Of long-standing interests and extended horizons
aving long been interested in the Bible and theology, it is a great privilege to teach biblical studies (as well as Judaism, study skills and a little practical theology) at the University of Cumbria and the Lancashire & Cumbria Theological Partnership.
The staffing limitations encountered in both institutional settings have taken me out of my comfort zone from an early stage, requiring and facilitating a widening of my horizon well beyond my interests in the Old Testament. This has been enjoyable and of great benefit, but when given the opportunity, as in my research, I will always return to the Old Testament and, in particular, the book of Amos, the subject of my undergraduate dissertation and PhD, and the Song of Songs, which I have turned to more recently, having had an interest in this fascinating book for over twenty years.
Another fascination of mine has always been literature, especially novels and the odd collection of short stories. I still entertain the notion, especially when drowning in marking and admin, that literature would have been an equally good career choice. But it is as enjoyable, perhaps even more so, as a more leisurely pursuit in my spare time.
Of loss of desire and books without meaning
There is a line in Anne Carson’s Nox, an epitaph written on the occasion of her brother’s death, that resonates deeply with me. It reads ‘all desire left the world’ and expresses the effect Carson’s brother’s disappearance had on their mother. ‘All desire left the world’ – that’s such a brilliant way of expressing how loss and grief can affect us.
But how come I have moved so quickly from job satisfaction, the study of Old Testament books and getting lost in good literature to loss and grief?
How come loss and grief can change everything in a moment?
How come they can be upon us without warning?
How come desire can simply leave the world?
How come books become meaningless?
How come reading ceases?
Of awareness, compassion and the appeal of monastics and poets
Loss can have devastating effects and may be keenly felt for a long time, with no end in sight, or so it would seem …. But loss can be life-changing and transformative at the same time, even while the pain is still acutely felt. To me, once I had been through the darkest part of the proverbial ‘valley of the shadow of death’, two changes became increasingly apparent. One was a heightened awareness of the world around me. If asked to explain, I would talk about colours and people. Colours, as in: the blues suddenly were much bluer somehow, the greens, greener …. And people: people had become more substantial, more real. That may seem odd, but it’s the only way I can put it. The second change is closely related to the first and is best described as a new level of compassion for those I encounter.
But my experience of loss also meant that I needed to understand.
Understand what had happened.
Understand where I was.
Understand who I was.
Understand what was to be done.
And so I returned to the books, with more urgency and voracity than ever, and discovered a whole new universe of books. For, with some guidance at first, I at last began to explore the questions of spirituality that I had ignored for far too long. Along with an increasing number of people, this has taken me back to the monastics, the desert fathers and mothers and those following in their wake. There is much that remains to be explored and even more that awaits being put into practice, but it is an exciting path that has opened up for me, and it is one that I shall endeavour to travel with hope, despite both new and continued pain, and a new-found desire – and with the monastics as my companions and guides.
Poetry has come to my aid as well. If the monastics have become my guides, the poets provide me with consolation, they keep my desire aflame, and they give me a voice where, in the past, my pain and grief had been mute. Once again, Anne Carson has been important to me, especially in providing the following lines, taken from ‘The Glass Essay’, in which a woman reflects on a lost relationship:
… Woman alone on a hill.
She stands into the wind.
It is a hard wind slanting from the north.
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and lift
and blow away on the wind, leaving
an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle
calling mutely through lipless mouth.
‘Calling mutely through lipless mouth’ – at times, that is all that is left.
Of stories retold and descriptions righted
… a story must be told, tested, and retold countless times if we are to approach the truth. … our fate rests on how we describe what we do. Indeed, we do not know what we have done until we get the descriptions right.
Thus Stanley Hauerwas in his fascinating book Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir. It would seem, therefore, that I shall have to revisit this page from time to time, not only because the story isn’t over, but also in order to understand it myself, know what has happened, get the descriptions right ….