Welcome to our first issue of Editions, created to complement the conversation packs we will be producing at regular intervals over the next few years.
Our writers help us to reflect on different aspects of living a spiritual life, one where God is perhaps more often seen fleetingly than constantly at our side and in our consciousness.
Jan Sutch Pickard, writer and storyteller, lives on the remote Ross of Mull near Iona. She tells about practical ways in which she tries to put into practice the words of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, ‘walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone’ and the joy of glimpsing God in the humanity, hospitality, humility and humour of her neighbours.
Ann Lewin is a published writer of prayers and reflective poetry, and also a leader of retreats and quiet days. She writes for us about the frustration, as a bird watcher, of staying in a retreat centre for ten days without seeing the kingfisher known to frequent the garden, yet how it led her to see and understand similarities with her experience of God.
Nicky Redsell is a talented musician and spiritual direction course tutor. She finds music an indispensable part of her spiritual life, stilling or rousing her, comforting or challenging, expressing feelings too difficult to put into words. She shares her personal playlist favourites with us.
Ruth Harvey, a member of the Shoreline team, is a member of the Iona community, a Church of Scotland minister and Quaker. We invited her to tell her story of growing up on Iona when her father was Warden – a fascinating memoir of moving to Iona from inner city Glasgow as a young child and living with an ever-changing household of guests. Her story will continue in future Editions.
We trust that these ‘glimpses’ into the spiritual stories of our contributors will resonate with your own. We would love to hear from you and will share your thoughts and comments on our website.
We would particularly like to build up a playlist of favourite pieces of music – send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
In praise of… cheerfulness Jan Sutch Pickard celebrates the everyday life of her small island community
“Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” George Fox
These words of George Fox have encouraged me for years now. Every day I try to put them into practice. Here’s a very down-to-earth example:
It’s New Year’s Day. I’m standing in a muddy farmyard in the rain, and I can’t stop laughing – for sheer joy. What’s all this about? Folk where I live, on the Ross of Mull, the rocky peninsula that stretches westward towards Iona, have, for the last nine years, celebrated the New Year with a rough-and-ready game of shinty. More than a hundred years ago this game was a traditional way of bringing in the year on the great arc of beach at Ardalanish, Grandfathers of those now old themselves remembered it with zest. But for later generations it had become just a story. Then a couple bought the farm who were committed to living with a light footprint on the land: they re-introduced Highland cattle and Hebridean sheep; they also listened to local stories. And they revived the New Year’s game.
The first year it drew a small crowd, many of them also incomers. Children who were learning the game at school looked on critically: ‘That’s no’ shinty!’ It was a free-for-all, with folk wielding hockey sticks and cricket bats, walking sticks, yard brooms and bits of driftwood. The goals were marked by lobster creels and heaps of kelp – and these goalposts had a mysterious way of moving! It wasn’t clear who won, but everyone had plenty of fresh air and fun.
Then, each succeeding year more folk came, local fishermen and crofters and their families as well as the occasional midwinter holiday maker. There was a bonfire on the beach, drams at half-time, hot soup afterwards. This year we were playing in the farmyard because the tide was too high. Each year’s different and each time there are more shared memories and – amid much laughter – it creates community.
Steve brought his first child as a toddler to the first match, then became a stalwart of the game, and a popular referee. In daily life, he was valued for many other things, including practical help to neighbours and the insights he brought to village life from the Buddhist faith he shared with his wife Yeshi. The whole community was shocked when he died tragically in a climbing accident. The next New Year his son, Jigme, took up the family tradition, played and was acclaimed Man of the Match. This year, Yeshi and both children were on the pitch. The younger, Palmo, is just four. She had a stick, but wasn’t sure about using it, or which way to run. She stood still in the midst of a melee of people and dogs, unafraid and unscathed. A caim, a circle of protection, seemed to be drawn around her, and her serious smile reflected the loving community that recognised that
one so small had a part to play, and kept her safe.
That’s why I laughed – for sheer joy.
“it’s in the humanity, hospitality, humility, humour of my neighbours that I glimpse the nature of God.”
But I’ve not chosen to write about joy, which is a powerful emotion we already associate with religious experience. I’ve chosen cheerfulness because there’s something relatively powerless and very down-to-earth about it. It is often taken for granted, dismissed as banal, or suspected as false. But then I think about our lives together on this Hebridean island – or in other places where I’ve made my home, including the inner city. Battered by gales or knocked back by heartless austerity, among the things we can hold on to is our common humanity: liking each other’s company, co-operation and mutual respect, creating resilience – and simply laughing together.
There’s a suspicion about cheerfulness in the local Parish Church here. Sunday best is often dull and Sunday faces can be dour. Yet these same folk are very neighbourly and hospitable in their daily lives. As far as I can see, the Elders are still working out how these aspects of being human belong in church; while it’s in the humanity, hospitality, humility, humour of my neighbours that I glimpse the nature of God. My Bible (REB) translates Acts 2: 44-46 as ‘All the believers agreed to hold everything in common…breaking bread in their homes they shared their meals with unaffected joy.’ I believe that they weren’t doing this in a dour and dutiful way, but with common sense and down-to-earth cheerfulness.
Wherever two or three Members of the Iona Community are gathered together, we might be debating (if we’ve nothing better to do) how cheerful St Columba was. That’s because a prayer used by the Community since the early years of George MacLeod’s leadership begins like this:
O God, who gave to your servant Columba
the gifts of courage, faith and cheerfulness,
and sent people forth from Iona
to carry the word of your gospel to every creature:
grant, we pray, a like spirit to your church,
even at this present time…
For the church today to flourish – and indeed to survive – we need ‘a like spirit’, these qualities: courage, faith and, yes, cheerfulness. Having begun this reflection with a parable of a local community at play I’ll end with a poem. I wrote it while editing Dandelions and Thistles, a book of Biblical reflections for the Iona Community:
The cheerful unrepentant weeds
In the beginning
God saw the cheerful unrepentant weeds:
thistles and dandelions –
and God saw that they were good.
They were fruitful and multiplied.
They bloomed on poor soil and in the barren wilderness;
they brought colour into a solemn world.
God considers them as well as the lilies –
they don’t toil or spin either,
but they breed like rabbits
and spread like wildfire.
Never anxious about tomorrow,
today they reclaim the wasteland,
break through concrete, transform bomb-sites.
They are a treasure hidden in a field.
Common as muck, but clothed in purple and gold,
they proclaim the presence of their creator.
God, open-handed sower of grace,
sees that thistles, flourishing on the field’s edge,
won’t give stray seeds a chance;
aware of the sparrow’s fall,
knows how the smallest seed of all
grows until it can shelter the birds of the air.
God watches the thistledown,
travelling light, cast adrift on the currents of the air,
finding somewhere to make a fresh start.
God values the dandelions as a harvest:
we cannot live by bread alone,
our souls hunger for beauty and meaning –
we are nourished by signs of the Kingdom.
God, knowing the secret of life and death,
created green shoots that spring up after rain,
flowers that follow the sun,
fruits that trust the winds of heaven,
and seeds that will only grow
if they fall in the earth and die.
These weeds – as down-to-earth as you or I –
are parables of the wisdom and work of God.
Text based on Genesis 1:11-13; Matthew 6:28-30; Matthew 13:3b-9, 31-32, 44; John 12:24. Poem from Dandelions and Thistles, Biblical meditations from the Iona Community: Wild Goose Publications ISBN 1-901557-14-6
Heart’s Desire Ann Lewin draws lessons from the time she, the birdwatcher, failed to see the kingfisher when others did
Prayer is like watching for the
All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
If you remember the Spice Girls, you will remember their song with its repetitive ‘Tell me what you want, what you really, really want…’ That question lies at the heart of our spiritual journey: what do we really long for? When I was being prepared for Confirmation, many years ago, the vicar sowed the seed of an answer by reading some verses from the Letter to the Philippians (Ch 3 vv10-12) every week. In those days the words came from the Authorised Version of the Bible, but they stuck with me, surfacing again and again until they found a more modern expression: ‘All I care for is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’.
I’ve learnt over the years that coming to know Christ is a multi-faceted quest. It requires some application to Bible study and theological exploration; some discipline in giving time to worship and prayer; and open-ness to new insights which come through other people as well as in consequence of personal reflection. These are not separate activities – they flow into and out of each other, in dark times of beginning to understand what being crucified with Christ might be like, as well as the times when all is going well. Moments of illumination are not dependent on what we do, but on how open we are to what God gives us: how much we really desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
The words that vicar gave me were both gift and challenge. On a good day, I know that what I really, really want is to know Christ. But there are other days too, when it all seems like hard work, and I’m getting nowhere.
“Moments of illumination are not dependent on what we do, but on how open we are to what God gives us: how much we really desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
One breakthrough moment I have described in connection with Disclosure, written when I was engaging in one of my interests, birdwatching. I was on holiday in a retreat house where about twenty other people were staying. The extensive grounds had a lake which was frequently visited by a kingfisher. At least, that’s what everyone else told me. I, the birdwatcher, failed to see it. For the ten days I was there I haunted the lake, but to no avail. But one morning I was given a different gift – the insight that this experience is what prayer is like. Prayer is about putting ourselves where God can catch our attention, like the bright flash of a kingfisher in flight. I learnt that the important thing is not whether one is successful in seeing a kingfisher, but that one has been prepared. Birdwatchers can’t control kingfishers, they can only be where they are likely to appear, and wait. So with prayer, we can’t make God reveal him/herself either – but we are more likely to recognise God’s presence if we are open to the possibility. Growing in preparedness is an act of will, as well as an expression of desire.
As a birdwatcher I know that kingfishers are always around. I’ve learnt to recognise their flight even when the sun doesn’t make them catch fire. That has its parallel in prayer too: the more we learn about the nature of God’s love, the more likely we are to recognise God at work in unlikely places and through unlikely people as well as in the more familiar ones. Prayer is part of our learning about God and the relationship God longs to have with us.
Birdwatching has given me other insights too. I’m a watcher, not a twitcher. That means that I stay put and wait to see what comes, whatever habitat I am in. Twitchers rush round chasing exotic or unusual species, and often miss the delights of the behaviour of more common birds.
We can be spiritual twitchers too, always seeking unusual experiences, and missing the simple ways in which God tries to attract our attention. Watchers are more contemplative in their approach, learning to wait, alert for the moment of God’s coming. And sometimes, that flash of brightness gives encouragement.
Poem from Watching for the Kingfisher: Poems and Prayers by Ann Lewin: Canterbury Press Norwich (2009) ISBN: 9781853119897
Still Spaces Nicky Redsell shares her love of music and the songs that lift her spirits or bring a sense of calm
Most of us have a favourite song or piece of music. We are affected by it, no matter how familiar it is to us. There are memories stored up in our favourite music, memories of people, places or experiences. We might appreciate the sound of the music or enjoy physically taking part in music making. There are pieces of music that lift my spirits and pieces that bring me a sense of peace or calm, like ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan Williams. Songs by Sara Groves allow me to hope and Emile Sandé’s ‘Read all about it’ stirs my spirit and reminds me that I have a voice.
Music, as a non-verbal language can express those things we may find difficult to put into words. It can give expression to thoughts, feelings or emotions. We find that we might respond to the melody line, the rhythmic quality, the harmony or the texture, or perhaps the interplay between these elements. For many of us, there are times when musical experiences resonate with something deep within our spirits. There is a sense of encounter with something mystical or spiritual. A ‘thin place’, if you like. For those of us who accept the possibility of an ever-present divine being that we might call God, music can provide a connection point between this divine presence and our humanity.
“For many of us, there are times when musical experiences resonate with something deep within our spirits. There is a sense of encounter with something mystical or spiritual. A ‘thin place’, if you like.”
As part of the rhythm of my life, I try to punctuate my week with ‘still spaces’. These are pauses where I intentionally hold myself in the present, acknowledging that an ever-present God of love also holds me. These are points of reflection and contemplation in my week sometimes full of thankfulness but, if I am honest, sometimes full of questions and anxiety. It is during these reflective times that I become most aware of this God of love. It has to be said, this is not always a comfortable experience!
I find that music can enhance those connection points in a variety of ways. I often choose to listen or play a piece of music that I know draws out a peaceful, calm response from me. This might be ‘The Lark Ascending’ as I mentioned above, but might also be ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ by Debussy. As a pianist the physical action of playing, including the weight of the keys beneath my fingers, allows me to feel deeply still and my senses seem heightened. This, to me, is a beautiful example of that spiritual encounter with the divine. My humanity is known, understood and loved. I am reassured by this peaceful moment.
Music can also enable me to pray when I am at a loss for adequate words. There are times when I am anxious or concerned about something and am unable to find words to express the depth of my emotions. I may choose to listen to songs that wrestle with difficulties, allowing others’ words and melodies to shape my concerns. Or I might listen to or play a piece of music that explores dissonance. However, most frequently I sit at my piano, acknowledge myself to be in the presence of God and simply play. At times I play something familiar, but equally I often find myself creating something new, inspired by the spirit of that divine presence, who knows my heart and my unspoken words.
Finally, I love the way that God’s presence can grab my attention and surprise me through music. I might hear a song on the radio or while I’m out shopping that captures my imagination, makes me smile or causes me to say thank you. Frequently I catch a snippet of music that is just simply beautiful. As long as I am attentive, my life will continue to be enriched by the spirit of the divine through the gift of music. For that I am eternally thankful.
The act of listening to or playing music can be a prayerful activity in itself. This is something that you might want to explore further. Below is a list of music that I have used, which will probably reveal more about me than anything else! Orchestral music:
- ‘The Lark Ascending’ – Vaughan Williams (Many people’s favourite piece of orchestral music)
- ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ – Debussy
- Double ‘Cello Concerto – Elgar
- Symphony No 8 – Bruckner (This is one of my favourite orchestral works. I love to reflect on the movement between strength and delicacy and the relationship between the divine and humanity)
- ‘Pavane pour une enfante defunte’ – Ravel (I find that the strong melodic line in this piece gives voice to unspoken emotions)
Piano music: Craig Armstrong; Ludovico Einaudi
Also: Taizé music; folk melodies
Being a Child of God in Community Ruth Harvey remembers her formative years on Iona
Hands held tightly across the row of six bodies, bent bold against the gale, we are gripped close by our teacher as we stride home through the wild wind. She stops at Macleans cross. ‘Look!’, she says, peering through the murk across the Sound of Iona: ‘Look! The water-fall on Mull is being blown upwards!’ And it surely was – powering water, pouring up.
For the first ten years of my life, I lived in intentional Christian communities, the last five of these as part of the Resident Group in Iona Abbey. We were there as a family. But where most of my peers lived with a small group of relatives in a home, and went to school with many more, our life was lived back to front. We lived with up to 80 folk in an Abbey, and I attended a school of five – most of whom were my family.
That blustery winter morning we were no Celtic poets, scribbling reflections to God’s glory in the margins of our jotters, as the holy men on our island home had been some 1300 years earlier. But we were just as awe-struck by divine power and passion as the rain streamed down our faces, and ‘up’ the cliffs of Mull.
Few unrelated play-mates meant we fell back on inner resources. The wildness of the barn and the beach, the feral foraging along the seashore became our playground. I remember a glorious eight-year old evening spent alone by the jetty, getting first the hems, then the knees and the waist of my trousers wet. I kept going, up to my chest, my chin in the Atlantic, until I was part of the ocean, fully-clad, fully alone, up to my neck in creation. An Ezekiel moment of both awe and terror, immersed in the wildness of God’s creation.
“The wildness of the barn and the beach, the feral foraging along the seashore became our playground.”
Our parents had been part of the pioneering Gorbals Group Community, modelled on the East Harlem project of 1960s New York, where groups of Christians committed to the Social Gospel chose to live alongside the poor – sharing money, food, prayer and work in common, committed to lifting hearts and bodies out of poverty. The demolition of our home meant we moved to be part of the Iona Community – a similarly prophetic group of Christians committed to peace and justice and the non-violent transformation of the world.
For me, as an extroverted child, this was a glorious way to grow ‘up’! I relished the common space, the Abbey church worship twice daily, the shared meals with 80, the freedom of the island. I assumed that what I had was the norm. Small wonder, then, that the reality check of being ‘decanted’ from there to a housing estate in central Scotland where sectarianism was rife and where to admit your religious allegiance could result in being spat on, was a shock. Not as big a shock, however, as having to learn to live in a home with only six, and to go to school with hundreds!
The resilience of children to weather the storms not just of our Atlantic weather system, but of adult choice is awesome. As I continue to ‘decant’ my life daily, from experience to experience, I live in equal awe of those children whose lives are decanted into situations of true danger, through absolutely no choice of their own, and whose resilience in the face of war, hunger, terror, and death knows no bounds.
I asked for strength,
that I might achieve greatness;
I was made weak,
that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health,
that I might do great things;
I was given infirmity,
that I might do better things.
I asked for riches,
that I might be happy;
I was given poverty,
that I might be wise.
I asked for power,
that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness,
that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things,
that I might enjoy life;
I was given life,
that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for,
but everything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself,
my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.