Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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18/01/2015

Lightening Our Being

I didn't go to church this morning, I didn't go to Meeting for Worship - I had intended to but around 2 to 3 inches of snow had fallen overnight and, having stepped out on to the driveway, I realised by the time I had cleared the car of its solid icy shell, I would have been very late. 

A good friend of mine, a fellow Christian, has often said in passing to me that the Quakers - the Religious Society of Friends as they are formally known - cannot be considered a church. I in turn counter that they are very much a church, citing various bits and pieces from Quaker literature, not least George Fox who proclaimed the church to be the people not the building. 

The reason I mention this is it points to a kind of malaise I have felt within me recently. A feeling that going to church, being involved in the keeping and building of a church, too often leads to these kind of notional conversations about authenticity. Yet the paradox, as I see it, is that such machinations can end up leading us away from authenticity - as we become too engrossed, too 'hyped up', in the politics of it all.

So, whilst I set out this morning with every intention to go to prayer and communion and confession and celebration - all the things Quakers do in the silence just as other Christians do in their structured services of sermons and hymns - I think I was in some ways looking for a way out, which the snow helpfully provided.

Instead I strolled up the road and through our village park - a humble park consisting of a football pitch, a children's play area and miniature skate park - passing by a young family at play, a giddy young dog bounding about on his owner's straining lead, a couple beginning a day's walking.  There is something about snowfall in this country, which happens randomly some years and some years not at all, that seems to bring out a playful present-mindedness amongst people. I wonder if, aside from the obvious opportunity for sledging and snowmen, it is also the temporary transformation of our familiar landscapes that awakens us from our distant, laden thoughts.

Leaving the park, I walked up over the bridge, pausing briefly to look at the old canal slumbering frozen-still beneath me, and then onwards to the local shop. I bought some lard, returning home by the same route to make some bird feed - again doing this in relative quiet. Snowflakes started to come again in fits and starts, and I kept an eye out through the back window on the odd robin, blue tit, crow and magpie taking their turns on the feeder.

The struggle for authenticity is, as I see it, at its most simple one in which we must try to live more presently, and more lovingly, in our environment. It also involves, to borrow on the Taoist concept of Wu-Wei, a level of 'going with the flow', rather than trying to force events and situations through frenetic thought and activity. We see this expressed poetically in the Tao Te Ching:

"Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. 
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. 
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.

Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner, 
Do your work, then step back. 
The only path to serenity."

And:

"Close the mouth, 

Shut the doors,
Live without toil all through life.
Open the mouth,
Meddle in the affairs, 
Live without peace all through life."

There are Christian parallels to be found with this way of being, most famously in Matthew 6:25 - 6:27:

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?"

And in 1 Samuel 2:3:

“Talk no more so very proudly; 
Let no arrogance come from your mouth, 
For the Lord is the God of knowledge; 
And by Him actions are weighed." 

This is not an argument on my part for an uncaring ambivalence in the face of life's issues and difficulties - be they the church, be they societal, be they personal - but, as the Old Testament teaches us, there is a 'time for everything'.

Another Christian friend of mine, Margaret - an elderly Methodist lady with great faith who serves as a dedicated servant to Christian Aid, routinely announces in Autumn she will be 'hibernating' in January and February, withdrawing from engagement in committees, activism and the like. Although I have previously viewed this as a bit of a quirk, I can kind of see now her wisdom in practicing solitude and simplicity between the busy, ceremonial Christmas and Easter periods.

Finally, I wasn't just watching the birds today. I had the pleasure of our two young cats to keep me company (not forgetting my dear wife!) - this is their first winter as it happens and they have yet to be allowed outside. Early afternoon I caught Hobbes, our ginger tom, looking through the window at the snowflakes with an intense interest - completely in the moment and contented.


The scene reminded me of a passage by Catholic and Celtic Christian writer John O'Donohue which I happened upon a week or so ago:

Nearer to the earth's heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way we never will.

We who are ever Distanced and distracted
By the parade of bright
Windows thought opens: 
Their seamless presence
Is not fractured thus. 

Stranded between time 
Gone and time emerging, 
We manage seldom 
To be where we are: 
Whereas they are always 
Looking out from 
The here and now. 

May we learn to return 
And rest in the beauty 
Of animal being, 
Learn to lean low, 
Leave our locked minds, 
And with freed senses 
Feel the earth 
Breathing with us.

May we enter 
Into lightness of spirit, 
And slip frequently into 
The feel of the wild. 

Let the clear silence 
Of our animal being 
Cleanse our hearts 
Of corrosive words. 

May we learn to walk 
Upon the earth 
With all their confidence 
And clear-eyed stillness 
So that our minds 
Might be baptised 
In the name of the wind 
And light and the rain.

May we all re-find a simple authenticity at this time of year. Amen.

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