The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

SHABÀT

 

 

Rest – that longed-for break
from rushing life, endless toil,
relentless action

Is this the rest I seek?
Is this ‘shabàt’ of God –
“Come to rest in ME”?

Less an oasis
than a new geography;
another country

Not to visit
from your homeland of busyness –
A new place to live!

Move in! You’re welcome
here explore its landscape, breathe
deep refreshing air

Live here! And from this
new home take trips to busy
places. Then come home.

 

Paul Booth : March 2017
Written during the SDE gathering at Minsteracres Retreat Centre,
but inspired by much time spent in recent years exploring the spirituality of ‘sabbath rest’.

MITRA & METTA

Recently I was invited by a friend to be part of a Buddhist ceremony where she was going to become a ‘mitra’ – which means ‘friend’ in Sanskrit.

I had no hesitation in going for at least three reasons: I’d been privileged to accompany her through a three month sabbatical eighteen months ago, where her Buddhist journey began to take shape; I wanted to support her in this important step she was now taking; and I was curious!

I travelled to Leeds Buddhist Centre with her partner Alison, who is also a friend of mine, and we met her there. I was immediately taken by the simplicity and peacefulness of the rooms that made up the Centre. There is an open-plan space incorporating a place to leave coats and shoes, a lounge area with small library, and a kitchen. Then there is an attractive triangular shaped room for meditation, with a shrine area at the apex. Off this room is a small, partitioned quiet area for small groups or individual use. The whole centre was light and airy, simply but comfortably furnished, and felt very welcoming.

Once folk (about 30 of us) had gathered in the lounge, we were invited into the meditation room. There we chose to sit on chair or floor, helping ourselves to cushions and blankets from the well-stocked shelves at the back on our way in. My friend and one other person were there to be made a mitra, and they sat on the floor at the front. Near them, facing us, were 4 members of the Order, each wearing a simple white neck-sash, who would take part in the ceremony.

The ‘MC’ gave a simple explanation of what would happen in the next couple of hours, and then we began with 10 minutes of silence. What bliss! When were you last offered the opportunity for 10 minutes uninterrupted silence? The longest I’m ever offered in the church I attend is about 8 seconds if I’m lucky!

The end of the silence was signalled by 3 rings of a soft, gentle ‘bell’. I couldn’t see it from where I sat, but I guess it was a large singing-bowl, struck with a padded mallet. There followed a talk for about 15 minutes about what it means to become a mitra, and about the symbolism of the mitra ceremony. Then we broke for a tea-break!

Some tea-break! ‘Make your own and mingle’ was the order of the day. And what rich conversations! Within minutes, Alison and I were engaging with a lady who asked if we’d been before (Alison had been a few times, but it was my first experience of Buddhism firsthand), and then started to talk a bit about her tentative exploring of things Buddhist having grown up with, and been somewhat disillusioned by, Methodism. She talked about the things she found most helpful – the practices of sitting in silence, and of meditation. Especially she valued the meditation form known as Metta Bhavana, loosely translated as ‘Loving-Kindness’. “Ooh!”, I enthused, “Chesed!”, remembering the smattering of Hebrew I managed to learn at theological college 40-odd years ago. “That’s such a rich Old Testament word, also often translated ‘loving-kindness’, which fuels and inspires so much of what Jesus is about.”

And from there my sense of endless connections between Buddhism and Christianity accelerated!

‘Friend’ is a term Jesus used too. “No longer do I call you servants, but friends”, for example (John 15:15). And Jesus speaks of himself as a “friend of sinners”.

‘Inclusion’. I felt truly and absolutely included that evening. And wasn’t Jesus at pains always to include, rather than exclude people? “Those who are not against us are for us” (Mark 9:40)

Ritual that enables encounter with the divine. There is a rich heritage of this in the Christian church, but in my experience too often the Church now engages in ritual for ritual’s sake, losing the essence of it. Too often, it seems to me, we confuse the ritual with the divine and somehow think that in partaking in the ritual we have thus indeed encountered the divine whereas, in fact, we have encountered only the ritual itself.

My main connection that evening however was with ‘prayer’. My heart stirred as my new friend of Methodist extraction enthused and came alive with her tale of metta bhavana – ‘loving kindness’. As she outlined the five stages of this process of meditation, I grew more and more animated:

Metta, in the Pali language, is non-romantic love, friendliness, kindness.
Bhavana means development, or cultivation.
So metta bhavana is about cultivating a practice of loving-kindness.

Firstly, envisage and feel metta towards yourself.

Secondly, think of a good friend, and feel metta for them; phrases such as ‘May they be well’, or ‘May they be peaceful’ might help.

Thirdly, identify someone you neither like nor dislike; someone you don’t know well, but see around. Reflect on their humanity, and include them in your metta.

Fourthly, think of someone you dislike, or find difficult to like, or you are in conflict with. Try to think of them positively, and offer metta to them too.

Fifthly and finally, focus on the wider community. Start by embracing those you have already engaged with (in stages 1-4), then widen to your neighbourhood, town, country, continent, world, allowing waves of metta to roll outwards.

Wow! But isn’t this what I call ‘prayer’?

It reminds me of the ancient Celtic practice of Caim.

A caim is a circular sheepfold – the most efficient shape. And this Celtic way of praying simply holds those for whom you pray in the caim of the Good Shepherd – in the circle of God’s love. Caim is a practice of prayer that I have loved ever since Nan, a dear elderly lady (who was a valued part of the leadership team of the church where I was parish priest) came across it and introduced it to us at a leaders’ meeting. I was struck by its powerful and profound simplicity, and have been ever since. The attraction for Nan was that it gave her huge relief from the weight of what she had been taught about prayer for decades – to ‘pray’ specific things for people she neither knew, nor knew their circumstances. It gave her permission simply to hold the people, national situations, international issues or whatever, in the loving outstretched arms of a benevolent God who knew far better than her their needs and outcomes!

So my friend is now a mitra. She sees her involvement with Buddhism as being in parallel with her Christian faith. Complementary rather than contradictory. She is not a pioneer in this kind of multi-faith spirituality. I recently came across a book called ‘The Taste of Silence’ by a Belgian woman, Bieke Vandekerckhove where she writes, “Benedictine spirituality and Zen Buddhism became the two lungs through which I breathe”. Her story is well worth reading. And I hope you have enjoyed reading mine.

© Paul Booth : Spring 2017

Further thoughts on ‘Confused Archbishop’

Continue reading

Confused Archbishop?

The Guardian newspaper on the 12th February reported a comment from the Archbishop of Canterbury about the new President of the USA:

‘Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said this month that Trump’s policies could have disastrous outcomes. “Policies that are based in fear rather than confidence and courage and Christian values of hospitality, of love, of grace, of embrace rather than exclusion, are policies that will lead to terrible results,” he said on LBC radio.’

Now I thoroughly agree with the Archbishop in his comment about Mr Trump. But it’s a great pity that he doesn’t see that exactly the same logic applies with respect to the Church of England’s attitude towards its LGBT members, and that it too is going to ‘lead to terrible results’, indeed it is already doing so. It’s difficult not to see the Archbishops comment as hypocritical. What a pity that Bishops who can be helpfully prophetic to society cannot be equally helpfully prophetic to the church they lead!

Words for the turning of the year [4]

The Church of England is facing, and has been for some considerable time now, what it sees as a crisis. The numbers of people attending church on a Sunday has been in decline for many years, and the money is running out to the point where some Dioceses are talking about facing bankruptcy. There is a certain irony here, because society at large is more interested in things spiritual than it has been for some time. But there is little point in society looking to the institutional churches for help with that because they are primarily concerned with saving themselves, with managing their way through this perceived crisis.

 

Its much easier to lose clerical posts than it is to close churches, so the number of church buildings remains fairly constant, while the number of full-time employees [mainly clergy] is dropping fast. Result?  Most clerical time is spent trying to keep the organisation on the road, with surviving: once they’ve taken all the services in their churches on a Sunday, with the preparation time that requires; taken the baptisms, weddings and funerals that come their way; and attended all the meetings that each of their churches have; there’s not much time left for anything else. And they’re run off their feet. Most parochial clergy, in my experience, find it hard to find time for their own spiritual needs, let alone find time for the needs of others.

 

The institution’s response to this perceived crisis appears to be two-fold. On the one hand top down initiatives from the Bishops and the Dioceses, which the already over worked clergy and regular churchgoers don’t have either the time or the energy for. And secondly, an emphasis on training clergy to be managers.

 

I’m sure that the church, like any other organisation, needs people to manage it. But, in my experience, very few parochial clergy felt that getting ordained was about ‘managing’ the church: they don’t see themselves as having been called by God to ‘manage’ it, nor do they think that God has equipped them for such a role. So what’s the answer? Well if you have a house full of dogs and a problem with mice, you could try training your dogs to be mousers, but you’d be better off getting some cats, and letting the dogs be dogs. So why doesn’t the church employ people skilled and gifted at management, to do the managing, and let the clergy and the laity get on with using whatever their gifts might be?  Simple!!

 

And what of this perceived crisis facing the church? Let me offer some good news, some Gospel news. First, this is an issue not only for the Church of England, but for all the institutional churches in the UK. And its not even peculiar to the UK. Across western Europe churches are facing the same issue: the problem is Europe-wide. So its not your fault. None of us is personally responsible for it. Its not a sign of our, my, your failure. So there is no need to feel guilty, indeed, feeling guilty wont help.

 

Second. My stock in trade question as a spiritual director is “Where is God in all this?”  This is the question that the church should be asking now. Instead its facing the wrong way and asking the wrong questions.  It sees this as a crisis that it has to resolve, a failure that it has to correct. Better, it seems to me, more faithful it seems to me, to assume that God is at work in this perceived crisis, and to ask “What might God be up to here?” The last thing the church should be concerned with is saving itself. The core Gospel message is one of death and resurrection. Death is not something to be sought, but neither is it something to be avoided. And we can rely on God to do the saving, indeed, its not something we can do for ourselves.

 

So what does this mean in practical terms? As I see it, it mean five things.

 

[1] Keep asking the question “Where is God in all this?”, and keep trusting that if you do so, then the answer in terms of what small step you need to take in response to that question, will be given you.  Don’t place your trust in any person or institution that claims to be able to tell you the answer to your question. Trust your own wisdom: learn to trust the voice of God within you.

 

[2] Trust that you have been created in God’s own image: that your task is to grow into the person whom God has made you/called you to become; that deep down you know what that means; and that if you trust that knowing then whatever is required of you will flow naturally from you.  In other words focus on whatever you know feeds your soul.  I take it that this is the message of Mary Oliver’s poem.

 

[3] Take time and space to step back and become aware of signs of God at work in the world, mostly in unexpected places. Look out for your equivalent of Jenny’s ‘Wildflowers’, and honour them, whatever that means.

 

[4] Notice what is already feeding your soul. Trust me that there’ll be more of that than you think. And pay attention to, and honour, what is feeding the souls of others, especially those outside the church. Maybe there are opportunities for corporate feeding?

 

[5] Be comfortable with the idea that sometimes, often maybe, you could be called to do nothing, other than to wait and be attentive.  Hold on a minute didn’t Jesus often invite his listeners to do just that? ‘Stay alert…..be watchful……and look out for the signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in’. There are plenty of them: God is busy.

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