• A Salty Reverie

    A Salty Reverie


    With elderly poise and grace, my four-legged friend slowly makes her way along the pathway to a favourite patch of grass. Minx and I have been together for fifteen years. So many adventures we have enjoyed. Days of climbing mountains, chasing rabbits and catching sticks now belong to her dreams.
    It is summertime as we sit at the water's edge. She loves the sights and sounds and smells of her world. Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of each other. Our time together so precious.
    It's a warm day. A day to do nothing except think or not think. Little boats with assorted generations of family on board, putt out of the harbour. Children in swimsuits play tag on the beach and tuck into fruit salad and jelly afterwards. Seagulls hover overhead, waiting for a piece of pineapple to come their way.  
    Dreams and memories add to this salty reverie. I'm five years old again, on the beach at Blackpool in Lancashire, with my younger brother, Mark. We are wearing our new inflatable swim rings. Mark's ring has a horse's head, mine is a swan. The Irish Sea is always cold. Small guardians of the future do not worry about such things. Mum and Dad gently pull us into less shallow water, not letting go until, screeching with fearful delight, we insist on freedom. Afterwards, we head to the ice-cream parlour for banana splits all round. To children belongs the Kingdom of God.
    All this reminiscing comes to an end when two men in gumboots, argue furiously on the quayside over their catch of fish and I hear the gunshots of a pig hunter in the valley. Contemplative spirituality has to engage with the world.
    With her twilight perception, Minx has gifted me the wisdom that times of stillness and refreshment are vital to wholeness. Intense movement, busyness, work, justification of self, through the doing of deeds are endemic these days, not least in the Church. Many clergy, from Archbishops down, earnestly go about the business of religion attending endless meetings, compulsory personal development courses, supervision sessions, yearly reviews and formulating still more desperate strategies for mission. Yet what significant time is given to the heart of vocation -   presence - sharing the sights and sounds and smells of other people's worlds and being refreshed in mind, body and spirit?
    The clergy of Jane Austen's time were not known to work onerously. As the daughter and sister of clergymen, Jane always included at least one vicar in her novels. Taking tea with parishioners was a most regular occurrence for them, as was reading in the study and if they were single, wooing a fair maiden. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey was noticeably absent from his parish for much of the year, retreating to the town of Bath. His lack of commitment would surely be questioned these days, yet he saw the world quite poetically and spiritually, '… I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.' For all his flaws, Henry Tilney took time to see the subtlest of things.  
    Is it possible to find a still and quiet place in our hearts and lives?
    At the heart of Vaughan Park is the Ruatara Chapel. Three times a day, the community gathers there to mark the hours of the day, to pray for justice, peace and the integrity of creation and to value the ordinary as sacred. As most of us are rarely in a place where we stand and in the time that is now, this living of the canonical hours is a vital resource.
    The Book of Hours, popular in the medieval period, was originally written by monks who contemplated the nature of God in quietness, sometimes isolation. It contained prayers for specific hours of the day, days of the week, months and seasons, with illustrations to help the reader contemplate and meditate. It was read by all kinds of people from every strata of society, often carried in pocket or bag. The Liturgy of the Hours, The Daily Office, The Divine Services all originate from this early source of wisdom.
    Wisdom, I think, is a deeper way of knowing and living in rhythm with our souls, life and the Divine. It is about learning to balance the known with the unknown and linking the whole of life to a deeper Unity. Jesus withdrew to quiet places, in mind, body and spirit. He considered it wise.
    The Christian Church reminds us in early February of the story in St. Luke's gospel about the elderly priest and prophetess, Simeon and Anna. They waited many faithful years to bless the Christ Child and sensed the sacredness of the moment when he came before them. With the wisdom of age and the daily prayers of a lifetime, they saw God in Jesus and knew him to be the Light of the World.
    At Candlemas and at any other time, come to think of it, we light candles in response to Love, praying and believing that Light will shine where wars rage, hate burns, fresh water is but a dream, land is stolen and pillaged. We also pray that the Light will continue to shine in the lives of people who honour love, justice, truth, peace and hope. The Church, for all its flaws and in its goodness, still seeks the Light.
    Minx is resting at my feet as I write these words. Perhaps she is dreaming of a time when she swam in the river or when she licked away the tears from my face on the night Dad died. I gaze out at our garden. The boughs of the gnarled pear tree, planted some eighty years ago, are laden with fruit.
    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    Image   Children sitting on wall at the seaside, by the artist, Marilyn Spence, www.marilynspence.co.uk


  • Moments: The Great Silence

    Ana Lisa de Jong 27 March 2020

    Moments: The Great Silence

    In the great silence
    the flowers seeded and grew,
    the rain fell, the land took a breath,
    The sun turned on its wheel
    heedless to the forecast doom.

    In the great silence
    the leaves folded, took their queue
    and detached from the branch,
    to become the first fruit
    of a fallen carpet
    destined for mulch.

    In the great silence, north and south,
    the seasons changed,
    exchanged batons.
    The earth, on its axis, followed a path
    long trodden,
    defined by millennia past.

    And in the great silence
    the people burrowed in,
    appeared on occasion for air,
    and breathed secure for knowing the earth
    carried on its resolve,
    resolute in purpose.

    And in the great silence
    the planet rested,
    the people rethought their focus
    and slowed,
    unfolded from the weight of lament and fear,
    and returned as a world newly formed.

    And in the great silence,
    the people rebuilt their altars,
    with the memory of the lost
    freshly engraved,
    and with the lessons of the earth
    and their treasures preserved

    the people conceived of a new way.

    ©Ana Lisa de Jong
    Living Tree Poetry
    March 2020

    Image www.unsplash.com

  • Moments: The Kingfisher and the Heron

    Moments: The Kingfisher and the Heron

    With the gradual easing of lockdown, I have managed to get away from my usual haunts and spend most of the day in a little boat on the Norfolk Broads. Amid the quiet delights of that watery world, I was rewarded with two beautiful sights: the darting of a kingfisher in the morning, and, in the evening, first, a glimpse of a slow grey heron rising and falling ahead of me, and, as I turned in by some trees to berth the boat, a much closer glimpse of the heron itself: still, stately, perched patiently on a branch, watching the river as it flowed past carrying me and my little boat back to our mooring.

    There was a great deal to savour in the contrast between these two extraordinary birds. In the grey and rainy morning, the sudden sweet darting of bright blue, reflected in the river, just under the shelter of low branches was like a flash of hidden colour into a monochrome world — indeed, almost like a vision from another world, as though a sliver of blue sky from Shakespeare’s “eternal summer” had shimmered a moment into our dark time and disappeared again, leaving behind a little thrill of hope. I never see kingfishers when I’m looking for them, they just appear magically and disappear as quickly, an unexpected grace that never fails to make my day.

    The quiet evening was as grey as the morning had been, but the rain had given way first to mist, and then a gentle breeze, when my homeward-guiding heron appeared. It is extraordinary that we can use the same word, “bird”, and recognise what is common between two such different and contrastingly beautiful creatures. But the slow, lazy flapping, the long low dipping glides, and then the final stillness of the heron, all suited and expressed my evening and homing mood, just as much as the kingfisher’s blue bolt had electrified and alerted my morning.

    I learned from Coleridge not only to love birds in and for themselves, as God’s good creatures whom he also loves as he loves us, but also to recognise that these creatures, breathed into being by God as he forms and sustains all things, are also part of both God’s mind and ours. They are creatures in their own right, but they are also forms of thought, and, like all of nature, they provide us with the images and emblems with which we think, “lovely shapes and sounds intelligible, Of the eternal language” which God utters in and through us, even as he gives us both life.

    So, in one sense I recognised something of myself in both the kingfisher and the heron. At first, perhaps prompted by the contrast of morning and evening, I thought of the kingfisher as my younger self: bright, energetic, making swift, sudden, unpredictable darts and flights, and I wondered if the slow patience of the evening heron, perched like a grey hermit in contemplation of the river, might be an emblem of “the gifts reserved for age”.

    But I’m not sure that’s quite right. I think there is always, in all of us, something of both the kingfisher and the heron, the morning and the evening. Perhaps our best emblem is the river itself. We float in the little boat of our consciousness on the surface of something deep and mysterious, always arising freshly from its source, and, if we are patient and attentive, both the kingfishers and the herons of the mind will come and bless us.

    © Malcolm Guite

    Image Kingfisher, Boris Smokrovic, unsplash.com

    This article was first published in The Church Times 17 July 2020 and is reproduced with permission.