Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Way Up and the Way Down

Last week I watched a documentary hosted by James May of Top Gear fame that explored the human journey into space and the Apollo moon missions in particular.  As part of the documentary May prepared to have a space like experience including a crash course as an astronaut and taking a trip in a U2 high flying aircraft up to 70,000 feet above the earth -approximately double that of the altitude reached by a passenger jet.  At that altitude the air is so thin that astronaut equipment is necessary to sustain life.  Understandably he was very taken with the experience of looking down on the earth from that height and being able to see the beauty and curvature of our world.  The words 'gobsmacked', 'amazing', 'privilege', 'I never get tired of this' were spoken between May and the pilot and eventually 'there are no adequate words' impulse to silence.  Once on the ground May says 'If everyone could experience that the world would be a different place' impulse of compassion.  These descriptions reflect what might be called 'peak experiences' or, in other words, a sense of being captured by a felt perspective that expands one's view of life and of one's place in that life.  Sometimes such experiences are described as an 'encounter with God' which is another way of talking about the same thing.   

And so in the silence of Friend's Meeting for Worship last weekend I felt moved to talk of this documentary and mused that perhaps in our spiritual rituals and practices we try to connect with this greater perspective.  Further that the mystics of all persuasions have always known that the perspective of our place in the whole world/universe is possible from the ground as well as at 70,000 feet altitude.  In response to my ministry two Friends wisely drew attention to the Transfiguration and the Temptation of Jesus, two wonderful but short narratives in the Gospels, easily overlooked for their teaching on staying grounded while retaining awareness of the greater perspective within and beyond our lives.  In the Transfiguration narratives the three disciples Peter, James and John are drawn into an enlightenment by that which profoundly sources Jesus' life...the Divine Source...this obviously has implications for how they see Jesus but also their own identities.  It is mindblowing!  Orthodox iconography of the Transfiguration captures the energy of this moment which literally throws the three down the side of the mountain as they come to terms with the experience.  In the story Peter quickly snaps back into an ego point of view and tries to preserve the experience by offering a dwelling place for Jesus, Moses and Elijah rather than being content with the awareness that he has been offered.  The divine cloud disrupts this and the transfigured Jesus eventually accompanies the disciples 'back to earth'.  It seems his work was not ultimately to stay on the mountain communing but to bring his expanded vision into the ordinariness of the world.  Similarly in the Temptation Jesus is offered a vision of the the whole world for him to rule over and wisely sees the illusion of the offer as well as its destructive consequences.  Peak experiences can become traps if they are misused or institutionalised or used to prop up our frail selves.  Such experiences are gifts that draw our attention to what is really our natural inbuilt potential as humans to move towards Truest Reality through all the ascents and descents of our lives. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A New Quaker Vision

 A couple of weeks ago during leave from work I was fortunate to have two nights at Silver Wattle Quaker Study Centre near Bungendore not far from Canberra (Ngunnawal land).  In its second year of lease from the Catholic Diocese of Canberra-Goulburn the centre currently provides a retreat and workshop program for limited blocks of the year.  The centre has arisen in part to provide a space for Quakers and others to reflect on the future for our planet and communities as well as being a place of spiritual renewal and direction. Those who have provided the leadership in this regard amongst the Quaker community are hopeful that the property can be purchased and developed further as a fully fledged study centre similar to the likes of Pendle Hill in the USA and Woodbrooke in the UK.  More info is available at and the dvd explaining the overall background, vision and details of the property has recently been put on You Tube in two parts: Part 1  Part 2, I highly recommend a viewing.

Even though I was present at the centre for two days only I felt very quickly that it is a profoundly special place.  In my journal I found myself writing: "The silence immediately captured me when I got out of the car after Jim picked me up from Bungendore train station.  The silence of the land pressing in to my heart encouraged me to join the stream.  An invitation to join the flow of silence - soon my own inner silence coheres with the Greater Silence - what a marvellous gift - all I can do is respond."

I was looking for a short retreat that gave me solitude as well as time for learning about the vision for this place.  It was very easy to find this at Silver Wattle and contemplation became even more natural and less forced than in my normal round of daily practice back home.  While in this environment which is open to 'all seekers' I realised that all my seeking over the course of my life in all its ups and downs somehow is all relevant, somehow all purposeful even when I cannot see this.  I recognised that 'the seeking is a gift and in turn becomes a gift to give away to others.  Our seeking is not something for memorialising it is a living, burning, yearning movement towards what is most real".  The land can always help us with what is 'most real'.  The 'most real' is what we need in our journey with the planet at this time.  I walked the escarpment and looked out over Lake George (Wereewa) with the sun and the moon early in the morning...then during Meeting for Worship I felt the land as a powerful presence, pressing in on our worship and asserting itself as rightful participant.  How right this is!  The land is indeed an alive organism which joins with us and even carries us as friends despite all the abuse.

On the second night during Epilogue (daily evening reflection) we watched a biographical film from the 1980s on the life of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), monk, author and activist.  He embodied a new vision for monasticism that was less institutionalised and withdrawn and more powerfully engaged with the world and the Spirit.  In recent years my spiritual life has in part entailed a dialogue between quaker and monastic insights and practices...I find much life in both...At Silver Wattle the simple things of prayer, study and work are present and by their simplicity help to heal the land (and us)....another retreatant noticed how the land at Silver Wattle is responding to the care being offered to it.  Is this to be, to use a Celtic phrase, a new 'place of resurrection' for faithful people and the land?

My only regret from my visit is that I couldn't stay longer and introduce this place to my partner and our girls...hopefully an opportunity will arise. 

Later in the week after leaving Silver Wattle I discovered the following poem from Gerard Manly Hopkins (1844-1889) in my in-law's bookcase.  Hopkins was a  Jesuit and apparently one inspiration for Merton early on in his Catholic conversion.  In the following Hopkins shares his own optimistic vision of the world's resilience with deep theological overtones.  The opening line is contained in The Celtic Prayer Book that I use which is now gifted with more meaning....

God's Grandeur
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smells: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
And though the last lights of the black West went.
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs.
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. 

Blessings on our 'bright wings' too.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sand Play

This morning we went to the beach.  Our older girl and I settled into creating some sandy villages in the beach sand while the other two went for a walk.  We created five 'villages' with plastic was a good chance to enjoy the spring sun, the cool sand and the good company of my daughter.  We were happy with our 'work' and when the others returned it was almost time to go.  Our two daughters gleefully demolished the whole scene back to sand.  I stood both enjoying their playfulness and feeling the shocking quickness with which our creativity was dispatched.  It reminded me of the skillful Buddhist monks I have seen who create spectacular sand mandalas and then after a few days sweep away their work.  Lessons in impermanence but also lessons in caring for the moment.  No wonder Jesus celebrated so liberally.  How soon our creativity and the beauty around us can be reduced to nothing.  Destruction can take so little time compared to creation...we only have to think of Hiroshima and 9/11 to know this reality.  Go well with your moments.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Contemplation and Action

I hope you enjoy this link which contains a talk (audio and transcript) by Fr Lawrence Freeman of the World Community of Christian Meditation on Contemplation and Action.  He describes very wonderfully how we can live in the centre of this paradox...Most movingly, in my experience of grief, is his tackling of joy and suffering and how affliction 'pins us to the centre of the universe'...via these unexpected and unwanted experiences we can come to truly know and participate in reality with all our being.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Alive with Flowers

This plant is a Senna Artisemoides (Cassia species).  I planted it for one of our daughters a couple of years ago.  It has been flowering prolifically throughout our winter for many weeks now....making it's presence known with beautiful yellow buttercup is very welcome in our garden reminding one of nature's capacity to renew itself and come alive...if only we see.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Seraphim of Sarov

I learnt a little about St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) recently...he was a Russian Orthodox hermit and monk noted for his commitment to solitude and inner prayer. At a certain moment later in his life he opened to others more fully and began receiving enormous numbers of pilgrims who consulted with him...he is quoted as saying 'learn to be at peace, and thousands all around you will be saved'.  What a beautiful and inclusive vision of might this become our vision too?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Nurturing Links for Inspiration

I have added to this blog a list of the communities, websites and places that I have found nurturing on my journey thus far.  Enjoy the wisdom and the common spirit to be found in these links.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wonder in the Eucharist

I sense a Eucharistic theology forming inside me the more I am drawn into both silence and the material ritual/liturgy of Eucharist. So with the risk of losing touch with the experience that informs this I'd like to share some of what is emerging....For a number of years now Quaker Meeting for Worship has been my primary contact with a local corporate body. However I have never quite lost touch with the Anglican roots that preceded it, indeed
I have continued to attend Eucharist from time to time...often finding that the depths that pull me are largely not attended to. The Quaker way and indeed the contemplative Christian path both have something to say about the Eucharistic nature of silence. I am not at all suggesting a discarding of the ritual of Eucharist. Along with Lawrence Freeman from the World Community for Christian Meditation, I simply envision a deepening when both silence and ritual dialogue with each other. In the Quaker unprogrammed tradition of meeting in silence and in other forms of contemplative prayer...holy communion is very much entered the silence the real presence...the light of Christ...the bread of heaven. We bring our bodies for blessing for we are a dwelling place of the light. This is my body...this is my blood. In the silence take and eat, be nourished, know reality more deeply, know your connection to this reality, feel it, live it. Do this as often as you remember me. Return to this silent dwelling from which all love, all justice flow. Let the silence and the words that flow from this encounter help us to remember more fully Christ who is all and in all. Awaken the slumbering Christ...the self-emptied, self-offering one. Let this awakening be a natural opening. Jesus' words at the Last Supper have a cosmic immensity...only the most enlightened human being could utter them...they are in the words of Pierre Lacout, Catholic Quaker, 'silent words'. They are not to stop with Jesus though. Only followers who had apprehended the silent depths of the holy communion would bother writing these Gospel words down for subsequent generations. We are invited to take our turn too, blessing all that we can see, emptying and offering. This is my body. We know of the interrelationship of the cosmos from science and in silence we know this truth at the centre of our being. What then stops every meal from being sacred? Every intake of food, every inhalation of air? Moment by moment let us reign in our forgetfulness. Do this as often as you remember me. Holy communion is not once per week or once per day but in the immediacy of life. Our lot is to receive the gifts that uncover, reveal and peel back, living our constant communion.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Jerusalem Prayer

Last weekend I attended an ecumenical dinner and talk at a local Greek Orthodox centre in honour of a visiting Palestinian Christian man. It was a privilege to hear of strength in the face of serious oppression and highlights the gifts of those of us largely free of conflict and breaches of human rights.

This is the content of the little prayer card we received on the night:

'Australian Churches call on the Australian people to pray for an end to injustice and violence in Palestine-Israel so that peace with justice may transform lives in that troubled land.'

The Jerusalem Prayer

(The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem invite churches around the world to pray with them)

O God,

We give thanks to you for every

community around the world that is

praying with us this day for peace.

In your unfathomable mystery and love

for all,

let the power of your redemption and

your peace

transcend all barriers of cultures and

religions and fill the hearts of all who

serve you here, of both peoples-

Israeli and Palestinian-

and of all religions.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Enclosed in the Trinity

This beautiful metal sculpture is from from my parents in law which they commissioned as a memorial for our daughter Salome who died soon after birth six months ago.

They named this 'Enclosed in the Trinity'. It speaks to me of the circular communion of God...the open, silent, loving, spacious one. In my stiller moments I sense this source and destination for Salome and for all of us. This image is so capturing of the attention that it nurtures my heart.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Silence and Sacred Images

I will be offering a free half-day retreat at Anawim Prayer and Retreat Centre in Wangi Wangi near Newcastle. Here's the details:
Silence and Sacred Images: Experiences of silence and contemplative prayer can nurture our awareness of the power of religious and everyday images. Likewise images may invite us into silence and depth. Our time together will include spaces for both silence and meditation with images and tap into Christian traditions of contemplation and iconography. 10-2pm, Saturday 24 July.
Anawim is at 16 Wangi Point Road, Wangi Wangi. Phone Sr June Flynn for bookings on 4975 1436.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Father's Touch

I wrote the following poem during some time away recently. I dedicate it to our precious daughter Salome who lived 27/1/10 - 30/1/10. The photo is from my mate Nick who took this on a Wales beachside.

This is the father's touch.
To affirm a new life.
To be silently present.
To seek rousing fun and connection.

This is the father's gaze
To look and behold new form.
To be beloved and belove,
The shapes, the contours,
The skin, the will to live.

This is the father's love
That you will grow
with strong intimations of
Your centre, where you belong,
And I will guide you some of the way.

This is the father's tears,
That you did not last beyond a few days.
That your sisters cannot share
The washes and the cuddles.
That your mother's desire goes untended.

This is the father's wonder
That my love grows still.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Afternoon Prayer from the Suburbs

The lovely prayer below is from my friend Jason Clark who writes:
"I wrote this prayer to go at the beginning of an afternoon time of prayer & meditation, towards the beginning of the service. An alternative beginning call \ response is one I found in the daily office part of the Anglican book "A Prayer Book for Australia". + Peace to those who are far off, Peace to those who are near."

Peace to those absent,

Peace to those present,

Peace to those known and unknown.

God of the hopeless and hopeful.
We are here again, gathered in sacred circle,

The familiar afternoon street birds are chirping, the cars are going by and we feel the afternoon breeze as it brings refreshment from the heat of the day.

The sun sets, the day begins to end and the night descends.

Conscious of the now, we breathe in, and out, stilling ourselves, and being present in the now.

We are here for a range of reasons,
some because, life is hard and sad

For others life is good and happy.

Many reasons, many situations, but this time is for us.

Breathing in, and out, in, and out. We are here, present in this moment, the other can wait or take care of itself.

Come now Holy Spirit, comforter and guide, be present with us and bless this time making it a sacred place.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Even the Darkness is Light to You

Even the Darkness is Light to You

Only it is a longing to be in Love.
Now it is a stillness.

Now it is a darkness.
Now it is a path less travelled.

Only it is the path I did not desire.
Now it is a grieving, angry determination.
Now it is a quietness and a deep rare silence.
Now it is a body of good present people.

Now this is how you speak to me, this blinded one.
Your speech is both enough and never enough.
I am consoled and I am hanging on.
I don't feel particularly grateful.

But I am alive circling, feeling my way to the Nowhere Centre of the Universe.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Making Sense of Spirituality

Today I facilitated a little session with colleagues at work on 'spirituality and helping work'. As part of the conversation I shared with them five points about spirituality in general that occurred to me as I prepared the session (by no means an exhaustive list). It struck me that our meaning making about this concept of spirituality is coloured by a number of things including our personal experience and preferences as well as traditions and communities that we link to. Spirituality is such a broad term and challenging to make sense of given we enter into territory that is a bit hidden from view, often beyond words.

There seems an ever increasing interest in the helping fields about spirituality given its potential to improve people's quality of life and enable helpers (in all forms) to be fully present and discerning.

So here goes (you'll note my reflections contain both contemporary and traditional elements):

A. Spirituality is not easily articulated by human language. However certain words can help point to what we might be referring to: love, compassion, wisdom, connection, interior, silence, life, death, ultimate reality, solitude, community, sacrament, justice, present moment, journeying, land, earth, faith, hope, peace, mindfulness, stillness, presence.

B. Spirituality is usually more aptly expressed through poetry, prose, story, prayer, art, music, ritual, silence...once we move into explanations of ultimate reality we are in the territory of theology, philosophy and science though the boundaries are not black and white and nor do we want them to be.

C. Spirituality usually privileges experience over everything else. Some writers contrast spirituality and religion. Religion is usually envisioned by these writers as hierarchical, structured, institutional, patriarchal and often oppressive of spirituality. While there is some truth to this all religious expressions have at their core an initial life experience(s) that has inspired their development.

D. There can be two important generalisable movements or experiences in spirituality: i) one takes us outwards beyond the confines of our selves, culture, nation, world and ii) the other takes us inward to our inner experience as human beings e.g. the daily interior life. Spirituality can be said to have universal & transcendent as well as personal & immanent qualities. These movements can occur simultaneously or separately but they are often interwoven together; for some people even becoming an indistinguishable experience.

E. Spirituality can be seen as all-encompassing, in other words it invites an attitude of openness to our whole of life experience as individuals, communities, our common humanity. For example spirituality can be experienced in suffering and joy, life and death, mystery and knowledge, words and silence, knowing and unknowing, sense and intuition, relationship and solitude, longing and belonging, success and failure, religion and science, presence and absence and so on.

How do you make sense of this intriguing term spirituality?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Gatekeepers to Mental Health Reform

A recent debate between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition was focussed on health reform including the place of the federal and state governments in improving service delivery. Both leaders failed to address or mention mental health in the debate. Mental illness and emotional distress continues to be a significant burden in individual lives, families and communities including as a cause of death by suicide. A few years ago mental health was more significantly on the political agenda with several high profile parliamentarians around the country suffering mental health problems and able express their experience. Now this focus seems to have been lost. The program I work for is only funded for another few months at this stage and includes a focus on families and children. This is an important perspective to retain in the healing of people's emotional lives and providing adequate attention to the next generation of people.
The current Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry is a notable psychiatrist in the areas of young people's mental health and early psychosis. He is becoming outspoken about the reduced attention to mental health. It is certainly time we were much more consistently addressing this as significant human area and so today I supported a new ad campaign initiated by GetUp and involving Patrick McGorry. Please see the following link. You can donate to the ad campaign online. One wonders if despite substantial improvements the stigma of mental health is still too much for many politicians. Obviously services that respond to the needs of the body primarily will remain important but mental health is one area in which we are faced with societal issues as significant contributors to emotional distress such as violence, homelessness, sexual assault, abuse of children, substance abuse, family relationships, refugees, workplaces, lack of relationship to nature, gender issues, sexuality etc etc. We deal with the inner life of people in the area of mental health and thereby touch the inner life of the nation. This has an ineffable quality about it that is challenging to quantify and understand and support. We can touch some dark places in supporting the emotional lives of people who find themselves afflicted with such difficulties. Perhaps this is simply too hard for some politicians to provide consistent leadership around and it is easy and seemingly easier for the voters to talk solely about emergency departments and hospital infrastructure. We must however find a more holistic approach whereby the needs of the body and soul are given adequate attention in the community and in social and health services overall.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What Acknowledgement of Country Means to Me

Connecting with the land has always been important to me in some way. I grew up with a botanist father in Western Australia who was often drawing my attention to the hidden secrets of beauty and life within the bush. This was more a process of osmosis by being around someone who was able to look beyond the surface for the purposes of studying the intricacies of our flora. Sense of place was also important in as much as to be able to note the contours of the land, weather, soil, geography and how this relates to other places and how certain plants and animals might be able to survive or thrive. This background by no means leads me to claim special status but it has given me a feel for the bush, an appreciation of its sometimes harsh beauty and the importance of it's protection and care.

The practice of acknowledgement of country has also become increasingly meaningful for me as a non-Aboriginal person. For many years I have often found myself moved by Aboriginal stories of loss but also strength in the face of suffering and an ability to more forward with a new vision. I have become convinced that the practice of acknowledgement of country is an important step towards healing of the land and all its peoples. Indeed Aboriginal colleagues that I have contact with seem to a person to support it's practice. However, many people find this practice to be 'tokenism', as dismissive of other key groups in Australia or as even causing division. Such criticism was recently led by the Federal Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbot and Member of parliament Wilson Tuckey in a kind of headline grabbing way that was picked up by the media. See for example:

Of course any practice can become 'tokenism' when it is not supported by a felt sense of meaning but we can go much further and we must because the soul of our nation depends on our attention to these matters. Australia has an opportunity given it's relatively young history since colonisation and when compared to other nations, to better overcome racial divides and wounds. My workplace which includes Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff has been supporting the practice of Acknowledgement of Country in various ways before significant meetings as part of a larger national move in this direction.

Here are some of the main reasons I support this practice:

  • An Acknowledgement of country reminds me that there are people, traditional owners, who have been here before...who lived on this land for many thousands of years before Europeans arrived and whose descendents still live here. It is a recognition of many generations which goes beyond recorded history...we do not tend to think in thousands of years very often and it is helpful to put our own lives in this perspective. I honour this timeless relationship with land.

  • The first peoples who live here seem to value the land as part of them...even as being owned by the land. Further that the land provided everything necessary. This is a real perspective and a counter-cultural view of ownership...without the land and all that it provides we are nothing so we are obliged to it...further we take the land into our bodies on a daily basis via air, food and water...we are literally part of it. I honour this Aboriginal sense of bodily intimacy with the land.

  • An Acknowledgement of country reminds us of the elders or the custodians of the land...people who care for land and culture in the past, now and the future. This can remind us of values that we dare not live without namely that ageing can bring wisdom that is worth nurturing, that care and custodianship of the land is an imperative and that generations come and go but the land remains our bedrock. I honour this wisdom in our Aboriginal brothers and sisters

Naming and claiming these things does not mean I avoid or dismiss the complexity of colonisation or of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships. Or that I cannot recognise that there are positives in the arrival of Europeans, or that there aren't conflicts within Aboriginal communities, or that we don't need to back this up with addressing the issues related to the quality of life of Aboriginal communities etc. Acknowledgement of Country is not an invitation to become simplistic in any way. Nor is it an issue of superficially thanking Aboriginal people for use of the land as indicated by Wilson Tuckey, although gratitude maybe part of our response to these issues. For me it is also acknowledging the human suffering of Aboriginal peoples and of the land and the ongoing consequences of colonisation. Once this becomes our starting point we have a more real foundation for the acknowledgment of our collective suffering and for the hope that our Australian peoples can become more loving and just in the process.

May the practice of Acknowledgement of country continue to evolve into something deep and real and meaningful.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

These Lenten Days

The Season of Lent is an intentional journey towards death guided by the Jesus story of our heritage. A decision to willingly consider and embrace suffering and death is required for this journey. The way of the cross is something we might prefer to do without and so we can engage in much avoidance. So it strikes me that lenten liturgy engages us in a process of considering our failings and our sinfulness as an element of this journey. Part of me cringes at a words like sinfulness and sin. Yet a reimagining of these words and what they point to maybe helpful if the Christian spiritual life is going to take on new and deep meaning for us. It seems to me that if sin is reduced to a moralistic behavioural code that we do or don't meet then we haven't gone far enough. Of course our human behaviour is cause for reflection and for amendment. However we do carry light and shadow together with us on a daily basis. So whatever the word 'sin' conveys perhaps it is more about the limits we place on our capacity for wholeness in which the shadow points us to the light and the light helps us embrace the shadow. Indeed the way of the cross embraces the shadow side of humanity, our violence, our existential anxiety, our power games and our avoidance. Above all it exposes the self that perceives only isolated existence and draws attention to the more subtle voices that really require our attention, namely our connection with all that is, our families, our land, humans who help us in times of need, our compassion for others and the Source who enlivens all. And so rather than specific acts that are or aren't acceptable our 'sinfulness' is really more about our mindlessness, our lack of practising 'the presence of God', and our closing down on what is real. Death and the way of the cross is the 'in-built' corrective or a central force in our human transformation.

I do not speak about these things simply as theory anymore or good ideas. They have become very real to me in this last two months with the birth and death after two and half days of our third daughter. The sheer vulnerability of a birth, a very sick baby who could not stay in this life and a dying baby have drawn me to what is real like nothing else, like no other deaths that I have experienced. For me and my family the way of the cross is not a decision this year, it has been imposed by life. A real, physical stations of the cross and a touching into the heart of the crucified one. I now carry a wound that cannot be erased and an absence of life where there would otherwise be noise and breastfeeding and touch and cuddles. John O'Donoghue says this absence of a loved one is like a tree that grows beside you. I think he is right, it has in my experience a presence all of its own. Even when I am not visibly upset by our reality my heart carries this woundedness, this deep grief, that life is not what it could be.

While I find liturgy helpful at this time specifically Friends silent Meeting for Worship and meditation on my own both come into their own. Silent places where my grief can be allowed to take its own time, where there are no guiding posts for the heart. My soul simply fumbles forward having experienced this death...I only really have my trust that there is the something More who draws me on. This is I think what William Johnston calls the 'prayer of suffering' is also a 'prayer of nothingness' that takes me into a 'terrible gift' namely the wisdom from wounds that I did not seek after and unimaginable love within me and around me. I say love, because I have never had cause to love like this. I did not really and truly and deeply know about this kind of love in myself or in all the people who have supported us.

So to draw this together perhaps lent is where we acknowledge that death and love are inconstricably linked, one cannot go without the must know death, otherwise it is not really love. I leave this post with a quote from John Main (d. 1982), master of Christian meditation:

Death itself, especially the death of someone we have loved, teaches us what love teaches us. It reveals to us that the more deeply we love and enter into communion, so the more radically we must become detached and non-possessive. To continue to fall into love we must continue to fall way from the ego. It is the final and most demanding of the lessons that life teaches us. It is the absolute finality of the Cross, the single-pointedness of the Cross that yet opens up into the infinite universe of the Resurrection (Community of Love, 1990).


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Living into the Sacred Depths of Everyday Parenting

The following is a brief article submitted recently to the Aidan Way (community journal of the Community of Aidan and Hilda) and The Australian Friend.

Immersion in a life of raising young children can have a relentlessness that knows no bounds. It is hard to imagine where days and weeks and years go in the birthing, growing and learning. I now know by experience that rearing children is one of life's holiest and most challenging endeavours. What would lead my life to join in the conceiving and growing of new lives? What force keeps stirring me to commune with the sacred within my life and the life of the world? Something about bringing children into the world brings one closer to what is real: the holy round of life, generation after generation. From leading and controlling to being led. Led by the power of ecstatic intimacy and union with my lover to new life. Even the movement of desire within one's body, heart and mind is impossible to articulate satisfactorily. But it is something more than two lovers that desires this new life...A life so new that its uniqueness will never be seen again. And paradoxically a life shot through with the same life that every other human experiences in some way.

I imagine our first daughter who senses our readiness and decides upon a new becoming. I sense the power of our second daughter who surges from the invisible into life. I enter the mystery of our unborn child who brings great sickness but dancing feet and intriguing forms. A child is like Jesus, the teacher, who turns to the crowds on the road and demands the fullest attention. A child comes from the source of life itself, beyond the sexual encounter that sets cells in motion, and invites the greatest attentiveness. A child, like all of us, comes with the capacity for union, the one thing necessary. Why is it that only in my most contemplative moments do I see what is absolutely real? The simplest moments in the life of parenting can be the most meaningful. The heart rendering anticipation when one knows the waiting is over and birth is imminent...The delight of physical contact with a child whose feelings need soothing....Peacefully observing the imaginative play of children...The natural wonderment at the world as it is...The satisfaction that comes when children are asleep and all is finally quiet for another day. These are by no means uncommon experiences.

Becoming a parent forces a shift in the self. The vulnerability that comes with the changes in this stage of life is fertile soil for a new self to emerge. Waiting for birth, feeding at all hours, reduced sleep and energy, maintaining relationships and personal priorities and changes in sexuality all can be confronting on their own. The shift to parenthood can also bring about reflection on the wounds and strengths of one's own childhood and the qualities and weaknesses of one's own family background. So internally much is going on. In all this one's humanity and connection to the larger whole can become more real. I remember holding our first baby daughter outside a Quaker Meeting while she slept one morning in 2005 and identifying with the Mary of Orthodox iconography who is pictured contemplating simultaneously the wonder of new life and the unavoidable movement towards death. The swaddling cloth of the infant is also the burial fabric of the tomb. Reflections on mortality are not just the preserve of the sick and the elderly but also of parents! There is enormous stillness in this contemplation because the Holy One is near and both beauty and grief are close at hand. Perhaps the beauty of a child is even more precious because we know in our most aware moments that all is fleeting, all is passing away. Even one's meditation on this passes away.

In my less profound moments when I am feeling most overwhelmed by parenting and family relationships I experience the shadow side which lurks and is sometimes expressed in feelings of great impatience, irritability, isolation, anxiety and anger. It is tempting to be harsh towards my shadow side with its fire, inflexibility and self-entitlement but its fragility is palpable and carries a desire for wholeness...a desire to remember that I am not in fact alone and do not need to carry the whole thing or meet all the external and internal expectations attached to my life. In my most horrendous moments of anxiety, stress and self-judgement I long most at these points to return to the Centre and yet it seems so far in the distance and, like the Prodigal Son, I sometimes do not know how to return or indeed how I got there. It is no wonder that the unceasing prayer of the desert was: Be pleased O God to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me! (Psalm 70:1). Perhaps it is the Holy One who longs most passionately for us in this inner desert when the shadows lengthen. For me it is my instinct for prayer, silence and loving relationship which becomes the salve and the gift. This gift hidden somewhere in the depth of the shadowy places represents a longing to be-loved so I can in turn love my family and the world from my heart rather than some fearful place. God help me to minimise the harm to others in the mean time! Family life, viewed from this lens, becomes a place for peace making.

And so like the passion narratives of the Gospels, I find that when I look at the whole thing it is passion which is lived out in my parenting. I commit to reject nothing in my experience of parenting, embracing anguish and the sublime, anxiety and fulfilment, ecstasy and isolation. I commit again to a journey of peaceful ways, seeking holiness in family life and affirming those moments in which the Sacred makes itself most known.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Too Much Christian In You

I was reminded today in talking with my partner of an amusing story from my student days when I lived in a community household with two close friends in Perth, Western Australia. One afternoon I was sitting on the front porch reading when a dirty, scraggy looking fellow with tobacco stained beard and red pock marked nose suddenly appeared at our front gate. "Want your gutters cleaned out, mate?", he said. I was somewhat startled but managed to respond, "Oh I don't know haven't looked at them recently". I walked over to him and we performed the most cursory inspection of the gutters from the ground before I found myself pitying him, taking in the smell of smokes and booze and general state of disrepair and agreeing to have our roof gutters cleaned for twenty bucks. Our new subcontractor got himself up onto the roof so adeptly that he'd definately done it before and started talking while he scooped some muck from our gutters. After a while I left him to it and went back in side. As I took all this in it occurred to me that I didn't necessarily want to condone someone's alcohol habit so I went back outside. "Heh, would you like me to get you $20 worth of groceries instead of cash?" "No thanks mate, the cash will do...there's too much Christian in you son" he offered, with a whimsical and friendly tone. After about an hour or so of gutter muck getting scooped out we mutually agreed to end the piece of work and I drove him to the local bottle shop where he presumably continued his relationship with the bottle. He told me he was likely to try to find a bed on the concrete grandstand of a suburban sporting ground.

I have thought of this interchange at various times since and it never fails to bring some amusement. I like the 'there's too much Christian' line. In a sense this homeless fella saw right through my attempt at spontaneous social work. There is the 'too much Christian' in most of us, the part that is all too willing to intervene and slip into self-righteous changing of other people with little genuine compassion and acceptance of frailty and idiosyncracy. The "too much Christian' part of our spiritual life can easily deny our own addictive behaviour in favour of manipulating others. Like the contrast in the Gospel of Luke between the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like sinners and the tax collector who recognises his own failings. The tax collector is the one who goes away 'right' with God. Thank you for wise homeless men who wander from place to place offering to clean out gutters.