Friday 26 October 2012

Memories: Honesty, Humilty and Openness

Autumn is a reflective time of the year. The leaves are falling and life is changing and we mammals are preparing ourselves for a time of hibernation. The days are getting shorter, the temperature is falling and no doubt we will all be spending more time indoors.

A friend of mine said to me the other day “You seem to be in quite a reflective mood at the moment”. I have been reflecting on it ever since (Muttley laugh). He is of course right, although I like to think I am quite reflective most of the time. Do not get me wrong I am not someone who gets stuck in their thoughts, but I do know how vital it is to reflect on my life. To see where I am going wrong, to see where I am going right. To pay attention to the impact I am having on life and the impact it is having on me. That said like everyone I do have my blank spots and I need others to point things out to me from time to time. Thankfully I do have ears that can hear these days. Well most of the time at least.

Looking at the past used to fill me with deep pain and anxiety, I was haunted by it day by day. I often felt it creep up behind me and tap me on my shoulder. Thankfully things are very different these days. I can look back at my life honestly and openly without fear of the pain that accompanies it. In fact most of the time as I look back these days it puts a smile on my face and often makes me shake with laughter.

Once again these last few days I have had the opportunity to spend time catching up with people I have known throughout my life. Not as many as I would have liked to, as time does not allow for this. I have been reminded of a few things from my childhood as several family members have recounted some old tales to me. 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, has changed over time.

For so long I used to say I could not remember much about my childhood and the things that I could remember caused me either pain or embarrassment. I thank God this is no longer the case. It would seem that I was always on the run and you really cannot live like that. I also had a lot of trouble remembering much of my adult life too. I can’t blame all of this on alcohol and other substances, although this did have something to do with it. No I think the bigger part of the problem was my fear of connecting to my life. I was afraid of feeling life itself; I was scared of life itself. This is no way to live.

While people have shared some lovely memories with me this week I have also been told a couple of home truths. As always hearing this can be quite painful. I was approached by someone earlier today who told me that they had been harbouring some resentment towards me for several years. This was due to way I behaved towards them several years ago. On reflection this must have been sometime around the back end of 2005 or early 2006. I listened to the man and could vaguely recall what he was talking about. Now at the time it seemed like nothing to me, but to this man it meant a great deal and was quite hurtful. What he said about me was quite true and I listened and felt his pain. I apologised for how I had been and we shook hands and went our separate ways.

I was so full of myself back then, so certain about so many things. Thankfully I have grown up a little since then. Life has humbled me many times and increasingly opened me up. That said, like most folk, I’ve got a long way to go.

I have also received some criticism from a dear friend over the last couple of days. I was told that I have neglected this friend as I have got on with my life. To some extent this is true. It is a criticism I have heard before and it has caused me to stop and think. I really do need to make more time for the people I love and just as importantly love me too.

The question I am asking myself is do I still fear love? Am I afraid to express and to receive it from others? The truth is that I am better than I was, but there is still work to be done.

Now please do not get me wrong I am not beating myself up here. I am merely honestly reflecting on my life. I know I’ve come a long way these few years. These days I am much more open than I ever was and therefore feel far less lonely than I ever did before. That said there is plenty of room for improvement. I need to increasingly see that no matter how much I think I know there is still so much to learn and if I can just see and accept the truth of this I will once again be opened up to experiences way beyond my imagination. I thank God and the people who can speak openly and honestly to me for that.

An old friend rang me earlier and during the conversation he mentioned a quote I had put on my facebook profile. I have just re-read and it has penetrated deep into my soul. Thank you...

Here it is

“In every field of human inquiry, ignorance increases as knowledge grows. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “I am the most ignorant man in Athens.” He wasn’t indulging in false modesty. He was pointing out that others, knowing far less, had no idea how ignorant they were. Socrate’s ignorance, the knowledge of how much remained for him to learn, expanded in direct proportion to his learning. Of both belief and knowledge, the same is true for us. When reflecting on several years of contemplation on the origins of the cosmos, one cosmologist sighed, “It’s not only queerer than we imagined; it’s queerer than can be imagined.”

“Whether informed by religion or by science, our minds cannot unwrap life’s mystery. This is why, in offering evidence to corroborate religious truth, true believers may more honestly be accused of being too rational than too irrational. They are not alone. We all use our minds to figure out things that can’t be deciphered by anything as small as our minds. On the one hand, the attempt is a noble one. Trying to decode life’s mystery is what makes us human.

Balancing these two apparent contradictions. I base my own theology on contrasting principles: openness and humility. No ceiling limits the expansion of the human heart. Yet, humility teaches that when death visits, we will have attained only a flickering notion of what life and death are all about. The light we discover will be framed by darkness. But, when we ponder the nature of our shared mortality, meaning may begin to emerge. Not unlike when we leave a warm, brightly lit room, go outdoors, and contemplate a dark winter sky: one by one the stars come out.” 

Forrest Church

Life has taught me so much and I am extremely grateful for every lesson, including the painful ones. Of all the lessons I have learnt perhaps the most important one is that everything we do and everything we do not do does matter. This is why it is so important to be aware of the impact we have on others. The last few days have helped me to remember this.

Thank you

Sunday 21 October 2012

Creativity, mythos and the lure of Love

Extract taken from Letters to my Son by Kent Nerburn

"I can measure my life by the moments when art transformed me—standing in front of Michelangelo’s Duomo pieta, listening to Dylan Thomas read his poetry, hearing Bach’s cello suites for the first time.

But not only there.

Sitting at a table in a smoky club listening to Muddy Waters and Little Walter talk back and forth to each other through their instruments; listening to a tiny Japanese girl play a violin sonata at a youth symphony concert; standing in a clapboard gift shop on the edge of Hudson Bay staring at a crudely carved Inuit image of a bear turning into a man.

It can happen anywhere, anytime. You do not have to be in some setting hallowed by greatness, or in the presence of an artist honored around the world. Art can work its magic any time you are in the presence of a work created by someone who has gone inside the act of creation to become what they are creating. When this takes place time stands still and if our hearts are open to the experience, our spirits soar and then our imaginations fly unfettered.

You need these moments if you are ever to have a life that is more than the sum of the daily moments of humdrum affairs.

If you can create these moments—if you are a painter or a poet or a musician or an actor—you carry within you a prize of great worth. If you cannot create them, you must learn to love one of the arts in a way that allows the power of another’s creation to come alive within you.

Once you love an art enough that you can be taken up in it, you are able to experience an echo of the great creative act that mysteriously has given life to us all.

It may be the closest any of us can get to God."

Increasingly I am noticing the word Zen appearing at the beginning of any number of activities. It would appear that if you prefix anything with the word Zen it increases its meaningfulness.

Think about it Zen walking, Zen shopping, Zen doodling, Zen knitting, Zen cooking, Zen blogging even. I am sure there are many more. Now do not get me wrong I am fully aware that any activity can become meaningful if it is practised mindfully. That said it is important to note that it is not so much the activity itself that creates the meaning, more the fact that the person engaging with it is fully present. This is because they are no longer distracted, they are in the moment and therefore released from guilt, resentment and fear. Activities do not become deep and meaningful because we give them fancy names; they become deep and meaningful because of how we engage with them and the impact they have on our souls.

One activity that takes me beyond myself is singing. When singing I can feel totally connected and yet at the same time completely free. I have had some incredibly powerful experiences while singing; experiences that  were more than mere pleasure, they were transformative. In recent times I have been exploring singing more deeply. This has been primarily through the singing meditation I have created and begun to share with the wider world. I have also recently attended several workshops that have used sound and the voice to touch those hard to reach spots within all of us. I have enjoyed each session immensely and felt that I have reached some amazing places at times. I have also met some very interesting people at these events and gained so much from my interactions with them. I attended an “overtone singing” session, which was amazing and a lot of fun as well as a workshop on Solfeggio singing and another that incorporated singing bowls. All these touched me on a deep and profound level and got my creative juices flowing.  I am somebody who really connects with sound; it touches those creative elements at the core of my being.

Thankfully we are not all the same and many folk are touched by other creative activities. Increasingly I understand how different people are in the ways that they connect to and express who they are. Yes we are made of the same stuff and yet we think differently, we feel differently and we express ourselves differently. I celebrate this.

The thing is to find what connects with us, what wakes us up, what connects deeply with us. The key is to increases our sensitivity to life and therefore enable ourselves to truly express who we are and to share it with the world. Whatever gifts and talents we have and we all have them, they are not for us to keep, to be hoarded selfishly, they are there to be shared with everyone. I believe that this is what the epistle Paul was hinting at in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 when he talks of the variety of gifts that the spirit gives to each individual. These gifts are not given for the individual to use selfishly or to give them a privileged place in society but for the good of all. The gifts are given to the individual for them to express in life itself and for everyone to benefit from them.

This summer we witnessed some immensely talented sporting individuals fulfilling their potential and sharing it with us all. Their achievements lifted the whole nation. Creativity has the ability to do the same. I believe that it can do more than this though; I believe that it is also a pathway to the sacred. Every religious tradition gives credence to the idea that art pleases God and that our spiritual journeys are both fuelled and enhanced by creativity. As Kent Nerburn said in his letter to his son "It may be the closest any of us can get to God."

The creative process is born from life itself, but how does it come into existence? Why did I wake up on Monday morning with this need, this desire, to explore creativity? It did not merely grow from me, it seemed to come from a place somewhere beyond, but I am not sure where.

The ancient Greeks believed that the Muses were the sources of creativity. They believed that these Goddesses would come to a person in the night and whisper an idea into their ear. I find something very beautiful in this mythos and it does seem to reveal a universal truth. Seemingly something comes to us, in our subconscious, while we sleep.

Now please do not get me wrong I do not believe that a little winged creature flew into my room during Sunday night and whispered in my ear. Of course this is not what actually happened. And yet somehow these ideas do seem to be whispered into the ears of our hearts, into our souls, the core of our beings. Somehow this creative idea burst into my consciousness as I awoke on Monday morning.

This mythos speaks of a creative process that begins and ends beyond the individual; it speaks of an alchemy of brain, experience and wisdom that adds up to more than the individual who created the work; it speaks of a greater mystery. There is something divine occurring in the process; there is something at work here that calls the creation out of the individual; there is something going on here that is more than self, that cannot be controlled. I know myself that some weeks I am so full of ideas that they are seemingly bursting out of my ears and yet other weeks the well is dry. Some days I am completely blocked and then suddenly, as if something had just whispered in my ears, the idea just comes bursting out of me and I start writing again. Could this be God? Is God controlling this? Who knows?

Personally I do not hold with the view of a God who controls all our interaction, nor do I have a deistic understanding of a Creator who started the process but then left life to get on with it. Nor am I an atheist or even agnostic, I know a Divine presence in life. I believe in the Divine Lure of Love. That the Divine lures life on, that we are co-creators, with all of life in a universal process. I sense this divine presence within me and I experience it in life itself, particularly in creativity or in deeply felt interactions.  

The Unitarian process theologian Henry Nelson Weiman (1884-1975) defined God as a process that leads people to act in ways that sustain and nurture life. Creativity is at the heart of this. Whenever we create we turn our whole selves inside out. This enables us to become aware of who we truly are, thus revealing what sustains and nurtures us. When we create we allow others to see deep within our humanity, thus enabling them to widen their view of human need and possibility.

Also whatever we create only becomes complete when we share it with others; this blog is only complete when you read and perhaps respond to it. Such creations are meant to communicate beyond their very selves. Weiman called this “Creative Interchange”. We all create and we all pay attention to the creations of others; we are all craft workers and craft consumers.

By you reading this blog that I have created we are engaing in creative interchange!

When we interact with one another’s creations we are deeply engaged with one another and all of life for that matter. You can pre-fix it with the word Zen, but I do not think it is necessary. When we create we open windows into each other’s humanity. As we do so we create windows that can lead to a deeper understanding of what sustains all life. This I believe leads us to living a life that is for the good of all and not just ourselves.

We are all born with the ability to create and to appreciate the creativity of others. We are all craft workers and craft consumers. As we create and consume we experience a sense of interconnection with all of life, which enables us to nurture and sustain our world. For it is up to us to do so as we dance our dance with the divine creator.

I am going to end this little chip of blog with some words by Desmond Tutu

“We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew...Human beings are actually created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful...and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.”

You are all beautiful...never forget will bring you closer to God...

Sunday 14 October 2012

Sabbath: Human Beings or Human Doings?

There is a story told of a workaholic businessman who decided to take an African Safari. He plotted a course and determined a time-table. He hired workers from a local village to carry the various containers and cases. On the first morning, the entire party roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the second morning, they roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the third day, the same. On the fourth morning, the local tribesmen refused to move. The man gestured irately and fumed at the translator to get them going. “They will not move,” the translator relayed.
“Why not?” the man bellowed, thinking of all the time wasted and dollars spent. “Because,” the translator said, “they are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

The pace of modern life can be quite frightening. People are always on the move. They always seem to be doing something or nothing, so long as they are not standing still or idling around. People always seem to be in a rush to be anywhere, but where they actually are, to be doing anything other than what they are doing and to be feeling anything other than what they are feeling. Seemingly we need to always be on the move; for fear that life might just catch up with us.

But what if it did? What if life did catch up with us? What if we actually allowed our souls to catch up with us? What if we actually paused for a moment and began to experience what was actually here? Would that be so terrible? Well seemingly for many it would. Certainly for the man in the story it seemed utterly intolerable to pause from the mission, to allow our souls to catch up with us.

Frank Sinatra use to sing of “New York, New York” about wanting to wake up in that city that doesn’t sleep. I think that we could sing that about most towns never mind cities these days. We are increasingly living in a 24/7 culture, that doesn’t sleep. Is this how life is meant to be? Is this really progress?

Well some would say that pausing for one second is getting in the way and you can’t get in the way of progress. You are moving too slowly, so get out of the way.

This doesn’t sound like progress to me, it looks more like insanity. It seems utterly dehumanising. If we don’t live with our souls, then surely we are not living fully as human beings, we become like machines, like robots. As the saying goes “We are human beings, not human doings”. We are not slaves, surely not.

Being busy and being constantly on the move eats away at us, until finally it takes away all that makes us human. Wayne Muller in “How, Shall We Live” said that “Our busy-ness becomes a kind of violence because it destroys the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful...the faster we go, the more we unintentionally mishandle the ones we love. When we work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we live like people who are at war...”

We need to allow our souls to catch up with us. We need to fully experience our lives, otherwise we do indeed become human doings as opposed to human beings. We need to pause and to make space in our lives, to truly appreciate what is actually there.

Those words from Bill Darlison that I heard at Summer School keep on singing in my soul “Spirituality is about increasing our sensitivity to life”. Well how can any of us do this if we never stop and feel all that we are experiencing? How can we increase our sensitivity to life if we never stop and even savour, with all our senses, all that is around us?

Maybe we are afraid to pause, to stop, to feel, to let our souls catch up with us; maybe we are afraid of increasing our sensitivity to life.

In the early years of the twentieth century Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Sigmund Freud discovered a phenomenon that he described as “Sunday Neurosis”. He noticed that seemingly normal healthy successful people would experience extreme mental and physical distress on the Sabbath. Ferenczi believed that these people, having been deprived of their normal busy routine by Sunday, began to panic as they feared that they would lose their usual self-censoring mechanism and therefore their wild impulses would reign. They felt out of control and this terrified them. It would seem that they began to suffer from extreme pain and or mental anguish as a way of staving off the anxiety of the pause.

Maybe they were afraid that their souls would catch up with them.

Now of course in 21st century Britain we no longer have to worry about this. Today we pretty much live in a 24/7 culture. People increasingly work on Sundays and can certainly shop and pursue all kinds of other leisure activities all day every day. The Sabbath is no more; it has been discarded to the dustbin of history. We no longer have to worry about this Sunday neurosis; we no longer have to worry about stopping as we no longer have to stop; we no longer have to worry about our souls catching up with us. We can keep on going, onwards and upwards forever.

But is this progress and does it in fact increase our sensitivity to life? Do we need Sabbath? Do we need to rest? Do we need to allow our souls to catch up with us? Or should we just keep on moving forwards onwards and upwards forever?

Last year I was invited by a Jewish friend to Hale Synagogue to attend Friday evening Shabbat. It was powerful, beautiful and moving, especially the singing as Shabbat was welcomed, like a bride. During the ceremony I felt like I was allowing my soul to catch up with me.

The Sabbath relates back to Genesis I, which depicts six acts of creation and on the seventh day, the climax, God rests, looks at his creation and sees that it is very good indeed. He pauses; he smells the roses and allows his soul to catch up with him. Why on earth would God need to do this? Why do we need to pause and look at our own creations, our own lives? Well maybe because it is only when we stop and look at our lives and our work that meaning begins to emerge. If our hearts, our souls, are not in what we are doing it is unlikely that we will make a good job of it.

How often do any of us stop and look at the meaning behind what we have created, what we are creating? How often do we actually spend time increasing our sensitivity to our own lives?

Rabbi Abraham Heschel claimed that “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.”

Maybe welcoming the Sabbath is a way of allowing our souls to catch up with our bodies.

It was the Jewish people who invented Sabbath, but it didn’t make them popular. Again according to Rabbi Heschel “When the Romans first encounted the Jews and noticed their habit of keeping the Sabbath, of refraining from labour every seventh day, their reaction was nothing but contempt.”

The Jewish people had escaped slavery. Exodus recounts their wanderings in the wilderness as they searched for a home. They knew that slaves never rested and perhaps, during their time in the desert they never rested too. Maybe on Sinai they realised that although they had escaped Egypt and slavery, they were still slaves in so many other ways. Maybe this is why Sabbath was created.

So maybe the rejection of Sabbath is not progress at all, but a return to a more de-humanising culture, where human beings are seen as nothing more than commodities who do without ceasing; “human doings, not human beings”. Perhaps we have all become enslaved by this need to constantly be doing. By constantly doing have we actually enslaved our souls. Maybe we don’t actually need to let our souls catch up with us, what we really need to do is free our souls once again.

We seem to be a people who are constantly on the run, whether we do paid work or not. When do we pause and allow our souls to catch up with us? It would appear that busy-ness has actually become a badge of honour. I am no better than anyone else by the way. How often do I say to people “I’m sorry I can’t do this or that because I am just too busy”? I do not keep the Sabbath myself. How often can I say, hand on heart, that I spend a day truly resting and allowing my soul to fully catch up with me, for a whole 24hrs? Well rarely if ever. My diary is always too full. I know that this is not healthy. I know I must let my heart and soul catch up with me or I will not be able to do my work with heart and soul and if  that happens I know I will not be able to do my work well, if at all. The last thing I want to be is heartless and or soulless.

Now please do not get me wrong I am not suggesting that we return to ancient times and I am not advocating restrictive laws. Nor am I suggesting that the whole nation should shut down on one particular day. This sounds like enslavement of another type and I do believe in freedom. Instead what I am suggesting is that we create personal Sabbath’s of our own. It doesn’t even need to be on a particular day, it could be practised throughout our days. Maybe it could begin just by examining how we live each day, each week, each month and each year and to commit to times in our lives when we turn from our usual activities, pause, look at our creations and see that they are very good indeed and then give thanks and praise.

We need Sabbath. We need to stop and take in life. We need to feel our feet on the ground. We need to allow our senses to sense life and then and only then we will see the riches in our lives and give thanks for life. And then what ever our work may be, we will do it well, heart and soul.

Thursday 11 October 2012


Ministry compels me to pay attention. Even during those moments when I really do not want to, this work compels me to pay attention. I now understand that this is one of the great gifts of my work. Ministry compels me not only to pay attention to the people that I serve, but to all life. I now understand how much ministry is a deeply spiritual practice. Why is this? Well because it increases my sensitivity to life.

As the year has developed and as I have created worship and engaged with the communities I serve I have noticed how I increasingly pay attention to the changing seasons. This seems especially so this autumn. Autumn has had a powerful impact on me this time around. This year I seem to have noticed nature more than I ever have before; this year I have heard Autumn’s song more clearly than ever before. I am listening and I am attempting to harmonise with it.

I've been singing these words for weeks now...

“Think of the springtime,
Think of the summer,
Think of the winter,
Soon to be here,
But this is autumn,
Glorious autumn,
Beautiful autumn,
Best of the year.

Beautiful autumn best of the year...

Rilke wrote of “Autumn”

“The leaves are falling, falling as from far, as though above were withering farthest gardens; they fall with a denying attitude.

And by night, down into solitude, the heavy earth falls far from every star.
We are all falling. This hand’s falling too – and have this falling-sickness none withstands.

And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands This universal falling can’t fall through.”

Everything seems to be falling and dying during the Autumn; "everything is beautiful because everything is dying". This is of course only temporary as all that is seemingly dying today is actually preparing itself for the renewal that will come in the spring time. 

It is hard to miss the glories of Autumn. Those simple falling and fallen leaves turn the most beautiful shades and from a distance can appear to be aflame in a red gold splendour. I noticed them as I was driving back to Altrincham only the other day.

Harvest feasts are celebrated, in many cultures, during the autumn. 

The other day a member of the congregation was telling me of her recent visit to a Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is a Jewish celebration where temporary shelters, with a hole revealing the sky are created in remembrance of ancestors who wandered in the wilderness; as the hardships of ancient times are remembered, so too a celebration is enjoyed and a thanksgiving harvest is shared by family, friends and guests. The shelters are decorated lavishly and are adorned with symbols of home, harvest and perhaps most importantly hope. By spending time outdoors, in these simple shelters, the Jewish people are reminded of their connection both to nature and their heritage.

In the coming weeks Hindu’s will be celebrating “Divali” the festival of lights. This is in essence a celebration of harvest and thanks giving when thanks are offered to the Divine for the blessings of nature. The festival honours the sacredness of light as a symbol of connection to the Divine. Prayers of petition are offered to the “Goddess of Abundance” “Lakshmi” to fill their homes with all that is beautiful and good, during the celebrations. This though is not merely a time to ask for gifts but also a time to offer generosity to family and friends. It is a time of celebration, a time for giving and forgetting and it is also a time of remembrance too; a time to recall deliverance of ancestors by the Avatar Krishna from a tyrant. Divali is a celebration, a time of thanks giving, not only for the harvest, but also of deliverance.

At this time of year many Pagans celebrate Samhain, a new year harvest. Samhain also represents the time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. It is a time to remember those who have died, to remember and connect to ancestors and to prepare for the harsh realities of the coming winter; a time when the ground will once again become lifeless, only to be reborn again in the springtime.

The Christian churches have recently celebrated their own harvest festivals. We had ours here at Dunham Road, only two weeks ago. The coming weeks are also a time of remembrance with All Hallows, All Saints and All Souls Day, as well as Remembrance Sunday itself. December brings Advent and the Hope that comes with the new light, the Hope of Christmas and that humble birth in a simple stable. Like many of the other traditions this is also a time for giving and for getting (forgiving and forgetting).

Each of these very different traditions honours the past and gives thanks for the present while preparing for the hope that is to come, looking for the light in the darkness of winter and the coming of new life in the spring time.

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a deep love for the writings of Forrest Church. Forrest served for more than thirty years as minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York. He authored many books and I particularly love his writings post the year 2,000. With the dawning of the new millennium he changed and developed a more relational heart based theology as opposed to his previous head based one. As he said himself “My heart had always been in play – how could it not with love and death my abiding theme – but now a trunk line opened from my mind straight to my heart, a line that was almost always open. My long standing belief in a distant God slowly transfigured itself into my felt experience of a loving God. Ah, what a difference: to feel, not merely know, what one believes.”

His penultimate masterpiece “Love and Death”, which he wrote while dying of oesophagul cancer, is the most beautiful life affirming book imaginable. It extols the virtue of the power love in the face of death. Church does not bemoan his fate of dying before he himself is ready, instead he celebrates love. He says that death is in fact loves measure...

“...not only because at a loved one’s death our grief, however we express it, is equal to our love, but also because, when we ourselves die, the love we have given to others during our own brief span of days is the one thing death can’t kill. Because we and our loved ones manage to devise so many ways for fear to bind our hearts – fear of intimacy, fear of disappointment, fear of embarrassment, fear of confrontation – because our fear of pain or possible pain manifest itself in so many guises, we often hurt each other without really meaning to. We hurt one another and ourselves by learning, over the practice of a lifetime, how to protect ourselves from pain. Add to this all the mistakes we make, and all the mistakes others make, and only one solvent can loosen our hearts from self protective captivity. Only love. And only a forgiving heart, one capable both of accepting and bestowing forgiveness, is open both to give and receive the saving power of love. (Love and Death pg74)

This to me is a message of hope, a message of love and a message that connects all of us to one another.  It speaks to me powerfully of Autumn of that which is dying, so that it can be born again, so that it can bring about renewal. It symbolises the light of hope, the light of love that is to come only following the death that Autumn symbolises. 

"Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year."

"This is indeed Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn, best of the year." Everything is indeed beautiful, because everything is dying. We are about to enter a season of remembrance for those who have gone before us. We have already gathered in the fruits of year. We have given thanks for the circling year as well as given thanks for our ancestors who made this life that we enjoy possible. Autumn links the past with the present as well as the future yet to come. A hope filled future, a dawning of new light, which symbolises the love which will always survive death.

"This is Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn best of the year." Autumn may well feel like an ending, but really it is a new beginning. We should not fall for the fool’s gold of death with the first of the winter frosts or the falling of the leaves. Those falling leaves are the first sign of the renewal that is yet to come. They should remind us of our ancestors that lived before us as well as those who will follow us when we are gone. Yes winter will soon be upon us, but there is new light, there is hope yet to come. New life will soon be upon us with the dawning of the spring yet to come.

"For this is Autumn, glorious Autumn, beautiful Autumn best of the year."


Sunday 7 October 2012

Animals: Soul Brothers and Spirit Sisters

At 7am every Tuesday morning I attend a meditation. It has become central to my personal spiritual development; it has become a key part of my week. Now some weeks as I leave the house at not long after 6.30am I don’t really want to go. I have noticed this resistance the last couple of weeks as I awake to the darkness and dampness of Autumnal mornings. This Tuesday the resistance felt particularly strong and yet as soon as I opened my front door, it seemed to instantly fade away. Why you may well ask? Well thankfully my ears tend to wake up much before my other senses and this morning I was greeted by two or three little birds singing away to their hearts content. As soon as I heard them a broad smile appeared on my face and I offered a prayer of thanks for life. They were singing the joy of living and they helped me to do the same...”We sing the joy of living, we sing the mystery”.

As a child I loved the dawn chorus, but as I grew older I somehow fell out of love with it, as I fell out of love with so many things. I began to fall for it once again as I refound my love for life and my love for music and song and as I refound my own voice. The birds would sing and I would sing back at them. Kindred spirits I reckon.

I became particularly aware of these angels, these winged messengers, these angel voices almost exactly four years ago. I was a student minister at the time, living at Luther King House in Manchester. Luther King House is a beautiful spot near to Platt Fields Park, the place where I fell in love with the Geese I wrote about in a previous blog. I will never forget how those and other simple animals took me out of myself and helped me to deal with the anxiety I faced every Thursday morning as I struggled with learning to drive. It’s amazing how just a simple walk around the park watching these creatures, just simply living, helped me to connect beyond myself and the confines of my fear.

I digress - Going back to the dawn chorus - Every Sunday morning I would begin a long trek, to Macclesfield. I was a student minister at the Unitarian congregation there. It was a long journey by bus and train and often replacement bus as they were working on the line on Sunday’s. Before leaving home I would prepare myself as I always do and yet somehow just hearing those angel voices as I left my flat seem to lift me way beyond myself and enabled me to connect and be still as I began the long adventure. Those little songs helped me to connect to my own song within me and the greater song beyond me and carried me on my journey.

Now although I am not really one for pets myself. I do appreciate what they bring to the lives of those who love them. That said for me personally animals are for the outdoors. I love and respect them deeply and they have taught me so much, especially the winged messengers. Let that Love continue long and keep on showing me the way.

I recently came across these words by Rev Cliff Reid. It’s really a prayer but it can be enjoyed in a none prayerful way. It is titled “Winged Messengers”

“Let us give thanks for the winged messengers.

With beauty of song and plumage, with grace of flight and form, they speak to us of life’s everlasting miracle, of the divine creation that never stops creating.

They speak to us of the land we live in, with voices of forest and marshland, seashore and garden; of hedgerow, heath, and moorland, reminding us of the heritage that is ours to treasure and pass on.

They speak to us of lands far away, bringing the cries of arctic wastes, the breath of streaming jungles, searing deserts, open oceans, reminding us that the world is one, without borders or divisions.

We give thanks for the winged messengers in all their variety. Let us head the messages with which god entrusts them.


Well they have certainly spoken to me over the years...when I have had ears that could hear...I know that they will always sing their songs, I just hope I am able to hear them...I just need to make sure that the ears of my ears are awake...For I know that if I listen with the ears of my heart...the language of the heart will always be heard.

We can learn so much from animals. The word animal itself come from the Latin “animalis” which means “having a soul”; it is closely linked to “animus” which in its feminine root means “breath” or “spirit”. Now of course many people will deride any idea of soul or spirit, certainly in animals and also humans. The reductionists say we are just flesh and bone. I once felt this way myself, but not anymore. I see this same spirit that I see in humans in animals too, more and more so actually. Just as when I lovingly engage with fellow humans I feel this spirit come to life, so I increasingly find this same spirit in operation in nature and animals too. In my case with the birds, but other animals as well and I seem more aware of it this autumn, than ever before.

Anyone who has spent real time with animals will tell you that they do indeed have a soul, a spirit. That we can learn so much from them and that they are very much alive, full of curiosity and totally in tune with their senses. They have emotion too, they feel just as we feel. They suffer grief, guilt, anger, disappointment, fear and anger as well as joy contentment, excitement and gratitude. They care for their families and loved ones as well as those beyond their families. They can display an altruistic love which can deeply touch our hearts.

In many religious traditions birds are often symbolic of spirit or soul. In Hinduism what is often understood in the west as the soul, is symbolised by birds. This is known as the Atman which refers to the eternal none material aspect of the self. This never changes and is distinct from the mind and body. This real self is beyond the temporary characteristics of race, gender, even species. Ideas about reincarnation are natural extensions of this concept. For Hindu’s consciousness, in whatever way it manifests, is merely a symptom of the soul. Therefore for the physical life to have awareness it requires the soul.

When I listen to the birds of the air or observe the animals on the ground I know that I am connected to them. They are my soul brothers and my spirit sisters.

Last Thursday 4th October was the Feast Day of St Francis, the patron saint of animals. He lived during the later 12th and early 13th century. He lived a mixed life, but following a conversion experience he devoted his life to following the Gospel. He truly was a Christian man who took the Gospel literally, not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following the teachings of Jesus and living by the way of self giving love. Francis had a deep love of animals and held them in such high esteem that he addressed them as brothers and sisters. They were his equal in every sense and he saw the same spirit in them as in all life.

There are many stories told of St Francis and his love for animals. Following his death a collection of tales, portraying his humble approach to nature, sprang up known as “Fioretti” or “Little Flowers”. “It is said that one day, while Francis was travelling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to ‘wait for me while I go preach to my sisters the birds.’ The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away.”

Echoes of Saint Francis are still with us. In fact increasingly we are seeing the benefits that a spiritual relationship with animals can give to human life.  Pets are not only considered companions to us, but healers too, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Research shows that pets can reduce stress and therefore blood pressure. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that they can help with deep trauma and emotional disturbance. Cats, dogs and birds are being increasingly used to help bring healing to emotionally disturbed children, the mentally ill, and the isolated and lonely elderly cooped up in nursing homes. It would appear that the therapeutic value of a deepening relationship with animals knows no bound. I know I have experienced it over the years and I know that many others have too.

So let us honour the animals in our lives this and every day. They bring healing and they bring love. They reveal the love that is God to us all