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.
It was brought into consciousness for me in Confirmation classes in my early teens, when my memory is that I was always asking questions, which were always taken seriously. My secular education never raised the questions that I was asking, but I continued to ponder them in my walks in the woods and in my meetings with the young priest who’d led the confirmation classes. It was he who suggested that I might think about getting ordained. Several years later I knew that that was what God was calling me to.
Looking back I’m intrigued that I trusted that sense of call, which came as an inner knowing. But of course many people have a sense of inner knowing about what their calling is, although most would not describe it as coming from a divine source. Many of them know they should trust it and do so. Some are able to earn a living by it, others cant but instead follow it in their spare time. There are pluses and minuses with both. The minus with earning a living following my vocation was that the institution that employed me, in time circumscribed how I was able to pursue it The plus was that I served a formative apprenticeship that nurtured a range of gifts and experience.
I continued at school, a year on Voluntary Service Overseas and then at University, asking my questions but with no one to talk with about them. It was a spiritually lonely time that I sense left me with an empathy for others who are spiritually lonely. But I did become friends, on VSO, with a woman teacher, a bit older than myself, from whom I learnt, by osmosis, of the importance of prayer. And at University studying theology for the first time, I was blessed with two influential tutors: Eric Heaton who nurtured a love of the Bible in me, and David Jenkins who was always encouraging the asking of questions.
I spent two very happy years at theological college, mulling on what I felt that I’d learnt from my degree course in theology, & having time to explore the arts: I read lots of novels and poetry, visited art galleries, and listened to a lot of music, discovering a deep spirituality in all of them, which has continued to nourish and challenge me. With hindsight I’m astonished that no attention was given to my call experience, there was no encouragement to reflect on what it might be telling me about God and the ways that God might speak to me & to others, and no notion that a central role for any priest was to encourage people to recognise their own ‘calls’ and to take them seriously as of divine origin.
What would I have done if the Church had not confirmed my call? I don’t know. I don’t believe that the call would have gone away. How I might have explored that other than through being ordained, I’ve no idea. I’ve always thought of the priest as a creative artist. I don’t know where that idea came from, but in my imagination I’ve sometimes wished that I’d had the skills to be an artist or a poet or even maybe a singer, but I don’t. I was clear that I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wasn’t bright enough to be an academic. I did wonder, soon after ordination, if I was called to be a monk, but knew that I wasn’t, because I knew that the answers to my questions & my calling needed to be found and lived in the midst of the everyday lives of ordinary people, not apart from them.
VSO taught me the wisdom of trying not to take my own agenda with me to wherever I was sent, but rather of trying to respond to the agenda of wherever I found myself. My Biblical studies led me to revere Amos & Hosea, and especially Jesus, to whom God spoke through the events of ordinary everyday life. These two insights dovetailed into each other: you take no agenda, but wait & pay attention to what God reveals. Thirdly I had learnt to trust my own intuitive inner voice as God‘s way of addressing me in the midst of life, to take it seriously, and to trust it, even though it sometimes led me to act in ways others didn’t understand. At some level I knew all three of these things prior to Ordination. So at Ordination where my brothers all seemed to have a clear idea of what they would be doing in the parish they were sent to, I did not. ‘I have no idea what I shall be doing, but I’m sure that God will make it clear when I get there’ was my attitude, with the implication that I’ll know it when I see it. There were some words of TS Eliot and a Russian Orthodox prayer that meant a lot to me then, and still do.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
Wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
There is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing TS Eliot
O Lord grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to rely upon Thy holy will
In every hour of the day reveal Thy will to me
Bless my dealings with all who surround me
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day,
with peace of soul, and with firm conviction that thy will governs all.
In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings
in unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by Thee.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.
Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day, with all that it shall bring.
Direct my will
Teach me to pray
Pray Thou Thyself in me. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
With hindsight, I think that Ordination was important as an external validation of my sense of call, which then set me on the path that provided the context within which I explored what it meant and where it might lead. I’m grateful to the Church of England for that, and for the most part enjoyed parochial ministry, learnt much, & found it fulfilling. My curacies and years in the inner city gave me time ‘to walk in the woods & ask my questions’ although opportunities for conversations were more rare. In suburban Surrey external, and some internal, pressures to be active and busy largely eliminated reflective space although I did begin to explore the ministry of spiritual direction. Then a personal crisis left me feeling lost & in a dark hole, from which I was rescued when ‘God spoke’ to me: “I love you, accept you, and trust you, all will be well.” It was an experience, the like of which I’d never had before, and I knew that I had to ‘set it at the centre of my life and live out of it’ without much idea of what that might mean.
However, I discovered that most people claim to have had a religious experience like the one I had had, but rarely speak about it. That led me to recall my original sense of what my calling was, only in addition to my questions I now had a life changing experience of God, and I had found spiritual direction. Now I could name the priesthood I had been called to incarnate: it required me to take my own spiritual journey under God seriously, and to support others in theirs. When I shared this with my Bishop he replied that what I was talking about ”had nothing to offer to the serious business of running the church.” I knew then what I would have to do. So, after over twenty years as a parish priest I stepped out into an exploration of priesthood outside the structures of the Church, under The Annunciation Trust, an exploration that has now lasted nearly thirty years. For most of that time I’ve seen myself as having one foot inside the church and the other outside it, but two years ago I returned my Permission to Officiate to my local Bishop, in part because I no longer needed it, no longer being used in the local parish and having asked for my name to be taken off the Diocesan list of spiritual directors when it was reorganised, and partly because I sensed that God was calling me to explore what priesthood might mean if I was set free of an increasingly inward-looking church structure. Rationally I didn’t need to return my PTO to do that, but intuitively I knew that I wouldn’t feel free unless I did. It has felt like a wonderful liberation.
After 50 years, I’ve been wondering about what God has revealed to me on this journey into priesthood, what I’ve learnt? When I wrote it down, I found to my surprise that there was more there than I’d expected to see. I was also intrigued to notice the means by which revelation had taken place, not for the most part by rational thought. Rather, its come in two ways: first by my awareness of being sometimes addressed by God from outside myself, and second from my awareness of insights arising from within me. These two ways are distinguishable in theory but are often less easy to distinguish in practice. I don’t think that matters: it’s the transcendent God beyond me, and the immanent God within me: two facets of the same divine reality.
Its this wisdom from God that is my ‘guiding star’ in the most important areas of my life, and I’ve come to realise that this probably makes me a mystic, and to to say that is to put a name on something I’ve known deep down for a long time. But naming it feels an awesome and presumptuous responsibility. I wonder why this insight has come to me now? And what difference it makes? Probably none at all.
“A Mystic is a person who claims to attain, or believes in the possibility of attaining, insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy.”
“The main difference between mysticism and mainstream religion is that mysticism says the key to salvation is to raise our state of consciousness. The key to our salvation is found inside ourselves and we have everything we need internally to manifest this goal. Mainstream religion says the key to salvation is found outside ourselves, even in an external church.”
I have struggled with this insight. Mystics are people like Rumi and Hildegard of Bingen, people completely out of my class. But then I thought: on the one hand Rumi and Hildegard clearly had their mystic moments but they must have gone about their daily business much like anyone else; and on the other, everybody has mystic moments: most have religious experiences [see ‘The God you already know’], and all of us are guided in our decision making more by our inner wisdom than rational thinking: our ‘inner knowing‘ guides our choice of partner and friends, our choice of work and hobbies, probably the specific place where we live, the clothes we wear, the furnishing of our homes etc. There’s a rational component to these decisions obviously, but our inner knowing is usually the driver. So we are all mystics to some degree, we all have that dimension to us, and it can lead us into ever deeper truth when we learn to trust it. It may be stronger in some than others, some may nourish it & use it more extensively, but its there in everyone. These thoughts make it easier for me to own & accept the mystic in me.
Elizabeth Goudge wrote: “Oftener than not what we call beginnings are fulfillments of things set in motion a long time ago…”
TS Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”
I’ve been on an interesting and as yet incomplete journey. I began asking questions of God and life, and was blessed with a friend who encouraged me to do so, and have been similarly blessed ever since. It led me into institutional priesthood within the Church of England, and then out of it into something that’s felt richer, wider & deeper: first a free-lance ministry with one one foot in and one foot out, and then into an exploration of a ‘feral priesthood’ to all creation. And now I see that, like an increasing number of people, I am a mystic, and that I’ve always been one. Its been a shock to name it to myself but it seems to fit, it explains a lot, and having named it I can see it everywhere.