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 …?

 

 

Vulnerable Adults

Honesty and vulnerability have stopped me in my tracks three times in the past few weeks. Not my own heart-on-sleeve habit, which regularly trips me up, but other people’s willingness to acknowledge their fragility in public.

Firstly it was Katharine Welby’s musings about her ongoing experience of hope and despair in the midst of depression. Then Giles Fraser’s ‘Thought for the Day’ in which he tipped off a million or so listeners to the fact that he spends time on the therapist’s couch. And finally Vicky Walker’s anguished and hilarious blog story of a day of mess and awkwardness – life as lived by the gloriously imperfect.

Most of us struggle to some degree with issues around vulnerability and openness. How much we reveal of our deepest hopes, questions and fears will depend on our personality and preferences, our comfort level with the individual or group that we’re talking to, our awareness of the impact on relationships and professional roles, and quite simply our fear of being misunderstood.

If you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable then the answer is simple: keep your thoughts and struggles to yourself. Katharine’s blog went viral, and was followed by an excellent interview in The Telegraph where she acknowledged both her fear of ‘getting boxed up as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Depressed Daughter’ and also the relief she experienced – and the countless grateful responses she received – when she did speak out.

We generally learn most about ourselves, others, life and God when we are willing to take off our metaphorical protective clothing. As Vicky Walker puts it, ‘How can anyone really know me if I hide? And how can you really be known if you say you’re OK too?’ Of course the appropriate level of disclosure does require some good sense. In a subsequent interview on Radio 4’s ‘PM’, Giles Fraser was asked what drove him to therapy in the first place. Laughing, he replied, ‘The point about the therapist’s couch is it’s a safe space to talk about one’s own problems and anxieties – and the point about the PM programme is that it’s not!’

Richard Rohr writes‘Intimacy lets itself out and lets the other in … You are always larger after any intimate encounter … It is always grace’. Even if we’re not living life in the public eye, any decision about opening our hearts involves a risk assessment. But at the right time and with the right person the risks are often outweighed by the potential for new understanding, deepened relationships and real growth, together, in wisdom.