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

IMG_7019

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.

Happy New Year? a.k.a: ‘Tell me what you want, what you really, really want’

So, it’s Happy New Year time! Enough money to solve world hunger has been spent on fireworks and Facebook is awash with cheery messages between family and friends wishing each other a ‘magical’ 2015: ‘may all your dreams come true’ and ‘may this be the best year ever’, etc, etc. I love fireworks, and value everyone’s good wishes, but find myself strangely reluctant to join in. I’m trying to work out if it’s just me being Annette-the-Party-Pooper, or if there’s something more to listen to in it. I thought I’d let you in on my ponderings ….

Every New Year we repeatedly dare to hope that somehow life will get better, be happier, more fulfilling.  But let’s be honest, come next Monday morning, most of us will return to a life that looks much like the one we were living in 2014; all that make-believe about this year being ‘the’ year like so much champagne gone flat, our resolutions forgotten or abandoned, and, for many, ‘quiet desperation’  rather than ‘magic’ the flavour of our daily diet. How much, and in what ways, did your life change last year?

What’s to be done? How can we truly invest in our happiness this year? Let me ask you a question: What do you want this year?

Now, what do you really want?

And again, what do you really, really want?

And finally, to get it, what do you need to add in, or let go of?

One way of working out what we really, really want, not just for this year but for the rest of our lives, is to try the following imaginative experiment:

Imagine you’re near the end of your life, celebrating your birthday. As you look around, at family and friends gathered to celebrate with you, and reflect on your life, what are the 3-5 things that will have made your life happy and fulfilled? e.g. children, partner, work (paid or voluntary), travel, sport, creative pursuit, good food, your home…..

Next, what would you want to hear your loved ones say about you?

And finally, what would you like written as your obituary? (Keep this brief – 2 sentences will help you focus on what’s most important.)

It’s really worth taking a few minutes to do this. Hopefully it will filter your attention down to what really matters to you and you can set your sights on investing in those things.

My own answers boil down to my relationships, both personal and in my spiritual direction and therapy work; and also to my creative endeavours: to have loved others, and myself, well; to have added to, rather than subtracted from, the compassion and beauty in the world; to have lived wholeheartedly. It seems to me I can use that realisation to filter all sorts of choices I make each day so that I build an investment in what really matters to me. (And of course, every day I will fail in this, fail those I love, and make poor choices, but I hope each year to see a little more of me oriented towards what really matters.)

And with that, I really do wish you all a happy and fulfilling 2015.

 

 

Where’s Wally (aka the Christ child)?

Do you know the ‘Where’s Wally?’ pictures? Busy, busy cartoons with hordes of little cartoon characters busy with various activities. Somewhere hidden among them is a little chap in a red and white stripy shirt and hat, the challenge being to find him amidst the busy detail. It’s more difficult than you’d think.

Earlier this week I ventured out to attempt some Christmas shopping. Within 30 minutes I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful, and completely out of touch with my care of the friends and family I was thinking of buying for.

And the Christ child, whose birthday it is after all, was nowhere to be seen.

Each year seems more frenzied than the one before and I feel increasing horror at the busyness, the expense, the meaninglessness of so much of it, the buying of gifts for the sake of buying them, for people (including me) who already have too much of everything.

Bah humbug!

It’s not even merry for many of us: rather it’s a time when we feel, more keenly than at other times, the pain of bereavement, divorce, family tensions, disappointments and financial struggle. The tinsel, merriment and busyness (and copious quantities of food and drink) thinly plaster over the cracks, but they’re all there staring us in the face again on Boxing Day – or the 27th if you’re lucky, along with the credit card bill, which is why therapy enquiries soar in January.

Further afield, how do we celebrate Christmas in a world where children are shot and killed at their school desks? It’s the Slaughter of the Innocents, victims of grown men’s politics, all over again and the tinsel and grinning Santas look even more obscene placed alongside that.

So what’s to be done and what is the point of it all? So much of me doesn’t have an answer and any attempt feels trite, but in the middle of Marks & Spencer’s this week, in the middle of the madness that is Christmas shopping I thought of ‘Where’s Wally?’ ….

Somewhere, hidden amidst the manic busyness, frantic consumerism and heightened emotions, and yes, even the violence, is a tiny vulnerable child, born to announce a joy, peace and love that no amount of presents or food can deliver, and that no amount of violence and darkness can destroy. He’s there, I promise you, probably where you least expect.

For me he lives in quiet corners: in winter sun reflecting off the river, in dancing in my kitchen to corny Christmas music, in the unexpected cheeriness of a busy shop assistant, in the smile of a child (he lives in all children, those who are still around to open their Christmas stockings, as well as those who died at the hands of violent men; he lives also in the child within each of us). He comes and sits in my heart as it aches for the families of those dead children and helps me pray for them.

So when I feel my breath catch, or the light touch of joy, or a warmth steals across my hurting heart, I know I have found him. He is indeed the peace that passes understanding, the wholeness at the centre of a broken world.

Where might you find him this year?

Dreams …… they tell you what’s really going on

Every now and then I have a Big Dream ….

I have many dreams, mostly forgotten, from which I waken with undefined feelings of loss or anxiety or happiness. Just occasionally I wake up with the story and feelings of my dream clearly remembered, so I grab my phone and write it down in my ‘Notes’ app before it fades from view. My experience has been that these dreams always announce the thing that is really happening in my life, that needs my attention.

Dreams are gifts delivered by our unconscious, heralds of Important Information that if reflected on, and perhaps shared in therapy and/or spiritual direction, may help us know what’s really going on in our journey to know ourselves and our deeper truth. In my experience, reflecting on a dream (my own, or a client’s) can bring insight and added depth to the process that nothing else can offer, at least not as succinctly or creatively as a dream can.

I had a Big Dream recently. The details don’t need to be shared here, but suffice to say it was about moving into and rebuilding a house that had been shattered by war and abandoned. My feeling was of being newly ‘at home’ in this house. It announced with symbolic precision a shift in my perception of the life I inhabit. In my waking life, I don’t always feel confident about that shift, but the dream announces what is in process, what is ready to happen, and I can have confidence in that. When I falter, or find myself inhabiting my ‘previous house’, I need to recall the dream, because it tells me what’s REALLY going on.

So listen to your dreams, write them down, look for the message in them. If possible, find someone to help you explore that message.

IMG_4485