to help you discover the God you already know

Year: 2016 (Page 1 of 2)

Words for the turning of the year [3]

My friend Keith recently introduced me to a French writer, Christian Bobin, and I have been stimulated by reading an anthology of his writings, translated into English, and entitled ‘The Eighth Day of Creation.’

 

Somewhere in it he writes:

“I should like to know how to pray. I should like to know how to cry for help, how to thank, how to wait, how to love, how to weep, I should like to know what can’t be learnt, but I know none of it, all I know is how to sit and let God in to do the work for me, God, or more often, for one mustn’t be demanding, one of his go-betweens, rain, snow, the laughter of children, Mozart.

The most luminous moments in my life are those where I am content to watch the world appearing. These moments are made up of solitude and silence…..This experience is simple. It is not a matter of wanting it. It is enough to receive it when it comes.”

 

Now I recognise deep wisdom here, insights that I sense I ‘know’. And they prompt me to try and articulate a number of them.

 

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The first is that in my experience many people think that prayer is important but that they are no good at it. But when I listen to them talk I sense that they are actually much better at prayer than they think, only their understanding of prayer is too small.

 

I define prayer as ‘whatever nourishes the relationship between God and me.’ Most of that nourishing, probably about 99%, is done by God. For it was God after all Who created all that is. And went on to give me the gift of life, such that I can be aware of all that is, and be full of wonder and amazement that it simply is. And moreover, curious about it, and wanting to know more.

 

It was a divine spark of God, dwelling deep within me, in my soul, Who awoke in me, as in all of us, our insatiable need for love, and our deep desire to reach out in love. And it is this combination of God-created wonder, curiosity and love that drives us to desire relationship with what we call ‘God’. So God both initiates the process and is its end: God is responsible for most of the nourishing of that relationship.

 

Our job then is the smaller, more modest task of nourishing our soul, where God dwells within each of us. That may sound difficult, but in fact God has made it both quite simple and frequently highly pleasurable. Indeed you spend more time doing it than you likely realise.  Let me ask you a question: If I said to you that ‘you can nourish your relationship with God in any way that you like, but that you mustn’t use words.’ What would you do?

 

You might say:

I’ll go out for a walk with my dog,

I’ll enjoy the view somewhere,

I’ll sit in the garden,

I’ll listen to music,

I’ll make a cup of coffee or tea and gaze out of the window,

I’ll lie in a warm bath,

I’ll sit in a favourite chair, and perhaps light a candle,

I’ll watch a film or read poetry,

I’ll spend time with a friend or friends.

 

People rarely seem to have difficulty naming what they’d do, and its invariably something that they enjoy doing:  I could just as well have asked you ‘what do you do for pleasure?’ for I’d have got much the same answers. That is not so surprising because when we are enjoying ourselves we relax and are more likely to be open to and aware of God, named or un-named. I’ve known lots of people whose prayer lives have taken off simply because they have given themselves permission to set time aside for what they enjoy doing. It really can be that easy and simple. Enjoy yourself, be open to God and recognise that God is doing most of the praying for you, most of the nourishing of the relationship between you.

 

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The second follows from the first, and is that there is frequently quite a lot to be said for doing nothing and just being aware and open to the possibility that God might be up to something. It’s a much under-rated activity!  There’s a saying that expresses it well:

        “Sitting quietly and doing nothing,

Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”

 

The truth of it was brought home to me while I was undergoing chemotherapy recently, after an operation for cancer. The basic pattern was that I had a dose of chemo every two weeks. My energy levels would dip quite significantly during the first week, and then begin to right themselves during the second, before the next dose.

 

Frequently during that first week I would find myself unable to motivate myself to do anything much: I’d open a book but find myself unable to concentrate beyond a mere page or two. Often I would pass the day without the energy to do anything apart from just sitting and looking out of the window. And yet,,,and yet, when I looked back over the day in the evening I was frequently surprised by how much had happened: none of it seemingly initiated by me.  Some of it initiated by others obviously, but some of it just seeming to have happened without being initiated by anybody that I could identify. It was just life happening on the one hand, and my noticing it having happened on the other. And it was both humbling and strangely reassuring.

 

And the other thing that I noticed was that quite often, not always by any means, but quite often, when I was just sitting, gazing, without the energy for anything, something insightful and wise, would suddenly come to me. I recall one such time when an image popped into my mind of a face that I straight away ‘knew’ was painted by Giotto, and so I went to a book I have of Giotto’s paintings in a chapel in Padua, and looked again at one particular cycle of them, and found that the story and Giotto’s paintings of it spoke very powerfully to me and uplifted and energised my soul. It was exactly what I needed at that moment. Now how and why did that happen? I don’t know, but in my experience it often does. Its rather like waking up in the middle of the night and suddenly seeing clearly the answer to a problem that had been baffling me the evening before: an experience that often happens to me. I explain it to myself as happening because the rational thinking part of my brain is disengaged whether by sleep or lack of energy, and the intuitive side of my brain is able to get a message through from my soul. And that happened on a number of occasions when my energy levels were registering what felt like close to zero: when it felt as if I was doing nothing.

 

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Thirdly, I’m reminded of a fine book by W H Vanstone written some years ago and entitled ‘The Stature of Waiting’.  The insight that has stayed with me from it is that throughout His ministry Jesus was mostly very busy: preaching, teaching, calling people, healing people, sharing meals, telling challenging stories etc. Until the moment of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when instead of ‘doing’ He becomes someone Who ‘is done to’ by others. From being very active He suddenly becomes almost completely passive. And yet…….we think of that time, between His arrest and His resurrection, as the most significant time of His life: the time when He achieved most, despite being almost completely passive. So I guess that we really mean ‘the time when God achieved most through Him.’

 

So, there is quite a lot to be said for doing nothing and as Christian Bobin puts it  “let God in to do the work for me, God, or more often, for one mustn’t be demanding, one of his go-betweens, rain, snow, the laughter of children, Mozart.”

 

We live in a culture that expects when something happens for people to leap in and to be seen ‘doing something’ about it.  Now sometimes that’s fine, but often it isn’t. Often, if its not absolutely clear what one might do, its better to do nothing oneself, and to trust that either somebody else is better placed to be doing what’s necessary, or even that in God’s ‘bigger picture’ of things, there is nothing for any of us to do but wait and be attentive to what God might be up to.

Words for the turning of the year [2]

One of the significant pluses of a ministry in spiritual direction is that I frequently find myself having fascinating conversations with wise and interesting people, who inevitably, sometimes, in the course of our talking, mention words, music etc that have spoken deeply to them and which in turn I find speaking deeply to me.

 

One such is a piece of writing by Jenny Gaffin, an Anglican parish priest in the south of England, entitled ‘Wildflowers’. Its in an anthology of readings ‘The Bright Field’ edited by Martin Percy and Jim Cotter.

 

She writes of:

“Churches, up and down the country [are] constructed with the eternal glory of God firmly in mind.……..They are grand monuments to confident faith, holding the collective memory of our small communities and our national life. It is self-evident, even to the non-believer, that these places are special and sacred.

“So why do my own prayers rise, only to feel as if they are netted in the elaborate tracery, or trapped by the all too solid stone?”   [feeling] ashamed, she asks herself how much of her time, and that of her clerical colleagues, will be taken up worrying about the maintenance of these buildings, “how much of our best creativity is yet to be poured into ever-more-elaborate fundraising schemes; how many nights’ sleep will be lost in what must ultimately be a futile bid to keep the building intact.”

 

She continues:

“Outside, the wild flowers grow…Tenacious and resilient in their moment of glory, they bestow upon future generations not the illusion of permanence, but the possibility of newness…..Here is generosity and humility in the extreme: a flamboyant celebration of life, and a complete and free acceptance of death. And here is sacrificial giving in its fullness: the shrivelled seeds flung out into the wind, with utter trust, utter abandon.

“Walking through the fields my heart at last bows in prayer, unencumbered, and I return inspired. To give of self with such abandon, to die with such grace: this surely is a poetic and beautiful response to calling, for the individual and for the church.”

 

Jenny writes of her living with this tension. On the one hand she knows that “out there in the fields, the wildflowers have become my icons; drawing me into new depths of freedom in prayer; and daring me to follow their lead, in embracing the life-releasing glory of anonymity and impermanence.”  And on the other “Back in the church I love so deeply, even as I worship I know that a part of its core and mine is dying and perhaps has already died.”  What should she do?

 

 

I shared Jenny’s words with a friend who is a retired parish priest and a Third Order Franciscan, and he wrote back:

“I have just read and re-read ‘Wildflowers. I think Jenny puts her finger on a dilemma faced by many thoughtful Church folk, not least parish clergy, who feel the burden of preserving the church building that has been handed on to them, and feel also that it ought to be the centre and bedrock of their spiritual life, but find that God may well be more accessible in places outside the church building.

 

It makes me realise too, just why Francis set his face against building permanent houses for the first Franciscan community!

 

It also reminds me of what Tony Benn said when he retired from the House of Commons, that he gave up being a Member of Parliament so that he could concentrate on politics, I sometimes wonder if the time might come when it is necessary to give up being a Tertiary in order to discover what it means to be Franciscan.”

 

 

Or whether the time might come, has already come for some, when it is necessary to give up on the institutional church in order to discover what it means to be a Christian?  All this reminds me of my thinking about ‘feral’: ‘feral priesthood’, and indeed ‘feral Christianity’ about which I’ve written before on this site, where ‘feral’ was defined as being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication” rather like a wildflower!

 

Jesus, of course was ‘feral’. He exercised His ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which He had grown up, and by implication challenged it. So did Francis of Assisi. So do increasing numbers of men and women today: and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. It is one of the joys of spiritual direction to see someone escape the domestication of what they’ve been taught they should think and do, for the freedom of what they know deep down themselves. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose.

 

But not all are being called to go ‘feral’. Some clearly are. But others are just as clearly called to stay firmly within the institution. A third group is made up of people like Jenny, who feel called to have a foot in both places. And, of course, our calling may change in the course of our journey.

 

To go back to Mary Oliver, none of these journeys is easy, each has its peculiar gifts and trials. And these different journeys are not in competition with each other. No one is ‘better’ than the others: all are necessary. Maybe, the question that many of us are being asked as 2016 comes to a close, and 2017 awaits us, is: ‘To which journey are you currently being called, and are you willing to set out on it?

Words for the turning of the year [1]

Around this time of the year the newspapers offer the reader suggestions as to the best films, plays, books, music etc of the past twelve months: they will also soon be offering wisdom and advice for the new year. In that spirit I’d like to share two pieces of writing that in my experience are touching buttons for people at the moment. Maybe you already know them?  Maybe you’d like to offer alternatives that speak to you?

 

The first is a poem by Mary Oliver which has been around for some time, entitled ‘The Journey’.’  You can find it in ‘Wild Geese’ selected poems of Mary Oliver’.

 

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

”Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognised as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do-

determined to save

the only life you could save.

 

Years ago people would often respond to reading the poem by saying ‘I couldn’t possibly do that, that would be very selfish!’  Interestingly, these days, people seem more likely to respond with a knowing smile. It is, of course, not being selfish to follow the poet’s advice. Rather it is an invitation to take seriously and follow your own inner voice, the voice of your soul, the voice of the divine within you. It is only by doing that that you can become real, and thus of much help to anybody else.

 

You could give the poem a Christmas spin and relate it to both Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of the birth of Jesus, both of which involved people setting out on journeys. In Matthew it is the wise men who leave home on a quest which some might have felt was self indulgent, while others would have advised them of the obvious risks involved. According to T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, they returned home much changed by the experience. In Luke it is Joseph and Mary who set out on a journey, the final destination of which turned out to be other than what they expected. They too will have got home changed by the experience of the journey.

God’s candles

 

 

I have four daughters, mature women, three of whom are dotty about small furry animals.  One of them will cross a crowded street in order to fix an innocent passer-by with a winning smile and ask ‘Please may I say Hallo to your dog?’

 

Another, who lives alone, adopted a house cat called ‘Ash’ a little over a year ago, who is suffering from cat HIV, as well as being an exceptionally battered looking stray. For a year he has stayed hidden away under the sofa coming out only at night to feed. It was a huge source of joy to her that she woke up in the middle of the night recently to feel a warm bundle asleep on her bed, purring loudly.

 

And the third adopted a cat from a friend who had in turn taken him in from a cat rescue so ‘Ed’ too came with a certain amount of ‘previous’:  he was very cautious about going outside, and would shoot into hiding if anybody remotely unusual came to my daughter’s home. Not all the ‘previous’ had negative consequences, for it endowed him with quite a deal of character, and under my daughter’s love and care, it would not overstate the matter to call it ‘spoiling’, he flourished. But now at the grand old age of seventeen she has had to have him put him to sleep. The crematorium and its setting was a lovely place, the people there were kindness itself, and the whole process was handled gently, lovingly and yet with dignity. She and her partner celebrated Ed in anecdote and song as they drove home, and blow me if there wasn’t the most perfect rainbow they had ever seen across the sky. My imaginative and intuitive self can see Ed in ‘cat heaven’, home at last, sending a farewell kiss and a ‘thank you’ as a little farewell gift!

 

I’m not sure why my daughters are such a soft touch for small furry animals, but I suspect that I may not need to look far for an answer.  One of the most painful decisions I’ve ever had to make was when my wife Sylvia had to go away knowing that our dog Leo would not be alive when she returned, leaving me with the precise timing of his departure. I couldn’t consult him, as one would another human being, and so I had to ‘read’ him, and he effectively had to trust me with that decision which I would make on his behalf. So it all hung upon the quality of the relationship between us: and I guess the deeper the relationship, the harder the decision.  I remember that it felt an awesome yet privileged responsibility. I recall weeping as I drove away from the vets, and more certain than I’d ever felt before that Leo would be safe in whatever passes for ‘doggie heaven’. I was also grateful that one of my other daughters was with me at the time, so I was not alone.

 

This is by way of a long introduction to a story one of my daughters alerted me to recently about an autistic boy who can’t be touched or hugged by anyone, but who has connected for the first time – with his new service dog. Apparently, five-year-old Kainoa Niehaus travelled to the 4 Paws For Ability centre in Ohio from Japan after two years of waiting for an animal to become available.

His mum Shanna shared a photo of her son on social media, resting his head on Tornado the dog. “See this moment? I’ve never experienced a moment like this,” she wrote underneath the post “This picture captures the face of a mother who saw her child, who she can’t hug, wash, dress, snuggle and touch,  freely lay on his new service dog of his own free will, with a purposeful, unspoken. attachment.  As a mother, I have seen countless challenging and painful moments my son has encountered and cried countless more. Yesterday however, I cried for a different reason. It is a feeling that is indescribable

I’m reminded of the story Atul Gawande tells in his wonderful book ‘Being Mortal’ about a doctor assigned to a Nursing Home in the USA, who was determined to address what he called the Three Plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness & helplessness. It’s a fascinating tale but the nub of it is that he managed to persuade the authorities to introduce one hundred parakeets, four dogs, two cats, plus a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens into the nursing home, together with hundreds of indoor plants & a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The result was that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell by half, the total drugs cost dropped to 38%, and deaths fell 15%. The lives of many residents were transformed.

And I’m reminded of the book ‘Guardians of Being’ words by Eckhart Tolle, art by Patrick McDonnell, which gently makes the point that small furry animals have a capacity for simply being still, stopping, looking, listening and focusing on the present moment in a way that keeps millions of people sane.

 

Very often the most heartfelt prayers are impossibly difficult to put into words, and a symbolic act is necessary: such as lighting a candle, allowing the flame to carry your prayer to the divine without recourse to words, Candles aren’t the only way of doing that of course, but their use is becoming increasingly popular.

 

I sense that God also ‘lights candles’ as symbolic expressions of Her providential love for all creation. Small furry animals are an excellent example. But just about anything that is ‘alive’ will do: a flower, a tree, a river, the wind, the warmth of the sun, whatever touches you deeply. If it feels ‘alive’ then it will reach out and touch you, and you may sense yourself blessed and transformed. Millions of people know this of course, and feel their lives to be enriched. Most wouldn’t dream of describing it as I have done. God in Her modesty probably isn’t too fussed about that providing the ‘candles’ are doing the job she, in part, designed them for.

 

And, of course, it works the other way too. If these are indeed ‘candles lit by God’ then we should treat them with appropriate respect and honour. If we could manage to do that then there would be no cats and dogs needing rescuing, no rivers needing to be cleansed of pollution, and the world would be a healed and interconnected place: rather like heaven!

 

Note

Google ‘An autistic boy who can’t be touched has connected with a service dog’ to see the article and a photo.

‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

‘Guardians of Being’ by Eckhart Tolle and Patrick McDonnell

 

 

The end of a course of chemotherapy

I found myself struck by a paradox recently: and paradoxes are to be welcomed with open arms I reckon. On the one hand my course of chemotherapy is coming to an end, and I find that I am actually very grateful both for the cancer that initiated it and for the chemotherapy. I have learnt a lot from them both: they have become, slightly to my surprise, ‘gifts’.  And yet, on the other hand, I also recognise that I am delighted that the chemotherapy is coming to an end, indeed I have now had my last dose, and that source of giftedness is therefore now largely behind me. What to make of this paradox?

 

One answer is that paradoxes are simply things to be lived with, and resolution is best not sought.

 

Another, in this particular instance, is to recognise that this paradox fits quite well with my thinking on sabbaticals. I reckon that I’ve learnt a thing or two about sabbaticals over the years, and have tried to approach my six months of chemotherapy as a sabbatical. The most important part of a sabbatical is the year after its over. So often I’ve seen people brought back to life by a sabbatical, and yet within a couple of weeks of its ending its as if they’ve forgotten all they discovered and are back in the old familiar ruts. The true test of the success of a sabbatical is whether you are able to integrate what you’ve learnt into your life, and face and accept the required changes!

 

So I hear God saying to me: “Well I’ve given you the opportunity for a sabbatical, indeed, frankly I’ve obliged you to take one, and you reckon its been an unexpected gift which has taught you much. Well how are you going to integrate what you’ve learnt? What changes are necessary? Are you willing to implement them?”

 

Well there’s the nub of the matter!! I recall a visiting friend asking me a question in the summer which took me completely by surprise, and left me not knowing what to reply. She asked me, with respect to my sabbatical, ‘so whats new?’ And I wasn’t sure that anything was new and that surprised me.

 

On reflection, I think that my sabbatical has not so much taken me into new places, as invited me to go deeper into known places. A good example is that there is nothing like an operation for cancer and a dose of chemotherapy with that, to get me thinking about my mortality and the meaning of life. And that in turn led me to write a number of reflections which I posted here in the early summer. There wasn’t anything much new there for me, those thoughts had been mulling around in my mind for years in some cases, but I now had the opportunity to try and set them down in words in a more coherent shape, and I found great value in trying to do that, and in sharing them. Re-reading them recently, I thought they weren’t too bad, and I’ve resolved, post sabbatical as my energy levels rise, that one thing I want to do is to revisit those little articles and edit and perhaps extend them: go deeper with them maybe, both internally, and externally on the page.

 

Another little gift of chemotherapy has been that I have lost some of my bearings. Some relatively minor ones like loss of taste for some foods I usually enjoy, a certain loss of feeling in my fingers and feet, and a certain hair-loss!  I even largely lost interest in my pipe. But other more significant ones too, like the loss of energy at certain points in the two week chemo cycle: such that I couldn’t pick up a book to read it, my concentration levels were so low. Instead all I could sometimes manage was to gaze weakly out of the window, seemingly unable to act, or initiate anything in any meaningful way. In short I felt powerless and out of control: my usual bearings had disappeared.

 

These points in the cycle passed, and my energy levels revived, but there was gift to be found in them. Or more accurately, gifts found me, in them. For example, as I wrote up my journal of an evening thinking that I had done nothing that day, I was often surprised by how much had actually happened for which I was grateful. Or, I was sometimes, not always, surprised by the way that insights and revelations would come in those times of powerless: in your weakness is your strength, indeed.

 

So losing my bearings was not such a bad thing. “I am not lost, I am here,” as a wise man once said, and this focus on the ‘here’ and its attendant ‘now’ , and the inability of my mind to exert much control over either of them, has been a rich gift. The course of chemotherapy has obliged me to learn to pace myself better, I’ve tried to let my body set my daily rhythms and to adhere to them; and I’ve kept a daily journal which has helped to focus my reflective awareness. I’ve been more attentive to the natural world, listened to more music, looked at more art, read lots more poetry: ‘the voice of the soul’, enjoyed the company of family and friends.

 

I hope to continue to lose my bearings and plan to claim more reflective space in my life. None of this is ‘new’ as those of you who know me well will I hope recognise. Indeed, I sense from some of the kind things people have either said or written, that this is precisely what some people value in me. But awareness of my own mortality and the subsequent sabbatical have re focused and refined my vision. So I’m thankful for cancer and chemo, and I’m thankful that the latter is now over [at least for the time being] and I can begin the task on seeking to integrate what I’ve learnt or been reminded of by a gracious and patient God. I feel excited by that, and hope that I’ll be given time to get on with it.

 

And of course what I thought was a paradox has turned out to be a process that looked paradoxical when closer examination showed that it wasn’t, which in turn reminds me of that wise Rumi saying:

 

“Watch two men washing clothes.

One makes dry clothes wet.

The other makes wet clothes dry.

They seem to be thwarting each other,

but their work is a perfect harmony.”

 

What have I learnt?

I’m just over half way through my course of chemotherapy, and having determined to try and use these six months as a sabbatical space, as best I could, found myself wondering what this time has taught me so far. I then broadened the question so that it became ‘what has life taught me so far?’ With the implied supplementary questions, ‘so what remains to be learnt?’ and ‘have you incarnated what you think you’ve learnt?’

 

As I mulled my question I realised that one of the most important things that life has taught me, is the value of good questions. I’ve learnt that questioning is good, exploring is good, curiosity is good. Indeed for me it’s God-given and life-giving; it’s what makes life interesting. It lies at the heart of what it means to be human. Its one of the most important marks of our being made ‘in the image of God’.

 

I remember as a teenager spending time walking in nearby Epping Forest, enjoying being in the natural world, and asking myself questions. I’d wonder how Spurs would get on in the match on Saturday, and which girl in our group I might like to go out with. But I’d also ask myself questions like: ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What is life all about?’, ‘What’s the point of it?’, ‘Is there a God, and if so what sort of God are we dealing with?’, ‘Where do I come from before my birth?’, ‘What happens after death?’, ‘Why are human beings both so creative yet also so destructive?’, ‘How might we humans manage things better between us?’.

 

Nobody else I knew seemed much interested in questions like these. They were never mentioned in any lesson at school. So asking them felt a rather solitary and isolating business [as well as a rich and stimulating one]…….. until I started going to talk with the young priest at our church. I have no memory of how that began, or how often it happened: no memory of what he said in response. But clearly he took my questioning seriously or I wouldn’t have returned. And one day he suggested that I perhaps ought to wonder about getting ordained as a priest myself. And ever since I’ve naïvely, and yet perceptively, known that priesthood for me meant having time to walk in the woods asking questions, together with having conversations with other people like the ones I had with our curate. So that’s a second thing life has taught me

 

A third thing that I’ve learnt from life is what an amazing thing the human mind is; what an astonishing range of gifts consciousness offers us.[ Quite apart from the fascinating question of where consciousness, all the stuff that goes on in our heads, comes from?] .From the rational business of making everyday decisions based on factual information, at one end of the scale, through the gamut of feelings that can move and overwhelm us, to the insights that come from dreams, visions and the arts, to our capacity to imagine and intuit things at the other. The challenging thing it seems to me is to be able to know which of these range of gifts to call upon when, and to learn to use each of them well.

 

Of course the questions I asked as a teenager, and continue to ask as I grow older, don’t have rational answers as they are not factual questions. Indeed the rational part of my mind may say that there is no point in asking such questions. Which of course is of no use to me, as I cant help but ask them.  Whereas my dreams, visions, imagination and intuition explore all manner of possible answers. And in conversation with others I discover what their dreams, visions, imaginations and intuitions have shown them, and find to my surprise and delight that their insights and mine are not so dissimilar. Moreover books, music and the arts enable me to share the insights of people I’ll never have a face to face conversation with, and who very likely lived centuries before I was born and in cultures very different from mine. And yet, again, their insights are not so dissimilar. All of which encourages me to take my own musings and mullings seriously, and to trust them, as I’ve learnt that many others do. This is the fourth thing I’ve learnt.

 

This is all rather counter cultural at the moment. Politicians and the general public seem to crave simple black and white measurable solutions to problems that, as far as I can see, are all too often complicated and multi-layered, and don’t admit to simple clear measurable answers, but rather require questioning and creative imaginations that are willing to take risks, explore possibilities, and embrace the possibility of failure.

 

And the church is no better: the thriving churches are those that offer simple clear cut fundamentalist teaching dealt out by authoritative leaders who tell you what to believe and do, and some people clearly welcome that.

 

Most, of course, don’t: they want to be encouraged and supported in thinking for themselves, and coming to their own conclusions. These people are not going to be attracted to the ‘thriving’ churches. Instead they’ll either go hungry, or they’ll look elsewhere to contexts that encourage their imaginations and intuitions: they’ll explore the natural world, read novels and poetry, listen to music, look at art, develop their own creativity, nurture their own spirituality.

 

There’s a growing body of evidence that that is exactly what many people are doing. And God will meet them there, even if un-named, and unrecognised. And the church regards it all with the utmost suspicion, because it often seems to act as if it has the sole franchise on the things of God. In doing so its turning its back on the God it claims to serve, and Who is busy primarily outside its walls. Which, sadly, is a fifth thing I’ve learnt!

 

Whats before birth?

I have for a long time been puzzled by a number of what I consider to be related questions. The first is ‘What happens after death’, which is something some people do wonder about; the second is ‘Where do we come from?, or Where were we before birth?’ which hardly anybody gives any thought to. And the third is ‘Are these two questions not likely to be related? How can we consider one apart from the other?’ ‘What is the bigger picture to the life we lead?’

 

In his ‘History of the English church and people’ Bede [673-735] tells how King Edwin consulted his advisers about whether he should embrace the Christian faith, and one of them said:

“Your  Majesty,  when  we  compare  the  present  life  of  man  on  earth  with  that  time  of  which  we  have  no  knowledge,  it  seems  to  me  like  the  swift  flight  of  a  single  sparrow  through  the  banqueting-hall  where  you  are  sitting  at  dinner  on  a  winter’s  day  with  your  thanes  and  counsellors.  In  the  midst  there  is  a  comforting  fire  to  warm  the  hall ;  outside,  the  storms  of  winter  rain or  snow  are  raging.  This  sparrow  flies  swiftly  in  through  one  door  of  the  hall,  and  out  through  another.  While  he  is  inside,  he  is  safe  from  the  winter  storms ;  but  after  a  few  moments  of  comfort,  he  vanishes  from  sight  into  the  wintry  world  from  which  he  came.  Even  so,  man  appears  on  earth  for  a  little  while ;  but  of  what  went  before  this  life  or  of  what  follows,  we  know  nothing.  Therefore,  if  this  new  teaching  has  brought  any  more  certain knowledge,  it  seems  only  right  that  we  should  follow  it.”

 

The new teaching did indeed bring some more certain knowledge, certainly about life after death, with the Good News that because Jesus had been raised by God from death, those who followed Him would similarly rise and ascend into heaven as Jesus had. But King Edwin’s advisor understood the Good News to be about a much bigger picture than that, one that included a vision of where we come from prior to our birth. John in his Gospel sets Jesus life in this much bigger picture, asserting that Jesus was from the beginning with God, before His birth as a human being, and subsequently returned to God after his death. I’m inclined to believe that is the model for our story too, that we come from God prior to our birth and that we return to God after our death, and that our lives only truly make sense within this bigger picture.

 

When Paul talks about Christ letting go of equality with God in order to become human, he is presumable saying that Christ had to let go of insights and knowledge that He knew from the beginning with God in order to be born as a human being.  Do we as humans have to perform a similar letting go when we are born?  I think we probably do.

 

Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that when we are born we bring with us memories of that pre-existence experience with God, which we have had to let go of. John Drury in his fine book ‘Painting the Word’ tells how Marcel Proust describes the “ dying writer Bergotte on a gallery sofa, lost in admiration for the perfect ‘little patch of yellow wall’ in Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft, ‘painted with so much skill and refinement’ as to suggest that ‘everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life’ so that we ‘consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even polite’, and an artist feels obliged to dedicate himself to the same rules of perfection, even though, ‘there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth’ for her or him to do so. And perhaps, Proust continues, we return there when we die ‘to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer. So heaven is not an irrelevance even to one whom Proust called ‘an atheist artist”

 

This makes quite a lot of sense to me, that when we are born we bring with us memories of the heaven we left behind. Hence nearly all human beings recognise certain ‘eternal verities’ things like truth, beauty, love, peace, justice, mercy, harmony, kindness, compassion, hospitality, creativity and wonder. We might struggle to define exactly what we mean by each of these, and different cultures and fashions may have differing understandings of them, but we all certainly seem to recognise them when we experience them, and where else might that common recognition come from?

 

Some poets know this insight too. Here are the words by William Wordsworth [1770-1850] from ‘Intimations of  Immortality  from  Recollections  of  Early  Childhood.’

Our  birth  is  but  a  sleep  and  a  forgetting :

The  soul  that  rises  with  us,  our  life’s  Star,

Hath  had  elsewhere  its  setting,

And  cometh  from  afar:

Not  in  entire  forgetfulness,

And  not  in  utter  nakedness,

But  trailing  clouds  of  glory  do  we  come

From  God,  who  is  our  home:

Heaven  lies  about  us  in  our  infancy!

Shades  of  the  prison-house  begin  to  close

Upon  the  growing  Boy,

But  He  beholds  the  light,  and  whence  it  flows,

He  sees  it  in  his  joy;

The  Youth,  who  daily  further  from  the  east

Must  travel,  still  is  Nature’s  Priest,

And  by  the  vision  splendid

Is  on  his  way  attended;

At  length  the  Man  perceives  it  die  away,

And  fade  into  the  light  of  common  day.

 

 

And here’s Henry Vaughan [1622-95]

 

Happy those early days! when I

Shined in my angel-infancy,

Before I understood this place

Appointed for my second race.,

Or taught my soul to fancy ought

But a white, celestial thought;

When yet I had not walked above

A mile or two from my first love,

And looking back—at that short space—

Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

When on some gilded cloud, or flower,

My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

And in those weaker glories spy

Some shadows of eternity;

Before I taught my tongue to wound

My conscience with a sinful sound,

Or had the black art to dispense

A several sin to every sense,

But felt through all this fleshy dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

Oh how I long to travel back,

And tread again that ancient track!

That I might once more reach that plain,

Where first I left my glorious train;

From whence the enlightened spirit sees

That shady city of palm trees.

But ah! my soul with too much stay

Is drunk, and staggers in the way.

Some men a forward motion love,

But I by backward steps would move

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

 

 

So what am I trying to say here? What is this bigger picture that frames our earthly existence?

 

That we each come from God in the beginning, and something of the divine spark always remains alive within each of us, waiting to be nourished into life.

 

Like Jesus we leave God and something of the things of God in order to be born, but we all bring with us memories of that first experience, memories that can sustain and enrich our lives if we nourish them.

 

They also express themselves as certain longings for a home we dimly remember.  As Rubem Alves says: ‘what we have lost makes itself present as longing & desire’.

 

We are gifted to our parents: they are the ones who provide the context in which we will grow, perhaps they were chosen for us to teach us things we needed to know, and which they were well equipped to teach? And perhaps we were gifted with them to a similar end:  we are a mutual gift to each other, providing an opportunity for us all to grow and teach each other.

 

But we are God’s first & foremost a member of God’s family before we became a part of a human family. And an important part of the duty of human parents is to know this truth themselves, and to teach their children to recognise and honour it.

 

Our early experience is that we learn familiarity with darkness and silence in the womb where we have been nourished and have learnt to trust. Our mother’s body is like God. Once we are born we have a strong desire to survive but we cannot do so alone. Left alone we will soon die, we need the loving relationships of others. But the time will also come when we have to separate from those nurturing early relationships in order to continue our growth into independence: ‘if you love your child send them on a journey’ is a quotation I like, and which maybe applies to God as to us.

 

And the God in Whom we have our beginning comes to meet us on our journey through life, through the whole created order of which we are a part, through other people whom we meet, and through epiphanies when God breaks through directly into our awareness.

 

Perhaps our part in this process is that with our awareness we alone are able to discern its meaning, to be aware of what God is up to here. And that awareness means that we can share in something of what God is doing, such that we can become active participants in God’s activity. Its as if God needs our active cooperation, is reaching out in relationship to us to be co-creators together. Hence our gift of creativity, which we share with God and which is what scientists and others are striving after all the time: shaping and continuing the process of creation. Artists do this too, as we each do, in our own particular ways when we use our creative gifts wisely, however humble and small our contribution may seem to be, but who are we to judge let alone know??.

 

And in this is our greatness, if we can see and believe it. But we doubt our potential, we know all too well our capacity to mess it up, we know that we cannot do it alone and we doubt God’s invitation for us to  do it together. That puts me in mind of the words that Nelson Mandela used in his 1994 Inaugural Speech, words of Marianne Williamson:

 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous ?

Actually, who are you not to be ?

You are a child of God

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

Its not in just some of us; its in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

 

Like Jesus I am incarnated at birth to release the image of God in me, and to redeem negative inherited stuff.  This is the earthly task: to transform myself; to be ready to return to be with God

I can read the story of Prodigal Son as a story that exemplifies this task.

 

I find this a wonderful vision, that holds together and makes life an exciting and hopeful adventure. I cant prove rationally that its true, indeed what I have shared here is not first and foremost a rational argument. But my imagination and intuition leads me to know that there is truth in it, not the whole truth of course, but enough of the truth to be getting on with, truth that I am daily learning to trust and which leads me ever deeper into knowing, and knowing myself known, by God or whatever word we use for the divine and the holy.

 

The question for you, dear reader, therefore is less whether your rational sense agrees with what I have written, [although that is not unimportant], rather it is, does my intuitive experience as described here chime with yours, does it help you to put into words what you already sense that you know, does it seem to lead you deeper into what you recognise as truth? If so, then it may be worth your mulling it over. If not, probably best to let it go and forget it.

 

I have for a long time been puzzled by a number of what I consider to be related questions. The first is ‘What happens after death’, which is something some people do wonder about; the second is ‘Where do we come from?, or Where were we before birth?’ which hardly anybody gives any thought to. And the third is ‘Are these two questions not likely to be related? How can we consider one apart from the other?’ ‘What is the bigger picture to the life we lead?’

 

In his ‘History of the English church and people’ Bede [673-735] tells how King Edwin consulted his advisers about whether he should embrace the Christian faith, and one of them said:

“Your  Majesty,  when  we  compare  the  present  life  of  man  on  earth  with  that  time  of  which  we  have  no  knowledge,  it  seems  to  me  like  the  swift  flight  of  a  single  sparrow  through  the  banqueting-hall  where  you  are  sitting  at  dinner  on  a  winter’s  day  with  your  thanes  and  counsellors.  In  the  midst  there  is  a  comforting  fire  to  warm  the  hall ;  outside,  the  storms  of  winter  rain or  snow  are  raging.  This  sparrow  flies  swiftly  in  through  one  door  of  the  hall,  and  out  through  another.  While  he  is  inside,  he  is  safe  from  the  winter  storms ;  but  after  a  few  moments  of  comfort,  he  vanishes  from  sight  into  the  wintry  world  from  which  he  came.  Even  so,  man  appears  on  earth  for  a  little  while ;  but  of  what  went  before  this  life  or  of  what  follows,  we  know  nothing.  Therefore,  if  this  new  teaching  has  brought  any  more  certain knowledge,  it  seems  only  right  that  we  should  follow  it.”

 

The new teaching did indeed bring some more certain knowledge, certainly about life after death, with the Good News that because Jesus had been raised by God from death, those who followed Him would similarly rise and ascend into heaven as Jesus had. But King Edwin’s advisor understood the Good News to be about a much bigger picture than that, one that included a vision of where we come from prior to our birth. John in his Gospel sets Jesus life in this much bigger picture, asserting that Jesus was from the beginning with God, before His birth as a human being, and subsequently returned to God after his death. I’m inclined to believe that is the model for our story too, that we come from God prior to our birth and that we return to God after our death, and that our lives only truly make sense within this bigger picture.

 

When Paul talks about Christ letting go of equality with God in order to become human, he is presumable saying that Christ had to let go of insights and knowledge that He knew from the beginning with God in order to be born as a human being.  Do we as humans have to perform a similar letting go when we are born?  I think we probably do.

 

Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that when we are born we bring with us memories of that pre-existence experience with God, which we have had to let go of. John Drury in his fine book ‘Painting the Word’ tells how Marcel Proust describes the “ dying writer Bergotte on a gallery sofa, lost in admiration for the perfect ‘little patch of yellow wall’ in Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft, ‘painted with so much skill and refinement’ as to suggest that ‘everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life’ so that we ‘consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even polite’, and an artist feels obliged to dedicate himself to the same rules of perfection, even though, ‘there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth’ for her or him to do so. And perhaps, Proust continues, we return there when we die ‘to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer. So heaven is not an irrelevance even to one whom Proust called ‘an atheist artist”

 

This makes quite a lot of sense to me, that when we are born we bring with us memories of the heaven we left behind. Hence nearly all human beings recognise certain ‘eternal verities’ things like truth, beauty, love, peace, justice, mercy, harmony, kindness, compassion, hospitality, creativity and wonder. We might struggle to define exactly what we mean by each of these, and different cultures and fashions may have differing understandings of them, but we all certainly seem to recognise them when we experience them, and where else might that common recognition come from?

 

Some poets know this insight too. Here are the words by William Wordsworth [1770-1850] from ‘Intimations of  Immortality  from  Recollections  of  Early  Childhood.’

Our  birth  is  but  a  sleep  and  a  forgetting :

The  soul  that  rises  with  us,  our  life’s  Star,

Hath  had  elsewhere  its  setting,

And  cometh  from  afar:

Not  in  entire  forgetfulness,

And  not  in  utter  nakedness,

But  trailing  clouds  of  glory  do  we  come

From  God,  who  is  our  home:

Heaven  lies  about  us  in  our  infancy!

Shades  of  the  prison-house  begin  to  close

Upon  the  growing  Boy,

But  He  beholds  the  light,  and  whence  it  flows,

He  sees  it  in  his  joy;

The  Youth,  who  daily  further  from  the  east

Must  travel,  still  is  Nature’s  Priest,

And  by  the  vision  splendid

Is  on  his  way  attended;

At  length  the  Man  perceives  it  die  away,

And  fade  into  the  light  of  common  day.

 

 

And here’s Henry Vaughan [1622-95]

 

Happy those early days! when I

Shined in my angel-infancy,

Before I understood this place

Appointed for my second race.,

Or taught my soul to fancy ought

But a white, celestial thought;

When yet I had not walked above

A mile or two from my first love,

And looking back—at that short space—

Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

When on some gilded cloud, or flower,

My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

And in those weaker glories spy

Some shadows of eternity;

Before I taught my tongue to wound

My conscience with a sinful sound,

Or had the black art to dispense

A several sin to every sense,

But felt through all this fleshy dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

Oh how I long to travel back,

And tread again that ancient track!

That I might once more reach that plain,

Where first I left my glorious train;

From whence the enlightened spirit sees

That shady city of palm trees.

But ah! my soul with too much stay

Is drunk, and staggers in the way.

Some men a forward motion love,

But I by backward steps would move

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

 

 

So what am I trying to say here? What is this bigger picture that frames our earthly existence?

 

That we each come from God in the beginning, and something of the divine spark always remains alive within each of us, waiting to be nourished into life.

 

Like Jesus we leave God and something of the things of God in order to be born, but we all bring with us memories of that first experience, memories that can sustain and enrich our lives if we nourish them.

 

They also express themselves as certain longings for a home we dimly remember.  As Rubem Alves says: ‘what we have lost makes itself present as longing & desire’.

 

We are gifted to our parents: they are the ones who provide the context in which we will grow, perhaps they were chosen for us to teach us things we needed to know, and which they were well equipped to teach? And perhaps we were gifted with them to a similar end:  we are a mutual gift to each other, providing an opportunity for us all to grow and teach each other.

 

But we are God’s first & foremost a member of God’s family before we became a part of a human family. And an important part of the duty of human parents is to know this truth themselves, and to teach their children to recognise and honour it.

 

Our early experience is that we learn familiarity with darkness and silence in the womb where we have been nourished and have learnt to trust. Our mother’s body is like God. Once we are born we have a strong desire to survive but we cannot do so alone. Left alone we will soon die, we need the loving relationships of others. But the time will also come when we have to separate from those nurturing early relationships in order to continue our growth into independence: ‘if you love your child send them on a journey’ is a quotation I like, and which maybe applies to God as to us.

 

And the God in Whom we have our beginning comes to meet us on our journey through life, through the whole created order of which we are a part, through other people whom we meet, and through epiphanies when God breaks through directly into our awareness.

 

Perhaps our part in this process is that with our awareness we alone are able to discern its meaning, to be aware of what God is up to here. And that awareness means that we can share in something of what God is doing, such that we can become active participants in God’s activity. Its as if God needs our active cooperation, is reaching out in relationship to us to be co-creators together. Hence our gift of creativity, which we share with God and which is what scientists and others are striving after all the time: shaping and continuing the process of creation. Artists do this too, as we each do, in our own particular ways when we use our creative gifts wisely, however humble and small our contribution may seem to be, but who are we to judge let alone know??.

 

And in this is our greatness, if we can see and believe it. But we doubt our potential, we know all too well our capacity to mess it up, we know that we cannot do it alone and we doubt God’s invitation for us to  do it together. That puts me in mind of the words that Nelson Mandela used in his 1994 Inaugural Speech, words of Marianne Williamson:

 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous ?

Actually, who are you not to be ?

You are a child of God

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

Its not in just some of us; its in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

 

Like Jesus I am incarnated at birth to release the image of God in me, and to redeem negative inherited stuff.  This is the earthly task: to transform myself; to be ready to return to be with God

I can read the story of Prodigal Son as a story that exemplifies this task.

 

I find this a wonderful vision, that holds together and makes life an exciting and hopeful adventure. I cant prove rationally that its true, indeed what I have shared here is not first and foremost a rational argument. But my imagination and intuition leads me to know that there is truth in it, not the whole truth of course, but enough of the truth to be getting on with, truth that I am daily learning to trust and which leads me ever deeper into knowing, and knowing myself known, by God or whatever word we use for the divine and the holy.

 

The question for you, dear reader, therefore is less whether your rational sense agrees with what I have written, [although that is not unimportant], rather it is, does my intuitive experience as described here chime with yours, does it help you to put into words what you already sense that you know, does it seem to lead you deeper into what you recognise as truth? If so, then it may be worth your mulling it over. If not, probably best to let it go and forget it.

 

 

Preparing for life after death

I’ve been thinking further about the ‘twins’ story that I told in ‘Why death’. If our time in the womb prepares us for this life, then maybe our time in this life is preparing us for the next: giving us the opportunity to develop the gifts and qualities we will need there ourselves; and in the process helping others be there too.

This is not an original idea, its been around for some time.  So here is Austin Farrer, an Anglican priest writing a meditation for Advent Sunday in ‘The Crown of the Year’ published in`1952:

“Our journey sets out from God in our creation, and returns to God at the final judgement. As the bird rises from the earth to fly, and must some time return to the earth from which it rose; so God sends us forth to fly, and we must fall back into the hands of God at last. But God does not wait for the failure of our power and the expiry of our days to drop us back into his lap. He goes himself to meet us and everywhere confronts us. Where is the countenance which we must finally look in the eyes, and not be able to turn away our head? It smiles up at Mary from the cradle, it calls Peter from the nets, it looks on him with grief when he has denied his master. Our judge meets us at every step of our way, with forgiveness on his lips and succour in his hands. He offers us these things, while there is yet time. Every day opportunity shortens, our scope for learning our Redeemer’s love is narrowed by twenty four hours, and we come nearer to the end of our journey, when we shall fall into the hands of the living God, and touch the heart of the devouring fire. ”

And here is Rumi a 13th century Islamic Sufi mystic and poet:

 

“This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and attend them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honourably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

 

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.”

 

 

Both Farrer and Rumi are very clear that God comes to meet us throughout our lives, and that our response is important for it is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. But it is all too easy not to recognise when this happens, and hence to miss the opportunities that are being offered.  So it is important to have some way of reflecting on our lives, so that we may become more open to noticing what is coming our way, what God is offering us the chance to learn; how we are responding to it; and how we are being shaped in the process.  We often have little control over what comes our way, but a great deal of control on how we receive and respond to it as both Farrer and Rumi point out.  This all sounds rather simple in theory, but of course it’s a tad more complicated and challenging in practise!

 

It was Einstein who said “The most important question any person will ever answer is whether the world is friendly”, because if its basically friendly then you can trust it, and if its not you’ll tend to view it with suspicion. The Christian tradition says that the answer is ‘Yes’, that life and the world are friendly and trustworthy because God made the world and saw that it was good. If this is true then our first task in life is to be able to accept and receive what the world offers us, trusting that what comes is gift from the divine however unwelcome it may sometimes appear to be, and without passing judgement on it or seeing it as passing judgement on us. But for this to be possible we need somewhere, sometime to have had an experience of unconditional love, for without it we wont find it easy to see the world as basically friendly.

 

If we are lucky we may have learnt that in the families in which we grew up, but if not we might find it in subsequent relationships, and in loving communities to which we belong.  Or we may well have experienced it directly from the divine in moments of deep spiritual experience. Indeed it is my profound conviction that most people have had such a moment at some point in their lives, although they often don’t recognise it for what it is, don’t know how to talk about it, or how live out of it, or know where they might go for support and understanding.

 

[I’ve written, with Roy Gregory and others, about our spiritual experience and how we might recognise and live out of it in the book ‘The God you already know’.  And how God’s love is mediated to us through the actions of others in ways we frequently don’t recognise in ‘Languages of Love’. Both can be found on this web-site.}

 

Both Rumi and Jesus put unconditional love at the core of their teaching. Crucially, love, and not right believing. Jesus’ command to his followers is that they should love one another, not that they had to believe as He did, indeed they consistently misunderstood Him. Loving one another, doesn’t necessarily mean liking one another, but it does mean accepting the other as they are whatever, and always looking out for them.

 

Sadly insisting on right thinking and behaviour as most religions do, is a much easier option than loving relationships: it’s more black and white, less messy and ambiguous, and so can appear to be clearer when you’ve got it right, more secure. Hence the religious temptation to focus on it as something that seemingly can be controlled and measured, in a way that love cannot. But, remember that Jesus was persecuted and put to death at the behest of the religious authorities of his day, because of his lack of right belief and his emphasis on God’s unconditional love for all humankind. Not often that you hear a sermon on that for fairly obvious reasons!

 

So, our own experience and awareness is key to all of this. We are all much more loved that we can imagine, we are the recipients of more unconditional love than we know, but we live mostly in seeming ignorance of it. It’s the great tragedy of our lives. But we can do something about it: we are not helpless here, we can take responsibility for life being otherwise.  Its crucially about reflective awareness of what is happening in our own lives and what we are learning, whom we are becoming. We can learn to love and forgive, and equally we can learn to hate and be bitter, mostly we’ll find life a struggle between the two. With God’s help it’s a struggle we can win and become a good enough human being. And if that is what we experience now and here it will shape who we are in whatever lies after death.

 

Our second task in life is to do what we can to support and encourage loving communities wherever and whenever we find them, because loving communities are places where people may experience unconditional love. Our own families are a good place to start, but any community to which we belong from the tiny to the global, will do. Churches can be loving communities but often they are not. Wonderfully, there are plenty of loving communities outside the churches. The church does not have the sole franchise on God’s gracious activity.

 

Our third task in life is to build loving relationships with the dead, and the yet to be born, to our mutual benefit. For a long time now I’ve been wondering about the question of what will happen to me when I die. It seems to me that death is unlikely to be a dramatic change leading to either heaven or hell. Why should my muddled, confused, grey life suddenly become black and white just because I die? Rather it seems more likely, and frankly inevitable, that I will know that I still have much to learn.  For starters I find it difficult to imagine that I could enter heaven,  enjoy a state of bliss, achieve peace, whatever language we might use, knowing that there are people whose lives I’ve affected for ill, as there inevitably must be. Surely I’ll be praying that they will be able to redeem the damage that I’ve done, for their sakes because I love them, and indeed for mine because I wont find peace until they do!

 

I’ve often shared this line of thinking with others who have sometimes found it helpful. I remember someone from years back talking through the painful death of a marriage and the ensuing divorce, who was first of all, quite understandably, very angry with their parents who had taught them such a skewed and unhelpful model of marriage as to make their first attempt at it almost inevitably a failure. With time this person came to see that their parents had only been able to teach them what they themselves had learnt from their parents, and so on back through the generations: once our ancestors are recognised as victims like us,  then forgiveness becomes much more possible.

 

They were able to see and feel that in trying to rebuild their life after their failed marriage they were not acting alone for they had the active prayerful support of their ancestors who had some responsibility for their failure, and who were willing them to redeem the damage done, on behalf of all of them.  It was a two way mutually dependent process.

 

And of course it has a future reference too. The problems we don’t manage to redeem, and no doubt some that we do, we will pass on to our children and to others with whom we relate, and they will become theirs to work on.

 

The temptation into which we have so often fallen as a species has been to focus on either this life or the next, to the exclusion and detriment of the other. The truth maybe, is that the two are bound up with each other and cannot thus be separated?  We have to focus on this life and becoming more fully and truly whom God has called us to be, in it, because in doing so we also prepare ourselves for the next life, but we cant do so without the active support of other people both living and dead. It’s a process both individual and corporate and also one that embraces both this life and the next..

 

So, the question ‘Is there life for us and for others after death and how can we prepare for it?’ is intimately and inextricably bound up with the question ‘Is there life for us and for others before death?’  I also have a hunch that its as bound up with the question ‘Is there life before life? i.e. ‘Where do we come from?’ But that’s not for now!!

 

Why death?

I find myself keep coming back to a question that my body posed to my mind during the conversations we shared after the operation for bowel cancer and before we decided whether or not to proceed with chemotherapy [see ‘Listening and Deciding’]. My body asked: “Why am I doing this to myself?” i.e. ‘why is a part of my body, the cancer, seeking to damage the body itself, and possibly bring about its death?’ It’s as if my body was at war with itself. Why?
One answer is that I don’t know, and I doubt anybody does. But I’m aware that my body is not alone in behaving thus: my mind often chooses a course of action that it knows is unwise, so does my heart and even my soul. I seem to possess this self-destructive capacity within me. And again, I wonder why?
Another answer is that our bodies seem created to decay, run down, cease to function. It is simply the reality of the matter that our bodies die. Death may be internally caused, as with cancer, or externally, as with an accident, but it will inevitably come. And this is true of all of creation: all things come to an end, everything has its ‘sell by’ date. Why?
I’m reminded of the hymn ‘Abide with me’ and its line; “Change and decay in all around I see,” written by a man dying of tuberculosis as he watched the glories of the setting sun.
We are each of us going to die one day, and we find the notion difficult to take, sufficiently so that we spend a good deal of our lives ignoring its reality. And again, I wonder why? Is there something within us that rebels against the finiteness of everything, and especially of oneself? It might simply be an unwillingness, or an inability to accept that ‘I’ will one day cease to exist. But I’ve come to suspect that its something other than that.
I have for a long time been fascinated by the idea of consciousness: the inner life that goes on inside our heads and which we think of as our ‘real’ selves as opposed to the external image we present to the world. There is a spectrum of consciousness in our inner world, ranging from rational, problem solving thinking at one end, through feelings & relationships, and our sensory awareness interpreting the external world, into our use, at the other end of the spectrum, of imagination and intuition that take us beyond the objective 3D world, and where we dream, have visions, listen to music, appreciate art, and literature, can enter altered states and encounter mystery.
All parts of the spectrum appear to be ‘wired into’ the human brain and can be accessed by most of us, and there seems no obvious reason why we should not accept them all as equally genuine and basically reliable: which in itself is pretty astonishing! They provide us with a fascinating set of tools which we can use to negotiate and make meaning of life, and the trick is surely to trust that we need the full range of options to maximise life and to learn to use all of those on offer rather than assuming that a favoured tool should be used for almost everything.
I’m reminded of some words of Zoe Heller: “Increasingly, I regard my atheism as a regrettable limitation. It seems to me that my lack of faith is not, as I once thought, a triumph of the rational mind, but rather, a failure of the imagination – an inability to tolerate mystery: a species in fact of neurosis.” Our imaginations, dreams, spiritual experience, take us beyond the rational and the physical and show us something more, which amongst other things, fuels a sense that death is not the end. We trust our rational consciousness to deal with life’s practical problems, are we not invited to trust the imaginative end of our consciousness spectrum to access wisdom beyond where our rational knowing can take us? Indeed is that not why its there?
Suppose that we assumed that death is a part of the plan rather than a sign of the failure or absence of a plan, where might that take us? What creative part might death play in such a plan? How about these for a starter? It makes life precious: our most precious gift; it focuses our attention upon the here and now with an element of urgency; it encourages creativity; and it makes us yearn for something eternal, something beyond ourselves.
Suppose that we took on board Deepak Chopra’s sense that every life is framed by two mysteries: birth and death. But we only consider one of them, birth, as a miracle. The reality, I suspect, is that death is equally a miracle. Maybe we should view death as a gateway into something beyond, just as birth was? Do you know the story of the twins in the womb?

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

Perhaps the primary part of the body’s task is to provide a context in which we can grow and then to let us go: to send us out into what comes next, just like a wise parent. Life is certainly constantly teaching us to learn to let go and to embrace the new, the different, the other., and we might reasonably wonder why? It seems to be the way we grow. And life is full of these little deaths, as if it was preparing us for………….for what? Maybe for death and for what will seem like a final letting go: although hopefully by then we will have learnt that it will be a letting go into something new, and that we can trust that it will be alright.
John’s Gospel has a vision of Jesus being a part of God from the beginning, before His incarnation as a human being, and then of being reunited with God after suffering, death and resurrection. I sense that this is the vision for each of the rest of us too: in this as in much else Jesus shows us the way. We come from God at our birth and return to God at our death.
I’ve been finding this line of thinking increasingly persuasive for some time, and am grateful that my body’s question has challenged me to try to articulate it in words. Even as I write though I am aware that I cant prove that what I say is true. Proof in a rational sense is simply not the primary language of this sort of reflection. I am trusting here in my intuition and my personal spiritual experience, on the basis of which I’m happy to say that I confidently trust that there is truth in what I am saying. It’s not the whole truth, it cant be, but its true enough to be trustworthy. Trusting in this I can move forward in faith, and whatever else I need to know will, I know from experience, surely be shown me in due course provided I stay open.

Listening and Deciding

I’ve just had my first dose of chemotherapy.

I was initially quite opposed to the idea of chemo. I consider my body to be a valued and trusted friend, and he had just gone through a hard time. He had been in pain for some months and then faced major surgery from which he seemed to be recovering well. I was very reluctant to put him through a course of chemotherapy.

Two things changed my mind: the conversations I had with an oncologist whom I trusted; and those that I had with myself. And it’s the latter process that I want to write about. I have a dear friend who is also suffering with cancer, and who is handling it with a similar process but to a different conclusion, and quite rightly so I think. So I am writing to commend a process and not an outcome.

Many years ago God gave me an insight that I greatly value, and frequently use. I think of my body, mind, heart and soul as members of a board of which I ‘Henry’ am the chair, and in order for me to make good decisions about matters that affect me, I need to consult my board, and to listen carefully to each of them. Experience has taught me that it is easy for one or more of my board members not to be heard, and indeed on a bad day for one of them to have effectively staged a ‘coup d’etat’ and to have acted without consulting any of the rest of us. So my role as chair is very important [I’ve described this exercise in more detail in ‘The God you already know’].

So faced with a decision about chemotherapy I knew that I must ask my body what his views on the matter were, and not make assumptions on his behalf. And I then sought the views of my other board members as well. Reviewing it now I have found it both a fascinating and an encouraging process.

Some of my board members articulated things that I hadn’t heard from them before.

They each said that this is not just Body’s problem, his distress was felt and owned by them all, and they each felt that they may have had some responsibility for its arising. They expressed regret and sought Body’s forgiveness for not responding more quickly to his distress.
They proposed light duties for all through the summer in order to support & care for Body

What I heard Body say:
I was surprised to realise that I was giving myself this problem? Why am I doing this to myself? Can Mind offer an explanation?
I could not solve this problem myself. If I cannot digest food I will slowly starve to death. So I’m very grateful to the others for getting the outside help I needed and could not access myself. The others have saved me from dying.
I didn’t enjoy the surgery but accepted it as necessary.
I am aware that I feel guilty, that I have failed & let the others down. I have a need to apologise.

What I heard Heart say:
I felt Body’s pain and discomfort at not eating, but didn’t understand what was causing it & so felt helpless, shared his vulnerability & tried to encourage him to rest, which is what I felt he needed.
I found the journey back from Yorkshire difficult & was glad to get home. I felt an increasing sense of isolation & loneliness.
It was a relief to go into hospital, where it felt as if Body’s suffering was being taken seriously at last. The registrar’s report on the CT scan with the use of the word ‘cancer’ for the first time was a shock, but I felt in safe hands. I felt that Soul took over at that point & did a good job on behalf of all of us through the operation.
I was impressed by the care and kindness shown us in the hospital. I felt safe there in the hands of kind people who understood our problem & were dealing with it competently and caringly. But it also felt good to go home.
I was moved by my wife’s care and love, and that of my 4 daughters who were and are quite wonderful. It felt very good to be back amongst familiar and well loved things.
I felt moved to tears by all the cards, emails, phone calls, texts and visits of love, prayer and careful support. I remember feeling that I didn’t deserve it, that if people really knew me they would feel differently. But Mind, quite rightly, reminded me straight away, that I would challenge anyone else who said that. Love is not deserved, that is the whole point of it, it comes as unexpected gift.
I was not keen on chemo & the damage it might do to Body, but I was reassured by Mind. I struggled for a time with thoughts of our mortality that Body’s plight brought on, & of the possibility of our time being cut short with still so much to live for. I have learnt over the years to look fears and anxieties like these in the eye: its always uncomfortable but its better on the other side having gone through them. I feel that its something that we do together, with Body, Heart, Mind and Soul all contributing, which is probably why it is so valuable. I’m now feeling much more positive about the future.

What I heard Mind say:
I must admit that I think that a good deal of all this rather slipped under my radar! I thought that Body’s pain in December was probably linked to the back pain he was also feeling then, and I was, with hindsight, too willing to accept the doctors suggestion that we wait and see in January and February. I wish I had been more insistent then, though I’m not sure it would have made much difference: systems move slowly especially under current financial constraints.
Until the end of February I also felt that I should to continue to travel and see friends as part of my ministry. I was reluctant to cancel the trip to Poland at the beginning of March, until I realised on returning from Starbeck that the trip would be beyond me. With hindsight I pushed myself harder than I should, and neglected Body’s needs when Heart was already aware of them. I apologise to Body and the rest of you for that.
Once the seriousness of Body’s situation became clear to me I clicked into action. Heart was distressed, as was Body, so we saw doctors twice in a few days and was admitted to hospital. I felt a great sense of relief to be there and in the capable hands of kind people who seemed to know what they were doing: there was nothing more I could practically do for Body, but I spent some useful time before and after the op reflecting on ‘Letters of Love’ [to be found elsewhere on this site], ‘Cancer of the Colon’, ‘Insights when ill’, and ‘Life not in hospital’. There were also several profound mystical experiences which Soul experienced. I think that my reflections and his experiences linked together and combined to help us through.
I was not expecting the offer of chemotherapy, and in my post-op slow gear, found it difficult to take in the information we were given. I understood it rather gloomily at first, but after a second conversation with the oncologist took a more optimistic view and could see the good sense of accepting it I sought to persuade the others of the wisdom of this, and Henry decided to consult us all on the matter.
I am intrigued by the questions Body asks. Where does the cancer come from? It appears to originate in Body, but why does Body attack Body? Do the rest of us have some responsibility too?
How do we handle our mortality in a society which wont face the matter, and which obliges us to do so individually, while scorning religious insights? Is rational thought much help here? Do we not need to rely rather on the mystical insights that Soul describes? Most of these questions are in a way unanswerable, but they are important nevertheless.
But I have been helped enormously to find that my questionings alongside the different insights of the others have allowed us to find a sense of unity which allows us to face the future whatever it holds. It seems that good, deep relationships are key. It reminds me of my favourite ikon, Rublev’s Trinity.

What I heard Soul say:
I’ve written at length elsewhere, [ ‘where is the gift in all this?’] so I wont repeat myself.
But looking back I am struck by the way I found myself reflecting on ‘the letters of love’ soon after Christmas. This theme sustained me through these months in an amazing way. And I wonder if I had some foreknowledge that something difficult & challenging was on its way and was being prepared to meet it? I’m encouraged by the notion that that’s true, but I also berate myself for not making the connection with what Body was then facing, earlier: perhaps if I’d been listening better?
I’m also struck by the way that I seemed to take over in the time leading up to and following on from, the operation. And was gifted with a profound sense of the other/the divine/God, holding all of us and indeed all of creation, in love.
I am grateful that I was able to be of service to the others in that way, and indeed looking back, I’m full of wonder at the way that at different stages of our recent journey one of us has been able, appropriately, to take the lead for all of us. It brings tears to my eyes as I see that I feel proud to be a part of such a fine team. Thank you all.

And what Henry now says:
And so the wonder of the process [not rocket science this but splendid to experience] was that while we didn’t have the answers to everybody’s questions, it really didn’t matter, for the beauty of it was that simply listening to each other was all that was needed for each of the board members to be aware of a deep and welcome sense of being in this together, of it not just being Body’s problem; and in the end a decision just seemed to fall into place without much effort, that we were all comfortable and at ease with. Certainly as chair of the board I feel a wonderful sense of relief and peace about it all.

The chemo has begun. We’ll never know if we’ve made the ‘right’ decision. Statistically the treatment increases the chances of the cancer not recurring. If the cancer doesn’t recur that might be because of the treatment but it’s possible that the treatment was never actually necessary. If it does recur, then that doesn’t necessarily mean that the treatment was a failure, it might have slowed its coming, reduced its severity etc. We’ll never know for certain: there are no guarantees.
And one way or another death will certainly come sometime: we can’t put it off forever. But I sense that whatever happens I [we] will face it together and in good heart. Meanwhile, the task is to care for Body as best we can through the treatment, to continue our regular board meetings, to use the time as an opportunity to be gently caring of each other and of others who pass our way, and to grow deeper in our trust in the God Who loves us all, and Who is our beginning and our end.

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