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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“Called” or “named”? Finding language of vocation for the second half of life

I recently caught up with my wonderful Spiritual Director, and we had what might be considered a “bread and butter” SD session around discernment, vocation, calling and desire. In the interest of working out loud, what follows is some of my ongoing reflection on what we shared. Some of it is pertinent to me personally, and some of it is more hypothetical and related to my interest in the vocations of others (it is, of course, what I, as a Priest, Spiritual Director, Assistant DDO, parent, and friend spend a large amount of my time talking about!). However, I’ve written entirely in the first person below, to enable these reflections to be less abstract.


We started by talking about vocation and some of the questions I wrestle with: for myself or for others. A list of these questions might look like this:

How do I make good decisions?
How do I discern where I am supposed to be?
How do I discern what I am supposed to do?
How do I discern who I am supposed to be?
How do I plan for the future?
How do I prepare for opportunities that are as yet, unseen?
How do I know when it is right to disrupt my settledness, to deviate from a particular path, to try something new or to recommit to something old?
What do I mean when I say “God has called me”?
Is it possible to go against God’s call?
Is it possible to find I have put myself, by choice, into the wrong place?
When it comes to discerning my vocation, is it possible to make a mistake? 
Will I mishear or misunderstand what is being asked of me?

Looking at this list, these questions are mostly concerned with the future. They are anxious questions. They assume that there are “right” paths and “wrong” paths. They fear being left behind or making mistakes. They assume that there is little value in the present moment; that I exist almost wholly for some future destiny; that the best is yet to come. They are questions that are anxious to manipulate time, to control outcomes and to impose a plan on my life.

I have been shaped by the theory, first talked of by Jung but taught more extensively in terms of spirituality by Richard Rohr, that we live life in two halves, summarised as thus:

The first half of life is concerned with establishing my place in the world. I am concerned with discovering who I am and what my life’s aims are. Rohr describes this as building a container that will hold life for me.

The second half of life is about stripping away this identity and the security it brings. It’s about finding a deeper sense of purpose, and being less concerned with myself, at least on a superficial level. If the first half of life is about building the container, the second half of life is about filling that container.

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In terms of vocation, I am beginning to wonder whether the language of “calling” is a language for the first half of life. The questions listed above are first-half-of-life questions. This language, and these questions, assume that I have a particular task or destiny. They construct God as an omnipotent, omniscient being who has a plan for me and is waiting for me to respond to the divine beckon as I am led on through the next door.

There is nothing wrong with seeing vocation in this way. These questions are good and noble, and the language of “calling” is a helpful way to articulate them. But it is a language for building the container, not for filling it. It is a language that develops self awareness, enables experience, discovers God, builds trust, and teaches about failure and success.

What happens when this language has run its course?
How do I think of vocation as I journey towards the second half of life?
How do I articulate these issues without using the language of “calling”?

Suddenly, vocation becomes much harder to articulate. Language of “calling” is safe, secure, tangible, definite. Beyond this, the language I use to talk about vocation becomes much more intuitive, ethereal, and elusive. It becomes a language of being, loving, and just knowing.

And if the language of “calling” and the questions I started with are concerned with the future, so being, loving, and just knowing are a language for the present moment. Talking about vocation in this way slows us down and draws us back. It offers a pause in which we can rest and listen.

No longer is vocation about fear, anxiety or anticipation of what might happen, but about security and trust with what just is. Perhaps vocation, in part, is about the gift of the present moment. Perhaps this is an articulation of vocation in the second half of life.

And so when decisions demand an answer, when the future is suddenly the present, how do I discern what next? Vocation in the second half of life is not about a five year plan or a response to a call. Instead, it’s about attentiveness, faithfulness, and being present to what is happening now. If vocation is rooted in God-given desire (and I think it is) then the dominant question for vocation is “what do I desire now?” and not “what do I think I might desire in 6 months or 5 years?”

And so what of a vocational language for the second half of life? Along with being, loving and just knowing, I’d like to try out naming for a while.

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Isaiah 43:1

And so here’s a second-half-of-life vocational question for the present moment:

What and who defines my identity and my purpose right now?

And I suspect that the answer is rooted in God’s tender loving naming of me.

Now my heart’s desire is to know you more
To be found in you and known as yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness
From ‘Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)’ by Graham Kendrick

That seems like a good place to root any exploration of vocation. But this is just the start. If you’re reading this then I want to know what you think. Let me know!

Hold on: A reflection for the dark days

Psalm 88: Stark, honest, raw. It joins voices of despair that span place and time. It gives permission to lament, and it carves a space for unresolved sorrow. It resists shallow niceties and bland platitudes.

The time between Good Friday and Easter Day is unresolved time. The Messiah is dead; the curtain is torn (but what does that mean?); God is silent. I wonder how many of us live in this unresolved, painful place, not just this weekend, but through much of the year. How many of us hang between darkness and resolution?

Here is a reflection for all of you who are holding on by your fingertips, as you plummet through this liminal space.


Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Psalm 88:12

An uncertain glance.
A silent tear.
Darkness rises, chokes and blinds.

It is finished,
And you launch into the unknown
Falling through the nothingness of what next?
Into the endless void of where now?

Fear sings her taunts
And Doubt dances on the place you used to stand:
What will catch you?
Who will save you?

In the land of forgetfulness
No memory sustains you
No story reminds you
No music restores you.

Going back is not an option:
That door has closed.
Beasts of regret and fires of what if? lie behind.

But you can go on.

Is there a glimmer in the darkness?
A seed planted but long forgotten?
A fresh shoot of – what?

You wait.
You watch.
You hope.

And then you step forward
Because forward is the only way to go.

Hold on, weary one.
Cling to the echo of a promise you have never understood.
Remember the hope you once passed by.
Believe that beyond what you know, there is a more brilliant future dawning.

Look up.
Look back.
Then travel on.

It’s night time, but morning is coming.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79

 

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Clouds and Mountain Tops

As Lent draws in this week, Sunday’s Gospel reading takes us back to the Transfiguration, perhaps the ultimate account of a “thin place”. The Old Testament reading is that of Moses, ascending a mountain and approaching fire through cloud to meet with God. 

Just as the mountains are covered by cloud, so these encounters of humans with God are shrouded in mystery.

What is it like to see God face to face?
To hear God’s voice?
To carry the weight of responsibility for his people?
To dwell on the mountain, within the cloud and fire of his presence?

Clouds and mountain tops.
Mystery and glory.

I shared a poem on this blog a few months ago, reproduced below, which explores the thin places we encounter in day to day life: ordinary moments in which we glimpse, just for a second, the Extraordinary. Perhaps mountain top moments are not as elusive as they seem. Perhaps to see God in the everyday: in the people we love and the strangers we pass; in the mundane tasks we complete and the many others we fail at; is as full of mystery and glory as finding God up a mountain in cloud and fire.

And so I offer this poem again, returning to the mystery of the Transfiguration, as 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 transform and are transformed,
Sacred moment by sacred moment.

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Contemplative Leadership

20170112_142438Along with several colleagues, I have recently discovered Keith Lamdin’s Finding Your Leadership Style. Keith’s work is full of common sense, optimism, realism and encouragement. He examines different paradigms of leader: the monarch, the warrior, the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet. Each of us, he argues, will have a dominant paradigm in our leadership (and, he says, if leadership is “influencing others”, then anyone can do it and most do). David Herbert has written a helpful overview of Keith’s book in his blog post Leadership Styles and a Political Divide.

If there was a part of the book that was disappointing, it was the chapter on contemplative leadership, which seemed to lack detail and depth. Keith recognises a growing desire in church ministers to connect more fully with this paradigm and to claim something absolutely distinctive for Christian leadership. He acknowledges the core value of contemplative living as holding God in your heart and knowing that you are precious… and loved for who you are, and yet by the end of the chapter I was left wondering what he felt contemplative leadership might look like, or why it is needed.

Well-rested leaders

In my own ministry, I often return to Wayne Muller’s quote on Sabbath: The world longs for the generosity of a well-rested people. Here, I interpret “rest” not necessarily as sleep or holiday, but as the radical, life-giving, world-changing rest that we find at the heart of life with God. Rest that relieves us from the burdens of isolation, overwork, and self-interest, and places us in a secure centre from which we interact with and relate to the world around us. It’s the rest that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Rest (in this sense) is at the heart of the contemplative life. It is the rest that the world craves for its people. Rest enables us to be outward looking, non-anxious, compassionate, unhurried, positive, unruled by our ego, and champions of the other. These are values I see rarely in leaders. They are generosity in action.

The contemplative life

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster identifies seven “characteristics and movements” of the contemplative life (words in italics are his):

Love: A deepening love for God. A love that is sometimes intense, and sometimes cold, but deepens and strengthens over time.
Peace: A firmness of life orientation that grounds us. This is not a feeling of freedom from anxiety and pressure, but rather a feeling of security and centredness within it.
Delight: A sense of friendship and fun in our relationship with God: God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God.
Emptiness: A dissatisfied satisfaction. A sense of frustration within the intense highs of contemplative living. This might be a yearning, an emptiness, a dryness or a darkness.
Fire: A growing, painful knowledge of everything within us that doesn’t please God, and an awareness of his purifying work within us.
Wisdom: A deepening knowledge of God: not intellectualism, but a knowing and inflowing of God himself.
Transformation: The gradual changes within as God captures our heart, will, mind, imagination and passions.

Contemplative leadership

Mary is often cited as an example of a contemplative leader: known as the God bearer, she bore Christ not only in her womb, but in all the sufferings and heartache that came with nurturing a beloved child who also happened to be God incarnate. Her life and ministry were rooted in inner contemplation. Amidst the activity that surrounded her new born baby, there was a simplicity in her own response: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

As Keith Lamdin notes in passing, the metaphor of God-bearer is a good one for contemplative leadership. If, as Richard Foster argues, a potential peril of the contemplative tradition is a separation from the real world, and a lack of engagement with real life issues, perhaps contemplative leaders are those who manage to do both: to gently nurture and fiercely protect their inner life, while allowing God to flow out from that life and into the world. Contemplative leaders become the God bearers within our communities. Another way of phrasing this might be (as many contemplative traditions do) active contemplation.

So what might contemplative leadership look like in the present-day? I wonder if these characteristics are a good place to start, although there will be more:

Awareness. Contemplative leaders are growing in their awareness of God, self and other. They manage their own inner life effectively, and deal with their own negative emotions and reactions (or seek help in doing so). They are expert listeners and observers, and are able to identify where God might be at work in any number of situations. And they often help those they lead to identify and work on spiritual, emotional and material blind spots, bringing God into the ordinary, the painful and the hopeless.

Prayer. Contemplative leaders have a prayer life rooted not in cerebral knowledge, but in hard-won experience. Their prayers will often go beyond words (indeed, words may be a barrier to prayer) but this enables them to pray in any number of ways and moments. Just as contemplative leaders are God bearers, so they become people bearers, holding in prayer the lost, the lonely, the suffering. The practice they devote to prayer in private enables their whole living to become prayer.

Creativity. Contemplative leaders usually have active imaginations and lively dreams! They give time and attention to thinking creatively about problems and situations, and the space they allow themselves enables a better response than ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Fresh expressions of faith and worship are rooted in this time alone for the contemplative leader to reflect and create. The active imagination of the contemplative allows for possibilities for God to minister in ways not otherwise enabled. (Keith Lamdin discusses dreams and visions as an expression of the prophetic paradigm, but I wonder if they are perhaps more an expression of the contemplative?)

Depth. Contemplative leaders do not offer quick, superficial fixes. Their response – to God and to others – is measured and thoughtful. This can be frustrating for those being led in the age of the instantaneous. Often problems arise, and are addressed and dealt with more quickly than the contemplative can sit down to consider them. Their own response to a problem will be to step back, to reflect, to consult and to wait. If they are allowed time to do this, they will often find solutions that are more deeply effective and longer lasting than the quick fix. The challenge for the contemplative leader is to make themselves heard, and persuade others to slow down and allow time for a deeper solution to emerge.

Security. Contemplative leaders are rooted in God, and devoted to nurturing attention to God above all else. This growing awareness of God and their own place within his love enables them to be centred and secure. Because of this groundedness, contemplative leaders are perhaps more able than other paradigms to lead in ways that are differentiated and non-anxious. This, in turn, enables the community as a whole to flourish free of anxiety. A secure leaders forms a secure people. For more on this see Edwin Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership. Because of their centredness, contemplative leaders are strong leaders, but not in the ways we would expect: their strength manifests inwardly as much as outwardly.

Leading by example

Every person is called to contemplation. Every person deserves to give time to nurturing the inner life. As we become more attentive to God within us, so we notice him more around us and beyond us. Contemplative leaders help us, by their example, to pay attention: to God, to ourselves, and to others. Attention, depth of character, and love are increasingly absent from modern life, and so who better than the contemplative leaders among us to draw us back to our still centre? In the coming years, contemplative leadership could be a prophetic task for the whole church, if we were equipped and ready to offer this to the world.

I have not only repeated the affirmation that contemplation is real, but I have insisted on its simplicity, sobriety, humility, and its integration in normal Christian life.
Thomas Merton.

The ghosts of Christmas: A reflection on hauntings and hope

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church, Timperley, for the First Communion of Christmas 2016.


You’re probably familiar with the story of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. Written and set in Victorian London, Dickens tells the story of miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. Over a series of evenings, Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and then by ghosts of his past, present and future.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood and youth, showing how he was once a warmer and gentler soul, but that as he became increasingly miserly, so he began to forfeit everything good in his life. The Ghost of Christmas Present opens Scrooge’s eyes to the plight of others who live around him, especially his employee Bob Cratchit and Bob’s son, Tiny Tim. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the moment of his own death: the end of a life that, while full of wealth, was empty, futile and despised by all. Scrooge wakes from this final dream a changed man, and you will know, or can guess, how the story ends.

What better time than Christmas Eve to revisit this story, evocative as it is of Victorian Christmases and the virtues it extols of generosity, goodwill and friendship? At Christmas, more than other times, we come face to face with our past, present and future. This may stir within us both great joy, and deep sadness.

I wonder what our own ghosts of the past, present and future might say to us? I’m sure that none of us are quite as miserly as Scrooge, but I do wonder whether each of us is haunted by our own regret, anxiety and fear. Equally, we will each hold onto treasured memories from past Christmases, and hopes for what future Christmases might have in store.

If you are like me, you are most likely haunted by these ghosts in the middle hours of the night. The moments when sleep evades you, and past memories or future worries seem overwhelming. It can be very difficult to let go of past mistakes: the hurts we have caused, the wrong choices we have made, the relationships we have damaged. And worries about the present or the future can seem endless at 3am. A nagging sense that life isn’t quite as we hoped it would be. As we planned it to be.

Perhaps, like Scrooge, we become tormented by all that has happened, or the fear of what will happen. Perhaps we even wake up with a fresh resolve to live a different way, or atone for a past mistake. Does our anxiety push us so fast into the future, that we forget to cherish the present, which soon becomes the longed-for past?

Every time we walk into church, we are met by our past and our future. For all of us who are baptised, our Christian journey is rooted here in church with the presence of the font, or baptistery. Every time we come, we see the font and we are reminded of our own beginning – our baptism into Christ’s light – and everything that has happened since through which he has walked alongside us.

And every time we come, we see the table, and we are reminded of our future hope. As we gather around that table to share the bread and wine, we receive a foretaste of the feast that awaits us in God’s eternal Kingdom. As we gather around the table, we don’t do so alone. We meet in the company of all those who have gone before us, and all those who will come after us. Holy Communion unites us with all God’s saints, as we look forward to a day when we will feast with them at the table in Heaven.

We live in a strange time. The liminal, transitional, suspended space of the “then” and the “not yet”. Something happened, in that manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Something life-changing, world-changing – as choirs of angels lit up the sky and shepherds and kings were drawn and invited to worship the first born child of a humble Jewish carpenter family. It happened.

Tonight, we place God – the baby in whom all our hope is founded – into the manger.

But he doesn’t stay there.

God’s plan is still unfolding. His kingdom is still growing. You and I, simply by being here in this church tonight, are part of that expanding, life-changing, unstoppable plan. 

In all our regret and anxiety and fear, God uses us and God changes us. We are a people who are always on the move. The Christmas that you and I celebrate this year will not be the Christmas we celebrated last year, nor the Christmas we celebrate next year. We have changed, and we will change. We are not the people we were last year. And this moving is the faithful work of God’s Spirit within each of us, whether we know it or not, as we change to become more and more people of the Light.

Never mind the ghosts of past, present and future that haunt us. On this most holy of nights, God holds the darkness of their taunts: the regret and anxiety and fear, and fills that darkness with his marvellous light. And so I wonder what Christ – not a baby now – but risen, ascended and enthroned in Heaven, might say to us about our past, present and future? I don’t know, and perhaps the answer is different for each of us. But to me, I think God might say:

About the past: “Let it go. I forgive you. Forgive yourself”.
About the present: “Trust me and don’t rush”.
About the future: “All shall be well”.

Perhaps in a few moments of silence, you might like to invite God to speak to you the words of encouragement, affirmation and love that you need to hear tonight.

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Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.

On darkness

This morning I preached at our joint All Age service about darkness. This afternoon I was heartened to read this, by James Martin SJ, about newly-canonised Mother Teresa and her own battle with spiritual darkness.

What follows are some improvisations on the words I shared today.


I’m afraid – not of the dark – but of darkness.
This darkness is difficult to describe.
It is…

The darkness of depression and anxiety that creeps up on me sometimes.
The darkness of knowing that I might fail: in my parenting, in my ministry, or some other area.
The darkness of a fear that grips when I hear of more violence, more hate, more terror in the world around.
The darkness of thinking that this might be all that there is.
The darkness of a world without life, a tragedy without hope, a death without resurrection.

It is the darkness that lurks, as Doctor Who warns Amy Pond,

Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look. The corner of your eye.

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It is a darkness described by Mother Teresa:

In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.

This darkness is very real and frightening.

Anyone who has wrestled with God – or God’s absence – in the long hours of night will know the suffocating, crushing, oppressive feeling of being surrounded by a darkness that is more than an absence of light.

This darkness is not right.
This darkness is not peaceable or calm.
This darkness is not harmless.

There is something in this darkness that is a theology without a language.
We barely talk about it, maybe because we are scared or embarrassed, or possibly because we don’t need to give it attention beyond that which it demands.

This is the darkness of spiritual warfare, spiritual battle, spiritual oppression.
It chokes, it robs us of life, it cuts us off from all that is holy.
It tells us of God’s absence, of love’s failure, of hope’s flight.

And yet, paradoxically, it is a darkness that I know more deeply the nearer I draw to God.
In this way, spiritual darkness is vocational.

With each glimpse of God, another small part of his kingdom is illuminated.
We see the good, and the bad.
The redeemed, and the not yet.
The light, and the darkness.

With each whisper from the Holy Spirit, we hear a little of her wordless groaning of intercession.
We hear cries of joy and pain.
Of laughter and sorrow.
Of relief and grief.

Perhaps only in the darkness do we see how much we need the light of Christ.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we come to know prayer as throwing ourselves on the mercy of God and saying I cannot live this life alone. I need God to get me through.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we feel most deeply the pain of those around us, and find the resources and compassion to bring light to the darkness of another.

This darkness is not from God.
It is more than God’s absence.
Yet with God’s presence, it flees.

Perhaps this darkness is always there, always threatening, always looming, but never victorious.

The closer we draw to God, the more we know love, light and hope.
Yet the more we know these things, the more we are called to journey through the darkness that they will one day defeat.

If you’re in darkness, hang in there. Shout prayers and scripture and the name of Christ at whatever lurks in the corner of your eye, right where you never want to look, and it will flee.

 St Patrick’s Breastplate
Christ be with me, Christ within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort me and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.

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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