Tag Archives: contemplation

Savouring Solitude

Savouring the solitude of Alton Abbey

Savouring the solitude of Alton Abbey

Prior to my ordination, after which life will change and inevitably get a lot busier, I decided to spend a day on a personal retreat at Alton Abbey. This community of Benedictine monks offers generous hospitality, prayerful worship and a space to simply be, all the while surrounded by a  natural and inviting arbors from which you can gaze at the world in contemplation.

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Be still, and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

I went there principally to gain a sense of stillness; a few hours to calm the mind and refresh the soul, but as the day wore on I realised that there is never complete stillness in solitude. For God’s presence is fully alive in creation and she demonstrates her vivacity in a vibrant showy display of life in sight, sound and smell.

On other occasions It might have been a day for expressing myself in poetry or art, but I discovered that this day was purely a time for sitting and waiting, observing and listening. Let me share some of these moments with you now.

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The Abbey houses bathed in sunlight

Firstly, I have to acknowledge that I visited on a glorious, sunny day – something that the Brothers told me was unusual, as the Abbey often has its own micro-climate of fog and rain, and summertime has its own pleasures when the freshness of spring has given way to abundant blooms and lushness of grass and burgeoning leaves on trees. So after a period of settling into the room I have been allocated for the day I ventured out into the gardens and grounds

A walk along the first path I saw from the doorway took me past the overflowing honeysuckle (see title picture) with its sweet scent and colourful trumpets, before I came to a pause, suddenly aware of the movement and sounds that were coming to me. A row of trees whispered loudly that they were very much alive as their leaves danced in rhythm with the breath of the Spirit; their rippling tones a background pulse to the melody of the birds whose notes rose and fell as if urgently repeating a song of sheer joy.

Woodland shades

Woodland shades

Choices… whether to take the woodland path or enter the formal garden with its gated entrance and a notice that stated, ‘You are welcome, the rabbits are not! Please shut the gate behind you’. I plumped for the shady woods.

Fallen fruits, yet like sparrows 'not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father' Matthew 10:29It was cooler and quieter here, and yet underneath my feet crunched the husks of autumnal beech nuts, reminding me of harvest abundance. Whilst the cascade of lace-capped hydrangea and towering rhododendrons gave promises of future profusion and growth. Even the flowers that had fallen to the floor, still radiated beauty; and in the dappled shifting shade, glints of light flashed like beacons signalling a presence.

Fallen blooms, yet like sparrows ‘not one of them will fall to the ground
unperceived by your Father’ Matthew 10:29

On days like this, time ticks imperceptibly onward and I found it was necessary to hurry back into the Abbey Church to join the Brothers in Midday Prayer, then lunch, which even though it was taken in silence, was much appreciated and gave one time to digest one’s thoughts.

The drowsy courtyard steeped in peace

The drowsy courtyard steeped in peace

The sun by now was high above in a cloudless sky and although I am not normally a sun-worshiper of any kind, I was drawn to the tranquility of the courtyard where I settled on a stone bench and closed my eyes, Warmth has its own life, as it seeps into your bones and lingers on the surface of your skin. My sense of drowsiness was dispelled by the sound of water erupting in shimmering jets of cascading jewels that fell to tumble over a moss-covered fountain, splashing the lily pads, under which fish found shade, their diaphanous tails swirling in lazy circles. All the while the tall purple and yellow irises quivered in anticipation  as gentle bees brushed their petals and a kaleidoscope of pansies turned their faces to the sun, exuding a honeyed fragrance so familiar from childhood.

Alton Abbey Daisies 012 blogThere is nowhere that creation is out of place and as I left the courtyard, my feet grazed the small stubborn weeds that had pushed their way up through the cracks in the paving and brushed against delicate ferns that sprouted in vertiginous splendour high up on the walls. These humbler plants, despite attempts to eradicate their existence, are no less beautiful, and as I walked around the side of the church to seek a shadier nook I encountered tiny white daisies nestling with bright blue speedwell and baby pink cranesbill, which had escaped the mower’s blades.

As always when you visit somewhere for the first time, you’re never one hundred percent sure whether you might stray into areas that are private; secret places full of hidden treasures. Yet the well-worn wall seat was placed invitingly at the end of the two pools of water and seemed a perfect place to linger before Evening Prayer and Supper. Here I was rewarded with a deep feeling of peace, as if God had saved the best till last. Here was life in abundance from the immeasurable variety of insects, including carmine and turquoise bodied dragonflies hovering on lacy wings, and the unseen life within the silty mud, that sent bubbles up to break the tension of the water’s surface, to the chattering house martins that swooped overhead.

I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places. Psalm 45:3

I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places. Psalm 45:3

As the day drew to a close, and I packed my bag and said farewell to the Brothers, I reflected how lucky I was to have been granted that time and that space to simply be another small part of God’s incredible creation. Those images and thoughts that filled my time there will no doubt sustain me for quite a while to come; a point in time both sacred and divine, a moment of sheer grace.

Alton Abbey blooms blog

Exuberant life in seed and bloom

For more information about Alton Abbey, its people and the work it does, click here

Coming Into The Presence of God

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Coming into the presence of God

Another weekend at Cuddesdon brings new insights and experiences. Whilst not my first choice, the title of the workshop ‘Embodied Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality’ filled me with a sense of intrigue.

I would class my churchmanship as neither high nor low, but rather open to a smorgasbord of traditions. I therefore, was quite receptive to finding out more about what some might class as the high end of the church where orthodoxy is concerned.

In fact where orthodoxy is concerned the Western church is somewhat of an upstart according to the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims to use the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity. However, I digress…

Our main purpose of the day would be to explore contemplative or noetic prayer as well as embodiment prayer – the former both involves silence and stillness (hesychia) and monologistic prayer (i.e. repeating a word or phrase such as the Jesus Prayer) – whilst the latter included prostration and the sign of the cross.

Standing to pray

Standing to pray

As the latter was more unfamiliar to me I will mention that first. Embodiment prayer, as the name suggests involves using the body in prayer and there are many ways of doing this – whether standing or kneeling or prostrating yourself – all the while offering prayer either using a set form of words or your own words. Some of which postures may seem unfamiliar practices to your average Anglican!

The Sign of the Cross

The Sign of the Cross

When it comes to making the sign of the cross during worship, it is a gesture that very often gives an immediate clue as to people’s Anglican tradition – that is those of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion. Again, this was something that I was not used to doing either in worship or prayer. Nevertheless, when it was explained using an illustration of an icon based on the baptism of Christ I was able to better appreciate its meaning.

The Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ hand written by Tamara Rigishvili *

This beautiful icon [which is written not painted] shows the Trinity as a straight line from the heights of heaven to the depths of the waters – we can therefore image our bodies when we are standing upright representing that line. Our heads are warm because of the activity of our brains, from which flows creative energy (the Father), our stomachs are the watery region (the Son submerged at his baptism) and our lungs breathing air in and out (the life giving Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost)

Imagine if you will then, your thumb and first two fingers, held together as a trinitarian symbol, tracing a line from your head to your stomach up to your right shoulder then across to your left and then resting in the middle by your heart – ‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.’ – its symbolism becomes clearer and more affective.

However, it was the practical session on contemplative prayer that was to prove the most rewarding. Noetic prayer, as it is also known, uses a form of silent prayer (hesychia) in which the body is stilled, the ‘chattering mind’ silenced, thus creating a space where you are open to receive God. Of course it’s never that easy to just switch off your thoughts, but it allows an awareness of both intrusions and physical discomforts and lets them be by bringing yourself back to the awareness of the sense of stillness within your whole body. External noises also become absorbed so that they don’t become a distraction. It is into this space that prayer subconsciously occurs.

Psalm 46:10

Psalm 46:10

There is plenty of biblical evidence of being called to stillness in order to hear God’s voice… within many of the Psalms for example – ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) or ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence‘ (Psalm 62:1) – and Jesus takes time to be alone with his Father, no doubt in silence as well… whether in the desert or drawing apart from his followers on occasions.

Of course, I would not, after only a couple of sessions, claim in any way to be an expert, but the technique is basically to find a comfortable place to sit, with both your feet on the ground and to work your way up your body, recognising the sensations in each part as you still yourself, drawing back to your feet, your knees, your hands, etc., should thoughts intrude; all the while becoming aware of your breathing and its natural rhythm……

What was the prayer that formed inside me during this time? Well it actually turned out to be a piece of poetry… from out of the stillness and the silence by which I came into the presence of God

Coming Into the Presence of God

Warmth suffuses the window pane,
As sunshine splashes, in gold and yellow rays
on the cushioned sill;
Sharp shadows are softened and shimmer.
I draw my knees closer
and sink into silent stillness.
The world is on pause.

Invisible neurons continue to fire;
exposed in intermittent patches of tingling energy
through soles of feet and top of scalp.
Pain ebbs and flows,
absorbed in gentle eddies;
while breath synchronises
with the ticking of the mantel clock
and thus fades as if time is motionless…

Even so the heartbeat of the earth
still pulses in sounds it offers;
received in encoded messages,
yet unencrypted to the keen ear.
A solitary bird, unseen, chirrups its joy,
and wood pigeons coo in rhythmic metre,
unfazed by passing traffic’s intrusion.

A creak, a sigh,
the door and I hold our breath;
but the inevitable slam is muted;
fading away, as calmness interrupts
and a sense of presence grows.
Like a glimmer through closed eyelids;
which open as a breeze brushes my skin

Outside, the tender branches of the trees,
laden with buds and burgeoning leaves
ripple and vibrate, echoing the silent force
of life and spirit.
Springtime flowers bend to the earth,
then dip and bob like cheery marionettes;
all proclaiming divine mystery

Recalled back into the room
by gentle chink of plate and cup,
a signal of beckoning refreshment,
and congenial chatter….
Still hold the moment a little longer
to remember another meal
and revelation in broken bread,
gone and yet forever present

The day’s workshops were led by the Reverend Jim Barlow, presently the Assistant Curate at St Peters, Burnham, Buckinghamshire and previously a student at Ripon College, Cuddesdon

*Tamara very kindly gave me permission to use her beautiful artwork in this piece. To find out more about her work please look on her website http://www.tamarapaint.com/