Saturday, 18 October 2014

Bonkers for Conkers: Spirituality & Joy

Last week I was trawling through my collection of anthologies and meditation books for suitable material for the service I created on “Autumn: Impermanence & Change”. As is always the case I found far more than I needed for the task. One piece I chose not to share was “Conker Time” by Elizabeth Tarbox. I will share it with you now...I think it is gorgeous...

"I picked up a horse chestnut Friday, right on the street in Cambridge near Harvard Divinity School.

Imagine that, a perfectly new horse chestnut. There were more for the picking had not my shyness and the stares of passersby prevented me from darting and pouncing to gather them up.

When I was a child, horse chestnuts were currency. Conkers, we called them. Better than a sixpence or even a shilling: a new conker had market value. Kids couldn’t wait to harvest the green prickly cocoon with its polished mahogany prize. We’d climb the branches and knock the conkers off with a stick. No adult would’ve gotten near a bonanza like the one I found on Friday.

Funny the things we value: a new coat or a new car, a job that pays better, a best friend, or a good night’s sleep. Me, I have always valued gifts from the earth. I hold this horse chestnut as I write about it. The warm brown nut fits my palm like a thumb in a baby’s mouth, and the rich shiny skin gives my eyes something worthy of their sight. So I stare at it as if it were a crystal that could show me not the future, but the past; autumns of childhood and wading in Wellington boots through rustling leaves and playing with conkers on my way home from school."

...I love it...Isn't it beautiful...

Now although I had originally rejected it I carried so much of the beautiful wisdom contained with it with me, it has been tapping me on shoulder ever since.

Well a little later I was chatting with a friend who was recounting tales from her childhood. She was telling me how so much of her view about her own life had changed in recent times and how so many of her memories were now so joy filled. She spoke of growing up in Ireland and after a while she began to recount a tale about going conkering and how conkers became currency among her friends. As I was listening to her images of my own childhood came back to me. What was truly beautiful was that my friend’s memories, Elizabeth Tarbox’s memories and my own memories were almost identical, we shared the same autumn rituals, even though we grew up at different times and in different places.

I then told my friend that I had just read a short piece that was almost identical to what she had just recounted to me. We were both blown away by the synchronicity of it all. It was one of those beautiful, magical, moments that living open heartedly can bring.

After the conversation lots of childhood memories came flooding into my mind, my heart and my soul. Memories of Sunday afternoons and going down to Briar Wood with my grandma and brother and sister and hunting for conkers and being totally immersed in the activity. After the harvest we would then take them back to the farm and try to select the best ones and create the champion conker. We would try all the different techniques that we had heard of to create the one that would be able to beat the one of legend that someone at school had, "someone said they had a ‘hundred’er’, someone said they had a ‘thousand’er’."

When I look back at it the whole process was a mindfulness practise, as we became totally absorbed in what we were doing and the people we were engaging in it with.

Think about it…

We became totally absorbed in the thrill and anticipation as we walked down to Briar Woods and as we told tales about the woods and how they came to be and all the mythology about and the place, there were history lessons thrown in too as well as lessons about biology, geography, mythology and a little theology too. The whole enterprise was Hope filled, this time we were going to find and create the champion conker. As we gathered the conkers in we became increasingly connected to the process, filling our bags as we gathered from the ground and throwing up sticks to try and reach the ones that had not yet fallen. Then there was the thrill and connection and conversation as we walked back up the hill, listening and telling stories and dreaming of creating the champion conker. We would then empty our bags onto my grandma’s kitchen worktop and she would add the ones she had obviously lovingly spent time collecting all week. She would tell us of her and friends trip to Harrogate and of them all going collecting conkers for their grandchildren, such loving action.

We would then set about trying all the different techniques to create the champion conker. Again discussing all the myth and mystery in it. Then came the hardest bit of skewering them and putting a strong shoe lace through. I wonder how many potential champions I ruined in my attempts to get the skewers through. Eventually, with a little bit of help, I managed to get a few decent ones.

Then it would be Monday morning and thrill and buzz of conversations in the playground as we became absorbed in our stories about our own conkers and then battle would commence. Yes there was a little pain as we would miss and wrap one another on the knuckles. So we would shorten the string for more accuracy but less power. This would go on for weeks it seems until someone became champion, well at least for one year.

I never became champion, but by golly I never felt happier and never felt more connected to the world in which I lived and the people I shared my life with.

Just beautiful, beautiful memories…

Apparently this year is a bumper year for Horse Chestnuts (the official name for conkers) This is due to the mild weather and lack of rain this year. So you would expect to hear of great stories of conkers and conkering, but alas this is not so. It seems that conkering is another one of those activities that has waned in popularity over the years as children have found other things to do and schools have become afraid of children injuring themselves with these apparent “deadly weapons”. I cannot imagine though that whatever these activities maybe they engage holistically to exactly the same extent as conkering did.

Oh well I have enjoyed remembering happy childhood times these last few days and several friends have also shared similar memories with me of their own childhoods. It has been wonderful for us all as it has brought us closer together both to one another and to our pasts. Something that I believe is vital to those who wish to live in the present moment.

Memory is a funny thing. It is amazing what we remember and what we cannot remember, how memory can be so very selective. Memory also changes over time. My memory or do I mean my perspective on past events in my life, have changed over time. It happened again only this week.

My friend and colleague Rev David Shaw says this about memory...

“The dictionary reminds us that ‘remember’ literally means to ‘re-member’; to put back together that which has been torn apart. In some way remembering has a similarity to ‘religion’, which means ‘to rebind together’.

Both are about seeking after a wholeness, and isn’t that what we are about most of the time?”

Well that again has been happening this week, this autumn. I have been rebinding so many memories and this has allowed me to connect to life on a much deeper level. It has been great. It has certainly brought a deeper sense of wholeness to my life and I hope to the lives of others who I have engaged with.

Playfulness and joyfulness are essential elements of a deep and meaningful life. Sometimes this is an aspect of spiritual life which can easily get lost as we take it and ourselves too seriously. God though surely wants us to be happy joyous and free and not live life glumly, as if it were a veil of tears. Yes there is suffering present in life and there is a time for everything under the sun. Well the last few weeks have reminded me how vital play is, as I have re-membered so many joyful and joy filled times, throughout my life. A couple of weeks ago I even spent a day at Alton Towers going on all the rides and been thrown about and thrilled and exhilarated. It was wonderful and wonder filled time as I let go absolutely. I will be making sure I make more time for play in the future.

Play is vital. It does not have to be physical either, the best kind if play can often be found in conversation or sometimes just the look someone can give. We must play though if we are to live a fulfilling spiritual life.

We each of us have inside us, no matter how old we are, that child who knows how to play, with complete abandon. Our whole world needs us to be playful, God needs us to live playfully. It is a vital aspect of creation and I firmly believe that we are co-creators in the dance that is creation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” It is playfulness that sets us free and enables us to use our natural creativity as best we can.

Playfulness often leads to laughter. Laughter is not only the best medicine it can also lead us to deeper truths about ourselves and the mysteries of life. Every spiritual tradition has it Holy Fool. Every Sunday, during worship, I share at least one story from our human canon, often there is great humour and playfulness within them, but there is also a serious message, that the humour helps to deliver.

Humour is so vital, it helps us to connect spiritually...It is vital to live in good humour...

To be in good humour means to be in good health. Linguistically humour has its roots in the ‘old’ French word ‘humor’, derived from the Latin ‘umere’. Physicians of medieval times believed that we had four different types of internal fluids that they called ‘humors’ and it was these that determined our physical and mental health. Therefore if a person became ill it was believed that their humors were out of balance. I do so love etymology, language has had such a fascinating journey and an amusing one at that.

So to be in good humour literally means to be in good health. This is why playfulness and humour is so vital to a healthy spiritual life. Humour is best enjoyed with others in the company of others who want to really let go. It is so easy to get caught up in the seriousness of life and to worry about what might be or to live with regret of what has been in the past. This is not healthy you know and I don’t think it helps us or anyone else. Sometimes we need to let go and have some serious fun, to be childlike once again, so that we are then better equipped to live with the serious issues of life.

John O' Donohue said of humour and laughter...

“There’s something really subversive in laughter and in the smile on the human face. It’s lovely and infectious to be in the company of someone who can smile deeply.

I think a smile comes from the soul. And I also love its transitive kind of nature—that if you’re in the presence of someone who has a happiness and a laughter about them, it’ll affect you and it’ll call that out in you as well.

Your body relaxes completely when you’re having fun. I think one of the things that religion has often prevented us from doing is having really great fun. To be here, in a way—despite the sadness and difficulty and awkwardness of individual identity—is to be permanently invited to the festival of great laughter."

So I invite you this autumn to bring alive both within yourselves and one another a festival of great laughter, to bring some joy to our world and to have a little fun…Remember life is too serious a business to be taken too seriously.

To end I'd like to share another childhood memory "The Wombles: A Conkering Hero"

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