Friday, 28 October 2016

Going Beyond



Discerning the Spiritual Path

One of my abiding memories is of sitting on a limestone outcrop partway up a hill in the Yorkshire Dales. I had with me a pocket bible and was reading Psalm 23 out loud. A group of sheep had gathered round the rock, to listen I presumed. Indeed one or two were laying down ruminating no doubt on the words of the Psalm.

My four children, having no wish to be associated with this ‘strange’ activity, had persuaded my wife to take them off a safe distance.

Why was I engaged in this pursuit? Because a Christian lady for whom I had a deep respect had told me how the Psalms read aloud, as was the writer’s intention, came to life. She maintained that this was especially true if this took place out-of-doors in an environment similar to that in which they were originally conceived. David, the Shepherd King would, she thought, have enjoyed the idea of his psalm being read to the sheep!

This story had an interesting sequel when some years later one of my sons camping alone on a hillside in Cumbria during an Outward Bound Course, similarly read Psalm 121 to some sheep and the night sky. He told us that, having done so, he no longer felt alone.

Why are these experiences relevant to what follows? Because they demonstrated that inspired words have great power as well as interesting outcomes. Both of us in our different ways found inspiration in looking beyond our immediate situations to what someone else had revealed three thousand or so years before. Discovering the spiritual within and around us and allowing it to grow is, to say the very least, uplifting. As we pay attention to the nature of that within, so we grow. As we grow, so our awareness of the spiritual in others and around us will heighten. What is offered here are some pointers I have discovered as I have followed that spiritual path.

Why have I chosen to do this? Because it seems to me that we have, as a people, reached another one of the crossroads which are regular features of the human journey. Especially in our Western world, the old certainties of the Christian faith have been swept away. The debris left behind offers little by way of spiritual guidance. But that is not to say it cannot be found by diligent search.

If there is anything to be learned from junctions or turning points in the human journey it is surely that the rapid abandonment of previous structures and behaviour is likely to leave people struggling to find a solid basis for their lives. This is especially so when it comes to what may be seen as the important questions life poses. For example: what, if anything, comes after bodily death is a question which has no answer other than that provided by an individual’s faith whether that be in atheism or some other belief. For many who have abandoned a formal religion, which at least provided a basis or starting point for understanding, nothing has taken its place other than in a somewhat vague ‘pick and mix’ way.

For those who are prepared to probe a little deeper, the exploration of a surprising continuity can be discovered which I call the Beyond. I do this for two reasons: firstly because it is beyond my understanding although within my experience and, secondly just because it represents the link with the here and now but beyond death.

For me the Beyond has been caught in glimpses, some of which I share here. My purpose in doing so is to encourage others to search for themselves, as well as to provide reassurance to the hesitant.

Finally, by way of introduction I offer this thought. In the first half of our lives we tend to be busy with all those activities which fill our time and use our seemingly limitless energy. Each of us, however, inevitably reaches the day that provides a sharp reminder of our mortality. Wisdom suggests that we might find it helpful in response to consider taking stock. We can also choose to make doing so as a regular part of life similar to those other features that we see as part of the rhythm of our day. I hope that these thoughts may offer for some a starting point in that process.

Each of the chapters that follow is preceded by a set of tasks which are designed to provide a focus for very specific and careful consideration of your life. Whereas it is my experience that most people prefer to answer questions before reading the chapter, it may be more useful for some to answer afterwards. It is your choice.


Task 1

Life unfolding: Three important words.

1) SEE: What do you see as being the purpose or objective of your life?

2) CHOOSE: What activities do you choose to engage in and why?
Do they stem from the view you have of life and, if so, how do they help?

3) SELECT: How do you choose who to spend time with?
Again, do your selections help forward the purpose or objectives given in answer to question 1?

Chapter One

Where are you going? - Time and how to use it.

What do you see as being the point of your life? Indeed, do you see life as anything other than an experience to be lived? How have you gone about choosing the activities in which you engage and the companions you have selected to accompany you on life’s journey? How much time do you spend looking at what you are doing and who you spend time with and why? How do you see the choices you have made as helping to achieve your objectives in life?

It is, I suspect, the most common opening gambit on meeting someone for the first time to enquire how they occupy themselves. How do they spend their time? Do they have a job? Establishing these things tells us about their status and puts them into a category. One of the joys of retirement is that saying one is retired keeps people guessing about what we did when we worked. In other words it puts off the categorising for just a little bit longer! The human capacity for establishing a pecking order uses all sorts of tactical ploys to gather information. Job, car, clothing and speech are just a few of the clues which play their part in putting people into slots which then allow us to decide where to place folk when we compare them with ourselves and others. That, of course, still leaves outstanding what for some is the biggest question of all, namely our guess as to their wealth or lack of it!

When all this speculation is over we are still left with the unknown quantity of how we decide whether this person is or is not worth knowing. When it is put in that very blunt way we realise, with something of a jolt perhaps, what we are actually doing and why. It maybe because we are, after all, very busy people with very full lives and we do not, as a result, have time to waste on folk who really don’t fit into our schedules or those desirable categories we want to cultivate. In other words, we may ask ourselves whether we really want to ‘network’ this person in our lives.
Listening to some people with their lists and the value placed on them, in fact speaks volumes about this assessment process. This applies equally to the traits, jobs and connections of individuals we assess as well as to the categories of groups and activities that have to be evaluated and their priorities. Firstly there is the ‘tight-knit’ family with its prescribed demands dictated by, in Western culture at least, the matriarch (mostly) or patriarch (from time to time) who checks that the various aunts, uncles, cousins brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces etc., have each received their allocated amount of attention from us.

We are taught that no family worthy of the name can be anything other than a ‘tight-knit’ one and our own immediate family takes pride of place of course. Our ‘in-laws’ may get some sort of look-in if they are lucky but they cannot really compete with ‘tight-knit’. Secondly our jobs have to be accommodated, where ‘his’ often takes pride of place and ‘hers’ has to fit in - although that maybe changing.

Added to this are children’s activities, which have their own singular importance and create, as a result, their own peculiar problems. In some family structures there is, for example, particularly in the case of sons, the reflected glory of the football or rugby team and winning trophies. This means following in father’s footsteps, and so the demand for space in the timetable trumps everything else.

And then there are our friends. Here we have a peculiarly modern problem. What does the word ‘friend’ actually mean? Are they the people we communicate with on social networks? If so, how much time do we spend on them? How often are we in touch with them? Is there a difference in our minds, or indeed in reality, between the quality of such ‘friendships’ and others where we actually meet and talk to real live people? How do we judge the nature, importance and, dare I say, maturity – or, indeed, value of our friendships when allocating our time?

I couch the questions as I do because, in thinking about our response to the question ‘who am I’, we begin to see that the answer is already being shaped substantially by what other people make of us – what they turn us into if you like. Who do we have to be if we are not going to ‘rock the boat’? To what extent do we make ourselves, in other words, fit into the demands made upon us? In answering that question we have to bear in mind that what we have looked at here so far, are just three sources of such demands: namely family, work and friends.
So what do we look like in the picture we have created of ourselves? It seems that this trinity of family role, job description and social circle defines the picture we have put together so far, but is that how we feel about it?

Being busy
Part of the problem that confronts many of us throughout our lives is ‘busyness.’ Like much of what we encounter, ‘sufficient’ is good but we tend to stray on one side or the other of it. It is probably fair to say that in our middle years we are inclined to be too busy for a whole variety of reasons that allow us, we believe, to justify a lifestyle which is in fact excessively rushed and crowded rather than sufficient.

Why is that relevant to the question of the purpose and direction of our lives? One answer may be because a life based on worthwhile beliefs that offer us guidance, ought to include not just guidelines for our conduct in relation to others but also in relation to ourselves. In other words it will be balanced.

In many ways that word ‘balance’ goes to the heart of the matter. The life which is spent dashing from one activity or person to another rarely has time to make a satisfying contribution to any of them, nor does it get true satisfaction in return because ‘there just wasn’t/isn’t or won’t be, TIME.’

What is it that drives this often frenetic activity, be it in our social lives or in the world of business? Often an underlying cause is FEAR. The fear of being left out – “If I don’t go I may not get included next time” is just as big a motivator in the business world as in the social whirl. We also often include our offspring in the ‘I’ because we do not want them to be overlooked either. There is also the fear of not being liked which causes us to do whatever it takes to please those we want to impress.

‘Meeting-itus’ is the way I saw much of the so called ‘vital’ activity in the worlds of business and local government when I was a part of them. Sometimes meetings were quite helpful, a few were even necessary, too many were excuses for not making a decision, passing the buck or stroking the right ego. All took time and put pressure on what was left to the participants for creative thought and mature reflection if the dulling of the senses by the meetings had not made this all but impossible.

Very frequently the ordinary day in the ordinary life is much the same as the business world I have described in the early and middle years of our lives. It is often a failure to recognise the dangers inherent in this excessive busyness that leads to at least three undesirable outcomes.

  • Our children may come to reflect the least desirable aspects of our frenetic behaviour.

  • We may not have time to discover who we really are while we can still alter course.

  • As we enter our autumn years, we all too frequently hang on to the past because we believe it will provide us with security and it is, after all, the only way we know.

Too often, when people have lived like this, they seek to impose their own generation’s unamended views on their children and grandchildren and use emotional and financial blackmail to achieve their objective. That way has dangers for all concerned. When we are stuck in the past then the risk we run lies in our failure to learn today’s language. Language, like attitudes, is in constant flux and unless we, at the very least, keep abreast of language we will have no hope of coping with the emerging customs of our time. That way leads to loneliness and even isolation.

Danger lies in wait for the unwary parent in particular because a lack of wisdom and maturity will be passed from parent to child down the generations if it is allowed to. In other words family can be good but our unquestioning acceptance of all its requirements is unwise. ‘Family’ must allow us to mature as the individuals we are. ‘Close-knit’ can be very supportive but equally maybe suffocating and self-seeking.

What might be a starting point for the avoidance of these traps? For example, if we take the words “GOING BEYOND”, can they help us? I think they can, especially if we look at adding a few extra words to them such as ‘the ties that bind’. Going along with family traditions, relationships and expectations can be ties that bind us to ways of going about things which would not ordinarily be our choice. We need to be respectful but not at the expense of our own development. This is especially the case when we have our own family to consider. ‘My family’ can be a very emotive expression when it seems to excludes, for example, a spouse or partner’s family.

Finding Authenticity
I have already alluded to FEAR as being a major, if hidden problem for many. We are afraid of exclusion, of being an outsider - thought of as being a bit of an ‘oddity’. Even politicians speak of wanting to be at ‘the heart of Europe,’ or, ‘at the table.’ They want to be in the clubhouse making the big decisions, not on the fringe looking through the window, even though the clubhouse merely contains another session of buck-passing!

So ‘our family’ can help us to feel safe in an unfriendly and threatening world. It gives us a voice and an acknowledged place in the pecking order albeit in a limited environment. However, a family cannot, and indeed should not, do any more. It cannot try to shield us from the reality that we have to learn how to live our own lives. We have to make our mistakes and cope with their repercussions. When someone else picks up the pieces for us we do not really learn as we should. We also have to use the language of our own generation and then discern for ourselves what we should take into our own vocabulary and what to preserve from the past. What emerges from this is our own language for the future.

So we need to develop an authentic voice of our own and when we get into mid-life this is something to which we should give special attention particularly if we have not done so before. In the first half of life we live by the rules, jump through the hoops and play the cultural games of youth. However, as we approach our middle years we ought to be recognising that there is more to life than this.

What I am suggesting here is that while it is necessary for society, institutions and government to have structures in order to function and command some sort of respect, human beings are individuals who, as they mature, need to look beyond the bureaucratic in order to live whole lives. I suggest that bureaucracy is about control but maturity demands authenticity in the whole person.

The maturity of which I speak ought of necessity to change the way we relate to family and friends as well as society and our part in it. It is often the fear of giving offence, altering the balance perhaps, in sensitive areas like this that can cause us a problem. Those who in the past have determined who we are may not like it if we start to develop a different understanding of our previous position and future interests. However, when we have children of our own to whose family do they ‘belong’? I ask this because we need to bear in mind that they start out with at least three families and not just ‘ours’ – whichever or whatever we think that is.

Looking Beyond
At this point I need to draw attention to a human tendency, especially common in the West, namely to view everything in an “either/or” dualistic manner. I mean by this, black or white, good or bad, for or against. Our government for example is ‘us and them’; those in power and the opposition. Our justice is ‘innocent or guilty’. Especially when we are young, ‘our team, our group, this pop star’ dominates and shapes our thinking and we are satisfied with this quick and easy way of accepting or ignoring. After all, we say to ourselves we have not got time for ‘maybe’ and we want desperately to be on the winning side.

Maturity requires us to move past this limited way of thinking where an idea is put forward, tested and either disproved or accepted until a better idea comes along. Thus, in our middle years, we may awaken to the fact that many things do not quite fit into such as easy two-dimensional pattern and that we need to look more deeply We begin to recognise that there were some matters which, in our early certainties we put on one side believing we could ignore them, but now we see it is not quite that easy.

The biggest of these deferred questions is ‘what next?’ Perhaps we need to address the possibility that life does not conclude when we die. Belief and experience, which have no physical expression, do not lend themselves to the sort of two-dimensional scrutiny we can offer at this stage of human development and expertise. What, for example, do we make of the following?

A few years ago I had an operation which required a general anaesthetic. Immediately beforehand, the anaesthetist asked me what I would dream about. I told him that in previous operations I did not dream but that, according to others I did speak! I asked him to remember if I said anything and to let me know. After the operation the anaesthetist came to see me. He reported that when I was well and truly anaesthetised he accompanied me on my trolley into theatre. Just as the surgeon was about to start the operation I apparently said “I see Jesus coming to me” and everything went haywire and took several minutes to stabilise. This very experienced doctor said he had never encountered anything like it before and would prefer never to do so again! Science would find this difficult to cope with.

I accept that the problem which looms as we begin to explore possible answers to the ‘what next’ question is that religion, which can be a potential source of answers, has in many instances succumbed to the very same difficulty we face elsewhere. Just as families, clubs and institutions have hierarchies, politics and bureaucracy, so do religious organisations. The result is that dogma and orthodoxy tend to stifle debate and to shy away from difficult questions.

So in all these areas we need, I suggest, to dare to ‘go beyond’. This does not mean ‘abandon’ but ‘fill out,’ or ‘grow on from,’ develop if you like, and not allow ourselves to be held back by what has gone before.

Task 2

Spirituality and belief in prayer.

  1. Spirituality versus religion or can it be both and to the benefit of both. How do you view/deal with these two approaches to the Beyond?

  1. What does prayer mean to you? Are there experiences relating to prayer which you are prepared to share?

  1. Where do you find it easiest to pray? Do you have a particular ‘hallowed’ place? What, if anything, do you picture when you pray?

Chapter Two

Spirituality and belief in prayer.

One of today’s most popular statements, if the subject of religion crops up, is ‘I am not religious but I am spiritual.’ Sometimes this translates into a belief that there is ‘something out there’ whereupon there is a general inclination to nod in agreement. It is my experience, however, that what or who the ‘something’ is, poses significant problems when it comes to any agreement on what it might be.

In this area, this generation is no different from its predecessors I suspect. Indeed, the major world religions are a response to the problem of what is ‘out there’ and ‘what comes next’. The difficulty is that with religion, as with all human ventures, we institutionalise them. We build huge structures and hierarchies and pecking orders. This means that those who want power over others can gain it and those who want to be important but pass the buck can form a committee. Incidentally it’s also a good arrangement for those who love breaking away and forming a new group. (In the film ‘Life of Brian’ this point was made by reference to an organisation the Popular Front of Judea which had one member and was a break-away from the Judean Popular People’s Front!) It is an interesting thought that although religious institutions can be the repositories of great truths, wisdom and insight, sadly all too often these get overlooked, having been overtaken by the desire to maintain the institution itself.

Why does this happen? Perhaps it is because of two very powerful human desires. One is the wish to belong and the other the desire to own. We want to belong to our family, community, work group, club, friendship groups and so on. We also like to own our own space. Think of the wars fought for ‘our nation’ and ‘our land’. They are just big pictures of our little family group and places. As a one-time private practice solicitor, I know that boundary disputes are meat and drink to lawyers, just as on a bigger scale national land disputes are big bucks to politicians.

What, we have to ask ourselves, is the price exacted by our desire to belong? For example, do the ties we have to the ‘here and now’ prevent the discovery of what might offer us a glimpse of what lies beyond? The majority would have us conform because society is wary of those who do not see any reason to ‘fit in’. For instance, my dog collar often provokes antagonism and makes me conscious that what I see as a commitment to be of service, others perceive as a threat or challenge.

An example of what I mean occurred some years ago in a fast food restaurant where my daughter and I were sharing a lunch-time meal. A group of young men a few tables away spotted that I was a member of the clergy and, we deduced, sent one of their number to provoke a confrontation. The chap in question walked round and round our table saying various things intended to shock. My daughter, who was, and still is, far more street-wise than I am, told me to keep talking and looking at her and to avoid eye contact with him. Eventually he gave up but not without a final burst of expletives.

The response to a dog collar is akin to the general response to any question relating to one’s beliefs. It makes people nervous. It matters little whether an individual believes in some aspect of religion or thinks that such beliefs are a waste of time. Against that backdrop, words like ‘proof’, ‘facts’, ‘evidence’, and ‘research’ have almost assumed a religious status as tokens of the new order.

It is at this point that a great divide begins to reveal itself. This is because whereas secular political correctness loves the new semi-religious language of science I have already mentioned, it equally shies away from words like ‘belief’, ‘perception’ and ‘free-will’. By perception I mean that which I cannot perhaps ‘know’ as such but which I sense, feel or about which I have a ‘gut instinct’.

Let me offer an example. Someone asks me to pray with them. They do not want to talk about their problem but they say they have an important decision coming up. We pray and I lay hands on them.

I offer the picture that comes into my mind and I say ‘”I see an old pack horse bridge and you are standing on its highest point facing me. Although you can’t see it, you have a flute hanging in the air about your head and my message to you is ‘follow where it leads.’ I say a prayer of blessing and there matters rest for nearly 30 years.
It is much later that one of my sons returns to live in the town where that prayer time took place. One day he is approached by the person with whom I had prayed, who asks him to give me a message. It was that the decision for which prayer had been asked all those years ago pertained to a job offer which, if accepted would have meant a move overseas on a sky-high salary. On the other hand remaining in England would mean that an important relationship which had been developing for some time could be pursued. However, the lady in question would not be able to travel abroad because of family obligations and it would be unfair for the man with whom I prayed even to mention it to her as a possibility. In the event the man asked the lady to marry him and she agreed. They have three lovely children, now all adults, and are still very happy. What is more he said, “Do tell your dad I have always loved hearing my wife play the flute, which she still does!”

Believing in the power of prayer, having the faith to listen to the response and the perception to recognise its significance and meaning, are not amenable to the sort of investigation that leads to facts. The adherents of the secular approach would regard my story about the flute as nothing more than a series of coincidences. It bears repeating, however, that when prayer stops so do the co-incidences!

We each have our own ideas about how to make sense of what lies beyond the here and now and how to make it easy to understand and cope with and so what I want to do next is to offer you my own way of looking at this by reference to the word ‘God.’
“It is Complicated
I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that God is too big a subject, and therefore too complicated to think about. One young lady even told me that thinking about God made her brain hurt. Yet the very same people will spend hours analysing the lives of celebrities, the question of whether such and such a goal was offside or the plot lines and characters of television soap operas or films. This leads me to suspect that how we spend our time and what we think taxes our brains too much, has more to do with what we think is important and perhaps following the crowd, than what is actually too complicated.

For me God started out as big, remote and inaccessible. I was sent rather than taken to church because I could sing and was therefore told I was joining the parish church choir when I was seven. So it was that God for me became something mysterious, hidden in the smoke of the incense and rituals of the sanctuary of our Anglo-Catholic parish Church. God was, in other words, rather as the Israelites perceived him when Moses ascended the Holy Mountain to bring down the ancient law. He was a distant and angry God of laws to be obeyed and wrath to be endured, a God of smoke and thunder.

Later Jesus came into my life and, in effect, said to me, “Look, those laws are a useful guide to good living, and I don’t take anything away from them, but to make it easier I have condensed them from ten to two, namely ‘love God’ and secondly, ‘love your neighbours as yourself.’- You don’t really need anything else.”

Two questions spring to mind – namely:
  1. How hard is that?
  2. How can we give away what we have not got, namely love: in other words do we love ourselves enough to give love away?

It all sounds so easy yet turns out to be far more difficult to make work. Nevertheless, for me, Jesus has become over the years the example of how it can be done and he is also the anchor that hauls me back when I drift off course.

Then there is the indispensable, howbeit mysterious, Holy Spirit sent to us by the Father at the request of Jesus the Son. I do not intend to go in detail into the work of that third aspect of the Christian Trinity. I will confine myself to saying that it is the pattern of the Trinity that can help us so much. I see it like this. Our Father in heaven is my ultimate destination; Jesus the Son is my example of how to get there and the Holy Spirit is my guide. God is the totality from which we came and to which we are given the means of returning. We who are told we are made in God’s image, are also a trio, namely body, mind and spirit and they together presently house and nurture our souls. In other words, just as with God, the three comprises a fourth. So there we have it, namely the destination for our souls. That part of us that goes on beyond death can seek to return to the God in Heaven from which it came. That can be, if we choose to make it so, the point and purpose of our lives.

How in the meantime do we nurture those souls? The answer is, I believe, to promote our spiritual lives. Our example for doing so can be Jesus and the life he lived. He did indeed provide us with teaching during his lifetime and some of his followers have left us with instruction they have found helpful.

To me this makes sense and I call in aid to endorse something that happened when I went to the evening Mass as it was called at St Margaret’s Anglican Church in Ilkley the evening before the operation I referred to earlier.

I had asked for anointing and the laying-on of hands during the Service I experienced a vision of the risen Jesus coming towards me and ‘walking into’ me, coupled with the words “As I am in you, you are in me.” This experience was accompanied by an enormous almost overwhelming sense of peace and calm.

I have mentioned this because here I am drawing together two threads of what I am presenting to you. I said earlier that the church is a repository of truth, wisdom and traditions which have stood the test of time. In approaching the Church at a time of need I was availing myself of this tradition and in particular asking for the healing protection of Jesus. I was also acknowledging that above and beyond any other important relationship in my life, there was then and is now the one that Jesus affords me. That in no way demotes my wife because we share the same viewpoint on this. In other words we stand united in this viewpoint under God.

Here I have offered you His response at that evening service and earlier I gave you the affirmation of that response by his presence the next day. So now we have in place positive and practical features to which we all have access on all and any occasion, namely the ability to pray and to seek prayerful support.

What does prayer mean? It is simply being still, clearing our minds of all the clutter we store there and talking to that which we believe will listen and respond to us. In the next chapter I will expand on that statement with some practical frameworks but for now I want to make three observations on prayer.

The first is that I believe that in praying I am doing what Jesus tells me to do and following his example in doing so. Jesus, the model on which I base my life, does not ever tell me to do something unless he himself has done it first.

Then there is a contemporary reflection. I observe time and again couples sitting together each engrossed in their individual mobile phone on which attention is focussed in the joyous union of the shared network. Often these days an entire family’s unifying feature is the shared internet connection. For the Christian who is serious about his or her faith the equivalent will be a prayer life shared with fellow Christians as a family and complementing the individual prayer life shared in relationship with Jesus. Furthermore it is important to note that prayer of itself does not divide people who pray out of different faiths or traditions even though the exact focus of their prayer may vary from one to another.

The River
The third point for those who contemplate the Beyond, is that prayer unites us with those who have gone before us as well as those who will come after us. The river of prayer that we rejoin each time we pray has never ceased to flow. It comes to us from the Beyond and returns from whence it came. The consequence of this understanding of prayer is the recognition that neither age, nor infirmity, nor gender, or status constitute a barrier to prayer. Some Christians may bar me from the Eucharist or Mass in their traditions but I know of none that would stop me from praying with them.

As I mentioned before, there are many very instructive prayer traditions both within the Christian tradition and elsewhere. Words such as ‘contemplation’ and ‘meditation’ also feature extensively in the world of spirituality. We shall come to these later. For now, however, it bears mentioning that there is no one way of praying that we are required to observe. To me it seems that, as with human activity generally, each of us finds the way and place which suits us best. The fact that we pray is the important thing.

In conclusion, we can observe that Jesus does give us one instruction and that is to find a place where we can pray. He often withdrew into the wilderness and likewise it is good to be alone if we can. Sometimes that is not possible as I know from my times in hospital. Personally I prefer to focus on creating a ‘place apart’. This can be a physical place like a spot dedicated to prayerfulness such as a corner of a room or whatever the space available to us allows. On the other hand it can be a place we picture in our mind’s eye to which we can go wherever we are. In either case it is the state of mind and commitment associated with our ‘place’ that is important rather than the place itself. I have also found that the rhythm of walking and the ability to see and rejoice in creation as I do so, enables me to converse and listen in complete privacy.

Mary Wesley, mother of the Wesley brothers John and Charles, had a large number of children and a relatively small house. There was a stool by the kitchen range and it was known by the children that if their mother sat on the stool and put her apron over her head then she was at prayer and silence was the order of the day.

When it comes to the ‘what-to-pray-about’ of prayer, I would ask you to take as a guideline the fact that in the Christian tradition God loves us and wants a relationship with us. When we communicate with those we love, it is the fact of our creating the space to talk and their ability to hear us that is far more important than the subject matter. I know of folk who live alone for whom the sound of a human voice enquiring as to their well-being is positively angelic. A text message, although better than nothing, rarely has the same healing quality as actually knowing that someone has taken the time and trouble to let us hear that someone really cares.

Task 3

Focusing our lives - The pursuit of wisdom

  1. What qualities do you see as life affirming compared with the cultural values with which we are surrounded?

  1. How to you assess the state of your spiritual ‘wealth’? Against who or what do you measure it?

  1. How do you combat the cultural pressures when they run counter to your spiritual values? How hard is it to live ‘in’ the world but to stand apart from it?

Chapter Three

Focusing our lives - The pursuit of wisdom

As discussed in previous chapters, we are aware that people can be shaped by their fellow travellers, environment and relationships to such an extent that the true self is prevented from emerging. Does an alternative approach exist which does not require us first to don the cloak of some religion or another before we understand what the purpose of doing so might be? Yes, I think there is.

Calling on my own experience I look back forty years and discover a man in his mid-thirties, father to four young children with a responsible job in the senior management of a major financial institution. At that time I was facing the first of the sort of questions that a young enquiring mind can pose to a parent. I would have classified myself as a Christian, put C of E on a census form and jumped through the formal hoops of Sunday worship as and when it was essential. However, I asked myself - what did I really believe and why?

My pursuit of the answers to those questions was started, I am sure, by promptings from my Guardian Angel and subsequently with the revelation that Jesus was NOT a Christian but a Jewish Rabbi. I knew that this was so but had not appreciated its full significance.

Why was this single revelation important? Simply because I have come to recognise that Jesus tried to open the minds of his fellow Jews to possibilities beyond the religious beliefs of his day and in the process gave us the most extra-ordinary insights into the relationship between now and the Beyond. That realisation was the springboard, and has become the continuing inspiration, for everything in my ongoing journey ever since.

I recalled that very early in my life, perhaps when I was 8 or 9 years old, I heard a talk on the radio about Albert Schweitzer. I learnt that he once said of the music of Bach that ‘all music flowed from Bach.’ So twenty-five years later when posed that question by my son I realised that all of my understanding of the Beyond had come from Jesus. He had gathered all the wisdom that had preceded him and presented it for us in a new and accessible way and everything I knew about wisdom came from him.

What is the essential nature of that wisdom and how can we use it in our own time? I think it can best be summed up in this way. In the first half of our lives we spend our time establishing our individuality, who we are and what we stand for. In other words it is very much ego to the fore and especially so today in a society which worships celebrity and material possessions. It is the time of life for ‘I’ ‘me’ & ‘mine’ and our image and our success compared with others is very important to us. However, Wisdom tells us that these things are not nearly as important as we would like to think.

For example one piece of ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that a child is born with its fists clenched ready to fight for everything, yet an old woman dies with her hands wide open because she knows there is nothing worth taking.

The second half of life is there to enable us to recognise that ‘I’ ‘me’ & ‘mine’ – and I have deliberately placed inverted commas round those words – are nothing like as important as we would imagine, indeed they can constitute a huge obstacle to our maturity. After all, the final part of life’s journey is one that we will each make alone. How we prepare ourselves for that and the Beyond is the task and cutting our egos down to size and then getting rid of them, is the most important step along the way.

I am reminded of a McMillan nurse I knew who told me of a conversation she had had one morning at 3am. with a titled gentleman who had just come face to face with the reality of his situation. He had spent his time in the hospice where he was being cared for, holding board meetings of his various companies and in consultation with accountants and lawyers over business deals. He had also held several family meetings with relatives of various sorts and degrees of proximity. In other words this man was in control and everybody both knew it and also where they stood in his hierarchy of importance.
Two things will no doubt register with you about this account of the end of a man’s life. Firstly, as is the case in many families, they too can be run like a business. Everybody knows who is in control and everybody knows where they stand in the pecking order. Secondly, as the man himself said that morning at 3 o’clock to this McMillan nurse (who to all intents and purpose was a complete stranger) “I have just realised that I have no idea where I am going next or how to get there. I’ve done everything I wanted in my life except the one thing that really matters and now it is too late.” Fortunately for him this confession of total vulnerability was made to someone who was able to help – and so it is NEVER TOO LATE!!

However, the point of this story is that not everyone has the good fortune to be in a hospice with a Christian nurse at the end of their life. That man’s family, friends and business associates had not addressed with him the most important thing he had to deal with in his last days, even though some of them might have been able to help him. Given wisdom one starts much sooner and, as a result, hopefully, sees the road ahead begin to emerge.

So we need some ground rules. Our starting point is to look long and hard at those three words: ‘I’ ‘me’ & ‘my’. We have already looked at how much ‘I’ can be shaped by others and their demands and expectations of us rather than by our own assessment of what really matters. What, however, of ‘me’ & ‘mine’? Who is this ‘me’ might be a good place to start. As to ‘my’ and its best friend ‘mine’, if we are honest nothing ever truly is ‘mine’ is it? For example, we often share our parents, who are in any event often grandparents and aunts and uncles as well as themselves being children, friends and employees or employers of people we do not even know. What is truly ‘mine’ and what, if anything, is its true worth? I am deeply suspicious of the term ‘best friend’ in this context especially when applied by a parent to a child! It usually means that the parent has not let the child fully grow up. It also implies that, however old the body maybe, the parent has not yet matured. If it were otherwise the parent would let the child go and make its own mistakes in order to mature.

Our journey towards maturity and the wisdom it brings, begins in earnest when we start to take stock of our time already spent here. We should call that fact to mind when ultimately we do so in, order to learn if we merit a place in the Beyond. We need to be prepared to stand alone. There will be no spouse or partner, no parent, sibling or child, and no best friend. That realisation is not meant to frighten, but to prompt realism. We need to appreciate that it will be of no avail to argue that we allowed others to shape who or what we became and how we spent our time, deployed our resources or treated other people.

What do we need to do to reshape our approach to life in order to undertake this preparation in earnest? I have alluded to a more mature approach to our egoistic tendencies including our possessiveness and love of status. Wisdom, however, requires something even more counter-intuitive than this. It asks us to turn our cultural conditioning on its head.

Again I turn to my example for guidance. Bear with me because as I have said before but now repeat for emphasis – I do so because I see Jesus of Nazareth as a wisdom teacher available to all and, as such he has attracted followers way beyond his family, geographical and cultural boundaries.

That fact alone should alert us to the universal nature of his teaching. Remember Jesus was a Jewish teacher NOT a Christian. It was his followers both Jews (some) and Gentiles (many) who founded Christianity. The Christian church, which in the West comes in for so much criticism, is merely a repository in which the teachings of Jesus and its practice since very early times are stored though they maybe under utilised in my opinion.

It is on that basis that I turn to the teachings of Jesus about wisdom for practical guidance on reaching out to the Beyond. The example I have chosen is taken from what is known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and its very familiarity has for many, perhaps, dulled its edge and so, also, its impact. However this series of statements, each beginning with the word ‘Blessed’ were, in their day, nothing short of revolutionary and they retain that trans-formative power. These teachings sought to give those at the bottom of the Jewish social structure a way through to the very top of it.

How do they seek to achieve this?
Matthew 5 3-10
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

First and foremost the Beatitudes turn the world upside down. Forget about jumping through religious hoops. Anyone who so chooses can go to Mass each day or kneel in the direction of Mecca and recite some prayers or perform some other ritual. The question is this: that although people who do these things may look good on the outside, what are they actually like on the inside? By contrast ‘Blessed’, (that is to say sanctified and dedicated says Wisdom) is the one who is ‘poor in spirit’. What on earth does that mean? Surely holiness comes through observing the prescribed rituals, whatever they are in whichever society, culture or religion, we happen to be. Indeed we may not even call it holiness or dedication. It may be just the routine or ritual for being accepted into whatever club, group or strata of society we are aiming at. A bit like lifting the masonic trouser leg or wearing the right team scarf.

If we have no interest or belief in the Beyond then the right ‘friending’ routine, expressing the right ‘likes’, having the right trainers or phone, going to the right gym, knowing where to get the right fix and how to get into the right raves, gigs, parties, or, indeed the right school – all these will do their job, so that we are in with the crowd and accepted on our chosen path. However, if we are poor in spirit then we will be very wary of these socially acceptable paths, because we will observe that they are all irrelevant to what really matters, namely knowing where we are going and living as if we are already there.

Poverty of spirit is the acceptance that, whatever our lot in life, we are the most greatly blessed if we can catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the merely material to what Shakespeare described as ‘that undiscovered country from, whose bourne no traveller returns.’ This description taken from the Hamlet soliloquy ponders the dilemma posed by the contemplation of suicide. Does it make sense to end a troublesome life when death might end up taking one into a far worse situation? After all, Hamlet muses, no one has come back from that journey and been able to say alternatively what the country beyond death is like.
Therein lies the problem perhaps, for we run out of words. How can we conduct an argument when it is left to the poets to describe what we are talking about? I cannot describe easily what happened at the service when Jesus came to me. I ‘know’ it was Jesus, I ‘know’ he came ‘into’ me but my ‘knowing’ is inaccessible to testing or logic. All I can say is that the anaesthetist also ‘knew’ it the next day!

So the question we arrive at is this: ‘Can we get to a point in our journey where we see the falseness of the values generally adopted by our culture and replace them with a different approach?’ Can we abandon preferences based on external assessments which value beauty, fashion, celebrity, material possessions and status and replace them with an approach to life governed by the internal value of a love which is received from the Beyond and reaches out with what it can then offer?

This approach can be seen as a life which is lived in the here and now but is not of it. It requires us both to love our neighbour and also discern when it is nevertheless right for us to stand apart from those more baseless aspects of his or her values and conduct. Such a way of living will be seen by the many as leaving us in poverty but the few will recognise that we are indeed blessed.

How does Wisdom help us in this quest to find a different approach to our lives? Well, in my case I was forced back to an exploration of one of those words which are so unpopular today, namely ‘holiness.’ Like so many older words that fall into disrepute, the reasons behind their decline are often a complex mixture of the real and the imaginary. If holiness is supposed to be a characteristic of religious organisations then clearly many fall short. But then, what do we expect? After all the religious organisations are full of people, and people notoriously get it wrong.

Here, you might agree with me, is a classical example of baby and bathwater. We debunk ‘holiness’ because those who are trying (some of them at least) to be holy are failing. Then, because of the failure of the Institution, namely the bathwater of religious organisation, we also throw out the baby – namely holiness itself. Indeed it becomes a derogatory term namely ‘Holy Joes.’

I am sure we can all think of examples from the world around us which exemplify the utter poverty of the values applied to the choices that are made. As I write, the news is full of the so-called male celebrities who are accused of various kinds of sexual misconduct. Indeed daily we find our media full of such stories and others relating to power struggles and violence both personal and collective such as in wars of various kinds. Male mostly (but increasingly, very sadly, female) aggression seems to be endemic in human society.

Recent events have uncovered the systematic abuse including rape of under-age girls in towns and cities in the United Kingdom by organised gangs of males. Shamefully such conduct was not prevented or prosecuted nor was it seen as inherently wrong by the perpetrators. Those involved seem incapable of recognising that such conduct both shames and degrades all humanity.

However, until we acknowledge this utter lack of holiness for what it is, we are inevitably caught up in its backwash. We can guard against this only by consciously making ourselves what it is not, namely holy. We do that by constantly acknowledging our poverty, namely our failure to be holy, and replacing it with love which we look to receive, adopt as our own and then impart to others. Then, as Wisdom says “Blessed are the poor in Spirit”. Saying ‘no’ to society’s values and adopting and pursuing those of love is the beginning of holiness and, in my view, Wisdom is its midwife.

Task 4

Making a difference - Spirituality in action

  1. Can you identify people or activities you feel tied to but which, if you are honest with yourself, you really need to reassess? (sometimes called “ties-that-bind.”)

  1. How do you cope with ‘mystery’? Can you name any mysteries you have accepted with beneficial outcomes?

  1. Do you have an ‘inner’ place that you can use for quiet times? Can you share anything about it or what it is like?

Chapter Four

Making a difference - Spirituality in action

There are many views on what comes after we have, as Shakespeare put it in the mouth of Hamlet, ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’. Speaking personally, I regard the precise nature of our existence beyond the here and now as not being half as important as appreciating the significance of the belief that something of what we have been continues after our bodies have served their allotted span.

Mystery is to me a natural part of life. I do not doubt that we humans have the capacity to understand more than we currently do. However, I see no evidence to support a view that we have yet evolved much beyond early adolescence in terms of our journey towards being civilised. By being civilised I understand that we can then include much that is excluded if we choose to limit ourselves to merely provable facts. Surely we ought to aspire to explore and experience more than that. Instead humanity is collectively still too much driven by its lust for power, sex, wealth and enjoyment for its own sake. We are also far too violent and self-obsessed to be considered mature even by our own limited standards and expectations.

Thus I rely on endeavouring to reach out to what lies 'Beyond.' I find that as I do so, it is possible to achieve a level of peace that makes the mystery of it all a perfectly acceptable part of what it is. I do so knowing full well that I cannot prove it to others but I know what I experience.

It is at this point that all sorts of practices and definitions rush in to claim our attention. My acquaintance with people over the years teaches me that we each have to make our own journey and that we are wise if we establish, as we do so, a very small circle of like-minded fellow travellers with whom we can share our experiences in a spirit of acceptance and positive encouragement. It is also good, from time to time, to be able to seek or provide support and insight when it is needed. This, more than anything else, distinguishes between genuine and worthwhile friendship from other types of relationship. Again I have learned that especially when relatives are involved there is nearly always an underlying agenda whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I cannot stress too highly that nobody’s experiences are identical because each of us is unique. However there are some who are much closer to us than others and they are the ones we need to cherish. I also discovered that a fourfold practice offers me the best response when it comes to revealing my path, namely –
read or recall,
These are the key ingredients of the Wisdom process that works in my case. They have also come to me, time honoured by all those who have left for that other shore but whose legacy is available to us.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the Bible is pre-eminently the reading on which I base my journey of discovery. There are however, other authors who have helped me to map out the route I take as well as wise words from fellow travellers I respect and trust. Each of us will discover what is best through experience, advice and recommendation if we have the right guides. The question is in all of this; ‘what am I trying to do?’

The Picture
Perhaps I can best sum it up in this way. Imagine yourself as a picture which early in life seems to be all there is. The world we observe is comprised of pictures like ours, each one seeing itself as a separate and distinct work of art. Some of us see ourselves big, some small, some in oils, some watercolour, some merely pen and ink sketches, but we all think of ourselves as unique. Over the years however, we come to recognise that our picture has aspects which seem to fit in neatly with someone else’s picture and others likewise with ours. Over time these additions, as they become more attached, slow us down and so the picture we have becomes distorted an impediment, rather than helping us. Some folk may in fact never recognise the problem or indeed see it as being one. It depends doesn’t it, on what we perceive as being our purpose in life.
Can we improve on that outcome? I believe we can and that the answer lies in recognising that the real picture is far, far bigger than we imagined. It is one into which we will fit but whose entirety lies not just here but also in the Beyond. We came from there and can return, but in order to do so we need to shed our inhibiting attachments to this existence and prepare to become part of that larger reality. Wisdom teaches us that we are in fact not a picture at all, but a tiny fragment of an infinite canvas in which we can have our own unique place if we choose to claim it.

How can this be? Do we lose ourselves and cease to be what we are? Jesus puts it this way. ‘You in me, me in you, just as I am in the Father and the Father, who is also the ultimate reality, is in me.’ This is what the Christian Trinity is there to demonstrate to us. It is an aid to understanding reality. Jesus came from the Beyond and returned to it in order to show us that it is possible to be unique, separate and distinct while simultaneously being an integral and dependant part of a far greater, indeed timeless and infinite whole. It is utterly beyond human understanding but entirely capable of being accepted if that is our choice.

Living that life can, indeed ought, to begin in the here and now. It is not unlike being told that in a while we are going to have the opportunity to undertake an activity that we enjoy, but at a level that requires a degree of extra knowledge and therefore, preparation. We are wise if we begin to equip ourselves for what lies ahead now because, as we do so, we learn to appreciate the benefits involved. We will discover that it is also true of living life now in accordance with our intention to continue doing so after our bodies die. In other words life is a journey and death is nothing more than a gateway through which we pass in order to continue it in a different environment and therefore in a different way. However, we play a crucial role in creating that environment by the choices we make now, for Wisdom teaches that where our hearts are there will our treasure be.
So what does that different environment look and feel like? Nobody knows with certainty any more than anybody knows for sure that it does not exist. All that we can assert is our belief in it. However, we can add to that belief the beliefs of others whose experiences we come to trust because they ring true. In this respect the instinct of what has become known as ‘heart’ plays a vital role as a counterbalance to the logic of reason of ‘the head’.

As with everything else what pertains to the Beyond, as we have said previously, we are confronted with making choice. I think that the best way to explain what I am trying to put across here is if I describe what, for me, was a crucial part of my own journey. Sometimes it is not until we are at a very low ebb that we can access that which lies within us waiting for us to pay it attention.

‘Attention’ is a word which I use here to describe an action which goes far beyond merely thinking about something. Thus, by attention I mean being focussed on our purpose to the exclusion of all else. That includes all those passing thoughts which rush in and try to engage us in an internal dialogue. I am sure you all know what I mean by internal chatter at which we are all very accomplished! Attention goes past all that to get to the heart of us and then goes even further.

On the day I have in mind, one incidentally which followed many others involving trial and error, a picture came into my mind as I reached a place of contemplation. I saw a room in which there was a small round pool which I was invited to enter and I did so. After a few moments, during which I was reassured and invited to remain trusting, I found myself drawn down past smooth glistening white walls containing windows into many rooms, until finally I stopped descending, was drawn sideways and rose into another round pool but in a very different setting.

Now I was in what seemed like a cave with a passage leading away from it. I put on a bathrobe that lay by the side of the pool and went down the passage to find myself facing a raging storm in the land which lay beyond the cave from which I emerged.

I could not enter the storm because it was too strong and I retreated. However, before I did so I observed a still figure seemingly unmoved by the wind and dust swirling around him. I knew I was being observed, reassured and told that what I was seeing was my own state of inner turmoil.

I returned from that experience by reversing the journey. I stress that I am describing here the process of reaching and then experiencing a state of deep contemplation and that my sense of reassurance and awareness was not through words spoken or heard but was nevertheless imparted.

The following day I repeated the journey, only this time the land beyond the cave was still and calm. I looked to the right to where I had seen the figure and it was in that direction that I walked. I was leaving footprints in the dusty path I was following until I came to a place where the hillside to my left curved into a semi-circle before returning to join the path. There were some rocks dotted along the base of the hillside and I sat on one of these in order to face outward to the path. All of this happened as if I were receiving instructions, unspoken but nevertheless very clear.

I now became aware that I was facing a figure seated on a bench formed by a thick slab of rock laid across two uprights. I understood that this young man was the figure I had seen previously and as he looked at me I was aware that I was known. I cannot put it any other way than to say this man knew me and everything about me.

I bowed my head and began to cry and I saw my tears fall on the dust between my feet. Almost instantly, where my tears fell, small flowers began to grow. When eventually I looked up the bench was empty but there was a presence all around me and I knew that somehow I was not alone.

I have made the journey to that place many times since those distant days. Sometimes to seek reassurance, on other occasions to bring people in need, but always to listen and learn. This is a place within me but the same space is present in each one of us. It is for me a place which affirmed then, and re-affirms each day the ‘me in you as you are in me’ which is, as I have said before, the message that Jesus conveys in his teaching and which I heard in the service at St Margaret’s.

I wonder if you have made a similar journey to mine and had comparable experiences as a result.

A Reflection

As we have pondered some of the important strands in our lives, such as the use of our time, the tussles between activity and reflection has figured prominently. We all make choices which have repercussions. Some are short-term, others life-long. I hope that these thoughts have encouraged you to take the time to recognise them and, perhaps, to see them for what they are, as well as to consider the wisdom of them with all the benefits of hindsight.

I suspect that most of us, when we are old enough to do so, spend our time looking forward to what will happen next. We do so eagerly and “I just can’t wait” is an expression used fairly frequently.

In the middle years we are not so sure that eager anticipation is necessarily all it is made out to be. It can be very tiring and may be quite disappointing as we come to realise, for example, that the achievement of material objectives is, more often than not, followed immediately by their obsolescence.

In the eventide of life comes the privilege of time for reflection. We may note for instance, that while some folk travel widely others may not, whether by choice or circumstances. Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus are contrasting examples. Jesus stayed close to home whereas Paul travelled extensively. Nevertheless such travelling as each man did, left a deep mark on the lives of those they encountered.

This contrast in approach between Paul and his Master calls to mind a mission to an inner-city parish. At an initial meeting of participants one person, an 80 year old called May, noted that, having chronic arthritis, she would be of no use in walking the streets knocking on doors. She was appointed our prayer guardian by those of us who were sent out. She prayed us on our way, through our journeys and for us on our return. It was a blessed and enriching time for us all, whether we were called to travel or not.

Whether we witness on the doorstep or pray with others or alone, it is the knowledge of who it is we serve and on whose example we build our lives that is all-important. Offering to be of service means not only finding our role but also accepting that it will change over time. We must be sensitive to the right time to move on to the next task.

Moving on is not just a matter of going physically from place to place, for our attitude of heart and mind is also very much involved. The leading surgeon who can give up the status that comes from being a top consultant in order to work in a field hospital in a third world country comes to mind. Albert Schweitzer is just such an example of a response to vocation. However, openness, awareness and obedience are not limited to the well-known but are accessible to us all. The challenge is first to seek and then to be ready to respond.

The Master stands at the servant’s door
The knock when it comes is quiet but clear.
The question is, do I choose to hear
For change will come and I must be sure.

Is this the time to take on trust
The voice my heart cannot ignore.
My mind wants proof and asks for more
But love says facts turn faith to dust.

And so the door swings open wide
To let the warmth of love flood in
And then my heart and mind begin
The servant’s task, now unified.

Notes on Meditation

There is no right or wrong to meditate but over the years many wise words of guidance have been given to us which can prove very helpful. Two things above all else seem to be agreed upon, namely posture and breathing. To sit comfortably as upright as possible with our feet on the ground constitutes good posture. To breathe regularly is recommended, using the intake of breath for good thoughts and exhalation to expel the thoughts we wish to be rid of.

It is always helpful to recognise that meditation and contemplation can and, it can be argued, should be seen as entirely separate activities. Using food as an analogy, meditation is chewing things over while contemplation can be seen as digestive.

Taking a Bible text and exploring it is meditation which ought to lead to contemplation where one waits to discover deeper insights. For a Christian this is where the work of the Holy Spirit begins in earnest. It is also the place where we should spend time discovering Silence, for that is where the here and now meet the Beyond.


This book has emerged from a series of discussion groups inspired, organised and facilitated by my daughter Viv Chamberlin-Kidd.
It's transition into its present format would not have been possible without the help and encouragement of Caroline Hind.

My very grateful thanks to them both.

Copyright: Reverend A J E Kidd (Tony Kidd) 2015