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Saturday, 27 February 2016

Paying Attention: Events

Here is my first address from the Silent Retreat at the Retreat House, Pleshey, organised for the communities of St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Stephen Walbrook. Entitled 'Paying Attention', we are exploring ways of paying attention to people, creation, events, emotions, absence and mystery. Earlier, at St Martin's, I spoke about paying attention in terms of the Arts.

Paying Attention: Events

The Bible is full of encouragement to reflect. The words, reflect, consider, ponder, meditate and examine, crop up everywhere. God encourages us to reflect on everything; his words (2 Timothy 2.7), his great acts (1 Samuel 12.24), his statutes (Psalm 119.95), his miracles (Mark 6.52), Jesus (Hebrews 3.1), God's servants (Job 1.8), the heavens (Psalm 8.3), the plants (Matthew 6.28), the weak (Psalm 41.1), the wicked (Psalm 37.10), oppression (Ecclesiastes 4.1), labour (Ecclesiastes 4.4), the heart (Proverbs 24.12), our troubles (Psalm 9.13), our enemies (Psalm 25.19), our sins (2 Corinthians 13.5). Everything is up for reflection but we are guided by the need to look for the excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4.8) and to learn from whatever we see or experience (Proverbs 24.32).

Clearly all this reflection cannot take place just at specific times. Just as we are told to pray always, the implication of the Bible's encouragement to reflection is that we should reflect at all times. We need to make a habit of reflection, a habit of learning from experience and of looking for the excellent things. How can we do this?

One of the ways, I would suggest is that we use all that is around us – what we see, do and experience. Everything around us can potentially be part of our ongoing conversation with God, part of which is reflection. The Celtic Christians had a sense of the heavenly being found in the earthly, particularly in the ordinary events and tasks of home and work, together with the sense that every event or task can be blessed if we see God in it.

David Adam, who has written many contemporary prayers in this style, says that: “Much of Celtic prayer spoke naturally to God in the working place of life. There was no false division into sacred and secular. God pervaded all and was to be met in their daily work and travels. If our God is to be found only in our churches and our private prayers, we are denuding the world of His reality and our faith of credibility. We need to reveal that our God is in all the world and waits to be discovered there – or, to be more exact, the world is in Him, all is in the heart of God. Our work, our travels, our joys and our sorrows are enfolded in His loving care. We cannot for a moment fall out of the hands of God. Typing pool and workshop, office and factory are all as sacred as the church. The presence of God pervades the work place as much as He does a church sanctuary.” (Power Lines: Celtic Prayers about Work, SPCK, 1992)

Other examples of similar styles of prayer include, Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Gaelic prayers and poems collected in the late 19th century, which “abounds with prayers invoking God’s blessing on such routine daily tasks as lighting the fire, milking the cow and preparing for bed.” Many of George Herbert’s poems use everyday imagery (mainly church-based as he was also a priest) and are based on the idea that God is found everywhere within his world. People like Ray Simpson and Ruth Burgess have provided series of contemporary blessings for everyday life covering computers, exams, parties, pets, cars, meetings, lunchtimes, days off and all sorts of life situations from leaving school and a girl’s first period to divorce, redundancy and mid-life crises.

Similarly, Martin Wallace suggests that: “Just as God walked with Adam in the garden of Eden, so he now walks with us in the streets of the city chatting about the events of the day and the images we see.” (City Prayers, The Canterbury Press, 1994) He wants to encourage us to “chat with God in the city, bouncing ideas together with him, between the truths of the Bible and the truths of urban life” and, “as you walk down your street, wait for the lift, or fumble for change at the cash-till … to construct your own prayers of urban imagery.”

One helpful way of beginning to do this is to identify the times and spaces in your normal day when you could take time to pray in this way. Before ordination, when I worked in Central London I used to use my walk to and from the tube station in this way and also had a prayer on my PC that I would pray as I ate lunch at my desk. As a result, since being ordained I have been sending emails to working people in the congregation of which I have been part with a brief reflection and prayer that they can use in these ways.

If you would like to pay more attention to events in this way, why not start by making a list of all the things that you see and do in a typical day? Then think how you could use these to reflect and pray. Then, as Martin Wallace suggests, you might like to try writing your own prayer, reflection or blessing using some of these things as your starting point.


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