The fringe of the real

We are shocked when we hear of the woman who had been living with haemorrhages for twelve years (Mark 5, Luke 8), the impact on her life surely physically and socially devastating. But ‘She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’’

In desperate times the sum total of our energy might be only just enough to reach out to whatever it is that soothes us (hopefully something healing and not harmful): music, wise words, other people and, if we still have faith, God.

The hem of Christ’s cloak is there, whether or not we can see it. The response is there, whether or not we can feel it. ‘Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’’

Who touched them? Who didn’t? Who doesn’t need to reach out? And if we reach out in the difficult times then perhaps we’ll learn more instinctively to connect with God when things are easier. When we’re feeling confident and happy, on a roll, in the flow – and perhaps in danger of forgetting our interdependence with others and our dependence on God.

Evelyn Underhill, 20th century writer and mystic, has a lovely phrase for what it is that we’re reaching for: she calls it ‘the fringe of the real’.

I’m wrestling with Underhill’s Mysticism this week (in a good way, as Jacob wrestled with the angel). And I’ve learned that the Christian mystics throughout history have sought God in two places at the same time: in the created world, Life within life, immanent and eternally Becoming; and in the unchanging Absolute Reality which unites all things, transcending, filling and sustaining everything. At the same time.

What enabled them – and now us – to knit together these two experiences of God is the presence of the Spirit in the warp and weft of our own being. What is truest and most real in us recognises what is always True and Real. And so our awareness of eternity comes to us as ‘light through a coloured window, grace through a sacrament’.

Whether this Advent, for us, is marked by poised expectation or what feels like unstoppable haemorrhage, may we reach out for the hem of his cloak. And in the act of reaching may we know that we are touched by the Real, who comes among us, alongside us, in all things.

 

 

 

 

Touched with ocean

Some years ago Lucy Winkett of St James’s Piccadilly introduced me to the words of Richard Wilbur, the late American poet and lyricist:

‘All that we do is touched with ocean, and yet we remain on the shore of what we know’.

Here at the beginning of three months’ study leave – the not-to-be-underestimated privilege of clergy who have clocked up enough years to be due some headspace – I’m standing on the edge of an unknown ocean. But not a geographical one. Countless people have asked me ‘Where are you going for your sabbatical?’ Answer: ‘Nowhere’.  Cue confused looks (because why wouldn’t you?), then ‘So what are you studying?’ Answer: ‘the Christian mystics’. Cue a variety of responses: quizzical, engaged, envious … concerned.

I should at least be going to Syria to sit on top of a pole à la Simeon Stylites. But I’m not.

It’s for very practical reasons that I’m not going anywhere. Yet staying underlines my unshakeable belief that God is to be found here, now, always. The divine in the detail. The breath of the Spirit – ruach – in the fabric of familiar life. And in the strangeness of local life too.

If I’m to immerse myself in the mystics it seems only right that I do it where the rest of my life is lived, in this oft-dubbed ‘world city’ where bits of the rest of the world impact, coalesce or pass through sooner or later.

So, poised with my toes in the ocean I think of my teenage daughters learning to surf in the chill of the Cornish waves in October. Out there is depth and adrenaline and salt and refracted light and being turned upside down and yet held and returned to shore. Hopefully in one piece but having experienced something new.

Bernard McGinn (yes, I’ve begun my study leave reading) gives us this definition of mysticism: ‘new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts, not as an object to be grasped, but as the direct and transforming centre of life’.

How might we be transformed if we step into that ocean – right where we are …?