Monthly Archives: December 2016

Saturate with brightness

On the last day of 2016 two extracts from poems by Robert Browning (1812-1889)

The first comes with Christmas and New Year greetings that our world may be saturated by brightness; the second is a plea for the truth that lies within each of us and that the truth may enlighten us as we allow ourselves to be open to it…ray by ray…

Section from Christmas Eve 1849

When … have mercy, Lord, on us!
The whole face turned upon me full.
And I spread myself beneath it,
As when the bleacher spreads, to seethe it
In the cleansing sun, his wool,–
Steeps in the flood of noontide whiteness
Some denied, discoloured web–
So lay I, saturate with brightness.


From Paracelsus

TRUTH is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe.
There is an inmost centre in us all,
Where truth abides in fullness; and around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception—which is truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it, and makes all error: and, to KNOW,
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without. Watch narrowly
The demonstration of a truth, its birth,
And you trace back the effluence to its spring
And source within us, where broods radiance vast,
To be elicited, ray by ray…

Freedom through Incarnation

One of the definitions of incarnation is: ‘a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality.’ It is used by Christians to speak of the birth and life of Jesus Christ but restricting the incarnation to a historical event is to restrict our own lives.
It was Baron von Hugel who said that ‘The origin of religion consists in the fact that man [meaning humankind though we might also choose to add all creatures] has the Infinite within them.’ He thought that our very self is God and God gives himself to us. This same belief is reflected in St Catherine of Genoa: ‘My me is God, nor do I know my selfhood save in him.’

Our search for our self and who we really are is the same search for God. In knowing oneself in all one’s depth – persona and shadow we find God and similarly as we enter the mystery of another person and into one’s own mystery we discover the presence of God.

Harry Williams puts it like this: I discover from my own experience that the tabernacle of God is with people and the Incarnation is revealed not as a past event of two thousand odd years ago, but as a contemporary present reality, a reality which involves true paradox but not contradiction, and which has about it all the simplicity of what is really profound.

Emmanuel meaning that God is with us is the meaning of the Incarnation and God is with us now in the flesh … each one of us including me and you. The mystery of the Godhead is at the centre and inmost self of Jesus but as the original disciples found beneath the surface of their own human identities was the same mystery at the centre of their own inmost self of their own being.

The recognition of this divine connection is found in the Sanskrit greeting ‘Namaste’ often accompanied by putting the two hands together in the prayer gesture and bowing to the other. It’s an ancient Sanskrit greeting still in use in India. Translated roughly, it means ‘I bow to the God within you’, or ‘The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you’ – a knowing that we are all made from the same One Divine Consciousness.

Similarly the Society of Friends (Quakers) acknowledges ‘that of God in everyone’. The phrase comes from George Fox who saw ‘that of God in every man’ [again meaning all of us] in the context of Romans 1. He wrote to another early Quaker in 1658: ‘So that which may be known of God is manifest within people, which God hath showed unto them … and to that of God in them all must they come before they do hold the truth in righteousness, or retain God in their knowledge, or retain his covenant of light.’

And of course a belief and respect for the Incarnation in all of God’s creatures and a recognition of the Consciousness that connects us all takes away the occasion for war and cruelty and suffering….
Let’s hope this Christmas for this awareness and insight within ourselves and between one another.

Freedom in Advent 3

The last post included some of the writings of Jimmy Boyle about his experiences as a lifer in the Scottish prison system. I currently support a charity called Prison Phoenix Trust which encourages prisoners in the development of their spiritual welfare through yoga and meditation.

I’ve also been involved with Life Lines which is an organisation that supplies pen friends to people on death row in the US. since it was set up in 1988.

The interesting thing about both organisations that offer support and companionship in different ways is that they are also offering a suggestion of freedom. Clearly this is not the freedom of physical release but rather a freeing of the mind and spirit. Both organisations publish newsletters which testify to this from the different experiences of the prisoners.
In the latest winter issue of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter the central piece is about Advent and Christmas as being a season of hope, when hope shows up when you regularly allow your mind to become still and focused in meditation and in yoga. As our thinking slows down and reduces so another part of the mind comes forward, and this is the part that is naturally bright and radiant, like the sun, begging to break through the clouds of worry, fear and so on that clouds so much of our waking life.

As the writer says:
‘On the one hand, it doesn’t make sense that you could ever feel hopeful in your own personal winter, when your situation is so bleak and unbearable. But somehow – in a way that’s difficult to describe – things do get easier when you repeatedly bring your attention back to your breath, away from all the mental activity that surrounds your situation… Don’t worry if hope only feels like a weak winter sun right now. You are inviting it in each time you sit down to meditate. It’s here already actually, clouds or no clouds.’

The quote from Desmond Tutu sums all this up:
‘Hope is being able to see that there is a light despite all of the darkness.’

I don’t think this is so much to do with the hope … like ‘I hope that I get this job’ or ‘I hope that I can find a parking space’ or ‘that it won’t rain’ or in the context of prison ‘I hope that the parole board will be on my side’ … it’s about a hope beyond and yet immersed in the everyday. It’s about an understanding we are part of something bigger than our own immediate wishes. That in itself is hopeful – as if somewhere we are held and so can let go a bit. It is this hope that we await in Advent, a very slow hint that the light is on its way.

Freedom in Advent 2

When I was in my early twenties I was involved for a number of years in a group called Radical Alternatives to Prison based in London. I had been greatly influenced by my sociology lecturer Stan Cohen (1942-2013) who taught and researched on prisons, on the long term effects of incarceration, and, on prisoners’ rights. One of the prison writers whom I respected was Jimmy Boyle who was given a life sentence in 1967 and whose background and descent into gangster violence and conviction for a murder that he denied is documented in his work A Sense of Freedom. The redemption that he experienced at the end of that book came in the form of acceptance into Barlinnie Special Unit a ground breaking facility for violent lifers open from 1973-1994 where the inmates were given a certain amount of autonomy, and, as the aim was rehabilitation they were introduced to the arts and different activities as well as group therapy and time for reflection. It’s where Jimmy Boyle, once known as the most violent man in Scotland, discovered that he could sculpt. His book of his time there is more or less a diary and is called The Pain of Confinement. One diary extract is written on 25th May 1977 about four years after he had transferred to the wing:

‘What about my yearning to be free? I visualise walking in the country, seeing green fields, birds singing, the horizons far in the distance – as far as the eye can see. Oh to walk the streets full of people. To look at my hand and see the clasped hand of my girlfriend, to look at her face and eyes. These are the dreams of the incarcerated. I want so much to taste freedom because for the first time in my life I will be able to appreciate it. I desire the world beyond the walls.’

What Jimmy Boyle and others who were in the unit have spoken about is how tough it was to confront themselves, and rather than maintain their violent defensive state begin to see who they really were. Jimmy Boyle talks about it in terms of sculpting:

‘What about the expression of my soul? The hammer and chisel that sculpts the stone from the tenement buildings of my past into a new form for the future. A transformation that is comparative to my own. The ingrained pollution that covers the stone is shorn. I take it in this filth covered condition, devote the time to it and give it another life.’

He speaks of his writing as threads of life brought to the surface and a way of understanding what we are doing.

‘Feelings. Those parts that we all try to hide from each other. The shame, the jealousy, the guilt and insecurity. Our inferiority. Who can put up the most convincing mask to hide the inner turmoil? It’s all about chasing illusions that don’t really exist. It’s like hating some bastard yet when he dies we realise he wasn’t so bad after all.’

(Jimmy Boyle was set free in November 1982. He’s now a world renowned sculptor living abroad away from the unforgiving British press. In a recent interview he said: ‘I ask myself what was that all about? All that violence, theft, anger and hatred for territorial gain when in fact none of us own anything.’ And that insight too is freedom.)

Freedom in Advent 1

If Advent is a time of preparation and a paring away of excess to ready ourselves for the incarnation then one of the freedoms offered in Advent is a chance to let go of the illusions that surround our perception and idea about God. Thomas Merton understood this when he wrote of the danger of seeing God as an ‘object’ alongside all the other ‘beings’. This makes God merely another being or object that can be demonstrated and discovered. Instead he understood God as the Absolute: beyond and within and the source and the ground of everything including all existing beings.

If God is the hidden ground of love from which everything comes and through which everything is sustained then God is also and only God is the source of all freedom.
Merton was very much urging his readers to look beyond in their search for freedom; to go beyond the accepted limits into something which is infinite and limitless. He wrote about the freedom to be subject to no-thing, and ‘therefore to live in All, through All, for All, by Him Who is All.’ Merton delineates this encompassing reality by his use of the capital letters. He saw this as about living in the spirit of Christ and where the Spirit of Truth blows where it wills, ‘The Truth shall make you free.’

This is the freedom that comes with the recognition that we are made in the image of God and the awakening to the true self by as Merton puts it so beautifully : ‘the promptings of a Superior Freedom’.

The further freedom that comes with this is about the interconnectedness of all beings and of all of creation and so loving my neighbour is demanded by an inner truth whereby we all find our inner identity in God. The true freedom is an experience and not something that we can learn about or gain through following the rules. It is spontaneous, Merton calls it a freedom of spontaneity, and here there are connections with what Donald Winnicott called the spontaneous gesture. This is the freedom to be true to oneself without self-consciousness or artifice.

When Merton writes that perfect spiritual freedom is a total inability to make any evil choice, I fear that Carl Jung would ask where the shadow is. Perhaps Merton sees the shadow then as sufficiently integrated to mean that there is enough insight to make a choice in terms of truth and in and through Christ.