The Journey
-- a personal spiritual reflection

In this middle earth between heaven and hell our hearts are restless. This is the human condition longing for peace and purposefulness, hungering for meaning, thirsting for those quiet moments when everything coheres and we are at one

In the place of spiritual longing once more

In the long-drawn perfect peace of morning
I come to prayer.
My soul quiet,
Though my body is still cramped
By the strains of the years now passed.
 
And I was hoping
That this might be a new day
And that now
I might struggle in my soul
For the things long wished for, but stutteringly, inadequately, all too hesitantingly believed
 
The feeding on sound bread
And drinking of live water.
The perpetual awareness of God
And days enfolded in prayer
 
I have hoped here before.
And it never yet went to waste.

 

At least that is the way it is for me. Sometimes I think about what a fortunate life I have had. Living in the prosperous West, being part of a loving family, doing interesting work and being in a stable, nurturing relationship. These are things to be welcomed and treasured, but that doesn't stop the hunger, the wonder, the struggle for life

Battle

Yes there is beauty
and worship
and compassionate service
and the necessary activism of love
 
There is the inspiration of landscape
and the heart flung wide to God
and the gentle kindness
and the white knuckle struggle for justice
 
but underneath it all
in the bowels
in the intestinal engine room
in the darkness
 
I do battle with myself
and here
slowly
die
 
that I might live

 

The struggle is for real human life. Not limited, caged human life that is enslaved to our feelings or bent by a domineering rationalism, but the beauty of human life as it can be: body, mind and emotions working together for the full human person

Human Transformation

It is all struggle this work
of human transformation
and most of us baulk at such effort
 
for it is hard enough to understand
what it might possibly be
beyond grand words of doubtful worth
 
let alone begin to really change
this human mind into something
more than the range of rational instinct
 
Our hurts are so profoundly thrust
into the secrets of our tenderness
that healing must, by nature, be an agony
 
Nonetheless we search our restless soul
for hints of life and revelation
making our goal a human transmutation

 

For me this work of human transformation is rooted in following the Way of Jesus. When I read the Gospels as a young man I was drawn into this Way: perplexing, enticing, wildly different from anything else of which I was aware... and I still find myself drawn into its arms today

 

Christ the Worker

Come, the arms say,
Enter
Into the way
 
True it is hard
Miserable, even
On the hard day
 
But enter still
Enter
On the long hard way
 
It is beautiful
Beautiful
Like ice caught by the sun's ray
 
So enter
Enter now
This very day

 

This poem was inspired by a painting of Christ the Worker in the chapel at the Southwark diocesan retreat house. When I meditated upon it it seemed as if I heard voice of the risen Jesus saying to me "Why aren't you doing what you should be doing?". Those words still haunt me and if I am now, perhaps, somewhat further along that way, I still need to feel the struggle which these words evoke within me. And I return often to those who have been good companions on the way -- particularly the early Egyptian Desert Fathers

 

of the Desert Fathers

They have come, the old men
And pitched a camp in my heart
Finding a dry cave
And a quiet place
They have made a home for good
 
Here in my heart
They patiently plait ropes and weave baskets
They are in no rush
Their prayers demand no action
Everything is done at the right time
 
Long ago they learnt the virtues of waiting
They have forgotten how to judge
Even though their eyes see clearly:
They wait and they pray
And one day I will come home

 

I am often swayed, I lose my way, but the old men help me and I keep searching for the good path. At the heart of this searching is beginning the day with prayer: a silent waiting on the new day, a joyful singing of the Psalms, a bending to the words of Scripture

Morning

Thank you Lord
For this bright morning
For sky mottled with cloud
And quietness of world fresh sleeping
 
My stretches are callisthenics of praise
My yawns howls of worship
I welcome this morning
And I welcome you, Lord of the daybreak
 
I believe this day will be different
Not grounded by grimness of my groaning
But light as the butterfly
Drinking nectar from the fullness of your flowered morning
 
Not every day opens with this bright beauty
But today hope rises, human and warm
And we can permit ourselves, perhaps,
An ecstasy of celebration

 

Sometimes this morning prayer is joyful, but it's engine room is the uncomfortable struggle with our human life that cannot be easily mastered

The Cell

This is my cell
Here I must breathe
Air I cannot choose;
Here I must live
 
Days I cannot master.
It is the struggle
Uncomfortable
Like the old monks
 
But different
More affluent, less harsh
Less solitude, more noise
But the Same Struggle
 
With demons
Inside and out
And prayer, and work
And the body lived for God

 

And I try to extend this life of prayer into the whole day, so that prayer is not a part of the day but the whole day, living and enlivening within it. But it is hard, my busy self which desires control and entertainment resists it with everything it has

Climb the Mountain

The track, of course, is steep
That is the nature of mountains:
Continuous ascent
 
The muscle aches, naturally:
Deep in the vastus
As if it is shrunk to frozen bone
 
Feet turn on slipped rocks
Hands graze on thorns
Breath stumbles in tiny panics
 
It is all to be expected
Mountains resist climbing
As humanity resists prayer

 

So, sometimes, I must withdraw. Put aside the world of achievement and status, where doing is all-important and being is only a shadow in the back of my mind. Here I gather myself and am reminded of my true nature in the forgetfulness of the world

Gather

Withdraw
Gather
 
Withdraw to the wilderness
to the high hills
in the time of expectancy
 
Solitude you find there,
Peace,
The rhythm of the uncluttered earth.
 
Withdraw
Gather to your senses
the sensations of your flesh
the sinews of your mind
the soul-sense
 
Strangely attractive
 
And you will be drawn back
To the scattering of the multitudes.

 

The phrase 'do what needs to be done' has become one of the foundation stones of my spiritual life, but it has a sister 'breathe this moment's breath' which both reflects its presence and shadows it, saying yes and no, dwelling with it and against it

 

Live this moment

I can only live this moment
but past is present, always:                Memory
                                                        Learning
                                                        Recollection
and future also, lurking
in my                                                Worries
                                                        Hopes
                                                        Expectation
Somehow I must live this moment
Do the deeds of this time
Manage the thoughts which tangle and knot
Move muscles
Breathe breath
                        Yes
Breathe this moment's breath
 

This matter of living in the present moment interests me greatly. There is a truth in it but also a denial, for it seems to me that the past and the future are in fact more real than the present. What is the present? Nothing more than the insubstantial moment of transition between past and present. Only the life which embraces past, present and future is truly open to the fullness of human being

The Three Times

It is the living in the present moment
which brings joy,
as the sages of the East taught,
 
But a man without past or future
has no present,
for memory creates him
 
And reaching forward
into unknown time
kindles the spark.
 
I desire, therefore,
to grow with the three times:
past, present, future:
 
To learn from what has been,
To live in what is
And to imagine what might be
 
For this is the eternal struggle
 
to live without resentment,
superficiality
and the greed of my overreaching plans

 

I try to remember that it is only in the present that I can act. But living only in the present is a kind of nightmare. I remember a TV programme about a man with brain damage who had no memory, he found this eternal forgetfulness nothing less than despair. And living without the existence of a real future is a conceited selfishness of the very worst kind. It reminds me of the leader of a ruined state who exploited it for every last drop of power and pleasure and joked to his sidekick 'when they have to pay for this we will all be dead'.

Today

I attempt this, except it is no trick, no game
But the very staff of life:
The bread of thought and will and feeling
 
To act decisively in the present,
But informed by the wisdom of the learnt past
And inspired by the hope of a deliberate future
 
Yet there is more
 
For the heart does not learn, nor the mind hope
But the heart dwells lumpenly on dead actions
And the mind lets hope be drowned by fear.
 
So the past does not nurture action but poisons it
And the future floods with anxiety each passing day.
In this manner joy is leached from the fertile present
 
And excess of anger carries away the good soil
And bitterness stifles the buds of new life
But we must feed on the good bread
 
Nurture ourselves with each new day:
Chewing the deeds of the past
Kneading and letting to rise the acts which are still to come
 
And so celebrating the fresh loaf of the new day

 

Each day we must turn to life. Abba Poemen said of Pior that for him each day was a new beginning. So each day I must struggle to turn and repent and commit myself to the Way of Life

 

The Conversion

A summer day, heat over the land
Earth dusty
And I realized “You could be free”
In letting go
“You could be free”
 
Since then I have not realized the promise.
In the land of shiny cars
And busy streets
What the blue sky brought
I have not found it easy to root
 
But the turning, I now realize
Is an every day turning
It is a changing with the earth’s changing
As rain turns dust to mud
As summer cools to autumn
 
And every day I must decide

 

In this there is hope. That I can begin to see in a new way, that I can begin to see beyond my own prejudice and self absorption, that I can begin to realize the vision about which Ben Okri wrote "There are things that burn me now/Which turn golden when I am happy".

Curtain

The tall beeches
The soft forest
An eruption of fungi.
 
The great bird
Perched, then
Lifting heavy talons skyward.
 
The quiet valley
Under larch
Shaken by swirl of raven.
 
Moments when the heavy curtain between
man and beast
consciousness and being
is ripped.  Suddenly.

 

The beauty of nature is a constant source of possibility. Every day it offers us the possibility of wonder. A single white flower shining in the mud. The impossible intricacy of a tree's branches in winter. A flock of longtailed tits chattering through the garden. This is hardly a world without pain but it offers us never ending images of life and hope and, in places touched by wilderness, a transcendent presence

Ceunant

It could be heaven
here among the silent trees and singing birds
These mountains are like the vaults of Paradise
and the streams laugh with the glee of life
 
But I bring my cowed soul
Beaten and burned by the life that stinks of death
I hold to myself hurts for my own harm
and struggle to breathe this unpolluted air
 
But here, struggle is a kind of death
All that is necessary are the three old men
Breathing, listening, waiting
For the call of the quiet Spirit

 

Here is something more than the life of constant struggle and exertion. It is the eternal Sabbath when we can rest from the activity of the human journey. For it is too easy for us to turn even the spiritual life into a constant exercise of human power and self-improvement. Certainly action is necessary but so too is non-action

Intervention

A story is told of an old obstetrician.
He was asked his opinion
on the management of breach delivery
 
He did not mention the possibility of a caesarean section
perhaps aware of the consequences
of that first unnatural birth.
 
He advised the purchasing of a pint of beer
and the drinking of it very slowly
out of the sight of the labouring woman.
 
The story has always impressed me,
Marking me with the belief
that a spiritual birth must also be uninhibited
 
by unnecessary intervention
and helpful advice
and other people's words filling your ears.
 
But it is less easy to follow this wisdom
when you are the expert
and there is a supplicant at your feet
 
For after all
if obstetricians are not often necessary
a midwife generally is.

 

Stories such as this open the possibility of living with wisdom in the world. But they require the ability to listen and reflect on the multiplicity of stories that swirl around us. Some stories have captured me and become a permanent part of my internal universe

The Necessary Activism of Love

I have always liked this story
told to me by a friend
who lived in a Third World city
 
People from church spent Sunday afternoons reading
to blind people
Simple and generous, it led to them hearing new stories
            about conditions in the institution
Responding they joined its management board
            but change was hard and difficult
Power lay with the elected politicians
and so, in the final transformation of love
they became elected representatives themselves
 
Here was no program for social change
but merely the necessary activism of love
generating, by grace, the whole human being:
compassionate, practical and political.

 

And sometimes stories just seem to dwell in my heart especially those which are a recollection of childhood and my infant fears and longings

Ice Cream or the Story of My Life

I remember childhood as one long yearning for ice cream.
By the time I could afford to buy them for myself
My yearnings had all turned to young women in summer dresses.
Now, as autumn advances, what I hunger for,
Not completely, as if I was entirely forgetful of my younger self,
But without the tantrums of childhood
Or the melancholy of youth
Is the deep snowfall of silence

 

But as story falls upon story and the rich humus of our lives is created I grow tired and long for something which transcends the transitory happenings of my life. I desire life but also the beyond-life

Silence

There is a Silence into which we must all Ultimately
Descend
It comes to us in the Finality of Death
But also in the Expectation of that Final Act
 
The Sages tell us that Contemplation of our End
Is the Path to Wisdom
But I wonder if it is not the Silence of that Contemplation
That is our True Teacher
 
For to come into that Silence
Quietly and without Power
Liberates us from the Worry and Pride of Life
Releasing everything into the Strange Realm
 
of That Which We Do Not Know

 

It is here that I seek healing

Healing

I think about pain
no, not exactly pain
pain has a pleasure: the ache of a day well done
This is disappointment
not a sweet, melancholy sadness,
the longing which does not need to be satisfied
Rather the moments in my life which hurt
which dwell, half hidden, in memory
bearing the slime of shame or the wince of anger.

 

My body is wearisome to me. I live with a constant battle against chronic pain and disability. I have a hesitancy in talking about these things but I cannot deny its role in my journey

Living the Long Illness

I hold between three fingers this pencil:
Wood, graphite and paint
I do not know where it was made
Or who made it
 
I do not know what work produced it:
The engineer who fashioned the pencil-making machine,
The designer who decided the pencil's shape
The worker who fed the graphite into the bonded wood
 
But they all worked
Maybe only for money
Maybe for prestige or power
And maybe, too, for the simple joy of making
 
My body, too, thirsts for that making:
The body exercised in the simple act of living
But in that desire feels, too, its own dis-ability
Pain in fingers. Caustic skin. The weight of no.
 
This is my work:
Living with a long illness
The presence of can't and the quest for can
In the body weighted with pain and question

 

I would wish that it was some other way but my life seems to be determined by this constant struggle and I find it increasingly necessary to make it central to my life. I remember reading, when researching an essay on mental illness, of people finding it necessary to say 'I am not my mental illness', but my way seems to have been the opposite. Although it is important for me to seek healing, somehow that healing only comes through saying 'This illness is who I am, these are the contours of my existence. I will build my life around it'.

On Chronic Pain

I offer
without words
without interpretations
without or analysis
my body
to his body
stretched on the cross
 
His body
pierced
broken
remade
in the community of saints and sinners
 
I breathe,
I breathe, drink,
I breathe, drink, swallow
the wine of the Spirit
and follow the narrow way
without explanation or solutions
and without any words

 

My body is offered to Christ but this is no solution. The seeking continues, I often slip, I often forget.

The Path

I search for the way
In my fear I am lost
I panic
Wildly searching among the rocks
I am scratched by the gorse
Wet in the slithering mud
But I cannot find the path
 
I knew it once
The path was steady leading up out of the rocks
Out of the bog and the thorn bushes
On to the airy hill
Sometimes it led in peculiar places
Steep and skirting the precipice
But by this I knew it was the true path:
Underfoot it was certain
Never causing my boot to slip
Or my balance to lose its sway

 

And so life continues. I must do what needs to be done and I'm fortunate to be able to do some work even though the frailty of my body limits me. As a community development worker my work has been about engaging with individuals and groups of people, particularly as they seek to engage with grassroots community action within the context of the church. I find this a necessary part of my spirituality

Circular

It is the circular gathering
that inspires me most
 
The nave is based on the model of the imperial slave ship:
Ordered lines of rowers chained to the oars
So they could pull together in the holy navy
 
And the preaching barn does not so much elevated the Word
as the Preacher
He (and always he) knows nothing of the mysteries of dialogue
 
But in the circle we discover multi-logue:
the many words
that, sometimes,
in the mystery of communion
become One

 

My work has been about dialogue, the sharing of stories as a necessary precursor for action. But I have to work with what I find and in this I have been inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, an artist who makes art out of the natural environment, bringing recurring themes to the natural world as he finds it. Sometimes this is as simple as red dust thrown into the air but he also creates massive structures of rock and stone, always living with the reality of time and the decay of the natural world. One place that I have found where I can work with these ideas is the Circle Works which often causes me to reflect again on one of my recurring themes -- the Desert Fathers

Ropemaking

for Circle Works
 
They needed to find a way to live
Otherwise how could they be free?
 
The desert is all very well: space, quiet,
free real estate and no institutions to devour you
 
But we are no angels; food is necessary
and minimal amounts of ready cash
 
Prayer does not turn stones into bread
and solitude does not clothe freezing bodies
 
So these practical men applied themselves:
Burning with a fiery piety, they took
 
The providential gift of rushes
And learning to twist them into the ropes of their freedom
 
They found, in this repetitive, hand-blistering work,
A simple way to still the heart and finance their solitude.
 
So now in our mechanical age
Where such a simple wilderness seems altogether too remote
 
We seek again that solid interweaving of prayer and work
Which will free us from new demons.

 

The Circle Works has only been one of many sites where I have discovered the joys of dialogue and working together -- as well as its frustrations and disappointments. The wider context of my work has always been London and in this extraordinary city I have often found a strange wonder which has lifted me beyond the necessities of work into that place which feeds my longing heart

London

It was beautiful
The bridge over the river
 
The night dark
The lights countless
 
London, shrouded and mysterious
Becomes like heaven on earth
 
The greedy ones become angels
The noisy ones seraphs of the celestial choir.
 
All is serene on the bridge over the river
In the late night, early hours of the shrouded city

 

But my time in London seems to be coming to an end and I've must find new places in which to work, wonder and hear the voices of the celestial choir

A New Perambulation

Perambulation 2.  The action of travelling through and inspecting a territory or region; a survey.  1576

Shorter Oxford Dictionary

 
The end of the road is always the sea
We can only walk so far on this small island
Before all hills are flattened
All cities drowned
All trees submerged
 
And over this surface I cannot pass.
A brave soul, strong or reckless, might attempt to swim
But first of all we reach for human technology
Whether that be coracle or supertanker,
For miracle is too distant a possibility to our secular soul.
 
Yet first I must stop:
Smell the strange air, feel the unsettling wind,
Know a strange dread at the secret fathoms.
This requires thought, I can walk no longer,
The journey must end here or find a new perambulation.

 

I await new places in which to search for that holy balance between a work which deeply engages with the humus of our lives, the Sabbath rest which breathes the open spaces of the blue sky and that honest probing of the interior life without which we are nothing more than wreckage floating upon the unfathomable ocean

Seeking

I seek the strength within
the deep well
the dark pool
the utter fullness
 
I touch the deep beneath
the low point
the empty place
the silence
 
Here
I am full for being empty
light for being dark
hopeful
and begun, once more, in peace

 

This is my best place. This is the foundation of true human being -- the determined engagement with life, it's pain and disappointment, and also its good fortune and moments of deep delight

Mining

Now we are alive
and living in humanity's cauldron
 
and if we are to survive
we must take the bleak ore of happenstance
 
and with relentless courage
burn it with a fierce love
 
that out of the dark and murky grist
liquid ingots can be poured
 
gold may be forthcoming,
but if it is only base iron
 
I will not complain
for it is the better for building bridges
 
and making our life a human habitation

 

In this there is always language. The necessary tool of dialogue. The foundation of human cooperation which can itself be a source of wonder and joy

Poetry

Simple words
Direct images
Metaphors restrained
Rhyme occasionally
but above all (as in life)
The Rhythm

 

But words are also deceptive. I find it necessary to distance myself from the poets and always be reminded that love is better than words

Stuffed

And now, there are too many words
my crop is stuffed with them
my heart choked with them
I suffocate in their abundance
 
They are not the holy words:
that brief breath of the wise
which sits lightly upon the earth
easing our passage to death
 
But the heavy words of judgment
and opinion and noise
the half lives and the dead truths
which make men great and God small

 

And yet I continue to sing, continue to seek to find the words that communicate and draw me into that shared search for meaning, love and useful work

Song

The first words, perhaps, were sung
 
An ancient voice found melody
And communicated the first verb
Go
Come
Look
 
That tuneful grunt
Piercing the fog of miscomprehension
Made of the weak many, the one mighty army of humanity
 
And when we let words flow
In that river of song
We rediscover
The ocean depths of our one self

 

The word which perhaps encompasses this is Wisdom. It has always been something which has fascinated and drawn me and I am much persuaded by those three marginalized books of the Hebrew Scriptures: Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes that the quest for wisdom is the very heart of life.

Wisdom

Wisdom, perhaps, is to be found
in finding the right words,
for without communication
we are all fools
 
But it must, also
be more than the choice phrase
or the bon mot,
living most fully in the education of desire
 
For wisdom exists
not in the possession of the world
but in the embrace and the release
of everything that is.
 
drunk on the spirit
she accepts no substitutes
gorged on truth
she has no need to vomit.
 
For in Wisdom
everything is as it is,
desire and hatred both exist
but neither is the master.