“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, 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.