Tea. Testing. Transformational. Three words which capture the essence of my first year of Ordination Training. This post, the first of 3 blog posts reviewing the year, is all about the power of a cup of tea. Well, partly. It’s also about self-awareness and mental health.
A travelling tea set I found in the French town of Périgueux seemed just the thing for a trainee vicar who would often be away from home at a theological college. Contained within hinged cylindrical metal case, held closed by 2 leather straps, were a trinity of tea caddies and an infuser. It played up to the stereotype of “More Tea Vicar”, but did so on my terms: the blends of tea inside were drinkable. Just as I don’t like instant coffee but love coffee brewed from the bean, I love lots of varieties of tea but can’t stand the crowds’ favourite of English Breakfast Tea or ‘Builder’s Tea’. This, I know, is potentially problematic for someone who may be doing pastoral visits in England, but there is always the simplicity of a glass of water!
What was brought as a piece of amusement proved to teach me an important lessons that carried me through the year: the need for solitude and reflection, and to care for my mental health.
Once alone in my room at college, the simple act of unpacking the tea set, selecting which tea to brew and quietly sipping it became the equivalent of a divers’ depressurisation chamber. It was a moment of transition from the people and place I had left and the people and place I would be with next. It provided essential moments of stillness and reflection in a year of juggling the multiple roles of being a husband, father, employee, student and friend (see my last blog post Now, what was I here for?).
The times when I failed to make use of opportunities to reflect and pray through a transition proved to be costly. The early months of weekends away from home to study at college were difficult, particularly for my children who found saying goodbye upsetting. The wounds made by their tears did not get healed by the joy I knew that they would experience moments after my departure. Instead I would carry the wounds with me as I rushed to work, where the tasks of the day pushed them into my subconsciousness, from where they would establish an imperceptible sense of malaise. It would take a conscious decision to review the time lived before arriving at college for the power of any subconscious baggage to be diminished.
Reviewing what has happened in the past helps to build awareness of what might be influencing our reactions, thoughts and emotions. When I made time to reflect after any type of incident that affected or concerned me I was granted a healthier perspective on it. But more than that, any negative power it had to affect how I felt, thought or reacted to others was diminished. The incident ceased to cause damage to me or collateral damage to others.
The awareness of other people is an important aspect of self-awareness. It is not enough to be self-aware of what might be influencing our own reactions, thoughts and emotions; we need to also look out for what might be influencing other people’s reactions to us. It teaches the need to take a deep breath and not to see an attack where one does not exist. It teaches the need of yet more space for transition and decompression, to use time to gain a clearer and healthier perspective on what might have happened between ‘us and them’. It teaches the need for a compassionate perspective for both oneself and the ‘other’.
The community aspect of Ordination Training brings the impact made by and on ‘others’ to the foreground of self-awareness. Whilst much of the Discernment Process is done in some form of solitude, much of Ordination Training is done in community. A community of Ordinands does not learn, question and wrestle with theology and faith in total isolation: when we gather together we bring our lives lived away from college with us. And as much as we may care for and trust one another, we rarely have the time or inclination to tell of all the stresses and struggles we bring with us. The combination of multiple hidden tensions increases the possibility of friction and the importance of self-awareness to reduce them.
As the year progressed my realisation of that to better care for both myself and others, and indeed to better learn, I needed to reorientate my approach to self-awareness so that it didn’t look solely with myself but looked out to those I was learning with. But whilst seeking some solitude and opening my travelling tea set helped with reflecting on the immediate, it could only take me so far.
Whatever the experience that might negatively influence us, trying to address them in our own strength through self-awareness may not be enough. Identifying the cause, taking it to God in prayer, and addressing it is essential but sometimes we need to go a bit further to make lasting change. We need to be willing to contemplate that our reactions to a moment might be symptomatic of a much deeper problem. And we need to consider our mental health.
As an Ordinand I came to realise that taking care of my mental health is as essential as any other aspect of my training. The better the state of my mental health the more resilient I will be and the more I can absorb the gifts that my training is offering (the same is true to the Discernment Process). Of course it isn’t just mental health that needs attention: to be the best I can be in all my roles I need to take a holistic approach and look after my physical and spiritual health as well.
There is some truth in the stereotype of the reserved and self-reliant British character. The ‘stiff upper lip’ is a preference for maintaining an unemotional and unwavering appearance. It is seen as a strength; admitting to anything else is seen as a weakness. But there is a flip-side: strength can be found by admitting to our weaknesses, and that by doing so we can become more fully alive in ourselves and in Christ.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)
Those going through the Discernment Process and through Ordination Training are recommended to see a Spiritual Director; finding a good one can help you make sense of what God might be saying to or asking of you and your spiritual health. I believe that a similar recommendation should also be made to see a Counsellor to see what your past, present and future might similarly be saying to or asking of you and your mental health. It is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. It is another ‘tool’ in becoming more self-aware so that not only can help yourself but help others too. In seeing one I have gained a new and confident perspective on myself, not least on why I may react to certain things. This is transformational knowledge.
Ordination Training is much more than an academic study of theology and demands much more than a person’s intellect. Nor is it something that looks only to the future. Ordination Training asks you to look into, and test, all that makes you you: your faith, your personality, your past, and more. It is all with a good reason: if I am to help and serve others I need to do it from a strong foundation. The training is helping me to build that foundation, and being aware of how my interactions with my past, present and future affects me and others is an essential aspect.
All this from a cup of tea.