Friday, 22 October 2010

Up and Downs

I was sat in a plane last week and watched rapt at the information that was placed before us: flight time, altitude, temperature, and so on - I confess that a world formed by numbers in flux appeals to me. However, I was reminded of a flight I once took in America - a short hop. The plane took off, reached a given height and then immediately began to lose height until it found the runway.

To me that seemed pointless. Gaining height, maintaining a cruising altitude and then gliding back down when on the landing approach - now that makes sense to me. Imagine a flight path like Table Mountain in South Africa, as opposed to one of those pointy mountains that our kids draw for us with zigzag snow just below the summit! Why climb to a height only to come down from it immediately?!

I don't doubt that there are clear reasons for doing that - fuel economy maybe, but I wondered if this is not a pattern of flight that we adopt in our own lifetimes: we are born and we gain altitude through education, qualification and/or promotion until we run out of time and dive down to the 'landing'. I have seen lives lived like that - without any plateaus, without any cruising height.

It seems to me that a life without cruising height is a life constructed only of hopes followed endings - but without the enjoyment of the fruits of those hopes and dreams somewhere in the middle. Maybe that is what is wrong with modern living - we are all so focussed on status and excelling that in the event we reach that lofty heights that we seek, we have not a moment to enjoy the ride or its views before our mortality causes us to make our landing approach.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


I have just journeyed to Jerusalem, and for a period of a couple of weeks. Such a journey required of me two conscious thoughts: how long and why. These questions attracted their answers and those answers then informed what I took with me on that journey - both in terms of specifics and in terms of volume.

To me, prayer is a journey before and with God. It seemed clear to me, as I toiled across an airport concourse with a large suitcase that I had just that which I needed - perhaps an obvious statement, but one that nonetheless should not be ignored. Had I travelled for a weekend, I would have taken a small pack. Had I travelled for a gliding holiday, I would have carried with me things quite distinct from the clothing and materials that I had packed for this journey.

I have pondered this over the last little while in regards to my own prayer life. Whilst I can only ever speak for myself, I now recognise that in prayer I take with me into that encounter with God what I think I need, and mindful of the time-frame in question. This is to say, I am try to be purposeful in prayer - be that the purpose of pondering, of supplication etc. What I am now conscious of is not to turn up for a 'weekend' prayer packed for a month, and not for a study tour with my gliding paraphernalia.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Prevailing Winds

With any kind of flight, the stability and condition of the air around the aircraft (be that powered or free-flying) is an important factor in the duration, quality or indeed possibility of the flight.

As ever, it is a matter of reading the invisible by the effect that it has on the visible, in order to judge what may or may not happen.

An odd thing that pilots discover during the process of learning to fly gliders is that air speed and ground speed are not the same, and are in fact mutually exclusive. Simply put, if your air speed is 10 miles-per-hour directly into a wind of 10 mph, then your ground speed will be zero. Put another way, you may actually be flying very fast, but from the ground you are still.

The movement of the invisible forces of the air condition the flight to such an extent that we have to work with it in order to arrive at the place where we have to arrive. To try and land with the wind behind us would force us to the ground at near terminal speed, so we fly into the wind.

I was cycling into wind over the weekend just past, and this whole notion occured to me once again. I think that I have to regard the Spirit as the air in which I try to fly. I know there are times when I have seemed to the world that I am at a complete spiritual standstill (I may have even shared their view), when in fact, I was passing through the Spirit at speed. I think it is easy to become hooked on the achievement of ground-speed in prayer rather than air-speed. Temporal speed or spiritual speed?

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Making a Difference

Sometime last month, before the grey cloud descended over my summer, I was looking up at the sky and noticed how many 'con trails' there were. 'Con trails' are those white lines in the skies that mark out the flight path of a plane, caused by the moisture being forced out of the air by the effect of the wing. The fact is, a wing changes the air it passes through, almost always invisibly. It is that change that grants lift but if were granted a view of the air before and after the wing, we would see two very different images.
I was given cause to think of an old cleric that I know and love, the bishop who confirmed me in 1983. His gentle personality, razor sharp wit and authentic prayerfulness changed everyone among whom he passed. I would go so far as to say that the man to whom I refer is the most Christ-like human I have ever met, and he too left a mark of change behind him. His 'con-trail' didn't vanish after mere moments, but rather became indelible.
It is in my heart to try and be like that man, to make a difference to the air through which I pass. I am not sure how it is done, but for a man or woman of Christ, it can only be done by utter authenticity of self.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Where the danger lies

It is a truism in free-flight communities that the greatest danger to a pilot is when they are nearest to the ground. This may either sound like a statement of the obvious or the absurd.

Indeed, it is so. At the point of launch or at the approach to landing, each move is critical. In simple terms, the overwhelming 'enemy' in flight is the ground. Having a calamity ar 3000ft is not good, but a pilot has time to make corrections, throw the reserve or let the inherent desire to fly that the aircraft has take over. Sadly, the vast majority of pilots who are injured or worse are those at the beginning or the very end of their flight.

I find that my prayer life suffers from similar such perils. The calamity to prayer - giving up the attempt - is most likely at that moment when we seek to be with God, or in other words, the launch into prayer. If the peril is not praying, and sometimes, when conditions don't feel right, it is easier to abandon a time of prayer rather than press ahead.

In terms of the danger at landing, I liken this to the moment when a prayerful encounter should be drawn to its close. It is that very same moment when prayerful attention turns into daydreaming (though I see the good in the argument that at times, daydreaming is itself prayer). At landing, our prayers either draw to a close as they should, or they turn into the next shopping list.

In the middle of these two bracketing points, we can enjoy a safe and inspiring flight into prayer - largely free of that danger that can assault our moment with our Lord.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Lay of the Land

A strange thing happens when you become airborne! It is a bewildering thing the first few times, but is a constant feature of flying and the behaviours that support.

The land becomes flat and look nothing like you know it to look. From the ground we use very frequently use landmarks that are higher up or taller than we are to get around - but standing height largely becomes invisible to the one flying above it.

The effect of this flattening of the landscape is that those who fly have to reply on other signs to guide them. The things that we once took for granted cease to be of value when navigating from place to place. Buildings tall and short become mere rectangles, hills and fields become as one.

In prayer too we are guided by familiar landmarks. We often rely on the landmark of our own emotion to guide us into or out of prayer, and for some of the 'flight' that is good. Those landmarks are often 'those old familiar things' - books, images, words, music. The thing about prayer is that at its best we soar in the heights, and at that point we notice that our familiar landmarks are superceded by a wider angle or a wholly new perspective. The learning process that pilots of all breeds have to pass through is a useful lesson for all spiritual people - the lesson that states simply but powerfully that the lay of the land always changes when we take to the air, that to read new signs and more importantly to trust in the forces of God is the new way to proceed. God will teach us about trusting in Him more and in our old landmarks less.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Praying Deliberately

Those people who enjoy 'free-flight' (flight without motors) will tell you that to get the best of the experience, you have to fly actively. This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but it is quite possible, once airborn, to fly passively - to bimble along almost accidentally. Such flying has its place, though active flying increases enjoyment, augments satisfaction and is the safest way to fly. 
Scripture offered me an interesting word in the last few days: 'deliberately'. I was already pondering the similarities between flight and prayer, and into this pondering fell that word. As I think about it, I believe you can approach flight and prayer in different ways:
 - you can look up and marvel at the pilot above you engaging in the perpetual tension between lift and gravity, exploiting the loop-holes in the laws of physics that allow flight in the first place. You can look up and be dazzled by the razor-line of a supersonic Jet as it screams across your view. In the same way, in prayer you can look on and seek inspiration from the prayerful - those people who inspire us to draw closer to God by their very presence.
 - you can climb into a plane, or strap yourself to a pilot in a tandem flight, and achieve the unknown, visiting places in flight that you could never dream of alone and by your own efforts. Surely this is the same as trusting God, letting Him lead you where you may find new amazement and joy, a new view of the world!
 - you can strap into your harness or strive to be a pilot and fly yourself actively. This stage requires some influence of the other two, but in the end, you fly deliberately. Flight is not accidental, it is not a thing of pure chance - we choose to fly, and we choose to pray. To fly and to pray requires the pilot to compete against forces and influences that would seek to stop them. Being an attentive student of the art of flying and prayer will assure both of greater meaning and, dare I say it, success. 

We can approach prayer in different ways. Each has its rightful place, but in the end the only way we can get the very best from our prayer life is to do it deliberately - allowing time, seeking opportunities to train, practice, the odd gamble, in good weather and bad, and then finding the courage each time to launch into the unknown.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Joy of Hopefulness

The thing about flying is that it is inherently hopeful. To fly without hope is perhaps the most foolish thing to do. In flight, we as humans defy the pull of gravity at every moment, and we harness improbable forces outside of ourselves to achieve the lift that we need for the flight to take shape. 

Having sat patiently, as a paraglider pilot, on hillsides waiting for conditions to become right, I have noticed how hopefulness overrides boredom, and maintains focus of mind. Waiting for that moment when it is possible to enter the air is a wonderful thing, and free-flyers will know that such times can last hours at a time. When we take off, of course we hope to land. We also hope to have a wonderful flight, hope to see wonderful views, hope for good flying conditions - all these hopes are indeed a joyful thing. Perhaps that is why Icarus waxed some feathers in the first place. The joy of his hopefulness drove him into the sky. 
This particular brand of hopefulness has been brought into relief this St. James' Day, when we hear of the 'pushy mum' Salome, James the Apostle's mother, make a bid for her boys with the Rabbi. I think that if every Christian could take something of that absolute hopefulness that Salome demonstrated in her sons, and then applied it to their life in Christ,  we would know that joy. Like pilots, we need to harness the impossibility of the invisible to make the visible possible.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Great Hope

...hide me under the shadow of your wings... Ps 17:8b

This line from the Psalms featured in today's set readings for Morning Prayer, and as I read it allowed earlier it reminded me of the most important thing of all: whatever we do by our own efforts, we do under the protection of God. It offers a warm image of young chicks and their mother, protecting her young jealously but loosely. So many natural history films have demonstrated to me how gaggles of waddling duckling or cygnets will do as they wish. They find their own way in their life, but always safe in the knowledge that, in the end, the safety of their mother can be counted on. I have seen no coercion from a mother to her young, just tenderness and availability - enabling not forcing.
A factor about wings that is perhaps less well known (or thought about) is how they change the very air that surrounds them when they are in flight. Wings cause the lift, they split the very air around them so that the conditions for flight are met to a gretaer or lesser extent. Wings are flight, but wings are also sanctuary. Wings are dry places for sleeping bird's heads. Wings carry the necessary energy for mechanical flight in the case of big passenger jets. To paint God as one with wings is such a wonderfully helpful image, and teaches us that in God we find safety, warmth, and the ability to lift to heights beyond our dreams - but never alone!


I am embarking on something a little more 'spiritual' than The Vernacular Curate. In that blog, I approach my writing from a host of angles, so you will get all the shades of my mind. 

For some time, I have pondered the benefits of writing a sort of 'spiritual direction' thing, something for which I am wholly unqualified, but for which I still feel strongly about doing. This may fizzle and die as quickly as it starts, but then again, perhaps it is not wholly my idea!

I have chosen the title in accord with my own spiritual outlook - and if you don't know me, you will know that I am passionate about flying, flight and all things associated. I use the whole world of flight (writing as a paraglider pilot) to outline my own models of prayer, and my descriptions are loaded with analogies that largey involve this most noble of passtimes.

Another reason that I have embarked on this journey is that being The Vernacular Curate is fine, up to a point, but doesn't fully tick all the boxes. I love that blog and the expression it gives me, but I pray that this might afford me a different dimension. My head is full to overflowing!

So, in the words that we use on hillsides before we 'lob off' into the air ahead of us:

Helmet: check!
Harness: check!
Takeoff: clear!

Go, go go!