A Prayer for the Possible…

Yesterday morning a dear friend sent me a link to a televised Mass from a Catholic church in Ireland, which she’d tuned into by chance, because she wanted me to see how the Mass had started. She knows me well, and she knows that the way in which Catholic Masses traditionally begin (verbally acknowledging that we are sinners, symbolically beating our breasts as a sign of penance and admission of sinfulness, and then asking for God’s forgiveness: “I have greatly sinned…through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…“) is something that I would like to see changed.

It’s not a matter of fanciful personal preference or whim, rebellion against doctrine, condemnation of tradition or of the Church as a whole. It’s much simpler than that. It’s that it’s not the truth of what I hear God saying to me in my heart and soul. And, no matter how many times I’m told differently, or who is doing the telling, God’s message to me never changes. What I hear is: “I want you to see yourselves as I see you. I want you to understand that you are created in my image…and that I am pure Love“.

The driving force behind my passionate wish to see the wording of the Mass changed is that words have power and, as the central celebration of the Catholic Faith, the regular repetition of these words at the start of each Mass reinforces an internal image that we are sinners and not that we are living, human containers of God’s Love.

Of all the beautiful places I’ve visited on the Camino de Santiago (and I’ve walked it several times), the site of the oldest church on the entire route, in the tiny mountainous village of O Cebreiro, has long been a place of special signnificance for me…and for many others, I’ve discovered. I’ve had a number of truly memorable visits, including sleeping on the stone bench outside the church in August 2021 – on the night of the Perseides meteor shower – because the village was full of pilgrims and there was no room at any of the hostels. But it’s the experiences I’ve had in the church that are most memorable and that stay with me.

In 2016 I worked as a volunteer for a month at a pilgrim hostel near to O Cebreiro and would regularly climb up to the village via its beautiful mountain path, and then sit in the church silently, because of its incredible sense of peace. I’ve had several interesting moments of clarity there when, using the silence to listen, answers to things that had been troubling me suddenly came.

But it was only really this year that the priest at the church made any impression on me, and he made it by the way in which he started the pilgrim Mass. He began, not by asking us to acknowledge that we are sinners, but, rather, by reminding us that God is Love. He told us that we are each individual, miraculous creations and containers of that divine Love, and that our purpose in life is to recognise and share that Love, as brothers and sisters of the same human family, in the way we live our lives. It was a Mass that filled me with hope and inspiration…the very things that Jesus did his best to fill us with in the message that he brought…and it made me believe, if just for a moment, that a change in focus is not only necessary but also possible within the Catholic Church as a whole.

I thought, at the time, it was an isolated example; an inspired priest with enough courage to do what his heart called him to do, to touch the hearts of a specialised, visiting congregation. And then, my friend sent me the video of the Irish Mass this morning…and this is how the priest began:

Normally we begin Mass by remembering our unworthiness or our sinfulness, but I think today the first line from the reading of the Hebrews gives us a different perspective, it says ‘God would not be so unjust as to forget all you have done and the love that you have for his name.’ So I think today we should remind ourselves of the love that we have for our Lord, and of the good we have done, because God also acknowledges our goodness“.

And the small but thoughtful gesture of my friend, in sending me the link to this Mass, reminded me once again that anything and everything is possible, when the Spirit of God’s Love is on the move and at work…

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. …”

1 Corinthians 13:13

That blessed ‘something more…’


I don’t believe it matters how we start, when we start, or even where we think we’re heading, the only thing that seems to matter is listening to the part of us that longs for and just knows there’s something more.

We tell ourselves, or are told by others, many things about why we should ignore it (that it’s silly, that it’s selfish, that we’re tired, or bored or mad, or bad) but we don’t often consider, even the slightest possibility, that it could be something infinitely more positive; the Spirit moving within us and calling us on to the next growth stage of our lives.

The nay-sayer inside us will tell us that we’re too young, or old, or weak, or stupid, or afraid to do anything about it. The nay-sayers around us will tell us that we’re too selfish, or headstrong, or stubborn, or naive if we follow its call. But the voice of Life doesn’t call us for no reason, it calls us because it loves us and it knows that, deep inside, we were created to respond to, and to begin searching for, that Love-inspired ‘something more’.


I call it the Holy Spirit, the sacred Spirit of Life, the divine Spirit of God’s Love, trying to capture our attention in a gentle, kind, but unsettling and deeply intimate way.  I believe that it moves itself within us, around us, and between us; prodding us out of our comfort zones and calling on us to notice it, to listen to it carefully and then to follow where it leads us, to a more abundant, fuller, richer and more fulfilling experience of Life.

From listening to countless people’s personal experiences of responding to that call, I believe that the place it leads to is as unique and different for each one of us as we are from each other. But, at the same time, I believe that the call is universal and that each time it calls it’s inviting us to move closer to a fuller experience of divine love.

For me, the place it led to was recognising the reality of God’s felt and active presence in my life and, more importantly, the life-changing sense of God’s ever-present, unconditional Love. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, imagined, or been told it could be at any time before…but I had to find it in my own way; and following that ‘something more’ call was the way that led me to it.


It’s what gave me, and continues to give me, the confidence to keep listening to that quiet voice within as well as, and often in preference to, the multitude of differing voices around me.

“Start here, start now, start from any place inside or outside, but start…and keep starting…until there is no more will to start” is what the voice inside was really saying.  “Start out on your true search for me, and leave aside anyone else’s opinion of how and where you’ll find me. Just bring a truly open heart and mind and I will do the rest.”


If, like me, you abandoned your belief in God long ago when you rejected what others, in their certainty, told you God was, I invite you to suspend that disbelief. If you believe that your way of relating to God – following a specific religious doctrine or a particular secular theory – is right and other ways of relating to God are wrong, I invite you to suspend that sense of certainty…and to start out on your own, deeply personal pilgrimage. A pilgrimage of the heart, a pilgrimage towards true Love, a pilgrimage that will continue for the rest of your life.

Because Love is a deeply personal, continually evolving and intimate experience. It’s the most intimate, subtle, beautiful, life-enhancing and spirit-and-soul regenerating experience known to man. And I’m only talking about genuine, shared, human love when I say those words.


The Love of God, and the experience of that Love, is far deeper, greater and more powerful in its intimacy. It stripped me naked of my preconceptions and ripped down my defences in an instant. It flooded me with a tidal wave of forgiveness and unconditional acceptance that was so unsought, and unexpected, that it left me stunned, tearful and overwhelmed with a profoundly physical sense of gratitude and relief. I’ve only felt it once, with that level of intensity, but once felt, it can never be forgotten.

It’s a Love that’s taught me, if I choose to live with daily conscious awareness of it, that I must release my need for certainty and control. I must be prepared to ‘lose my life to find it’ and I am. Because I understand that God‘s Love is mystery, divine mystery, and to live in intimate relationship with it is to trust in its divine purpose. It’s a level of trust that, on occasion, will call me to follow paths not knowing where they’ll lead or not understanding why. But experience has only increased my faith and trust, because the ‘why’, and the loving intention behind it, always becomes clear in time.


It’s a level of trust that often asks me to confront certain fears or to let go of certain situations and to allow the Spirit to lead me to a deeper, truer, richer, more love-filled and love-aware experience of Life.

It can feel deeply challenging and uncomfortable at times, particularly if I’m being called away from a secure, conventional, socially-acceptable way of being or living. But responding to it has always lead to a greater sense of gratitude and reverence for the gift of life that I’ve been given and to greater compassion and understanding for those who struggle to feel the same.


Because, at it’s heart, true pilgrimage is not really a journey to the physical site of any religious temple or relic. Rather, it’s a way of travelling to the internal place within us where we find a growing understanding of who and what God is, and what meaning this understanding creates within our lives.

It’s where we gradually and ultimately come to see and accept how the Love that is God moves within our lives. It’s where the first steps of our deeply personal relationship with that Love are formed and it’s where we slowly learn the healing power of speaking and acting with increasing respect, congruence and honesty. Because when we do this, both privately with ourselves and in our dealings with others, we discover that it’s the very core and essence of that Love.


It becomes a way of being that helps us find the spark of inspiration, the root of our belonging and the way of seeing what really matters. And, in the seeing and understanding, our personal pathway begins to take shape, leading us to the sense of purpose, meaning and inner peace we all seek and desire within our lives.

And in these moments, when we speak, listen and live from a place of internal respect and truth, we discover how inseparable truth is from true Love, and how inseparable true Love is from divine Love. The Love that is God.


It takes courage to start out on a personal pilgrimage, one that trusts more what the Spirit moving inside us is trying to tell us, than the voices around us who want us to ‘stay safely as we are’. But every act of true faith involves confronting the fears within us and the fears of those around us.


So let me be the voice that encourages you. Start walking your own personal pilgrimage, whatever and however that may be, and I guarantee that you will meet with the divine Love that is God in a unique, personal, totally-disarming and life-enhancing way…as sure as the sun rises on the distant horizon, each and every day.


I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve seen it happening, time and time again; God responding, in seemingly miraculous ways, to people’s sincere and heart-felt desire to find the truth that is Love and to know and understand the meaning and purpose if their lives.

Because, for all our beautiful difference and individual uniqueness, at heart we long for the same simple but deeply profound three things: non-judgmental acceptance, compassionate understanding and unconditional Love.

And these three things, I’ve come to see after many miles of personal pilgrimage, are simply other names for God.

Sometimes

Sometimes words don’t work.
Sometimes a candle-lit room, accompanied by the sound of rain, says more than the greatest philosopher.
Sometimes pain is our greatest teacher.
Sometimes those that give us life try to destroy us.
Sometimes time doesn’t heal our wounds.
Sometimes choosing life is harder than giving in to death.
Sometimes friends become our family.
Sometimes healing hurts more than the injury.
Sometimes we must let go in order to receive.
Sometimes we don’t live happily ever after.
Sometimes we must create distance, in order to find ourselves.
Sometimes we must embrace our fear and sit with our grief.
Sometimes tears come without reason.
Sometimes it is better to receive than to give.
Sometimes it is “and” and not “or”.
Sometimes there is no explanation.
Sometimes stillness is the best medicine.
Sometimes breathing is all we can do.
Sometimes we are shattered.
And sometimes…
we are held.

(Poem by Carli Youndt, from the anthology Held: Blessings for the depths’)

Redemption

The time will come
when that which troubled you
pounds at the door of your heart
no more.
When the endless clouds of confusion
and competing choice
part...
and only clear,
uncluttered
clarity
remains.
When that which seemed so complex,
confounding,
complicated
and weighed-down with worry..
transforms,
as day-light breaks.
Miraculous metamorphosis
And the earth-bound, shadowed, heavy, static shape
that held you down
unfurls its folded wings...
reaches Heavenwards...
breathes deeply...
and then, with silent ease,
takes flight.

The Advent Calendar of Life…

So here we are, approaching the end of the year in the week of Christmas, mentally and physically preparing for, anticipating, joyously awaiting, ignoring or dreading the arrival of The Big Day. And how we´re feeling will, no doubt, have been shaped by our life experience up to this point, and by the circumstances of our lives as they are today.

For some of us, this year will have been deeply, deeply challenging and maybe our hopes are pinned on living as ´normal´ a Christmas as we can, given the current Covid-affected times. For others (and I include myself in this group), this year will have been a gift in the sense that it gave us a pause, a space and an opportunity to pull the threads of our life experience together and maybe it delivered a ´wake-up call´ about the things that truly count. For me it was a timely and enlightening ´wake-up call´ and I now know that its effects will continue to reverberate throughout the rest of my life.

At the beginning of this month someone I love sent me an advent calendar. I have it pinned up in the kitchen and I religiously open a new door each day. The other day, as I was doing this, I remembered something that my sister said to me several years ago, when I was going through a particularly challenging, emotional and difficult time of my life.

“Sometimes the knocking on the door gets so loud we just have to open it to see what´s there”

And, as I looked at the calendar with its 24 doors, the memory made me smile because I feel like I´ve spent the last 6 years opening different doors to my heart, to see and understand what the knocking was all about. There was the door called “Who is Michele?” (when you take away all her attachments, her job, her possessions, her home, her partner, her fancy clothes, make-up and long hair). Then the one called “Who are other people?” (when you take away my prejudices about them and peel back our combined layers of defence). There was the door called “The Past” with all its feelings and memories and emotional power and regrets. And the one called “The Future” with all its uncertainties and possibilities and range of choices and fears of the unknown.

And then finally (and inevitably for someone whose heart repeats rhythmically, like a mantra, “You belong on the Camino”) there were the doors called “Who is God?” and “What is God?” and “Where is God?” and “How is God…ever to be understood?” And opening each door, by following what my heart urged me to do, led me to a treasure trove of experience and knowledge. I learned that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible; that other people were kinder, more understanding and more caring than I ever expected them to be or gave them credit for; and that God was visible and present in everyone and everything I encountered but, often, in inexplicable and mystifying ways.

One way that´s been especially mystifying to me, until very recently, was why following the voice of my heart during the last few years has brought me repeatedly into religious environments when I´ve been so convinced by my own spiritual experiences that God lies beyond the limits of organised religion. I´ve found answers here (in a Catholic parish in Logroño) that resonate strongly with what my heart feels is truth and I´ve learned, yet again, how lazy and unreliable it is to ´lump people together´ as a way of easily criticising and then rejecting the value of anything they think, do or say.

Out walking this week with one of the parish priests I shared with him my bafflement about why God clearly wants me to return to my Catholic roots after rejecting them for so much of my adult life. “We can´t ignore our roots,” was his response “they´re a part of what made us who we are, part of the tree of our ancestors and of our life. What happens to a tree if you just sever it at its roots?” “It falls over in strong winds” I replied. “But, to me, God is so much more than organised religion!” I countered with feeling, and his simple and disarming reply was “Yes…God is”.

I´ll be spending this Christmas in the church house of the parish in which I´m currently living, and I´ll be sharing Christmas Eve dinner (because Noche Buena is the major celebration in Spain this week) with the priests who also live here. In a way, this feels like an echo of my childhood because, having a German mother, Christmas Eve (rather than Christmas Day) was always the main event in our family home; we always had our own advent calendars and our Catholic religion was a formative part of our family life.

But before I help with preparations for our Noche Buena dinner I´ll be lending a hand at the local ´Social Dining Room´, where people with no kitchens, homes, families or resources will be coming to eat their festive meal this year. I mention this only because it´s the first year I´ve ever felt remotely inclined to do anything at Christmas time that involved strangers or service-to-others and I´ll be doing it for the simple reason that I enjoy it.

I´ve heard many, many times over the last 5 years that “happiness is found in service to others” but I had to keep opening the other doors of my heart before I reached the one that showed me this essential truth. It´s the same door that showed me that Jesus really is ´The Way, the Truth and the Life´…to finally finding that God is ever-present in this man-made world. But I had to build my relationship with him gradually, brick by brick, and in my own deeply personal way before I found a place inside me that truly looked and felt like Home. Being metaphorically told by others “Jesus is the key, go right ahead and open door 24!” never made any logical or heart-felt sense to me. The Advent Calendar of Life just doesn´t work that way…at least not the personal one that I´ve been given.

But having faith in the quiet urgings of my heart and opening the other doors, one by one, led me back here to this Christian and Catholic community at the start of October and, living and working within this community, has given me the opportunity to see how it really lives the doctrine of what is preached. I´ve seen what the belief that ´we are all part of the same human family´ really looks like in practice and I´ve been on the receiving end of that welcoming, inclusive, generous and giving belief. I´ve learned that actions matter more than opinions, that strangers really are friends waiting to be made, and that the simplest, most authentic and effective way to spread kindness, goodwill and hope is just by living it day-to-day and demonstrating it ourselves to others.

Star of Bethlehem, Iglesia Santiago, Logroño

Advent, symbolically, represents the journey of darkness into light. A time when the all-powerful, unknowable, potentially-terrible-and vengeful God of the Old Testament became a human being, with a sacred human heart, and a relentless, endlessly-forgiving New Testament message of love. Jesus, as a messenger of God´s love, is revered by Christians, Muslims and people of the Jewish faith. And I´ve met many ´non-believers´ in my spiritual searching of the last 5 years who, nonetheless, believe deeply in the sincerity, authenticity and example of Jesus, the way he lived his life and what his essential teachings say.

Whatever we believe or don´t believe about God, we are all part of the same human family, we do all long for and search for love, we do all experience debilitating moments of darkness and we do draw strength and hope from people who are bold enough to offer their hand and the light of simple human compassion and kindness to those outside of their immediate circle of family and friends.

Christmas represents the birth of a man who epitomised this way of living and his message is one that I believe is worth repeating, sharing and spreading, in any way we can.

Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

Just trying…

I’ve been told in the past that I have ‘a way with words’. Sometimes someone says it when I write something that appeals to them. Sometimes it’s when I’ve listened to what someone has said, responded with the underlying message that I’ve heard, and been told “That’s exactly what I was trying to say but I couldn’t find the words”.

But creating this blog has taught me that ‘finding the right words’ to share my true thoughts and feelings is a bit like deciphering an obscure, internal code and more challenging than I originally thought. And maybe that’s the important and personal message for me. ‘To learn how to do anything well, you first have to start doing it and then you just have to keep trying...’

Last week a friend took the time and trouble to send me some thoughtful feedback about her views on my last post (Blessed be the Navel-gazers). She included things that she agreed with and things that she saw differently. And responding to that feedback was a great learning exercise for me in how to practice what I preach.

Some points she raised immediately rang true for me and will definitely help me in writing future blogs. Others showed me the limitations of language and the many different ways that what we write and say can be interpreted by others. But one of the most interesting questions she posed was “What if being true to ourselves has the potential to hurt others?” Should we still choose the path of personal truth?

It took me a long time to find the right words to respond to this, which helped me greatly in getting to the core of what I truly believe (beyond the simple slogan ‘We should all be true to ourselves!‘). And this was the gist of my reply:

“When I talk about “Being true to ourselves” I don’t mean “Telling everyone exactly what we think of them” I mean “Not pretending to ourselves or others that we’re feeling something we don’t feel or that we’re agreeing with something we don’t agree with”.

I mean recognising that any uncomfortable feelings we might have in particular situations (eg: anger, impatience, irritation, anxiety, fear) will always have an important message for us about something we’d rather not face and are worth inward reflection (if we want to learn more about ourselves and about our relationships).  And, if we find that the message is so important that we need to give voice to our feelings, then choosing the least provocative and most respectful way of doing this. Because only by adopting this attitude can we have any hope that the other person will truly hear us (ie: speaking from a place of compassion for ourselves and for others).

I believe that we only truly learn how to do something well by actually, repeatedly, doing it and then learning from our experience.  And, I also believe, we only build true self-respect by being as congruent as possible (ie: living outwardly in line with what we believe inwardly). 

Anyone can adopt the “I’m right and you’re wrong” stance, or the “I’ll agree with you just to keep the peace” stance, but it takes compassion and skill (which only comes through practice, trial and error) to learn the “I think I have something valid and worthwhile to say, but it differs from what you believe” stance.  And, importantly, to allow others to do the same. And this is the skill that I’m learning how to hone and develop in myself through my personal relationships and through my blog posts.”

I do believe that ‘finding our true voice’ in any situation is an important, respectful and honourable thing to do and that constant avoidance of this can lead to us becoming disingenuous, at worst two-faced, and more distant from our best, and truest, selves. I don’t think that we just show disrespect to others when we behave in this way, I also believe that we dishonour ourselves. Because not ‘giving a voice’ to what our heart truly feels, in the most mutually-compassionate way we can, may be a one-off choice, or it may become a habit and then our normal behaviour which, ultimately, helps no-one.

The more often we speak from a place of personal truth the more often we demonstrate the belief that this person is wise enough and strong enough to hear what I feel in my heart and, it’s my belief that, the risk of doing this with people we have close relationships with is outweighed by the potential reward of deeper, more honest and more loving relationships as a result.

BUT, and it’s a very important ‘but’, it’s the way in which we do it that will reveal the truth of what we’re feeling inside.

If we speak from a place of aggression (be it open or passive, through our tone or the use of clever, undermining words) I believe we create energy that neither reflects true compassion for ourselves nor respect for others. If I do this, what I hear (when I take the time and trouble to reflect on it) is the repressed anger or fear of my most vulnerable self, which felt that it wasn’t being treated with the respect that it deserves. Or that someone else was giving voice to beliefs that felt threatening to my own, and which I use as an anchor for my self-image, self-belief and identity.

And, particularly if I express that anger or fear in the form of judgement of another instead of asking myself “What triggered those feelings within me?”, then I’m missing a valuable opportunity to learn more about myself and about why I behave in the ways that I do.

To me, compassion is a gentle practice and discipline, a loving practice and discipline, an open-handed way-of-being rather than a finger-pointing one. And I believe that self-compassion and compassion for others are inseparably bound together, because the way that we speak to and deal with ourselves will be reflected in the way that we speak to and deal with others, and vice versa.

I think that the more we open ourselves to looking closely and compassionately at the most vulnerable and needy parts of us (which every one of us carries around inside us, whether we’re prepared to admit it to ourselves or not) the more we allow the possibility that this part will have a voice when we speak in dialogue with others. And, because we’ve given that part of us the respect of being truly seen and heard, it won’t speak in aggressive or defensive language, but rather, it will help us by finding calmer, kinder and clearer words to speak; words more likely to build bridges, rather than to burn them.

But I also feel the need to add a proviso here, about seeing things as they truly are. There will be people who deliberately choose not to hear us, no matter how compassionately, calmly or clearly we form our words. This may be because ‘not hearing others’ has become an effective coping strategy for them; amuses them in some way; or leaves them feeling that they’ve ‘retained the upper hand’, all in an attempt to, inwardly, feel more secure.

These are situations, relationships and people that are uniquely individual and personal to each of us and I believe we must each make our own decisions about how best to deal with them, from a starting point of loving-kindness for ourselves.

When I walked my first Camino in 2015 I stayed overnight in the Convent hostel of León and met a young Spanish man named Matías, at breakfast the following morning . He spoke perfect English, but was trying to encourage me to converse in Spanish, when my grasp of the language was virtually non-existent at the time. I became more and more embarrassed and frustrated with myself, at my lack of ability to converse, and more and more reluctant to continue the friendly conversation. But my reluctance, embarrassment and frustration disappeared in the presence of this young man’s persistence and gentle kindness. He simply looked me in the eye, smiled, and in very a gentle tone said “It’s OK…just try…”

I believe that, whether I´m trying to find the right words to express my true feelings in a particular situation or to build longer-term bridges of mutually-respectful and honest relationship with others, it’s always worth “just trying…” to give my true feelings a voice.

It will seldom feel easy. I may look ridiculous and be embarrassed at times. It needs acceptance that I could meet resistance, ridicule and, on occasion, aggression and rejection from others, particularly if they´re unwilling to look at and deal with their own sensitive and vulnerable selves. But, just as any of us has experienced when learning how to ride a bike or to speak a new language, the stumbling, the getting-it-wrong, the looking or feeling stupid are all just a necessary and integral part of the learning process itself.

I know from personal experience that acknowledging, respecting and giving a voice to my most vulnerable self within, repeatedly and often enough, builds my level of courage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway‘ in almost any situation in life. I believe that when we do this, hesitatingly, gradually, but more and more often, we build our sense of inner dignity, truth and strength. And I’ve learned that when others instinctively feel this within us they respond to it positively, and ultimately benefit from it, if they’re seeking the same within themselves.

But this is a slow and gradual growth process, a process that comes from within and that draws from within rather than always looking outside for acceptance, validation and love. It’s a process that requires us to ‘see ourselves as we truly are’, without judgement, and to recognise both the vulnerability and the value of that person. Only then can we begin to see every encounter with others as a new opportunity to give our truest self a voice and to silently encourage him or her with the gentle words “It’s OK…just try“…

Risk is the currency of reward”

– Chris Evans