In quietness and trust: Stop and see

This is the first in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Stop and see: Attentiveness

Attentiveness is an essential skill for the nurture of our inner lives.
It is in stopping – and seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, feeling – that we begin to sense God at work around us.
How much passes us by when we are caught up with worry and busyness and self-interest?

We might think that kids are always on the go.
We might say that they are the least attentive among humans.
But it’s not true.

Kids love to focus on the tiny detail of one particular thing, even if only for a moment.
Kids love attentiveness, because when we practice it with them, they have the whole of us for themselves: undistracted, focused, together.
Kids love to be with us more than anything, and a focus on something simple keeps us from wandering from them.

There are a million ways to practice attentiveness with children. These are things that work for us:

  • Nature walks:
    Counting how many insects we can see on one area of pavement
    Collecting different shades of green leaves
    Looking for butterflies and bees
    Learning about different flower names and colours – and then looking for similar ones and/or seeing what they smell like
    Looking for different types of trees (confession from this country girl: I had to buy a book to learn)
    Watching the squirrels scamper
    Splashing in puddles and watching the ripples
    Squelching through mud
    Collecting stones/sticks/pinecones of different shapes
    Looking for creatures in a pond
    Looking at seeds, at young plants, at old plants. Talking about how things grow and flourish and fade.
  • Lying in a dark room with a small torch, watching the shadows. Or with a small lamp that projects rainbows onto the ceiling. Or just in the dark. Listening to our breathing, whispering nothing of importance, singing.
  • Handing over my phone and letting the kids take photos. Noticing what they choose to photograph – where their attention is drawn – and asking about it (and ending up with 200 burst shots of our feet).
  • Listening to music, eyes closed, and sharing what pictures we can see in our minds.
  • Lighting a candle, sitting close, and watching the flame dance.
  • Stroking the dog together, talking about how we care for him and how we feel about him.
  • Building a wooden train track. Watching the trains weave around different formations.
  • Looking at pictures the kids have painted, talking about the colours and shapes and what they might be.

Attentiveness is prayer beyond words.
As we become attentive, we begin to notice that we are surrounded by God’s presence.
As we become attentive, we become more mindful of God’s hand on everything.
Attentiveness increases our gratitude and gives us glimpses of what God must be like, as we see the tiniest details of life are so intricate and endless.

Kids are highly skilled in attentiveness, if only we could notice it and learn from them.

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In quietness and trust: The spirituality of children

The spirituality of young children is phenomenal. They know simplicity, attentiveness, freedom and trust better than any adult. When I pray or meditate with my kids, it’s them leading me in practice. They teach me about about connectedness, self-awareness and God. They seem free of the baggage that I have gathered on my own journey – the stuff that stops me from really knowing and loving God and myself and others and the world.

I planned this series of posts thinking about how I am helping my kids to nurture their spiritual lives. But what I give here now, I offer as gifts that the kids have given me.

A couple of disclaimers:

First, my spirituality is Ignatian, Contemplative.
This is how I know God and understand life.
It’s deep.
It means that I value stillness and quiet (even though I’m not much good at either!)
I try and see a spiritual dimension to every person, place and experience.
I use my imagination in my spiritual life.
For me, words are not usually great currency in prayer.
This is not the only way to pray, but it’s mostly how I pray with my kids.

Secondly, let’s be realistic. My kids are one and three. No three year old is going to sit in still contemplation for more than a moment or so. No toddler is going to be completely immersed just because I ask her to be. Prayer and meditation with kids needs to be flexible and fluid. My kids are no saints. The following is what works for us on a good day, when we’re not tired, or hungry, or grumpy, or ill. There are four of us in this house – usually at least one of us is at least one of those things. Please don’t think we are the Von Trapp equivalent of the spiritual world. And yet I am constantly amazed by what does engage these little souls, and how deeply, when I let them take the lead and simply give them my attention.

With all of that in mind, here are some explorations of stuff we’ve tried:

In quietness and trust 1: Stop and see
In quietness and trust 2: Two simple questions
In quietness and trust 3: Storytelling
In quietness and trust 4: Sitting still (coming soon)

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Catherine of Siena: A meditation on becoming yourself

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder.
Catherine of Siena, Letter T368

It is the hardest thing in the world.
To become yourself.
It involves more than simply being.

You learned quickly to hide your self away.
The knocks of childhood and the taunts of adolescence
Pushed your self into a shell that calcified and cocooned.

Becoming yourself is a conscious uncovering that leaves you vulnerable;
Emerging from your shell of self-preservation to stand naked in the world.

Becoming yourself is active resistance;
Breaking the chains of others’ expectations that hold you captive.

Becoming yourself is an act of courageous stepping up;
Grasping that you alone can do the work you are called to do.

Becoming yourself requires you to
know yourself,
love yourself ,
embrace yourself.

Becoming yourself is to become tinder for another;
You are not becoming yourself for your own self’s sake.

As you become yourself
You may never feel the heat of the fire you leave in your wake.

As you become yourself
You may never see the sparks left behind by your authenticity.

As you become yourself
You may see only sad, smouldering ashes where you thought there would be a blaze.

To become yourself is to take a risk:
You risk finding nothing inside your shell.
You risk stripping everything away to be left ashamedly exposed.
You risk fizzling out before you set the world on fire.

As you become yourself, may you come to know your precious complexity.
Beneath your precious complexity, may you find quiet simplicity.
In your quiet simplicity, may you find still pools of peace.

And bathed in peace, may you set the world alight.

Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.

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A patchwork of diversity

Reflections adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross, Timperley for Trinity 7…

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

Ephesians 2:19-22

We are people of different ages, different traditions, different heritage, different ethnicities, different sexualities, different genders, different life experiences, different ways of speaking and behaving, and different stories… We are all different. All unique.

And yet even within the church (and not just this church!) we get frustrated with the differences we see in one another. We talk about the older generations or the younger generations. We talk about liberal Christians and orthodox Christians. We talk about Evangelicals and Catholics. But actually, there are no such groups in our church. Instead, we have Mildred, and Cliff, and Karen, and Doris, and Linda, and Carolyn, and everyone else who enters into our building…

Beyond our church doors, we meet even more diversity, and in this we find great richness. The media love to set up one group of people against another, and bad news stories about immigration, or the generation gap, or the poverty gap do sell. Beware what you read in your daily newspaper. Beware what they say about young people or pensioners. Beware what they say about the rich, or the poor. About activists and politicians. About bishops and beggars. About millionaires and the homeless. Before you believe the press, go and meet the people, hear their stories, appreciate the diversity you find, and then make up your own mind.

The media would love us to believe that life is black and white. That there are saints and sinners. Insiders and outsiders. But life is not black and white. It is very human to want to label people, or put each other into neat boxes. To decide whether someone is a saint or a sinner. But we Christians know that we are all sinners, and all saints.

We are as diverse as a patchwork quilt. Each person, each square, has its own flavour. There is a unique pattern to each part of the quilt. Each square is free to be beautiful in its own way. But knitted together, the squares form a better whole: diverse, colourful, and able to achieve much more than any one square could do alone.

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In a church and a world that is becoming increasingly diverse, let’s not entrench ourselves. If we place people into boxes based on what they are for or against, if we label them as a saint or a sinner, we isolate one another and ourselves. Instead, let’s celebrate our diversity and beauty it gives us. We are all different, and our richness as the Body of Christ is found in our diversity. We are free to be ourselves, and yet knitted to one another in all our individuality.

This is especially important at the present moment. Our precious church – our community of faith – is once more in a fragile state, just as was the early church. Every piece of research confirms that the established church is declining at a frightening speed. More than ever, we need to be open to welcoming the stranger, and making space for them on our patchwork quilt.

And as the Body of Christ, as this patchwork quilt of diversity, we have a role to play outside of church too. Out in our communities, as we talk with our friends and neighbours, or around the family dinner table, let us be known by how we celebrate our diversity. Let our distinctiveness as Christians be shown in how we treat and how we talk about those who are different to us. Because we, of all people, know that even in difference, we can be united as one body, as one patchwork quilt.

God and the paint pot

Some reflections I offered at Caitlin’s baptism yesterday…

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about her local parent and toddler group. Don’t worry – it wasn’t a group that runs in this parish or anywhere nearby! But this person, who is much older and wiser than me, was reflecting on her observation of parents and children at the painting table. She noticed that often, we parents will sit down with our children, hand them a brush, hand them the red paint, and say:

Right – paint me a rose. No, not blue. You need red for a rose. That’s right; do a nice circle. Some petals. And now the stem. No, not yellow. You need green for a stem. Don’t mix the paints!! Green – no, not a circle, it needs to be a straight stem. Careful – you’ll get it on your clothes. And some leaves, do some leaves.

There – what a beautiful flower you’ve painted.

As a parent, I do this sort of thing all the time without realising. I ask my kids to perform for me, without giving them the freedom to do and act and create and be, just as they are. Building the wooden train set is a particular challenge in our house. Does it have to loop round in a complex figure of 8 with branch lines and bridges and level crossings? Or can it simply form a long line across the lounge, with some random curves and splits in the track? Jim, Ben and I have very different views on this!

And this conversation made me think a little about what I think God is like, as a parent. Is God the sort of parent who sits with us at the painting table, hands us the red paint, and gives us very specific instructions about how to draw a rose? Is God the sort of parent who gets out the wooden train set, and creates some wonderful feat of civil engineering while we watch, desperate to be involved but waiting for him to sit back so we can play? I’m not so sure…

There’s a book in the Old Testament written by a prophet called Isaiah. His job was to remind the people of Israel of the identity God had given them as his chosen people. Again and again Isaiah has to try and convince the people of Israel that God loves them, and that he has special plans for them. Part of his message to God’s people were these words:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name.
You are mine.
When you pass through waters, I will be with you.
Rivers will not overwhelm you.
When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned.
I am the Lord your God.

The language is just beautiful. It reveals to us the nature of God as the one who is deeply, desperately involved with his people. But other parts of Isaiah also reveal a God who will rarely interfere or intervene in any way that takes the gift of freewill away from human beings.

What if, rather than being the one who tells us what to paint and how to paint it, God is the one who simply holds the paint pot? He provides the paint, we colour the picture.

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Painting can be messy, just as life is messy. Artwork may be spoiled by a careless mistake. Paint can be spilt in a moment of clumsiness. A vivid picture could become nothing more than a dirty brown smudge of mixed up colours.

But when Ben presents me with a dirty brown smudge of mixed up paint on a page, I don’t see the ugliness. I see the beauty of something that he has created. It may not be aesthetically pleasing, but to me as a mum it is beautiful because he painted it. And he painted it without my controlling hand directing him.

Is that how God views the artistic masterpieces that we make of our lives? Does he see beyond the dirty brown smudges, to look on something much more beautiful, and much more precious?

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  • What if God is deeply, intimately involved in our lives, without controlling us or taking over?
  • What if God gives us time and space to paint what we want to paint, how we want to paint it?
  • What if God rejoices in the creativity of whatever we offer to him, and wipes up the mess we leave behind?
  • What do we think of that God?

Today, we have baptised Caitlin into the Christian faith. There are many more of us who have been baptised in the last few weeks, months and years, or who are being baptised in the near future.

Baptism is about handing our children and ourselves over to God, and allowing him to work in us throughout the whole of our lives. As the church, our job is to watch for this relationship in Caitlin, to nurture it and pray for it and help it to grow. But never to snatch away her paintbrush and paint the picture for her.

For Caitlin and for each of us, God holds a paint pot, and invites us to paint something really special with our lives. He will deal with the mess, if we let him. So what picture will you paint for God?

I’m not busy!

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “…and I’m married to the vicar, so we minister together in the parish, and we have two young children…”
Them: “Wow. You must be very busy then!”
Me: “Yes, I suppose I am…we cope…”

I have lost count of the number of times I have had this exchange. But everything changed last week as I was feeling particularly reflective, and found myself challenging… well, myself.

Are you busy? Really? Busier than before you had children? Do you think you might be colluding in someone else’s misplaced idea that you are busy, and therefore fulfilled and important?

It brought me up short. Actually, I’m not busy. Since I had my first child 2 and a half year ago, I haven’t been busy. Yes, sometimes life is very full. But not busy. Rarely busy.

Because for me, busyness is about having such a full life, with such a rammed diary, that I don’t have room for the important things. The things that feed me. As a childless curate, I rarely had an hour of unplanned time. If I did, it was a real treat. Time with friends, with my family, time for reading, time for fun… it all had to be diaried. Itemised and quantified.

Having children has changed everything. It can take an hour to leave the house on a bad day, so leaving merely an hour of free time in an otherwise packed day is only a recipe for stress and panic.

Everything takes ten times as long. On a walk to the shops, every flower has to be examined. Every puddle splashed in. Every car pointed out and named.

Children are very good at living in the present moment. Much better than we grown ups. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child, where the most important thing is now, has been a precious gift.

The life of a child (and their parent) may be full of activity, but for me it is rarely busy. How can you be busy when there are purple flowers to spot and daisies to pick? How can you be busy when each of your 20 cars has to be carefully placed in rows on the bottom step of the staircase before you leave the house? How can you be busy when it is more fun to have a conversation with every passing dog, cat, bird and bee?

Busyness tells us that we are needed. Important. Perhaps indispensable? Yet maybe in the midst of our busyness we fail to see where we are truly needed, or what is really important.

Life is full. But I am no longer busy. And for that, I give thanks.