Saturday, 8 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 5


I’m not sure whether I managed to sleep through four alarms involving light, radio, annoying tunes and beeping, or if there was a strange technological black-out across W2, or if I am simply incompetent, but I wake up with a lively spirit at not quite nine o’clock. Not a disaster as it’s my day off but much regretted later. Friday is a good newspaper day with Ms Treneman and Caitlin Moran’s Celebrity Watch in The Times, plus a chap who’s marrying a friend of mine this New Year’s Eve with a very good piece. He includes a delightful quote from a Bank of England Governor who was asked by parliament his reasons for a policy and responded: “Reasons Mr Chairman? I don’t have reasons. I have instincts.” I say the morning office from my phone while listening to “U don’t dans 2 Tekno” by the Alabama 3. Both these facts make me feel slightly guilty. Afterwards to make up for missing Wednesday I take a 15k run around the many parks of Westminster. At first I feel good and cruise across Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens into Holland Park. It’s seriously swanky here - enough to make the Hyde Park Estate look positively Council. Cutting through it leads down to Kensington High Street which joins up with the bottom of the gardens. The long stretch in the baking midday sun is torture. Mad dogs and Englishmen. I regret sleeping late. The loop round Green Park is much more pleasant but St James’ is still Olympified and so forces me into a wider arc, which is the last thing I want. Getting past the palace is the usual obstacle course and I finally sweat my way up back through Hyde Park pleasantly overtaking the most absurdly slow cyclists the world has ever seen. It still feels good. Running is probably my most helpful spiritual practice. I find it easy to focus my mind on a single subject so whether it’s working through an idea or meditating on Scripture or whatever it can be very productive. The emotions of long distance running work as a sort of crucible - going through agony and endorphic ecstasy with your mind locked on Romans 7 is an experience - who will save me from this BODY OF DEATH?!

After a shower my beginning of term haircut is a success though it means washing my hair three times in one hour which seems ridiculous. I HAVE to fully shower after a haircut, the itching, the itching… Popping into town I pick up Roaring’s ordination present on bike, then head back for juice and coffee. When Roaring was first ordained I sent her my thoughts on getting ‘made’ deacon. Having failed to remember to send her a card to her retreat, I promised to put down how I feel about ordination. I think about this as I get the tube to London Bridge reading ‘Little Gidding’. I meet a friend for a glass of wine and a cigarette by the river and then head to a lecture by Sarah Coakley at Southwark Cathedral. It’s on the sex crisis in the Church and is interesting but much the same as what she has written in the past. I’m wary of seeing sex and love of the poor as a mediating form for the real object of God and my sympathy is more with Romantics like Buber and Schleiermacher, finding God within the concrete expressions of human desire and experience. Her ascetic view of marriage as martyrdom and the emphasis on marriage and celibacy don’t ring very true to me; but then I am very modern. We have dinner with another couple of friends afterwards and it’s all very jolly.

When I get home I scramble my thoughts together on priesthood.

First of all, there is only one priesthood, on this everyone agrees: the priesthood of Christ. Everyone also agrees that all Christians share in this priesthood, the priesthood of all believers as we are all part of the body of Christ. There is also a specific vocation to the priesthood; a calling. I am not interested in magic though, in some hocus-pocus metaphysical alchemy of the soul. Symbolically it would make more sense for the congregation with the bishop to lay their hands on the priest of their election, rather than a clerical web of power-infusion. The so-called ontology of priesthood is, I believe, a mythology, obfuscating the significant act of a developing relationship between God, priest and church that has been lived out by the deacon in her first year. It is easier, more clearly bounded, to define a moment of power and change - those magic hands, just as it is fetishized in the eucharist as a decisive moment with the words of power (institution). It is more true, though, to understand the entire action as a transforming relationship, a participation of the priest and people in the divine life; A new calling to participate in an old relationship. The retreat provides a sort of liminal phase, the caterpillar in the chrysalis, but for the people as well as the priest. The first mass completes the action. But it is always the priesthood of Christ - if I were Roaring I would kiss my own hands after her first mass for they are Christ’s - he has no hands on earth but yours. A gift and an awesome responsibility. You are a walking sacrament because God has chosen you to this calling and inhabits you as part of the body of Christ through God’s own actions.

Anyway rather than getting caught up in a prosaic list of priestly actions, let’s have some Eliot instead:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make and end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from. And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree

Are of equal duration. A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always—

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

The unspoken image, borrowed from Donne’s ‘Valediction Forbidding Mourning‘ is a compass. The Quartets are full of circular images, the blood, the stars, the seasons, sex and death, everything created moves in circles. The compass draws a circle that ends at his beginning, for him near the Mississippi or, for his ancestors, East Coker where Eliot is actually buried. But it is not just that death is a sort of beginning for the faithful, but that when we understand our end then we will understand our beginning and the rest of what follows - the shape of the circle gives away its centre. How we understand our end - our death and our point if you like, for every moment is also an end understood in relation to the centre - characterizes our entire existence: ‘Lord let me know mine end’. This is the very root of vocation. Our calling, the drawing of Love comes from our end as we achieve the person God has given us to be. Here this calling is a new beginning as a priest. The calling has ever been with you though.

For Eliot this vocation is bound up in language as he is attempting to articulate the relationship of the soul with God. Reality never stops, it constantly changes, and so therefore does our need to rearticulate and rediscover that relationship with God. Every point of the circle, every moment of life, has a tangent that is immediate to the divine, but we cannot bear very much reality and our lives and our words fall short of capturing the divine. Every step then is a movement towards death, Eliot is thinking of Charles I and the civil war as he is in Little Gidding but the illegible stone is the grave of us all who pass away in time. But his point is that the tradition preserves these actions and they continue to live with us - history and canon mean a lot to Eliot. But even more than this because every moment is in touch with God - remember the image is a compass and so every point of the circle is connected to the still point at the centre - every moment touches transcendence, the divine life. Eliot finds God in love and death - the rose and the yew tree, the rose symbolizing love in the garden of Burnt Norton with Emily, and the yew tree of the generations of life and death in East Coker, the village of his ancestors. Each are moments in time, but each take hold of eternity. But this is not dualistic - there is not time and eternity - we cannot get rid of time. Time gives us a pattern of timeless moments, it is every moment. Eternity crouches alongside us waiting to sweep us off our feet. So while light fails on an a winter’s afternoon - three images of the movement of time, light, season, time of day, History is now and England - eternity is there hidden in the midst of time. This then gives us an image for ordination - while light fails on an autumn afternoon in an English church, not much dissimilar to where Eliot is kneeling - in the dance of time, God is present, History is now and England. The calling is in time but also out of time as the compass branches up and back to the centre of the circle, touching every point. God is calling you Now and Here.

Notice then how the line taken from the Cloud of Unknowing, With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling, breaks out of the verse, standing alone, physically representing the in-breaking of transcendence, of the love that moves the sun and other stars, and it is achieved by the voice of this calling, the divine word that speaks into creation in the beginning and calls each of us to our vocation, to our end which is also our beginning.

The calling of priesthood then is a call for exploration, to discover again and again the divine activity in every moment, that gives shape to the whole from the garden of Eden to the New City. And to understand that journey, as the journey of each soul, to be a pattern, a constellation of moments, that touch the divine life as they pass through the gate, (“I am the gate, if anyone enters through me she shall be saved”.) the gate which is the hinge of the compass. This is what Eliade refers to as ille tempore - a sort of return to mythic times of closeness with God - God with us - described by Eliot in Edenic terms but redolent with the love experienced at Burnt Norton with Emily, the innocence of children in love in a garden, refigured as the drop away between waves at the Dry Salvages of Massachusetts; reading between the lines to find the real meaning. And as love and death are by nature simple they cost everything that we have. Such is the case with priesthood. As Paul writes - if there is no resurrection then we of all people are most to be pitied. Ordination seizes our complete commitment, whether we like it or not, otherwise the forces of doubt and resentment will be overwhelming. My Westcott tutor was right to tell me that I was committing myself to a way of life that few would really understand and value. There are of course ways of being a cool, successful, rich priest, but at the heart of priesthood is a renunciation - costing not less than everything, regarding it as garbage compared to the love of God. But this cost is irrelevant in the light of our end, our beginning. As Julian understands, the wealth of Christ’s victory leaps over all sin and fault, all pain and suffering. Eternity which waits always on the edge of reality promises both its final fulfilment and the full restoration of every moment in the plenitude of God - not to diminish the world’s suffering, after all it is a crowned knot of fire; the crucible of Christ’s passion promises a hallowing of suffering not its erasure; but the fire and the rose are one. Suffering meets love and the final image is of the pieta, where the suffering of Christ is met in the love of Mary (the fire and the rose; also the suffering king), transformed under the pentecostal fire of the Spirit which makes all things new.

What does ordination mean? It means kneeling in a church, where prayer has been valid, stepping into the river of a tradition, with every intention of guiding it to its re-incarnate future discovered in the will of God. It means discovering in this time the brush of eternity that graces every moment and hearing the vocation of God and God’s church. It means submitting to the cost of everything in faithfulness to the end that shapes our entire history. It means recognising the constellations of God’s activity in the world and teaching others to pay attention to these heavenly movements. It means following the path drawn by God, and listening to the voice of that calling. It means being brave to the point of death (which is every moment) and faithful to the love of God, discovered in all its many forms in this passing world. Most of all it is the call to take up the historical remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ, sharing the gift of love under the sign of suffering, and proclaiming the presence of eternity in the midst of us.

ugh. 2.42am. Where does all the time between 12 and 2am disappear?

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