It was a beautiful summer evening, the closing hours of our first day in England. We’d visited gardens overflowing with color and walked the wooded hills and peaceful farms of Devon. I was jet-lagged and tired, finished for the day and ready to return to our quiet cottage to rest.
“One more,” my husband begged enthusiastically. “It’s a high tor, a steep hill on the edge of the wildness of Dartmoor. The views are supposed to be tremendous.”
“Ok,” I replied. “You climb and take pictures. I’ll sit in the car and enjoy the pictures when you return.”
That was our plan. But when we parked by the side of the country road and gazed up the steep slope of the tor, we saw an ancient church tower perched at the peak. Looking up at the distant, apparently ruined church, we suddenly heard bells ringing. “Look,” Larry exclaimed, “Here’s a sign. Evensong Brentor Church Sunday 6pm. This is Brentor, and it’s Sunday, almost 6pm!”
What could I do? The bells were calling me, and I began the climb. It was steep, but a path curled up the slope. A few other visitors were climbing, too. As we drew closer, we saw the old stone building wasn’t ruined, just small and weather-beaten. On one side, a few gravestones stood crookedly erect, and there by the entrance, a casually dressed rector welcomed visitors.
The interior was intimate, with old pews facing the altar below a beautiful stained-glass window. When the bells quieted, we joined the other eight worshippers and opened our bulletin to follow the service: Evensong 29th August 2021. We warmly welcome all visitors.
“What am I doing here?” I wondered. “How did I end up in this tiny church at the top of the tor when I never even wanted to climb the hill?”
Sometimes Quakers describe our silent worship experience as an “expectant waiting.” We expect that some message in spoken words or in the silence itself will be given for us, even if we don’t know we need it. Perhaps this worship, so different from my usual Sunday experience, had something for me, too. What was it?
I listened to the readings and joined in the responses. I sang the hymns (masked, of course) and attended to the message. My strong expectation that something was here for me within this worship called for a deeper level of attention. I listened intently. The New Testament reading included the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) – Blessed are. . . .
Those words are so familiar that they could have floated right by, unnoticed. In that little church, however, I heard them. I discovered that Jesus wasn’t giving instructions, as much as he was making plain statements of fact: The poor in Spirit will find the kingdom; the grief-stricken will be comforted; the merciful shall be given mercy. The Beatitudes outlined a vision, the Christ vision, of life as it is to be.
Evensong ended with a hymn even older than the 800 year old walls that surrounded us – Be Thou my Vision. For at least a thousand years, this much-loved hymn from the Celtic tradition has expressed a passionate desire that we adopt the Christ vision as our own.
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light. Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true word. I ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord....
“You be my eyes.” is what I really sang. “You be my wisdom.” is what I really asked. With every line, I was acknowledging my need for a larger seeing and a deeper wisdom than my own.
The words carried a powerful message for me because I often forget how much I need the vision and wisdom, the guidance of the Spirit. It’s sometimes easier to depend on myself (my own thinking, my own seeing) and forget to attend to the Divine Guide. That Sunday evening, sitting with the small congregation at Brentor, I remembered. And I sang the words with a full and grateful heart.
It’s been almost a month since the Evensong service. i’m at home in my busy daily life, not on vacation anymore. I know, however, that there are still bells ringing, bells that invite me to come and see the world as Christ saw it, that remind me to draw from the wisdom that is more than my own thoughts.
The invitation of the bells appears in many ways in all our lives. May we pause and pay attention. May we climb the hill and experience the vision from the top.