Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Grandfather

Last night I became a grandfather. Naomi Yin-Leng was born to my daughter in law Charmayne and son Nick in Sydney at around 11 pm our time, and suddenly the world is no longer the same.

Thirty something years ago Nick was born in Christchurch, the first of our three, and the world changed then, too. Up until the moment he came blue and reluctant into the world he had been a possibility: a squirming bulge in Clemency's body. He had been imagined and read about and even viewed as a grey fuzzy blob using the steam and treadle powered ultrasound scanning machines of the 1980s; but nothing, absolutely nothing had prepared me for the experience of holding my first born, and looking into his eyes and having a person look back. In that instant the whole miracle of  Being presented itself; in the space of nine months the exquisite machinery of a human body had been formed, but more astonishingly still, a consciousness was now present within it. In that instant the boundaries of my self collapsed in the delicious uncertainties of love in order that they might reform again around him. All the intelligence and inquisitiveness and inner strength which have marked his life since were present in St. George's hospital that early morning. They didn't grow, he arrived with them.

And so with Naomi. She too has been a possibility: an exciting secret last Christmas then a series of reports from the obstetrician then some ultrasound pictures, albeit of an infinitely higher quality than Nick's, then a growing bulge above Charmayne's belt line. We have known her name for some weeks now, and even known something of the contours of her face; but then last night she was suddenly a very present person, as much to be considered and with as much right to command my love and attention as any other member of my family. Again I was unprepared for the reality of her. In the middle of last night, the boundaries of my world shifted to accommodate her, as I moved up a row in the generational hierarchy, one more tier further from youth, one more tier closer to infinity.

So now it is shuffle around time. I need to see how my timetable can be fiddled with, like one of those puzzles where you move the numbers on the little sliding plastic squares into their proper order, so that the blank space falls on a couple of days where I might be able to nip over to Sydney. I have seen her, even if it is only Skype but I do have an urgent need to know the touch of her skin, and the tightness of her grip on my finger and the exact weight of her tiny but determined little body in the crook of my arm.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Blest Are The Pure In Heart

It snowed on Monday and Dunedin shut down. It wasn't the sort of snow you can go outside and frolic in, but rather the sort that comes in sideways in the face of  a southerly like a cold, wet, sandblaster. We stoked up the fire and read and watched DVDs. It all calmed down a bit on Tuesday, and I was able to go about the things that seemed to be stacked into this week.

On Wednesday I presided at the induction of my successor at St. John's Roslyn. Eric Kyte is an Englishman, born in the same town as Clemency, but a decade later. He arrived to face the worst weather we have had for a good long while, and there were a few local foibles to come to terms with, such as the peculiar little coal burner in the family room of the vicarage and a different way we work hot water systems over here, but by and large he seems to have settled in well and the service was wonderful. The church was full, and the optimism and good humour were palpable. It was good to again be amongst people with whom I have shared so much, but there was for me a definite sense of closure as I gave Eric his license, and placed, quite literally, all my responsibility for that beloved congregation into his capable hands.

On Thursday, with considerably less formality I inducted Gillian Townsley, the new chaplain at St. Hilda's Collegiate, our local Anglican Girl's secondary school. The school in a phase of robustly high morale due in no small part to having an extremely able young principal, Melissa Bell, who will now be teamed with an extremely able young chaplain. The girls listened to the bishop banging on, and read some prayers and sang the school hymn, John Keble's 1866 masterpiece Blest Are The Pure In Heart. The hymn, in a nice little piece of personal synchronicity, voiced something of what had been going on just below the surface for me.

I have been reading the American Episcopal Priest and Spiritual writer Cynthia Bourgeault lately, and, while driving, listening to MP3s of her talking. As I drove to Invercargill and back on Thursday afternoon, she talked about the Beatitudes and, particularly about the 6th one, the one included in John Keble's hymn. She said that the concept of heart in the first century was not quite what we mean by the term today. We speak of heart, as opposed to mind meaning the emotions; so when we read Jesus' words we tend to think he is enjoining us to have pure emotions or good intentions or a lack of guile. In the first century, says Cynthia Bourgeault, it was the liver that was thought to be the seat of emotions. The heart was the seat of intuition and spiritual perception, so, the heart's perception back then meant more like what we would mean when we speak of gut reactions. That means that the beatitude should be paraphrased as Blessed are you when your intuitions are clear, for you shall see God; which suddenly made a lot more sense than the  namby pamby puritanical sense in which I had always read the verse.

Cynthia Bourgeault's interpretation was particularly apposite for me because of the way my spiritual practice has been developing over the last month or so. Spiritual growth happens in a pattern like a flight of stairs: steep and sudden climbs are followed by long flat periods of consolidation before the next step upwards, and I have made one of those vertical ascents of late. The silence which brackets each day has become longer and fuller and richer, and the practice of Centering Prayer, taught by Cynthia and her teacher Thomas Keating is helping me get my intuitions just a little more ordered.

So I sang the Victorian words and followed the principal and her new chaplain out of the chapel and into the wintry sunshine. Someone took some photos and I headed off to the next appointment. Things are solid and hopeful, or so my heart tells me. 

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Week That Was

For most of the past week I attended the Anglican Schools conference in Christchurch. This was a gathering of, largely, the principals and chaplains of Anglican schools, but there were a few also rans, such as myself, along to make up the numbers. What with it being a conference attended by the principals of some of the country's better schools and everything, we staying a a much classier hotel than we would have if it had been any other sort of churchy conference, so I was well fed and had a nice room, but that wasn't the good bit about being there.

What made the four hour drive North more than worth it was two things: the conference speakers and the company I kept. The Anglican Schools office is run, in this country, by the extraordinary and wonderful Ali Ballantyne. Despite being shaken out of her Christchurch office and being forced to run things on a patchwork system she has cobbled together in the garage of her home,  she put together a program that was as good as anything I have been to for years. The chief speaker was Lat Blaylock, a Christian Education theorist from the UK with a profound understanding of the spiritual needs of children and a passion for enabling them to talk about the big questions in life. I came away from the conference with the process I will use in this year's Diocesan Synod to help us address issues of commitment and allocation of resources. I came away also with knowledge of an extraordinary resource I will share later: a collection of spiritual poems written by British children.

I knew many of the people at the conference, although, poor dears, some of them had aged so much they didn't recognise me. It is interesting to see someone after a long separation because the progress in that person's life (or the lack of it) will be dramatically apparent; and in the case of the many with whom I had conversations it was quite inspiring to see where the Spirit had led them and what the Spirit was making of them. Many have devoted most of their working lives to the spiritual nurture and education of young people, and they are pretty darned good at it. Without exception they are becoming whole, grounded, self aware people. I met some others as well, for the first time, largely principals of Anglican schools, and again these were very impressive people. In particular, Gillian Simpson, the Principal of St. Margaret's College in Christchurch, spoke at the conference dinner. She spoke simply but powerfully about surviving the earthquake: about the devastation of her school and the loss of life in her school community; and of the faith and practical support from  her Anglican community which has sustained her. I found her address profoundly moving and inspiring.

Before driving home after the conference I went out to Sumner for lunch with an old friend. I had a sandwich in his devastated house, and looked out over the wreckage of his neighbourhood. I'll write of  that later, also.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Silence

There was a 40 knot southerly blowing when I went for a walk on the beach today, so I wasn't bothered by the crowds. About halfway between St. Clair and St. Kilda three young women in wetsuits were pulling their surfboards out of the waves, trying to control them in the gale as they stumbled and shrieked their way into the comparative shelter of the dunes. Their faces and hands and feet were scarlet with cold and they caught my eye as I passed and  smiled in mute acknowledgement of the absurdity of their situation. It rained, and the sand blew in a small drifting mist at about ankle height above the firm beach. It was high tide and the waves just reached the six foot high cliff caused by the scouring away of the sand during the recent storms. After half an hour I turned and faced back into the wind, pushing against it and against the softness of my footing, glad of my Gore-Tex and gloves and snow cap, and straining on the flat beach as though I was walking steadily uphill. I retraced my own footsteps, the only ones in the sand. There was no one else about:  the surfer girls had retreated somewhere; the seals had realised that the sea was warmer than the land today; and even the seagulls had found somewhere calmer. The wind howled and rattled the little fittings on my hood, so they sounded like the tackle of a yacht at sea, but there was, nonetheless, a silence.

It was the silence of aloneness; the silence of being in a place where there was no-one to talk to and nothing happening that required much thinking about so my mind was free to wander about like a pet dog let loose, sniffing here and there with all the semblance but none of the reality of purposefulness. This was a silence that was nevertheless full of words. I mused over the ever shifting balance of sand, and on the patterns of it flying around my ankles. I looked at the olive green sea with its millions of tons of shifting water, and the millions more tons of water sitting above me in the gray clouds, sucked up into the air by the sun, only to fall back down around me and move the sand some more. I thought about impermanence and change, and Heraclitus who made a philosophy out of that, and  a line from a song by Jewel in which she says that everything is temporary if you give it enough time. I felt the sand give beneath my shoes and looked at the dunes and the dense packed surface beneath me and remembered that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth and thought briefly of that immensity of which  I was currently traversing some tiny pin prick sized corner. My head was filled with words the whole while. There was silence, in other words, only because in all that extravagance of wind, there was none that happened to be blowing across my vocal cords.

This seeming silence is the silence of aloneness; it is the silence of long drives and  times spent sitting on the deck watching the sunset. It is the silence of retreats and of the lengthy pauses in church which we sometimes, but only sometimes, slip into the slopping over the sides bucketsfull of words in our liturgies. It is a silence that is better than no silence at all, in that it does open us to that range of possibilities we usually drown out with our own speaking.

It is absolutely impossible to listen while  we are talking, and almost impossible to listen while we are thinking, so the almost of this silence is an improvement, as far as exposing ourselves to the great gifts which the Universe is continually proffering us goes. But there is another silence: the deeper, intentional silence which only comes when it is willed and worked at. I couldn't find that deeper silence in this afternoon's wildness, and neither did I try to.  I was content enough to let my mind run free and muse my way back to the warmth of my car and the promise of hot tea and a log fire waiting for me at home.