Friday, 24 August 2012

The Journey

Are you ready to begin the Journey Beyond Words?
Packed your spiritual bags?
Cleared the diary?
No booking required. Just turn up at 7.30pm on as many Wednesdays as you can manage from September 19th at St. Andrew's Church, Short Street, Waterloo, Central London.
You may find yourself sitting next to one of our guests who will be telling us a bit about their own journey beyond words.
There's information on the St. John's, Waterloo web site and there are leaflets in church.
I'm looking forward to travelling with you.
May the road rise up to meet you;
May the wind be always at your back;
May the sun shine warm on your face
As we travel together.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ich habe genug

Christmas cards! You know: those things you send and receive once a year from people you haven’t met for ages. “We really must meet up in 2012.” Not a hope! When you get to my age there’s always the risk that one of the people you send a card to will be dead before it arrives.

It’s no wonder that in the far off days before antibiotics, Charles Wesley should write a hymn for the New Year which began on a note of slight surprise, “And are we still alive?” !

In April 1911 my grandmother, the wife of a Moravian missionary in Jamaica, was in this country bringing two of her sons (including my father) to the church’s boarding school near Leeds. She wrote a letter to her husband back in Jamaica giving him news of the boys who were already here and asking after those she had left behind with their father. They had seven sons by then and she was pregnant with the eighth. She did not know (communication being what it was in those days) that, when she posted the letter, her husband was already dead.

Enough already. Happy Christmas!! Who needs presents other than this gift – to be gloriously alive!

The old man takes the baby in his arms and sings softly:
Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace .....

The old man is Simeon. The baby he holds is Jesus, the gift of life, even to an old man on the point of death.

Nearly 1700 years after Luke wrote that song (or put it in his gospel at any rate) Johan Sebastian Bach, has the same cameo in mind as he writes a cantata in which Simeon begins with the words: ich habe genug – I have enough.

My children complain that I am difficult to buy Christmas presents for because there’s not a lot that I really want. I have the gift of life, both in the simple literal sense of being alive as well as the spiritual sense of being aware of that profound presence we call God. Ich habe genug.

If we human beings are to survive on this fragile planet, ich habe genug is the attitude we must cultivate. And thank God for the glimmering of hope just kindled at the Durban conference on climate change.

If we are to work towards a more just society, ich habe genug is the attitude we have to discover – bankers, financiers and politicians as well as trades unionists and urban rioters.

It is the failure to grasp the wonder and beauty of this Christmas gift of life in its most profound sense that leads to inequality and injustice.

We are used to complaining about the commercialisation of Christmas and I’ve watched it developing within my lifetime. But it’s not just Christmas, nor is it exactly commercialisation. There’s nothing wrong with commerce. It is the consumerisation of human beings. It has happened because our capitalism depends on a feeling that I do not have enough. There is therefore a sense in which we get the kind of capitalism we want/deserve. As the Chief Rabbi said in Monday's Times, “Instead of the market being framed by moral principles, it comes to substitute for moral principle. If you can buy it, negotiate it, earn it and afford it, then you are entitled to it – as the advertisers say – because you’re worth it.”

And we were more or less happy with the set up so long as we felt that our worth depended on it; so long as there was enough in the kitty to go on trying to bolster our worth in this consumer way. Suddenly it’s all gone pear shaped and people are getting anxious, cross, envious of those who get more than ‘their fair share’.

In a recent meeting of our Beyond Words group we looked at the similarities between England in the 14th century and now:
Wat Tyler led the peasants revolt against the flat rate poll tax. At one stage rioters took control of London. Tyler’s collaborator, John Ball wrote: “... the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common and that there be no villeins nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that lords be no greater masters than we be.” (He could have been camping outside St. Paul’s Cathedral!)
There were catastrophic harvests; oh! and there was trouble with Europe!! The hundred years war started. (Perhaps it’s still going on!!?)

And in the midst of it all small groups, mostly of women, in north Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and here in England, were struggling to find oneness with God in that time of great dislocation. Among them was Julian of Norwich who spoke of a God in whom there is no wrath and a Christ who dwells peaceably at the centre of the human soul. Like Simeon she understood the gift of life.

Wir haben genug. We have enough. Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Who am I?

Mark Zuckerberg was talking about his Facebook on television last night: such energy, enthusiasm and all-American confidence, not to mention total dedication to a vision! You might say he fulfils Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s definition of chastity: the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal. Chastity in this sense can serve all sorts of ends and his make me vaguely uneasy. What began as a college website helping young people get to know each other could next year be floated on the stock exchange as a commercial business worth millions of dollars. Why might it be so valuable? Because it’s a web site on which millions of us around the globe reveal personal details about ourselves and these details are valuable to advertisers. The possibility of tailoring adverts precisely to my personal tastes and interests must be very tempting to businesses that want to sell me things. People reveal astonishingly personal details on Facebook because, apparently, they trust Mark Zuckerberg. Already some employers have stumbled on the possibility of discovering truths about potential employees which might not be revealed in interviews.

The source of my unease with Mark Zuckerberg’s vision lies in the question: Who am I and how do I relate to other people? Trawling through this blog, or looking at my profile, you can unearth clues and hints about me and my life, but does that mean you know me? Can you ever really know me if you have never met me, seen how my body language enhances (or contradicts) what my voice is saying: how, indeed, the very tone of my voice can contradict or enhance the words I am uttering. How much detail about my life do you actually need, before you can say, ‘I really know him’? Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who I am?

Then it gets scary. Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who you are yourself? All the major religions answer, no you cannot; not at least by gathering ever more information; not by emphasising the roles you play, the job you do, the things that interest you and so on and so on. The truth about us lies beyond, beneath all this and cannot be contained in lists of information. But it’s a scary truth because all information about us seems to add up to a sense of who we are. If we let it all go we feel naked, lost, vulnerable.

The diarist Anais Ninn used to start each day by saying to herself, ‘I am nothing. I have nothing. I want nothing.’ She did so because she wanted to begin each day in an attitude of hopeful, expectant waiting. She was pretty close to the challenge of Jesus of Nazareth: if you want to be a follower of mine leave your self behind. Such a self emptying reveals the abundance of the universe (or God if you wish) which lies hidden beneath all the information we think we need about ourselves and others.

Facebook and all the other social websites are wonderful tools but let’s not get carried away by inflated ideas about their potential for us mysterious and infinitely rich human beings who need each other in all our hiddeness and mystery if we are to know who we truly are.

Monday, 21 November 2011


I have been reading Helen Luke's, 'Old Age: Journey Into Simplicity'. In her introduction to the book, Barbara Mowat writes:
“Drawing on the masterworks of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot; reading those works with an understanding formed through years of absorbing and reflecting on the insights of Carl Jung; and speaking as a wonderfully conscious individual making the transition herself into old age, Helen Luke teaches us that a point comes in our lives at which we choose how we go into our last years, how we approach our death. The choice, as she describes it, may be painful, requiring ( should we choose to continue to grow old, instead of merely sinking into the ageing process) that we let go of much that has been central to us, even to our inner lives.”

“.... a point comes in our lives.....”? I want to qualify that assertion. I have not, so far, (I am now in my 81st year) experienced a single point: just a gradual process as the evidence of ageing bodies (mine and my contemporaries) accumulates. Furthermore the response required is not, in my experience, different from the response required at any point in the truly human life. Dying to self, letting go and letting God and so on are good at any age and ideally are best developed and practiced long before the onset of old age.

The unavoidable evidence of ageing can be a powerful trigger for some but not for everyone. I heard a wonderful exposition on Saturday by David Runcorn of Moses and the burning bush. He wondered how many burning bushes Moses had missed and painted a hilarious picture of a breathless angel rushing about igniting bushes as Moses meandered by with his sheep leaving a scorched earth trail behind him.

As a footnote, I recall the novelist, C.P. Snow giving the opinion that the ageing process proceeded in a series of drops from one plateau to the next, each plateau giving a false sense of security. Again I can only say, from my own experience, I have not recognised such a process. It seems that we each speak from our own experience and it is unwise to generalise from it too confidently.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Pitch Perfect

I don’t suppose they planned it but the Occupy London protesters could not have chosen a better site for their tents. The symbolism of a protest about mammon and democracy pitched on land jointly owned by the Corporation of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral is exquisite. What they want is a more just society. Confusion about their message arises from their failure to distinguish between two aspects of justice: the legal and the moral.

Their tents may be illegally pitched. Lawyers for both sides are making a strong case so the law must be unclear. But both sides are appealing to justice as legality. As I understand them the protesters want a better congruence between moral justice and the law, for example in financial institutions. Breaking the law can sometimes be justified on moral grounds provided the issues are carefully thought through. Neither side seems to have thought through the confusion between justice as law and justice as moral virtue.

It is a pity that St. Paul’s Cathedral Chapter appears to have concentrated too much on the legal side of justice. I presume Canon Giles Fraser has resigned because he could see this and knew that the Cathedral was missing a chance to engage with the protesters about justice as morality and thus help them to clarify exactly how they would like the law to enshrine greater financial fairness and how democratic institutions might better represent the wishes of the people. Many people feel that capitalism isn’t working as well as it might (as well as it should?). They suffer the consequences of capitalism’s unfairness while its masters smile, pull the levers and pocket too much of the profits.

There is a sense however in which we get the kind of capitalism we all want. We allow ourselves to be defined as consumers rather than human beings (or perhaps we could say spiritual beings on a human journey). Capitalism brings enormous benefits to a lot of us (but by no means all of us) human beings. Some of us are beginning to say, let’s examine where we have got to and see if some course corrections are needed.

On Saturday 19th November Southwark Cathedral will host a day of workshops on prayer one of which will be on Prayer and Justice. I hope the symbolism of the Occupy London site will help us to discern how best to serve both God and mammon.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

More listening

How much of what goes on in your head is actually useful?
How much of it is about the past which cannot be changed (though of course we can learn from it)?
How much of it is worrying about the future (as opposed to planning for it)?
How much of it is designed to help you avoid the present (which is actually the only point at which we live)?
For many of us what goes on in our heads is considered normal. We rarely examine it and we assume there’s not much we do about it.

At last night’s meeting of the St. John’s Waterloo Contemplative Prayer Group we extended last week’s reflection on listening to include noises in the head, usually known as thoughts.
The contemplative tradition in all major religions emphasises the discipline of getting used to observing our thoughts without judgement. As we practice meditation we gradually get to know the familiar pathways down which our unobserved mind loves to roam and thus we begin to have some choice about where it goes.

Here’s an example of something that happened to me yesterday morning.
The following sequence was triggered by a slight contact between my heel and the foot of another pedestrian walking behind me.
Phase 1. A slight feeling of annoyance erupts in me.
Phase 2. As the man overtakes me, I give voice to the feeling by saying with a hint of sarcasm, “excuse me!”
Phase 3. He turns and says, “You stepped straight in front of me!”
Phase 4. As he continues on his way I continue the exchange in my head, thus amplifying the original trigger feeling. “Do you thing I’ve got eyes in the back of my head?” “How could he have been so arrogant?!” and so on.
Phase 5. I realise that I am off on this fruitless internal dialogue which is keeping the original rather minor feeling going and thus continuing to amplify it.
Phase 6. I add to my affliction a feeling of guilt that I have succumbed in this way to a simple temptation to retaliate. I berate myself for not practicing present moment awareness. So far the process has occupied perhaps 15 or 20 seconds during which I have crossed a busy road.
Phase 7. I finally get into a non-judgemental listening to this racket in my head, just a straightforward acknowledgement of it all, and find that I have returned to a degree of centredness in the present.

That primitive part of our brains, the amygdala, provides hair trigger responses to most situations by asking, do I eat it, mate with it, fight it or run away from it? You can see how useful it must have been to our very earliest ancestors and it still has its usefulness. It proves troublesome however when we lose the capacity to monitor it or when it triggers other bits of our brain so that we rush or roam down well trodden pathways. Eventually I could become a cantankerous old man, always ready to take offence when someone intrudes upon my personal space.

The practice of meditation and contemplative prayer is in part, the discovery of fresh (neural) pathways leading to the great open vistas of love, joy and peace. As our practice deepens, those other distracting paths are less used. The pathway of love becomes clearer. The road less taken becomes a highway to the present moment in which we are free from all that unnecessary, unexamined mental chatter and distress. But let’s not talk about progress here: that’s another bit of alluring mental distraction. Always the secret is to come back to this present moment because this is the only place where Presence, what Jesus called the kingdom, is available.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


LISTEN!! – mostly these days a demand to be heard, not an invitation to dialogue. But several recent ‘coincidences’ have reminded me of the importance of true listening.

A couple of weeks ago my lovely yoga/meditation teacher at Morley College, Donna Malcomson, took us (her class) into the nearby Tibetan Buddhist Peace Garden (appropriately, beside the Imperial War Museum, here in central London). She invited us simply to listen to whatever we could hear: traffic, planes overhead, a referee’s whistle at a nearby football match. Now, in this blog, I am telling you what I heard but then we were invited to avoid labelling any of the sounds that our ears picked up, to avoid identifying the sounds but just to listen to them. Doing this I began to relax, to feel more peaceful. I became aware of a deep stillness at the centre of myself.

So at this week’s Beyond Words Contemplative Prayer Group at St. John’s Waterloo, I reminded the group that our core activity, lectio divina, is basically a process of listening, in this case to words from the Bible read aloud in the group. We avoid rushing to a conclusion like, ‘Oh I’ve heard this before. I know what it means!’ in order to leave space for hearing the words afresh, without judgement, allowing them to seep into the synapses of the brain and marinate there in the shared silence.

Introducing this week’s session I spoke of the Marriage Enrichment weekends my wife and I used to run back in the 1970s for couples who wished to deepen their relationship. A highlight of such events was telling 'the story of my marriage’ to one’s partner. The ground rules were that each partner had an equal amount of time to speak while the other one was simply to listen while keeping eye contact, resisting the desire to interrupt by saying, “that’s not how it happened”, or even, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” As we introduced the session people would almost invariably say, “Don’t you mean the story of our marriage?” “No,” we would reply, “this is an opportunity for each of you as an individual to tell your story and for it to be heard by your partner. It’s a chance for you to be truly listened to.” I was delighted to discover that Thursday’s Times 2 supplement carries an account of similar events based at St. Paul’s Church Kensington in London. See

Meanwhile, on Tuesday at the St. John’s Waterloo meeting of the Isaiah Community, we heard an address from Ruth Scott about reconciliation through story-telling, reminiscent of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I dug out a short paper hidden away in my files for perhaps 30 years by the Revd Morton R. Kelsey titled simply, 'Listening'. I’ve forgotten who he is or was but he writes:
“The first step in listening is allowing oneself to be with other people and to be silent with them. We are silent not only with our lips but also in our inner response. We listen to them and are silent inside. ..... Real listening is a religious experience. Often, when I have listened deeply to another, I have the same sense of awe as when I am alone in the church at night. I have entered into a holy place and communed with the heart of Being itself.”

Let today be one in which you just ..... listen.