Archives for category: The meaning of life

There is a story about one of the great Desert Fathers, Moses the Black:

Abba Moses

“It happened that Abba Moses was struggling with the temptation of fornication. Unable to stay any longer in the cell, he went and told Abba Isidore. The old man exhorted him to return to his cell. But he refused, saying, ‘Abba, I cannot.’ Then Abba Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace and said to him, ‘Look towards the west.’ He looked and saw hordes of demons flying about and making a noise before launching an attack. Then Abba Isidore said to him, ‘Look towards the east.’ He turned and saw an innumerable multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Abba Isidore said, ‘See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they are.’ Then Abba Moses, gave thanks to God, plucked up courage and returned to his cell.”

Interestingly, a few lines later in the same collection we read this:

“A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’”

What Abba Moses had learned from Abba Isidore he was the able to share himself: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a simple, seemingly unremarkable, bit of counsel. Unremarkable, because it seems as if it is basically counsel to do nothing: sit in your cell. That certainly doesn’t seem like much, and it certainly doesn’t seem like a great ascetical labor or warfare. But within this simple commandment is hidden a rather remarkable and profound bit of wisdom.

When we are battling against temptation, we often start casting about trying to figure out what we can do to make it stop. How do we win this fight? How do we make the temptations go away? These are the thoughts that plague us and drive us, like Moses, looking for relief, for something to do.

But, perhaps counter-intuitively, the very first thing we must learn is not to do anything. “Go, sit in your cell.” Don’t, that is, do anything. Why? Because you don’t yet know what to do, and anything you do will be the wrong thing. At this point any action that we would undertake would be something that we have learned int he past, something out of our old, fallen habits and activities, and these are the very things that got us where we are in the first place, i.e. enslaved to the passions. So, the very first thing that we must do is to do nothing but sit in our cell, not act according to old habits and responses, but to simply wait and watch. And immediately, if we do this, we will learn that this sitting in the cell is not nothing but a very definite and profound something. For to sit in the cell is itself a great act of faith.

If we go sit in our cell, we will discover that the thoughts are still there and that the temptations will not magically go away as if God were to wave a magic wand over us. But if we persist in sitting still, neither running from the thoughts nor giving into them, then the cell will begin to teach us everything, as Abba Isidore promised. It will teach us that the very things within us to which the temptations appeal, our passions, are not truly satisfied with the things with we are tempted, but will, if heeded, leave us defeated, empty, and filled with despondency as they have always done. Furthermore, it will show us the very things that drive these passions and give fuel to the temptations: our fears, lust, desires, and a seeking for comfort and consolation in things that can never comfort or console us. Ultimately, if we persist in sitting in our cell, we will be led to the One and only One who can truly give us comfort and consolation, the One who said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

All of this will be learned only if we sit in our cell and do not act according to all of our typical reactions, which were, as I said, formed in the same processes that shaped and defined our former way of being as slaves to sin. The new way of being, in Christ, will be formed and shaped in the cell like life in the womb. For that is what the cell is, a virginal womb awaiting the Word. Real spiritual life, then, is not something we produce ourselves within ourselves. Our work is to sit, waiting in faith, with patience and hope. And this sitting and waiting is not nothing but a profound something. It is the plaintive cry of the Psalmist. It is the Virgin maiden awaiting, though she does not know it, the arrival of the archangel. And it is even, mysteriously, the watching, piercing gaze of the Father looking for the arrival of the prodigal. For it is God himself, already in us, awaiting our arrival to the heavenly home, our deep heart.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a man, a recovering alcoholic, who was experiencing a series of traumatic events in his life. In the past his response to such trauma would have been the obvious reaction to drink, looking for comfort and consolation in alcohol. The temptation is ever present, it doesn’t magically go away when someone stops drinking, and the temptation was present as he spoke. My simple and direct counsel to him was not to drink. That might seem like a simple negative, something not to do. It is, rather, the simple and yet profound wisdom of Abba Moses: “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Not drinking means sitting in the cell. And if that is undertaken as a simple act of faith it will become the womb from which the new life in him will be born.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote:

“The space within us reaches out, translates each thing. For the essence of a tree to be real for you, cast inner space around it, out of the space that exists in you. Encircle it with restraint. It has no borders. Only in the realm of your renouncing can it, as tree, be known.”

True ascetical life is, to use the poet’s words, “the space within us.” And it is only in this “realm of your renouncing” that anything can be known. Sitting in your cell, not drinking, not looking for comfort and consolation in our old habits and sins, makes the inner space within us a fertile womb which can become, like the Mother of God’s, border-less and more spacious than the heavens when it receives the infinite Word. And it is only there and then that we can know him, and knowing him truly know ourselves for the first time.

Post by Fr. John, Orthodox Church of St John of Chicago.

It’s now clear that COVID-19 is a deadly serious global pandemic, and all necessary precautions should be taken. Still, C. S. Lewis’s words—written 72 years ago—ring with some relevance for us. Just replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus.”

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

 

Voice is an initiative organised by Cel Thom and Micha Jazz inviting those over 55 years of age to engage with their destiny in God. In a culture that often fails to value the ageing, it offers a vital component in supporting individuals, couples and groups to identify and realise God’s purpose for them in serving the Kingdom of God in the earth.

On Tuesday July 30, we shall be holding our first gathering in Yapton, West Sussex. For specific details please email Micha.

We shall start our morning at 9:30 and conclude with lunch at 13:00. Clel and Micha will explain their vision and there will be space for conversation, questions and prayer. This we trust will offer encouragement and a deepening of our friendship with God and establish new friendships among ourselves.

A warm welcome awaits you. If you live too far away then contact us as we seek to encourage those of us entering this important season in life and explore how Voice might serve you in your community.

Statistics reveal that ageing well is fast becoming the major topic for conversation. The ‘silver hair‘ market is a prime target for those seeking to monetise age. Many in the UK are retiring with a respectable pension, often a combination of private and company pots carefully invested. The generation of which I’m a part has seen house prices rise astronomically across their working life creating a very healthy tangible asset. Yet, some critical questions remain.

When non contributory state pensions were introduced in 1948, life expectancy in the UK was sixty eight. So retirement at sixty five left the taxpaying workforce to fund a three year state pension on average. Today life expectancy is around eighty, even though recent reports show the rate of increase in life expectancy is dropping in the UK. It is still rising historically, increasing by two years every decade over the last century.

This poses a challenge for us all. My generation is the first sandwich generation caring for children and ageing parents simultaneously. The current preferred method of managing old age through a network of expensive homes is probably as unsustainable economically as it is unpalatable socially. I’ve observed my mum become institutionalised within a year. Yes, at one level her anxiety about daily living that caused her to select a care home as an option have reduced. Yet, her limitless ability to find things to worry about has not deserted her. She dislikes the food, but fails to complain due to an unrealised fear of penalties. She complains about staff who change regularly and who she struggles to understand. As a business I guess it offers the ideal scenario. Hi yield and low cost meaning healthy profits.

But my mum is of a generation who enjoys disposable income. I won’t enjoy that luxury. And my daughter struggles to conceive of owning her own house, one financial nest egg gone, and she won’t expect to inherit anything from me as it will be absorbed no doubt in dealing with my own old age requirements, albeit this will by preference be in some hermit house.

So it is perhaps time to engage in an effective debate about ageing. The church, of which I have been involved in various forms for forty five years, is also at a loss when it comes to managing the ageing issue. It still believes it’s future is in directing its primary resources towards the young, who in UK are a declining percentile of the population. Whilst society’s fixation with sixty five as the retirement age means that older people are not effectively deployed in church life. This as much the responsibility of the oldies themselves, with their misdirected love affair with the idea of ‘retirement’, as it is of church leadership.

Here in the Oratory we are opening up this discussion as we gather people for retreats, seminars and through coaching. The tripartite life (education, career, retirement) is over. We now need to expand our engagement in life to reflect increased longevity. What’s more as has been said, ‘People yearn for eternity when the struggle to know what to do with a wet Sunday afternoon’! This is the testimony of many ageing people with whom I interact. We explore building an effective, holistic retirement plan to realise dreams and recognising the inner desire to continue t love and serve God.

Planning to make sense of faith and life through the autumn years is a key element of life here in the Oratory. If you want to join in drop me an email. I am also thrilled to have been invited to facilitate a round-table discussion on mortality and morbidity this autumn and if this interests you then email me for details.

Ageing well, in the full life God offers, is central to our journey here in the Oratory. We have taken a lead and so do be in touch if you want to explore ageing and continuing to serve God in the outstanding years of your life yet to come.

I was speaking with someone last week passing through one of life’s many transitions, and we identified the challenge of facing our fear.

Fear is an unpleasant feeling that troubles our whole physiology. It is born of something that lies beyond our control, often in the future and yet it troubles us deeply in the NOW. It impacts mood and our ability to get on with life. It dominates our thinking and can steal our sleep.

We all face fear of various degrees at different times. I well remember my mum expressing her deep fear of how to cope as the undertakers removed dad’s body from her home. There was terror in her eyes, even as she attempted to engage with the grief she felt from the loss of her husband of sixty three years.

Whilst that’s extreme, many focus upon their anxiety of what tomorrow might NOT bring due to lack of wealth, health or stealth. Problem is, as the gospel makes clear, I can only worry about today, since I’ve not yet reached tomorrow. Most fear it seems to me is a consequence of future thinking.

Money, or lack of it, is a common cause of fear. However, if I look back over my many years that have brought me to this point I have not been without all that I’ve needed. True I may have aspired to more or coveted by comparison with others, yet how can I possibly complain? A roof over my head, food to eat and the second of two perfect marriages, can a guy get any luckier?

Fear stalks us because it directs our attention to serve a situation that has not, and may never, arrive. I remember taking Katey, my first wife, with me on a working trip to Zimbabwe. We took some holiday whilst there and spent our tenth wedding anniversary up a tree house on safari. And this was a real luxury tree house let me tell you. We couldn’t afford the trip on paper, yet had we waited for when we could, Katey would never have enjoyed it, dying from MS in her early fifties. At that stage we didn’t know of her future MS diagnosis.

The future is a fickle mistress to serve. I know many people who even in their eighties are worried their savings will run out. They’ve saved faithfully for a rainy day, and failed to enjoy all the sunny ones now behind them. I know in actuarial terms I have just a 9% chance of reaching 100 years old. Making provision for my nineties is not on my ‘To Do’ list!

It is when facing our fear that we address the one limitation we place upon life’s enjoyment. We face it only once we acknowledge it, own it and choose to share it with people we trust. There may be real substance to our fear, yet we can do little about resolving our future apart from living as best we can today in both the service of God and of others.

 

I guess we all appreciate a companion. Be it another person or perhaps a family pet. Having a companion travelling with us through life’s journey offers support and encouragement.

Meaning of Companion

The word companion actually means to break bread with. This surely offers us a true insight into the reality of friendship and fellowship. Someone who is willing to share their riches with another truly carries the mark of one who loves God. Did not Jesus offer us the riches of heaven even as we laboured under the burden of separation from God?

Benefit of Companions

It is said that a problem shared is a problem halved. It is always helpful to be able to talk things through with someone else. When I set up Bowring & Jazz Ltd. it was with a companion. We are technicians in that we are excellent trainers and coaches. We also have experience in writing curriculum with a commitment to a contextual training style. Now we are attempting to build a business, late in life yet with a great deal of enthusiasm. It is good we can share our lack of business knowledge, make and talk through our mistakes and learn to support each other.

Seeking Companions

Life invites us to seek companions to share our journey. St Cuthbert’s Oratory offers companionship, virtual and actual, as we all seek to discover what Christian wholeness and wellness mean in a fast paced and often brutal society. My learning from my bitter experiences can not only help my maturing but might be offered as a piece of the bread that provides suitable sustenance to another.

Companions Together

The direction for these comments in the days ahead will be to offer companionship, bread for the journey, as we each make our way through life, carrying unique burdens, yet focused upon finding fullness and nourishment no matter what wilderness our footsteps lead us into. Journey with us here in the Oratory. Tell us your stories and share your thoughts by emailing me.

 

The Third Essential of Prayer is Presence. As one writer succinctly describes it, ‘Being present with the presence’. Now this may sound confusing, yet when Jesus promises to be with us always, ‘even to the end of the age’ this is the invitation to presence.

 

Often our humanity associates presence with feelings. Yet feelings are emotional states of response. My approach to God will prove different when feeling content and secure to when I have raging toothache. Often we make judgements about church worship, even whole church congregational gatherings, simply upon the feelings they induce. Nothing wrong with feelings per se, but be warned, they are an untrustworthy measure of reality.

 

Presence is an ever present truth and reality for God is with us always. The issue is will I rest in that reality, regardless of the flow of my feelings with undistracted mind and by my senses that continually send it information?

 

To acknowledge the reality of God and God’s presence, despite my ever changing circumstances, is to stand in the presence of God. It is no diversionary tactic, for the reality of such circumstances doesn’t change. What changes is the way in which I choose to frame them. I can look at them from the fears, anxieties or pleasures which they induce. Or I can perceive the presence of God, living the Godward side of my experience. This is quite the journey.

 

As my first wife, Katey, battled with MS, we managed our own journeys from different perspectives. Katey experienced the loss of physical and mental ability that accompanied the deepening hold progressive MS had upon her whole being. I fought anger, resentment, a sense of abandonment by God whom I’d served faithfully as far as I could tell. We both became consumed with our own presence, our physicality. We lived from a collapsing ego, unable to craft a world of any sense within which we might define ‘self’ in a meaningful way. And we proved a handful to others, most of whom, understandably, took a large step back from us and our situation.

 

Discovering we had nothing within to address such circumstances, that we were empty shells of humanity, we paused through exhaustion. Like Jacob we wrestled long through the darkness of our night. It was only as dawn began to appear above the horizon, the dawning of a recognition of God’s presence in the bleakest of contexts, that we both sensed something of God’s presence. God was not some external, impotent fraud outside and unable to intervene within our situation. God had always been accompanying us within this the bleakest experience of our life to date.

 

Presence is in the acknowledgement of God’s presence. It is neither something we can strain to grasp nor an escape from our challenging circumstances. It is the recognition that God is with us and God’s invitation is that we stand with that truth. The battle is always with my preconceived and usually preferred perspective on God and God’s work in the world. Yet, this can only ever prove to be a perspective. I have to discover the willingness and then the practice of re framing my life around the fact that God is always present. It is my walk of faith that can bring me to the place where I acknowledge that, regardless of such circumstance. This leads to the next important wrestling match; how to allow perfect love to cast out all fear! More of that later.

 

If you enjoy these blogs follow along with my daily devotions at Voice of Hope.

The Second Essential of Prayer

Once we have achieved an appreciation and something of a practice of ‘Stillness, Prayer essential #1, what are we to do in this new found yet soon to become familiar Stillness? The second essential is Attentiveness. Attentiveness has two meanings.

Meaning One

I guess we all recognise the demand to pay close attention to our context, ‘Driving requires attentiveness to road and traffic conditions‘, i.e. not the time to write a complex rebuttal to a disagreeable proposal. Once in the Stillness therefore it is not the stillness itself that is the objective of our prayer. It is the context to which such Stillness has introduced us.

As I sit in summer mornings enjoying the swelling sounds of the dawn chorus I can hear a cacophony of enjoyable birdsong filling the air. However, as I apply attentiveness, I distinguish blackbird from song thrush, robin from goldfinch. Naturally the ability to distinguish such sounds is dependent upon a certain amount of work carried out in familiarising myself with the different songs of British garden birds, and would prove of little value on a trip to Malaysia. Which goes to show that the attention we have given over our life to discerning and distinguishing the character and the ways of God is the foundation upon which we establish prayerful attentiveness. I hear yet must learn to discern what it is I am hearing, an act of attentiveness.

Meaning Two

However, attentiveness also means attending to the interests and comfort of others as in, ‘They live in constant, kindly attentiveness to each others needs‘. In approaching God it is not simply that I anticipate or demand that God in some interventionist and measurable way attends to my ever swelling bandwidth of ‘needs’. Rather that I attend to the ‘needs’ of the Divine. Can I really suggest that an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God has a ‘need’ of my attentiveness? Regardless, I do. And that’s because God’s will in the earth is expressed through the obedient action of those who determine to love and serve God. God is voiceless and shapeless without an engaged, redeemed humanity.

Purpose

God is purposeful in that there is always an end as well as a present in view. For me prayer once was a response to the present with little objective focus upon the end in view. In fact God thinks from the end backwards, in which case the present is rather more incidental than essential. Whilst this might feel like it reduces human value, it cannot, for such value can only ever be established with the end in view, i.e. I have been created human, in the image of God for the purpose of growing up into maturity in Christ. Over investment in the realities of the present can only lead to stunted growth, in other words a deformity or abnormality perhaps in the aspiration that I’m invited to share alongside God.

Attentiveness affords me the opportunity to discern the present in light of the end in view. I recover perspective.

Illustration

As my first darling wife, Katey, battled with MS, the initial prayer focus was consumed with the present; an assumed need that she be physically healed. I’ve no doubt God does intervene and physically heals today. We had both prayed and seen medically confirmed healing through the vehicle of prayer. Indeed we had experienced such healing ourselves. However, physical healing is incidental and not the end God has in view. This end is most certainly about healing, yet healing as wholeness or completion, where only death affords us the key to such completion.

Whilst Katey and I, and a concerned congregation, threw every prayer we had at seeking to determine a new, or different, present, we paid little attention in discerning the distinct word of God in the season. In fact we assumed we were mounting a raid against Satan to rescue Katey from what can only have been the devil’s work.

Exhausted and momentarily exhausted and disillusioned, where a moment is as a thousand days if not years, it was out of broken dejection, and the aloneness and sense of abandonment that followed in the melting away of an exhausted and confused congregation, that we together began to pay attention to God and seek to discern the voice of God. The end remained the same, ‘To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens: my eyes like the eyes of slaves, on the hand of their lords…our eyes on the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy…Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy‘.

We again reminded ourselves we are God’s property, albeit fearfully and wonderfully made. That God alone has the word of life and so it was to the Lord we directed our gaze. No longer consumed by physical disease we waited and began to develop an attentiveness to who God was in this set of circumstances and discern God’s unique words for us both. We found comfort even as we knew pain and disappointment. Attentiveness is a long way from the soothing balm of a hot bath of scented bubbles.

Such attentiveness was not primarily to provide us with any emotional satisfaction for we discovered that feelings are untrustworthy and in no way confirmed if God were present or not. Attentiveness was finding the capacity to rest in the reality that God’s will might be done in the earth and in the outworking of that will we discover God and deepen our understanding and appreciation of God, even as and when mortality brings death at an age my humanity might never understand and rail against.

Conclusion

So in the Stillness we learn to become attentive to God. Our own will, aspiration, assumption and perception will readily seek to occupy that Stillness. Only problem with this is that it must inevitable drown out the still small voice who is Jesus. I say ‘learn’ for not one of us can accomplish attentiveness without a disciplined commitment to practice; Intuition + Practice = Performance. Discerning different songs within the overwhelming orchestration that is the dawn chorus takes both knowledge and discipline, and is of course continually accompanied by doubt. In all such attentiveness it remains to me to discover what it is the Master says, where saying is not essentially an audible word. And where attentiveness may require nothing more of me than attentiveness itself.

‘if the Lord had not been on our side…then the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent gone over us…Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth…Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’.

Online Church has much to offer. In a society consumed with time management what better way to worship than in front of the familiar computer terminal? 

Time pressures increase. Care for families pulls us in two directions at once. Growing children at one polarity, ageing parents at the other. Jobs demand 24/7 attention with the access and demands of smart technology, adding to the pressure to survive with a national wage freeze set against ever rising prices. It takes huge amounts of energy and concentration simply to stand still. Stillness means to survive and not to flourish.

Church now demands more of me than I have left to give. It becomes an unhelpful distraction laden with ‘oughts‘ and ‘shoulds‘ all appealing to my overdeveloped sense of guilt. If only church might once more be about encountering God through welcome, confession, the liturgy of God’s word followed by Eucharist? I’ve little time to engage with fellow congregants and the project focused program developed by salaried leadership freaks me out with the thought of more demands made upon my shrinking time resource. What’s worse that it appears attendance alone satisfies the spiritual hunger of most.

I run and enter a desert of my own creation. Yet as the noises within my head subside, as I find some moments to draw breath, I rediscover that my Christian life is about friendship with God. I’m seeking to maintain friendships on an ever expanding circle of need and demand, that I literally have not one moment to discern that still small voice.

Online church enables me to pause, in stillness and personally encounter God. I am part of something far larger than myself, yet I need not commute to attend, nor invest time in interpersonal relationships. I experience the best in worship and the best in preaching. I am nourished and refreshed, better able to love God and neighbour. I am taking good care of myself. I begin to build up the right sort of love for self and so offer my neighbour a better deal.

The desert that I imagined was a wasteland incapable of supporting life, is in fact a city teeming with people, presenting a litany of overwhelming demands and burning every last ounce of creative energy from me. I must withdraw and make my space with God, so God can make some space in me.

As for those interpersonal relationships; well a small group meeting at a time that suits its members best is an oasis for me. More of that later.

Great meditative piece by Sr. Joan Chittester. A wonderful reflection at the start of Advent 2016. Take time to pause, read and reflect.

Pointing to the star
starsAdvent is the season of waiting. Its function is to remind us what we’re waiting for as we go through life too busy with things that do not matter to remember the things that do.  When year after year we hear the same scriptures and the same hymns of longing for the life to come, of which this is only its shadow, it becomes impossible to forget the refrains of the soul.

Advent relieves us of our commitment to the frenetic in a fast-paced world. It slows us down. It makes us think. It makes us look beyond today to the “great tomorrow” of life.  Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere that exhausts the world around us, we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control this life that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow.

It is while waiting for the coming of the reign of God, Advent after Advent, that we come to realize that its coming depends on us. What we do will either hasten or slow, sharpen or dim our own commitment to do our part to bring it.

The Liturgical Year by Joan ChittisterAdvent stands before us, within us, pointing to the star for which the wise ones from the East are only icons of ourselves.

We all want something more. Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now? And where is that star in its present radiance in your life leading you? Is it a place that is really comprehensive enough to equal the breadth of the human soul?

 —from The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister, Thomas Nelson

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