The end of 2013 is nearly here. I am full of the cold and will likely spend this evening curled up on the couch with a whisky feeling sorry for myself and will fall asleep about 10pm, only to be wakened briefly by the fireworks at the castle mere yards away from where I live. It might sound like a pathetic way to usher in the new year, but truth be told, I’d quite happily spend every Hogmanay this way, sans cold of course. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose.
Anyway, when I’m at risk of bouts of melancholy (which is nearly all the time), I am reminded by a dear friend to make a list of five things I am grateful for, so here are my five for 2013. It’s actually been a pretty spectacular year.
When I knew that it was likely I would be doing my curacy at Old St Paul’s, I was mostly excited. It’s a church whose building I feel at home in, whose liturgy I love, whose congregation has welcomed me at various points during my life in Scotland. I knew that being here would challenge me and scare me and force me to grow in ways that would not always be comfortable but that would be good. But the one thing that was nearly a deal-breaker — if I had had a choice to go elsewhere, which in the end, I didn’t — was the singing. For months before I was ordained deacon, I had anxiety dreams from which I would wake in a cold sweat. I would cry at the mere thought of singing and wept when I forced myself to do Evensong at my church in the Borders as a trial run to get over this totally irrational fear. There, amongst friends, my heart was pounding so hard I thought I would either faint or have a heart attack. It was only a generous sip of whisky in the vestry beforehand which got me through.
I managed to muddle my way through Evensongs at OSP in those first few months, usually with the help of quite a lot of whisky, and though it’s never a service I’ll be totally comfortable with, I can now do it without having massive panic attacks the night before.
But what would really make my heart race and my palms go all clammy was the terror that was the Exsultet, the beautiful Easter Proclamation sung by the deacon at the Easter Vigil. I listened to people from the choir and the congregation telling me how much they loved the Exsultet, how that was the moment of Easter for them, how great a privilege it must be to be able to sing it. All I could think was that it was not going to be a joyful declaration of the resurrection but instead six minutes of descent into pure hell for me to sing and for them to listen to.
But something changed as I rehearsed it, as I worked my way through slowly note by note. I began to love it. I began to feel the joy of it. I accepted that it wasn’t going to be perfect, that I don’t have the most wonderful voice, but that it would be my offering, the best I could do, and I felt I could finally relinquish the fear – both of singing and of failing – that I had been clinging to so tightly.
I think amongst my moments of greatest surprise of recent years, surviving the Exsultet ranks up there with getting First Class Honours in Divinity at New College.
#2, #3 & #4: August
August was a busy month and easily the highlight of the year, containing three of the five best things of 2013.
When I started my part-time distance learning MLitt at St Andrews, I questioned the wisdom of doing a degree, even part-time, alongside the first year of my curacy. About this time last year, there were a lot of tears as I nearly decided just to ditch the dissertation and take a postgrad diploma instead. I didn’t handle the degree with any kind of grace, and I ended up taking a week of holiday time to go away and write the dissertation, but it got done, and at the beginning of August, I took a trip to St Andrews with my parents to hand it in. Friends and family now joke about my next degree being a PhD, but I can say with certainty that I have no desire to acquire a doctorate. Another Masters, yes, absolutely. I’m not an autodidact and am too lazy to read with any kind of depth and concentration on my own, so I can see myself juggling ministry and formal study in years to come. But for the time being, I’m happy to just focus on my curacy. It has been nice, for the first time in five years, to do Advent and Christmas without the added pressure of essays and exams.
August was a month of lots of friends and family. My brother came for two nights, my parents for three weeks and one of my best friends and her boyfriend for two weeks. It was truly lovely having a full flat for the month (but also truly lovely having an empty flat again after!). I have found ministry to be quite lonely a lot of the time. Few of my close friends live in Edinburgh, and on my day off each week, all I really want to do is retreat to the Borders, sleep and recharge. I’ve not been good at maintaining relationships this past year and it’s something I hope to be better at as I get used to the patterns of ordained life. Being surrounded by friends and family in August was like a month-long embrace. And when I walked down into the church for my ordination to the priesthood (see #4) and saw a congregation full of some of my all-time favourite people from all parts of my life who have loved me and encouraged me and prayed for me and without whom, I would not be who and where I am, I nearly wept with happiness and gratitude.
I was terrified walking down the aisle at my ordination. The diaconal role never really fit, and I was terrified that I would feel the same discomfort when I was ordained priest. I was terrified that I had made the wrong decision. I was terrified that in that moment of ordination, I would feel nothing. And then, as I felt almost crushed by the weight of the hands of the priests surrounding me, I became terrified at the absolute rightness of it. It was as though all the fragmented parts of my self came together in that moment, still with imperfections, still with cracks and scars, but I felt more me than I ever have.
Kneeling in front of the bishop, as he silently anointed my hands, the tears came and wouldn’t stop. I was wearing an alb that didn’t give easy access to my cassock pockets and the tissues I had brought. During what was quite possibly the holiest, most grace-filled, most wondrous moment of my life, I wondered if I was going to have to wipe my nose on the sleeve of my newly starched alb. It seems fitting somehow, that intertwining of the holiness of ordination and the ordinary undignified emotion of being human. If there is to be a symbol for ministry — my ministry, anyway — that’s not such a bad one.
My first mass was the next day, the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. There simply aren’t words to describe it except to say that as I approached the altar at the offertory, I knew without a doubt that this is what I was born to do, this is who I was born to be.
My Facebook status for that Sunday evening pretty much summed up the weekend: ‘[I have] had two days full of loving family, kind friends, beautiful congregation, spectacular music, amazing liturgy, fabulous sermons, joyful tears, abundant terror, and overwhelming grace’.
After a blogging hiatus, I’m back, adding yet more words to an over-saturated blogosphere. I know that recently this blog has become little more than a repository for my sermons, but I do hope to write more this next year.
Being free — at the moment, anyway — from academic writing has affected how I think and how I write. I have sensed a change in my sermons over the past couple of months. I feel more able to trust the process of writing, to trust what is given, to trust the words and phrases that emerge seemingly from nowhere but which won’t give me peace until I give them the care and attention they demand.
Writing is a craft like any other, and it requires discipline and practice. I have to confess that I don’t actually enjoy it. I agonise over every word in my sermons and even in my blog posts. It takes hours to write anything I feel adequately conveys what I’m trying to say. Days, sometimes. There are times when I never get to that point. I have blog posts that remain unpublished, and sermons I wish could have remained unpreached.
Writing is a compulsion, an obsession, a seduction. It might not be ‘fun’, but it is like the best kind of gift, one which can never be fully unwrapped, which remains forever partially shrouded in mystery. If I am careful, silent, attentive, it rewards me with another glimpse of something beautiful, tantalisingly close but ultimately ungraspable. Those moments of joy are worth all the hours of agony.
And so there they are, the five things from 2013 for which I am most grateful. 2014 has its work cut out for it if it is to surpass this last year. But to be honest, I’d happily accept a year that is rather quiet and quotidian by comparison, a year which is life’s equivalent of curling up on the sofa with a nice single malt and falling asleep by 10pm. As I said at the beginning, start as you mean to go on …