The Annunciation Trust

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A training day in Gloucester for spiritual directors

Where is God?
Where is God?

“Where is God in all this?”

I am running a training day tomorrow for spiritual directors entitled, “Where is God in all this?” It is being hosted by the Gloucestershire Ecumenical Community of Spiritual Directors (ECSD).

Here is the blurb:

“Where is God in all this?” is a question much-beloved of spiritual directors. However, if God is “in all things” then this question makes no sense. What is the purpose of this question? What are we really asking? What are better ways of addressing this? These questions get right to the heart of what spiritual direction is and what makes it different from other listening disciplines. This day will explore how we we might ask about God with those who come to talk with us.

The God we seek is here. As spiritual directors, our craft is to live this. On this day we will pray together, explore our notions of God, play with our craft, and seek courage to practise Presence.

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Feeling moved

I’m recently returned from a stimulating visit to Finland, where I met up with some old friends and made some new ones. Looking back on my days there I am aware of a number of moments that touched me deeply. I visited an art exhibition ‘Silent Beauty’ which I liked very much, and there was one painting in particular that stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it. I’ve learnt that when that happens I need to pay attention. So I stayed looking at the picture for some time, and then came back to it later. There were no postcards of it for sale, so, with permission, I took a photograph of it, and have been looking at it a lot since. My experience is that when something touches me in this way, God has something to say to me through it, and so its been with this picture. There were other moments in Finland that had a similar effect, they all happened unexpectedly, as is usually the case. I attended a St Thomas Mass on the Sunday, a Mass for Doubters, and was so moved on several occasions that I was close to tears. Since returning home I’ve been mulling on why that happened and what God might be saying to me. Experience has taught me that the obvious answer is not always the deepest one, and I keep mulling.

What is going on when this happens: this finding myself unexpectedly touched deeply? I reckon that its my soul, the divine spark within me, recognising something significant before my head and heart do, and alerting me to it. It takes time for the rest of me to catch up, and for my mulling gradually and often slowly, to reveal the wisdom that’s waiting. This inner divine spark is within everyone of us and we cannot put it out. We can ignore it but not extinguish it. If we nurture and trust it then then it will burst into flame and transform us. This is the God within each of us. The God Whom to some degree, we already know. And this God is regularly drawing our attention to whatever it is that we still need to learn and grow.

I had a wonderful and fascinating conversation with my friend David last night, during which I was sharing this thinking with him. We were talking about prayer, and I was suggesting that the process I was describing is in fact prayer. I reckon that prayer is whatever nourishes our relationship with God, and what I was describing certainly does that. On reflection it occurred to me that this is a lot more than that. It is one way that I pray, but if it is initiated by my soul, the God within me, then it is also God praying in me. God and I are joined in this process: we are praying together: prayer is a co-operative activity.

David went on to say that one of the ways that he prays is through playing the piano. He is able to express feelings through music that he would be hard put to express in words. Sometimes he isn’t playing what other people have composed but the music wells up from within him and he simple plays it. He played me a recording he’d made of one such piece of music, and I was very moved by it. I have come to know him quite well, and it sounded like his soul speaking, which of course, I now see, is God praying through him. He and God praying together through the music that flows through him. Amazing! What a gift.

And there’s more. When I’m moved my other peoples’ music, be it classical, jazz, or rock, then it’s my soul, the divine spark in me, being moved, by God having prayed in other people through their music. And the same is potentially true of all the arts, indeed its potentially true when all of us are being creative, however that might be expressed, which is why honouring our creativity, however modest we may think it, is so important. Its co-operating with the God within us, and together creating something beautiful.

Real Life

I recently met up with some friends. It was a good meeting and I’m very glad that I went. But as I reflected on it afterwards I realised that the most significant thing about it for me was a chance remark that led to a brief conversation about something only loosely connected with the declared purpose of the meeting. I think that this is an example of what Gert Dumbar defines as ‘serendipity’: “find[ing] something that you haven’t been looking for but which changes everything that went before and comes after. The English word serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole, who used it for the first time in 1754 in a letter. Walpole described the adventures of the Three Persian princes of Serendip. ‘By chance and shrewdness they discovered things which they were not looking for. They looked for one thing and found another. They were very surprised about this themselves.’ ” Dumbar links serendipity with creativity, and I agree.

Serendipity reminds me of synchronicity, which Jung defines as ‘a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.’ And Arthur Koestler as ‘the seemingly accidental meeting of two unrelated causal chains in a coincidental event which appears both highly improbable & highly significant.’ I have experienced synchronicity quite often and been very grateful for it. Its not the same as serendipity but it comes from the same stable.

For example, some months ago I was thinking about something and remembered a book I’d read years ago but had completely forgotten about, and had no recollection of its content. My intuition told me that this forgotten book might have something helpful to say about the matter I was thinking about, and so it did. Indeed, I found the writer so stimulating that I checked what else he had written and learnt that he’d written another book about a separate subject that I was also interested in. I ordered and read it and was glad that I had. In passing the writer made mention of a painting by Salvador Dali, a large print of which I had once owned and that had meant a lot to me. I wondered what had become of it and realised that I had no idea. ‘I have a feeling that I could usefully have another look at an image of that painting’ I thought to myself. The very next day a friend offered me a small block print of it that they no longer wanted. Of course I gratefully accepted it. I have looked and it speaks powerfully to me.

This morning I woke up in the middle of the night and found myself thinking about the serendipity example, my story of the Dali print, and the connection between them. I knew that I should write about them and that the wise course of action would be to get up and go downstairs and do so immediately while the thought was fresh in my mind. This happens to me not infrequently: I wake up in the night from a dream or with an insight and know that the wise thing is to get up and write it down straight away. I always resist, telling myself that I’ll remember it just as well in the morning, although experience has taught me that that’s not true, and anyway isn’t a nice warm bed too good a thing to abandon! So there’s an internal struggle, before I get up and act wisely. So it was, some time after five o’clock this morning and here I am at six sat at my ipad writing.

I think I know why I woke up thinking as I did. In a few days time I set out on an eleven day journey and in preparation was reflecting on it yesterday afternoon. I noticed that there are a couple of items on my programme that stood out as being slightly at odds with the declared purpose of the journey, and I wondered if they might lead to experiences of serendipity or synchronicity? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe others will. Maybe nothing will. Who knows? Certainly I don’t and can’t.

Jean S Boleyn wrote that “In the experience of a synchronistic event, instead of feeling ourselves to be separated & isolated entities in a vast world we feel the connection to others & the universe at a deep & meaningful level” and much the same might be said about serendipity events. They both suggest to me that there is a strong undercurrent in life over which we have no conscious control and that it is friendly and trustworthy, and indeed essential if we want to thrive. We mostly exist by splashing about on the surface of life but sometimes the undercurrent comes to the surface & we experience it. R S Thomas describes such a moment in his poem ‘The Bright Field’:

“I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field
For a while, and gone my way
And forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had
The treasure in it. I realize now
That I must give all that I have
To possess it.
Life is not hurrying
On to a receding future, nor hankering after
An imagined past. It is the turning
Aside like Moses to the miracle
Of the lit bush, to a brightness
That seemed as transitory as your youth
Once, but is the eternity that awaits you.”

Pain and suffering can cause us to sink beneath the surface and we panic as we become aware that we are out of our depth and sinking, before to our surprise the undercurrent bears us up again. Denise Levertov writes of that experience in her poem ‘Suspended’:

“I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.”

I have learnt over the years that ‘real life’ frequently happens in the undercurrent to what I plan, and that therefore there is wisdom in planning as little as possible, and when I need to, to try and do so with a light touch, with spaces left for the unexpected, and time factored in for reflection on what’s been happening, so that I recognise ‘real life’ when it happens, trust it and float with it rather than ignore it or swim against it: “You cant push the river” as van Morrison wrote.

All this is rather counter cultural in a society and a church that’s fearful and hence increasingly bureaucratic, where qualifications have to be shown, boxes ticked and due processes followed. I’m sure there’s a place for all those things, but they have a deadening effect on creativity. Meanwhile, I’m going back to bed.

Feral spiritual direction

I think of spiritual direction as one person helping another to recognise where God is speaking to them, and walking with them as they seek to respond. There’s often a degree of mutuality about it.

My friend Keith and I have been meeting in that way for a long time. But he couldn’t make our last meeting as he was on holiday, and we have been unable to arrange an alternative time until the autumn. Not to worry he wrote, I’m meeting with a couple of wise friends over the next few weeks and “some valuable spiritual direction has also recently come from a rediscovered favourite poet”. I replied that in my experience poets often make very good spiritual directors, as do dogs. Dogs sit and listen, pass no judgement, and accept and love you whatever you do. As of course do cats, although cats can be a bit more choosey as to their availability.

Another friend, Marion, also used to meet with me in this way. One day she surprised me by telling me that in fact she had two spiritual directors. “Oh, so you sometimes want a second opinion” I thought to myself with a smile, firmly put in my place. “Yes” she went on “I value our times together but if I need a conversation between our meetings then there’s a hill near where I live, and I walk up it because God always feel close to me at the summiteers was , and I can usually sense what He’s saying to me and what I need to do next.”

So poets can be spiritual directors as can dogs, cats and even hills. That wouldn’t be permitted in the Diocese where I live, because you need first to have been trained on a course, then be checked for whether you have a criminal record, go for safeguarding trading, and finally have a supervisor. Interestingly, God seems to subvert the bureaucracy of the church in these matters as in much else: there surely must be a feral side to the divinity. Praise the Lord for that! But of course He was feral in these matters too.

Probably I need to review my understanding of spiritual direction? How about ‘When a part of God’s creation helps another part to discern God’s voice & respond to it’? And might there be a sense in which that’s always mutual and thus relational?

Where does it come from?

I was praying for the dead one Sunday morning, and in particular I was holding my Dad in love before God. I don’t know why I was praying for him rather than anyone else, but I’d felt led to do so, and then I sensed him suggesting that I visit the local Quaker meeting one Sunday for worship. I knew that this was good advice, I trusted it and duly went a couple of weeks later. It proved to be very good advice indeed. [see ‘More Feral Priesthood’]

Subsequently I have been mulling on that experience. How did I happen upon that insight? Objectively, I obviously don’t know, but what are the possible subjective explanations? My heart and soul were focused simply on Dad and maybe that was enough? Dad had been a regular attender at Quaker meeting all of my life, and I’d been occasionally, but never with him, so maybe it came out of that somehow? But he wasn’t someone to suggest that I do something, to do so would have been out of character for the man I knew. Maybe my soul knew that it was good advice and delivered it to my conscious mind in language it would recognise? Or might there be an alternative explanation?

I’ve learnt not to believe in coincidences, but to assume that when they seem to happen I am often being alerted to something. A week or two prior to the Sunday morning I’m writing about, my friend Paul came to talk and was enthusing about Boswell’s ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’ that he had been reading, and in particular he read me a prayer of Johnson’s that had impressed him and deeply moved me. It had been written in the early hours of April 26th 1752, immediately after the death of Johnson’s beloved wife:

‘O Lord! Governour of heaven and earth,
in whose hands are embodied and departed Spirits,
if thou hast ordained the Souls of the Dead to minister to the Living,
and appointed my departed Wife to have care of me,
grant that I may enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration,
whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams
or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government.
Forgive my presumption,
enlighten my ignorance,
and however meaner agents are employed,
grant me the blessed influences of thy holy Spirit,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The thought that the dead whom I hold in love before God in my prayers, would likely be doing the same for me is not new to me, and indeed I’ve come to trust that it is so. And the idea they might sometimes intervene in my life to my assistance, because they continue to “have care of me”, is not new either, for I’ve had several experiences when I’ve known that someone who is dead was communicating with me, out of a gracious concern. In two of those experiences it was someone whom I knew personally & recognised, and they acted a bit differently from how I had known them to act when alive: rather like my experience with Dad. But in both I had ‘seen’ the person concerned, while in this recent experience I saw nothing, heard nothing but simply intuitively knew something and from whom the ‘knowing’ came.

These intuitive knowings are quite common. I was praying this morning and a train of thought popped into my mind, that was certainly not consciously bidden. I ‘knew’ there was something in it, without knowing whence it came. Recognising both its authority & its authenticity, I trusted it, and followed to where it took me. Not all such thoughts that pop into my mind are deep and meaningful, but some certainly are, and usually I can recognise the wheat from the chaff. But where do they come from?

In one sense knowing where they come from is less important than learning to recognise and trust them. But in another sense perhaps not. Perhaps I can assume that some of them, [maybe all of them?] are of the order of what Samuel Johnson refers to with respect to the continuing care of his late wife, as:
“the good effects of her attention and ministration,
whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams
or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government.”

If so, then I am connected into a network of the dead, who seek, from time to time, to be actively involved in this earthly world in a positive and creative way. And it would be foolish of me not be open to their wisdom and advice. Sometimes I may have a clear sense of from whom the suggestion is coming, but often I don’t, and maybe it doesn’t matter?

Whenever I have tentatively aired these ideas I have been surprised by the number of people who not only take what I’m saying seriously, rather than ringing for an ambulance, but who go on to share personal stories of the known presence of some dead loved one giving them advice that they recognised as being loving and practical. Other faith traditions take all this more seriously than we do, although we in Western Europe probably did, before the Reformation..

There is another matter that intrigues me. The early Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was now their Risen Lord and that for a time he appeared and spoke to them, and certainly could be relied upon to respond to their prayers, leading and guiding them with advice beyond anything he had said while walking the land of Palestine. Over the centuries the Church has continued to believe and trust in this, and has changed its mind on a wide range of matters because of it. I believe that the Risen Lord continues to act in this way: the problem isn’t that He no longer does, but rather that we don’t expect Him to and therefore don’t recognise Him when He does.

What is the difference between experiences of what I might take to be the Risen Lord, and say, the experience I had of being addressed by Dad? The obvious answer is that they are identified as coming from different people, one of whom has a greater authority. But is it as clear as that? I am able at least in theory, and sometimes in practice, to distinguish between the known felt subjective experience, apart from and before I began to put it into words and identify its source. Could it be that all of these experiences come from a single greater authority beyond myself, and that the culture in which I stand determines whom I identify as its source?

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