The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Author: Henry Morgan (page 2 of 7)

More feral priesthood

We live quite near a river, and I can walk down a lane and across some fields to get to it in about 20 minutes. I often do so, for there is one particular spot that I recognise as a holy place, and I love to go there to sit, listen, look, and just be aware of what’s around me. I invariably come away feeling strangely blessed.

There isn’t usually much animal life to see, a swan or or two occasionally, some Canada geese flying by, and others who value the place as I do, say that they’ve seen a kingfisher but I haven’t been so lucky. Imagine my surprise then, when a month or two back I saw a small something moving on the opposite bank. Might it be a baby moorhen? Then it started out across the river in my direction at some speed and in a straight line. It reached the bank along from where I sat, but by that time I could see that it had a long dark body. Might it be an otter? My wild life recognition is of a low standard so I asked my wife when I got home and from my description she said that she thought that it was indeed an otter.

A week or two later, sat in the same spot, under an overhanging tree, I was gazing at the river when I saw not one otter but three. One playing in the water to my left, a second to my right who sat up and looked at me, and a third swimming across the river towards the others. I felt myself to be richly blessed. I’ve returned to the same spot regularly since, in hope, but without another sighting. Still, each time I say a prayer for the otters who in blessing seemed to be praying for me. A bond had been established between us.

Yesterday morning I went for my familiar silent walk down to the river. It was a beautiful day and I stopped to gaze at a solitary proud oak in a field, the light gleaming on distant fields, the varying shades of blue of the sky, all around me looked green and verdant. But when I arrived at my holy place by the river I was dismayed to find that the tree where I sat and saw the otters, had been cut down, the trunk and branches littered and left across the path and the area cleared. It felt like a senseless act of desecration and made me very angry. I wondered what had became of the otter family? I walked home feeling very depressed.

But then I slowly started to make connections. Two months ago when I was praying for the dead one Sunday morning I sensed that my Dad who was a Quaker, was suggesting that I attend a local Quaker meeting. The place had some previous for me as 30 years ago I’d visited and bought a subsequently much treasured Celtic drum from the then Warden of the place. Some weeks later I attended one Sunday morning, wondering why I was there, and left glad that I’d gone but none the wiser.

Walking back from the river feeling depressed I remembered that years ago, walking in the Surrey hills with my drum, I’d come across what felt like a vast tree graveyard, where the hurricane had laid waste a section of forest. Appalled by what I saw and felt, I was impelled to drum a funeral for these trees and did so, standing or sitting on each and every broken stump. It probably took some time, but felt quite out of time. Suddenly I knew what I now had to do.

Arriving home I got out my drum and cleaned and tended to it. This Sunday morning I woke soon after 5, got up, washed dressed, and drank a cup of tea. I collected my drum from my shed and set out for the river. I sensed that I was at one with the women setting out early on Easter morning to visit the tomb. It was cloudy with a light breeze, dawn colours were appearing over the horizon. It was quiet with no sight or sound of human activity. Horses in a field I passed looked at me, knowingly I thought. The walk there was beautiful. When I reached the scene I took my drum out of its bag, and walked slowly around the area drumming quietly. I sat on the fallen tree trunk and drummed there. Then I went & sat on the bank amidst the debris & drummed briefly before stopping and listening, and becoming aware. Nature seemed to be taking the devastation in its stride, as if to say, ‘well this is what happens, and we know how to deal with it.’ God was speaking in the wind through the trees, and the water moving gracefully down the river. All was calm. The early morning light wasn’t bright, there was no direct sunshine, it was more of a pastel shade. The birds were singing: I could hear a cuckoo across the river. Canada geese were honking in the background. There was no sign of the otters. I felt very relaxed & at peace sitting on the bank just above the water: something I could not have done before. I felt myself healed, and that the natural world was very capable of healing itself, and was already doing so. I stayed there for a while, before getting up & walking slowly home. There had been a dying and there was also a rising. I had done what I felt that I had needed to do, whatever that was: I didn’t need to know. The walk back was beautiful, the horses in the field all turned to look at me as I passed. There was rain in the air as I got home.

I made coffee that I took down to my shed, where I hung up my drum and reviewed what had happened. This is feral priesthood: it began with the otters, then Dad suggesting I go to the Quakers, with their link to my drum, then seeing the desecration and remembering my drumming a funeral for the trees years ago, then my decision to visit the grave early this morning, and my realisation that I was following in the footsteps of the women on Easter morning, with a not dissimilar result, I went to a place that I knew as a place of suffering and death, and found a place bursting with new life, and healing. Wonderful. Thank you.

Why did Jesus feel the need to repent?

I recently attended a church service, where the Gospel reading was the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river. The preacher noted that John proclaimed that his baptism was a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and, in passing, commented that because Jesus was without sin he would have had no need of John’s baptism.  He is not the first to be puzzled as to why Jesus felt the need to be baptised by John: Matthew in his Gospel was equally puzzled. I understand the confusion: if you are thinking of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ or the Risen Lord then you might well think of him as being without sin. [see my article ‘Which Jesus’] But it seems clear that the man Jesus of Nazareth did feel the need for John’s baptism as a sign of his repentance, and I wonder what it was that he needed to repent of?  The Gospels don’t tell us, so ultimately we’ll never know, but I find myself intrigued by the question. 

Jesus often taught people by telling them stories. I wonder where he got the ideas for his stories? Some appear to be derived from images in the Old Testament, like those about a vineyard. Others seem to have been drawn from everyday life in Galilee, like those about a sower, the giving of a party, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, or the gathering of crops at harvest.  But in my experience the best stories are often derived from personal experience and I wonder if some of Jesus’ stories might have been?  The story of his baptism, which only he could have told, must be one but I wonder if there might be more?  I am thinking of two other stories that stand out for me, because they are seem more focused and detailed than the rest. 

I remember, many years ago, reading the suggestion that the story of The Good Samaritan’ may have had its origins in an event that happened to Jesus himself: that he had been attacked and beaten up while on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, and that it was his experience of being ignored by religious people whom he’d expected to help him, and looked after by a man whom he’d viewed as his enemy. that caused him to rethink his views about who his neighbour is.  The suggestion was that eventually he told the story in order to challenge the conventional view about who was one’s neighbour, hoping that what had changed him might well change others too. As indeed it has. 

I find that suggestion very plausible. Not least because there is at least one other story in the Gospels that tells of how a personal experience persuaded Jesus to change his mind about a conventionally held view. I refer to the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged for Jesus to heal her child and whom Jesus initially refused to help because she was not a Jew, until her persistence changed his mind. Again it was a foreigner who was the catalyst, and in this case a woman.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus was often surprised by the faith shown by foreigners, and even remarked that they showed more faith than his fellow Jews. It seems that God taught him things through them that he hadn’t learnt from his Jewish inheritance. 

It was while I was pondering the preacher’s words about Jesus having no need for John’s baptism of repentance, that I found myself drawn to his story of ‘The Prodigal Son’, and suddenly the lights came on. Again it’s a story with quite a bit of detail, it has no obvious Old Testament antecedents, and its unlikely to have been an everyday occurrence in Palestine.  Might this also be a story from Jesus’ own experience?  Might it be that he had left home as a young man taking with him his share of his inheritance?, that he subsequently squandered it and so had to undertake the ritually unclean work of looking after pigs owned by a non Jew, before coming to his senses and returning to his father where to his surprise he found forgiveness and a celebratory welcome he had not anticipated?  Clearly this is conjecture, and we’ll never know what the origins of this story actually were. But again it does seem plausible to me, and it would make sense of a number of other things as well. 

[1]. Crucially, it could explain why Jesus felt the need for the repentance offered by John’s baptism. He had received his father’s forgiveness, but his behaviour had resulted in him being ritually unclean and he no doubt felt the need for God’s forgiveness too. 

[2]. The words that God spoke to him at his baptism ‘you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased’ could easily be imagined as the gist of what the father said to the returning prodigal. The message is likely to have been the same.  If so, it would be overwhelmingly powerful for Jesus to be received and welcomed by God in exactly the way his earthly father had received him. It could be the reason why he spoke of God as ‘Abba’, a Jewish child’s familiar name for its father.  No wonder he had to go away by himself into the wilderness to ponder the implications of this. Was what he had learnt to be true for him also true for others too?  And if so did his Heavenly Father want him to share what he’d learnt ? Was not this the essence of the Good News of God’s Kingdom that he left the wilderness to preach about? 

[3]. It could lie behind Jesus insistence that we sort out our personal relationship problems before asking for God’s forgiveness, because that had been his experience. 

[4]. It might explain why Jesus consistently sought out those whose life experience left them as outsiders in the Jewish community, and his concern, in God’s name, to include them. By his behaviour he had made himself an outsider, but he had then found himself graciously accepted, included and affirmed. 

[5]. It might lie behind his realisation that humans are not made unclean in God’s sight by external matters like working with pigs, but only by what lies in the human heart. 

[6]. It might lie behind the visit Jesus made to the country of the Gerasenes, where he cured a man and sent the evil spirits that had possessed him into a herd of pigs. Maybe this was where Jesus went when he left home, maybe he knew this herd of pigs, these people, and this man who was possessed. Maybe that was why he felt the need to go there? 

[7]. It might also in part explain those scenes in the Gospels when Jesus’ family clearly think that he’s not in his right mind and want to take him away, and which lead to him disowning them, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’  If Jesus had behaved like the prodigal son it is easy to see that this might not have gone down well with the rest of his family, whatever his father might have thought, and especially his brothers. And if he then capped that by claiming a religious experience at his baptism, in which God also delighted in him as His beloved Son, you can see how they might have been concerned. 

The more I ponder the above, the more I sense that there is truth in it, and if that’s correct, several things seem to follow: 

[1]. It rehabilitates Joseph from being a peripheral figure in Jesus’ story, to being a vital & central one. Certainly as important as Mary. 

[2]. Jesus whole life-story becomes a powerful example of the truth that ‘nothing can separate us from the Love of God’, not even what looks like failure and humiliation.  In that it prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

[3]. It becomes not just a piece of abstract theological truth but the direct consequence of Jesus’ lived experience.   

[4]. It encourages us to treat our own experience as one of the most powerful ways through which God can and does speak to us.   

[5]. More: an acknowledged sense of failure has the potential to be the best thing that’s happened to us. And beware those who seems to have no acknowledged sense of failure. 

As I’ve said, this is all conjecture. There are alternative hypothesises which could explain all the points I’ve made, but they’re conjecture too. We will never know the truth of it.  But the question of why Jesus went to be baptised by John remains intriguing, and surely merits exploration, not least because it challenges many of our assumptions about Jesus.   So I apply the criteria ‘If this is true does it enhance and deepen my understanding of Jesus? And does it deepen and enhance my own relationship with God? For me the answer is ‘Yes’ to both, and so I intuitively sense that there is truth in it.   

The Scapegoat

Some Conservative MPs want to assassinate the Prime Minister. Not literally of course, they don’t wish her dead. But they do wish her gone. ‘If only we can get rid of her, then our problems will be resolved. It is all her fault.’ That is their view. No matter that most people point out that removing the Prime Minister will do nothing to solve the issue we’re facing, indeed, will probably make it harder to manage. Its not actually the Prime Minister who is the prime problem here

It’s a painfully familiar cry. Every time I hear it I know that something nasty, maybe even ‘evil’, is being proposed: placing all the blame for something, on one person, or group of people, for if we can only get rid of ‘them’ then the problem will go away. Hitler did it to the Jews. Many today, like Mr Trump, are doing it to immigrants, as nationalists everywhere, are prone to do. Its never true of course, but its a simple way of placing responsibility for an uncomfortable issue, on someone else, so that we can avoid our own responsibility for dealing with it. Its called ‘Scapegoating’ and the individual or group scapegoated are Scapegoats. There’s always a nasty smell in the air: massive injustice lurks and is about to be perpetrated on somebody, somebodies, who are deemed to be vulnerable and disposable.

It’s a process that has a long history. It began in the Old Testament, where the Jews were worried that their sins might provoke God’s wrath upon them. They had a list of likely sins with sacrifices that should be offered to God in penitence. But there was concern that some sins might not have been recognised or adequately atoned for, so, once a year an innocent goat was sent off into the desert, symbolically bearing those un-atoned sins of the people, to wander and die, as a sacrifice. It was known as the scapegoat and was seen, centuries later, by some early Christians as being a good image for Jesus and for explaining what they knew from experience had occurred as a result of His innocent death. Its an image that doesn’t make much sense to me with respect to Jesus, but there’s no doubt as to its continuing power, and of the willingness of people feeling themselves to be guilty and under threat, to use it to divert attention and responsibility somewhere else. ‘We’re not to blame, its not our fault, its nothing we’ve done, its all down to him/her or them, over there. Its all their fault, they’re responsible. Anybody but us. Just get rid of him/her/them, and everything will be alright.’

As I said, its not an image that I find at all helpful for Jesus. Its an image for an action which most of us can see with hindsight to have been abhorrent. Yet it continues to be recognisable in all walks of life, from the personal to the public.
Even the church has a line on it: the Roman Catholic Church is currently coming under fire, and rightly so, for the abusive behaviour of some of its priests, and the church is punishing the guilty ones. But the real responsibility, it seems to me, lies with the institution itself, which demands that all priests be celibate. A demand that makes the abusive behaviour all but inevitable. Rather than acknowledge that and reform itself the church scapegoats the expendable individuals. Society at large is little better, many of those languishing in prisons, in poverty, or in deprivation are being punished by society for it’s failure to care and provide adequately for all of its members.

Sadly, we seem to be less skilled at recognising it in the present, especially when we ourselves are doing the scapegoating: whether its individuals, groups, nations, religions or races who are involved. And of course, its always those judged to be weak and vulnerable who are picked on, rarely the powerful.

Bring it on!

Last night I slept till just after midnight, when I awoke remembering that I hadn’t completed my prayers before falling asleep, so I did so. When I had finished I was fully awake so I went downstairs, made a cup of tea, and sat in Sarah’s chair [a chair we bought recently and which, for me, is in memory of my daughter who died in the spring].  It felt right to sit there rather than outside, although I did go and stand outside briefly and welcomed the fresh cool breeze on my face. Sarah’s chair increasingly feels like a holy place for me.  It connects me with her, of course, and thence to our family and beyond to all of humanity, living, dead and yet to be born, and it’s a place where I feel comfortable, at ease and safe. We’ve been looking for a chair that I feel comfortable sitting in for what seems like ages and at last we’ve found one.  I lit a candle and sat and mulled:

Its less than two months since I returned my PTO and went feral, and much has happened, as is usually the case when I look back over any period of my life: more than I was aware of while it was happening.  The cumulative effect has felt very affirming.

In response to my letter, I received a friendly phone message from the Bishop.  I’ve encountered a number of people who have something of the feral about them, so I’m not alone. I had rich fellowship with Roy and Christine in St Albans. I’ve been party to conversations not only at home, but in Lewisham and Lincolnshire.  I spent time sitting by the river and sensed the Divine Presence in the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Sylvia’s garden has a been a source of wonder with all the autumnal colours. I was challenged by Grayson Perry’s series of tv programmes on rites of passage.  I led a retreat for some Methodists in Ilkley, where I was blessed with deep encounters, and led a silent eucharist.  I spent a long weekend with two grandchildren in Surrey, and found pleasure in simple things.   I met with two brothers in Ludlow to share our reflections on the spirituality of van Morrison, and was stimulated and nourished by the experience, not least in being aware of the divine activity in a man who “wouldn’t touch religion with a ten foot pole’.   I shared in a simple and moving communion service in a friends home in Ely. I was graced with the hospitality of Val and Graham at Stixwould.  My times of prayer have been stimulating and challenging.

I’ve been blessed with lots of support and encouragement for my new adventure, including the gift of a carved wooden sign with the designation ‘Feral Priest’, that I’ll hang on my shed door.  I’ve read several books, one of theology, one a novel and the third a book of poetry, that have echoed and fed my experience in the way that books I find myself reading often do. Together they have made me aware that feral is very Celtic: a connection that I’d hadn’t explicitly made before. There have been moments of pain, anxiety and sadness too, but overall its been a rich and busy time, and I’m quite tired as a consequence. But I’m loving the sense of freedom.  If this is feral priesthood bring it on!

Its often been the case. that when I have followed what I sensed was a prompting from God, and have taken a first step in response, that I experience what l call a ‘following wind’ for a period, which seems to authenticate it. It doesn’t last, but it does provide an initial impetus, which is encouraging.   Its often followed by a flat and barren period which can cause me to doubt, but is really a challenge to deepen my trust.  I await that to arrive in due course.

 

Going Feral

In September of this year I marked the 48th anniversary of my ordination by writing to my Bishop and returning the Permission to Officiate [PTO] that he kindly gave me when we moved into his Diocese some years ago. It seemed in some ways like a very small thing to be doing, although in other ways is seemed like a very big one, and it was one that I had mulled about for some time over the summer.

In part it was because I no longer need the permission he had given me: I am not being used in the parish where we lived; and I had asked for my name to be removed from the Diocesan list of spiritual directors as I no longer had confidence in the manner in which it is now proposed that it will be used.

But more importantly, I have been sensing that God is calling me to what I think of as the exercise of a feral priesthood to the whole of creation. An animal is deemed to be feral when it has escaped captivity or domestication, and I felt that I was being called to exercise my priesthood increasingly outside the institution of the church, and in a bigger context. Rationally there is no reason why I could not do that and retain my PTO, but deep down I knew that I had to let it go in order to feel free to explore where God seemed to be calling me. This has been a gradual process that has been emerging over some time but a number of things have happened recently which have brought it more sharply into focus.

A couple of years ago I had an operation for bowel cancer followed by a course of chemotherapy, and that made me very aware of my own mortality: that one day I will die. That in turn led me to review the question of the meaning of my life.  Gradually I found myself wanting to pray for the dead: for people who have been important in my life and from whom I have received much, and who are now dead.  When one of my daughters died suddenly earlier this year that prayer assumed an even greater importance, and now every night before I go to sleep I hold before God in love all the members of my family whom I have known, both the living and the dead, as well as the yet unborn. And I have been moved to realise that I am a part of a mutually supportive web of prayer that transcends death and even birth, and in which others are holding me in love as I hold them. Each night I also give thanks and pray for men and women of the past who continue to feed nourish and inspire me through their music, art, poetry etc. My shed where I pray is filled with books mostly written by people now dead, by visual images created by people now dead, and I listen to music composed and played mostly by people now dead.  I am finding this a profound experience in which I know myself to be a part of a much bigger picture than the one I am usually aware of in everyday life.

This summer we stayed with our friends Anna and Adrian in Thirsk. I knew that Adrian has for some time been getting up to pray in the night and I was keen to join him while we were there, and he was kind enough to let me.  We sat together in his garden for an hour, in the middle of the night, and prayed in silence together.  It was very quiet and still. There was the sound of an occasional train passing though Thirsk, a car drove down a nearby road, and there were animal sounds, but mostly it was silent. The sky was pretty clear and I could see stars shining brightly, some of the light came from stars far away in our galaxy: light from stars which might no longer exist; light which set out on its journey to earth before humankind evolved here. I felt very small and insignificant by comparison.  And as I prayed silently it seemed to me as if the trees, and flowers and plants in the garden were also praying in their own way, and I became aware of myself as a part of the natural world all of it praying in the silence and stillness. I am a small part of a much bigger praying picture.  Our earthly concerns seemed trivial by comparison. It was a very powerful experience, and I am grateful to Adrian for allowing me to share it with him.

Since returning home I have found my own pattern of something similar. When my body wakes in the night, as it often does, and when I feel myself to be wide awake and not ready to go back to sleep, I go and sit outside. The silence and stillness into which I enter is often quite palpable, and I feel myself held in something much greater than myself, which I take to be God. I leave it reluctantly and feeling much enriched.

We live in a beautiful place, and there are places of silence and stillness within walking distance: by a river, on a hillside over looking the river, and in some woods. So when I’m at home I make time, during the day, to go and sit quietly in one of these places.  The experience is much the same as my night vigils.

My time of prayer in the mornings, in my shed, has become wonderfully rich and in it I use a range of senses, and resources that I have acquired over the years.   I light a candle, burn a joss stick and turn on a water feature. I use the simple outline of an Office, and incorporate music, Bible study, art, and poetry. I meditate on wisdom from across the centuries, mull on recent notes that I have made, offer up my intercessions, and pray by painting with colour, before keeping a period of silence.  I love it and look forward to it every day.  At night, as I lie in bed, I hold in love before God those both living, dead and yet to be born, who make up the vast web of humanity of which I am a part.

So, I have found myself called to be aware of this much bigger, richer, deeper picture. Being a feral priest frees me to explore it.  I know that it wont always seem so rich and wonderful as it does now. In the future there will be times of darkness and emptiness as there always are. But my experience has taught me that when I trust my sense of being called into something by God, other doors always open, often surprising and unexpected doors. I have no idea what all this will mean or where it will take me.  Indeed it is good not to know. I am excited by the freedom, and feel blessed to have been offered it.

One of the consequences is that church worship by comparison with my daily prayer, lacks, vision, creativity and depth. Often it feels tired and out of touch, and leaves me feeling depressed. I haven’t stopped attending my local church: I value taking communion, and meeting with the friends I have there. But I now go less often.

Much of the rest of my life and ministry will go on as before. There may be little noticeable change. Certainly my ministry of spiritual direction will continue, indeed I suspect that my feral calling may enhance it.  I know from some of the conversations that I’ve had that there are others who share much of what I have tried to articulate here.  There are clearly other feral priests about, each incarnating it differently. There are plenty of feral lay Christians. Indeed I suspect that there are feral men and women in every faith tradition and in none.  There are also many who God continues to call to exercise their ministries within the institutional church. Hopefully we will find ways of cross fertilising what God is leading us each into, to our mutual benefit and God’s greater glory.

Is there life after death?

 

A recent brush with cancer, that may not yet be over, together with the deaths of family members, and my own advancing years, have led me to consider my own mortality and to think again about what I believe lies beyond death, if indeed anything does.  I take this to be a healthy exercise and am grateful that life has encouraged me to mull on it.  The more so, as it’s the big taboo subject in our materialistic society: it’s the conversation nobody wants to have and all seem keen to avoid.  So far, my mullings have been encouraging, my trust in God has been deepened, and without in any way desirous of death, I find myself increasingly confident that death is not the end, and there is a part of me that is curious about it will be like.  What has nourished my confidence?

1““Observing the natural world, of which I am a part, I notice that nothing ever disappears, but over time everything changes into something else, and is transformed. There is a constant process of recycling: of birth, growth, maturity, decline, death, and decay which in turn leads to new birth. This appears to be true of everything.  Why should we be different?

Moreover, this pattern replays itself constantly throughout our lives. We grow and then we have to let go, and move on to more growth and yet more letting go.  We grow in our mothers’ womb, but we have to leave that place of apparent security where everything we need is supplied, to be born into the world. We have to leave home for school; we leave one school for another; we leave education to begin work, we leave home to create a new home of our own; in time we leave work and retire. We continue with this process of growth followed by loss, followed by a fresh opportunity for growth, throughout our lives. Life is a constant process of growth through letting go of what has become familiar. You might argue that life is designed for us to learn to do this gracefully and hopefully.  The opportunities for transformation come thick and fast, we often don’t welcome them, indeed, we are sometimes dragged kicking and screaming into them, but what looks unfamiliar and frightening frequently turns out to be full of gift and new possibilities.  Hopefully as our lives draw to an end we will have become accustomed to this pattern, and learnt to appreciate it as gift, and that therefore there is never anything to be afraid of. As  angels in the New Testament always seems to say, ‘Fear not.’

Does this process come to an end at death?  Physically it does. When we die our bodies return to the earth, whether we’re buried or cremated, the result is the same. But are we just our bodies? Is there more to us than that?

“A starting point for any reflection on the nature of life is death, comparing the dead body of a person or animal or plant with the living state that preceded it. The amount of matter in the dead body is the same as in the living body, the form of the body is the same, and the chemicals in it are the same, at least immediately after death. But something has changed. The most obvious conclusion is that something has left the body and since there’s little or no change in weight, that which has left is essentially immaterial.” [Rupert Sheldrake]

I can remember coming to a similar conclusion on witnessing the birth of each of my daughters.  When confronted with the awe and wonder of the arrival of a new life, I found myself wondering ‘where has this new life come from?’ A basic understanding of the biology involved felt like a wholly inadequate answer. It seemed obvious that something more than that was involved: that we are more than just our bodies.

I have thought for a long time that the question ‘is there life after death?’ can’t be answered apart from the question ‘is there life before birth?’  The two questions seem to stand together.  I recall the comment of Deepak Chopra: “Every life is framed by two mysteries. Only one of them, birth, is considered a miracle. The other is death.”  The two mysteries look rather similar as the story of ‘the twins in the womb’ suggests:

“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.” 

 

2“““`“So universal is the assumption that something does happen next that the reductionist scientific culture of the West is almost alone in its unshakeable belief in the finality of death.” [Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick ] If there was a democratic vote amongst all the humans who’ve ever lived on whether they believed in life in some form, after death, there would be an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote.   That doesn’t necessarily mean that its true, of course.  But we do seem to be hard wired to believe it.  Irvin Yalom wrote: “I have noted two particularly powerful and common methods of allaying fears about death, two beliefs or delusions, that afford a sense of safety. One is the belief in personal specialness; and the other, the belief in an ultimate rescuer………these are universal beliefs which, at some level of consciousness, exist in all of us.”   What Yalom is saying sounds very like an example of what I have elsewhere referred to as a ‘Memory of Home’.

The assumption that death is not the end runs pretty deep in us, perhaps even is innate in us, and evidence is emerging that supports this assumption.

 

3““`Recent surveys have shown that between 10-25% of people who recover from a cardiac arrest report they have had an experience during it that is now called a ‘Temporary Death Experience’, a TDE, because they were clinically dead at the time. These TDEs have a number of common features:

A sense of entering into light

A sense of journeying, typically into an English country garden

A meeting with dead relatives who welcome them and sometimes send them back

But the features which are the most memorable and significant for the person concerned are the peace and calmness and, in the deeper experiences, the intense compassion, love and light that are experienced.  They are life enhancing in that the person feels safe and cared for, and on their return to life have little or no fear of death any more.

This is consistent with Near Death Experiences, NDEs, where people do not clinically die, but have an experience which they describe as nearly dying.  A Gallup Survey in the US in 1982 suggested that 4% of the population had had an experience of this sort.  Peter Fenwick, the leading authority on NDEs in the UK says that a blueprint of a characteristic NDE will include:

An overwhelming feeling of peace, joy and bliss.

The person leaves their body and can look down on themselves, and is sometimes able to describe in accurate detail what took place in the operating theatre where their body lies.

They may enter darkness, usually a dark tunnel, and at the end they see a pinpoint of light, which as they approach it, grows larger and larger.

The approaching light is described as white or golden, but not painful to the eyes. Very often it seems to act almost as a magnet, drawing the person towards itself.

They may meet a ‘being’ of light, sometimes a religious figure, sometimes simply a presence, that is warm and welcoming.

Sometimes people sense that there is some sort of barrier between them and the light, which in some way marks a point of no return.

People often say they have visited another country, usually an idyllic pastoral scene, or that they have glimpsed such a place beyond the barrier.

Occasionally other people are encountered too, usually dead relatives, more rarely friends who are still alive, or strangers.

At some point the person may see events from their life flash before them. For some events are unfolded to them which are to take place in the future. And some are told there are tasks ahead of them which they must go back and complete.

Often people want to stay, but in every case realise that this is impossible, that it is not yet their time to go. Sometimes they make the decision to go back themselves, usually because they realise that they are still needed by their families.

The return to the body is usually rapid.

For most, the NDE, like the TDE,  is one of the most profound people have ever had. Often the person returns changed in some way, though not always permanently. Virtually everyone reports that they have no fear of death, though they don’t particularly want to die.

 

Peter Fenwick and his wife Elizabeth have written a book entitled ‘The Art Of Dying’ that discusses some of the above but also evidence about the actual process of dying, what they refer to as ‘End of Life Experiences’ ELEs.  One of them is what they call ‘Deathbed Visions’ that some dying people describe, usually in a clear or only moderately impaired, consciousness.  The Fenwicks admit that they don’t know how common these experiences are, but they seem to be more common than previously thought. They are not dependent on religious belief.

The visions are nearly always seen as welcoming and the dying person responds with interest and joy.  They are usually of dead relatives, frequently someone the dying person had a close emotional contact with, and their purpose seems to be to help the person through the dying process.  Sometimes this process is taken even further, so that not only does the visitor appear in the room, but the dying person may journey with them to an intermediate reality that they perceive as being more real than the real world, and interpenetrated by light, love and compassion. Sometimes the dying person gets out of bed to try to go with their vision.

They may drift in and out of this area in the days or hours preceding death.  Both relatives and strangers may be seen, but nearly always they are experienced as a comforting presence, there to help with the dying process and holding out a promise of a continuation of consciousness.  There are many accounts of the ‘visitors’ making their first appearance in the days or weeks before death, and occasionally the ‘visitor’ may be given short shrift if their appearance is thought to be premature.

 

Like the NDEs there are feelings of absolute peace, bliss or joy, and the experience of light. In both the concept of journey is central, probably because the message of the ‘visitors’ suggests continuity and not finality. Its an optimistic message.  The TDEs are more narrative than deathbed visions and more detailed in terms of the world in which the vision is occurring. The TDE is a journey with a beginning, middle and end, which is the return. In all three the other world into which the person moves has a quality of absolute reality.

 

4        Most religions have practices whereby worshippers invoke the aid of the dead, their ancestors, and sometimes sense their active presence in their lives. There is a recognition that  individual worshippers stand in a tradition that they have inherited and that needs to be honoured and passed on to future generations. Gratitude is expressed to those who have preceded us in this world, and their continuing assistance is sought. As is the recognition that the dead have wisdom that we have forgotten, and that we need to access in making our decisions.  Prior to the Reformation, the saints were invoked by Christian worshippers in very much this way, but we’ve mostly forgotten that now, to our detriment I sense.

We also need to be aware of generations yet unborn, because the decisions we make today will affect the greater interconnected community of humankind across time.

It is a commonplace to say that we tend to see only what we’re looking for, and for the most part our eyes are closed to signs of the activities of those who have lived before us and are now dead. We might know about them in our heads as history, but we don’t know it in our souls as presence.  As I sit here writing, I’m sitting on a chair at a table, and likelihood is that those who made both chair and table are now dead. The men who built the house in which I live, most certainly are. The people who planted the trees I can see through the window are no longer here.  When I leave my house I walk along a road which has been used for hundreds of years, mostly by people on foot. The country in which I live, and everything in it, its tradition and culture, has been shaped over centuries by the men and women who have lived here. As George Eliot put it  “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

I read books by men and women who are dead, listen to music by composers long dead, wonder at art by artists who died years ago. I am hugely influenced by people no longer alive and my life now is unimaginable without them: I owe them a great debt.  Just as I owe a great debt to my parents who had a defining influence on my life, and still do, and beyond them to their parents who influenced them in turn, and so on back through the ages.  I owe a similar debt to countless ‘teachers’ who’ve consciously or unconsciously shaped my life, many of whom are no longer alive.  That I am who I am is a lot down to people who are now dead.

I can remember many years ago reflecting that it didn’t seem to make much sense to imagine that when I die everything will become clear and set, and that I will find myself in either heaven or hell or their equivalents. Rather it seems more likely that when I die I will be aware that I still have work to do before I achieve enlightenment, peace, fulfilment or whatever you might like to call it. In particular I assume that I will be even more aware than I am now, that there are people whose lives I have damaged in some way, and that I will feel the need to pray that they can successfully redeem the damage that I have done to them. Partly for their sakes, as people whom I know and love, but also for my own, for how could I enter heaven, find peace etc, without them having done so.  This sounds rather like a modern version of purgatory.

I’ve shared this notion with people who’ve felt damaged by their parents behaviour in some way or another, as just about all of us inevitably are. I’ve suggested that their parents have only passed on to them what they must have received themselves, and that this process presumably goes back many generations with damaging behaviour being passed down. How could it be otherwise?  Not all that gets passed on is damaging of course, much is creative and beneficial.  If my notion contains truth then it follows that its appropriate that we should be giving thanks for all the benefits that our ancestors have bequeathed us, and meanwhile generations of our ancestors will be praying that we succeed in redeeming the damage they have passed on to us. In attempting to do so we will have the active support of our ancestors, as we are acting for them as well as for ourselves. There may be moments when we become acutely aware of that active prayerful support.

Moreover, we’re also hoping that if we are to some extent successful, then we won’t pass on the damage to our children for them to struggle with. We are all interconnected in some way, and salvation becomes a corporate as well as an individual matter.

 

5        All this has a personal energy for me because I’ve had three experiences, each of them very much to my surprise and bewilderment, of being addressed by people whom I knew to be dead, which has left me convinced that they are still in some sense alive, and that we are deeply interconnected.  Two known to me personally and the other not. In each case it was less the content of the message that the experience conveyed, and more the unquestionable authenticity of the experience that was so powerful that it was impossible to doubt it.  They each had a ‘Damascus Road’ effect, in turning my world upside down, while being hugely life affirming.  Hence I take this stuff seriously.

 

I’ve been brought up as a Christian, I committed myself to follow Christ in my teens, I felt called called by God to be a Christian priest and was duly ordained.  The Christian faith is the star that I have sought to follow all my life, and central to it, its foundation stone, is the Resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth.  How does that story speak to all of the above?

I have always found it difficult not to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as historically sound.  I don’t pretend to understand exactly what happened, but certain facts seem to be clear. Namely that His followers either betrayed, or denied, or deserted Him. When He had been killed they all ran away and hid fearful for their lives. But a few days later they re-emerged full of confidence, telling anyone who would listen that He was alive, and willing to suffer & die for this conviction as they travelled around the then known world.  The Resurrection stories are a bit confused as if the people who tell them do not quite know or understand what happened, but there is a pattern.  People are surprised, often don’t initially recognise the figure who meets them, doubt the experience, find themselves forgiven, accepted, loved and then challenged and sent out.  Forgiveness and acceptance without judgement are key.  [A pattern you will recognise in the TDEs NDEs and ELEs that I described earlier]   It appears undeniable that something must have happened. If you disbelieve their claim of Jesus resurrection, then you have to come up with an alternative explanation for this dramatic turn-around in their behaviour.

The significance of Jesus’ resurrection seems to me to be several-fold:

Jesus believed himself to have been called at his baptism to speak and act in God’s name. But he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. The very God of whom he spoke was primarily concerned with inner, not external, transformation. A few followers understood that, but the religious authorities of his day saw him as a threat, and connived at his death. At its most basic the resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of vindicating Him: of declaring that Jesus’ insight into, and knowledge of, the nature of God was fundamentally correct.  If God exists and raised Jesus from the dead then we are offered a bigger picture that brings ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives.

For Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that death does not have the last word. There is a bigger picture that places this life on earth within a context in which we come from God at our births and return to God on our deaths. This life is not all there is, but is rather a preparation for what is to come.  Jesus vision of God’s purposes will be realised beyond death, and Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of that.  This seems to have been the core of the preaching of the first Christian communities.

They also believed that this Jesus of Nazareth whom they’d known, was still in some sense alive and continued to accompany and guide them.  They prayed to Him and He seemed to answer their prayers and indeed to guide and direct them in ways that were starnge to them, and sometimes contrary to what they’d previously understood Him to teach. This is as true for us now as it was for them then.  To learn to trust this process is to enter into eternal life and to begin to incarnate it here, now, as Jesus Himself had done.

In summary, my mullings have nourished my trust in God as revealed through Jesus; my awareness that the Risen Christ has guided and sustained me throughout my life, and my trust that He will continue to do so both in life and in death; and my hope that death is but a gateway through which we will all pass, and that there is nothing for us to fear.  This life is a part of a bigger picture, in which we come from God at our births, are held and sustained by the Risen Cosmic Christ through our lives, and return to God at our deaths.

 

 

 

Some reflections on my daughters death

Sarah, one of my daughters, died suddenly about two months ago. Amongst other things she suffered from epilepsy and died unexpectedly one night after an epileptic seizure caused heart and respiratory failure. Its an unusual way to die, but it does sometimes happen, it always seems to be without apparent warning, and nobody appears to know why. It came as a terrible shock to her sisters and I, and indeed to all her family and many friends.

 

Her twin and I travelled down to the city where she died and visited her body in the hospital mortuary, something we both wanted to do. I wept there [we both did] and I talked to Sarah and said a prayer committing her back to the God Who had given her to us. I remember her and her sisters’ births, I was present at each of them, and recall how moved I was by a sense of wonder and awe at the creation of new life. Where did it come from?  I knew something of the biology, and my part in it, but that in no way even began to answer the question ‘where has this new life come from?’.   Seeing her dead body provoked a matching question: ‘Where has she gone?’  It was her body, it could almost have been her asleep, and yet the life force that is Sarah [call it what you will] was gone, where is she now?

 

The only answer that seems to do justice to the realities for me, is the one St John wrote about in his Gospel.  In the Prologue he talks about Jesus being with God from the beginning, and laying that down in order to be born as a human being, and at the end of the Gospel he talks about Jesus returning to be with God again. I take it that this is the model for each of us. We come from God when we are born, and after we die, we return to God. While we are alive the divine spark lives within us, and our task, like Jesus, is to incarnate that divine spark as best we can in a manner that will be unique to each of us.  I have felt increasingly sure over the years that there is truth in this way of understanding things, and Sarah’s death, her funeral, and all that went with it, has confirmed my faith in it.

 

I have heard many people say that there is no worse experience for a parent than to have one of their children die before they do.  I have to say that I don’t feel that.  Maybe in the future I will, but right now I don’t.  Rather I feel a deep sense of privilege to have been gifted by God with Sarah as my and her mother’s child, to have tried my best to help the divine spark grow in her during her life, and then to let her go and return her with thanksgiving to the God from Whom she came, at her death.  I’m also humbled to be aware that she did as much and more to nurture the divine spark in me, than I was able to do for her.  Sarah taught me a great deal, and is a wonderful and rich gift to me.  She would be astonished to hear that, of course, which is an essential part of the mystery of it all.

 

I’m left with a number of things to attend to.  I need to name for myself where Sarah’s giftedness lies, both in herself and in what she called forth in me, and to do what I can to nurture it so that I can play my part in making it a giftedness for the world.

I need to do what I can to support her sisters and all those others who mourn Sarah’s death, just as they are supporting me.

I need to explore my deepening conviction that the dead, the yet unborn, and we the living, are all intimately inter-connected in ways beyond my understanding.  Prayer and love, which I suspect are the same thing but in different guises, are the key to this I intuit.

And behind all of the above, I have to look after myself: allow myself the time and space to grieve; listen to my body, head, heart and soul and attend to their needs; and to let healing come at its own pace.

Prayer is…….

Prayer is anything that nurtures the relationship between us and God

God in creating us and giving us the gift of life, has initiated and continues to nurture that relationship

God is the primary pray-er, not us.

 

Prayer is time consciously spent in God’s presence.

All time is spent in God’s presence, whether I acknowledge it or not.

God consciously spends all time with me, nourishing our relationship, whether I acknowledge it or not.

God is praying in me, even when I am not consciously praying.

God is the primary pray-er.

 

God is not just praying in me but in all others, including the dead and the yet unborn, and indeed in all creation.

God made, loves, upholds and sustains everything that there is, was and will be.

As I sit here God is praying through the chair I sit on, the clothes I’m wearing, the air I breathe, the window I am gazing through, the trees & the buildings that I can see

As I go outside, God is praying in each person I meet.

As we meet, the God in me meets the God in them.

God’s praying thus unites me with everything else that God has created.

God is praying in each and all of us, and in everything.

 

I am united in prayer with all those who have lived before me, and the yet unborn

The former will be praying that I build on their successes and redeem their failings

The latter will be praying for the world into which they will be born.

 

United by God’s prayer, my relationship with all other human beings, is transformed, for they are now all my sisters and brothers, and their well-being is now my concern as mine is theirs.

Prayer calls us all to social and pastoral action.

 

Similarly, as I sense the God whom I know praying in the whole of creation so my attitude to creation is transformed.

God is in it and meets me there, God calls me to care for it, and for creation to care for me

In caring for the world and all of creation, I am co-caring with the God Who cares.

 

I am mostly not very good at all this, but my attempts seem to be accepted, and so I keep working at it.

 

 

 

Everyday Miracles

When I get up in the morning I like to make myself a cup of tea, and a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon for my wife, and then spend time in prayer.  Usually that means walking down to my shed in the garden, but earlier this year the weather didn’t encourage that, and instead I sat in the front room, still warm from last night’s fire, and found myself gazing silently out of the window, which faces south east.  Each morning I either saw the sun rise over the horizon, or was aware that while I couldn’t see much beyond the road, nevertheless it got gradually lighter. The quality of the light was different, every day, and it always looked beautiful.  And every day my heart and soul were lifted by a sense of awe and wonder, and I began the day with my spirits lifted.  All because I watched the dawn.

 

There is nothing unusual or inexplicable about this. It happens every day, every where, and provided you’re awake and have your eyes open to the world outside, you cant miss it.  But every morning I felt a sense of awe and wonder and began the day with a spring in my step, my faith in life and in God [what’s the difference?] deepened and nourished.  It felt like a miracle.  And of course that’s what miracles are: not inexplicable events ‘out there’ beyond the ken of current scientific understanding, but experiences ‘out there’ which deepen and enrich faith ‘inside’, such that I engage with life and the world more confidently and with greater trust than I might otherwise have done.  The fact that there is a rational explanation of what is happening ‘out there’ when the sun rises, makes not a jot of difference to my experience and what that experience evokes in me. The miracle is in what happens inside, not in what happens outside. And it seems like a miracle because I have no conscious control over it, I certainly can’t will it to happen, and I experience it rather as a mysterious, unexpected, and wonderful gift, which I have done nothing whatsoever to deserve.

 

Looked at like this, miracles are potentially occurring all the time, and can be occasioned by all manner of events, many of them tiny and seemingly insignificant: the setting sun, the sight of the stars at night, the birth of a baby, the moment of death, the first heralds of spring, a friendly smile, any moment that touches the heart and soul in a creative and challenging manner, evoking awe and wonder.

 

But there’s the rub.  They do happen all the time and so we easily take them for granted: we develop a sense of entitlement to such things rather than one of thankfulness; and we are usually too busy elsewhere to notice them. And if we don’t notice them and allow them to work their magic on us, they will have been to little avail for they need our active co-operation to maximise their effectiveness. Despite my winter awakening, I know that I still miss most of them, but I am more aware now, at least for a time, that I need to get better at paying them attention, because miracles are the food on which faith feeds.

 

Faith means trust.  If I have faith in somebody it means that I trust them. To have faith in God is to trust God, to trust life. Faith in God is innate in all of us, it comes fitted as standard, when we are born. It comes as a gift. Some people seem to have been endowed with a lot of it, and nothing in life ever seems to shake it, others seem to have been born with less, and any serious setback seems to crush it. But it is innate in us and we never lose it entirely. The right stimulation will bring it back to life and strengthen it.

 

You can’t buy that stimulation: it’s not available on amazon. It comes, unexpectedly, out of the blue, as an unexpected gift. All we have to do is recognise it when it happens, receive it, and allow it to change us. When it does it feels like a miracle.

Roy’s Christmas Reflection

I first met Roy Gregory many years ago as a fellow member of the ‘Soul Space’ team offering spiritual direction at Greenbelt.  We got on well from the off, despite supporting rival football teams, and our friendship has blossomed over the intervening years. It was Roy who one day at Greenbelt was kind enough to tell me that he thought it was a pity that ‘Approaches to Prayer’, a book I’d helped put together, was now out of print.  ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make it available on-line?’  he asked.  I thought that was a lovely idea but I had neither the time or the skill to make that possible, and couldn’t see how it might be achieved. ‘Leave it with me’ said Roy.

As well as being the leader of a lively free evangelical church in St Albans, Roy also lectured in engineering at Hatfield University, where he had a friend who was skilled in web design. This friend said that he’d willingly put the book online and said what he would charge to do so. When Roy relayed this back to me I said that I couldn’t afford that. Roy went back to his friend, who was an atheist, and told him what I’d said, and was stunned to hear his friend say that his wife, a Christian, had told him that as the book was about prayer, he ought to do the work for nothing, and so he would.  Cheekily I then asked if he might be willing to create an Annunciation Trust web-site, which would include the book, but would also allow us to put other things on it as well? Again, he agreed, and that is how this web-site came to be.

Roy became a much loved and valued member of the group of us who work under the umbrella of The Annunciation Trust and looked after the web-site once it was up and running, and so our friendship continued on after we had each left Soul Space.  Five years ago Roy suffered a stroke, and lost the use of his left side, but with the devoted care of Christine his wife, their family and friends, and a range of skilled professionals, he has learnt to adapt and manage pretty well, although mostly confined to a wheel-chair. When I’m down in London from Worcestershire where we live, I go and visit him and Christine and we continue the stimulating conversations we began together many years ago.

All of this is by way of a very long preamble to a letter I received today, dictated by Roy and written by Christine, enclosing a ‘Christmas Reflection’ that Roy was ‘given’ this Christmas, and which with his permission I’d like to share with you here:

 

Christmas Reflection

 

God sent down His Angels to Earth

To show how much His creatures are worth.

 

He came to them and shook them to the core

And changed their life for evermore.

 

All sorts of people in the midst of life,

Shepherds and kings and a carpenter’s wife.

 

The Angel said to Mary

“I am sorry this is scary”

You will have a baby one day

In a very different way”.

 

Mary was humbly obedient

Although it was inconvenient.

 

The shepherds saw Angels in the sky

It changed them in a blink of an eye.

 

Of this they had no choosing

Unkind friends said they’d been boozing.

 

The star led the kings and they were able

To find the Baby in the stable.

 

In awe they put aside their self-promotion

And fell on their knees in humble devotion.

 

These events people know they cannot prove

By faith they can see God was on the move.

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