Monday, 29 December 2014

In and out of the water

I have a few days off this week as a post-Christmas break. Given how busy the last couple of months have been, I feel like I really need it. However, it's proving very difficult to get work out of my mind.

For Christmas, a dear friend bought my wife and I a set of wonderful Druid Animal Oracle cards. We dipped into them this morning, to see what wisdom they might bring. Here is the card I drew:

The booklet which accompanies the cards gives this explanation of the meaning of the Frog card:

... unites the elements of water and earth, bringing joy, delight and healing in its singing and hopping, and leading you to the sacred spring  from which you may be refreshed and renewed... 
Nothing is what it appears to be, and life is more fun than you at first supposed!.. Look for the beauty and the magic behind appearances.

In five days' time, I will be back at work (and, to prepare for that, I may have to fit in some work even while I'm 'off'). I hope, in the short time between now and then, I can find time to linger by the sacred spring and that, despite myself, I can find the magic and fun behind the first appearances.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A different season

There is something about this time of year that feels different. It's not just the onset of Christmas, nor even (for those that observe it) the preceding weeks of Advent, though it is connected to both of those seasons. I think that it's partly shaped by the change in the light (darker mornings and evenings, longer nights) and the weather (colder, wetter, greyer) - two things which I feel increasingly sensitive to. As these things change around us, I've noticed that I feel differently about certain everyday things. For example:

Music: at this time of year (it's currently mid-December) I find that I need to listen to quieter, older music. I veer towards voice-led pieces in minor keys - things that I imagine to have been originally sung in the hall of the Manor house at the edge of a deep wood, or sung around the Winter Solstice fire. Or I seek out solo voices singing lullabies which were written by moonlight on a lute. My usual playlist of 70s classic rock and progressive metal (it exists - look it up!) will not work at this time of year (except, perhaps, for a few tracks on the ever-wonderful Songs from the Wood): it's either too brash or too complex; too obvious or too new; too epic or too demanding.

Shops: a mixed blessing - at this time of year they need us, and we need them. But I sometimes find it hard to like anything they sell, or I begin to tell myself that I could make such-and-such an item myself for a fraction of the cost ('All I would need is six metres of red ribbon, four of purple, a dozen silver bells, a square metre of green felt, pine cones, holly leaves, driftwood, needles, strong thread, and an apprentice with three years' experience of theatre set design and I'd be done!'). More realistically, I find myself being drawn to things friends of mine have made with their own hands and are selling as gifts (God bless them, every one).

Work: for an Anglican priest this time of year is going to be busy: there are countless Advent and Christmas events and services, plus the preparation each once requires, to swiftly fill the diary. But there are still emails and meetings, rotas and reports, and it is these that feel the most draining, and which keep us out of step with the season. It feels that we would benefit more from being with people than from communicating at a distance; gain more from sitting together at tables than being occupied at desks. Whatever our work, could there be more giving of practical help and fewer online chores?

There seems to be something about this time of year that draws us to quieter and simpler things. Perhaps it's something to do with being in a season which throws us back onto our own resources a bit more. Or perhaps the stripped-back state of the natural world helps us to appreciate the richness of a hand-made item or the quietness of an ancient song? Or are we more inclined to invest ourselves in making and creating because it brings us back to the limits and opportunities of what and who we are as humans?


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

In The House of Tom Bombadil (or, at least, Next Door)

One of the stories that most inspires me, and informs the way that I look at the world, is The Lord of The Rings. I have read it many times over, and often dip back into it to re-read (re-re-re-re-read?) a favourite passage. Sometimes, I just find that I am in the mood to spend an afternoon in the Shire, or to lose myself in the trees of Fangorn Forest, or to stand on the ramparts of Helm's Deep. It's a short trip, and one which I always find rewarding.

Today, however, I find myself longing for the company of the character which I find to be the most intriguing in the tale: Tom Bombadil. And why not? Today's weather provides the perfect motivation for such an encounter: wet, chilly and rather stay-at-home. A very simliar forecast to that which the hobbits found during their stay at Tom's house:

The upper wind settled in the West and deeper and wetter clouds rolled up to spill their laden rain on the bare heads of the Downs. Nothing could be seen all round the house but falling water. Frodo stood near the open door and watched the white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley.

In The House of Tom Bombadil, The Fellowship of the Ring.

It is never made clear in the story (perhaps intentionally) who Tom Bombadil actually is. There are many theories which suggest, among other things, that Tom is either an elf,  a spirit or even the creator of Middle Earth. There are one or two clues in the text, but even these make it apparent that Tom is not to be pinned down. Not long after their arrival at the house, Frodo asks Goldberry (Tom's wife? Even this is not clear!) who Tom is:

'Fair Lady!' said Frodo again after a while. 'Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?'
'He is,' said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. 'He is, as you have seen him,' she said in answer to his look. 'He is the Master of wood, water and hill.'

In The House of Tom Bombadil, The Fellowship of the Ring.

There is here a suggestion that Tolkien may be connecting Tom to other myths - perhaps Tom is Middle Earth's Jack-in-the-Green, or Green Man? However, the continuing conversation between Frodo and Goldberry suggests that even this is not the whole truth about Tom:

'Then all this strange land belongs to him?'
'No indeed!' she answered, and her smile faded. 'That would indeed be a burden,' she added in a low voice, as if to herself. 'The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is the master.' 

Even a direct question from Frodo to Tom himself leaves more questions than answers:

'Who are you, Master?' he asked.
'Eh, what?' said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. 'Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that's what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn...'

In The House of Tom Bombadil, The Fellowship of the Ring.

It is not surprising that Tom does not appear in Peter Jackson's wonderful films. In many ways, the hobbits' visit to Tom's house is something of a diversion, even in the book, though a mysterious and wonderful one. In a film, there is little room for anything which does not directly serve the plot, especially when one is adapting a book of over a thousand pages for the screen.

There is no obvious place for Tom in the films, despite their relative faithfulness to Tolkien's text. He is too ambiguous for us, too hard to get hold of, too full of wonder. That, surely, is why he is so intriguing and why, on a rainy October Tuesday, with the Holly branches full of berries and the Beech leaves tumbling to the ground, Tom's house is the place to be. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Of altars and shrines

Something I've been doing for quite a while now, albeit on a small scale, is building altars. OK, yes, I'm a Christian priest, working in churches at the 'higher' end of things, so altars are, quite literally, part of my everyday life. But I'm thinking about something a little different here...

I have recently found myself drawn to collecting together significant items, pictures and 'found objects' and assembling them to create an altar or 'shrine'. Some of these are kept more or less in the same state, and in one place, whilst others are built a little more spontaneously, and rearranged or re-located after a while.

For example, here is the permanent altar which is in my study:

I use this altar as a focus for my prayers, or as a place to begin and end my yoga practice. Sometimes I will find and place a feather or flower here, as a little offering to the Divine or as a symbol of thankfulness. Sometimes I will sit quietly here, or spent time tidying and rearranging the items on the altar as a small act of devotion. Writers from many different spiritual traditions suggest that a house needs a 'main' or 'central' altar, alongside other, smaller ones. If so, then this is the main one. Perhaps it is the anchor point for each of the others?

This little collection of objects sits on our hearth.

It changes regularly, and we place there something from the garden or the wood which is part of that season: a leaf, seeds, a few stalks of harvested corn (as in the picture!). I guess this is really a little shrine to the changing seasons - there is also often a goddess picture here, too (Demeter is the goddess pictured here).

The final shrine is one I've begun to put together in the last few days, after reading this very interesting short article.

There is a picture of Brighid, and a little statue of Mother Mary. It's still a work in progress, but I'm getting the feeling that this is a little shrine to caring, nurture and parenthood. It is on a little window-sill halfway up the stairs so we see it, just briefly, several times a day. It acts as a small reminder to cherish the ones we love, and to remember that we, too, are loved.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Coming back to earth

Yesterday, I got myself very wound up over a work-related issue. It was one of those that begins in a meeting - things were said, things were not said - and then I carried the issue around with me for the rest of the day. Not only that, but I used the issue as a spring-board to imagine and develop other scenarios which might potentially cause trouble a little further down the line.

As the day drew to a close, I still had this issue whirling around my head. I couldn't shake it, and when I finally went to bed, I lay there running though it in my mind. Not good.

When I woke this morning I had the echoes and memory of yesterday's worry and stress. But today was my day off, and I dreaded the idea of carrying the issue around with me on what should be a work-free day. As the day looked like it would be sunny and warm, I decided that it was a good time to water the veggie garden before the sun got up.

First, I had a quick check of my Facebook feed, and came across this article posted by a good friend. Although I didn't read it all the way through at the time, I got the gist of it and decided to try it out: I watered the garden barefoot.

During the fifteen minutes of walking back and forth to fill the watering can, I found myself coming back to myself. I allowed my body to remind me of the things that are important to me: the garden, nature, creativity. The space and quiet of the early-morning garden, and the feel of the earth beneath my feet seemed to be healing the damage that yesterday's stress had caused. I remembered that I belong to the earth, and to myself, and that my work (even though it is important to me) does not define who I am.

So today has been about coming back to earth, returning to myself, reconnecting my mind and body. And next time I am in that meeting (and it will happen!) I will come home, take off my shoes, and pick up the watering can.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The opposite of faith...

I sometimes suggest to the folks at my church that the 'opposite' of faith is not doubt, but certainty. On more than one occasion I have spoken to my congregation of my own doubts, and been open with them about the extent to which I struggle with some aspects of the Christian faith. I can only hope that my willingness to admit my doubts has helped them with theirs.

It is, perhaps, even more surprising to learn of the doubts of senior figures in the Church (though, perhaps, we should not be so surprised - they are, after all, human). One such honest individual is Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and also a writer and speaker. I saw a short interview with him here in which he speaks of the doubts and uncertainties which came gradually upon him as he got older.

But as I watched in the interview, I got the sense that, rather than losing his faith, as some would have it, Bishop Richard was journeying into a new, more mysterious faith. A faith with fewer certainties and more wonder. A faith rooted, as it were, less in God and more in life. Richard Holloway's honesty, openness and sensitivity helped me to feel a little more accepting of some doubts in my own journey.

Whatever your own journey, the interview is well worth watching. As Richard Holloway says in the interview, he still belongs to the Church, and attends regularly, but he doesn't 'do God easily'. I wish that more in the Church were like him.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Spring balance

A reflection I shared at this morning's service in the chapel...

A few days ago was the Spring Equinox, when day and night are of equal length; darkness and light balance each other out. At this time, the natural world is beginning to come to a point of balance: the earth becomes warmer, flowers push through and leaves and buds begin to show. The starkness and harshness of winter is gone, revealing a landscape that seems more in harmony with itself, a world which is more in balance.

To be out of balance is to be unstable, leaning too far to one extreme or another and, therefore, prone to collapse or to acting out of desperation rather than out of wisdom and reflection. The season of Lent, in which the Equinox comes, may be a time to seek a point of balance, and ways of becoming more in harmony with ourselves and with God.

For inspiration we may look to nature, observing its rhythms and its pattern of coming back into balance so that growth may take place. The combination of warming earth and plentiful rain enables the burst of life which is needed to bring fruitfulness back to the earth. Likewise, for you and me, a balance of work and rest, learning and prayer, company and solitude, can bring about new life within each of us.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

You, me, a tree

I received a short email post from The Girl God blog this morning, which drew a link between the nature of trees and that of human beings:

A tree that is beginning to grow sends roots down into Mother Earth even as it reaches and opens to the sky above, seeking nourishment from the sun and the moisture in the air and in the rain that falls. In the same way, we can envision ourselves as tree-like beings, imagining that we have roots reaching down into the earth, energetic strands that keep us connected... 

Part of what I have been learning over the last couple of years, both in my yoga practice and in my participation in Forest Church, is that I am connected to, and part of, the energy of the Earth. I had never thought of this before, and had assumed that I merely lived on the Earth, and not as part of it. 

The email post went on to say:

Contemplating the ways in which trees and people mirror one another brings us into alignment with the reality that we are part of Mother Nature.

One of my favourite yoga poses is Tree pose (Vrsksasana). I certainly don't find it easy: there's the balancing, to begin with, and then the combined process of both rooting down into the earth and also reaching skywards. I enjoy this pose, but I have a long way to go yet.

For me, Tree pose allows me to take the tree as my teacher, to connect myself to the Earth's energy and to bring my awareness back to my body. Occasionally, I am also able to become still enough to realise that I, too, am part of Mother Nature. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The priest and the yoga mat

In my yoga practice today, as I was trying to rest in Corpse pose, I suddenly remembered that today is one of my favourite days of the Christian calendar. For today the Church remembers George Herbert, the 17th-century poet and priest of the parish of Bemerton near Salisbury.

I love Herbert's poetry for its tenderness and beauty, and for its understanding of what it means to seek an encounter with the Divine. Herbert is wonderfully aware of the motives, the hopes and the hesitancy with which human beings approach God, and also of the complete love with which God responds.

My favourite of Herbert's poems is the third poem in a short series called Love. It sums up the feelings of inadequacy humans often carry when coming into the Divine presence, and yet in every line it portrays the overwhelming welcome and acceptance which is offered in return.

And perhaps, after all, there is a connection between yoga and Herbert's poem: both are an invitation into Divine stillness and rest.

Love (III) by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lacked anything.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
        Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
        I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
        "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
        "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
        So I did sit and eat.

Friday, 21 February 2014

A Doorway

This post from The Girl God arrived in my email inbox this morning:

The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.  
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Painting by Elizabeth Slettnes, from:

There are many times at the moment that I long to live a 'wilder' life: one which is more spontaneous, more truthful, closer to the earth, more free from the expectations of those with whom I work (or, at least, the expectations I think they have of me...). What is my door into this fuller life?

I also, rather foolishly, and in my day-dreams, sometimes long for a door into other worlds: Narnia, Middle Earth, Avalon, Hogwarts. Perhaps this is a childish (or child-like?) activity, and something which, in the words of St Paul, I should have put away with other childish things (1 Corinthians 13.11)? But then, why should I not long to meet the characters who live in those other-worlds, who also seem to be longing to live deeper, fuller, saner lives? 

For me it is often story which is the door. I find that I carry stories around with me, and use them as sources of encouragement or strength. The journey of Frodo and Sam, the struggle of Harry and his friends, the terrifying kindness of Aslan - each of these can become for me a doorway into a fuller life, a more adventurous life, a more magical life. 

For others, the doorway might be something else. But I suspect that each of us has one. The key, I think, lies in discovering it and then having the courage to open it, however foolish or unlikely it may seem.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Healing... and Love

From my sermon for 16 Feb 2014. The gospel reading is Mark 1.40-45

This encounter between Jesus the nameless man is full of emotion: Mark tells us right from the start that the man came to Jesus begging him, and knelt down before Jesus to put his request. The man then puts a searching request to Jesus, in which he clearly shows the faith he has in Jesus: If you choose to, says the man, you can make me clean.

Face-to-face with this show of faith and feeling, Jesus makes his response. I do choose, says Jesus, be clean! And going against all the accepted custom and common sense of the time, Jesus does something deeply wonderful: he touches the man. Jesus reaches out both literally and emotionally, moved, as Mark tells us, with pity, with compassion. And the man is healed.

Jesus offers us here a pattern for the healing work of God's Church and all who follow Jesus: the touching of those considered untouchable; the loving of those thought unlovable; the welcoming of those thought beyond invitation. This is the work of grace and beauty that Jesus set himself to, the song that he sang in his life on earth. You and I, if we hear the call of Jesus to journey with him, are called to this work, too.

In his poem 'Love', the priest and poet George Herbert portrays the invitation, the love, the welcome that Christ offers to you, to me and all who look to him for divine healing and acceptance. I would like to end with that poem, and to invite us to consider what it might mean for us to both receive and then offer that unconditional love.

Love (III) by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lacked anything.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
        Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
        I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
        "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
        "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
        So I did sit and eat.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Calling the Spring

As part of a Junior School assembly I led yesterday, I wrote a song to play to the school. We were thinking about Candlemas, and the presenting of the infant Christ in the Temple.

The song echoes the theme of Candlemas and the image of the Christ as Light to the World. But I also tried to include something of the role of Brigid and the idea of calling back the Spring to the Earth, one of the themes of the Celtic festival of Imbolc.

The lyrics of the song are below. The images in the song are deliberately ambiguous and, of course, it sounds better sung than read!

Calling Spring

In the darkness of the night
memories of warmth are far from sight.
Where have they run to?
Where do they roam?
Where is the place that they call home?

Where the mother, where the child?
Where the love that runs so free and wild?
Where have they run to?
Where do they roam?
Where is the place that they call home?

Calling, calling Spring back
to the earth again.
Calling, calling spring back
to the earth again.
Calling Spring to make her home
in every leaf and branch and stone.
Calling Spring back to the world...

In the darkness of the dawn
ancient eyes saw hope reborn.
Light to the nations,
hope for the world.Earth is the place that he calls home.

Calling, calling Spring back
to the earth again.
Calling, calling Spring back
to the earth again.
Calling Spring to make her home
in every leaf and branch and stone.
Calling Spring back to the world...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Candlemas Song

The beginning of February brings the celebration of the Celtic festival of Imbolc, Brigid's Day and the Christian festival of Candlemas. Imbolc marks the coming of Spring, the warming of the earth and the still-hidden possibility of new growth. Brigid is associated with everlasting fire, and with the abundance of the natural world at springtime. She is also said to be the mid-wife of Christ, just as the season of Imbolc is thought of as the 'mid-wifing' of the year.

Mary, the mother of Christ, is also celebrated at this point of the year. The feast of Candlemas tells the story of Mary and Joseph taking the child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to God. They offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving for their child and Mary receives purification after the rigours of childbirth. As they enter the Temple, Mary and Joseph are approached by the wise and aged Simeon, who praises God for the child who will bring light to the whole world. Having seen the promised holy child, Simeon places himself into God’s hands knowing that the end of his life is near. But Simeon also speaks dark words to Mary: there will be opposition to her son, and suffering and sorrow will pierce Mary’s heart like a sword – the pain of motherhood.

This poem, which I wrote for Imbolc last year, reflects on Mary’s experience in the Temple, the significance of her child and the themes of light, warmth and new growth which the Imbolc season expresses.

    Candlemas Song

    I was not there.
    I did not dream my way
    up prayer-worn Temple steps
    as you did, Christ-Mother, that day.

    I was not there.
    I did not scan the gloom
    or clutch a hand for courage
    in the Temple waiting-room.

    I was not there.
    I did not hear the praise
    which ancient ones sang of your child
    at the midnight of their days.

    I was not there.
    I did not feel the sting
    which bitter-sweet horizons
    of your motherhood will bring.

    But I am here.
    And I would know a birth
    to bring Divine Light’s love
    into an aching, longing earth.

    Yes, I am here.
    And I would do my part.
    O let a rising blade of Spring
    strike fire into my heart.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Please understand me (but just don't expect me to talk about myself!)

A fascinating post on Fb this morning, from a good Fb friend. Read the article here.

I have been aware for a long time that I am a pretty strong introvert, and, for the last 11 years, I have been a pretty strong introvert in a job which probably suits extroverts better.

This article helps - at least giving me some clues that the way I often feel is not weird.
Well, not that weird.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Cold Moon

Last night was the latest meeting of the Sacred Moon Moot, a small group of friends who meet to honour the full moon each month. We've been meeting since October 2013, on the night nearest to the full moon that we can all make.

We keep things fairly structured, using a ritual which lasts about 30-40 minutes. I have the honour of writing the ritual and also acting as ritual leader, and we share the calling of the quarters between us (there are five of us in all, so that works well!). Last night, once we had created our sacred space, and welcomed the four elements, we reflected on the meaning of the January full moon: 

This moon is a time for giving thought to those who are closest to us, our family and friends - those who help us to find our place in the world. It is a time to consider love, companionship, understanding and tenderness.

We then spent time reflecting on an aspect of our lives, using the light and energy of the moon as inspiration: 

At this point in her journey the Moon is full, whole and complete. She is at her most powerful. The full moon expresses the Mother nature of the Goddess, bringer of change, revelation, emotion and energy. May her energy inspire us to look within ourselves and to speak from our heart this night.   

Last night we considered this question:

To whom do I feel closely connected in this season? 

There was then space and time for reflection, before coming back to the circle to share something that we had learnt, if desired.

There is a lovely honesty in our gathering, and support - it feels good to have the space to be so open with one another, or to have the freedom to keep silence. It's fun, and we're getting to know each other more through our meeting together.

We ended with words which honour both the Divine Feminine and Christ, who is part of the path which each member of the group is walking. We're not all going at the same speed, nor discovering the same things, but Christ is dear to each one of us:

May the Divine Mother enfold us in her gaze as this cycle of moon-season turns, and may the peaceful Christ watch over us and walk with us until we gather again by light of moon.

So may it be!

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