duet, the much-loved signature-tune of Listen With Mother that was each day’s Home Service staple for young children while our mothers took their after-lunch nap. 

I can’t easily trace the beginnings of my spiritual path back to childhood. I have told you about how my life changed when I was singing Bach’s St John Passion. My first explicit encounters with religion had to wait until, late in life, I became a chorister as an eleven year old. Yet when you are loved from infancy, when you are held in your parents’ arms, when you cry and they comfort you, when you are afraid and they reassure you, when they play with you, sing to you and laugh with you, don’t you glimpse God in all these ways even if you can’t name him? ‘Sweet infancy!’ cries Thomas Traherne in an ecstatic outburst of delight as he contemplates childhood, the lovely experiences that shape our lives when we are fortunate with our parents. These are things I do remember. They make me thankful.

But I want to tell you about another experience in early childhood, perhaps my earliest memory of all when I cannot have been more than two or three at the most. We were in Germany where we went from time to time to sort out my mother’s affairs after the war. We were staying in lodgings somewhere in Düsseldorf, I imagine, and had a room right at the top of the house. There was a huge church on the other side of the road. I clearly recall its vast spire looming up and filling the view out of the attic window. That evening, I was woken up by the tolling of its bells. Not elegant change-ringing like in England, but the more primitive sound of mighty bells clanging at random against one another. The house seemed to tremble at that sound. There was something archaic in it, and not a little frightening as if it was emerging from out of the bowels of the earth. I felt obscurely that I was on the brink of some great disclosure, drawn into something I couldn’t articulate, but of what or whom? I glimpsed another world, where what I could see or touch was not all there was. Looking back, it feels like an encounter with what historians of religion call Mysterium tremens et fascinans, a great mystery that arrests us and compels us to notice it, what Rudolph Otto called in a famous book ‘the idea of the holy’.

Why am I telling you this? Retirement gets you thinking about ends and beginnings and what belongs in between, in mid-passage. I have given my life to Christian faith and bearing witness to it in public ministry. Where did it come from in my own experience? What has shaped and nurtured it? How has it influenced me in adulthood?

That memory I shared with you is rather different from what the child lying peaceably in Jesus’ arms must have recalled of that unrepeatable day. Yet maybe not. Yes, the memory of the bells has left me wanting to reverence the divine as an awesome and fundamentally mysterious Presence among us, within us and especially beyond us. We should not make easy assumptions about God nor think we can ever fully know him or understand his purposes. Perhaps that is what has drawn me into cathedrals for most of my ministry, for these are places where ‘the ‘idea of the holy’, numinous buildings, beautiful liturgy and profound music reach into the soul to help us do justice to the great mysteries of faith. Yet while the bells shook me, they did not repel me. I felt I stood on the threshold of something awesome, as if what was strange was not only fascinating but even enticing. In retrospect, I think of it as a gift to cherish.

Isaac Newton famously said that: ‘I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me’. Surely this was true also of that little child who gazed into the eyes of Jesus on that far-off day. What we love in children is their capacity for innocent wonder, their openness to mystery, the flowering of imagination and clarity of vision that tends so often in adults to unripen to a mere bud. So Jesus teaches his disciples humility by showing them a child. The foolishness of God is wiser than mortals. It teaches us to open the doors of our perception like children, emulate their simplicity, their humbleness and their purity of heart which, says the beatitude, is how we see God?

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’ First among the joyful mysteries of human life is being loved into life. Yes, it is baffling at times, can feel risky or dangerous to get too close to, yet always surprising us as it draws us back to the God from whom we came and to whom we must return. What words can do justice to the infinity of ways in which God touches us and changes our lives? ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing said Pascal; what the heart does know without being told comes from the very being of God himself, eye gazing on eye, hand holding hand, heart speaking to heart like the child in Jesus’ arms. We live on a sea shore at the edge of endless worlds. And as we gaze out across the undiscovered ocean of wisdom, truth and love that we call God, we reawaken the child within us that understands. We know that this is why we are alive.

In my favourite Dickens novel Bleak House, there’s a wonderfully drawn character called Mr Skimpole. His refrain is: ‘What would I know about these things? I am only a child.’ You are not supposed to like this disingenuous, manipulative man. But I admire the sentiment. Being Dean of Durham is like playing ‘on the seashore of endless worlds’. Who am I? It’s so big, and I am so small.

But what the Cathedral points me to is even bigger, infinitely big: the grace and truth of God, his fierce and wonderful love for me, the salvation he invites me to find in Jesus, my lost childhood that he gives back to me. As it points us to him, it holds out the noble vision of how we should grow up in God to maturity, what Ephesians calls ‘the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’ Nothing less is the goal of our humanity. It’s why we are here at the altar today. It’s why I have been privileged to be among you as a priest in this community for the past twelve wonderful years. We are here because we are learning that in Jesus, every hunger is satisfied and all our longings met. Nothing matters more than this.

Durham Cathedral, 20 September 2015 (Mark 9.30-37)


  1. I do not know when I have heard such wonderful, and uplifting words - or been shown the way to express this great mystery.
    We are left with the simple evolution "the God from whom we came and to whom we must return.

  2. Thank you for this kind comment.

  3. ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing said Pascal; what the heart does know without being told comes from the very being of God himself'.

    This truly struck me with a new sense of how God communicates with us. Sometimes when we listen to our heart, our head fails to understand, to reason. It is sometimes so hard to express what it is we feel. and experience of our faith.