Mystery – 20th June 2021

The mystery of Eucharist, celebrated in any form, still leads me to eternal things.

“I love to lose myself in a mystery.”

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1643)

***

Last Sunday we celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Communion in my local church for the first time in many months. Given current regulations, we met in the church hall, were suitably socially distanced and sang in muffled fashion into our masks before we received the bread and wine of the Sacrament. It was unfamiliar, and, I would have to admit, quite strange.

The part that was most unusual was the dispensing of the Communion elements. These were in small, sealed containers, not unlike the little cartons of milk available at the local café or in a motorway service station. Peel off the top layer of plastic, and there is the Communion wafer. Remove the next layer of plastic, and there was the wine. The Body and Blood of Christ in sanitised containers. Who would have thought it?

It was the smallness of it that got me, and I might have expected this way of celebrating the Sacrament to fall short of “the best”. But though there was no choir, no uplifting rendition of “Ye gates lift up your heads on high”, no silver chalice, no processing of the elements, no sharing of the peace, the meaning of the Eucharist was still there in all its power. I was invited through a smaller door than usual, a more mundane, insignificant, plastic milk-container door, only to find the wonder, beauty and mystery of the Lord’s Supper still waiting for me on the other side.

In recent years I’ve had the privilege of entering the majesty of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome through the magnificent Holy Door that’s only opened in Jubilee years, as well as bowing low through the Lilliputian Door of Humility to enter the wonders of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A grand door or a simple door, standing tall or bowing low, it made no difference. It was the wonder which awaited me that mattered.

Last Sunday we celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Communion in my local church. The door through which I entered was small and insignificant, like a plastic milk container. But it wasn’t the door that mattered. It was the wonder, beauty and mystery waiting for me that was as amazing as ever.  .  

***

A prayer for today

Lord, open a door for me,

a door of your choosing,

so that I might find

your acceptance, love and healing

waiting for me on the other side.

Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon     

Glimpses – 19th June 2021

“The Devil You Know”,

published by Faber & Faber 2021, ISBN 978-0-571-35760-4.

(The cover photograph and the quotation from the book are used

with permission from the authors,

and with my grateful thanks.)

***

“So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.”

William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much With Us

***

A recent BBC Radio 4  “Book of the Week” was The Devil You Know: Stories of human cruelty and compassion. It’s written by Dr Gwen Adshead, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist based in Broadmoor Hospital who works with violent offenders, and Eileen Horne, a dramatist and storyteller. The book offers fascinating and myth-busting insights into the disturbing world of the nature of evil. The authors invite us to think differently about violence, and, in so doing, they make the case for empathy and compassion over and against our natural instincts to judge and condemn.

In the introduction to the book, Dr Adshead offers us a quote from Dr Murray Cox, another medical psychotherapist at Broadmoor, whom she describes as one of her most influential teachers and mentors. She writes:

A favourite example he would give came from a patient who once said:

‘I’m blind because I see too much, so I study by a dark lamp.’

I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist, having worked all my life in the fields of pastoral and spiritual care. But Dr Cox’s insight from his patient – and Gwen Adshead’s referral to it – is directly transferable to the spiritual dimension of our lives. Which of us has not yearned for clarity, for the dawning of a truth that makes sense of all else? We reach for perfection, an understanding of the total picture of the “whys” of life. But in that search for the absolute, may we not be setting ourselves up to fail, always falling short of understanding and faith? Might it be that we are trying to see too much, and it is this that makes us blind to truth?

Would it not be better – in the powerful metaphor offered to us by a psychotherapist’s patient – for us to “study by a dark lamp”, to focus on a little bit at a time, as much as we can manage, and perhaps to find, right there, a glimmer of truth that will be sufficient for now?

If we are blinded because we try too hard to see too much, let’s make it simpler, focus on what we can understand, and find the glimpses we need that could make each one of us “less forlorn”.

***

A prayer for today

Maybe a glimpse would be enough for me just now, Lord.

The rest can wait. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon       

Happy – 18th June 2021

(Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com)

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday dear Mary.

Happy birthday to you.

***

“Only the soul that loves is happy.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Egmont (Clärchens lied)

***

Today is my wife’s birthday, a special day for someone I love very deeply. And in pondering the significance of the day, this story came to mind.

In 1898 artist Etta Hest purchased a small cabin on Kenwood Hill in Louisville, Kentucky, to use as a summer home. She began a tradition of giving annual art festivals for local artists, writers, educators and others who had summer residences in the area. Over the years, other log cabins were also built on the hillside for well-to-do families who wanted to escape the heat of the cities. Among those were sisters Mildred Jane and Patty Smith Hill who were well known kindergarten and music teachers. 

Mildred and Patty believed that singing was an important part of children’s education and composed and published many songs. In 1893 the Hill sisters had written a book called, Song Stories of the Kindergarten. The first song in the book was entitled “Good Morning to All”. During a birthday celebration in Etta Hest’s summer cabin for her sister Lysette, Patty Hill suggested the words of this song be changed to “Happy Birthday to You”. Although the original song had been copyrighted, the new lyrics were not until 1935.  Under federal law at the time, the copyright wouldn’t expire until 75 years later – 2010. This meant that every time the song was used commercially, such as on stage or in singing telegrams, a royalty of twenty-five dollars was due. 

During the Hill sisters’ lifetime, they had trouble collecting their royalties.  A digital watch company is said to have programmed one of its watches to play the song every hour on the day of someone’s birthday, for which the company paid a penny a watch. It’s estimated that the copyright owners now earn over a million dollars a year. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday” is one of the most commonly-sung songs in the English language.

So, when sing I “Happy Birthday” to my wife today, I suspect I’ll give more thought to the meaning of birthdays and the importance of singing about happiness than I’ve done for a while – and with no royalties due!

***

A prayer for today

I’m happy to be loved.

I’m happy to love someone.

My soul is happy for us all today. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

All – 17th June 2021

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri Nouwen,
based on a painting by Rembrandt which hangs in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. It is among the Dutch master’s final works, probably completed within two years of his death in 1669.

All are welcome in this place.”

Marty Haugen, Let Us Build a House Where Love Can Dwell

***

Henri Nouwen’s slim volume, The Return of the Prodigal Son, has had a profound influence on many people since its publication in 1994. In this deep and profoundly spiritual book, Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s 1668 painting of the same name in The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg as a starting point for a series of moving and inspirational meditations.

Reading the book again recently, I was struck by something new, and that was the location in which Rembrandt sets his painting. For here is the wayward son returning not to a simple, peasant, farming family, but to a wealthy household, and a father who has extensive property and many servants. Nouwen writes: “To match this description Rembrandt clothes [the father] and the two men who are watching him richly.” The elder son, for example, looks resplendent in the finest of robes.

The two women in the background, however – one, a very shadowy depiction indeed – are not front-and-centre, perhaps because of their roles as servants, or because they’re not dressed appropriately, or maybe they’re just nosey. And the returning prodigal son is in rags. One of his shoes has fallen off. He is clearly broken in body as well as in spirt.

As a result, Nouwen continues, “The splendid garb of the father and the prosperous look of his surroundings stand in sharp contrast to the long-suffering so visible in his near-blind eyes, his sorrowful face, and his stooped figure.” For this man offers welcome, forgiveness and blessing, not only for the prodigal who returns, but for the rich and successful. Here is love shown unconditionally to those in the limelight and those in the shadows, those who take and those who serve, those who are haughty and those who are humble, those who are broken and need to kneel in humility, and those who stand and watch.

Henri Nouwen reminds me that here is love and healing not only for the returning prodigal son, the focus of the story, but for all. Which one of us doesn’t need a hand of blessing, needn’t seek forgiveness, no longer yearns for restoration? In unconditional love, all are welcome.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, if your blessèd welcome is unconditional,

might mine be too? Amen

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon     

Bold – 16th June 2021

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

My gate? “Be Bold” or “Be not too bold”? Perhaps I should just wait and see …

***

And as she looked about, she did behold,

How over that same door was likewise writ

Be bold, Be bold, and everywhere Be bold …

At last she spied at that room’s upper end

Another iron door, on which was writ, Be not too bold.”

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queens (1596)

***

Georges Jacques Danton was a leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution and was the first president of the “Committee of Public Safety”. Some historians describe him as the chief force in the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic. He was guillotined in 1794 by the “advocates of revolutionary terror” after accusations of leniency toward the enemies of the Revolution.

In a rousing speech to the Legislative Committee of General Defence in September 1792, he said this:

Boldness, and again, boldness, and always boldness.

It is the nature of the revolutionary purpose and spirit to be bold. How will things change, injustices be challenged, a better society be created unless people are bold? “Boldness … always boldness” was what was required of Georges Jacques Danton and his revolutionary cohorts.

I am not the boldest of people. I can raise a voice of complaint or challenge when it is needed. But I am not bold. I have friends who’ve put themselves in the front line of boldness in campaigns for gay rights, anti-nuclear protests, pro-Palestinian issues, and much more besides. I envy their boldness, and I wonder, sometimes, if I’m simply too timid. And then I read again Edmund Spenser’s advice, quoted above, from 500 years ago.

Yes, there are doors which call us to “Be Bold”, to lie in front of tanks, chain ourselves to railings, be involved in this revolution or that. But there is a door – and thank God for it – which is labelled “Be Not Too Bold”. This is not being timid, or ducking issues, or being less that revolutionary. It is finding a door through which I am able to go, to find on the other side others with whom I can still join in a just and righteous cause.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, make me bold for the cause of right.

Give me strength to keep going. Amen.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Blessing – 15th June 2021

Blessings, and more blessings, be upon you all.

***

“Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread,

Are big with mercy, and shall break,

With blessings on your head.”

William Cowper, Olney Hymns, ‘Light Shining out of Darkness’

***

Concluding my reflections on the 1500th anniversary of the birth of St Columba, I was reminded that what we know about this saint comes from the writings of St Adomnán, a century after Columba’s death. In his Vitae Columbae, Adomnán paints a picture of Godly Man, a monk and a missionary, whose inner life of contemplation was balanced by an outward life of service and evangelism. Columba was a scholar who studied, copied and illuminated the Sacred Texts of his day. He was a pastor, working for the spiritual and physical welfare of his people. And he was mystic, who, his biographer writes, communed regularly with the angels as naturally as having conversations with his brother monks.

Adomnán tells us that St Columba predicted his own demise and passed from time to eternity surrounded by his community of monks, and before the altar of the church he had built. His final act was to raise his right hand in a silent blessing over the people he loved.

I like that. A man who knew himself to be blessed because of his spiritual life and left that blessing with others. This was a blessing received and known; a blessing given away; a blessing for one life given in love to others. Would that we could live like that. If I am blessed – and I know I am in so many ways – why would I want to keep that to myself? And if I don’t know what to say that will bless others, can my blessing not be evidenced by the good I do or even with a hand raised in love when I have no more to say? When, in Cowper’s words, blessings have broken on my head, surely they were not meant for me alone but were for others too.

***

A prayer for today (a prophecy attributed to St Columba)

An I mo chridhe, I mo graidh, an ait guth manaich bidh geum ba,
    Ach mun tig an saoghal gu crich, bithidh I mar a bha.


    Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
    Instead of monks voices shall be the lowing of cattle;
    But ere the world shall come to an end, Iona shall be as it was.

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Coracle – 14th June 2021

St Columba’s Bay, Iona. Can you see Ireland? Neither could Columba …

***

“They are ill discoverers that think there is no land,

When they can see nothing but sea.”

Francis Bacon, Advancement of learning (1605)

***

I mentioned yesterday that June 9th saw the fifteen hundredth anniversary of the birth of St Columba. I’ve been using a new book to guide my prayers around this important anniversary. It’s called “A Novena to Saint Columba”, and, with prayers based on Celtic traditions as well as on writings attributed to St Columba himself, it’s been produced by Fr Ross SJ Crichton, a priest of the RC Diocese of Argyll and the Isles.

One section touches on the treacherous journey Columba made from Ireland to Scotland. During the Saint’s lifetime, sea voyages were the most common means of travel. But many vessels were barely suitable for work inshore far less on a long journey. The most common was the coracle, a small, rounded, lightweight boat with a framework of split and interwoven willow rods tied with willow bark, covered with a skin from a horse or bullock, and smeared with a layer of tar to waterproof it. A coracle was small, frail and held no more than two people. It was in vessels such as these that St Columba and his men crossed to Scotland.

Legend has it that he stopped at various islands between Ireland and Scotland, each time climbing to the highest point to look back home. If he could see Ireland, he wasn’t far enough away, so they sailed on. When, at last, the coracles landed on a pebbled beach of the Isle of Iona, off the south-west tip of the Island of Mull, he climbed the hill above the bay and looked back once again. No longer able to see his native shore, he decided that this was the place on which he was to settle. That spot is now called “St Columba’s Bay” or “The Bay of the Coracle”.

We also have journeys to take, to leave things behind or find new beginnings. Sometimes the travelling is hard, or the boat that carries us is frail. But, like St Columba, we learn to trust the journey, and, when the time is right, we will know that we are in the place where we were meant to be.

Today, with Columba, we trust our coracle, trust our companions, trust our decisions on where to settle, trust our purpose, trust our God.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, calm the storms in my life, and bring me safely home. Amen.

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon    

Colm Cille – 13th June 2021

“A Novena to Saint Columba” by Fr Ross SJ Crichton, Diocese of Argyll and the Isles (https://www.mungobooks.co.uk)

***

“Saint Columba, dear friend we claim,

In father, Son and Spirit’s Name,

Through the Trinity, through the Three,

Our help and our companion be.”

A Prayer of Invocation, Carmichael’s ‘Carmina Gadelica’ (1900)

***

This week has marked the 1500th anniversary of the birth Saint Columba. Born in Ireland in 521, Colm Cille was a descendent of a princely family. We’re told he left his native Donegal as a young man and crossed the sea to the west coast of Scotland. Perhaps he had the restless wanderlust of the Celts in his blood, or maybe the legend of his wish to convert more souls to Christianity than he’d seen slaughtered in a local feud is actually true. One way or another, he landed on the Island of Iona, set up a community there, and took the Christian Gospel to Scotland and beyond.

On June 9th – the actual day of the anniversary – I received in the post a lovely publication from a priest friend. It’s called “A Novena to Saint Columba” and it sets out a series of themes relating to the life of the Saint to guide us in our times of prayer. (https://www.ctsbooks.org.) The book has been produced by Fr Ross SJ Crichton, a priest of the RC Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, and bases its prayers on the deep spiritual traditions of Ireland and Scotland, as well as on writing attributed to Saint Columba himself. I’ll be using these for my own prayers over the next while, as well as reflecting on them here.

The prayer above was part of an invocation which accompanied the transfer of people and their livestock from winter shelter to summer pastures, usually around the beginning of May. It’s a blessing for a journey to a fresh start, and the hopefulness this offers. Perhaps Saint Columba used a prayer like this on his own journey from Ireland to a new beginning. Maybe the Iona monks needed this kind of prayer as they set out with the Gospel message into the wilds of Scotland.

It might be an invocation we can use now, as we seek new pastures and fresh beginnings, in whatever part of our life that’s necessary. For when we look to the future, we might need all the help we can get, and the blessing of Saint Columba might be a good place to start.

***

A prayer for today

Lord, may St Columba bless me as you blessed him, as I face new beginnings. Amen

 ***

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon   

Past – 12th June 2021

Map Photography: Leicester City on a Road Map

Foxes? Leicester? What’s the connection? It must be something from the past …

***

“Join the company of lions rather than assume the lead among foxes.”

Talmud, Aboth. IV. 20

***

Following hedgehogs yesterday, we begin with foxes today …

Leicester City Football Club, winners of the English Premier League in 2015-16 and the FA Cup this year, are nicknamed The Foxes. An image of a fox was first incorporated into the club crest in 1948, simply because Leicestershire is known for foxes and foxhunting. The club mascot is Filbert Fox (after “Filbert Street”, the location of the club’s original ground).

Motherwell Football Club are nicknamed “The Steelmen”, because of the dominance of steelworks in the town, even though heavy industry has long since gone. Sheffield United carry the name “The Blades” because of the association of the town with the making of cutlery. West Bromwich Albion are known as “The Baggies”. Baggy shorts, perhaps? The Dumfries-based club, Queen of the South, have been called “The Doonhamers” since they were founded in 1919. Anyone know why?

We carry with us labels from the past, which may or may not be understood or justified in the present. In my first parish, I knew a man who attended church regularly, one of the most dedicated Christian men I’ve known. He and his wife produced the most gorgeous child, a product of a loving union and a real gift to the world. I had the joy of baptising this baby. Just before the baptism, someone took me aside to tell me the man had served time in prison. Why I was told, I don’t know. Perhaps someone just liked passing on tittle-tattle. But did it matter? Of course not. Like foxhunting for Leicester and steel production for Motherwell, it was an interesting fact from the past but said nothing useful about the present.

If redemption is important, and we are called to forgive, then what lies in the past might be interesting, and may inform who we are and how we live now, but it should never label us or define us completely. Those who once were foxes, may now be lions. Those who were once made of steel, may now be more malleable. Those who were once broken may now be restored to wholeness. Don’t assume. There may be much more you need to know. So, any idea about the “Doonhamers” label?

***

A prayer for today

Lord, I take the past with me, but it does not define me.

I learn lessons from the past, and look to a future of wholeness. Amen.

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon      

Misunderstood – 11th June 2021

Cute? Or not? (Photograph from http://www.pexels.com)

***

You spotted snakes with double tongue,

Thorny hedge-hogs, be not seen;

Newts, and blind-worms, do no wrong;

Come not near our fairy queen.”

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

***

Stimulated by my reference to The Fox and the Hedgehog  story yesterday, I had to do a bit of research. And it’s the hedgehog first …

A hedgehog is a spiny mammal of the Erinaceinae family. There are seventeen species of hedgehog in Europe, Asia and Africa. They’re nocturnal creatures, have changed little in 15 million years and their spiny protection is a defence mechanism against predators. Described by The Woodland Trust as “sleepy, cute, truly iconic”, hedgehogs are one of the UK’s best-loved mammals and spend much of their lives asleep, relying on hedgerows and woodland edges for food and shelter.

“Sleepy, cute, iconic”? The Irish word for a hedgehog is gainneog, which means “ugly little thing”. And Shakespeare obviously didn’t care for them much either when he lumped them in with snakes, newts and blind-worms. But why should we label something as ugly, or dangerous, or distressing just because it’s different and misunderstood?

A young couple moved in next door to an elderly lady I knew. They were “bikers”, the woman with a shaved head and covered in tattoos, the man with long hair and bedecked in piercings. The elderly lady complained to me about them about them every time I visited. She bemoaned a drop in standards. “The people here aren’t what they used to be.” One day, she tripped in the stair and hurt herself badly. When I visited her in hospital, she told me she remembered nothing till she woke up in her hospital bed. “And I don’t even know how I got here,” she confessed. Just then, her two “biker” neighbours appeared at her bedside with a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates. “We found you on the stair,” the man said. “We got an ambulance and went with you to the hospital,” his partner added.

Ugly, dangerous, different, misunderstood? I wonder …

***

A prayer for today

Lord, forgive me if I am guilty of misunderstanding others.

Let me be more patient and slower at jumping to conclusions. Amen.

*** 

An original reflection by © Tom Gordon