“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea.”
—T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (Gardners Books; Main edition, April 30, 2001) Originally published 1943. Written about his personal pilgrimage in 1936 to “Little Gidding” a small stone church in Cambridgeshire where an Anglican prayer community met three centuries earlier.
We (Gerald and I) used this poem at the end of every pilgrimage we led in Europe, as it articulates the mystery and paradox of pilgrimage, travelling to an ancient place where others before us have encountered God and “recognizing” it, even though we have never been before. We “arrive where we started,” at our Source — God. We gain new eyes to return home and see that same Source at the heart of what is routine and familiar.
As the contemporary hymn writer Thomas Troeger says:
“Seek not in distant, ancient hills
the promised holy land,
but where you live do what God wills
and find it close at hand.
A single heaven wraps around
This whirling watered stone
And every place is sacred ground
Where God is loved and known.
To climb the templed, footworn peak
Where pilgrims long have trod,
Unlock the bolted soul and seek
The present, living God.”
(Common Praise 470)
“…where we live,” in the here and now, to recognize this as holy ground, to identify God’s presence near and close.”
This is what mystics of all traditions speak of: Rumi, the Sufi mystic, says “you wander from room to room, hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck!”
The Season of Epiphany, our annual spiritual pilgrimage of the liturgical year, summons us to this growing “recognition.” The Incarnation, the amazing good news of Christmas that God came once in our midst as a human being on earth, draws us in Epiphany to awareness, consciousness that all earthly life is holy.
This sense of God’s immanent, immediate presence in the ordinary is a deep sensibility of Anglican spirituality. The Holy One we seek is right here. We are invited to recognition, with new eyes to see. A poem of the Anglican theologian from the Oxford movement, John Keble, is a favourite hymn:
“If on our daily course our mind
Be set to hallow all we find…
Old friends, old scenes will lovelier be,
As more of heaven in each we see,
Some softening gleam of love and prayer
Shall dawn on every cross and care”
“The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.”
(Common Praise #7, “New Every Morning is the Love)
You are hearing my musings, someone who loves to travel, who loves the variety and busyness, and meeting many people and communities, who loves even the unpredictability of my work as bishop, who, because of circumstance, is confined in the very slow, silent, routine existence of caring for someone who is not able to care for themselves. And in this very confinement, recognizing a profound holiness in everyday things. I am deeply grateful for a rich spiritual tradition that expresses this in prayer and poetry. I find myself singing the above hymn to myself, when I awake in a strange unplanned place, as I fold laundry, and as I meet you, even on zoom.
The Anglican Divine, George Herbert, calls this recognition of God in the most ordinary task “The Elixer,” the secret to Eternal Life. To offer all we do to God, even sweeping a room, Herbert calls “the famous stone” (the Philosopher’s Stone!) “that turneth all to gold.”
“Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.”
Common Praise #496
(George Herbert, The Elixir)
May this Epiphany Season renew your sense of God in all things!
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