“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

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The Difference between Relative and Absolute

I have always struggled with the notions of False Self and True Self, as explained by Richard Rohr (and before him, Thomas Merton). Struggled to understand what they mean for me.

Today my spiritual director explained them in another way, and it’s all come clear. He spoke of the Relative Self, which is the sum of our experiences, and the Absolute Self, that of God in us.

The Relative Self reacts and compares and likes things and people. It is subject to change. The Absolute Self is able to rise above this reactionary state. It observes and assesses. It is awake. It has compassion for all, including its own small, wounded, Relative Self. It loves things and people just the way they are.

The purpose of contemplative prayer, of meditation, is to quiet the chattering monkeys so that the Absolute Self can be heard. So that we learn to live mindfully, with awareness, and don’t just blunder through life reacting to whatever we see and hear and think and feel.

I feel like a door has opened in my mind, and am so very grateful.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Discipline vs Indulgence

Over the last few weeks, I have been uneasily conscious of the fact that I have been letting things I ought to do, and actually enjoy when I'm doing them, slide, in favour of reading, doing a jigsaw on my iPad, or just watching TV.

Not that there is anything wrong with reading, jigsaws or TV-watching, but I also wanted to find the time to do things which would nourish my soul: a half-hour sit in the morning, carrying on with my novel, which has been sitting half-done on my computer for months, and doing regular piano practice.

I had been trying to turn the daily piano practice into a habit for some time, with very little success.

Then I had my light bulb moment. I am very much a morning person, a lark rather than an owl, so why not get these things done straight after I get up? Excitedly, I wrote myself a timetable:

0600 - 0630  Get up, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast.
0630 - 0700  E-mails, daily Recognition, check Facebook.
0700 - 0730  Sit / pray
0730 - 0830  Write
0830 - 0915  Piano practice (30 minutes if I have to be out of the door by 9.00)

I shared this idea with a friend, who wrote back: "How disciplined it all sounds but I am sure it is good if it works for you."

And it does! It may sound unpleasantly regimented, and to some extent it is. However, it does mean that I get to spend two and a quarter hours every morning, nourishing my soul. Two and a quarter whole hours of time spent doing things that I like to do, that make me feel better about myself, that make me feel more connected with the world. To me, it sounds like a huge indulgence, rather than a discipline.

Then at 9.00 am (or 9.15 am) I feel refreshed, invigorated, and ready to get on with my day. And without the cloud of "you ought to fit in writing / piano practice some time today" hanging over my head. It's done, and I feel so free!

For me as a morning person, and as someone who Gretchen Rubin describes, in her book 'The Four Tendencies', as a Questioner, this works very well. But I can understand why others would look at my timetable with horror and loathing. It all depends on your perspective, and on your inner tendency.

She divides people into four types: Upholders, who meet inner and outer expectations easily; Questioners, who meet inner expectations, but not outer ones; Obligers, who meet outer expectations, but find it hard to discipline themselves; and Rebels, who hate any kind of expectations.

Before reading the book, I had thought that I was an Upholder. But it soon became very clear that I am a Questioner. Questioners are very good at meeting inner expectations, things they set themselves to do, which make sense to them. But they question all other expectations - especially those imposed by others. They will only do something if it makes sense to them.

So once I had decided that doing these things daily - sitting for 30 minutes, writing for an hour, practising the piano for 30/45 minutes - could easily be fitted in to the first three hours of my day, and would make me feel good, it has become easy to do them.

I would recommend the book to anyone who has trouble with "ought to" and "should" in their lives.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

View from the Hill

For the last two days, I have been on an individual guided retreat at Holland House. The poem below was written while I was there ...

“You yourself are what you are seeking”.
A living manifestation of God – She is in all things.
God is in me – I am made in His image –
perfect and complete.
The whole universe is sacred.

Outside my window, a butterfly
browses among the sun-warmed flowers.
She too is a manifestation
of the Divine in creation.
But she regrets not the past,
nor has any care for the future,
She just does her thing,
flitting from flower to flower,
gaining sustenance for her present need.
Because of her, they will germinate
and seed – giving life to a new generation.
All of creation is interdependent.

It is only we, in our human arrogance,
who try to live outside this flow of life,
between God and the rest of creation.
The wise among us will “go with the flow”,
living in present awareness
of our part in the Circle of Life.

We could learn from the animals.
A dog, out for a walk with his master,
is only aware of present pleasures:
the feel of the earth under his paws;
the sights and smells and sounds
around him, and his perfect contentment
in spending time with the one he loves.
If the man is wise, his sensations
will be the same. But probably,
he will be “walking sightless among miracles”,
his mind on other matters.

God is manifest in the world
and in ourselves. If we pay attention,
How could we not love Him
“with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength”?
Wake up and smell the roses!

Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Visit That Wasn't

Months ago, I and my fellow Midlands ministers decided to spend a day at Coventry Cathedral as our July "meeting". We settled on 18th July, and duly met at 10.30 am at The Great Meeting House Unitarian Church in Coventry, to park our cars, and walk to the Cathedral.

But when we got there, the area outside was full of young people and their parents, the former in caps and gowns, and the latter in their "Sunday best". Yes, we had chosen the day when young graduands of Coventry University were becoming graduates. And the ceremony was in the Cathedral. Oh. I had checked the website a few weeks earlier, and no mention of this event.

So we adjourned to the Herbert Museum & Art Gallery for coffee, and to have a discussion about what to do instead. To my surprise, five of the seven of us, including my husband, decided they'd like to go to Coventry Transport Museum, which left my friend and I free to book-shop to our heart's content.

We spent more than an hour in the Cathedral bookshop, which had many wonderful second-hand theological and spiritual books at very reasonable prices, and came away loaded down with books.

When we joined back up with the rest of the party, it was clear that a good time had been had by all. It was not the day we had planned, but we had refused to let this spoil things, but had happily decided to make the best of it, and enjoy the day anyway. There were no recriminations, and no heart-burning, just a willingness to make alternative plans, and have a good day. We will visit the Cathedral another time.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Practice Makes Better

Some readers who know me may know that I have recently gone back to learning to play the piano, after a gap of ten years. I'm loving re-connecting with music again, and am enjoying playing. I have a wonderful teacher (the same one as last time) who knows me well, and encourages as well as stretches me. It is good.

We've decided that I'm going to do a 'Performance Assessment' this coming November, to get me back into practice for doing my Grade 5 next year. The idea is that you play three pieces for the examiner, who comments on your playing, but doesn't give a mark. It's to get inhibited adults feeling easier about playing 'in public'.

meme posted on Facebook by ABRSM Greece

Choosing the first two pieces was fairly easy - a Bach Prelude, and the third movement from Georg Benda's Sonata in G, which was a Grade 4 piece a few years ago. But the third one has been a problem. I badly wanted to play something by Ludovico Einaudi, my favourite composer. We tried a couple of pieces - Primavera and Stella del Mattino. But I seem to have some sort of block, so far as Einaudi is concerned. I think the problem is, I listen to his music on CD often in my car, and so I know what it's *supposed* to sound like, and get so frustrated because there's no way I could ever sound like that.

Which is fair enough, because if I could, I should be a full-time concert pianist, instead of a Unitarian minister. But it has made me feel discouraged, because practice has not made perfect, nor anywhere close to it.

It occurred to me today that a better maxim to follow might be "Practice makes better." Most people struggle to do anything perfectly, no matter how hard or how often they practice, but all of us can do things better than we do at the moment, if we practice doing them often enough.

So I am going to stop beating myself up for not being as good as Einaudi, and resolve instead to do the best that *I* can, through regular practice.

This is not only applicable to playing music. It's true of anything we undertake in this life. We can only do the best that we can, where we are, with the talents we have.

As Richard Rohr wrote in today's Daily Meditation: "The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better."

And that is enough.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

How do you hold your belief bag?

Unitarians welcome diversity of beliefs and the togetherness of the approach to matters of religious belief and spirituality. There is a high level of tolerance of other beliefs, but more than that: a whole-hearted acceptance of them as some of the many factors that enrich and inform our spiritual journey. Our faith has developed into one based on the primacy of individual conscience. We believe that a shared approach to matters of religious belief and spirituality is more important than a statement of shared beliefs, recognising that the spiritual journey is unique to each person.

Which is why I found a reading by Gary Kowalski, which I found on the UUA Worship Web, so fascinating. For him, and I think for most Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, the important thing is not what you believe, but how you hold those beliefs – your attitude to them, and to the beliefs of others.This is part of what it said:

 What makes us different is the way that we Unitarians carry our beliefs—because there are different ways of holding your belief bag.
For example, some people …clutch [their bag] close and make sure the top is tightly sealed, because they don’t want their beliefs exposed to any new ideas that could threaten what’s inside. They’ve got their world wrapped up in a nice, tidy package. And because their bag is all closed up, we call these people closed-minded.
On the other hand, some people … don’t pay much attention at all to what goes into their bag. One idea is a good as another, and if other folks believe it, or if they read it on the internet, or heard it on talk radio, then it must be true. Because they carry their bag in such a sloppy manner, we call these people sloppy thinkers.
And then there are people who carry their bags … like a club they use to hit other people. … they use their bag like a weapon, and attack other people’s beliefs with it.
But none of those is the Unitarian way. Instead, we carry our bags like this: we carry them with the top open, so that new ideas and experiences can get inside, and old beliefs can be tossed aside if needed.
We carry our bags in front of us, so that we can see and examine what goes in, to be sure it makes sense and fits with other things we know. And also so that we can see what our neighbours think, and share our thoughts with others. Above all, we never use our beliefs to beat up or bully other people.”
I would guess that few Unitarians could be accused of being closed-minded. But sometimes, just sometimes, we may be guilty of carrying our belief bags carelessly, taking on beliefs without examining them carefully, without submitting them to our reason or conscience. Or sometimes, just sometimes, we may be guilty of using our beliefs as weapons to attack others, forgetting to respect the beliefs of others, and hold their beliefs in a spirit of freedom and tolerance.
The important thing is to hold our belief bags open, as Gary Kowalski suggests, so that we remain open to new ideas and experiences, and discard old ones, which no longer speak to us. I have often said that Unitarian belief is a process of continuous and continuing revelation. We don’t just have a one-off conversion experience, sign up to a particular set of beliefs, and then rest on those for the rest of our lives. Being a Unitarian is like being a Quaker – we have to be “open to new Light, from whatever source it may come.”

We also need to carry our bags in front of us, as he suggests, so that we examine any new beliefs critically, before taking them on, and adding them to our bags. Finally, I love the idea that we carry our bags open, and in front of us, “so that we can see what our neighbours think, and share our thoughts with others.” That is surely the essence of being Unitarian – sharing the wisdom we have found on our faith journeys, and being open to being influenced by the beliefs and wisdom of others.

This has certainly been true in my case. When I came to Unitarianism at the age of 18, it was in reaction to certain tenets of Christianity, which I could not believe – such as Jesus being the unique Son of God, born to a virgin; the idea of original sin, that we are all born with fatal flaws; and also the doctrine of the atonement – that Jesus’s death on the cross two thousand years ago was the only thing that could put me back into right relationship with God the Father. I reacted strongly against these beliefs, which meant that for many years, I was what might be called an ‘ABC Unitarian’ – anything but Christianity. My mind was closed to the wisdom of that religion.

But in the last decade or so, I have let go of my death-hold on my beliefs bag, and started to hold it wide open. I have met, and read books by, many Christians, and have found that Christianity is far more diverse than I had believed, and that many Christians hold beliefs that are important to me, that I have now added to my own beliefs bag. That God is Love, and that Love is at the centre of everything. That Jesus’s teaching centred on love and compassion for others. That the Spirit of the divine is active in our lives, if only we are wide awake enough to sense it.

So let us be sure to hold our belief bags open, so that new beliefs may be added if they speak to our condition, to use the Quaker phrase. Let us hold them in front of us, so that unexamined beliefs don’t slip in un-noticed. And may we share our beliefs with others – who knows which word you speak about your beliefs could be the one word of truth for someone else, with the possibility of transforming their lives?

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Dawn Chorus

For the last couple of weeks, now that the weather is warmer, I have been sleeping with my window open. And have been woken early every morning by the glorious singing known as 'the dawn chorus' - every bird in the neighbourhood singing their hearts out.

I wondered why this might be, so asked Google. There was a fascinating article on the website wired.com by Mary Bates, which explains this phenomenon. She writes:

"You may have noticed a cacophony of birdsong in the wee hours of the morning ... it can start as early as 4.00 am and last several hours. Birds can sing at any time of day, but during the dawn chorus their songs are often louder, livelier, and more frequent. It's mostly made up of male birds, attempting to attract mates and warn other males away from their territories.

But why choose the hours around sunrise to sing? There are a number of theories, and they're not necessarily mutually exclusive.

One idea is that in the early morning, light levels are too dim for birds to do much foraging. Since light levels don't affect social interactions as much, it's a great opportunity to sing, instead.

Another idea is that early morning singing signals to other birds about the strength and vitality of the singer. Singing is an essential part of bird life, but it's costly in terms of time and energy. Singing loud and proud first thing in the morning tells everyone within hearing distance that you were strong and healthy enough to survive the night. This is attractive to potential mates, and lets your competitors know you're still around and in charge of your territory. ...

Although dawn songs don't carry farther, they are clearer and more consistent, and this could be even more important. Individual males have their own signature songs, with slight variations that identify them to their neighbours. If you're a male trying to attract a mate or defend your territory, it's more important to let your fellow birds know that it's you singing, than it is to be heard over a long distance. Singing in the morning leads to a more consistent signal and makes it more likely that other birds will be able to identify the singer correctly."

So now we know! Whatever the reason, it is a wonderful way to wake up - to a sky filled with dawn's early light, and that glorious singing. I am grateful.