Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Cathedral of the World: One Light Many Windows


During our recent visit to Transylvania Carolyn and myself were shown around Tirgu Mures. It is a beautiful city, with wonderful architecture, in stark contrast to some of the poorer villages we had visited the day before. Tamas (our host and my colleague) showed us around the Cultural Palace, wow what an incredible place!

In the palace were some beautiful stained glass windows, Carolyn was fascinated by them. She has a love for them, how they are made and the skill and beauty required to craft them; whereas I’m probably more interested in the light and what that light shines on, that pours through these and all the windows of the world.


Inside the cultural palace is an auditorium where beautiful works of creative art are performed, as they are in every major city. I loved sitting there and taking in the atmosphere, while somewhere in the background I could faintly hear rehearsals for the next concert. On the ceiling was a masterpiece of light. I spent several minutes staring directly at the intricate patterns and fell into a trance like state. I was greatly moved by the whole experience and chatted with Carolyn about it afterwards. We saw and experienced the encounter very differently; we are not alike, we see and experience life differently. I believe that this complimented our trip together as we learnt from one another's perspectives.

While we may well not have thought alike about our experiences together, we both loved them equally. As the father of Transylvanian Unitarianism Francis David is reported to have said “We need not think alike to love alike” This saying seems just a relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 16th century.


I recently attended the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation in Chorlton, with the Altrincham Interfaith Group. It was a warm, friendly and interesting evening. There is much of Buddhism that I like, but I know I am not a Buddhist. When I speak and listen to Buddhists, I know I am not a Buddhist. I feel the same way when I speak to people of many faith traditions, the true believers I mean. By the way I feel the same way when I speak to atheists, agnostics and humanists too. I experience the Divine in my life, I’m personally quite happy calling this God but I have not once found anywhere that offers me an absolute truth that I can follow 100%. I found a happy home amongst Unitarians, because here I found space to explore, to ask and to live the questions, to seek in community and of course to serve. By the way this is by no means the easier softer way, quite the opposite in fact.

Forrest Church put so beautifully into words exactly what I mean in his final Masterpiece “The Cathedral of the World” Here he asks us to imagine the whole of humanity standing under the ceiling of the cathedral of the world. Around this cathedral are millions of stained glass windows. There is a light outside of the cathedral shinning through all of the windows; this is the light of truth, the light of God. No one inside is able to stare at the light directly, we all see it passing through a painted window. Each of the windows distorts the light in some way; they only allow some of the light to pass through. Sometimes the light is refracted, by the tinted windows and occasionally it is blocked by the opaque aspects of each window. In some places the light is almost completely obscured.


This metaphor is an attempt to describe a 21st century Universalist theology, one that speaks powerfully to me. There is one light outside of the cathedral but there are many windows through which we can get a glimpse of the light. Each window is unique in its own way; each window is different; but none gives us a perfect image of the light. Each window is representing different religions, different ideologies, different philosophies, different dogmas, different views about life, the universe, everything. The key is to understand that each window has been fashioned by human hands, often with great skill, imagination, beauty, intelligence and artfulness that said through no one window is the light seen perfectly.

It is important to remember that we are also part of the reality, we are creating it too; we are not passive we are participators. The light is also shinning through us too. So not only are we receivers of the light, we are creators of it too, whether we realise this or not.

From where we view our particular perspective on the light we can begin to believe that what we see is the absolute truth and that the light only shines through our window; that only our window offers the true representation of the light; that what others see through their window is false, even stupid and irrational.  Forrest Church’s Universalism is saying something very different though. He is saying that each window conveys part of the truth and that no one window has a monopoly on the truth. He is echoing the words of the great twentieth century liberal theologian Paul Tillich who said “That which reveals also hides”.

I think it is important to accept that none of us ever glimpses the whole truth, no matter which window we are looking through and as my trip to Transylvania proved two people can look at the same thing and see something entirely different.

As Forrest has taught many times what is required is humility; genuine humility that teaches that we humans cannot know and understand everything. This is a good thing, because by genuinely accepting this we are opened up to a myriad of possibility that we probably believed were way beyond our capacity to experience.

The epistle Paul hints at this in his letter to the Corinthians (1ch 13), those beautiful words on love and charity. Here Paul gets to the very nature of humility when he says, “for now we see through a glass darkly”. He is making the point that even when our knowledge and understanding is not perfect, which I suspect it never can be, we cannot go wrong if we follow love and charity as a guide. Love and charity are universal principles shinning through virtually every one of the windows that the light is pouring through, it seems that the only ones not preaching it are the ones who are trying to throw rocks through the windows that others experience the light through.

I have learnt a lot from Forrest Church, he has articulated what the light through my window seems to reveal. The Universalism that he eloquently articulated and other liberal approaches to religion are not an easier softer way, in many ways its probably more challenging than absolutist approaches to belief and disbelief. This is though the way of openness of truth seeking and love experiencing. That said it is not perfect and it only glimpses at that light "darkly". Can any of us glimpse the light perfectly?

What’s the light like, that shines through your window?

Below his Forrest delivering his concept of "The Cathedral of the World" just a few months before he died.









Wednesday, 19 October 2011

There's no place like home




Sitting opposite me on the flight into Transylvania there was a young family who were obviously returning home. The daughter and the mother spent quite a lot of the flight teasing the dad, this both amused and delighted me as we passed over Europe. I had noticed that the little girl was wearing ruby slippers, like those worn by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. This amused me also, it put the broadest grin on my face.

On both the flight into Transylvania and the flight back we were, just by chance of course, sat with the same young woman. Interestingly she was also wearing red footwear, but of a more adult version. She was wearing red knee length boots. I was wearing red shoes too, trainers in my case. Now this may well mean nothing, but as I have reflected on the last week of my life meaning appears to have emerged.

As we came into land and looked down at the Transylvania countryside there was something very familiar looking about it. It reminded me of home, of some parts of the Yorkshire countryside. There is no place like home.

A sense of belonging is so important to a happy and stable life. I know this from painful personal experience. For much of my life I felt the ache of not belonging. Not that this was imposed from the outside, this really was an internal problem, people have always made me feel welcome where ever I have been. I know today that I did this to myself, the rest of the world and humanity always seemed a little alien to me. There was always a sense of distance, something I have to keep an eye on even today.

I got the sense that many of the Unitarians in Transylvania have this sense of not quite belonging. They are a minority within a minority, within a minority it would seem. First of all by being a religious community, however liberal, in an increasingly secular world; secondly by being Hungarian speakers in Romania; thirdly by their approach to religion and understanding of the bible, Unitarianism is a heresy after all. There may well be many Unitarians in Transylvania but they are still to some degree outside of the gate.

They are beautiful people and the most hospitable and loving you could ever wish to meet. They welcomed myself and Carolyn warmly into their lives. You could tell that it meant a lot to them that we had come to visit. I know that Carolyn was overwhelmed by the love shown to us throughout the trip. She was particularly touched by Mrs Abraham, the wife of the congregation’s Lay President. She held her hand during the service. Mrs Abraham could obviously sense that Carolyn was nervous as she had to deliver a speech. I have spent a few days with some of the world’s most beautiful people. They have permanently etched that love upon my soul.

Since I returned I have taken it very easy. I will not be returning to work until the morning (Yes I know I should not have written this or the other blog). I was at home yesterday visiting in Yorkshire. I love driving on the M62, through the Pennines, even if it is a little crazy at times. The weather was terrible yesterday. Wild! On the way back the rain was coming down harder than I have ever known. I was loving the drive though, I felt so free and alive. As I passed the farm that that sits as an island between the east and west bound lanes I was listening and singing along to a song I love “What a Wonderful Way to Go” by New Model Army. I was screaming it out loud with tears rolling down my cheeks, just grateful for being alive and being able to experience love. I have never felt so free in all my life. The last notes of the song ended as we passed a sign saying this was the highest motorway point in England, strangely the weather calmed down soon after.

The song "Wonderful Way to Go" is about a near death experience that Justin Sullivan, the bands singer song writer had on stage. He was electrocuted and seemingly died. After a few minutes he was revived. He says that he experienced all the classic symptoms of a near death experience and that people said that it changed him. This has often been the case for many folk who have had such experiences.

Now I have not experienced any quite as dramatic as a near death experience although there have been moments where I have felt touched by the presence of God, usually in my darkest hours and been changed as a result of them. I cannot offer a truly rational explanation for these expereinces but I know that they were real and each time have led me to a greater freedom and belonging. 

Driving back in the pouring rain last night screaming out loud “what a wonderful way to go” I felt that once again something had shifted within me. Last night, in the middle of a deep sleep, I felt touched by the presence of God.

Yes there really is no place like home and home is anywhere where you no longer feel alone.

Isten aldjo


Monday, 17 October 2011

Transylvania and the Serenity Prayer: Lessons in love

Once again I have learnt how vital being able to communicate is. I have been reminded that this takes time and effort and a little acceptance. To speak the language of the heart you must first of all listen with the ears of the heart. I know that fear and a sense of vulnerability often block me from this. When I am in fear of vulnerability I do not have ears to hear: my ears are blocked, my heart is blocked, my soul is blocked and I feel alone once again. In such a state I cannot hear the language of the heart as it speaks to me...less than a whisper, but more than silence...

I have just returned from a wonderful and wonder filled trip to Transylvania, spending time with Unitarian brothers and sisters there. I had been invited to participate in the 16th anniversary celebration of the Unitarian church of Maros St George which is the sister church to one of the two congregations I serve, Dunham Road Altrincham. This first reflection will not go into detail about the trip, I will instead talk about three moments that opened my heart.

The first moment came towards the end of the day visiting several Unitarian communities in the region. It was in a small village called Icland - there is no other settlement in the region whose name ends in land, the story goes that it was originally settled by people from Ireland or England – I walked up the hill towards the parish house and settled into a little schoolroom with a few adults and two teenage girls. For some reason I had images of Thomas Hardy or even Dickens in my mind as I walked up to house and looked at the village, none of the houses had running water, every one had a well. The minister lead a short religious education class and I was deeply moved by the conversation which she translated for me. It was a conversation about struggles with the current economic climate and the importance of letting go of control and not becoming blocked off from God. The words of the serenity prayer came to my mind “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference” – if only we could all find that wisdom to know the difference.  I was able to participate in the conversation, we spoke deep into one another's hearts. I left these people knowing I will probably never see them again, but also knowing that this conversation would be etched on my soul for a long time to come. During the conversation I had felt the presence of the spirit that I call God powerfully. I can picture the woman Elizabeth in my mind’s eye as she talked openly and eloquently of her struggles with life and faith...I had ears that could hear the language that she spoke, the language of the heart.


The next day we visited some local sites and spent some time in the Cultural Palace. I had noticed that I had struggled a little due to lack of space as I was staying with my host family. I am someone who is use to a lot of time and space alone. I live a very busy life but do connect and reconnect alone, throughout the day. I could feel that I was missing this. I was able to sit quietly in the cultural palace, in the main auditorium. I looked up at the ceiling which was incredible and the space below in silence. After a while I began to hear the sounds of an orchestra and choir practising. I began to feel the beauty of the place and in the space and quietness I felt some barriers drop...it opened my heart and I was then able to connect to the heart of the place throughout the rest of the day...I can feel the gentle music now, it was barely a sound but a little more than silence.


On the Saturday I was invited to preach and participate in Maros St George's anniversary service. Press had been invited. There was apparently a great deal of talk about mine and Caroline’s visits. By now I was feeling a part of everything. I had got a real feel for the spirit of the place. It was beginning to speak to me and I was able to hear what it was saying. I had learnt an important phrase for the Translvanian’s this is Ishtan Adjah (not spelt correctly), which means God bless. It is both a greeting and a farewell. I decided as people arrived I would greet them at the door, with these words. I was told afterwards that they thought that they had been greeted by a Hungarian and not an Englishman, as I spoke like a Hungarian. This meant a lot to me as I felt that I had now truly got into the spirit of the place. It was wonderful to participate in the service, to sing hymns in Hungarian and to be invited to preach, along with Tamas, the minister, translating. I opened up my heart and I felt their love too. I also felt and witnessed the spirit that I know as God, flowing through all of this.


This has been a wonderful trip and no doubt I will reflect on it a lot over the next few weeks. The language of the heart is a universal language that can break through any barrier, even fear and self protection. All that it requires is a little bit of faith and a whole lotta love; all that is required are ears that can listen and that wisdom to know the difference...I’ve had a wonderful reminder these past few days. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Have you seen the news today?

There was once a frail old man who lived with his son, his daughter in law and his 4 year old grandson. The son use to get very frustrated with the granddad at meal times because he would often spill his food onto the table and onto the floor. You see the grandfather’s hands shook. He made a right mess, just as his grandson once did. One day the son grew so frustrated that he decided that granddad could no longer eat with the rest of the family and would have to eat alone in another room. The family were then able to enjoy their meals together. The little boy though began to feel very sad. He noticed that there were often tears in his grandfather’s eyes and wanted to do something about it. He loved his granddad and he did not like to see him in pain.


The little boy loved Lego. One day he spent a long time carefully building several identical pieces with his blocks. His parents asked him “What are you building?” to which he replied “I’m making bowls for you and mummy for when I grow up and you get old and you have to sit in the other room at meal times.

His parents were shocked! But they immediately moved granddad back to the table. Interestingly granddad no longer spoiled meal times when his hands shook and he spilled his food. Granddad no longer cried either.

The little boy and sown some seeds of understanding into his parents lives. He brought them good news indeed and perhaps just as importantly they were able to hear what he had to say...they had ears that could listen.

It is easy to think that everything that we say, do and think has little or no meaning. That how we are has no real impact on the world in which we live.

Is this true? Is what we do insignificant?




While we as individuals are not masters of the universe, we are not the Prime Mover, what we do or do not do matters. We each and every one of us leaves an impact of some sort on this world of ours. It matters what we feel, think, say and do or for that matter do not do. A smile to someone passing you in the street may well set off a chain reaction of compassion throughout the world.

It really does matter

I was chatting with friends this morning over coffee. The conversation turned to the news and its impact upon us and how some people we know just will not watch it any longer, for fear of being dragged down into a pit of despair. “All we ever see is bad news”, they say. So the reaction is to turn away in indifference. I’ve done it myself from time to time, especially if I’m feeling a bit blue. You see they don’t seem to ever report the good news.

I have also noticed another response to bad news, people who seem obsessed almost addicted to it. Who put on the rolling news whenever a disaster or something unpleasant has happened in the world. This cannot be good for us and I am sure that it only feeds into the fear and dread we already have about life. It can prove to us that the world is an unsafe place and people are not to be trusted. It feeds those feelings of suspicion that we can all have as we go about our daily business. It leads to us looking at each other with fear in our eyes. When we feel like this we are highly unlikely to smile at the stranger. Quite the opposite I suspect and in fact if they did smile I am sure we would view them with suspicion. I know I have in the past.

A friend said to me, as we were walking back from the coffee shop this morning, that what is needed is some kind of chaos theory of love and compassion; that we need to spread this out into the world. I agree and strongly believe that one smile or act of love from a person in Altrincham can to lead to an avalanche or tidal wave of love in some other part of the world. These weren’t his exact words by the way, but it’s what I heard him say. Wonderful words I thought from someone who use to be the king of cynicism. By the way while he may have been the king, I was once the emperor. He told me that some small gesture I had done a while ago had led him to do something similar and that hopefully that would lead to the other person doing the same. The acts individually were nothing much in particular, but who knows what kind of chain reaction they may eventually lead to.

It seems that everything that we do and everything that we don’t do, does in fact matter. Who knows what chain reactions we are all setting off with every feeling, thought, word and action; by the way who knows what chain reactions we are setting off by our lack feeling, thought, word and action too. Everything we do or don’t do has an impact on the world we live in. No one is truly passive, even if they are doing nothing.

I love these words by Thich Nhat Hanh “The Good News”

They don't publish
the good news.
The good news is published
by us.
We have a special edition every moment,
and we need you to read it.
The good news is that you are alive,
and the linden tree is still there,
standing firm in the harsh Winter.
The good news is that you have wonderful eyes
to touch the blue sky.
The good news is that your child is there before you,
and your arms are available:
hugging is possible.
They only print what is wrong.
Look at each of our special editions.
We always offer the things that are not wrong.
We want you to benefit from them
and help protect them.
The dandelion is there by the sidewalk,
smiling its wondrous smile,
singing the song of eternity.
Listen! You have ears that can hear it.
Bow your head.
Listen to it.
Leave behind the world of sorrow
and preoccupation
and get free.
The latest good news
is that you can do it.

If they won’t print the good news, it’s up to us to spread it.

Of course there are those who do try to spread the good news. I remember as a child that “The News at Ten” use to have an “And Finally” section at the end of its news bulletins. This would tell of a heart warming story. The comedian Russell Howard has a television series titled “Russell Howard’s Good News” this is a satirical look at the week’s events. Each episode ends with a section called “It’s not all doom and gloom”. This also shows a heart warming or courageous clip from the internet.

It’s not all doom and gloom and it’s great to see people like Russell making the effort instead of just descending into the lazy cynicism of so many of today’s comedians. There is sadness in this world, but there is also beauty, love, compassion, courage too. It’s just a shame that most of the modern media no longer believes that this sells. The News of the World may well have gone the way of the Dodo and the dinosaur but what it traded on is still going strong, stronger than ever it would seem.

Perhaps the real problem is that we have become unreceptive to the good news. Maybe we no longer have ears that hear.

In “The Parable of the Sower” Luke 8: vv 4-8 Jesus tells the crowd that the sower threw seeds on the path that were trampled on and eaten by birds; while other seed fell on rocky ground where the roots were weak and therefore the plants withered and died; still others fell on thorn and the thorns grew up and choked the plants; finally some fell on good soil where they thrived and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing...a hundred fold.

The great sages such as Jesus and Buddha spoke in parables in attempts to help people get to the deeper meaning of their message. These stories told the good news. They wanted the ears that heard to wrestle with what was being said and therefore come to a deeper understanding.

I believe that in the “The Parable of the Sower” Jesus his telling his followers that in order to hear the good news you need to become receptive to it.

As I have said many times before I believe that every one of us has the potential for deep compassion as well as the potential for hatred and extreme selfishness. The key is to feed and develop that compassionate aspect of ourselves and then we can indeed impact positively on the world in which we live. I believe that the kingdom of heaven is within all of us, as is hell for that matter and that we can indeed build that kingdom here on earth; or we can build our own living hell here on earth. It really is down to how we all live our lives. “The Parable of the Sower”, programmes like Russell Howard’s, the word’s of Thich Nhat Hanh, little conversations in coffee shops, smiling at the person that you pass on the street, passing on a good turn given to you can indeed lead to some kind of chaos theory of love and compassion.

Start spreading the news, we can change our world today.


Actually forget all that and watch the following clip instead...



Saturday, 8 October 2011

“The Sounds of Silence”: “Still Small Voice of Calm”



"whispered in the sounds of silence"

 
“The Sound of Silence” is perhaps one of the most beautiful songs of all time. It is deeply poetic and meaningful. It describes our struggle to truly communicate with one another; that we only really communicate on a superficial level and therefore do not understand one another; “people talking without listening, people listening without hearing”. It is suggesting that we dare not really reach out and truly communicate – “take my arms that I might reach you” – to disturb the sounds of silence. The poet (the songs character) makes a futile attempt to reach beyond the silence; “but my words like silent raindrops fell within the wells of silence”. The enigmatic ending tells us that when meaningful communication fails all that is left is...the only sound is...silence.

“whispered in the sounds of silence”
  
Last Thursday, 6th October, was national poetry day. This is why I decided to pick these words by Paul Simon...whatever we think of the music, we cannot deny the beauty of the words.

One of my favourite hymns is entitled "Others Call it God. This my favourite verse:

“A picket frozen on duty,
A mother starved for her brood,
And Socrates drinking hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
And millions, who though nameless,
The straight, hard pathway trod –
Some call it consecration,
And others call it God”

While I do indeed find God in beauty and laughter and song I also find God in consecration, in mercy and love towards those who suffer and the suffering in nature too...that said maybe I find God in silence more than in the din and illumination of life.

“whispered in the sounds of silence”

Maybe we need to listen to “The Sound of Silence.”

This is not always easy, just to find silence, just to make room for silence. I know that I must and in fact I do. I do make some time in the morning to connect and to listen. I no longer turn the radio on when I first get up. I spend a short period in prayerful reflection and then shower and shave etc. I pay attention to what I am doing in silence. I’m not just being functional here, as I once was.

I no longer need the distraction.


In the Book of Kings (1 Kings ch 19) the prophet 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 God is in none of them. After the fire comes the still small voice – a voice, a sound like silence – it is this voice that is less than a whisper and yet not quite silence that signals the presence of the divine. Elijah then 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 many folk will no doubt dismiss this as a fanciful tale, like many of the tales told about Elijah it does sound beyond belief when read literally. Should we dismiss it though? Is this the wise thing to do? Perhaps there is a deeper metaphorical meaning here? I believe that there is a deep truth being described here. I do not believe that it should be dismissed as merely a fanciful tale.You may well ask why? Well because it seems that down through the ages this voice keeps on speaking; 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, Nelson Mandella, but perhaps it is not a voice as we understand it....less than a whisper and yet more than silence...


Maybe the voice is felt, rather than heard.

...the still small voice of calm, the sound of silence...

What is this still small voice of calm? What are the Sounds of Silence?

What is this something, this next to 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 gentle and yet 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 wrestle and struggle with it to find its true meaning. Maybe it is something more than a mere thought or feeling, that appears from nowhere or perhaps even beyond nowhere; this feeling that comforts, that accepts, 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; we have all experienced this sense of being addressed by something; we have all felt this powerful irresistible urge that is the source of art and poetry of religion, of love.

“Some people call it longing, And others call it God”

The passage from Kings portrays powerfully Elijah's experience with the Divine, in the stillness, in the quietness; it portrays it as powerfully as anything in our human canon, before or since. It is not unique though and is an experience we can all have if we take time to truly listen “to the sound of silence.” I have known it myself; I try not to ignore it these days. I need to hear it as it gives me the courage to trust, to have faith in life, to have faith in the promptings of my conscience, to have faith in myself and to have faith in God.


It is said that one night after receiving a threatening phone call, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that Martin Luther King Jr went into his kitchen and sat quietly, desperate, alone and ready to give up. At this point of brokenness and hopelessness he prayed out loud the words “I’ve come to a point where I can’t face it alone”.  At this very moment, bursting from deep within him came these words, “Stand up for justice; do what you believe is right.”

The author Taylor Branch said this about the incident:

“The moment lacked the splendour of a vision or of a voice speaking out loud. But the moment awakened and confirmed his belief that the essence of faith is not some grand metaphysical idea but something personal, grounded in experience – something that opens up mysteriously beyond the predicament of human beings in frailest and noblest moments.”

In his darkest hour in his moment of doubt and despair Dr King found that silence and entered a greater depth, a void and in that place hope and deeper faith was unearthed and tapped into.

He heard and responded to that still small voice of calm in the sounds of silence.


I am learning more and more that so much of ministry is about listening: "Listening with the ears of your heart". Not merely listening to the words that are said, but to what is beneath the words, to what is really going on. By the way I am not only speaking about people here. I, I think we all, need to listen to not only what is being said on the surface of life or in the centre of our vision, but beneath the surface too and in the corners of our vision too..."There is something in the corner of our lives that we cannot quite see"...I do believe that the conscience, life, the universe, God does indeed speak, but not loudly or aggressively, gently and quietly.

It seems to be less than a whisper and yet something more than silence.

It is that still, small voice of calm almost hidden in the sounds of silence

You see the real trouble is that everyone is talking, but are any of us really listening.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

"Ithaca": The Beautiful Journey & National Poetry Day





Today 6th October 2011 is National Poetry Day. Due to this I thought I would publish this reflection inspired by one of my favourite poems “Ithaca” by Constantine P Cavafy. Here read by Sean Connery.

No one can honestly say that can they predict the future, where life will lead us. What we will end up doing or where we will end up going and who we will end up with. We do not know who we will meet along the way and we don’t know what these folk will give or perhaps take from our lives. Some people we will meet only once and never again; some will stay with us a short while and others will be with us until the day our bodies breathe their final breath, but we do not know who these people are the day we are born.

It’s much the same with situations. Some we may experience only once, many we may never experience and others we will continue to experience over and over again. At the beginning of our lives we can not predict what these are and would we really want to even if we could?

I do not personally believe that these are preordained either, before we were born. Do not get me wrong I am not an atheist I have a strong faith in a force that runs through life, that I call God. That said the God of my understanding does not control all life and does allow it to develop freely. For me God offers the Lure of Love to all life but does not control every interaction.

Eight years ago today 6th October 2003 the final stages of a part of my journey were just beginning to end. I entered into what I can only describe as a living hell. Thankfully I came out of this on 10th October 2003 and I have never really been the same man since.

How often have we heard the phrase “Life is a journey”? Sometimes beautiful; sometimes frightening!

For all of us at times just to simply step out into the world takes all the courage we can muster. Past experiences can often stop us dead in our tracks. Fear can block our attempts to step out into the world and back into the adventure of life with all its many challenges. Fear is always present to stop us to block us along the way.

Human history is littered with stories and adventures inspired by the search for treasure and or wisdom Whether these adventures be Jason and the Argonauts or many of the other Greek tales, Pilgrims Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Lord of the Rings the list is endless. Human history is littered with folk tales and myths which teach us so much about what life is in all its potential both for beauty and horror.


Joseph Campbell who spent years exploring such myths believed that these stories helped us to fully understand how we are often called out into new adventures in our lives. He identified four distinct stages of the journey. The first stage Campbell named “The Call to Adventure”. This he claimed is caused by discontent, which draws us out of the comfort of our lives to risk something new; the second stage is a form of initiation where goes through a series of ordeals that test their mental and physical skills; The third stage is the time of revelation the discovery of truth and treasure; the final stage is the return to one’s community. With wisdom gained and with treasure to share.

Throughout our lives we are constantly called out and challenged to the adventure. I have learnt that in order to succeed in this requires faith in life itself and a sense of openness and courage to overcome the challenges that can come our way. I have learnt that the key is not to bring our own monsters with us along the way and therefore just deal with what we meet on the road.

This I believe is what the poem Ithica is hinting at when it says:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Most of the demons that got in my way a few years back were not real at all, but merely fears created from my own past. They made me afraid to try; therefore I ignored the call to adventure for so long. You see the call itself is not enough, there also needs to be faith in the adventure itself that it will be a joy and one worth taking.


This faith comes naturally to children because they have not yet learnt to fear life. I believe that Jesus his hinting at this in Mark 10 v 15. Here Jesus states:

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 
I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."

He is really speaking to his disciples and through this the author of Mark is telling us something of what faith must be, it must have an openness and be an almost innocent faith that the adventure that is life is worth taking. Of course it is talking specifically about Christian faith here, but for me this is a universal principle.

Neither is the call to adventure really about the potential treasure that can be found at the end of it, rather the treasure in it. The  poem Ithaca is certainly hinting at this. It is telling the reader to keep “Ithaca”, the call, in mind. It is also telling us that it’s not really the destination but the adventure itself that is the treasure. It ends by saying:

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithaca means.

The key is the adventure, and to maintain that adventurous spirit. To live with the eyes of and heart of a child, to maintain that sense of awe and wonder that comes so naturally to them. Often in life the greatest gifts can come from the worst horrors, that has certainly been my experience.

How often has it been said that life is what you make it. For me this doesn’t mean you can have whatever you want in life and do whatever your heart desires. In my experience this is not true. That said whatever horrors may be bestowed upon us, something wonderful and beautiful can come from them, if we can only find and maintain that spirit that Jesus saw in children.

As for the destination well who knows the answer to that, certainly not me. I suspect there is more beyond this physical form but I cannot say for certain. In any case that should not stop us from enjoying the adventure we are on now, from learning from it and passing that knowledge on to those we meet further down the road. Where ever it may lead us.

No one can predict the future. I do not believe it has already been written. Personally I think it is better that way. To want to know what will happen is just another form of human vanity that is inspired by a fear without faith.

I’ve grown accustomed to the uncertainty.

Chaos rules ok.