Welcome you to our Sunday Service with words contributed this week by our District Minister Rev.Martin Whitell.
Welcome and Greetings.
You may like to quieten your mind by sitting comfortably and lighting a candle to remind you of the many times you have met before with your many friends in The Old Meeting House.
These words are from Cliff Reed’s book: Sprit of Time and Place:
“Divinity is present everywhere.
Heaven and earth are filled with God.
But in some places at certain times
we feel a special presence.
May this be such a place and such a time.”
Please listen, or sing a long, to our hymn, “The Fellowship of the Church”
The Church is not where altar stands
Within the hallowed walls,
But where the strong reach out their hands
To raise the one who falls;
Not stately building, standing fair,
Where people sing their creeds,
But fellowship of loving care
Which serves all human needs.
The Church is not where ancient rite
Is seen on Sabbath days,
But wisdom’s constant beam of light
To guide our common ways;
The Church is me, the Church is you,
Not mortar, brick and stone;
It is with all who love the true,
And where true love is shown.
by John Andrew Storey
Sacred source of life, Spirit divine and faithful companion of our souls; what a joy it is to revel in this our vibrant world of colour, texture, sound and sense.
We revel in the gift of our wonderful tapestry of fellowship where different gifts and graces, ideas and beliefs all work together to produce a living flame of light and warmth. But today we face afresh the problems of our time. Unexpectedly, a virus has paralysed our world and our communities, and we are forced to be apart, which can make us fearful and lonely. Help us to be strong and patient, to play our part in reducing the risks and hastening the days which will return when we can be together again.
Maker of our days enable us to imbibe all the beauty and affection of those who work for our best purposes and make each of us generous in spirit and in kindness. Especially we think of those who are alone and those who are sick and those who are grieving.
As we worship this day, let us be glad for the hand of goodness that rests gently upon us
Here are two quotes for you to think about as we listen to a piece of music.
“There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom,
others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.”
― Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873 – 1954) French author.
“Be around people that make you want to be a better person,
who make you feel good, make you laugh, and remind you what’s important in life.”
― Germany Kent (b. 1975) American broadcaster and journalist
SOLITUDE OR FELLOWSHIP
There are many things which have happened since I was last with you, like winter and Christmas. But, although many of us have seen epidemic and pandemic somewhere on risk assessments during our working lives, I don’t suppose many of us imagined anything quite like we are experiencing. Global pandemic (Covid 19) whether by neglect or misjudgment certainly took us by stealth, and before we knew it our lives and lifestyles were changed on March 23rd. Some say that things will never be the same again; some want things never to be the same again; but if you are not one of them, be assured that you are not alone! Among the several tragedies of the last months have been the lives snatched from us, too soon and too privately. To be denied the natural process of grieving is neither progress nor regression but a cruel consequence of a natural disaster. There is much of value that I for one want to regain and make even better.
But this short ‘sermon’ is about the age old question of whether we can live out our spiritual pilgrimage alone, maybe in a virtual world or whether we need to relate to others in physical community to do it effectively. You’ll be relieved to know that I think I’m preaching to the converted, because you are weighing the risks and benefits, so that you make responsible decisions as time moves along. Although the circumstances are different, the underlying questions are in fact not new. I would like to share some stories with you.
Fifteen years ago, I received an illustration in an e-mail from a friend in Manchester who was also training for the Unitarian ministry.
Ask people about God nowadays and they usually reply,
“I’m not religious, but deep down, I’m a very spiritual person.” What this phrase really means is:
“I’m afraid of dying, and I want to live well, but I can’t be bothered with going to church.”
Now I don’t want to criticise those who lead a life of spiritual solitude, those who want to work at their spiritual journey on their own. This of course was the craving of Cuthbert the marvelous and perhaps a little strange Northern saint. He like many other monks longed to be a hermit. He spent nights standing alone in the sea and eventually ended his days on Inner Farne, off the Northumberland coast, with eider ducks and seals for company! But he was formerly and essentially part of a community. Monks read, studied and admired the lives of the Desert Fathers of the C3rd, C4th and C5th. Monasticism of course had started with the Buddhists and Zen Buddhists centuries before probably in the mountains of Tibet, but western or Christian monasticism began in the deserts of Egypt. Once Christianity became accepted by Rome the emphasis for spiritual excellence changed from martyrdom in the cities, to monasticism in the desert. There were two types of monastics: Hermits (or eremites: desert monks) and Communal Monks (or Cenobites). Spirituality was never the exclusive property of those who live in solitude.
Let me tell you a story about two of these Hermits. They lived in 4th century Egypt. They are the inspiration for the title of former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ book “Silence and Honeycakes”. One was called Arsenius he had been the tutor of the children of the emperor Theodosius. He enjoyed luxury and wealth and gave it all up to go to the desert. The other was called Moses the Black (not PC but true). Moses was a converted runaway slave, murderer and robber. He too became a hermit.
A story is told of Moses being summoned to adjudicate in the case of a mon
who had been guilty of some serious crime.
He walked from his desert cell carrying a leaking pitcher of water.
The monks ran to him as he arrived asking what he was doing, he said
“My sins leave a trail behind me and you call me to judge a brother”
The monks forgave the offending monk!
The story goes that a person went to one of the desert monasteries asking to have an interview with the holy Arsenius. A monk took him to Arsenius who greeted the man gave him a seat but returned to his silent prayer and said nothing. After hours of waiting the visitor slipped away. The monk asked the visitor if everything was alright and he said he was disappointed to be ignored. So, the next day the monk took him to Moses the Black. Moses greeted him offered him food and drink and talked for hours. That night the visitor had a dream. He saw Arsenius in a boat on the river of life sailing steadily, praying in silence with the Holy Ghost On the same river he saw Moses the Black in a similar boat talking with an angel and they were eating honey cakes and sailing along just as well. He concluded that God is present both in solitude and in company.
You see in point of fact we need both solitude and company.
Many of us are currently leading a life of solitude, circumstances constrain us. But we recognise the need for the stimulation and insight into the spiritual world that comes from companionship. Being with other people, friends and neighbours, and worshiping with the people who meet in our Churches, Chapels and Meeting Houses provided us with that.
One more story.
In the Church of St Mary’s on Holy Island there is on display one of Fenwick Lawson’s powerful sculptures.
It is magnificent. It is a larger than life carving in wood of the monks, six of them,
carrying the coffin of Cuthbert away from the Island because of the frequent Viking raids at the end of the C9th.
Six serene yet determined, cowled faces, none can see the other, each with his personal thoughts
and bearing their precious burden.
If you stand on the backs of the church pews, which you shouldn’t do – but I did –
you can look into the open coffin on their shoulders.
Here is the carving of the body of Cuthbert, facing heavenwards at peace,
seemingly incorruptible, all with fantastic presence and power.
In one way it oozes the solitude of spirituality. But if you walk behind the sculpture,
you don’t see, so much as experience the most powerful thing of all.
Very little detail, the folding fabric the habits of two monks.
BUT, most powerfully, two arms each clasping the back of the other brother.
That says it all – no matter how singular, precious and important the work, or how holy the task.
It is done together!
What does all this say to us as Unitarians at a time of pandemic? Well, there is something good about being contemplative in our faith – just as you are reading this service, or even watching lots of other people in a zoom meeting even with your microphone muted! But also there is the God and Spirit who comes to us uniquely and mysteriously in the presence of others; catching us between the ribs, welling up the tear in the eye, bringing the lump to the back of the throat when we see something or someone, beautiful (maybe), needful (maybe), damaged (maybe), questioning (maybe), recovering from Covid (maybe), but each in their own way lovely and loveable, real and physical, and yes, even Divine.
Finally, A blessing
From wilderness to community, from
solitude to company, we return. These
are the poles of existence. May we
fear neither ourselves, nor each other,
and may what we learn in our aloneness
deepen our sense of being at one with
our neighbour, with our own true selves
and so with the divine root of being
which we share.
Wilderness by Cliff Reed