“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 22 May 2015

Making A Difference

There is a wonderful old story about a young man, who was walking along the beach, when he noticed that thousands of starfish had been washed up by the tide. The tide was going out, and the starfish were stranded. There was no way that they could get back to the water, and he realised that within an hour or so, they would all be dead.

In the distance, he noticed an elderly woman, who was picking up the starfish from the beach, one by one, and throwing them back into the sea. The young man went up to her and asked: "What are you doing?" She replied: "The sun is up and the tide is going out, and I'm throwing these starfish back into the sea, so that they won't die."

"But why are you bothering?" he asked. "There are thousands of them, and what you are doing won't make any difference. And there will be thousands more on the next tide."

The old lady stooped, picked up another starfish, and hurled it back into the receding tide. Then she turned to the young man and grinned: "Made a difference to that one!"

I love this story so much, because it proves that no matter how old or tired or busy we are, we can still make a difference in the world. It makes me so cross when people say "Oh, I don't bother with recycling (or picking up litter or whatever small task we are called to do), because my individual effort won't make a difference." The point being, that if everybody thought like that, Nothing would get done!

At times like that, I remember the story of the old lady and the starfish, and make my small effort, knowing that it will make a difference, no matter how infinitesimal. I try to follow the advice of the Quaker missionary, Etienne de Grellet, who wrote: "I shall pass this way but one; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." Amen


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Overwhelmed By Words

A few years ago, I discovered how incredibly beautiful and moving religious poetry could be. I had already had intimations of this, from reading Kahlil Gibran as a student, but during Unitarian Summer School in 2010, I was introduced to the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic, and to that of Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, who wrote in the early 20th century.

They both absolutely blew me away. Only when reading the poetic prose of Gibran's The Prophet had I encountered anything like it. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of their words, which pointed to a new way of connecting with the divine, which had never occurred to me. Most of the religious poetry that I knew was by the metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert, from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, or the grand and serious stanzas of Milton's Paradise Lost. Some of it is beautiful, but oh so very orthodox.

We are very fortunate in the 21st century, to have gifted translators and editors, who are able to convert the Persian of Hafiz, and the German of Rilke, into wonderfully lyrical English, without losing the sense of the original. Daniel Ladinsky in the case of Hafiz, and Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy for Rilke. Their translations are masterpieces, and contribute hugely to the enjoyment and pleasure I have received from reading them.

Although both authors may be described as religious / spiritual poets, their poetry is not the same. Apart from in the erotic Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible, I had not come across the idea of God or the Divine (however you like to refer to Him/Her/It) as the Beloved, the object of the worshipper's love. It is a concept that is central in the poetry of both Hafiz and his fellow Persian mystic, Rumi, and I find it refreshing.

Hafiz's relationship with his God can only be described as intimate. His God is not some remote, cold, judgemental Being in Heaven, but a warm, loving, teasing Presence. The companionship of this Beloved God is a matter of joy and happiness - much of the poetry speaks of laughing and dancing and singing and playing music. Sometimes he is talking about his own relationship with god, and sometimes offering advice to the reader, in the guise of a guide, who can lead him or her to "the Beloved's tent." There is much gentle good advice in Hafiz's words. Reading his words has taught me that religious poetry does not have to be solemn and serious, and that loving yourself and others is the straightest way to God.

Rainer Maria Rilke is more overtly serious in his approach to God than Hafiz, but in my favourite book of his Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, there is the same intimacy, the same longing for union with the Divine, and the same belief that this is possible, for human beings, here and now. The edition I own has the German text on the left hand pages, and the English on the right, which is lovely for me. I have a little German, and having read the English first, can then turn to the original and savour it.

However, that is not the reason why I love this book so much. It is the warm connection between the poet and God which runs through all the poems - sometimes it is God speaking, sometimes the poet. But like Hafiz, there is a closeness, a familiarity with the Divine in Rilke's words, which is so delicious to read.  Rilke has a personal and close relationship with god. There is no feeling that God is Up There, or Over There, or Somewhere Else. God is Here and Now and Everywhere. it is a relationship based on love, rather than judgement. I find it exhilarating.

Since that time, I have learned that these two are not as alone and singular as I first thought. I have come to know and love the poetry of people such as John O'Donohue, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, and Denise Levertov. But I will always be grateful to that Summer School, for introducing me to such wonderful poetry, which feeds my soul.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Discerning the Spirit

I am currently doing a wonderful course at the London Centre for Spirituality, which is training me to become a spiritual director. It's not like an ordinary training course, more like my ministry training, in so far as it is as much about formation as it is about learning.

Our session this week was very deep and rich, concerning the role of the Spirit in spiritual direction. I believe that whether the Spirit works uniquely through human beings, or is present throughout the universe doesn't really matter. What I do believe is that the Spirit is an active divine presence who is with us always. So, I am warming to the idea that in any spiritual direction session, there are three present - the director, the directee, and the Spirit. And that it is the Spirit who really does the direction; the director's job is to hold the space, and to guide / accompany the directee to enable him/her to discern where the Spirit is at work in his/her life. It is also up to us as directors to discern where the Spirit is present / working during the session, and to hold the silence, or choose the words, that will enable this.

This is not head work. This is heart work. It is based on trust: trust between director and directee, and trust by both in the process, and in the Spirit. I have been a directee myself for three and a half years now, and know from experience what a rich process it can be. I feel so very privileged to be able to pay it forward.