Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Another wall #pilgrimage7

How do we make sense of all this?

Of the devout Jews who made space for us, enabled us to take our place in prayer at the Western Wall, to lament with them the loss of the Temple and their exclusion from a holy place, while the Israeli government builds another wall, cutting a city in two, excluding others, a concrete embodiment of that for which we ask forgiveness daily in the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation...
"The hatred that divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class".

The complexities are such that to say anything at all seems foolhardy. 
God knows, the last thing this situation needs is anything that might fuel the flames.

But the wall is there, and its impact is non-negotiable.

I'll never be able to pray the Litany as an abstract again. This is what harsh reality looks like, even more striking than the ruins of medieval St Michael's, which we have assimilated, somehow, and made more bearable because the next stage of the journey of reconciliation is also visibly present. 

But that's a long long way away from Bethlehem on a January evening. .
Even the beauty of the sunset cannot soften it.

I have so much to learn. 
I long to understand the complex web of pain and grief and history that brought us here.
I feel small and helpless.
Father forgive

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Finding the place, it was, you may say... UNsatisfactory #pilgrimage6

Perhaps one should limit exposure to holy sites? Maybe it's possible to overdose on them, so that their power is diluted? Perhaps the impact of the Resurrection had already done all the work that I might have hoped for. Perhaps I was simply not paying proper attention.
For whatever reason, our visit to Bethlehem left me rather forlorn.

We'd journeyed there by way of Shepherds' Field, sung carols and celebrated the Eucharist there (though I was sad to realise that here, like so many of the holy sites, women are unable to preside - a real issue for S. & E., planning a parish pilgrimage later in the year) then looked across at Bethlehem - absolutely not a little town, but a sprawling city. And so the cherished imaginings of decades began to be demolished, little by little.

One problem, of course, was daylight. Bethlehem of my imagination "BomI") exists only under the stars. It's a place where everyone has only one destination, where you are inexorably drawn towards the birthplace.
But Real Bethlehem, reached mid-afternoon (after a beguiling interlude in an icon shop, which all but undid such pension plans as I have, as I wrestled with a deep longing to buy a 19th century icon of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem...2 weeks on, I'm still not sure if I am relieved or appalled that common sense triumphed) is a different matter. When you picture yourself visiting the birthplace of Christ, you somehow don't imagine that journey beginning in a covered car-park. It was all a bit bathetic, really...

Then the Church of the Nativity. We stoop to enter, and find ourselves almost immediately swept out of the way as an Armenian Orthodox liturgy is about to begin, a rite of censing the holy places that demands that tourists and pilgrims stand aside. This isn't a problem, as it provides time to arrive properly, to acclimatise and try to enter the mystery. 
It's a beautiful space, with stunning icons, but somehow there seems to be less room to pray, less expectation that this might be our agenda. But maybe that's me?

Delightful moment as the censing party moves behind the iconostasis, and two small children are released by their mother, to scamper joyously over the polished marble, completely at home and relaxed. They would have been quite at home in the B.o.m.I and rekindled my hope that I might be closer to the holy than I'd feared...but in the event, the experience of being herded down the steps under the sanctuary, and the jostling of a noisy group whose plans for the afternoon don't seem to include any element of worship is too much for me. At the centre of the star that marks the traditional site of Christ's birth is a hole, to enable pilgrims to touch the rock...At the time, this isn't clear to me - and as I kneel to venerate the spot, the hole represents something missing for me, that sense of God's proximity that overwhelmed me in Jerusalem but is strangely absent here today.

It's all a bit too much like a viewing of the crown jewels in the Tower of London...part of a tourist trail which exists in parallel to the worship going on above. Whereas in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I felt certain that within all those competing varieties of prayer there was room for me to take my place, here the experience was quite different. As I tried to pray for a brief moment, around me people were taking photos, and the liturgy upstairs went on its own unswerving way regardless. For me it seemed a far cry from the warm, embracing holiness I'd encountered in Jerusalem.

We're hurried on our way, to see where St Jermone undertook his mammoth work of Biblical translation. This feels much better - a place to pause, to be still, and, it turns out, to have a better view of the manger grotto, through a peep-hole in the cavern wall. Maybe a glimpse of the intangible mystery is actually the "right" experience here. Who knows? 
It seems ironic that the carol that is echoing in my head throughout this visit is "In dulci jubillo" - with its note of longing "O that we were there". Even as I stand in this place, there;s a sense of exile, of something missing. I'm probably just Perhaps I'm simply looking for the wrong thing, or from the wrong perspective. As we're about to leave Jerome's cave, I find the Great "O" antiphons inscribed on the wall. 
They confirm my sense of longing, that same longing that floods my being every Advent, so that actually, I do manage to pray, even here, even now...

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Better to light a candle? Some half formed thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

What do you say when there are no words? 
(If there are no words, then any attempt to write seems almost criminally foolish, but I somehow need to set a marker in place, if only for say that I have paused and looked back, and mourned today, though words and thoughts are as muddled as my feelings. I have no right to speak of these things. This is not my story in any way. And yet, if we leave the story only to those who are inextricably tied to it, is there a risk that it becomes, incredibly, a minority concern....and that cannot be. This is, surely, the story of what it means to be human - or to lose touch with your humanity...)

So...though words are inadequate, they are all that I have.

This morning I read that if we were to keep a minute's silence for each victim of the Holocaust, the world would remain silent for 11 years.
11 years!
6 million Jewish lives, - not forgetting the Roma, the gay men, and those deemed imperfect - disabled or with learning difficulties.
Not an amorphous group of victims but precious individuals, children, women, men - as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the sea-shore.
Demonised, penalised, scape-goated because they were "other"...

More than ever, I reflect that the great gift of Coventry to the world is the power of missing word. In our Litany we say, day by day, not "Father forgive THEM" but "Father, forgive" because we refuse to divide the world into "them" and "us" - to see ourselves as untouched by the potential for of cruelty that lies within. 
The seven-fold entreaty "Father, forgive" stands for me as a statement of shared humanity and an act of commitment, to search my own heart and ask for help in rooting out those habits of mind that might otherwise allow me to follow that path.

Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

"Liberation" sounds so joyous, so triumphant, that it's hard to comprehend the horror that was found when the jeeps rolled in.
This morning's gospel was the account of Jesus's mission statement, quoting Isaiah

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

It sounds so wonderful, calling everyone to join in this glorious work of redemption...but for many, so unthinkably many, the year of the Lord's favour came too late. Small wonder that the Holocaust has left an indelible mark on Jewish theology. Where was God then?

Was this moment after which faith became impossible?
In "Night" Elie Wiesel writes, famously, of the execution of a child...and the cry from one of the prisoners forced to watch "Where is merciful God, where is he?"
The child, being light, is slow to die, and Wiesel watches his agony with that same question resounding in his thoughts

 “For God’s sake, where is God?"
            And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
            “Where is He?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
That's the only kind of God who seems relevant now. A God totally immersed in human suffering, a God who experiences every bit of that agony, and the agony of each one of those who perished in the camps, and those whose dreams are haunted to this day.
This is the God of Calvary, not of Easter Sunday...and it seems, as we watch the creeping anti-Semitism surfacing again today, that we may be suspended ourselves in the painful liminality of Holy Saturday. 

Fallen humanity is tragically slow to learn the lessons of history

And yet - even amid all this, there are beautiful moments of grace. 

These tangled thoughts are part of the on-going work of my pilgrimage, of course...for my time in Jerusalem has made the mess of human motivations more real and powerful than ever.
I had spent today increasingly uncomfortable that our Cathedral, for all its calling to be a place of Reconciliation, had taken no part in marking the Shoah. Contrite, I wanted absolution but see no likely source.
Until, after Evensong, I was introduced to John, a Messianic Jew who arrived in this country on the Kinder.transport. His opening greeting was a hug, - which embraced both me and my fumbling longing to do better, to make a difference, to live in full humanity and assert day by day "Never again"...Not for the Jews. Not for the socialists. Not for the trade-unionists. Not for the refugees. Not for the economic migrants. Not for the people of colour. NOT FOR ANY SINGLE ONE OF GOD'S PRECIOUS PRECIOUS CHILDREN.
Never, never, never again.

Though there seems to be so little that I can do, even a few words on a blog might just be better than nothing. After all, even a pinprick of light is a comfort in the darkness

Saturday, January 26, 2019

At home among strangers #Pilgrimage5

An afternoon trip to Bethany, where we don't, if I'm honest, find much to draw us into the mystery in the church that marks the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, meant that we found ourselves arriving back in Jerusalem just after sunset. Not, normally, a big deal - but in this case not entirely welcome news as it is Friday, Shabbat has begun, and we are due to visit the Western Wall.
It is impressed on us that we are only able to be there if we take nothing with us - no cameras, no pen and paper (though if we wish we may carry pre-written prayers to leave at the Wall).

We are joining a community at prayer, and this is neither the time nor the place for tourism. 
As we pass through the turn stile and approach the square in front of the Wall, we hear singing...And, surely, yes...there are a group dancing - a joyous circle dance that makes me long to join in.
There is so much activity all around us. A father is briefing his small son on what to do, what to expect..
Suddenly, I'm desperate to be part of this family, a daughter of Sarah, to be bound by cultural obligations that would, I imagine, hold me steady in faith through the framework of tradition and praxis, no matter where my feelings might be.
I cover my head and begin to make my way timidly towards that part of the Wall where women are permitted to pray.
I wonder how obvious it is that I am not a Jew...Whether I may be recognised and denounced as an interloper by one of those devout grandmothers pouring over their prayers, or that group of shiney young American Jews whose group arrived just before us  ("I didn't really want to come here but now we're here, it's so cool..." said one to her friend).
Right now I want, more than anything else, to belong.
I watch a girl, maybe 12 or 13, seriously working her way through her prayers, black dress, dark hair tied back with a velvet ribbon that, I imagine, gives her an air of Ann Frank.
This was the day when we had driven past Yad Vashem, not included in our programme, and my sense of guilt that we could choose not to engage with that dark moment in human history only increased my longing to be at home, an insider here.

I watched the comings and goings at the Wall, realising gradually that if I wanted to touch the stones at all, I would have to be be brave and determined and push myself forward through the crowds. There didn't seem to be a system, a queue...(how very English of me to even half expect one!)...
Careful manoeuvring gained me a space and again I found myself somewhat unexpectedly kissing ancient stone, because it felt like absolutely the right and only thing to do.
I pushed my folded prayer as deep as I could into a crack, to join the countless others, thinking about the impact of so many devout and desperate cries to God...about all those who were praying around me now, and all those who had prayed before me, and would pray here long after I'd gone.

It seems, after all, that against the odds I am at home here, and I whisper a quiet thanksgiving..

Around me the singing from the men's part of the wall continued, - the music of a community set on worshipping God in this space no matter what. We had been told very firmly that at the moment there was absolutely no chance that we could scale Temple Mount. Tensions in the city were running too high...
From England it seems madness, this squabbling over holy places...but here it all makes sense. There are ancient roots here, which you overlook at your peril. I'm reminded of words from The Lord of the Rings, which have always resonated with me beyond their immediate context, as Galadriel, the Elf-Queen, empathises with the dwarf Gimli at his longing to visit Moria, though it is fraught with dangers
“If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothl√≥rien, who of the Galadhrim, even Celeborn the Wise, would pass nigh and would not wish to look upon their ancient home, though it had become an abode of dragons?

The peace of Jerusalem is, I fear, beyond any human ingenuity to win...but that longing to be able to rest here, to return time and again to pray, to join the crowds and whisper petitions to the God who though not confined to any Holy of Holies, has been worshipped here for so long, wrings at my heart and becomes my longing too.
As I reverse inexpertly away from the Wall, I find my thoughts filled with the Bairstow Lamentations that belong so wonderfully to Holy Week Tenebrae
"How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people; how is she become as a widow?
She that was great among the nations, how is she become tributary?
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God"

Friday, January 25, 2019

Where prayer has been valid #Pilgrimage4

Bethesda...on a beautiful morning, with blue skies and warm sunshine, so easy to imagine the waiting invalids, hoping that today the waters would be stirred and healing come. The depths of the cistern suddenly makes sense of the reluctance of the paralysed man to risk those depths without help...
This feels like the place to pray for some friends who are dealing with tough health issues...and later I leave their names pushed into a crevice in the wall in the house where, maybe, - just maybe, Our Lady spent her early years. We try the glorious acoustic of the church of St Ann, our polite English voices turning out to be in no way a disappointment after the joyous exuberance of our Nigerian friends who have sung and danced in full gospel delight immediately before us, then in the silence go down to the 1st century house where Joachim and Ann could perhaps have made their home (this travelling down in to the past is a recurrent motif of the journey. Layers of history, hopes, fears and memories pressed The truth is actually deeply irrelevant. The prayers of generations of pilgrims have hallowed the place and I find myself deep in conversation with the Mother of God, my rosary settling comfortably into my hand where it remained almost throughout the pilgrimage.

I ask the elderly Franciscan on duty in the church for a blessing on the rosary - and he blesses not only the beads but the pilgrim. Out into the sunshine in a state of quiet joy...It's my turn to follow the Via Dolorosa.
Even in this off season, when again and we are repeatedly told that the city is "very quiet", it's hard to find the narrow thread of prayer, to follow it through the narrow alleys and up the acieht steps between the shops and food stalls, the purveyors of holy tat and pomegranate juice. Cats dart ahead of us into the shadows. They must have been there then...

Our journey is heavy on history, light on the sacred silence I crave, but nonetheless it brings us to the place we need to be, to the heart of everything, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where death and resurrection rub shoulders amid the competing worship of a fractured Church. 

Somehow, despite all the hubbub and the anxiety of Dahoud, our guide, who is determined that we will make the most of every opportunity to take short cuts, see all that we need in record time, this is the place where everything makes sense. I kneel to kiss the "Stone of Anointing", -  blessed by the love of so many pilgrims, their prayers blending with the sweet oils that are rubbed into the stone day by day in remembrance of the precious Body that almost certainly was never prepared for burial there...I join a queue, snaking around the sepulchre, passing the Orthodox Chapel with its holy icon...candles kindling warmth and drawing me briefly into loving contact with the face of Christ...then it's my turn to bend and enter the tomb, to fall to my knees and kiss the place where Jesus lay for three days before rising to change the world forever. I close my eyes, laying my head on the marble slab that protects the tomb itself...and feel the weight of prayer almost overpowering me. In that loving darkness the presence of crowds is irrelevant, the truth of history unimportant. I am at the heart of the Christian journey, the place where love and hope triumph always, and that love overwhelms me too.

Appropriately enough, that was Friday.

On Sunday, while it was yet dark, we women returned to the tomb. We were promised that things would "feel different" when the Church was only open to worshippers. Covering my head I knelt at the back as a Franciscan priest chanted Latin Mass within the Sepulchre itself..the place so changed by the absence of crowds and queues that it took me a little while to re-orientate myself. He was, incredibly, saying those words, praying that prayer in the place where Christ's Body had lain. Oh my!
Around me the sounds of other liturgies swirl, the bells on the thurible marking the route of Armenian monks censing the holy places as they do regularly throughout the day. We chant the Lord's Prayer together, the Agnus Dei, "Dominus non dignat..." "Lord, I am not worthy" and this is not my branch of the family - yet when I reach the front of the queue and bow my head for a blessing, the priest lifts my chin and places the host on my tongue.
Brokenness, human mess and muddle, and God's risen life all miraculously present in a moment of unexpected grace.

I kneel in my place again, Mass ends and within seconds the space is cleared, the clergy, stripped of vestments, taking lectern, candles, Missal away to replace them with the metal barriers that will later keep jostling pilgrims at bay. It's like the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday, but at double speed...Maybe that's how it is here. Each Mass the Triduum in minature...Would it be greedy to have another moment of Easter? The queue is so short, and God knows, I have plenty of work to do on my knees there.

This time, I keep my eyes open for long enough to allow the golden letters over the stone to burn themselves onto my heart.
He is risen.
Not all the madness of a broken Church, intent on masking the truth it exists to proclaim by wrapping it in layers of ritual reverence can for one moment disrupt the work of Resurrection.

I walk back alone through a city full of golden beauty. 
On my Ember card 15 years ago I included words whose truth hits me all over again now
"One thing have I desired of the Lord. This is what I seek. That I might dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his Temple".

Please can I stay here?

Holy moments, holy places #Pilgrimage 3

And so the pilgrimage began to unfold.
Utterly unexpected.
Blessings where I'd predicted nothing but a tourist circus, disappointment in spots that I had been certain would be deep in holiness.
Thankfulness every single day.

On that first day, like pretty much every other pilgrim, we stood on the Mount of Olives and looked across the valley seeing history, faith, culture compacted together into indissoluble layers which it will take a life-time to understand. Shining golden domes and towers. Ancient stones rediscovered, sometimes "enhanced" but always significant.

The serried ranks of the dead in the Jewish cemetery that spreads over the hillside, - ensuring, apparently, poll position for their occupants, come Judgement day. This is my first encounter with the power of stones...a theme that was to become very much part of my experience. I wonder about the people each stone many years these memorials have endured...Most memorials have their own pile of smaller stones, marking a visit to honour the dead.They lived and loved, Did they know that they would be included among the company of those who would lie within plain sight of the Holy City? Did that gladden their hearts on departure? And that today it is the cumulative impact of their memorials that was truly significant. "So many. I did not know death had undone so many"

 Down the hill, along the Palm Sunday route. Hard to imagine a joyous crowd gathering along this way, though the observation of our guide that given the sheer and slippery path, it would make good sense to cover the stones with cloaks, to give donkeys a wee bit of purchase for their hooves. I'm intrigued and delighted to be here, but have no sense of the sacred here...nor, to my sorrow, in Gethsemane. It is so SMALL! Even allowing for the ground that is now covered by the Church of All Nations, surely this space is too small to accommodate such intensity. I wonder why this was Christ's safe space. It wasn't the spacious, peaceful haven I had imagined, with quiet corners behind many a tree...yet here Jesus wrestled and came to terms with the huge reality of his calling. I had hoped to stroke the olive trunks, to whisper something of my own hopes and fears among their branches...but this, though beautiful, was tidy, even regimented...a perspective from afterwards, with nothing of the darkness and terror of Maundy Thursday.

The church was filled with a joyful crowd of Nigerian pilgrims whom we were to encounter again and again over the next few days. Mass was just beginning as we were shephereded away, - my first taste of a vague wistfulness that accompanied me around the city.Travelling with a group of not-yet-friends, there was often a sense of looking through the windows of the spiritual homes of others, watching their party from outside, hoping, perhaps, for an invitation.

Jerusalem is a place that calls forth the most visible expressions of spiritual allegiance, from ringlets and skull caps to cassocks, monastic habits and the amazing headgear of Orthodox priests...It is a place where it became very important to me to practice embodied prayer, as again and again the thought that this, THIS was the space inspired genuflection, though I longed, often, to stay kneeling, pause in that space where prayer had been valid.

Leaving Gethsemane, we find ourselves, (after the first of an apparently endless succession of the most wonderful salad selections) on the other side of the valley, looking at the place where we had previously been standing. We are on the site of the house of Caiaphas and Annas, a church now marking the spot...but downstairs is an ancient prison cell. Was this where Christ was held that night? This the place where Peter denied his master and heard the dawn heralded by an uncaring, oblivious cockerel? Layers of history weigh me down. Maybe this was the place, this the moment when fear and faith collided for Peter and mid the multi-lingual comings and goings of a public space at festival time. For us too, the church of St Peter in Gallicantu is awash with different voices, competing in their prayers and exclamations, with the call of the muezzin summoning the faithful drifting over all. It's bewildering, unsettling - until suddenly, we are brought up short by a flight of steps. Steps positively dated as 1st centure. Steps leading up Mount Zion from across the valley. The only route that would make sense for soldiers bringing a man arrested in Gethsemane, among the olives. Steps that Jesus walked on. God, with a weary human body, dragging his aching human feet up the hill just a few inches from where I stood. 

Time stopped for me, as it surely did for Peter, when he caught his Master's eye amid the crowd as the cock crowed.
Jesus looked at me.
I looked at Jesus.
The world held its breath.

Travelling hopefully #Pilgrimage 2

Driving to Heathrow, C & I talked about Chaucer's pilgrims. Who would we be, in that motley crew? Would our fellow-travellers be closer to Chaucer's saintly prioress or the scheming Pardoner? As two newly single women, would we find ourselves sliding into territory best left to the Wife of Bath?
As we queued for check-in, my thoughts turned to older Egeria, visiting the Holy Land in the 4th century, to all those who set out on perilous roads, facing violence, illness, unspecified dangers for the sake of a glimpse of the Holy Land. It was so easy for us. We simply had to step onto the plane and, unimaginably, after a few hours there we would be.

Of course, I had reckoned without the necessary caution of El Al's security. It's strange how the experience of being thoroughly searched, my entirely innocent hand luggage gone through with a fine tooth comb, my emergency undies "just in case" shaken out in case they might conceal - who knows what? - made me feel irrationally guilty. On one level, of course, such care is reassuring. They are determined to make flights as safe as possible, even in this troubled and troubling age...and yet, somehow, this evidence of extra care makes me very anxious, providing further evidence that the world is not the universally friendly, liberal-minded place my white privilege has experienced it as to date. Each of us was a potential terrorist til proven otherwise. As S said "Welcome to the world of young men of colour".

Visible security, armed police will be a feature of the trip. It's good to get used to it, maybe?

Take off...always anxious so my familiar ritual of a quick text to my children. "Just off now. Love you". Just in case. How terrible if I had left it unsaid!

And we flew. Safely, a way that our predecessors could never have imagined. We flew, we landed, were welcomed by a Palestinian guide with the surprising declaration, that somehow felt entirely right
"Welcome home".

We boarded our coach, drove along a dual carriageway that could have been anywhere in the world, but for a generous sprinkling of palm trees. Weary, we began to doze, until we stopped, unexpectedly - our first sight of the city's lights - a city on a hill cannot be hidden. We read psalm 22, and I found myself singing Parry in my head from then on til bedtime.
"I was glad when they said unto me
We shall go into the house of the Lord.
My feet shall stand in your gates, O Jerusalem"
MY! Wonder of wonders! I was glad indeed...

Tis mystery all! Thoughts on a Holy Land Pilgrimage 1

It's just over a week now since I got home from my first visit to the Holy Land, - a visit that had been long years in the making, with several abortive attempts until, finally, the time was right, the flights booked, the commitment made. Together with two good friends and a assortment of others, I experienced that journey that was, for medieval pilgrims, the crown of life's achievements, treading in the steps not only of Jesus but of countless countless women and men before me.
And it was unexpectedly wonderful!

So, I've been processing the experience, weighing up what it might mean for me and my journey with God, and pondering how best to share, as it never feels as if any of these rich experiences are mine alone. While I was there I found myself imagining alot of the story through the eyes of the Virgin Mary, and prayed the rosary as I travelled with more devotion than for some years. I imagined each experience as a single bead, warmed in my fingers as I stroked it and became familiar with its surface, letting it take me to other times, other places.I wondered whether I could blog a rosary of experiences...sorrowful, joyful, glorious...but the moments refused to fall into tidy categories. Rather than a neat chaplet of beads they fell in a shower all over the floor, leaving me anxious that some would get lost altogether before I had time to notice them.

So, they're coming to you as they no particular order...If I wait til I've processed them, made them presentable, I'll never write at all.

I say "they're coming to you" but really, as always, this is for me...a driver to ensure that my thinking aloud actually happens, that I do some processing rather than simply have the experience and miss the meaning. I'm not assuming a reader...but you're welcome if you're here.

Vocation - a sermon with gratitude to Mary Oliver, preached at Evensong at Coventry Cathedral on 2nd Sunday after Epiphany 2019

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver the American poet who died on Thursday had the knack of seeing deeply and describing what she noticed in ways that spoke directly into the heart.
These lines from her poem "A summers day" include a question for us all.
What IS it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?
It's a question that we all need to engage with.
Life is too precious a gift to simply shuffle through it in our sleep.
There are things that each one of us needs to do, tasks that are ours and ours alone, sings that will remain silent unless we accept that they are ours to sing and launch into them with open  minds and hearts.
That's what vocation means.
It's not a particular agenda for people of a particular stamp...strange misfits who might look better in a clerical collar, super-spititual beings who know themselves called to a life of rarefied holiness.

Vocation is for each of us and actually it is, quite simply, the reason for our existence.

That sounds very glib, doesn't it...but sometimes it can take a lifetime to live into the calling, to claim it and make it part of our daily reality,
It's not always straightforward...sometimes anything but.
The call of Samuel which we heard about on our OT reading makes this ultra clear.
We might imagine that if God calls to us in the silent darkness of the night, amid the house, in essence of his Temple, it would be immediately and gloriously obvious not only who was speaking, but what we should do.
Samuel. Samuel.
Surely that voice is unmissable and unmistakable?
Except that it isn't.
The rational mind takes over, asserting that if Eli and Samuel are alone, sleeping in the Temple compound, then it MUST be Eli who speaks. After all, there's nobody else there!
Even Eli,   knowing he has said nothing, takes a while to wake up to the reality that the God whom he is called to serve has decided to stir himself (remember the word of the Lord was rare...there were not many visions), calling in the night in the hope, I suggest, that this is the one time when Eli and Samuel  might be free from the white noise of daily distractions.
God speaks.
Persisting in the face of incomprehension til at last he hears those receptive words
  "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening"
And no, the call is not a welcome nor an easy one. If God plans to work through someone to change the course of history, it's never likely to be a comfortable experience. ..but to turn your back on your calling is to turn away from life itself.
And through all that happens from then on, Samuel knows that the Lord is with him. This is a new chapter, a chapter of struggle and blessing, of a long obedience....

All well and good, you may think, but Samuel died centuries before Christ and there are not many visions in these days either. How do I discover where my calling lies, how do I follow Paul's direction "to lead a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called"?
Paul speaks wisely here, presenting a whole gamut of gifts which we might have received, to build up the Church, Christ's Body on earth...and of course, there are more. Often your calling will turn out to be something that makes your soul sing
Frederick Buechner writes of "vocation as the point at which your deep gladness and the world's deepest hunger meet"
So pay attention to those things which give you real joy
They may not be excessively active...a calling is often to BE as much as to do.
But be conscious in orientating your life towards God and expect to hear God's voice. If you find there are big choices to be made, talk to someone you trust and get help in discerning God's  voice amid competing options.

But whatever you do, stay attentive.

There IS something for you to do, be assured of that, something that is yours alone. So don't worry if you are called in a different direction from your neighbours. In this week of prayer for Christian Unity it's important to remember that God is active throughout God's Church,  and we're not necessarily called to imitate our brothers and sisters, though we can always learn from them.
So, listen and respond. 
The hope of our calling is, quite simply, that we will grow into the full stature of Christ, or, to give it a local twist, that we might begin to "build a kinder, more Christ child like world" starting from now.