I have been away today at Wells on a pre-Advent retreat for the clergy of the Bath Archdeaconry. Retreat conductor Christine Roberts used three stories by Frederick Buechner, from his Secrets in the Dark collection, to lead us into thought and quiet. The stories were about the innkeeper, the shepherds and the magi. Where I have tried to use Christine's or Frederick's words I have used quotes, although the accuracy may be wanton.
I spend my life walking in and out of stories. I am, of course, forever in my own story, the story of me. But I find myself a central character in some other stories - your story my dear, dear friend; a walk-on in further tales and a gate-crasher in yet more. Life is overlapping stories - the cross arcs of universal venn diagrams.
The kiss of thanks from the chief mourner and the look of sadness on the face of the disciplined. These contrasting overlaps focus my week so far.
My story today is silent thought and preparation. Listening to a retreat conductor telling stories. Spinning a web of words to which my ideas stick. I hear the phrase 'metaphysical speculation.' It sounds lovely in an accent where consonants are mainly imagined.
How am I doing? Nobody is really saying. Are they ever? I have to try and imagine the answer. Will I make progress in this quest on a largely silent day in a Bishops' palace surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses as other clergy can be?
The room in which we meet at the Palace for these days (my third) is adorned with allegedly abstract art. I say 'allegedly' for I, not I confess a great expert on paintings, seem to be the only person who understands that the artist Marianne Hellwig John was depicting a fertility cycle with her work and there are several, at minimum, implications of penetrative sex. Once you see it you can never unsee.
My Bible remains balanced on my knee all day. I rehearse the consonants of evangelical disappointment.
Does God have a soft spot for innkeepers? I think I will behave as if he does.
When, after a talk or meditation, a speaker invites us to listen to some music, it rarely has a beat or rhythm.
'I am a shepherd, a man who eats and enjoys muddy bread. I have learned to enjoy the tumbling wondrousness of it all. I had one moment when I saw it.'
'Faith, productivity and integrity will equip someone for the third millennium, but better attributes are wonder, face-to-face love and creativity.'
Do we have moments when it all comes together? When the view through the window fits the soundtrack and becomes a video, however fleetingly. Wonder at the moments when the happenings of grace break into your life.
'We can weave ourselves into the life of another - become part of their story.'
'We each need to own our piece of creation and what is being asked of us to bring to birth.'
Open your eyes. Listen. How often this is the Bible's charge. Behold. Look. He who has ears let him hear. It is as if the secret of an appropriate spiritual life is not more faith but more observation.
Do you see?
D'yer get mi?
Do you understand what I'm saying?
How often we slip in these verbal codas to check for comprehension. We want to be understood. Maybe we will be if we look and listen more.
'Herod jumped at the nonsense we told him and thanked us for it.'
Why do we go, year upon year, to a crib, in the company of ancient shepherds, astrologers, innkeepers, parents and animals? What is the power of this story? What significance does it have? Why is it still the centre of our festival yet trivialised by tea towels and Santa?
'We did not stay long. We set our foolish gifts down on the straw and left, withholding the rest. We couldn't stay longer for we smelled death.'
'But we need to join the company of the broken without leaving the company of the great.'
Tell the truth I sometimes feel more haunted by Jesus than visited. Every time Christmas comes around I discover it is another year gone and I cannot shake him off.
Shepherds return to sheep, unaware that the demand for sacrificial lamb can go down as well as up. Innkeepers return to bars, unaware that there is another, more agreeable spirit on which to become drunk. The astrologers return to their truths unaware that the one they have seen is the way, the truth and the life.
And me? I return to being something not doing something. For who I am and what I have seen and heard is several times more important than what I do.
Outside it was a day so grey all the adjectives that described it felt as if they should fit, rhyme. Everything that lay in the way of the day was grey. Inside it was beautiful.