Back when I was in England, we spent an afternoon at Westminster Abbey. In case you haven't been there, I must say that it's a wide grey place with a motherly hold of echoing space. A thousand years of prayer are present in the great, cradled quiet that lingers amidst the uplifted lines of the pillars, the taut reach of the stone, and jeweled rain of light through the stain glass windows. All the world and a thousand busy people are always there in an eddy and flow, but the talk and shuffle of steps is the run of a little river through a formidable old canyon. The silence and shadow were carved by the passing of many years, hallowed by countless prayers, and so seem to hover above the touch of any modern voice.
But Westminster is also a great house of faces. They meet you at every turn and step for Westminster is, in many ways, a hall of heroes, a carved memorial to the kings and poets, heroes, artists and saints who crafted the story of England. This last time, I felt almost haunted. In each alcove I entered, the quiet, stone-carved eyes of saints arrested my glance. Emperors glared a challenge down at me from their pedestals, martyrs wailed their faith with silent, eloquent eyes. I dropped my gaze to the floor, and found the words of poets and novelists, priests and composers carved in the very stone at my feet. Last, I lifted my eyes and found the face of Christ, calm, fierce, lovely, in the glimmer and dance of a hundred stain glass windows. So great a cloud of witnesses... The words from Hebrews sang in my head as I walked.
But it wasn't until I sat properly still in a small wooden chair for the evensong service that I met the challenge those many faces cast to any who would notice. As the chanted prayers began, I studied the wise, knowing eyes of those statues and thought of the strong works of compassion, battle, or creation that stood as the story and cause behind each one. Each face was carved in that place because the living soul it represented had thought its way to some vital truth about the world. Each face represented a mind that had not merely accepted the world as it was but questioned and hoped its way to a radical truth instead. A truth that compelled them to craft a life and work that embodied the sacred things they found.
Their lives are challenge to any who will listen to do, and be, the same.
I sat up straighter in my ramrod little chair that day, ready to answer and meet their dare. I don't want to live an unquestioned life, to let circumstance and culture chivy me along unresisting. I want to stand up, look about, ask what is true of the world, what work I must do, what love I must give. I have felt often in the last few years that I was failing in this work. The rush of my busy days and the distraction of too much everything (voices, options, places, events) weakened my determination to live in a single minded pursuit of what was true, beautiful, and good. I had gotten lax in more ways than I liked; health habits, devotions, self-rule in electronics, rhythms of rest and writing. It is a hard, striving thing even to keep a soul alive in the distracted haze of modern living, and far harder beyond that to cultivate a heart and mind that are always in pursuit of truth and ready to live by it. But all those kind, wise, keen stone faces convinced me I must try.
They whisper to me yet. Two months have passed since my amble through Westminster, but the challenge those statues posed is a blessed goad in my back. I've spent the summer reading the lives and histories of some saints. I've read the writings of Mother Teresa, I've studied the story of the great Welsh Revival that blazed to life a hundred years ago and shook the world. I've studied the words of John, the beloved disciple, savoring his simple, confident words. In each of these stories or studies, I have found the simple fact that when a person comes to God, however flawed or frail they may be, and asks to be used to build his kingdom, to know, as those Westminster saints did, what is really true about the world, God responds.
When people strip themselves of sin and illusion, when they step away from the frenzy of their culture and enter the quiet, waiting space of prayer, God speaks in ways they could not expect. When anyone pursues the truth about the nature of the world, or chases after real justice, or begs to glimpse and live real love, God answers and acts and invades their lives in a way I find shocking. The crux of it though is choice. Simple, but strenuous, a daily choosing to be vigilant in thought, disciplined in habits of body and mind, determined in prayer and in that seeking after the kingdom of God.
Yesterday, I was texting back and forth with the friend who gave me the book on the Welsh revivals and she said, "it's almost as if you can't imagine something like that happening until you read the real story." "I know," I texted back, "so, you want to start a revival?" Because I kinda do. Or something along those lines. The Welsh revivals started with one young man gathering a few friends in a dim little room to pray. And from that, the new life of thousands. So why not me and my friend, praying together, begging for God to invade us?
Why not? That is the challenge flung by heroes and saints. I'm ready to meet it in a way I almost never have been before. I've decided to form a prayer group this fall, to study what it means to commune with God, to hear his voice, and then, to just do it. To make my heart and will single-willed for the coming of God in the days and ways of my existence. So I'll end with a request. What books, or friends, or heroes shaped the way you pray, the way you perceive the possibility of God's presence in your life? What influences can you share with me that will help me and my little group on the road to kingdom heroics? An adventure is beginning, and I want to be well-provisioned for the road.
(PS- Next time I'll let you know where I've been and where I'm going (exciting stuff!) and share a few of my favorite links and thoughts these days.)