The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Year: 2017 (page 1 of 2)

Consciousness 3

I met with my friend some weeks ago and was telling him what a rich summer I’d had: time to be with family and time to pray, read, think, explore and mull. I felt greatly blessed, not least in all the movement and activity in my soul. I’d had a series of meaningful dreams, and bursts of intuitive knowing as a result of which some significant progress felt as if it had been made in my soul’s journey.

 

He wrote to me a little while later to say that he’d never previously paid much attention to his dreams, indeed was hardly aware that he’d had any, but subsequent to our meeting he’d wanted to take his dreams more seriously and had been surprised to find that he then had a number which he remembered on waking and which he’d found meaningful

 

I replied that “One of the funny things in life, in my experience, is the way that if you open your mind to something [in this case dreams] then you quickly become conscious of their presence. It’s as if we have to turn a ‘welcome’ sign on first”.

 

I’ve often noticed this with people who are contemplating a significant change of direction in their lives. Such a change usually feels very daunting and scary and they are rightly apprehensive of the risks and dangers they might encounter. They fear that they might even come to realise that they’ve made a mistake!

 

I recall the story of the Buddhist monk fleeing Tibet after the Chinese invasion and crossing the mighty Himalayan mountains to safety in India. On his arrival he was asked how he had managed such an incredible and dangerous journey alone? He replied: “One step at a time”.

 

At times of change, my instinct is to take one small, maybe symbolic, step in what feels like the right direction and then to wait. It is surprising how often what is needed next will then come and find you: you don’t have to find it yourself, but rather wait for it to pass your way and for you to recognise and seize it. You will often then experience what I call a ‘following wind’ which will carry you onwards on your journey.

 

But it won’t last long.  As with all religious experience, it will flourish for a while and then fade, and the temptation is to give up, assuming that you’ve made a mistake. Better, to see the fading as an invitation to continue to trust your experience despite the lack of current supporting evidence, and to be aware that you aren’t in control of what you have experienced.  Very likely it will come again at a time not of your choosing.

 

I am chuckling as I write this. I have just written two pieces about ‘Consciousness’ and sense that they are incomplete, but am not sure how to complete them! Suddenly I see that what I have written here has provided me with the clue I need.

 

The 3D material world doesn’t come with any meaning supplied: we are not born into this world with a set of instructions entitled ‘The meaning of life’, clutched in our fists. If we want meaning, and we are ‘meaning seeking’ creatures, then we will have to seek it ourselves. The means of doing so are available to us, through our basic need for relationship with others and the Other; and through using our imagination. The responsibility for utilising these means rests with each of us.

 

I can’t remember who said: “Your mind is free to interpret the world any way it wants.”  But they were right.  We can use whatever lies on the spectrum of consciousness as the lens[es] through which we will make our interpretation of the world, through which we choose to seek meaning.  Our soul, the part of us that seeks meaning and purpose, is like a garden, we need to nourish there what we judge to be good, and weed out what we judge will harm us. If we neglect our garden soul it will become a wilderness, and life will seem meaningless.

 

We have great power if we choose to use it: we can access all manner of ‘other worlds’, like the world of our dreams, if we choose to do so. We have the power to shape who we are; how we see the world; how and where we will seek meaning and purpose. Not all the possibilities on the spectrum of consciousness will necessarily open for us, but some certainly will, and probably more than we expect: instance my friend and his dreams.

 

And we have particular God given gifts and guides in our ‘Memories of Home’, and in Jesus in all of His guises, human model, resurrected Lord and personal friend, and Cosmic Christ Who meets us in blessing everywhere and in everyone and everything.

 

 

Consciousness 2

There seems to be agreement that there is a spectrum of consciousness in our minds, and that all parts of the spectrum are ‘hard wired’ into the human brain, are part of what we’re given, and are therefore both available and, in principle, trustworthy.

 

The spectrum of consciousness includes the following:

[1]      Problem solving orientated thought using information from the 5 senses

[2]      Feelings and relationships

[3]      Use of the imagination

[4]      Waking dreams and visions

[5]      Dreaming

[6]      Intuitions

[7]      Revelations of the unconscious

[8]      Spiritual experience

[9]      Silent contemplative being

 

Different societies place value and trust in different areas of the spectrum. Western, secular society places great emphasis, for example on problem orientated thought using the five senses. Other societies have given more credence to visions and religious experience.

 

Moreover, there will often be a variance between what people acknowledge publicly and what they practise in their private personal lives. For example, leaders of the past have often made major public decisions on the basis of dreams and visions.  Any political leader today announcing that a decision had been made on that basis would be publicly ridiculed. But many people, myself included, regularly make decisions that affect their private lives on that basis.

 

Every society assumes that its own pattern of trust and distrust across the spectrum, is normative and therefore ‘correct’, and may ridicule and even persecute alternatives. But there is no obvious reason for accepting that the assumptions of any one society are ‘correct’, or even ‘better’ than those of another. They are simply different.  It might be more fruitful to ask: ‘Do the assumptions we as a society and I as an individual take for granted, serve us well?’ Do they make our lives meaningful and richer?’   To do that we, need to cultivate a degree of self-awareness and detachment.

 

The ideal scenario would be to have equal access across the spectrum, and to be sufficiently self-aware as to know which part of the spectrum to go to and when. So, for example and put very crudely, if you want to catch a train to see a friend you need to use [1]; if you are deciding who you want as a life partner you’ll go to [2] and maybe [6]; and if you want to achieve inner peace you’ll learn to meditate by activating [9].

 

Few decisions are in fact made using only one part of the spectrum, but one part may drive the decision.  I remember when we were looking for a house to buy we had a series of ‘tick boxes’ drawn up using [1]: the house we bought met some but not all of those criteria, for they were overridden as soon as we walked into the house we eventually chose as we ‘knew’ [6] that it ‘felt’ [2] right. We’ve not regretted our decision, and are not unusual in having made it in this way.

 

The worst scenario is to be so exclusively wedded to one part of the spectrum as to be blind and dismissive of the others and the wisdom they access. Not least because if our brains give us the whole range its reasonable to assume that we need all of it. My hunch [6] is that we all use most of the range more than we realise; and that if there are parts of it that we don’t use, then we could train our minds to do so. My experience is that most parts of the spectrum will usually grow with practice.

 

The spectrum divides basically into three areas: firstly, the rational thinking side of the mind located in [1] which deals mainly with verifiable information; secondly the feeling, side of the mind mainly located in [2] which deals with our relationships with others; and thirdly, the imaginative side of the mind mainly located in [3-9] which deals primarily with acquiring meaning in life.

 

Each area deals with a different aspect of human living, so that to function well we actually need access to all of them, but many of us will feel more comfortable dealing with one area over the others. The solution is for everybody to trust the expertise of others in their respective specialist fields, and to a degree we do that.

 

Our society rather specialises in facts and information. We have the technology to give us instant access to as much information and more, than we might need. And we expect, in a rather fundamentalist manner, that everything will do ‘exactly what it says on the tin’. It’s in our feelings and relationships with others/Other that we seek meaning in our lives. We use our imaginations in leisure pursuits like gaming and reading, but we’ve largely lost the assumption that our imaginations might be valuable guides to questions of meaning, like those I raised in my previous post.  I think they are in fact very reliable guides, and that our loss of trust in them leaves us much impoverished.

Consciousness 1

Who am I?  I can answer that by giving you my name, age and nationality. I could supply my contact details and let you have a photograph. You could follow me round and see where I sleep and eat; with whom I spend my time; the clothes I wear and how I look; you could observe what I do and where I do it. And you’d think that you’d end up with a pretty good idea of who I am.   But the person whom you will have watched, is not who I think of as being the real me: it’s not whom I consciously know myself to be.

 

Unless I look in a mirror I never see the person you’ve been watching, and I have a limited idea of how I might have come over to you.  The person I think of as the ‘real’ me, is the inner life, the activity of my conscious mind: the person who was feeling, thinking, reacting in my head, while you were watching me. You could watch and have very little idea of what was going on in my conscious mind. You could end up none the wiser as to who I know myself to be.

 

With the help of GPS you could say exactly where I am at any given time. You could weigh and measure me, and be precise about my size. But I’d be hard pressed to say where and what my conscious mind is, for it has no position in space. I tend to think of it as behind my eyes, because that’s where I am aware of it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where it actually is. And if I close my eyes I’m not at all sure where it is.  The human brain can be dissected on a table, my mind can’t be.

 

Neither is it easy to place it in time for it seems to have a rhythm and pace of its own. Something that happened years ago may be more really present to my mind than what happened a few minutes ago. My memory can put my inner self in a place I haven’t physically visited for many years, and my hopes can place me well into the future. And as to where and when my dreams take me, I often have no idea. And yet this is who I know to be the real me.

 

This raises all manner of interesting questions about consciousness, about which there is currently much fascination, but little hard information and agreement. That’s not such a bad state to be in: fascination with interesting questions is much to be preferred to answers.

 

[1]      I am very aware that I have only a limited control over my mind, my inner life often seems to have a ‘mind of its own’. Why does a memory suddenly pop up in my mind when there has been no conscious trigger for it to do so?  Why do I get these occasional ‘eureka’ moments, often on waking in the middle of the night, when what was an insolvable problem, is suddenly abundantly clear?  Where does a seemingly original and creative idea come from?

 

[2]      It is possible to make a conscious decision to try and be more aware of what is going on in my mind: to become more self-aware.  Some people find this easier to do then others, some seem to have a positive gift for it, others shy well away from it. Does it matter?  I think that it does.  Knowing oneself is surely key to accepting oneself, becoming oneself, and achieving some degree of inner contentment.

 

[3]      Discovering which of the voices and choices that influence how I feel and behave are mine and which are other peoples which I have unconsciously absorbed, and which are those of the culture in which I’ve grown up, is essential to that process.  I can deliberately choose which of those voices to heed and encourage and which to send packing. I can set out to change and shape who I am, if I wish.  If I do so, I am likely to discover that this inner self is on an interior, often lonely, but potentially deeply rewarding, journey, through life, to which I am invited to wake up and trust. I’m also free to ignore it, but the journey will go on anyway.

 

[4]      Does consciousness only exist within my body?  Recent studies on after death experiences, near death experiences, out of body experiences, religious experiences, visionary experiences seem at the very least to suggest the possibility that consciousness can and sometimes does.

 

[5]      Does consciousness exist just within me, or does it relate to, belong to, or is a part of, something beyond itself?  That might seem a silly question, but a child coming across a television or radio for the first time is likely to think that the pictures and sounds are produced by the equipment they see in front of them. Whereas we know that the television and radio will be picking up signals from elsewhere, possibly a very long way away.  Might our minds be able to pick up signals coming from outside itself?  And if so from where or what or whom?  And how does it do so?  Can it ‘tune itself’ in if it chooses?

 

[6]      Being present at the birth of my children left me full of awe and wonder at creation. Understanding something of the biology didn’t seem to remotely do justice to the experience. Where did this gift of life come from?

Death poses the same question. I’ve seen someone die, and the reality of their dead body after death, and I know that something has gone out of it. The life force, the energy, the consciousness of the person is no longer there. But where has it gone?

Where does consciousness come from and where does it go to?  Is it the part of us that survives death?  Does it pre-exist our birth?

 

[7]      Our minds seem to have a powerful need to relate to other minds. We want to share what we think, and feel; to communicate our loves and hates, when we are hurt, and when we are joyful; what we hope for and our deepest desires. It is important for us to have what’s going on inside us acknowledged and affirmed by others.  Meeting someone who seems to understand and relate to who we consciously know we are is a source of huge delight and can unite us most profoundly. Its also a source of great anger if we subsequently feel ourselves betrayed.

How can we reveal our inner lives that others might know them? Unless we have some self-awareness how likely is that to happen?  Are we willing to take the necessary risks involved in doing so?

And how do we learn to read the inner lives of others? Is it through the voice, what they say and how they say it, or the eyes?  Do they express it through their body? Or the way they dress?  By the choices they make?  Or is there something indefinable that we recognise but would find difficult to put into words, and can we trust it?

 

I find these questions fascinating. But to what extent are they answerable?

 

Memories of Home

Some years ago Roy Gregory and I edited a book entitled ‘The God you already know’. The thrust of the book was that most people with whom we came into contact, in a spiritual direction setting, deep down knew already what they needed to know about God. They mostly didn’t need new information. What they did need was to get in touch with what they already knew and begin to honour and trust it.  Hence our title.

 

What we didn’t ask in that book was, why is this so?  Why do people already seem to know not only about God, but also about what they need to do to deepen their relationship with God? How did they acquire this knowledge?  Where did it come from? They must have learnt it somewhere, and it isn’t obvious to me where.

 

Roy and I also majored on the largely unrecognised value of religious experience. The evidence suggests that the vast majority of people claim to have had a religious experience at some point in their lives, although many would not use religious language to describe it. But people don’t talk about it, and it tends to get buried and forgotten.  Is this the source of peoples’ inner knowledge of God?

 

I’ve puzzled over this question for some time, and my puzzling was sharply focused by having an operation for cancer followed by six months of chemotherapy. There’s nothing like a brush with cancer to get the grey matter working overtime on matters of life and death, and their meaning.

 

It intrigues me that there is speculation about what happens after death, and even a quiet confidence in many that there is in fact something beyond this life. But I’ve never heard people speculating about where we came from before birth.  I find that strange.  I was present at the birth of each of my four daughters and every time I was overwhelmed by a sense of incredulous wonder at the miracle of new life: I understood something of the biology, but it didn’t seem adequate to explain where this spark of new life came from.

 

To my mind the question of ‘is there life before birth?’ must be linked with the question ‘is there life after death’?  I’m fascinated by Deepak Chopra’s notion 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 both are miracles and both are gateways from a previous state into a new one. This is not an original idea.

 

In his ‘History of the English church and people’ St 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 but also of where we come from prior to our birth.  I am repeating what I have written in “The Cosmic Christ” and so I will keep it brief. John’s Gospel begins by telling that the Word, was with God from the beginning, was involved in the creation of everything, and is the light of every human being, but laid down divine status to become human, before dying and returning to God. Paul speaks in very similar terms.

 

I assume that this template is ours too: Bede certainly thought so: we are with God in the beginning, before birth, and return to God after our death. It seems reasonable to wonder if we might have brought some memories, some distant echoes, of that life with God that we left behind, with us at our birth.?  But are there any grounds for believing that this might be true? Well, I think that there is some circumstantial evidence.

 

[1]      It struck me that those who work with children, nurturing their spiritual development, might have some insight into this. So I read Rebecca Nye’s book ‘Children’s Spirituality’, and read that many workers in this field have come to the conclusion that nurturing spirituality in children is more a matter of nurturing and encouraging what children already in some sense innately know, rather than rushing to put ‘in’ what they appear not to have: i.e. that children seem to come with some knowledge of the divine ‘fitted as standard’.

 

[2] Poets seem to have recognised this too. Here are the words by William Wordsworth 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.

 

[3] I have written elsewhere about Beauty. For me beauty stands in line with other ‘eternal verities’ like truth, peace, hospitality, friendship, justice, and many others, which seem to share certain common characteristics. They are not easy to define; yet there is general agreement about what constitutes them; we reckon that we’d recognise them when we saw them; and crucially, while expressions of them may vary, knowledge of them seems to be common across all cultures.  Now why is this? Why this universal knowledge of things non-material?  Where does it come from, and why do we all seem to possess it?

 

[4] It appears to be a common feature of life, and one seemingly necessary for our growth, that we are forever having to leave the familiar for the unknown: from the very beginning when we leave our mother’s womb for what awaits us outside; through to leaving home for nursey and school; to leaving one school for another; to leaving the home and family unit we’ve grown up in to start another; to leaving one job to start another; and so on, with finally having to leave all that we’ve loved and valued when our death calls us.

 

This is surely true on a corporate level too. We humans have our origins in Africa, but most of our ancestors left that original home for new homes across the globe. And we have never ceased from doing that: humans have always been on the move. We’ve always been migrants: we’re all immigrants if you go back generations.

Does this pattern teach us something new, or might it be a regular reminder of a deeper reality we have known before and that we can’t easily forget?  Is it somehow hard-wired into us all?

 

James Hollis in his book ‘What matters most?’ suggests that “We are all exiles, whether we know it or not, for who among us feels truly, vitally linked to the four great orders of mystery: the cosmos, nature, the tribe, and self?  He quotes Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf approvingly, “We have to stumble through so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is our homesickness.”

 

He also reminds us that most cultures have a myth of an original expulsion from Paradise, as Jews, Christians and Muslims do in the Genesis story. Feeling expelled from Paradise might just another way of saying that we have memories of a home that we have left behind.

 

The Bible takes up St John’s template by beginning with such an expulsion and ending with the creation of a new heaven on earth. Perhaps our memories are not just things of our past, but also a blueprint for our destination.  As Rubem Alves says: ‘what we have lost makes itself present as longing & desire’.

 

To sum up: my experience in spiritual direction is that deep down most people know what they need to know about God, but have lost touch with that knowledge and no longer consciously trust it.  Those who work nurturing the spirituality of children seem to have come to a parallel conclusion: that children come with an innate spirituality that needs nurturing and encouraging.  Poets know of this, and there is a Christian tradition of our pre-existence before birth that supports it. The common human experience of the ‘eternal verities’ seems to point to a similar conclusion. And we seem to be hard-wired for growth through the experience of leaving behind and moving on, but taking our wisdom with us.  All of this seems to me to hang together.

 

This doesn’t constitute proof of the existence of Memories of Home, but I don’t think that proof either for or against is an available option here. We have to make our decision on a different basis. I suggest that we apply the question ‘If this is true will it make life more meaningful and rich or less?’

 

 

The Cosmic Christ

I’d like to share some thoughts arising from the Cosmic Christ of Whom I wrote in ‘Which Jesus’.  John in the opening chapter of his Gospel writes of Jesus as the Word of God Who ‘was with God at the beginning, through Whom all things came to be; without Him no created being came into being. In Him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it.’

 

Paul speaks similarly in Philippians 2:5-11.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

 

This divine template is clear: the Cosmic Christ has existed from the very beginning of everything, has been involved in the creation of everything, and is the light of every single human person who ever was and ever will be, and that light has never been put out; He emptied Himself, became a human being and was crucified; and God then raised Him from death and exalted Him to sit at God’s right hand.

 

Its only recently that some of the implications of this teaching have begun to sink in, and they are simple yet profound. They change everything.

 

1] I believe that this is not only the divine template for Jesus but ours too: that, like Jesus, 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.

 

[2] Jesus of Nazareth sought to live His life is response to the loving God from Whom He came, by living a life and a death rooted in the divine spark [the light] within Him, in preparation for His return to God after His death. Our task is the same, although what specifically that means will be different for each of us.

 

[3] This is not just your story and mine. It is the story of every human being who ever was and who ever will be. All come from God, and the inner light of the Cosmic Christ burns in each. That’s not just the men and women of the Old and New Testaments, but the women and men of all cultures, faiths and times. The divine spark of the Cosmic Christ is the light of everyone; it is the image of God in everyone; a common, if un-named experience of everyone.

 

[4] This changes our understanding of the role of the Christian Church. The Church doesn’t consist of the select few in whom that divine spark burned brightly. The Church’s point of distinction is rather that it knows the good news that the divine spark of the loving God is in everyone.  If this is true then our attitude to people of other faiths and no faith should be one of humble openness and mutual respect.  We all possess the seed of God-given wisdom.  We all have some inner experience of God.

 

[5] So the Church’s mission is not as we have imagined it. We are not to tell people of a God they do not know. We are rather to name a God they already know, but may not have named. We are to be open and share what God has revealed of Godself to us, and to humbly listen to what God has revealed of Godself to them.

 

Some years ago Roy Gregory and I edited a book entitled ‘The God you already know’ based on our experience of listening to men and women who wanted to talk about God and their experience of God. Our conclusion was that most people did not need new information: but what they appeared to welcome was a safe place where they could begin to articulate and trust what deep down they already knew, hence the title of our book.

 

The Cosmic Christ has taken the ideas Roy and I expressed in ‘The God you already know’ to a new and deeper level for me.  All men and women possess the divine spark of the Cosmic Christ within them. They already know about God. This is true across all cultures. Such is the graciousness that the Cosmic Christ reveals.

 

 

 

 

Beauty

Some years ago, in 2011,  I read an article in the summer edition of the National Trust Magazine, by the philosopher A. C. Grayling, on Beauty. He was writing primarily about the natural beauty, but went on to say that “There is beauty in ideas, in the effects of sound (think of music, laughter, falling rain) and light (think of stars at night, sunlight among trees, lamps glowing along wet streets); there is beauty in the objects made by high skill, from pottery to buildings; there is beauty in a lichen-covered tree trunk and a distant range of mountains; there is beauty in the movements of a dancer and the power of an athlete. As this suggests, we find beauty mainly in things we see and hear, but stories and actions can be beautiful, too, and in these cases we experience it in our emotions.”

 

Beauty intrigues me. What is it?  I don’t find it easy to define. I sought a dictionary definition and found: ‘A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.’  That may be right, but for me there is something missing. It doesn’t capture what I think of as the energy and power of beauty, and the way that it moves me.

 

Grayling went on to say: “One reason why we are so refreshed and uplifted by natural beauty is that we feel, even if obscurely, our connection with the great scheme of life on our planet and its deep imperatives. This is proved not just by the majesty of great tropical forests and the mighty oceans, not just by rolling green countryside and gardens blossoming with flowers. Every crack in a tarmac road has a plant forcing its way up to the light; every derelict building is swathed in ivy and moss, with buddleia sprouting triumphantly from the eaves. This insistence of nature is proof of life, and we find life beautiful and meaningful.”

 

I’m not sure that we do necessarily ‘find life beautiful and meaningful’ but I certainly agree that beauty goes a long way to making it so, and it’s not alone in doing that. For me beauty stands in line with other ‘eternal verities’ like truth, peace, hospitality, friendship, justice, and many others, which seem to share certain common characteristics. They are not easy to define other than in ways that often seems to suck the very energy out of them; yet there is general agreement about what constitutes them; we reckon that we’d recognise them when we saw them; and while expressions of them may vary, knowledge of them seems to be common across all cultures.  Now why should this be so?  And why do they make life seem beautiful and meaningful’?  That is what has been puzzling me.

 

When I sit in my shed and look out of the windows I see the beautiful garden that Sylvia, my wife, has created. It is stunning, and full of things that appear beautiful to me, by virtue of their shape, colour and juxtaposition. And I wonder to myself if perhaps ‘Beauty’ exists in its own right, independent of these flowers and shrubs: if there might be an independent objective thing ‘Beauty’. Rationally I don’t see how I can answer that question. But perhaps I can ask the question in another way?   ‘Suppose that it is true that Beauty does exist in its own right, and that what you see are simply expressions of it, incarnations of it even. What difference would that make?  Would life be more meaningful and rich or less?  And I have found that life is richer and more meaningful. Not least because I notice Beauty more often.

 

I walked slowly down the lane to church this morning, and I was aware of Beauty manifesting itself in the brown ploughed field, the body of a white horse, the emerald green of another field, and the little brightly coloured flowers in the churchyard. The congregation was tiny in number but each person present was beautiful in their own way, and together, hospitable. On the pillar next to where I usually sit I encountered Beauty in some of the stone work, as I did in the words of the liturgy and the music played on the organ. I was surrounded by Beauty on all sides and the experience was Beauty-full: God felt very present. My morning was unquestionably richer and more meaningful as a consequence, and I am therefore inclined to take the idea of Beauty seriously.

 

Were others in the congregation aware of Beauty being present? Quite possibly not. So you might conclude that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, its something I conferred on what I saw. But I think otherwise: that Beauty was present and that I was blessed by being able to see and name it. Another day I wont be able to do so.

 

I think that I can say much the same about each of the other ‘eternal verities’ that I named: giving them each a capital letter and asking myself if doing so makes life more or less meaningful, elicits the same answer.  It’s a bit like turning the lights on and seeing the world in colour rather than black and white. Its like entering ‘another world’, which is there always, mostly un-noticed, but a source of wonder.

I don’t think that this is saying anything very different from what A. C. Grayling was writing about.

 

But I want to go further and suggest that if these are Eternal Verities then they must be characteristics of God inevitably imprinted upon God’s Creation. And if we humans have the ability to recognise and respond to them, then I sense that that’s because we have memories of them from the time in the beginning, long before our births, when we were with God, and that this ability thus forms part of God’s image in each of us..

 

An ‘other world’ 2

I had a synchronistic moment in a bookshop in Sheffield this summer. I had a book token and was browsing. I noticed a book by an author I’d recently enjoyed and thought I’d get it, but continued browsing and having picked up a couple of other books went back to the one that had first caught my eye and picked that up too. It was only after I’d left the shop that I realised I’d actually picked up a different book!  One that had also caught my eye but not the one I’d intended.

 

I’ve done this sort of thing often enough over the years, and have learnt to take seriously what others might consider a silly mistake. I don’t pretend to know quite how this works but I’ve learnt that it does and that, not to my surprise, the book I’d actually picked up was exactly the one I needed to read at that moment and had been looking for without knowing quite what it was that I wanted.

 

It’s entitled ‘The Path: what Chinese Philosophers can teach us about the good life’, and its by Professor Michael Puett of Harvard University. I warmly commend it. It begins with some practical ideas of Confucius. One of them is the importance of often quite simple, ritual actions. For Confucius “rituals are transformative because they allow us to become a different person for a moment. They create a short-lived alternate reality that returns us to our regular life slightly altered. For a brief moment, we are living in an “as if” world…[having] entered an alternative reality in which [we] imagine different sides of [our]selves.”

 

‘As if’ moments may be very brief encounters. A handshake implying a level of equality in a relationship; an offer of tea or coffee to a visitor suggesting a degree of welcome; a hug or a smile, the catching of an eye with a complete stranger, communicating a recognition and connection that can lift the spirits.

 

But its quite easy to think of more substantial examples. When we go on holiday or visit somewhere unfamiliar, we are free of our usual constraints and behave differently. The circumstances allow sides of our character which don’t usually get much space, to appear and to blossom: for a time we are slightly, sometimes very, different people. The key is for us to know that we are in a way pretending, that we this is not how things are in our normal everyday world and that it is just a temporary arrangement which will not last. But it’s a safe enough place for us to relax and behave differently.  Watch the way adults behave when they accompany their children to a play area, or a theme park and revert to being children again for a while.

 

Children, of course, do this sort of thing without batting an eyelid. When they play at killing each other they are fully aware that this is pretend, and by pretending they are able to step outside how they usually are & experience who they might be; they learn to manage fears & anxieties or play the role of rescuer and hero, all in a safe environment of their own making. Adults do something similar in the games we play or are spectators at. We all do it when we watch a play or a film or read a novel.

 

Liturgy does this too: taking us into a different world where different assumptions apply. We are invited to act ‘as if’ we are in God’s Kingdom and do all manner of things we’d otherwise never dream of doing: to act ‘as if’ we know that we are all forgiven, loved and equal;: to sing together, pray together, pretend there are no serious animosities between us, exchange peaceful greetings, and kneel to be fed of exactly the same food and drink.  Once we have left the building the camaraderie may fade, but if we go regularly we may slowly find ourselves and our attitudes changing.

 

Spiritual direction, or any therapeutic encounter needs to take place within a ritual ‘as if’ space. It has to feel like a safe enough space for people to be real and honest, knowing that they will be accepted and not judged, and if we go there regularly, we may find that the person we can be when we are there, becomes stronger and more self confident, and is able to appear outside of that ‘as if’ environment.

 

Prayer can do much the same thing, indeed that’s its very purpose: to take us into a space where we can be naked and wholly honestly ourselves before God and know that we are accepted and loved just as we are.

 

These ‘as if’ moments are both more common than we might have thought, and have the capacity to change the way we behave. Used discerningly they can help us to become happier and more contented, fulfilled human beings: to release the ‘image of God’ in us.

 

But I suspect that there is more to it than that. My experience walking along the towpath which I described in ‘an ‘other’ world ’ is of a piece with many of my other ‘as if’ experiences, and is certainly of a piece with what I sometimes experience in prayer. If I put them all together they seem to suggest the existence of a parallel world in which I find myself from time to time, and which I can consciously seek to be a part of as often as I want. A parallel world in which I feel most truly alive and myself. A parallel world that seems more real than the world I inhabit the rest of the time, although paradoxically, its not wholly apart from it.

 

An ‘other’ world 1

A friend of mine is embarking upon a sabbatical, I say ‘embarking’ quite deliberately as he is taking his sabbatical on his narrowboat, sailing the rivers and canals of England. I went into Worcester yesterday evening to see him and to wish him well as he prepared to set off.  I left my car in a car park in the middle of the town, and went down an alleyway at the bottom of which I turned left, went down some steps and onto the canal towpath. Immediately I was in another world. A world without traffic and its attendant noise, instead just the slow silent moving of the water; hardly any people other than the occasional jogger; and while I was still in the middle of the city a towpath lined with trees. It was a green, silent, slow moving world. One running hidden and parallel to the one above which I had only just left, but running at a different pace and to a different rhythm. I recognised it:  some years ago I spent a few days with another friend on his narrowboat: that was in the midst of the countryside, and we moved slowly through fields not a city, but it was nevertheless, recognisably the same world.

 

It was a strange feeling, pleasurable, peaceful and safe, and while I initially felt an alien in it, that soon passed. It was as if I had passed through a portal into another world: one that I recognised and knew, and yet was other than the one I usually inhabited. It seemed like a wise choice for a sabbatical.

 

I found my friend’s dog, his boat and the man himself, in that order, and we set off to find a pub he knew, to get ourselves something to eat and drink. That meant we left the towpath and went back up into the city, albeit narrow, back streets, not the main thoroughfares. And the strange thing was that the sense of ‘otherworldliness’ came with us: it was as if we stayed in that ‘other’ world while walking the streets of the more usual one. He took me to a wonderful old pub, full of history; feeling just like pubs used to feel: lots of wood and nooks and crannies. The pies were both filling and tasty, the beer great. And the talk was good too. And then we walked back to his boat and his dog, where we lit our pipes, had a second small beer and continued talking. And it was as if the whole experience took place is this ‘otherworld’ that I had stumbled upon

 

He talked of what had been happening for him since last we met, and I told him of what a full and stimulating summer I’d enjoyed. In particular I mentioned my fascination with the subject of ‘consciousness’.  He and I were sat there in the confined space of his boat. I looked at him and he looked at me. I could see him, the clothes he was wearing, and what he was doing [not very much] but I had little or no knowledge of what was going on in his head. Any more than he would know what was going on in mine. I was focused on what we were saying, but simultaneously my mind was taking in all sorts of other information: what his dog was up to, the sounds from outside, what I could see within the boat, plus all the various feelings that I was aware of within me, some of them current, some that I had brought with me, together with memories that suddenly burst onto the scene unannounced. This inner world is what I think of as the real me, and its invariably more significant to me than what I’m wearing, where I am and what I’m doing: but it is this outer world that others see as the real me: indeed they have nothing else to go on.

 

My friend is a good friend: we know each other quite well. We often meet for a few beers, and maybe a whisky, and we drink and talk and smoke together usually till quite late. The ‘crack’ is frequently very good, and when it is, it is as if we are then also in this ‘otherworld’.

 

I think that I have always known that it is as if this ordinary world has another, hidden dimension: an ‘otherworld’ in which I often find myself, much to my surprise, and which I recognise. But I have no conscious control over entry. Finding myself there is always a gift. Children I fancy frequently go there, finding it seems easier for them, and they seem very at home in it. But there are things I can do, places I can be, which sometimes offer access to this otherworld, if I am fortunate.  The canal and its towpath is clearly one such. Use of the imagination, and the temporary suspension of the rational mind, are key, I sense, and our culture doesn’t on the surface, give much credence to such matters. But I suspect that you will know what I’m talking about. When I tried not very coherently to say something about it last night my friend seemed to recognise what I was on about straight away.

 

I sense that is a first shot at a target that has been preoccupying me for some time, and to which I shall almost certainly return. There are plenty of loose ends here, and other adjacent and inter-connected paths to be explored too. So if you resonate with what I’m trying to articulate it would be good to hear from you.

 

 

 

‘Which Jesus’ : a further thought

I have mostly found the idea of The Trinity quite easy to understand. As I think of it, it contains three aspects of the same thing. This is not an unfamiliar concept: I am one person, but everybody who encounters me will encounter a slightly different face, and some quite different faces. The baby boy my mother held at my birth, is different from the priest who preaches a sermon or celebrates the eucharist, who is different again from the man on the edge of his seat when Spurs are playing. Yet it is the same person, manifesting in different ways. All are equally me. There is no competition.

 

So it is with God: there is God: the transcendent mystery beyond all our knowing; there is the Spirit of God which enlivens all of creation; and there is Jesus: God in human form. Each manifesting the divine in different ways. All equally God, and again, no competition.

 

As I look back over my life I am aware that a different member of the Trinity has been of primary importance to me at different stages of my life. When I was a young man a friend suggested to me that I was a Christian ‘because I couldn’t get Jesus out of my hair’ and they were right.  Editing a community newspaper in inner-city south London in my late twenties I quickly learnt that there were people whose behaviour and commitment was such that I could not but see the activity of the Spirit of God in who and how they were, although they professed no Christian faith and attended no church. My role as editor, as I saw it, was the support the activity of the Spirit of God wherever I encountered it in that community as best I could. As I got older the more reflective, contemplative side of me grew stronger, and I found deep satisfaction in the silence and stillness of a mysterious God beyond my comprehension.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I have been aware of all three members of the Trinity throughout my life, but it has usually been the case that at any particular time, one of them has seemed more important than the others. As I have listened to people tell me their stories over the years, I have noticed that this insight seems to be true for many of them also.

 

I have had no conscious control over which member of the Trinity was pre-eminent at any particular time, nor have I had any conscious control over when the pre-eminent member changed. It just seemed to happen, and is therefore nothing for me to worry about. But what I have also learnt is that when one member seems to be paramount, then its important not to forget the other two. For example, if Jesus seems most important to me now, then I must make space in my awareness for the activity of the Spirit of God and the unknowable mystery of God too, acting as a sort of counter- balance. This feels to me to be healthy.

 

The same insight applies to the question of ‘which Jesus’. At any one time one of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, ‘Jesus the Christ’, and the ‘Cosmic Christ’ will seem more important, more significant, in my life, and that is fine. But it is important that I never forget the other two, but rather make space for my awareness of them to balance me in my relationship with ‘Jesus’.

 

And this holds true for the church as well. Most churches will have a named or un-named bias toward one of the manifestations of ‘Jesus’. That is fine. But if the church is to be healthy then it needs to do one of two things:

either, make space for, and discriminate in favour of, the other ‘Jesus’ manifestations. A pentecostal church with an active programme of social engagement with its local community, and a contemplative prayer group, for example.  And, be open to ‘the pre-eminent Jesus manifestation’ changing over time and to be willing to embrace that and not see it as some sort of failure.

or, encourage groups of local churches emphasising different ‘Jesus’ manifestations to come together in ways that make it possible and indeed desirable for people to be able to move naturally and with everyones blessing, from one church to another as their spirituality grows and changes, without anybody feeling threatened by that.

 

What is true at a local level should also be true at a national and international level. A healthy church will honour and serve each and all of the manifestations of the ‘Jesus Trinity’, and see it as its task to live at harmony with all of them: much as we believe happens within The Trinity. There is no competition.

Which Jesus?

People in church circles often talk about Jesus as if it’s perfectly obvious who they are referring to, but increasingly I find myself wanting to ask ‘which Jesus are you talking about?’  I know that my question will baffle them: ‘there’s only one Jesus’ they will reply, and of course in one sense they are perfectly correct, but in another they are not.  Jesus is known in at last three, distinguishable manifestations. There is a sort of ‘trinity’ of Jesus.

First there is Jesus the first century Jew who came from Nazareth, and who lived and taught in Palestine before being crucified by the Romans at the instigation of the Jewish religious authorities.

Secondly, there is the risen, resurrected Jesus, the Christ who made himself known to his friends and followers in the days and weeks after his death, and to whom they continued to pray, confident in the knowledge that He was still with them and would continue to guide them.  The guidance that He gave was in significant ways other than that offered by Jesus the Palestinian Jew: for example he called Paul to take his Gospel to non-Jews, and in a vision to Peter, exempted them from commitment to the keeping of the Jewish Law.

His earliest friends and followers who had personally known the physical Jesus of Nazareth made no distinction between that figure and the Christ who continued to guide them after his death: for them he was obviously one and the same. So in the Gospels which tell of the story of Jesus the Christ they were not concerned to distinguish between words uttered by Jesus of Nazareth and those spoken later by Jesus the Christ.  Such a distinction would have seemed meaningless to them. But for the future generations of followers, who had not known the physical Jesus of Nazareth, but who certainly felt they knew the Risen Christ, the distinction became increasingly important. Not least because the Risen Christ continued to lead his followers into ‘all truth’ as he had promised, and that frequently meant going beyond the letter of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught, while remaining consistent with its spirit. We call it interpreting ‘Jesus for today’s world.’ So the church has opposed slavery, embraced the equality of women, and will soon acknowledge the equality of gay and transgender men and women. Jesus of Nazareth didn’t do any of these things specifically, they weren’t live issues in his time and culture, but they all follow from his Gospel of ‘love one another.’

Thirdly, in addition to the physical Jesus of Nazareth, and the Risen Christ experienced by millions since, there is the Cosmic Christ Who is described as having metaphorically ascended into heaven there to sit at God’s right hand in glory. It is this Cosmic Christ of Whom John speaks in the first chapter of his gospel where John describes Him as the Word of God Who ‘was with God at the beginning, and through Whom all things came to be; without Him no created being came into being. In Him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it.’  This Cosmic Christ has existed from the very beginning of everything, has been involved in the creation of everything, and is the light of every single human person who ever was and ever will be, both here on earth and beyond. This is quite a leap from the physical Jesus of Nazareth, although less of one from the Risen Christ.

So when people speak of Jesus I need to ask which member of the ‘Jesus Trinity’ they are talking about? The physical Jesus of Nazareth, who partakes of our humanity by being born into a particular culture at a particular time, with all the limitations of that time and culture? The Risen Christ, Who transcends death and is our hope and intimation of life beyond death, and Who guides those who seek His guidance in this earthly life? Or the Cosmic Christ pre-existent from the beginning, intimately involved in all creation, and Who indwells, and is known by, all human beings, even those who don’t name Him as such, whether living or dead?

I need to ask my question, of them and indeed of myself, because the answer will greatly influence what is said. For example should we be telling non-Christians about Jesus of Nazareth about whom they may know very little or nothing?  Or should we be inviting them to articulate and trust their religious experience, with the assumption that it may be the voice of the Risen Christ speaking to them? Or should we rather be assuming that the Cosmic Christ will have made Him/Herself known to them already, and our task is to acknowledge and affirm the Cosmic Christ in them, and learn from Her/Him?

Three very different, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, approaches. One of the supplementary challenges is to find a way of holding these three different approaches in a creative tension, which does justice to each of them while affirming all of them. To be true to the principles for which Jesus of Nazareth lived and died; under the guidance of the Risen Christ in the context of the time and culture in which we find ourselves; as we allow ourselves to be drawn into the greater vision offered us by the Cosmic Christ.

Love is the glue which will hold these three together in creative tension, so much attention needs to be given to the task of building loving mutually tolerant communities of which we seek to be loving, mutually tolerant members. Jesus of Nazareth commanded us to love one another, not to agree about everything, or to know all the answers !

This of course is pretty much what we have to try to do anyway with a traditional view of The Trinity, but for me it sharpens and clarifies the task.

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