St. Botolph’s Parish, Entry of the Theotókos, 21 November 2010
‘He it is who by dwelling in her sanctifies the creation and deifies the dying nature of man’ (Vespers of the Feast)
‘You were looking for something. Did you find it?’ A woman asked a pilgrim on the road. ‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ All that the pilgrim was looking for was a holy icon. An icon that he bought in a shop, in a village. An icon of a woman dressed in blue, wearing a red cloak. Lifting up her hands and standing in a fountain. From the fountain, fresh water flowing in streams. Passers-by dip jugs into the fountain and wash their feet, themselves, clean in the water. Between the woman’s arms, secure and loved – a child, with the face of a man, his own arms outstretched. Mother and child, lifting up their arms in a fountain. The name in Greek on the top of the icon: ‘Hê zôodóchos pigê’ – ‘the Life-giving Source’. When the woman asked the pilgrim whether he had found what he was looking for, he had never seen her before. Who was she? And did her words mean even more than they said? Perhaps the pilgrim was looking for something more than an icon. Something lost, like a cloud receding on the horizon. Some half-forgotten image, a kind of memory half-remembered in dreams. That village was a strange place. A ‘thin place’, as they say, where light from the past illumines the present.
The village was Little Walsingham in Norfolk. The pilgrim was I. The woman in the icon: the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. But who was the woman on the road who asked me, out of the blue, ‘Did you find what you were looking for?’
When we grow up, we forget what we were looking for. We wander out into the street, to stand there, looking around, looking lost – we came looking for something, but we forgot
what it is. All the noises of ‘real life’ distract us. Traffic swishing past. A police siren. The laughter and shouts from the pub. A dog barking at four or five in the morning, the hours when most people die. The drunken girl shouting ‘Bastard!’ at a boy, who shouts… and you cannot get back to sleep. That is ‘real’ life. After years, you get used to it. Then, you
rise early, rush to work: more noise. Your boss, yelling at you. Co-workers gossiping, all because they can do nothing, about anything. Switch on the radio? More noise. Bankers making excuses, a politician lying through his teeth. ‘Real’ life: adult life. You get used to it. You bite your lip and say nothing. No other life, you figure, is even possible. What can you do, go off and join a monastery? Stop dreaming, you tell yourself. A child can afford to dream: lift up his hands and pretend to fly. We are stuck here. So, if the doctor tells us that we suffer from an ‘anxiety disorder’; if our thoughts are too troubled by real life to make sense of it; if a half-buried memory haunts us in our dreams – we say, it is all part of being grown up. We have learned how to survive … and forgotten how to live.
Somewhere inside us, we know that life itself got lost in a cloud receding on the horizon.
Life got lost in a half-forgotten dream. Life, the life that you and I crave so much – starts where the noise stops and you hear yourself saying: ‘Show me what “real life” really is. Show me what I am looking for’.
Real life is not ‘grown-up’ life. Real life is not noise. It is a little girl, wandering in the vast silence space of the Temple. A little girl who wanders in and out, past the silent columns and the court of the priests. Now and then, a priest passes and takes no notice. They all know who she is. Ever since her mother Anna brought her there, a tiny baby held in her arms, she has lived all her childhood in the Temple. She loves the silence: her prayer is as simple as her breath. There, in the place beyond the last veil, where even the priests never go, she stands quietly by herself. In front of the tabernacle, she holds up her arms and pretends to fly. As every child does. But here in the Holy of Holies? Where the High Priest never goes but once a year; where any grown-up would die if he set foot – a little girl holds up her arms and dreams. What is the light surrounding her? A light, ten million times brighter than the sun: a cloud, filling the holy space. No grown-up eye could see it and not go blind. But a little girl plays in that cloud of light. Whenever she sees the cloud of light, she knows beyond all words that everything is possible.
‘Fantasy’, you say. Childish make-believe. We are not a little girl in a Temple. We live in our world of sirens and gossip, barking dogs and angry employers. We are distracted by business; or, should I say, by being busy. We are anxious and troubled by many things. More troubled, year after year, down the five centuries – since they burned the statue of that little girl in the village of Walsingham, and England grew up … and grew old. What is she now, in our troubled times, but a cloud receding on the horizon?
She is the memory that we are all looking for. She is the child in the Temple, who never grew up and never grew old. Playing in the Holy of Holies, she is the Holy of Holies: the womb that bears Christ. Lifting up her arms in play, she lifts up every prayer to her Son and our God. She, in her cloud of light.
Beloved in Christ: on this Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotókos and Ever-Virgin Mary into the Temple, we remember what we call ‘real’ life … and what life really is. Our world grown old was already old for an old woman named Anna, on the day she brought her baby girl to the Temple. She promised God: ‘Give me a child and I will give her back to you. What we have lost in growing old, she will never lose. She will not be distracted with much serving; she will not be anxious and troubled about many things. She will not lose herself in the noise that we call “real life” – but will keep the silent dreams of a child who believes that all things are possible. She will live in the desert of false hopes, but in
the fountain that renews all life’. When the noise around us deafens our ears and we are tempted to call this our exile ‘real’ life, all that we need is to turn our minds to her in the silence of the Temple and say: ‘Most Holy Theotókos, save us!’ and her prayer, as easy as her breath, will call us back from death to real life.
Who is she who meets us on a road and asks: ‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ Nothing but a little girl in the vast silent space of the Temple. A child who asks: ‘What is real life?’ and answers: ‘It is to lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord’.