Standing on Holy Ground

The writer Nikos Kazantzakis in his book `Zorba the Greek` tells this story: “I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the back of a tree just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain.

It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand. That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient but we should confidently obey the external rhythm”.

What he describes there as the `external rhythm` I want to refer to as holiness. I took the liberty of changing the Gospel reading set for this morning because I thought it might be good to take a look at the Reading which was set for last Wednesday (6th of August) which is otherwise known as the Feast of the Transfiguration. (Luke 9.28-36) And as you heard we are given an account of what was for Peter, James and John, quite a significant moment in their following of Jesus. It has, I believe to do with holiness and how far we`re attentive to it.

The first thing I`d like to do is to point out that there seem to be a couple of underlying themes in this passage. Firstly, we get the sense that there is something bigger going on. That is to say, Peter, James and John are treated to a vision of Jesus which is simply overwhelming. It`s something that`s given to them. It`s not something created or controlled by them- they are, if you like, just `caught up` in it all. And then secondly, there`s something here that is about attentiveness; something about looking and listening. For Peter, James and John the experience could only be compared to being on `holy ground`. They saw Jesus (quite literally) in a new light; they saw him in the presence of Moses and Elijah which served to underline the part Jesus has to play in God`s great plan of Salvation and Peter, James and John can only look on and attempt to digest it.

Now, Peter`s response is often remarked upon. He wanted it seems to make the event more permanent by creating these Shelters for each of them and almost amusingly St. Luke tells us that he didn`t know what he was talking about; it`s almost as if Peter is raving but of course his instinct is understandable. Like that character in Zorba the Greek he wanted to play his part, make a contribution; he wanted to get this vision into something resembling manageable proportions but he learns that you can`t do that with God. You can`t `tame` the Holy; it envelops you like that cloud and you have to learn instead to just watch and listen.

I`m reminded of the great wisdom you occasionally see in doctors. When they were fresh out of medical school with gleaming stethoscope around their neck their instinct is to fix, heal and mend everyone in sight. But (hopefully) a few years of experience teaches them a little humility and instead of automatically `intervening and prescribing` they`re more inclined to wait and marvel at the human body`s ability to heal itself. In other words, they learn that something else is going on which is more about wonder than their ego.

Well that describes perfectly, for me what the disciples are going through in encountering the holiness of God on top of that mountain. Their experience of being dumbfounded and of gabbling incoherently is, in one sense, just as it should be. It`s only we who assume that we can somehow bottle, control and organise the things of God and we so easily forget the words of Christ who told us that the Spirit `blows where it wills`.

So firstly there`s a word of caution here. Personally and professionally I`m haunted by the words of the man who said “The true atheist is the one who handles holy things casually”. And sure enough it`s easy to betray by our demeanour; our body language and all the rest, whether we`ve really understood what it means to be in the presence of the holy. I sometimes think the muslims have it right in that gesture of removing their footwear before prayer. What gestures do you make, I wonder that prompt you in that way? Because secondly, this of course is where it begins; this ability to apprehend and become open to the `holy` is imbibed through our worship ad how we engage with it.

It`s here that we create a space where we seek not entertainment but to learn how to give our attention to God; it`s where we learn attentiveness. Why? Well, very simply so that we`ll be more attentive when we`re NOT here. I often return to the moment where St. Peter so reluctantly went out on a fishing trip just because Jesus asked him. If you remember he`d spent the whole night afloat and had caught nothing and here was this upstart carpenter trying to tell him how to fish! You might recall Peter`s response when he returned to land with the catch of a lifetime: “Depart from me Lord, I am a sinful man”. Peter wasn`t crushed by Christ, it was simply brought home to him that he had been living in the shallows of life.

Here, Peter had again encountered the holy; and as on the mountain it left him incoherent and brought to his knees –just like we are when we get that sense that so much of our life is lived on the surface; and so often devoid of for example gratitude, generosity or sensitivity to others.

Worship, in this sense has the potential for putting things the right way around. It`s here that we can learn that deeper appreciation. It`s here that we seek to listen to the truth of who God is and, yes, whose we are; so that as we go our way ALL of our life becomes worship. It becomes, we pray, infused with the same attentiveness and awareness of being caught up in something more. And there`s a very practical outcome. You discover that everywhere is in fact holy ground; a meeting place with God and every conversation has something more to it.

On that mountain the disciples heard Jesus`s identity confirmed by that voice from the cloud. “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him”. After that, we`re told, they kept silence. Quite so. But imagine what it might be like as you approach that conversation- at home, in the street, at work or wherever- and as you`re about to begin a voice inside you says “This (person before you) is my son, my daughter… listen to them”. What a gift you might bring if, no longer so full of yourself; you simply give your attention to the other as if on holy ground.


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