Maths Is Not My Strong Point (Final #smallstone)

 

Maths is not my strong point (Final #smallstone)

 

   Wrestling with figures knocks points off my IQ and makes me feel intensely blonde without ever going near a hairdresser or bottle of bleach. I stare manically at my expenses form and tell myself I can do it. My calculator has vanished somewhere under my desk and I panic and do the numbers on a post-it note and find myself ten Euros short. Panic. How can I have lost ten Euros? Same way I lost my glasses going up the Eiffel tower ~ sheer inattention and stress. Try again, using the calculator on the computer and magically the missing money reappears. I breath again, and count the remaining cash. It matches.

There are guardian angels that watch over people like me. I even got my glasses back, unharmed. We can’t be good at everything and maths is never going to be one of my strengths.

(ps. I am a natural blonde.)

A Candlemas Sermon- the great hidden in ordinary, hidden in plain sight

Another “guest post” from my husband. If you wish, skip through the readings (in brackets)  to the sermon itself. 

 

{Malachi 3.1-5: 1 ¶ See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. 6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.

 

Hebrews 2.14-end: 14 ¶ Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

 

Luke 2:22-40 – the presentation of Christ in the temple.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23. (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24. and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25. Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28. Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30. for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31. which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32. a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33. And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35. so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36. There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37. then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.}

 

Today we look forward to Wednesday – to the presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas as it is usually known. We are about at the end of Epiphany but we have a little more to learn about the sharing of God’s love with the whole world. A little more before we start the Sundays before Lent.

So what to we know. Well we know that Mary and Joseph were not rich. You see, the Old Testament law says that Mary should have brought a yearling lamb and a pigeon or a turtledove. It was only if she could not afford a lamb that she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, instead. Mary brought two pigeons and I don’t believe she is someone who would short-change God, so she and Joseph must not have been able to afford a lamb. 

So, this poor couple enter the great temple carrying their little baby. There was nothing obvious to mark them or Jesus out as special. And yet Simeon instantly recognises this little baby as the promised Messiah, the Christ. He picks Jesus up and we have him recorded as saying the wonderful words we know best as the Nunc Demitis, “Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word………..”. A prayer that I have recited so often at the graveside. It is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to a God who is faithful and keeps his promises. It is also an acceptance of death as part of God’s plan for humanity – a theme for another sermon perhaps. Simeon embraces his death and praises God.

Now we have a poor couple, with a little baby. Who at the same time are the ones carrying the hope of the world in their arms. Hope that makes an old man to praise God for his coming death. The wonderful power and majesty of God hidden in the ordinary, the normal. This great moment when Jesus is brought to the Temple, and no one notices. No one sees anything special until Simeon steps out from the crowd. Then there is Anna the daughter of Phanuel, an old woman who has been a poor widow for most of her adult life. Again she sees what the priests and holy men cannot. She takes Jesus and praises God.  

The great hidden in the ordinary. Hidden in plain sight. 

I recently heard a story about the growth of two monasteries that I know and treasure. One is Mount St. Bernard in Leicestershire, whose monks helped to me to keep my sanity while training for the priesthood. And the other is on Caldey Island off the Welsh coast; that one I have visited but do not know so well. Both were in serious decline and both now have new novices and a new vibrancy about them. This made me think about another story about a failing monastery.  

Story of the failing monastery (thanks to Anthony DeMello!): This monastery had once been full of song and praise. A centre of learning and teaching and encouragement. But like so many things the monastery’s glory began to fade, novices were first rare and then gone altogether. Leaving the abbot and just a few ageing monks.

Now obviously the abbot knew that something had to be done. So, they prayed for growth. They tried modernising, they tried new services, they tried everything that they could think of to become more relevant, and successful once again. But after slight, brief successes, all their efforts failed again and again.

 And the monks kept getting older. Finally, the abbot knew that this task was beyond him. Something was wrong, and the monks prayers were not being answered. Worst still, the sense of community, the one thing the abbot thought the monastery had left, even that was starting to go. Under the pressure of failure, of rising bills and few people, tempers were starting to fray. Arguments were starting. The brothers were finding faults with each other. They started to grumble at brother cook about the quality of the food. Brother cook lost heart and the food did become worse. Discontent was growing and growing fast. 

In desperation the abbot called another meeting for them all to pray about the mess they were in. At that meeting one of the monks mentioned a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert who was becoming widely regarded as a holy man. A modern day Christian prophet. So they prayed some more and decided to use some of the little money they had left and send the abbot to see the hermit.  

The abbot finally reached the hermit, who was sitting in silent prayer by a remote cave. The abbot shared the peace and solitude and prayer of the hermit for several days before the hermit asked why he had come. The abbot explains about the mess in the monastery and asks what he can do. The hermit prays silently for another few days and then declares that all will be well with the monastery. — One of the brothers will one day be recognised as a great saint who will guide them all back to their vocations. But the hermit could not say which of the bothers was the saint. God has disguised the saint. He is hidden from them but he is there.  

So the abbot returns to the monastery excited and tells all the brothers. Who become excited themselves. A great saint, a saint who will be famous …… and in their monastery. Eating food with them. Working with them. And they begin to look around could it be brother cook, of course not he was prone to depression and couldn’t even cook any more. Could it be the abbot: how could it be, under him the monastery had declined to almost nothing. And so they went through each of the remaining brothers. None of them seemed like great saints. But was that just God’s disguise? It could be any of them.

 So, without noticing it, they started to treat each of there brothers as the hidden saint, just in case. And they began to realise that the hermit was right. They began to feel better about their monastery. Brother cook was praised and the food improved. An atmosphere of quiet holiness started to cover everything they did.

 Visitors began to notice, or rather feel, that there was something special and holy about that monastery. Something saintly. Visitor numbers grew. Novices began to arrive. People started coming for spiritual support and advice. Until the monastery became a famous centre of learning, and teaching and encouragement.

 You see, that simple apocryphal story is about God, majestic and mighty, hidden in plain view. But present all the same. And no less powerful for being hidden. That is how God works.

 That is how God the creator is hidden in his own creation. How God the mighty and powerful became a little baby, born to poor parents. That is how he could come to the temple and almost no one recognised him. 

That is how God is here now in this church. How God is here in each of you. And me, I hope. God is here and it is the holiness of our lives that will attract people here. It is the way we love and care, for one another and for those we meet. It is in all of these little things that God hides himself: God hidden but still felt. 

God is hidden but God is felt in the way we treat one another. In the way we care and respect one another. God is more often in the places that normal wisdom would never consider. Like a king in a manger. A holy and successful church in a little place like this. And holy saints in ordinary bodies like yours.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

To Lie or Not To Lie? The ethics and philosophy of lying

I don’t usually bother with quizzes but this one piqued my interest:

It’s from the Open University and very interesting. I’d be curious to hear which philosopher my readers most closely resembled: for the record, I came out as Aristotle.

http://www.open.ac.uk/openlearn/history-the-arts/culture/philosophy/lie-or-not-lie

Those who at this point launch into Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song have won my heart forever and a day… unless you are lucky enough to already have my heart,  in which case, sing it anyway!

♪   

Edit for those who are NOT familiar with the song, so that they may learn wisdom:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQycQ8DABvc

Brave New World- a novel that can still shake the soul

 

Brave New World- by Aldous Huxley

There are books that have a long lasting and distinctly subversive effect on the psyche and it’s still a mystery to me why this book, Brave New World ended up on the ‘O’ level curriculum back in the 1980s. I read it first aged 14, and reading it again thirty years later, things I didn’t understand then have become much clearer. It’s in some ways a far bleaker book than Orwell’s 1984, which it often compared to for its futuristic slant and in other ways a much more hopeful depiction of the future of mankind.

The author was from a well known and talented family and with that sort of background, it seems inevitable that he would follow in a similarly gifted way. Published in 1932, when Huxley was 38, Brave New World has a visionary glimpse into things that were only barely becoming realities when I first read the book. Test tube babies, that exciting misnomer of the late 70s, are a reality in Brave New World; viviparous birth is a thing of the past. All babies are conceived and grown artificially; society is divided into a genetic caste system from conception. Not only your heredity determines who you are even before you are “decanted” (born) but in vitro conditioning controls a whole host of factors. Those who are to work in the tropics are conditioned from conception to cope with heat and are inoculated in the bottle against tropical diseases. If you belong to any caste below Beta, you are poisoned both by alcohol being added to your bottle(womb) and by having restricted oxygen. Social control is all about people loving what society wishes them to love, and what the society wants most is for people to be happy in their station in life.

Cloning(something that had been dreamed of when I first read the book) has become the norm for lower castes and twin groups of up to 96 identical individuals swarm around happily fulfilling their preordained roles. Sex is so far beyond the 1960s free love free-for-all; child sex is encouraged (“erotic play”) and monogamy is a dirty word. Contraception is everywhere, and many outwardly female people are actually Freemartins (guaranteed sterile and “apart from the slightest tendency to grow beards,” structurally normal.)

The first part of the book overwhelms with its vivid and plausible New World, where everyone is happy and clean and poverty and sickness are eradicated. I was utterly mesmerised and read it in one sitting, arriving at the shocking conclusion at about 2am, unable to sleep and since this was decades before the internet, with no one with whom I might discuss it. The central characters are introduced within the first few pages: Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne, and their friends and co-workers drew me into their world effortlessly, but the most important character does not appear until almost half way.

Bernard, the non-comforming Alpha plus, takes Lenina, his Beta squeeze of the moment on a week’s holiday to a Savage Reservation, a place in New Mexico where life is back in the stone age pretty much, with Indians living as they lived for thousands of years, maintained as a sort of museum and that is when the world really starts to unravel when they meet John (Savage), son of a “civilised” woman who got left behind some twenty or so years before, pregnant and without means of escape. Linda somehow managed to raise John amid the squalor of her surroundings but John can never fit into the society because he is white and considered the son of a whore. He is enchanted when he meets Bernard and Lenina and is allowed to return to civilisation with his mother. John learned to read from snatches of the Bible and a tattered copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and from these lost and now forbidden volumes learned all he believes about morals and ethics and life.

Returning to modern London proves to be an appalling ordeal, and at first John plays along with Bernard showing him off at parties, becoming more and more disenchanted with the brave new world(his words are Miranda’s from The Tempest) and the people in it. His unhappiness spills over and events unfold with the power and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. I sat and shook when I came to the end, disturbed beyond my teenage mind’s capability of articulating, and as a mature woman, I still feel something similar.

One of the central themes is social control. All people are conditioned from conception, and through childhood (with hypnopaedia, sleep teaching) to be happy with who and what they are and their role in life, and yet, even so, with the unlimited food, recreational drugs (soma) sex without taboos or commitment, there is a core of individuals, almost always those from the top caste of Alphas who find themselves feeling alienated from the values and the practises of the society. This is not dissimilar to 1984 but the world of Brave New World is centuries ahead in time and those who fail to fit in are exiled to islands (aside: this was the first time I had heard of the Falkland Islands, and within a short time, the Falklands War had broken out) to govern themselves and explore everything denied them in mainstream society, from pure sciences to philosophy to poetry and forbidden literature. There is no return from an island, because those who are sent to them are deemed disruptive elements. My feeling is that those Alphas sent away probably achieve a greater measure of happiness being square pegs among other square pegs, but also, the fact that a society with rigid social controls allows such people to live gives me hope, even within the confines of a novel, that greater things may await those ill fitting few when removed from the need to pretend that they conform. There is a great release of energy that comes when we are able to say, “Hell, no, that is not me. I will follow my path, not yours!”

This is a totally absorbing novel that is unputdownable even today and is filled with images that will haunt long after you have finished it. I can guarantee that having read it, you will look at our modern world with different eyes, because the seeds that Huxley saw lying dormant in the 20s and 30s and wove into the vision of the novel have begun to sprout at surprising speeds. Science is not the demon at work here, but something much subtler and more sinister.

I shall leave you to find it for yourself.

The Texture of Silence

 

The texture of silence

 

Silence has texture.

You don’t realise how different those textures are until you stop to listen.

There’s the broken glass, bleeding edge texture of the awkward silence that falls in the ringing aftermath of a fight. You can feel the sharp fractured edges as the shattered peace falls to the ground like glass bird-scarers in an old fashioned kitchen garden.

Then there’s the hungry salivating silence of expectation, that bated breath hush, like the dying tones of the dinner gong where only vibrations and eagerness remain.

And finally there’s the silence you find in holy places, where worlds meet and touch and even overlap. You walk in and are struck by the depth of the quiet, self conscious suddenly of the creak of a door or arthritic knees, yet any sound you make rapidly vanishes, absorbed into the deep silence as a stone dropped into an underground lake. The ripples spread out to infinity and are lost, and the silence returns. It has the texture of the finest velvet, rich and soft as forest moss. When you let yourself be still, you can hear the silence over the roar of traffic or the bustle of a busy kitchen, like a kind of celestial white noise.

When you find a place where this sort of silence prevails, cherish it. Hold it in your heart, explore that texture in your mind till you understand that beyond all the sounds of the world, from the discordant roar of aircraft, the inanity of human chatter to the melody of springtime birds and the wind in the wheat, this silence is the song of the spirit that plays on whether we choose to hear it or not.

Headache #smallstone 17

Left of central, pounding in the temples. Pain spreading across scalp, down neck. Stomach sour, rising to nausea. Vision blurring, lights dancing in fairylike patterns. Jaw clenching, mouth dry, eyes gritty with invisible sand. Base of skull tight, pain travelling down spine. Dizzy from pain killers, I stagger to bathroom, retching slightly. Floor cold; I notice the crack in the tiles. Pillow soft, smelling of lavender. I close itchy eyes and wait for sleep.

Mind Body Spirit- the golden tripod

 

Mind body spirit- the golden tripod

 

My recent battle with illness brought home to me how easily upset my fragile balance can be and more than that, quite how acutely sensitive I am to disruptions to my baseline well-being. It’s easy to forget how complex an organism a human being is, and how aspects of one form of health affect the whole person.

After I came out of hospital the first time, I contracted an infection, probably post-operatively, and was put on strong antibiotics. Though these tablets were designed to fight infection, there were side effects that made coping with being unwell far harder. Combined with the continuing effects of the anaesthesia and the pain relief I needed, my emotional state became acute and I spent most of Christmas Eve crying. Things that normally wouldn’t bother me made me incredibly sad and filled with self hatred. I’m used to dealing with pain, but I am not used to feeling weak and unwell, and try as I certainly did, I found I was incapable of rising above it and being positive. Body, mind and spirit were all out of balance.

Over the next few days, my spirits rose a little, as the deeper meaning of Christmas sank in, but when the infection came back worse than ever, this little improvement vanished and I was hospitalised again, this time to have antibiotics fed to me intravenously. I have seldom felt so utterly bereft as I did on New Year’s Eve, and New Years Day was not much better. The drugs being pumped into me might well have been doing a sterling job of fighting infection but they did little to improve my state of mind or spirit. I made the mistake of reading Oscar Wilde’s short stories(albeit in French) and ended up sobbing silently into my pillow. The Selfish Giant has an ending that would bring tears to most eyes, and so too does The Happy Prince. But the heart of those sentiments went deeper than the tears, and within a few hours, the arrival of two new patients and the interaction with them and their stories raised me again. Looking out of one’s self at moments like this can be very helpful and these two new ladies were good company. With the addition of two hysterically funny night nurses, I went to sleep on New Year’s Day with my sides aching from laughing.

Returning home the next day, I soon realised that I had lost a lot of ground in terms of health and fitness and set about trying to regain it. I am used to a fairly large amount of outdoor exercise, usually walking a minimum of two miles every day. I’ve learned also that I can keep my default depression (virtually) under some control if I can take some vigorous exercise every single day, and the spiritual benefits of being among trees or on the seashore cannot be underestimated either.

When one aspect of health fails us, the others need to be extra strong to reinforce the whole person. You could liken it to a tripod, where each of those three vital components support the person equally. But that metaphor fails because when one element is removed or severely damaged, a tripod would literally tip over. The virtual tripod allows for another element supporting the weaker one while that weaker one is restored. I noticed that the weakening of my physical state meant that a greater strain was placed on my mental and spiritual resources. Long term the same is true: the weakening of the mental and spiritual elements also places a great strain on the physical. The human body responds to stress with a cocktail of chemicals, adrenaline and many others, that were originally responses to extreme physical threats (being gobbled up by a sabre toothed cat or short-faced bear, or similar prehistoric threats) and while being afraid that a colleague or a boss is going to rip metaphorical strips off you produces those same reactions, our responses to such stress do nothing to dissipate those chemicals and hormones. Stress places immense strain on the body: the adrenal glands can become over-active, pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream at inappropriate intervals (this is one of the factors present in panic attacks and anxiety disorders). We seek to anaesthetize the pain of these reactions in whatever way seems obvious to us, by drugs, or drink or sex or exercise.

One of the most important things I have learned about panic attacks is that they end. They ‘time out’. They have no more power than what I give to them. I’ve also learned a few tricks to stop them in their tracks: breathing into a paper bag, equalises the CO2 in the blood, as well as signalling to the spirit that you have control and the attack is not going to kill you. Stepping away and observing my vital signs also goes a long way to restoring some kind of balance. But sometimes it can be so extreme that I need someone else to remind me of what I can do.

Free floating anxiety is a different matter. At a lower level than a panic attack, it’s something that runs along almost unnoticed much of the time. It’s when something else disturbs the system that free floating anxiety comes roaring up into a full blown anxiety state. There are many ways of dealing with this, but I tend to forget all about them when it hits. That’s when I need reminding of the methods: focus on breathing, play music that soothes, take a walk…whatever works. Otherwise I become the squirrel in the cage, racing round in frantic circles, ready to bite whatever comes near me.

Not one of the three elements should be disregarded. The body had needs and those needs must be honoured: good nutrition, freedom from illness and injury, sound sleep and so on. The spirit has its needs too, to be fed and cared for as another form of body, and honoured. The mind, that most sensitive of elements, needs care too, to be allowed to grow and expand and be nurtured.

So, my intention is to pay attention to all aspects of my self, and to be aware that what affects one aspect may well have knock on effects on the rest. I am not a collection of hermetically sealed units, but rather a complex system where each aspect interacts with the others in often unpredictable ways, with unforeseen results. I guess it shouldn’t take a genius to figure all this out but too often I have expected myself to cope with knocks without accepting that those knocks will inevitably throw my whole being off kilter for some considerable time.

One day, I’ll get it right.