As I'm a "busy" student I don't post very regularly, but try to keep things interesting!
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There’s a poem by Carol Ann Duffy called Originally which I remember reading in my Higher English class. It’s always struck a chord with me. Where do you come from? The poets’ hesitation to answer is one I can relate to. My parents are English, but my grandfather is Welsh. I was born in Norfolk, but at a month old we left for North East Scotland, where I have lived all my life. Asking me where home is can be exceedingly complex.
I grew up with Scottish education, with Scottish friends, and Scottish culture .Yet I have a degree from that most English of institutions: Cambridge. I have friends who have never been north of the border. I know people who don’t know what a ceilidh is, never mind how to spell it.
The brunt of this identity crisis is borne out in my chameleon accent. It’s here that identity, something which sounds ephemeral, becomes concrete. I move in and out from a passable North-East Scottish accent into Estuary English without skipping a beat.
I don’t quite understand why this changing voice bothers me as much as it does. I suppose it could be because my voice is my main form of expression with other people.
While Wikipedia tells me that 93% of language is non-verbal, I wonder if that the remaining 7% isn’t therefore made more important? What little we actually speak matters a great deal more precisely because its use is so small.
This might explain why my inability to hone in on one particular voice is such a problem for me. There is no aural cue for a stranger to effectively pigeon-hole me, and consequently they feel a little adrift. The human tribal instinct is set on edge – friend or foe? When I speak to an English person, I sound Scottish. When I speak to a Scottish person, I sound English. At a time when pro- and anti-independence feeling is running so high, I am more acutely aware of my lying tongue than ever before.
Consequently, what chance do I have of forming a concrete identity when the most important means of communicating that identity is somehow flawed? It’s a difficult question, and I can’t answer it at the current time. Much of me wants to stress an aesthetic to the complex nature of my heritage, but something else asks Who are you, over and over.
Two months ago I was living in a personal hell of my own construction. I was doing anything and everything to avoid being in my house for any length of time, as every second spent in there was a tortuous mix of silence and screaming rows with my mother. I don’t think it was what either of us expected when we made the 10 hour journey northward from Cambridge the day after my graduation.
I was trying desperately to sort out my finances and accommodation for my Masters. The accommodation had been an ongoing battle since the start of June, and six weeks later I still had no luck. The somewhat complicated loan I was applying for to cover Masters tuition fees was proving hideously stressful, especially as the form expressly told me to apply only within 8 weeks of the course’s start date.
I left for the annual church youth week (at which I help as one of the leaders) knowing that something was going to give way under the pressure, and my sanity appeared to be the losing party.
As ever, the fellowship and support of some of the most wonderful people I know were there to guide me and help me, and all became crystal clear in that week: defer. Take a year out. Enjoy some time off from full-time study, an occupation I’ve been hard at since I was 5 years old.
Moments of well-timed clarity for me are few and far between. My brain tends to race along in an extremely jumbled-up kind of way, and I can usually only make sense of it all with a good few weeks ticked off the calendar. For once though, in this case, I felt the effect of my decision immediately. The relationship with my mum, which had reached a record low just before church camp, was restored in the phone call to tell her my decision. There was a physical weight I felt lifted off my shoulders and the relief was readable in my face.
Since then however, I have found a new problem. One which I know many graduates face: sheer bloody terror. I had staved it off, with some success, when my masters application had been found successful, and then again when my degree results came through and I was onto the programme. But once more the precipice was looming ahead with a big fat sign in front of it: What On Earth Am I Supposed To Do Now?
It’s a first world problem, I know. Right now I don’t have to worry about where I’ll sleep tonight (I’m writing this curled up in bed while the rain batters against the window – ah, the last of the Scottish summer); I have eaten far too much food today; I have spent the day shopping and practicing curling my hair. I have a job to go to tomorrow afternoon for which I will be paid some money. And yet, I’m feeling the enormity of NOT doing my masters right now. At this precise moment in time I could be furiously procrastinating from an essay due in two days time. I could be getting drunk and going to bad nightclubs with cheesy music and toilets which smell of cheese. I could be having an intellectual argument with some exchange student about something topical. (I only did 2 out of the 3 as an undergrad. You decide which.)
It has been so long since I have had nothing more to do than get up and go to work, or lie in and not go to work, that the terror is that I will grow used to it. That this familiar, comfortable and comforting routine will be the summation of three years work and over £20,000 of debt. What am I good at? What do I want to do? Do I even want to know the answers to these questions, for fear that they will force me to leave behind a secure job and people whom I love dearly?
I still believe that not being in St Andrews studying an M.Litt in Systematic Theology is the best decision I’ve made thus far this year. The over-riding question is though, can I make two best decisions about my future in one year?
For two good friends.You’re just about to leave home and enter the big wide world. With all my love and well wishes.
Are you still the shaking ship?
With sails akimbo; nets that flounder?
See the breath of steadiness
I gift to you with warm embrace.
Don’t falter anymore in the sea
But stand tall in the wake of being.
You cast off in greatness and
You will landfall in likeness.
I can give you encouragement
But only you have courage.
So navigate not by celestial reason,
But by love of the heart,
And be well on all your journeys.
A close friend of mine recently came to visit me down in Cambridge. We had an extended conversation about our approach to Christianity, and more specifically our different approaches to ministry (both of us see a vocation in ordination).
He is practical, I intellectual. As much as we love and respect each other, I got the impression from our discussion that he thought my approach lacking: perhaps too logical and cold for the problems we do face, and will face, when spreading the gospel and ministering to Christian brethren.
As I begin my preparation for my final exams, and seeing as it’s Holy Week, I’d like to put forward the case that “Intellectual Christianity” is not cold, nor is it impractical. It is deeply spiritual, and of fundamental importance to the Christian experience for all those in the Church. By “Intellectual Christianity”, I simply mean considering Christianity with reasoned understanding and not blind parroting of half-learned truthes.
1. Intellectual Christianity is Not Elitist Christianity.
I have the privilege to study Christianity in a formal setting, at one of the worlds top universities. It has unique connections to our own Christian heritage; the only thing separating me from the Canterbury Gospels on which the new Archbishop of Canterbury swears his oath is one very thick wall.
However, to desire to understand one’s faith is not a unique privilege. In fact the word privilege is nonsensical in the context. This desire for knowledge and understanding is simply part and parcel of Christianity. It would be difficult to maintain one’s faith purely on someone’s word that Jesus was the Son of God. Great – but why, and how, and for what purpose? These basic questions are the foundation of the Credal formulas, and as such these questions also form the basis of orthodox faith. Simply by saying the creeds, you engage in an intellectual enquiry. You are asking, and beginning to answer, the who, why, and how of Christian belief. This is not elitist, because everyone who professes the Christian faith automatically becomes bound up in this process. Consequently, everyone from myself and my professors in university, to the poorest mission church in a Latin American slum, are Intellectual Christians from the moment of we make baptismal promises.
It could be argued that the Creeds simply are the parroting of half-learned truths which I mentioned in my introduction, but not so. This is the beauty of Liturgy; you simply cannot repeat something week in, week out, without reflecting upon the words once in a while. The sheer repetition forces them to be at the front of our mind, and imposes a need to reflect on their meaning and consequence for us who make such statements.
2. Intellectual Christianity brings us closer to God, not distancing us from his Truth.
This is a bold statement, but not one without reason. For the desire to know who God is synonymous with the desire to be in a relationship with that same God. This is something of what Anselm means when he says “fides quaerens intellectum” – faith seeking understanding. When we are faithful, we wish to understand God better. Blind faith is ignorant faith, and it has no solidity to it.
When I say, “Who is my God?”, and “What does it mean to believe in the Trinity”, I challenge myself not to be content simply to say “God is Three and God is One.” I can think through the reasons as to why, by reading scripture, and then the Doctors of the Church and other theologians. With scripture as my basis, and the theologies as my intellectual partner, I can grapple with huge ideas, and help build a solid orthodox faith.
In seeking God intellectually, we are building solid foundations on which we can stand firm in the face of adversity. This is not so that we can rebuff any and all challenges to faith, but that when these challenges are laid before us, we face them with calm dignity, and don’t dismiss them out of hand or accept them without question.
For example, is evolution a challenge to Christian faith? Based on my own intellectual process, by which I arrived at the conclusion that science and religion seek very different ends for the human person, I do not see any challenge. Evolution is as true as my Christian faith. It does not compete with it; it stands in a totally separate category.
In facing the challenge, and looking at the evidence, and wishing to know God as he is, Intellectual Christianity can be shown to have enormous practical benefit.
3. Intellectual Christianity can help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ
When Intellectual Christianity is used in such a way as I outlined above, it no longer remains an isolating factor in Christian life, furthering only my own personal relationship with God. It becomes a tool for spreading the gospel.
The challenge of evolution is a useful example, because much of secular society derides Christianity on the false assumption that Christianity and science are necessarily diametrically opposed to one another. However, in Intellectual Christianity we seek to show the logical reasoning of our faith, and also the logical reasoning as to why science and Christianity may be compatible.
With such an approach, the practicalities of spreading the gospel become easier, because we no longer present ourselves as the blind parrots.
4. Intellectual Christianity makes practical ministry more effective.
We have engaged in the questions, we are bringing ourselves into a closer relationship to God, we can spread the gospel, but can we comfort the sick, the dying, the lonely, the bereaved, the homeless, the malnourished, the abused, with mere words and logic?
Yes. Or at least, we can do so better than without it. Practical ministry, or more accurately, pastoral ministry, is hugely important. It is the side which the non-churchgoer sees most often, and a side which the churchgoer wishes they saw a lot more of. But does it matter that God is Three and God is One, when you’re looking for your next hot meal?
Down one line of thought – no, it makes no difference. Down another – it makes all the difference in the world. Because who is God? This is an intellectual question, with an intellectual answer: God is love. What does it mean to be a good Christian? This too, is an intellectual question, with an intellectual answer: We are God’s children from the moment of baptism, where we are baptised into his name. We are called to imitate the love, which is God’s very being, upon the Earth. God is love. God is Trinity.
When we engage in practical ministry, the intellectual lies behind it. When someone in need of much help asks “Why?” we need to be able to give them more than a cup of tea. They want an answer, and we believe we can give them truth. People deserve intellectual answers, not just pastoral ministrations.
Intellectual Christianity, at its worst, is elitist, distant from God, isolating from other people, and impractical in the world. Intellectual Christianity, at its best, is all-embracing, brings us into a better communion with God, and with other people, and can make a huge difference in practical terms. It is something which we all ascribe to, in one form or another, what simply alters is the degree (in every sense of the word!) to which we partake in it.
I should stress that I do not believe Intellectual Christianity to be the only way to conduct Christian life, but I do believe that it is valid and beautiful and, most importantly, profoundly spiritual.
I don’t think I get many strangers reading my blog posts. For the most part, it’s people who are friends of mine on Facebook and twitter, when I’ve posted the link to a new entry.
So I don’t think much introduction need be made to my extremely chatty and highly strung personality. I thrive off two things – stress, and talking about being stressed. This isn’t exactly a personal quality, and my acute awareness of the fact means that I have a third level of stress which arises from the attempting to combat being stressed. (I do find that alcohol, despite the trouble it frequently lands me in, has some wonderfully soothing properties when administered in sensible, i.e. catatonic, doses).
One question that has got me thinking over the holiday now that Christmas and New Year are over, and with nothing to look forward to except eight weeks of university work, is this: what it is that keeps me going? What, when I live in this permanent state of stress and talking about stress, and stressing about trying not to be stressed, do I do to get away from myself?
Again, if you know me, the answer is not truly surprising: it’s prayer.
The Daily Office, the routine of saying morning and evening prayer with psalms, collects and readings arranged for every day of the year, is beautiful in its simplicity. I was first introduced to it at Glen – the Scottish Episcopal Church’s annual youth camp. It was five minutes of stillness before the organised chaos of the day ahead. At the time, I didn’t really appreciate what that prayer was for. It was just something we did to fill time before the really fun things began.
But now, I look at it with different eyes, ones which have undergone spiritual growth precisely because of that five minute prayer. The little green book which I was given at the end of my very first Glen is now a much battered and loved possession. I have taken it just about everywhere with me. But the funny thing is, despite how much I adore the Daily Office, despite how little time it takes out of my day, I very rarely say it.
I’m rubbish at saying prayer in the structured setting which is available at my fingertips. I do however, natter away to God much like you’d chat to your granny about your day. The almighty, glorious, eternal Trinity lets me prattle on about insignificant details like the latest relationship drama, family concern, and what I ate for breakfast. The omniscient and ever-loving God, who can lift us up into His nature by grace, puts up with me asking silly requests like would He mind awfully just answering the essay question Himself, because that would save me a whole load of brain-ache.
But, in that prayer, that extended conversation, I find the quietness. I find the peace which I otherwise rarely allow myself. In sharing with God my every stupid thought, every deeply-held fear, and cherished hopes for loved ones, I’m quieter than I ever could be in a stony silence. I chat away to God, and once in a while, I find my own end of the dialogue fades away, and my God and I sit in each other’s company.
The Daily Office is like any other craft – one which takes time to perfect. It requires a skill of its own, which I’ll only master through practice. It’s beauty can only be appreciated when you have let it sink into your bones. But the chatter I mastered long ago, because that’s the gift God gave me from the beginning.
Those who laughed at me now have every reason and right to do so.
I would never have labeled me as the jealous type. And now I can barely look at myself in the mirror with the shame of knowing that’s who I am.
Last night I was a seething mass of alcohol and insecurity and suspicion. I felt like all those little doubts were being confirmed, and being confirmed in the most public of arenas.
Of course, I’m probably overstating it. It’s doubtful that what my alcohol-addled brain saw was anything like as bad as what was actually happening. But at the time, I had never felt more like the fool who had been strung along as an easy lay. I felt that every single scrap of my feelings had been taken advantage of, and that this fact was being laid bare before the baying crowd. The humiliation was enraging.
What compounded the entire thing was that I couldn’t let it pass. I couldn’t accept that I was probably over-reacting. And so I acted like a child. My emotional reactions were childish and so I behaved childishly. It was unnecessary and only added to my humiliation the next day.
If there is one thing I’ve strived to be, it’s to be good to other people. To not be someone who bears ill-will towards others. And yet last night I wished it so badly that I’m ashamed to remember the vitriol that burned within me.
I felt like a fool, and in the process I acted foolishly.
Tonight I’ll be confronted with a similar context. I want to run away and avoid it. To face it is unbearable, but I suppose that I have to. It’s going to make or break whatever is going on here. I can sense it. They’ve got every right to break it. I would probably feel the same, had it been the other way around.
Recently I became quite stupidly happy.
And I discovered, to my horror, that this fact seems to irritate people.
All through my schooling, I was the subject of laughter. This doesn’t bother me anymore. Looking back at my 15 year old self, I struggle to hold back a giggle at my ridiculousness. But at the time, being laughed at was the most humiliating experience. It ate away at my self-esteem with a ferocity that at times became physically unbearable. I would do anything to not be noticed, but in a strange way, I fought to be seen, in my almost manic desire to be appreciated and thought well of.
Settling in my own skin has been a continuous process since then, and only recently have I begun to be at home with myself. Perhaps this has something to do with my slimming down, losing 2 stone since January. That’s certainly bought me a confidence I hadn’t been previously aware of. Or maybe it’s simply the natural movement of the grumpy teenager towards something resembling a young woman.
But it has only been since I began this process of “being myself” that I have experienced some of the truly unsavoury aspects of being a grown up.
The world, as I’ve learned to my cost, is not divided into those who dislike you, and those who like you. It is a subtler, more vitriolic place, where your happiness is not your own to carry, but something for others to scrutinise and find wanting. Where you can be smiles for one minute, and scowls for another.
I became happy, and people became nasty. In my own particular case, I think it’s because people are finally learning who I really am, and I, like them, no longer fit an easy dialectic of like against dislike.
I’m acting, in their mind, out of character. My happiness is surprising, mystifying even. I have genuinely heard, (and caught the side-glance to boot)”But surely, not her?” I had been type-cast so thoroughly that now I appear to have broken the fourth wall.
People don’t like having their assumptions so abruptly proved wrong. I have heard the barely stifled giggles, the very quiet comments which they believe I couldn’t hear. I am being laughed at once again. Only this time, it’s not eating my confidence into a ball of nothing. I take on their laughter, and wear it alongside the grin that they did not put on my face. I laugh with them, because, despite all evidence to the contrary, I can’t take myself seriously all the time either.
Every time I am introduced to someone new, they ask me what I study. I tell them “theology”, and this inevitably leads to the following conversation:
“Oh, so you’re studying rocks and things?”
“No, I’m studying theology – like R.E but better.”
“Oh right, so you want to be a priest?”
… It is such a standard conversation that I have with new people, that my reply has become distinctly repetitive:
“Well,” I mumble, “I think so. I’m looking into it.”
Frankly, I’m a bit embarrassed when people ask – even slightly offended. Faith is a very important and very personal thing, but I suppose that with ever increasing populist secularism, it is losing that distinction. It is seen as a hobby, something people do on a Sunday like other people go hill-walking. You have religion, I have knitting.
But of course, it isn’t like that with faith. The question “Why do you want to be a priest” is a pointed, personal question, around which all sorts of judgments will be made the instant you reply. There is an assumption made from the moment you say “I study theology”, that you obviously must 1) be religious, 2) be Christian, and 3) have made an active decision to pursue a particular “career” within Christianity. The conclusion from these judgments is that you’re going to be a very nice, and very dull kind of person. I’d like to think I’m only the former, not the latter.
But it has taken me 4 years of too-ing and fro-ing to conclude that my vocation lies somewhere in ordained ministry. I’ve spent hours in discussion with lots of different people , and I spent even more hours in private prayer, wondering if the conclusions that are forming in my head are the right ones. I’ve struggled for a long time to find the direction, even more to find the courage, to say “Yes, this is what I would like to spend the rest of my life doing.”
So when someone very blatantly (though I’m sure innocently) asks if I’m destined for ministry, I’m taken aback. They might as well ask me “So tell me about the first time you fell in love?” We don’t share this sort of information with complete strangers. Why should I explain the years of frustrated searching and questioning to someone I’ve known for precisely three minutes?
I should explain, because that is precisely what my ministry calls me to do. Why do I want to be a priest? Because that is what I feel God is calling me to do. Why am I embarrassed to admit that? Because in saying that, I’ve outed myself to the judgments I outlined above. That’s a hazard, yes, but it’s also a fundamental aspect of ministry. It’s exposure to people’s criticisms, but also an opportunity to share my love of gospel, without knocking on people’s doors at 9am or handing out patronising leaflets to strangers in the street, telling people why they’re damned unless they believe one particular creed of Christianity.
Of course people are curious as to whether I’m considering the priesthood. Because if I am considering it, why on earth would I want to? That’s the question that is the most personal and most challenging to respond to, but it’s also the question which absolutely demands an answer.
The quiet piece of home in my head
Which I carry with me across the country
From stirred up mountains to flattened fenland
Is where I like to sit when my thoughts turn to clouds
Seagulls and the rumble of a jet plane overhead.
Waves break on the shore and I stand in the smell of salt.
And then I’m back here.
And the computer fan whirls, the doors outside slam.
The traffic rolls on, and I smell only old tea and damp earth.