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Archbishop Rowan's sermon at St Alphege, Seasalter

Sunday 17th June 2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, preached at St Alphege, Seasalter. The theme of the service was prayer, and in his sermon the Archbishop described God as being a love that pours out and pours back again, much as the sea goes out and comes back again.

"That is what our prayer seeks to make possible", said the Archbishop. "When I pray, I ask God to bring me into that mystery of love, to bring me into that pouring out and pouring back of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I ask to be dropped into that ocean and carried along with its energy, its life."

 Archbishop at St Alphege, Seasalter

Read a transcript of the sermon below, or listen to an audio recording [14Mb, 22 mins]. 

Sermon at St Alphege, Seasalter

17th June 2012 

1 Kings 19.9b-13
Luke 10.38-42

All Christians who have tried to learn to pray have discovered that there is one great transitional moment, and that is the moment when you move from thinking about prayer as a way of getting what you want, to thinking about prayer as a way of getting what God wants. That’s the transition, and that is why sometimes in our life of prayer there are moments where we really feel we have lost it, where we don’t know the way we are going.  Because the simple picture we started with is beginning to give way to something deeper - and at first sight darker - and really much more challenging. We are moving into ‘prayer as getting what God wants’.

So what does God want? Let’s start by thinking about what kind of God God is.  I know that you have been thinking and celebrating the fact that we are in the Trinity season, and we are thinking about God as Holy Trinity – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God is Holy Trinity.  God, mysteriously, is not just a bloke sitting up in heaven. God is much more like a great chord with three notes, or lots of different instruments playing one great, complicated, interweaving sound. God is relationship.  God is giving and receiving.  God is like the sea going out and the sea coming back, a love pouring out and the love pouring back and pouring out again - the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. God is like that.

That gives us the biggest clue we could possibly have to what God wants. If God is like that – pouring out love, pouring back love – then what God likes to see, and what God wants to see, is love. And what God wants to see in us is love. God wants to see love in us because God knows that love and love alone will make us happy - not what we think we want, but what we are really made for.

That's where I started, in thinking about praying – it's a way of letting God get what God wants. The mysterious thing is that what God wants is for us to be happy. We think, "Well, we ought to have a say in that. I know what will make me happy – there are all sorts of things that will make me happy, and I want them and I want them now!”. God says, “Try by all means, but remember I made you, and I made you to be like me. I made you to share in that outpouring and pouring back and pouring out again of love. That's where you will be at home - in that pouring out and pouring back of love.”

So that is where we are headed, and that is what our prayer seeks to make possible. When I pray, I ask God to bring me into that mystery of love, to bring me into that pouring out and pouring back of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I ask to be dropped into that ocean and carried along with its energy, its life.

Out of that, of course, come all sorts of other bits of praying. If you start there it makes sense to acknowledge that you have got things wrong, to acknowledge that you have failed – as in that wonderful song we sang earlier, “I am free to fail”, one of the most important messages any Christian can have.  If I know that I am dropped into the ocean of God’s love, then I am not afraid to acknowledge just how much I have got wrong, just how much growing I still need to do. As I drop into that mystery I can say, “There is no comparison.  Your goodness, your love, your abundance, your generosity are so immense that I cannot hold a light to them – I know how awful it must look.  But hey, here I am in the ocean anyway. Let it come in, let it flood me through”.  That is how our prayer includes confession.

And then in the context of that dropping into the love of God, we can also say to God, “You, God, must be passionate for the healing and the peace of my neighbours.  You must care for their life, their openness to love and forgiveness. So I bring them to you knowing what you want for them. I put them in your hands because I know you want their life”. That is how we pray for one another, how we pray for peace in the world, and how we pray for our fellowship as a Church. Saying to God, “We know what you want for us and our neighbours”. That is the prayer of intersession, as we pray for each other.

Archbishop at St Alphege, SeasalterAnd why not?  We say to God, “You know what you want for me.  You know that what you want is my life, my healing, my joy. So here is an idea.  It may be wrong and it may be silly but I put it before you.  This is what I hope for myself – now over to you”. And all of that is just taken up in this whole business of dropping into the mystery of God’s love, and trusting that what God wants for me is my life and my joy. What God wants for the whole world is life and joy.

In the gospel story, when Jesus says to Martha, “There is just one thing that is really necessary” (Luke 10.42) I think that what he meant by that one thing really necessary was understanding what kind of God we believe in. That‘s the one thing really necessary.  Have we really got the point that this is a God who is completely taken up with bringing us alive, making us whole, holding us together?  That is the kind of God we believe in. That is Jesus’ kind of God - the one thing necessary.  Think of that, turn it over in your mind, abandon yourself to that picture, and you begin to change.  You begin to grow, you begin to become that little bit more of the person God has made you to be.

For that to happen, as our readings have underlined for us, we need to quieten ourselves down. We need to calm down a bit and open up a bit. When I do a school assembly, one of the things I sometimes ask children to do is to clench their hands tightly, and then I try and give them things to hold. Because when their hands are clenched tight, they can’t hang on to anything. It is only when you open your hands that you can receive a gift - if your hands are tight clenched, you can’t receive anything. Well, we human beings are absolute global specialists at keeping our hands and our hearts clenched, one way or the other.

There is a fantastic image used by Martin Luther, the great reformer, who said that the human being is (in Latin) 'incurvatus in se', curved over on themselves, rolled up into a little ball like a spiritual hedgehog. That is our problem, so we have to begin by opening up and then calming down. Practically speaking, those are the things that really challenge us as we learn to pray - can we open up, can we calm down?

Can we open up? That means, I think, letting go of some of the things that make us feel comfortable or easy.  The awful thing is that sometimes the things that make us comfortable or easy are pride and resentment. Sometimes we love holding grudges against people.  I often think that a grudge is like a great big warm furry teddy bear that we hug. We love grudges – they makes us feel better than the people we have a grudge against. Sometimes we can’t let go of memories – either memories of good things or of bad things. But we are always ‘running the tape’, as we say, in our heads. Can we let go, can we open up?  Can we just be in the present moment?  Not with a sort of private film show in our heads, not with the grudges, not with the memories.  Just being there, opening up.  

That, I think, is why in lots of practical traditions of praying and meditating, people say, “Open your hands”. Literally, open your hands. If you watch people praying throughout the world, you will see, again and again, praying with the hands open. It is one of the things people do and they have always done it. Look at the most ancient paintings of Christians in the Roman catacombs and what do you see there? People with their hands open.

So open up and calm down. Be here. Don’t be somewhere else – be here. Breathe deeply, settle yourself, sit comfortably and alertly. Breathe in, breathe out, look around, settle in, open your hands again.  And that opening up and calming down will begin, just begin, to put you in tune with that immense mystery of love that is all around you, trying to uphold you, trying to flood you through.

So – first of all, think about moving from prayer as ‘getting what I want’ to ‘getting what God wants’. Then think about ‘getting there’ as involving that opening up and calming down. And then comes what is sometimes a real challenge: “All right, I’ve opened, I’ve calmed down, here I am… now what?” The answer God gives to that is, “Just stay there. Stay there where I can see you. Just sit where I can see you” says God. “Sit still, because I like looking at you.  I like the sight of you” says God. “It’s not just about you contemplating me, in prayer” says God, “it’s me contemplating you.  And when you sit still, and when you are waking up and letting go a bit, I can really see you. The real you, not the you that is hiding behind your memories and your fantasies and your hopes. Not the you that is half buried by this enormous furry grudge you’re hugging to yourself, but you. The you I made, the you I redeemed, the you I love forever and ever. Just sit there and let me enjoy myself” says God.

As we sit in silence before God, that perhaps is what we ought to think: we are giving God the opportunity of enjoying himself. It sounds odd doesn’t it? But that, I think, is what we are doing.  We’re bringing ourselves into the light of God’s love, so that he can look at us and say, “Pretty good, that. I like that one, and that one, and that one.”  And as we sit in the quiet, we can think, “God is looking at me with love, looking at me with attention, looking at me, even, with hope”. Because as God looks at me, sitting still, opening up, God thinks, “We have got some real potential at last.  Now I can do something, now I can pour in the love that they need to live and grow and flourish”.

And it is very difficult.  Back to Jesus and Mary and Martha yet again, because we think, “What am I doing?  Am I wasting my time?  What is the justification for sitting here? All very fine to talk about loving God and letting God love me, but shouldn’t I be doing something?” And so, like Martha, the temptation is to rush around and look busy. And Jesus says to Mary and to Martha, “One thing really matters.” Remember what kind of God is there, remember the kind of God that made you and saved you and loves you. Just remember that.  Don’t for a moment let go of that. This is the kind of God who is there.

Because once that has begun to come clear in our minds, the way we act in the world is different.  If we’re always tearing around looking busy, thinking of things to do, ‘writing notices signed Rabbit’ (in the great words from AA Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh”, if some of you remember that), and just making ourselves busy all day long, then actually the chances of really attending to what other people are like and what other people really need gets smaller and smaller. We are so concerned to keep ourselves busy that we don’t actually stop to ask, “Do people need me to be busy like this?” We as Christians are very good at being busy sometimes. We can think of loads of things to do, and we don’t absolutely always stop and ask does somebody need us to do them, or do them like this, or do them at this point.

You may remember that great phrase of CS Lewis, who writes about some great Christian lady, “She's the sort of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expression."  It is only when we are calming down and opening up that we begin to see not only something about the love of God, we actually begin to see one another in a different way – to see each other more fully, more roundedly. And when we do that, we begin to have a much better sense of what they really need.  Those people who spend long, long periods in prayer and in silence are, in my experience, the people who respond to you as you really are most effectively, most warmly and quickly.

When I was a young man I had the great good fortune to go regularly to visit an old Benedictine monk who lived in the Isle of Wight. He had become a monk when he was eighteen years old, and he had never really left the monastery for decades. You would think that a person like that would be a bit out of touch, but whenever I went to see Father Joe, the sense I had was that as soon as I was there his whole attention was focused on me. He was completely there for me, because he spent so much time being completely there for God that there was no problem for him being there for other people. When he died, literally hundreds of people gathered and they all said, “Were you Joe’s friend as well? Because we all thought we were Joe’s special friend.” Hundreds of people thought they were Joe’s special friend because he had the same absolute attention and generosity with everybody.  That’s because he was able to open up and calm down and pray with that ease, and peace, and generosity that allowed him to see other people properly. He didn’t tear around trying to be busy, but he made a fantastic difference to the lives of every single person that he was in touch with.

And you think again of some of the great public figures – Mother Teresa, somebody else who spent hours in silence, opening up and calming down before God – and our own Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa.  Desmond used to say, wonderfully, that he was much too busy to pray for less than two hours every day. Too busy to pray for less than two hours, because the busier he got, the more he felt he needed to be calming down and opening up – and I think that is why he made such a difference to so many people. 

So, that‘s a stage further on. We think about moving to what God wants not what we want, opening up and calming down, and, coming out of that, a new vision not only of God but of one another. And a sense of how God sees all of us, and how delighted, how overjoyed God is to see us there.

The last thing, and a bit of practical advice: it is not easy to sit still. It is not easy to open up and just think of God looking at me, so we need a few things to hang it on. That’s why, if we are trying to pray quietly, trying to enter into the love of God, we need to take a few very simple words and phrases and repeat them, turn them over in our minds, say them out loud slowly. They may be words from a hymn that we love; they may just be a single word – "Father", or "Jesus". Jesus himself, in Garden of Gethsemane, just prays “Abba, Father” – perhaps we can just say that? Or there is the word that St Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians, going back to the very earliest days of the Church, where he quotes a prayer in Syriac, the language of Jesus, “Maranatha” -  Lord, come.  Many Christians just use that phrase “Lord, come” to calm themselves down.

So as you are trying to hold yourself in stillness, find a couple of words – a little phrase – to say over and over, just hanging your prayers on that. You'll find that it will centre you and hold you when you are tempted to go off and make yourself busy and have lots of interesting ideas. Just sit there. It is the glue that holds you to the chair, the simple phrase: "Father", "Lord, come", "Holy Sprit come into my heart", "my Lord and my God", "Jesus have mercy", "Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly." All these phrases which we pick up - phrases from the Church’s worship, from hymns, phrases we just find in the bible – use them in a quiet way to keep you "stuck there", looking at the God who is looking at you and wanting to transform you all the time.

In this process, please God, we begin to grow up towards God, to grow into this great ocean of love pouring out and pouring back and pouring out again. To begin to be in tune with the nature of the God that Jesus has revealed to us; the God whose action Jesus has brought into the world by his cross and resurrection and the gift of his Holy Spirit. We begin to be at home.  And when we begin to be at home like that - with God, with ourselves, with one another - drawing in to that action our confession and our thanksgiving and our prayer for ourselves and others, then we begin to be at home. Others begin to find peace around us.

One other quotation from one of the saints, who said, “If you have God’s peace in your heart, thousands will find their salvation around you”. So we try, we fail, we try again. We try to open up, we find the distractions and the obsessions coming back - we try again. We root ourselves again in the simple words: Father, Lord, Jesus, Spirit. And bit by bit, if we trust God to be working with us, we shall indeed find ourselves at home in his love, here in this world and, please God, for all eternity.  Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2012

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