Monthly Archives: September 2014

Margins and Edges

There is important wisdom to be gleaned from those on the margins. Vulnerable human beings put us more in touch with the truth of our limited and messy human condition, marked as it is by fragility, incompleteness and inevitable struggle. The experience of God from that place is one of absolutely gratuitous mercy and empowering love. People on the margins, who are less able to and less invested in keeping up appearances, often have an uncanny ability to name things as they are. Standing with them can help situate us in the truth and helps keep us honest.

Sister Pat Farrell OSF at the 2012 LCWR Assembly

It seems to be a recurring theme with me that God appears nearer when we are undeniably fragile, incomplete and messy. When life is good, and we have our health and strength, it is harder, sometimes, to become aware of God’s constant presence.

No matter. God is faithful if we are not. In the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, we acknowledge both our own fragility, etc. (in Pureland Buddhism, our bombu nature) and God’s unfailing mercy.

Richard Rohr, another Franciscan, wrote:

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

The challenge is to maintain that liminal space as a home, in the midst of present happiness, without, as some artists, writers and musicians have found necessary, wrecking one’s life and loves in order not to drift into complacent, fruitless mediocrity. Perhaps it is not a challenge after all. Perhaps it is enough simply to be aware of the fragility, incompleteness and inevitable struggle of the world in which we live – the turning seasons, our aging bodies, even the dear cat, still such a kitten at heart, beginning slightly to slow down in middle age, spending less time abroad and more asleep on the bed as I write, living close to us in the warmth of our shared and transient mortality. That is enough.

On giving up…

It must be an act of grace, or of something beyond the individual will, which enables certain people to give up at certain times. Whether the giving up occurs gradually or swiftly, with great fanfare or absolute stillness, giving up is not something that can wilfully be done. It can be allowed or it can be resisted, but it cannot be done. And that is where hope lies. Not hope in continuing effort, but hope for some kind of mercy. Hope that today or next month, or five years from now there will come a time when the struggle will be sacrificed…

There is always room for great hope. For at every level of despair there is the possibility of giving up. In the midst of every dimension of delusion there are sparkles of sanity…. In the early years of life, giving up usually takes the form of faith. A leaping forward into a belief that one is loved, accepted, forgiven and redeemed just as one is, with nothing special needing to be done. In later years, giving up more often comes from despair. From the wisdom of realizing that no amount of continuing effort, no amount of fixing, will enable one to ‘get it all together.’ Despair then is forever a doorway to life.

Gerald May, Simply Sane: The Spirituality of Mental Health

We so often in our culture view giving up as the last thing we should be prepared to do. “Never give up!” we advise the cancer sufferer, the depressive. “Never give up!” we encourage the one struggling with the failing marriage, the failing business. “Of course, I never gave up…” says the hero returning from the war, the survivor hauled from the shipwreck.

But if we are honest, we know the state of not-giving-up is not something we can always achieve, nor is it healthy to try cling to it regardless. Life is given to us only for a while, and to give up in the face of terminal illness is sometimes a victory far more than a defeat. There are times in any endeavour when our only access to grace is in surrender – where we have to accept that try as we may, the marriage is over, the business is going to the wall.

Of course I am not advocating spinelessness. Of course we try. Of course we do our very best to keep going, to keep afloat in the storm, to save our life’s work, our life’s partnership. But sometimes it can’t be done. Sometimes even our own life cannot be saved – in the end that will come to us all – and then what shall we do?

There are seasons. “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted… a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance… a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away…” (Ecclesiastes 3.2ff) But we don’t want to accept the seasons: we want to buy fruit out of season, eat strawberries at Christmas, parsnips in high summer.

We run on desire, so much of our lives. We “want/don’t want” as Toni Bernard puts it. This refusal to give up can so often come down to this hunger, this wanting, and the suffering and dissatisfaction that come inevitably with wanting, with the sense that if only we can have this, or avoid that, then everything we be all right, that then we shall be peace.

Peace is grace. Grace is love, “strong as death” – far stronger. Love, grace, peace – these will outlast death. Even despair, if it is released, becomes a different kind of hope. Let it go, whatever it is, for only then can it be given back, “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over…” (Luke 6.38)

Sacred Sleep

I have been thinking about sleep.

In our culture we tend to look at sleep as a waste of time, a self-indulgence. I suspect this is something deeply embedded in our Protestant consciousness, probably related to passages from Scripture like Proverbs 6.10-11: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”

But there is far more to sleep than this, even if one allows some truth in it, which may be more than it deserves! The very space between waking and sleeping is a liminal place, a place of realisation. Entering into sleep mindfully, as intentional practice, can give rise to what I can only describe as attentive sleep. The Buddha is quoted as, “l[ying] down and go[ing] to sleep mindfully and fully aware.”

The very surrender to sleep is in itself an act, and a source, of wisdom. I wrote the other week about the grace of intentional surrender to illness and death when it appears that these are at last inevitable, and perhaps consciously embracing sleep is part of this finding of grace within the peace of letting go.

Sleep is sacred ground. As Rubin Naiman has pointed out, it can be both the expression of and the entry into a place of deep spiritual safety. We seem very ignorant of this, despite our understanding of sleep as essential to physical healing. I can find little on the subject in those Quaker writings with which I am familiar, and even William Penn, writing in 1699, only acknowledged sleep as healing the body:

Love silence, even in the mind… Much speaking, as much thinking, spends; and in many thoughts, as well as words, there is sin. True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.

Given our propensity to explore this dimension of the spiritual safety of Meeting for Worship, I am surprised that more work has not been done in this area!