We find ourselves in that strange territory after Eastertide has culminated in Ascension and Pentecost. It’s done with. The Spirit has been given once again and, although we have Trinity Sunday, another big feast, tomorrow, the calendar tells us we are in ordinary time. The daily readings have settled down to pastoral epistles, 2 Peter and 2 Timothy and Mark’s Jesus in controversial mode.
This is ordinary time… not ordinary as in plain, dull, ordinary but ordinary as in ordinal – my dictionary says ‘to do with the order things come in’ – these are days known only by their ordered succession, by their numbers—it’s the ninth week of ordinary time—they aren’t about anything obvious, they don’t have labels to identify them—it’s not part of Easter or Lent or any other season—and if they have a pattern it’s often a mechanical one put together by a someone back in headquarters to make sure we read a bit of everything eventually.
But we are creatures that love a pattern. Human beings can find patterns in the most chaotic mess. Computers may be able to crunch numbers with astonishing speed but try and get them to recognise a face or tell a story and they are a thousand times worse than any four-year old. We are pattern-making creatures from birth.
When I was a student we had a chaplain who everyday at mass could take the two readings and the psalm and the saint of the day if there was one and weave them together into a quick little pattern, all neatly linked in three minutes flat. The problem was that we all tended to stop and admire his skill and ingenuity rather than listen to what he said. We liked the pattern-maker more than the pattern.
Our ordinary time seems to demand we make it less ordinary. We want to tell a story that gives it significance, finds a meaning, and even points a way forward. We want a pattern in our lives too: we want to see their significance, know their meaning, and make the choices that keep the story alive.
We like our stories to have beginning, middle and end. I always like it when the books I read have chapter titles and not just numbers. I like it even better when they have a little quotation to get me thinking about what it all means.
A little while ago I was given the DVDs of a science fiction show I’d wanted to see but missed called “Firefly” – think Cowboys and Indians in spaceships – and it’s a lot of fun, and very well written, with 8 or 9 well-drawn characters that over the short series grow and take shape and show their stories and change each other in all sorts of ways and hint at secrets and stories yet to be told. Because it was a series that was cancelled part way through. A story with no ending. With loose ends. A dozen stories still waiting to be told. And my intense curiosity about each character and what they still had left to tell, and about the group, the whole, and their collective story which seemed to be going … somewhere, having some significance. I hate not knowing what happens to Inara. I really want to know who Shepherd Book really is and where Simon and his sister are headed. And I never will. Unless I make it up myself. And that doesn’t really work. Because half the pleasure is not in making up, but in appreciating the reality of the characters and the sense that behind them there is an author with a hope.
Mary Doria Russell, writer and novelist, says from her point of view it’s not just about making up either. She says her characters just won’t do some things she asks them to do. The writing won’t work. Her people have an integrity. She had one character, Emilio (a Jesuit by the way), she needed to get back to a certain place. She tried a dozen different ways to write him there but he simply wouldn’t cooperate – everything became false when she did – she lost the plot, as we say. In the end she realised he would never go there of his own free-will and she had to have him kidnapped and taken there by force. Of which she still feels ashamed.
Another of her characters came to her one day in her writing and told her he was gay, something she says she’d never thought about and didn’t really come into the story at all. But her character seemed to want her to know it.
Stories are powerful. Human beings are in need of stories, our own stories, and we have to tell them on the hoof, in the middle of things. With our own integrity as characters. Partly looking back and telling our story to ourselves in a way that makes sense and partly looking forward and writing who we will be, feeling out a future that feels right.
We speak from time to time about finding God’s will, doing God’s will. There’s a low motive attached to that sometimes—we don’t want to get on God’s wrong side—but sometimes there’s something more beautiful going on too. There’s the sense we have—the conviction, the hope—that whatever the shape our lives have taken so far, somehow God stands behind them as the author of a story. Not that God gets to write and drag us along like puppets but that there’s a meaning and a shape and a pattern that God is authoring from moment to moment. And we, we want to be authored. We don’t want to bind ourselves to an unchanging divine blueprint but we do want to co-operate with the story. We want to know the plot and lend ourselves to it. We want to tell the story of our lives the way the author would. Maybe we even want to surprise God by telling him something he’d never expected and nudge the story in a particular way. Either way, we are here, in the middle of things, with our stories unfolding and the endings still unwritten. How will it all turn out? God knows, we say. But God has our freedom and stubbornness to write with too. So maybe God writes our lives with the same hope and expectation we live them.