Friday, April 27, 2012

God of surprises

If you've been reading here for a while, you'll know that I've always been rather wary of the charismatic movement.
As a teenager, I was, it seemed, the one member of the school's CU who did NOT receive any perceptible gifts of the Spirit at a period when to speak in tongues seemed to be the only acceptable criterion by which faith was judged.
At the time, after a long and anxious conversation with God on the bus home from school I accepted that for me "Blessed are those who have not seen but yet believe" was to be the motto and continued on my journey of faith with only a faint twinge of envy.
It did mean, though, that I tended to avoid experiences of charismatic renewal through the years. As a singer absolutely at home in the Anglican choral tradition, and with strongly catholic leanings in both theology and practice this wasn't too difficult. I heard rumours occasionally of charismatic happenings at places like Walsingham, (but certainly not at All Saints, Margaret Street!) but when I left university and embarked on the "real world" my opportunities for pilgrimage there were increasingly limited, and as I began exploring my own priestly vocation it seemed that the door to the Shrine there was now firmly closed to me.
I decided that while charismatic renewal was obviously a wonderful thing, there must be some good reason why God didn't want me to experience it - and mostly kept well away from situations in which I might have encountered it because, quite honestly, it would have hurt too much if nothing had happened.

That, of course, didn't mean that I didn't have some very powerful experiences of God's presence at various points along the way....but I used different language to describe them. I tended to talk more of my relationship with God, and less about the work of the Holy Spirit - though every year at Pentecost I would find myself praying with all that was in me for something amazing to happen, NOW, this INSTANT, to transform me and my churches.

It didn't seem as if anything much changed - but I've been praying for long enough on so many different topics that I've gradually accepted that prayer really isn't a slot machine.
Nonetheless, it did hurt a bit.
Maybe God didn't love me QUITE as much as he loved some of those others?
In my heart of hearts I knew that was nonsense, but nonetheless....

So I plugged on, working as hard as I possibly could to be a good priest, loving my people and praying for them as best I could, but recognising that there wasn't going to be a miraculous turn-around in the life of my parishes if it depended on me.

Then last year came my episcopal review - something that happens every three years, and which involves both looking back and exploring visions for the future.Mine was in early February, when the memory of a particularly discouraging Christmas was still fresh in my mind, and I told my reviewer that I suspected nothing I could do would have a real impact on the life of my churches...that we were growing infinitesimally,that though new initiatives were emerging, most of them seemed to be quite dependent on my energy....that actually, only 3 years in, I was pretty weary and I couldn't see how things would change. 
Clutching at straws, it seemed, I wondered if going to one of the Holy Spirit days offered by HTB might be something to consider - but instead my reviewer said firmly
"If I were you, I'd try "On Fire".

On Fire? Never heard of rushed home to google and found this
Not convinced, I asked on twitter, where a friend was able to tell me quite alot more and was warmly encouraging about my attendance, promising that she'd go again if I booked.
When my "objectives" from the review turned up a couple of weeks later, attending "On Fire" seemed to be written in - so I really had no option - and was glad when another dear friend announced that he was willing to give it a try this year.

So there we were on Monday, arriving at High Leigh - which I'd last visited for a diocesan conference some 12 years ago, I'd guess. The personnel were pretty typical of most Christian gatherings. 
Lots of grey hair, lots of kind faces...
Did we REALLY want to be here?
Even to hear Philip Yancey?
I wasn't convinced....though glad to have 3 days to spend "irl" with online friends.
As the music group gathered for the opening worship I was even LESS convinced (remember that bit about English choral tradition? it's still the music that most feeds my soul) but once the Mass started I realised I might have to adjust my ideas a little.

And that, really, is what happened this week.

Amid a most wonderful blend of deeply familiar, utterly essential, sacramental worship I found myself encountering God in new ways...
Despite my huge resistance to the music in particular, but to other elements as well.
Could I really trust this community, run the risk that once again I might not be "chosen" to be blessed?
Despite all this, God acted.
Very gently at first - with a reminder that I HAD indeed received the Holy Spirit before, - most specifically at my ordination. I found that my hands remembered very well the cross that was traced on their palms as I was anointed at my priesting - and that that tangible reminder stayed with me, positively zinging with life for the rest of that day...that suddenly EVERYTHING was more alive...
What are the sacraments, if not charismatic in themselves?
Don't I call down the Holy Spirit whenever I baptise, or preside at the Eucharist?
Perhaps I've always been a "charismatic catholic" without knowing it....
Before I left home, another twitter friend had suggested that I might find On Fire a place to meet an old friend in a new context - and that was so much my experience, as God reassured me that, actually, this wasn't new and foreign ground.

But, you know, as people around me were being prayed for and falling over, I was praying rather urgently something like this:
"You know... I really NEED something to happen...but PLEASE not falling over. I'm scared enough as it is. PLEASE......."
So at that time, in that place, I did indeed remain on my feet - full of warmth and joy, unable for a few minutes to open my eyes, but decisively upright.

Later it was a different matter.

This was after another wonderful Eucharist - and the whole room was chock full of love and I dared to go forward for prayer again.
This time God reminded me of something I need to hear pretty much every minute of every day.
If I did counted cross-stitch, that might be the text of my next sampler as it's a message I'm peculiarly bad at hearing or believing - but the other message, that God really can be trusted, I found myself learning without any effort at all as after some rather beautiful prayer, I woke up to find myself gazing at the ceiling - and more full of love and joy than my being really had room for.

No, I don't understand any of it.
I don't understand why the Spirit moves so powerfully in some contexts when at other times, despite fervent prayer, nothing much seems to happen.
I don't understand WHAT happened, except in terms of realising that I could trust God to catch me however I might happen to fall, and that letting go completely can be gift rather than loss.
I don't know how my experience of joy and blessing may impact on how I minister from now on.
I just know that I've found a new place and a new way in which to be loved by God...a way in which the precious Sacrament that is at the heart of my faith and my priesthood ministers to me in ways of grace and beauty that I hadn't imagined.

But (because, you know, Aslan is not a tame lion) I still don't speak in tongues - but I rather think my conversation with God has changed gear anyway.


AppleTree said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. It has really spoken to me most profoundly.

UKViewer said...

Thank you for an inspiring post.

The excitement comes through the words. I just know it's something to experience to bring back that fire and excitement I felt when I was called back to Christianity 4 years ago.

Looking forward to BAP, I've been feeling a bit dry and barren in spirit, but your words have re-ignited that sense of excitement which seemed to have dimmed.

The Holy Spirit visits through different mediums, now through a blog post.

God be praised.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this. I've been struggling for a long time and On Fire is one of the places that remind me why I shold keep going.

Anonymous said...

Big smiles for you :D . I'm so regretful I didn't get to on fire this year. It's a manic spring here tho and no one would have loved me for it!! Having travelled a fair way from my charis. roots I do need a place where I can reconcile the good stuff in all of that with the riches of sacramental faith & worship which to me now feels like home.

Christine McIntosh said...

Love this post and what happened to you. You've made a much better job of sharing it than I did after a Cursillo weekend - and ditto the music thing!

Perpetua said...

Christine has said it for me. Having experienced both Cursillo and charismatic renewal many years ago, I can still remember the joy, energy and sheer excitement of having my view of the world and of God shift like this. I'm so happy for you.

serena said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful time, how lovely. Also, I'd pick the sheer pleasure of knowing you over having you speak to me in tongues any day of the week! x

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Thank you. I needed to read that today, I think.

Unknown said...

Love to you, my friend. I have always found you full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit.

Fiona Marcella said...

I'm so happy that the spiritual experience was there for you, but must admit that my main vision is of my daughter and her friend at a diocese wide post-confirmation meeting with their fingers in their ears at the music crying "this is worse than Mission Praise". I hope you didn't do that!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this lovely, honest post. It really helped me today.

Revisingreform said...

OOOH fab - this is definitely where God is calling me - roll on 2015 conference for this newbie!
Thanks x