14. God in the midst of life
If God is love as the Christian Gospel proclaims, then wherever love is God is. Wherever love shows itself, there is God to be known. Wherever we recognise, are encountered and overwhelmed by, love, there we have been met by God. It is as simple as that.
- A Civil Partnership
- Married to a Hindu
- Being a Granddad
- Entering ‘Liminal Space’
- Sabbatical Space
- Leaving the Convent
- The Solitary Life
- At Work
Falling in love with another human being, in whatever way that may happen, is very like falling in love with God: indeed it is a falling in love with God. The pattern is much the same: the initial wonder and excitement, the perception of the other as perfect and without flaw, the longing to be with the other always and the consequent pain at separation; and the rosy view of the rest of life that all this engenders, followed by the gradual realisation that it is not all quite as simple as that: the other does have failings, faults, and habits that irritate. They do not, and indeed appear to be neither able or willing, to meet all our needs. There are sometimes some almighty misunderstandings and arguments, not to say blood rows! It is sometimes good to be apart from them. Love is a hard, demanding slog for much of the time.
And all of this is true both of our human relationships and of our relationship with this loving God Who seeks relationship with us. No wonder that so many of our pop songs that deal with the ups and downs of falling in and out of love, actually make rather good prayers and hymns. Why do specialist hymn writers bother I sometimes wonder? It’s all there in the love songs of the age.
OK I hear the counter argument: that God’s love is distinctly different, richer, and deeper, than anything we can receive from another human being, and that religious experience requires, demands even, a special category of verse and prose to describe it adequately. I agree that there is truth in that. But I still maintain my point. If God is love then wherever love meets us then there we are encountered by God, and to fail to recognise this, to keep the love of God to a special compartment of our lives into which other areas may not enter, is significantly to misrepresent the God of whom Christianity speaks. It does talk, does it not, of an incarnational God: a God Who gets involved with the messy business of human living and reveals Godself through it and in the life of a particular human being. Our reflections earlier of the God Who meets us through the pages of the Bible led us straight to such a God. One Who rejects being found only in the special religious activities of the few, and insists on encountering us through the everyday and the ordinary. A God like that Who seeks us in a relationship of love, cannot but be met significantly in our loving human relationships. Surely it cannot be otherwise?
So learning, from life’s humblest beginnings to its uncertain end, to receive and to give love, is not only of the essence of being human, but being so, it is also where we most simply encounter and are encountered by God. In learning to cope with love’s failures, regrets and mistakes, we may grow deeper into love with the Source of Love itself. We move from one incarnation of God’s love to another, and are most often surrounded by many of them, for the loving God incarnates Godself in love in every relationship we enter.
So, one of my favourite prayer exercises is to remember and celebrate all those whom it’s been my pleasure and privilege to love and to receive love from, throughout my life: these are the men and woman who have incarnated God to me over and over again. They may not have done it perfectly, I certainly have not done it perfectly, but I salute them as sons and daughters of the God of love. Interestingly, it’s probably best that none of us have done it perfectly, for if we had we would think that we had nothing else to learn and would almost certainly fall into pride. And one of the hallmarks of incarnational love is its humility.
In this chapter I have invited a number of our friends to reflect on the nature of relationships, to wonder what they have learnt from them and where and how God has been encountered through them. I’ve also asked friends to look at several other important areas of life. There is one piece on liminal space which is followed by two examples of people entering such a time, as one left a convent and another began retirement.
Some of those here you may know personally, but you may reflect differently on them, others may be new to you. We are not suggesting that these reflections offer the way to reflect on these things, and each writer could surely have said more given the opportunity, but that they offer a way. Hopefully they will offer ways which stimulate deeper and renewed reflection on your own experience? You might like to write something for your own personal benefit.
Finding a home for all our desires is one of the challenges on a spiritual path. We desire many things that we are told are not wholesome or grown-up. What has been true in our culture is that it has been difficult to make a home big enough to hold our desires for God and our sexual desires.
The word ‘sexuality’ can have a number of meanings bound up with identity and desire:
- Gender: male, female, trans-sexual, trans-gender …
- Orientation: straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual …
- Relationship status: single, married, civil partnership, celibate …
- Desire: for physical contact with one or more other people, for solitude …
In each of these, the church has guidelines for what is ok: certain forms of sexuality are acceptable; others less so, even “intrinsically disordered.” Those who fall outside these guidelines (and I suspect this is all of us, for we all desire what is not ‘allowed’) may harbour a number of reactions:
- I may feel guilty and ashamed of my sexuality;
- I may feel alienation from the group of those I perceive as being pure and free from wayward desires and lifestyles;
- I may think something is wrong with me;
- I may grow angry and rejecting towards God, those who make pronouncements about what and who I should be, or towards myself.
A conflict arises between sexual desire and desire for God. And yet so many of the same words are used for both; classical spiritual writings often talk about desire for God with the same language as the desire for a human lover. The Song of Songs is a classic example.
William Blake wrote, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” [‘The Marriage of heaven and Hell’] It seems to me that we have to walk a narrow path between murdering the infant of our desires (squashing and ignoring them) and nursing our desires (indulging and acting them out). It is simply not possible to rid ourselves of desires. To try to do so is a kind of violence, and there is already enough of that in the world. Home-making of the Soul means to welcome all our desires, for those desires we turn away from the door or put in a box in the cupboard have a way of coming in by other doors, unannounced. Only when a desire is welcomed into the home can responses and choices for action be discerned.
We fear that if we admit to our sexual desires, we will sully ourselves, or that action will necessarily follow. Neither of these things is the case. So, what to do?
The most important step is to be myself honestly with God – to be gentle, tender and compassionate with myself, trusting in God’s love, acceptance, understanding and desire. The usual things are helpful in this: praying, journaling, drawing, sharing with a friend, and so on. What can help is allowing my desire to have a home in me, feeling it in my body and, prayerfully, meeting it with compassionate silence. Then I have the possibility of being a home where the whole family can live in peace.
This is not to ask and hope for change, for “hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” (TS Eliot East Coker) It is simply no longer to separate who I am from God. In truth, I neither know who I am, nor do I know that God loves who I am, but God knows who I am and loves me. I must trust that God will do with me, with my sexuality, what gives me life.
Celibacy isn’t for the fainthearted. It’s for the wholehearted who want to include as many people as possible in their loving. For me, it isn’t about absence, or avoidance, it’s all about inclusion and risk. And Passion. Is that a bit shocking? Surprising? Positive?
I am talking about chosen celibacy, in the context of a religious community of Anglican sisters, deep in the East End of London. The context in which I live out celibacy is important, as it forms one of the vows that a sister takes at profession, or life commitment. I have lived in community for 20 years. I continue to be a sexual being, as everyone is, but I choose not to express this genitally.
I am aware that celibacy in this day and age is counter-cultural , and can be viewed as something that “sad” people end up doing because they can’t find a partner. It can be seen as a “failure” of some kind, or something imposed. It may be surprising to realise that some of us, men and women, choose it as a form of life that suits us best. I don’t think it works if it’s chosen to avoid sex or deny sexuality or because no other opportunity arises, but I can only speak from my own experience. This doesn’t mean it’s an easy option if it’s a positive choice. There can be moments of intense alone-ness and questioning- I wasn’t joking about the fainthearted. Those are the moments I know that God is ultimately all I have, and I need to trust a lot more than I might be doing in that moment. It can be a painful place of self revelation. Prayer doesn’t allow you to lie to yourself about what or how you are feeling and why you are feeling it.
So, having chosen this path, what does it mean for me? Sexuality and Spirituality are closely linked, and one of the elements I believe links them together is passion. Your treasure is where your heart is, and it’s that driving energy that needs using well. So my choice is, where do I put my passion, or energy and enthusiasm, in response to the invitation of God to be the human being that I am meant to be, and to help build The Kingdom here and now? The key lies in where my focus is. Again and again I am drawn back to God. He/ She is irresistible. There lies my passion. Because of who I am, if I were to be focused exclusively on the happiness and well-being of one person I couldn’t give much attention elsewhere. I would be quite distracted. For others it is quite the opposite, and living in an exclusive partnership enables them to embrace God more fully. Ideally, what celibacy does is give me the freedom to give of myself in various places in my day to day life, whether in community living or in my ministry outside the house. It opens me up to other people rather than closing me down. It’s a liberating choice, letting me be as generous as I can with my time, attention and energy, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t have deep friendships- I have close friends, both men and women, who are very important to me and my sanity!
The risk is that to grow I have to keep choosing to be open hearted, and that leads to a certain vulnerability, but I think it has been a risk worth taking, which for me has lead to joy.
A Civil Partnership
I share William Stringfellow’s practice of not regarding prayer and words as especially related or mutually dependent; indeed, I share his view that much of what passes for Christian prayer is inimical to its true character. I view prayer as a mixture of attitude, method and action. It is not that I don’t use words, at times, as prayer: I used them only the other day when undergoing a surgical procedure which made me anxious and I still make explicit and urgent requests for help when fearful or distressed, for myself or another.
This mixture of attitude, method and action will not surprise those who have seriously thought about prayer. The attitude arises from the context, which, for me is a decision to live in the belief that God ‘is’, and ‘is’ as pointed to by Jesus in the Gospels and by the most persuasive parts of the tradition. The method is to view all that I do as either contributing to God’s way of doing things, or frustrating that. It applies to any and everything, from cooking a meal to running a multi-million pound organisation. And the place of ‘action’ seems to me important. I don’t mean it in any ‘Action Man’ way of heroics but simply the claim that what we say we believe is either affirmed or contradicted by what we do.
And ‘prayer’ can surprise us by making its presence apparent when it’s the last thing we think we are doing. A little while ago Stephen and I registered our Civil Partnership, soon after this became possible, in England, for same-sex couples. We had lived together for sixteen years and had much earlier reached the stage, which many will recognise, of loving each other in ways that are deep, familiar, challenging, reassuring, full of gentleness and humour and which have both the sense of real permanence and the freshness of a gift newly received every day. We were supported by a network of friends. We had no special need of the state’s recognition, but saw it as a wise step in order to protect the other by acquiring the various rights (such as next-of-kin status) which marriage gives those who are permitted to enter it.
The actual experience of our civil partnership – the event of the ceremony and the subsequent effects of that step – were, far and away, far, far more significant than I had expected, and as I now see it, above all else, an act of prayer. The State allows no ‘religious’ texts but we had slipped in under the Registrar’s radar Thomas a Kempis’ writing on the nature of love. The making of public promises to each other turned out to have a reality and an impact I had not expected. I am unable to explain this, except to note these elements. Over the years we have been together, I had made promises to Stephen and he to me, occasionally explicit but mostly implicit through the ‘simple’ business of loving one another. Now, the State was willing the hear and recognise these promises, and to confer upon us the same rights and obligations the majority take for granted. There was a powerful sense of ‘attitude, method and action’ – the elements I regard as present in prayer – coming together. I cannot convey the joy or significance for us, or the sense that this was, in that serviceable Quaker phrase – ‘in right ordering’. In very ‘right ordering.’ The fact that the Church, in its institutional form, had adopted a position of disdain towards its gay and lesbian sons and daughters undertaking such a step was merely a regret rather than an affront, for the church in its essential character – its baptised members – was present. This officially illicit (but actually real) part of the Body of Christ was met in a municipal registry office to celebrate the greatest of God’s sacraments, the one which the Thomas a Kempis reading concisely expressed in its very first sentence: Love is a great power, a great and complete good.
Marriage is one of the toughest spiritual paths around. It’s a struggle; the rewards are immeasurable.
I’m not very good at being married – at the sharing and negotiating involved – and my current wife is not my first. I am an introvert; my wife is an extrovert; we have children: I struggle to balance intimacy, responsibility and solitude. Having God as a third person in a marriage isn’t always helpful: where one might look to the other for pleasure and support, I also look to God and want time with God. I struggle with all this.
Having lived alone for significant chunks of my life, learning to share my life – decisions, space, money, etc. – is an unfolding of where love and justice take me. For example: I work full-time and earn all the money. This is a decision we took so that our pre-school children have a full-time parent. I had to struggle to be generous enough to put all ‘my’ money into a common account and to lose control over how it was spent: how money is dealt with is emblematic of many aspects of a relationship.
I think there are two fundamental challenges in any committed relationship. The first is to learn about and delve into being together, to find out what it means to be a couple, that ‘these two are now one’. Other people, and my spouse in particular, think, pray and act differently from me. This leads me into a bigger world, one with a broader acceptance. It is a world of home-making, of fitting around and together, of learning about and accommodating difference, of dealing with the wounds from our first families. It is slowly coming to see that this other is God, is Christ: s/he is what God is doing in my life. It is the comfort of presence: this warm body is God present, here, now.
Some of the most graced moments are when I uncover some deeply pained part of myself and I bring it, with cupped-hands, honestly to another who receives it with complete acceptance: here is the crucial connection and identity between the other who is my spouse and the Other who is God.
I used to cherish time alone as my time with God. I still do, but now I know much more clearly that God is always and everywhere, and that every moment is an opportunity to recognise and act within this. If one has lived alone for some time, perhaps it is letting in another person and losing oneself that is the greater challenge. My life is not about me. I am not that important.
The second challenge is to find out who I am as an individual. I remain forever a loved child of God, a creature “on a kind of extended emergency bivouac,” (Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) and I still have my own journey of discovery and home-coming to make. It is a growing realisation that God is me, that there is nowhere else to go. Rilke warns against lovers who “keep on using each other to hide their own fate.” (Duino Elegy No.1 translated by Stephen Mitchell Picador 1987) If one marries early, or has never lived alone, the first challenge is the formative process and the second comes later. I have met people who married young, have ‘never had a night apart’, and for whom the separation due to illness, aging and death reveal a gaping lack of identity.
Either way, there is a lot of dying to be gone through if one is to undertake marriage with integrity. To strive to be whole both as an individual and a couple is an achievement.
Married to a Hindu
I married a wonderful guy who happened to be Hindu which took me and many of my more conventional evangelical Christian friends by surprise. It was not the thing I was taught would progress my Christian walk but it has. It took me to a place of finding ‘my God’ rather than one that was passed on to me by others however well meaning. – My God I have discovered wants us to be happy, to live according to His Word as best we can without the burden of guilt.
I find my prayer life richer for having married a Hindu. I tend not to be complacent about needing God in my and our lives. It is just down to me to ensure that the regular prayer happens.
I go to the Hindu Temple with my husband and children as well as to my own Church. We had a naming ceremony in the temple and a blessing in my church. All the family attended both. I can remember, early on in our life together, sitting in the Temple thinking ‘What do I do now?’ and deciding that I had to take responsibility for my own faith journey.
Being a Christian (however you may define it) and marrying a Hindu, has brought challenges to my Christian life. People ask if I would have done things differently. I fell in love and I see God in our marriage, what else could I ask for?
We do not pray together as a couple, my husband would not want to and our interpretations of faith and prayer are very different. Sometimes it seems recognising and respecting difference can bring more unity than some false sense of praying together just because a Christian group or tradition says it is ‘a good thing to do’. I have never asked my husband to come to church and when he has come, it has been of his own volition and this works better for us. In fact at church, because, I guess, it is less intense I do feel we can be side by side and ‘pray together’.
I ask God to be with me when I visit my husband’s temple and that God will be walking alongside the children. I pray with my little boy every night, to thank God for the day and to bring any worries he may have to his Father’s feet. And yes I do pray for my husband but not in an incessant, obsessive way. I simply ask that he may know God as I do whatever form that may look like to the outside world. I have learnt to leave all that to God.
In writing this, I have realised that being married to someone of another faith has strengthened my own by taking me on a journey which few I know have embarked on. I have needed to find my own ways to maintain and strengthen my faith and prayer life. It has pushed me to go beyond my own evangelical background to explore other ways of finding and relating to God. I have also learnt to appreciate my husband’s faith and. his Hindu faith community. It has strengthened my appreciation of church since coming to church, often on my own, can be like ‘coming home’ and a precious a place for me.
My journey to motherhood and subsequent experience of it have taken me to emotional limits, expanding my sense of self. It was nine years after we started trying for a baby that our eldest was born and we waited a further five years for our twins. These were years full of hope and despair in equal measure as we experienced the wonders and traumas of intrusive medical attention and the heartache of two miscarriages.
The drive towards motherhood was, for me, overwhelming. Ongoing failure to fulfil the impulse was charged with questions about my womanhood and sense of purpose in life. These are not logical but entirely emotional and no less significant because of that. There were times of overpowering darkness, the sort that might smother and destroy. The struggle for me was not to go under but to come out the other end, whatever the result, not only in one piece but stronger. There were the obvious feelings of hurt and sadness, failure and powerlessness; the pressure of living with uncertainty, always hoping but never being sure. These were painful emotions but the real demons were those lurking in my shadow side with which I became increasingly familiar: feelings of jealousy, rage and resentment. I was ever conscious that these had the power to destroy and embitter me. I did not want that to be the sum of my life and I prayed for the strength to be spared this.
In all this, God was never far. Not as an all powerful miracle maker but a loving presence: holding, carrying, being along side me. I grew increasingly conscious of a God who had put creation into motion before standing back, allowing it to take its course, freely and without restraint, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. I was feeling the down side of God’s gift of free will through the limiting of his powers in creation. In life, I believe, there is good and there is bad but there is always the possibility for good to grow out of evil. So whilst of course I beseeched God to hear my plea, at a deeper level I prayed for strength to bear the burden. And all the while a still small voice within me whispered that I should be patient and that all would be well. I hoped for a wish fulfilled but clung on, in trust, to the notion that something after all would fill the void; if not motherhood, then something else.
In the event, on a Wednesday afternoon shortly before Holy Week, my long Good Friday gave way to Easter morn. The elation of motherhood and the relative calm of a house with one small child has, since the arrival of our twins, developed into deep contentment not withstanding the chaos, noise and disorder which are an inevitable part of life at this stage. There is little time for quiet reflection or focused spirituality but there are moments in which my life makes complete sense and glimpses of how perfectly faith can sustain me. Once again I encounter new emotional boundaries: anger and frustration can in an instant give way to overwhelming love. The potency of these emotions is for me particular to my experience of motherhood and I wonder whether they mirror something of the nature of God’s love for us.
There is all too little emphasis on the motherhood of God in the Christian tradition yet it offers rich potential. One persistent theme stresses the sacrificial nature of God being like that of a mother. Sacrifice suggests something that is painful and difficult, involving a heavy cost. Yet at its best, a mother’s sacrifice is borne willingly. Love for my children and the pleasure they give me, can replace or at least surmount the worry and guilt, the pain of letting go, the frustration of losing my sense of identity and all the other difficult emotions that go with motherhood.
My brother died when he was 24 and I have watched my mother live with the loss of a child. It is perhaps the hardest pain and has made me more conscious of the fragility of life and how we can never possess our children. My three are gifts for me to cherish and nurture and I hope that they in turn will travel life’s journey free of constraint but in the knowledge that they are loved. My children have given me the gift of contentment thus bringing out the best in me. Yet motherhood is a humbling experience which also continually exposes my weaknesses and failings. Each night I pray that despite my shortcomings my children will grow to be happy and secure. For through it all I love them with a passion that reflects for me something of the wonder of God’s love for her creation.
Life with two young children now aged 5 and 3 has been exhilarating, exhausting, stimulating and challenging and has given me some of the richest, most intense experiences of God I have ever known. Having children has left no part of my life untouched – it affects everything, from the time I wake up in the morning, how I drive (more defensively), the clothes I wear (baby sick is notoriously difficult to get out of clerical corduroy), and what I eat. It doesn’t seem too strong to talk about the experience as a kind of conversion.
Not much of my experience through this particular conversion has had much to do either with church or to spending long periods of time in silent contemplation. This is fortunate because small children (or mine anyway) aren’t especially given to spending long services in church, still less, time in silent contemplation. There are many different features of my conversion and here I want to touch on just two: dispossession and delight.
The experience of dispossession has been an important part of what my children have brought to me and their presence in dependence and independence profoundly challenges my sense of self-possession, the ownership I think I have of my own time, energy and resources. In one sense my children are highly dependent and need me in some pretty concrete ways to help them do even basic tasks. This kind of dependence forces me to abandon a picture of myself as an autonomous, self-possessed individual. At the same time my children are highly independent in many ways, they are not simply clones of me, we don’t think alike on many issues(!) and they have their own priorities, friends, likes and dislikes. Their independence thus resists fiercely any possibility of me turning them into my possessions, of owning them.
Dispossession, at times, has been a painful process, as the truth that children bring, exposes my limitations, selfishness, and self-centredness. The surprise though, is how joyful much of this process is, a willing dispossession which, though not particularly voluntary, enlarges and enriches me, eliciting reserves of energy, patience and love that I didn’t know existed before. I am sure that God chooses many different ways to prise us away from our obsessive owning of things in order to learn to love, and being dispossessed by the presence of your children is but one.
If all this sounds a little negative, there are many times when I take delight in my children. My most powerful experiences of delight are when I see them enjoying themselves and utterly absorbed or lost in what they are doing. They have an ability to focus with a single-minded abandon which awes me and of which I am envious. If only, I think, I had something of that same focus and abandonment before God.
My experience of delight is not the same as feeling proud of them or willing them on to do or achieve something, it’s somehow deeper and more intense than those other feelings. It leaves me wondering when it is that God most delights in me. Does God most delight in me when I am busy achieving things, leading worship, or serving others? My experience with my own children suggests that God most delights in me when I am taken out of myself, lost and absorbed in something I enjoy doing, however trivial or serious. For someone who is strongly motivated by ideals of service, duty, and achievement this is a severe challenge. My children remind me that God’s love for me and delight in me does not depend upon my achievements, that beyond every calculation of merit or desert, I am loved and delighted in.
Of course, experiences of dispossession and delight are not unique to parent-child relationships but are part of all of our significant relationships. However, my children have focused these experiences for me with a clarity and intensity I hadn’t known before. There is still much I need to learn about being dispossessed by a God in whose service is perfect freedom, and delighted in by my Creator in whose image I am made.
Being a Granddad
Spending time with young children, as an older person, is rewarding and beneficial in ways that I have found surprising. It is just great to have excuses to play, to tell stories that move so easily into complete fantasy with a captivated audience. We can fly or see fairies or have whole families of pretend animals who all talk and do unusual things. This, for me, is something of the freedom of being a child that Jesus spoke about. It brings me a new sense of God’s kingdom by releasing my imagination and allowing me to enjoy all of life’s possibilities. It is not an exaggeration to say that being with my grandchildren is for me a prayer that touches the very character of God.
The whole experience of being ‘a granddad’ was itself a complete surprise to me even though, since my wife and I have children of our own, it should have been anticipated!
Reflecting on this now I realise that grandparents did not feature greatly in my family experience. I suppose it was not something I had thought about before. I only knew one of mine and she died when I was five. Our children only knew one of theirs who died when they were quite young too.
Possible the experience of having three granddaughters has been all the more powerful and precious because of this. On the debit side I have seen what I missed but this is far outweighed by the current experience. I remember the day I realised that I was entering into a new relationship. Since I had not known a granddad of my own I found I could make up mine own version of the role. This has been a creative and interesting time unhindered by any baggage from the past. I have found it stimulating and freeing.
My granddaughters are 18 months, three and four as I write and are of course all totally beautiful and delightful!. I share with my wife some of the child minding responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. I have watched the effortless learning of language, seen the great in-built desire to learn and develop and create relationships. It has been truly awe inspiring although, of course, I did see this before in my own children. Somehow, second time round, these things are more emphasised by having more time to be with them and also realising how short is this part of their lives and hence how important it is to grab every moment.
It was a while ago when I realised that having grandchildren in my mid-sixties means that there is a good possibility that I will not live to see them as adults. This was different to my own children where I expected to see them grow up and could to some extent look forward to an adult relationship and hence not always value what was happening in the moment. With my grand children the relationship I have is ‘it’ and I value it the more for that. It has helped me to live ‘in the moment’ and I have found that a spiritually rewarding experience.
Young grand children have added a new dimension to being unconditionally loved for who I am. Perhaps part of this special appreciation is due to my age. At a time when inevitably roles are reducing in terms of career it is somehow amazing that the little person just wants you to be around and squeals with delight to see you – not because you are clever, powerful, wise, etc but just because you are her granddad. A very moving experience of unconditional love easily translated into God’s love for us.
I am a church pastor and value church and all that it can do for me and for others. I have spent a good deal of my adult life trying to make church the best experience I can for all who come. I believe that, for me, it is important, but if I had to choose, I would choose an evening with a good friend or friend(s) talking about faith, rather than a church service. When the ‘chips are down’ I would go to family and friends to find God.
I can recall the experience of coming to this startling conclusion. I had just finished conducting a service in the church I belong to and I felt it had gone well with a sense of God’s presence. It was a week when the church stayed to lunch together so there was work to be done in the kitchen and I was happy to be there generally helping. As the group of us worked together and laughed together, I realised that this was even better than the service!
Looking back at that moment helped me to see that some of my own struggles with church were not really about the church, but arose because I went to church primarily for relationship and interactions with people of faith. Sometimes the church service gets in the way of the interactions I personally need. Often the standard sermon, whether preached by me or someone else, can be quite frustrating when what I really want to do to find God is to talk and discuss with other people. I find myself just waiting for the coffee time to find God!
To me the relational space between people is sacred space and God is there in the humanity of that relationship. I am always moved at airports when friends, families and lovers greet each other, and the masks of restraint slips for a moment to show the sacred space that relationships occupy. The hugs, the kisses, the squeals of delight, celebrate something of what it is to be human and hence something of the God who made us.
I have been a pastor and a spiritual director for many years and have come to see that the interactions with others are one of my significant sacred spaces. It brings me close to God and to a type of worshipful prayer, as words are used to express the inexpressible, and through the words, analogies, and metaphors God shows through. I invariably receive more than I give during these encounters. I receive something of the Incarnational Christian God through others which I believe, is reflected in the sayings of Jesus such as:
I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. [Mat 25:45]
For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. [Mat 18:20]
These verses resonate with my experience that relationship and interaction with others touch God.
Having relaxed into this realisation makes for an exciting time. It has changed the way that I preach now, with much more interaction, so that ‘preaching’ is probably not the right word anymore for what I do. I have found that I am happier preaching like this.
Also God can appear through others at any time and place: in the supermarket, in the pub, at work, on the train, and at the airport. God can appear when human beings reach out to another in their humanity. A railway station, a hospital, a market stall can all be sacred places.
Entering ‘Liminal Space’
Some years ago I felt myself to be called by God to leave parish ministry in order to explore a different way of being a priest. At a weekend I led for another parish I remember being introduced as “a man who is about to jump off a cliff,” and indeed it felt very like that. Here I was leaving a job, a house, a stipend and a pension, just about everything, and for what? I could not have told you, because I was not at all clear myself. All I had was this strong sense that this was what God was calling me to do. It felt very scary. But it also felt as if God had me in a corner and there was really nowhere else for me to go. So I jumped off the cliff. Most people thought I was crazy, but friends gave me their trust and support.
There is a story of a man who also fell off a cliff, and fell for some distance before catching hold of a tree growing out of the cliff-side. He hung there precariously. He looked down, and it was too far to consider dropping. He looked up and there was no way to climb back. He had always considered himself an atheist, but reckoned that if ever there was a time to try God this must be it. “Are you there God, I need help?” he shouted. “Yes” came the reply, “just let go and I’ll catch you.” “Is there anybody else I can talk to?” Silence.
These liminal times come to many of us at some point in our lives. We are clear what we don’t feel is the right thing to do, we sense that we might be being called to do something else, but we often can’t name what it is, we can’t see it. We are being called to let go and to trust: trust our own inner voice, our own intuition, the voice of God, call it what you will. It feels scary: having just to wait and to trust, and to live with the not knowing. The temptation is to go back to the familiar, to stay with what we know. The temptation is to rush to fill the empty space with solutions and frantic activity.
These liminal times come in all manner of ways. They may come in mid-life as it did for me, when we become aware that life is nearly half over, death and old age await us, and we are not at all sure that we’re in the right place doing what we feel we should be doing. Perhaps we find ourselves asking the questions about the meaning of life, and of what God might be calling us to be, that we had last wrestled with when we were much younger.
They may happen because tragedy strikes and we face loss in one form or another: we are struck down by a serious illness: an important relationship comes to an end and we have to face the future on our own. They may happen because we lose our job or an important role we held. They may happen at retirement. They often happen to women when their children start school, or leave home, and suddenly there is a space to find themselves once again, or even for the first time!
They may be fuelled by a deepening sense of frustration, anger even, that where we are in our lives right now is simply not right. It sometimes seems as if we need a head of anger to build up in us to get us to face the possibility of taking the risk and trying something else. Or they may be fuelled by a vision we have that simply won’t go away and which we know deep down that we have to honour.
However they come, it is rarely of our conscious choosing. It seems as if something comes from outside of us and seeks to take us over. We have then to choose whether we follow it or not. Whether to trust or not. Whether to trust ourselves and God, because they are often two sides of the same coin. Put like that it is of course a gift, but it doesn’t feel like that when it comes and we are in the midst of it. And of course it may be right to let it pass by: to know that this is not the right time for us, or that we are not yet ready: this also is possible.
I had been thinking about giving myself a sabbatical of three months for some time, and as I’m self employed I can technically do that easier than most. I say technically, because it isn’t that easy to set aside three months when you know that you wont be generating any income, and to trust that it will be OK. But I sensed that God was calling me to do this, so encouraged by friends I took the plunge.
First of all I put a line through three months in next years diary: that was going to be my sabbatical space. Then I asked myself “What would I like to do during that time? I could do whatever I wanted. There was nothing I had to do. And a bit to my surprise I quickly found that I could make a list of over half a dozen things I wanted to do on my sabbatical. Even more surprising, I found that when I had written this list, it was as if someone switched a switch on inside me and I felt a surge of creative energy rising up within me, at the prospect of being free to do these things.
The sabbatical was still almost a year ahead of me. But I discovered that marking off the time in my diary and making a list of how I might use it, began a very creative process in me. It gave me permission to begin to do some of the things on that list now. In fact by the time the sabbatical began I had either done the things on my list or they had ceased to seem important. Other things had emerged that actually were what I spent my time with during my precious three months. Moreover, during the months before my sabbatical began all sorts of bits of synchronicity occurred, as ideas and intuitions surfaced within as to what deep down I needed to do on sabbatical.
I have had a sabbatical before, many years ago, I add defensively! And I’d talked quite a lot of people through sabbaticals, so I knew some of the basic advice:
- You will be surprised at how tired you feel when it begins. We keep going until we stop, and then suddenly the weariness catches up with us. The wisdom is that you have to let your body recover, and don’t try to do anything much until your body tells you that it is ready. You will have no difficulty recognising when this occurs. I know this, but I still found it frustrating when I had had nearly six weeks of sabbatical and still had no real energy for anything. But quite suddenly it lifted, and I was then amazed by how much happened in the time remaining.
- It’s good to start with a holiday, to mark to yourself and to others that you are entering a different period of time.
- Its good to have one project prepared for your sabbatical, but leave plenty of space around it, because the really interesting things probably wont surface in your consciousness until the sabbatical in under way, and you will need time and energy to attend to it when it occurs.
- Plan to give yourself a few days off about two or three months after the sabbatical is over. Let this be a time when you can look back on your sabbatical and wonder again at what it taught you. One of the deadliest problems with a sabbatical is that within a week or two of being back in the old routines, you will find that you have forgotten all the wise advice you learnt on your sabbatical. So these few days gives you an opportunity to stop that happening.
Ideally of course, once your sabbatical is over, you decide when you will have your next one, and then you make a list………….
Now you are probably saying to yourself with some exasperation, that this is all very well for people who can take several months off, but you simply cannot do that. But you can, you can! You may not be able to take three months off. But you can surely give yourself one day a week off, or a couple of hours a week off, or half an hour off each day? There is a Biblical principle remember of having one Sabbath day each week.
And you surely can start to make a list of what you’d like to do if you had got three months. And having named those things to yourself, there is surely nothing stopping you [except yourself] from beginning to do some of those things in a small way now.
Leaving the Convent
Eight years ago, I was living in a convent, and struggling. It was the wrong place for me: I felt isolated and at odds with the people with whom I was supposed to be living in communion. I was fighting a daily battle against my own unexpressed anger which threatened to plunge me deep into depression. I experienced black despair, panic, and chronic insomnia which left me exhausted. I needed to leave, but was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to cope alone.
Living in a convent, prayer was never an optional extra. How many times did I drag myself to the oratory, to mouth words I didn’t mean and resented having to use? Did the real prayer happen at night – alone in the silence: the anger, the fear and the desolation laid before God? Again and again in my journal for that period, I come across the words: ‘underneath are the everlasting arms.’ I clung to the belief that God was holding me: always there.
Eventually, inevitably, I reached the point of deciding to leave. The only reason I had not done so sooner was my terror of stepping out into the unknown alone. Despite fear, the decision felt right. When I entered the community, I saw it as a handing over of myself to God; leaving felt as though God was handing that self back to me willingly. Still it was hard. As well as the practical issues of finding somewhere to live, finding a job, coping with financial insecurity, there was the emotional insecurity of being completely alone in a strange place. I had never lived alone before, and I didn’t know if I could do it: I just knew I had to try.
Initially I sought out church as a means of establishing contact with people rather than maintaining contact with God. I didn’t really know how much contact with God I actually wanted. Stuck on the wall of my bedsit I had the words: ‘Be still and know…’ A Christian friend asked me why I had not completed the quotation: ‘…that I am God.’ I tried to explain that I did not need, or want, God to be spelt out. God is implicit in the knowing, as God is implicit in all things; there was no need to draw attention to that. I was not praying at that time. I attended church sporadically, often finding it made me homesick for what I had left. There were times (there still are) when I was angry with God; there were also times when I wasn’t even sure that God existed at all. Yet I still needed God. One of my earliest acquisitions was a prayer book, though it was some time before I was ready to use it. Even when I thought I didn’t believe in God, I must have been still, at some level, aware of those ‘everlasting arms’ holding me. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t pray: God took care of that for me. I say that because, looking back, I find that I have forgotten just how painful the experience really was: rereading my journal for that time was actually something of a shock. What I remember is the positive: the generosity of so many people who helped kit out my tiny kitchen; the encouragement and support of friends; the fact that I did survive and learn to enjoy living alone; and the warmth of the relationship that I still have with the sisters in the convent.
I’m writing this piece six months after retiring from a management post in a public sector organisation. I hadn’t intended to retire quite when I did, but following yet another re-configuration of the management structure I felt it was time to cut loose and see where I would be led. Being given the space and opportunity a few years earlier than I had expected was my big chance to find out.
As I write, I’m perched with my laptop in a tiny room on a residential weekend designed to introduce the mysteries of Christian Theology to a group of ministry students, of which I’m now a part. I’m on another journey, quite different from the one in the world of “real” work, and one whose destination is as yet unknown to me.
Leaving work behind and adjusting to a new way of being has not been without its challenges. I’ve enjoyed work’s rough and tumble with its human relationships and the feeling of “making a difference”. But even as I’ve grieved for the loss of my role I’m becoming alert to new possibilities. God has always been around in my life to a greater or lesser degree but often I’ve shut him out, wilfully refusing to acknowledge that he’s knocking on the door. It’s been more convenient somehow – after all, who knows what I’d be given to do if I turned fully and looked him in the face! Yet here I am on my doorstep daring to enter into dialogue with the one who’s so persistently tried to get in.
In letting go and entering into the Space, with time and trust, both new and long buried forms are emerging into my consciousness. In my former life, I was at the helm and firmly in control. My work life, and by virtue of this my personal and family life, was well constrained and directed by the requirements of the job. Hence I could create valid reasons to ignore God’s invitations – I just couldn’t fit him into my busy schedule! In my reflective moments I now sense God has despaired at my rebuffs and so has been instrumental in creating the space for me to accept his invitation. This makes me sound more important than I feel; why should God be at all bothered with little me? Only God knows the answer to that one, but his persistence is very seductive and his call is becoming increasingly hard to resist.
So here I stand on the edge of the Space. I’m well versed in planning; it would be easy to revert to old habits and create the God Project to fill the space. It would be easy to jump into any number of new ventures and goodness knows there are many to choose from. But I risk squeezing Him out again if I do this. So I won’t. With his support I’ll wait. And listen.
I grew up with a real awareness of God. It’s easy to connect with the Creator when you live on a farm. I guess you could say that my sense of vocation first grew out of that awareness of God who creates: creation has a purpose. We are all born with our ‘purpose’ deep within us, and as we grow and develop we discover more about how we can live this ‘purpose’.
As an adult I grappled with trying to understand what vocation was, and specifically what I was called to. It began to feel a bit like being one of those Russian dolls, you know, the painted, placid faced beauties, which open up to reveal another, slightly smaller doll nested inside. I felt called to be different things, which sometimes didn’t seem to sit together very comfortably. Sometimes I questioned whether I could really have ‘got it right’ when I found that compromises were inevitable: what about my calling as a mother when my job meant I couldn’t always be at the parent–teacher’s meeting? Could I really make the vocations to which I felt called fit together?
Sometimes it’s easy to compartmentalise life, to think that vocation is only about priesthood, or the part of our lives where we are ‘doing something for God’. I have a card I keep that reminds me that ‘I am not a human doing’, vocation is much deeper than just what we do, it’s about who we are created by God to be. It’s part of the pattern of all of our lives: all of us are called by God to be ourselves. We can get a sense of vocation when we become aware of the things that we do, or the events we become involved in that seem to give us life. But sometimes fear of change (or fear of commitment) can stop us from moving in the direction that deep-down feels life-giving: we have a choice whether or not to try our vocation.
Vocation itself seems to me to be more like being part of a complex dance, where joining in means taking the risk that maybe our steps won’t be quite right until we’ve learned how to move, and felt in our souls the rhythm of the music that called us. It isn’t that each calling or vocation exists on its own, somehow they all interplay, affecting each other in a complex and intricate way. I’m a different priest because I’m also a mother, and my way of bringing up my children has always been affected by my understanding of the importance of the spiritual. There’s an intermingling, and a movement back and forth. To use the dance analogy again, sometimes one theme in the music we dance to is more dominant, sometimes another, but all have their irreplaceable parts in the whole performance.
The Solitary Life
As an inveterate pusher of boundaries, I moved, over a number of years, from a position of sincere orthodoxy to an unsettling search for truth that made sense in the light of my own experience. In the synchronous way in which these things happen, I kept coming across references to the simplicity, silence and solitude that make up the life of a solitary. This life cannot, in one sense, be described because it is expressed differently by each individual. It does, however, usually contain elements of quietness and reflection, a simple life style and a journey inwards towards an unidentified goal which will only be recognised when encountered.
While most solitaries will spend periods of time alone, the solitary life nowadays is often experienced within all the excitement of everyday living as it is in our urban family rectory. It seems to me that the key word is life and that any devotional practice must inform, and be informed by, daily life. It is an embracing of the whole of life with the whole of the self. Thus solitude, simplicity and silence weave into each day.
I choose to begin the day while the house is still quiet and sit in, or looking out onto, the garden. At present I start by reading a passage from The World Religions Bible* and a page or two from Quaker Faith and Practice** before reflecting for a while on them and how they engage with each other and my past and present experience. I then move into a time of listening stillness. I do not try to think. It feels like looking through closed eyelids to beyond that place where the butterflies hatch when you are feeling nervous! During this time I hope to deepen my awareness of God. For me this comes as, what I can only describe as, a reverential sensation of connectedness to all that is. I can say with Gloucester in King Lear: ‘I see it feelingly’. Honouring this connectedness leads me to be mindful, that is, trying to be fully present in all I do, noticing the particularity of colours, textures, sounds and relationships with focussed attention and being aware of where I engage or withdraw from what I encounter.
Simplicity involves sitting lightly to possessions and I bear in mind the words of William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. I find it somewhat liberating to take a box of no-longer-useful-to-me objects down to the charity shops for someone else to enjoy. But simplicity extends beyond goods to behaviour. It concerns being aware how much self promotion there is in my conversations, the extravagance of my choices of food and clothes. It covers trying to live sustainably, working for justice – the complications of simplicity are endless! It has also meant that I have had to re-examine my spiritual luggage and lay aside those things which are no-longer-useful-to me in terms of belief or practice. This has the effect of strengthening the truths that remain which, though fewer, can be held with a steady lightness.
Silence comes in many ways during the day and I find it to be as much an attitude as a physical sensation; perhaps it is better rendered as stillness. Even when life is hectic it is possible to have stillness at the core and to work from a clear and sustaining centre. Silence is not of itself necessarily beneficial and there is a world of difference between the atmosphere of a huff and the peace of a quiet evening. It can be an interesting exercise to listen to the positive and negative silences that border our days. Inner silence can be a great friend to the solitary and a companion in queues, waiting rooms and journeys.
For me, the compulsion to explore the solitary life has meant moving away from an established church and joining the Quakers, in some ways a obvious move with their emphasis on simplicity and silent worship. It was also, as I discovered gradually, a very good antidote to the solitary’s temptations of inertia and idiosyncrasy!
*A World Religions Bible Robert Van de Weyer ISBN1-903816-15-7
**Quaker Faith and Practice ISBN0-85245-267-5
There are those for whom their work is like a prayer – one immediately thinks of a craftsperson or any so-called ‘creative’ worker. It seems that their work is an expression of who they are and they find God very much in that. If you can identify with that, then enjoy your prayer.
It has not been like that for me. Sometimes, work has been a means to an end, a way of paying a mortgage or looking after dependants. I have always worked fulltime in Human Resource Management in secular businesses of various sorts, where making a profit is a primary objective. To be honest that was never so much of a problem in itself. But what can tend to go with it is long hours and uncomfortable commutes, bosses who would have done very well directing those slave galleons, cracking the whip as they shout ‘faster, faster!’, and to add insult to injury, having given my soul for the good of the firm, the inevitable restructuring and uncertainty about work and pay.
I have found that long hours without much reflection space, feeling driven to do work which was unrewarding, has left me feeling fragmented, disintegrated and exhausted beyond a meaningful prayer life. In addition, particularly in commercial environments, I felt isolated from other people with faith – it was just not talked about.
I certainly don’t think I was on my own though. A colleague recently gave me a cartoon featuring the ‘Evil HR Director’ being approached by a hapless employee enquiring, ‘Are there any company sponsored programmes for recovery of lost souls – or is it down to the individual?’
If you have responsibilities for others and/or a mortgage to pay it’s not so easy and I’ve struggled for years. First of all you need to notice what’s going on. I have used something like the Review of the Day exercise to at least acknowledge before God that I felt separated from him and also to help me become more aware of God in the midst of my business, stress and fatigue. This prayer only takes about 10 minutes and it’s pretty simple, basically becoming aware of God’s presence and asking him to show me that for which I am most grateful for during the day and also the least. Tiredness still sometimes overwhelms me and I experiment with doing it at different times of the day. Sometimes I still forget and I just have to get back to it when I remember.
I have also used the Sacred Space website, www.sacredspace.ie, in the morning or at least sometime during the day to deliberately bring God into the work space and particularly into difficult situations. How easy it is to simply forget He’s there. Building in reflective space to give my mind a break from endless to do lists, has been an important lesson, particularly if I can make the most of commuting journeys with prayer or reading something edifying. I’ve learnt to recognise that sometimes, more often than I care to admit, the voice shouting ‘faster, faster’ and ‘try harder’, and ‘not good enough’ is my own. I’ve brought pictures or an article which reminds me of my undernourished spiritual side into the workplace to have something lovely to catch my eye. And when too tired to pray when I get home, simply lighting a candle and allowing the Spirit to intercede stops me from beating myself up because of my lack of a meaningful prayer life. No quick fix, I’m afraid but if I can’t get much prayer space during the week, then it becomes very important to make sure I get some space at other times and particularly when I know I’m going off track.