I woke up on Monday the 31st August, backsore, still tired, hungry and with the sound of rain hitting the tent bringing me down. “What was I thinking” I asked myself as I wrestled with the crumpled clothes to get dressed so that I might find a portable rest room. I got out of the tent knowing I would probably have to stand in line in the rain. I was already thinking about having to pack up the tent in the pouring rain before heading to the last part of vacation and my aches and pains turned into a full on grump… Martín laughed at me as I apparently said: lets get out of this godforsaken place.
Going to Greenbelt had been the cornerstone of my vacation plan. A festival of arts, faith and justice in the English countryside that is held every year over the last weekend in August (the English “Bank Holiday Weekend” - like our Laborday but a week earlier). Martín decided to come with me, rather than stay with friends in London, and we agreed to camp. I was convinced it was going to be an adventure and part of the rich experience of the long weekend.
It was for two full days… until it started raining.
We got there, after a whirlwind tour of London, Porstmouth and Seaford (to see friends, family and be tourists), got our festival programs and found a place to set up our tent. I was overjoyed when I realized what the theme for the weekend was. I had read the title on the web site of course, but I had not connected it to its source material. The weekend was entitled: "This Bright Field”
It is the title of a poem by RS Thomas, one of my favorite poets of the 20th Century, a welsh priest who was grumpy and irascible but managed to capture moments of sublime beauty in amongst the harshness of life:
This Bright Field
By RS Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I read the poem, a particular favorite, and it made complete sense that I was here. I had been rushing through a program year that was really quite full of transitions and challenges at Transfig and I was tired, possibly exhausted. So when I decided to go to Greenbelt I must have subconsciously been wanting to slow down and experience the kind of moment of insight that Thomas describes.
I am grateful to John Tornquist and Matt Longnecker for understanding that and for helping me make the trip possible.
So here we were, in a field, contemplating the beauty of creation in the grounds of an English country house. The weekend unfolded with drama, art, worship and thoughtful talks. At some points it almost seemed overwhelming as there was so much to process, but I also met with old friends and made new ones and had an experience that people often describe in relation to Greenbelt, which was being able to talk through what was happening each night with other festival goers at the greenbelt ‘pub’ - which was really just a tent with a bar.
Those conversations fed me and helped me sort out what I was feeling about my experience of the festival. I caught up with Peterson Toscano, an old friend who was performing at Greenbelt, Louis Darrant another old friend and a priest in the Church of England, my English Colleague group and new friends including Ben and Rich (who had met and started a romance at Greenbelt ten years earlier and were still coming back years later, now married).
The bright field really was a time to turn aside from the hurry of life and take time to be in the present.
Being in the present can be challenging though. All kinds of feelings surface when you slow down and pay attention. I have alluded to it already but I have to admit to the last year has been tough. It has been tough due to some of my own longstanding underlying emotional and spiritual topography, and there was also the transitions in parish life at Transfig. Past history and present tiredness combined with my existential questions as I sat on the grass and listened to John Bell talking about the darkness in the Psalms.
I realized back in June that I had needed a moment to pause and look at both my life and God’s bright field from a new perspective, so I had decided to open up some space to think and pray, take proper time off and reflect on where I was. Before I went the Vestry and I talked creatively and and I also talked to my Spiritual Advisor, then on my vacation I had some good conversations with my partner, my family and friends. Now here I was, in the moment of reflection, thinking about darkness and the bright presence of God in this strange context in a field. What did I find?
Well, firstly I found that when you go away to a camp site in England over the August Bank Holiday weekend it may be sunny for a while but it will inevitably rain eventually. I found that rain and mud and sleeping on the ground could be uncomfortable and make me grumpy. And of course I found that experiences of spiritual searching include dark challenges as much as bright insights.
But I also realized that a loving God is moving in my life and in our world. I remembered that I am a beloved child of that loving God. I am part of a community at Transfiguration where people wrestle daily with symptoms of burn out and exhaustion but it is also a community that has depth, compassion and vision in abundance. I realize I face darkness in my own life and in ministry, but in facing it I find in it shoots of new growth and hope right there in the darkness. I know I can step out into my day and my calling with joy, hope and courage. I realized that spiritual growth is only achieved when darkness is confronted. So basically, I realized that the bright field and the muddy field are one and the same, and that I need both to grow.
From the UK, Matthew loved US culture from the first time he picked up a Fantastic Four Comic when he was 12.