The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

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.

Sigh no more

Then sigh not so, but let them go,
   And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
   Into hey nonny, nonny.
Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

People will often say that they can’t pray. When asked they will say that they are unable to make their minds still or empty of thoughts. Somehow they have acquired the fantasy that to be able to pray they have to be able to stop the hubbub of thoughts that happen. At this point I am reminded of what was said to me on a course in mindfulness: “When your mind wanders, this is not a problem.”

The reality is that everybody’s head is full of noise. It never stops. There are many things that go on in the mind. Try to be gentle with it. It is just trying to preserve and prolong your life and the life of those you care about. That is what it evolved to do. It is the nature of the mind always to be thinking. Prayer does not stand or fall on having a quiet mind.

There are many kinds of noise. Two of my favourites are planning and reminiscing – thoughts about the future and the past. The trouble with the brain is that, by evolutionary design, it is defensive. Planning easily turns into anxious thinking about how to make the future safe, either about a situation that is coming up that is worrying me, or a much longer-term concern about old age finance, health, and mortality. Reminiscing easily becomes rumination upon my failings and mistakes – “sighs for folly done and said.”

Ignatius would call these defensive strategies the work of the enemy of our humanity, inasmuch as they bring about “spiritual desolation”. Our hope and trust in God’s grace and mercy is undermined by anxiety and sad rumination allied with flawed thinking (what Ignatius called “fallacious reasoning”). Or, to put it in more modern language, because the brain likes the negative we can easily lose our momently delight in being alive.

There is a kind of work to be done to counter this preference for the defensive. I say ‘kind of’ work because prayer is mainly down to God’s grace, which is always present and active and abundant. Grace, it is said, abounds. God is only to be experienced in the present, and so our work is only to try to remain present and open to grace.

This ‘work’ is helped by two practices I have written about elsewhere:

There is another kind of noise which might be called censoring or filtering, and could be likened to a copy editor. A critical eye monitors our thinking and makes a judgment. “Stop thinking!” Don’t think that!” “That’s not allowed!” “Get a grip!” “Thank God no one else knows what I’m thinking!” And so on. Etcetera, etcetera. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might recognise our right to freedom of thought and expression, but we don’t always extend that right to ourselves.

This too though, in its own way, is still the mind’s attempt to keep you safe, making sure you remain acceptable and don’t stray too far from social norms. For the human creature, belonging to the group is a significant survival strategy. In the not-far-distant past (on an evolutionary scale) it was a dangerous business to be excluded from the group. Here again we see how defensive thinking, by undermining our hope and trust in God who always includes, can lead to spiritual desolation.

I hope I am conveying that this is all utterly normal. No one who prays, however experienced, is without brain noise. You are not a remedial pray-er when your head is full of noise. Thinking is merely what happens. So rather than berating yourself for your lack of attention, be kind to yourself in your humanity. The human is a fragile construct.

In the end, three things matter in response to the noise in our heads:

  • Be kind and tender towards yourself and the thinking, planning, reminiscing, censoring, protective mind. It is not your fault when your mind wanders. This is simply what minds do. Reality is not as we would wish it to be. There is no blame attached to this.
  • Show and tell your thoughts to God, to Jesus, to Buddha, to whomever you pray. Realise that they present no lasting bar to loving relationship with the Divine. One way to do this is to turn what might feel like random thoughts into a conversation with God. If you find yourself making a shopping list or a to-do list, then talk with God about what is on the list. If you are anxious about a meeting you are soon to have, share your anxieties with Her. If you feel the shiver of shame at what you said to someone, let Her look at the situation with you. When you judge yourself, show this to God and let Her be the judge. These thoughts might not be what you hoped to happen in prayer, but to show and tell will cement the relationship you have with God.
  • Then sigh not so, but let them go. Your thoughts are not that important. They are not you. Hey nonny nonny. Be you blithe and bonny.

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

Appledore

A couple of years ago I wrote this blessing. It garnered significantly more interest than anything else I have written here. Strictly speaking I didn’t write it. It was given to me early one Monday morning, not long after Easter, and I wrote it down.

The week before I had been away for a week’s holiday with my partner in Appledore, Devon. She had booked on a ceramics course with Sandy Brown and I had the days to myself. I had fully expected that I would spend the time exploring the North Devon landscape and coast. Instead I found myself staying indoors. I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to see people. I didn’t want to do anything very much. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. I prayed. I stared out the window. I felt guilty for what I thought was wasting the opportunity of this holiday. North Devon is beautiful and I thought I should be making the most of my time (and our money). I felt guilty that I didn’t want to go and chat to the people on the ceramics course, find out what they were up to, and be personable and encouraging.

Over the days I felt God pull at a loose thread in my tangle of thoughts, and offer me a different point of view. I came to see that my feeling was the consequence of a not-fully-conscious idea that I am not good enough, and that I have to ‘make an effort’, to improve myself, to make something of my life – an idea I acquired at home and in school. I saw that I had made a project of this holiday rather than a pleasure, research rather than recreation, achievement rather than amusement.

In the quiet of my solitude, I found my self writing to myself what I ‘heard’ God saying in contrast to this impetus:

“There is nothing that You want me to do. You just want me to enjoy being alive.”

“If I do nothing with my life except follow my nose and enjoy being alive, then that would be all right. You might even be happy with a life lived like this.”

“My life does not have to have a meaning … or … it is all right if its meaning is that You enjoy life through my enjoyment of life.”

“Maybe the criteria of a good day is not how much I have achieved but how full my heart is of gratitude.”

“I do not know the meaning of life. I shall never know. All I can know is what I am curious about, or what I love.”

When I boiled this down to essential consolation of the week, it was this:

There is nothing You need or want me to do for You. There is nothing to prove, no one to appease, and one to impress.

The essence of my desolation is the belief that I am not yet good enough, and that I must work hard to achieve an acceptable state of grace.

But… There’s more… It is not enough to assert that I am good enough after all. At heart it is understanding that the notion of being good enough or not is an entirely human construct in which God has no part. God is outside the realm of comparison and criticism and evaluation.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Rumi

You are the Creator and Ground of the Universe. You created me, and everything, out of love (‘out of’: both in the sense of ‘because of’; and in the sense of ‘using the raw material of’ – “the love that moves the sun and the other stars” Dante Alighieri). You have no need for me to make it (the Universe) better, or to make myself (this little scrap of the Universe) better. I am supposed to enjoy life. This formulation is utterly in accord with that first time You touched me and revealed Yourself to me.

And, this is my greatest gift to You: that I enjoy being alive, and in me, as me, You enjoy being alive; because, although I am not You, yet You are what I am.

In the end, being ‘in’ this body is not fundamentally about journey or growth or development or learning or self-improvement – though these might all be fun and make life interesting. It is certainly not about making the grade. It is being alive – being alive to yourself – being alive as yourself – being alive as a self – God being alive as yourself. It is a gradual and progressive letting go into the rapture of being alive.

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

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