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 …?

 

 

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.