About one year ago, after months of isolating during the pandemic, I encountered a poem entitled, “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas. Here it is.
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had treasure in it. I realise now that I must give all that I have to possess it. Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
As I write, I am in the midst of the inaugural week of the fall term at the University of Arkansas. The buzz from an influx of college students has crescendoed and the pace of life has changed in an instant. The calmer, quieter, slower Fayetteville summer has shifted to something faster and more frenetic.
My own rhythms have changed too. My daily calendar has quickly filled with a course to teach, student advisory appointments, the resumption of committee meetings, time set aside to read as well as to write, and all the other tasks endemic to life in the academy. Teachers, school leaders, and anyone whose vocation brings them to a school will be familiar with these annual transitions that occur toward the end of every August or early September.
Adding to the whirlwind of items that take up time and energy are scheduled conferences, like Converge. After over one year of canceled meetings, postponed travel plans, and the convenience of gathering online, the resumption of boarding a plane, spending a few days away from home, and being present with hundreds of other individuals might feel daunting. I confess that it does for me.
One of the personally redeeming outcomes of the pandemic was a dramatic slowing down of my then-frenzied life. Eliminating all travel to a usual rotation of conferences was one way that happened. With the resumption of in-person conferences, I am left wondering whether the notions of Sabbath rest that I began to practice and experience last year have taken sufficient root in my life so that I can avoid the traps of drowning in professional work this year. I suppose the fact that I am reflecting and writing about it is a good sign that those lessons have taken some root. Thanks be to God.
So I am left praying and reflecting about what it looks like to attend Converge and other conferences out of a posture of Divine rest instead of professional toil. Maybe you are like me, asking similar questions. Teaching students and leading a school or network of schools comes with a long laundry list of cares. Attending a conference can feel like just another burdensome item to add to that load.
How can we attend a conference differently? How might the manner in which we participate in these kinds of gatherings also embody a redeeming death and resurrection in Christ? “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas aided me in slowing down last year. Perhaps some of its insights can aid us now as we consider how to attend conferences well.
The first six lines of the poem often describe me. My tendency is to be on the move, to go from one task to another. Look! A squirrel! As Thomas describes, I almost certainly pass by many beautiful fields illuminated by the sun that demand a worshipful pause and an opening of my hands to receive. But instead, I dismiss it and go my way. I also know that the Son illuminates for me many other things that are true, good, and beautiful. “In Your light do we see light”, the psalmist proclaims. Yet my dull heart simply misses or forgets about them.
Upon further reflection, I notice that I have attended conferences in this manner. I rush from session to session, hoping to acquire every last drop of content that is spoken. I then scurry from plenaries to coffee breaks or meal times hoping to catch up with a long list of colleagues whom I have not seen for a while or individuals whom I have not yet met. And during the whole time, my mind actively hunts for opportunities to nurture ongoing collaborations or to dream up new connections. There is ample fear of missing out. In my harried state, I have likely missed other, more valuable opportunities, ones that provide refreshment and renewal. By trying to take in everything, I end up taking very little and become exhausted.
I am drawn to what Thomas says one must do to lay hold of the bright field. “I must give all that I have to possess it,” he says. Initially, when I hear the phrase “give all that I have,” I consider material possessions, though I understand that Jesus’s call is to give up not just finances but our very lives. After all, the poem alludes to two parables that Jesus told about a man who found a field with buried treasure and another man who discovered a precious pearl. Both characters sold all of their material possessions to purchase those treasures. Indeed, it takes much to travel and to attend a conference. Not only are financial and material resources necessary, but there is the additional cost of time and energy. And let us not forget the opportunity costs: we have to set aside our usual professional responsibilities to attend.
But perhaps the phrase “give all that I have” has a more particular reading within the poem. Given the next lines in which life is described as “not hurrying onto a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past,” I wonder if the call to “give all that I have” is a call to pause and to be present in the moment. It is a call to slow down, take notice of, and receive the Divine grace that comes from listening to speakers, participating in formal discussions, conversing with others with the utmost attentiveness as the time together unfolds, or sharing a meal or beverage. It is a complete surrender of myself to be still and to depend on God to nourish me through encounters with others who are also in attendance.So instead of frantically running to and fro from event to event, anxiously hoping and striving to grab whatever professional resource is on offer for a pressing need, could “turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush” orient me to participate in all that Converge offers with a posture of rest, leisure, gratitude, and expectant hope? Might Converge, then, feel more like spending time outside of time? Could it be “the eternity that awaits,” the place where God renews and rejuvenates me? Might I receive much more than I would have otherwise?