Recently, a friend asked me: “This ministry thing – it’s a bit of a turnaround for you, isn’t it? I mean, when I first met you, you were kinda anti the whole God thing.”
I knew what she was saying – and I knew why she was saying it. It’s the same question that many people have asked me – that I have asked myself. Why do I want to enter the ordained ministry? What’s it about, this sense of vocation? Is it a sudden thing – or if not, why haven’t we known about it? Why have you been keeping it a secret?
Well, let me state two things right at the beginning: one, I haven’t been keeping anything a secret; and, two, I didn’t receive a visitation: no lights in the sky, no heavenly choirs, no commands from above. What has been happening to me is a process, and for a long part of that process, I didn’t know I had a call to ordained ministry; didn’t know, or didn’t want to know. A call from God is something you can suppress just as easily as an unpleasant memory; but part of the process of response, just as part of the process of confronting our inner demons, involves facing that which we would prefer to deny.
I’m not going to give you my life history: how I grew up in the Catholic church; how I became alienated from Catholicism in my late teens; how I spent my twenties convinced that there was no place inside a faith community for me, that I was, in effect, an exile; how I began the healing process firstly through my discovery of Stoic philosophy, and secondly through my work in the union movement; how I gradually came to realise the possibilities for faith and faith community and how this was realised through my relationship with my Dearly Beloved. All of that would take far too long, and quite a bit of it’s not for public consumption, anyway. Suffice to say, it’s the background.
The bottom line is that God has always been a presence in my life. When I say “presence”, I don’t mean physically – although I do mean it literally. I have always felt God particularly strongly in silence, in the still darkness of the night, and in the astonishing grandeur and complexity of the cosmos; perhaps that’s why I’ve always felt drawn most strongly to the meditative and contemplative aspects of faith. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that God has always stood at my left shoulder: not looking over my shoulder, checking up on what I was doing, or whispering in my ear; just there, sometimes a comfort, but more often than not a burden. Something I tried to shrug off, but it just wouldn’t let me go.
And the key to understanding what I’m talking about lies in that word burden. Faith for me is not a release, it’s not something that makes my life easier; but that’s the point. Faith is not meant to be some glib, smug assurance of our rightness or our righteousness; it’s not meant to confirm our prejudices or pander to our ego. It’s meant to be something that challenges us, that we wrestle with and struggle for, that forces us to walk paths clouded by uncertainty and doubt and fear. Faith is something that’s meant to take us out of our comfort zones, that drags us into the world and forces us to live, to have the wholeness and fullness of life in all its abundance: the good, the bad, the indifferent.
And it was all that struggling that I did in my teens and twenties and early thirties that has lead me to this place; because I think I was wrestling with God, with the presence of God that I didn’t want to acknowledge, that I tried to buck or ignore, that I wanted so much to be gone so I could maintain my anger and hurt and disappointment at the church. And what pissed me off more than anything was God’s sheer persistence, the fact that God wouldn’t go away; not demanding, not cajoling, not judging – just standing there at my left shoulder, reminding me of God’s presence. No matter how I rationalised or justified, or tried to have a bet either way, God just stayed put.
Way back when I started my other blog, I wrote about C S Lewis and his book The Problem of Pain. What I didn’t say at the time was that, powerful though this book was for me, even more striking was his “spiritual autobiography” Surprised By Joy. In it, Lewis describes his own difficult, conflicted, wrenching journey of faith; how he tried to be an atheist and couldn’t convince himself; how he tried to equivocate and theoretically agree that while there might be a God, that God really didn’t have much to do with being or existence; and how, having tried to avoid the issue and construct his own reality, he was left with no choice except to conclude that God not only existed, but as was actually a presence – a reality – in his life.
I know that some sections of the Christian community have tried to turn Lewis into some kind of evangelical hero: the atheist turned convert who became one of the most powerful apologists for Christianity. But the truth, it seems to me, is much simpler: Lewis was an intensely human person who struggled for much of his life with faith, and with the possibility of God, and whose faith was not a “road to Damascus” experience but a process in which the continual presence of God acted like a kind of slow wearing away, grinding down all his evasions and avoidances until he was unable to do anything other than face that truth by which he was confronted.
I don’t want to put myself in the same class as C S Lewis, but the story he tells in Surprised By Joy is one that resonates to the core of my being. I was never an atheist, but I did go through the hurtful, damaging process of alienation; and for years afterwards, I did try to console myself with intellectualising my anger with God and the church. Until, ultimately, one day, I could no longer defend my prevarications, not even to myself. Much though I didn’t want to, I had to submit; that is, I had to be honest with myself and face that calling I had tried to hide from for most of my life, but which had eventually uncovered my hiding place and exposed me to the light of day.
In the motion picture Shadowlands, C S Lewis (played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins) asks the question: does God want us to suffer? And then he asks a second question: what if the answer to the first question is “yes”? Then he concludes by saying:
You see, I don’t think God wants us to be happy. It’s not that God wants us to be unhappy – it’s just that our happiness has nothing to do with it. We imagine that our childish toys will bring us all the happiness there is, and that the walls of our nursery circumscribe the limits of the world. But something must drive us out of our nursery, and into the world of others – and that something is suffering. What God wants is for us to grow up, to leave the nursery, to love and to be loved. We are like blocks of stone, and the blows from the sculptor’s chisel that strikes us so hard that we can scarcely bear the pain, are nonetheless what make us perfect.
I don’t think God wants me to be happy; I think God wants me to be fully human, to be what I truly am. I think God wants to take me out of my comfort zone of complacency and familiarity, so that I can grow up, and love, and be loved. And in order to do that, I need to heed the call of vocation which God has been issuing to me my whole life long.
When I first started telling people I knew about the fact that I would be following my vocation, someone jokingly asked me, “Does that mean we can’t swear or tell dirty jokes around you?”, to which I flippantly replied, “Shit, no!”. Another person said: “Does this mean you’ve “found God”?”, to which I again flippantly replied, “Hardly; if God’s got any brains, I’ll be the last person who finds him.” And I was keen to tell people – only half jokingly – that I hadn’t suddenly acquired a saintliness or a sanctity that I hadn’t previously possessed. But beneath the flippancy was a desire to assure people that I hadn’t changed; I was still me, it was just that I was going to be more fully me – more properly me – than I had been up until that time.
So there you have it: that’s the reason why. Does God talk to me (ie: do I hear voices in my head?). No, I don’t. And I don’t have visions, either. Because when it comes to communication, God’s dialogue with me has been one of proximity, not conversation. And at last – at long last – I’ve finally started to listen.