Sunday, 19 November 2017

Wholeness and completeness

In life there are many things that separate we human beings, often our beliefs and disbeliefs. Whether these be religious or anti-religious, political, social, cultural we separate ourselves through them and yet we are all human. We all love, we all long and we all grieve when we lose those we love. To quote Eugene Ionesco “Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.” We are united by a common humanity; we are united by our shared hopes and despairs. We are each of us unique and complete as ourselves and yet we only truly know ourselves through our relationships with one another and with life. To quote Mark Nepo “It is a great paradox of being that each of us is born complete and yet we need contact with life in order to be whole. Somehow we need each other to know that completeness, though we are never finished in that journey.”

We are living in ever more dividing and divisive times. We do not see ourselves as one people. This is dangerous. Not only to ourselves but to our shared humanity. By separating ourselves we will never know wholeness, we will never truly be all that we can be. No one is an island. We need to be at one not only with ourselves, but with all of life and whatever it is we believe is at the core of all life to truly become completely ourselves, to touch perfection. Remember perfection originally meant completeness, I suspect perfect love is in a sense wholeness. This is one way to salvation by the way. To quote Forrest Church. “What I'm talking about…is salvation. The Latin root, salve, means health. The Teutonic cognates, health, hale, whole, and holy, all share the same root. Being an agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here—not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life.

Such salvation has three dimensions: Integrity, or individual wholeness, comes when we make peace with ourselves; reconciliation, or shared wholeness, comes when we make peace with our neighbors, especially with our loved ones; redemption, in the largest sense, comes when we make peace with life and death, with being itself, with God.”

When we experience this wholeness we are as close as we will ever be to perfection, to completeness, although only for a moment as our lives go on. By becoming whole we begin to truly live our lives. Life is the greatest gift of all, the ultimate Grace. So choose life.

This brings to mind those words I so love from the Sermon on the Mount “Therefore be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” This is heaven on earth, this is the Kingdom of Love right here right now. This is the purpose of the spiritual life, this is the religion of love, of true communal spirituality. This is what it means to live in perfect love. Perfection is not flawlessness as we often think it is. Quite the opposite perfect love is sincere, it’s about showing our cracks, our flaws, our scars, showing who we truly are. The Latin root of perfection is “perfectus” which meant “completeness”, or wholeness, health in mind body and spirit, wholeness with self, others, life and God.

This is the purpose of spiritual community; this is the purpose of the free religious faith I am honoured to serve. This is what it means to me to be a minister of religion in the Unitarian tradition, in my view at least.

But how do we become whole, complete, perfect? How do we become at one with ourselves, one another, life, with God? Well it begins by being truly present in what we are doing; it begins by not being caught up in worry and fear, our own and others. It’s about not going into things hard, but rather by softly melting into what we are doing, by being who we are in what we are doing, by almost not focusing too hard, by looking through soft eyes. By being natural, who we are, by becoming what we are doing.

I remember when I was learning to drive. I did so late in life, when I was training for the ministry. I was never going to drive. I used to proudly proclaim it. The real reason was fear, fear of ridicule. When I was eleven years old I once had a go on a quad bike and I couldn’t handle it. I kept crashing and the man had to sit on the back of the bike and steer it for me. Everyone seemed to be laughing and I was so ashamed I vowed to myself that I would never allow that to happen again. I also remember another time when I worked in a warehouse and we were given forklift truck training. I was utterly hopeless, I just couldn’t do it. So I was never going to drive. Then when I began training for the ministry it became apparent that I had to learn in order to minister, to become who I am supposed to be. So I did.

Driving did not come naturally to me. I remember the instructor telling me that it would take time with me. I remember him saying “you are a thinker. I get some young men who just do it naturally, but you are a thinker, you analyse everything.” I did, every time I made a mistake I would spend time working out why and then I would make many more.

It took me a long time to learn and each time I had a lesson I would dread it. I got a sickly feeling in my stomach. Prayer alone did not take this away. Instead what took it away was walking and connecting and become one with life around me. Something that would come as I walked and connected to the people and geese in Platt Fields Park. It took my mind off my mind and helped me become more at one with what I was doing.

That said it didn’t help on the day I took my second test. I had failed the first time and the second time I was more nervous. I had to pass, my ministry was starting in two weeks time. I was putting intense pressure on myself. My left knee was shaking and it affected me. I made a minor error immediately. The examiner must have been in a good mood as he asked me to stop. He then said when ready I was to pull off. I checked properly and saw a car pulling out behind me, so I stopped and prepared. The car though pulled up next to me. I looked across and saw a car full of pensioners. One was waving at me to wind my window down. I looked at the instructor and he said to me “Tell them you are on your driving test and that you can’t talk”. I wound down my window, but before I could speak the woman said “Can you tell me the way to Manchester Royal Infirmary please?” I looked at the examiner and he repeated Tell them you are on your driving test and that you can’t talk.” I did to which the woman repeated “Can you tell me the way to Manchester Royal Infirmary please.” I again looked at the examiner, who repeated. It went on and the next time he remained silent, they weren’t going. So I paused, worked out where I was and gave them directions. They then drove off and when it was safe I drove off and completed my test and passed. My mind was no longer on my mind I was at one with the clutch and the wheel, the car and the task at hand. I was not at war with anything, I was at one, I was complete. By getting out of my mind I was better able to become what I was doing and to do so successfully.

Learning how to drive was the hardest part of my ministry training and yet it taught me more about how to live, serve and be. How to be whole and complete more than anything else I did in my time at college.

This brings to mind the following beautiful poem by Hafiz

“Each Soul Completes Me”

My
Beloved said,

"My name is not complete without
yours."

I thought:
How could a human's worth ever be such?

And God knowing all our thoughts — and all our
thoughts are innocent steps on the path —
then addressed my
heart,

God revealed
a sublime truth to the world,
when He
sang,

"I am made whole by your life. Each soul,
each soul completes
me."

We are never truly whole, complete, unless we are at one with ourselves, one another, life and whatever it is that we believe is the power that permeates all life. We can never truly become ourselves alone. This is why true community is so vital to the spiritual life. We need right relationship to become wholly who we are. To me this is the purpose of the free spiritual communities I serve. Yes it’s about becoming who we truly are, but this cannot be done in isolation. This is the purpose of free religion. It allows the birth of the true spirit in each of us, but no one can completely give birth to themself, by them self. To repeat those words of Mark Nepo: “It is a great paradox of being that each of us is born complete and yet we need contact with life in order to be whole. Somehow we need each other to know that completeness, though we are never finished in that journey.”

There is no end to any of this...We live in the thresholds of life...Becoming whole is just the beginning of the true journey...To where? Well God only knows...I certainly don't...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Restraint of Pen, tongue, fingers and thumb

"There is a Hasidic story about a town gossip. This fellow thoughtlessly told and retold stories about others that brought them shame. The town's rabbi met with the man and confronted him with his words. The man was stunned. He had no idea he was spreading such hurt. He broke into tears and begged the rabbi for help. 'There must be something I can do to atone for the wickedness I have done.'

"The rabbi instructed the man to take four pillows out into a field. Once there he was to slice open each pillow with a knife and shake its feathers into the wind. The man thanked the rabbi and rushed off to do as he was told. He purchased four fine feather pillows and cut them open in the field, watching as the feathers scattered in every direction.

"He returned to the rabbi to let him know he had completed his penance. 'Not quite,' said the rabbi. 'Now go back to the field and retrieve the feathers.'

“'But that is impossible,' said the man. 'The winds have taken them everywhere.'

" 'It is the same with your words,' the rabbi said gravely. 'Just as you cannot retrieve the feathers once spilled, so you cannot withdraw words once spoken. No matter how sincerely you desire to undo what you have done, the harm caused by thoughtless speech cannot be rectified.' "

To Practice: Monitor your words so that they do not set in motion harmful things. And when they do, ask for forgiveness.

From “Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity” by Rami Shapiro

I wonder how many times I’ve said the wrong thing and lived to regret it? Sometimes immediately and sometimes later as I have realised that what I have said was wrong or perhaps worse hurtful?

There is a wonderful phrase in recovery circles, I recently saw reference to it on the cover of a magazine at a friend’s house. The phrase is “Restraint of tongue and pen”. It comes from an essay on the 10th step of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 10th step reads “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Here is the extract that includes the phrase:

“Nothing pays off like restraint of tongue and pen. We must avoid quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven arguments. The same goes for sulking or silent scorn. These are emotional booby traps baited with pride and vengefulness. Our first job is to sidestep the traps. When we are tempted by the bait, we should train ourselves to step back and think. For we can neither think nor act to good purpose until the habit of self-restraint has become automatic. -pg. 91, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

These days when I say or do the wrong thing I tend to admit it quickly and try to put right what is wrong. That said sometimes it is still too late, the damage is done and some people just won’t forgive, my all too human frailties. As the Rabbi taught in the earlier story:

" 'It is the same with your words,' the rabbi said gravely. 'Just as you cannot retrieve the feathers once spilled, so you cannot withdraw words once spoken. No matter how sincerely you desire to undo what you have done, the harm caused by thoughtless speech cannot be rectified.' "

Mostly I practise restraint of pen, tongue, fingers and thumb these days, fingers and thumb refers to comments on social media. I don’t always get it right though. Sometimes I fail to pause and respond from self-centred fear. When I do there is usually a price to pay.

That said when I am wrong I do admit and usually promptly these days. This, I have come to believe, is a sign of spiritual maturity. The spiritual immature cannot admit fault, they cannot appear weak, and they cannot lose face. We see examples of this constantly. I suspect that most of us have witnessed this several time in recent months, particularly the last week or so and from the most powerful man on the planet, who would rather bully and harass than admit that he may just well have made a human error. Apparently apology is a sign of weakness. Nonesense. Apology is a sign of strength and faith in life itself.

I know well the damage that such behaviour can bring as I was brought up by such a man. These days I just smile at such memories but I do remember well the pain of fearing to disagree especially if I came across as clever or insolent.

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by all kinds of opinion, from many sources of media. It comes at us from all directions. Not just the radio, television and press, but many forms of social media too. That said not only are we bombarded by news outlets but also a million and one opinions, often formed from that fear based reptilian mind that we all possess.

Just think about how we take in and respond to the constant bombardment of news, always bad news stirring up fear and separation, from all sides. Now in days gone by most people would just shout at the television or radio, nowadays though people respond through social media and often the responses are not thought out at all, they can be quite viscious. Yes it’s not just restraint of pen and tongue we need these days, its more restraint of fingers and thumb. Once said those feathers are spread all over the world.

This is why it is so important to pause in life, to take stock and to sit in silence. This is not easy in a world that demands our attention and instant response, in a world that is terrified of silence. Yet silence is so vital, it is said it is golden, it is also true humility. It is ok to have nothing to say, to just bear witness to life, whatever is happening. There are at least five occasions in my immensely busy week where I humble myself in silence with other people and many occasions when I pause and humble myself in silence when I am all alone. I pause in silence many times each day.

The problem is that so many of us are talking and not enough of us are listening. It is another sign of our modern hubris, our view that we are all knowing and all powerful, when the truth is we are finite human beings, with our all too human failings, whatever happened to true humility…The recognition of our human finiteness.

Silence though frightens us. How often in life do we have to fill the space we are in with noise, even if it just senseless babble? I remember as a young man how much I treasured the sanctuary of silence I would love to wander off alone in my own silent protective bubble, this though faded as I entered into adulthood. By the time I was in my late twenties I could not even sleep without the radio on. These days silence and space is once again a dear treasure.

Before breaking silence, before filling it with noise, with our words, we really ought to check ourselves, so as not to cast those feathers. But how do we do this? Well there is a test that has been around for a long time. It is referred to as the “Three Fold Test” for right speech. According to this test there are three things that we ought to ask ourselves before speaking:

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Apparently It dates back to 1835 and a poem by Beth Day, titled “Three Gates of Gold”.

"Three Gates of Gold" by Beth Day

If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

Now no doubt this poem was influenced by an old Sufi tradition which suggests that we should only speak after our words have managed to pass through four gates.

At the first gate we should ask ourselves “Are these words true?” If so then we let them pass through; if not, then back they must go. At the second gate we ask; “Are these words necessary?” At the third we ask; “Are these words beneficial?” At the fourth gate we ask, “Are they kind?” If we answer no to any of these questions, then what we are about to say ought to be left unsaid.

Luminaries from Sai Baba to Eleanor Roosevelt have offered variations on the same theme over the years “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary”. There is also the “Triple Filter Test”, usually attributed to Socrates which asked if it is “true, good or useful.”

Right speech seems so be central to all traditions. I suspect that this is because of our own too human capacity to put our foot in in...

Right Speech is central to both Christian and Buddhist morality.

“Samma Vaca” is the third aspect of “The Noble Eightfold Path”, in Buddhism. It is basically abstinence from gossip, slander, lying, maliciousness and hate speech. So to speak wisely or rightly is to do so truthfully with kindness, purpose and meaning.

There are many passage in both the Old and New Testament that refer to “Right Speech. Many preachers in the Christian tradition will offer the following words from Psalm 19 before preaching a sermon “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God." In the New Testament the book of James makes reference to how a person should use their mouth “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

The Sufi, Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as other ancient and contemporary ones are saying similar things about how we ought to conduct ourselves with our brothers and sisters. They are saying how damaging wrong speech can be to both our neighbours and ourselves, you sense the essence of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” running through them all in they way that they teach about right speech.

How we communicate is so important. We may not have control over what goes on in the world all around us, but how we act towards others really matters. We need to be mindful in how we speak because what we say and do and what we do not say and do not do has an impact on all around us. As the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything good to say then its best to probably keep your mouth shut.

It is ok to have nothing to say. It’s ok to not have answer to the question of others. It might not be your question, it might be there’s. Give up on other people’s questions, ask your own.


Words have the power to cause the utmost damage. That said they also have the power to heal. A word rightly spoken can also heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love, another example of that chaos theory of compassion.

The key is to give words their proper respect. They say a person ought to be judged by their deeds and not their words, but I see words as deeds myself. The action of our tongues can have a much bigger impact than those of our hands, unless of course it is our hands with which we are speaking.

I jnow I need to keep on practising restraint of pen, tongue, fingers and thumb.

When we are about to speak we need to ask ourselves.

Is it kind?

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

If what we are about to say fails this test, then it probably best to remain silent. That said, if we do speak and say the wrong thing then the mature thing to do would be to apologise immediately. Apology is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of strength and spiritual maturity.

So may what we say be kind, true, and necessary. And when we are not, lets us be humble enough to recognise this and make amends quickly. In so doing we may just be able to catch one or two of those feathers.

“Patience and Silence” by Charles A Gaines

How quiet it is when we have the patience to be silent
How much we can learn in moments like these.
We can learn to have patience with ourselves,
to better understand and like who and what
we are.
We can learn to have patience with others,
to better listen to what they say and how they
feel.
We can learn to have patience with life,
to better work with it, rather than against it.
How much do we need silence:
Silence for truth so that we may learn wisdom.
Silence for wisdom so that we may love,
Silence for love so that we may be just,
Silence for justice so that we may live fully.
May we be more patient and more silent,
so that we may proceed with courage and
compassion.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Oz or Some Other Place

One of my favourite places on earth is Crosby Beach. What I love are those 100 identical sculpture’s that go by the title “Another place”. There they stand staring out to sea, perhaps looking for another place, any place but here. These naked, lonely scarecrows staring out into the great big nothing, dreaming of another place. Have you ever felt like that? I have. I have stood there staring out to sea so many times dreaming of something other than the life I was living.

There was a pinky orange glow to everything, not just the sky, on Monday morning. I heard people describing it in many different ways, one friend called it a “Vanilla Sky”, a mystical, mysterious sky, pointing to some kind of otherness. Some folk didn’t like it, I know it disturbed them, change can do that to people. The strange sky somehow tapped into the fear of the unknown that is inside each of us.

Now don’t they say “Red sky at night, shepherds delight, red sky in the morning seaman’s warning?/ I suspect that the mysterious sky was a fore warning of Hurricane Ophelia that was coming in from the Atlantic. There have been some terrible destruction caused by such winds on the other side of the Atlantic this year, there was in Ireland on Monday. Are there more storms these days than in the past? There may well be. Or is it that we just hear more about them these days? Is the news of the destructive winds merely a symptom of the fear based global news state that we currently live in? I suspect it is not an either or question, but that both are true.

On Monday as I took in the strange tint of the atmosphere I too dreamt of another place, I too became like one of those Gormley statues. I dreamt of another place, but not for long as I soon entered into the day, I felt at home in my own body and at home in the ground I found myself. As I walked through the streets of Altrincham that morning I realised I was not like those cold lifeless statues; I realised I was not a brainless scarecrow, or a heartless woodman or even a cowardly lion. As I walked through the streets words began to filter into my mind of someone else who dreamed of another place, but who too learnt to find that their treasure was found at home and not some technicolour dreamland.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney top
That's where you'll find me

Oh, somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
And the dream that you dare to,
Oh why, oh why can't I?



Dangerous words those sung by Dorothy in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”, for did they not bring the Tornado. In fact the sky that Monday morning reminded me somewhat of her Kansas sky. Dorothy dreamed of another place somewhere over the rainbow, a place away from dull, grey, flat Kansas. Is there another place that we dream about, that we Hope for, a Heaven, a Nirvana. Who knows, I don’t. Either way I do not believe that we are meant to live our lives dreaming of another place, a place beyond this life. Our task, I have come to believe is to create heaven here and it begins within each and everyone of us. I much prefer to follow that simple message in the  “Sermon on the Mount” and become the light of the world. To create the Kingdom here and now.

We bring heaven alive through our loving living or we create Hell by fearing one another, fearing life, turning away and dreaming of some other place, somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere beyond this life.

That said it is so human to dream of some other place, way over there, somewhere over the rainbow, like those Gormly statues. Sometimes to appreciate what we have, what is our heaven, we have to go away or even almost lose what we have. The Holocaust survivor Eli Weisel said of gratitude, that it was a gift of the night. It was not something that came from the good things we have in life, instead it comes almost as a sense of relief as we step outside of a living hell. Finally by almost losing everything, certainly what is dearest to our hearts, we learn to want what we have.

Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" is a wonderful example of learning to want what you have, to find the realm of love within, where ever you are. Her journey is an archetype of the spiritual quest; her journey symbolises a movement towards self-actualisation, whole-ness, atonement, at-one-ment, holiness; her journey symbolises what it means to return, to remember, to become who you are; her journey symbolises re-birth. It is important to realise that the word conversion comes from the Latin “Convertere” which meant to turn, or to return, that is what re-birth means, something that can happen a thousand times or none at all in a person’s life. Re-birth is of course never the end, it’s a new beginning.

All the great stories, especially the journeys of the heroes within them, share much in common. Dorothy is an archetype of what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey”, just like Jesus, the Buddha, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Hercules, Arthur, Jack and the Beanstalk and countless others throughout human history.

Dorothy shares many similarities with Jesus in the Gospel accounts. Both had questionable parentage; began life as very ordinary people; had to escape danger when very young; travelled a path that was laid out for them with an end that could not be avoided; battled many forms of evil and power; found imperfect companions who joined them on the way and who fled when trouble hit; travelled through wilderness; found a hidden power deep within that helped them transcend their experiences; eventually returned home leaving behind those same companions; finally they both took a stand for what is right and just, they stood against power. You will see similar characteristics in all the heroes of human mythos.

That said I suspect the characteristic that stands out about Dorothy, more than any other, is her desire to return home, how she learnt that this is where she belonged, that this was her hearts desire, rather than her dreams of some distant Nirvana, or Heaven or Oz. I suspect she is not alone. You see the true spiritual quest is to uncover the beauty where we find ourselves and to bring the love deep within alive in our lives. I believe that the spiritual journey is about learning to be at home, to create heaven here on earth, to bring the love alive in our lives, Dorothy says towards the end of the film that she was looking for her heart’s desire. Isn’t that what we are all looking for, our hearts desires? Isn’t this the spiritual journey, what Joseph Campbell called “Following Your Bliss”

Most folk begin their spiritual quest just like Dorothy did hoping, longing, desiring something more, but her desire like so much desire is aimless, a road to nowhere. So Glenda (The Good Witch) suggests that the best place to start is at the beginning, or what David Whyte describes as “Close in, with the first step”. Dorothy’s journey begins with the yellow brick road. This is the road that leads us home.

No path is ever straight. Dorothy on her journey met all kinds of people, each representing aspects of both the inner and outer life. The most obvious are the three that travel with Dorothy: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. These three were seeking brains, a heart and courage. Now don’t we all need our brains, our hearts, and to keep our nerves on our journeys? For after all isn’t it true that to live spiritually alive is to feel with all our heart, to use our minds thoughtfully and to act courageously. The spiritual life is about using our minds compassionately so that we can give our whole selves to life, in love and service for all.

The three main characters who join with Dorothy believe that they are lacking something, this is why they join her on her journey. Remember also that Dorothy misses home, something she rejected. She left home in the first place because she felt that something was missing. She ran away following some aimless desire. Now she’s in Oz though she has found an aim, to get home. In order to do so she has to find the wizard. Now don’t we all fall for the fools gold of finding a wizard or some other shinning thing that will fix our problem? Don’t we all look for answers outside of ourselves? Don’t we all miss the treasure deep within?

The four companions do eventually find the Wizard, as they arrive at the Emerald City. They ask the Wizard to give to them what they believe they lack. This he promises to do if they would kill the "Wicked Witch" and bring to him her broomstick, a task which he believes is beyond them. But of course they succeed and return to the Emerald City expecting their reward.

Despite doing all that was asked of them, the Wizard disappoints them. During a frantic scene Toto pulls back the curtain revealing the truth about the Wizard. It had all been a case of smoke and mirrors he is an ordinary man, with no magic powers. Dorothy tells him that he is a very bad man. To which he replies "Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man, but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit."

A disappointing end it would seem, there was nothing there at the end of the rainbow. But is this true? Let’s look a little more closely.

The scarecrow did indeed find his wonderful brains; the tin man did indeed find his lovely heart; the lion no longer lived as a coward. And in the end Dorothy did find her way back to Kansas as she clicked her ruby slippers and recounted the chant...“there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” She got her heart’s desire, she discovered her bliss.

Surely this is the lesson from this beautiful tale. Wherever we journey, however we get there and whatever it leads to in the end the real purpose is to uncover that pot of gold that we already have within each and every one of us. Hopefully by uncovering our own pots of gold we will help others to do likewise.

Surely this is the purpose of free religious communities. To help one another uncover our pots of gold and to let them shine.

Surely this is the purpose of the spiritual life, to learn to be at home wherever we find ourselves and to help others to do the same.

You see the truth is that Kingdom of God is already here, we just need to let it shine out of us; we just need to learn to become the light of the world; we just need to learn to follow our bliss.

So let’s stop dreaming of some other place, let’s learn instead to be at home, here now, lets learn to let out our heart’s desires and become the light of the world, the ones that we have all been waiting for.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

From Sincerity to Authenticity

“We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.

When we hesitate in being direct, we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.

It’s like wearing gloves every time we touch something, and then, forgetting we chose to put them on, we complain that nothing feels quite real. Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold and the car handle feels wet and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being, soft and unrepeatable.”

From "The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want By Being Present to the Life You Have"

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks; we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

Parker J Palmer from “Let Your Life Speak”

The greatest danger to living the authentic life, to living with sincerity and integrity is what I think I know; what I think I know about myself, others, life and the spirit that is at the core of all being, that I call God.

With this in mind each morning as I awake, as I begin my morning devotion and open myself in humility, I say a few words of prayer asking that I can lay aside whatever I think I know. I lay myself open to the mystery at the core of life and ask that whatever I believe I know about the four realms of existence does not become a barrier to new experiences. The four realms as I understand them today are of the mind, the body, the heart and the spirit. As a result I am finding new truth being revealed to me constantly; as a result I am finding myself less inhibited by my own self-created fears and the fears created by others that they can attempt to pass on to me.

How many times in life are we held back not only by our own fears, but by taking on board the fears of others.

“Keep it real” it’s a phrase you hear quite a lot these days. It’s about being authentic, living with integrity. Some people go to extremes to prove the realness of who they are. It seems to me that if you feel the need to prove it, then in some sense you are not being real at all, that you are not living with integrity as you feel the need to seek the approval of others.

I remember many years ago the tragic Richey Edwards, second guitarist and lyricist from the Manic Street Preachers, infamously carving the phrase “4 Real” onto his arm in an attempt to prove to “The NME” that they were who they claimed to be. A few years later he disappeared, presumed dead by his own hand. A sad end for such a talented young man.

How many other people have been destroyed by this need to be seen as authentic to others, how many of us have found ourselves standing their naked seduced by the delusion that is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?


In this age of “Fake News” it is hard to discern what is real. Who and what do we trust? There seems to be little or no sincerity and integrity in life. Dishonesty it seems is not only acceptable, but kind of expected today. This saddens me.

We see this obviously in politics and in the spoken and written news. We also see it very clearly in sport. The Olympic spirit is gone. As money and ratings have become the God that such people worship, the idea of integrity as all but died out. The last Olympics Games was shrouded in questions about drug cheats, no one trusts cyclists. Even in cricket no one trusts the batsmen and fielders any longer. Perhaps the only sport where such integrity exists is in golf where it is still highly regarded.

Does sincerity exist any longer? Is integrity dead?

I recently attended the funeral of my “Auntie Josephine”. Josephine was my dad’s cousin, she had no children of her own. As a result she would take me and my siblings for birthday treats when we were children. Sadly over the last few she has lost who she was through dementia. At her funeral one of the readings was taken from John’s Gospel Ch 14 vv 1 – 7. After the service I was talking with Josephine’s brother my uncle Billy who said about the reading something like “I don’t go for much scripture, but those words speak powerfully to me.” They describe both his and many people’s faith. The service was held in my dad’s side of the family’s church, St Francis of Assisi’s Roman Catholic Church, Morley West Yorkshire. A place I spent many Sunday’s at as a child and one I occasionally attend for family weddings and funerals these days. During the funeral Mass the priest offered communion or to those who are not Catholic a blessing. I went forward for a blessing, as mark of respect to my family and to the occasion even if I do not believe as they do. After the service several friends of the family had also gone forward, but they had offered themselves for communion at which the priest asked them if they were Catholic, they were not they were Anglicans and thus he indicated he could only offer a blessing. They were upset by this and asked me afterwards why it was? Gosh why do I always get these questions, perils of the job I suppose? The truth is that the priest was acting with integrity with regards to his own beliefs. Whether I or others agree with him, is not the real question he was acting with integrity with regards to his own beliefs. I for one respect him for that.

I see faith and life through very different eyes. I am a Universalist in every sense of the word, but I would not expect someone else to subscribe to my truth if they didn’t look at life through the same kaleidoscopic lens.

Whatever we believe about life, ourselves, the world and whatever we believe about what is at the core of it all it is vital that we are sincere about it, whilst also respecting that others will come to various conclusions. It is not enough to simply tolerate that there are different truths, to me that still sounds somewhat judgemental, tolerance is not enough. I for one want to celebrate the difference and to lay myself open to the truths of others. I never want to become a slave to what I think I know.

Sincerity is no easy thing. It is not easy being sincere about who we are, to show the world as we are, to live as we truly are “warts and all and beauty spots too.”

There is a phrase I often here in spiritual communities that irritates me. It is used as an attempt to get people started but to me I find it not only unhelpful but in the long term quite damaging. The phrase goes something like “You’ve got to fake it to make it.” I have found the opposite to be true. In my experience if you attempt to fake it you will never make it. I suspect that the most unspiritual thing a person can be is insincere.

If you attempt to fake it you won't truly make it...just because it rhymes it doesn't make it real...

The key is authenticity, being real, being honest, living by faithful uncertainty...giving it an honesty go.

Now “Sincerity” is a fascinating word and anyone who knows me will know I love etymology. Well there is a disputed theory about the Etymology of the word “Sincere.” One theory suggest that it is rooted in Latin and that it literally meant "without wax"

It is said that during the Renaissance, in Italy, sculptures were in plentiful supply & stones were sold everywhere. It seems that not all stone sellers were honest & some of the stones they sold were imperfect, they had cracks which were filled with wax. They tried to sell these stones as flawless when in fact the cracks were filled in with wax. So an honest stone seller became one who was “sin cere”, without wax who sold his stones revealing the cracks.

For me the spiritual life has to be the same. There are cracks in my belief, but it is honest. Each day I turn in faithful uncertainty and experience toward a life I never dreamed possible. I do so honestly, with integrity in humility which I have found leads to a greater openness.

Is sincerity enough though? John O’Donohue suggests otherwise, he believed that what we really needed was authenricity. That is what it means to be real. To live with our cracks fully exposed and open to life. That it is this that allows us to truly feel life, to live without our gloves on. He stated that:

“Another way to approach this is to look at the huge difference between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity, while it's lovely, is necessary but insufficient, because you can be sincere with just one zone of your heart awakened. When many zones of the heart are awakened and harmonized we can speak of authenticity, which is a broader and more complex notion. It takes great courage and grace to feel the call to awaken, and it takes greater courage and more grace still to actually submit to the call, to risk yourself into these interior spaces where there is very often little protection. It takes a great person to creatively inhabit her own mind and not turn her mind into a destructive force that can ransack her life.”

It seems to me that live with authenticity is to be truly open in all four aspects of humanity, the four realms of being, mind, body, heart and spirit. I suspect it’s about truly being who you are.

Forrest Church suggested that to “be who you are” is perhaps the hardest task of all. To be who you are is to not "fake your existence." He claimed "each of us is unique, with unique flaws and gifts. The world doesn’t owe us a living; we owe the world a living, our very own." The key is to answer your own calling, going on to say "To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects. In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren’t, we fail to become who we are."

It seems to me that to live with sincerity, with authenticity is to truly be who you are. Do you know what our world needs us to live authentically; it needs us to be truly who we are, warts and all and beauty spots too. It needs us to be unafraid to revel our cracks, because in so doing we encourage others to be who they are. We need to expose who we truly are to give ourselves fully away to life and thus encourage others to do the same. In so doing we may just begin to create that kin-ship of love right here, right now…

So let’s keep it real, let’s be who we are, let us be unafraid to live the sincere life, to show our cracks, let us live with authenticity…For our world needs us to be...

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Threads

I recently spent a week at Summer School, serving as minister of the week. Now one of the traditions that has developed there over the years are the knitting circles. There is always a group of knitters, working away throughout the week. They even have a "knitting policy" and guidelines for knitters who wish to practice while listening to the theme talks. Some people find the knitters a little distracting.

A few years ago when I attended Summer School it seemed like they had taken over the place, everyone was knitting. There was a charitable project going so it was for a very good reason. I remember at the time saying “You’d never get me knitting” In fact I said “The only time you’d see me knitting is if Bill Darlison did." Now I thought Bill was my friend. Well he set me up good and proper because on the last day they got him to pose for a picture with needles and yarn in his hands and lap. It brought a great deal of laughter, but did not lead me to pick up the needles.

This year there was a group of three knitters that particularly caught my attention. They were always together, it seemed strange to see one without the others. In a odd way they kind of held the week together, a bit like the rug in the film “The Big Lebowski”. They were one of the many stabilising and creative threads that weaved their way through the week. All were needed.

While I was away at Summer School I began to weave a new thread into my attempt to live the four aspects, “The Four Realms”, of my human being more fully. “The Four Realms” are mind, body, heart and spirit. Each morning, before breakfast we were offered the opportunity to be led in either meditation or yoga. I went to meditation the first morning, but after that I decided to give yoga a go. I’d been considering it for a few months, but hadn’t taken the plunge. Well it seems I’m hooked and since I got back I’ve been following a teaching on line every morning, on awakening, after a short time in prayer and meditation. It is a new thread that is helping to weave together the four aspects, realms, dimensions, of my human being. As I have been practising I have felt the thread that runs through my being both lengthening and strengthening.

Ever since I returned from Summers School I’ve been thinking about the many threads that make up my life and the web of creation, made of infinite threads that both holds and creates all life.

In many of the human traditions there are enumerable web and weaving mythos’. The stories describe a creature or perhaps spirit that guides human beings through life, that runs through all of life and holds life together. I have come to believe that we each of us have this very same thread in us, in fact maybe we as individuals are one thread on the universal web of all life, that without our thread and every other thread the web would not exist. The web is what creates, holds and sustains us, but at the same time we create the very same web of existence. Many of the great stories of the ancient traditions speak of this. In the Christian tradition I always think of the Kingdom of God, as being an example of this. You see the Kingdom is not some place we wish to arrive at some day, but something we build or maybe weave right here, right now. We are the builders, we are weavers or we are the destroyers of the web, the kingdom or as I prefer to call it these days, the “kin-dom”.

Now in many traditions there is the mythos of “The Spirit’s Thread” You will find it in the Navajo tradition, and in traditions found in Alaska and Japan. By the way there may be good reason for this, as studies of migrational history suggest that all three peoples’s originate from a tribe that dispersed from Siberia. Both Navajo and the Japanese traditions share a reverence for the larger interconnected net that holds all of life together, the web of life.

In “The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live An Authentic Life” Mark Nepo writes of this. He states:

“The Navajo honor this connection in everything they do. Even when weaving rugs to lie on the earth, the Navajo worldview is present. For somewhere in each rug there is always a single thread that connects the inner weavings to the outer weavings. This affirms a spiritual law which says that if we are to know health, if we are to experience the mystery of being whole, if we are to know joy, there has to be a thread or inlet that allows what lives within out and which allows what lives without in. Indeed, only if in and out are allowed to inform each other can we live in the mystery and strength of the Great Spirit.

This is the Spirit's Thread, which love makes visible. It exists in everything. The thread of Spirit - there in the rock and the rose and the dark heart waiting to be known. And in order to befriend the Whole, in order to stay in relationship with all that is larger than us, we are invited to care for our Spirit's Thread. We are invited to honor the Spirit's Thread in everything, so the light hidden in the rock sand the blood hidden in the rose might help revive our dark and waiting heart.

So, what does the Spirit's Thread mean, then, in a daily way? I think this beautiful notion implies that we are called to care for the small, thin thing that lives in each of us, that connects who we are to the world. We can understand that small passageway as our breath, our heart, or openness of mind. It is the vital tether by which we can tremble in awe at the infinite power and gentleness of life.”

It is vital that we take care of this thread that is our life, body, mind, heart and soul and that we continue to weave into the web of all existence. That we fully play our part in creating and recreating the web. For if we do not we will not be playing our part in the whole and we will feel disconnected, no longer a part of the whole.

Now at times our thread may become a little threadbare, an aspect may become weakened. When this happens we need to take stock and perhaps do what is required to fix our thread or perhaps do more work to repair the damaged whole.

Now the web does not only exist in the present moment. It began to be weaved at the beginning of time and will continue on into eternity, when we are long gone. That said we have played our role in co-creating the whole. As our ancestors did, those who came before us. As I look back at my own life I can see a kind of personal tapestry being weaved and not by myself alone. I did not create this wholly alone, so many other lives have weaved their way into my life and helped create who I am, just as I have weaved my way into the lives of others. There is no neutrality in life, everything is connected. Everything that we do and do not do matters. Every thought, every word, every feeling. It matters for we are all part of the great interconnected whole.

Now for me the main purpose of spiritual community is to aid and encourage both the repair and enhancing of our individual threads while also creating, repairing and beautifying the whole. This is what Rev Dr Martin Luther King called “Beloved Community”, the Kingdom of God right here right now. This is the kind of faith community that is based around responsibility in humility. Not one that expects God to do the weaving alone but for each individual to bring their uniquely beautiful thread and weave it into community, turning up, entering into relationship willingly, learning how to weave their individual gifts to make the most of the whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts. To me this is true religion. Religion comes from the word religiere which meant to bind together and create more than could be done alone with the individual parts. Our single threads, no matter how well developed, no matter how powerful and beautiful can achieve very little alone, in fact they are pretty useless and certainly lonely on their own. This is the greatest problem of spirituality without community, in truth it doesn’t really work. Yet each individual thread weaved into the whole, playing its part, can create something way more beautiful than any of us could ever have imagined.

We are here for a purpose, there is a mighty meaning to our lives. Our lives and the lives of all depend on us taking care of the threads that make up our individual lives and the weaving of our threads as deeply as we can into the web of all existence. As we look at ourselves, our families, our communites, our world, no doubt we can see may tears in the web of existence, tears that won’t heal themselves. It is our task to repair the damage by weaving our threads together. In so doing we not only repair the whole, but we also beautify and strengthen our own threads. In so doing we will begin to create the “Kin-dom of Love” right here right now, we become the “Beloved Community”, we become the ones we have all been waiting for.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Why is it so hard to speak of Joy?

I was recently given the honour of serving as minister of week at Summer School. The subject of the week was seeking joy in life despite its many real troubles. It got me thinking about Joy. What Joy might be and how to articulate it.

Joy is a characteristic of faith in life itself; faith in the joy of living, in all its mystery. Joy is the universal aspect of living life fully. It’s about spending our time in “thick” space, a life deep and rich in meaning. It is not the same as happiness, pleasure or fun. Joy is not about the material circumstances of our lives. Perhaps the true measure of joy is the experience of it, even in the most difficult of times, without guilt or apology. Joy is a deeply held spiritual quality, it exists beneath feelings and emotions. It is a quality that is always open to us, although not necessarily realised. Why you may well ask? Well because too often we are afraid to live by and through it, to reach out for it for fear of not achieving it and living in disappointment. I know disappointment every day and I know and experience what it means to live in and through joy. Or perhaps the reason we don’t know joy is because we are too afraid to let go of control and let life have its way, because deep down we do not have faith in life itself. The essence of joy is faith, faith in life itself, that there is a goodness, a Divine goodness at the core of life…

Here is an example of Joy in this sense by Unitarian Universalist minister Carl Scovel. He named the heart of his faith “The Great Surmise”

"The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate-not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order, nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. . . Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness. "Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict-not even survival-is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy."

I have come to believe that Joy is the essence and the energy of life and yet we find it so hard to speak of. Why do we find it so hard to speak of joy?

Well for some it hasn't been so hard. Here is another example.

Rabindranath Tagore wrote…

“Joy is everywhere; it is in the earth’s green covering of grass; in the blue serenity of the sky; in the reckless exuberance of spring; in the severe abstinence of grey winter; in the living flesh that animates our bodily frame; in the perfect poise of the human figure, noble and upright; in living; in the exercise of all our powers; in the acquisition of knowledge; in fighting evils; in dying for gains we never can share. Joy is there everywhere.”

“Joy is there everywhere.” Do you believe this? What does your life teach you? What energises you? How do you feel when you are around a person filled with joy, en-joying life, en-joying who they are, singing the joy of living in all its mystery? What do you do when you are around such a person? I do hope you never try to clip their wings, to put them off being who they truly are, learning to fly free. I hope you never try to enslave them by the dangers of living with too much safety. In fact if you are going to be cautious about anything in life, it ought to safety. Be very careful about playing it safe, for it won’t guard you against the dangers of life, it will only strangle the joys of living, in all its mystery.

I was recently sat with friends enjoying coffee and chatting after sharing an hour together in meditation and deep conversation. We meet twice weekly at seven am and then some of us go off and continue the conversation in a local coffee shop. We are quite a shocking group to the locals and staff, due to the volume of laughter that rings out from us. Don’t get me wrong we speak seriously about many things, but we also know the joy of living. Anyway after an hour I declared “it’s time I moved” and got up to go for a gym session. Before I left I was asked how often I went and how long I spend at the gym. I said I go five times a week for between one and a half and two hours. Then followed the often heard comments about being too obsessive and not over doing it. I said little in response and just got up enthusiastically to get on with my session. Yes it’s tough and challenging, but I do enjoy how it is transforming my body and allowing me to be all I can be. I’ve never felt more alive.

All my life I’ve experienced people who have tried to curb my enthusiasm. It used to work as I allowed fear to inhibit my natural experience of joy, I didn’t want others to think I was a weirdo or nuts. By the way it worked for it sucked all the joy out of living as I suppressed my true human nature. People still try today but I know that it is more about their fear than anything I am doing or not doing. These days I always respectfully listen to others, but I do not take on board their fears and negativity. I would rather listen to the voice of joy and possibility deep within me; I prefer to live from a place of faith in life and not fear. Ever since I rediscovered faith in life itself, I have found the courage to be.

Now to live in joy, to have faith in life is not easy, it is even harder to describe. It is far easier to talk about pain and suffering, to talk about despair. Just enter any academic environment or follow social media or the daily news. People find it far easier to talk about their pain, than their joy.

Henri Nouwen observed that anxiety and suffering are far more easily expressed than joy. He wrote:

"I vividly remember how one of my university teachers spoke for a whole year about anxiety in human life. He discussed in great detail the thoughts of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus and gave an impressive exposé of the anatomy of fear. One day, during the last month of the course, a few students found the courage to interrupt him and ask him to speak a little about joy before the course was over. At first he was taken aback. But then he promised to give it a try. The next class he started hesitantly to speak about joy. His words sounded less convincing and penetrating than when he spoke about anxiety and fear. Finally, after two more meetings, he told us that he had run out of ideas about joy and would continue his interrupted train of thought. This event made a deep impression on me, especially since I had such great admiration for my teacher. I kept asking myself why he was unable to teach about joy as eloquently as he had taught about anxiety.

It’s a good question, “why is it so much easier to speak about anxiety than joy?" We have no trouble describing our sadness, what is wrong, what sickens us as individuals and as a society. Nouwen observed there are far “more words for sickness than for health, more for abnormal conditions than for normal conditions. When my leg hurts, my head aches, my eyes burn, or my heart stings, I talk about it, often in elaborate ways, but when I am perfectly healthy I have little, if anything, to say about those parts of my body.”

Think about the word resentment. It comes from resentere which literally means to re-feel something. Now when we re-feel something a memory from our past life it doesn’t have to be a painful memory, something that makes us angry and yet the word resentment only has negative connotation. We do not have a word that means to re-feel something joyful. There is no specific word for this in the English language.

I have come to believe that one reason that we struggle to speak of joy is that it is not a surface experience, it is not of the body or the mind, it is more about the spirit. It is harder to make sense of and or control with our minds and our language. Now some may say the reason for this is that joy is an abnormal state, but I have come to believe that the truth is the opposite of this. Joy is actually the essence of life, what Scovel called the “Great Surmise”. We can’t tame joy, we can’t control it and perhaps this is why we fear and distrust it in ourselves and others so much.

Joy is linked closely to ecstasy, no not the party drug, but ecstasy in its true meaning. It is derived from the Greek 'ekstasis,' formed from 'ek,' meaning out, and 'stasis,' a state of standstill. So to be ecstatic literally means to be outside of a static place. It is a constantly moving state, not a rigid or fixed one. Joy is the same, it is always new, it is about life, it is about creation. Thus, those who live ecstatic lives are always moving away from rigidly fixed situations and exploring new, unmapped dimensions of reality. This is the essence of joy.

Joy is always new; it is about life; it is about creation; it’s about energy. Think about those joy filled moments you had when you were really free, maybe while dancing, singing, playing, creating, running free, at the birth of a child whatever that might be. When you were like a child.

Can you remember the last time you got giddy? I get giddy with those folks I share meditation and coffee with twice a week and other places too, often in the pulpit.

We need to get “giddy” with it. By doing so we may well just begin to experience the joy of living. By the way “giddy” is one of the words that has been reduced in meaning over time. In medieval times it used to mean being 'possessed by a god or spirit.' Now this was not considered to be a good thing as to be in such a state was considered to be a form of insanity, simplemindedness or to be some kind of religious fanatic. Religion has shied away from such expressions and feelings. We Unitarians have sadly been at the vanguard of this, distrusting emotion and worshipping rationality. We were once known as “God’s frozen people?” Not any longer I hope. Never fear who you are, your true nature.

I suspect that the reason it is easier to talk about the pain, what is wrong with life, our fear, rather than the joy of living has something to do with how we view the nature of ourselves and life itself. That there is something wrong with life, that there is something wrong with human nature, that at the core we are bad and its time we accepted this. I’m not convinced that this is so.

The first chapter of the book of Genesis talks about God looking at his creation and seeing it as good. But is life with all its ups and downs good? What about violence, war and senseless tragedies? What about germs, disease and famine? What about the pain of our families, our friends, our loved ones? Isn’t life more like what Thomas Hobbes described in “The Leviathan” “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. Is that what life is? Are we fallen and broken by nature, at war with ourselves and one another. We are told that the nature of life is competition, but is that correct? Recent biological research into the most basic life forms suggest that this is not so as even they have to cooperate in order to create, that this is in actual fact the energy of life. When we cooperate, work together in harmony, don’t we feel joyful? I know I do.

So something to consider. What is the nature and energy of life? Is joy the essence of life? Is it the energy that forms all life? Also how do we find ways to articulate and express this in ways that others can understand? I suspect that it might not be through the limit of words. Maybe we can’t tell, perhaps all we can do is show. So show it in all that you do and if you must, use words.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Exquisite Risk

I was recently sent a picture of myself with my two closest, in age at least, siblings. It was taken in 1977 at a fancy dress street party during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I was five years old at the time. In the picture I am dressed as Tarzan. The strange thing is though that I am standing bolt upright, like a soldier on duty. There is good reason for this. I was originally planning to go as “Action Man” (What American’s call GI Joe). I had spent the weeks before attempting to stand upright, as even at that age I was deeply self-conscious about physical problems I had and was constantly told to stand straught. As I looked at the picture I reflected on the pain and the shame I had at the time and the decades that followed. I also remembered how even at that young age I was already living a bubble of self-protection that would lead to so many problems later in life. It has taken me forty years to shed that skin, but as I write this little "blogspot" I believe I have done so. Many old ideas have drifted away over the years. I have lost so much skin that have been imprisoned in.

As a kid I was always considered overly sensitive, that I needed toughening up, to develop another layer of skin. For a long time I attempted to do so and of course it only made things worse as I attempted to be something I am not, to harden my heart. The truth is that all I needed to do was to learn not take things so personally and to allow my sensitivity to become perhaps my greatest asset. I no longer attempt to defend my heart, instead I just allow my heart to lighten my life and pour my love out. Today my sensitivity may well be my greatest asset, my treasure, it is certainly where my heart is

I regularly meet with several colleagues. We talk about ministry; we talk about where our own lives are at; we talk about our own spiritual development. One colleague often repeats the following words when we come together.

“I honour your gods
I drink at your well
I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place
I have no cherished outcome
I will not negotiate by withholding
I am not subject to disappointment”

Oddly these words come from traditional Celtic wedding vows. Hardly romantic, but perhaps they symbolise something deeper.

It is the line “I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place” that resonates with me the most. It is the key I believe to living the spiritual life, to live with an undefended an open heart. This can be extremely painful and difficult at times, but I have learnt how vital it is for me. When I close down or put on my suit of armour life soon loses its flavour. I suppose that this is why I’ve always struggled with the sentiment of Ephesians Ch6 vv 10-18, the passage commonly known as “God’s Armour”. I was recently at an Anglo Catholic church where I saw an image based around this passage. I remember thinking to myself “gosh that’s the last thing I would want.”

For me religion and spirituality are not about being at war or in conflict and the God of my limited understanding does not want me armour plaited. I know these kinds of images appeal to many and certainly to some of my own traditional Christians friends. Not to me though and it does seem in conflict with the message I find in the Gospels.

Increasingly for me the spiritual life is about “Living with an unarmoured heart”, easier said than done I know. It is the treasure though and wherever my treasure is I have come to believe that this is also where my heart is.

Just imagine what it might be like to live with an unarmoured or an undefended heart. We all have defence mechanism, things we do to protect ourselves from being hurt. I am sure we are all familiar with the fright and flight mechanism. There is another reaction that perhaps we are less familiar with, it is certainly one that is less talked about. I have come to call this the freeze mechanism. It is something I am very familiar with, for I have utilised it throughout my life. Basically when trouble strikes a frozen person appears to continue to function normally on the outside, but inside, emotionally at least, they shut down, they internally hibernate. It is something I have come to learn about myself in recent years and I see it others quite clearly at times, perhaps too clearly. When it happens to me my neck and shoulders become stiff, my throat dries up, the base of my skull seems to warm up, my skin tightens around my face, I tend to blow out a lot and it feels like someone has just dropped a great rock into the pit of my stomach. These are the moments when I build up my walls and try to keep life out. I was doing this at five years old, no child should be like that.

How many of us spend lifetime’s building these walls that we think protect us? When in fact all we succeed in doing is block ourselves off from the love present in life, a treasure of infinite value, a pearl of great price.

To live with an open heart is to live intimately with all that is life. It is to experience life through our felt experience to not be ruled by what our minds project from our past, those disappointments and fears that have been built over a life time. To live with an unarmoured heart is about connecting with all that is there. Zen Buddhism talks about intimacy with 10,000 things, meaning intimacy with all things, all phenomena, that nothing is left out.

I have discovered that I am living openheartedly when I am not at war with life, when I am not arguing with reality and not avoiding intimacy, especially with my own thoughts and feelings. I can find myself arguing with reality at times, I suppose some would call this living in denial, but thankfully by living faithfully I once again see the truth and let loose the prison of my own skin and move onto a newer and fresher reality, my heart opens up and I experience a new reality. I do not remain armoured or frozen for very long. Faith sets me free once again. I shed another layer of skin.

In “The Exquisite Risk: Daring To Live An Authentic Life” Mark Nepo talks about daring to live your whole unique self, to sing your authentic true song, and to be you unforgivingly. The key is to dare to slow down and to really feel life rather than merely manage it. Nepo encourages us to become quiet enough and open enough to listen to what truly matters; he encourages us to listen intimately to our own hearts, our loved ones, the wonders of nature; he encourages us to live with nothing held back. He shares his own journey including a battle with cancer which he overcame and which helped him understand how only by daring to embrace all that life has to offer can we come to a deeper appreciation of its meaning and beauty. The beauty of Nepo’s work is that he makes the personal universal. He speaks in a way that anyone can relate to, if they would only find the courage to open their own hearts.

A beautiful example of this is when he tells of a dear old friend who slowly loses her hearing. I can relate to this, mine is not what it once was. Due to this she moved beyond merely surface listening and instead listens below, she goes on a journey under the skin. He tells how one day as she grew “tired of straining so hard for all the words, (she) began to listen to eyes, bodies, to gestures, to the face behind the face.” She discovered the warmth, the deep love coming from within the other. Circumstances had forced her to change how she related to people and in so doing she discovered new and beautiful ways to relate and connect to others. Her disability had not decreased the experience of her life, instead through listening with the ear of her heart she had discovered new and beautiful things. She had shed off the skin she had been imprisoned it.

Nepo does not suggest that we have to suffer in order to draw out these beautiful gifts of the heart that are within all of us, although it seems that for most of us this is the case. It is often suffering that finally humbles us enough to open up and transcend the limits of what we think we know. The key he suggests is in self-education. Since the word “educate” means to draw out to call forth what is already present within us (if only schools and places of education would learn this). In so doing we will discover the world within us and ourselves within the world. This requires us to listen to all that the world has to say and not just the thoughts going round and round in our own little worlds. It requires us to shed the skin that we are imprisoned in, to let down the armour plating to learn to live with an un-defended heart.

The key is to become intimately aware that all of us have a unique purpose for being here, this is the “exquisite risk” that Nepo is describing. It is to become willing to be fully alive, open, available to live authentically alive with an undefended heart.

Nepo speaks powerfully to me, to my condition. The spiritual life is indeed a journey under the skin, beneath the surface. This takes courage to go beyond the limits of material life. It takes courage to truly engage in the exquisite risk, to live the authentic life, to join in the courageous conversation. I invite you to come and join with me on this journey under the skin, to lose the skin that you’re imprisoned in. Let us take together the exquisite risk.