September 2013


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A yellow flower

(Light and spirit)

Sings by itself

For nobody.

 

A golden spirit

(Light and emptiness)

Sings without a word

By itself.

 

Let no one touch this gentle sun

In whose dark eye

Someone is awake.

 

(No light, no gold, no name, no colour

And no thought:

O, wide awake!)

 

A golden heaven

Sings by itself

A song to nobody.

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Thomas Merton

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time-watch-waiting[1]

Waiting is not a passage of time to be traversed but a condition of our being.

In waiting, time enters our bodies; we are the time that passes.

We wait even if we are not aware that we are waiting.

The instrumental nature of ordinary waiting – where we usually wait for something that is supposed to be better than waiting –    conceals this intimate, existential aspect of waiting. Waiting, in other words, is an opportunity to encounter those aspects of life deeply, perhaps neurotically, hidden in our busyness.

If we claim our experience of waiting rather than being merely subjected to it, we resist the commercialization of time, we own our time, we make time matter — we matter.

In waiting, in listening to the inward melody of duration, we become attuned to our being.

sunflower field[1]

 

bring me a sunflower; I want it to grow

in my sunscorched seasalted homeland.

It will show all day to the blue sky mirror

the sadness of its sunward face.

 

shadows make for clarity, don’t they?

all things flow, and then dissolve

first into colour, then into music;

and then, and then, they disappear.

 

bring me the flower that yearns towards

the golden shimmer in the sky,

the breathing source of life itself;

bring me the sunflower, drunk with light.

 

Eugenio Montale

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Quietus: The vessel, death and the human body

An exhibition by Julian Stair Winchester Cathedral Autumn 2013

FB friends will have seen some (not very good) photographs of Winchester Cathedral caused in part by a failure to take my specs on my journey ! However the main reason for the visit south was to see this exhibition and it did not disappoint.

Stair tests the boundaries of subject and possibility in ceramics – he reminds us that art has always had the ability to express the most complex of ideas. here is a response to that which many of us avoid or deny – death.  The word Quietus comes from the medieval Latin and describes the moment of transition when the soul is released from life into death.

In the cathedral we see gathered a range of funerary ware but all have a close relationship to the human body.  The vessels are beautiful and textured and colourful especially in the September morning sunlight. It was fascinating to see visitors reactions – some avoiding contact – other tapping the pots while an older couple sat and looked closely at the sarcophagi.

I wondered what it might take to make our experience of death more meaningful – how might we be more open about death and see it as intertwined into our living?

v0_master[1] (3)

These cinerary jars are designed to hold cremated  remains – a columbarium is the room set aside to pay respect to the dead whose remains are housed here. The jars are displayed here at a high level in the Cathedral sanctuary – thrown and constructed in different ways displaying individuality and colour.

v0_master[1]

These are familiar horizontal forms with lead lids – I (almost) found myself wanting to climb inside…………!

The picture at the beginning of this piece show monumental burial jars. These vertical forms make reference to a tradition known as extreme inhumation, a ritual where the body was place in the ground upright and fully extended.

An excellent exhibition and in such a prayerful space – thanks to the Cathedral and Stair for honest and earthed creativity.

 

Abstract Art/Nature Photography

Tension, then, is an inescapable feature of our spirituality and no one was more insistent upon this that von Hugel.

‘Christianity’, he wrote, ‘can and does develop in man a temper, a state of soul, which so deeply and delicately, so sharply and steadily perceives and feels the difference between Time and Eternity, the Fleeting and the Abiding, Pleasure and Beatitude, the Contingent and the Final, the Greatness and God. Our religious task therefore is to seek out what is real and true and life enhancing.

Therein certainly lies our hope, but the words drive us back to consider how observant we are, how spiritually sensitive, to be able to know the genuine from the false in day-to-day living.  This means we shall have to deal with the perturbing reality of alienation ! What does alienation mean if not that living apart from the realities of our condition as children of God, and living apart for so long that we lose the knowledge of truth?

Those fed on substitutes and toxic things are not healthily hungry that they search for the food of eternal life before all else. Alienation from the light can produce an acceptance of fog and filthy air, an acquiescence in pollution.

But von Hugel continues: ‘No doubt this world-fleeing movement will have to be alternated with, will have find its stimulus and material in, a world-seeking movement; and only the two together in their proper proportions and inter-penetrations will furnish the complete service of God by complete mankind.’

What might this mean for todays disciples?

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All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,

The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,

The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,

Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of

my heart.

 

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;

I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,

With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket

of gold

For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

  W. B. Yeats, The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart

 

9781847424600[1]

Belief and Ageing

Spiritual pathways in later life

Peter G. Coleman (Editor) Paperback, 192 pages Policy Press Bristol 2011

ISBN 9781847424594   2011

 

Most of the books on my shelves about religion and ageing are written out of the United States of America. There are many individuals and groups who are investing resources in research in this area on the USA. This stands in sharp comparison to the UK and Europe where religion is on the decline and seems increasingly irrelevant in a culture that is increasingly individualistic, reductionist and materialistic.

This book is a welcome addition to the literature this field. Any interested reader should be directed to it as an insightful and imaginative exploration of belief in older age and these essays are provide an excellent starting point. They offer a comprehensive picture of the way religion and other beliefs take shape in older people’s lives.

How might one account for the excellence?

First, it is based on the leading longitudinal study of older people. These chapters give voice to some forty years of interviewing experience. It illustrates the variety of religious, spiritual and other beliefs held by older people. The participants of this study include not only British Christians, but also Muslims, Humanists and witnesses of the Soviet persecution of religion.

Second, the editor Peter G. Coleman (who is Professor of Psychogerontology at the University of Southampton), is an immensely accomplished and innovative researcher who brings to the work the ability to work across professional boundaries.  He has published widely on issues of development and mental health in later life, including the role of life review and spiritual belief. As editor of this volume he manages to maintain consistency and all the chapters are written with an eye on helpfulness for the reader.

There are nine chapters which explore belief, how religion might help people to age, the nature of the process of listening and what the authors research reveals about whether belief helps individuals to age well. A particular concern is facing death and coping with bereavement (chapter five).The volume takes seriously the diversity of belief in our multi- faith culture and Coleman completes the book with a final chapter in ageing and the future of belief. This chapter looks to the future and increasing diversity of choice in matters of belief among Britain and Europe’s older citizens as a consequence of immigration and globalisation.

There is a useful and comprehensive set of references and an index.

I hope that there might be the widest possible readership of these essays. There are implications for this work on both the self-understanding of the Church and Society where our marketized system of values has marginalised older people to the margins. Too many people view older people as unproductive and burdensome. We need to resist this and see within the narratives of older people wisdom that reflects back to us our limitations.

While there is some disagreement about the definition of spirituality and its relationship to belief it is widely accepted that ageing is a journey which includes a spiritual dimension. This spiritual dimension focuses on meaning of life, hope and purpose, explored through relationships with others, with the natural world and with the transcendent.

Coleman provides us with a strong evidence base which suggests that a genuine and intentional accompaniment of people on their ageing journey; giving time, presence and listening are the core of good spiritual practice.  Reminiscence, life story, creative activities and meaningful rituals all help the process of coming to terms with ageing and change.

From this perspective we should be cautious of the secular bias in the academy as a barrier for those developing broader models of care for older people. Indeed the Churches should be challenging their ageism that profoundly devalues what older people can bring to a faith community. As a practical theologian I remain convinced that we need a more comprehensive theology of ageing to assist us in both thinking and practice of our adaptation to longevity in the twenty first century. It might even be seen as both prophetic and counter cultural as we embrace older age as possibly one of the most demanding periods of our lives. Coleman and his colleagues show us why religion must not be dismissed and that there is a positive relationship between belief, health and well-being.

 

Canon James Woodward Ph.D.

The College of St George, Windsor Castle.

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