Blessing

Blessings are like the swifts who, at this time of year, are here one moment and gone the next, often only recognized after they’ve gone.

Some very brief thoughts on blessing.

I sit outside for the first hour of the day, while the weather is still warm enough. It seems I only have to sit down with a cup of tea for the action to begin. I have observed this to be a fact, and not just my imagination, as I always wait on the other side of the window to see if anything is going to happen before I go out there. It rarely does.

But within seconds of my sitting down about fifty swifts appear circling and dipping over the natural pool in front of the house. It is their drinking moment, to be repeated at around 6pm for as long as daylight allows. I think they sense the shortening days and that they must soon leave. They are making the most of this brief moment, of its blessing. The swifts are already lining up on the television aerials, flexing their wings and calling out to each other, to encourage the first-timers perhaps, urging them to keep up their exercise routines. I shall miss them, especially on that first day after they leave. They don’t take off singly, or even in pairs. The whole crowd is there one day and gone the next.

Most blessings are like that, I find. Here one moment and gone the next, often only recognised after they’ve gone.

It’s easy to miss our blessings in the times we’re living in, in the rather ‘potted’ state many of us who are still semi-isolated feel we inhabit. Longing for Covid to be a thing of the past constrains us even more in the realities of the present. How good it would be to take off with the birds. But if we were to take off, as many are desperate to do right now, there would be little room for the blessings of the present moment. We would be too busy anticipating what is about to happen, next week or tomorrow, instead of being fully present to what is happening right now, including the surprising blessings that crop up on the lowest of days.

I’m not saying ‘Always look on the bright side’, not that I’d want to reference the song and its (in my view) bafflingly ill chosen context in the Monty Python film. In any case, for many people right now there isn’t a bright side. To pretend that there is one is to deny the blessing, strange as that may sound. What we do have to do, then, is to keep a window open.

This reminds me of an apocryphal story told of Jesus who, between the hearings with Caiaphas and Pilate, was lowered into a pit (the equivalent of a police cell) for the intervening couple of hours. There would have been an opening at the top from which he would have seen the stars, and maybe the first light of dawn. Blessing works like that in times of depression. You notice it where you least expected it.

So what I’m really saying is be prepared for surprises, even in times of depression. An unexpected email, something funny being said over supper that distracts us from a gossipy dead-end conversation, from which nothing good can be salvaged without sounding insincere, or from words of forced gratitude said as Grace before a meal. Better to be silent and really plumb the meaning of the Grace, and then pour a glass of wine, break a piece of bread, be present to the Presence and to the blessing of the moment.

Living Well

I badly need the sense of purpose that comes with knowing that the first hour of the day will be dedicated to silent prayer.

Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen. Collect for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost.[1]

I think this prayer just about sums up the conflicting emotions and the general depressive low that is hanging over us all with the latest surge in Covid spikes. Sometimes we have to be brought to a point where we realise that ‘we have no power to help ourselves’ which is not to say that serious medical advice and hope for a vaccine in the near future should simply be abandoned in favour of throwing ourselves on the mercy of God. I often think being told to throw yourself on the mercy of God sounds a little hysterical. We are not called to give in to panic and collective hysteria, tempting as it sometimes is to do just that. Or, if not panic and hysteria, to disappearing back under the duvet when the alarm goes off and staying there. Sooner or later the dog will need feeding, or someone will come to the door. The day will be thrown off kilter which makes depression even harder to deal with, or so I have found, and we are left worse off than when we started, ‘with no power to help ourselves’.

Mental health is greatly helped by routine because routine gives us a sense of being in control, especially when going through a period of depression. And this is where throwing ourselves on the mercy of God does have a part to play.

I badly need the sense of purpose that comes with knowing that the first hour of the day will be dedicated to silent prayer, even though I often only just about manage the hour. But the hour is a blessing because it supplies the energy and motivation needed to stick to the structure I’m used to, which is to write for two to three hours in the morning. I think writers are particularly in need of the Collect quoted above because we are in the habit of believing that our work is all down to us and that if we don’t sit down at the accustomed hour and produce something reasonably coherent and, we hope, meaningful for at least some people, then we have failed, not only as writers but, in a sense, in life as a whole.

It is so easy to give in to the belief that we have failed and then wallow in it to the point of nearly drowning. Wallowing in failure and going back over old rejections constitute the kind of adversities which the writer of this Collect must have had in mind. They are the ‘evil thoughts that assault the soul’. They are also directly linked to the ‘adversities which may happen to the body’. We are all experiencing these adversities. Thousands of people have caught the corona virus and still more of us experience the physical adversities that both feed and are fed by depression – insomnia, headaches, problems with food and often illness that resembles the virus itself, or is possibly symptomatic of it.

Here is where some kind of meditation or prayer routine helps. However you go about your meditation, you are calling on grace in some form, not as a passive recipient, but as someone to whom it is given to engage with the world in its suffering right now. You have work to do and it matters that you do it. It helps, then, to see ourselves in the wider picture, as individuals who belong to a family, or community but, most importantly, to the world in this present time of travail. We are in it together. I think this is a helpful thing to keep in mind when struggling to get out of bed in the morning, especially if you are facing more weeks of isolation. We belong together and, yes, it’s fine to throw ourselves together on the power and mercy of God.

[1] Celebrating Common Prayer: A Version of the Daily Office SSF

Life’s Purpose

 

 

With lockdown now into its eleventh week (longer if, like some of us, you went into self-isolation the minute the alarm bells sounded) I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the ‘new normal’ really looks like. For those whose businesses have folded, who have no familiar routine to return to, or who find themselves prematurely retired, getting out of bed in the morning may be the biggest challenge they will face in the ‘new normal’ day. Despite the long weeks of lockdown, nobody is prepared for this sense of purposelessness and for the depression that comes with it.

The shock of the new, if it is new at all, returns us to the age old problem of solitude and loneliness, of purposelessness. But perhaps we also misunderstand the nature of purpose, when it comes to what our lives are for or about. St. Paul, in his letter to the fledgling church in Rome, writes that God works all things to the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28) It seems that love, calling and purpose are very closely related. They are bound up in each other.

That, you may say, is all very well for those who have the time to ponder these things, whose thoughts and concerns are not taken up with how to pay the rent and feed their children, once the furlough money stops and their wages with it. And yet there is a connection between loving God and the harsh realities that many people will face post-lockdown. I think it has to do with our ability to somehow anchor our fears and uncertainties in a deep conviction about the transforming possibilities of love.

Every now and then we see these possibilities arising in the most unlikely contexts, in the angry confrontations that we are witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, and in the way they oblige us to confront our complicity in what can only be described as the historic sins of slavery, racism and all forms of prejudice. Where we confront prejudice in ourselves, we must turn and seek forgiveness from those we distrust and at the same time fear, because prejudice and fear belong together. But the hardest thing is not the seeking of forgiveness. It is the acceptance of it.

Accepting another’s forgiveness obliges us to open our hearts to those we have wronged, and who we now fear, and then to keep them open. It obliges us to go on accepting love. We have seen small instances of this happening. Riot police taking a knee before protestors and the gentle acceptance of love and forgiveness that follows. Black people refusing to hate white people. The walls of hostility come down, momentarily perhaps, but also irreversibly. Hope replaces despair. Somewhere in all this the loving purposes of God are at work.

The Christian Church is called to embody the loving purposes of God. But it cannot do this unless it re-connects with its own humanity, unless it thinks of itself not as an organisation, or an institution, but as a vulnerable body of human beings called to live out God’s purposes for the world. The Church defines itself as the body of Christ to the extent that it knows itself to be a people whom God loves and who love God. Where there is indifference to God, there is also indifference to the suffering of other human beings. So, for Christians, the living out of God’s purpose begins with self questioning, first in regard to whether we love God and, secondly, in the extent to which others feel our love for God in the way we think of them, speak of them, and act towards them.

All of this returns us to the acceptance of forgiveness which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Accepting that we are forgiven, keeping our hearts open to this often painful reality, disposes us to love others as Christ loves us. We still have time, before the end of lockdown, to decide whether we want to live our lives in the knowledge of this world transforming reality.

Have A Nice Day

 

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Summer colds are the worst. So is depression on a clear blue late September day. There is some consolation in knowing that you are not the only sufferer, but only very little. This is because the worst thing about colds, ‘flu and depression is that they claim you. You may try, if you are a praying sort of person, to think of all those who are suffering from far greater physical or mental conditions than your own, but this seldom takes you to a different place. On the other hand, you might also try being fully present to the moment through owning it fully. This helps but it requires focus, and depression makes focus almost impossible. You are constantly returned to whatever trigger set this particular downward spiral in motion.

Having read few books on the subject of depression (they tend to make me more depressed, so I read them later when the depression has passed) I have evolved my own coping mechanisms. One of these, the most important perhaps, draws on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s helpful thesis; ‘you are not your depression’[1]. Your depression does not own you, so there is no reason to allow yourself to be consumed by it. But trying to suppress it doesn’t work either. It’s better, if possible, to step outside the depression and view it objectively. Ask yourself what it is, rather than what it is about or what has caused it. You find that just like a cold or ‘flu, it is simply depression, a condition that chiefly affects our state of mind, although it can have serious physical side effects, some of them even life threatening.

In looking at depression objectively, hard as that may be at the time, two further things emerge; the first, an objective take on the underlying depression that to a greater or lesser extent most of us carry around for much of our lives and, the second, the will to make something positive and good happen out of it for someone else. This is not self sacrifice. It is self preservation.

It is also the nearest I can get to a definition of depression as prayer. In times of depression prayer has to do with the determination to convert negative energy into something positive and re-creative for another person, or another situation. This conversion of energy is not something we do through our own efforts, but something we want to have happen. Depression adds acuity to the wanting, even if the wanting is not consciously directed to God, but comes from a determination that our depression at least serve some good purpose. The determined wanting is the prayer.

The wanting is important, first because the will to re-create, or to bring life from something that is essentially about death, takes us to a different place of understanding in regard to ourselves and to the purpose of our own lives. The worst thing about depression, and about the lingering viruses that feed depression, is that they weaken us both physically and emotionally to the point that it is hard to believe we have a purpose at all and it is equally hard to believe that there is anyone or anything worth the effort needed to make our experience of depression something that could be life transforming for someone else. I think this is what Christ himself experienced as he walked to the place of his execution – the seeming purposelessness of it all.

But in wanting life to come from our current experience of death, which is what depression amounts to much of the time, we become agents of re-creation for the persons or situations we most care about. Here is where truth comes in. When we hit rock bottom in depression, we also hit truth, if we allow ourselves to. Truth reveals to us, sometimes surprisingly, who these people or situations really are. Depression focuses the mind on the things and the people that really matter to us. It is a great refiner.

In times of depression, we do not have the means for holding on to the delusions which help to cushion us from long hidden pain or from the memory of destructive relationships. Work, alcohol, general activism, or any other addictive pursuit will simply not do it for us once depression takes hold, so it is as well to face this from the beginning.

When it comes to looking at how past pain and the things which trigger it are feeding this particular depression, it helps, once again, to step back, to allow objectivity. In order to do this, I have found it necessary to first let go of all the past circumstances that trigger the pain of the present so that I can come to terms with the fact that I cannot change them. Letting go does not mean burying them by trying to ‘forget’. Letting go is a willingness to allow a transfiguring of the way we experience the pain of today. This helps to re-direct our wanting from a desire to be vindicated for the past, as well as from whatever has contributed to the current depression, into a forceful wanting that life should come out of the darkness and death which threatens to overwhelm us. Sooner or later that determined wanting, that urgent need to be heard by God, will win through.

[1] Jon Kabat-Zinn Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, Platkus Books Ltd., London (2004)