At the end of June, I spent a lovely week on retreat at Sheldon. As usual, it was great to be on my own with no one else’s schedule or demands to worry about. I could eat when I was hungry and sleep when I was tired (which was most of the first day and a fair bit of the second).
The framework for my prayers was St Patrick’s Breastplate (Cecil Frances Alexander’s version). Taking a verse at a time and guided by John Davies’ book, A Song For Every Morning, my thoughts focused on being a part of God’s love and salvation, a part of the church in all its glorious messy breadth, and a part of the created world. John Davies sees the prayer not as a kind of talisman for personal protection, but as a statement of dedication to pursuing wholeness and justice, and of defiance against all that divides, controls, exploits and oppresses. I discovered the Lord’s Prayer doing the same thing too.
At Sheldon, there is a swing seat in a little dell of woodland. St Francis lives there.
I spent some time talking to Brother Francis about all of this. I wanted to know how I could live a simpler life so that I could be more creative and more loving; less concerned about my own needs and security, and more concerned about the person in front of me (and the others further away who are affected by how I live). I wanted advice about how I could open up my clenched fist, stop trying to control the world (and the people) around me and instead open up my hands to bless and to receive blessing, and let be. In particular, I wanted the Holy Man to sanction a compromise so that I could hold on to some stuff while gaining the benefits as if I’d let go of everything.
St Francis refused to grant me a compromise. In fact, he said nothing at all. I had no choice but to let go of all my questions, which was a kind of answer, I guess.
St Francis gave away all his status and privilege, and all his possessions. He may have been a bit mad, but I guess when you have nothing to lose, you have everything to gain. I was reading in John’s gospel, and several things stood out …
- The anointing by Mary in chapter 12, when the fragrance of the perfume filled the whole house.
- Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (including those of Judas) in chapter 13.
- His promise to the woman at the well in chapter 4: “The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
- A similar promise in chapter 7: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Away from systems of power, division, status, ambition, greed, exploitation and grasping fists, there is life given by God – living water that serves and blesses, with the fragrance rising up to fill the whole house of the world.