The Bible says that ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’. The first word in that proverb might sound pious and off-putting to some. If it helps I don’t think it means some ‘Holier than thou, nit-picking, rule-keeping, God loves me more than he loves you’ kind of attitude (thoroughly repugant). I think of it more as ‘open to God – liness’.
Can I be aware of God, listening? Living gratefully? Conscious of the Spirit’s presence, power and beauty all around me? If and when I can, I’m aware this changes me. And the way it changes me is that it makes me more content, less anxious, less fearful about the future and more able to stay in today.
Nothing expresses this better than this brilliant short poem by e.e.cummings (who only gives God capital letters).
i am a little church (no great cathedral)
far from the splendour and squalor of hurrying cities
–i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april
my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are the prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying) children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains
i am a little church (far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
–i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
winter by spring, i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)
Recently re-reading this poem put me back on track. I was fortunate to read it early one morning sitting by a beautiful picture window looking out over the snowy Alps, “a perfect patience of mountains”.
I had spent a considerable amount of time the night before disturbed in part by noises outside but mostly troubled by my own fears and thoughts. I had also been reading a novel, the name of which I will spare you because it was badly written with an implausible plot but nevertheless it had got under my skin and irritated me. Any story, even badly written ones, can act as a mirror in which we see ourselves. So for complicated reasons I had lain awake disturbed, chewing over the things that were bothering me.
At first light I reached for the kettle and my journal. This poem, which I had photo-copied before I’d gone away, was waiting for me and it restored my equilibrium.
Through the poem, I was gently reassured of the immensity of God, his unchanging nature through all the seasons of our lives. The phrase “i am a little church” put me in my place and reminded me that what matters is being open to “God -liness and contentment”. Janet Morley’s commentary on this poem is also very helpful, she writes that it speaks of “being at home in the place where we are … An extraordinary and irony free hymn to contentment with being oneself. It is the external landscape in which the church stands that provides the backdrop to its sense of peacefulness with its existence”. It is the huge story of God, life and the universe all around me sustained by God that reassures me.
It is a poem that simultaneously reminds me of both my insignificance AND my very great significance.
“There is a deep and fitting pride of creatures who have just estimates of their own ‘diminutive’ selfhood and yet, ‘standing erect’, understand their inestimable value in the eyes of God”.