In which Ruth explores Spirituality (part 1)

Spirituality. What does it mean? The search for the sacred? Participating in organised religion? Or is it more personal? Yoga, meditation, silent prayer, tai chi, sweat lodges, the list goes on. Each of us could define spirituality in a different way.

Throughout my life I seem to have been searching for ‘spirituality’. As I didn’t start going to church until I was in my late 20s it has obviously not been all Christian spirituality. When I went through the selection process for ordination to the priesthood I remember telling the Selectors that my journey of different spiritualities all are important parts of my journey. They all agreed. However it has not always been so well received. Sometimes Christians just seem a little narrow minded when it comes to spirituality.

Last week I had my Ministerial Review with the Bishop (but more of that another day!). And it got me thinking about spirituality and what works for me. Do you want to hear what started it all off for me? (Apart from my love and lust for Marc Bolan which was a very spiritual thing but pretty personal.) You do? Oh good. So I thought I might blog a bit about some of the spiritualities I’ve encountered along the way. Remember we didn’t all go to Sunday School and Scripture Union.

So my first encounter of spirituality was in 1970 when I was about 14. That was the year after that great Aquarian Exposition, the Festival of Woodstock. This was also the year I fell in love with the colour purple and have worn it ever since. 1970 was a wonderful age for fashion in Edinburgh and much of it was influenced by Woodstock. Bell bottoms, cheese-cloth shirts and skirts, tie-dye, long hair with flowers and beads and bells. At the age of 14 fashion is terribly important especially when you go to an All Girls School and the uniform is truly ghastly and strictly enforced (maroon blazer, gold crest of unicorn (the only good thing about it), tussore dress and straw hat in summer). So when I saw this beautiful hippy chick walking along the Meadows in front of me, wearing a long crushed velvet rich purple skirt edged with little silver-like bells, bare feet and a flower drawn on her face, I fell in love with the colour purple. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. *sighs*

peace-love-musicAnyway, that was not the spiritual moment. No, my first dabbling in spirituality came via a friend who had the boxed set of Woodstock records. (Not many people had the full boxed set because it was terribly expensive.) The sad thing is that I can remember lots of this bit of the story but not the name of the person, the friend who introduced me to Woodstock music and my first spiritual moment. But a group of us would lie around her bedroom listening to Joe Cocker, Melanie, Country Joe and the Fish, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and all the rest. “One, two , three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me cos I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam…” Funny what sticks in the memory, eh? Oh how we wanted to go to a music festival where peace and love abounded but we were just too young. Too young to wear flowers in our hair and walk barefoot in the street. Too young to smoke exotic substances but just old enough to experiment with joss sticks from Cockburn Street Market and wear badges on our blazers with peace symbols.

One day my friend announced that she was joining the Hare Krishna movement. How terribly exotic! How beautifully non-Presbyterian! How trendy and modern and unusual (and dare I say it, attention-seeking?) for even then, dear Reader, I was not averse to a little bit of limelight. Of course we had all seen those strange Hare Krishna people dancing along Princes Street in their saffron robes and tiny cymbals and drums. As they chanted ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama’ and smiled beatifically we wondered what these creatures were. Of course we knew it was something to do with the Hindu faith but these devotees in Edinburgh still looked distinctly Scottish underneath their exotic garb. They begged for money, they were vegetarian, they meditated and they chanted. A lot. But it was quite a sacrifice to give up life in an Edinburgh flat to go and live in a commune with a lot of strangers.

So we were full of questions for our friend. She must have been older then me, but I seem to hare_krishna_and_jesus_christ_wallpaper_jxhyremember not much over 16 or 17. Why? And it was the meditation which drew her into their arms. Meditation was very big in the 60s and 70s. It was all about finding enlightenment and encountering ‘the other’. God, we call it. Throughout my search for spirituality I encountered God many times, but not always was ‘his/her’ name ‘God’. Sometimes it was Krishna. Sometimes it involved cleansing your body (no caffeine, no alcohol, no intoxication, no meat) so that you could cleanse your mind. And who wouldn’t like to strive for mercy, truthfulness, love and peace? One day I went to the temple with her. Oh the colours! Gaudy, yes, but somehow beautiful. I seem to remember a sort of altar with statues and posters of Indian images and lots of colourful flowers, and then on the floor lay fruit and vegetables. My friend (was she called Rosie? although she had taken another name by then) solemnly gave me an orange. “This is Prasadam,” she said. If I have remember correctly, the orange became ‘prasadam’ when it was offered at the altar and blessed in prayer. It still looked like an orange but it was something more. I struggled to get my head round this. You Episcopalians will have no trouble, of course. It was merely Transubstantiation!! But I wrestled a bit with this concept, but I liked it. I liked that an ordinary thing could be transformed into something more, something special by prayers and God’s blessings. So it was not something to be eaten casually or thrown away. It was something special, something set apart.

I took the orange/prasadam home. My family were visiting, I remember. My poor old granny looked bewildered as I explained to her that this was not really an orange but something much, much more. (At her last visit I had insisted she read the lyrics of Marc Bolan’s Electric Warrior LP.) My uncle thought it was “bloody nonsense” and went out for a walk.  The rest of us shared the orange and you know it tasted like an orange. But for me, it was just a little bit more.


RIP Liverpool Care Pathway

There has been much talk of the Liverpool Care Pathway on the news this week. It looks as if it may come to an end and I, for one, say hurrah. When I first heard about it I thought it was a great idea. Using the Hospice model people should be allowed to die with dignity, surrounded by family rather than machines. However it didn’t always work out that way.

I know of one woman who found out that her husband had been marked down as DNR without any conversation with her. Perhaps they did speak to her husband but as he had dementia he might have said anything. She was deeply upset and not ready to let him go.

I know my own mother’s death (in a hospice) was just awful. Not a happy death at all. But as I’ve spoken about this elsewhere on this blog I won’t go into it again.

However, this week something reminded me of an occasion, not so long ago, when I was visiting one of my old folk in hospital. She had been going downhill and as I sat there I recognised that it would not be long before she died. I knew she had no family or anyone to be with her so I asked a nurse what the doctors were saying and was she likely to go soon. Firstly the nurse said she couldn’t discuss the patient with me because I was not ‘family’ but after much persuasion (and I mean much) she did agree that she possibly might die soon. “How soon?” I asked. Because I’d thought I’d like to sit and be with her so that she wasn’t on her own.  It was then that the nurse started telling me about the Liverpool Care Pathway. I told her I did know about it, having been a p/t hospital chaplain. “Well,” she retorted, “we will be taking care of her.”  I mentioned that there was also a ‘spiritual’ part to the LCP and I would like to help in that part. “Oh that’s not about religion!” she said, “Spiritual is all about her having clean clothes and nice things about her.”

I don’t think I had anything to say to that. Somewhere along the way, in a teaching class, or on a busy ward, this nurse had been taught the LCP. In all possibility she was taught by someone with no religion, or even someone who was hostile to it. I’m not saying that having a clean nightie and brushed hair is not part of your spiritual needs but it certainly isn’t all of it. I had been bringing communion to this woman for months and we had talked often about her imminent death.

Perhaps this is partly why the LCP is not working. Perhaps ignorance, hostility, or embarrassment is why some hospital staff just don’t know how to talk about end of life things in a religious context. Or maybe it was just this one nurse. All I do know is that there needs to be more communication, and especially listening.

PS And yes she did die that night on her own. If they’d phoned I would have gone.

PPS I love nurses.

headstone celtic blossom

Finishing the work

I used to subscribe to a journal called Spirituality. It was a Roman Catholic journal with some nice wee articles and some gloriously beautiful covers. I’m not sure if it is still going or not, but I recently came across a story I’d read there which I thought I might share. (For some reason it always brings a tear to my eye.)

Giacomo Puccini composed some of the world’s greatest operas, including La Scala, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly. In 1922 as he began what many critics consider his finest work, Turandot, Puccini was diagnosed with cancer. He struggled to finish the opera before he died, but as his disease sapped his energy, he told his students that, if he did not complete the work, they should finish it for him. After his death in 1924, Puccini’s students assembled all his notes, studied them carefully, and proceeded to complete the work.

In 1926 the world premier of Turandot was performed in Milan’s famous La Scala Opera House. Puccini’s prize pupil, Arturo Toscanini, conducted the opera. It proceeded beautifully until Toscanini came to the end of the parts composed by Puccini. He stopped the music, put down his baton, and turned to the audience. “Thus far the master wrote, until he died.”  There was a long pause. Then Toscanini announced, “But his disciples finished the work.”  The conductor, with tears in his eyes, picked up the baton again, and the opera concluded to thunderous applause and a permanent place in the world of great operas.

(William J Bansch, World of Stories, 1998, p300)

Art and Spirituality Parish Retreat

So, no sooner am I back from the Clergy Silent Retreat and rejoicing at noise and blethering willy-nilly, than I take some of my little flock (and some of my neighbouring little flock) on a silent jaunt back to Whitchester. This time I was leader (let’s hear it for leadership in the church!) so I got to do some talking and lead worship so that was fine. I was staying in the Buccleuch Suite which is rather grander than the other chintzy rooms with a huge white leather sofa and TV. The sofa is so that one can meet with Retreatants for spiritual guidance, I’m guessing, but it is the slippiest sofa you ever sat on. In fact, I found it perfect for afternoon naps. Unfortunately the TV only seemed to get BBC1 so my plan to get away from all aspects of the Queen’s Jubilee rather failed as they seemed to have it wall to wall all weekend. That’ll teach me.

In between talks I did manage to catch up on some more reading in the delicious recliner in the ‘sitootery’. What did I read? Well thank you for asking. I read Jesus Freak by Sara Miles which is a kind of follow on to Take this Bread. In fact, I didn’t enjoy it quite so much because it did rather go over the same ground. However, if you’ve not read the first one so recently, then I’m sure you’d enjoy it more. It is more theological and reflective I think. But you still come away from it thinking what a crap Christian you are inspired and refreshed.

I also finished How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran which is one of the funniest books I’ve read for a long time. Every man, woman and child should read this book. (But probably not on a Silent Retreat as there is a risk you will get pains from trying to stifle sniggers.)

My GP is encouraging me to read Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn which is kind of a study in the Sacrament of the Present Moment for non-Christians but with the Buddhism taken out. Does that sound complicated? Well apparently many medical people are now using this method of relaxation for patients who suffer from stress, chronic pain, obsessive compulsive behaviour, etc. (I’ll leave you to decide which category I might fit in to!) It all seems jolly nice and worthy but I’ve only just started so I’ll let you know how I get on.

I also managed to squeeze in 37% of The Private Patient by PD James on the Kindle. Its ages since I read any PD James and I’d quite forgotten what a great writer she is of that genre. And yes, I do have a wee crush on Inspector Dalgliesh. Now I’ll need to finish it quickly before I forget the plot. (Or lose the plot.)

But what about the Retreat, I hear you cry? Well it was on Art and Spirituality and we looked at four paintings with a bit of history, a bit of meditation and a bit of pondering. The feedback was good but the talks could have been a bit longer, I’m told. (Note to self – don’t start writing the material just a week before you leave on retreat.) Music at mealtimes didn’t go down terribly well. Someone, who shall not be named but you know who you are Ian,  said he wanted to take out a shotgun and kill the Swingle Singers singing Bach. How can you not love them? I don’t know. It seems that behind my back there was much silent rejoicing on Sunday at breakfast when the power went off and I couldn’t get the CD player to work!

We arrived to glorious sunshine and enjoyed sitting outside with the noise of the countryside deafening us all. Yellow birds, pink birds, bumblie bees, dogs, pheasant (not turkeys I’m told), sheep, lambs and cows. What a racket! The second day was dull and cold so I made a log fire which whiled away an hour or so keeping it stoked etc. Our last day was sunny again. There were some moths (one was squished with a copy of Christianity Today) and a few bats. It is nice to be home.

Traveling Mercies

Yes, I know it should have two ‘l’s but it is an American book.

I often buy books, or put them on my Amazon wish list, on the strength of recommendations from others. Lately, I kept coming across the name Anne Lamott from my US e-friends so thought I’d give her a go. When you are told she is irreverent, never takes herself seriously, passionate and humourous then you just have to, right?  Traveling Mercies was recommended as a good starter as it tells her journey of faith along with how she came to have dreadlocks, being a single parent, men she’s dated and the joys and sorrows of drugs and alcohol. I enjoyed it. It was all that it said on the tin, and more, and it did make me smile and nod in recognition a few times. (Made me want to write my own version, actually!) I didn’t find the irreverence shocking, just real. In fact, it was jolly good and I might look out for more.

Women’s voices

I think I picked this book up at the Christian Aid Sale and what a find. I’ve been carrying it around with me for days now, underlining bits and copying down poems and prose too good to forget.

Put together by Michele Guiness it is a series of meditations on women’s lives from birth to death and stopping off at childbirth, motherhood, sexuality and various other places until it gets to maturity and death. Not all the contributors are women but it is all about women and I found so much to ponder.

I feel a Quiet Day coming on for women and the men who love them…