Friday, 14 October 2011

Learning to fly is the easy part . . .

Nos fecisti ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te
[Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee 
- Augustine of Hippo]

Just recently, musing upon changes in life and ministry as I am at present, I 'saw' a picture which has stuck with me. It was based on a memory from many years ago, when I was but a youth - and on reflection a most disturbing and yet instructive one. 

At the age of 16 an opportunity fell into my lap that, unlike many others that came my way, I grasped with both hands.      I was offered the chance to learn to pilot a light aircraft. 
              And so a whole year before it would be legal for me to drive a motor car on the public road I found myself alone at the controls of a Cessna 152 - somewhat dramatically named 'The Aerobat', license G-GRBP - high above the East Midlands of England. 
            And what an exhilarating experience it was! There was a  freedom to powered flight that was quite wonderful, unhindered motion through three dimensions, unconstrained by roads and, by the wonders of the Bernoulli effect, a moderately powerful engine provided at least the illusion of freedom from gravity.

However, the memory in question was of a day when the exhilaration gave way to a profound discomfort to put it mildly -  a day when the freedom was exposed as illusory. 
                I had already discovered that flying was slightly less straighforward than my imagination had told me it was.  In many respects there was nothing to it, such aircraft are very stable in the air and even without the aid of the propeller could glide, but I had seriously struggled with the most elementary yet highly necessary skills, that of landing :) On my course, 10 hours of instruction was the cut off point for 'going solo', if you couldn't land safely before that point the course ended. After all if you couldn't satisfactorily land the plane, it wasn't a good idea to take off on your own! I think I was finally let off the leash after 9 hrs and 45 minutes . . .

And so it was about a week later I found myself spending a carefree hour practising a basic manouvre, the Steep Turn.  Paying close attention to airspeed and applying the necessary extra throttle, keeping the aircraft nose raised by applying opposite rudder I was utterly absorbed in the business of flying. Yet whilst putting my nascent knowledge to use and growing steadily in confidence, beginning to think I really could master the skies,  I had forgotten to pay attention to one important thing. 
            Having spent half an hour practising these turns I levelled out the aircraft and glanced at my map to navigate home, only to discover that the land underneath me bore no relation to said map. I was lost.

I have on rare occasions got lost in a car. It is little more than a minor irritation and certainly no reason to invest in SatNav. I pull over and ask someone where I am. In a light aircraft you can't pull over, you can't even stop . . .

Of course rather than seek help in my fear of being exposed for the fool I'd been, I guessed :) Seeing a large town beneath me I assumed I had inadvertently drifted off course in a Southerly direction, so duly headed North. Wrong town. I had as you may have guessed actually drifted North and so was headed even further away from my home aerodrome.

It was only about ten minutes later (air speed 90knots - you can do the math) that I realised I was in big trouble and called for help, or rather HELP!!! Fortunately my cry of distress was picked up by a USAAF base into whose controlled airspace I had drifted. Thus, apart from the knowledge that there were two F111 tactical strike aircraft headed vauguely in my direction at a speed that meant I could have been reduced to a million and one pieces before they ever saw me, my return to the safety of Leicester East airfield was  uneventful - I guess I must have landed ok too :)

Well this picture of flying in a kind of freedom above a map with which I had lost all connection came to me as I considered both my own spiritual walk and perhaps that of many others. In our restless quest for Something, we pay little attention to the Ground of Our Being - the source of all of our Life.

We are Human, of the earth - Adam - Mud men and women - and if God had meant us to fly he'd have given us wings - but Icarus like we still try and develop our own freedom, but one which is illusory. One way or another we will come back to earth. It all depends on whether we realise we are lost and cry out for help or just wait for the petrol to run out, and should the latter be the case, whether we have developed any facility for landing, for connecting with our true Home - our Life in God.

It will come as no surprise to anyone to discover that I have a somewhat butterfly mind - ceaselessly, restlessly (?) playing with ideas and thoughts and it occurred to me that that picture of flying above unfamiliar territory might be a picture of my own life and perhaps that of others. To paraphrase one old mentor, I think better than I live.

St Augustine spoke of the restless heart and how we needed to come home, the plane needed to land on the solid earth of Existence that is our Life in God. A Life not lived in a rarified but disconnected thought life, 2000 feet above reality, but rather is immersed in it. As one dear friend constantly reminds me, a Life that is found in life's keepings, in a thousand and one human encounters and simple acts of service. That somewhat paradoxically, it is within these constraints of the everyday that our true freedom is found. And here we find Him. Whilst undoubtedly there are some who are Called to the Academy or the Monastery, most of us are not ( and what is it to us, should He so call them? Jn 21:22) - but the message of one who was so called I think teaches us the how of this Ordinary life - Brother Lawrence who taught about the Practise of the Presence of God - of Lives turned to Him - heaven bound whilst bound to Earth.

The attentive heart can be alert to him in each moment of the Ordinary, found in Him and not lost in our illusions. 

Following my qualification as a pilot I never flew again - it was an enjoyable and rich distraction - yet I am still struggling with those most important of skills, paying attention to the Ground and learning to land, to come home and live there.

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