Saturday, 4 January 2014

A Rose in the Winter Time

“And I’ll bring you hope when hope is hard to find and I’ll bring a song of love and rose in the winter time.” Carolyn McDade 

The last few weeks have been particularly difficult within my wider family. Both my grand dad and my step brother Allen are very close to the end of lives. They have over the Christmas holidays been moved into hospices in different parts of the country.

I was feeling particularly low between Christmas and New Year, I hit an emotional rock bottom. I rang my sister Mandy whose birthday it was in the 27th of December. As we talked things began to change within me. During the conversation she repeatedly said to me that she keeps on looking for the love and it is this that carries her through the darker days. A couple of days later she sent me an email that although filled with sadness and suffering, was beautifully transformative; she wrote some of the most beautifully faith filled words I have read in some time.

Mandy had gone to visit Allen, he had been taken into the hospital, for the final time. On arriving she looked around the grounds, there was little or no natural life to be found. All the trees were bare and the plant life had died off. This deepened her sadness as she walked inside. Sometime later, as she was leaving, she noticed a lifeless shrubbery which she gazed at for a few moments. Suddenly her eyes caught sight of something else, one of the most beautiful winter sights anyone could wish to see. A single rose, "a rose in the winter time". In that moment she realised that she had found the love that she had been searching for; this love has continued to grow as she passed it on to me and it brought me hope when I was struggling to find it; the email was a pure song of love as she told me of that rose in the winter time. Strangely I’ve heard the birds outside my window singing more clearly these last few days. I've found that “peace that passeth all understanding”, once again, as I have fully accepted life and stopped doing battle with reality.

There is a somewhat peculiarly worded Celtic wedding vow that I have heard uttered by several people recently. It reads as follows..

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

It is not what you would describe as romantic and yet there is something deeply moving about it. It touches something way down in the depths of my being. It is the line “I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place” that has been resonating with me for quite some time.

I am learning that one of the keys of spiritual living is an undefended, an open, heart. This can be extremely painful and difficult at times, but I have learnt how vital it is for me. When I close down or put on my suit of armour life soon loses its flavour. I suppose that this is why I’ve always struggled with the sentiment of Ephesians 6 vv 10-18, the passage commonly known as “God’s Armour”. I was recently at an Anglo Catholic church where I saw an image based around this passage. I remember thinking to myself “gosh that’s the last thing I would want.”

For me religion and spirituality are not about being at war or in conflict. It is hard for anyone to truly know what God's will for them might be but I am fairly certain the God of my limited understanding does not want me armour plaited. I know these kinds of images appeal to many and certainly to some of my own friends who are Christians. Not to me though and it does seem in conflict with the message I find in the Gospels.

Increasingly for me the spiritual life is about “Living with an unarmoured heart”, easier said than done I know. 

We all have defence mechanism, things we do to protect ourselves from being hurt. I am sure we are all familiar with the fight and flight mechanism. There is another reaction to perceived danger too that perhaps we are less familiar with, it is certainly one that is less talked about. I have come to call this the freeze mechanism. It is something I am very familiar with, for I have utilised it throughout my life. Basically when trouble strikes a frozen person appears to continue to function normally on the outside, but inside, emotionally at least, they shut down, they internally hibernate. When it happens to me my neck and shoulders become stiff, my throat dries up, the base of my skull seems to become warm and itchy, my skin tightens around my face, I tend to blow out a lot and it feels like someone has just dropped a great rock into the pit of my stomach. These are the moments when I build up my walls and try to keep life out.

How many of us spend lifetime’s building walls around our hearts that we think will protect us when in fact all they succeed in doing is block us off from the love present in life? It does not have to be like that. We can live with an undefended heart. Just imagine what that might be like.

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

But how do we know if we are living this way? Well I have discovered that I am living openheartedly when I am not at war with life, when I am not arguing with reality and not avoiding intimacy, especially with my own thoughts and feelings. I have found myself arguing with reality at times these past few weeks, but thankfully this has not lasted, I have not remained in a frozen state for too long. Another sign is the capacity to see joy even when in deep pain and unhappiness.

To live joyfully is live by heart. I think too often we live by the head alone; this so often limits our human experiences. The head should not be master in my book. Why? Well because so often it does not tell us the whole truth, it can limit our experience. There is something deeper something more that occurs when we attempt to live by the heart and an unarmoured one at that.

A few weeks ago, during worship, I shared a version of the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” story with the congregations I serve. After I’d finished I asked them to sing the song to me. Virtually every single one of them did so and they loved it; they enjoyed themselves as they let themselves go. They knew the words too. I am certain that this was not because they had spent hours studying them; no instead they learnt them by heart. They learnt them as they sang the words joyfully. Those words and many other songs and other aspects of our lives are stored somewhere deep within us, much deeper than our minds and even deeper than our hearts. I would say that they are embedded in our souls. This is why they spring from our hearts at certain times. How many times do we find ourselves doing something or going somewhere when suddenly something just bursts out from the core of our being? Some old lost memory, something we probably couldn’t remember if we searched our minds and yet there it comes bursting from our open hearts.

A couple of years ago I attended a session led by “singing therapists” who work with people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They explained how singing old songs, especially from their childhood and young adulthood, brought many people who seemed almost lost back to life, if only for a few moments. I have since watched several television programs that have explained how this works. Now I do not understand the scientific explanation for this and it’s not my place to attempt to explain, I am after all a minister of religion. You can look that up yourselves. All I know is what I witness and that’s people who are seemingly lost coming back to life, if only for the briefest of times. What I see is heart memory not only surviving but at times thriving. To me it is another beautiful example of that rose in the winter time; another beautiful symbol of pure hope.

Now please do not get me wrong when I talk of living by heart I am not for one moment decrying the mind, far from it. It is vital that in matters of religion and all life that we develop the mind and maintain rational perspective. That said I also believe that we must also watch out for the fetters that can be created by our own minds. We need to be careful that we are not ruled wholly by the mind, that we do not make it a God.

We are now a few days into a New Year. I suppose my simple message as we step further into it is to try and live as open hearted as we possibly can; to not be ruled by the fears of what might be or the frustrations and let downs of the past; to not put on that suit of armour and go into battle with life. It will not protect us in any case; all it will do is block us off from what really matters in life. The God I have come to know does not want or need this from us. I believe that this infinite source of all love would prefer us live with an unarmoured heart and an open spirit. I believe that by doing so we will see the beautiful symbols of hope all around us and by doing so we may just bring some hope into the lives of other. For we all need to know that rose in the winter time.

“Cos I’ll bring you hope when hope is hard to find and I’ll sing a song of love and a rose in the winter time.”

“The Rose

Some say love it is a river 

That drowns the tender reed. 

Some say love it is a razor 
That leaves your soul to bleed.

Some say love it is a hunger 

An endless, aching need 

I say love it is a flower, 
And you it's only seed.

It's the heart afraid of breaking 

That never learns to dance 

It's the dream afraid of waking 
That never takes the chance

It's the one who won't be taken, 

Who cannot seem to give 

And the soul afraid of dying 
That never learns to live.

When the night has been too lonely 

And the road has been too long. 

And you think that love is only 
For the lucky and the strong.

Just remember in the winter 

Far beneath the bitter snow 

Lies the seed that with the sun's love, 
In the spring, becomes the rose.

by Amanda McBroom

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