“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

Friday, 30 December 2011

Between Present and Future

In this deep breath between Christmas and the New Year, I would like to share some words by Patience Strong: "It is good to throw away the old calendar with its all too familiar picture, and to hang something fresh on the wall. How clean and bright the new calendar looks! It seems to symbolise the high hopes of this new morning of a new year. But as I flick through the crisp new pages of the months, I am suddenly aware of the strange mystery of the future. These pages with their neat rows of dates represent unlived time, the promise of seasons not yet come to fulfilment." This time of year is full of new promise.

During the past year, all of us have fallen short, and been less than the best people we can be. But we have also done some things well, and lived up to our potential as human beings. Many world religions have a special time of year, during which adherents "reflect on and evaluate their thoughts, words and actions over the past year [and] acknowledge their prejudices, negative behaviours and bad habits so that they may begin the process of transforming themselves." [Bhalodkar] The Hindu festival of Diwali is one, and the ten-day period leading up to the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur is another. It is a time "to celebrate and appreciate life and to look forward to the coming year with a renewed sense of purpose and passion." [Bhalodkar] For Christians, it is the period of Lent, but for the vast majority of people in Britain, who do not follow any particular religion, New Year is the time for reflecting on the past, and making resolutions for the future.

The process of self-examination is not an easy one. One of my favourite theologians is the wonderful Rabbi Lionel Blue, who I have been listening to on Thought for the Day for about 30 years. I have most of his books, which I have read and re-read, and was lucky enough to go and see him "live" a while ago. Over the years, he has taught me that the only thing that God wants frm us is for us to be more kind, more generous to everyone (including ourselves) and more honest, both with ourselves and our fellow travellers in the world. It is about listening to that inner voice, whether we call it God, or the light within, or our conscience, and about doing the right thing rather than the easy one.

My resolution for the coming year is to follow the advice of Rumi, in his wonderful poem The Guesthouse:

"This being human is a guesthouse
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness
Comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and attend them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight."

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Winter Solstice: Science and Spirit

There is an interesting scientific explanation of the Winter Solstice on the website http://www.timeanddate.com/:

"The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly inclination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20th and December 23rd. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight. The sun is directly overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere during the December solstice. It also marks the longest day of the year in terms of daylight hours for those living south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Those living or travelling south from the Antarctic Circle towards the South Pole will see the midnight sun during this time of the year.
On the contrary, for an observer in the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the day of the year with the least hours of daylight for those living north of the Tropic of Cancer. Those living or travelling north of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole will not be able to see the sun during this time of the year."

by catanna.com

 Just so. But for me, there is so much more to it than that. It is the time of year when the earth turns back towards the light, a time of renewal and hope. But it is also a time to appreciate the necessity of the cyclical nature of things - and to celebrate "the need for withdrawal as an essential part of renewal." There is a beautiful passage in The Circle of Life: the Heart's Journey through the Seasons by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr, which really speaks to my condition. My thanks to Frederic Brussat for drawing it to my attention via Twitter:

"There is a tendency to want to hurry from autumn to spring, to avoid the long dark days that winter brings. Many people do not like constant days bereft of light and months filled with colder temperatures. They struggle with the bleakness of land and the emptiness of trees. Their eyes and hearts seek colour. Their spirits tire of tasting the endless gray skies. There is great rejoicing in the thought that light and warmth will soon be filling more and more of each new day.
But winter darkness has a positive side to it. As we gather to celebrate the first turn from winter to spring, we are invited to recognise and honour the beauty in the often unwanted season of winter. Let us invite our hearts to be glad for the courage winter proclaims. Let us be grateful for the wisdom winter brings in teaching us about the need for withdrawal as an essential part of renewal. Let us also encourage our spirits as Earth prepares to come forth from this time of withdrawal into a season filled with light.
The winter solstice celebrates the return of hope to our land as our planet experiences the first slow turn towards greater daylight. Soon we will welcome the return of the sun and the coming of springtime. As we do do, let us remember and embrace the positive enriching aspects of winter's darkness. Pause now to sit in silence in the darkness of this space. Let this space be a safe enclosure of creative gestation for you."
 May it be so.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Dark Is Rising

Like most people, our family has many Christmas traditions. Some of them go back forever, and some are more recent.

One thing that I always do at this time of year is to get out my battered copy of Susan Cooper's book The Dark Is Rising, and re-read it once more. All the action is set between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, and it really sets me up for the festive season. It is a beautifully written fantasy about the long struggle between the Old Ones of the Light and the Lords of the Dark, on which hangs the fate of our human world. The King Arthur legend gets mixed up in it too - the oldest of the Old Ones is Merriman Lyon (Merlin) and the hero of the books, Will Stanton, ultimately comes to serve Arthur's son, Bran. There are five books in the sequence, but The Dark Is Rising is my favourite.

There is a wonderful description of the magic of Christmas in the book, which reminds me of my own childhood Christmasses, which we have tried to re-create for our own children:

"Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in a corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that. Ageless, familiar Christmas music permeated the house whenever anyone turned on the radio. The television set was never turned on at all; it had become, for this season, an irrelevance."

Later on in the day, they decorate the Christmas tree: "Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.
There were other treasures, then. Little gold stars and circles of plaited straw; swinging silver-paper bells. Next, a medley of decorations made by assorted Stanton children, ranging from Will's infant pipe-cleaner reindeer to a beautiful filigree cross that Max had fashioned out of copper wire in his first year at art school. Then there were strings of tinsel to be draped across any space, and then the box was empty."

The whole book is beautifully written, and very exciting. In the end, of course, Will Stanton, the Sign-seeker, achieves the first part of his quest, and the rest of the story unfolds in the next three books. The central theme is the fact that the forces of the Dark are preparing for a second great rising, and the Old Ones of the Light must prevent it from happening. It is a battle between good and evil, in the most fundamental way. In a later book, The Grey King, one of the human protagonists, John Rowlands, comments:

"Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun. At the very heart, that is. Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh, sometimes they are there; often, indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good, ahead of everything else. ... At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe."

We, unlike the Old Ones, are fully human. So we must be concerned with humanity and mercy and charity and compassion, for they are the true meaning of Christmas.

Wishing you every happiness this Christmas, and for the coming year.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The last mystery

Yesterday afternoon, I came back from a convivial Christmas lunch with a friend, and opened my e-mails, to find an e-mail on my computer from another friend to say that a mutual friend had committed suicide the previous night, having left him a suicide e-mail, which he had opened that morning. It was such a shock – I saw her (the friend who has died) last month, and she seemed fine – up and quite content with her life, full of plans for the future.

Mourning flower by Solemn Hypnotic

And now she has gone. Such a waste.

It made me think about how little we know about what is really going on inside other people's heads and hearts. I am comforted by some wise words by Rev. Arthur Stewart::

"For some, living involves no obvious self-conflict; while for others, there is deep inner stress. We realise we are deeply affected by those who have struggles; and more so by those who, in their aloneness, could not see a chance of winning. For it is from these last that we shall learn in the days to come, to labour more earnestly, and to share with one another our common stores of beauty, joy and love."

I mourn for the lost possibilities of my friend's life - so much that could have been accomplished, that will not now be. And for the friends and family left behind, who must now come to terms with a life that does not contain her. Let us pray for the strength to move forward in wholeness. A prayer by Rev. Michael Dadson fits what I want to say:

"Spirit of Life and Hope and Love, we find ourselves today in the presence of unfathomable mystery,
As with humble hearts we bow before the veil which has fallen between us and one whom we have known and loved.
Help us not to fear - nor to surrender ourselves to grief alone.
Help us to remember that greater than sorrow is love, which endures through pain and conquers grief. Love can bind all hearts in bonds of fellowship and courage; they who love unselfishly face even the depths with courage, for their strength is the strength of many and their courage rests upon the love of friends.
Let us open our hearts now - all the windows of our hearts - in search of the inner resources we shall need, if we are to face life's varied experiences of joy and sorrow.
At this time when ties of friendship and kinship have been broken, we seek the peace of acceptance.
May the words, the feelings, and the remembrances we share in these quiet moments strengthen us each in our grief, and all in our support, one for another.

May she rest in peace.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The core of religion

Last night I was fortunate enough to hear Karen Armstrong speak at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. The occasion was the World Congress of Faiths' annual Younghusband lecture, and she spoke for an hour, entirely without notes, sharing her passionate belief in the sovereign importance of compassion as a force for good in the world.

Karen defined compassion as "the ability to dethrone yourself from the centre of your world and put another person there." This is promulgated in the Golden Rule, which was first formulated by Confucius in the 5th century BCE "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." Its positive counterpart appears in Matthew's Gospel, when Jesus says: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." Most of the world's religions have their own version.

In 2008, Karen Armstrong won the TED prize - a sum of money and the means to make "a wish for a better world" come true. She knew immediately what she wanted to do. In her work as a religious writer and broadcaster, she had come to realise that the Golden Rule was a common thread running through all religions, but it didn't seem to be spoken about in the modern world much. So she determined to set up a Charter for Compassion "to restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life." An invitation was sent out to leading theologians and religious thinkers from across the world's religions, and between them, they formulated the Charter for Compassion, which was launched in November 2009. Two short years later, it has over 80,000 signatories and nearly 200 Partner Organisations, including my own General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

The message of the Charter for Compassion is one that all human beings should heed. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone followed it! If every person genuinely tried to behave to the rest of humankind with a concern and care for how they would feel. As it says in the Charter for Compassion "Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect." We live in a global community, and we need to recognise this, and put aside our petty differences and work to create a world in which all human beings can live together in peace and freedom.

Oh let us live to make it so.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Shadow Side of Christmas

Christmas is the time of year when all the charities go into overdrive. It is the season of goodwill when people are more inclined to respond favourably to pleas for donations for good causes. The first Christmas catalogues plopped through my letterbox way back in August. I buy most of my Christmas presents from them, as well as all my cards.

So Christmas is a time of joy, of goodwill, of charitable thoughts and deeds. God's in his heaven; all's right with the world. Or is it? No, of course it's not. Many people I know are the lucky ones - we all have family and friends who love and care for us, with whom we can share the joys of the season. But not everyone is so fortunate. Christmas has a darker, largely unacknowledged side. Unaccustomed proximity can lead to bitter family arguments and breakdowns in relationships. And there are also so many lonely people who simply don't have anyone to share Christmas with, and who wouldn't feel like celebrating even if they did. For such people, the contrast between their lives and the Christmas projected through the media can exacerbate feelings of isolation, panic, stress and depression. For them, Christmas is a season to be got through somehow, not a time of joy and sharing. And even people who are spending time with friends or family may feel pressured to appear happy and to hide their true feelings or problems so as not to spoil the party atmosphere.

There is one particular charity, not as high profile as many, which exists to help such people. Its mission is (and I quote) "to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those who may lead to suicide." It is the Samaritans.

Most of us will be familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, as told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. A man lay wounded and dying by the roadside. The priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road, not wanting to get involved. But the Samaritan was different. Although he was a stranger in those parts, he did not hesitate. He went across to the man, gave him water and bound up his wounds. Then he put him onto his own donkey and took him to the nearest inn, and left money for his care. When Jesus told that story, he asked which man had been the wounded man's neighbour, and was told "He that showed mercy on him."

The Samaritans was founded in November 1953, by an Anglican priest named Chad Varah. Eighteen years before, his first act as a young minister had been to bury a 14-year old girl who had killed herself when her periods started, because she thought she had some dreadful disease. Varah never forgot this girl and, in his own words, seized "every opportunity to teach young people about sex, and finding that it led youngsters to join my youth clubs and young couples to come for marriage preparation, and couples drifting apart to seek marriage guidance before it was invented." He was labelled a dirty old man for his troubles, but carried on with his work regardless. People got in touch with him to talk through their problems, and he was delighted to help.

Then one day he read in a digest that there were three suicides a day in Greater London. To use his own words again: "What were they supposed to do if they didn't want a Doctor or Social Worker from our splendid Welfare State? What sort of a someone might they want? Well, some had chosen me, because of my liberal views. If it was so easy to save lives, why didn't I do it all the time? How, I answered myself, and live on what? And how would they get in touch at the moment of crisis? He concluded that he simply didn't have the time and that "it'd need a priest with one of those city churches with no parishioners" to do the job.

A short while later, he was offered the benefice of St Stephen Walbrook in the heart of the City of London, a church endowed by the Worshipful Company of Grocers. He told them of his idea of setting up a helpline for suicidal people, and the Samaritans was born.

The rest is history. There are now 202 branches of the Samaritans in the United Kingdom, and in 1974, Varah founded Befrienders International, the worldwide body of Samaritans branches. The basic principles have remained the same - Samaritans volunteers are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer that unique befriending service, and to provide confidential emotional support to anyone experienceing emotional distress or despair. In 2010 in the UK alone, Samaritans received nearly five million contacts, 85% of which were by phone, many of whom felt suicidal at the time of the call. They are dealt with by a total of 18,700 volunteers, who between them give nearly three million hours of their time to befriend people in need of emotional support. I think they are splendid.

Friday, 25 November 2011

57 Varieties of Ministry

A certain famous manufacturer of baked beans, soups and tomato ketchup has the slogan "57 Varieties". According to the Heinz website, "While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever. Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number. So, he began using the slogan '57 Varieties' in all his advertising."

In some faith traditions, the only people allowed to lead worship have to be qualified, whether they are called 'priest' or 'minister' or 'vicar' or 'rabbi'. In the Unitarian movement, the person leading worship in your church or chapel next Sunday might be any of the following: a worship leader, a Lay Preacher, a Lay Person In Charge, a Lay Leader, a Lay Pastor, or a Minister. All are ministering to the congregation in the broadest sense - serving others by ministering to their needs.

I believe that there are many kinds of ministry, and many kinds of minister - maybe even 57! If you look up the verb "to minister" in the dictionary, it says "render aid or service (to person, cause etc)" That makes us all ministers - we are all rendering aid or service to each other, and towards building our beloved Unitarian community, and a better world.

So what is ministry all about? In the traditional sense of the word, it is about having pastoral oversight of a congregation, and regularly leading worship. But I think that in a Unitarian context, it could be interpreted much more widely. I think that there are three main types of ministry going on in our churches and chapels: spiritual, pastoral and practical, because the needs of congregations are also spiritual, pastoral and practical. An invocation by the American UU minister Jack Mendelsohn sums up these three aspects of ministry:

"Here, in this sanctuary of ancient dreams and wisdom and beauty, we come to grow, to be healed, to stretch mind and heart, to be challenged, renewed; to be helped in our own continuing struggles for meaning and for love; to help build a world with more justic and mercy in it; to be counted among the hopers and doers."

Ministry in a Unitarian context is not just something that the congregation passively receives; it is something we all do together, helping each other along the way.

Spiritual ministry is about feeding the spiritual selves of the congregation. It is about delivering worship that will inspire them and help them to grow, that will stretch their minds and hearts, that will challenge and renew their spiritual selves. It is about deep listening and sharing.

Pastoral ministry is about being there for each other in times of need, whether it is listening to someone's problems, or sharing their joys, or visiting them in their homes or in hospital, or conducting rites of passage -namings, weddings and funerals.

Practical ministry is about serving refreshments after the service, or sitting on a church committee, or keeping the chapel clean and tidy, or providing flowers for Sunday worship, or playing the organ, or giving someone a lift to chapel on Sunday morning, or any number of other practical things that turn your church or chapel from a social club into a beloved community. As Lionel Blue writes, "it is not preaching about kindness, it is about doing a kindness."

For me, the thing to remember, to bear in mind all the time, is that we are all human beings, all fellow pilgrims on the same spiritual path. As Cliff Reed explains in Unitarian? What's That? "Unitarians affirm that all human beings originate in the Divine Unity, all have something of God in them, all are alive with the same divine breath."

As I see it, our job as Unitarians, as human beings, is to be constantly aware of the "divine influences" around us, in the world, in our fellow human beings, and to recognise that there is "that of God in everyone", and that we are all connected to each other, on a very fundamental level. It is when we make these fundamental connections that ministry takes place, whether it is in a Unitarian context or in our everyday lives.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Quest for Inner Peace

It can sound a bit like an advertising slogan: 'Inner peace and how to find it.' I have come to realise in recent years that inner peace is one of the most difficult things to obtain, and yet harder to hold on to. And I'm not the only one by a long way. Go into any bookshop, and look in the Mind and Spirit section. You will find the shelves groaning with titles like The Little Book of Calm or Chicken Soup for the Soul or De-stress Your Life in 30 Days (I made the last one up, but I'm sure that such a title exists). And there are DVDs you can buy to teach yourself yoga or pilates to regain control of your life. But as a Quakerly-inclined Unitarian, I believe that there has to be a God-element as well. I love the words of our Unitarian hymn:

"I sent my soul some truth to win; / my soul returned these words to tell: / 'Look not beyond, but turn within, / For I myself am heaven and hell.
And as my thoughts were gently led, / half-held beliefs were seen as true; / I heard, as new, words Jesus said: / 'My friend, God's kingdom lies in you.
Now though I labour, as I must / to build the kingdom yet to be, / I know my hopes will turn to dust, / if first it is not built in me."

Inner peace spiral by Carol Hansen Grey

As usual, the Quakers have got it spot on: number 3 of their Advices and Queries sums up what I am trying to say beautifully:

"Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. ... Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God."

I want to be able to do this so much, and yet it is so hard. How can we attain inner peace in the hurly-burly of everyday life? Most of us spend our lives rushing around from one task to the next - work, shopping, looking after the children, housework, laundry, socialising - the list is endless. People find it more and more difficult to relax, and to attain inner peace, because they've forgotten how to stop.

But we're not supposed to be like this. Every person needs to have some time to centre down, to be at peace, to recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries. I believe that one of the most important of God's creations is the Sabbath - a time to rest, to re-group, and come back to our everyday lives refreshed. One reason why my faith is so important to me is that it has taught me that there is another way of living your life, even if i don't follow it all (or even most of) the time.

There are times when being busy, busy, busy just gets too much. The thought crosses your mind "Stop the world! I want to get off!" But it won't stop, so you have to consciously make the effort to schedule some time to step off the treadmill. It may take a little creative selfishness to realise that you are quite entitled to do this, and quite a bit of planning to reschedule your activities, and find a free time-slot, but it can be done. It doesn't have to be a long time, this 'Me-time', even ten minutes can be enough (depending on what you are doing) it just needs to be regular and consistent.

What you do in your me-time will depend on you. The ideal for me is to follow the Quaker advice and "find a way into the silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength", although I find it very hard to stop my mind buzzing round and round, flitting from concern to concern. I have some prayer beads which I made at Summer School a couple of years ago, and they really help me to focus, and to let everyday life go.

Prayer can also lead to a deep sense of inner peace. I have friends who do this, and I am sure that it helps them to see more clearly and live their lives more serenely. Many people find that listening to a piece of really beautiful music can whirl their minds away, and they come back to earth with a bump at the end of the record. Reading something inspirational may also help - this is something I do a lot, to remind myself of what I'm supposed to be doing, and to regain my perspective.

Physical exercise is also a good way of achieving inner peace. I know that sounds weird, because flogging up and down a swimming pool or playing a game of football may seem the complete opposite of peaceful. But certain forms of exercise really do help you to relax and centre down. Yoga is an obvious one - the fact that you have to concentrate on your breathing clears the mind wonderfully. Personally speaking, I find that going for a gentle run is one of the best stress-busters in the world. If you're not pushing yourself too hard, and can get into an even rhythm, running can be very cathartic.

Going for a walk is another good method of relaxing and centring down. Again, the rhythm of your strides can be soothing, and if you start to pay attention to what you are seeing around you, there is beauty almost everywhere - whether it's a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream, or the bark of a tree, or the architecture of a particular building. Many people find that a spot of gardening, or doing a craft that you love, can have the same effect, if you do it in the right frame of mind.

All these things can bring you, in Sidney Lovett's words, "wisdom and patience and solace, and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world."


Sunday, 13 November 2011

Thoughts on Remembrance Day

To fight or to take a pacifist line is one of the deepest and starkest choices of personal conscience. Is pacifism a cause worth fighting for? What a paradox! I write as one who has a fairly volatile temperament at times, and one who is not a naturally pacific person. I admire Vera Brittain enormously, and the Quakers too. And I am deeply impressed by the realisation that we are all human beings, given life by God. What right have others to take that life away? What cause can possibly justify it?

Being a mother has also affected my views. Having grown my children in the womb, and having nurtured them in the years that have followed, I feel a deep fellowship with all women who have done the same, and can imagine the anguish that every parent must feel when their precious child is maimed or killed.

The common humanity of humankind should be an overarching bond that prevents war. After any natural or man-made disaster, we see this in action. Offers of money and help pour in, as we rush to succour our fellow human beings in distress. We just need to be reminded of our common humanity. Often.

A friend of mine sums up the arguments for and against pacifism as follows:

"The fence on which I seem to sit is this:
1. That I am dedicated to the proposition that love will ultimately (but not consistently or progressively) triumph over hate.
2. That by the same token peace will triumph over war - but not consistently or progressively.
3. That there are some things one must do, not believing in their success, but because doing them is essential to one's integrity (actually I'd say 'for the sake of my soul')
4. I know quite well that my blood can be fired by the beat of a drum or the skirl of pipes - just as I can be moved by 'Last night I had the strangest dream'. I am not one of the world's instinctive herbivores."

It is the responsibility of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead. It is the job of anyone who is horrified by the futility and slaughter of war to attempt to influence their government and fellow citizens to work towards a more peaceful, happier world, in which war would no longer be necessary. And I know that faith groups the world over are trying to do this - we just all need to work together, and to keep at it, until humankind finally realises that peace is so much better than war, for everyone.

Most wars are allegedly fought to bring peace - a most ingenious paradox! We should remember the dead, and honour their sacrifice, but also pledge ourselves to make our world a better place - to end all wars, to relieve world debt, to feed the hungry, to find a cure for AIDS, to stop destroying our environment. It is still a beautiful planet, or it could be, if we could only learn to live together in peace.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Autumn Glory

The Autumn colours have been glorious this year - the leaves have been every possible shade of red-russet-copper-brown-gold-yellow-green that the eye could see or the heart could imagine. The sheer beauty of it all has taken my breath away, especially when the multifarious colours have been backlit by sunshine against a vivid blue sky. Which is why I count myself so blessed to live within walking distance of it all, on the outskirts of Salcey Forest, although the wonderful displays of colour have been everywhere this year, not least in the trees lining the roads that I drive along every day.

Autumn in Salcey Forest by Marlene Snee
In his wonderfully funny book Notes from a Big Country, Bill Bryson muses about this wonderful annual display of vivid colour. "What is all the more remarkable about this is that no one knows quite why it happens. In Autumn ... trees prepare for their long winter's slumber by ceasing to manufacture chlorophyll, the chemical that makes their leaves green. The absence of chlorophyll allows other pigments, called carotenoids, which have been present in the leaves all along, to show off a bit. The carotenoids are what account for the yellow and gold of birches, beeches and some oaks, among others. Now here is where it gets interesting. To allow these golden colours to thrive, the trees must continue to feed the leaves even though the leaves are not actually doing anything useful except hanging there looking pretty. Just at a time when a tree ought to be storing up all its energy for use the following spring, it is instead expending a great deal of effort feeding a pigment that brings joy to the hearts of simple folk like me but doesn't do anything for the tree."

It is a mystery, but a beautiful one, and I just wanted to record my thanks to God for it.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Gems for the Journey

'Gems for the Journey' was the title of a Unitarian Summer School workshop which I attended in 2009, led by Rev. Linda Hart and the late (and much missed) Patricia Walker-Hesson. Over the six morning sessions, participants learned about different spiritual practices which might help them on their journeys. I discovered that using prayer beads really resonated with me, and have used them ever since.

My prayer beads
I have been reminded of this workshop over the last few days, because I have visited a number of places in which different spiritual disciplines were practiced, using a wide variety of "gems". My husband and I have just returned from a 'mini-break' in Somerset, visiting Wells on the first day, staying overnight, then visiting Glastonbury on the second day. Wells Cathedral was a wonderful building, with its facade of golden stone, and famous scissor arches holding up the crossing tower. They obviously have some very talented embroiderers, because there were a series of beautiful altar frontals, one for each season in the Christian year, one draped in front of the altar, and others in display cases on the aisle walls. They had clearly been stitched with love and devotion.

As this was an Anglican cathedral, I was quite surprised to find a series of wonderful modern icons by a Bulgarian artist depicting the Stations of the Cross, which had been presented to the Cathedral a few years ago. The colours were like jewels, bright and vivid. There was also a larger icon of Saint Andrew, to whom the Cathedral is dedicated. It seems that images are becoming more accepted as an aid to devotion in the Anglican church.

On the second day, we visited Glastonbury. It was a lovely crisp Autumn morning, so we decided to climb the Tor first, which has been a destination for pilgrims for millennia. The view from the top was spectacular, but the peaceful atmosphere was somewhat disturbed by the fact that some horticultural work was being done, using a noisy machine to turn the earth over. We then visited the Chalice Well Peace Gardens, which were very beautiful, and then went down into the town to see the Abbey. Now a ruin, it must have been splendid in its day - as long as any of the great cathedrals in France, if not as high. I bought a beautiful olive wood chalice in the Abbey shop, just big enough to hold a tealight - another gem for the journey.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the alternative culture that dominates Glastonbury's shopping streets. There were dozens of shops dedicated to new age spirituality of all kinds, offering the spiritual seeker as many gems as there are journeys - statues of the Buddha, and the Hindu god Ganesh, actual gems and crystals of all shapes and sizes, Wiccan and Pagan artefacts, Celtic crosses, and much material about King Arthur, for Glastonbury has a strong association with him. Even in the Abbey ruins, there is a place which marks the putative grave of Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. There were also several amazing bookshops whose contents covered all aspects of new age spirituality, and many places offering healing and therapies of various kinds. It was fascinating.

These days have shown me again that there are as many ways of walking the spiritual path as there are people to walk it, and that each is valid to those who follow it. The important thing is to realise that we are all fellow pilgrims on this journey through life together, and that we need to show love and understanding to each other, not fear and intolerance. I know that this is terribly cliched, but I think it cannot be said too often. There is room for us all, regardless of which gems we use to guide us. So long as the outcome of the journey is to make us kinder and more tolerant, rather than the opposite.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The partiality of labels

It is a very human thing to categorise people by assigning them labels. Their effect can go very deep - children and adults alike can be deeply scarred by the labels others give to them or their siblings and friends - "the fat one", "the thick one", "the pretty one", "the clever one", "the artistic one", "the nerd", "the wimp", "the geek". The list goes on.

When the picture above was posted on Facebook, I giggled. Then I looked again, and realised that the point of the joke was that we so often judge by appearances. The colourful bird on the left may be a serious intellectual, and the sober-looking one on the right may be a happy-go-lucky free spirit. You can't tell by just looking.

The problem with labels is their partiality. They are 'partial' in two ways: firstly, they only describe one aspect of each complex human being, and secondly, they are partial in the sense of being biassed - they put people into categories, and divide the world into Us and Them, which is always a bad thing.

It is natural to try to make sense of our world by putting things and people into groups, and to use adjectives to describe these groups. But it can be both deceptive and damaging to do so. When we label people, we are making a value judgement about them, and lumping them together with others who may only share one  characteristic with them.

Once again, the Quakers have it right when they write in Advices and Queries: "Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgements about the life journeys of others. Do you foster the spirit of mutual understanding and forgiveness which our discipleship asks of us? Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God." (italics mine)

Or as the Charter for Compassion has it: "The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. ... And to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect." Which means treating everyone as individuals, and not assigning labels.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The right thing for the right reason

A few days ago, my friend and colleague Danny Crosby published a blogpost about that still small voice that can be heard in the silence. One phrase really jumped out at me: "the voice of conscience that lives in that space between what we say and what we do, between the talk and the walk."

For me, the voice of conscience urges us to act with integrity - to be honest, straight and honourable in all our dealings and doings, whether or not anybody knows about it. The thing that matters is that we know we have done the right thing for the right reason. A more down to earth example is that of a blacksmith mending a cart:

"Always do the very best job you can," he said on another occasion, as he put a last few finishing touches with a file to the metal parts of a wagon tongue he was repairing.
"But that piece goes underneath," Garion said. "No one will ever see it."
"But I know it's there," Durnik said, still smoothing the metal. "If it isn't done as well as I can do it, I'll be ashamed every time I see this wagon go by - and I'll see the wagon every day."

So integrity may be defined as doing the right thing for the right reason. But there is more to it than that. I used to be a librarian, so the first thing I do when I want to find out what something means is to turn to a reference book, in this case The Concise Oxford Dictionary. The dictionary defines integrity as "wholeness, entirety, soundness, uprightness, honesty." It means adopting a whole heart and soul approach to our lives, so that we do not detract from our spiritual wholeness by any mean action or thought. This is a lot harder than it sounds - most people (and I would certainly include me in this) often fall short of this ideal, and compromise our standards of what we know to be right, falling into the gap between the talk and the walk.

I think that integrity means more than this, however. To me, the most important part of that definition is "wholeness." For example, you can talk about a machine or a building having 'structural integrity', which means that all the parts of it fit together in the right way and work together. Going back to people, it means striving towards the best we know, acting consistently according to what we believe is right, and not allowing ourselves to deviate from this standard. In this way, our whole selves, body, mind and soul, can have integrity and wholeness.

Abraham Lincoln

Acting with integrity also involves thinking for yourself. I love Abraham Lincoln's words: "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have." This implies making a judgement about what you think and believe to be right and true, and then sticking to it, no matter what anybody else thinks.

It is not an easy path, but the attempt has to be made.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Lesson from a laid-back cat

At our annual Unitarian Summer School, the topic of the workshop group I was in was "inner peace". We looked at various different paths to this desirable goal, and one that really caught my attention was the idea of Sabbath observance; of resting on the seventh day. Generally I find that it is only too easy to do bits & pieces of work every day, whether for church or domestic, and never really have a proper day off. Coincidentally, I had bought a book on the subject a few weeks earlier, and had found the idea very attractive, but hadn't done anything about it. However, at Summer School, a group of us decided to pledge ourselves to making the effort to practice Sabbath observance in our own lives at home, and on Tuesday evening, my first Sabbath started with a lit candle and a shared meal.

On the Wednesday, my husband and son were at work and my daughter was at school, so I was free to carry out my intention of observing a day of rest. I had decided that it would be a screen-free day - no computer, no mobile phone, no TV, and also a housework-free day. On normal days it is my practice to get up, have a shower, have breakfast, and then log in to the computer to check any incoming e-mails, and to look on Facebook.

I had decided to spend the day stitching, reading, journalling and reflecting, perhaps listening to some classical music, but nothing rowdy. But by half-past nine in the morning, I was feeling decidedly twitchy, as though I ought to be doing something. At this point I realised that Lynne Baab, author of Sabbath Keeping, had been right. I too am one of those people who has been sucked into the trap of judging myself and my life by what I do, and by what I achieve. The tricky bit of the day was going to be slowing down, stopping, just being. And trying to find God in the silence.

Lynne Baab suggests that as the Sabbath is supposed to be about resting in God's presence, one should spend some time sitting, just breathing, being, rather than doing. I have always found this hard. But on Wednesday, I was taught how to be still, and how to simply be, by my cat, Bruno. He came and sat on my knee, and I stroked him, and he purred, and then had a doze, while I just sat, and reflected on the love and trust he gives me, no matter what I do. My cat was an angel  that day, a messenger of the divine.

One laid-back cat
Several things about this first Sabbath day surprised me: how long the day seemed, and how slowly it passed (although this was not a bad thing, just surprising); how much I missed writing on a computer - using pen and paper now seems odd; and the strong feeling of disconnection that came from not checking my e-mails or being on Facebook.

But it was a good day. I did feel rested, and by the end of the day (thanks to Bruno) I had relaxed sufficiently to be still, and to trust to God to do the rest. I appreciated the gift of unhurried time, the opportunity to pause, to reflect, to think, without feeling that I had to dash off and do the next thing on the to-do list.

Friday, 30 September 2011

How little it takes to make a difference

It is amazing how little it takes to make a difference to the feel and shape of someone's day. Today I went to visit a friend in hospital, and, as is customary (or so I thought) I took her a bunch of flowers. Only to learn that flowers on wards are now strictly forbidden because of "water contamination". So I had to take them away again. But at least my friend realised that I had been thinking of her.

My original thought had been to stick them back on the back seat of my car, and take them back home with me. But then, at the main entrance to the hospital, I walked past two women (I guess mother and grown-up daughter) who were obviously waiting for a taxi or something. On impulse, I presented the older lady with the flowers. And her whole face lit up: "It's my birthday on Monday!" she said. So I wished her a happy birthday and went on my way.

I love the words of Frederick Buechner about how we act towards strangers can have a real knock-on effect. he writes: "As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference or with hostility towards the people we meet, we are setting the great spider web atremble. The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops, or in what far place my touch will be felt."

It is lovely to think that perhaps my gift of flowers to that woman might have that sort of impact on her day, and hence on those around her. It also made my day - her happiness made me feel good! It is amazing how little it takes to make a difference - to my life, and to that of others. May I live to make it so.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Power of Poetry

Somebody once defined poetry as "the best words in the best order" and I have to agree. I have just been introduced to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (specifically his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God in a lovely translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy) and have been blown away by them.

Rainer Maria Rilke

So many beautiful images, which really speak to my condition. Reading slowly through the book this morning was a huge pleasure, and I feel spiritually nourished. Let me share just one of his poems:

"I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?"

Most of the poems are quite short, but are deceptively deep, conjuring up some beautiful images of the relationship between God and humankind. The only other poet who has had this effect on me is Hafiz, the great 14th century Sufi master, whose poetry is likewise intimate and challenging at one and the same time. And I am filled with gratitude for this gift.

Dear God,
Thank you for giving us the power to create,
and to share with each other,
words which delight and inspire.

And thank you for poets,
whose words can ravish our hearts and minds,
shaking up our images of the world,
so that they fall in a new and different pattern,
enriching our lives.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Come, ye thankful people, come!

Today I went for a walk in the fields around our village with a friend. All the wheat had been harvested, and the fields were looking bleached and untidy. It made me appreciate anew the miracle of the cycle of the seasons, which it is so easy to forget if the eyes of your mind are closed to the changes around you. And it made me think ...

Harvest Festival at Dudley Old Meeting House

I think it is a shame that Western society has grown so far away from the rhythm of the seasons, and the agricultural cycle. Even when I was a child, which I know my children think was in the Dark Ages, but really isn’t so long ago, harvest still meant something, at least to a child brought up in the countryside.

But now, ask anyone where their food comes from, and they are likely to reply "from the supermarket". You can buy pretty much anything all the year round - strawberries in December, parsnips in June. but this universal bounty has its downside. We have lost contact with the changing order of the season - and I think it is a loss. The Western demand for all kinds of everything all the year round has had far-reaching effects all over the world. Farmers in developing countries now grow "cash crops" such as coffee and bananas, instead of food to feed themselves and their families.

So why do we in our modern industrialised society still celebrate Harvest Festival? Is it out of a feeling of nostalgia for a more structured past, one in which the seasons followed each other in order, and still meant something? I think it is significant that it is the only pre-Christian festival still widely celebrated in Christian churches. I believe that in spite of our outward severance from the cycle of the season, our innermost selves still believe in its importance, and like to mark it in this way.

A prayer for Harvest time:
Creator of all, we thank you for once again bringing the annual miracle of growth to fruition.
We thank you for the sunshine and the rain, combining to nurture the plants and help them to grow.
We thank you for the good soil of the earth, which feeds the seeds and enables them to burgeon and bear fruit.
Make us aware that we are the guardians of the earth; that it is the only one we have; and that it is our duty to preserve it for future generations.
Help us to make wise choices, so that we can save what we still have; and try to put back something of what we and past generations have squandered.
Remind us that we are the lucky ones, with full bellies, clean water and full store cupboards; help us to remember that for the vast majority of the world’s people, such things are a luxury beyond imagining.
Help us to turn our prayers into action; to put our money where our mouth is; and to strive for a fairer world.
Creator of all, hear our prayer. Amen

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Moving Forward With Hope

Today is the 10th anniversary of the acts of mindless violence which have come to be known as "9/11", and there has been much coverage of it in the media. All day today in the US, special ceremonies are taking place at Ground Zero in New York, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand, which has become in a very particular way, hallowed ground.

One of the two memorial pools

Today a memorial is being dedicated, based on the footprints of the twin towers. The holes have been turned into memorials to the nearly 3,000 dead, their sides engraved with their names, which are movingly arranged by friendship or association, rather than alphabetically.

Rev. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church, near Ground Zero, shared a hopeful reflection on the Daily Devotions website yesterday, which sums up my hopes for the future. I choose to share her words, rather than writing my own, as this feels more fitting on this particular day:

"Across the street from Judson Memorial Church, on the South End of Washington Square Park, a seven-storey Spiritual Life Center is opening at New York University. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and more will cohabit a space. Students will learn a new way of campus ministry. We joke about whether such ecumenicity is too close or too far from ground zero. Framed between this new building and our own rises a new smaller tower at the World Trade Center. From the arch at Washington Square Park North, you see all three buildings, as though they were always there, as though we hadn't lived through a decade of emptiness in the sky or immature religion on the ground, and Americans, Afghanis and Iraqis uselessly dead in wars no-one really understands. The artists and architects have given us what we couldn't find ourselves. They have shown us a new sky and a new scape. From these we will also draw a new spirit, a mature religion, and a revenge-free way of living under one sky.

God of earth and air and sky and water, God whom no one faith can capture, draw near and let this next decade be one of remembering how much we love each other. Help us beyond high-priced, useless revenge into free and abundant relationship. Amen."

May it be so. Amen

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Picking Up Various Threads in the Dance of Life

The title of this post comes from an e-mail by a friend who attended Summer School with me, and is now readjusting to life in the real world. It is a beautiful phrase, which for me conjures up the image of a maypole with bright ribbons of all colours and dancers weaving around it.

Maypole ribbons from deafpagancrossroads.com
I have danced around a maypole once (in my early youth) when we had one as part of the Summer Fete at my primary school. And I learned that the whole process is wonderfully ordered - you go under one ribbon and over the next, weaving a pattern with your neighbours. I still recall the feeling of relief when we completed our dance without tangling ourselves up!

But the phrase now has a different resonance. "picking up various threads in the dance of life." It shows the complexity of modern life - most of us don't just plod along on one road in one direction - we are involved in a complicated dance, weaving the different parts of our lives together, and hoping that something doesn't break or get tangled in something else. In the last month I have been at home (for five days) in France looking at Gothic cathedrals with my husband (for ten days) at home for four days frantically catching up with domestic tasks, at Summer School at Great Hucklow (for eight days) and now at home for a week before travelling back up to Hucklow for the Ministers' conference. It has taken a lot of hard work to keep the various threads moving in their right directions, but I'm nearly there.

The thing that makes the difference, for me, is the maypole in the middle - the still centre around which the dance of life takes place. One important element of this is my Unitarian faith, which colours my approach to life, giving me a spiritual centre - it helps me in the tasks of living in the moment, of counting my blessings, and trying to live with integrity. When I manage to find time for my daily spiritual practice (which hasn't always been daily recently), I feel so much more centred and at ease, so held in love.

But I would not be without the complexities of the dance of life - all the brightly swirling ribbons contribute to a rich web of interconnection, which lead to a sense of belonging, of being in community. I find that I need both to feel whole - the still centre of the maypole and the dizzying dance of the ribbons. The paradox of needing to be at rest, but restless to be in motion, is part of being human. We have to find the balance between them, where we can be a piece (and at peace) in life's rich pattern.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A Dormouse in Search of a Teapot

I am currently at Unitarian Summer School at the Nightingale Centre, our conference centre in Great Hucklow, in the Derbyshire Peak District. I am spending a week in the company of forty or so fellow Unitarians - both old friends and new - and having a marvellous time. The workshop I am attending is both stimulating and spiritually nourishing, and the optional activities in the afternoons and evenings likewise.

Even the weather (never predictable in this part of the world) is cooperating, and has been warm and sunny. Who could ask for more?

Then, last night, after a substantial and delicious dinner, during which I had a really interesting conversation with some dear friends, the balance shifted.

I don't know whether I've been trying to cram too much into this summer (OK, I'm lying, I know fine well that I have) but it is as though somebody has flicked a switch inside me, and suddenly I become like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, tiredly in search of a teapot. I crave solitude and sleep and time to creep away and re-group.

The Dormouse (from the Disney film Alice in Wonderland)

The temptation at these large Unitarian events, such as Summer School and our General Assembly annual meetings, is to participate in everything, because it is all so fascinating, and stimulating and nourishing, and I don't want to miss out on anything, and I love spending time with my fellow Unitarians.

And yet I know that for my body's sake (and my soul's), I need to balance this craving with a bit of downtime - some periods alone, to think, to meditate, to pray, perhaps just to take a deep breath and relax. We are complex organisms, and need to pay attention when our bodies crave rest. The alternative is over-stimulation and eventual burnout.

So, like the dormouse, I said good-night, and went in search of my teapot.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Penny Plain or Tuppence Coloured (reprise)

On reflection I have come to realise that my attitude towards art in a religious setting is strangely inconsistent. I find the calligraphy and floral decoration in a mosque very beautiful. And memories of a visit to the Russian Orthodox St. Isaac's Cathedral in Moscow in 1987 come back to me. Outside, it looks a bit like St. Paul's Cathedral, but inside, there is the most magnificent iconostasis (wall of icons), which again I found beautiful and awe-inspiring.

It seems that my Puritanical sensibilities are only disturbed in a West European context. Such as a recent (2008) visit to the Berliner Dom, when I was shocked by all the gold, and by the huge statues of the giants of the Reformation, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin and Knox. (To be fair, I think that they would have been shocked to find statues of themselves in a Protestant cathedral!)

It seems that I am the child of the Reformation, with an in-built and thoughtless bias against "images" in a place of worship. I am not proud of this. I worry that my reaction varies as much according to aesthetic taste as to religious sensibilities.

A beautiful Virgin and Child in Reims Cathedral
For example, in Laon Cathedral yesterday, I noticed three different statues of the Virgin Mary and Child, and had different reactions to each. I am so not proud of this. There was a creamy white one, made of stone or resin, in the worship area in the transept. And I thought "I can see that she would be a good aid to devotion." Then there was a larger one carved from dark brown wood, which I admired for the beauty of its carving.

But lastly, there was one which I saw as tawdry, painted crudely in a white robe with a blue sash, an ugly face, and with a rosary draped over her arm, which I found to be totally inappropriate. After all, Jesus' mother was a Jewess.

But it was this statue which had the most candles lit in front of it, and which was obviously used for intercessory prayer to Sainte Marie de Laon. My lapsed Catholic husband laughed at my indignation, and poked fun at my Protestant prediliction for taking things too literally. He pointed out that the literal truth is not the key thing for Catholics; it is what (or who) such a figure represents (i.e. the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven) that matters.

Suitably chastened, I have realised that I need to be more open-minded and open-hearted, and to exercise what Karen Armstrong would call compassion when confronted with religious traditions that don't chime with my own. If a blue and white madonna provides comfort, who am I to criticise?

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Penny Plain or Tuppence Coloured?

Do you like your religion penny plain or tuppence coloured? In Christian terms, I would guess that if you are Protestant, the answer is likely to be the former, if Catholic, the latter. This difference was brought home to me yesterday evening, when we went to a light-show at Amiens Cathedral, which ingeniously projected colour onto the very elaborate facade, to make it look as though it was painted.
Oh. My. It was breathtaking, incredible, awe-inspiring. As my husband commented, just imagine being a mediaeval person arriving here on a pilgrimage to see John the Baptist's head (which rather grisly relic is kept in the Cathedral) or on your way to St. Iago de Compostela. Imagine the awe and reverence this building would inspire. Then, walking into that lofty vaulted space and participating in the high mystery of the mass, with its chanting and incense and bells. It must have been a mind-blowing experience.
And I was not unaffected. I can recall feeling similarly blown away the first time I saw a video of the Hindu festival of Diwali - it was all so bright, so rich, so vivid, and yes, so awe-inspiring.
And yet, so very unlike the usual monochrome, non-ritualistic Unitarian, words-based hymn-sandwich type service, where the closest we get to ritual is the lighting of the chalice at the beginning of the service, and maybe a few candles of joy and concern.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating loads of symbolism and ritual in the average Unitarian service, far from it. We come from a very different religious tradition, where it is considered to be important that the congregation is intellectually engaged with the service. And that is good. But as I have said in another blogpost, there is nothing wrong with engaging the heart and the senses too; perhaps a little more light and colour and ritual on occasion would not do us any harm.
There was an interesting coda to all this. Today we visited Laon Cathedral, which inside is much more austere and much less highly decorated - there was less gold statuary around the place, and the nave soars upwards towards the beautiful vaulting, and forwards to the magnificent rose window in the east end. The effect was light and airy; and I felt so much more at ease. Although I can be thrilled and awe-inspired by light and drama, too much fills me with unease. The light and austere interior of Laon Cathedral was much more to my spiritual taste than the decorated glory of Amiens.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Gospel according to Jeremy

You get some funny surprises in this job. Of all the people I would have suspected that I would learn a spiritual truth from, one of the last on my list would have been Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. And yet it was so.

I've been dipping into The World According to Clarkson in the bath, because my Kindle isn't waterproof, and what is a bath without reading material? Some of his writing makes me "tut" out loud, because I disagree so violently with his views (although how much of it is tongue-in-cheek I am not sure); some is downright funny (for example an article about the contents of the average woman's handbag); and there is the occasional gem ...

"a parent can only be as happy as their least happy child"

It doesn't matter how old they get; if the child is unhappy, most parents will be too. Today has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster; shopping for difficult-to-find clothes for her, and facing up to the fact that, yes, his car has had its day, and we need to find a new(er) one. The parental instinct is still to "make it better", in spite of the fact that both of them are quite old enough to sort most things out for themselves.

Children continue to have a huge impact on their parents' lives for as long as they're around. When they're little, doing anything has to be planned around meal and nap times, favourite toys and so on. when they start school, the shape of your day revolves around dropping off and picking up times - it is not until they reach their teens realy that you can start to give them some independence (and, incidentally, get some back for yourself!) Even then, you worry about where they are, who they're with, what they're doing, are they all right and so on.

The thing that doesn't change, I have found, is your love for them. The strength of my love for both my children is unlimited - when my son was born I was quite taken aback by the sheer instinctive ferocity of it. And it never stops - at various times I have been incredibly annoyed, frustrated, and fed-up with the behaviour of one or the other of them, but underneath it all, I always love them. And this love makes it very hard to let them go. You know the lovely saying "You can only give your children two things in life - roots to grow, and wings to fly." I've done my best to provide the roots bit, but the wings are much harder. Libby Purves puts it beautifully in her book How Not To Be A Perfect Family: "To weigh a theoretical danger against an overwhelming love is the hardest thing in the world.

And yet, I know that I must let go, not all at once, but gradually - let them make their own decisions, and, harder still, make their own mistakes. Otherwise they won't grow into sensible, responsible adults. Knowing all the time that if they do foul up, I'm going to feel as guilty as hell for not intervening! Mother-love takes you that way - you want your children to have happy and fulfilled lives, and accepting that Mother doesn't always know best is a hard lesson for any Mum to learn. In a way, I think it's the toughest test of your love for them - that stepping back out of the centre of their lives and letting them grow into themselves.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

High above the Clouds

Flying across the Atlantic, high above the snowfield of clouds last week, I had some thoughts:

I reflect on the manmade-ness of human time. Because humans have divided the world into time zones, I will be going back in time five hours during this journey. Yet from my window I can see the engine and wing moving serenely forwards over the endless miles of fluffy white clouds.

Another odd thing is the strong inclination of my brain to "make sense" of what my eyes are seeing, so for example at this moment, I could swear that I was looking out over the snow to the sea in the distance, and beyond that, the blue horizon. There are clouds overhead, and another aircraft is leaving a vapour trail high above us. We seem to be crawling along, hardly moving, but I know we are travelling at hundreds of miles an hour, completing a journey across the Atlantic in hours rather than days.

A break in the clouds below looks like a blue lake. ... Just now there was a proper break in the clouds, and to my amazement I could see the sea, thousands of feet below. 'The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.'- thank you, Susan Cooper.

It was a wonderful experience - I was so grateful for the majesty and awesomeness of it all.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Coming Down to Earth

I have just spent a wonderfully stimulating and spiritual week on Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, on the Lifespan Religious Education conference. The setting was beautiful (even if the weather was about twice as hot as I would have liked), the workshop I was attending (on using social media intelligently to spread the Unitarian word, led by the dynamic Peter Bowden http://www.uugrowth.com/  ) was exciting and stimulating and insightful, and I have made many new UU friends, which is lovely.

Now I am home, having slept the clock round, and work and domesticity beckon. My heart and half of my mind are still on Star, but there are so many things I need to do here. E-mails to respond to, reports and a newsletter to write, shopping, washing and ironing to do. So I need to re-focus.

As so often, I turn to the Quaker Advices and Queries for advice. And I find two sentences which give me the answers I need:

"Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life." and

"Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life."

These give me the power to come back down from the spiritual high I have been on for the last week, and to re-connect with the mundane and everyday tasks of my life, and to do so happily, without regret. I can look back on my week on Star Island with joy, and with a little wistfulness, but here is where I belong, where I must do "the something I can do."

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Be ye therefore perfect

I've just been writing my last essay for Regent's Park College, about Pelagius and St. Augustine. Pelagius was a late 4th century British monk, who acquired quite a following in the dying days of the Roman Empire for proclaiming that humankind had free will to choose to do right, and the responsibility to follow all the law and the teachings of the Gospel. And ran up against Augustine of Hippo, who believed that we are all rotten with the taint of original sin, totally unable to do anything right except through God's grace. Guess which one I am in sympathy with?

The thing I found very interesting is that both Pelagius and one of my all-time heroes, 19th century American Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, were both inspired by the same bit of Matthew's gospel: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matt 5:48) Both men believed that humankind has the potential to be perfect, otherwise God would not have commanded us to strive for it. There is an absolutely beautiful passage in Theodore Parker's address The Transient and Permanent in Christianity, which goes like this:

"Christianity is a simple thing, very simple. It is absolute, pure morality; absolute, pure religion; the love of man; the love of God acting without let or hindrance. Its watchword is, Be perfect as your Father in heaven. The only form it demands is a divine life; doing the best thing in the best way, from the highest motives; perfect obedience to the great law of God."

What a challenge! And what an inspiration! Whenever I read those words, it makes me want to sit up straight, and do better.

One of the authors of the books on St Augustine that I was reading for the essay accused Pelagius of a sort of "icy Puritanism", in which there was no room for backsliders and ordinary, everyday, weak, sinful human beings. And I guess I see his point. The sort of church I want to belong to would have the high aims of Pelagius and Theodore Parker to inspire us to do the best we can in all the ways that we can, but also some cradling arms and listening ears to catch the broken and the fallen, and help them back up. Otherwise it could be terribly judgemental, and holier-than-thou, which is not what our inclusive, loving denomination is about.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Senses and Spirituality

Human beings are complicated organisms - we have bodies, we have minds, and we have souls. In order to grow into the best people that we can be, we need to nourish all of them. In religion, our bodies often get ignored; all the emphasis is on what we think and believe and feel. But our bodies need nourishment too - we have to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and so on. if we neglect them, we will become unhealthy, and all of a sudden everything seems twice as difficult, like pushing a hippopotamus uphill. If we look after our bodies, they will look after us.

Rabbi Lionel Blue shared an interesting viewpoint about bodies when he wrote: "My body is not just a lump of meat. It thinks, and has its own insight. Many times it came to my aid when my mind and my soul could not help me. I was in a train at night, surrounded by Arabs making their long way home to Morocco. Our politics and our religions were separated by two decades of misunderstanding and political animosity. It was hunger which brought us together, not theology or ideology; common hunger and the desire to have a little taste of what the other person was eating."

Before I read that, I hadn't really thought about my body having feelings of its own. But it's true: if I am sad, I don't want reasons or explanations or even spiritual insights; I just want a cuddle. And it is my body - through my senses - which gives me access to a whole world of beauty and spirituality. This morning, on my run, the feel of the sunlight on my skin, the taste of cool water, the sight of summer flowers by the roadside and the sound of birdsong combined into one joyous paean of praise for the universe.

Through what we see and hear, smell, touch and taste, we can be transported from our mundane lives into another dimension.

Bodies have their own memories too - for example, have you ever been transported to another time and another place by a smell or a sound or a taste? I only have to hear the first chord of The Air That I Breathe by the Hollies to be back in 1974, fourteen years old and very sad. I cry every time I hear it - can't help it! Even though the circumstances of my life have changed beyond recognition, and the emotional scars of young love have long healed, my fourteen-year-old self is somewhere in there, and reacts when she hears that song.

Human beings are indeed complicated organisms, and I find the fact of our bodies, minds and souls working together wondrous to contemplate. May they all be nourished in the coming days.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Living a full life

One thing I am learning is that living a full life is not the same as living a busy life. Living a busy life may be stressful and draining, as pressure piles upon pressure, and we wonder how on earth we are going to meet the next deadline. Living a full life is not the same (although a busy life well-lived may be full as well). I think that living a full life is about the quality rather than the quantity of our activities, and about the perspectives we have on those activities.

I derive a great deal of inspiration and comfort from reading the Quaker Advices and Queries. Two of these seem to be particularly relevant to the issue of living a full life:

"7. Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways.There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it comes? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?"

To me this Advice is reminding me that the whole of life is sacred, and that if we can just try to live mindfully, with an awareness of the sacred and the numinous in our everyday lives, those same everyday lives will be much fuller and richer and more rewarding. I also believe that being "open to new light" is a wonderful way of living a full life - there is always room for new insights and revelations in our minds and hearts - or there should be.

The other is no. 27: "Live adventurously. When choices areise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community. Let your life speak."

Live adventurously. Wow! There's a challenge. With our busy lives, it is tempting just to look after your own, doing the bare minimum for other people. In these days of DVDs and home entertainment centers and the Internet at our fingertips, it's very easy to retreat to our own little castles and pull up the drawbridge. Using our gifts "in the service of God and the community" takes much more effort. But it can be very rewarding to volunteer for something, not for the kudos it will bring you, but because it's the right thing to do.

My mother is a case in point. When my sister went up to university, 22 years of dedicated child nurturing came to an abrupt end. But instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for herself, she went out and became a Citizens Advice Bureau volunteer. That was in 1981, and she did it for more than 25 years. She became one of the most respected debt counsellors in the county, and found a great deal of fulfilment in helping those less fortunate than herself. It also broadened her outlook on life and society.

In the late 1970s, the print and poster shop Athena International also sold books, with titles like The Language of Friendship and The Language of Happiness. Each consisted of a collection of short statements or poems or quotations on the topic concerned. My favourite, to which I still turn (indeed it is falling apart) is Creeds to Love and Live By, and I have used much of the wisdom contained within its covers as readings in services.

One of my favourites, by Sidney Lovett, chaplain of Yale University from 1932 - 1958, is all about how to live a full life:

"Give the best you have received from the past, to the best that you may come to know in the future.
Accept life daily not as a cup to be drained,
But as a chalice to be filled with whatsoever things are honest, pure, lovely and of good report.
Making a living is best undertaken as part of the more important business of making a life.
Every now and then, take a good look at something not made with hands -
A mountain, a star, the turn of a stream.
There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all,
The assurance that you are not alone in the world."