Marking footsteps

‘Mark my footsteps good my page,

tread thou in them boldly.

Thou shalt find the winters rage

freeze thy blood less coldly.’

My husband and I have just returned from a weekend on the Dorset Jurassic coast, a stretch of coastline in the south of England that is breathtaking in its beauty. We were visiting the Othona Community, West Dorset, for the first time. This is the sister community to Othona, Essex, a place very dear to our hearts, not least because we celebrated our marriage there last year.

The area has recently suffered extremely high tides and prolonged wet weather, but on Saturday we were fortunate to have a day of continuous sunshine and bright blue sky. We had a long, satisfying and squelchy walk through the fields and along the shingle. Wellies and walking sticks helped us navigate the boggier bits, and as our footprints joined those of other walkers, dogs and cows, the words of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ came to mind.

Othona, West Dorset has its own liturgy, beginning the day with ‘seed time’ and closing with ‘harvest time’. During one of these times, another guest picked up on the footsteps metaphor. The ancestry of the community is found in two places: the community of secretive, ascetic and vegetarian nuns known as the ‘White Ladies’ who built the chapel and house in the 1920s, and Norman Motley, the Anglican priest who founded the Othona community in Essex and sought a second home for the community here in the 1960s. We walk in their footsteps, and enjoy the fruits of their efforts, particularly things like hot running water and a working sewerage system! To think of all the aspects of our lives that are made easier by the practical innovations and intellectual insights of our forbears is very humbling.

It can also be a tremendous challenge, especially to someone like me! In the last year I have been introduced to the Enneagram, a personality-type model that can be a useful tool for gaining insights into how you tick. There are nine types and I am a ONE. A characteristic of ONEs is the need to be right. ONEs have a strong internal judge that is constantly looking for things to fix and improve, both on the outside and the inside.

For some reason, this weekend, my internal judge was on overdrive:

I don’t like this liturgy. It’s all too wishy-washy. I would do it completely differently… Why don’t those children shut up? Why won’t the parents tell them to shut up?! Stop being so judgmental Mark. Just try and connect with what’s going on. Why are you still up here in your head?! Your missing it! These ponchos are so unflattering…

When the internal judge gets going I end up feeling as grumpy and spiky as a hedgehog woken mid-hibernation. From two till four in the morning I lay awake planning my own community liturgy whilst berating myself that no one had even asked me to do this and who did I think I was anyway!

We’ll be staying with several different communities in the coming year, each of which will have their own way of doing things. Although I hope we’ll be able to bring new, valuable ideas, a huge discipline for me will be to restrain my need to ‘fix’ things, especially those things that not everyone thinks are broken. I will be treading in others footsteps and, hopefully, not on their toes.

1 thought on “Marking footsteps”

  1. Some relevant Jean Vanier quotes:

    People entering a community ‘must try to accept the community as it is, with the space that is offered, be willing to abide by the spirit, traditions and rules of the community, and desire also to grow and to evolve. If the newcomer only wants to change the community and get everything they can out of it, without any modification on their part, there can be no true welcome’.

    ‘People coming into a community for the first time are usually open, available and often have a child’s grace. They have left the responsibilities and the landmarks they had in society and have entered a new world. It is like a new birth. This time of childhood, of naivety, openness and availability will last for varying amounts of time. Sooner or later, people begin to become responsible. The risk for people who leave one community to go into another is that they will arrive as adults and not as children. They will come to offer service. They already know what to do. I really wonder whether anyone can commit themselves in a community if they do not first live a period of childhood there’.

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