Sunday 27 January 2019

Attention is the Beginning of Devotion: The Life and Work of Mary Oliver

The great poet Mary Oliver recently died. I have over the years shared several pieces of her work in the worship I create. I am not unique in this. she has been a staple diet for Unitarian worship for many years. So in honour of her life I thought I would share a few selected pieces of her work here and explore some of the spiritual lessons that are contained within it. I thought I'd begin with a little devotional  piece of hers on prayer. For as she has said "attention is the beginning of devotion"

“Praying” by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 and grew up in a small town in Ohio in the USA. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among her many honors and published numerous collections of poetry and also some prose. She lived and wrote for five decades in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Her poetry was vivid with a sense of place. She wrote about what she witnessed, but with compassion and empathy, she was never a dispassionate observer. After an illness and the death of her longtime partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, Mary Oliver moved to southern Florida where she spent her final few years.

I did not grow up with a love for poetry,but because Mary’s was so easily accessible, conversational with no gimmicks. I engaged with hers easily when I first heard it. I know I am not alone in this as it was her style and her ability to touch the reader deeply and spiritually that is the reason why she has been so loved. She asked the questions that so many folk ask. Her poetry has become a gateway to so many other great poets for me, although interestingly poets of similar vein. She has been described as an ecstatic poet very much in the vein of her idols Shelley, Keats, and Whitman. Nature and the observation and connection to it became a gateway to the sacred for Mary. Her poems feel like devotional prayer. As she has said herself “attention is the beginning of devotion.” This is beautifully exemplified in one of her most loved poems “The Summer Day”:

"The Summer Day"

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

There is something beautiful, simple and humble in her words. Her work is real, something I identify with deeply; the spiritual has to be real for me, or not at all. This beautiful, life affirming poem grew from her empathically observing her own life and experiences. Having observed the life in front of her she asks the question “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” To her this is religious, devotional living, “attention is the beginning of devotion”

In a conversation with Krista Tippett recorded for “OnBeing” she said of the poem.

“One thing about that poem, which I think is important, is that the grasshopper actually existed. And yet I was able to fit him into that poem. And the sugar he was eating was part of frosting from a Portuguese lady’s birthday cake, which wasn’t important to the poem. But even seeing that little creature come to my plate and say, I’d like a little helping of that. It somehow fascinates me that — that’s just personal for me that it was Mrs. Segura, probably her 90th birthday cake or something.”

Yes for Mary “attention is the beginning of devotion.” Here follows a couple more pieces of her work.

"The Sun"

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone--
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance--
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love--
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world--

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

“The Ponds”

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them —

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided —
and that one wears an orange blight —
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away —
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —
that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

She was a poet in the old fashioned style, certainly no desk or computer to write on, she shunned such things, instead preferring the freedom of stalking the woods, with a note pad in hand, and dog by her side. Something which began during her childhood, as she played truant from school and fled home. She would walk the woods with Whitman in her knapsack. Here she felt free as she escaped a deeply unhappy home life. The whole family suffered at the hands of a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother. As she told Krista Tippett. “To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.” From the age of thirteen she “made a world out of words,” which became her salvation, it saved her life.

It was during this childhood that she developed her personal faith in God, although an indefinable one, along with her scepticism towards organised religion. At Sunday school she rejected many of the tenets of her faith, such as the resurrection. Even so she said she was probably more interested in religious question than most of her class mates, who accepted the teachings. As she become enchanted by nature, by its endless cycles of birth and death and during those walks in the wood, she developed her creative method. She paid devotional attention to whatever happened to present itself to her. She became like the Sufi mystic Rumi, one of her heroes, she sought to combine the spiritual life with the concrete. As she wrote: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Thus she perceived the world around her as voices of creation. Each plant, each animal, each bird became a divine messenger. Just like in the creation story she saw that it was from the dirt that all life was created and thus she speaks of the dirt in a divine sense. She speaks of the God of dirt, that through the dirt she hears the divine voice. As she expresses in the following poem “One or Two Things”:

“One or Two Things”

Don’t bother me.
I’ve just
been born.
The butterfly’s loping flight
carries it through the country of the leaves
delicately, and well enough to get it
where it wants to go, wherever that is, stopping
here and there to fuzzle the damp throats
of flowers and the black mud; up
and down it swings, frenzied and aimless; and sometimes

for long delicious moments it is perfectly
lazy, riding motionless in the breeze on the soft stalk
of some ordinary flower.

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening

to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever,

which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning—some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.

But to lift the hoof!
For that you need
an idea.

Here follows a reflection by  Parker J Palmer on Mary’s poem “Spring”. Palmer’s reflection is titled” “Loving the World Means Paying Attention to Its Simple Gifts” It appeared as Facebook memory this week. He had published it last year.

“Loving the World Means Paying Attention to Its Simple Gifts” by Parker J Palmer

This Mary Oliver gem may be the finest poem about spring — and how we live our lives — I’ve ever read. There are no cardinals or crocuses here. Only a black bear awakening from hibernation, coming down the mountain, showing her “perfect love” by doing what bears do.

“There is only one question,” says Mary Oliver: “how to love this world.” You’ll find your own answer to the poet’s question, your own sense of meaning in her words.

For me, the poem opens into mystery. How could it not, since it’s about the “dazzling darkness” that’s forever coming down the mountain toward us?

But this much seems clear. Loving the world means paying attention to its simple gifts, and receiving them with simple gratitude in every moment of our waking lives.

"Spring" by Mary Oliver

a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

Here follow's one of Mary’s classic poems. I’ve had a love for Geese ever since I first heard it. They’ve helped me to find and ref-find my place in the family of things many times.

“Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Throughout her life Mary found great solace in nature. In her later years though I feel that she found herself much more intimately at home with people. As she has said as she has grew older she entered more fully into the human world and embraced it. As time past she gained a deepr clarity about her own life and the life of others. This in part was due no doubt to the death of her long term partner Molly, as she wrote “The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention.”

She explored this in one of her later pieces “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”, while recovering from cancer:

The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river -
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn't remember
the sun rising, if I couldn't
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn't
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

Towards the end of her 2015 interview with Krista Tippett Mary was asked about her current spiritual life, Krista asked: “you’ve said somewhere you’ve become more spiritual as you’ve grown older. What do you mean when you say that? What’s the content of that?

To which Mary answered “I’ve become kinder, more people-oriented, more willing to grow old. I always was investigative in terms of everlasting life, but a little more interested now, a little more content with my answers.”

This seems like a rather lovely ending for this "blogspot" reflecting on the life of Mary Oliver. I will though offer one final poem in which she kind of explores the questions. It is a classic and goes by the title “Daisies”

“Daisies” by Mary Oliver

It is possible, I suppose that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what it means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another, in summer, and the
mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead
oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly
unanswered. At my feet the white-petalled daisies display
the small suns of their center piece, their - if you don't
mind my saying so - their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know?
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly;
for example - I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch -
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.

Sunday 20 January 2019

The “Long Now Moment”: “Is Patience Still a Virtue?”

I don’t always start my Sunday’s as well as I would like. Last week was a classic example. I found myself rushing back from Sue’s. very early, to Altrincham to get ready for leading worship beginning in Urmston at 10am. I like to get to there early, certainly before 9am, to prepare myself in silence and solitude. As I left Sue’s I turned on the radio and listened to Radio 4’s excellent Sunday morning program “Something Understood”. The first word I heard was “Patience”. It was an episode on “Slowing Down”. I only heard about half of it and thought to myself “That sounded interesting”, I’ll listen to it later, it had awakened my homiletic consciousness. (I was in far too much of hurry to listen there and then, so funny!)

I found myself rushing around a bit that morning, getting frustrated as everything just seemed to take too long. I got particularly frustrated with my computer as I attempted to catch up with world affairs and friends on social networks, as well as answer emails. I remember that old familiar cry coming out of my mouth “I haven’t got time for this”, as I lost my wi-fi connection for the third time. I have noticed on cold dark, wet and windy days it seems to go down more often.

On the way to Urmston I called into the local garage and bought a coffee and petrol. I remember getting frustrated at the card machine as I attempted to pay, complaining (under my breath) it always takes so long. At which the man behind the counter responded, “people are so impatient these days, you have to wait for me to authorise the payment.” It caused me to pause and as I left I smiled and laughed at myself and once again noticed my homiletic consciousness come to life. I was noticing I was rushing and certainly lacking patience that morning.

As I drove to Urmston I found myself slowing down and truly connecting to what I was doing. I spent the day noticing so many things and truly engaged with all I was doing. I remembered the lovely two days I had just spent, slowing down and connecting. I remembered all the times I enjoyed simply walking in nature. The day before I had enjoyed a lovely walk around Sale Water Park with Sue and Poppy the dog. I thought about my times of connection walking around Dunham Massey and those beautiful deer in recent years, I also remember how connected I had felt walking round Platt Fields Park, particularly with the geese in the lake, as a student minister. It was lovely connecting all those moments that had brought me to this moment and how those moments had helped to make the moment I was living right now, they brought the moment alive. I saw the connection of my life and that moment with all life and those moments of connection that I will know and all those folk that will enjoy them when I am long gone. As I did I felt this strange sensation of time being stretched. We do not merely live in this Golden moment, but in a timeless never ending, long and deep moment, for time and space is eternal it is without limit.

Something Understood

The next morning I listened to the full episode of “Something Understood”, it has inspired this "blogspot". During the episode reference was made to what is called the “Long Now Moment.” And the “Long Now Foundation” I have to say it spoke to me powerfully as it shared some of my long held frustrations with some understandings of contemporary spirituality. Particularly how people talk about “The Now” or the “The Present” and how I find that it often feeds into our self-centredness. For me it’s not just about living in the moments, but how we live in the time and space we find ourselves and to truly see that this time and space is connected to all that has ever been and will ever be. That we and they way we inhabit time and space really does matter, for it effects everything. It’s not that we live passively in the moment, but bring it to life, and thus create a legacy for all that follows. The “Long Now Moment” speaks powerfully to my heart, my mind and certainly my soul.

The “Long Now Moment” is inspired by a story, which may well be mythos, but hey stories are all about mythos; a story of rotting Oak Beams in New College Oxford. The college was founded in the 14th century. At its heart lies a dining hall that features expensive oak beams across its ceiling. Now these great beams had lasted about 500 years, but during the late nineteenth century an entomologist discovered that the beams were infested with beetles and needed replacing. This was a big problem for the college for such beams, of sufficient size and quality, would be hard to find and expensive.

One of the college’s junior fellows suggested that there might be some worthy oaks within the college lands. The college had, when it was formed, been endowned with land scattered around England and run by the college forester. So he was called in and asked if there were any such oaks on the lands. He paused for a moment and then a reassuring expression appeared on his face and he said “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.” It seems that when the College had been founded a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. It seems that this plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years. Each forester was told that “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.” It would appear that the founders of New College were not just obsessed with themselves and their time and place. They thought of their legacy, of the generations that followed.

This story, whether true or apocryphal, has become a foundational tale of the “Long Now Moment” movement that has developed in recent times. “The Long Now Moment” movement has developed in response to the fast paced instant society that we live in today, one that does not really think of the future and has a kind of disrespect of the past, a generation that has kind of hijacked the spirituality of Now.

The innovative musician, producer and composer Brian Eno is one of the key proponents of the “Long Now Moment”, he became interested in long now living after moving to new York and being shocked how instant and insular the people living there were. It was almost as if nothing existed outside of the moment folk were living in or outside of the widow of the buildings they were enclosed within. He has said that:

“"Now" is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you're in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes. It's ironic that, at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, able to create huge global changes that will echo down the centuries, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows. Huge industries feel pressure to plan for the bottom line and the next shareholders meeting. Politicians feel forced to perform for the next election or opinion poll. The media attract bigger audiences by spurring instant and heated reactions to human interest stories while overlooking longer-term issues - the real human interest…”

He continues…

“…We don't yet, however, live in The Long Now. Our empathy doesn't extend far forward in time. We need now to start thinking of our great-grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren, as other fellow-humans who are going to live in a real world which we are incessantly, though only semi-consciously, building. But can we accept that our actions and decisions have distant consequences, and yet still dare do anything?”

Danny Hills of the “Long Now Foundation” has been working on creating a long time clock as a kind of practical symbol of the of “Long Now” living. The idea is to create a clock that will last 10,000 years. Human society has existed for 10.000 years and the idea is to put our current place at the half way point of this. On the face of it this seems like a crazy idea, how can a machine last this long? The point is though to get us think of the future. As Stuart Brand has said:

“Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.”

Such a clock may just help us transcend the selfish thinking that keeps us enslaved in our time and space. Such short term thinking can be so destructive. “Long Now Moment” living can slow us down and help us to connect and be still enough to begin to live reverentially again. To begin to understand that how we live and act really matters, it affects our lives and it impacts on the lives of others. The trouble is that we want things now and we want them instantly. There’s nothing new here by the way, we humans have always had a tendency towards this. Perhaps this is why the religious traditions have always suggested that we need to slow down and connect and thus begin to revere once again.

This brings to mind the story of Elijah, from the Book of Kings. He wanted to know God and wanted this instantly. He goes to a cave on mount Horeb where he is told that God will pass by and speak directly to him. A great wind comes, followed by an earthquake and then a fire, but we are told that God is in none of them. Following the fire comes the still small voice – a voice, a sound like silence – this voice that is less than a whisper and yet not quite silence signals the presence of the divine.

He had to be still and he to be silent in order the know the Divine. He couldn’t rush it nor could he force it. It took patience and it took faith.

Now of course this is mythos. The one thing that has survived the 10,000 years that human society has been around are the stories the tales, the mythos, that we have shared, they are timeless. They move through time and can speak to we who live today, even though many were first told thousands of years ago. In many ways it is the stories and not the machines that connect the generations to one another. To me these are the perfect example of what it means to believe in the “Long Now Moment”. The stories connect us to the past, they connect us to the present and they connect us to the future and help us see how important it is that we leave a legacy for all who follow. The stories help us to create empathy for the other, the other not yet born that will live when we are dead and gone.

Everything matters, how we live now matters, just as how those who lived before us mattered. All life is connected and interconnected, past present and future. So how we live today will affect what is yet to come.

Let’s not just passively live in the short now, thinking only of ourselves and how we feel this moment. Let us extend our compassion beyond the confines of our little ego-centric worlds. Let’s think beyond the skin and walls we live in and develop compassion not only for those who live today but for the generations that are yet to come. Let us instead begin to live in the “Long Now” and expand our empathy and bring the moment that we live in fully alive, remembering all that came before and to build a legacy for those who follow, so that our lives will prove worth dying for by the legacies of love that we leave behind.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Lonely but not alone: Alone but not lonely

From "The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth " by Natalie Goldberg

A conversation between Natalie Goldberg on her Zen teacher about ways to deal with loneliness.

" 'Roshi, now that I am divorced, it is very lonely.'

" 'Tell me. What do you do when you are alone in the house?'

"I'd never thought of that. I became interested. 'Well, I water the plants,' I faltered, then continued, 'I wash a few dishes, call a friend.' The momentum built. 'I sit on the couch for hours and stare at the bare branches out the window. I play over and over Paul Simon's new album about New Mexico — I miss it there.'

"His attention encouraged me: 'Lately, I've been sitting at my dining-room table and painting little pictures.' I looked at him. Suddenly my solitary life had a texture.

" 'Is there anything wrong with loneliness?' he asked in a low voice. I shook my head. All at once I saw it was a natural condition of life, like sadness, grief, even joy. When I was sitting with him, it didn't feel ominous or unbearable.

" 'Anyone who wants to go to the source is lonely. There are many people at Zen Center. Those who practice deeply are only with themselves.

" 'Are you lonely?' I entreated.

" 'Yes,' he nodded. 'But I don't let it toss me away. It's just loneliness.'

" 'Do you ever get over it?'

" 'I take an ice-cold shower every morning. I never get used to it. It shocks me each time, but I've learned to stand up to it.' He pointed at me. 'Can you stand up in loneliness?'

"He continued, 'Being alone is the terminal abode. You can't go any deeper in your practice if you run from it.'

"He spoke to me evenly, honestly. My hunger was satisfied — the ignored little girl still inside me and the adult seeker — both were nourished.”

...We all experience loneliness from time to time...

Christmas and New Year is a very busy time for folk in my line of work, everything feels ramped up. I certainly spent a lot of time with people, doing and giving of myself. I also spent quite a bit of time socialising with others. This continued all of last week, up until Sunday night. As I went to bed on Sunday night I craved so much for solitude, to be alone. I awoke on Monday exhausted and feeling a little disconnected. I needed space to be alone, to connect with my God and thus allow myself to connect with others and life again. I was beginning to feel that inner loneliness that always comes when I’m exhausted or have spent too much time with others. Like most ministers I am an introvert in the Jungian understanding. I am the kind of person who re-energises from spending time in solitude. I tend to give my energy when in the company of others and recharge in solitude.

As I spent time in silent solitude that morning a phrase came into my being. It went something like this “Lonely but not alone: Alone but not lonely”

There have been times in my life when I have been surrounded by everyone I could have to be around and yet felt utterly alone. There have been other times when I have been physically alone and yet I experienced not one semblance of loneliness. Being alone and experiencing loneliness may look similar, but they could not be more different. One is about connection and the other disconnection.

John O'Donohue wrote beautifully about the importance of solitude in "Anam Cara". He wrote:

"Solitude is one of the most precious things in the human spirit. It is different from loneliness. When you are lonely, you become acutely conscious of your own separation. Solitude can be a homecoming to your own deepest belonging. One of the lovely things about us as individuals is the incommensurable in us. In each person, there is a point of absolute nonconnection with everything else and with everyone. This is fascinating and frightening. It means that we cannot continue to seek outside ourselves for things we need from within. The blessings for which we hunger are not to be found in other places or people. These gifts can only be given to you by yourself. They are at home at the hearth of your soul."

...John O'Donhue had a beautiful gift in the way he used language...  

January can often be the toughest months for many people. The joy and celebration of Christmas and New Year is over. Winter has set in and there seems only dark days and nights and cold ahead. It can be a time of isolation when we don’t spend much time with others. I remember how many times last winter I said “it’s been a long one this time”. For many folk this can feel like the loneliest time of year. It need not be so. If we utilise this time in the right way, it can actually help us to connect to those deeper harder to reach parts that can come to life when spring comes once again. I was thinking of this as Sue pointed to the bulbs just sprouting a little bit on the cold morning last Tuesday. They are creating life, ready to fully sprout in the cold dark earth. They need this time to come fully to life, just like we do. I bet those bulbs have never known the ache of loneliness.

Loneliness is something that everyone experiences at some time in their life. We need not fear it, I suspect it just a part of the human condition. That said it’s not something that you ever get used. It ought not to be feared, it does not mean that there is something wrong with us and it is not a terminal condition. Just talk and listen with your neighbour and you will find they have felt like this many times too.

There are many causes for this sense of loneliness. If we lose someone we love dearly, a spouse, a partner, a parent, a dear friend, that loss can lead a deep loneliness. We feel like something is missing in our lives, which of course there is, our loved one. If we suffer a debilitating illness we can often become cut off from social contacts, this can lead to a sense of isolation. When we move house or change jobs a loneliness can set in too, we feel like a fish out of water. Even the seemingly self confident can feel lonely at such times. When these things happen the mistake we can often make is to draw further in and isolate even more, thus increasing this sense of loneliness.

Now this experience of loneliness may not be as negative as we might realise, for it can lead to new opportunities. It offers a chance to connect to those often untouched parts within ourselves, to connect to those inner resources and of course it can help us to understand the loneliness that others suffer too. It develops empathy and help us connect with others in deeper more meaningful ways.

Loneliness is not the end of anything. It can actually be the beginning. It is an opportunity to see and experience life in new ways. It is call to ourselves to help alleviate the loneliness and suffering in others. It has the capacity to transform our lives. Loneliness need not be seen as an affliction, instead it is an opportunity to transform both your own life and that of others. As Dag Hammarskjold said 'Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.' "

Our experiences of loneliness can become a gift that can transform our lives and the lives of others.

The Epistle Paul had something interesting to say on loneliness in his timeless first letter to the Corinthians chapter 13. He wrote 'For now we see in a mirror, dimly (as through a glass, darkly), but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.'

Here he is contrasting how we view life now with the life that will be enjoyed in what is called “God’s Kingdom, yet to come”. Suggesting that in our current state we do not see things clearly and that this is a cause of loneliness. The problem is that we do not see God, each other or life fully (‘face to face’) and thus we feel cut off, separate and alone. He is suggesting that only after death will we see fully. Paul is of course drawing on the Jewish tradition here, that no one can ever see the face of God, that it is always partially hidden behind a veil.

In the “Sermon on the Mount”, the moment where Jesus declares his mission in Matthew's Gospel, he says that, 'Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.' Suggesting a way to see clearly the face of God and thus one another. Could this be the bridge that relieves ours and others loneliness? This to me is what it means to create the Kingdom of God, what I prefer to name the “kin-dom of Love” right here right now. This is what it means to live spiritually alive. This is what it means to remove from our being the veils, mirrors, fears, fantasies, selfishness and unreality that separate us from the Divine, from life and the people around us thus relieving the ache of one another's loneliness.

The problem is, of course, that so few of us want to go there. How many of us want to experience what it means to be alone. We need not fear being alone. As my time alone proved last Monday. You can be “Lonely but not alone” and you can be, “alone but not lonely”.

Last Monday, as I sat alone in silence I found myself utterly surrendered to the power of the moment I was in. As I sat there the following poem by David's Whyte's came onto my being

“Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

...I do love David Whyte...

The line that sang in my heart was the following: “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness…” 

So many people fear these two things, especially at this time of year "darkness and the confinement of our aloneness." The truth is that we need to experience this in order to truly connect with what is at the core of all being and to fully connect with life itself and the people we share our ives with. In so doing we see life as it really is and we begin to build that kin-dom of love, we live together one and all.

It is quite possible to be, “lonely but not alone” and you can find yourself completely “alone but not lonely”. The key is connection, connection to ourselves, to life, to the people around us and to whatever we believe is at the core of all life, what I call God. Sometimes it takes an experience of deep loneliness to allow us to know this, to see clearly.

Loneliness is something we will all experience in our lives. I bet we have all felt it at some time in the last week. The problem isn’t the feeling itself, but how we respond to it. It may well be an opportunity to connect. To connect to those deep places within us, to connect to the core of all life and to truly connect to one another. The problem is not the feeling of isolation and loneliness, but how respond to this experience.

We all feel lonely at times. Loneliness is the one thing that you are not alone in, feeling. May our shared loneliness lead us all to deeper connections.