Compared to life as a medical school teacher, what strikes me about clergy life is its relentlessness (always on call), unpredictability (the phone can go any time with demands that need action now), and the variety of things I’m expected to do. The thing that takes most getting used to is having lots of projects on the go at the same time: it’s not a case of finishing one job before starting another. Indeed, some jobs don’t seem to finish at all, they’re like a sluggish river oozing towards the sea, and it’s often difficult to see if they are completed at all, as they flow in to the sea of daily life. There’s a messiness and unpredictability to clergy life that seems pretty much in tune with day-to-day living for most people on the planet, and it reminds us all that, despite what anyone may tell us, or what we in the privileged, pampered and prosperous West may think, we are not in control. We simply don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s certainly a good idea to ‘live each day as if ‘twere thy last’, and it’s a good idea to make peace now with people who are estranged from us, so that when we come to shuffle off this mortal coil, there are no regrets or feelings of guilt left behind. I know from my funeral ministry that most of the grief in those mourning the loss of a loved one comes from guilt, shame and regrets about unreconciled fallings-out. Acceptance of this uncertainty is a key factor in living in the moment, and living in the moment is the key to eternal life—eternal meaning outside time, not everlasting, which is a misleading translation.
Acceptance of uncertainty means not clinging to the past (very Anglican) or worrying about the future. It means getting rid of unhealthy attachments (to family, to attitudes, to possessions) that Our Lord was always keen to encourage, such attachments being, to the Buddhist mind the causes of all dis-ease of the spirit, of the body, of humanity. This link should cause no surprise: the reverence for which, for example, HH the Dalai Lama holds Jesus’ teachings is well known. Disposing of such attachments is liberation, moving into a wide, unrestricted, unlimited place, and this is a potent image of salvation for the Hebrews: the promised land. It is a potent image for me too. And when we acknowledge our powerlessness, and discard attachments, there is nothing to be proud about, so pride goes to. Think how much better the world would be without pride. We would have no shame or regrets when the pain of parting hits us.
Trying to be on top of things all the time is an attempt to control the future. It’s a disease to which I am very prone, but it is in truth doomed to failure. Maybe I should just relax, and let it wash over me: maybe we should all just relax and let it wash over us. Some things just have to be done, and we can’t escape death or taxes, but others can wait. When I worked in Dublin, I had a ‘long finger’ file where I put stuff I didn’t know what to do with. Occasionally, I’d get out the long finger file and discover that what was in it had either resolved itself, or the deadline was past, and the world had not ended, so the stuff went in the bin. Fantastic!
We need ‘right judgement in all things’ as the prayer for Whitsunday has it. And in the midst of the messiness of life, this is often hard to come by. For right judgement we need proper nutrition with periods of rest, relaxation and reflection. Every cell in our body needs nutrition and waste disposal, and so do our minds and intellects. Nutrition for the intellect comes from stimulation: provocation, new challenges, new experiences. Waste disposal is provided by reflection, thinking about changes we need to make—doing the things that we ought to have done but haven’t, and resolving never again to do those things which we ought not to have done but did. We need to spend time being still and letting thoughts come to us. We are human beings, not human doings. These thoughts can be things of great beauty and delight, and, as eating good food brings pleasure and delight, so the right mental stimulation can lead to the most delightful thoughts and reflection. I call this prayer. Prayer isn’t just sitting or kneeling in church with your eyes shut and hands together, it’s a broad term for hearkening to, listening to and heeding, something bigger than humanity. And all this is why holidays are so important. A short holiday every day, a minute or two here and there. A longer holiday every now and then. Holy-days, properly taken will lead us towards holiness, wholeness, liberation, enlightenment, salvation, eternal life—call it what you like.