Early one morning last week, I was out on the Fens near my home. Walking beside the River Great Ouse as it pulsed high against its banks with energy and life, my senses became suddenly alert. That is, I had the strangest sensation of experiencing my surroundings in some kind of ultra high definition – thus being able to truly attend to that present moment with utmost clarity.
Rushing wind, rustling reeds and wheat. The rat-a-tat of dragonfly wings startled me with its urgency. Birdsong in the trees above. Crickets in the grasses below. And my attention stolen by the hidden abundance of activity detectable only by coy cracklings in the undergrowth.
Sweet purple blackberries plump among climbing thorns glistened in the rising sunlight, seducing the day’s first wasps. Daisies and dandelions stretched upward, daring to reveal their faces that they might consume every beam of warming light. And, lining the path, nettles’ thin needles waited, poised.
Over and on the river were swans and signets, sparrows and swallows. A clattering of jackdaws, geese and gulls. One grey heron nestled through the reeds. Another, in flight, its pterodactyl-gait prompting me to wonder about the ancient times when water and marsh reigned and the Fenlands were rich with eagles, egrets and eels.
Then, turning towards home, the cathedral came in sight. Beautifully imposing itself on the landscape for some thousand years, or thereabouts: cruciform frame of grey stone, intricately decorated in worship, and visible for miles. Bold in its declaration of holy human achievement, for generations this place has called: “Come all! This is the house of God!”
And yet, on that morning, cathedral claims were diminished in the face of natural splendour. The mission of ages compelling worshippers to exchange the gloriously created rivers and roots for pews and pillars, appeared to me unjust. I thought, am I not, at this very blessed time, already in the house of the Lord?:
“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84.10).
And it seemed to me that a place – any place, perhaps every place – becomes sacred through the presence of the divine. Cathedral nor Fenland has the greater claim as the whole earth is the Lord’s, the Spirit blows where it will, and Christ is all and in all.
Then, finally on that morning (and making my joy complete); one, then two roe deer leapt across my path, just metres away. I laughed out loud, my soul restored by the loving playfulness of divine presence and revelation, and went on my way praising God for the wonders I had shared.
Following this remarkable experience, I have continued to reflect upon Psalm 84.
The Psalm seems to be about one’s anticipation and longing for divine presence:
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts. My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD.” (84.1-2)
While the focus is on the pilgrimage to the temple where God is said to dwell; my recent experience highlighted to me the universal nature of divine residency. I am as likely to meet God out on the Fens as I am in the cathedral or the bus station!
Just because the psalmist’s attention centres around divine presence within the temple (e.g. courts, altars, house, Zion), it is clear through the Bible that God is present and active everywhere. Indeed, “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6.3). Presence at the earthly temple has no bearing on divine activity elsewhere on earth or in the heavens.
A meeting with the divine is thus possible anywhere. The key is surely my desire for such a meeting to take place. And indeed, recently emerging from an extended period in the driest of wildernesses, I realize just how starved of spiritual nourishment I had become.
So it is no exaggeration to echo the psalmist in saying, “my heart and flesh cry out for the living God” (Ps. 84.3). Inside and out, I crave connection with the restoring presence of my Lord. I want to receive my life again.
“Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion” (84.5)
I do not understand the season spent in the wilderness. However, I feel that such times are indeed a journey along “the highways to Zion”. Experiences of drought and God’s apparent hidden-ness, seem to be where certain necessary lessons about one’s own self are learned and strength is gained in readiness to encounter the Lord afresh.
I even wonder if there is something of great importance in being led to the point of my soul truly longing, even fainting in desperation for the courts of the LORD. I have not passed with ease through the Valley of Baca. Rather, I leave the valley significantly more damaged by life’s struggles, mercifully growing in strength just enough to approach Zion again.
But, remarkably, I approach as if for the first time.
The revelation out on the Fens was a profound and kindly act from a loving God. It was a timely reminder to seek the divine presence at all times, in all places. And as a new experience, it has also left me thirsty. But not for more of the same. Instead, I hope every future journey to Zion might be as if it were the very first, flowing from anticipation and desire for the new ways in which I may encounter the Lord.