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 …?

 

 

Reflections in Time

One of the reasons I failed to blog last week was the disproportionate amount of time I spent staring at a spreadsheet. Not, thankfully, one that required financial analysis, but a list of women who were ordained priest in the Church of England in 1994, the first year in which that was possible. All 1474 of them. Thanks go to the Crockfords clerical directory, its patient administrators, and my forensically determined Dean of Women colleagues for ensuring, we hope, that the list is accurate and complete.

The other task which eclipsed the blog post last week was the need to gather contributions from friends and family for a birthday speech for my husband; and to scan a selection of photos from the past five decades into an album. Whether poignant, hilarious, proud, embarrassing or just simply happy, a big birthday calls forth memories.

Both the spreadsheet and the party have deepened my awareness of the passing of time. Of those first 1474 female priests, 173 have died in the past 19 years; some died within a year or so of ordination, literally having waited a lifetime for the church to affirm their calling. The rest have nurtured communities and chaplained hospitals, prisons and universities; they have enlivened cathedrals and done pioneering work in places that the church doesn’t usually reach. Next year the Church of England will celebrate two decades of women’s priestly ministry, hence the poring over spreadsheets to gather names.

As the pages of the birthday album were turned and the speech delivered – on a barge on the Grand Union Canal, surrounded by the lights of Little Venice and blessed by an almost-full moon – I was conscious of all the water under the bridge: the school days receding yet vivid in memory, the hedonistic freedom of student life, the seismic family events of love, birth and loss, the classic comic moments and new discoveries shared with friends. Accompanied by the inevitable realisation that we don’t look as young as we did thirty, twenty, even ten years ago, because we’re not.

It wouldn’t be healthy to spend all of our time reflecting on the past: being transported back to those moments that seem as vivid as this one and yet seem to have slipped, like sand, through our hands. As one version of Morning Prayer reminds us, ‘The day lies open before us’*, with all its new potential: and that means this day. But every now and again it’s good to recognise that we are what we are because of what has gone before. In the same way that those of the 1994 cohort who will celebrate together next year were shaped in relationship with the 173 who will not be there.

Except that they will. Because God’s perspective on time has always been a bit quirky, and the past, the present and the future are thrown gloriously into the mix, not only on the days of celebration, but in every moment of our lives.

*Celebrating Common Prayer

In Real Life

My friend and I laughed ruefully over pizza about our envy of other people’s lives-on-social-media: ‘They’re all re-tweeting each other, why aren’t they re-tweeting me? … everyone follows his blog, how does he do that? … their Facebook pages are Wall-to-Wall with photos of themselves partying … I texted her and I knew she’d seen it, so why didn’t she reply straight away?’.

Conclusion: everyone else is in the middle of the action and we’re waving from the edges.

Of course we realise it isn’t true. That’s why we’re able to laugh at ourselves. We know that people’s tweets and posts are a partial account of their story. IRL – which my friend reliably informs me means ‘In Real Life’ – most people are as complicated and imperfect as we are, with more beneath the surface than showing above. The best social media communicates the fun and achievements of people’s lives alongside their fragility and questioning.

I go through phases, IRL, when I spend a fair amount of time noticing the daily niggles, racking up the comparisons and worrying at the question ‘what have I actually achieved today that will change the world for anyone?’ It makes me very grumpy. It doesn’t enhance the lives of those around me. It’s probably a relief to everyone when I suddenly notice once again the wonder of being alive and safe in an amazing city, with the profound blessings of family and friends and the privilege of working on projects that excite and inspire me.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who needs to use periods of grumpiness more creatively. So when the dissatisfaction descends, perhaps we can use it to connect with the deeper restlessness within: the persistent longing to discover more of the Love that creates, sustains and reinvents the world.

As St Augustine famously said, ‘We are made for Thee, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee’. It’s okay to be restless. It’s okay to desire more. Because at heart the ‘more’ is about longing to dwell more fully in the Love which in turn spills over into a deepening of our relationships with others and with the world.

This kind of restlessness is creative and good. We just need to recognise that the dissatisfaction induced by comparing our Facebook pages and re-Tweet scores is too closely related to envy to be fruitful. Let’s kick the habit of comparison, notice the giftedness of our own lives, and intentionally exchange the envy for a restlessness that will drive us more deeply into love of God, others and the world.

Beneath Our Feet

I love those electric moments when somebody else’s writing echoes so deeply in my soul that I want to shout ‘YES’. I’ve just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: Finding the sacred beneath our feet (2009 HarperCollins and Canterbury Press) and if I hadn’t been sitting on trains, buses and the steps of public buildings at the time I would often have exclaimed out loud. It made me laugh, it brought me to tears, it inspired new ripples of thought, it expanded my understanding of life.

And it’s all about ‘kissing the ground’. In twelve chapters we are offered twelve different ways of connecting more fully and deeply with the life of the world around us, including: getting lost, carrying water, feeling pain and pronouncing blessings. Each chapter contains countless suggestions and stories that give us many more ways of connecting spirit and flesh; ways, as Brown Taylor would put it, of practising our own priesthood at the altar of our own life and ‘finding the sacred beneath our feet’.

In the very last line of the book I discovered with delight that the title of this blog is an unconscious echo of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. In the absence of copyright permission I’m not able to quote the passage in full, but essentially Rumi makes a connection between beauty, love and motivation. He suggests that we should be guided in our actions by what we find beautiful; what we love most; whatever it is that awakens our passion. Which for each of us will be something distinctive and particular because there are many different ways, as Rumi observes, ‘to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Just back from a couple of days in the lovely seaside town of Whitstable on the Kent coast, I haven’t been to church this weekend. But I’ve found altars, practised my priesthood and kissed the ground countless times. Intricately-spiralling shells; individually painted beach-huts; pebbles with holes drilled through them by tiny sea creatures; deep-fried pillowy white cod; dogs with wind-blown ears; purple and yellow wild flowers at the beach edge; children balancing on the breakwater, leaning into the wind: the sacred in everyday life, beauty in the ordinary, there to be noticed, kissed, relished, embraced. As Brown Taylor wisely reminds us, we search far and wide for the ‘more’ than we long for in life. Sometimes the last place we remember to look is right here, beneath our feet.