Michael Nisbet reflects on ministry and misunderstandings
To say anything at all is to risk being misunderstood. The consequences can be comic, tragic or merely annoying. Sometimes I have not been ‘misunderstood’ but, rather, ‘understood otherwise than I intended or would have wished’. This has, I find, often been the case when I’ve offered ministry in Meeting for Worship.
A Friend, who is also a friend, once conveyed his interpretation of words that I had said. These words concerned a quote from the early Quaker Isaac Penington. His words ‘Give over thine own willing…’ do not, to me, convey the sense that my friend found in them, of aspiring to ‘an egoless place’, much less of ditching oneself in ‘the spiritual equivalent of landfill’, although it would seem reasonable, on the basis of the repeated words ‘give over thine own’, to think so.
Whatever anyone may say, it is, of course, impossible for a human being to be without an ego, at least if they are to remain psychologically, or even linguistically, coherent. The subject-predicate structures of human language demand a sense of self, and we relate to one another as self-conscious individuals. What I get from Isaac Penington’s words is a sense of relief, of disburdening oneself of whatever rigidly purposeful behaviour one may happen to be locked into at any given time, and of ‘sinking down’ (rather as one might sink into a comfortable chair) ‘to the seed’: that is, towards a more relaxed, inchoate, child-like sense of being… a less rigid sense of self. The words ‘give over!’ as we use them today have the sense of ‘desist!’, which I take to be applicable here, at least in my interpretation.
Language moves, as it were, in two opposite directions. In one direction, it attempts to disambiguate: to be as clear and unambiguous as possible. This can, in certain circumstances, be a matter of life and death. In the other direction – the literary or poetic one – it tries to return language, as it were, to the ambiguity or complexity of the reality that underlies or surrounds it. Most speech and writing hovers uneasily between the two, unable to make up its mind in which direction it wishes to move.
Communication is as much a matter of the construction that we place on what we hear, as of what the speaker intended to say. It’s quite possible that Isaac Penington would have been dissatisfied with the sense that I find in his words.
The word ‘ministry’ comes, of course, from a Latin root meaning ‘servant’. In offering ministry one is, presumably, supposed to be serving the spiritual needs of those present. What, at base, might those spiritual needs be? Precisely, I think, the need to ‘sink down’, to disburden oneself of oneself (however paradoxical that may seem), which Isaac Penington’s words, to me, express so well.
In offering ministry I surrender my words to the other, to the hearer. ‘The Spirit’, it seems to me, emerges in the course of this process, rather than being contained in what I say, as I understand it, or in what you hear, as you understand it. So, ‘giving over’ is also, I suppose, not clinging to the sense in which I would wish my words to be understood. Imposed meaning – meaning that one attempts to impose upon others – moves in the direction of dogma. But equally, one should, I feel, not assume that what one hears is what the speaker intended to say.
Ministry is suspended in the void of silence that surrounds it. It is not meant to assert personal opinions or to initiate a discussion. It is offered, ultimately, to a notional or non-manifest presence, who is both spoken word and omniscient listener… that in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. It is the sense of self that, as human beings, we share in common. In fact, I might go as far as to say that, in ministry, one seeks to speak on behalf of our shared condition of selfhood, but without presumption. If ‘sinking down to the seed’ is sinking down to a less rigid sense of self, it is also opening oneself to a less individualised, more universal selfhood: the love of one’s neighbour as oneself, if you like, however precarious this may be.
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