The season of Advent begins in a couple of weeks, and I have been reflecting on why I look forward to it so much. When I was young my excitement was about Christmas Day itself, but now it is more about “the waiting” of Advent: the expecting, the unknowing, and the anticipating of new birth. This expectancy is not just about the birth of God amongst us, but is about our new birth as well. I sense this Advent thrill in Julian of Norwich when she says that
our Saviour is our Very Mother in whom we be endlessly borne … We are all in Him enclosed and He is enclosed in us.
Meister Eckhart shares this same Advent excitement, for he writes,
When we say, "God is eternal," we mean:
God is eternally young,
God is ever green, ever verdant, ever flowering.
Every action of God is new, for God makes all things new.
God is the newest thing there is;
the youngest thing there is.
God is the beginning
and if we are united to God
we become new again.
As Advent approaches this year, my you be blessed by the thrill, the anticipation, and the mystery of endless new birth; that you are enclosed in God, and God is enclosed in you.
Recently I was browsing at our local second-hand bookshop and came across a small paperback by Anne Morrow Lindberg, called Gift from the Sea. The Lindberg name attracted me, and, yes, Anne was the wife of Charles Lindberg.* The book is a series of profound meditations on different seashells that Anne found on her retreats at the beach, often in a favourite island setting. Towards the end of the book, Anne reflects on her tendency on retreat to initially collect as many shells as possible, but then, as time goes by, she becomes more selective. She notices that one or two shells, surrounded by empty space, speak to her more deeply about their beauty and uniqueness than many shells clustered together. Similarly, she reflects, the retreat touches her so deeply because she has few activities, few demands, and lots of empty space. She goes on to say:
Only in space are events and objects and people unique and significant – and therefore beautiful. A tree has significance if one sees it against the empty face of sky. A note in music gains significance from the silences on either side. A candle flowers in the space of night. Even small and casual things take on significance if they are washed in space, like a few autumn grasses in the corner of [a Japanese ink] painting, the rest of the page bare.
This week is Holy Week. It is filled with significance for Christians, and it can be a very busy and cluttered time for churches and families. But may we find empty space to sit with the uniqueness and beauty of this time, both for ourselves, the world, and for all creation.
May God, who seeks to bless us and the world through Jesus, bless you this Holy Week.
* Charles and Anne were both pioneer aviators, Charles famously flying the first solo trans-Atlantic flight in the Spirit of St Louis. Tragically, in 1932, their first child was mysteriously kidnapped and murdered.
Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher in the second century AD, wrote his third book of meditations at the fortress of Carnuntum on the Danube. You can still visit the ruins of the fort today. I feel sorry for Aurelius who spent much of his nineteen-year reign fighting Rome’s many frontier enemies. Yet, in spite of that, he is known as one of Rome’s five good emperors. The goodness of this Stoic, warrior man comes through his many reflections on the purpose of this life, which he sums up as three things; to do what’s right, to serve others, and to love God. He writes, for example:
Wash yourself clean. With simplicity, with humility,
with indifference to everything except right and wrong.
Care for other human beings. Follow God.
And in another meditation;
To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind.
I find it quite remarkable that this “pagan” philosopher in antiquity arrived at much the same conclusions as the preacher in Ecclesiastes, as Christ in the Gospels, and Paul in the Epistles. And today, in a year of pandemic, we, too, can find truth and goodness in focusing on doing what is right, in caring for other human beings, and in loving God.
May God, who speaks to us all when we listen, bless you this week as we continue to journey through Lent.
Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels
I find some of the thoughts in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius quite profound. They make me reflect and think more deeply. Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher and an Emperor of Rome in the second century. Book 2 of his meditations was written around 170 AD on the Gran River, a tributary of the Danube, during a campaign against the Quadi, an invading Germanic tribe. In meditation 14, Aurelius reflects on the gift of the present moment, and I imagine him in his tent, weary and in his battle gear, thinking on the value of this fleeting life:
Even if you are going to live three thousand more years or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you are living now, or live another one than the one you are losing. The longest [life] amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone, and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you cannot lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?
Now, eighteen centuries later, the present moment is still all we have to embrace or lose. We can plan for the future or think about the past, but we cannot “possess” it. So, embrace this present moment, this gift of time, be in it with God and live it with all your heart.
Image by frankspandl from Pixabay
This week I came across Rowan Williams’ book Meeting God in Mark. It a beautiful and profound meditation on Jesus’ miracles and teaching, and on the great lengths Jesus took to explain the true nature of God and God’s work in the world.
In his reflection, Williams describes how Jesus, before performing a miracle, stooped to interact with the sick and needy. He wanted to establish a genuine relationship with them, a relationship of trust. If there was no relationship of trust, Jesus didn’t perform a miracle. Then, surprisingly, Jesus often told them to tell no one! He didn’t want his message about God and God’s actions to be about miracles.
Rather, Jesus’ persistent message was that God’s kingdom wasn’t coming through external power imposed on people from heaven, but it was coming from within, operating from the inside out. Look around you, said Jesus, in the every day, in the way crops grow in the field, the way seeds turn into giant trees, the way a child is born, and the way yeast causes dough to rise. God’s power acts quietly, mysteriously, out of sight, transforming from the inside out. As Williams puts it:
How does God work? Subtly, slowly, from the very depth of being. Or steadily, irresistibly, like light reaching the corners of the room. [God] works outward from the heart of being into the life of the every day – not inwards from some distant heaven. This is how God works, [says Jesus,] and you ought to be able to see it in the world around you in the world God has created and rules.
We just have to have eyes to see and hearts to trust. May you look around you this Lent, and notice everywhere the joy of God’s quiet, hidden, mysterious work, transforming from the inside out. May you also sense within you the stooping, loving Jesus, who gently seeks a deepening relationship with you.
Photo by Gary Barnes from Pexels
(With an apology to those who have not read Winnie-the-Pooh.)
In 1996, Christopher Robin Milne, the only child of the author AA Milne, died. He was immortalized by his father in the stories of Winnie-the-Poo as the character Christopher Robin. On hearing the news, the poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote a piece about Christopher Robin from the perspective of Pooh Bear who was thinking about ‘matters too difficult for a bear of little brain.’ Christopher Robin had momentarily disappeared from the Hundred Acre Wood, so Pooh questions him when he comes back. Christopher Robin tells Pooh he had fallen into the well, and, as he fell deeper, he grew into to an adult, became very old, and finally died. Then he was back in the woods again with his friends, and he explains to Pooh:
It was probably just a dream, quite unreal. The only real thing was you, old bear, and our shared fun. Now I won’t go anywhere, even if I’m called for an afternoon snack.
What a lovely picture of heaven – after this very short life we live, it’s like returning to old friends as Christopher Robin did with Pooh Bear, Piglet and Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Woods. Czeslaw Milosz, who went through the horrors of the Second World War, often imagined heaven as a return to an idyllic childhood, a winding back of the pain and ruptures of adulthood to the innocence and carefree delight of childhood. It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:
I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.
Jesus, my friend, is inviting me to take time to relax and share in his friendship with an innocent and carefree delight! May you, too, find space this week to relax and share a childlike delight in your friendship with Jesus.
There are two verses in Isaiah that strike me as descriptive of the extravagance of God’s compassion. In the version I read most mornings, Isaiah 5:7-8 speaks of God’s great compassion and then follows it by saying,
with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.
In the Message it says,
with lasting love I will tenderly care for you.
It sounds almost like a tautology to me, a ‘needless repetition’ of terms, to conflate in one breath God’s everlasting love and God’s compassion or tender care. Yet there it is.
So I have tried to sit with a sense of that luxurious extravagance of God’s deep, loving compassion. To personalize it, to bath in it and to pray for it for those whom I know are in great need, that they will know that God, with deep love, tenderly cares for them. May you, too, have pause this week to bath in the luxurious extravagance that God, with everlasting love, tenderly cares for you.
Last week we had the first Dayspring Community Quiet Day for 2021, and, as I was pondering the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, the Latin term carpe diem came to mind.
Carpe diem became a familiar term after the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society. In the movie an unorthodox English teacher, played by Robin Williams, urges his class of boys to ‘live extraordinary lives’. He whispered to them to carpe diem, which, in the movie, is translated as ‘seize the day’. Since the captivating performance of Williams, the expression has become a common motto, even appearing on bumper stickers. It has inspired people to take a hold of the opportunities that come their way, to get up and grab hold of their life, to make it full and successful.
But, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, a better translation of carpe diem is ‘pluck the day’ or enjoy life while you can. Go out and pick the flowers, smell the roses, and enjoy the moment. To me, this slightly different translation has a sense of being fully in the present moment, and savouring it for all it is worth. This is captured well in Gregory Orr’s poem from his book, How Beautiful the Beloved:
Ask the tree or the house;
Ask the rose or the fire
Hydrant – everything’s
Waiting for you to notice.
Everything’s waiting for you
To wrap your heart around it.
That music has been playing
Since you were born.
You must be mad to resist it.
Always the beloved
Eager to dance.
All we have to do is ask.
This week, may we be aware that the beloved surrounds us, and may we wrap our heart each day and savour it to the full.
Image - VectorStock
‘Generous’ is a commonly used word. It can describe the characteristics of a person or the size of the serve of chips at the local fish and chip shop. Because it is such a common word, I find it rather bland. For me, a richer meaning comes to life in a couple of older words that are not so commonly used today.
The first is ‘magnanimous’ which comes from the Latin magnus meaning great, and animus meaning soul. A magnanimous person is someone who has ‘great soul’! It is used to describe a person who is being generous or forgiving, especially towards a rival or less powerful person.
The second word is ‘munificent’ which also comes from Latin, munificus meaning bountiful. The definition of munificent is giving or sharing in abundance and without hesitation. It describes someone who is bighearted and bounteous, without hesitation!
God is generous! God is magnanimous, having ‘great soul’. The letter of Paul to the Romans brims with descriptive references to God having ‘great soul’, telling us how even when we were ‘weak and rebellious’ the love of God was poured out on us and now ‘we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!’
God is also munificent, being bighearted and bounteous, sharing everything with us in abundance and without hesitation. In Genesis, Abraham shows us God’s munificence. I love the picture of Abraham who, at 99 years of age, runs to greet three strangers who visit him. Then the almost 100 year old man runs to get a meal ready for them. He is so generous without hesitation. So is God!
And just as God did not wait for everything to be okay with us before being generous to us, so we do not need to wait for everything to be ‘right’ before we are generous in this on-going time of corona virus. And it is not just about being generous with material things or money which may be tight for many in this time of high unemployment and lock-down. But, more challengingly, it can be about giving of our own selves. As Simone Weil insightfully puts it, ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’. Giving our full attention to God is generous, or giving our undivided attention to those around us is generous. When we have been neglecting our self, giving our self our full, loving attention can be generous. In these simple but challenging ways we can be people who have ‘great soul’, people who are bighearted, even in a time of restrictions and coronavirus.
Image by Anrita1705 from pixabay
As I look outside my window this week, the world around me has been softened with winter rain and leaden skies. I can hear the screech and long guttural cawing of the black cockatoos in the macadamia tree next door. The black cockatoos come each year when the macadamias are ripe and wet with winter rain. Their chorus is raucous noise rather than tuneful song. Yet their welcome arrival, from who knows where, heralds the changing of the seasons. Summer’s simmering heat giving way to winter’s wind and rain. I sense a peace and gentleness in the softened, smiling world, and a joy in the return of wild and raucous beauty.
And as with the shifting season in the world around, so the season of hard lockdown is shifting into a tentative season of new beginnings. And I take a moment to reflect on the inner seasons of my heart and soul, and how deeply the outer seasons reflect and shift my inner world.
I bless you God for the beauty and the harshness of this place, and for the eternal rhythm of the seasons, both inner and outer. How deeply, I, who struggles with change, am also blessed by change.
And as you look upon the world around you this week, may you too be blessed by the mysterious beauty and the eternal rhythm of the seasons, both the inner and outer.
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