Archive for January, 2014


Breathing Under Water

I was sent this remarkable piece the other day, and had to share on here,

as one learning to breathe under water

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I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.

A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.

And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

by Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ

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Retreat Reflection

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Meet some very special people – Lance & Sue Blake – with whom I spent a wonderful 48-hours, at their Fenland Hermitage, in south Lincolnshire. Their calm devotion, warm hospitality, infectious humour, attentive hearts and gentle guidance imbues the whole place with a holy stillness.

Quickly I felt at home (evidenced, according to Lance, by wearing my slippers in the Chapel !)  finding abundant space for prayerful reflection, in an atmosphere which called to mind a hymn-writer’s description: “the silence of eternity, interpreted by love”.

Conversation with these delightful folk flowed freely, giving the distinct impression I could share anything, and be heard lovingly, respectfully and non-judgmentally. And joining in the set periods of prayer in the Chapel was thoroughly uplifting (consisting of a simple liturgy followed by a period of silence for contemplative prayer).

Much time was spent in the high standard, modern, 2-bedroom ‘barn’ conversion – (self-contained, with self-catering facilities) – where I savoured the quiet to think, to pray, to read (Richard Rohr: “Falling Upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life”)  & to journal – at will.

Uppermost in my meditations for some weeks has been the life-stage of ‘weaning’ referred to in Psalm 131 “I have calmed and quietened my soul like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” and this developed even further during these days. What a trauma – for child and for mother. What an appropriate analogy of baby believers experiencing first time withdrawal of God’s ‘felt’ blessings. What storms of self-assertiveness ! What howling gales of tyrannical thought blow through the soul in such a process ! What un-spiritual tantrums & rages  !

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But, moving on … the Fenland Hermitage is situated within easy reach of the Willow Tree Fen, a nature reserve run by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. So, armed with camera, I walked to the reserve, along the Macmillan Way, beside the River Glen – spending an hour or so engaging with the natural beauty of that area … and here’s a little sample for your delectation (click on a thumbnail to enlarge).

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Back to base … beside which is the Willow Field containing a grass Labyrinth (not to be confused with a maze). This I was invited to walk under Lance’s gentle direction – being especially encouraged to enter it with a specific question – and as it happened, one sprang quickly to mind. I must confess, however, that I had no expectations whatsoever on setting out on this journey. Indeed, during the early stages I experienced deeply cynical thoughts – viz. “How silly for a 62-year old to be walking round a grass path on a cold January afternoon in the middle of nowhere” and again, “This seems oh, so meaningless”. Chillingly that developed further into: “I wonder if that’s what my life amounts to … meaningless-ness !”

Thankfully the ‘mood’ changed dramatically on reaching the centre, where I was immediately transfixed, as it were. With mind stilled but alert, with heart becalmed but open, thoughts downloaded thick and fast – thoughts of God as the centre of life – of God being my centre – there at the core of my being. (Remarkably, this flow included a distinct ‘answer’ to the question I’d taken into the Labyrinth, too). In those moments I found myself offloading much mental baggage, and freshly embracing God, His Will, and the Cross – the biblical idea of ‘dying to self’. There came with this a deepening sense of renewing grace. You may understand that I didn’t want to leave that place in a hurry – but eventually tore myself away and returned,  with lighter heart, fleet of foot, to the end of the path. Lance had indicated that the Labyrinth represents a journey from God, to God – with Him at the centre. Finding this to be so after such initial disbelief only serves to magnify the divine mercy and mystery.

Photo: Sue Blake walks the Labyrinth (taken from the Fenland Hermitage website)

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A long period of solitary reflection followed this experience, continued into a relatively sleepless night, where I laid for hours dwelling on what had occurred, allowing it to wash over me and considering the implications. God – my centre – awesome, liberating – flooding me with a new sense of the Father’s love, acceptance and peace, (like being born-again again) which no human words can adequately express – but as we say up North: “it’s better felt than telt”

One of the Hermitage’s prayer leaflets states: “Prayer is like watching for the Kingfisher: All you can do is be where he is likely to appear, and wait. Often nothing much happens. There is space, silence and expectancy, no visible sign – only the knowledge that he’s been there and may come again. Seeing or not seeing does not matter – you have been prepared. But sometimes when you’ve almost stopped expecting it, a flash of brightness gives encouragement”

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Methinks, I caught a ‘fleeting’ glimpse of the Kingfisher

So, thank you Lance & Sue – for sharing your home, your love, your selves so readily, and so freely, with one who was previously a stranger, but who now has two hermits among his friends.

Here’s a link to their website, along with my heartfelt recommendation:

www.fenlandhermitage.co.uk

Sharpen Up

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I received something of a ‘wake-up call’ early in November 2013.

After assisting with worship in a friend’s church, I listened as he taught about ‘fasting’ (in preparation for an evangelistic initiative in 2014). His words were like a ‘delayed-action grenade’ which exploded in my spirit later, convicting me of slippage in personal spiritual discipline since leaving paid ministry. After considerable reflection, a few days later I decided on a course of action, which I’ve found seriously beneficial – quite simply a substantial reduction in my food ‘intake’. Having maintained this regime for 8 weeks, even over Christmas, I feel sharper mentally & spiritually, and so much healthier physically (having shed over 20 pounds in weight – and taken consistently lower blood pressure readings)

Reflecting on this (particularly the ‘feel sharper mentally & spiritually’ bit) I recently read Ecclesiastes 10:10 which says: “If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed”.

Wood-cutting prior to the era of ‘power tools’ was a hugely demanding task at the best of times – making a serious call on the labourer’s physical resources. The skilled hewer not only had to be in shape himself, he also needed a keen eye on the condition of his equipment, along with the good sense to maintain it in tip-top condition. Neglect in doing so inevitably resulted in reduction of effectiveness, required further strenuous effort on his part, and could even prove downright dangerous.

What a metaphor of life and ministry !

How pertinent perhaps to those hard (albeit jaded) workers, who keep slogging away with their increasingly blunt instrument:

– believing wrongly that taking time out to get sharpened is time wasted.

– failing to understand that the exertion of excess energy is both unnecessary and counter-productive.

– inviting the onset of burn-out – sadly a phenomenon all too common among those who fulfil a demanding caring role, whether in society or in church – a long trail of serious casualties tells the sorry tale.

Inadvertently, I may have stumbled on yet another sharpening process, that works for me – an add-on to other rhythms of spirit, mind and body (such as Bible reading, prayer & contemplation, corporate worship, writing & regular walking).

Again, partly with those Ecclesiastes words in mind, I’m taking a 2-day retreat in mid-January at a Franciscan Hermitage in the south of Lincolnshire, allowing space to discover and grow more into the person I’m meant to be. I anticipate this bringing a challenge to my very core.

Never ought I forget, too, that vital ‘honer’ of the human heart, enunciated in a piece of Jewish wisdom: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” – which celebrates the positive outcome of human inter-action. Rather, I shall take deliberate steps to build into my routine quality time with those individuals who resource me, as an ongoing ‘must’ for the New Year – hopefully, a new season of effectively ‘being’.

Yes, in 2014 I’ll not just keep swinging & hoping … but make time to sharpen up my axe-head – bearing in mind those insight-ful words of a former US President: abe-lincoln-sharpening-the-axe- inspirational story -motivational story