Category Archives: Beyond Limitation

Touched with ocean

Some years ago Lucy Winkett of St James’s Piccadilly introduced me to the words of Richard Wilbur, the late American poet and lyricist:

‘All that we do is touched with ocean, and yet we remain on the shore of what we know’.

Here at the beginning of three months’ study leave – the not-to-be-underestimated privilege of clergy who have clocked up enough years to be due some headspace – I’m standing on the edge of an unknown ocean. But not a geographical one. Countless people have asked me ‘Where are you going for your sabbatical?’ Answer: ‘Nowhere’.  Cue confused looks (because why wouldn’t you?), then ‘So what are you studying?’ Answer: ‘the Christian mystics’. Cue a variety of responses: quizzical, engaged, envious … concerned.

I should at least be going to Syria to sit on top of a pole à la Simeon Stylites. But I’m not.

It’s for very practical reasons that I’m not going anywhere. Yet staying underlines my unshakeable belief that God is to be found here, now, always. The divine in the detail. The breath of the Spirit – ruach – in the fabric of familiar life. And in the strangeness of local life too.

If I’m to immerse myself in the mystics it seems only right that I do it where the rest of my life is lived, in this oft-dubbed ‘world city’ where bits of the rest of the world impact, coalesce or pass through sooner or later.

So, poised with my toes in the ocean I think of my teenage daughters learning to surf in the chill of the Cornish waves in October. Out there is depth and adrenaline and salt and refracted light and being turned upside down and yet held and returned to shore. Hopefully in one piece but having experienced something new.

Bernard McGinn (yes, I’ve begun my study leave reading) gives us this definition of mysticism: ‘new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts, not as an object to be grasped, but as the direct and transforming centre of life’.

How might we be transformed if we step into that ocean – right where we are …?


I’m not busy … much

My mid-40s have definitely brought with them a new consciousness of time’s ‘ever-rolling stream’. Yesterday I found myself thinking: after February half term it’s only seven weeks until the Easter holidays, four until May half term and seven until the summer holidays, which always fly by. Then it’ll be autumn and Christmas will be here before we know it … 2015’s only just round the corner’.

I’m not joking. I genuinely had those thoughts and believed them. When we live busy, task-filled, deadline-driven lives this is how it feels. Of course being very busy some of the time is probably inevitable for most of us, and we can be satisfyingly and fruitfully busy, even in a crisis. But extreme busyness is like an extreme sport: not to be undertaken 24/7/365 if you care about your mental and physical health.

Which is why I’m reading Stephen Cherry’s book ‘Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for Ministry’. I came to it via one of those unexpected and enticing journeys through the ether. First I noticed Twibbons proclaiming ‘I’m not busy’ on some people’s Twitter accounts and had a dual reaction which went something like this: ‘How lovely, I wish I wasn’t’ and ‘How sad for them, not to be in demand’! Then I saw a Tweet which led to a beautiful and provoking sermon by Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, which talks about the slow work of Love and says, of God, that ‘most of the time he is so slow his movement is undetectable except to those who stay still for long enough’. Next I discovered the I’m not busy website and before I knew it I was reading the book.

And it’s good. It’s helping me to see time in a different way. It’s challenging me as I’ve been challenged many times before about my unhealthy reliance on busyness and ‘being in demand’ to prove my worth: both to others and also, sadly, to myself. It’s encouraging me to hope that beyond the mechanics of good time management there really is such an enriching thing as ‘time wisdom’; wisdom that frees us up to experience time as a good thing, even a spacious thing, as we did during those long summer holidays of our youth before we learned by misadventure to allow time to diminish us.

I know very well that my relationship with ‘spaciousness’ is ambivalent. I long for it in the busyness but fear it when it comes unexpectedly upon me or, scarier still, within me. Stephen Cherry offers what is effectively a (re)-entry level tool for people who have forgotten, or never learned, how to find and relish spaciousness and live deeply in the moment. Helpfully it’s written in bite-sized sections for those of us who think we’re time-poor.

I’ve not finished it yet, but I already taste a little freedom.

Zoning Out

I wasn’t looking for homespun wisdom but it leapt out at me during an innocent browse in a Cornish gift shop. Those little plaques and over-decorated plates proclaiming one-size-fits-all clichés are not my bag. But the beautiful piece of stone and tasteful carving must have lured my eye. ‘Life begins,’ the piece proclaimed, ‘where your comfort zone ends’. Successfully tipping me out of mine.

I’ve always had an instinct for pushing the limits. All through my twenties and thirties I deliberately challenged myself to do things that felt a bit scary. I walked the Inca Trail, parascended in Mexico and transplanted my life to South Africa for nine months. I was the wild card on the shortlist for the job of my dreams, presented Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ and agreed to chair a school governing board without ever having been a governor. Taking the risk of marriage twice and pregnancy four times should also get a mention, as should the many aspects of parenting three children that constantly push me to places, both literal and within myself, that I’ve never visited before.

Then a combination of circumstances caused a gradual shift somewhere deep in my soul. I don’t mean I shut myself away from life or its challenges and opportunities: I doubt anyone, even now, sees me as someone who needs drawing out of her shell! I just stopped saying yes to suggestions and requests that demanded a significant stretch beyond my previously tested horizons. Unless, of course, they involved affordable luxury or culinary delights.

Sometimes it really is the case that life begins when we risk the unfamiliar and untried. I’ve been there and I’ll go there again: possibly later this week when I stand in front of a large group of bishops and formidably able women clergy and attempt to deliver a homily.

But there are times when beyond-the-comfort-zone is not where we need to be. Days, months, perhaps even years when we dig deep in a different way, for a new sort of courage: the sort we need in order to adjust to change, to face loss, to give more time to nurturing those closest to us, to discover the different wisdom of a new phase in life, to find ways to engage with the brevity, poignancy and depth of the human adventure, to slow down and smell the coffee and to figure out what we really want to do next.

It’s the courage needed to wait on God for purpose and direction rather than running after them with an ever-decreasing sense of who we might be. I think I can say from experience that in these times we don’t stop living. For a while we just make surprising decisions about exactly what that means.

Distracted by Envy

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about envy. This is not a new theme for me: which is a sad and sorry thing for someone with so many blessings in her life to admit. I don’t envy people’s smartphones, or holiday destinations, husbands, houses, handbags or lack of thread veins (actually that last denial is probably a fib). But I envy their gifts, skills, social capital, spheres of influence; and of course their impressive Twitter following and blog statistics.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sufficiently conflicted to genuinely rejoice in other people’s achievements and successes whilst simultaneously wanting some of what they’ve got. I’m energized by the new wave of younger female clergy who are articulate, well-educated and formidably able. Yet I do sometimes envy their confidence. I love to see women of my own, mid-life generation, beginning to occupy senior roles with a combination of gravitas and refreshing new perspectives. I absolutely do not want their jobs: I would much rather be part of the way in which they are equipped and encouraged to get there. Yet I do sometimes envy their achievements.

There are, of course, people who are so (enviably) comfortable in their own skin that they can rejoice in other people’s successes without even a slight twinge of ‘wish that were me’. But there are also many, I think, who share my tendency to the distraction of envy.

I think it’s time we got a grip on it. Even if it’s only a small part of ourselves, and a deluded one, that thinks it wants to be someone else, it distracts us from the unique and wonderful project of exploring our own God-given gifts, strengths and opportunities. It disables our thinking and our doing. It diverts us from the things-about-the-world-that-only-we-can-change-for-the-better.

None of us has the same combination of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and experience as another. We have access to different places. We relate to different issues and individuals. Our passions and interests, our social background, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen, our particular competences and strengths and, yes, our fragility and mistakes: all of these things put each of us in an entirely unique position.

So we do need to accept that God is calling us, not to be someone else, but to take the heady risk of becoming truly, madly, deeply, all that we, and only we, can possibly become.

Learning to Fly

If you happen to be passing Junction 38 on the M1 before the end of August you might want to take a detour. Yinka Shonibare MBE is exhibiting at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: and for those who can’t get there, some of the works from his exhibition, ‘FABRIC-ATION’, can be glimpsed here.

If Shonibare, who is British-Nigerian, has an artistic ‘signature’, it’s the attractive batik prints that draw us into the gritty and challenging subjects of his work. Delighted by the vibrant colours, we’re surprised to find ourselves suddenly wrestling with the London Riots, the oil trade, global food production, the Arab Spring, colonialism and aliens.

In his late teens Shonibare contracted an illness that left him with severely restricted mobility. Every detail of his artistic creations is conveyed to a team of people who build the works on his behalf. Shonibare talks about art as being his ‘vehicle for flight’ from all that might otherwise have restricted him: referring not only to his physical disability but to other people’s limited assumptions, based on racial and cultural stereotyping, about what sort of art they might expect from him.

Absorbed by the artwork and the artist’s story, I find myself wondering about the relationship between the thorns in our flesh and our ability to fly. Shonibare is rightly celebrated for the stand-alone genius of his art: not the-genius-of-his-art-in-spite-of-his-disability-and-other-people’s-racial-stereotyping. Yet that genius grows from the soil of his whole self and the most challenging aspects of his life experience, as well as the easier parts.

Most of us live with a thorn or two, even if they are not in any measure so debilitating as restricted mobility or the experience of racial stereotyping. Our thorns might be the emotional triggers that can be traced back to childhood; the low moments that overcome us when we least expect it; the disorientation inflicted by grief and loss; the sense of inadequacy in the face of other people’s competence; the scars left by relationships where trust was violated.

Some of our thorns can be successfully removed and the wounds might even heal. But there are others that we will always wrestle with one way or another. Perhaps the question is whether we can use them as spurs to discover our ‘vehicle for flight’. Can the difficult things that shape us become our jumping-off point: to a deeper sympathy with how the world works, to an insight that enables change in a community, to a new confidence to take life-enhancing risks? Even, perhaps, to our own version of creativity, however vibrant, gritty or rebellious that might turn out to be.