The Inner Journey

“If you ask for grace to realize who you are, ask also for the courage you will need to do so. To realize who you are, you will have to walk through all the shadows in your inner landscape. It is not easy. You will need to give up all your views about yourself again and again, each time they crystallize into a pattern. You will have to experience and release all the pain in your life. You will have to embrace your death. You will have to bear everything to realize everything. A perfect divine economy”.  James Thornton,  in: ‘A Field Guide to the Soul: A Down-to-Earth Handbook of Spiritual Practice’.

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The most important, and arduous path we take, comprises of the inner journey that the world knows nothing of, and only God can see:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”’ 1 Samuel 16:7.

Thomas Merton: The Core Of Our Reality

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Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . .

Thomas Merton

World Bipolar Day: Living Beyond Limitations

Today, on World Bipolar Day, I’m reminded of the words of Carl Jung: ‘The one who learns to live with his incapacity has learned a great deal’. 

World Bipoar Day

We all live with incapacity to some degree, not just those who live with a Bipolar diagnosis. Adapting to it, and finding meaning and self-transcendence in it, and through it, makes an enormous difference.

I know many people, who use the insight gained through living with a particular illness, to help others in comparable situations. They turn their incapacity into an advantage (and of course to the advantage of others). In that respect they are unique and are fulfilling a task no-one else can in quite the same way.

As Paul the Apostle wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:27: But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong’. An apt reminder of the purpose inherent in living with a life-limiting, but also life affirming condition, such as Bipolar Disorder.

Thomas Merton: The Transforming Nature of Reality

Thanks to a friend I was reminded that it is 60 years and 1 day since Thomas Merton’s ‘epiphany’ moment in Louisville. Kentucky, when he recognised that our being is deeply rooted in God and each other.  Contemplation and revelation is not confined to the monastery and a select few; it is a calling from God that is open to each and every one of us, even, and perhaps especially, amidst the noise and chaos of life.  You can read the relevant passage from ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ below, or you can listen to me reading it here:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

 

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

 

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

A Prayer Of Welcome & Hope

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I recently came across a little prayer card that I collected from a visit to Launde Abbey, a conference and retreat centre located in the East Midlands. It reminded me of a place of calm beauty and welcome; it summarises a universal call for our Christian places of worship and sanctuary to be open to all, and be places of hope and renewal, whatever our circumstances:

The Launde Abbey Prayer

Father,
here may the faithful find salvation and the careless be awakened;
here may the doubting find faith and the anxious be encouraged;
here may the tempted find help and the sorrowful comfort;
here may the weary find rest and the strong be renewed;
here may we all find inspiration, and that peace which the world cannot give: your precious gift to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Thomas Merton: The Poetry of Pain & Perspective

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For many years now I have been very much a fan of the writings of the monk, writer, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton. His commentaries and insights into ethics, non-violence, social action, the contemplative life, inter-faith dialogue and so much more, have been of great interest, and application, to me on my own very personal faith journey.

As a poet, Merton was enormously talented, each line and stanza beautifully crafted into a message that is brought to life by the spirit of the writer and the imagination of the reader.  His deeply personal poem – ‘For my Brother: Missing in Action 1943’ – is for me at least, one of his best.  Amidst such a tragedy, Merton intertwines that life of suffering, which although unbearable, is transient, with the redemptive truth of a Divine sacrifice which transcends time and space. It is in this context, of paradox and perspective, that Merton finds meaning in the cruelty of war and the deep sense of personal loss he felt so painfully. And so Merton wrote:

‘When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us’.

You can listen to my reading of ‘For my Brother’ in its entirety below.  If you’re new to Merton’s poetry, I would recommend ‘In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems by Thomas Merton, by Lynn R. Szabo, Kathleen Norris (ISBN: 9780811216135).

‘When I Needed A Neighbour?’

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It often strikes me just how convoluted we make our Christian faith appear, when in reality, at its core, it is relatively straightforward. Granted, the Disciples often misunderstood Jesus and struggled with the countercultural essence of his narrative; and so do we. But in essence, Jesus’ message was clear, especially when we consider the pragmatism of his ethical teachings.  His exhortations to reach out to the marginalised, to love the unlovely and to respect the dignity of the person, were profound. There are many examples in the Gospels where Jesus talks, in strident terms, of the neighbourliness imperative and the demands placed upon us; to embrace the stranger in our midst and to disaffirm restrictive tribal affiliations.

One such example of this is found in Matthew 25:44-45 –

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

And then there are the lyrics of the hymn ‘When I Needed a Neighbour’, sung by so many over the years, the first verse of which is reproduced here:

When I needed a neighbour,
Were you there, were you there?
When I needed a neighbour, were you there?
And the creed and the colour
And the name won’t matter,
Were you there?

Each hour, day, week and lifetime we all experience the situations and circumstances where we can be proactive neighbours. Moreover, how we engage and who we engage with is a very personal task; we all have unique skills that are there to be utilised in the service of others.

I think Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, captured the essence of that uniqueness when he wrote:

 “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

A Call To Service

The concept of self-transcendence and service to others is at the core of Christian belief and practice. Consider as an example Isaiah 58:10 – ‘If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’. Or in the New Testament, 1 Peter 4:10 makes the point very succinctly –  ‘Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received’.

It would be erroneous however to think that religious belief has a monopoly on self-transcendence; it has a rich secular hinterland.  In Viktor Frankl’s classic book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he addressed his understanding of ‘”the self-transcendence of human existence.”‘ and wrote: ‘It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter’. And crucially, ‘The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”’

The Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was cognizant of the fact that service need not be complicated or restricted to particular occupations; it is open to all of us, regardless of who we are and how we are categorized by society: