Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Journey of One Inch: Living in the Layers

"A Spiritual Journey"

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.

by Wendell Berry

I went to bed last Saturday night not sure how I was going to spend my Sunday off. I’d had a lovely few days away with friends and family and was now happily back at home. I awoke on Sunday morning and instinctively knew what I needed to do. It was “Mothering Sunday” and I thought to myself, today I will keep “Mothering Sunday” and return to the Mother Church and so I set off into Manchester to Cross Street Chapel. Cross Street Chapel is the place that I had discovered the Unitarian tradition, almost by accident, one cold January in 2005.

If it was an accident it was a beautiful one by the way as a whole series of seeming coincidences conspired to bring me to that place at that time in my life. some would call it synchronicity, well maybe, maybe not...I give thanks and praise everyday that it happened...despite the suffering that has accompanied the joy...

As I drove into town, tears began to form and fall from my eyes as memories of times past grew from my soul. Times connected with Cross Street and the people I had known there and of course memories of my own family and friends. I remembered those I have loved and lost in recent times and over the last few years. I remembered the “Mothering Sunday” service in 2006, which Ethan had participated in, just a few months before he was killed. I remembered how much his short life had given to me, both on a human and spiritual level. I thought of his mother, my dear friend Claire and her own journey since his death. I remembered my former ministers both John and all he had given to me and of course dear Jane whose funeral I had attended only a couple of weeks previously. I also had memories of the “Old Lad” (my grandad) as well as “Our Allen” and other people who had touched my life and who are no longer physically a part of it. As I wept and drove I felt a real sense of release coming through my body and the spirit move within as another layer of skin around my soul began to loosen. I thought of The Clash song “Gootta lose this skin, that I’m imprisoned in, gotta lose this skin.” Sung by Tymon Dogg.

It was a moving, thought provoking, service led by the student minister Ralph Catt’s; it was lovely to worship with some faces old and new. As I drove home that afternoon those words of Wendell Berry's poem "A Spiritual Journey" came up from my heart and into my mind. I felt that I understood, maybe for the first time, that the spiritual journey is not really one of length, but one of depth. It’s not really about physically going anywhere and yet the landscape or at least ones perception of it seems to constantly change. We do not need to blast into space to enter a new world. We do not need to enter outer space; what we need to do is learn to truly inhabit the inner space; we need to learn to be at home, to belong here; we need to learn to live in the layers of our own lives. That’s the real journey.

Now no doubt the Wendell Berry poem is inspired by the Christian mystic Meister Ekhart.It was he who claimed that the spiritual journey is not one of distance, that we do not so much travel on a physical pilgrimage from A to B to C to D etc, that the spiritual journey is some kind of linear progression in which we reach some goal, some new state of being way over there in some distant realm. No instead we discover new truths, understandings and experiences as we journey through life in a cyclical sense and that as we do so we move deeper into the layers of our own being and find ourselves at home in the layers of our own lives.

John O’Donohue claimed that

“Meister Eckhart radically revises the whole notion of spiritual programs. He says that there is no such thing as a spiritual journey. If a little shocking, this is refreshing. If there were a spiritual journey, it would be only a quarter inch long, though many miles deep. It would be a swerve into rhythm with your deeper nature and presence. The wisdom here is so consoling. You do not have to go away outside yourself to come into real conversation with your soul and with the mysteries of the spiritual world. The eternal is at home — within you.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: a Book of Celtic Wisdom)

O’Donohue further claims that sometimes we don’t see what is already here, what is within us. This is because we have become too familiar with our own surroundings and that this has lead to us losing our sense of belonging. This is why we search out there beyond, because we fail to recognise this sense of belonging within ourselves and our own surroundings and experiences. It is the very familiarity that is the problem. Therefore we need to dig deeper within the layers of our own being in order to see through the fa├žade.

He states that:

“One of the difficulties for people, in awakening to their inner world is the familiarity of their lives. They find it hard to find something that is really new and interesting and adventurous in themselves and yet everything that we really need for our journey here has already been given to us. So there's a great strangeness in the shadows of our soul world, that we should become more conversant with and closer to.”

Last week on returning home I became aware that something had changed both within myself and in my relationships with my nearest and dearest. The familiar seemed less recognizable and as a result I was able to bear witness to everything with new vision; as a result I was able to hear everyone and everything with a deeper clarity; as a result I seemed to understand all that is in a new light; as a result I experienced a deeper intimacy with everything and everyone.

It seems that I have gone down deeper into the layers of my own soul and the soul of life and more has been revealed. What once seemed familiar seemed oh so different. This did not frighten me, far from it. Instead I felt excited by this and felt more at home both in my own skin and the world that I live within. It feels like the beginning of a new adventure and yet one that does not require me to walk down a different road.

And yet while everything felt so new there was still an abiding sense of the familiar too. I noticed a deepening sense of connection to my own past and a deeper understanding of who I am, who I have always been. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot of in recent weeks, as a deeper intimacy with who I am, past, present and even future has developed. I wonder sometimes, when speaking of spiritual matters, if we focus too much on the moment and in doing so if we lose this sense of the richness of our whole lives. It brought to mind a quote I recently came across by Stanley Kunitz

“I think it's important for one's survival to keep the richness of the life always there to be tapped. One doesn't live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you became conscious.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rev Jane Barraclough, these last few weeks, as I have grieved her death. Obviously she came into my consciousness while I worshipped at Cross Street Chapel last Sunday. One thing that Jane’s ministry awakened within me was a love for poetry, especially in worship. This is something I will always treasure. When I qualified as a minister she gave me a book as a gift. The book is “Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds” Edited by Neil Astley & Pamela Robertson-Pearce. I have used many poems from it these last three and a half years. She wrote a dedication in the book “For dearest Danny. All blessings on your many ministries. Love Jane.” She knew me well and understood my many ministries.

In the book is the poem “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.

“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem was written at a pivotal moment in Kunitz’s long career. He believed that it spoke of something that was central to his whole experience of being a poet and a person. He wrote it in response to a personal crisis. He had suffered several grief’s, including his mother and two older sisters as well as several dear friends. It was a written at a time of change in his life, both personally and as a writer. He stated that

“. . . I wrote 'The layers' in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. . . Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends, including Theodore Roethke, Mark Rothko, and - most recently - Robert Lowell. I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work. The poem began with two lines that came to me in a dream, spoken out of a dark cloud: 'Live in the layers, not on the litter.”

“Live in the layers, not on the litter.” There is some beautiful wisdom here...I wonder from where it came...

In many ways this simple line may well be the key to everything, to live in the layers of our lives, the whole of our lives. So often we want to move on and leave behind the litter, the mess, the pain and the suffering, but to do so is to fail to bear witness to our whole lives. I believe that we have to live in our whole lives, we can’t just pick and choose and no matter how hard we try we can’t really leave our lives behind.

Kunitz was an avid gardener and maybe it is from this love that the idea of the layers grew. In horticulture “layering” is a method of propagation that brings forth new life from the dying or broken stem. This allows new roots to form and therefore life goes, or do I mean grows, on.

We cannot live on the brokenness of our lives, but we can grow anew from the litter if we live within the layers. We cannot completely begin anew, nor should we want too; we cannot leave behind was has gone before, nor should we want too; we cannot escape who we are, nor should we want too. The spiritual journey is not one of distance it is one of depth, it’s about finding ourselves at home in the ground at our feet. It’s about living in the layers.

The spiritual journey is not one of distance, but one of depth. It will at times appear arduous and painful and it will certainly be humbling as we are brought to our knees by the suffering that is a part of life. And yet from this very suffering we will re-awaken once again, like the new spring. It is this that opens us and it is this that brings the joy of living once again. It is this that will bring us home, to greater sense of belonging to all that has been, all that is now and will ever be. It is this that breeds deeper intimacy with ourselves, with those who we share life with and with the eternal spirit, that I name God.

So I say let us continue “in” our journey, let us “live in the layers”

Let’s sing the joy of living in all its mystery and invite others to come and join us in song, for they too can begin again to belong.

Let’s “Live in the layers, not on the litter.”


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