Monday, 23 December 2013

Winter Solstice

Solstice 2010, labyrinth by Annie, Ray and Luke
I always try to mark the Winter Solstice somehow. The other year ( and I mention 2010 rather than other years because I've got photos!), unable to get the the event I'd planned, we decided to look for the creative potential in the snow that had stopped us travelling, rather than the obstacle it had presented, and went to the local playing field to map out a labyrinth.
me at the centre of the solstice labyrinth

I am drawn to labyrinths, the journey inwards, the pause at the still centre, the journey outwards, inner world, outer world ...

There was a stillness, a sense of slowing down or standstill that year; nobody was going anywhere much because of the weather - or at least not without great difficulty - an 'Isa' or Ice-time perhaps, for the Rune-lovers among us.

This year was different. I was very aware in the days preceding the 21st December, of the dominance of the night, as I spent each day around twilight and first darkness on the motorway, driving to and then heading home from visiting my Mum who is in hospital.  The first night it was just dark and blustery, but I was relieved she'd been admitted, and the moon was full.
full moon near Stokesay 2013
Clouds unvelied the moon at intervals, reminding me of her quiet companionship, and all seemed hopeful. The next night, Mum's condition was troubling me greatly. A storm whipped up, rain slashed at my tiny car and huge lorries thundered past like monsters, splattering my windscreen. I felt alone, vulnerable, sad, afraid; tears welled up and made visibility even worse. The words of a verse from a psalm became my mantra, chanted over and over:
 'Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge.
I will hide under the shadow of your wings until the destroying storms pass by.'
Psalm 57:1

It's a verse I  have been wearing in a capsule round my neck ever since our visit to Glastonbury during the October storm. I love the image of hiding under Divine wings. It's a post waiting to be written another time, and the inspiration for  my'healing book' title, 'Hiding in God', and part of its contents.

It seems I'm in the middle of a storm at present. I felt reassured by the one in October because we personally were hardly troubled by it, despite the fact that we were camping in a field. Somehow it passed us by with little more than a teasing rock of the campervan. The next morning, the sky was the brilliant blue of perfect clarity.

Chalice well blackbird
Yesterday, the day of the solstice, I pulled into the hospital car park as robins and blackbirds put their hearts into the closing songs of the day, from the nature reserve right next to the car park. I watched through windows as the light gradually diminished, pleasantly pinkish. A large part of me yearned to be outdoors in the cold fresh air, surrounded by the comfort of trees. But no, indoors was where I needed to be: outer world, inner world, outdoors, indoors, there are labarynthine times for both. The corridors and stairwells of the hospital are the pathways inwards to the safe refuge where Mum is being nursed. We wait to hear when she will emerge.

Driving home in full darkness, watching the solstice minutes, 5.17, 5.18, 5.19pm pass by on the car clock, I was accutely aware of journey. Cyclical journey, life journey. I could see the ring on my finger - a yin yang symbol, which I put on specially that morning. Change comes like the moon in the deep darkness of night. It's not been an easy solstice, nor the most well-planned for, but it's been a significant one.

 a raindrop, Meanwood park

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Spiritual Ancestors and Advent

I've been thinking lately about ancestors. It's something that came to mind partly through OBOD reading and reflecting that I've been doing as part of my exploration into earth spiritualities. Both the liturgical year and many following an earth spirituality path spend the days at the end of October and the start of November thinking about those who have gone before us, our own departed loved ones, and people special to our own traditions. It is a time where many take time to pause and remember, and many feel a 'thinniess', a closeness to a spiritual dimension beyond our own, free of the limitations of time and place. The church honours this time with All Hallows eve (Halloween), All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. For others, Samhain (on Halloween) provides the focus. For the church, this comes before a period of further reflection on ancestors in the lead up to Christmas, which we are in at the moment - Advent.

sorry don't know who artist is
Thinking about ancestors led me to my own family tree, which Dad researched comprehensively on the Heppenstall side: a line of brick-makers, iron foundary workers, railway plate-layers and other labourers of the industrial revolution, living often in poverty, faced with tragically high infant mortality, supported it seem, by a faithfulness to Wesleyan Methodism. It led me right back to the beginnings of humanity itself, a fascination with ancient civilisations, and peoples living before any cities were ever built or farms farmed ...
It led me to our even older shared genetic material with other creatures ... fish even ...  And it led me back to the stories I love of Celtic saints. Hopefully some of the Celtic saints ideas will process themselves into the chapter of a book. But, as Advent reminds us, there's also the ancestors we've adopted (unless we are of Jewish heritage and upbringing), if we follow the Jesus path - the ancestors of the Abrahamic faith described in th Bible.

I found myself going back to something I wrote a while back:

One of the things I love about the Bible is how full it is of human beings like us, who struggle to understand life in relationship with one another and with God. A gread deal of the time, like us, they get in a mess. These people are our spiritual ancestors. Like us, many of them find themselves feeling threatened, hurt or ashamed, and their response is often to run away and hide - from human beings and from God. But there is a repeating theme in the Bible: when people go into hiding, God seeks them out, not to destroy them because of what they have done, but to bring them back into the fullness of life...
God knows their hearts and reaches them through dream, through strange natural phenomena, through angels and other people, through Jesus himself. I think there is a vital message of grace for us to draw hope from: God does not give up on us, whatever misfortune has happened to us, even when we are inclined to give up on God.
(an extract from 'Rejoice with me!: hope for lost sheep' by me, p.28)

Whatever challenges I am facing, there have been people before me, whether in my family or in the big picture of my faith or the bigger picture of humanity, who have faced something comparable - or something worse - but whose struggle with it has entered into the whole struggle of what it is to be a human being at all, trying to survive, to allow another generation to survive, to live as much as possible, given the constraints, with integrity. There's a sense of companionship in this which has surprised me, a sense of continuity and connection with the past, and the people of the past who shaped the world and our own identities today. 

There's a line in the Apostles' Creed, which has come alive for me lately - 'the communion of the saints'. Most people whose stories have been handed down to us, are not 'saints' in the normal understanding of the word, any more than we are,  but their whole endeavour to just keep going day by day, is enough. There's been a great deal of suffering, we've caused a great deal of suffering, some of those in the past in their inability to see the future have caused us a great deal of suffering today, but looking back and looking around too, something about the dignity of just being human still shines through - sometimes it seems against all odds. I live in hope that it's the dignity that will win through to give us a future.

rainbow near Whitby Abbey

Monday, 9 December 2013

Mother Earth Father Sky

chapel within a small and old church in Exmoor

I confess I haven't been to church all that much in the last six months since Dad died. I have been finding the 'Father God' language of liturgy and many well-meaning believers' vocabulary a real obstacle: muddling up paternal mortality with the eternal divine just wasn't working for me at all. I've never been all that comfortable with it anyway. Whenever I heard 'our Father,' I couldn't get past the fact: 'my father is dead.' It all felt quite Nietzche-esque, and existentially unhelpful.
In that time, a time where of course my Mum's needs came into sharp relief, and my relationship with her changed and perhaps deepened, the divine feminine became more real and more important to me; often it seemed as though a loving presence was saying, 'Don't give up on me, I can be Mother as well, I can be whatever allows you to relate to me in love...' I've described some of my journeying deeper into the Feminine Divine in other blogs, such as Rock Mother and St Non's Holy Well. Although often hard work, this has been an enriching time that has allowed me to listen to and engage warmly with, and felt ministered to, by the spiritual journeys and wisdom of others, especially of an earth-spirituality inclination - Pagan.  I was, or so it seemed to me, finding 'Christ in friend and stranger' at a time when I was struggling to find the consolation I needed to hear from some of the sources I might have expected to find it. Here is a verse from the well-known prayer of St Patrick, the Lorica:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

But today Ray was preaching and presiding in an Anglican church not far from home, so I went with him very readily, sure of a good sermon and a sensitively offered liturgy. As usual we arrived early so he could get ready, and I picked a pew with a view, beneath a radiator.
Even though it's not a church I often visit, I had a strong feeling of having returned home after a long journey. The question quickly came into my mind, 'How might this place look, not through eyes brought up in the Christian tradition, but through eyes more used to an earth spirituality outlook?' I looked around.
Such a one might, for example, hope to find animal guides or totems. Why yes, a dove, at the highest point of the stained glass window above the altar; a glorious eagle in flight for a lecturn. I couldn't see a lamb, but there could have been one, or a lion - or both - or  if it had been a much older church, a whole host of different creatures carved in woodwork and stone, all with their special significance, from pelicans to panthers, hares to green men  (which I've also blogged about). Maybe the 'totem' in this place might be seen as a dove.

two angels from the church at Stokesay, Midlands - spot the dove
What about Spiritual guardians or Powers ? Well, there were Pre-Raphelite (I thought) paintings of beautiful humanoid beings with wonderful wings and auras of gold, communicating with people or watching over them, mediators of something beyond us ... 
What about the ancestors? Again, carvings and pictures of holy people from the stories of the Bible and the Christian tradition abound, and of course many respectful and loving memorials to the dead of the community over the years, their names all around us inviting remembrance ...
What about life itself and death? What else but the representation of a young man giving himself up to a terrible ordeal for the sake of  others ... death, as brutal as it can be, but holding a hope of something more, an empty tomb, a gleaming, empty cross, brass glowing in the candlelight.

And what about the Mother (not that I'm suggesting that the feminine is only 'divine' through materninty)? Well, to the right was a chapel with a permanent focus on the mother and child, and to the left, a banner on the other side of the church bearing the same icon and the heartening inscription of solidarity, 'Mothers' Union'. But what else about the Mother?  I cast around for more.
in a church at Bishop's Castle

As I looked about me, the red brick of the walls said 'earth baked in fire!' The pillars said 'tree trunk!' The wooden roof beams said 'tree branches!' Carvings of foliage, a vine on one of the altars, flowers surreptitiously away from display but still present (because it's Advent), a beautiful water feature at the door, the glow of many candles ... the all said 'Beautiful, elemental life in abundance!'

This interior is earth, and here we sit, being earthy, within this earthy chamber we have made to shelter us, surrounding ourselves with images of creation. Here is the Mother.
 In Hebrew, 'earth' is a feminine noun, eretz; in Greek, 'creation' is a feminine noun, ktisis, it's us, all that we are and know is of Her. So we come here, we of the Mother's body, to remind ourselves that way beyond us, earth had its awesome beginnings in the reeling infinity of the universe. We come to look beyond ourselves as well as within, to wonder, to be grateful for the sunrise, the astonishing - and continuous - way that heaven touches and warms and enlightens earth and our hearts and makes life possible. Rising Son for rising sun - for what direction is the church pointing to, with its altar and lovely coloured glass window? East, to greet the rising sun. What, indeed, are we waiting for in the time of Advent, that is not represented by the return of the sun's strength at the winter solstice, days before Christmas day? the term 'Sky Father' comes to mind. 

Sky and earth ... Shrophshire last summer
There's a quote attributed to God, in Jeremiah 23:24 - 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?'
This is no dull earth simply to be exploited and from which we should try to escape in order to attain the heavenly; it's a vibrant, amazing creation already infused with the Spirit and the Wisdom of the Divine - Great Spirit. A visually, symbolically rich church building such as the one I was sitting in proclaims this in its orientation, its architecture and ornament. God is not simply and unattainably 'up there', but here, around us - and mysteriously - within us, within the very fabric of our being ... and I haven't even bugun to touch on the mystery of the Eucharist ...  We don't have to divide up body and spirit, earthly and heavenly. God fills all, even us, even bread and wine. We don't need tiresome arguments about God's gender - God fills all, transcendent and immanent.

Somehow I feel more at peace than I have for a long time, I'm not fighting the language so much today. I can hear the words about the Father, because I can also sense the Mother all around; there is One. Yes, I'd like more acknowledgement of the Feminine Divine in Church; no, I'm not advocating nature worship, rather, nature respect, but in this place I feel that 'She' hasn't been banished. I don't feel quite so defensive on 'Her' part as I did yesterday or the day before, and interestingly, that's because I allowed myself to go exploring the places where 'She' is celebrated more directly, and came back to find Her valued in different - if unspoken - ways.
Blessed Be.

vine at Edgbaston Botanical garden