Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Start:Stop - We see furthest in the dark

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Good morning! I hope you are all safe and well. This is our Start:Stop reflection for Tuesday 24th March in a slightly different format than normal. The church is now closed. Please visit our website where you can find details of how we hope to continue to offer services throughout the coronavirus pandemic. 

Through Lent in our Tuesday morning Start:Stop reflections, we have been exploring the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, using as our guide the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book “Saying Yes to Life.” Our short reading this morning describes the fourth day of creation, when God created the day and night:

Bible Reading - Genesis 1.14-19

And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.


Normally at Start:Stop I would be sitting in front of our beautiful Henry Moore altar looking out of the church door as a stream of commuters flow along Walbrook. This morning, I am looking out of my living room window at one of the former homes of Charles Dickens, now a museum dedicated to his life. It was here that he wrote some of his most famous works, including Oliver Twist.

In his book ‘A Nocturnal History of London,’ Matthew Beaumont, a professor of English at University College London, describes Charles Dickens as “the patron saint of the streets at night.” Professor Beaumont explains that the glorious, mysterious and sometimes dangerous life of cities at night fascinated Dickens, who felt at home amongst the homeless. Each day, in the space of just a few hours, the veil of prosperity over the world’s most populous and prosperous city fell away. As the streetlamps were lit, life appeared to turn upside down. On his frequent night walks, Dickens found a community of outcasts surviving in squalor, forced to traipse the streets in an effort to survive the cold. Walking alongside them revealed the contradictions of the city and of humanity – of the solitary and sociable – of poverty and prosperity - and the delicate balance between the two. This insight helped Dickens, through his writing, to crack what G.K.Chesterton called “the shining riddle of the street” at night. 

It’s a riddle so enticing that it continues to inspire artists and writers today, including Jon Fosse, whose work has been performed in Europe more than any other living playwright. “It goes without saying [he says] that darkness has to do with night, with sleep, and with death, and with not being able to see anything, or being able to see stars, in a certain sense being able to see the universe. You can never see further than in the dark.” His melancholic poetry finds an innate goodness in the darkness within ourselves and the world around us, which he describes as both ‘luminous’ and ‘kind’. A surplus of ‘Kind Darkness’ seems to have helped Jon Fosse’s home country, Norway, top the World Happiness League a few years ago – the longer nights and colder weather in the country identified as contributing to happiness by bringing communities together. 

In our reading today from Genesis, God creates the night and day and saw that they were good – that they were both good. As Ruth Valerio reminds us in our Lent Book ‘Saying Yes to Life,’ this is a radical message. So keen were the writers of Genesis to disassociate themselves from the dark, bloody and violent creation stories of the time, that they practised what we might today call ‘celestial distancing’ – purposely avoiding the use of the words sun and moon in their text, so as not to name-check two Babylonian demi-Gods. Remembering the inherent goodness of all creation – including both day and night – remains a radical message today in times of darkness, uncertainty and anxiety. The rhythm of day and night has inspired a long tradition of Christian prayer – encouraging us to take time on waking to dedicate each new day to God and in the evening to review the day in thanksgiving, before we sleep. I thought it might be helpful to revisit two such practices. 

Francis de Sales, who became Bishop of Geneva in the early seventeenth century, was a morning person. He suggested that on waking, we bring to mind one or two brief lines from scripture. Directing our first thoughts to God as soon as we wake sets us on the right track for the day head - but the words we choose matter less than the intention in which they are said. In his 'Introduction to the Devout Life' - written specifically for lay people, he explains that the intention with which we start each day is everything; "If our mind [he writes] habituates itself to intimacy, privacy and familiarity with God, it will be completely perfumed by his perfections." When we are perfumed by God's perfections we not only receive pleasure in the smell of the perfume but spread the scent among others we come into contact with. It sounds as though Francis was championing ‘viral kindness’ centuries before it became a hashtag on social media. 

In the evening, St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, offers guidance to help us review and give thanks for the day passed - an exercise that one writer has described as "rummaging for God." The Examen is the only prayer that Ignatius insisted on being said at least daily. In its most simplified form, it comprises two linked questions, such as: "What today has drawn me closer to God and what has taken me away from Him? Or "where did I give and receive the most love today - and where did I give and receive the least?"

Developing a practice of daily prayer - in the morning or evening - or both! - is beneficial at all times but perhaps especially in this time of quarantine and isolation. As the playwright Jon Fosse reminds us – we see the furthest in the dark. In prayer we can turn to Christ, our morning star, to illuminate even the darkest of times. 


Lord, receive our praise
And shine in our lives today

Lord, give hope to all who are suffering from the coronavirus and all who are anxious about symptoms. 
Comfort all those who mourn.
Give strength to those caring for others. 

Lord, receive our praise
And shine in our lives today

Lord, open our eyes to the plight of those who are suffering at this time;
All who are concerned about their livelihoods,
Bless all those working to support the homeless, refugees and those without enough to eat.

Lord, receive our praise
And shine in our lives today

Lord, help us to remember that each moment of every day is sacred and a gift from you.
May we offer the fullness of this and every day to you - both its ups and downs.
Help us to adapt to new ways of living during the coronavirus pandemic and to conduct ourselves always in a manner pleasing to you. 


And may the blessing of God the Creator, 
Christ the Redeemer 
and the Spirit, the Sustainer of all 
be with us, and with all life on earth, 
now and always.

For more information about the morning prayer intentions of St Francis de Sales, visit this website. 
For more information about the Examen and the writings of St Ignatius of Loyola, visit this website. 

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