Season of Hope

We need something more than optimism in these difficult and dangerous times.

            I read this morning of a mother in Hong Kong who is taking her daughter out of school. It seems that the Chinese authorities are tightening their grip on teachers and on what can or can’t be taught to children, especially in regard to the concept of freedom and the State.

            Then I read of all the things Donald Trump could do, or is doing, to de-stabilise global relations and undermine fragile peace accords in some of the most dangerously volatile areas of the world. As he sets about sabotaging his successor’s job, some pretty frightening questions come to mind.

            If, for example, given his power and his mood, he chooses to attack Iran, what will the global consequences be? And what about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is fast becoming a reality? If that happens, it will leave a power vacuum ready for the Islamic State or the Taliban to fill, and from which to operate. And if Trump continues to avoid paying real attention to Iraq, Sunni extremists in that country will be indebted to him.

            And what about climate change? Global temperatures have sky rocketed and the rising trend would appear to be unstoppable, despite all of our best individual efforts to eat less red meat, heat our houses in ways that are not detrimental to the environment, switch to electric or hybrid cars, or cycle more.

            And what about Covid and the social ills that come with it? It’s unlikely to go away in time for Christmas.

            The general picture is a bleak one. There are probably many people who are choosing, metaphorically speaking, to hide under the duvet, hoping perhaps to wake up to a new and better world. Who can blame them? After all, things like Civil Wars and coups don’t happen in America – do they? Covid should be a thing of the past by the summer – shouldn’t it?

            How do we live with these questions without giving in to collective despair?

             I think one thing we need to start doing is to move from plucky optimism to well-founded hope. We have tried optimism for so long and it has not really proved up to the job of sustaining us in these critical times. We’re thrown about by what’s trending on fake news, with little time or energy to seek out in-depth coverage of events by reliable sources and, in any case, we are not sure where those sources are, or how to get an objective ‘take’ on anything. Objectivity requires time and a degree of confidence about facts and history. I would hazard a guess that not many of us have that kind of confidence.

            So perhaps what’s needed is a different kind of confidence, the kind of humble confidence that grows the more time you spend in prayer. By prayer I mean just letting God be God in whatever situation most concerns us, giving space for God in it, rather than looking for answers and solutions. It’s the space we make in ourselves for God that changes things.

             What I have learned, especially since the outbreak of Covid, is that God is already in the mess and pain, and very much in our anxieties. He has bound himself to both the causes and the effects of the ills we bring upon ourselves. He has bound himself so closely to our fears, to the terrible realities that could yet come about, that they are somehow held in him.

            The work of prayer, which is vital for the survival of the world and of each one of us, consists in constantly returning to that place where God is. We find the place in the centre of our true selves, or what is often called ‘the ground of our being’.

            It would be tempting to think of this returning to centre as a form of escapism, like hiding under the duvet. But it is quite the opposite. Prayer is about turning into reality, not away from it. It is about turning into the the reality which God sees in all the complex and often dangerous situations with which we are faced at the moment. Prayer involves contemplating the fragility of human beings with an untroubled gaze, and acknowledging our flawed nature, which makes a person especially vulnerable when they are driven by the need to hold on to power.

            But the reality we face into has to do with the ‘deep down goodness of things’, to paraphrase the poet G.M. Hopkins[1]. This deep down goodness is the Divine that is already in us and which overcomes the destructive forces of darkness, because its essence is light. Darkness cannot overcome light. When we set our minds and hearts to prayer, we are engaging with this pure light, drawing it into the world’s conflicts and into our own fears.


[1] ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’ G.M. Hopkins God’s Grandeur

Where Love Should Be

Lived realities have more to do with memory and association than they do with what may be going on right now.

The evenings are drawing in but right now it’s so hot you’d think it was mid-summer. The mood is drawing in too. There is a sense of impending stricture about life, the almost certain knowledge that full-blown lockdown is perhaps only days away. There is uncertainty. And yet there is sunshine, proclaiming, for the last time, perhaps, an eternal summer, that false certainty we experience on a warm day in mid-September, that somehow summer will never end.

There is also a hint of past summers in the air, faint memories of childhood revived by the smell of cut grass, the last cut of the year, or sudden changes in temperature – shorts and T-shirt one minute, woolly jumpers the next. And these memories trigger other associations. You recall a conversation overheard on just such a day, in which you understood certain things about where love should be, but is not. The kind of conversation and memory that takes you forward into life as you would soon learn it will have to be lived. It will have to be lived with integrity, the kind of integrity that refuses to deny the truth of your memories.

Lived realities have more to do with memory and association than they do with what may be going on right now. This is a fact that is often hard to come to terms with. Now is now, and then was then, you tell yourself. You may think that the feelings you experience right now, in regard to the things you may remember from past Septembers, are manageable. In fact you may feel that they do not belong here, with the early autumn sunshine, and with your now happy life, but shut away somewhere in a box labelled ‘issues resolved’.

You will remember the morning you looked down at the house and made a silent promise to yourself, that this would never happen to your children. But it happened in a quite unexpected way, as a result of your trying too hard to get it right. The sins of the fathers and mothers are often re-visited on their grandchildren in quite the opposite way that their children experienced them. Where love was lacking we now over love in triple helpings, just to be sure.

Today is Holy Cross Day. Some will be finding it strange, even disturbing to be reminded of the Cross on a beautiful day in mid-September, and out of season too, when we should be thinking of harvest, and even Advent. Why the Cross now?

I think it’s very helpful that we are given a stark reminder of this emblem of all that stands for pain and suffering when we are trying to make the best of this fine weather, without allowing ‘issues’ from the past to emerge from their dark hiding places and spoil it all. It’s helpful because it assures us of the truthfulness of our painful memories, that they were not imagined, as some may have wanted us to believe. It validates them. It also tells us that these memories and associations are precious in the eyes of God.

This is all very well, you may say, if you are someone who prays and believes in God. I did neither of these things on the day I looked down at the house, at least not with any great conviction. But I’ve since learned that prayer and the Cross itself don’t work in linear time and they don’t depend on my faith, or the lack of it, at any given point in my life, because life, prayer and the Cross are all of a piece.  

The effect of prayer, and the way it draws directly on the energy, or grace, of the Cross is outside time as we understand it. It also does not depend on the faith, or spiritual giftedness of the individual at any given moment or in any particular circumstance. There will have been others praying and looking to the Cross when I was looking down on that house. So what I was then did not compromise any prayer that may have been going on in places and through people unknown to me at the time.

Where someone is praying, no matter when, or for whom, the energy they draw on is the same energy that emanates from that unflinching Cross. It heals our individual lives, and the life of the world, and propels us all forward in a Godward direction, in the direction of divine love. To the extent that we resist the call, or pull, to prayer and to the Cross itself, that energy is proportionally diminished. This is, I believe, true across time and on into eternity, which is why we ask good people who have died to carry on praying for us. It is also why we pray for those who cannot or will not pray, whether they are alive or dead, and despite the memories or associations we may still harbour in regard to them.

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

Now

There are many Christians who believe we are living in the ‘end times’.

 

Wars, rumors of wars, plagues, climate apocalypse in various guises, are all predicted in the bible, if you choose to read it only in that way. But more to the point, all are predictable, given the way human beings behave towards each other, towards other species, towards this planet.

There are many Christians who believe we are living in the ‘end times’. They are not entirely mistaken, because we have been living in these ‘end times’ ever since the moment Christ ascended into heaven. Like the disciples who were left staring into the sky, we are looking up and ahead to the ultimate moment while living in the ‘now’ moment.

A comparable situation exists for each of us as individuals, whether or not we are Christians or people of faith. From the moment we are born we embark on the journey of our mortality. We live our lives in ‘end times’. We do not know how long it will take for us to reach home, as it were, but we are all on our way there. I would hazard a guess that most of us are aware of this inevitable progression, and think about it quite often during the average day.

I found myself thinking about these things this morning, as I read about the outbreak of bubonic plague in China and of the new strain of potentially species-leaping swine ‘flu. I thought about it all in the context of that precise moment, while looking out at a greyish windy sky, a pool of water with its long grasses growing around it like thick hair and the bit of the tree I can also see from that corner of the room, a Crimson King that we planted 26 years ago and which has now come into its full glory. The pool took seven years to stabilise, so that the water is now kept crystal clear by the grasses and surrounding plants. It all took time. Now we are moving on, so that the couple who have bought this place can pick up where we left off.

I thought about how every day is a matter of picking up where we and others have left off and of the decisions that need to be taken, the mindsets that are needed to work good or ill in the world. I thought of all this as a single moment. I held it before God. I wondered if anyone else was doing something similar at that precise moment.

I think being able to simply hold the present moment in a good place in our minds is the beginning of prayer. The will to the good, to healing, to remaking the present, so that it can embody hope for the future, is something we are all called to do. But I also believe that there is more to it than that. It involves giving ourselves completely to the ‘now’ moment itself, surrendering into it, so that love can pour into the ‘space’ we create when we do this surrendering. So the other word for this kind of surrendering, involves dropping deeply into love, as we would jump or drop into a pool of water.

Prayer also involves what Jesus called ‘dying’, or living as if we were ‘dying into’ an eternal present moment. He tells us that for this to be possible we have to do some surrendering. We have to surrender ‘self’. He is not talking about suppression of who we are in order to become someone else. Neither does he mean trying to suppress what we think is unlovable in ourselves. Prayer is not about any kind of suppression. It is quite the opposite. It is about dynamic engagement with a God who loves us as we are, and it is about trust. By dynamic engagement I mean something akin to getting on to a moving walkway – but much more exciting and unpredictable than those we experience in airport transit corridors when one is too tired to walk at the end of a long-haul flight. When we pray we walk in step, in pace, with God.

Prayer is about getting on to the dynamic movement which, on the whole, we only understand as the passage of time. The present moment that we are surrendering into embodies all of time as we know it. If we do this exercise frequently enough we also experience that multi-dimensional phenomenon which some artists and mathematicians come close to describing, but which most of us simply know as eternity – time without end.

So why am I saying all this? I’m saying it because I’m inviting all of us to become practitioners of this kind of surrendering into the eternity of the present moment which is also a matter of movement, of ‘going with’ the purposes (the moving staircase, perhaps) of God. “But what if you don’t believe in God?” I hear some people ask. I cannot really answer that, except to ask that you do the surrendering and the dropping into love, in the moment, not with what you believe you have at your disposal in the way of focus and self-control, but with a willingness to self-abandonment, so that your courage and generosity of spirit can ‘move’ the power that heals, restores and redeems. You may change the world. You may also give the power a name some time. One never knows.

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)