Wind & Flame
Every Saturday evening, as the summer light fades, I amble down to the overgrown churchyard of St. Thomas the Martyr, one of the oldest churches in Oxford. There, in the closing day, I attend a weekly vigil service, time worn words spoken into the dusky quiet of a church lit entirely by candles. I began attending last autumn. The church would be night-dark when I arrived, the candle in my hand and the ones in every nook a shout against the black. Now, the small flames glimmer and blend with a light sifted by stained glass, and the birds sing heartily in the garden and the bees in the hives at the back of the graveyard lend a distant buzz. But winter or summer, dusk or light, the quiet is the same. It's the hush of a prayer-soaked space kept sacred by the long, offered effort of countless people. There are rarely more than six or seven of us there (though that might change soon as several here work to renew the life of the place), mostly the elderly and a handful of students, but always the same woman straightening the chairs, lighting the countless candles, readying the space for another day in which it will hold the praise of God. I am always amazed at the way that space takes hold of me when I walk in, a hush that cradles my thought. I am startled, too, at what I discover.
There was a moment, for instance, the other night, that stays in my mind like a portrait - a kept moment to which I think I will often return. Just after the homily (short reading/sermon), there was a long moment of silence. The vigil service is unique in that it begins in the back of the church, just the few of us hunched in a circle of old chairs, hearing Scripture, praying in the woven closeness of that tiny space. We then process, singing, to the altar, to receive the Eucharist. But that was still to come.
We sat in the usual circle on our creaky seats, holding our candles gingerly, the hot wax dripping on our skin now and then so that we flinched. The words of the sermon sunk into the hush, and as the quiet lengthened, we settled, stilled. Silence bloomed in that church, a ripened, full quiet in which we sat unmoving, the flames of our candles very straight and still.
But a great wind tossed the trees outdoors. A storm was on the move. You coul hear it, a fast, raucous whisper and rush round the whole of the church. You could see it, tossing the branches and stirring the leaves just out the stained glass window so that the light spilled like gem-toned rain through the windows, flickering, dappled, spattering in over our hands and feet so that we were awash in color.
To hear the run of the wind, to feel its toss of the trees and the rippled light gave a startling intensity to our indoor, stillness. The word 'vigil' in that moment more aptly described the service than it ever had, to me, before. The total silence, the unwavering flames, seemed to signal that we waited. We listened. Halted by the signal voice of that wind as it roared outside. Part of me wanted to join the race. My soul scented action. My whole self stirred as I watched the dapple light, yearned toward the wind running holy circles round the church. The moment was my life writ into an instant, the yearning toward God that quickens and aches in me every day. As I always do, during the space I call a 'quiet time' in the morning but find hard to fill with real stillness, I tensed for action, hungry to be part of God's quickening life. I felt I should be up and running too.
But my spirit was held, still as the unmoved flames. This was a time for silence.
This summer has been one of almost overwhelming action. Accomplishment too; I'm proud of what I've done. Six essays. A new job. A book completed. A new house settled. Community formed. But the rhythm of work can sweep you away, it has a flood tide power that makes it hard to escape its current once you're in it. I find that as my productivity grows, my anxiety often does too. It's a tenuous balance. The more I trust myself, the easier it is to step aside from trust in God. Trust, which is, as that challenging, beloved old Psalm puts it, the choice to 'be still'. Still. Step aside from what I can accomplish into the great hush in which I am meant to 'know that He is God' and 'apart from Him I can do nothing'.
But as I sat in the vigil that evening, held almost strictly by the silence, I realized that we there in our hush were not separate fro the rush of that sweet, roving wind. I thought of Pentecost - when a wind rushed down upon a group of people gathered to remember the body and blood of their Lord, just as we were, when flames settled upon the head of each, when the coming of the Spirit was both a storm around them, but also a single, steady, unquenchable flame in each of their hearts, hands, minds, taking up residence in the inmost room of their being.
I, when I pray, we gathered there in that vigil calm, all of us, when we seek the silent and inmost spaces are not absent from the rush of life. In a vigil quiet, we return to the center of the holy storm of God's presence, we dwell at its heart, sit with the first reality of the flame kindled by that Spirit, unquenchable by any wind in this world because it was kindled by the wind wild Spirt of God. Wind and flame. Rush and silence. And the flame of love alight in my deepest heart. In the vigil moment, I am home.