I love ‘The Outrun’. I read it over two years ago and it still prompts me to pay attention to what I see.
Amy Liptrot describes her growing dependency on alcohol in the years after graduation. After three months in a rehab clinic she returns home to Orkney for ‘a few weeks’. Weeks turn into a year. She remembers and explores her descent into addiction. She also maps for us the elements of her recovery – a new and expanding awareness of her environment and her own body.
The physical labour of repairing the stone walls on her Dad’s farm gave her something to do as she practices the new disciplines of a recovering alcoholic. Outside all day, in the rain and wind, she began watching the clouds, and then learning their forms and types.
She explores in every direction around her. Long walks around the islands for exercise increasingly turn into a detailed investigation of the coastline and its geology, then visits to the pre-historic settlements and standing stones. Liptrot lands a night time job counting Corncrakes, shy birds rarely seen and who can only be heard at night, ‘the perfect job for a recovering alcoholic and clubber’. The job extends her awareness, not just to birds but to the stars and satellites. Awareness of the natural world is combined with awareness of human interaction with the natural world. She visits old deserted crofts on outlying islands and ponders the experiments for tidal electricity generation. Liptrot takes her immersion in the environment to the next level and joins the wild swimmers of Orkney.
There is much concern in Universities about student mental health, and a growing awareness of the part that digital culture plays in the rise of anxiety and dis-ease.
In The Outrun Liptrot uses the digital world to enhance and extend her vision and observation. She shows how the digital world mapped her journey of recovery and gave new connections to people and to the world. Her digital life includes a Facebook group has alerts for sightings of whales and eagles. The star gazing apps open up a new night vision to the veteran clubber. Her phone GPS tracker charted then change in her movement from long walks around the island to in-depth exploring of each inlet. She is interested in the passing space station as well as the stars. In the routes of shipping and airplanes passing and crossing the island. As her day to day relationships slowly develop so too does a way to handle the online and digital relationships.
She shows us the daily learning and never ending discipline of being a recovering alcoholic. This is vivid nature writing that explores the natural world and human life within it. It also her story of moving from illness to a new form of health – physical, mental, relational and digital. And all are connected.
The developed world is suffering from an epidemic of major proportions, and the disease at the heart of it is busyness.
We are addicted to doing one thing after another with as little down-time as possible. This is a sickness, a spiritual sickness.”
‘I am not busy’ is his response to our hyperactive working culture. He is an academic and a priest. He runs an organisation, writes books, broadcasts, offers pastoral and I assume does much more besides. But he chooses to see himself as engaged rather than busy.
This thinking might be useful for those of you concerned about high levels of stress or working with student mental health.
It is a bonus for those following the Christian season of Lent (but please don’t be put off by that if that’s not your world view).
“I am not busy” offers ten tips for responding to our ‘busyness’ culture’. It’s not only applicable to the Higher Education sector of course.
The personal response is one part of the answer. It is also good to ask about the structural causes of stress as well.
If you find it useful, let me know. I would be interested to hear your reflections.
After many years of running weekly mindfulness sessions I keep being struck by how little the mind features in ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness is mostly a ‘return to the body’. The mind is notoriously elusive concept in philosophical and scientific language.
In the Chaplaincy we start each Mindfulness session with some simple stretching exercises to help people physically settle after a morning’s work. Today my colleague asked the group if there were any particular exercises that they wanted to do. One person asked for something for neck ache. This elicited the disclosure of neck and back ache throughout the room. Not a surprise I guess from a group of people in academia sitting at pc’s all day every day.
The comments reminded me of Bessel van der Kolk’s argument that most of us can do more to befriend our bodies. Here are some quotes from Bessel’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’.
“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
“Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.”
“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”
“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
Here is the text of a sermon I preached at the Choral Evensong this week sung by Imperial College Chamber Choir in Holy Trinity Church, South Kensington. The questions for pondering about vocations in work or volunteering that were in the service sheet are at the end of the post.
The theme of this evenings service is ‘Celebrating the vocation to science, engineering, medicine and business.’
My conversations as a Chaplain with students and staff are often about what people enjoy in their work, the challenges and problems. It’s also often about whether their work is a good fit with how they see their skills and experiences. I want to continue these conversations tonight with a few reflections about vocation and calling.
‘Calling’ is a term that is applied to some professions – medicine, nursing teaching. But I would like to extend it to cover most work. Some of the features of a calling or vocation might be;
a sense of the work being a good fit with our skills and abilities;
service to others
making the world ordered, safe or more connected
bringing creativity to bear on problems
the need for determination
application over time
These features could all apply to work within business, engineering, administration, and support as much as in medicine or ordained ministry in the church.
Reflection on our calling might also be about discerning how to keep going at a role or project when times are tough. It could be about learning when to look for new direction in work or how to let a deep passion and interest flourish outside work.
Events can shape these decisions. For example. George Dyson who composed the music for parts of tonight’s service, was a soldier during World War One. He wrote a pamphlet about the use of grenades in warfare before suffering with shell shock. After the war he followed a career in music eventually becoming the Director of the Royal College of Music across the road. Following a calling and finding a vocation is often not straightforward. George Dyson, for all his success as a musician once applied to be the organist of this Church – unsuccessfully!
There is encouragement in many of the Bible stories. There is often a sense of unexpected people being called. So, David the youngest son who has to be fetched from tending the sheep when the next king of Israel is being chosen from among his brothers. It is David who becomes the greatest king of Israel. Saul was persecuting the new followers of Jesus when he hears his call during his conversion on the road to Damascus. He then becomes Paul, one of Jesus’ most dedicated followers. The idea is that others, including God, might see things in us that we cannot see ourselves, and that there is more to be called out from within us.
All this is talk about vocation and calling is against the background that most of us have to work by necessity to provide shelter food and warmth for ourselves and our families.
Sometimes our passions outside of work might be our calling. In the 19th century this was called an ‘avocation’ – a pursuit followed with passion and determination over time that fits our skills and the deep sense of who we are. Examples of avocation that I know include an IT technician who draws with great skill, medics who sing and compose music, a guy who works in a factory and who does amazing youth work in the evening.
Olivier Messiaen the composer of our last anthem tonight had a lifelong interest in birdsong and birds. His passion for ornithology often led to the sounds of birdsong being incorporated into his compositions.
The Canticles, the Song of Mary and the Song of Simeon, are sung at every evensong and also speak of ‘calling’ (and thanks to George Dyson for the musical setting for these tonight). These Canticles are the songs of a young woman accepting a calling, and of an old man who finally sees his calling come to fulfilment. For Mary it’s the beginning of intimacy with Christ. For Simeon it is the practice of looking out for Christ in daily life.
The readings we are going to hear from Isaiah and Matthew set work in the context of God’s love. For Isaiah it is a love that leads to the practical justice where everyone gets to enjoy the fruits of their work. In Matthew we hear the call to set our minds above all on the values of God’s kingdom.
To help our reflection tonight there are some questions to ponder from John Adair, an army officer and management consultant. The questions are around vocation or calling in the widest sense. They might be good ways to reflect on our work or how we might slowly recognise the emerging call to new projects or commitments.
My God’s spirit of wisdom be present in all our reflections tonight. Amen.
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 65:20-23
New Testament Reading: Matthew 6:24-34
Text from the service sheet.
Reflecting on Vocation
During the service you might like to look at the questions below.
Which question captures your attention the most?
Which one is ‘the question to live with’ for a period of time?
Do you feel a long-term commitment to your present occupation or field of work?
Has anyone used the adjective ‘dedicated’ to describe you or the way you go about your work or voluntary work?
Do you feel that your abilities match the requirements of your particular role?
Can you think of another profession, trade or field that you would rather be in?
Does your present work give you scope for creativity?
Are you always seeking new and better ways of doing things?
Have you discovered work or volunteering that you can be really enthusiastic about, in spite of its ups and downs?
Has your enthusiasm for your work or volunteering been tested and sustained over a period of years?
Do you have a sense of being, as it were, at the call of your work, and through your work to others?
Are you learning about yourself through your work or volunteering?
Is there something else you would rather be doing that gives life to others?
What helps you keep going?
(adapted from John Adair’s ‘How to find your vocation: a guide to discovering the work you love’)
The next Choral Evensong at Imperial will explore the connections between faith and work. We will be celebrating the vocations to do science, engineering, medicine and business. Here is an extract from some conversations about vocation.
Christianity talks about ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’. It starts with the idea that people are ‘called by God’. Often this means unexpected people are ‘called’ by God to do surprising things. Moses, for example, was a Hebrew raised by an wealthy Egyptian princess, who leads the enslaved Hebrew people to freedom. Saul is persecuting Jesus’ followers when he has his Damascus Road experience and becomes Paul a disciple of Jesus. In Christianity everyone who is baptised is ‘called by God’ to follow Jesus.
‘Vocation’ and ‘Calling’ are also closely linked to our working world. ‘Calling’ expresses something about each person’s unique skills, gifts and personality.
We also talk of some careers as being ‘callings’, for example, nursing, medicine, and teaching. But what about other forms of work, like running a business, administration, catering? Can these be callings?
The religious language of calling can prompt some practical questions about how we see our work.
How much of our deepest self goes into our work? Too much, not enough?
If work is what I do to pay the bills, is my ‘calling’ something I do outside of my work?
How much enthusiasm or passion do I have (or still have) for my work?
Does my work or voluntary work ‘fit well’ with my skills, temperament and talents?
Is my work or voluntary work making the world a better place for others? Does it bring life or hope?
Am I being ‘called’ to something new? How would I recognise that calling?
Every person has their vocation. The talent is the call.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Love doesn’t sit here like a stone; it is to be made like bread, remade all the time, made anew’.
‘In the Gospel, vocation means being a human being, now, and being neither more, nor less, than a human being now…And, thus, each and every decision, whether it seems great or small, whether obviously or subtly a moral problem, becomes and is a vocational event, secreting, as it were, the very issue of existence.’
The Episcopal Church in Washington was criticised by Christians, and others, for hosting the traditional prayers before the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.
A response to the criticism of the Cathedral came in an open letter from Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of America.The title of this post is a quote from the letter. Michael Curry is offering a reminder to Christians of the many connections between prayer and protest. Prayer can critique, lament, stir us to action, sustain protest, deepen hope and enrich longing.
The full text of the letter is below but, in an age of ‘fake news’, here is the original context.
January 12, 2017
The following is a statement from Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael B. Curry.
This past week, Barack H. Obama, the 44th President of the United States, in the tradition of Presidents dating back to George Washington, gave his farewell address to the nation. Next week Donald J. Trump, in the same tradition of this country, will take the oath of office and be inaugurated as the 45th President.
We recognize that this election has been contentious, and the Episcopal Church, like our nation, has expressed a diversity of views, some of which have been born in deep pain.
There has been much discussion, and some controversy, about the appropriateness of the Washington National Cathedral hosting the Inaugural Prayer Service this year, and of church choirs singing at inaugural events.
Underneath the variety of questions and concerns are some basic Christian questions about prayer: when I pray for our leaders, why am I doing so? Should I pray for a leader I disagree with? When I pray what do I think I am accomplishing?
On one level these questions seem inconsequential and innocuous. But real prayer is not innocuous. It is powerful. That question can become poignant and even painful as it is for many in this moment, given that some of the values that many of us heard expressed over the past year have seemed to be in contradiction to deeply-held Christian convictions of love, compassion, and human dignity.
So, should we pray for the President?
We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord. If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.
This practice of praying for leaders is deep in our biblical and Anglican/Episcopalian traditions. Psalm 72 prays that the ancient Israelite king might rule in the ways of God’s justice, defending “the cause of the poor,” bringing “deliverance to the needy.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2 encourages followers of Jesus to pray earnestly for those in leadership, that they may lead in ways that serve the common good. Even in the most extreme case, Jesus himself said, while dying on the cross, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” was praying for Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Rome who ordered his execution, and for all who were complicit in it.
In this spirit, the Prayer Books of the Anglican/Episcopal way have always included prayer for those “who bear the authority of government,” praying in a variety of ways that they may lead in the ways of God’s wisdom, justice and truth. When we pray for Donald, Barack, George, Bill, George, or Jimmy, Presidents of the United States, we pray for their well-being, for they too are children of God, but we also pray for their leadership in our society and world. We pray that they will lead in the ways of justice and truth. We pray that their leadership will truly serve not partisan interest but the common good. When we pray for them, we are actually praying for our nation, for our world, indeed we are praying for ourselves.
Prayer is not a simplistic cheer or declaration of support. Prayers of lament cry out in pain and cry for justice. Prayer can celebrate. Prayer can also ask God to intervene and change the course of history, to change someone’s mind, or his or her heart. When we pray for our enemies, we may find that we are simultaneously emboldened to stand for justice while we are also less able to demonize another human being.
Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name. For those who follow the way of Jesus, the active side of our life of prayer seeks to live out and help our society live out what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation.
I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following the Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.
As we celebrate the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we may find guidance in his words, spoken during one of the most painful and difficult struggles in the Civil Rights Movement. He asked that all participants live by a set of principles. The first principle read: “As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.”
As a team of Buddhist and Christian chaplains at Imperial we were really excited to hear Tom Beaudoin’s key-note talk at the Conference of European University Chaplains in the Netherlands last year.
Tom is Associate Professor of Religion at Fordham University. In his talk he was looking at life in a globalized world. He argued that there would be great advantages if we were all to learn to speak a second religious or secular language.
Language, as a metaphor for our worldview, suggests that we all have a religious or secular ‘first language’ for talking about how we see the world and what we believe, for example Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or atheism, humanism, agnosticism.
To learn a second ‘religious language’ does not mean giving up our first language, our ‘mother tongue’. In a world were we are constantly meeting people whose world view is very different from our own it is good to be able speak even a little of another language.
So, while Christianity is my first language, I can ‘speak’ a little Buddhism. I have learned this second language from working with colleagues, sharing silent meditation together and hearing about their traditions. I am not fluent and I am not a native speaker. But I know enough to be a good ‘house guest’ and (I hope!) to travel courteously with my second language. This way I learn more, and see a little from the Buddhist perspective.
The other gift of learning a new language is returning to our first language with new eyes, and a better ear for the language itself. I now have a better understanding of my mother tongue for having started learning a second language!
The College Archivist and I started an Act of Remembrance in 2014. We invite students and staff to gather near one of the College war memorials that have the names of students and staff killed during the First and Second World Wars.
It is a simple event with a reading from the Archive written by a member of College who served in one of the world wars. We observe a two-minute silence and have a short piece of music – this year part of a Bach Cello concerto – then we lay wreaths at the memorials.
As we are an international academic community we also lay flowers to remember those killed in other conflicts past and present.
We have designed the event to include all those who wish to take part and to acknowledge current trauma and loss caused by conflict.
Last week I was at a conference for central London clergy taking place in northern France. In the town’s cemetery there were a large number of Commonwealth War Graves from the First and Second World War. I have visited a number of these sites over the years but this was the first time I have seen graves of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers. Here is a short video.
It was good to be reminded recently of the work on Religious Literacy being done in the UK. Chaplaincy colleagues at the University of the Arts London co-hosted a debate ‘is there room for religion?’ exploring how religion informs the work of students and staff.
Religious Literacy aims to increase understanding of the positive part that faith and religion have in the lives of students and staff.
Religious Literacy seeks a better quality of conversation about religion.
Faith issues show up in Higher Education in a variety of places, like the provision of prayer facilities, exams clashing with religious festivals, appropriate catering, maintaining freedom of speech and being respectful to others, the fear of religious extremism, personal identity and in the Equality and Diversity agendas.
The Literacy approach gives a positive way of not just finding solutions but of enriching our shared life in the process.
“The church in a quite special way is the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured. The church has no monopoly on these matters. Its oddity, however, is that it takes this agenda as its peculiar and primary business. In all sorts of unnoticed places, it is the church that raises the human questions.” Walter Brueggemann from ‘The Counterworld of Evangelical Imagination’ 1993.
The quote captures something of why I think the Church is involved in many areas of life, including Higher Education. It is the Church’s “peculiar and primary business” to raise “the human questions.”
It might not be obvious which questions the religious practices are raising. I was thinking about the Wednesday Eucharist we hold in the parish church that sits between the university buildings. We are a group of about 10-15 drawn from the staff from the Colleges and local workplaces, students, one regular alumni, some parish members, me and the parish clergy.
The service involves the sharing of bread and wine. The Bruggemann quote reminded me of the continual exploration week by week of basic questions. These are just a few.
What is broken and what is whole?
How is one person related to the many?
What do we need to let go of in order to receive?
What might be worth a sacrifice?
What do I need to know and admit to myself and about myself?
Can these strangers be a gift to me?
the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured.
“Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” These are words of the legendary biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson. Frustrated with the unimaginative way he found his congregants treating their Bibles, he translated it himself, and that translation has sold millions of copies around the world. Eugene Peterson’s down-to-earth faith hinges on a love of metaphor and a commitment to the Bible’s poetry as what keeps it alive to the world.
This is Krista Tippett’s introduction to her “On Being” conversation with Eugene Peterson. The audio and transcript of the conversation can be found here.
I like Peterson’s insistence on bringing out the poetry of the Bible to let it work imaginatively in our minds and bodies.
I also like the idea of ‘prayers as tools’. In my context, everyone is using tools in their practice of science, engineering, medicine, and art and design. So I also like the idea that ‘prayers are tools’ – focused, applied, and with a process.
Yet because prayers lead us through silence, imagination, and the unconscious towards God they will only ever be ‘tools for being and becoming’.
Note on Practice: Lectio Divina
I guess this imaginative process prayer that lets scripture engaging our mind and body is why many students and staff in our Christian Meditation group respond so positively to Lectio Divina.
Lectio is a method of slow reading meditation. The method starts with reading the passage slowly three or four times while asking the question ‘What am I most drawn to in this passage today – what word or phrase attracts me most?’
We then ‘sit with the phrase’ turning it over and over and noticing what arises as we do this. After a while, we move to silent conversational prayer. Finally we drop all pondering and reflecting and simply sit quietly. Contemplation.
Here is the link to an OnBeing podcast interview with neuroscientist Prof Richard Davidson. He has worked on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation. Davidson talks here with Krista Tippett about how mind, body and emotions are more closely integrated than we conventionally understand them. He also refers to research showing a human predisposition towards kindness.
My Buddhist colleagues and I have been talking about these issues in relation to our various meditation programmes – Mindfulness, Buddhist and Christian meditation – that we offer each week.
There is more discussion of research studies in the long unedited version of the interview, which is not the one with the transcript.
Here is a great observation by Thomas Keating, founder of Contemplative Outreach. It shifts the focus away from the experience of one meditation session to the “long-term fruits” of silence. How long is ‘long-term’?
In my experience, and listening to others, a week or two of short daily practice is likely to be enough to give you a personal data trend you can start to notice. But that is just the begining…
“Don’t judge centering prayer on the basis of how many thoughts come or how much peace you enjoy. The only way to judge this prayer is by its long-range fruits: whether in daily life you enjoy greater peace, humility and charity. Having come to deep interior silence, you begin to relate to others beyond the superficial aspects of social status, race, nationality, religion, and personal characteristics. (OM, 114)”
― Thomas Keating, The Daily Reader for Contemplative Living
Padraig O Tuama was one of the key note speakers at the European Chaplains’ Conference in Ireland this summer. He came to speak to us during our visit to Glendalough. Padraig is a poet, theologian and the leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. Corrymeela has been building understanding between people on different sides of the divided communities of Northern Ireland since 1965.
This is a great passage on prayer and meditation. You can also see here his practice of saying ‘hello to…’ He says ‘hello’ to the full range of experience. It’s both observing and befriending.
“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I’m being listened to. There, I greet God in my own disorder. I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distraction and privilege, I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognise and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding story, my unloved body, my own love, my own body. I greet the things I think will happen and I say hello to everything I do not know about the day. I greet my own small world and I hope that I can meet the bigger world that day. I greet my story and hope that I can forget my story during the day, and hope that I can hear some stories, and greet some surprising stories during the long day ahead. I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.
Hello to you all, I say, as the sun rises above the chimneys of North Belfast.
Padraig’s description of his morning prayer reminds me that the mind wandering in meditation is the prayer itself and not a distraction. All things that arise in silence are our essential prayers.
I also love the way he talks of God. “I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet”. A way so completely part of the Christian tradition of contemplation, and also very Zen.
This is passage is from his book ‘In the Shelter’ and he reads it out loud near the end of the podcast of his conversation with Krista Tippett for “On Being”