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Precious

‘Think of it:  all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody.’

~ Thomas Merton, captivated by the rain.

 

 

Do you ever get the feeling everything’s alive?  I mean, not alive in the ‘MR GREEN’ way you learned in first year biology, you know, can it move, reproduce, grow, respire…….?  Ok, then it’s scientifically alive’.  But more in a vaguely conscious sort of way?!  Sometimes it seems almost certain the grass is dancing and jiggling when the wind ruffles it at the edge of the road.  Once or twice I’ve had the suspicion that a sun ray is deliberately playing ‘catch me if you can’ or a stream is having a good old giggle.  Clearly the trees talk to each other about things long since past and reminisce.  My car knows me well and my bed even better.  The moon rides along beside every night-time journey, always keeping an eye out for me.  A welcome rolls out of certain buildings.  Others are sad from what they’ve seen or what they’ve been abandoned to.  A street lamp winks at me when I’m out past my bed time.  And all these things are quiet and at a distance.  They never judge, they just are, they simply seem to know.

Humans have a strong urge to personalise things.  What if in some strange way we are right to do so?

I never said this before because it might sound like I’m a fruit loop.  (Working in mental health I’m aware that term would probably be frowned on, but you know what I mean.)  Or maybe more like a tree hugging, vegetarian hippie female.

But then I read this (by a man!) with a couple of tears in my eyes and thought, ‘there are at least 2 of us fruit loops then’.  And maybe a whole lot more?

 

‘The companionship of creation was an unexpected comfort during the time in the Alps I have already mentioned.  I was in a fragile state.  On one occasion I had spent a long while weeping, feeling lost and frightened in the mystery of the pain and struggling to find God in it.  After a while the tears stopped and I became still with a mixture of numbness and heightened sensitivity that can often follow an outpouring of grief.  I became aware of my small log stove behind me.  There in the corner of the room it crackled and clunked while the leaky old kettle on top hissed and steamed.  It felt like a wise old friend who loved and understood but would not intrude upon this moment by coming nearer.  I became aware of the bare plank walls of my cabin around me.  They felt supporting, secure and sheltering – but without closing in upon my space.  I looked out of the window.  I watched the alpine grasses blowing in the meadow, the clouds tugging at the mountain tops, and felt the cooling air of the approaching evening.  Everything around me seemed to understand.  Without mocking or excluding, they all knew a secret.  All this was sustained in love.  All shall be well.’

 

~ David Runcorn in ‘Choice, Desire and the Will of God’

 

The Inklings

‘I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.  Also, of endless books…….books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.  Nothing was forbidden me.  In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.’

– CS Lewis in ‘Surprised by Joy’, 1955

Well, we have something after all to thank the British weather for!

But that’s not the point of this blog.

The point is, haven’t we all experienced our own ‘long corridors, empty sunlit rooms and distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes’?  Don’t we all as children feel the weight and the stirrings of the world around the corner?  For my part it was hours spent in the garden with my open umbrella thrust imploringly to the wind, trusting it would carry me far away, or searching for crevices between tree roots where I might just crawl down a rabbit hole, or opening my eyes beneath the warm glassy bath water and wishing it would swallow me up and spit me out in that other place, or following elusive and wandering sun shafts through the woods on holiday.

And as we grow older, don’t we sometimes still turn around expecting to see the origin of a whispering?  Or get magnetised gazing into a dusky distance, as if that horizon were where we needed to be?

What if we had a small group of like-minded friends who also sensed the pullings, who could look into the atmosphere with us and watch it fracture and split clean open, parting the air for a moment to reveal who-knows-what?  Who could listen to, and encourage us in the pursuit of our tales, gropings and wonderings, and help us, each in turn, to craft them either into a deeper conviction, or even into a solid work of art?

This is what CS Lewis had, what he was also a product of.  On a trip to Oxford last summer I passed the Eagle and Child Pub, affectionately known as the Bird and Baby!  The endearingly enthusiastic guide informed us that it was here, in a back room, accompanied by ale and pipes of tobacco, that ‘The Inklings’ met.  The Inklings.

 

Now, I’d known that CS Lewis had been part of a kind of discussion group or ‘old time book club’ but now it was almost right here before my eyes and I was really curious.  This literary group of friends, which included not only Lewis but also JRR Tolkien and Charles Williams, formed in the 1930s and continued for nearly 2 decades.  That’s amazing, they must have known each other so well, and on a deep level.  They met twice a week either in the pub or Lewis’s rooms at Oxford University, although nearly every website I researched had different, but absolute, convictions about the particular night on which The Inklings met!  They talked about their ideas and philosophies, their beliefs and about literature and myths, and they read and critiqued each others’ manuscripts.  I like to think they dreamed together of unseen things.   Their words in that room must have floated up and mingled with the smoke from their pipes and formed a swirling dance of shapes right there above their heads as they talked into the evening.  They knew that their fantastical imaginings were not simply make-believe but the coloured expressions of something real.  I would so have loved to have been there, even just as a little fly on the wall!  It’s amazing to think that in an old pub this little gang birthed stories and worlds that are still meaningful to us today.

But without The Inklings, without  each other, would they have developed into the people they became?  I’m sure the discussions were not always easy and amicable and agreeable!  The Inkling members all had quite strong and different characters and curiosities.  Apparently, Charles Williams was a staunch Anglican but was also heavily interested in the occult, Cabala and the place of romantic love in the meaning of the divine and salvation.  He had many young female ‘followers’ and agonised over his 20 year-long, unconsummated love affair with a work colleague outside his marriage to his first love.  That must have been tortuous!  He would definitely be one for further research and a future blog!  And yet, despite their differences,  CS Lewis greatly admired him and wrote of him as one of his dearest friends.

We all need but rarely find, trusted friends who will listen to our deepest things, encourage us selflessly, but also who will have the courage to tell us for our own good when we are out of line or going off track or being untrue or damaging ourselves or others, or who will simply help us sculpt the good into the brilliant.  Charles Williams died in 1945 and this affected The Inklings so much that the group slowly wound down.  Lewis knew he himself would never be the same because of the death and that he would never again experience the other Inklings in the same way either.  The point he lamented was that Charles drew out certain aspects of people that no one else could in the same way.  Therefore the loss of Charles was also the loss of certain sides and aspects of others.  This is true for all of us all the time because we each affect others differently, causing them to manifest in different ways.  I need you and you need me if we’re to experience ourselves, each other, and other people to the fullest.

(As an aside by the way, Donald Miller, the author of the very honest and insightful tale of a spiritual journey ‘Blue Like Jazz’, wrote a blog about this very idea a few weeks ago in early October 2010 (www.donmilleris.com).  It’s worth a read, as are most of his blogs!  He pretty much writes a blog a day and it’s always interesting, I don’t know how he does it.  But then again, he’s a writer as a job so he gets paid for it.  That’s my excuse anyway!)

Back briefly to The Inklings…..

There were a few writers and dreamers who particularly influenced and inspired CS Lewis and some of the other Inklings, such as Lewis Carroll (of Alice in Wonderland fame) and G K Chesterton.  Both of these are also great characters worth a blog and a half themselves!  Chesterton’s quotes are sparklingly witty!  But the person that stood out to me recently was George Macdonald, who lived from 1824 – 1905 and was described as an original thinker, a spiritual guide and a master in the art of myth-making.

He wrote poetry, stories and novels but, interestingly, is best remembered for his fairy tales and fantasies.  His unorthodox views led him to offend and rile certain church parishioners and before he had even reached 30 years old he had been forced to resign from being a pastor.  At that time he must have felt pretty alone and excluded, and yet he continued with his questioning and exploring and going against the grain rather than acquiescing to the general view, even despite being a ‘wipper snapper’!  It’s hard not to feel some kind of odd comfort and affinity with this man!  CS Lewis said of him:

‘The quality that had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live’.

How could I not be curious to read his ‘imaginative works’?!  So I have started on his ‘Complete Fairy Tales’!

So far, each of his fairy tales seems to  mix weird worlds and baffling magical characters to turn conventional thinking and systems on their heads.  They’re meanings are obvious and also not obvious, so you have to think and interpret for yourself.  The description is so good that you can build a fantastical picture of each scene in your mind’s eye.

So far my favourite fairy tale has been ‘The Light Princess’, which tells of a princess who is cursed at birth by a miserable and bitter aunt.  As a result this princess has no weight at all and so floats in the air all the time.  That is until the day she discovers water and the local lake, and decides to swim.  Once in the water she has weight of her own and can splash and play and finally feel free.  A handsome prince finds her playing in the water one day and joins her, and of course he falls in love with her fairly soon!  The trouble is that the wicked aunt does not like all this happiness and so causes a serpent to bite a hole into the base of the lake and the water gradually seeps away, to the despair of the princess.  The cause of the shrinking lake is finally discovered almost too late, but it can only be remedied if someone is willing to plug the hole with their own body, and so drown.  After contemplation, the prince decides wholeheartedly to offer himself.  The princess is pleased and not too distressed at this!  In fact, she floats in a boat and feeds the prince at his request whilst he is plugging the hole and the water level is rising!!  She is quite selfish and unconcerned, though grateful that this prince is saving her lake.  Well, I won’t entirely spoil the happy ending, but just want to end with this song, which the prince sang as the water rose to reach his ankles, his knees, his waist and then his chin.  I defy you not to be moved!

‘As a world that has no well,

Darkly bright in forest dell;

As a world without the gleam

Of the downward going stream;

As a world without the glance

Of the ocean’s fair expanse;

As a world where never rain

Glittered on the sunny plain;-

Such, my heart, thy world would be,

If no love did flow in thee.

As a world without the sound

Of the rivulets underground;

Or the bubbling of the spring

Out of darkness wandering;

Or the mighty rush and flowing

Of the river’s downward going;

Or the music-showers that drop

On the outspread beech’s top;

Or the ocean’s mighty voice,

When his lifted waves rejoice;-

Such, my soul, they world would be,

If no love did sing in thee.

Lady, keep thy world’s delight;

Keep the waters in thy sight.

Love hath made me strong to go,

For they sake, to realms below,

Where the water’s shine and hum

Through the darkness never come:

Let, I pray, one thought of me

Spring, a little well, in thee;

Lest they loveless soul be found

Like a dry and thirsty ground.’

– George Macdonald

A few snaps from Oxford!

Seeing Stars

Here’s something a bit more light hearted!

A few weeks back I was searching on the internet for some help making Christmas stars out of wax paper.  My aunt first showed me how years ago when I was living in Switzerland and they looked amazing.  Well, I didn’t find any help with those but I stumbled on a great website for making all sorts of other things, including these pretty little stars here!  You’ll find it at http://www.craftideas.info

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep scrolling down………………….

 

 

And while we’re talking about pretty things, take a look at these beautiful pieces of jewellery made with real flowers and sold at the Greenwich market, London.  You can also find them at http://www.flowerjewellery.co.uk

The Dove Descending

In continuity with last blog………..

 

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-

To be redeemed from fire by fire

 

Who then devised the torment?  Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power can not remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

 

– T.S Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’

 

 

Are you a high D (Dominant), high I (Influential), high S (Stable/Steady) or a high C (Compliant)?  Are the things that you value theoretical, social, aesthetic, individualist, economic or traditional?  What skills do you have specifically – team player?  Tact and diplomacy?  Self-motivation?  Other-motivation?  Which group do you belong in?  Which box can you be squeezed in?

I’m in the box of people who hate psychometric tests!

Ok, it’s probably because they make you face some harsh truths about yourself in black and white.  I recently had to do an hour of these tests for a theology course I’ve started and one of the results is that I’m a ‘high C’.  According to the lecturer, high Cs are the hardest people to understand and everyone should stick their tongues out at us.  ‘That’s flippin great’, I thought to myself.  In summary, high Cs like to know stuff.  They think about things a lot and analyse, asking lots of questions and pulling things apart to understand them.  They have a thirst for the truth, a sense of awe and curiosity about the unknown.  The upside of this is that good questions lead to good answers, insight and hopefully wisdom that have practical impact on life.  The downside is that a lack of understanding can become unsettling and anxiety-provoking, driving us to over-analyse and mull about things half obsessively.  We can come across as a bit preoccupied and unavailable sometimes – sorry about that!

The other day I was on the train going to meet a friend, gazing out onto the passing fields and my high C brain kicked into action.  This was the gist of the (ridiculous in a lot of ways) inner conversation:

‘I’m really not feeling like going to see this friend.  That means that when I arrive I’m going to have to pretend to be positive and interested.’  (Images of me looking decidedly positive and interested flash through my mind).

(I’m guessing that most people would stop here if they had this thought in their head and then they’d move on?)  But no, my mind is perplexed and continues to ask:

‘Well, isn’t that being inauthentic and fake then?  And therefore, should I bother trying to be interested and positive at all when it’s not really real?’

‘If I have to force myself do something I know is right rather than spontaneously wanting to do it and ‘feeling it’, is it just me being a hypocrite, a cup washed on the outside but filthy on the inside?’

‘Yeah, and taking it one step further, is the Holy Spirit of love not really alive and well in me, causing me to be naturally loving and good (as described in my blog ‘Two ‘Apple’ Trees’ a few months ago)?

This is the point at which it feels like my over-analysing brain has deconstructed everything to the lowest common denominator (usually self-bashing) and I’m feeling a bit glum and tied in knots.  That can be the problem with thinking a lot!  It’s really kind of funny/silly looking back on it now.

But, thankfully, as I was gazing out of the train window that day, another perspective piped up in my mind:

‘Well, maybe it’s a misunderstanding to think that when God’s spirit of love flows into us he completely takes over and we effortlessly become changed, better people.  We don’t become robots having our mind and will hijacked by God.’

‘Ok, so maybe it’s more like the spirit works alongside us, awakening our consciences, prompting us to do something, bringing things to light, convicting us and creating the desire in us to want to be different, even if we can’t instantly be so.  The choice as to whether we act on those promptings is still ours but if we do then we’re working in synergy with God.’

‘Hmmm, in that case, with regard to my friend, perhaps I’m not being fake if I try to be interested and positive even though I don’t feel like it.  Perhaps I’m actually responding to the nudge telling me that it would be right and most loving towards my friend to relate to them in this way today.  And as I try to, God will help me.  I don’t ‘feel it’, but I want to do best by my friend, so I’m taking the necessary steps towards that anyway, and that’s evidence of the Holy Spirit.’

‘Yeah that makes sense.  Especially based on my own past experience’.

End of conversation.

Well, it wasn’t really because I wasn’t dead, but for the purposes of this blog that was the end of the mind conversation!

I suppose this whole reflection on the train was really digging deeper in to the whole ‘saved by grace or works’ question.  In the distant past, people seem to have focussed more on the ‘saved by works’ side, which meant earning God’s approval and favour by being good.  These days though I think we are emphasising so much the ‘saved by grace’ side alone that we don’t do much and are then astonished when our life and character go on as always with all the same old habits and struggles.

Of course we have been rescued by God from the tyranny of evil and been adopted into his family so that his spirit can come and live within us now and actually transform us as a completely free gift.  However, unless we take hold of that gift and apply it to ourselves in some way, and then act out of it, we will never be transformed so it won’t become a reality in our lives.  It’s the same as the love of a lover.  It’s the most wonderful thing, but unless you grasp it and open up to it, it won’t have any effect on you.  And it will have even more effect on you if you commit back to the lover with all the effort that this actually requires.  It’s not wrong to not feel like doing something good.  Loving with all your mind means choosing the right decision even when you’d rather not.  Surely this is most often the only way forgiveness has half a chance of coming about, it certainly doesn’t usually start with beautiful feelings!

Surprise, surprise, I love the way this all ties in with psychology!  Neurologically, you can transform who you are by what you regularly do.  When you make a certain choice time and time again (such as to stay behind after the meeting and do the dirty job no one else wants), eventually your brain will form long-standing connections between nerves so that you no longer have to consciously think about what you’re doing.  It’s just the same as when you learn to drive.  At first it takes a lot of thought about the gears, the pedals, the steering and hopefully also the brakes.  But sooner or later it becomes so automatic because your brain has laid down a ‘neural highway’ to travel along every time you want to drive.  You have learned the skill.  And of course, once behaviour has become automatic it has become your character.  You are actually a different person rather than just acting like one.  When you do good things they are no longer the exceptions, done with great effort, but they have become the air you breathe, the atmosphere you live in, your very self.

Discipline is necessary.  Sometimes that means making the difficult choices.  Sometimes it means taking the time to place yourself somewhere, somehow so that God has the chance to transform you, be that in meditation, study, service, confession, celebration or any of the many disciplines.  When you really long for a lover you will do whatever it takes to get into their space, to be with them, to make yourself available to them, to know them, to be affected by them, to please them, to strengthen your relationship, just to make it work, even if it is difficult in many ways and sometimes you don’t feel like it in that moment.

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The saying that ‘virtue is easy’ is true ‘only to the extent that God’s gracious work has taken over our inner spirit and transformed the ingrained habit patterns of our lives.  Until that is accomplished, virtue is hard, very hard indeed.  We struggle to exhibit a loving and compassionate spirit, yet it is as if we are bringing something in from the outside.  Then bubbling up from the inner depths is the one thing we did not want, a biting and bitter spirit.  However, once we live and walk on the path of disciplined grace for a season, we will discover internal changes.  The spirit of compassion we once found so hard to exhibit is now easy.  In fact, to be full of bitterness would be the hard thing.  Divine love has slipped into our inner spirit and taken over our habit patterns.’

‘What then is Paul saying in Colossians that Christians must do?  Answer:  He is telling them to develop, in the present, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age….What we need to grasp as being of the essence of his summons to Christian virtue, is the moral effort involved.  “Put to death…..”, “Put away….”, “Put on…” – these are the points of interest….The point of virtue is that eventually, as a person’s character becomes fully formed, such things may indeed begin to ‘come naturally’.  But the steps it takes to get to that point involve hard decisions, hard actions, choices that run counter to the expectations, aspirations, desires and instincts with which every human being comes equipped.’

‘ “If we live by the spirit, let’s line up with/walk by the spirit”….The point here is clear:  just because you “live in the spirit”, that doesn’t make following the spirit’s direction automatic.  You have to choose to do it.  And you can.’

– Tom Wright in ‘Virtue Reborn’ (or ‘After you’ve Been Saved’ in America.  Isn’t it strange how different cultures need and respond to different titles?  What does that say about them?)

 

These cover illustrations are really beautiful. There's something etheral and other-worldly about them, as if there's a incredible secret just through those windows or along that pathway.

 

‘The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths.  They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.  They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.’

‘Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack.  We rely on our willpower and determination.  We pray against it, fight against it, set our will against it.  But the struggle is all in vain and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt or, worse still, so proud of our inner righteousness that ‘whitened sepulchres’ is a mild description of our condition……We have no intention of exploding with anger or parading a sticky arrogance, but when we are with people what we are comes out.  Though we may try with all our might to hide these things we are betrayed by our eyes, our tongue, our chins our hands, our whole body language.  Will power has no defence against the careless word, the unguarded moment.  The will has the same deficiency as the law – it can only deal with externals.  It is incapable of bringing about the necessary transformation of the inner spirit.  When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realisation:  inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received.  The needed change within us is God’s work not ours……The moment we grasp this breath-taking insight, we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction.  We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do…..we must wait for God to come and transform us….Strangely enough the answer is no……We do not need to be hung on the horns of the dilemma of either human works or idleness.  God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.’

Richard Foster, in ‘The Celebration of Discipline’.

‘What is the good of pretending to be what you’re not?  Well, even on the human level you know, there are 2 kinds of pretending.  There is the bad kind where the pretence is there instead of the real thing, as when a man pretends to help you instead of really helping you.  But there is also the good kind where the pretence leads up to the real thing.  When you are not feeling particularly friendly but you know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as though you were a nicer person than you actually are.  And in a few minutes you will be feeling friendlier than you were.  Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already………  Put right out of your head the idea that these are only fancy ways of saying that Christians are to read what Christ said and try to carry it out….They mean something much more than this.  They mean that a real Person, Christ, here and now, in a very room where you are saying your prayers, is doing things to you.  It is not a question of a good man who died 2000 years ago.  It is a living man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as he was when he created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self he has.  At first only for moments.  Then for longer periods.  Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a new kind of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in his power, joy, knowledge and eternity.’

– C.S Lewis in ‘Mere Christianity’

Intimacy?

I recently had the pleasure/misfortune of watching the film ‘Closer’ with the ever beautiful Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen.

On the DVD case it describes it as ‘an uncompromisingly honest look at modern relationships’.  Hmmmm, wow, if modern relationships are like they are in this film, that’s a sorry state of affairs.  I don’t know that I’d recommend watching it, it’s definitely uncompromising.  ‘Crude’ is more like it.  Vulgar even?

Yet often, in otherwise distasteful films, there are moments of insight, deeper questions, glimpses of what’s really going on underneath.  Underneath our performances, underneath what’s obvious to the sight.  Amongst the 100 minutes of Closer were a couple of scenes that hit me straight between the eyes.

If you don’t want to know the outcome of the film, don’t read on!

At one point, Clive Owen has stumbled across Natalie Portman dancing in a strip club.  He remembers her as the ex girlfriend of the man (Jude Law) who stole his wife (Julia Roberts).  He pays to have a private room with her.  On the one hand he wants to find out information about his ex wife, on the other he wants to gain some kind of revenge on Law by having his way with his ex girlfriend.

Portman dances around, strips, bends over provocatively and does everything she’s asked, all the while smiling sweetly.  But, she resists every attempt to draw her in to meaningful conversation.  Owen sticks ever more money into her skimpy underwear, asking her repeatedly her name.  All she replies is ‘Jane’, which he knows is not true.  Finally, he looks up at the security cameras in absolute frustration and shouts, ‘what do you have to do to get some intimacy round here?’  Woah.  As you watch a screen writhing with seemingly very intimate behaviour, the question reverberates around the room.  Knowing her name, being allowed into reality, into the truth of who she is behind the candy smile, that would be real intimacy.

I think the point is rammed home right at the end.  Natalie Portman goes back to Jude Law once Julia Roberts has left him (!!), only to realise his ‘love’ is meaningless (“where is this love you talk about?  I can’t see it.  I can’t feel it.  I hear it, these words of yours.  But what does it mean?” she says).  She disappears back to America.  On his way to work one day, Law walks through a park where he had taken Portman the day they first met, and suddenly he sees a plaque on the wall

Portman had told Law that her name was Alice Ayres.  Now he realises that all along this was a fake name, one she had quickly read off a wall plaque that first day.  You’re left wondering if he ever really knew the real her.  A name is so bound up with a person’s true identity.  Now she has vanished for good after an ‘intimate’ relationship, was it all a lie?  Had they ever really allowed each other into one another’s worlds or just kept each other at arm’s length with false externals?  Despite physical closeness had they ever really known the meaning of intimate?