“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, 29 March 2013

First Steps

Last week, I had a profound spiritual experience, which is too precious and private to share here.

In the week since then, I have come to realise that I am taking the first tentative steps on a journey, that will take the rest of my life. With this has come the slow recognition that although my knowing has changed, all the rest of my life still has to catch up. In habits, in attitudes, I am still the same person I have always been, and it will be the work of a lifetime, with God's help, to get myself into alignment, into wholeness, into belonging.

A prayer for the journey:

Spirit of Love, without and within,
May I be aware of you as I make this journey.
Guide my steps,
That I may grow into this new life,
Governed by compassion, integrity and simplicity.
Help me to recognise that this journey
Will take all of my life
And that my steps will falter,
Doubts will come,
But that anything is possible with You.


Friday, 22 March 2013

Nothing New Under the Sun

The Teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes famously laments that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This was brought home to me this week, when I read the following words:

"Our movement has lost power and helpfulness through our recent disinclination to speak frankly with each other on the subject of religion. We hesitate to let our closest friends see the depth of our convictions, and we show great reserve in religious matters in our own households. This, no doubt, is due to our wholesome fear of cant and to our conviction that prayer at its highest is an inward movement of the soul to God. We rightly distrust those who can speak with ease on any occasion concerning the deepest experiences of the soul, and lay bare to the public gaze the secrets which the heart learns in private communion with God. We dread to be artificial and insincere, and we shrink from methods which appear to turn faith into an exciting and popular pastime. But surely we lose a vast part of the help religion can bring us, if we hide the best side of our nature from those we love.

... We have no common rites, ceremonies or dogmas, which seem to make a simple beginning in fellowship for earnest souls in other Churches. Yet we have a spiritual faith which has taken the form of definite convictions in our minds and which can furnish the necessary means of communication with others who belong to the same home and the same Church.

We must surrender our excessive individualism and make our faith a social force. We must abandon our reserve and speak with the frankness and openness to our friends and to each other concerning our message." (emphasis mine)

For me this is a fair summary of where Unitarianism is at the moment. And yet, it was written nearly 100 years ago, in 1922, by Alfred Hall, in the now little-known Aspects of Modern Unitarianism, which I discovered languishing in the Vestry cupboard in one of our Midlands churches.

As then, so now, our challenge is to make our faith a social force and to speak with frankness and openness concerning the wonderful message of Unitarianism.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Sharing the Risk

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Rev. Andrew Hill, called 'Writing Worship Material'. Nine of us from the Midlands and beyond gathered at Unitarian New Meeting Church in Birmingham. I don't know about the others, but I was feeling a bit apprehensive about writing my own prayers, not having much experience of doing it. I've always felt that other people's words are so good, why write your own. But I've come to realise that there are times when your own words are best.

It was such a good experience. After some theory and hints and tips, Andrew encouraged us to get writing. During the day, each of us wrote five prayers: a 'Tweet' prayer (maximum 140 characters), some opening words, some closing words, a prayer on the theme of an address, and our own versions of the Lord's Prayer. I was blown away by the quality of other people's prayers - all different, but all heartfelt and real.

Here is my 'Tweet' prayer: Spirit of Life and Love, May we live our lives in a spirit of compassion, that we might leave the world a better place than we found it Amen

And it wasn't such a big deal after all. The lesson I've taken from yesterday is that sharing the risk of doing something with others makes it easier and safer to try something new, and the benefits can be huge.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Valley of Humiliation

For the last few days, I have been reading, and re-reading, in the manner recommended by Francis Bacon ("some books are  to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested")  the wonderful and insightful book by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert Discovering the Enneagram.

I already knew that I was a Three, but this book has made me squirm, as the descriptions in it seemed to be reading my heart and mind. Phrases kept jumping out at me, saying "That's you - you know it is."

It's not been a comfortable experience - far from it. In fact, my face has been burning, and I have felt humiliated by what I've learned about myself. But the self-knowledge it has given me is priceless. At last I know (or know much more) what kind of person I am, and how I can learn to live with that person, so that I can "encounter self-critically their own dishonesty and the compulsion to succeed. Threes must above all chew and digest their shadow sides, their failure and their defeats, instead of running away from them" and "confront their own inner emptiness and longing for love."

I swithered about posting about this, but I truly believe that learning which Enneagram type you are, and learning to deal with your shadow side is essential for spiritual growth, so I wanted to share about the book, so that other people (if they wish) can do the same.

And may God have mercy on us all.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Consequently, I Rejoice

Five years ago today, I made a leap of faith. I gave up my (then) safe local government job as a professional librarian, and started working as District Facilitator for the Midland Unitarian Association. A few months later, I applied, and was accepted for, Unitarian ministry training, which started in October 2009. It was the beginning of a journey which has changed my life profoundly.

Consequently, I rejoice.

This phrase is taken from T.S. Eliot's beautiful poem Ash Wednesday, which Karen Armstrong uses as the leitmotif for her second volume of autobiography The Spiral Staircase, which is sub-titled My Climb Out of Darkness. Part way through the book, she writes a superb analysis of the poem, which is indeed peculiarly applicable to her life. As a result, this is one T.S. Eliot poem that I (at least partly) understand with my head, as well as feeling with my heart. (As compared with The Waste Land, which I adore, but do not understand at all).

Consequently, I rejoice.

While I do not share Armstrong's initial sense of loss at my change of direction (far from it), I do share her sense of assurance that I have done the right thing. Towards the end of the book, she writes: "In the words of the late Joseph Campbell, we have to 'follow our bliss', find something that wholly involves and enthralls us, ... and throw ourselves into it heart and soul." Yes.

Consequently, I rejoice.

At another point in the book, she writes: "It was not simply my personal circumstances that had changed, but my religious landscape was also being transformed." Oh yes, me too. The process of training for ministry and the privilege of spending the last five years serving the movement I love, has been a transformative experience. In 2008, although I had been a Unitarian for nearly 30 years, I had not really dug deep and explored why I believed what I believed. Attendance at Summer School, my two years at Harris Manchester College Oxford doing ministry training, and my concurrent two years at Regent's Park College Oxford doing the Diploma in Biblical & Theological Studies with Baptist ministry students - these three experiences have certainly "transformed my religious landscape."

Consequently, I rejoice.

One huge change has been the institution of regular spiritual practices in my life, including daily prayer bead practice and journalling, and, in the last 18 months / two years, a regular weekly half-day Sabbath, and a weekly entry in this blog. I have also been working with a wonderful spiritual director, who is showing me how to recognise the Spirit at work in my life, and how to work with it, to try to become the best Sue Woolley I can be.

Consequently, I rejoice.

Finally, Karen Armstrong's work around compassion has been an enormous influence on me, and has shaped the direction of my life and ministry. Reading her words firstly in The Spiral Staircase, and then in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, has opened my eyes and ears and changed my focus in life. I realise that compassionate living is the journey of a lifetime, and that it will always be two steps forward, one step back, but at least I'm trying to move in the right direction. And I feel so very blessed.

Consequently, I rejoice.