Lockdowns and the ongoing uncertainties associated with this pandemic are exhausting! With much longed-for holidays shattered and each person at the supermarket a potential COVID-case, life can feel uncertain and fragile. But perhaps all of this disruption is an ongoing opportunity for us to remember that the here-and-now we see and touch is only one reality. What about the other world – the unseen, eternal world and the “music of Eternity” surrounding us?
Much of the time we’re too busy, preoccupied, harried and weary to notice God’s unseen reality. Regardless of whether we’re aware of it or not, God is always at work. Scripture reveals to us a God who perpetually initiates; the prime mover who’s constantly doing things. It mightn’t always feel like much is happening, and certainly our fears and anxieties during COVID often drown out a sense of God’s presence, but he is always working – in our pandemic-weary world, in our nation, our communities, our churches and in our lives. But in the midst of the darkness and the silence, it can seem like nothing’s shifting. “How long oh Lord?” we ask.
“So many Christians are like deaf people at a concert …” – Evelyn Underhill
A writer in spirituality, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) invites us to keep ourselves “carefully tuned in, sensitive to the music of Eternity”. She reminds us that even when we can’t see or hear anything, God is constantly initiating. His comings (plural) to us are “perpetual”. He comes to us, in “secret and humble ways”, thus we need to be “very loving” and “alert” to recognise his “earthly disguise”. Evelyn invites us to nurture a “humble, eager expectancy” – to pause and watch and wait. For, as Evelyn writes:
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“So many Christians are like deaf people at a concert. They study the program carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the music, but only really hear a phrase now and again. So they have no notion of the mighty symphony that fills the universe, to which our lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, the self-expression of the Eternal God. Yet there are plenty of things in our normal experience that imply the existence of that music, that life.”
Evelyn continues arguing that when we look back on our lives, we can recognise factors that can’t simply be attributed to chance or even to our efforts. A “hidden, directive power” has been working through our life’s circumstances, pressing us in certain directions – often against what we intend or desire. Some people are sensitive to this pressure, but most of us ignore it, given it’s so hidden and we’re so distracted responding to outward things. But Evelyn writes, when we “lift our eyes from the crowded bypass to the eternal hills”, our scattered lives become enriched with “meaning and coherence”.
So often we think the best thing is to keep busy – ‘such a lot of urgent jobs for Martha to do!’ But as Evelyn writes, the result can be “exhaustion, loss of depth and vision”, coupled with the “vagueness and ineffectually” of much of the work done for God. When we’re so focused on service (this-world obligations) we “forget the need of constant willed and quiet contact with that other world.”
Jesus shows us the pattern with his nights of prayer on the mountain, coupled with his teaching and merciful love of humanity. So how might we redress the balance? Evelyn calls us to prayer and worship – experiencing something of the “leisure of Eternity”.
The mixed life of prayer and action
Abiding in Eternity is Evelyn’s invitation. It means keeping ourselves sensitive to God’s music and light through prayer, so that our “generous self-opening” as we love others forms one life of prayer/service. Rather than focusing upon the amount of jobs we get through, Evelyn encourages us to consider the “steadiness with which we radiate God” and gently cooperate with the Spirit’s action.
Evelyn reminds us of Jesus’ words: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6, NIV). “Close the door” means we make this time to gaze at God and listen to him without our phones. We intentionally try to shut down tech distractions. But even with our phone in another room, so often our minds are abuzz with distracting thoughts. The job list seems to flood us as soon as we stop and intentionally focus upon adoring God. So how might we “centre down”?
Deliberately ‘gathering’ ourselves through reading out aloud small chunks of the Psalms or liturgy (historic prayers of the Church) can be a good place to begin. There’s something about the rhythm of reading prayers out aloud that slows us down – engaging more of our senses, sight and hearing. Also a prayerful posture (e.g. kneeling) involves our bodies and can tend to wake us up.
Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the deeps in creation, the Spirit is hovering over our broken world in the clutches of a pandemic.
Spiritual reading of Scripture can help us control our wandering thoughts. Perhaps taking just one point from our daily Bible reading, asking God for his light, then pondering it prayerfully, can lead us to surrender, love and worship. Perhaps even writing that one point on a yellow sticky note (to put on the fridge or near the kettle) can be a reminder throughout the day.
In addition to praying Psalms or liturgy aloud, silence in God’s presence is also important. When asked how he prayed, a devoted old man replied: “We look at one another.” Gazing at Christ, says Evelyn, leads us into adoration of God. Evelyn encourages us to attend to God “in the way we attend to anyone we deeply love”. Perhaps a clue is provided in Psalm 4:4 (MSG): “Keep your mouth shut, and let your heart do the talking.”
Evelyn argues that the aim of our prayer needs to be a “renewal of our surrender to God”. So after voicing phrases of the Psalms and picturing Christ in the gospels, dwelling in silence, then we can pray for others. We are more enabled to love others after loving God (the twofold commandment).
The Spirit’s hovering over our lives
Evelyn reminds us that just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the deeps in creation (Gen 1:2), the Spirit is hovering over our broken world in the clutches of a pandemic. The Spirit hovers over our lives, and lovingly hovers over the lives of those to whom we’re linked, the people for whom we must pray. Evelyn writes:
“We see them, too, without form, void; they often seem empty of love, trust and adoration; turbulent, uneasy, lacking meaning and loveliness – given over to ceaseless activity; at the mercy of every wind and current; and in their restlessness, so unpromising, so recalcitrant to God. Such easy subjects for our pessimistic indifference, but they too are part of Your raw material. Infinite possibilities are hidden in their deeps. There, too, Your Holy Spirit is brooding with cherishing power, bringing forth unrealised possibilities of life.
“Keep in my mind Your invisible action and Presence, where it’s most difficult to see – in the callous, greedy, earthly minded, flippant, cocksure; check my arrogance, intolerance, lack of patient, confident love. Keep in my mind the boundless possibilities of life, power and beauty hidden in every soul: and Your untiring, loving patience.
“I’m ignorant of these restless lives surrounding me. You’ve taken the turbulent, unharmonious, sinful, rebellious; and have created Your saints. Teach me to await Your creative action on other souls, and especially in those I’m tempted to dislike or neglect. Teach me reverence for all that unformed human nature on which Your Holy Spirit rests, which You can penetrate, transform, make holy, and in which You did deign to be incarnate, and showed us the Father’s glory.”
Even though we might not be able to see anything, God is working in our lives. He knows what He’s doing! Hope is “confident expectation”, argues Evelyn, when we rest in God – the source of the living peace that is enabling us to keep going. It means looking beyond our trials, to God. Though “my little boat rolls heavily on the surface of the waves … under those waves is the firm ground of the Life of God.” Beyond all appearance, we depend on God’s goodness. He is a good God who is faithful – that is hope. So with the Psalmist, we cultivate a quiet heart and “wait with hope” (Psalm 131.2-3, MSG)
So as we keep enduring the uncertainties of this pandemic, perhaps we can slow down a little, “shut the door” on all that distracts us, and press in and gaze at Christ in adoration. Perhaps this might be a time when we can be a little bit more expectant and attentive to God, trusting the Spirit is “hovering” over our broken world, and over the lives of those around us.
Here’s the chunk of Scripture that ‘centred’ me in on God’s goodness this morning:
“I sing to God, the Praise-Lofty, and find myself safe and saved …
He stood me up on a wide-open field; I stood there saved – surprised to be loved!
God made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before Him …
Now I’m alert to God’s ways; I don’t take God for granted.
Every day I review the way He works; I try not to miss a trick …
God rewrote the text of my life when I opened the book of my heart to His eyes …
Everyone who runs towards Him makes it.” (Psalm 18, MSG excerpts)
Robyn Wrigley-Carr is Associate Professor of Theology and Spirituality at Alphacrucis College, Sydney. Her forthcoming book Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill is the Archbishop of York’s Advent Book for 2021 and comes out on August 19, 2021.