Only by the Grace

I read a quote in a recent tweet that said ‘Writing is easy. Sit down at a keyboard and open a vein ..’  it hit an instant chord, as I have often known the truth of that, but never more than with this blog post. Writing does sometimes feel like giving your life blood. The 1st of August- one month exactly since I was ordained, and although I have tried before, it has taken me until now to be able to stand back from that day enough to put some elements of it into words. A day like no other in my life to date, which I am still absorbing.

I woke early, with a feeling not dissimilar to the morning I got married. Butterflies of excitement, tinged with nerves. Such a big day, on so many levels.

It was a beautiful morning, and I stepped outside for a few moments of solitude, with just the sheep for company. The retreat house is situated in a very rural setting, in a beautiful secluded valley. The pastoral imagery of sheep/shepherd and the dual call to lead and yet always to follow, had been a very present one over the course of the retreat.  In the silence following morning prayer, the only sound was the distant bleat of lambs.

Know that the Lord is God. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture”                        ” Feed my sheep” Psalm 100 

A smooth 40 minute drive to the cathedral. I don’t remember much of what I was thinking, apart from being conscious of being in public in my collar, for the first time.  My emotions were very close to the surface, so it was much more about feeling, than thinking.

Some waiting, and then the solemn legal parts of the process, prior to lining up to process from the Bishop’s Palace to the Cathedral. The last few steps of a long, long journey, I would be stepping out of the cathedral at the start of the next.  The congregation were mostly a blur of faces, although I caught sight of a friend and her little girl as I started to process up the aisle, which delighted me, and grounded what was happening in the context of lots of dear people I love and who have shared this journey with me, being here to cheer me on.

I didn’t know where my family were seated (they had ticketed seats in a reserved row) but it was only about ten minutes into the service that I spotted them. Another jolt of emotion.

The service is a solemn one with a variety of symbolic components to it.  We were called forward by name. Presented by our Archdeacons commending us to be ordained. In my case the Archdeacon had been my attachment incumbent of most of my training, and a good friend, adding an extra dimension to the process. I had done a placement in the cathedral the previous year, and loved every minute of it, falling in love with the ancient building, and making lasting friendships amongst the whole variety of people who make up the cathedral’s staff. It had become a ‘home from home’, and being ordained in this second spiritual home was a deep joy.

The sermon was given by Revd Dr Alison Morgan, author of The Wild Gospel and A Word on The Wind: Renewing Confidence in the Gospel, who had led our retreat. She did an excellent job explaining to our families and friends something of this crazy calling God was asking of us.

Then the moment itself. Called forward again to be charged with the solemn task and role to which we were called, and asked to make a series of vows, to which we answered ” By the help of God, I will” . Something echoed by the Bishop in his next words :

In the name of our Lord, we bid you remember the greatness of the the trust in which you are now to share: the ministry of Christ itself, who for our sake took the form of a servant.. You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.

Words that need to be kept constantly in mind, as I step out on this new journey.

We then knelt  around the altar for about ten minutes of prayers, sung and said, before the Bishop came to each of us to lay his hand on our heads and confer ordination as Deacons upon  us.  Although kneeling in public, for those ten minutes it was just God and me, I was largely oblivious of anyone else.  The Bishop’s hands felt very heavy on my head as he prayed for the Holy Spirit to equip me for the work He was calling me to do.  Our incumbents stepped forwards to vest us in our stoles across our Left shoulders symbolic of our Deacon status, as servants of God and His Church.

The Ordination service is set within the context of a Eucharist and during the sharing of The Peace we had the first opportunity to greet family and friends. A deeply moving moment accompanied by many tearful hugs.

Coming out of the service was a surge of joy, greeting so many lovely folk who had come from far and wide to support me. It was overwhelming, and the day continued in a similar way as we gathered in my sending church for a celebration lunch. I couldn’t stop smiling. After all the solemn intensity, I felt like I was floating on air, with a heart brimful of thankfulness.

As a tiny child I sang an old chorus, picking up the words of a psalm, ‘ My cup is full and running over’ ,  little did I know then how full my cup would be filled, or why.

Between worlds

Leaving people and places is hard. No matter how many times I have done it, (and that would be allot) it doesn’t get any easier. When you throw your self in deep, as I tend to do, you give away your heart. When it is time to go, extricating that same heart is impossible without leaving pieces of it behind. It is a tearing process.

 Two years at theological college have come to an end. I have written about Liminal Spaces and Transitions before, and pointed out that the word liminal means threshold. The journey towards ordination is full of liminal spaces, so I ought to be used to it by now. In the early stages of exploring vocation you are mostly on your own, reflecting with professional guides, turning over the stones of your life thus far, with the timing and direction of your future, firmly in other’s hands. It can be a lonely journey. Coming to theological college is yet a different sort of liminality. This time it is shared by a close community of others, all going through a similar set of experiences. The courses and placements vary of course, but living and praying together, sharing the academic and formational pressures brings a special sort of bond. An understanding at deep levels.    The college community was from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and eccelesiology , which adds hugely to the rich experience, but also adds challenges, as we all have a part of shaping each other’s lives, consciously or unconsciously. Not everyone experiences living in community as a positive experience, but my gregarious, extravert nature loved it. I learnt as much, if not more, from my fellow students than I did from my tutors, books or courses, stretching and growing me as a person. Precious memories. Precious people, for whom I am very thankful. The friendships I have made, I will take with me of course, but the unique community I was a part of for two years, is no more. Even now, new students are packing up their lives, preparing to move and wondering nervously what might lie ahead. These, and the students whose courses mean that they will remain studying for the next year or two, will form a new community which will inevitably have a different shape and feel.

The leave taking was done beautifully and symbolically within the rich context of a EucharistEucharisteo = thanksgiving. The stoles with which we will be ordained in a week’s time were laid on the altar and blessed, then given to us by our personal tutors. The liturgy was creatively put together by students. We were given a book and a glazed pottery cross  (shown above), made by a skilled fellow student. (the heart was received at the Federation Commendation service earlier that week).  We were prayed for and then processed out from church to college. It was an immensely moving service, and there were plenty of tears. I  cried through all of it, seeing these people and their families whose lives had been woven so deeply with mine. A good friend carried his newborn daughter with immense pride and joy, to receive communion/ blessing from the principal who was celebrating and my heart turned over. The service was followed by a wonderful party, enjoyed outside, on an unexpectedly dry and sunny evening (against all forecasts).

Leaving over, we were spun out country wide, into yet another liminal space of waiting. No longer an ordinand in training, and not yet a Deacon.  No longer part of the ‘old’ community and not yet a part of the new. I have moved to the benefice (group of churches) in which I will serve as curate, but it is not general practice to attend these churches prior to ordination. To extend and analogy I used in my last post, Stepping Stones, it is as if we are pushed off the last stepping stone into the cold water and have to swim and climb out onto the bank.  A spin cycle of emotions, combining with the exhaustion of  the efforts of recent weeks  to organise a move and finish academic work simultaneously, gives it a very strange feel. Looking forwards, looking backwards and trying to process it all.  The church wisely provides a time in which to do this. For four days before the ordination I will go into silent retreat, my family and friends not seeing/hearing from me until I appear in the cathedral procession at the start of the service.  I can’t predict how I shall be feeling at that point, but that my heart will be full, I have no doubt. Like my marriage, it is an intensely personal moment shared in a very formal setting and witnessed by family and friends. A moment of consecration and line crossing; of saying my YES to God publicly and symbolically.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

You discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are aquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it. 

Psalm 139 v.1-6  NRSV