Some of Patrick's Articles Through the Years
Meditative traditions have been present within the church from the beginning, for they date back to the early church fathers and mothers. The words “meditation” and “contemplation” connote different things to different people, and these terms can engender quite a deal of emotional reaction. This is a shame really, because so many of us have meditated and contemplated throughout of our lives – yet we might not have even realised it.
I’d like to tell a little story. This afternoon I was taking our little eighteen-month old daughter for a little walk around some neighbouring streets. We were passing a particular house where an older lady has lived for a long while, and this afternoon she was sitting on the front porch. She has a rather dour disposition, and she always seems to be preoccupied with worry or complaint about something or other. As we were approaching the footpath in front of her house, I noticed she was inspecting who was making their way towards her abode – and she would have seen our daughter walking along and then stop to raise her hands towards me in a gesture of “pick me up Daddy – I’m tired!”
As I held our little girl close to my cheek and rocked her gently, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a broad and beautiful smile come across the old lady’s face. I smiled back, and something happened in the interchange: a freedom and a joy seemed to envelop the lady and to linger there for some time. My daughter and I then crossed the street and continued our journey home.
In these few moments there occurred both meditation and contemplation. Meditation could be described as a way to help us to hold our perceptions and perspectives a little more lightly, so grace can have a chance to enlarge and enrich them. We all need to have some form of meditative practice that can lift us out of the sticky swamps of “How am I coming across?”, or “How can I make sure I’m safe?” or “How can I maintain control?” We can be so preoccupied with what we think we need to prove to others or to ourselves, or with what we think we need to protect in order to survive, to be liked or to maintain a particular image.
Some writers have called this mind that is always proving and protecting our “false self” – and how true this is! Meditation is a way to “clean the lens” – that is, to loosen the hold of the false self so we can focus the mind, or still the mind into a more serene space – and to begin to forgive our frail humanity when we’re far from focussed and far from serene. There are many ways to meditate: there can be specific prayer forms such as breath prayers (such as breathing in and out the name “Yahweh” or “Jesus”) or meditative practices based upon scripture passages and stories. There are many traditions of meditation such as Ignatian or Benedictine.
Yet many of us have used meditative practices for years, yet may not recognise them as such. How many people find that a sojourn in the garden stills their minds, or going for their solitary walk in the crisp morning air provides a spacious place within them, or swimming up and down the lanes in the local pool can focus their attention. Some people find that images such as works of art, sculptures, statues or photography can take them into a space where they aren’t endlessly worrying about their mortgage, their children, their futures or their pasts. For others, nature takes them into a space of stillness; still others may find that playing with their grandchildren elicits a simplicity they haven’t touched in themselves in a long time. Music is probably one of the most common portals into a meditative space, along with dance, poetry, drama or spaces of silence or deep mutual love. The list is endless.
The lady in the next street entered a meditative state (well, we can say this for the purposes of illustration anyway!) when she let herself see the beauty and simplicity of a little child walking and stumbling along the street holding her daddy’s hand. What happened next was contemplation: she entered into what I call “real presence”. Contemplation is about being caught up in a moment of wonder, of connection and of union with another person, with a situation or with God. We don’t think ourselves into contemplation, for it isn’t a technique that we learn – rather, it’s a space that we fall into. The old lady couldn’t help but break out into a smile when she saw our daughter pressing herself into my shoulder and sucking her thumb. She was “caught up” in something larger than herself; she “fell through” into a space that was both gracious and spacious. The lady was able to be truly present to what was happening, and could receive what was happening. This breathing in to receive what truly is – in both its beauty and brokenness – is the follow-on from breathing out the hold that our fears place on us when we burden ourselves with our self-images, and with so much to prove and protect.
Some have described contemplation as “a long loving look at what is”. In contemplation there is no comparative judgment: that is, we don’t go straight into calculating whether something is as good as, is better than or is worse than something else. We allow something to be itself, and we allow ourselves to receive it. This lets us see life differently – in fact, we can see a little more as God sees because we’re seeing more from who we really are. Like meditation, contemplation happens in the most ordinary of situations – for it occurs whenever we let ourselves participate in the eternal moment of Love – whether it be in a moment of joy or a moment of pain, a moment of wonder, a moment of compassion or a moment of deep empathy.
Meditation and contemplation are always to be for the sake of Love. Many use meditative techniques for peace of mind – and that’s great. Or they may use it in order to make better decisions or to cope with the storms that life dumps us into – and that’s great too. Yet Christian meditation is so that we can participate in the Trinity – the all-encompassing Love that holds the whole universe. Contemplation is so we can grow more at home in the “mind of Christ”, as Paul terms it. Contemplation is so “He might increase, and I can decrease”. Our little selves aren’t so important anymore to us, for there is a transformation of identity: our identity becomes a “we” rather than a “me”.
So meditation and contemplation aren’t primarily techniques. Rather, they’re states into which we allow grace to humbly hold us and transform us, so we can meet life more truly, more lovingly and more humanly – and therefore a little more like how God meets us.
I’m a 59 year-old father of two young children who have taught me that you can be in love with a flower, a piece of music, a cat − and with another person.
I’m the son of a 96 year-old mother who’s taught me that you can be in love with yourself, with others and with life, despite the hardships and uncertainties.
These people give me a beautiful gift – something which I know I can so quickly lose touch with, in my busyness. So often I speed-skate through the day, doing all sorts of necessary things and hopefully doing them well. Yet my efforts to be efficient and effective claim a great price.
Most of the time we live in a space I call ‘complexity’ − a space in which we’re so quick to compare and contrast ourselves with others and ever-ready to prove and protect our cherished perspectives. As someone who accompanies others on their faith journeys, I know we’re all in similar boats. We can so quickly retreat into our defensive positions, eager to justify why we had no other choice but to do this or that.
When we’re caught in complexity, we’re never happy or content, because we fear that something is going to come along to show us up or spin us out of control. Our sense of self becomes precarious; it seems that a fall into self-loathing or a need to exact revenge is but a breath away.
In complexity, I can’t do what my children and my mother can do. Their eyes are much more ready to behold reality with openness, hope, even reverence. When I’m caught in complexity, I can’t behold anything. All I can do is critique with suspicious, sceptical eyes. In complexity, I can scrutinise life only with the mind; my children and mother encounter life with their souls.
My children’s perspectives are immature because they haven’t tasted the beauty and brokenness of being human. I call this ‘naïve simplicity’. My mother, though, has certainly experienced the scarred and sacred sides of living, and can still respond with a sincere “yes” to what is before her. I call this ‘deep simplicity’.
There is no chronological age when we finally throw off the yoke of complexity for the relative freedom of deep simplicity. Some days it doesn’t take much for fear to topple us from our sense of connection and participation into an icy sea of isolation and dread. One moment we can be in love, relationship or communion, and the next we‘ve fallen into lonely and needy isolation.
There are people in their late twenties who understand life far better than some in their sixties. What might be some characteristics of those who have let life circumstances teach them?
The first is the capacity to let failure meet and teach them. Failure and suffering are the great teachers and spare none of us. We can deny them or let them tutor us about what’s valuable and what’s lasting. Failure and suffering rip off the false self, the endless disguises of the ego that goes to extraordinary lengths to prove, promote or protect itself. Those who let the years teach them can learn to trust that if they let go this false self, they fall into a deeper, larger and richer life than they could have constructed.
A second characteristic of these spacious and gracious people is that they have a capacity to hold paradox. They don’t have to deny that they are mixtures of darkness and light; loving one moment and indulgent the next; courageous and wise, then hesitant; sagacious and imprudent; striving for the good and the true and then captured by compulsion. These people are at home in their own skin, for they know they’ll never ‘have it together’. At least on their better days, they remember that life is a mixed bag: they carry their amalgam of sharp edges with a wisdom that can forgive reality and themselves for not being perfect.
A third characteristic is a capacity to let woundedness be a source of compassion and mercy, rather than a toxic pool of bitterness and resentment. No one escapes being wounded and we can’t relate honestly without an awareness of this. In this litigious society, it’s become easy to blame another for how life’s turned out and this fault-finding can get into our very cells. It’s a temptation to find someone to blame so we can gain pleasure from being the one who’s been wronged.
The space of deep simplicity is always there and sometimes we just drop into it. We might hear a voice whispering an invitation that takes us past the known, through the untrodden and into the unexpected. We’re not meeting the world with the same cynicism or sarcasm, but seeing through fresh, hopeful eyes.
From this space we have a less controlling grip over what should be and can operate from a broader vision. It’s where we can trust that laying down life for love is neither naïve nor a trap.
A space of deep simplicity gives the grace to no longer need to tote grievances. We choose to extend universal amnesty towards ourselves, our adversaries, and towards the way life has worked out.
Here we notice that what should have destroyed us has actually recreated us, and we can love again without rhyme, reason or reward. We want to be aware of others’ soul pain, rather than forever sojourning in the land of blame.
Here our spirit can sing even amidst uncertainty, for we don’t have to keep airbrushing the past or micro-managing the future. It’s from where we sense a voice that whispers that we’re not our ups and downs, our opinions or plans, our past or what’s to come. We can trust that grace can be at work even in the midst of the seemingly absurd.
Our 4 year-old daughter will inevitably leave the land of naïve simplicity and soon enough bump against life’s brokenness and blessedness. And my 96 year-old mother will leave this earth, probably slipping out in an attitude of thanks that life has taught her what love is all about. May I too grow more completely, to be able to proclaim the words of Dag Hammarskjöld: “For what has been, thank you. For what will be, yes.”
It was almost six months ago. After having Sunday night dinner with two friends of mine at a Brisbane presbytery, I was beginning to make the moves to go home, when about a quarter to ten, there was the sound of a loud “boom”. Knowing it was not the crunch of a car crash, we went to the front door to see if we could see anything. Less than twenty metres away in the churchyard, a white car was completely engulfed in an inferno. As we got used to the brightness of the flames against the night, our eyes recognised what our minds did not want to register: there about two metres in front of the car was a human figure, completely on fire. Screaming for help, she stood paralysed by the pain. While the three of us ran in different directions for water and blankets, we wondered when we would wake up from the dream.
Her name was Mary (name changed), who, we were told, had been a very attractive girl in her late twenties or early thirties. Although unknown to the parish priest, she was Catholic by birth. She had been staying just around the corner from the Church, and so could not have missed the big blue cross lit every night on the steeple. Mary had recently endured a painful splitting up process from her de facto husband of some years, and she had a child of school age. She was also estranged from her mother, living on the opposite side of Australia. She worked in a high pressure job in public service, and according to reports, had endured much taunting from the males at her job, who, following Mary’s relationship break-up, were openly taking bets in front of her as to which of them would first be able to woo her into bed.
I had never met Mary either, except for those long long moments when she screamed to me out of the fire. Her clothes had been consumed by this stage, and her now naked body was covered with 98% burns. The day was the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, or in the old calendar, the Feast of the Purification. The First Reading that morning was from Malachi 3:1-4:
“The Lord Almighty answers:
‘The Lord you are looking for will suddenly come to his Temple’.
But who will be able to endure the day when he comes? Who will be able to survive when he appears? He will be like the fuller’s herb, like a fire that refines metal.
As a metalworker refines silver and gold, so the Lord’s messenger will purify the priests, so that they will bring to the Lord the right kind of offerings.”
Mary died ten days later, on Ash Wednesday. The First Reading for that day (Joel 2:12-18) had proclaimed:
“Let your broken heart show your sorrow;
your torn clothes are not enough….
Then the Lord showed concern for his land;
he had mercy on his people.”
The last vision I have of Mary is of her being picked up by the ambulancemen, her slumped burnt body being held as in a Pietà painting. I will never know and can never know Mary’s mind, heart or soul. Yet this experience has reaffirmed for me what I have held for many years: that we as a Christian Church have largely forgotten the language of soul, and have neglected to teach others how to listen to its voice, for we have largely relinquished our vocation as true carers of the soul. Before even beginning to process my thoughts and feelings, I knew that night that we as Church had done many a great disservice, for we have largely relinquished our role as true carers of the soul.
For some, the word “soul” can arouse discomfort, with fears of dualism and super-spiritual people forgetting their God-given bodiliness. Reservations towards Plato, or more correctly, towards abuses of Platonic teaching, can give rise to antipathy when talking of the soul, as if it were a disembodied entity, beckoning and enticing the unwary spiritual traveller to forsake their human nature. Yet in the “Phaedrus”, Plato’s four “Divine Madnesses” are described: prophecy, healing, art and love. Nowadays, we would call prophecy “extrasensory perception”, and we might vaguely hint at healing of the soul through investigations of psychosomatic diseases. The last two, that of art and love, belong especially to the realm of the soul, for it is in creative exploration and engagement of self that we discover the mystery of oneself and the other, and the mystery of the Other, God. Meister Eckhart said in the 13th Century that “the soul is not so much in the body, as the body is in the soul”(1).
To understand soul, one must become, or allow oneself to become, a poet. Its language is symbolic, and perhaps it is this to which Jesus refers when he says “Listen, if you have ears!” (Mt 13:9) More than understanding the soul as such, we must be prepared to “stand under” it, to let soul speak its truth in its own tongue, without rushing in to defend our own precious worldviews, by correcting its theology or philosophy. The soul speaks in metaphor, in image, in parable, in symbol and in story.
“Soul” and “psyche” are roughly equivalent in meaning, although “soul” is a word which is not so clinical as “psyche”, and is itself far more poetic, lying closer to the land of the ineffable and the unutterable. Psychology and psychiatry are two disciplines which are based upon the word “psyche”, yet both can find it difficult to admit the implication of soul’s reality. Unmeasurable and unquantifiable, it defies rational prodding and probing. Yet, as Mary can remind us, the consequences of denying the reality of soul can be devastatingly real.
I am self-employed in the area of Spirituality Consultancy. Although I work with groups, I also spend much of my week listening to others in Spiritual Direction, which named or sometimes not named as such, is the care and cure of souls. The great challenge in working and walking with others in the spiritual life is that one must be very aware of one’s own journey, one’s own darknesses and demons: the religious professional can find it threatening for another to open up to them, if they themselves have a pious persona to maintain. The basic question to keep in mind is: “What is God saying through that which has been happening to and for the other?” Outer circumstance and inner condition often mirror each other, and it requires the eyes and ears of the poet to be able to see and hear what the soul is intimating.
I would like to take a moment to take as an illustration how Mary’s soul may well have been forced to act out in the Outer World what it could have been attempting to say within her for a long time. As I have mentioned, I had not nor obviously will have an opportunity to speak with her; however permit me an opportunity to surmise. She was estranged from others, and perhaps feeling debased and humiliated, and so her soul wished to let her know of its desire to draw near to her conscious self. The Song of Songs has it:
“I [i.e. the Soul] went wandering through the city,
through its streets and alleys.
I looked for the one I love.
I looked, but couldn’t find him.” (3:2)
The soul, with its ability to reflect in images, can tell us symbolically through fantasy, dreams and projections, what is stifling it. We can mistakenly interpret the urge towards physical suicide as a desperate cry to help to live; yet from the vantage point of the soul, it is a plea to be able to die – but not physically. Hearing the soul through the ears of literality, and not through the ears of poetic symbol, is the great sin of our age. Something did need to die within Mary, but she was unable to interpret it psychically and symbolically. The urge towards death may well have been there in her to serve the urge towards life.
Although probably totally unaware, she acts out on that night a profoundly religious ritual. On the Feast of the Purification, which is also just before the New Moon that month, Mary drives the car as close as she can to the window at the side of the Church, through which the Blessed Sacrament light throws its crimson glow. When she uses spirit to douse the car and herself, the night becomes as bright as the day, and she is transformed into the rider in the mythical Sun Chariot. From the Solar Barque of the Egyptians, to Ezekiel’s heaven-bound chariot, this mythological image has been a consistent symbol of the hero’s body being consumed in service of the Spiritual. The urge for consciousness in the dark night of her soul is acted out literally.
Why did Mary choose to die in this way, and not attempt again her previous bid to silence her soul through tranquillisers? On the level of feeling, fire often represents anger: anger towards others, towards oneself, towards God. Yet on the level of soul, it represents spiritual energy, the yearning for transformation, the cycle of destruction and regeneration, the eradication of the forces of evil, and the meditator between forms. For the ancient alchemists, fire is the element which is at the centre of all things, and acts as a unifier and stabiliser. It is the bonding of mysticism and eroticism, of animal instinct and spiritual strength – a holy alliance of heaven and earth. Stripped of persona, even her clothing, she acts out literally the soul’s message of death and new life.
It is easy to be wise in retrospect. In the wake of that summer evening, those who knew her personally would probably have said “we should have seen the signs”. Yet this is why it is so necessary for those in Church ministry to be adept at inner midwifery, what one could call “obstetrics of the soul”. Over the last few centuries, the Church has relinquished its responsibility to foster soul growth, and accentuated the Will and rationality. Yet the soul cannot be stilled: psychoanalysis could be seen as having had to emerge, as a result of the Church’s indifference. How many parishioners have confidence in going to their priest or minister to discuss a recurring dream, an experience of anorexic soul starvation, the sense of presence of a departed loved one, or a raw experience of the fascinating yet humbling Numinous? When was the last time we heard a sermon on the importance and ways of listening to non-rational spiritual experience – despite the fact that out of 4786 verses in the New Testament, 2340 verses, or 49% relate to such experience(2)?
The word “religion”, as we are probably aware, comes from the root “religare”, to “bind back”. One aim of religion, then, might well be to keep oneself anchored, so as to listen to the sounds of silence in the soul, and be attentive to its seasons, to its varied and variable colours, shapes and textures. Without this anchoring, we are easily seduced by the sirens that seek to convince us that the soul’s yearnings must be acted out, rather than be listened to by the poet and critiqued by the sage. By saying all this, I do not deny the duty of religion to also call us to social responsibility, to outer relationships and issues of justice; being attentive to one’s soul as an end in itself guarantees withering of spirit. However, giving the soul the attention that is due allows love of others and of God to flourish, and permits one to be rooted in honesty.
When speaking of this attention to the movement of soul, it can help to call to mind the image of attentiveness used by the ancient Chinese: that of a cat before a mousehole. I like this image, because for me it conveys the subtleties which we are called to observe: What is my response now in contrast to yesterday? What has shifted? Where are my desires going? How is this elusive and almost imperceivable variation a portrayal of soul desire, rather than of feelings?
Like the word “soul, the term “desire” has been given a bad press through the years. Rather than attempting to quash desire, as if it were evil and to be confessed as sinful, it is imperative to identify where the desire is going, so we can know that for which the soul thirsts. A helpful question to ask is “Where does this person’s heart go when it is free?” This describes “passion”. These two words easily engender fear, because desire and passion are potent, with potential seemingly too volatile to contemplate. Another way to put it is “Where is this person experiencing ‘homesickness’?” Like desire and passion, I find the term “homesickness” both rich and evocative. We can experience it when we stand in awe at the exquisite beauty of a sunset, or when we are moved to tears by a piece of music, great or banal. The ache in the pit of our stomach yearns for unity, and can speak of what we have always desired, but have never been able to grasp, for the ineffable is often glimpsed out the corner of our soul-eyes.
When these two Godly and elementary forces and gifts of desire and passion are frustrated through denial for whatever reason, then the soul seeks and reeks havoc. Either a person’s energies decline, so that life becomes dutiful yet dull, righteous yet listless, or the animation that comes from friendship with soul is frustrated, so that the passion becomes poisonous and the desire become destructive. The Song of Songs speaks of stymied desire:
“Love is as powerful as death;
passion is as strong as death itself.
It bursts into flame
and burns like a raging fire.
Water cannot put it out;
no flood can drown it.”
Yet are we able to name that for which we truly desire? Those charged with the care of souls must remember the chief law of the Spiritual World: it must be listened to symbolically. It is helpful to ask oneself: “What is it in the Inner World for which this person desires, that is being represented in a physical way in the Outer World?” For example, a person may confess the sin of lust: in what way are they yearning for union with their own soul, which is mistakenly projected out onto someone outside of them? Or perhaps they detect a sense of numbness in their relationship with God: how are they knowingly or unknowingly imparting self-anaesthesia, or speaking symbolically, drinking of the waters of the Lethe, the Underworld river of Forgetfulness? What is the fear or the unnamed pain behind the anaesthetic? What might be, as one client puts it, the “unsayable question”?
Another person seeing me for Spiritual Direction had a strong sense for almost twelve months that he had to go to Africa to rediscover his roots. He knew this was “silly” and impractical, because he was quite settled here in Australia, he was happily married with four children, and he couldn’t afford it anyway. Yet month after month, the urge continued, and illustrated itself in fantasy, in movies and music. When he eventually matured in the courage to apply for a new job in which he was free to use his rich creative and artistic expression, the yearning to travel to Africa suddenly ceased. He had allowed himself to “go home”: home to himself. God speaks through the desire.
A person who has been praying sincerely might come to you, telling you that they think God is saying to them “you must leave your marriage”. Always check out firstly the language of the soul. As it is symbolic, it is helpful to ask yourself “in what way does this person need to symbolically leave their marriage?” In other words, how is his/her desire to move onwards an expression of the yearning of soul to move metaphorically from where it has been imprisoned? Physical leaving of a marriage may not need to take place if there is recognition of the need for movement of soul. God speaks through the desire.
Depression, too, can also be revisioned through the eyes of the symbolic soul. From an outer perspective, depression can be assumed and assessed as “bad”, a “waste of time”, or something that must be relieved as soon as possible. Yet even depression can become a profound rite of passage for the life of the soul, and consequently for the experience of the depth of God, as it tarries in the Underworld, or in Biblical imagery, the wilderness that Jacob experienced. During a scene in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean must convey the injured Marius through the underground sewers of Paris, to escape from the police who are hunting him down. He descends into the blackness, but he does not know how deep or wide it is, nor does he know prior to entry where or if he will be able to resurface. This image of “going into the depths” is one that is repeated throughout mythology and literature: for example, Theseus descending into the Underworld to slay the Minataur, Jonah being swallowed by the big fish, and the deceased Egyptian pharaoh journeying safely by barque to the Other World before being received into the land of Osiris.
Tradition also refers to the journey which Christ makes into the depths after his Crucifixion. During this sojourn in the Underworld, he rescues those souls who are waiting for redemption, to bring them to the light when he rises from the dead. The ancient term for this descent into the unknown is the Nekyia. A person experiencing depression encounters the Nekyia, for the soul is in the process of discovering what needs to be raised and redeemed from the hells way down deep within them. It is that passage into which we are plunged when there is a complete reversal of all that we thought previously to be secure. We say “my world fell apart”, or “the bottom fell out of my world”, and so we sink into the Nekyia where reality waxes into what we had so meticulously eluded.
Accompanying someone through their Nekyia experience is both privileged and profound. As a carer of souls, you have no rational answers, no slick slogans enclosed in sample bags of skills and strategies. The only surety you have is that God is trustworthy, and that if the person is faithful to the Nekyia process and does not get stuck through fear or false guilt, then their soul will grow soundly. The inertia experienced within the Nekyia can sometimes spring from an “ennui”, a boredom with life – a symptom experienced by many if not most when the life of the soul is cut off, because they become stuck in Nekyia mud. Simultaneously, this is a desire for life and a desire for death. Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “the torment of despair is precisely this: not to be able to die”(3).
How can we help those with whom we walk to psychically die well? If they cannot lay to rest what needs to be put to rest, their soul is metaphorically doomed to wander the Underworld, like an Egyptian “ka” spirit, condemned to forever roam the Nubian deserts. We must listen with the ears that Christ said must be used: the ears of the Spirit, which are ears of the metaphoric. Like a lighthouse blinking out its message into the night, the soul way down deep provides a resolution or a way out of the tunnel. It surfaces, however, in its own good timing, and not at the timing of the conscious mind. Jean Valjean eventually discovers “his soul filled with a strange light”, and his night is over when he reaches the end of the sewers. The stages of resolution have been embraced, consciousness breaks through, and peace floods the soul. This light produced by the soul represents the emergence of a new level of being, and as an image, has had a long history. For example, the ancient Egyptians referred to the “ba” or the immortal soul-image, the hieroglyph of which was in the shape of a star. Christian iconography has represented it as a halo. In moments of solitude of soul, we can intuit something rich, beautiful and precious that has a timeless nature about it, a capacity to touch the eternal. The flame of the soul is ignited by the realisation of its true desire, which itself is a reflection of the desire for God, and of God for us.
I commenced with the story of Mary. Let me now spend a few moments relating to you the story of another female of similar age, who came to see me some time ago. Let me call her Catherine. Catherine, who believed in God but was not a churchgoer, said that she basically had two problems: a fear of dying, and a constant avoidance of relationships. When she was a child, the Spiritual World was real to her: she was well aware of her imagination, her intuition, and the presence of the non-rational, as well as a lively sense of the presence of God. When she began to grow up however, Catherine was told by her rather factual parents to leave behind such attitudes towards the Non-Rational. This Catherine tried to do, and became quite successful in the public relations industry, using her natural vivaciousness and aptitude for getting along with others. During the years, she kept warm relationships with her parents. Catherine discovered to her horror recently that when her mother was personally upset a few weeks before, she was, in her own words, “as cold as ice” towards her mother.
A couple of years ago, Catherine wrote a story, for which she intended to seek publication, but ran into inertia. She told me the outline briefly, which goes like this if my memory is correct:
“An old woman in a nursing home relates to the nurses that she is waiting for a man to come to her: a man who many many years ago promised that he would not let her down, but would come to marry her before she dies. The nurses humour her, but secretly laugh.
One day the old woman begins to die, and with not much time left, she says to the nurses, “He will be coming soon to marry me.” The nurses feel sad that she is in such a deluded state before she dies. The night before she passes away, the man comes to her. They are married, and she dies happily in the arms of her loved one.”
At first glance, it may seem simple and almost naive: a melancholic girl is writing to ease a tragic love life that may have been lost. Yet in this story was contained the key to healing. The split between her inner Spiritual World and her outer Physical World was rending the fabric of her soul, and both realms grew opposed to each other – causing her to feel “nothing” within. She was afraid of dying: dying to the status quo of opposition between these two Worlds, for fear that the Outer World would swallow her Inner World, which she had so trusted as a child. The two Worlds had to be kept at a distance, she thought; so it was no wonder that she could not allow her relationships with the Outer World to impinge upon her. The old lady in the story did have to get to the point of death before her lover could come: Catherine was being invited to come into intimacy (“intimacy” meaning “through the gates of fear”) with her soul, which was to be the place of marriage between fire and ice, the two sides of herself, no longer competing but intertwined, and so transformed. A month or so later, she told me of a dream in which she made friends with a lion, a leopard and a cheetah: overtones of the Isaiahan vision of wholeness (Is.11:6-8).
I have said much, yet scarcely scratched the surface of what needs to be recovered, if we are to be once again the helpmates of healthy religion in the caring and curing of sick souls. Through our helping others to rediscover the universe of the soul, “faith” is converted from being a belief in a doctrine because someone else has said so, to an experience of divine inner life which the ego realises it has not created, and upon which outer life is reformed and renewed.
Catherine’s experience can show us the importance of the Inner Marriage that needs to take place within the soul. Mary’s experience can remind all carers and ministers of the Church of that verse from Malachi on the Feast of the Presentation: “As a metalworker refines silver and gold, so the Lord’s messenger will purify the priests”. If the messenger called Mary can highlight the necessity of listening to the soul, she will not have died in vain. For attending to the music of the soul allows a living beyond what we see with our eyes. The concerns of humanity become truly our own as well, because we recognise our interconnectedness at the most basic and intimate levels. We then wander at last into eternity, home to the Mystery into whom we were conceived, and to whom we will ask not “Where were You all the time?” but say “So that was You all the time!”
(1) Fox, Matthew. Meister Eckhart. (Santa Fe New Mexico, Bear and Co, 1983) p.105.
(2) Kelsey, Morton T. Encounter With God. (Minneapolis Minnesota, Bethany Fellowship Inc, 1972) p.242.
(3) Kierkegaard, Soren. Sickness Unto Death. (Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967) p.150.
Throughout the centuries and throughout the world, observers of the rhythms of the human soul have employed a large range of images to try to describe the contours, colours and textures of the inner journey. Sometimes it has been ying and yang; sometimes with inner geographical metaphors of cliffs and valleys, deserts and springs; and sometimes through the imagery of the Paschal Mystery of crucifixion and resurrection.
One very common set of images has been that of the seasons: summer gives way to autumn, and winter surrenders into spring. This trustworthy pattern of the outer rhythms can become a lure for us to notice similar movements within our psyches: that which had placed such demands upon us a few months ago now no longer draws us, or we might notice new buds of hope emerging from the winter’s snow of a discontent.
Awakening to the giftedness of being – in becoming aware of the sheer gift of being alive – might be akin to the feel of summer: we can join the 13th century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart in joyfully recognizing that “everything is bathed in God, and is enveloped by God.” The intense warmth of summer sun speaks to the experience of being chosen by the divine Lover: “You loved me unspeakably much, as one gone mad over your creature.” (Catherine of Siena).
Yet just as the seasons claim permanence, it is the common experience for the human soul to find it has to let go of the balmy days and to say “yes” to the changing colours and hues. Leaves must surrender to the autumn tints of red and yellow, and then say goodbye to that which had kept them dressed in bright green. Learning to detach is a hallmark of inner maturing, for what one clings to and grips will eventually strangle the lifeflow. Like Abraham, we must follow the call to leave what we have known, to go to a land we don’t yet know. The leaves of certainty and security must drop, and the surrender into being led into the unchartered must begin.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “Love winter, when the plant says nothing”. In winter seasons, we begin to appreciate anew what Paul says about Christ “emptying himself” (Phil. 2:7). The illusions about ourselves, others, life and God begin quickly or slowly to disappear, and we’re not sure where we are or even who we are any more. The stark boughs and blank branches can remind us of our nothingness: we have nothing to boast about to God. Yet that becomes our joy, because the focus shifts from how we’re doing to who God is. It is in this winter season that we find God is not as we had thought; God no longer fits the straight-jackets of human dimensions and concepts, and God is realized as no-thing: no thing but Love; no thing but Presence, no thing but the centre, source and destiny of everything that is. In winter we learn to see, taste and feel the textures of life differently: our soul eyes have opened from within the darkness. We can say with John of the Cross, “O guiding night, O night more lovely than the dawn”.
Yet just as the buds are called forth from the frosts, and the first inklings of nature’s renewal are sung into form by a little more insistent sunlight, so we sense we have been taken to a different land. We have joined Jonah in the chorus of those who have been thrown onto another shore that they had not chosen and they had not envisaged, yet a shore that they had dreamed of and yearned for all their lives. We find we have become pregnant, and called to be mothers of God to the world. We have emerged from the winter’s gloom as different people: not because we have done anything right, but because we see that God has done everything right. Through the night of winter, the Divine Lover has wooed and awakened us into recognizing Love as the one for whom we have always desired. Mechtild of Magdeburg expressed it: “The rippling tide of love flows secretly out from God into the soul, and draws it mightily back to its source”.
Yet this springtime is not for the keeping; the heralding of soul-spring is not a trophy for our spiritual achievement shelf. The inner seasons are so we can learn to forget ourselves, just as the trees know they must forget themselves if they are to continue growing and being what they are. Our call into living from within God’s heart is not for ourselves but for the world that God holds dearly. Dorothee Soelle puts it well: “What happens in mystical union is not a new vision of God but a different relationship to the world – one that has borrowed the eyes of God.” We become aware of the profound truth of Teresa of Avila’s remark: “Christ has no body now but yours” – and this body is the whole of humanity, of the earth and of the universe. We sense the call of all that is to share fully in truly being the body of Christ; our lives are so we can “make ready for the Christ, whose smile, like lightning, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh … like dynamite.” (Thomas Merton).
The time ticks on, the years evaporate before the turning of the millennium. And still millions throughout the world look to the manger at Bethlehem to seek inspiration from the Child born all those years ago.
It may seem that those who venerate this Child’s coming do so because they wish to remember what transpired amidst angelic marvels and murderous mayhem of monarchs. Yet this celebration is not so much to recall yesterday’s events but to experience today the reality of another Coming. The intrigue of this Child continues to permeate cracks and fissures within the human heart, despite the best efforts to be rid of this meddlesome infant by the substitution of the twin fetishes of consumerism and Christmas kitsch.
The Geographical Bethlehem
Bethlehem – the “City of Bread”, birthplace of King David and burial place of Rachel, mother of Benjamin and beloved wife of the patriarch Jacob. It is a prosaic place, with the exception of Manger Square; nothing to write home about, nothing exceptional. Perhaps just like how most of us feel about ourselves.
Littered alleys wind their narrow ways between shopfronts, with little evidence of patterns or particular planning: like most of our lives. Lopsided cobblestones lie in wait to trip the unwary visitor, and bored children throw stones at one another: perhaps just like the defences of most of us.
Still, it is Manger Square that draws the sightseer and the souvenir hawker; the crusader and the tourist junkie; the pilgrim and the postcard seller. Bethlehem Ephrata is a magnet and mecca for as many reasons as there are visitors.
The word “Manger” comes from the root “to eat”. The House of Bread brings forth the Christ Child who Himself later is to become the Bread of Life. The location of the Manger’s meaning is discovered ultimately not in the stone Square’s teeming precincts but within the Walled Garden of our souls.
The Inner Bethlehem
It has been customary for us to assemble a Christmas Crib in our homes, with representations of the Bethlehem scene, complete with the Holy Family, the Star, angels and animals. From expensive shopfront displays through to humble cardboard cutouts, this ritual of assembling and viewing the Crib is looked forward to and enjoyed by millions.
Each facet of the Crib is not simply a representation of something exterior that takes its place within the Christmas Story, but it is also a facet of what transpires within the depths of our “Temenos”, the Walled Garden, or the Manger Square of our Souls.
The cud-chewing cattle which we place on the straw are reminders of our inner instincts that we long to hold in harmony with the rest of our make-up. These impulses, which seem to be sometimes so distant from what we may deem as being “spiritual”, can be led into our Stable to be placed with the Child.
Laying the straw in the Crib prompts us to remember that Jesus is no stranger to the messy and soiled, the smelly and unkempt. If God was to have delayed his Coming so we all could have had our souls scrubbed, antiseptically washed and hygenically laundered in an attempt to drag ourselves up to the standard of a five-star hotel, we would still be waiting for Christmas. God is used to working only with warped human beings, and new birth is always messy.
The shepherds may remind us that we are physical creatures, who need to be in touch with the gift of Body. The Magi or the Wise Men, on the other hand, can represent the gift of Mind. They come from the East or the place of Sunrise, from where light bursts upon the darkness of ignorance. We are creatures with consciousness, and like the Shepherds and the Magi, we can choose to bring our intellect and physicality into the orbit of God.
The figure of the Virgin Mary can be symbolic of that side of us which is prepared to say an unconditional “yes” to God’s action within. Just as she was unable to conceive a child on her own, but needed the impregnation of God’s grace, so we in times of defeat and frustration can recall that we all must be symbolically virginal before the Lord, if the Christ Child is to be born within our Manger. We cannot produce lasting life through our own cleverness or ingenuity; we must also be gifted with grace.
Joseph may well represent the practical aspects which can be brought into play to rear this new life. Just as Joseph was the foster-father of Jesus, so our ego needs to foster in very practical ways that which has been born within our soul.
The Christmas Star is placed on top of the Crib scene as a final touch. This star, which shines brightest in the deepest darkness, is the Pole Star for the desires and aspirations that arise from the wells of our hearts, hopes which help us persevere through the nighttimes of our fears. Our deepest desires can also be the desires of God for us as well.
Not far away from Bethlehem is Jerusalem, where King Herod has been plotting the destruction of the babe who threatens his throne. This tale puts a haze over the Christmas story, and prevents the characters from lingering too long over the new King.
This theme of Herod’s extreme reaction to another king raises its head each time there is a new birth of life within us; the old ego is threatened at the prospect of change coming, and it tries to stave off the loss of comfort by immobilising the new life.
We have all experienced a burst of fresh energy and enthusiasm when we feel we have matured and grown through difficult stages in our lives – only to crash down again into old fixations and obsessions. Our old ego does not die easily, and our newly born life within may need sojourn in “Egypt” for a while to mature a little before assuming centre stage. We cannot make the grass grow by pulling it, as the Chinese proverb goes.
Every aspect of the Christmas story, then, can also be mirrored within our inner selves, the Manger Square of our souls. Like each facet of the Gospels – the Nativity, the Parables, the Miracle stories, the Crucifixion/Resurrection – there is not one story of Christ that cannot be ours as well. The Biblical dramas are played out on the crooked cobblestones of our Soul Garden, and in the messy and dog-legged laneways of our intentions; but if the Nativity is to be real for us, then it firstly must be happening within. There need be no difference or distance between Bethlehem and our seemingly ordinary inner House of Bread.
No Agenda but Love
We all have met many people who live lives that reflect the graceful, generous, forgiving, non-violent and simple lifestyle that is written all over the pages of the gospels.
We don’t “get to God”; it’s more about letting God get to us.
It’s not so much about becoming holy, as about being wholly human – and therefore celebrating and living from the holiness that we already are – but don’t realize it, and mightn’t even call it as such.
It’s more about accepting, holding and letting Love into the reality of what is – in all of its beauty and its blemishes, its hope and its hells.
Being lovingly present to whatever is the encounter with God, and the great stories of the gospels become enfleshed within our lives – whether or not we name them as encounters with God.
These thoughts celebrate the lives of all those
who’ve risked living boldly, faithfully, tenderly and truly –
all in the name of Love.
“No Agenda but Love” may seem a rather strange title for a piece of reflective work. It doesn’t sound very theological, it doesn’t seem to echo rarified spiritual insights and truths, and it certainly doesn’t radiate the confidence of providing a watertight bastion of truth and certainty. What, then, is this manuscript about?
In these few pages of offerings, I have wanted to give voice to something which to me seems so patently true, yet in some religious circles, can sound a revolutionary and even dangerous thing to utter. What might this be?
My main hope in my book The Freeing of God (2009) was to communicate that if we let the years teach us – through moments such as love, death, failure, sickness, prayer and mystery – we find that the essence of the gospel life is about being and becoming truly human. Through this, we’re able to discover more of the real nature of God.
Yet an extension of this is also true: that as we let ourselves live and relate more honestly, the gospel stories are lived within us and through us – without our even knowing it or needing to name it. We all have met many people who live lives that reflect the graceful, generous, forgiving, non-violent and simple lifestyle that is written all over the pages of the gospels.
Many might object to such a statement, and may stress the importance of our being able to name correctly the theological truths of salvation and redemption, in order to come into “be saved” and be at rights with God.
It seems though that Jesus is far more interested in encouraging people to forgive and cherish, to act justly and honestly, and to approach life and its mysteries humbly and with confidence in God’s faithfulness. Why would God need to make sure that people held correctly formulated theological theories? (Surely descriptions of the divine are beyond words anyway!) What does this say about God? Why would God need to damn people to everlasting torture, simply because they did not have the right scriptural words or notions in their heads when they died? Again, what does this say about God? Why would people want to fall in love with a God like this?
If God has a hang-up about correct concepts and approved beliefs, and is prepared to torment us endlessly and forever – all apparently in the name of divine justice – because we didn’t subscribe to the right expressions of these, then absurd as it seems, we must admit that we have all met others who apparently are far more forgiving and merciful than God!
Christianity holds that Jesus, as the perfect Icon of God, reveals the heart and soul of God (if we can employ these anthropomorphic terms about God). It seems that whenever Jesus speaks of salvation and living in what he termed “the Kingdom of God”, he is referring not to a club for “the saved” which excludes those who are “the unsaved”, but rather to a way of life that is all-encompassing and all-embracing. He is referring to a way of seeing, a way of loving, a way of holding, a way of cherishing, a way of suffering with, a way of working for and celebrating the dignity of all of humanity and all of creation.
Jesus believes God is already here. We don’t get to God; it’s more about letting God get to us. It’s not about becoming holy, so much as about being wholly human and therefore celebrating and living from the holiness that we already are – but don’t realize. It’s about accepting the reality of what is – in all its beauty and its blemishes, its hope and its hells. Being lovingly present to whatever is the encounter with God, and the great stories of the gospels become enfleshed within our lives – whether or not we name them as such.
It is with this hope that I penned “No Agenda but Love”. The whole reason for God creating the universe was so that God could express God’s nature which is love: love within the beauty, love within the tragedy, love within the hope and the heartache, and love within the stupidity and the sublime. In the beginning it was Love, in the end it will be Love, and throughout the sweep of cosmic history it is Love that is the very breath of life.
Brisbane, January 2011
If you’ve ever listened deep within you to a voice –
a voice not of your own making
but which whispers an invitation
that will take you past the known,
through the untrodden
and into a pregnancy of the unexpected …
an opportunity comes out of the blue
some news catches you off guard
your life takes an unexpected turn …
when you’re asked
to consider something you never dreamed, or
to imagine something you never would have considered …
someone says they love you
someone believes the best about you
someone offers you the chance to start again
when you’re asked to let go your illusions about
who you are and who others are,
what life should be and who God should be …
when you know you can rely no longer
upon your clever expertise
to procure that magical rabbit from your hat,
to snatch yet another victory from the jaws of defeat,
to pretend you really can keep all the balls in-flight, or
your glistening competence silky smooth …
yet with dread and faith,
with reservation and openness,
you somehow summon the courage
to whisper “yes” to this inviting voice,
and wonder why on earth you’re doing so –
then you’re embodying the spirit of Mary
at the angel’s visitation
If you’ve ever unburdened to a soulmate,
and trusted that
because life has schooled them in serenity,
then they’re able to hold and reverence
your perhaps strange but sublime secret news
that stretches the skin of your soulspace,
wherein the embodied hopes and enfleshed dreams
leap for joy in the very presence of each other …
then you’re embodying
Mary’s visit to Elizabeth
If you’ve ever found
that amidst all the wrong timings,
the wrong places, the dashed self-expectations
and the lash of others’ misunderstandings,
you’ve let emerge
from your heart and into your world
a fresh call and promise that simultaneously
is not you and yet so you
that your outlooks and sensitivities
can never return to status quo …
If you find you must vacate the hustle-bustle
and retreat to the solitude of your soul cave,
to let be born
something rather less sophisticated and chic
than what you may have envisaged …
If you sense the surfacing
of an ache for innocence,
for fullness, for completion,
for the chance to start again …
If you’ve grown weary of meeting the world
with the same old cynicism and sarcasm,
and you long to let yourself greet the now
with eyes that perceive freshly, and
you can let your soul sparkle anew
and be surprised …
If you sense within you
a fragility beyond description,
yet somehow it finds itself in rhythm
with an ache for union with the infinite:
a nostalgia for a paradise you’ve always known
in your deepest cellular memory …
then you’re embodying the Nativity
If you’ve ever let the strange and foreign,
the alien and unusual, the pariahs and outsiders
not baulk you
but beckon you into a less controlling grip
of what should be, and
into a more panoramic perception of reality …
or if you’ve discovered
you’ve become an outsider to others –
you don’t receive invitations you once did,
you aren’t deemed one of the insiders, or
you’re viewed as somewhat dangerous, heretical,
a little crazy or worse –
yet your heart knows you couldn’t exchange
what has come to birth in you
for all the gold and glitter in the world …
then you’re experiencing the world
of the Magi and shepherds
(Matthew 2:1-12, Luke 2:8-20)
If the implications start to seep through
about what it really means
to let something new and life-giving
form and take flesh in your life,
you might well be left feeling
rather daunted and dismayed.
The flow-on from the presence
of the nascent life within you
can leave you vulnerable to change;
can leave you vulnerable to the unknown;
can leave you vulnerable to discomfort;
can leave you vulnerable to risk and exposure, and
can leave you anxious and not in control.
Something in you might prefer
that the dawn of the new be fettered and slowed,
and your clammy leathery old ways
begin to feel not so rough after all –
in fact, they can suddenly seem strangely snug.
And if you don’t know what to do
with the fear and dread of
starting anew, believing anew,
hoping anew, loving anew,
leaving the familiar and
embracing the unfamiliar,
stepping back or stepping up –
then you may well export the anxiety
of such threatening change
onto those around you, so they too
can be dragged into the downdraught – and
so they too can grow as miserable as you.
You can douse their hopes with
“it’s always been this way”,
you can slash their tenacity with
“who do you think you are?” and
you can gash their buoyancy with
“why should anything wonderful happen to you?”
The radiance of new birth can be aborted
to ensure that the “same old same old”
can remain entrenched,
happy in its caged misery.
If you have visited this space –
then you’ve experienced within you
the spite of King Herod (Matthew 2:13-18)
If you’ve ever entered
into the depths of the ordinary,
where you notice
how the days can turn into weeks
and the months into years
without the fanfare of the spectacular,
the miraculous or spiritual amazements –
yet you can still stay awake
to the whispers and intimations of your soul …
then you’ve embodied
the hidden life of Jesus
If you’re ever graced
with the gift of the trust of another
who steadfastly loves you for no reason,
calls out the best from within you,
who promises to believe in you
throughout the perils and pitfalls
and into a new day,
and who proclaims to you through
how they spend their time
how they spend their money
how they meet misfortune
how they treat their foe
how they live justly and tenderly
how they hold the past
how they await the future
that laying down one’s life in love
is neither naïve nor a trap …
then you’re experiencing the spirit
of the baptism of Jesus
If you’ve ever been dropped into circumstances
where you’re tempted
to suppose that the layers upon layers
of posturing and posing, proving and protecting
actually are you –
that you are your feats and failures,
that you are your image and looks
that you are your riches and rags
that you are your baubles and beads
that you are what others think
that you are what you think
that you must be nice to everyone
that you must be seen as special
that you must be seen as right
that you must always have answers
that you must have escape hatches
that you must have the last word
that you must be a good boy or girl
that you must have others’ respect
yet you reverently respond
by choosing to breathe
from that secret space in your soul
where you again taste the texture of the Love
which once tenderly whispered your name,
and the Love which again delights in telling you
of how you’ve always belonged to Goodness …
then you’re embodying Jesus’ approach
to meeting temptation
If you ever stir to your spirit’s wild wake-up call
and rise to the quest of venturing
into what you know in your heart’s heart
you’ve been called to do,
and you know that it goes beyond
what those around you might expect of you,
or what they’re able to hold
within the fortified borders
of their manicured minds …
then you’re embodying
the initiation of Jesus’ ministry
If you’ve ever felt the tug
to go beyond
the confining opinions of your clan,
to live beyond the jail of your job, and
to know you’re worth more
than what the slick witty billboard
and the latest hot movie says you should be …
If you’ve felt the whisper
of something more venerable
than your deepest memory,
of something more ancient
than the century upon century
of human footfall upon the earth …
If this whisper imparts
what you almost dare not think
in case it melts
like a snowflake before your eyes,
yet through the steady drip of time
it grows more indestructible than steel …
If you know you must
leave behind all that you thought
named you, formed you and possessed you,
you can let your lifestyle proclaim
to anyone who cares to see
that the only way into being truly you
is to be radically named, formed and possessed
by the Love that outloves anything else.
If you’ve sensed that this is the way for you
to truly live …
then you’re embodying Jesus’ call
to the disciples
If you’ve ever found yourself
tiring of the trinkets and bored with the badges
which others insist you must chase,
and a longing arises for a more simple lifestyle
where you can live
free from the burden of bitterness, and
from a font of mercy not your own …
where you no longer need to tote up grievances
so you can call in your due; and
where your wish is to live in universal amnesty
with yourself, with your adversary, and
with the way your life has turned out …
then you’re embodying
the Sermon on the Mount
If you’ve ever let yourself
be blown away in amazement,
be overcome with awe or
be humbled into grateful silence
before the Mystery that defies description,
and you are told deep in your bodily cells
that you cannot fall out
of the Nest of mercy and graciousness …
then you’re sharing a moment in the life
of the transfigured Jesus
If you’ve ever met those
who’ve been crippled and cursed
by a fragile scared society,
or snubbed and shunned by tribal blindness,
and you find
that heart meets heart and gaze meets gaze,
that compassion gets pulled out from you,
and you’re caught up
in an interchange of presence
which you don’t create and
you know you don’t sustain …
then you’re embodying
Jesus the healer
If you ever discover yourself
caring with a compassion
that’s not coming simply from you …
or if you’re speaking out
you’d have taken refuge in self-pity …
or if you have decided to love again
when there is no rhyme, no reason
or no reward for doing so …
or if you find you’re making a decision
not because of anything you might gain or lose,
but because deep in your soul
you know you must decide this way
if you’re to be honest in your truest self …
then you’re embodying being born again …
and again …and again …
If you’ve ever been pulled up short by someone
who obviously isn’t from your side of the tracks,
who obviously doesn’t possess
your depth of learning and experience, and
who has the gall to question the way “it’s always been” –
it can be a strange and rattling sensation, for
they don’t say things in the way they should,
they don’t behave in the way they should, and
they don’t accord you the respect
you think you deserve …
yet what if the things they’re saying
might just be closer to how God sees things?
If you let yourself consider such a possibility,
then you’re embodying the experience
of Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman
If you’ve ever felt a bubbling,
a simmering, an upsurge of spirit,
a pushing of prison walls,
a weariness with nonchalance, and
a boredom with apathy …
If something in you cries out
that it longs to live the risk and red blood of life rather than hiding behind
the stockades of security and
the parapets of supposed certainty …
If something in you longs to see again
as you did before the hurts heaped up
as you did before the prejudices piled up
as you did before the shame stacked up …
If something in you longs
to melt the arctic freezing out,
to abandon the need to be one-up, and
to discard the expectation of rejection
so you can see as you once saw,
held as you once held, and
cherish as you once allowed yourself to do …
then you’re embodying the pleading
of Blind Bartimaeus
If you’ve ever caught your spirit singing,
despite and within moments of uncertainty …
If you’ve ever caught your soul in love,
despite all the compelling and sensible reasons
for folding up and folding in …
If you’ve ever caught your heart
with nothing to claim and no-one to blame …
you catch yourself smiling at a flower
you let flow a moment of mercy
you can let this minute be as it is.
There’s no past to airbrush,
no future to micro-manage.
There’s no burden of baggage to trawl through,
there’s no load of past failures to atone for,
there’s no weight of expectation to meet …
There’s simply here, there’s simply now,
there’s simply Love.
If you’ve been held in these kinds of moments,
then you’re embodying Jesus’ capacity
to walk on water
If your soul-eyes ever open to witness
the endless bulwarks which people erect
to impede their presence to others –
“I’ll forgive them if they’d say they’re sorry!”
“I’d be kind if they were more considerate!”
“Don’t they know who they’re talking to?”
“At least I’m better than he!”
“At least I’m not as bad as she!”
“It isn’t I who’ve done anything wrong!”
“He offended me again!”
“Doesn’t she remember all I’ve done for her?” –
a divine urgency might bubble up in you
to break through these cemented fortifications
that buy and sell relationships –
these hurdles that hamper
the flow of genuine communion.
We see so many withered and wandering souls
longing to be told
that yes, they are broken but they are blessed;
that yes, they are wounded but they are holy;
that yes, they are scared but they are sacred.
A voice can cry from deep within us:
“What are you doing?
Why your need to exact a toll
for others to be admitted
into your worthiness circle?
Get rid of your Checkpoint Charlie
who scans and scrutinizes
another’s admission papers!
“Let there be genuine awareness
of the Sacred’s genuine presence between us!
Let our embrace become a Holy of Holies
from which life-giving grace can flow!”
If such a transformation begins to occur in you,
then you’re embodying Jesus’ cleansing
of the temple
If you’ve ever been entrusted
with someone’s story,
brimming with dusty secrets
that have never seen the light of day,
and they’ve sensed
that you’re not the kind of person
to ridicule them, moralize
or walk away in disgust …
then with a grateful heart
they confide that many moons ago
they had made up their minds
to never ever disclose their story to anyone –
they’d harden their heart
they’d silence their soul
they’d solidify their spirit.
Yet now they stand and straighten up
to gift you with their soul’s secret:
“Something’s different –
I can live with myself a little more now.
You’ve called out from me
what I didn’t know I had;
you’ve awakened in me the realization
that I had succumbed to the tribal lie
that fences and barbed wire
were what it was all about.
“Fences didn’t so much keep others out,
as they kept me in by imprisoning my perceptions
in puny cells of self-righteous squalor.
I want to breathe again, to embrace again,
to love my life with a passion
I thought long ago had shriveled!”
If this is part of your story,
then you’re embodying Jesus’ encounter
with the Samaritan Woman
If you’ve been caught up and caught out
in a storm that’s come from nowhere,
you’ve probably lodged a formal complaint
to the heavens that such a pickle
is unfair, untimely,
unkind and unjust.
Yet perhaps you grow sensitive to noticing
a tiny and almost imperceptible space within you
which like a lighthouse
in the midst of a chopped and tossed sea
proclaims in the midst of the fury and fear
that you’re not your ups
and you’re not your downs;
that you’re not your opinions
and you’re not your plans;
that you’re not your past
and you’re not what’s to come.
The more you let this voice
echo around the chambers of your heart,
you can allow the seeping through
of what you’ve always known –
beyond the gates of fear
beyond the cobwebs of ghostly voices
beyond the practical and pragmatic
beyond any peace of mind
and into a peace of soul that does not feed
upon judgment, evaluating,
categorizing and ranking,
but can see as Love sees
because it desires what Love desires.
If this sometimes is true for you,
then you’re embodying Jesus
who calms the storm
If you’ve ever noticed how swiftly or slowly through the years
you build your little rostrum
so those in your patch can be reminded that
you’re in control, you’re on the wrong path
you’re such a winner, you’re such a loser
you’re such a hero, you’re such a wimp
you’ve done it so well, you’ve done it so poorly
you … you … you …
but the lights go out and the stars then fall,
the certainties crumble
and the assumptions crumple,
and in this moment of the end of your world,
all that you thought and all that you knew
now matter for naught –
then don’t anaesthetize the pain.
Stay awake and scan the skies
for the coming of the moment
to say “yes” to the unknowing, and
to the chance for kinder sight and keener insight.
For you never know the day or the hour
when the chance to become
more completely human,
more compassionately human,
more radically human,
more realistically human,
more daringly human,
more divinely human
will creep through or crash through
into your consciousness.
If you stay awake to this,
then you’re embodying
the coming of the Son of Man
If you’ve ever experienced the veil parting,
you know for a moment what really matters:
that forgiveness is a place from which to live
that you aren’t an isolated little monad
that holiness isn’t a worthiness game
that prayer is a way of breathing
that non-violence is the only way to allow presence
that you need your enemy to teach you
that you, your friend and your enemy are one
that excluding those different from you is death
that secular and sacred aren’t different places
that you’re most secure when you cling to nothing
that you’re most wealthy when nothing owns you
that you can’t base your life on the system
that your little life is never for naught
that it’s never the end of the story
that you’re already home eternally within Love.
If the veil has ever parted like this,
then know that you’re being invited
to live from within the spirit
of the Kingdom of God
If you’ve ever been the recipient
of someone’s unpredicted and unexpected
you may have been left open-mouthed –
for their humble action can affirm
that their esteem for you
is beyond weighing and measuring …
Their expression may declare
that they value you for no reason
and for no outcome, and
they see goodness in you
that you yourself might be unable to see.
The strength of affection
with which you’re tenderly held
is enfleshed in their willingness
to take the risk of being hurt, ignored,
even deceived and rejected,
ripped up and chewed up –
if that’s what it requires for you to know
how much you mean to them.
If you have ever received
such commitment from someone,
then you’re receiving the spirit
of the Last Supper
and the washing of the feet
If you’ve ever found yourself
feeling the pinch and the punch
of holding tightly
for the sake of remaining true and faithful …
if you’ve found yourself
wanting to fall asleep to life’s absurdities,
but knowing you must keep vigil
to see this soul season through …
if you’ve found yourself sweating blood and tears
because you’ve said “yes” long ago
and you still say “yes” to your chosen commitment,
despite wanting to dissolve and disappear
into the darkness …
then you’re embodying Jesus’ experience
If you’ve ever held out your beating heart
in trust to someone and had it thrown into the dust …
or you find you’ve been sold out and sold up
by your good friend
who gets all the gain and you get all the pain:
betrayed, handed over, traded on the cattle market …
yet for some unspeakable, irrational, countercultural reason
you desire not revenge and you wish no harm
but only peace for that person …
If you find yourself longing for the melting
of the ice castle they have become
so the real human being that you knew,
still remember and still love
might emerge to be at peace again …
then you’re embodying
Jesus’ love of Judas
If you’ve ever experienced
unfair judgment and ridicule
at the hands of others
who’ve previously applauded you,
and you can think of every reason under the sun
to sting back and spit back and strike back –
yet something anchors you to your core
from where you can be radically true
to what is best and most merciful in you,
so your heart can walk forever free …
then you’re embodying Jesus
in his trial
If you find you must carry the cost
of being responsible for your choices –
for walking a different path from others
for relinquishing tribal loyalties
for taking up this and letting that go
for not going down the path of “poor me”
for holding firm to what you believe
and you refuse to blame and shame others
for what may have happened to you …
then you’re embodying
the Carrying of the Cross
If on this journey
you find yourself being merciful for no reason
or being compassionate for no gain,
and love gets pulled out
from an interior deep well
that you did not know was even there …
then you’re meeting
the wailing women of Jerusalem
If when you travel
this discomforting and disconcerting road
of holding firm to being deeply true,
make sure you can allow yourself
to receive support without strings
from unexpected quarters,
and not reject it because it might not be
as you might have envisaged.
If at this time you do receive this assistance
of an affirming word, of a gentle presence
of an encouraging dream,
then you’re being granted
the help of Simon the Cyrene
If you’ve endured the soul-stripping suffering
of having had ripped from you
your treasured needs
to be right, to be acceptable,
to be in charge,
to play the victim,
to be invulnerable or
to be the “good boy or girl”,
and you are left naked
with nothing to prove, nothing to protect,
and nothing to boast about …
then you’re embodying Jesus
in his being stripped of his garments
If you’ve chosen
to let mercy and graciousness nail you
to a commitment
where you’re receiving no thanks,
no applause, and perhaps
only disgruntled dismissal and hostile rebuff –
yet you know
that to adopt the same weapons of war
would be death to your soul
and betrayal of your very essence …
then you’re embodying
the crucifixion of Jesus
If at this point
you trustfully and gently surrender
into the unknowing
and let endings be endings –
although you cannot see where you are,
where you are going, or
what anything means anymore …
then you’re embodying Jesus in his death
and descent from the cross
If you’ve learned to wait in hope
within the midst
of the not-knowing and the unresolved,
the disappointment and the defeat,
then you can let the tender darkness hold you
in a mutual solidarity,
and allow your soul-eyes to sense in the gloom
the stirrings of new possibilities
which you could not even begin to imagine …
If you know this has been true for you,
then you’re embodying Jesus
in his being laid in the sepulchre
If you’ve found arising within you
a new strength
to go past the old hurts, the old hang-ups and old imprisoning perceptions,
and now wish to live
more honestly and non-violently
with yourself, others and creation …
If you sense in your spirit
the indestructible conviction
that nothing is a waste,
but is simply the raw material
for the divine energy of love
into as yet unimagined portals of grace
for the world …
then you’re embodying the spirit
of the Resurrected Jesus
If you’ve become aware
that every fibre of your being craves to cling
to that with which you’ve grown familiar –
so much so
that fear’s fog prevents you
from seeing what’s in front of you …
yet you sense a still, small voice that resounds
like a familiar footfall’s echo in your heart,
and it holds and heals the ache
that had sprung from the dread of separateness …
then you’re embodying
Mary Magdalene at the tomb
If ever your wounds of hurt,
rejection and disappointment
have locked you into endless rounds
of ambiguity and anxiety,
and culminate in an internal vow by you
to never risk again, start again or trust again …
and then you gingerly accept an invitation
to touch and be touched
by the wounds of another …
these wounds can begin
to melt the frozen feelings;
they can soften the solidified soul and
unbolt shut-tight eyes to the presence
of faithfulness, Mystery and mercy.
If you’ve experienced this thawing,
then you’re embodying Thomas
after the resurrection
If fear has ever plucked you up
and dropped you into the wilderness of failure,
the wasteland of folly
and the quicksand of self-loathing,
and all you can hear in your ear
are the saw-toothed shrieks
of criticism and condemnation –
but then in a moment of transparency
you hear a truer song of your soul that tells you
not only what you really desire,
but also that you’re desired;
not only what you really wish to choose,
but also that you’re being chosen; and
not only that there’s one
to whom you really wish to give your heart,
but also that this one
has already given their heart to you …
If this makes you ready to meet any twist of fate
because you know you’re truly loved …
then you’re embodying Peter
after the resurrection
If you’ve ever been privileged
to have been held by another’s listening heart,
you may suddenly sense your soul aflame –
because what you previously regarded as random
and formerly discarded as dross
actually is woven together with a cord
which caresses your splintered spirit,
and which connects you with the larger story
of broken and blessed humanity.
If this has been a part of your pilgrimage,
then you’re embodying the Emmaus journey
If you’ve ever let the veils fall,
and you’ve realized
that even though the old ways of meeting life
have served you well,
almost without recognizing it
something has taken you past the need to cling
to accustomed habits and favoured rituals
to people you thought you couldn’t live without
to situations you thought you couldn’t do without
to perceptions you surely couldn’t function without
to what you were sure you couldn’t possibly be able
to the fear of letting go,
so you could learn that real presence
can be experienced through absence
If you find you’ve ascended in these ways –
not through your own cleverness
but through a grace-ful surrender
to a higher intensity of seeing –
it becomes impossible to go back
to where you were living before …
you begin to see all of life –
the trees, the ants,
your next-door neighbour, your enemy –
as dwelling places of the divine,
and you know in your deepest cells
that the divine heartbeat and yours
are and always will be
the one heartbeat …
If you can identify with such a gift,
then you’re embodying the spirit
of the Ascended Jesus
If you’ve ever noticed that your heart’s doors,
which previously had been deadlocked
by the dread of the different
by the terror of failure
by the fear of disparagement
by the ache of inadequacy
are now being opened wide to the world …
If you’ve become aware of an inner fire
that has been burning there for some time,
and it is giving you a desire and energy
to fully come home to yourself –
you’ll discover that
reticence is outloved by daring
distrust is outloved by faith, and
narrowness of vision is replaced
by seeing what is most truly human
and most truly divine in all whom you meet.
If you’ve found this fire has burned within you,
then you’re embodying
the spirit of Pentecost
If you let the breath of mercy flow through you
If you let the hand of compassion steer you
If you let the arm of justice guide you
If you forget your front
and forget your facade
If you forget your pretence
and forget your petard
If you let Love’s claim capsize you
If you let the breath of justice wake you
If you let Love’s impartiality shake you
then you’re living from your home
within the heart of the Trinity