Rationalists and Sombreros
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
12 September 2010, 10:30 (Blessed Virgin Mary)
Been there, done that, and this, my friends, is the Land’s End to John O’Groats T-shirt.
It was T S Elliot in the Four Quartets who coined a famous phrase that resonates so strongly with modern life. “We had the experience but missed the meaning. “
When I was cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats I could have had that saying emblazoned on my helmet. As those of you who followed my blog will know those 12 days were, for me, a kind of living hell.
Every waking moment was taken up with the ride. Wake at 6. 30, shower , dress, hydrate, breakfast, maintenance checks, set off, cycle up endless hills in the wind and rain for the next 8 to 10 hours, arrive, eat, collapse, shower, eat again, route plan, pack for the next day, more maintenance checks, listen to the weather forecast, weep silently when you realise it is more wind and rain, go to bed but lie awake, dreading getting back on the bike tomorrow.
Every moment of every day for the whole of the ride I was focused on one thing alone – what came next. Apart from writing my brief daily blog I did not for a single moment look back and reflect on where I had been. I was always looking ahead. I had the experience but missed the meaning.
It was only as I drove back, the day after I finished, that I realised what a long way I had come. Only as I spent the next 24 hours slowly re-living my experiences and writing them up in a journal that I began to understand the significance of what had happened to me.
Reflecting on our experiences is the process by which we discover their meaning. This is more than nostalgia; it is looking back in a way that helps us look within, in order that we can look forward. The fast pace of modern life encourages us to flit from one experience to another and never have time to reflect on what we have experienced.
So Land’s End to John O’Groats became a sort of acted parable for me, a distressing insight into how I live my life, always looking forwards and rarely looking back.
Having all manner of experiences but so often missing the meaning.
I make lists of tasks to do. I begin every day with a strict plan. I am always looking forward. There is a relentless and insistent voice inside me, telling me what needs to be done. And it means I have little opportunity to look back and reflect, celebrate achievements or learn from mistakes. My past is not processed in any way, merely consigned to a box marked yesterday. This diminishes me so much.
One of the temptations I had to resist strongly on my sabbatical was a desire to get ahead of the game before I came back to work. I knew, for instance, that I had a lot of sermons and talks to give from September through to Christmas, and it was tempting to eat into the sabbatical, to get some of these prepared before I came back. But I came to realise that the really important thing was not to get ahead of the game but to change the nature of the game itself, which is, of course, much harder. I do not think I am alone in this.
In my sabbatical research I was fascinated and surprised to realise how interested people were in what I was doing, and the questions I was asking. I thought this must have been done a hundred times before by people much more qualified than me, and indeed, to some extent, it has. But actually the leaders in the Church are all so busy that there has been precious little reflection on what has happened within urban ministry. Maybe many of us have had the experience but missed the meaning.
What has all this got to do with Mary and our Patronal festival?
There is a lovely verse tucked away within the Christmas story, where after the visit of the shepherds we are told that “Mary pondered all of these things in her heart”.
In many ways Mary is the icon of reflective spirituality. You get the impression reading the accounts of Mary in the Bible that she was somebody who made a habit of treasuring things in her heart, pondering them, thinking about them at the end of the day. She was used to looking back, to reflecting, to allowing things to rest within her and remain with her.
It seems that Mary instilled this same pattern in Jesus, who we often see taking time out to pray, or walk, or talk, or share meals. All of which are times of reflecting on experience, chewing the cud of the stuff of life in order to extract the goodness of meaning.
In the life of most Christians this principle of spiritual reflection has come to be centred in prayer and worship, and expressed in relationships, especially in meals shared together. It is imprinted on the pattern of a working week through the principle of Sabbath – which is about finding a rhythm, a pattern, a pace, or, to use a cycling word, a cadence to life. If you haven’t read Simon’s incisive piece in the LINK about our abandonment of the Sabbath principle, take a copy home to read over the Sunday roast.
The Eucharist, which we share today, looks back every bit as much as it looks forward and centres us in the present. It is about re-membering, literally putting back together the body of our experiences in order to find their meaning.
Prayer, at its simplest, is equally a process of paying attention to the world around us, learning how to see the world if we are not to miss the meaning.
The ancient monastics, who we increasingly discover were not hopelessly out-of-touch recluses with no real understanding of normal life, but people of deep wisdom blazing a trail of living that remains hugely relevant to our modern world, they developed a way of looking back over the day just lived, slowly, quietly and reflectively drawing out the significant moments. They called it the Examen, a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction. Jesuits practice the Examen to this day, at noon and the end of each day, and Christians of all traditions are beginning to grasp the importance of this if we are to become grounded and rounded human beings.
So Christianity has much to say, and much to teach us, about how to build reflective patterns into our everyday lives, so that we have the experience and do not miss the meaning. If we can learn to groove these things into our everyday lives, it could transform our experience of life.
Looking back, reflecting, is about finding and seeing and hearing and sensing the transcendence in ordinary experience. It is something that takes us beyond our own ego.
There is a lovely poem at the start of one of the chapters in Michael Maine’s book “The Sunrise of Wonder”, a poem by Wallace Stevens which spoke to me because I think I am something of a rationalist. Itgoeslikethis:
”Rationalists wearing square hats think in square rooms,
looking at the floor, looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves to right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids, cones, waving lines, ellipses,
as for example the ellipse of the half moon,
rationalists would wear sombreros.”
Rationalists like me are a bit angular in our thinking and living. It’s easy to value logic over meaning.
Michael Maine goes on to say: “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognise him or not to recognise him. Listen to your life; see it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness, touch, taste, smell your way to the heavenly and hidden part of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”
If I died today I would not blame them for writing on my tombstone: Adrian Newman. He had the experience but missed the meaning.
I want to learn from my bike ride, learn from the pattern of the Sabbath, learn from the principles of prayer, learn from Christian tradition, and learn from Mary, how to have the experience and savour the meaning.
Hand me my sombrero.........