My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.
The other Saturday I had a spiritual experience walking up Market Street. It was outside the Arndale centre, across from the baked potato vendor.
From the middle of nowhere came an adrenaline rush and a distinct Goddish whiff. Not this time a voice calling a new play for my life, more of an epiphany, a “Here I am” moment. And that “here” seemed to be the whole point of it. Here in the hustle, bustle and bump of shoppers; here in the noise of teenage girls screaming and giggling and a dirty-fingered version of Danny Boy played on an old busker’s tin whistle. Here between the conspiratorial knot of hooddies and the gloriously colourful African matriarch striding purposefully towards the number 86 bus. Bored-looking people were pressing promotional leaflets on reluctant rushers-by, HMV was graciously blessing us with Lilly Allen’s observations on life and God said, “Here I am. Right here.”
I must confess to being surprised. A bit like Ezekiel when God showed up by the Chebar Canal, rather than staying at home, safely tucked up in the temple. We’re not supposed to bump into God on city-centre shopping trips. We’re meant to head for the hills, retreat, go rural. Everyone knows that God prefers sheep to ghetto blasters and a misty dawn to neon light filtered through Manchester drizzle.
God speaks in silence, preferring not to shout above competing voices. God nudges you when you are still and empty-handed not while you are dashing about with an M and S shopping bag in one mit and a Gourmet Waffle in the other. God doesn’t like crowds, is allergic to noise, is happier in the countryside and just can’t get through to extroverts. That’s right isn’t it?
Well of course not. God is everywhere and clearly God loves the busy, energetic type as much as the introvert. Obviously. Or at least that’s how the theory goes. But check out the practice. Look where our retreat centres are – in a field, up a hill or by a babbling brook. Where are the backstreet poustinias? Who are the spiritual directors who hang out in Café Nero? Why cant’ I sign up for a noisy retreat?
I blame Wordsworth and his kind, you know, the Romantics who soft-focussed the wilderness and bequeathed us a pastoral idyll which the church has embraced as the spiritual equivalent of Escape to the Country. Although, come to think of it, wasn’t Wordsworth just as happy on Westminster Bridge as he was stomping over Borrowdale?
Not that I mind a bit of cloud-like lonely wandering myself from time to time. It’s just that God also insists on turning up in busy, concretey places. Like the moment I stepped out into a Time Square night after watching The Passion of the Christ and the whole place hummed with the love of God or like this Summer in the middle of the glam, the glitter and the tat of Lourdes when God said, something like, “I know this place is like a Skegness souvenir shop on Steroids, but just look at the faithful, hope-filled reaching out to me, look at the sheer colour of this churchy cross section of humanity - beautiful as oil in a puddle. I know this place is a bit RC for your taste, but I’m here, get used to it.”
Time, I think, for someone to develop spiritual guidance for city-dwellers. Time for more pricking up of the ears and glancing about for God in the urban. Time for people from Brecon to retreat to Bristol and for the Archers to go looking for God in Albert Square.