My friend Colin and I have met regularly to talk over many years. He retired early as his wife Joy was not well, and as her illness progressed and she was confined to her bed, he became her full-time carer. As he could no longer visit me I started to visit him at their home. Joy and I knew each other quite well, so one day when I was there I asked her if I could sit and talk with her for a while. She agreed and we ended up talking for most of the afternoon, to the surprise of both of us. Thereafter our afternoon conversations became a regular part of my visits.
Last summer I was reminded that the autumn would mark the 50th Anniversary of my ordination, and that prodded me to think about whether I should mark it and if so how. A personal review seemed like an obvious thing to do, but I reckoned that might benefit from some outside questioning. So I wrote to people who’ve known me over the years in a variety of different contexts, explaining what I hoped to do, and asking if they’d “be willing to help me by offering a thought provoking question? Any question they liked.” I ended up with a very stimulating set of questions. I mulled them through the autumn, wrote a considered response in early December, and shared it with all who’d helped me. Their reactions encouraged me to then publish what I’d written on this web-site. That in turn has led to quite a few comments, either posted on the web-site, or expressed to me personally. Some people have found that particular things that I wrote resonated with them, others have been prompted to consider a similar review of their own callings. With the latter particularly in mind it seemed that it might be useful if I published the questions, hoping they might stimulate others as they did me.. So here they are, in the order in which I received them. Please bear in mind that they were offered with respect to my ordination, so if your calling is other, you’ll probably need to adapt them.
After William Shakespeare, John Mason
and John Cage’s musical composition 4’33”
I loved your silence, your sun;
as birdsong bathed the stillness
I dreamt that blazing star could
purge by fire unimaginable pain
seared by your reign of terror
every tribe and caste.
I loved your silence
your air that was good to breathe more freely
disguised too thinly your murderous
poison sliming through flesh and soul
masking truth, demeaning hope,
stealing touch from human kin
and dislocated lovers;
a smoke raised with the fumes of sighs.
I loved your silence
it made a home in me; a nest
where I could curl and brood
the warmth of human love
enriching shadowed lives.
A sea nourished with loving tears.
Farewell dear year,
a madness most discreet,
a choking gall,
yet a preserving sweet
has marked your almanac.
Let dust in dust and silence lie
I loved your silence
I loved your silence
When I first sensed a call to ordination, I naively thought it would mean that ‘I shall have paid time to walk in the woods to wonder about the big questions of the existence of God and the meaning of life, and that I will find myself in conversation with others about these questions.’ Being brought up as an Anglican in a Christian culture, priesthood seemed the obvious means of exploring this vocation. Had I been born into a Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Animist or atheist culture then the means of exploration would have been different but I assume that the exploration would have been similar.
I met Roy Gregory many years ago when we were both members of a group of spiritual directors in Soul Space at Greenbelt. He was the Pastor of Ashley Church in St Albans. We became good friends. He was responsible for setting up The Annunciation Trust web-site, and became our web master. It was his idea that led to he and I editing “The God you already know”. We’ve stayed in regular contact ever since.
The other day I received an email from him, which I’d like to share:
I recently came across a quotation of John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic Cardinal, which I recognised as having truth in it. He wrote:
No revelation can be complete and systematic, [because of] the weakness of the human intellect; so far as it is not such, it is mysterious … The religious truth is neither light nor darkness, but both together; it is like the dim view of a country seen in the twilight, which forms half extricated from the darkness, with broken lines and isolated masses. Revelation, in this way of considering it, is not a revealed system, but consists of a number of detached and incomplete truths belonging to a vast system unrevealed.
I like his image of revelation as “the dim view of a country seen in the twilight……consisting of a number of detached & incomplete truths belonging to a vast system unrevealed” very much. We only see little bits of the bigger picture, yet they are enough to evoke trust, and to give us a sense of what we don’t see.
Yesterday morning was a busy one, and after lunch I was looking forward to relaxing in my shed with a pipe and the chance to finish a novel. But once my pipe was lit I had a change of heart: reading wasn’t right. I played some music and instead sat and mulled. It’s a favourite occupation of mine. It’s definitely not thinking, rather it’s allowing my mind to wander freely wherever it will, a sort of intuitive wandering. Sometimes nothing very much happens, often seemingly nothing at all. But yesterday to my surprise, I found myself mulling about my funeral service. I feel in good health, there’s no sense of urgency, but family members have been encouraging me for some time, to write something down as a guide for when it’s necessary. I’ve put it off, had no idea what to write, but yesterday unexpectedly, and quite out of the blue it became clear to me and a first draft was on the page in no time at all. I have no rational explanation for why it happened thus. The moment just seemed right, and the ideas flowed freely.
I’m going to wander well outside my areas of competence here, armed only with my curiosity and intuition. I’m going to do so because there are several areas of enquiry that have been engaging me, some of them for some time, and I’m beginning to wonder whether they might be connected.
Astrophysicists suggest that around 5% of the universe’s mass is made up of ‘baryonic matter’, matter we can touch with our hands & witness with our eyes & instruments; a little over 68% is presumed to be made of ‘dark energy’ an enigmatic force that seems to be accelerating the ongoing expansion of the cosmos; the remaining 27% is thought to be made up of ‘dark matter’, the particles of which wholly refuse to interact with baryonic matter, so we have no means of detecting it save through its perceived gravitational influence. It emits no light or energy, but is fundamental to everything in the universe, anchoring all structures together. Without it galaxies, planets, our earth and us humans would not exist, yet we know nothing about it. The particles thought most likely to be the constituent of dark matter traverse our livers, skulls and guts in their trillions each second. Its thought that they were created in sufficiently vast quantities in the seconds after the birth of the universe to account for the missing mass. Scientists reckon that to prove and decipher the existence of dark matter, would require us to acquire a whole new way of knowing everything.
After writing about finding the gift in Covid19, I unexpectedly found myself sensing that perhaps I should go on and share the opening section of my current pattern of ‘prayer in the morning’? But I felt reluctant to do so. It’s personal and I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to share something quite so personal. Its what has emerged for me having decided 18 months ago to explore my priestly ministry outside the constraints of the institutional church, and wanting to anchor that exploration in my own pattern of prayer in the morning. In doing so I’ve brought together resources that have spoken to me over the years. So it is very personal. I make no apology for that, but it does mean that it might not mean very much to anybody but me. I am certainly not offering it with the assumption that it’s something that others would feel comfortable using. On the other hand, I’ve learnt to trust these unexpected ideas that come to me, and so after a bit of mulling I’ve chosen to trust this latest one. I do so in the spirit of wanting to encourage others to explore what might be helpful for them their prayer in the morning, rather than assuming that there’s an ‘off the shelf option’ that will be a good fit. There might be, but there might not. If not, then maybe you, like me, already have much of what you need already: the wisdom and resources acquired so far on your journey. It’s a matter of putting them together into some sort of shape, and then using and refining it as you go. Trust that a pattern will emerge that will nourish and challenge you.
With churches closed ‘Lockdown’ provides us with an opportunity to explore new spiritual resources. Church services online are a resource for some, but apart from that we’re on our own, left to our own devices. Some may choose to do nothing, others reach out for a pre-packaged pattern from the internet. My instinct is that we already possess the God-given resources we need and that deepening our trust in them is an excellent place to start.
I’ve personally learnt to relish the chance to trust a rhythm that comes naturally from within rather than one imposed from outside. Mostly its not a matter of learning new tricks, but rather of recognising the value of things that I already do, and nourishing and deepening them.