Sunday, 29 January 2012

Heaven in Ordinary

Though the weather is colder the days are lengthening and there's a real promise of spring in the air. I've been walking with our dog by the Hogsmill river, where the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais painted the background to Ophelia (see above - Holman Hunt painted The Light of the World nearby too). It was an ordinary morning: sorting out the dustbins, 'poop-scooping' the garden, feeding our neighbour's cantankerous cat; then a walk through what was once a wild rural landscape, the delight of artists, and is now a well-loved and cared-for suburban park. I'd started the day by listening to Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite: he heard the beauty in the ordinary songs of the English countryside and added his own touch of beauty.

So the theme of ordinariness was in my mind on my walk, and I found the 17th century poet George Herbert's words 'heaven in ordinary' fitting themselves to the rhythm of my steps. The air was full of birdsong: a robin, the 'teacher, teacher' call of great tits, a raucous flock of bright green ring-necked parakeets. A heron sailed over like a fantastic flying machine and settled on the river, matched in stillness by his reflection in the shallow water. Above my head grey squirrels chased each other in the branches and a woodpecker drummed. All ordinary creatures (unwelcome pests, some would say, in the case of the parakeets and squirrels) but their vitality at the early turning of the year felt like a sign of 'the dearest freshness deep down things', as Hopkins called it.

Slow as I am, it was only as I turned for home that I remembered the context of George Herbert's words. 'Heaven in ordinary' comes in his poem Prayer I, which consists simply of a list of symbolic images for what prayer might be. To notice 'heaven in ordinary' is to experience prayer.

Here is George Herbert's poem in full:


Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angel's age.
          God's breath in man returning to his birth,
          The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;

Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
          Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
          The six days' world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.
          Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
          Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

          Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
          The land of spices, something understood.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Plough Monday

Yesterday, the Monday after Epiphany, was Plough Monday - traditionally the day when work began after the Christmas festivities.  The ploughs would be decorated among celebration and dancing. Well, I was back in the City yesterday; I can't say I started my day with unbridled joy and dancing. I left the house in a rush after needing to find a bigger bag for all my stuff,  grumbled at the increased train fares, drank too much coffee, said yes to a new project and then lay awake last night wondering how I'd manage it. BUT - I love what I do, and I know I am blessed in that. There's a real flow for me between what I'd count as 'work' and what I do with joy in the rest of my time, though I need to cherish that and not take it for granted.

I've been thinking about work and the interplay between being and doing. As I study Ignatian ideas about discernment I'm reminded that vocation is first, second and third about who I am - and only then about what I do. (Read Discovering Your Personal Vocation by Herbert Alphonso SJ.)  And I am who I truly am only in relationship with God. As Irenaeus put it: 'the glory of God is a human being fully alive; and life for a human is the vision of God.' So in any question about what 'work' might be for me I need to ask: what gives me life?What helps me see God in all things more clearly? Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of Mary that she

'this one work has to do,
let all God's glory through.'

And the same is true of us. At the weekend I ventured into the garden to do some tidying. I watched an earthworm inching along, perfectly designed and evolved  for ploughing through the earth, glorifying God in his complete and (I iimagine) contented 'worminess'.  Not like the ploughboy in the English song (jauntily arranged by Benjamin Britten) who can't wait to exchange his dull furrow for a fantasy of fame and fortune. I wonder how often  I've wasted time and energy in wanting to be someone, something, somewhere else, when no one but I can be the I God made me.

So what might be the equivalent for me of decking my plough  with ribbons and flowers at the beginning of this new year? What are the tools of my trade that I'm invited to bless? It is the first day of the spring term on our formation course for spiritual directors; my colleague Jo emphasised to our foundation year students that they are their most important resource for their ministry. That's perhaps the most important thing they will learn - and I'm still learning it! That's why, as I set my hand again to the plough, I want to ask for the blessing of being truly present with authenticity and integrity in all I do and with each one I encounter. And of letting others bless me by being who they are.