Yesterday I was remembering where I was when England won the World Cup in 1966 – with my family on Looe beach (not far from here along the Cornish coast). Mum and I had gone to buy ice creams, we weren’t interested in football. The beach was crowded with people listening to the match on their radios. What I clearly and visually recall was standing on the small promenade above the beach and watching the whole beach erupt as the iconic words “They think it’s all over – it is now” heralded the win. My brother told me this morning what he most remembers is having fish and chips and cider afterwards!
Today is another anniversary, slightly less momentous in the national scheme of things, it’s 4 years since I moved into this house. It’s an odd feeling – it doesn’t seem that long ago, but a lot has happened – good and less good. However I roll the dice, it’s been an eventful time and I feel it has become both my home and the place where I work.
Last week a friend came from the US, and one of the things she told me about was going on a retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault on Teilhard de Chardin. I asked her what was her main learning from it. She said, two words – “optimism” (Teilhard took a very long view, being a palaeontologist!) and “get out there” – Cynthia’s words – meaning we have to engage in the world, not live in an ivory tower of solitude and seclusion.
Sitting outside having breakfast the following day, vaguely pondering this, I thought “My calling is not retreat giving”. After all that effort to move here and set this place up, why do I say that? After reflecting further I thought, because now I understand that to focus on one thing only is to conveniently avoid the bigger picture, which is what Cynthia was talking about. Responding to God’s call is a being event. In “getting out there” it’s not necessarily a call to social action, which might well be part of the story, but it’s a call to BE in the world. And it’s not a call to be out there, as some kind of model of perfection (as if!), that’s another way of staying in that ivory tower. It’s a call primarily to relationship with God, the Divine, the Source of all Life and it involves the whole of us, not just the part we think is our calling, or gift or spiritual goal. I’m reminded of some other personal iconic words from 30 odd years ago, “I haven’t called you to publish books, I’ve called you to be a friend”. It’s taken me a long time to “get” this.
The way I’ve come to this is through prayer, particularly contemplative prayer. Mirabai Starr writes about Teresa of Avila’s three stages of prayer. Starting with the prayer of Recollection, focussed silent prayer or meditation which takes effort on our part. Over time it can lead on to the prayer of Quiet, she says “We cannot manufacture or manipulate this stage of prayer. We can only make ourselves ready to receive it when it comes, and in the words of Stephen Levine we “hold on tightly and let go lightly”. Last comes the prayer of Union which “is usually fleeting, but its impact endures. Each time God blesses us with these unitive experiences, we are forever transformed.”
I write about this not out of huge experience, but a sliver of awareness, that numinous moment on retreat last year, which I more and more see as a transformative event from which I began anew. It’s why I will continue to offer retreat space, as that is one place and space where we can deepen this process of intimacy with God. Not separating ourselves off in a holier than thou huddle with God, but receiving the kind of intimate love that propels us back into the world.
And just as England struggle to repeat the success of 50 years ago, we too in the words of Mirabai Starr “are likely to still bumble through the human condition, behaving unskilfully at times, and with more grace at others”. She goes on to say “but with each taste of union we identify a little less with the individual personality and more with our essential unity with the Divine. We are less likely to take passing circumstances as seriously as we used to. Our values shift from acquiring security to serving the One through being of service in the world”.
It’s so subtle, and even harder to write about. But I can’t not try. Just like the England football team and Teilhard de Chardin, I will take the long view!