V is for Vivienne

V is for Vivienne

We’re a rare breed these days, us Viviennes (or Vivian, Vyvian, Vivien etc). The name, never hugely popular, has become unusual. If I come across another person (I say person because the name is unisex, with variations on spelling) with the name, I find we tend to greet each other with some glee. A couple of years ago, the attendant at the top of the Tour Montparnasse in Paris was another Vivienne; we spotted each other’s name badges and grinned spontaneously. Once I’d got the group inside, we stopped to chat, bewailing the decline of a great name. Mine is the French spelling but the origin of the name is probably Latin, from the adjective vivus, meaning alive.

Famous Viviennes include the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legends, though there are many versions of her name. I rather like the idea of my name being that of such an entity. Other Viviennes include actress Vivien Leigh, designer Vivienne Westwood, and cricketer Viv Richards. Fictional ones include Vyvian from comedy series The Young Ones and Viven Ward in the film Pretty Woman. Here’s a link to Wiki’s page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivian_(personal_name) on Viv-type names. Alas I am not on it. Yet.

There are several saints with the name, from an early Christian bishop (male) to two female saints in 3rd and 4th centuries https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Bibiana The fourth century saint (you may be wondering about the Bibiana rather than Viviana, but Bs and Vs shift over time and are often interchangeable) is listed as a patron saint of such various things as: epileptics, hangovers, headaches, insanity, mental illness, mentally ill people, single laywomen, torture victims. I find this…comforting, though her death was hideous and her life (according to various hagiographies) difficult and painful. There’s a certain symmetry to sharing my name with such a lady.

Heaven-Haven ~ the life and works of Teresa of Avila

 In all my rummagings and unpacking I found various things I thought long lost. This is one of them. It’s a talk I gave at St. John’s college at morning prayer somewhere in 1993, I think. I remember I ad-libbed quite a few extra bits and all the words by St Teresa herself I delivered in as broad a Yorkshire accent as I could manage. She seemed somehow more northern than Spanish.

I have desired to go

Where springs not fail

To fields when flies no sharp and sided hail

And a few lilies blow

And I have asked to be

Where no storms come

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb

And out of the swing of the sea.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins “Haven Haven ~ a nun takes the veil”

These are the words I think of when I consider the enclosed religious life, a view from my generation where to choose the cloister is a considered, much thought-out decision, from a deep inner call that cannot be put aside. And yet Teresa of Avila did not willingly become a nun. In sixteenth century Spain only two options for a respectable life were open to the women of rich and noble families: marriage or the convent. Marriage frightened her, having seen her mother, worn out with child-bearing, retreat into a fantasy world of romantic make-believe. Having no other real option, Teresa took herself to the convent at the age of twenty one, to a life which on the whole bored and depressed her, and was, despite romantic images of enclosed piety, really rather shallow.

At forty three, the idea of reform came to her and she left to found a convent, St Joseph’s. She was to found seventeen convents in all. For an enclosed nun, Teresa spent remarkably little time living the enclosed, contemplative life, a fact which irritated many of her contemporaries. She strikes me as an intensely practical woman, both in her actions and in her spirituality. She wrote, “Do not imagine that one should never think of anything else – that if your mind wanders, all is lost.” (Interior Castles)

Her most well known saying, emblazoned on many tacky little plaques and spoon-rests, is, “God walks among the pots and pans,” (which always explains why guests in my kitchen don’t go down with food poisoning) is often misunderstood as setting up ‘active’ life as superior to the contemplative life. She writes, “If contemplation, mental prayers, vocal prayers, caring for the sick, serving in the house and working at the lowliest tasks of all are all ways of attending the Guest who comes to stay with us, eats with us and relaxes with us, then what matter whether we do one task or another.”

And yet the practical woman had her mystical side, not welcome really but rather the opposite at times. In one of her letters she writes, “I’ve had the raptures again. They’re most embarrassing, several times in public – during Matins for instance. I’m so ashamed I simply want to hide away somewhere.” She wrote much sensible advice on assessing mystical experiences and was rather humorously sceptical about the experiences of others. Of one of her nuns, she wrote, “If I’d have been there, she wouldn’t have had such a while of experiences.” Teresa also had an amazing understanding of the physical and emotional causes of some experiences: “Isabel de San Jeronimo will have to be made to eat meat for a few days and give up prayer. She has an unstable imagination which makes her believed she actually sees and hears the things she meditates on.”

Teresa seems a woman of paradoxes:

An enclosed nun who spent much of her life travelling.

A great writer on prayer and the spiritual life who admitted freely to her brother Lorenzo that sheer pressure of work had made prayer, in the formal sense, impossible.

A mystic who saw visions and yet who treated such things with sense and caution, “Though some such phenomenon may be genuine, I am sure it is best to regard them as of no importance…even supposing they are genuine, nothing will be lost.”

A great saint, who wrote six years before her death, “I beg you, Reverend Father, to ask God to make me a true nun of Carmel! Better late than never.”

A human being in touch with God and with the earth: “WE are not angels. We have bodies. To want to be angels here on earth is absurd, particularly if you are as much a part of the earth as I am.”

These words were found in her breviary after her death:

Be then by naught perturbed

of naught afraid

For all things pass

Save God

Who does not change.

Be patient, and at last

Thou shall of all

Fulfillment find.

Hold God

And naught shall fail thee

For he alone is all.

A prayer:

Teach us to love the paradoxes within ourselves

Teach us to love the inconsistencies of others

Teach us to love the complexity of creation

And to accept the simplicity of God

Seals, saints & soul friends ~ unravelling my Celtic knots


Seals, saints & soul friends ~ unravelling my Celtic knots


The seals sang to us the first evening on Lindisfarne. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindisfarne  We went down to the beach after dinner to watch the sunset and I was stunned to hear this plaintive, mesmerising sound emanating from a sandbank not far off shore. Softer than wolf-song and not as melancholy and bone-shivering as whale-song, the sound echoed along the shore line while the singers remained unseen, too far off in the gathering dusk to be visible. We picked our way across mussels and rocks to St Cuthbert’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuthbert island and stood breathing in the magic of the place till we saw the tide was covering more and more of the rocks and we scurried back to the mainland before it became impassable. The next morning, before much of the island was stirring, we returned to pray, to reaffirm our marriage vows some 25 years after we made them. Our witnesses were the seals and the sea-birds who watched us and called their blessings on us. I cried.

I’ve long had an affinity with seals, and with many creatures. I rescue worms. I cry over dead birds. I talk to frogs (and anything else for that matter). And I know that probably makes me as mad as a biscuit in the eyes of many. But it would seem I am in good company. Cuthbert kept vigil on that rocky islet, up to his knees in icy water, and was guarded and warmed by wild seals and otters. It only takes a short trawl through the lives of the saints to find that many Celtic saints experienced extraordinary encounters with wild beasts. Hagiography aside, these stories have a ring of truth. Once, some years ago, we found a young seal who was undernourished and storm battered and I sat for 5 hours on a freezing beach waiting for the RSPCA to arrive. The seal slowly made his way up the beach to sit next to me, leaning his bulk against my leg and gazing up at me, and singing his lonely song.

While we were away, I read a book called Water From An Ancient Well, which was about these mad saints of the Celtic world and found my own faith in that strand of spirituality reignited. I’d turned away because the external trappings had become more important (or so it seemed) than anything deeper. But I began to think again about certain aspects of this deep, ancient and life-affirming strand and found that it chimed ever more deeply with my own experiences. God-in-everything, that panentheism that many Christians disdain or denigrate or even demonise, seems to me so much more relevant that it did even ten years ago. To care for the environment, for the living beings around us is so much more vibrant when you encounter it with the realisation that they are as sentient, as alive and valued as we are. My new garden has frogs(we move this week but took our bees there last night) and tiny ones no bigger than my thumb abound. I scooped one up, and after she climbed out of my closed hand, pushing her cool nose through the loop between finger and thumb, she sat on my thumb, watching me, bright eyes shining with life. That something this small sits blinking on my hand makes something long buried deep within me leap for joy.

One of the other features I began to look at anew was that of the Anam cara, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anam_cara the soul-friend. I’d read the book of that name http://www.amazon.co.uk/Anam-Cara-Spiritual-Wisdom-Celtic/dp/0553505920/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1346750049&sr=1-1-catcorr years ago, but had let a lot of the thought behind it slip away. A soul-friend is hard to define but it’s someone with whom you have a deep, mutual connection that goes beyond either the usual bounds of friendship or even that of blood kinship. There are many examples I could give of such a friendship, but this would become a vast and unwieldly essay verging on a thesis. A soul-friend is someone with whom your connection is so deep that time and distance matter little; there is something eternal about them. There can be a phase where one is the teacher of the other but the relationship is also mutual. It’s a love than is quite different to either a romantic love and yet can be too easily mistaken for it. Many marriages though can be between soul-friends, because having one does not preclude the other.

We live in a time when communication has been easier than at any time in history, and yet there is a deep loneliness in society. I have long thought that a growth in understanding of this ancient form of connection would ease this burden of loneliness; indeed, I talked a great deal with someone I believed to be a soul-friend about how it might be possible to create a renewal of this to act as a powerful soul medicine, or therapy. That friendship ended (devastating me) but not that kernel of thought of how to bring back and encourage others to seek their own Anam Caras for the solace of all.

I’m going to be working on it.


Boudica and St Helen ~ two women who hoped to change the world.

Boudica and St Helen ~ two women who hoped to change the world.

Separated by about three hundred years, there is little that connects these two women beyond the town of Colchester, or the fact that they were both women fighting to achieve something in what was mostly a man’s world.

Boudica (or Boudicca or even Boudicea; the spelling varies) was the Iceni queen who took on the might of the Roman empire in the Iceni revolt of AD60. Outraged (and rightly so) by the Roman’s welching on the deal her late husband made with them to allow her to retain half his lands after his death, and by their punishing of her presumption by publicly flogging her and having her two daughters raped, the warrior queen swept across southern Britain burning and slaughtering all in her path. Britons were not spared; if they had not joined her army, they were considered collaborators and their deaths were horrific. In Colchester, then the capital of Roman Britain, hundreds of scared people huddled into the newly built temple to Claudius, hoping they would be spared. She had the temple barred and set fire to it, burning it to the ground with every soul inside. St Alban’s and London met the same fate before she was finally bested in battle, and she is thought to have taken poison to avoid capture. The clash of cultures that was the meeting of Roman and Celtic worlds had only one end, the destruction of the Celtic. Boudica was a liberated woman by Roman standards, as her society allowed much greater freedoms to women than the Romans did. With her died the spirit of resistance and until the Romans got as far as Northumberland they met with little concerted resistance.  

I stood outside Colchester castle a few days ago, built on the foundations of the temple, and using many Roman materials recycled and I felt a wash of sadness for that vibrant, independent woman  and for the thousands of innocent people she had killed. Given the might of the Roman war machine, the outcome was inevitable but she tried to hold it back, hold back the darkness a little longer and save her people’s ways.

Less than a hundred yards away stands a small blocky building built also from recycled tiles and dressed stone salvaged from Roman ruins. The precise date is obscure but certainly a building stood here from the late 4th century. The plain chapel is probably Saxon, standing on the site of an earlier church. This is the chapel of St Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great and finder of the cross of Christ according to legend. I walked in expecting nothing, and found myself in a place that seemed to be scented with peace. Icons lined the walls and a fragrance of incense persisted. One single hand-dipped taper flickered in the quiet. The few high small windows admitted little light and it felt like a cave belonging to a hermit. St Helen is the patron saint of Colchester, traditionally thought to be the daughter of King Coel, ruler of Colchester in the 4th century, and her statue tops the town hall, holding a cross. Below her other dignitaries portrayed in typical Victorian style stare blindly down; Boudica clutches a spear, poised to hurl it.

Like Boudica, Helen was a woman in a man’s world. She’d be remembered more as the wife of one emperor and the mother of another had it not been her determination to make a difference. Her discovery of the cross of Christ enabled her to build churches all over the world.

It’s hard after almost two millennia to really know who these women were, really. Warrior queen and cross-finding Empress they couldn’t be more different, yet I think they have much in common. They were both subject to the rule of men and yet they tried to achieve massive change. Boudica did so by taking up weapons and going to war. Helen took up the challenge of finding a symbol that would unite all the different factions of the new faith.

No one knows where Boudica http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudica is buried or if she has a resting place. I’d visit and shed a few tears for her and for her lost dreams at the hands of the Romans.

Buried in Rome, St Helen  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena_(Empress is considered the patron saint of new discoveries (something I am keen to espouse, considering myself an explorer). A relic of her is housed somewhere in that small chapel.

Two women who tried to change the world. They both succeeded to some degree, though it is debatable how much difference either of them made. Yet to know that in history, strong women have existed and have fought the status quo in their own fashion must have given heart to secretly rebellious girls and women of all ages, nurturing their hopes of finding a better way for all.

When Do We Get To Do The Hazelnuts? A Review of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.


When Do We Get To Do The Hazelnuts? A review of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich  

The above photo was taken no more than thirty paces from one of the most remarkable sites of pilgrimage in the whole of the British Isles. The Julian Shrine, the site of the cell where Dame Julian of Norwich lived out her life as an anchoress, and wrote Revelations of Divine Love, is situated in an area of Norwich that was formerly known as the red-light district. Due to the advent of mobile phones, the girls no longer wander up and down, but there are plenty of unsavoury characters around, as well as a good deal of graffiti.

And yet, the small church of St Julian and the reconstructed shrine attached to it shine with a light that is not visible to the naked untrained eye. The retreat house where I spent a few days last month is a haven of peace and home-like tranquillity. The church was bombed more or less flat during the last war and the cell itself was destroyed during the Reformation, so that if you want to be pedantic about it, nothing is as it was. But what is? The essence and the atmosphere have remained.

We know little about Julian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich) herself, not even her original name, other than that she was born around 1342 and died some time between 1416 and 1430, and at the age of thirty and a half years suffered a life threatening illness. Indeed, her family thought her to be dying and she received the last rites. But during this serious illness, she was shown visions that changed her utterly, and her miraculous recovery led her to chose a life of contemplation and devotion to prayer. She wrote two versions of her visionary experience: the short form, written in the immediate aftermath and a longer, more complete version some twenty years later, having spent those years in prayer and meditation to try and understand what she had been shown.

The resulting books have been considered spiritual classics ever since, studied and loved and returned to by generation after generation of seekers. She was the first woman(that we know of) to write a book in English and since the advent of the printing press her works have never been out of print. The chances are that she never knew in her life time how successful her works would become; she may never have even seen her book except as her own handwritten version. There is some uncertainty to whether she did in fact perform the act of writing it or whether like Margery Kemp(a mystic contemporary to Mother Julian, and whom she met to give counsel to) she dictated to a scribe since Julian claimed to be illiterate. However, scholars believe that by this she means she did not read and write fluently in Latin. The vernacular was not considered worthy of any great works.

The time that Julian lived in were troubled, though I can think of few times in English history that have not been so, and life was hard for most people. Wars raged, and a great deal of uncertainty about the future meant that many worried constantly about how life would be. Not so very different from today, in fact. I could draw parallels with events of the moment but I will not. Suffice it to say that while Julian lived, the world was not so very different from how it is now, technology notwithstanding.

Her words have brought great comfort to many souls who are troubled by life and their place in it:

Because of our good Lord’s tender love to all those who shall be saved, he quickly comforts them, saying, ‘The cause of all this pain is sin. But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said so kindly and without a hint of blame to me or to any who shall be saved. So how unjust it would be for me to blame God for allowing my sin when he does not blame me for falling into it. In these words I saw the deep, high mystery of God which he will show to us in heaven. Then we shall understand why he allowed sin to be. And in knowing this we shall have endless joy in God.The saints in heaven turn their will away from everything except what God would have them know… And this should be our will, too


I can hear you ask, what about the hazelnuts?

Well, I wish to end with one of the strangest examples of synchronicity I have seen in a long time. On my first morning of retreat, I headed out to find some lunch, and took a short cut down St Julian’s Alley, to come out at the Dragon Hall, a vestige of medieval Norwich that the bombs failed to flatten but before I got more than thirty paces from the church, I saw the graffiti and was so struck by it that I had to take a picture. You see, part of Julian’s vision involved a small thing like a hazelnut:

“In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it
was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and
thought “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is
made.” I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have
sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my
understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”
— Julian of Norwich


For me, this last piece of coincidence brings great comfort. To find idly scribbled words that unconsciously reflect one of the most treasured books of Christian literature on a half ruined building not many yards away from the source of those original words is to me a sign that we cannot know where our words will go and what they will do. Dame Julian can never have known in her lifetime the power her words would have and how long they would endure: endure beyond her own flesh, the established church of her time, beyond the stones of the cell and those of the church she worshipped at.

This brings me hope that truth and beauty and goodness have the power to endure beyond the troubles of their times and continue to affect people long after their creators have passed away and their names and true identities are lost in the mists of time.


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.

Make me a channel of your peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith ;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy
O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The above poem is attributed to St Francis of Assisi, that saint of many tales. Most people realise he is the patron saint of animals but he’s also the patron saint of the environment now, putting his appeal more widely. The Canticle of the Sun is a lovely example of how we are all intertwined and connected, with the natural world and how each part is needed.
The reason I have posted this is because I needed a reality check for myself. I have said on occasions that one of the reasons I write is in the hope that in doing so I will be understood. In reality, I need to understand more than I need to be understood. I have been thinking about Francis for some days now and thinking about how I live my life. I need to remember also that “it is in giving that I receive” but what Francis doesn’t say(because maybe to him this is self-evident) that you must not give SO THAT you shall receive. A gift is a gift; once you give it, it is gone. You cannot give freely believing that in doing so you will receive.
It’s like the whole Hundredth Monkey thing. No one can know if they are the final piece in the jigsaw, and deciding that one is that piece is a surefire way to temporary insanity. Give or act because it is the right thing to do, not because you think it is going to assure you a place in history or a tenfold return. It’s this inherent selfishness that is what distorted a lot of good teachings and what made theories(like that of THE SECRET) so unstable and unusable.
The wind blows where it will, and like it, the Holy Spirit is untrammelled by our agendas and selfish desires.