Archive for the ‘Pilgrimage’ Category

Death, and dying are not topics that we discuss freely in our Western Christian culture; we tend to live life with the certainty of death hidden in the recesses of our mind.  It is all around us, but we dare not think of it in case the impact of it is too much to bear.

We have made enormous advances in openly discussing other existential issues – relationships and human sexuality immediately come to mind.  We have matured in our various faith (or non-faith) communities to the point that we can, at least in many quarters, discuss issues that were previously taboo, or ‘brushed under the carpet’ as we would colloquially refer to it.

But death……death is still stubbornly knocking at the door that we dare not open.  From an early age, we have been taught not to talk about it – perhaps this has not be conveyed to us consciously, but sub-consciously through the culture we live and move in, or the avoidance of the issue in our homes and places of worship.

We fear death.  Most of us, if we were truly honest with ourselves would admit to this as a factual reflection of our emotional status.  We fear the unknown, or the ambiguity, or the fact that we take that final journey alone.

Yet, if we face death head on, we find that we can liberate ourselves from the shackles of fear and meaninglessness, and instead walk in the light of peace and contentment.  Yes, that might sound clichéd, insensitive and lacking in pastoral tact, but it does have a biblical basis and a sound psychological underpinning.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and best-selling author made the point ad infinitum, in his writings and speeches, that there is meaning in all circumstances and situations, including death and the process of dying.  Our will to meaning may indeed be enhanced when we face the finitude of our earthly life and contemplate what lies ahead.  We may be, in the words of NT. Wright’s book title, be ‘Surprised by Hope’, or in the Franklian sense ‘Surprised by Meaning’.  Those of us to minister to others in such circumstances can attest to that, although we may find it difficult to articulate the profundity of our observations at the time, or to grasp its import fully without a period of prayer and reflection.    We have seen it in front of us, in its rawness and unpredictability, therefore we can attest to it in our convictions.

As part of my training as a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, my colleagues and I were required to write a  ‘spiritual autobiography’ (with the spiritual aspect not being confined to the ‘faith dimension’, but rather in the much wider sense as delineated by Frankl to include all of those experiences that make us uniquely human). This autobiography took us from before we were born to how we might envisage our death , and importantly, our legacy – not, at first glance, a particularly easy thing to do!  Nor was it in truth.  But it was, as I’ve alluded to a few seconds ago, not only enlightening, but it was uplifting.  As Frankl understood, it is only in the shadow of death that life can be seen for all its beauty, and the opportunity to realise meaning in its myriad forms presents itself more clearly and urgently.

In our Christian faith, our tradition has much to say about the topic of death, particularly in terms of continuity and a new mode of being. But how that manifests itself in practice is often difficult to pragmatically articulate, and crucially, to employ as part of a wider roadmap that can be consulted as we inevitably go astray from time-to-time.

By far the most helpful book I have come across in that respect is a small volume by Dr. Ann V. Graber, author of the incredible ‘Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology’ and a Professor of Pastoral Logotherapy.  This book, published in 2009, entitled ‘The Journey Home: Preparing for Life’s Ultimate Adventure’ is nothing short of phenomenal; Dr. Graber combines a detailed, and a times very personal insight with her talent for writing simply, yet profoundly, distilling a wide-range of pertinent issues into an accessible format.

Dr. Graber asks those questions we are sometimes so reticent to ask: 1) how can we help a loved one who is dying, 2) does death frighten us, and 3) how would we, as unique individuals, deal with the reality that we were about to die, if and when, that situation arises?

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that such questions would inevitably result in a book that is very difficult to read! Instead what we find is a book that represents a journey, or an unfolding adventure that begins with an exploration of Dr. Graber’s own transformative experience, where she confronted mortality following a traumatic injury.  She writes convincingly of an ‘expanded awareness’ that she encapsulated in this short reflection: ‘There is a wondrous life to be lived, here and beyond, as we love and serve each other!’

Throughout, Graber skilfully and gently offers practical suggestions as to how those who are facing death can do so in a meaningful way, thus confronting uncomfortable emotions that can be characterised by fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Graber describes this ‘transformation of attitudes’, it can be facilitated and understood in terms of one’s belief system, but crucially, can also go ‘beyond the rites and rituals available to a person’.  She identifies these as ‘attuning to nature, imagery, stories, art, music, and whatever helps one cultivate an inner peace in which fears melt away’.

Preparation then, is central to the process of understanding the nöetic dimension of the dying process.  Graber rightly points out that, as Viktor Frankl himself noted, we need to prepare ourselves for death before we can venture to help others.  Part of that process includes acquainting or re-acquainting ourselves with the insights of religion, science, poetry, literature and philosophy and how they enrich and underpin the ‘transitoriness of our mortal existence’.

Key to Graber’s approach, as explained in her own words, is that ‘the transformative process will take on a hopeful note if it is accepted as a presupposition that spirituality is central. And that a person’s particular religion is supplemental’.

In journeying with others, Graber posits altruistic love, or self-transcendent caring, where the soul of another is touched at its core, as a liberating experience; how that works out in practice differs between individuals.  Although the overarching meta-narrative is the same, the micro-narrative differs from person to person.  Thus the ‘familial encounter, friendship, or therapeutic relationship’ is moulded to suit individual personalities, needs, desires and fears.

In reflecting on her own experience, Graber refers to the journey into one’s own ‘interior castle’ where meditation and the invocation of particularly meaningful imagery leads to a ‘communing with one’s ‘higher self’, the point at which we experience peace and wellbeing within.  This state of acceptance then is a powerful antidote to the fear of the unknown that often characterises death.  Moreover, by facing our fears directly, they lose their power to manipulate and direct our wider emotions.  Graber moves beyond ‘meditation’ and examines the role of storytelling, the arts and music as a repertoire of accessible tools which can lead to a gentle acceptance of fate.

Graber briefly touches on the conceptual elements congruent with a continuity of consciousness beyond death, based on religious insight, particularly that of Christianity.  That personal and empirical insights can be instructive to those facing their own mortality is a point well made by Graber. In that respect, I am reminded by a few short words penned by Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but are to be lived’.  One could apply such insight into the spiritual process, and experiential value, attendant with dying and death.

At our Journey’s end, Dr. Graber draws on Prof. Frankl’s maxim that our lives are a monument to our experiences and values.  It therefore makes good sense that Graber discusses memorialising and ways that the needs of the living can be expressed healthily in their grief and attendant loss of a treasured friend, relative or colleague.  In-so-doing she touches on various practices such as candle lighting ceremonies, prenatal loss memorials, commemorating body/organ donation and memorial plantings and gardens, among others. Throughout Graber emphasises sensitivity to individual preferences, a practise that is increasingly important in an evolving society that becomes more pluralistic by the day.

Perhaps the most touching part of Dr. Graber’s book is the example of one person’s specific preparation for ‘the journey home’ as explored in the final chapter entitled ‘Kay’s Legacy’.  She asks the question ‘how do we assist people who seek us out to be available to them, soul to soul, as they explore inner territory that is unfamiliar or hitherto untraversed?’  That indeed is the crux of the matter for those of us who minister to others.

Kay’s preparation was a very conscious one – she began by withdrawing from ‘earthly’ attachments such as property and business interests, prioritising healing relationships by expressing thanks for those who enriched her life, and extending forgiveness to those who had wounded her. She embraced those ‘spiritual companions’ who loved and supported her.  Her specific journey thereafter consisted of a ‘final farewell’ get-together, was surrounded by those who meant most to her.  Her funeral included participation by loved ones and a garden was constructed as a lasting memorial to her life.

Graber ‘s last sentence in her epilogue sums up succinctly the purpose of her book, that it ‘was written for anyone who may be willing to consider death as a doorway one passes through when physical life comes to an end and new vistas on the continuum of consciousness open up’.

For those who are searching, for those who are afraid and unsure of the contours of the ‘journey home’, how to live well and to die well, this book is a must read.  Our final earthly journey is an opportunity to realise meaning in profound and unexpected ways; Dr. Graber’s book provides us with the opportunity to reflect deeply on our own mortality, the continuity of consciousness and how we can embrace others.

May you journey well, Scott

The former Bishop of Durham, Dr. David Jenkins, has died.  His theological viewpoints were always much more nuanced than were reported, or misreported, in the press at the time.  Nonetheless, what I thought was always rather striking was his espousal of a very publicly engaged form of Christianity, where the questions and answers were worked out ‘on the ground’.  As such he challenged unfeeling market economics and argued that people with the least power and influence should always be at the centre of government policy.

This balanced insight into the man and his approach was produced in 1994 to mark his retirement and is well worth watching. In my opinion we need more Christian leaders that are willing to challenge unjust social structures in such a tenacious and consistent manner.

Moravian Logo

As of today I have officially become a Minister of the British Province of the Moravian Church, serving the Cliftonville Congregation in North Belfast.  Many people have asked me: ‘Who are the Moravians’?  And that’s quite a common question that is hard to answer in a few short paragraphs! But here goes:

The Moravian Church is one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, with its heritage stretching back to the fifteenth century.  Doctrinally it is a mainstream church, with a global membership, and is a member of the World Council of Churches; the British Province is a member of  Churches Together in Britain and Ireland  and the Irish District belongs to the Irish Council of Churches.

The main motto of the Moravian Church is Vicit Agnus Eum Sequamur (Our lamb has conquered, let us follow him), which emphasises our focus on Christ as the head of our denomination. Another oft used motto of the church is: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”

In a lecture series delivered at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Moravian Bishop Clarenice H. Shawe described the ethos of the Moravian Church as having five guiding principles: simplicity, happiness, unobtrusiveness, fellowship, and the ideal of service.

If you want to find out more about the Moravian Church, the following websites will give you much more detail. Whether you’re interested in doctrine, customs  or ecumenical relations, you’ll find that information here:

http://www.irishchurches.org/members/moravian-church-irish-district (An brief overview of the Irish District of the British Province).

http://www.moravian.org.uk/index.php/the-moravian-church/beliefs-and-practices (Information on Moravian beliefs and practices by the British Province).

http://www.moravianseminary.edu/moravian-studies/about/introduction (A quite detailed introduction to the Moravian Church by the Moravian Theological Seminary)

Look at Etty Hillesum’s entry in Wikipedia and you’ll see that her occupation is listed as ‘writer’.  In actuality, she was so much more than that; anyone who has read her diaries, or secondary sources based on them, would be strongly inclined to bestow upon her the moniker of ‘mystic’ too.  Such mysticism was inextricably linked to her life-circumstances, which consisted of much adversity and ultimate disaster in the indescribable horror of Auscwhitz.

Prior to reading Patrick Woodhouse’s book ‘Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed’ I had read only short extracts of Hillesum’s writings. What I had read impressed me as spiritually mature and a profound insight into an individual who had succeeded in transcending the appalling conditions Nazi Germany had imposed on the Jewish population of Amsterdam. And so I wanted to read more, but rather than immediately diving in to Hillesum’s translated diaries, I decided to try Woodhouse’s book first.

Etty Hillesum

Woodhouse painstakingly pieces together Hillesum’s life from a dysfunctional childhood, through integration and the emergence of some form of order out of chaos. As her personality developed, Hillesum embarked upon a spiritual journey; as she discovered her true self, she discovered God.   It was this relationship that carried her through a life beset with unimaginable difficulties and turmoil, ending with death in a Nazi concentration camp. It was through the grace of God, and a life of prayer, that Hillesum was able to transcend the despair and cruelty that threatened to engulf her. It was this relationship that taught her that hate was a ‘sickness of the soul’ and it should be put aside at all costs, even although the reasons to hate grew stronger and stronger each day.

Woodhouse succeeds in weaving together the strands of Etty’s life. And so we see her as a deeply spiritual, although not religious, person who connects profoundly with her inner-self and with God.  Here he quotes from her diaries:

“Quite suddenly I had the impression that I wasn’t alone, that there were two of us.  I felt as if I consisted of two people who were squashed tightly together and felt so good and so warm as a result.  I was in such close touch with myself, full of inner warmth, and felt utterly self-sufficient….I discovered with no small satisfaction that I got on very well with myself”.  

That Hillesum’s mysticism was grounded in the reality of everyday life with its struggles and disappointments speaks very directly to us in our modern age, and that is one of the reasons why Woodhouse’s book is so important.  Hillesum’s growing spiritual awareness was not grounded in any formal religion, although it had a distinct non-institutionalised Christian flavour; her faith was experiential rather than academic and as such it was possessed of an intensity that is difficult to fully describe.  Moreover, Hillesum’s journey of transformation is a reminder to the modern reader that a spiritual awakening is a transformative event (or events) and is a deeply personal experience.

‘Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed’ was a pleasure to read; Woodhouse’s style is engaging and the end-result is a book that is touching, powerful and thought-provoking in equal measure. As such, it is one of those books that will benefit from multiple-reading; there is so much to discover and re-discover in its pages.

Orthodox Christianity has always fascinated me.  The continuity of beautiful liturgy and iconography makes for a unique expression of the Christian faith.

Nowhere is this continuity more evident than in Mount Athos in Greece. The holy peninsula reaches some 31 miles out into the Aegean Sea, and it is here that for over a thousand years vibrant communities of monks have lived out their vocations.  With no access to radio, television or newspapers, the monks live detached from the modern world; it is this detachment that allows them to commune more closely with God.  Theirs is a life of silence, prayer, chanting, reading and physical work and takes place in the Island’s 20 monasteries; each monk follows a unique path dependent on their talents and spiritual needs.

CBS recently produced a short documentary on the life of the Mount Athos monks which will give you a feel for this holy place. It’s certainly worth watching:

It was Thomas a Kempis who said: ‘It is only the pilgrims who in the travails of their earthly voyage do not lose their way ………whether our planet be frozen or scorched; they are guided by the same prayers, and suffering, and fervour, and woe.’ 

Pilgrimage is a stunning 2001 short documentary film by renowned Germany director Werner Herzog; it is essentially an extended meditation on the words of a Kempis. Accompanied only by music, the film alternates between shots of pilgrims near the tomb of Saint Sergei in Sergiyev Posad, Russia and pilgrims at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. The score is really something special and was composed by John Tavener and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with vocal accompaniment by Parvin Cox and the Westminster Cathedral Choir.

One little person giving all her time to peace, can make news. Many people, giving some of their time, can make history.” So said the inspirational ‘Peace Pilgrim’, otherwise know as Mildred Lisette Norman (July 18, 1908 – July 7, 1981).

Between 1953 and 1981, the Peace Pilgrim walked more than 25,000 miles across the USA spreading her message— “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love“. Carrying with her her meagre possessions, she vowed, “I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.”  She conversed with people wherever she encountered them, whether that be on dusty roads or city streets, in churches, colleges, civic groups, spreading her message; she was also adept at getting her message across to a mass audience too, using the broadcast media as and when the opportunities arose.

The Peace Pilgrims pilgrimage covered the entire peace spectrum, ranging from peace between nations, groups, individuals, and inner peace. She believed that world peace would only come when enough people attain inner peace. 

An inspiring individual, the Peace Pilgrim’s life reminds us that we can all make a difference in this world, that we are all called to stand up for what we believe is right, and the power of activism resides within each one of us.  Apathy is not an option – we all need to live a meaningful life!

You can watch the documentary ‘Peace Pilgrim: An American Sage Who Walked Her Talk‘ on youtube:

This blog posting is the text of a sermon entitled ‘Stepping Out into the Unknown‘ preached by me on 4th January 2009.
My text is Matthew Chapter Two, Verses Nine to Ten:

 “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

One bible commentator once made the observation that there are few passages in the entire canon of scripture that have received more diverse interpretations than this one.  Both the scholarly and popular debates concerning this passage revolve around its historicity; in other words, does it relate to an actual event, subsequently recorded by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, or is it simply a fictional story told to get across a purely theological message?  Some commentators have made the point that the history versus theology debate provides us with what is, in essence, a false dichotomy.  There is, in reality, no need to choose between historicity and ultimate meaning because the writer of Matthew was concerned with both.  He recorded history, not simply for the sake of it, but rather he drew on the factual to illustrate and to inform the theological meaning that was at the very core of the event itself.  One of my favourite New Testament commentators, William Barclay, made essentially the same point, although he did it much more eloquently, when he said of this passage:

There is not the slightest need to think that the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend.  It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world.

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This intriguing documentary – Buddha in Suburbia – follows the extraordinary journey of 40 year old Lelung Rinpoche, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s three principal reincarnations, as he sets out to gather lost teachings and to attempt a return to his homeland.

For seven years prior to filming, Lelung Rinpoche has been living in Ruislip North London, in what is ostensibly a garden shed provided by one of his students. He runs a dharma centre locally, attended by British followers. Now a British passport holder, he embarks on a mission to find previous Lelungs’ teachings, and the teachers who hold the key to unlocking their secrets.

His fascinating journey takes him to India, Mongolia and China as he tries to find a way of getting back home to Tibet. In so doing, he meets some of Tibetan Buddhism’s most senior teachers, including the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile. Lelung Rinpoche has a daunting task to complete on his quest to recover lost teachings before they disappear, and to try to understand more fully the steps required on his own path towards enlightenment.

Lelung is a young, modern lama, with relationships with many across the globe from teenagers in Rusilip to the Dalai Lama. The film includes an interview with Tibetan Buddhist expert Professor Robert Thurman, father of Uma Thurman.

I have finally got round to watching Velcrow Ripper’s award-winning documentary, ‘Scared Sacred’.  Against the backdrop of a world overwhelmed by turmoil and suffering, Ripper sets out on a unique, and often difficult, pilgrimage.  His task is to visit what he calls the ‘Ground Zeros’ of the planet, and in doing so, he poses the question – ‘is it possible to find hope in some of the darkest moments of human history?’

To answer his own very pertinent question, Ripper travels to the toxic wasteland of Bhopal, the minefields of Cambodia, war-torn and fear-ridden Afghanistan, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ruined cityscapes of Bosnia.  He talks compassionately to the survivors of Hiroshima and gains insight from those who have suffered most in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This he does with consummate skill, resulting in a beautifully crafted and emotionally intense documentary which charts Ripper’s five-year sojourn to discover if wounded humanity can transform the ‘scared’ into the ‘sacred’.

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