Posts by Alicia Smith

It's almost a year since my last post for FiSch, on writing my acknowledgements to my recently completed thesis. Since then I've defended and finalised it: anyone who cares to can now download 100,000 words on 'Anchoritic Prayer in Time'! Since this is a pandemic year, of course, some things are still a little in limbo – I haven’t yet graduated, or formally deposited my thesis as a bound copy (which I was quite looking forward to doing!).

Just over a week ago I submitted my doctoral thesis. One of the most enjoyable parts of the final few weeks of this process was writing the acknowledgements. Before sitting down to do this, I had thought to myself: "I'm not going to be one of those people who writes pages and pages of acknowledgements. It's self-indulgent and a bit too much like showing off. Surely a paragraph or two will be enough."

Like many of you, I spent yesterday morning, not at church, where I would usually be, but sitting on my sofa at home in front of a laptop, watching a livestream of my pastor preaching to an empty building. In just a week, it seems, everything has changed. The Covid-19 pandemic means that ordinary Sunday services, along with most other kinds of social gathering, won't be possible for some time to come. It's unprecedented and unsettling (though I'm very grateful for the technology that enables virtual connections of various types).

I've written before on FiSch, as well as elsewhere, about my research on prayer. Today I want to look at a particular idea which jumped out at me recently, speaking to my own life and practice as well as to the medieval recluses it was meant for. This is the simple statement in Ancrene Wisse, a guide for women recluses, that 'Reading is a good way to pray'.

As 2019 has come to a close, and a new decade is beginning, I have been thinking about a poem by Emily Dickinson - one of my favourites, for its enigmatic imagery and its expression of longing: 'I did not reach Thee'. Here is the first stanza (you can read the whole thing here):

I did not reach Thee
But my feet slip nearer every day
Three Rivers and a Hill to cross
One Desert and a Sea
I shall not count the journey one
When I am telling thee.

One of the figures in the Bible who I'm most fond of is the prophet Daniel: mainly because, like me, he was a literature student.

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it [...]
Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility – young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians [...] They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

Today I want to share a prayer that has become a regular part of my working life. At the Scriptorium here in Oxford, this is one of the prayers we say together at the beginning of every working day. It's usually attributed to the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas; perhaps it will be helpful for you to use as you seek God's help in your work today. 

I'm drawing closer to the end of my doctoral work, and that means a lot of my work at the moment is revising drafts. In the last couple of weeks I have been redrafting the introduction to my thesis. This is slow, bitty work: fixing various details, doing small pieces of further reading and research, tightening up or clarifying expression on sentence level.

Is gentleness something academics should aspire to? If a colleague or a peer described you as gentle, would you be pleased, or a little worried?

It won't be news to anyone reading this blog that life as a researcher – perhaps particularly life as a doctoral student – can be, and often is, very isolating. You're working on a niche topic, which few other people may understand or seriously care about; your day-to-day research is self-driven and self-directed. Particularly in the humanities, there is often little to no organised time with peers. I felt the latter fairly acutely when I moved universities to start my DPhil: in my Master's programme I had had multiple weekly classes and the chance to get to know my coursemates well, but in doctoral study it was much harder to build those connections – there just wasn't the regular time.