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.

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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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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.

Catherine of Siena: A meditation on becoming yourself

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A clockwork check-up

We have a clockwork baby mobile. It has a dial that turns and coils a spring. At the release of a switch, controlled by cogs, the spring slowly uncoils itself and turns the mobile.

Sometimes, the mechanism gets stuck. The dial will no longer wind, but the cogs won’t turn and the switch will not release the spring.

If the mobile is unscrewed, the coiled spring bursts from the mechanism as it releases its tension, and the mobile spins frantically out of control until it dissipates the energy that it has held captive.

Our souls are a little bit like clockwork.

Things happen. We are wound up, and our complex mechanism of cogs: our emotions, social graces, spirituality, common sense, rest and relationships, deal with the energy that is generated. Under normal circumstances, we are able to release our tension appropriately, creatively, beautifully.

But sometimes, our mechanism is a bit battered. Over time, as we cycle through coiling and uncoiling our springs, we get out of sync with ourselves. The mechanism jams. The switch fails. Our spring gets tighter and tighter with no way of releasing the tension. Eventually, the energy has to go somewhere.

Perhaps we implode.
Perhaps we explode.
Perhaps we seize up completely.

Repairing a jammed clockwork mechanism is a simple task, but it takes a bit of time and care, and you need the right tools.

20160414_111528Can you give your own clockwork mechanism a check-up?
What winds you up?
What helps you to release tension healthily?
Are you feeling tightly wound at present?
What tools do you need to dismantle your own mechanism, release the tension, and reset the spring?

This too shall pass

This too shall pass is one of the proverbs I hold dear. I came to know it and love it after the birth of my second child. By then I had enough experience of parenting a newborn to know that the pain, the exhaustion and the anxiety of those first few weeks were fleeting, and would soon be gone.

And so here is a reflection, borne of my own experience of the tough times. If it’s helpful, I offer it humbly for your own meditation. If not, I hope you will find similar comfort in different words.

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This too shall pass.

THIS
Acknowledge the reality of what’s happening.
It is tough. Painful. Perhaps unbearable.
Name the feelings that it arouses.
Own them. Dwell within them.
Don’t suppress your emotions.
Don’t ignore how you feel.
Listen to your soul.
Talk about it, even to yourself.
Journal it.
Pray it.
If it’s awful, say that aloud.
Don’t try to flee from this moment.

TOO
You have been here before.
You have dealt with similar emotions.
Similar awfulness.
Past experience has equipped you to cope with this.
You may not feel you can deal with this, but you can.
This place may not be as new as it feels.
Build on what you learned last time you were here.
Stretch your resilience to new depths.
Like you did last time.

SHALL
The present moment is not everything.
Your current feelings are not the sum of you.
Detach and observe.
Don’t get swamped by that cloud of despair.
The future still has gifts to give you.
The future calls you to offer gifts for others.
Stay in the present, but keep an eye on all that is to come.
Promise and hope will follow after.
Events evolve, feelings change.
It won’t be the same by next week. Next month. Next year.
Not may. Not won’t. But shall.

PASS
This will leave you be, eventually.
Time will move on.
New developments will come.
You will find ways to adapt and survive and grow.
Circumstances will alter.
New strength will find you.
It might get tougher.
It might not.
You will change.
As clouds pass over the mountain tops, so this will pass over you.

This too shall pass.

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Losing my religion?

At times I have faced serious, faith-denying doubts. Times of extended sleeplessness and frightened, agonised wrestling with big questions. One of these moments happened soon after I married; another soon after I had children. Both triggered by the uncertainty that comes after a major life change; the burden of new responsibility as my life became intimately entwined with another, and the crushing knowledge that all relationships end in grief. Both times I had to renegotiate my faith, learning to trust God with the lives of these people who are so precious to me.

So I read this blog by Mandy Jackson-Beverly with a good amount of nodding. Mandy’s path is her own, and yet many of us have walked a similar way before, and will do so again.

Many of us know what it is like to be thrown into an abyss of doubt, falling through spiritual nothingness and not knowing who or what will catch us.

Many of us know what it is like to have the scaffold of faith, so carefully built, collapse in an instant.

Many of us know what it is like to live with fear, day after day, that everything we have placed our trust in will turn out to be an elaborate lie and a waste of time.

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But are these experiences about losing our faith?

Mandy’s blog is fairly pessimistic, with a glimmer of hope. She talks in terms of growing up and moving on from religion. Something that was so integral to her early life, through an exploration of spirituality that eventually “vanished”, becomes folly in later life.

How many of us feel like we “grow out of” our religion and move on with life?

What if the fears and questions that accelerate our growing agnosticism are not about doubt and loss of faith, but about deepening our experience of and relationship with God?

Once I had kids, I discovered a dark place that lay beyond the realm of my faith and spirituality. A place where I didn’t need God in order to make sense of things. A place where I could find things other than God to explain and give purpose to life. And this was not liberating, but frightening. This was about no longer needing everything that, to this point, I had built my life around. I was dismantling my scaffolding.

It took someone else to turn my fear around. They helped me see that this wasn’t about moving beyond a need for God. It was about finding God at work in new places and new people. In everything that might have replaced God, I found him waiting. I no longer needed the scaffolding I had built. I had found something new.

Perhaps in time this new scaffolding will also need to be taken down, to make way again.

Life takes us to some frightening places. Watching someone we love die is such a place. Mandy is honest about the raw hopelessness of seeing her mum’s suffering and death. And yet, within the darkness of her pain is a faint glimmer of hope. In a brief moment, she “felt something”.

I think that this is how it is. We question, we fear, we worry. And then, in one fleeting, fragile moment, we feel something.

And then it is gone.

But it was definitely there.

What is that “something”? What I do know is that it is special, faith-affirming and life-changing. Those I walk alongside in difficult times often speak of its power. Most of us have a story of the “something” moments.

In all our fear and emptiness, amongst our questions and anxiety, perhaps we can allow our attention to rest on those glimmers of “something”.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12