Archives for posts with tag: Spirituality

What truth will raise you
above bigots, beyond hate;
apart and superior
to all with a different take?

Might you find it in a sacred book,
or some mystic’s secret locker;
your own personal dragon slayer
and conversation stopper?

Or

imagine rights and justice,
deliverence for the poor,
and imagine others never stood
on a pedestal as sure?

Or

join the righteous and enlightened,
freed from superstition.
Deify science, misrepresent it
and fight all opposition?

And

blind to your arrogance;
oblivious to your prejudice;
jump to condemn
the truth quest in others.

Start a truth collection.
Grasp and shape your prize.
Gaze at its reflection;
watch the ugliness rise.

Gazing at Buddha

A small Buddha

sitting calmly

in the morning gloom;

taking shape in early light.


The black resin idol,

composed and serene,

stares past me

to where I cannot see

and cannot go.


Sitting impervious,

untouchable, inanimate.

Its atoms no more or less exceptional

than the miracles dancing

in my bones.

We share that at least.

I look through Christian eyes

and see in you nothing to recoil from.

You are not the risen Christ

but you point me to him.

I think of people you inspire

and warm to them;

if not brothers and sisters; my friends.

A model of contentment.

Untouched, transcendent,

you exist in harmony with all things

just as I do not.

You don’t manipulate, obligate,

retaliate, pontificate or desecrate.

You simply are;

take you or leave you.



Many kinds of Hell

Tell and retell

the tired tales that serve us well.

Grievance, grief, remorse, regret.

The mind recasts, renews

pasts more wisely left;

that stunt and choke a soul.

Private little hells,

factory fitted,

home delivered.

Deep thought pits

with vertical walls

and slippery bits.

Everyday hells;

returned to habitually,

invoked mindlessly.

Repeated insanity,

drifting endlessly,

clung to hopelessly.

No images from Dante;

mostly less heroic;

not the least bit romantic.

Hells up close and personal.

Tawdry, tragic, ordinary

hells right here and now.

Many kinds of hell

in the stories we tell.

Real, imagined,

accepted, denied.

Each resonating

with the shriek of a shackled soul.

This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

​​
I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.

 
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)
 
 
Many years ago, in the distant past, I was an apprentice to to printing trade. Master printers were then called 'journeymen'. These days, in retirement, I have apprenticed myself to the classical guitar.
 
I have come to accept I will never be a guitar master. The guitar will always master me. It intrigues and delights me, but doesn't yield its secrets easily. Hard work and practice make difficult and complex skills easier, but even then, if ever I'm tempted to bask in the sunshine, my guitar waits to humble me. It's a humiliating experience to have a string buzz or my finger select the wrong string when I least expect it on material I have played perfectly multiple times before.
 
There are, of course, other bits that I manage to play badly most times. A string insists on buzzing discordantly when I play the barre chords in the music below:
 
 
That's ok. I am a humble person, mostly. I am learning that my guitar will cooperate on this, as in every other matter, only when it is satisfied that I know my business properly. Near enough is never good enough it seems.
 
 
My guitar, on the other hand, is not humble in the least.
 
It has every reason to act like an aristocrat. When everything comes together, harmony and voices from nylon strings are truly beautiful things. I hear them, transcendent and ethereal, and marvel at how flesh, nail and sinew, nylon and wood coax them into being. The sounds decay almost as soon as they're launched, but live afterwards in the spring in my step and the inner smile in my soul.
 
Now and then I clutch the guitar closer as I play, and feel my chest cavity resonate with its notes.
Truly beautiful. Worth every hour of practice I will ever do, to learn how to create them on demand and tame them at will. The guitar has won my heart. My hand and finger dexterity is struggling to catch up.
 
In the meantime I am grateful for the sense that progress is happening, even if it is slower than I would want. I read somewhere that it takes about ten thousand hours to master the guitar. I have been playing up to ten hours a week for two years. That makes it only another 18 years or so to go.
 
I read somewhere else that there is no end point in playing an instrument; that it is a never-ending journey that you can enjoy along the way. Maybe in that way I can see myself as a journeyman, if not a master.
 
A guitar journeyman? I'll cling to that.
 
 
 
 
Boats on the Ganges at Varanasi
 
 
An attitude of entitlement sits easily on the many somnolent cows in India. I don't think it's arrogance. They seem to be the most unconcerned, gentle animals. This was confirmed, riding in a tuk-tuk on a busy road into Varanasi this morning. Two of the holy beasts had taken up residence in the middle of the road and decided to pass the time with a lazy nap. One rested her head on the bitumen scarcely centimetres from the wheels of speeding traffic, while their feet were a paper width from motorbikes and cars travelling in the opposite direction. Neither they, nor any of the drivers, seemed to be too worried.
 
Cows in a village square at Orchha.
 
Easy to understand why Hindus assign them a special place in the scheme of things. They live as if they are outside and above the daily cares of the rest of us. Standing near one, you might feel some of the aura of quiet transcendence they emminate. Just don't stand behind them or you might feel something far less fragrant. Forget running from the bulls at Pamploma. You can feel the buzz of pressing sideways past dawdling cows right here in the alleys of Varanasi.
 
Walking anywhere in here is a visual and olfactory experience. Fresh, gluey cow pats. Mucus from a thousand throats. Blood, vomit, piss. Discarded wrappings, food scraps. Black grease grime of centuries, knee to head high on walls. Dogs, alive and dead. The live ones mostly mangey and emaciated. One poor crippled, blind animal howls as he is kicked out of the way by a trader. In the shadows, I notice a small black rat scurry along the base of a wall. Surrounded by all of this, an invitation to try some Lassi, an Indian favourite based on flavoured yohgurt, is gently declined. As we stand in a narrow lane waiting for those with stronger stomachs to try their Lassis, pressed against walls to leave room for pedestrians, no less than six covered corpses are carried past in 20 minutes, stretchered by chanting relatives, invading our personal space, all on their way to the river bank. Cremation is a non stop business in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges.
 
 
Two Lassi Shops
 
 
Incessant motorcycles thread through market alleys, negotiating with pedestrians, often bluffing with their horns and rapid bursts of acceleration. The throng parts mysteriously and closes in again behind them. Hand drawn carts are a bit more sedate, but just as assertive. The combined result is a maelstrom of sounds, smells, sights and movements throughout the markets and streets; a challenge to people like us, accustomed to more relaxed shopping outings.
 
Here there is no shortage of persistent touts looking for an opportunity to separate us from our money, feasts of sights (not all unpleasant), blaring traffic horns, pungent smells, and creeping heat. All of this leaves us faint, nauseous and quickly exhausted, mentally if not physically.
 
Evening is a bit cooler, and the best time for a leisurely boat ride on the Ganges. It provides a platform for viewing and photographing the evening worship events here and there along the river bank. We light candles and set them adrift in small palm leaf boats on the river. The bells, drums and sitars make a surreal sound background for the thousands of chanting people sitting amidst wafting white smoke.
 
Afterwards, as we return up stream to our mooring, we glide past a cremation fire on the bank.
 
 
Varanasi is not for the faint-hearted. I do not think I would visit it independently, although I am sure many do. It is worth your trouble however, if you seek an experience of authentic India and its religious underpinnings.
 
Incredible India! An experience that challenges at the same time it delights and expands our thinking. Concentrated experience thrown at you from all directions.
 
It is one journey Sue and I are unlikely to forget. Something of India will remain in us.
 
 
 
 
Founded by descendants of apostles in the fourth century, the Georgian Orthodox Church, to my eyes at least, is an enigma: An attractive enigma, but an enigma nonetheless. It has a long and rich tradition of Christian mysticism and spirituality that draws me in. At the same time though, the church in Georgia is very much a national church, enjoying popular support and serving as an emblem of Georgian patriotism.
 
As I walk into any one of the many churches spread throughout the country, I feel at home and at ease. Subdued lighting; smoke from incense burners; light from myriad candles bouncing off old stone walls; melancholic chanting: all invite me to participate in the transcendent. The spiritual materialises around me as I walk from icon to icon, feeling unity with other worshippers and the nearness of my creator.
 
How does it manage to juggle the spiritual and the secular so effectively? I don't have an answer; just a hunch or two. Surviving invasions by Persian, Mongol and Ottoman empires, the Georgian Orthodox Church has been cut off from western Christianity for a thousand years. I cannot help but think that great schism of 1054 AD, where the western catholic and eastern orthodox churches went their separate ways, may have been a blessing for the Georgian church. Its isolation may have saved it from following the western church in its accommodation with modernity and loss of spiritual authenticity.
 
Secondly I suspect Georgia's location, sandwiched between the Russian bear to the north and resurgent Islam in the south has played a part in encouraging a strong sense of nationalism and patriotic feeling which Georgian people seem to express through their involvement in their church. I could be wrong of course.
To walk into this Georgian monastery (abve) near Kutaisi in western Georgia and gaze upward at its frescoes is to be transported to a place outside time and beyond care. To hear the humble chanting of a monk as it swells upward and fills the galleries is to be in the presence of something beyond my ability to define.
Monasticsm has a long tradition in Georgia and quite a few monasteries continue to function. There seems to be no shortage of applicants wanting to join.
 
 
Is it too big a claim to assert that Georgian Christian spirituality comes to us by a more direct route than that of the western Christian kind? Is it unfair to argue that Georgian Orthodox mysticism is closer to that of the early Christian apostles than anything to be found in the west today? Is it unreasonable to ask whether that might be one influential factor in the continued success of the Church in Georgia in the face of trials the western Church has not faced in distant memory?
 
I don't have a definitive answer to these questions, but I do know an authentic and vibrant Christian spirituality when I see one. I also know that the places of worship I entered in Georgia in the past couple of weeks were places that drew me in and invited me to participate in the mystery of faith. I cannot always say the same of western Christian church buildings I walk into.