From God's fullness we have all received, grace upon grace
Greenbelt ponderings

Greenbelt ponderings

Greenbelt is a microcosm, a gathering of Christian and spiritual practice in the UK and further afield condensed in space and time into a short long weekend on a field or two near Kettering. It brings the world with it, sometimes almost literally; in 2022 Luke Jerram’s Gaia, a giant beach-ball Earth, was suspended among the trees of Boughton Estate. But I really mean the world in terms of its pressures and expectations.

Luke Jerram - Gaia

As the apocryphal Chinese proverb has it: wherever you go, there you are.

There is the pressure and problem of choice, when faced with a multiplicity of programming, food vendors, and experiences. Alongside that there is the dreaded FOMO – the fear of missing out – and what I will call the ROMO – the reality of missing out – as others wax lyrical about the speaker or performance or worship session they have just come away from. And it is simply not possible to go to two or more clashing events, see everything, do everything, meet up with everyone.

There is the risk Greenbelt becomes a microcosm of our lack of balance, of the idol of busyness set up over taking time and waiting; the exaltation of consuming over savouring, experience over attentiveness, extraversion over introversion; wanting it all now instead of being content with enough for today and trusting in enough for tomorrow.

I got Greenbelt wrong this year. In many ways it was wonderful: catching up with friends; singing at the top of my voice; spending time in a space that values thoughtfulness. But I came away feeling unsatisfied, the feeling I remember from childhood birthday parties of eating too many sweet things. I realised I didn’t take the time to, say, savour each talk, mull over its message for me, ponder its wisdom. I just filled the days with busyness and went to the next thing. I didn’t take the time to walk further afield, wander and wonder and let Greenbelt come to me. I didn’t seek out and find the worship events, prayer venues, trees by the lake, and the other relatively silent spaces. I didn’t make space to seek space, to seek the silence and solitude that nourish me. I didn’t get enough introvert time and quality time with God. I lost my inner peace and my centre, and instead I felt on edge.

Part of me was telling myself that the savouring could come after the weekend (and indeed I am doing some now as I write this text), but the reality is that I mostly splashed around in the shallows and missed out on the depths. I had the sugar rush, but left the fibre on the side of my plate. I was left with little to digest and ruminate on that would nourish me on the journey on.

What then might I do differently? I could do the things I didn’t do this year, or rather not do but simply be. Or I could go back to my practice of previous years. Constraints are a key element of creation; consider the tyranny of a bland sheet of paper and infinite choice vs the beauty and diversity that has emerged within the constraints of the sonnet form. In the past I had deliberately set boundaries and constraints on the programme: first picking a theme for the year, such as the environment or women speakers or art or LGBT issues or prayer, and focusing on this; and then finding one thing each day that I definitely wanted to go to and treating everything else as a bonus. Sitting lightly. Embracing JOMO, the joy of missing out.

I’d also forgotten that it is possible to be alone (which is not at all the same as lonely) amid the multitude. One of my most beautiful Greenbelt moments happened during the first year at Boughton. I was sitting alone on the ‘main street’, watching and enjoying the people going to and fro. I’d just finished my lunch and still had the empty compostable carton. And as I sat and watched, a little boy dressed in the green costume and cape of a ‘waste warrior’, with his even littler sister in tow clad in yellow, approached me and piped, “Excuse me, can I put this in the bin for you?” Then he took my carton and put it in the nearest food waste. That would never have happened had I succumbed to the compulsion to seek out my friendship group.

Succumbing to the pressure of being seen to be in a group, so no-one assumes me to be a lonely friendless sad sack: this is one of the ridiculous imaginings I maintain on the other 361 days of the year. Because after all, first, no-one is assuming anything at Greenbelt; secondly, Greenbelt is a great place just to fall into conversation with other interesting people, and I’m more likely to do that if I’m not focusing on anyone else; and thirdly, I don’t care anyway. I’m quite happy to be alone and people-watch, when among people, and the rest of the time to be far from the madding crowd or safe in my Clare-cave.

The reality is that Greenbelt is not the one thing that sustains me and my faith though the year, and there’s a risk that I load too much on it. My sustenance comes from my ongoing underpinning practice of contemplative prayer; space, silence and solitude; Lectio and study; a healthy diet; exercise and nature. Greenbelt is simply part of an ecosystem that also includes regular retreats; Sunday mornings at Exeter Cathedral; conversations in person and on Zoom with friends; podcasts and books. What it does offer me are opportunities to try new things, like cyanotype printing this year; to experiment; to be part of a ‘tribe’ briefly; to get into my body, laugh, hug, and dance; to get swept up in a joyful crowd; to bust my lungs singing the descant to Hark the Herald in August; to see writers and speakers in the flesh, themselves embodied; to have the latitude and longitude to riff on theology and philosophy over a pint of Jonah and the Ale in the Jesus Arms.

Just so long as I am really, completely and wholly there in that talk, that conversation, that hymn, and not thinking I should be somewhere else or feeling I am missing out somehow. To focus on what is right for me in the moment, to savour being here, now.