The well-keeper: Clergy in an age of busy

I wrote recently about self-care, with this caveat:

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

And I’m grateful to David, who left this thought on the post:

I love the connection you have made about the importance of self-care and being a wellspring. Wellspringing- could that be the refreshing replacement for the overused “wellbeing”?

Some months ago I was part of a conversation with clergy colleagues about how Church of England clergy can – and should – grow a deeper awareness of what their congregations do when they’re not in church. As the conversation inevitably meandered, the question arose:

“What’s the point of clergy?”

There are a million different ways to hear this question, never mind answer it. In this instance, it arose out of an understanding that those who are not clergy (“the “laity”) – that is, the majority of people who walk into churches – might be nurtured by, and grow through, not just activities that happen “inside” churches, but in a life beyond church.

Forgive me if I say that this is a frightening thought for clergy in a church which has at times, however inadvertently, failed to hear, understand, nurture and liberate its members through previous decades (think: sheep and shepherds, children and fathers, ekklesia and presbyter – all metaphors with both deep value and severe limitation).

But if clergy are no longer to be (only) shepherds, fathers and presbyters, then what metaphor might serve a church which is intentional about “Setting God’s People Free”? The Ordinal offers powerful and deep descriptions of priestly ministry, and these deserve much meditation, consideration and reflection (I often tell candidates I see for ordination to spend time reflecting prayerfully on these images).

Priests

 

Father doesn’t know best

Well, not always. For a fleeting time, I used to catch my 5 year old up to no good. Responding to his amazement at my 360 degree omniscience, I would say “Well, mummies know everything”.

I stopped that pretty quickly. One day soon he’ll discover it’s not true, and I’d rather have my integrity intact when he does.

How tempting is it for those of us in priestly ministry to assume an air of “the ministry professional knows everything?” I suspect most of our people know that’s not true, even if we’re adamant that it is!

Institutions are wrecked. We have moved past the point where authority itself is license to speak or act or persuade.

And amazingly, how few of these priestly metaphors are about knowing everything? How few are about authority (at least in a worldly sense) and power and control and knowledge?

Watching, walking, telling stories, discerning, sustaining, delighting, searching, offering: what intense metaphors these are for the awesome and impossible task of holding a community of faith together!

The well-keeper

Ever since that conversation with my colleagues, I’ve been musing on the metaphor of well-keeper. In an age where 90% of Christian ministry happens outside the church building, where Christians spend perhaps just a few hours a week coming into church, where the church as institution is dying while spirituality unfettered by religion is booming, then what’s the point of clergy?

Perhaps clergy are the well-keepers. They are the ones who might find life-giving water, and share it round. They start with no special knowledge or strength: it is their own thirst which drives them to the well. And when they find it, they have no monopoly on the water. The water is a free-flowing gift, although it might be that clergy have the time and resources to dig a little deeper and set the flow going.

To those who seek rest and sanctuary, clergy might offer peace, a sounding board, a listening ear. To those who live frenetic lives, they offer attentiveness and availability. For those facing uncertainty and doubt, their listening and their words instil value and build confidence, renew vocation and discern God’s voice.

Clergy are the well-keepers. They find the water and build the wells. They maintain them, and repair them when they’re damaged. They signpost others to them. And they draw from them themselves.

The pun is deliberate, and this brings us full circle.  It is only from the path to wholeness that we can call others to join us. There is a calling on clergy to keep well as they keep the wells. Of course, wholeness and wellness are destinations yet to be reached. Sometimes they feel far away or only mirages. But clergy must be committed to their own self-awareness, self-management, and self-care. Not only for themselves, but for the flourishing of the whole people of God.

In busyness and panic and chaos and simple everyday life, in the mutuality of lay and ordained vocations, perhaps it is clergy who have – or should have – the gifts, the time, and the tools to stop, to dig, to drink, and to call others to do likewise.

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Pulling up the weeds: An Examen for self care

Material adapted from a day I led recently in Gilly’s Quiet Garden, part of the Quiet Garden Movement.


Self-care is a bit like weeding.

This thought struck me some weeks ago, as I found myself delicately rescuing one of our roses from the bindweed that had twisted itself tight round the thorny stem. As I was weeding, I was spending time in prayer and reflection, and working through a particular personal conundrum. The task of unwrapping weed from flower served as a helpful outworking of the inner process of “unwrapping” that I was doing – working out the good and the bad – the flower and weed of the particular issue I was reflecting on.

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

Self care begins with the self, but done well, it is never solely about the self. Poor self-care, or no self care, pushes us inwards. We become introspective, self-centred, blind to others around us, and liable to lash out or project our pain onto the people we love – or (worse?) the people we don’t. Good self care enables us to develop good core strength, from which we are able to support and nourish others as well as our self.

What if your life was a bit like a garden?

There are all sorts of different plants and flowers. Some things – as in your life – are thriving and healthy. They have strong, deep roots and high-reaching leaves. Some produce fruit or flowers, so that you enjoy and give away an abundance of produce – just as much of your life will be about giving out to others. Some plants are young, and some are old. Just as some things in your life will be barely beginning, and other things well-established, or perhaps even going to seed. There will be enormous trees, fragile daisies, and everything in-between.

But, if your garden – your life – is the same as mine, then there will be a few weeds around too. Some of them pose little threat – they are shallow rooted and will pull up with no recurrence. Others are more of a problem: deep or extensively rooted, damaging to the good things in the garden, and needing careful, patient, persistent treatment to eradicate.

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Flowers and weeds: An Examen

The Examen is an ancient spiritual practice which aids self-reflection in ways that draw our gaze from within ourselves and out to the world beyond us. It has three stages.

The first step of the Examen is to notice the moments in which all was well:
Where have I sensed peace, security, deep joy, happiness, comfort?

The second step of the Examen is to notice the moments when all was not well:
Where have I sensed discomfort, pain, insecurity, fear, emptiness?

The third step of the Examen takes our answers to the first two questions and uses them to help us lay down the past and look ahead. For what I have been grateful? What now lies ahead?
Step one

What plants are flourishing in your garden?
In what areas of life are you, or have you been flourishing, thriving, and happy?

What plants are you especially proud of?
What of your own achievements are you proud of?

Which plants are strong and healthy?
Where are your strengths and gifts?

Which plants are being especially productive, giving you an abundance of fruit or flowers for you to enjoy or pass on to someone?
In which areas of your life are you able to give from?

And…

Where is this goodness rooted?
What has build your confidence?
Who has been kind to you?
Who has invested in your flourishing?
What—and who—has built you into you?
Step two

What weeds are present in your garden?

Which are shallow rooted annuals, easily pulled up?

Which are deep rooted and complex, needing dedicated attention?

Which give a nasty sting?

Which can you learn to adapt to and live with?

Which are fast growing and destructive?

Which are stealing your sunshine?

And…

Where is this pain rooted?
What has shattered your confidence?
What cruelty have you survived?
What disappointments have you faced?
What inner conflicts need gentle untangling?
Step three

For what am I grateful?

What gifts have I received?

What gifts can I offer?

What do my reflections tell me about who I am?

What do my reflections tell me about who I could be?

What might I become more deeply aware of tomorrow?

What inner pain needs my careful attention?

Where have I found life?

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Soaring on air: Ten reflections on vocation

vocation
və(ʊ)ˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/
a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.

Everyone has a vocation to something!

Discovering your own vocation begins with quiet reflection, self-examination and conversation. These questions might help:

What are you good at?
What do you enjoy?
When do you feel most at peace?

I spend much of my time listening to people who are trying to work out what their own vocation is. Through these conversations, I’ve noticed some patterns and common themes. Here they are:

1. It will take time to emerge

Few of us have a “stop you in your tracks” moment where we see our life’s purpose stretching before us in an instant. Reactions to a growing vocation are usually surprise, doubt, anxiety, fear, unworthiness, and nervous excitement – but rarely confidence and self-assurance.

You don’t have to decide on your vocation in this moment. Nor in the next half hour, or even the next week or month. Like flowers, vocations take time to grow and blossom fully. They need to be informed and thought-through, and this takes hours of reading, talking, listening and reflecting.


2. It is not your decision (alone)

Vocation is usually about working in partnership with and for others; at the heart of most vocations is a desire to bring about change or improvement for others. We don’t serve ourselves, nor do we serve by ourselves, but for and through people, creation, and institutions. The mutuality of vocation begins at its inception.

In the Church of England, this means that a formal vocation to a particular ministry needs to be rooted in conversation and reflection with others. It is about a process of mutual listening and discernment, and about the coming together of the candidate’s “yes” and the Church’s “yes”.

This is about licensed ministry in a particular context, but it’s a good principle to apply to any exploration of vocation: just as our vocations are not for our own benefit, so we don’t own them. Vocation is about working out our purpose in community, and the burden of the decision about what you do with your life is never yours alone.


3. It isn’t punishment or chore

Desire rests at the heart of vocation. A good way to start thinking about vocation is to ask yourself what you enjoy, and what you want to do. It is tempting, especially for people of faith, to construct a faux-holiness or sense of martyrdom around vocation. We can’t quite believe that God would call us to do something we actually want to do. And when we find ourselves wanting to do something, we convince ourselves it’s not the right thing for us, or that we desire it for the wrong reasons. That’s not to say that vocation is always easy, or that God never asks us to do things we don’t want to do, but (to paraphrase Henri Nouwen) too often “we expect a curse, but instead receive a blessing”.

4. It is more (and less) than a job

Our vocation might lead us to a particular job or career, but it doesn’t always. It is rooted in something much deeper than a 9-5: it is about who we are. Many of us go home from work at the end of the day, but we don’t leave behind the essence of who we are.

As a priest, I am called to live honestly and openly with others as I do life with all its joys and sorrows. I am called to be. And I am – I exist – all the time. Not just in the hours I am contracted to work for. I do have a contract. I do try and stick to my working hours and days. But it’s not always possible, because this call to be is something I do all the time. Every day and every night. I am. Even on my days off. In every place, in every moment, I am living out the priestly vocation to do life with others. I invest in life here as the first task of my vocation in this place.

And perhaps that is the first step in any vocation. To invest in life, wherever we find ourselves, and to see what needs and tasks emerge.


5. It will demand bottomless trust

Vocation is about finding something you enjoy and do well, and then doing it. But that doesn’t make it easy. Living out a vocation will stretch you to your limits, and then some more. It will empty you of your resources and leave you feeling dry and wrung out. It will challenge your priorities and nag at you because the job will never be done. It will demand from you more than you thought you could ever give. It will push you beyond expectation and ability.

Vocation does these things, because it’s vocation. Vocation is about seeing need and meeting it. It’s about being driven by something more than money or status or self-importance. It’s about self-purpose and a rooted love for other people. Your work will never be done. And within all this, you must learn to trust. Trust yourself, trust others, trust God. Trust your intuition about what needs to be done and what can be left. Trust your body when it tells you to rest. Trust your mind when it says you can push a little further. Trust your heart, your soul, your calling. Trust those who love you, and those who have been there, and listen to their wisdom. Trust, trust, trust.


6. It won’t replace your need for self-care and rest

Our culture does not encourage good self-care. We are driven by money and working hours. We measure value in terms of financial worth or dedication to a cause. We are quick to project our dysfunction onto others under the banner of justice or entitlement, and slow to examine ourselves and improve our inner life. Living vocationally without self-care and rest will lead to burn out.

Self-care means working out what you need in place in order to flourish. It’s about being grounded, centred and self-aware. Only those who are self-aware can become truly other-aware, and those who are committed to self-care will be able to give much more in their service of others.

If you need time alone, take it.
If you need time with friends or family, take it.
If you need 12 hours of sleep a night, take it.
If you need to cook or run or garden or read in order to stay sane, do it.
If you need holidays and fun and parties and nights out and good food and slow coffees and trashy TV shows and spa days and long walks and intimacy and space and laughter and tears, then do it. Do it all.

Take it. Do it. Regularly and as a rhythm of life, and not just as an occasional treat. If you don’t get this right, your life-giving vocation will slowly suffocate you.


7. Some vocations are more important than others

All of us will have multiple vocations. Some of these will be about jobs and tasks. Others will be about relationships and roles we have. I have vocations, among others, to be a mum, a wife, a friend, a priest, a vicar, a spiritual director.

And these vocations have to be weighed and balanced against one another. Usually, they hold together in a harmonising tension. Sometimes they don’t. And when they clash, some of them have to take priority.

My vocation to parenthood will always trump my vocation to a particular job. If my kids need me in one place, and my job needs me in another, my kids win. The job can wait: the work will still be there.

Sometimes, one vocation will trump another. Never make the mistake of treating them as equal, or of getting the priority wrong.


8. It will challenge your sense of entitlement

In a culture of entitlement, how do we discern living from luxury? How do we stand apart from everything around us that tells us to fight for what we deserve? How do we stop the language of entitlement from creeping into our language of vocation?

These are big questions for me. I am aware, in myself and those around me, of a creeping narrative of entitlement. I am entitled to days off, to holidays, to a good standard of housing, to a regular stipend, to affordable childcare…

These things enable me to live out my vocation effectively and freely, and I am grateful for them.

But I am also called to service and self-sacrifice. For me, this means taking less pay than I would do in a non-vocational role. It means sometimes giving up an evening off to sit with someone who needs to be listened to. It means settling for less-than-perfect housing, and having no property as an investment for the future. It means working long hours around my children, so that I can give everything to them, as well as to my ‘work’, when they need me. This call to sacrifice constantly challenges me, as self-giving service and self-serving entitlement bicker constantly on my shoulder and clash in the most painful of ways.

The only way through this, for me, is prayer. On my knees, I remember again who I am, and what I have been called to. I remember to trust, to give, and to rest. And I remember to live flexibly and freely: in the joy of the present and not the fear of the future.

Don’t allow your sense of entitlement kill your vocation to service and sacrifice. Sometimes it’s right to fight for something. Other times we take the hit, in the name of vocation. And it’s always ok.


9. It might evolve… or die

Vocation doesn’t stay the same. As we grow and develop ourselves, so the tasks and jobs to which we are called will change. Thank God you or I are not the people we were ten years ago. Through a decade of growing pains our gifts and sense of purpose will have developed and grown. Sometimes this means taking new paths or reassessing what we’re doing.

Sometimes a vocation might die. This might feel joyfully liberating or intensely painful. Sometimes we choose its demise, and other times the decision is made for us. Sometimes it happens suddenly, and sometimes over a long period of time. Sometimes we might be left with a fear that we were wrong all along.

As vocation dies or evolves, so our need for self-care, rest and trust becomes even greater. These are times to go slowly, to reflect deeply, and to nourish your inner life. Winter is never death, but gestation.


10. It will bring you deep joy

When vocation works as it should – despite the hard graft and the self-giving and the times of feeling purposeless and exhausted – when it goes well, it feels as if you’re soaring on air. And perhaps this is a good clue to discovering and renewing vocation: what brings you deep joy? What leaves you feeling as if you’re soaring? What makes your heart sing?

On any of this, I might be wrong, and this list is not exhaustive, so do comment below on what you’d change or add.

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Turn around!

This morning we celebrated a wonderful baptism at Holy Cross. It was the welcome of a family who we have got to know over some months: two children who have waited patiently for many weeks following their initial request, and who have approached today with excitement and enthusiasm.

The Epiphany Gospel readings are all about revelation: revelation of God and revelation of ourselves. This morning we heard the call of Christ:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Matthew 4:17

What a great invitation to hear again at a baptism! But repent is a funny word. We don’t use it much outside of church services. When we do hear it, inside or outside of church, we probably hear messages such as:

Say sorry!
Own up!
Confess!

Repent as Jesus meant it is about so much more than this.
To repent is to turn a full 180 degrees and change direction.
To repent is to reflect back, take stock, and then journey on with renewed hope and vision.
To repent is to realise more fully who God is, who we are, and who God is calling us to become.

Repentance is about so much more than confession. I worry that our confession liturgy doesn’t always aid this process of God-realisation and self-realisation (though I’m yet to reflect properly on this).

Repentance begins with a fresh revelation of God: not as divine wielder of discipline, but as the one who knows where we have fallen before we think to confess it and who accepts and loves us anyway.

Repentance begins with a fresh revelation of ourselves, not as “miserable offenders” (as the Prayer Book tells us we are) but as creatures who reflect the image of God, and who are full to the brim of potential and promise.

I love this prayer of confession from Janet Morley, because it gives us words to express our lack of self-acceptance, and sets our low self-esteem within the bigger picture of God’s ongoing, radical affirmation and love of us. Repentance, or turning around, becomes a much greater possibility each time we accept ourselves as God accepts us:

O God, Giver of Life, Bearer of Pain, Maker of Love,
you are able to accept in us what we
cannot even acknowledge;
you are able to name in us what we cannot bear to speak of;
you are able to hold in your memory
what we have tried to forget;
you are able to hold out to us
the glory that we cannot conceive of.
Reconcile us through You
to all that we have rejected in our selves,
that we may find no part of your creation
to be alien or strange to us,
and that we ourselves may be made whole.
Through Jesus Christ, our lover and our friend. Amen.

At our baptism this morning, we shared words of welcome and commission. These words are not just for the newly-baptised. They are for every one of us who is journeying on. They are for those who feel that they are not good enough and those who feel that they don’t belong. They are for those who were baptised 60 years ago, and those yet to reach that point in their journey of faith. They are for those who have it all sorted, and those who are falling apart. These words are a powerful reminder of the fullness of what it means to repent – to turn around – and they always bring me close to tears.

We are glad to have welcomed you into Holy Cross Church this morning. There will always be a place for you here. Your baptism joins you to Christ and to his whole Church, in every part of the world, in the past and in the future, on earth and in heaven.

Even before today, God began his work in you, but it will take the whole of your life to complete that work. There will be moments when the journey ahead is a delight and there will be times when it is hard, but you will never be alone. You will always have the support of other Christians. There will be many milestones on your journey: confirmation will be one of them.

Remember that in Jesus heaven has touched our world. Belonging to him will change your life and, through reading the Bible, you will learn more deeply the story of God’s love. Through worship, prayer and caring for others you will grow more and more like Jesus.

Stand up for fairness, truth and kindness. God’s love is for you, and for everyone. Share with other people the good news of his love.

 

Buffers and safety nets: managing busyness

The bigger your empire grows, the more you have to look after your hinterland.
Ed Balls, quoting advice from Denis Healey.

Advent is a busy time in this house. We are two clergy with two churches and two children. Every year it challenges our discipline of remaining unbusy and resisting a culture of overwork. Every year we become busy and we overwork. We reach Christmas Day feeling grumpy, tired and ill. And every year we look back and feel like perhaps we missed out on the prayerful preparation that the four weeks of Advent are set aside for.

But this is never failure.

As I look back, I can see that each year, we have developed a little bit more awareness. We have learned more about managing our time better. We have become slicker at preparation and invested more time in people – and ourselves. We have realised that perfection is out and “good enough” is in. We have scaled down our expectations, and taken pressure off ourselves. We are learning.

In his memoirs, Ex-politician Ed Balls writes insightfully about balancing leadership and life. Those who watched his recent performances on Strictly Come Dancing will have seen a man full of energy and vitality: someone whose world is bigger than his work.

For Ed, his growing “empire” was his career, as he became a political adviser, then an MP, then a cabinet minister, and then shadow chancellor. His “hinterland” was the hobbies he nurtured to keep him sane: sport, music, family and friends. He speaks powerfully of Denis Healey’s influence on his own work/life balance, and the importance of being a multi-dimensional leader with a life beyond politics.

It’s not so different for anyone else.

For clergy in local churches, the empire grows each Advent as we take on extra work, meet extra people, hold extra services and keep friends and family (of all shapes and sizes) entertained. In these moments, perhaps our hinterland gets neglected. Perhaps we don’t have a hinterland to start with.

And this isn’t just a problem for clergy. I suspect most of us feel the pressure of Christmas mounting through Advent. I suspect we all know the rising guilt of failing – yet again – to create the perfect Christmas, as we reach the day itself feeling tired, ill, grumpy.

The lesson in our house this Advent has been simple, but profound. I hope it will transform the way we work well into next year, so that by Advent 2017 it has become habit. Our lesson is this: buffers and safety nets.

Buffers are stoppers. They make us pause, reflect and turn 20161218_172747around if necessary.
Safety nets are there to catch us when we fall.

In a usual week, by accident rather than design, we have breathing space. Time to catch up with each other, and other colleagues and friends. We have time to tinker with a sermon, read a chapter of a book, respond to a pastoral crisis, make a decent cup of coffee, and take the kids to the park for an hour.

This availability is our hinterland, our buffer, our safety net. And in busy times, as the diary fills up and every waking minute is used, we lose them. Busyness becomes dangerous as the buffer is no longer there to make us pause, and the safety net is no longer there to break a fall.

We don’t notice until we have a small problem. A poorly parishioner, a family argument or a broken printer. And then we need the buffer of time, and the buffer has gone. A small problem becomes stressful, drawn out and more difficult to resolve. We tire, we fall, we crash.

So, I say this to myself, and to anyone else who has felt the pressures of life lately. It’s become a mantra in our house this month: Get to know your buffers. Rig up your safety nets. Don’t neglect your hinterland. And when things get busy as your empire grows, defend them fiercely and cling to them at all costs. Without them, we become one-dimensional and wrung out. With them, we become people who have time, energy and joy that flows beyond ourselves and transforms those around us.

Safety nets and buffers: the best gifts you can give yourself this Christmastime.

Give yourself a break: A reflection for Advent

Advent begins this week, and all around are the dawning signs of Christmas. Lights and trees go up, cards are written and greetings sent, presents are wrapped and parties are planned. 

I used to think it was important to resist this creep of Christmas for as long as possible, reserving Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration to come. But I reached Christmas Day feeling a little like I had missed the party.

There is a paradox. The Church prepares to celebrate the arrival of God in the most fragile of wrappings, while around us the world unwraps that gift before the big day. Some of us worry that the timing is all wrong. 

But the gift is still the same. 

If our pious preparation causes us to resist the celebrations around us, we miss out on some of the joy. Is this any better than being seduced by the frenzied consumerism of Christmas that is equally as likely to lead us to miss the point? 

The reflection below is an attempt to encourage you – and me – to welcome the best of both. To prepare once again to receive God, and to create space and stillness in the coming weeks for that. But also to embrace the celebrations that are beginning around us as they happen – however premature we feel they are – as the world receives its greatest gift: the one who once a year warms our hearts and joins us in one voice of Christmas song.

This Advent – give yourself a break.

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Give yourself a break:
Permission to pause
And carve out a space
Where you alone can rest
And rediscover small voices
Hushed by the frenzied pace of life.

Give yourself a break:
Just one moment in a day
To waste time away, and
Notice
Your stillness working to make straight
The tangled paths to your heart.

Give yourself a break:
Time to soak in pools of reassurance, as
Sacred Anticipation
Meets
Joyous Festivity
And the long-awaited celebration swells around you
In flushed faces and shimmering trees.

Give yourself a break:
And hear the ancient promises
As Redemption’s stories are reimagined and retold
Through gifts exchanged and carols sung
And your emptiness is filled
With the hope and joy of a promised child, who
For just a moment,
Becomes the centre of our gaze.

Autumn: In words and pictures

An hour spent tidying up the garden yesterday, although I was soon distracted by what was happening to the outdoors.

The unmanaged beauty of those plants I never got around to taming.
The defiant, glorious flowering of bedding plants in their final days.
The creep of decay as winter’s wet and cold begins to settle.
The sheer amount of failure and waste, as in every part of nature, that is needed for even the smallest signs of life to flourish.

And it got me thinking about life.
About our own moments of Autumn.

Maybe that’s about age and relationships and life stage.
Maybe it’s about other beginnings and endings.
Maybe it’s just our response to the way the seasons shift slowly around us.

So here are twelve photos exploring these themes, and four haikus to unpack the images a little.

I hope they’re helpful to anyone going through an Autumn at the moment.

(The photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.)


Autumn in haikus and pictures

Consolidation
A look back at what has been
Dressed in decay’s scars

Glance in the mirror
Past, now, future; all in one
Sunshine and shadows

Some of us made it
Blooming, then going to seed
Beauty in decay

We saved best till last
Light in the shade of the past
Frail, veined, glorious

On darkness

This morning I preached at our joint All Age service about darkness. This afternoon I was heartened to read this, by James Martin SJ, about newly-canonised Mother Teresa and her own battle with spiritual darkness.

What follows are some improvisations on the words I shared today.


I’m afraid – not of the dark – but of darkness.
This darkness is difficult to describe.
It is…

The darkness of depression and anxiety that creeps up on me sometimes.
The darkness of knowing that I might fail: in my parenting, in my ministry, or some other area.
The darkness of a fear that grips when I hear of more violence, more hate, more terror in the world around.
The darkness of thinking that this might be all that there is.
The darkness of a world without life, a tragedy without hope, a death without resurrection.

It is the darkness that lurks, as Doctor Who warns Amy Pond,

Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look. The corner of your eye.

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It is a darkness described by Mother Teresa:

In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.

This darkness is very real and frightening.

Anyone who has wrestled with God – or God’s absence – in the long hours of night will know the suffocating, crushing, oppressive feeling of being surrounded by a darkness that is more than an absence of light.

This darkness is not right.
This darkness is not peaceable or calm.
This darkness is not harmless.

There is something in this darkness that is a theology without a language.
We barely talk about it, maybe because we are scared or embarrassed, or possibly because we don’t need to give it attention beyond that which it demands.

This is the darkness of spiritual warfare, spiritual battle, spiritual oppression.
It chokes, it robs us of life, it cuts us off from all that is holy.
It tells us of God’s absence, of love’s failure, of hope’s flight.

And yet, paradoxically, it is a darkness that I know more deeply the nearer I draw to God.
In this way, spiritual darkness is vocational.

With each glimpse of God, another small part of his kingdom is illuminated.
We see the good, and the bad.
The redeemed, and the not yet.
The light, and the darkness.

With each whisper from the Holy Spirit, we hear a little of her wordless groaning of intercession.
We hear cries of joy and pain.
Of laughter and sorrow.
Of relief and grief.

Perhaps only in the darkness do we see how much we need the light of Christ.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we come to know prayer as throwing ourselves on the mercy of God and saying I cannot live this life alone. I need God to get me through.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we feel most deeply the pain of those around us, and find the resources and compassion to bring light to the darkness of another.

This darkness is not from God.
It is more than God’s absence.
Yet with God’s presence, it flees.

Perhaps this darkness is always there, always threatening, always looming, but never victorious.

The closer we draw to God, the more we know love, light and hope.
Yet the more we know these things, the more we are called to journey through the darkness that they will one day defeat.

If you’re in darkness, hang in there. Shout prayers and scripture and the name of Christ at whatever lurks in the corner of your eye, right where you never want to look, and it will flee.

 St Patrick’s Breastplate
Christ be with me, Christ within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort me and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.

Eggs and Fish: A meditation for all whose prayers go unanswered

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

It’s not true.

God doesn’t always give.
We don’t always find.
The door doesn’t always open.

Who among us has not wept and pleaded in prayer; desperately seeking an answer from God?

Even our most noble, self-giving, and good hearted requests to God may be met with a wall of silence.

Giving up is an option:
God hasn’t heard me.
God hasn’t answered me.
God isn’t there.

If you need to give up, then stop here.
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For me, giving up on God is not an option.
I have lived with God too long.

So how do we deal with it when we pray for an egg and we’re handed a scorpion?
How can we go on with God, when the things we pray for don’t happen?
When the opposite happens?

Why does a good God seem to turn away when we cry for his help?

 

I don’t know.

 

I don’t know why some prayers are answered even as we speak them, yet others bounce off the ceiling and roll sadly to our feet.
I don’t understand the haphazard ways in which we hear “yes”, “no”, “maybe”.
Or silence.
I don’t know why God blesses some people in some ways with some answers.
And not others.

But I do know that every time I pray, prayer changes me.
Persistent prayer teaches me more about God, and more about my inner self.

What is it I truly desire?
Who do I believe God to be?
Where will I find happiness?
Who do I think is my true self?

Over time, prayer becomes an exploration of these questions.
Perhaps we find answers.
Perhaps we don’t.
Perhaps we discover better questions.

The biggest lesson I have learned about prayer is that persistent prayer, even 5 minutes a day, leads to peace.

And peace reframes our prayers.

God becomes not a benevolent and kindly old man who wants to slip a pound coin into our sweaty palm because he’s feeling especially generous one day.
Instead, God becomes a partner with us as we seek to grow, and change the world around us.

I don’t believe in a God who wants to be begged, pestered or nagged before he gives in to us with pity.

I believe in a God who has good gifts to give his people.
I believe in a God who calls us to join him in bringing those gifts to others.
I believe in a God who weeps with us in sorrow and laughs with us in joy.
I believe in a God who knows me intimately, who knows what I desire before I ask, who has blessed me richly in all I have.

Persistent prayer has taught me about this God.

I no longer pray just to get things from God.
When I do, I know I have regressed: I’m tired, depressed, beaten.

I pray because I love God and I love life.
I pray to change myself and change the world around me.
I pray to help me cope with a particular situation.
I pray because prayer is oxygen in this smog-filled place.

So if you’re that person, asking, seeking, knocking, and meeting only silence, then for the love of God keep going.

Pray as you can:
pray with words and sobs,
pictures and paint,
nature and dreams.
Just pray.

We won’t find the goodness and realness of God in God’s assent to our every whim, no matter how noble, how good, how selfless.

We find God’s goodness  when we persist in spending time with him, and find ourselves more fully transformed by prayer into who we truly are.

This is true gift.
This is real life.
This is the stuff of eggs and fish.

The downward spiral of spiritual apathy…

…or why we all feel so tired, unfulfilled and sad.

Do you ever have moments of emptiness that are impossible to fill?

Times where you pour good food, great sex and extravagant purchases into a black hole that refuses to be satisfied?
Feelings of inexplicable guilt that are impossible to assuage for more than a fleeting hour?
A desperate need to flee your circumstances in your quest for happiness?

The problem might be acedia.

Acedia is a disease of the soul. We are so ignorant of its existence, never mind the damage it can inflict, that we probably have never heard its name.

Acedia is the spiritual apathy that leads us away from what gives us life.
It is a neglect of the soul, a hardening of the heart, and an embrace of everything that stops us from knowing ourselves.

In his book Finding Happiness, Abbot Christopher Jamison unpacks why acedia is such a problem for us. He examines it in terms of monastic life:

“I know that a monk can be overwhelmed by spiritual exhaustion; is it worth persevering, they wonder. The thought grows that this way of life isn’t valid for me any longer, that my companions are not right and that I should be doing something else, not wasting my life here. As the discipline of the monastic life becomes distasteful, so it is slowly worn away: less prayer, less self-awareness and a growing rejection of the life of the community. Alongside this is often found the impulse to replace spiritual exercises with more and more good deeds.”

The symptoms of acedia include:
– restlessness
– downheartedness
– exhaustion
– a lack of peace
– a yearning to escape
– anxiety
– feeling uncentred and unfulfilled.

Jamison argues that disdain for the familiar and a desire to give up are at the heart of acedia.”

Sound familiar?

Whether we are religious or not, we neglect the inner life at our peril. We are part of and we perpetuate a culture where profit and success are cherished above everything that is sacrificed for them: relationships, peace, rest, fun, prayer and stillness. When we feel unfulfilled or guilty or restless, the temptation is to continue to flee from our inner self.

We fill our lives when we should be emptying them.
We stay on the treadmill when we should be hitting the stop button.

I have started to identify what I think is an acedia cycle in my own life:

acedia cycle

It starts well (1). I give time to prayer, stillness, contemplation and reading.

From this place of rest and refreshment, I am able to live and minister effectively and happily (2). A healthy inner life feeds a healthy outer life, and an active outer life is rooted in a healthy inner life.

But then eventually I will begin to neglect the inner life (3).
Perhaps a busy week or a change of routine means that my times of stillness are pushed out.
Perhaps I lose the discipline of regular reading, and I forget the value of words that nurture my soul.

This neglect takes me to a place of acedia (4).
I feel increasingly unfulfilled, and I seek fulfilment in my work.
Working hard means I start to feel tired.
When I feel tired, I feel guilty and frustrated.
I try to deal with my guilt by working harder (5).
When I work hard I feel self-satisfied, and perhaps smug.
And then I feel tired and guilty again.
The drive to work harder means rest and stillness become of little value, and I enter a downward spiral of guilt and overwork that leads eventually to…

Exhaustion, illness and burnout (6), which necessitate rest and recovery (7). In the past, it hasn’t been until this crisis moment that I have become aware of my habit of overwork.

I am learning to recognise the warning signs, but the moment this downward spiral begins is the moment that I need the greatest self-awareness, humility and discipline. It’s also the moment I most need to hear the challenge that comes from God and others: How did you get to be so busy?

And so I am left wondering:

  • What other destructive cycles have acedia at their heart?
    Greed and over indulgence?
    Consumerism and affluenza?
    Gambling and other addictions?
    Infidelity and unhealthy attitudes to sex?
    Others?
  • Are there people who live consistently in the downward spiral of acedia and never find freedom from it?
  • If you recognise yourself in any of this, what are the warning signs that you need to be aware of to regain a balance and nurture your inner life?

Jamison offers two remedies for acedia:

  • The first is to fill our minds with things that will nurture us: resist gossip, and don’t read rubbish. Instead, read books that nourish, and talk about things that build up.
  • The second is to devote time to prayer, meditation or reflection. This should be regular and disciplined. But I don’t think it has to be onerous. Halfway through the morning, I make a cup of coffee and take it in the garden. The ten minutes I spend there, silent and contemplative, give my soul enough nourishment to get through the rest of the day. In this way prayer becomes a time to be cherished, and not a millstone.

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Acedia afflicts us all, and it will take each of us a lifetime to overcome. However much we fall into its grasp, let us not be so ignorant of its dangers that we cannot even name the source of our unhappiness, our unsettledness, our guilt and our anxiety.