In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
The Six-winged Seraph, Mikhail Vrubel1905
In just a few hours we will be in the Temple; well the Cathedral anyway. The Lord will be on His Throne – and I don’t mean the Bishop! And the invitation will be there if we will accept it to sense the holiness of his presence, and say yes to his holy mission. Here we are: send us.
It’s a response that you have been making in faith for a long time now; for which huge thanks; and for which the Lord bless you and keep you, and give you peace.
Because it is no easy response to make. All our motives are mixed, and need to be purified. All of us have anxieties as well as joys. All of us are aware both of strengths and shortcomings, not to mention straightforward sin. You’d be remarkable if the odd collywobble hadn’t crossed your mind these last few days.
So “Woe is me!” you might think. But into our predicament comes God, who reveals that we thought was our journey is his journey, and makes our purposes his too. So you are here humanly and wonderfully for a whole variety of reasons – mine certainly were as mixed as they come – but as T S Eliot put it in Little Gidding (which we’ll keep coming back to alongside Isaiah):
what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
Poor Isaiah though. He really must have thought he was lost and done for. He’d just popped into the Temple to say a quiet prayer, or have a bit of retreat, when, in a vision as real as real can be, he saw God enthroned before him. Around the throne is a weave of angels’ wings and voices, like a majestic fugue, twisting, turning, repeating, re-echoing, exploring the depths and heights of harmony. And it’s loud. Louder than the greatest organ, whose bass pipes make the earth beneath us tremble, whose notes are felt as much as they are heard. The doors are fit to be broken from their fittings – and the whole throne room is dense with smoke from the incense burners that the seraphs are swinging.
God’s purpose for him breaks in and is fulfilled, as one of the seraphs breaks ranks and approaches him. Look at the moment (on page 1) as imagined by the wild Russian symbolist, Byzantist and Artist Nouveau Mikhail Vrubel in 1905. The seraph takes a fiery coal from the altar and puts it to Isaiah’s lips. Dream or no dream, a line has been crossed. This is no longer Isaiah’s plan, not what he was expecting any more than it is what we might be expecting when we just “go to church”; any more than you might honestly have been expecting when you first started out on this vocational journey. He started off as an onlooker, now he is in the thick of the action. In only a moment he will be saying, “Here am I; send me.” And he is sent to proclaim Emmanuel, God with us, the Day of the Lord:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
It is that same Spirit that I will be praying anoints you as you start out publicly in ministry too as a priest or a deacon – and if that doesn’t make the hairs on your neck stand on end then nothing will. It is that Spirit that without which everything is mere show and dross, from which Good Lord deliver us. For in Eliot’s words again
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
The tongues of Pentecostal fire are not to for us to analyse out; they are there to purify. Fundamentally to redeem us from both the untamed, unredeemed passion whose path so easily leads to a different sort of fire, and also from the lukewarmness of indifference which offers no resistance to that destruction.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Isaiah goes through the fire to reach the fire, and we see three stages in that transformation, as three elements of his desire have to be purified: his love of God, his love of himself, and his love of others. I will stay with the word desire though, because love is too mild a word to bear the weight of the passion involved.
First, comes the purification of our love, our desire for God. You’ve done a lot of learning, and sometimes it can douse that desire. But actually and of course it is meant to feed the flames. When Dom Jean Leclerq wrote about the Benedictines in the Middle Ages he entitled his book, “The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.” It’s been something of a motto for me, and it makes it absolutely clear that this is a both-and not an either-or. But now must be the time to fan again the flames of desire, to look back again to our first love of God, to the iconic moments of his felt presence in our lives, and pray them into our present.
It’s what I would want for every Christian, but for those of us called to stand before God with his people on our heart and before God’s people with him in our heart, it is essential. “The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit.” “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire; thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.”
I know all too well how fragile this relationship of desire can be. Deeds of heroic prayer soon give way to dim memories, and the rhythms of spirituality that suited us once are easily overtaken by eventualities – a move, a family, a church, an aging, an illness. Prayer and time with God will take many forms at many times. I’ve had to learn to pray with books and without them, and on my phone; in chapel, in bed, in the cathedral, on the train; passionately, perfunctorily, ploddingly, privately, publicly. We pray as we can, not as we can’t.
But by God’s grace we pray, we pray that at least the desire to have the desire to pray will not desert us. And if we remain faithful to that beginning of desire, just making a beginning as and when and how we can, we can trust God for what follows in his good time and in his good way. As Woody Allen said, 80% of life is turning up, and in this case, 80% of prayer is keeping on turning up before God, with the desire at least to go deeper. But how I desire for you and for me that the fire will burn.
Secondly comes the purification of our love for ourselves, of our desire for Christ to be manifest in our own lives, to grow in his stature, to be stamped with his character. Again it’s what we would want for every Christian. But again for those of in us holy orders it is not a desire or a journey that we can set aside: we are watched and we are seen, public and representative, and unless we grow in him, there is little reason to expect that through our ministry others will grow in him either, though thank God they may well do despite it. “Christ is the pattern of your calling and your commission.” “Devote yourself wholly to his service, so that as you daily follow the rule and teaching of our Lord and grow into his likeness, God may sanctify the lives of all with whom you have to do.”
It’s a wrestling match for us, this growing in Christ: for me and for many of us the hardest of three challenges of desire to face, such is the hall of mirrors we find ourselves in as we consider our selves. St Bernard of Clairvaux – the founder of the Cistercians – described the purification of our perspective on ourself as a ladder of love. It starts with the human reality of love of self for self’s sake. It’s there in all of us. Call it our genes and the result of natural selection, call it original sin or call it both, we know it well. But God’s love reaches out to us in our predicament and so despite our worst endeavours we discover how to love God not ourselves, though initially, says Bernard, we love God for our selves’ sake all the same, for what we can get out of it. It is only with the third rung of the ladder – and be happy, there are only four of them – that we move from loving God for ourselves’ sake to loving God for God’s sake, true love if you like.
That’s the key move in spirituality, to learn to let go of self and let God. And it’s a wonderful thing, not just for the release and joy it brings of itself, but for a consequence it brings, which is Bernard’s fourth and final rung, and a surprise. Finally, we learn to love ourselves again, but for God’s sake not our own. We find the peace which passes understanding of accepting ourselves as he has made us and as he so loves us.
And on a good day, this is what I glimpse, when the words that were given me as a I prepared to be bishopped – to speak from the heart to the heart about the heart of the matter – come back to me, and I find the release and joy of being able to do just that, and it is not me but Christ in me that is being offered to God’s people. And take heart, this is your calling too, and it is his calling, and the one who calls is faithful. Eliot again:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Then thirdly, the purification of our loves for others, of the desire to be sent out in the power of the Spirit to seed these desires in others and be midwives of the new birth. Once again, we are all sent; but we feel the weight of the special charge that is given to deacons to be “heralds of Christ’s kingdom” and to priests “to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.”
How strange that being sent is so strong a theme and yet God should call so many introverts into such a ministry! But when we say “Here am I, send me” every character type can be redeemed and empowered, however strong the draw of the duvet or the pull of the PC, or the call of a nice quiet crossword and a cup of tea. Learning to simply get up and go has been a real journey for me. I was once offered a prayer picture of God calling me out of a college library, and it has rung true powerfully, even if by God’s grace I have been allowed excursions back into academia as well. Most powerfully of all for me, though, was how, when I was wondering if I could accept the Archbishop’s call to serve as Bishop for Suffolk, I was given the verse “Feed my sheep” in a most remarkable way – I can tell you the story another time if you like – and a sense of call and sustenance that stayed with me right through the most challenging ministry I have ever undertaken.
“Here we are, send us”, but we must never forget that the Church is not a life-support system for the clergy, but for the world, and as we go, our task is not to go it alone but to equip the whole church to live out the Gospel in the world. As your desire to see God’s kingdom come fans the flames of the desire of your churches to live not for themselves but for the kingdom, so by its example and by its endeavour the whole of society is offered a new way of living, a way for it itself to purify its desires and see love win. And in the light of recent news I also have to add with a heavy heart that by this token when the church fails to set that good example and give that good lead by covering up its own sinfulness and leaving God’s children unsafe, its whole work of offering salvation is put at risk. Thank God that through his grace each deed of darkness in the church or out of it evokes a hundred deeds of love. Live in that love.
I hope it won’t have passed you by that these three themes of deepening in our life of prayer, growing in our discipleship, and going out to engage with a world in need are at the heart of our diocesan strategy. Thank goodness. It would be awful to have such a document that didn’t resonate so clearly with the imperatives of our calling.
But though strategies are great for building bonfires, it is the Spirit that lights them. So we are back in the Temple, and the heat of the coal must make itself felt as we ponder the scale of the responsibility we are accepting.
“You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened.”
Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.