Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Week after week people gather in St Peter’s Cathedral, as they do in churches and cathedrals throughout the world, to worship God. At least, that’s what we say we do. The reality might be a little different. I found myself taken aback earlier in the week when reading an essay by Episcopalian priest Richard Brewer. Richard has written the course notes for this year’s Education for Ministry programme. EfM, as it is known to those involved, offers people the opportunity to delve deeply, over a four year period, into the Bible, the history, movements, theologies and philosophies that have shaped the church, while living out their baptism promises in the ordinary, and very real, world.

Writing in an essay under the title “Developing a Sustaining Spirituality” Brewer dropped in this stunning line: “To become breathtakingly attentive to the presence of God is to become keenly conscious of one’s own need for repentance; of the needs of others; of our own need; of thanksgiving for all that God gives us; or of the desire to praise God.” (EFM Volume C, Unit Three) It is the idea of being ‘breathtakingly attentive to God’ that brought me up short. When last did I stand before God – breathtakingly attentive to God? When last did you? Have you ever done so? Been so utterly in the presence of God that everything else fades into insignificance – and then comes clearly and sharply into focus!

The idea is rooted in the practice of Adoration – the first of a cluster of words, the first letters of which make up one of the Books of the Bible. ACTS – Acts. As a child I was taught that the elements of prayer are found in that word Acts – or more specifically, in the four letters that make up Acts – A C T S – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

We’re often not bad at confession, expressing our sorrow for wrong-doing, or things left undone, or hurtful thoughts. We’re pretty good at supplication – those asking prayers which pour out of our mouths, particularly when we, or people close to us, are in trouble. And when we remember, we have been known to be thankful – perhaps as simple as saying grace before meals. But adoration? Of that I’m not so sure.

Richard Brewer offers the example of someone watching a bird nest over a period of weeks. Four perfect eggs inside. At last, he writes, “came the day I saw three baby birds hatch, and the fourth on the way. They were beautiful! I gasped, then the words flew out: ‘Oh! Thank you, Lord.’” Adoration happens in that split second of indrawn breath that causes us to stop everything else and focus intently – on the baby birds, the sunset, the view, the new-born child, the intense beauty of the night sky, the utterly sublime melody. It’s that involuntary gasp as we stand in the presence of God.

Isaiah knew it when he was caught up in a vision of God in the temple, God’s robe seeming to fill every available space, and the song of the angels lifting him to another plane. Mary knew it when she said ‘Yes’ to the angel and burst out in the song we sang earlier tonight: “My soul doth magnifiy the Lord!” Many times in the Gospels, those around Jesus sensed something of it – and they were filed with awe and wonder. Thomas Aquinas, great scholar that he was back in the 13th century, knew it in a split second of revelation, and, at least if legend is to be believed, found he could write nothing more afterwards.

So the question to each of us tonight, myself included: when last did I, you, find ourselves standing ‘breathtakingly attentive to the presence of God’? This may come as a surprise to us – one of those moments of sheer beauty that leave us acutely aware that we are in God’s presence. I have experienced something of that at birth – the first time I cradled my own son, our first-born, in my arms, and noticed the tiny perfectly formed nails on his fingers and toes. I have experienced something of that at death – sitting at the bedside of the dying man as his eyes opened and, for a split second, focused with intense love on his wife, before his final breath.

I have also experienced it, perhaps more intentionally, in liturgical acts of great beauty, moved by the music, the hymn-singing, the reaching up of hands to receive Holy Communion, a cloud of incense spiralling up through a shaft of stained-glass filtered sunlight. I have experienced being ‘breathtakingly attentive to the presence of God’ when reading scripture – a psalm or passage from one of St Paul’s letters which leaps out with a clarity so obvious one is left wondering how the point was not noted before.

But what to make of this adoration, what to do with it? Brewer again. “In adoration one breathes in God, as lungs fill with air, and exhales prayers of penitence, intercession, petition, thanksgiving, or praise.” Adoration doesn’t stop in that moment. It is the intake of breath – but something needs to happen with that breath, with that experience. The breath must be breathed out. And it is breathed out in penitence, thanksgiving and intercession. There is Acts – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Adoration starts a movement, a process. And without the process, is it real adoration?

Isaiah again. The vision of the train-filled temple of God led him to offer himself to God as God’s messenger. Mary, filled to bursting with her great song of praise, went on to become the mother of our Lord, her soul pierced by the sword even as the old man Simeon, whose song we sang tonight too, had predicted. (Cf Luke 2:25 – 35)

This week we celebrate the Festival of St Peter and St Paul, the two great missionary figures in the Book of Acts. Both experienced something of this moment of sheer adoration. Peter, when he answered Jesus’s question; ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8: 29) And Paul as he lay in the dust on the way to Damascus: ‘Who are you Lord?’ (Acts 9: 5) It is when we catch a glimpse of the answer to those questions that we might, just for a moment or two, “become breathtakingly attentive to the presence of God”. When it happens the moment will never be forgotten.

Having once experienced that absolute sense of adoration of God, can we experience it more often? Can we train ourselves to be there in breathtaking attention in God’s presence? Indeed we can. All the great writers on Christian prayer talk about the experience of contemplation, by which I understand the state of simply being present to God, aware of being in God’s presence and needing to do nothing but be there.

The way to do this, if I understand these writers and practioners correctly, is to develop what is sometimes called habitus, or a rule of life. A pattern of worship, bible reading and prayer which flows on into action and responds to the needs of others.

For now though, allow yourself become breathtakingly attentive to the presence of God as the choir sing Gabriel Jackson’s “A Prayer of King Henry VI”. The words of the prayer surely reflect someone who knew what it was to become breathtakingly attentive to the presence of God. The anthem was sung at the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen. Henry VI lived during that turbulent period known as the War of the Roses and, among other things, founded Eton College, King’s College (Cambridge) and All Souls College, Oxford. Surely not quite the weak-willed wife-influenced man that Shakespeare portrayed him to be.