Sunday 23 February 2020

Living by Devotion: Devoted to Life

The last blog ended with a question Awakening to the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. It came from a poem by Rumi, what might it mean for you to “kneel and kiss the ground?” It came from the following verse:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

I have been thinking of these words all week. They speak of what it might mean to live by devotion and to be devoted to life. I was told after the service that the "blogspot" was based on, by Barbara a member at one the congregations I serve, that the instrument is our own human being, our body, which is of course the instrument through which we devote ourselves to life. My sister Mandy also responded to this question with the following:

“I love this permission that allows us to give praise through ’doing what we love! I like these simple words too":

Praise is to see blessings
There are three kinds of thanksgiving.
The most praiseworthy is to thank goodness for the presence of existence.
The second is to praise trouble.
The last one is to accept unconditionally whatever comes…

She added “I suppose it is saying in a nutshell that we should celebrate life.”

She got the idea from a series she had seen on Netflix about “Yunus Emre” who was a Turkish poet and Sufi mystic.

This all got me thinking about what it might mean to live by devotion to devote oneself to life and how this might be achieved, for surely this is the ultimate way to celebrate life, in its entirety; to sing the joy of living in all its mystery.

As I was responding to our Mand’s post the following by Mark Nepo appeared on my Facebook feed. It speaks powerfully to me of what it means to live devotionally, to make your whole life a prayer

“At Every Turn” by Mark Nepo

When I sweat trying to lift
what no one can lift,
I am praying.

When I fly 1000 miles to be
stopped by the moon on the
spine of an ancient mountain,
I am praying.

When I fall on the lawn in laughter
with my dog and she won’t stop
licking my face,
I am praying.

When you are winded by the light
on the photo of your mother
who died so suddenly,
you are praying.

When your grief lets you feel the
pain of those you don’t know,
you are praying.

When life moves through us
for no reason,
we are all praying.

I am humbled that all my efforts
to pray have failed, until
living is praying
with no intent.

Now, my heart is plucked
like the string of a harp
at every turn.

It is through our bodies, our whole human being that we pray, that we offer our devotion to life. If we live devotionally, we are offering a prayer to life itself; if we live with reverence for life itself we are offering a prayer of love to life itself. The object of The General Assembly od Unitarian and Free Christian Churches refers to the worship of God and the celebration of life, among many other things. It is perhaps strange to admit but over time I have found that, in actually fact, I worship life and by doing so I celebrate God, that which is to me the core of all life. I am devoted to life.

Now devotion comes in many shapes and forms. The word “Devotion” is derived from the Latin “devitio” meaning vow or total dedication. It is more than an act that is repeated, devotion speaks of passion, commitment and love. Devotion has a fire to it. Devotion is about both worship and celebration. What is it that you are devoted to?

Devotion can come in many forms The great traditions offer a treasure trove of devotional acts, the most obvious being prayer. Prayer means many things to different people and has done so throughout the ages. You may find yourself praying without even realising it. In its physical sense prayer can mean many things for each tradition. While a Christian may bow their heads and fold their hands, a Sufi may well whirl and a native American may will dance. A Buddhist may well sit quietly in a particular position, while a Hindu may well offer a sacrifice. Jewish and Muslim prayers are quite physical. A Jewish person while praying will bob their heads back and forth while a Muslim will physically prostate themselves. Prayers are not just about silence and spoken words, they can be deeply physical in nature.

I have a found and developed a form of two way prayer, over the last few years. I lead a regular “Singing Meditation”, at Dunham Road and love to take it around with me. It was recently suggested that it is a strange way to describe a devotional practise.

Last week Sue and myself were interviewed for a piece about our upcoming wedding in the local newspaper. Messenger Article During the interview we spoke of how our feelings grew over months of sharing in this devotional practice. The interviewer just couldn’t understand how you could both sing and meditate at the same time. We tried to explain, but realised our explanation was falling on deaf ears (It would seem that this element did not make it into the final article). The thing is to me “Singing Meditation” is the ultimate form of two way prayer. We sing out a variety of devotional words and then we sit and listen in reverential humility. It is the most beautiful form of devotion I have ever been involved in. It would seem that Julia, the interviewer from the Messenger, just didn’t get it. We did and certainly love worked its magic as we sang and shared silence together.

Singing may actually be the ultimate in devotional practise. I believe it was Augustine of Hippo who said that singing is praying twice. Now I’m not one to agree with Augustine, all the time, in fact rarely to be honest, but here I do. When I am singing I feel closer to the divine than in most other activities I engage with. Singing for me is a deeply mindful activity.

Devotion can take many forms and should not be seen necessarily as a solemn activity, done in isolation. Yes we can close ourselves away and pray in isolation as Jesus suggested we should, but it’s not essential. Neither do we have to necessarily use words when we are praying, every activity we engage in can be a form of prayer.

In the Japanese Shinto tradition prayers and blessings are calliagraphed on paper streamers and tied to the branches of trees and bushes. As the streamers wave in the wind the blessings then fly out over the world. In Tibet prayers are carved into wooden band wheels which are spun like a top sending the prayers up into the sky. Sometimes the wheels are positioned in a stream so that the current of the water spins the wheels and the prayers are then carried off without the need of human assistance. Sue and I have just been given some "Prayer Flags" as a wedding gift by a lovely couple John and Sue who attend a group I facilitated at the Urmston congregation I serve.

"Prayer Flags" by New Model Army

One of the five pillars of Islamic practice is to pray facing Mecca five times every day, here it’s not so much the words but the direction of the prayers that matter. During the middle ages monastic orders, that took vows of silence, considered work done by the hands as a form of prayer – therefore everything that was done in life was considered a prayer to God. This seems very similar to the mindfulness practiced by Zen Buddhist – in which every action is practiced with deep attention.

Devotion for me is about finding and giving a voice to my human experience. To repeat something I shared in the last "blogspot", in the words of Rheinhold Neibuhr “Prayer does not change things; prayer changes people, and people change things...Prayer is not hearing voices, prayer is acquiring a voice.” This is what it means to live by devotion, to be devoted to life. Every aspect of life has the potential to be a devotional practice, especially if what you worship is life itself, as I see it. For the Sufi’s every bodily movement has the potential to be a devotional practice if offered in love. You see everything that we do, everything we see, or hear, or touch or taste, or smell can become a devotional practise if you practice in a loving spirit. Social justice work, for others and or for the planet is perhaps the ultimate in devotion to life, the perfect prayer. As Dorothy Day put it “I believe some people – lots of people- pray through the witness of their lives. Through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people.” This is living by devotion, to be devoted to life.

Devotion, making of your life a prayer, is the key to unlock our true human potential. It allows us to become all that we were born to be, to making our matter really matter.

Live by devotion, become devoted to life. Let your life be your prayer. Whether that be your devotional practices or just the way that you act with friends and loved ones. Whether it be the reflective pause before you do or say anything, or a quiet time at some point in the day, whether it be dancing or singing around your kitchen , a social gathering, a concert,  or in a place of worship. Whatever it may be let all that you say and do reflect all that you would hope your life to be. Open your selves up to every encounter in every moment and you will bring to life the divine within you and in every aspect of your life.

Live by devotion, become devoted to life. May your life become your prayer, make it your highest calling, devote yourself to life so that your life may become a prayer.

Let your life be your prayer.

"The Weather"

Sunday 16 February 2020

Awakening to the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground

It was a bit wild last Sunday. I was impressed by the number of people that still managed to join us for worship despite the impact of "Storm Ciara". Ths weekend we have had to face another yet another, "Storm Dennis". I learnt last Sunday, just as I was arriving at Queens Road Urmston for the first service, that they had called the football off that afternoon, so it would appear that the congregants were hardier than those football fans. Actually the truth is that it was not safe to travel from London to Manchester and trains and trams were being cancelled.

As I left Urmston at 11am to return back to Altrincham Storm Ciara really took hold. It was the wildest weather I can ever remember driving in, there was debris all over the roads and the wind and the rain buffeted the car. I remember thinking to myself I’m glad I’m not driving over the top of the M62 today. I suspect that things were far worse in Yorkshire. I heard the next day that my sister and her husbands canal boat was a casualty and had sunk, thankfully they were not on board and they have insurance. Still very distressing all the same. They are a hardy pair and all will be well, but still they have invested some much love into their life together on that. By the way I also learnt that they had taken the journey over the top of the M62, earlier that day, as they had driven back from Liverpool.

Now maybe I am somewhat foolhardy, but as I drove down the Flixton mile road I felt little fear; I felt alive, and safe, and protected; I felt at one with the car and the weather. If truth be told I cannot remember ever feeling more awake and alive as I did for those twenty minutes. Now I had actually felt that way from the moment I had awoken that morning. I had not had a great deal of sleep, I had gone to bed later after a deeply fulfilling day, and yet felt incredibly refreshed that morning as I woke, I could feel it on the taste of my own breath.

Why was this you may well ask? Well I just had this deep sense of connection with everything in life. I was awake. I had spent quite a lot of time in prayer and meditation that week and I had been fully engaged in the stream of life, so this must have had something to do with it. When I ponder the purpose of prayer and meditation I always think of the following “Prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes people and people change things.” Over the years I have discovered that it is prayer that enables me to open and connect to life in all its joy and suffering, it allows me to increase my sensitivity to life and thus be touched by life and in return respond in more loving and open ways. Prayer for me is a kind of opening of myself to something larger.

So, as a result, as I drove through the storm, I cannot remember ever feeling more connected and awake to everything. Over the years I have had many similar experiences. They do not seem to last forever, at least not in this heightened state, that said afterwards I have never been quite the same again.

This morning the following poem appeared as a facebook memory, it seemed to fit in with my thoughts here...

“A Journey” by Edward Field

When he got up that morning everything was different:
He enjoyed the bright spring day
But he did not realise it exactly, he just enjoyed it.

And walking down the street to the railroad station
Past magnolia trees with dying flowers like old socks
It was a long time since he had breathed so simply.

Tears filled his eyes and it felt good
but he held them back
Because men didn’t walk around crying in that town.

Waiting on the platform at the station
The fear came over him of something terrible about to happen:
The train was late and he recited the alphabet to keep hold.

And in its time it came screeching in
And as it went on making its usual stops,
People coming and going, telephone poles passing,

He hid his head behind a newspaper
No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes
To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabrics.

He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.
He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down
A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,

And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train:
And through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on
He walked, himself at last, a man among men,
With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.

The great traditions often spoke of this need to wake up, to awaken. Now this awakened state was not meant to be purely for ourselves. It was meant to enable us to act in the world, in this awakened state, and thus encourage others to do the same, leading them to act in loving and compassionate ways, to create a true sense of oneness. That there is no separation only a great unity in life. That there is no us and them. Certainly my understanding of the teaching of Jesus was that at its core it was all about this. Whether that was to release the prisoners and serve the underprivileged as in Luke’s Gospel or in a more spiritual sense as in Matthew’s. I felt this sense powerfully as I walked around Capernaum and Galilee this time last year. It was a year last Wednesday that Sue and I were there and I proposed to her. That day I felt powerfully the feeling that life should always be interpreted by love. During our visit to Galilee there were many moments like that feeling I experienced last Sunday. There was no storms to experience although I did witness the problems that can stem from we humans not seeing other humans as one. I witnessed it as I saw the division between those who see the land as Palestine and those who see it as Israel, I saw it in the past, the present and sadly the future. A deeply spiritual place and yet a land shaped by violence and division.

Some 600 years before the ministry of Jesus the Buddha began his search for enlightenment in India. Some suggest that Jesus had developed his belief system because he visited India himself and was thus exposed to Hinduism and Buddhism. It is not a story I accept personally. Instead I reckon that similar principles have manifested in many human forms throughout our history. I suspect that all of us are capable of awakening to this deep love. We can all wake up and realise the love at the core of all life. We may interpret it different due to the culture we are born into, the myths and stories may not be the same, but the essence is

Now while the lives of the Buddha and Jesus have parallels there was one crucial difference. The Buddha was born into privilege which he rejected and went off to discover, to his great dismay, both grinding poverty and death. By contrast Jesus was born into those very daily realities. They shared a path to wisdom through mindfulness, prayer, contemplation into an inner journey to their central core, to love, to God if you will. They became compassionate witnesses to the world of pain and suffering around them, taking into themselves the world’s pain, and they returned infinite compassion and boundless love embodied in the reassurance of resurrection and hope.

When the Buddha was asked, “What are you, a God, an angel and saint”, he answered no to each question. They persisted, and he replied enigmatically, “I am awake” as Jesus was to the duel reality of living in the face of death. Both intuitively understood that suffering could be turned to joy through sacred living, following the Dharma as Buddha put it (to salvation and Nirvana). Jesus called this eternal life. Through the lives they lived they modelled a better way of living, both examples to what we can be if we were to awaken the love within us.

Now this is all very interesting you may say, but what does it mean to wake up? What do we need to wake up to?

Well I would say look around you and within you. Take time in contemplation and it will awaken the senses that you have been given and enable you to respond to the needs around you.

Or to quote Rabindranath Tagore, a man deeply influenced by eastern and western traditions and who became a great influence both here and in India.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
By waking up we will know the joy of living, through simple loving service. Isn’t this what it means to follow the great examples. To be awake, is to awaken to the world. Let us wake up to this world we live in; to its beauty and wonder, and also to its tragedy and pain. Let us wake up to the reality in which we live and to respond in loving ways. Let us wake up to the idea that our wholeness, our lives, are only as complete as the lives of those around us, of those we are inextricably tied to in a great web of mutuality, of which are all a part and to which we all belong.

Let us wake up and let us stay awake.

Now for some people waking up can be a terrifying feeling. There have been times in my life when I have not wanted to wake up and face another day. So many people experience this on a daily basis; so many people wake up frightened for a variety of reasons. To be truly awake is to be compassionate towards them; to be truly awake it is vital to acknowledge this suffering in life and be with those who suffer.

That said it is just as important to express the beauty of life and to express gratitude for the incredible joy that can be human living. This is precisely what I was experiencing as I was driving between the beautiful congregations I serve, in the wild wind and rain. I was living in the joy of service.

With this in mind I am going to leave you with another question, I know I keep on doing this.  It is a question that comes from the Sufi tradition of Islam, from the beautiful poetry of Rumi. It is a kind of antidote to the feeling that might come on those days when we wake up empty and frightened, as many people do and no doubt most of us have done as some point in time.

So here’s a question for this day, perhaps it’s a question for every day, what might to you, to “kneel and kiss the ground?”

Here are the verses

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.


What might it mean, to "kneel and kiss the ground?"

Sunday 9 February 2020

Who Knows You, Who Do You Know?

"Awakening Rights"

We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are
when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved
and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed
and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.
Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world
but to unglove ourselves so that the door knob feels cold
and the car handle feels wet
and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being
soft and unrepeatable.

–Mark Nepo, Book of Awakening

Last Monday I conducted the funeral service of Nev Marchbank Smith. I had only met him briefly at his brother Tony’s wedding, which I conducted at Queens Road Urmston last October, so it is fair to say he was a man I did not know. I had of course got to know Tony somewhat and of his now wife Joanne, but I did not know Nev. I met with his siblings a week before the funeral service to see what their needs were. Like most families there were some complications but I got the idea of what they wanted. They grew up in a Unitarian family and held deeply Unitarian values. There was a great deal of humour and deep love between them all and I got a good idea of what they were looking for. The family spent some time collating the story of Nev’s fascinating life and sent details to me.

The day of the service came and I held them through it telling the story of Nev’s life as I did so, bringing his character alive, warts and all and beauty spots too. The family were deeply grateful, especially for bringing their memories and stories to life. Some even commented on how happy they felt and then apologised for feeling this way. There was no need to apologise. It is a strange feeling that we often share at funeral services. Yes there is the deep grief and sadness of losing a loved and yet there is a sense of love and joy and togetherness that balances these heartbreaking feelings. The goodness at the core of life does seem to come to alive in the most challenging of times.

A few days before the service I had visited another member of the Queens Road congregation, Betty Bloor. She had attended her own sisters funeral, conducted by the minister in Hale Barns Jeff Gould. She complimented him on the service and how he seemed to know her so well, even though he didn’t. We also talked a little about preparing funeral services and the challenges of creating them for people we know and ones that we do not know. Some people like to prepare every detail and others do not. Our approach to such things perhaps reveal something of our humanity.

Now Sue conducts many funeral services, usually for people she does not know. She has a real skill though in bringing alive the person’s life, as if she did know them. It is a real challenge of our time. How do we create such rites of passage for people who we do not know, for most of us no longer belong to spiritual and or religious communities?

It got me asking a question of myself and others, who knows anybody? Who knows you and me? Who can say that they truly know themselves? If we were to create a eulogy for someone else what would we want to say about them? What would you want to say about yourself, if you were to write your own eulogy? Who would you want to speak of your life, what would you like them to say?

Who knows you, who knows who, who knows anyone? We all move through life in our own little bubbles, circling around each other and life like tiny little planetoids on which only we belong. The spiritual practices, that the great traditions taught, were meant to turn us into that inner little world so that we can know ourselves well and not live with illusion and delusion. Perhaps more importantly those same practices were also meant to bridge the gap between the self and the other, through such practices; through such practices what it is to be a mortal human is meant to be revealed. However different we may seem to be we are animated by the same breath of life. As we live by the same breath of life, we all know what it is to long, to fear, to doubt and hope. We all know joy and we all experience guilt and regret. We all know the challenges and the joys and by truly knowing ourselves and one another we can celebrate the joys and overcome the challenges. This is the “Good” that I believe is being spoken of in Genesis I. Yes life is very good indeed if we allow ourselves to truly know it; yes very good but not without challenges. The good is in the overcoming of the challenges together.

The problem is of course that due to the near death of religious community where do we uncover these practices that allow us to know ourselves and to truly know the other? For we cannot know the other if we find the practices but still stay alone in isolation. I suspect that one way to know the other and therefore truly connect with them. To truly know ourselves is to know what we in essence and waht we are in essence is what I all life is too, I have come to believe

The ancient Greeks believed that the ultimate aim for a person of virtue was to know themselves. There were many aphorism on this theme such as “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The key for the ancient Greeks was to know yourself. Now “Know thyself” has been understood in many ways but ultimately to know oneself is to know that you are mortal and live in such a way, fully a part of mortal life. In so doing you will fully play your role as a part of mortal life. They constantly guarded against the dangers of hubris, the idea that human beings were God’s. Yes we are made in the image of the Divine but we are not God’s and it is vital that we recognise our finite mortality. In many ways this is the beauty and the energy of our lives, the fact that they do not last for ever.

Know yourself, know that you are mortal. That is what it means to be truly human. The word human is etymologically linked to humility. We are not god’s we are finite, we are mortal. We cannot live wholly from ourselves, no one is totally self-reliant, self sufficient and we do not live for ever. To truly know yourself is to accept the finite nature of your humanity. This is a stepping stone to discovering yourself and your unique place in the circle of life. By knowing ourselves we not only begin to know life, but we also connect more deeply to it too, for we become less afraid.

Now this may lead to the question, what is the essence of humanity, of ourselves, of one another. Genesis I spoke of humanity being made in the image of the Divine. What does this mean? Well image, from the Latin “imago” means reflection or portrait it does not mean exactly the same. Now I believe that this passage is suggesting that each of us has something of the Divine within us, that we are a reflection of the divine and that this brings a duty to humanity to reflect this image into the world in which we live. This is a real responsibility, to reflect the divine love into life, to incarnate it to bring it to life.

I believe that most of our human problems stem from our rejection of this, from our inability to see that we are children of love, formed from love. That this Divine spark is an aspect of our very human being. Now this puts a great responsibility on we human beings, to make our lives matter in the short time that we have here on earth.

This got me thinking about what this essence might be, what it might mean. Some have called it soul, but waht on earth do we mean by soul?

I love the way that the 1996 Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska imagines the soul. Something that is capable of being summoned but only in moments when we are fully attuned to receiving its charms.

A Few Words on the Soul

We have a soul at times.
No one's got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood's fears and raptures
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It's picky,
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds.
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

I’m not sure that answers the question of what we mean by soul, but then again perhaps it does. Some of us may well have strong views as the what we mean by soul, some may say there is no such thing. Certainly, to think of soul as being like the heart is not what most folk mean when they speak of it. Like so many things in life we are too fixated on the word, as Parker J Palmer has said (soul is) “a word to be held lightly, in open hands. It points to the mystery at the heart of being human – a mystery known by many names whose true name no one knows.

Secular humanists" call it “identity and integrity.” Hasidic Jews call it "the spark of the divine in every being" Thomas Merton called it "true self" Quakers call it "the inner light" Buddhists call it, paradoxically, "Big Self" and No Self""

What name we give it is not that important, what matters is that we recognise this essence, that is good, at the core of our humanity. You see trouble begins when we fail to recognise the true “being” in the human being, when we fail to recognise our common humanity. If we do not recognise this, we will treat ourselves and one another as objects as commodities to be used and abused. We need to recognise the sacredness in all of us or the violence and division in society and ourselves, will continue to grow.

But how do we do this? How do we begin to recognize this sacredness, in this increasingly secular age? Well it begins by getting to know ourselves and to know the other, to unmask the illusions and delusions. We need to find or build the bridge to our true being and to recognize the true human being in each other. To know that despite the real troubles of life there is an essence of goodness that needs to be brought to life. Remember that however different we may seem to be that same wind of life blows though us all. We live the same breath of life, we all know longing fear, doubt and hope; we all know joy and we all experience guilt and regret; we all know the challenges and the joys of living. We need to truly know ourselves, one another so that we can celebrate the joys and overcome the challenges. I believe that it is up to us to bring the “Good” to life, to make life very good indeed, not only for ourselves but for one another.

So I’m going to end with a question for you take into the week ahead. “Who knows you? Who do you know?”

Sunday 2 February 2020

Rooted Like The Trees

At a recent “Colours of Grief: Our Shared Experience of Love and Loss”, a group we host at Dunham Road, that offers space in which we share and hold each other in our experiences of grief, a man in attendance shared some wisdom from a nature program he had watched online. He spoke about how a certain type of tree survived hurricanes; how the trees in question while appearing to be standing alone were actually connected and supporting one another. It would seem that their roots not only spread far and wide into the earth, but actually connected together and held the trees firm while the branches and trunks were buffeted and all around was devastated. He shared this beautiful wisdom as we spoke about the need to connect and hold one another in our struggles and suffering that no one is an island. That we need one another, that we are held together by a web of mutuality. As you can imagine the conversation sparked my homiletic consciousness.

A couple of days later I tried to contact the man to ask if he could remember where he had seen the program, unfortunately he could not. I was going to give up but the thought would not let me go. It got me thinking about community and roots and how strong and interconnected roots not only protect the individual but allow them to grow and thrive. It also got me thinking about trees. I have been noticing the trees ever since, paying deep attention.

As I look at the trees I feel humbled. They outlive most of us, they live for centuries standing still and silent throughout the changing seasons and years. Yes eventually their lifespans do come to an end, they do not live forever like no element of life does. They come from the Great Mystery and return to it too. They experience the changing seasons, but offer no commentary on it. Their presence keep our all our too human hubris in check.

I have grown to love the way that trees celebrate the changing seasons, in silence and security. Just standing there as symbols of the changing nature of life. Yes they bend and reshape and change in colour. They look different as the seasons progress and yet stand there safe and secure expressing the eternal nature of life.

The trees have much to teach us. My name sake and American colleague Rev Greta W. Crosby recognises this. She describes a silent none judgemental presence that the trees offer her, something we humans cannot give no matter how well we may think we are at listening. The trees simply stand there erect and open, never shrinking away or rejecting, offering unconditional love and acceptance. In “Tree and Jubilee” she wrote:

“I have long had a sense of fellowship with trees. Since I was a child, I have sought their company from time to time because I like the way I feel in their presence. I enjoy their beauty, but it is more than that. I used the word “presence” in a very strong sense. I felt their presence as living things. And in that presence, I often feel relaxed and centered, peaceful, restored to inner equilibrium.

For many of us, life is the meaning of the tree. But for me, perhaps the greatest thing about the tree is its silence. Whatever the tree says to us, whatever it answers to our questing, the tree gives its message without words. And the tree bears with us well. It does not judge. It does not react to our anxieties. It does not run after us. It just stands there with open arms.”

I was thinking about these qualities as Sue and I walked around the grounds of Chatsworth House last Monday. Sue, like Greta, often embraces trees and she did several times that day. I did not, I simply observed them reverently, occasionally finding myself bowing toward them and as I did my mind wandered to concept of “The Tree of Life”

The “Tree of Life” is a beautiful and universal symbol that can be found in many of the world’s religious traditions. The ancient Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians, Baylonians and Samarians all had a tree of life symbol. There is Ygdrassil, the Norse Tree of Life, The Etz Ha Hayim of the Kaballistic Jews. The Bahai's speak of it and Christians of all kinds speak of the tree of life, with healing leaves, found in the Book of Revelations. The book of Genesis tells of two trees: a Tree of Knowledge, which is the tree of good and evil, and the Tree of Life, the tree of immortality. I wonder why Adam and Eve chose “The Tree of Knowledge over “The Tree of Life”. The tree of life is a symbol of re-birth and renewal; it is a sign post to the path of enlightenment; it reveals a timeless and eternal wisdom. The Buddha gained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree. The tree blessed him as it did so showering him with blossom. Wisdom also comes to mind when I think of the “Tree of Life”, an eternal wisdom that comes with age. A deeper wisdom than knowledge alone.

There is a wisdom in the trees, they have so much to teach us. The story I had heard in the grief group kept on nagging at me. I wanted to discover more. Sue did some research for me and found some fascinating articles online, but not exactly what I heard about and was seeking. One was a piece on “The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel and how they communicate – Discoveries from a secret world” by Peter Wohlleben. He is a German forrester who has revolutionized his field. Through years of dedicated work he has highlighted an unprecedented level of cooperation among trees in a forest, noting that “mother” trees suckle the young saplings, feeding them enough sugars produced by their own photosynthesis to keep them from dying. The trees are connected by their roots, which grow together like a network. Their root tips have highly sensitive brain-like structures that can distinguish whether the root that it encounters in the soil is its own root, the root of another species, or the roots of its own species. He also explains how trees communicate through electrical signals that can be measured through the bark and roots. They send chemical signals through the air when they are attacked by insects. Nearby trees receive these messages and have time to prepare their defenses. Something that has been named as the Wood Wide Web.

Another article described the giant redwood trees of California, the largest trees in the world that have survived for thousands of years throughout turbulent times. It seems that these trees are unique amongst tall trees as their roots are not deep, they grow outwards instead and when they come in contact with roots of other Redwoods they wrap around each other multiple times and form a strong connection. Each tree shares a bond with another tree through its roots, until eventually, every single tree is interconnected. The roots hold on to one another through the harshest of weather, and keep the family of trees standing tall and strong, together. The roots of older and wiser trees hold on to the roots of trees just beginning to grow. They are held and protected by and underground system of interconnection, their strength is shared and they grow together.

I thought that this article must have been describing the trees I had heard about, but it was not. I kept on searching and then I found the film, from a channel entitled “Think Like a Tree”. It was a story about Hurricane Katrina and the 700 trees on Oak Street in New Orleans. The houses were completely destroyed their but only 4 out of 700 oaks had the same fate, the rest survived intact. There was a good reason for this, one being their spiral trunks and branches which allowed them to flex in the wind. Also their leaves curled into a Fibonacci sequence which allowed the wind to flow through with minimal friction. All of these characteristics helped but the real secret lay in their roots, which like the redwoods were intertwined with its neighbour. So when the hurricanes hit a tree it wasn’t hitting one tree, it was hitting a whole community of trees. It was thus the intertwining of the roots of the trees that allowed them to survive the elements.

Click here to watch the video from "Think Like a Tree

As I reflected on these fascinating ways that trees seemingly survive and thrive in challenging conditions through a kind of mutuality, I thought how much we humans could learn. We are not merely individual life forms we belong to web of mutuality, all life is connected and interconnected. To truly thrive we need to take care of our roots and our connections to one another. I wonder if as a society this is something that we lose sight of. What we do to the least of us we do to all of us.

This brings to mind that wonderful hymn “Spirit of Life” by Carolyn McDade particularly the line “Roots hold me close, wings set me free”. The roots come before the wings, we need to be held close, in mutual love, in order to truly thrive and therefore to fly free, to be all that we can possibly be. To focus only on the wings does not create the community and stability that we all need. When I think of those roots that hold the essence of those trees and enables them to thrive it reminds me of communal love. It seems to me that this love is that unseen force that connects all life and that enables us to form deep and meaningful relationships with ourselves, with each other and with all life. I name this God, others may use different words.

It is love that allows us to connect with all that exists, all that has been in the time before now and all that will be in the future. It is love that enables those roots to stretch out and connect to each other, to communicate and feed one another in a web of mutuality, just like the forest trees and the oaks of New Orleans. It is love that hold us close and it is love that allows us to stretch out the wings that will set us free and allow us to glide in the wind. To know love is to know that you belong and it is this that is perhaps the ultimate freedom.

It is the roots of belonging that give us the freedom to stretch out the wings and fly in the wind, free...This is love...We all belong somewhere, no one exists completely in a vacuum.

This to me is the essence of a free religious community. such as the Unitarian tradition that am a part of. A place where you feel that you can belong. A space where visitors and those already present can feel loving roots that hold them close so that they can spread their wings and begin to fly free. A community where the spiritual traveller can rest a while and find sustenance for their journey. A place with deep roots that can hold us during the vicissitudes of life, but not constrain us, so that we can fly free.

A place where you may find a sense of belonging; a space where you may find the love that connects and accepts you and allow you to live and thrive and encourage one another to fly free.