Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Cormorants and Ashes

Ash Wednesday. I feel angry: I've just watched an item on the breakfast news about cormorants. An angler (Britain's favourite "sport" apparently) was complaining that there are too many cormorants on the rivers and lakes where he fishes, and in order to survive they are eating all the fish he'd rather catch himself. Cormorants should be culled, he said, because (and I quote) "they are so good." Good at what they are do, he meant, brilliantly designed, but what a statement! Another angler even complained that kingfishers and otters are eating "his" fish (but these creatures need not worry yet, because apparently this is the cormorant's fault too.)

The other day I read an article advocating fishing as a form of therapy because it encourages exercise and contemplation of nature. So it surely is for many people, though not for me, but are there not other ways of being, connecting, interacting with nature - fostering the "long loving look at the real" that is contemplation - than seeking to compete and dominate? It is C S Lewis's devil Screwtape who claims that "'to be' means 'to be in competition'".

Ash Wednesday. And, by happy synchronicity, last night brought a new Moon. As I  wait to see the crescent - the sickle of springtime pruning - I consider what might need to be pruned away from my life this Lent, to make room for new growth. Soon I'll be setting off to go to Mass and receive the ashes. I wonder which words the priest will use. I've always preferred "remember that you are dust and to dust you will return". We are indeed dust: we are stardust, quite literally, for the iron in our blood comes from the heart of a star. In Rebecca Rupp's book The Four Elements we read that we are "the products of cosmic infernos, children of nebulas.  It’s a wondrous and briefly enobling thought.  Briefly, that is, because a moment’s reflection reveals that our glorious origin is shared by slugs, slime molds, and driveway gravel."

The alternative words for the distribution of ashes,"repent and believe the Gospel", have always seemed blander to me. But as I reflect this morning I wonder if they mean the same thing: turn around, align yourself to the Good News, the Truth that the Word of God has become incarnate, one flesh with the stars, the dust, the driveway gravel, and us. That's the challenge: to see Christ - and myself - in both the cormorant and the greedy angler I am so keen to judge. I am one in kinship with both the good and beautiful bird and the  person who demands the right to have him destroyed. I too seek to dominate and compete: I may not do it with a rod and line but in the growing light of the Lenten Moon I'll  see the other ways I do it.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Candlemas (belated)

As you know, I love the NASA APOD site (do have a look here - as the name suggests there's a new picture every day) Here's  today's picture, which I couldn't resist posting when I saw that the photo was taken on Candlemas (2 February):

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
And the glory of thy people Israel

Friday, 10 February 2012


I had to walk to the station today - failed to allow enough time for a much slower walk because of the treacherous  patches of ice on ungritted pavements (I have a terror of my feet losing their grip on the ground. As a child I longed and pleaded for roller skates, but was too terrified to use them).

Why do we call ice treacherous, though? Ice is innocent: it is what it is, product of the miracles of chemistry, physics and geometry that bring it into being. The fact that unwitting contact with ice can cause bruises and broken bones is part of the surd of suffering we live with in this fallen world - for now. Maybe, like the lion and the lamb, we will coexist without harm on God's Holy Mountain.

Today the ice forced me to pay attention. There was snow last night and it sparkled on the branches as the Sun warmed it, dropping to the ground in moist clumps like Pauline Baynes' illustrations of the thaw-that-was-really-spring in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

The Sun gleamed down from above a bank of heavy snow-cloud. Some Canada geese flew by 'over and over announcing [my] place in the family of things' (Mary Oliver).  And oh, the colour of the sky! Blue? Grey? Yes, but of shades that I cannot name. 

Thursday, 9 February 2012


The other night on my way home I glimpsed the full Moon behind buildings. At this time of year it's sometimes called the Snow Moon, and there were still a few patches of snow at the bottom of the garden as I stood gazing at the beautiful Moon, large and bright through the trees, until it was time to cook dinner (actually, if I'm honest I should say 'until it was time for a gin & tonic and The Simpsons before cooking dinner').

I love to follow the phases of the Moon and mark the times when we see her (the feminine pronoun feels appropriate somehow as I write today) new and full. Last night, as I say, she looked especially large and near in her fullness. Mysterious as she appears, she's our nearest neighbour in the heavens and her light can seem homely as well as magical. I marvelled at how because of her presence we can gaze at the light of the Sun and be bathed in it, whereas any more than a quick glance at the Sun's own face would blind us. I think this is a good image of the way we reflect God's empathic,loving gaze for one another. I want to pray with this image in my ministry as a spiritual director. One of the most important and amazing things we can do as spiritual directors is to model that loving gaze for the person sitting opposite us. We have to be humble enough, though, never to forget that we are not the source of the light we reflect and that we too are in need of the Light's transformation:

We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Etymologically I understand 'gaze' to encompass a sense of looking open-mouthed in wonder, and an attitude of reverence. Yesterday in his General Audience Pope Benedict spoke of the loving gaze of God in the darkness of the crucifixion. How extraordinary to think that this gaze between us and God is indeed mutual! Ignatius encourages us always to pause before a time of prayer to remember the loving gaze of God already upon us, or as Anthony de Mello paraphrases 'Behold God beholding you - and smiling.'

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Thresholds & Hinges

One of the four turning points of the year - Imbolc, St Brigid's day, Candlemas Eve: the first day of the spring quarter, the time of the birth of lambs and lactation of ewes  in (often) the coldest weather; the growing of the light. Here it's been a bright sunny day with a biting icy wind, and the Moon waxing to fullness, already high in the sky in the golden late-afternoon light.

St Brigid is patron of thresholds, of poets, healers and smiths among others - those who work with change and transformation. One of her emblems is the snowdrop which grows at the threshold of spring, often while the weather is still wintry. I recently watched a television programme about the great Gothic Revival architect A W N Pugin (1812-1852).  One of his passions, I discovered, was door hinges. He deplored the fact that modern hinges were (and are still) plain, utilitarian and hidden from view; the mediaeval-style hinges he designed were large and ornate - perfect for their task and things of beauty in their own right, worth seeing and admiring. I keep thinking of this as I try to celebrate the hinge-points of the year: though I find places and times of change uncomfortable there are often gifts hidden there.

Today I spent time with a good friend I hadn't seen for 25 years, since our student days, and who now lives on the other side of the world. We reminisced, and laughed at old jokes; we marvelled at how we've both changed and the long and convoluted journeys (literal and metaphorical) we've been on since we studied together. And at the deep connection and spark of friendship still undiminished! Imbolc/St Brigid's day felt like a good day for our meeting.

As Blessed John Henry Newman said, 'to grow is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.'  Blessings at this liminal time of growth and change!