This term at Cuddesdon I have often found myself blindsided by a dazzling, gentle grace at times when I didn’t realise I was seeking it. You’d think, in my second year as an ordinand, I might have started to become less surprised by the God of surprises. I might have learnt to expect God in the unexpected. And yet, I keep discovering Christ in places where I wasn’t particularly looking.
As a second year on a three year course, this is a relatively stable and settled time in my vocational journey. The first years – an indubitably wonderful bunch – have been settling in, adapting to major life changes and grappling with “imposter syndrome”. The leavers (who constitute the vast majority of my cohort, given that only four of us are on three year courses) have been sorting out their curacies. For the three-yearers on the Oxford BA course, the focus of second year is predominantly academic: we don’t do placements or any ministry-focused classes in the middle year of training. As someone whose spirituality has historically thrived in times of drama and crisis, when I look back on my spiritual life this term I would describe it more as a gently glowing ember than a blazing inferno. When we heard the crazed, ranty voice from Revelation in Morning Prayer stating, “you are neither hot nor cold!” I have to admit I felt a bit disconcerted.
And yet, like Lucy Pevensey opening a wardrobe and discovering a magical snowy landscape, I keep stumbling upon the breathtaking beauty of the eternal and transcendent when I hadn’t really noticed I was seeking it. I have found God’s grace on the edges this term, in moments of wonderful, glorious surprise. There was a candlelit Evening Prayer, during which an ordinand’s four-year-old daughter sensed the tune of the Spirit and spontaneously started to dance in the middle of chapel. A letter, which had been sent all the way to Australia during my Easter placement but never arrived, winged its way back to Oxford in October and said what I needed to hear.
Most of my teaching has been in Oxford this term, so I haven’t been present around college as much as I would have liked. But there have been wonderful moments: snatches of spontaneous theological discussion in the corridor, coffee and cake with my college sisters, whispered words of wisdom in the library. God’s grace always hits me like the sun breaking through the clouds on a dismal day. I had the opportunity to visit Oxford Synagogue during the celebrations for Simchat Torah, and singing and dancing with other women of faith was unforgettably joyous. I got to hold my friend’s new baby, and marvel at his little baby feet, and see that despite being exhausted she is radiantly beautiful. I witnessed people I care about face great pain and loss with dogged, dignified faith. I have had a couple of opportunities this term to connect with ordinands at other colleges (including through Twitter, stumbling across this blog!) and realised that this thing we are doing is much bigger than the microcosm of my college and cohort.
On Wednesday, I went to see my dissertation supervisor. She isn’t religious, but amidst the comments about inconsistent proof-reading and patchy analysis, she shifted to a few moments of profound spiritual direction. “You seem like a person who’s always doing things,” she observed. “Do you ever take time to really ponder and inhabit your work?” (No is the answer, obviously!). And then, almost from nowhere, “It seems like you are sort of fighting ghosts in this section of your methodology. It’s like you’re trying to prove something nobody is challenging.”
Rarely taking time to ponder. Fighting ghosts. Trying to prove something nobody is challenging. It’s as if God managed to call me when I didn’t even think I had my phone on. The Good Shepherd found me and brought me back home when I hadn’t even noticed I was wandering off the path, and the providential strategy is – surprise surprise – much bigger than the limits of my expectations. It reminds me of a quotation I love from the late, great Gerard Hughes: “The ordinary is the extraordinary. Every bush is burning if only we have eyes to see.” And although my prayer stamina isn’t that great in dreary winter, I manage the feeble, “Please may all of this be for Your glory.” And I dare to hope that part of my priestly vocation will be the privilege of helping others to see where God is unexpectedly, gloriously working at work in their lives too, and to delight in finding holiness in all sorts of surprising places.