“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 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.