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.

Should have posted this yesterday...

... But I've only just read it.  If you follow my musings at all you'll know that one of my greatest inspirations is C S Lewis, and his creation Screwtape - the older devil advising his protege Wormwood on the best ways to tempt his human subject.  Good reading for Hallowe'en - and timely, as you'll see from this link: some thoughts on prayer, from the C S Lewis blog.