“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Unitarianism - Philosophy or Religion?

I have just enrolled on a fascinating online course, entitled Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought, which is about the various schools of philosophy in classical China. The lecturer, from Hong Kong University, is Professor Chad Hansen, and in the first lecture he made an interesting distinction between what is a religion and what is a philosophy:

"[One] way of making the distinction, if we don't look at logic, ... is that what marks a kind of philosophy as religious is that it has some sort of reliance on authority. The obvious one would be a supernatural god. If you depend on God to be the determiner of truth and falsity, rather than argument and logic, then that's a form of religion. It would also be a form of religion even if there were no God. If you depended on a text, a particular text, or on a particular tradition, if you insisted ... whatever is true comes by a kind of unverifiable experience, a revelation, or a vision, or some mystical experience that cannot be evaluated, criticized, or studied by science, then I would call that religious.

And what I would call philosophy, is anytime the content of thought is the result of discussion, and exchange, and contending, if the schools are disagreeing and as a result they make intellectual progress; that is they move from less adequate to progressively better theories, because the arguments make them reconsider and re-evaluate and make progress. Then I would want to call that philosophy rather than religion because it's free from authority, and it makes progress through discussion."

I'm not sure I agree with him. Unitarians would seem to fall between his definitions. Unitarians today believe that although we may develop spiritually within a particular faith tradition, "such development is greatest when the believer is in active and critical dialogue with it." (Cliff Reed) This is the antithesis of the traditional view of authority, which requires unthinking submission to a particular creed or set of beliefs. It means that Unitarians can be open to inspiration from whatever source it comes - in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys.

Our view of authority has modified over the centuries, from a dual belief in reason and scripture, to our current position that "each person is his or her own final authority in matters of faith." (Cliff Reed) The authority of individual reason and conscience is held to be supreme, but it is important to be a member of a religious / spiritual community to which you can bring your questions and your doubts, in the sure knowledge that they will be met with a broad, questioning tolerance. The interplay of individuals' beliefs is one of the great strengths of a Unitarian congregation - the bouncing of ideas off each other means that we can never be complacent about what we believe. It is stimulating to belong to such a community, but can be very hard work. Nothing is set in stone, and each individual is responsible for keeping his or her mind open to new ideas, so that our faith can grow.

So is Unitarianism are philosophy or a religion? I think it is both/and, rather than either/or, and stronger for that.



Sunday, 21 June 2015

Such A Perfect Day

This morning, a friend of mine posted about the elements of her personal perfect day: "Being around like minded people where we just get each other; being inspired; walking in nature; yummy food (normally not my own); seeing my son happy; feeling that I may be making a small difference in the world."

Naturally, this made me reflect about what my perfect day might include ... I found myself very much in agreement with her. All the elements that would make up my perfect day seems to be linked together, which is why the symbol of the Celtic triquetra speaks to me so powerfully.

I too love to be around like-minded people, and feeling in tune with them, but also enjoy being in open and deep conversation with folk who have different views to mine. Which includes Unitarians (of course), and other people of all faiths and none.

I find many things inspiring - words, images, people. I count myself very blessed to be living in the early 21st century, when social media such as Facebook can bring such words and images into my home. Not to mention books, my beloved books ... it would not be a perfect day if I did not spend at least some of it curled up with a good book.

Being creative also makes me happy - whether it is writing, or colouring, or stitching. So creating something new and original would also have a part in my perfect day.

Walking in nature is always an important element of any day, and my perfect day would not be complete without it. I am so very lucky to live in a small village on the edge of Salcey Forest, so walking in nature is a simple matter of walking out of my own front door, and turning right. Last week we were in Wales on holiday and had the added joys of the sea and the mountains. Bliss.

Yummy food, especially when shared with those I love, is a special good in my life. As I write, it is the morning of Father's Day, and my daughter and my husband are sitting in the kitchen, preparing and talking about food. And like my friend, I am much happier (and more appreciative) when somebody else has prepared and cooked it!

Seeing the people I love happy is a key component of my own happiness. I cannot be truly happy if somebody I care about is miserable, for any reason. I just can't. I am finding that as I get older, my circle of compassion is widening, which makes me increasingly restless about other people's unhappiness.

Which is why feeling that I may be making a small difference in the world also has a role to play in my mythical perfect day. There is so much to do, and each one of us is so small and insignificant, but "Still I Am One".

Finally, at the end of the day, giving thanks for all these things, and for life in all its marvellous, messy, chaotic, imperfection, just being grateful for my life, joys and sorrows together, would make a perfect close.

What would your perfect day look like?


Monday, 15 June 2015

Long-Term Hope

It takes a special kind of faith in, and hope for, the future, to start a project that is so long term that only your descendants will see the benefits.

The patrons of the Victorian plant hunters were such people. Last week, I visited Bodnant Gardens in North Wales, which had been established in the late Victorian era, and subsequently tended by five generations of the same family.

There are acres and acres of the Gardens, from formal rose gardens and a delightful golden Laburnum Arch (which we were in perfect time to see) to the Dell, planted in the 1890s and now home to magnificent trees, reaching over a hundred feet into the sky. There are groves of rhododendrons, all the colours of the rainbow - some so bright that they look almost artificial, as though they had been coloured by a child's felt tipped pens, and some so delicate that their beauty took my breath away.

Maintaining these beautiful Gardens is now the job of the National Trust in Wales, and they do a bang-up job. It was a lovely sunny day, and there were a lot of people visiting, but the Gardens were big enough to absorb us all without feeling crowded.

Visiting Bodnant was a very special experience. I gave thanks frequently for the natural, yet human-planned beauty all around me. I marvelled at the faith of that Victorian gentleman, who had a vision for the future, who planted saplings that are now great trees. Some now question the credentials of the Victorian plant hunters, yet I couldn't help being grateful for the opportunity of seeing so many exotic and beautiful shrubs and trees, from all over the world, which otherwise I could never have seen in my lifetime.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Attending To What We Love

This morning I came across a passage in the book I am reading, How, then, shall we live? by Wayne Muller, which has really made me pause and think about how I spend my days. It reads:

Mobile Lovers by Banksy (image from jonnybaker.blogs.com)
"Attention is a tangible measure of love. Whatever receives our time and attention becomes the center of gravity, the focus of our life. This is what we do with what we love: we allow it to become our center. ... We become what we love. Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, this is the kind of person you will eventually become. Is this what you want?"

And I have realised that although by and large I am content with the way in which I spend my days (I am doing a job which I am passionate about, and I think I've got my work/life balance about right), there are two areas which I am not happy with, which are actually (natch!) related: the amount of quality time I spend with my husband, and the amount of time I spend on my iPad, interacting with Facebook friends.

It has been a bit of a wake-up call. Facebook is a subtle addiction, but an addiction nonetheless. I don't want to end up like one of Banksy's mobile lovers, ostensibly embracing my beloved while actually texting somebody else. So it stops. Here. Now. In the evenings at least, when I am in my husband's (or any other) company, Facebook is irrelevant.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Making A Difference

There is a wonderful old story about a young man, who was walking along the beach, when he noticed that thousands of starfish had been washed up by the tide. The tide was going out, and the starfish were stranded. There was no way that they could get back to the water, and he realised that within an hour or so, they would all be dead.

In the distance, he noticed an elderly woman, who was picking up the starfish from the beach, one by one, and throwing them back into the sea. The young man went up to her and asked: "What are you doing?" She replied: "The sun is up and the tide is going out, and I'm throwing these starfish back into the sea, so that they won't die."

"But why are you bothering?" he asked. "There are thousands of them, and what you are doing won't make any difference. And there will be thousands more on the next tide."

The old lady stooped, picked up another starfish, and hurled it back into the receding tide. Then she turned to the young man and grinned: "Made a difference to that one!"

I love this story so much, because it proves that no matter how old or tired or busy we are, we can still make a difference in the world. It makes me so cross when people say "Oh, I don't bother with recycling (or picking up litter or whatever small task we are called to do), because my individual effort won't make a difference." The point being, that if everybody thought like that, Nothing would get done!

At times like that, I remember the story of the old lady and the starfish, and make my small effort, knowing that it will make a difference, no matter how infinitesimal. I try to follow the advice of the Quaker missionary, Etienne de Grellet, who wrote: "I shall pass this way but one; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." Amen


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Overwhelmed By Words

A few years ago, I discovered how incredibly beautiful and moving religious poetry could be. I had already had intimations of this, from reading Kahlil Gibran as a student, but during Unitarian Summer School in 2010, I was introduced to the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic, and to that of Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, who wrote in the early 20th century.

They both absolutely blew me away. Only when reading the poetic prose of Gibran's The Prophet had I encountered anything like it. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of their words, which pointed to a new way of connecting with the divine, which had never occurred to me. Most of the religious poetry that I knew was by the metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert, from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, or the grand and serious stanzas of Milton's Paradise Lost. Some of it is beautiful, but oh so very orthodox.

We are very fortunate in the 21st century, to have gifted translators and editors, who are able to convert the Persian of Hafiz, and the German of Rilke, into wonderfully lyrical English, without losing the sense of the original. Daniel Ladinsky in the case of Hafiz, and Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy for Rilke. Their translations are masterpieces, and contribute hugely to the enjoyment and pleasure I have received from reading them.

Although both authors may be described as religious / spiritual poets, their poetry is not the same. Apart from in the erotic Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible, I had not come across the idea of God or the Divine (however you like to refer to Him/Her/It) as the Beloved, the object of the worshipper's love. It is a concept that is central in the poetry of both Hafiz and his fellow Persian mystic, Rumi, and I find it refreshing.

Hafiz's relationship with his God can only be described as intimate. His God is not some remote, cold, judgemental Being in Heaven, but a warm, loving, teasing Presence. The companionship of this Beloved God is a matter of joy and happiness - much of the poetry speaks of laughing and dancing and singing and playing music. Sometimes he is talking about his own relationship with god, and sometimes offering advice to the reader, in the guise of a guide, who can lead him or her to "the Beloved's tent." There is much gentle good advice in Hafiz's words. Reading his words has taught me that religious poetry does not have to be solemn and serious, and that loving yourself and others is the straightest way to God.

Rainer Maria Rilke is more overtly serious in his approach to God than Hafiz, but in my favourite book of his Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, there is the same intimacy, the same longing for union with the Divine, and the same belief that this is possible, for human beings, here and now. The edition I own has the German text on the left hand pages, and the English on the right, which is lovely for me. I have a little German, and having read the English first, can then turn to the original and savour it.

However, that is not the reason why I love this book so much. It is the warm connection between the poet and God which runs through all the poems - sometimes it is God speaking, sometimes the poet. But like Hafiz, there is a closeness, a familiarity with the Divine in Rilke's words, which is so delicious to read.  Rilke has a personal and close relationship with god. There is no feeling that God is Up There, or Over There, or Somewhere Else. God is Here and Now and Everywhere. it is a relationship based on love, rather than judgement. I find it exhilarating.

Since that time, I have learned that these two are not as alone and singular as I first thought. I have come to know and love the poetry of people such as John O'Donohue, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, and Denise Levertov. But I will always be grateful to that Summer School, for introducing me to such wonderful poetry, which feeds my soul.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Discerning the Spirit

I am currently doing a wonderful course at the London Centre for Spirituality, which is training me to become a spiritual director. It's not like an ordinary training course, more like my ministry training, in so far as it is as much about formation as it is about learning.

Our session this week was very deep and rich, concerning the role of the Spirit in spiritual direction. I believe that whether the Spirit works uniquely through human beings, or is present throughout the universe doesn't really matter. What I do believe is that the Spirit is an active divine presence who is with us always. So, I am warming to the idea that in any spiritual direction session, there are three present - the director, the directee, and the Spirit. And that it is the Spirit who really does the direction; the director's job is to hold the space, and to guide / accompany the directee to enable him/her to discern where the Spirit is at work in his/her life. It is also up to us as directors to discern where the Spirit is present / working during the session, and to hold the silence, or choose the words, that will enable this.

This is not head work. This is heart work. It is based on trust: trust between director and directee, and trust by both in the process, and in the Spirit. I have been a directee myself for three and a half years now, and know from experience what a rich process it can be. I feel so very privileged to be able to pay it forward.