The Land of Spices

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain,
18 November 2018
Readings: 1 Samuel 1:1-20; Hebrews 10:11-25

The Land of Spices

Sometimes we are just so moved by the suffering of others.  It could be someone we know, a stranger in the news, a character in a film, a novel.  We are wrenched out of ourselves, and it is as if their pain becomes ours for a time.  The image of a three year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who had died after an overloaded dinghy carrying refugees capsized, and was being carried on a Turkish beach, moved millions around the world three years ago.  Suddenly people who knew little of the complexity of the Syrian conflict were reached, were touched.  They began to give, they began to campaign.

The story we heard from First Samuel today is like that.  Hannah’s life, her story, her longing, her prayer reach us across the centuries, cultures, religions and languages, and we cannot help but be moved.  She was childless.  I am conscious that for many students that may not seem the most serious of concerns.  But it mattered deeply to her.  Hebrew culture placed a huge importance on family, on bearing children and especially sons.  Couples would feel ashamed at being childless, and women, who were usually blamed for infertility, would feel it acutely.  Moreover, people then as now, had a strong instinct to have children, and could feel sad, even depressed as the years passed without pregnancy, or healthy births. Hannah felt this way.

Every year the family made a religious pilgrimage to a shrine at Shiloh.  It may have been an autumn festival called Tabernacles or Sukkot.  This particular year, Hannah felt really desperate.  Her longing was overwhelming, and so she prayed.  And she didn’t pray only in words, but with her whole being.  We read that she was deeply distressed, wept bitterly, that she was deeply troubled, pouring out her soul, that she felt great anxiety and vexation.

The actual words of her prayer which are set down for us are something of a bargain with God.  If you will give me a son, I will dedicate him to your service.  Who could blame her for bargaining in this way?  Like the picture on the Turkish beach, the image of Hannah’s prayer, weeping, desperate, reaches us across the centuries – so honest, direct, powerful, trusting in God and desperate for his answer.

And so deeply counter-cultural here and now.  We live in an age of autonomy, in which the dominant culture is self-creation, self-development, self-expression.  From curating our self through social media, through acting with more than half an eye on the CV, from cheerless hours in the gym to turning orange in the tanning studio, many of us have come to believe that the solution to our problems lies in ourselves.  We define ourselves by our achievements – from a 2:1 (or better) from the third best University in the UK; to appearances at the most prestigious balls a student loan can buy.

None of this is bad in itself – and of course self-expression matters.  But what room is there in this age of autonomy for another voice?  For an outside perspective?  For a divine encounter?  What space is there for the honest acknowledgment that we are not in control?  That we cannot direct our lives?  That stuff happens?  What recognition is there that we cannot solve our problems on our own – and that indeed, we may be part of the problem?  In other words, where is the space – physical, temporal, cultural – to pray?

It’s intriguing that elsewhere in the world, there is such space.  A few years ago, my wife and I travelled to Indonesia on Garuda Airlines, an Indonesian carrier.  In the inflight magazine were two pages of Invocations, prayers in the Islamic, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Confucian traditions.  It’s hard to imagine that on Ryanair – although perhaps they might sell you a prayer-book for €9.50.

Be that as it may, prayer begins from longing, from vulnerability, from acknowledging our weakness.  But what is prayer?  Well, of course it can sound a bit like a shopping list – asking for blessing, health, comfort, peace, justice, wisdom in Brexit negotiations.  And we are invited by God to pray for what we need.  The Simpsons had fun with this when a hurricane hit Springfield and Marge prayed, “If you stop this hurricane and save this family we will be forever grateful and recommend you to all our friends.”  When the hurricane stopped, Homer remarked, “He fell for it!”

But prayer is so much more.

Prayer is a stepping outside the stream of time, wasting time.
Prayer is a deliberate questioning of our control.
Prayer is an honest reckoning of our limits, our dependence, our need for help.
Prayer is a stepping away from the centre, allowing God to be at the centre of our lives.
Prayer is an act of trust – that God is our creator, our redeemer, and present with us, and that we can trust him with all our deepest longings.
Prayer for Christians is the trust that Jesus has opened a way for all humanity to God the Father – as we heard in the reading from Hebrews.

George Herbert put this so much more beautifully in the poem Prayer, which was published in 1633.  It’s printed in the order, but let me read it now.

George Herbert, Prayer:

Prayer, the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

It’s a wealth of metaphor, piled up, expressing in 27 images the variety, intensity and significance of prayer.  It’s like food and breath, a journey and a measuring-tool, a siege-engine and music, clothes and stars, a bird and blood, an Eastern land and enlightenment.

In other words, prayer is so much more than its popular perception, of the pious request for a parking space, or a good seat in the library.  It can be an overflowing of gratitude for the gift of life, for the winter light, for the embrace of a friend.
It can be an expression of guilt for how we’ve messed up a relationship, missed an opportunity, massaged our ego.
It can be the cry for our deepest longing – to be free of pain, to feel happy, to be able to love.
It can be very calming, and help us feel at peace.
It can be a thought in the shower, walking to lectures, last thing before sleep.  It can be gathering with others in chapel.

Whatever it is, it has to be real.  Hannah’s prayer was real, a longing expressed without reservation, an engine against the Almighty.

Of course tough questions remain.  You need to watch me – I have tried to seduce you with Herbert’s beautiful poem.  But when the imagery fades, the questions remain.  Hannah’s prayer was answered: she became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy son Samuel, who became a significant prophet.  But what of those longings, those prayers, powerfully and trustingly expressed, which never come to be?  Why does prayer go unanswered?

I don’t know.  I don’t know why some of my prayers have not led to what I wanted – for myself and others.  I certainly don’t know why some of your prayers have not been realised, and it is one of the hardest parts of offering pastoral care to students and staff to sit with them as their suffering continues in spite of their prayers.

But I think there are things which we can say.

God is love.  God knows us.  God longs for our fulfilment.  God’s wisdom is beyond our own.  God is the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe.  And so, when we pray, we pray trusting that God can be trusted.  If so, that may help us trust why some prayers are not resolved as we want because, perhaps, God will respond in a different way, at a different time, with a will which is holy and good.  It may help us recognise that the world is free, and that that freedom is good even if its effects are painful.

But that doesn’t mean that I or anyone can know why every particular prayer is not answered: that is beyond us.  Not everyone who longs for children has children.  Not every prayer for a loving relationship, or healing from cancer, or liberation from mental illness, or fulfilment of our talents is realised.  Prayer may be a land of spices which promises satisfaction, but satisfaction does not come.

And that is hard.  That is the most radical de-centring of all.  But if prayer was always answered as we want, would it be prayer?  Or would it be a recipe, a spell, a piece of magic – where we still assert our control, our dominance?

Instead, in prayer, we express all we are, the soul’s blood, and with every word, sigh or silence we trust that God, being God, is love, is good, is true.  And if we can live with such trust, truly we have found the land of spices, and something understood.