Saturday, 12 October 2013

'Patience is a virtue ...'

I have been doing a bit of teaching this term, after a 'career gap' of a few years. I trained as a primary school teacher back in 1992, and always said I didn't want to teach anyone who was bigger than me - which is 5 ' 1 1/2'' . I like creative subjects, art and music, nature study and writing poetry. I like calm and mutual respect, I like humour and a story before hometime. On an ideal day, when all is going well, it can be a very rewarding, if intensive thing to do, in my mind a little like the satisfaction of a sailing dinghy set well to skim across a sunny lake.

I've always found there are a lot of things on a day to day basis and on a wider scale, which impact on that idyll. I don't want to go into all those many things right now, not the government directives or the conflicts and other issues children bring in from their 'outside' lives, not the complicated dynamics among the work team, not the pressure to raise standards, meet targets, cope with nose bleeds, provide drinking water, address the needs of 30 emerging individuals who are each the most precious of people in their parents' eyes, forever sensitive to their uniqueness but guiding them towards the collective ... some of these things are natural and understandable, they make the journey more interesting and add momentum and meaning to the day. Other things occur less helpfully, initiated by children, adults, events, even the weather, like the wake of a speed boat zooming past and churning up the waters, setting the sails and ropes flapping and the crew working flat out to steady the boat. Experience often helps us see trouble coming and change tack - but even so, not everything can be anticipated.
It occured to me the other day, heading home after a bit of a choppy lake experience, that it is telling me a recurring 'something' about myself. It's easy to just blame the metaphorical speed boat, but if it's gone, why am I'm still irritated? This feeling of inner turbulence is not new.

There's a saying attributed to St Francis, writing to his friars:

How much interior patience and humility a servant of God may have cannot be known so long as he is contented.  But when the time comes that those who ought to please him go against him, as much patience and humility as he then shows, so much has he and no more.
Admonitions: On Patience

I find myself challenged because my day, my response, shows me exactly how far I have advanced along the spiritual practise I have set myself, of patience-learning: not very far! I see how I go out as teacher yet find the whole environment, the pressures, the people, including the children, to be my teachers in a different way, and I, a rather slow learner.

I used to reflect on the same quote from St Francis, when Nelly the dog was alive. I'd never looked after a dog before, I'm more a cat person really, and working at home, I found her attention-seeking intrusion into my quietness, barking at the door, asking to go out, fussing for me to come down from my study to be with her ... sometimes tried my patience too. I used to say she was my patience-teacher, and I knew I often failed. The thing about Nelly was that she was very forgiving. She's not around any more and I have to remember to forgive myself becuse that's what she would have done - but oh for the gift to be able to re-set my sails and delight in the big waves, and go home energised!

Monday, 7 October 2013

99 Beautiful Names

This Saturday Ray and I went to Lichfield, leading a morning on engaging with other faiths, for a Christian gathering. My contribution was a workshop on the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Islamic tradition, what they have meant to me in my own spiritual journey, and inviting participants to enter into spiritual engagement with some of the names themselves.
door of the great hall, Stokesay castle
We began the hour with an intentional prayer to God the Opener, Ya Fatah, to open our hearts and minds. Al Fatah is the 19th name, one that, to me, evokes the idea of a door being unlocked, a blocked path cleared, so that we can move on, or invite a guest in.

the spring at Chalice Well, Glastonbury

The next name we reflected on was the 48th, al Wadood, the  Loving.  I described how remembrance of the name through repetition by chanting, seems to me like water trickling onto a stone, gradually eroding it.

We invoked God, 'O Loving one', Ya Wadood, softly repeating the name over and over, imagining the presence of God softening our hearts.

Ar Rahmaan, Ar Raheem, the compassionate, the merciful,  led us into a fuller chant, standing in a circle of about 30 people, passing a prayer rope of 99 knots between our hands to count the repetitions as our voices grew stronger. To me, it means a great deal that these two names share a root (as in Hebrew) with the word for womb. The mercy and compassion invoked by Ya Rahman Ya Raheem seems to me to be the powerful, self-giving, unconditional, deep compassion of a mother, who can see all people, all creatures, as somebody's daughter, somebody's son, each, a beloved being of intrinsic worth.

We closed the session with the 6th name, As Salaam, a name invoking deep peace, perfect peace, a name which shares a root with its sister in the Hebrew language, Shalom. Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam, O Perfect Peace, O Perfect Peace, O Perfect Peace.

I didn't have time during the workshop to talk about one of the underlying reasons for my interest in the names, and engaging with Islam more generally. Ray describes in his book, A Heart Broken Open - Radical faith in an age of fear, how St Francis went to Egypt to meet with a Sultan at the time of the crusades, crossing a battle field to get to him.

detail from an icon by Br Robert Lentz OFM

The encounter was rich and it seems both the Sultan and Francis earned one anothers' respect, and in the process a deeper respect for their respective faiths. Although Francis had gone with the intention of bringing Christ to the Sultan (or vice versa), he came away inspired by ways to deepen his own Christian faith practise. On his return he wrote advice for friars on going humbly among 'the Saracens', or Muslims, and said that as the name of God was called out, all should fall down on their knees in prayer. One particular prayer that he wrote seems very much to be inspired by the 99 beautiful names of God which he must surely have heard and perhaps reflected on, as the Sultan's guest.

You are holy, Lord, the only God,
and Your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong.
You are great.
You are the Most High.
You are Almighty.
You, Holy Father are King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God, all Good.
You are Good, all Good, supreme Good,
Lord God, living and true.
You are love. You are wisdom.
You are humility. You are endurance.
You are rest. You are peace.
You are joy and gladness.
You are justice and moderation.
You are all our riches, and You suffice for us.
You are beauty.
You are gentleness.
You are our protector.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are our courage. You are our haven and our hope.
You are our faith, our great consolation.
You are our eternal life, Great and Wonderful Lord,
God Almighty, Merciful Saviour.

St Francis of Assisi

This peaceable connection so long ago, at a time of such terrible conflict, has so much to say to us today in our mutual trust-building. The Franciscan Tertiary website has an article by Hugh Beach on the story, 'on those going among the Saracens' as a starting place for further exploration.

To me, this story is not only one of the reasons why I feel it appropriate to meditate on the 99 names as part of my own spiritual practise, but at the same time, why I also feel it appropriate to follow St Francis's very humble lead, who in his simple woolen tunic and his ecstatic love, must have seemed to the Sultan, not unlike  the Sufi mystics of his own tradition.