Monday, 5 April 2021

Practising Resurrection: A Reflection for Easter

“Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

“Love's Hurricane has come! The whirlwind of Knowledge has arrived!
My thatched roof of Delusion has been flung to the four directions!
My hut of illusion, so carefully crafted, has come careening down! … 
With contemplation and clear devotion, the Holy Ones have rebuilt my roof.” Kabir, translated by Andrew Harvey in Turn Me to Gold: 108 Poem of Kabir

 “From this place of transmuted pain we cannot help but act as a force of love and healing in the world. It begins with saying yes to the terrible blessing of death.” Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics

You may be accustomed, as I admit I was, to thinking of Easter as a single day and the resurrection as a single event. However, the bible stories relate that the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples not just once, on Easter morning, but multiple times over several weeks. In the traditional Christian Church calendar, Easter isn't one day, but a whole season – 50 days, to be precise. 

As the Earth resurrects in riotous Spring glory, what does it mean for me to practise resurrection in this season? What could it mean for us as a community? What might it mean for us as a society? As life starts to open up again, what may we open our hearts to?

There is no resurrection without death. The season of resurrection starts with “saying yes to the terrible blessing of death”, in the words of Mirabai Starr. If I were to think about this past year in terms of the Easter story, it feels to me as though we have been through a year long Easter Saturday – dead to our old lives, waiting in the darkness for new life to emerge.

The old familiar structures, securities, certainties, have gone. Like Kabir, I feel like my houses of delusion and illusion have come crashing down. I can no longer maintain the illusion that I am in control of anything except myself. I have had to really accept that everything is always changing. I am in a continual process of letting go of my attachments to the way I think things should be and my expectations of what the future holds. There is sacred healing in surrendering to the Great Mystery, in staying in the cloud of unknowing long enough to get wet through.

Carolyn Baker, in her recent book written with Andrew Harvey, Radical Regeneration: Birthing the New Human in the Age of Extinction, says, “the only sane response to the death of certainty is to practise being present to life from moment to moment. This does not mean ignoring the future or failing to connect the dots of the present with those in the future. What it does mean is committing to practicing presence while being awake to predicament.” 

Practising presence while being awake to predicament. This is my commitment this Easter - to remain present to what is and not to shy away from looking into the shadows.

Many spiritual elders think that humanity is currently going through a global dark night – not just as a result of Covid-19, but with climate catastrophe, mass extinction and economic breakdown. All the old certainties are falling away. Some have used the word 'apocalypse' – which is usually used to refer to the end of the world, but literally means 'unveiling' or 'uncovering'. 

We are seeing all the inequalities of the systems of domination that rule our world being unmasked – inequalities such as systemic racism, lack of access to vaccines for refugees, mass job losses being experienced by those in lower income brackets, and the world's poorest countries suffering most from the effects of climate change. 

In the UK Unitarian movement a few historians are engaged in revealing the full picture of the legacy of slavery in our movement. Whilst many Unitarians campaigned to abolish slavery, there were more Unitarian slave traders than there were abolitionists – and many of our chapels and churches still benefit from their money. 

These are hard truths to face. It is not always easy to know how to act on them, but together we can work through the muddle and the mire, if we are willing to commit to being open to what emerges. 

In his 2001 book, The System of Anti-Christ: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age, Sufi scholar Charles Upton wrote, “the specific spiritual practice of apocalyptic times is: To let everything be taken away from us, except the Truth.”

I have experienced this year as one when false layers have been stripped away. As well as the uncomfortable truths about the brokenness of our world that are being revealed to us, there is, I believe, another Truth, at the core of our being, a truth about our wholeness. This isn't a truth in the sense of something that can be fact-checked, but a deep, eternal Truth about the essence of life itself. To me, this Truth is that we were created in Love, we are Love and we are Loved, we are worthy of Love, Love is our purpose. Love literally makes the world go round - everything is connected, everything is in relationship. In essence, we are One.

There is a beautiful phrase that is repeated over and over again in the Hebrew scriptures to describe the relationship of Yahweh with His people – 'steadfast love'. I believe that we are all held in the “Steadfast Love” of the Divine embrace. I have felt this more and more over the past year, through all the chaos, this deep inner knowing that we are all, to use a Sufi phrase, the Beloved of the Beloved. And we can all be mirrors of this divine love. We have the potential to live lives of love and beauty, in harmony with God/Nature.

In his article, Covid-19 is a Symbol of a Much Deeper Infection - The Wetiko Mind-Virus, Psychologist Paul Levy suggests that Covid 19 is “a materialization in our world—a revelation —of the immaterial and heretofore invisible virus that exists deep within the collective unconscious of humanity, a virus of the mind—the Native Americans call it “wetiko”—that literally cultivates and feeds on fear and separation.”

This virus stems from the illusion of the ego that we are separate beings. It has infected humanity for a long, long time. It is behind the false separation of mind from body and humans from nature. I believe there is a vaccine for this virus – and the vaccine is Love, which transforms our separation into intimacy. The great Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote that “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.”

Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker describe five levels or ever-widening circles of intimacy:
1. Non-duality – recognition that the One is living in you
2. Total communion – heart, mind, soul, and body, with another human being
3. Tenderness – radical, heartfelt compassion with all sentient beings and the practice of tender protectiveness that arises naturally from it
4. Creativity – the intimacy of pouring out our gifts in a vibrant, dynamic relationship with the world
5. Sacred action – action which midwifes the birth because it springs from the cultivation of the four other tantras that infuse and sustain it.

This Easter may we experience the resurrection of intimacy – intimacy with our true selves, with each other, with the interconnected web of being, with the Divine consciousness. The seeds of the new creation are hidden gems that exist within us already. During lockdown, many of us have already connected deeply with the truth that we are part of nature and not separate from it by spending much more time outdoors becoming intimately acquainted with our local wild places.

Wildness is one of the themes of Wendell Berry's poetry. Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front issues us with another invitation to “practice resurrection.” Or perhaps it is an invitation to practise insurrection – both resurrection and insurrection are 'rising up.'  Wendell Berry encourages us to rise up in resisting the forces of control and surveillance in modern life , to defy expectations by going 'with your love to the fields'. Could we resurrect an older way of being, closer to the earth? Could we remember that we are part of nature and not separate, and act accordingly?

Richard Rohr, in his 2019 book, The Universal Christ, writes, “In the resurrection, the single physical body of Jesus moved beyond all limits of space and time into a new notion of physicality and light – which includes all of us in its embodiment.”

We all participate in resurrection. Death and resurrection are within us around us all the time. We all experience many deaths and resurrections throughout our lives. We see them in the cycle of the seasons. Perhaps the most pertinent example from nature is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  

Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American, describes the process, “First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth.”

Just as the caterpillar already contains all it needs to transform into a butterfly, so  everything we need for our own transformation, is already within us. What imaginal discs do I have available in my caterpillar soup to form me into a butterfly, flying free? 

Here's my Mad Farmers' Daughter Liberation Front Manifesto:
In the spirit of Kabir, rebuild the roof with contemplation, devotion and divine love
Release expectations and be open to what comes
Work on healing separation in all forms
Listen to the wisdom of the body
Nourish wholeness in communion with nature
Cultivate intimacy with all things
Commit to sacred activism – act from the tender compassion of intimacy for a resurrected life in which we love and cherish each other and all earthly beings.

In her 2016 article, Practice Resurrection: The Call of Easter, Christine Valters Painter wrote, “The resurrected life is at heart a great and mysterious process. It is not something we can understand on logical terms, it is only something we can live into and experience.”

This Easter, may we all live into and experience the resurrected life. May we be like the fox and practice resurrection.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Dwelling in the Desert with Mechtild of Magdeburg - A Reflection for International Women's Day

 “In the desert,
Turn toward emptiness.
Love the nothing, flee the self.
Stand alone.
Seek help from no one.
Let your being be quiet,
Be free from the bondage of all things.
Free those who are bound,
Give exhortation to the free.
Care for the sick, but dwell alone.
When you drink the waters of sorrow
you shall kindle the fire of love
with the match of perseverance -
This is the way to dwell in the desert.” 
From The Flowing Light of the Godhead by Mechtild of Magdeburg

During the short time I have spent with the medieval German mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg (1207 - c.1282), she has taught me many profound lessons about what she called “dwelling in the desert,” lessons on simplicity, authenticity, truth, perseverance, compassion, justice, and love.

The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.”

Mechtild's first lesson is central to the mystical experience – our oneness with God.

I who am Divine am truly in you. I can never be sundered from you; However far we be parted, Never can we be separated. I am in you and you are in Me, We could not be any closer. We two are fused into one, Poured into a single mould."

Mechtild's God wasn't 'out there' but is the eternal and abiding presence everywhere, “God says: Now is the time to tell you where I am and where I will be. I am, in Myself, in all places, in all things, as I ever have been, without beginning.”

Mechtild found God everywhere she looked, and listened, in all of nature. “How does God come to us? Like dew on the flowers, Like the song of the birds! Yes, God gives himself with all creatures wholly to me."

Mechtild rejected the path of the ascetic – she refused to deny the body or disdain earthly life. Her spirituality was grounded in an appreciation of the holiness of the earth and all her creatures. “The manifold delight I learn to take in earthly things can never drive me from my love. For, in the nobility of creatures, in their beauty and in their usefulness, I will love God... This is why I bless God in my heart without ceasing for every earthly thing."

She tell us, “Do not disdain your body. For the soul is just as safe in its body as in the Kingdom of Heaven - though not so certain. It is just as daring – but not so strong. Just as powerful – but not so constant, just as loving – but not so joyful, just as gentle – but not so rich, just as holy – but not yet so sinless, just as content – but not so complete.”

Wisdom, Mechtild tells us, comes from humility, “The truly wise person kneels at the feet of all creatures and is not afraid to endure the mockery of others." Endure the mockery of others she did. She wrote, “My enemies surround me. O Lord, how long must I remain here on earth in this mortal body as a target at which people throw stones and shoot and assail my honour with their evil cunning?”

The second lesson I learned from Mechtild was as much from her actions as from her words. It's a lesson in authenticity, courage, and integrity. Whilst we do not know very much about Mechtild's early life, we do know that she came from a wealthy family. Compared to most people around her, her life would have been rich in material comforts. And yet she chose to leave this comfortable life, at the age of around 23, to move to the city where she knew no-one. She followed her calling and joined a Beguinage – a community of women who lived together, not bound by a monastic rule, but committed to lives of contemplation and caring for the poor and sick in the wider community, in which they supported themselves by the work of their hands.

As you can imagine, these independent female communities were not looked upon with favour by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time. Successive popes tried unsuccessfully to order their dissolution and then to make them submit to the authority of local clergy, rather than their preferred association with the mendicant orders of Dominican and Franciscan friars. They were often under suspicion of heresy for their mystical writings. Thankfully, Mechtild avoided being convicted of heresy, and her writings went on to inspire those of the more famous male mystics who followed her, especially Meister Eckhart and Dante. But some of her sisters were not so lucky, most famously, Marguerite Porete, whose book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, saw her burnt at the stake in Paris in 1310.

Despite the obvious threat to her personal safety of such a course of action, Mechtild was not afraid to criticise corrupt clergy in her writing. Eventually, threats from the church and her failing eyesight combined to lead her to retire to the safety of a convent, where she was better protected, but more confined. There, she continued to write and encouraged her fellow nuns to “preach boldly.”

Whilst we know deep down that we are always held in that Love which is so much greater than us, and trust that God is there for us, in bad times as in good, it is beyond human capability to sustain an awareness of God's presence at all times. We all go through periods of feeling lonely and empty, and Mechtild was no exception. 

Over the last twelve months many people in our society have been lonely and isolated. Mechtild knew loss and suffering, and learned the hard way how to “dwell in the desert.” Sometimes her pain was so great that she lost her intimacy with God, and she experienced a 'dark night of the soul.' She wrote extensively of her despair, 
“There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light and consciousness and knows nothing more of God's intimacy... At such a time when the light in the lantern burns out the beauty of the lantern can no longer be seen. With longing and distress we are reminded of our nothingness... At such a time I pray to God: “Lord, this burden is too heavy for me!” And God replies: “I will take this burden first and clasp it close to Myself and that way you may more easily bear it.”

Eventually Mechtild came through her experience of the dark night of the soul, persevering through her suffering until her pain was transformed through love. She wrote, “From suffering I have learned this: That whoever is sore wounded by love will never be made whole unless she embrace the very same love which wounded her.”

From pain and emptiness, new life, new consciousness, emerged, as the healing actions that flow from love - compassion, and justice. In this beautiful passage she shares her manifesto of compassion,
If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you fear human judgement then you will seek to do compassion. Compassion means that if I see my friend and my enemy in equal need, I shall help both equally. Justice demands that we seek and find the stranger, the broken, the prisoner, and comfort them and offer them our help. Here lies the holy compassion of God.”

She encourages us to, "Heal the broken with comforting words of God. Cheer them gently with earthly joys. Be merry and laugh with the broken and carry their secret needs in the deepest silence of your heart.”

I am sure she has more to teach us in the future. So far, these are the lessons I have learned from Mechtild on how to 'dwell in the desert':
Find God in all things.
Embrace the simple, earthly life.
Have the courage to live an authentic life. Live your life's calling. Speak truth to power. Don't be afraid to defy convention.
Persevere through suffering. Trust in the transformative power of love.
Act from compassion to further justice; help build the kingdom of God here on earth.

And finally, Mechtild has these words for us about what we might expect at the end of our lives, “God says: Do not fear your death. For when that moment arrives I will draw my breath and your soul will come to Me like a needle to a magnet.” And, “When we get to heaven we shall find that there everything is held for the good of all in common.”
May it be so. Amen.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Brigit's Well: Going Back to the Source

 “Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

These words that Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well reflect the tradition found in the bible and in other sacred texts of expressing spiritual longing  in terms of thirst.  “Like as the deer yearns for the running streams so does my soul yearn for you my God, my soul thirsts for the living God,” says Psalm 42.  

As well as being a metaphor for the spiritual life, water is vital to our physical life. Life on earth evolved in water and it is still absolutely necessary for every life form alive today.  We all began life in the waters of the womb.  Two thirds of our planet is water.  Two thirds of our bodies are made up of water.  Humans can survive no more than one week without water.  

In the UK we rarely experience a shortage of water and it is easy to forget that water is so vital to life.  Most of us here are privileged to have ready access to a mains supply of clean water.  We probably take this for granted, but it is a relatively recent development. In 1936, when my grandparents moved into the farm where I grew up, their water supply came from a well in the field behind the house.  

Sadly, 3 billion people across the world today still do not have access to safe water and soap for hand hygiene at home, a crisis that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted. Our rivers and oceans are continually polluted with noxious chemicals, oil spills and plastics.  Due to climate change, population growth, and pollution, the World Health Organisation has estimated that by 2025 half of the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas. 

The United Nations has called for global investment in sustainable water infrastructure systems to enable recovery and build resilience for possible future pandemics, and is working on a plan towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” As individuals, we can help towards this plan by supporting their partner charities, such as Water Aid. These statistics are sobering reminders that, on the whole, humanity does not act towards water as though it is sacred.  It is time that we remembered that water is life, water is sacred.

The sacred nature of water is recognised by many spiritual traditions. The fact that life on earth began in water is reflected in our mythologies.  In Genesis, the creation of the world begins with God dividing the waters.  In the Norse creation myth, life begins when the two realms, Muspelheim, the realm of fire and Niflheim, the realm of ice, meet in the great void, Ginnungagap.  

Water is one of the four sacred elements of the western mystery traditions – earth, air, fire and water.  In Druid tradition the patron animal of water is the salmon of wisdom.  Water is associated with the West, evening, maturity and our deepest emotions. It is through the water of tears that we express intense sorrow and joy. 

Many of us have had cause to cry sacred tears in recent months. We have had to adapt to many changes and find the strength to keep going in the face of bereavement, loss, confusion, and separation. Water is a powerful metaphor for both change and persistence.  It is the most mutable element, it can exist as liquid, solid and gas.  As Lao Tzu said, “nothing is more soft and flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” Water is persistent. It flows around blockages and eventually wears away objects in its way.  Even mountains!  Most of the landscape of northern Britain has been sculpted by glaciers. We owe the beauty of our hills and valleys to the persistence of water. 

Our valleys are full of holy wells, often associated with healing through saints, and this harks back to earlier pre-Christian traditions linking wells to goddesses and local nature spirits. Natural water sources have been regarded as sacred for millennia.

Sacred water is often associated with healing, cleansing and blessing.  In Druid rituals a sacred circle is cast and then blessed with fire and water.  In Catholicism, holy water is important as a means for blessing people. Most forms of Christianity use water in baptism as a symbol of spiritual rebirth. In Hinduism, Indian rivers are thought of as goddesses and bathing in the Ganges is spiritually cleansing.  

Many holy wells in Ireland are dedicated to St Brigid. Both goddess and saint are patrons of healing. Many people visiting the wells leave offerings known as clooties – pieces of cloth dipped in the water of the well and hung in a nearby tree – in the hope of receiving a blessing or healing from the spirit of the well. The origin of this custom is likely to be an act of sympathetic magic – as the cloth disintegrates, the person's ailment is said to fade. The ancient tradition of blessing with water connects past and future in symbolic action. John O'Donohue writes, “When we bless, we are enabled somehow to go beyond our present frontiers and reach into the source. A blessing awakens future wholeness.”

Rivers and wells are often used as symbols of divine wisdom. In Norse mythology, the Well of Wisdom is guarded by the giant Mimir, who demands the sacrifice of an eye from Odin, the eldest of the gods, in exchange for a drink from the well. Odin gouged out his eye and dropped it into the well. In drinking from the well of wisdom, he exchange his outer vision for inner vision – he could now see how all things are interconnected.

In his book, One River Many Wells, Matthew Fox says, "There is one underground river - but there are many wells into the river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a Goddess well, a Christian well, an Aboriginal well. Many wells but one river. To go down a well is to practise a tradition, but we would make a grave mistake (an idolatrous one) if we confused the well itself with the flowing waters of the underground river. Many wells, one river." 

We know that the underground river, the Source, is One and the Same for us all, but we all have our different ways of drawing on that Source.  We each have our own well, our own individual spiritual life. Perhaps you, like me, have had to dig deep into that spiritual life well over recent months. As Brid in Cathal O Searcaigh's poem, The Well, says, “Look for your own well, pet, for there's a hard time coming. There will have to be a going back to sources.”

As the first lockdown dragged on I began to feel that my inner spiritual resources were running dry. I began to feel a thirst for deeper connection to the living water of the Source. I discovered the importance of self-care and self-compassion in being able to offer care and compassion to others.  

A big part of this self-care is making time for my own spiritual practices, if you like the buckets that draw nourishing and sustaining living water up through the well from the underground river. For me, for example, there's a yoga bucket, a trail running bucket, a devotional singing bucket, a walking in the woods bucket, a body prayer bucket. Some of these are done alone, some in the company of others, mostly online of course, in present circumstances. I have been pleasantly surprised by the depth of energetic connection with others I have experienced in gathering together online. We may not be gathering together in exactly the way we would prefer, but we are making the best of the resources we have. May we all feel the divine spirit, the Source of all things, flowing freely through us, within us and among us, whenever and however we gather together.

I invite you over the next week or so to consider how you are tending your own well. Are you making space for your spiritual life? What are your buckets that draw up the healing water of the Source? Are they water-tight or do they need repairing? Perhaps some of them are worn out and need replacing? Imbolc is traditionally the time for Spring-cleaning, so try to make time to do a spiritual spring-clean this week.

From In Praise of Water by John O'Donohue,
“Let us bless the humility of water, always willing to take the shape of whatever otherness holds it,
The buoyancy of water, stronger than the deadening, downward drag of gravity,
The innocence of water, flowing forth, without thought of what awaits it,
The refreshment of water, dissolving the crystals of thirst.
Water: voice of grief, cry of love, in the flowing tear.
Water: vehicle and idiom of all the inner voyaging that keeps us alive.
Blessed be water, our first mother.”

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Winding down the old year, winding up the new year - a meditation

Settle yourself into your space as comfortably as you can. Bring your attention to your breathing, not trying to change anything, just noticing the sensations of the air entering and leaving your body. 

Imagine that you are sitting in the centre of a stone circle. Take a moment to connect with the elements – the earth beneath you, the air around you, the sunlight and the moisture in the air and the earth.

Now rise and walk to the Northern edge of the circle. Feel the earth beneath your feet, anchoring you in place. You may like to imagine yourself as a tree, with roots reaching deep into the earth. 

Over the last year, what kept you grounded?

How did you experience shelter?

Who were your rocks?

When did you experience peace, silence, stillness?

Turning left, walk around the circle to the Western edge. Ahead of you is the sea, waves lapping gently on a short sandy beach. Feel the sea spray on your face and taste the sea air.

Over the last year, how have you adapted to changes? 

What has ebbed and flowed in your life? 

How have you drawn deep from the well waters of wisdom?

What were your emotional highs and lows, experiences of friendship and loneliness?

When did you experience love, compassion, forgiveness?

Turning left, walk around the circle to the Southern edge. The sun is shining brightly. Feel its warmth on your face.

Over the last year, what has energised and motivated you? 

How have you cultivated your passions?

How have you experienced creativity?

How have you shone your light?

When did you experience joy and feel truly alive?

Turning left, walk around the circle to the Eastern edge. Feel a gentle breeze caressing your face.

Over the last year, what have you learned?

What insights and awakenings have you experienced?

How has your perception shifted?

When did you experience hope and faith?

Come back into the centre of the circle. Sitting on the earth, take a moment to feel the experiences of this year integrate into your body and soul.

Consider what you would like to leave behind in the old year. What has run its course? What is no longer helpful to you?

Place your hands on the earth and let the energy of these things pass back into the earth, to be composted and absorbed back into the soil. 

When you are ready, rise and walk back to the East. Breathe and feel the gentle breeze on your face.

Consider what your intentions are for this year.

What are you curious about?

What new things would you like to learn about?

Turning right, walk around the circle to the South. Breathe and feel the warm sunshine on your face.

Consider what you will put your energy into this year.

How will you nourish your creativity?

What passions are calling you to explore?

Turning right, walk around the circle to the West. Breathe in the sea air and feel its cool moisture on your face.

Consider where the flow of your life is calling you.

What are your hopes and dreams?

How will you nurture love and deep connection?

Turning right, walk around the circle to the North. Breathe and feel the solid earth beneath your feet.

Consider what you will continue to cherish this year.

How will you nourish your roots?

Where will you find peacefulness and rest?

Return to the centre of the circle. Sitting still on the quiet earth, feel at one with the elements of life. Breathe into the stillness and silence.

When you are ready, begin slowly to bring your awareness back to your presence in your body and the physical space around you. Give thanks for our precious earth and the gift of life.


Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Solstice meditation on stillness, darkness and light

A solstice meditation

This is the time when the sun appears to be standing still. Sitting comfortably, bring your attention to your breathing. As you relax, drop into the stillness of your body, the stillness of the earth. 

You may like to imagine yourself sitting beside a calm, clear lake, where the air is still and the water reflects the sky like a mirror. Rest in the peace of the eternal now...

Let your attention now rest in the sleeping earth, renewing herself in her winter rest as we renew ourselves each night through sleep, when darkness falls. Let darkness wrap around you like a blanket. 

Imagine all the hibernating animals, sleeping soundly, snug in their burrows and dens. Sense the sleeping tree roots and feel your own roots, deep and resting in the quiet earth.

Sense the bulbs and seeds waiting for the wheel of the year to turn in the deep, dark soil. What seeds are you nourishing in the fertile winter dark?

Slowly let your attention begin to rise back into your own body, up into your heart space.  Feel the calm, steady rhythm of your heartbeat. 

Sense the light within you, the fire that is always there, warm and shining like the sun, soon to be reborn. Where do you feel the light glowing most strongly within you? What colour is it? Rest in the warm glow of your inner light...

When you are ready, slowly bring your attention back to your surroundings.  

A solstice blessing 

In the darkness of midwinter, may we be granted the vision to share in the work of Mother Earth and dream the future into being, as the womb of night gives birth to life and light.

May we share in the renewal of all life, growing in compassion and wisdom, and nurturing the inner light of love

Blessed be 💛

Friday, 4 December 2020

With or without God

Last month, along with some of my colleagues, I was invited to give a talk to the Unitarian Renewal Group on 'with or without God' - our brief was to outline our concept of God and to say whether we found both the idea of God and the naming of God helpful or unhelpful. Here is my talk,

Permit me, if you will please, to begin with an old joke - an infants class teacher asks a little girl in her class what she is drawing. The little girl says she is drawing God. The teacher says, “but nobody knows what He looks like, dear.” The girl replies, “well they will do in a minute.”

During an adult RE course a couple of years back I asked the participants to draw how they saw God as a child and how they saw God now. The pictures of childhood Gods were remarkably similar – most people, myself included, had drawn an old man with a long beard, sitting on a cloud. The pictures of how we saw God now were different, but all tried to capture something similar – I drew a large web linking people, animals, plants, stars and planets. 

Today I would like to share with you a little of my journey from the old man in the sky to the “interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part” to borrow the phrase from the UU seventh principle.

I grew up in a loosely Christian household. We went to church as a family at Christmas, Easter and, being farmers, Harvest Festival. My sister and I went to a Church of England primary school and a United Reformed Church Sunday school.

Despite sending us to Sunday school, my parents were concerned not to 'indoctrinate' us and wanted us to be able to choose our own spiritual path. The evidence of my primary school exercise books, which were full of illustrations of bible stories, suggests that I was in fact growing up with a Christian concept of God and He seemed to me to be primarily concerned with judgement - He might answer your prayers if you were good and would certainly punish you if you were bad.

I had spiritual experiences as a child, although I am not sure I would have framed them as such at the time. They were all around connection to the land and nature. I don't remember feeling any kind of connection with that old man in the sky, or with Jesus, and I was a bit confused as to whether they were the same thing or not. And as for the Holy Ghost, I may well have misheard that as Holy Goat too many times to have made any sense of it whatsoever.

Through the influence of friends, as a teenager I flirted with Evangelical Christianity. I met some genuine, caring people, but couldn't accept the ‘sin and salvation’ narrative they believed in and I never managed to 'accept Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Saviour' as they did.

At secondary school we learned about different religions and I was fascinated by the different approaches to ‘the big questions’.  I decided to study Theology and Religious Studies at university. The more I studied world religions on an intellectual level the more I understood how they were all products of human construction. I decided that organised religion wasn't for me, but I retained an interest in mythology, especially those of pre-Christian Northern Europe and India. 

In my studies and my own reading around the subject, I discovered that our modern Western concept of a single God, in the Abrahamic traditions, who is addressed as He, had evolved from earlier forms of human spirituality in which there were many gods and goddesses. The earliest form of human spirituality we know about, before even gods and goddesses arrived on the scene, is usually referred to as animism – a belief system in which all living beings and natural phenomena are thought to be imbued with spirit or consciousness. 

A monotheistic concept of God is a relatively recent development in human history, which seems to mirror the development of patriarchy – although some patriarchal societies retained polytheism, so the relationship isn't quite that straightforward.

The monotheism of the Christian West evolved, through Judaism and Greek philosophy, from monolateralism, as found among the ancient Hebrews, Zarathustra and the Aten-worshipping Egyptian Pharaoh Akenhaten – they acknowledged the existence of many gods, but chose to worship only one. Judaism did of course evolve towards a monotheistic understanding of God, which we in the west have inherited through Christianity, with its blend of Jewish and Greek concepts about divinity and humanity.

Through my love of mythology I discovered that I resonated more with the idea of Goddess than God and more with a sort of polytheism than a strict monotheism. Modern pagans sometimes makes a distinction between hard polytheism and soft polytheism. Hard polytheism is the belief that the gods are all independent beings and there is no overarching 'Godhead' or 'Spirit' from whence they came. Soft polytheism refers to either the belief that the gods are all manifestations of the one 'Source' or 'Universal Spirit' or that they are archetypes and forces of nature. The idea that all gods and goddesses are manifestations of the One Source is also found in certain forms of modern Hinduism.

So where do I place myself in all this? 

With apologies for introducing yet more 'isms', I'd define myself as a pantheist or perhaps a panentheist – pantheism is the belief that all IS God; panentheism the belief that all is IN God. For me, this means that God is both the universe and the creative energy behind the universe, the earth is the body of God, my body is the body of God, the earth is sacred, all life is sacred. 

Within the divine unity of pantheism, I acknowledge the existence of particular gods and spirits, and I have an affinity with some of the Teutonic and Celtic goddesses, but I don't consistently cultivate deity/devotee relationships with them.

Pantheistic philosophies can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, especially Plato and the Stoics, and perhaps even further back, to Lao Tzu and the authors of the Upanishads, although the terms pantheism and panentheism weren't coined until the 1700s. Pantheism was taken up by the early Enlightenment Jewish philosopher Spinoza.

Pantheism has long been a strand in Unitarianism, especially through the Transcendentalists, such as Emerson and Thoreau. Unitarian Universalist Frank Lloyd-Wright is credited with perhaps my favourite pantheistic quote, “I believe in God, only I spell it nature.” 

Pantheism, unlike other forms of Theism, doesn't view God as a personal being. Yet, Pantheism and Christian monotheism need not necessarily exclude each other. Much of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart can be seen as pantheistic and yet they absolutely believed in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Trinitarian God of the Roman Catholic church too. There are glimpses of pantheism in many mystics of monotheistic traditions, from Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “God is the same thing as nature,” to Sufi mystic Ibn al-Arabi, who wrote, “The existence of all created things is His existence. Thou dost not see, in this world or the next, anything beside God.”

There is perhaps a similar tension between my concept and my experience of the divine, between theory and practice – my concept of God is impersonal, but my experience, sometimes, is of being held by a mysterious, loving presence, and my spiritual life does include devotional practices – for example, I love singing hymns, Taize chants and Kundalini Yoga mantras.

Since, for me, God is all things and all things are in God, God is Love, Community, Connection, Awe and Wonder, Joy, Beauty, and Sensual pleasures, but also darkness, difficulties and struggles, isolation, pain, grief and anger. 

Are the idea of God and the naming of God helpful? I think it is important to acknowledge that there have been both great and terrible things done in the name of God. Without the idea of God we would not have had the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials, and all the many so called 'holy wars' that have been and continue to be fought in God's name. And yet all the good things achieved by such great souls as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa, to name just a few, were also inspired by their idea of God.

Our Unitarian community embraces those who do and do not find the idea and naming of God helpful. I am grateful to belong to such a community that holds so many different perspectives. I do use the term 'God' even though it is problematic – for so many people it comes with so much baggage, like the baggage of the patriarchal, judgemental God of my childhood – and that baggage needs unpacking.

When I first started leading Unitarian services I shied away from naming God, but I have gradually become more comfortable both with the naming of God and with the unpacking of the term. Sometimes I say things like, 'this prayer/song/reading contains the word 'God' - if God-language doesn't work for you, try adding an 'o' in the middle or an 's' on the end, or translate it into whatever works for you as a term for how you view the sacred. I also use the terms Source, Ground of Being, Great Mystery, and Spirit of Life, alongside the term God. Despite its problems, I do value the term God as a marker or a pointer to the sacred. 

I will leave you with the words of contemporary UU Minister Marisol Caballero, who writes, “I lose interest the minute that God is spoken of as an enormous celestial ATM who doles out rewards to some, and punishment to the kids who are too busy to call home every once in a while. Yet I appreciate the word God for the sake of common vocabulary. It’s a good universal shorthand to describe the little moments in our daily life that smack us into paying attention: “Hey! This, right here — this moment, joined with all other such tiny moments — is why you’re alive. This is Holy. Here it is.””

Friday, 20 November 2020

Shining the inner light: a reflection for Diwali

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson

”In the Sikh religion Diwali is celebrated to commemorate the events of 1619, when Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, was released from prison, along with the 52 other princes who were imprisoned with him. The Golden Temple at Amritsar is lit up with thousands of lamps to remember this joyous occasion. Contemporary Sikh writer Bhupinder Singh comments that, “it is also a symbolic celebration that when the Guru’s light shines inside our house, which is the human body; then all the darkness of ignorance is dispelled and there is light everywhere.”

While in prison, Guru Hargobind told his jailer, “I am not a ruler who is lamenting at the loss of my kingdom here in my incarceration.  I am a mendicant of God.  I spend my time in His remembrance and in His presence.  The ruler can imprison my body, but my mind cannot be imprisoned.”  

300 years later, Victor Frankl, the Austrian Psychiatrist who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose ones attitude in any given circumstance.” 

The human world has been full of fear and confusion this year, and like most people, there have been times when I have been anxious about the uncertainties of the situation we find ourselves in. Whenever I feel myself falling into anxiety, I try to remind myself of those words of Victor Frankl, that we always have a choice about how to respond. I try to bring myself back to an attitude of gratitude, to count my blessings. I am blessed to be able to go outside and appreciate the beauty of the natural world. I am blessed with good health, fulfilling work, a home, a loving family, good friends. I am blessed with belonging to this wonderful spiritual community.  

This second lockdown has afforded me the opportunity again to slow down and pay attention to the beauty of the simple, everyday things, things that in previous years I may have taken for granted. This year has taught me that it serves my well-being to focus on what I can do and what I have is much rather than what I cannot do and what I have lost.

I used to find November a difficult month – I resented the increasing darkness and bemoaned the corresponding drop in my energy levels. These days I try to accept nature's invitation to listen to my body and slow down, to deepen into silence and stillness, to try to embrace a simpler existence, and (most difficult of all) to learn from the trees shedding their leaves and practise letting go of what is no longer needed, so that I can focus on nourishing my inner light. We are only able to share our light with others if we are feeding the flame.

Ami Bhalodkar, Interfaith Minister in New York, writes, “Diwali is a time to turn inward and light the lamps of knowledge and truth in our hearts and minds so that we can dispel the forces of darkness and ignorance within us and allow our innate brilliance and goodness to shine forth. Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is the principle deity associated with this festival. During Diwali we ask her for assistance in cultivating and accumulating spiritual wealth, such as compassion, forgiveness, and loving-kindness... And since all wealth, be it material or spiritual, should be shared with others who are less fortunate, Diwali is also a time to reflect on the various ways we can assist others and shine our light out into the world.”

Bhalodkar suggests some simple yet transformative ways in which you can share your inner light and spiritual wealth with others. For example, asking everyone you meet, “How are you?” and really listening to their answer, smiling at people you encounter while going about your day, and quietly blessing others as they pass by you on the street. 

The kindness of strangers has been, for me, one of the blessings of lockdown, especially smiling. Northerners are known for our willingness to strike up conversations with strangers, at bus stops, in the street, in the supermarket, and this friendliness has increased – exchanging smiles and a few words with strangers in the shop or street are now everyday occurrences. It has been wonderful to witness how smiling works even when wearing a face-mask. When we smile genuinely our eyes light up. I now smile at everyone I see. It lifts my day when people smile back and I hope my smile might lift their day.

As theologian Albert Schweitzer wrote, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

I invite you over the next week or so to take the time to connect with your inner light, and to consider your spiritual wealth and how you share that with others. How do you shine your light?

A Blessing for Diwali by Satya Kalra, "May the lamps of love and devotion burn brightly in your heart. May the light of understanding shine in your mind. May the light of harmony glow in your home. May the bright rays of service shine forth ceaselessly from your hands. May your smile, your words and your actions be as sweet. May Maha Lakshmi bring you the true wealth of peace, health, happiness, and love."

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