A homily given at 6pm Night Prayer on Sunday 15th January 2023, The Second Sunday of Epiphany, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
OUR OWN ADAM AND EVE STORY
Søren Kierkegaard wrote:
Every notable historical era will have its own Faust.
At the most superficial level, this is an interesting commentary upon the trajectory of history. But, at its most profound, it is also deeply troubling, for it conjectures an endless struggle of humanity with its worst self, resulting in a repetitious selling of its collective soul. In the first two homilies of this Serenata of Worship series of January Night Prayer, I have left the Faustian story alone, instead I have touched upon the story of Adam and Eve in their relationship with God, their creator. Tonight, I want to continue that metaphorical exploration and would like to suggest a parallel offering to Kierkegaard’s Faustian proposition, namely:
Each one of us has an Adam and Eve story in our own lives which we need to explore – what does our story look like?
At a simplistic level, the story of Adam and Eve is one of terrible punishment for a relatively simple transgression. ‘Don’t eat of the Tree of Life’, God had said of a Tree which perhaps he should not have put temptingly in front of his human creations in the first place. Humanity couldn’t help itself and the outcome was dreadful according to Genesis. Theological propositions of Original Sin arose as a consequence.
But what if we were to consider the story of Adam of Eve at an idiosyncratic level for each of us individually? What if we were to transpose ourselves into the scenario – that we become Adam or Eve in a continuously evolving story where each of us must examine both God’s intent in our lives and our willingness to respond.
In an article which appeared in the latest edition of the Weekend Australian Levi Wolff, the Chief Rabbi of the Central Synagogue in Sydney, wrote this:
We are all not striving for perfection, but for progression. The premise is that we were all created perfectly imperfect by design, so that through a continuous process of learning, growth and, yes, trial and error, we may inch ever closer to living an enlightened and enriched life …
Looked at from this point of view, the story of Adam and Eve takes on a whole new perspective. The departure from the Garden of Eden was not so much an expulsion as a mission laid before them. Elucidating this theme, Wolff wrote about the Judaic concept of Teshuva – a repentance which is transformative not just penitent. This is how he described it:
A contribution to human development that is distinctly Jewish – and, I might add, revolutionary – is the notion that a human’s fallibility is not a metaphorical bug in the system, but a feature. Teshuva is the recognition by God that we are not flawless, nor are we expected to be. On the contrary, we have a built-in propensity to err. Given this, our highest calling therefore is to transform that weakness into a catalyst for progress and advancement. Our Torah teaches that a mistake is, in essence, a springboard for growth.
To look at the story of Adam and Eve and its significance for us this way is to transform it from a retrospective where we might conclude: ‘Thanks you two, NOT!’ into a personal interrogation about how we each need to learn how we might move forward from our own individual creation which God performed when he breathed life into each of us. Furthermore, that personal interrogation should aim to hear God’s call to each of us, notwithstanding the dark places where we might feel we find ourselves at any point of time.
To hear his voice, however, requires us to have our eyes open wide to the dark places where life may appear to have led us. Our reading from Habakkuk this evening reminded us to keep our eyes wide open:
I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart. I will keep watch to see what he will say to me … [2:1]
Likewise, Paul’s epistle to the Roman which we heard tonight had these words:
… the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith. [1:17]
While our Psalm (37) spoke of the virtuous price of keeping our eyes focussed on God:
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, he will act. [v5]
As in the first two in this Serenata of Worship series of Night Prayer, I have sought to correlate our readings and song with the spiritual pilgrimage I embarked upon in 2012 as I journeyed towards ordination. Tonight, I circulate the third portion of twelve prayers I encountered back then as I struggled through the rigours of the Great Lent. Unlike the first two sets of twelve prayers (up to Day 24), the cycle I have printed tonight includes prayers of a less poetic or serene nature. For example, the first prayer (Day 25) starts with:
Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within and without.
While the prayer from the following day (Day 26) opens no more optimistically:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
The prayer of Day 29 opened with a similar perplexity of mind:
O Lord, I do not know what to ask you.
Looking back on the prayers of this stage of the 2012 Great Lent, I realise that I was caught up in a personal struggle and finding it difficult to hear the still small voice of God in the midst of the fray. Indeed, looking back on my notes at the time, I came across this which I had written before posting the prayer for Day 35:
For reasons that are not relevant to others, the past couple of days have been particularly challenging.
That was Day 35, so I checked back on that ‘past couple of days’ and saw that my chosen prayer for Day 34 had also started bleakly:
Lord Jesus, there is anger in my heart and I cannot root it out. I know that I should calm down and offer the hurt and disappointment to You but my emotion is running away with me.
I can’t remember now what had transpired over those days to have found myself in such a deep well of despondency; but I do recall that it was precisely during that period when I nearly abandoned the Lenten journey – it had, at that point, almost become too hard for my weakened spirit.
Answering that despondency, the prayer that had found me on Day 35 were the words of a song written by David Evans – Be still for the Presence of the Lord – which opened with:
Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here. Come bow before him now, with reverence and fear.
Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.
Comforting as these words were, I needed then, and still do now, to understand that a journey still lay ahead. This message was then echoed in the entry I made for Day 36, which was an extract from the Jewish Haggadah (equivalent to liturgy) for Pesach (Passover). That liturgy spoke both of journeying and of hope:
Long ago at this season, our people set out on a journey. On such a night as this, Israel went from degradation to joy … Let all the human family sit at Your table, drink the wine of deliverance, eat the bread of freedom … Freedom to hope and freedom to rejoice.
‘Our people set out on a journey’ the Haggadah said … a journey implies a destination; and a destination is what faith, through Christ, offers us. A short while ago, we sang the hymn As with gladness men of old, singing these words:
In the heavenly country bright need they no created light; thou its light, its joy, its crown, thou its sun which goes not down … [v5]
Shortly, we will continue this theme as we sing How brightly gleams the morning star, focussing on these words:
God’s glory breaks upon the night, and fills our darkened souls with light … [v1]
This idea of God’s glory breaking upon the night reminds us that God not only can light the way – he is the way. Thus we will proclaim in our final hymn – Be Thou my vision – these glorious words:
Be thou my vision, O lord of my heart, be all else but naught to me, save that thou art; be thou my best thought in the day and the night, both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light. [v1]
I have alluded to Adam and Eve in these homilies. In doing so, I have sought to apply their metaphorical story to our own lives. Such an application may be depressing or it could be encouraging – it all depends how we hear their story. I am struck that Dante, in his treatment of Adam and Eve, did not place them in the first two portions of his work – Hell or Purgatory – but instead had them in Paradise. Enrico Mercuri, one of our congregants, has been translating Dante’s Divine Comedy in an edition to be published later this year. Here is part of his translation of Adam’s speech to Dante:
Without your uttering it, I know your desire better than you yourself know things most certain to you; because I see them in the mirror of truth that refracts everything from within it, but cannot be refracted by anything other.
Dante’s perception of Adam was of a soul redeemed through Christ, who could now see more clearly than he ever could before. As we now go into a period of reflection accompanied by Coby Mellor on the organ, let us consider the question – what do the Adam and Eve of our own story speak to us?
A SERENATA OF WORSHIP
Night Prayer, January 2023
Part 3 – January 15
This year, as I lead us through the next four Sunday sessions of Night Prayer, I will be reflecting back on the time leading to my own decision to proceed along the path towards ordination back in 2012. A key part of the process of personal discernment was the following a strict Lenten practice according to the Orthodox traditions along with a daily search during the Great Lent for suitable prayers that seemed to echo my feelings along the journey. I encountered over forty such prayers which were significant to me on that pilgrimage; over these four weeks, I will be sharing some of those as well as making some commentary about their spiritual import. Each evening, our organist will guide our worship through reflective playing and accompanying us in the singing of hymns to enable our worship to reach that space where we may feel a union with God. There will also be periods of silent worship where we will wait upon the ‘still small voice of God’ amidst the busyness of our lives. I pray that this series of Night Prayer might nourish each of us.
May God bless and keep you always, Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO
Here follow the first twelve prayers I encountered on the first twelve days of my Lenten Fast in 2012:
Part of hymn by Charlotte Elliott [1789-1871]:
Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt; fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; sight, riches, healing of the mind, Yea, all I need, in thee to find. O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, thou wilt receive, will welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve. Because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
A prayer from Thomas Merton [1915-1968]:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always. Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my peril alone.
Some words from the late Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church from his booklet ‘The Spirituality of Fasting’:
What is then a spiritual fast acceptable to God? It is one where a profound relationship with God is established. A fast is one where you feel God in your life. It is a sacred period which you feel that God owns, which is devoted in its entirety to God, and throughout which the presence of God is very visible in all your behaviour. Every day of the fast your relationship with God increases and grows in a spiritual ecstasy that makes you long for your fast to stretch and become endless.
Comments about prayer by Jeff Grabosky (reported in the Washington Post of 15 April 2011) who had encountered high and low points in his life. As part of taking control of his life he embarked on what he referred to as a ‘super-hyper-ultra-marathon’, a 3700 mile run across the US. He did so ‘to use this run to deepen my own personal prayer life and hopefully to help others strengthen theirs’. Answering the question ‘how does prayer work while you are running?’ he answered:
It varies but I usually say a decade ot two of the Rosary per mile. I try to intently pray on each request, so that if the road is very busy or I’m going through rough terrain, I wait until it clears out before getting started again. Based on prayer requests I get through my website, e-Mails, intentions of my own and those I receive on the road, I have gone to God with close to 2.000 intentions, which at a decade per intention works out to 20,000 Hail Mary’s. I’m two thirds of the way done so should finish with around 3,500 different intentions. It’s definitely a lot of praying, but that’s the point. If this run reminds just a few people to make time to talk to the Lord or encourages them to pray for each other, then I will consider the run a great success.
A prayer for discernment from Vasily Drosdov Philaret [c1780-1867]:
O Lord, I do not know what to ask you. You alone know my real needs, and you love me more than I even know how to love. Enable me to discern my true needs which are hidden from me. I ask for neither cross nor consolation; I wait in patience for you. My heart is open to you. For great is your mercy’s sake, come to me and help me. Put you mark on me and heal me, cast me down and raise me up. Silently I adore you holy will and your inscrutable ways. I offer myself in sacrifice to you and put all my trust in you. I desire only to do your will. Teach me how to pray and pray in me, yourself.
An Orthodox prayer for the departed:
O God of spirits and all flesh, who has trampled down death, made the devil powerless, and given life to your world, give rest, Lord, to the souls who have fallen asleep, in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain, sorrow and sighing have fled. As a good and loving God, forgive every sin committed by them in word, deed or thought; for there is no one who lives and does not sin; you alone are without sin, your righteousness endures forever; and your law is truth. For you are the resurrection, the life and the repose of your servants who have fallen asleep, Christ our God, and to you we offer glory, with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
A prayer for clarity by Ben Redmond, of Westwinds Community Church, Michigan, 2008:
O wise God; God of time, future and present, give us perspective. For without it, we cannot see. Give us clarity; for without it, we cannot decide. Give us awareness; for without it, we cannot hear. We believe that you are moving whether to keep us close and comfortable or to send us far and strip us of everything. We believe that you have always been calling us towards nothing and everything; towards sacrifice and freedom. But we can’t always hear your call; so we ask you again for perspective to see. We ask you again for awareness to hear; we ask you again for clarity to decide.
Prayer from ‘The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan prayers and devotions’ edited by Arthur Bennett:
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision. Lord in the daytime stars can be seen from the deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine; let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty, Thy glory in my valley.
Prayer to know God’s will from St Ignatius of Loyola:
May it please the supreme and divine Goodness to give us all abundant grace ever to know His most holy will and perfectly to fulfill it. Amen.
Prayer in Time of Anger from a Catholic website:
Lord Jesus, there is anger in my heart and I cannot root it out. I know that I should calm down and offer the hurt and disappointment to You but my emotion is running away with me. Help me to overcome this weakness and give me peace of heart as well as mind. Let me learn from this experience and grow into a better human being. Amen.
The words of David Evans’ ‘Be still for the Presence of the Lord’:
Be still for the presence of the Lord, the holy one is here. Come bow before him now with reverence and fear. In him no sin is found; we stand on holy ground. Be still for the presence of the lord, the holy one is here. Be still for the glory of the Lord is shining all around. He burns with holy fire; with splendour he is crowned. How awesome is the sight – our radiant king of light. Be still for the glory of the Lord is shining all around. Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place. He comes to cleanse and heal; to minister his grace. No work too hard for him, in faith to receive from him. Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.
Opening prayer from the Haggadah of the Passover Seder: Long ago at this season, our people set out on a journey. On such a night as this, Israel went from degradation to joy. We give thanks for the liberation of days gone by. And we pray for all who are still bound. Eternal God, may all who hunger come to rejoice in a new Passover. Let all the human family sit at Your table, drink the wine of deliverance, eat the bread of freedom. Freedom from bondage and freedom from oppression. Freedom from hunger and freedom from want. Freedom from hatred and freedom from fear. Freedom to think and freedom to speak. Freedom to teach and freedom to learn. Freedom to Love and freedom to share. Freedom to hope and freedom to rejoice. Soon in our days, Amen.