ON LISTENING (AND MARTINIS)
During my first assignment as a priest, from 1993 to 1997, I was the coordinator for the renovation of Saint Anthony of Padua Church, in Effiingham, Illinois, a large church built in 1874, a testimony not only to the glory of God, but also to the sacrifice of faith of the mainly German immigrants who built it.
One of the members of the renovation committee was a man named Nick, whose family had worshiped at Saint Anthony’s for generations. He was a very faithful and generous friend, and I soon learned I could call upon him for anything at all, and he would always be quick to lend me a hand or a listening ear. (He was also the person most responsible for helping me develop my love of a good dry martini - “martoonies” he called them - and we solved many of the world’s problems sipping those potent potables.)
Nick would frequently drop into the church to pray whenever he had something weighing on him, and - though the large church might empty - always went to the same exact place to kneel and say his prayers. When I asked him why he chose the same pew, the same spot, to say his prayers he told me, “I can hear God better there.” It’s hard to argue with the fantastic common sense of that statement.
I think most of us tend to sit in the same general area when we come for worship. When writing my sermons I envision the people to whom I will be preaching, and I always tend to see the same people in the same places in all four of our churches. As I’m looking out in my mind’s eye, I know that I’ll most likely see folks like Judith, Kay, Emmanuel, Elsie, Graham, Diane, Linda and Peter on the left, whilst most likely seeing Andra, Perpetua, Gwen, Vivien, Jen, John, Betty and Billy on the right. I’ve never asked anyone why they sit where they do; we all tend to be creatures of habit, and once we get established in those habits we might not even be able to vocalise why it is we’re doing the things we do. I know when I am visiting other churches, I tend to more often sit on the right side than on the left, but I have no idea why.
This is, I think, why I like Nick’s answer so much, and why - especially during Lent - it is so appropriate. On Ash Wednesday, in the exhortation, the Church recalls one of the reasons we historically have celebrated Lent in the first place, saying the season was a a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Saviour, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. Lent, then, becomes a time when, through prayer, fasting and works of mercy, we seek to put ourselves in a place where we can hear God better.
Now I am not suggesting that people need to move away from where they usually sit (even I wouldn’t dare promote such a change!) but I do think we all need to be aware of the noise and distraction of sin and try - relying on God’s grace - to put ourselves in a place where we do not allow the cacophony of division, gossip, meanness and self-will to drown out the thrilling melody of God’s voice, God’s will, God’s love as made manifest in Our Saviour, whose journey through suffering and death to the glory of the Father is a model for us all who seek to arrive at a place where we can hear the voice of God better. May we allow the scriptures, prayers, and rituals of this holy season to hasten and help us.
“I can hear God better there,” Nick said. It’s hard to argue with the fantastic common sense of that statement.