Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Hiding in God - companionship during health concerns

'Hiding in God' is a collection of reflections and prayers on physical and mental health concerns, published by Kevin Mayhew, drawing on my personal experiences. It ranges from the effects of medication to general anaesthetic, from the interminable waiting for results, to the experience of anger, fear and weariness ... and it's dedicated to all who work for the NHS, in gratitude for my own experiences of care. I wrote it while recovering from a hysterectomy a few years ago and it's written in a spirit of friendly companionship, towards anyone going through or coming to terms with a hard time health-wise. I have been very grateful and touched to receive warm feedback from a number of people for whom it has been given as a gift, during a challenging time.

photographer unknown but appreciated
'Hiding in God' is an allusion to two different images in the Bible. The first, is the image of a bird sheltering nestlings under her wings, and it occurs often, especially in the psalms but also by Jesus when he says he would like to shelter the inhabitants of Jerusalem like a mother hen sheltering her brood of chicks. There's a guided visualisation towards the end of the book on this theme, for those who like thant kind of thing.

 The other image is of a cave, as God is often referred to as our refuge, and in some instances as a rock - even the rock who gives us birth (Deuteronomy 32:18). For this too, there is a guided visualisation, leading the reader to a safe cave of refuge for some rest and time-out.  Both the bird and the cave can be seen as feminine expressions of the Divine.

 I wanted to be able to reach out to people from diverse backgrounds and experiences, including the many women whose emotional (and sometimes physical) health issues are related to difficulties with male authority figures, and partly for this reason I have avoided the use of 'He / Him' for God, throughout.
Chalice Well springs, Glastonbury

Other themes for visualisations include spirings of living water, trees of healing, a lantern in the dark and the presence of angels.
The thought behind each, is to offer images and impressions which invite a degree of relaxation, even peace, or the memory or hope of something, somewhere or someone comforting.

The first part of the book offers short reflections with  reference to Scripture and prayers. The first prayer in each section expresses the 'trouble', the discomfort, the anxiety, the concern. The second prayer is a 'healing prayer,' of reconciliation, hope, peace and gentleness. For example, the first prayer under 'Facing a Fear' begins, 'I have always dreaded the thought of this, O God, and now it seems inescapable ...' Following a reflection on the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the second prayer begins, 'My Shepherd, how well you know me. If I am to face my fears then give me courage. If I am to walk a path through that valley of shadows then let me sense your presence with me ...'

What the book is not, is a 'pray for a miracle and keep hoping!' book, or a book that suggests health issues are due to a lack of faith. I don't doubt miracles do happen, and I don't doubt that many feel their deepest prayers have been answered, which is a wonderful thing. But then, the rest of us who just have to cope with sickness, anxiety, weariness and the rest, patiently and quietly as we and our loved ones try to keep going day be day, need to know we too are cherished by God, and held safe, come what may. It's a book of God's presence no matter what, a book of God's love for us even in our fragility and brokenness. It's a book of companionship for lonely, confusing, frightening times, written with much love, having been there myself.

one bird comforting another, while waiting to be re-housed -  they are now in a better environment.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Healer's Tree: for personal and group reflection on ecology, peace and justice

I was delighted that the Church Times recently wrote a lovely comment on my Greenbelt workshop, in which they mentioned 'The Healer's Tree: a Bible-based resource on ecology, peace and justice'. (You have to scroll way down to the Worship section!)
It's a book which takes a journey through 28 reflections, beginning with the ideal of the garden of Eden. Here is an extract from the introduction:

'We start our journey in a garden, shaped and nurtured by an unseen gardener whose presence is all around. It is an archetypal garden transcending time and space, for which we still have an ancestral picture-map etched on our hearts tracing a path back, like the migration paths of wild geese... 
The Bible's account of Eden gives us something very precious: a spiritual earth in which to take root; a home. From this place we can grow and realise peaceful interconnectedness with all life, all humanity. It is a centring point against which we can check our experience of reality... 

There is and always has been a miracle-place where we can walk with God, who calls us forever through the lattice in the wall we have erected, 'for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come ... arise my love, my fair one and come away (from Song of Songs 2:10-13)' 
The whispered invitation rings like a bell through eternity; the Lover of All waits with longing for us to come back and walk again in the cool of the evening, where we were always meant to be.

Is that You,
whispering one,
urging me secretly to walk
in the garden's singing time with You?
Always so soft your voice,
how long have you been at my window,
and I did not know? 
Forgive me,
for it has seemed an eternity
since, loving as one,
we walked together
in the light of a new creation.

The subsequent chapters, which I illustrated with pen and ink drawings, include reflections on trees, stones and other aspects of nature which feature in the Bible and Celtic Christian tradition, from the Tree of Knowledge to the Scottish forests of Bedenoch, from the cedars of Lebanon to the Irish Hazels of Wisdom. There are stories of some of the Celtic saints - Kevin, Malangell, Aidan and Columbanus, and their interactions with the creatures and wild places of their environments. There are reflections on desert and mountain, forest and the wastelands of human destruction, the process of coming to terms with our own violence as well as our capacity to be peace-makers ... all part of the long journey home.

 The Healer's Tree is, as the subtitle says, a resource for personal and group reflection, on themes of ecology, peace and justice - created with Lent and Advent groups, house groups and bible study sessions in mind, but also for quiet use at home or to take away on retreat.There are a number of lovely reviews on the internet, here's one by Nick Horton on the Good Book Stall

GoodBookStall Review:
As with many Wild Goose publications, the introductory material is an integral part of the book and only on reading that will the rest of the book reach its full impact.
Annie Heppenstall has written these 28 reflections in a ‘journey sequence’. Perhaps daily over a month – or during a season – Advent, Lent, the Creation Season I would suggest that they also provide a really constructive framework for (especially non-eucharistic) worship.
Her title comes from the Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, in which the tree grows to become the Cross – the ‘gateway for people to come to Christ’s healing love’. From the Garden of Eden, through the Yggdrasil – the tree of life – to legends associated with a number of Celtic saints and finally to the riverbank – coming home – each section begins from a verse or two of Scripture, opening out into a meditation/reflection, some suggestions for further reflection then lead us into a closing thought – again scriptural – and a final sentence.
Personal favourites are ‘All that breathes, praise the Lord’ focussing on Caedmon of Whitby, called by some the first poet of the English language, and ‘St Kevin and God’s mercy’, bringing back very happy memories of a visit to Glendalough in the mid-1990s. But one of the most moving relates to Elijah in the desert and his experiences of awesome natural forces – earthquake, wind and fire – before the breathtaking silence of God’s presence.
Annie Heppenstall’s glorious pen and ink drawings not only beautify the book but also complement and enhance the text. This is a book that you will come back to repeatedly and each time find a new pearl upon which to ponder.
I cannot recommend it too highly.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Apples, the Bible and Beyond

As a child, one of my nickneames was 'Annie Apple', so it was a bit spooky when someone brought out a reading scheme for children, the first character in the line up being called 'Annie Apple'. Among her friends were the Wicked Water Witch, who for ideological reasons later morphed (or shape shifted) into Walter Walrus, Lucy Lamp Lady (hmmm) who became Lucy Lamp Light and Robber Red, who became a robot. (I know these things because I am qualified as a primary school teacher.)
I used to eat a lot of apples, I eat fewer now, which fills me with remorse. But I do like them,  they make me think of orchards, blossom, bees and places like Glastonbury. One of the things I like about them, is slicing them across instead of down, to get a pentegram of pips. This happens because, or at least so I believe, but please correct me, the apple is a member of the rose family. According to my 'Trees and bushes of Europe,' the rose family is distinguished by flowers with five sepals and petals, and sometimes five ovary chambers, and as well as the rose and the apple, includes such trees as the quince, pear, plumb, cherry, rowan (this is the book not me), hawthorn and blackthorn. So there you go.

One of the delights of blogging, I am discovering, is that you can have a conversation with someone or read something you disagree with, then instead of telling them, or wasting energy thinking 'I wish I'd said X ...', you can have a nice impersonal blog about it later.Forgive me, but that's exactly what I'm doing now.

Caucasian Adam and Eve- not one of mine :-)
Recently, I had an exchange about apples with a respected someone following an earth spirituality path, which included 'yes but in the Bible the apple is to do with sin and fallenness and guilt, but in our spirituality it's to do with the summerland and wholeness.' That hurt a bit. For a start, I have to say I prefer the thought of summerland and wholeness / healing to the thought of guilt and brokenness, and I get a bit sensitive about the need for 'them and us' polarisations sometimes too. But the thing that riled me, is that the apples are innocent. In the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge is not an apple tree. It's a special tree, as yet to be given a Latin botanical name.

But if we are really  looking for apple trees in the Bible, where better than the Song of Songs?

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
   so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

Song of Songs 2:3 (NRSV)


from Stasys Krasauska's amazing 'windmills of your mind'
Who is that coming up from the wilderness,
   leaning upon her beloved? 

Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in labour with you;
   there she who bore you was in labour. 

Song of Songs 8:5(NRSV)

 These are biblical passages I have learned off by heart, and I'm sure I'm not alone - it doesn't have to be a frumpy faith. (A surprise to some Christians as well as some neo-Pagans.) Eroticism provides the language for mystical depth as well as the delightful sensuality of human beings enjoying themselves, right at the heart of the Bible.
So. Apples. They are not the forbidden fruit of temptation, they are a symbol of delight, fruitfulness and love, the joy the Divine Lover finds in us and we in our Beloved.
The Song of Songs is part of the Hebrew scriptures, which do tend to convey the wonder and beauty of the natural world with great eloquence, but from the Christian tradition, there's a lovely song which often comes around at Christmas time for some reason- 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree'.

one of my proto-book illustrations

Monday, 2 September 2013

on the trail of the Green Man

around midday Sept 1st, Tewkesbury Abbey
We spent some lovely hours in and around Tewkesbury Abbey this weekend, including the 11am sung Eucharist with a fine sermon and sublimely executed liturgy. I'm not always a big fan of large eclessiastical buildings, but the light seemed to play with the architecture & paintwork and for a while I could imagine the pillars as forest tree trunks, branches meeting in the sky-roof, each intersection marked with a carved nodule.

These nodules or roof bosses are worth having a good look at. In Tewkesbury Abbey, apparently, over 50 of them are carved with Green Men - or more correctly, as the leaflet points out, 'foliate figures', as there are also green ladies and lions (I found lions but I'm not sure if any of the ones I spotted were female, they are quite high up!)

One of my illustrations from 'The Healer's Tree'
One of the things I really love about Green Men in churches (and I wrote a reflection on it in The Healer's Tree) is that nobody really knows what they are doing there, although plenty of people offer all sorts of suggestions.

Foliate faces are ancient and can actually be traced back across the old trade routes (like the Three Hares motif, see one of my other posts), as far away as the temples of India. Although they look very 'English countrysideish', they, like trees, know no borders.

A theory is that travelling craftworkers dragooned into crusading, noticed the designs and brought them back with them, since it's around this time that they start appearing in English - and other European - churches. That might tell us how they got here, but not why they found their way into churches of all places.

I've heard some argue that the wild (and lustful) natural human is being brought to submission by a higher authority (yawn), that the wild nature spirits are being brought to submission by a higher authority (yawn again), that the wild, natural realms of the earth are subject to a higher authority (yawn) ... so much wearisome stuff about power and dominion, that old obsession with control. Then, I've also heard gleeful Pagan suggestions that the stonemasons were hoodwinking the church patrons by sneaking in the treasured motifs of their own 'Old Ways'- a kind of spiritual subversion. Well, maybe, although the subversion must have been pretty blatant in this particular Abbey, almost a Pagan coup.
Green Man above  high altar - not the best photo, sorry!

 But then there are also suggestions which allow for a different world-view, about the church building representing the whole of creation, the high roof expressing the expanse of the heavens, and the inclusion within that space of all that is ... words of inclusion, welcome, belonging... and the bond between humanity and the natural world. Wandering round Tewkesbury Abbey, the idea that the architects and craftworkers who built the place thought so inclusively, seemed quite plausible; the roof bosses bring myriad expressions of life together with illustrations from the Bible and glorious angels, joyously and with humour and reverence. Although I couldn't get to it as the chancel gate was locked, the boss directly above the high altar is (or so it seems to me, correct me if I'm wrong) a golden Green Man. Would he really have been allowed so 'high up' unless he were welcome?

 Those (and there are some) who want to suggest that the Green Man represents a sinful, lustful, bestial or amoral aspect of fallen humanity, need to look quite closely. Among the bosses, quite a few show vine leaves and bunches of grapes flowing from the mouth.

In such a case, is the artist not using this motif, known and loved across so many lands, to illustrate the words of Jesus from John's Gospel,
'I am the true vine ...' ? (John 15:1)
Was the artist not offering the Christ to an illiterate laity? And if one boss can be seen as a Gospel proclamation, can we not hope to find Christ in the others too, should we wish to interpret them in such a way? 'No!' you might argue, 'It's Bacchus or Dionysus, it's a picture of Pagan revelry ...' Well, see it that way if it means more to you, but we do have a choice. I don't think there's one 'right' answer to how we should read these characters; there's great freedom for us to make our own minds up.

The Green Man is not the only enigma in the church. It's not the only instance of choice or freedom of interpretation either. As with so many things, the way we choose to interpret such archetypal symbols as these, in the end, I think, says more about what's going on in our own hearts and minds, than any absolute 'reality.' 
There seems to be so much agonising, so much questioning about belief among many of us spiritual seekers, as though there is a deep need to get it right and work it all out, cerebrally - but - being Biblical for a moment - God sees the  heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Never mind the theories, what's your gut reaction to a face spewing out leaves? How does it move you? Unease or delight? Reassurance or challenge? Conflict or peace? Acceptance or rejection? Fear, or love? What place is there in your faith, your heart, your church for this ancient and mysterious foliate figure?