Category: Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflection: Spirituality and Individualism

For the spiritual person, I think individualism is very limited.

I am not talking about solitude, or about introspection, but about the belief that above all else the individual alone is of ultimate importance.  Let me explain…

At one level, each person is of paramount importance spiritually.

I  believe that individuals have meaning, however, not because we are each an isolated individual but because each of us, individually, is more than just that

There is a powerful passage by T.S.Eliot in Four Quartets where he writes: 

‘Descend lower, descend only

Into the world of perpetual solitude

World not world, but that which is not world,

Internal darkness…’   

‘Burnt Norton’ in Four Quartets

And anyone who has ever delved deep within themselves may know of that ‘internal darkness’. 

Because deep within I find plenty of vices, like self-interest, the desire for pleasure, the desire for security, and so on. I struggle, however, to find anything solid or stable spiritually. 

Because we are not made to be individualistic.  We are made to connect: with other people and with God.  We are not made to be alone. 

And so to be merely individualistic cuts us off from our fellow beings, and cuts us off from God. 

In an extreme form, people can drift away from reality, believing only their own private experiences are what is true, losing a hold on the experience of others and of basic facts of existence. 

Solitude is different, as is introspection.

For some of us, solitude and introspection are ways to understand life, process experience and recreate.  We can maintain a connection with God, and we can be connecting with others through praying for them, or by thinking ahead to being with them. 

I have know the dead-end alley that is extreme individualism, and what was required, as this poem which follows, inspired by T.S.Eliot’s lines, says, was a new kind of life:

The Descent  
 
Descend lower  
to the world darker 
than the shadow  
of the valley of humiliation 
 
To a placelessness  
of no name 
Where the soul seems about to dissolve 
into meaninglessness  
 
Here the world  
and what I valued 
Had little relevance 
and significance reversed  
 
In the emptiness 
there is silence  
and in the silence, voices can be heard 
calling, insistently, critically, temptingly  
 
and all I could do was pray  
 
and there in the darkness was Death 
 
and there in the darkness was God  
 
And what was required  
was a kind of resurrection 
to emerge in a new kind of life. 

Christian Spiritualities – The Psalms

“…like a tree

Planted by streams of water,

Which yields its fruit in season,

And whose leaf does not wither…”

(from Psalm 1)

So many Psalms have inspired me to write, but this post focuses on just one – the first Psalm.

The beautiful image of a tree, in the extract above, growing beside a flowing river, is so evocative:

treestreamswater PSALM 1

I was inspired to write this poem by earlier lines in the Psalm, about how we as humans draw inspiration from our “roots” – that is, our spiritual roots.

My Spirit Drinks Deep

Another phrase finds me out

just a few words are enough

.

For thought to be inspired

And my spirit drinks deep

.

From the waters of life

that never run dry.

myspiritdrinks SOG

Your own spiritual roots, your “waters of life” so to speak, may be very different from mine. 

If you have read any of my “Inspirers” posts, you will have read about some of the many people who have helped me to “drink deep from the waters of life”. Their words inspire me to write myself.

You can read all of Psalm 1 here.

Spiritual Reflection – Love and Fear

 

Many live fear-filled lives, I think.  I used to live a fear-filled life, I know.

But “Perfect love drives out fear”.

love drives out fear

 

There is a story about Francis of Assisi giving his cloak to a beggar, and this story inspired this poem:

 

As if the world would spin

on the axis of his mind 

 

Giving surpassing getting

compassion demonstrating

its truly chivalrous character

 

And the act is worthy of art

to wonder its way

through the centuries.

 

st-francis-giving-his-mantle-to-a-poor-man-1299.jpg!Large

 

But perhaps the more powerful story still is of St. Francis overcoming his loathing of lepers.  What was “bitter” became “sweet” – he called back a leper outside of Assisi and gave him a kiss of human acceptance and love.

 

When the sweet

becomes bitter,

 

The bitter,

sweet,

 

Then you are

on the way,

 

Transformed

from darkness to light.

onwaydarklight FOP2

 

I see much fear on social media.  I wonder if the anger and verbal attacks that we see are often a symptom of fear.

How much does fear rule our own lives?

Or can love drive out fear?

Spiritual Reflection: On Being a Spiritual Person – Vocation

 

My vocation encompasses my being, my thinking, my planning, my decisions, the words I say and everything I do.  It encompasses everything.  And it is a vocation, because it is a life I am called to. 

“God called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”  

1 Peter 2:9

But even though the vocation and the light is wonderful, it is clear that I am not “wonderful” all the time.  Human error, past hurts, shortcomings, character flaws, selfishness, moodiness – these all take their toll on my vocation, so my being, my thinking, my planning, my decisions, the words I say and everything I do is often not what I would want it to be if I really was completely out of darkness and a being of total light. 

So vocation creates a powerful tension in the spiritual life: a tension between being a person with faults and failures, and being a person called to praise and pray, laugh and love. 

To help me, I have disciplines, beliefs, values, choices, grace, nurture and relationships, experience and nature – and these are for another post. 

Spiritual Reflection: What does it mean to be human?

What is man that you are mindful of him?

The son of man, that you care for him?

Psalm 8

At the start of each month, I come to reflect on fundamentals: what does it mean to be human?

Three aspects emerged at the start of this October, in 2019:

  1. To be human is to be created
  2. To be human is to interdependent
  3. To be human is to be complex

Created

Although my culture in 21st century Britain emphasises autonomy, actually I find that this is not an accurate description of being human. I did not create myself: I was born to my parents, as they were to theirs, and so the chain goes back into history.

As human beings we are created, not autonomous. Michelangelo’s interpretation of being created tells me this is something incredibly energetic and vital:

The creative power behind human being is a God of love and energy, without whom I would not have life – as Adam, in this painting, just lounges lifelessly, awaiting God’s touch.

Interdependent

Just as I am not autonomous in origin, so I am not autonomous in living. I depend on air, water, food, the earth, and especially other people. Collaboration is one of the most powerful forces available to us as human beings. Synergy multiplies our capabilities hundreds and hundreds of times. We were made to live together.

I love the way the angels dance together synergistically in this painting by Botticelli:

To live interdependently is a great challenge: the devils scuttle away at the bottom of Botticelli’s painting, reminding us that mixed motives and the presence of evil in life is never too far away. When we seek to live with others, we must deal with problems and darknesses in ourselves and in others, without losing the vision of those angels at the top of the painting, dancing in perfect harmony.

Complex

To be human is to be a complex of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” captures something of the mystical beauty and complexity of humanity:

“Vitruvian Man”, Leonardo Da Vinci

Probably most of us are more like Van Eyck’s “Adam” below, though: not perfectly symmetrical, not beautiful in every way.

Adam, from The Ghent Altarpiece, Van Eyck

And yet, as the inside of The Ghent Altarpiece reveals, our physical existence is only part of the complexity of what it means to be human:

In Van Eyck’s vision, Adam and Eve (top left and top right) are just part of a much bigger spiritual picture, with God top centre, and the mystical “Lamb of God” and the fountain of life in the middle at the bottom. Humanity assembles from the four corners of the earth to worship and acknowledge their createdness, their dependence on each other and in God, and their physical, emotional and spiritual complexity.

What is man that you are mindful of him?

The son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 8
Spiritual Reflection: Delight, and Meditate

Spiritual Reflection: Delight, and Meditate

 

Learning to read in a meditative way is a skill, an art, and a way of spiritual growth.

It used to be called “Lectio Divina” – a way of pondering a short text to allow all of its secrets to be open gently to the meditating mind.

We are so used to skim reading today – news, images, websites, emails – that there is a great danger we skim read life

We can skim and skate on the surface and never get to the heart of things.  We can completely miss the depths.

But blessed are those who delight and meditate.

Gerard Hughes in “God of Surprises” says meditative reading is like sucking a sweet. Let the tastes go round your mouth. Don’t rush it, crunch the sweet and swallow it quickly.  Take your time.  Let your mind dream and spin out ideas starting from the phrase.  If it goes too far away, bring it back to the phrase.  Start by making yourself do it for 30 seconds, then a minute, then maybe a bit more.

Start with some favourite or well known phrases:

“Our Father”

“The Lord is my shepherd”

“God is love”

You could try meditating on a short phrase in the morning, and sometimes one in the evening, too.  You may find that the phrase comes back to you during the day, or during the next day, and then you find yourself thinking some more, and seeing still further depths you had not noticed before…

If you try meditative reading, I hope that you will find delight, you will be able to meditate, and that you will learn about the depths that our lives and this universe has to offer.

 

Spiritual Reflection: Identity Beyond the Here and Now

Spiritual Reflection: Identity Beyond the Here and Now

Identity is a spiritual matter, to my mind. 

My spirituality is part of who I am., and so it is part of the complicated notion of identity…

T.S. Eliot wrote that “here and now cease to matter” – and I wonder if one of the problems with modern concerns about identity are about an obsession with the “here and now”.

“What am I thinking and feeling here and now?” might be the preoccupation of an anxious person.  But the idea that thoughts and feelings are temporary and fleeting gives us a sense of perspective and the reassurance that we live our lives over much longer periods of time.

This led me to consider how we construct our identities beyond the here and now – with reference to the past, and to the future.

It is obvious that we are shaped by our pasts.  Some have had traumatic pasts which leave a present which is problematic because of things that happened years and years ago.

Many of us learn valuable lessons because of past experiences we have been through.  Some of us have been lucky to have had inspiring families, role-models, teachers and leaders, who have nurtured us and provided us with principles and practical coaching in various character strengths.

But we are also influenced by more distant pasts, whether or not we are aware of it.  The culture we are born into was shaped over hundreds and thousands of years.  Our genes have been shaped by thousands and millions of years. 

Many of the books I read  have been written by people who died hundreds of years before I was born.  I think of my “inspirers”:  writings  on spirituality by the great thinkers of history, passages in the greatest world poetry and literature.

These treasured contributions to culture have shaped my identity.  I go back to them time and time again, and they continue to shape and form my identity.  They are a wellspring of inspiration and guidance. 

My identity is forged well beyond the here and now by these thought leaders of the past.

And then there is the future: the contribution that our own goals, ambitions and hopes make to our sense of identity.  I have been much influenced by Stephen Covey’s book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” – he demonstrates how each of us has the power of decision-making, regardless of our past and present circumstances.  It is a challenging idea, as it does not allow us to look upon ourselves as victims of circumstance.  We have to own our reactions.  There is always a gap – as he says – between stimulus and our response to it.  We forge our future in the decisions we make in the present.

This means that every decision I make in the present about the future is my own free choice.  My future identity is in my hands.  I am choosing whether I become a better person each day, or the opposite.  My thoughts about the future – optimistic or gloomy, hopeful or depressing – play a huge part in influencing my beliefs about myself and my identity.

Identity turns out to be very complex : a merging of the past and the future with the present.

Identity is  a journey – a fascinating journey – perhaps one of the quintessential journeys we make as human beings.

And many of the answers are to be found beyond the here and now.

Spiritual Reflection: The Vision of The Poverello

It was the artist Giotto who got me really interested in “The Poverello”. Symbols and beauty so often speak louder than words…

.

Before the Cross

.

Praying

before a cross

and

 it

spoke

to

him.

Prayer, silence, meditation, and the resulting insights and visions – there are many of these recorded about Francis of Assisi. There is the voice from the crucifix (as painted by Giotto, above), the vision of the palace, the vision of the six-winged seraph that resulted in the legendary stigmata…And Giotto wasn’t the only artist called to record them in wondrous frescoes.
.

Which symbols speak to us today?
.

What beauty calls us deeper?
.

Do we have any kind of sense of being called to work towards a vision?
.

Who are our inspirers?

Spiritual Reflection: Openness is Enough

Why him,

why him,

why him?

.

Because it seems

God chose

.

One so foolish

and so poor

.

To show that

only openness

.

To God

Is enough.

.

I wrote those lines inspired by Francis of Assisi.

Openness is enough: openness to life in all its richness, openness to others, openness to God.

The practice of mindfulness is a good way to develop openness to life.  Many people in the west today live life so quickly that they forget to actually experience the here and now.  It is possible to live in future, and also to live in the past; but to live in the present takes a special form of attention, mindful of detail, of both pleasure and pain, of both self and others, of both inner and outer worlds.

Listening is a way to be open to others.  Many of us talk so much that we forget to listen.  We are full of our stress, our worries, our feelings.  But if you round and round inside a bubble you just end up…trapped in a bubble!  Better to burst the bubble, step out, and listen to those around you.  Openness is a discipline, a way of loving others, a grace.

Prayer is a way of being open to God.  When we pray we put ourselves into perspective.  God is bigger than our momentary concerns.  We make space in the silence to listen and to think.  We acknowledge our finitude, our limitedness, our need of grace.

We can all be “chosen” in the way that Francis of Assisi, and others who have followed the spiritual way,  felt chosen by God.  It was part of Francis’ humility that he often described himself as “foolish” and “poor”.  It means we feel a sense of belovedness, a personal sense of meaning, of being loved by God.

Openness, then, can develop your sense of self-worth, that you are loved just for being a being created by God, living in an amazing universe.

Openness is enough.

Spiritual Reflection: Temptation…or Contemplation?

I am part of one of the most tempted generations in history. 

Today in the West, we have power that would have been undreamt of by previous seekers of spiritual truth. Many of us can eat what we want, when we want; we can travel nearly anywhere we want in the world; we can own pretty well anything we want.  And in each of these statements there is that phrase: “we want”…

graceemptiness FOP

One temptation is to be so focused on what we want for ourselves that we close ourselves down to anything else.  It is a dangerous temptation because we can close ourselves down to other people; we can close to growing in a spiritually creative way; we can close to God.

If we gain the world but forfeit our soul, there is no gain.  I wonder how many people realise that focusing too much on  material things and experiences, though pleasurable and fun in the short-term, can have unforeseen destructive consequences on our deeper selves – our souls – and on those with whom we share our beautiful but damaged planet.

On the spiritual way, we will face temptations, certainly.  Perhaps we will fall for many.  How can we keep ourselves focused on the right priorities and grow ourselves in healthy ways that develop our love for others and for God, and keep our hearts open?

This poem, on the theme of withdrawing from temptation, was inspired by the life and words of Francis of Assisi:

Who are we

To snatch at experience

.

When there is a grace

In the emptiness

.

That leaves the soul open

For fulfilment

.

Mattering more

than the mere minute

.

A fullness

Of living in God.

.

Francis knew the Gospels about Jesus very well.  The first recorded action after Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s Gospel is this:  “He was in the desert…being tempted…”  Even in spiritual retreat and contemplation, even for a “spiritual giant” like Jesus, there is challenge and temptation.

How can we protect ourselves from temptation?

How can we simplify and purify our lives and avoid temptation?

What can we do when we face temptation?

How can our spirituality come to our aid?