Where the wild things are

WTWSome years ago we went to the Holy Land. We stayed in Jerusalem and Tiberias. We visited Roman remains and Biblical sites. One of the most lasting images for me is the Judean wilderness – the desert. From Jerusalem to Jericho in the bottom of the Great Rift Valley, the desert road goes down, down, down, down. Sand, sand, sand, sand, dunes, caves. Maybe the occasional lizard. Not much else. Unrelenting sun or penetrating cold.

Christianity is a religion of the desert. Moses led his people through the desert from slavery to the Promised Land. John Baptist came from the desert to make way for the Messiah. Jesus began his work in the desert.

The silence is profound. Nothing comes between man and The Divine. No life thrives here except the inner life. Confront it or go mad.

Listen to the wild beasts that live inside us that incite us to put ourselves at the centre of our lives: to take more than we need, to pile up possessions, to seek approval from others. Confront these beasts.

Listen to the angels that live inside us encouraging us to put the common good – God – at the centre of our lives. Take heed.

I am caught between wild beasts and angels inside me. I do what I wish I didn’t and don’t do what I wish I did. I an caught between wild beasts and angels outside me. I find myself quite alone in a moral and spiritual wilderness, pulled this way and that by external forces that beguile and suborn me.

I suppose I have to face the desert, the barren place, the wilderness, the untamed place, the purgatory through which I must pass to reach that quality of life which is eternal.

A man that looks on glasse, On it may stay his eye; Or if he pleaseth, through it passe, And then the heav’n espie.  (Blessed George Herbert).

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Lent as relaxation

censer-incense-burner-01Welcome deare feast of Lent.

We had beautiful Ash Wednesday ceremonies yesterday evening. Unaccompanied plainsong, psalm and Merbecke, and three gentle hymns. Whoever observed that in the catholic tradition music aids devotion and calms the spirit, whereas in the reformed tradition it excites the emotions, knew a thing or two.

Ash Wednesday is a wonderful feast of being human. Since dust we are and to dust we shall return, we might as well stop trying to be what we’re not. Ditch the personae, shed the skins. Relax into ourselves.

Lent as relaxation. Yes, relaxation. Letting go, loosening up. Freeing from constraints.

Relaxation from the constraints that we tie ourselves up with, and the new clothes we wrap around ourselves to appear bigger, brighter and better than we are, to impress others. (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century: Of the demons … there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men.)

Relaxation from the constraints that constitute addictions. I’m not suggesting we indulge them but, as it were, put them on the table in front of us and look at them full in the face. Addictions to food, booze, complaining, finding fault, having to win … and so many more. Hold them up to yourself and the Lord. You can’t let go of something unless you look at it and know what it is you have to let go of.

Relaxation – moving to a wide place. If we are not constrained, if our view is not limited, we have freedom of action, we are farseeing.

Relaxation – not laziness—far from it—but freeing up so each one of us can give to the world what only each one of us can give.

Relaxation – abstinence from things that hold us back. Don’t give up what you enjoy: that’s just another constraint. Rather give up what you don’t need any more. Let go of ways of thinking that you once needed but that now constrain you. Let go of hurts, resentments, oughts and shoulds. Let go of prejudices and attitudes that restrict your view of the world. Start saying ‘no’ to the expectations of others, and begin to get to know someone you’ve hardly ever met—no, not your maker, but yourself (thanks to W R Inge, sometime Dean of London, for this nugget of gold).

This Lenten abstinence has nothing to do with hair shirts, but everything to do with freeing up yourself for delight you had forgotten was in you. It’s about losing your ego, and rediscovering the Divine within.

Welcome deare feast of Lent.

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A 604 to Kettering

Chesterton Road

Chesterton Road

There it is on a road sign. It’s 1969 and I’m cycling along Chesterton Road in Cambridge. The road number has changed now, but the memory is vivid, the feeling that there’s a big wide world outside this bubble, and the A 604 to Kettering is proof of it. A lovely word, Kettering, unfamiliar.

The bubble in those days was little more than the walk or ride from lodgings in Mill Road to Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology on the Downing site, and then on to Queens’. A detour on foot through Pembroke was a treat. This was a rather strung-out sort of bubble, perhaps, and one in those days whose walls were rarely penetrated. Kettering was a bit of magic.

There were signs to Ely, St Neots and Royston. There might even have been one to London. But it was Kettering that fired the imagination. I didn’t see the sign that often since that side of the Cam was ‘injun country’ until 1971 when daily trips to the boathouse became part of the routine. Maybe it was the novelty.

Lichfield has a similar effect. Such a rich sound. When I was young, we had relatives near Stratford-upon-Avon, and being obsessed with cathedrals as I then was, I plagued parents to stop there on the way past Birmingham. They did once. Later, I saw the three spires from Euston-Carlisle trains (not any more: too built up now). A world I only glimpsed. And here I am now living only 10 miles away.

Lichfield still sings a siren song. I’m off to waste a bit of money in the cathedral shop. Detached from the inconsequential Barchester politics, the cathedral close is a reminder that there are some places that lift the spirit, oases of beauty and memory. Even the A 604 to Kettering.

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Ireland and England

I hardly think a caption necessary

I hardly think a caption necessary

Sunday afternoon I announced to SWMBO that since I now had only two services most Sunday mornings I was less tired than in Portlaoise where I had three. Then I fell asleep. I was snoring and muttering so loudly that Og the dog was agitated. Anyhoo, I set to thinking how life as a priest in the Church of Ireland compares with that in the C of E,

Irish clergy are better paid and can go on until they’re 75. Irish clergy have fewer demands on their time. I know of at least one who’s rarely outside the Rectory during the week. But because they are essentially chaplains to a small tribe, most Irish rectors care for their flocks with greater involvement than in the C of E. In return, parishioners respond with random acts of kindness – fuel for the rectory fire, a full tank of heating oil, the occasional hamper and/or bottle of nectar. The downside of this is that parishioners feel that they at least in part ‘own’ you, but there’s a price for everything.

English clergy come across a wider section of the population, even if only on an occasional basis for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Some of us like this, others don’t. There are more meetings in England (you never know what you’re missing if you don’t go, so I miss quite a lot) and we are much more ‘watched’. We are appraised and monitored. We are urged to do this, that and the other. We are told what healthy growing churches should and should not be doing. Frankly, all this makes me feel deeply inadequate and that whatever I’m doing is not enough. There are moves to import all this to the C of I, so I hope it will be resisted.

In Ireland (I speak of the Republic outside Dublin) clergy are thin on the ground. Any sense of isolation is overcome by networks from college (there’s only one in the C of I) and social media. I know of no English clergy who are such keen FaceBookers as Irish clergy. I’ve caught the disease. The many flavours of the C of E create their own support networks. There are accepting liberals, intolerant liberals, traditional catholics, wishy-washy catholics, traditional evangelicals, wishy-washy evangelicals … yes, it’s silly isn’t it … and these groups can be helpful so long as we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

The tribal nature of the C of I, with the Church building as its totem, means that so long as there’s a steady supply of fecund Anglican maidens, with not too much notice taken of Ne temere if an Anglican should dare to marry a Catholic, the small rural church will be supported and maintained, if not often attended. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rural C of I survives longer than the rural C of E, where buildings are more expensive to maintain and where there’s little sense of loyalty other than to the graveyard (‘so that I can be buried with my ancestors’). The quasi-Masonic Lodge function of the church building has a huge downside, however. The loss of Anglo-Irish aristocracy can result in the gap being filled by self-appointed royal families, some of whom come to hold doleful and ignorant hegemony over parish and parishioners.

As to relations with other denominations, these are much healthier in Ireland. The dominance of the Catholic church means that it is secure enough to be gracious to the tiny minority. The Church of Ireland punches far above its weight, I guess, so that Irish society is seen as not being discriminatory.

So pluses and minuses. Maybe my soporific state on Sundays has little to do with any of the above, and more to do with the fact that I’m old and fat. Recent news that eggs and butter are no longer evil might help the first but not the second.

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What is truth?

4288759Whistleblowing is in the news. Banks and bankers are at it again. HSBC is caught with its knickers round its knees. UK tax authorities have allegedly been either negligent or complicit in not having acted on a tip off. Church of England Archbishops have been cosying up to the former chairman of HSBC, himself an Anglican priest, so make of that what you will.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this is unusual. Remember Mr Fred Goodwin and his antics when The Royal Bank of Scotland almost folded? I suspect that if there’s a bank that hasn’t yet made the news for the wrong reasons, it’s only because it hasn’t been found out. And it’s not confined to banks. Any organisation that has power will, in my experience, do everything it can to cling to its precious, at almost any price. Did you see the Belgian series Salamander when it was shown on BBC? The DVD is available, and I look forward to series 2. Is that truth or fiction? The powerless are pilloried by the powerful. Individuals are attacked by the mob. This is the law of the playground bully. If you were in any way unusual at school, you will know what it feels like to suffer at the hands of the unimaginative, and you will know to what ends you had to go to appease them.

For 19 years we lived in Ireland. Hardly a week goes by there without some new revelation of political chicanery, or some report of abuse of the powerless by the Church – an organisation that for reasons of history has been allowed way too much power over society. A dear friend, who worked for years in the Irish psychiatric hospital service, had a mantra that she impressed on me when I was having a spot of bother: “Might is always right and authority always upholds authority, so get used to it and watch your back”. I doubt it’s better here in the UK. It may even be worse: in this more complex layered society, with the networks of the largely public school educated élite who are in charge, it’s easier to hide things out of sight of the great unwashed—that is, you and me.

Whistleblowers always have a tough time. If you tell an unpopular truth, people will criticise you. Far better, it seems, to live in some artificial never-never land of make-believe than to dwell in the courts of straightforwardness and truth. Prophets are never popular. They have always suffered for pointing out the elephant in the room.

Lent is about a spiritual spring clean. The events leading up to Easter include the story of one who suffered for daring to tell it like it is. Pontius Pilate’s question ‘what is truth?’ is the anthem of the pragmatic appeaser. We need more whistleblowers. We need more people who are ready to tell the truth and who are willing to suffer for it. Are you? Am I?

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Floral_matryoshka_set_2_smallest_doll_nestedSWMBO asked me “what exactly is spirituality?”

It’s a very good question, for the word is bandied about quite indiscriminately, but nobody ever says what they mean by it..

I’m not aware of any generally accepted definition, not even one that’s widely accepted.

What is a ‘spiritual person’?

  • Some people mean someone who’s into joss sticks, open toed sandals, cheesecloth shirts, tie dies, that sort of stuff, gaia, energies. Others call them away with the fairies.
  • Some people mean someone who is serious, moves and talks slowly and rarely smiles and says they think a lot. Others call them lazy shirkers.
  • Some people mean someone who goes to church every day and pontificates about keeping the rules. Others call them sanctimonious hypocrites. 
  • Some people mean someone who puts on a permanent ‘I’ve found Jesus’ smile and who patronizes and condescends to those who don’t. Cambridge University CU members come to mind. I find it difficult to resist the urge to poke their eyes out.

I think spirituality is a looking out: a recognition of the fact that we’re not in control, that we’re at the mercy of something infinitely bigger. That we are, in a word, contingent.

I think spirituality is a looking in: an acknowledgement that the faces we present to the world are merely masks that could be otherwise, and that an inner journey calls us to search among this detritus for the Divine core—the ground of our being.

I think a spiritual person is one who acknowledges all this; someone who lives life to the full as best s/he can and helps others to do likewise; someone who is fully aware of his or her own strengths and weaknesses; someone who is in no doubt that s/he is no more and no less than a creäture of this earth among many other creatures, and someone who knows that s/he is here today and gone tomorrow.

Two pretty awful, and therefore quite funny, medical student aphorisms:

  • If you talk to God you’re a Christian. If God talks to you you’re a schizophrenic.
  • Neurotics build castles in the air; psychotics live in them; psychiatrists collect the rent.

I’ll get my coat.

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Confirmation class 1

child-laughingI’m doing adult confirmation preparation for an accountant, a student of mathematics and a YMCA executive, so I’ve been forced to think about what I tell them. Here is my brief ‘catechism’ part 1.

The Divine (“God”) is the sum total of all that is beautiful, delightful, lovely, creative and ordered (i.e. just and true). There is a bit of God in everyone and everything: we are all broken off bits of God. “What is not God is nothing; what is not God is no thing.” Therefore, there is God in you and even in me.

God is the laws of science (logos), of physics, of the cosmos, … and much more. God is love. The perfect human manifestation of this is Jesus the Christ whose example and life we emulate as best we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Since none of us, despite God within, is perfect, we cock up. This is part of the human condition. Sometimes we do this intentionally and sometimes accidentally; sometimes by things we do that we wish we hadn’t, and sometimes by things we fail to do. We need to acknowledge our own mistakes, our own imperfection and our own helplessness. This is not to grovel, but simply to accept that we are not perfect and not in control, but that we will bash on doing our best as we see it at any moment in time. It helps if we can talk about all these things to a friend from whom we hide nothing. And if you don’t have such a person, a priest will do fine – anonymous or known, it does not matter.

The Divine within is like a pilot light. Incarnation. For us to be fully human that light needs to fill our skins from the inside. What stops it from doing so are things like pride, greed, avarice and showing off. To let it shine and fill us, it’s not that we need to DO something, it’s simply that we need to relax into ourselves, to recognize our pride, greed, avarice and showing off tendencies, and then let them melt away. When you lift up the lid of your psyche, you begin to see all sorts of grubs wriggling around. But then, in the warm light of love, they can begin to melt away as you love the hell out of yourself. This is at least a lifetime’s work.

“And if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say.” And what JC demonstrated is that we rise to the heights – we approach The Divine – when we let go of pride, greed, avarice, showing off – that is, when ego dies, and selflessness replaces selfishness. Crucifixion followed by ascension.

All the rest, the dogma, the doctrine, is poetry that has collected around the message. Much of it is of great beauty, psychological authenticity and ultimate truth. Some of it is past its sell-by date and should be ditched.

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