Over the last 25 years I have become weaker and less mobile due to my chronic, disabling illness. I have become unable to be an active part of any church or community. At times I have felt very isolated and wondered if I were really part of the Body of Christ. So much of the teaching I have received in my Church life has been on the importance of corporate worship. An emphasis on joining in, doing things for, and being with other believers. A focus firmly on the activities in the church building. The sacraments, if you’d asked me as a young woman with my Anglican background, meant the Eucharist, and maybe marriage.
My enforced solitude over a long period of time has changed the way I see Church. It has been a catalyst for the discovery of prayer as true relationship, a deeper vision of Christ’s embodiment that includes the edges and the margins, and a new way of understanding sacredness, ritual, and tradition.
I am now almost entirely housebound, spending most of the day sick in bed, with visitors a rarity. Even conversations with my husband (who cares lovingly for me) need to be kept short as my brain struggles to filter or process sound. I do value forums and social media groups where I can interact by typing, and these have been a lifeline to me. Zoom and video calls have given many housebound Christians a new way of being part of Church as the pandemic has provided an incentive to reach out, which wasn’t in evidence before. Sadly, that’s not something I can cope with, though I’m glad of the innovation.
The ministry of the monastics
Instead, I have turned inwards to a life of contemplative prayer, and to the small snatches of Scripture and saintly writings that I can manage to read. My husband and I are explorers in the Community of Aidan and Hild, and whilst I can’t be very involved, it helps to know we are connected to those who also value ancient traditions. It may seem counterintuitive that being so far removed from Church, it is the older traditions that have lifted me and held me true to my faith. One might imagine that I would espouse a new kind of religious or spiritual freedom and just do my own thing. But for me, true freedom is now about obedience.
A day with so little in it needs routine. A body with no energy or strength needs sustenance. A Christ follower with no congregation around her needs the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the communion of saints. A lone Christian or couple needs – I have found, the simple discipline and silence of the monastics. Prayer has become the place I am anchored. It stops me drifting out of the harbour that is resting in God.
These practises take the form of contemplation at the start of my day (though due to broken sleep this is often the afternoon) and praying the Rosary in the evening. This has surprised me as much as anyone, especially as I once had a brief but interesting phase as an evangelical. I’m sure I learned a lot. But the person I was then would be utterly horrified at my embracing Mary as my mother now. The Rosary would have been something beyond the pale, particularly as it was (I thought) only for Catholics. This is a holy endeavour to me, yes, a sacrament if you like.
Prayer is now the mainstay of everything. That relationship runs through every moment. This is what I believe St Paul is advocating when he tells us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It is what my hermitage cell has taught me. The four walls may contain me more than I’d like. I’ve done a great deal of ceiling watching and fitful dozing. But those walls are dripping with prayer. Everything is soaked in it, blessed by it. God is with me in all things.
When I have the energy, I paint or draw on a board on my lap. I mostly paint from photographs of nature. Seascapes and wildlife are my favourite, though I’ll paint anything that seems joyful to me. This feels like an honouring of the joy that creation brings to me, and therefore often a holy practice. I often ask the Holy Spirit to guide me in this and in my writing.
The little glimpses of nature I get are sacred. Birds on the feeder, feathered messengers in colourful garb seen through the window, patches of sky that speak of the immensity of creation and my own smallness. The myriad of greens in one tree or bush singing out infinite variety. The soft sheerness of the cherry blossom, teaching me how to fade and let the light through. All these things are sacraments to me.
Like Mother Julian of Norwich contemplating the vision of a thing no bigger than a hazelnut in the palm of her hand, or St. Francis communing with the squirrel in his poem below (translated so beautifully by Daniel Ladinsky and shared often by Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr) I feel that all created things, the creatures and their canticle are what speak most deeply to me of the sacred. Any way they connect with us is a sacrament.
I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments—
he got so excited
and ran into a hollow in his tree and came
back holding some acorns, an owl feather,
and a ribbon he had found.
And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear,
I spent one of the most contemplative and beautiful half hours of my life sitting on the lintel of my back door with a snail. I gave it a sunflower seed to chew. Time seemed utterly irrelevant as it took the seed from my fingers and moved it around in its mouth, gradually sawing into the food with its thousands of tiny teeth. It was like a window into eternity, into understanding that all living things are connected by the same breath, the same source, by the very heartbeat of God.
Whilst the small creature and I connected over our similar speed of life, she chewed her seed and I chewed on the mystery of a woman brought to a snail’s pace connecting as God’s creation with a tiny being also considered precious by God.
Every other living thing seems to know and understand that we are kindred and that our forms here are temporal. We are the only ones who live most of our lives in disconnect.
When Corrie Ten Boom was desperate in her prison cell, being held by the Nazis in a concentration camp, she felt saved by the presence of an ant, which somehow found its way in to visit her.
“And I was not alone much longer: into my solitary cell came a small, busy black ant. I had almost put my foot where he was one morning as I carried my bucket to the door when I realized the honor being done me. I crouched down and admired the marvelous design of legs and body. I apologized for my size and promised I would not so thoughtlessly stride about again” (The Hiding Place, p. 165).
Everything belongs to God
The more one’s physical world shrinks, the more one discovers that every small thing belongs to God and that everything given to God is sacred. There is little I can think of that falls outside of this. Covered in grace, done to please God, offered up as sacrifice, even the smallest moment or activity is made holy.
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you.
Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you;
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
in His hand is the life of every creature,
and the breath of all mankind.”
(Job 12:7-10, New International Version—UK)
As I finish writing this piece, our beloved cat is dying of cancer. It’s difficult constantly cleaning up after her, and we are keeping a careful eye out for any signs that she is suffering. Yet I am quite sure that as Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love,” and that this too is holy work. Bleary-eyed cat litter duty at five a.m. can be a sacramental thing. Everything and anything can be, if not holy in itself, because only God truly is, then the province of the holy.
Everything is about connection and inclusion and unity. No-one: no leper, no sinner, no snail, no cat is left outside of the city gates to wander Gehenna. Sacramental living knows and honours this truth. Love, in the end, is the king of sacraments.
“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16, NIVUK).