Archives for posts with tag: Christian spirituality
Beauty, simply.
(Water plants near the mouth of the River Danube 2016)
Try as I might I don't understand the world. Never have. Don't expect I ever will. So I guess I'll just have to accept the presence of beauty, without knowing why it's there, rather than not there.
Now and again the world disappoints me. Some of its inhabitants disgust me, and others surely frighten me, but despite that, the sum of life has always seemed to me threaded with beauty.
I said 'sum'. I meant 'essence'. There's a purity to be distilled; a vein of hope to be discovered in all things. I believe it, and won't be persuaded otherwise.
I won't say all things are shot through with beauty. Sometimes there may be only a strand of it; thin, tenuous and tiny; visible only to eyes that want to see it. Sometimes it will only be seen in hindsight. Sometimes the presence of beauty would offend us if it were suggested.
There are circumstances, and I've lived through my share, where even the suggestion of beauty would be blasphemous. Grief, anger, rage, hopelessness, injustice, fear; a complete list would be a long one. Even at these times, in my experience, there is an essence, a presence, that waits patiently and respectfully for us to be ready to turn towards it.
(Memorial for victims of the Thai Burma Railway construction World War 2)
Through all the things that make life monotonous, pointless, useless, or cruel, beauty, simply shines through. I don't understand it, but I accept it.
I will thank God. You may thank who or what you like.
(Shrine. Luang Prabang, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, 2017)
A Life worthwhile.
I've posted on this theme before, but this afternoon I feel the need to continue the conversation, even if this post maybe needs more time spent on it.
(Waterfall in Erawan National Park, Thailand)
Might there be a recipe for a worthwhile life? A formula? A user's manual? A hack?
Don't know really, although I suspect there is some good advice here and there.
Hundreds of priests, sages, gurus and life coaches will tell you such things exist. Not all of them will charge you for the information.
You will be pleased to know I'm not in the business of charging for sharing wisdom. Nor am I in the business of preaching, advising, or (hopefully) patronising. Nevertheless I do have some thoughts on the topic, and here they are, incomplete and hopelessly generalised:
A life that is worthwhile is one for which I am grateful. I could leave it at that, because that sentence, properly understood, is the key to much wisdom. But since I've begun, thoughts flow from this.
A life worthwhile is one in which I stay humble, in which I take time to think, to weigh up. I realise my life isn't and never was all about me.
I know my own mind, my values, and what I would be prepared to die for. It is a life in which I recognise and remember what is important and what is not.
Through many false starts and blind alleys, I begin to understand that how materially successful I am, how much I earn, how much I own, how attractive I am, has no bearing on how much I matter in the scheme of things. I learn to accept others (who all also matter in the scheme of things).
(Street sweeper in Delhi)
Because I understand its not all about me, I have time for others. I hold their love and their dreams gently.
I don't know why I am, or even what life is, so I accept all of it as a gift. I accept I have been created by a loving God whom I worship naturally instead of myself. I realise not everyone will agree. I have given up worrying about that. Religion has a bad press in some arenas, and deservedly so. There is too much temptation to strangle ourselves in misunderstood dogma and to create a monster that imprisons us, rather than frees us. I'd better stop there or I might begin to preach.
((Taken in a UNESCO protected temple complex in Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
(Lady in a village in Armenia)
I know the world is not perfect and that many of my brothers and sisters have not seen justice and love in their lives as I have. I talk to God about this. I don't often understand God's answers.
Notice I've used “I” exclusively?
You need to work out your own path. Hard work, but you don't need to do it alone.
(We're all different. Each of us matters.)
I find myself feeling increasingly isolated by the groupthink I see everywhere these days.
Am I the only person who is uncomfortable with the spirit of the times which divides people and judges them on the basis of what they believe or how they vote?
(Photo of a memorial to prisoners of war killed building the Thai-Burma railway in World War 2.
Hellfire Pass, Thailand)
How sad it would be
If I believed in tolerance so strongly,
I could show no tolerance
to those who saw things differently.
If I praised diversity in all things
except opinion.
If I defended human rights
with personal abuse,
foul language
or violence.
If I believed those who thought differently
were stupid,
or evil.
If I my belief in a cause
stopped me reaching out in friendship.
If I believed I held the truth and it were mine alone.
How sad it would be.
I am not you.
I see what you see,
but I see differently.
Let me be.
(A Garden in the Alhambra Palace, Granada)
I do not need
to think like you,
but I might need to hear
what you have to say.
Don’t exclude me
or demonise me.
My heart beats as yours does
and I breathe as you breathe.
We touch the same air
and live in the same streets,
but you look ascance at me.
You question my sincerity and motives,
as you preen in the righteousness of your own.
(The anger of zealots expressed on a church wall in Granada, Spain)
You float through life in a bubble
self referencing,
self affirming,
convinced of your moral superiority.
I believe
as sincerely as you do
but hold a different truth
in my heart.
Mine is as precious to me
as yours is to you.
We flatter ourselves
that we own the truth.
Maybe if our truths have no room for each other
there is no room for either of them?
If what I value makes me unworthy;
If how I see things excludes me
from your regard;
then so be it.
I will let you be.
(Embossed door of the Sagria Familia Cathedral in Barcelona)

My urge to write comes and goes. Could be something to do with tides or phases of the moon. Or maybe the influences are more subtle, less easily attributed. More ethereal.
My state of mind for instance. It wanders, you see. My inner world is a labyrinth and my mind has a habit of sauntering through the corridors, pausing here and there to pick up an image, a memory, thoughts or a feeling, sometimes mislaid, sometimes waiting to be made sense of, catalogued and tidied away. I don’t have the plans for the building, and for some of its rooms I don’t even have a key.
That’s one reason I write blog entries. The process of writing serves to tidy up my inner world and to help me make sense of stuff I don’t have a key to access. It’s a healthy thing to do, I guess.

Now and then I use photographs as a stimulus to writing. And so it is today. Four photographs and one short video clip are my mystical muses.

What is it about us?

Look at this image of the city of Sydney by night. The world of the immediate. A world of lights and sound and tastes; where anything can happen, good and bad, benign and dangerous. The unspoken seduction of crowds, noise and lights brings people together in large numbers, as it has always done.

Why is it then that the monuments we build as testaments to our ingenuity are such contradictions? Cities across the world are showcases for the best we can do. We walk down their streets and reassure ourselves that we’re cleverer than people were in the past; that life is purposed by canyons of concrete and glass; and that we’re in control.
And yet . . .

You don’t need to look too hard to see cities struggling to match words with deeds. Communities in name only, they breed alienation and nurture inner emptiness in the souls who tread sterile urban wastelands. Blank faces, and eyes that don’t meet other eyes: Testaments to the loneliness of crowds.

City living the pinnacle of human ingenuity? Or have we got some priorities badly wrong?
Perhaps that is a bit harsh. Humans are social beings. Well, most of us are . . . even me. I enjoy a night out on the town as much as anyone, but this morning I’m in a mood to wonder why our cleverness does not often guarantee our happiness.
What is it about us?

We start out well enough . . . if we’re lucky enough to have parents who want us and care for us. I reckon these little fellas have a lot of things right in their approach to life. Living in the moment they carry no burdens. Trusting and loving, they elicit love and delight from everyone they meet.

Simple, isn’t it? So why do we find it so hard?
What did we lose along the way as we learned to take our place in the world? Our innocence? Our Wonder? Our trust? Ourselves? I don’t know. Maybe these changes are inevitable and necessary, but I wonder. Is it necessary for adults to lose their sense of wonder and their connection with themselves?
So is there an answer; an antidote to a damaged adult soul?
I’m going to be bold and claim that love is all when it comes to human well being and happiness. There is no material success; no job title; no salary or position of power means a jot of anything to me compared to loving and being loved. If I were ever tempted to forget that I would only need to look at those boys’ faces above.

As a grandparent, this is all clear to me. As a parent, to my shame, it was not always so. I wasted a lot of time and opportunities chasing mirages, and in the process took the love of my family for granted.

Why is it, that so many of us sacrifice our lives on the altar of material assets or power or seductive dreams when the substantive things escape our notice? Are we just slow learners? Or are we wilfully blind?

The mystical musings continue as I remember a beach in northern Spain. The photograph speaks of journeys. The beach begs to be walked, and the path rising to the top of the hill suggests a destination somewhere out of sight. How often have I walked such tracks? How many times have I found the journey more satisfying than the destination?

How often in my life have I chosen to follow paths, some actual, some metaphorical, hoping to find new things? A new start. A new experience. A place where things made better sense. Sometimes I found what I was looking for, and sometimes I got lost, badly lost. What I didn’t realise was that what I was seeking was not to be found at the end of a journey so much as inside myself.
That self knowledge is hard earned. It has cost me and those I love lots of cuts and grazes, and grief. Now the people I have learned to admire most are those who put others first, and go about their lives at peace with themselves and walk gently in the world. They are treasures. Perhaps you know someone like that? I would like to be one someday.

And to finish these mystical musings, I would like to share with you a short video I recorded last year in a monastery in Armenia. It is an Armenian group (obviously) who perform traditional folk songs and elements from the unbroken 1500 year old traditions of the Armenian Apostolic church. I cannot remember the group’s name, but I suppose a bit of work with Doctor Google would remedy that.

The songs were Armenian. It did not matter. I stood barely breathing, as I listened. The floor could have opened up beneath me and I would have floated, completely immersed in the moment. A mystical experience? Yes, even despite the presence of other tourist groups who, while temporarily silenced, soon wandered off chattering amongst themselves about I know not what.

I listen to this clip periodically to remind myself of the experience, and to be confronted again by the insights it gave me:
That there are things in this life that transcend the daily routine and matters we think are important. That when all else fades away these things will remain as strong and clear as ever. Love is one of them. Belonging is another.



One final thought:

Being able to stand outside one’s self and see, hear and feel the cries of others is the greatest thing I know. I am grateful for the times, here and there, I can manage to do that, and can only hope people can forgive me when I can not.

(Sunrise over the Broadwater, near my home)
Early morning. A coffee cup stands before me. I'm in an expansive, live and let live, mind frame.
It seems the more I learn, the less I know. I guess I'm on a journey, . . . I suppose. Looking to make sense of things that don't make sense; trying to touch bedrock in a patch of quicksand; to establish my bearings in a world that has more puzzle than plan for me.
I used to be addicted to digital news media; especially to the reader feedback comments they invite. I have even been known to contribute a few myself. The battle of ideas fought on a sea of high drama. It's all there! At least, that's what I used to tell myself.
I see the whole enterprise differently now. If you're lucky, you come across a dash of grace, a smidgeon of empathy, or a worthwhile insight in reader comments here or there, but they're few, and nearly submerged in a swamp of abuse, derision, ignorance, tribalism and prejudice.
Don't leap to any conclusion! I am not taking a partisan stance. Right wing, left wing, conservative, progressive, anarchist, or whatever: There are few of any persuasion whose commentary rises above the smug, the ugly, the patronising, or the fatuous. (If you're a contributor and you feel slighted, well what would I know?).
I'll admit I have become quite disillusioned by politics and politicians. I no longer trust that many know what they're doing or have solid principles to guide them. The cynicism with which politics is done disgusts me, and the level of self interest I see frightens me. There, I've declared a possible conflict of interest on this topic!
There's got to be a better way for political ideas to be shared and contested. There's got to be a better way to approach life, I'm less and less interested in what divides us. I am more and more interested in building bridges. Continuing to dash ourselves against walls of ignorance and prejudice is just stupid. It is also futile.
With all this in mind I watched a webinar presented by Richard Rohr (Center for Action and Contemplation) yesterday. He is a person who, while I don't always embrace everything he says, has some insights. One yesterday resonated clearly. It goes something like this:
Human history is chock full of 'them and us' attitudes. Humans naturally team up together against those they see as outsiders. This gives them a sense of identity and security, but it also brings with it inevitable cycles of conflict, violence, and destruction. According to Fr Richard (a Franciscan priest) there is a way to break these cycles. We must stop creating 'outsiders'.
Is our tendency to mistrust outsiders and separate ourselves from them stronger than our preparedness to trust and include them? If I could overcome this tendency, what would happen? I fear I know the answer, and fear even more that I might be part of the problem.
It's all very good for me to say what I have just said, but its implications are radical and they scare me. Removing barriers and including outsiders would leave us at the mercy of their intentions. Do I really want to invite all who want to come to enter my country whether or not they can contribute or share my values? Do I really want to give out my address to all and sundry and leave the house key in the door? Do I really want to love strangers unconditionally as I love myself?
Where have I heard that before? Love others as you love yourself. Father Rohr says, 'why not?'. As you break down the barriers and look at others differently, you stop caring about yourself so much. Love is what it's all about he says, and I suspect he is right.
All well and good to love without limit, but in a world where the 'others' almost certainly will not love me back (at least not straight away anyway) that seems to demand self sacrifice; and almost certainly self destruction.
That was and is the way of Jesus. I understand that. What I have only recently begun to understand is how radical and scary the way of Jesus really is.
So, live and let live? Certainly! Work on dismantling the 'them and us' barriers? Yes, I see why I must do that.
Walking across the divide with open arms and defences down? That would leave me open to the opportunism of others who don't understand that love is the only way. It would ultimately cost me my life, as it did Jesus. I don't think I'm brave enough to follow through.
So where does that leave me on this beautiful winter morning? The more I learn, the less I know. That's a hard thing for me to accept.
— noun
1. a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.
2. a self-contradictory and false proposition.
3. any person, thing, or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature.
4. an opinion or statement contrary to commonly accepted opinion.
(A thousand year old image of the risen Christ in the Republic of Georgia, damaged by bullet impacts, courtesy of the soldiers of Comrade Stalin. Photo taken October 2015)
I’ve been thinking.
“He is risen!”
The words announced in countless churches each Easter Sunday. The response “He is risen indeed!” following naturally from legions of lips. Spoken with conviction, it is comforting to hear it and to respond, surrounded by people of shared beliefs and a common faith. They are not just words. They’re a statement of trust and, to me anyway, a profound mystery.
Now it has to be said that not everyone shares Christian faith or beliefs. Certainly not the Russian soldiers who expressed their contempt in a tangible way on the above image. Others prefer their bullets metaphorical. Not that they are any less contemptuous.
Faith can be a fragile, tricky thing. Ask anyone who claims to have it. While we erect our defences to repel boarders, if we are honest (and that’s a big ‘if’), having faith of any sort can be a messy, risky business. And not just for the supernatural variety! My secular agnostic and atheist friends, who sometimes disparage my faith, do not always acknowledge their own faiths. It may be in other, non supernatural, areas, but they have it, along with the fragilities and risks that go with all faiths.
Be it faith in science, human logic, rationalism, personal relationships, material possessions. . . or our own ability to manage things . . . even in our own ability to cross the road safely . . . I just can’t imagine any person lives entirely without faith of some sort, in something.
Nevertheless I am tempted to feel sorry for myself now and then. My faith is challenged in all sorts of ways and I don’t always like it when I see how fragile it is. Things are not going the way I would like them to. The rule book doesn’t apply the way I think it should. People can be unkind.
I can feel the temptation to pull up the drawbridges; to separate and protect myself from those who do not think as I do.
On this Easter Sunday, and in the midst of all these thoughts, the image of the bullet impacted risen Christ above speaks to me. I become aware of a profound and transcendent mystery that makes the fragility and vulnerability of my tiny faith seem superfluous.
The Christ in that image does not conform to my expectations. He does not reassure me or exhort me to shore up my faith and to paper over the cracks. My certainty is not important to him. He does not promise a strong faith to me. Instead he offers me a vision of damage inflicted by contemptuous Russian soldiers maybe 70 or so years ago. Bullets that completely missed their mark, then, now and always.
The Christ in that image speaks a message that transcends my expectations and my need to be in charge. He speaks of a truth that matters more than differences of opinion, the categories we create for each other, and the walls we build around ourselves. That truth does not depend on the strength of my faith or the certainty of my convictions. It is, and will always be, stronger than bullets and will outlast hate and contempt.
The Christ in that image suggests a direction quite different from what I see myself sometimes taking at present: To try to build bridges rather than walls; to try not to fear contempt and ridicule of my ideas and my faith, as some things just don’t matter; and to try not to be discouraged by the fragility of my own faith and abilities.
The risen Christ is still amongst us despite the bullets, and countless other attempts to destroy him and his message. The risen Christ transcends bullets, and even manages to thrive despite my own fragile faith.
What a mystery!
Glory be to God!
On those insights, on this Easter Sunday, my faith can relax a little.