Canon Wendy Wilby’s Sermon
At the still point of the turning world. Mark 6.31 – end
My big fluffy persian cat Buster helps me with my sermon writing sometimes. If you have a cat or a dog, you probably have been in the same situation. I’ve settled down at my desk with my computer switched on ready to write, and Buster has followed me into my study miaowing and looking at me. He jumps up onto my lap, a vast puffball of grey fluff and stares at me willing my attention. He pauses to paw at my arm to show me exactly how it’s done. Focused on a sermon as I am, I absently give him some attention with a free hand which he licks furiously, but it’s not enough for him. He’s now up on the keyboard, crawling up my chest and fastening himself securely with his talons, and planting his body in my face. He’s forcing me to look at him.
If you’re a pet-lover, you just have to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. This large ball of life has got you by the face and is reminding you life is happening right now, right here, and it’s not going anywhere just yet.
Now our Dean has been constantly quoting from T.S. Eliot this year, so I thought I would join in myself. There’s a passage in “Burnt Norton,” the first poem of “The Four Quartets,” that approaches the lesson my cat Buster teaches me from a different angle.
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
Now I don’t mean to suggest that Eliot is referencing a cat somewhere between arrest, movement, ascent, and decline. Rather that life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness or focus. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention. Eliot’s “still point” is the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this moment, too. Christmas only seems a heartbeat away when we were focusing on that fundamental Christian truth of the incarnation. A star shines brightly in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur, though? In some great, exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty stable, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our attention makes all the difference.
We’ve moved on now through the family festivities and crackers and Christmas trees and are heading fairly rapidly towards Easter eggs and daffodils. Still a few Sundays to go, but we’ve got to that moment in the gospel of St Mark when the cross is just starting to loom large and cast its shadow over the proceedings. The moment that Peter answers the question ‘But who do you say that I am?’ with those shocking words ‘You are the Messiah’, the mood changes. Jesus becomes still, stern and serious and the action stops still; this time he becomes the prophet, the teacher turning and looking at his disciples; he demands their attention, sharing with the disciples a future of rejection, suffering and an eventual strange liberation that will unfold. Jesus brooks no contradiction. Peter gets it in the neck for even suggesting Jesus might have got it wrong, being called ‘Satan’ – a sharp rebuke following on from his previous huge moment of insight. This almost holds the glimmer of the crucifixion. As the story unfolds, Jesus becomes more and more the passive focus for the people, eventually being lifted up high on the cross for all to gaze at from out of their traumatic and chaotic lives……………. the still point in a turning world.
I’m going to take you on a bus trip to Peterborough Cathedral now. Suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the nave hangs Frank Roper’s ‘Crucifixion’. It is a commanding and striking presence in the cathedral. It is fifteen feet high and weighs more than half a ton. The wooden cross, painted red with intricate interwoven gold decoration on the back, supports a more than life-size gilded Christ looking tormented as he is crucified.
It is the Latin caption underneath which gives it a further layer of meaning and which I want to share with you. “Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis” is the motto of the Carthusian monastic Order – “The cross stands still while the world turns”. It is pointing out the contrast between the steadfastness of the cross and the busyness of the world”. The cross is the still and static place while the world is turbulent and revolving. The cross becomes the place where the ever-changing nature of creation and its turmoil is given resolution and a point of anchor. Surely, in T.S. Eliot’s thinking then, the cross itself has to be ‘at the still point of the turning world.’ Now I’m putting you back on the bus and we are taking a further trip to Wakefield Cathedral where we shall see yet another spectacular ‘still cross in a turning world’ – on the Rood Screen, a crucifix, flanked by St Mary and St John. This Rood was a frequent sight in pre-Reformation Churches and cathedrals. Indeed I have learned that we had a crucifix on a Rood screen separating the nave from our chancel or Quire. It is an ideal place for a cathedral chapter to gather under, to be still and to say those unending morning prayers not hiding away from the busy world but somehow gazing upwards at the cross, the still point, from out of the busy world. We can return to such moments between the moments (as T.S. Eliot also writes) for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school, knows the difference between rest and renewal. The still point is our place of renewal, where we stop so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning. Surely it is here, at the very eye of the storm that the Kingdom of God, has come near.
The weeks will move on apace now – it’s nearly March – and more and more frequently the Bible readings will draw our attention to the cross. Allow yourself to be attracted out of your hectic lifestyle to rest there. It might become an extremely painful place to be as you bring with you the pain of the world in meditation, whether it is the beleagured people of Eastern Ghouta or the loneliness of a very sick friend. You are called to be there.
Remember Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis
Amidst the turbulence of the world
your cross O Christ stands
holding all that would be lost.
Bless us in your redeeming love
and bring us through your passion
to the joy of your resurrection.
In the power of the Holy Spirit
we make our prayer to the Father.