Thought for the Week -The Dark Mystical World

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Advent is a time to honour both light and dark. Today, in our over illuminated world, few of us have the opportunity to experience the dark. And I am not just talking about the physical reality but also of the psychological reality- our dark, our inner, depth dimension.

Over the last 500 years, Christianity has ignored the dark and opted for the more accessible bright half of ourselves – the light, the white, the angelic – purity, is what mattered rather then the dark brutal gods within.

The neglect of this arena is devastating in its consequences – we have witnessed some in these in recent times –  it has also led to serious disillusionment with the church and I am with Sara Grant when she says: “it is the inability of the Church to deal with the depth dimension of human experience which largely accounts for its loss of credibility today.” The darkness has been systematically ignored. Not only ignored but the church has failed to provide people with the capacity to deal with it. Get on with it – say your prayers don’t mind the dark.

In this scenario it is not surprising that people are turning to other religions and practices which do take this inner world seriously. We have to befriend the dark – take our darkness seriously because it is part of who we are – we are hybrid creatures – creatures of light and dark and we can’t ignore one half of ourselves and live credible lives.

Five hundred years ago, mystics were grappling with this  dark, mystical world – St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. And today we have Rahner suggesting, rightly I think, that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” In the early church the liturgy was the “objective point of entry into genuine Christian mysticism.” I don’t need to go to India, or further east, to find the mystical, to encounter the dark or to learn how to manage it.  We have our own rich mystical tradition all we need to do is use it. Advent is a good time to recover this rich tradition.

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Thought for the Week – TIME OF WAITING

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The Advent season is increasingly counter cultural – it sets out to do things differently.


Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. Beginning a new year in early December means we are attempting to straddle two calendars and this presents its own challenge.

The secular calendar with all its demands can become the dominant force and induce a sort of schizoid split as we try to balance the two. I don’t think we should underestimate the challenge of balancing  two very different calendars.


Advent is a time of waiting – of patience.  Carlo Carretto spent 20 years in the Sahara desert – at the end of his time he was asked if God asked anything of him during his long silence. His answer was clear – “God is asking us to be patient.”

Today is we don’t do patience, we don’t do waiting – we are addicted to speed and doing – we are on the go – this is our default position-  we expect things to happen instantly – press a button and get the results. And if you don’t get an instant reply to an email you wonder what is wrong. Efficiency be praised….

We have almost forgotten how to relax living as we do in a culture where time is a continuum of work and consuming – either producing or being entertained – and where leisure is reduced to being entertained by an industry that claims to  know our wants (Amazon recommends) before we even ask -it  leaves us passive and we become spiritually lazy.

I like the distinction between Eastern and Western forms of laziness. Eastern laziness consists in hanging out all day, in the sun, doing  nothing, drinking cups of tea, listening to music and gossiping. Western laziness is different.  It consists in constantly cramming our lives with compulsive, frenetic activity, leaving no time or space to attend to the important.I like the idea that this is a form of laziness! Where we allow the urgent to constantly harass us, get in the way of the important

This lack of patience is relatively new- throughout most of human history we had not choice but to wait, to be patient – waiting for light, waiting for the harvest, for rain, for news.  I like the story told by a friend of mine, Dominic Milroy, about a fishing trip to Chile. He was driving along when suddenly the car got stuck in a swamp and couldn’t move. He walked to the nearest farm and eventually found an old woman and asked her if there was a tractor available. She laughed and said the nearest tractor was 50 miles away. However she said, there was no problem, because Andress and Paco would be  back soon with the oxen – ‘sometime today or tomorrow.’ Dominic was shocked by the delay and even more shocked by his reaction as he recognised the huge cultural difference between the way she lived in time and the way he did.  ‘Sometime today or tomorrow’, meant for her there was no problem, but for him there was a big problem. The oxen came later that day and as Dominic walked beside them he realised that he was living according to the rhythm that human beings in most cultures live, that is at the speed of the fastest available communication. He was used to living with phones and cars and emails and trains and planes and his default position was speed. The trouble for Dominic and for us is that liturgy, the Advent season and the spiritual life don’t do quick – they have a more natural rhythm – the rhythm of growth – and this requires leisure, even play.

So here again we face the prospect of a schizoid split as we attempt to operate out of two different mindsets or speeds – speed, efficiency, where lingering is anathema and the slow, patient presence of nature and ritual. This is not an easy balancing act, and at the moment  most of us I suggest, are tipped into the speed default mode…

Advent is a time to re-educate ourselves – re-set our clocks – overthrow the tyranny of time – remembering that the tyrant is on the inside not the outside .
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Thought for the Week -Overcoming the numbing effects of familiarity

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Several years ago, on a bright Spring day, I was standing outside the school – the daffodils had just appeared and were in full flower. As I  looked at them I heard myself say  – “oh no, not again”. I could not believe that they were up once more. I felt tired and even irritated by the seemingly endless repetition of the same. I was shocked by my reaction.
Something similar can happen with Advent – it is easy to hear myself saying, “oh no not again”  —  it seems just yesterday when we were celebrating it -all that purple and wreaths – where did the year go?”
Familiarity dulls my perception and sets me at a distance from any encounter – be that with a daffodil or with Advent. I become disengaged…. As Patrick Kavanagh remarks, “Have tested and tasted too much and through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.”
At one level, preparing for advent is about reclaiming a sense of wonder so that we can, as Kavanagh says,  “rediscover and celebrate the newness that was in every stale thing, when we looked at it as children.”
Overcoming the numbing effects of familiarity – this deep and pervasive form of alienation – is a constant battle – every walk I take, every place I visit, every person I meet can be missed and the sad thing is that the important aspects of most things, including Advent, lie hidden behind their familiarity. A wise person once said, “that generally the familiar, precisely because it is familiar is not known.”
It is worth asking ourselves, as we begin Advent, what we can do to get behind the facade of the familiar and experience the strange and wonderful beauty of this season – allow it to become once again what Gregory describes as “a disclosure zone for God”– a time and space for encounter with the divine.
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Thought for the Week – The Right of the Environment

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I am re-reading Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. At this time, when Climate Change is being dismissed as a hoax, it is good to have a pope who knows the issue and insists on our responsibility to do something about it.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last year, Pope Francis said:

It must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Humans beings, for all their remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology,” (Laudato Si’, 81) is at the same time a part of these spheres. Human beings possess a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow human beings and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorised to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.

We need to live simpler, more sustainable lives. The health of the planet and our existence depend upon our choices and actions.

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Thought for the Week – Commitment

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Commitment is a challenge – it is hard to rule out other possibilities and there are always are possibilities – it is easy to stay nibbling at the edges of marriage, of monastic life rather than committing to them.
We take on this commitment not to restrict or limit ourselves, not to annoy ourselves or our partner. We commit because we know instinctively that a successful relationship requires it, requires the security and freedom which commitment brings.
W.N.Murray, Leader of a Scottish Himalayan Expedition says,  ‘Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless good ideas and splendid plans: the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.  All sorts of things occur to help one 
that would otherwise never have occurred. 
Commit your life to the Lord. Trust in him and He will act……the psalmist promises
And I deeply believe this –commitment releases all sorts of things that one could not
have dreamed of….. allows providence a free reign in our lives.
Commitment must be visible at some point – visible as humble service or creative
love  – else it may remain a pious aspiration or an illusion.
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Thought for the Week – Achieving Greatness

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The movie, The Third Man was set in Vienna after the second world war . Reflecting on the conflict, the main character, Harry Lime comments; ‘After all, it’s not that awful – in Italy for 30 years, under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, and 500 years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”  Though several of these facts are wrong – for instance the cuckoo clock was invented by the Germans – it suggests that strife, suffering, somehow pushes us to achieve greatness.

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Thought For The Week – Zacchaeus, that man of small stature in the Gospel story

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I imagine most of us here have climbed a tree at some stage in our lives- probably when we were children.  You will know from that experience that climbing is often the easy part. Getting down can be much harder.
I have often wondered how Zacchaeus, that man of small stature in the Gospel story, climbed the sycamore tree with such apparent ease.  Part of the answer is that the Jericho sycamore is quite different from our
European variety. Instead of one trunk it has many branches growing from its base, something like a fig tree.  This makes it easier to climb though getting down remains a challenge.
It is still hard to imagine your revenue officer leaving the comfort of their office and heading off to climb a tree even if it is easier then we thought. It is hard to imagine them or any of us having the courage and humility to take such a step.
Yet we are told that Zacchaeus, this important, if despised tax collector, did just that – left the  security of his office and ventured out onto the street and climbed a tree? What pushed him out of the safety of his office – nudged him to go and see this man? He probably heard the news that Jesus had healed a blind man at the entrance to the town.  Whatever it was, he threw caution to the wind, obeyed the call and went off to catch a glimpse of this man Jesus.
Then while peering out from the safety of his perch, Zacchaeus is spotted by Jesus. Jesus  challenges him to leave the safety of his tree and come down meet him – he wants to be his guest today. Jesus invites him to participate rather then remain an observer.
This second step requires even more courage than the first – it is tempting to stay up there  – watching, criticising, judging, safe at a distance – rather than descend and stand vulnerable on the street in the midst of a hostile crowd. Come out of hiding and meet your God.
Zacchaeus again responds generously – and in that moment of meeting his life is turned upside down – ‘taking’ transformed into ‘giving back and giving away’.
Jesus’ invitation is open to all who repent – tax collectors and sinners – the invitation to come down from your tree and encounter Christ and Christ, St. Benedict tells us, is everywhere, in our brothers and sisters, in friends and neighbours, in the sick, in strangers. The possibility for transformation is all round us.
The Eucharist is also such an invitation  – God inviting us to come out from where ever we are and be his guest today.  “To be a christian”, according to Rowan Williams, “means to live as people who are always guests – that are wanted and welcomed”.
We too are free to climb our tree to get a better view. We also have the option to stay up there, observing, watching, criticising, judging or come down, risk the encounter and be his guest today and so be transformed in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
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Thought for the Week – SPIRITUAL STENTS

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In medicine, a stent is a tube, made of metal or plastic which is inserted into a vessel or duct to keep the passageway open.
There is variety of stents for different purposes. One type is used to open up an artery that has been narrowed by fatty deposits along its walls.
There are times when we need the equivalent of a spiritual stent to keep a passageway open to the centre
Our world is not too concerned with this task. It  is more interested in external success and the appearance of things. Our consumerist culture does its best to clog up the passageway to the centre.
But we also know that contentedness is an inside job. It requires that we keep connected with our own interior world.
If I don’t pay attention to this and use my ‘spiritual stents’, I am in danger of constantly spinning round things and never landing – never touching the centre.
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Thought for the Week – The secrecy of my inner self

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A well know theologian has argued that we no longer believe because tradition tells us or because an authoritarian church commands us.
Belief in God’s existence is not a matter of rational demonstration
or irrational feeling.’  It is rather ‘a matter of reasoned trust’ –  an act of mystical faith. Our belief in the existence of God, to be convincing,
must pass through our  human experience.
“And why is this confidence in a totally different ‘invisible’ reality reasonable 
and intelligible? Because it is supported,and  verified in the context 
of our lived experience….
God has been obscured by churches, and often by their actions so that the 
only remaining possibility is to close one’s eyes in order to turn inwards and find the all-encompassing, all-directing God in the secrecy of my inner self, to sense, to feel and experience him at the core of my being.”  Hans Kung 
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