The Camino is not just another walk, certainly not for me, it is an experience like no other, even in 40 degree heat! it is a walk that constantly surprises me, and when I least expect it.
Let me share some of these surprises with you, they may strike a chord, reminding you as it does me that life is full of mystery and joy, if we are open to it.
So here we are after a few days on the Camino. And it has been hot, really, really hot. As most Spanish would tell you, it is very unseasonal, in fact so surprising that they continually want to talk about the weather. Which in itself is very unusual. We have been baking in the mid-day sun, but in response the locals have been particularly friendly, looking concerned about our welfare, and even offering water. Perhaps they are thinking they might lose a peregrino (walker) or two doing the heatwave!
The walk has taken us over the highest point of the Camino and through some gorgeous scenery. At 1500 feet, it beats the path through the Pyrenees which starts the Camino, again a surprising fact. It reminds me so much of some parts of the Cape to Cape walk in Western Australia, with its rock climbing and bush.
While the walking has been quite difficult and doesn’t allow for too much reflection, in case one falls, we surprisingly came across a labyrinth made out of stone, near one of the descents. Incredible! A small labyrinth, only 3 circles, but enough to take a break and a breather and gather our thoughts for the day. Out in the middle of nowhere, as this was one of the most isolated parts of the Camino, we had a little gift left for us! Makes me realise, if someone can make a labyrinth here, we can make one at Wembley Downs Uniting Church!
The section we are doing however does have one of the most important landmarks for people to reflect at, the Cruz de Hierro or Iron Cross, which seems to date from the 11th century. When people get to the cross they place pebbles at its base to remember loved ones, or to signify a change in their life, or to leave something behind. Either way there is a mound of pebbles now around the cross. It is a hugely significant for people on the walk. I knew about the cross, and was looking forward to seeing it and perhaps have a quiet and sacred moment there. But my imagination did not live up to reality.
It in fact was more like a carnival. The cross itself is very near the road, and nothing like I imaged, perhaps I have been too influenced by a movie! Anyway when we reached it there were a lot of people milling about, taking photos, and generally having a party. While we also took some photos and placed some stones, to remember our mums, and for our friends Rose, Rod and Ingrid who are fighting ill health, a work colleague, Preetha, who recently had a serious accident, and a beautiful family from church who has just lost their son and brother, it seemed to be just a bit crazy. It certainly wasn’t what I expected. I have to say I was a bit disappointed with my quiet reflective moment.
As we trudged off, a surprising thought came to me. All moments are sacred, life is sacred and just because I couldn’t do it “the right way” at the iron cross wasn’t really an issue! I still love and care for my friends and family and I still miss my mum.
A bit further down the track we came across a smaller cross, with a mound of pebbles at its base. And suddenly the sacred moment I was looking for at the iron cross revealed itself. There was no one else around, and in this quiet spot, I placed some pebbles, and said a prayer. It wasn’t a great big cross, or a tall pole, or a significant landmark on the way, it was a just a place to reflect and think and send some love.
Bit like the labyrinth, it was an unexpected beautiful gift that someone had left. But these gifts are everywhere, if we have eyes to see.
But the time so far on the Camino has not just been about the scenery or the crosses.
While we have been spoilt with the mountains and forests, we have also been through some beautiful tiny villages, and have meet some wonderful people. People and places who have been surprises in themselves. More unexpected surprises!
After reaching the highest point, we headed for a town call El Acebo. It is quite small, but has 2 Albergues (small hostel) with the same name. What! Anyway as we were getting hotter and more exhausted, we kept seeing advertisements for this new Albergue, with fantastic facilities, including a swimming pool! Ah bliss we thought when it was so hot and there was no shade and the path down was quite treacherous!
Unfortunately, when we entered the town we realised that our Albergue was not the new one, but the older one, and with no swimming pool!! Our disappointment was palpable. Particularly when our bags weren’t there, as they had gone to the other one!!!
We gritted our teeth and made the most of it, but what is quite surprising, is that the Albergue turned out to be comfortable, airy, with very friendly staff, and we met there some lovely people. Peggy from Holland, walking on her own, as many people seem to be doing on this part of the Camino, and Marie and Herbert, an older couple from Germany. So it was the right place to be, even without the pool!
We all had dinner together, well more than together, because as Marie and Herbert waited too long to order that the kitchen closed, they shared ours, a surprise, since I had half eaten mine. As they say sharing is caring. Herbert and Marie did not look like people who would walk the Camino, let alone having been here before, so I quickly have learnt that on the Camino anything is possible. In fact, that is what I also love about our fellow walkers, people can be walking the whole thing, a section, can be carrying all their possessions, or just a day pack, and can speak Spanish or some terrible version of it, like us. It doesn’t matter, we are all people on the way!
We subsequently meet up with Maria and Herbert by chance in Ponferrada, at the town’s Knights Templar castle, then at a beautiful outdoor bar after seeing the castle, and then again the next morning at breakfast which was a complete surprise. We did not know they were also staying at our accommodation. Ah the mystery of the Camino!
There have been other surprises, the fact that I came to the walk having had achilles problems with my left leg for months, but since being here, while I have had blisters and sore feet, my achilles is perfect!
Or the fact that I carried a rain jacket, jumper and poncho for the potential change in the weather for 3 days, until I realised there isn’t going to be a change! That wasn’t a surprise, just stupidity!
So the Camino, even the second time seems to have captured my heart and continues to teach me some valuable lessons. Which I hope to remember when I get back. Perhaps I need to come every few years!!!
From our new friends, who were surpising in their ability to walk such long distances, and to eat my left over food, to our wonderful little Albergue to the weather, to the cross, to the labyrinth, sometimes things are not what they seem. Sometimes life can be much more than our expectations imagine it to be. We need to be open to people and to places, for all can teach us. There is no perfect cross, no one sacred place, no perfect peregrine or perfect way to walk the Camino, no perfect Albergue, and no ideal way to live life. We are all working it out as we go along.
So as we move further on the Camino, we realise how open it makes us. Open to those walking with us and open to be surprised.
For sometimes things are not what they seem.
I have a confession to make! I am taking a break from reviewing books, to write some blogs while I am away, 4 weeks in Spain and Portugal with my lovely husband, Matt.
So let’s get started.
After a few days in Madrid, we have now embarked on another section of the Camino de Santiago, a famous walk in Spain that dates back to the 10th century. The pilgrims, mainly monks in those days, walked from all over Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela where the bones of St James are believed to lie. The walk is called the Way of St James because of this. It is now a very popular walk that many people do, not just monks or Catholics, to take time out, to reflect on their lives and its direction, reflect on their faith, or just to take on the challenge of doing a walk that is about 800 kms long. The most traditional way is from a town in France, St Jean Pied-de-Port across northern Spain to Santiago although there are paths through Portugal and southern Spain.
Two years ago we did the final section of the French way, common for those only doing a little bit. We went from Sarria to Santiago over 6 days, and covered 114 kms. It was a wonderful but challenging experience, during which we met some incredible people, not to mention donkeys and dogs. We also found it was a very spiritual and reflective time for both of us. It revealed how community can be formed so quickly, how the most ordinary things reveals some deep truths about life, and how taking time out to challenge oneself is amazingly life giving.
So how do we top that this time!
Well we don’t. This time we are going from Astorga instead, and we are to end 8 days and 140 kms later in Sarria, where we started last time.
Today was the first day. Was it the same, no, the people were different, quite a lot were older than us, and there were fewer of them. In their place were a lot of cyclists, and even some horse riders. The scenery was different, we could see some hills in the distance, and as we headed towards them we entered a forested area. There were less towns, only a few very small villages that were beautiful and very old. In most of the bell towers we saw stork nests, which were enormous. It was quieter, hotter, and more challenging, as we are older and probably not as fit as last time.
And we are different! In the two years since we were here last time, we have lost my mum, who died last year, my uncle who died this year, we have friends with serious illnesses, but we also have had the joy of weddings and birthdays, holidays and time spent together with those we love.
I reflect back two years and my life as a pastor has become more layered and my faith deeper and more multi-dimensional. Part of that change has come from the walk that we did back then. While I have always believed the spirit of God is found in all places and all people, in small and not so small acts of love and kindness it was a revelation how the mediative aspects of walking revealed that spirit to me more profoundly.
I started an ongoing dialogue with quiet time, with Celtic spirituality and with the Taize style of service (an ecumenical service using repetitive music and lots of candles). I even want to build a labyrinth at the church. Not bad for an anatomist!
So I came home a changed person, although I occasionally lose that person when the busyness of life takes hold and doing dominates everything.
But I know that I have grown, and have changed. I understand now there are two sides to the faith coin, and life coin, a doing side and a being side, and both need to be fed.
So the path this time cannot be the same. How can it be?
Because I am not the same!
So as I walked today, and took in my surroundings, and the new people we were greeting, with Hola, and Buen Camino. I relished this fact.
The path is never the same.
It is different, it is new, it is exciting and we are so fortunate to be able to walk another small part of it again.
I have been wanting to write a blog about friendship for some time. In fact since I read the book, “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. What a book, what a story!
So here goes…..
We travel through life, if we are lucky, with a group of people who journey with us. If we are really lucky some of these people start the journey when we are young, and hang around until the end, whenever that is, 70, 80 or earlier if circumstances dictate that.
These friends, the old friends, seem to hang around regardless of the ups and downs of life, the joys and sorrows that befall us, and remind us of our younger selves, and the dreams we may have had, some fulfilled others not. As someone said to me recently, friendship is not just about the good times, but just the times, some good some not so good. But hopefully all shared.
I have been very fortunate to have had these types of friends, developed during my University days when I was known as KD, and had lots of ideas about what I was going to do, save the world, become a famous scientistic, run a marathon, or just organise a party. I had so many good ideas, of which some remained just that, an idea, that I was christened “Gunna Dutton”. Funnily enough that doesn’t seem so bad now, and when some of my close friends call me KD, it brings a smile to my face. KD, who was that, oh yes, I remember now…
I am lucky to have one friend I have known from school, when we used to eat our lunch outside and dream about going to the beach. When we get together it is like we are 20 again! And others I inherited when my husband’s good friends became mine.
Commitment and loyalty are words bandied around but require an inner strength, for when the going gets rough and it does for most people, it is the people who remain who end up being the greatest friends, regardless of when they appear in our lives. I recently caught up with my cousin, well sort of cousin in Broome, and spent a day enjoying his company. I haven’t seen much of him these past years, but we have known each other since we were kids, as his mum and my mum were best friends. Shirley, my mum, and Gwen knew each other from the age of 10 when they lived across the road from one another. Now theirs was a friendship which had its ups and downs, but when the downs got more than the ups, my cousin was clear in letting me know my mum showed loyalty and courage. When Gwen got dementia, and was very difficult to deal with, mum was the constant in her life. Even though Gwen rang mum at all hours of the day and night, and often was so confused that she though mum had suddenly got a fella, as the answering machine voice was male, mum was there for her.
So friendship is such a vital part of who we are as humans, we need friends to love us, and for us to love. To share with, cry with, laugh with, be honest with and sometimes to forgive, for forgiveness is part of the journey. And hopefully we are better, more complete people with it.
So let me return to the book for in the book we see a most beautiful friendship and how that friendship along with others can be enough for someone to form” a little life” with it, after the most horrendous of childhoods.
The story is about four young men from the same college, their relationship to one another and ultimately to one of them in particular, Jude. Jude has suffered terribly, but how and why is not known by the reader or by the other characters till quite a long way into the book. Initially the young men move to NYC, and we follow them as they work their way through life, full of career ups and downs, relationships and marriage. But the story at its heart is about the nature of friendship and how it can transmit love and forgiveness, compassion and tolerance. How it can find the very best of us if we let it, becoming a platform that allows us, all of us, to participate in the world. Even with someone like Jude, who was so damaged he was unable to conceive that he is worthy of such friendship.
But this minimises the book, which has so much depth to it. For Jude is not just racked by mental demons, cutting himself literally to survive the memories and flashbacks, but physical ones as well. He suffers, but so does his friends, who for most of the book do not understand the depth of his grief and his anguish, but love him anyway. Along the way there are standouts, people who leave their mark on him in ways that seem incredible. Willem, his best friend, Andy, his doctor, although that seems too small a title and Harold and Julia, who ultimately adopt him. Who accept the unknowns of Jude, are with him as he deals with his demons but also share with him his hard won joys.
There are so many sections of the book which are so beautifully written, which speak to us about our lives together. In the end Jude can be seen as both a tortured soul but also the light by which the others are better people by having known and loved him. We are the better for those we travel with. As Willem discovered “The person he loved was sick, and would always be sick, and his responsibility was not to make him better, but to make him less sick.”
Or when Willem realised his was not a rescue mission, but an extension of their friendship, in which he had saved Jude and just as often Jude had saved him.
I remember one passage that will always stick in my mind.
All the boys were visiting Harold and Julia’s place in the country for the first time. They were to have the first of many Thanksgiving dinners with one another. The evening had begun and there were drinks and talking and laughing. Jude was quietly sitting in the corner. Not feeling isolated and alone, but instead peaceful and happy. He can see all the people he loved in one room getting to know one another. Starting a relationship with each other that would strengthen them all in the coming years. Friendship was not a competition to Jude, he was unable to complete on so many levels. Rather it was the love shared between them that counted the most. “He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.”
The book is not for the faint hearted. Jude is a very damaged, although brilliant person, and the hidden secrets when revealed are confronting. Yet when he does reveal them it is to the person who in the end loved him the most. But that’s the other thing about friendship, it should not require both parties to somehow to be on equal terms. I know that seems strange, but love can also be accepting that the other person cannot give all of themselves to the relationship, and what is offered is offered in love. Jude would know everything about his friends, but they knew very little about him. And that seemed okay. Maybe we ask too much of the people we travel with, that we should behave the same way, share our stories in the same way, look the same way, think the same way, and even deal with our friendships in the same way. I often complain that one of my friends doesn’t ring me enough, or ask me enough questions!!!
We are linked by time spent, shared experiences, both good and bad, a life lived with one another. This should be enough. Is enough.
So as I enter my 57th year (how is that possible!), I am grateful for those that have hung around, who still laugh at my pathetic jokes, and who I know will be there through the continuing joys and sorrows of life. As Willem reflects in the book, “Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”
In a world in which anxiety rules, when the dreams of riches, and prestige and an adventure filled life is reduced to the normalcy of day to day living, and where our social media gives us thousands of online friends, but no connections, true friendship, lasting friendship is the light of love which saves us.
While I don’t want to give the ending away, it is clear that Jude’s life has been a struggle, and the struggle to continue to live with the pain is incredibly challenging. Yet in this struggle, with friends, he discovers his own meaning in life, even if he can’t really believe he deserves it.
Lets’ hear him…..
“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile he had always wondered why he, why so many others went on living at all. …
He had known ever since the hospital that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others. That rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all. He hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy even.”
“I know my life’s meaningful because” – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ” because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
The ending is just as beautiful as the beginning. A life of friendship, a life of love, that could overcome the most terrible of starts. A little life. Maybe that’s what we all will be blessed to have, a little life, travelling with those who love and know us. If we are lucky.
Let me end with a passage that has Willem talking to Jude late at night. Theirs was a relationship for the ages.
“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.”
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.”
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore.” “You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.”
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.”
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.”
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
A love between friends, in some ways the greatest love, according to CS Lewis.
I leave you with a song by Simon and Garfunkel, called “old Friends”.
I know I know, I am supposed to be writing a blog on books, and I am very late. But somehow I have been distracted by Lent and Easter!
And I would like to just say a few words about these special days.
I conducted the Good Friday service at my church, and usually that would be the end of it, assigning the service to only those who were in attendance.
However, a friend of mine, a minister in the Community of Christ Church in Melbourne and now the Director of Mission put up a post on Facebook. In it he was completely honest about his understanding of the death of Jesus and it has inspired me to do the same, for I don’t want you to think I believe something I don’t.
My service opened, after a song and prayer, with an introduction that went something like this …
Jesus was a non-violent revolutionary who practiced non-violent resistance to the powers of injustice unto death. So says Dominic Crossan. Or as Bill Loader describes him, a revolutionary without a gun. A man of God who brought God’s creative and life giving message into a world of power and injustice.
While there remains a divine mystery about Easter Sunday, I don’t think there is a mystery about the death of Jesus. He was killed not because of what God wanted, but what men wanted. They wanted to be rid of someone who challenged them and their ways. Who would risk death for all he believed and lived out. Who stood at the cross and said “Yes” to love and non-violence, and “no’ to hate. Jesus died not for our sins but because of the sins of those in his world, who loved the dark rather than the light. Who loved hate rather than love. As Bill clearly states, the Romans killed Jesus because he threatened their very existence.
The problem is, today his message is still being killed off by those who love the dark rather than the light. Both inside and outside the church.
So this is a different type of Good Friday service.
This service of worship is based on one developed by American Christians for the Abolition of Torture. It has been designed to assist faith communities relive the crucifixion journey and remember that the sufferings of Jesus continue through the plight of the poor, the oppressed, and the persecuted throughout the world. It was originally made up of a series of reflections based on the final seven words or statements of Jesus found in the gospels. However, in keeping with the ideas of Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, Bill Loader and many others, I have replaced the seven statements with passages that reflect the passion that animated his life.
And what was the passion of Jesus? It was the Kingdom of God, found not in some heavenly realm, but here on earth and here and now. It was a new world order, where the hungry are feed, where wars are no more and the persecuted and oppressed find freedom and justice. Where the love and life of God would be seen in all people and be for all people. As Borg and many others suggest, it is this passion that got Jesus killed. It was this passion that is found in his stories and parables, the most radical parts of the bible. His parables challenge us to turn things upside down and to join him. We hear him saying, the kingdom is already here awaiting your participation. The future is here, “Don’t you see you have been waiting for God but God has been waiting for you”.
When we view Good Friday in this light, we are asking ourselves some important questions, questions we have already started to face. From our palm sunday service the questions were about gates and parades. Which gate do we choose, which parade? Now it’s about a man? Do we really follow Jesus in our daily lives, are we really committed to his vision of the kingdom, contributing in whatever way we can, or is the cost too high? Ouch!
Do we find ourselves with the marginalized and the outcast, with the disciples, or with the crowd doing the crucifying? Double ouch!
Things to seriously reflect on as we enter the service. Because the answers will affect life now, both for us and for our brothers and sisters. And for the planet.
I went on with the service after this introduction, using the reading from Mark about the death of Jesus, followed by a reading from his life about the kingdom, and then a reflection focusing on the world and ourselves today, in this time and in this place. If you want a copy of the reflections let me know.
I ended the service with a Carrie newcomer song which I have included at the end.
But although I have a different understanding as to why Jesus was put to death, the end product is the same. We are called to be voices of compassion and love and justice in this world. To work for peace and to improve the lives of all people regardless of where they sit on the social ladder, what colour they are, what language they speak or whether they are gay or straight. Or whether they came to Australia by boat or plane. This is the kingdom of inclusion and whatever you say about Jesus this is the message he brings to us from the 1st century.
As my friend Ben writes at the end of his post,
“I believe that all are worthy. So today, on Good Friday, may we join hand in hand to celebrate humanity. Whether you eat chocolate, are preparing for Passover, believe in the substitutionary atonement theory or look to the rolling hills and wide blue ocean for spiritual insight; this day is about celebrating the passion and dedication to bringing about a peaceful world, and I believe we are all part of that pursuit, whatever the cost.”
All I can say is amen to that.
I know, I know, I should have had a blog reflection out on another book by now! I dont want to make excuses but the book I want to write about is very very big, approx 700 pages of the smallest type you can imagine, and its taking me quite a long time to get through it. Not that it isn’t beautifully written but it’s about being human, involving some incredible beauty but also some terrible ugliness and evil (there is no other word for it). I want to do justice to it, and its characters, particularly Jude, and so there is a delay. The book is called “A little life”, but it is so much more than about a little life.
Anyway in the meantime let me share a beautiful poem I came across from Mary Oliver. Maybe this says something about the book at well. We might expect miracles, but when we look closely, we find that love and kindness are the greatest of miracles…
In the Storm
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
snowflakes on their backs,
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also
covered with snow—
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water,
which was still raging.
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
stoop there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—
as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
There are many contradictions or paradoxes in life that sometimes do our head in. In biology, chemistry, physics and cosmology we are surrounded by things that just do not seem to fit together logically. In physics we are told that light can be a wave or a particle, because of quantum mechanics, in evolutionary biology we have become intelligent beings not because we first had a brain that grew, but because we could walk upright. And from then onwards we were in a bind about whether we wanted to run faster or have babies that lived. And from Einstein we get the theory of relativity, a mind blowing concept that tells us that time and space are relative, even though they seem fixed from our position. And which supposedly explains why if 2 twins are separated, one flying around the world and the other staying home, one ages more than the other. Doesn’t make sense does it!
Yet it’s not just the physical world that is full of contradictions. We humans are also a bunch of paradoxes. The author Talbot in a book called “Paradox and Evolution” believes we can behave as war mongers and peaceniks, selfish thieves and altruistic Samaritans, cooperative bees and lone wolves, conformist teacher pets and rebels without a cause. Not just different people, the same people can do all these things!
As I pondered this blog I searched for an example of this paradox that really stood out. That talks about us as rather crazy mixed up humans, who can be both angels and demons. I could not go past a book I have recently read, (of course these blogs are supposed to be about books) called “Everyone Brave is Forgiven”. A book about death and darkness, but also forgiveness and light.
Forgiveness is one of the great messages from my faith tradition. If there is nothing else that you take from the words and actions of Jesus, apart from love, it is forgiveness. His is a call to forgive one another, and maybe even more especially to forgive oneself. Jesus did not cast out so called “sinners” into the abyss, but rather ate and drank with them. He embraced those seen by society as lost forever by opening a space for a new start, a new beginning, in love for them. To be able to turn a page over, to find common ground, to speak words of love rather than hate is an incredible gift we can give one another. It could be the start of a transformation, both for ourselves and for the world. Jesus knew this and proclaimed it with both his words and actions.
I know that many would say this message is often not found in Christian Churches, where judgement and exclusion reign. But this is a profound misunderstanding of the life and significance of Jesus. For many in the 21st century the Jesus who goes to the cross as part of some cosmic plan and is said to return on judgment day is gone and in its place is a Jesus of blood and bone, of heart and head, a Jesus who calls out for us to transform our selves and others for the sake of the world. Who sees people as they really are and loves them none the less!
So in keeping with this, I wanted to talk about this book, “Everyone Brave is Forgiven”, by Chris Cleave. I found this a beautifully written, immensely powerful book, about redemption, for ordinary people, trapped in the mad, destructive time of World War II. While it focusses on Mary North, a daughter of an MP living in London, just prior and during the London Blitz, it also intertwines the lives of her friend, Hilda and two young men, Tom who is a teacher, and Alistair you signs up to serve and ends up in Malta during its terrible bombing.
I don’t want to go too much into the story, other than to say it reveals how lives, ordinary everyday lives, are affected by the circumstances in which we have no control. Yet, the human condition is one where hope and love can shine, where acts of immense bravery are intertwined with acts of sheer hatred, and where forgiveness is the ultimate act of defiance.
For me the book encapsulates who we are and who we can be, underneath all the facades, prejudices and fears of our lives and the devastation that can be wrought by external circumstance. About how we are sometimes able to go on with our lives, in a way, more real and more damaged, but perhaps more human. The last line of the book, which I won’t reveal, I think sums up forgiveness for me. It is a brave, brave person who can forgive, and somehow fashion a life out of the most terrible of circumstances. But it is also a brave person who can see their own failings and faults and forgive themselves. To see that forgiveness is a two way street that can lead ultimately to reconciliation and transformation if we are open to it.
Perhaps books like this remind us of how we can live in freedom rather than fear, by living with the possibility of being able to start over, always.
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!