During the summer I visited several cathedrals and greater churches and was struck by the sight of some amazing stained glass windows. From Malvern Priory’s medieval panes to the far more recent east window at Salisbury focussing on prisoners of conscience, the use of glass and light transforms these buildings. Part of the attraction of stained glass lies in the interplay between its colour; external light and the lighting of the building itself. So each sighting of the glass is a unique experience shaped by things beyond our control.
But like all churches, however ancient and beautiful, these buildings are shells. They point to something beyond themselves. Their purpose is to feed and develop a Christian community. Without some spiritual inner-life they’re just buildings about the past. Despite all their beauty and history unless there is a living presence inside they’re just relics of a former time.
The idea of being truly alive is reflected upon in John 6: 56-69. Simply keeping our bodies going, sustaining our physical structure, is criticised by Jesus: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Jesus seems to be saying that our physical life is nothing unless we’re lit on the inside by a vibrant faith. So the idea of physically ingesting that faith in order to be lit by the Spirit was set out by Jesus – although it was clearly shocking news for some of those who followed him. John tells us that people walked away, unable to accept this teaching.
Sometimes our faith doesn’t feel as if it’s a light inside. Like stained glass, faith can be both beautiful and fragile. At Bath Abbey I was moved by the account of the challenge to restore the massive East window after it was blown out by a bomb dropped in World War II. Members of the Abbey congregation collected up thousands of broken pieces of stained glass and throughout the Second World War these broken glass fragments were kept in sacks. Can you imagine? It must have been soul destroying for those who worshipped there. But those sacks were also a testament of hope that despite a war which had no certain end, people believed that a time would come when the repair would be made. Most of the experts approached after the war said it couldn’t be done. The damage was just too much. But eventually a father and son team took on the work and after the best part of a decade the window was completed.
We all know that faith can be damaged. There are bombs that are dropped in our own lives and sometimes the aftermath seems impossible. We simply can’t fit the pieces back together. We remember the original images, the clear pictures we once saw, but an event has taken that away and it can take many years to piece the bits of faith back together again. And maybe sometimes we need the distance to change an old image for a new one – to fit faith into a new pattern.
The church buildings that fill our country silently tell stories of faith. Some are admired for how they have survived intact for centuries; others are notable because of what they withstood and how they have changed. Either way they remind me that our faith doesn’t always need to be expressed in words. And more than that, the Christian life can’t be truly fulfilled by our own determination or dedication.
What makes us really alive, what transforms us and reveals our beauty, is a light we can’t manipulate or control. It comes in its own time and through what we offer it shines a light by which we are transfigured. We are called to be those lit by faith from within – living a life which in spirit and service poses the question to those outside: “what makes this person like this?” Not perfect, not undamaged, but striving every day – striving with integrity - to reflect in every aspect of their life, the love and colour and splendour of God.