Standing at the chasm: A reflection for Shrove Tuesday

Doesn’t Christmas feel such a long time ago?

In the Church calendar, we have travelled through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and the unimaginatively titled “Ordinary Time” before reaching the start of Lent. You don’t have to be religious to have felt a rhythm to the journey in recent months: the closing nights and the expectant waiting of Advent, the bittersweet (for many) joy of Christmas with all its promise and regrets, and the long, dull days of January that brings us through winter towards Spring – and Easter.

But now we reach a precipice – a chasm that we must cross before we can rest in the balmy days of late Spring and early Summer, with its sunny afternoons and cool evenings; lengthening days and Easter-egg-fuelled TV binges as the sun sets later, and later.

Lent.

Self denial.
Giving up.
Discipline.
Hardship.

For a while now, we take up a different pace.

I didn’t know until recently that Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Mardi Gras”: literally “Fat Tuesday”. Historically, Shrove Tuesday had a carnival feel about it (and the word carnival might mean “to put away flesh” – a word for the final day of eating meat before the long abstinence of Lent).

So here we are. Shrove Tuesday. Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras.

Celebration and carnival.

Finishing off the spoils of the past few weeks, before the slower pace of Ash Wednesday and Lent. A strange mix of surplus: using up the extra we have, and of shriving: self-examination and reflection for what lies ahead.

Surplus and shriving.

In the Christian tradition, Shrove Tuesday was the day to make this shift from plenty to paucity. It was a day for using up the leftovers: for feasting and fattening and saying goodbye to indulgence. And it was a day for reflecting on one’s own darkness and failures; spiritual preparation for the disciplines of Lent.

I wonder what the spirituality of Shrove Tuesday looks like for you? The following questions might help:

From plenty…
What has gone well for you in the past few weeks?
What resources have been at your disposal?
How wisely did you use (or abuse) them?

To paucity…
What areas of discomfort, or pain, or shame are you aware of within yourself?
What darkness have you seen in life around you?
Which wrongs in the world would you like to put right?

It’s not really fashionable to talk about “sin” anymore. (I’ve written about this before). But Lent is a time to reflect on our sin. Or, if you prefer, on our failings, insecurities, hurts, pains, disappointments, mistakes, regrets and missed opportunities. Collectively, we might call these things sin, or we might not. It doesn’t matter.

But as we stand at this dark chasm of everything that we wish we and the world were not, we have a chance to bring change. Sin, darkness, failure, regret: these things do not have the last say. Lent reminds us of the importance of facing them, and then conquering them.

Just as, in the Christian tradition, Jesus wrestled for 40 days with the demons of his own greed, and invincibility, and power: so we wrestle with our own demons as we enter this chasm of Lent.

As Christ wrestled, we wrestle. And as Christ conquered, we conquer. We emerge on Easter Sunday, having lived through the self-denial of Lent and the trauma of Holy Week, as people renewed and re-formed. People committed to bringing light into darkness, hope into despair, and life into lifelessness.

But that’s for later.

For now, we begin.
We enter into darkness and denial.
We go from plenty to paucity.
We face our demons, and we wrestle.

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The road not taken: Indecision and missing out

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

I came relatively late in life to Robert Frost’s famous poem. If you don’t know it – go now, and read it. It will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten my words.

I spend a lot of time with people who are trying to work out what to do with their lives. Which roads to take, and which to ignore. I hear stories of fear and curiosity; of regret and gratitude; of anxiety and excitement.

And for every road we take, we turn our backs on ten, a hundred, a thousand more. A thousand roads not taken. The snickets and cul-de-sacs of life that we will never explore and that will remain untrodden. Perhaps more weighty than the question of “Which way?” is: “How do I deal with the knowledge of the roads not taken?” 

That is, how do I manage the overwhelming sense of Missing Out (I’m currently reading a fascinating book of the same title) on the options I don’t choose? The potential I never realise? The opportunities I allow to slip away, unseized?

I have wrestled with a decision recently. I was tortured, for a while, about which road to take. It seemed as if one road would lead to joy, and life, and fulfilment, and the other to despair and exhaustion and disillusionment. The problem was, I didn’t know which road would lead where. It felt as if choosing one road would close off ten more. I was paralysed with indecision. Even though I’ve written about this before, even though I hold firmly to the notion that there are no bad decisions, I fell into a rut.

I didn’t know what was the ‘right’ thing to do.

And this might make me seem crazy, but eventually, with Robert Frost in mind, I wrote to myself. This is usually my ‘fall back’ option when prayer and reflection and meditation fail me. When I’m getting deeper into fog with no clarity. In these moments, writing becomes an act of untangling: a gentle separating of the threads that have wrapped themselves around my soul. And somewhere, there is usually a still, small voice of divine sense.

So this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to tell you what you should do, or who you should be. The paths are yours to take. You choose one before another and they all lead to joyful surprise and sorrow-filled desolation. Whichever way you go, there will be tight, dark corners and glorious summits – and you will navigate through, step by sometimes painful step, because there is always another step on. I will be with you but I will never force you.

These decisions are not mine to make – but yours. I will give you good, wise people and a capacity to seek out their wisdom. But rarely will I shovel it into your consciousness. You must seek it out: lament it, search for it, find it, and treasure it. And you will. Find it.

But the wisdom is not in the decisions; the roads you take. The wisdom is in how you walk them. No matter what roads you take, you also choose how to travel them. So I’m not going to tell you what to do. That choice is a gift that is yours alone. But choose with confidence and freedom, and know that the road you take shuts off no doors and few opportunities.

And when you do choose a road, walk it wisely.

The wisdom is not in the roads you take, but in how you choose to walk them.

To this point, I have thought of choice as being an exercise of my freedom. But perhaps those of us caught up in the cultural metanarrative of ‘progression’ (that is, we believe that as a race, we need to advance, to progress, to flourish, to succeed, to prosper…) are actually slaves to indecision. We believe a myth that only the ‘right’ decisions will allow us the greatest prosperity (as if prosperity is all we have to hope for…!)

So maybe the decisions – the roads we choose – don’t matter. Maybe what matters is how we live out the decisions we make. We could take one road, or another, and yet on both roads we could make choices that bring life or joy to ourselves and others – or we could make choices that sap us of strength and energy.

So, going forward, I am resolved not to worry too much, with dear Robert, about the roads not taken. There will always be missed opportunities and more potential than can ever be realised. What I will worry more about is how I travel the roads I take:

Will I be a good companion?
Will I seek out those lost on the way, and walk with them?
Will I try and light up the darker corners of the paths I take?
Will I walk wisely, and rest often?

And perhaps, when we become more conscious of how we walk the roads we take, instead of which roads we take, perhaps then we don’t miss out on all that much after all.

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Drop a ball. Smash a plate. It’s okay to be just “good enough”.

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When I drew this sketch I had no intention of showing it to anyone. Ever.

That was the beginning of this year. I was recently back to work after maternity leave, and for 6 months I had sat on the sidelines of my ministry and tended to our third child. It had been tough. I thought that being a mum third time around would be something I could do with my eyes closed. It wasn’t and I couldn’t.

I had planned to continue an element of my priestly ministry while on maternity leave. And to an extent, I did. I know some people question the wisdom of that decision. It’s one I took seriously and for me it was the right thing to do. But balancing these commitments with a failure to thrive baby, expecting “easy” and getting “tough”, led to something of an identity crisis.

Was I a bad mum for even trying to keep a part of my ministry going through these precious months?

Was I a bad priest for having a third baby? (yep – those irrational postnatal hormones were rife!)

Here were two vocations – two ways of living – coming together and working out how to coexist. As a priest who is a parent, and a parent who is a priest, this is a  source of both agony and joy for me.

How can I give my all to being a good parent, as biology drives me to do?

How can I give my all to being a good priest, as I have been formed and trained to do since first sensing a call to this half a lifetime ago?

How can I do both these things that are not mere ‘jobs’, but calls to ‘be’, when they sometimes seem to be at odds, each demanding every small piece of me and taking everything I have?

Last time I seriously wrestled with this stuff, this sketch was my attempt to work through the pain of this. The chalice and paten at an abandoned table. The empty sanctuary. The messy house. The screaming baby. The kind, compassionate children. The hollow, torn apart mum-priest ready to leave the house but getting nowhere. The darkness and shadow and out-of-reach window. A sense of being trapped in one place, while the other place waits, empty.

In other moments the picture could probably function the other way around: the demands of ministry crowding out bewildered children who wait patiently for their mum to come home and play.

I’m in a better place at the moment. I know that being a parent and a priest are not incompatible roles, and that each nurtures, informs and gives energy to the other. I know that because, on the good days, that’s how it works. That’s why I’m still in ministry, and still loving it, with three kids under 5.

The reason I’m sharing this, is because recently I have heard others say that they, too, struggle with this constant juggling. Once or twice, I’ve shown them this picture. And so I’m showing you, in case it helps you.

What balls are you juggling?
What plates are you spinning?

List them.

Go on – even just mentally.

In how many directions are you being pulled?
How many roles are you holding in tension?
How close do you feel to it all coming crashing down?

And I want to say this.

It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like this.

It can be a dark place to be in.
I know – I go there often, and I’m a priest.
(Priests go to dark places more than most people realise)

But if you feel like this, don’t ignore it.
Draw it, sing it, write it, exercise it out – but don’t keep juggling.

Drop a ball.
Smash a plate.

And when you do, be kind to yourself.

For me, this means remembering that I am not perfect. The illusion that I am gives my ego a boost, but eventually it is only myself that I disappoint.

I’m not perfect. And that’s why I’m happy to show this picture and share this particular journey.

Good enough.
That is all I have to be.
That is all YOU have to be.

And sometimes not even that.

And that’s okay.

 

Pulling up the weeds: An Examen for self care

Material adapted from a day I led recently in Gilly’s Quiet Garden, part of the Quiet Garden Movement.


Self-care is a bit like weeding.

This thought struck me some weeks ago, as I found myself delicately rescuing one of our roses from the bindweed that had twisted itself tight round the thorny stem. As I was weeding, I was spending time in prayer and reflection, and working through a particular personal conundrum. The task of unwrapping weed from flower served as a helpful outworking of the inner process of “unwrapping” that I was doing – working out the good and the bad – the flower and weed of the particular issue I was reflecting on.

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

Self care begins with the self, but done well, it is never solely about the self. Poor self-care, or no self care, pushes us inwards. We become introspective, self-centred, blind to others around us, and liable to lash out or project our pain onto the people we love – or (worse?) the people we don’t. Good self care enables us to develop good core strength, from which we are able to support and nourish others as well as our self.

What if your life was a bit like a garden?

There are all sorts of different plants and flowers. Some things – as in your life – are thriving and healthy. They have strong, deep roots and high-reaching leaves. Some produce fruit or flowers, so that you enjoy and give away an abundance of produce – just as much of your life will be about giving out to others. Some plants are young, and some are old. Just as some things in your life will be barely beginning, and other things well-established, or perhaps even going to seed. There will be enormous trees, fragile daisies, and everything in-between.

But, if your garden – your life – is the same as mine, then there will be a few weeds around too. Some of them pose little threat – they are shallow rooted and will pull up with no recurrence. Others are more of a problem: deep or extensively rooted, damaging to the good things in the garden, and needing careful, patient, persistent treatment to eradicate.

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Flowers and weeds: An Examen

The Examen is an ancient spiritual practice which aids self-reflection in ways that draw our gaze from within ourselves and out to the world beyond us. It has three stages.

The first step of the Examen is to notice the moments in which all was well:
Where have I sensed peace, security, deep joy, happiness, comfort?

The second step of the Examen is to notice the moments when all was not well:
Where have I sensed discomfort, pain, insecurity, fear, emptiness?

The third step of the Examen takes our answers to the first two questions and uses them to help us lay down the past and look ahead. For what I have been grateful? What now lies ahead?
Step one

What plants are flourishing in your garden?
In what areas of life are you, or have you been flourishing, thriving, and happy?

What plants are you especially proud of?
What of your own achievements are you proud of?

Which plants are strong and healthy?
Where are your strengths and gifts?

Which plants are being especially productive, giving you an abundance of fruit or flowers for you to enjoy or pass on to someone?
In which areas of your life are you able to give from?

And…

Where is this goodness rooted?
What has build your confidence?
Who has been kind to you?
Who has invested in your flourishing?
What—and who—has built you into you?
Step two

What weeds are present in your garden?

Which are shallow rooted annuals, easily pulled up?

Which are deep rooted and complex, needing dedicated attention?

Which give a nasty sting?

Which can you learn to adapt to and live with?

Which are fast growing and destructive?

Which are stealing your sunshine?

And…

Where is this pain rooted?
What has shattered your confidence?
What cruelty have you survived?
What disappointments have you faced?
What inner conflicts need gentle untangling?
Step three

For what am I grateful?

What gifts have I received?

What gifts can I offer?

What do my reflections tell me about who I am?

What do my reflections tell me about who I could be?

What might I become more deeply aware of tomorrow?

What inner pain needs my careful attention?

Where have I found life?

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Everything undone: Shame’s crippling legacy

Shame
/ʃeɪm/
A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

So many of us carry around a full glass of the stuff:
It laps at our edges, overflows at the slightest knock
It eats away at our self-assurance
Nags at our inner peace
Smothers our hope.

This isn’t the shame you might feel after a particular action or course of events.
This is chronic shame: a state of existence in which you constantly tell yourself:
“I’m not good enough”.

Or just: “I’m not enough”.

When we make mistakes, shame serves a purpose.
It tells us to put things right.
It helps us to become better people.

But chronic shame has no purpose.
Chronic shame is destructive, exhausting, and futile.
Chronic shame damages us, and damages those around us.

It’s outward signs might be subtle:
“I should…”
“I ought…”
“I don’t _______ enough”
“I could do better at…”

There is nothing wrong with these statements.
But sometimes, they become a monologue from which we never break free.
We don’t give ourselves a break.
We don’t reward ourselves for our successes.
We just notice everything we have neglected.
Everywhere we have fallen short.
Everything undone.

Who I am
What I do
It’s not enough.

And the inner language of shame is much more damning
The negative self-talk that shame uses to keep our self in its prison.

“You’re terrible at that”
“You’re an imposter”
“You aren’t doing this well enough”
“Someone else would have done that so much better”
“You need to do more”
“You’re not good enough”

Obligation
(Unreal) expectation
Damnation

These are shame’s legacy.

And then

Anger
Frustration
Hurt

As we take our shame and project it onto another.

“I’m not good enough, so you will never be good enough either”
“I’m not enough, so you will never be enough either”

Shame sets impossible standards
Shame robs us
Of fulfilment
Of happiness
Of contentment

And then we feel shame about our shame.

Emptying that cup of shame is a lifetime’s work
Even when we become aware shame’s chatter
We don’t drop our guard for long before it creeps in again

But perhaps
Just one thought at a time
We can begin to silence shame

One negative thought
Noticed
Captured
And reframed
Is one step closer to living without chronic shame

Be kind to yourself:
Easy for me to say
Harder for you to do.

But small steps of self-kindness
Of noticing our own self-hardness
Might just break the habit of negativity
And prevent a full blown attack
Of chronic shame.

Take this light: A reflection for Candlemas

On Sunday in the parish we celebrated The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: also known as Candlemas. We heard again the account of Jesus being brought to the temple by his young parents, to be met by Simeon and aged Anna: expectant, hopeful and looking for this baby who would be a light for all people.

As is traditional at this time of year, we brought candles and lights from home to be blessed and taken away again: a sign of the light of Christ that each of us carries out into the world. As we lit our candles and switched off the lights around the crib, I spoke about the significance of what we were doing. What follows is an adapted and developed version of what I said in that moment.


As December nights grew colder, darker
So we huddled around this place

Waiting.

Waiting for the light to glow:
Faint, at first –
Then a crescendo to full brilliance
As the promise of a saviour came to pass.

We knelt here in worship with the shepherds
And sang his praises with the Christmas angels.
We basked in Joseph’s quiet wonder
And we heard Mary’s joyous yes.

We brought gifts to mark the arrival:
Crafted woollen sheep
Whispered prayers
Tears of loss
Of joy.

We made room here for the lost and the forgotten
Shepherd rubbed shoulder with father as we placed our own people around the manger.
Always room for more.

We watched in anticipation
Long after the world ditched Christmas
Sharing a star with far away travellers
And claiming their homage to this child as our own:
A light for all people.

And now we gather here
One last time.
And we switch off the manger’s light.

Not because he is gone.
Not because it is over.
Not because we are done.

But because he is here.
Because it has begun.
Because we are called.

The light that began in this crib
Is the light we now hold in our hands
As we take its blessings back
To home and to heart.

But it doesn’t stay there.

Take it: take it in your words, your actions, your care
And shine it into the bleakest corners of this world.
Take it and illuminate your heart as you light up your home
So that you become bearers of the manger’s light
In the coldest, shadowy places of life.

Take it, and know that you are blessed
And will bless
And will grow
And will go
Onwards, down darkest paths
As people who carry this light.

God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and has given us a place with the saints in light.
You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life.
Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

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Dark Spaces: An Advent Calendar

I’m trying something a bit different this year. For every day of Advent I’ll be sharing a short reflection over on a new blog: Dark Spaces.

Dark Spaces is a way of shining light into the shadows of the past year. Some of the shadows are there to cover things we would rather turn away from: painful moments or bad memories. Some are there simply because we’ve not had the time to devote to them. They wait, forgotten but still there, to be discovered by our attentiveness. 

Advent is the beginning of the Christian year: a celebration of the dawn and a time for stillness and reflection. Sitting still in Advent is like sitting in the quiet of the early morning: looking back, looking ahead, and holding everything in quiet meditation. 

The reflections won’t be shared through this blog, so if you’d like to follow them then bookmark or follow Dark Spaces, and perhaps I’ll see you there. 

This present moment

I have been recently drawn back to my own present. Back from a busyness that discards the present in favour of the future. Back from an imaginative world of “what ifs?” and “what nexts?”. And into a present moment that is both transition and statis all mixed up. What follows is a reflection arising out of those musings, which keeps in mind Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 25:14-30).


Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.
Matthew 25:21

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Who are you, in this present moment:
Do you feel painfully broken, as a smashed vase?
Or burstingly whole, as an apple tree waiting to fall?

How long has this present moment lasted:
A second, perhaps,
Flashing by in a smudge of busyness?
Or else a lifetime,
As you look to a future in which nothing can be like what has past?

How does this present moment feel:
Like water, slipping through your fist in the bath?
Or like a sack of rocks slung across your shoulder?

This present moment offers few things:
How do you hold them?
Are they pieces of that smashed vase, discarded around your feet?
Are they coins, clung tightly in your fist for fear they will vanish?
Are they clouds: unreachable and ungraspable, turning to vapour in your presence?

How do you receive this present moment:
This gift, this talent, entrusted to you alone?

You could
bury it.
Ignore it.
Move on from it.
And it will pass:
Unnoticed,
Unwelcome,
Unlived.

Or you could
befriend it.
Double it.
Move on with it.
And you will grow:
In pain,
In complexity,
In joy.

And so sit, friend.
And sit
And sit.
Don’t wait.
Don’t hope.
Don’t expect.
Just sit
And be faithful
To this present moment.

Change and Decay: A meditation for the seasonally affected

Autumn took me by surprise this year.

Overnight, warm sun seemed to turn to cold rain. I don’t think this was just my lack of attentiveness. The seasons overlap and creep upon us and tease us as they ebb and flow before disappearing without warning. This Autumn was a poignant one for me as my oldest child started school. It hit me harder than I expected. The reality of the passing of time and of ageing; the grief at losing concentrated time with one of my soulmates; the submission to an institution and a system that I knew so little about; the change of rhythm to our days, weeks, and terms; the extra time and space it gave me to reflect back on a year of (so far) extraordinary gift and challenge – and the inner work this involved.

Autumn is a moment in which we are caught up in, taken aback by, and plunged into change, perhaps without feeling ready for it. Death and decay creep in: plants die and leaves fall.

It’s hard to think of Spring at this time of year. But I am always surprised at how quickly the decay turns again to life. What strength must lie in the earth, that it can so quickly bring to birth once more green signs of life. Winter is never death, and always gestation.

What follows is a meditation for all who have found themselves hitting October with bewilderment: where has this year gone?

It is for all who fear change, decay and death.

It is, perhaps, the song of the sunflowers. 

What makes you strong doesn’t come from outside. What makes you strong is what you carry within. In plants, strength and vitality lie dormant in winter, ready to burst through with new shoots in Spring. Autumn is a time to bed down, to reabsorb life and take it back to the innermost places, to quieten and to listen and to wait. This jars, amidst the otherwise busy-ness of this time of year.

This Autumn, may we find time to keep slow pace with the trees, and like them, store up vitality.


Our moment of parting
Was unnoticed.
How was I to know that sunset smile
Would be the last you would show me
Before the cold months of your absence?

Your whispered goodbye
Barely heard
Above the cruel, harsh winds
So quick to hurry in change
And decay.

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I still look
Still search
Still reach
For your August warmth
But you glare at me
Me, surrounded by the sodden brown carpet
That once was glorious canopy,
And you are
Taunting
Cold
And give nothing.

And so it is time for
Disengagement
Detachment
Decay
I turn in on myself
Returning withered to my roots.

And here is all I need.

Dying and gestating within me
The remnant of the goodness we had
And the promise of a Spring yet to be:
Painful memories and hopeful promises
Stored up for the life that will grow
As I wait; patiently, slowly, still.