There is a rhythm to community life here at Westminster. For those living in the college, the day begins with breakfast at 8 am, followed by morning prayers at 8:30. Many of the students are busy preparing for exams, but still take turns leading worship. Most mornings there are faculty, students, and sabbatical guests like myself, gathered for prayer. (There is also a chapel service after lunch.)
The worship space reminds me of the chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, and also the chapel at Mepkin Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in South Carolina. The traditional “choir” design means that members of the community face each other for hymns and prayers. There is something very good about that. The faces and voices of other people praying are for me, as important a message as the content of the readings, and the words of reflection offered. In community we are witnesses to each other, of the reality of prayer in our lives, and of our faith in the “larger other” that is the focus and direction of our praying.
I knew as I was preparing for this part of my sabbatical adventure that I would need to apply a discipline to my days. It could be so easy to fritter the time away. It can be so easy to pass through the time we are given, without noticing, relishing, loving, learning, feeling gratitude. These times of prayer with people, in the chapel serve to frame the days, and draw my attention to what is within the frame.
The student who led prayers this morning is Nick, whose life before preparation for ministry in the United Reformed Church included achieving a Ph.D. in Welsh and English Literature. He read to us from Exodus 3, which is the story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. That story reminds us of the potential that each place we sit or stand can be holy ground for us. Nick also shared a poem from one of his favourite writers, the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas:
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)