Sunday 27 May 2012

Silence is Golden

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out. The first monk said, “Oh, no! The candle is out” The second monk said, “Aren’t we not suppose to talk?” The third monk said, “Why must you two break the silence?” The fourth monk laughed and said, “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

While silence sounds simple, it is far from easy and don't we all like to point out when others fall short of the mark...we all break the silence...

I have fond memories of childhood birthday party games when quite often we would play sleeping lions or statues or silence. We became very competitive over these games. We reacted just like those four monks. As soon as someone made a noise, we would begin one by one to point out that they had broken the silence. Yep I have no doubt that a six year is at least if not more enlightened than any monk. To be still and to be silent is no easy task for anyone, whether you are child who's eaten too much sugar or a monk in search of enlightenment.

During a recent session of the “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” reading group I decided to give space for silence. We were looking at the fifth step “Mindfullness”.  There has been a lot of lively and intimate conversations during these groups and we have spent a long time listening to one another. In this step it is suggested that we invite someone to lead the group in mindfulness meditation but I decided to keep it simpler and thought we would benefit from sitting in silence together, if only for ten minutes. It went well, we all gained from that time and I believe that it enabled us to engage more deeply for the rest of the session. The space enabled us to listen to one another, to follow Kahlil Gibran’s direction and “Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear.”

Before I began attending Unitarian worship I explored a variety of other religious communities. I attended several churches, meditation at local Brahma Kumaris and Buddhist centres, as well as Quaker meeting for worship. I had become a bit of a religious tourist I suppose. I was also reading lots of “New Age” literature such as the “Conversations With God” series by Neale Donald Walsch, “The Power of Now” by Ekhart Tolle and other similar writers. I was trying to make sense of the life transforming spiritual experiences that had occurred over a period of a few months. I settled on the Quakers for a while, I liked where they were coming from, their approach to religion, which seemed very open and humble. After a while I sensed that something just didn’t feel right about it though. I wanted to do something, I wanted to be involved, I wanted to sing and move perhaps. Maybe something was quaking inside, perhaps if I’d allowed this to flow free I may never have discovered Unitarianism, but I did not. I did not wander down that road. Instead I continued to search and discovered Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and the rest is history. The ethos and approach to religion I found there was very similar to the Quakers and yet somehow I found Unitarian worship more engaging. There was focus, if a varied one, that I was able to relate to. I also rediscovered my voice during worship, I began to sing again. When I sing I feel oh so close to God, this seemed to be missing in Quaker worship. I know today that I am just too noisy and energetic to be a Quaker.

By the way this is in no way a criticism of the Quakers, who are the most beautiful people; I just know that I am not one. I also believe that silence has a vital role in worship. We share a time of communal silence each Sunday during worship. I lead a regular singing meditation, which is about the sharing and intermingling of of the human voice and silence. I engage with other forms of meditation too, both with others and on my own. I love silence; I love stillness. I truly appreciate those words from the 46th Psalm “Be still and know that I am God”. This is an internal experience I believe; it’s about faith and trust. It is serenity; it is calm in the storm. Meditative practise helps me develop this stillness in my daily life. It helps me to be present, it helps me to connect.

 Many people find silence challenging, especially extended periods in company with others. How do you feel when you sit with people and suddenly everything goes quiet? How do you feel when no one speaks? It’s uncomfortable isn’t it? We want someone to break the silence and of course usually someone does so, with an anxious or awkward remark.

Silence is vital and we need not fear it, instead we should befriend it, we need not fill the space between our bodies or our words.

I have learnt, over the past few years, to befriend the silence. I have to say that at first I found it embarrassing, rather silly actually, but then I did not really understand its purpose. I had a very busy mind in those days and I did not like the thoughts that would often appear. In time those thoughts settled, became manageable and the silence began to speak to me. I found these moments of silence inspirational. I found clarity and the ability to make sane decisions in the silence. I believe that during this time my connection to God, to the ground of all being, to that which runs through and connects all life, developed in the space of silence. The still small voice voice of conscience deep within began to develop during this time. What the Quakers describe as “That of God in everyone”

During the Gospel accounts there are several depictions of Jesus going off on his own, to pray, to embrace silence. At the beginning of his ministry he spends 40 days and nights in the wilderness alone, where he comes face to face with temptation. In Mark 10 vv 30-46, Jesus spends time preaching, teaching and then feeding the crowd that gathered around him. It is worth noting that before he does so he and the disciples attempt to spend time in solitude and afterwards he goes off to pray alone. It would seem that he knew that to be of service to and for others he had to spend time alone, he needed to nourish himself spiritually.

The great sages understood the need for silence. The Sufi mystical poet Rumi wrote “Silence is the root of everything...if you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear.” Kahlil Gibran said “silence is painful, but in silence things take form, and we must wait and watch. In us, in our secret depth, lies the knowing element which sees and hears that which we do not see nor hear. All our perception, all the things we have done, all that we are today, dwelt once in that knowing, silent depth, that treasure chamber in the soul. And we are more than we think. We are more than we know. That which is more than we think and know is always seeking and adding to itself while we are doing -  or think we are doing -  nothing. But to be conscious of what is going on in our depth is to help it along. When sub-consciousness becomes consciousness, the seeds in our winter-clad selves turn to flowers, and the silent life in us sings with all its might.”

“Silence is Golden” it is so vital to the active life. We all need time alone, in silence, in solitude; a time to commune with that greater reality, a time alone with God; a time alone with our deeper selves. Prayer and meditation is as vital to me today as air, food and water. My body and mind cannot function without these elements; my body and mind cannot maintain good health without my soul being fed by prayer and meditation.

The spiritual and religious life has to be both active and open. To give ourselves fully to the lives we live, we need to ensure that we ourselves are in fit spiritual condition. Therefore like the great sages sometimes we all need to wander off into the wilderness, commune with our God and feed our souls.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Sunday 20 May 2012

The Road Not Taken: Choose Life

A few weeks ago I was invited to lead worship at the chapel where I first discovered Unitarianism, Cross Street in Manchester - It was a life changing event the day I chose to walk into Cross Street, a path I never dreamed I would tread – That day I felt completely connected to everything. I felt that life, the universe, that God, was speaking to me in and through all that I encounted; that everything was deep and rich in meaning. One of those special days, I’m sure that we’ve all had them.

After the service I bumped into a member of the Altrincham congregation Ann Molyneaux, who was at Cross Street to play with the Alberti piano group she is a member of. I briefly said hello to Ann as we passed in the foyer and then I tootled off into Manchester to do a little shopping. I thought I’d treat myself, hey why not.

 After an hour or so I decided it was time to go home and got on the tram in Piccadilly. A couple of stops later Ann got on the tram herself. I called out to her as she passed me and we sat and chatted for a while. It seems that Ann had been doing some shopping too. She held the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, in her hand.

“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 there are other decisions that we make that 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. Would it help if we did?

I visited my granddad the other day, it was his 89th birthday. It was a joy to sit and talk with him, if only for a short time. He talked about how we can never predict the future. How as a young man he and his best friend Percy had gone to sea together, to serve in the war. My granddad came back, but Percy did not. They both chose that same path, not that they had too much say in it, but only one of them carried on through this physical journey. My granddad has lived a long life and has experienced so much. He has made many decisions and I know for sure that he has made numerous mistakes. What was clear to me during the conversation was how much he respected the privilege and opportunity that his life has been, something denied to so many others. Life truly is the greatest gift of all, it is the ultimate grace. It is a privilege that we did nothing to deserve.

 “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, but it won’t be trouble free.

It brings to my mind the journey that the Israelites took to the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 30 vv 11-19 Moses speaks to the people on his 120th birthday. God had just informed him that he would not enter the Promised Land with the people he had led out of exile.

As they reach the Promised Land the people gathered to receive Moses’ final blessing. And what does he say? He tells them that they must “choose life.” They are told that in order to keep the freedom that they have been given they must make thoughtful choices. I am sure that this must have been scary for them, for after all they were frightened of their freedom. Throughout their time in exile whenever they were given freedom they did not want it, they hoped that someone would make their decisions for them. Again this is such a universal predicament, it echoes through the ages. How often do we wish that someone would make our decisions for us? Wouldn’t that make life easier?

Now "Choose Life" is a phrase that has seeped into public consciousness on at least two occasion over the last 30 years. Two places that would at first glance seem highly unlikely.

One was in a "Wham" pop video to the song "Wake me up before you go-go". I feel fairly confident in claiming that George Michael, Andrew Ridgley and Pepsi & Shirley didn't know they were quoting Moses when they were dancing along to this song.

It is also the inspiration for a poem by John Hodge that was spoken by Ewan McGregor to the tune for "Lust For Life" by Iggy Pop at the beginning of the film "Trainspotting". A film that is definitely not about "choosing Life", as its a film about heroin addiction.

By the way those decision makers, those forces, may not all be external to us. How many of us are led by long established habits that seemingly do our choosing for us? How do we escape from the grip of these habits and compulsions?  How do we find the freedom to choose 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 frightening. No doubt it will be uncomfortable and uneven and a little overgrown, there maybe monsters hiding in the shadows. 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 rather than to choose the riskier path, that forces us to engage with danger?

I believe it is better to choose life, but to do so wisely and this requires 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 what is precious, they are distinguishing, they are discerning.

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 “choose 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 voice that spoke to the people of Israel and said “I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse. Therefore choose life”

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.

Choose life, choose the path rarely travelled down.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Let beauty awake for beauty's sake

I love this song it is just so beautiful. I intend to learn it and perform it. I have fallen deeply in love with singing again. There are so many things that I want to learn and share with the world. The ability to express the beauty of life through song is a gift I have been given and it is one I need to share more.

I have learnt and performed a couple of pieces from “Songs of Travel” in the past, but have shied away from "Let Beauty Awake". I believe that I was probably intimidated by its beauty. That a man such as I cannot sing something so beautiful. Yes I can sing out the “Vagabond” and even the sad lonely journey of “Whither must I wander”, but not this piece of elegant beauty. “Let beauty awake for beauty’s sake...awake from dreams."

I have recently discovered that I am struggling with the word beautiful. It keeps striking me, pulling me, calling out to me and I keep on turning from it. It seems I cannot quite bare its light. Maybe I’m scared of beauty?

Actually I’m not sure that is true. I adore beauty and beautiful things. What I’m actually struggling with is equating the word beauty and beautiful with me. I have felt very uncomfortable in recent weeks when people have described either myself or even something I have done as beautiful. I have shivered at the description. I have felt stripped, I have felt naked, I have felt vulnerable and I have felt emasculated. It is funny in some ways; I do have to laugh at the ludicrousness of it all.

Last week it really hit home. It happened at the barbers shop. The young woman cutting my hair began to describe me as beautiful. “You are a beautiful man” she kept saying “You have beautiful hair”. I just laughed nervously to myself and nodded and grinned and jokingly said “I cannot argue with you” I felt so very uncomfortable though and couldn’t wait to pay and get out of there. I did not like how vulnerable I felt. There have been other recent occasions too when people have described my voice as beautiful and my writing as beautiful and that I am beautiful and every time I felt deeply uncomfortable.

I went away on retreat to St Deniol’s library (Also known as Gladstone’s Library) last week. I go twice a year with the same beautiful people. It’s a time of deep intimate sharing with a group of very different individuals. Each time I have gone I have enjoyed it more and more. This time it was a truly beautiful time. I was able to explore and express this seemingly new revelation; this trouble I am having with being described as beautiful. I admitted that last time we had met that one of the members had described my hands as beautiful and how at the time this made me feel hideously uncomfortable; I also spoke of other more recent experiences too. As I spoke it began to become clear to me what the problem was. It brought me back to experiences I had several years earlier; experiences I have been reminded of in the last few days as I have heard people, in a variety of situations, describe life changing spiritual experiences that had and were transforming their lives. They have reminded me of my own experiences.

As I have said many times before I was pretty much an atheist for most of my life. I would have probably scored about 6.5 out of 7 on the “Spectrum of Theistic Probability” popularised by Richard Dawkins. Circumstances forced me to re-assess what I thought I believed. During this process it came to me that my problem was not in fact that I did not believe in God, it was that I did not believe that God believed in me. I believed I was not worthy of divine love. When I saw and accepted that this had been a barrier for so long things began to change within me and my experience of life external to me. I saw love and beauty everywhere and felt a sense of connection, like I have never known before. I now believe that at that moment, eight years ago, I began to experience what I can only describe as God’s love. I’ve never been quite the same man since.

I suspect that part of my recent problem with beauty is a remnant of that old way of living. I think it’s a kind of defence mechanism a way of controlling life to some extent and a way of keeping this divine love from me. When I look back at those spiritual experiences I had I do remember that even then I still held a tiny morsal back, did I truly let go absolutely? I suspect that part of me does not want to let go to give myself completely. The problem is of course that by rejecting love and beauty within myself I am actually rejecting that in others and it is stopping me enjoying intimacy with the people I share this beautiful world with. It is also stopping me truly expressing the love and beauty within me.

It has dawned on me once again that I do and have always lived by “The Golden Rule of Compassion” I have always treated others and loved others as I have wished to be loved and treated myself. By not acknowledging my beauty I am also denying the beauty present in all life. It would seem that I have work to do, if I want to experience the beauty present in this life; I need to acknowledge the beauty that is me in order to truly know the beauty that is in everything.

Once again I am reminded of the opening paragraph of “The Third Step: Compassion For Yourself”  From “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” by Karen Armstrong.

She said:

“The late Rabbi Albert Friedlander impressed upon me the importance of the biblical commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself.” I had always concentrated on the first part of that injunction, but Albert taught me that if you cannot love yourself, you cannot love other people either. He had grown up in Nazi Germany and as a child was bewildered and distressed by the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda that assailed him on all sides. One night, when he was almost eight years old, he deliberately lay awake and made a list of all his good qualities. He told himself firmly that he was not what the Nazi’s said; that he had talents and special gifts of heart and mind, which he enumerated to himself one by one. Finally he vowed that if he survived, he would use those qualities to build a better world. This was an extraordinary insight for a child in such circumstances. Albert was one of the kindest people I have ever met; he was almost pathologically gentle, and must have brought help and counsel to thousands. But he always said that he could have done no good at all unless he had learned, at that terrible moment of history to love himself.”

Let beauty awake, for beauty’s sake...awake from dreams.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Free religion or free from religion?

I love the sentiment behind the hymn "A Church is a living fellowship". I will share the verses with you during this blog as well as some thoughts on church and religion...

“A church is a living fellowship more than a holy shrine, where people can share their hopes and fears, less of the yours and mine”

To me this is the purpose of church, of religious, of spiritual community...a living thriving fellowship of body, mind and spirit...this is the purpose of church and the purpose of religion of true religion...a community of individuals who are bound together by mutual care and love...who's intention is to carry that love out into the wider world...

Coming to a place of worship is not a privatised affair. I see it as communal spirituality, something that appears to be increasingly lacking in this day and age. Many people report a need for spiritual sustenance but are put off by what is described as organised religion, of any kind, which they see as detrimental to their own spirituality. A friend of mine recently posted on his “Facebook” wall. “Spiritual people inspire me; whereas religious people scare me.”  He is not unique in this outlook.

Of course I would say that there is nothing to fear in my Unitarian tradition; that ours is a free and enquiring religion; that we are free to explore and develop our own personal spirituality in community with others. Our recent publicity reads “Many beliefs, one faith”. We, as individual members, of free religious communities, do not think and believe in the same way about many things, but we are bound together in mutual love. The problem we have is articulating that to those who know nothing about our faith; those who ask the question “Unitarian, what’s that?”

This is a question I am faced with all the time. It came up again last week, during a conversation I had with other members of an interfaith friendship circle I participate in. The subject of the conversation was our faith traditions relationship with other faiths. Of course we all said that we were open, respectful and welcoming of other traditions; that our traditions, at their essence at least, were respectful of other faiths. The conversation then moved onto the question of religion itself. It seems religion is viewed differently from our varying perspectives. I tried to explain the Unitarian position, which from the looks of those present, must have sounded baffling. They really could not get a grasp on what I was maybe it was me, but I suspect it is a common problem...

I love the following story...

The word religion has become one of the dirtiest words in the English language. People do not want to be identified with it. They say it stultifies their natural human spirituality. When people hear the word religion they often equate it with irrational beliefs and oppressive and abusive hierarchical and authoritarian institutions of control.

So why bother with organized religion? Why would the spiritually minded want anything to do with religion of any description? Wouldn’t it be better to live free from religion than to be part of any religion free or otherwise?

Well I don't think so. Experience has taught me that community is vital to true spiritual development. we need free religion, not a life free from religion.

The word religion is formed from the Latin root “religere” which literally means “to bind together”. True religion is about binding people together through acts of loving kindness and service to and for others...

“Let’s stretch out the open hand of love,
Conquer the fists of hate,
Divided no more by voices of war,
Greeds of our mindless states”

To be truly religious is to console. To console is to literally stand beside another in their aloneness. It is to commiserate, to open hearts and share in the pain and suffering of our neighbour. It is to offer comfort, to share in our strength together. It’s not about conversion and or coercesion; it is simply about offering love and comfort, with no strings attached. Can this be achieved from the comfort of our living rooms, pontificating about what we see as true and untrue. No, surely this can only be achieved through engaging with others in the muck of life.

“Where bonded by trust we search for Truth
Beyond the chains of creeds,
And thoughts can aspire to shine with fire
From all our deepest needs.”

To be truly religious requires an openness to all that, the universe, everything. It reveals truth and meaning in everything and everywhere and it reveals the divine in all aspects of life. It does not reject. It leads to a reverence for the miracle that is life itself and for one another.

I see this as the purpose of religion, of free religion.It is no easy task. Forrest Church says that in order to achieve it  “We must embrace each day as the miracle it is and fashion our very lives into instruments of praise. This is religious work and it requires religious discipline. We perform that work together weekly in our Sunday liturgy. Once a week we pause and pinch ourselves. We can't take this life for granted. We must receive it as a precious gift, a pearl of great price.”

“We’ll take all our building bricks of Truth,
Make of them homes of Life,
A future to face the shame and disgrace
In all our past of strife.”

Now some might say that we can do this alone, but I am not sure that we can. By gazing alone, there is so much that we miss. Others can sense things that we alone cannot. We also need others to help us remember what is important, alone we may often forget to remember, to bind our memories together. As a friend and colleague Rev David Shaw once said “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’.

To be truly religious means to recognise the oneness, the unity of everything. We are all part of a vast and yet mysterious living system. By recognising this we begin to participate consciously in this vast oneness. The mystics of every faith tradition have proclaimed this divine unity. It is known as Nirvana in Buddhism, or the Brahman-Atman synthesis in Hinduism, when Jesus declares “I and the father are one” he is talking of divine oneness. We are all part of the one undivided whole. We are bound together in the ship of life.

Howard Thurman described this near perfectly in “Creative Encounter”, when he said "It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God."

This oneness, this sense of communion can be experienced by everyone, no one is excluded, it transcends all human created differences. What name we give it matters little, whether it be Universal Mind, Great Spirit, God, The Divine. Whether we name it or not we can certainly know it, I am sure that everyone has felt that oneness at one time or another.

I know from personal experience and from really listening to others that there is a deep human need to be at one with ourselves, reconciled with our neighbours and at home with the universe. It seems to me that our feelings of friendship and empathy are but a faint reminder of this essential oneness. We can all feel that oneness and it is through this oneness that we can truly know ourselves, our true natures. Can we achieve this alone? Does privatised spirituality allow this? How can we be at one with all of life, if we cannot engage with one another spiritually? Surely what is required is a living fellowship. surely what is required is free religion, not a life free from religion.

To be religious is to let the sense of the eternal make a difference in our lives. It’s really all about being good neighbours. It’s about how we live with each other. As Thomas Jefferson said “It is in our lives not our words that our religion must be read”. You can be spiritual on your own, of course any one can, but to be truly religious requires us to come together.

So much of what passes for 21st century spirituality seems to still be about I, self, me; where as being truly religious seems to be more about we, about fellowship, about community, about unity.

 “A church is a place of human trust
More than of brick and stone;
Of love we will sing to make it ring
In every joyous tone.”

There is nothing frightening about being truly religious, no not at all...Why? Well because I have discovered that it is only by being truly religious that I have rebound myself to all that is and all that is yet to be...

Let’s not make it all about me, let’s make it all about we...