Monday, 31 December 2012


A not-very-clear iPad snap - signs of new life!

Old English neoweniowe, earlier niwe "new, fresh, recent, novel, unheard-of, different from the old; untried, inexperienced," from P.Gmc. *newjaz (cf. Old Saxon niuwi, Old Frisian nie, Middle Dutch nieuwe, Dutch nieuw, Old High German niuwl, German neu, Danish and Swedish ny, Gothic niujis "new"), from PIE *newo- "new" (cf. Sanskrit navah, Persian nau, Hittite newash, Greek neos, Lithuanian naujas, Old Church Slavonic novu, Russian novyi, Latin novus, Old Irish nue, Welsh newydd "new").  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

It often strikes me that the calendar, if we look at it creatively, is very kind in offering several chances of celebrating the start of a new year. Some believe the Celtic year began on 1November, the  Church's liturgical year begins on Advent Sunday, and (again according to the invaluable Online Etymology Dictionary):

"c.1300; "þer þay dronken & dalten ... on nwe gerez euen."  The Julian calendar began on January 1, but the Christian Church frowned on pagan celebrations of this and chose the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) as its New Year's Day. The civic year in England continued to begin January 1 until late 12c., and even though legal documents then shifted to March 25, popular calendars and almanacs continued to begin on January 1. The calendar reform of 1751 restored the Julian New Year. New Year's was the main midwinter festival in Scotland from 17c., when Protestant authorities banned Christmas, and continued so after England reverted to Christmas, hence the Scottish flavor ("Auld Lang Syne," etc.). New Year's gathering in public places began 1878 in London, after new bells were installed in St. Paul's."

So... new, fresh, recent, novel, unheard-of, different from the old; untried, inexperienced.  Which resonates with you? Which draws you as a watchword for the new year about to begin?

A happy and bright one to you and yours, however (and whenever) you celebrate it!

Monday, 24 December 2012

Ox and Ass - and the rest

Disturbing news reached me earlier this week from a fellow blogger: the entire menagerie - and the heavenly host! - from her Christmas crib had gone AWOL (last seen in the loft). I sympathised; we've had two cribs go missing over the years, never found. One was a delightful Fairtrade wooden set: I can't remember which country it came from but I strongly suspect it was somewhere where camels are not normally found. The Wise Mens' steeds had bug ears, no humps and resembled no camel I'd ever seen.  It was a lovely crib, though; I miss it. Wonder what became of it...
Of course, if you followed the link above you'll see that Greenpatches' story has obviously had a happy ending.  I do like Zebedee - reminds me of Catriona's giant sheep over at A Skinny Fairtrade Latte...

Strangely proportioned characters are an occupational hazard in setting up Christmas cribs. There used to be a marvellous column in The Universe called The Secret Diary of Fr Hadrian Mule. Here's a cautionary Christmas entry:

"Tuesday: Just when I thought all was well with the crib some careless person dropped the ox. (Actually it came apart in my hands.) An offer from a butcher's wife of the large china animal from her husband's shop was declined when I realised that the said object was marked with all the cuts of beef. I felt the vegans in the congregation would understandably object. But then Divine Providence stepped in and a lady explained that she had intended presenting the church with a carved ox in memory of her uncle who had reared pedigree bulls and that it was ready.

Wednesday: The carved ox duly arrived. In fact, it is only half the size of the ass - not a serious problem as the figures are so out of proportion anyway that they look like characters out of two versions of Gulliver's Travels. However, carved on the ox's rump steak was: 'In memory of Syd Bloggs'. The ox was discreetly turned away from the shepherds who ranged from 2ft 6ins to 8ft."

Happy memories of one parish where I once served. The old and much-used china ox had to have its rump steak turned away from view, for a different reason: it was affectionately known to us all as "the cow with the broken bum".

But it's good - essential - to have the animals there. In this icon of the nativity the adoring ox and ass are closest of all to the Child - closer even than his mother. They are right there with him in the dark cave of our creaturehood, which he came to share and redeem. They know their Master simply, instinctively and intuitively. Would that we could too!

Have a beautiful, peaceful and blessed Christmas! Thank you for your company.

Deck the Halls

A trip into the countryside yesterday for a very happy lunch and exchange of gifts with family, including our two entertaining "grand-dogs". Our own Canis Minor loves them, and they had a wonderful time playing together. All except one embarrassing incident...

You see, we don't have a Christmas tree at home - not a full-size, floor-standing one. We don't have room. So CM isn't used to them. As far as he's concerned trees belong out of doors and have a particular usefulness for dogs. So when he saw a real, live tree next to the dining table, despite the fact that it was beautifully decorated and had presents piled beneath it, he did what comes naturally.  Oh dear...

Sunday, 23 December 2012

O Emmanuel

Tremendous, tiny, powerful, feeble,
cheeks fair of colour,
wealthy and needy, Father and Brother, 
maker of brothers,
this, sure, is Jesus, whom we should we welcome
as Lord of rulers,
lofty and lowly, Emmanuel,
honey to think on.
(Madawg ap Gwallter, 13th century Welsh Franciscan friar)

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Matthew Paris (ca. 1200–1259)

The Virgin and Christ Child; Christ Crucified; Christ in Majesty

Corpus Christi College Library, Cambridge, MS 26

Saturday, 22 December 2012

O Rex Gentium

Christus Rex in Southwell Minster
..."Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you." (The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe)

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

I sing of a maiden
That is makeles:
King of alle kinges
To her sone she ches. (15th century)

Friday, 21 December 2012

O Oriens

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

The shortest day... The year turns and the light returns. Where I live, today really did dawn in  splendor - fiery red and gold. Take time to notice light today, and give thanks.

Once again, Digitalnun says it all in her iBenedictines post for today. I won't attempt to paraphrase what she says, please have a look for yourself. There's encouragement, and a challenge - as there always is when light comes. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

O Clavis David

Royal Doors - St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

The icon of the Annunciation always appears on the "Royal Doors" of the Iconostasis in an Orthodox Church: fittingly, because in the Incarnation God is the key which opens the door between heaven and earth. As we stand on the edge of the Solstice, today's O Antiphon reminds us that the Light will come and disperse the shadows of death. Amen, come quickly...

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

O Radix Jesse 2

...And here is a poem I love, by Peter Levi, about trees in winter. As you read it, see that word "God" in there as not just an exclamation but a cry of Advent longing for the God of beauty and wonder.

In midwinter a wood was
where the sand-coloured deer ran
through quietness.
It was a marvellous thing
to see those deer running.

Softer than ashes
snow lay all winter where they ran,
and in the wood a holly tree was.
God, it was a marvellous thing
to see the deer running.

Between lime trunks grey or green
branch-headed stags went by
silently trotting.
A holly tree dark and crimson
sprouted at the wood’s centre, thick and high
without a whisper, no other berry so fine.

Outside the wood was black midwinter,
over the downs that reared so solemn
wind rushed in gales, and strong here
wrapped around wood and holly fire
(where deer among the close limes ran)
with a storming circle of its thunder.
Under the trees it was a marvellous thing
to see the deer running.

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Today's O Antiphon, O Radix Jesse, situates the coming Saviour, Wisdom and Holy Lord, within a human family tree - that of Jesse. The imagery is, literally, that of tree-growth - a shoot from an ancient tree, bringing new life. Trees are all around us at this season: even in the city we bring greenery into our buildings. In the dead of winter trees speak to us of longing. Those which have lost their leaves whisper to us silently about longing and patience, waiting in the darkness in a spirit of trust; the rightness of cycles of light and dark ruled by the Love that Moves the Sun, that all shall be well. The evergreens tell us of fidelity and strength: even in the dark and cold times there is still life. We are silenced in wonder. Enjoy your fir trees and holly; learn from them!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Tricks of the Light

Today's NASA astronomy pic of the day
No, not tricks but beautiful optical effects... The Sun is so precious at this time of year in the northern part of our planet.  Look at this Sun Pillar captured by Göran Strand (and see his blog for more of his stunning photography) in Östersund in the north of Sweden - a place I know and love well. As I write, just after lunch, the Sun is already beginning to dip low and I love to watch the light changing moment by moment. I try to celebrate the "thinness" of the days around the Solstice by paying attention to light and shade.

And you can see some more "tricks" of winter light, in Finland this time, from Kaisa at her blog Valkoinen Poni.

LATE EDIT: more thoughts on light, winter darkness and The Light from Archdruid Eileen

O Adonai

Icon of Christ as Holy Wisdom, Härnösand Diocese, Sweden

O Adonai - today's Advent O antiphon. The God of the burning bush and the giver of the Law on the mountain "clothed with awe", whose name may not be spoken ("Adonai" means Lord or Master) is the God who comes... "The searing holiness of God desires our redemption, but only if we will allow it. To have such power over God is the paradox of being human" says Digitalnun today.

There's so much to say about holiness, the power of God's name... So forgive a small digression. I've learned that the name of Adonis, the Greek "mortal God of beauty" comes, etymologically, directly from Adonai. Beauty, love, death, rebirth...

Beautiful, terrible, holy Lord, let me tremble and bow before you. Speak to me out of fire and cloud; inflame my heart, call me to take off my shoes and stand in awe on the holy ground where you find me - wherever that may be. Reach out to me when I cannot reach for you. Help me to long for your beauty, and give me the generosity to praise you when I  see it, even if its discovery disturbs me.

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, 
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Happy Birthday Dear Blog!

I wrote my first post on this blog one year ago today! Hard to believe twelve months have gone by, and here we are at O Sapientia again. I have enjoyed blogging, as I thought and hoped I might; above all it's been so good to meet my little band of readers and followers - and such a joy to catch glimpses of your lives and creativity through your blogs. Thank you all! And always interesting to follow links and blogrolls and see what you've been reading... There's a lot of, well, questionable stuff (to say the least) out there in blogland - I've discovered the dubious world of rants and trolls along some dodgy by-roads - but also some amazing people who seek simply to "share what is life-giving", as I've given  as my reason for blogging.  Some of you might see this as in the realm of God/the Divine/Spirit, others will have different names but, all of you, what you've shared has enriched me. And I love getting comments! I'll never forget my excitement when I first saw that little tag "1comment". I still feel it every time!

The first of the Advent O Antiphons today as, in the light of yesterday's Gaudete rosy dawn, we start to call by name the One we wait for. Our first, distant glimpse is of Wisdom: despite the random ugliness and violence that sully the world we can still see God's "sweet ordering" all around us: Holy Wisdom, open and heal our eyes to see your handiwork in all creation.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other, mightily
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Sunday, 16 December 2012


Wintry rose from the BBC archives
There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu

For in this rose containèd was
Heaven and earth in little space
Res miranda!

Rose Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent: a glimpse of the dawn of Christmas to come. It's the day to wear rose-coloured vestments in church.

In the last parish I served in there was nothing rose-coloured for the deacon to wear. My colleague got hold of some (curtain?) fabric and I cobbled together a rather Byzantine-looking stole which would have horrified liturgical purists, but we thought it looked lovely!
As always, Digitalnun at iBenedictines has wisdom to share today - especially as we consider those who find it hard to rejoice at this time...
And a verse from Eleanor Farjeon's Advent hymn which seems especially fitting for today:
Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.
Another name for today is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit: Gaudete in Domino semper (rejoice in The Lord always). I can't hear that without thinking of Steeleye Span, so here they are by courtesy of Tim Chesterton's blog Faith, Folk and Charity.  Rejoice!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Fairy Nuff

Spirit of the Night by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Here's a little bit of seasonal fun. What would Christmas be without a fairy on top of the tree? So when news came my way of this website, which will create a unique "fairy name" for you, based on your own name, I was intrigued and went to have a look... Allow me, therefore, to introduce myself: you are reading the musings of
Gossamer Moontree
She is a messenger of the moon goddess.
She lives in spider-webbed wonderlands and insect grottoes.
She can only be seen when the first leaves fall from the trees.
She wears dresses made of cobwebs and gossamer and has bright blue butterfly wings.

Now, I'd be honoured to be a messenger of the moon goddess. And I'd be happy to make an appearance when the first leaves fall - I enjoy that time of year (though it might be a bit nippy in a gossamer frock, especially if there were a stiff breeze). But given my tendency to arachnophobia I wouldn't be at my most comfortable in a spider-webbed wonderland. Also, I'm not entirely sure bright blue is my colour, and I'd hate my wings to clash with the rest of me.

There are names available for the chaps, too. And if you don't fancy fairies you can discover your identity as an elf, a mermaid, a unicorn or a witch*. The site suggested I might like to paste my name and description into my profile on my blog. Hmm, maybe not...

*Oh all right then. Since you ask. My witch name is Carbuncle Snailbasher. Quite!

The Fairy Dell by Beryl Cook. Which one do you think is Gossamer Moontree?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The tiniest house of time

Detail from Annunciation, Fra Filippo Lippi, National Gallery
This painting depicts the moment God entered the "tiniest house of time":

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but
When you really look for me, you will see me
instantly --
 you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this house I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)

St Lucy

For a beautiful reflection on St Lucy's day, have a look at today's iBenedictines post. 
A joyful feast day to all as Advent continues to unfold on a bright frosty morning!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Servant King

Here's St Francis placing the Child in the crib at Greccio, in a detail from Giotto's fresco in the Upper Church in Assisi. I used this image in my Christmas Day post last year (you can read what I wrote here, if you'd like to). Francis is wearing his deacon's vestments: you can see his dalmatic, the livery of a herald, for the deacon is the one who proclaims the Gospel - liturgically and in day-to-day ministry. You can't see his stole, but that is also a distinctive mark of a deacon. Unlike a priest's stole it's worn across the shoulder and (traditionally) tied, as you'd want to tie up your flowing garments to do the washing up or serve at table - because deacon, of course, means servant. As does the Latin minister. Some people think the Greek word diakonos comes from dia and konis - literally, "through the dust".

 I've been thinking about this picture of St Francis (who remained in deacon's orders all his life) throughout this year, because 2012 marked the Silver Jubilee of my ordination as deacon. (And that makes me feel rather old.  I was a lay deaconess for three years before that - an order now almost, but not quite, extinct in the Church of England. When I recently told this to a group of very young-looking ordinands they looked at me as though I'd said I'd known Cranmer).

At the weekend I discovered a blog called Let Nothing You Dismay (reflections on theological and churchy things). A lot of interesting reading there, but what caught my eye particularly was this. It seems that in the Anglican diocese of Hereford women were encouraged to wear aprons to church last Sunday as a protest against the General Synod's vote against women bishops (the idea, as I understand it, being to symbolise the subservient place in which women were felt to be kept by the decision.) As you might have noticed, I haven't posted anything about this issue, deliberately: not because I've no thoughts about it but because I don't feel I have the right. I'm no longer an Anglican. And because I really don't want to  enter into debate: I've decided I don't want this to be that kind of blog, though it works for others. (This is partly because of a sense of been there, done that: see note above about my feelings of age!).  

But I think it's OK for me to say how I feel about what I read, and that is - well, dismayed. What felt uncomfortable was that it would be so easy to see this as saying something quite disturbing: that the role of a silenced, tea-making skivvy is the only alternative to ordained high office. I wonder what some of the strong, powerful and courageous women who have shaped Christian history might say about that: I'm thinking of Scholastica, Clare, Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and so many others. Not to mention those in our own day.  Worse still, does it hint that service is the polar opposite of ministry? As someone commented on the blog, "Is that how the Body of Christ behaves?" Sadly, yes it is. We do. And worse, God forgive us.

Shortly after reading about all this, my spirits were lifted by listening to Radio 4's Food Programme, about the role food plays in different faiths. I was humbled and shamed by the example of so many energetic and feisty people - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh - who spend their time serving others in food banks, soup kitchens and so on. "I am among you as one who serves," said Jesus. "He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant."
I expect some of them were wearing aprons.

End of Term

Yesterday was the end of term for the First Year of the Ignatian Spirituality Course. Hard to believe a whole term has gone by! We had a lovely day: the spirituality of St Francis and St Dominic in the morning, and the Body in Prayer in the afternoon. Both connected, of course, and both good topics for this season of Incarnation.

As always, I felt exhausted at the end of the day. The teaching itself, and sharing mince pies with the group at the end of the afternoon, felt good - as did the end-of-term meeting afterwards with my lovely, generous and gifted colleagues. I am so grateful to and for them. Less fun was the flurry of filing at the end of the day. I am not good with bits of paper: they don't like me, I suspect, and always seem deliberately to hide and muddle themselves. But I got the better of them in the end - I think - and left the office with everything (I hope) in the right place.

Then the very welcome offer of a drink with my dear and long-suffering friend J, who took me out and bought me a really undeserved glass of champagne. I am so bad at keeping up with friends (as some who read this might know!) but J is persistent and it was such a joy to catch up and spend time together.  We went to a delightfully eccentric wine bar where among the eclectic bric-a-brac we noticed a Bible perched on a shelf among mismatched vintage jugs and glasses. Pious creature that I am, I couldn't help reflecting on the Word of God, subtly present in the midst of our daily life. How wonderful.

I have grown into a tradition of beginning my journey home by a different route on end-of-term days, and walking over London Bridge before catching my train. Rivers are sacred, liminal places and the Thames has been regarded as holy from prehistoric times, as the votive offerings found there testify. I like to throw in an offering - metaphorically - as I pass over the bridge. When I first did this I would "throw" in all my negative experiences from the term to get rid of them; of course I soon realised that this is not what our ancestors did. They didn't throw in rubbish: they made offerings of precious things, coins and artefacts, to honour the deity. So yesterday evening I stood in the chill wind and looked across the river, up at the majestic Shard and the lights on Tower Bridge and Southwark Cathedral; and I "threw" in:

My joy at a completed term and the thought of holidays to come;
The privilege of being able to teach things I feel passionate about;
Hearing the participants share their insights and learnings and knowing that I've played a tiny part in that;
The gifts, talents, generosity and sheer loveliness of my colleagues and students;
My time with J and the fact we could talk about shopping, dogs, the weather and prayer all in the same breath...

And as I did this, funnily enough all the negative things (there have been plenty of them; I'm not Pollyanna) fell gently away into the river too.

Here's a picture of the Shard from London Bridge (I think), taken at the laser show to mark the Shard's completion back in July. Bit warmer on the bridge then!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival

As you might have noticed from the comments on my last post, I've been invited to join a group of Catholic bloggers who get together to share what they've been blogging about. Have a look here to see  the host blog of RAnn who was kind enough to leave the comment. I realise that Sunday lasts longer in different parts of the world (if you know what I mean) but here there's not all that time left for Snippet-gathering.

So, to anyone who stops by here - as well as my little band of regular readers - a brief word of greeting on this Second Sunday of Advent, and welcome to The Love That Moves The Sun. It's a place where I like to try and put my thoughts and musings into words: as I say in the little blurb on the right of the page, I love to share what is life-giving for me. In previous stages of my journey I had the opportunity to do this through preaching, and though I don't always miss the discipline of sermon deadlines there have often been times when I've read or seen or heard something that touched my heart - and I found myself wishing I could pass it on; pay the gift forward somehow. That's how this blog was born - almost exactly a year ago. There have been gaps, and frustrations with the techie side of things - Blogger does seem to have a life and a will of its own sometimes and I am not the most technically-accomplished of people - but I've decided I really enjoy the world of blogging. It's always a real privilege and joy when someone comes along and leaves a comment to say that something I've written has touched them too. So thank you to all who have done so.

This Advent I'm trying to find time to stop and savour all the gifts of this season, which I love: to "pay attention", as Mary Oliver says in the quotation I've used in the heading of my home page. I've shared my ponderings on:
The early appearance of Christmas lights and decorations
Looking at the sky on a wintry night
Considering God in all things on a walk with the dog
Gifts from others' books and blogs

I hope you might enjoy some of it!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Advent gifts

Such a richness of Advent gifts from my dear fellow bloggers! Pictures, music, prayers, reflections... it's a delight to look at my reading list each morning (means I don't get a lot of things done, but maybe that's not such a bad thing...)  It would be impossible, not to mention invidious (if that's the word I want) to single any out, but please have a look at my list of blogs further down this page on the right and click on just about any of them; for a longer list check out my Blogger profile under the "about me" section. You'll find some gems to move your heart!

And I've been reading books too. During a time of enforced hanging about yesterday I finally caught up with Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, which has been on my must-read shelf (aka the bedroom chair) for quite a while, and read it from cover to cover in one sitting. It's the harrowing but deeply inspiring story of the author's abusive adopted childhood, her breakdown in adult life and the profound healing which followed, and her quest to find her birth mother. Above all, it's the amazing story of how she found salvation and nurture in the world of words and books. This description is totally inadequate: if you want to laugh, weep and be challenged  to see the world differently read it for yourself.

It's dangerous working in a place with an excellent bookshop. I've treated myself to a book of poems: Sounding The Seasons, sonnets for the Christian year by Malcolm Guite - whom I knew in Cambridge and is now Chaplain of Girton, my old college. (So I had to buy it!)  A beautiful resource for prayer and liturgy.

Here, as Advent gifts I can pay forward, is a quotation from each. They seem to connect with each other, and with themes I return to in this blog. First, Jeanette Winterson:

When we look up at the sky and the stars we imagine we are looking out at the universe. The medieval mind imagined itself as looking in - that Earth was a seedy outpost... and that the centre was  - well, at the centre - the nucleus of God's order proceeding from love.

I like it that order should proceed from love.

And from Malcolm Guite:

Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, out-buildings of an inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge a galaxy itself light years
From some unguessed-at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.
And from this day our world is re-aligned;
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed,
The End begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.

Winter Sun, Österåsen, Sweden

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A tiny Epiphany

An ordinary suburban Sunday lunchtime walk... Sharing a joke with fellow walkers; magpies chattering; wild feathery cirrus clouds in a blue, blue sky; frost in the shadows; a bicycle bell pinged in greeting; avoiding dog sh*t on the pavement and picking up after my own (my dog's that is); sunlight through the remaining green-gold leaves of an oak tree. I stopped by someone's clipped privet hedge and, struck by the vibrant colour of the leaves, I suddenly thought - no, that's the wrong word... I sensed, I heart-knew, I gut-knew... God in all things. And then, bigger and wilder and more astounding... All things in God. In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28). Emmanuel. The Love that moves the Sun. Amen: so it is; so be it; truly.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Greater lights

I was going to add this as a late edit to my last post, but decided I'd give it a post of its own. Night has fallen and, if you reckon the day to start at evening as Genesis and the liturgical calendar do, it's Advent. The season of joyful, hopeful waiting has begun; for some of those I care about and with whom I've been in contact lately it's a time of transition, anxiety or sorrow. "O come quickly" Lord, as we'll be singing.

I do love the artificial light and sparkle of this season, as I mentioned last time, but I've just had a glimpse of some of the most beautiful lights of all: a bedtime trip into the garden with the dog revealed a clear, frosty sky with a bright waning gibbous Moon, a parade of constellations (even here in suburbia) including my old friend Orion and glorious Jupiter.

The light-years involved in this stunning display of stars makes the age of yew trees look minuscule in comparison. The Incarnation seems but a blink or a heartbeat away. It's now; Emmanuel. May he find us waiting.
Orion, from the NASA astronomy pic archive

Lights in the darkness

Brightening my journey home

On Wednesday evening this week I was walking home past our local Anglican church and saw through the glass doors of the parish hall a Christmas tree blazing with lights. For a few seconds I entertained a few grumpy it's-not-even-Advent thoughts, but then I reverted to my first, instinctive reaction: what a lovely thing to see on a cold, dark evening! I realised I was smiling.

Intellectually I can see the point of the traditional rants about how the world misses the point of Christmas by ignoring Advent and anticipating the "season to be jolly" (and, have you noticed, the rants start earlier each year? It's not right...). But in my un-reconstructed heart I simply love the first appearance of lights and tinsel. I start looking forward to it as soon as the clocks go back.

As my train rumbles its way towards Waterloo through Vauxhall it passes the headquarters of the Pimlico Plumbers, and at the beginning of each November they put up a wonderful display of Christmas decorations - snowmen, reindeer, penguins (?), Father Christmases - yes, all that stuff! - along the roof of the building so it's right alongside the train windows. Some people complain, apparently, but I look forward to it each year. It really cheers me up, particularly on the journey home  when the lights are switched on. And I love the way my friends in the north of Sweden hang wreaths of lights (which we'd regard as Christmas-specific) in their windows at the beginning of the dark time and keep them there till the days lengthen.

When I was making the Spiritual Exercises in daily life, I began the part about the Incarnation in late autumn. I was then working near Oxford Street in London and I can remember going into the John Lewis department store where they had just set up their Christmas department. Not many people were there yet, and it was wonderful to walk around looking at all the baubles and tinsel and thinking, "nobody might realise or remember, but this is for Him!"  I surprised my two colleagues by bringing each of them back a little sparkly star.

I hope you'll excuse a shameless plug, but a couple of years ago I contributed a chapter to a book about urban spirituality (I don't get a penny for this, honestly! Got nothing for writing it, either...) in which I wrote this (it came from a conversation with my spiritual director):

A moment will meet you, perhaps when at dusk you turn a corner into a street of shops and see for the first time that the Christmas lights have been switched on. For the space of a breath you will see through the tawdriness and consumerism to the sheer beauty. And in another breath you know that this is all for the Incarnation of the God whose love pervades the universe, and that you, the lights, the shoppers, the city are utterly dependent on this unconditional love. A moment of ‘radical amazement.’

Does this ring any bells for you? I'd love to know what you think.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Wisdom from the Yew Tree

Yew tree, maybe 2000 years old, in Surrey
Almost Advent... Earlier this week I heard on the radio about a yew tree believed to be 4,000 years old: mind-boggling that something can be so ancient and still living. It was perhaps 2,000 years old already at the birth of Christ (and the relative youngster in the picture above might have been a tiny sapling). Fancifully, I wondered if among the age-rings in its trunk there was any sign of that unique year of growth - could we trace with our fingers in the patterns of the tree's life the moment of Incarnation, when eternity and history intersected?

The fact that trees alive then are still alive now makes the Incarnation feel somehow very recent - within living memory, literally. The aeons of creation's waiting for the "dispensation of the fulness of times [when] he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him." (Ephesians 1:10) God's good time! And we know now scientifically what our ancestors knew intuitively, that we are made of the same stuff as all the rest of creation: we, and the yew tree, and the stars and the dust are all made of the "flesh" which the Word of God became. The love and longing of God (the "oomph" of God, as James Alison puts it) effervescing out from the silence before the Big Bang to meet our longing... All gathered together in Christ. Was there (indulge my imagination!) a shiver of the branches of that already-ancient yew on these northern shores at the moment of the birth in Bethlehem? Even the yew tree had waited 2,000 years.

In the Spiritual Exercises, when Ignatius invites us to contemplate the Incarnation, he doesn't begin with Jesus' birth or even the Annunciation. He starts with that time of God's waiting and longing. He asks us to consider the Trinity gazing on the world in all its fragility: people of all races being born, living their lives and dying; rejoicing, mourning, fighting, feasting, laughing and weeping. All held in God's loving gaze, as God chooses not simply to love us from afar.

David Fleming paraphrases what comes next:

The leap of divine joy; God knows the time has come when the mystery of salvation, hidden from the beginning of the world, will shine into human darkness and confusion.  It is as if I can hear the Divine Persons saying, ‘Let us work the redemption of the whole human race; let us respond to the groaning of all creation.’

Yew trees have long been held sacred, perhaps because of their great age; like other evergreens they hold out hope in the dark of winter when other trees seem to lose their life until spring. I've read about early Christian missionaries in Britain preaching under these holy trees, and building their new churches there. That's why many of our most ancient yews are found in churchyards. Those first British Christians saw the yew as a symbol of resurrection: branches were brought into church at Easter and sprigs of yew placed into the shrouds of the dead as a token of hope of eternal life.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Just for fun...

Bridge Farm, Ambridge
I do enjoy listening to The Archers on Radio 4. And I love art. So I've been having a chuckle at an irreverent but very funny thread on the Archers website... Have a look here, and click on the link in each comment.

Christ the King

Christus Vincit! Christus Regnat! Christus Imperat!
 Christ in humble majesty on the early 11th century Rood at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire 
The joy of another working-at-home Monday. I'm re-reading Fay Sampson's Runes On The Cross - the story of our Anglo-Saxon Christian heritage. She talks about the imagery of Christ as Hero and King, for example the beautiful, suffering and victorious hero whose throne is the Cross in the Dream of the Rood (for a delightful website have a look here).

The Saxon kings promised protection and lavished gifts on their followers; in return those who followed would ascribe all their successes to the king and return their gifts to him: a mutual exchange of goods. To those versed in Ignatian-speak this might sound familiar - an echo of the beautiful Contemplation on God's Love at the end of the Exercises, where Ignatius reminds us that love involves a sharing and exchange of gifts between the lover and beloved. Our love-affair with God is like that.

I'm sitting here warm and dry at home watching images of the floods in other parts of the UK: people have lost homes and possessions, and some have lost their lives. Please find a moment to pray for them, whatever sorrows and fears of your own are filling your prayers right now.  The Church's year ended yesterday with the Feast of Christ the King: Lord, eternal Word of God spoken over the primeval floods - you are also one of us, Suffering Servant, and soon we will meet you again as the helpless, exiled child. Stay with us... Overcome in us.

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; 
the Lord is enthroned as King for ever. 
The Lord gives strength to his people; 
the Lord blesses his people with peace. 
(Psalm 29)

Amen, amen.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

St Cecilia

St Cecilia by John William Waterhouse
 A happy St Cecilia's day!
Here's a prayer about music and musicians from Michael Leunig:

...Let us celebrate and praise all those musicians and composers who give their hands and hearts and voices to the expression of life's mystery and joy.

Who nourish our heart in its yearning.
Who dignify our soul in its struggling.
Who harmonise our grief and gladness.
Who make melody from the fragments of chaos.
Who align our spirit with creation.
Who reveal to us the grace of God.
Who calm us and delight us and set us free to love and forgive.
Let us give thanks and rejoice.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Who am I?

What a day of travelling! Today I was hit three times by people's bags and nearly run over by a wheeled suitcase; I had to leap aside to avoid colliding with a man texting on his phone; to crown it all I was trapped in the automatic barriers at the station, resulting in a squashed bag (contents thankfully unscathed) and a bashed elbow. The employee of the railway company (as Alan Bennett put it in his famous sermon) simply gazed impassively and I'm afraid my request "can you open it, please?" was issued rather more curtly than it might have been. A fellow passenger enunciated a four-letter word close to my ear and, while I'm not quite so paranoid as to think it was addressed directly to me, it didn't help foster an atmosphere of calm.

Once in the summer when I was wearing sandals someone stood on the heel of one of them in the crush to board a train and broke the strap, meaning that the sandal would no longer stay on my foot for even one step.  I didn't have time to do anything about it and had to hobble home on one bare foot. I'm ashamed to say on that occasion I think it was I who uttered a word, and was filled with remorse when the man said humbly "I didn't do it on purpose!"

People don't believe me when I say I get trapped in station barriers on a regular basis. But it's true. Maybe there's something about me that makes me invisible to the sensors. Who am I, if even station barriers ignore me?

Happily, I find solace in a prayer I've just been sharing with a group. It's a good prayer to pray slowly in this dark, reflective time of the year. Who am I? God knows, and is gently, gradually telling me.

Give me a candle of the spirit, O God, 
as I go down into the deep of my own being. 
Show me the hidden things. 
Take me down to the spring of my life, 
and tell me my nature and my name. 
Give me freedom to grow so that I may become my true self – 
the fulfillment of the seed which you planted in me at my making. 
Out of the deep I cry unto thee, O God. 
(George Appleton)

Here's a challenging one-liner I've been sharing too:
The only sin you ever committed was forgetting who you are....the only redemption asked of you is to remember. (Gene Pascucci)

And I know I've quoted these verses here very recently, but I'd like to hear them again:
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)

Sunday, 18 November 2012


Another picture from Stockholm, November 2010

Yesterday I took a different turning in my after-lunch walk with Canis Minor and, like Dante, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura - I found myself in a dark wood. It was actually a clump of trees on the edge of a field, but it was dark: the day itself was dark (I won't say gloomy) with heavy rolls of grey-indigo cloud. The trees grew close together and their trunks were thick with ivy; the fallen leaves beneath them had lost much of their colour and made a carpet of muted beiges and ochres. Against this the dark green of the ivy seemed to glow - not bright or showy, but with a deep vibrancy that suggested the strength and constancy of evergreens at this time of year when the cold begins.  "Let winter come and all other leaves wither and fall: I am still here." No wonder ivy is a symbol of faithfulness. I want to ask for the grace of such tenacity!

Away on the other side of the fields was another wood, and here the Sun (already low, although still early afternoon) sent a shaft of light through a gap in the clouds, catching in its rays some trees which were still in leaf - including some birches whose astonishing golden leaves shone bright against their silver trunks. A chill wind moved the branches; I turned for home and some warming ginger tea!

Some people say the word "book" comes from "birch" because the bark was used to write on (others say it's from "beech", but one way or another it's from the name of a tree). Certainly there is much to read in trees - real Lectio Divina, you might say (I do!)

And I found these words on the Idle Speculations blog and thought I'd share them:

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread out everywhere, question the beauty of the sky... question all these things. They all answer you: 'Here we are, look; we're beautiful'. Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable? 
(St Augustune, Sermons, 241, 2: PL 38, 1134)

Blessings at this time of the changing year!

Thursday, 15 November 2012

November thoughts 3 - Heaven

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:39-40)

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in... (C S Lewis)

What have been the "rustling rumours" of heaven in your life?

Stockholm November 2010

Friday, 9 November 2012


I really enjoy reading the blogs I follow - and it's always fun to wander along the paths of people's links and find new ones. Today, two recent posts particularly spoke to me - and spoke of the same thing.

First, Krystyna at Curious Cat poses a challenge: "I find myself searching for a word that can describe the strong flood of emotion that sometimes arrives as we stand and look at the beauty of the world around us, or listen to an outstanding piece of music.... There doesn't seem to be such a word. There are words and phrases for surges of negative feeling (like panic attack), but not for the positive surges. If anyone knows one, please let me know."

The word that came to my mind was consolation.  I know, I know... it's a word that's become devalued in the way we use it now. Something quite nice, a bit cosy... But hardly the word for an indescribable experience - the equivalent of an "attack" - of ecstatic joy. We even talk about "consolation prizes" for the runners-up! For Ignatius, consolation meant something stronger: it may come in peace and quiet or a flood of feeling, but it's the experience of being "inflamed with love" so that, for that moment, everything around us becomes translucent and irradiated with the Transcendant and we see creation for what it is, held in being and suffused with the love of the Creator; our love and delight are for the Giver in and through the gifts...

I wrote a while ago about the meaning of desolation (the "sol" bit connecting  with solus, alone). The "sol" in consolation comes from solare, to bring joy and delight - and of course the "con" bit means "with". We're in a right relationship with creation, aligned with the diamond point of our true self and with the "Love that moves the Sun and the other stars".  And of course "sol" will remind us of Sol, the Sun. We stand in the light, the radiant dawn of God's love. We see clearly the isness of all things, our true nature as beloved children of God. We see truly.

Krystyna, maybe we don't need a word for this experience because at heart it's unnameable - and it is Real. The negative surges, the panic attacks (don't I know it!) desolation, despair, need labels to remind us that they are unReal; lies.

And then, with the most delightful synchronicity, I read this on The Mercy Blog about just such an experience, an Epiphany, a knowing that  "God is at the very heart of all that is, living and true, alive— oh, so gloriously alive—and that that life is love itself" Please, please read it!

This morning I had a little glimpse of consolation as I walked around Orford Castle. A leaden sky heaped with layer upon layer of cloud, ravens cawing and the wind whistling, views right across to Orford Ness. Beautiful, and "alive with love". Bliss. And you know what? I struggled to be present and simply to savour. I was writing this blog post in my head - and missing the moment! Some real arrow prayers for the grace to be there...

Then we drove back through the Tunstall Forest where the autumn colours of trees and bracken were amazing. Under the grey sky they seemed to glow with their own fiery energy: "God at the heart, oh so gloriously alive."

Then home for hot soup.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Don't panic

Corporal Jones from Dad's Army
Sad to hear this morning of the death of the irreplaceable Clive Dunn.  Day's Army still makes me laugh; I loved the series so much - I remember when it was new that we used to eat supper on trays in front of the television so as not to miss it (no recording in those days!). This was something reserved only for the very best programmes.

I read about someone who suffered from bad anxiety attacks at night. His remedy was to listen to recordings of the radio version of Dad's Army - he had the complete set of every episode. He'd heard them so often he could join in with every word - and they still had the power to cheer and comfort him.  This resonates with me.

Rest in peace, Clive Dunn. Thank you.

This clip is more about Fraser than Jones, but it's one of my favourite YouTube bits of Dad's Army. And perhaps Fraser's ghost stories are suitable for this time of year!  Enjoy...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

November thoughts 2: cloud of witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The gift of a 'peopled landscape' is that it does not allow those of us who live here today to forget those others who lived here in the past. It is above all as we place our feet on the earth that we really become aware of this. Somewhere Ronald Blythe has said that anyone who walks never walks through a landscape alone, 'for the people of the past are present, right beside him.' ( Esther de Waal, Living At The Border)

Think of your ancestors: what gifts have you received from them?

What do you want others to learn from your life?

Stockholm, November 2010

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Techie problems

As I've mentioned, I've been experimenting with the Blogpress app for iPad, as I know some bloggers have found it very useful. I'm sure it's great - and I am not the most technically-gifted of people! A couple of the posts I created with it seemed to clog up my home page and I know some of you've had problems leaving comments, which may be a coincidence but I suspect has something to do with it.  So I've deleted the posts and things look better...

I've saved the content of the posts and will have a go at re-posting them when I get home to a "real" computer (which has its own problems but that's another story!)

Thanks for your patience!!

A Burne-Jones moment

Burne-Jones: Fat nude woman in tree picking apples

Well, you know I love the Pre-Raphaelites.  So when someone said I reminded them of a Burne-Jones drawing I was delighted...

Ah well... Another gem from the Pre-Raphaelite Art Blog!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Looking at the stars 2

A small postscript to this morning's post. A drop in temperature and a sparkling starry evening. Scent of woodsmoke on the air and rumble of fireworks across the fields. The great bright lamp of Jupiter hanging near the Pleiades, and a welcome sight of the Milky Way, invisible in our suburban skies at home. [A woeful lack of main verbs...]

And there's the Vain Queen, Cassiopeia, so busy gazing at herself in her mirror that she sometimes ends up hanging upside down. I wonder why I relate to her..? But however undignified a position she finds herself in she's still anchored by the Pole Star - still connected with her True North ( cf again Margaret Silf's  excellent Landmarks.)

I enjoy Canis Minor's post-dinner walk here. He can busy himself looking for rabbits (he's on an extending lead so the rabbits are safe in their holes and CM is safe from getting stuck down one) while I can get on with star-gazing.

Looking at the stars

Woke early and was treated to the most beautiful sunrise: our bedroom window here faces east, unlike at home. Amazing colours lighting the ragged clouds. I didn't bother to try taking a photo, which wouldn't have done it justice, just gazed... So you'll have to use your imagination. It was a gift to be able to consider a whole brand-new day being formed out of that fiery energy: a kind of mirror-experience to what I wrote in the summer about praying the Examen at sunset.
I thought I'd pass on what someone (another spiritual director) shared with me last week - I'm sure I'm not breaking any confidences. She said that at home her bathroom window is so positioned that she can sit in contemplation (let the reader understand) and look at the sky. She finds this a lovely spiritual practice to start the day! So when somebody was anxiously telling her how hard it was to find time for formal prayer she suggested that whenever they were in a position to see the sky they might take a few moments and simply look... That's something I've been trying since my colleague mentioned it, and I find it very helpful. Even in the crowded city there's always a bit of sky to be seen.

In our bathroom at home we have a fridge magnet with Oscar Wilde's words: "all of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." (Perhaps I should point out that we don't have a fridge in our bathroom; the magnet's on the side of a cabinet). Which way am I facing? Mud or stars? Here in Suffolk it's a joy to see the stars as well as expanses of daytime sky - so much of it to revel in!
Sacred Space offers this suggestion in its helps for prayer:
"To prepare for prayer, clean the heart and the senses. If the weather permits, go outside and look at the sky; and stay looking. Gaze at its colours, its changes, the forms and movement of clouds, the effects of the wind, the particular pattern of the horizons all round you. There is so much to watch, not with the eye of a meteorologist or physicist who seeks to analyse, but with the eye of a beholder, seeing and marvelling rather than thinking. With your energy focussed on watching, your mind calms down and your heart settles.This is not strictly prayer, but a preparation for prayer; it can have unexpected effects."
Actually, I'd say it was - or could be - prayer. What do you think? And it certainly can have unexpected effects.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

All Saints


A bit of recycling... A few years ago I wrote a meditation for The Guild of St Raphael's magazine Chrism about this icon for All Saints' tide. Thought I'd share it with you for this year's feast...

I’d like to invite you to sit with me in front of an icon.  It’s Russian, from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and shows Christ and his mother enthroned at the heart of the court of heaven.  Angels are gathered round them among the domes of the heavenly city, built on the mountain of meeting between humanity and God – where another crowd is gathered, of saints and prophets, men and women. The closer I look the more faces and figures I see.  I love this as an image for the ‘Kingdom’ season, and especially for All Saints’ tide.

It’s a very busy icon, though.  No room just for ‘me and my God’.  To get to the throne I need to make my way through the crowd.  It’s easy to focus on the crowns, haloes and bishops’ robes some of them wear, and not see that there are many among them who are more simply dressed.  I can sometimes feel nervous entering a room full people, so I think I might feel apprehensive about walking into this assembly.  What will they think of me? Do I really belong there and is there room for me?

I could also ask why, if God is kind and loving, does this icon suggest it’s good to come into his presence along with others?  Well, why is it that  I would really like you to come with me to a hospital appointment?  It’s not because I don’t trust the medical staff; it’s certainly not that I think they are ogres who need placating and so I’m scared to go on my own.  It’s simply that this is important, I am anxious and I’d like some company – maybe even someone to hold my hand.  And if the doctors and nurses are skilled and  have empathy they will understand and encourage that.

So I begin to realise that there is something essential to my healing and wholeness about approaching God in company.  Health of body, mind and spirit are so closely linked with the health of our relationships.  Carl Rogers, among others, has taught us how much we need  the ‘unconditional positive regard’ of others if we are to grow into the persons we have the potential to be.  Of course we get it wrong.  We are wounded and so are those around us; we can’t offer each other that unconditionally loving gaze, however much we wish to.  But we have friends and family in heaven who can reflect God’s regard on us from so many healed eyes.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Eat, Pray, Love, describes the lengthy process of her toxic and acrimonious divorce.  She longs for it to end, but she doesn’t believe it is right to ask God to intervene and change things.  A friend encourages her to write a letter to God expressing her longing.  She suggests that if she still feels doubtful she make it a petition, and think of other people who might sign it.  Elizabeth does so, and suddenly realises there are many people who would support her – her parents, her sister… and then others, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and  St Francis, who would surely put their names to a plea for two bitter and hurting people to find peace.  She finds a whole litany pouring out of her, ‘…and I became filled with a grand sense of protection, surrounded by the collective goodwill of so many mighty souls.’

As you will know by now, a huge part of my own spiritual journey has been the study, the making and the giving to others of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Psychologist that he was, at key points in the Exercises Ignatius advises that you imagine yourself in the presence of the court of heaven – they are there to support, to accompany, to encourage; to remind you how much God loves you, and tell you so, loudly.  They are ‘witnesses for the defence’ (and the prosecution, of course, is not God but our own destructive sense of shame and worthlessness).  One place he does this is in the amazing exercise known as the Contemplation to Attain God’s Love at the end of the text, when you are propelled into the rest of your life in renewed wonder at the power of God’s love working around, in and through you.

It so happened that when I was making the Exercises in daily life I came to this point during a World Cup match.  (If you are a follower of football, please forgive me now when I say I have absolutely no idea who was playing whom, though I strongly suspect one team might have been England…)  It was a hot, still afternoon – many people were at home watching the match on television and all the houses around us had their windows open.  I was looking at a postcard of this icon and trying to imagine how I could enter the scene when suddenly all around me was an enormous roar of joy!  Of course what it really meant was that something wonderful like a goal must have happened (please see note above),  but to me what it said was ‘It’s you! Welcome home! We knew you would make it…’

There is a final surprise in the icon.  Look closely, right at the bottom where it appears the saints have drawn apart to let someone through… a tiny figure, dressed in travelling clothes and boots (perhaps he had a hard climb down those rocks). You can just make out that he’s holding a cross.  Don’t forget the ‘comic strip’ quality of some icons, trying to depict eternity by showing a series of events in one picture.  This is the same Christ child who sits enthroned and dressed in gold on his mother’s lap among the angels; he has also come to the foot of the mountain to be among his friends – and to welcome us in.  Emmanuel: God among us.  The court of heaven doesn’t stand between us and a remote God; but as the Orthodox would say we meet Christ in his saints.  The icon of the Communion of Saints is also an icon of the Incarnation.