Thursday, August 25, 2011

Voices

So I had a good holiday – not very restful, but definitely a healthy change of horizon – and one that provided a lot of context, and managed to get me out of the spiritual fug in which I had enmeshed myself.

Let me describe what I am talking about. I had problems with my passport so was not able to journey out with the rest of my family – my wife and children had to drive off to the Loire leaving me behind, which was good neither for them nor for me. Why? Three weeks before the due departure date I had dutifully filled out all the forms for my passport and for three children's passports, and paid for the expedited applications through the Post Office. Two days before we were due to travel the children's passports arrived but mine didn't. On telephoning the passport service I discover that my application had been 'flagged for review' as my previous (out of date) passport had not been included in the application – and my forms had then sat in someone's in-tray for two weeks, as this was 'the busy period'. When I explained my context, my forms were pulled to the top and the application went through, and I flew out to join the rest of my family on the Wednesday.

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So what is the spiritual fug? Listen to the voice of the accuser: why didn't you sort out the passports sooner? Why did you leave it to the last-minute? You have let your family down and ensured that your wife and children have a much more stressful journey without you. You're not very good at this parenting lark are you? You're not very responsible at all really. It was your laziness that was the problem, that and your lack of attention to detail, your general carelessness. You just don't care enough. Frankly you're not a very nice person at all. Why don't you pull yourself together and make more of an effort? It's like what's happened with your ministry on Mersea. They don't like you any more, you know that don't you? People feel so let down by you, that's why they don't come to the services that you take any more. Why don't you give up on being a parish priest, it's clearly not what you're any good at, and go and find something academic to do instead? Or if you can't do that, because you've been such a failure academically, just get a job somewhere else, somewhere other than Mersea. Because you're crap, you've been a disaster. And if you can't get a job somewhere else because you're generally useless, find some other method to get out of our way. Abandon everything. Abandon your family – you're a pretty poor husband and father anyway. Just go. If all else fails, you could always kill yourself. The world will be better off without you taking up space.

This is spiritual warfare, no more, no less. This is what it is to struggle with the demons. Thanks be to God, I do have some gifting in this. And the unexpected separation from my family and freedom from work gave the freedom for this struggle to come out into the open – and the enemy overplayed his hand. He always does in the end. The Father of Lies cannot stop spinning the web of lies and in the end, even the more stubborn and obtuse of pilgrims realises the truth, and is then set free.

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It happened that Abba Moses the Ethiopian was struggling with the temptation of fornication. Unable to stay any longer in the cell, he went and told Abba Isidore. The old man exhorted him to return to his cell. But he refused, saying, "Abba, I cannot." Then Abba Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace and said to him, "Look towards the west." He looked and saw hordes of demons flying about and making a noise before launching an attack. Then Abba Isidore said to him, "Look towards the east." He turned and saw an innumerable multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Abba Isidore said, "See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they are." Then Abba Moses gave thanks to God, plucked up his courage, and returned to his cell.

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I had a very remarkable dream on holiday. It was in several parts, and even though I woke up in the middle of it, I was able to resume it quite easily, until it reached a natural conclusion.

The first part of the dream was based around the Yacht Club on Mersea. There was some sort of Boat Show going on, and there was a remarkable new motoryacht on display (I can remember the design very clearly – it was more of a spaceship than a yacht and it was not very seaworthy). I joined a queue of people who had lined up to see it, and realised that I was standing behind John Richardson.

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Several people have said to me – in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Sir Humphrey Appleby – that they see me as brave for being as open as I am on this blog. I can understand why they say that. It is indeed a risk – but a risk of what?

There is a cult of misplaced manliness that has hollowed out leadership into an empty shell. The formalities of the stiff-upper lip had much to commend them – but that was because in a living and sophisticated culture there were ways of signalling the underlying passion, without overwhelming the decencies. Now we live in a sodden flood-plain of disordered emotions, with several vessels washed up on the grass. The task is to make those stiff vessels sea-worthy again, which means wrestling those passions into submission. This is spiritual warfare, no more, no less.

We are enjoined to take the good shepherd as the pattern of our calling. He wept at the death of his friend. I believe that the disciples were helped by this.

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I suppose that writing these things is a way of helping me to take off the clothes of social respectability. I become naked.

And the weaver said, Speak to us of Clothes.
And he answered:
Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment, for the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.
Some of you say, "It is the north wind who has woven the clothes we wear."
And I say, Aye, it was the north wind, But shame was his loom, and the softening of the sinews was his thread.
And when his work was done he laughed in the forest.
Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean.
And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind?
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.


~~

I found myself in the Palace of Westminster. I was in the commons chamber, sat next to a friend from University who is now an MP. I then moved into one of the halls in the Palace where I was queuing with an ex-girlfriend waiting to go into a black-tie/ball gown event. This rather rapidly segued into a scene in a dormitory, which was at one and the same time still in Westminster and also one of the dormitories I slept in at boarding school. There was a couple from Mersea in the dormitory at the same time. I realised that I didn't belong there, and I left.

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One of the blessings of not going on holiday in a timely fashion was that I was able to attend the funeral of my friend, mentor and therapist. That was good on many levels, one of which was simply to receive a good solid dose of Anglo-Catholic devotion, something which I feel short of.

In one of our last conversations we had talked about stopping therapy, and reverting to spiritual direction. Therapy is a very good thing, but it is no substitute for the hard spiritual labour which is the prerequisite for personal growth. I am feeling the need to concentrate more on that. I said to him that I felt therapy was starting to feel constraining – a requirement to navel-gaze when what I feel the need to do now is look outwards and engage. He said 'therapy could help with that!' - but I wasn't convinced.

The Lord has taken that decision out of our hands. I'm not going to seek another therapist. I am going to seek a new spiritual director, someone to walk with me on the way.

~~

I walked out of Westminster and found myself on the Hard – which is the harbour area near the Yacht club. The place was crowded, it was like the Regatta, and there was a game of football going on. I joined in with the football, but when I kicked the ball I discovered that it was a papier-mache sculpture (possibly a skull), and in kicking it I had damaged it. I am now very unpopular with the crowd, and I leave.


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The story is told that at the Monastery of St. George the Abbot was blessed with monks who did not have beautiful voices. The annual pilgrimage on the feast day of St. George was not very impressive with the rather awful sounds coming from the choir. So the Abbot called together all the monks and said, "Look, this year I am going to invite the famous choir from the cathedral for the feast." Word went out and thousands of people came to the Monastery of St. George for the feast day, and it was a glorious event. The famous choir from the cathedral was in superb form and used its best voices. The Abbot was thrilled and even the humble monks who were not allowed to sing that day were thrilled. Following the day's festivities the monks went off to sleep, and the Abbot was soon sound asleep after all the excitement of the day. While he was sleeping, St. George came to him and said, "Father, I think you missed my feast day! Today is my feast day and here you are, you didn't do anything. Have I not blessed you this past year?" And the Abbot said, "O, Saint George, I do not know where you were, but we had a glorious feast today. How could you not be here?" St. George said, "I was in the church and I saw a great multitude of people, but I heard nothing."

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The holiday was thoroughly restorative, not least because I was with people who had known me for a long time, for whom my recent angst and troubles meant very little – they were simply a few paragraphs in one chapter of a long story. I need my friends, and I need to make more time to see them. They help me to remember who I am.


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I find myself in an odd, dark church, and meet my training incumbent there. I make a slightly cynical remark about Archdiaconal duties and receive a frosty stare. I turn and see a small group of clergy kneeling at the altar sharing communion. I receive alongside them – but then the president starts to recite the prayer of consecration, having forgotten to do this earlier.

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“To uproot sin and the evil that is so embedded in our sinning can be done only by divine power, for it is impossible and outside man's competence to uproot sin. To struggle, yes, to continue to fight, to inflict blows, and to receive setbacks is in your power. To uproot, however, belongs to God alone. If you could have done it on your own, what would have been the need for the coming of the Lord? For just as an eye cannot see without light, nor can one speak without a tongue, nor hear without ears, nor walk without feet, nor carry on works without hands, so you cannot be saved without Jesus nor enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” St, Macarius, Homily 3.4

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I watched 'The Rite' recently - very good - but I loved this bit of dialogue from Anthony Hopkins: "At times I've experienced total loss of faith—day, months when I don't know what the hell I believe in—God or the devil, Santa Claus or Tinker Bell. Yet there's something that keeps digging and scraping away inside of me. Seems like God's fingernail. And finally, I can take no more of the pain and I get shoved out from the darkness into the light."

~~

One of the things that I have been working on most, in therapy and privately, is overcoming my fear of social disapproval. I've got the theology sorted, it's letting the lessons sink into the crevices of the heart which is difficult, and which takes time. I have no doubt that I am making progress, but like an old war-wound it occasionally flares up and I am plunged into old anger and darkness. This is spiritual warfare, no more, no less. This is the nature of the spiritual quest – to take our stony hearts and allow God to break them into flesh. It is not a simple or linear process. Then again, nor are trees – and they are beautiful in all their gnarled and weather-beaten complexity.

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The demons "are treacherous, and are ready to change themselves into all forms and assume all appearances. Very often also without appearing they imitate the music of harp and voice, and recall the words of Scripture. Sometimes, too, while we are reading they immediately repeat many times, like an echo, what is read. They arouse us from our sleep to prayers; and this constantly, hardly allowing us to sleep at all. At another time they assume the appearance of monks and feign the speech of holy men, that by their similarity they may deceive and thus drag their victims where they will. But no heed must be paid them even if they arouse to prayer, even if they counsel us not to eat at all even though they seem to accuse and cast shame upon us for those things which once they allowed. For they do this not for the sake of piety or truth, but that they may carry off the simple to despair; and that they may say the discipline is useless, and make men loathe the solitary life as a trouble and burden, and hinder those who in spite of them walk in it." (Athanasius)

~~

I have a bad habit of often withdrawing in the face of hostility, of avoiding conflict. That might seem false to those who only see the combative side of my character, but it is true nonetheless. “Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself! I am large, I contain multitudes.” I am coming to see that this is a significant root to one of the key challenges I face in the parish, and that deafness and introversion are contributory factors, not the determining ones.

The naming of demons is the first step in casting them out. In other words, there are things that I can do about this, and things that I will enjoy doing about this.

As for the combative side – it is somewhat exhausted now, and is resolved to rest for a while.

~~

I find myself being shown around a possible Rectory. It is in a poor area of Manchester, near where I spent a few months on placement. It is a flat, on the first and second floor. In talking to the parish representatives I feel full of enthusiasm for what can be done to grow the church and yet, as I walk around the flat, I realise that it would be impossible to make it a home for our family. I realise that the parish is not right for me.

~~

I have been restless and exploring my options but what is becoming ever clearer to me is that it is the accuser who seeks to drive me out. God, St Benedict and Eugene Peterson are unanimous in calling me to stabilitas. I think my family want that too.

Abba Isaiah said, "A beginner who goes from one monastery to another is like an animal who jumps this way and that, for fear of the halter."

~~

On holiday, I had one of my sleepless nights – one where I wake up in the small hours and find my brain processing at high speed. I am pondering Robert the Bruce's spider. The story is told to show how are to emulate the Bruce, and not be downcast at failure but simply to pick ourselves up, cast off the dust from our feet and move on. Yet I ponder the spider at the heart of the story. In truth, the spider doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. It has no capacity for changing its nature, and so it will simply keep on casting the web until it either succeeds or dies.

I take a lesson from this. We human beings are confused in our self-understandings. We think that our natures are infinitely malleable according to the pressures of our ego or wider society. We have not that creativity or strength. We are as God has made us and called us, from beginning to end.

I sometimes think that what I have been trying to be is a bird, because people have wanted me to build a nest out of twigs and leaves, somewhere in which cuckoos can be comfortable. This is difficult, because I am a spider, weaving a web of fine strands liable to be blown apart by a single flap of a bird's wing. The web is a fragile structure, and yet it can catch flies – even the Lord of the Flies. To be a spider and pretend to be a bird – I have a suspicion that this is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I need to reverence God's intentions more than I have been doing.

In other words, I need to concentrate on spinning the web, until I either succeed or die.

~~

John Barrowman, what a fine looking man.


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I have come to a place of much greater equanimity and spiritual calm. That is not to say that there are no longer any weeds in my spiritual garden – it is to say that after the thunderstorm and the rain the sun has come out, and it is time for me to start weeding and tending the flowers.

At previous times in my life, when I have been in a similar place, I would have said 'a new start!' 'new plans!' but now – I can't. I am realising that I am a passenger in my own life and I have no capacity to determine the course. My dream was all about vanities, and I believe those vanities have run their course. For now.

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In the last part of the dream, I am walking down a street in South London trying to find a funeral. A friend from school is giving me advice on a mobile phone, and promises to come and get me in his taxi if need be. But I find the church and go in. It is a calm and clean place. There are candles and incense. I realise that the deceased is my training incumbent, and the service is being taken by the Bishop of Colchester. The service is simple and traditional and I feel 'this is it' – this is what church must be. I leave the service feeling both satisfied but also wounded from two sudden bereavements.

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In all my wanderings through the spiritual darkness I have not felt separated from God. For most of my life I enjoy what could be called an 'HDTV' access to Him – guidance for the way forward has often been very clear and intimate. Yet through this recent darkness it is as if the connection has been by telegram – much reduced in information, yet still clear and understandable.

And what has God's message to me been, consistently through all this time. What has the voice of God been to me?

“Trust me.”

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3 comments:

  1. Beautiful, challenging, vulnerable and authentic. Grace and peace my friend, grace and peace.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "realised that I was standing behind John Richardson."

    If that was me, it's a bit weirder reading it than you might think.

    ReplyDelete

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