Last Sunday I had the opportunity to share lunch with a friend @ Dim T in Victoria – what I refer to as the Chinese version of Wagamama. After lunch we went for a ramble in St James’s Park. At the end of our walk heading back to Victoria station she informed me of the beautiful interior of Westminster Cathedral and that it was worth paying a visit, then bidding me off to her next adventure. My own insecurities made me think this was her British polite way of telling me that she probably had enough of me. Feeling a little dejected I headed into Holland & Barratt to compose myself as I was also feeling a little bit lost in translation, wondering where the station was and yes in Victoria. After 2 years in London, I still cannot claim to be a Londoner.
After gathering myself and introducing some positive thinking with the help of a phone call from my friend advising me that she had given me the wrong direction to Victoria station, I decided to take a look inside Westminster Cathedral. I was bombarded with smiling faces of people emerging from the chapel and on enquiring as to what was the occasion I was told that it was a ‘rite of passage’ service – an induction into the Catholic faith. I actually did a course in Catholicism earlier last year which would probably make my evangelical friends hair stands on end. That’s another story to tell.
As I entered the Cathedral, being faced with numerous columns, my first impression I must confessed was ‘ghastly’! It reminds me of the Roman Empire. I texted my friend to let her know my thoughts to which her reply was ‘Well if you don’t count the columns you won’t get dizzy’. Probably another polite way to get rid of me. Anyway after several texts and on seeing a small chapel – the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament to the left of the main Sanctuary I decided that it was worth visiting and the columns may not as ghastly as I initially thought.
The amazing thing about a small chapel is its peacefulness. It is so small there is no place to roam forcing you to sit in silence, reflect, light a candle and or engage in private prayer. On leaving the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament – the name signifying that this is where Blessed Sacrament ‘reserved’ – kept in the tabernacle after consecration at the various Masses which occur day by day; my eyes caught two mosaics on either side of the arch – one was a bird of many colours (which I later learn is a phoenix) in a fire and the other was a peacock. I was intrigued by this and wanted to know what this signify. Immediately I sought an explanation from a priest, one was busy darting about the room and the others talking to people. Where’s a priest when you need one? I thought. I then decided to join the queue for the priest doing the ‘golden handshake’ at the door who greeted me along the lines of ‘Bless you my child’ and Lord, did I need blessing! There’s he thinking that his work was done. I then continue to bombard him with questions about these mosaics.
Before I continue with my story, I must first tell you of my earliest experience of a priest to which probably still shaped my interaction with priest even today. When I was only 9 or 10 years old I decided to get baptised into my local Anglican church and in order to do that and to participate in taking communion we had to attended confirmation classes. During these classes I bombarded my priest with questions on where in the bible I could find whatever he was referring to. You must realise that in such times the Bible was not present in pews as they are now in most churches only at the altar for the priest and for readers. I was just a very curious child who probably had a thirst for God’s word but my priest fail to see my priest fail to see that and told my grandmother that if I did not stop asking questions he would throw me out of the confirmation class! From such a tender age I learnt two things;
- Never stop asking questions.
- Priests are only humans
Incidentally I always seem to attract priests and have been blessed with many great priests and friends who are. I am probably still fascinated and have an ulterior motive to unmask the humane side of them.
Maybe God does have a sense of humour in my vocational journey but there’s another story to tell.
Now let’s get back to my encounter with the priest at Westminster Cathedral. Angelically I said, ‘Father, I am intrigued by the two mosaics on either side of the arch of the small chapel. On one side there is a beautiful bird as if escaping from the fire and on the other side is a beautiful peacock; I was wondering what this represents?’
‘Well’, he said, the peacock is a symbol of immortality and the bird on fire probably signifies the Holy Spirit’. I went on to explain to him that the bird was not a white dove but one with many colours and it was alive and flapping his wings in the fire and I was wondering if this could be representing persecution. At that time I did not know that the bird was a phoenix; I discovered this later in my research.
‘Well’, he says, ‘Persecution result in immortality’, and I thought what a wise priest! His remark was quite profound and I decided to let that stay with me than rush off texting my friend about the treasure I found in Westminster Cathedral. During my walk back to Victoria station and my journey home I thought of Christ’s experience leading up to the crucifixion and the glorious result – the resurrection.
Persecution breeds immortality? In further research I discovered that in Christian art the peacock is used as a symbol of immortality, the hundred eyes of its tail-fan symbolising the omniscient God to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hidden.
The phoenix was first introduced into Christian symbolism by St Clement of Rome, as early as the first century. This mythical bird was said to renew its life every few hundred years by burning itself on a funeral pyre. It was often put on gravestones to represent the resurrection of the dead and belief in the life to come.
Apart from the crucifixion and the resurrection I started to reflect on my whole experience during the last two years living in London. I am not claiming persecution as we hear in the news but there have extremely hard times and we need to be reminded that persecution can mean to oppress or harass with ill-treatment, especially because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or beliefs. Probably a lot of my experience was my own doing or as James Alison puts it I was in rivalry with God. However, this experience have shaped my character, strengthened my faith and allowed me to come in contact with some amazing people. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28).
My interpretation of the phoenix on fire was at first persecution and then refiner’s fire – renewing its life every hundred years by burning itself and attaining new life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matt 5:10)
David in Psalm 143: 3 cried out to God and said ‘For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath smitten my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead.’ (KJV)
When we chose to follow Christ we not only share in the joy of the resurrection but the suffering of the crucifixion.
“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.” (Job 14:11)
In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true: Death swallowed by triumphant Life! – 1 Cur 15: 53-54 (MSG)
The refiner’s fire is an act of love – a spiritual purification. Refining is a process by which everything else is removed and only the pure metal remains. God desire for us is to be pure gold – to be holy as he is holy. His intent is not to destroy us but to purify us. At times His method is like the intense heat of the refiner’s fire. Our response is to either allow Him to work in our lives, cooperating with Him removing that which is impure or we could resist or rebel i.e. to be in rivalry with God. It is during these times we must remember that God is not in rivalry with us, He brings us into being causing us to flourish more than we’ve ever been.
‘I will bring that group through the fire and make them pure. I will refine them like silver and purify them like gold. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘These are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.'” – Zech 13:9 (NLT)
I am learning not to resist or rebel against God’s refining fire, not to run away but to learn from the tough times and look for ways in which God is using my difficulties to refine me.
Thus the gain of life brings death, the loss of life brings salvation; for by the sacrifice of this short life we gain the reward of immortality. (Catena Aurea Volume I – Part I The gospel of Matthew)
One of the most common symbols of that glorious resurrection for the entire Easter Season is the lily (lilium longiflorum). Jesus loved lilies!
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these. — Luke 12:27
Pure gold and beautiful as lilies – that’s the result of the refiner’s fire and the glorious hope of the resurrection!
My concluding prayer is this;
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory,
my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.
I return it all to you and surrender it wholly
to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace
and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.
(St. Ignatius, from the end of the Spiritual Exercises)
May the peace of Christ be with you
Now and forever. Amen !