Sunday 23 February 2014

The Critic

I have a couple of friends who I have recently named “Statler and Waldorf”. To some degree this is done in jest, but there is a serious point behind the humour. A few months ago I grew a little wearisome of their constant criticism of things and others. So I gave them the name partly in jest and partly in criticism of their constant criticism.

“Statler and Waldorf” are two characters from Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Show”. The pair don’t really participate in the show and instead sit on the balcony heckling the rest of the characters who are trying to create the show. They are archetypes for we who sit back, pour scorn and criticise the efforts of others to do the best that they can. It’s so easy to do this is it not; it is so easy to just to sit back and criticise the best efforts of others while doing nothing ourselves.

Now I realise I’m being unfair when I give my friends this name, they actually do a lot, an awful lot, for many people. That said they do at times come across as grumpy, critical old men, a bit like “Statler and Waldorf”. By the way I am very aware that I am displaying similar characteristics myself when I become critical of their criticism and grumpy of their grumpiness.

Increasingly we seem intent on fault finding and discovering the imperfections in one another. Why do we do this? Do we believe it will help us feel better about ourselves if we pour scorn on the imperfections of others? Maybe, maybe not?!?

There is a song titled “Knievel” on the latest New Model Army album "Between Dog and Wolf". It is inspired by the life of Evel Knievel, that famous stunt motorbike rider from the 1970’s. There is a line in the song that is repeated over and over again. The line is “Do they come to see a man fall – or to see him fly?” It is asking if the people come to see him achieve his feats or did they come to see him fall from the heavens? The thing about Knievel is that he was as likely to fail as he was to succeed and yet he always took off.

Now the song is not just a commentary on this crazy, complex, talented individual but also the world in which we live; a world in which we build people up to hero status only to take pot shots at them for their only too human imperfections. I often wonder if when we are shooting others down what we are really doing is attempting to deflect from our own imperfections.

The critic is someone who stands at the side taking pot shots at the people who have the courage to stand above the parapet and give something a go.

“Do they come to see a man fall – or to see him fly?”

In “The Heart of the Enlightened” Anthony De Mello tells the following story.

“A woman complained to a visiting friend that her neighbour was a poor housekeeper. “You should see how dirty her children are – and her house. It is almost a disgrace to be living in the same neighbourhood as her. Take a look at those clothes she has hung out on the line. See the black streaks on the sheets and towels!”

The friend walked up to the window and said, “I think the clothes are quite clean, my dear. The streaks are on your window.”

This story brings to mind words from Matthews Gospel (ch 7 vv 1- 12) “Why do you see the speck in your neighbours eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye.” It easy to pass judgement and to find fault in others but is that what our task is, to tear apart everyone else and to point out where they are going wrong? Or is it to make the most of who we are not only for ourselves but for the good of all. Is our task to be the critic who picks apart what others do? Or is it to contribute to life in whatever ways we can? I for one no longer wish to choose the path of lazy cynicism and criticism. I’d much rather do what I can and risk getting shot down.

In verse 12 of this chapter from Matthews Gospel Jesus states the Golden Rule of Compassion, the universal essence found in all the great religious traditions. Here he states those immortal words ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” In these very words I find both the problem and solution to so many of humanity's troubles; in these words we find the reason why people are so harshly critical of others. I suspect that we find fault in others because deep down inside is that insidious voice, finding fault in everything we do. People often do love their neighbour as themselves. The problem being that deep down inside they feel no real love for themselves.

You see the greatest critic of them all, the one that seems to drive all other criticism, is that inner critic that quietly tears our own souls apart. I suspect that we find fault in others so as to deflect from that voice that eats away at everything loving and good within ourselves and our world for that matter.

A couple of weeks ago I explored “Love”. During the blogspot I made reference to “Philautia” or self love. I suspect that it is the lack of true “self love” that is the root cause of so many of our human problems. So often we fail to see that we are children of love, that we are formed from love. Would that critical voice that so many of us hear have power over us if we truly understood that we are formed from love? I suspect those who pick fault and are highly critical of others do so because they really lack that sense of being formed and made in love. So many of us treat our neighbours so harshly because deep down we do not experience that love from which we are formed. It would seem that most people do in fact love their neighbours as they love themselves. When they look in the mirror they hate who looks back at them; when they look into the eyes of their neighbour they hate who looks back at them.

So what can we do about it? How do we learn to transcend that critical voice within that tells us we aren’t good enough? How do we learn to allow love to work though our very being and therefore learn to love our neighbour instead of finding fault in everything that they say and do? How do we learn to love every aspect of who we are, warts and all and beauty spots too? Well it begins by seeing that we are at our true nature creatures of love, formed from love.

I constantly hear told that life is empty and meaningless. I suspect that this may be the root of the problem. I once saw life through this lens and it was this that dragged me into nihilism and the total rejection of life. It was this that caused me to shut down and to become bound by shame. Now I see so much love, even in suffering, I’ve been experiencing a deeper sense of this in recent weeks. I no longer know despair instead I witness meaning emerging from everything, especially suffering.

Matthew (ch 7 vv8-9) reads “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

What we need is courage; what we need is to live with open hearts. Did you know that courage originally meant just this? Its etymological root is the Latin word “cor”. Courage meant to speaks one’s mind by telling all of your heart. Now these days this seems to have negative connotations. To speak one’s mind often means to speak critically, but that wasn’t the case in ancient times. To speak one’s mind by telling all of your heart meant to speak from love; it meant to speak the language of the heart; it meant to speak the language of Divine Love.

This can come again; we can live with real courage again. All we need to do is to live in the world with an open heart; all that we need to do is give all that we are to life. We don’t need to put one another down in order to feel a little better about ourselves and to deflect from our own inadequacies. Instead we can see the world through loving eyes and encourage both our selves and one another to be the best we can be and therefore create the best of this our world.

So what are you going to be today? Are you going to be the critic who stands on the sidelines pointing out the imperfections in others or you going to be all that you can be in life, give all that you have to give and encourage others to do the same.

"Do they come to see a man fall – or to see him fly?"

Saturday 15 February 2014

Openness: Creating Temples Of Our Ears

I often "hear" it said that we have a growing literacy problem in this country. Now while I have no wish to dispute this I actually think there is a bigger issue. I think what we really suffer from is declining "listency". Most people can talk and write freely but how many of us have truly learnt how to listen? How many of us can say that the ears of our ears are awake? How many of us truly know how to worship at the altar of our ears? How many of us can truly say that we have learnt to listen with the ears of our hearts? Everyone's talking, but who's listening?

Last Sunday, during worship, I explored the question "What is Love". It was also the subject of my last blogspot. During the address I talked about the butterfly and how in order to truly understand its beauty you have to watch it fly through the gardens of life, that you can’t really understand a butterfly by pinning it down and pulling it apart. Yes you can understand what it is made of, but you can’t appreciate what it is. I used this analogy for love, explaining that you can’t understand love by pulling it apart; you can only understand it by watching it fly through the gardens of life.

Now I shared this service with three congregations, ending in the evening at Dukinfield Old Chapel. Just as worship was ending and I was offering the blessing a remarkable thing happened. A butterfly appeared in front of me and began fluttering all around my head. I stopped, half way through the benediction, and just watched it fly around the chapel, open mouthed. As I stood there in silence some of the congregations began to notice it too. After a few moments, which seemed like an eternity, I returned to my blessing and left with a broad grin on my face.

Now what on earth a butterfly was doing in an old chapel in the north of England on a wet February evening? I cannot answer. I do know that it was a beautiful moment of synchronicity and it got me thinking about the butterfly and how it opens up and is born again and that it is only after it has truly opened up that it can then fly around the gardens of life, if only for a short time.

Now the first thing I need to admit, before I continue with this conversation, is that it was not infact a butterfly that I saw it was obviously a moth; a very large and colourful moth, granted, but a moth all the same. Not that this really matters for they are related; they are both from the lepitoptera order. I will not get bogged down in the minutiae of detail. (I have since been informed by people in the know that it was very likely it was a butterfly)

In some spiritual traditions, especially those who see animals as totems, the butterfly is a symbol of transformation. It is said that when the butterfly comes into your life as a spirit guide it usually means you are either going through or will soon be going through some internal changes. It symbolises moving from one state to the next in the same way the butterfly emerges from one state to a new birth, as it metamorphosises from the pupa to the final adult stage. It is a beautiful opening up from a closed state, to a new form of life. It is this image of the beautiful butterfly opening up from the pupa that was in my mind as I drove home from Dukinfield.

I wonder if this is what is happening to me at the moment. I do feel like I am going through a process of change I have certainly been opened up in so many ways these last few weeks and months as I and those I hold most dear have lost two of our loved ones. I have spent a lot of time listening to my nearest and dearest as we have held one another in our loss. “The ears of my ears” have most certainly been reawakened in recent weeks.

Several people spoke to me last weekend about coming to new conclusions about their own lives and finding the courage to live more openly, more authentically. They talked of how they had closed down over a period of time, in an attempt to protect themselves and how this had utterly diminished their lives, they seemed quite depressed it would seem and were certainly not flying around the gardens of life, the gardens of delight. I had also heard Rev Bill Darlison discuss opening up during his talk at the Altrincham Interfaith Group Meal that Saturday night. He was specifically relating this to how as a society we had opened up so much over the last 50 years especially towards those who are different to us whether socially, ethnically and or religiously. Ok there is a long way to go, but we do at least listen to one another and engage in ways we never did before.

Bill made reference to one of the healing accounts found in Mark’s Gospel and how this was symbolic of opening up in dialogue and truly listening. The account is known as “Jesus Heals a Deaf Man” (Mark Ch 7 vv 31-37). I asked Bill about his thoughts and he sent me a sermon he’d delivered on the subject a few years earlier. In it he explains what he believes the passage and this particular section of Mark’s Gospel is attempting to teach. First of all he points out that the author is trying to make us listen by using a clever linguistic aid. In the account he states that Jesus says the Arameaic word Ephphatha as he heals the man. This is perhaps not so strange on the surface as this is certainly the language that Jesus would have spoken. What is strange though is that this is inconsistent with the rest of the Gospel which was originally written in Greek. Bill says that this is a deliberate ploy to make we who are listening to the account pay attention, because something really important is being taught here in this section of the Gospel. Bill states that:

“The word Ephphatha means ‘Open up!’ What Jesus is saying to this deaf man is the Gospel’s message to you and me. This man was suffering from a physical deafness; we are suffering from spiritual deafness. Our ears are closed to the entreaties of those who live in foreign countries, whose skin colour is different from our own, whose way of life does not correspond with ours. We are deaf to the words even of those who live in close proximity to us, but whose traditions are different from ours. We don’t hear what they are saying, and so our opinions about them and their customs are garbled and worthless...It’s a shocking reminder of our own refusal to listen attentively to the unfamiliar voices. It is only when we are prepared to open up that our prejudices can be eroded; and only then that the impediment in our speech will be removed and our opinions will be worth listening to. We have to break the shell of our own tribalism and exclusiveness.”

Earlier in the address he also states that:

“ objective of the spiritual life is to identify and then try to eliminate those instinctive factors which work to give us short term survival advantages, but which have now outlived their usefulness and which actually impede our development as a species.”

This brought that butterfly image powerfully to my mind and the thought of being reborn to new ideas. Remember that after the butterfly opens up it is then able to fly around in the gardens of life, the gardens of delight.

Please click here to read Bill's thoughts in full

I feel that so many of our troubles are caused by our inability to truly listen to one another and to new ideas; our troubles are caused by our arrogance and belief that we know best. Therefore by not really listening we fail to understand and therefore empathise with each other and we remain trapped by what we think we know. We are too closed down and we need to open up, to one another, to life and to God. We need to be opened up like the Buddhist Monk, arms out with his begging bowl. An image which as Thomas Merton explained “represents not just a right to beg, but openness to the gifts of all human beings as an expression of this interdependence of all beings...Thus when a monk begs from the layman it is not as a selfish person getting something from someone else. He is simply opening himself to his interdependence.” The key is to live openly and of course the key to openness is humility. No one lives apart from anyone else we are all interdependent. Also none of us knows everything, we all see through the glass dimly.

I remember the first time I heard Forrest Church’s assertion that humility and openness are the two keys to religious living, how much this struck me deep inside. I saw the truth in it. There is limitlessness in openness. Who knows how much we can truly change and learn to love if we just stay open, in our hearts and minds and senses.

It begins with our ears; it is these that need to be opened. We are after all listening creatures. Our lives begin in our mother’s wombs listening to the many sounds that surround us. Our lives end similarly; I understand that the last faculty that shuts down when we are dying is our hearing. And yet throughout our lives the thing we pay attention to the most is what we see or do not see with our eyes. Not that I’m decrying the eyes here please do not get me wrong, after all it was with my eyes that I saw the butterfly/moth last Sunday evening; nor am I really talking about the two ears either side of our heads, it’s the ears of our hearts that I really mean. What I’m really talking about is being more open to all that is life, because by doing so we will improve our “listency” skills.

So let’s begin again; lets open ourselves up to the altar of the ears.

Let’s improve our “Listency”

Saturday 8 February 2014

What is Love?

What is Love?

It is perhaps one of the great questions; perhaps one of the un-answerable questions. They say it makes the world go round. It certainly inspires people to many great things, or at least they say it does. But what is it? It’s not a substance, it isn't solid and you certainly can’t catch it or pin it down and pull it to pieces to explain what it is made of. By the way I don’t believe that when you do that with anything you can understand what it is; only what it is made of. When you pin a butterfly down and examine it you don’t really learn much about what a butterfly actually is. To learn what a butterfly is you have to watch it fly. I suspect it’s the same with love. To understand what love is you have to watch it fly through the gardens of life, the gardens of delight.

Where I come from the word “Love” is a colloquialism, a bit like “Pet” in the North East or “Duck” in the East Midlands. It can trouble those who visit the Leeds area. Over twenty years ago I worked as a civil servant in the National Health Service. They had just moved their headquarters from London to Leeds and many people and been transferred “up north”. Well one morning a colleague came in looking visibly shaken and quite disturbed. People gathered round to see if he was all right. After a while he explained what had happened - He said that he had to get the bus into work that morning as his car was being serviced. As he got on the bus and paid his fare the driver said to him “That will be £1.20 Love”. He paid the fare and then sat in his seat and after a while it dawned on him what this large hairy northern man had said to him - Well we burst into laughter, which didn't really amuse him. We explained that it is just the way people speak round these parts, even big hairy bus drivers.

Now I suspect that the bus driver was not making a romantic advance to my colleague, although you never know, it’s just what he says to everyone who gets on his bus. I wonder how many times in my life I have heard the words “Danny love...or all right love, can you do this for me love, what do you think of this love, we’re going to have pie and peas for tea tonight love”

I suspect that this is not the love that people will be spending millions of pounds on in a few days time; it is not the love being expressed on Valentine’s Day. Therein lays the problem of course, the limits of the English language. We have one word for love and yet when we use this one word we are often talking of many different forms of love. I'm not sure what that says about us modern English speakers and the development of the language we use, but I suspect it says something

The ancient Greeks had six different words for love. One was “Eros”, which was primarily sexual or passionate desire. This may surprise some but the ancient Greeks did not always hold a positive view of Eros, It could be seen as fiery and irrational. It involved a loss of control that was feared. Just think of the story of Helen of Troy, “the face that sailed a thousand ships.” Plato saw it as “Divine” madness.

The ancient Greeks understood what it meant to “fall madly in love”. I have been consumed by this kind of overpowering love many times in my life, I hope to goodness I will again. It is a part of our humanity, but not the only part.

The ancient Greeks viewed “Philia” as a higher form of love than “Eros”. This is the type of love that develops through deep friendships. When they spoke of “Philia” they were often talking of the kind of love that formed on the battlefield between comrades in arms, brotherly love. It’s the kind of love that compels a person to go to any lengths to protect the person or persons they love; it’s the kind of love that inspires self-sacrifice. In many ways it is similar to “Storge” which the ancient Greeks described as the love parents feel for their children. When I look at my life this is a love that has grown and developed in me in recent years and especially in the last few weeks and months. It’s the kind of love that is formed in 12 step fellowships and religious communities, you see it in sporting teams too and other communities where people bind together and look out for one another.

Another form of love that the Ancient Greeks spoke of was “Ludus”. This is a kind of playful or flirtatious love. It comes alive in friendly banter, around the people we feel comfortable with or when we dance and flirt with others.

Another form was Agape love. This is a love without prejudice, a selfless love, some call it religious love. In Christianity it is seen as the highest form of love. When translated into Latin it became Caritas from which comes the word charity. This is the love that is spoken of by the Epistle Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 13 “4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Agape has parallels with the Buddhist concept of “metta” or “universal loving kindness”. The Buddha’s word’s on loving kindness, the Metta Sutta says. “So with a boundless heart; Should one cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world:”

Another form was “Pragma” or long standing love. This is a form of mature love that develops over long-term relationships say between married couples. Pragma was about making compromises and developing patience and tolerance so that relationships could mature over time. It was not so much about the madness of falling in love we find in “Eros” and more about standing and holding in love. I suspect that this is the kind of love we see less and less of these days. People of my generation seem to be inspired by the need to be free and have their personal needs met, rather than this kind of love. It’s not something I've ever been any good at, I must admit. Over the last few weeks I have seen much of my enormous and complicated family. I have not seen many of them for years. The majority have asked me if I was married yet, to which my stock answer has been “oh I'm not very good at that sort of thing.” Most of them responded in rather lovely ways by saying things like “it will happen at the right time” etc, they all seemed most concerned about me. My uncle Gerald epitomised it with following response, he said “Oh it’ll come lad and when you least expect it.”

The final form was “Philautia” or self love. Now for the ancient Greeks this manifested in two forms. This form of love, like all forms of love, had both a light and a shadow side. Its negative aspect was a form of narcissistic self obsession, which was motivated by vanity and greed and self absorption, to the total neglect of others. Think of the story “Echo and Narcissus”. Yet the other aspect of “Philautia” “self love” was, perhaps the most important, and from which all forms of healthy human love grew. It is what today we would describe as positive self regard, although actually I believe it runs much deeper than that. It is the kind of experience that is vital in order to deeply and appropriately love others and for that matter all life. Without this sense of love being at the core of who we are we are never going to offer “Agape” love to others, or not in a positive way. This is because we will love our neighbour as ourselves, in the sense that we will hate them as we hate ourselves, if we do not experience this form of love at the core of our being. We need to love our reflection as we look at it in the glass, “warts and all and beauty spots too”, although we need to guard against becoming self absorbed. Remember we are formed from the same stuff as everyone else and in everyone is a reflection of the divine. We are formed from the divine spark.

I recently came across an almost perfect expression of what "Love" is. It was in a short piece written by Robert Johnson and titled "Stirring the Oatmeal." Below is a short extract from it.

From "Stirring the Oatmeal" by Robert Johnson

Many years ago a wise friend gave me a name for human love. She called it "stirring-the-oatmeal" love. She was right: Within this phrase, if we will humble ourselves enough to look, is the very essence of what human love is, and it shows us the principal differences between human love and romance.

Stirring the oatmeal is a humble act-not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To "stir the oatmeal" means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything. Like the rice hulling of the Zen monks, the spinning wheel of Gandhi, the tent making of Saint Paul, it represents the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary.

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Words from 1 John chapter 4 v 16. These words speak powerfully to me, to my spirit and to my life. They could easily become a personal credo statement. Now many would probably want me to explain what I mean, but I'm not sure I can adequately. All I know is that it make sense to me and my experience of life and that the realisation of the truth within this statement both powers and guides my life.

These words from 1 John chapter 4 are also central to the Universalist tradition that I increasingly identify with. I often identify as a Universalist when fellow Unitarians ask me about my personal faith and when I do many ask me if I am of the old or the more modern type. My usual answer to them is “both”. The God I know is pure love, who rejects none. It is the God of the “Prodigal Son” who not only welcomes his son home but rushes to meet him, hugs him and kisses him, the God of love and deep intimacy; a love that is experienced and not just thought about in some distant realm. It is a love that is spoken of in all the great faith traditions and secular ones too, encompassed in the “Golden Rule” of compassion. It is based upon humility and openness. No one can know the full answer we all glimpse through the glass dimly and it is an acceptance of this that opens us to new experiences, beyond our comprehension.

I love the way that Richard Trudeau describes “Universalism in a Nutshell”

"God is love.
No one is condemned.
The way to be happy is to do good.
There are sources of religious truth outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.
God is love."

Now no doubt many will want to argue about what is meant by God. Well like “Love” it may mean different things to different people. In my view it is a word that attempts to speak of something beyond description. I tend to follow the great modern Universalist Forrest Church who said “God is not God’s name, God is our name for that power that is greater than all and yet present in each”. This makes sense to me, to my experiences.

This is the love I have come to know and it is this that fills me up and allows me to live in love in this life.

I think the mistake so many of us make is that we seek love, when actually what we ought to be doing is living in love, in all its many forms. That said in order to live in love we have to first understand that it is love that we are made of and formed from. We do not need to seek it from anybody else, we just need to express it through our lives and we will know it and abide in it...”In all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.”

I will end this blogspot with some words by Mark Belletini

“Love Prayer”

Love, you are strong as a dark blue mountain.

Love, you are as fluid as a wide silver river.

Love, you are as splendid as clear night sky.

Love, you are as mysterious as a dark forest.

Love, you as wise as enduring friendship.

Love, you are true power, not mere distraction

Truth, not deceit,

Purpose, not impulse,

Poetry, not prose,

Sing, not sang,

Now more than tomorrow,

But tomorrow more than yesterday.

Love, condense yourself into this moment,

Permeate the silence that joins us in community,

So that in the fire of the words to come,

The promise of this hour

Might be sealed in peace

Sunday 2 February 2014

Sacred Spaces & Sacred Places

A few months ago I was talking with a friend about "Thin Places". A little while later they sent me the following by John Crossley Morgan.

"I was taking a morning walk down a path outside the Tintern Abbey in Wales when I discovered a rather small but sprawling tree, its branches beckoning to travellers who might rest under its shelter. I crawled under the branches and sat quietly to watch the morning sun break across the ancient abbey sky. It felt safe and even sacred there, a place you might go to rest and reflect on the mystery of life. I sensed the presence of others who had sat in that spot before.

Later over lunch I spoke with a local resident and told him how I had felt sitting under that tree. He looked at me and said quietly, “it’s called a thin place.” I had never heard the name before, so he patiently explained that to the Welsh a thin place is a very special place, a sacred spot, where you feel a presence so deep and mysterious that you have to stretch language to describe it. “That sounds like what inspires poetry.” I laughed. “Maybe that’s why the Welsh are such poets,” he said.

In the months that followed, I became more aware of “thin places” in my life, whether in my backyard garden or by a river. I came to understand that once you feel the power of thin places you tend to experience them often, in places you might have missed before. More surprisingly, I learned that when you carry a thin place in your mind and heart, you can go there wherever you feel the need. I did so not long ago before I was wheeled into surgery - scenes of a Welsh countryside before me rather than the white gowns of nurses and doctors.

Now I carry with me the idea of a thin - place where the veil separating this reality from another is temporarily lifted, so faith and imagination can catch a fleeting glimpse."

I thought it was beautiful and it got me thinking and feeling many things, many things that keep on returning...

A few months later, this Monday to be precise, I woke up with the question “What is sacred?” I have no idea why it was there that morning all I know is that it was all over me as I stepped into the day and I began the process of preparing myself to prepare the worship for Sunday.

I did what I always do each week. I posted the idea on facebook and waited to see if anyone would respond with thoughts. I then began to look for appropriate material, for readings etc. As the day progressed ideas began to form and formulate within me. The thoughts took me on a journey more towards places and spaces than general ideas about always it was an interesting journey.

The next morning after enjoying coffee with my usual Tuesday morning friends I walked up towards Dunham Road Chapel where I live to continue my work. As I approached the chapel I smiled as I read the banner marking 200 years of Unitarians in Altrincham. Ok we’ve not always worshipped in this building for two hundred years, but the sacred space has existed that long. There has been a community dedicated to free religious expression in Altrincham for 200 hundred years. A place where people can congregate and worship together unconstrained by creed and dogma. It is indeed a special place, a sacred place, I am coming to truly understand and appreciate this.

I sometimes like to go into the chapel and sit in different parts of it; I sometimes like to walk around it too and look at the many and varied aspects of the inside. Dunham Road Chapel has a Tardis quality about. It doesn't look much from the outside and yet when you walk inside it seems to grow in both size and beauty, it is an awesome space and place. I know it will take many years to fully know the place. I love the gardens too and often just like to stand in various spots there. I have recently developed affection for the rose trees, especially those one or two yellow winter roses that I have seen these last few weeks; I’ve been carrying a vision of those around with me these last few weeks.

Now I know Dunham Road is not one of those Celtic “Thin places” that John Crossley Morgan described above, at least not in the traditional sense and yet somehow it is. I completely connect with him when he writes “I came to understand that once you feel the power of thin places you tend to experience them often, in places you might have missed before. More surprisingly, I learned that when you carry a thin place in your mind and heart, you can go there wherever you feel the need. I did so not long ago before I was wheeled into surgery - scenes of a Welsh countryside before me rather than the white gowns of nurses and doctors.”

I carried the image of those yellow roses with me as I carried my grand dad’s coffin and spoke about his life, at his funeral a week last Thursday. It was a "thick" and deeply felt time. In that time and space I felt held by a greater reality as I have at other moments in my life, especially when I have needed it the most. There was an absolute sense of being at one with all time and space as the sacredness of the space held me in my grief. I have also felt it as the week has unfolded and I have spent time with family as we have come to terms with the loss of my step brother, our Allen. I don’t always feel this held, this connected, but then thankfully I don’t always need to.

I was recently sent the following poem "How to be poet" by Wendell Berry

“How To Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill—more of each

than you have—inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

The poem is a reminder to Wendell Berry himself on how to truly be a poet. There is much in it that speaks to me as a creator of material for worship and to some extent a writer. I could write so much about but this blog is already longer than perhaps it ought to be, so instead I will discuss just three lines at the end of the second verse. These read:

“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”

In the poem he is speaking specifically of the space where he writes and the need to keep it pure. He seems to especially have a distrust of technology. Now I’m sure Wendell Berry would disapprove of the space that I sit and write at. I have wires and books and all sorts of papers piled up. I communicate through modern media all the time I am working and yet whatever needs to come through makes its journey there. It is most definitely not a desecrated place.

I do agree with Wendell Berry in his view that there are no unsacred places, everywhere is sacred although there are places that have from time to time become desecrated, by humanities inhumanity to humanity. This was very much on my mind last Monday, as I pondered what is sacred and what is profane in our world, on what was “Holocaust Remembrance Day”. I paused long and hard as I considered the places where inhumanity reighns. I also looked into my own heart and thought of the times I have failed to love and been overcome with hate. How many of us can truly say they have always honoured the sacredness of life and never desecrated anything or anyone, including ourselves?

All life is sacred every single aspect, even the things we don’t want and like; all life is sacred I have no doubt about that. All spaces are sacred too. That said there are still places and moments that touch us in much deeper ways. The Celts called them “Thin Places” and it seems they can be found anywhere and everywhere. And as I learnt again last week we can carry them with us when life gets a little too difficult.

Now while I do believe that everywhere is sacred I still find something extra-specially sacred about Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel, Altrincham and Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston,  especially during times of worship. So much of what I am and do is focused on what occurs at those places during specific times in the week. This time I share with the people I serve have become what I like to call “Thick Time” in  “Thin Places”. They have become a sacred times in sacred places. I see a growing purpose in the worship I share with the people I serve. I take it very seriously, although with some humour. There is nothing more serious than humour. I’ve been thinking a lot these last few months about the worship I share and how it is created. I have written before about the process, but really it’s beyond words. You can only stretch words so far.

Last September I attended a workshop led by the inspirational Unitarian Universalist Minister Mark Belletini. It was advertised as a workshop on preaching, but that was only a small part of it. It was really about creating worship in a free religious tradition. Mark shared his own personal experiences, which are vast as well as discussing what he saw as the purpose of worship. It really got me thinking about what I create and share and its purpose. More and more I see it as a sacred time in a sacred space, I see it as “thick time” in “thin places”.

A few weeks after Mark’s workshop I was reading The Unitarian magazine, particularly the editorial by Yvonne Abburrow that talked about the moments before worship begins. She talked of the need to make this time a holy time and the need to invoke “The Divine” to be present with us before worship began, it chimed very much with what I had come back from the workshop thinking. I had only a couple of Sunday’s before began to ask those I lead in worship to still themselves in silence and to "invite a loving presence to be here amongst us and to awaken within us". This was before the lighting of the chalice. It seemed important to separate that time from the ordinary and everyday; it seemed important to create time and space for worship. My intention was to create “thick” moments in these sacred times and spaces; my intention was to create “thick time” in these “thin places”

Now of course it has not been my intention to totally separate this time from the rest of time. I always end worship with a variation on the same theme with the blessings asking the congregation to take with them what we have experienced in our time together “in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.” The intention is to carry the spirit that touches us in this hour out into the world in which we live; the intention is to bless the places and hearts we touch, with the light of our time together.

The congregations gather together each Sunday seeking something. They come for a reason, even if are not wholly sure what that reason is. Each week in the worship we share together I attempt to create through words, music, silence, imagery and more a sacred time and space that will enable us to open our hearts and help us connect to the Greater Mysteries of Life, to the Web of Being to know the Spirit of Life and Love, to experience God and for this to impact on how we live our day to day lives.

In these sacred spaces at these sacred times where generations have worshipped I hope our hearts are opened and our souls are touched. That we connect to that Greater Reality and that we leave these sacred spaces carrying with us at least the hope that we can make our lives and the lives of those we touch a little more sacred.

Finally I'd like to end this little "blogspot with some words by Tom Barrett “What’s in the Temple?”

"What's In The Temple?"

In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.

The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.
If she stands still it will catch up with her.
Pause with us here a while.
Put your ear to the wall of your heart.
Listen for the whisper of knowing there.
Love will touch you if you are very still.

If I say the word God, people run away.
They've been frightened--sat on 'till the spirit cried "uncle."
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can't name.
They know he's out there looking for them, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.

I can't talk about God and make any sense,
And I can't not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God.
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur,
and sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
You see there the consequences of carelessness,
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.

We don't build many temples anymore.
Maybe we learned that the sacred can't be contained.
Or maybe it can't be sustained inside a building.
Buildings crumble.
It's the spirit that lives on.

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?

Go there now.

by Tom Barrett