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Ambition – Bishop Martin, School Chaplain

“Oh. He’s very ambitious…!” The number of times I’ve heard or overheard that comment, often when the person concerned is not present, and been puzzled by why it’s said in a disparaging way, as if ambition is a negative and even ugly attitude to have. The key to ambition, I sense, is that it is a tool, an aid to living the best life you can – now. As David Knapp wrote: “The only sin is the unlived life”. A lived life involves being ambitious for living it to the full now. 

Ambition on its own for our children perhaps needs some caution. I read about this conversation between two fathers: “How are your children?” “Oh! Both of them are very well, thank you.” “How old are they now?” “The doctor is three and the lawyer is five.” The opposite of ambition in terms of children also needs some caution. Mary was on the beach with her mother. “Mummy, may I play in the sand?” “No, darling, You’ll only spoil your clean clothes.” “May I paddle in the water?” “No. You’ll get wet and catch cold.” “May I play with the other children on the beach?” “No. You’ll get lost in the crowd.” “Mummy, buy me an ice-cream!” “No. It’s bad for your throat and your health.” Mary, not surprisingly began to cry. Her mother turned to a woman who was standing nearby and said, “For heaven’s sake! Have you ever seen such a neurotic child?”  

Nurturing ambition alone can create a deep anxiety in children, and indeed, in adults. However, if it wasn’t for ambition, I doubt we would have the artistic treasures of music, drama, art, science and sport. To live in the now, this present moment, is demanding, because it demands ambitious focusing, giving attention to what is happening here and now.  

And that is at the heart of the Gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the season of Pentecost [which starts 50 days after Easter]. The experience of the mystery of the Resurrection prepares the lives of those who followed – and who follow –  the Way of Jesus to be open to the mystery of the Spirit. Breath, life, inspiration, energy, presence, wakefulness, awareness….all these and more, not only in yourself, but in those around you. So I would add to that list: humility. The truly humble person lives his or her life in the ‘Now’; noticing and nurturing the gift in others. That’s the Spirit.  

In the Cathedral, at the Pentecost Eucharist on the first day of this half of term, I gave two examples of the mystery of the Spirit. One was of the thousands of young people who have volunteered to help plant small trees along the Sahara, the enormous African desert and waste land. Gradually, small shoots are turning the grey ashen earth to a light green. There you have ambition used a tool for bringing life into this moment. The Holy Spirit. 

Leningrad, now St Petersburg, during the Second World War was surrounded and besieged by German and Finnish foes, leading to acute starvation, sickness and death. Despite those appalling circumstances, Dmitri Shostakovich composed his 7th symphony, called ‘The Leningrad’ in 1942. In the same year, it was performed by musicians from across the city, many of whom were ill and desperate. Not only the composition, but the performance brought hope in the middle of hopelessness, which seems to me a story of the mystery of the Spirit.  Here again ambition was a tool to bring into the present moment the vital importance of music as an art of ‘The Now’. The Spirit is working in this way in some shattered town or city in Ukraine. I pray so. 

The future for the children of Exeter Cathedral School is a crucially important focus for education in the school. However, education for the future, at its best, is about helping the children to live and not to prepare them for a living. That is what Pentecost is about. 

Blessings to you, in the Love of God experienced in the Spirit, so easily missed right in front of you. 

Bishop Martin
School Chaplain

9 June 2022
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