Monday, 7 December 2015

Winter drawers on

Winter drawers on, as Terry Wogan used to say on his morning radio programme. The nights are drawing in. The days are dim, the nights are dark.
“Dark” is a curious word. It has two different but related meanings. It can be the mere absence of light. Nothing changes when we turn off the light – no scary ghosts, no monsters under the bed. That's just our imagination.
Or is it? Most break-ins occur under cover of the night. The darkest deeds are done in the blackness of night. Who knows who, or what, is lurking in the shadows. We can't see what's there. And that is the second shade of meaning of the word “dark”: unknown. Sinister connotations are never far off. In The Lord Of The Rings we see the Dark Lord, and in Star Wars there is the dark side of the force. How hard it must be for a sightless person to understand.
The dark side of the moon is not unlit, but unknown to us because it is always turned away from the Earth. The Dark Ages refer to the 5th – 10th century following the decline of the Roman empire, a time with little recorded history. The Dark Continent, Africa, is obviously very sunny and bright, but was for many years unexplored. “He's a dark horse” they say. (My Aunty Eileen once said that of me)! That is a horse whose sire and dam are both unknown. ["Pierce Egan's Book of Sports," London, 1832].
Amanda Lindblom performs as Santa Lucia during the traditional Queen of Light procession Varfru church in Enkoping, SwedenGetty

The light of the world (

After the Dark Ages came the Enlightenment. We could all breathe a sigh of relief – the lights are back on. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. As the year turns upon the solstice we celebrate the return of the light: In Sweden the festival of Santa Lucia (see my website for a video); in the Jewish tradition Hanukkah; In Holland, St Martin's Day; In Thailand, Loi Krathong; Diwali in India; and many others including Guy Fawkes night in England, but most notably Christmas in the Christian world. St John's Gospel says: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Many of those brought back from death by doctors (not just Christians) describe meeting Jesus as a bright light: the light is Jesus and the light is love. Perhaps somewhere deep in our hearts we know and love that light and long to return to it. Could this be the reason why we hate the dark?
May you have a brilliant Christmas.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Pippin's Oath

In "The Lord Of The Rings" by JRR Tolkein, a young and empty-headed hobbit called Pippin does a brave thing. As the last of the old kingdoms of men and of elves rally together for a last desperate stand against the overwhelming forces of darkness led by the dark lord Sauron, Pippin swears allegiance to Denethor, Steward of Gondor, the ancient stronghold of the kingdom of men. It is a gesture of courage and honour, in which he pledges his life for the land of Gondor, and so becomes a hero. Here, on the left, is his oath, and on the right the marriage vow of the Church of England.

“Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor,
and to the Lord and Steward of the realm,
to speak and to be silent,
to do and to let be,
to come and to go,
in need or plenty,
in peace or war,
in living or dying,
from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me,
or death take me, or the world end.”
“I,....., take you,.....,
to be my wife,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part;
according to God's holy law.”

The similarity is no coincidence. Marriage is rightly a happy time, but underneath the brilliance of flowers and confetti lies an ancient and solemn act of heroism. Each of the partners pledges their life to the other, to stand by them through thick and thin, and implicitly to die for them if necessary. By taking this oath they become more than they are - they become heroes. And their marriage becomes more than the sum of its parts, it will be the kingdom in which they will live out their lives.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Near Death

Is there life after death? It used to be said that no-one has ever returned to tell us, but now it is increasingly common for those pronounced clinically dead to be resuscitated, and in many cases to relate their experiences.
What is surprising is the striking similarity of the majority of these experiences. The one feature that comes up in almost all cases is seeing a very bright but not dazzling white light, which is associated with an overwhelming sense of unconditional love. Many people report beautiful scenery and music. Often they meet dead friends, pets and relatives. In some cases they don’t know who the person is until they search old photographs at a later date. The feeling of bliss is so intense that few people want to return, or if they do it is with a heavy heart.
My aim here is not to try to prove that we are immortal. What interests me is the wisdom that experiencers bring back from their encounter with death. Their new understanding radically alters their lives. They become less interested in material things, and more focused on being of service to the world. They are more patient, more caring, more aware of other people's feelings. They speak of love as the only thing that matters, and that we are all connected, not only to each other, but to the entire universe, to each star and each atom.
The radiant light experience has been known to living people too, not only by St Paul on his way to Damascus, but in more recent times by Dennis Shipman and others, always marked by intense love and understanding. And the wisdom is not new either. It is pretty much in line with the writings of a long line of mystics from pre-Christian times through Christians such as Julian of Norwich and through Sufis such as Rumi and Hafiz.
This message that we are all one could not have come at a better time. If anything can now save this fragile skin of life clinging to the surface of the globe, it will be the power to overcome our petty differences and work together for the good of all.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Roll on, the eclipse

The great American preacher Mike Yaconelli once told the story of how he finally met his all-time hero Henri Nouwen. He had been so excited about actually meeting the great man that he got lost on the way there and arrived late. When the door opened Nouwen greeted him with a bad-tempered peevish rant about a spoiled dinner and a wasted evening.

It's hard when your hero lets you down.

There was an episode of the 1980s cartoon series Brave Starr on this theme. As his one-time hero is led away in handcuffs, Brave Starr asks: "How could you? You were my hero." To which Jingles simply snarls back: "I never asked to be your hero".

And there's the rub. It's our fault for putting someone on a pedestal if they eventually fall off. The drama is entirely of our own creation.

I like people. I really like people. I see the best in everyone. I want it that way. That's my problem. It's my fault that for me, everyone must be good if I'm going to like them. As soon as they seem to me slightly less than perfect I can like them no more. To my credit I will continue seeing only good for as long as I possibly can, but I have my limits. Then a trap door opens and they are gone out of my life for good. Behind me the street is lined with metaphorical corpses. Undoubtedly this is a bad attitude, and my punishment is to stagger from one disappointment to the next.

Well, they say the eclipse is a time of renewal. Roll on!
I comb the rubble of a shattered world to find the bright face of an angel
And say again and say again that I have written this - this is for you.
(Clive James)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Life Goes On

© Clifford Smith 2014

Life goes on, you know.
I woke up early again today
so I got up, had a cup of tea,

sat by the window where I could see
the blue-tits round the feeder
pecking away

I always try to catch Thought For The Day
on Radio 2. It was a buddhist this time, nice man,
talking about the weather

Did a bit of tidying up in the kitchen
It gets so dirty! While I was at it I polished the kettle.
It looks like new

The house looks lovely you know. I got some
new sheets and pillow cases in the week.
So fresh and comfy

You would have liked it. You were always
on about getting new sheets.
Well, now I have.

Yes, life goes on all right without you
my love. It was hard at first I must admit,
but I got over it

And then I noticed something strange.
You were dead and gone all right
no doubt about that

But death can't take away my love
for you. And though I cannot hold you in my arms,
You're still safe inside my heart

where you always were. So nothing's changed,
really. And any world that gave someone like you to me
can't be all bad, can it?

Monday, 9 February 2015

You are HERE...

This is a diagram showing where we are in relation to everything.

Our civilised daily lives are built on the foundation of our religions, laws and customs. These in turn are derived from our shared sense of values, which arise out of our still evolving mythology. And this was born out of our connectedness with Nature, the seasons, life and death.

If we start undermining our religions and laws, if we trash our values for quick profit, if we fail to understand or recognise our own mythology, if we lose our connection with the Earth, then the whole edifice will collapse.

This system is only held in place by a transcendent sense of the divine, the timeless, the ineffable, or as Wordsworth put it, the "sense of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the living air and in the mind of man."

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

What a celebrant does

You are a child of the Universe,
No less than the trees and the stars,
You have a right to be here.
       (Desiderata, Max Ehrmann)

When the Ancients lay on the cool ground at night, looking up at the stars, which encrusted the heavens like an unfolding glittering white cloth, they liked to imagine patterns like the join-the-dots pictures you may have drawn when you were a child. Some of these they named after animals – the Great Bear, the Swan, the Scorpion; some were characters from story – Hercules, Cassiopeia, Cepheus.

In reality these are not groups of stars at all. They just look that way from Earth. But we could equally group them in different ways if we wanted. We could have the Fork-lift Truck, the Harley Davidson, Tower Bridge. Seeing patterns in things comes easily to us. This is how we make sense of the world, of history, of our own lives.

As with the stars, we don't have just one story to tell. When we write a job application we will include everything about our education, our relevant experience and our positions of responsibility. But we probably won't include the way we struggled with bullying at school, or the dedication and love of our parents. We won't include the one we love, and the day we first met. Yet these things also have their story, and they are more a part of us than our position at work.

While our mundane life plods on from education to qualification to position to promotion to retirement to death, inside we are super-heros on a great adventure. We face danger, injury and disease; we see friends and family through life and death; we witness the miracle of birth; we struggle with our weakness as much as with our greatness. Against all the odds we triumph.

This is our brilliant human existence. It is a story written in the stars, waiting to be told. Who will tell our story? Or will it be buried with our bones? The skill of a celebrant is to recognise you as a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars, your life unfolding like a cloth of silver.

With each turn of life there is a death and a rebirth. When we are born, the waiting is over, the period of pregnancy ends. It is a joyful beginning, but there is also a sense of loss; ask any mother. We cross a threshold into the unknown. And so at each new stage of life: starting school, starting secondary school, leaving home, starting work, giving vows, - right through to retirement, each milestone a new beginning.

A celebration can be seen as a snapshot pasted up onto the storyboard of our life, recording each stage as we go through. But there is more to it than just this. Imagine for a moment that you finally worked out for yourself how space and time was really structured, an understanding that would end a hundred years of speculation. Naturally you would want to tell the world. Why? Because until you do, to all intents and purposes, it hasn't happened. Unless you share it, it is just something in your head. Likewise a ceremony actualises reality – it makes reality happen.

In the Jewish tradition, a statement can occur on three levels: the first is a thought – even a thought is an action; the next is the spoken word, which is more powerful than just a thought; the most potent of all is the deed. In business, a handshake, or in previous times a kiss, seals a deal. Wearing the ring seals the marriage. A ceremony binds an idea into fact.

A qualified celebrant can work with you to make a ceremony that is right for you where you are in your life, that says what you want to say, that has the right feel. It can combine words, music, light, colour, costume - plus doves, balloons, fireworks, anything! Or just a few well-chosen words in a solemn setting. It's your call. You matter.