Wednesday 30 June 2021

Guilt and Shame are not the same

I was out walking with Charlie the other day. Not feeling my best, struggling with a few things, not least of which was guilt, for pain I had caused. An appropriate feeling at the time as I was coming to terms with my own all too human failings. Being out with the little dog on the canal bank at Sale helped, as I watched nature and the people pass by. I felt connected, I belonged.  I felt angry for a moment at some carless rowers and their coach as he shouted at them. They had careered into a line of ducks and their young, who near maturity to be fare. They were ok. I saw a guilty look on the coaches face and on one of the young women in the team. It was a face I recognise and the human connection took away my anger.

A little later I saw a sight that put me in a completely different mood. It was a long line of Canada geese. I reckon that there were about four adults at the front and back and eight or more goslings in between. They lifted my spirits as they always do. It was something about the care and protection of seeing them swimming along in their line. There were no rowers about here either. I took a picture of this delightful scene and posted it on facebook. It got some lovely responses, including a couple of others who also posted pictures of identical scenes.

As anyone who knows me will testify I have a deep love of Canada Geese. I first fell in love with them when I was a student minister and observed them over a two year cycle as I walked around the lake at Platt Fields Park, in Fallowfield Manchester. They helped at times as I struggled with myself and the training. Particularly the long walk I would take before my weekly driving lesson. They seemed to ease my anxiety and self doubt. These beautiful birds took me out of myself, they lifted my spirits, enabled me to connect to my animal heart and to to a reality far greater than my solitary self.

They brought to mind that great poem by the wonderful Mary Oliver “Wild Geese”

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

 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 your 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.

This poem and perhaps “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry are to be the words that sing in my heart whenever I find myself despairing at the world or despairing at myself, which I do from time to time. Don’t we all.

 “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

 When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

As I was thinking about my time as a student minister, the lessons I had learnt and forgotten - I am not talking about theology here, more about life.  Some of those lessons I had failed to heed or sadly forgotten, how many mistakes do I keep on repeating in my life? God only knows. I digress - As I was thinking another memory came to haunt me. It was a postcard on the principal Anne Peart’s door that read “I have learnt so much from my mistakes, that I think I am going to make a few more.” I remember at the time how much I liked it. It helped me overcome the fear of imperfection. It encouraged me to give things a go and not to worry if I made mistakes as I would learn from the lessons. Over the years I have learnt many lessons, but not always. Some lessons keep on repeating themselves. I keep on forgetting the lessons. I keep on making the same or similar mistakes. This is all well and good if the cost for these errors is a price I pay alone, but alas it is not. Others get hurt too and is their suffering worth the lesson? I do not think so. To believe that would make me sound like Donald Rumsfeld and his notion of “collateral damage”, which is newspeak for the destruction of innocents in order to achieve a perceived goal. A different take on dangerous and often destructive philosophy of the “Ends Justifying the Means”.

These days I take a wider view of the lessons learnt from mistakes; I understand and accept the guilt caused by the damage done by those oh so very human mistakes; mistakes we all make. That said I no longer set out to make more, Instead I pledge to try and learn the lessons once and for all and not repeat it again. Or at least I aspire to do so, we shall see hey.

There is nothing in and of itself wrong with feeling guilt for our shortcomings in life. It an error to beat ourselves up for these human frailities, but we ought never wish away a sense of guilt, well not entirely. Like all other feelings it is there for a good reason, it’s a gauge as to whatever we are doing, whether we should or not. It also connects us with our fellow creatures. In many ways that voice of conscience, deep in the core of our being may well be that which is of God within us all. It would serve us well to pay attention to it.

Guilt has its positive aspects, it can be a kind of barometer to keep us aiming for our highest ideals, something we always fall short of. That said there are other seemingly similar feelings to guilt that are very negative and unhelpful. Such feelings come from a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with our human being, it comes from a sense of shame. This is unhealthy and unhelpful, for no matter how well you do or what you do you will always feel bad about your very human being, if you carry with you a sense of shame.

Guilty feelings come in many forms, helpful and unhelpful. To feel remorseful after saying or doing the wrong thing, is healthy. It compels us to do what we can to put things right. That said if this feeling lingers even after putting right what was wrong, if we dwell and beat ourselves up for unskilful action or word then this form of guilt is coming from another place, from this sense that fundamentally there is something wrong with us. This is shame which dresses up like guilt, but is very different indeed.

I suspect that the key is where the guilt comes from. Does it come as a result of our actions, thoughts and or words or is it a feeling that comes from some other place and almost dictates our thoughts, feelings, words and actions and regardless of these things we just feel bad.

Where does this feeling of being wrong come from? Why does it control so many of our lives?

Now in our culture some put it down to our Judea Christian heritage, the core of our culture, even in these secular times. Often folks who grew up in deeply religious homes will argue about who feels the most guilt. Now although the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to be seeped in guilt, the bible both the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels make no reference to guilt as it is commonly understood. As Mark Belletini points out in “Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Colours of Grief”

“…I confess to being surprised that the word guilt itself, as in the feeling of guilt, is not found any place in either the Jewish or the Christian testaments. Not once. The few times the English word can be found in more antique translations, it refers only to the kind of “guilty” that courts speak about, which is not a feeling so much as a legal category.

I am convinced that families of origin, cultural and ethnic patterns, and categorical realities play a far greater role in how much guilt we feel than does religion.  I certainly have known folks raised without religion of any kind – including the “shopping mall spirituality” created by cultus consumerism – who have struggled with guilt as much as anyone raised in a particular denomination of religion, Western or Eastern.”

Guilt when it is appropriate is a good thing. It connects us to one another and to life, it keeps us humble and therefore human and saves us from the dangers of destructive hubris. Guilt caused form our shortcomings is a function of conscience. This feeling at the core our humanity that needs developing not suppressing. This is key to my understanding of my faith as a Unitarian, this concept of living revelation that is an aspect of my humanity, if I can tap into it and allow it to lead me. In so doing my senses open and I begin to see this same spark in others too. You see in opening myself to the divine spark within me I open myself to that same spark in everyone and everything. This is key to my understanding of religion, my attempts to live my life in the company of others and through which I attempt to shape an ideal that I strive for, but suspect I will never attain. I always fall short of this ideal, in this sense I sin (from sinare which meant to fall short of the mark). This though is not original sin, it is actually more original blessing. I feel guilt, appropriate guilt, because I fall short of the mark. Something I’ve been feeling this week. This sense of guilt is a healthy human quality and it helps to strive to do better.

Shame is something else. Shame is destructive and it keeps us separate from ourselves and one another. Shame is not formed from our actions or inactions, but from some other place in our being. It’s that place that people have tapped into throughout human history. Yes religion has used this, the classic example being the concept of Original Sin, but then so has the secular world. Advertising is the classic example, by tapping into this sense that there is something wrong with us we buy a thing or lifestyle that we believe will make us acceptable and or whole. How many people suffer from a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with them?

When I look at myself in the eye these days what I see is a man who gets things wrong from time to time and I feel appropriate guilt for this. By the way I get it terribly wrong at times. I wish I didn’t as I know it causes harm. This sense of guilt is healthy and good. The danger is if it becomes crippling shame.

When you look at yourself in the eye, what do you see? Do you a decent person who makes mistakes? Or do you see someone who is fundamentally wrong to the core.

It matters you know, it really does. For it will affect how you interact with the world and how the world interacts with you and that really matters.  It really does.

I’m going to end with a little more Mary Oliver. These words that came up as a facebook memory last Sunday, the day I saw the line of Canada Geese have been saving me all week:

The Poet with His Face in His Hands

Mary Oliver

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need anymore of that sound.

So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

Monday 21 June 2021

Troubles With God: Wrestling With My Soul

Last Saturday night I was watching the Denmark Finland game , at the European Football Championship. I am one of those people who will watch pretty much any sport and love these big tournaments. It was a pretty ordinary game until something suddenly happened towards the end of the first half. I thought at first that someone must have suffered a head injury as several of the Danish players surrounded their playmaker Christian Ericson. It suddenly became clear that something serious was going on. The Danish captain Simon Kjaer (pronouced care) acted decisively and while it is no doubt that the medics saved Christian’s life the action of Kjaer had a big impact too. He gave him instant first aid in the first crucial seconds. He placed him in the correct position, held his tongue, got the players to surround him and create a human shield around their ailing teammate, to protect him from flash cameras and shocking headlines being spread around the world, while the medics attempted to get his heart going again, Christian had suffered a cardiac arrest. Once the medical team had put a curtain around him Kjaer went to the side of the pitch to console Ericson’s partner, who was beside herself. I cannot begin to imagine the distress she must have been in. I know how distressed I was watching and no doubt the millions of others watching all over the world.

Thankfully, due to the brilliant work of the medical team, within the stadium, and his captain Kjaer and teammates Christian Ericson his alive and recovering in hospital. Later that evening the players returned to the field and resumed the game. They showed remarkable courage, sadly they lost the game. I am sure that their hearts were not completely in it. They showed remarkable courage in my eyes to do so, although I believe it was too much to ask them to do so. As well as Kjaer I was particularly touched by the actions of the Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel who spent time consoling players from both sides and many others, as they returned to the pitch. He must have been drained of all emotion and no doubt it affected his game. That said there was something of greater importance at work that night. Sometimes there are greater sacrifices to make.

Now like so many people around the world I was deeply moved by these events that I witnessed. It took me out of my own personal troubles, as it did for millions of people throughout the world; the world found itself wishing this young man and his loved ones well. You could almost feel the outpouring of love in the air.

As the game restarted, there was initially one or two technical issues with the BBC commentary, but after a few moments the commentator Jonathan Pearce began to speak, he seemed to catch the mood of the moment beautifully, his words touched me deep in my heart and soul, as he was introduced by the presenter and former England striker and captain Gary Lineker. Pearce said:

“Thank you Gary. The images of Kasper Schmeichel embracing the opposition players from Finland, so full of emotion, will stay with me for a long time.” He continued “I am not a religious person but seeing the messages flood in for Christian Eriksen from footballers like Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard and so many of you out there, I am sure somehow must have played a part.”

The next day I heard another favourite football podcaster state “I am not a religious person in any way, but I found myself praying for Christian Eriksen”, so many others were too, so much love, so much care, so much emotion and thanks to the amazing medical people working swiftly Erickson is recovering well. It showed humanity at its best, as that incredible spirit came alive and worked though us all.

As a world we have been through so much this last year or more and it is far from over. We have been living in a kind of crisis state really. People have generally stepped up to the plate and done what they can to care. No doubt we are inspired by so many different things; no doubt we make sense of what inspires us in different ways. Some inspired by love, others by God. Some offer best wishes and others perhaps pray. No doubt we all struggle at times to explain what exactly it is that inspires us and also keeps us going, what gives us the courage to go on in times of trouble. I found it interesting that the football commentator and podcaster both felt that they must state that they are not in any way a religious person and yet they both talked about prayer and a spirit at work; that not only was visible help at work during this time, but also some form of invisible, inexplicable help at work too. Whether that be prayer, or just offering blessings to one another. It all helps. That’s why I’m a great believer in offering blessing to one another as much as we can. I need it, we all do. The power of love runs deep, we can all feel it. Some of us call it God, others prefer to give it another name.

Brings to mind the line from the hymn “Some call it consecration, and others call it God”

Both Jonathan Pearce and the podcaster wanted to make it clear that they were not religious and yet they expressed a sense of spirit at work. It brought to mind a word I had recently come across on “Grandiloquent: word of the Day”. The word “Nullifidian” (pronounced nuhl-uh-FID-ee-uhn) meaning “one who is unhindered by religious ideology” from “nullus” meaning none and “fides”, meaning faith. Not necessarily an atheist, but then someone not tied down, fettered by a belief or tradition. I think there are more and more people like this in the world today. They call them “nones” as in none affiliated. They don’t necessarily reject all spiritual matters, but cannot subscribe to tenets of a particular traditions. I suspect many of them could well find a home among we Unitarians. They are the reason there is so much work as a celebrant for the likes of Sue.

On Wednesday morning I drove to the chapel, I had a few things on my mind and was struggling with putting these thoughts together. As I arrived, I noticed a man wandering around the gardens. He looked a little lost. I made my way to the vestry and was just sorting out my laptop before going to the gym for my daily exercise. There was a knock on the door and there stood this man. He had piece of paper in his hand and said he was looking for an AA meeting. He was seeking help and I was able to offer my time to him. So we sat in the garden and talked. Well, he talked and I listened. I directed him to where and when the meetings were. He then began to ask me about Unitarians, “asking what are we exactly?, compared to Methodism and C of E or Roman Catholics.” He told me he had been Christened and confirmed as a Methodist. I tried to explain how we are an open tradition, that we don’t make statements of belief that members must subscribe to, that those who come here come to their own truth in matters of faith and belief, but that we congregate together in a spirit of love. He looked at me a little puzzled and then left, telling me he would see me at the meeting in the morning. By the way he did.

I have been pondering that conversation since, as well as other attempts to speak of spiritual matters, of faith and belief and personal spiritual experience. Language has its limits, the words we use can hardly explain exactly what we as individuals experience. There is a gap between experience, process, articulation and receiving of words depicting the experience. By the time we put it into words the experience has already been reduced greatly.

The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich had an interesting take on the limit of language to describe one’s faith. He claimed that whatever reveals “Ultimate Reality” also hides it. I think it applies to all aspects of truth. Whatever we do to communicate truth will reveal aspects of it, but not fully. I’m not sure it is possible for any of us see the light of truth absolutely, we always see it through lenses. We never see anything absolutely and as soon as we attempt to articulate the meaning something gets lost in translation. We understand things through the lens of our culture and upbringing and we communicate it through this even more so. It is important to remember this. It certainly humbles me. I know from over ten years of ministry that folk do not hear exactly what I am trying to express. Not that this bothers me too much, I love how creative interchange can expand on what is shared as well as reduce its meaning. I love to hear back from others what they experience through what I share. I have had several fascinating conversations with folk following on from what they heard last Sunday. It has been wonderful to listen to. I learn so much from these conversations.

I love these kinds of conversation, when people attempt to wrestle with experience and belief. They are wonderful things to wrestle with. Folk have been doing so since humanity gained consciousness no doubt. I love to see others engage and wrestle too, to give in and surrender and wrestle again. Every time a person doe, they are blessed by the struggle.

Now I say I usually enjoy such conversations, but sometimes I do not. Why don’t I sometimes enjoy them, you may well ask? Well because sometimes they do not go anywhere. It is very difficult to engage in these kind of conversations with people whose minds and hearts are snapped shut. It’s that old hubris thing again, some people seem so certain about things. What troubles me about fundamentalists whether of religion or atheism is that they seem to want to reduce God. When they talk of God they talk of something almost human or something a bit more than human. They seem to reduce life down to some kind of mathematical equation that can either be proven or disproven. The God that such people talk about believing in or not believing in seems so much less than God, I find most of the conversations impossible. They tie people up in knots and this leads to arguments often over minutae. In many ways I am more interested in what people experience more than what they claim to believe and or disbelieve. Our beliefs and dis-beliefs seem oh so limiting. The key is to stay open and share, then listen, then share again.

To key is to struggle, to wrestle, to give in and start all over again, in so doing you will be blessed, at least that is what I’ve discovered. Through struggling you will discover something beautiful and wonderful, even if it is just the power of your open, vulnerable heart.

The key to the spiritual life for me is that it is about putting something other than our own self-centred wants and needs at the core of our lives. The most dissatisfying and dissatisfied lives are the ones that are merely for the good of themselves. If you want to experience the love that is God, you can do so in that space that is created when you give to another from your heart and you receive from another from their heart. For me that is all I need to know about theology, that God once again comes to life when we give ourselves to another and they give back to us in return. I experienced this so wonderfully on Wednesday morning with that lost soul in the gardens at the chapel.

I saw a wonderful example of this last Saturday night in the actions Simon Kjaer, how he responded to his ailing teammate, his fellow players and Christian Ericson’s wife and no doubt many others. This is a man who knew what to do when crisis hit. What did he do, he cared for those around him. Now for many this isn’t a religious act, maybe it is not, but it Is certainly an act of faith, faith in life and humanity itself and it had a powerful impact on me as I know it did on many others too.

Now for me in that space I saw what I understand as God come to life. I cannot prove that to you or anyone else, I don’t need to. The key is not so much what we believe anyway, what is more important is how we act. All we need to do is put self giving love into practise and I guarantee you that that power will change all our lives.

If we do we will bless life and it will bless us too.

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this "Blogspot"

Sunday 13 June 2021

Aftermath: Living in the Layers of Life

Now as some folk know I have a deep love of the origins of words. I have a keen interest in old words that have gone out of common usage, or words that have changed in meaning over time. One of my favourite things on “Facebook” is “Grandiloquent: Word of the Day”. I recently learnt the origins of the world “Aftermath”. In its most common understanding “Aftermath” means “the consequences or after-effects of a significant unpleasant event. There is though a second meaning. It is a farming term meaning “new grass growing after mowing or harvest. This second understanding is closer to the original meaning of “aftermath”, which dates back to the early 16th century meaning a second crop of grass grown on the same land after the first had been harvested, also known as aftercrop, aftergrass and or lattermath.

Here’s an example from the poem “Aftermath” by Longfellow

When the summer fields are mown,

When the birds are fledged and flown,

And the dry leaves strew the path;

With the falling of the snow,

With the cawing of the crow,

Once again the fields we mow

And gather in the aftermath.

So, as you can see “aftermath” means something very different to what it used to. It’s original meaning had positive connotations, like a bonus crop that can be harvested again. Yet today when we think of “aftermath” this is not what we understand; today the meaning has only negative connotations.

Some say that we are living in the aftermath of the pandemic, although truth is that it is not over. Certainly not here, but especially in other parts of the world. That said aftermath isn’t about starting over it is about growing from what is already there. No one gets to start over in life. There are no clean slates or blank sheets. We live from where we are, life goes on from the moment it is in. “Aftermath” does not only mean what follows a disaster, a terrible event, it also means a new growth of grass following one or more mowings, which may be grazed, mowed, or plowed under. Perhaps this concept of aftermath can help us in our time and place.

We have to metaphorically speaking at least, graze on what we have, we have to mow on and plough on what we have, we cannot just simply begin again. We have all been through a difficult time there has been much grief on so many levels, not just in recent days, but throughout our lives. We have live with this and grow from this.

As I was thinking of this idea of mowing on again, following a difficult time, a barren harvest, the following favourite of mine by Stanley Kunitz came to mind “The Layers”. I have shared it before, but it is worth hearing again.

“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem was written at a pivotal moment in Kunitz’s long career. He believed that it spoke of  something that was central to his whole experience of being a poet and a person. It was written in response to a personal crisis. He had suffered several grief’s, including his mother and two older sisters as well as several dear friends. It was a time of change in his life, both personally and as a writer. He stated that:

“. . . I wrote 'The layers' in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. . . Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends, including Theodore Roethke, Mark Rothko, and - most recently - Robert Lowell. I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work. The poem began with two lines that came to me in a dream, spoken out of a dark cloud: 'Live in the layers, not on the litter.”

Un my eyes the poem is a wonderful example of “Aftermath”, in both senses of the word. Yes it is about picking up the pieces after a crisis, but it is also about reaping a second harvest too.

“Live in the layers, not on the litter.” There is some beautiful wisdom here.

In many ways this simple line may well be the key to everything, to live in the layers of our lives, the whole of our lives. So often we want to move on and leave behind the litter, the mess, the pain and the suffering, but to do so is to fail to bear witness to our whole lives. I believe that we have to live in our whole lives, we can’t just pick and choose and no matter how hard we try we can’t really leave our lives behind.

Kunitz was an avid gardener and maybe it is from this love that the idea of the layers grew. In horticulture “layering” is a method of propagation that brings forth new life from the dying or broken stem. This allows new roots to form and therefore life goes or do I mean grows on.

We cannot live on the brokenness of our lives, but we can grow anew from the litter if we live within the layers. We cannot completely begin anew, nor should we want too; we cannot leave behind what has gone before, nor should we want too; we cannot escape who we are, nor should we want too. The spiritual journey is not one of distance it is one of depth, it’s about finding ourselves at home in the ground at our feet. It’s about living in the layers. We can mow and plough once more through the litter and create new life from this. We can truly live and learn from aftermath.

Life goes on, life moves forward, this can be a little frightening at times. We might not know which way to turn either. We can feel utterly lost. It can all feel discombobulating. How often in life do we find ourselves in this place and not know which way to turn. Which road do we take?

This brings to mind another favourite poem, which I have shared before:

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken” truly is an everyman poem, it speaks such a universal truth. How often in life do we all meet that fork in the road and have to make a decision, often not an easy one, to walk down that road to who knows where? Of course for every road that we take, there is at least one other road that we do not take and I am sure that we all wonder, from time to time, where that road may well have led.

Now of course in every moment of our lives we have to make small almost insignificant decisions. We often make them without really thinking, they are purely instinctive. That said some of the decisions we make are monumental and life changing. I suspect in the poem, this fork in the road is one of those big moments, those life changing moments. Of course when making these decisions we cannot have the gift of foresight. Like the path in the poem we can only see so far ahead. The future truly is unwritten, we cannot know for certain what is to come.

“The Road Not Taken” ends with the immortal words “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence; two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The poem ends with this sense of not living with regret. It is about taking the path that will make all the difference; about taking the more challenging path. The path less taken is the one that will lead to the deep and meaningful life.

To leave the comfort zone of our established way of being often appears terrifying; after all this is the way we’ve always done things. To wander down an uncertain path, the one rarely travelled down, does appear scary. No doubt it will be uncomfortable and uneven and a little overgrown. But should we avoid this path? Should we choose the easier softer way? By avoiding the path, that is still partially grassed over are we choosing life, or are we just making things harder than they need to be? Is it better to choose caution, to just let life happen to us than to choose the riskier path that forces us to engage with danger?

to make those decisions what is required is discernment.

The word discernment is formed from the Latin word “discernere”, which means to separate, to distinguish, to sort out. Just think of prospectors panning for gold or sifting through the rocks and dirt in search of gem stones. They are separating, they are sorting through the muck for the jewels, they are distinguishing, they are discerning. It brings to mind once again images of layering in gardening or raking over ground and ploughing once again, that old meaning of aftermath.

Discernment is the key to making those wise choices. We need to discover what is of value and what needs to be discarded in our minds. We need to discard the dirt and muck to uncover the gold, the gems, to have clarity of thought, so that we can those decisions in life. This is not easy, especially when we think of all that information that swims around in our lives and are consciousness; information like an enormous shoal of fish swimming round and round aimlessly in a small tank and not really going anywhere. Our lives, our heads are just so full of stuff. How do we discern what is healthy, what is right? Well we need silence; we need time away from all this information and all these things that pull us in so many directions. We need time to be still, time to be silent, time to connect to our bodies and our breathing; time to hear that still small voice of calm. A voice less than a whisper, but somehow more than silence.

We need to awaken to our true consciousness in order to make those sane and sensible decisions about life. We need to learn to separate those things that are of value and those that are not. We need to do this in order to hear that voice, that is less than whisper but that is somehow more than silence; that voice that has spoken down the centuries, to those who had ears that could hear it”

The choices we make matter. It matters what we are and what we do. I do not think that God chooses this for us. Yes, God offers guidance, “The Lure of Divine Love” but it is up to us to choose the path that we follow. Often the most rewarding path is the one that is less worn and more over grown and perhaps seemingly more treacherous. Often it is the one that is less travelled by. Maybe this is truly living by “Aftermath”

So, let’s live our lives by “Aftermath”, lets rake that ground again and try to grow something new, lets live in the complex layers of our lives and separate the litter, lets live by discernment and choose the right path as we move forward. Always remembering that we can turn again and change direction at any time, should it turn out we need to reassess our decisions. Let us live in and by “Aftermath”

Here is a video devotion based on the material in this "Blogspot"

Monday 7 June 2021

Come, Come, Whoever You Are: Creating Spiritual Sanctuary"

I trust you have enjoyed the beautiful weather this week, I have. A part of me wishes it could have been like this a couple of weeks ago during a  break on the Yorkshire coast. Alas it was not and anyway what is the point of wishful thinking.

The other morning I was chatting with a friend enjoying the sun and coffee at CafĂ© Nero. As we were talking, I was reminded of a couple of moments, during the holiday, when the rain was “siling” down. We were in Bridlington and the shower was so heavy we sought shelter on the beautiful beach fronts. We shared the space with a bunch of the most “Yorkshire people” you could wish to meet. They were laughing and joking about the weather and other holiday destinations. Several said there was no better place than the Yorkshire coast. One man piped up saying “well I quite like Greece”, several agreed, there was much laughter. Then the most Yorkshire man you could ever meet said in a deadpan voice, but with a slight glint in his eye, “went to the New Forest once, it was very disappointing 25% of the beach was practically derelict”, followed by roaring laughter from those around. I whispered to Sue, welcome to Yorkshire. Anyhow the rain abated and we enjoyed the day.

If you ever seen “An American Werewolf in London” just think of that scene in “The Slaughtered Lamb”

A couple of days later we spent some time at Hemsley visiting the walled garden, castle and beginning at Rievaulx Abbey, all the while finding ways to shelter from the rain. Rievaulx had a powerful effect on me. It is an ancient abbey founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux, in 1098. It became one of the most remarkable of the 12th century monastic reform movements, placing an emphasis on a return to an austere life and literal observance of the rules set out for monastic life by St Benedict in the 6th century. It grew enormously over the years, becoming influential, although it was devastated by the plague and finally pillaged and destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII. I don’t think my friend in Bridlington would have been too impressed with Rievaulx though, as it is 100% derelict.

Rievaulx most revered Abbot was Aelred, a brilliant scholar and writer, he doubled the community by the time he died, growing to 140 monks and 500 lay brothers. His greatest work was probably on De spiritali amicitia ("On Spiritual Friendship"). The life was hard at the abbey but there was deep love shared amongst the brothers, led by Aelred. It was a place of love of refuge. Truly the community was a sanctuary. Aelred has become a hero within the LGBTQI community. Some academics suggesting that he himself was gay. Who knows, celibacy was practiced in the community, although he had certainly enjoyed a wilder youth.

I was deeply affected by Rievaulx, imagining what life must have been like living there in the middle ages. The last time I felt such power in a place, such spiritual love, was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and below the ground touching the western wall in Jerusalem. There is something special about the ruins of Rievaulx. A place of refuge, not just from the Yorkshire rain, but spiritual refuge, sustenance, a place of sanctuary.

One of the basic human needs is to feel safe and secure, something I have been considering in recent weeks as we continue to return to “normal” living. I’ve been thinking about the role of communities like the ones I sere, what we can offer spiritually to folks out there. Can we become a place of refuge, a spiritual sanctuary. I’ve been thinking of a verse from Hebrews chapter 13 “ 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Showing hospitality and caring for the vulnerable in society is a key aspect of the Judeo - Christian and Islamic tradition. You will find it deeply rooted in the Abrahamic traditions and virtually every other world religion too. Hospitality is an essential spiritual practice. It begins with an open heart and a generosity of spirit. It’s about recognising the good in life and in people. It’s about recognising ourselves in those very same people. It’s about being open and welcoming to all, where ever they have been, where ever they are going and where ever they find themselves now. Tibetan Buddhist monks great the strangers visiting their temples with “Welcome, friend, from what noble spiritual tradition do you come.” The Christian monastic tradition has a long held practise of taking in strangers and offering them sanctuary as if they were Christ, inspired by those very words from Hebrews. In so doing they are following the example of Jesus who mingled with all people, there was no one left outside the city gate, no untouchables.

Sadly, our age has become characterised by distrust, there is a fear of the strange and the stranger. This has perhaps grown since the beginning of the pandemic. As society rebuilds, we will have to learn how to be spiritually intimate with one another again; we will have to re-learn how to welcome one another and the stranger into community once again. If we do, we will not only be offering spiritual love to them but also liberate ourselves from the bondages of selfishness and self-centredness that we create. As Joan Chittister has said “Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around one heart at a time.” This is living by spiritual love, to offer sanctuary in our hearts. “

Sanctuary is probably a strange word, not one you hear very often. The first time I heard it was from the mouth of Charles Laughton playing the “Hunchback of Notre Dam”, those immortal words “Sanctuary, sanctuary, Esmeralda you gave me water.” I think the second time was in the song by The Cult “She Sells Sanctuary”. I’m not sure I understood it then though. I have been thinking about it once again as I reflected on what we can offer as a free religious community. I have also been thinking of all those beautiful souls that have opened themselves to me in so many ways and given me sanctuary materially, emotionally, mentally and spirituality.

"She Sells Sanctuary" The Cult

In its original understanding a “sanctuary” was a sacred place, such as a shrine. These places became safe havens for people in desperate need and fleeing persecution in medieval times. The word has developed and expanded in meaning over the centuries into a place of safety for humans and animals too. A place where we can be welcomed and made to feel at home and therefore thrive. I believe that we can extend it further, expand its meaning. We as individuals could become sanctuaries too, to the spiritually lost. I have also been thinking about how we as individuals find refuge and sanctuary in our lives. Where have you sought solace this last year or so? This is something we could share with one another, to help one another, to offer spiritual love to one another and to those in our wider community.

We all need sanctuary, we need to find spiritual shelter. Parker J Palmer has said: “Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival.”

I often find sanctuary in poetry. I have loved sharing many poems with friends this last year or so, it has opened and filled my heart at times, it has also brought me close to people, despite our physical separation. A good poem offers sanctuary. It reminds me of the necessity, power and beauty of contemplation. Something that Aelred’s monks spent much of time in. I may not contemplate exactly as they did, but poetry helps me reach those deeper aspects of my heart. Here’s a favourite that always brings me solace when caught up in the storms of life. It offers me shelter from the storm.

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

 When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The poem also offers something else that is refuge, solace and sanctuary for many, including myself, that of nature. For some it is the trees and plants, for others, including me, it is the animals, whether the birds or mammals or all those wonderful varieties of dogs, they open my heart as do so many people who I am seeing more and more of.

I believe that the primary purpose of a free religious community, such as the ones I serve, is to be a spiritual sanctuary to the folk out there. At our best we are a place where people can come and feel secure and safe as they are and then begin to thrive and grow spiritually with us. In so doing they can become sanctuaries and places of welcome and hospitality in the world. They can live with openness and give to those they meet in a loving way. For me being a Unitarian minister is about creating sanctuaries wherever I go and encouraging others to do likewise. Encouraging them to live openly and lovingly in a world that needs it more and more. It’s about encouraging people to do what they can, whatever that might be. In so doing they may well encounter angels.

So where can you offer hospitality and welcome in this world? Something perhaps to think about How can you become a sanctuary? Where is the place of need in the world around? How do we begin to heal our world and offer hope in the despair of our world?

How can you offer sanctuary, sanctuary, how can you offer spiritual sustenance and spiritual water?

Here is a video based on the material in this "blogspot"