Tending the Sacred Lamp

The Rev. Father Brendan E. Williams, CMR

When I arrived at The Bishop’s Ranch this past November and walked into The Chapel of St. George again after five-and-a-half years away, a small but powerful symbol was born in my mind: the rekindling and tending of the sanctuary lamp. (The sanctuary lamp is the lamp that’s kept burning in the chancel near the tabernacle, symbolically marking the living Presence of
Christ in the reserve Sacrament).

As I began tending this lamp, making sure it was burning continuously through the days and nights of winter, I was reminded of the monastics among my ancient Gaelic Ancestors who for centuries tended the sanctuary flame of their newly integrated Catholic Christian wisdom—along with their pre-Christian ancestral inheritance—and carried it through the bleakness of Europe’s Dark Ages. In a quiet way, I began to sense an old ember glowing anew in the sanctuary of my own heart: a revitalized sense of mission, not just for myself, but for the Church at large.

After two years of the hard realities of living in a global pandemic, and struggling to find answers to the difficult question of how we as the Church—in an already somewhat fragile and declining season of our collective life, made more acute by the circumstances of the pandemic—might seize this moment of liminality and institutional dissipation as opportunity rather than detriment, and move forward not just sustainably but meaningfully into a future of renewal. It seemed to me in my first months here, in the late fall and winter of 2021, that at least one dimension of such a way forward was being revealed: Keep the sanctuary lamp burning. This became a kind of axiom that I returned to daily—an anchor, a comfort, and a new small window into Presence.

What does it mean, exactly, to keep the sanctuary lamp burning? I think it means many things, but firstly it implies carrying something sacred into the darkness of grief and hardship; it means to shelter a flame of love and faith and commitment while old institutional structures dissolve, to carry a flame of Divine Presence from the spaciousness of contemplative praxis into the broken world of human endeavor. I think this latter point is of particular value to all of us in the Church at this historical moment. D. H. Lawrence once said that the ancient adventure of Christianity has ended, and our job in the Church now is to find a new purposeful venture. I tend to agree with him. And I strongly suspect that for us to have a truly meaningful future as Catholic Christians in the West, in which we provide something of genuine substance and unique value to the world, we will have to tend seriously to the transformative capacity of our Christian contemplative tradition and its attendant mystical theology. This will necessarily involve us in training our individual and collective selves to something genuinely transcendent; it will anchor us in a commitment to wisdom and interior transformation, whatever else might be unfolding or unraveling around us. This is an
approach to Christian spirituality that has traditionally been preserved by monastics, though I sense that now it’s time for that legacy to be transmitted fully to the rest of the Church—for the sanctuary flame to be brought out from the enclosure, where it was quietly preserved, and spread among the people like the passing of the Paschal flame at the Great Vigil of Easter.

At the very core of the Ranch as a place of gathering is, I think, a contemplative impulse: one that is profoundly wedded to the Land, and one that bears distinctly monastic markings. From past hermits who once lived on the Ranch property to the Franciscan Friars who ran the Ranch
through part of the 1970’s and 80’s, there is a spiritual stream in the DNA here that, as a monastic, I’ve felt very at home stepping into; and I can’t escape the feeling that there has been some pregnant possibility of deeply contemplative and monastically informed spirituality incubating below the surface, waiting for the right moment to be revived.

These are possibilities—heard faintly on the wind, but held closely in the heart—which I am committed to tending as chaplain and monastic-in-residence, and which I am eager to invite others to explore and step into, in Spirit’s own time. I pray that we might all, as a community, come to explore and tend to these possibilities together—not for our own sakes, and not even just for the sake of the Ranch itself, but also for the world at large, for all sentient beings, and for all who might cross the threshold of this sacred space we have been entrusted to steward. May the venture be beautiful.

Peace and every blessing,
Fr. Brendan+

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