Aoradh meditation trail, Pucks Glen…

 

Aoradh meditation walk, start

We are just back after deconstructing the installations and stations in the lovely Puck Glen, which formed Aoradh’s contribution to Cowalfest. It felt like a real shame to take them down, as even today the Glen was full of people who were visibly affected by what they were encountering.

This is the second time we have used Pucks Glen in this way, and I have ideas about other things I would love to use this magical place for- watch this space to see if they ever come in to being.

As ever, if anyone wants to know more about what we did, or wants a copy of some of the resources feel free to get in touch.This time our contributions went something like this;

A water wheel spinning from a bridge in the darkest part of the Glen, asking people to think about the fact that it was energised by silver streams that had come from above.

Ribbons of all sorts of colours anchored to the top of a waterfull then fanning out over a pool. The path goes under the ribbons, in a way to make people part of the waterfall- with some suggestions to think about Streams of Living Water.

A way side shrine, with candles and a wooden carved cross.

‘Leaping’ silver fish on flexible stainless steel rods, anchored to the bottom of the stream, moving as the water rushes past. An image of freedom- where the spirit of the Lord is…

Large dry leaves (from Benmore Gardens) and pens at the top of the Glen, with an invitation to write on the leaves and drop them into the water- letting go, repentance etc.

Prayer flags, asking people to raise their own ensign- things that they want to be animated by the wind of the Spirit.

A wooden frame to look out over open country through.

A Loom, with an invitation to write names of special people who make up their community- the gifts of the Spirit being so much to do with getting on with each other.

Poetry on large PVC banners in and amongst the trees from another previous Aoradh event on a theme of ‘A time to…’

Speaking/listening tube- a long plastic drainpipe up into the tree canopy with a horn on one end and a speaking cup on the other- with an invitation to listen and speak prayers.

Also all the way through the Glen were small bits of poetry- what we called ‘messages’.

At some point over the weekend someone vandalised the installations- always a surprise given it’s location. Much of the poetry was ripped off or had disappeared altogether, as had the carved wooden cross. I can only assume that someone had a problem with the Christian starting point of what we were offering. This was balanced however by so many people who seemed to have found it so lovely, and had engaged with it using the materials provided. It really was a lovely thing to be part of…

Here are a few photos;

Being ‘spiritual’: it is bad for you?

sundial and one of the three Lichfield spires

“I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” How many times have you heard someone say this? I suppose, given the devaluation of the word ‘Christian’ with western culture, and the post-modern slide into an elastic pluralistic individualism it is one of those sentences that increasing numbers of us would use to describe themselves (as can be seen from the recent Census data.)

Despite my continued attempts to hold to the ways of Jesus, the idea of a religion-less spirituality appeals to me too; leaving behind all the baggage and rigidities of proscribed doctrine and setting off on my own spiritual adventure…

However, Sam Dawlatly kindly  sent me a link to a story in the Telegraph. Here are a couple of quotes;

People who said said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They are more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems than either the conventionally religious or those who are agnostic or atheists, found researchers at University College London.

They are more disposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, have eating disorders and drug problems.

In addition, they are more likely than others to be taking medication for mental health problems.

Professor Michael King, from University College London, and his fellow researchers wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “Our main finding is that people who had a spiritual understanding of life had worse mental health than those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.”

…The researchers concluded: “We conclude that there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder.

“The nature of this association needs greater examination in qualitative and in prospective quantitative research.”

What is going on here then?

Firstly, we must look at the numbers a bit more closely- the study is not huge even though statistically significant;

The study was based on a survey of 7,403 randomly selected men and women in England who were questioned about their spiritual and religious beliefs, and mental state.

Of the participants, 35 per cent described themselves as “religious”, meaning they attended a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Five in six of this group were Christian.

Almost half (46 per cent) described themselves as neither religious nor spiritual, while the 19 per cent remainder said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion.

Members of this final group were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They were also 40 per cent more likely to be receiving treatment with psychotropic drugs, and at a 37 per cent higher risk of neurotic disorder.

The interesting thing is that this study is in contrast with a lot of previous research about the impact of religious belief on measures of psychological and sociological health- which sees faith has having clear benefits, even if more recent research has suggested that some of the self esteem benefits depend on the wider societal norms towards religiosity.

Accepting that this research may simply be a rogue study, there seem to me to be a few possible reasons why those who consider themselves Spiritual (but nor Religious) (SBNR) might appear to be vulnerable as a wider group.

Self selection

The link may well not be causal, but correlational. Perhaps those of us who are spiritually seeking outside the edges of organised religion are doing so because life has driven us there. Perhaps even our negative experiences of church has driven us there. It is hardly surprising that we might be seen to be stressed, troubled and even unwell. These things are not necessarily measures of the futility of the journey, but more part of any real human experience- part of the process of changing, becoming, learning to inhabit our own skin. We learn far more about ourselves in crisis than we ever do in prosperity.

The question might remain as to why this is NOT also the case for the religious? Are they not also  being challenged, shaped and changed by their contact with scripture/teaching/existential challenge? All I can say is that in my experience in Churches, this is rather rare. The pews offer comfort more than adventure.

In this sense, the idea of spiritual travellers on the road, nursing wounds on the way seems not necessarily a negative- rather it offers hope for our humanity. Despite it all, we still strive for connection with the divine.

Belonging

A lot of the presumed benefit of religion at  both a sociological and psychological level seems to be the given sense of belonging, of inclusion and connection to a wider family. Even accepting that in-groups can have all sorts of other problems, this benefit appears to be rather universal. It should not be surprising then that those who are attempting spirituality without community do not experience this benefit.

I have written elsewhere about my conviction that we experience the divine through scripture, through revelation, but perhaps most through community. We humans were made to love- and this is not an abstract proposition divorced from the mess of human contact. Nothing strips us bare, opens us up, sustains us, breaks us down, wounds us, heals us, like community. I also beleive that our approach to theology should also be one of ‘small theologies’ (HT Karen Ward) worked out in community- in respect of ‘big theologies’, but not enslaved to them.

Having said that, it seems that there are surface benefits too in just demonstrating some kind of collective respectability- even if this depends on a wider societal respect for the religious badge that we wear. I confess to less concern about this kind of religiosity. It sounds too much like the stuff that Jesus had no time for.

The lesson here then might be to encourage our spiritual seekers to connect with one another. In these times of total (but fleshless) communication, the deeper community connection described above is a rare commodity, and where it happens it is a precious flame that we should nurture.

Believing

Finally, I have been thinking about the nature of faith itself. We have many models- faith as journey, as destination, as therapy, as national identity, as absolute truth, as means of rescue from hell. From the outside all of these organised expressions of faith appear rigidly codified, doctrinal, dogmatic. They seem to demand blind observance of rules and regulations often policed by male power. Small wonder that we would be suspicious about joining such an organisation. Small wonder that pilgrims remain outside the sites of pilgrimage.

However, I am reminded of this;

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

Perhaps like others who are more comfortable with being SBNR I prefer to regard faith as a journey of engagement with the God-in-all-things. To look for the marks left by Jesus on the whole of creation. But in doing this, It has become clear to me that in order to journey we need a means to travel. We need a road, and shoes to walk it with.

Like it or not, this means of travel is religion.

It is the corrective to the self centred me-first spirituality that can often characterise SBNR journeying. You know what I mean- a pick and mix spirituality tailor made to make me feel better about the choices I have made, and the lifestyle I want to live. A situation where morality and love of strangers are elasticated around our own comfort zone. (Not that these characteristics are not to be equally found in churches of course!)

It challenges us towards connection to others who have journeyed first.

To all of those SBNRs out there- I think you are the hope and the conscience of our generation. The depth and meaning you find in the mess of western civilisation will be recorded in art, law, history and handed on to the generations to come- so may you journey well…

journey's end

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.

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.

A window into the beginning of us…

 

There was an amazing story in the Guardian the other day about the discovery of some neolithic remains in Orkney. This is hardly surprising on the face of things- Orkney is covered in neolithic sites like pimples on a teenage face.

However, this site seems to have caused amazement in the archaeological world;

“We have discovered a Neolithic temple complex that is without parallel in western Europe. Yet for decades we thought it was just a hill made of glacial moraine,” says discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. “In fact the place is entirely manmade, although it covers more than six acres of land.”

Once protected by two giant walls, each more than 100m long and 4m high, the complex at Ness contained more than a dozen large temples – one measured almost 25m square – that were linked to outhouses and kitchens by carefully constructed stone pavements. The bones of sacrificed cattle, elegantly made pottery and pieces of painted ceramics lie scattered round the site. The exact purpose of the complex is a mystery, though it is clearly ancient. Some parts were constructed more than 5,000 years ago.

I love this story as it asks so many questions about who we are.

The place where we grew from in these islands appears not to be some southern soft plain. This complex is much older than Stonehenge, and a level of sophistication far beyond.

These people emerged from the background of creation (like Adam and Eve) then learnt how to survive (like Abel) before starting to farm (like Cain) then to trade and commune with one another (like Babel.)

And in the middle of it all, they searched for meaning, for spiritual significance, for connection with the heavens- so much so that they dedicated huge resources and time constructing these temples.

Whatever uses they put the temples (if indeed that is what they were) we will never know- and like any spirituality, it can never be understood in the abstract anyway- only in the immersion.

The temples are also a reminder that whilst we may have so much still in common with these ancient Orcadians, things also change- often in ways we may not expect;

Equally puzzling was the fate of the complex. Around 2,300BC, roughly a thousand years after construction began there, the place was abruptly abandoned. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones suggests that a huge feast ceremony was held, with more than 600 cattle slaughtered, after which the site appears to have been decommissioned. Perhaps a transfer of power took place or a new religion replaced the old one. Whatever the reason, the great temple complex – on which Orcadians had lavished almost a millennium’s effort – was abandoned and forgotten for the next 4,000 years.

Significance- lessons from Ecclesiastes…

I am 45 years old. My first career is possibly over, my second uncertain. Any hopes I had of making a way for myself through music of some other public magnificence are long gone.

In many ways, particularly for blokes, life is about a search for significance, ascendancy, personal power and the recognition of our peers.

Sooner or later (no matter how much of the above list you manage to manufacture) we all come to the conclusion that this is futile. Success is fleeting and always nuanced, and the pursuit of power extracts a price from our humanity. ( I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes 4:4)

So in the wreckage, what still stands?

This is the big question of those of us entering the second part of life. It is all too easy to fall into the way of Ecclesiastes chapter 1;

1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

The book of Ecclesiastes plays with these themes constantly- the meaningless futility of life, and the inevitability of death. The success/failure of the wicked, and the success/failure in equal measure of the devout. The limitations of wisdom, and the fickle search for success.

If the words were authored by Solomon (as traditionally held to be the case) they seem all the more poignant. They are the words of a 4th C BC King of excess, who had it all, turning towards the end of his living, confused still about the worth of a life. Not all the monuments or pyramids or songs could convince him that his life was worth anything more than that of any other animal.

Reading this as a young man, I wanted to rebel at the cynical emptiness of it all. Surely God has a great purpose for me- am I not part of his great plan? I am not the great part of his plan?

Now I find myself relaxing into it as truth- although like all of these things, only a partial truth.

Because if the legacy we leave on this earth is not about our youthful appetite for stuff, for power, for significance; if it is not about hard measurable, visible outcomes- a deeper, less quantifiable legacy might still be possible.

The measure of grace that we stain our situation with.

The love that we give and receive.

And for this, I turn from Solomon to Micah, chapter 6;

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Walking humbly with God- this is the journey I now try to make.

Significantly.