Saturday, 8 December 2012

Merry Solstice

Whatever festival you celebrate this month, may it be a blessing to you.

Deep peace of the
running waves to you.

Deep peace of the
flowing air to you.

Deep peace of the
quiet earth to you.

Deep peace of the
shining stars to you.

Deep peace of the
Sun of Peace to you.

  • Advent: four weeks prior to Christmas.
  • Saint Nicholas' Day: 6 December
  • Bodhi Day: 8 December - Day of Enlightenment, celebrating the day that the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni or Siddhartha Guatama) experienced enlightenment (also known as Bodhi).
  • Saint Lucy's Day: 13 December - Church Feast Day. Saint Lucy comes as a young woman with lights and sweets.
  • Winter Solstice: 21 December-22 December - midwinter
  • Soyal: 21 December - Zuni and Hopi
  • Yalda: 21 December - The turning point, Winter Solstice. As the longest night of the year and the beginning of the lengthening of days, Shabe Yaldā or Shabe Chelle is an Iranian festival celebrating the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil. Shabe yalda means 'birthday eve.' According to Persian mythology, Mithra was born at dawn on the 22nd of December to a virgin mother. He symbolizes light, truth, goodness, strength, and friendship. Herodotus reports that this was the most important holiday of the year for contemporary Persians. In modern times Persians celebrate Yalda by staying up late or all night, a practice known as Shab Chera meaning 'night gazing'. Fruits and nuts are eaten, especially pomegranates and watermelons, whose red color invokes the crimson hues of dawn and symbolize Mithra.
  • Mōdraniht: or Mothers' Night, the Saxon winter solstice festival.
  • Saturnalia: the Roman winter solstice festival
  • Pancha Ganapati: Five-day festival in honor of Lord Ganesha. December 21–25.
  • Christmas Eve: 24 December
  • Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Day of the birth of the Unconquered Sun): late Roman Empire - 25 December
  • Christmas: 25 December
  • Twelve Days of Christmas: 25 December through 6 January
  • YulePagan winter festival that was celebrated by the historical Germanic people from late December to early January.
  • Anastasia of Sirmium Feast Day: 25 December
  • Malkh: 25 December
  • Boxing Day: 26 December - Gift-giving day after Christmas.
  • Kwanzaa: 26 December - 1 January - Pan-African festival celebrated in North America
  • Saint Stephen's Day: 26 December
  • Saint John the Evangelist's Day: 27 December
  • Holy Innocents' Day: 28 December
  • Saint Sylvester's Day: 31 December
  • Watch Night: 31 December
  • New Year's Eve: 31 December - Last day of the Gregorian year
  • Hogmanay: Night of 31 December - Before dawn of 1 January - Scottish New Year's Eve celebration

Friday, 30 November 2012

Our vegetable love should grow

I love this prayer by Max Coots, the emeritus minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, New York. 
Let Us Give Thanks by Max Coots
Let us give thanks for a bounty of people.
For children who are our second planting, and, though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.
Let us give thanks:
For generous friends, with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;
For feisty friends as tart as apples;
For continuous friends who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them.
For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;
For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and as good for you;
For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;
For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you throughout the winter;
For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;
For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts, and witherings;
And, finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter.
For all these, we give thanks.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


This prayer, meditation and address were part of a service that I led at Oxford Unitarians on 13 November 2011.

Divine Spirit, source of all being,
From whom we emerge and to whom we return,
We have gathered today to remember lives lost in war.
For it is written,
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
We are thankful for the great love that gave us freedom and for the sacrifice of those who died that we may live in freedom.
But we wonder sometimes if our freedom was not bought at too dear a cost.
And we pray for peace among the nations, and dialogue between warring factions.
May we always remember those who died in war and persecution – not only the soldiers, but the civilians who were raped and tortured and butchered.
May we honour those who stood as a witness for peace, because they would not turn their hands to killing.
May our lives and our communities be a beacon of justice, peace and hope,
And may our words and deeds be a witness for peace, all the days of our lives.
And when we fall into strife and bitterness, may we forgive ourselves and others, and work for reconciliation and renewed trust.
We would live our own lives in such a manner that we plant seeds of peace, and not seeds of war.
We would work for peace and justice and tolerance, so that war may be prevented.
For we are held in your vast and mysterious love,
Each life a bright thread in the tapestry of being,
And all are one, and one is all, and the divine life shines in each and all.

Meditation: Fallen leaves by Yvonne Aburrow

Each year with the falling of the leaves we shall remember them
As the years drift into the silence of longing –
The longing for the ones who never came back.

A photograph, dimmed by time, is all that remains;
A lock of hair, a memory, a name, each evoking
A man that lived and breathed and laughed.

Poets and dreamers, craftsmen and lovers,
Farmers and ploughmen, boys from the shires,
Fallen leaves in the autumn, returning to the soil.

Address: War and peace

War, when you look at it, is a very strange cultural phenomenon. Vast amounts of men and machines are pitted against each other, and it is not moral superiority that ensures victory, but superior tactics and technology. It is odd that the outcome is determined by tactics and technology rather than by who is actually right. One might as well determine the outcome by having politicians engage in single combat in a large stadium, as it would save an awful lot of lives and resources.
Of course faith in the rightness of the cause motivates the combatants, and we would like to think that those who are fighting for the morally superior side actually have a stronger motivation – because they are motivated by love of justice and freedom and humanity, rather than by anger towards a minority, or fear of retribution by their commanders. These ideas hold up reasonably well for the Second World War, because it was fairly obvious that Nazism must be defeated – but America was still racially segregated when it was busy fighting the Nazis, and many people in Britain flirted with far right politics during the Great Depression, so there must have been people fighting the Nazis who supported segregation and right-wing politics, or who were just fighting for nationalistic reasons. The idea that faith in the rightness of the cause determined the outcome of the First World War does not hold up so well, though, because it was the last great war of imperialism, and both sides had made alliances and grabbed territory, and were squabbling over who should have the most land.
I also find it deeply disturbing that if the reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War had not been so punitive, then the Great Depression would not have had such a huge impact on the German economy, and the Nazis might never have got into power. If only the victors of the First World War had read Lao Tsu’s warning to leaders victorious in wars.  He said, “Treat victory like a funeral” – in other words, don’t gloat over your defeated enemy and demand revenge, but treat them well and kindly so that they won’t want to fight you again.
Lao Tsu’s work, written in the 6th century BCE, is partly intended as a treatise on statecraft, and its ideas are still applicable today.
One politician who might well have been applying similar principles was the much-maligned Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a Unitarian, and related to a long-standing Unitarian family. He did everything he could to prevent war (as is well known), but he also built up Britain’s armaments in case war turned out to be inevitable (something that is not so well-known). It was a very practical and balanced approach to the politics of the day.
My own attitude to war is fairly ambivalent. I admire the heroism of warriors, and the camaraderie of regiments, and their colourful and stirring traditions. I admire the craftsmanship and technology that goes into making weapons like swords, bows and arrows, castles and siege engines.  I find people’s personal war stories absolutely fascinating, and never tire of listening to them. On the other hand, I abhor the bloodshed and violence, the blind fury of battle, the slaughter of men, the terrible waste of humanity and talent that is involved, and the sorrow of bereavement on such a vast scale, and the tragedy of the physically maimed and psychologically scarred men that return from war. I often think of Wilfred Owen, whose poems we heard earlier, which often move me to tears. Wilfred Owen was killed in the last week of the First World War, and his mother received the telegram informing her of his death as the church bells announcing the Armistice were ringing out over the Shropshire hills.
And yet, and yet, I am grateful that imperialism and Nazism and other horrors were defeated so that we can live in freedom now. I wear a red poppy in memory of those who gave their lives for our freedom, and a white poppy in the hope that one day no-one will ever have to make that sacrifice again.
One thing that is very striking about the experience of war, is that people never seem to feel so alive as when death is so close to them. People lived more intensely and vividly, as if the saying “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” was never far from their minds. If you have ever read the novels of Mary Wesley, you will be aware of how intensely life was lived during the war – lovers did not know if they would ever see each other again, and so they gave their all. There was camaraderie and a sense of common humanity during the Blitz – although, as someone who lived through that period pointed out to me, there were also a lot of people making a fast buck on the black market and exploiting others.
On the other hand, there are wonderful stories like the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the friendship of JRR Tolkien with his batman in the trenches, which he recreated in literary form in the relationship of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings – and it is very clear that Frodo would not have succeeded in his quest if it were not for the support of his friend Sam.
I think, however, that what is happening here is the beauty and compassion of humanity asserting itself in spite of the horrors of war, not because of them. Tolkien was one of a group of four close friends at grammar school, and he was the only one to survive the First World War.
If only the heroism and the craftsmanship could be channelled towards peaceful ends. If only the world was a more just and equitable place, where resources were fairly distributed and nobody thought they needed to fight for territory, or try to wipe out people who are different. It’s possible to create camaraderie and fellow-feeling by digging a fire-pit for a weekend camp – there’s no need to go to war to create it.
Imagine a world without war. Instead of money being spent on guns and tanks and fighter planes, it would be spent on improving the lives of ordinary people. There’s a well-known feminist poster that says, imagine if the army had to hold jumble sales to raise money for weapons, and healthcare was properly funded. It’s true, there is something wrong with a world where wars are automatically funded, but hospitals have to fund-raise for essential equipment.
The Quakers talk about the seeds of war. There are ideas and practices prevalent in our society that make war more likely, make it seem inevitable, even. The way boys are discouraged from showing emotion, and encouraged to regard women as objects, so that they could one day be soldiers. The way our taxes go to fund the army and the maintenance of weapons, whether we want them to or not. The way that our industry is geared towards the manufacture and distribution of weapons of war. The way that social inequality is maintained, one result of which is that the army seems like a good career for a working-class lad.
If there are seeds of war, there must also be seeds of peace – seeds that we can plant. There are practices like non-violent communication, meditation, contemplation, community-building, diplomacy, interfaith dialogue, living sustainably, volunteering overseas, all of which promote an understanding of other people and cultures, promote dialogue rather than violence, and contribute towards the creation of a just and peaceful world. But there can be no peace until there is social and environmental justice. Until resources are fairly distributed, there will always be people trying to grab land and resources, or people trying to prevent others from getting them. I am pretty sure that both the Gulf Wars and the Falklands War were about oil, and the reason that no-one has bothered to liberate Tibet from the Chinese is because it has no natural resources worth exploiting, and because China is a major creditor and trading partner of Western countries.
Let us, therefore, seek out and plant the seeds of peace. Let us seek to see things from other people’s point of view. Let us promote interfaith dialogue, non-violent communication and social and environmental justice. And let us practice peace in our own lives, as I know many of you are already doing. For as A J Muste once said, “There is no way to peace: peace is the way”.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Many Names

Paperback, 32 Pages 
Price: £5.99

A book of prayers, meditations and chalice lightings for use in Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist churches, Unitarian Earth Spirit groups, and Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans groups. These prayers reflect diverse understandings of the Divine, including Taoist, Pagan, pantheist, Neo-Platonic, and Unitarian perspectives. There are also prayers and chalice lightings on different themes and for different seasonal festivals.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Parody and parable

There are some "spiritual" stories that are so cheesy that they richly deserve to be parodied... and sometimes the parody itself achieves greatness - well beyond what might have been expected.

Two examples spring to mind. Footprints and The Giving Tree. Both of these stories express a passive and quietist view of life which I find deeply disturbing.

There is a wonderful Discordian parody of the footprints story which expresses a Pagan ethic of independence and laughing at life.

And Victoria Weinstein has done a brilliant parody called The Demanding Tree, which expresses feminist and ecological concerns beautifully.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Endless Knot

Paperback, 49 Pages
Price: £5.99 
Ships in 3–5 business days
Poetry of place, experience, the seasons, and the sacred. 
Written over many years, these poems are the distillation of experiences of ritual, landscape and mythology. 
Lovers of landscape and nature will enjoy this collection.
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Also available as an eBook (suitable for Kindle and other formats)

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The silent heart of God

Another lectio divina poem. This one is a reflection on a phrase from "On Marriage", with some ideas from "On Children", from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

God cannot tell all that She knows,
for God is in the silent unfolding
of every heart, every flower,
every moment.
God is in the wind that dances
between lover and beloved.
She is the Archer
who lets fly the arrow of time.
She is life's longing for itself.
So do not ask what
is in the silent heart of God
but rest there, within the silence
and feel Her heartbeat
in every moment.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

In the heart of life

Another Lectio Divina poem - a reflection on the stanza "On Love" from The Prophet.

If we would be in the heart of Life,
We cannot escape from Love,
neither its pain nor its ecstasy.
The reversals, the uncertainty,
the opening of the heart to the beloved
And the vulnerability.
We must pass through
the refining fire of love
and be remade.

Accompanying music - Soeur Marie Keyrouz, Chant Traditionnel Maronite

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Leaving for Orphalese

Lectio Divina poem for this morning: The opening scene in The Prophet, where he is standing looking out to sea and sees his ship coming to take him back to Orphalese, his home town.

We are all, always, leaving for Orphalese,
The remembered country of the heart.
Looking for home in the faces of strangers,
Dreaming of the dark cypresses and the mellow stone.
We stand at the edge of the fathomless sea
And look towards the West,
Dreaming of the impossible islands of legend.
But we must turn our faces to the land
And the people among whom we walk
And love them for who they are,
Cherishing their inmost flame
That burns with the same ardour
For their own personal Orphalese.
Let us not look for Orphalese on some distant shore
But find it here, now, in our own hearts.

Yvonne Aburrow, 9:30, 14-7-12

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Inhabiting the paradox

There's a great post by Andrew Brown over at Caute about inhabiting paradox, which addresses the identity of British Unitarianism - is it Christian, post-Christian, pluralist, eclectic...?

I blogged about this in a series of posts last year: The empty path; Is Unitarianism Christian?; Roots hold me close, wings set me free; Golden heresies; Blessed are the poor.

I think it is very important to keep inhabiting the paradox. Places of tension are places of creativity.

I think that in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as establishing the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, the Socinians did something else important. The doctrine of the Trinity, and Christ's divinity within that, could only be made known to humanity by a particular revelation (and therefore available only via Christianity); whereas the idea that the Divine is either one or many is accessible to reason and experience, and therefore available to all religions.

Andrew pinpoints correctly that there is a debate between "those who would like us to land definitively on the side of our inherited Christian tradition" and "those who would like us to land definitely on the side of open-ended change and to insist that we must let go of our distinctive traditions and roots and move into an undiffentiated pluralistic landscape".

I agree that we should not plump for one side or the other of this debate.

I think there is a third possibility: that we acknowledge that Unitarianism has always divagated between these possibilities, and that the Unitarianisms of the past contained the seeds of the humanist element, the earth spirit element, and the pluralist element. It is not (as I am sure Andrew is aware) that the Unitarianism of the past was uniformly Christian, and that the pluralism is a new thing. Rather, there were the Transcendentalists, deists, theists, pantheists, humanists and nature-lovers (Coleridge, Morganwg, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc). And Servetus was inspired by the religious pluralism of Moorish Spain and by reading Hermetic texts.

I think that it is possible to develop a distinct Unitarian tradition with its own particular traditions and rituals, and that this is what is happening with things like the flower communion, water communion, chalice lighting, and Unitarian ways of celebrating Pagan seasonal festivals, or doing bread and wine communion, or lectio divina, or other spiritual practices. And there are so many excellent Unitarian writers on spirituality and religion who have created a rich and deep culture for us to draw upon.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The human soul

The human soul, far from fixed, linear and predisposed to suspicion and doubt, is instead a fluxive, malleable, infinitely evolving thing, matching the insane, kaleidoscopic sweep of life itself. To lock the human heart into a cage of timid ideology or rigid sexual conduct, to forcibly limit its capacity for love is one of the most oppressive things you can ever do.
Mark Morford

Thursday, 5 April 2012


Edward Lear, The Garden of Gethsemane

We explore these mysteries in twilight,
Descent into death, the dimming of light,
The agony in the garden, praying
not to drain the cup of death to its dregs.
The loss of hope, the dreadful burden shouldered,
the lonely candles snuffed out one by one.
The earth shuddered at human cruelty;
A crack of lightning rent the heavens.
The temple curtain tore from head to foot
Revealing the divine presence within.
Each of us must descend into the depths
To be reborn as something greater.
We must pour out our love upon the earth
To receive the love that passes understanding.

(for Malcolm Guite)

More about Tenebrae

Monday, 2 April 2012


Here's me reading some of my prayers and meditations. These were recorded by James Barry and John Wilkinson at Great Hucklow in February 2012.

Monday, 12 March 2012

A hymn to darkness

WHEN the day of toil is ended,
And night cometh cool and still,
Clad in starry spangled raiment,
Trailing softly o'er the hill,
Hand and heart and aching brain
In her peace forget their pain.

Grateful presence of the night-time
Soft restraint of sleep so sweet,
Holding still our fervent fingers,
Gently chaining restless feet;—
They who labour in the light
Hail the holy, holy night.

May we rise with hearts more hopeful
For to-morrow and its strife,
With a stronger aspiration
And resolve for nobler life,
Consecrated all anew,
To the good, the pure, the true.

Robert Henry Underwood Bloor (160 in Hymns of Modern Thought)

Robert Henry Underwood Bloor, minister of  Trowbridge Unitarians from 1895 to 1899, was a former Anglican who had adopted Unitarian views. After ministering at Trowbridge, he went on to be minister for Brighton Unitarian Church and Essex Church in Kensington. He was the author of Christianity & the Religious Drama, which he gave as the Essex hall lecture for 1928, and which was published by Beacon Press in 1930. He contributed five hymns (numbers 69104114132and 160) to the hymn-book of the Leicester Secular Society, Hymns of Modern Thought. Several other Unitarian authors (Sarah Flower Adams, Stopford Brooke, Frederick Lucian Hosmer, Moncure Conway, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Longfellow) appear on the list of contributors; they were mainly of the Transcendentalist and humanist persuasion. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Nature Boy

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy
And sad of eye
But very wise
Was he 
And then one day
A magic day he came my way
And while we spoke of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me
"The greatest thing
You'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return"
(instrumental interlude)
"The greatest thing
You'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return" 
~ eden ahbez

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Green Chapel

Then spurred he Gringolet, and betook himself along the path by the side of a wood, and rode over a rough hill into the valley. And he lingered there some time, and a wild place he thought it, for he saw no resting-place, but only high hills on both sides, and rough, rugged rocks and huge boulders, and the hill shadows seemed desolating to him. Then he drew up his horse, and it seemed wondrous strange to him that he saw not the Green Chapel on any side. At length a little way off he caught sight of a round hillock by the side of a brook, and there was a ford across the brook, and the water therein bubbled as though it were boiling. The knight caught up the reins and came to the hill, alighted, and tied up the reins to the rugged branch of a tree. Then he went to the hill and walked round about it, debating within himself what place it might be. It had a hole at the end and on either side, and it was overgrown with tufts of grass and was all round and hollow within. He thought it naught but an old cave or a crevice. Within and about it there seemed to be a spell. 'Ah lord,' quoth the gentle knight, 'Is this the green chapel?'
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ll 2160 - 2186

Friday, 2 March 2012


Pan, by Inertia K
Your voice is heard
in the whispering of the olive trees
Your hoofbeats
echo in the rain on the roof at night
Your goaty fragrance
finds its way into my dreams
The curve of your back
is in the sinuous folds of the land
The crook of your horns
is in the crescent Moon
The music of your pipes
is whistling down the wind
Your wild dancing
stirs the Maenads to ecastic frenzy.
Your holy tree
is growing by the altar
next to my heart.

Pan, whose home is the wilderness
may I not fear the wild places
far from human habitat
may I not fear the wind
that brings constant change
may I not fear the sublime moment
of recognising my own smallness
in the face of all that is

(Yvonne Aburrow)

Meditation from Thais

My favourite piece of music of all time. So beautiful.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Then sings my soul

O Universe! When I in awe-struck wonder
Consider all the beauty of the earth,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
The nebulae where stars are come to birth;

Then sings my soul, o Universe, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, o wondrous mystery,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze;


When I behold the wondrous evolution
Of diverse forms, adapted to their place
And know that life, arisen from the ocean
Can love and laugh, and move with fluid grace


And when I die, and pass into a memory
I know that all my molecules shall be
Part of some life, some bird or flower or tree
For life is change, and death's a mystery.


And life goes on, in all its splendid rhythm
And love is all the grace we'll ever know
Death yields to birth, and so the wheel turns always:
Love turns the wheel, and makes the dancers go.


(pantheist version by Yvonne Aburrow)

(tune and original words)

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

What to call you?

Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, where are you?
In the sky song, in the forest, sounds your cry.
What to give you, what to call you, what am I?

Norbert Čapek
So who or what is "God"? For me, the Divine (as I prefer to refer to it) is not a person, not a thing, and probably not an energy. For me, the Divine is an experience.

In Pagan religions, deities have specific names. Some people regard them as energies, some regard them as archetypes; some regard them as individual people. This gets complicated by issues like whether Odin and Woden are the same person. And then what about Thor, Perkunas, Jupiter, Taranis, or even Yahweh - they are all thunder gods, but maybe they are distinct from each other (they certainly are culturally distinct).

In monotheist religions, there are plenty of arguments about whether the "one true god" (TM) is the same as someone else's "one true god". Are the gods of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism the same? What about Brahma in Hinduism? What about the Spirit of Life worshipped by many Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists? How far does your concept of "God" extend? If it does not include other deity-forms, should you enlarge your concept? Desmond Tutu has recently written a book, God is not a Christian, making the point that Gandhi's God is the same as Tutu's God.

When I address the Divine in a Unitarian service, I am not addressing Yahweh, or the god of Abraham, Jacob et al (except insofar as subsequent tradition has identified that view of the Divine with the ultimate divine source); I am addressing the Neoplatonic Divine Source, which as far as I am concerned precedes and transcends all other deity-forms.The divine source can be addressed in many ways: "Spirit of Life", "Source of All Life", "Ground of All Being", "Genderless Engenderer", the Tao, "Mother Spirit", "God", "Goddess", "Divine mystery at the heart of all that is" etc. There is even a Unitarian hymn addressed to the God beyond God. These kind of terms can include pantheists, "soft" polytheists, polymorphists, monotheists, theists, Unitarian Christians, non-theists, atheists, agnostics, and maybe a few other theological positions I haven't thought of.

In all of this, I try to keep in mind that the Divine does not exist; it is existence itself, and it's not a person or a thing, but an experience.

I would not use Pagan deity names when leading a prayer in a Unitarian service, because it's not part of the tradition, and because many people join Unitarian churches because they want to get away from viewing the Divine through the lens of personality, whether it's the personality of Jesus or the personality of a Pagan deity. And also, I think it would be difficult for some Unitarian Christians if prayers were addressed to Pagan deities. However, I have addressed prayers to the Shekhinah (the Jewish name for the feminine Divine presence), and read Thunder, Perfect Mind (a Gnostic hymn to Sophia).

I have privately communed with Pagan deities in a Unitarian service from time to time, when I was not leading the service. But mainly, I like the fact that Unitarian liturgy addresses a vague and undefined Divine mystery, and not specific deity-forms. I do think it is important to include feminine imagery as well as masculine and gender-neutral imagery, though.

Does it matter? I hear you ask. Well, it matters to me what I am talking to; and it matters to others, too. I think it is all too easy for people from a monotheist tradition to gloss over these differences.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

What is truth?

Truth is a much-debated concept.

There is (presumably) an objective underlying reality which is the same for everyone. But perspectives on it, and perceptions of it, differ.

Psychologists talk about qualia: sense perceptions which we know have an objective referent, e.g. what red looks like, what celery tastes like. But we can never be sure if another person's experience of qualia is exactly the same as ours.

The universe is infinite and we are finite (located in a particular place and time). So our perception is local and finite. That includes our idea of God. Hence the story of the blind men and the elephant.

So, we don't automatically know what the truth is about a lot of stuff, apart from obvious physical facts, such as seeing one person kissing another. We see them kiss, but we don't know their motivation for doing so. Perhaps even they are not fully aware of their own motives, though they are aware of most of them, and have a reasonable idea of each other's motives, and whether the kiss signifies a romantic relationship, or something else.

When looking at a theory, physicists and mathematicians use its beauty and elegance as a test of its truth.

Science, of course, uses the scientific method to find out whether something is true or not. The scientist carries out an experiment which either confirms or denies the hypothesis. This works well for statements which are falsifiable (can be confirmed or denied through experiment), but not for ones which aren't.

So given that we can't know everything, how do we ascertain what is true?

Even when you accept the doctrines of a religion, there must have been something about them that made you decide at least some were true and you would trust the rest. (It is worth reading Godless Morality by Richard Holloway on this issue.)

So, one can look at the intentions behind a policy or practice or belief, or its effects, to decide if it is valid.
One can look at the internal consistency of a set of beliefs: do they contradict each other? Do they follow logically from their starting premise?

We can also look at their external consistency: do they contradict known facts about the world? Are they consistent with other religions and philosophies? Example: a religion must have a theology to account for other religions (and in my view, preferably not that all other religions are inspired by the devil).

Different types of truth:
  • objective fact, something actually seen; 
  • something taken on trust, because we know the methods by which it was discovered, e.g. molecules;
  • metaphor and analogy: a good description or model; 
  • mythopoeic truth - something that rings true; a mythological story that conveys something about human nature or the way the world is. It is not literally true, but it rings true.
  • qualia;
  • finite and infinite perspectives.
There ought to be different words for these different types or levels.

I find the Greek for truth interesting and poetically apt: aletheia. The opposite of oblivion.

Wittgenstein said "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). Even if one cannot remain silent, one should be aware that conclusions reached are provisional and transitory. That's why the Dalai Lama said that if science proved that reincarnation does not exist, he would stop believing in it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Lent and Borrowed

Many people are now celebrating Lent, a period of time commemorating Jesus' sojourn in the wilderness before starting his public ministry.

In some ways, his time of testing in the desert resembles a Native American vision quest.

The traditional Western Christian practice during this period is to give something up, usually a luxury. It is a period of penitence.

Pagans and Unitarians have always been a bit suspicious of the notion of penitence - especially when Christianity is so fixated on sexual sin. But perhaps we do need a time of self-audit.

Maybe there is a period in the Pagan wheel of the year, or in more traditional festivals such as those celebrated by Religio Romana, when a period of self-examination would be appropriate. After all, Pagan ethics is all about the cultivation of virtues, rather than the following of commandments, so sometimes the garden of virtues might require a little weeding and pruning. One possible Pagan festival that might serve our purpose here is the Roman festival of Tacita (18 February), sacred to Tacita, goddess of silence and the halting of unfriendly speech and hostile tongues. Just the thing for the internet generation.

Unitarian Universalists have suggested the idea of trying to develop a spiritual practice during this time, or to engage in social justice work.

Danny Crosby has a wonderful reflection on Lent, using a Native American story to illuminate the whole concept.

Alain de Botton, in Religion for Atheists, points out that one of the useful things about religion is that it puts dates in our calendars to remind us to focus on specific aspects of life. I would suggest that Lent is an example of this, in that it reminds us to prune back on excess (whether excess busyness or excess consumption).

I have often joked that I celebrate the festival of Borrowed, but I have just realised that this could be taken seriously to highlight the idea that we do not own the Earth and its finite resources, we only borrow them, and share them with all other life. We would do well to remember this, and to build in times in our lives when we cut back on the excess.

A friend of mine has given up Facebook for Lent - which is an excellent idea, but I just can't quite manage it. So instead I have resolved to slow down and take some time for meditation every day.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 ~ Rumi

Source: Panhala

Today this poem speaks to my condition. Someone on Facebook (a complete stranger on a friend's comment thread) said something about me that I found really offensive, and I got quite angry. I might reach a place of forgiveness later, but I'm not there yet. This poem might help.

Update: just received a message from the person. Feeling slightly less cross.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Universalism ancient and modern

The earliest form of universalism was universal salvation or apocatastasis (literally 'restoration to the primordial condition') proposed by Origen and others. This was the idea that all would ultimately be reconciled with God, because just as the universe emanated from God, so it would ultimately return to its source, and nothing would be rejected in that final taking-up. This view had its origins in Stoic thought and the idea of cosmic cycles of creation, destruction and re-creation.

The restoration of the world to a primal condition (a sort of prelapsarian unity with the Divine) is also found in Jewish thought, where humanity can participate in the process of restoration by performing acts of kindness (tikkun olam). In the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), the equivalent Hebrew word has the sense of the return of captives and the restoration of Jerusalem.

In Christianity, apocatastasis came to mean universal salvation, but discussion about it was complicated and incomplete. An anathema was pronounced against Origen's thought at an ecumenical council in 553, but traces of this thinking was found in other early fathers. The extent of salvation varied even in Origen's writings.

Other writers who embraced this view included Johannes Scotus Eriugena, who was an early medieval philosopher who also pointed out that God does not exist, because God is existence, and that communion is a symbolic act.

After the Reformation, the Arminians emerged as a distinct group among Protestants. Arminians rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (the idea that only the elect, those chosen by God, would be saved) and embraced the idea that all who turned to God would be saved - so not actually universal salvation, but a universal offer of salvation. The early General Baptists were mainly Arminian in outlook (and indeed so are modern Evangelicals).

The Universalist denomination (which initially formed based around the belief that salvation applied to everyone unconditionally) existed in both Britain and America, but it was largely absorbed into Unitarianism. Several Unitarian churches started life as Universalist churches.

According to Wikipedia:
Christian Universalist ideas are first undisputedly documented in 17th-century England and 18th-century Europe and America. Gerrard Winstanley (1648), Richard Coppin (1652), Jane Leade (1697), and then George de Benneville in America, taught that God would grant all human beings salvation. Those in America teaching this became known as the Universalists.
 The Glasgow Universalist Church was founded in 1804 by Neil Douglas (Christodoulou, 1997) and had its roots in the Chartist movement. It was the first church in Britain to ordain a woman, Caroline Soule, in 1880. The General Baptists also largely embraced Unitarian views, and the General Baptist Assembly still exists as a distinct body within the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian churches.

Gradually, the Universalist denomination in America came to embrace universalism in its wider sense, that is the idea that all religions have an underlying universal theme; this idea was also known as the perennial philosophy, which was the title of a book by Aldous Huxley, but the term has gained wider currency to mean the inner core of spiritual truth found in all religions.

An attempt to create a universal religion (atheist, secular and scientific) was made by Auguste Comte in the eighteenth century. This is described in a chapter in Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists. Comte called his religion the Religion of Humanity, and it was influential in the development of modern humanism.

There was also a Druid form of universalism (which was more like the Perennial Philosophy). The earliest Druid revival groups were trying to get back to the primordial religion, which was believed to be a form of the ancient Hebrew religion brought to the British Isles by the Phoenicians. Pagan ideas were not really part of the Druid revival till the 20th century.

In 1961, the Universalist church in America merged with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Prior to that, there was significant cross-fertilisation between Unitarianism and Universalism. One instance of such cross-fertilisation was the ministry of Kenneth L Patton. Patton started as a minister in the Disciples of Christ church, was then the minister of a Universalist congregation, and then of a Unitarian church. He was a religious humanist and his spirituality celebrated being alive, human, and the Earth and Nature. He was one of the editors of the 1964 UUA hymnbook, Hymns for the celebration of life, which includes several pieces of liturgy that he wrote.

Another modern proponent of universalism (in the sense of all religions sharing a core truth) was Forrest Church, who came up with the beautiful image of the cathedral of the world, which was an image to express the underlying sanctity of all religions, and their different perspectives on the holy.

One thing to be careful of when embracing universalism in the modern sense, is that a pick and mix approach to religion can be confusing and miss out the subtle nuances of different spiritual traditions. Each religion is like a language, rooted in its own culture, time and space. So perhaps a motto for universalists ought to be "Think global, act local". Acknowledge that the same light illuminates us all; that there is a universal truth; but there is not a universal religion, and that one's own beloved tradition has grown organically in its own particular culture, and that is good.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Contemplative prayer

"When you pray, rather let your heart be without words than your words without heart." ~ John Bunyan
"Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can." ~ Quaker Advices and Queries
"To navigate this ancient way of prayer is to “put out into the deep,” as Luke says, let down our nets for our catch. Paradoxically, we discover that it is we ourselves who are caught and held in this net…" ~ Martin Laird
"What awakens in this awareness is the sanctity of the other, and to see how all things are reflections of this mystery that we call God. We’re simply one with all that is, the way that God is one with all that is. And the illusion that we can possibly or have ever been separate from God falls away." ~ Martin Laird
"When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of the Deity, and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form; but approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner, and then you will understand." ~ Evagrius Ponticus
"The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao" - Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching
“Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him.” ~ Thomas Merton
“If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.” ~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
“But there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” ~ Thomas Merton
“When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children, when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet, Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash - at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the "newness," the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, all these provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.” ~ Thomas Merton

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

For my beloved

I wish I could swim in the sea of our love once again
But Time will not turn back,
and neither will you,
so I would be swimming upstream,
against the tide that is carrying you away
to other lovers, other seas.
May you have joy in those unknown waters.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Seven Jars of Gold

This is a story from Northern India, which I heard at a Unitarian service today, and liked.

A barber, who was passing under a haunted tree, heard a voice say, "Will you accept seven jars full of gold?" The barber looked around, but could see no one. The offer of seven jars of gold, however, roused his cupidity and he cried aloud, "Yes, I shall accept the seven jars." At once came the reply. "Go home, I have carried the jars to your house." The barber ran home in hot haste to verify the truth of this strange announcement. And when he entered the house, he saw the jars before him. He opened them and found them all full of gold, except the last one which was only half-full.

A strong desire now arose in the mind of the barber to fill the seventh jar also; for without it his happiness was incomplete. He therefore converted all his ornaments into gold coins and put them into the jar; but the mysterious vessel was as before, unfilled. This exasperated the barber. Starving himself and his family, he saved some more amount and tried to fill the jar; but the jar remained as before. So one day he humbly requested the king to increase his pay, saying his income was not sufficient to maintain himself on.

Now the barber was a favourite of the king, and as soon as the request was made the king doubled his pay. All this pay he saved and put into the jar, but the greedy jar showed no signs of filling. At last he began to live by begging from door to door, and his professional income and the income from begging all went into the insatiable cavity of the mysterious jar. Months passed, and the condition of the miserable and miserly barber grew worse every day. Seeing his sad plight, the king asked him one day, "Hello! When your pay was half of what you now get, you were happy, cheerful and contented; but with double that pay, I see you morose, careworn and dejected. What isthe matter with you? Have you got 'the seven jars'?"

The barber was taken aback by this question and replied, "Your Majesty, who has informed you of this?" The king said, "Don't you know that these are the signs of the person to whom the Yaksha consigns the seven jars. He offered me also the same jars, but I asked him whether this money might be spent or was merely to be hoarded. No sooner had I asked this question than the Yaksha ran away without any reply. Don't you know that no one can spend that money? It only brings with it the desire of hoarding. Go at once and return the money." The barber was brought to his senses by this advice, and he went to the haunted tree and said, "Take back your gold, O Yaksha." The Yaksha replied, "All right."

When the barber returned home, he found that the seven jars had vanished as mysteriously as they were brought in, and with it also had vanished his life-long savings.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Towards a theology of prayer

I am currently reading the excellent A Book of Pagan Prayer by Ceisiwr Serith.

The prayers in it are wonderful, and I shall certainly be using them for my own spiritual practice. I'd like to thank Ceisiwr for reclaiming prayer as a Pagan spiritual practice.

However, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the theology of prayer expressed in the opening chapters. To me, the deities are fluid, changeable, and not necessarily real. I tried to regard them as real and it only led to heartbreak and craziness.

Spirits of place are real, because our interactions with place are real. Mythagos appear and disappear as mind interacts with the land. (A mythago is an entity that emerges from the interaction of psyche and landscape; the word was coined by Robert Holdstock.)

So, my theology of prayer is that when we pray, we are communing with our innermost depths, which connect with the Divine within us. Such prayer can be wordless, or involve very few words; it may focus on an image, or the land itself. It moves beyond desire on the part of either the Divine or the one who prays, to a communion between the two. When we pray for other people, we hold them in our minds in a loving way, focusing on the idea that we all "live, move and have our being" within the Divine (this was originally a pagan concept). So we commune with them at the level below individual personality, in the collective unconscious.

As the Divine has many forms and faces, I think Pagan prayer can remind us of this, and also of the sacredness of the Earth, and the immanence of the Divine in the world. The only God I really believe in is the NeoPlatonic Divine source, which is manifest as the universe itself, Deus sive Natura - Spinoza's God. And then I perceive it as feminine, i.e. the Goddess. I like the idea of a deity that both includes and transcends all genders -- but I respond most to Goddess-talk.

I think contemporary Pagan spirituality would be deepened if Pagans started to pray; and if we extended our understanding of prayer beyond petitionary prayer (which has always been dismissed by Pagans as "passive magic" - and rightly so, in my opinion) towards contemplative prayer - which is losing the ego in contemplation of the beauty of the Divine.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

What is mysticism?

 I like to think of mysticism as the art of meeting reality, or the art of richer and deeper awarenesses. ... It is an experience that comes unbidden ... [It is] a very special experience ... of that Oneness, a rare and wonderful realization of what always is but of which we are seldom aware, flooding in to overwhelm the illusion of aloneness, separateness. ... There are moments when life seems vivid and resplendent, when a more than mortal splendor breaks in, when there is a touch of grandeur and of glory in just being alive. ... In our experience ... of those moments when we're rapturously one with the wonder of all that is, we have some indication of what has been meant by the mystic experience. 
Jacob Trapp was a Unitarian Universalist minister who served congregations in Salt Lake City, Denver, and Summit, New Jersey, he was the editor of Modern Religious Poems and author of the hymn, “Wonders Still the World Shall Witness.”

Prayers by Jacob Trapp

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Fire in the darkness

Fire illuminated the darkness,
swinging in arcs and swirls
A fire-juggler in the street
Fire in the darkness
primordial comfort
primordial magic
I stopped to admire the dancing flames,
the skill of the juggler
maintaining three flaming torches in the air at once.

Friday, 13 January 2012

epiphany moments

It's still the season of Epiphany, until Candlemas / Imbolc.

Malcolm Guite's epiphany poem today reminds us that epiphany is about seeing things differently, perceiving something with the eye of the heart, opening the way from heaven to earth.

Sometimes one meets a person who is illuminated from within, or perceives the world and nature as illuminated from within. Sometimes gazing at the Moon and the stars can bring about an awareness of the numinous.

This set me thinking about the experience of epiphany as a moment of transformation. As Blake put it, "if the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is - infinite". Blake it was who saw angels in the trees, and heaven in a flower.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. 
William Blake - Auguries of Innocence

I have had moments of transformed perception when I perceived the numinosity of everything, as it were the immanent indwelling divine light shining though things. These moments cannot be induced, they just happen, a gift from the universe to remind us that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Even through the suffering and the sorrow.

It is hard, in the experience of the daily grind, of feeling depressed, sad and lonely, to recall these experiences and make them live. Perhaps that is what meditation and contemplative prayer is for - to open the way for the numinous to make itself felt.

Monday, 9 January 2012

In praise of Alain de Botton

Quite possibly single-handedly responsible for reviving interest in philosophy among the general reading public (that is to say, the small proportion of the population that actually reads books), de Botton has certainly made philosophy accessible to me. I wanted to be interested in philosophy, but found the long-winded, overly abstracted and tortuous way it is generally written completely inaccessible. De Botton's engaging and laconic style, however, makes it available, and interesting, and applicable to the real world.

I started with The Art of Travel, which explores the experience of travel, why we do it, and which bits we focus on and which we ignore. Then I read The Consolations of Philosophy, which explores the approaches of various different philosophers to the common problems of life (love, death, meaning). Then I read The Architecture of Happiness, which looks at which types of architecture make us happy, and which make us miserable, and why. I am currently reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I've only got as far as chapter 1, on logistics, which explores why we ignore the romance of goods coming from far away places and being delivered to our doorsteps, and why we allow warehouses and distribution centres to be so ugly and boxy. But it's very good indeed and promises to be as interesting as his other stuff. I look forward to reading his next book, Religion for Atheists. A timely offering if ever there was one - there are plenty of religions which don't mind if you're an atheist (Unitarians, Quakers, Pagans and Buddhists all welcome atheists and don't try to change them into theists).

De Botton's writing does what good poetry and comedy should do: it looks at the world from a different perspective, and makes connections between things that no-one else had noticed a connection between. Presumably that is what good philosophy should do, too. He also asks why things are as they are, and whether the status quo could or should be changed - or, if he doesn't ask this question himself, he certainly provokes it in the reader, and gives the reader the conceptual tools to ask the question, and work towards an answer.

It is a truism that the in France, philosophers are held in popular esteem, whereas in England, they are regarded with suspicion. De Botton has single-handedly reversed that trend, so that it is cool to be seen reading one of his books. And about time too.

Of course there have always been people who enjoy Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell and so on, but they were few and far between; now there are more people who read and enjoy philosophy, thanks to de Botton, who has succeeded in popularising something without dumbing it down.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Tradition and particularity

There is a peculiar tendency in Western thought (probably introduced by deists) to assume that
there is "behind", "underneath" or "at the back" of everything something that is the really real, the real truth, the essence of religion/philosophy etc
as my friend Andrew Brown wrote in a comment in reply to me (and he is rightly critical of and resistant to this tendency).

I think it is possible to draw parallels between, and gain illuminating insights from comparing, different religious traditions, without saying that they are the same or that there is an essential underlying truth which they both fall short of. For instance, it is fruitful to compare Christian contemplative prayer with Buddhist meditation, without saying that they are both imperfect expressions of some lost original. However, I do think that all these practices and ideas are grounded in some actual psychological experience which is common to human beings because we are finite entities in a physical world yearning for epistemological transcendence. I have tried to draw such comparisons in a previous blogpost which was a reflection on a paragraph from his previous blogpost.

I think I still failed, and still fell into the trap of assuming an underlying reality to which different traditions point, though. It's easier to make a distinction between practices than it is between abstract ideas.

However, I know that you can't simply transfer symbolism from one tradition into another. For example, the Unitarian interpretation of Hanukkah seems rather different from the traditional Jewish view of it. Similarly, someone once asked me to "do a service about Wicca", and I found that it was impossible. You can't understand what Wicca is like and why it is attractive without actually participating in it fully, and that means being initiated and really immersing yourself in the symbolism, the mythology and the seasonal festivals. Anyone trying to experience a taste of Wicca through the medium of the Unitarian hymn sandwich would come away sadly perplexed; and if you tried to do a Wiccan ritual in a Unitarian church, you'd end up watering certain things down to the extent that it just wouldn't be Wicca any more.

I get different things out of being a Wiccan than I do out of being a Unitarian. Both are necessary to my spirituality, but in very different ways. And you can't translate the one into the other. In order to enjoy Unitarianism, you have to be immersed in its symbol-systems and assumptions about how the world works. You can find places where Unitarianism and Wicca overlap; you can use ideas from one to illuminate the other - but they are not interchangeable.

Similarly, you can't assume that the Runes are a "Norse version of the Tarot". The Runes are a symbol-system in their own right, with their own cultural and historical background, which is very different from the cultural and historical background of the Tarot. It might, however, be interesting to do a rune-reading and a Tarot-reading on the same issue, and see how the two systems described it.

So I do agree with Andrew - we should not assume that all religions are imperfect views of the same underlying mystery. They are each unique and beautiful symbol systems, and it reduces them to something less than they are to try and shoehorn them into a "Theory of Everything". That's not how religious language works; it is metaphorical and embedded in its particular context.

I think the metaphor of religions as languages is helpful here. Sometimes it is possible to translate from one language to another, but sometimes the metaphor and symbolism is lost. Some authors cannot be translated from their original language because the imagery is lost thereby. Sometimes there is a word or expression in one language which has no satisfactory equivalent in another language. This is because its network of connotations and denotations is different. This is even true for closely-related languages like English and German, and is even more true of distantly-related languages like English and Sanskrit. Words used for complex concepts in Buddhist and Hindu thought have often been mistranslated or poorly expressed in English. The same thing happens when you try to import a practice or a concept from one religion to another. Especially if one of those religions is a conscious attempt to recreate an initiatory mystery tradition, and the other is an heir of the Enlightenment impulse to de-mystify everything. Even if you try to translate the concept of the real presence in the Eucharist, or different models of the atonement, from one form of Christianity to another, confusion and miscommunication can result. In order to understand a concept or practice thoroughly, you really do need to be immersed in the tradition from which it comes. That's not to say that a reasonable level of understanding cannot help to illuminate one's own practice and theology; but we should beware of facile borrowing just for the sake of innovation or "being inclusive". Some attempts at including elements from other traditions can seem patronising or inept, or just plain fluffy. (I've seen this happen.)