Revealing Me In The Desert Place

landscape photography of desert
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GUEST POST:// Olivia Haines is a Lancashire lass who roamed Europe as the daughter of an army chaplain before settling down back in the city of her birth. Olivia is a 2nd year ordinand at St Mellitus College North West . Her week is split between lectures at Liverpool Cathedral, studying at home, and placement at a local parish church. Greatest loves are her husband Barry (a safeguarding manager in social services), 3 year old Isobel, and good conversation out on the northern fells. She blogs occasionally here: https://anewmumsmission.wordpress.com 

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Upon entering theological college one of the things we were recommended to start was a journal. More than a diary, this would become a space for us to document all things in ministry, mission and life generally; a space that we could come back to and actively practise the art of theological reflection; a space to enhance our own understanding of ourselves and our ministry. I am sure it’s something encouraged at other theological colleges but, at St Mellitus, where all training is mixed mode, it seems such an essential part of training.

Life is busy with 3 days of college and independent study, and 3 days of placement, where we are involved 46 weeks a year in parish life. This means nestling study alongside the painful privilege of leading in ministry and mission, regularly preaching and leading services in the parish, and a share of pastoral responsibility. It feels full throttle, but for me, that’s where the journal comes in to play. It serves as a reminder of where I’ve been, where God is working and is helpful for prompting conversation with my supervisor, if there’s something cropping up again and again. So, at the end of last year, my first year of three, I sat down to read it.

Retrospectively reading through my journal was, in places, painful, yet also refreshing as I could see the changes that are beginning to take place, the ways in which I am being formed. One of the themes which has come out is about boldly looking in the mirror as I question who I am, and who God is calling me to be. It is through the silence with God that I can begin to answer those questions of identity and calling, so I will be making reference to the desert tradition in my reflection.

The first half of the year was hard, really hard. My impostor syndrome was in overdrive and, with the struggles and challenges of balancing family life and training, I couldn’t see why God would want me. I thought I’d worked through all of this pre-BAP, yet I clearly hadn’t. Ideas of identity and calling rose to the front and centre of my life, and the intensity of college residentials (6 weekends and 1 full week each year) helped me to linger in those questions. Who am I? Who has God called me to be? Why has he called me, of all people? The problem was, I didn’t really want to linger. Lingering is uncomfortable, especially in silence. Especially if you’re an extroverted external processor with a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out). I couldn’t bring myself to stay longer in silence in chapel, in case I missed something with my peers. It was only from March onward when I began to warm to the idea of sitting in the uncomfortable, of staying and lingering with God, that the impostor syndrome and FOMO started to dissipate. One of the main takeaways for me from my retreat this year was the question, ‘Where is your desert?’ Our retreat leader wanted us to think about where we go to escape with God and sit with him. How do we silence the world, and plug in to what God has to say? I began to realise that I didn’t necessarily have that regularly carved into my rhythm.

In his book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen reflects, “I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer … and my constantly changing involvement … were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed.” I had a nervousness about silence which was left over from my experience of postnatal depression. In the thick of mental illness, the only time I’d really experienced silence, what I could remember of it was silence is painful. Seemingly, what I’d forgotten was the snippets of silent time spent with God during the night feeds which were the catalyst for me coming close to Him and hearing His voice call me forward for ordination. Rowan Williams notes Abba Pambo’s refusal to speak to a visiting Archbishop in his book Silence and Honeycakes, and writes that “without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God,” as our words only strengthen the disillusions we live within. Outwardly, I had decided silence unsettled me and that couldn’t possibly help. Could it?

There was a real turning point in March, when I first visited Sally for a counselling session. It could be said that, for me, Sally was, in that moment, a desert mother, an elder. As such, she spoke truth into a disillusion I had developed in my head and heart over many years. Rowan Williams writes, “The desert means a stepping back from the … collusive fantasy in which I try to decide who I am.”  When I saw Sally for the first time, she listened as I carefully unveiled and showed the me behind the mask. As I shared my worries and the feelings of unworthiness leftover from childhood, she spoke clearly and truthfully. I was worried she might tell me I need more confidence, something which people will often say when I begin to unmask myself. She didn’t. She said I was clearly confident; she could see that. What I needed was greater conviction, to believe I was not any of the unworthy things I had carried around for 15 years. What I discovered when I visited the desert with Sally was that, whilst mildly terrifying, there was great power to the truth. Seemingly, what I had been concerned about losing all along was the very thing I would be gaining by unmasking myself in the silence of my heart and my mind. Not only that, but I had made the mistake of thinking it was enough to do it now and again, when in actual fact the desert tradition is one of regular engagement with the wilderness. Keep asking. Keep looking. As Donna Lazenby (director of St Mellitus Southwest) put it in one lecture, the desert is the place where idols die, and that has to include the idea of myself I have created.

In thinking about how all of this impacts upon my future ministry, Rowan Williams sums it up better than I ever could: “God alone will tell me who I ‘really’ am, and he will do so only in the lifelong process of bringing my thoughts and longing into his presence without fear and deception.” Reading through my journal, I ultimately come back to the questions that discomforted and haunted me back at the beginning of the year: Who am I? Who has God called me to be? However, now I see the value of the silent laying down of my mask. I do not wish to be “reabsorbed by my habitual practices”, nor risk replacing the mask of who I think I am, rather than allowing God to form me into who He knows I am.

My hope is that I will become ever more truly me; that I will be able to do whatever God asks of me. It’s interesting because one of the arguments I come across on Twitter against non-residential training is that the opportunities for formation are fewer when you’re not living in community with other ordinands. And yet my experience, as shared with you here, is that this life of theology, ministry and mission rubbing alongside each other make for incredible formational opportunities. I am undoubtedly a different person than this time last year; there are parts of the old me I do not recognise as being me anymore. Still, there’s more formation to be done, and I thank God for the fact I have another 18 months at college.

To close, I leave you with a poem that I wrote while reflecting on John 2; it shows my hope for how when I lean into God who alone knows me, His glory is revealed.

Your glory revealed,

we stand amazed.

The best kept until the last.

Abundance.

Richness.

Life.

“Do whatever he tells you.”

It feels impossible.

“It’s not impossible.”

Life.

Richness.

Abundance.

The best kept until the last.

He thus revealed HIS glory.

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Are you an ordinand? Would you like to write for ‘Confessions of a Trainee Vicar?’ Use the ‘Contact’ page to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you – and I know others would too!


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