Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent: Silent Wonder

Today is the beginning of Advent: the first of the four Sundays leading towards the Nativity. The word Advent means ‘the coming’, and, if we open ourselves to the spirit of Advent, these four weeks contain a heightened sense of anticipation, of expectancy, of hope, of waiting, and trusting in new life not yet fully known. 

Here in northern Europe the winter is advancing, and for me the winter is a time of silence. Nature grows more silent in winter. There are no leaves on the bare limbs of the trees to give us the breeze’s summery rustle, and many animals are less active. Even the birds do not sing their dawn chorus in the winter darkness – and when the snow lies thick upon the ground all seems to fall still in the muffled white silence.

Silence also is for me a part of Advent. It is this silence which lifts Advent beyond being a time of the Christian liturgical year into being a time which touches upon mysteries which are more universal: those mysteries of the heart which touch us all. When the spirit of Advent is combined with the spirit of silence we are in a state of waiting in silence. And when that waiting is a waiting with a sense of deep and joyful anticipation for what is to come, we create a space in which love can grow, in which trust may flourish. 

Love, hope, trust, silence, waiting in joy for what is to come, are all doors. Combining these doors together into one opens the door to the approach of wonder. But what is this wonder? To trust in love for what is to come, to allow our inner silence to grow in this time of waiting, allowing the loving-kindness that is the essence of the divine love to grow in us, is the true spirit of Advent: the spirit of anticipation, of silent wonder.

Detail Painting Madonna by Fra Filippo Lippi

Saturday, November 22, 2014


So small a soul, so large a house
with dark and gloomy rooms.
A child divine in search of light
her own light now subsumes.

But in her heart she weaves
the mystic window of her skin
through which her dance takes flight
translucent, pure and wondrous thin
on wings of purest light.

The searching child .. she reaches out 
to touch a state of Grace
 A bud in flower - a single glance ..

No soul remains untouched by love
as long as spirits dance.

Painting by Polina Yakovleva

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Candles in the Earth

Today, November 11th, is traditionally the feast day of Saint Martin. Martin was a 4th-century soldier who, when still only eighteen, arrived with his troops at the city gates of Amiens. As the soldiers filed into the city they passed a beggar. Martin was the only one who stopped, but being poor himself he had nothing to give. Instead, he tore his cloak in half and gave half to the beggar as some protection against the winter cold.

That night in his dream Jesus appeared, wearing the half-cloak that Martin had given to the beggar, saying to his angels: “See, how this young man has clothed me.” The dream had a profound effect upon Martin. He gave up soldiering to lead a life of simple devotion, founding a monastery where the poor could always depend upon finding shelter. 

In the later centuries of medieval times it was November 11th, Martin’s day, which marked the beginning of winter, and of advent: the countdown of forty days to the shortest day of the year. On this day in the Netherlands it is a tradition for children to go from door to door carrying lanterns made from scooped-out turnips with candles in them. These simple lanterns carry a message: a reminder that during the long months of the northern European winter, when the earth appears to sleep, each living thing still carries within it the spark of light, the seed of new life that will awaken once more in the spring.

These little candles, these tiny sparks of the summer sun that stay alive to burn through the sleeping earth of winter, offer a more profound reminder: that the apparent end of life is not really an end. The precious flame still continues to burn, even when it is no longer visible to us. Our life, our very soul endures, even though it might change its form. And if sometimes we forget this truth, perhaps in those despairing moments when we imagine that we have nothing left to give, we can remember Martin’s gesture. All of our humanity, all of our compassion and our hope for the future, can be contained in just half a cloak, and warm us until another spring arrives.

Painting Saint Martin by Gustave Moreau

Monday, November 3, 2014

Little Spark

She is dearly loved by her mother. In all that Little Spark does, she feels her mother’s guiding hand and thoughtful attention. And the girl also loves her mother as much as she herself is loved. It is a quiet harmony of being: a harmony that comes to an abrupt and unwished-for end when, after a short illness, her mother dies.

From one day to the next Little Spark’s world changes forever. There are times when she feels that she needs to comfort her disconsolate father more than she herself receives the comfort which she as a child so needs and deserves. But things are to change still further, and the change is for the worse. Her father remarries soon enough. Perhaps too soon. Little Spark’s new stepmother is everything that her dear mother was not. No scrap of love or comfort comes from this stranger in her house, in her life. 

Instead, Little Spark finds herself sent downstairs to the cheerless kitchen, and there she must scrub the pots and pans and tend to the stove fire as if she were a common servant; which, to all intents and purposes, she has now become. Her father, if the truth be known, discovers all too late that he is rather intimidated by this doughty woman, and keeps silent over the treatment of his daughter.

Miracles happen. As she sits quietly weeping among the blackened pots and the even blacker soot and charred wood of the kitchen stove, a miracle happens to Little Spark. An ineffable essence, a shining form, appears before her. Again her world changes. She feels herself overwhelmed with an unnameable love, and although her tears flow, they are now tears of an inexpressible joy and hope for what might now come. Is this the spirit of her mother come to comfort her? Or some other being? Although no word is spoken, she knows that all her desires will now be answered. What the form of light offers to her is transformation.

And Little Spark transforms. From a girl dressed in servant’s rags she is now a radiant beauty, worthy of the hand of a prince of the land. And (of course!) it is the prince who duly claims her hand and gives to her all love, honour and happiness in his palace, ‘forever after’. Well, we recognize this story, of course, as the story of Cinderella, which is the translation of the literal name ‘Little Spark’. The story endures through the generations as an evergreen fairy tale. But such stories retain their magic for a reason. In the story of Cinderella we can recognise a far older and deeper story: the story of us all.

Just as with Little Spark and her mother’s love, we also know an initial perfect bliss, a heavenly state. But we (or Eve, or Cinderella, or whatever name we give to the little spark that is the soul in these stories) must descend ‘downstairs’ to toil in the grease and grime of the ‘kitchen’ of the material world, in order to learn the hard and necessary things that will help us through worldly experience to progress. But there always is redemption, both in fairy stories and in the soul’s journey.

These eternal themes echo in our awareness. They travel through time to reach us, and they travel ‘in disguise’ as stories so that their inner meaning may be preserved. They continue to speak powerfully to us if we open ourselves to them. And perhaps now you might never read the story of Cinderella in quite the same way again!

Painting: Cinderella by Terri Windling