One of the significant pluses of a ministry in spiritual direction is that I frequently find myself having fascinating conversations with wise and interesting people, who inevitably, sometimes, in the course of our talking, mention words, music etc that have spoken deeply to them and which in turn I find speaking deeply to me.
One such is a piece of writing by Jenny Gaffin, an Anglican parish priest in the south of England, entitled ‘Wildflowers’. Its in an anthology of readings ‘The Bright Field’ edited by Martin Percy and Jim Cotter.
She writes of:
“Churches, up and down the country [are] constructed with the eternal glory of God firmly in mind.……..They are grand monuments to confident faith, holding the collective memory of our small communities and our national life. It is self-evident, even to the non-believer, that these places are special and sacred.
“So why do my own prayers rise, only to feel as if they are netted in the elaborate tracery, or trapped by the all too solid stone?” [feeling] ashamed, she asks herself how much of her time, and that of her clerical colleagues, will be taken up worrying about the maintenance of these buildings, “how much of our best creativity is yet to be poured into ever-more-elaborate fundraising schemes; how many nights’ sleep will be lost in what must ultimately be a futile bid to keep the building intact.”
“Outside, the wild flowers grow…Tenacious and resilient in their moment of glory, they bestow upon future generations not the illusion of permanence, but the possibility of newness…..Here is generosity and humility in the extreme: a flamboyant celebration of life, and a complete and free acceptance of death. And here is sacrificial giving in its fullness: the shrivelled seeds flung out into the wind, with utter trust, utter abandon.
“Walking through the fields my heart at last bows in prayer, unencumbered, and I return inspired. To give of self with such abandon, to die with such grace: this surely is a poetic and beautiful response to calling, for the individual and for the church.”
Jenny writes of her living with this tension. On the one hand she knows that “out there in the fields, the wildflowers have become my icons; drawing me into new depths of freedom in prayer; and daring me to follow their lead, in embracing the life-releasing glory of anonymity and impermanence.” And on the other “Back in the church I love so deeply, even as I worship I know that a part of its core and mine is dying and perhaps has already died.” What should she do?
I shared Jenny’s words with a friend who is a retired parish priest and a Third Order Franciscan, and he wrote back:
“I have just read and re-read ‘Wildflowers. I think Jenny puts her finger on a dilemma faced by many thoughtful Church folk, not least parish clergy, who feel the burden of preserving the church building that has been handed on to them, and feel also that it ought to be the centre and bedrock of their spiritual life, but find that God may well be more accessible in places outside the church building.
It makes me realise too, just why Francis set his face against building permanent houses for the first Franciscan community!
It also reminds me of what Tony Benn said when he retired from the House of Commons, that he gave up being a Member of Parliament so that he could concentrate on politics, I sometimes wonder if the time might come when it is necessary to give up being a Tertiary in order to discover what it means to be Franciscan.”
Or whether the time might come, has already come for some, when it is necessary to give up on the institutional church in order to discover what it means to be a Christian? All this reminds me of my thinking about ‘feral’: ‘feral priesthood’, and indeed ‘feral Christianity’ about which I’ve written before on this site, where ‘feral’ was defined as being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication” rather like a wildflower!
Jesus, of course was ‘feral’. He exercised His ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which He had grown up, and by implication challenged it. So did Francis of Assisi. So do increasing numbers of men and women today: and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. It is one of the joys of spiritual direction to see someone escape the domestication of what they’ve been taught they should think and do, for the freedom of what they know deep down themselves. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose.
But not all are being called to go ‘feral’. Some clearly are. But others are just as clearly called to stay firmly within the institution. A third group is made up of people like Jenny, who feel called to have a foot in both places. And, of course, our calling may change in the course of our journey.
To go back to Mary Oliver, none of these journeys is easy, each has its peculiar gifts and trials. And these different journeys are not in competition with each other. No one is ‘better’ than the others: all are necessary. Maybe, the question that many of us are being asked as 2016 comes to a close, and 2017 awaits us, is: ‘To which journey are you currently being called, and are you willing to set out on it?