Thursday, 30 May 2019

Minimalist Management of Money and Resources

I enjoy articles and videos explaining different aspects of minimalism — especially daily life, the organisation of homes and clothing, and the management of money.

Recently I've been exploring what's online about minimalism and money management. The main focus is usually either amassing wealth (so as to retire early or travel, or live from the heart not as a wage slave) or escaping from accumulated personal debt. Though this input is very interesting and informative, it doesn't really speak to my condition or relate to my circumstances. So I thought I'd add my own two-penn'orth to the discussion, as I've thought this through very carefully over several decades.

I was very blessed to come under the influence, in my twenties, of a Christian teacher who went methodically through the New Testament identifying the principles of life and faith practice it offers. One of the strands he pulled clear was the management of money — that the teaching of Jesus (and indeed you see this in the Old Testament too) included advice to be clear of debt. Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer gives not "forgive our trespasses" but "forgive our debts as we forgive those indebted to us". A society without debt is substantially more free for both service and creativity than a society whose people are shackled by owing massive amounts of money. My teacher said the purpose of avoiding debts was not to amass personal wealth (see here) but to create the necessary freedom that makes a person available to extent the reach of Christ, build the kingdom and spread the gospel. That was what I wanted to do with my life, so I heeded his advice, and made it my aim to get out of debt. The only debt I had was our house mortgage, and by this means and that I found ways to wriggle free. By the time I reached my early forties I was entirely debt free. 

That's a good start, but if all my time had been sold for money to live on, I still would not have been free to work for the gospel. So I looked into ways and means to live my life as I chose without relying on State handouts or working for other people. I also discovered that money doesn't exist, as such — modern currency is what's called "fiat money", nothing but figures on a balance sheet; and like most notional reality it is somewhat frail. So I realised that it would be better to travel from the unreal to the real. Bricks and mortar are real, and so is land. Therefore when I was given the precious gift of half my father's modest estate (50% of his little cottage and small savings), and the also precious gift of a substantial sum of money from my mother downsizing as she grew old, I made sure to invest these in a house with a big garden, which I let to tenants. Before I received these precious gifts, I used the space I had, even though it meant bunching up tight at home, to let rooms to lodgers in my house. The sources of income these created set me free to work for the gospel as a writer and preacher and teacher. Income from writing Christian books is not very much, even for those writers who do well, but of course it is also very helpful.

By these means I defended my time from erosion and invested the unreal into the real. The practice of minimalism has been very helpful to me in doing this, because the accumulation, storage and maintenance of possessions is very expensive of time, money, energy and attention. Living with almost no possessions sets the energies of my mind and heart free for what I came here to do (propagate the gospel).

Another aspect of what I have found online about minimalist financial practice is the absence of attention to ethics. The minimalists I've found giving financial advice speak of investment in stocks and shares and corporate bonds etc, but what does that imply? I wanted to be sure no resources of mine were invested into damaging the created order or financing war or enslaving workers into misery — absolutely sure. This is another reason I invested what I had into a house with a big garden. We (me and my husband) personally manage our tenancies. If anything goes wrong we are right there. We make sure our tenants' homes are kept in tip-top condition. If they have trouble paying their rent, we wait. We go in person to collect it so we can unobtrusively keep an eye on the houses (I have one and my husband has one), rather than subjecting our tenants to a six-monthly inspection. I can say, hand on heart, that my resources have not contributed to the horrors of war or the miseries of the slave trade, because apart from the investment into a property to let I have almost no money for my bank to invest in anything. This is important to me. If I did have funds to invest, insufficient to buy more land or houses, I'd put them in the Triodos bank (that's what I did when I had some money but not enough to buy a house). Practicing frugality to get out of debt and create wealth is shrewd, but considering the ethics of investment is important.

Part of ethical consideration, for me, is earning directly. Employment by a corporation or investment in composite finance obscures from view the involvement in goodness-knows-what one may have inadvertently taken on by association. I love to earn money by providing something an individual actually wants and needs and being paid for it by them — not managing to successfully market something nobody really wants in order to part them from their hard-earned cash, and not growing money by investments that take advantage of others and make them suffer, out of sight and out of mind. Whether it is officiating at a funeral, or writing a book, or (as my family does) letter-cutting a grave stone or painting and gilding a statue, someone has come looking for our work and requested it because we do a good job, and they pay a fair price (excellent work for low market price with a little taken off, usually) for exactly what they wanted and no more. And if anyone linked with me professionally requires me to do something unethical, I immediately disconnect and do no further work for them.

Another aspect that has surprised me about typical minimalist advice and example regarding resources, is the strong emphasis on individualism. There's a lot about nomadic lifestyle, living in cars/vans/RVs, making the most of small apartments and living in tiny houses. Now, I love tiny houses — I think they are delightful and ingenious and a lot of fun. They are very aesthetically pleasing to me — but at the same time, if one is serious about minimalism, really serious, it seems to me there is a superior option: sharing.

If you have a tiny house with one heater and one cooker and one solar panel and one light, it fulfils the needs of one, maybe two people. Plus the surface area compared to the internal space is big — even with insulation it must lose a lot of the heat generated. But if you have a normal house populated by a larger group of people all living as minimalists, you can still have one heater, one cooker, one solar panel and one light, and it fulfils the needs of perhaps five people. Sharing maximises potential like no other thing you can do. One set of utensils, one car (if any), one water filter, one furnace, one television, one plot of land to put your home on. If minimalism is the means/objective you're seeking, sharing is your friend. It surprises me that in general minimalists do not mention this, because sharing is a minimalist super-power.

For me, the three best pieces of advice for managing finance and personal resources are Gandhi's, Thoreau's and John Wesley's.

Gandhi said:
Without properly kept accounts it is impossible to maintain truth in its pristine purity.

This accords with something my daughter Hebe said, elegantly expressed in a haiku:
Money shows the truth —
the truth of where the heart flows.
Look at what it chose.

Careful and thorough accounting reveals to us our true direction of travel — this is why it's important to know the exact location of our financial investments; giving one's resources into the hands of financial experts to invest in their arcane world and oneself merely harvesting the interest yielded is not minimalism, it's long-range participation in very dark complexity. The purpose of investment for a minimalist should not be the creation and maximisation of the unreal (money) but of freedom and peace and goodness (the real). Minimalism needs to know what it's investing in, which is where Thoreau comes in.

Thoreau said:
Keep your accounts on a thumbnail.

The mind's ability to keep track of multiple strands is limited. The more you own, the more complex your activities and involvement, the less carefully and scrupulously you can manage your life. Ambitious schedules, accumulation of belongings, a heavy load of commitment of any kind, provide the ground in which carelessness cheerfully sprouts. The purpose of minimalism is to give us the space and freedom we need to live mindfully and responsibly. Thoreau's advice to keep your accounts on a thumbnail is sage indeed; simplicity is inherently effective and promotes accountability (to God) and responsibility.

John Wesley said:
Earn all you can
Save all you can
Give all you can.

It's important to realise the word "save" here means "spare" not "hoard". That is to say, by "save all you can" he means, "be as frugal as you can", not "amass all you can".

This is about the maximising of your personal potential with a view to living as a channel of love. It implies a belief in community and a generous investment of oneself into the cause of kindness and compassion. Again, it is about turning the unreal into the real — using your personal time, talent and energy to earn money (unreal) which you then direct into the purposes of love and wellbeing and goodness (real).

Gandhi's advice promotes honesty, transparency and integrity. Thoreau's advice makes it workable. Wesley's advice promotes the wellbeing of human society.

These three principles offer all you need to put together effective and efficient minimalist financial management. 

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Ofiona Music

Some of you may know one of my daughters, Fiona Wilcock, is a singer songwriter.

Her voice is sublime, and her weavings of word and music find their way into your heart forever, so beautiful, just superb.

Like many artists she is a perfectionist and then some, so very little of her compositions make it into the public sphere, but here she is on Soundcloud. Superlative.


One of my favourite songs

Mama's Healing Salve

I wonder if you've come across Mama's Healing Salve? If you have, you'll know it's brilliant, if you haven't I'd like to tell you about it.

There's something I need to explain first. As part of my discipline of humilis and simplicity, I don't monetise my blog at all, nor use it as a channel for advertising. I sometimes tell you about books my friends have written, and very occasionally invite a friend to write a guest post if they have something important to communicate that I think they can express better than I will (and anyway it's their idea). And I sometimes tell you about something that's really good — because it's worthwhile, not because I'm marketing something.

So I'm telling you about Mama's Healing Salve for a variety of reasons (as you'll see), but not to exploit you for some undeclared motive to do with sales. And the woman who makes the salve doesn't know I'm writing this and so far as I know never reads my blog. It's just good stuff so I thought you'd be interested in it.

That's got that out of the way, then. Okay.

If you are on Facebook, you can find Mama's Healing Salve here. I no longer have a Facebook account, so I can't take you any deeper into the information you can find there, as I'd have to join up to do so. 

Mama's Healing Salve is so called because that's exactly what it is. It's not some cutesy name to give a false impression — like "Mary's Tea Shop" where it turns out that Mary is in fact a man called Mohammed Iqbal or something. It is a salve that really does heal — fast — and it is made by a woman who sees herself as Mama because she has spent her life caring for her family.

This is the Mama in question —

 She's called Leslie Ainsworth, and she lives in Keene, Texas.

Though I don't have full access to the Facebook page, I do have a leaflet she sent me with a basketful of her wonderful products that she gave me (what a wonderful gift) last summer. I first came across her through Plain-dressing friends online, and loved her immediately. She is gentle and kind and patient and persevering. She has great inner strength. She is truthful and responsible. 

Sometimes in the modern world it can be difficult to know where the stuff comes from that you buy. To have the opportunity where I know the actual woman who made the salve, and understand what she's like and how she goes about it, is very precious to me. Leslie grows and wild-crafts some of what goes into her salve. The whole enterprise and the stuff itself is very trustworthy — and this is not just a money-spinner, she's really interested in health and healing, and modifies and improves as new possibilities occur to her.

I've photographed for you the different sections of the leaflet. Here they are.

Leslie explains the basis of the salve: all good stuff, nothing weird or dodgy —

She tells you how her business came about —

She explains the process of making everything —

She gives a list of what she makes (that's her with her family in the picture; you can see why she refers to herself as "Mama"!) —

She explains what the things are and how much they cost —

She tells you how to order what you would like to buy —

The herbal sanitiser, I also occasionally use for deodorant as a change from my regular lavender oil. The herbal salve heals up wounds like magic, and is also brilliant for rough skin on the feet or for a nether regions lubricant.

I use these things constantly. They last well and I'm just coming to the end of the lovely basketful of goodies she sent me and planning to place an order for some more.

Lovely creations, lovely woman, lovely philosophy of life — faith, love and kindness. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Oh my goodness, I love this!

This Youtube channel is new to me — and it's the kind of thing I've been looking for, for ages.

I wanted something calming and beautiful and uplifting, worthwhile and nourishing to my soul but not heavy or crammed with data. Something that would encourage me and bring me peace, something full of beauty and kindness. No stressful info about the calamitous times we live in or hectoring political polemic or posing or pressure to be something I'm not.

This is that thing. I haven't come across something so enchanting in a very long time.

A message from a cat

Animals don't have computers or even pen and paper (obviously) but they can still communicate with you.

I love how our even seagulls, who seem to be perpetually STARVING, still have the grace and forbearance to hold back while I set down their dish on top of the wood store before they tuck into their supper. And they wait politely on the woodstore for their portion if I am feeding the crow somewhere else in the garden (though occasionally jealousies and squabbles do break out).

And our fox leaves prominently located droppings in case we were in any doubt a fox had been by and found the supper put out. The birds also leave their droppings when they've been on the feeder. And of course our plants are fed by (properly inoculated) humanure and pee and the water from soaking monthly courses cloths, so all the creatures that come by can read all the information like a newspaper and know exactly who lives here and what is the state of their health and attitudes.

Every morning now, for my breakfast, I have organic probiotic yoghourt and nuts and blueberries. I make sure to leave a generous scraping of yoghurt around the bowl for our cat Ted, who likes it especially and looks forward to it now.

Ted is the white one.

Here he is.

This morning, he was waiting hopefully for his yoghurt, watching us fixedly for some while, but we were moving furniture around so I ate my breakfast late, and by the time I came on to eating it he'd gone off to sunbathe on the stone flags of next door's garden. But I kept back his yoghourt bowl to lick out, and put it down for him when he came back home.

Evidently he enjoyed it, and affixed his own thank-you to the dish.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

More on bees (not 'moron bees')

When the bees came to live with us in our defunct chimney we felt a little bit worried as it wasn't planned.

Hebe was especially worried as the chimney opening comes down into her bedroom. So when she went to bed that night she stood quietly in her room and asked them to send her a sign that it would be okay; and during the night she dreamt that she was standing in the garden under the arch with the roses, with bees swarming on her, and it was happy and she felt fine about it. 

So, phew!

She also did some reading about bees, and this is what she found out. It is an honour if bees come to live with you, because they choose carefully and after much research. They send out scout bees to scope the area and find a suitable new home, where they carefully consider the exits and entrances as well as the space itself. The scout bees will be the lone bees that Hebe inexplicably kept seeing in her room in the days before they came. When it's time for the bees to relocate, they all move together, and so they did — the swarm arrived and landed on the chimney pot then gradually moved inside (and it was our chimney, not our neighbour's, even though the houses are built against one another). Of course, some forager bees may have been accidentally left behind, so guide bees go back to their old home to find and bring along anyone who came back from shopping with bagfuls of pollen only to find everyone had moved on.

For a long time now we have wanted bees. We've talked about it often, looking at our garden to try and locate a good place for a hive. We think we have found one but aren't yet entirely sure. But some years ago we made the decision to ensure our garden was pollinator-friendly, and we stopped using any poisons (apart from I put bird-friendly slug-killer around the baby veggie plants. I think I won't have to do that next year though, because we have badgers and toads as well as seagulls and foxes, so the slug population gets culled! We do spray the pole beans against black fly, but we use garlic for that.

Veg plot with baby courgettes etc surrounded by stones to protect against the fox and cats and badger and any other diggers:

So our astral minds have been sending out a calling for bees but our everyday minds couldn't see how to fit them in. We planted trees, and they are now growing well. Look —

— and we have planted wild flowers that are allowed to grow —

— and lots of herbs, and other flowers. 

We have a lot of lavender. We like it specially. Bees like it too:

So our garden is bee perfect. But still we were sad that though bees came, and masses of birds, we didn't have as many bees as we'd hoped. Ha! They're here now, all right!

They all came out this morning and we thought they were getting ready to fly on — maybe just using our chimney as a resting place. 

Then they all went back inside it again. 

Bees are very wise and knowing, and can find your aura. It is possible to communicate with them as readily as with the other creatures who come to the garden (which we do) and with the cats and the trees. This is not fanciful or one-way, you can converse with them.

Only this morning I ran down to the garden to intervene because Miguel our black cat was all too obviously playing with some small animal in the grass. He was pleased to see me and happy to let me pick him up, which allowed the little red-brown mouse he'd had the time it needed to make a discreet exit into one of the stands of meadow flowers we leave to grow round the foot of each tree. And as that mouse slipped away, it brushed the whole length of its body along the whole side of my foot in the grass. It didn't have to. It chose to. And animals don't do that kind of thing by accident. I hope it stays safe — and alive!

So in the end we feel, at the deepest level, content and proud that the bees have come to stay in our chimney. Hebe is almost a bee herself, she has an affinity with nonhuman being — the cats, the trees, even the herring gulls; they rightly trust her. So I think the bees will settle into a harmonic resonance with her being — beeing.  In her cupboard at the foot of the chimney she kept her Hopi candles and her nightlights, all of which are beeswax and very fragrant, so the bees will feel at home right away — though she moved those items out of the cupboard because bees do come looking for them and she'd really rather they confine themselves to their chimbley for the most part.

Also we put all the gadgetry for our solar array that heats the water and provides our electricity up into the attic, and when we have to switch on the water heater in the winter, it makes a deep bass hum like a hornet. I think the bees will find it comforting. And I think when Hebe plays her Rav drum (there's one here if you aren't familiar with them) and her violin and guitar, and when she sings, they will like that too.

It took ages to build and grow a life, and when it was all blown apart and shattered twenty years ago, it felt heartbreaking, as if it could never be healed. But now, in this house, we have been growing the new, and it has got to the stage like the mycelium in the forest floor of related and integrated trees, where we are at peace together and the house and garden are becoming one thing and the animals and birds trust us, and now the bees have given us their seal of approval. We do indeed feel deeply honoured, and glad that they have come. Can you see them dancing round the chimney?

Monday, 20 May 2019

Mind conflation

Good morning.

Well, it might not be morning where you are at the moment, but it is right here right now. It's post bath and ante breakfast time. And here I am because I was thinking in the bath. Most of the thoughts have annoyingly eluded me because I didn't look at them hard and nail them down. Oh — I was thinking about — no . . . never mind.

One thing that began in my head (but wait — is my mind in my head? Maybe it is somewhere else) last night, is the odd effect of mental conflation. Let me explain what I mean.

In the morning yesterday I was the designated preacher for our little chapel at Pett. The last time was only a couple of weeks ago (so both occasions within Eastertide) when we thought about the concept of holding space, and how Jesus held space for Peter in that lakeside encounter at the end of John's gospel, to help him restore himself to goodness and friendship and being Peter (as opposed to Simon) and standing in faith. All of that.

Then this week, moving on from thinking about holding space for one another, we thought about showing up (for one another), and the difference we make when we show up, or equally when we don't — when we fail to. 

My input yesterday morning included some details from my personal life, particularly some occasions when people (knowingly or not) failed to show up for me, and the difference that made and the struggle it imposed. And we thought about ways of showing up for each other and people who have done this. 

The foundation stone of our thoughts was this quotation from Stephen Gaskin:

And we thought about how his faithfulness in showing up as a teacher inspired his wife Ina May Gaskin to create and shape her Spiritual Midwifery initiative, which was transformative for women giving birth around the world — not only in America, back then in the 1970s it reached and profoundly influenced me (and many others) here in England too. All this she did from a bus in the US. Who'd have thought it? She was one of this season's people all right, and was enabled to be so by her husband.

So that was yesterday morning. Came home from chapel, had lunch, and then in the afternoon went on a girly outing with my daughters to see The Hustle, which I found good, but not amazing. Amusing, absorbing, and I like Rebel Wilson a lot. We had a nice time. 

Stories engage my imagination which is my creative wellspring that determines how I see the world — as yours is. So I came away from the cinema with my imaginative field flooded with the input of the movie story. The conflation began here.

Preaching places a strong demand on energy. If I had one of those smart meters installed in my interior being, it would be well up into the red when I preach. I'm tired afterwards. So I went to the cinema tired, which always allows more pervasive ingress of the story into my imaginative field.

This meant that somehow my output in the morning, which had not yet properly shut down (I'd need to go to sleep for that) merged with the new input from the movie, and I became convinced that I had been attempting to con the congregation with false information and done something morally wrong at a profound level — misled them, duped them — and ceased to be a good person. Especially because one of the con-women in the movies (Rebel Wilson's character) is called Penny, which is what a lot of people call me. I hate it, but they do.

So anyway, we got home, to be greeted by our Tony in a rather excitable manner with the news that we had a swarm of bees on our chimney.

We have two chimney stacks to our house. One is in constant use for the wood stove and (in the adjacent room) open fire. The other used to be for the kitchen fireplace and (sadly) had the lower portion of the stack removed entirely by former occupants of the house. So the chimney pots are capped, and the stack is closed, ending in the room where our Hebe lives, in a cupboard where a fireplace used to be, wherein a board with air holes (well big enough for a bee to crawl through) sits beneath the aperture into the defunct chimney. The bees had swarmed on the closed chimney that stops at the bottom end in Hebe's room.

So our Alice and Hebe went out into the garden and looked thoughtfully at the chimney stack while Tony carried on painting the sitting room walls (he's been doing this all week — it's a huge room and a lighter colour had to cover darker), then they went up into the attic to look at the chimney stack from that angle. No swarm. But yes, there was an unusually large number of bees floating in and out of the air spaces at the top of the capped chimney, which will make — as I'm sure you'll agree — an absolutely perfect hive. Uh-oh.

So I googled about bees in chimneys, and apparently they live there for years without causing structural damage, and the only alternative is to get a chimney sweep to go up to the top of the stack, uncap it, and either suck them out (by a machine into a bag, I mean, not with his massive mouth) or kill them all. We are not into killing bees, and by the unfortunate influence of the personal preferences of some of our household (not mine, as you'll rightly guess) we live in a very tall Victorian house and would have to pay several hundred pounds to erect a scaffold if we wanted a sweep to go up there and get those bees out. We don't have several hundred pounds, our money is allocated to the very bottom of our rather shallow pockets, thank you. So . . . that means the bees get to stay there, I guess. For as long as they want. And when they eventually go, in years to come, should we ever wish to rebuild the bottom of the stack and use that chimney again (we had planned to at some point), we shall have an almighty bung of very sticky wax and propolis and ancient honey to deal with. Oy vey. Hebe got a piece of fine fabric that will allow passage of air but not bees, and stuck it down firmly over the board inside the top of her cupboard at the foot of the chimbley.

This mini drama got into my headspace and merged in my still not shut down imaginative field with con artists and preaching and convinced me that not only was I a predatory and deceiving preacher and a wicked woman but furthermore disaster was about to befall me, my house would collapse and my family be stung to death.

I did the only sensible thing. I closed my curtain, went to bed, watched a short calming feature about a dear little tiny house (the one Mairin linked us to), and went to sleep for a very long time.

The world looks less threatening this morning.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

The first stage of getting ready


So I was thinking — about getting ready. 

Pretty much anything you are getting ready for — painting a room, having a party, going out for the evening, planting a garden, cooking supper — has a preliminary stage that involves less not more. 

If you're painting a room, you clear out all the bits and pieces and wipe down the walls. If you're going out for the evening you take off your clothes and have a bath or shower. If you're planting a garden you clear a space and remove the weeds. If you're cooking supper, you clear the table-top, if you're having a party you take out the dead flowers and sweep the room and clean out all the ashes from the fireplace where you've been burning packaging for the last month, and set everything straight.

The next stage involves accumulation — paint and ladders and cloths and brushes, fresh flowers and snacks and candles, make-up and tights and perfume and a pretty dress, seeds and plug plants and supports and slug killer and a fork and trowel, food and pans and seasoning and whatnot.

It's like a tsunami, there's that moment when the ocean draws back — and then it comes thundering in and covers the whole land.

And there are plenty of stories of wild animals heading inland as fast as they can in the moment when the sea draws back; because they know, and they get out of the way as quick as they can.

And it occurred to me that the art of simplicity has to do with seizing the moment; a chance of intervention. Weed it, wipe it down, brush out the ashes, throw out the dead flowers, take off your clothes, shower and go — like an elephant running for the hills.

The secret of minimalism is stopping after stage one of getting ready, freeze your life at the moment of intense quiet as the sea draws back, and let the tsunami of everyday living arrest like one of these sneezes that never comes out.

Well . . . that's what I thought, anyway.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Edith Piaf

Your moment of culture for this May morning.

I love it.

And for those among you who do not speak French, what she's saying is:

"No, nothing at all,
No, I regret nothing;
Neither the good done to me,
Nor the bad — it's all the same to me.

No, nothing at all,
No, I regret nothing;
It's paid for, swept away, forgotten,
I don't care about the past.

I've made a bonfire of my memories,
My sorrows, my pleasures,
I have no more need of them.

Swept away, the love affairs with all their excess of trembling,
Swept away for ever,
I'm going back to ground zero.

No, nothing at all,
No, I regret nothing;
Neither the good done to me,
Nor the bad — it's all the same to me.

No, nothing at all,
No, I regret nothing;
Because my life, because my joys
— Today — begin with you."

Yay! Go Edith!

Good plan, I say.

And now that's set me off thinking about Dame Edna saying "Moi, je ne regret reen!" (I'm reproducing this phonetically you understand). So I searched the internet for a video with her saying it and couldn't find one. You'll just have to be content with this or this or this, or listen to this. I do know the quotation for which I was searching does not feature in any of these appearances, because I listened to them all through carefully to check: which shows how deeply I care about you and how seriously I take my research.

Have a nice day.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Rachel Held Evans

I've just now heard the shocking news of Rachel Held Evans' death.

She was a shining light, a courageous warrior for truth, and one of Christ's faithful soldiers and servants on this earth.

We hold into the light of God's love and mercy her family coming to terms with this sudden loss.

None of us can ever know how many days of life will be ours, but if we manage to make even a fraction of the difference her life and contribution made, our time here will have been worthwhile.

May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Jean Vanier

Giving thanks today for the life of Jean Vanier.

An inspiring and beautiful witness to the way of Jesus.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory. 

Taking refuge

At the end of April I wrote in this post about how helpful the phraseology of other faith paths than our own can be. In that case the word was "karma", which comes from Hinduism and Indian Buddhism.

Not so much from India, but from later developments of Buddhism comes the illuminating and helpful phrase "taking refuge", which touches upon one of the skills of nourishing and nurturing spiritual development.

In Buddhism, the commitment is to "taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma and the sangha".

The Buddha is the state of enlightenment — the aware, present and awakened self. It should not be mistaken for an external being; it's not quite the same as if a Christian spoke of taking refuge in Jesus, there isn't the same level of otherness implied. Taking refuge in the buddha is fundamentally to do with living from your true self, from your innate wisdom and connection to the spiritual root — in Christian terminology it's like the Holy Spirit that wells up within you as a fountain of living water. That's the place of refuge implied in taking refuge in the buddha.

The Dharma is the wisdom body of writing and practice — the tradition, both in what you learn and what you do. What you might describe as "the way" trodden by the feet of the wise, faithful, kind and good, and left for you in the legacy of their writing and teaching. That too is a place of refuge.

The Sangha is the faith community, the spiritual kindred, the people travelling with you. They encourage you by their words and deeds for sure, but also there is an effulgence of being, an aura, something like a fragrance that emanates from the being of your sangha members, in which you can take refuge and find rest, be comforted and restored. Of course the faith community can also be intensely irritating and challenge you deeply by their habits and personality and temperament, but that also strengthens your practice as you learn to synthesise who you are with who they are and so shape the living temple from the unwieldy building blocks to hand.

The series of nine books I wrote that comes under the general heading of "The Hawk & the Dove" is the unfolding story of the men living in a fictional fourteenth century monastery. These novels explore the practise of goodness and kindness, and explore faith development and practice. They are about the Christian version of the buddha, the dharma and the sangha in which we may take refuge to be supported and grow strong. The purpose of the series is to nurture the reader's aspiration to choose gentleness and humility, and foster peace. 

Each of the books in the series feels down into a different aspect of the way of love, but the fourth book (The Hardest Thing To Do) and the ninth book (A Day And A Life) can be used as a form of retreat. The links I've given you are to UK Amazon, but you can also find them on US Amazon or in many online Christian bookshops (like Eden).

I feel sure there must be many people who (like me) would dearly love to make a residential retreat at somewhere like St Beuno's, but do not have sufficient means to realistically prioritise this over the commitments of day to day life. How, then, to benefit from the retreat experience of going down deep to be refreshed and restored, if you can't afford to go and stay in a retreat house?

St Alcuin's monastery in my fictional series is designed to create a place of spiritual refuge, because it is what takes place in our imagination that sustains and heals us, even more than what belongs to our physical surroundings and circumstances. 

The stories create a virtual sangha, which can come to life in our imagination and offer friendly companionship for our journey. They explore the dharma of the Gospel — the concepts as they are outlived of the way of Jesus. They support the finding of the buddha, both the interior well of life and the experience of touching the risen Jesus.

There are lots of ways we can discover into taking refuge, to rest and strength our inner self, but the power of story has been from time immemorial a really good one. 

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Lost awhile


Do you know John Henry Newman's hymn, "Lead Kindly Light"?

My grandfathers were both musicians. My father's father (Frank) was a church organist, at St Martins-on-the-Hill church in Scarborough, with its Willis organ and beautiful Burne-Jones panels. My mother's father (Charles) played the violin.   

Frank was a greengrocer through the week and was at church every Sunday playing the organ. But he was neither a happy man nor a believer, and during the sermon he made a point of going outside to smoke his pipe. What he really enjoyed was playing big, dramatic pieces like Bach's toccata and fugue in D minor, and being the rehearsal pianist for minor celebrities coming to sing at the theatre down by the sea at Scarborough where they lived. 

Charles was a farmer, a somewhat stern and driven individual, with a deep personal faith. Every night he used to kneel down to say his prayers at his bedside before he got into bed, and he had a framed saying up on the wall, "Help thou thy brother's boat across — and lo! — thine own has touched the shore."  He liked playing hymns on his violin — two of his favourites were the beautiful Abide with me and Lead, kindly light.

The hymn Lead kindly light includes the lines:
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, 'til
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

That's obviously a hope-filled reference to death and heaven, but that last line came into my mind this morning when a song I hadn't thought about for years came back into my mind.

I was thinking about my children, and how I'd brought them up, the mistakes I'd made and the false trails I'd led them along, but also where I'd got it right and the positive ideas I'd worked to instil.

As you know, I do my thinking in the bath, and at the time I was cleaning down the tub afterwards and getting my things together to return to my room. When I do this, I never put my nightclothes back on, but walk along to my room wearing nothing. Nobody else in my family has ever done this — parents, sister, children, partner; nobody. I started doing this, when my children were babies, not because I am an exhibitionist but because I want without discussion to communicate the idea that the human body with all its flaws is nothing to be ashamed of, it's just simple and okay. And I thought that was one small idea that I was glad to have taught my children.

And then all unbidden came this song to my mind. It brought back vivid memories, because I came across it in my early teens and loved it and listened to it over and over again — on a vinyl disc that one of my generous and richer friends had lent me to play on the record player that another of my generous and richer friends had also lent me. Here it is with lyrics added — helpful because they are singing different things from each other in the second half and it can be hard to pick out the words.  

When I remembered that song, it also brought back, as if I was there again, the memory of walking through the village where I lived, the dark evergreens over the wall at the corner of the turning into Kettle Green Road, Mrs Haskell's shop and the general stores, the place we used to wait for the school bus and the home that hosted our youth group, the place where my early faith grew and changed and began like a little bean plant climbing up its pole.

Teach your children well. A song I loved long since and lost awhile.