There are many stunning church buildings in London – St. Mary’s Aldermary has been one of my favourites. The high, ornate ceiling is painted pure white – like a many tiered bridal gown – and by its simultaneous simplicity and elaborate intricacies draw the human attention upwards.
It is in this setting that I attended a Moot Contemplative Service, that was almost identical in form to the one I attended at Greenbelt. Hence it was an excellent opportunity to learn from the contrasting settings. I found it easy to step into my own familiar and deep inwardness during this communal contemplation whereas the service at Greenbelt was marked with struggle. So what was different?
- To get to a Moot Contemplative Service at St. Marys Aldermay you need to commit to getting on the tube from where-ever you are and being there late on a Sunday. So preparation for worship, the commitment to be there, comes hours beforehand if not longer.
- I knew what to expect at the service which meant that I was preparing to pray inwardly and deeply long before I arrived.
- The service didn’t start until everyone had a chance to have a cuppa and chat, by which time I’d met both of the people involved in leading the liturgy plus 2 or 3 others. So there were relationships in place by the time we started to pray together. (At the Greenbelt service I spoke to no-one until after the service.)
- The layout of the church building allows for the space to be structured: there was a place for chatting and a place for praying which actually helped me transition from one to the other.
- The space is beautiful. Peaceful. But most importantly, quiet. You cannot get away from the need for a quiet space for silent contemplation.
- My final reflection is something for which I do not currently have an explanation so it must be stated as a question: I wonder what is the effect of praying in the same space as where millions of other prayers have been spoken there before? Does a space have a memory? It is not an uncommon assertion or assumption but one that my evangelical heritage would have no part of. As I reflected on this further, my question became: is it that people have prayed here for centuries that makes it special, or is it just that it is old? Could the ancient land in australia have the same impact, not because Christians have worshipped on a particular spot for a thousand years, but simply because it is ancient? Does an old pot from pompei have the same magic? What is it that makes these old church buildings adept at inspiring human spirituality?
In relation to this last, I’ve had two further thoughts that might be relevant. First, in indigenous Australian culture, not all land is equal! There is some land which is more sacred than others: special places where the stories are birthed. It is the land’s connection to the sacred stories that gives them their spiritual power. Second, in the Old Testament when Israel set aside special places, like Mount Zion, it is not because they are ancient, but rather because God was met there. Even in the tabernacle, which later became the temple, that is a Holy Place because God has deemed it to be a place of connection with Godself. This is perhaps the very definition of Holy – something ordinary set aside to signify something extra-ordinary.