Did you ask a good question today?


Isodor Rabi, the  American Nobel laureate in physics,  famously credited his mother with his success.  When he came home from school she would always ask him, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’

We are inexorably moving  towards the busiest time for BAP conferences and their three interviews, based,  as all ordination  candidates know, on the  nine criteria. It can feel  a little bit like mugging up the answers for an exam; working out which topics will come up in this year’s  exam papers.

‘What questions are they going to ask?’

‘What answers will they expect me to give?’

‘I don’t know enough’

Candidates often worry that  they will be expected to have all the answers. Questions are dangerous, answers are reassuring: if I’ve  got the answers I will be OK.  In any situation it takes a lot of nerve to say,  ‘I don’t know. I’m still working on it’, because between the question and the answer is the time of uncertainty that  the poet John Keats called ‘Negative Capability’, that being in a state of ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’.

At its best Christianity welcomes  both questions and answers. The bible has a golden thread of questions running through it.  A question even became the name of God’s life-giving food when the Israelites were starving in  the desert: ‘What is it?’

Easy certainties make us feel secure, but the visionary leaders of the future whom  we want to nurture and support  today are those who look beyond what is safe to what is still to be discovered. Not grabbing the  superficial answer like a life-jacket but thinking, ‘what does it mean for me?’, ‘how do I understand this?’  Cultivating the the mind-set that can question the tabloid headline, the current sound-bite, the presidential tweet.

For them a question mark is not a burden it is a liberation and  every  answer is a platform that enables us to reach the next question.

In ‘Benedictus’, his book of blessings,  John O’Donohue  gives a  A Blessing for a Leader, with the words,

            May you have a mind that loves frontiers

            So that you can evoke the bright fields

            That lie beyond the view of the regular eye.

How sad it would be if we thought there were no frontiers left to discover.



Top Tips for World Book Day


In celebration of World Book Day we thought we’d post some of our favourite books. Some are on vocation-related topics, most are thought-provoking if not plain entertaining and all probably for grown-ups!   So, from the Vocations & Training team here are our recommendations.

Theodora: actress, empress, whore  a novel by Stella Duffy.

This novel is about Theodora, born in  500AD in Constantinople, the daughter of a bear-keeper. Before she was 16 she had been a prostitute, a dancer and had a daughter.  She may have been a spy, or a saint. She embraced Monophysite Christianity and lived an ascetic life in the desert. But when she was 21 she met Justinian …  This novel evokes the world of Byzantine Constantinople, exotic, erotic, and passionately religious,  and tells an amazing story of a woman who was destined to be Empress of the Byzantine Empire.    DS


Ottolenghi: the cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

A book of wonderful recipes, as are all of their recipe books. Yotam and Sami tell their own stories in the introduction to this book. Both discovered a passion for cooking as boys, both had to leave their homes in order to pursue their vocations. Yotam was at university studying literature and philosophy but decided to do a cookery course in London.  ‘I just need to check this out,’ he said to his mother, ‘make sure it’s not the right thing for me.’ Both want to share their passion for food and the joy of bringing people together.  DS


Do Purpose: Why brands with a purpose do better and matter more  by David Hieatt,  (thedobook.co)
A short read on why brands that have a purpose beyond profit matter more in today’s world. It has stuff to say about culture, managing time, getting started now rather than waiting, and how to look after yourself so you’re able to run the marathon, not just a sprint. There’s also some pretty good artwork to look at whilst you read.    JW


To Kill A Mockingbird   a novel by Harper Lee

I know it’s really unoriginal to say that TKAM is one of your favourite books, but there are good reasons why so many people love it. Amongst the many things that could be picked out, I will just say that I love the character of Atticus. His exploration of what it means to be a single parent, a lawyer, a man of integrity, a pillar of community, to do what is costly because it is right, to teach without being heavy handed, are questions that go well beyond Atticus’ own person and circumstances. That all of this exploration is both stark and hugely understated is why it is one of the best books of the 20th century!    LH


Angels and Men  a novel by Catherine Fox

 One of only a few novels I have re-read. Fox tells the story of Mara, a postgrad at Durham studying sects and cults and dealing with the loss of her sister. As Mara becomes part of a college community and begins to learn to trust and form friendships, lots of questions are explored about the meaning of life, love and faith. The book is quite atmospheric and whilst it has all the predictable ingredients of romance, obstacles etc. the characters are endearing and many of the themes really resonate for anyone who has wondered what God is like, and what that means for how we live.  LH


Another Day in the death of America by Gary Younge

Journalist GY goes in search of the 10 young people all shot dead – some by accident –  in a single day.  The shocking statistic is that, on average, seven children are killed by guns every day in America.   I hugely admire Younge’s decision to take on such a gruelling and sadly contemporary problem – the lack of gun control in the US.  The book shows Younge’s determination not to just get the facts, the ‘story’, like any good journalist but to analyse the ramifications for each family and in considerable depth.   JC

The Vanishing Man:  In Pursuit of Velazquez by Laura Cumming

NB second edition (paperback) is a must as it includes an important afterword

One of my books of the year 2016 –  a completely absorbing (true) tale about one man’s obsession with a portrait and his determination to keep it, exhibit it and prove it was by Velazquez. There’s no doubt that John Snare was a driven man but this riveting story is also beautifully told by Laura Cumming who persevered over a long period to assemble all the facts. (And for anyone the least bit interested in Velazquez himself then a fabulous insight into this artist as well.)   JC

Daring to be Different


Lent, with its focus on repentance can also feed an inappropriate sense of unworthiness if we are prone to such feelings. Life’s experiences and the cruelness of people who have hurled stones of whatever form at us (often as a means of covering their own frailties and insecurities) leave us battered, bruised and lacking in the confidence to take the first steps into a new way of being. The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) reminds us that God requires only one thing from us: to leave a life of sin. Whether that’s not going along with the crowd or not allowing the past to dictate our future, our vocations are most fully expressed in finding the courage to dare to be different in ways which are unique to each one of us.

Reflection (John 8:1-11)

She stands before us
this woman, and I use the term loosely.

She stands before us
her garments in disarray,
clothed in the shame we have laid upon her.

She stands before us
silent, and alone,
as our voices cry out for punishment
and our hands reach down for the stones that lay at our feet.

I see neither the face nor know the name,
only the feel of the dust on my fingers,
the jagged edges of the rock in my hand
and the burning desire that she should pay.
That she should pay for daring to step out of line.

Of course, her lover should have known better;
a prostitute’s fee, a loaf of bread[1]
but another man’s wife?
He’ll pay a price,
but not here, not now, not publicly.

She stands before us silent
her honeyed lips and her smooth tongue still.[2]
She’ll lead no more to the grave.[3]

And he stands before us
silent as he bends to the ground
deaf to the clamour around him.
And then he stands
upright and speaks….

And we stand silent
our lips and tongues still,
our hands dirty,
clothed in the shame we have laid upon ourselves.

Only our feet move.
And his words ring in our ears
‘go, leave your life of sin’.

[1] Proverbs 6:26

[2] Proverbs 5:3

[3] Proverbs 5:5

© Jeanette Hartwell

‘Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready my Lord’


Leonard Cohen’s final album,’You want it darker’ was released on his 82nd birthday shortly before his death  last year. The title song contains the refrain,  ‘Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready my Lord’.  It is  a dark song, but the Hebrew words, ‘Hineni, Hineni’ aren’t dark. They mean ’Here I am’. They are the words with which  Abraham responds when God asks for his obedience. They are the words Moses says when God calls to him from the Burning Bush. When God appears before Isaiah and asks who will go with his message, Isaiah says ‘Hineni! Send me!’.

Hineni’ is the response that God seeks when he personally calls someone by name. It is not like the automatic answer when the school register being called. It is a call to do something special for God; something difficult and important. It signifies a turning point, a potentially life-changing moment requiring decision, action, and resolution. It is a call that demands a response. As a reply to God it implies, yes, this is something I have to do.

When Leonard Cohen was interviewed and asked about his song he said,

‘That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We are all motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are hoping to serve. So this is just a part of my nature and I think everybody else’s nature to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It is only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve. [pause] That’s getting too heavy. I’m sorry. Strike that!

Luckily the interviewer did not strike  out his  words  because Cohen  reminds us that everyone knows what it is like to be called  – to a task or to a role.

Like Martin Luther King:  “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” 

Like Martin Luther himself: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’.

Whether it is a call to care for refugees in Europe, to stand up for truth in a post-truth world,  to support the food bank down the road, or to stand before the community of the faithful in the cathedral, the response is the same: Himeni, here I am.


Ain’t it Grand, when you’re living in La La Land


La La Land [Damien Chazelle, 2016] is the darling of this year’s film releases so far. The contemporary musical tells the story of two people living in LA and trying to achieve their dreams in a world where everyone is trying to make it.

In a scene fairly early in the film (so not much of a spoiler) Seb [Ryan Gosling] has returned to a job playing the piano in a restaurant. His passion is to play jazz, and to provide a place for others to learn to love jazz. He has a set list to play and tries hard to negotiate with the manager the inclusion of some jazz, but it doesn’t work. As the evening goes on he just cannot resist replacing the well -known Christmas tunes with a piece he loves. And so he gets the sack.

Even Seb slightly regrets this, and tries to talk the manager round. But the manager realises that Seb just cannot help himself. Whatever his intentions when he sits down at the piano stool, eventually he will play the music that he loves no matter what the set list in front of him says.  You may or may not have sympathy with Seb. You might think he is an idiot to not just play the set list so that he can keep his job. But, the film suggests, he can only be who he is. The price of being someone else is just too high.

In the competitive world of LA, where, as Seb says, “they worship everything and value nothing” establishing a meaningful life is a challenge, but one that matters. Trying to persuade Seb to reconnect with his dream of opening a jazz bar, Mia [Emma Stone] tells him “people love what other people are passionate about”.  Jazz makes Seb tick, it is his passion and whilst following our passions isn’t an excuse not to have to do ordinary things, not following them makes us less than we could be.

How do we know the difference between a pipe dream and a real dream? What’s our vocation and what is just fantasy? In Hollywood, the answer tends to depend on whether it works or not. On whether we get the break that means everything else falls into place. But that isn’t necessarily a good test. Even the things God calls us to do, don’t always work out.  Mia doubts whether she is good enough to write plays and to act and wonders whether it was all a pipe dream. Seb tells her “This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!”

Our dreams don’t always work out as we thought, and we need to find ways to work out what are real dreams and what are fantasies that are better left as such. And even when we have done that, there’s no guarantee it will be as we expected. When we take the risk of following a dream, discerning a vocation part of the risk is that we might discover we aren’t called in the way that we thought. But we will always find that we are called to something.

Ain’t it Grand, when you’re living in La La Land is from the song La La Land by The Vigilantes of Love.


Humpty Trumpty and the Call to be a Loser


So, it happened. And Donald Trump is the President of the United States. His inaugural speech was a triumph of delivery over content and further proof that if you say something unfounded, meaningless, impossible, unreasonable, unfeasible and unacceptable, you can get away with it if you say it with enough conviction and litter it with enough slogans.

The fact that parts of Trump’s speech directly contradicted other parts doesn’t matter, as Trump apparently has a similar view of the meaning of language as Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice “Whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

[Through the Looking Glass Lewis Carroll]

Trump’s campaign has depended on his words remaining unscrutinised. Remaining rhetorical as even the most general attempt to explore the meaning of them shows that they are backed by the sheer force of the speaker but not by reality, policy or possibility.   Humpty Trumpty told America and the world “America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth, and we will bring back our dreams.”

What would, could or should it mean for America to win like never before? Might it mean healthcare for everyone? Might it mean equality of opportunity regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation? Might it mean the real integration of fractured and divided communities?

If America is winning like never before, who then, is losing? Who is going to pay the price for this American victory? Where are the jobs, borders, wealth and dreams of America being brought back from?

Trump continued “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity… When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”

The clear implication here is that God’s people are Americans. The parallels with this claim to supremacy are obvious and terrifying. Americans are winners, and a winner is someone who has safety and wealth. If you don’t’ have those things you are not a winner, and the government and God don’t really care about you. Because if God did care, you would have wealth and safety, and you would be a winner.

Trump is the master of language, and his words mean just what he chooses them to mean. However circular or nonsensical the argument put forward, the earth is promised, not just on the government’s behalf, but also on Gods.

Nothing could make me want to be a loser more.

If this is what winning looks like, I choose losing. And if this is what winning looks like, Jesus certainly misunderstood what it means to be victorious.

Trump’s words were not a proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. The deep paradox of Christian life is that we are called to be losers in order to share in the victory of Christ; to lose our lives for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (Mark 8:35).

We are not called to be winners. We are not called to be wealthy and we are not called to be safe. However appealing those things are, they are both to be sacrificed for the sake of the Gospel. Seeking our own victory, manifested in wealth and safety may make us winners according to Trump, but at the cost of our call to the Kingdom of God.

How good and pleasant it is to know that I can only win when all of my brothers and sisters are also winning, And in the meantime how good and pleasant it is when God’s losers live together in unity.


James Martin ‘In Good Company: The fast track from the corporate world to poverty, chastity and obedience’ *

One of my favourite spiritual autobiographies is the story American Jesuit James Martin tells of his  journey from the world of corporate finance to Jesuit novice. Fast-paced, funny and not at all pious, Martin describes the process by which God led him to discover  what he really desired.  He describes how  with a degree in finance from the University of Pennsylvania Warton School of Business  he  went to work for General Electric, eager to enjoy the high salary, the Manhattan apartment and the prestige that went with it.

But after a few years the gloss had worn off. Dubious accounting practices, constant overtime, uncaring redundancies, top executives who seemed less than human, led to Martin beginning to hate his job, and his life. The physical symptoms of stress just confirmed this. Seeking peace he began to attend the Saturday evening Mass at nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral. God the fisherman was beginning to reel in his line.

The events of one week  summed it all up. A long-serving employee was scheduled for redundancy. Martin protested to his manager, ‘Have some compassion!’ His answer was short: ‘xxxx compassion!’. The gospel reading  the next Sunday was the story of the rich young man. Then, coming home late from work, too tired even to eat, Martin turned on the television. It was a programme about Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk. Martin could not get this story out of his mind. Maybe he could be a priest, or a monk, or…something. But that was too weird and embarrassing to think about, so  for the next two years Martin tried to forget  all about it.

The stress of his job combined with the stress of ignoring his growing sense of vocation finally led James Martin to a psychiatrist:

‘What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?’

‘That’s easy. I’d be a priest’.

‘Then why don’t you?’

Suddenly it all made sense.  Martin  realised that this was what he really wanted to do, more than anything else. The application procedure included  writing an autobiography, getting seven references,  psychological  and personality tests, and seven interviews, including questions that  Diocese of Lichfield candidates are never asked! The final testing time came when Martin  realised  he would have to hand in his notice before he received confirmation from the Jesuits that he had been accepted.

The book ends with  James Martin  sitting  in the chapel after making his first vows, reflecting on God’s plan and path for him, grateful that he had dared to follow his deepest desires.

In the Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition   James Martin writes, ‘I hope that [this book] helps you…to discover your own path in life, to find God in all things, and to learn that you, too, are called to something special in life, to a unique vocation that God has fashioned for you before you were born.’

*James Martin, ‘In Good Company: The fast track from the corporate world to poverty, chastity, and obedience’  Sheed & Ward 2000


When it comes to American Presidents, you can’t trump Lincoln


It’s a bit hard to know where to start reflecting on the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. The internet is not short of commentary and analysis on how we got here, what it means and what could or should happen next.  And the new President will no doubt have plenty to say on what taking up this office means.

The 44 presidents who preceded Trump have been a mixed bag (not mixed in term of gender of course, and barely mixed in terms of race, and probably not many who weren’t rich) with different approaches to the presidency, and very different priorities for office. But they must all have been driven and determined to end up as Presidents.

There is a notable difference in the reason for that determination. Many leaders in history have been so committed to a cause that they had to take it as far as they could; whilst others were primarily driven by personal ambition for high office. The 16th President, Abraham Lincoln was rather a different character than the 45th.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Seeking only to serve ourselves and those who are like us is not a calling, it does not have the hallmark of vocation – God’s charge to go beyond the convenient, comfortable and desirable to care for the outcast and stranger. Lincoln’s journey to the presidency was shaped by his commitment to educate and liberate the people of America, and to fight for this cause to the best of his ability.

“I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.”

For Lincoln it was not, first of all, about high office. It was not about being a winner so that others could be identified as losers and haters; indeed Lincoln was dedicated to healing the gulf between north and south.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 

Of course Lincoln never had the temptation of twitter, but his advice seems particularly apt for high profile tweeters:

“We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” 

I could go on quoting Lincoln for some time, he was the source of many quotable quotes, but this one seems particularly apt for the day that’s in it:

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” 

Sitting on blisters seems like a good time to find out what really matters, who we are, and who God has made us to be.



All quotes are Abraham Lincoln, from Goodreads, author quotes.




Is there a difference between the narrowest definition of a vocation, ie having a ‘religious’ calling, and feeling driven to do another kind of activity or ‘job’?

I am very interested in the creative drive artists have which compels them to compose a piece of music, or to paint, sculpt, or to write novels and poetry and so on.  The image included here is a work by the British artist Albert Irvin.  It is entitled ‘Inextinguishable’ and was completed in 2010 and is a wonderful example, I think, of his exuberant works in acrylic on canvas.  Measuring 214 cm x 305 cm, this is a typical example of the large-scale work Irvin was making right up until the end of his life.   Irvin undertook very few commissions but when I heard him being interviewed in 2013 – he was 90yrs old at the time and very sprightly –  he said that he painted every single day without fail.

Music was also very important to Irvin and he listened to it all the time while he was painting.  The title, ‘Inextinguishable’, is taken from the Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony.  A statement by Nielsen had been at the forefront of Irvin’s mind:  ‘The most elementary aspects of music are Light, Life and Motion … It’s all those things that have Will and the Craving for Life that cannot be suppressed, that I’ve wanted to depict’.   Replacing the word ‘music’ with ‘painting’, Irvin suggested, would help the viewer to understand what he was trying to convey.

I would argue that regardless of artists’ religious beliefs, or indeed lack of them, their gifts and their drive are God-given and in any case the results of their work are there for all of us, in perpetuity.  God gives us all different gifts, although discerning what God wants us to do with them can be a difficult and sometimes lengthy process.  We don’t have to do the discerning on our own of course and we should not shy away from seeking help from others along the way.  And we, the ‘others’, need to encourage people to recognise what their particular gift(s), and their vocation, might be.


Albert Irvin died in March 2015 but of course much of his work remains in public collections and can also be found on the walls of some UK hospitals.  If you are interested to read more about him please see:






How beautiful it is, that eye-on-the-object look.

Watching television this Christmas I saw James May reassemble his 1971 Flying Scotsman Hornby model  train set. He was completely absorbed in his task despite the tight configuration of television cameras around his table. Quietly chatting to his invisible audience, calmly choosing the next part to assemble: the right screw or bolt for the waiting  wheel or axle.

Perfectly illustrating W H Auden’ s description of vocation in his poem ‘Sext’:

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,

forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

Here was someone doing what he loved doing and so doing what he was meant to be doing. It came over in his calm confidence, his disarming lack of showmanship, his expertise and humility so unselfconsciously  combined.

Why was this so satisfying to watch? James May was not making a train set: it had already been made. He was not mending a broken train set: the train was clearly perfect. He was putting together a train set which had previously been taken apart and laid out carefully and precisely on the table.

What made the programme so special was that May was doing much more than just showing us how to put a model train set back together. He was sharing his joy in  what he was doing:  reassembling the train set for the sheer love of it. Taking delight in the process of reassembling.  Enjoying recreating the precision and the craftsmanship which had made the train set originally. Because May was  absorbed in his task he drew us, the viewers,  into the task with him. Because he delighted in it, we were invited to share that delight. We too could marvel at the workmanship of the model train. We could feel the satisfaction when the parts fitted together smoothly.

The programme drew a huge audience, as did all The  Reassembler series, to the amazement of the  programmers. Maybe it was something to do with the integrity of what we watched. No salesmanship, or propaganda or celebrity focus. Just one man doing something that he loved that  made him fully human,  and sharing that love with us. Showing us what vocation  is all about actually.