I’m standing up in the back of a set of pews set off to one side. My tights-clad feet slip on the wood beneath me, a move which is soon going to bite me in the ass, or more specifically, split my side open and ruin the contemplative mood of silent prayer.
I’m not alone.
We’re all there, together. Well, nearly all there. Philip is missing and we can feel it. We’re a body and we’re missing a vital part, waiting eagerly for his arrival so we can be whole again.
Our uniform of albs is hanging up in a corridor round the corner, but the same crosses hang from our necks. These are ours forever, we’ll carry them with us long after we hang up our albs. And in these few days spent with each other, the most profound moments occur when the string and wood are our identifying markers, not the conspicuous robes of white.
We’re adults – young adults, yes – but we’re grown ups. Between us we’ve collected life experiences and life stories that make us unique but which also bind us together. Wounds run into wounds, laughter meets laughter, prayer follows prayer. But there’s something childlike in us all this evening. We’re pretending to be electric guitars, we’re waving our arms and doing crazy dancing. We’ve mastered the art of sitting and speaking antiphonally, but on this evening, we’re doing a new thing: we’re being free. There’s a stupid grin on my face. I can’t remember the last time my soul felt this free.
And in amidst all this, God is.
I once ‘celebrated’ New Year’s Eve with someone whose brother had terminal cancer, that twelfth chime of Big Ben signaled the year her brother was going to die and with each bong her sobs grew louder. This time of year is always marked with people reflecting on the year that’s been and deciding on their self-improvement regimen for the new one. But sometimes the New Year is just that; it’s a new year, not a new you. Big Ben’s ringing out doesn’t result in some ontological change.
But if there’s one thing I’ve been learning it’s this: work on yourself. It’s a never ending process and you don’t need to wait until January 1 to begin it. And it’s not a process that’s like an upwards trajectory; there’ll be ups and downs and the triumphs will feel small and the setbacks overwhelming. But you don’t do this alone. It’s why God gave us himself and gives himself through other people.
This was my wish for 2017:
It sounds more holy and pious than it actually was. There was no great move of the Holy Spirit behind it. And yet, it came more true than I could ever have imagined it would.
We’ve finished setting the room for lunch and we sit down in two arm chairs to pray. She takes my hand.
‘Is it okay if I pray in my language, so I’m not having to think about what to say in English?’
She speaks. I’ve no idea what she’s saying, but I feel so warm. It’s my turn. She laughs.
‘You just prayed for me the exact words I prayed for you.’
And in that moment, something has happened. Something so ordinary and yet it feels so extraordinary.
We’re all together. One body. One family. And our brave and beautiful brothers and sisters say ‘yes’ and it’s like a celebration deep in my soul. And then another chance to say ‘yes’ again. And it’s terrifying and yet I feel safe. And we say it, one by one.
And Heaven touches earth.
The Father kisses his children. And nothing changes but everything does. You’re no more loved than you were moments before, but you accept it more and love bursts through the caverns of your soul. And those promises you made to those strangers around you, to choose you and to love you, you realise they’re being said to you, but being said to you by friends. And you’re safe. And you’re not alone.
‘I have never left you.’ It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s at once painful and healing. And it’s Heaven touching earth.
‘We’re here for you.’ Do these two community members of mine realise the magnitude of what they’ve said? It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s Heaven touching earth.
Heaven touching earth is not just in the spectacular, it’s in the everyday. The act of love, the word of kindness, the laughing and crying and bleeding and scarring. It’s in the bit of Christ that lives in all of us, the bread of community and communion. It’s in the quotidian decisions where the Holy Spirit gently taps on the door.
Heaven touching earth is in the chaplain, after having listened to you complain for ten minutes, uttering six words which change the course of your year. It’s in the couple from church who, without having realised it, have gently dismantled a barrier you’d been holding onto for ages. It’s those glorious teenagers who have stolen your heart, who keep you up at night, and who experience Jesus in such beautiful, childlike ways. It’s five hours after a lunch meeting in a Lebanese restaurant and realising these colleagues you love are actually friends you love. It’s the colleague who cries when she prays because this is her vocation and she’s so in tune with God’s heart. It’s those people you said ‘I choose you’ to. It’s family being family. It’s sitting in the crypt and having a head resting on your shoulder.
It’s the realisation that you didn’t seek out Heaven touching earth. No, it sought out you. ‘Because, Hannah, I have never left you,’ says the Lord.
‘I believe you,’ I say in return.