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. 

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Chatter

We’re full of it aren’t we?

Chit chat chatter.

I have been glued to BBC iPlayer recently for their series on BBC called Retreat: Meditations From a MonasteryIt’s compulsive watching: an hour during which absolutely nothing happens. Nothing and everything. I won’t spoil it. Watch it!

But one thing that struck me was the lack of chatter. It brought back memories of the “silent hour” we used to hold every Wednesday morning at theological college. For that hour, we were asked not to speak to one another; not to make noise; not to greet or even acknowledge one another. We were to give that hour completely to prayer and reflection.  To direct our attention to God, and to our inner self. We were liberated from chatter: it was wonderful.

The problem is, we are very good at chatter. We fill silence before it fills us. We try and generate companionship with small talk, and we small talk to make ourselves feel better. Of course, there is a time for this. But silence can be companionable too. The deeper silence of the brothers that featured on the BBC 4 series was inspiring. Their companionship was so deep, and they were so attuned to themselves and to one another, that there was no need for chatter. Small talk was useless, and each community modelled ways of living alongside one another without feeling compelled to fill the silence.

What we didn’t see was how this affected the quality of conversation that the brothers shared. I can guess, from my own experience of silence and community, that those conversations would have been shorter, deeper, and more life-giving that any small talk.

But chatter doesn’t just  happen “out there”, does it?

I have recently started a discipline of silence as my first task of the day. Before anyone else is awake, before the sun is up, there is silence.

Outwardly.

Inwardly, my mind, flabby as it is from being out of the silent habit, chatters on and on. I am learning to rein in my inner chatter. Small minds talk small. Even to themselves.

I was aware of this inner chatter recently as I led a congregation in 2 minutes’ silence on Remembrance Sunday. Outwardly, we were silent. But inwardly? As a ‘holder of the space’ I was conscious of my own chatter amidst my solemn reflection: Will I time the silence right? Will the recorded music work? Is everyone ok? Will my children keep quiet? 

(Ironically, perhaps, the children were as silent and still as any of us, and they were perhaps much better, too, at silencing their inner chatter. What example we could take from them!).

Chatter. We do it to make ourselves feel better. And we do it because it’s bad habit. I wonder what deep-talk we might achieve if we manage to silence our small talk? And I wonder what inner peace we might find, if our minds can break their habit of chatter?

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Give yourself a break: A reflection for Advent

Advent begins this week, and all around are the dawning signs of Christmas. Lights and trees go up, cards are written and greetings sent, presents are wrapped and parties are planned. 

I used to think it was important to resist this creep of Christmas for as long as possible, reserving Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration to come. But I reached Christmas Day feeling a little like I had missed the party.

There is a paradox. The Church prepares to celebrate the arrival of God in the most fragile of wrappings, while around us the world unwraps that gift before the big day. Some of us worry that the timing is all wrong. 

But the gift is still the same. 

If our pious preparation causes us to resist the celebrations around us, we miss out on some of the joy. Is this any better than being seduced by the frenzied consumerism of Christmas that is equally as likely to lead us to miss the point? 

The reflection below is an attempt to encourage you – and me – to welcome the best of both. To prepare once again to receive God, and to create space and stillness in the coming weeks for that. But also to embrace the celebrations that are beginning around us as they happen – however premature we feel they are – as the world receives its greatest gift: the one who once a year warms our hearts and joins us in one voice of Christmas song.

This Advent – give yourself a break.

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Give yourself a break:
Permission to pause
And carve out a space
Where you alone can rest
And rediscover small voices
Hushed by the frenzied pace of life.

Give yourself a break:
Just one moment in a day
To waste time away, and
Notice
Your stillness working to make straight
The tangled paths to your heart.

Give yourself a break:
Time to soak in pools of reassurance, as
Sacred Anticipation
Meets
Joyous Festivity
And the long-awaited celebration swells around you
In flushed faces and shimmering trees.

Give yourself a break:
And hear the ancient promises
As Redemption’s stories are reimagined and retold
Through gifts exchanged and carols sung
And your emptiness is filled
With the hope and joy of a promised child, who
For just a moment,
Becomes the centre of our gaze.

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.

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.

Julian of Norwich: A meditation on wholeness

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.


God did not say ‘You will not have a difficult time; you will not be burdened; you will not be distressed’, but he said, ‘You will not be overcome’. God wants us to pay attention to these words so that we can always be strong in trust, in wellbeing and in woe. God loves us and delights in us, so he wants us to love him and delight in him, and trust him completely, and all shall be well.

Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 68

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 All shall be well.

How much did she cling to these words as she drifted in and out of sleep?
How much did they echo deep inside her mind, as she felt vaguely the priest’s anointing thumb press firmly on her forehead?

Did they seem solid and full of promise?
Or hollow shadows of a life that could have been?

Did her own soul feel the warm comfort of words that would shine so much light into the dark suffering of others?

In the years that followed, was it easier for her to speak these words to those who sought her counsel, and God’s love, than it was for her to hear them herself and believe?

All shall be well.

Not words of empty, saccharine nothingness.
Not a rebuke to end our complaining and silence our pain.
But a precious truth wrought by the wrestling of one near to death and close to God.

All shall be well.

Except sometimes, all is not well.

What is the “all” in my life?
Which parts of me need liberating, transforming, redeeming?

Even the darkest, most twisted and disturbing parts of me are not beyond redemption.
Just as Julian’s hours of darkness birthed a spiritual movement, so the most awful things I face may bring surprising liberation.

No experience is wasted.
Nothing will be left behind; cast off as meaningless.
All shall be made well, and all that is well shall make me whole.

All shall be well.

This is not trite comfort.
It comes at a cost.

It asks me to embrace every part of myself and my story.
It asks me to embrace those around me.
There are no lost causes.
There are no wasted moments.

Are there parts of my life I would rather turn from, suppress, be free of?
Are there people in my life I would rather turn from, suppress, be free of?
What would give me the courage to believe that these could be made well?

Can I offer all that I have been, all that I am, and all that I will be, placing myself into God’s hands?
Can I truly trust, in wellbeing and in woe, that all shall be well?

All shall be well.

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.