Ancient-future faith

by Rev’d Sarah West

Growing up, I used to think that Eucharists / services with communion were boring. The priest would get up behind that big table, say a bunch of words and wave a chalice around. I had no idea what was going on.

I heard the words ‘This is my body which is broken for you. Do this to remember me’ but I didn’t feel like they were for me. I felt they belonged to my parents who stood next to me.
The whole thing felt like a cryptic ritual that I was locked out of. I knew in theory that the Eucharistic table was open for all people but in real time, I just couldn’t connect.

The Prayer Book sitting in the pews became a book that was only entertaining because of the three ribbons inside that I could plait until the service was over.

It was the same with the concept of contemplative prayer. The idea of silence was terrifying. Whenever it happened in church or at home, I would seek to fill it up with something. I would fiddle, reach for a device or excuse myself for the bathroom.
When I went out for kids church or youth group, it was fun but I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing out. Although I found the ‘adult church’ boring, I knew something significant was going on.

It wasn’t until my late teens and 20s that I began to ask questions and learn about the significance behind all the symbol and ritual that, despite growing up in the Anglican Church, felt foreign.

I learned that the vestments or clothes that the Priest wore (that had always come across pretentious to me), were ancient symbols of baptism, service and humility.

I learned that the Eucharist was a service that hinged around the words of Jesus to his disciples before he died and that, in participating in this ritual, we were not only reliving the drama as a community but coming together as the body of Christ to remember who we are and who God is, being sent out again with the assurance of hope and resurrection life; sustained as agents of God’s love, grace and transformation in our communities.

I began to read this mysterious red prayer book and was captivated by the beauty and poetry of its words. They felt safe, tried and tested – and there was something connecting about the fact that these same words were used in prayer across Aotearoa and the world. I began to feel like I was a part of something bigger.

I started to crave silence and read about contemplative prayer. For so many years, prayer consisted of a checklist of things to rattle off rather than being a posture of listening and making space in my mind and soul for God. I felt like I was drowning in a world that, at every opportunity, was competing for my attention and prayer became just another thing to do.

In the midst of this, I remember reading the words of Matthew 11:28 one day in the warm afternoon sun. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…” – I burst into tears! This was what I longed my experience of prayer to be.

I was using less and less words and leaving more and more silence. In that silence, there was rest and transformation taking place. It would begin a long discovery that continues to this day.

Most of my friends had left the Anglican Church in my teens, aside from camps, and the questions continued as I went to various non-denominational church events with my friends. They were entertaining, upbeat and inspiring but after a while, I found myself spiritually hungry.

I became frustrated when the narrative seemed to be mostly centred about how much God loves me. It is such a valuable message but after a while, I wanted to *do* something with it. I wanted to be a part of God’s active story in the world. I kept thinking about the final words of the Eucharist. ‘God now to love and serve the Lord.’

So after a couple of years, I returned to the Anglican Church. But today, I feel challenged to be a part of offering something that, in my experience, I didn’t receive until I sought it out – formation in the contemplative and sacramental rhythms of the Church. People exploring and unpacking it. People inviting me into it. People telling me that this ancient spiritual lineage isn’t just for the 50+s in our congregations but for the rising generations to inherit so that we can be strengthened and sustained to plunge our hearts and hands into the suffering and injustice of our world.

Nowadays for me, prayer is as personal as it is sustaining and active. Eucharist and sacramental worship is no longer a dusty old tradition but a liturgy of love, transformation and resistance.

What’s your story? Does any of this resonate with you? Has anyone had a different experience? Each of us have many stories to tell (and this is only a brief snippet of mine) as we navigate this ancient-future faith.