Friday, March 28, 2014

The Well

©Sieger Köder
It is a well, God, a pool
so dark as to show me only
myself. It draws me to look 
compels my absorption
demands my irretrievable commitment
to its depths. And there
within that dark mystery
I am at once lost and no longer
alone. Can there be returning
to the brightness of a sunlit
morning? I think not. Will it feel
like loss? Or will the fearful leap
reward me with the companionship for ever
of the love that in the shining air
I wear like a wound?
The ripples spread on the darkness that
enfolds my falling soul.

©C.M.M., Iona, March ’14        

A second product of meditation on retreat on Iona. A response to an intriguing postcard as well as an even more intriguing - and to some disturbing - video.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Greylag - a poem out of meditation

 Eileen Lawrence: Greylag 1978
GREYLAG : watercolour and handmade papers

It disturbs me, this feather, plucked
from a hurrying greylag goose, or
caught by the wind’s impetuous 
wing and now quiet on the
artist’s page. I see myself in
the sharp-cut shine of the
leading edge, the vulnerable
wisps from deeper down, 
close to the panicked heart of things.
But that swift-curving quill - what
can I see in that but only
the Spirit’s arrow, clear and keen,
piercing the soul but in its arc
the colourless strength
that keeps me whole?

C.M.M. Iona, March ’14.


On our recent retreat, we spent time in silence. Sometimes we had a visual aid for our meditation, and this card was the first of these. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Churchgoing, anyone?

I came across this post in my 'drafts' folder, and had a sudden memory of a Blogger failure which prevented me from posting it. Never one to let a bit of writing slide into oblivion ...

I had cause a few days ago to think, not for the first time, about what it is that makes people go to church. I mentioned the question in a recent issue of the SEC magazine Inspires, when I wrote about a young child's reaction to services full of colour, music and exotic scents, but I'm not going to think about young children today. Indeed, when people talk about the need to have children in church, I often think rather of the need to have their parents there, especially in a town that young people tend to leave for further education and not return to until they are parents themselves. So what is it that a forty-something finds to draw them to a church? Or someone in their 50s, or a pensioner who suddenly discovers in himself a hunger to be more serious?* And what keeps them there? And why should they bother at all?

People who know me - or indeed who have read this blog over the years - know that I came to church through music. That sounds simple, but it's misleading. Music was the vehicle, yes - but I was singing the music, not listening to it. So am I still in church forty years on because of music? Not really. I am fortunate in that when I go to my own church I know that I can rely on the organist to meet my standards and supply the conditions under which worship is possible - but I'm married to him, and this isn't possible for the rest of the congregation. Not all at once anyway. I still like to sing - preferably plainsong or music of the Renaissance - but I'm not in a church choir on a regular basis. And I do not care to have to listen to a choir as part of my participation in the Eucharist - I long ago decided that the fun there is in the doing rather than the passive listening. It becomes positively painful when the choir isn't up to the music they sing, just as it is trying to have to listen to a poor organist.

So music can't be the whole story, can it? Time to stop thinking about myself, to consider the people among whom I worship and the church where I have been a member for the whole 40 years since I fell off my donkey. The institution, the people and the atmosphere have changed enormously in that time, and give me hope for the future. So what is it that trails us up that trying hill, to the not-very-easy carpark, to the church-that-could-be-warmer, at the very back of the town where it peters out into the hills?

Here's a list of attributes that I perceive as being the reason for people to come to a church - and to come back again. For a start, the atmosphere should be welcoming. Not just on the part of the official person at the door giving out the books, but of everyone else too - not intrusively, not oppressively, but welcoming so that the visitor can decide how much of herself to commit in conversation afterwards, feels able to ask questions. And it should be a safe place - safe to be sad, joyful, mad; safe to weep or to laugh; safe to ask for help. Ideally, the human nastiness that lurks in us all should be kept well out of the public arena: no bitching in the pews, no glares or sniffs because someone forgot their place in the rota or sat in the wrong seat. And there needs to be no self-importance on view - an inflated ego in the wrong place in a church setting can put the fragile enquirer right off their scone.

Do we come to church because we are always sure we shall be entertained or swayed emotionally? It might be pleasant to say 'yes' to that, but it wouldn't be true. What would be true, however, is that people come to church to be loved, loved for themselves and as themselves; that the people of God will reflect the love of the God they are there to worship; that in that setting, be it never so chilly or lacking in adornment, the combination of liturgy, music, prayerfulness and mystery will open a door to the bright places beyond. When that happens, it is no longer a question of why people come to church.

No. When that has happened, the question - one that is asked if for any reason someone is missing on a Sunday - that question will be a different one: why are they not there? Is something wrong?

And I believe I am fortunate, for after all these years in one church, I believe we are becoming that place.

*Philip Larkin: Churchgoing

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Meditation, corncrakes and rattling slates

People who follow me on Twitter will have realised from my sparse tweets that I've been away. In fact I've been on a 3-day retreat on Iona, one of the last places in Scotland where you find 3G phone connection, with such a sporadic signal to my Vodafone iPhone that all I could manage was the odd text message and wait for the signal to show before I hit 'send'. I think I could have managed the odd peek at Facebook, except that Facebook chose that week to demand my password, which of course I'd forgotten. So, quite unintentionally, it turned out to be a far more complete retreat for me than for any of my companions - and I found out how it's actually communication via my computer that keeps me up at night. For the first time in ages I was averaging a full 8 hours' sleep and still wakening before the alarm went at 7am.

I haven't been on a proper retreat for ages. Even my own Cursillo weekend - the last time I went off on a holy break and had people look after me - was over 13 years ago. Every other similar time away has involved me in some kind of work, usually providing some kind of service for others. My last silent retreat was in the '80s, I think - unless you count the one on Cumbrae where a certain blogger and I found silence in the same room challenging (it had to do with the ticking of the clock ...) So when the diocese offered some of us who had done facilitation work over the past few years a reward in the shape of a retreat in one of the diocesan retreat houses, I took it up, along with two others and a wonderful retreat leader.

I don't intend to go into the details, though I shall publish the writing that came out of the sudden focussing of my brain (it was a tad surprised by the opportunity, I think). But looking back, I notice how hard it was at first to switch off and then how much harder to switch back on again on our return. Both experiences were strangely exhausting in their own way. I realise that the first evening, when I was beside myself with the effects of a day that had begun at 5.30am in Dunoon, landed us on Iona in time to attend an unexpected concert in the Abbey at 1pm and had me scrambling up a dun before we even began our retreat, I was actually lulled into relaxation by staying up to talk for an hour after I'd started heading for my room. It all depends on the talk, and the surroundings (in this case, the gallery of Bishop's House chapel, which is used as a quiet room but is also the upstairs route from one end of the house to the other).

This was not a silent retreat. We had silences, but we also had intense discussion and some hilarious mealtimes. We walked, in sun and in gale-driven rain, and we ate scones in the middle of the afternoon (I don't do afternoon tea). We were well fed, our dietary peccadilloes well cared for. We met another guest who arrived for dinner on our second day; it turned out he knew my #1 son from university days. (We'd just been talking about degrees of separation ...) I was allowed to sing - the Lent Prose and other joys - in the chapel. I slept like a log even when the slates on the roof round my little room were rattling in the gale that would prevent us getting off the island on our planned ferry.

On our departure morning, we sat in the new residents' sitting room and waited to hear if the ferries would go on later. We watched as it crept out from its mooring on Mull and headed for Fionnphort. By the time it was making for Iona, we were halfway down the road, our cases preceding us on the back of a tractor-drawn trailer. We had to dash through the sea onto the ferry ramp, and were fairly hurled into the cabin by a random lurch of the boat. The crossing took twice as long as usual, as we made a deep V-shaped course into and with the waves. We were not sick.

The three of us who were there learned, I think, something about ourselves and something about each other - even though we've known one another for years. It was a wonderful experience.

And we saw two corn crakes scuttling under the hedge beside Bishop's House. Joy!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Of straight talking and overturning tables

Over the past 40-odd years I've found myself back in the position in the choir stalls of Cathedral of The Isles which gives this view - the sunlight from the stained glass colouring the marble of the pillar, the corona of candles that we weren't allowed to light when I was young lest wax fall on the floor. That has changed - we seem to cope with the wax these days - but nothing else does, and it's a peaceful vision for me to sustain the mind's eye as I write. I am not, you understand, in Cumbrae right now, and if I were I would not be able to sing a note, suffering as I am from a cold that has more or less silenced me ...

Perhaps that's why I'm blogging again - the frustration of not being able to speak, the space to read what people are writing and to reflect for myself. And I've been thinking some more about this absurd position I find myself in, belonging all these years to a church which is now, I believe, shutting itself off from the message of the gospels as firmly as it is shutting itself off from society. Yes, I'm thinking about the Equal Marriage situation, but I'm not going to go on about it right now.

What bothers me is that my years in the church have brought me into contact with so many people whom I like and feel concern for. My choice - made in this very spot I've pictured - to go along with the sudden conviction that what I'd been singing about and hearing about had meaning for me, a choice that led to confirmation and all the tortuous journey that has followed since, now lands me in a place where I can't just let it go, let people think it's ok to set up talking shops and to procrastinate and hope that the problem might dangle quietly till it's no longer their responsibility, let my period of involvement in the wider church end without doing my best to make a difference. And that's probably going to land me in a jaggy place, where either I will offend people I would prefer to have with me, or I will be deeply pissed off by their being patronising or dismissive.

When I was in my 30s, I felt very new and very inexperienced in the governing bodies of the church. (I'm talking the Scottish Episcopal Church, for any new reader who stumbles on this). I listened to elegant cassock-clad figures (one with Dundrearies adorning his aquiline features) and wondered at the enthusiasm for rewriting canons just so. The man sitting next to me took snuff periodically, and I felt I was living in a dream. Sometimes, it struck me that these men who were running the show were less than kind to one another, and I wondered about that. They did it so ... subtly. I found it illuminating, but I had little to say for myself. Half a lifetime later, I know most of the people who tell us what's what. I have opinions of my own. And sometimes I want to speak plainly. I want to use the language I would use in my professional life, I want there to be no doubt and no obfuscation. Only thing is, people often find that difficult. Aggressive, even. Not ... nice.

I spent some time every year of my teaching career on that word "nice", so I'm using it here with a heavy dose of irony, using it in the way I taught generations of pupils not to use it, using it to point out what I think is wrong with the church right now. Think of the things that are not "nice" in church circles and you'll see what I mean. And then think of what "being nice" entails in the way of not saying exactly what you mean, of hiding behind words and platitudes and pious expressions of brotherhood, of not upsetting people.

And then remember that it probably wasn't "nice" to have your table overturned and your money scattered over the ground - and wonder what has become of the church that follows the man who overturned the tables. Society has got there before us, I fear.