Prayer

A poem by Carol Ann Duffy got me thinking about the subject of prayer.

Prayer

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy

For the last few years, basically since I stopped believing in an interventionist god, prayer has been a tricky subject for me. How can I pray if I don’t know what I’m praying to? I couldn’t see the point of prayer without belief. I’m coming to see now that this attitude is linked to the view of religion I had as a child. Over the years my spirituality has evolved. It was surprising when I realised that parts of me seem to have remained stuck with a simplistic, all or nothing approach.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem beautifully captures how prayer can be something more nuanced. She seems to present it as a natural human instinct, even for those who do not consider themselves religious or able to explain exactly why they are praying, or what they are praying to.

In my childhood prayer was a huge part of my life. Looking back it seems I was always chatting to God. Sometimes I’d be asking for help:

Dear God,
Where did I leave my shoes? Please make the teacher not give us homework? Can you make my dad feel better?

Other times I was just expressing my thoughts and feeling the support of what I thought of as a constant companion. Sunday school stories and songs asked us to see Jesus as a friend and picture him walking along side us, and I took that very literally. After a difficult day at school, I’d imagine Jesus’s arm around my shoulder as I offloaded all my woes.

Prayers in church meant a lot to me too. In my early teens I attended an independent evangelical church and, even though I started to question many things about it as I got older, I was often moved by the prayer. Part of it was the peace and sanctity of a space set apart from everyday life. I was also moved by the collective nature of prayer in church and the connection it created between people. The warmth of someone’s hand on my shoulder as they prayed for me, the feeling of love: connection with each other, and with something beyond ourselves, was powerful. Overall, I think prayer played a very positive role throughout my youth. It was a place of peace and it gave me strength.

I asked a few friends what they thought about prayer. They all spoke of it as something positive, even the ones who do not consider themselves religious.

Nowadays, however, I do not pray. Certainly not in the way I used to. I think I was in my early twenties when I stopped praying. This was not because I didn’t want to pray or because I didn’t feel it was relevant and useful to me. It wasn’t something that simply faded away. I made a deliberate conscious decision to stop praying. I was questioning the beliefs I had grown up with. I no longer believed in the interventionist god of my childhood and I had no idea how to fill that space. It was hard. Losing my faith was very hard and I dealt with it initially by rejecting everything. I rejected god and for a time I rejected anything to do with religion or spirituality.

Over time, I’ve come to rediscover and make peace with religion and spirituality. Religion is actually a very big part of my life. But prayer has always remained tied up with my childhood view of religion. I don’t believe there is a God in the sky who will do things for me, so how can I pray?

Another poem now. This one is actually a kind of prayer. It’s called Hymnos Aumnos. An agnostic prayer that helped me to see prayer in a different light. If I say any prayer these days, it’s most likely this one.

Hymnos Aumnos

O thou whose image in the shrine
Of human spirits dwells divine,
Which from that precinct once conveyed
To be to outer day displayed
Doth vanish, part, and leave behind
Mere blank and void of empty mind,
Which wilful fancy seeks in vain
With casual shapes to fill again—

O thou that in our bosoms’ shrine
Dost dwell because unknown divine,
I thought to speak, I thought to say
‘The light is here’, ‘behold the way’,
‘The voice was thus’, and ‘thus the word’,
And ‘thus I saw’, and ‘that I heard’,—
But from the lips but half essayed
The imperfect utterance fell unmade.

O thou in that mysterious shrine
Enthroned, as we must say, divine,
I will not frame one thought of what
Thou mayest either be or not.
I will not prate of ‘thus’ and ‘so’,
And be profane with ‘yes’ and ‘no’;
Enough that in our soul and heart
Thou, whatsoe’er thou may’st be, art.

Unseen, secure in that high shrine
Acknowledged present and divine,
I will not ask some upper air,
Some future day, to place thee there;
Nor say, nor yet deny, Such men
Or women saw thee thus and then;
Thy name was such, and there or here
To him or her thou didst appear.

Do only thou in that dim shrine
Unknown or known remain divine.
There, or if not, at least in eyes
That scan the world that round them lies.
The hand to sway, the judgement guide,
In sight and sense thyself divide:
Be thou but there,—in soul and heart
I will not ask to feel thou art

Arthur Hugh Clough

This poem resonates with me very deeply. I included the last verse in a previous blog post. It was this poem that made me appreciate how beautiful and passionate agnosticism can be.

Anthony Kenny wrote of this poem:

“Perhaps there is no way in which God dwells – even ineffably – as an object of the inner vision of the soul. Perhaps we could reconcile ourselves to the idea that God is not to be found at all by human minds. But even that does not take off all possibility of prayer. The soul reconciled to the truth that there can be no analogue of seeing or feeling God, that nothing can be meaningfully said about him, can yet – if Clough is right – address him and pray to be illuminated by his power and be the instrument of this action. To this day there has been no more eloquent attempt to be faithful to a critical agnosticism and yet draw support from the consolations of theism. For the rest of his life Clough retained, with regard to religion, this stance of an agnosticism that made room for prayer. There is nothing incoherent in such a position: an agnostic’s prayer to a God whose existence he doubts is no more unreasonable than the act of a man adrift in the ocean or on a mountainside, who cries for help though he may never be heard.”

As I mentioned before, the Carol Ann Duffy poem describes what you could call a natural human inclination towards prayer. Actually I have no idea if everyone feels this inclination, all I can say is that I certainly seem to, even without belief.

Nowadays, I have a spiritual practice which involves prayer-like activities. I meditate, I reflect, sometimes I feel I am guided by something, other times I don’t. Like most things to do with spiritually for me, it’s fluid, never fixed. All I do know, is that I have a need in my life for something; something which you might call prayer.

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Blasphemy

I’m surprised how strongly the idea of blasphemy can occasionally effect me, even if the rational part of my mind tells me it’s an irrational concept.

I remember being really struck by a particular scene in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man: Stephen, now an atheist, is talking to his friend about the issue of taking communion. As an atheist, he feels it would be ridiculous to take part in such a ceremony, however, he knows that refusing to do so would upset his mother. His friend suggests that the simplest solution would be to just take communion for the sake of his mother. As he doesn’t believe in it, it won’t do him any harm. Stephen however is uncomfortable with this solution because, as his friend eventually makes him admit, he is afraid of the God he doesn’t believe in, being angry with him for taking part in a ceremony to honour a God which he doesn’t believe in.

This is of course completely illogical, and yet it struck a chord with me because at that time I was struggling with the idea of prayer. I no longer believed in an interventionalist god, but I could still see the pragmatic benefits to prayer: prayer can be soothing, relaxing; it’s a kind of meditation. It’s a ritual that can help us organise our thoughts, and look beyond ourselves. I knew that at that time in my life, prayer could have been beneficial to me. But I didn’t pray. I’d like to be able to say I was just being rational and had no need for prayer. If I’m honest though, I have to admit that I was worried about the god I didn’t believe in accusing me of hypocrisy.

Spirituality and religion might, for some, be a black and white, true or false issue, but for many I’m sure it’s much more grey and fuzzy. Involving rational thought processes as well as feelings, intuitions and experiences.

I hadn’t thought much about the issue of blasphemy for quite a while. Perhaps I thought I’d become rational enough not to worry about it. Then, a few nights ago I experienced it again. I recently bought a book of Sufi poetry, and have been reading and meditating with them. The poem I happened to read that evening is the shortest in the book. It’s by Mansur Al-Hallaj and it’s really more of a statement than a poem, but it’s a powerful one:

I am the Truth

As I meditated on these words, my thoughts drifted to the words of Jesus:

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life

I guess in some ways you can’t escape the religion you were raised with. In my state of post-meditative calm I began to think of these words differently to how I’d been taught to interpret them as a child in church. I thought about them in relation to Buddhism and the idea that the key to enlightenment is within ourselves. Perhaps each of us is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Saying these words aloud stirred something deep and powerful within me, but I also felt a sense of blasphemy. I’m sure many Christians would consider it blasphemous for individuals to take the words of Jesus and apply them to themselves. Even though I wasn’t claiming to be a new messiah, but simply expressing the idea of finding spiritual truth within ourselves.

I haven’t considered myself a Christian for several years, and yet this idea of blasphemy still affected me. I think a teensy-weensy part of myself was even worried about being struck by a lightening bolt of divine rage. So much for my oh-so-rational brain.

Still, I’m glad I was able to push through the fear and continue my free-thinking explorations. I’ve found out since that Mansur Al-Hallaj was executed for his blasphemous statement. I feel lucky that all I have to deal with is the residual, abstract fear of a god whose existence I doubt.

It’s led me now to wonder about the ideas of blasphemy and sanctity. Should we always fight against fear of blasphemy and break down barriers to freedom of religious and spiritual thought, or is it important for some things to remain sacred?

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Why I Voted Yes

It’s fairly obvious from the title that this is a political post. I was (and still am a little) hesitant about writing something political on this blog which is devoted primarily to religion and spirituality. I’d be the first to admit that religion and politics can be a dangerous combination. But when something happens in the place where you live that seems to spark such a change, that creates such energy and so many possibilities, it seeps into every part of yourself and it becomes harder to section it off into a neat little politics box. All of parts of life are connected after all, I’m sure my thoughts on religion effect my thoughts on politics and vice versa.

But I will say that, just as when I express my thoughts about religion, when I express my thoughts about politics, they are just that: thoughts. I make no claim to any special knowledge, I admit that I might be wrong and I intend always to listen to others and to change my view, if evidence, reason and pragmatism do not support it. This writing is as much to help me work through my own thoughts as anything else. If anyone reads it, and finds it interesting, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too.

But to get back to my main point. Why did I vote yes? In a way I’m surprised at it myself. My vote was never about nationalism. I’m about as un-nationalistic as it’s possible to be. I’m not even patriotic. I love Scotland. I also love Germany. I love Japan; I love England and France and Vietnam…I love the whole world and have always struggled to comprehend why some people consider ‘their’ country to be the best for no other apparent reason than that it was where they were born.

I also hate division and segregation. I love mixing and multi-culturalism. I love that within Europe we can travel and work so easily, broaden our horizons and break down boundaries.

So why would I vote for something that was about putting up a boundary? On the surface being united seems so much better than being separated. Deep down I do want to live in a country that’s united, but even more than that, I want to live in a society that truly believes in equality.

This is really what swung me. The gap between rich and poor in the UK is increasing and the policies of the current government seem to be aiding this. Worse still, is the apparent lack of political opposition in Westminster. I know many people who voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats, thinking their views would be represented in parliament, and who feel sadly let down.

No society is completely equal. I don’t believe in utopias but I do believe in striving for a better society; a society that isn’t all about greed and looking out for number one, but one that is about fairness and equal opportunities. Working together, contributing as much as we can so that everyone, regardless of their background or their family’s wealth, can have access to good healthcare and a good education. And this is what I heard the Yes movement calling for. It was (and still is) a group of people who wanted to push against the growing inequality and continuing privatisation which the government in Westminster seems to be so set on.

I don’t know how things would have worked out in an independent Scotland. In many ways I’m happy to remain part of the UK but I don’t regret voting yes. The energy that was created by that campaign is still going strong. It’s been great to see the Green Party experience such a huge swell in numbers. People care about protecting the environment, about social justice, and putting people before profits. Not only do they care, they are willing to act, to work, to strive to make this society the best it can be for everyone. Despite the outcome of the referendum, I’d say that’s a good result.

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Thoughts about being lost

To be lost is to be free.

You can’t be lost if you’re in a cage. If you are lost, be proud. Your course is open; you can choose which way you go. To be lost is to be independent. If you are lost, you are not following another or a course marked out by another. When you are lost you can go your own way, for better or worse.

But of course, being lost is not easy. The state of being lost is a state full of unknowns and uncertainties. This can be terrifying. It can also feel meaningless; when you are lost, wandering around, able to go in any direction, life can seem aimless. It can be hard to find comfort here. It’s a challenge to find meaning in the search; to find meaning in our wanderings and explorations.

For it seems to me that, whether we like it or not, we are all lost. We are all stumbling around on this tiny planet, spinning around in a universe of inconceivable vastness, understanding only the tiniest fraction about what is out there.

But perhaps we don’t need to fear being lost. Perhaps instead, we can embrace it. Take control of our own lives and strike out in a direction we choose for ourselves or make a decision to drop anchor and make a home wherever we are. Perhaps by embracing the freedom of being lost, by striving to live truthfully and choosing our own course, perhaps in this way, we will never really be lost.

At the very least, we can find solace in knowing we don’t have to be alone in our lostness. Even when we don’t know where we’re going, we can take comfort in our connection to each other, and to the great interdependent web of which we are all a part.

David Wagoner’s poem describes this connection more beautifully than I ever could:

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying
Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are.
You must let it find you.

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My first time with the Friends

The Friends I’m talking about are The Religious Society of Friends, more often know as Quakers. I’d heard and read various things about Quakers over the years that had impressed and intrigued me. I’d always admired their commitment to pacifism, equal rights and social justice. More recently, I’d learned about how Quakers in the American South worked hard to abolish slavery at a time when other churches were using the bible to justify its continuation. Quakers are also one of the few religious organisations that have been campaigning actively for gay rights and equal marriage.

As I heard and read more about Quakers, the impression which developed was of a calm, thoughtful and sensible group of people. I believe a big part of this is due to them placing more emphasis on experience than religious dogma. Quakers have no creed or priests with higher spiritual authority who tell people what to think and believe. Instead, they advocate spiritual equality. Their focus seems to be more on encouraging people to trust their own conscience to guide them, rather than worrying about statements of belief. Living right over believing right.

“Quakerism is a group of insights, attitudes and practices which together form a way of life, rather than a dogma or creed. It rests on a conviction that by looking into their inmost hearts people can have a direct communion with their Creator. This experience cannot ultimately be described in words, but Quakers base their whole lives on it.”
The Quaker Way (1998)

It is sometimes argued that without religion to tell them how to behave, people would have no sense of morality. The early Quakers’ opposition to slavery, in spite of what was in the bible, is a prime example of people doing the right thing because they were able to look into their hearts and think for themselves. I think their support of equal marriage is another example of this.

I’m tempted now to write more about Quaker theology, particularly to discuss non-realist and semi-realist views of God. A subject I find fascinating. However, I think that’s something I can come back to in a future post because I’ve been babbling on and on in a very un-Quaker like way and I still haven’t mentioned the thing that Quakers are most famous for, the core of Quaker practice:

 

silence

 

“The early Friends made the discovery that silence is one of the best preparations for communion with God and for the reception of inspiration and guidance. Silence itself of course has no magic. It may be just sheer emptiness, absence of words or music. It may be an occasion for slumber, or it may be a dead form. But it may be an intensified pause, a vitalised hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God.”
Quaker Faith & Practice (1937)

I love silence. I know many people would find it awkward or unnatural to simply sit in a room and be silent with others but I really recommend it. Our lives can be so busy and taking time simply to be, without any pressure to do and think about anything, is so underrated. W.H. Davies’ famous poem sums this up beautifully.

Leisure

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Of course you don’t need to go to a Quaker meeting to enjoy silence. But there is something special about setting aside a regular time to meet with others and be silent.

I’ve never really found sharing silence with others awkward. I’m more of an introvert by nature. Talking to people can sometimes seem like a minefield of possible awkwardness, but sharing silence is a breeze. Still, my first time at a meeting, not knowing how it all worked, a part of me was nervous about doing things wrong. I needn’t have worried. The people I met when I arrived lived up to my image of Quakers being calm, compassionate, open-minded and welcoming. Prior to going I had expected something similar to Buddhist meditation, but this was a much more relaxed affair. They’ve clearly anticipated that first-timers might be unsure what’s going on and have therefore produced a helpful leaflet: Your first time at a Quaker meeting. The man who gave me this leaflet told it was fine to read or re-read it in the meeting, he went on to say it was fine to read anything in the meeting if I wanted, telling me quite proudly that he had once seen someone there reading a book called The Case Against Religion. The Quakers I visited, like most Quakers in the UK, are liberal Quakers. Those who go might be Christians, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics…all have their own motivations for going and I guess all probably get something different out of it. That doesn’t make it a solitary experience though, as it says in the helpful leaflet:

“We do not worship in isolation: we try to hold ourselves aware of all those gathered with us, uniting in a common purpose, so that the waiting and listening become an act of sharing.”

I don’t know what was going on inside the other people in the meeting while I was there. Before I went I had no idea what what would go on inside me. I had no expectations and I’m glad of that. An hour is a good chunk of time to be silent. It felt quite luxurious really. I sat down and relaxed into the space, expecting nothing from myself or anywhere else, and enjoying that.

Nothing magical happened. I didn’t have a profound, life-changing spiritual experience. I heard the seagulls outside, I re-read the helpful leaflet, a variety of thoughts went through my head, I felt peaceful and calm. That’s all, and yet, that’s wonderful.

I’m sure it’s clear from what I’ve written that I think very highly of Quakers. It may seem odd then that I don’t feel a desire to become a Quaker, or to attend their meetings every week. I still don’t know where my spiritual home is, or if I even have one. But sometimes it’s nice to get out of your home for a while and visit somebody else’s. So, even though it won’t be every week, I hope my recent visit to a Quaker meeting will be the first of many.

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A Palace of Crystal

I’ve decided to share my thoughts on a passage from Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. The first time I read it, it struck me intensely at a heart level. At the time I didn’t even understand why. It took me some time and a few re-readings to understand what it was about this passage that I had connected with. Even now it’s not easy to explain, I think there is more there and I have a feeling this is one of those texts which I will come back to at further stages in my life.

“It’s like this, you see: if instead of a palace it was a hen-house, and it began to rain, I might creep into the hen-house so as not to get wet, but I shouldn’t take the hen-house for a palace out of gratitude because it has protected me from the rain. You laugh; you even say that in that case it doesn’t matter whether it’s a hen-house or a mansion. No, I answer, if not getting wet was all one had to live for.

But what if I have taken it into my head that that isn’t the sole object of living, and if I have to live, let it be in a mansion? That is my will and my desire. You can drive it out of me only by changing my desire. Well, change it then; attract me by something else, give me a different ideal. Meanwhile I still refuse to take a hen-house for a palace. Let us grant that a building of crystal is a castle in the air, that by the laws of nature it is a sheer impossibility, and that I have invented it out of nothing but my own stupidity and certain antiquated irrational habits of my generation. But what does it matter to me if it is an impossibility? What difference does it make to me, so long as it exists while my desires last? Perhaps you are laughing again. Laugh if you like: I will accept all your ridicule, but all the same I won’t say I’ve had enough to eat when I’m hungry, I won’t be satisfied with compromise, with the constantly recurring decimal, merely because it exists by the laws of nature and exists in reality.

What does it matter to me that that kind of building is impossible, and that one must content oneself with blocks of flats? Why was I made with such desires? Can I have been made for only one thing, to come at last to the conclusion that my whole make-up is nothing but a cheat? Is that the whole aim? I don’t believe it.”

Notes from Underground is a short but intense book. I found the belligerence of the narrator simultaneously discomforting and captivatingly honest. Underground is a dark, cold, lonely place. Part of the discomfort came from how easily I empathised with the narrator. It’s only one part of me and I certainly don’t feel like him all the time but I have to admit that to a certain extent, the underground man, with all his bitterness, arrogance and predisposition for self-destruction, does lurk inside me. Perhaps he lurks inside all of us.

But lets get back to the particular passage quoted above which I feel, despite the belligerence, is intensely beautiful and ultimately positive in outlook.
I asked a friend what she thought of this passage and like me she was most struck by the line “if not getting wet was all one had to live for”.
I love that line because it acknowledges the desire I think all humans feel sometimes (or most of the time?) for something more, something beyond our everyday needs. The desire that somehow both drives me crazy and keeps me sane. For me the palace of crystal represents my struggle to understand it all…

Life, the universe and everything!

I know it’s impossible (even if the answer really is 42), but I still can’t stop. I can’t be satisfied with a hen-house life. Buddhism teaches that to live without suffering we must let go of desire. It might be true but the suffering I feel from this desire is something I’m not ready to let go of. As I wrote above, it drives me crazy but it keeps me sane. It reminds me I’m alive.

The friend I shared this with went on to say she thinks we can either stay in the hen-house and be semi-comfortable and dry, or risk getting wet in order to start building our own palaces of crystal.

Palaces of crystal might be impossible dreams that we can never fully achieve in reality, but does that mean they can’t add a richness to our lives which is as much real as we are, so long as it exists while our desires last?

I wonder too if the palace of crystal could be a useful metaphor for God.

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Am I just a polite atheist?

It seems that I am born to doubt. After all my doubting of religion and atheism that led me to proudly defend the agnostic way, I now find myself doubting my agnosticism.

There are times, not all the time but times none the less, when religion just seems to me to be utterly ridiculous. I mean, it doesn’t really make sense does it? All these stories and mythologising. I realised the other day that most of my friends are atheists. If pressed, I think they’d probably say they find religious belief fairly absurd, and I can understand that. I don’t feel the need here to repeat all the arguments for the case against God. At a head level atheism is an easy choice. As John Humpries says in his excellent book In God we Doubt:

“Anyone with the enquiring mind of a bright child can see that the case made for God by the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is riddled with holes.”

And so, I begin to doubt myself (again). What if this whole agnosticism thing really is just about me not wanting to upset or get into a confrontation with religious people? Am I just a polite atheist?

Well, no. When I look at things honestly I know it’s not as simple as that. For all that I find the idea of a personal, interventionalist God impossible to believe in; and despite the fact that I think taking the bible (or any religious text) literally is a bad and often dangerous idea; even though I have, in the past, felt angry about the way some religious people have spoken of those who do not follow the same religion as them; in spite of all these things, I still find myself going to church. I go every week, religiously, and I love it.

There is no external pressure forcing me to go to church. I don’t go for social reasons, I don’t go for the music, I don’t go out of habit or to please my family. Today I listened to Tom Shakespeare on the radio encouraging people to be religious but not spiritual. He made a lot of good points about the potential benefits of being part of a religious community; encouraging people to look beyond their own wants and needs and offering an opportunity for them to connect with each other and with the world. He recommends religion because it provides tradition, discipline and a sense of belonging. I agree with him on this, being part of a religious community does provide me with this, and I value it greatly, but it’s not the real reason I go to church.

I go simply because it nourishes my soul.

This is something I can’t fully explain with reason. Who even knows what a soul is? But whatever it is, I’ve got one and it likes going to church. There is a spiritual spark inside me that needs to be expressed. Religion gives us a language to do this, albeit clumsily.

“Religious language clothes itself in such poor symbols as our life affords” William James

So yes, the religion and spirituality in my life is fluid and riddled with holes and doubts, but I’m ok with that. It’s the fluidity that allows me to grow and the doubt that helps me remember to be humble and try to understand others who think differently to me.

I love reason too much to be a decent christian believer but I love spirituality too much to be a decent atheist, even a polite one.

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