It´s the thing that makes sense of the nonsensical and shifts the darkest cloud on the dullest day. It blows aside confusion with the whisper of a breeze; so gentle that it´s almost imperceptible; and yet so powerful that it moves a mountain of anxiety in a moment saying, usually without words, “Just trust that I am here”.
I see it everywhere…in everything and everyone…when I breathe, take a step back, relax and trust. And the more I trust, the more it makes itself visible, heard and present in my life.
Earlier this week, not for the first time and for no particular reason, the Shema prayer came into my mind. It´s the prayer that people of Jewish faith say in the mornings and at night, on rising and before going to sleep. I first heard it when, as a teenager, I worked as an Au Pair for a Jewish family in London during two consecutive Summers. Part of the daily routine was helping their two young sons get ready for bed and, when they were bathed and in their pyjamas, they would put on their skullcaps/kippahs, kneel beside their beds and recite the Shema prayer.
Searching on YouTube to find a recitation of the prayer I came across this video and within it a beautiful description, by female Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, of what God is. It´s a description that so closely reflects how I personally experience God that I felt the gentle breeze flow through me and lift my heart as it moved on its way…
With the kind of synergy that now feels normal to me but is still always welcome when it happens, the weekly Newsletter of my local church (which I typeset when I receive it from the parish priest each Saturday morning) talked about the Shema prayer today.
That felt like a good enough reason to write this post and to share one person´s attempt to convey – through their personal, creative, colourful and joyful video – the Love, the Light and the wholly-interconnected Life that God is. And which is always calling to us: “Shema Israel…”
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.”
The day will come
when you and I will cease to be.
And all that was said,
will melt to nothing.
And in that moment of returning to the earth again,
- Heaven sent, momentary, lingering
in this space that lies between -
some of us may pause and ask...
"How did I fall
and dance on the wind
that brought me here?"
"How did I bind myself with others
to create a soft but yielding cloak
of uniform and reverent peace?"
"How did I keep and preserve the uniqueness
of my magical and awe-inspiring beauty;
which others glimpsed
and I was blind to
for the longest years
"When did I truly love
the different individuality of others,
falling silently beside me,
to the miracle of Life
"What light did I first see,
within my heart?"
"And for who?"
"What did I do with that light,
knowing it came from without
but lit me within?"
"Did I hold the individual form
that Mother Nature,
so divine in all her timeless wisdom,
crafted me to be?
Did I honour that same divinity of purpose
in those who fell around me,
regardless of their falling dance
"Did I sparkle in the moonlight,
content and knowing
that no human eye
may ever see my glory?"
"Did I live
my full and destined life,
however judged by hoard of human minds,
the moment came
to surrender all,
I’m living for a few weeks in the northern part of Fuerteventura, close to the large and developed tourist centre of Corralejo, but nearer, geographically, to its lesser-developed and more charming coastal cousin, El Cotillo. Where Corralejo boasts a nature reserve, miles of sand-dune beaches, frequent English signage and a touristy ‘main drag’, El Cotillo has a smaller, rockier, wilder coastline, a more hand-painted, bohemian atmosphere and little cafes and restaurants where locals can often be seen and heard.
Corralejo is where the large surf schools congregate and little ‘tutor groups’ of students, keen to learn the challenging craft of ‘riding the waves’, are seen dotted along its beaches. Some groups are stretching their limbs in unison, others are collectively lying prostrate on their sand-beached boards, but all end up excitedly paddling out on their eventual virgin voyages to commune with the vast and endlessly-inviting waves.
El Cotillo, in contrast, is where the novices progress to, and where those ‘bitten by the surfing bug’ are seen standing at the water’s edge, sand between their toes, eyes fixed firmly on the sea before them, boards held reverently at their sides. They’re reading the wind and watching the waves, before launching themselves into the advancing tide.
The conditions there are more unpredictable, the surf is stronger, the waves are larger, and the currents can carry a hidden menace beneath their surface swell. But surfing must have the same addictive quality of any other strong compulsion because, despite the many red flags all along the beach when I visited there this week, the surfers just ignored them and, using their own internal barometers of safety, kept wading out repeatedly to meet and ride the incoming tide.
Watching them, as the light slowly dimmed, was a beautiful and awe-inspiring experience. Not just because of the skill that several of them displayed but, even more so, because of the time, effort, patience and perseverance that the majority employed. Time and time again they paddled out, sat waiting on their boards for the ‘perfect wave’ then attempted, valiantly and often unsuccessfully, to harness its power and to ride it, upright, in to shore. At first sight, it looked like ‘95% preparation and effort’ and ‘5% fun’. But, like all things, with a little more watching and a little more reflection, I began to see it in a different light.
I began to see the pleasure that the whole process gave to them, from the initial ‘reconnaissance on the beach’, right through to the final ‘catching of the wave’. How completely absorbed and committed they were to each part of it. How each phase contributed to the honing and refining of their judgment, physical strength, flexibility, balance, confidence and eventual skill. I began to understand why the atmosphere of El Cotillo, with its larger ‘experienced surfer’ population has such a laid back, contented, quietly-confident and easy-going feel.
I mentally contrasted it with Corralejo and its fast food franchises, its high street chain stores, its ‘Fish Foot Spas’, ‘Vape Emporiums’, and waves of restless, roaming tourists looking for ways to fill their attention and their time…and I began to understand. One group of holiday-makers was connecting with the natural force of Life and strengthening its force within them, and the other was seeking distraction and perhaps, in the process, subduing their spirits and souls.
I believe that when we willingly and repeatedly engage with Life, in all its natural manifestations, we slowly hone our confidence, enlarge our perspective, discover what we’re capable of and what latent potential we still have within. Some of us, like the surfers, do this by testing ourselves physically, others choose to take up the mental or emotional challenges offered to them by Life.
It reminded me of something that I’d jotted down in my journal one day, while I was still living on El Hierro:
‘When we loosen our tight grip on fear, we balance ourselves with Life…and when we balance ourselves with Life, fear loosens its tight grip on us.“
It was a phrase that came to me from nowhere, when I was watching the sea crashing onto the rocks at the harbour town of La Restinga one day. I wrote it down and then thought “That all sounds very poetic, simple and well, but how on earth do we ‘loosen our tight grip on Fear’?”
But this week, watching the surfers, I think I saw how…
I’m a person who likes to read. My favourite topics are ones that circle around or dive straight into the ‘bigger questions’ of life. What is Love? What is God? Why are we here? How should we live? These are questions that have been posed and answered, in various and often conflicting ways, since the beginning of time, language and civilisation itself. Anyone who’s ever felt baffled, frustrated, wounded or enchanted by questions such as these – often following painful or challenging experiences in their lives – is in good company.
They’re questions that’ve been chewed over by some of history’s greatest minds (eg: Socrates; Plato; Leonardo da Vinci; Mahatma Gandhi; Leo Tolstoy; Carl Jung; Snoopy the Dog) all of whom reached their own conclusions and then tried to convey them through their theories, their writing or their established ‘schools of thought’.
Each new theory, philosophy, scientific explanation or religion adds another dimension or ‘wave’ of theology or opinion and they all contribute, in their own unique way, to forming part of the great, relentless, unfathomable ‘Sea of Knowledge about Life’. But like the ‘novice tutor groups’ on the surfer beaches at Corralejo they only really offer us the basic principles and ideas that give us the confidence to enter the water. Everything that comes afterwards, in the form of our own personal experience, is where the real learning takes place.
That’s why, by facing our fears whenever they confront us, by taking note of any warning flags but then using our own barometer of safety (our intuitive voice within) we learn how to gradually build our unique and individual strength and resilience and we slowly begin to ‘balance ourselves with Life’.
We learn, through experience, which wave of opinion we should let pass and which we should catch hold of and attempt to ride. We learn that we are not just harried by other people’s strong and strident opinions, but that we have many conflicting and bullying ones of our own. We learn to test our judgement about situations and other people, in order to enlarge the boundaries of our self-belief.
And, little by little, we learn the value of repeatedly paddling out to meet each new experience that Life sends our way. We learn how to whole-heartedly focus our attention on engaging with each experience, and on any waves of emotion that come trailing in their wake. And, over time, we begin to notice that Fear is slowly releasing the tight grip that it once held on us, and that our balance is starting to become good enough to stand up for who we are.
I’m still firmly in the ‘novice class’…but I’m slowly learning…
(If anyone is curious to learn more about surfing in general, or about the best locations for surfers of all abilities in Fuerteventura, http://ciudadsurf.com/is a great website to visit, providing a range of information about the sport, its equipment and its mental, physical and health benefits).
This week I visited the South of the island and took a walk along its linked and seemingly-endless stretch of golden, sandy beaches.
I set off with the intention of exploring a little, walking to a ‘Spit’ of land I could see in the distance and then returning to my starting point to sit and soak up some sunshine before heading back home. But, like most of Life, the initial plan was only the starting point and the real meaning behind it was hidden in what I encountered and experienced along the way:
Little rocky outcrops to pick my way over, draped in various shades of luminous green and studded with gem-like limpets and sinister, scurrying crabs.
A gentle surf-line of ebbing tide that whispered “Surrender your naked feet to my tender touch and cooling flow”; a Siren’ssong that I was happy to be seduced by.
A fortress-line of tiny sand castles being skilfully constructed by an army of tiny hands; each strategically dotted along the length of the beach. None within sight of each other, but all driven by the same tiny human need to design and construct something visible, something tangible on the endlessly-shifting sands.
Long, expanding rivulets of incoming tidal water that temporarily blocked my path, each one offering me the choice: ‘Wade in and get your feet wet or make a cautious, drier detour and take the long way round’.
And so the walk went on…and on.
Hotels, surf schools, sun loungers and parasols came and went, slowly retreating into the distance, as mountains, desert plains and endless ocean and sand lay waiting for me, invitingly, up ahead. Constant desert landscape to my right, vibrant, dancing ocean to my left and only beach, and more beach, the pathway in between.
It was the sort of moment where philosophical thoughts begin to form and so they did…slowly and comically at first:
“Life’s a beach and then you die…”
But then “I’ll have to let go of my original plan soon, walking out to the Spit of land, and consider heading back. I suppose I’ve failed in my objective for the day.”
“How human”, my inner voice said, “to focus on the failed objective and not the joy of the little things that surfaced in its place”.
As I retraced my steps I thought more about this, how the feeling of failure is always linked to comparison and to somehow falling short. Comparison with our original plans; comparison with other people; comparison with unrealistic standards or ideals of perfection, in behaviour, in selflessness, in appearance or in measures of achievement. And I thought about how we continually dampen our spirits and dull our inner light each time we choose to take this ‘thinking path of comparison’.
I looked out at the sunlight glistening magically on the moving water. I looked out at the solid horizon of mountains silhouetted in the distance and I felt the spirit of peace that they both convey, in their own unique way. One dancing, vibrant, life-filled kind of peace. One calm, solid, silent kind of peace. And I thought “Failure is just a meaningless human construct. Comparison is just a human and limited way of thinking, living and being, hard-wired into us through generations of conditioning and a daily ritual of repetition.
Neither of them has anything to do with this all-consuming Spirit of Life that I can feel all around me and, fleetingly, within me too. Neither of them has anything to do with finding, creating or cultivating peace within or with sharing that inner peace with others in any way.
This can only be done by accepting my ‘imperfections’. This can only be done by sighing and smiling at my human need to continually judge, myself and others, and then by letting all feelings of ‘failure’ around those judgements go.
Our whole lives are really all about letting the liquid tide of dancing light sweep in and wash away the ‘sand-castles’ that we build around who we think we are, or who we think we should be. And then looking up, looking around us, looking at the beautiful, inviting horizon…and continuing to walk the endless and unfolding beach of Life ahead…