Moot @ St. Mary’s Aldermary

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?

  1. 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.
  2. I knew what to expect at the service which meant that I was preparing to pray inwardly and deeply long before I arrived.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. The space is beautiful. Peaceful. But most importantly, quiet. You cannot get away from the need for a quiet space for silent contemplation.
  6. 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.

 

Moot Contemplative Service, Greenbelt 2011

(Moot Contemplative Service, Greenbelt, 3pm Saturday 28th August 2011)

There were so many people at this service I had to sit outside on the grass well away from the few symbols offering focus and the four leaders of the meditation seated in chairs along the front. There is a photo of Moot’s version of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity below.  The service consisted of an opening sung chant (Blessed be the name of the Lord); lectio devino scripture meditation; imaginative prayer meditation; and a repeat of the chant, lasting just under an hour in total. I found it really difficult to concentrate with load music imposing from other venues and general festival noise. So I was surprised that most of those around me seemed to be deeply engaged with the opportunity to turn inwards.

Meditation and contemplative prayer is an essential element to my spiritual life, mostly done on my own at home. Strange then, to be doing something familiar and comfortable in such a foreign and distracting environment. I got to thinking, how is this context, congregation and space affecting my prayer today? What affect does the group have on one’s individual engagement with God and Self?

There is something theologically profound about the creation of community through silence. It is God the invisible-though-immanent One who draws us into community with each other as Christians. In the prayer liturgy we were invited to imagine the Trinity seated on chairs together as family, eternally relating, together but distinct. Then each person, people or situation we brought before God we were invited to bring into the centre of the Trinity, to join in with their communion. When meditation takes place next to strangers, this expression of the invisible bonds of divine community is powerfully expressed. It requires a high level of faith – that God will take care of the communicating Godself on God’s own, in the secret of each person’s heart, and that Right Belief will miraculously extend from that because God is trustworthy.

Another stark lesson entering into an hour of meditation in this context was the accute realisation of the distractions which take us away from God and the source of life and love. It is a choice to turn inwards and though the distractions change according to the context, they are always there. Emails and housework dominate our consciousness just as the loud rap music drifted across from the big top during the Moot worship. Community, beauty, regulated time and place, all assist us with the choice to invest in the inward moment and we desperately need their help. Yes, this contemplative moment felt a little manufactured, but that is always the case. We construct the externals of a liturgy in order to release the reality of the inner life, the working of the Spirit. The advantage of permanent communities and designated spaces is that they can evolve in response to the shared experience of congregation. Over time, the rituals and words are shaped by those who are present and the constructed externals are refined so become more ‘efficient’ and effective which is important for contemplative prayer. Practise, familiarity and regularity facilitate the deeper engagement required for a mature contemplative spirituality.