I am a conventional bloke really. When I find something that works I tend to stick with it. So when an overseas trip fell through at quite short notice and I decided to book a retreat it was a blow to find my favourite place couldn’t take me. At short notice I found myself heading for the Welsh Coast and a Jesuit-run week.
God was, of course, in all the places I’d expected to find him. There He was in my daily meetings with my spiritual director. He was up on the mountains – even when the fog descended – and on a glorious, almost deserted sunny beach. He was in the faces of my fellow retreatants as we ate our meals in silence. And of course He was there each day in the Eucharist as bread and wine were taken, offered, broken and consumed. None of that was any surprise. I do a retreat most years. Often it is in an Ignatian style and it is always wonderful for prayer to be the constant of the day rather than fighting for its share of space among all the other priorities.
What surprised me was how close I felt to God in a less usual setting. Each evening, after supper we gathered to sit in complete silence for half an hour with the sacrament set out before us.
The Eucharist is a drama. But this was a stillness. The Eucharist is a constant flow of words, music and actions. Here Christ was with us in silence. The time was set aside simply for us to be there with Christ. And to shun our usual responses of word and action in order to enter into a deeper adoration.
For an Anglican this is of course deeply controversial stuff. The final paragraph of article 25 begins “the sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” I don’t sit lightly to the Articles of Religion. Not only have I from time to time to assent to their place within Anglican tradition, I also regularly require others to so assent in my presence.
As I know from regular, daily reading of the scriptures, words not only convey meaning but also often hide, confuse or distort it. And never more so than when the writer and the reader live in very different contexts. For the Anglican Reformers the issue was not simply that lay people were gazing at the sacrament but that this had pushed the receiving of communion into a much lower place. People would rarely receive, would often leave the church once the Host had been elevated or even as a devotion go from church to church simply to be present for the consecration. A devotional practice that seems to have more in common with bird watching than genuine Eucharistic devotion.
I felt in my own devotions not a desire to replace the receiving the Sacrament but a delight to find it complemented. My time was not spent gazing on the Host but seeing it as a lens through which to see the One who gave himself for me and for many. A time to pause and be with Him in His self offering and in His passion. Sometimes, as St. Peter articulated on the Mount of the Transfiguration, it is simply “good to be here”. That moment of intimacy with Christ cannot be clung onto, as Peter himself was to discover. But it can be savoured whilst it is there. The sacrament becomes like an Icon – a window onto the Divine – but even more so because its relationship to that which it represents is closer than for any holy picture or religious ornament.
The primary purpose of the sacrament lies in the full drama of the Eucharist. Climaxing in the sharing of the elements by the substantive body of the congregation. The reformers rightly draw us back to this central truth. But at a time when we struggle to resist Forster’s jibe of “poor, talkative Christianity” and in a world ever busier, maybe devotion that brings us into the stillness of the presence of Christ is what many of us need.
And perhaps next year too I should plan my retreat at the very last moment.