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.

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A meditation for the impatient

Impatience isn’t always bad. But how difficult it can be to live wholly in the present moment. Here is an exploration of waiting – more questions than anything: an unresolved conversation of my self with self, and perhaps arising from my own feelings of frustrated impatience.


What are you waiting for?

What lurks beyond your horizon
Nagging and pulling you from
The peace of the now
To the mystery of the next?

What wonder, what pain
Haunts the memory of a future
Yet to be?

What promise and dread surround you?
What hopes sustain you
What fears detain you
In the night time of your vigil?

How are you waiting?

In peace and confidence
Or in trembling anxiety of what may
Or may not
Happen?

What colour will be the dawn
That rises from the night?

Might it be that the curse you expect
Comes instead as blessing,
As the dark turns to violet and orange and brilliant blue?

And when will your waiting end?

Is it enough to receive the gift of tomorrow?
Or is your waiting endless habit:
Always anticipating, never receiving?

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All travelling safely home: A meditation for Epiphany

On January 6th, we reach the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Christian calendar celebrates The Feast of the Epiphany: the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, bringing gifts for the promised Jewish saviour. 

But these men were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). I have tried to write this meditation from a “farthest corner” of my own – the deflated sense of normality that I return to after our Christmas celebrations, in what ought to be one of the most joyous times of the Christian year. Perhaps in the relative stillness of “normality”, away from the distractions of Christmas, we might receive again the real gift of Christmas: the love, acceptance and adventure of a life with God.

As ever, use this as it is helpful, and ignore it as it is not. 


On the thirteenth day of Christmas
The tree is well away
The house is hauntingly empty 
And the wind seems so much colder.

January’s darkness is not like December’s:
Pregnant with anticipation
As light and warmth swell
And holiday loiters promisingly on the horizon.

January’s darkness is bleak:
The embers of Christmas grow dim
And we notice (as if for the first time)
The gloomy days filled with worry and bustle.

But on the dark chill of Christmas’s thirteenth day
A band of angels gathers
As a day is just yet dawning
And a quiet herald whispers poems of hope.

In our darkest, furthest corners
Something in our souls is stirred.
A hand reaches in, to lead us from our gloom
As December’s embers flame again.

Star is swallowed by brilliant sunrise, and
Rising, we leave our emptiness behind
Drawn by Epiphany’s brightest light
To join a company of kindly strangers

All travelling safely 
Home.

Arise, shine; for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee

In quietness and trust: Tell stories

This is the third 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.

Tell stories!

Stories can start anywhere.

“Mummy – what does that sign say on that bench?”
“It says it’s there to remember someone who died”
“Who died?”
“I don’t know – just somebody who liked this place”
“Do we know somebody who died?”
“Yes. Grandma died, just before you were born…”

And so I tell Ben the story of his Grandma. I tell him what she was like, and how much she would have loved him. About how I promised to tell him all about her. I show him photos. We talk about Heaven and Jesus and how many cats Daddy and Grandma had when Daddy was a little boy. And what their names were. And are there cats in Heaven? (My answer is yes). And can Ben have a cat at home? (My answer is no).

Stories tell us who we are.
They tell us where we have come from.
They might hint at where we’re going.

Kids love stories. So do adults – we just forget that we like them so much.

Stories make great prayers for kids. Not just reading the Bible together, or retelling faith stories. We find God in all sorts of stories. God is there in Stick Man and Dear Zoo. God is found in Sarah and Duck, and Peppa Pig. Everywhere we hear stories of love and laughter, of loyalty and trust, of hope and generosity – there God is to be found.

Just as we know ourselves by our stories, so we know God by his stories. The stories we tell to make sense of the world, and to process life. These stories all tell us a little bit more about who God is, and why he is, and how and where and what he is. This stuff – identity, security, revelation, thanksgiving, hope – is the stuff of prayer.

I try to tell stories to my kids. We read picture books; watch films; make things up. I tell them where they have come from – and what is important and why?

And I try to listen. I listen to their own fantasies and dreams and anecdotes. We explore and adventure together through story, and offer it all to God as prayer.

When we lose our stories, we lose our lives. But wherever there are stories, there is God.

(And while we’re on it, check out the brilliant Storytime Service website!)

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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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Thin Places: A poem for the Transfiguration

You know a thin place when you pass through one. Somewhere in which people have prayed for a long time. Somewhere with a sense of perfect stillness. You might feel like you’re in a thin place when you visit a big church or cathedral, or the ruins of a monastery or other holy site. The atmosphere of a thin place is difficult to describe, and overwhelming to experience.

The story of a rabbi standing on a mountain top with his friends, and in a single moment being transformed by brilliant light, is a thin place story. It leaves me wondering whether thin places have a particular geography, or whether our lives are actually full of the potential of these moments, wherever we happen to be, as Heaven touches Earth?

Perhaps we are never far from a thin place.
Perhaps thin places are just longing for our attention.
Perhaps we need only to give them space, and they will find us.

This poem is an exploration of thin places: of their fragility and strength. I believe they are there to be inhabited, for a time, if only we stop and notice them.


Thin Places

The sun-bleached rainbow framed by heavy cloud.

A fleeting, fragile moment
That lifts eyes from Earth to Heaven beyond.
In an instant her curtain is drawn back
And she is stripped bare in brilliant light:
A glimmer of the promise
We heard whispered long ago.

The kindness of a stranger’s gentle smile.

It is good for us to be here,
Sheltered from death’s dark shadow
And the sting of dread that wakes us each new day.
Here, we are as we are:
Alive to Earth’s brilliant goodness;
Eyewitnesses to Heaven’s majesty.

The crash of waves along deserted sand.

This place is not for now:
The bubble bursts,
The curtain drops,
The moment fades.
This is a home too perfect; unready yet to hold
The fullness and frailty of all we must become.

The peace of death as pulse and breath are stilled.

We do not leave unchanged
If change is to become ourselves.
Ahead: a thousand moments of transfiguration,
Each one a death – and resurrection – in itself,
As we are both transformed and transform,
Sacred moment by sacred moment.

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee: a thin place.


I took some inspiration for this from Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet. It’s worth spending some time with. Here’s a glimpse…

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Eggs and Fish: A meditation for all whose prayers go unanswered

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

It’s not true.

God doesn’t always give.
We don’t always find.
The door doesn’t always open.

Who among us has not wept and pleaded in prayer; desperately seeking an answer from God?

Even our most noble, self-giving, and good hearted requests to God may be met with a wall of silence.

Giving up is an option:
God hasn’t heard me.
God hasn’t answered me.
God isn’t there.

If you need to give up, then stop here.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

For me, giving up on God is not an option.
I have lived with God too long.

So how do we deal with it when we pray for an egg and we’re handed a scorpion?
How can we go on with God, when the things we pray for don’t happen?
When the opposite happens?

Why does a good God seem to turn away when we cry for his help?

 

I don’t know.

 

I don’t know why some prayers are answered even as we speak them, yet others bounce off the ceiling and roll sadly to our feet.
I don’t understand the haphazard ways in which we hear “yes”, “no”, “maybe”.
Or silence.
I don’t know why God blesses some people in some ways with some answers.
And not others.

But I do know that every time I pray, prayer changes me.
Persistent prayer teaches me more about God, and more about my inner self.

What is it I truly desire?
Who do I believe God to be?
Where will I find happiness?
Who do I think is my true self?

Over time, prayer becomes an exploration of these questions.
Perhaps we find answers.
Perhaps we don’t.
Perhaps we discover better questions.

The biggest lesson I have learned about prayer is that persistent prayer, even 5 minutes a day, leads to peace.

And peace reframes our prayers.

God becomes not a benevolent and kindly old man who wants to slip a pound coin into our sweaty palm because he’s feeling especially generous one day.
Instead, God becomes a partner with us as we seek to grow, and change the world around us.

I don’t believe in a God who wants to be begged, pestered or nagged before he gives in to us with pity.

I believe in a God who has good gifts to give his people.
I believe in a God who calls us to join him in bringing those gifts to others.
I believe in a God who weeps with us in sorrow and laughs with us in joy.
I believe in a God who knows me intimately, who knows what I desire before I ask, who has blessed me richly in all I have.

Persistent prayer has taught me about this God.

I no longer pray just to get things from God.
When I do, I know I have regressed: I’m tired, depressed, beaten.

I pray because I love God and I love life.
I pray to change myself and change the world around me.
I pray to help me cope with a particular situation.
I pray because prayer is oxygen in this smog-filled place.

So if you’re that person, asking, seeking, knocking, and meeting only silence, then for the love of God keep going.

Pray as you can:
pray with words and sobs,
pictures and paint,
nature and dreams.
Just pray.

We won’t find the goodness and realness of God in God’s assent to our every whim, no matter how noble, how good, how selfless.

We find God’s goodness  when we persist in spending time with him, and find ourselves more fully transformed by prayer into who we truly are.

This is true gift.
This is real life.
This is the stuff of eggs and fish.

The downward spiral of spiritual apathy…

…or why we all feel so tired, unfulfilled and sad.

Do you ever have moments of emptiness that are impossible to fill?

Times where you pour good food, great sex and extravagant purchases into a black hole that refuses to be satisfied?
Feelings of inexplicable guilt that are impossible to assuage for more than a fleeting hour?
A desperate need to flee your circumstances in your quest for happiness?

The problem might be acedia.

Acedia is a disease of the soul. We are so ignorant of its existence, never mind the damage it can inflict, that we probably have never heard its name.

Acedia is the spiritual apathy that leads us away from what gives us life.
It is a neglect of the soul, a hardening of the heart, and an embrace of everything that stops us from knowing ourselves.

In his book Finding Happiness, Abbot Christopher Jamison unpacks why acedia is such a problem for us. He examines it in terms of monastic life:

“I know that a monk can be overwhelmed by spiritual exhaustion; is it worth persevering, they wonder. The thought grows that this way of life isn’t valid for me any longer, that my companions are not right and that I should be doing something else, not wasting my life here. As the discipline of the monastic life becomes distasteful, so it is slowly worn away: less prayer, less self-awareness and a growing rejection of the life of the community. Alongside this is often found the impulse to replace spiritual exercises with more and more good deeds.”

The symptoms of acedia include:
– restlessness
– downheartedness
– exhaustion
– a lack of peace
– a yearning to escape
– anxiety
– feeling uncentred and unfulfilled.

Jamison argues that disdain for the familiar and a desire to give up are at the heart of acedia.”

Sound familiar?

Whether we are religious or not, we neglect the inner life at our peril. We are part of and we perpetuate a culture where profit and success are cherished above everything that is sacrificed for them: relationships, peace, rest, fun, prayer and stillness. When we feel unfulfilled or guilty or restless, the temptation is to continue to flee from our inner self.

We fill our lives when we should be emptying them.
We stay on the treadmill when we should be hitting the stop button.

I have started to identify what I think is an acedia cycle in my own life:

acedia cycle

It starts well (1). I give time to prayer, stillness, contemplation and reading.

From this place of rest and refreshment, I am able to live and minister effectively and happily (2). A healthy inner life feeds a healthy outer life, and an active outer life is rooted in a healthy inner life.

But then eventually I will begin to neglect the inner life (3).
Perhaps a busy week or a change of routine means that my times of stillness are pushed out.
Perhaps I lose the discipline of regular reading, and I forget the value of words that nurture my soul.

This neglect takes me to a place of acedia (4).
I feel increasingly unfulfilled, and I seek fulfilment in my work.
Working hard means I start to feel tired.
When I feel tired, I feel guilty and frustrated.
I try to deal with my guilt by working harder (5).
When I work hard I feel self-satisfied, and perhaps smug.
And then I feel tired and guilty again.
The drive to work harder means rest and stillness become of little value, and I enter a downward spiral of guilt and overwork that leads eventually to…

Exhaustion, illness and burnout (6), which necessitate rest and recovery (7). In the past, it hasn’t been until this crisis moment that I have become aware of my habit of overwork.

I am learning to recognise the warning signs, but the moment this downward spiral begins is the moment that I need the greatest self-awareness, humility and discipline. It’s also the moment I most need to hear the challenge that comes from God and others: How did you get to be so busy?

And so I am left wondering:

  • What other destructive cycles have acedia at their heart?
    Greed and over indulgence?
    Consumerism and affluenza?
    Gambling and other addictions?
    Infidelity and unhealthy attitudes to sex?
    Others?
  • Are there people who live consistently in the downward spiral of acedia and never find freedom from it?
  • If you recognise yourself in any of this, what are the warning signs that you need to be aware of to regain a balance and nurture your inner life?

Jamison offers two remedies for acedia:

  • The first is to fill our minds with things that will nurture us: resist gossip, and don’t read rubbish. Instead, read books that nourish, and talk about things that build up.
  • The second is to devote time to prayer, meditation or reflection. This should be regular and disciplined. But I don’t think it has to be onerous. Halfway through the morning, I make a cup of coffee and take it in the garden. The ten minutes I spend there, silent and contemplative, give my soul enough nourishment to get through the rest of the day. In this way prayer becomes a time to be cherished, and not a millstone.

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Acedia afflicts us all, and it will take each of us a lifetime to overcome. However much we fall into its grasp, let us not be so ignorant of its dangers that we cannot even name the source of our unhappiness, our unsettledness, our guilt and our anxiety.

St Thomas the Apostle: A meditation for the faithless  

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.


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You are worried you are faithless
Because questions overwhelm certainty:
Heart-wrenching doubts that threaten to pull you
Away
From what, for one, fleeting moment,
Felt like truth.

Faith seems ungraspable
Slippery as sand through your hands.
You may hold a little, for a time,
And yet when you unwrap your clenched fist
What is left, but mere grains?

Do not worry about your questions:
Hear them
Cherish them
Sing them from the rooftops
Because faith and doubt are dancing partners
And there are greater threats to overcome.

Worry, instead, about your apathy
A spiritual sleepiness
That can’t be bothered to move words to action.

Worry about your shallow fears
Of failure, of imperfection, of humiliation
Which will bolster your ego and cripple your faith.

Worry about the certainty
That slams a door on dialogue
And silences the gentle wooing of the Spirit.

Worry about the damning shame
That shouts YOU ARE NO GOOD
And drowns out Vocation’s voices.

Worry about false security
The pillars of health and wealth that hide your need of faith:
One day, these pillars will crumble.

Worry about the need to control
And loosen your white knuckle hold on life:
Let go before control is snatched from you.

Worry about your worry
Spinning out of control
And refusing to be bound by loving reason.

But never worry about your questions
Never fear your unknowns
Never tame your explorations
And
Never rest
In your quest for faith.

 

The Annunciation: A meditation on partnering with God

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 the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


She could have said no, you know.
Even as the angel told her what would be, Mary still had a choice.
The angel waited for her response.

God sought Mary’s yes.
He wanted her permission, her assent.

Mary could not have done this alone.
But neither could God.

Nothing will be impossible with God, says the angel.
And nothing would have been possible without Mary.

Mary needed God.
God needed Mary.

God’s suggestion
and
Mary’s assent
heralded an alliance of Heaven and Earth.
A union so perfect, so complete, so potent, that it would set the world alight.

And so as Mary cradled that embryo – then foetus – then baby, with her body, so God himself cradled Mary.
She became overshadowed by the Most High: held, protected, empowered.

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Have I known moments of annunciation? Perhaps…

…a creeping feeling of what will be.
…a prompt to become more fully who I really am.
…a nudge towards my destiny.
…an invitation to partner with God and await what unfolds ahead of me.

I don’t have to say yes.
But are there things that God cannot do without my yes?

Do I ponder, perplexed and disturbed as Mary was, on how God might be using my own moments of annunciation – and my quiet submission to them – to change my own small corner of the world?

And do I know that I am cradled, even as I seek the courage to say “yes”?