Saturday, 22 August 2015

Sanctuary

“This Place Is Sanctuary” by Kathleen McTigue taken from “Shine and Shadow”

You who are broken-hearted,
who woke today with the winds of despair
whistling through your mind,
come in.

You who are brave but wounded,
limping through life and hurting with every step, come in.
You who are fearful, who live with shadows
hovering over your shoulders,
come in.

This place is sanctuary, and it is for you.
You who are filled with happiness,
whose abundance overflows,
come in.

You who walk through your world
with lightness and grace,
who awoke this morning with strength and hope,
you who have everything to give,
come in.

This place is your calling, a riverbank to channel
the sweet waters of your life, the place
where you are called by the world’s need.
Here we offer in love.
Here we receive in gratitude.
Here we make a circle from the great gifts
of breath, attention and purpose.
Come in.

I was recently invited to an “open evening” at Timperley Community Church. The purpose of the evening was to discuss the new “Emergency Night Shelter” that will be opening there for those who find themselves homeless and who the council cannot give housing to in the coming winter months. There is currently no provision for this in Trafford and according to official statistics there is no real homelessness in Trafford. Official statistics claim that there are just two homeless people in the whole of the borough. I know from personal observation and experience that this is untrue.

The “Emergency Night Shelter” are seeking support in the community and from religious organisations. They are looking for volunteers to man the shelter as well as provisions such as socks, underwear, pillows and pillow cases, water proof clothing and toiletry packs. I will be endeavouring in the coming months to help in whatever ways I can. I have noticed in my five years as a minister in Trafford that there is a growing need for this provision.

Homelessness is on the increase in this country, I find this disturbing. What I find equally disturbing are attitudes toward people who find themselves in such situations. I do not like some of the language that I hear and the way that people are spoken of. I hear an alarming dehumanisation going on and it is not healthy for the soul of this country.

In 2013 112, 070 people declared themselves homeless in the UK, this is a 24% rises over a four year period. Official statistics submitted by local authorities show that the number of “rough sleepers” has increased from 1,768 in 2010 to 2,744 in 2014. “rough sleepers are only a small fraction of the total homeless population.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to house some homeless people, such as pregnant women, parents with dependent children and people considered for a variety of reasons as vulnerable. This rarely includes young single adults who are often hit the hardest. There are tens of thousands who find themselves in hostels. There are though not enough beds to provide for them all. Many fall into the category that are known as “hidden homeless”, more or less out of sight in B&B’s, squats, or on the floors of friends and families. I’ve been in this situation myself more than once in my lifetime. There is no security here, nowhere in which to build and or rebuild a life.

There are a variety reasons as to how and why people become homeless. There is of course an increasing problem with finding affordable housing as well as other poverty related issues. According to Crisis most men cite the reasons that they have become homeless as relationship breakdown, substance misuse and leaving an institution such as care, prison or hospital. Single women, who make up about a quarter of the clients of homelessness services are more likely to find themselves homeless as a result of physical or mental illness or after escaping a violent relationship. Whatever the reasons these are human beings and need to be seen and treated this way. They are no different to any of us. When we dehumanise one person, we dehumanise every single one of us. When we look into the eyes of a stranger we see our own eyes staring back at us.



All this got me thinking of a verse from the book of Hebrews chapter 13 V 2 "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." Do we show hospitality to these strangers in our very midst?

Showing hospitality and caring for the vulnerable in society is a key aspect of the Judeo - Christian and Islamic traditions. You will find it deeply rooted in the Abrahamic faiths and virtually every other world religion too. Hospitality is an essential spiritual practice. It begins with an open heart and a generosity of spirit. It’s about recognising the good in life and in people, especially those who find themselves in dire circumstances. It’s about recognising ourselves in those very same people. It’s about being open and welcoming to all, where ever they have been, where ever they are going and where ever they find themselves now. Tibetan Buddhist monks great the strangers visiting their temples with “Welcome, friend, from what noble spiritual tradition do you come.” The Christian monastic tradition has a long held practise of taking in strangers and offering them sanctuary as if they were Christ, inspired by those very words from Hebrews. In so doing they are following the example of Jesus who mingled with all people, there was no one left outside the city gate, no untouchables in his eyes.

Increasingly our age is becoming characterised by distrust, there is a fear of the strange and the stranger. The idea of assisting or taking in a stranger is not something most of us would want to do and the idea that we might be entertaining an angel just seems crazy. Is it though? Who knows what gifts can emerge in such encounters. Maybe when we welcome the stranger and give them sanctuary, in whatever ways we can, what we are actually doing is liberating ourselves from the bondages of selfishness and self centredness that we create. You see when we put barriers and blockades up to keep the unpleasantness of life out all we are actually doing is cutting ourselves off from the beauty present in life.

Living with hospitality and openness is another way, a better way. No it won’t change the world but it will change our every encounter and bring the healing of sanctuary to all involved. In the words of Joan Chittister “Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around one heart at a time.” When we open our doors to those in need we open our hearts to a loving encounter and in so doing we do indeed greet angels. The angels in ourselves and the angels in the stranger.

All this talk of opening doors as well as offering welcome and hospitality has brought an ancient word into my mind, “Sanctuary”. I think the first time I heard the word was as a child watching Charles Laughton playing the “Hunchback of Notre Dam” and those immortal words “Sanctuary, sanctuary, Esmeralda you gave me water.” I think the second time was in the song by The Cult “She Sells Sanctuary”. I’m not sure I understood it then though. I have been thinking about it once again recently as I reflected on our world. “Sanctuary, who will offer shelter?” I have also been thinking of all those beautiful souls that have opened themselves to me in so many ways and given me sanctuary materially, emotionally, mentally and spirituality.



Now a sanctuary in its original meaning was a sacred place, such as a shrine. These places became safe havens for people in desperate need and fleeing persecution in medieval times. The word has developed and expanded in meaning over the centuries into a place of safety for humans and animals too. A place where we can be welcomed and made to feel at home and therefore thrive.

I like to think of my free religious tradition as a kind of sanctuary. A place where people can come and feel secure and safe as they are and then begin to thrive and grow spiritually with us. In so doing they can become sanctuaries and places of welcome and hospitality in the world. They can live with openness and give to those they meet in a loving way. For me being a Unitarian minister is about creating sanctuaries wherever I go and encouraging others to do likewise. Encouraging them to live openly and lovingly in a world that seems increasingly closed in and distrusting. It’s about encouraging people to do what they can, whatever that might be. In so doing they may well not only encounter angels, but become the angels that others encounter too.

Where can we offer hospitality and welcome in this world? Something perhaps to think about? How can we become a sanctuary? Where is the place of need in the world around? How do we begin to heal our world and offer hope and home to helpless and the hopeless? How do we welcome the stranger and encounter the angels of life? Perhaps it could begin by offering some support to the night shelter at Timperley Community Church, or similar things in your own towns and cities. That would certainly be a start and of obvious practical benefit, but it must also begin in our hearts and minds by us living more openly and lovingly, with heart filled courage. It begins with building a sanctuary in our own hearts and opening the doors to one another and greeting the stranger.

I’m going to end this chip of a "blogspot" with the following by Gordon B McKeeman “A Drop in the Bucket” taken from “Singing in the Night”

“A Drop in the Bucket”

What it says about inadequacy, futility, insignificance!
A drop in the bucket. What’s the sense? What’s the use?
We’re no longer in the center of things.

Copernicus removed the earth from the center of the solar system. Darwin removed humans from the center of the earth. Astronomy has removed the solar system from the center of the universe.

Well, who are we, then, and where are we?
Physiologists call us “weak, watery solutions, more or less jellified.”
Mark Twain said. “Man is the only animal that blushes-or needs to”
Just suppose that we are the merest drops in a bucket.

There are unspoken assumptions here.
We assume that a full bucket is what we’re aiming at and that until the bucket is full, nothing has been accomplished.

There is never a shortage of buckets. The empty bucket litany is long and tedious: racism, sexism, ableism, authoritarianism, oppression, injustice, violence, environmental degradation, overpopulation.

You feel like a drop in the bucket? Who asked you to fill the bucket - especially all alone?
Remember how many there are who share your concern. We may feel daunted, but we are not one drop. A sense of isolation is the parent of the drop-in-the-bucket feeling.

Sometimes one can decide the size of the bucket.
Don’t think you can do a large bucket? Try a smaller size. Even imparting a bit of hope - a pat on the back, a financial contribution, a few hours of volunteer service - every drop helps!

It might even be wise to remember why you need to help fill this bucket, possibly to quench the thirst of someone hard at work on a larger one.
that buckets of whatever size are filled a drop at a time. If you don’t help, it will take even longer.
that your drop may be one of the last ones needed. (Why is it that our image is of the first drop in the bucket?)
where we’d be if everybody gave up putting drops in the bucket? – probably much worse off.

Persistence depends on patience, on keeping at it when there is little to reassure us. It would be too bad to give up, to sit back, bemoan the sorry state of the world, and wonder why somebody, anybody, everybody (but not me, thank you) doesn’t do something about “it.”

After all, the Grand Canyon was fashioned by drops of water,
as ordinary as they seem.


Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Five Gifts & The Sixth Sense

From “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship” by David Whyte pp 42-43

“This falling in love can occur in a multiplicity of ways. We have the remarkable ability as human beings to fall in love with a person, a work, or even an idea of ourselves. That is, we create a relationship that has a perfected image of what we first encounter, a sense of longing for the perfect person, the ideal work, the full potential of our own character. We fall in love through seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, intuiting and longing. These senses are constantly mediating the frontier between what we think is a self and what we think is other than our selves.

First we have eyes, taken mostly for granted, with which we see a new moon or a tiny memo. We have ears, not fully appreciated, with which to entertain a grand opera or a humble opinion, and we have these tireless hands used every day to pull others towards us or push them away; most especially we have a tongue with which to taste, to give voice to desires or to lash others with our pent-up disapproval. We also have the intellect to contrast and compare, to measure carefully and weigh things in the balance. Then beneath them all, untiring but seldom listened to, we have the sixth sense acknowledge in almost all traditions a swirling internal formation called the intuition, the imagination, the heart, the almost prophetic part of a person that at its best somehow seems to know what is good and what is bad for us, but also what pattern is just about to precipitate, what out of a hundred possibilities is just about to happen, in a sense, an unspoken faculty for knowing what season we are in. What is about to die and what is about to come into being.”

...The writing of David Whyte is one of those something news that I have fallen in love with these last few months...

I have recently embarked on a new healthy living regime. As well as altering my diet, quite dramatically actually, I am also going on walks in and around the area I live. Each morning after my time in prayer and silent meditation I set of out into the day. Each day the walks are getting a little bit longer and I’m up to about two hours, before coming home showering and then reading for about half an hour. This is followed by a healthy breakfast and then I get on with my busy working day. I have to say I’m feeling fantastic for it.

As well as the obvious physical benefits my senses are feeling enriched too as I soak in the beauty of nature all around and all the other people I see up an about at that hour, whether going to work or out and about walking, jogging, cycling and of course all the lovely dog walkers. People seem even more friendly at this hour of the day. I sometimes go for another early evening walk too and it’s great to see all the life in the local parks on these lovely summer evenings. My senses feel as though they have been reawakened once again.

One thing I am loving about this time alone in virtual silence, except for the noise of all that is around me, is that as I walk and my senses connect to the life around me I feel that deeper self, the soul as some have called it, also awakening too. It seems that by moving silently through the life all around me my senses are being awakened and that at some deep level there is another awakening going on right down in the marrow of the soul of me. This is how beauty works of course, it creates this sense of aliveness within us and it is this energy, I have come to believe, that enables us to act in a more loving and compassionate way. I am experiencing a deeper sense of connection to the soul of me, whist also feeling more of a part of the world around and to that something more, that is at the core of everything.

I feel like I’ve fallen in love with life once again and as that song I so love to sing goes “There’s always something new to fall in love with.”

I offer thanks and praise.

Now I’ve also been enjoying a book these last few days, which has really tied in with my current experiences. Each morning after my walk and shower and before I eat I read a little from it. The book is “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship”, by David Whyte. It is catching that place deep in the heart of me. At the beginning of the "blogspot" is an extract from the book. Here David talks about falling in love either with someone or something, an idea, an opportunity a calling or some new aspect of oneself. He says “We fall in love through seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, intuiting and longing. These senses are constantly mediating the frontier between what we think is a self and what we think is other than our selves.”

He is suggesting that we take our sensory agents for granted. Like our eyes with which we experiences the most vast and amazing things as well as tiny minutiae of detail and or a written messages that we need to make sense of. Oh if only we could always have eyes that could see. He moves on to our ears in which we can appreciate the most complex and moving musical number as well as the thoughts and feelings of another person. Oh if only we could learn to “listen with the ears of our hearts” He then talks of our hands that can be used in such creative and destructive ways and with which we can draw another person close to our heart or push them away in rejection. How often do we use our hands carelessly? He lays the greatest emphasis on our tongues with which I am currently delighting in as I get used to a new diet and also talks of how through our tongues we “give voice to desires or…lash others with our pent up disapproval.” Finally he describes the intellect, our rational reasoning mind with which we discern all that our senses take in and can thus respond, hopefully appropriately. Sadly so often we do not, reason does not always prevail.

Whyte then describes that which is beneath it all, that which sadly we do not listen to enough, probably because of all the noise going on all around us, but also more especially the noise going on within us. He calls this the sixth sense. That voice that is less than silence and yet somehow more than a whisper, that intuitive part of humanity that if we listen to it tells us what is right and good and what is not. What he himself describes as “a swirling internal formation called the intuition, the imagination, the heart, the almost prophetic part of a person that at its best somehow seems to know what is good and what is bad for us, but also what pattern is just about to precipitate, what out of a hundred possibilities is just about to happen, in a sense, an unspoken faculty for knowing what season we are in. What is about to die and what is about to come into being.”

As I have been walking around these last couple of weeks I have felt this intuitive part of me awakening further. I feel more connected, more open, more a part of everything and through this experience life does seem to be calling to me. I have noticed I need less distraction. As I walk I am not listening to music, just to the life around me, I am letting my senses soak this up without any distractions. It’s the same at home I am less inclined to put the radio and or television on, unless it’s to listen to the cricket, either the Ashes or my beloved Yorkshire. I have noticed that as a result I am hearing more clearly that voice that is less than a whisper and yet somehow more than silence. That voice that animates all life, that breathes out everything.

Now this brings me to the following passage from the book of Kings (1 Kings ch 19 vv 11-13).

"He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’"
Earlier in this chapter, from the book of Kings, Elijah is threatened by Queen Jezebel and flees to a cave on mount Horeb where he is told that God will pass by and speak directly to him. A great wind comes, followed by an earthquake and then a fire, but we are told that God is in none of them. Following the fire comes the still small voice – a voice, a sound like silence – this voice that is less than a whisper and yet not quite silence signals the presence of God. The text then tells us that Elijah covers his head and goes out to talk with God.

Elijah had been commissioned that day to set right the problems of Israel and to call a new King for Syria and a new King for Israel and a new prophet who would lead the next generation.

Now no doubt this all sounds a little strange and fanciful and beyond all reason but I hear a deep universal truth in the story. This is "Mythos". Throughout the ages we hear accounts of people being called out by this still small voice; the voice of comfort, of hope, of challenge, of support and also at times the voice of rebuke...This same voice spoke to Jesus, Muhammed, The Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mary Wolstencroft, Nelson Mandella, but perhaps it is not a voice as we understand it....less than a whisper and yet more than silence...

The still small voice of calm…The intuition that speaks to us when our own minds are silent enough…

What is this still small voice of calm?

What is this something, this almost nothing that is more than silence and yet less than a whisper? What is this emptiness that can fill us with awe? It is so gently powerful and seems to emerge, nay burst, from nothingness into life. It is a nagging thought or presence that is their floating around in our consciousness or perhaps unconsciousness. It never seems to easily be revealed it requires us to go into our own depths and at the same time to truly open ourselves up to connect to the life all around us and then somehow in the stillness and silence meaning is revealed. Maybe it is something more than a mere thought or feeling, that appears from nowhere or perhaps beyond nowhere. This feeling that comforts, that accepts, that connects, even pardons just when we need it the most. Perhaps it’s the voice of conscience that lives in that space between what we say and what we do, between the talk and the walk.

We can never be truly certain what this is. Some, myself included, call it God, others prefer a myriad of names. But what does it matter what we call it, this is just belief or unbelief. It is truly beyond us to know what is behind this voice, this thought, this feeling, this experience but I feel sure that we have all known it from time to time. We have all known this indescribable presence at some point in our lives. This sense of being addressed by something, this powerful irresistible urge, is the source of art and poetry and not just religion and theology.

Experience has taught me that there is something in the corner of all our lives that gently, quietly, nudges us and desires our attention. I do not believe that I or any of us will ever fully understand or even comprehend what this still small voice is, but we ought not to ignore it.

To truly connect to it requires a stillness and a silence, a bit like those deer I see when I wander around Dunham Park. I also feel that it also requires a deeper sense of connection and awakening through all our senses, filtered through our reasoning mind. For if we do we will awaken to the beauty that is life, to the joy of living in all its mystery and we will be inspired to do the good that we can do.

I'm going to this little chip of a blog with some beautiful words on silence by Mark Belletini

“Ode To Silence” by Mark Belletini

You, silence, are the ground
On which we build the fragile sandcastles of our every spoken word.
You, silence,
Are quicksand where curses and cockiness and
And arrogance find their end.
You, silence, are the strand of beach we stroll where loneliness
Turns into solitude,
And our small heartbeats join the much vaster
Heartbeat of tide and wave.
You, silence,
Are the hand in which the pearl of the universe,
Grown around the painful grain of human suffering,
Rests in heartbreaking beauty.
You, silence,
Are the wide, bright delta into which
The river of this prayer fans out,
Before it flows into the indigo Deep,
Quiet, dark and lovely.
Come, Silence, fill this moment.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Which Way to Turn

"Map of the Journey in Progress" by Victoria Safford

Here is where I found my voice and chose to be brave.
Here’s a place where I forgave someone, against my better judgement, and I survived that, and
unexpectedly, amazingly, I became wiser.
Here’s where I was once forgiven, was ready for once in life to receive forgiveness and to be
transformed. And I survived that also. I lived to tell the tale.

This is the place where I said no, more loudly than I’d thought I ever could, and everybody stared, but I said no loudly anyway, because I knew it must be said, and those staring settled
down into harmless, ineffective grumbling, and over me they had no power anymore.
Here’s a time, and here’s another, when I laid down my fear and walked right on into it, right up to my neck in that roiling water.

Here’s where cruelty taught me something. And here’s where I was first astonished by gratuitous compassion and knew it for the miracle it was, the requirement it is. It was a trembling time.

And here, much later, is where I returned the blessing, clumsily. It wasn’t hard, but I was
unaccustomed. It cycled round, and as best I could I sent it back on out, passed the gift along.
This circular motion, around and around, has no apparent end.
Here’s a place, a murky puddle, where I have stumbled more than once and fallen. I don’t know yet what to learn there.

On this site I was outraged and the rage sustains me still; it clarifies my seeing.
And here’s where something caught me a warm breeze in late winter, birdsong in late summer.
Here’s where I was told that something was wrong with my eyes, that I see the world strangely, and here’s what I said, “Yes, I know, I walk in beauty.”
Here is where I began to look with my own eyes and listen with my ears and sing my own song, shaky as it is.

Here is where, if by surgeon’s knife, my heart was opened up and here, and here, and here, and here. These are the landmarks of conversion.

“From Walking Toward Morning, Meditations”

...There are many landmarks in our lives and many times when turn this way or that...

I’ve never had a great sense of direction and or spatial awareness. My mind does not operate in images. Maybe this is why I rarely, if ever, remember my dreams or even recall having them. I’m more of a communicator really and mainly through sound and conversation. We are all different, it is very important to understand this. We truly do not all think alike, although I do like to believe that we can all love alike.

Now while my way of operating has its advantages, there are some disadvantages too. I get lost very easily. Even in the town I live, a place I’ve driven round for five years, I can still quite easily find myself heading almost in the opposite direction to where I’m going. My mind does not seem able to picture exactly where I ought to be going. That said where ever I am and no matter how lost I get I can always find my way back home. 

I have also noticed that I don’t seem to ever get lost when driving round back home, in West Yorkshire. The lay of the land seems much more familiar to me. I think that this is because it is stored in my heart, it is heart memory, while Greater Manchester is still very much brain memory and therefore for some reason I find it less intuitive, hence I get lost and yet my heart still manages to always take me safely back home. This may seem strange to some as I have spent 18 of my 43 years here in Greater Manchester, but it is not truly home. It is not where my heart is.

Since I passed my driving test a little over five years ago I have relied heavily on Sat Nav. Mostly this has proved reliable. The great thing about is if you take a wrong turn, it will quickly adjust and direct you back on track. It’s kind of nice to have the soothing Radio Four type female voice pointing me in the right direction when I veer off course or take a wrong turn. Generally this has worked out well, but I can think of three occasions when it has not. The first was on the way to Great Hucklow when I missed my turning and the voice directed me to take the next right. This was a terrible mistake and I soon realised I was driving up a road fit only for tractors. I got through the ordeal, as did my car and for a couple of years I learnt my lesson. The next occasion was on a journey to Crosby beach to stand with the Gormley statues. Again I missed my turn and was directed through what appeared initially to be a country lane. I passed a farmer in a tractor who looked at me bemused and a little later I realised I’d made another error and found myself virtually in a field. I managed to turn the car around and not get stuck, so it did not turn into a John Cleese moment from Clockwise, thank God. The third time was a few weeks ago when I got stuck in Devon after my nephews wedding, which I wrote about in the last blogspot. So yes while Sat Nav is very good it cannot be relied upon 100%, sometimes the softly yet authoritatively spoken voice can send you down the wrong path, especially if you follow her lead unquestioningly.

Life itself and the spiritual life in particular are often described as a journey. That said it’s not a journey in which we really travel a great distance. As Wendell Berry so beautifully wrote, echoing that great mystic Meister Eckhart, “And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,and learn to be at home.”

On this journey we often come to forks in the road when we must take decisions on which way we ought to turn. Many times we make wrong decisions, I think we have to get it wrong many times, before we get it right. Many times we get lost too. Many times we take advice from others and follow it blindly. Many times this is helpful but other times it really is not. It can lead us down the wrong path, but that’s ok because we can always find our way back home.

Often this journey is described as a path, I have just done so, and I have heard many say that it gets narrower. I am not convinced of this. If I have learnt anything I have learnt that the spiritual journey is not like a path at all and certainly not a narrow one. In my experience it is broad and roomy all inclusive and welcoming, never exclusive or forbidding and open to all. What in 12 Step culture they call “The Broad Highway” and one that allows a great deal of room for error.

I think one of the biggest mistakes we make when we speak of spiritual matters is when we describe them in narrow language. It puts people off, because it sounds too much and beyond them. It should not be like that, there is room for us all and it isn’t so hard to get started, it just requires a slight change in direction.

Let us also remember that the spiritual journey is one of depth and not really distance. Sometimes the biggest mistake we make is that we continue journeying on, head down, not looking all around us, too focused on a perceived goal. This is due I am sure to the fear that if we don’t keep on moving we might get lost or that our troubles might catch up with us. I do not believe that this is healthy. In many ways by just marching on ever forward we can become completely lost, in the sense that we lose who we are at the core of ourselves, that sense of belonging here in life, as we are, wanted, needed and loved.

These thoughts bring to mind the beautiful poem “Lost” by David Wagoner.

“Lost”

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

by David Wagoner

...No one is ever truly lost, we can always find our way back home...

Throughout our journeys’ we pass through many stages of our lives and looking back no doubt we can see these staging posts. This is illustrated in those beautiful words of Victoria Safford's at the beginning of this "blogspot". Here she describes all those moments in our lives that have made us who we are, that have deepened our experiences of life and given us wisdom to pass on to others, if they would care to have it.

Now on our journeys there are not only staging posts, but guide posts and actual guides too, that have helped we pilgrims along the way. Some we have paid heed of, others we have not. Some ancient, some contemporary. Hopefully we have not followed them blindly, but sometimes no doubt we have as we have trusted too implicitly perhaps, like I did with my Sat Nav. We have to learn to trust our senses as well as the sixth sense too, the inner voice, the inner light that speaks to us when we have ears that can hear.

Now of course the ancient stories give many great examples of the different types of journeys, pilgrimages and Odyssey’s that we may undertake. In his meditation “The Spiritual Journey” David O Rankin names several who have walked courageously through theirs. Stating:

“It is Moses leading the Jews through the desert of Sinai, and Jesus enduring the temptation in the wilderness of Israel, and Buddha seeking enlightenment along the dusty roads of India.

It is the glorious voyage of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, the narrow paths through the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, and the confessions of the travellers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

It is the pilgrims sailing on the Mayflower, the settlers moving westward, being On the Road with Jack Kerouac, and spinning through a black hole in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey”

We are all of us pilgrims on the sacred journey that is life and like so many of the more famous travellers we often believe that we have to go some place else to discover our own Nirvana or to build the New Jerusalem. Just as the pilgrims on the Mayflower did in the seventeenth century. They believed that they had travel a great distance to a new land to create their heaven on earth. Well I have discovered that this is not necessary. You do not have to travel great distances to experience the beautiful journey and you do not need to travel great distances to build the New Jerusalem, it must be here, in our own hearts or nowhere. The “Kin-dom” of Love has to be built here or nowhere.

I suspect it’s the same with finding ourselves once again, when we feel lost. Who or what do we listen to, when this happens? Well I am learning to listen to that inner voice, that light that shines bright within all of us. That spark of the Divine that is within everything. That which awakens the sense of my senses, that which guides me home no matter how lost I am and that which allows me to be at home wherever my feet are planted. That Kin-dom of Love, within me, within each of us and within everything.

Let Love be our navigator it will always lead us home, to the place where we belong.

I'm going to end with this prayer "Prayer for Travellers" by Angela Herrera

“Prayer for Travellers”

This is a prayer for all the travellers. For the ones who start out in beauty, who fall from grace, who step gingerly, looking for the way back. And for those who are born into the margins, who travel from one liminal space to another, crossing boundaries in search of centre.

This is a prayer for the ones whose births are a passing from darkness to darkness, who all their lives are drawn toward the light, and keep moving, and for those whose journeys are a winding road that begins and ends in the same place, though only when the journey is completed do they finally know where they are.

For all the travellers, young and old, aching and joyful, weary and full of life; the ones who are here, and the ones who are not here; the ones like you (and they’re all like you) and the ones who are different (for in some ways, we each travel alone).

This is a prayer for traveling memories, and surefootedness, for clear vision, and bread for your body and spirit, and water, for your safe arrival and for everyone you see along the way.


Saturday, 1 August 2015

Radical OK-Ness & the Kindness of Strangers

A couple of weeks ago I attended the wedding of our Joe down in Devon. It really was a beautiful occasion as so many of his loved ones and friends came together. It’s been a difficult time for all of us in so many ways. Joe is the eldest son of our Allen, my brother, who died last year.

Now the journey to and from the wedding was quite epic. I was responsible for taking our youngest brother and sister to and from it. We got a little lost just finding the hotel we were staying at the night before and ended up down some country lanes which in my “townie” view were not fit for cars. They were grassed over paths really and I became very concerned about driving along them. At one point we met a horse and rider moving toward us. Thankfully the rider decided to turn round, walk down the hill and let us past. I suspect that she could tell I wasn’t a local. I really should have paid more attention to this, it was a sign of things to come.

The wedding the next day was incredible. The feeling of love had my heart full to overflowing and I know I wasn’t alone in this. We then headed off to the hotel for the reception. Now the hotel was at the top of a great hill and the roads leading to it were once again little more than grassed over paths. In fact many of them were unnamed on the Sat Nav. That part of the journey was not pleasant.

Finally we arrived and drew breath and then got on with the celebrations. I have to say that the speeches were incredible. All moving and highly amusing. I will not recount those given by the two best men as they were without doubt 18 rating and not PG. There was a great deal of laughter and tears, so many tears. Tears of joy and tears sorrow and grief too.

There was one phrase in the speech given by the father of the bride, Ian Adams, that caught that place deep in the soul of me. He talked somewhat about the joys and sorrows of life and the pains and struggles we all go through and then he described an abiding love that is present in life that can hold us and sustain us in all of this. He named it “Radical OK-ness”. This phrase really caught the heart of me and awakened the soul of me. I thought yes that’s it and in my mind I began to sing song I once heard based on words by Julian of Norwich, the words were “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things, they will be well.” At this point I drifted away from what he was saying and sank into that place of deep prayer within myself. I let out a deep, deep breath and offered thanks and praise. And then we partied the night away.

As I left I noticed that most folk had arrived and were leaving by taxi, although I also heard that taxi drivers did not like coming to this spot at night, due to the drive back down. I swallowed hard at this point got in my car and began the journey back to the hotel we were staying at. I have to say it was not a pleasant journey. Things seemed to be going well and then I made a slight error and missed a turning. Sat-Nav directed me to take the next left, which I duly did. This was a big mistake. I later learned that you do not turn left at this point. Let’s just say that my car got stuck, right across the road and in my attempts to get free I burnt out my clutch and could not move. This was not a great place to break down, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with my youngest brother and sister with me.

We got out of the car my sister called International Rescue and the AA, she has gold membership. Before you ask, yes International Rescue is a real thing, although we were not expecting “Thunderbird 3” to arrive. The road I was stuck across was actually a real road, pure tarmac and vehicles began to appear. Mainly taxis going to the wedding venue. Most looked and just passed by up the hill, a few turned round but one or two stopped. One kindly taxi cab driver even got out to help saying “I’m a really good driver, I will get you out”. Then he realised he couldn’t as there was no clutch. Eventually a policeman arrived, what a Godsend he was. Finally the rescue truck arrived and we were taken back to the hotel.

The next day I sorted things out with my own recovery people and I and my car were brought to Altrincham, while arrangements were made to get my brother and sister home too. As I was driven back home chatting away with the man in the recovery vehicle about life and everything I began to reflect on the encounters I had experienced over the last 24 hours. I also reflected on the phrase “Radical Ok-ness” and the concept that “all will be well”. Another phrase also came into my mind too, the “kindness of strangers”. My word I had met some lovely people, who were so helpful and understanding in Devon. It lifted my heart as I sat there trying not to feel sorry for myself as I listened to the driver tell me all about his life. It’s funny I did very little talking, but lots of listening as I feasted my eyes on the beautiful countryside that we passed through, heading north and heading home. All the way home the "ears of my ears were awake" and "the eyes of my eyes were open." What a beautiful journey home.

It is easy to look at the world through eyes of despair and say that it is not OK, there is something rotten in life. There is of course much that is not OK. I remember just as I journeyed down to Devon hearing of the awful incident of a man being stabbed by a stranger on the motorway. Almost every day as I listen to the news I hear of troubles in the middle-east, mass shootings in America, crises in Europe, politicians caught up in scandals and celebrities and athletes bringing themselves into bad repute. I also see other troubles much closer to home. Our Joe’s grandmother Val, the mother of two of my sister’s and of course our Allen’s mother suffered a severe stroke last week and was unable to attend her daughter our Karen’s wedding the weekend after Joe’s. This has weighed heavily on my nearest and dearest. A young woman, that I had come to know, was killed last week by a driver who I understand was on drugs. I also share in the troubles of other friends and family and of course the hardships that people in congregations I serve are experiencing, emotional, mental and physical. So yes it is easy to say that nothing is OK; it is easy to fall into the Hobbesian nightmare and believe has he said “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” or in the words of the confession in the Book of Common Prayer that “there is no health in us”. It is easy to see the suffering in life and the wrong we do to one another. Yes we human beings do some terrible things to one another and yet on the whole what I see is goodness and in the end goodness seems to prevail. I do see an OK-Ness in life, when we choose it. When we bring it to life. This begins I believe by first of all seeing it, by baring witness to this OK-Ness, but it is more than that. I suspect that radical OK-Ness is about bringing this goodness to life, in our very lives. When we do we begin to bring that “Kin-dom of Love” to life. When we respond with kind-ness to what we see and do not pass by on the other side of the road.

The last week or so has brought that famous old parable in to my mind “The Good Samaritan” found in 10th chapter of Luke’s Gospel vv 25-37. Interestingly the two verses that proceed the parable also seems relevant too vv 23-24 . Verses that begin with the words ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” I think that this parable is all about seeing and acting upon what we see. In the story both a priest and Levite go by and they both see him but they walk on by, they pass on the other side of the road. Then a Samaritan (who would be the enemy of the traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho) also see's him and when he see's him he is moved to action and not only helps but also brings him to a place of safety and pays for his boarding’s and lodging etc. He wants no recognition or thanks for his actions, he is motivated purely by compassion, this is pure altruism.

Now I think this story is teaching something very simple and vital, each of us is capable of all the actions that take place here. We are all capable of walking on by and we are all capable of being Good Samaritans. We can all be good neighbours. I believe that to see the world through the hopefulness of our potential goodness is what “Radical OK-Ness” is all about. It’s about seeing the good and becoming the good, so that others can see it too. It’s also about not beating ourselves up too much when we fall short of what we can be.

As I have written many times before I truly believe that everything matters; every feeling, every thought, every word, every action and every look. I truly believe that how we look at the world really matters. And how do we look at the world? Well through our eyes.

They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul; they say that our eyes reveal who we are. That said I do not think it is our eyes alone that reveal the truth, but how we see through these very same eyes. It is how we look at one another and life itself that reveal who we are.

How we look at one another really matters. We can look at one another with compassion, or we can give one another a hard look. Think about it when someone gives us a hard look, what do we do? Well usually we either turn away in fear or we respond with hardness too. What about compassion? What happens when someone looks at us through loving eyes? Well usually we respond with compassion and our lips and eyes may even stretch to a smile. Or at least we do unless we have fallen so far into the pit of nihilistic despair that we respond to love with fear and hatred.

How we act towards others really matters. But it is not just about doing what is right, it’s also about the spirit in which each task is conducted. We can appear to be encouraging and loving and doing the right thing, but our eyes will say otherwise. Our eyes say it all. Think about a smile. We think we smile with our mouths, but we do not, we smile with our eyes. When I smile my eyes almost slant shut. What we do and however we do something our eyes will reveal the truth of our hearts and people will intuitively pick up on this. They will see it in our eyes.

The eyes say it all. If you see the world through loving eyes you will see love. The next time you look at someone, let your eyes stretch to a smile. If you do the eyes of life will stretch back at you with a loving smile too.

This is where it begins. “Radical Ok-ness” begins with our eyes, with how we see the world. Yes we need to acknowledge what is wrong, but also what is right and good and we need to act appropriately. We need to do what we can, even if that is just one small thing, because that one small thing may well lead to a tidal wave of compassion that covers our whole world. We need to recognise the love present in life, the OK-Ness, despite the presence of suffering and we need to also bring that love alive, right here, right now and then we might just begin to build that “Kin-dom of Love” right here, right now.

May we look at the world through loving eyes.


...If you really want to understand what I mean, just simply listen to this clip "All will be well" by Rev Meg Barnhouse...She say's it far better than I...




Saturday, 11 July 2015

Emptiness & Fullness: How to Live Spiritually Alive

23rd Psalm, Japanese Translation

The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush;
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness,
which restore my serenity.

He leads me in ways of efficiency
through calmness of mind,
and His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things
to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for His presence is here;

His timelessness, His all importance,
will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal
in midst of my activity,

By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows,
surely harmony and effectiveness
shall be the fruits of my hours,
for I shall walk, in the pace of my Lord
and dwell in His house forever.

Translated by Toki Miyashina


I seem to have had an exceptionally busy few weeks. This has occasionally been a little overwhelming and I have certainly felt exhausted at times. That said it has not been a negative kind a tiredness, the kind that comes from a weariness with life. Quite the opposite actually it has been a tiredness that comes from living a full life. A kind of satisfied tiredness. Maybe it’s the kind of tiredness a man is meant to experience.

The other evening I laid out on my settee, feeling tried but at the same time satisfied. You may remember the evening it was the first night of those powerful storms we have been experiencing. What a powerfully electric experience it was. I closed my eyes for a few moments and a lovely feeling came over me. I experienced a beautiful sensation around my brow and also in the pit of my stomach, the place where the intense fear used to inhabit. After a while two beautiful images came over me as I lay there listening to the thunder. There was a wonderful sense of connection and satisfaction in my heart. The images that came to me are two of my favourites. One was of an empty cup and the other of a cup that is overflowing.

Now when I think of these images my understanding is that the empty cup is symbolic of a clear mind, a completely empty and open mind and one that is able to be used to its best purpose. While the overflowing cup symbolises a heart that is filled to overflowing; a heart that is filled with abundant love; love that is being poured out on the world. Now for me these images symbolise the spiritual life. True spiritual living is about having a clear, empty and open mind and a heart that is so full that it is overflowing.

Now you often hear the question “Is the glass half empty or half full” it is symbolic of a person who is either an optimistic or a pessimistic person. I have been both at different times in my life. These days though I am neither, I am no longer a glass half empty or glass half full kind of man. These days I am completely empty glass kind of man, while at the same time I am also a cup that is so full it is overflowing kind of man. Now some folk tell me that you can’t be both, you have to be an either or and my answer to them is, says who? I am both and so can you be too, stop being so literal, open your mind, use your imagination and fill up your heart to overflowing.

This brings to mind a story I have heard in many different forms over the years…

There is a story of a university professor who visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The professor began to ask questions while the master just sat quietly, listening. After a while the master began to pour tea into the professor’s cup. The cup soon filled up, but the master did not stop pouring. The tea soon began to spill over on to the table. Initially the professor just sat there in stunned silence, he did not know what to do. Eventually he could take no more and shouted out “It’s overfull. No more will go in!” The master stopped pouring and simply said “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

This story teachers that a full cup, one that is overflowing is not a good thing to have. It teaches we need an empty cup, which symbolises and empty mind. What the Buddhists call a “Beginners Mind”. A mind that is open to new ideas. It is a humble mind that results in an open mind. Think of the image of the Buddhist monk with his begging bowl held out, an act of humility and interdependence.

The image of an overflowing cup also brings something else to my mind. A line from the 23rd Psalm. In the Psalm King David sings of God as a shepherd who will see him safely through the Valley of Death. At the beginning of this "blogspot" is a wonderful Japanese translation of these familiar words. The translation I believe helps us to make sense of these ancient words in our contemporary time. There aren’t really many shepherds about these days and it can be hard for 21st century boys and girls to relate to this metaphor.

The more traditional translation states that “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” In the psalm the overflowing cup is depicting an excess of goodness, a symbol of abundance, a source of joy. A heart full of Love. Can you ever be too full of love?

Here we have two images of cups overflowing: One depicting a mind that is too full and therefore unable to focus or to learn something new; the other depicting a cup overflowing with love that will enable us to live full lives despite the presence of fear.

So you see it is not a problem to have both an empty cup and one that is overflowing at the same time. This only becomes a problem if you get lost in the metaphor, the curse of the literalist. The two images are of course depicting different aspects of our humanity.

The Zen story is describing the mind, whereas the Psalm is depicting the heart. It is talking of God’s infinite love. So yes we can be full abundantly with love and yet still have an empty mind. I suspect that it is the full heart that enables us to clear our minds, or perhaps it’s the clear mind that enables us to have our hearts filled.

Maybe, maybe not!

It’s a bit like the old riddle “What came first, the chicken or the egg” Do you need to fill your heart in order to clear your mind, or ought you be focusing on clearing your mind in order to allow your heart to be filled to overflowing? Why not try both at the same time.

Now in my case it would seem that it was only when love began to take over my heart that my mind began to clear. My head used to be full of so much that there was no space for anything else. My thoughts would just swirl round and round and round and go pretty much nowhere. These days my head is pretty much empty most of the time. My head is clear, even when I’m really busy and my diary gets too full. This is good thing as my mind can be used for what its true purpose is. I thank God that it is no longer held back by the regret of the past or the fear of the future. As a result I have peace of mind these days, even in the most difficult of times. The cup (my mind) is no longer overflowing and yet at the same time I experience the cup that runneth over, I know that everlasting and eternal love of God. As a result I can experience this abundant love present in life.

That is not enough though. I have also learnt that it is my task to pour this love out onto the world. To bring this love alive. In many ways I suspect it is our task not so much to seek and find God, but to let God out and pour this love on our world, whilst allowing and inviting that love to be poured out on us. Again like the Buddhist bowl this is symbolic of our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We each fill one another’s bowl.

From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live.

These two images also bring something else to my mind about the spiritual life. This is of course the phrase “faith without works is dead”. For me these two cups also symbolise both faith and works. The empty cup is the faith and the overflowing cup is the works, or maybe it’s the other way around. By working these two together, we become spiritually alive. In order to do the works we need the faith. We need to be still and to connect spiritually, we need to clear our minds and fill our hearts and then to truly bring this to life we need to do the works and pour out this love on the world. By the way if we do this the love will grow and the peace we feel will become realised. That said we must also remain appropriately humble and let others serve us too. We need to accept the love and help of others. We must never think that we can live by ourselves alone. To be fully alive is to understand, accept and embrace our interdependence.

The spiritual life is simple, but it is far from easy. It needs two simple things. One is emptiness and the other fullness. Now this requires an empty mind and a heart that is full to over flowing. How is this achieved you may well ask? Well quite simply actually, through faith and good works. All we need to do is spend time in stillness allowing our minds to become empty and clear and also spend time giving of ourselves to one another and life itself, pouring out our love. That said we must also spend time in silence allowing our hearts to be filled, acknowledging our interdependence and allowing others to serve us too.

It really is that simple.

So let us become like tea cups, empty and ready to filled. And when we are filled to overflowing lets pour out that love on our world.

Let’s follow the advice of “the lads” in those Tetley Tea Bag adverts lets “Let flavour flood out”

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with the following extract from "The Book of Words" by Lawrence Kushner

From “The Book of Words” by Lawrence Kushner

Energy in the form of light is trapped in gross matter. Sparks of holiness are imprisoned in the stuff of creation. They yearn to be set free, reunited with their Source through human action. When we return something to its proper place, where it belongs, where it was meant to be; when we use something in a sacred way or for a holy purpose; when we treat another human being as a human being, the captive sparks are released and the cosmos is healed. The liberation of light is called the Repair of creation.

The process occurs also within each individual. According to one legend, once there was a primordial person as big as the whole universe whose soul contained all souls…

This person is identical with the universe and, for this reason, each human being is at the same time both riddles with divine sparks and in desperate need of repair. Each person is the whole world. And every human action therefore plays a role in the final restitution. Whatever we do is related to this ultimate task: To return all things to their original place in God. Everything a person does affects the process.


Saturday, 4 July 2015

Touch

“Touch” by David Whyte

Touch is what we desire in one form or another, even if we find it through being alone, through the agency of silence or through the felt need to walk at a distance: the meeting with something or someone other than ourselves, the light brush of grass on the skin, the ruffling breeze, the actual touch of another’s hand; even the gentle first touch of an understanding which until now, we were formally afraid to hold.

Whether we touch only what we see or the mystery of what lies beneath the veil of what we see, we are made for unending meeting and exchange, while having to hold a coherent mind and body, physically or imaginatively, which in turn can be found and touched itself. We are something for the world to run up against and rub up against: through the trials of love, through pain, through happiness, through our simple everyday movement through the world.

And the world touches us in many ways, some of which are violations of the body or our hopes for safety: through natural disaster, through heartbreak, through illness, through death itself. In the ancient world the touch of a God was seen as both a blessing and a violation - at one and the same time. Being alive in the world means being found by the world and sometimes touched to the core in ways we would rather not experience. Growing with our bodies, all of us find ourselves at one time violated or wounded by this world in difficult ways, and still we live and breathe in this touchable, sensual world, and through trauma, through grief, through recovery, we heal in order to be touched again in the right way, as the physical consecration of a mutual, trusted invitation.

Nothing stops the body’s arrival in each new present, except death itself, which is intuited in all cultures as another, ultimate, intimate form of meeting. Nothing stops our ageing nor our witness to time, asking us again and again to be present to each different present, to be touchable and findable, to be one who is living up to the very fierce consequences of being bodily present in the world.

To forge an untouchable, invulnerable identity is actually a sign of retreat from this world; of weakness, a sign of fear rather than strength, and betrays a strange misunderstanding of an abiding, foundational and necessary reality: that untouched, we disappear.

Excerpted from ‘TOUCH’ From "CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words" by David Whyte

On Monday morning I conducted the funeral of a man, of a similar age to myself, who had taken his own life after many years of struggle. I arrived at Manchester crematorium very early, an hour before the service was due to begin. I always like to be early for funerals that I lead, so I can prepare myself in the setting. I sat in the car park reading over the service so as to get it into the soul of me and to come to terms with the emotion that such things bring up in me. As I was sat there absorbing the words and feeling the sorrow I noticed all the individual rose trees all around me. Each marking a loved one whose life had ended. Each flower unique in colour and complexity of shape. Each had its own identity. Yes everyone was a rose, much like any other rose and yet each one had its own personality. I got out of my car and examined each one. I touched a few, with just my finger tip and took in their uniqueness. Just as I had invited the congregations I serve to do, the day before, during the “Flower Communion” Service. As I did so I felt a sense of connection to all those lives that had been and gone before me. I understood at an even deeper level that sense that everything matters, that each life is unique and sacred and deep and rich in meaning. That every feeling, every thought, every breath, every action really does matter. That life is not indifferent that there is a love present in life and that it is our task to bring that love alive, for however long we flower. That however brutal life maybe at times it is our task to bring the love alive.

As I keep on saying. “Either everything matters, or nothing matters. Either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred. Either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless.” Whatever anyone else says I know that everything matters. No matter how it makes me feel, it matters. We have to let life touch us, just as we have to truly touch life. You see if nothing touches and we touch nothing then we truly are living in hell, in a state of non-being.

To touch nothing and to never be touched is to live in hell. Of all the human needs I suspect the one that we cannot live without is touch. We need to touch one another. We need real flesh and bone contact, we are interdependent creatures. We cannot live wholly from ourselves, self-reliance is a myth. When we look at our lives, the moments that really matter, that really count, are those when we have touched and been deeply touched by another person, or by life itself, when love has come alive deep in our souls and is incarnated in lives. The world, our lives, are not changed by big ideas or even big events, not really, but by the moments of deep intimacy when we touch or are touched by one another, or something more...

In “Anam Cara” John O’Donohue writes that “Our sense of touch connects us to the world in an intimate way.” It is with our hands that we reach out and touch the world. Of course it matters how we touch and the intention behind why we touch. We are so frightened to touch these days because people of power have touched and hurt others in their care or who are vulnerable. This has helped to create a distance between people and it is a distance that I believe is causing spiritual harm. We live in an age that is terrified of intimacy. I see it in my own life and in my profession too. People are terrified to touch because of the damage it can do, well what about the deep emotional and spiritual damage we are doing to ourselves and others by keeping our distance from each other?

I remember speaking to a mother recently whose daughter attends a local school. The daughter had only been attending for a couple of weeks when she told me that she had received a letter from school about her daughter’s behaviour. The girl had been deeply upset one day and had reached out her arms to the teacher looking for consolation. The teacher had told her "no" and had then reported the incident. The mother received a letter saying how inappropriate this was and that the child needed to understand that this was not allowed. The mother was upset by this and obviously worried about her daughter’s capacity to cope, as she was a “very sensitive girl”.

Now while I fully understand all of the safeguards that are in place to protect children and teachers these days I do wonder what we are creating. Children are often equipped academically for life, but I wonder if they are equipped to live full human lives. What about our souls, our spirits, our hearts?

Again in Anam Cara John O’Donohue writes:

“It is recognised now that every child needs to be touched. Touch communicates belonging, tenderness, and warmth, which fosters self-confidence, self-worth, and poise in the child. Touch has such power because we live inside the wonderful world of skin. Our skin is alive and breathing, always active and present. Human beings share such tenderness and fragility because we live not within shells but within skin, which is always sensitive to the force, touch, and presence of the world.”

I suspect that it is this vulnerability that we fear the most and this is why we are afraid to touch.

In recent history we have seen, on a mass scale, what happens when this basic human need to touch and be touched is denied. You may remember images that appeared on our television screens some twenty years ago, following the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. When he came to power in the mid 1960’s, in an attempt to force population growth, a policy named “leagane” which translates as “cradles” was introduced. These were basically institutional homes for the infants and the very young. Policies were introduced that coerced people to marry and for families to keep on producing children. When Ceausescu was deposed in 1989 the results of this was revealed to the world as images of infants and children growing up with seriously underdeveloped basic human skills. Research has shown that this was due directly to sensory deprivation and the fact that the babies rarely experienced human contact, they were deprived of touch.

These children were nothing more than a commodity to creating the state that Ceausescu dreamed up. It was just one example of many that occurred in Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century where basic human emotional and spiritual needs were rejected for what some believed was a greater good.

When we reduce everything in life to a purely materialistic level and humanity to a mere commodity anything is justified. When we fail to recognises one another’s sacredness we begin to brutalise one another and life itself.

Now of course this is an extreme example but I do wonder if in our increasingly secular age we are doing this very same thing to ourselves. Yes we have the technology to contact one another, anywhere, in an instant, these days and yet so many people feel utterly alone and untouched by life.  How do I know this? You may well ask. Well because people tell me so. They tell me how alone they feel and how utterly cut off from real intimacy they are. On the surface these people appear to live full lives and yet inside they feel completely empty. There are people in society who walk around being untouched, there are seeming untouchables found all around us. How many of us are cut off from deep, intimate and meaningful contact?

This sense is described beautifully in the following poem “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher

“THE HUG” by Tess Gallagher

A woman is reading a poem on the street and another woman stops to listen.
We stop too, with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to out here in the open.

Behind us no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I am giving it to you,
like a variable star shooting light off to make itself comfortable, then subsiding.
I finish but keep on holding you.
A man walks up to us and we know he has not come out of nowhere, but if he could, he would have.

He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?’ he asks you, and I feel you nod.
I am surprised, surprised you don’t tell him how it is – that I am yours, only yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to its face.

Love - that’s what we’re talking about.
Love that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.
So I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to hug him like I mean it.
He’s got an overcoat on so thick I can’t feel him past it. I’m starting the hug and thinking.
“How big a hug is this supposed to be? How long shall I hold this hug?”
Already we could be eternal, His arms falling over my shoulders,
my hands not meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in.
I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes into him.
He stands for it. This is his and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s getting it.
This Hug. So truly, so tenderly, we stop having arms and I don’t know if my lover has walked away
Or what, or if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses - what about them? - the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button on his coat will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek when I walk away.
When I try to find some place to go back to.

This poem really struck me, deep in the soul of me. It describes a stranger, probably a homeless man, who asks the couple who he sees hugging, “Can I have one of those?” This is a truly audacious request. How often in life do any of us express our naked vulnerability to others, in such a way? It is one thing to ask for change but to ask such nice respectable middle-class people to touch and hold him, to give their love away is seemingly beyond the pale.

At first the narrator is shocked and angered by the request. Here she is enjoying a private moment of intimacy with her lover, only to have it interrupted by this stranger. Her response is No. Don’t you realize that my partner’s love is for  alone? That it’s exclusive, "like a nose to a face?” and yet she cannot resists the strangers raw need and eventually she puts her arms around this strange, large man. She tries to hug him, falteringly at first and then she melts into him and the hug becomes deep and rich in meaning. She snuggles right into his thick coat, pressing her face into his button which leaves an imprint on her face. It would seem that the loving embrace was not so exclusive after all.

The beauty of this poem is in its universality. I’m sure that most of us can identify with both characters. I’m sure that most us have experienced that sense of emptiness and that feeling of being utterly devoid of love that the homeless man feels, so desperate that you would ask a stranger to hold you. And also be too afraid to give your love away, as it is only for your beloved. And then the moment of magic as you give in and you become transformed by giving your love away.

The poem brings to my mind images of Jesus from the accounts in the Gospels. One example is of Jesus healing a man suffering from Leprosy. He touched someone considered untouchable, unclean. The touch itself is an act of compassion and of recognition of their shared humanity. In so doing he recognises him as a man and he recognises his sacredness. Now for me this is where the power lies in the account, this is the universal lesson, that speaks through every generation. Who are the untouchables in our society? Who are the ones who are rejected? Who are the ones who wander around, homeless, alone and untouched by love?

To touch nothing and to never be touched is to live in hell. No one should have to live like this. We are all part of the one human family we all need to love and to be loved, or we just merely wither away and die, not necessarily physically but emotionally and spiritually. When we do we live a life of deadness, no one should be left to live this way. We all need to touch and we all need to be touched. So what do we do? Well I suppose we begin where we stand. We begin in our own lives, our hearts, our own families and our own communities, we begin there. We begin with our next simple human encounter. We begin by reaching out to one another. We begin by being open to one another, by allowing our lives to truly touch one another.

I’m going to end this chip of a "blogspot" with some words of blessing by John O’Donohue “A Blessing for the Senses”…

"A Blessing for the Senses" by John O’Donohue, from “Anam Cara”

May your body be blessed.
May you realize that your body is a faithful
and beautiful friend of your soul.
And may you be peaceful and joyful
and recognize that your senses
are sacred thresholds.
May you realize that holiness is
mindful, gazing, feeling, hearing, and touching.
May your senses gather you and bring you home.
May your senses always enable you to
celebrate the universe and the mystery
and possibilities in your presence here.
May the Eros of the Earth bless you.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Either everything matters or nothing matters

A little phrase has been on my mind for quite some time now “Either everything matters, or nothing matters.” I’ve been talking about it and writing about it for quite some time now. “Either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred.” Or another variance “Either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless.” I have lived on both sides of these divides during my 43 years of physical existence. These days I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything. I have noticed that since I turned this way that life has become sanctified and every single breath has become meaning filled.

Everything matters to me and yet the world outside of my window increasingly tells me that there is no meaning to anything and that religion and all forms of spirituality are merely delusions to give us consolation in an indifferent universe. They tell me that the rituals that we engage in are just futile attempts to give our lives meaning.

Is this so? What do you believe?

21st century Britain is on the surface a secular country and yet you see ritual and spiritual activity going on everywhere. A classic example has occurred on the other side of the road to Dunham Road Chapel where I live just a last few weeks ago. A young mother Natalie who worked in the dress shop just round the corner from the chapel was tragically killed on her way to pick up her child. The response to this tragedy has been incredible as all kinds of floral and other tributes have been left at the spot where it occurred. Many have come and marked this passing. This is a deeply meaningful activity where people are connecting beyond themselves and joining together to support one another. There is a real power at work, a power that is greater than all and yet present in each and every one of us. Some may call this Love and others call it God. It is far more than mere symbolism though and it is deep and rich in meaning.

You will see examples of this everywhere. In every town it would seem. Such road side activity is not just about death and tragedy either. Ever since I first saw the “Tree of Lost Sole’s” on the road to Warrington I have noticed other road side symbolism all over the place. It seems to me that they are no different to those Holy Shrines of ancient times, perhaps they too may one day become “Thin Places”, where the barriers between this world and the other world are narrowed. I have noticed that these things are deep and rich in meaning. They have certainly brought meaning and transformation to my life as they have brought me into closer contact with a reality greater than myself.

I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything, that all life is sacred and I also believe that it is our task to sanctify all life; I believe it is our task to realise the sacredness of everything. Everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every breath and every action.

The Buddha reputedly said “ Whereever you live is your temple if you treat it like one.” All ground is holy ground if we sanctify it. As Wendell Barry so beautifully put it. “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I believe it is our task to nurture the sacredness from which we are formed and to carry that out into our world, through our lives…Everything matters you know, every breath, every feeling, every thought, every deed impacts in some way on the chain of life…Everything matters.

Pierre Teilhard De Chardin claimed “This world this palpable world, which we are wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place and we did not know it. Venite adoremus."

All ground is holy ground. We all stand on holy ground. We can consecrate it with our presence or we can desecrate it with our presence in how we live on the ground on which we live and breath and have our being.

This is why ritual, worship and acts of remembrance are so important because they remind us of the sacredness of all life, including our own and those of our neighbours. If nothing matters, then nothing matters. If nothing is sacred then any act of barbarism can begin to be justified. When we begin to deny the sacredness of life, we fail to recognise the sacredness of one another and we can begin to deny that we are all part of one human family, we begin to separate ourselves from one another and from life itself.

John O'Donohue described this void beautifully in his book "Bendictus: A Book of Blessing" in piece titled "The Loss of Ritual Leaves us Naked in our Rites of Passage" he wrote:

“A threshold is a significant frontier where experience banks up; there is intense concrescence. It is a place of great transformation. Some of the most powerful thresholds divide worlds from each other: life in the womb from birth, childhood from adolescence, adulthood from middle age, old age from death. And on each side there is a different geography of feeling, thinking and being. The crossing of a threshold is in effect a rite of passage.

Our culture has little to offer us for our crossings. Never was there such talk of communication or such technology to facilitate it. Yet at the heart of our newfound wealth and progress there is a gaping emptiness, and we are haunted by loneliness. While we seem to have progressed to become experts in so many things – multiplying and acquiring stuff we neither need nor truly want – we have unlearned the grace of presence and belonging. With the demise of religion, many people are left stranded in a chasm of emptiness and doubt; without rituals to recognize, celebrate, or negotiate the vital thresholds of people’s lives, the key crossings pass by, undistinguished from the mundane, everyday rituals of life. This is where we need to retrieve and reawaken our capacity for blessing. If we approach our decisive thresholds with reverence and attention, the crossing will bring us more than we could ever have hoped for. This is where blessing invokes and awakens every gift the crossing has to offer. In our present ritual poverty, the Celtic tradition has much to offer us.”

...Ritual helps us to sanctify life and therefore recognise and experience the sacredness of existence...

Either everything matters, or nothing matters. Either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred. Either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless. We are all part of the one human family, the family of life. When we no longer recognise we begin to fail to acknowledge one another’s sacred mystery. We begin to separate one another, we begin to dehumanise. We are not all exactly the same we have different qualities, different characteristics, different gifts to offer as well as different needs. That said we are all made of the same substance, the very same substance that the whole universe is made of, or at least the matter we have knowledge of and I believe that the same spirit runs through all life. I do not personally believe it controls all of it, but it is certainly present, always there offering the lure of its love. It is our task to choose this love, because if we do not then we will begin to separate and alienate and I believe that it is this that causes the distrust and fear that leads to hatred and dehumanising violence.

The solution is simple, I believe, as solutions usually are. The solution is a reawakening to this sense of sacredness of all life, all existence.

You see either everything matters, or nothing matters; either everything is sacred, or nothing is sacred; either everything has meaning, or everything is meaningless.” What do you believe? Do you believe that everything ought to be sanctified or that life is devoid of any meaning at all? What is your choice to be?