Archive for March, 2018

Ignatian Living

Posted: March 28, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Last Sunday we went back to our exploration of Ignatian spirituality. We covered as much of James-Martin-the-priest-not-the-chef’s book in one evening as we had in the previous three sessions, and there was plenty more we could have said, but it was all held together by the idea of the simple life, which for Jesuits means accepting the disciplines of poverty and chastity and obedience.

Those words may cause a sinking feeling in the gut, but please don’t stop reading just yet, because I think there are great insights to be learned from the lives of religious communities like the Jesuits, and I think there are many blessings to be gained by incorporating elements of the disciplines they follow into our own lives.

 

Poverty

The Jesuits have, at various points throughout their history, been criticised for their accumulation of wealth, but that is a departure from the way of Ignatius. Pope Francis is a much better model, with his rejection of many of the finer things that come with the papacy.

Poverty was also part of my introduction to Ignatian spirituality, as I lived on the equivalent of benefits while part of the Jesuit Volunteer Community. I managed to put food on the table for the month, but as the project went on, I began to wonder what would happen if this was my everyday reality. What would I have to sacrifice if I wore through a pair of shoes or I wanted to buy a birthday gift for a friend? I wasn’t part of the project long enough to have to answer those questions, but it did provoke some interesting reflections.

In The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, James Martin says that taking a vow of poverty allows you to live simply, which makes it sound like a gift rather than a burden. He also notes that there is a difference between voluntary poverty and forced poverty, insisting that the former is not intended to romanticise or legitimise the latter, which is dehumanising and should always be worked against.

Speaking from his own experience of living in community, Martin says that poverty leads to a greater simplicity and unity. We do not live in community in the same way, and so we may not hold all things in common or be able to avoid clutter completely, but there may still be advantages to living a less material life.

Possessions take up time and energy, lead to comparisons with others, and start a never ending cycle of want. On the other hand, poverty can mean freedom from those things. It may alos be understood as an imitation of Christ and a way of standing in solidarity with those for whom poverty is not chosen, as well as increasing our sense of dependence on God.

Martin therefore calls us to practice sensible simplicity, moderate asceticism, healthy poverty. I think those moderating words are important, because this is not about making ourselves destitute. The Jesuits have homes and enough food, and they run schools and hospitals and refugee support programmes. All of those things require resources, so the kind of poverty the Jesuits are interested in is about using those resources wisely.

Martin proposes that we get rid of what we don’t need and be generous with it, encouraging us to really think about what it is that we truly cannot do without. I also think there is value in thinking about what leads us to consume as we do, because that self awareness can help us to challenge our habits.

When we broke into groups for discussion on Sunday night, a few of us expressed some concern about what all of this meant for those things which bring great pleasure but are not strictly necessary. I think we have emotional and spiritual and social needs as well as physical needs, and so there can be a place for beauty and creativity within this kind of poverty.

 

Chastity

Ignatius had little to say on this one, as he believed that it was most perfectly practiced as an imitation of the angels, and that was all there was to it. Martin affirms the value of celibacy for those who are called to it, saying that it brings freedom to devote oneself to others in a way that is impossible if there is a primary commitment to a family, and serves a reminder that romantic and familial love are not only loves which give meaning and fullness to life, but takes a more generous view on chastity.

We often think of celibacy and chastity as being interchangeable, but whereas celibacy has always referred specifically to abstaining from romantic or sexual relationships, chastity originally had the sense of being in a state of moral purity. To conflate the two is to assume that only abstinence is pure, but that’s not how Martin understands it.

Martin talks about chastity as “proper and loving use of our sexuality”, which for him means refraining from sex, but for someone else may mean a full and exciting sex life with someone they love deeply. He also talks about it as the call to “love as many people as deeply as possible”, and that is certainly for all of us to hear. 

A couple of blogposts ago I shared the spoken word piece performed at Kate Wharton’s BeLoved ceremony, at which she made vows of singleness. I particularly like the following lines, which speak of an openness to the other, a passionate chastity I think we can all aspire to, single or married or other.

He instills in us a bigger heart, a wider stretch for welcome arms, 
And in him we are home and make home, finding peace where we are, 
Yet we call in one more to find hope in the dark, 
Giving away the gift of belonging, 
Knowing family is an open invite to the upside-down kingdom 
And we won’t quit, we won’t build walls, we won’t close down or grip tight, 
We pray keep this heart soft and strong, help me shine out your light 
So like neon signs in clouded skies the call of God will shine “You are beloved, be loved.” 
This discussion really seemed to strike a chord on Sunday night, with a real enthusiasm for affirming the love and joy that may be found outside of the married-with-kids model that society and the church have traditionally been so keen to press people into. This may be something we come back to…

Obedience

This is where things really start to get tricky between me and Ignatius, as he believed in maintaing a strict hierarchy within the order, but that is the antithesis of the Baptist ecclesiology I so fiercely believe in. I think we are called to practice mutual obedience, inviting and submitting to one another. It is hard but keeps us humble and considerate.

So much for obedience in the church, but of course there other areas of life where we are required to be obedient without that same mutuality. Martin calls us to accept such authority with grace, but that does not rule out challenge, as proved by Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest whose opposition to the Vietnam War landed him on the FBI’s most wanted list. Perhaps we must discern whether acceptance or challenge is the better witness in each case.

Martin also talks about obedience to God as a surrendering to him, even when we are suffering. When some of us gathered to pray in a difficult time a couple of weeks ago, I kept thinking of the passage in John where Jesus asks his disciples if they want to leave him, and Peter answers “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life”. Even if we go to God with questions and rage and confusion, it is to God that we must go. There is something uncomfortable about calling that obedience, but there is certainly a sense of God being the one we always return to.

Obedience to God also means a willingness to adventure, although that does not mean giving up our entire freedom. When Thomas Oord was with us he talked about choosing from among the best options available to us, emphasising that God does not give us a single right path. Again, obedience doesn’t feel like the right word, but there is a leaning into God for wisdom.

The Methodist Covenant Prayer says Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal”. It is a radical declaration of obedience, but I think there is someting liberating in that willingness to accept whatever comes our way.

 

So there is a very brief introduction to the disciplines of poverty and chastity and obedience. I offer these thoughts to you, and encourage you to think about where the blessings might be for you, and how you might incorporate them into your own lives.

 

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Art of Lent – Confidence

Posted: March 27, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

This Lent I am using Sister Wendy Beckett’s ‘The Art of Lent’ as my daily devotional. Each day offers a work of art and a short thought. Each Sunday I will share what has struck me most during the week.

 

I have to be honest and confess that I missed last week entirely, although that was largely because I spend half the week working towards an art installation and half the week on retreat, so thematically I was doing okay.

I have now caught up, but to further add to the failure of this blog post, I cannot find an image of the painting I liked the best, which was Seaside Residence II  by Pia Stern. It is an abstract image of a house standing firm against the waves which seem to crash against it, confident that it will withstand and endure.

Sister Wendy says “Stern shows us two ways of being: the physical, answerable only to accident, to wind and tide; and the spiritual, answerable to inward truth. One is free-flowing; the other is fixed, confident, grounded in more than its own small compass – in God.”

I’m not sure that I want to say that life in God is fixed as opposed to free-flowing – with my calling to the church meaning two moves in three years, life with God feels pretty fluid, and there is great joy in that – but there is a sense of having my feet planted somewhere firm even as that somewhere moves.

 

I mentioned at the start of this blog post that I have been involved with the creation of an art installation, Ecocycle Labyrinth at Left Bank Leeds. The ecocycle seeks to represent the natural phases and rhythms of life and nature, from birth through maturity to death and on to possibility, and it has been envisioned as a labyrinth to encourage reflection on and engagement with its themes. I think it speaks to this idea of confidence, as seeing the whole of the cycle allows us to keep looking forward to the hope of renewal, a hope that for me is grounded in the way we see the cycle of life-death-resurrection in the Easter story. If you are around Leeds this week, do try and experience it.

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Art of Lent – Joy

Posted: March 18, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

This Lent I am using Sister Wendy Beckett’s ‘The Art of Lent’ as my daily devotional. Each day offers a work of art and a short thought. Each Sunday I will share what has struck me most during the week.

My favourite painting this week was Baby in Red Chair by an unknown artist. It’s not the one I’d most like to hang on my wall – that honour would probably go to Monet’s White Clematis – but I do like it as an image of sheer contentment.

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I remember seeing this look on my little one’s face, when he fell asleep in my arms as a small baby. If it is an expression of joy as Sister Wendy suggests, it is a quiet joy which comes from an absolute confidence that all is well with the world.

That kind of joy is easier to come by when a bellyful of milk and a safe pair of arms will solve any fear and ease any pain, when there are no tasks or bills to worry about and the horrors of the world pass by unnoticed, but I don’t think it slips beyond our reach when we leave infancy.

If my baby’s joy came from a certainty that he was held and loved, we can recapture that joy by allowing ourselves to know the truth that we too are held and loved.

I recently read about Kate Wharton, an Anglican vicar who has been called to a life of celibacy and writes powerfully about her experience of the blessings and burdens of singleness. She recently had a ceremony in which she made vows to God in the presence of family and friends, one of whom performed the following spoken word piece. It speaks beautifully of being loved, and so I offer it to you know as a source of immense joy.

He speaks. 
He speaks so powerfully life itself is created in a breath. 
He sighs, 
And like chemistry, stars are breathed into being as he gathers dust in the palm of his hands, 
And before you were anyone’s good idea or twinkle in the eye, 
You were alive in Him. 
You were named, known, crafted, your soul was designed, 
And you were shaped to be loved, to live pruned back and set free 
From day one you were doted upon into eternity, 
The whisper of his Spirit to you, the whisper on the breeze speaks, “You are beloved, be loved.” 
 
We are full. So full of his promise and presence and power 
It’s like we are clay jars, a simple vessel, 
But like a vase full of flowers we stand tall, 
We blossom in our fruitfulness, 
So grateful in the Son’s light for his unwavering faithfulness, 
Satisfied like fresh water to a thirsty soul, 
Nourished by your word, your truth, you’ll never let us go, 
And so we grow, through harsh seasons and new mornings, 
Through late night tears and laughters dawning, 
In the look-me-in-the-eye passion that our Father made us for, 
Like an anchor in our souls, holding firm and secure, 
That allows us to walk brave and free, vulnerable and bold, 
Whilst all the while the whisper echoes from those days of old “You are beloved, be loved.” 
 
Kissed by fire,
The heavens break open and his presence descends 
And we breathe, for glory and in grace we are drenched, renewed, changed 
He is mercy and justice, he is fierceness and kindness, 
He instills in us a bigger heart, a wider stretch for welcome arms, 
And in him we are home and make home, finding peace where we are, 
Yet we call in one more to find hope in the dark, 
Giving away the gift of belonging, 
Knowing family is an open invite to the upside-down kingdom 
And we won’t quit, we won’t build walls, we won’t close down or grip tight, 
We pray keep this heart soft and strong, help me shine out your light 
So like neon signs in clouded skies the call of God will shine “You are beloved, be loved.” 
“You are beloved, be loved.” 
 
(writtten by Miriam Swaffield for Kate Wharton’s beLOVED ceremony – taken from Kate’s blog)

 

Relating to God moment by moment

Posted: March 12, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Last night we were joined by theologian and philosopher Thomas Jay Oord, who talked about his understanding of the way in which God relates to us in each moment. I could not hope to capture our discussion with perfect accuracy, but I do want to share some of my own reflections on it, and invite you to add yours.

 

Thomas’ basic proposal was that we live one moment at a time, and that God acts before each moment to present us with a range of options, calling us to choose from among the best of them. In this way he beckons us towards love and compassion and maturity, not by coercing or controlling us, or by requiring that we walk a tightrope with only one good and certain way forward, but by respecting our capacity to make good choices and our freedom to make bad ones.

There was some concern in the room about the idea that God presents all the options, including the bad ones. Thomas answered this by arguing that because God allows his creation to live freely, it is in his nature to present all possible options while seeking to guide us towards the best ones. Perhaps it would be more comfortable to say that God allows all options to be presented to us, although that does change God’s role in the scheme somewhat. I think what is most important is that God allows us genuine freedom, and so that has to include the possibility of making bad choices.

 

What Thomas was presenting is a form of open theism, which holds among other things that God acts within time and experiences time as we do, so that he can engage with and respond to us in authentic and meaningful ways. This is something I have been interested in for a while, as it was significant to my undergraduate dissertation, and it is a way of thinking that makes utter sense to me as it seems consistent with how I experience God.

I realise that it may seem strange to say that God learns as we act, as it goes against traditional understandings of God’s nature, but the Bible is full of stories in which God changes his mind in response to human activity, and petitionary prayer makes very little sense if what we do has no effect on God at all. Of course the Bible also speaks of God as eternal and unchanging, but those passages tend to be poetic rather than rooted in divine encounter, and it is without doubt that prayer can be significant without petition, but Jesus really seemed to speak as if our prayers were effectual. I wholeheartedly believe that God is in active and loving relationship with the world, and if that contradicts traditional theism, then it is the latter which must go.

 

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What really struck me about what Thomas shared, which seems so obvious but which I hadn’t given much thought to before, was the idea that the options that are available to us, and even the options that we realise are available to us, are determined by a multitude of different factors. Our relationship to God, our relationships with others, our upbringing, our education, our physical and mental health, our previous choices…the list could go on.

What that means is that the best option available to me when I was five will not be the same as the best option available to me know that I am nearly thirty. And the best option available to someone who lives a comfortable life will not be the same as the best option available to someone whose thoughts are dominated by worrying about where their next meal is coming from. And the best option available to someone who has spent years learning to hear the voice of God will not be the same as the best option available to someone who has never heard of Jesus. That is not to say that the young and the poor and the atheist cannot make good or even godly choices, but that they may not be the choices that the old and the rich and the religious think they should be making. God relates to each one of us as individuals, and so we must show everyone that same respect, calling them to make their best decisions instead of imposing on them what we think are our best decisions.

 

Thomas also reflected a little on the command to “be perfect as your Father is perfect”, and suggested that as impossible as that sounds, we can be perfect a moment at a time. Every time we choose from among our best options, which for Thomas means choosing to be loving, we are perfect as God is perfect. That doesn’t mean that we were perfect the moment before or that we will be perfect the moment after, but that in each moment we are given a fresh chance at perfection.

This led to some discussion around the word perfect. The Christian tradition has tended to understand perfection according to classical Greek ideals, and so we have come to think that divine perfection means to be all things without flaw or error, and have therefore fallen into thinking that this kind of perfection is impossible for us. However, the word we translate as perfect in Matthew 5:48 derives from the Greek teleos, which actually carries ideas of completion and purpose. If we define God’s perfection as his complete purpose, and if we see that as being loving and creative and just and compassionate, then suddenly his perfection is attainable for us.

 

We also had some conversation around the extent to which it was helpful to have such a framework in mind. Many of the decisions we make are on autopilot, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially as we develop a more Christlike character, and find ourselves drawn instinctively to the better options. And yet it would be so easy to fall into a rut of good enough decisions, and lose the insight and the creativity that enable us to recognise the best choices.

I think it is good for us to keep asking what our best option is, to open ourselves up to challenge and surprise, to look to do more than just good enough. It may sound exhausting, but I believe that God calls us into love and compassion because he wants those things for us as much as for anyone else, and so I trust that sometimes the best option for us will be rest or the best option for someone else will be to look after us. This isn’t about wearing us all out with holiness, but about creating more Christlike people in a more Christlike world.

Art of Lent – Peace

Posted: March 11, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

This Lent I am using Sister Wendy Beckett’s ‘The Art of Lent’ as my daily devotional. Each day offers a work of art and a short thought. Each Sunday I will share what has struck me most during the week.

 

I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly struck by any of the artwork this week, but I did like what Sister Wendy said about the need for balance in order to find peace, which she compared to the way Piet Mondrian balanced simple lines and blocks of colours in Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue.

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She talked specifically about the balance of desire and potential, not wanting too much or stretching too far, but we might also talk about the balance between activity and  rest, or between company and solitude, or between work and pleasure. Perhaps the trickiest thing is realising that the balance will constantly change, so that we must always be self-aware and willing to reassess and make adjustments.

Art of Lent – Contemplation

Posted: March 4, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

This Lent I am using Sister Wendy Beckett’s ‘The Art of Lent’ as my daily devotional. Each day offers a work of art and a short thought. Each Sunday I will share what has struck me most during the week.

 

My favourite painting from this week was Robert Natkin’s Epiphany. It would seem contrary to Sister Wendy’s reflection to add too many words to it, so I’m just going to give you the painting and a short quote from the accompanying text.

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“We are not meant to understand Natkin’s picture, any more than we are meant to intellectualise during our periods of contemplation. We become still and enter into silence to let the holiness of mystery take posession of us. We do this not in the absence of thought, but beneath thought.”