Torii – A Gate to God?

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Torii, a link between the sacred and profane – a gate to gods and all that lies beyond. Does this mean that God is there and not here? Are we left without guidance or care unless we search for it? And when we seek, is it enough to pass through, beyond? Who is there to greet us, and how far should we go? 

So many questions spring from a deep desire for the divine, to encounter the one who created, formed and fashioned. Yet this Shinto shrine is not where HaShem dwells. Instead people come to pay respects to Kami gods. Does this mean that God is absent, the Alpha and Omega is limited by space and belief?

So often we are guilty of confining God, of organising God within our own understanding. Why is this torii filled expression of God not acceptable? That deep yearning to know, to be heard, to find that which lies beyond propels people to pursue, to purify themselves and pray. It is beautiful and honourable.

Even though these expressions do not fit with that western, middle-class, male driven understanding of God and worship, does that make them second rate, or worse, unacceptable? Must all ritual and practice fit into one single understanding of God and salvation? Is Jesus the Christ absent in this space?

Does Jesus, our intercessor, fail to hear or acknowledge the steady stream of pleas written on ema? Does he refuse to take them to God our Creator? Is this a place where the Holy Spirit refuses to go-between one and another? Is the Trinity absent or unwelcome here? I cannot conceive that it would be so.

God is not limited by time and space – Adonai cares for creation, people and place. God is here as I pass through the Torii, and God is present on my return. God lives in each of us, we see an echo of that divine, perfect face in one another. Torii, rather than being a gate towards the  sacred, is a reminder that God is here – now.

間 – ma (space between)

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the ways in which difference is held together in Japan, and the Japanese understanding of beauty and stillness. I have been struck by the number of people from other lands who have made Japan their home for so many years, as well as reflecting on my own story, and why I returned to Britain after living here for four years. There is a mix of ancient and modern, secular and sacred, stillness and disturbance, each held in such close proximity.

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There can be invitation alongside hostility…

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…it can feel like two parallel universes; equally as a foreigner here, all that I have known can feel like it is from a parallel universe, one that is presently inaccessible.

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Rituals and respectfulness can demonstrate the beauty of the soul.

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Often blue sky and sunshine can elevate the soul.

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Equally, without warning, unfortunate events unfold; those that you would much rather leave behind or not have to receive, like ‘bad fortunes’ that can be left in the safety of the shrine rather than accompanying you home.

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Then there are customs which bring you to your knees, like these prayers for children – especially those who did not have very long with us – given hats and bibs to keep them warm, as well as windmills to offer relief from the sun.

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It seems that there is nowhere quite like this wonderful place of contradictions amidst harmony – where space or stillness is sought after within a busyness that I may never truly understand….

The draw of Meiji Jingū

What better activity for a wet and dreary Saturday afternoon than to visit a Shinto Shrine? Having been in Tokyo for just a week, working through the jet lag for most of that, I was keen to get out and about.

Slightly surprisingly, we weren’t the only people who had this idea, and the weather was little distraction for most.

But why Meiji Jingū, why this day, why in the rain? Is this about belief, tradition, or something else? In the midst of the busyness of Tokyo life, whether or not Shinto traditions are followed, is there some sort of peace and calm to be found in such a place of pilgrimage?

What draws people to leave their Ema or prayer requests under the divine tree?

Is it really possible to claim that belief in God is on the decline, when people pilgrim from all walks of life, from all stances of belief, to remember those whom they love before the divine?

Could we be doing more to help those who are seeking the light?

Is it possible that such a divine light can be found in many places, if only we were more open to see? In the hands and feet, eyes and ears of one another?

For me, Godly encounters are not in churches, jinjas or temples; though the peaceful, holy presence can be so tangible. Rather, when the rain trickles down my face, and I am amongst something of God’s divine creation – then I feel most alive to the presence of the living God.

Take off your shoes

Before standing on her own two feet
practical, not pretty Start-Rite shoes
shielded her; she tentatively walked
endless pavements to school alongside
familiar, reassuring, rhythmic, adult feet.
Soon childlike shoes were gone, replaced;
the landscape was different, new paths,
alternative possibilities, came into focus.
Not letting the grass grow under her feet
she kept moving, step by step – desperate
to escape, to leave well-trodden, mundane,
uniformed pavements and paths, but why?

Thinking on her feet she landed in a
varied town, then county, yet paths were
still littered; countless over-worn feet.
Well-loved Doc Martens of every colour
replaced the once worn Start-Rites –
still practical not pretty, yet beauty lies
in the eye of the beholder! The start of a
new adventure, discovery, exploration of
novel places, original spaces, unique faces.
DMs were powerless to ward off itchy feet.
Before long lovable DMs jumped in feet first
to find warmer climates favoured sandals!

Sandals accompanied bold cumbersome
daredevil enthusiastic feet, then cold feet.
they caught tears of loneliness, defeat;
they tried running, finding a different way;
still she persevered. Sandals grew tired
as did novelty of alternative paths, pastures.
Returning home she’d be back on her feet!
Where was that? Too far to walk or run! Home –
it felt like a moment in time unable to stand still.
Homely paths had changed remarkably….
They took new people to the same places
amongst different faces in nostalgic spaces.

Going back was no mean feet! Before one foot
was in the door she knew this would be raw!
It wasn’t right – she had two left feet!
They explored the lure of being bare along
a distinctive, strange, overgrown path:
hallowed ground. She fell to her knees
at the feet of the One who was, and is
and ever shall be! Awe grasped her,
she gasped as breath left…it returned anew.
Feet now firmly on the ground felt echoes of
creation underfoot urging her home,
finally taking the weight off her feet.

The Bread of Love

Bread and jam or daily bread? 
Bread winner or maker? 
Bread of life or of love? 
Bread with raise or 
that which draws gaze? 
Bread of diversity: 
naan, chapattis, pita, 
flat bread, baguette, 
garlic bread and pizza….
It is kneaded – it grows, 
it feeds, it permeates
The bread of love

The body of Christ
broken for you
to preserve body and soul

Bread draws the world
in a never-ending meal.
Never just for bread, 
but something more real!
People gather near bread,
bread of life, of heaven – 
bread of love!
Manna given by God 
nourishes heart and soul
in the house of God,
not where we gaze at God,
but where God gazes on us!

The body of Christ
broken for you
for everlasting life

Bread because Jesus said
this is my body…
and so the ritual began.
Like the Emmaus journey;
disciples full of lament
met the risen Jesus
in broken bread.
It was the way he did it:
he took it, blessed it, broke it
and gave it to them…
the bread of love revealed!

The body of Christ
broken for you
to eat and remember

“Our hearts burned within!”
This bread of love,
more than bread,
more than being fed.
A nourishment stretching
to all of your being….
Take-bless-break-give
Jesus’ ‘real presence’
God-with-us now
in the gaze of the
self-giving Jesus
in the bread of love.

The body of Christ
broken for you
feed your heart with thanksgiving

It feels like acceptance,
true appreciation
of things said or done –
like a warm glow
but so much more!
Why then keep it,
or build barriers
around God’s table?
Protect the bread of love!
LGBT, disabled, disfigured,
marginalised people –
Step away from the bread!

The body of Christ
broken for you
that you may have faith

No – this banquet is holy,
utter inclusivity a necessity,
Jesus, offered for all!
This bread of love
transforms with a taste;
a meeting of souls.
As Meister Eckhart said,
‘your eyes which see God
are the same eyes through
which God first saw you.’
Great is the bread of love,
the mystery of faith!

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The Agony

I love this poem, and have been dwelling in it as I ponder what it might mean to be a priest…

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

George Herbert

Uniqueness of creation…

Signs of spring, and even the heat of summer, have been with us for the last few weeks now. I remembered walking in winter amongst sleeping trees and seemingly dead and gone plants, thinking about the life cycle. It is amazing therefore to walk amongst new life at this time of year and see beautiful bursts of colour and a flourishing of our natural creation.

It’s a beautiful reminder that we are not in control…

That the rich diversity of our natural world reflects something of the character of God…

Beauty is present in many different forms and in the most unexpected places…

God who creates such diversity must surely value difference and individuality…we are all uniquely made!

Why then do we insist on a fixed understanding of beauty?

Why are we so intent to convince others that there is only one way to see things, only one way to make sense of life?

Beauty depends not on the subject, but the seers being prepared to look and really notice; or glimpse the glory of God in something or someone – it’s always there, we just have to take time! Each will see something slightly different, and that diversity of seeing is also part of the glory of God! The only challenge is to embrace it, and to be open to the uniqueness of creation.

The Encounter

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Above the beauty and bustle of the valley
An expanse of heather filled space awaited.
The beautifully radiant blue sky was fresh,
Fragrant with the scent of the morning.
A light wind wound its way towards me –
It caressed my face urging me ahead.
Every step gave way to astonishing awe,
Wonderment grew within…my heart raced;
A mixture of excitement and delight
At all that my eyes were able to take in.

From the edge I heard only the wind.
Stronger now it whistled around my being
Awakening, sharpening my senses.
A man standing some way to my left,
His gaze undoubtedly directed at me,
Drew my attention momentarily. I looked
In that way which we often try to look,
Without looking like we are looking.
His was staring intently, still unmoved,
Yet I walked towards him…as if being drawn.

Close enough to speak, uttering silently,
His eyes remained thoughtfully on mine.
Reading me, delving right into my core,
Like one would an old abandoned book
Beginning to read on the page it fell open at –
It’s like he knows me…like I know him,
Even though I have never seen him before?
He had familiarity in his beautiful radiance,
His face attracted attention, necessitated it –
Its depth of wisdom brought a perfect peace.

His eyes were infinite dark ink pools with
Potential and understanding illuminating.
Pure kindness and laughter lines surrounded,
Softened, magnitude emanating, without threat.
His smooth olive skin blushed by the wind
Was accented by a beard outlining his jawline.
Wavy almost black hair blown about his face
Failed to distract from his present occupation: me!
An unusual encounter avoidable with a sharp turn –
Why, oh why, would I even contemplate that?

Unable to move, unaware of life around me,
Why do I not want this moment to end…ever?
It’s like I have been noticed, no not noticed…
Not merely seen for a spilt second!
Truly encountered and profoundly known.
Such knowing continues as I remain unable,
No unwilling, to move. Silent for if I dare
This moment will be gone, over, lost….
Oh that for once bringing ruin would fail me,
That clumsiness in word and deed would absent.

There is something about this moment
Which tells me none of that matters.
It is insignificantly significant in that
It is relevant because it is about who I am
But it is also irrelevant. It does not change now.
It will not stop it or move it in a direction
Other than the one already intended, and yet
It happens due to the insignificantly significant;
Because of who I am utterly and completely.
So many feelings washing over me right now….

I am known from the deepest part of me
Right to the crumb of toast which has rested
In the corner of my mouth since breakfast!
Every single memory is part of that knowing
Those I love and those I would care to forget
Even those that I have sought to push out –
Guilt and shame can overpower and overwhelm –
But they are there also and they are known.
That is undoubtedly good, perfect and right.
Fear, insignificance and inferiority melt away….

I am liberated floating over the artistry of the valley,
Then quite suddenly, with the blinking of an eye,
His or mine…this moment passes. Freedom
Begins to fade, fear and insignificance pervade.
Perhaps slightly less consuming…the man
Has moved. I turn around slowly yet he is nowhere.
Nowhere amongst the vast expanse of heather.
Did he disappear, was he ever here? My heart knows
He was and is and ever shall be…transformed
I yearn for this again as I realise that this is prayer.

Close your eyes

For #iwd2018

Close your eyes and imagine
that I am you and you are me
First I was created
The pièce de résistance
Then came you from my rib
Ever the thorn in my side
It was you who first ate forbidden fruit
You who led me astray
I would never have gone this way
Ever since I have taken charge
I have written you out of history
Ruled controlled and ignored
pontificated stated right from wrong
I have pushed down the weak
and controlled the other – You are other

You lack purpose in life save for me
What use is your existence except
Providing for my every need
Clean clothes and a tidy home
tasty meals and a warm stove
All that you do revolves around me
That is why I have married you
time and again
I do need you though I never show it
For without you I would not be
Could not be brought into this world
You nurture me and
feed me from your breast
Give me all that you have
even when that is less

You get meaning from doting on me
and loving me as you watch me grow
strong tall and so very handsome
Still I am blind to you and fail
to see that I marry you
complete you even –
where complete means to eradicate
one slow day at a time
as you bear my children
and take care of my home
Nothing is yours to own
All that you have was given
begrudgingly or handed down
Even your womb which sets you apart
is imposed on by me and my seed

Preferential treatment for me
occurs from the whole world around
I reap what you sow whereas
you should consider yourself
fortunate to have a plant bestowed
This world is all about me
Take heed – even God is a He
Don’t go about saying She
Your clothes are designed
to be pleasing to my eye
Your hair styled to suit my taste
Your shoes may be impractical
however I find them irresistible
That is all that matters
My taste my desire my life

After years of fuss from you
finally I relent and let you work
Go then and earn your keep
My daily earnings will take you a week
What is the point of equality
There are some things
You simply cannot do
You lack strength or understanding
Fine then give it a go
You won’t last long
Ordination to the priesthood
Our great High priest was just like me
Next you’ll expect the Episcopate
Be my boss – no way
You’ll never be as good as me

So close your eyes another time
you are you but with opened eyes
How did it feel to have no
raison d’être except for me
To be dictated to day after day
and have no control over anything
least of all your own body
For a good wife should
lie with her husband…
What if I too would rather a wife
Someone to care and caress
To give a gentle kiss
to ease my burdens
Would I really choose you if I knew
what devastation would ensue