The song of my sabbatical
In idle moments I have wondered what my 'desert island discs' would be, and for many years the song 'Sit Down' by the band James was a certainty. Yet despite that importance, I had never really dug into their other songs, or their back catalogue. That changed this Spring, and I discover that I really, really like them! Now I just have to arrange a ticket to go and see them.
Out of many contenders, one song in particular has become something of an anthem for me, and it sums up what I have found – or, better, what I have been reminded of – in this time of my sabbatical. It's all about grace (in the end, it's all 'all about grace'), both the song and what I have taken from it.
Are you aching for the blade? That's OK, we're insured.
Are you aching for the grave? That's OK, we're insured.
It would be fair to say that life has been challenging for me in recent years. In fact, one of the insights formed during the sabbatical was the realisation that I have been depressed for a very long time, certainly since 2009, but possibly since the mid 1990s – and that this is something that has only become clear in retrospect, because the depression has lifted. I feel normal. This has been coming for some time, I have been healing for a long time, but with the sabbatical it seems to have arrived. I feel OK.
The contrast with my previous sabbatical has been profound. That one – in 2009 – was a disaster, due to a combination of events in the parish and bad planning around the nature of the sabbatical itself. I was determined not to make the same mistakes this time, so I made sure that I was away from home for more than two-thirds of the time, and that I did things that were meaningful and memorable. I would not have been able to do these things without support from several grant-making bodies, so I would like here to record my sincere thanks to: The Diocese of Gloucester, The Sylvanus Lysons Trust, The Clergy Support Trust, The English Clergy Association and the St George's Trust.
So: what happened in the sabbatical? Amazing things.
Firstly, thanks to some good advice from IB at the Diocese, I didn't go on retreat at the start, I did a 200 mile walk with my sons instead. That really moved me away from everything that I had been involved with, and changed my mentality. The theme of the walk was 'walking with our fathers'. We started the walk where my father had been at school (HMS Conway in Anglesey – now the Conway centre), and we were blessed by generous support from a good friend.
Day 2 was a walk to the top of Snowdon via the Llanberis path – with full pack – and I didn't die, despite how it sometimes felt! Over the next two weeks we walked and camped and made coffee and argued and treated our blisters and thought about God and were ravished by the beauty of Wales as we made our way in the end to Mountain Ash, where my grandfather was born in 1898. Over two hundred amazing miles of feeling more and more alive. I feel properly connected to my sons again, and I hope they feel the same. At the end we took a train to Cardiff for a blow-out night in a posh hotel, and so that we could say we had gone from the North Coast to the South Coast. I'm planning the sequel already.
Daniel's saving Grace, she's out in deep water,
Hope he's a good swimmer
Daniel plays his ace, deep inside his temple,
He knows how to surf her
After the walk I was able to spend a few days in London staying at an AirBnB where I could catch up with some of my closest friends, whom I see in person so rarely now that I have moved out to the West. It was good to re-establish connections, and to be reassured of their reality. Friends matter. It also meant that for the first time in over a decade I was able to see my training incumbent, who was celebrating forty years since his ordination as a deacon! All good.
So with my head in a completely different place, I went to Hillfield for a retreat. The Franciscans have been something of a formative influence upon me, but I had only once visited Hillfield before (for Br Bernard's funeral) and it was good to sit and simply 'be'. I remember one thing in particular – going to a meal and realising that nobody knew me, nobody had any preconceptions about who I was, and that this was tremendously freeing. I felt my habitual defensiveness start to crumble, and some of the light started to emerge.
After a fortnight of academic work at home (more on that below) it was time for the second major element of the sabbatical, which was by far the most expensive – I took my eldest daughter for a week's sailing with Pembrokeshire Cruising, based at Neyland Marina. Sailing has been a source of both pleasure and pain in my life, indeed many of the elements that might come under the heading of 'yachting' have been a source of immense stress, and I had come to wonder how far sailing was truly something that was in my own heart, and how far it had been absorbed from others, from my father in particular, but also from the culture in my previous parish. The answer was clear, and was as I have remembered it: some of my happiest moments come on the water, most especially that moment when the engine is switched off and there is only the sound of the sea and the surf sustaining us. My love for sailing comes from the heart of who I am. One day, I will cross the ocean.
Daniel drinks his weight, drinks like Richard Burton,
Dance like John Travolta...now
Daniel's saving Grace, he was all but drowning,
Now they live like dolphins
After the sailing, and some more academic work, came a holiday in Essex in my old parish with my two daughters. Blessed Mersea! It had been five years since I left – five very complicated years for everyone – but it was a delight to see the place and even more of a delight to see the people, even though it was impossible to see everyone that I had planned to see as the time was too short. I experienced a lot of complicated emotions whilst there and there was a definite laying of ghosts to rest. I shall have to go again, and not leave it so long. After some more time visiting family I took elder daughter to Greenbelt at the end of the month, which was – on the whole – really good. For the first time I didn't attend the main Sunday morning service, which I think was a wise decision. I remain a committed Angel, and I am more at peace with (what I see as) the mistakes that Greenbelt makes: if it makes mistakes, it is making them in the right direction.
After some more academic work, the final event of the sabbatical itself was a retreat with the wonderful nuns at Tymawr convent. I didn't know that it existed – and it is so close to where I live – and I am grateful to the colleague that suggested that I try it. It scratches me in a place where I had forgotten that I itched. I have been back since, and I expect that attendance there will become part of my own spiritual discipline now. In particular, the sense of peace that I found during my sabbatical, of a renewed connection with a loving and gracious God, that was strongly with me when I was at Tymawr and I think returning there will also serve to remind me of that grace.
Which brings me back to the academic work. I said above that my depression may have been with me since the mid-90s. I am thinking in particular of my decision not to pursue my academic studies (a PhD at Cambridge) after two terms at Westcott. That was, I am sure, the right decision, but I was blithe to the cost of it, and what it meant for who I was. I am coming to realise that having room for my academic side to breathe and function is essential for my own mental and spiritual health. It is not something to be ashamed of; on the contrary it is something that gives balance to my life and actually provides energy for the other elements of my ministry. Despite the trauma of being made redundant, the gift of that redundancy in terms of time and simplicity has been to enable me to resume my academic studies (and, in particular, I now realise what a difference having the right supervisor makes).
So the academic work has been a major part of the sabbatical experience – specifically, I have had the time and space to get to grips with Iain McGilchrist's magnificent masterwork 'The Matter With Things', which will form the subject of at least one publishable article, and possibly a book (a book that is not the PhD thesis). I have found McGilchrist's work to be immensely satisfying and spiritually stimulating, not least in helping me to understand why music has always been so important in my life – it is one of the best ways to connect with God.
I have two particular memories of my sabbatical worth sharing here. The first is of walking on my own towards Brecon one evening (I had gone ahead of the boys) and listening to music whilst marching, and cresting over a hill just when this song reached its chorus. There was a glorious sunset and it was as if the Lord was saying 'see'...
The second memory was of a sailing transit across St Brides Bay on our way to Solva when our boat was surrounded by dolphins playing with each other and with us for around half an hour. What I realised was that I needed to live like the dolphins, trusting entirely on grace and not on anything that I might achieve or fail to achieve. Yes my life has been all messed up, but God is good and his grace is eternal and no matter what happens we are getting away with it – for that's the living.
That's the life.
And I am grateful for it.
We're getting away with it (all messed up)
Getting away with it (all messed up)
That's the living