Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Seascapes: a retreat for those being ordained.

In a fortnight's time I shall be conducting a retreat for those who are being ordained deacon this summer in my home Diocese of Newcastle. They will be ordained in Newcastle Cathedral on Saturday 30 June. That's the day after the anniversary of my own ordination as a deacon in 1975. I shall give the sermon at that service. It goes without saying that I am looking forward to it. It's always a privilege to be with ordinands as they cross this crucial threshold and take up their new roles in public ministry.

The retreat will be at Alnmouth Friary on the Northumberland coast, just down the road from Alnwick where I was Vicar in the 1980s. I got to know it well at that time. Before my institution as incumbent, I spent a few days on retreat there. I made regular visits to speak with one of the senior Brothers who was a wise, kindly spiritual director. Every Friday my curate (who belonged to the Franciscan Third Order) and I would attend the midday office and eucharist there and then stay on for lunch with the Brothers. The Friary was, and still is, a real foyer, a place of warmth and hospitality.

"Thin" places where we spend times of spiritual significance often provide their own symbols and metaphors to help us reflect on whatever experience we are undergoing. I vividly remember my own priest's ordination retreat during the hot summer of 1976. I stayed with a Benedictine community, and apart from prayer times, meals and sleep (when it came), spent the entire time sitting under a lime tree in the beautiful grounds. The grass was already parched in the fierce heat, but not under that tree. There I read a lot, wrote a little, pondered much and stumbled around in my personal prayers. The community left that sunny patch of England many years ago now. I have no idea whether the tree is still there. But its shelter during those three days has remained an important grace-filled memory. It's felt like a symbol of God's care and protection, especially when the realities of public ministry kicked in as they always do eventually, and sometimes it felt hard and (here's where the metaphor of shelter is important) exposed. Like Jonah and his gourd, perhaps?

What metaphor could the Friary offer this year's candidates as they think and pray about their ordination and the lifetime of public ministry that lies ahead? It's not for me to do more than make suggestions - they must do their own search look for whatever images and symbols are there to recognise them. But an obvious one is the sea itself. What everyone loves at the Friary is the chapel which looks out on the beach at Alnmouth. At high tide you see mostly sea. At low tide, there is a broad expanse of beach, beautiful glowing sands like the ones we remember from childhood seaside holidays. Sometimes I've almost wanted to cry out in that chapel like the ancient Greeks on their long march home, ecstatic on their first sight of it: "The sea! The sea!"

The sea is the chapel altar's backdrop, its reredos if you like. Inevitably, it is always changing and this is its glory. The rhythms of the tides, the changes of weather, the alterations in the light with the ebbs and flows of the seasons - all these add their own dimension to the spirituality of the chapel where we shall gather for the daily prayers of the community and for the eucharist. Your eye is constantly drawn to what's happening out there in this magnificent seascape. It could so easily be a distraction from prayer and meditation. And I'll admit it sometimes is, the magic of what takes place when the sea meets the land. When Cuthbert created his hermitage on the Inner Farne twenty miles up the coast, he built the walls of his cell high enough to cut out the views of rock and sea - for this very reason maybe, so that he could focus more intently on God?

That's the via negativa at work, understanding the spiritual path in terms of what God is not. On the other hand, and more accessibly for most of us, we can train ourselves to try to discern where God is in what we see around us, or at least find in the world of our experience images of what God could be like. I don't mean only blue skies or glowing sunsets or cute animals or fine landscapes and seascapes, though these are all gifts of God. I mean taking in what surrounds us in all its vicissitudes: dark as well as light, storm as well as stillness, rough seas as well as calm, monochrome as well as a vibrant colour. (I've found photography to be a great teacher here in helping me not simply to see but to notice, try to see into, feel for what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls the inscape - but that's for another blog.) For me the vista is a vision of the real world as if viewed through the lens of the eucharist, glimpsed as God sees it. It draws us back into its beating heart because we are learning to see not simply with our eyes but in our souls. That makes it a living icon, written by God himself.

Here, the Friary chapel can help us integrate what we see and touch and experience with how we pray. For if the reredos, this east seaward window is not to be a distraction, then it must provide us with spiritual food for thought to inform our prayer, whether corporate or personal, and our celebration of the eucharist. All of us will find our life-experience mirrored in that window from time to time, in the ever-changing conditions of land, sea and sky. Sometimes the alterations can be so subtle that we hardly notice them, like the tide creeping in over the sand on a calm day. At other times there will be dramatic changes whose suddenness takes us by surprise, as when a storm breaks unexpectedly, or a sunburst emerges out of a sullen lead-grey sky.

And if the window is a symbol of life, it is also a symbol of the tides of ordained ministry. The seascape is always changing. Sometimes those changes seem charged with promise, at other times laden with threat. As men and women in the public ministry of the church, our calling is to enter into human life in all its variety, and in God's name help people to make sense of it, even glimpse where God might be in it all. It calls for solidarity in both storm and sunshine, troubled seas and still, perilous journeys into the unknown as well as calm sea and prosperous voyage. Our new deacons have no idea of where their ministries will take them even in a few days' time, still less in the years of their lifetimes. How can they? How could I, sitting under that lime tree more than forty years ago?

But what we can and must do is offer the path ahead to God. "Lead kindly light" were words often in my thoughts as I stood in that chapel as a parish priest and pondered on my ministry in the parish a few miles inland; and even, in a highly symbolic way, "for those in peril on the sea" when things felt rough. There's a poem by William Blake, one of England's great "see-ers", that I shall quote in one of my addresses:

Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,

Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.


Those words are embroidered on a sampler the parish gave us when we said farewell. It still hangs in the room where we spend most of our daylight hours at home. They remind me of that window at the Friary and the years of stipendiary ordained ministry I have now laid down. And now, it's time for a new generation of clergy to pick up the baton in turn. I can promise them that Blake speaks the truth, not only of human life and discipleship, but of ministry too. And it's all there, in that window and in what they will recognise as they gaze into it and say their prayers and offer their lives as God's deacons.

It goes without saying that my prayers will be with them too. And with all those who are being ordained in the coming weeks in churches and cathedrals across the country.




1 comment:

  1. A beautiful post, Michael, thank you. I'm rather immersed in the bad side of the church at present. It's good to read something so uplifting.

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