Those of you following the church year or lectionary will know that we are in Holy Week and last Sunday was Palm Sunday. I preached a short homily in ‘Home‘ – I won’t reprint it all here but just wanted to blog about the main point.
It seems to me that the events of Holy Week provide an interesting outline of the stages of faith. Palm Sunday is like early stage faith – it’s celebratory and euphoric. We backed the winning horse, we were on the right side all along, our guy got elected (we were looping some footage of the Obama election victory as the closest contemporary parallel to Palm Sunday). Our egos love this and it makes us feel good.
There’s nothing wrong with this – God smiles on it and Jesus didn’t rebuke the crowds for misunderstanding his purpose. But Palm Sunday isn’t really transformational. To be transformed we need to go through death and resurrection with Christ and in Christ (to use Saint Paul’s famous phrase). Death of ego, taking up our cross etc. But we don’t want to go that way – it feels like abandonment.
When we are led on (by the Spirit) from the certainty and euphoria of Palm Sunday faith – into the desert or wilderness, along the via dolorosa towards the cross – the huge temptation is to try to somehow get back to the Palm Sunday experience we once knew. But that’s not the way of Christ into which we have been called to follow. The Spirit leads us on to the cross where we commit our spirits into God’s hands – falling back into the arms of God in hope of resurrection.
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Sorry for the recent blog silence everyone. It’s been a very busy time – we are opening the Stillpoint ‘Stations of the Cross’ Easter art exhibition tomorrow night at The Jam Factory (an arts cafe/gallery) here in Oxford. The image on the left is the front of the exhibition card which I designed. You are welcome to come along for a drink if you are local and are interested. But that’s not what I want to talk about today – I want to talk about experience.
We finished the latest series of Monday night meditation sessions last week and one of the comments made by someone has really stayed with me. This person said, “it’s so nice to be part of a group that talks about our experiences of prayer”.
I have reflected a lot on this. I think this person is right – we are very unused to talking personally about what actually happens when we pray, our personal experience. We can talk in the abstract, we can talk conceptually, we can talk theologically but conversation about our actual experience of the divine is quite rare. We would rather talk about the mechanics of prayer I think.
Perhaps this is particularly English thing – we are just too embarrassed to talk about it.
More widely it seems we would often rather talk about the form than the content. I for one am quite bored (and have been for some time) of talk about ’emerging church’ or ‘new-monasticism’ etc. etc. People make a living from talking about these forms and concepts and conferences and books abound on the subjects. But these things are just supposed to be vehicles which help to deliver an experience of God. We are in danger of becoming ecclesiological train-spotters, hanging around on platforms looking at the engines but not getting on the train and going on the journey.
To change the metaphor, we have become obsessed with the tools and we are often in danger of forgetting that the tools are there to do a job. What we do with the tools is much more important than the tools themselves.
When we learn to use a new tool we go through some different stages. At first we are very aware of the tool, we’re very conscious of it. As we become more proficient the tool almost becomes an extension of our bodies and we’re not very aware of the tool anymore, we are focussed on what we are doing with the tool. Think of learning to drive or paint as examples.
Perhaps an obsession with church – be it new or old forms – is analogous to this early stage. I long for more conversation about our actual experience of God.
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The new Bishop-elect for the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan is in hot water with conservatives in the US because he practices zen. See articles on The Times website here and here if you want to read more.
There are a couple of things I want to say about this:
1. Firstly, as Ruth Gledhill points out in her article, it’s sad that once again when truly unbelievable things are going on in the church (the Nazi bishop who wasn’t excommunicated etc.) that this is the kind of story that makes the headlines.
2. It seems quite clear to me that Zen is not a religion but a philosophy or set of practices. There is no God in Zen. As such I don’t think there is any reason to think that a Christian can’t also find Zen helpful. I do. Bishop Kevin says that Zen practices deepen his relationship with Christ. I think I would say the same. As the Irish Jesuit William Johnston points out in his book ‘Christian Zen’, there is a difference between Zen and Zen Buddhism. A Zen approach can be taken to any of the religions – so we could have Zen Judaism, Zen Islam, Zen Christianity as well as Zen Buddhism. I think Zen helps us to see but doesn’t tell us what we should see (a helpful phrase I have taken from Richard Rohr’s analysis of Eckhart Tolle) – i.e. Zen is about process not content.
I am resolutely Christian – for me it’s all about Christ who is the ‘really real’ (to borrow a phrase from Gregory of Nyssa). But there is stuff in Zen that can help me receive Christ and follow Christ and which I can learn from. Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr have been saying this for a long time!
So let’s lay off Bishop Kevin!
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The Stillpoint launch on Wednesday night felt like a significant moment in my life – a moment of stepping into a new chapter and embracing a new vocational dimension.
120 people joined us at The Phoenix cinema to hear about the vision Ian and I are crafting for (and through) Stillpoint, and to engage with Jamie Catto from 1 Giant Leap and his films – someone I think really has his finger on the pulse – and also to listen to Bishop John – the Bishop of Oxford.
Some may be sceptical of someone like Bishop John or see him as representing religion (bad) as opposed to new spirituality (good). But Bishop John really cares about the work Ian and I are doing and has a passion to see the church nurture a depth of spiritual experience. So we were really glad to have him there and his generosity has made it possible for us to get Stillpoint off the ground so he is very much a friend of Stillpoint.
Anyway – it was a good night and seemed to really resonate with a wide variety of people which is a really positive thing. Really pleased that both church people and non-church people connected with it and we very much want Stillpoint to resource all kinds of spiritual seekers without people feeling like it’s a way to get people to come to church (it’s not!). Of course it was just the launch so in a sense the real work now begins – next up is the Stations of the Cross art event at easter (more details on our site). There are also some photos from the launch night here.
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Sorry for the recent blog silence – I have been busy…mostly with the following (and isn’t it ironic how busy one can become organising something called ‘stillpoint’!)
We are launching Stillpoint on Wednesday this week (March 4th) at a special event in The Phoenix Cinema in Jericho, Oxford.
We will be joined by the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, and also by Jamie Catto – one half of 1 Giant Leap (“genius film makers” according to Bono). We will be presenting the vision for Stillpoint and talking to John and Jamie as well as showing some chapters from 1 Giant Leap’s latest film, ‘What About Me?’
We have had a really good response to the invites we’ve sent out but we still have some spaces available. If you would like to come please let me know (leave a comment to this post).
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When you think about it prayer should make you a more sensual human being.
What I mean is that if prayer is largely to do with becoming present in the moment and awakening to our aliveness (in God – in whom we live and move and have our being) then it should lead to a heightened sensory awareness – we can expect to become increasingly sensitive to touch, taste, smell, what we see etc. as we will truly be in the moment and not off somewhere else in our heads.
Does that make sense?
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When I started exploring the practice of meditation and contemplative prayer a number of years back one of the things that took me by surprise was that much of the practice in this sphere leads to a focus on a deeper knowledge of yourself. I always presumed that what is being contemplated was God but actually very often what is being contemplated is actually me (and I am aware of how clumsy (and subject-object dualistic that sentence is but go with it while I make this point and I might return to that another day).
Carl Gustav Jung was very interested in meditation (especially Zen meditation) as he saw it as a means whereby the unconscious becomes conscious, leading to greater wholeness. Much of Richard Rohr’s writing is actually about how the practice of contemplative prayer leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings and thereby a greater wholeness for us as people.
For me, an important part of this has to do with clearing away clutter and creating a space where you are forced to confront who you really are. In meditation and contemplative prayer there is really nowhere to hide – you have to face yourself.
Even in church – or whatever you call your holy place/gathering – there is a lot of ‘entertainment’….opportunities to distract yourself with the many good and noble things that are going on (and I am not suggesting we stop doing these things!). When you sit in silent meditation there really is nothing left to distract you. You have to look at the internal clutter and become aware of the white noise within.
No wonder many of us find it uncomfortable and make all kinds of excuses to keep from doing it. It is not meant to be easy but we must engage with it otherwise we will end up ‘entertaining ourselves to death’.
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