It has occurred to me that I am doing four kinds of work during this phase of my sabbatical. The work of leaving Durham, the work of preparing to arrive in Cambridge, the work of meeting obligations still in the diary and the work of writing my next book. It’s fun moving from one to another, and while it is not entirely effortless, I am sure it is refreshing.
I not going to say much about my next book, save to mention that for the coming three weeks this should be my main focus and that if I do blog about the writing of it there is sure to be a paragraph or two about procrastination. In fact I have come to the conclusion that procrastination is integral to the writing process. I think it was A.L. Kennedy who said she doesn’t believe in ‘writer’s block’. The point, rather, is that the condition those words refer to is just the normal state of the writer.
I agree! It’s great when the words flow, wonderful – but on the whole they don’t. And if they do they usually need to be edited and revised, if not simply scrapped.
What, then, of the work of leaving? As my new post was announced just before I started the sabbatical the task of winding up existing work and handing over ongoing responsibilities was more or less in hand. But there remain leaving events. I have had three kind farewells so far, the most recent of which was in the amazing Zurbaran-lined Long Dining Room of Auckland Castle. There’s nothing like that in Cambridge – nor anywhere else for that matter. In the late eighteenth century Bishop Trevor had the room redesigned to accommodate that astonishing set of pictures; a bold, liberal and hospitable gesture. You can read more about that room and its paintings here http://visitors.aucklandcastle.org/about/zurbarans/
Leaving events are always bitter-sweet as people look back over a shared past and forward to different futures. It occurred to me as I reflected on my transition that I am moving from a very much back of house, behind the scenes, role to something much more front of house and exposed. And that’s one of the great attractions. Although at the heart of an ivory tower, King’s itself, and the Chapel in particular, are all about openness, encounter and access – to ideas, to people, to new possibilities, to sharp criticism, to inspiring creativity. While on the one hand this is just another college chapel, on the other it is located precisely in the public square. I feel energetic just writing about it.
And there’s beauty too. And beauty means emotion as well as appreciation. In my ‘few words’ I mentioned the day in Cambridge over 20 years ago when I gazed from my desk at the wonderful south elevation of King’s Chapel on a beautifully blue-skyed morning and, having been transported for a moment by the sublimity of it, came crashing down to earth with the surprising and unbidden thought, ‘but it’s not Durham Cathedral’. Shortly afterwards, I wrote this incident up, together with some ‘compare and contrast’ reflections on Britain’s greatest Cathedral and greatest Chapel in a little essay called ‘a room with two views’. A title chosen both because my room at the time had two windows, one looking into the world and the other with a view of the front court of the College. Also because E. M. Forster had once lived on the same staircase.
The work of preparing to arrive continues, not least as emails pop into the inbox asking for attention or putting me in the picture about something, quite possibly something a bit tricky. And then there’s 2015.
What? You don’t know that next year is the 500th anniversary of the completion of the Chapel – well, all but the windows. I was flattered when two people made the journey to Durham just to start briefing me about that over a pleasant lunch at home last week. It’s going to be a memorable year.
As for events still in the diary … I very much enjoyed a trip to Rydal Hall in the Lake District to give the talks at a weekend away for a parish from Chester. Such things are always harder work than one anticipates – but also more rewarding. And they always get me thinking more deeply. You prepare. You speak. They respond. And, aha, you are thinking better and seeing more clearly. That’s certainly how it works for me.
And before that a visit with London clergy to the Farne islands. The high point was a eucharist in St Cuthbert’s Chapel on Inner Farne with the whiff of guano heavy in the air, and the screech of terns a counterpoint to the wild sounds of wind and sea. This is religion the Cuthbert way.
And before that a visit to Stanbrook Abbey, an enclosed Benedictine community now in North Yorkshire. Lovely conversation with a friend, always hospitable, always insightful, and then the limpid simplicity of midday prayer with the community. It’s so spiritually reassuring to think of them living for prayer. A school of the Lord’s service indeed, just as Benedict intended.
These are special, transitional days. I am very grateful for them and for the opportunities afforded by those four kinds of work and their different challenges.