For the Love of God…

On Tuesday of last week I celebrated my birthday; possibly the happiest birthday of my whole life…or, at least, of my life so far. God, who I experience as pure, complete Love and the creator of all that is positive, life-giving and regenerating in this world, is now at the centre of my life in a way that I never imagined would be likely or even possible before. But that´s the thing with Divine Love, once it enters our awareness…and as a result, colours our whole lives…all things become possible.

I looked at the evening landscape in the picture below, out of my kitchen window a few days later, and the final scene of the film What Dreams May Come immediately came to mind. It´s a film that leaves different impressions on different people: some see it as pure fantasy with no relation to the real world; some believe it´s incomprehensible nonsense; and some see the truth that lies within it, because they´ve glimpsed flashes of it for themselves. The overall message is that ´Love saves our Souls´ from the torment of our lived experience and that the real goal of life is to connect to, live through and act from this Divine Love that lives within all of us and which we see sacredly reflected in the beauty of the world that surrounds us.

It´s a message I´ve heard echoed in the weeks leading up to this special birthday, because I´ve spent them in the heart of this Christian community in Spain, living through the Biblical story and shared experience of what Lent, Holy Week and Easter really represent. They tell the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…a human man who devoted himself to embodying the will of Divine Love and who discovered the power that it has to overcome every obstacle, even death, when we find the courage to trust it and to live by its guiding light.

I´ve found that the spirit of Divine Love moves within us, around us and between us…if we free our minds and our hearts enough to make space for it to work. It is endlessly regenerating and, when blocked, denied or rejected, it returns to itself and then seeks other minds and hearts that are open to receiving it and to welcoming it in. It is always nearby, always open to our invitation, but we must invite it in; through our compassionate actions, our courageous choices, our tender words and our respectful deeds; both towards ourselves and towards others.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”

I´ve learned that it´s not enough to wish for it. It´s not enough to pray for it. It´s not enough to simply speak the words, however well-intentioned, “I welcome you in”. I now know that, to have Divine Love present and active in my life, I must show it that I genuinely want its presence. I must work with it, by finding the source of it within myself and then acting consciously from that source in the things that I think, do and say in my active efforts to connect with others. I must balance my needs with the needs of those around me; because Divine Love envelopes us all equally and what it seeks, to work peacefully and powerfully through us, is harmony and balance within us.

I´ve learned, through sometimes painful personal experience, that this harmony and balance is only achieved when I move my focus from ´suffering and sacrifice´ to a focus of ´awareness and trust´…trust that the things my heart is calling me to do have a Divine intention. And the proof of that ´Divine intervention´ becomes clear to me in time, when I begin to see the positive effects of my balanced choices on the lives, attitudes and actions of those around me, and within myself.

My life so far has taught me that God´s Divine Love seeks to work peacefully and powerfully through us, and that it functions in seemingly miraculous and effortless ways, when we live from an inner place of its empowerment (which is the gift of this Love) rather than a sense of obligation or enslavement to it.

God loves us as much as every other person that we touch with the words, thoughts and actions that give sacred meaning our lives, because our sense of meaning is inspired by the spirit of Divine Love. And, when we live from a place of balanced love, for ourselves and for others, we invite the spirit of Divine Love to work through us, and this repeated choice ultimately becomes the testimony of faith that we leave behind us with the impact of our human lives.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th Century English Mystic who believed, from her own lived experience, that God is Divine Love. It´s the experience of God that I have also, because my heart tells me that it is so, and for the last 6 years (since I was first introduced to her writings by a friend), I´ve felt a great afinity with her; because her core belief is my core belief and it´s the foundation on which all of my faith in God since then has steadily grown.

Every week, I receive a summary of reflections and contemplations from the Centre for Action & Contemplation. It comes as no surprise to me, but fills me with a sense of gratitude and joy, that the contemplative piece they chose to feature on my birthday this year focused on the writings and beliefs of Julian of Norwich. I´ve reproduce the piece below in the hope that it touches something deep within the hearts of others too.

Love Revealed (Click title for link to original CAC website post)
Tuesday, April 6, 2021

What does Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century Catholic anchoress, who spent the majority of her adult life cloistered in a small stone cell attached to a church, have to teach us here and now? She reveals the feminine face of the Divine in all its radiance and reminds us to seek God there. She teaches us that God’s love has nothing to do with rules and retribution and everything to do with mercy and compassion. She shows us that our failings and transgressions are simply an opportunity to learn and grow, and should be honored as such, but not dwelled upon. She translates the sorrows of this life as tastes of Christ’s passion and assures us that all passing pain will be transmuted into endless joy.

Most of all, Julian of Norwich promises that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, all is well. Not just that creation was beautifully made to begin with, and that it will all work out in the end, but that everything is all right at every moment, if we could only look through the eyes of love. Such a perspective is difficult to sustain, Julian would be the first to admit. In rare moments of unitive consciousness—watching the sun rise, maybe, or giving birth, or singing to God in community—we may have fleeting glimpses of the cosmic design and see that it is good. But then the veil drops again and we forget. [1]

Because of our continual forgetfulness, Julian ends her Long Text with an emphasis on divine love. Note that while Julian here uses male pronouns for God, throughout her work she also shows that God is beyond gender by consistently calling God both Father and Mother.

Throughout the time of my showings, I wished to know what our Beloved meant. More than fifteen years later, the answer came in a spiritual vision. This is what I heard. “Would you like to know our Lord’s meaning in all this? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who revealed this to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why did he reveal it to you? For love. Stay with this and you will know more of the same. You will never know anything but love, without end.”

And so what I saw most clearly was that love is his meaning. God wants us to know that he loved us before he even made us, and this love has never diminished and never will. All his actions unfold from this love, and through this love he makes everything that happens of value to us, and in this love we find everlasting life. Our creation has a starting point, but the love in which he made us has no beginning, and this love is our true source.” [2]

References:
[1] Mirabai Starr, “Introduction,” The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation (Hampton Roads: 2013), xix.

[2] Showings, chapter 86; Starr, 224–225.

A Presence that Continues…

For a number of years now, long before I accepted that I am (and have always been) a Christian at heart, I´ve subscribed to a weekly email service from The Centre for Action and Contemplation; founded by Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr. A friend sent me some reflective pieces that appeared on the site, knowing that I was on a ´life purpose´ journey of my own, and they always seemed to contain just the thing I needed to hear at the time I received them, which made me intrigued to read more.

The philosophy of the Centre and its contemplations are very appealing to me. And its focus is well-reflected in the title of Richard Rohr´s latest book: ´Every Thing is Sacred´. It is an inclusive philosophy; one grounded in continual movement towards a better acceptance, understanding and love of the ´universality´ of God. It is rooted in a sacred respect for the spirit of Love that dwells within us and within all living and natural things, and the fruit that it bears is a constant awareness of the need to ´actively live this universal love´ in the choices we make and the things that we do each day.

Below is a beautiful piece of writing that appeared in this week´s email and that reflects perfectly what I’ve come to learn in the last few months, living and working in the heart of a Christian Catholic community in Spain. Firstly, that healing, life-enhancing Love (that which Theresa calls ‘The Great Good’ or ‘God’) is found in the simple daily tasks and world that surrounds us. And secondly, that there was a spiritual purpose for me in being born into this Universal faith that I distanced myself from for the majority of my life.

It seems fitting that, on Mother´s Day, I should acknowledge the debt that I owe to my mother who decided we should all be baptised into the Catholic faith, shortly after my birth. Because it´s only now, much later in life, that I´ve come to appreciate the value of such communities and how much I´ve learned (through example) about unity, respecting difference, sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of others and the rewards of working together with a common purpose that is larger than our individual egos and selves. I´ve learned this through simple projects, working with others, discovering how daily, practical tasks become meditations, prayers and songs of praise in their own right; through the love and care we invest in them, which mirrors the love and care we receive ourselves.

“Theresa Torres’ description of receiving her faith through her grandmother is a wonderful reflection of how faith was once passed down generation to generation. Her grandmother, or “abuelita”, inspires spirituality not as a religious creedal statement or morality code, but as a healing and transformational way of life.” 

– Richard Rohr

Theresa Torres´ Childhood Memories: “As I reflected on the various types of prayer I rely on to give me strength and support on a daily basis and to carry me through the dark times, I had to return to my childhood. It was my ‘abuelita’. I am a third-generation Mexican American, and it was my grandmother who taught me so much about our culture and spirituality. I keep these nuggets of wisdom, knowledge, and strength close to my heart and soul. Because what she taught me was that prayer is about life – there is no division between daily life and daily prayer, they are one and the same. She taught me that ‘the great Good’ that we call ‘God’ is present all around us and we are one in ‘the great Good’.

Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of getting up early in the cool, damp summer mornings and finding my grandmother working in her garden and blessing the earth with her hands and her gentle spirit of reverence and awe. In the silence of the morning, as she worked, I found her at prayer – in silence and the presence of love for all of us and the earth. She was at one with the Spirit of ‘Good…God’.

She was the ground – the foundation and the presence of spirituality for me and for our entire family. . . . I was twelve at the time of her death, and she died after a short illness. Because she was so strong for most of my life, I could not envision she could be so ill or even could die. I was in denial and, while my mother tried to prepare me and console me, it was abuelita herself who showed me that her goodbye was not an end. In her death, she came to me and said her goodbye through the shared memories of our many experiences, and I felt her love and spirit go through me. She knew that her dying would be hard, but her presence was not gone – we are united in the grounding of ‘the great spirit of Good’. She also showed me the unity among those who have gone before us. Her presence and wisdom continue in my life – she has returned in dreams at important points in my life, and she continues to bless me. It is in living and even in dying that we are united in ‘the Spirit of Great Good’, so long as we love and we listen deep within. In the grounding of our lives, in the silence, we come to KNOW the wisdom and the transformative ‘Good’ that exist in us and around us and in the lives of the ‘abuelitas’ who have gone before us.”

Tree of Life…

Someone I love recently asked me if I was “in love”; because Love seems to be a theme in so much of what I write about when the spirit moves me, in both my poetry and my prose. My answer was “Yes, I´m in love…with my life and with God“. Because, to me, God is (quite literally) Love, and it´s become impossible for me to write about one without the other. Both within my heart and within my consciousness, they are one-and-the-same thing. But I also appreciate that people who don´t share this belief, will naturally attempt to categorise any talk of Love into one of our human definitions of it.

Love is the one thing that every human-being searches for and craves, from our beginning to our end, whether consciously aware of it or not. But, as my post ´Sea of Love´ tried to convey, Love comes in so many forms – as does God – that it´s almost impossible to analyse, define or contain in a way that makes it fully understandable or known. Just as we will never be ´fully known´ by another human being during our lives here on Earth, neither will the mystery of God/Love be fully known to us during our “four score years and ten“.

It´s only when we truly open our minds and our hearts up to this unsettling realisation, and start to accept what the divine mystery is trying to teach us, in each of our indivdual life experiences, that we begin to learn how potentially limiting our human definitions of both God and Love can often be.

We begin to see why we will never find ´perfect love´ with a single human-being here on Earth (be that perfect parental, partner or friendship love); because none of us, no matter how well-intentioned, good or noble we try to be, is a living embodiment of divine Love. We need to widen our gaze and perception of Love to catch even fleeting glimpses of the true glory of God that lies dormant inside every one of us…including ourselves.

This personal revelation has helped me to accept that human limitations are´God-inspired´. Because it´s the limitations in one person, that highlights the strengths in another and, in doing so, it invites us to see how cooperation and inter-dependence can foster a sense of common purpose, mutual respect and shared Love; when we allow it to. I´ve learned that, when we keep looking outwards for love, we ignore the Love that is God-made-manifest within us, and we surrender all conscious ability to share that selfless, powerful and authentic love with others; which leaves us spiritually poorer as a result.

I´ve been personally fortunate in finding a Christian community here in Spain that has welcomed me both as a rarity (a passing pilgrim who chose to stay-a-while), and also as one-of-its-own (someone with trust and faith in the mystery that is God). Here I´ve learned about the immense healing power of simple human kindness shown to strangers, whilst also retaining my previous awareness that Love demands much more of us than “simply being kind”.

My last five years of pilgrimage and, in fact, all of my life experience to date, has shown me what Love ultimately demands: that we see and accept its presence in all that it sends our way. But I´ve also learned, by observing the lives of people around me, that being kind to each other and making the effort to live in harmony, makes the bearing of Love´s occasionally-painful-armour-piercing gifts, both more bearable and survivable at the same time.

In this community, and in other similar Christian communities, it´s called fellowship; a recognition of the truth that we are a Brotherhood of Man. It´s the manifestation, in day-to-day life, of the main message that Jesus conveyed and embodied during his lifetime: “Recognise and honour the ways in which God´s grace is compassionate to you; and – in your gratitude for that grace – feel, show and share that same compassion (or love) with those around you.

I know that it´s a tough call for people who haven´t grown up in mutually-supportive communities like these, and it´s a big ask for those who´ve grown up with trust issues and, through necessity, have learned to mistrust others and to count only on themselves. But it´s a ´lesson worth learning´ and a ´risk worth taking´ because, ultimately, every one of us learns that we are all held in the immensely-powerful hand (and live at the mercy and grace) of God´s unfathomable divine Love. A love that lives and grows when shared…and which becomes deformed, slowly withers and then dies when jealously-guarded, stifled or kept in isolation.

I see it symbolically as the Tree of Life referred to in Genesis (about which so little is written in the Bible and around which so much has been speculated), because it´s this feeling of fellowship that is the principle way in which we experience God´s divine Love in this life. And I see the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil (or opinion, as I´ve come to call it) as the source of all division and suffering between us. If we over-indulge in fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil we run the risk of becoming opinionated, self-righteous and distant from the warm and loving, compassionate human beings we are capable of being…not just with family and close friends, but with the strangers we also encounter, day in and day out.

But when we choose to eat from the Tree of Life – consciously playing our part in building and sustaining a universal sense of brotherhood and fellowship, trying to look with the eyes of compassion at both ourselves and at those who enter our lives – we not only feel more alive and more worthy of love, we plant the seed of Love in others…and this is a seed with the power to bear fruit…from generation to generation to come.

On Love…

It is the work of a lifetime, coming to know and understand the beauty and truth of these two aspects of Love…

The Prophet
by Kahlil Gibran

Then said Almitra, "Speak to us of Love".
     And he raised his head and looked upon
the people, and there fell a stillness upon
them. And with a great voice he said:

     "When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you, 
So shall he crucify you. 
Even as he is for your growth,
So is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height 
and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
     So shall he descend to your roots 
and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,
that you may become sacred bread
for God’s sacred feast.
 
All these things shall love do unto you
That you may know the secrets of your heart and,
in that knowledge,
Become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if, in your fear, you would seek only
Love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness
And pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world
Where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
And weep, but not all of your tears.

     Love gives naught but itself
And takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not
Nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say,
´God is in my heart,´ 
but rather, 
´I am in the heart of God´.

And think not you can direct the course of love,
For love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

But if you love, and must needs have desires,
Let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart
And give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
 And then to sleep with a prayer for the
Beloved in your heart
And a song of praise
Upon your lips."
St Paul’s Letter to The Corinthians
(1:13)

"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels,
but do not have love, 
I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, 
and if I have a faith that can move mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor
and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. 
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others,
it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.

But where there are prophecies, they will cease;
where there are tongues, they will be stilled;
where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully,
even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain:
Faith, Hope and Love.
But the greatest of these 
is Love."

The Heart of the Matter…

The Yin and the Yang of it,
the ebb and the flow;
torrents, tranquilities,
they come and then go.

The breath that inspires it,
then leaves it in peace.
The power that inflates it,
the humble release.

The desire to unchain it
and know it in full.
The flee from the truth of it.
The infinite pull...

...to the centre of gravity,
that source of all Love;
as dark as a dungeon,
as light as a dove.

The binding of purpose,
and braiding of thread,
the salve of communion,
and breaking of bread.

And so we keep learning
as onward we go,
in the Yin and the Yang of it;
the ebb and the flow.

Sea of Love…

I believe that our experience of God is like an endless Sea of Love and, in that sea of love, God will send us perfect storms in an effort to perfect us to his own design. I believe his common design for all of us is that we think, speak, live, love and act from a place of compassionate truth. But, within that Grand Design, I believe there´s also a personal and unique design inscribed within each of our hearts.

I think the more we try to shape ourselves to a given model of authenticity, normality, conformity, goodness or perfection, the less we give ourselves the opportunity to gaze upon and contemplate the singular blueprint of our own unique design. And the more we try to limit, constrict or fit ourselves into stereotypes that others offer to us, with their expectations and their judgements of criticism or praise, the less we allow the will of God to work through us in a way that feels sacred and true to that unique, divine inscription we hold within.

To me, our unique design is one that gradually reveals itself to us throughout the course of our lives, through the situations we experience, the feelings they stir within us and the level of courage we display in accepting the truth of the messages that they bring to the surface from the deep. Messages about the truth of God´s love and how it manifests itself here on earth.

For the Sea of God´s Love encompasses everything: love for ourselves, love for others, romantic and erotic love, spiritual and divine love, maternal and paternal love, filial love, love of creation and expression, love of passion, love of nature, love of community, love of peace. It is not a constant and static entity. It is continually moving, continually shifting, continually growing and expanding and it gives and takes its different shapes and forms in its invitation to us to understand, trust, accept and willingly enter its life-giving ebb and flow.

Love rests on no foundation. It is an endless ocean, with no beginning or end.

– Rumi

Sometimes the storms God sends to us will physically break apart the vessel of security that we were given, fashioned for ourselves or chose to board; a significant relationship; a state of health; a much-loved job or profession; a family; a community; a place we thought was home. And sometimes the storm will wreck the internal image we were carrying of ourselves, and the external identity that came with it; the one which gave us status, confidence, a feeling of security about the future and a sense of calm.

´The Tempest´ – John William Waterhouse

These internal storms are the most challenging to weather, I believe, because they call into question everything we thought about ourselves and leave us feeling adrift in a sea of emotions that threaten to sink us and everything we took for granted about who we were. They can leave us feeling ship-wrecked, exhausted, half-drowned in confusion, anger, frustration and despair. But, I believe, these painful and challenging moments are the ones that truly form us and offer us the opportunity to become the ´all´ that we were designed to be.

There is truth in the age-old saying that “God never sends us anything we´re not strong enough to bear.” We only have to look around us at the countless number of those who´ve experienced, been humbled by, learned from and grown stronger from seemingly catastrophic events in their lives. These are the people that we admire, are inspired by and learn from; the ones who energise us and show us the healing power of hope.

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms ,
to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances, 
to choose one´s own way"
Viktor Frankl (Neurologist, Philosopher and Auschwitz Survivor)

They have taken what the experience taught them (after allowing themselves time, with love, to grieve for what they lost) as an invitation and gift to seek something different, something more in their lives. They don´t allow themselves to become embittered, they find enough love for themselves to learn and grow and, in doing so, they create for themselves lives of meaning and they shine the light of love, hope and possibility which acts like a beacon for us all.

It´s only lack of faith in ourselves, lack of true love for ourselves, and lack of trust in the mysterious and endlessly-challenging ways of God that stop us from discovering and living this self-same truth.

You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.

Rainer Maria Rilke 
(The Book of Pilgrimage)
Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Boat, Muxía, Galicia

A Hymn for our Times…

“O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.”

- G K Chesterton

The Baby and the Bathwater…

“Exactly one year ago today I published this website for the first time” was something that suddenly occurred to me on yesterday´s morning walk. Although I´d been preparing the site for a few weeks before, it wasn´t my intention to´go live´ on that particular day. But a significant experience in a church that I´d wandered into, on the island of Fuerteventura, changed all that and gave me the impetus I needed to write and publish my first post; Love is like a Lighthouse:

https://lacasadepaz.com/2020/01/13/welcome-to-my-blog/

That memory made me reflect on how significant the church (both the buildings themselves and the people I´ve found inside them) has become in my life in the last 12 months. And then the title of today´s blog post, which first popped into my head on another morning walk at the end of November last year, came to mind…and finally began to make sense.

Love is like a Lighthouse

*************

My experience of the Nativity period this year (the whole of Advent, Christmas itself and the week that followed it) has been like no other Christmas experience before. It felt like the culmination of a year of personal revelations and it´s changed the way that I´ll be celebrating Christmases in future…I believe.

As I´m currently living in a church hostel I attend Mass daily, because I love the rhythm that it brings to my life and because I often hear things (either in the Gospel itself, or in the sermons that the priests give after the readings) that speak directly to my heart. One of the gifts of this practice, I now realise looking back, is that it´s given me an appreciation of the whole Nativity story´s meaning, and its timeless significance, that I´ve never really had before.

´This year´s ´local nature Advenz Kranz´

From the beginning of the Advent period (when four candles were placed in front of the altar) I began to learn things about the traditions I´ve followed at Christmas time, habitually or just because they felt important and right, without ever understanding the inspiring messages behind them. As an adult, I´ve continued the Christmas practice of making an Advenz Kranz, which I remember from my childhood home, but it was only here that I learned what the four candles symbolise and the significance of that symbolism, which can be used as a guiding light in the journey of life.

The first candle symbolises Hope, the second Faith, the third Joy, and the fourth candle Peace.

Each Mass began, on the four Sundays of advent, with a young boy from the congregation ascending the large altar step and lighting the next candle in the countdown to Christmas; and the meaning of each candle was then used as the focus in that week´s church bulletin and in community prayer. The light of awareness, of how important hope, faith, joy and peace are in living positive, constructive, creative and compassionate lives in community with others, was the underlying message; powerful in its potential but delivered in a traditional, understated and gentle way.

As we entered the second half of December a special service was held to share The Peace Light of Bethlehem; a light that´s been lit each year, since 1989, from an oil lamp that hangs in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and is then transported and shared with communities who welcome it, throughout Europe and beyond. The light symbolises the approaching light of the birth of Jesus as a focal point for faith, hope, joy and love which, when unified in our own lives and used as the basis of our relationships with others, helps us to discover and create inner and outer peace.

Peace Light of Bethlehem

At the service, individual votive candles were lit from the Bethlehem flame that came to the church, and were handed out to parishioners who were then free to take them home and pass them on to other family members and friends. The significance of this ´passing on of light´ from one person to another, especially at this time when so many are feeling the darkness of fear and uncertainty about the present and the future, touched something deep inside me.

As Christmas Day came and went the services and symbolism continued, infusing the whole Nativity period with spiritual meaning and offering me insights that I´d been oblivious to before. Amongst those Catholic Feast Days was La Fiesta de La Sagrada Familia (the Feast of the Holy Family) when the role models of Mary and Joseph as parents were highlighted, and the strong and healing power of mutual family love and respect were expressed.

Adoration of the Magi – Edward Burn Jones

When Epiphany/Twelfth Night approached I finally grasped why the Spanish have always used this as their official ´present-giving´ date, as opposed to the wider and now largely-secular Western practice of giving presents on Christmas day. It reflects the giving of gifts by the Magi (Wise Kings) to honour the birth of Jesus; as the presence of Divine Love in Human Form. When I returned home from my morning walk on that day, I found these presents on my doorstep with a message telling me they were left on behalf of The Kings, who´d heard of my kindness to others in the year before. And the significance of those small expressions of human love, given in the things I´d done for others and reciprocated in the gifts left on my doorstep, became clear.

*************

Which brings me to…the baby and the bath water

In the Catholic church the Nativity period officially comes to an end on the Sunday after Epiphany, with a Mass that celebrates´The Baptism of Jesus´. On the face of it this may seem a little strange, bearing in mind that Jesus was baptised, in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, the age of 30. But, in the Christian Church, baptism symbolises an inviting of the Holy Spirit to enter our lives, in hope and faith that it will fill us with the light of God´s Love.

At this Sunday Mass the parish priest made the point that most of us, probably baptised as babies and infants, were unable to make decisions about our own faith at the time, and that our parents will have made this decision for us and selected Godparents to speak on our behalf. As adults, we´re now capable of choosing for ourselves if we want to live lives infused with hope, faith, joy and peace and whether we want to share this way of living – spreading this light – to others.

Sunday´s Mass gave all of us the opportunity to bring this awareness to mind and to choose for ourselves if we wanted to say again the words of commitment (to a life based on an active faith in the love of God) that our Godparents spoke for us, all those years before. They were words that I was happy to speak and to feel in my heart because I now see that, when I decided as a teenager I wanted no further involvement with organised religion or with anything that it stood for, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The bathwater was all the human-made religious rules, judgements, restrictions, contradictions, dogmatic opinions and hypocrisy that I´d observed as a child and associated with traditional religion. The baby was what Jesus represented, and what I´ve seen manifested here in a traditional Catholic community; the pure light of divine love in human form, actively seeking to be seen, heard, felt and shared with others.

After a lifetime of rejecting ´the ultimate Christmas present´ that my parents gave me, in deciding to have me baptised, I now understand that I´ve spent 56 years ripping up the wrapping paper and pulling apart the packaging and that they were never meant to be the focus of my attention. They were just ways of presenting and preserving the message of divine love that they held…and continue to hold…within them.

That Light in the Distance…

We´re now one week into 2021 and, not for the first time in my life, I feel a little out-of-step with the rest of the world. Almost everyone I know (and the vast majority of those I don´t but who share their views on both social and the wider media) seem to have had a “good riddance” attitude to 2020, as the old year bowed out and the new year strolled in. It´s an attitude I understand. People have experienced tremendous uncertainty, insecurity, isolation, illness, death of close friends and family members and these are all things tied memorably and inevitably to the passing year.

But, for me, the experience was different. I didn´t lose anyone close to me, my contact with family members and close friends usually takes place through social media and living a life of uncertainty has been my conscious choice over the last 5 years; so I appreciate that the unknown is not as daunting or unsettling to me as it has the potential to be for many others. In all honesty, 2020 was a very special year for me, in all that it taught me and gave me the opportunity to live and learn, and I´ll be remembering it as the year that the light in the distance came closer.

It´s the year in which I learned the history of the extraordinary pilgrim hostel, housed within the Parish House of Iglesia Santiago El Real; how it came into being from one man´s creative thinking and countless hours of voluntary labour and help from Camino-committed individuals within the local community, seminarians from the Seminary in Pamplona and volunteers from Spain and other countries further afield. It´s the year that my respect for all these unsung heros, unmotivated by the pursuit of individual fame, recognition or applause for themselves, grew to such a extent that I realised, at last, how service to others really does bring a treasure trove of its own rewards.

It was the year in which I found myself making a temporary home, and being tentatively but warmly welcomed into a small parish community, in the heart of La Rioja in Spain. It was the year in which I witnessed the effect that one individual can have on so many others during the course of their lifetime, through the sheer strength of their faith in the universal love of God and the power of fellow human beings to manifest that love here on Earth. It was the year that I learned the true importance of making silent and solitary time each day, to listen to my heart and to follow what it quietly but persistently urges me to do. And the year in which I finally realised that this quiet, calm and constant voice (which never voices opinions, criticisms, comparisons, justifications, judgments or fear) is the way in which God talks to me.

The church has a banner hanging at the base of its bell tower, close to the entrance. It states that it is committed to evangelical mission; words that would have summoned up images of bible-thumping-TV-Evangelists within me in the past and would possibly have even initiated a nervous facial tick. But that´s the thing with words I´ve found, the images and meanings that we attach to them usually tell us far more about ourselves than about anyone else. Because, what I´ve discovered is, the thing that this church is evangelising is nothing more than community-based love…through its simple example, and in a quiet, supportive and healing way. And that realisation prompted the memory of an incident on a part-time Creative Writing course that I attended many years ago in Wales.

The course lasted 4 months, meeting one morning each week, and we were a group of 18 people of varied ages, experiences and backgrounds. Amongst our number was a very religious, middle-aged woman called Elizabeth who I remember getting quite agitated one day when we were discussing ´The Church´. She was upset by our interpretations of what ´The Church´ actually meant, as the views being expressed referred to the buildings (how unnecessarily opulent and ornate they were), and the institutions (how powerful, hypocritical and corrupt they appeared to be). Elizabeth was adamant that the true meaning of ´The Church´ was neither of these things but, rather, that it was the community of people who came together to share their love and worship of God in a collective and active way.

At the time I thought she was being pedantic and defensive but now, several years and many personal experiences later, I see exactly what she meant and how limited, opinionated, disrespectful and uninformed our scathing judgments were. The buildings are ornate, the institutions (like every human institution ever created) does have its hypocritical and corrupt aspects and individuals, but the spirit of love that emanates from communities of people, who choose to come together to honour God and to help each other, are what the Church really means and is at heart; whether they choose to use a particular ritual of religious observance or not.

This year is a Holy Year on the Camino (a year when the Feast Day of Saint James, or Santiago, falls on a Sunday). In Holy Years the number of pilgrims who choose to walk the Camino de Santiago usually multiplies many, many times. The last Holy Year was in 2010 and, when I was busy painting some rooms in the church hostel last month, I found the wall calendar (pictured below) gathering dust on top of a wardrobe. When I asked about it I was told that the church decided to place a light at the top of its tower, in honour of the Holy year, and that it became known locally as ´The Lighthouse of Logroño´, with the City Council deciding to feature it in wall calendars that they produced. The beam of light shone out towards the Camino coming into the city, acting as a guide to any pilgrims who chose to follow it, and leading them directly to the doors of the church and to the hostel itself.

This year, like several years previously, the church erected a giant, illuminated star on top of the tower and it shines from the hour of sunset, through the darkness of night, and on until dawn. It can be seen for miles, all along the riverside path and from several different vantage points around the city. Long before it was put in place this year, people began asking the parish priest if it would be lit again and when…it seems that it´s become a focal point for feelings of goodwill with many people who are not local parishioners and have nothing to do with the church.

I feel like an invisible beam of light drew me to the open door of this church in April of this year, that it pulled me back here again in October and that it was the light of God´s universal and powerful love. Its purpose was not to convert me into a regular churchgoer, to reclaim me as a good Christian or to save my Catholic soul. Its intention was much wiser, simpler, subtler, far-reaching and more profound than that. It knew that the time was right to show me, after years of individual searching for and finding a reflection of God within individuals (including myself), I was ready to see that same reflection within communities of people with a traditional, open and shared belief in God.

Not long after I returned here I had a conversation with the priest about my belief in God. “I think that God is Love and it´s a simple as that” I told him “and if I live and act with a sincere heart, with love for myself and for others, I will please God”. “Yes” was his response, “but love is not a theory, it´s an active thing, and you can´t learn about it in isolation; you have to live it and create it with others in the real world”.

And I agree, because that´s what I´ve found. It´s how that light in the distance…if I keep turning towards it…and keep moving steadily forward in the direction from which it shines…gradually comes closer and closer…each and every day.

Be the Change…

There´s a Celtic folklore belief in something called ´Thin Places´. These are places around the world where the gap between Heaven and Earth is so thin that the magical quality of Heaven can be actually, physically felt.

Clarity; perspective; sudden recognition of what really matters in life; feelings of immense peace and great joy; a profound sense of spirituality…all of these are things that people have described in Thin Places.

I have my own theory about this. I believe that they really began as Thin Spaces, rather than Thin Places. I think that when people are open enough to experiencing the universal love that is God, and to living a life of acceptance, tolerance and respect for the differences of others, they begin to experience more and more of these spaces. Time momentarily stands still, everything becomes suddenly simple and clear and, when enough people have these Thin Space moments in one particular place, they leave a legacy of this pure and positive energy behind…eventually creating Thin Places.

The Camino de Santiago is one such place…the whole length of it. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (both pagan and Christian) have walked this route throughout the ages in search of love, peace, faith, hope and God. Each left their own personal trace of positive and Thin Space energy and that´s why so many people who walk it today have similar, inexplicable, life-altering experiences.

I´ve always loved to welcome in the New Year by listening to the sound of ´Big Ben´, broadcasting from London across the world. Before the new hour of the New Year strikes, the smaller bells of The Palace of Westminster ring out ´The Westminster Quarters´ and then there´s a pause. I believe that pause is a Thin Space. A moment when time stands still and we can wish whatever we want for the New Year, knowing that God and the Universe will be listening to what´s in our hearts.

Imagine if all of us wished to be the change we want to see in the world in this coming year…and then did all we could to support that wish in the year ahead. Imagine how even more wonderful this world could be.

It´s easy if you try…

Happy New Year, Happy New Decade and Happy Año Santo (Holy Year) to all of you. And if 2021 is the year you choose to walk the Camino de Santiago may God guide and bless you all the Way. And may this be the year when you also have many Thin Space moments.

 
 Celtic Blessing
   A Morning Offering
  
 I bless the night that nourished my heart
 To set the ghosts of longing free
 Into the flow and figure of dream
 That went to harvest from the dark
 Bread for the hunger no one sees.

 All that is eternal in me
 Welcomes the wonder of this day,
 The field of brightness it creates
 Offering time for each thing
 To arise and illuminate.

 I place on the altar of dawn:
 The quiet loyalty of breath,
 The tent of thought where I shelter,
 Waves of desire I am shore to
 And all beauty drawn to the eye.

 May my mind come alive today
 To the invisible geography
 That invites me to new frontiers,
 To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
 To risk being disturbed and changed.
 
May I have the courage today
 To live the life that I would love,
 To postpone my dream no longer
 But do at last what I came here for
 And waste my heart on fear no more. 
  
 -  John O´Donohue