Beauty is….

So far, summer has not afforded me as much opportunity to get out and get lost in photography as I would like. That said, I have recently been thinking through what beauty is…what it really is, not what we see it as from so many areas of society which wish to control what we want and how we look.

A few months ago I spent a week in Portugal and had the privilege of getting lost behind my camera, which was so refreshing. As well as the obligatory holiday snaps though, I wanted to capture a different view of beauty…

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This was the view from our hotel room…I found it bizarre that each day these were the items which were hung to dry, and yet I saw something of beauty in the simplicity of this display.

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We met a couple who were making their living through this art; one would paint the rocks the other would arrange them. Their messages were simple. For me the beauty was in the way they were seeking to challenge and their understated way of offering this to the world.

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I had never been so close up to even one peacock, let alone whole families of them. Here the beauty was in what had not been previously seen, as well as in their inquisitive charm!

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We had not been aware that it was PRIDE on our first day in Lisbon. Watching the parade come through the city was incredibly moving though. Again the beauty was in the simple sentiments, such as ‘Love has no limits’.

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Beauty as attraction! In the square bubbles were being blown and flying off in all directions due to the wind. It was so simple, and yet fascinating to watch them, wondering how long they would last, where they would land, when they would burst.

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Beauty in the simple solutions, in that which is old, or distorted by rust, beauty in that which many would not notice, or is the beauty in the blue backdrop?

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Beauty in the warmth of the evening, beauty in the sunset glow.

Whilst I am not sure I managed to capture a different view of beauty, I see this as the beginning of a conversation, which I invite you to join in with. A conversation where we capture beauty in all of its awe and wonder, beauty as breath-taking because of its freshness, not as perfection but rather as imperfection, beauty as that which is not known, beauty as something which allows us to glimpse the Divine in the everyday.

Please share your images of this kind of beauty in the comments section to enable us collectively to rewrite the meaning of beauty, so that our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and grandchildren can grow up being released and liberated by its definition, rather than constrained or imprisoned by it, afraid to go out, to wear what they really like, or to be truly and wonderfully who they are!

To Contemplate…SINCing with God

This morning I was at BBC Radio Leicester with Rupal Rajani taking a look at the papers for the day. It was a real joy to do this. Amongst the news we were talking around the topic of wellbeing, something we are all becoming more aware of in our lives. Rupal asked me what contemplative photography was, and asked for an example; it struck me that I haven’t blogged about that, despite it being the focus of so much of what I do write about! It is something that I just got on and did, and have come to take for granted. Yet, it is something which has such a positive impact on my wellbeing, and something of an oasis in what is so often a hectic state of being.

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It is a way of being in the world, or a way of noticing the world, which comes from a stance of stillness. The contemplative seeks to go deeper within themselves in order to see what is right in front of them – which they look at but rarely actually see.

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It is a practice which is like meditation, but I would call it meditative prayer, as I am seeking to draw closer to God; Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. I begin by closing my eyes and focusing only on my breathing – I ask God that I might breathe in the breath of God, and I breathe out gratitude for this moment in time, firmly transfixed on exactly what I am doing right now. How often do we do that? How often are we only focused on one thing?

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For me the intention is always to see through God’s lens or, more specifically perhaps, see glimmers of God in the place where I find myself and in the people who are nearby. I seek to capture images of God as Divine Light, here with us now.

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It might be something about the way they are focused…

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Or that Divine Light shining through…

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It might be that my attention is taken by difference and diversity. Whatever I notice I trust that I have noticed that, from the attentive stance I began with, because God wants me to see something.

Within my curacy my ‘formal’ training largely takes place through supervision and the opportunity to notice. One of the most helpful questions my Training Incumbent asks, and I notice myself asking before her now, is ‘what do you notice?’ The answer should never be a single sentence, because if we are truly noticing, that will involve what we see (and I mean really see, rather than what we are looking at), what we hear, how we feel, how others around us react, what that says about how they feel and how that impacts on how we feel.

Where in society do we have this space to reflect though? Our heads are filled with so much noise as we race from one thing to the next, before getting home in time to fulfil all that people need us to there, going to sleep and getting up and continuing the loop the next day. An article in The Guardian this week reported on a study undertaken on European robins found that their behaviour was affected by human produced noise. The bird song, when interrupted, had missed information and caused the bird receiving the information to act more aggressively, or give up too easily. Both of those responses seem all too familiar to me when I feel under pressure.

Contemplative photography is a way of relieving that pressure one drop at a time, and also a way of preventing the pressure from building up again to the same degree. I use the method of:

  1. Still the heart
  2. Intentionally seeing through God’s lens
  3. Noticing how what I am seeing is making me feel and noticing anything that God is saying through that
  4. Contemplating or sitting with some of those ideas and feelings
  5. After ‘SINCing with God’ in this way, prayerfully returning into the world, slightly transformed by the experience

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Sometimes I end up taking a photograph of what I have seen, sometimes I use a photograph previously taken, sometimes there is no photograph, and that is the real rub of this – it is not about taking photographs, but receiving photographs (as Christine Valters Paintner writes about in Eyes of the Heart) as they are revealed by God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – after all, it is God’s lens that I am seeking to look through!

 

Where is God…?

After taking a break from writing over the last few months, I am finally seeing those glimmers of God once again, inspiring thoughts and even gifting a few lines of poetry. It would be fair to say that writers block has silenced me, yet perhaps there are times when it is more important to listen than to speak, to hear rather than be heard. As I have listened, as I have lived in the mess which sometimes finds its way to each of our doors, I have found myself asking, where is God in all of this? The answer has been simple: right here, if only I would stop to look and see, listen and hear.

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How different would each day be if we only had a small number of words to say, if we had to savour the opportunity to speak for those occasions when it really mattered? Would we choose to speak words of love, or hate? What would we prioritise – building others up, or knocking them down? How much of what you have said today falls into words of love and care? It is a huge challenge, but could listening change the world?

“Listen much, speak little.”

St Ignatius of Loyola

Detention

As a former teacher the word detention was unfortunately part of my regular vocabulary whilst working in schools. Something perhaps less well known, thought about or understood though, was that detention was issued often not to punish, but rather with the intention of getting to know a student who was causing some sort of trouble. Troublesome behaviour often turned out to be a cry for attention, for someone to talk to about something which had been playing on their mind, or for affirmation and encouragement. These detentions then were often a new beginning, a starting point to a different way of being…even though at first sight they seemed negative, the result was actually positive.

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During my time in Tokyo I visited a detention centre where the word detention seemed to have all the negative connotations and stereotypes that our minds would first jump to. Whilst in the waiting room I met a man who had settled in Japan many years ago as a foreign national. The waiting room was a funny sort of place, one of those places which helps you to forget where you are or why you are there, with a collection of toys in the corner, a television on the wall and quite a bit of coming and going. There was a strange sense of community around shared experience which encouraged conversation between perfect strangers. As conversation was initiated with this man, he was different to the others I had encountered in the waiting room. He did not want to talk, he did not want to admit any association with anything to do with the detention centre. His words still stick in my mind. He was keen for everyone to know that he was here with a friend who was visiting, nothing to do with him; “I came here years ago, but not like this. These people are something else….” 

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For those who were being detained who I met, the story was rather different. Most who allowed me the privilege of hearing their story had been forced to leave their homes because their lives were in danger, real danger – returning home would result in death, and not because they had committed a crime which was punishable by death. The reasons for these threats to life were based on matters which we, in the UK and the West more widely, take for granted: some may have chosen to follow a different faith to the majority; others to align themselves to an alternative political path than the ruling regime; others still because their birth has brought them into a tribe or group which is hunted. Those I spoke to were desperate to go back to their homes, yet they also wanted that to be a safe place. They did not want to live in Japan, and benefit from all that that society offers, they just wanted to be safe. Safe. It is a small word with huge meaning, with feeling which cannot always be evidenced or explained. Safe. The journey towards which has led to vulnerability and further feelings of fear following any number of years in the detention centre which I visited – most over three or four, some as long as eight years.

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Other stories I had the privilege of hearing were about people who had settled in Japan. They had spouses and children, they had lived there for a number of years, and now were detained, for reasons which they could not understand. For those of us on the outside, it is easy to draw conclusions, to claim that there must have been good reason for their arrest and subsequent detention. It can be easier to convince ourselves of that, especially in the face of the deep uncertainty of no apparent reason. The harsh reality seems to be different from good reason though. Neither is it something that is only happening in Japan, far away from our homes, and where we can have any influence. @DetentionAction are working so hard to tell similar stories of people in the UK who have been detained indefinitely, whom the Home Office have detained after years of them working and paying tax in this country.

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This Christmas I found myself thinking about the stories I have heard, both at home and abroad, and the real people behind them. As I witnessed the nativity story being acted out and retold in any number of ways by school children, at crib services, and carol services, I noticed how little has changed since these times. Mary and Joseph, as well as Jesus when he arrived on the scene, were refugees far away from home, strangers in a foreign land. To add further complication, once Herod had heard of the little baby born King of the Jews he ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed – Mary and Joseph were then fleeing for the life of this little baby. There was such hostility towards them in these stories as people of difference, people who posed a threat, and sadly that hostility still seems present in our world today, in the stories of those who are still fleeing for safety.

My prayer, as we approach Epiphanytide, is for greater understanding of the stranger, for ears that wish to hear, eyes which are willing to see, and hearts which are burdened with a deep sense of compassion for real people behind real stories, which we may prefer to ignore, yet have a duty to hear….

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemöller, 1892-1984

Words of change…?

For a few months now, it is almost like there has been nothing to write…actually that has been far from true. There has been so much to write about, to comment on, to realise, to think through, and I have felt verbally paralysed, being unable to find the right words, find any words to express what has been going on and how I am processing it.

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Following my return from Japan, I began to sense a difference, a change, in how I was encountering and developing within ministry and training in my curacy parish. In reality this had begun some time prior to going to Japan, so was not simply brought on by time away. It can be strange how time away sharpens the senses though. The change was, in part, about me, but it was also something I was beginning to sense in prayer. As I delved deeper into these feelings with others, it became clear that my training needs had changed somewhat, and could no longer be met in my current curacy. Over the course of an incredibly painful few weeks, it became apparent that I was to be pushed further out of my comfort zone, and that God was leading me to another opportunity.

Subsequently, it was announced in my diocese a few weeks ago that I am to transfer my curacy from the Parish of Stocking Farm and Beaumont Leys to the Holy Spirit Parish with the two churches of St Andrew and St Nicholas in Leicester city centre. In many ways this is a hugely exciting opportunity, and one that I never envisaged having. I have also been coming to terms with negative feelings around this completely unexpected part of the process though, and perhaps this is where the struggle for words comes.

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This change is not about my failure, and yet there is something about it that feels like a failure. People often refer to this situation as a curacy ‘breaking down’, and there is a lot of pain and stigma associated with that. I have come to realise how much I value the expectations and sentiments of others, particularly as some around me have expressed disappointment and sadness about my departure. One of the church wardens, as she delivered the announcement, said that her ‘heart was breaking’. I noticed a sense of guilt welling up inside; they have warmly welcomed me and I have been greatly blessed by them. Yet, I have failed them because I am not keeping my word – my parish expected me to be with them for three years; instead, I will leave them after a little over 18 months. How often do we make promises, in good faith, that we cannot keep? What words do we use to reassure people, to let them hear that which will offer comfort, without the foresight to truly know that we will be able to keep our word?

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I am a huge fan of the film, The Invention of Lying which explores the power of words. People are unable to say something which is not true, until one individual finds himself doing just that by “saying something…that wasn’t” and baffling his friends when he tries to explain what happened. What would you not have said today if bound by this criteria, if you were unable to offer comfort or care by suggesting something that you believed, but could not be certain of? I was always encouraged not to lie as a child, and I have an aversion to those who lie to me. What about mistruths, though, that we convince ourselves are a kindness rather than an actual lie – how many of those get through our in-built lie detectors completely unnoticed?

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So here I am, eagerly anticipating a new path, a different opportunity, whilst struggling with the guilt of failing those I leave behind…a guilt which may well not be mine to hold. I am beginning to wonder whether this guilt points to something of note: God can work powerfully through each of us when we allow that, perhaps it is our humanity which focuses on the emotion of such an encounter, and less on the encounter itself and what God may have been revealing within that. If you were to savour one sentence or phrase from a memorable encounter, what would it be? What is it about those words that draw you? Do they speak truth, do they comfort, or did they reveal something of the divine in a life-changing way?

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.

Seeking the Holy

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I have loved going to places of pilgrimage in Tokyo and blending into the background as I watch the expectation of the sacred or seeking of the experience of the sacred. Yet at Sensouji, it was not so much the obvious places where I found the sacred, but somewhat off the beaten track. Old treasure, lighting, stillness, solitude or the wind offered wonderful reminders of that ever present divinity – if only we will stop long enough to look, to see, to hear and to feel.

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….

A mile in their shoes…

I finally got to see Arabella Dorman’s Suspended at Leicester Cathedral yesterday; an art installation which is truly overwhelming.

The full title, Suspended – in search of light evokes a powerful image of displaced people fleeing the darkness in search of light. All of these clothes were worn by refugees who arrived at Lesbos cold and wet, as well as exhausted, from traumatic journeys which can barely be imagined. Taking time to really look at these clothes I saw people of all ages and walks of life – displacement had been incredibly inclusive!

Focusing in on the shoes got to the real heart of the matter for me – probably in many cases favourite shoes showing how people left in haste; who would have chosen to wear some of these shoes for such a treacherous journey…? These shoes and items of clothing represent real people with real lives, and real fears which forced them to leave all that they had ever known behind, even to the last items of clothing that they had chosen for themselves….

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.