Posts Tagged ‘simplicity’

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Sunlight through a kitchen window…

August 23, 2010

The simple, yet exquisite beauty of natural light falling through a kitchen window at sunset

  

 Thoughts. Observations. Reflections on summer 2010. 

It’s been a lonely walk the last month or two. Feeling aware that something was missing I have turned again to my much neglected blog and decided that I needed to return my mind, hands and body to the tap-tap-tap of the laptop key-board. 

Life has been good, but hard in a subtly abrasive way, like the feeling of stumbling into a concrete wall, whatever our needs or feelings – the concrete does not shift. It stays resolutely hard and it is our bodies, feelings and souls that must compress and change shape to adjust to the solidity of the obstacle we encounter. A concrete wall – plain, grey, cold, hard or in this case the circumstances of life, even in a ‘promised’ land remain unforgiving and unmoved. 

As a man who sees himself as taking part in a spiritual journey, one might think that I have extra resources from which to find comfort in such hard and dull circumstances…and you’d be right. I do have access to spiritual traditions, disciplines and wonders that are usually able to shine light on life during a period of struggle or difficulty. Yet, once again this summer when religious resources have been widely available, I find myself saturated by their sweetness. Somehow they taste too sweet. They do not satisfy. Christian conferences, church attendance and activities, Christian books they seem to contribute to the sense of alienation, not alleviate it. 

So, what does one do in such circumstances? 

In my case I think I take care and time to appreciate the ‘details’ of life. The subtle, easily ignored, particles of beauty, splendour that permeate even the most ‘ordinary’ circumstances. There is beauty everywhere, if you have eyes to see. Just like the Kingdom the ancient Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth spoke about – it is within us or near us, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

I took the picture above because the  translucent and shadowy scene in my humble rented accommodation struck me as special in a unique way. I sensed that it may not last or that I may never see such a scene of earthly beauty quite like it gain. I chose to pay attention to the details of my physical life in those moments, and paradoxically what was revealed was a kind of  spiritual epiphany. 

In my experience it is rare to hear a Christian seminar on discovering the beauty of God through the precise falling of particles of light through a kitchen window, across a sink full of cups and plates and cutlery ready to be washed. Rather, we rush ahead see if we can harness the spiritual powers of the Bible or in the name of the God of the Bible to accelerate the growth of ‘our’ church. In the back of our minds are targets and financial goals and plans, we lose sight of the graces of each day – light, shadow, thin curtains flowing in the breezes. 

I wonder if true spirituality will take place on earth if we set down our plans and just praise the God of Creation for the wonder of the Universe and thank the God of History for the chance to be alive…and free…and fed…and watered…with clothes and shelter, that we might be still for a moment and notice, watch the changes in light across a first floor flats rooms. Maybe in these transient whispers of the material world are the trails of glory from the other heavenly world.

Summer breeze moves the voile curtains and evening sun lights up the kitchen window

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Late spring evening in Sherwood Forest

May 19, 2010
Field of rapeseed flowers in foreground with trees on horizon (18-5-2010)

A field of rapeseed flowers, resplendent in yellow (18-5-2010)

Rapeseed flower close-up (18-5-2010)

Sunset, seen through the forest trees (18-5-2010)

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Just a dandelion flower

May 17, 2010

A simple dandelion flower amongst the grass - May15th 2010

 

I saw this dandelion flower standing alone in the grass last saturday. It just struck me as particularly splendid in a simple kind of way. I’m often taken aback when I suddenly become aware of a visage like this, even if it’s in the microscopic world of the undergrowth. I find it amazing that we live in a world where even the weeds of the earth look so beautiful.

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Celtic Spirituality in Robin Hood Country

May 14, 2010

Mountain biking in the woods - a spiritual discipline?

I took these pictures last sunday 9th May 2010 while cycling in woods in North Nottinghamshire, which in medieval times used to be part of Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame. The pictures reflect different aspects of these woods – the sun dappling the ground through the leafy canope of trees; the sandy, mulchy, humus rich soil of this part of the world; the fresh, verdancy of new leaves and the winsome, tender splendour of wild flowers. They also reflect part of my life story. Riding in the woods on Sunday reminded me of a writer and how his eloquent words helped my healing and recovery from a period of illness over five years ago. 

In the spring of 2005, I began to take my first breaths of newness and to taste life afresh while emerging from a season of quite bleak alienation and personal pain. Later that year in the summer, I happened to visit a local bookshop and glimpsed the spine of a book with an intriguing title – Eternal Echoes – Exploring Our Hunger to Belong. I picked it up and began carefully leafing through it. I read with interest the gentle, peaceful words which described the enchanting landscape of Ireland and a perspective on Christianity that I had never really met before – Irish Celtic Christianity. Yet, John O’Donohue was clearly not writing a history book, but a sensitive, welcoming invitation to modern people to participate in an ancient spirituality of harmony with nature and land. I felt calmed and refreshed just flicking through it…I bought it and took it home.   

Several months later I was on holiday in Greece, staying in a splendid, small self-catering resort and enveloped in the sunny warmth, sandy beaches, warm, clean swimming pools and salty sea of the Peloponnese. At that time, I had been working for nearly five years in a brute, physical job at a warehouse and I was growing increasingly weary in body and soul of the grueling labour and repetition. My holiday in Greece was a blissful interlude, refreshing, spellbindingly beautiful, richly sensuous and a perfect opportunity to rest from activity and delve into this mysterious book.  

In Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue made alive the temperate climes of the Irish countryside and coast – grassy mountains, blue lakes and moss-covered, weathered stones half-buried, half-exposed in the green hills. He described the echoes of the wind in the hills. He suggested that we busy, stressed, media and consumption driven modern people needed to rediscover, listen and hear for ourselves an echo from Beyond. A voice of transcendence that whispered to human souls through the ancient, natural landscapes. I was enthralled. Reading O’Donohue my own alienation and isolation from the natural world became apparent to me. I sensed the Spirit of God desiring to speak to me through nature. A feeling of release gradually welled up inside me. In those ‘sacred’ moments, the writer and his book Eternal Echoes, gently prized me free from the shackles of my suffocating, industrialised, technological and consumerist lifestyle.  

One short chapter spoke to me at the time that reminded me of the woods that I frequent so often now. That have become for me a natural sanctuary. John O’Donohue writes of ‘Our Longing for Nature’:  

‘Celtic spirituality reminds us that we do not live simply in our thoughts, feelings or relationships. We belong to the earth. The rhythm of the clay and its seasons sings within our hearts. The sun warms the clay and fosters life. The moon blesses the night. In the uncluttered world of Celtic spirituality there is a clear view of the sacrament of nature as it brings forth visible presence.’  

'We belong to the earth' John O' Donohue

 ‘The Celts worshipped in groves in nature and attended to the silent divinity of wild places. Certain wells, trees, animals and birds were sacred to them. Where and what a people worship always offers a clue to where they understand the source of life to be. Most of our experience of religion happens within the walled frame of a church or temple. Our God is approached through thought, word and ritual. The Celts had no walls around their worship. Being in nature was already to be in the Divine Presence. Nature was the theatre of the diverse dramaturgies of the Divine Imagination.’  

Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue, Pages 19-20  

I love those words:  

‘We belong to the earth.’  

‘The Celts had no walls around their worship.’ 

‘ Being in nature was already to be in the Divine Presence.’

 

Sweet chestnut leaves burst into life - 9th May 2010, North Notts, England

Riding my bike at the weekend, I remembered John O’Donohue’s words and how they inspired me to get out my bike again and venture out into the woods. For many years I lived a divided life. Now I feel that I can live a much more holistic life. I enjoy and revere the sense of Beyond  and receive the life-giving generosity of the Universe wherever I may be. Quietly drinking in the spiritual balance of nature in the woods. Celebrating the vibrancy and plurality of human cultural expressions in the city. It’s good to be whole again.  

'See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.' ( Pictured - Bluebells, North Notts, 9th May 2010)

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The Power of Less – Blogging, living and monasticism

May 6, 2010

I have recently spent a lot of time considering what I want to do with my life and perhaps, more importantly how I should go about it. One of the recent developments in my life that has inspired and encouraged me to find work in this field has been writing this blog. I have always enjoyed communicating in general and writing specifically. It’s also something where people at different times in my life have told me that I have a knack for using words. It’s pretty fortunate that I have this ‘knack’ as my other skills can often seem somewhat limited!

Yet writing my blog has become a challenge in itself. Attempting to write interesting, thought-provoking, useful and stimulating posts sometimes comes naturally, but at other times it feels like a punishing drag – each letter of each word being engraved seemingly individually into the granite hard ether of web space – destined (possibly!)to be ignored or at best casually flipped upon and quickly dismissed.  Moreover, this sense of being gunged up as a writer can feel seemingly exagerated by the lack of  verbal response from readers.  Even a short, but heartfelt and relevant comment can make a big difference to an aspiring writer!

Still the greatest challenges I feel are inward, not external ones. One dissident of the former Romanian Communist regime, who had suffered many years of incarceration in prison and persecution during the brutal years of Communist rule, was once asked shortly before his death, with respect to his difficult life experiences whether he had any enemies? To which he replied, ” No, I don’t. I have no enemies…only myself.”

This insight seems as true about the writing life as it is about the spiritual pilgrimmage…our greatest and most persistent adversary is usually our self.

File:Russian Orthodox Monastery in Hebron.jpg

Abraham's Oak Russian Holy Trinity Monastery (Photo courtesy of CopperKettle licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons)

One of the themes of Dark Nights White Soul that keeps cropping up in my thinking, feeling and writing is the simplicity of the contemplative and monastic life. I feel increasingly drawn, not to sexual celibacy, but to the quietude and purity of this spiritual tradition. It offers, perhaps especially to post-modern people soaked in a hyper technological world, an existence that provides firm, yet flexible, natural boundaries. Monasticism offers limitations not as obstacles to pleasure, but as the real pathway to true happiness, personal peace and joy. Such simple and ‘holy’ practices encourage me to make important choices today about what I will do with my life, both in the macroscopic ideals of my career and vocation in the future, but also to the microscopic details of practical, everyday living in the present.

I lay down this evening to read and pray feeling frustrated and burdened by the multiplicity of tasks I have made myself and my lack of concrete progress in achieving any one of them. As I lay quietly in my room reflecting a book came to mind that I picked up a few months ago from Waterstones called  The Power of Less – The 6 Essential Productivity Principles that will change your life by Leo Babauta.

I’m just going to quote a couple of lines from his opening introductory chapter:

‘…the simplicity I seek in my life is simplicity in what I do.

Do less, not more, but achieve more because of the choices I make.

Simplicity boils down to two steps:

  1. Identify the essential.
  2. Eliminate the rest.’

The Power of Less, Leo Babauta, page IX

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Spiritual Temperaments: Contemplative (8of9)

May 2, 2010

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)

 

Contemplatives follow in this ancient tradition of spending time at the ‘feet of God’ (so to speak) listening to the whispers and intimations of the voice of divine wisdom. In the story from the Gospel of Luke quoted above, the two sisters of Mary and Martha are contrasted in their responses to the presence of Jesus in their home. One sister, Martha, takes on the typical role of Jewish matriarch and hostess energetically using her time to prepare a meal for her honoured guest – the teacher and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who, according to the gospel accounts of his life, had become something of a prominent celebrity in their region of Israel at that time.

 The other sister, Mary, takes upon herself not the role of hostess, but that of devotee or disciple. She sits at the teacher’s feet, perhaps gazing into his face, listening to his words. As I understand it, Mary’s actions were quite controversial at the time as the place of sitting at a Rabbi’s feet was usually reserved only for disciples of that teacher and disciples would be men not women. Yet here in this early gospel text, the author describes a woman paying focused attention not on Jesus’ practical needs of food and drink, but to his words. Words that we might imagine could have been delivered softly, gently, seriously, thoughtfully, humourously as in intimate conversation, in contrast to Jesus’ usual preaching voice shouting out to the  gathered crowds.

This short passage illustrates in many ways the contemplative’s heartfelt desire and longing for communion with God – intimacy, relationship, time, devotion, prayer, listening. The contemplative is almost driven to put aside the business of daily life and find time and space to set aside to contemplating the wonder, and majesty, tenderness and love of the Divinity. Usually in the history of world religions the contemplative vocation has been considered a ‘high’ one. Yet, to be a contemplative is in some ways an anti-social, rejection of ordinary life. In stead it is a choice to find the insights of transcendence in solitude, quiet and inactivity (although this should not be confused with passivity, as contemplation is an active engagement with the mysteries of God and the Universe).

One famous modern writer who explored in-depth the contemplative lifestyle was Thomas Merton (31 January 1915 – 10 December 1968). His writings have been very popular with thoughtful, prayerful people from many walks of life. They can be difficult to read and somewhat densely written, but they contain many gems of insight and wisdom into the life of simplicity, prayer and social action for modern people, both women and men.  I have found a picture of Merton in colour below, dressed in simple denim clothes and posed sitting on a bare stool with the trees of his beloved forest arround him. I have also found some quotes by Merton at http://www.octanecreative.com/merton/quotes.html.

  • What do you think about Merton’s words written in the nineteen fifties and sixties do they still speak to us today?
  • Do you resonate with the place of Mary in the gospel story at the home of Martha and Mary? Or do you relate more to Martha – the diligent, active and caring  hostess?
  • It is worth noting that Jesus did not criticise Martha’s active behaviour, which of course practically helps to create a hospitable atmosphere for her no doubt hungry and thirsty guests. However, he refuses to ‘take away’ from Mary – the contemplative – what she has chosen in those precious moments of closeness with an extraordinary teacher. She chooses simple stillness, devotion and loving attention to the presence and words of a unique divine messenger. She shows herself to be a contemplative at heart.

“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – although we are not quite able to define what that something is – and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise. Resigned and indifferent, we share semiconsciously in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality.’”

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings

 

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be fully real until we let ourselves fall in love – either with another human person or with God.” Love and Living, Thomas Merton

 

“If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order without saints, mystics, and prophets.” A Thomas Merton Reader

“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved – if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved – he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”  Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton

“There must be a time of day when the man who makes plans forgets his plans, and acts as if he had no plans at all.There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have a meaning?

There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.”  No Man is an Island

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Listening to the quiet, burning desire to be authentic

April 24, 2010

I found this poem at the beginning of a book on aesthetics (the study of beauty). It struck me as a very modern poem and yet I have discovered it was written in the mid-eighteen hundreds. Still, it speaks to me deeply of the importance and discipline of listening to and paying careful attention to one’s inner feelings and thoughts. Both of which can easily be suffocated and suppressed by a relentless, unseen pressure to conform to what we perceive to be the standards of our culture and society.

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,                        10
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                     20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves–and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

But we, my love!–doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?–must we too be dumb?

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

Fate, which foresaw                                                    30
How frivolous a baby man would be–
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity–
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;                        40
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;                        50
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us–to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves–            60
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well–but ’tis not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;                                                70
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.

Only–but this is rare–
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,                                               80
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d–
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.            90

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Matthew Arnold, The buried life, (1852)