Lord, you have searched me out and known me… Psalm 139

Where did you get to know me? (Nathanael)… John1:48

I don’t know what I believe about God. I know what sort of God I don’t want to believe in. And that’s the sort of God who works by doing strange kind of deals with people. Deals that split up families and hurt people. I should know because I was caught up right in the middle of a deal with God.

There was once a woman who so longed for a child that she made a deal with God. “Grant me a son, Lord” she prayed, “and I’ll give him back to you!” That woman was my mother, Hannah, and when I was born, she named me Samuel, which means ‘to ask’. My mother was true to her word, she rejoiced at my birth, she loved me, nursed me, enjoyed me and taught me… and then gave me up to be a servant in the temple at Shiloh.

People kept coming to Shiloh. It was a place of pilgrimage. It was a holy place. But something had changed. People couldn’t find the light of holiness there like they used to. They couldn’t hear the still, small voice of one as familiar as the closest of friends. God seemed to have become an absent landlord, who had taken himself off, shut himself up in a silent and invisible heaven.

Eli the priest was a very old man, and pretty much blind. He showed me the rituals of work in the temple, rituals that had become automatic, maybe they had become empty and meaningless even to him. I became his hands and his eyes. His sons would take over the work when he died. I saw, as did many others that their belief seemed to have disappeared. They didn’t seem to have respect for this holy place, for those who came to worship, for the women they worked with. They had no respect for their father.

I got used to the pattern and rhythm of life in the temple. During the day time there was always noise – singing, chanting, the murmur of doves, the twitter of sparrows, words reaching out over hurt people. At night the silence was solid black. I slept on the floor, with the only light being the glimmer of the sacred lamp, that burned continuously, like a single, watchful eye. Sometimes that light felt comforting, sometimes it seemed relentless, searching me out, asking me questions I didn’t want to hear.

The night the voice came, calling me by name it seemed so familiar. I presumed Eli needed me for something, needed something to ease his struggle with the darkness. He claimed he hadn’t said anything and sent me back to bed. The voice came again, sounding like a dream in which my mother was calling me. I went again to the old man. “I did not call you” Eli said. “You are dreaming a lot tonight.” Back I went, and hardly had I shut my eyes once more and tried to shut out the insistent temple light, than the voice came once more, urgent and insistent. Once more, feeling rather foolish, I went to Eli, for who else could it be? Eli paused, as if straining to listen himself for the absent God he no longer saw or believed in. If he was angry or jealous, I didn’t detect that in his voice, as he gently told me to go back to my bed and if the voice came again I was to let myself listen further, I was to be prepared to let the questions come, I was to be prepared to let the light show me the way.

My heart was beating so loud it was hard to listen for anything else. I don’t know what I believe or want to know about God, I thought… and yet there is something amazing and powerful about hearing yourself called by your name. The name given to me by my mother Hannah. The name that means ‘to ask’. I realised how much she still loved me. I realised how deeply she had wanted me, and asked for me. I was a living sign of her generosity, her love, and maybe a living sign of God’s love too, right here in this place of darkness and light, silence and noise wondering and praying. I don’t know where the voice came from – out of the gentle darkness of the temple, from the glow of the sacred lamp, out of the most distant star light, or as close inside myself as my own heartbeat. I listened, and tried to let go of the need to know answers to the questions of what was happening to me. I was known. Maybe that could be enough.

The sun rose, and I got up and opened the doors of the house of God to let in the sun. A new day dawned, and though I did not know what all this meant, I felt the touch of hope. Eli called out to me, and listened to me. The old man nodded, and turned his unseeing gaze towards an unknown future. “Know that God is good”, he said, “Let it come.”

inspired by The Jesse Tree © 2003 Geraldine McCaughrean, Lion Publishing

Long shadow on garden of Burnham Abbey - a place I know and where I am known.

Long shadow on garden of Burnham Abbey – a place I know and where I am known.