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Forgiveness: the (im)possibility thereof

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(the treacherous black rocks of un-forgiveness)

I’ve been pondering forgiveness, and what feels like, in some circumstances, the utter impossibility of it, every bone in my body resistant to the ‘should’ often attached to it. Desmond Tutu’s book helped, suggesting forgiving others is the best thing we can do for ourselves, to set ourselves free from the corrosive impact of un-forgiveness ….. and like all sorts of other things I know to be good for me (eating healthily, exercise, prayer), still it feels impossible!

I’ve discovered another wonderful author who offers wisdom for this rocky road: Rabbi Rami Shapiro. With humour, humaneness, and generosity he suggests in his book ‘Forgiveness‘ that this challenging quality is not an action, but an attitude, a whole-of-life stance towards the messy world of people.

Just how do we live in this attitude? By recognising that, for the most part, we humans are only trying to be happy; and that, as we stumble about in understandable pursuit of said happiness, we tread on each other’s toes, or worse (we may sometimes do this deliberately, but mostly, not).

In addition to that first lens, the Rabbi suggests, it helps to recognise that in any unhappy encounter or relational dynamic, we are each complicit, even if we are the ‘victim’.  (This is not to condone any version of abuse or mistreatment, or to disregard the complex layers of our relationships and choices, but to understand that it takes ‘two to tango’, and that as long as we stay in an unhealthy dynamic, we are contributing to its existence.)

With these two insights, we can face the situations that have hurt us, and see that at their heart, they are usually about each party crashing about in search of happiness, in the process breaking trust, breaking promises, breaking hearts.

This is pertinent to my own life; I also spend my working week listening to a wide variety of stories of hurt, brokenness, hope, and desire, and I think the Rabbi’s suggestion bears out. We are all fragile and vulnerable, subject to so many insidious messages about how to be happy, that we end up inadvertently contributing to the ocean of unhappiness in the world – hurting others and hurting ourselves. The answer is not to beat up the other person(s), or ourselves, but to look on both with eyes of compassion for that which is within and without that conspires to make us act in these ways.

So I’m going to practice living in an attitude of forgiveness towards others, and towards myself. As I sit feeling into this possibility, it feels inviting, and very different to the tense ‘should’ of attempting ‘to forgive’.

I wonder also, if this kindlier disposition towards the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition might make those other ‘good for me’ things (eating healthily, exercise, prayer) a little easier too!

As ever, a poet says it better, so here’s my rather blissful, and challenging, poem of the week:

when the violin, by Hafiz

translated by daniel ladinsky

When
The violin
Can forgive the past

It starts singing.

When the violin can stop worrying
About the future

You will become
Such a drunk laughing nuisance

That God
Will then lean down
And start combing you into
His
Hair.

When the violin can forgive
Every wound caused by
Others

The heart starts
Singing.

PS: I’ve also read the Rabbi’s ‘The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness‘ of which I’d like to keep a pile next to my ‘spiritual director’s chair’ and hand one out to each of my directees, saying ‘it’s all in here, what you’re searching for’!

PPS: There are countless seemingly diabolical acts of cruelty, abuse and injustice in the world that would appear not to fit into these suggestions. But perhaps even then, when we peel back the layers, we’ll find that the same holds true there, just as in our apparently less toxic choices.

I never regret going to the park

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I have a mantra: “Annette, you will never regret going to the park” that comes in handy on days when I think I’d rather stay on the sofa. It proves to be true every time.

Today I went for a very slow run through the park. I’ve had a busy and physically tiring few days, so I felt very weary as I set off. But the park worked its usual magic and as I stumbled along I thanked her and all her occupants for being my teacher, parent and friend.

e.e.cummings says it so much better than I do:

i thank you God for most this amazing by E. E. Cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Storage/You can’t take it with you, so you may as well enjoy not having it now!

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sending a poem every Monday to a dear friend who was in need of support. Other people offered to do her laundry or cleaning …. I sent her poems! She has been gracious enough to say they were much appreciated, and I do want to believe poetry and other carefully considered writing can bring consolation and comfort.

The weeks have passed, my friend still needs support and lots of loving, but I thought I would now post them here and on Facebook to widen the reach and share things that comfort and also challenge me.

Here’s one I find very challenging! I love my ‘things’, they tell stories, have memories embedded in them, make my house beautiful and give the illusion of identity and safety.

But they also weigh me down and limit my freedom and give me a false sense of who I really am.

I would like to enjoy ‘living lighter’ while I’m still here, and relieve my daughters of the task of getting rid of it all when I’m gone. But I am early to this thought, so it’s a work in progress! In the meantime, here’s the poem. Let me know your responses:

Storage, by Mary Oliver

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

I felt like the donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing—the reason they can fly.

 The Burning Bush 

Last weekend I visited Wakehurst Place in Sussex, hoping to catch the autumn colours. Glorious at any time, in fact most of the leaves had dropped and I had to be content with kicking my way through their crunchy carpet of colour. Then, serendipitously, I rounded a corner and encountered this Japanese maple – small, elegant, and flaming red. And it stopped me in my tracks.

I lingered awhile, then moved on. But the flaming red stayed with me. Earlier that day, I had talked with friends who argued for the ‘absoluteness’ of how God is presented in scripture, whereas I argued for more mystery & uncertainty, more allowance for each of us to wrestle, explore, experiment, listen, and play, so that a personal story & relationship ‘unfurl’. I just don’t believe, any more, in a faith that nails down its certainty, that believes it fully understands what God is or what God intends. This sense is supported by conversations I have with people I accompany, watching them move from simply accepting the so-called truths told them about the ‘God out there’, and come more and more into an experience with the ‘God within’.

Back to the burning bush, that red, miraculous shining. I was having my own ‘Moses experience’, on holy ground (although refrained from taking my shoes off on that wet and cold day), and I heard this small tree, in its autumn glory, announce that all creation is aflame with God, and that we are each invited to stop, listen, bow, and play our part in the dance, the colour, and the song of love and suffering in the world.

What if Scripture, rather than being an absolute to be taken on board literally, contains pointers to the nature of God, and how God is revealed in the world. What if it is an invitation for each of us to find God for ourselves, in our own encounters. This is how scripture (those ancient accounts from a culture and language so distant from our own), and the world, comes alive! I want to keep my eyes, my ears, and my heart open to burning bushes that stop me in my tracks, draw me, invite me to remove my shoes and bow to the mysterious, alluring, unknowable God.

PS: Gerard Manley Hopkins says it much better than I in his glorious poem God’s Grandeur:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Lent & Easter Pots

This is an article I wrote for the London Centre of Spiritual Direction blog, and it didn’t occur to me at the time to post it on my own blog, so here it is now, better late than never, I hope!

I work at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction in London as an Ignatian spiritual director, and also teach on the Ignatian training course. It is work I find immensely fulfilling and feel very grateful for, both for the work itself and the privilege of accompanying people, and also for the community of friends and colleagues at the Centre.

I am also a potter, and during Lent and Easter this year, I showed, in the Centre, two collections of pots and vessels made over the past 18 months – a bringing together of these important parts of myself and who God has made me to be. 

Firstly my ‘Lent Pots’:

In 2016 I decided that during Lent I would throw a pot each day. In the preceding months I had spent very little time in my studio and was sorely out of practice at throwing.

img_9815img_9814It proved to be a delightful, absorbing and loving exercise. Although a number of the pots ‘slumped’ in the making, those 40 days improved my throwing and taught me much about the need to be dedicated to my creative practice. It also provided a springboard into a much freer, experimental and ‘wild’ approach to my pottery, producing what I call my ‘Easter’ pots (see below).

What has all this to do with Lent?

My daily commitment spoke to me of God’s dedication to forming me, day by day, including the days that I ‘slump’.

It taught me not to be ashamed of my ‘failures’ – that what looks like failure can be part of a creative, joyful, life-giving process.

It taught me to play, with shape and colour, letting go of ‘right & wrong’ and of fearing judgement.

In valuing myself and what brings me joy, I experienced and trusted more in God’s loving gaze and delight in me.

Some pots not only slumped, but cracked in the firing, and to these I applied the Japanese craft of ‘Kintsugi’, repairing the cracks with gold lacquer. This, for me, conveys the deepest meaning of Lent & Easter, that what is broken is still beautiful. Indeed, it is beautiful and full of new life BECAUSE it is broken.

Then came my ‘Easter Pots’:IMG_0275

IMG_0276I began making these pots at a week-long ceramic workshop I attended just after Easter 2016, where I arrived and said ‘I’ve come to make a mess’! I wanted to find more freedom in my making.

And it worked! I have had such fun making these. Beginning with smaller wheel-thrown pots and moving to larger, hand-built ones, I have felt freer, bolder, much less anxious about the outcome or others’ opinion. A friend said some of them look volcanic, which really pleased me as it suggests something raw and primal, organic, forged in the depths. It does feel that they are coming from a true, loving place deep in myself.

There has been almost no planning to them, much more a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach, accepting the shapes and patterns as they come, in some cases splattering colour as a child might.

They are teaching me about playful creativity, and about a God who is playfully and continuously creative, who loves me whatever shape and colour I am, indeed who MADE me the shape and colour I am, and who invites me to join in with, as well as submit to, the on-going, still-emerging process of creation.

Is this what resurrection is? A being loved into the fulness of who we are, discovering that we ‘live and have our being’ in the flow of God’s unstoppable, ever-loving, ever-enlivening and joyful creative energy?

It has been a joy to share these with the community in the Centre, and now with you. You can see more of my work at https://www.facebook.com/annettekayeceramics/

Beach gratitude

I have walked the length of the beach, up and down, in a warm blustery wind, 

paddling in the ebbing tide, photographing shells, clumps of seaweed, star-shaped limpet creatures.

Have I thought of God once? No.

Have I felt grateful? Yes!

Have I felt alive? Yes!

Living the Tango

A friend recently posted this clip on Facebook. One of my all-time favourites, it moves me to tears every time.

It came to mind in my prayer time recently, and instead of dismissing it as a ‘distraction’, I opened my laptop and watched it again, wondering what it had come to tell me.

At one level, it’s simply beautiful and moving, a delight for the senses.

But it also reminds me that it’s possible to dance/(live?) beautifully, and skilfully, in a limited space, without fretting about a ‘bigger’ or ‘better’ space; it reminds me that my so-called impediments (e.g. blindness – and yes I know he can actually see, but let’s suspend disbelief for a moment) need not impede me, and may indeed heighten my sensitivity to the beauty all around; it reminds me that there is a way of being with someone that is both fully respectful and fully enjoying of them, as woman, or man (I think this is how God is with us); it reminds me that I can name my fears, and decide to do it anyway, and if I do, I open myself up to the possibility and beauty of trust, surrender, and joy.

The result is tender, moving, and sexy.

I would like to live like, and live with God, like this.

Unfurling

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Everything felt soft in the Park today:

Full-leafed trees and golden grasses shimmered, murmured in the soft breeze and late summer sun.

The pond rippled around a lone swan and family of coots, while deer grazed and washed in the shallow, shaded water. (Only the stag’s gigantic antlers were hard, announcing next season’s rutting.)

Even people seemed softened, sprawled at the water’s edge.

I, having left the house somewhat scrunched, bathed and unfurled in all this softness, warmth, and light

Floating

IMG_6303I am floating,
Held by the ocean,
Kissed by the sun …

It feels like prayer.

I had a beautiful experience recently, on holiday in New Zealand. On the few hot days we got, I went swimming in the sea, at a beach within a bay with small, gentle waves and calm water.

I initially splashed about in the shallows, enjoying the water lapping on my feet but hesitant of the cold and depths further out.

Next I dove in and swam furiously, thinking a bit of exercise would do me good, and take my mind off what might lurk below!

Eventually, I discovered floating, every muscle in my body relaxed, held afloat by the salty water, eyes closed against the bright sun. It was quietly, gently blissful, and I returned at every opportunity, each day submerging myself in the cool water more quickly so that I could begin floating.

Those were all good experiences of the sea – splashing, swimming, floating, But while I stayed with splashing or swimming, I couldn’t have begun to imagine what it was like to float, how I could trust the sea to hold me and the delightful sensation of it. If I had held on to my fears, and my own idea of what was good for me, I would have missed the sublimely simple, effortless joy of floating.

How might I live and pray like this?

There’s a meditation in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises which challenges me afresh every time I encounter it. It tells of 3 couples who each come into a large sum of money. They are all good folk who want to use the money for God’s purposes, but take different approaches to it:

The first couple (aka the Jawbones), talk endlessly about wanting to find a good use for the money, but never get around to making a decision.

The second couple (the Wishbones) do make some decisions about how to use the money, but the plans are of their own making, which they then ask God to bless.

The third couple (the Backbones) hold the money in open hands, neither holding it back, nor using it for their own plans, but waiting, in freedom, on God to direct them, at ease with either keeping or giving away the money.

Ignatius’ invitation to us is to consider where we find ourselves in this dynamic, and perhaps it is in different places at different times. I don’t know about you, but I spend much of my life straddled somewhere between the Jawbones and Wishbones: ‘umm-ing and ah-ing’, dreaming and fantasising, procrastinating and making plans to suit me. I even take action and do some good things with my time, money and abilities. But mostly, my life choices are of my own making (which God has been good enough, in some instances, to bless).

I’d love to live with the freedom of the Backbones, but I have a mountain of fears, anxieties, and selfishness that gets in the way. And so I pray for the grace of more freedom … it’s a case of ‘watch this space’.

I realised recently this meditation is the story of each of my prayer times: that each time I sit to pray, I encounter my inner Jawbone and Wishbone, and if I’m lucky, get a brief glimpse of Ms Backbone.

Firstly, I take AGES to sit in the first place – it’s amazing how many things feel more important than prayer. Even when I do stop and sit, I manage to put prayer off – sometimes by castigating myself for having taken so long to get down to it!

When I get past that, I start ‘hatching plans’, pondering all the things I might do, places I might go, people I might help, trying to work out the ‘best’ choices for my life, and hoping God will bless them.

Sigh … it feels like a hopeless case…..

But occasionally and momentarily, my body remembers the floating sensation, and in that re-membering, my body & mind relax and let go of all the ideas, hopes, plans (and the tensed muscles that go with them). I enter a quiet, still space where I am surrendered to God and feel the possibility of trust. It’s usually fleeting: before long I become aware of tense muscles and busy ‘monkey mind’ once again, but in that fleeting, ‘floating’ moment I feel free.

A Poem for Epiphany

I’ve loved T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ for years. It is many-layered, beautifully describing the ‘upside-down’  and perplexing event of Christmas, as well as – as I see it – the journey we can all take from unconsciousness to consciousness. It’s a journey, at all levels, that is not comfortable, that forever unsettles us in a materialist/consumerist/power-as-success world, but is Real.
(Hear TS Eliot recite it here: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi)

The Journey Of The Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.