We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself . . . We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied because we are the origin of all coming evil. Carl Gustav Jung.
This is the first of a regular posting focusing on spiritual poetry/reflective writing of note. Today I will be reading ‘The Questions’, attributed to St. Brendan.
There is very little concrete biographical information concerning the life of Brendan, but he was a contemporary of St. Columba of Iona.
A printed version of the poem can be found in: ‘The Wisdom of Saint Columba of Iona’ by Murray Watts.
R.S. Thomas was a welsh clergyman and talented poet. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful and evocative poem on silence. ‘But the silence in the mind’ is, in my opinion, one of his best:
But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean.
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.
It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?
Note: This poem, and several others of Thomas’ can be found in Roger Housden’s ‘For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems Of The Christian Mystics’
Amidst the turmoil of life, the triumphs and the frustrations, the laughter and the pain, we are called to introspection. Such self-examination takes many forms, and occurs at different points in our journey; it is a reflection the growing awareness of the truth of Carl Jung’s insightful observation: ‘who looks outside dreams who looks inside awakes’.
Desiderata, a wonderful poem by Max Ehrmann, is a beautiful expression of that reality; I personally find the first and the last verses, reproduced here, as being especially meaningful:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
It was English poet Alfred Tennyson who wrote: “Hope Smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier'”
And so we embrace that hope as we move inexorably towards a new year. For many though, it can be difficult to focus entirely on the future. The year gone by may hold painful memories of illness, bereavement, broken relationships and other negative experiences. We like to think that a new start and a new year will signal a time to forget that which has left its mark. But by trying to suppress the depth of our true feelings, and ignoring their existence, we make the likelihood of suffering greater.
The American Poet, Theodore Roethke, once reflected: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” He was right. In the midst of darkness and suffering there is meaning to be found and wisdom to imbibe; by applying those lessons to the present and future we can make progress and develop our true potential. Or, as the Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
With these words I wish you all a peaceful, meaningful 2018, my prayer for you is that whatever difficulties you experience, you take comfort from the knowledge that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. John 1:5.
A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
Let us join together and give thanks this night for beauty:
the beauty of a candle flickering in the gloominess
the beauty of a charitable deed done selflessly
the beauty redolent in those who persevere amidst hardships
the beauty of those who transform their deeply felt pain into
the beauty of those who forgive that which appears
Let us join together give thanks this night for dignity:
the dignity inherent in a life lived well
the dignity inherent in those who suffer for others
the dignity inherent in those who embrace the marginalised
the dignity inherent in those who stand up for the poor and
the dignity inherent in those who pray for those who despise
Heavenly Father, we open our hearts to each other and give thanks this night, collectively.
We remember the goodness that encircles us and guides us, even when we cannot see it.
We give thanks, despite the difficulties of life and the brokenness we all carry within us.
We give thanks in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who never leaves our side, tonight and always.
Here are a few of my recent reflections/poems:
BY THE WELL
Sychar in Samaria
by Jacob’s well
A shocking scene
A Samaritan and a Jew
Female and male
Countercultural and perplexing, where shame meets perfection.
Jesus does not recoil
He interacts; he listens
A stark reminder that everyone matters
That in the heart of Christ
‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one’.
No-one exists outside the circle of his love
Not the unlovely
Nor the despised
Or the contemptible
Divine love is radically inclusive
Beyond our comprehension
What we turn away from
Where we build barriers
Jesus breaks them down
Where we judge
When we dwell in the simplicity of his message
We are blessed
Our imperfections are contextualised
Our flaws appear universal
But so does God’s overarching grace.
In the light of that grace
We can let go of our guilt
Let our failures rest in the past
Acknowledge our pain
And look forward
To a radiant future
Grounded in hope
Where expectation is infinite
And in the words of Julian of Norwich:
‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’
IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT
As the coolness of the mid-summer night
enshrouds our physical form.
As the serenity of the eventide saturates our souls
God’s tranquility advances in lovingness
He watches over us in the dead of night, in the obscurity of the wee small hours.
When our minds are at rest, or ravaged with torment.
God is at hand
Supremely proficient in protection
Charged with our care
Captivated by our concerns.
‘At night his song is with me’
The real work of faith begins when we are in the midst of despair; when it is all too easy to give up hope and become spiritually moribund.
To reach out; to cry out when there is nought left to give – that is where we encounter the depth of Christ’s love. Imperceptible at first, in his gentleness…….in his compassion……his presence burns brightly.
It is from that kernel of hope and expectation, the evolution of love dwells in our souls.
‘He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters’.
In the timelessness of these words we are guaranteed never to be lonely…..never to be foresaken… and never to be lost.
LET US BE THANKFUL
‘May we give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus’
And so let us be thankful for being alive:
Alive to the potential of growth
Alive to receiving and giving love
Alive to grief and its cathartic effect
Alive to grace and transformation
Let our thankfulness underpin our faith:
Faith in the goodness of others
Faith in the power of forgiveness
Faith in the reality of reconciliation
Faith in divine love
Faith in truth
Let our thankfulness allow us to connect:
Connect deeply with each other
Connect meaningfully with God
Connect with, and appreciate the cosmos
Connect with those who despise us
Connect with the pain in our hearts
Loving God, encourage us to be ‘thankful in everything, in all circumstances’.
When life is hard and the future bleak
When life is triumphant and the future glorious
Let us ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his live endures forever’.
An excerpt from Thomas Merton’s beautiful poem, ‘Song: If you Seek…’:
Follow my ways and I will lead you
To golden-haired suns,
Logos and music, blameless joys,
Innocent of questions
And beyond answers:
For I, Solitude, am thine own self:
I, Nothingness, am thy All.
I, Silence, am thy Amen!
This is the text of my reflection/sermon shared with the congregation today at Cliftonville Moravian Church:
Today, I want to reflect on Genesis 8: 1 ‘But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded’.
Our Old Testament passage, Genesis 8:1-19 is rich in imagery and meaning. In the character of Noah, we see a man who is faithful, patient and perseveres in the face of uncertainty. During the trials that he faced, he understood, consciously and subconsciously that God had not forgotten him….that God kept his promises. It all took some time of course, to go from the drama of the flood to the deliverance represented by dry land and new and vibrant beginnings. The transition from being ‘all at sea’, to being quite literally ‘grounded’ is a powerful and deeply meaningful image.
But let us step back from this unfolding picture for a moment and reflect on Noah’s actions as the water was omnipresent and the land submersed. During that time, we read of a man who reaches out again and again in hope and expectation; we encounter a person who has placed his trust in God, that ultimately, all will be well and salvation is very firmly in God’s hand.
Trust, in God’s providence permeates Noah’s existence. We see that motif reflected very powerfully in our New Testament lesson, especially in the opening verse where it is written: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’ (John 14:1).
Noah’s trust in God is a given. He in return is entrusted with an enormous task, despite his very human character flaws and failings. Trust is vitally important; so too is hope – it flows from the foundation of trust that accompanies, and exemplifies a faithful life.
We read of a Noah who sends out first the Raven, then the Dove, calmly waiting for the return, or ultimately for some sense that the waters are subsiding and life is returning to the land; that the wait is over. Noah then, is the picture of trust in the divine; the dove is the symbol of hope.
Last week, we touched on the contours of hope as we navigated the biblical narrative. This week, we are drawn once again to contemplate its importance.
Noah’s actions, in sending out those birds, awaiting a response and initially being disappointed, but ultimately experiencing the joy of hope fulfilled. He lived out the words of the American civil-rights activist and Baptist Minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr when he perceptively said:”We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope”. What a maxim to live by! How insightful.
So, the example of Noah and a the words of a contemporary Christian leader fuse together and remind us that yes, we will experience disappointment in our lives, but our hope is infinite; it is build upon the God of love and his omnipotence – the reason that we gather here today to worship and to give witness to a far greater reality than we can even describe.
Consider then, what the great reformer, Martin Luther said: ‘Everything that is done in the world is done by hope’. Indeed it is. Hope can transform the most despairing of situations, the most anxious of moments, and the most intractable problems that perplex us and seek to wear us down.
The roman poet, Albius Tibillus surely also catches the mood of the moment when he writes: ‘Hope ever urges us on and tells us tomorrow will be better’. And it will. We look forward with hope, despite the turmoil of the world we live in; despite the innumerable uncertainties that perniciously attempt to steal our joy and purpose. Our hope is so much deeper and broader than all of that; it is un-measurable and unfathomable, but nonetheless it is tangible; we can feel it in our hearts….if only we stand still, and silent, for a few moments.
We honour that hope by living a life that is open to possibility and steeped in the knowledge that God is the source and sustainer of that hope.
And so it seems pertinent to finish this brief reflection with a short prayer. This prayer comes from a meditation entitled ‘The Gift of The Dove’ and is published in ‘Meditations from the Iona Community’ by Ian Reid. Iona holds special memories for me; a ‘thin place’, God’s presence is realised in its ruggedness and holiness; that sense of hope permeates the soil, the sea and the air of a place where God’s presence is undeniable. Hope and presence go hand-in-hand. Here it is expressed in that very prayer; let us pray:
‘Ever-present God, open our eyes to see
the coming of the dove.
As we look over the waters of
our doubts and fears,
enable us to see in the world signs of hope.
As we despair over the injustices and conflicts
in our own lives and in the world,
enable us to see in the world signs of peace and reconciliation.
As Noah was called to leave the ark and go out into
the world, enable us, like him, to share with others
the visions of hope, peace and reconciliation we