means that every other month I have two magazine letters to write, since Village on the Hill shares a parish mag with its sister in the valley, but also produces its own village magazine every second month - and I get to write in that too.
This is the week, and of course I'm going to be late and frantic - but here is my effort for Hill & Vale, the Benefice magazine. We thought about St Helena yesterday - where would I be without the liturgical year?
One of the benefits of belonging to a church that has a strong sense of the rhythm of the seasons is the way the liturgical calendar introduces you to all sorts of people you might otherwise never come across at all.
So on a Wednesday morning recently I found myself invited to consider the life of Helena (the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine), whom Common Worship describes as “Protector of the Holy Places”. In Helena’s case, the “holy places” were those we are familiar with from Scripture, the sites of Jesus’ birth, his life and ministry, places that have been the focus of pilgrimage for two thousand years. However it struck me that we all of us have our own “holy places”, whether or not we are aware of it, and that we protect them with all our might and main.
Most obviously, the holy places in our communities are our churches, and the beautiful churchyards that surround them.These are places set aside for encounters with God, made special by the prayers of so many people who have gone before us, so it is no wonder that we treasure them and sometimes find it very difficult if any change is suggested. I’m someone that believes passionately in the ideal behind the traditional parish system – that each and every community should have its own identifiable place of worship and its own visible “God person” – someone tasked with carrying the needs and concerns of that place with them in prayer. I feel that it is hugely important that our churches are there, available for anyone who wishes to visit, to pray, or just to sit quietly. They are a constant reminder of God’s presence with his people, as we carry on our ordinary lives, with varied degrees of attention to him.
But there are other “holy places” too, spots where something important has happened in our lives, where God has become particularly real to us. Sometimes a beauty spot speaks very clearly of God’s presence in creation. It’s easy to recognise God when the whole of creation seems to be singing with the joy of his presence- but other places can be holy too, even the most unlikely ones.
For me a railway carriage somewhere between Eastbourne and Pevensey Bay on a June day thirty years ago was the site of an almost overwhelming experience of God’s love, which transformed my journey that day and my life from then on. But, of course that wasn’t the sort of spot I could revisit. For one thing I had no way of establishing precisely which carriage it was, and in any case that didn’t really seem important.
It was the sense of God’s presence that made the ordinary special that day…but afterwards – who knows? – perhaps I travelled in that carriage many times without knowing.
Quite a useful lesson, I think. I have the experience to treasure, - a bright jewel whose beauty I can and do rejoice in, something that gives me new energy and enthusiasm when I am weary or disappointed. The place where it happened was transformed at the time, but – but the real value of that God-moment was the difference it made to me.
So, although I honour Helena and all who protect and cherish our holy places, I’d encourage you to keep your eyes open to encounter God any and everywhere in the world. Love your churches, visit them, pray in them often but don’t allow them to become the only context in which you expect to find God.
God is far bigger than that – and you can expect to encounter him everywhere you go, if your heart is open.