This will probably come across as immensely ungrateful, but I’m thinking today about the business of a clergyperson being praised. A lot of the time you get thanked for doing nothing more than being there, and can mentally brush this off very easily as you know very well it’s nothing to do with you, really. You are God’s presence in that situation in the way anyone could be. But there are also compliments you get for something you have put some effort into and that feels more ambiguous.
Today was the Family Service at Swanvale Halt, non-eucharistic and aimed at being more informal with elements of interaction and occasionally game-playing in the sermon slot. I had to arrange a projector and screen, discovered I’d left my notes at home with ten minutes to go, and was already feeling under-prepared and ill at ease. It all passed off OK, and people said very nice things, to which I reply as I always do, ‘I’m glad it all worked all right’. Anything which isn’t the Mass and involves unscripted speaking – Family Services, Messy Church, Church Club, school assemblies – I tend to find immensely stressful, even after ten years of leading them and even though nothing I do is really that demanding, and mostly I’m just relieved to have got through whatever it is.
I’m fairly indifferent to what people think of what I’ve done, as I know when it’s been good and when it hasn’t been. This morning, for instance, I covered ground I’m sure I’ve been over before and covered better, and it was far from cohesive. But what do I really want? Would it really feel better if nobody complimented me at all? Marion our curate usually gets a scathing and entirely unreasonable critique from her teenage son and that doesn’t sound comforting. What should I say in response, anyway? I remember advice from ages ago that when being complimented you should put the attention back onto Jesus, but it’s a challenge to do that without being weird. I have sometimes said ‘I just say what the Lord gives me to say’ but find myself putting a slightly sardonic edge on the statement because I don’t exactly receive my words by telepathy. Perhaps praise for the service as a whole is better, but that has an ambiguity about it too: what we ‘enjoy’ may not be what God wants us to take to heart at all.
Of course anyone engaged in any creative activity faces this. Only this morning on the wireless Adam Gopnik was reflecting on Bob Dylan, ‘a man who has known nothing but unimaginable adulation since he was absurdly young [and yet] who adopts a tone of aggrieved ill-will in almost every circumstance’ and concluding that ‘to idolise the indifferent puts us in touch with the first springs of love and religion’ and that ‘charisma’ means not the ability to seduce others but rather not caring at all about what they think. You produce some work: unless it communicates it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to: but, if you craft it to what you think people will accept, it will eventually collapse into mental and spiritual comfort-food. Hence the conflicted relationship with praise.
This gives me an opportunity to talk about Polly Harvey again (not that I really need one), another artist famously indifferent to what anyone beyond her immediate circle of family and friends thinks about her output. When she started out back in the early 1990s interviews with her were a journalist’s dream as she gabbled the first thing she thought of. She soon realised how damaging that was and became equally uncooperative. My favourite example is the 1995 one with an unsuspecting Swedish music journalist who wanted to tackle her about her noted scorn for feminism:
Journo: I’ve just been reading Liz Evans’s Women, Sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll [goes on about it for a while]. Don’t you think any of that is relevant to you?
PJH: I’ve never really felt like a woman, I haven’t had much sex, and I don’t play rock ‘n’ roll. Apart from that, yes.
Journo: Is it true that you never interact with your fans?
Journo: Not even to –
Journo: You don’t like interviews, do you?
PJH: They mean nothing to me.
Journo: Don’t you even use them to –
Journo: What’s that written on the back of your hand?
PJH: It says ‘serum’. I’m not going to tell you what that means, either.
Eventually journalists gave up trying to winkle stuff out of her, and she grew less prickly, so by the late 1990s interviews were conducted more along the lines of ‘Do you have any other message for a grateful nation?’ Now she doesn’t do them at all. But unlike Mr Dylan, PJ remains impeccably polite even under insufferable provocation (such as being seated next to David Cameron on Andrew Marr’s TV show), and gracious if reticent in accepting the accolades that come her way: she manages to combine ‘indifference’ to passing opinion with grace, and unsurprisingly that’s what has more influence with me.
Given that I’m very sensitive to the danger of playing to the gallery, are people responding favourably to what I serve up because I am, or because I’m not, due to the 'adulation of indifference'? Having people listen to you, and listen avidly, is somewhat intoxicating and therefore dangerous. I suppose all you can do is keep firmly directed somewhere else (in my case, towards God), in the same way that Polly keeps the focus rigidly on her work rather than on the way it’s received. You can do that without being rude, though, and perhaps what I need to take into account is that what people say to me is a reflection of where they are: of their own receptiveness and grace, more than of anything I have done.