The Attentiveness of Prayer

The Revd Dr William Lamb
Second Sunday before Advent


Choral Eucharist

Malachi 4.1-2a           Luke 21.5-19

‘Insect Apocalypse poses risk to all life on Earth’, ‘An Apocalypse happened: Venice counts cost of devastating floods’, ‘Apocalypse fears erupt as “zombification” parasite could already be present in humans’, ‘Decline and Fail: Read in Case of Political Apocalypse’.

Just a few banner headlines that have caught my eye in the last few days. When people speak of an ‘apocalypse’, we tend to think of a perspective offered by crackpots, fundamentalists and extremists. And yet, we sometimes underestimate the way in which apocalyptic imagery casts a shadow over so much of our thinking, particularly when we contemplate the banality of Brexit or the threat of climate change. The language of apocalyptic grips our imagination in ways which we don’t always find it easy to acknowledge. Biblical scholars tell us that apocalyptic literature arose in situations of oppression, its language and imagery often adopting the symbols of power and domination in the ancient world in order to subvert them. So the Book of Revelation contains a sustained critique of the Roman Empire, a contrast drawn between the power of Caesar and the sovereignty of sacrificial love - in John the Divine’s colourful imagery, the Lamb upon the throne. Apocalyptic is a kind of coded language of resistance. We may not be surprised to find such language hidden away in the language and imagery of the gospel. We may be more surprised to find this language at work in the imagination of that most secular of minds, a Guardian sub-editor. 

The gospel passage that we have just heard comes from a rather unsettling passage in Luke’s gospel. It mimics or imitates the language of Mark 13, often described as ‘the Little Apocalypse’. It begins with people admiring the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem – and yet taken out of context, we may miss the dramatic effect of this passage. It follows just after that heart-breaking story of the widow’s mite. A lone woman is observed giving everything she had in the temple tax, contributing not what she could afford but what she needed to stay alive. 

Meanwhile, the onlookers admire the beauty of the temple, but for all its beauty, this temple remains transient. It may speak of the way the Universe is ordered. Its courts may bear witness to the relationship between earth and heaven, but it is not permanent. Its beauty is deceptive, because it conceals the oppression of the poor. Jesus alerts his hearers to the fact that ‘the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ 

Of course, St Luke writing these words 50 years later would know, as his hearers would know, that the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman generals, Titus and Vespasian, in the year 70 AD. Luke describes Jesus’ prophecy, and for his hearers that prophecy has already come to pass. We should not underestimate for a moment just how cataclysmic the destruction of the temple was for first century Jews. Their world had quite simply fallen apart. And when things fall apart, when the centre cannot hold, we should not be surprised that there is turbulence and distress. Luke speaks of messianic pretenders, leaders who promise the earth but who cannot be trusted. He goes on to tell us of conflict, of earthquake, famine and plague, of persecution and betrayal. As these descriptions continue, our anxieties and our fears begin to rise. And that of course is the point – this sense of foreboding accentuates our sense of fear and anxiety. And when we are anxious, when we are afraid, we do not always make wise decisions. Our hearts grow small. We lose sight of the bigger picture as we are consumed by our own needs and our own concerns.

Last week, I went to see the exhibition about William Blake at Tate Britain. Blake both as a poet and a painter is a person whose imagination has been shaped by the radical and sometimes disturbing imagery of apocalyptic. The exhibition is fascinating, and what was striking was not only the way in which his art illuminates the work of Shakespeare, Milton and Dante, but also presents an imaginative world that is dominated by the Bible. For Blake, ‘the whole Bible is filled with Imaginations and Visions from End to End’. For Blake, Christianity needed to free itself from its petty moralising and obedience to a list of commands, in order to rediscover a bigger vision, that at the heart of the Christian faith is the practice of forgiveness.

Blake alerts us to the way in which apocalyptic shapes our imagination. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revelation’. Apocalyptic may present us with vivid imagery depicting upheavals and calamities on a cosmic scale, but its purpose is always to alert us to the real and to the not-so-real. Apocalyptic serves to disturb and provoke us, to stir us up. Maybe some of the time we only see what we want to see, but there are also times when we are willing to allow a little truth in. Often, when the penny drops, it is painful. Occasionally, it is sweet. We begin to see beyond the myths we live by, with all those half-truths masking suffering and injustice, to see the truth of ourselves and the reality of the world we live in with ever greater clarity.

We begin to see the bigger picture, and that moment of clarity, however difficult or disruptive or inconvenient, is almost always a moment of grace. It demands of us a capacity for attentiveness. This is the attentiveness of prayer. We need to learn that prayer is not about mouthing pious platitudes or simply giving expression to our crudest wants and desires – although sometimes it can feel like that. True prayer is about cultivating a profound awareness of the divine mystery at the heart of our existence.  As one theologian puts it, ‘What prayer requires is a disciplining of our imagination, an informed purification of our sense and awareness of what is actually happening – to us, and to other people. Close your eyes, and wish the world were different, and you cannot begin to hope. To be able to hope is to be awake, and to be watchful. Christian worship, the life of prayer, is not a pastime or an interlude from pain. It is rather about cultivating a capacity for watchfulness, a disciplining of attention, an education in attentive reverence for God and for the world’ (Nicholas Lash, Seeing in the Dark, 30-31).

I believe that the Church of today badly needs to recover the riches of its contemplative tradition, because this enduring watchfulness, this contemplation, this sovereignty of soul, is at its most subversive, when it refuses to accept the self-estimation of those messianic pretenders, who would promise the earth while colluding with the world’s brutality. It is at its most subversive when it refuses to collude with injustice and when it bears witness to the generosity and the grace, the love and the forgiveness of God - for this is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

As we survey the current political landscape, we may lament the half-truths and disinformation. We may even catastrophise as we contemplate the future.  Apocalyptic language may sound to us like a counsel of despair. It may hint at catastrophe and destruction. But the point of these apocalyptic writings is that these narratives disclose a hidden transcript, when all our illusions are stripped away. These narratives help us to discover an intimation of hope and spur us on to action. Pray that reality may be unmasked and revealed to us. Pray that we may have the strength to bear that reality. Pray that our vision may be renewed. Pray that our eyes may be opened to see that ‘the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings’ (Malachi 4.2).