It was quite a journey to make for a church service – and one made just a day after returning in crowded planes from a holiday abroad. There was a ferry, the impossible rush-hour M8, the queues of traffic in Glasgow’s West End. Why was I even thinking of going to the Corpus Christi celebration in St Mary’s?
Because I was asked, for one. Because I knew there would be a welcome. Because I would be able to listen to a good choir, a lovely organ, without the stress of being part of anything other than the congregation. Because I already knew that all would be done well and that nothing liturgical would disappoint. There would be rose petals and a monstrance and incense and excellent ceremony. All these things.
But there was more. Unexpectedly, it has to be said, there was more.
Imagine, we were told, that God were to turn up. What would we do? What would we say?
It was asked quietly, almost matter-of-factly, and I smiled. It’s a good question, and somehow never expected. Part of me, I confess, wandered briefly down the path of speculation – not, in fact, about God, but about whether or not I might on some occasion make use of the same question. Distraction, after all, takes many forms, and can be fleeting or protracted. I turned back and concentrated instead.
The service was beautiful. The Mass setting, the Missa Brevis by Jonathan Dove, was new to me, and appealed. The anthem, Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh, captured my mood perfectly. The rose-petal strewn procession of the sacrament round the building had that other-worldly air that only the church at its best can create – such profligacy of beauty, the many, many roses sacrificed to pave the way for the sacrament, to make a pathway for the Lord …
The incense rose in clouds. All that made my tiresome journey worthwhile. But there was more.
That moment, the moment when the monstrance was raised high in blessing of us all, the moment when the organ suddenly crashed as though the heavens were rent – that was when God turned up. How do I know?
I know because it hit me with all the force of a physical blow. A blow on the head, on the front. I could show you where, if you were with me. A blow that left me dazed, my vision blurred. I didn’t feel ecstatic, or inspired, or anything else other than speechless. It was completely different from other experiences that I think of as God-moments, and it is something I have felt only once before, at the moment of conversion over 40 years ago. Then it was an occasion for a unique kind of activity, finding someone who could help me make sense of the experience. But now?
I found myself reflecting on it the next morning. Reflection takes energy if it is to mean anything, and after the eucharist and the drive to the last ferry I had no energy left. But after a night’s sleep it was suddenly clear to me that much of what we think of as church life is a kind of place-holder, such as you find when formatting documents into which you may wish to insert your own photo or headline. We keep the space available for something special, but because nature abhors a vacuum we tend to fill that space with what seem like the things the God that calls us wants us to do. Sometimes, these things are necessary to ensure that in time others may have the experience too – all these rose-petals didn’t just happen; the music that made such an impression needed hours of work; the seemingly effortless liturgy and sermon aren’t effortless at all. And the place these things happen in needs cleaning, and maintenance … I could go on, and you all know where I’m going. We’ve all done it, and we all do it: we all keep our placeholders there so that the ordinary doesn’t crowd our God-space out.
But actually, that God who crashed into my consciousness doesn’t need the placeholder. God needed me to pay attention to the moment, I suspect, and that was all. So I was at this pretty extraordinary service in a far-from ordinary place, and I’d made the effort to be there and it was already worthwhile for me as, to be honest, the Eucharist tends to be on many inauspicious days – I’d made the effort and as the monstrance was raised in blessing I was entirely there, mind and body with no distraction. And God was there, hugely and unignorably and utterly different.
And as I recovered – for it’s a shaking thing, meeting God – it became clear to me that I knew the answer to that question we’d been asked. If God were to turn up, what would I do? What would I say?
There was only one answer.
For once, I was speechless.
Writing this has brought me back to that moment, and I’m grateful for that. I know that I can’t go looking for a repeat, a top-up. But I also know that displacement activity won’t make any difference. The attentiveness, the open-ness, is all.
But I’m grateful, all the same, for all that eased me into that moment.