Inner work

Self-transformation

Would you like to save the world from the degradation
and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away
from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on
your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of
humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to
eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate
all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the
greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-
transformation.

Lao Tzu
Chinese philosopher, circa 6th century BC

As early as the 6th century BC philosophers and religionists were thinking and concerned about world “degradation and destruction” – and that thought alone invites me to a bit of silent reflection. It’s in the quieting of the mind, the “getting out of our heads”, the reaching deeper than our incessantly interrupting monkey thoughts, that we begin to have a sense of who we really are – awakening self-awareness, silently knowing our place within the great scheme of the Universe. Lao Tzu was keen that seekers after truth should “step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work …”

Day by day in the gym I’m intrigued by the sights and sounds of those hooked into the latest short-term health fads – readily identifiable because of the frowns on their faces, resentful grunting, and the hammer-driven eight minutes they “give up” for distracted “workouts”. And then there are the peaceful souls, there early each morning, who give no impression of being in a hurry. They’ll maybe spend an hour in their same familiar little routines of preference. Quiet smile, bright eyes and gentle pace suggest they’re not too pre-occupied with “degradation and destruction”, apparently seeing something of a higher order – outer AND inner workouts “saving” their work and their worlds.

The Other Kingdoms

Consider the other kingdoms. The
trees, for example, with their mellow-sounding
titles: oak, aspen, willow.
Or the snow, for which the peoples of the north
have dozens of words to describe its
different arrivals. Or the creatures, with their
thick fur, their shy and wordless gaze. Their
infallible sense of what their lives
are meant to be. Thus the world
grows rich, grows wild, and you too,
grow rich, grow sweetly wild, as you too
were born to be.

Mary Oliver
The Other Kingdoms
The Truro Bear and Other Adventures

A blogging friend I admire shares my delight in the works of Mary Oliver and – on different continents – we’ve both been pondering her The Other Kingdoms, each especially attracted, apparently, by the same lines: Their / infallible sense of what their lives / are meant to be. Ivon’s piece is here. I wonder how many others have carried this poem with them through the hours of this past day alone? Poetry breathes a life of its own and is, in a sense, one of The Other Kingdoms.

Life is ineffably rich. Yesterday I contemplated the farthest reaches of the universe. Today, early, I meditated long upon the agility of the tiniest of wrens – fleet of foot, not just upon the wing; and later on the slant of the sunlight through the window at the gym; still later upon the bravery of snowdrops nodding cheerfully above frost-covered earth; later again upon a vase of Cornish daffodils come North! And upon the miraculous and perpetual developments taking place every day in the lives of my loved ones near and far, scattered family, and dear, dear friends.

And of course I pray for a healing touch upon the innumerable tragedies of the world – but, by poetry’s insistence perhaps, from a space within that holds on to what I can only describe as “love’s perspective” – an indefatigable faith that, ultimately, as Mother Julian has it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and yea, all manner of things shall be well.” My baby grand-daughter is developing a fondness for little animals – “lambie”, and her family’s dog, and teddy bears. I hope she’ll come to know poetry’s other kingdoms, and

creatures, with their
thick fur, their shy and wordless gaze. Their
infallible sense of what their lives
are meant to be.

And I reach out, hoping daily that such a sense might ever grow, and grow, in me.

Elements of belonging

Last evening I got lost in a reverie with David Whyte’s poem Working Together: master teacher of the arts of evocation and of invocation, his poems “haunt” me, hovering in and around me, in much the same way Mary Oliver’s do, or May Sarton’s, or William Stafford’s. Poets who become our favourites do so, I guess, because something of their form, heart, precision and soul takes up residency somewhere deep, deep, deep within us.


 may we, in this life
trust

to those elements
we have yet to see

or imagine

David Whyte
from Working Together
The House of Belonging

Though I knew of the late John O’Donohue’s sublime works (Anam Cara – soul friend; Divine Beauty etc) before I discovered David Whyte, I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised when I learned that the two were the closest of friends. Each, consciously or unconsciously, writes blessing. The poetic voice of each – the sound, the timbre, the vibration – are heard once, never to be forgotten … may we, in this life / trust …

Some lovely video footage of John, writing at home, comfortably seated beside an Irish peat fire, has left me with a burning desire some day to visit The Burren [YouTube], perhaps to encounter the soul of the great man in the vast and ancient open spaces there, and maybe, by some miracle, to bump into his old friend David Whyte who, I like to imagine, still walks and remembers there from time to time … to those elements / we have yet to see …

But the actual going there, to The Burren, will not, I think, be necessary, even if someday achieved and delighted in. For the poetry of life has already done its work, and friendships I delight in – some of whom I’ve set eyes on, and some of whom I haven’t, have already been shown to be gifts and graces of that ultimate Oneness for which we instinctively reach. All that’s necessary each day is for me to meditate, remember or imagine.

Great intangibles

… may we, in this life
trust

to those elements
we have yet to see

or imagine,
and look for the true

shape of our own self,
by forming it well

to the great
intangibles about us.

David Whyte
from Working Together
The House of Belonging

David Whyte speaks authoritatively, and with gentle voice, rather like that of Colin AmlĂŽt, one of my school-teachers over forty years ago, whose aim, he said, was “to teach you everything you need to know,” (to pass the examinations in his subject) “whilst asking you to remember, at every stage of your lives, that there’ll always be vastly more that you don’t know.” He signed my youthful Autograph book with an exhortation: “Read widely. Think deeply”.

May we, in this life / trust / to the elements / we have yet to see / or imagine

These words, part of a poem written to mark the introduction of the Boeing 777 jet, pray that WE might take flight – forming (our “wings”) to the great / intangibles about us.

And – as so often with a David Whyte poem – I find myself able to respond (to him, as to Colin AmlĂŽt) with only the one word: AMEN (or “may it be so”).

A very small tree

A special friend wrote to me very movingly a few days ago about a process of “packing and purging” currently going on in her life. These are the “fire” moments in all our lives aren’t they? – the searing moments – and we’re none of us overly keen to think about them too much, though, deep down, we have memories of many a fiery occasion that turned out to be a quite out-of-the-ordinary grace. We absolutely can’t help but ask “Why?” – and we’ve all said heaven-only-knows-how-many-times: “I don’t ask for it. It just happens …”

Anyway, all my musing and pondering about purging, and searing, and life’s moving we-know-not-quite-where, reminded me of a Psalm Down-Under written, rather hopefully, by someone called Joy! –

The Burning Bush

I am a very small tree in a desert
and I am touched by the breath of God.

I don’t ask for it. It just happens,
a suddenness inside me and then a presence
of wind and flame, burning, burning,
and I cover my eyes with my fears,
knowing that I am too small and too frail
to bear this firestorm of love.

I cry out, ‘God, God, what are you doing?
I have always needed your Sunday warmth
but I can’t cope with this searing
which feels like both heaven and hell.
You leave no part of me untouched.
That’s not what I planned.
Please go away!’

There is no answer in the wind and flower,
but little by little, the blindness of my fear
is dissolved and I see with clear eyes
that the desert round me is no longer a desert.
It has been lit by the strong flame of love,
every bush, every tree transformed beyond itself.
I am not alone in this. I never was.
Every living thing has been summoned
to be on fire with the love of God
and to turn all barren places
into sacred ground.

Joy Cowley
Psalms Down-Under

More imagination …

Thinking again today of John Davidson’s Imagination, I remembered a hymn I loved in my childhood – probably brought to mind because the word “mart” appears in both: in the former, “The mart of power, the fount of will”, and in the latter, “Thine is the loom, the forge, the mart …” (How the mind likes to make connections!)

I realise that my love for poetry dates back to early appreciation of psalms and hymnal. “… met within thy holy place / To rest awhile …” spoke to me long ago of the grace and gift of imagination, my own, that of humanity generally, and that of the immortal, invisible Creator of all.

John Ellerton reminds me to enter inwards – through “little space” – to the Eternal in Whom everything that is, in the heavens and upon the earth, are forever united – now.

Behold us, Lord, a little space
From daily tasks set free,
And met within thy holy place
To rest awhile with thee.

Around us rolls the ceaseless tide
Of business, toil, and care;
And scarcely can we turn aside
For one brief hour of prayer.

Yet these are not the only walls
Wherein thou mayst be sought:
On homeliest work thy blessing falls,
In truth and patience wrought.

Thine is the loom, the forge, the mart,
The wealth of land and sea;
The worlds of science and of art,
Revealed and ruled by thee.

Then let us prove our heavenly birth
In all we do and know;
And claim the kingdom of the earth
For thee, and not thy foe.

Work shall be prayer, if all be wrought
As thou wouldst have it done;
And prayer, by thee inspired and taught,
Itself with work be one.

John Ellerton, 1826-93

Encounter

We enjoyed a wonderful supper last evening with hosting friends who are two of the most delightful and engaging people on planet earth. Evolving needs for meaningful, respectful encounter between the diverse peoples and traditions of our own present-day society, and in the wider world too, were amongst many things discussed.

Peace-loving Quaker Parker Palmer’s words, it struck me whilst driving home, rather perfectly summed up the heart of shared aspirations.

We will find the common ground of public life not by
destroying our particularity but by pursuing it,
pursuing it to the depths where we encounter the
ground of being which gave rise to and sustains us all

Parker J Palmer
quoted in Living the Questions,
Essays inspired by the Work and Life
of Parker J Palmer
edited by Sam Intrator

Snow Queen

A visit to our favourite theatre tonight – delighted, as ever, by the sight of a large assembly, enthralled.

The beautiful Snow Queen’s inordinate vanity seeks to secure superiority by blasting ice upon and around everyone else. She aims to destroy life’s seasons and any potential for happiness in others. But mirrored beauty – and mirrors themselves – are subject to cracks and blemish, to an ultimate sense of aloneness, fear and imperfection.

Love, the freshness of spring, summer playtime and the colours of autumn, family, flowers, flight, fright, friendship, loyalty, manure, rivers, seas, scent and sight and sound and taste and touch, youth and old age, foolishness and wisdom – all have their rightful place within properly rounded richness of living. So before we set off for home we were so glad to learn that the terrifying old Snow Queen could actually play the flute – and had decided, by the end, to join her music to that of all the others. Good decision.

Mind your head!

The entrance door to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was among the very many things that touched me deeply when I first visited the Holy Land twenty-one years ago. Why this particular door? Because it’s tiny. Most adults are required to stoop to half-height to gain access and many are the cries of “mind your head” – though the entrance itself seems to suggest precisely the opposite.

The door seemed to be saying “Come down from your lofty heights! Worthy Magi, wisdom-seekers all, get down from your camels. Come, by all means, whoever you are and from wherever you’ve travelled, offer your gifts gladly and quietly. But pay less mind to what goes on in that head of yours! This place is about wisdom of the heart, known only by persons willing to bend the knee, to stoop, to enter in to the cradle of a quite different and very particular kind of “nativity”, an epiphany Now: veritable adoration, wondrous contemplation, most glorious meditation, healing and restoration, Otherness-in-ordinariness.

Some Carol words come to mind: “Do you hear what I hear?”

This nativity is about a baby, and about all babies, about the baby – the promise and potential – at the heart and in the soul of everyone, everywhere, and so about you and me. This is Emmanuel-revelation, a manifestation: something in littleness that all of us need to see, and to be … “Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost [and thereby found] in wonder, love and praise” *

* from Charles Wesley’s hymn: Love divine, all loves excelling

Light

The “good news” that inspirited the Evangelist St John was of a Light shining in darkness that would never be overcome. For many years, on his feast day, 27th December, we have celebrated light with friends of over forty years standing – the light of faith, generally, and the light of love and long friendship, particularly.

Around warm and candlelit hearth and home, feeling like royalty in the presence of extraordinarily generous hospitality, we’ve shared so many of our highs and lows across the years that now – “friends on earth and friends above” – they seem, to us all, to have blended into one.

May the co-creating, faithing, living “poetry” of all the world’s good news bearers, from each and every gifted and poetic tradition, and in each and every home, draw us inexorably towards that great light, that ultimate one-ness or communion that St John the Evangelist knew – and was certain could never be overcome.