Lent and Well-being: Telling stories

I remember a much-loved literature professor impressing upon us the importance of story. ‘Why does it matter?’ he asked. ‘Because that’s what we are. You’re more than a personality; you’re more than your DNA. You’re a story, and your story is unique. Even if you and your identical twin did exactly the same things side by side for the rest of your lives, your stories would be different.’

And now we’re heading fast into Holy Week, a time in the Church year when we re-tell, and on a certain level re-live, the story most central to our identity as a faith community. And while that story is unifying, an arc big enough and transcendent enough to embrace us all, it enmeshes with our own stories to become something new and intimate. Each person’s journey towards resurrection is both like everyone else’s and very much unlike everyone else’s.

This early Easter story tells of two troubled young people and ‘the long journey we each take to go beyond what hurts toward the one who heals us’, while The Stories that Bind Us focuses on the communal story, pointing to the importance of a strong family narrative for children’s emotional health and resilience, and blogger Ellen Painter Dollar reflects on the dominant narratives surrounding disability as well as those stories it seems we’re not allowed to share.

The American radio programme, On Being, has also been talking about stories and story-telling lately. The episode entitled The Great Cauldron of Story, an interview with Harvard professor of Germanic languages and literature Maria Tatar, touches on the importance of fairy tales and legends (which she is careful to distinguish from sacred stories) in the working of our own personal narratives:

And at one point, I asked many of my students, what books from childhood they had brought with them to Harvard. And why? And what I was struck by was that often the students didn’t really remember much about the story, but there was something in the story — some little talisman. Some moment, a sentence, something a character does, a detail in a picture sometimes that they bonded with. It was almost like a little souvenir of the tale that they then carried with them into adult life. And you know, when they would think of that — everything with light.

We talked about brain sliding up that there was, and some deep connection with your childhood. And trying to figure that out was always such an interesting exercise. Because inevitably a story grew out of that souvenir. Not necessarily the story from childhood, but a new tale — their own story. And so, you know, again it became a kind of platform for figuring things out in their own lives — in their own daily lives.

Finally (I’ve saved the best for last), this interview with storyteller Kevin Kling gives me so much to think about when it comes to stories and healing that even though I’m going to put in a few excerpts here, I urge you to listen to the whole programme some time when you’re in the car, or washing the dishes, or anything that allows you to pay whole-hearted attention to the funny, gentle wisdom found in this man’s stories and reflections. If you’d rather, you can read the transcript instead.

Kling was born with a birth defect and later survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident. I love his initial exasperation with fairy tales and how he came to see them:

And the Ugly Duckling, OK, this one, this one was a particular thorn for me. Um, because, I mean, the Ugly Duckling, it’s all going great, you know, when he’s this large uber-duck. I love that, you know, this big duck. But then they find out he’s a swan. And so he, he, all of a sudden, he’s not a duck anymore. He’s a swan. Well, when you’re a kid with a disability, what does that do, hope, you know, hope a ship of aliens lands and goes, “No, you’re really one of us?” Because, you know, but you’re stuck living with ducks…And yet when I learned you could tell them the way you saw them through your own eyes, and that fairy tales were meant to be told, and told at, to get your point of view across, then I got to change them around and thicken them up.

And elsewhere:

But that’s exactly how I use stories, is that by telling a story, things don’t control me anymore. It’s in my vernacular. It’s the way I see the world. And I think that’s why our stories ask our questions, our big questions, like, “Where do we come from before life, after life?” “What’s funny in this world, or sacred?” And even more importantly, by the asking in front of people, and with people, even if we don’t find the answer, by the asking, we know we’re not alone. And I have found that often that’s even more important than the answer.

But I want to end with another resurrection story. This is Kling describing his experience after the accident when he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, and how he remembers re-awakening to life.

And I had to take an elevator down to the bottom floor every day and try to walk a half a block. That was, like, my job. And I’d walked my half a block, and my wife, Mary, met me in the lobby, and she bought an apple for me. And I hadn’t, food had no taste. So I was losing a lot of weight. And she said, “Just take a bite just for me.” So I took a bite, and flavor, that was the day it came back, and the sweetness came in, and, um, when the sweetness hit my tongue, it, I started to cry and it was flushing out all of the antibiotics and toxins that I had. I had not, again, I hadn’t cried in years. And my eyes were burning, and with my burning eyes and the sweetness in my mouth, it just felt good to be alive.


Lent and Well-being: Quiet Day

The Dublin & Glendalough Diocesan Committee of the Church’s Ministry of Healing hosted a Lenten Quiet Day last Saturday. The following report comes from one of the attendees, Hilary Ardis:

Those of us who were able to attend the Quiet Day on 9th March were so grateful to our speaker, Bishop Patrick Rooke, who introduced the theme of ‘well-being’. His three talks encouraged us to ‘mind the mind, the body and the spirit’.

The first talk was based on 1 Samuel chapter 16, and the choice of David to be king. Not the favourite brother by human standards, but what is it that God is looking for? We were asked to consider how we make judgements. How do others see us? How do we see ourselves? As in Psalm 24, we need to have ‘a pure heart and clean hands’.

In his second talk, Bishop Patrick looked at a passage from 1 Samuel 17 where it is clearly shown that success does not make life easy. David comes down from the heights and is embroiled in a struggle for acceptance and forced to come face to face with the giant, Goliath. Saul tries to turn David into a conventional warrior with ill-fitting armour. We were asked to consider whether this is what we do to people. Do we expect them to act as we see fit? As David we must be willing to take risks for God, but we also need to be appropriately prepared, not encumbered with things which weigh us down. We need to keep ourselves fit and clothe ourselves with the armour of God, as in Ephesians chapter 6.

In the third talk we read Isaiah 40:1-11, 28-31. Bishop Patrick spoke about the importance of times of retreat and opportunities for reflection. In all life’s distractions it is all too easy to lose sight of God. In the wilderness, a deeper reality of God is encountered. The desert teaches hope for those who persevere: ‘water springs up in the wilderness’. The flame of God’s love shows more clearly in the darkness. For our general well-being, therefore, it is important how we feel about ourselves in ‘mind, body and spirit’.

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

End of Life Seminar

The Dublin & Glendalough Diocesan Committee has organised a seminar on End of Life for those serving in parochial ministry. From the brochure:

 During his Presidential address at the Diocesan Synod in October Archbishop Michael outlined some areas that he would like to highlight in the years ahead. One of these was our response to those who are approaching the end of life. This seminar has been organized in order to give those serving in the Parochial Ministry some pointers to deal with this very sensitive issue. It is our hope that you will leave here better equipped to minister sensitively to the dying and their families. To die with dignity must be a great blessing. By understanding our own attitudes better, we are empowered to help others at this very sensitive time in their lives.

The seminar will take place on Thursday, 18th April 2013 from 9.30am to 3.30pm. To request further details or register attendance, please contact the Rev Mark Wilson before 22nd March by emailing stnicholas[at]eircom[dot]com.

Lent and Well-being: Re-filling the feeder

The Underworld
By Sharon Bryan

When I lived in the foothills
birds flocked to the feeder:

house finches, goldfinches,
skyblue lazuli buntings,

impeccably dressed chickadees,
sparrows in work clothes, even

hummingbirds fastforwarding
through the trees. Some of them

disappeared after a week, headed
north, I thought, with the sun.

But the first cool day
they were back, then gone,

then back, more reliable
than weathermen, and I realized

they hadn’t gone north at all,
but up the mountain, as invisible

to me as if they had flown
a thousand miles, yet in reality

just out of sight, out of reach—
maybe at the end of our lives

the world lifts that slightly
away from us, and returns once

or twice to see if we’ve refilled
the feeder, if we still remember it,

or if we’ve taken leave
of our senses altogether.

This poem comes from Sharon Bryan’s collection, Sharp Stars, which ‘blends such disparate subjects as biology, astronomy, sports, philosophy, and music to probe humankind’s desire for spiritual, even physical, transcendence’.

Lent and Well-being: White space

No one can say I don’t pay attention to a good sermon. One of my favourites was delivered several years ago by the Reverend Canon Maureen Ryan–priest, writer, and poet. Her sermon, preached at Trinity College Chapel and now published in the chaplaincy journal Spiorad (Spring 2012 issue), was entitled ‘Lent as Poetry’.

Since just last week we were talking about Lent as an opportunity to slow down and pay attention, and today is the day that the American Episcopal Church commemorates another poet and priest, George Herbert, I thought it a good time for some poetry and some eloquent thoughts about its connection to Lent.

From ‘Lent as Poetry’, by Canon Maureen Ryan:

A poem is divided into stanzas with lots of white space on the page, white space that lets in the light and represents silence so the words are focused by emptiness. One of the ways you know you are reading poetry is that you are forced to pay attention to the light, to the silences between.

. . .

Christian Lent is an opportunity to do just this – to slow down, take stock, to remember that silences exist, that they are essential, for though ‘Grace fills empty spaces,’ Simone Weil reminds us, ‘it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.’

And the temptation is always, always to turn from that emptiness, to fill it feverishly again and again so we don’t have to stare into it and bear it staring into us. But if we hide from it in busyness and noise, then we never wait in the silent emptiness that is our Holy of Holies, put aside for the dwelling place of God.

. . .

It’s about rebirth, about how the reawaking of creation mirrors our own need for new life. We follow the example of Jesus, give ourselves 40 days to wake up and shut up, and be aware of where the temptations are in our own lives, the temptations that lead us away from what really matters – to love the lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls, and our neighbours as ourselves. 

So, in Lent, we court silence and woo simplicity to let clarity light up the page of our lives, to create a line ending, a rhythmic pause, a pregnant pause, a hungry emptiness that waits to be filled. We acknowledge that life, like poetry, is difficult. That the moments of our lives, like words, are what Coleridge called ‘hooked atoms’, twining, meshing around each other to create a web of relationships, a net of interlocking meanings and images, response and unconscious resistance. So we stop.

We focus on what is being communicated and dig for what is being concealed. We remember what it is we love, whom we love, and what we are living for. We discipline ourselves so we do not forget that the sustaining rhythms of our life are nourished when we savour only what we need rather than whoring after everything we want.


Love (III)
by George Herbert (1595-1633)

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Lent and well-being: Paying attention

This week we’ve been talking about slowing down. Slowing down, even if only for a 1-minute vacation or meditation, nourishes our physical and mental well-being by, at the minimum, easing stress and relaxing muscle tension.

But slowing down is good for our souls, too. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World,  describes the spiritual practice of paying attention as a way to cultivate reverence.

The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods. If anything, these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods—if only we could find some way to do more faster.

Taylor recommends the following two practical exercises:

The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives on that small estate.

. . .

If you cannot go outside, then find a pencil and a piece of paper and spend twenty minutes drawing your hand. Be sure you get the freckles right, the number of wrinkles around each knuckle. If you are old, marvel at what has happened to your skin. If you are young, find your lifeline. Pay attention to the scars if you have them.

And there’s this:

It is not necessary to invent new practices, of course. Praying for thine enemies is as old as the Sermon on the Mount. So is the laying on of hands, the anointing of the sick, and the bathing of the dead. If you have ever done any of these things, then you know that it is just about impossible to do them without suffering a sudden onset of reverence. They accomplish this, I think, by giving you something so important to do that you are entirely captured by the present moment for once. For once, you are not looking through things, or around them, toward the next thing, which will become see-through in its turn. For once, you are giving yourself entirely to what is right in front of you, and what is right in front of you is returning the favor so that reverence is all but unavoidable.

This weekend I’m going to practise paying attention. It’s an ideal time of year for it, with new signs of spring every morning. In a way, that’s the easiest kind of attention to give, the least demanding. What’s a bit harder is to pay attention, real attention, to the humans around me. To put down the laptop, or stop trying to think of what I’m going to do or say next while I wait for them to finish speaking; to listen, with no agenda, to see them as they are in that present moment. ‘I see you,’ they say in Avatar. And it’s easy to understand why that has as much impact, more even, than the oft-glib ‘I love you’.

Because I’m an unabashed fan, here’s one more from Taylor: Regarded properly, anything can become a sacrament . . .

Lent and Well-being: One-minute meditation

Yesterday’s mention of the one-minute vacation led me to this video of the one-minute meditation.  Focusing on our breath not only slows us down, relaxes tensions, and improves circulation, but it also reminds us of God’s immanent presence. It reminds us that we are God-breathed, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (or Wind or Breath). You can do this exercise as is, or you can add a simple ‘breath prayer’ as you inhale and exhale.


Lent and Well-being: Slowing down

Slow me down, Lord. Slow me down!

Ease the pounding of my heart
by the quieting of my mind . . .
Give me, amid the confusion of my day,
the calmness of the everlasting hills. 

Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of the singing streams
that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.

Teach me the art of taking one-minute vacations,
of slowing down to look at a flower,
to chat with a friend,
to pat a dog,
to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and the tortoise,
that I may know that the race is not always to the swift
but that there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Let me look upward into the branches of the towering oak
and know that it is great and strong
because it grew slowly and well.

Slow me down, Lord,
and inspire me to send my roots
deep into the soil of life’s enduring values
that I may grow toward the stars
of my greater destiny.

 —Wilfred A. Peterson (1900–51), from Pocket Prayers for Healing (Trevor Lloyd, Church House Publishing, 2012).

We’re into the week now, and the urge to rush towards deadlines is hard to resist. But Lent calls us to slow down, to pay attention to what really matters. I like the idea of the 1-minute vacation. From where I sit at my desk, I can see the late afternoon sunlight filtering gently through the sheer curtains. It’s a small thing, an ordinary thing, and beautiful.

Lent and Well-being: In the Garden

It’s Friday, and the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the clouds are puffy. Today is no day to be reading (or writing) long essays or reflections if you can help it.

Instead, here are some links to voices and events that have caught my attention, especially as relates to our earthiness and our connectedness:

I wish I had read this before writing yesterday’s reflection.
From this account of starting a city garden:
It restores balance to my life. To be able to touch the soil. To walk barefoot outdoors. To look at the weather not just as the planet’s plot to make me lose my umbrella but as a living system that will nourish – and threaten – the small plants we’ve put in the ground.
A meditation from an Orthodox perspective on Lent as spiritual gardening, with an admonition to go gently on the weeding!
Finally, Retreat in the City is happening here in Dublin at Christ Church Cathedral this weekend. From the Irish Times article on New Monasticism:
“I sense that there’s a deep stream of possibility in the monastic way that can help us in the 21st century to find new ways to live – in balance with ourselves, reconnected to our fellow humanity, in harmony with the planet and at ease with mystery,” he [Ian Adams] writes.

Lent and Well-being: Remember that you are connected

Yesterday I went to the Ash Wednesday service at Christ Church Cathedral. If you, like me, went to a service that included the imposition of ashes, you probably heard the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Remember that you are dust. In one sense, of course, this is a call to remember our mortality. Remember that you are going to die, and in light of that inescapable fact, how are you going to live?

In another, related, sense, it calls us to repentance, reminding us of the sackcloth and ashes of the prophets of old. It calls us to look for the experience that makes part of us die, and turn away from it.

But there’s another significance that occurs to me. In her article, Jesus of the People, Sister Elizabeth A Johnson reminds us that, in fact, we are stardust.

Aruther Peacock, a scientist who is also a theologian, explains, “Every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to formthe iron i the crust of the earth from which we have emerged.” Quite literally, human beings are made of stardust.

She goes on to exclaim the ramifications for this when it comes to the incarnation:

. . . In [Jesus’] person, gracious solidarity encompasses not only all people but the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they are composed. . . . Jesus of Nazareth, composed of star-stuff and earth-stuff, existed in a network of relationships extending through the biological community of Earth to the whole physical universe”. (See Johnson’s article ‘Jesus of the People’ in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit, 2009.)

To remember that we are dust is to remember that we are connected. Connected to the ground beneath our feet, connected to our fellow dust-creatures, and connected to the God who put on dust to join us.

So what does that have to say to us as we consider our well-being?

It turns out that high on the list of factors that influence our sense of well-being are our relationships with others. Australia’s Better Health Channel includes “happy, intimate relationship with a partner”, “network of close friends”, and “a sense of belonging” on its list. Likewise, in its recommendations for achieving well-being, it lists “develop and maintain strong relationships with family and friends”, “make regular time available for social contact”, and “join local organisations or clubs that appeal to you”.

Remembering that we are connected is an exhortation to nurture our relationships and a reminder that no matter how lonely you may feel on any given day–and on a day like Valentine’s, it’s easy to feel it that much more keenly–you are not alone.

Remembering that we are connected also means remembering that our well-being is tied to the well-being of those around us. In that sense, it is both a consolation and a responsibility.

That responsibility features in yesterday’s reading from Isaiah:

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  . . . You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

I want to be careful here, mindful of those whose dedication to others is so great, they can forget to tend to themselves. What is clear is that the two are connected. When we nourish our own well-being, we become, like a watered garden, better able to support those around us. And when we tend to the needs of others, we tend also to our individual and corporate flourishing.

I couldn’t end without saying something about our connection to God. Yesterday evening, as I sat in Christ Church, I realised that I cannot seem to think of Ash Wednesday without also thinking of Good Friday. They are both solemn occasions, both days of fasting, both days on which the shadow of death can linger in the mind. But there is (at least) one stark difference: On Good Friday, the altar is stripped bare, and there is no Eucharist, no Communion, as is fitting on the day we mourn Christ’s death; but on Ash Wednesday, even when we are exhorted to recall all the things we’ve done wrong, individually and corporately, when it would be easy to feel cut off from God by a sense of unworthiness, we are welcomed to God’s table. As we are, dust and imperfections and all. 

So today, on St Valentine’s, with the words of Ash Wednesday still ringing in our ears, remember that we are connected.