For the last few years I have ‘done something’ for Lent. I think it started a few years back when I took part in a 40 day fast for a food poverty campaign – I thought ‘if I can go without food for forty days, then I can probably do other things too.’ After not eating for six weeks, everything else seemed easy.
That’s how my daily emails began – as a Lent thing. That was before email newslettery things became cool again. I was just giving folk a few things to think about during the whole season of Lent. And then it just carried on for years and years and…
But then 2021 came along, and I didn’t feel like Lent was going to be a time for doing difficult things, or making people think about troubling subjects. So instead I thought I would send people postcards.
I got the idea when I saw that during the 2020 lockdown a theatre company had done a play ‘by post’ – a story told in a series of postcards. I thought – ‘that’s a good idea.’ I am deliberately remaining vague, but with my postcards there will be stuff for you to think about on the back, and the images on the front. Taken together the images will also do something interesting.
I really wasn’t sure if anyone would want to take part, so I sent out a speculative email. It turns out that lots of people do want to – I have another project on my hands.
There’s not much time before I commit to buying a certain number of postcards and stamps – so if you want to get involved – you need to click here. The whole thing will cost you £7.00. Some people have asked me if they can buy bundles of postcards to send to their friends, that too can be arranged if we’re quick – just get in touch if you want to arrange that.
It took some time for the Christian canon to be agreed, but eventually it was – sort of. Except that it wasn’t. Different branches of Christianity ended up with slightly diverging sets of texts, but there were some key similarities – in particular there were the gospels.
Four short books, each of them on the same subject, each with the same (or very similar) set of characters, and crucially with the same central story arc. There’s really only one problem with these four texts – they’re all different.
The gospels somehow reflect the wider Bible in microcosm, written for different audiences, from different perspectives at different times and in different places – of course they were going to diverge. Of course. Duh.
This is the pattern of Christianity, indeed its the pattern of the Abrahamic religions more generally, they are multiplicitous. They are multivocal. These are people of story – people caught up in something that draws them towards a greater goal. They don’t need to agree on the details, they are travellers on the same road.
When I started to think about the “Liturgy in a Dangerous Time” project, I knew that if we did it, it would have to represent that truth somehow. In a very small and very imperfect way, it would need to acknowledge that there are various points of view, even in one small corner of Christianity. So it was important straightaway to try and ensure that a range of voices were included, not to represent different ‘sections’ of the church as if one person could hope to speak for thousands of others, but to be honest about the fact that we don’t all agree on everything, and no more should we. As a former chief Rabbi once put it, “in heaven there is truth, on earth there are truths.”
This can make it difficult to curate, you have to avoid placing jarring perspectives too closely without thinking carefully about them, and it remains important to not try to qualify or edit people’s contributions, let them stand, so that people can hear them from their perspectives.
After all, the gospel writers didn’t agree on everything, there are clear differences (from my perspective at least) in the way that they understood Jesus, how they wrote about him, and what they expected to happen next. And we, the readers, some 2000+ years later don’t agree on how they saw things, after all, it would be extraordinary if we all agreed on much beyond the absolute basics. And lets be honest, we don’t even agree on them.
While the lockdown has been on, here in the UK, some groups have begun to argue with each other about their sacred beliefs, is a Eucharist performed at a kitchen table valid? Should priests be going into church to pray? Is the church in retreat, or is it entering a new era? Of course people have different views about this, people disagree about everything – everything! Important things and unimportant things. We even disagree on whether things are important or not.
The point is not to try and achieve a homogenous set of views, as if we will all arrive at a place of consensus on these issues given time (we can’t even agree on what should or shouldn’t be in the Bible, never mind what the words mean), rather we should accept that our views are plural, and in so doing, celebrate it. We are one people, but people is plural. We have many voices, we have many perspectives, this is to be welcomed. Many of the greatest evils in history have been accomplished because of a wish to remove plurality, to get rid of difference, and to enforce a single point of view.
By engaging positively with our plurality* we begin to recognise it’s beauty, we come to see that we can see much more if we look at things from a variety of perspectives. As long as it continues, Liturgy in a Dangerous Time will try to include various perspectives and approaches, from conservative to progressive, from protestant to catholic, from kitchen table to high altar. Because that’s who we are, and that’s what we’re like.
*I’m not unaware of the fact that the very pluralism of this approach is itself indicative of a particular stance, but at least it’s a generous and accepting stance, one that welcomes the wisdom and insight of others, and gently asks them to recognise that others have important things to say too.
Self isolation is not something we’ve just invented, for millennia people have taken themselves off to quiet places and spent time on their own, in some cases considerable periods of time on their own. One of the things that many self-isolators have come to find valuable, is the practise of meditation.
Whether you’re a voluntary or involuntary self isolator, you too could learn a simple meditation practise, which will help you remain calm, focused, and more ready to face the challenges of confinement.
I’ve been teaching various kinds of meditation for years, and practising meditation myself for even longer. There are many types of meditation, some more elaborate than others. Below is a very simple meditation practise which you can use wherever you are. Regular meditation practise will not only help you control your emotions, meditation has been shown to have significant physical benefits too – including lowering blood pressure. Can’t be bad.
So make the most of this opportunity, begin a meditation practise now, and build a habit which will help you through the rest of your life.
Just a note – meditation is simple, very very simple, but that doesnt make it easy. In fact it’s hard. But it’s worth continuing, because ultimately it’s not about getting ‘good’ at meditation, it’s just about doing it.
A simple meditation practise
The point of this meditation practise is not to fill your mind, but rather to still, quiet, or empty it, to not be actively thinking about things. To create a bit of quiet space in your very busy and noisy mind. To to do this, we’re going to use a simple repeated word form of meditation.
Step One: Find a reasonably comfortable and quiet place to sit. I encourage people to use a straight backed chair, most of us have one of them, a dining chair will do. Some prefer to sit on a cushion, or on a couch, or to use a kneeling stool. My advice is that you don’t want something too comfy – or you might just drop off. You also don’t want something which will grow uncomfortable after a few minutes. You need something that will help you keep a straight spine, as this will help you to breathe easily.
Step Two: Decide on the length of time you’re going to meditate for. I advise people starting out to go for something like ten or fifteen minutes, often the first five minutes is the hardest, so if you only give yourself five minutes, then you only do the hard bit. When you’ve decided a time, then set a timer of some sort to alert you, try not to use a harsh sounding alarm which will startle or jolt you, there are lots of timer apps you can download if that’s your thing. As you get used to it, you may find that your body will let you know when the time is up.
Step Three: For this meditation, you are going to need a word. For your first time, I suggest using ‘still’. What you’re going to do is silently repeat that word in your mind, ideally on your ‘out’ breath. So breath in, then as you breath out repeat your word: “Still….” In future sessions you may want to choose a different word, try not to choose a word with too much meaning, or else you will find it becomes a distraction. Simple words are best.
Step Four: Sitting on a straight-backed chair, with your feet flat on the floor, lay your hands gently in your lap. Don’t cross your legs. Then allow your eyes to close, but softly, don’t screw them shut. I sometimes meditate with my eyes open, but I think this is harder for the beginner, so I advise new meditators to start with their eyes shut.
Note: When you sit, you will find a number of things start to happen. You may for instance find you have an itch, the nose, the ear, the shoulder… the temptation is just to scratch it and return to the meditation. My advice is just to ignore it, it will go away. If you scratch it, another itch will appear, then another… As you sit, you will find a lot of thoughts start to float through your mind. There are three “don’ts” that I advise people here.
Don’t resist any thought. If you try and fight a thought, you are actively thinking about it. So don’t try and resist a thought that comes into your head, just accept it’s there, and return to your repeated word.
Don’t retain any thought. Some thoughts will seem like brilliant ideas, or important things to remember, and you will want to hang on to them, don’t do it. Let the thought go, return to your word.
Don’t resent any thought. Sometimes you will find yourself so bombarded with thoughts and ideas, that you’ll start feeling dis-spirited and fed up, you will start to resent all those thoughts that are mucking up your meditation practise. That too is a mistake, because it in itself is a whole thought process. Accept that all these thoughts are there in your mind, and then just return to your word.
Step five: So you’re sitting in your chair, you have a word to repeat, you have an amount of time, now just begin. Press start on your timer, and then gently close your eyes, let your breath become regular and settled, and once it is, start repeating your word, try to do so on every out breath. When your meditation session finishes, don’t rush off, allow yourself to pause, feel grateful for the time, maybe take a sip of water to help ground yourself again, and then move on to the practical tasks of your day. Ideally aim to do this in a regular slot, according to what you think you can manage. Any meditation is better than none, an unmanageable schedule is not a good idea, be realistic and develop a practise that is helpful and sustaining for you.
Repeated word meditation is not a practise that suits everyone, if I have time I will either write some more instructionals with other meditation techniques, or record some podcast style tutorials which will help people who find they just can’t get on with this. However, I believe that given time, this is a technique that can be used by more or less anyone in a wide variety of settings.