Memories, dreams, reflections 1963-2013

*First of two articles about the anniversary of my ordination


I was ordained deacon on September 8, 1963, at St Mary’s Church in Kerrisdale, in Vancouver, the church in which I had also been baptized.

As the 50th anniversary of that day approached, I decided to mark it with a mass of thanksgiving and repentance, and with a party at which I would share some reflections on my journey of the past fifty years.

And so indeed I did. My pagan and/or secular friends (somewhat to my surprise) came to the liturgy along with my Christian friends—I had thought they might only come to the party afterwards; and, again to my surprise, most of them received communion. I presided, and my friend Lynne McNaughton assisted me at the altar. However, when it came to the absolution, normally spoken by the presider (or the bishop, being present), I asked Lynne to do that so that I could let go of all the boats missed, all the good words unspoken, all the distractions to which I had yielded, and all the other foolishnesses of my time in ministry. I had advertised the liturgy as “a mass of thanksgiving and repentance,” and the absolution represented the repentance part.

I also led the congregation in a new form of the Lord’s Prayer which I have been developing over the last three years or so. It involves some simple actions,which culminate in the hands coming to the heart at the word “now,” in the phrase “now and forever” at the end of the prayer. Recently I had come to the conclusion that the “now” ought to be more strongly emphasized (Buddhist spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who uses a lot of Christian language, says, “The kingdom of God is now or never!”). So I invited them to say “now” three times, touching their heart-space each time as they did. To my delight, they raised their voices a little higher with each “now”:  now … Now … NOW!  They got it!

After the liturgy, the party, at which I offered some reflections on some pivotal moments in the five decades under review. More than one person pointed out to me that I had shared three moments each one containing (like Gaul, in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars) three parts. Then my dear friend John Mills pointed out to me that my entire spiritual journey had been marked, as Carl Jung’s was, by dreams and visions. (I have studied Jung fairly thoroughly, but I don’t attribute these dreams and visions to his influence. What perhaps I have taken from him is the habit of paying attention to my dreams and visions.)

And here they are. I am in the outdoor chapel at Camp Artaban on Gambier Island; I am not quite 14 years old. I was there for two weeks, and what I am about to describe took place on the second last day of camp. During the two weeks, I had gone to chapel morning and evening with all the other boys, and taken part in Morning and Evening Prayer from the old prayerbook, each of which included two chapters of the Bible: 14 days, 56 chapters, more Bible than I had ever been exposed to. Suddenly and spontaneously, I saw before me a large, empty rectangle. Yes! I said to myself: it’s the deep structure of the Bible (“deep structure” being a linguistic term used by linguistic über-genius Noam Chomsky, of whom of course at 13 I had never heard). Starting with the top line and going to the right, here’s what came to me about the meaning of the four sides of the rectangle: (1) God created the world; (2) we screwed it up; (3) Jesus came to put it right; and (4) God will wrap it up at the end of history.

Then the rectangle filled itself in with the kind of Mercator map we used in school, the kind in which the lines of longitude go straight up to the top instead of converging on the poles (Canada looks very big in those maps). Yes! I said to myself: what the Bible says and means applies to everything in the world!

Next vision: the rectangle has become the frame of a jigsaw puzzle, the interior empty. I “see” a clear plastic bag in my right hand containing puzzle pieces, and I realize that each piece represents an experience in my life (for example, my writing of this blog). As I went through the experiences of my life, the interior of the puzzle would fill itself in. Then on a certain day, I would look in the bag, which would be empty. I would look at the puzzle and see that only one piece, right in the middle, remained to be put in place. That represented—represents!—my death. God has kept that piece, and will put it in place when God so decides, and the “puzzle” of my life will be completed. To say that I was staggered by these visions (all of which together took less than ten seconds) is to understate the situation. Very quickly I decided to seek God, and be ordained; and so, ten years later I was, 24 years old and très naïf.

Second set of three: a dream this time, when I am in my early fifties. I am in a large and empty white room, with no windows, doors or furniture; and I am standing, naked, with my back to the middle of one of the long walls of the room (again, a rectangle). I hear a very deep voice. (I think here of a story about an American Black preacher, of whom it was said that he had a voice like God’s, only deeper–it was something like that.) The voice says to me, “Well, Donald, what have you learned in your life so far?” In response to such a question in waking life I would ask for a week or two’s grace to formulate my answer. But here I am in the dream, which comes from the unconscious, which knows all, and so I promptly say this. “I have learned three things: first, life is not tidy; second, things always take longer than you think they ought to take; and third, when you are cooking, you can never use too much garlic.”  I woke up laughing, and saying to myself that this was indeed the story of my life. (A therapist I told the dream to said to me that she understood it as a Zen dream—a dream of integration and enlightenment.)  OK, a little less naïve.

Third set of three. It’s 2006, and I am 66 years old. I have been walking in the UK for 11 weeks, covering 620 km in one set of boots (no blisters!), a walk I undertook to mark my retirement. I am in Newcastle Cathedral, fully intending that my pilgrimage will continue. I am walking past the organ, which suddenly begins playing: Bach, I guessed, and at the very lowest possible register. I find myself weeping with no warning, and again the visions come. First, I know myself as an old-fashioned camera which has just clicked into focus. Then I realize I have fallen through the floor of the cathedral and landed on my feet in the crypt.  Finally I remember a sermon I had heard at a youth conference 47 years earlier. The preacher was Ralph Dean, at the time bishop of Cariboo (a diocese which no longer exists). Speaking to members of the AYPA, the Anglican Young People’s Association, he said: “Think of your relationship with God like this.

A-Y-P-A: all your past absolved; all your present accepted; all your potential assured.” Memorable, yes! I knew within myself that these words had come true for me, and that my pilgrimage was now complete.

I close this first of my anniversary reflections with the wonderful words of former UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, discovered after his death to have been a Christian mystic. In his journal, published under the title Markings, he says: “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes!” I take his words as my own as I reflect on my dreams and visions, and prepare to go forward into the time between now and the day when God completes the puzzle of my life.


[In the second article in this series, I will pull together some of the major learnings of my ordained years.]

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