Tag Archives: life

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.

Alton Abbey 011 blog

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

Tree of Life

Tree of Life, © Mary Fleeson, 2009, www.lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk

Detail from Tree of Life, © Mary Fleeson, 2000, www.lindisfarne-scriptorium.co.uk

A poem inspired by Mary Fleeson’s ‘Tree of Life’, that was written for a series of prayer stations at St John’s Church, Hedge End for Easter Sunday 5th April 2015

Tree of Life

in the midst of death
there is life;
life drawn from the
living water
and anchored in
the spirit;
spreading branches
o’er the whole of creation
to revitalise and renew;
manifest in grain and vine
in sorrow and in joy;
to fall and rise
on celestial wings;
no longer earth-bound;
with wounded limbs
both glorious and sublime.

The Holy Innocents In The Shadow Of The Cross

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Festival of the Holy Innocents is never an easy day on which to preach; its subject matter can be unsettling and difficult to broach. However, the connections between the nativity and the cross are worth exploring. Readings: Matthew 2:13-18 , Jeremiah 31:15-17

This morning’s readings are not the easiest for us to hear for many reasons. The subjects are in stark contrast to the glad tidings and joy of Jesus’ birth. Although the things written about are actually separated by several months from this event, this year it is only three days, since we left the miraculous birth of Christ, represented so often in bucolic Christmas Card nativity scenes with the glowing lantern-lit stable, tranquil Holy Family, rosy-cheeked cherubs  and fluffy sheep – only to be suddenly faced with the horrors of death.

For many people it’s easy to accept at face value the story of the Nativity, there’s nothing that feels threatening about the story, despite the subtle intimation of the Magi’s gift of myrrh, but even that’s saved for next week. It is a happy event, yet Matthew’s gospel reveals a baby who is apparently considered so much of a threat to the region’s most powerful man that he kills a whole village of babies in order to try to get rid of him. This Jesus he had heard about was interfering with Herod’s ambitions.

However, we should not be surprised by Herod’s murderous intentions. He was a past master of assassination. No sooner had he come to the throne than he began annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, slaughtering 300 court officers out of hand.  He also murdered his wife Marianne, his mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater and two other sons Alexander and Aristobulus.

Even at the hour of his death he wanted to arrange the killing of the leading citizens of Jericho. Consequently, initiating the slaughter of 20-30 babies would not have been out of character, and would not have really caused much of a stir in a land rife with murders – except to their heart-broken mothers.

Throughout the whole of history, malevolent tyrants have used their power to remove any perceived threat to their authority.  We only have to recall over the last few months, the persecution and brutal execution of Christians, including children, in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State, with its strong resonances to the story of the Holy Innocents; and even more recently, the massacre of 132 children in Peshawar, Pakistan by Taliban militants. All of them innocent, all of them offering no obvious threat to their evil killers, simply murdered because of a misconceived sense of a potential future threat.

Being innocent is not the same as being in the wrong place at the wrong time – they were all in their rightful places, at home with their families, in places of trust such as schools – what then do we imagine it was like when the soldiers burst in and tore the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers or when terrified children look up only to be met by a hail of bullets as they frantically tried to escape.

The death of innocent victims always taps into our basic emotions – but the death of a child touches us deep within. For example, although I have never personally been to any of the Nazi concentration camps, I have seen the evidence in films and books. However, my daughter Ruth, after a trip to Auschwitz, told me that it wasn’t the sophistication of the gas chamber showers, or the ovens and chimneys that caused her to have a lump in her throat; it was the neatly stacked pile of children’s shoes that finally broke her heart at the poignancy of it all.

The poignancy of children's shoes in Auschwitz

The poignancy of children’s shoes in Auschwitz

All these deaths go against our perceived proper order of things – that children grow up, become the next generation of adults and have children of their own. What does become clear then is that if people can be ungodly then they can also be inhumane and that whenever the truth and goodness of God are seen, then a backlash of evil is provoked and innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

So despite the cosiness of the nativity story it is more accurate to recall that Jesus was also recognised as Immanuel, meaning ‘God with Us’. That he was born not to home comforts, but to endure pain, suffering and injustice just like the people to whom he came. He came to show this world the way of love; the way of peace; the way of justice.

He showed us how we should live and act during our time on earth, by cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, like kindness, faithfulness and self-control; but he was not equipping us for this life but for the next. His birth already had signs of the more significant part of his life – his death.

Because of this, his story can bring comfort to all who go through the unbearable agony of the death of a child or those who suffer because of human cruelty, since they are redeemable and redeemed, because Jesus is the ultimate innocent victim, his death on the cross conquering over the uttermost depths of sin and evil

The Shadow of the Cross Across The Manger

The star may continue to shine in the sky but the shadow of the cross falls across the whole story

Jeremiah’s prophecy is referring to God’s covenant to bring the Babylonian exiles back –  and that although Israel must weep and mourn, rescue is on its way. In the same way Jesus brings deliverance even when everything seems bleak and hopeless. Jesus has been born as the bearer of God’s salvation.  Thus a new exodus is begun and continued through the death of the Holy Innocents – it is looking forward to the last day when Christ will establish his kingdom and God will make everything new. We weep with the parents and families but God will turn this mourning into joy  and gladness and we have to hold on to this hope.

We also have to remember that God is not responsible for the massacre this was not a prophecy to fulfil a purpose, but a prophecy that had been fulfilled. It is Herod, who is fully aware of the threat Jesus poses that perpetrates these atrocities, or who more accurately despatches his soldiers to carry them out.

What of the soldiers who simply ‘obeyed orders?’ Could we sometimes be like them, when we collude with evil by not intentionally standing against it , when we look on as child sex traffickers, exploiters of street children or dictators who use hunger as a political weapon and thereby allow the innocent to suffer – surely these are situations to which the church, both with a big and a small ‘C’ must loudly proclaim ‘No’ to the world.

In rapid and dramatic contrast to ‘the glory all around’ of Christmas, Jesus takes his place where so many of his children live and there should the church, his body, always be. Though death attends his birth, his own death will declare that death is never the answer in spite of every Herod’s belief. His presence amidst life’s direst need and his triumph over life’s adversary are the birth of hope for his followers in all times, places and circumstances.

This is where the story of love incarnate leads. For the Holy innocents their deaths are part of the sacrifice of Christ for the whole human race. Therefore, all can be hopeful who die innocently – innocent victims of war, terror, natural disaster, cruelty, accident, abuse, oppression – these are not wasted lives!

Christ’s story mirrors their stories – he suffered innocently, died prematurely, but took on and defeated death itself and so holds the keys to life. The face of Jesus, shines out from the crib and shows us not only the glory of God, but is a vision of hope and love for us today.

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt

A Weekend Away

The Lord's unfailing love and mercy still continue, Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise.

‘The Lord’s unfailing love and mercy still continue,
Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise’   Lamentations 3:22-23

Travelling on a Friday to spent the weekend away in a hotel in the leafy Buckinghamshire countryside sounds just what one needs to take a break from the stress and strain of juggling study and work. Except the person in the car next to you isn’t your husband, and your suitcase, as well as containing a swimming costume for possible use in the promised spa pool, also holds your laptop, essay notes and several course text books for bedtime reading.

This is the OMC weekend away and it turns out to be just what the doctor of theology ordered!

It starts well with an interesting and absorbing conversation in the car to the extent that we ignore the Sat Nav’s informative directions and find ourselves approaching the much dreaded and legendary [avoid it with a barge pole if you don’t want to spend your evening counting daisies in the central reservation] M25 motorway. Amazingly the way is clear!

What other wonders might the weekend hold?

Well the hotel turns out to be very comfortable; the meals delicious and the work enjoyable which is great but not entirely surprising… What the weekend does reveal more is the joy and pleasure to be gained from growing in fellowship and friendship with those who are with you

True fellowship comes as you begin to discover more about other people and start to understand what makes them tick. The fact that the introverts need to get away from time to time to recharge the batteries, and that having an early night isn’t anti-social but necessary. Whereas, the extroverts build up their strength by spending time getting together with others at the end of day, maybe over a glass of wine or beer in the bar

Mealtimes are also a great opportunity to discover more about each other, as you relax and converse between mouthfuls – literally chewing over life – as you uncover connections and things you have in common or different. In the same way a long walk during free-time in the companionship of two or three others, along some of the beautiful (but slightly muddy) footpaths and country lanes result in much chat and laughter

A view to gladden the heart

A view to gladden the heart

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing
1 Thessalonians 5:11

As relationships start to blossom you begin to know that you can trust those around you more and more, and getting together with your prayer group affirms that; as you share the concerns that are on your mind, celebrate the good things that have happened and encourage each other lovingly.

None of the above need only take place in the confines of a hotel or a weekend or a theological college course setting. Getting to know, to understand and to love others takes place everyday in our ordinary, stuck in reality, lives. Just remember…

Life is short,
and we do not have too much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us;
So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind,
And may the Divine Mystery Who is beyond our ability to know
but Who made us, and Who loves us, and Who travels with us,
Bless us and keep us in peace.
Amen.

A benediction by Dr. Edmund Jones adapted from words by philosopher and writer Henri Frederic Amiel, 1821-1887