Monday 13 June 2022

A little bird told me that friendship is the whole of the spiritual life

One of my favourite phrases growing up was “A little bird told me”. I have in recent times begun to use it myself. It’s a cute way of relaying information about people, sharing good news, like birthdays or small achievements. This is basically half of my life, listening to folk tell me stories, sharing and caring. Lots of little birds have been whispering in my ear recently. It seems that my purpose in life is primarily to be a friend, to live as a friend to many. I suspect that my primary role as a minister of religion is to be a good friend, this I am discovering is what it means to live spiritually alive. Maybe this is the whole of the spiritual life, the love that we are supposed to live by.

You can tell a lot about a culture by its language. The English language has many words for different types of rain, probably because it rains a lot. Iceland has about forty words for snow and the ancient Greeks had at least six words for love. These were “Eros”, primarily romantic, sexual or passionate desire. “Philia” which was a deep bond that was formed through friendship and or comradeship. “Storge” which is a kind of familial love. “Ludus” which is a kind of playful or flirtatious love. “Pragma” or longstanding love. This is a form of mature love that develops over long-term relationships say between married couples. “Agape” love, this is a love without prejudice, a selfless love, some call it religious love. Finally “Philautia”, self love. This had a light and shadow side. Its shadow manifested in Narcissism, but its light was seen as vital in order to offer all the other forms of love in a healthy way.

We need all kinds of love to experience a truly fulfilling life. It is though “Philia” love I am exploring today, a love that develops through deep friendships. We all need “Philia” love, for we are relational beings. Everyone needs friends, to experience that deep loving care that is not connected by blood, by family and romantic feelings, a love for those we share our time and space with. I suspect that in many ways this is the love that spiritual community is built upon, actually all forms of community and it is the kind of love that we all need as we attempt to rebuild relationships following the challenges of recent years. There is a sense of anxiety and depression purveying society and I suspect that one of the causes may well be the rationing of philia love. So many of the conversations I have had in recent months have expressed this yearning, this need, this sense that this kind of love is or has been missing in people’s lives. There is a loneliness in so many people’s lives and it is one that I believe stems from a sense of not experiencing “philia” love. So many little birds have been singing this song in my ear. “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”

I recently came across the following story from Sandy Greenberg’s memoir: “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: How Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man’s Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life."

“Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again” is the opening line from the “Simon and Garfunkel” song “The Sounds of Silence”. According to Sandy Greenberg the inspiration for this line came from his friendship with Art Garfunkel. Yes, Paul Simon wrote the song, and there were other influences, but it was story of Greenberg’s friendship with Garfunkel that the opening line grew from. It is a wonderful example of the power of “philial” love.

Greenberg and Garfunkel met at university and soon shared a deep and close bond, they shared a passion for literature and music. They soon became room mates and best friends and with the idealism of youth, they promised to be there for each other no matter what.

Sandy was struck by tragedy and was diagnosed with severe glaucoma, that destroyed his optic nerves and soon became completely blind. Devastated he fell into a deep depression and gave up his dream of becoming a lawyer. He left university and returned home. Consumed with shame and fear, he cut off contact with his old friends, refusing to answer letters or return phone calls.

Art would have none of it and flew to his friends home and convinced him to return to college, promising that he would be right by his side to make sure he didn’t fall - literally or figuratively.

Art kept his promise and became Sandy’s eyes, it was vital to him that Sandy did not feel alone despite being plunged into darkness. Art began calling himself “Darkness” to demonstrate his empathy and care for his friend, he became his therapy friend, which means caring for the soul. He would say things like, “Darkness is going to read to you now.” Art organized his life around helping Sandy.

One day, while guiding Sandy through the crowded Grand Central Station, Art said he had to go and left his friend petrified and alone, he felt like his only friend had let him down. For two hours Sandy stumbled through the station. He finally got on the right subway train and after exiting the station he bumped into someone who quickly apologised, he immediately recognised Art’s voice! His devoted friend had followed him all the way home ensuring he was safe whilst also giving him the priceless gift of independence. Sandy later said, “That moment was the spark that caused me to live a completely different life, without fear, without doubt. For that I am tremendously grateful to my friend.”

Sandy graduated from Columbia and later earned further degrees at Harvard and Oxford. He married his high school sweetheart and became an extremely successful entrepreneur and philanthropist.

While at Oxford, Sandy got a call from Art. This time it was Art who needed his help. By this time he had formed “Simon and Garfunkel” with Paul Simon and they desperately needed $400 to record their first album. Sandy had $404 in his bank account, but without hesitation Sandy gave his old friend what he needed.

The album was not an immediate success, but one of the songs “The Sounds of Silence” became a global hit. The opening line of which is “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again,” it echoed how Art always greeted his beloved friend Sandy. I have no doubt that Paul Simon picked up on this story, I am sure “a little bird told him”.

Sandy and Art have remained lifelong friends. Garfunkel said that when he became friends with Sandy, “my real life emerged. I became a better guy in my own eyes, and began to see who I was - somebody who gives to a friend.” Sandy describes himself as “the luckiest man in the world.” There seems little doubt that the power and love of their friendship transformed both their lives. It seems like the perfect embodiment of “philial”, friendship love and its transformative power. It is a love that everyone needs and one that I feel so many folk are yearning for, so much that they often seek love in other less healthy ways.

“Philial” is vital, this is why the phrase “merely friends”, or “we are just friends” has always irritated me. Friends are the people we share our lives with, who in so many ways make our lives what they are. Friends are, to quote Fredrich Buechner’s, the people we choose to “make part of our lives just because we feel like it.” There is no such thing as “Just friends”

Aristotle said, “What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

Emerson wrote, “Let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart.”

A friend is someone you can trust, you can rely upon, someone who will be there for you. I have been blessed with such friendships throughout my life. Some have been there for decades and others for shorter periods of time, but we have touched one another’s lives in deep and meaningful ways. We have laughed and we have cried together. We have enjoyed some wild and crazy times together and we have grieved as we have lost one of our number. I have lost a lot of friends over the years, far too many. Each loss breaks my heart; each loss takes a little piece of my heart. Love hurts.

A friend helps you become a better person, certainly my friends have helped me to do so, they have spurred me on by their example and encouragement and occasional criticism. This was a central claim of Aristotle’s “Ethics” who envisioned an escalating competition in goodness. He suggested that people try to do their best so as to be valued and respected by their friends thus inspiring them to do likewise.

Friendship is a key component of Buddhism. This is illustrated in the following tale:

One day while the Buddha was out walking with his attendant Ananda, Ananda declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realize that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life.” They continued walking in silence when eventually the Buddha responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

Could this be true? Is friendship the whole of the spiritual life?

Jesus said to his disciples, in John’s Gospel “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything.” To me this what a true relationship with God is about, friendship. Something that we are meant to mirror in our lives. This if you like is the Kin-dom coming alive in our lives. We gain knowledge of the spiritual life through living in such an intimate relationship with God, with life and with one another.

I’m with the Buddha and Jesus, I believe that friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. In fact, to live spiritually is to truly be a friend to life. This is how knowledge is truly revealed. This is the kin-dom of love, coming alive in our lives. This is how we make our lives a scared space. This is how we manifest love in our lives, by being a friend to life. This is what being a part of a spiritual community is about, becoming a friend to life and to all we meet. Friendship is those little birds whispering in my ear, share deep concern.

It begins with radical acceptance. To accept those we meet as they are, exactly as they are. This does not mean we don’t point out when someone is in the wrong, no it just means we love and accept them right or wrong. It’s also about raising one another up through our example. You see by being the best we can be, in loving friendship, we automatically encourage our friends to be the best version of themselves that they too can be, just like Art and Sandy did.

So my friends I invite you to join with me in the sacred space of friendship. I invite you to remember the friends you have known in your lives, the ones that touched and sometimes broke your hearts, the ones who accepted you just as you are and the ones who inspired you to be the best you, you could be. I also invite you to be the best fiend you can be to life and thus inspire all that you meet on your journey through life, to be the best version of themselves that they can be.

Let’s become good friends, not just friends…Let us become friends to one another and friends to life…

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

Monday 6 June 2022

Wrestling or Dancing? The Movement of Faith

A love to see courage in action, folk trying new things that they once thought was beyond them. Helen Redhead is currently training to compete in her first power lifting competition. She told me she would be in the gym with her training partner who is competing in the men’s section. They were not only training, but wearing the outfits that the competition requires. I was told when I saw them not to make fun. Which I didn’t do of course. I did tell Helen later that they looked like a wrestling tag team. In many ways they are, as they are working together towards a goal and I know they have both wrestled and struggled with many obstacles in their lives. It is wonderful to see them working toward their goals.

Like a lot of youngsters, I loved wrestling as a child. My style was the 1970’s “Big Daddy” era. I remember being blown away when I found out a mate’s mum was dating an old retired wrestler Jim Breaks (Cry Baby Breaks as he was known). I remember the excitement of going to see it live at Cleckheaton town hall and the disappointment of “Big Daddy” not being there, or any of the other stars. The kids that followed my generation got more into the American Razzamataz WWF and WWE. They loved it just the same and no doubt every generation has re-enacted “King of the ring” or some version of it with their mates. When I was a teenager I use to to play the gruesome giant verses He-Man and She-Ra with my older sisters younger children. This basically involved them beating me up for half an hour. Whenever we meet at family gathering they always remind of how much fun they had when I baby sat.

Now of course this kind of wrestling is just staged nonsense, it is entertainment. That said there are so many metaphors for life found within it. The one that I’ve been thinking of is the scoring system, “either a knock out or two falls and or submissions.” It speaks powerfully to me about the nature of human life. How so often we wrestle with things, with ourselves with one another, with life, sometimes we fall, sometimes we even submit but rarely do we finally surrender and accept anything. I know how much I struggle with things at time. I am not alone, this is the nature of human life. In life to finally come to a place of acceptance with anything, can take some time, even if it is just ourselves. We wrestle with so many things in life. As John Dear wrote in “Living Peace”

“This process of making peace within ourselves can be one of the most difficult challenges we face. Each one of us wrestles with our own demons. The daily challenge is to befriend those demons, embrace our true selves, make friends with ourselves, disarm our hearts, and accept in peace who we are. The deeper we go into our true identities, the more we will realize that each one of us is a unique yet beloved child of the God of peace. In that truth, we find the strength to live in peace.”

Sometimes this can take a long, perhaps a life time to truly accept ourselves and one another. Pretty much everyone is struggling to come to terms with something all the time. It seems that once acceptance comes in one area, some new struggle comes to the surface. I have learnt that there is nothing that brings us closer together as humans than to bear witness one another’s struggles. There is real love in this; this is the love of human struggle; a love that unites every single one of us in our common humanity.

Now some people tell me that the struggle is a lack of faith. I do not agree at all. In many ways the struggle is the most faithful thing we ever do.

M. Scott Peck famously wrote as an introduction to his seminal work “The Road Less Travelled” that “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

In some ways living faithfully, spiritually alive, is the most difficult thing we do of all. It is not easy; it is a struggle. Searching for truth is difficult, understanding what we are here to do is difficult, beginning something new is terrifying and letting go of something old even more so. The answers only really come in the struggle as we fight, and wrestle until we finally surrender and often it just comes, from nowhere, as if it were some kind of miracle. We struggle, we wrestle, we fight on, this to me is living faithfully alive. It is the most faithful thing we do. This is such a part of being human, it always has been, and I suspect it always will be.

Whenever I think of such struggles with ourselves, with one another, with life, with God I think of Jacob and his struggles in Genesis ch 32. There it is right there in the first book of the Bible, this human struggle. People are the same as the have always been. There is nothing new under the sun.

In the passage Jacob is depicted wrestling with a mysterious man, who it turns out is probably God, although is not clear. Some say it is an angel and others a reflection of himself. As he wrestles with this being, he is grievously hurt, but he fights on. As the night ends and dawn breaks the being tries to leave but Jacob holds on and demands it blesses him as the price for ending the struggle. The being relents and blesses Jacob by giving him a new name “Israel” meaning “one who struggles with God” or as I once heard a friend say “one with whom God struggles.”

Don’t we all wrestle and struggle with ourselves, with others, with life, with God, or perhaps its others, life and God who struggles with us? So many times I have struggled to just experience what was on offer to me for fear of trying something new. I am not alone, I know.

What about you? Maybe, maybe not? You decide…

I know there is nothing more beautiful or connecting than to see us wrestling with something and to finally after so much struggle come to that place of acceptance, when we stop wrestling and struggling with life begin to dance through it all.

The dance is the hope that is born from the seeming despair that begins when we stop wrestling, when we allow ourselves to be blessed, the blessing is the hope born again in that despair. As Joan Chittister wrote in “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope”

"But if struggle is the process of evolution from spiritual emptiness to spiritual wisdom, hope is the process as well. Hope, the response of the spiritual person to struggle, takes us from the risk of inner stagnation, of emotional despair, to a total transformation of life. Every stage of the process of struggle is a call to move from spiritual torpor to spiritual vitality. It is an invitation to live at an antipodal depth of soul, a higher level of meaning than the ordinary, the commonplace generally inspires. The spirituality of struggle gives birth to the spirituality of hope…The spiritual task of life is to feed the hope that comes out of despair. Hope is not something to be found outside of us. It lies in the spiritual life we cultivate within. The whole purpose of wrestling with God is to be transformed into the self we were meant to become, to step out of the confines of our false securities and allow our creating God to go on creating. In us."

Hope is born when the wrestle and the struggle becomes a dance, when we find ourselves back in the rhythm of life, in the dance, when we find ourselves expressing who we are in life, not ashamed or frightened to be who we are. We can dance alone and or dance with others, joining the cosmic dance of life. I was thinking of those wrestling tag teams, how they soon become dance partners, it probably isn’t that different to “Strictly Come Dancing”, or other forms of human expression. This is the dance of life that involves body, mind, and soul; the dance of life involves our whole being.

We can so often feel like we are wrestling alone, like Jacob in Genesis, but we are not. For our wrestling and or dancing takes place in the vast web of life. We are not solitary separate beings, but part of the greater web of life. We are not alone, we are part of the greater unfolding of life.

Life is forever changing. We are all of us struggling, wrestling with something, even if it is just ourselves. I think the mistake is to see this as some kind of battle and one we must do alone. We do not. Perhaps if we saw this instead as some part of the dance of life, we may not feel such resistance to it, or fear of it. Perhaps by joining together as part of the dance of life we would see the love in this dance. It is perhaps the one thing that unites us all.

The wrestle, the dance is true faith, true faith in action. Actually, it maybe the most faithful thing we ever do, for in so doing we play our part in creating the universal web of life, we play our part fully in the universal process and in so doing encourage others to come and join in the dance too.

So will you come and dance with me…Let it be a dance we do, may I have this dance with you, through the good times and the bad times too, let it be a dance…

Below is a devotion based on
 the material in this "blogspot"