Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Ash Wednesday chapel reflection

A sermon given at OCMS (my work) chapel on Ash Wednesday, 18 February 2015


As a Catholic working in an evangelical Protestant institution, I’ve often wondered how my Catholicism is seen when it becomes visible at work, as it does this morning. My suspicion has always been that most of you think that last night, decadent papist that I am, I looked like this: 






and that today, I’m going around looking like and thinking this





The first is somewhat wide of the mark, the second, less so.

There’s little doubt that Grumpy Cat could be considered what many these days might refer to as ‘my spirit animal’, especially if anyone has heard my delicate opinions on religious observance and behaviour: from the stiff high church my-rubrics-are-better-than-your-rubrics ‘More lace is grace’ crowd to the oft zealous bonhomie and non-ritual of many a low megachurch, few have escaped my lifelong tendency to snark.

So it may come as a surprise when I say ‘Ritual matters.’ One might wonder how someone who believes that can relentlessly mock those who take ritual so seriously? On the surface, holding both positions may seem untenable. Look beneath the surface, and it begins to make sense.

Ritual is utterly human; we all engage in it – for those who would claim that low churches don’t, just observe the unspoken rules of when and how to react within the ‘unstructured’ service, or ask them to change the Bible Study time by 15 minutes. But we often forget that ritual is a vehicle, not a destination. When we obsess about its appearance or form, or proudly deny its necessity, we have made ritual a destination, an end in itself, where it becomes meaningless, even destructive – the latter being seen most starkly in the lives of those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, where an anxious need for ritual for its own sake, to ward off some deeply felt impending catastrophe, can make it impossible to live in the world.

But ritual as a vehicle is something else altogether: it leads us to something larger, to a deeper reality, even if on the surface, it may seem trivial. For example, every morning when I come in, I ask Rachel if she wants me to put some water in the kettle for her. 9 times out of 10, the answer is ‘no’, but the point of asking is NOT to get a ‘yes’– it is something larger – a way of connecting at the beginning of the day.

If the small rituals – ‘Do you want coffee?’, the goodbye kiss for a loved one, the lighting of a pipe – matter, how much more the large ones that mark the moments where we cross thresholds, caught in that liminal space where we have one foot in each of two worlds, unsure how to leave one and enter the other? Moments where we make the choice to die to our old lives to be resurrected into a new – baptism; coming of age; marriage; ordination?

Ritual as a vehicle leads us into new, necessary, often difficult places – but they are needed, and what unfolds there is holy. Here, ritual becomes an outward sign of inward process, of inward grace, even though that process may not unfold as we expect, or even as we hope. Less dramatically, ritual guides us through liminal liturgical days of the year: Jewish Yom Kippur; the Muslim Lailat il Qadr; and yes, today, our Ash Wednesday. Ritual matters. Ritual is sacred.

It is for that reason that every year, on this liminal day when I take my first step into Lenten twilight, I wake up an hour early, travelling down the road, entering the dark, pre-7.30 mass hush of the Oratory to the faint, ever-present smell of incense, so still that the rustle of the brethren’s thin breviary pages can be heard through church. The confessional door opens and shuts, doing brisk trade for a weekday morning, the church slowly filling as those of us ready for work in this world make time for the other. After a while, several distinctive treads converge on the sacristy from favourite pews, and out of the silence, we move into the rhythm of the mass: collects, responses, readings, the imposition of ashes with the stark words, ‘Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,’ communion, then out into a world where Ash Wednesday is just another work day, where one no longer quite belongs. Tonight, I will attend the longer solemn mass, allowing me to re-enter and anchor in the Lenten world.

‘But why?’ you may ask. What matters about Ash Wednesday, about Lent? If I had 50p for every time I’ve heard, ‘I don’t do Lent,’ I’d never have to work again. Given the post-mass coffee conversation in January, which sounds like parrots echoing, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ – my usual response being, ‘Church or being nice to people, not sure which’ – anti-Lent sentiment is easy to understand. Too often, Lenten abstinence becomes a matter of secular goals and pride – I should know, I still brag about the year I gave up curry – rather than spiritual practice.

If not with giving up teaspoons of sugar, or sweets, or even curry, where do we begin? As with all ritual, by going back to its roots, to what it is meant to symbolise or re-present: Our Lord’s 40 days fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry, where He was tempted by Satan. Here is where we begin.

How then, do we model our Lent on our Lord’s time in the desert? What can show us the way? First, from the story of Jesus’ temptation, we learn that He was led by the Spirit– this withdrawal was no capricious decision of his, but divinely mandated and led, and so should ours be, through praying that G-d’s will be done and by making space for the Spirit to lead us.

He was led into the desert: that starkest of environments where nothing can be hidden, where all things are stripped back to their essentials, where resources must be drawn up from hidden depths, places that may not even be known to exist. Too often, we build our identity and our faith from the outside in: based on how we think it should look; on what others, particularly the given culture, see as ‘good’ or as ‘success’; our need for approval, which we mistake for love. So our Lent must be about stripping this false identity back and rebuilding it properly from the inside out: connecting with and coming right with ourselves and with G-d, allowing that to emanate outward to permeate the world, stripping back the barriers that keep us from fully being in our life in Christ: our defences, our need to control, our need for approval, our desire for power, our need to grasp – all the things that arise from fear which drive out our ability to live in perfect love.

He was tempted by and engaged with the devil. Giving something up or a glib 'I'm not going to be negative' is often a way of avoiding engaging with anything of substance, an avoidance of looking at ourselves unflinchingly and confronting our demons head on. We cannot ignore Satan when he tempts us: we, like Jesus, must answer. To truly enter Lent, we must search every corner of ourselves, opening every door, entering our darkest places. If we note where he tempts us, engaging him there with Christ, who has also been tempted, beside us, Satan cannot help but live out his angelic name, Lucifer – bringing light to bear on what was once in darkness, which can then be brought before G-d to be transformed.

Afterwards, Our Lord was ministered to by angels. G-d is always with us, offering support in many forms: through prayer, friends, Scripture, even through things we may consider our weaknesses. Even when He seems absent, because we must find our way to Him in free will, we must have faith that He is with us and allow Him to be with and minister to us in the ways He chooses to do so.

Our Lord's temptation in the desert is an initiation – a dying to the old and rising to the new, foreshadowing his crucifixion and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. He was led to the desert, fasted, was tempted by Satan, and ministered to by angels – and when He emerged, he was no longer the private man He had been, but the Son of Man who was to heal, preach, and die on the Cross for our sins. So too must Lent be an initiation for us: a dying to that which keeps us from G-d and rising to new life in Him.

In this desert time, this Lenten twilight, let us not mistake stripping back to the heart of things, following in Christ's footsteps, for becoming less human. Too often we see our humanity as something to struggle against and excise rather than something to grow into and make whole. In few places is this mindset clearer than in the ubiquitous Christian question: "What would Jesus do?" – a purported attempt to help, but really a spiritual bypass to cut off another's very human mess so it doesn't bring us too close to our own. It’s not a question that makes any sense, at least not in the answers we offer. If you’d asked my father what I would do when he suggested an arranged marriage, he’d have said, "She’ll be upset, she’ll fight, but she’ll do it.” Never would he have dreamt of saying, “She’ll fill two bin bags with clothes, leave us a note on the fridge, and move out, never to spend another night under our roof.” I couldn’t have said that. And if we don’t know what those nearest us – or even we - would do, how much less do we know what our Lord & G-d would do? As I like to remind people when they ask that question,







Jesus got angry and...







...Jesus gave into doubt, agony, and fear in Gethsemane.

As our creed states, Christ was fully human as well as fully divine: in becoming man, He sanctified every aspect of our humanity: our hunger, our thirst, our joy, our love, our pain, our rage, our doubt – and therein lies the real answer to WWJD: Jesus would live the mess and help others live theirs. To follow Him, we must do the same: we must become more human, not less. To do otherwise is to deny the Incarnation and the goodness of G-d's creation, to make the grave error of mistaking wounded for evil. Our humanity needs inhabiting, not avoiding; healing, not destroying. Lent is about stripping back down to and coming into right relationship with our humanity and with G-d.

So often, I find that literature pulls everything I want to say together in a beautifully succinct, layered narrative, and today is no exception. I close with a passage from The Summer Tree, the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry. In this trilogy, 5 Canadian university students are suddenly transported to the first world from which all others were born, Fionavar, each finding their vocation as the story unfolds. 


In this moment, Paul Schafer has offered himself as sacrifice in place of the High King of Brennin, whose refusal to undertake the required three days hanging on the Summer Tree has brought drought to the land: showing that when we refuse to carry our cross, refuse to become more human, we are not the only ones who suffer. Paul offers himself as a way to punish himself for the car crash in which his girlfriend, Rachel, died. We join him on the third day, after many trials, a divine visitation, and support from a mysterious grey dog who has stayed with and fought a battle for him:

And he understood then, finally: understood that it had to be naked, truly so, that one went to [G-d]. It was the Tree, stripping him down, layer by layer, down to what he was hiding from...

He was the Arrow now. The Arrow on the Tree, and he was to be given naked or not at all.

And so, on the third night, Paul Schafer came to the last test, the one that was always failed, the opening. Where the Kings of Brennin or those coming in their name, found that the courage to be there, the strength to endure, even love of their land were none of them enough. On the Tree, one could no longer hide from the living or the dead, from one's own soul. Naked or not at all, one went to [G-d]. And oh, that was too much for them, too hard to be forced to go into the darkest places then, so weak, so impossibly vulnerable.

And they would let go, brave Kings of the sword, wise ones, gallant Princes, all would turn away from so much nakedness and die too soon.

But not that night. Because of pride, of pure stubbornness, and because, most surely, of the dog, Paul Schafer found the courage not to turn. Down he went. Arrow of the G-d. So open the wind could pass, light shine through him. Last door.


As Paul's heart finally broke, as his tears for Rachel finally fell, so too did the drought of Brennin break and rain fall, bringing promise of new growth to a land long barren. When we choose to carry our cross, enter fully into our humanity, engaging with both our light and our deepest darkness, we are not the only ones who are blessed.

May we who step into the desert this Ash Wednesday, following in Our Lord's footsteps, find the courage to be led by the Spirit, rending our hearts and not our garments, allowing ourselves to be stripped down, coming before G-d naked and vulnerable through that last door: so open that the Spirit's breath passes and G-d’s light shines through us, emerging into new life with Christ, Our Lord, on Easter Day. Amen.

Monday, 15 December 2014

San Juan de la Cruz, meet Gaudete Sunday

Last week, I was on Facebook chat with a friend when this happened:

Clerical friend: The Czech church impressed me immensely. The archbishop is a hugely impressive man - spent time in prison under Communism but still full of joy.

Me, thoughtfully: But you know, sometimes I think that only people who have been through really hard things can experience joy. Everyone can experience happiness, but joy is too deep, too much a creature of light AND shadow, to be part of the life that has had no darkness in it.

Clerical friend: I think there is some truth in that. He was just full of joy. He reminded me in that respect of your great clerical crush... :-P

Me: Because joy has to underpin everything we go through. Denis Hurley, THAT clerical crush? Or Oscar Romero? Or our current pope who I am totally in love with? :-P

Clerical friend: Tutu.

Me: OMG. YES.

Clerical friend: I forget you have so many. :-D

There it was. Not the bit about clerical crushes, we all know that. No, the part where I finally articulated something I've felt for a long time about joy out loud outside of a very small circle (say, 2) that I don't believe that people who haven't suffered deeply are capable of joy.

And so today's meeting of the feast day of San Juan de la Cruz, the mystic saint of the dark night of the soul, and Gaudete Sunday, that Advent Sunday of joyful expectation in the midst of a penitent season, felt like the perfect marriage to me.

It doesn't seem a likely pairing, does it? The dark night, the night of 'darkness and concealment', and the Sunday in Advent that gives us a glimpse of that day which is 'like the dawning of the morning on the mountain's golden heights'.

But that's just it, isn't it? There would be no dawning without the darkness from which it emerges, no joy without sorrow. We may be able to see that, but we may still feel the tension of apparent opposites. Reading San Juan's La Noche Oscura (preferably in the Spanish, but if not, there are plenty of wonderful English translations) helps us bridge it:


ni yo miraba cosa, 

sin otra luz ni guía 
sino la que en el corazón ardía. 
Aquésta me guïaba 
más cierta que la luz del mediodía.

And I saw nothing,
With no other light to guide me,
but the one that in my heart burned.
It guided me,
More surely than midday light.


When it is dark, when nothing lights us from without, we suddenly realise we are lit from within by a flame that that may blaze brightly or be banked, but is ever present. Then, it is the light burning deep within us, the one placed in us - our light - that must guide us, burning away the dross, the masks, the non-essential, leading us to do what we would would never imagine ourselves capable of in the comfort of daylight.

That inner light, not lit by us, but burning within us since our birth? Our joy. It is often the dark night of the soul that brings us to it.

San Juan de la Cruz, meet Gaudete Sunday.

Why is this? Because joy, unlike happiness (or at least the current understanding of happiness as pleasure), resides at depth. Think about how we express our sense of it: 'I am brimming with joy,' 'I am full of joy,' as if joy were something welling up from deep within us, from a spring we were not aware of until it overflowed into our consciousness and onto those around us. And so the foundation of joy must be sought in the depths, not the turbulent shallows, not the noisy sunlit topside, but in places of stillness, of light and shadow, in the place where we feel most deeply, the place that often only shows when life rips our outer persona from us through catastrophe, sorrow, the dark night of the soul.

Perhaps Gibran expresses it best:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

As we approach Christmas, we get a hint of that understanding of joy as something deeper in one of my favourite carols, The Seven Joys of Mary. We glide through it until we hit the dissonance of the penultimate verse:

The next great joy that Mary had, 
It was the joy of six.
To see her own son Jesus Christ 
Upon the crucifix.

Wait, WHAT? Excuse me, songwriting dude, but are you on the medieval equivalent of CRACK? 

Perhaps. But perhaps too, he had an understanding of joy that we have lost. Perhaps he understood that Our Lady remembered that she had been told that a sword would pierce her soul also, and that she had been pondering it in her heart ever since her son was in swaddling clothes. Perhaps he knew, too, that as she looked up at Him on the cross, the depth of her pain was equalled by the depth of her joy in having been His mother, having had that closest of relationships with Him, as Gibran reminds us:

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

If that last example was too theological, let's look at a secular one from a fortnight ago - Michael Clarke's eulogy for one of his closest friends, Phil Hughes:

He'd definitely be calling me a 'sook' now, that's for sure.

[snip]

I walked to the middle of the SCG on Thursday night and I felt those same blades of grass beneath my feet, where he and I and so many of his mates here today have built partnerships, taken chances and played out the dreams we had in our heads as boys.

The same stands where the crowds rose to their feet to cheer him on and that same fence he sent the ball to time and time again.

And it’s now forever the place where he fell.

I stood there at the wicket, I knelt down to touch the grass. I swear he was there with me, picking me up off my feet to check if I was OK. Telling me we just needed to dig in and get through to tea.

Telling me off for that loose shot I played. Chatting about what movie we might watch that night, and then passing on a useless fact about cows.


Only those closest to you, those who take the greatest joy in your presence and whose hearts will break into a million pieces when you go, know exactly when you'll be calling them a sook and that you pass on useless facts about cows. 

In the midst of his deepest sorrow, Michael Clarke remembered and spoke of his deepest joy.

Joy is that light in us anchored in authenticity, intimacy, connection - with ourselves, with G-d, with others.

In the end, joy is rooted in that deepest & truest of all things: love. 

Whilst joy is constant, its form is not: it can be the quiet contentment of a sleeping babe in arms; the fierce exultation in a friend's accomplishment; the gratefulness for the chance to sit with a friend in their darkness; the sense of rightness about our current path; being unexpectedly brought alive by beauty whilst gripped by the most ferocious depression.

Joy is not external trappings, though it can be expressed by them: candles, vestments, incense (which always takes me back to childhood summers at Anarkali bazaar),  jumping up and down, squees, song, fizzy happiness. The touchstone is this: are those external trappings a way to hide, a way to maintain external order over internal chaos, to keep a death grip on the sunny topside, desperately avoiding the descent to the depths you can feel coming by the increasingly strong tug on your ankles? Or are they in consonance, in harmony, in order, with who you are and what you are feeling and how you want to express it?

As you wear those beautiful trappings and gravely celebrate or loudly dance and proclaim your happiness about G-d and saviour, do you ignore those who reach out to you in pain because it provokes panic and anxiety, fear that their pain will drag you under?  Do you desperately hope that they will take the hint from your silence and never come to you again? Or, if you find yourself able, do you go up to them and say, 'I'm sorry I didn't say anything, I didn't know what to say,' - the reaction that will make me want to cup your face in my hands, look you in the eye, and say, 'I know. You can't even be with your own pain, how could I expect you to sit with me in mine?'

If you're avoiding sitting with pain, honest connection, even though you paint a beautiful picture, hug everyone around you, dance and sing, smile and laugh, tell everyone how happy the good news makes you, that's not joy.

If, no matter what you wear, how you celebrate, you come towards me when I express my pain, reaching for connection, if you have the courage to stand up and talk about the dark night of the soul you experienced as a curate in a sermon on Gaudete Sunday, that is joy.

Joy insists that we go where we would often rather not - to our deepest places, where our oldest, most essential pain, sorrow, and darkness reside. But amongst these sit our truest essence, our brightest light, our surest guide - because all these things: light and shadow, joy and sorrow, woundedness and healing are true. And all of them are born of love: lost, rejected, given, and received. Joy will always insist on our truth and, like the chrysalis forcing the butterfly to beat its wings against it, on our growth.

Joy doesn't promise us ease - those days that we can only take one breath at a time because the pain is so intense will still come. But it does promise us the light that will guide us step by step, more certain than the light of midday, until...

and from the darkness we have light,
which make the angels sing this night

And if you think the angels will sing one iota less joyously for your step into love and freedom than they did for the birth of the saviour, I suspect you have another think coming. I think San Juan might agree.

May you ever hear them sing as you follow your light through the night to join with your Beloved.

Gaudete.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Advent, or, Prepare ye the way of the Lord



I was scrolling through my facebook feed when I noticed that a clerical friend had liked a picture of the sacrament of penance/confession with the caption, 'Shopping is fun. But there's a better way to prepare for Christmas.' Hated the caption, loved the sentiment, not keen on saccharine Victorian depictions (though I did like that one). So here I am, blogging for the first time in a quarter, echoing it in my own way.

It is rare that I allow anyone to glimpse my true religious sensibilities: I use either humour to deflect or I have others, such as Pope Francis, speak for me. Both are defences to shield that which is incredibly precious and tender, needing protection, not exposure to ridicule, cynicism, or harshness. That soul essence is meant to suffuse me, so that indelibly intertwined with my light and shadow, imbued by my humour, stubbornness, and strength, it can then meet the world.

Part of that sensibility is the deep awareness closer than my breath, for as long as I can remember, of Advent being an approach to something deeply sacred, momentous, breathtaking. As is the hard truth that I have barely felt it - and Christmas - for years. I long for the sense I had as a Muslim child looking out my window on Christmas Eve night, waiting for midnight with baited breath, knowing something was coming, coming - then finally going to bed just after midnight in the certainty It was here and all was well. Somewhere, that got lost, and as magical as Midnight Mass is, it only ever brings a light brush with that feeling - during the Genealogy, It came upon a midnight clear, the odd moment during mass. Perhaps there is too much sensation, too much light, too much movement - and that awareness, that feeling, needs stillness, darkness, aloneness, and stretched senses beyond the usual five.

But that moment of wonder and knowledge also needs openness, clarity, the emptiness of a vessel meant to have something poured into it. Much as I'd like to imagine I am that, I'm too committed to telling myself the truth to believe it. I know better, and though I've worked at becoming that empty vessel, diligently addressing issues, leaving places that haven't worked, telling myself 'I can get through this event that has made it hard for me to breathe, bringing up so much emotion I feel like I'm drowning: G-d is always with me,' it has been, in internet language, an epic fail. Usually rather self-aware, I've been at a loss as to why nothing was helping.

As is the way of all things, if you wait long enough, if you listen hard enough, the answer will find you. And it was choking up whilst reciting a couple of Rachel Remen's stories over a week ago that made me finally understand what was going on.

In the first story, Rachel speaks of ER doctors who had come to her, wondering what had happened to their humanity because they would watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing. We would recognise that as burnout, as does Rachel. But whereas most of us would put it down to mental weakness/breakdown, she nails the numbness as emotional overload: if we do not process our feelings, we eventually become so full that we can no longer feel. If ER doctors don't process their emotions at what they see and experience, at the patients they save and lose, then they will watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing, because they are so full of undifferentiated and unprocessed feeling, they can't feel any more.

In short, we burn out because we refuse to feel, to grieve, to let go.

I completely choked up as I told John and Liz the second story about Rachel's transformation during her training: from crying with parents when they lost their baby to delivering the news of the death of a child so stoically that the father looked at her and apologised for crying. She said she thought back on that moment with shame, wondering when she became a person to whom a newly bereaved father had to apologise to for crying over the loss of his child.

My intense reaction to simply relaying both those stories, which I had told many times before without the same emotional charge, hinted that they held the cure to what ailed me: my loss of that sense of the sacred, that hushed expectancy, that magic I knew of Christmas as a child. Not that alone - also the sense of G-d's presence I have taken for granted and now struggle to find. I let it sit, too weary to worry at it.

I didn't need to worry at it. I knew how hard this year had been, how much had been rent open. How I'd walked through the most breath-stealing revelation and betrayal about someone who had been close to me, unsure of how to let anyone near to comfort me, to listen, unsure of how to completely collapse so I could rebuild. But G-d was with me, right? I could do this. I could walk through this - and not only WALK through it, but be there for others in crisis as well - so THERE. How I'd stood, week after week, watching the tableau unfolding, pushed beyond feeling by a sense of betrayal, feeling like an idiot for having given so much, knowing it was time to walk away. Sitting month after month, untangling so much pain from the past that whole weeks went by in a haze, my presence barely touching the world I walked through or those I listened to.

As the week went on, apparently unrelated issues arose: my resentment at having my sleeve figuratively tugged by those who seemed endlessly in need, only speaking when they wanted something, their 'How are you?' nothing more than a token awaiting 'Fine' so they could start; my rage at those who seemed to have no sense that they weren't the only ones in need/pain;  my unwillingness to socialise; my increasing irritability and unwillingness to give anyone leeway; my desperation to perpetually cocoon.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the 'unrelated' pieces proved they were the ones essential in filling out the whole picture. The answer was blindingly obvious and crystal clear: I was burned out because I hadn't processed my own emotions. I'd insisted that, even helped, others process theirs, but as is often the case, I hadn't practised what I'd preached. My emotions, and those of others I'd worked with, had set like cement throughout my emotional being. I hadn't just lost my sense of joy and the sacred; I too had become someone to whom a newly bereaved father would apologise.

That is why that picture of the confessional my friend liked, with its horrid caption, struck home when it normally would have produced an 'Oy vey, how tacky': because stepping into that most vulnerable space, the confessional - both the sacrament & the emotional space - is my answer, how I am to prepare a way for the Lord. An honest, deep, unflinching confession will break open and loosen the cement, allowing me space to talk further and process that tsunami of emotions, emptying me so I can be that vessel capable of being filled with the awe and wonder of those long ago Christmas Eve nights, of feeling G-d's presence in every place and every breath.

We all need our cement loosened and our vessels emptied.

For me, going deep, taking unflinching stock, then going to confession is not a joyless duty or an occasion for fear. It is, as in the picture above, being the Samaritan woman sitting at the feet of Our Lord, having emptied myself to Him, in turn receiving the water that will become in me the spring of water welling up to eternal life, allowing G-d's love to fill not just me, but all around me, as it flows through and where He will.

It is a way of coming back into my right place in the order of things, of coming into harmony.

Shopping IS fun, and I'll be doing some of that - I know I won't be alone. But even as I fill up my shopping cart, I'll be preparing for Advent by emptying my vessel.

I hope I won't be alone in that either.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ten books which have changed my life (FB challenge)

So, the Northern Lights are reluctant to make an appearance here, which means I will be doing the 10 book challenge I've been nominated for several times over. With the usual disclaimer that so many more than 10 books have changed my life, and in no particular order except the one in which they come to mind:

1. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: it articulated so much about being a child of immigrants that I had felt, but had been unable to express. I couldn't put it down, I couldn't stop crying, and it may be time to re-read it.

2. A Wrinkle in Time and all related books by Madeleine L'Engle. To this day, I use Echthroi, Deepening, kairos and chronos to explain things. I was talking to a friend the other day about another friend I'm worried about, and I said, 'You know, he reminds me of Charles Wallace under IT.' L'Engle's theology helped me articulate mine, and I lost myself in her stories. I still do. And I still cry when Progo...oh, go read them!

3. Goddesses in Every Woman by Jean Shinoda Bolen. My introduction to archetypes and Jungian psychology. Need I say more?

4. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. I got a copy in 2003 when a Catholic acquaintance was giving hers away. I owe her the deepest thanks: not only did it fill my love of fairy tales and my need for diving deep into the psyche, it was so beautifully written, it read like poetry. Bliss.

5. My Grandfather's Blessings (and its companion, Kitchen Table Wisdom) by Rachel Remen. H/T Alison Porter for this recommendation. Rachel's stories of her family, her practice, her life, entwined with her reflections on the deeper significance are absolutely soul-restoring, and food for spiritual hunger. She is one of my heroines, and I actually have 2 copies - one I lend and one that doesn't leave the house.

6. The Wizard of Oz & associated books: These were the first books I remember being able to completely lose myself in, to escape from here. The irony being, of course, that I collected the whole set because they were the books my uncle bribed me with so I wouldn't tell my parents about the sexual abuse. Several years later, he asked for him back, and I said, 'No.'

7. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: I discovered this on a bookshelf in my father's office when I was 11ish, saw it had been given to him by one of his brothers (NOT that one, but Ambereen and Saira's dad, whom I absolutely adore), and my curiosity was piqued. I took it upstairs to my bedroom and was immediately entranced. Even then, though I didn't have the depth of experience to fully understand and appreciate it, I knew I'd found MY spirituality, MY prophet - and his name wasn't Muhammad.

8. The White Dragon/Pern series by Anne McCaffrey: I found it in the Holton library when I was about 11, and it was the first Pern book I read (I later went back and read the series in order, along with the other trilogies I could get my hands on). I identified deeply with Jaxom and fell in love with Robinton - and later fiercely identified with Menolly in the Harper Hall trilogy (but I wanted to Impress a dragon!).

9. The Shack by William P. Young: Blew the doors off my understanding of G-d and the Trinity. My entire relationship with G-d shifted profoundly after reading that book, because I finally began to trust that I was loved. I have a hard copy, but I suspect it's one I'll want on my Kindle for easy access.

10. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh: I knew my parents had been through Partition - and for some reason, when I was young, I'd assumed it had been a very orderly transition, not recognising much of my parents' behaviour for what it was - the result of extreme trauma. It was only when I stumbled across a documentary here on Partition, sitting through it horrified, that I truly understood. A friend recommended Khushwant Singh's book - a gripping, harrowing read that made me finally understand what my parents had been through and why they were who they were.

Friday, 16 May 2014

I grieve...

Since 4 May, I have been doing Desmond Tutu's Forgiveness Challenge. After Iyanla Vanzant's four weeks back in December, I thought this would be easy.

*Pauses to laugh hysterically*

The last fortnight has been among some of the toughest emotional work I've done, and that's on top of the last 6 months, which has been an emotional wringer on its own, kicking me out of my numbness into a perpetual ache in my solar plexus, where layer after layer of dark sticky fascia like material feels as if it is being ripped from my inside...sometimes it's just sore, sometimes it makes one want to bend over double - it's always there. 

But I finally feel alive - and am beginning to feel so much clearer. To quote John Cougar Mellencamp, 'Hurts so good.' And so does this challenge, even when it knocks me for six through a poem, meditation or making me write down what's going on for me.

Today was the latter when, on day 13, I was asked what I grieve. I thought I might write a couple of things that encompassed everything else, keeping it abstract and at a safe distance, my natural way of defending myself from the pain and the overwhelming grief and sense of loss that followed.

The first part of the challenge was listening to an interview with Alanis Morrisette, and then she said these words that struck home: 

As long as we hold on to the victim consciousness, the rage, and the blame, we don't have to feel grief. And the sensations somatically of grief in our body for a lot of us can be really uncomfortable. There are a few feelings. For some of us, anger is more tolerable than full-blown grief.

If I ever wondered why I was so angry, my answer was right there.

I started writing...and didn't stop. Couldn't stop. Everything I'd held in, pretended I didn't grieve, or pretended I'd gotten past, poured out into my diary. But I knew there was one more step. I had to speak it out loud. 

Remember, I'm naming it and feeling it. I know I probably don't need to say it, but this needs the space held for it, so please, nothing about moving on, thinking positively, 'you can do something about it' or anything that gets me away from sitting with this. I've spent my whole life defending, being capable, and holding the space for others - now it's time to be with and honour my own vulnerability.

So here goes:

I grieve... 

...that I never had ground under me 
...that I never had a childhood and the carefree joy and silliness that goes with it
...never knowing the freedom in just being, which I still have trouble with  
...never being safe in a pair of loving arms
...never holding my brother as a baby or bonding with him as he grew older
...never being able to rest in the certain knowledge of being safely held and unconditionally loved 
...the loss of that which so many other children took for granted: love, security, affirmation, rootedness 
...never being celebrated in the way this friend celebrates her daughter on graduation day: "Bittersweet today. I just can't believe how fast you grew into a beautiful young woman! I am so proud of you! And as I sit here with tears... I know you are destined for awesome things!!! I love you" 
...never being deeply and truly known from the moment of my birth
...never being close to those whose blood runs through my veins 
...the loss of that primal belonging to mother and family; for the sanctuary that belonging offers  
...never having the freedom to explore my heart, my talents, my gifts, my body, to work out my shape and way of being as I became a woman 
...the loss of the celebration of graduations, birthdays, days that were mine 
...never having sense of endless possibility of the late teens, early 20s, the wanton freedom and the ability to let go and experience - clubbing, travelling, what I wanted to do because I didn't know - still don't sometimes - how not to be a spore rather than a seed 
...the loss of being able to love with abandon, to give into lust, to explore what my body wanted and be with it. Why? Because with an uncle, I had learned that my body was for someone else's use. From my parents, I learned it was clumsy and something dirty, to be ashamed of
...not having that deep love and intimacy of a long-term relationship because of fear and because I can't believe that I could be loved like that
...feeling unloved for as long as I can remember
...the loss of the time spent fighting them for every precious second of freedom from their need to make me an extension of them, even as an adult


...I grieve. And in grieving, I heal...

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, "Joy is greater thar sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.

When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

--Kahlil Gibran

...and feel the shoots of joy spring up from the seeds of sorrow.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Dream log: where I'm under a thresher, then in the next dream, forgive my father

Flora - our awesome cook for Wednesday lunches at work - was driving like a bat out of hell on Randolph Rd East near its intersection with New Hampshire - 2 minutes from the house in which I grew up. White-knuckled, grabbing the dashboard, I said, 'Flora. I know this road. It's narrow, it winds, and you can't take the turns THAT FAST.'

She, of course, ignored me. 

Fortunately, she stopped off on the side of the road before I had a heart attack. The area near us was a vast field, and the sky was that unearthly, pearlescent yellow that harbingers a storm, with black clouds not far off. Coming towards us was a giant, post-apocalyptic looking machine, which turned out to be a thresher - we were too late to move fully out of the way. A friend (unknown IRL) said, 'The sides! Bend over double and go down the inside of the wheel! Following his instructions, I tucked myself tight to the left hand set of wheels (to my right, since we were going in the opposite direction) and turned to see a man underneath the machine who seemed to be guiding it in some way, walking so close to me we could have brushed shoulders - yet he seemed unaware of me.

Even bent over double, I felt a flat rectangular piece of machinery press into my back over and over, the pressure not quite unbearable, but so intense that I woke up feeling it press into my back one more time before I was fully in this reality...

...I cracked open an eye and blearily checked the clock. 5am. Argh. Tossing and turning finally led to falling into an uneasy doze, where I was suddenly with someone else and we were pinning things to the sides of of a peach posterboard cone. Both our fathers, with whom we'd had tremendously difficult relationships, had died, and we were pinning things up and stating reasons for why they might have been the way they were. The emotional tenor was intense, and it was almost as if their spirits were there.

Suddenly, she pinned up small star-shaped flowers that were glowing, translucent white, with yellow centres that were becoming an otherworldly gold, as she said to me: "He didn't do so well in this physical reality, but his soul loves you." I choked and sobbed, and woke up feeling that intensity of grief, understanding, and finally forgiveness.

The clarity, the spaciousness has stayed with me all day.

Oh, and I didn't know what the flowers were, so I looked them up - Star of Bethlehem. Symbolic in the obvious way, but also eerily appropriate in several others...

...dreams are powerful medicine.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

My G-d, my G-d, why hast thou forsaken me - a reflection on the fourth word of Christ from the Cross


Midway.

We are now midway through the Via Crucis, that most harrowing of journeys, the point at which the reason for beginning a difficult journey can feel so long forgotten, and at which the end is nowhere in sight. It is the moment when looking back can show us how far we’ve come, give us a clearer idea of where we are, and offer us the courage to go forward – in the words of Caryll Houselander:

Now from the Cross, before his eyes are darkened, he can look back down that road which is indeed an image of the road through life of all those who will come after him.

He has known pain, exhaustion, apparent failure, shame; but it has not only been tragedy. He has known too the blessed dependence of a man upon other men; he has been helped by them and accepted their help; he has realised the joy and the light that comes to other men through helping him, above all through helping him to carry his cross. He has known compassion from the women he met on the way, compassion and the heroism it inspires – the women who blessed him openly with loud voices and Veronica who dared the mockery of the crowd and the authority of the armed guard to come close to him and wipe the tears and filth from his face.

He has known all these things and more in his Incarnation, and now he comes to the final experience that brings him to full humanity: despair.

We’re not comfortable with the idea that our Lord should despair, or feel darker emotions, such as rage or doubt. Look at how we glide over the rawness of Gethsemane, the rage of the cleansing of the temple, the despair of this moment.

Why? Because to acknowledge that G-d incarnate must descend into the abyss means that we ourselves cannot avoid it, however much we hope that our faith will allow us a spiritual bypass; however we weave our religion – whether through ornate liturgy or relentless positivity and ‘goodness’ – to create a neat, safe world and pretend that the darkness has no claim on us by calling it 'sin', and ourselves, when we avoid it, 'good'.

But to claim that despair is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned on the cross. To claim that rage is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned in the temple. To claim that doubt is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned in Gethsemane. To deny the darkness that is part of us is to dishonour Our Lord – because it is to say that His humanity was a lie.

But the truth is that when we deny the existence of our darkness, claiming we feel none of it, it is our humanity, our faith, that is the lie.

Because there is no truer moment than now – the moment Jesus hangs on the cross in utter agony, midway through his harrowing journey, crying out to the Father, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’

The emptiness. The desolation. The inability to trust what is to come, to believe in what he has left behind, this descent into the abyss marks the final moments of his Incarnation in which he has lived the full experience of his people. He has laughed, he has grieved, he has been angry, he has loved, he has comforted, he has doubted…

…but only now does he despair, feeling abandoned by G-d, and in this moment, he has truly become fully human – truly felt as we have felt.

Because he despaired, falling all the way into the abyss, I was not alone that desolate night I put one leg over an 8th floor balcony railing, intending to swing the other over and fall into the car park below. You are not alone in your darkness. Because Christ felt as we felt, NONE of us are EVER alone.

He is with us in every joy, every sorrow, every ordinary moment. And because he experienced them, because he has walked the road, he shows us the way forward.

What does Jesus do in this moment of utter despair? He doesn’t attempt to be what he thinks G-d wants him to be; he doesn’t try to suppress his sense of abandonment; he doesn’t pretend to feel or be anything other than he is. He DOES stay in relationship - He speaks to His Father: “My G-d, my G-d, why hast thou forsaken me?” He brings his desolation to the Father, surrendering it, and in so doing, allows it to be transformed.

As Houselander noted, Christ’s road is the road for all of us who follow: when we allow ourselves to feel the darkness, giving it to G-d rather than trying to hide it behind our backs because we think it’s ‘bad’, when we admit we thirst and finally surrender, commending our spirit into G-d’s hands, new life will follow.

But that new life will not be like our old one; it will be something beyond our imagining, for acknowledging the darkness, risking the descent, allowing the surrender bring great gifts that change us at the deepest level. We may not know how, for that is part of the mystery, but we may get a glimpse in this exhortation to Christ often sung on Palm Sunday:

Bow thy meek head to mortal pain, then take, O G-d, thy power and reign.