Following on from my Masters degree where I focused on using photography as a tool to explore matters of faith and belief, I embarked on a DTh in Practical Theology in September last year. My plan was to research the impact of visual story-telling within church contexts. This week I made a difficult decision to withdraw from the DTh; it can be really difficult to admit you took a wrong turn sometimes!
I have never thought of myself as academic, certainly not as a researcher. I read travel and nature writing as well as appreciating current fiction and theological writings. A recent read of Steven Lovatt’s Birdsong in a Time of Silence has drawn my attention not only to the birdsong in our garden and village, but also to identifying which birds are singing and identifying with their tunes and tones. These new realisations have spoken, or sung, to my soul and I have found myself increasingly drawn out to the garden, to those places where the birds dwell and go about their business.
Birdsong was very much at the forefront of my mind as I took a Quiet Day last week – a day to pray and be with God – and I felt a strong pull to the garden, to just get lost in the tasks of the garden as I communed with God. That particular day the birdsong was beautiful and I found myself just listening, soaking in the slowness and quietness of the day with the sun shining on my face.
Following my basking in the stillness and the birdsong I attended On Fire Mission’s Annual Conference this week and was listening to +Bev Mason, one of the keynote speakers. Her final question was, “What are you doing to grow in radiance?” Inwardly I acknowledged that I was far too busy to grow in radiance…and then I heard a small voice inside saying, “and isn’t that the problem?”
Priestly ministry is a wonderful way of life which I am deeply privileged to live out. It is also demanding; some of those demands relate to looking after my own relationship with God in order that I am aware of God’s guidance in relation to the people and places God has called me to serve. I know I am called to be here in my parishes, with the people of these villages…I realised I couldn’t say the same about my studies, studies which so often drew my attention away from parish rather than complementing or equipping me to serve within the parish.
As this revelation slowly landed, I found myself reminded of something I so often asked my GCSE students when I was teaching Ethics; just because we can, should we? I have a great passion for developing spirituality through contemplative photography and spiritual means, and have enjoyed working with people and opening their eyes to new ways of encountering God. I realised that this treasure I had found, though, was lost in the depths of my soul as I sought to keep up with my DTh studies and parish work. I had to conclude…Just because I can, it doesn’t mean I should.
It can be hard to admit defeat, or to say you are overwhelmed…I also think it is becoming more difficult to be realistic, to do only what needs to be done, and to do that fully and completely. There are so many things to take our attention – even within a pandemic where so much was shut down. Over the last few weeks I have finally heard God’s small voice drawing me in and calling me home, reminding me what is good for me, and what I do not need to focus on. Many would see shame in admitting defeat, or that I took a wrong turn for a while; but I am trying to embrace it as an act of courage. Magdalene Smith writes of the prayerful practice of shedding and letting things go in Fragile Mysics – it is just as important a practice as taking up that which God is putting into our hands. Whilst it has been a week of some anguish and sadness it has also been liberating. On the other side of mixed emotions and difficult conversations there is peace and a renewed radiance. I encourage you to take stock of each of those things you are doing – does it continue to be right for you to be involved in them? I invite you to courageously lay them down, where that feels right, and be liberated!