An Unsilent Silence

This is why most people do not stick with a contemplative discipline for very long; we have heard all sorts of talk about contemplation delivering inner peace but when we turn within to seek this peace, we meet inner chaos instead of peace. But at this point it is precisely the meeting of chaos that is salutary, not snorting lines of euphoric peace. The peace will indeed come, but it will be the fruit, not of pushing away distractions, but of meeting thoughts and feelings with stillness instead of commentary. This is the skill we must learn. Martin Laird ‘Into the Silent Land’

I recently spent a week with the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford as part of my vicar training. This particular convent is in the contemplative tradition, so their primary focus is prayer (rather than ‘mission’ type convents which might be more engaged in offering a service- such as the nuns in Call the Midwife).

I learnt a huge amount in the week I was there, along with a fellow ordinand (trainee vicar). We tried hard to fully engage in the life of the community, and were given an unusual amount of access to the community. Visitors are normally sat in the side chapel, separate from the nuns and only eat one meal a day with them, whereas we had a key that gave us access to the main convent buildings, sat with the nuns in the main part of the chapel, ate with them, and worked alongside them during the day.

The day had a set rhythm, which, though it initially seemed very prescribed, actually created a lovely simplicity. We started with matins at 6am, and there were 5 other services throughout the course the day, punctuating any other activity. Meals were eaten in silence, though at lunch someone read aloud. There were periods of work in the morning and afternoon, which for me meant shelling vast quantities of broad beans, and cleaning enormous brass candlesticks. The general rule was if you did not need to speak, you didn’t. From 8pm to 9am was ‘the Greater Silence’, where, except for services, the silence was stricter.

There was actually more talking than the above description might suggest: we had to be given instructions as to what to do, and each afternoon we had time with one of the sisters who told us a bit more about an aspect of community life. There was also a feast day while we were there which included a ‘talking lunch’ and afternoon tea which included chatting with the sisters. Nevertheless, there were considerable periods of quiet, and certainly a greater amount of silence than I am used to (not hard given that I very rarely have silence in my life).

I can confirm that the day goes slowest between 6.30am-9am. Following matins, we would grab some breakfast (in silence) in the guest house and then had well over 2 hours to dedicate to prayer. In the spirit of the convent, I tried to engage in contemplative prayer, which is less about presenting a list of requests to God (called ‘intercessory’ prayer- and my usual type), and more about sitting quietly. It is not even really about actively listening for God, more about cultivating an understanding that even sitting in silence is dwelling in the presence of God. Martin Laird’s ‘Into the Silent Land’ is an excellent guide for this particular type of contemplative prayer.

It turns out that silence is not just about being quiet. In those morning hours, sat in the beautiful garden of the convent, I may have been not making noise externally, but there was no way you could describe me as internally silent. It wasn’t even remotely quiet inside my head! Quietening my external environment, by not listening to music, and having a technology fast (so no facebook, whatsapp etc), meant that I was able to hear just how loud my mind is. For a start, my tinnitus, which I do not normally notice much, became deafening. But more significant was recognising the internal chatter that is my constant companion. Sometimes it is fairly benign- reminders of an email I should send, or mulling over something I have read recently. At other times the internal monologue becomes more demanding, reminding me of the list of things ‘to do’ and guilting me about what I haven’t yet achieved in the day. Sometimes it is downright critical, whispering insidious messages about my inadequacy as a student/friend/wife, how I must be a disappointment to others, why I’m useless, and other such life-eroding messages.

Silence, it turns out, is not about not speaking, but is about developing the ability to quieten inside yourself. Laird speaks of cultivating an attitude of silence, which means that you are internally quiet, even if there is noise around you.

It is hard work! Stilling the internal monologue doesn’t just happen, but takes real effort, over along period of time. A week in a convent was a good introduction, but I also realised that if I am serious in wanting to develop in my ability to be silent, it is the work and discipline of a lifetime. I’m not about to abandon all other types of prayer for silence, but I can also see the benefit of it in slowing myself, albeit temporarily, and calming my mind down. How often am I operating out of anxiety generated by constantly racing thoughts? Silence might be as important for my mental health as it is for my spiritual health. Important too is to not see it as ‘wasted’ time, but as an important activity in itself. Mind you, ‘wasting time’ is an important thing to do as well as we are not machines to be constantly productive.

If you’ve never tried sitting in silence, I’d recommend it, but it comes with a warning; you may find it is harder work, and less peaceful than you might expect as you discover things about yourself you hadn’t stopped long enough to realise.

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Defiant Hope

(this is my contribution to a community creative project called 20one17, this time with a loose theme of defiant hope. If you are reading this before 5pm GMT on 20/1/17 then feel free to get involved. Contributions can be as simple as a photo. For more details see 20one17 Defiant Hope ).

We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as bombs. Kenneth Clark

I am by nature something of an optimist. I tend to assume the best about people (at least when it comes to others). But yet there is this constant pull towards a glass mostly empty approach. Cynicism and disillusionment draw me like an old armchair, comfy and cosy and far easier to sink into than get out of. 

By contrast remaining positive feels like trudging up a hill with a heavy pack on my back. Each news article read adds a stone to the bag. Each friend going through a difficult time covers my shoes in sticky mud.

It would be easier by far to just rest a while in ease.

But that will not do. Because one of the untruths I choose to believe as I sink into that armchair is that I will not be changed. If I spend my time assuming the worst, pointing out all that is bad in the world, do I really think that my heart will not shrink, that my eyes will not be downcast? And if my eyes are downcast, then how will I be able to see the good? Especially when the bad is often louder, brasher and more in your face, while good keeps a lower profile in the shadows. 
Is it any surprise that nothing changes, as I spend my time pointing out ills from my chair?

The thing with cynicism is it sucks all the joy out of life. Disillusion paralyses.

So today I choose to lift myself up out of that chair. To stretch muscles that have not been worked for a while, to lift my eyes and peer into the shadows. Because the more bad, the greater the shadows. But there is more good there than I think if I choose to look and to see. 

I want to live with naive optimism, doggedly determined idealism, and most of all, defiant hope. Hope is more than just wishful thinking, or denial of reality. Hope is choosing to believe there is inherent good in people, that systems can be changed, that the world can be better. Hope is the power that will clean the mud from my shoes, and grind stones to dust. It will strengthen my muscles, so though the walk will still be uphill, and there will still be stones and mud, it will be achievable. Hope is the strength to keep my head up, my eyes looking towards the horizon, and hope is the faith that for all of the effort, for all of the trials, the views at the top, and on the way up, will be staggering, full of beauty and wonder.

It’s best not to confuse optimism with hope. Optimism is a pyschological attitude towards life. Hope goes further. It is an anchor that one hurls towards the future, it’s what lets you pull on the line and reach what you’re aiming for and head in the right direction. Hope is also theological; God is there too. Pope Francis

Being Still

Too many voices it won’t take long
which one’s right and which one’s wrong
and yours is most likely to be misunderstood…

and I am contemplating matters
all this cling and clatter
in my head and what you said
is ringing, ringing faster.
Lifehouse- Cling and Clatter

We are told we need silence, away from all the distractions- from the TV, computer hum, vibrating mobile, chatter around, music in my ears.

So I still myself, sit down for silence
And I find noise:
Cars racing past outside, a whispered conversation, creaking chairs, the scratch of a pen on paper.
And louder than all that, the chatter in my head.
New to do lists, new to don’t lists. A new year, new resolutions- about attitude, character, action, aspirations. There is never enough time, there will never be enough time. And so like a constant backdrop the question of ‘Is this a waste of time?’.

Is it a waste of time to sit, still, in silence when there is so much to be done?

As I wrote that last line the traffic stopped, just for a few seconds and there was no noise- just for a moment.

Long enough for me to hear my heart beating- too fast for one sitting still
Long enough to hear the clamour of accusing voices internally ‘not good enough’
Long enough to hear God?

I am not one to think that one cannot hear God through music, or through the noise of a city. I am an urban dweller, a millennial, my life has had a soundtrack. I have had to learn to hear God above the din of everyday life.
Surely that should be within the din of everyday life?

And who says everyday life should be full of din anyway? Perhaps I have got so used to noise- external and internal that I can’t conceive of it any other way.
But there is a yearning for quiet, that makes itself felt whenever I find myself, rarely, in a quiet place. Mindfulness, I guess some would call it. A desire for internal quiet if not always external quiet. The Bible talks of peace and being still.

Perhaps it was easier for them then. But I don’t imagine I am so different from them. Perhaps their world was quieter, but I’m sure their hearts were just as capable of noise and din.

Be still,
and know that I am God.

Perhaps the yearning isn’t for quiet but to know God, to allow myself long enough to focus back on the One who sustains me, to be reminded that it doesn’t depend on me.

 

So this year I will try 15 minutes a week of silence. Perhaps doing something like writing, or colouring in; indoors or outdoors. But silent, no background music and in a quiet place (though inevitably there will be background noise).

 

[this was written during a reflective service last week, so it is in a slightly different style than my normal writing. I wanted to post it as a form of accountability to this intention]

Death’s Sting

Where, O death is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting?

The sting is in the dying:
in stolen mobility
and robbed speech;
in the multiplication of wires and tubes
and the reduction of dignity;
in words not said
and sentiments unheard;
in unrealised hopes, unrealised.

The victory is in relationships
strained and unfulfilled;
in sage advice that could not be heeded
because it was never given;
in jokes not told and laughter not shared.
The victory is in the loss
of a father, a brother, a husband, a friend.

And it may be that we have the last laugh
for Death has been swallowed up in victory,
And there is confidence to say you are going Home,
and you will be free of pain and hurt,
Free to live utterly complete,
Totally fulfilling your designed purpose.

But for now we face dying, not death,
And the sting is in the skin.
It’s poison in our veins,
Slowing movements, clouding perspectives
Filling the internal pool
so it overflows in tears.

[This was written a few weeks ago after visiting my Father-in-law in a palliative care unit, and later in a hospital ward. On the 5th December 2016, he went to his eternal Home.]

To love, cherish….and obey?

I, (name), take you, (name)
to be my wife/husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish, [and obey]
till death us do part,
according to God’s holy law.
In the presence of God I make this vow.
from The Marriage Service, Common Worship (Church of England) 

I got married a few weeks ago, and we opted to go for the more traditional wording of the vows. While the man says “to love and to cherish”, the woman’s vows say “to love, cherish and obey”. It’s funny how a single word can cause so much angst, but this one does. Not particularly because it is in there, but because, while the rest of the vows are the same for men and women, only the woman ‘obeys’.

I am sure that, if they noticed it, some of my feminist friends will have gasped (internally- I didn’t hear any out loud gasping, so well done) at the inherent inequality of it. But it wasn’t a mistake, I haven’t lost my mind, and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. This blog is an attempt to explain to those who find it surprising my rationale behind making that decision. You may well not agree with me at the end of it, but at least you will hopefully understand more why I chose that route. (It will also act as a reminder for me on the days I am feeling disobedient why I made the promises I did.)

Firstly, and very importantly, it was my choice. Part of my understanding of the importance and role of feminism, is that it gives women the power to make choices in decisions that impact them, rather than decisions being made on their behalf. Of course, I discussed it, at length, with Husband and I was aware of his preference. Of course that influenced my decision; the opinions of those we love always do. But Husband was also clear that it was entirely my choice as to the final decision. These are vows that we have made before God and each other, and we intend to take those promises very seriously. Husband certainly didn’t want to  make me promise something that I didn’t agree with and didn’t intend to stick to.

We set out the boundaries in our discussions. In saying that I will obey Husband, that doesn’t mean anything he says I have to do. It is not a case that he clicks his fingers and I jump. In promising to obey, I have not surrendered my ability to discuss, disagree or express my opinion! For us, this bit of the vows is particularly pertinent to big decisions that we come across in life; for example, a decision on where any children we have go to school, not the colour of the curtains. We are taking about situations where a decision has to be made, but after discussing it, both listening to the other’s point of view, praying about it, discussing and praying some more, we still have different ideas of the best course of action.  A democracy of 2 simply can get stuck. In those situations, someone needs the casting vote. I guess this is my pragmatic side coming through in making this choice. We’ve decided that our default is for Husband to have that casting vote. Sometimes it might be me, depending on the situation. An obvious example is my work. Obviously Husband doesn’t have jurisdiction over my work decisions,  but it may well be that with other decisions we decide that it makes sense for me to have the final decision.

While we are talking about work, there was another aspect I had not considered before Husband raised it. He reminded me that in my future line of work (being a vicar), I am likely to be responsible for making a lot of decisions, every day. We cannot always predict the outcome of our decisions, but we all carry the weight of responsibility for the decisions we make. In a profession such as the priesthood (but also many other careers such as social work, teaching, nursing etc.), our decisions can have profound long term impacts on people’s lives, for good or ill. That’s a lot of responsibility. Husband’s job, on the other hand, while it involves decision making as all life does, doesn’t involve the same type of decisions. By taking on the role of lead decision maker in the family, he is also taking on the responsibility that carries, and taking it off me. He is not doing this to gain power over me, but to love and help me. (This again doesn’t mean that I am passive in decision making, nor does it mean I won’t take ownership of decisions we reach, nor that if it goes wrong I will ascribe blame to Husband, but he will still carry more weight of responsibility simply by having made the decision).

We would be foolish if we didn’t acknowledge that by me vowing to obey, I have handed power over to Husband. Not complete power, but there is still the possibility that he could abuse his position, demanding I obey in every decision, or make decisions that are in his interest, not ours as a family. In spite of all the other reasons above, this was the crux of it for me: Do I trust Husband? Do I trust him to make good decisions on our behalf, decisions which I can get behind and support because I know that they are made with love and thought and care? Do I trust him not to abuse this power? Yes, I do. If I couldn’t say yes to this, I couldn’t marry him at all.

The final part to my thinking, and possibly the most controversial, is that we want our marriage to model (as imperfectly as it may be) the relationship between Jesus Christ, and His bride, the Church. There is a really difficult and awkward passage in the New Testament which reads “21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:21-25. New International Version).

I don’t have space to unpack this passage fully now*. I find this a really uncomfortable passage, and it has been misused to cause great harm to many women down the centuries (specifically verse 22 “Wives submit yourselves to your own husbands”- those who misuse it tend to ignore the previous verse which is abundantly clear “Submit to one another” and verse 25). I might rail against the patriarchical society that first wrote it, but I can’t get away from it saying the wife should submit to the husband in the same way the Church submits to Christ. Admittedly, the Church (which is all Christians, not just specific denominations or groups meeting in a particular building), is in many ways terrible at submitting to (i.e. obeying) Christ Jesus. The list of ways in which the Church doesn’t follow Jesus’ teaching is shamefully long. But, for all its failings, the Church at its very core is trying to follow Jesus and be obedient.

I know that some of you will still be choking on verse 22-24, as do I (especially that “in everything” phrase). But remember the mutuality of verse 21 “Submit to one another”- the give and take of relationships, and when I keep reading I reach “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. Too often we never reach this verse, but quite frankly, having read this, I think I have the better deal. My Husband is meant to love me in the same way that Christ loved the Church: i.e. he is meant to show me the same self-sacrificing, costly love that led Jesus to set aside His own desires, comfort and well-being, and led Him to the cross. If Husband is making decisions with that attitude and approach, they are likely to be decisions which are in our best interests, and easy for me to agree with (though not necessarily easy to enact). I think husbands have the harder task in this passage.

When I started writing this blog, I didn’t expect to end up writing about Ephesians 5. I probably wouldn’t have started writing it if I had. Promising to obey is controversial these days, and talk of submission even more so. I expect may who read this will still disagree with my decision, but it is done, and though he will not always get it right, I trust Husband to love me well.

 

* Here are some blogs which look at this passage/the idea of submission in more depth. The first is from a writer whose book ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’ was one of the most liberating things I’ve read. The other two are written from a queer theology perspective.

Rachel Held Evans – Humility without Hierarchy

Queer Ephesians 5:21-6:9 – Guest Post Ben Allison

Queer Ephesians 5:21-33 – Wives be Subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord

 

When “If” becomes “When” again

Just over 3 years ago I started this blog. Various friends were encouraging me to try blogging as they knew I enjoyed writing, but the final trigger was me writing a piece called ‘When “When” becomes “If”’.  Click the link to read the full piece but in summary it was about me attempting to come to terms with the idea I might never get married.

Two years ago I wrote about my foray into online dating with ‘Choosing a balloon’. Well, much to my surprise, it went very well. (Letting you into a secret, my chosen ‘balloon’ helped edit that piece, though we hadn’t quite started dating at that time). Now I find myself no longer considering ‘if’ I will get married, but ‘when’.

In fact, the ‘when’ is imminent. In 8 days I will be standing next to the man I love, making my marriage vows in front of God, a vicar and a whole crowd of friends and family. And I am SO EXCITED!

I can’t wait till I get to legally commit my life to this wonderful man, can’t wait till we get to live together, till our daily patterns and routines are tied up and intermingled with each others. I am excited about getting to know him ever better, and being known by him more deeply every day (and yes, I’m looking forward to sex too). I’m also looking forward to seeing where God takes us and gets us doing in ministry together.

Married friends tell me it’s the little things that are the biggest things in a way. I know I am looking forward to being able to come home to a hug after a hard day, to having a sounding board for my concerns, ideas and visions (maybe that’s not a small thing), being able to curl up next to a human radiator on cold days, and having someone who will keep the DVDs and bookshelves ordered. I know he is looking forward to me making crumble (probably some other things too, my crumble isn’t that outstanding!). I’m enjoying the excitement in anticipating the wonderful ordinariness of doing life together.

 But I am also  terrified. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m about to make some of the biggest promises I will ever make. I mean, what if it’s all a terrible mistake? What if I am not enough for him? What if I hurt him? What if things go wrong? What if I am a rubbish wife?

Deep breath: it isn’t; I’m not; I will; they will; I will be sometimes; but that’s ok.

Let me unpack that a bit more. It is a lifetime commitment, and a lifetime is (God willing) a long time to be with someone if it’s all a terrible mistake. Except, if I had even the inkling that this was the wrong move, I wouldn’t be making it. I’ve had plenty of time to consider what I’d want in a husband, and God has provided it, and more. Husband-to-be and I have now had a couple of years of getting to know each other, and while that might seem fast for some people, we’ve approached this with prayer and openness and the support of friends and family (who would tell us if they thought it was an error of judgement on our part).

I won’t be enough for him. I never will, I never should be. Well not in the sense of being able to satisfy all his needs. He won’t be enough for me either. For both of us, our first priority is our faith and our relationship with God. God is the only one that would ever be enough for either of us. We will need other friends as well. If we only have each other our relationship will get claustrophobic and inward looking. We want to be generous in our marriage- and that includes hospitality, time, and love for others. Having said all that, Husband-to-be is more than enough for me in terms of a romantic partner- I won’t be looking anywhere else for romance.

I will hurt him. I have already, I will again. Because I am human, and flawed and will be selfish and misjudge situations. We have quite different points of view on some things, and I am convinced that one of the reasons God has brought us together is that we can show each other the world from a different viewpoint. My prayer is that I don’t him hurt deliberately. But when we hurt each other, I will work to forgive and restore anything we have lost in our relationship. That’s the same when things go wrong, which they will. We have already faced a number of fairly stressful situations in the past year alone, so I know that though they are hard work, we will work hard to keep communicating, keep loving, keep growing closer together. Sometimes the things that go wrong won’t be our fault, and then we will need to hold each other tight and support each other through it. When it is our fault we will still need to hold each other tight and support each other through it.

I am certain there will be times when I am not the wife that I think he deserves. Sometimes that might be because I am setting my expectations unrealistically high, and in fact am trying to be ‘super-wife’. I know then that he will remind me that I can’t do everything and remind me I am loved anyway. At other times I will get my priorities wrong, or let him down in some way and then I will need to apologise.

It is daunting, and I think that is right. After all I am about to step into the greatest adventure of my life. The adventure that all my other life adventures will be contained and framed by. It is also thrilling. I know that in amongst all the unknowns, all the highs and lows that the future brings, God will be with us. However much we fail each other, or hurt each other, or have reason to celebrate and rejoice, and however much we love; God loves us more, and He is faithful and will not leave us without support.

Into the Unknown

We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs. 
Kenneth Clark

I’ve woken this morning to the news I didn’t want to hear- we have decided to leave the EU. This makes me incredibly sad, and judging by my facebook newsfeed there is an awful lot of hurt, disappointment, anger and concern about what this means. Given the opinion polls suggest that the youngest generations are those that primarily wanted to remain (and many of my friends are in London), it is unsurprising that I can name only 2 people who I know voted Leave amongst my friendship group.

However, this is how democracy works (and let us not forget that we are often deeply suspicious of countries that don’t do democracy like we think it should be done). So now I have a choice: I could sit back, and watch as a decision I disagreed with, but the majority wanted, starts to take effect. Basically, I could sulk and refuse to play because we are not playing the game that I wanted to play. I could hope it fails because then I can say ‘I told you so’.

Or, I can accept that this is the decision the country has made, the country I am still a citizen of, and desperately want to be proud to belong to. I can accept it, and fight to make it work the best it can for all citizens.

It is indeed a new day for Britain, and we have made a clear statement that we want to go in a new direction. Well let’s make that the best direction it possibly can be. Whether we voted Leave or Remain, we all will live with the result. So I want to say that I want to make Britain the best place it can be. I know those who voted Leave also want to make Britain better, and while I might have different ideas about what ‘better’ looks like, perhaps we can commit to putting the divisive nature of the campaigns behind us, and find ways to walk forward together.

I am probably being woefully idealistic, but I’d rather hold up the highest standard and attempt to reach it (and fail), than settle for less. So this is what I will try to do moving forward (you will notice it is entirely unmanageable and unachievable on my own- please join me).

  • I will try to remember that many who voted differently to me are rational, loving, generous and equally idealistic people. Just because their logic differs from mine as to how to go about achieving a better world, doesn’t mean I should dismiss it, but I must listen to concerns and ideas on all sides.
  • If in a few years’ time it has all gone horribly wrong, I will not blame those who voted Leave and thus cause more division.
  • I will fight misinformation
  • I will hold politicians and the media to the highest standards of honesty and integrity. I will encourage them when they are doing well, and refuse to play the game of letting personal attacks sway my political opinion.
  • I will fight for justice for all, not just those who are white, middle-class and British. I will fight to see the UK become a world-leading example on tackling head on issues such as climate change, environmental damage, and wealth inequality. I will encourage us as a society to do this by getting our own house in order before lecturing others, but also by walking the journey alongside other countries.
  • I will remain compassionate, generous and hospitable to those who are different from us, whether that’s differences in class, sexuality, race, faith etc and whether from inside our borders or not, and I will encourage those around me to do the same.

My faith drives a great deal of this, and while the above list is hugely optimistic, and probably entirely unrealistic, I believe in a God that has given us agency to affect change (both positive and negative), who can perform miracles (and that includes in changing complex structures) and who is the source of love. When I am feeling empty of love or compassion I can ask the God who freely provides to refill me.

I am sincere in my desire to want to see our country and our world become a better place. The sharp reality of that is that, whether inside the EU or not, I am in control primarily of my own attitude and behaviour, and that is where I must start with creating a better world.