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Esme held this piece of paper in her hands and read what she had written so long ago. Back in the days when she wrote those words, her soul had been full of searching, of yearning—and these imply always hope. Then the church had stood for something full of quiet and mystery: heart's desire, homecoming, belonging.
Possessed in those days by a fierce hunger and hunting her miracle like the gospel story of the woman twelve years with an issue of blood, Esme had wriggled and elbowed her way through the press of life and people to find a place where she might stretch out her hand and touch the hem of the garment of Jesus; and so it might bring the restlessness of her soul to peace.
An oddity in her family, Esme had the sense of being less respected than kindly tolerated. Church attendance had been an unquestioned element of her upbringing, and her family had been established figures in the large parish church that occupied the center of the affluent village where she had grown up. Equally unquestioned had been the expectation of material success, and with a combination of personal confidence and conscientious application, Esme's brother and two sisters had solidly achieved this in their lives. The youngest child of the family, Esme had dithered, occupying herself with temporary secretarial posts on the strength of a six-month intensive course when she finished high school. She knew she was looking for something but didn't know what. Above all she hungered for a plain and authentic spirituality, sufficiently free of aesthetic pretension to pierce the conventional mold that had nurtured her. She thought she had found this when, in her early twenties, she began to attend a Methodist chapel pastored by a young and zealous minister, fresh out of college, with a fire in his belly for witness and mission and a political edge to his preaching.
Inspired, Esme involved herself in the Methodist church. She fell in love with a young man in the worship band, a budding executive in a Christian music publishing company. His lean good looks and brooding eyes appealed to her sense of romance. His sharp and fashionable style impressed her. So did his perpetual air of busyness and preoccupation, and the various electronic gadgets necessary to support the maintenance of his extensive social and business contact network. His interest in her gave her an unaccustomed sense of sophistication. He was widely regarded as quite a catch. He himself felt the importance of choosing a wife who could be relied upon not to let him down. Esme was flattered to be chosen. He went about his romance with characteristic intensity and focus, securing Esme as a bride in a matter of months. Her family, perplexed by her tendency to drift, felt relieved to see her settled. Her mother hoped she would have a baby, but Esme's new husband decided they should prioritize the acquisition of a house and a car more suitable for his professional image. Esme didn't really mind; she was happy to go along with his plans. She admired him, she enjoyed the status that marriage conferred on her, and his romantic attentions made her feel treasured and adored.
Yet something restless inside her still persisted, and she began to feel positively trapped. All her upbringing drew her toward material consolidation, but a rogue element in her soul fretted to be free, as the stars and the wind and the clear cold light of morning were free.
She burrowed further into the spiritual teachings of the Gospels. She began a daily routine of meditation and prayer. She felt drawn to a closeness with Jesus, and in her heart grew a desire to find the paths where he walked and follow his footsteps into the wilderness and the hills.
From there to the parsonage had been a long slog, not what she imagined at the beginning. Applying to become a lay preacher, training, taking exams; trial services and tutors; others weighing her in a balance hung from the safe height of their established accreditation. Then—local preacher status under her belt along with years of service to the church in Sunday school, Girls' Brigade, coffee mornings, pastoral visiting, committees, and Ladies' Fellowship meetings—she offered herself for ordained ministry: more exams, interviews, trial services. Booklists and references and medical examinations were required, her knowledge tested and her opinions examined. Psychological screening and police checking and theological allegiances were sought. Her financial status and her relationship with her husband were inquired into. And at last acceptance, then training, then probationary ministry. Then the ordination ceremony and the reception into the Full Connexion of the Methodist church, and two more years finishing her probationary appointment.
"Formation in ministry" they called those years of testing and training; and certainly she had found them formative. It had changed her. The difference between a vocation and a career blurred confusingly. She had to polish her social and professional skills. She had to study time management and people management and develop a circumspect persona of encouraging but noncommittal affability.
Somewhere along the way, her husband, after fourteen years of marriage, had found the authority and status of her new role undermining to his sense of masculinity and deserted her for the gentler contours of a hotel receptionist's companionship. He had left her with no children (for which she felt grateful now), and a deep, unexamined wound of bereavement in the middle of her, which the passing of time flowed around and washed over but did not seem to make whole. She let their house go to him, since she had a parsonage to live in—her family expressed misgivings at this lack of prudence, but Esme couldn't bear the idea of a legal wrangle.
Her sense of herself as a desirable woman seemed to have been cauterized by this parting. She chose to throw herself with determination into her work and to ignore the helpless, frozen center of her being. The time of tears and anguish soon passed. After it came a deep sense of vulnerability. Realizing that she had nobody but herself to rely on, Esme developed a nagging anxiety about material security. She had very little in her savings account at the bank, and no home but the parsonage provided by the church for her working years. She pushed this uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability to the back of her mind and immersed herself in the myriad daily tasks of her occupation. She got used to ignoring the empty spaces in her soul and the deprivation of companionship. Her colleagues had lives as full as they could manage, and allowing her congregation to see her insecurities and her loneliness was unprofessional.
Esme turned forty. More self-possessed, easy in her production of words suitable for public occasions, more sophisticated in her religion, she had grown less trusting of other people and chronically weary. On the journey she had developed a kind of spiritual irritation, an eczema of the soul, which itched and tormented her mercilessly as she sat in the homes of the elderly members of her congregation, listening patiently to their interminable, tedious conversation, their stories of the war and the details of their surgical operations and the descriptions of their infirmities and the progress in lives of their grandchildren.
She repressed this successfully—hid it almost even from herself—so that she was approved and even loved as a pastor, and her congregation said their good-byes with tears when the time came for her to move on from her probationer appointment, extended a further three years by unanimous reinvitation.
It seemed such a very long time ago now that the call to serve the church as a minister had been the expression of Esme's desire to creep as close as she could to Jesus. Her soul indefinably bleeding inside, she had thought that if only she could get close enough, near enough to touch the hem of his robe, healing would come for that half-ignored persistent inner sense of loss. Ministry had seemed like a spiritual thing, holding out the possibility of a connection to the presence of Christ. Then.
Now, so much later, it seemed just an impossibly complicated tangle of demands and expectations. A balancing act of appeasements and accomplishments. A muddle of paperwork and meetings, crumbling properties and aging, lonely, ailing people waiting with ever-decreasing hope for her to produce what they thought any good pastor should be able to manifest—a replication of the 1950s, with fresh-faced young wives' groups laughing as they prepared huge chapel teas, and devout businessmen willing to decorate the premises and calculate the chapel accounts in their ample spare time; and cheerful youth clubs happy with campfire songs and table tennis. Only with computer literacy, sophisticated child-protection administration, and high-profile ecumenical relationships as an add-on.
She was caught in the throng and press of the crowd that stood around Jesus. It didn't look big but it knew how to jostle and shove. She'd exchanged the relative calm of the periphery for the struggle of the thick of things, apparently without getting any closer to the hem of his garment at all.
And there was something else, which no one knew but Esme, and of which she felt every day most deeply ashamed.
Back in her student days at ordination school, immersed in the Christology of St. Luke's Gospel and the anti-Semitism of St. John's; Deutero-Isaiah and demonology and doceticism; the narrative theology of the Hebrew Scripture and liberation theology of Latin America; the empowerment of inclusive language in liturgy, the dark night of the soul, and the option of God for the poor, Esme had understood one vocational reality above all else.
Her college principal, scholarly, wise, and gentle, whom she loved and admired, insisted on the pastoral centrality of prayer.
The day Esme went for her interview to the improvised office in the converted church building housing the ordination course where she would eventually undergo her training, the principal spoke to her about prayer.
"Your people will expect many differing things of you," he said (accurately, as Esme discovered), "but one thing all of them will expect of you is that you will pray, and that you will pray for them."
Rarely a day went by that Esme did not reflect on this uncomfortable, undeniable requirement. For she had all but ceased to pray. Somehow, these days, her life was so pushed and shoved by so many people and so many tasks that the possibility of reaching out to touch the hem of his robe, for her healing or anyone else's, had receded into a distant dream.
Every few days she made herself go into the church with the book of offices, read the readings, say the psalms, remember the sick, and read the pastoral list in the context of a half hour of prayer. The rest of the time she just felt guilty. She always felt guilty. And absolutely everything mattered a bit less every day.
In her visiting, perched on the edge of an old man's hospital bed, as she looked at his unshaven face and anxious eyes, his mottled purple feet cold without socks in inadequate vinyl slippers, the inevitable stirring of compassion was outweighed by the disgust and revulsion at the contents of his sputum jar waiting on the bedside locker.
I don't love people anymore, she thought,and I don't want to say my prayers. I'm all churched out. I just want to be left in peace.
She couldn't face a theological book, she couldn't pray, and the people wearied her. But if ministry had taught her nothing else, it had given her the discipline of keeping up appearances. From somewhere she found the energy to keep on keeping on, and she wondered wistfully if that in itself might count as a form of prayer; or at least of faithfulness—if not with people, then maybe with God.
It never felt easy.
Now, at forty-four years old, she sat at her desk in a new parsonage, the stationing process successfully negotiated, appointed for at least the next five years to be the minister of Portland Road Chapel in the seaside town of Southarbour, with pastoral charge also of two little country chapels, one in the charming and historic village of Brockhyrst Priory, and the other in the hamlet of Wiles Green. An unexceptional appointment, but daunting enough.
In the weeks and months to come lay all the business of taking into her hands the reins of ministry among people still strangers as yet. She must win their trust and their confidence, earn their respect. Learn their names, hear their stories, discover their feuds and their power bases, their silent hatreds and alliances. She must find their hunger and feed them there, find the wounds of them and touch them gently, understand their weaknesses and call to their strength. She must seek out her ecumenical partners and discover the shape of the Anglican deaneries and learn the social and commercial profile of one town and two country communities. She must acquaint herself with three church buildings and all that went on in them. She must learn the roads, the shortcuts, and the junction approaches. She must find a dentist and a doctor, a better baker than the one in the high street, and a cheaper source of vegetables than the supermarket. It all lay ahead of her, and somehow it all would get done. Except the difficult, shameful thing: They would expect her to take time to pray for them all. And somehow it had died in her.
This August day she had been forty-eight hours in her new home and was still sorting through the boxes marked "STUDY." Going through a file labeled "Worship Resources," she had come across any number of odds and ends that came under no other obvious heading. And there she found again the piece of paper she now held in her hands, that brought back so vividly the vision of a country church, glimpsed in the blur of passing landscape, calling to the soul of her, even now at the memory of it.
For two minutes more Esme gazed at the words she had written years ago, then dropped them onto the pile of papers on the floor, destined for the recycling bin.
August was precious. The new church year began on the first day of September. Sorting through old papers and getting her new home into some semblance of order must be done this week or never. There was no time now for reflection. There never was.
But as (turning as she always turned from the restlessness in her soul that never quite had found peace—not in prayer, not in study, not in fellowship nor solitude) she got up impatiently from her desk and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee, Esme surprised herself by saying aloud into the empty room, "Is there no one in the world who would really listen, really hear me, really see me for who and what I am?"
Having assembled milk, her mug, the jar of coffee, and a packet of biscuits, she stood waiting for the kettle to boil. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she gazed through the window at the dark bulk of the garden shed across the yard. Because of its darkness, her image stood clearly reflected in the window; a depressing reminder that in the last six years lived in the driver's seat of a car, in the office chair behind her desk, in the chairs at hospital bedsides, and in the armchairs of housebound members' sitting rooms, she had put on thirty-five pounds. Despite which she refused to be deprived of a biscuit with her coffee.
Perhaps here, thought Esme, as she contemplated her reflection, I should turn over a new leaf. I could build in a program of regular exercise. I could go for walks in the country when I do my visits to the villages. Maybe —a new idea came to her—perhaps here I could ride a bike.
Depressed by the vision of herself in the window glass, she made her way back to the study. For a little while she sorted papers, drank her coffee, filed things, and made notes, but with less and less enthusiasm or attention. Just this week, she told herself, just this week to get prepared. But something inside her refused to pay attention and be good. She toyed with the idea of preparing ahead one or two sermon outlines, glancing through the lectionary for the Year C readings for September. But the same something inside dug in its heels and wouldn't, and in the end, she sat with her elbows on the desk, gazing out into the garden.
Excerpted from THE CLEAR LIGHT OF DAY by Penelope Wilcock. Copyright © 2007 Penelope Wilcock. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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Posted September 23, 2014
I loved this book! A heart warming insight to the life of a pastor from a woman' view. This books characters show us the struggles and work that it takes to be more than you think you can with help from those who will take time to learn just be yourself. We all have questions, doubts, crisis of faith...but here we can see how those in authority in our churches also need us to befriend them and know they are just as fragile as ourselves. Gave me new insight to those we trust to feed us...also need us to feed them!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 30, 2014
I loved this book! As a child of a parsonage family, I found much which is true that the laity may not realize. The characters were believable and appealing and it was hard to put it down. I'm looking forward to the sequel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 1, 2011
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Posted June 19, 2010
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Posted July 31, 2010
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Posted May 17, 2013
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