Thursday, 16 November 2017

You are the light

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good.
As we approach the Winter solstice, the nights draw in, the days are short and dark. Harvest is behind us and Winter just ahead. The trees stand like skeletons against the cloudy sky, as Nature hunkers down for the cold months to come.

Now as the old year comes to an end, we look forward to the new year, we light bonfires, beacons, candles, we keep vigil in readiness for a new beginning; in Church we light Advent candles for the one whose birth brought a new beginning to the world.

Back in May, things were very different for me. Bright, crisp early mornings, making way for warm sunny days, as I made my way across the North of Spain, through the Spring-coloured countryside along the pilgrim trail called the Camino de Santiago. It was day 26  - one of the longest legs of the journey, at 28½ kilometres – going from Villar de Mazarife to the city of Astorga. The walk was utterly beautiful but long and hard. The rough orangey track cut through the forest up and down slopes in an unbroken line for mile after mile.

One thing you soon realise when making this pilgrimage is that it forces you to confront your demons, even ones you didn't know you had. Before starting the Camino I had quit the voluntary work that meant so much to me, on a matter of principle. Now I was hot, exhausted, and racked with self-doubt. It was at this point that I arrived the the 'Oasis', a rest stop for pilgrims, with bottled drinks and fruit to eat in exchange for a donation. I sat down in the shade of a makeshift shelter, trying to muster the physical and mental strength to carry on. When I looked up, I saw that previous visitors had written on the wooden boards, and directly over my head was a simple depiction of a candle with the words “You are the light”. From my perspective, at that time, this was a message to me; I was guided to this spot; I was supposed to see it; that was all I needed. As I walked on I wondered: was it help from above or just a lucky chance? Then on my left I saw a concrete pillar some 30 feet high; beautifully drawn on the concrete, a hand reaching down from from the sky to grasp another hand reaching up, as if to save someone from drowning.

This Winter, when all around looks dark, remember this: You are the light of the world.

Friday, 27 October 2017

What we do to children

Useless things they taught me at school

In my adult life I have taught English to foreign students, programmed computers, and worked in administration.  I have rarely if ever used, and so pretty much forgotten, all these:

  • Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • French
  • Geography
  • History

Let's say I spent 15 years in education and two-thirds was useless; that's ten years of my life wasted, at a cost of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer.

Now a list of what was useful to me:

  • English Language and Literature, especially poetry and the appreciation of poetry
  • Music – including singing, playing and appreciation
  • Religious Knowledge – especially the thought-provoking discussions
  • Woodwork: I was never any good at it but it has still been a good practical skill
  • Physics: Newtonian physics, that is. Light, Sound, Motion etc
  • Latin: because it helps me understand English better
  • Plus independent critical thinking

Finally, the things I remember and treasure.

  • Spending an afternoon with my class at eight years old, in the park, under the trees, playing traditional singing games, like “The Farmer's In His Den” and “In And Out The Dusty Bluebells”.
  • Singing in my church choir and school choirs as a boy.
  • Listening to my class teacher at the end of each day when I was ten or eleven, reading from the great children's classics, like Black Beauty and Tom Sawyer.
  • In my secondary school, being given independence and responsibility: finding my own way three miles to and from school and arriving on time; freedom to roam in the lunch break; responsibility for finding my own way to the playing field a couple of miles away for sports.
  • In my senior years at school, English lessons being given over entirely to wide-ranging discussions covering political and moral issues, philosophies, the nature of knowledge and the strangeness of life. (We were expected to take responsibility for reading our set books).

I wonder how I would have turned out if they had spent ten years helping me to develop and deepen as a human being rather than stuffing me with useless facts that I would forget anyway.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Smoke and Mirrors

Autumn has officially arrived. We had the equinox, we heard the thunder, and now that Summer is over, the sun has come out. English weather.

I'm lucky enough to live in Wiltshire. Most people couldn't point to Wiltshire on a map; it's just somewhere you go through on the way to somewhere else, so Wiltshire retains its mystery. Everybody knows about Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circle, but there is ancient history in the soil, in the folds of the hills and in the white horses etched onto those hills. There is strangeness in the prohibited areas on Salisbury plain, the deserted village of Imber which can only be visited once a year, and in the loud thumps and bumps that can be heard from Marlborough to Warminster as the army plays with its toys on the Plain, while everyone carries on as if it were some grumbling volcano waiting to erupt.

In 2009 the four district councils of Wiltshire were amalgamated, bringing North Wilts, West Wilts, Kennet and Salisbury under a unified administration. Perfectly sensible no doubt, but it conceals the fact that, under the surface, they really are four quite distinct and different places, which rarely interact with each other.

So indeed it is with Autumn, running from the equinox to the solstice, but effectively sliced into two halves by the cross-quarter day known as All Hallows (or All Saints, or Halloween 1), or Samhain. Early Autumn can be characterised by still, sunny, misty mornings, trees in shades of green and gold, the smell of bonfire smoke, and flowers in the garden, after a final flourish, beginning to die back; a feeling of busyness following the lazy days of Summer. From November on, there is a distinct change. The earlier friendliness in the elements has gone; there are strong winds, rain from grey skies, cold mornings and cold nights, gathering darkness, a sense of closing in, stocking up ready for the freezing wastes of Winter.

In between these two states of being, we find ourselves in a no-man's-land, a hiatus hovering half-way between the in-breath and the out-breath, between the bright and the dark, between life and death. This is a threshold, a liminal space, a magical space, a dangerous place, a doorway into the unknown, to disaster or rich rewards. This is the time for heroes to abandon the safety of home and set out on bold adventures, to watch as the sun sets in red and rust, and to feel the call of the wild like fire in your blood. The veil between heaven and earth is thin; spirits roam out in the material world, voices in the darkness calling your name. At night you may look long at the logs burning in the hearth, the solid wood turning to ashes as the smoke rises, and you think about those who have passed through your life and now are gone.

The people of day come and go, do their work, talk and laugh, while just below the surface, the old mysteries stir in their sleep.

1 There is a technical difference which I will ignore

Sunday, 6 August 2017



That night, I put away my belongings,
Unlocked the doors to my existence,
Carefully folded up the walls and roof of my life,
And carrying only a bundle of clothes
On my back, I set myself free.

My way lay over the far horizon
Every step a step into the unknown
Fired by wind and water and birdsong
And laughter, kind hearts and wisdom
Of those I passed among.

The landscape spread before me like an ocean
That I could take my voyage upon,
I climbed big waves like hills and mountains
Trod small ripples like rocks and stones
That nestled in pools of green and gold.

The land I travelled gave me of itself.
Rugged as the rocks and tall as the peaks,
With eagle's eye I saw my life
What passed for my life, furtive and dark
Hiding among my worldly cares.

And so I reached my final destination
Santiago, where the mythic saint washed up.
My staff I leant against a wall and with fine food
Good wine and celebrations I laid my head to rest.
But still the road sang to my heart
The song of lovers torn apart.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

We are all connected

Imagine, if you can, that you have been blind since birth. All your other senses work well, you can smell if the bacon is burning, you can recognise people by their voices, you can reach out and touch things, people – you can know a person by feeling their face. You map out the interior of your home by sound, by temperature, by knowing the surfaces. You navigate outside in the same way, knowing familiar places by their sound or smell. All your senses combine to give you a model in your brain of the world, and using this model you live a complete, non-visual life.

But how will you know if your son is waving to you from a window? How will you know the look of love in your lover's eyes? How will you understand the dazzling beauty of a glorious Summer day? We who have sight take these things for granted, but try to imagine how difficult it must be for a blind person to understand how we know that eight miles above us a plane is silently streaking across the blue sky. But the blind person is unaware of the limit of their perception because they have never known what it is like to not have that limit.

We are all like that blind man. We can look back in time but we can't look ahead. In order to communicate we have to frame our thoughts in words, so that the listener can reconstruct our thought from the spoken words. We can only be in one place, we can only look in one direction at a time. We don’t have a sense for our connectedness with each other and the universe. Our capacity for accepting and giving love is attenuated. But all this is normal to us; we are unaware of our limitations because that is all we have ever known.

Imagine, if you can, how it must be for someone who has known life beyond these boundaries. Well, some people have. It is estimated that about 15 million people in the USA alone have had an NDE, a Near-Death Experience. They tell of a sense of love a million times stronger than any love they have known, they can communicate without words, they have all-round vision, they can be in many places at the same time. But above all they know that they are not separate individuals, but are an integral part of the universe, connected and interconnected with every living being, with every star and every atom. For them it is as though they have lived all their lives in darkness and now someone has turned on the light. St Paul had a similar experience on the road to Damascus; he wrote from personal knowledge about how it will be for us at the end of this earthly life:
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

So this is the first lesson: “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey”. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin).
But it doesn't stop there.

Their brief taste of real love, as a tangible fabric of light that is the substance of all existence, changes their lives forever. They dedicate the rest of their lives to helping other people, in medical care, education, counselling, or any of the caring professions. They are more tolerant, less competitive, less interested in material possessions, more into friendships and Nature. They are full of enthusiasm for life, determined to make the most of each day. They all agree that love is the only thing that matters, the only thing you really can take with you when you go. This is the second lesson.

What sort of world would we have if we all had an NDE? Perhaps a world without violence and war, without addiction or homelessness, without racial conflict, without a compulsion to own more and more things while other people have less and less. It might be a place where everyone would feel valued and wanted. We could have a planet that we cherished and cared for.

NDEs will always be the exception not the rule. Only one in seven who come close to death have an NDE. But the rest of us can learn from them. As Albert Einstein said:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” (Albert Einstein)

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Love is a blog

Does Love exist? No-one is quite sure. Astronomers have now detected background radiation from the farthest edges of the universe and yet there is no sign so far of Planet Love. Venus was a big disappointment, just a lot of hot air, a celestial body maybe but not one to cuddle up to. “Love all” says the tennis umpire; all that means is nothing's happening.

“All you need is love” sang The Beatles, but try telling that to the rent man. It doesn't seem to make you happy when you have it – witness all those sad blues songs. Love is not dependable; it's always the ones you love who let you down. “Only love can break your heart” sang Neil Young. Love is illogical – you try all you can to keep it for yourself and it disappears, and yet when you give it away it comes straight back to you. Love is messy – just messy. Need I say more?

What does it mean anyway? For a cat it's a matter of stroking of fur; for a dog, throwing a ball. It can mean doing what your Dad tells you or remembering when it's your Mum's birthday. For those in their twenties it just means sex; for those in their thirties it's arguing; for those in their sixties it's company.
All in all it's simply too much effort. Wouldn't it be much better if we forgot all about it? We could have nice, predictable lives doing what we wanted for ourselves, without having to even think about anyone else.

Nice boring predictable pointless lives.

All right then I was only kidding. You can't throw love away, it makes the world go round, it makes you sing, it's “the little thickness of the coin” (E.E. Cummings), it's the fifth element, it's the seventh wave (Sting), it's all around (The Troggs), love is the answer, love is the flower you've got to let grow (John Lennon). Life without love is like a tree without fruit (Khalil Gibran), or like a song with no tune.

“Love is patient,love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking,it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13.

According to the ancients, it is love that holds the stars together.

February 14th is approaching. If you have found love, be thankful; and if you haven't, watch out! St Valentine is coming to get you!