Before I start, let me say that I far prefer the original title Northern Lights, and don't approve of the dumbing down of the title for Americans. They need to learn.
But this isn't about Philip Pullman's marvelous trilogy, Dark Materials.
It's about the people in your life who are golden compasses.
I've thought about this on and off for a long time, but last Saturday's ordination put me in a reflective mood, and I finally pulled it all together.
Saturday's ordinand to the diaconate is someone who has been a member of the community in my church since October 2003. I'd seen him around for about 18 months before that. I found him unsettling - in part because of his build and his economical movement, which reminded me of a fighter, but mostly because he 'felt' like a coiled spring - everything from voice to movement was measured, controlled, but it felt like a hurricane was being held in; there was an incredible tension, a dissonance between inner and outer that made me wary and uncomfortable.
His rigidity and marriage to rules - Jesu pie, there were days that I wanted to shake him and remind him that flexible trees are the ones that survive strong winds and come upright again. I began to think of him as Br Rule-Keeper. Let's just say that the mental intonation was not complimentary.
But discomfort makes me very watchful - and the more I watched, the more wariness turned to (grudging, at first, I'll freely admit) respect and affection. He was gentle with children, and unlike others I have known, had a healthy adult-child relationship with them: he wasn't trying to be one of them, he was the adult and they were the child, and the kids loved him for it - no chaotic, hyper childishness that's fun for a while, but not something you can lean against or trust. Just quiet solidity and the occasional teasing. His actions matched his words...I didn't like him, but when he promised me he would do something, it was done. No drama, no whingeing, no lies...just action.
In my world, that's worth a hell of a lot.
Oh, we still spar and roll our eyes at eachother. We'll never agree about the Catholic Church, rules, orthodoxy, any of it. I still want to shake the pedant (sorry, m'dear, but you can be) out of him and get him to loosen up a bit and put some emotion into it, especially when catechising the masses. But I'd bet you my last tuppence we agree on the *principles*, even if our expressions of those principles are 180 degrees apart.
But his stability, his demand for things to be thought out, makes him something more precious than that friend who always agrees with you: it makes him a compass. But what does that mean?
I was reading one of Rachel Naomi Remen's stories of a young man who came to counselling after his father died - he was an artist; his father was an insurance agent, accountant or something along those lines. He spoke of their fights, how he struggled against the direction that he felt his father wanted him to take, the security his father insisted he have.
Then he won an exhibit. Afterwards, one of the judges came up to him and said, "How could we not give it to you? Your presentation answered every single one of our objections. Clearly, you had thought everything through."
And the son got it.
His father was a compass. The son didn't have to take his father's direction, but because his father always pointed north, the son could mark his chosen direction from his father. And his father had forced him to be able to defend the direction he chose to take, to ground his dreams in reality.
So it is with Br Rule-keeper. I'm sure, since he sees Catholicism as the One Truth, he would prefer that I keep to a direction far closer to his. But he always points north, so whatever direction I choose to take, if I mark it from him, I will always travel true.
And I've finally realised that, as an iconoclast, I don't really want the whole system to come down at once - I want it to *change*. The edifice may have to be taken down and rebuilt, but it must happen systematically, and not in the form of a collapse. That needs rule-keepers.
He's not alone in my life: I'm blessed with friends who are compasses of all shapes and sizes. From my ex-supervisor-the-kindred-spirit to cynical Rachel to midnight sidhe and Moses, from the somewhat-distractable-but-intuitive-friend to the "How long have you had a thing for unavailable men?" mate and the "And he missed out on getting his boner seen to by u! what a step in the wrong direction! :)" cheekily affectionate male friend, none of them are what you expect a compass to look like.
But they always point true North - and allow me to mark my heart's direction.
Thank you. I love you all more than you will ever know.
Beware of those that look like compasses. My father looked and sounded like a compass, like the paragon of stability, but he was one of the most controlling, emotionally unavailable men I have ever met. A current male friend's bearing and orthodox pronouncements give him the appearance of authority and compasshood, but scratch the surface and you find someone whose emotional unavailability and need for control rivals my father's, except it is more like being in the middle of a tornado than a Siberian winter, not least because he drowns it in alcohol.
Trust me: don't go there. Taking your direction from someone who is running from their own pain, from themselves, will only ensure that two people are lost, not one.
Don't forget to try to be a compass to others - always point true to your heart's direction, to what you really believe, and you will be someone else's true North.
I said I wasn't talking about Philip Pullman. I lied.
After all, what is Pullman's golden compass? An alethiometer, derived from the Greek meaning "truth measuring instrument". Ask the golden compass a question and it will give you a true answer - but you have to be able to interpret the symbols to know what that answer is. It won't always be what you want to hear. But it will always be what you need to hear, and you can mark your direction by it.
So pay attention to your compass, and treasure it. S/he is, after all, one of life's most precious gifts.