Pilgrimage as a pathway to climate activism

Pilgrimage, in a religious sense, is a pathway to finding God in one’s life and world; using inner and outer landscapes. It also provides a metaphor, and a framework, for a journey of meaning. Whilst not all pilgrimages are religious, all pilgrimages are spiritual. Spirituality has its root in the Latin word spiritus, meaning the deepest centre of the person, and whether in a religious or secular sense, focuses our ultimate nature and meaning beyond the bodily sense, beyond time, and material things.

All pilgrimages involve place, either in the mind or a geographical space; and whilst in this context of place, our participation changes and a connection is made between the place and the heart. The journey does not have to be arduous, but as Alistair McGrath says, “pilgrimage involves at least a degree of commitment and hardship….an act of self-denial or personal discipline…and an opportunity to reflect on life” [Alister McGrath, Christian Spirituality: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.133].

A pilgrimage provides meaning: a practical way of seeking and retrieving answers from deep within, in a way that our everyday living and encounters cannot. And when it takes place in the natural world, it’s also about having a listening ear, since the earth is a living being, a living being in the sense of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, a being that is crying out for justice.

However people who do not have a religious belief can also sing songs when they experience the splendour of the natural world, moved by a sense of awe and wonder; their hearts beating in love for a world that also wants to be loved.

The theologian Mary Grey says that, in addition to praise and thanksgiving, we also need to recover the dimension of prophetic lament, “where sorrow and grief for what has been destroyed and lost are given liturgical space….where the prophetic aspect inspires a new ethics, calling for lifestyles of living more respectfully of the earth and organising active protest.” [Mary Grey, ‘Ecological Spirituality’, The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, p.262] If we are open to what might unfold on an eco-pilgrimage, breaking away from self-centred ideas and lifestyles, we will be ready to embrace change and will be transformed. In what follows, I shall try to explain how pilgrimage can be a pathway to climate activism.

In 2015, the Conference of the Parties met in Paris to forge a strong climate agreement. Pilgrims converged on the city from many parts of the world. Some walked from other European capitals such as Rome and, as a symbolic act, shoes were collected, including a pair from Pope Francis. In this way, the pilgrims could record that they had been part of something truly remarkable; empowered by love, hope and prayer.

At the time almost every country in the world agreed to implement the agreement nationally, promising to reduce emissions in order to keep global temperatures below 2°C and ideally below 1.5°C. Since then attempts have been made to introduce nationally determined contributions to this effort and there is continuing debate between the developed and the developing world about what the articles of agreement mean and their cost. If Paris was about principle, Glasgow will be about money.

Eco-Congregation Scotland commissioned a baton from the Greyfriars Recycling of Wood at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh, from recycled church furniture.  On its pilgrimage it went to the top of Ben Lomond down to the National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and to the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Over 100 churches, schools and other meeting places took part. It even crossed stormy seas to Orkney, where it was warmly received by residents of some of Scotland’s most remote islands, which are currently engaged in a world-leading experiment in tidal energy.   

Another eco-mission is underway: and this is the story of four eco-congregations in the Banchory area of Deeside. The journey began in St Ternans Episcopal Church, with an ecumenical study of Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. Reading his wise words and humbly listening to one another, sharing experiences and expertise, gave everyone a sense of what was both personal and universal; something that had a symbolic liminal sense, that place and a person’s place in the world were intimately connected.

After some hesitancy about what needed to be done, a call came to meet in the upper room of the Church of Scotland’s West Church. From this a planning group was formed. The first important decision was to leave the pulpits and church halls behind and, rather like the missionaries sent out by Jesus, the Banchory pilgrims left with “no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic” [Luke 9.3]. They descended from the upper room into the ‘agora’, the Greek “gathering place” or “assembly”; in this case the Banchory Arts Centre on the edge of town. So we booked the theatre, and invitations were sent out to every representative of civil society in Banchory and its surrounds.

The expectation was that around 50 might turn up but in the event it was over 90, who accepted the invitation to our pilgrimage of learning; opening themselves to a process of transformation. The evening began with a short presentation from someone who had left the oil industry and made his own pilgrimage of learning to the Al Gore School of Climate Advocacy in Atlanta.

The audience then dispersed to eleven discussion tables around the room. The walk round the perimeter of the room was carefully designed to evoke specific impressions, through visual displays, encounters and conversation. The intention was to create a process of learning, to hear about spiritual and political activism, measuring one’s carbon footprint, locally produced food, advice on home renewable energy, reconnecting with nature and biodiversity, and other related topics. The pilgrims were encouraged to leave post-it notes of comments and ideas and at the end of the evening the notes were gathered, rather like the crumbs after the feeding of the five thousand, and someone transcribed them onto 20 closely typed sheets of A4.

A number of projects have got underway, though some have stalled because of the Covid-19 lockdown. We now have a clearer sense of who we are and what part we might play in providing a forum for groups, disseminating information and best practice, and investigating potential benefits for the common good. The pace is now quickening, and the Deeside Climate Action Network http://deesidecan.org.uk is joining up with a larger network of activists in North-East Scotland, promoting action on climate change, lowering our carbon footprint, reducing waste, reversing biodiversity loss and increasing local resilience to the effects of the climate emergency.

What these moments of encounter have stimulated is a reassessment and an adjustment of our connection with one another and climate vulnerable people overseas. Although we may think as individuals that the climate emergency is too big for us to resolve by our individual effort, nevertheless when we become a community of others, companions along the path, the cumulative effect is contagious.

Climate activism has an emphasis on “community‐building”; on having a sense of environmental citizenship which encompasses different levels of civil engagement, from local to international. This includes lobbying of political representatives and campaigns for divestment from fossil fuel producing companies, sponsorship of climate and environmental education, and the practical task of making town such as Banchory wildlife friendly.

To travel slowly and sustainably is what makes an environmentally friendly pilgrimage. It generally means spending more time in one place, choosing a sustainable form of transport, becoming more conscious and connected – connected with oneself, those around, and in the wider world, learning what makes best sense. It’s about retaining a sense of historical continuity, the collective wisdom of generations. Not so much about a walk to a holy place, more about a way of being in the world, while recovering a kind of freedom, the freedom of the pilgrim; adapting to a simpler lifestyle, freed from the slavery of consumerism that has become embedded in our psyche, and impacts on our culture.

Although my globetrotting days as a birdwatcher are over, I still have engrained in my memory, the fragile landscapes of mountain and meadow, jungle, and the extremes of hot desert and icy wilderness; as well as my encounters with the people who lived there. It has been a heart-swelling journey. I am ashamed that my legacy is part of the growing climate emergency with warming oceans, accelerated species loss, soil erosion, flooding and choking plastic. But it’s not too late to think more about my lifestyle, making decisions that may indeed mean taking a longer, harder path; using the time to reflect and just be, as an antidote to the pace of modern life; embracing the slow wisdom of eco-pilgrims along the climate activism pathway.

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Pilgrimage as a means of exploring faith, science and nature

At a basic level, pilgrimage is about following a path. It provides a break from the routine, an opportunity to expand horizons, – and a chance to reassess priorities. Pilgrimage is about about noticing things, taking in the language of a place, its history, its dynamics, its culture; tuning in to the essence of things, a way of connecting.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, probably most famous for his short poem “God’s Grandeur”, used two terms in his writing, “inscape” and “instress”. By “inscape” he means a complex of characteristics that gives a thing its uniqueness and that differentiates it from other things; and “instress” the force of being, which holds the inscape, and carries it whole into the mind of the beholder.

Wordsworth experienced a similar inscape which had spiritual or mystical significance for him. These poets from the Romantic era saw nature in its individuality, as opposed to the scientific approach of the eighteenth century, which had been to classify and generalise.

In his book I and Thou, the philosopher Martin Buber says that when considering a tree, one cannot avoid degrading it to the status of a mere object, by naming its species and counting its number, but then he says,
“It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It.”[ Buber, Martin, I and Thou, trans., Ronald Gregor Smith, pp. 7-8]

The whole of nature is a ‘thou’, a mirror of the human existence, silently reflecting our experience of being alive, forcing us to rethink our ideas about the physical world. By walking through a meadow, or beside a river, or through a woodland we can not only appreciate the science of the landscape, and but also its poetics.

Attentiveness deepens our sense of the order, balance, harmony and grace of creation. In turn this develops our human capacities for intimacy, trust and relationship. Just as a great painting may hold us in conversation, or a piece of music touch our soul, so a journey of any kind in the outdoors can give us a glimpse, an insight, into the silent and invisible life that points to something more significant.

Annie Dillard’s spiritual autobiography, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek is a theological and natural science study of a year in a Virginia valley. She is riveted by profligate, extravagant nature, and the law of kill or be killed, that we tend to ignore when we are walking in the countryside. But at the same time nature invites her to make connections in personal ways and she concludes her book by saying,
“The giant water bug ate the world. And like Billy Bray I go on my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory,’ and my right foot says ‘Amen’: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”[ Dillard, Annie, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (Pan Books, London, 1976) p.237]

Science comes from the Latin ‘scientia’, which refers to any systematic body of organised knowledge. But science, as we know it today, is generally taken to mean just the natural sciences. Theology, another systematic body of organised knowledge was once termed ‘the queen of sciences’. It contributed to the emergence of modern science. Scientia is a pilgrimage of discovery and scientists are pilgrims in much the same way that people of faith are. The realms that some scientists are operating in today is getting closer to metaphysics than physics.

The father of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, became something of a guru with his quasi-mystical understand of his field.The science writer Philip Ball has called his recent book Beyond Weird: Why everything you thought you knew about quantum physics is different. It’s recommended for lay readers. I’m thinking of getting a copy. Scientists are beginning to take seriously what philosophers have been debating for centuries. What is real? What is a living being? What is beauty?

Professor Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia [ TED talk, June 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other%5D, has discovered that beneath the soil of the forest, a world of infinite fungal networks grows in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic or mildly pathogenic relationship. These networks connect trees and allow them to communicate. So the forest behaves as though it’s a single organism. A single species will look after their kith and kin and send messages of wisdom and support to the next generation. By their roots, trees speak in a language of electrons with crystalline bonds of affection. Trees through their leaves can taste, smell and in a sense see, warning others of harmful invaders. We can learn from the wisdom of trees.

The earth behaving as one organism is an idea put forward by the inventor James Lovelock. To his annoyance, his ideas about Gaia have been taken up by eco-theologians and earth-diviners. But secular or not, the point we should remember about Gaia is that she is not a benevolent Mother Earth, who calls for a cult of worshippers to gather round her. To pay attention to nature is not to pray to Gaia, to worship her, to ask her what she wants from us and to do it. Rather, it is to be provoked toward new modes of thinking and acting.

In his book The Biology of Wonder, the biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber questions the pure scientific viewpoint of a mechanistic universe, of an abstract genetic code controlling the bodies of all created organisms, like pre-programmed machines, with algorithms shaping lives. He says it does not explain freedom of choice, the sense of what is good or bad shared by all organisms; the human feelings of doubt, love, guilt or compassion.[ Andreas Weber, The Biology of Wonder, (New Society Publishers, Canada, 2016) pp.97 – 100]

As a birdwatcher, I have heard, all too rarely, the nightingale’s song. What becomes apparent, and scientists have confirmed this, is that its song is not just about genetic inheritance, or indeed mapping territories by warning off the opposition. Deep in the hedgerow its song is an expression of the sheer joy of its existence; and it orients me into its world.

In recent years, I have been taking part in developing links between faith, science and nature in the context of pilgrimage.

St Ternan’s Banchory had a science and faith project, which involved woodland walks led by an Aberdeenshire countryside ranger along parts of the Deeside way. The ranger expertly drew our attention to what was happening in nature. But to give the walks a spiritual dimension, we were invited the walkers to share a poem, piece of scripture or spiritual writing. Science and faith fell into conversation following the same path. And it had an extraordinary effect on the participants. Many started to notice the detail of nature, a small flower, birdsong, a caterpillar crossing our path. Contemplative silence fell on the group; even the young people ceased their ‘Game of Thrones’ battles and joined the ‘oldies’ in the walk.

I led an 8 mile reflective walk through the Fetternear Estate in Kemnay for the Epiphany group. We tried to maintain a vow of silence and participants were aided by extracts from various writings and questions for reflection. It was clear by the time of our lunchtime picnic that the vow of silence had to be lifted as everyone seemed bursting to say something about what they had experienced.

I am a trustee of Eco-Congregation Scotland and in the run-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference, ECS commissioned a baton made from a recycled pew from a church in Edinburgh. It was carried from church to church across the length and breadth of Scotland before arriving at the conference floor. A spiritual symbol present at a secular conference.

ECS has set up a pilot with registered congregations and the RSPB. The aim is to provide opportunities for churches to import the scientific expertise of RSPB staff into their wildlife projects, such as, how to develop wildlife sanctuaries in their churchyards and communities. The reciprocal is the opportunity to enjoy the biodiversity of the paths through the RSPB reserves, providing places of prayerful contemplation and worship.

“God is an active creator, an artist and a musician. By an outpouring of divine love, a great order, a grand symphony, God arranges the staff, notes, pitch and accidentals, dots and ties of creation; and, surreptitiously, unfolds a work of harmony and beauty, while the beat and rhythm drives the pace of life.”[ Murray Richard, ‘Preaching Eco-Theology’  https://www.collegeofpreachers.co.uk/media/1023/issue_166_production.pdf p.10] As pilgrims exploring nature, we can experience this musicianship if we apply our intelligence and are receptive to wisdom.

Intelligence comes from the Latin meaning ‘choose between’. But its not about choosing between science and faith. We need to use more than our brains; we need to experience nature with our whole bodies; we need to be mindful, inwardly appreciative, moment by moment.

Making the connection between science, faith and nature provides an experience of belonging that makes our lives profoundly meaningful. Pilgrimage makes every place holy ground.


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Isaiah 65.17 – 25 and the #ParadisePapers

Yesterday I officiated at the patronal service of my church and the subsequent AGM. By the time we had cleared up it was too late for me to go to a special choral evensong at my cathedral, as I had hoped to, so I returned home, had an early meal and settled down to watch TV. I was shocked by the Panorama programme on the involvement of our monarch with all the others in the murky tax avoidance activities that we associate today with some ‘paradise’ islands. Having based my sermon that afternoon on what we imagine ‘saints’ to be and the nature of their heavenly home, based on Isaiah’s imaginings (65.17 – 25), Her Majesty is currently in a different place.

I thought back to my time as a policymaker in Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue, before it merged with HM Customs. I remembered the annual round of meetings with ‘the lobby’, seeking the views of ministers wrestling with tax governance, the consultations with the board’s solicitor or parliamentary counsel, before eventually committing ourselves to drafting the Finance Bill that we would have to steer through its various stages in Parliament before becoming law. Drafting law is a particular art, applying a particular language, always with a nervous eye on how a particular phrase might be interpreted by the Courts. We all wanted a fair tax system but sometimes a judge’s view of fairness came at a stretch, and consternation filled the corridors in Somerset House, where I worked in Georgian splendour in the New Wing completed in 1856. I understand that the budget of the HMRC and staffing levels are now below half they were in my time. I cannot imagine what working conditions must be like for a tax employee now.

Other thoughts came into my mind watching the programme. Earlier in the year we had invited the manager of a local foodbank to come and tell us about her work, as we had decided to tithe some of our income to help them. The Foodbank Network now supplies over a million people with three-day emergency food supplies to families, who are in crisis, not all of whom are unemployed. It is estimated that by the end of the decade a million children could be living in severe poverty, lacking heating and the basic needs of life that most of us take for granted. Our congregation received this information and more, in shocked silence, unlike the aggressive tabloid press and social media that tries to shout down these facts and place the blame with the people who find themselves in desperate circumstances.

I also remembered that, at the beginning of my civil service career, I had been employed in an employment exchange and my job was to suspend the unemployment benefits of those signing on who had either voluntarily left their employment or had been dismissed for misconduct. There was an appeals procedure and part of my job was to prepare the papers for the insurance officer to adjudicate on their claim. Meanwhile the claimant could ask for a B1 form to take to Social Security for some help to tide things over. I was technically part of the branch set up to uncover fraudulent claims. Back to the present, I tried to recall the ratio between benefit fraud and tax avoidance. The exact figure doesn’t come to mind but I seem to remember that it disappears behind a series of zeros.

Contrast all this with the lives of the rich and powerful who, aided by the lawyers, accountants and shell companies, are avoiding paying a fair share of this country’s tax revenues on an industrial scale, by using the lack of transparency of tax havens to hide away their cash, not necessarily illegally of course. As a tax employee I was taught to train my objective gaze on the legality of a transaction, not the morality. And yet, and yet.

Parliament allows many of us to ‘avoid’ our full liability by applying certain reliefs in a purposeful way but what about the wealthy taxpayers and their advisors who go against the grain of the legislation’s intention? Financial instruments are very complex and if a particular set of facts results in a lowering of the expectation of tax liability then who can argue? But when the avoidance of tax liability becomes ‘creative’, does the taxpayer stop to think, “Am I being fair to my tax paying neighbour?”. Or, “Am I being fair to the less fortunate person who is being impoverished because the government lacks the funds to provide a more generous underpinning of the common good?”

It seems many do not and I am left spluttering impotently at my TV screen. The best I can do, so far as rogue companies and businesses are concerned, is to deny them my albeit modest custom. The list grows daily. More of us should do the same, and public authorities should be more discriminating when awarding publicly funded contracts. Then we might see some redemptive policy action in the boardroom.

What is clear is that the current state of affairs cannot continue. Our tax system is broken. Public services are being devastated, harming us all, while individuals and companies avoid tax. We need a properly funded HMRC with powers of enforcement, a tightening of regulations over the advisors and bankers who for a fee smooth the path to a paradise of nil or nominal liability for their rich and the powerful clients. Otherwise, if we do not, very soon HMRC might become just the ‘Department of Revenue & Customs’.


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For the Love of God’s Creation

English: Transfiguration of Jesus

English: Transfiguration of Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my church today we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration.  There is a lot of debate about why the story of the Transfiguration [we used Mark 9.2-9 today] appears in the synoptic gospels and indeed where the Feast of the Transfiguration should occur in the church’s calendar, now or in August. Part of that debate is about the sense we make of the story, how it communicates to us today. The story has a simple truth. It is not about a distant God thundering from the heavens. There is great tenderness in this story. Great holiness. Holiness is a characteristic of God. This holiness expresses itself in self-giving. God takes delight in Jesus and when we gain a greater understanding of this delight, we gain a little more insight into God’s heart. In the words of the 1st Letter of John, ‘we love because God loved us first’ [4.19]. Creation is God’s gift given to us in love so I want to explain why I think it is important that we should cherish this gift.

We are approaching the season of Lent and in Lent we are called on to repent; to acknowledge what we have done wrong and how, directly or indirectly, we have dealt unjustly with our sisters and brothers across the world; and what part we have played in damaging God’s creation. But Lent is also a period of renewal. In Old English, the word meant Spring and comes from its Germanic root for the word long, because in Spring the days visibly lengthen. So Lent is a chance to renew our priorities, reorder our lives, to begin again, in the reconciling love and grace of God.

We know that Jesus enjoyed the beauty of the natural world; that he was knowledgable about the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, about ploughing, sowing and harvesting; all this is to be found in his teaching and parables. He taught in the countryside and by the lake in Galilee. He was at home in the deserted places where he could be alone with God and pray.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has gone with Peter, James and John “up a high mountain……And he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” And the voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” God is declaring his love for his Son.

Ascent is a metaphor widely used in the Christian tradition. It’s a symbolic expression that tells the story of the upward journey of the soul to God. In medieval thought, the idea of ascent became an allegory for a movement within, when the Spirit within you connects with God’s Spirit. The Romantic Movement in the 19th century externalised what stimulated the human spirit. Naturalists like John Muir and Henry Thoreau had a rich and ambiguous sense of awe about mountain landscapes. Poets, composers and painters revelled in the incomparable greatness of nature. The historian William Cronon says that they witnessed God “on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud” [Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 1996, p.73]. For these new naturalists and adventurers, to climb a mountain was an achievement of will against gravity. As vision increased with altitude, a spiritual dimension gave a new perspective of the whole earth, something beyond the perspective of the view, to a place where it was possible to understand the earth’s vastness, its mystery and beauty, expressed in the ‘doctrine of the sublime’ [ibid].

In our modern age we are in awe of the the power and achievement of modern science and technology. As our technologies evolve into more complex realities, possibly threatening realities, there has developed an almost religious hope, a reverence even, that like God technology is to be “loved for itself, apart from its fitness for human life and purpose” [Bronislaw Szerszynski, Nature Technology and the Sacred, 2008, p.63]. This has become almost messianic technological hope for the future that will usher in a better reordering of humankind. This too has become an ascent of the mountain, but now the objective is to tame God and finally replace God.

Christian scriptures inspire the changes we want to see, but do not hide the realities we need to accept. We want to safeguard our sense of the sacred, savouring our relationship with God. That is why Peter wanted to stay on the mountain. He wanted to hold on to his expectations of Jesus. To savour the moment and perhaps hold on to this moment, in this place, for ever.  Many of us have experienced that high moment in our lives when we have been transformed as a result of getting a glimpse of God breaking into our lives. Or we may have witnessed someone living life so intensely, so joyously that it seemed that light radiated from their face. This is transfiguration.

Paul Santmire explores in his book, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, 1985]  the ambiguity of Christian thought in its attitude towards ecology. He quotes the 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, “Nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul” [p.3]. There is some truth in this statement in that if people see themselves only in relationship to God, they will tend not to see themselves in community with God’s creation. Yet a spirituality that focuses on the community of all creatures may also be regarded as a partial vision. We need an integrated spirituality, one that is centred on the healing work of Christ who is bringing into being the saving process of a new Heaven and a new Earth. Santmire describes two motifs, the “spiritual motif” and the “ecological motif” which arise out of what he calls three “root metaphors”, the metaphor of “ascent”, the metaphor of “fecundity,” the metaphor of “migration to a good land”.  When we climb up the path of the mountain are we always looking straight ahead? Do we not pause for breath and turn round to see where we have come from? To see the fertile land below in every dimension, spiritually as well as materially? Then we become aware of the rich tapestry of earth’s beauty and perhaps the sense of God’s immanence in the world.

Christian discipleship is not about turning one’s back on the world and turning towards God. It’s not about rising above the world towards some ethereal realm. Transfiguration is about change. It is about embracing a new ethical relationship not only with other human beings but with the natural world as well, to commune with it in new ways.  So if we join Jesus in going back down the mountain, what will be the direction of our travel?  Are we prepared for this process, an ongoing commitment to transformation? A commitment that embraces honesty, integrity and care for others and God’s creation?

We face an crisis of existence that cannot be resolved politically. This much is clear from the ineffective climate change conferences that have been held regularly since the mid-1990’s. Our future is precariously balanced between hope and disaster. We are now threatened by swiftly moving changes to our environment about which we are painfully ignorant. We are heading into a ‘perfect storm’. So the coming season of Lent, gives us the opportunity to lament the damage that has been done, leading to a transformation of heart and mind that will provide example and moral leadership. Only this kind of vital spiritual response to deal with the ecological crisis we are facing, and the restraints on human life that it will impose will provide us with wisdom for our global future and shalom in God’s creation.

God’s vision goes beyond minor lifestyle changes that are well within our comfort zones. We proclaim a ‘green gospel’ of tree planting, recycling and solar, wind and tidal energy. ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is our mantra, but we recycle because it is a useful, profitable or beneficial thing to do. We need to do more than this. We must speak out on behalf of creation. For too long we have accepted violence against creation and against one another. We must have a compassionate anger that energises action for environmental justice. And must ensure that God’s justice is brought to all those who are most in need. For all creation, solidarity with all its creatures.

The dazzling light of the Transfiguration shines in our faces. We are not without hope and confidence. Creation is God’s gift. Like the gift of his Son, made in love. And we have been commissioned as co-creators in the interrelationship between God, humanity, and the natural world. We have to give voice to the glory of God in the beauty of creation. We are the eyes that see the divine splendour in creation. We are the heart that beats for the love of God’s creation.

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‘We will remember them’ are words we hear and say each Remembrance Day. We dutifully repeated them at our Remembrance Service in All Saints yesterday afternoon. In remembering, and in looking back to the First World War, informed by the poetry and other writings of that time, we held before God those who had died, those who had been injured, and those who have been mentally scarred by this tragic event in human history. But we also recommitted ourselves as followers of the Prince of Peace.

The new politics of today are bringing about new perspectives of war largely because the nature of warfare is also changing. Armies are smaller and there is a greater use of more powerful weapons guided by computer technology. But technology seduces us. Sadly the casualties will not change. There has been little change in the jus in bello. Sixteen million human beings died in the 1914-18 war of whom 7 million were civilians. There may be fewer combatants killed but now the balance of collateral damage is disproportionate.

In our remembrance we must truthfully reflect the experiences of those who took part in war and were directly affected by it. How else can we honour those we seek to remember? One of the pieces of writing we used in our service was the story from Emilio Lussu’s book A Soldier on the Southern Front (translated by Gregory Conti in Pete Ayrton’s anthology of writings from WW1 No Man’s Land). It described a scene on the Southern Front.  Some Italians were facing an Austro-Hungarian patrol,

They were seven of them, walking in single file. Convinced they were nowhere near our line, out of sight, they were proceeding parallel to our own trench, walking straight up, rifles in hand, packs on their backs. They were exposed from their knees up. The captain of the 9th gestured to the sharpshooters, gave the order to fire, and the patrol crumbled to the ground.

War is like big-game hunting. Lussu said this elsewhere in his book. When the captain of the 9th went to inspect the bodies, a sound of rustling was heard in the trees. The sharpshooters aimed their rifles…. The sound came from two squirrels,

Quick and nimble, they chased each other, hid, chased each other again, and his again. Short little shrieks, like uncontainable laughter, marked their encounters each time they launched themselves with little hops from opposite sides of the trunk, the one against the other…..
One of the sharpshooters….muttered,
‘Shall we shoot?’
‘Are you crazy?’ the captain answered in surprise. ‘They’re so cute.’

Why is a squirrel ‘cute’ but not a fellow human being? I am reminded of a story about St Patrick and his peaceful invasion of Ireland. An ambush had been laid for him by King Leary to prevent St Patrick spreading the faith in Ireland. As Patrick and his followers approached they were singing the hymn or lorica known as St Patrick’s “breastplate” of faith, recited for the protection of body and soul against all forms of evil. Instead of seeing St Patrick the King and his men saw only a herd of wild deer and let them pass by.

How are we to learn not to kill? How do we step back? Violence is in each and every one of us. We speak of peace. We pray for peace.  But resolutions to conflicts seem to be difficult to find. Does peace requires something from us that we’re not willing to give up? Remembrance has to be about a commitment to peace – a commitment to do all in our power prevent the tragedy of war that is witnessed by so many generations. Peace must become a greater reality and sought more tenaciously than war.

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November 10, 2014 · 10:47

Why the Church must learn to speak about the ecological crisis

P1000370I have just returned as the Scottish Episcopal Church representative at the Anglo-Scandinavian Pastoral Conference, hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, in the town of Seltjarnarnes close to the City of Reykjavík. The theme of this year´s conference was ‘Theology and the Environment’.

We heard from a meteorological scientist who made it clear from his scientific record that the enormity of the evidence leaves no room for the unsubstantiated opinion of those who deny the existence of global warming, so we must accept that accelerating climate change is in the main caused by human activity and that its effect will not be universal or linear.

The response by the theologians put into context the physicality of Iceland, an island with wild landscapes geologically still in formation (the Barthabunga volcano was rumbling to the east). Also one of the main livelihoods is fishing and the sea is evidence of the indifference of nature to human life. This physicality and its inhabitants’ way of life, with the sea as symbolic of ambivalence of nature, makes Iceland a place of radical uncertainty but also provides relevant connections. What is interesting about Lutheran ecological spirituality is that it is averse to seeing nature, objectifying it in other words, and consequently devaluing creation. The prayers, psalms and hymns sensitively hear the Word of God, giving a rich perception of communication from God, revealing that God is in, with and under all things. Lutherans therefore hear the sighs and groans that St Paul speaks of in Romans 8, renewing their hunger to do what is right and good.

Some of us were not convinced by the ecofeminist arguments put forward in one of the papers. The core concept of women being identified with nature and suffering the same devaluation, risks essentialising women and creating the same dualism that women seek to overcome. This said, the second paper which focused on the influential work of Sallie McFague, a mainstream Protestant, helped to restore some balance.

P1000402I was asked to preach at Áskirkja and this is a part of what I said [the readings were Isaiah 29: 17-24, 2nd Letter to the Corinthians 3: 4-9, Gospel of Mark 7: 31-37]

We are at the mid-point of our conference considering ‘Theology and the Environment’ and I have been reflecting on the Christian view of humankind’s role in nature. Creation is not solely for the benefit of humankind. Its value is in relation to God directly, to glorify God and to bring our Creator delight. We are at the centre of God’s creative purpose and we have been assigned a specific role of steward.

If then I am a steward of nature, whilst I see nature from a human perspective, I am unlike those who wish to dominate nature. I recognise definite limits. I am entrusted with the use of nature, not with its entire consumption. And this stewardship role has a servant dimension because I have a duty of care for organisms other than humans, so I set limits on my use. Unfortunately there has developed a perspective within the Christian tradition that has encouraged some to adopt a more human-centred view that has led them to abuse the environment.

Is this human-centred view a true representation of God’s commission? Does it not ignore the earth’s essential interrelatedness? Are not animals sentient creatures, conscious, aware, capable of feeling? Nature is an complex interplay of life forms, having its own expressiveness and intrinsic value. Although I am separate from nature and free to have a conscious relationship and ethical attitude towards it, if my view is a partial one, being human-centred, am I competent to deal with all the different life forms interacting at different levels of complexity?

Take for example the issue of climate change. There is a significant, though diminishing body of public opinion, that is in literal denial. They ignore the growing body of scientific evidence that climate change is happening. Others, shifting a little from this position, now accept that climate change is happening but utterly reject the idea that that it is being caused by the activities of humankind; while others say, “There’s nothing that can be done.”

Perhaps even more alarming, in my view, are those who advocate global geo-engineering projects to resolve the crisis. This alarms me because it suggests that they are still locked in a culture that taught them to believe they are almost godlike, blessed with all the answers to our planet’s problems. The earth is not a scientific or technological problem to be solved; it is a living being and if it has become damaged because of our exploitation, if it is wounded because we have failed to respect its sacredness, then we must go back to the root of our relationship with the earth.

I am an integral part of nature. I respect other organisms, not only because of their intrinsic value but because of the countless relationships and balances that exist between them that have a value greater than their use to me. I recognise that God is revealed in creation, clearly seen and understood because, as the lesson from Isaiah reveals, God does not dwell in splendid isolation but is the Holy One of Israel, active and with us.

When the disciples brought the deaf man with the speech impediment to Jesus, he “put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue”. Then Jesus spoke to the man saying in Aramaic, “Ephphatha!” which means ‘be opened’. Jesus is opening all the senses of the man. He can now hear and ‘speak plainly’ so that all can understand him. Once again, Jesus is being revealed as the sign of God’s love breaking into the world, breaking down barriers and conventions. The Word is out and 1st century Palestine is astonished.

God is a creator of unlimited love and compassion. The destiny of humans, as of all intelligent creatures, is to ‘be opened’, liberated in other words, to share in the divine nature. Science tells us that we live in the midst of a new consciousness that the microcosm and the macrocosm are one. We are becoming aware of life’s interrelatedness. What we do to nature, we do not do in part. We do it to the whole. We are joined together in a common purpose.

Mark’s Gospel is about the kingdom of God coming on earth through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a political Gospel. Jesus wanted to keep the healing of the deaf man secret because he did not want the news to leak out just yet. He wanted to wait until the right moment.

The Christian faith offers a distinctive perspective on political issues and the Church has every right to articulate such reflection on matters concerning care for creation, economic justice and world peace. But the secular world does not want to hear us. They would prefer that we retreat into our private devotions. However, the earth is in distress and is calling to us to respond, as individuals and communities with ideas and action. And we can do this with confidence, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, because our qualification to speak comes from God, and God alone.

But it is not all about politics. There is the spiritual dimension of life, knowing that we are all part of one spiritual being. It seems to me that the new spiritualities focusing on stewardship, justice and ecology, all help us to repair our broken relationship with nature. This is a universal spirituality. It is shared by other religions and with larger social and environmental movements and science. We need to be in conversation with all of them.

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God unmasked ‘the powers that be’ that would conquer and ultimately destroy us. Peace and wholeness in creation is has been embodied in Jesus Christ. The biblical witness to Jesus the Christ reveals the true extent of our human potential. It is Jesus who calls us to this radical discipleship. In Him is life.

The sacrificial generosity of self-emptying, the death of the ego-self, and the regenerative possibilities of the incarnational story, nourished through liturgy and worship, allow us to make connections with structures of meaning and value in the universe. Our imaginations have been captured by the story of Jesus and through our imagination and reason, informed by biblical wisdom, we can learn to reverence one another and reverence creation. Jesus lifts the veil of dominance from our eyes, gives us ears to listen and unstops our mouths. We are called from a place of sacred wholeness and reverence to take up again our ancient and sacred duty of guardianship of the physical world.


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September 10, 2014 · 17:26

“We were not meant for this”

Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) Lizenz: Public Dom...

Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) Lizenz: Public Domain en:Image:Ed Grey.jpg sv:Bild:Edward Grey.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the House of Commons, this day, one hundred years ago, the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, said,

“Last week I stated that we were working for peace not only for this country, but to preserve the peace of Europe. Today events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy the actual state of affairs, but it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved. Russia and Germany, at any rate, have declared war upon each other.

He went on to say,

“We have consistently worked with a single mind, with all the earnestness in our power, to preserve peace. The House may be satisfied on that point. We have always done it.….In the present crisis it has not been possible to secure the peace of Europe: because there has been little time, and there has been a disposition — at any rate in some quarters on which I will not dwell — to force things rapidly to an issue, at any rate to the great risk of peace, and, as we now know, the result of that is that the policy of peace as far as the great powers generally are concerned is in danger. I do not want to dwell on that, and to comment on it, and to say where the blame seems to us lie, which powers were most in favour of peace, which were most disposed to risk war or endanger peace, because I would like the House to approach this crisis in which we are now from the point of view of British interests, British honour, and British obligations, free from all passion as to why peace has not yet been preserved…”

I believe that this was a speech made by a sensitive man and no warmonger. He expresses the tension and gravity of the situation. Grey’s speech describes the pros and cons of the imminent war in Europe and whether Britain should intervene. Later in the day Grey reported to the House of Commons concerning a note he had received from Belgian Legation in London, about an ultimatum they had received from Germany.  Belgium could not accept the German proposal as to do so would be to sacrifice the honour of their nation. Belgium’s neutrality had been guaranteed by Great Britain as far back as 1839 and so, on August 4th 1914, we declared war on Germany.

For me the First World War is a sequence of dates, of battles and campaigns. But I also have the advantage of my mother’s memory, particularly of childhood, who remembers two soldiers from a Scottish regiment being billeted at her home in Norwich, one a chaplain. Neither returned from the front, which was very distressing for her family, especially her father. I also have the Distinguished Service Medal awarded to an uncle as a result of his bravery in naval action on the River Tigris in present day Iraq. Of course there is much else to guide our understanding. We have archives of film, art and writings documenting the shocking magnitude of the maiming and the slaughter and we have the memorials of the former battlefields to constantly remind us of the pity of war.

At the time however, the majority in Britain were unaware of the true conditions and scale of the war. It was only when the casualty lists started appearing in the newspapers that the horror of what was happening across the Channel and elsewhere became clear. Telegrams, letters and postcards were the principal means of communication from the Front. Diaries were forbidden but some kept a secret journal. Many expressed their feelings in poetry. There are many distinguished WWI poets, but one less well-known is Charles Sorley, born in Aberdeen.

English: Cropped and retouched version of a po...

English: Cropped and retouched version of a portrait of British soldier poet Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915). Photo dated to 1914 or 1915 as subject is in uniform and enlisted in 1914 and was killed in 1915. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anne Powell has collected poems and letters of sixty-six published poets in a book ‘A Deep Cry’. Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley of ‘D’ Company, 7th Battalion Suffolk Regiment is one of them. He was born on 19 May 1895 in Aberdeen. His father was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Aberdeen University and later transferred to Cambridge University, which is why Charles was educated at King’s College Choir School and Marlborough College. Charles won a scholarship to University College, Oxford in 1913 but in his gap year went to Germany and for a short time was a student at the University of Jena. He developed a deep affection for Germany so his immediate reaction was fiercely critical of the intensifying war-fever.  At the outbreak of war he returned home and said this,

…But isn’t all this bloody? I am full of mute and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it…..And ‘serving one’s country is so unpicturesque and unheroic when it comes to the point….

But then his mood changed after he was commissioned in the 7th Battalion Suffolk Regiment,

…So it seems to me that Germany’s only fault…is a lack of real insight and sympathy with those who differ from her. We are not fighting a bully, but a bigot… [ then he says] In training to fight for England, I am training to fight for that deliberate hypocrisy, that terrible middle-class sloth of outlook and appalling ‘imaginative indolence’ that has marked us out from generation to generation. Goliath and Caiaphas – the Philistine and the Pharisee – pound these together and there you have Suburbia and Westminster and Fleet Street.

In March 1915, he wrote to his mother,

…After all, war in this century is inexcusable: and all parties engaged in it must take equal share in the blame of its occurrence….I do wish also that people would not deceive themselves by talk of a just war. There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan…

In June he wrote again,

We have taken over a new lot of trenches and have been having a busy time this past week; our exertions have been those of navvy rather than those of the soldier. And – without at all ‘fraternizing’ – we refrain from interfering with Bother Bosch seventy yards away, as long as he is kind to us…..Our chief enemy is nettles and mosquitoes.

On 12 October the Battalion went into the front line trenches near the Hohenzollern Redoubt and during heavy machine-gun fire Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.

This sonnet was found in his kit and is believed to be the last poem he wrote,

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dreams in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know

It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?

Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.

Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.

Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,

“yet many a better one has died before.”

Then, scanning all the overcrowded mass, should you

Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,

It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.

Great death has made all this for evermore.

To me this poem presents one of the most powerful critiques of those who were the living at the time, the society that promoted such mis-guided zeal in sending millions to their death. It describes a dream encounter between the living and those killed, suggesting that we should avoid pity or praise when speaking to the war-dead: they have been transformed by death into ghosts of the people they once were, and there can be no meaningful conversation. There is bleak despair in this poem, a nightmare vision of powerlessness on both sides of the conversation.

It is said that a soldier on the Western Front turned to one of his mates in the hell of their rat-infested muddy trench, with shells exploding around them, and said, “We were not made for this”. The same is true when ugliness keeps the full glory of God in creation from being revealed, whether that is the heap of ash that was once a Malaysian aeroplane, or the contorted body of a child who had been playing football on a Gaza beach, or the mass graves of innumerable scenes of genocide worldwide.

We were not made for this.

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A ‘thin place’

Celtic monks were keen to find ‘thin places’ having the proximity of liminal awareness, where the elemental rock, water and air comprised no more than a permeable membrane, beyond which, is a living presence that is ultimately good.  I was on retreat, a self-directed retreat, renting a National Trust for Scotland cottage  called Beaton’s Croft, lying in the crofting township of Borneskitaig, about 6 miles north of Uig.  Liminal is from limen, Latin for threshold – a place between places or a point of transition.  I had come here because I felt that I had to leave behind a previous way of life and build a new structure.  The details had not yet been settled.  My motive in choosing Beaton’s Croft was somewhat more prosaic than the original monastic search for the spiritual liminality of the wilderness.  It was a romanticised retreat influenced more by the novelty of the cottage. What I had not bargained for however was a new conversation with this place.


English: Beaton's Croft House A property of th...

English: Beaton’s Croft House A property of the National Trust for Scotland, used as a holiday cottage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Borneskitaig is a thinly populated crofting community on the Trotternish peninsula at the extreme north-western tip of Skye and Beaton’s croft is a rare example of a thatched house that had been a family home until 1981.  The NTS won an award for its conservation work when it took over the ‘A’-listed cottage in the 1990s and it is now a warm and comfortable holiday let with superb views across the Minch to the Isle of Harris.

My life was in transition in the sense that I had surrendered responsibility for looking after my ancient mother (104 and counting) to a care home in my village, after what had been a very stressful period when her physical frailty and psychological problems had been increasing.  The carer service had been excellent, even in the straightened circumstances of these austerity times, and my sister and her husband had been supportive, until that is, my brother-in-law became ill and died at the turn of the year.  It was one morning after I had transferred my mother from the commode to her bed that she said, in a moment of grace, “This is not good for either of us.”  Within a short time she was settled in the care home and I was thinking about some personal rest and recuperation.  Easter is a quiet time for lay ministers, it’s when the clergy get stressed out, so I took my opportunity and booked the cottage.

It was after I had banged my head on the door lintel and scraped the skin on the thatch for the nth time after arrival that I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my decision.  But the next day I sat out in the garden on the picnic bench with my mug of coffee planning my stay.  The transcendental experience of the natural world encompasses wonder and awe and this location was blessed with far horizons to gaze on and sturdy hills to climb.  There was also wall-to-wall sunshine which was to last the entirety of my week-long stay.

English: Camas Mor - the big beach - near Born...

English: Camas Mor – the big beach – near Bornesketaig, in Trotternish, Skye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rejoicing in the resurrection of my solitary life, I sensed on the horizon a creative ‘edge’ of fragility and unknowing, raising thoughts about the Creator; the self-evident goodness of God hidden in what was the historical vestige of the original volcanic chaos.  The malevolent tone of a hooded crow’s call as it listlessly patrolled the fields was unsettling, but the thin notes of the meadow pipit in the garden, “ist, ist, ist” were more confiding, whilst insisting I should listen attentively.

The power of silence is an awesome experience.  The birds’ cries eventually dissolved into the other side of nothingness. Time stood still.  Only the soft breeze on my cheek, ruffling the flowers in the garden, gave any sense of movement.   There was no other human presence.  I closed my eyes and the world disappeared.  My thoughts slowed down to a glacial pace as I slipped into contemplative prayer.  The sacred word or phrase that I had been accustomed to using in this transitional phase of centring prayer served no useful purpose, as I opened myself to God’s presence, which was beyond all thought, image or emotion.  Whereas previously ordinary thoughts would have intruded to interrupt the flow and thus require a re-centring of  my attention, all that I sensed was a sinking into a deep peace of interior silence.  Had I tried to capture the moment in my internal camera, in an attempt to possess what was happening, I would have lost it.  The air that I was breathing was the presence of God.

I do not know how long this trance-like state of mind lasted but it was brought to an abrupt end by a neighbour starting up his strimmer.  Bzzzzzzzzzz!  Oddly my short fuse did not explode.  I was at peace and brimming with gratitude.  Since then a change has taken over my life.  Contemplative prayer has become a central feature of my daily routine rather than an occasional pause in saying the Daily Office.  And I am enjoying greater peace.  All the distressing negativity of past events seem to have drifted away on the soft Borneskitaig breeze.  They are still present in my memory but without the soap opera script.   I sense new growth in my spiritual life.  Who am I?  But more fundamentally, “Who are you, Lord?”




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Why I am giving up supermarkets

As an irredeemable chocoholic, addicted to the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, the annual ‘what shall I give up for Lent’ is a bit of spiritual discipline that requires more serious thought that simply denying myself a fix of Montezuma’s dark chocolate. And in any case God does not want me to be unhappy. Some say we should ‘take on’ rather than ‘give up’. Well I’ve tried that and took up vegetable and fruit-growing one year and it was an unmitigated disaster of botrytis, blight, greenfly, slug invasion and avian robbery.

So my choice this year was a bit of both. Give up supermarkets and take on independent local shops. By supermarkets I mean the Big Four, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and the Co-op. It is not so much their size that troubles me, but their business model. Brighton now has a hiSbe – standing for ‘how it should be’ and on the continent there are Social Supermarkets. I fully expect commercially sustainable social enterprises will emerge out of the proliferation of foodbanks as the austerity years and general feeling of being fed being ripped-off by the Big Four, make people look round for alternatives.

I have been giving up supermarkets gradually for a number of years. Tesco infuriated me when they almost doubled the size of their store in my local town of Inverurie and the last straw was their introduction of self-service tills that have psychologically scarred me for life after an embarrassing incident. I tried Morrisons for a time as they stocked some good quality organic good and locally produced lamb and beef, until that is I discovered that ‘locally’ meant sourced from one of the biggest abattoirs in the country at Turriff that takes animals from as far south as Peterborough. I have two small Co-op self- service stores in my village but the Co-op is a fallen angel. Selling three bottles of wine for a tenner, to their tag line of ‘good with food’ is not the sign of an ethical grocer.

That supermarkets are cheap, convenient and offer choice is a widely held but false belief and many are now turning away. Aldi and Lidl are undercutting them on price and close analysis of the majority of goods the Big Four offer come from a handful of industrial scale suppliers. The ‘horsemeat’ scandal of last year debunked the supply chain policy that was found to be not worth the paper it was written on. And the Big Four proved susceptible to the pro-GM agribusinesses’ propaganda that non-GM feed supply is drying up. It did not take me long to check with the Association of Soy Producers of Brazil, the world’s largest producer of GMO-free soy beans, to disprove the pro-GM pressure.

I suppose I am fortunate that my village has, apart from the afore-mentioned Co-op stores, a Costcutter store (different business model), two butchers, a baker and a chemist that now sells a small range of whole foods, the source of my Montezuma organic Easter Egg, as well as some eco-cleaning products. Once a week I go to Inverurie for an hour’s shopping which has become a pleasure.

Starting with The Green Grocer, who supplies a veg-box for collection or delivery, an astonishing range of whole foods and local dairy and butchery products, teas and coffees and organic processed foods, as well as their own cold pressed locally grown virgin rapeseed oil. An award-winning butcher Davidson’s also sells vegetables and fish, though I buy my fish from the ‘fish lady’ who parks her van near my house and is good for a gossip. Moving down the High Street, I call into The Kilted Frog for his cheeses, pastries and a cafe that rocks. And finally there is Mitchell’s Dairy where I can complete the gaps in my shopping list.

Each month a farmers’ market comes to Inverurie and, as I am out and about in Aberdeenshire quite a lot, I am collating a list of delicatessens, food emporiums and country stores selling local food and choice delicacies if I am feeling extravagant. And this is the thing. My expenditure on food and other household essentials is within 10% of what it was with my supermarket weekly shop. Now I know that my pattern of shopping would not meet the needs of a busy family, and I am in an advantageous financial position but often, when I have watched the ‘family’ shop being loaded on to the conveyor belt, I have noted how much of it was processed, packaged goods, end-of-aisle temptations succumbed to and BOGOFs.

So ‘how should it be’? Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination and pre-shopping preparation to support ethically produced food, from sustainable fairly traded sources, that will not end up as waste (30-50% of food for human consumption globally is wasted). If a growing number of successful businesses can make themselves more transparent about every product they sell and accept responsibility for dealing fairly with their suppliers, and there is no one more accountable than the shopkeeper you can engage in conversation with about what they sell, why can this not become a universal model?

Oh and by the way, I am resurrecting my plans for a ‘grow your own’ plot.

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In the Temple….Candlemas

Candles in Lourdes

Candles in Lourdes (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Unlike the spectacular theophanies in the Pentateuch, in the succeeding books of Samuel , the working out of the divine will in the historical process was generally achieved inscrutably in the background. This was a time of spiritual desolation, priestly corruption, and military danger through a failure of leadership, ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.’ [I Samuel: 3.1b] God was speaking to a settled people who had become complacent and more concerned with the institutions of land management and particularly the notion of kingship.

English: Plan of Solomon's Temple

English: Plan of Solomon’s Temple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel aspired to nationhood and King David wanted to build a temple but David was stained with blood, so he was prevented from fulfilling his wish. It was his son Solomon who built a temple as a permanent reminder of the presence of God among his people but it was not to be permanent. When the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon, the first temple was destroyed. When they returned, Nehemiah set about rebuilding the temple.

In the Book of Malachi, Malachi in Hebrew means ‘my messenger’, the Lord had a powerful message for the corrupt priests in charge of the temple, who were not honouring God. Malachi warns, ‘The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears….?’ [Malachi 3.2] However, when God did come to this Temple, he did not come like ‘a refiner’s fire’ in destructive judgement, as Malachi had predicted. God came to his Temple not in power and great glory, but as a helpless baby, in the arms of a poor young woman.

English: The Second Jewish Temple. Model in th...

English: The Second Jewish Temple. Model in the Israel Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jesus seems to have been ambivalent towards the Temple in Jerusalem. On the one hand he called it the ‘House of God’ [Matthew 12.4], a sacred place sanctified by God’s presence. But he was also critical of the Temple, or rather the authorities who were responsible for it, and he evicted the traders from the Temple. The veil in the Temple was rent in two [Mark 14.38] at the moment of his death upon the Cross and forty years after that, Herod’s Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Our Christian origins of church are closely linked to Jesus’ gathering of a community of followers, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ [Matthew 18.20]. Here church becomes a school of discipleship in which Christians are formed through proclamation of the Word and are transformed through the Eucharist. But what about Paul’s question in his First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ [I Corinthians 3:16].

The Latin word contemplare means ‘in the temple.’ From this we have the meaning of contemplative prayer which has come to signify the prayerful practice of attending to the Divine presence. Thus, for Christians, contemplative spirituality is about our efforts to spend time ‘in the temple of silence’ with God. Beverly Lanzetta says, ‘When we are capable of bearing witness to the theology of the heart, there are no concepts, forms, or names that divide and segregate. Only love, communion, openness. Silence.’ She goes on, ‘Out of the depths of emptiness, when all that distinguishes and divides melts away and we are left with the disappearance of identity, a new theology of dialogue and unity blooms in the moist quietness of the heart [Lanzetta, Beverly J., The Other Side of Nothingness: Toward a Theology of Radical Openness, p. 96].

The name ‘Candlemas’ focuses our attention on candlelight, which evokes the light-mysticism in the contemplative power of the human mind.  This, illuminating the Christ-light within us, moves us, in some sense, towards a greater knowledge of God.  St Luke tells us that while Jesus is being presented in the Temple, the revelation of the Light came to Simeon and Anna, who recognised Jesus as their Lord. But in this moment of their celebration with the Holy Family, a poignant note is struck in the personal canticle of Simeon who, when holding the child in his arms says, ’This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ [vv. 34b – 35]

These powerful words spoken to Mary and Joseph take them beyond the context of celebration of a birth, and obedience to the ritual of cleansing, to an experience of God at work in their lives.  So as we take away the candles that have been in church since Advent, we turn away from Christmas and have to face Lent.  It is a time for us to reflect on God’s plan in our lives, whether this is in meeting the practical needs of our family and community or in deepening our prayerful life for God. Perhaps to reflect too, on how we seem to have become a settled people, complacent about the corrupting influence of money in the institutions of democracy, the media and the economy, and our overuse of the world’s finite resources.

When we expose our hearts and souls to the light of God, we discover both amazing love but also the capacity for pain; sometimes we experience a period of darkness and not knowing, where secret thoughts are laid bare.  These are periods of light and shade in our own story, shining light into the dark corners of our own egos, where we have we have a tendency to be self-centred, pre-occupied with our own thoughts; but also providing light and warmth, opening up what Martin Laird calls the ‘luminous vastness that is interior silence’ [Laird, Martin, A Sunlit Absence, p.6].

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