Soliloquy at

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

For Rosi

The Way



Pilgrim!  The Only Way awaits;
Expects; each day, anticipates.
As disenchanted dream fades and
Crumbles into the dust on which
Each footstep now records no mark,
Be gone! –  though dream and Way seem dark.

Efface!  Enfold the wasted land
Wherein His presence grasps the hand,
Illuminates, and shows the way
Till peace recovers your pilgrim
Heart; and with each step hear Him say,
You have your friend; your walk; your Way;

Our odyssey begins with free,
Unconditional company:
Romera y Romero – Me.
Only this do I ask of you:
Sojourn beside me through this day.
I am with you.   I am The Way.”
 

©  Paul Amphlett 2012
 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Ready for a walk


Perhaps venturing out in search of some unspecified but yearned for high trail will become my final quest: a single but all consuming endeavour which may occupy me for the rest of my life. It may become the preliminary for the last walk I ever take: the cresting of the final ridge separating me from first glimpse of a destination sought since hearing and responding to a call to follow: a destination; an unknown; a growing certainty; a revelation that is both longed for and feared.

‘As a deer yearns for running streams, so I yearn for you, my God.’  (Psalms 42:1)

An absorption into a Presence, and a sense of belonging beyond not only the limits of human experience, but all possible imaginings; a return to the full awareness and shared consciousness of God walking in Eden. A walk with The One ‘who makes me as swift as a deer and sets me firmly on the heights’ (Psalms 18:33): He who has blessed me with both the ability and the longing to climb to the tree line in search of the trail.
I would have no wish to leave the trees behind save in this one necessary undertaking; I would have no reason to search for a trail above them other than to find, to see, and to descend into the welcome of the unimaginable Sanctuary to which it leads.

 '... She knows only that she must go on, for he is not here, he is beyond ... nothing to be seen save the great expanse of cold, grey sea. No land in sight. She must not turn back, she cannot stand still, she must go on, must do what she cannot do for he is somewhere beyond, calling. She steps out to walk upon the waters, to go to him whom she cannot see. To do this is to be 'there' with him.
Or, can we say she walks out upon the narrow promontory reaching far out to sea?  She walks to the very tip, with the grey sea all around save for the narrow strip of land linking her to the island. The waves are slowly washing away the earth behind her, cutting her off. She could leap back to safer ground. She does not; she remains looking out to sea, looking at nothing else, waiting in hope. She is borne away to him.'
(Ruth Burrows. Guidelines For Mystical Prayer)

This sense of knowing that there is still a long walk to be done is entangled with other thoughts; memories of other journeys made on foot; sights seen; sounds heard; persons walked with, met, and avoided; crossing the paths of others, especially those who were to become God’s provision through particular times.
More recently, these thoughts have been joined by my increasing awareness of two people for whom the pleasure derived from walking is no longer what it once was. The longing is there; the memories and associated trains of thought are undiminished; but the thinking, the relishing, the experiencing: the delights and invigorations of wind and rain and sun, of dawns and dusks, of bird flight and song, of tree and bush, of grass and moss and fern – of all things which combine to build the pleasures of walking – they are now, for the most part, enjoyed without the lifelong active ingredient which is the act of walking itself.
One person can no longer enjoy that physical freedom as fully or as spontaneously as he once did, and while the other still could, she too has lost the same degree of enjoyment and freedom through their ongoing commitment to shared time and the experience of life and love.
I can no longer walk or run through the woods or over the hills without taking my awareness of them with me in all that I see and hear, and feel and think. I have never been able to go there without at least some of my time being spent in my own form of wordless prayer, but in recent weeks such times have repeatedly folded and wrapped themselves around my awareness of them, carrying them and sharing with them my experience of being where they would both love to be.

Saturday 11th February was an exceptional day. I shall regret for a long time not returning home for my camera when I realized what had occurred during the night. Even before reaching the northern end of the hills I could see that something had happened; a tree high on the hillside was backlit by the sun and shone as though set with diamonds. As I climbed higher the tops of trees were all the same, and higher still whole trees were encased as though in glass, and wherever the sun shone through them they dazzled and flashed in an extraordinary way. I ran round the Herefordshire side of the British Camp, in places barely able to stand motionless until dropping down into the woods. Everything on the higher slopes was completely encased in a thick layer of flawlessly transparent ice, and as I faced into the sunshine my world was simply unreal; every spike on the gorse had its own crystal sheath; every blade and leaf and twig, and every patch of stony ground not previously covered by the protection of snow was cloaked in the same bedazzling flash and fire. Other lines from E.B.B’s Aurora Leigh ran over and over through my head:

‘... Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes ...’

By the time I had returned home the sun’s warmth had reduced the display to merely residual patches of light, and I had no more than memories of a rare and beautiful experience. That hurt. I had carried those same two people with me, in my thoughts and in my heart, but I had nothing to show them. I wanted to send a note or an email, or telephone, but it seemed almost cruel without being able to show anything of that morning. There are photographs to look at here  http://www.geograph.org.uk/search.php?i=29345418  but they do not show what I had seen in the way that I had seen it, or in the way that I had longed for them to be able to experience it. 
But that is where I went wrong, and where a part of me still goes wrong; no photographs could ever yield what I wanted them to have; that could only be received through their own direct experience of the day, and that would have meant a walk.
That is the truth at the heart of walking; and that is the loss in the heart of one who longs to walk but is no longer able to do so.
Gain and loss; strength and weakness; life and death; past, present and future; they are all bound up with the simple yet profound desire to go forth: to get out and away on foot; farther, higher and deeper: away from the world while trekking into its very heart. It is a following in answer to a call.

I have quoted the following words before (29.9.08 ... Dedication) but, on more than one level, they are too apposite to be avoided here for that reason alone.

‘... we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, now-a-days, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.’
(Henry David Thoreau. Walking.)

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Called to freedom

For many, perhaps, the environment most likely to equal the trees for communing with God at any level is found in a garden; for some, the product of their own handiwork in particular: their own garden. Mine figures large in my own life, but other than as a major part of home, with all that is meant by that focus of stability and comfort – what I have previously referred to as my ‘Base Camp’ – its relevance in the present context is not particularly that it is a garden, but a space in which nature is given much more of a free rein than most true gardeners would allow. (4 & 5.7.07  Talk of trees … and of a tree)

I do not separate myself from imagined views of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, but I do find it impossible to see it as what we commonly speak of today as a garden: a controlled, manicured and cultivated area, however beautiful that may be. Yes, scripture tells us that ‘God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15), but that was to come, or would have done had he not been banished from it. Eden was more beautiful than anything Adam or any other man could have made of it.
We all have an inbuilt awareness of that as a profound truth, both in our use of the name to describe the astonishing wonders of parts of the world we are too late recognizing as mere remnants of what was here before we wreaked havoc with it in our advance towards ever (supposedly) higher levels of what we refer to as ‘civilization’, and in our naming of particular places that stir us in ways that rouse in our consciousness echoes, not only of Eden, but of something less tangible to which we are still connected by the ever-present lifeline manifested in our doubts (previous post). ‘Cathedral Grove’ on Vancouver Island, Canada, springs immediately to mind.
Eden is unimaginable without trees; without trees not only its garden but Eden itself would not exist.
 
‘From the soil, God caused to grow every kind of tree ...
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’
(Genesis 2:9)

Leaving gardens aside, however (if we remain within their confines we shall never discover what walking is), the only equal of woods and forests – for me at least – is hills and mountains. And whenever I find myself in a landscape where each becomes an essential part of the other, whether in Canada (28.5.09  On looking up.), in the Pyrenees (23.1.12  God is present) or during frequent visits to my local wooded hillsides, I can find myself as close to being in Eden as I could possibly hope to be.

It is the call to freedom which takes me there and which would carry me further if I had the nerve to keep going; not just an undeniable summoning from places to which I long to return, or the inbuilt desire for silence, for solitude, for space, but a call to a peace beyond all experience, yet known to be attainable at the end of a real walk: a walk without pre-planned circuit or loop, with reminiscences of what has been left behind outweighed by anticipation of that which lies ahead, and with no requirement to be back by a certain time, the same day, or even tomorrow. A walk along the one trail that has been beckoning, perhaps for years, but which has been put off for any one of a dozen possible reasons. A longer, higher, and in all ways deeper walk into the unknown; a venturing, for which my years of security and contentment spent within sight of the fireside glow of my Base Camp have been preparing me.
Perhaps it will be the fulfilment of that awareness which blossomed and thrived in each of us when our earliest walking promoted us to being called “Toddlers”. 
‘... at three,
This poor weaned kid would run off from the fold,
This babe would steal off from the mother’s chair,
And, creeping through the golden walls of gorse,
Would find some keyhole toward the secrecy
Of Heaven’s high blue, and, nestling down, peer out –
Oh, not to catch the angels at their games,
She had never heard of angels, – but to gaze
She knew not why, to see she knew not what,
A-hungering outward from the barren earth
For something like a joy.’
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Aurora Leigh)

An awareness too easily lost in later life, but of which we can be reminded by the tiniest of things:

‘I have not so far left the coasts of life
To travel inland, that I cannot hear
That murmur of the outer Infinite
Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep
When wondered at for smiling;’
(Aurora Leigh)

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Marking time


Those who believe there is more to come: more to our experience of existence than the life of which we are presently aware, have ways of being distracted from our paths which differ from the commonly held but mistaken belief that following our dreams can be put on hold.
We know that our ultimate dream: the dream that encompasses all that is worthwhile, disperses and discards all that is worthless, and which is the fulfilment of all our deepest desires, is more than just a dream. It is The Dream; it is God’s own dream for mankind sown and germinated within each one of us; His plan for us; our source of life, our reason for being, and our destination.
It is through our understanding that our worldly tomorrows will not always be there that we can see – however nebulous and however vague its outline – that our future is a greater reality than the anticipation of a sequence of tomorrows.

As the years of experience accumulate, all of us will become increasingly conscious of our own mortality. We may feel the same, regardless of age, and even when we notice the increasingly grey hair, the loosening skin, the aches and pains which linger instead of leaving quickly and completely, we do not readily convert our superficial knowledge of the fact that life in this world will come to an end into a full realization of the inevitability and finality of our physical decline leading to death.
At some point, I presume, we all reach a point where this changes: where reality can no longer be evaded: where truth catches up with our lack of awareness, our avoidance, or our denial. But I cannot begin to imagine how this might feel to a person without even the vaguest hint of belief in some form of continuance of existence after all trace of physical life has gone. No assumptions can be made; with a whole lifetime spent seeing all things from that viewpoint the end may be a continuation of lifelong acceptance and contentment born of knowing that this is simply how it is.

My own inability to imagine that situation stems from the fact that I find it impossible to grasp how anyone can live through an entire lifetime with such a belief without developing at least some degree of doubt. I regard doubt as to the existence or otherwise of God as being as universal as mankind’s sinfulness. Both, within ranges that extend far beyond any single person’s capacity to comprehend, are quite simply part of us. They are inevitable consequences of our individual and collective imperfection, the existence and costly influence of which is undeniable, whether we believe the story of our beginnings as told in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, or any of the other creation stories from around the world, or if we believe in nothing beyond the “reality” of this life.
Lives can be blighted, stunted or shrivelled by the confusions and fears caused by not keeping these two universal veins separate. They are both embedded in our very nature: they pulse and flow through us as surely as does our lifeblood, and just as our blood is constantly being cleansed by some of the essential organs of the body, and returned to the heart and lungs for re-oxygenating and redistribution, so our doubts as well as our sins need repeatedly to be returned to the heart of our being, the source of life, for cleansing, for renewal, and for the harmonizing of all aspects of our lives.

We must never regard our doubts as sinful. We do not sin when we doubt.
We should try to regard our doubting as becoming conscious of an ever-present lifeline: something which speaks of how much more we can yet be than whom or what we are today.
And that same lifeline threads through veins leading to the source of answers in the hearts of even the most defiantly unbelieving of atheists. Signs of its presence there flicker occasionally in spite of what may be considerable efforts to keep it out of reach and out of sight; and such moments themselves can cause considerable confusion. I suspect there is far more going on beneath the surface of such people than is ever likely to be outwardly shown. 
One such recent public occurrence found Prof. Richard Dawkins declaring his non-belief in God as being “6.9 out of 7”. This estimation of his own disbelief allows room for more than 14,ooo among every million declared atheists to not only grasp the lifeline but to be brought all the way into a living relationship with God. I give him considerable credit for having made known his own deceptively large margin for error. It was an expression of the doubt that will continue to play its part in every one of our lives.

The lifeline takes us back to our very roots. As expressed in Genesis, to when ‘the man and his wife heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day’; to a time when the wonder and simplicity of walking had not been separated from the miracles of creation and from a consciousness of being in constant communion with the Source of Life. But what did their disobedience lead them to do?

‘ they hid from God among the trees of the garden. But God called to the man. “Where are you?” he asked.’
(Genesis 3:8-9)

Sin and doubt will follow us all the days of our lives, but whatever our past mistakes, and however great our weaknesses may be, God still wants to share our walks with us, just as He longs for us to follow Him to wherever His own walk may lead.
However disbelieving, and however insurmountable our doubts, He still calls to each of us just as He did to Adam:  “Where are you?”

May we never be so afraid that we hide from Him, least of all when having already ventured out to enjoy the wonders of His creation.
It can be equalled, but there is no place better in which to meet with Him than among trees. They would rather not grow at all than aid us in our separation from Him, and at the very least they can speak of a hope living at the heart of all struggles and countering our temptations not to persevere; even to the smallest doubts in the hearts of atheists.

 “At the timberline where the storms strike with the most fury, the sturdiest trees are found.”

“The greatest oak was once a little nut who held its ground.”
(Authors unknown)

Monday, 5 March 2012

Early steps

 ‘As He was walking by the Lake of Galilee He saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew; they were making a cast into the lake with their net, for they were fishermen.  And He said to them, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.” And at once they left their nets and followed Him. 
Going on from there He saw another pair of brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John; they were in their boat ... mending their nets, and He called them. And at once, leaving the boat and their father, they followed Him.’
(Matthew 4:18-22)

When we read of Jesus calling his first disciples, the most noticeable feature of their response is that it appears to have been immediate: without hesitation or doubt they simply stopped what they had been doing and followed Him.
Until now, that has been my almost automatic, and only way of viewing the scene; but, with walking having been a more or less continual thread running through my thoughts during recent weeks, the realization that this was the only possible physical response they could have made suddenly became relevant to me.
No cars; no public transport; they were fishermen and had access to boats, but other than on later occasions when they and Jesus used them, they were of no use as a means of staying close to Him. And that is what their following required of them: not just the bodily act of following wherever He would lead but listening, questioning, discussing, pondering, learning, trusting, believing. Following was uncomplicated; it simply meant walking with Him, not just for an hour or two, but remaining in His company: in His presence. It meant being with Him in a way that allowed and enabled Him to fully share His presence with them: to be with them in ways beyond their previous experience and comprehension..

Walking with Jesus is not the same as walking with any other person.
Even when in the company of our closest love: spouse, partner, child, parent, or dearest friend, we walk with another whose heart, mind and spirit – however close we may be – are forever separate from our own. We know them and are known by them, but though the fact remains unrecognized in the constant flow of love between us, we do not know each other completely: our moment by moment emotions, thoughts and imaginings are much more of a private world than most of us would ever admit; and the privacy goes even deeper than that: into the fantastic isolation of  false realities in which we dwell without ever really becoming aware of their existence or of the hold they have over us. They occupy and bleed into more of both our intellect and our emotions than we know; at least until a subtle and elusive change is brought about within us: a change which will, at the very least, gradually alter our mindset. If accepted, encouraged and pursued the change will also bring about undeniable changes at a deeper level: it will alter our heartset. It has the power to transform us.

Jesus knows us as no other. He knows the truths that have already taken root in us and those we have not yet accepted; He knows the deceptions that writhe and thrive within us: ways of thinking, believing, feeling and being, scarcely recognized as parts of the persons we believe ourselves to be yet running freely at the supposed centre of our existence.
We can easily settle into a comfortable place where we feel close to our destination; resting awhile will do us no harm – indeed we believe we have earned our rest; all we need do is cover the short distance remaining at some time in the future; it wont take long; we just have to do it before we run out of time – tomorrow, or the day after, will do fine.
In such a time or place there are two things we cannot possibly comprehend: that we have scarcely begun our journey, and that all necessary answers have been made available to us and spring from one particular living source: ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ accessed through our own decision to place above all present priorities a commitment to follow Jesus wherever He leads: to come close to Him whatever our doubts and  fears: to walk with Him in all weathers, in all seasons, in the brightest day and the darkest night, in the very best and the very worst of what life lays before us.
That decision is not truly made until thought is confirmed by corresponding action: by laying all distractions and excuses aside and following Him: by setting out to walk in His company.

Buddha recognized the need to make such a journey through one’s life: “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”
Confucius too knew the journey to be necessary and ongoing: “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”

One way or another, we all make one of these mistakes every day; we either give ourselves a break, a rest, or a longer holiday, or we perpetuate our preparations without ever setting forth on the path before us.
We believe we can wait forever to follow our dreams; that our tomorrows will always be there.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Invitation


Ash Wednesday has led us into Lent once again; like an opening door that has been closed for a length of time without our having noticed. The idea of being led into Lent makes sense only if we are already tuned to the cycle of the liturgical year, with its passage from so called Ordinary Time to the period of preparation for the depths and the heights of Holy Week, without which all days would be numbered merely as the passing of days and nothing more; the relentless drip of time slipping through every attempt we make to control, to slow, to capture, or to wastefully fill it with ephemeral comfort, excitement and activity.

But without  such a living connection with Christ’s Church, or even when wondering or merely wandering at the furthest fringes of Christianity,  Ash Wednesday can offer any of us a starting place.
It is a door through which everyone can pass without ceremony, or commitment, or involvement; if it is your wish, you can probably enter whatever lies beyond it and remain completely anonymous, though being attracted and allowing yourself to linger there will lead to you being noticed. Perhaps that in turn might lead to your path crossing that of someone else at the very time when you need to talk, or simply feel like doing so. Asking our questions is the easiest way to discover the direction in which we need to travel if we are to find our answers.
God wants us to come searching for Him, and as soon as we move in His direction He is there to draw us closer. Being noticed is inevitable once we have merged with others at the fringes of the crowd gathered around Him.

If we can see Ash Wednesday as an opened door it is so easy to hang back until the day has gone, and then to believe that we have missed our opportunity: that the door has closed again. But it has not closed. It is a day that brings the opening of the door and of the opportunity, but the door remains open throughout Lent: right up to Holy Thursday when we place ourselves with Jesus at the Last Supper, and watch with Him as He prays in the garden. Even throughout His Passion and on to the Crucifixion itself the door remains wide open for men and women who are struggling with an unadmitted yet unquenchable desire to learn about Him; to come closer to Him; to follow Him.  

‘The centurion, together with the others guarding Jesus, had seen the earthquake and all that was taking place, and they were terrified and said, 'In truth this man was son of God.' ( Matthew 27:54 )

In reality the door is never closed, but day after day Lent offers a starting place, and the sequence of days points us and draws us toward the definite destination of Easter.  The focus of Christians on the Lenten journey and its climax is such that, despite the “risk” of being noticed, any person moving closer is able to become part of the Church experience while still remaining aloof to whatever extent they may desire.
We are invited, welcomed, perhaps seduced; even pained into the beginnings of a new way of seeing the world and our presence within it. And one of the invitations has your own name written upon it.

Ash Wednesday is our starting place for Lent, while Eastern Catholics begin two days earlier, on what is known as ‘Clean Monday’. 
This difference helps to emphasize the fact that, whatever day it may be, it is just a name given to a day with no importance other than that it is the beginning of the journey we call Lent.
Lent is a time when every day calls us to strengthen our ties, not so much with any particular church building or its congregation, with a denomination or liturgical style, but with Jesus Himself. 
That is the only “living” connection that truly does matter, for He brings us life, and in doing so He brings us to life. He is life itself.

‘Jesus said: “I am the Way; I am Truth and Life.”
(John 14:6)

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Accessibility

We are not, of course, angels as we hear spoken of in scripture. We are women and men: members of the human race, and as such we have an equal share in the reason for Jesus Christ having taken his place among mankind two millennia ago.
Angels have not been redeemed because they have no need of redemption; they have not fallen, and in their unblemished state they can have no comprehension of what redemption really is or what it means (or should mean) to us. Just as our learning about things from books or from listening to others can never give us the intimate understanding that is born of experience, so the angels’ ways of learning and knowing can never make real sense of something utterly beyond their own existence. That is why they ‘long to catch a glimpse of these things.’

 ‘You have not seen him, yet you love him; and still without seeing him you believe in him and so are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described; and you are sure of the goal of your faith, that is, the salvation of your souls. ...  Even the angels long to catch a glimpse of these things.’  (1 Peter 1:8-9, 12)

We are truly blessed to be living at a time when we have access to knowledge of these things, spoken and written of long ago, before their realization and by those who could only long (as do the angels) for their own share in the full understanding and the experience now available to each one of us.

Years ago I was asked by a friend whose path had crossed mine and who, for a time, was to become God’s undeniable provision for me, “Do you feel redeemed?” I could only answer that I did not, though I was aware that my inability to respond otherwise was not solely because I had no such feeling, but was the inevitable result of not really knowing what it should have felt like: in other words, I did not understand the meaning of the word. What exactly was redemption? 
I wrote of this three years ago, and having recalled doing so and searched my own posts (28.01.09  The Catholic in me (6); 5.02.09  Beyond words) it is reassuring to find that since that time my sense of having been redeemed has built to a point where I can now answer that question differently, and with a certainty that I do indeed feel and experience the reality of my own redemption; not always and in all circumstances, but when it matters I know it to be there.

The abstract group of twelve followers, of which I have pictured myself as a member since beginning to write here, still attends me throughout these pages. As individuals we remain unknown to each other, but an awareness that you have been reading, and some of you returning and spending appreciable time here, continues to provide me with a sense of fellowship and of being accompanied on at least some parts of my journey. I derive a considerable degree of security and ongoing support from your presence, for which my thanks are due every day.
We began by realizing that we had been found, and this was soon followed by hearing ourselves being called by name: we were able to count ourselves among ‘The Named’. As our spiritual spiral of growth continued we travelled through the stages to a point where we found ourselves among ‘The Sent’, only to discover that wherever we found ourselves we were also somewhere familiar: somewhere reminiscent of where we had already been, but seen more clearly; from a new angle; in a brighter light; with greater understanding (though still barely able to understand at all); and with increased trust and hope.

In hearing ourselves being called by name once more, it is as though we have been told we have been short listed for an interview; and in feeling ourselves again to be among ‘The Touched’ we now have a real sense of what redemption is all about; and something else ...: a sensation suggesting that this time the touch may mean that we have been selected for training.
Uncertainty may return; fear even; we may have no recollection of making any application for whatever we are to be trained for, but somewhere, back there on the path we have been walking, we meant it when we answered “Yes”; and all that was then set in motion comes from the ultimate source of all that is good. 
This is where we are confronted more clearly by personal difficulties roused by our attempted reliance on somebody other than ourselves; and here too is where we begin to learn the real meaning of that simple word, ‘trust’.

Trust; the angels must long to catch a glimpse of that too, for how can they grasp what it means for us who find it so difficult when for them it is an uninterrupted and unthought-of certainty?
Even the concept of free will must be a difficulty for them; they are already and permanently with Him: unlike ourselves they have never been invited to choose in response to His words, “Come, follow me.”

Monday, 13 February 2012

Ripple effect


I attended a total immersion (submersion) baptism a while ago.
Having been invited by the person being baptised, I found myself in the second row of seats, just behind her, and with a clear and close view of the baptismal pool uncovered before her.
Until the baptism itself, when she and those who would immerse her and bring her safely back again stepped down into the pool, the surface of the water was like glass: as though it had rested there undiscovered for an age, as in a previously undiscovered cavern beyond the imagination of mankind. There was something absolute about that stillness. I was drawn to it, though not distracted from the goings on around me as the service got under way.

When the time came she was duly baptised, not as an unknowing infant, nor in response to any authoritative wish of another from within her family or her church, but as a personal commitment: an expression and fulfilment of a mature person’s desire to follow, to receive and to bring into the lives of others the object of that desire. As the service continued, though listening to all that was being said and sung, I could not take my eyes from the pool until all discernable movement had ceased; and even then I found myself looking back to it frequently to be sure that it remained undisturbed. As if it had taken on a life of its own, I watched it throughout, and would not have been startled if the surface had begun to bend its reflections once more as the body of water beneath stirred and slowly turned in its sleep.

It took ten minutes or more to settle completely, but within the first minute a part of me was already far away – perhaps at ‘a pool called Bethesda in Hebrew ... (where there) were crowds of sick people, blind, lame, paralysed, ...’  (John 5:2-3).
I could only watch what was happening, having been put in mind of the words following on from the above. 
Some searches, (e.g. at biblestudytools.com) come up with “No results found” in response to John 5:4 being entered; even the same translation can be found quoted in different ways. My printed copy of The New Jerusalem Bible excludes both the end of verse 3 and verse 4, but shows them in a footnote. An online version (at catholic.org) shows verse 4 but not the missing part of verse 3.
It was these sometimes absent lines that had set my eyes and mind on the movement of the water. They tell us that the gathered people were –
‘... waiting for the water to move; for at intervals the angel of the Lord came down into the pool, and the water was disturbed, and the first person to enter the water after this disturbance was cured of any ailment he suffered from.                                                                                                          (John 5:3-4)

At the end of the service the pool was safely covered over, and the room was as though the water had never been seen; almost. 
Darker patches on the carpet spoke of some recent occurrence, and of someone having passed that way. Something had happened there; someone had been changed by the presence of something unseen: touched by something more than water; something unrecognized had come to witness a person’s response to an ongoing beckoning which had filled and blessed, and left her changed in ways that will be revealed in stages through the coming years.
Her personal commitment had caused ripples, not just in the water after being in the pool, but in her own life: in her presence among others, family, community, and strangers whose paths she will cross as her journey continues. Such ripples will last much, much longer; they may never be entirely stilled.
  
Disturbances within myself had been mirrored in the silent rise and fall, the slow wave and warp of distorted reflections on the surface of the water as it obediently returned to its former self: flat calm and motionless; though below the surface, for a long time after, invisible eddies continued to settle into stillness. This process can only be set in motion by something being plunged into or passed through the water.

So it is for each of us as we follow our paths. Something stirs us; something reaches into our deepest depths, and in surfacing again draws our most basic need up into our consciousness. Our first experience of it might be barely noticeable or overwhelming; at whatever level, it might be as the heights of joy, or love, or peace, or the profoundest sorrow, grief, remorse or fear; it might feel as though it would break us completely, or be sensed as that which will be the making of us.
It is our response to that inner disturbance: our “Yes”, that causes ripples to penetrate through to every corner of our existence.
And those ripples spread out to gently lap at the shores of other people’s lives, even far beyond our knowing. In their turn they become the barely noticed prompts that lead others toward their own meetings with a desire that already lives within them.

At the pool called Bethesda, was it, perhaps, an intermittent inflow of water disturbing health-giving sediment that caused the crowds to gather in search of healing? Or did an angel of the Lord come down into the pool?
Was the disturbance in the waters of the pool I had watched so intently anything more than that made by people entering and leaving; or perhaps something deeper: the lingering but confined ripples from the full immersion of the baptism itself? Or was it a manifestation of that which is truly deep yet ruffles the surface of all things: that which can stir life even within the spiritually dead, and overflow from those already living within its embrace?


Lay it all within the compass of my own wandering imagination if you will, but the Holy Spirit was present, and the newly baptized lady had emerged from the water into a new form of life: one from which that spiritual presence, guidance and strength will never depart.
Was an angel of the Lord present?
If we loosen our interpretation of the word, perhaps many!
If such angels are God’s Messengers, may not some here on earth who are called to be His messengers be regarded, at least potentially, as angels? What else are we to others in need when we respond to God’s call to become His answer to their prayers, and to bring His healing touch into their lives?

Emerging from the baptismal pool, had come 0ne blessed with that potential.
May the on-going ripples from her commitment always reach to the inner shores of those who live and work around her; and for those to whose aid she may one day be called, may she be the angel who comes in their time of need.


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Deacon? (17) A final twist

My conscious decision to wait on approaches from others where my future direction was concerned, and to respond willingly to their suggestions or invitations, led me into a confrontation with some of my own doubts and with my reluctance to admit to them, when asked about becoming an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion* (10.01.11  An ongoing call).
I had found myself being presented with what I thought was the one thing I would have to decline; as though having stepped into a trap of my own making, or being taught to be more careful with how I opened myself up to new ideas and directions.
( * I have been wrongly referring to this as Eucharistic Minister: a mistake derived not only from the widespread habitual but inaccurate use of the term, but also from its being the expression used at the time by the person by whom I had been approached. )
The thought has only now occurred to me that the same situation arose when being asked about the diaconate. Other than as part of the reason for my surprise at being asked, I have remained unaware of it. Yet having already explained my reasons for being unable to assist with the distribution of Holy Communion had not prevented the same person approaching me about becoming a deacon.

Again I have failed to respond to an approach from others in the way I had consciously set for myself.
For a while, I have not been sure where that leaves me in my determination of the direction in which I am meant to be travelling, but I now find confirmation and further strengthening in it as I recognize my folly in having placed an unquestioning reliance on the leadings of others. I had, in effect, extended an open (though unvoiced) invitation to all, and had passively opened myself to possibilities from almost any source. That had not been my intention, but I now see that this is what I had brought about.
Perhaps the two declined invitations, coming as they did from a safe and trustworthy source, were extended in response to prompts whose true intention had been, not to create a deacon, but to block other misguided possibilities that, through my foolhardiness, may have beckoned me, occupied me, and drawn me away in an entirely wrong direction. Certainly my time has been spent in focussed thought on something worthwhile, and I have arrived at convictions which otherwise would have remained assumptions and hazy half-beliefs, or even completely unexamined.

I now find myself being filled with the sobering thought that the past few months may have been no more than a continuation of my being taught, at a still deeper level, that I must continue to wait, to be ready, and to trust. Following that direction of possibility puts my conviction of not being called to become a deacon in a whole new light: not just in terms of whether I am being called to that end or not, or even, as felt, whether I am actually being called to remain firmly planted among the laity. Instead, such questions are becoming increasingly irrelevant, even as I write.
All that matters perhaps: what I am in fact being called to, is what underlies both possibilities, towers above them, and is at the very heart of every call to a deeper commitment to Christ. It is the call that has been running through much of what I have been pondering and writing about in this lengthy series of posts, though I have failed to fully grasp it – even while thinking and writing. It now seems that there has been only one call echoing through my entire experience of the question and all that has followed on from it; a call that has finally become audible and visible in the space created by my sense of relief at having finished with my thoughts on the diaconate.

It is the call “to radical availability”.
The message, the gift, the desire, the requirement, the obligation: the ALL for each of us, whether ordained or not, is the call to devote oneself to Christ “by means of complete availability”. 
It is to this that the deacon is ordained, but in spite of a conscious awareness that it is not specific to the diaconate, my knowledge of that fact has continued to blind me to the fullness of an essential reality: that this call is not for the deacon alone. It is the ALL to which I am being called; to which we are all being called.

‘Going deeply and honestly into our personal doubts and certainties ... will teach each one of us that our spiritual path leads into an “all or nothing” situation.  And this is precisely the lesson we all need to learn. It is our ALL that is being asked of us.’

Those are my own words, written here just a few days ago.
How is it that as soon as I believe I have finished with this subject, they speak back to me so clearly of what this has all been about.
There are other lessons written here for me; placed somewhere between the lines of my own thinking, and perhaps, even now, my thoughts on them are not finished.

I received an email today from a Benedictine friend who has read all that is contained in these ‘Deacon ?’ posts. It included a sentence that at once helped me to see how things really are, and which fits well with how I feel about this whole diaconate question in relation to myself.
 ‘You certainly know your own mind on the deacon question, but it sounds as if you were pleased to be asked, if only that it gave you a diving board for plunging into your own depths.’

Perhaps I had needed a reason and the means to dive that deep in order to learn that I cannot exclude myself: that I too am being called to give Him my all.
Perhaps too, I am being told more clearly that I must continue with my delving deep into uncertainty; that I must reach the point where I am ready to rely on my own judgment and discernment. And that must include my choice of the few in whom I should place my trust, disregarding the distractions that will always come from others.

‘Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world,
but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves
what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and mature.’
(Romans 12:2)

Monday, 6 February 2012

Deacon? (16) Marriage & celibacy


Marriage & celibacy
- Those who have received the order of deacon, even those who are older, may not, in accordance with traditional Church discipline, enter into marriage. 
         If married, should his wife predecease him, he should be willing ... to remain celibate for the rest of his life 

- Should the deacon’s wife predecease him, the widowed deacon must be helped to discern and accept his new personal 
        circumstances, which in normal circumstances precludes remarriage in accordance with the constant discipline of the Church in the East and West.

- “Those who have received the order of deacon may not enter into marriage”. The same principle applies to deacons who have been         widowed. They are called to give proof of human and spiritual soundness in their state of life.

- His vocation to marriage comes, at least chronologically, prior to his call to the diaconate. 

This area raises no difficulties within me, but as someone not called to follow this course I can imagine other voices saying “Well, he would say that wouldn’t he!” But even without a vocation to the diaconate, why, as a widower, should not I and any other man be able to follow a similar course – remaining unmarried and celibate for the remainder of our life – simply (and this in no way in a comparatively unimportant or un-influential sense, but in the way of being overridingly authoritative in its simplicity): simply as the result of having loved, having been married to and having made our life with the right person; an irreplaceable and unrepeatable blessing?
One can never know how one will feel in such situations until they become a personal reality, but saying that “the widowed deacon must be helped to discern and accept his new personal circumstances” hints at the underlying meaning being “You are ours completely now; you are not going anywhere.” He will surely need help but not in the way described; he will know only too well what his “new personal circumstances” are, and accepting them will be dependent on a great deal more than any well-meant but mostly restrictive guidance received from within the hierarchy.

Likewise, why are widowed deacons “called to give proof of human and spiritual soundness in their state of life”? – and why is entering into a new marriage not compatible with giving such proof?
 If remarrying is not “acceptable” for a permanent deacon, then, by implication, the suitability of all married candidates for the permanent deaconate, in the eyes of the hierarchy, must be, at root, highly questionable. It could never even be whispered of as a necessary “evil”, but is there not at least a suggestion of its acceptance being a reluctant compromise? One that is seeping round the edges of the other half of the equation: a hierarchical requirement for increased numbers of orthodox, ordained and obedient members of the clergy? Increased numbers, not in real terms, but at least making some small contribution to the stemming of the tide: the phenomenal losses in numbers coming forward with a willingness to follow their calling and a desire to cross the threshold.
I say again – I firmly believe that those who are so called will grow into that willingness and that desire. It is the calling itself: the vocation, in the shape and form that is still expected to be as it used to be, that is missing. Do we or do we not believe that people, in numbers, are still being called into the Church? If they are, where are they, and how are they being called? Some of them are married permanent deacons, but is that the extent of the calling for all of them? Some of them would make wonderful priests.
There are women who would make valuable deacons; and what exactly are the grounds we would use to deny the fact that some of them too might make equally effective and inspirational priests? I do not exclude those among them who feel themselves to be called in that direction from that possibility; but I am sure they are not among those who, like myself, are plainly called to remain with both feet planted firmly among the laity; to what end is not likely to become clear without our obedience to that seemingly negative and superficial calling.

I can hear sounds of “Shhhh!” ... “Think it, maybe, but don’t say it out loud.” ... “Not where others might hear.” ... “One day perhaps, but not in our lifetimes.” But tomorrow will become today, just as today will slide into yesterday without any help from us; and the status quo, regardless of any protest or determination to maintain or change it, will ultimately be governed by callings and directives from beyond all worldly authority and outside our merely human control. That which is truly right will continue to be; that which is wrong will be made right. We are powerless against it, though its influence seems far from apparent and a long time coming.

The Ordinariate is the most recent proof of the fact that the Catholic Church can never again say that she has no married priests. They are among us, and have been ordained as Catholic priests while already married men.
What happened to any women priests, married or not, who might have applied to join us as part of the Ordinariate?
Whatever adjective others might use to describe that question, it is a question nonetheless, however obvious the answer, and however plain that the main reason for ordained Anglicans wishing to join the Catholic Church at this time is a profound distaste for the acknowledgement and advancement of women to the level of equality in the denomination they have now left. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    “Shhhhhhhh ! ...” 

I had not intended to ask such questions here, as they steer me away from the intended purpose of these pages. That I have done so points to the fact that I have other subjects on which I need to dwell and ponder if I am to find out my deepest and real attitudes toward them. Doing such things has become very much part of me; not essential to life, but important to me: in some way relevant to my being here. It is how I find out what I really do think and feel about things, as opposed to what I merely think I think, and feel that I feel. From such time spent comes part of my ability to remain content whatever my real thoughts and beliefs turn out to be. The greater part of my contentment, however, comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and my world, and my awareness that Jesus walks with me still, un-sensed but no less believed in for that.  

I wrote earlier, that I would return to a particular point in this section: namely that, ‘the deacon is ordained to radical availability’ … ‘to devote himself to the Church by means of complete availability’.

‘Diakonia’ cannot exist without availability, and the indispensability of it as the framework on which all other facets of a deacon’s life of service are unfolded is undeniable. The fact that the spouses of married deacons will have been required to confirm, in writing, that they were fully supportive of the intended ordination, makes clear that this is more than being there for one’s neighbour if and when required. This is, as stated above, a ‘radical’ – a ‘complete’ availability; and not only to those who live next door, but to the Church itself, which means to everybody.
The actual limits and results of this availability will be governed and directed by the bishop and the priests to whom the deacon is responsible, but the truth at the heart of availability and the spousal support that makes it possible is that this is as close as one can get to a real “job-share”.
The promise of obedience is entwined with this, and family and home are thus regarded as secondary attachments and less important calls on the deacon’s time, affections and loyalty. From the Church’s viewpoint, in the eyes of the hierarchy, and in their perception of reality, this is not simply how the situation is seen to be, but is, in fact, how it is and how it is expected to remain.

Once again, my reactions are those of one who is not called to the diaconate, but I can envisage no genuine call of God that would allow me, let alone expect me, to turn away from my family with a conscious expression of my acceptance and belief in the rightness of their no longer being my first priority in life.
If members of the hierarchy regard marriage as a vocation and a sacrament – and written evidence declares that they do – how are they able to dilute its importance and validity, as far as they are able, when seeking candidates for the permanent diaconate?

The one part of this section which I would have turned into a real difficulty, had I been looking for one, would have been the last of the listed gleanings from my reading: that the deacon’s “vocation to marriage comes, at least chronologically, prior to his call to the diaconate.”
“At least chronologically” ?

There is much that concerns me concealed behind the inclusion of those three words.

Words of men!

Not of God.

About Me

Who I am should be, and should remain, of little consequence to you. Who you are is what matters; who you are meant to be is what should matter most to you. In coming closer to my own true self, I have gradually been filled with the near inexpressible: I have simply become "brim full", and my words to you are drawn from those uttered within myself, as part of an undeniable overflowing that brings a smile to my every dusk, and to my every new dawn.
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