Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Veil is Thin

Nathaneal's Rest - One of my thin places.
The veil is very thin. I first heard this phrase about fifteen years ago and my first recollection of relating it to my own life was a very meaningful and formational experience. It refers to the divide between the physical, earthly life and the spiritual realm. Mostly we go about our daily business in a very earthed way, unaware of what lies beyond. There are moments, however, when the mysterious otherness comes very close and we are often left in awe and wonder.

Some feel the veil is very thin at particular times of the year. The Gaelic festival of Samhain (one of the roots of Halloween) and All Souls’ Day are considered to be such times. In the Northern Hemisphere, the end of October and beginning of November mark the start of Winter and it is believed that the spirits of those who have passed away are particularly present.

Some feel there are particular places where the veil is very thin, sacred spaces where we are able to be more open and aware to what lies beyond. Thin places, they are called, places that have been known throughout the centuries to be particularly sacred or spiritual. Stone Henge, Santiago de Campostela, Uluru and Chalice Well immediately come to mind.

I believe both of these to be true, but I don’t want to limit the experience of the veil being thin to specific times and places. I had a day this week when the veil was very thin for me. Yes, it was the beginning of November, and yes, I was in a space that has been a thin place for me before. However, I’m not sure these contexts were essential to my experience.

This is not the place to share the details of what happened, in fact I am still trying to work that out myself. I will, however, try to explain the effect it had. Although I was in a group situation for most of the day and engaged fully with what was going on, somehow I found myself beyond time and place. There was a feeling, or a knowing, that stretched across distances and allowed me to feel like I was present with other people, even though I clearly couldn’t be in a physical way. There were unexplained ‘nudges’ throughout the day that seemed to let me know how things were and how to respond. I had strange emotions well up in me at times that made no sense in my physical context. Now, I am quite a logical person, but the only way I can explain this is that the veil was very thin.

Some may brush this off as coincidence or being over sensitive. There was more to this experience though. I think in today’s Western world we can be very quick to dismiss these experiences. We have been taught to consider them crazy or sinister. My hope is that others will be brave enough to share their spiritual experiences, the times when God has been very close, or when the veil is very thin. It is a vulnerable space as we risk being labelled, but in doing so we give others permission to share in the same way. My other hope is that if we are privileged to hear someone’s story about the thin times and places, that we will listen with awe and wonder rather than try to explain them away. There is much mystery in life. Let’s become more comfortable sitting with it.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Questions about Spiritual Authority

Over the last month or so, my reading and writing for my PhD has centred around a theme of spiritual authority. In particular, I have begun to look closely at women of Europe in the thirteenth century to explore where their spiritual authority came from, the barriers that prevented their spiritual authority and how they managed to express their spiritual authority in this time and place. It has been interesting reading and I am not sure how I would have coped if I was in their shoes.

It has also raised a lot of questions that can be asked in any time and place. Where does spiritual authority come from? What causes us to give others authority in our life? How much is spiritual authority external to ourselves and can it be internal? Do we doubt our own spiritual authority and is it even real?

In ministry, I was very aware of the spiritual authority people gave me. From time to time someone would come to chat about an issue in their life. I would listen attentively, offering support where possible, and then the question would come. 'What do you think I should do, Cathie?' I always resisted providing an answer, as I am a great believer that each person has within them the capacity to discern and find a way for their own life. My approach was to ask more questions to help facilitate this process. I did, however, find it a little disturbing that someone might trust my opinion and act upon it simply because of my position and the perceived authority given it. I have heard many stories of church leaders offering their wisdom to their parishioners and it being taken as gospel. I am aware, in an age of uncertainty, this may be comforting, but can also see the huge potential for abuse.
Lovelace from Happy Feet comes to mind!!

In saying this, I know in my own life, that some people hold more spiritual authority for me than others. In my recent decisions and discernment, many people have had something to say about my choices; sometimes positive, sometimes more sceptical. For me, these comments have held differing weight. Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with a person I greatly admire. The way they conduct their life, their 'being', their relationships have been an inspiration to me over the years. You could say I have placed much spiritual authority in this person. The words spoken during our recent conversation were weighty and important to me.

So, arising from my own experience and my reading of women in the thirteenth century, I wonder what it takes for us to trust our own inner authority? How do we recognise and know God working in our lives? Other people do play a role in our discernment. How do we decide who to trust?

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Need an excuse to be still?

I just sat for twenty minutes in silence and stillness in my garden and the time passed quickly and I don't feel guilty. Can't find the time to meditate? Feel guilty if you spend a few moments for yourself? Is your mind always thinking about the next thing that needs doing? Well, I may have a solution for you - for this week at least.

This week is the Aussie Backyard Bird Count and I thought I would get involved. There's an app for it that you can download for free. It times you for twenty minutes, while you sit in your garden and watch for birds. You record the birds that you see on the app. It even helps you identify them, if you are not a bird expert (I was very grateful for this). It is super easy to use and you are doing your little bit for science.

I don't find it hard to meditate or sit still for a period of time, but I know others do. This was such a simple, meditative act, but I can see for a more task-oriented person, it would be one way to slow down and feel like there was a purpose to it. As I sat, I became very aware of every flit and flutter around me. I noticed how quickly birds move, how many fly overhead and how noisy they can be. My eyes were opened, not only to the activity of the birds, but to my own presence in the garden. 

When the timer stopped and I was prompted to submit my results, I was surprised how the twenty minutes had passed so quickly. The dishwasher was still waiting to be unpacked, the emails were still there to be answered, the to-do list hadn't gone anywhere and life continued. I wonder if I do this every day this week, if it could become a habit? We shouldn't need the excuse of an app or a project in which to contribute to see the benefit of the quiet, still moments. Sometimes, however, we need to experience something before we are convinced.

I hope that some of you Aussie readers might find twenty minutes to sit in your garden this week and perhaps it could become a regular thing.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Beyond "Us" and "Them"?

Too many things!!! There is a lot to get angry about in the news at the moment. Domestic violence, atrocious treatment of refugees in detention, discrimination of LGBTIQ people in our schools, the #metoo campaign and the list goes on. I try not to read too many of the comments on social media, as this only fuels my despair and rage.

I must say, that it is not only the injustice of these situations that makes my blood boil, but a deeper sense of disturbance. I have read enough and lived enough to know that our natural tendency as humans is to find a tribe, a place to belong. I do feel, however, that there is a rise in dualism and tribalism. There is much uncertainty in our society and what better way to feel safe and secure than find a group we identify with and who will watch our back. When we can identify who the "us" and the "them" are, we know where we fit, we know where we belong.

People who are passionate about a cause will naturally band together to try and make a difference. Be it exposing violence against women, protecting religious freedoms, advocating for LGBTIQ people, enforcing border control, showing compassion for refugees; whenever a "tribe" is formed there is the potential to fall into an "us" and "them" mentality. Groups and movements fighting for a cause, can quickly become an angry mob defending their patch.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is an integral place for coming together to support a cause, for advocacy of the vulnerable in our community and getting angry at the injustice in our world. I do feel, however, that when we take our eyes of that focus, and it becomes more about protecting the group, perhaps we fall into the trap of stroking the communal ego rather than living out our true purpose.

My hope in all of this is that we can find another way; a way that is embedded in love and doesn't react out of our own fears. I don't anticipate it is an easy way. There will always be conflict and differing opinions. I often wonder if it is possible, in our humanity, to find a way that does not divide. But what would it look like to live within the paradox of life, navigating our way through the joy and suffering of differences without resorting to violence and devaluing of the other? Maybe I am just imagining utopian dreams, but I do have a hope that we are better than this.

The closest I have come to even touching this possibility is through living a contemplative life. Through stillness, silence and being present, I find myself in the best possible position to live an authentic life centred on the Ground of our Being. As James Finley said, "I cannot make moments of nondual consciousness happen. I can only assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by grace." 

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Sing like never before

My introduction to up-front ministry and worship leading came some 30 years ago. Our congregation, at the time, was mostly singing from the one hymn book and a small group of us had learnt some new songs at church camps. We asked the minister if we could teach some to the congregation, and so began our music group. It began modestly with a keyboard, guitar, clarinet and myself singing. 

Song has always been a large part of my faith journey. As a youngster, I watched my parents throw themselves into the annual Sunday School anniversary production, my dad often taking on lead roles. I was in a Junior Choir that practiced before church and often performed pieces as part of worship. When we left that church to emigrate to Australia, the one gift I remember was the cassette tape of the congregation singing our favourite hymns and songs.

Music has been integral to how I express and understand my faith journey throughout the years. I must admit, however, that in the last decade or so, as my understanding of God and faith have changed, worship songs have become a difficulty for me. Many of the old favourites I used to sing with gusto, I find hard to stomach now. The lyrics grate and use language that is no longer part of my vocabulary in expressing my own faith. Choosing hymns each week became a constant battle. Can I, with integrity, sing this song now? But what about the people? They love this one.

I no longer lead singing from the front. Life has lead me in different directions with how I serve, but I was taken back to my love for singing during the week. On Thursday, I was at the Dayspring teaching day and one of the students led our morning prayer with a song. It is one some of you may know, "10 000 Reasons", written by Matt Redman and Jonas Myrin. Its a song I have experienced a few times in worship, and I actually find the words unifying. I can sing this song! It has a great melody. My more Pentecostal, evangelical friends seem to love it and I can sing the lyrics without cringing.

As it was played to us, we were invited to join in. We are only a small group of about 15, and I found that my familiarity with the song and confidence in singing took me back to those days of standing up the front leading. Although I have sung this song a few times before, one line struck me that morning. "Sing like never before, O my soul". It immediately took me to all those Psalms that start with "sing to God a new song" (Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98, 144). As I stood there singing, being drawn back to experiences of 30 years before, I reflected on how far the journey had taken me. I reflected on the "song" I was singing now. This new song has found a new life in me, a new joy, a new melody. I am finding a voice, rediscovering words and music notes that have been waiting beneath the surface. It is like a "waking up". And so, as I sang those words, "sing like never before", I actually felt that was happening. This is a new song, that has never been sung.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

An act of blessing

Ava - our little, anti-social blessing!!
A lot of my Facebook feed over the last few weeks has consisted of various colleagues conducting Blessing of the Animals services and ceremonies in their communities. It is Spring here in Australia, the perfect time to bring out your cats, dogs, chickens and goldfish and cause a raucous in a local park or the church grounds. Don't get me wrong - I love animals and my reaction is out of jealousy. My own gorgeous pup is so anxious that taking her along to such an event would soon resemble some strange scene of animal sacrifice. Therefore, my inability to take my own beloved pet along causes me to avoid such events.

But what is it that we feel we are doing by blessing our pets? The word blessing is thrown around a lot today. "It has been such a blessing to spend today with you." "The new baby is such a blessing." "What a blessing to be in this place!" Some people sign off their emails or letters with Blessings... Those of us who have connections to some church or faith community will have another understanding that is to do with the words that are said over people or sacramental elements at various times during worship.

This pondering reminded me of a retreat day I attended in 2012. The facilitators were Jeff and Caryl Creswell from Parker Palmer's Center for Courage and Renewal. The theme they chose for the day was blessing. We talked about the etymology of the word that day, and perhaps the various meanings are part of the misunderstanding of the word. One origin of the word, from Old English bledsiad, means "to sanctify or consecrate with blood". This imagery, that is vitally connected to the life force of ancient traditions, implies invoking divine favour upon someone or something. I hear a lot of people use blessing in this way. Sometimes, it is inferred that a blessing is a reward for good and faithful service.

Another root of the word blessing comes from the Latin verb benedicere, which means "to speak well of". In these terms, to bless someone is to speak well of him or her. Ron Rolheiser, in his book 'Against an Infinite Horizon', takes this a little further saying:
          "To bless someone is, through some word, gesture or ritual, to make that person aware of three things:
* the goodness of the original creation where God said that it was 'good, very good'
* that God experiences the same delight and pleasure in him or her that God experienced with Jesus at his baptism when he said: 'This is my beloved child in whim I take delight'.
* that we who are giving the blessing, recognize that goodness and take that delight in the other person."

If we take this definition of 'blessing', it is not about whether the person deserves it or not, or even if the person giving has the right credentials. This understanding of 'blessing' acknowledges the wonder of each and every creation and the goodness inherent within. In a world that it so quick to let us know if we are other, not enough, not deserving - we could do with a culture of those who can learn to bless. If it is good enough for our pets, it is good enough for us. We don't need to create some special annual service to share this blessing. It is an every day thing. It is contagious. It is simple. It is unique to each of us, but it takes practice to go against the flow of the world. 

Blessings to you this day!
May you know that you are fearfully and wonderfully made.
May you know that you are loved.
May you be a delight and be delighted.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Borderlands

I often spend a lot of time debating what I should share on this blog. There are safe topics that require little thought, but have less impact on people. It is usually the ones where I feel a little vulnerable that seem to speak more to people and I receive emails and messages telling me so. I have been sitting on this one for a few weeks now, wondering how willing I am to share this with the world. Some reading I was doing yesterday convinced me to take the risk.

Three weeks ago, I was in Canberra for the AECSD (Australian Ecumenical Council of Spiritual Directors) Conference. The theme was Spiritual Direction on the Borderlands and the sessions were led by Alan and Robyn Cadwallader. The sessions were challenging, contemplative, provocative, affirming and disturbing - in other words great!! Throughout the few days together we explored different images rising from scripture and contemporary life to reflect on what it means to dwell in the borderlands. I found the stories met mine on a personal level, a spiritual direction practice level and a community level.

In a personal way, the theme brought to life many feelings from the last few years. Some of you will be aware that during my discernment in this time a short passage of scripture was very significant. It was a little story about the healing of a blind man (Mark 8: 22-26). This is a story about going out to the borderlands to be healed. Here is my reflection from my weekend in Canberra that arises from this story, my story and the stories heard during the conference.

The Borderlands

You saw it
long before I
the loose threads
the coming undone
the falling apart.
Symbols from the AECSD conference

You knew what
I could never see
while caught in the midst
entangled, enmeshed
propped up by the need
held together by the pressure.

You called me out
to meet at the fringe
beyond the safety of walls
and with each step
my life fell around me
in tatters it fell
and all light fell dark.

I felt I had died
my eyes were blind
my tongue could not speak
my heartbeat had stopped
yet I was strangely alive.

You remained close
with each breath
I sensed you near
a real presence
could hear the spit
the rubbing of hands
smearing blind eyes.

You asked
what I saw
and though
the scene was hazy
with shaking voice
I spoke a truth
I was yet to understand.

You waited as
the dawn broke
the sun exposed
the nakedness
as the last threads
spilled to the ground.

You said
go home, but remain
outside the walls
in the borderlands
and I will be there.

I said nothing
for to be home
was enough.
Tomorrow, I speak.