Sunday, 13 June 2021

Aftermath: Living in the Layers of Life

Now as some folk know I have a deep love of the origins of words. I have a keen interest in old words that have gone out of common usage, or words that have changed in meaning over time. One of my favourite things on “Facebook” is “Grandiloquent: Word of the Day”. I recently learnt the origins of the world “Aftermath”. In its most common understanding “Aftermath” means “the consequences or after-effects of a significant unpleasant event. There is though a second meaning. It is a farming term meaning “new grass growing after mowing or harvest. This second understanding is closer to the original meaning of “aftermath”, which dates back to the early 16th century meaning a second crop of grass grown on the same land after the first had been harvested, also known as aftercrop, aftergrass and or lattermath.

Here’s an example from the poem “Aftermath” by Longfellow

When the summer fields are mown,

When the birds are fledged and flown,

And the dry leaves strew the path;

With the falling of the snow,

With the cawing of the crow,

Once again the fields we mow

And gather in the aftermath.

So, as you can see “aftermath” means something very different to what it used to. It’s original meaning had positive connotations, like a bonus crop that can be harvested again. Yet today when we think of “aftermath” this is not what we understand; today the meaning has only negative connotations.

Some say that we are living in the aftermath of the pandemic, although truth is that it is not over. Certainly not here, but especially in other parts of the world. That said aftermath isn’t about starting over it is about growing from what is already there. No one gets to start over in life. There are no clean slates or blank sheets. We live from where we are, life goes on from the moment it is in. “Aftermath” does not only mean what follows a disaster, a terrible event, it also means a new growth of grass following one or more mowings, which may be grazed, mowed, or plowed under. Perhaps this concept of aftermath can help us in our time and place.

We have to metaphorically speaking at least, graze on what we have, we have to mow on and plough on what we have, we cannot just simply begin again. We have all been through a difficult time there has been much grief on so many levels, not just in recent days, but throughout our lives. We have live with this and grow from this.

As I was thinking of this idea of mowing on again, following a difficult time, a barren harvest, the following favourite of mine by Stanley Kunitz came to mind “The Layers”. I have shared it before, but it is worth hearing again.

“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. It was written 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 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.”

Un my eyes the poem is a wonderful example of “Aftermath”, in both senses of the word. Yes it is about picking up the pieces after a crisis, but it is also about reaping a second harvest too.

“Live in the layers, not on the litter.” There is some beautiful wisdom here.

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 what 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. We can mow and plough once more through the litter and create new life from this. We can truly live and learn from aftermath.

Life goes on, life moves forward, this can be a little frightening at times. We might not know which way to turn either. We can feel utterly lost. It can all feel discombobulating. How often in life do we find ourselves in this place and not know which way to turn. Which road do we take?

This brings to mind another favourite poem, which I have shared before:

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken” truly is an everyman poem, it speaks such a universal truth. How often in life do we all meet that fork in the road and have to make a decision, often not an easy one, to walk down that road to who knows where? Of course for every road that we take, there is at least one other road that we do not take and I am sure that we all wonder, from time to time, where that road may well have led.

Now of course in every moment of our lives we have to make small almost insignificant decisions. We often make them without really thinking, they are purely instinctive. That said some of the decisions we make are monumental and life changing. I suspect in the poem, this fork in the road is one of those big moments, those life changing moments. Of course when making these decisions we cannot have the gift of foresight. Like the path in the poem we can only see so far ahead. The future truly is unwritten, we cannot know for certain what is to come.

“The Road Not Taken” ends with the immortal words “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence; two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The poem ends with this sense of not living with regret. It is about taking the path that will make all the difference; about taking the more challenging path. The path less taken is the one that will lead to the deep and meaningful life.

To leave the comfort zone of our established way of being often appears terrifying; after all this is the way we’ve always done things. To wander down an uncertain path, the one rarely travelled down, does appear scary. No doubt it will be uncomfortable and uneven and a little overgrown. But should we avoid this path? Should we choose the easier softer way? By avoiding the path, that is still partially grassed over are we choosing life, or are we just making things harder than they need to be? Is it better to choose caution, to just let life happen to us than to choose the riskier path that forces us to engage with danger?

to make those decisions what is required is discernment.

The word discernment is formed from the Latin word “discernere”, which means to separate, to distinguish, to sort out. Just think of prospectors panning for gold or sifting through the rocks and dirt in search of gem stones. They are separating, they are sorting through the muck for the jewels, they are distinguishing, they are discerning. It brings to mind once again images of layering in gardening or raking over ground and ploughing once again, that old meaning of aftermath.

Discernment is the key to making those wise choices. We need to discover what is of value and what needs to be discarded in our minds. We need to discard the dirt and muck to uncover the gold, the gems, to have clarity of thought, so that we can those decisions in life. This is not easy, especially when we think of all that information that swims around in our lives and are consciousness; information like an enormous shoal of fish swimming round and round aimlessly in a small tank and not really going anywhere. Our lives, our heads are just so full of stuff. How do we discern what is healthy, what is right? Well we need silence; we need time away from all this information and all these things that pull us in so many directions. We need time to be still, time to be silent, time to connect to our bodies and our breathing; time to hear that still small voice of calm. A voice less than a whisper, but somehow more than silence.

We need to awaken to our true consciousness in order to make those sane and sensible decisions about life. We need to learn to separate those things that are of value and those that are not. We need to do this in order to hear that voice, that is less than whisper but that is somehow more than silence; that voice that has spoken down the centuries, to those who had ears that could hear it”

The choices we make matter. It matters what we are and what we do. I do not think that God chooses this for us. Yes, God offers guidance, “The Lure of Divine Love” but it is up to us to choose the path that we follow. Often the most rewarding path is the one that is less worn and more over grown and perhaps seemingly more treacherous. Often it is the one that is less travelled by. Maybe this is truly living by “Aftermath”

So, let’s live our lives by “Aftermath”, lets rake that ground again and try to grow something new, lets live in the complex layers of our lives and separate the litter, lets live by discernment and choose the right path as we move forward. Always remembering that we can turn again and change direction at any time, should it turn out we need to reassess our decisions. Let us live in and by “Aftermath”

Here is a video devotion based on the material in this "Blogspot"

Monday, 7 June 2021

Come, Come, Whoever You Are: Creating Spiritual Sanctuary"

I trust you have enjoyed the beautiful weather this week, I have. A part of me wishes it could have been like this a couple of weeks ago during a  break on the Yorkshire coast. Alas it was not and anyway what is the point of wishful thinking.

The other morning I was chatting with a friend enjoying the sun and coffee at CafĂ© Nero. As we were talking, I was reminded of a couple of moments, during the holiday, when the rain was “siling” down. We were in Bridlington and the shower was so heavy we sought shelter on the beautiful beach fronts. We shared the space with a bunch of the most “Yorkshire people” you could wish to meet. They were laughing and joking about the weather and other holiday destinations. Several said there was no better place than the Yorkshire coast. One man piped up saying “well I quite like Greece”, several agreed, there was much laughter. Then the most Yorkshire man you could ever meet said in a deadpan voice, but with a slight glint in his eye, “went to the New Forest once, it was very disappointing 25% of the beach was practically derelict”, followed by roaring laughter from those around. I whispered to Sue, welcome to Yorkshire. Anyhow the rain abated and we enjoyed the day.

If you ever seen “An American Werewolf in London” just think of that scene in “The Slaughtered Lamb”

A couple of days later we spent some time at Hemsley visiting the walled garden, castle and beginning at Rievaulx Abbey, all the while finding ways to shelter from the rain. Rievaulx had a powerful effect on me. It is an ancient abbey founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux, in 1098. It became one of the most remarkable of the 12th century monastic reform movements, placing an emphasis on a return to an austere life and literal observance of the rules set out for monastic life by St Benedict in the 6th century. It grew enormously over the years, becoming influential, although it was devastated by the plague and finally pillaged and destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII. I don’t think my friend in Bridlington would have been too impressed with Rievaulx though, as it is 100% derelict.

Rievaulx most revered Abbot was Aelred, a brilliant scholar and writer, he doubled the community by the time he died, growing to 140 monks and 500 lay brothers. His greatest work was probably on De spiritali amicitia ("On Spiritual Friendship"). The life was hard at the abbey but there was deep love shared amongst the brothers, led by Aelred. It was a place of love of refuge. Truly the community was a sanctuary. Aelred has become a hero within the LGBTQI community. Some academics suggesting that he himself was gay. Who knows, celibacy was practiced in the community, although he had certainly enjoyed a wilder youth.

I was deeply affected by Rievaulx, imagining what life must have been like living there in the middle ages. The last time I felt such power in a place, such spiritual love, was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and below the ground touching the western wall in Jerusalem. There is something special about the ruins of Rievaulx. A place of refuge, not just from the Yorkshire rain, but spiritual refuge, sustenance, a place of sanctuary.

One of the basic human needs is to feel safe and secure, something I have been considering in recent weeks as we continue to return to “normal” living. I’ve been thinking about the role of communities like the ones I sere, what we can offer spiritually to folks out there. Can we become a place of refuge, a spiritual sanctuary. I’ve been thinking of a verse from Hebrews chapter 13 “ 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Showing hospitality and caring for the vulnerable in society is a key aspect of the Judeo - Christian and Islamic tradition. You will find it deeply rooted in the Abrahamic traditions 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. 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.

Sadly, our age has become characterised by distrust, there is a fear of the strange and the stranger. This has perhaps grown since the beginning of the pandemic. As society rebuilds, we will have to learn how to be spiritually intimate with one another again; we will have to re-learn how to welcome one another and the stranger into community once again. If we do, we will not only be offering spiritual love to them but also liberate ourselves from the bondages of selfishness and self-centredness that we create. As Joan Chittister has said “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.” This is living by spiritual love, to offer sanctuary in our hearts. “

Sanctuary is probably a strange word, not one you hear very often. The first time I heard it was from the mouth of Charles Laughton playing the “Hunchback of Notre Dam”, 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 as I reflected on what we can offer as a free religious community. 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.

"She Sells Sanctuary" The Cult

In its original understanding a “sanctuary” 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 believe that we can extend it further, expand its meaning. We as individuals could become sanctuaries too, to the spiritually lost. I have also been thinking about how we as individuals find refuge and sanctuary in our lives. Where have you sought solace this last year or so? This is something we could share with one another, to help one another, to offer spiritual love to one another and to those in our wider community.

We all need sanctuary, we need to find spiritual shelter. Parker J Palmer has said: “Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival.”

I often find sanctuary in poetry. I have loved sharing many poems with friends this last year or so, it has opened and filled my heart at times, it has also brought me close to people, despite our physical separation. A good poem offers sanctuary. It reminds me of the necessity, power and beauty of contemplation. Something that Aelred’s monks spent much of time in. I may not contemplate exactly as they did, but poetry helps me reach those deeper aspects of my heart. Here’s a favourite that always brings me solace when caught up in the storms of life. It offers me shelter from the storm.

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

 When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The poem also offers something else that is refuge, solace and sanctuary for many, including myself, that of nature. For some it is the trees and plants, for others, including me, it is the animals, whether the birds or mammals or all those wonderful varieties of dogs, they open my heart as do so many people who I am seeing more and more of.

I believe that the primary purpose of a free religious community, such as the ones I serve, is to be a spiritual sanctuary to the folk out there. At our best we are 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 needs it more and more. It’s about encouraging people to do what they can, whatever that might be. In so doing they may well encounter angels.

So where can you offer hospitality and welcome in this world? Something perhaps to think about How can you become a sanctuary? Where is the place of need in the world around? How do we begin to heal our world and offer hope in the despair of our world?

How can you offer sanctuary, sanctuary, how can you offer spiritual sustenance and spiritual water?

Here is a video based on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday, 31 May 2021

The Yorkshire Coast: Connecting Past, Present & Future

Sue and myself had a wonderful week away on the Yorkshire coast. We needed time away together, It was oh so needed. A time to refresh and recuperate as well as enjoy the beautiful countryside history and heritage of the region. We have signed up to a years membership of English Heritage too, it will help us to get out and about more over the summer, when time allows. Our hearts, souls, minds and spirits will need it, our bodies too, we walked a lot last week. It was great to breath in that invigorating sea air. The weather could have been better, but we didn’t seem to mind too much.

It was a week away and yet I could not completely escape my present or my past. Thankfully, Sue has got used to the fact that I cannot go anywhere without bumping into someone I know. We often joke about who we are likely to bump into or meet up with wherever we go. Well, it seems that to some degree or other the whole of my life was tapping me on the shoulder last week. I had gone to soak up and experience the gift of the present moment, but the past was always with me, following like headlights on my tail. During the week I also relived many childhood memories, some of which were seemingly long lost and yet came to life during our time away. Many old ghosts seemingly came out to greet me, some unexpectedly. Some were beautiful, others painful, but all were meaningful.

"Headlights" by New Model Army (Live)

On the first day we wandered round Scarborough, witnessing everything beginning to open up again, as we retraced many of my childhood steps. I was somewhat surprised at how familiar it all was. The town is perhaps not as beautiful as it once was, but its spirit is still there and it did bring to life some powerful memories. While we were there I received a phone call from a fellowship friend who was going to be in Bridlington the next day with his mother. We decided to go there and meet up with them. We also visited Flamborough Head. The next day we met up with my auntie Catherine in Filey and talked and talked. She showed me some letters I had written to her many years ago, they were the first steps in healing family rifts, it was strangely beautiful reading them. We also talked of old family holidays as we walked around the town, including one in Filey. It was a beautiful but emotional day as so much of my past came alive in that moment. There was a deeper sense of healing going on, it felt like the whole of my life was alive in the moment, the past, the present and the future. The next day we took the steam train from Pickering to Whitby on the “North Yorkshire Moors Railway” as we were boarding I swore I saw a retired colleague Rev Dr Vernon Marshall walk down the platform. It was a beautiful journey through the countryside but the day in Whitby was spoilt by the weather. It was wild but we kept on we fulfilled several “Whitby Rites of Passage”. We walking on and out to the edge of the Jetty, as the rain came down and waves crashed over and we walked up to the Abbey and old church up the 199 steps. We couldn’t go to the Abby as it was closed due to filming. Now as we approached the 199 steps I saw the man again who had boarded the steam train we travelled on, it was indeed Vernon Marshall. I called out to him and we talked for a while, he was with his family on a break too. He didn’t recognize me at first, as it has been a few years since we last spoke. Over the next couple of days we took in many of the cultural sights of the area, just beautiful. We had joined English heritage for the year at Scarborough Castle, we reckon it will get us out and about this summer, when we have the time. On the final day we decided to drive up to Robin Hoods Bay and Staithes, we actually had time to go back to Whitby too and enjoy it in more pleasant weather. It was a beautiful day and one when I kept on meeting ghosts from my past. Whilst walking to the beach at Robin Hoods Bay I saw a face I recognised, they recognised me too and after taking a double perhaps triple take we approached each other and spoke. It was a guy called Andy Butterworth who I have not seen since 1988 and Batley Grammar school. His partner took a picture of us, I did not, but my mind and heart captured the memory. Later that day, in Whitby, we passed my nephew “Our Paul” who was out with his wife and friends on a drinking weekend. We talked for a while before moving on. It was quite a week, enjoying the present, while re-feeling the past and looking forward to an unknown future. So many snap shot moments, that have awakened so much deep in the soul of me.

Last week I experienced “Retrouvaille” (pronounced reh-troo-vahy-uh), which is the joy that comes from seeing someone again after a very long time. It was a kind of reunion and certainly a rediscovery and it reawakened so much deep in my soul.

One thing we noticed at the weekend was that there were many other people visiting these beautiful places for very different reasons to us. You could see all the characters from “Viz” descending on Whitby over the weekend and from what my friend Oliver has told me Scarborough was madness too. That said these places mean different things to each of us. For me is about my past, my present and future coming together, for others it was something completely different. I tried to take in as much of the experience as I possible could, to truly live in the present. I tried to keep my homiletic consciousness quiet too, to try not to think too much about what I was going to write afterwards. I allowed by senses to awaken, to drink it all up and enjoy our time together away from the stresses and strains of our lives, but you can never do so completely, and as you can see my past is always tapping me on the shoulder. As Sue says, “we cannot go anywhere”.

The week brought to my mind the following:

“In the Present” by Robert Walsh taken from “Stone Blessings”

"On a sunny day, I walked alone in a broad valley in Nepal, through an old forest with vines and flowering trees and intermittent vistas of the snow-covered Himalayas. I came upon a clearing in the woods, and saw there a holy man – a monk in an orange robe, head shaved, back bent with age – chopping wood.

I had conflicting impulses. I wanted to ask him questions. What was his name? Where did he live? What was his life like? I wanted his blessing, and I wanted to give mine. And I wanted to pass by invisibly, noiselessly, doing nothing that would disturb him.

Instead, I took out my camera and took a picture of him. I tried to be discreet as possible about it; I waited until he was not looking in my direction. I don’t know whether he heard the sound. Then I put the camera away and moved on down the trail.

I took the picture because I wanted to tell you the story. Now I have a small, still, two-dimensional memento of that moment. We can look at it. It will last for a while. The actual moment completely surrounded me. It had sounds and smells and movement, and it was only real for a moment. Now it’s gone, and it will never happen again.

I moved through the experience with my attention alternating between the present moment and a future time, when I would be back home, telling the story. It’s what preachers call homiletic consciousness, which means going through life thinking, Can I use this in a sermon? But it’s not just preachers who do it. I imagine a painter would do the same. Or a poet. Or a novelist, teacher, composer, or a storyteller – anyone who uses the experiences of life in order to give something to someone else.

But the more we stay in the future, thinking about telling the story, the less we are open to the power of the experience itself. The more we put a frame around the picture, the more it becomes only a picture and not a real event. Instead of living life each day, we are busy getting ready for life.

Yet if were not for story tellers and photographers, I would never have gone to Nepal.

So I will try to find a balance between being fully in the moment and being present to the whole of life – past, present, and future, here and there. That I may live this day today, and also tell the story tomorrow."

I love how Robert Walsh describes trying to balance the power of the moment he was experiencing, observing a holy man in Nepal, whilst also struggling with ideas of wanting to know him and also tell him all about himself, to almost justify his presence. Instead, he took a snapshot, hoping perhaps that by taking a picture you would capture the essence of an experience that would help him tell the tale later. Of course, taking a picture does not capture the power and beauty of any moment or experience, but it does perhaps help one to remember. I spent my week surrendering to the experience of the Yorkshire, with past flowing through, whilst trying to share this with Sue. Yes, I knew I would talk about them later, but I tried to suppress the rationalising in the moment, and just allow my senses to take it all in. That wasn’t the difficult challenge, this came from the past as it kept on constantly creeping up on me and tapping me on the shoulder.

During our week on the Yorkshire coast we shared many magic moments, beautiful moments, that will live in my heart. Those moments also brought to life that fed into the wonder of it all.

There was another interesting tie that helped to link together the past, present and future. Sue and I stayed at a place named “Gallows Hill” in Brompton by Sawdon, which is half way between Scarborough and Pickering. It is run by a lovely couple who are originally from Birmingham but have lived in North Yorkshire for forty years. I highly recommend it, just beautiful. “Gallows Hill” was the family home of William Wordsworth’s wife Mary Hutchinson. Wordsworth came into my mind on and off all week as I enjoyed the experiences we were sharing, in the moment, whilst also being transported to so many moments from past, some beautiful and others heartbreakingly painful. The beautiful moments whether in the present or past brought to my heart and mind “Spots of Time” from The Prelude (Book XI, ls 258-278) by Wordsworth

 “There are in our existence spots of time,

That with distinct pre-eminence retain

A renovating virtue, whence–depressed

By false opinion and contentious thought,

Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,

In trivial occupations, and the round

Of ordinary intercourse–our minds

Are nourished and invisibly repaired;

A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,

That penetrates, enables us to mount,

When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.”

 William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book XI, ls 258-278)

Don’t we all experience such magic moments, these “spots of time” when life not only feeds but truly nourishes us on a deep, deep level, deeper than the marrow of our bones; moments when the common becomes uncommon,; moments when the veils we create ourselves seem to slip away; moments when we seemingly see beyond the ordinary, when we experience reality on a deeper level. Gosh there were so many last week.

These “spots of time” are sacred moments that are made holy by their mysterious ability to nourish us and perhaps even repair us in body, mind, heart and spirit. These moments are a kind of grace; they seemingly come to us, from a place somewhere beyond ourselves. They cannot be forced; I do not believe that we can just simply create them for ourselves, although we do of course play a vital role in their creation and in the way that they are experienced.

These moments can happen anywhere. For Wordsworth these “spots of time” occurred primarily in nature. We all experience them in different ways, in different states and in different settings. Those moments when time seemingly stands still; those moments that touch us at the core of our being; those moments that transform our lives; those magic moments. Time seemingly becomes compressed or concentrated in these moments when the senses become heightened, when life seemingly has a deeper meaning. These are not necessarily supernatural moments by the way; no, they are firmly grounded in reality.

In these moments time appears to be slowing down, although obviously it does not. Time does not so much stop as become compressed, the moment becomes concentrated. There just seems to be more of life in that moment, but it lasts just as long. Maybe the moment is deeper, not longer. Time is time after all. Some call this Kairos time, or God’s time.

I experienced some such moments last week and I was reminded of many others from my past too. I was reminded by the places we visited as well as the people I bumped into, that brought to mind so many other moments in my life. Wonder filled moments indeed, moments that have shaped me as a human being, but never painlessly, sometimes deeply painfully. Haven’t we all known such moments in our lives.

Last week was beautiful, it also taught me a valuable lesson about life. The lesson was about how important it is to balance time in our lives. It reminded me how vital it is that we practice not only living in the moment that we find ourselves, but to truly bring that moment to life. To allow your whole life to fully inhabit that space, to bring it with you into the moment, without allowing it to dominate, whilst at the same time allowing that moment to prepare you for an unknown future. A future that is truly unwritten. For none of us know what is coming.

May we all find the balance between being fully in the moment and being present to the whole of life, past, present, and future, here and there and everywhere, whereever we find ourselves. If you are anything like me you cannot get away from either your past or present, because it will just appear right there in front of you. That said do we ever need to? No, we just need to be awake, fully present and the moment will work its magic.

So let us all live this day, fully alive today and let us live well enough to tell the story tomorrow, because tomorrow always comes.

Please find below a video based on the material in this "blogspot"

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Don Quixote: How We Can Build A More Beautiful World

Jan Taddeo "Three Things"

The storm outside echoes the

storm raging within my soul.

So many people in need...

so much pain, so much grief.

Too many causes and campaigns

fill my mailboxes, sap my energy,

beg for my money.

Three things I must do...only three things?

You’ve got to be kidding...which three do I choose?

Books and letters, magnets and movies

implore me to dance as if no one is watching

learn seven habits and make four agreements

give generously, vote often, express myself!

Yet hundreds, thousands, millions live with hunger

and thirst, in poverty, enduring violence, and disease.

Did Mother Teresa, Martin and Ghandi cry out

with despair from the darkness of overwhelm?

What three things did they choose?

Three things. Three things we must do.

Is it to act in kindness, serve justice, love God and your

neighbor even as you love yourself.

But where do I start?

So much thoughtlessness,

hatred and fear.

Too little justice, too much selfishness.

Where is God? Who is my neighbor?

Three principles, ten commandments, twelve steps…

all number of things speak to us; and yet,

we must choose.

We must choose to do something, so three things

may be the right number...not too few, not too many.

But which three things shall I do? Will you do?

Here’s an adage I’ve always liked:

Don’t just do something, stand there.

Stand in the surf, or sit on a rock, or lay your

body across the earthy loam...and be quiet.

Very quiet.

Do you hear it? That still small voice, the

echo of your soul, reverberating with the call

to your own true self to emerge.

Then the calm within becomes the calm without.

The storm blows over, the sun recovers its position of strength,

And that glorious symbol of hope and unity emerges across the sky.

At the end of this rainbow, a treasure…

the three things you must do:

Go outside yourself and know the needs of the world.

Go within and discover your Life-given gifts.

Then arch yourself like a rainbow bridge between the two and

create a more beautiful world.

I love Jan Taddeo’s poem “Three Things”, I identify with the struggle of living the spiritual life, living it in this life. It is a good question, how does one live spiritually alive, live ethically in this life? How do you grow spiritually in this world, without becoming too self indulgent? I like the balance of three simple things that Taddeo concludes with in her beautiful poem: “Go outside yourself and know the needs of the world. Go within and discover your Life-given gifts. Then arch yourself like a rainbow bridge between the two and create a more beautiful world.” This seems a wonderful way to live in such a way as to begin to build that kin-dom of love right here right now, by living your true authentic life.

That said although it sounds simple, it is far from easy. How do we do this? Also no doubt if you begin to do so you may well be considered a mad man or a mad woman. The great sages were, they were considered odd and or insane by many in their day, they were sometimes mocked and ridiculed, considered fools. Perhaps they were fools, but they were holy fools and they were fools just like us. 

Taddeo’s poem, “Three Things”, came up as a “Facebook” memory the other day. I find a lot of gems on social media, some of it deep and others less so. I recently found a group that has brought me a great deal of light relief. This is “The Absurd Sign Project”. It is basically a place where people share absurd signs from all around the world. Some are silly mistakes made and others are obviously deliberate jokes. One of them being this picture of a sign depicting a figure on a horse with what appears to be a long pole in his hand, there is a thick red line through the image, suggesting that such things are not allowed. Behind the sign is a windmill. I recognised the image immediately and thought it was genius, just brilliant. So, I posted it on facebook and lots of people responded. After about a day, a brave soul posted that he didn’t understand the image and asked what it meant. So, I explained that it was an image of “Don Quixote”. I then explained that the sign is saying “No tilting at windmills”, which means no joisting with windmills. you may well ask, what does that mean. Well it has come to mean, do not fight with imaginary enemies.

"Do not fight with imaginary enemies", seems like sensible advice. Of course, such enemies are just as likely to be within us as they are to be outside of us. In life sometimes our perceived enemies are real and sometimes they are enemies created by our own imaginings. I was talking with a couple of friends about this the other day. They didn't understand the "Don Quixote" post either and so I explained. This led to an interesting conversation and anxiety and the spiritual life, which planted the seed for the service that this "blogpost" is based on.

There is much excitement around at the moment as life continues to open. Next week is another step. Sue and myself are looking forward to a week on the Yorkshire coast. This is all positive news, but it is worth remembering that while it is exciting it does lead to anxiety for many folk. Our imaginations can lead to all kinds of fears and perceived enemies both internal and external. So please let us try not to tilt at those windmills. Let us instead follow Jan Taddeo’s suggestion of three simple things to Go outside yourself and know the needs of the world. Go within and discover your Life-given gifts. Then arch yourself like a rainbow bridge between the two and create a more beautiful world.” Let us do so with discernment. 

Don Quixote, who tilted at windmills seems to me be a classic example of a “Holy Fool”, yes joisting with windmills is utter folly, madness. He is the “hero” of Cervantes novel “The Ingenious Knight of La Mancha”, published in 1604. The novel recounts to story of a man who after spending his life reading about the heroic exploits of knights decides that he must return the chivalric values to the world. It is thought that he lost his mind as he didn’t eat or sleep properly for years as he became engrossed the stories of the knights. Then in his old age he decided to become a knight, fashioning his own armour and lance and mounting his donkey. He persuaded his neighbour, a local peasant farmer Sancho Panza to join him and they set out together to fight injustice through chivalry. Isn’t this an example creating a rainbow bridge, if a somewhat eccentric one.  Such chivalry has been called “quixotic”, meaning striving for visionary ideals.

Now in order to become “quixotic” we must first overcome our demons; in order to give ourselves to the world in a positive way we must first know ourselves. Well Don Quixote is very much a story about overcoming the enemy within as well as acting in the world. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell would have said that this is a perfect archetype of the heroes journey. 

Here an extract from Cervantes novel, to illustrate:

"Since we expect a Christian reward, we must suit our actions to the rules of Christianity. In giants we must kill pride and arrogance. But our greatest foes, and whom we must chiefly combat, are within. Envy we must overcome by generosity and nobleness of spirit; anger, by a reposed and quiet mind; riot and drowsiness, by vigilance and temperance; lasciviousness, by our inviolable fidelity to the mistresses of our thoughts; and sloth, by our indefatigable peregrinations through the universe"

If we do we can then see these same troubles in our world and perhaps build that rainbow bridge and bring some healing. The troubles of our world are no different than they were when Cervantes was writing some 400 years ago, or during the times of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. Intolerance and otherness still divide us against ourselves. Don Quixote is just another example of those holy fools who wanted to weave the golden cord that will tie and unite us as one people.

In this time of rebuilding, as we return to our lives, it seems sensible to find something that will unite us, perhaps something akin to “Quixotic” chivalry. Does that sound like an impossible dream, as they sang in the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha”, based on this tale:

To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.
To right the unrightable wrong, to love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star.

Don Quixote, while certainly eccentric, some have said insane, seems like a wonderful example of the heroic archetype, of what we can be, a wonderful example of humanity, a flawed and imperfect example. Something that seems pertinent as we have just marked “Mental Health Awareness Week”. I don’t think that the way he lived was in any way mad, for did he not embody the sacred commandment that we must love one another; love one another by recognising the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.

Yes, he didn’t always see things as most folk do. He struggled and suffered with his own demons, he didn’t always get it right, he mistook windmills for giants, for monsters. Sancho Panza tried desperately to dissuade him.

That said sometimes his vision saw through the prejudices of others. When Sancho Panza sees the peasant woman, the despised Aldonza, Don Quixote sees the beautiful and pure Dulcinea. Aldonza sees herself as someone with no self worth, but Don Quixote (in the play at least) believes in her, he recognises her worth and dignity and in time she recognises this in herself and eventually takes on the name Dulcinea.

Don Quixote was determined to right what he saw was wrong in the world. He exemplifies nearly perfectly Jan Taddeo’s suggestion of three simple things, to Go outside yourself and know the needs of the world. Go within and discover your Life-given gifts. Then arch yourself like a rainbow bridge between the two and create a more beautiful world.” This is what he did:

‘To fight for the right, without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause…and the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove, with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star.’

He built his rainbow bridge and began to reach the unreachable star.

Is this an impossible dream? I don’t think so.

In the play, inspired by the novel, Don Quixote says on his deathbed: "I just wanted to add a measure of grace to the world." Did he achieve this. Well at the end there he is dying alone, despised and rejected, it doesn’t appear so. So maybe it was all folly, was he just a fool after all. Well as he is lying there to his deathbed comes a Spanish queen with a mantilla of lace. She quietly kneels at his bedside and prays. As she does so he opens his we eyes and asks, “Who are you?”

To which she replies “ 'My Lord, don't you remember? You gave me a new name; you called me Dulcinea. I am your Lady.'

Don Quixote refused to treat Aldonza as the others did, he recognised her worth and dignity and in time she became a person who recognised her own and became a person with worth, dignity and respect and lived this life and offered this to those she met in her life.

As Don Quixote did she recognised this gift within her and saw the need to offer this to the world, she built her rainbow bridge and began to create a more beautiful world.

We can do the same. We can recognise our own worth and dignity and recognise this in others. We can begin to build a more beautiful world, we can create the kin-dom of love right here, right now. We can not only dream the impossible dream, but truly live it.

Here is a video devotion based on the material in this "Blogspot"

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Wind Telephone: Connecting in Love and Loss

The cherry blossom is falling around us. I saw a car covered in it the other day, my car was too I noticed as I left for home the other evening. There is beautiful pink snow all around the grounds at the chapel, it will soon be gone. The cherry blossom does not cling on, it knows it must let go for new life to follow. For we human is it not so simple. We hold on to life, we hold on to our lives and we hold on to one another. We hold on to love that we have shared with those we have loved and lost. This is grief, the price we pay for love.

The beauty of the cherry blossom causes me some sadness, it makes me grieve, and yet I love the cherry blossom. That said part of its beauty comes in the fact that it only lasts for about a month and then it falls and it is gone. Even though I know it will come again, when it goes, my heart aches for the loss. This is grief.

Grief is about love and it is about the loss of someone or something that we love or have loved. This is why grief comes in so many forms, we lose so much in life. The most aching grief, of course, is caused by the death of those we love so dearly. The more we love them, the greater the grief. Grief of course is not something that you can just let go of, I am not so sure you ever should. We should hold that love close to our hearts. Yes, when someone we love dies, an aspect of them always remains in our hearts, that said when we lose someone we love we also lose a piece of our hearts.

I host a fortnightly grief group on zoom. We used to meet in person, but ever since the pandemic hit we have been unable to do so. The group is needed by those who join us. It helps us feel less alone and isolated in our grief. There is so much grief around at this time. I am sure we have all lost someone we love over the last year and none of us have been able to mark the loss and grieve as we would normally do. We have also been unable to live our lives as we would normally do, there is so much grief in this too. Grief is everywhere. That said if we had not done so how much more death and loss would there have been. We only need to look at India now to see the horror that could have happened had our health service become overwhelmed. I grieve so much for the suffering all around, it breaks my heart.

I have noticed that something that grieving people share in common is this need to still communicate in some way with those that they have lost. People go to places that are special to them and talk, it is common, but not something folk will share publicly. These one way conversations continue on and on. It is a way to keep the love shared alive, even after a loved one has gone.

I recently learnt of a powerful and beautiful example of this in Japan. When the garden designer Sasaki lost his beloved cousin in 2010, he found a unique way to come to terms with his grief, to call his loved one by telephone. He built a white telephone booth, in the style of the old red ones that were all over this county - I don’t know if you have noticed but in the countryside those old boxes often host defibrillators, bringing life to those who might lose theirs - Sasaki placed the phonebox on his hilltop garden. In it was an old Bakelite dial phone, unconnected to any earthly telecom system, his words were spoken to the wind, carried off like prayer flags, blowing in the wind. He did this to keep the memory of his cousin alive, by calling him and speaking to him regularly. As he told the Japanese public broadcasting network NHK, “Because my thoughts couldn’t be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind.” He called it “The Wind Telephone”

“The Wind Telephone” was build on the outskirts of Otsuchi a small coastal town in northern Japan. As Sasaki was finishing his project the region was hit by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake on 11th March 2011. Even though the quake was off the coast and didn't inflict direct damage, it did lead to gigantic tsunamis and Otsuchi was hit by 30 foot high waves, destroying the town and killing one in ten of the 16.000 inhabitants.

Soon “The Wind Telephone” became a place of solace for thousands, it is thought that over 10,000 people visited the site in the next three years, to speak to their loved ones, that were now lost. Some of the dead were never found. It was not only the lost to the Tsunami whose loved ones came, others joined the pilgrimage too, including those who had lost folk to suicide, accidents and in other tragic ways. Many media outlets have told the story and some of the conversations on “The Wind Telephone” have been recorded. If you listen to them you will hear tears and laughter and deep conversations, a kind of unanswered confessional where loved ones speak their hearts into the wind, where their loved one can perhaps hear without judgement. There are voices crying out regret, the pain of loss, despair, guilt, frustration, the search for strength, hope, and the will to carry on without the loved one. Beautiful cries of the human heart.

It seems that there are versions of the “Wind Phone” in other parts of the world. In Oakland California one was constructed by Jordan Stern who in February 2017 constructed one to
commemorate the 36 people who died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, one of which was his friend. This “Wind Phone” was created, according to the artist to comfort "a field of people grieving in Oakland".

In August 2017 an anonymous art collective in Dublin, Ireland named Altruchas build a “Wind Phone” on “Two Rock Mountain”. It was built without permission and from salvaged materials. Sadly it was destroyed only two weeks after its construction, there were many people who did not like the project.

Another replica red phone box was created by Tomohiko and Kazuko Katsuna. They named it “Phone of the Sea Breeze”. It was built in memory of one of Kazuko's students, an 18-year-old woman who took her own life in 2009.

In January 2020 another temporary “Wind Phone” was created in Provincetown Massachusetts, by an artistic collective. Whilst another was created in October 2020 in California by Susan Vetrone and sculptor Steve Reed. it was constructed in memory of Vetrones mother who had recently died.

Another “Wind Phone was created in response to the loss of life due to the Covid 19 pandemic. In March this year an artist who has remained anonymous built one on the Aspen mountains of Colorado. The artist has remained anonymous because it is forbidden to build shrines in US national forests. That said t has remained as an outlet for people mourning deaths caused by the pandemic.

I wonder how many more of these will be built in the coming months and years. I think we will need them. I am considering writing to the Prime Minister again or perhaps Andy Burnam the Mayor of Manchester, or even the local authority. I think we will need them, or something like them. We decided during our last grief group that Wythenshawe park would be an ideal venue, as one of our number goes there often to talk to lost son. Maybe I will contact the great British sculptor Anthony Gormley, perhaps he could construct them up and down the land. A place where can go individually and or collectively to grieve, to cry out in anguish to connect to live through our grief, to hold on to the love lost and to live our lives. We need to find ways to express our collective grief if we are to rebuild again, I don’t just mean our material lives, but our emotional, mental and spiritual lives too. Our souls are crying out. Yes, we may well be coming back to normality, but there is so much grief in this land and every land and people are still caught up in the horror of all this, just look at India right now.

We need to find ways to connect, to heal, to express our lost love, something that we have been unable to do for too long and there will be a price to pay if we do not. I don’t just mean for this generation but for the generations to come as well.

All of us belong to the largest community on God’s sweet earth, the community of grievers. Grief is the price we pay for love, it is a price worth paying, for what is life without love? It is nothing, it is meaningless, just an empty vessel. The only way to escape grief is to totally armour your heart and deny love. Now who would want to do that, to live without love, to live the life of a zombie?

When we lose someone that we love, it changes us forever. Life will never be quite the same again. We do not rise above the pain of grief, we cannot pretend that it is not there, we don’t simply get over it. What happens is that we are changed by it and as a result our hearts are enlarged by it and we grow as human beings, if the love has truly been realised. You see grief is really about transformation, rather than transcendence, by the way this is the true nature purpose of religion. Grief is not an attempt to explain the loss or even understand some meaning locked into what happened. Instead, it seems to me that grief is more about finding meaning in the absence of an explanation.

How do we create meaning from the loss of the last year or more? That is not an easy question to answer. Well perhaps it begins by creating space for us all to grieve. Perhaps something like these “Wind Telephones” is one way, I am sure there are many others. Perhaps communities like ours can become that kind of space. Perhaps this something for us all to think about, perhaps this is something we can focus on in the months and years ahead, perhaps we could become a space where folk can come and find solace in their loss and grief a place where they can share and express their love.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts and feelings.

It is up to us, it is up to all of us.

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.

 A video devotion based on the material shared in this "blogspot"