Abiding Journeys

Myles has played the organ for us here in Pembroke for over two years: he is director of music, lay chaplain, and supernumerary Fellow at Harris Manchester College. He will be leaving us to join Helen-Ann, his wife, who is the newly-appointed Bishop of Ripon in the summer. We are unfeignedly thankful to him, especially for this fine sermon preached in Pembroke Chapel on 29 April, 2018.

In 1925, London-born author G. K. Chesterton wrote, ‘There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place …’.[1]

Thank you so much to Andrew for the most kind invitation to speak this evening: it’s exciting to be in another part of chapel!  If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the themes of journeying and abiding that we have heard in the readings, and to share some experiences of my own travels.

I wonder how many of us have had unexpected journeys, where we have found ourselves on roads and routes that we could not have anticipated or imagined?!

Helen-Ann and I would never have anticipated visiting New Zealand, let alone living and working there, but exciting and unexpected opportunities arose for us to leave posts in Oxford in 2012, and we had a very happy six years there: two in Auckland and four in Hamilton, both on New Zealand’s North Island.  In Hamilton, I worked as an organist, and Helen-Ann was Bishop of Waikato: a large Anglican diocese with wonderful diversity of rural and urban areas, which even included the town of Matamata – used by Peter Jackson as his location for Hobbiton in his film adaptions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[2]  Local friends joked that Helen-Ann was bishop of the Shire, and in fact one Ascension day, Helen-Ann ascended part way up Mount Ngauruhoe with a party of teenage girls – the very volcano Jackson used as Mount Doom!

Thankfully, all went well, but it was significantly more challenging than the tower ascent Harris Manchester choir will be doing next week for our Ascension day Service!

It’s good to reflect on Tolkien here: in this, his own college, where he was a Fellow whilst writing his epic narratives of journey The Hobbit, and first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, central characters of these books undertake dangerous, unexpected and arduous journeys with companions, and return home transformed: the progress implied by the Chesterton quotation. Bilbo himself is an author, and entitles the record of his journey, ‘There and back again’.

Helen-Ann and I feel that we have been there and back again, have walked around the world even – albeit with thanks to Air New Zealand.

I even feel a sense of return here in this very chapel. Though I’m from Cumbria originally, from the age of eight I was a pupil at the Cathedral School on Brewer Street, just the other side of the chapel’s south wall, and next door to the birth-place of Dorothy L. Sayers.  She was a friend of the Inklings, and translator of Dante’s poem of the spiritual journey, The Divine Comedy[3] – Dante, son of Florence, where the choir toured in 2016.  At school I used to practise the organ at Campion Hall, and Oxford has felt home to me for a long time: a place to abide, to use language from the NRSV John reading, or a place to remain, to use the translation of the Greek word ‘menō’ by Campion Hall’s Nicholas King.[4]

Indeed, as we move towards the end of the academic year, for some perhaps a time of uncertainty concerning the next step, this college and chapel are places of abiding: places that we can hold onto and return to, even many years after the exams have been sat, and the dissertations submitted.

I certainly had an abiding connection to the UK whilst overseas, but was ever grateful for the amazing opportunities of New Zealand, the incredible welcome and hospitality of friends and colleagues: a true ‘home from home’.  I learned a great deal about abiding in that country, strength of family connections and friendships, Anglican faith and identity, particularly whilst in Hamilton, and from Māori and Pacific Island friends. Māori have the wonderful word whanau, meaning extended family, friends and community.  In a real sense, this college and chapel are examples of whanau.

To use a motif from the visual arts, an integral symbol for Māori is the koru (the Māori word for ‘loop’), which is a spiral shape based on the appearance of a new unfurling silver fern frond. You see this in carving and tattooing, where it symbolises new life, growth, strength and peace, a symbol very similar to the vine for John.

John’s vine imagery encapsulates Jesus’ teaching about relationality, about home and dwelling in God: Jesus the true vine, God the vine grower, and the branches called to bear fruit, inter-connected to the very source of being.

If we relate these themes to the Acts reading, Philip’s unexpected journey, to borrow Peter Jackson’s film title, shows that such abiding is not a place of stasis, or of comfort necessarily.

Through abiding in God, Philip is called to a hard desert journey, at first seemingly without reason.  In hindsight, through his meeting with the Ethiopian official, Philip enables new branches to grow on the vine: individuals and then whole communities both in Ethiopia and nearer to Philip’s home: physical and spirit-filled journeys of unexpected relocation and profound transformation.

The image of the vine also highlights that pruning is necessary for growth and transformation; the vine cannot prune itself!  To return to the journey metaphor, this is to recognise our limitations: that we can only carry so much for the road, only travel so far alone – to recognise that there are moments to grasp, and moments to release.   In words of the New Zealand poet and medical doctor Glenn Colquhoun,

The art of walking upright here

is the art of using both feet.

One is for holding on.

One is for letting go.[5]

 

Or, in words of Ecclesiastes chapter three, translated by Nicholas King:

For everything there is a time,

and a time for everything under heaven:

A time for giving birth, and for dying;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what was planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to destroy, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance.[6]

As a music finalist here, I remember a sense of holding on and letting go in selecting which topics to revise fully, which to consider in a more general way, and which to omit; similarly, I remember the sense of release, and dare I say relief, on handing in submissions.  At occasional times of feeling overwhelmed by revision and sense of limited time, I was given comfort by the advice to be attentive to the present moment – to rest in uncertainty if need be, to abide:

A similar message perhaps to these words from the New Zealand Prayer Book in the liturgy for night prayer:

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.[7]

In this time, season, and place of new possibilities, I would like to finish by wishing you a wonderful continuing Trinity term – good luck to finalists, and those with exams and submissions!

Inspired by this place, community, whanau and home, may we abide in our journeys: whether academic, work-related, physical or spiritual, even dramatic and unexpected like Philip’s, and may we enjoy the companions on the way.

To return to and echo the theme of my initial Chesterton quotation, I conclude with an extract from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, the final poem of the Four Quartets:

What we call a beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

…..

We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.[8]

 

Amen.

[1] Chesterton, G. K., The Everlasting Man (Hodder and Stoughton, 1925).

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Allen & Unwin, 1954 & 1955).

[3] D. Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, volumes I & II translated by D. L. Sayers D.; volume III translated by D. L. Sayers & D. Reynolds (Penguin, 1949, 1955, 1962).

[4] N. King, The New Testament, Freshly Translated (Mayhew, 2004).

[5] ‘The trick of standing upright here’ by G. Colquhoun from The Art of Walking Upright (Steele Roberts Ltd Aotearoa, 1999).

[6] N. King, The Bible, A Study Bible Freshly Translated (Mayhew, 2013).

[7] A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, 1988).

[8] T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding (Faber & Faber, 1942).

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[Revd Dr] Andrew Teal Chaplain, Fellow, Lecturer in Patristic & Modern Theology, Pembroke College, Oxford. Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford Warden, Community of the Sisters of the Love of God. ADVANCE NOTICE: Inspiring Service. November 23rd 2018 The Pichette Auditorium, Pembroke College Oxford. A panel of speakers to inspire adventurous and fulfilling service. Speakers: Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a leading lay British Catholic; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Revd Prof Frances Young, leading British Methodist; and The Most Revd & Rt Hon Prof Rowan Williams (Baron Williams of Oystermouth), formerly Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the world-wide Anglican Church.

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