St. Michael’s, Ham

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And then I was here.

After a busy term at school, a typically hectic end to it, a rush to pack and a flight back to the UK, a few magical days in Northumberland and a train journey down to London and across the city to Richmond, I was here, back at St. Michael’s Convent.

A number of years ago, my spiritual director had asked me where I went on retreat, and I had told him, sheepishly, that I didn’t. His reaction was straightforward; that won’t do. And he followed that up with two recommendations for places I could easily go. Since my brother lived in London at the time, I decided to come to St. Michael’s.

I remember arriving for the first time and feeling rather anxious, because I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and I was wondering how on earth I was going to spend the next three days. The sister who showed me around gave me all the information I needed then left me in my room. I knelt to pray and found myself crying, not knowing why or for what, but just letting it all come out.

That first year I attended some of the daily offices, but was quite new to the rhythm of the day and felt a little awkward. I spent time in the garden, reading Julian’s Revelations, and generally being quiet. At that time, almost all the meals were taken in silence, with only one supper a ‘talking meal’. It was the end of my second day and as I sat down one of the elderly sisters said to me, “Are you on retreat? Because we’re talking!”

The following year I was back, this time with a version of the Cloud of Unknowing and a bit more idea of what to do and how to use my time. I felt more comfortable attending the daily offices, and found that attending them all gave my day a focus and a rhythm that very quickly took me away from all the cares and concerns I had arrived carrying. More of the meals were ‘talking meals’ and one evening the sisters had a lively discussion about who would go to Compline and who would be able to go straight to the sisters’ private sitting room to watch Midsomer Murders.

I continued for several years, but in 2012 and again in 2013 I just couldn’t make the dates work and had a retreatless summer. Last year I went to Norwich and called it a retreat, but then spent a lot of time talking to people and felt irritated that I didn’t have the same feeling of peace and slowing down that I had after my visits here.

And so I decided I really needed to make the dates work somehow this year, and just managed to squeak in for a retreat before the house closes for the summer. I also arranged a visit to Norwich, but decided I needed to reframe that as a short pilgrimage, rather than a retreat.

So here I am. I arrived almost twelve hours ago, just in time for the midday Eucharist. I have once again come here with a copy of Julian, but this year I have the Mirabai Starr translation. I attended Evening Prayer and Compline, and while neither was the form I am used to, since I am more familiar with the Episcopal Church’s BCP daily offices, the form no longer has me stranded or caught in the headlights. I know I can find my way through and know what I’m doing.

This afternoon I spent some time in the garden and walked the small labyrinth. Not really knowing what to do, but having the space all myself, I took off my shoes and walked slowly, reciting one word of the Jesus Prayer for each step, then stopping to pray for whoever or whatever came to mind. I went slowly, gently, and found myself unpacking all the prayers that have been part of my daily intercessions, round and round, until I had prayed them all out. A squirrel sat in the grass only a few metres away and watched me intently. It was nice to have a little company in that green space.

I shall do it again tomorrow, and try to find a way to incorporate some kind of walking meditation into my prayer life in Tokyo, because it just felt so right to walk, and pray, and raise each person or concern up and let God take care of it.

I put my shoes back on and walked through the garden feeling reassured that I had given my concerns to God and that truly, all shall be well.

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Conjunctions

HumilityWe do not presume                                                                                                           to come to this your table, merciful Lord,                                                                  trusting in our own righteousness,                                                                                   but in your manifold and great mercies.                                                                           We are not worthy                                                                                                            so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.                                                   But you are the same Lord                                                                                         whose nature is always to have mercy.                                                                         Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,                                                                                     so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ                                                            and to drink his blood,                                                                                                    that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body                                                    and our souls washed through his most precious blood,                                                 and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.                                                Amen.

This is the Prayer of Humble Access. Over twenty years ago, I used to attend the morning service of Holy Eucharist at Sheffield Cathedral. It wasn’t something I intentionally started to do, it was simply that there were very few buses into the city in the morning, and the only one that would get me to work on time in fact got me there with quite a lot of time to spare. Rather than sit and drink coffee I didn’t need, I decided to attend the service every morning.

There were never many people there, often only one of the canons, one other woman and me. Every morning we used the Prayer of Humble Access; it found its way into my heart and I loved it as part of the liturgy. Occasionally I hear it used, but it seems these days it isn’t used much.

Last year, I spent a happy Sunday afternoon showing some American visitors round Tokyo. They were both Episcopal priests. Over dinner the conversation somehow turned to the Prayer of Humble Access, and I mentioned my attachment to it. One of them remarked that she felt differently, and knew other women who felt the same; women who had been in abusive or damaging relationships, for whom the statement, ‘We are not worthy . . .’ was painful. I was challenged to account for my positive feelings.

At the time I think I said that I didn’t hear ‘not worthy’ as much as ‘mercy’. I didn’t satisfy myself with that answer, I felt there was something more, and so I thought and prayed about it. Eventually I arrived at an explanation that satisfied me.

From when I was eleven and my brother was nine, my father was an alcoholic (though my mother never admitted that and we never talked about his drinking until many years later). He drank every evening and then became verbally abusive. Many times every evening he would come into the living room, look at us, then close the door again, swearing at us as he did so. This was mainly to check we weren’t about to walk into the dining room where he was going to get another drink. As he closed the door he would say with some venom, f*** off or some other equally hurtful expletive. Evening after evening, my brother and I would look at Mum and she would always reply with, I didn’t hear anything / Just ignore it / Rise above it. This went on for many years. I was never able to ignore it, was never able to understand why she let it happen. I became clinically depressed for two years at university, and everything that I spoke about with my doctor at that time was connected to him or my grandparents. In my twenties I was able to stand up to him and when he swore I looked him in the eye and asked him to not do that because it was hurtful. He never stopped but I had my say.

My grandparents also said things that stayed with me. They often asserted that their love was conditional, and that because I fell short I was a disappointment or had hurt them and therefore love would be withheld on some level. ‘If you really loved us you wouldn’t go to China.’ ‘We’d love you more if you stayed here.’ That kind of thing.I knew that they loved me dearly, but still, their words hurt.

All of the above is not to paint me as some kind of victim, because I don’t feel that way. I feel sad about it, but I came through it, I’m stronger for it, I learnt about psychology and grew in faith and made my peace with it as much as I could.

My point is, the message I got from all of that was, I was not worthy because I was a disappointment; Dad was drinking and in a bad mood so we had to just accept it; adults had these negative feelings or had experiences in their past or something I couldn’t fathom and we had to take it. Lots of connections, conjunctions; and, because, so.

Then I came to the Prayer of Humble Access and again, it told me that I am not worthy. The difference was the conjunction. ‘We are not worthy . . . but . . . ‘ and that is what makes all the difference in the world to me. There is no connection between my unworthiness and what happens next. There’s no so, and or because, it all gets blown apart because of the ‘but’. Because of all the things I was told as I was growing up I have buttons in my head. It’s quite easy to rattle me, to make me feel anxious. I’m ready to believe it must be my fault, that I let someone down in some way.

I keep coming back to the Prayer of Humble Access because it breaks that cycle for me. I am not worthy. But. God doesn’t change, there is always mercy and grace.

That is why I like the Prayer of Humble Access. Everyone has their own experiences, and I know that for other people the word ‘unworthy’ might be just so loaded that there’s no getting round it, but for me it has the opposite effect.