Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Ash Wednesday

Blessing the dust

for Ash Wednesday


All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners


or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial – 


did you not know 

what the Holy One 

can do with dust?


This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.


This is the hour

we are marked 

by what has made it

through the burning.


This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.


So let us be marked 

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are


but for claiming 

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world 

is made,

and the stars that blaze

in our bones

and the galaxies that


inside the smudge

we bear.


Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Walking in the Rain

'Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet'. These words of wisdom were offered by a friend in response to one of Neil's and my blog posts from the Camino Portugues in 2016. We'd posted a day or more's worth of soggy photos walking in our ponchos, and these words encapsulated some of what we discovered from the experience. It's like Parker Palmer (courtesy of Outward Bound) says: 'If you can't get out of it, then you'd better get into it'.

Well, yesterday morning I decided to go 'walking in the rain' - donning my poncho I walked the path from our place in Bruce, through the bush on O'Connor ridge and down through Lyneham to my office at St Ninian's.

I was able to greet some of the beautiful stands of trees that I love on the ridge, to smell the wet bark and earth, and to celebrate with the quite large families of birds (maggies, choughs, galahs, pee wees, noisy mynahs and currawongs) as they foraged under leaves and amongst the bushes, and sang to themselves and one another.

It struck me then that this piece of rain-related wisdom is a metaphor that could also suggest a way of being towards our current, limiting circumstances. The circumstances are given ... maybe we wish they were otherwise ... But will we just 'get wet'? Or will we 'walk in the rain'? And what might that look like for each of us?

Because of talks I'm giving at the moment for the World Community for Christian Meditation, on the shape of Christian virtue, I've been thinking along these lines about the virtue of 'obedience'. I know this is a 'virtue' that has extremely mixed press, and is vulnerable to corruption and abuse. But I guess what interests me in it is the sense in which it speaks (when understood carefully) to the possibility of genuinely accepting 'the is-ness of things', even where 'what is' is unchosen and even painful.

This 'genuine acceptance' doesn't mean things should not change, or that we can't hope for a different reality. But the insight is that real, transformative change cannot begin from the place of resistance. And if we can bring ourselves actively to embrace, accept, 'be obedient' to the given and hold ourselves open there, then this creates a space that grace can enter and transform. This is not an easy practice - in fact, sometimes it's intensely painful. But it is an energetic state from which shifts the quality of our responsiveness, and from which we may discern new and creative possibilities for action.

Whether this invitation to be 'obedient' to or radically to accept the given, to 'walk in the rain', touches something about ourselves or our circumstances. something about the systems we're part of, something about the state of the world, I wonder what working with the energy of this could make available for us and our communities this week?


Wednesday, 22 April 2020

I Brought Myself With Me

The title of this week's blog comes from a member of our community, who wrote: 'I brought myself with me into isolation'. I found it a touching and beautiful way of expressing what many of us experience in these days.

At one level, it's a truism. Of course, we bring ourselves with us - wherever we are. But the deeper meaning is that the 'me' I find myself aware of in a more sustained or undistracted way is not always easy to be with. One of the poems that's been doing the rounds in the last few weeks is by Kitty O'Meara, 'The People Stayed Home'. One of the lines is: 'Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows'. There's undoubtedly a sense in which a more sustained time of isolation or solitude, fewer activities, allows space for what may be unresolved or 'unquiet' within us to surface. Things we thought were 'external' to us reveal themselves to be more 'internal' than we imagined. And this can be unsettling, if not distressing.

The idea that we meet our 'shadow' readily provokes the thought that we must 'deal' with ourselves in a deeper way, unpack what lies behind our experience, so as to enter into a deeper peace, a fuller wholeness. And clearly sometimes that's true. There can be wounds long ignored or suppressed that are asking for our attention; there may be habits of being revealed to be destructive, and so on. 'Meeting our shadow' implies an invitation to bring aspects of ourselves more fully to the light so as to be integrated in a new way - there is 'inner work' to be done.

But I wonder if this is always the appropriate or necessary response to meeting my more difficult feelings? A recent conversation, with another member of our community, has got me thinking a bit more about all this.

It's true that the cessation of many of our activities, the openness of the time, may make us more aware, more present to traces of sorrow and suffering in ourselves; it may make more apparent incipient tendencies to feelings of anxiety or agitation or overwhelm or low spirits. But I'm not sure this necessarily signifies there's some massive issue we've kept hidden from ourselves, and that we must now 'address'.

Could it be simply that some of these feelings and tendencies are the fruit of the life we've had, generated by the way life has 'tattooed itself' on our selves, our souls? Like the lines on our faces, there may be characteristic 'inner lines' created by our experience, and some of these tend more down than up, some are a little deeper or more tender than others. But that's just how it is. There's nothing wrong and nothing radically hidden; nothing that needs 'fixing' ... no deeper 'meaning' to be made of it. This is simply 'our face', the face of our soul, and once we've done the necessary work of integration, our freedom lies not in eliminating our 'lines' so much as accepting them as part of who we are, part (in fact) of the wholeness of us.

I wonder, then, if a little tenderness and patience towards our slightly bruised and careworn life lines might be the key to embracing in friendship and even with gratitude the self we bring with us into isolation?


PS. the pictures in today's blog weren't taken today, but about this time last year, when Neil and I had a week in the Snowy Mountains after Easter. These extraordinary trees are snow gums at Charlotte's Pass, and the water below is nearby Rainbow Lake.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020


As our life under quasi-lockdown continues, it's impossible to avoid the question 'how long?' How long will we have to live like this? How long before things return to normal?

It's a futile kind of question since, as numerous commentators have pointed out, no one knows 'how long'. We are waiting to see how the 'curve' goes, waiting for a treatment or vaccine, waiting till it seems 'safe enough' to emerge.

In the meantime, it has gone on long enough already for many of us to suffer symptoms of what the early monastic tradition called 'acedia', 'one of the eight great pressures on the soul' (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honeycakes, p.83).

Acedia is what happens when you are stuck in your monastic cell, bored and restless, frustrated, lacking motivation and so inclined to displace 'stresses and difficulties from the inner to the outer world'. In the case of the desert monastics, the prime temptation of acedia was the temptation to move, to leave where you were, to cure the intolerable sense of boredom, frustration and restlessness by changing your circumstances or finding something to distract you. And according to the wisdom of the desert, the only cure for acedia is stillness - staying put, embracing here and now, doing the next ordinary thing. For if you run away from these difficult feelings, if you cannot learn to be peaceably with the circumstances you are in, nothing in the end can be transformed. 'If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you'.

This morning, I was able to spend time in stillness by one of the ponds at John Knight Park, at Lake Ginninderra. I haven't exactly been suffering from acedia - too busy over Easter for that!! But I did feel a level of agitation, tiredness, some anxiety about coming commitments - and as ever, the pressure with such feelings is to be driven by them, to get busier and busier, to try to make them go away by addressing the ostensible cause.

But that brought me back (yet again) to the experience that the only cure for agitation is stillness, the kind of deep stillness of the natural world. Which day after day, does what it does:

the trees rooted in place,

the birds pottering about looking for insects

drying their wings

and an enormous gratitude for the is-ness of things.

I'm wondering about your experiences of 'acedia' ... boredom, restless agitation, the compulsion to move. What are you learning about how you suffer it in these days? What are you learning about responding to it?


Tuesday, 7 April 2020

From Loneliness to Solitude

The experience of 'social distancing' has brought the question of 'loneliness' to the fore for many of us.

Loneliness is a difficult experience, a negative state that enters everyone’s life at some point. You may have felt it as a child when other kids laughed at you because you were ‘different’, or as a teenager when you were the last one chosen for the team or not invited to the party, when your children left home or when you found yourself living alone for the first time. 

You may be feeling it now – a strange inner gnawing; mental and emotional hunger; boredom, ‘suffocation’, restlessness. We try to avoid this painful void by staying busy, ‘connected’, and distracted, but is this a life-giving strategy? What if we were to embrace it?

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch contemplative and spiritual teacher wrote:

‘Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude ... To live a spiritual life, we must first find the courage to enter the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude’. 

So, what’s the difference between loneliness and solitude? If I think about this in my own experience, it seems to me that the dynamic of loneliness is resistance (something is wrong here), whereas the dynamic of solitude is acceptance. Importantly, ‘acceptance’ isn’t just resignation, putting up with it. It’s a more active embracing or befriending of my aloneness. It’s a choice and a practice which involves the courage to be fully ‘with’ what is. When I stop resisting my situation, I become present to what is here, given – the play of light and shadow in the leaves outside the window… the song of a bird… the comforting stillness of the chair in the room… the steam rising from my cup of tea…

Paradoxically, solitude is where we discover we are not alone. ‘I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude’, Henry David Thoreau wrote. And somehow, the more I embrace my solitude, the more I experience myself as belonging to 'the family of things' (Mary Oliver), the more available I am for real relationship and intimacy.The movement from loneliness to solitude leads ‘to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response’, Nouwen wrote.

So how do we practise this radical embrace of aloneness? For myself, I've discovered that a beginning is to notice the form of my resistance. When we're feeling lonely, is there a story we tell ourselves?  – ‘It shouldn’t be like this… if only I had a partner, or my children lived closer, or my friends weren’t so caught up, or I wasn’t so physically limited…

These things can be genuine sorrows, and being alone can be difficult. But our tradition teaches that our wounds are also the site of our transformation – the crack where the light gets in (to quote Leonard Cohen). Resisting our loneliness or seeing it as a problem to be solved, inflames the wound. Giving up the story that makes it seem as if something is wrong, leaning into the pain rather than pushing it away – these are the inner acts that allow grace to work. Let it be… be with it, and it will transform. 

With grateful thanks to Neil for his co-authoring of this post! Interested in your thoughts and experience, and how the dynamic of loneliness and solitude is playing out for you in these days of COVID-19!


Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Finding a Rhythm

Welcome to a new chapter in the Wednesday Retreat blog! I haven't posted anything here for awhile, but in these strange times of COVID-19, it seemed a resource we might make use of together. I sense that it offers a vehicle for sharing thoughts and wisdom from the contemplative tradition that can help us inhabit our new circumstances. And it offers a space (albeit more limited) where others can share their thoughts, insights, questions, links to helpful readings or podcasts. I hope you might find it helpful, and invite you to participate to the extent you feel drawn.

One of the things that's struck me in the last week is the difficulty of finding a rhythm for the days. In the first flush of communication about isolation, I received a couple of poems waxing lyrical about the opportunity for sabbath, for rest, for recalibrating and so on - and there was much in them that appealed. But, in fact, my experience is of having been as busy as ever, and distinctly less rested - and I think for many people this is so. So many teleconferences and Zooms, so much technology to learn. Many of us are figuring out how to put our work 'online' - from churches to classrooms to businesses - and it's all a bit stressful. At the same time, for others I know, work and many significant activities and social engagements, have simply ceased - there's an abrupt gap and an abrupt aloneness to come to terms with - more a lacuna than a sabbath.

And I began to wonder if, whether we feel hectic and digitally overloaded, or becalmed and suddenly isolated, perhaps the common experience is of the disruption of the rhythm of our days. Established patterns and routines, established goings outs and comings in, are no longer given. And this is experienced as a kind of dislocation - an existential discombobulation.

Rowan Williams once suggested that one of the major threats to human wellbeing 'is the sense of living without landmarks in time or space'. In relation to 'space', this points to the importance of a certain kind of built environment; in relation to 'time' it suggests the necessity of certain rhythms - of day and night, work and rest, and also a calendar that differentiates the days. If we are interested in a community's health and survival capacity, he says, we must have a sense of 'how we break up time into significant units, how we punctuate the simple duration of our days with events that locate us' against a larger horizon ('Sustainable communities' in Faith in the Public Square, p.240).

This sense of the significance of the rhythm of a day is clearly evident in monastic life - each day punctuated by the 'hours' of prayer, the days themselves organised by the calendar which connects humanity's story with God.

And I wonder what we might discover about what our own particular needs are in this regard? What kind of rhythm conduces to your flourishing? How are you beginning to recalibrate your time and the balance of your days? How is prayer or daily meditation a part of that (or not)? What are you finding helpful?

Let's share some of our experience, as we seek to make of this time an opportunity for growth and deepening, as we learn to 'be together alone'.


Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Book of Nature

Today was my first Wednesday retreat since coming home and where should I head but our beloved Botanic Gardens? This gum tree in the car park always signals, somehow, the entry into rest and this morning it was positively shining in the light.

It's been a busy two weeks since I've been back, picking up the threads of things, and I was conscious of a sense of being a bit wound up, not really having stopped fully for a while. As ever, the longer I spent in the gardens, contemplating the life around me, the more I came to rest and to feel myself being restored by simple presence to the beauty of the world.

Winter brings out the sculptural elements of trees, ferns, shrubs.

This double trunk looked like the feet of a giant.

Winter is also the time of the banksias - their amazing colours and delicate filamented flowers.

And a slightly hoarier banksia-man!

The medievals thought that God was revealed not only in the book of Scripture but in the book of Nature, and Meister Eckhart said: 'Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God'. I'm not sure exactly what this means - but an implication, I think, is that in being present to the world we are present to God. No wonder, then, that the practice of presence is so deeply healing and renewing.