Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Silent Contemplation at the Art Gallery

I love the sense of an art gallery as a place of serene contemplation and recall Plotinus refusing to have his portrait created saying 'why create the image of an image?'

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Art of Silence before the Mystery - a reflection for Epiphany

They fell down and worshiped - 

A reflection I wrote for church but which I decided not to present.....

The art of silence before the mystery -

I want to suggest a creative art which you may discover brings life into focus.  Some of you here may have uncovered this treasure and some of you may be connoisseurs having tasted the flavours of this art. It can be sophisticated or simple and it requires no equipment.

It's an art form that I teach. This year I was asked to teach at a city centre for people experiencing homelessness and marginalisation and I have a group of older people who are experiencing forms of homelessness. Many of them feel pain, stress, anxiety and grief and while the art form that I teach is not a magic wand it does enable some of them to find the way and to find a better nights sleep or to go to the supermarket without having an anxiety attack.

What is this art form? It comes by many names but I will simply call it the art of silence. I will call it the art of being present and paying attention. It is an art because the world in which we live is training us to be distracted and amused to death. I call it the art of silence before mystery.

'They fell down and worshiped'. You know the story perhaps too well to notice just how subversive it seeks to be. It's a story that invites us to take part. There is no mention of three Magi, no mention of camels no mention of a manger. The house in Bethlehem could be any house including yours or mine.

I see these seekers who have looked up and seen the star and asked 'where and why' as wise as Socrates. He wandered ancient Athens asking supposedly knowledgeable people as well as artisans and army generals where and why and came to the conclusion that wisdom consisting as knowing how little he knew and that while a person could define the questions eventually when it came to discussions of love, death or courage words would give out. Then the art of silence in the mystery begins.

I teach my students simply to practice being present to breathing, to their body, to their thoughts and to observe these as if they were watching over a tiny new born baby. Distractions will arise along the path but it's all about following the star of silence until the seeker arrives at a sense of being at home with silence and learns to fine tune making choices that serve them.

Notice in the story the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold needs no explanation, incense offered to the gods or Roman Emperor, and myrrh to embalm the body of a ruler. I suggest to you that these are to one extent or another the burdens we carry. The gold of possessions that we can use to define us, the frankincense of status and what others think of us, the desire to be 'on trend' and the myrrh which is the fear and avoidance of our death and the knowledge that within a few years we will be all but forgotten. The art of silence helps us to release our often tight grip on these things, to become more detached and to discover the real treasure. All the best things in life after all are not things but qualities. This is the real subversion that the art of silence in the mystery brings.

I see the wise seekers simply being and sitting in the presence of the child watching and waiting, paying attention conscious that they are in the presence of great mystery. Earlier today I sat with a member of this community in intensive care keeping them company, holding their hand. What can be more precious than this silent a compliment. These fragile moments come and go. Only a breath holds us this side of life.

Silence in the presence of the Mystery of it all can be a single conscious breath, a sip of coffee, an hour on the meditation cushion, worship in church anything that takes us deeper into the amazement and appreciation that opens our heart wider.

The art of silence being in the presence of the mystery is at the heart of all authentic philosophies and religions. Sadly often we have given the impression to the wider world that you have to rush around busy the whole time and feel endlessly guilty. To me the essence of faith is silent contemplation and then doing a few things to try and make the world slightly more bearable.

To my conclusion. You don't have to believe in God to practice the art of silence, you don't have to know lots of things and you don't need other people. Teachers only point the way and sometimes those you think are wise are not wise at all.

The star is your question 'where' and 'why'. Try it, simply be present to the mystery. The mystery of your aliveness, the mystery of love, the mystery of the universe, the mystery of suffering, the weird  strangeness of your conscious existence. Why not make the most of this beautiful art of silence in the presence.

Our lives are like the blink of an eye compared to a star. Why waste these precious moments. The art of silence, being still before the mystery and strangeness calls to each of us. Find the space, lose your busyness, notice the ways you distract yourself?

The mystery of our dream as we gaze on the Christ child the symbol of beauty, truth and goodness - the Eternal Wisdom of the universe.

 May we return home by another path and begin to live differently moment by unfolding moment. The star now is within leading us further up and further in beyond the words, beyond our Herod like desire to control, releasing us to live moment by moment in the silent presence of mystery.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

In the midst

For many years I would stand at a lecturn and address the congregation with these words:

'In the midst of life we are in death' 'media vita in morte summus' written about 750  AD in France and sung as an antiphon and then taken into Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. It resonates for every age as an invitation to faith and trust.

For me it's become 'in the midst of death we are in life'. You and I have a fleeting span of existence a momentary flash of consciousness and so this inversion focuses life in the here and now rather than colonizing life life as a brief interlude for the here after. Life now is enough and so for myself I have no desire for an afterlife. I cherish the experience that 'this is it' How wonderful and incredible this 'it'.

In the midst of Thanatos we are in 'Eros' and invited to live and love with open hands

Monday, December 22, 2014

Beyond Interlaken Switzerland

Beyond Interlaken

Swirling clouds  are prayers to the sublime. Water white from recent familiarity with glacial slopes plays with river rocks. Cows with discordant bells move at the speed of grass under mountains clothed with a chasuble of autumn ochres woven so finely. For a moment the tulle of clouds parts to reveal far peaks of brilliant white. The ultramarine lake is gently patterned stroked by the breeze. The church clock intones an invitation and we walk back to the train past wooden houses with finely carved Bible verse and brilliant displays of red geraniums.

There are dragon tracks here,  between silver rails, the teeth of the rack railway and the scent of oil mixes with the piquant aroma of cow. Tiny trains climb improbable gradients. I look through the oil smeared rainbow of a window, into the cab of an old box square locomotive of riveted iron and wood to a shelf of  brass and wood, dials and handles. A sleeping dragon with her pantograph wings folded, away from the fire,  resting under the shingled roof of worn sheds roofline shaped by the winter snow roosting there each year. Heaped stone ballast and the sharp blade of the snow plough reminders that these rich green fields and town prepare for the blizzard of snow where the mountain reaches down to invite these pastures to dance the dance of silent snow.

On the street great balls of sculptured stone, overhead water falling vertically from a high crag crossed by the horizontal movement of the yellow Post Bus. Angles of buildings an essence of Swiss.

To me a visitor this scene is impossible. Its as if various old photographs and tea towels brought home from holidays by my grandparents had been stitched together and the tiny clock with its  dangling weights and little roof had suddenly magically expanded into a house before my eyes, the church bell and mechanical clock alongside the sun driven clock adding verisimilitude. Then that moment passes and I am here now, not that wide eyed boy in shorts who thought that a clock that went to 17 might be possible since 17 was his special number. Twelve is so conventional  and confining after all. That boy like this man scents a wild time that runs away joyously.

The train, at this distance a toy in a shop window, traversing the slope each carriage containing a satchel of stories moving between light and shadow inviting me to ride. As I turn,  do I catch a glimpse of the mad philosopher's improbable mustache warning me that without the rack rail of a wider vision I may attempt too much. My inner wild dragon must rest as well as play. At this moment I feel for his solitary striving and yearning and once again am grateful for this family with whom I travel in experiences of travel.

Running the Cumbrian fells

Slipping on my dark blue running gear is like reacquainting myself with old friends. I slip on socks and tightly lace my running shoes feeling the tightness and the tug. It's been too long but somehow my mind and body has ached for this movement, for the pull of the heart and the rhythm of the breath.

After feeling the bolt of the farm gate release behind me I pull down my well fitting lightweight running hat and open my stride and after a few moments it's seems that brakes have begun to ease off and a new energy and looseness flowers through my body from the sway of my arms and the gentle cantilever of my backbone awake within me

I tell myself that it feels good and so it does, this getting out of my constantly turning mind and into nature, into my body. There is an intimacy with the air and earth, the senses sharpen and boundaries  become porous. Running gear feels like running unclad and the lightness of a run lifts one into a series of temporary flights over the earth, a slight jump over a mountain beck much attenuated at the end of summer.

I close my mouth to avoid the clouds of midges and experience one in the eye which I blink away. I weave past a craftsman repairing a stone wall. As I run along the wall a slow measured retrieval of a jagged lump of Lakeland slate slotted into place now become woven into a regular pattern, embracing its neighbour it's very unsymmetrical shape an asset into binding together this structure to survive winters and summers and hold animals in their allotted place. Part of me wants to stop and exchange a few words but I am urged on.

It's like a kind of inner steam engine with the breath the energy that  rings feet and legs into an oppositional harmony of motion and balance and pulls in more of me as I seek a relaxed run erect enough to provide an internal spring within.

This is wild and I am in wild, an ecstatic experience of flow in a body in motion but yet in time a temporary sojourner to these massive mountains overhead and to these young oak woodlands beginning to surrender summer leaves. I feel chipped slate underfoot, the softness of boggy mud, I slow to negotiate rocks since a twisted ankle is not an ambition and slow to walk down a steep rocky slope as I feel my heart loosen from a canter to a trot and to a walk.

The sun sparkles from the river running also between rocks it's path as twisty as mine, birdsong from the woodland, the flash of a magpie with long blue black tail tangents before my gaze. I'm hot and sticky yet feeling the surge of wildness even as the body tires. Up an incline and down the other side, joining a track, crossing the river by an arched bridge and moving into the next village passing walkers with a brief greeting. At the end of the day few walkers and they all seems to be birds flying to their over night roosts with their Ordinance Survey routes now turned into stories and images for discussion and recollection during winter evenings.

It's a beautiful sunny warm autumn day and here I am my body being possessed and possessing this run experience. Through the farm and white painted buildings and then I turn onto the road. I'm less familiar with this part of the journey and have to cross and recross the road to be careful of the traffic. There are more pauses for walking now and less of running as I begin to think ahead, keen to arrive back at the 17 th century Borrowdale farmhouse from which I began.

Then nearing my destination a moment of grace as I meet a red squirrel sunning herself on a branch before my eyes. She waves her tufty tail as if to rebuke those grey squirrels from America who have exiled the few of her kind to this narrow valley and runs vertically up the tree as if to tell me that my horizontal movement is too easy.

My body that began this run, the first for many many months although there have been fast and hard walks and short sprints, that felt light and young now seems to be a burden, a bumping bag of body, and I can trot slowly to the double bridges than span the river and lead me back to the village of Grange.

The body and mind are stilled in movement, the mind drawn away from its chatter this endless turning over of the soil in conversation. The rhythm of the breath and the focus on the journey brings the runner, since I'm not even conscious of myself as a self into the flow of moments the only decision to live within the constraints of heart rate breath and strength. This is a silence that refreshes as much as it tires.

This is 55 minutes of an experience I would not have missed for the world and about 5 miles and in a boast to myself I fire up the body and sprint for home pouring out my breath in pants and feeling my heart rate soar until I slow, warm down, enter the house and begin stretching out this run. Shedding this light skin of running gear I feel the warm water of the shower strip away the grime of this journey and later I feel my aching bones and body with a warm affection. I feel alive right now and feel released.

fragments of a Mary Oliver poem

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Mary Oliver

Ancient Stones in Cumbria

Ancient stones

There is no sign, no board to inform but only an ancient circle of stones. Easy to drive by, easy to shrug off as people so used to the machine and to buildings that make us feel small or lift us high in the sky.

These stones are silent now, the subject of scholarly conjecture but they serve us visitors as a marker for memory. Half in jest and half in wild desire I remove my shirt feeling the keen wind kiss me gently and eddy past as I move clockwise in respect since every human sacred site demands this direction, touching the pebble I carry in my pocket this holiday and which I have touched other stones, other churches, other shrines and my fathers grave, against these stones.

Leaving them they lean into the turning earth upright like a hand of love accepting me as a distant grandchild of a client people. This is a tribal place with room for me and I am grateful and half naked half born between worlds.

Thank you stones may you stand here another 5,000 years assembled in this place as silent witnesses to people who saw greater horizons.