I’m standing in the kitchen; this one is named for St Francis which is appropriate as it’s the main venue of our service. I’ve washed dishes, mopped flaws, peeled apples, sung loudly, served silently, and fallen deeper in love with my brothers and sisters in this kitchen. The slightly vinegary-overtones is no longer strange but the comforting smell of Chemin Neuf cleaning hacks. It’s been both a place of frenzy and of calm.
Tacked onto the noticeboard on the wall is this yellowing piece of paper with beautiful penmanship. It reads, ‘God loves you are you are, not as you would like to be.’
In my journal on the way to my first ever gathering of the third year of the Community of St Anselm, I wrote in my journal, ‘Please, Lord, don’t let me mess this up.’
On our way to our silent retreat, my friend, Becky, and I were talking about what we were expecting from that week of the unknown and the terrifying. Becky, wise and calm said that her mantra for the St Anselm had so far been ‘I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that!’ She was right – whatever any of preconceptions about the St Anselm year had been, God blew them all way in his surpassing grace, mercy, and, at times, irritating sense of humour. I learnt so many lessons throughout that year, above all, to allow myself to be surprised by God and the lessons he wants me to learn, rather than the ones I think I should be learning.
If was better at remembering this, then I would not have begun my first term at vicar school silently pleading to God ‘don’t let me mess this up!’ I wanted to be a low-maintenance ordinand – I still want to be, if I’m honest. The thought that my DDO or tutor might ever think of me and have a deep sigh of frustration follow still has power to torment me. I wanted to start strong, be a version of myself who is outgoing and confident and full of the joy of the Lord and generally be Very Good Christian™.
And I succeeded. The End.
Except, that’s not how my term has been. My term began with lots of crying, being unable to pray or eat, and so much doubting, of myself, of God, of life. It seemed like the wisdom of that little note in the St Francis kitchen of Sclerder Abbey had all but been forgotten. I felt so unworthy, so inadequate, and so undeserving of love.
And then, something extraordinary happened. I was in a situation where I encountered God’s grace and forgiveness in a new and spectacular way. To the outsider, it would have been utterly unremarkable, to me in that place, it was God meeting me in the pit, taking hold of my hand, and leading me out into the light. It was an experience that I know will shape whatever ministry is to come.
I began my life at vicar school still under that lie that I’m not enough, when the truth is God loves me as I am.
On my shelf there is a piece of rose quartz and a piece of purple agate geode. The quartz is pretty; ‘if Barbie did minerals’ could be its slogan. The geode is dark and rough and if not faced the right way, it’s ugly. But take a closer look and inside it glitters; at its heart is wonder and beauty. The quartz is great but it’s just one lump of quartz. When we want to be someone other than the person God has made us to be and will form us to be throughout our lives, we miss out on the explosion of glory the image of God plants in us. My misguided prayer to not mess up was my attempt to try and be quartz, whereas God sees the rich beauty of the geode within me. And it took those first few weeks of utter brokenness for God’s glory to be revealed.
I had the privilege of interviewing Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester, for Wycliffe a few weeks ago. Something she said during our talk together has had a profound impact on me:
Be fully yourself because God has called you and God knows the adventure is ahead, so don’t be fearful, be excited, let go into God because there’s an adventure ahead and you don’t know what that’s going to be.
When I stopped praying my misguided prayer, I found myself praying for adventure. I’m an anxious, fearful person, praying for adventure makes no sense and yet it has been the prayer that has fallen from my lips with the most easy and joy this past term. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that!
So, term one of nine is drawing to a close. If you had asked me to define a successful term nine weeks ago, none of what has happened this term would have made my list. But I have been reminded that I am loved, just as I am; that who God knows me to be and will form me to be is far better than who I think I should be; that glory rises from the grace permeating the brokenness, and that adventure with God might just be the most liberating prayer to pray.
I’ve got my prayer for next term (and the next one and the next one and the next one, repeat ad idfinitum): Lord, I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that.