In February I turned thirty nine (or as E helpfully, and forward-thinkingly put it, I am in my fortieth year).
Thirty nine is the same number of years as the Church of England has Articles, which is enough to give anyone a midlife crisis. Mine is brewing and bubbling around the nature of my vocation.
Here's the thing: if I'm voluntarily placing myself outside the institutional church, and deliberately identifying with its anarchic expression instead, does it actually mean anything to speak of a vocation? I realise this will be of extremely limited interest to most people, except that vocation is a very common word.
Teachers, nurses, artists, doctors, soldiers, sportspeople, all are said to have one, in the sense, at the very least, that it explains why they take the rough (and I know it gets very rough) as well as the smooth. If, like my dad, the mid-thirties bring to someone a career change, especially one that results in greater social engagement, they're often described approvingly (and with relief) as finding their vocation.
It was suggested to me at twenty five, with my parents present, by somebody I deeply respect, that I'd be a vicar. Then I left church. When I re-engaged, eight years later, I felt experienced enough to make a claim on this insight, but content enough outside the institution not to want to jump through any church hoops in order to have it endorsed. But something new is happening.
Ten days ago E and I met with our good friends, a couple who, though they cherish their years inside the church, are now on a quest beyond its walls. They had been staunchly evangelical youth workers. He became a vicar. She began work promoting a spiritual approach to teaching. Currently they are resting, reassessing. So I told them that I wanted to take my vocation further. The act of asking their advice felt like stepping off the 'V' of the word, and onto the 'O'.
They suggested I attend a meeting of the forum Spirituality in Mental Health North East (simhne), where I could connect with a friend of theirs who operates as a kind of non-aligned spiritual director and celebrant. Perhaps we could arrange to meet up later - which is what, in fact, we will be doing, in, her suggestion, a coffee-shop.
Anyway, at simhne, last Thursday, I also met an academic with a specialisation in the theology of emotion. The idea she challenges is that a spiritual being, as God is envisaged to be, would somehow be unable to identify with emotions. She uses current philosophy to suggest the opposite. As random meetings do, the chat we had has precipitated a fantastic 'penny drop' moment: what's been missing, what I've been avoiding in my vocation, is that it's about the whole of me, body, mind, emotion, whatever, engaging with the whole of the person I meet. I don't know how at ease an academic would feel about their PhD ministering to someone, but I'm absolutely sure that this is what has happened.
There's something, in particular, about the insight as it relates to anarchy and institution, that removes the distinction between the two. I think it's that once you admit your whole body to the kind of wrestling that you are called to - as human being, never mind the vicar label - there is simply nothing more that you can give. How a given society chooses to frame you, and whether you choose to accept that frame, or hold to a more holistic idea of your place (loaded word!) within humankind, is altogether secondary - outside, entirely, the process of call and answer that the experience of vocation embodies.
Randomly I bought, this morning, a cultural history of Boxing, fantastically reduced in a sale at Blackwells. If Jacob's whole-body experience of angel-wrestling is really where I'm at, this book will be a comfort to me!