Spiritual dissonance

advent

Spiritual dissonance happens when we feel estranged from the responses we have been taught to make to God, and we grow separate from an authentic spirituality.

Loving God with all our heart, soul and mind creates an appetite for the authentic, and this is always the resting place of our desire to know Him more.

The gospels tell us to seek so that we will find and those who seek so often find themselves looking beyond their received traditions, teachings and practises to find more of God in something surprising outside of the well defined edges and corners of their current box.

Many seekers find that the words of others who are actively seeking God are a mirror and a map in their journey towards authenticity; a mirror because the words of others can reflect back a clear image of the things they already sensed, a map because they offer a route forwards, directions in the next step of the way.

Poetry is valuable in negotiating the deep and strange places of the soul because poetry uses a concentrated form of words to evoke and recreate experiences of the human heart that are often known and rarely spoken.

Advent brings out the best in poets. More so than Christmas. Christmas is over-burdened with meaning, most of it too sentimental to bear the weight of honest spiritual pursuit and the deep pain of the outside world. Spiritual dissonance at this time of year can be overwhelming and we must take all the help we can get to make a way amongst the clutter of the season.

In this poem by Rowan Williams, the imminent birth of Christ is under shadowed by a knowledge of the torture and suffering He will bear. The movement through the stanzas, leaf fall, to frost, to dark days and finally labour and child birth, does not flinch from the painful realities of our waiting for Christ and yet it capture the wonder and beauty of the whole creation’s relief when he is safely come.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.



He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.



He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.



He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

This poem is featured in a selection of poems for advent and epiphany, by Janet Morely, that I have reviewed in a previous post. 

Archbishop Rowan William’s poem was published in his first poetry collection, After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in the volume, The Poems of Rowan Williams. The poem was set to music by Peter Maxwell Davies in a collection of anthems in honour of the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

 

Books for Advent

Recommendations for advent reading.

Until recently I had not been part of a church that followed the liturgical calendar. Sometimes it actively opposed such remembrance, arguing that we should celebrate Christ’s birth, his death and resurrection, everyday, especially as there was no direction to make an occasion of these events in scripture. At other times the attitude was ambivalent. Not knowing quite what to do with the season, independent churches who found their identity in having broken away from the established churches, were unable to decide whether to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the celebrations or to keep a safe distance from the worldliness of it all.

Some time before I moved to a liturgical church I found that I was slipping into a rhythm of Bible reading and contemplation that followed the cycle of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, as easily as my heart and writing followed the seasons of the natural world. When my inner winter times seemed to go on forever I took comfort in Lenten practices that followed the pattern of the freshly emerging spring. When resurrection Sunday came, I celebrated more deeply than before. As the last leaves turned and fell in a splendour of autumn glory, mornings were cold but thought of Advent warmed my soul. The rhythms of the church year echoed the patterns of my own spiritual formation and gave me words to pray in the different seasons of life.

Christmas approaches and we rekindle traditions within our own homes, the right date for putting up the tree, recipes we only make at this time of year, trips out to the German markets or to the theatre, a fire in the hearth every night, movies and good books. The tender meanings of incarnation in a broken world are enlivened for us in carol singing and lectionary readings. Counting down to the shortest day of the year we can make time for  extra reading, something devotional or if we are already widely read in devotional works, something more theologically challenging.

The books I am reviewing today are written for advent and offer three different approaches to devotional writing but there common goal is to help us connect more authentically with Christ, the heart of our Christmas faith.

Janet Morely, Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany.

haphazar

This seasonally decorated book offers 37 poems on advent themes, a commentary on each and a question to guide our thoughts and prayers. Morley uses each poem as a stimulus to examine themes of fears and expectations, darkness and light, annunciation, patience, death and hope of resurrection. I have have especially appreciated how her comments on the poem open up the layers of meaning without forcibly dictating the message. The questions at the end of each chapter have been a prompt for my journal notes and help me connect what I have read with how I will respond.

Extract from a chapter one Emily Dickinson’s poem, We grow accustomed to the dark,

“An important dimension of advent is that it moves through a time when the world is becoming increasingly dark. Days are shorter, nights start sooner, and the quality of light is often dulled by poor weather. There is no avoiding having to live quite a large proportion of our waking life during hours of darkness, and for some people this is a physical reality that leads to gloom or even depression … Have you ever experienced the sense of being totally in the dark, either in your prayer life or in life decisions generally? Was it possible for you to risk keeping going in that darkness?”

 

Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift

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The Tree of Jesse is a symbol from Medieval art representing the ancestors of Christ as presented in the gospel geneologies. The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Voskamp’s book traces the redemptive connections between characters in the Old Testament, Messianic prophesies, and significant events leading up to the birth of Jesus. Those who are familiar with Voskamp’s writing will notice the predominance of her own familiar theme: the overwhelming power of God’s grace to heal the most damaged soul.

An extract from The Greatest Gift, a reflection on Matthew 1

“God can’t stay away. This is the love story that has been coming for you since the beginning. The God. Who walked with us in the garden in the cool of the evening, before the fall shattered our closeness with him, is the God who came after his people in the pillar of cloud, of fire, because he couldn’t bear to let his people wander alone. He is the God who came to grieving job as a whirl wind, a tornado, a hurricane, who covenanted to Abraham as a smoking furnace, who wildly pitched his tent with the holy of holies so somehow, in all the Shekinah glory, he could get close enough to live amid his people.”

 

Paula Gooder, The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent

gooder

This advent book by Bible Society theologian, Paula Gooder is the most theological orientated of the three book. It involves no scholarly exegesis, but the writing reflects Gooder’s stated intent of bringing the bennefits of modern Biblical Studies to a wider audience of Christian readers. The book has four main chapters, one for each week of advent and they examine stories of waiting in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary. There is an introductory chapter of waiting as a Chrsitan virtue that deals splendidly with the idea of time in Biblical thought.

An extract from the final chapter of, The Meaning is in the Waiting

“Mary’s song of praise, when it comes, is one of the most powerful in the Bible: the idea of reversal (the powerful being made low and the lowly being lifted up), the poetry, and the sheer joy of the song, have made sure that it has remained one of the churches’ favourite expressions of praise for many centuries … Luke portrays Mary as the first poetic theologian of the New Testament : she sees the event of the world around her, makes connections between them, draws deeply on her religious roots and pours this out in a beautiful hymn of praise.”

Burning bushes

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On my street, there were two trees ablaze with red leafed flames, a Pentecostal anointing in an age of faltering belief.

It’s a blessing to the eyes.

Weeks later I pass this place and the flames glow hot, but the tree is not burnt up. Today they kindle yellow across the dull sky of this more than lovely autumn.

On the ground leaves fallen, smoulder like ash in yesterday’s hearth. The sun burns low, casting gold amongst the thinning hedges and piles of leaves.

Hearing the audible voice of God is rare. In our sceptical age, believing the testimony of those who do is rarer still, but there are burning bushes on every street corner, and ordinary folk who are sure they have heard God speak.

Moses lived the strangest kind of orphaned life. Separated at birth from his Hebrew family and raised in the Pharaoh’s place, he fled leaving matters undone to make an uncertain home for himself, far from the life he had been given. Alone in the desert place, tending another man’s flocks, his eye was drawn to the strangest sight.

A bush flickering hot with flames.

It burned but it was not consumed.

The bush was on fire but it did not burn up and Moses was listening and watching more carefully than before. “I will go over and see this strange sight” he said. The Exodus account tells us that when God saw that Moses had gone over to look – then he spoke to him, calling his name from out of the burning bush, causing him to remove his shoes and hide his face.

The nights are drawing in, calling us home, out of the cold, this creeping stain of darkness, split like ink, daylight saving and so much less light for us to see by. Yet, there are burning bushes on street corners and when God saw us go to look, then he spoke.

How can we not compare the seasons of our calendar to the seasons of the soul? How can we not take comfort in the brilliance of autumn glory as winter falls around us? Why would we not scan our horizon and watch to see a burning bush and hear the voice of God?

It makes for the breaking of a heart, to feel alone in this world, to fear that God is silent, that he does not care for us. And it is truely the condition of being human that we know this loss. But we were made to face this and to grapple with it. There is a clear sighted envisioning beyond our doubt and fear which is why we wrap up warm and go out into the cold, looking for a burning bush in a near-winter landscape.

It will turn the eye, and then the soul,  back towards the blessings of God.

 

 

 

Farewell to Dappled Things

poppies

After a break from blogging I’m ready to go again with a new place that I’m calling, I felt it shelter.

I started blogging in the Christmas holidays of 2012. After years of intermittent scribblings I was finally making myself write for an audience. Friends and one or two strangers received the efforts warmly and so I carried on.

Writing became a kind of shelter for me and a few other people, or so it seemed.

About six months into the venture I felt compelled to write honestly on darker aspects of life. The first time I wrote about depression I did not instantly feel it shelter to speak to my audience on a subject that had done a great deal of harm in my own life and amongst my family. I pressed “publish” then curled up foetal on the sofa ready to over-winter there with my face pressed in a cushion and my fingers over my ears.

But I had nothing to fear. The piece was received with kindness and opened up for me a world of fellow sufferers and sympathisers from the most surprising places. It would seem there are few of us who have not experienced this for ourselves or lived close to someone who has. I was a tiny part of a wider movement of people who wanted to expose the taboo and reassure others it was OK to talk about the negative aspects of mental health.

When I read the piece now it is tamed and controlled. At the time it felt radical, vulnerable and brave. It had a happy ending. Back then it was the only way I could write it. It seemed the most Christian thing to do. As things turned out my journey out of depression was more complex than it might have first seemed. I began to find that some habits of mind and some practices of belief were not as Christian as I once thought and not as helpful or healthful as I had thought.

The American poet Emily Dickinson shared a long correspondence with the publisher Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man she met only once. “I felt it shelter to speak to you” she wrote in a letter that (like all her letters) read more like a poem. The line stuck with me, got under my skin even, wouldn’t let me go. I sense in these words the joy of an exceptional connection, one that comes when we meet a person who seems to understand and listen to the deeper part of who we are. It is as C.S. Lewis says: “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that I was the only one.” And dare I suggest that for many of us that moment came not man to man but reader to writer? We found shelter in what we read.

Commentators are saying that blogging is dead, that the internet is straining under the weight of amateur writers over sharing their half-baked thoughts. I accept that as a caution but I want to use my words to create moment when a reader can say “What! You too?” especially of humanity, faith and matters of the soul.

Shelter is a good place to begin, to find and make shelter and offer it here through my words.