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.

 

 

becoming more literate – in a religious kind of way

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 Religious Literacy programme is based at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

 

 

 

“the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured.”

“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.

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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…for being”

“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.
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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.

 

I love ‘The Outrun’.

‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot

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.

Prof Richard Davidson on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation.

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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.

Full link

 

 

“I’m not busy”

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“You must be very busy?”

‘I am not busy’  is a website and a book by Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Cambridge. He argues,

“Busyness has become a disease.

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.

 

 

Mindfulness/Bodyfulness

cropped-p1000688.jpgAfter 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.”

Long term fruits of silence

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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

Prayer, saying Hello, and Padraig O Tuama.

Padraig ;tbxPadraig 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.

Hello.”

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”