Peace and Proximity
A parish nearby to mine had in the fifties and sixties a procession of talented and hard-working curates, many of whom went on to serve the Church from prominent positions. One curate, however, was different from the rest, and proved to be, at best, an enigma to his training vicar. As the vicar said to the neighbouring parish priest one day, ‘Instead of going out visiting prompt on the dot of two o’clock, this one seems happy to slip into church and spend up to an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament.’ The incumbent was not greatly comforted by the neighbour’s reply. ‘Maybe,’ he said, ‘he is doing more good there in church than the rest of you are out visiting!’
The days of being able to drop into a church at any time of the day for a quiet few moments in front of the Tabernacle are almost universally gone; and what a lot we have lost. It is one of the ironies of our generation that at a time when personal spirituality and individual journeys of faith are in vogue, the very resource that the Christian Church can offer – a holy space of temporary retreat from the world – has to be locked and bolted.
Nevertheless, we overlook the great potential of a visit to the Blessed Sacrament at the cost of losing a precious opportunity for growth in contemplation and knowledge of God. And it need not be impossible to achieve. I can think of no priest who would be other than delighted to open the church to individuals who knock on his door and ask to spend a little time there in private prayer. Try turning up for Mass a little earlier and enjoy the peace and proximity of Our Lord. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is not creating the opportunity to be alone in Church, but to convince us that this is worth the extra effort.
I’ve just used there the words peace and proximity – an accidental alliteration, but one that opens up a theme which might be of use to us to find material to feed a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Using the initial letter ‘p’ gives some interesting words around which we can build a framework for some extended period of silent prayer.
Presence is the first word that springs to mind in connection with the Reserved Sacrament. We do well always when entering a church to remember the presence of Christ within the Tabernacle or aumbry. In sacramental form, it is the same Christ who was born in the poverty and ordinariness of Bethlehem; the Christ who does not shun my dullness of spirit and routine of life. This is the same Christ who listened with compassion to the stories of saddened and tortured individuals; he is not going to turn away from my complaints and unhappinesses. This is the same Christ who held out a healing hand and offered a forgiving word to the troubled visitor; he is equally gracious to me in my need for help. Recollection of a gospel story in the presence of the Sacrament can be an incredibly invigorating experience when we remember his presence.
Prayer is another word which opens the possibility of deepened spirituality. The Blessed Sacrament is a kind of ‘freeze-frame’ in the action of the Eucharist. In the ritual of the Mass we offer the sacrifice of Christ – the full sacrifice of his whole life, but most particularly the moment of his obedient death. We know from the gospel accounts that this was a time of intense prayer. Not only are the seven words from Cross, so beloved of Good Friday preachers, appropriate springboards for our prayer before the Sacrament, but also that high priestly prayer of Christ as recorded in John’s gospel has its natural setting in the context of the following day’s perfect self-sacrifice. That stream of intercession, the Son holding the world to the Father, is silently still being poured, as it were, within the Tabernacle on the altar. We can both kneel in wonder and silently adore the Godhead’s love and compassion, and also, as he commanded, enter our own intercessions into this divine conversation.
Power is the potential held within the silence of the Sacrament. Primarily reserved for the Communion of the sick, the Blessed Sacrament has the power to carry to the recipient the entire benefits of Our Lord’s saving passion and death. Like a battery with stored energy, here in the Tabernacle is Christ’s power to ransom, heal, restore and forgive. The power, though, is neither restricted to my life, nor to the lives of those who will feed on him in his Reserved Sacrament. It is a latent power to transform the whole world. There is that lovely meditation of Teilhard de Chardin in which, as he kneels before the Monstrance, he sees the glory and purifying power of Christ flow out from the Sacrament into the entire world, only for all then to be drawn back into the Host. I can kneel and allow that power to bathe me in its heaven-wards tide.
Chris Collins is Vicar of St Aidan’s, Grangetown, Sunderland.