Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Can art be a spiritual pastime?

Can art be a spiritual pastime - that really is the question that has been uppermost in my thoughts over the past months and is the question I appear to be living right now?

I have not written on this blog for some time, indeed since I retired from my ministry at Rochdale Unitarian Church at the end of September 2013.  In the last six months I have been trying to find an identity for myself and a vehicle for developing the spiritual side of my daily life.  It all changes when you leave the practice of ministry; when you no longer have the weekly pull of the pulpit to direct your attention.  In ministry I was engaged, in some way, in my connection with the divine for the larger part of my day.  I would say that as much as 90% of my waking life was taken up with this connection and suddenly away from active ministry I find myself adrift, cut off and rudderless.  I have to engage spiritually intentionally far more than ever before.

One of the ways in which I have begun to occupy my days is with the act of being creative.  I am exploring different artistic disciplines in a variety of creative pursuits.  It is a tentative process and I am discovering many new things about myself in the process.

For the last few years my main creative love has been quilting and the last few months have seen an increased production of quilts and quilted objects as I have gloried in the increased time to indulge this passion. 

 Quilting has always had a spiritual element for me as when I am engaged in the process then I have to be totally engaged, if not I will make mistakes and the piece of work will not satisfy me.  It is when I am engaged mindfully in something that I find my heart opening up as the mind disengages with the external world and a sense of what can only be called prayer is about me.  Because of this I wondered if I would find the same transformative process happening if I engaged in other artistic endeavours and to this end I have turned my hand to painting, particularly in water colour, sketching, doodling and more recently to stitching.

water colour of archway of Gartmore House 

painted February 2014                                                                                                            

Sunflower sketch  
done as part of the poememe project

March 2014


 One of my first doodles

July 2012

Stitched art:

First attempt at stitched art work translating the sunflower sketch into a free-motion quilted art piece.

March 2014 

“All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception - is not, in despite of - but is the basis for an order ... Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally ... The transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.”

“How other future worlds will ripen to God I do not know, but for us art is the way.”

So it is for me as I find my creative self providing the way to open myself up to that which is God for me.

Kent Nerburn in Letters to My Son says:
"Once you love an art enough that you can be taken up in it, you are able to experience an echo, of the great creative act that mysteriously has given life to us all .

It may be the closest any of us can get to God.”

Julia Cameron, a writer who has written on both art and spirituality. In “Walking in this World”  says:

“I would like to acknowledge the place of grace in the making of art and artists.  It is a great grace that we are born creative beings. It is a great grace that we access that creativity. Although you may language it differently, all creators feel the hand of the great creator touching them through their work.  Art is a spiritual practice. We may not and need not do it perfectly but we do need to do it. And it is my belief that the making of art makes us more fully human and in becoming more fully human we become more fully divine, touching in our finite way the infinite spark within each of us.  Focused on our art we connect the heart-full heart of all life.  The creative pulse that moves through us moves through all creation. It could be argued that all creativity is then a form of prayer, a form of thankfulness and recognition of all we have to be thankful for walking in this world.”

As yet my steps are tentative, my confidence in my ability is not great but it is improving the more I practice; and the spiritual fulfilment is becoming more and more evident in my everyday life.  I find that the sense of walking with the divine is once again a major part of everything I do.  So I am living in that question “Is art a spiritual pastime” and right now I am answering “Yes, yes it is!”

examples of sketch to stitch and doodle to stitch both completed in March 2014 .

Sunday, 11 August 2013

What are the things that endure?

Address for 11th August 2013

I came across a snippet of poetry the other day that really spoke to me:

Nothing is permanent
Except the change
Change is a necessary phenomenon
In an active system
Changelessness is deadly

So often I have spoken about the necessity of change and how it is important to allow for change in our lives, in our faith and in our worship but today I am asking you to consider not what it is that changes but what it is that endures, what lasts despite the changes that occur.

I have to admit that I struggled to find a story for today and before finding the story of Geppetto, the puppet maker I toyed with one or two other stories first.  At first I considered the story of The three billy goats gruff and had we a congregation with children attending then maybe I would have stuck with it.  I am sure you are all familiar with the story about three goats who risk their lives to get to the greener grass on the other side of the river.  In that story the goats succeed in defeating the troll and manage to walk into the lush meadow and feed on the grass there.  Often we associate this story with the idea of the grass being greener on the other side but it begs the question, is it always greener on the other side or are things always better when we make those apparently necessary changes.

This idea was explored by Ralph Helverson in my first reading when he told the story of the imprisoned senators. Sometimes it really is a case of “Better the devil you know. . . . . “

Katy Cowan wrote an article “Why the Grass is Never Greener and How to Be Happy Today”

In it she says:
“Lifestyle. Opportunities. Wealth. Just think how far we’ve come in the past 100 years—especially when you look at what we have today compared with our great grandmothers’ generation.”
She said, “My great grandmother married very young, lived in the same place her whole life, and had 11 children. She never had a “career” and never got a chance to go on (holiday). Her life was hard, poor, and lacking in any real opportunity.”

When I read that it could have been my great grandmother who had thirteen children and lived in the same place all her married life.

Katy says, “I wonder if she ever dreamed about moving to another city, or transforming her life, or about seeing the world with just a backpack. I bet she did, but back then there weren’t as many opportunities as we have today.
Thanks to technology, the Internet, and an improved society, our lifestyles are completely transformed. We have choices. We can live pretty much anywhere we want. We can travel and see the world.
We can secure jobs on the other side of the planet. We can start our own businesses and serve clients thousands of miles away. It’s definitely an exciting time.”

Well yes it may be an exciting time.  The changes that we have experienced in our lifetimes may have opened up a completely new world that was unthought-of of in our grandparents or even our parents time.  But it has not necessarily always been for the better – the wonders that we are offered by the new technologies. The internet and social networks have brought with them a whole new series of threats and problems to our lives.  We cannot fail to have heard the tragic story of the young girl who took her own life after experiencing on-line bullying.  And there is also the case of women suffering online abuse and threats just because they wanted to have the image of a woman on one of our bank-notes.  Then there are the cases of online grooming and the horrors of pornography being all too available, even to our children and to the vulnerable within our society. All these wonderful changes have brought with them a whole new set of threats and horrors that we could never have imagined when the internet and the World Wide Web was first invented. I often wonder if Tim Berners Lee, a Unitarian and inventor of the World Wide Web, could ever have envisaged how his ideals of a system free and uncontrolled and uncensored at the point of use would be used and abused as they are today.  Maybe, if he had had some foresight he might have built in some restrictions that could have offered some protection to us today.

Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the first people to sing the praises of the internet and I certainly could not envisage my life without access to it, but ....  and there it is that huge, huge little word  but.
I do wish there were some rules, some safeguards to ensure that those values that have always played such an important part of all civilised life could be upheld in this modern, interactive world of ours.

This makes me ask the question about what it is that endures, what is it that remains constant in this ever-changing world of ours?

For me the thing that endures is my faith.  But that too has undergone much change over the years.  As I have told you all before I began in the Anglican Church where I was confirmed at the age of thirteen.  I have spoken of my journey from there into Unitarianism many times and I do not want to tell it again but I do want to tell you one of the reasons why I could not return to the Anglican Church when I went on my spiritual search.  It was because when I went back to a service in an Anglican Church I could no longer recognise what took place there.  The style of worship had changed, even the language had changed and the changes seemed to highlight the problems I had with the faith in the first place. I, personally, could not find the presence of God there.

I, of course, found my way back to God through my encounter with the Unitarian message and the values of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance that I found underpinned all the differences and diversity within the different churches and chapels.  No two Unitarian places of worship are alike in their worship but all are underpinned by those all important values.

Now I know that Unitarianism is always changing, that nothing remains static but I hope that the values that underpin the faith will remain constant and endure long into the future.

I know that in the words of that poem I quoted at the beginning of this address:

Nothing is permanent
Except the change

And that:

Change is a necessary phenomenon
In an active system

And yes:

Changelessness is deadly

But I also know that the grass is not always greener on the other side of change, that what endures from the past is important too.

Robert Fulghum, author of that classic book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" put it this way:  "The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence. No, not at all. Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you are." 

It is the same idea as the puppet maker Geppetto, constantly striving to make the perfect puppet. All the time building on and improving on the previous model not being satisfied until he was sure it was right.

And so may we tend the grass by bringing our everlasting values to bear upon the present world no matter what the future may hold for us.

So may it be.    Amen          

Monday, 29 July 2013

"Understand Life Backwards"

 Reading:  Run the Film Backwards - a poem by Sydney Carter
Address for Sunday 28th July 2013:
On the side of my filing cabinet I have pinned there the ancient Sanskrit poem:

Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;

This poem has been with me for many, many years and I find myself looking at it when things go wrong, or life feels not very good.  It encourages me to look to the moment and try and put whatever is bothering me out of mind.  In the last few days I have found myself looking at it far too frequently, not least last night when I pressed the wrong button on my computer and lost my entire address and had to begin again.  Definitely a moment to glance at the Sanskrit words of wisdom.

As most of you know I have spent the last couple of weeks trying to clear clutter out of my house as part of getting ready to move.  Some 400 books and several bin bags full of clothes have found their way to the recycling centre.  As part of the de-clutter process, when my ex-husband offered to help me by emptying the loft before he returned to France – I jumped at the chance, thinking it would be a really good idea.  My heart though sank as a mountain of boxes and bags appeared on my landing and bedroom floor.  What was worse was when I realised that I had enough wool there to open a wool shop, I have always been an avid knitter and always very good at starting projects and not finishing them. There was nothing for it but to pack up as much as I could and pay yet another visit to the tip.  Three quarters of the pile gone and I felt really a bit more positive, but then came the moment when I found all those bits and pieces that I have carted around from one house to another for many years – there was my wedding dress and all the cards and gift tags from that day in 1976 and then there were the welcome baby cards for my son and daughter, both now in their thirties, not to mention a mountain of pictures, letters and other bits and pieces.  Determined to be ruthless I started to throw them out for recycling when my daughter grabbed the baby cards saying – ‘you can’t get rid of all these they are our history.’  Well yes I suppose they are, but what is the point I thought as I glanced at my Sanskrit poem.  What is the point of taking these bits and pieces from my past from one loft space only to put them in a new loft space to await the next time I come to move, far better to look to the day and get rid of them now.  Don’t get me wrong, I do think our history is important but I also feel that the memories are there anyway without the bits and pieces that have cluttered my life for what seems like forever.  I don’t need these objects to remind me of the past, it is after all, always there in my memory.

It is a little bit the same when it comes to my Unitarian Faith.  Looking at the history has been very important to me, especially as I came to Unitarianism later in life.  The history helped me to understand what Unitarianism was all about, to know where it had come from and that history has helped me to formulate my own theology, my own Unitarianism.  The words and actions of all those past Unitarians continue to feed and inform where I am now.  They have shaped the Unitarian that I have become but I do not carry on in the same way as they did, nor even in the same way as I did in the past.  I have continued to move and change with time because I am not prepared to dwell in the past.  To me that would be like living my life backwards, as Sydney Carter  so  beautifully illustrated in his poem.

I very much like the idea that Ralph Helverson suggested in my second reading of living life forward. – What was it he said?

“On a life-sized area of human fronts we must live forward. We do and dare. We must explore more than we understand. Only later will we understand more fully.”  And “We are not limited to present sight or an imagined foresight, because we have hindsight. If history would only repeat itself – which is questionable -- we should be wiser than we are. We must garner wisdom from our forefathers but remember that insights into their times will not quite fit ours.” 

 Isn’t this exactly what I have said about looking to our history but then moving on and then in the light of that history, looking to this day?

In everything we do we must always remember that what is now, what we are and what we do and what we believe is only as it is now, here in the present and tomorrow we will be in a different place, maybe believing something different, maybe doing something different, we are always in the act of changing and for that reason alone we should not dwell too much in the past.

A young girl called Rachel Corrie put this so very well when she wrote this piece in 1991.

(She finds a journal and turns the pages.)
My name is Rachel Corrie. I am twelve years old. I was born on April 10th, 1979 in Olympia...Washington, to my mother and father, Craig and Cindy Corrie, a brother, Chris, a sister, Sarah, and a really old cat named-Phoebe.
I grew. I learned to spell cat, to read little books. When I was five I discovered boys, -which made my life a little more difficult. Just a little, and a lot more interesting.

In second grade there were classroom rules hanging from the ceiling. The only one I-can remember now seems like it would be a good rule for life. 'Everyone must feel safe.' Safe to be themselves, physically safe, safe to say what they think, just safe.’ That's the best rule I can think of.

Now l’m in middle school. I guess I've grown up a little, it’s all relative anyway, nine years is as long as forty years depending on how long you've lived. I stole that from my dad. Sometimes I think my dad is the wisest person in the-world.

You understand none of this is really true, because what I wrote today is true, but you'll read it by tomorrow, or the next day, and my whole life will be different. Is that how life is, a new draft for every day, a new view for each-hour?

Wise words from this young woman, who at the age of twelve recognised something that some of us never really understand.  I cannot imagine this wise Rachel Corrie hanging on to all those bits and pieces that I have saved and collected over the years.  I am sure she would have been able to let them go.

Being able to let these things go is important for me if I am going to continue to ‘Look to this day’

Terry Weston, one of those voices from a Unitarian past, in – The Seasons of The Soul puts it like this:

The Demand of Yesterday

Yesterday I have had. Whatever it was,
I took it and it entered into me.
I had a part in making what it was;
Accepted or rejected, resented or rejoiced
In this experience of mine.
What I did with it took root
And yesterday still lives and works in me.
I can't change what it was
But I can still do something with what it is.
I am a feeling, thinking, human thing.
I can reflect; I judge; I act;
I am my yesterdays and something more:
I am the unknown which is yet to be.
Statisticians can predict the averages;
The individual escapes their net.
I am an individual and, thus, unique.
I can choose if I will.
I can reflect upon my yesterdays and use them now
To make of my tomorrows something more.
The ant goes as necessity drives; a man,
Having the privilege of choice,
Helps to determine his own necessity
And that of others as well.
My privilege fails except I make of it

So what am I going to do with the bits and pieces that my daughter doesn’t want me to throw away- well I am going to pass the baton on to her, she can keep them if she wishes, in her space.  And me, I shall keep my Sanskrit poem in some place prominent so that I can always look to this day and live my life forward in the knowledge that I understand it all backwards.  For as Sarah Dunant said this very morning (28.7.13) on Point of View, (radio 4)  “The lens of the past gives us a way to view the future.”
 And I hope my future is less cluttered than the past. . . . .  .
So may it be.