“Religion is the opiate of the people” ~ on why pain relief is important for all of us

Religion is the opiate of the people” ~ on why pain relief is important for all of us

Marx’s words on religion has surely been one of the most quoted of sound-bites and possibly the most misunderstood and mistranslated. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people

Main article: Marxism and religion

The quotation, in context, reads as follows (emphasis added):

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.[1]

I’m a fan of opiates. Opiates are what can make impossible pain bearable; they can ease the inevitable exit from this life, changing it from what can be screaming agony for days to a relatively peaceful death. They can soften chronic pain enough that life can go on. If you have ever had any major surgery, then you know the value of morphine.

As a society we have become brainwashed into toughing it out, believing that any sort of softening is wimping out, that is shows moral failure, a character flaw. The ability to endure pain without reaching for help is seen as something admirable. Some years ago, when I was at the height of my battle with endometriosis and depression, a colleague said sneeringly at me, “You take too many pills, girl.” At the time, I was taking nothing other than the bare minimum of pain relief that allowed me to get through my teaching day without passing out in pain. She had assumed that I was also taking anti-depressants and was passing judgement that I must therefore be weak and I really ought to just ‘man up’, grit my teeth and stop being a wuss. I wasn’t taking anti-depressants, not because I believed that to do so made me weak but because I’d found the side effects out weighed the very small benefit they might have had.

This illustrates what has become a strong undercurrent in our society, a hidden belief that we must push our selves beyond the pain, beyond the limits of our minds and bodies or become worthless. Media stories are jam packed with so-called inspirational stories of people who didn’t let their disabilities stop them from following their dreams. We are encouraged to see these stories as examples of how if someone with no legs can become and do what they want, then surely we can also achieve greatness.

I’ve discovered that pushing yourself when you are in pain is not always a good thing. In fact, it can be very damaging indeed. Pain is a warning from your body. It’s not a barrier to push through. It’s a very clear warning that you are about to exceed your limits. We tend to think of our bodies as somehow elastic, with endless rebound. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is the biggest lie.

We have become a people aspiring to be superheroes. Whether in physical ways or in mental ones, we’re constantly exhorted to push push push past our pain. Well, I’ve begun to believe that this way leads to more pain. The effects of chronic pain on brain chemistry are well documented. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-chronic-pain-affects-memory-mood . We’re accustomed to the belief that toughing it out makes us stronger as people but the evidence is it weakens us in very real, physical ways.

For many years the quote from Marx has been bandied about as a denigration of religion. Until I read it in full, I saw it as such. But my own health has made me try to re-evaluate the problem of pain and pain relief and putting it into the context of world health, I’ve begun to wonder something. Life is painful, and no one gets out of it alive. So why do we fight against things that ease suffering?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people

New Year Meditation-Madonna Lily

 

New Year Meditation- Madonna Lily

This meditation is intended to help review the year that has just passed and prepare for the new one about to start. If you are a regular meditator, go through your usual routine of preparation. The fragrance for this meditation is that of the lily so if you are lucky enough to have a bunch of lilies to hand, place them somewhere close so you can inhale their lovely scent. This is not essential to the meditation but may help if you feel the need.

Find somewhere quiet and comfortable and sit down. Make sure your back is straight and your legs are uncrossed.

Close your eyes and breathe in slowly. Hold the breath for a moment and then let it out again slowly. Do this a few times until you feel calm and centred.

You are standing in an ancient building. The stone flags beneath your feet are worn to a sheen by generations of feet that have walked upon them and the walls are thick. The few windows are small and set quite high in the walls and as your eyes get used to the dimness, you see that you are in a tiny church or chapel. It looks to be at least a thousand years old and you are the only person present. Here and there, clusters of candles burn, giving a glow of golden light. The scent of lilies is heavy in the air and arrangements of the flowers are stationed around the church. Facing east, you see that the altar has a simple pottery vase containing a few stems of lilies, illuminated by the group of beeswax candles nearby.

As you walk towards the altar, you see a casket standing on trestles in front of the altar and you realise with a sense of shock that you are here for a funeral. The casket is open and as you draw near and steel yourself to look, you see that it is empty. This is the funeral for the year that has just passed, your year and you are here to review its life in its entirety. Next to the casket is a bag, and you reach inside. It is packed with snapshot photographs, each one representing a moment, a day, a memory from the year that has passed. Some you smile at, some you feel tears welling up. One by one, gaze at each photo and allow yourself to remember, but without judgement. When you feel ready, drop the photo into the casket.

When each photo reaches the floor of the casket, a transformation takes place. Each memory changes into a precious stone, a jewel. The bright joyful memories become stones like sparkling diamonds or light blue sapphires or golden amber; the darker, more painful memories become jewels like polished onyx, blood red rubies or perhaps sapphires so deep blue they seem almost black. Observe each memory as it is transformed; some may surprise you what they become.

Once the bag of photos is empty, look closely at the jewels that now cover the floor of the casket. Give the casket a little shake and see how the stones shift around and make patterns. They seem to form groups of related memories, and it seems also that the darker stones give the lighter ones a deeper shine and the lighter ones make the dark ones sparkle. You can still identify which memory is which; if you wish, you may pick a few up and examine them more closely now they are transformed.

The time has come to say goodbye and you must shut the lid of the casket. As you do so, you see now that it is not a coffin as you had thought, but rather a treasure chest made of polished cedar, with a domed lid carved with beautiful patterns. Take the chest now and carry it towards the altar. You will see that the altar bears symbols that are special to you, and you feel happy to place your treasure chest of memories beneath it. It will be safe here and you can revisit and ponder the meaning of your treasures any time you choose but now it is time to go.

Walk back down the nave. The worn stones under your feet feel comforting but you have a sense of emptiness as one so often does after a funeral. The old year is gone and the new one is yet to begin; you are suspended between times now, just for this short time. It’s a little uncomfortable because now you are starting to worry about what the new year will bring.

Close to the door there stands a great stone basin, a font of immense antiquity. The carvings around the bowl of it are worn but you can see patterns similar to those on the lid of your treasure chest. On the rim, flanked by groups of candles is another vase of lilies. You can smell their sweet fresh fragrance and as you watch, some of the powdery red pollen spills onto the surface of the water that fills the font. The powder spreads out and you watch fascinated as the play of candlelight and reflections make pictures come alive in the water and you realise that you are seeing scenes from what the new year may bring. Watch, but without judgement or attachment; these are things that may happen. Nothing is certain yet. Just as the previous year had good and bad in it, so too will the next one.

The great battered door, armoured with blackened iron swings open a little and the breeze scatters the pollen and the pictures cease. You walk towards the door and glance back. At the altar, the lilies still glow golden in the light from the candle flames and your treasure chest nestles beneath in the dancing shadows. The water on the font ripples with the wind that enters and shakes the flames like leaves on a tree and you know it is time to leave this place.

Outside, you can feel the changes that have taken place and the first rays of light of a new dawn turn the sky a heavenly pink, and you know that this new day heralds a new year full of joys and sorrows, and you step forth, determined to understand the treasure in both.

Was I God’s photographer?

My reflections on THAT  photograph.

It’s been a little over a  week since I saw the image for the first time and a week since I posted the picture here and I have had a lot of time to think. I’ve thought about the responses of all those who have seen it and commented on it(either here, in private by email or in person) and I’ve thought about my own reactions, both to the picture and to the comments.

 A number of you perceived it as a feminine presence, but many more saw it as either the face of God or an image of Jesus Christ himself. Many have also seen it as being a sign of something special to come.

In seeking clarity I approached a number of people who have experience in these matters.

My own spiritual teacher told me that it was indeed the face of Jesus and that it was a great blessing for me.

Julian Drewett, general secretary of the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies  commented that due to the chanting and the overall prayerful atmosphere, “the veil was thin”, that unseen barrier between the world we see and the world that resides both beyond it and embedded within in and my camera was able to capture an image of the beings who surround us at all times though we know it not. He also commented that it isn’t unusual for these things to be seen but it is unusual to have them captured like this.

 Neil Broadbent of the Sozein Trust  suggested that the image was in fact a thought form created by the monks at prayer, a suggestion that actually raises far more questions and implications than it solves. And for me it entirely negates my personal role in taking the photo; any blessing or sense of being somehow special at being the person who took the photo is taken away. In his view the focus is entirely on the monks who are mysteriously creating this image with smoke and sunlight and not on the witness who captured it and is now asking the questions. His response was to play down the sheer wonder of this image and make it commonplace and focused entirely on the spiritual elite.

 One of the tests of a vision is what has it produced and in the week since I first saw this image, I think I have spent more time in prayer and contemplation than I have for a long time. I have also been deeply moved by the responses of people who have seen it. People who have seldom if ever had anything to do with religion of any sort have come away with goosebumps and with wonder in their eyes and have begun to ask all sorts of questions. For me, it has been a ride of epic proportions because while I have seen and experienced things before, they have all been effectively subjective. Never before have I had objective evidence of an experience. Gazing at the image I am struck by the pose of the figure. He stands with his arms raised slightly, comfortable, as if waiting to greet with a hug whoever steps forward. He does not stand as if still crucified and he does not raise an arm as a warning or a blessing; he stands as one of us, beside us.

If you blow the image larger you may see other images inside it. I have had comments about paraeidolia  and I am content to say, yes, we do indeed see images and patterns and faces in random things. But what a coincidence that a camera should capture such an appropriate image in a church during a service… I am struck also by the coincidence of my thoughts and feelings during the service with the apparition(if that is the right word) and how it also coincides with Jesus’s own words,”When two or three are gathered together, there am I also.” The other images in the picture to me simply reinforce the impression given by Julian that we are surrounded by beings(whether we call them angels or not) who care for us. I will be quite honest: it’s a rare month that goes by without me giving thought at least once to suicide. But to remember that I am surrounded even at times like those by bright spirits is something that gives great comfort.

 If the image has moved you, pass it on to others you think may find comfort or inspiration in it. If you have any thoughts to share, I would be very grateful to hear them, either here or privately via email.

You can find my email address on the Contact me page.

 Thank you everyone.

Good Friday

I hope this poem speaks for itself but in case it doesn’t…please ask!

Good Friday

 

(me to Jesus/Jesus to me)

 

Nail me to that cross again

Why don’t you?

You’ve done it before

And you’ll do it again.

Here, I’ll even hold

My hands out for you,

Pass the hammer,

Hold the nail steady.

Bang! It’s done,

All over, bar the shouting.

Long day, arms outstretched,

Breath ragged, pain white hot.

Sky darkens, night begins.

Death, a relief, a release,

The cool of the tomb

A simple comfort, unexpected

After the heat of the day.

Comfort too in acceptance

Of the inevitable, peace even.

Sleep now: the worst is over.

 

Gethsemane Girl

I posted this poem last year for Maundy Thursday; it bears reposting. It’s kind of an exporation of what it might have been like, that night almost two millenia ago. I wrote it after walking home past the Indian restaurant in our old village, having sat at the Maundy Thursday vigil in church for some hours, and the smells of hot spicy lamb made me think of the Passover meals…

Gethsemane Girl

It’s a still night, the warm air filled

With the hot greasy scent of a thousand meals.

Glad I didn’t have to cook tonight;

I know lamb is traditional but it seems so unfair:

That little life cut short just for us.

I shouldn’t be here; they said no.

He didn’t, of course; he never does.

But I’m here anyway.

Maybe he knows; they don’t.

Look at them, sleeping like babies!

He wasn’t himself tonight, seemed sad.

Someone said he’s paranoid,

Expecting betrayal at any moment.

Won’t be me”, that’s what Peter said.

He can’t help boasting but it’s sad.

He’s like a big hairy dog pretending to be brave-

One sniff of a wolf and he’d be off!

Anyway, I’m worried.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned,

It’s this: men can’t be trusted.

I shouldn’t be here: but someone should,

And since they’ve all dozed off

There’s only me, wide-awake in the bushes.

Nothing I can do but wait;

This mood of his will pass,

It always does.

But he does look so sad

And I wish-

But that’s not to be.

I’m so tired too.

I don’t know why I’m here;

I don’t understand half of what he says

But while he says it, it sounds so right.

Pity not everyone agrees.

If I close my eyes, just rest them, mind,

Just for a moment or two.

It’s been such a long day.

I won’t sleep, not like the others.

Not sleeping, just resting my eyes,

Just-

How to read the Bible….and anything else!

I’ve recently been given a book called “A Rabbi reads the Bible” by Jonathan Magonet and it’s really excellent reading. I’m only a few chapters in right now but I’d like to quote some for you all to ponder on:

“In 1968, our progressive Jewish youth movement hosted a group of young Czech Jews for a conference in Edinburgh. They stayed on for an additional week- and the Russians marched on Prague, cutting them off from their country and their families. Many of them became refugees overnight. That would be enough to bring them to mind, especially in the light of the radical changes that have happened in Eastern Europe, but they taught us something very special about the Bible in the time were were together. We studied some Bible texts and they were incredibly good at understanding them, picking up all the nuances very quickly. I was surprised as they had never studied the Bible before.

“It’s easy,” they explained. “You see, in Czechoslovakia, when you read a newspaper, first you read what is written there. Then you say to yourself, ‘If that is what they have written, what really happened? And if that is what really happened, what are they trying to make us think? And if that is what they are trying to make us think, what should we be thinking instead?’ You learn to read between the lines and behind the lines. You learn to read a newspaper as if your life depended upon understanding it-because it does!” 

I found this a profoundly revealing and really rather powerful way of looking at things. You can apply it to how you read the newspapers( even in the UK, you need to take it all with a shovel full of salt) or to how your read your sacred texts, or how you read publicity statements or advertisments. And you can even use it for finding your way through what has become a very crowded and rather dangerous “spiritual” market place. I do recall a chappie with beard and sandals bearing down on a similar market place with a whip made of ropes and driving out those who sought to make the house of God into a den of thieves.  I do wonder what happened to him….

Sin and the art of archery

I’ve been thinking Really Deep Thoughts lately, in between getting annoyed about life and things I can’t do anything about. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the things that make me annoyed and why they annoy me.

I wrote a few days ago in the comments at retired eagle’s photo blog that I was guilty of the sin of accidie, one of the medieval Seven Deadly sins. It’s basically despair and depression, and it’s something I’ve been guilty of intermittantly since I was about six years old. I know how awful that sounds and I can tell you how often people have told me I should count my blessings etc, but it doesn’t make any diference.

The English word SIN is actually a term taken from archery, that oh-so-English art. Think Agincourt, think Robin Hood: the bow is so entrenched in English lore that even today it’s technically illegal to play football on  Sunday if your parish priest has not excused you from longbow practise. Sin simply means failing to hit the target. It means being less than perfect. It doesn’t mean you’re  a criminal, or an evil person; it just means you need more practise to get it right.

This I find comforting. It also means I need more help to get it right. It doesn’t mean I need to be beaten for getting it wrong and missing the target. Imagine God as a loving archery instructor, standing close as you draw the bow, his hand steadying yours, whispering in your ear, “Bit higher, bit further up, hold it steady. Now!”

You see, it upsets me when people assume that their success in life is as a result of God blessing them, because it then implies the opposite: lack of success is God witholding his blessing. It upsets me when people take their health as a sign God is favouring them because that then says that ill health is God punishing them.

Being alive is our blessing. Life is our gift. I’m not saying that God isn’t blessing you when things go well. He might be. But God has no favourites. Blessing or cursing, it may be the same thing when you step out of time and out of being human. Go read the Book of Job if you have never done so. It might be a bit of a puzzle. It opens up ineffable mysteries(because we don’t effin’ well understand them) about God and his relationship with humans. I have no answers to this.

But for me, today, being a sinner is a good thing. It means I have room for improvement. It means I need to keep practising and spending time with my trainer, and learning more and more how to hit the target. When I get good at that, I guess he’ll just move the target further away to test my skill further, or give me a different bow, or change the parameters in some way. There is always room for improvement, when we realise that sin is not the thing we were taught it was by people who didn’t understand it themselves.