Come! Join in the Divine Dance!

I hesitated before buying Richard Rohr’s latest book, The Divine Dance, because of its sub-title The Trinity and Your Transformation. As a Unitarian, I have long rejected the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity, being unable to see how God can be one and three at the same time. But because it was Richard Rohr, whom I trust, I decided to give it a go, and my thinking, my beliefs have been transformed.

triquetra

I have never seen the Trinity explained like this, not anywhere. He recommends starting with God as Three, rather than God as One, and the grounding perception for his thesis is that the three persons of the Trinity are in a fully relational flow between themselves, and that the flow itself is God (which is where the One comes in).

Firstly there is God as Father / Mother, whom Rohr refers to as “Being” and  “God for us”, who gives and receives Love eternally, and who created all things.

Secondly there is God as Son / Daughter, whom Rohr refers to as “Consciousness” and “God alongside us”, who receives and gives Love eternally. This is the cosmic Christ who pre-existed with the Father, the incarnational part of the Trinity, much more than Jesus. Rohr explains that the key importance of the Incarnation in Jesus was as an example to humankind – the two-natured bit. That God “came down to earth” and became fully human means that this is also true of each of us. We are all divine incarnations, enfleshments (which is what incarnation means), sons and daughters of God, fully human and fully divine. He actually says at one point in the CD which I also bought, that the crucifixion wasn’t necessary, except as a dramatic way to get humankind’s attention. The key is the dual nature of Jesus as fully divine and fully human, incarnated in this world.

Thirdly, that the Holy Spirit, whom Rohr refers to as “Joy” and “God in us”, is precisely this incarnated spark of the Divine, which of course the Quakers call “that of God in everyone”. Which makes us a part of this divine outpouring and flow of Love in the universe.

These three aspects of God are three fully autonomous but also simultaneously intimately related avatars of the one God.

The really weird thing is that this seems to make perfect sense to me, the lifelong Unitarian. I have accepted the idea of the divine spark in everyone for many years, so in that sense I have always been a “Binitarian” of sorts, but up until now I have always struggled with the idea of Jesus as the unique, divine Son of God, second person of the Trinity.

Yet the way Rohr explains it – that the Incarnation in the human Jesus was a necessary part of God’s plan to prove to human beings that we are all partly divine, all in close relationship with Him, all having what Rohr calls “innate, divine DNA”, is an explanation of the Trinity that I sort of understand, on a gut level. It means that the Trinity is not so much the three aspects of God as in the flow, the relationship, the “sacred / divine dance” between them.

Also that not only human beings, but all living things are part of this divine dance – the whole of the universe is sacramental. That every other living being happily accepts its part in the sacred dance, and that only humans have trouble with it. Which is why the Cosmic Christ was incarnated in Jesus, to demonstrate the possibility of human beings being part of this divine dance.

So I think that the dreams I have been having since reading the book are an outworking of these ideas, urging me to accept that I too am part of the divine flow, part of God who is eternal transcendent Being, the ultimate giver of Love, and who is always God for us; Jesus Christ, God alongside us, who came as an example of incarnation, to point the way for humankind; and the Holy Spirit, that of God in us, reaching out to God the Father / Mother in eternal relationship. It is peculiarly satisfying to believe that every human being is born with this divine DNA (Rohr says elsewhere that it is “installed by the Maker from the beginning, who is God”) and can hence be part of the sacred dance of the universe, along with all other living beings. I really, really like it.

So far as I understand it, the key difference between Rohr’s Trinitarianism and Christianity’s is that he rejects, or seems to dismiss as unnecessary, the doctrine of the Atonement, that Jesus died to put humankind back into right relationship with God the Father, and that without his death on the cross, we are all lost to God. Instead, Rohr sees the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as modelling the process of loss and renewal, from False Self to True Self, how we die before we die.

He explains that sin only happens when we decide to turn away from participation in the divine dance, turn our backs on God, ignore our own divine natures, and consciously choose to go it alone, to be autonomous. Because being part of the divine dance, part of God, is a surrender of autonomy, a letting go, a loss of control, which is too scary for many people.

It also fits in with my triquetra, which I’ve always seen as symbolising “the flow of love, grace, and compassion between God and all creation”. It all makes sense!

triquetra-tattoo

He also states very firmly that the divine spark is in everybody, specifically naming the likes of Hitler and Stalin. Wow! In every human being of whatever colour, race, sexual orientation, class, or faith tradition. Lovely universalist thinking.

Reading this book has been a revelation. It sent me back to the first year of my Encounter studies, when we did a session on the Trinity, which totally passed me by at the time. To my delight, I found this meditation, given to us by the tutor, Anthony Lury, which now makes perfect sense:

LIFE IN GOD

Imagine for a moment God the Lover who loves God the Beloved

with the infinite total love of Lover …

Be aware of God the Beloved who loves God the Lover

with the total love a of a Beloved …

But the Lover loves the Beloved through you

and he loves you as an adopted son or daughter …

And Beloved loves the Lover through you,

and he loves you as his brother/sister …

And the Lover loves his other children through you,

with his love that flows from you to them …

And Beloved loves his other brothers and sisters through you

with his love that flows from you to them …

This dynamic process of Lover and Beloved loving each other

and loving through you is going on constantly …

The love that flows through you and binds the Lover and Beloved together is the Holy Spirit …

Hygge – The Danish Art of Living Well

A couple of weeks ago, when I was doing my weekly supermarket shop, I spotted a pretty little book among all the hyped bestsellers. I was attracted by the cover, and intrigued by the title: Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well... so I bought it.

hygge

It is delightful. It is definitely one of my Ah! books, straight off the bat. One of those books which, in the words of Vernon Sproxton, “induce a fundamental change in the reader’s consciousness. They widen his sensibility in such a way that he is able to look upon familiar things as though he is seeing and understanding them for the first time. … Ah! Books give you sentences which you can roll around in the mind, throw in the air, catch, tease out, analyse. But in whatever way you handle them, they widen your vision.”

So what is “hygge” and why has it attracted me? As author Meik Wiking writes, hygge is “about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down. You may be having an endless conversation about the small or big things in life – or just be comfortable in each other’s silent company.”

For me, hygge is what a Unitarian congregation, a Unitarian community, at its best, is all about. Summer School is particularly hyggelig.

But of course for the Danes, hygge is not a religious matter; it is a whole-of-life matter. They seem to apply the word to all kinds of everything, and all kinds of situations and places. It is derived from a Norwegian word meaning “wellbeing”. But it can be used as a noun, a verb, and also an adjective. Wiking uses words like “cosiness” “warmth” and “togetherness” to describe hygge, but that isn’t the half of it. He also talks of “getting the hygge on”; of a “hyggekrog” – that nook in a kitchen or living room where you can sit and have a hyggelig time; of a “hyggestund” – a moment of hygge, for example sitting quietly in your special place and drinking a cup of coffee. It’s a very complex, and all-pervasive concept in Denmark.

I found the whole idea enchanting. Let me take you through the Hygge Manifesto, which is central to the book. Firstly, Wiking talks about creating a cosy atmosphere, a hyggelig atmosphere, by turning down the lights – by having table lamps and candles which create pools of light, rather than strong, overhead lighting; and about the importance of being present, not being distracted by phones and other social media. Being in a place with friends and committing your complete attention to this.

He speaks of pleasure – of sharing food and drink, mainly of the warm and sweet varieties. Also of cooking together to create, and then share, a simple, satisfying meal. Or simply spending time in a common, pleasant activity; for example, playing cards or board games, are very popular hygge pastimes, played for pleasure, not for competition, nor to score points. Which brings me to the significance of the next point on the manifesto: equality – it’s about sharing the tasks, the activities, whatever these might be, and allowing everyone to be heard and held and listened to.

He mentions gratitude – being grateful for what we are experiencing at that very moment. This is, of course, linked to being present. A prayer I love by Richard Gilbert speaks of giving thanks for “familiar voices in family rites, for the faces of friends in laughter and tears, for the tender human arms that hold me. … for the sight of familiar faces, the sound of our spoken names, the welcoming embrace of outstretched arms, for the ritual of friendship.” I believe that all this too is hyggelig. We do need to be grateful for it, and appreciate it, as it happens.

Another element of the hygge manifesto is harmony – Wiking comments “It’s not a competition. We already like you. There is no need to brag about your achievements.” The hygge experience is about choosing to embrace each person just the way they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, gifts and imperfections. I came across a gorgeous new word the other day: “flawsome”, which is a way of describing an individual “who embraces their ‘flaws’ and knows they are awesome regardless.” I like this very much, and count myself blessed in having many flawsome friends.

flawsome

Comfort is one of the most fundamental parts of the hygge manifesto – being comfortable and relaxed, not stressed. It’s about wearing comfortable clothing – soft, hand-knitted sweaters and cardigans, paired with soft jeans or leggings, or comfy trousers, a scarf, and woolly socks.  Anything tight or confining is out. Because how can you experience hygge if you are being “cramped, cabined and confined” by your clothes? Or if you’re too cold, or too hot? So it is about spending time in warm, comfortable spaces, wearing comfortable clothes, just chilling out, doing something which brings you quiet pleasure, either with good friends, or on your own.

Which is why “Truce – no drama” is a vital part of the hygge manifesto. There are times and places to talk about current affairs and politics, but hygge time isn’t one of them. The idea is to avoid anything which is going to raise the emotional temperature, or cause stress or disagreement.

But perhaps the most foundational element of hygge is togetherness. Wiking explains: “While you can hygge by yourself, hygge mostly happens in small groups of close friends or family. Hygge is also a situation where there is a lot of relaxed thoughtfulness. Nobody takes centre stage or dominates the conversation for long stretches of time. Equality is an important element in hygge – a trait that is deeply rooted in the Danish culture – and also manifests itself in the fact that everybody takes part in the chores of the hyggelig evening. It is more hyggeligt if we all help to prepare food, instead of having the host alone in the kitchen.”

He continues: “Time spent with others creates an atmosphere that is warm, relaxed, friendly, down-to-earth, close, comfortable, snug and welcoming. In many ways, it is like a good hug – but without the physical contact. It is in this situation that you can be completely relaxed and yourself. The art of hygge is therefore also the art of expanding your comfort zone to include other people.”

Given this emphasis on togetherness, it is not surprising that the final component of the hygge manifesto is shelter. Wiking comments “This is your tribe. This is a place of peace and security.” So being with other people in a place of comfort and safety, experiencing the everyday joy of good company, and a sense of belonging, is the final element of hygge.

I think we could all do with a lot more hygge in our lives.

Befriending Your Shadow

This was the title of an all-day workshop on my spiritual direction course at the end of January. The first thing we did was a guided meditation, which comprised a spiral inwards, meeting different selves. Each time we were asked “What does this self look like?” “What does she have to say about the journey, about God?”

Image result for shadow selves

At the deepest level, we were invited to go to a special place and meet our sacred selves. Mine was a certain clearing in Salcey Forest, bathed in sunlight. My sacred self was a figure of white light, clothed in white mist, shining. The gift I received from her was the reassurance of being loved. I sensed a great benevolence from this divine self, a great love for all of me, just the way I am. It felt like a true gift, a benediction.

light in the forest

My shadow self, on the other hand was a small, dark, shadowy, unformed figure. I realised that if I was to embrace my whole self, I needed to get to know her better. So I turned to Debbie Ford’s book, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, which I had originally struggled through in November 2012. So this week I took a whole day to go through it, doing the exercises she suggested, and it was an enlightening experience.

The first lightbulb moment came when I read the following: “When you understand that you contain everything you see in others, your entire world will alter. Our goal … is to find and embrace everything that we love and everything that we hate in other people. When we reclaim these disowned aspects of ourselves, we open the door to the universe within. … The key is to understand that there is nothing we can see or perceive that we are not. If we did not possess a certain quality, we could not recognise it in another. … part of the task of being fully human is to find love and compassion for every aspect of ourselves.”

connections

This was quite a concept to get my head around. My first instinct was denial – *I’m* not X, Y and Z! But she had that covered, pointing out that the initial letters of the word “denial” spell “Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying”. Oh.

Then I got to the chapter about identifying shadow sub-personalities that each person has inside themselves. The reader is invited to get on a bus, and get to know all the people on board. Each person represents a negative trait in your personality, and each has a gift for you. This felt so counter-intuitive – what gifts could the negative parts of myself possibly have? But then I read: “To be truly authentic persons, we have to allow the aspects of ourselves that we love and accept to co-exist with all the aspects of ourselves that we judge and make wrong.” So I decided to give it a go.

It was illuminating. I met Arrogant Aggie, whose gift was self-confidence, self-belief; Intolerant Izzie, who made me realise that intolerance of bad things, such as racism, sexism, poverty and war was not a bad thing. There was Judgemental June, who helped me to understand that judging needs to be done from a place of compassion; Needy Nellie, who told me that it is OK to feel lonely, and sad, and in need of a hug; Selfish Sarah, whose gift to me was self-care; Garrulous Gertie, who made me appreciate that my gift of words and language should be used with discretion, and consideration.

Image result for bus passengers

Controlling Camilla’s gift was my attention to detail and organising skills. She asked me for permission to let go occasionally, to just be able to slob out. Impatient Isla’s gifts were enthusiasm and optimism. She said: “You have a quick mind, which seizes new ideas, and wants to implement them straight away. Your enthusiasm and optimism engage others and can keep people’s spirits up in hard times. Using Rev. Stanley Mellors’ lovely phrase, you ‘cleave to the sunnier side of doubt'”. But she reminded me that I shouldn’t get carried away by my enthusiasm, and should recognise that things will happen in God’s own time, not in my impatient human time.

Finally, Worthless Wanda had a few choice words for me. She said: “My gifts to you are humility and vulnerability. Because of me, the worst antics of Arrogant Aggie and Judgemental June are kept in check. The desperation I feel has impelled you on your journey towards wholeness. But you need to listen to Aggie, and start to believe that you *are* worthy, you *are* lovable. Because I’m so fed up of feeling sad and worthless. I want you to love you, just the way you are.”

There were many other exercises in the book, which have yielded many insights, but this sub-personalities one really hit the jackpot. It has helped me to recognise that I *am* all these things – arrogant, intolerant, judgemental, impatient, controlling, selfish, garrulous, needy, and with low self-esteem. But that each of these attributes has its own gift, and that I need to integrate them, to embrace them, in order to be whole.

The last part of the book focussed on the positive aspects, on what we like about ourselves. Ford writes: “Ask yourself if your search for peace, happiness, and wholeness is an ongoing drama, or if you’re ready to take control and be the one who shapes your experiences. No-one out there can fix you. But you can fix yourself. [I would add, with God’s help]. … Make a commitment to have what you want in life and then make a plan to get it.”

The final exercise was to write a powerful statement that will guide you and keep you on the track of fulfilling your soul’s purpose.” After much pen-sucking and reflection, I came up with the following:

“I am worthy of love, and want to live with simplicity, integrity, and compassion.”

This book is not so much one to read, as one to experience. I tried to approach it as openly and honestly as I could, and the result has been sometimes painful, but most rewarding. It has given me a lot to think about, in the days and years ahead.

Testaments of Faith

Last year I bought a book at our General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches annual meetings, but only had a cursory look at it. It was Our Christian Faith by an assortment of Unitarians and Free Christians, and was published by the Unitarian Christian Association.

uca-logo

This year, as I have progressed on my own faith journey, I have got it out again, and have been fascinated by the strong Unitarian Christian witness contained in its pages. Each of the 28 contributors, many of whom are known to me personally, have a slightly different take on Christianity, and what it means to them, but I have discerned some common links, which I would like to explore here.

Firstly, most of the writers have made a conscious choice to follow the way of Jesus, which Frank Walker describes as follows:

“Jesus is a teacher of wisdom and humanity. He wants to help people live with verve in troubled times. Give generously and don’t count the cost. Go the second mile. Forgive seventy times seven. Ask, seek, knock and find. Rescue the stricken Samaritan (I think he means the man the Samaritan helped) bind up his wounds and help him on his way. Search for the lost, give power to the poor, feed the hungry, restore sight to the blind. Heal and comfort the sick. Defend the vulnerable children and women. Visit the prisoners, make peace, contemplate the lilies of the field. Return penitently, like the Prodigal to make a new beginning. Welcome back joyously like the Prodigal’s father. Do not do to others what you would find hateful when done to you. Take up your cross, where necessary, and follow this Way of generosity. Be life-affirming Boot-resisters.”

In other words, they have committed to following the teachings of Jesus, in their own lives.

teachings of Jesus

Secondly, a belief in the immanence, in humankind, and in the universe, of God, who is Love. Peter Brown describes his conception of God as follows: “God acts as a loving parent, who forgives our transgressions because God wants us to get on and play our part in a grand scheme, a scheme that we cannot envisage but only glimpse our part. … Jesus also taught … we in fact have direct access to God, for God is within each one of us.”

This is about listening to the “still small voice” within, to the voice of our conscience, so that we try to follow the best that we know, in all areas of our lives.

Spirit 2

Thirdly, that Unitarianism has its roots in the Protestant Dissenting tradition, and that a plant without roots will not flourish for very long. This is something that I have only recently come to accept, consciously, although I have known it for a very long time. The book that brought me into Unitarianism, Alfred Hall’s Beliefs of a Unitarian, was strongly rooted in the Unitarian Christian tradition, and I am re-examining it with new eyes, having read Our Christian Faith.

rainbow chalice by Catherine Coyne
image by Catherine Coyne

 Several of the contributors emphasise the importance of faith as a foundation for action. In the words of David Steers, “Ultimately faith is the most important thing. You can believe anything but unless it affects the way you live your life it has no meaning. Faith is much more likely to do this because faith is about trust. It is about turning to God, and relying on God.”

This is very different to belief, which is “giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions.” If you have faith, which involves trust, you have to act on it. Which brings us back to following the Way of Jesus. John Carter explains: “So in a way to be a Christian is to continue to act as Jesus acted. To be faithful to God, to live a life of service to others, a sacrificial life, to be a peacemaker. … As long as I claim to follow this man, the Rabbi Jesus, anointed of God, then I am called to live out my life in a way that is consistent to his life and teachings.”

faith and belief

Yet the faith of many of these Unitarian Christians (or Free Christians, or Unitarians) is not solely based around Christianity. Many also mention that they have found inspiration in other faith traditions, not just Christianity. I agree with this wholeheartedly. I believe that the religious and spiritual development of the individual is dependent upon an openness to progressive revelation – the Quakers would say “Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?” So revelation is vitally important to the Unitarian approach to religion and spirituality.

The important thing to realise is that revelation is a progressive thing – as humankind develops intellectually, morally and spiritually, we can understand more and more of our place in the universe. And insights about God / the Divine / our place in the universe can be found not just in sacred texts, such as the Bible, but also in the natural world and in the actions and words of other living beings, or in poetry, or scientific texts, or journal articles.

So the journey of spiritual discovery continues. Many Unitarians would agree that the authority of individual reason and conscience is held to be supreme, but it is also important to be a member of a religious community to which you can bring your questions and your doubts, in the sure knowledge that they will be met with a broad questioning tolerance. The interplay of individuals’ beliefs is one of the great strengths of a Unitarian congregation – the bouncing of ideas off each other means that we can never be complacent about what we believe. It is stimulating to belong to such a congregation, but can be very hard work. Nothing is set in stone, and each individual is responsible for keeping his or her mind open to new ideas, so that our faith can grow.

This book has been another source of revelation; I have discovered that there are folk like me within my own denomination, who count themselves as Unitarian and/or Free Christians, and who gain great comfort and inspiration for their own journeys from studying the example and teachings of Jesus, and putting the faith they find there into action in their lives. Their stories are wonderful testaments of faith.

Taoism in the Hundred Acre Wood

I have written elsewhere about my initial reactions to reading Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh: “Seeing yourself in a particular character can be a quite painful experience, if you are at all self-aware. I adored everyone in Winnie the Pooh quite uncritically as a child. But when reading Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh sent me back to it as an adult, I became uneasily aware that there was more of the pontifical Owl and the too-busy, too-clever-by-half Rabbit in me than I would care to admit. The Pooh books are surprisingly deep and complex in their characterisation, although of course their intended readers will not see that, as they themselves are not yet tainted by the characters’ more adult faults. Hoff’s book changed the way I thought of Pooh, Tigger and the rest. I now have a much greater admiration for Pooh’s happy-go-lucky simplicity, and for Piglet’s growth in self-awareness and courage.”

Winnie the Pooh and Piglet

I have recently re-read this marvellous book, and also, for the first time, its successor, The Te of Piglet. The two together have given me a deeper understanding of the principles of Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion / philosophy. According to Hoff, “basic Taoism … is simply a particular way of appreciating, learning from, and working with whatever happens in everyday life.” It involves living in harmony with the world, rather than trying to mould it to our own ends.

In order to understand what Taoism is, it is first necessary to understand what the Tao is. The word Tao means a path or way, and hence a way of acting or a principle or doctrine. There is a Tao of heaven, the way the universe works, and also a Tao of man in harmony with the universe. It is necessary to hold both these ideas together to understand the principles of Taoism.

On one level, Tao is the ultimate reality and unity behind the diversity of things. This is the meaning behind the first few lines of Chapter 42: “The Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. Three gives birth to all things.” The Tao is the origin before the original. From Tao comes origin. From this origin come the two forces of yin and yang, which represent the great opposites. They are opposing but interdependent concepts – for example, without the idea of cold we would not be able to describe heat. The aim is to achieve a balance between them. From these comes the triad of Heaven, Earth and Humanity, and from these come all forms of existence. In Chinese thought, life is kept spinning by the constant struggle between the two opposite forces of yin and yang.

yin yang symbol

Chapter 32 of the Tao Te Ching mentions an important Taoist concept – the uncarved block. In one way, the Tao is the ultimate uncarved block, the unity behind all multiplicity; the argument being that if the block is carved, there will be distinctions and names, and opposition to the unity of nature. Benjamin Hoff’s way of explaining the principle is to say that “things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed.” He goes on to say that the average Chinese dictionary will define the written character P’u as “natural, simple, plain, honest”.

This principle applies not only to things in their natural beauty and function, but also to people. Simplicity is the key – an ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. The other side of this is more mysterious “the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times.”  To quote the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 67 this time) Lao Tse writes “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures – simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate towards yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.”

So much for P’u, the Uncarved Block – the natural power contained by things and people who keep to the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Closely allied to this is the idea that everything and everybody has their own Inner Nature, and that it is important to recognise Things Are As They Are. Lao Tse teaches that you need to learn how to go with the flow, not meddling with the natural way, the Tao.

In other words we need to recognise that everything has its own place and function, and it is bootless to struggle to be a square peg in a round hole. In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. If powerful men and women could centre themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms. People would be content with their simple everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. When there is no desire, all things are at peace.” (Chapter 37)

Closely related to recognising Things Are As They Are is the principle of Wu Wei, the way of water. Literally, Wu Wei mean “without doing, causing, or making”, but practically, it means, no going against the nature of things.

As Benjamin Hoff explains “The efficiency of Wu Wei is like that of water flowing over and around the rocks in its path [an approach] that evolves from an inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things.” The idea is to work with the natural order of things and to operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made by man, when he ignores the natural law and interferes with things and tries to control them.

To quote Hoff again “When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn’t appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.”

wu wei

The trick of Wu Wei is that you don’t try to make things work out; you just let them. And somehow, things just happen in the right way, at the right time. Put another way, Wu Wei is the art of being. It is the art of being in such harmony with the Tao that everything happens as it should – not forced, not sought after, not planned, not bought, not desired – it just happens.

Re-reading these two excellent books, and re-acquainting myself with the wonders of Taoism, I have been struck by the parallels between Taoist principles and Christian mysticism. In the latter, adepts use skills such as centering prayer to try to move into what Richard Rohr calls “unitive consciousness” with God. Not a million miles away from living in harmony with the Tao, in my opinion. Chapter 16 of the Tao Te Ching could just as easily be about moving closer to God, as about living in harmony with the Tao:

“Empty your mind of all thoughts.

Let your heart be at peace.

Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source.

Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realise the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow.

When you realise where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind-hearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.

Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.”

Come and Find the Quiet Centre

Ten days ago, I found out that I have a certain medical condition which, although not at all life-threatening, is nonetheless life-changing. It came completely out of the blue – I wasn’t expecting it at all – and it has completely blindsided me. My reactions to the news were mixed. On the one hand, I have done all I can to find out more about it – I have joined a national society which exists to support people with this condition, and they have been very helpful. Being me, I have also bought a book about it, and now know much more what I’m up against. Which as I say, is not life-threatening, but *is* life-changing.

contemplation 2

On the other hand, I have allowed it to throw me completely off course, spiritually, and in other ways. From the day of diagnosis until today, I have been steadily working my way through a packet of cigarettes which my son left at home last time he visited. In the old days, of course, I would have turned to red wine, and probably got as drunk as a skunk, but that door is no longer open to me.  So I chose to dice with an equally stupid and dangerous addiction. I told myself that this was my way of coping, my “crutch”, and that I was entitled to smoke if it helped me to deal with it.

Whereas of course, what I was actually doing was just adding a worry about getting re-addicted to cigarettes to all the other worries swirling round in my head. Not the most intelligent response, but I wasn’t thinking straight. But now the packet is nearly empty, and I am well aware that this is a rubbish way of coping. So when I have smoked the last one, which will be later today, that will be the end of it. I resolve to go back to treating my body with the respect she deserves.

Helped greatly by a quote from A Sunlit Absence by Martin Laird, which hit me like a hammer when I read it yesterday evening: “A person who stands at the brink of addictive behaviour is listening intently to conflicting inner voices. It would all begin with a small seductive voice that made promises it couldn’t keep: ‘Here, I’ll take care of you’, it would murmur in my ear. ‘I see you’re feeling a bit down. Let’s just comfort ourselves with a bite to eat (cigarette) shall we?’ ‘Oh no, not again’, another inner voice would object in alarm. ‘I’m not going to eat (smoke) right now.’ ‘Hey, you don’t have to feel that sadness. Don’t give in to it. Leave it alone. Come with me. Let’s go and see what’s in the pantry. Just a little something to eat (smoke), that’s all you need.”

This is *such* an accurate description of the conversations an addict has in their head, I was stunned. I saw straight away that I was being seduced to the dark side (to start smoking again) by this stupid addict voice, which would do me no good at all to listen to. So I have resolved not to, not this time; hopefully, not ever again.

Another thing which has gone for a Burton in the last few days has been my spiritual practice of having a morning sit. Since I was diagnosed my mind has been in such a turmoil that the last thing I have wanted to do was sit in silence and face the demons.  It was only when I read that passage that I found the way back, and sat for the first time in ten days this morning.

As I sat, the words of one of my favourite hymns in Sing Your Faith, our latest Unitarian hymn book, came into my mind. The words are by Shirley Erena Murray, and the second verse reads:

“Silence is a friend who claims us,

cools the heat and slows the pace;

God it is who speaks and names us,

knows our being, touches base,

making space within our thinking,

lifting shades to show the sun,

raising courage when we’re shrinking,

finding scope for faith begun.”

There are many books which describe the practice of contemplation. It was not until I read Martin Laird’s first book Into the Silent Land: the Practice of Contemplation, , that I found one which really speaks to my condition. He explains the process of contemplation very simply – it is sitting in silence, using a prayer word (or words), and following your breath. Then every time your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to the present moment by using the prayer word. It sounds easy, but it’s really hard. I have found the book invaluable as it describes the pitfalls, and shares ways of moving through them, towards a deeper union with the Divine.

He also speaks of a transformation of consciousness. When we are sufficiently still, we come to an awareness of God in the centre of our being – a spacious, luminous awareness. He uses the metaphor of a mountain, which I have found really helpful: “The marvellous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. … When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mount Zion. For a lifetime we have taken this weather – our thoughts and feelings – to be ourselves, taken ourselves to be this video to which the attention is riveted. Stillness reveals that we are the silent, vast awareness in which the video is playing. … the more we realize we are one with God the more we become ourselves, just as we are, just as we were created to be.”

I have not yet experienced this transformation, yet Laird has explained in a way that makes sense to me. He uses the analogy of a sponge in the ocean, which is both full of the ocean, and surrounded by it. So we are with God, who is both the deepest part of us, and also all around us. I am going to try to sit every morning, stop listening to the inner video, and sink into the quiet centre, which is God in me.

Faith in the Good

This week, I received an unexpected, but most welcome, gift through the post, a copy of a slim, manila-coloured book called The Last Victory: Studies in Religious Optimism by Stanley A. Mellor, Unitarian minister of Hope Street Church in Liverpool. Each of the four short sections is based on an address delivered at the church during the darkest days of World War One. The author explains: “Their purpose was … to remind people again of the conditions under which glowing faith must always furnish its warmth in a finite world, to face certain fundamental perplexities in the life of faith, and to provide encouragement and hope. The responsibility of surviving into the world of peace after war … must press heavily on every sensitive spirit, and the need for radiant constructive faith in the ultimate goodness and worth of life is very great, and will become greater.”

life is good

The whole book is a paean of hope; of “radiant constructive faith in the ultimate goodness and worth of life”. It spoke to me very deeply. Rev. Mellor was a Unitarian pacifist, at a time when this view was most unpopular, and with William J. Piggott, he wrote a wonderful rallying cry entitled The Fellowship of Emancipation for Freedom and Peace, which resulted in the foundation of the Unitarian and Free Christian Peace Fellowship in 1916. It included the following profession of belief:

“I. Peace depends on Freedom, spiritual, economic, political and social: Peace and Freedom go together. It is not a question of individuals and nations saying ‘We will not do this or that’, but of determining ‘We will do this: we will be that.’ No mere physical victory of one portion of humanity over another will or can produce the positive spiritual determination necessary to a better way.

II. Freedom demands, as a minimum in social change, the following things:

a) That the present economic conditions of life, which admittedly deny to the majority of humankind (mankind) the opportunity for real physical, intellectual, and spiritual development, shall be removed, and new conditions found.

b) That service of the common good shall be substituted for the pursuit of private profit as the object of industrial activity.

c) That direct responsibility for the welfare of the community, in industry and in citizenship, shall be extended to all members of the community alike.

d) That women shall be emancipated completely from religious, social and legislative subjection.

e) That barriers of wealth and privilege shall be removed.

f) That the principle of equality of opportunity shall receive practical application all round.

These demands involve not simply reformation of our social and industrial system, but radical reconstruction. They are, further, logically implied by any acceptance of the command to love our neighbours, apart from any question of our individual duty towards God.

III. Freedom demands, as a minimum, from the individual, the ceaseless effort to purify the inward life and character, to practise the Christian virtues of goodwill, forgiveness, sympathy, justice, generosity, kindness, to their full extent, to get rid of hatred, ill will, and selfishness completely, and to give oneself in utter devotion to the only two possible worthy lines of human activity, purification of the inner heart and emancipation of the world from the bondage of ignorance, injustice, cruelty and inequality.”

The attitude that shines through all of this is his “certain ability to ‘cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt'” – an immovable belief that life is fundamentally good; and that ultimately, the good will prevail.  He is careful to explain that this is “infinitely more than a pious belief in the future, more than a mere worship of progress, more than even the brightest, though illusive, certainty that … things will all come out right in the end.” The religious optimism Mellor espouses is “unswerving belief in what I have called the solidarity of goodness, the belief that, if once you get hold of the good in any measure or degree and give your life to it, to support it and do battle for it, then, no matter what appearances to the contrary may be, in the last resort, the whole universe is on your side, you are in touch with something solidly triumphant from first to last throughout the whole amazing and problematical texture of history and experience.”

The whole book has resonated with me at a profound level. I have had a true epiphany – that I am that kind of religious optimist, who continues to believe in the ultimate good in the face of the evidence. Which is why the words of Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings have always moved me so greatly: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass. … There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

The part of The Last Victory which has brought the most enlightenment is where Mellors insists that “Optimism is not a scientific certainty, no true optimist ever said it was. It is an affirmation of the spirit, a risk accepted by the soul. … Call it what you will, belief in the unseen world, belief in the reality of the Ideal, faith in the solidarity and eternal value of goodness … the certainty remains that without it Humanity cannot go forward, and without it we ourselves can do no good and worthy work in the world.”

This kind of optimism is what fires volunteers to work to alleviate the terrible conditions in the refugee camps at Calais and elsewhere, to give just one example; that inspires people to join pressure groups which are working for a better world. A world such as Mellors and Piggott dreamed of in their Unitarian and Free Christian Peace Fellowship manifesto, way back in 1916. A world which is still worth fighting for, cynical politicians to the contrary. People may sneer, and dismiss me and others like me as hopelessly idealistic, but without optimists like us, what good would ever happen? If Nelson Mandela had not had belief in spite of the evidence for a free South Africa, would it have happened? If Gandhi had not believed in equality for the people of India, would it have happened?

So I will continue to “cleave to the sunnier side of doubt”, and believe that even if I can’t do much, the little I can do can be a force for good in the world.

A Vision of Hope

There are certain authors whose words inspire me to strive to become the best person I can be. The Liberal Jewish rabbi Lionel Blue is one, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu is another. I have just finished reading the latter’s inspirational book God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for our Time. hope and peace

It is written from a place of deep faith in a loving, transformative God, and from one of belief in the capacity of human beings to transcend their limitations and meanness, and become members of one human family, working together for the common good. In his introduction, he states firmly “there is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. … The most unlikely person, the most improbable situation – these are all ‘transfigurable’ – they can be turned into their glorious opposites. Indeed, God is transforming the world now – through us – because God loves us.”

Each of the short chapters starts with the words “Dear Child of God”. Dear Child of God – that’s me, you, every human being, from the most saintly to the most wicked. According to Tutu, each and every one can become their best selves, thus making the world a better, happier, and gentler place. It’s a wonderful statement of faith.

It would be easy to write this message off as hopelessly idealistic, until you remember what he, with others, achieved in South Africa. In the mid-1990s, at the downfall of apartheid after many years of brave and dangerous campaigning, the situation could easily have degenerated into a vengeful bloodbath. But somehow, through the influence of Nelson Mandela, through Desmond Tutu himself, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established “to move us beyond the cycles of retribution and violence that had plagued so many other countries during their transitions from oppression to democracy.”

He has somehow moved beyond the natural human instinct for revenge (or even retributive justice) to a place where he considers every human being to be a member of God’s family, and hence worthy of respect and caring and compassion. He speaks about the Nguni concept of ubuntu, that each human being is in interdependent relationship with every other human being. He explains: “A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong to a greater whole.” How many of us can truly say that, I wonder?

Working from this place of ubuntu, he makes the reader understand that it should be every person’s duty to behave in a loving way towards others, even when we don’t feel it. One particular paragraph really hit home: “You have very little control over your feelings. That’s why God didn’t say ‘Like your enemy’. It’s very difficult to like your enemy. But to love your enemies is different. Love is an act of the will, where you act lovingly even if you do not always feel loving. We tend to think love is a feeling, but it is not. Love is an action; love is something we do for others. … You do not have a great deal of control over when you feel resentful or irritable, but you can still choose to be loving, to act lovingly.”

Oh. So that’s what Jesus meant. I had never heard or seen it described so clearly, in a way that makes so much sense. “Love is an act of the will, where you act lovingly even if you do not always feel loving.” This is such a challenge, such a call to action. Which is why he can still talk of hope, after all that he has seen, all that he has suffered. His faith in a loving God, and in the capacity for humankind to be loving and good and compassionate and caring, is absolute.

The final paragraph of the book articulates this wonderful vision of hope: “All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom – peace and wholeness – of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. As we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.”

Becoming Aware of the Divine

Everything I’m reading about at the moment, whether it is Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen, or on Facebook, seems to be giving me this same message: that while it is good to seek to be the best person I can be, God loves me just the way I am. He/She has done, ever since my mother was carrying me in the womb, and  will love me always, until I die, and beyond that too.

Image result for awareness of the divine

But as I said in my last piece, although God loves us, now and always, unconditionally, it is we who have to make the choice to turn to Him/Her. In order to do that, we need to have some kind of faith that He/She is not “up there somewhere”, a cosmic judge on a golden throne, ready to deal out eternal hellfire or eternal bliss, but deep within each of us, and in the world. The God I believe in is “here” and “everywhere”, both in creation and in humankind. To become aware of this omnipresent God, we need to follow the advice of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov,  when he writes:

“Love people even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better each day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

Seeing this quotation sent me back to Richard Rohr’s wonderful book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. In it, he explains how we can only become aware of the presence of God in our lives by detaching from our monkey-mind ego-driven selves, and finding Him/Her in the stillness. He argues that the busy, acquisitive world we live in is the antithesis of this stillness, and is the reason why it is so hard for modern people to let go and simply be.

The Buddha, Jesus, Hafiz, and many other mystical teachers, all stress the importance of being awake; of being aware of what is happening in the present moment. Rohr shares an amusing conversation between a Zen master and his disciple:

“Is there anything that I can do to make myself enlightened?”

“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

“Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”

Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. As we take another, it means that God is choosing us now and now and now.” (emphasis, mine)

The rest of the book is devoted to showing the reader how the world and the ego make it difficult for a person to live in the present moment, in the awareness of the presence of God, and how by choosing to try to live a contemplative life, we can make this desirable state possible. He says that nobody manages to do it all the time, but with practice, moments of enlightenment will come. He explains that “when we are manipulating, changing, controlling, and fixing, we are not there yet. The calculating mind is the opposite of the contemplative mind. The first is thought by the system, the second by the Spirit.”

Sadly, most of us tend to live out of our egos, out of our calculating minds. We spend our lives trying to shore up the best image of ourselves, and present this false self to the world (and also to ourselves). The very beginning of the path to the true self, to the contemplative self, is when we have the courage to Just Sit, to be with ourselves and God in the silence, to wait and to observe. It’s really, really hard. But Rohr gently leads the reader to understand that “My life is not about me. I am about life!  … I need to recognise that I’m in a river that is bigger than I am. The foundation and the flow of that river is love. Life is not about me; it is about God, and God is about love.”

It’s a simple message, but so hard for our ego-driven selves to understand. It’s not about what we do in this life; it’s about who we are, in the present moment – in this one, and that one, and the next one – and about recognising God / the Spirit in everything and everyone. Most importantly, to come to understand that at the heart of it all is Love.

So I found it reassuring to read this quote from Desmond Tutu’s book God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time, which I came across today:

“Dear Child of God, in our world it is often hard to remember that God loves you just as you are. God loves you not because you are good. No, God loves you, period. God loves us not because we are lovable. No, we are lovable precisely because God loves us. It is marvellous when you come to understand that you are accepted for who you are, apart from any achievement. It is so liberating.”

Of course this applies not only to ourselves, but to every single person we meet.  The hard bit is to remember this, not when we are sitting quietly, meditating and feeling the presence of the Spirit, but the next time somebody says or does something that annoys us or hurts us. If we can try to remember, just for a moment, the Quaker axiom that “there is that of God in everyone” and reflect on this before reacting, God will be there, in that moment. This awareness can make our whole lives sacred.

A Story of Homecoming

When I shared with my Encounter tutor that I was feeling adrift and lost, disconnected from God, she immediately recommended Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.

I am so very glad that she did. It is the account of Nouwen’s ongoing and ever-deepening engagement with the 17th century painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt.

return of the prodigal son
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

So much of what he writes resonates with me. He examines the painting, and the parable from the Gospel of Luke on which it is based, from every conceivable angle. You will probably be familiar with the story – the younger son demands his half of the family inheritance from his father, then goes off to a distant land, and squanders it on wine, women, and song. Destitute, he hires himself out as a pig-herder, and finds that he is coveting even the pig-food. At which point he comes to his senses, realising that in his father’s house, even the servants have plenty to eat. So he resolves to go home, ask for his father’s forgiveness, and to be taken on as a hired hand. In the parable that Jesus tells, his father spots him coming from far off, and rushes out and embraces him. He orders fine clothes and a ring for him, and that the fatted calf be killed, so that the household can celebrate the return of the lost son.

Later on, the elder son, who has stayed home and “been good”, working for his father, comes back and hears the party going on. When he enquires what it’s all about, the servant tells him that his younger brother has returned. The elder son’s reaction is one of anger and resentment, and when his father comes out of the feast to try to persuade him to join the festivities, these feelings boil over, and he protests at the unfairness of it all. To be met by the father’s compassion: “My son, you are with me always, and all that I have is yours.” In the parable, it is left open whether the elder son repents of his jealousy and joins the feast, or turns away, unable to surmount his sense of grievance.

But for his own good reasons, Rembrandt tells the story slightly differently. The father is depicted embracing the younger son, who is kneeling before him. The father’s face is luminous with love and compassion. These two figures dominate the left hand side of the painting. To the right, and separate, is a stern, upright figure, whom Nouwen (I think correctly) identifies as the elder son, here witnessing the meeting and reconciliation between his father and brother.

Nouwen’s exploration of the painting and the parable takes place in the context of his own life, his own spiritual journey. At first he strongly identifies with the younger son, the prodigal son, who is lost, adrift, but heading home, hoping to be reconciled with his father, forgiven and accepted once more as his son. The phrase Nouwen repeats, over and over, is “You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests.” Which is a reference to the part in the New Testament when Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist, and the Holy Spirit comes down and makes a similar statement.

This longing to be at home, to be loved by God, to be accepted “just the way I am”, is very strong in me. Nouwen comments: “I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love, and persist in looking for it elsewhere? … I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me – my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts – and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God.” Yes, all of that.

He also explores the self-rejection born of low self-esteem which is the path of the elder son. He had stayed at home, done all the right things, but when his father rejoices at the return of his younger brother, he cannot understand that his father has more than enough love for both of them. He is lost in anger and resentment against his younger brother, feeling that the latter is his father’s favourite, and that therefore he, who has done what he was told all these years, must be less well thought of, less loved.

He cannot understand that love, whether divine or human, is infinitely elastic in its nature. I know this from my own life – just because I love my son to pieces does not mean that I do not love my daughter just as much. There is more than enough room in my heart for both of them. Here I can get a glimpse of the father’s unlimited compassion and love for both his sons; and of the Father’s unbounded compassion and love for all of humankind.

Nouwen confesses how unworthy he feels to receive the unconditional love of God, whether he sees himself as the penitent younger son, who had squandered the gifts he was given, or the bitter, resentful, elder son, who is full of jealousy and anger. I can recognise these feelings of unworthiness.

The book is divided into three parts, exploring the characters and spiritual journeys of the younger son, the elder son, and the father. The ultimate lesson that Nouwen learns from the parable and the painting is that God’s love is unconditional, and available to everyone, but that we have to turn to Him to avail ourselves of it. We can choose not to, but the love is still there, free and unconditional and unwavering. He realises that the final goal of every human being is to become like the father, and offer this unconditional love and compassion to others.

It could be the work of a lifetime, but so worthwhile.