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.

Words and silence…

A lovely poem appeared in my inbox today courtesy of Minimergent (a more or less daily e-mail from Emergent Village.)

It hit a nail on the head.

I have been thinking a lot of how I struggle to pray- how words tend to be hollow- presumptuous, pompous, self seeking. How it seems as though I am speaking more to myself than to God at times.

And how I tend to fill everything I do with words- because words are the medium of my understanding, my meditation, my artistic endeavour.

So this poem makes a suitable prayer. Wordy though it may be;

I who live by words, am wordless when

I try my words in prayer. All language turns

To silence. Prayer will take my words and then

Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns

To hold its peace, to listen with the heart

To silence that is joy, is adoration.

The self is shattered, all words torn apart

In this strange patterned time of contemplation

That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me,

And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

I leave, returned to language, for I see

Through words, even when all words are ended.

I, who live by words, am wordless when

I turn me to the Word to pray.

Amen.

 

Madelaine L’Engle  ‘The Weather of the Heart’

Entering the big silence…

I have taken the plunge.

After talking about it for a while, I have finally booked myself to attend an 8 day silent retreat at St Beuno’s Ignatian Spirituality Centre. I will be going towards the end of January.

I feel keenly the pivot point of my life.

I am 45 years old, and not done with adventure. I carry within me the wounds of a troubled childhood and sometimes it seems as if I am still 17, but at the same time I am no longer a child. The man I have become stands on shaky ground, but I am not ready to find a safe corner and watch TV just yet.

Increasingly though, I am aware that adventure does not just take place in the physical environment- in fact if it is to have any real value it is always a spiritual quest.

I also feel strongly that spirituality of this sort can not have, as a primary aim, the promotion of ME. There is a kind of spirituality that seems to grow from secular ideas about self actualisation and personal growth. They make an idol out of self, and this is not really compatible with following Jesus. So, whilst I might hope for satisfaction as a by product, the aim is to connect with something deeper, something outside me, so that I am better equipped to be an Agent of the Kingdom of God. In this way the internal journey connects again with the journey outwards.

I have no idea what the outcome of spending days alone with myself and God might be.

And lest this all sounds a bit pompous and self important, I am a bit scared.

The blessing of darkness…

(Our house lit by a bit of slave ‘flash painting’ work on a long exposure.)

 

Last week we had a lovely couple staying as guests in our annex from London. This was their first time in Scotland, and they were blown away by the beauty, and even more so by the peace and quiet.

One of the things they mentioned too was darkness. The kind of darkness that you only get at some distance from light pollution that bounces off clouds and leaches into every corner. Their reaction to a walk up our drive at night was a combination of fear and wonder.

All of which led me to think about the juxtaposition of light against dark, goodness against badness, truth against falsehood, etc. All those old polarities; one of which we ascribe to God, the other we blame on the flesh or the devil.

One of which can not exist without the other.

So, light can only be understood in the knowledge of darkness. As Jesus put it;

…the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

Matt 4:16

I started to think about how all of these things might exist in the mind of God.

And the Darkness became purple again.

Quiet weekend- step away for a while…

We are just planning our first ‘quiet weekend’ using the new accommodation space at Sgath an Tighe. This will be from Friday evening the 11th of January to Sunday the 13th.

These weekends are intended to allow individuals and couples to set time aside to reflect, pray, meditate and share some evenings around a fireside. Our starting point for entering into meditation here is Christian spirituality- of a generous open kind.

The spaces at our house will allow for three double bedrooms, one twin, and one single, and it would be lovely to fill these.

Our first weekend will cost £200 per person, including accommodation, all meals and activities. (We cook simple but lovely wholemeal vegetarian food.)

We will divide our time into periods of silence – where guests are welcome to use prepared spaces in the house, the garden, or to take walks along the shore – and times of sharing.

There will be an opportunity to be part of morning and evening rituals, and to use clay and other art materials to aid reflection and meditation.

If you are interested, get in touch and we will send you a booking form.

The art of whacking stones…

Yesterday was Sabbath.

For us that means that our little family are close together, resting (although Emily fitted in some sailing- she is in one of the boats in the shot above.)

It has been a rather difficult time of late- deaths, illnesses, conflict in our wider families. There is also so much to do, and I have this constant feeling of time passing- of an opportunity to do something that I can not miss.

But when all is said and done (or even when it is still to be said and prevarication holds sway) there is always the art of stone whacking.

This involves three things- a beach, a stick, and some stones.

It is an activity that can be done alone (but best find a very secluded spot or people will stare) but is best done in small groups.

Stand sideways on to the sea, toss stone in the air and whack it as far as you can out into the waves.

You will miss many, but some will fly.

Meditation is (not just) for kids…

So, it turns out that the slightly sceptical tone of my last piece about the potential for using Christian meditation/contemplation in schools was rather unjustified. An old friend (Rob) now in Australia pointed out that there have been well documented projects down under doing just that!

There is more in this Guardian article.

When an almost pathological “busyness” is the norm, valuing stillness and silence is counter-cultural. When our culture trains us to be winners, to compete and to consume, we all sense society’s imbalance, said Freeman. We need to give children an experience of another way of relating to themselves and to others.

Deputy director Christie agreed. If children are over-stimulated we rob them of something precious: being allowed to “just be” where children discover their own inner sense of who they are. Hijacked by a “doing” culture that measures everything by what we achieve or possess, meditation helps children access a deeper part of themselves – an inner sanctuary away from a world of incessant activity and noise. They learn to honour their own spiritual life.

I went googling and came across this, from New Zealand, which describes a simple process being followed there in the wake of the work mentioned by Rob;

The language used in this piece will be alien to some of us. We are used to all spirituality being mediated via head knowledge- treated as an opportunity to engage with  Biblical knowledge or theological proposition. The idea of creating an ‘open’ space in meditation would have been regarded as deeply suspicious within the Christian tradition I grew out of. We would have suggested that this laid us open to some kind of ‘Demonic attack’. I have no doubt that this closed us off to traditions and practices that are sources of deep strength and blessing.

What I like most about this piece is not just the possibilities for our children, but the greater possibility of us all becoming like children.

The man whose teaching is behind some of the work in Townsville, Queensland referred to by Rob and the DVD above is Father Lawrence Freeman. Here he is talking about the relationship between meditation and ‘sacred play’ which is a truly lovely idea;

A lot of the weblinks that relate to Lawrence Freeman appear to no longer work- links to resources and discussions about meditation with Children. I hope he has not fallen foul of the current conservative backlash in the Catholic Church, as I think he seems to me to be a source of light. There are a load of resources here however.

He has been one of the founders of Meditatio.