Throughout the history of human existence, life has had the potential for being overwhelming. However, this potential has never been greater than in the modern Western society - despite all of our 'labour-saving' devices and a veritable explosion of courses, books, and strategies for coping and managing stress, there is more to overwhelm us than ever. We look back with nostalgia to 'simpler times' or look forward to an easier future, not realising that neither is true. Into the mix of the rough and tumble of everyday life, sometimes we are presented with an even greater overwhelming - God calls us to do something, to be something. Talk about the ultimate overwhelming!
David Ford, a noted theologian on the faculty at Cambridge University, has written a practical book aimed at those who look for a spiritual dimension in their busy lives, particularly for those who feel a call to some kind of spiritual or ministerial vocation, but also generally accessible to all who have a sense of being called and being overwhelmed at the same time. Ford, in his introduction, makes clear his general Christian orientation, but does a good job throughout of being general enough that adherents of any religious faith would find value in the text - it is not a dogmatic one by any means.
Ford begins from the standpoint of community and people - our lives might not seem so overwhelming if they were lived alone and in isolation (although some who have tried this tactic of 'getting away from it all' have had their own overwhelmings). These can be our families, friends and neighbours, as well as people in the past - those we carry with us in our interior being.
Ford addresses the call in our lives in the second chapter - what satisfies our deepest longings? What are we truly called to do in our lives? The process of discernment can be a formal process for some, and an informal process for others, but it is always there in some form if we open ourselves up to it. Ford looks at vocation in the broadest sense - our callings are not just to career and profession, but to life as a whole.
In subsequent chapters, Ford looks at overwhelmings that are good and bad, the idea of goodness generally, and various issues of how we spend our time, energy, and even information about ourselves. Can secrecy be part of this process of dealing with overwhelming? There are various disciplines discussed here.
Ford uses biblical stories as well as the poetry of Micheal O'Siadhail as primary texts, and weaves in his own experiences as well as those of others into the mix. For example, he uses the story of Noah and the ark as one way of dealing with overwhelming circumstances; he then writes that there have been many ark builders in history. Ford also explains that overwhelmings are a natural part of life - again, the example of Noah is presented here; after having survived the flood, he went on to plant a vineyard that grew grapes, which fermented, and Noah was overwhelmed by the alcohol. We may not have global, catastrophic floods with any regularity, but drunkenness is still high on the list of overwhelming issues in the world.
However, do not get the wrong impression about this book. This is not a book about morality as much as it is a book about guiding one's life in the midst of such overwhelming things in a productive and spiritually-satisfying way. This is not a 'God's little rulebook' kind of text, but rather a wide-ranging theological discussion with some practical examples and suggestions accompanying the main essay.
We use this book in the first course required of most students at my seminary - seminary is an overwhelming experience. It is worthwhile reading for each year, for students in any graduate or professional school, for students starting college, for people beginning new jobs or careers, for people beginning families, and for people generally living their lives wondering how to cope and make life spiritually more fulfilling.