Even though I’ve grown to love silence, it is sometimes very difficult to work out how to make it a resource when reflection is actually necessary rather than practise. It can be like those odd moments where someone tells you not to think of an elephant and you try to obey. Once the gavel rained down telling us to be quiet all I could do was notice the noise in my head and heart.
I hadn’t been a regular retreater so this was a somewhat unusual thing to be part of. most of the times I had taken to do some reflection involved very long walks/ hikes/ bike rides. I always had something physically exhausting to do which allowed me to think. Being in one place, and worse being still, didn’t really work for me. Neither did the surrounding city streets. So this ordination retreat was going to be awkward, even more so with that blasted elephant I had to try and barge out of my head (a thing not helped by the elephant’s penchant for trumpeting and hip hop based interpretive dance).
Once the train ride was done and we had found our way, bags and all, through to the east of the city, we alighted and carried our wares to St Katherine’s retreat centre. I was nervous. The bag that my cassock was in was white, noisy-plastic and quite cumbersome. It kept knocking against my knees. I had hooked the hanger on the strap of my football kitbag which was looped over my shoulder: my kitbag had my other clothes. The more we walked, the more foolish I felt. The more foolish I felt, the more nervous I got. The more nervous I got, the more the feeling that this role to which I was supposed to step into after this retreat was one which I was neither capable nor qualified for. It would only be a matter of time before they (whoever they are) would see through the facade and expose me as the fraud I felt I was. To compound the whole thing I didn’t offer to help one of our party with her bags coming down the steps from the train station (insert poop emoji here).
[Just to say… Our faith is one that is chuck full of hypocrites. Not because we profess to be something we are not, but because we are something we have no right to be. Righteousness is a gift given to those who cannot attain it. Accepting the gift is quite a hard task, especially because ever unction from within us rejects the gift: simultaneously also stating our need for it. This whole priest thing isn’t exempt from the struggle of self acceptance – acceptance of the self as God declares it to be. If you are facing a similar predicament, looking at the privilege and wondering whether you fit the bill then hear me say this… You are fit for it because you are not fit for it. You are fit for it because God makes you fit. It is fit for you as gift, like that blasted technicolor dream coat which repulses part of you because of the unfiltered and unexplainable hope. You wont be comfortable with this until the right time, and those parts of you that are impoverished, and trying to escape the drought rediscover this aspect of you seated in prime position in Pharaohs courts. Be patient. Trust God. Trust him more than you trust yourself. Oh… I digress. Let’s return to the regular programming.]
The tranquility of the retreat centre was as welcome as an oasis would’ve been to Lawrence of Arabia (hyperbole). Finally having a room to enter and a place to put my bags down meant, at the very least, space to breath. I took off my shoes. I was tired of hiding my nerves by joining in the niceness of the troop. I hate smart shoes. There was still dinner to endure followed by the silence for which I had downloaded episodes of Rev onto my iPad (apparently the final part of my theological education). The retreat schedule lay open on the small table, one for each room I assumed. I read over it as I unpacked my bag onto the bed, freeing my cassock from its confines. My Darth Vader costume was well pressed (Vader of Cheam) but my new and unused clerical shirt still had the new-shirt creases in it. It would need ironing before Saturday (when the force would be at full strength).
After a few seconds staring at it I tucked the collar into the inside jacket pocket and then by the hangers lifted everything off the bed and placed them in the wardrobe by the door. It had doors which, thankfully, meant I could compartmentalise that part of my future for now. The full size mirror hanging on the outside of those blasted doors weren’t helpful. There I was. In full ‘colour’; the dreamer in technicolor (HD). I couldn’t look myself in the eye for too long. Priesthood… lol (insert tear drop emoji here). The story behind me was a full and enfleshed one, my heart wouldn’t let me turn back even though my stomach desperately willed it. It was too late now.
I cannot capture in words the depth of gratitude I have for our retreat guides. The balance between the seriousness of the task before us ordinands and the truth of a joy filled life on display not only filled me with courage, it inspired me past the cobwebs of my shaken self concept and into a place of deep trust in the God who was gently beckoning me forward. The pre-dinner introduction was fantastic. it gently teased me into laughter by making the experience I was about to have a corporate one: the nerves were shared equally between the 30 odd ordinands on this retreat. The stories that our guides shared made what seemed like a dark thicket at first turn into a well trodden path whose pitfalls were well documented, avoidable, and survivable.
Permit me to straddle two times here.
This post should’ve been sent shortly after Catch Up 3. The reason for the delay is the great disruption that was Brexit and its equally devastating aftershock TRUMP. I put my silence down to a broken heart. All of a sudden the world I thought I lived in took its mask off and once more revealed itself to be negatively complex. Worse still it didn’t understand itself as it was appearing. There were friends, close friends who I felt were contributing to the this negative complexity and as such I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t understand their positions. Neither could I understand my own hearts. I couldn’t write about what I hadn’t understood, mainly because I didn’t have a clear ethic to apply. The lessons captured in the book of Barabas needed to seep in. The bitterness to which those lessons spoke into needed to be digested so as not to pepper every expression with the same blotches of red (or whatever colour grief takes).
At this juncture I must apologise to those who listened to me preach ‘in those days’. #Gosh.
“That morning” one of the retreat guides said to me in a moment of prayer. He was referring to the end of the ordination ceremony. “Look out the great west doors to the cathedral. Look out into the world to which you are called”.
At the time these words lifted some of the weight I had felt thrust upon me by the little black boy. They refocused my mind away from questions surrounding my capacity and aptitude towards the clear image of a God who went before those whom he called. The shepherd was good and all I had to do was follow him. Simply true, and traceable through the life I had thus far lived. I was where I was due to a stupid bumbling into obedience. God had made use of my errors to make me who I was and was now about to do the same in leading me to life, and with that others also. #SolaGratia
Then came brexit… and trump.
To the ordinands out there slowly marching towards their ordination I share this. The world is messy. That makes the calling both complex and life giving. Complex because people generally do not realise their rejection of Jesus and each other (it is one of those things the bible attests to).
Complex because the effect of it all is heart ache (and I suggest that a lack of heart ache indicates an unknown resistance to Christ: because having compassion and being confronted by its subjects will always break hearts). Complex because the nature of the compassion and the nature of the people who need it most make embodying compassion extremely difficult.
Life giving because the banner we bear is the only one with a realisable hope at its core. There is nowhere else other than in Christ that the world finds resolution (both existentially in the present but also in eschatological terms). Life giving because the same place of deep frustration at the seeming ineffectiveness of compassion is the same place of understanding God’s gracious unconditional compassion towards you. Life giving because for a brief moment at different frequencies, there will come a moment when the banner and uniform will grant access to the privileged place of helping others see that compassion from God as centred upon them – and that is magical.
In the face of these things, it is definitely worth recognising early that the rank your joining is one you’ve already been apart of. You are being set apart to be who you are and no more. There may be other responsibilities but the tip of the spear remains the same: proclaiming Christ the crucified and resurrected forever servant-king of kings. It remains being his witness to a world that doesn’t know him or even understand the impact of its blindness to him. Our proclaimation will work against a vast and seemingly endless tide but, in the words of a very wise group of people, “we are on the winning side”.
Embarking on my retreat, all I had was the petty nervousness that was born of a small world. A world that encompassed only my own perception of myself. Now, about to embark on another retreat (priesting), I am assured of a bigger world into which I’m being sent. If this was as clear to me last year as it is now, I might have dealt with the heartbreak a lot better than I did.
When the time to be silent came, I plugged in the iron and brought out the shoe polish. With each crease I took out of my clericals, I recognised the flawed nature of the institution I was soon going to represent; I recognised the flaws in me that these well pressed garments would either cover or highlight; but most importantly I recognised the reality that God had chosen to not reject either. In his mercy and wisdom he had chosen earthen ware to carry his Holy Spirit. I wasn’t with Simeon, who after patiently waiting to see the Messiah now sought peace. No! I was with simon peter, who through error and betrayal and blasted cockerels (or elephants in my case) was now being asked to feed lambs and sheep; who was being asked to fish men into an eternal net; who was being granted the privilege of watching them draw their first breath once out of the waters of baptism.