I have been delayed in putting thoughts to paper on the couch this week. For a number of reasons! All valid I hope.
We lost a beautiful member of our congregation last week, after a long battle with cancer. The funeral is Friday, but it is hard to say goodbye to people who have been in your life a long time, and made a significant contribution to it. So it makes for a slow week.
I also started a part time locum chaplaincy role at Royal Perth Hospital. Which was like coming home in some ways, as I have spent almost all my adult life working there, not as a chaplain mind you, but as a clinical researcher. But this is a new and different role.
So change has been on my mind, how do we face change, which we are all having to do at the moment, with Covid-19. How do we incorporate it and move forward, knowing that our life may not return to what it was but be something else. For change can be difficult, frightening, challenging, and heart breaking, particularly if we weren’t looking for it.
But sometimes we need it. And hopefully we will be different, maybe more open and wiser, after it.
Funnily enough, each day at hospital the Pastoral Care Department starts with someone taking reflections, and the person yesterday used Michael Leunig’s prayer about change, rather apt really. Here it is –
God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need for it. To deal with the pain of it.
To feel the joy of it.
To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.
The art of gentle revolution.
Leunig gives a definition of God before he gives us the prayers, which I will also put here, in case you think I have reverted to praying to an external deity.
“I use the word ‘God’ conscious of the fact that there are many who may find it objectionable – and others who may find my casual use of the word too irreverent or shallow. For all sorts of reasons people can be very touchy about this word; in my view they seem either too earnest, too proprietorial, too fanatical, too averse, too phobic… There is however no ultimate authority or definition. The word is yours or mine to make of it and hold or discard it as we will…”God” as a sort of shorthand password, an inconclusive folk word, a signpost, a catalyst, a spark, a stepping stone, a simple makeshift handle … A simple robust word used lightly and loosely or as devoutly and deeply as we might feel – a bridge, and a way to break free from this material world for a moment or two, a day or two… or for what’s left of a lifetime.”
So change is difficult, and often is foisted apon us, when all we want is for things to stay the same. But change is also necessary, for without change there can’t be any growth. Sometimes staying the same is the easy option, but growing, exploring, venturing inside of ourselves, venturing outside of ourselves, helps us to be all that we can be in this world.
There’s another prayer by Leunig which I have always loved –
We pray for another way of being:
another way of knowing.
Across the difficult terrain of our existence
we have attempted to build a highway
and in so doing have lost our footpath.
God lead us to our footpath:
Lead us there where in simplicity
we may move at the speed of natural creatures
and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet.
Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel
the movement of creation in our hearts.
And lead us there where side-by-side
we may feel the embrace of the common soul.
Nothing can be loved at speed.
God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights
of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being.
Change may only come if we see the necessity for it. And if we don’t take time, that insight will never come.
So it’s okay to have a slow week!
Just a thought.
I haven’t been on the couch very much today! Too busy with a zoom bookclub meeting and preparation for Uni teaching, and a walk, and talking to the neighbours, and watching a bit of “The Crown” over lunch and, and, and….
Then I remembered that I wrote a blog some time ago, based on a book, called “The Art of Stillness, Adventures in Going Nowhere” . Seems totally apt that I revisit that blog for my “Reflections from the Couch” series. Since we really can’t go anywhere!
Okay, so here I am, two weeks after my last blog, ready to share what I have read in this intervening period. I have selected as my first book a small offering, as I have been laid low with a cold for most of the time. I know, excuses, excuses.
Yet this book is really a gift. It is called “The Art of Stillness, Adventures in Going Nowhere” by Pico Iyer, and it is a TED book, based on a talk he gave some time ago.
Pico Iyer is a travel writer, and has travelled the world for about 40 years in search of stories and experiences. But he has discovered that our best most fruitful travel is done when we stay home. When we find stillness in the course of our days and when we explore our inner world instead of just rushing from one event or job to another. When we stop, even for a little while.
Pico uses as his starting point a conversation he had with Leonard Cohen, who he calls later in the book, “a 70 year old Zen master”. It is Cohen who leads him on an exploration of stillness. “Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, is the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else. It isn’t about turning your back on the world, it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply”
I love that. We are a part of the universe, part of the stars and planets, and part of nature, yet we act as though we are just flying by, and that the rest of the natural order is just here for our own amusement. Where is the awe and wonder that ignites our imagination and equally our care?
Brian Swimme remarked that if the stars only came out once every year, or every 10 years, it would be a cause for huge celebrations and incredible amazement, but because they come out every night, we can happily ignore this most spectacular event. We walk around with our eyes closed.
In fact, I think that awe and wonder is lost in our busyness.
As Pico says in his book, “sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it. Going nowhere is a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others.” To find our awe and wonder.
It doesn’t have to be religious, although all the great religions and philosophers have at their heart some form of stillness, or meditation or spirituality practise
But it does seem to require letting go of things, and that can be scary, even for a moment. To let go of those decisions we have to make, the power we hold, or even the information that is out there begging us to read or listen to or respond to is hard. We are almost programmed now to look at our computers or phones endlessly, as though if we don’t know what is happening we will be left behind. I find these days that I have become slightly obsessive about my social media, and overwhelmed by the number of emails. Something has to change!
Many, many people are now realising just how counterproductive that is, and are allowing some technology free time into their lives. I say yes to that. As Pico writes, “the point of sitting still is that it helps see through the very idea of pushing forward, indeed it strips you of yourself, as a coat of armour, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger.”
Sitting still, not doing anything, seems a good place to start to change these crazy dynamics, to take a breather. To remove the clutter and distraction of our hyper active lives. To leave space for other possibilities to enter. To listen.
But Pico doesn’t suggest we sit still for hours, but instead find some way to cultivate a period of stillness into our everyday lives.
So we could all start by just taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly and do nothing. Just do nothing. As Cohen says, “to clear the head and still the emotions, and the to-do lists”.
Or we could just sit quietly for 30 mins every morning
Or we could if we desire a bit more direction, take up meditation, or yoga
Or take regular walks in nature, so that our connection to the whole of creation seems more real, more tangible.
Or you could go fishing, where you can linger for a long time with the hook in the water
Or go for a run, a long loping run that enables you to breathe in the life that is all around us. Running, or in my case, jogging, can be a profound form of meditation.
Whatever you choose, I have already decided that going nowhere is a good place to start.
As Pico summarise –
“In an age of speed I begin to think nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age if distraction nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
In an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”
In honour of Leonard Cohen, a 70 year old Zen master, sadly gone, and the inspiration for this book, here is a clip of one of his most famous songs, “Anthem”.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.
Let’s hope by taking some time to develop the art of stillness, the light might get in!
So welcome to reflections on the couch number 4. I am actually a bit weary on the couch today, after turning a real church gathering into a virtual church gathering. I have not gone the streaming road, as many churches have done, but have concentrated on getting a power point ready with songs and liturgy, and preparing a sermon, which for Easter Sunday was a video presentation. Never did I think I would now be on YouTube! Someone has even signed up for my channel.
Anyway I have had lots of feedback from people who found the material useful, and I hope uplifting and challenging in equal measures.
But one bit of feedback was really wonderful.
This lovely person, who is herself suffering from a great loss, introduced me to a famous folk singer/songwriter who has recently died due to Covid-19. His name is John Prine. Some may know him, me, not really. But the person letting me know wrote beautifully about the role Prine had played in her life, and her husbands, and how bereft she felt hearing that he had gone.
Now, surprisingly, I used Joan Baez’s version of “God is God” in my sermon, and it turns out she was a long term friend of John Prine. Baez has put out a video of one of John Prine’s famous songs, when she heard he was seriously ill, the one most often played, and the one requested most often in her concerts,.
It is one of the most memorable and moving songs you are likely to hear. It’s called “Hello in There”. It spoke to me so powerfully, I hope it does to you.
The link to the video is below, and the reflection from the couch is to watch and listen to the song, and go out and listen to others by him. If you do you will be introduced to a man who had such insight, heart and compassion. A huge loss for the world at a time when we need more of this.
I am sad that I have only be introduced to him now, but so glad that I have been.
In this time of social and health upheaval, when so much of what we have taken for granted has been changed, how does the faith community respond?
Very well I suspect, as in our DNA there is found a call to help others, to be community and to share what we have. Regardless as to which faith tradition we belong to.
But what about prayer? In the past week, I have been asked to pray for someone who is a refugee in Sydney and without money or support, except from an incredible Catholic nun and her order and from us and others (just to let you know that prayer without action is somewhat empty, more on that in a minute!). I have seen one of my colleagues prepare a prayer space in his home, where his whole family can go and reflect, find some silence and gratitude, and commune with the divine. And I have had someone who I teach with suggest that anyone who prays is deluded, and didn’t we notice that the enlightenment occurred, and science is everything. In fairness to him I suspect he is attacking those who pray for a car space, or magically, the end of the COVID -19 pandemic.
So how do I see prayer, when I don’t believe in a external deity who decides willy nilly to intervene in human affairs, particularly if we pray hard enough. But neither do I believe that science has all the answers to what it is to be human.
Well, firstly let me lay on the table what I do believe, or place my trust in. I trust that the divine presence is found in all people everywhere, and has since the beginning of time, a mysterious presence, a creative force so central to life and all its goodness it cannot be distinguished from us. For me all people are carriers of this light for it is found within all people, at all times, and in all places, from the beginning of the universe until now and into the future. It drives us to be better than we are, both as individuals and as a society and a world, even if we don’t acknowledge or worship it.
So if this is how I see and experience God, then prayer for me is an awareness of this presence. Or as John O’Donohue says, “prayer is the art of being present to God.”
Most people think there are different forms of prayer, but actually I think they are all tied up with this same aim, to be aware of this spiritual presence. And somehow respond to it by how we live in the world. So prayer is actually tied up with the here and now.
And it can be anything. Our awareness can be heightened, if we look, in our ordinary lives or at times like this, our extraordinary lives. We can become aware through our relationships with one another, in working and advocating for peace and justice, in wonder and awe of creation, in gratitude for life, in church, in music, in gardening, in making things, in meditation and in silence. All this is prayer. We can pray in this way our entire lives. In any of these ways, it’s about becoming aware of the ultimate reality that binds us all together.
As one of my favourite theologian and authors , Frederick Buechner writes,
“Everybody prays whether they think of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to yourself but to something even more familiar than yourself and even more strange than the world”.
But what about the type of prayer we all may have problems with – prayers for others, or intercessory prayer. This is the time, when things are going crazy, that people often turn to this type of prayer, and use words that sound as though they are calling upon a magician. Yet this type of prayer is like placing clothes on something that is already at work.
For God is not somewhere else working as a bellhop, coming when we call. God is right here already. And if we are Christian, we are being called us to respond to that inner presence seen most clearly in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
So what do we do when we pray for others or pray with others.
I think we raise an awareness of God’s spirit in and around them and us.
John O’Donohue suggests that, “prayer for others is an ancient longing”. Maybe it’s not so ancient. We pray for others because we long for others to have life and love and support and justice, health and happiness. To have fullness of life . It’s a prayer of longing that with God all things are possible. Not that we have to pray for the spirit to be working, but we pray to join that spirit, to be part of the working out, so that we become aware of others. And we are changed. We are transformed. And this is the clutch of it, it’s about transformation not rescue.
As Mother Teresa has said –
“I used to pray that God
Would feed the hungry,
Or do this or that,
But now I pray that he will guide me
To do whatever I’m supposed to do,
What I can do.
I used to pray for answers, but now
I’m praying for strength.
I used to believe that prayer changes things,
but now I know that prayer
changes us and we change things”
I have used for many years a quote about prayer, and unfortunately I don’t seem to know where I got it from, but I think, for me, it nicely summarises prayer in all its forms (I have added to it over time) –
“Prayer for me has always been a yearning, a cry from the heart, a silence in which we might hear the sound of the wind or the feel of love and sense of knowing. A blessing for the things we see that are beautiful and breathing and astounding, or a lament of things too sad, too unspeakable to accept or contemplate. Prayer is something about awareness, deep awareness, of our gifts and our limitations, of our thanks and our wishes and hopes that things would be different. Prayer is about connecting to the spirit within all things, bringing life and love, and realising we are also connected to all things. Prayer is about being human and what we can do with that reality for others. It can be individual, but some of the most powerful prayers are communal. In very deep ways prayer is found in our living, as well as our words.”
Anyway these are just a few musings on the subject, which I think has more mystery than many think.
In the meantime I will light a candle and say a prayer for my refugee friend, Nazar, and continue to send him money. And hope that after this crisis has ended, we will be a more caring, compassionate society, looking after those who are not as lucky as we. I trust fully that the spirit will keep on working through those who will listen! Even if they can’t name it!
Let me put in a couple of Mary Oliver poems to finish.
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
“I Happened to be Standing”
I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.