How will I know I’ve arrived?

Wise men? They look pretty dumb to me. Setting out across the desert, following a star, looking for….not sure really. I guess it’s not so weird. It’s the ancient equivalent of sat nav. You can only see a tiny fraction of the map – who knows where the woman with the strident voice and bossy tone will take you. Yet we put our faith in her, even in her diversions, trusting in her satellite omniscience. I often wonder if the wise men argued amongst themselves on the journey. ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ How can you answer that question when you don’t even know where you’re going? I wonder if any of the group turned back on the way, exhausted from the aimless wandering along in search of a mystery. Or perhaps something in them had become so enlivened they were prepared to go in pursuit of a dream whatever it took? It’s a heartening idea if you’ve made resolutions this week. The new way of living really is possible.
John O Donoghue explains it thus:-

“Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent. You are loath to let compromise or the threat of danger hold you back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment.” (From Anam Cara)

Perhaps January isn’t the time for mere resolutions. It’s a time for soul awakening. We need to meditate on who we wish to be, not what we will do. The wise men must have questioned what their objective was. How will we even know when we’ve found what we’re looking for?’ they must have asked themselves. ‘We will just, er, know.’ Hmm. Wisdom indeed.

How will I know who I need to be? I suppose I will just know. John O Donoghue describes love and friendship not as an act of will or intention, but a moment of recognition. That’s so true. There’s some people like that. The moment you open the door and meet them you know straight away that you treasure them. It’s an epiphany moment. I wonder whether the message of Epiphany isn’t about having a moment of revelation and recognition of ourselves, and treasuring ourselves. The expensive gold, frankincense and myrrh turn out to be gifts for us, richer still in their symbolism.

Epiphany is a great festival to start the year, and connect with who we really are. The craziness of Christmas seems long ago, it’s back to work and normality now. The magic of Christmas continues in subtler ways in this season, and maybe is all the more powerful for that. January mornings are even darker than in December, the days lengthen in the afternoons before we start to wake up in the light. It makes it really hard to get up and get going and start the day. There’s so much optimism in the story of the Magi though. People of good faith blindly walking stumble across what they’re looking for. Yet it’s no accident, it was written in the stars. ‘Keep going’, the Wise Men seem to be urging us, the light is coming, and you’ll discover your faith in who you really are is well founded.

But how will we know when we’ve found what we are looking for? When you see it you will know. All will be revealed. Happy Epiphany x

 

IMG_7612

Advertisements

A new start, a sight, transforming

I needed a bit of quiet space yesterday so stopped by RHS Wisley Gardens. Wisley is always beautiful, but it did feel a bit melancholy yesterday with steely skies. Maybe it was just me. There were some moments of simple abundance though. The  fragile December roses that had somehow survived the winter to give the faintest golden dream of summer. In the glasshouse were Christmas trees decorated by local schools – the humid air made the pine fragrance sing, and I felt more Christmassy in that moment than I have done in a long time. The glorious Christmas scent of them in the warmth of the glasshousehouse and the sheer loveliness of them lifted my whole soul. A transformation.

My wise friend Mary made an excellent observation after her visit the other day.  These trees were not ‘perfectly’ decorated. Everyone’s work was on display, not just the super dooper arty kids’ work. All the better they were for that. The imperfection of the individual decorations made perfect Christmas trees. A mysterious transformation indeed.

It strikes me that Christmas is all about transformation. The bare branches of the tree that take on light and sparkle and magic. The limp empty stocking that mysteriously fills with abundant good things overnight. But more than that. The Christmas story tells us that God who is absolute and perfect and powerful, becomes one of us. God becomes frail and vulnerable, a little baby. When God becomes humble like a human, the great mystery is that God is not diminished. Rather humans are raised up. The transformation of Christmas is ours, through our association with the divine.

Maybe you don’t go along with this story, you don’t believe in it at all, it’s not a credible idea, perhaps it’s just a myth. You’re probably right, but I don’t think it really matters at all if it’s really true. Living as if it’s true is the important thing. Because it makes us good enough. You could wait forever and a day for your family to appreciate the efforts you’ve gone to to make Christmas special – the gifts perfectly chosen, perfectly wrapped, and the perfect food, perfectly cooked, perfectly presented. The fact of it is, the more we try, the more we fail. Giving someone the perfect Christmas won’t make them love you. If we have the courage to surrender to stop and be still and silent, to concentrate just on being fully human, and are content with that, we might perceive the transformation. We’re good enough just as we are.

I always find myself turning to Rilke at New Year. This, from Sonnets to Orpheus seems to fit what I’ve been thinking about. You can see from Cima da Conegliano’s lovely ink drawing of Orpheus that as our hero plays his lyre and sings to the creatures, they become cultured; transfixed by the beauty of the music they become transformed – no longer mere dumb animals. They aren’t silent because they fear attack, they are quiet because they are becoming enlivened. Even the trees become transformed to something more. What I think Rilke is trying to say is that just as Orpheus’ singing awakens and energises all life, so too might the awakening and energising of our perceptions of ourselves bring us, ‘a new start, a sight, transforming’. Happy New Year x

There upped a tree. O absolute outstripping!
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even under cover
came a new start, a sight, transforming.

From their stillness, creatures of lair and nest
pushing forward through the clear lit forest
so quietly and this – not out of cunning,
not silenced by fear – but coming

rather to listen. Bellow, shriek and roaring
shrank in their hearts. And where they stood
no more than a shed to receive them,

a shelter in response to their darkest need
with its entrance, its door-frame shaken,
there you built them this Temple of Hearing.

IMG_7599

Our Lady the Feminist Icon – for A Level RS – Developments in Christian Theology

I’ve  spent a good deal of time today researching material for an RS A Level Developments in Christian thought module I’m teaching on Gender issues and society. I’ve been thinking about what the Christian church has had to say about developments of feminism and the women’s liberation movement.

I’ll be talking with my class this week about how Mary is portrayed as the epitome of the feminine ideal for many Christians, Catholics especially. Traditional views of Mary as the submissive handmaid of the Lord, the passive devoted mother and wife to Jospeh the worker well trodden. But the idea of Mary as a feminist icon is an interesting one to play with and think about.

If you’re teaching this too, here are some images I’ve found that you might find useful and interesting

I really love this one :  (Much thanks to @ashdeanpoetry who has advised it’s ‘Andes Virgin and Child’ – -Artemio Coanqui) IMG_7438

 

Mary looks so young and fresh faced here. There’s an innocence and vulnerability to her that I find almost tearjerking. She’s so young, she wouldn’t look out of place in my Year 9 class. She’s elaborately dressed in a rather splendid black and gold number, and her shawl is exquisite I think. What i particularly love about this image though is the unusual depiction of Jesus on her back. Very adorable he is too, fast asleep and nestled into her neck. However, what’s significant here, I think, is that there is no eye contact between mother and son and that this is a hands free Madonna and Child. Despite her beautiful garb, she’s ready to work. This is no passive Mary who has not much to do except spend all day staring, besotted, at her little son. No. This is Our Lady of the Shopping. Our Lady of the Nursery Drop Off. Our Lady of the Trying to Pack a Million Things Into the Day. In fact, the child on her back reminds me of women in some of the poorest parts of the world tying their babies to their backs and starting work in the fields. She looks good on it mind. I suspect the porcelain complexion and the unfurrowed brow, the alert eyes are a cover. This is a woman who understands the power of mascara and a touch of creme blusher. I expect her laundry basket overfloweth though! I wonder if her hands are chaffed and sore. She keeps them hidden. Fair dos.
This is a really positive image though I reckon. Lots of women don’t get to see their children during the working day. But these children are still well cared for, content and close to their mother’s heart.
 

 

This one is from Our Lady of Angels, LAIMG_7439

 

Isn’t it incredibly striking?
There’s no fine elaborate robes, no crown. Her hair hangs in a simple plait. We can’t  pin this Mary down. Who is she? Where does she come from? I like that. She looks mixed race. She looks strong too. She stands so tall. Her open posture suggests a welcome and an openness, but one which brings with it a vulnerability. However, her face is so serene and so composed – she is not afraid. Her hands are the most visible thing about her. She looks like she uses them in her work. Her arms are bare, she’s got her sleeves rolled up! Our Lady of the Workers, Our Lady of the People Who Struggle. Our Lady of The About To Crack Under The Pressure But Found The Strength From Somewhere. Our Lady of the Women who Need to Take Five and Say Oh God I Don’t Quite Know How Im Going To Do All This Today. Our Lady Who Asks For Help And Still Keeps Her Dignity.
I really like this image too. It’s a very human Mary. It’s  not idealised or romanticised. She seems real.

 

This last image is hard to look at. I think it may be the most beautiful though.IMG_7440
This is Our Lady of Nagasaki. She was burned and scarred and blinded (Her eyes were simply melted away) by the atomic bomb that evaporated thousands of people. She was lucky to survive at all, and here she is.
When I saw this picture, and realised the context,  I thought straight away of the Hail Holy Queen prayer, “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears”

And then this line:
“Turn then most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us. And after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary”

She has no eyes though. Only two dark black holes. But there is  still a strange and wonderful beauty to her. I think so. Our Lady of the Disfigured. I have eyes. I see how the world is. She makes me want to make a world that’s kinder and more compassionate. A world without war and violence. She’s a woman who shares my values. She survives; her task is to challenge how we live, both men and women, and how we treat each other. She survives, but I can see.

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ”

 

 

 

 

Ways to remember

 

This time of year is always tough in school. There’s so much to do. I feel like I’ve hit peak busyness, my head is stuffed full. There’s loads going on with my children too. By Friday morning I felt so overwhelmed with everything it was almost paralysing; physically and mentally. I dragged myself to work feeling so heavy, really emotional.Do you ever get that feeling when you’re on your own and silent in your car, and tears come into your eyes, but you’re not entirely clear why? Perhaps it’s a space when there’s nothing in  particular to bother you, so the culmination of everything in general comes to the fore.

I got to work and had forgotten that we were having our remembrance assembly later in the morning. I realised I wouldn’t be able to go this year. I always get really upset. The massive heartbreaking tragedy of it, the enormity of the loss of life, and pain and grief. Our school remembrance assemblies are done so well I feel it like it’s happening right now. And then I start crying. Trouble is, once I start, I can’t stop. I’m already feeling emotional. And I’ve a full teaching day. Oh my gosh I can’t do this today. Oh no! Why do I feel so emotional?

Maybe it’s that culmination of everything again. November is such a heavy month. The buoyancy of All Saints after the fun of Halloween gives way to the quiet aching sadness of All Souls. And then a whole month dedicated to remembering the dead. The first light on the Advent wreath seems a long way off. November can be so difficult. The 11th is the most desolate for sure. Remembering violent deaths, young people far from home. Bodies that didn’t come back. Hasty burials, often anonymous. Maybe not even that. And just a telegram home. Missing in action, presumed dead. No funeral at which to mourn the loss. So it’s all saved up for one collective day.

I like to wear a white poppy, as well as red. Remembering the dead, but also a very clear: Never again. I couldn’t even find my white poppy though yesterday. Hmm. That upset me too.

The period before assembly I’m teaching and at the end one of my young students is pining on her white poppy. I’ve never seen a student wear one before. But she’s a bit anxious about it when I ask her. She tells me, ‘I’m worried I’m going to be told off. I worried that people won’t get it’

‘I get it’, I told her. ‘It’s your way to remember. And, if these people died for freedom, then your way is important’

Suddenly she was emboldened. Wore her white poppy with head up. Remembering in her own way.  Good for her!

I did remembrance in my own way too. The staff room was silent. Everyone else in the hall. I stayed where I was. I just shut my eyes and sat very still.

Later, on my way to next class, my student came to find me. ‘I brought another white poppy in my bag. I’d like you to have it.’

I’ll never forget that.

 

Busy, but not too busy to be beautiful

It’s been a very hectic week, one of those weeks when you’ve no time at all to just sit down and be still. Even when I lie down at night to take rest my mind is swirling, and I wake up at stupid o’clock with a restless head but a tired body and soul. Half term seems a lot longer than a week ago. Then there’s the ‘Christmas holiday’ – which always sounds to me like a cruel contradiction!
However, whilst rushing on the way to a lesson in the early morning on Friday , a beautiful pale cream rose in the school gardens caught my eye and I stopped to look at it.

‘What are you looking at?’, asked a colleague.
‘This rose. It’s so beautiful. It’s almost a miracle that it’s still flowering in November. It’s fragile, but it’s hanging on in there’

We both admired it for a bit. There was time!
‘Well, if we’re lucky’, he said, ‘there might be a bit of sun, and it will open up’
And I thought, oh no. I like it now. Curled into a giant perfect bauble. Neither in bud nor bloom. It’s lovely just now, as it is.

In my yoga practice yesterday morning we meditated on how when we see the Forms of Beauty, they always point to something more. This is so true. Of course, perceiving beauty points us back to ourselves. There would be no beauty without one to behold it. And in order to behold, we have to be present. Not concerned with past or future, just present. Here. (Have you noticed in bible stories that whenever the prophets hear God calling to them, their response is ‘Here I am’ Hear. Here. I think that’s important. Revelation would be nothing without one to whom it is revealed) Our very presence is part of the beauty.  Isn’t that a lovely thought? There would be no beauty without us, and that must mean that we are part of the beautiful. It made me think of the November rose. And it made me think of this lovely poem, which I looked up when I got in from the fireworks yesterday evening.

A Beauty Blessing

As stillness in stone to silence is wed
May your heart be somewhere a God might dwell.

As a river flows in ideal sequence
May your soul discover time in presence.

As the moon absolves the dark of resistance
May thought-light console your mind with brightness.

As the breath of light awakens colour
May the dawn anoint your eyes with wonder.

As spring rain softens the earth with surprise
May your winter places be kissed by light.

As the ocean dreams to the joy of dance
May the grace of change bring you elegance.

As clay anchors a tree in light and wind
May your outer life grow from peace within.

As twilight fills night with bright horizons
May beauty await you at home beyond.

— John O’Donohue

Inspired by Sita: a Diwali blog

Awake in the small hours for ages this morning, I was thinking about Diwali, and particularly Sita. There’s many different versions of this story, so I think it’s okay to have my own spin:

Rama and Sita lived in the forest, before she was kidnapped by the evil demon Ravana. He’s a scary thing, with his ten heads and twenty arms; it’s every woman’s nightmare I think, being unable to escape the unwanted gaze and grasp of men. Ten pairs of eyes on her, ten pairs of hands. The more you think about it, it’s quite horrible. He whisks her off in his chariot, away from her beloved Rama, hoping to make her his own consort. Ultimately Ravana hides her away on a secret island. Will her beloved ever find her?

I’ve always thought of her as quite helpless in the story, awaiting Rama to rescue her. We discover though that, as Ravana speeds her away, she drops her jewellery as they travel, as a sign to Rama of her whereabouts. Perhaps this shows that her love for Rama is worth more than all her wealth? I was thinking though, how inspiring this part of the story is. In her darkest hour, Sita still has treasures to give. I don’t think it’s just physical jewels either. Her compassion, her faithfulness, her integrity, her wisdom, her love; these fall like precious stones over the universe. These are the things that give light and life, and make life worth living. It’s funny isn’t it that we often get our best ideas at night. Creativity can hit a peak when people are in dark moods. There’s beauty to be found in stark still winter days. Gems will be cast around in dark times. The means to secure her own rescue were in Sita’s own possession all along. We can be sure these precious jewels she scatters will return to her in abundance.

Rama follows the jewels until they lead him to the monkey god, Hanuman. He agrees to help him find Sita. He summons all the monkeys to help him, who in turn enlist all the bears. I love this detail. All the monkeys! All the bears! All the strength and agility in the world comes to help. They finally track Sita down to the island. But, oh no! The sea is too wide for them to reach her, they must build a bridge. Eventually every creature from the smallest to the biggest comes to help build the bridge. I guess they know they owe Sita. Her glittering blessings have been dispersed through the universe. This embodiment of Shakti, the divine feminine, the energy that gives the universe its very life. She’s not helpless, she’s everything! She is life! Now she’s calling in a favour, and all life works together to help her.

The bridge extends across the ocean, and a battle ensues with Ravana. Rama defeats him with a poisoned arrow. There’s a troubling bit to the story when Sita throws herself  the purifying  fire. I dislike the idea that there’s a question mark over whether she’s resisted the advances of Ravana and that she needs to prove her worth. I prefer to think of her becoming pure fire, sacred Agni. Sita herself personifies the Divali light that signifies the triumph of Good over Evil. She owns the victory too.

Rama and Sita are overjoyed to be reunited, and all the creatures of the universe rejoice with them. The oil lamps are lit all the way to guide them home.

Have a blessed Diwali everyone. Give thanks for the treasures you’ve been able to give the world. The universe will light the lamps to guide you home in return xxx

IMG_7366

Hush now

I love silence.
I think I’d have made a pretty good nun in an enclosed order. I thought about it once, long ago. And then thought, maybe not for me! The poverty, chastity and obedience might be a struggle! But the silence, not so much. That’s the bit I was drawn towards. A community of people who live and work together but nonetheless utterly respect each other’s need for a bit of peace.

Sometimes I feel increasingly troubled by noise. Things make me jump and startle me. TV and radio when it’s on in the background can really irritate me. I either want to listen fully, or turn it off. My sensitivity to noise has been made worse by being in pain recently following an op. It’s like every sense becomes heightened when one is in pain. Hearing especially.

BKS Iyengar writes that pain is a teacher.
I think what pain has been teaching me is how much I need peace and space and quiet. I haven’t had the radio on at all much in the last few weeks. My house is so quiet. Even with 3 children. They’re generally quiet these days too. Yes, they can argue and squabble at times, but for the most part, they are quiet. I suppose that’s because they’re my children and I’ve raised them. It’s true, my  boys were boisterous when they were little. Not much quiet in those days!  However, they’re moving into a teenage muffle now. When my now 9 year old daughter was at nursery they were worried she had speech problems! She didn’t. She’s just the quietest of my children – and when she was very small we used to communicate really effectively with each other in a great variety of non verbal ways. We always knew what the other was thinking without saying it.

So I’ve been quiet for a few weeks. My kids have been quiet. It’s been wonderful to share quiet times with them.

Quiet is not the same as silence though. This last week I’ve been alone and it’s been even quieter. Yesterday it did spook me a bit. It was really properly silent. All day. I got upset, felt really lost in my own house, missed the children really acutely. It was just for an hour or so. But I worked through that stage and reached a new level of peace today. I’m glad I stuck it out. It’s been a rare privilege to have this time. Time to be in my own company, consult myself when I want advice. I’ve discovered that silence is very empowering. If I can be quiet and still in myself I can observe myself. See what it is that I want.

Visible silence as Rosetti so exquisitely puts it in Silent Noon, a gorgeous poem in which he celebrates the beauty and intimacy of a shared silence. Just for one ‘inarticulate hour’.

‘Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:—
So this wing’d hour is dropt to us from above. ‘

I love the idea that silence is something ‘dropt to us from above’.

Heaven sent, if that’s how you want to imagine it. It does feel like a gift. That’s how it’s seemed to me. Is it a gift from God as Rosetti suggests? Perhaps. It fits the narrative I guess. Genesis tells us that God existed ‘in the beginning’  in a formless void. This is before he chose to speak and break His own silence. However, before that there was just silence. It’s the default setting for the whole universe. No wonder people crave it sometimes.