Special note for people who started the course in June 2020: For you, this page is session 5 of the seven-week course – skip the introduction and scroll down to the heading ‘This week’s theme: Womb. Next week you’ll get back into sequence by doing ‘Tomb’, and finish with ‘Emmaus’ the week after.

If you are starting in July, this is your first session. It seems appropriate to take this session at the beginning for people who start the course after the government lifted the ‘stay at home’ order of early lockdown.

Welcome

Welcome to Radical Presence. Each of these seven sessions takes a scriptural theme as its focus, illustrated by a short bible reading. Each time there will be a couple of other readings, or visual contemplations, from both Christian and secular sources. If you can read these articles beforehand, you will find them helpful – other members of your group are likely to refer to them when you meet.

However if you are under additional pressures during the pandemic, do not let preparations become a burden – in fact it will be helpful to your fellow group members if they are given the opportunity to relate what they have read to you. If you should want to do some additional background reading, we recommend browsing the Radical Presence Facebook Page – and you are welcome to share to it relevant articles which you have come across.

Before joining your first meeting, please check with the Get involved page to ensure that you are ready with the technology. When the first meeting comes, it’s helpful if you can launch Zoom about 15 minutes early, to check that everything is working properly. Please also open the links below ready for use. You can then leave your computer with Zoom running (and your microphone and camera turned off) until the start time.

Introduction

Things will never be the same again. We stand on the threshold – and in the coming sessions we shall lean over it to see what lies beyond. For a world already at a tipping point, Covid-19 is an unwelcome jolt. What follows can only be imagined.

Imagining is what we are here to do, as we look into the future through the lens of the Reign of God.

But first, we will pause and reflect on our own journey over the past few months, recognising that experiences have varied enormously during this time for each individual. It could become a vivid memory about which we will reminisce to our grandchildren; it could be a besetting trauma we long to forget. It continues to be some, or all, of these while some rules of social distancing are still in force. We have all being constrained and challenged in different ways, and we continue to be so, as we learn to live within ever shifting boundaries and circumstances.

This week’s theme: Womb

Reach for your own memories of Spring 2020. The experience of early lockdown may have been a time of trial; it may have been a time of grace. For some, perhaps there has been a sense of seclusion or release from our usual obligations, others have had the increased pressure of home-schooling or working from their kitchen (or both!). Some have been called out of themselves to work sacrificially on the front lines of social care and essential services. Many, particularly if self-isolating, shielding or pushed to the margins of our society, have faced increased loneliness or stress.

It may be too early for the experience to have taken root, but in due course we may remember lockdown as a time when we were receptive to change, when we developed resilience and character, and sensed a calling or vocation as we learn more about ourselves. Perhaps those discoveries are continuing as this time of disruption goes on.

The Alone Together website contains a lot of short videos and interviews, to help people who are struggling to adjust to new routines. Dom Christopher Jamison of Worth Abbey recommends not trying to do so much, taking a breather, practising gratitude and establishing a daily rhythm. 

The Helpful Reflections page on the website contains a poem called “If you can’t …” that gently calls us to let go of frustrations, to look within and examine our relationships, virtues, and capacity for love.

In the articles for discussion this week, Rebecca Collins Jordan likens “sheltering in place” to a form of vocation and a chance to “reframe reality”. The second article is a theological reflection based around the painting of the Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi. It invites us to cultivate a space where, like Mary, we can be “active and outgoing” to the Spirit of God. Try to read these articles before the group meeting.

And if you have time this week, as preparatory reflection, you are invited to use one of the two ideas below to help you to withdraw and make space – mentally, emotionally, physically – to be ready to listen and change.

(1) Visio divina on the annunciation

Spend 10 minutes with this guided contemplation of Fra’ Filippo Lippi’s painting The Annunciation. It can be explored online with magnification here on the National Gallery’s website. This process can be described as ‘visio divina’ – the visual version of the contemplative approach to reading the Bible called lectio divina.

Settle down for 10 minutes. Look at the picture with an anticipation that God might enliven something in it for you. Be aware of what draws you in, what intrigues, what excites. In reading scripture we often look inwardly for what God seems to be drawing our attention to. In this, we would try to become aware of what in a picture might be speaking to you of God and God’s ways. So, we could start by just looking, and being open to what God might impress upon our hearts.

(2) Video: ‘Notes to a novice’

Watch this three-minute video, Notes to a Novice, with simple advice on coping with isolation. In it Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk, shares insights from his life following ‘the monastic way’. Reflect on which of the three simple points he makes speaks most to your current experience.

Preparatory reading and reflection

Our Bible text is Luke 1.26-45, which includes Elizabeth’s words to the pregnant Mary.

Two relevant articles for this session are The cloisters of our homes: shelter-in-place as vocation by Rebecca Collins Jordan, and Annunciation in a time of isolation, by Dr Steve Taylor, which studies the painting above, Fra’ Lippo Lippi’s The Annunciation.

Opening liturgy

Each session opens and ends with a liturgy. It includes invocations and prayers of intercession, for which we suggest that a leader and the other members read alternate verses.

Together with all in Christ, we wait
Come Holy Spirit; soak into our deepest being
We reflect together with all your people
Come Holy Spirit; breeze through our staleness
We will hear the scriptures together
Come Holy Spirit; fire up our imaginations for good

There follows a moment of quiet, and an extract of this week’s Bible reading:

‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. (Luke 1.42-44)

Questions for exploration

We will begin this session by introducing ourselves, where we live, and how we heard about Radical Presence – just for two minutes each.

As with every session, introduce yourselves briefly, if you have not met before, and find a volunteer to summarise your group’s conclusions for the record of ‘key thoughts’.

Scan the questions below, and see which you’d like to respond to first. As in all of the seven sessions, feel free to wander around the questions provided – don’t feel you have to tackle them in sequence.

  • How was the experience of ‘deep lockdown’ for you in the early Spring of 2020? Did you find yourself growing in a new understanding of yourself, your vocation and your world?
  • Our groups will include those who live alone or with others, or are required to go out to work. Whichever applies to you, we have all been constrained in new ways at this time.  How have you felt about being at home, or away from home? If you are confined to home, do you feel isolated or just restricted? And how do you feel about the divergence between those who are isolated and those who must go out to work?
  • Rebecca Collins Jordan finds the ‘monastic way’ of routine and self-discipline helps her embrace ‘living in community but also living deeply alone’. What practices or routines have you found yourself taking up during this time, and what might you develop further?
  • Steve Taylor notices that in Fra’ Lippo Lippi’s painting of the Annunciation, ‘this narrow space that is the hope of a new creation is conceived in the four walls that enclose Mary’.  Have you found any creative potential in the recent confinement? What talent, gift or project might you be called to nurture at this time?
  • How do you experience this time of emergence, with all its uncertainties, risks and opportunities? What do you fear losing? What changes are you noticing in yourself, and the world around you?

If necessary, in the last half-hour consider practical questions and arrangements which need to be agreed for future meetings, such as how and when to meet in future.

Closing liturgy

A closing liturgy has been prepared for each session by Andii Bowsher, each modelled on the Lord’s Prayer. Please use as much of it as time allows. Here is the liturgy for closing this session.