Fresh morning sun peered into my eyes as I swung my car onto the main road in town. I cruised toward a church I had never entered, realising—as I pulled between the mustard-coloured lines to park—that I did not know where to go. I stood uncertainly, looking back and forth between the looming church and the sad-looking parish centre behind it. I made the decision to poke my head in at the parish centre, as the lovely church looked a bit too imposing to enter without someone by my side. A slip of paper on the glass door confirmed that I had chosen correctly. Skirting the infant baptism class, I veered toward a room sparsely filled with ladies of various shapes, hair colours, and backgrounds.
Walking into a group of humans is intimidating enough for me, let alone a group of grown-up women belonging to a denomination I’m unfamiliar with, all of whom I had never met in my life. Yet, I was determined to attend this morning of prayer and meditation as soon as I had heard about it. That determination walked me through the double doors and to the first table where someone caught my eye and smiled. I chatted with a woman while waiting for the tea water to boil. I introduced myself to the ladies at the table where I set my things. I probably looked like a wide-eyed protestant from a mile away, but they were all kind enough to explain things for me when I asked. I tactfully neglected to ask why women’s gatherings never supply protein-rich breakfasts, hoping the fruit and assorted breads would keep my morning appetite satisfied.
Soon, we filed over to the spacious church in little knots of chattering women. My tentative, shy feeling whisked away as I stepped under those dark, wooden rafters and my nostrils caught a strong scent of incense. Dust-brown pews invited us to sit in the sunlight sifting down from high windows. I chose a spot a bit apart from the kind ladies I had shared breakfast with. Quiet and reflection are hard for me to practise in close proximity to others. We practised lectio divina to meditate on a passage of Scripture from Isaiah, and then on the calling of Matthew, using a Caravaggio painting to guide our meditations. We sang a few hymns in English and in Latin. I journalled and prayed and reflected over more Scripture. We were guided through a much slower and more deliberate Mass.
During our meditation and the celebration of the Eucharist I was drawn to a stream of soft light pouring onto the altar floor. At first I could see lingering smoke from incense illumined in that shaft. Yet, while the aroma of incense faded throughout our time in that hushed sanctuary, it did not leave my memory. I remembered how the light had caught the final tendrils of sweet-smelling smoke as I stepped in through that dark doorway. The beam of light had taken the invisible trail of vapour, giving it form and substance. I thought about how our prayers are to rise to the Lord as a sweet aromatic waft of incense. That is all we are, a breath of wind, a curl of blue smoke, nearly invisible—until the light rounds out our contours and gives us substance. Only the Light, Jesus himself, makes our prayers visible, real, and dimensional. We—who are but a puff of smoke and then we are gone—He makes solid, visible creatures. He rounds out our spirits, souls, and selves by shining his light not on us, but through us. “…Blaze again like fire in every leaf”,sup>1, says Malcolm Guite. It is the Light shining through the smoke, through the leaf, that shows the substance of the thing pierced by the Light.
Truth is multi-façeted, like a luminous jewel. This day the truth I saw was that both our prayers and our selves are but a vapour, then they are gone. Both need the Eternal Light to shine through them to make them solid, real. Like the ever diminishing scent of incense, our prayers fade and need to be re-kindled. We must daily speak joy. We must continue to cry for the mercy of God. We must bring our requests again to God…Not because he forgets, but because we do. We so quickly forget our wraith-like wisps of praise, constancy in petitions, and the Kindness who leads us to repentance. Our prayers either rise into the Light himself, or they flit away into the rafters, losing substance and depth.
As I stepped out into the crisp air and noon-day sun, my eyes refocussed from cool semi-darkness to overwhelming brightness. The sunlight that had peeked into my green eyes in the morning, now laughingly showed me the world boldly, clearly. The light revealed the depth and the contours of everything around me. Light in our world only shows what is there, but I am learning that the Light himself makes things real by shining upon them, through them. I climbed into my car and tilted her toward home, reflecting on my need for the Light to illumine and enliven me.
- Guite, Malcolm, “O Adonai” in Sounding the Seasons (London: Canterbury Press 2012) 8