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.

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A blog about my dad who has dementia

My dad phoned yesterday, which was a bit weird. He’s got vascular dementia and its becoming quite advanced. I’m a bit unsure about how he knew my number. My mum can’t work it out either. Then there’s the fact that he doesn’t always know who I am anymore. We’ve had quite a few conversations now when it becomes clear that he thinks I’m his dead baby sister (we share the same name) ‘Are you from heaven?’ he once asked me. Clearly yes! Lol! But not in the way he meant. Ha!

I digress. Dad rang. Most odd. I’m struggling to recall a time when he has EVER rung me. In my entire life. Dad’s one of those people who only ever used the phone purely for ‘a reason’. That is to say, not socially. He does not ring ‘for a chat’. Sometimes mum puts him on the phone when I call her. But to specifically ring. To talk to me. That is weird.

And yet he rang. There was a very confused moment about 2 minutes in when he denied he had rung me. ‘No! You rang me!’ He declared. I decided just to go with it.

So I chatted to my dad. On the phone. Mum was out and he’d got a bit anxious. ‘I’m glad you rang’ he said, ‘I was a bit confused when I was on my own’ (I’m still thinking no, bloody hell, dad, you rang me, you great eejit) He seemed to know I’d not been well and had been in hospital recently. He remembered that I had children and even a little girl of my own. We talked for quite a long time.

‘How are you feeling Ceci?’ he asked suddenly.

‘I’ve not been feeling too good daddy. But I’m slowly on the mend. Don’t you worry’

‘Sometimes you’d get very hot’

‘Yes. But you had a big cold hand and used to put it on my forehead to cool me down’

‘I remember that’

‘Me too’

‘I’m just going to see what the weather is like for you today’

‘It’s sunny here daddy’

‘Oh. It’s gloomy here. I’ve opened the door it doesn’t look very nice’

‘Dad. Are you outside?’

‘Yes’

‘Outside the front door?’

‘Yes. It’s cloudy’

‘Can you go back inside please. Dad. Can you go back in the house? Daddy. Is the door still open?’

‘Yes, I’m going back inside’

‘Oh good. Are you actually inside the house? Are you in the hall?’

‘Yes’

‘Ok maybe you close the door. Why don’t you go and sit down in the lounge.’

‘Will you come?’

‘Yes. I’m still talking to you’

‘That’s good. I’m standing in the lounge’

‘Oh. Right. Well maybe sit down daddy.’

‘I’m sitting down now. Why did you ring me?’

‘I think we just needed to talk’

‘Love you Ceci’

‘Yes, I love you daddy’.

That’s dementia for you. You lose a bit of the person, but you also find a bit of them you thought you had lost.

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Goodbye Biblical Studies. A bloody great loss to RE

‘Simon, Simon, see, Satan sought to sift you like wheat’

This is Nicholas King’s translation of the passage in Luke Chapter 22 when Jesus predicts Simon Peter will betray him. I was studying it today with my Year 11. They’re the last year group to study Luke at GCSE; it’s being phased out with the GCSE reforms. You can still do bits of Mark (a gospel I like – not as much as Luke though) but it’s a bit unsatisfactory, trying to make it all work on the new course. So, with regret, we’re not doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I am really enjoying the new GCSE course, but I am super sad to lose my last link with Biblical Studies. People think it’s boring and unsexy RS. I love sacred texts though. There’s lots of emphasis in the new specs on good knowledge of scripture, but it’s not the same as studying a whole gospel, immersing yourself in the text, and all its richness. I studied this gospel for my own GCSE waaaayyy back in the last century. There’s still stuff to discover. Like today.

‘Simon, Simon, see, Satan sought to sift you like wheat’

‘Why the alliteration?’, I asked today. Is it deliberate? Nicholas King tells us the alliteration comes across even stronger in the original Greek. We check in with the Greek teacher in the class next door – and King is right. It’s the same sound in both languages. Ssssssssssssssssssss
What does it mean?
Then someone shouts out:
‘Ohhhh! It’s a snake!’
‘It’s slithering into my ear’.
‘It’s like the serpent in the garden, hissing in Eve’s ear.’
‘Tempting her’
‘It’s not just in the garden though, it’s everywhere, Jesus heard it in the wilderness. That’s how he knows, he knows what it sounds like’.
‘Three times he heard it, just like Peter will’
‘It’s horrible. I don’t like it. It makes my skin crawl’
‘Why did Jesus talk like the devil to Peter?’
‘Maybe he wanted to show him he knows how it feels to be human?’
‘That frightens me, that he could do that, and know that’
‘And Peter was frightened, when Jesus was taken’
‘Maybe Jesus was frightened too?’

It’s class discussion like that which makes you think they’ve really understood it. Did not our hearts burn within us? Biblical Studies, almost gone now. What a bloody great loss to RE.

The encouragement of light on Candlemas Eve

It’s the last night of Christmas, tomorrow will be Candlemas, the Christianised version of the pagan festival, Imbolc. Apparently the word means ‘in milk’ and is in honour of the Maiden Goddess. It marks the arrival of spring; as the lambs are born the ewe’s milk returns. If you’ve any agricultural equipment or livestock about your person now would be a good time to ask for a blessing for them from the goddess. For Christians it marks when Jesus was presented to God in the Temple. If you live or work around children, now would be a good time to ask for a blessing on them.

For thousands of years people have lit candles on this night, to welcome spring, the coming of the light, and the goddess. It’s a time of hopefulness. The dark days of January are lengthening, if you’re lucky you’ve perhaps left work in daylight at some point recently. It’s been a long wait, but your patience will be rewarded, the light is coming. Those beautiful words from the old man Simeon when he holds the baby Jesus in the Temple echo this feeling, when you wait your whole life for something that you really want:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismissed your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

Imbolc is closely associated with the Celtic-Irish goddess Brigid, goddess of fire, of poetry, and of healing, all things we associate with re-creation in spring. Of course today is the feast of St Bridget….you’ve joined the dots haven’t you… the patron saint of poetry and healing and of Ireland.

So here’s a poem for The Feast of St Bridget, Imbolc and Candlemas Eve night. Light a candle and feel the ‘encouragement of the light’. Wishing you a blessed Candlemas xx

It felt love. Hafiz

How
Did the rose
Ever open its heart

And give to this world
All its
Beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light
Against its
Being,

Otherwise,
We all remain
Too
Frightened.

Interfaith conversation in RS: a Two Chairs Exchange approach

Interfaith dialogue is a curious thing. It often has struck me that, all to frequently, what passes for interfaith dialogue is dialogue about anything BUT faith. People of faith might come and talk together, but to keep things nice, and polite, it’s best to talk about the weather, the tea, the children. Anything but faith. Under no circumstances say what you actually believe in!

There’s been a recent furore surrounding the invitation of a Muslim student to come and speak at an Epiphany service in Glasgow Cathedral. It appears from reports that I have read that a young Muslim man was invited to read, and he selected passages from the Qur’an that tell of the birth of Jesus to a young virgin; Jesus is revered as a prophet, but is not ‘the son of God’.

It’s not a secret that Muslims have these beliefs about Jesus. So why did it cause such offence? Muslim man makes statement that is wholly in line with Muslim beliefs. Is this so terrible? Many people’s objection was that these words were uttered in a Christian sacred space, a worship space. That’s what’s offensive they claim. Sometimes I wonder whether some religious people think they need to protect God from hearing anything he wouldn’t like, as if God is a bit fragile. I wonder what God thinks about this? Who’s to say?

For myself, I don’t think being religiously thin skinned is a good thing at all. I think if one’s own convictions are to have any meaning at all, then it should be possible to remain steeped in those convictions whilst remaining humble and tolerant of others. I think it should be possible to hear a different viewpoint and accept it for what it is; something different.

In my RS classroom I’ve been thinking a lot about how different faiths can understand each other. I’ve been working with students using principles from Dr James Hodkinson’s (Warwick University) Two Chairs Exchange. The Two Chairs concept has emerged from his research into the ideals found in the history of European art, literature and thinking. The Two Chairs image, which serves as a key visual for the whole project, (see above) depicts two stone chairs, hewn from the same rock, yet positioned opposite one another. They are separate, yet they are connected. The chairs invite two individuals or two faiths to talk with one another, exploring each other’s view-points without abandoning their own core beliefs. Of course, my RS classroom is a learning space not a worship space, so I’m not quite so at risk of causing offence. But there’s still sometimes a fear of declaring one’s convictions in a classroom, both for teachers and students. Before embarking on his project I’d always been against revealing my own beliefs in the classroom. Today, I broke a 20 year rule, and I decided to be more honest with my pupils in my GCSE class. I was glad of it. I think it empowered them to be honest about their beliefs in return.

I’ve been encouraging my students to use their imaginations to tell ‘the other person’s story’, to conceive of themselves as the other, and let their conversations about religion flow. There’s been lots of talk in RE circles about religious literacy, and indeed what on earth religious literacy might actually mean. I think it’s a very simple (but not necessarily easy) idea. I think religious literacy means being able to have a conversation about religion. To participate in conversation we need, of course, knowledge. We need the right vocabulary. But once we have the words to use and we understand their meaning, we need something else. We need to listen with an open heart and allow the other person space to speak before it’s our turn to respond. It’s interesting what comes up when you have a conversation.

Dr James Hodkinson is running lots of Two Chairs Exchange events around the country this year. He has an exhibition that will be touring schools, galleries and places of worship.

We’ll be running an RS GCSE study day at Warwick on 2 March.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the project, get in touch.
Cecilia.townley@stcatherines.info
@ceciliateachRS

I am supposed to live

Antipodeans are almost sitting pretty. There’s a couple of hours to go for the rest of us, but if you just sit quietly you should be alright. Because, if you’re reading this you’ve survived 2016. Well done! There was a sticky moment of pneumonia in January when I honestly thought I wouldn’t, but here I am. I feel like my confidence and sense of self has taken a massive shaking, but I am still here. I’ve said this quite a few times; I think the take home message of the year is that if you survived, it means that you are supposed to live.

Question is, how am I supposed to live? What does it mean to live fully? Is there a guide? A blueprint? I explain to my A Level RS students that some people believe we are made in the image of God, but we need to grow more into his likeness. God is simple. God fulfils perfectly what it is to be God. So to be like God we have to work out what we are meant to be and live that as fully as possible. I have to become more myself. I have to live fully.

Someone asked me in October when I had last met God. For an RE teacher I found this an extraordinarily hard question to answer. I haven’t met God. The question barely even makes sense to me. However, when I thought about it, my answer was that God (or The Good, or however you want to think of it) appears in people. Sometimes the person you need arrives, just when you need them, saying the right things, making the right face. That’s the moment of revelation, when someone helps you realise you are supposed to live and maybe even shows you how you might go about doing just that. And in living fully, you becomes a means of revelation to others.

Here’s Rainer Maria Rilke. This is from his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (translated by Barrows and Macy)

“You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
the darkness of each endless fall,
the shimmering light of each ascent.

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
as though untouched.

But you take pleasure in the faces
of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
who grip you for survival.

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late
to open your depths by plunging into them
and drink in the life
that reveals itself quietly there.”

Ha! I’m not dead yet! I am supposed to live. Happy New Year.

Alone in an empty church

I popped into a church in town at lunchtime today. I had some stuff on my mind and needed some quiet and some headspace and time to process. It was quite an old church, although drastically modernised. What was interesting though was that there was a massive drum kit that dominated the sanctuary. Which itself looked more like a stage. I wanted to find somewhere quiet to sit, and looked for the lady chapel as the obvious place. It was kind of there, but was unloved and there was nowhere to sit. No candles, no holy paraphernalia, nothing like that. All the seating in this church faced the stage, and the chairs seemed nailed down. Hmm. So I sat near the lady chapel, but awkwardly at the wrong angle. Then I noticed a sign that this was the designated area for people that wanted to be prayed with. Gosh. I was quite alone, yet shut my eyes quickly and intently, in case someone should and think I needed prayer ministry. It’s an odd idea to me. Being prayed with. I know lots of people like it, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. To me, being prayed with sounds a bit like going to the dentist, but with an earnest believer that wants to drill into your soul instead of your teeth. Thankfully no one came. I enjoyed the quiet, but eventually I felt a bit lost in there, that great big empty concert hall. It’s one of the most popular churches in the town. People like their religion like this I think. Like a concert. I reckon it’s a fun and vibrant place to worship. And if you want to pray, someone will help you, almost do it for you. So you don’t have to. Or if you don’t know how to. I can see that there’s an awful lot that’s attractive about that. Christianity has such rich and diverse traditions of worship and practice. Horses for courses. Nonetheless this church just felt very empty when I was alone.