The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Year: 2016 (page 1 of 3)

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.

 

3

 

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.”

 

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