Rohr on the relationship between silence and compassion…

It is raining today (here at least) and so you can’t be in the garden. The cricket and tennis are rained off and there is no point watching replays. So instead, take some time to listen to Richard Rohr speaking about how silence equips us to find the ways of justice.

I went on an 8 day silent retreat at the beginning of the year. I am still working out its impact in my life, but silence remains a hard thing to find in this age of information overload.

Rohr- silence/compassion

OK, so I am no Picasso…

I have just been looking at some photos of bits and pieces of art that I did recently as part of a retreat. A couple of them I am childishly pleased with and so I offer these to you much in the same way as bringing something home from school to show mum, who will no doubt pin them to her fridge for a while until it gets all curly and finishes in the bin.

The first one was a water colour wash, made when I was thinking about peace. Peace falling like water. As I made the wash, I deliberately left areas dry, almost like islands of anxiety. After the wash dried, I started to fill in the islands with different colours. Blood red and the fear of death. Yellow for sickness. Gold for money. Black for depression. Bright red for anger intolerance and hate.

2013-01-24 18.53.54

A day later, I spent a much longer time making a much bigger piece. In fact I spent around 7 hours cutting out clippings from newspapers, imagining the whole mess of us- the good the bad the glorious. Gathering all the strands of the things that we would hold as important and trying to link it all together.

Next I got hold of some lovely gold acrylic paint and started to paint a tree over all the clippings. I wanted it to be a noble tree, a beautiful tree- to symbolise the Kingdom of God. The tree was not of the newspaper clippings, but it was on them and through them. It did not obliterate the words or the pictures, but it transformed them, illuminated them. It was a totally different medium but it was rooted deep into the mess of it all.

2013-01-25 08.13.46

 

Oh yes- and I forgot about my red birds. They came from this passage in Matthew chapter 6 (part of the sermon on the mount.)

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?

28 ‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

 

Lost…

sheep, snow, high contrast

 

Towards the beginning of my retreat, I wrote this;

 

Lost sheep

Through trees wearing ice where leaves

once were, I follow the map that

someone kindly laid for me.

Over stile that skates my boots and

into fields wiped clean, skittered

only by claws of creatures who watch

me blunder by from cover.

A hedge a road a bog a bridge a pause to

mop and catch my breath, a buzzard low in

silhouette, too-early lamb almost indivisible from

mother, who all but knits for him a jumper.

I am no-where. At least not where I

ought to be. Not mappable. No surrender to

conspiracies of cartographers.

It came to me that only when we

lose a path can we discover our own.

But these too have all been walked before.

lamb in the snow

Reflecting on silence…

st beauno's in the snow

So here I am, sitting on a lovely Virgin train leaning its way around the corners that lead me back to home. Just the place to reflect on the 8 days now past- spent in silence at St Beuno’s Ignatian Retreat Centre near St Asaph, North Wales.

I went with as few expectations as my over active imagination could avoid, just hungry to make a new spiritual journey towards God.

The experience was not about fireworks, emotional and spiritual highs, but it was every much a spiritual journey for all that- full of humour, grace and peace. You may also be surprised to hear that 8 days spent in silence, with little reading even, was rarely boring! I thought the best way to describe it was to share some excerpts from my journal, so here we go;

Friday (on arrival.)

(St Beuno’s) is a place that feels comfortable, in a rather staid way. Because of its Jesuit ethos of silent contemplation, people do not speak to one another- rather they walk past one another and do not as much as nod. To someone schooled in the primacy of communication, it seems somehow alien. I can not decide whether it is a relief not to have to make small talk with all these strangers, or slightly missing the overt hospitality.

(I wrote down some prayers;)

Free me from performance and the need to impress

Free me from the need to be liked

Free me from the need to compete in order to feel of worth

Let me be me

So you can be you

Saturday

After a snooze I went to the Eucharist service. The out-of-placeness returned. Strange liturgy, ritual I did not understand and sung elements I did not know. I decided not to take communion as this seems to be a hot issue in the Catholic church at the moment.

I sat looking through the song book- lots of unfamiliar hymns and songs, but lots of familiar ones too. I came across this one and it made me cry

My song is love unknown. My Savour’s love to me: love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be. O who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Sunday

Brian (retreat guide) gave me a couple of pieces of scripture again- one from Isaiah and another from the Gospel of Mark…

I then sat in the summerhouse and read Isaiah 43 1-4- which is of course very familiar- it is the same passage that Mary and Andrew gave to us when we came up to Scotland. Hmmmm. The same mixed passage- about him being with us when we pass through fire and through waters. And then the bit about sending people from the north south, east and west. Did this happen? Is it just a co-incidence- it is a rather obvious bit of scripture to give to anyone who is feeling cut off from God I suppose? Let us just hold it there and see what happens next…

Interior, rock chapel, high contrast

Monday

(in the hills in the tiny rock chapel)

I intended to read some of the passages that Brian had given me, but before I did so I decided to listen to some music. I thumbed through the options of my Mp3 player and decided first on some choral music- that was enough to break open the floodgates, next I listened to black gospel, then Matt Redman- I was singing along and crying. Matt Redman had these constant references to breathing and breath, and each time I breathed there was a cloud of vapour mist. I spent nearly two hours in there in the end.

Tuesday

After lunch, a long walk- the sun is shining and I went over the other side of the main road, along some quiet lanes, and eventually up into the hills and forest, crunching the snow and putting up pheasants. I took no photographs, just put my head down and tramped. I think I must have walked around 6-7 miles.

On my return, after the bath, I was tired and a bit head achy and not feeling well. I did not go to the service.

If I go come home now, I would. Perhaps just as well that I can’t as who knows what the next few days will bring?

sheep, snow, hills

Wednesday

Time to go to the chapel and just be for a while.

…Back now after who knows how long- half and hour, and hour? I sat breathing out the words “Do not be afraid”, then the other translation “Peace be with you” words that Jesus seems to use a lot, and then I realised that I am not often at peace. I am usually either distracted (often with good things, but many times with trash) or slightly disturbed- chewing over things, picking at scars, hoping for things (particularly myself) to be better/more productive, more fulfilled…

…This afternoon and evening I did art. Lots of art! I am even sort of pleased with one of them… I am just back from the art space and it is nearly 11. I missed the service and everything.

Thursday

Went out to Labyrinth and sat in the hut to read Mark 4, 35-41 (Jesus Calms the storm) and Luke 12 12-32 (The rich fool and not worrying)

I liked this from the message; “…not to be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.”

There is the line too- “The father wants to give you the Kingdom itself!”

I went to the chapel for a while, then to the art space. Made a picture collage. Enjoyed it, and it more or less looks like I hoped it would. Needs a layer of PVA glue tomorrow. Also messed around with water colours- for the first time in years. Less pleased with those! I think I spent 7 hours in there- which went in a flash.

Friday

(with retreat guide)

We were talking too about reading the Bible, how a poetic reading of the Bible is different- no less truthful, but in poetry we read for a deeper truth. The words are just as precise, just as rich as any textbook, but they are set free to become active, even ambiguous. So it is that the words of God (as opposed the The Word) can come to lead us on and on and on. I suggested that I had often wished that the words of St Paul had been written as poems. “Or READ as poems” retorted Brian…

It is amazing how much we still communicate with others even in silence, or rather how much communication we perceive from others. You find yourself, after many silent days spent in the company of strangers, ascribing to them personalities based on clothes, body movement, smileyness and general demeanour. So there is one bloke who I have taken a dislike to as he stares malevolently at me, and seems to always push others out his direction of travel- particularly in the food queue. Then there is the shy woman who always scurries, and the self possessed at-ease-with-herself one. There is the man who wears expensive suits and exudes control and the nice bloke who I can only hold in the highest admiration for his willingness to fart at a silent retreat not once but three times- smiling benevolently throughout. I like him! What do they all make of me?

(after long journey in my head through Jesus death, theories of atonement…)

but this is enough for now. Pretty soon we are going to have a communion service, and I am going to take bread and wine.

Saturday

Met with Brian- told about yesterday- he gave me the death of Jesus again, then told be to be silent, and then read the resurrection! Followed by good old Thomas.

I was fairly lazy today- spent a slow morning in the bedroom reading the passages, then in the afternoon took a long walk on a loop round some roads, back into the fields, then a bath, and it was time to go out for a meal with Maggy.

Lovely meal, now just looking forward to coming home…

In reading through these fairly random excerpts, I am not sure that they fully communicate the richness of silence as a means to open up deep things of this world and the next. I was not always purposeful or fully engaged in my silence- I am a past master at going into my own skull and disappearing- part of the survival skills learnt in a troubled childhood. However, there was always a turn around, new thing to encounter. If ever things became ’empty’, I did something else- I headed for the hills, one of the chapels, or made some art.

Thanks to the lovely Brian McClorry there was also lots of humour to be had! He has an impish intelligence that often tripped over into glee with who God is.

If you are considering going on retreat- go for it. It is something you are unlikely to regret.

Labyrinth, St Beuno's, high contrast

 

I will posting a few more bits and pieces from my retreat over the next days…

Reflections on the census- the end of Christendom…

a church under reconstruction?

So, there have been a number of articles and opinion pieces reflecting on the recent 2011 census data, and what it tells us about the nature of religious belief in the UK. Here are some of the head liners in case you missed them;

• The number identifying themselves as Christians is down 13 percentage points. In 2001, 72% (37.3 million) called themselves Christians. In 2011 that had dropped to 59% (33.2 million).

• Interestingly, Christianity is not down everywhere. Newham, Haringey, Brent, Boston and Lambeth have all shown increases in the Christian population.

• The number identifying themselves as having no religion has increased by 10 percentage points from 15% (7.7 million) in 2001 to 25% (14.1 million) last year.

In response, Humanist Nick Cohen, writing in The Guardian, said this;

The number of people who say they have no religion jumped from 15% in the 2001 census to 25% in 2011. If the remaining 75% were believers, this leap in free-thinking would be significant but not sensational. But those who say they are religious are not faithful to their creeds, or not in any sense that the believers of the past would have recognised. Church attendance is in constant decline. Every year that passes sees congregations become smaller and greyer…

…When millions of people tell the census takers they are “Christians”, therefore, they are muttering the title of a childhood story they only half remember. What is more, their spiritual “leaders” know it. Long before the census figures were in, you could hear the screams that always accompany ideologies and institutions history is leaving behind…

…while everything is changing in British society, nothing is changing in the British establishment. England still has a “national” church – even though in 2010 its average weekly attendance was down to 1,116,100 (or 1.8% of the nation’s population). Twenty-six Church of England bishops are automatically granted seats in the House of Lords to support or oppose any legislation they please. On top of the decaying heap sits Elizabeth II: a grumpy priestess-queen, who in theory at least is the state religion’s “supreme governor”. In the education system, almost one-third of state schools are run by religious authorities (and Michael Gove will ensure that number will rise).

This humanist perspective is not without merit. Much of the institutions of religion in the country are indeed relics of a time when religious power was inseparable from the power of the State. Church and Government were connected by bonds at every level. The Church marked out comings, our joinings and our endings. The shape of the religious calendar became the shape of our working life. The very law of the land was approached through (an often flawed) Biblical interpretation.

But this link between ordinary people and institutional Church has been in decline for years. Perhaps the last vestige of this kind of Christendom in the life of the UK was that people who otherwise had no connection to Church, and no active faith journey, would still describe themselves as ‘Christian’. People did this almost by some kind of inherited instinct. The be Christian was to be decent, British, middle class, well mannered, one of ‘us’.

However,  the rigidity exhibited by some parts of the religious hierarchy is increasingly at odds with the culture that it is part of. There are the totemic issues- homosexuality, gender equality. There is the lack of a critical or analytical voice in a time of consumerist economic meltdown. There is the swing towards ultra conservatism in the Catholic Church, and all the sexual abuse scandals that diminish all organisations of faith.

The time for hand wringing and desperate attempts to preserve what Church used to be is long gone, although there are still people who have a passion for preserving the traditions of our institutions. And perhaps we should be grateful to them as they are a repository for our organisational memories. Without them, we lose our connection to tradition, and all the rich variety of previous experience. But it is not enough for faith to be in a museum cage. It is not enough for faith to be an abstract historical curiosity.

I have been chewing on what this might mean for those of us who still try to follow in the way of Jesus. Here goes;

Lies and Statistics.

It is perfectly possible to understand these figures as a reduction in nominal Christianity. A reduction in people identifying with a label that has no relevance to life. In this sense, perhaps there has been no real change in the last ten years- apart from the words we chose to describe ourselves with.

The word ‘Christian’.

It is however significant that people no longer what to wear this as a badge. It is a devalued word, a word that appears to have gathered to it lots of connotations that people have less use for. Ideas of stuffy right-wing judgementalism. A word that has no relevance in the here and now. It is a word that even I use to describe myself with some discomfort. But a decision to walk in the way of Jesus is not an easy choice- he was very clear about that. It is a decision to make an ever new daily adventure, and this is so much more than wearing a comfortable middle class badge.

Incarnation.

The Church is not the place where God resides in these islands- rather he lives in us. The Hebrew Temple was replaced by the human heart. He took on flesh and dwelt amongst us. In and over and through. Along with us and despite us. In the cracks of everything we are. This is not a numbers game- who cares how big your corporation has become?  This is now to be tested in new ways, in a new context.

Mission.

At some point, probably around the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the Church became an instrument of the state. The mission of the Church was the mission of the State. God was co-opted by the people in power. We then spent Millenia trying to disentangle the mess of this- movements would rise, then they would fall, or become assimilated. But perhaps we are now in new territory- the mission of God can be set free again in the minds of we his followers. It is not to the strong that the Kingdom belongs, but to the week, the poor, the broken.

Finally however, I find myself taking a more sociological perspective. If nominal religion anchored in the State is in decline this may be no bad thing for faith- but I still wonder if it may be a bad thing for the State.

The Church contains us, or used to. Old Emile Durkheim captured this well- he suggested that people need to be part of something bigger- to be integrated and linked and that when this begins to break down the end result is anomie (a lack of social norms) leading to a time when the anchors and moorings that hold us together are gone.  He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life- which to my mind describes British society in 2012 pretty well. (There is a great article discussing some of these ideas here.)

Durkheim thought that religion was one of the key social mechanisms that created these bonding social norms. However, he also thought that these old bastions of society where in decline- that the institutions of faith were dying. However at the same time he also thought that they were being replaced by new forms of sacred passions.

The question is- where are these to be found in our society? It is easy for cynics like me to rail against consumerism, ephemeral celebrity entertainment and post modern fluidity of connection and belief, but the story is more complicated.

There is a groundswell of goodness in British society. Some of is might well have roots in Christian traditions and ideas, but we see a turning towards simple living, small community life, and a rising up against the power of the big banks through the Occupy Movement.

We the followers of Jesus always have to find our own mission, our own Peregrinatio.  Here is my prayer for the journey;

Lord stain me with salt

Brine me with the badge of the deep sea sailor

I have spent too long

On concrete ground.

If hope raises up these tattered sails

Will you send for me

A fair and steady wind?

Spirituality always requires boundaries…

old fence, Holy Loch in the background

I read this today (courtesy of Minimergent)

Askesis

Spirituality requires context. Always. Boundaries, borders, limits. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ No one becomes exalted by ascending in a gloriously colored hot-air balloon. Mature spirituality requires askesis, a training program custom-designed for each individual-in-community, and then continuously monitored and adapted as development takes place and conditions vary. It can never be mechanically imposed from without; it must be organically grown in locale. Askesis must be context sensitive.

Eugene Peterson

Under the Unpredictable Plant

I have been asking myself whether I agree with this- whether it is only possible to make a spiritual journey within defined boundaries. Because I suppose that defined boundaries in this case could also be described as ‘religion’.

My thought so far is that Peterson is probably right- it is just that I prefer my boundary fences to be like the one above- present in symbolic form mostly, used as a guide when the mist comes down but for the most part a set of posts that I can meander in and out of whilst looking towards the big picture beyond.

Lamenting…

sad-woman

I was thinking about the world Lament the other day.

‘Laments’ are one of the oldest forms of poetry, for example the Mesopotamian city laments such as the Lament for Ur.  These bear a striking similarity with many of the psalms in our oldest hymn book (pinched from the ancient Hebrews) otherwise known as the book of Psalms. Here are few;

You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;  the darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 87/88: 18

And even now that I am old and grey, do not forsake me, O God…

Psalm 70/71: 18

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 33/34: 18

My days are vanishing like smoke … my heart is withered like the grass. I forget to eat my bread…

Psalm 101/102: 3-4

 

 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy…

My soul waits for the Lord. More than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 129/130: 1, 6

Around one third of the Book of Psalms is written in the form of poetic lament- a cry to God for help in times of distress- help for individuals, but particularly help for the Nation. And, it is recorded, sometimes he listened. At other times he turned his face and watched his chosen people be destroyed by internal wrongdoing and external invasion.

What can we learn from these Laments? How is it that we tend to ignore them in our readings of the Bible- in our claims on a God who gives good things to we his new Chosen People?

I think we can take the idea that it is OK to cry to God in desperation, in anger, in brokenness- that these are part of all of our human journeys.

I also think that we can not believe that God is any kind of talisman for us to wear against the winds of misfortune. It is not whether hard times come, but how we learn to live with love as we move through them.

Finally I think that our approach to the Bible as a set of heavenly testable propositions is severely challenged by the poetry of lament. If the Bible gives all the answers that we need (as long as we apply the correct theological set of goggles) then how come it is written by people who seemed so bereft of answers themselves?

Many (but not all) the poems of Lament in the book of Psalms take a deliberate turn at their end. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary; in spite of the pain, the defeat, the failure of plans and the death of dreams; in spite of all of this- I will worship. I will put myself in the place of trust.

In Emmanuel. God with us. God in us. God through us and God beyond us calling us on.