Mystical musings and iridescent insights
24 November 2015
Why Practice Contemplation?
By James Karran
My first experience of what I came to understand as contemplation was around three years ago, while reading a book by American psychotherapist Curt Thompson entitled ‘The Anatomy of the Soul’. In this book, Thompson suggests a theory that resonated with me all too strongly; that most Christians, although they pay lip service to a God of love, actually experience a God who is invariably angry, upset and disappointed in them. Thompson argues that there are many reasons for this paradox (mostly childhood conditioning), but the upshot is that we need to literally ‘transform our minds’ – to reconfigure our neural pathways – so that our experience of God is congruent with our belief in God.
And the way this happens is through deliberate, disciplined, mental exercise. He suggests a number of these exercises, but one especially I clung to and have practiced countless times since. It involves the following scripture verse from Zephaniah 3:17:
The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.
The exercise invites you to visualise the verse happening to you personally. So, spend time picturing God taking great delight in you – whatever that looks like. Spend more time imagining God rejoicing over you with singing (Thompson suggests picturing a huge arena with God singing on stage and only you in the audience). By practicing such exercises regularly, slowly the neurons in our brains form new connections, and our experience of God changes.
And it works.
This is a form of the mystical phenomenon known in Christian tradition as contemplative prayer. In essence, Contemplative prayer is about experiencing God, not trying to rationalise, understand or logicise God.
Since finding Thompson’s book, I have immersed myself more and more in the subject, reading ancient texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing and Julian of Norwich’s ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, as well as learning from modern mystics such as Thomas Merton, John Main, Thomas Keating and Richard Rohr. I’ve even discovered that such experiences are not limited to Christianity, and have learned a great deal from the likes of Ken Wilbur, Deepak Chopra and the Sufi Poets of Islam.
So why practice contemplation? Because by the grace of God contemplation does a very rare thing: it transforms us. It doesn’t just give us new ideas to understand or opinions to like (or not). It goes deeper, touching the very core of our being, engaging and dancing with the essential substance that makes you you.
Some reading this will immediately dismiss it as a steaming pile of lumpy gravy. But some – for reasons they can’t quite nail down – will feel an inexplicable draw. If this is you, I encourage you to obey your curiosity. Just start (maybe with the exercise outlined above). See where it takes you.
But be careful. In the words of Gandalf, “It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
(For more information about the benefits and process of contemplative prayer, I recommend the following video by Cynthia Bourgeault on Centering Prayer and Non-Dual Awareness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2SRVr89GFU)
12 August 2015
Mysticism and Christianity: The Evangystic
By James Karran
I grew up as part of a great church. It was welcoming, caring, warm and I owe it a huge amount, not least because it was here that I began to consciously walk and was guided on the first leg of my spiritual journey. It was also the place where a few key individuals (you know who you are!) somehow convinced me to consider becoming a minister, starting a chain of events that has resulted in my official title now being Rev. James. It still makes me laugh when I say it out loud.
But spirituality wise, I never felt at peace there. The church was part of the evangelical tradition of Christianity, and although many of its teachings and tenets I wholeheartedly embraced, there was something I just couldn’t square in my heart, something I always struggled with, something I just couldn’t get excited about. It was only a small thing really……you know, that whole ‘Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven’ business.
No I’m not joking. The problem is, in the evangelical tradition, not being able to square this is a BIG issue. It suggests that you haven’t fully accepted Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Saviour. And if you haven’t done that?? Well no heaven for you, you naughty boy!!! Go and stand in the corner until you believe properly.
And so I spent years trying to force the round peg of this belief system into the square hole of my own experience. But then (and this is cutting a looooooong story short), I discovered mysticism. Mysticism is a spiritual path found in many religions and has been part of Christianity since the earliest days. In essence mysticism holds one idea above all others: experience of God comes before belief in God. Experiencing that God loves and accepts you, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, is all that matters. I finally felt I had come home.
BUT it is not easy to let go of ideas about the universe you’ve held, no matter how unsteadily, for so long. It kind of feels like you’re betraying……something. It makes you feel REALLY guilty! Besides, there is much of the evangelical worldview that I want to hold on to. Negotiating a way through these two perspectives is tough, and to be honest there are a lot of issues on which I have to admit I’m not sure what I believe! But maybe that’s okay. Maybe being in the grey, murky, shadow place is all part of the journey.
So am I evangelical or mystic? At the moment, neither. Or both. If anything, I’m an evangystic. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but that’s kind of the point. Besides it sounds cool.
So this post is dedicated to anyone who is facing the daunting task of letting go of the belief system they have always held for conscience’ sake. It’s not an easy place to be, but have courage, be true to yourself and step forward into the unknown. You never know, you might feel more at home than you ever have.
08 June 2015
Celtic Theology: The Problem of Pelagius
By Lauren Salerno
Watch the 2004 film King Arthur and you would believe all Romano-British Christians were Pelagian. In fact we don’t know how widespread his ideas were in Britain. What we do know is that he is a fixed point in our Christian history because despite writing in Rome and dying in Palestine he was a British bishop and no doubt influenced the British / Celtic church possibly for centuries
Born in the mid 4th Century , the age of councils, where doctrines were hammered out and orthodoxy established, Pelagius took a position that was largely condemned as heretical in the West though less so in the East and which has, perhaps in diluted forms continued to today. John Cassian the “father of Western monasticism” was often accused of taking a “semi-Pelagian stance”.
In order to understand what he taught we have to look at what we believe today. Modern Christian belief in the fall of Adam, of original sin being inherent in humanity because of Adam’s disobedience and of the need for a sinless man (Christ) to undo what Adam did (substitionary atonement) is actually a 4th/5th Century doctrine ascribed to Augustine. Like many doctrines it may have been around before him but he certainly clarified and codified this position.
Pelagius however viewed the scriptures, especially Paul, differently. He could not see how a God of love would allow humanity to be punished or burdened by Adam’s error. For Pelagius what Adam passed on was not sin but the human capacity for choice (which could be to sin or not); sin, therefore, was not predestined but an act of free will, meaning we could also freely choose to accept the grace of God offered through the Cross. The cross did not save us from sin as such but provided a means of grace to strengthen and guide our free will to follow the Divine within us. The cross awakened the Divine, offered us the choice and we through the grace offered can accept or reject.
The church councils were very much divided on this approach and his views were both condemned and accepted, although it was only on the basis of the later works of Augustine that Pelagius was condemned as heretical. However, Cassian and others seemed to take a middle road. Yes we carry original sin as descendants of Adam and we needed more than our divine awakened to be saved as Augustine argued but we are free to choose, God does not decide who receives his grace and who is therefore saved.
The debate continues to inspire polarities of opinion even today, for example in the Calvinistic “once saved always saved” and “predetermination” beliefs, and also in the differences between Eastern Orthodox and Catholic theology. Whilst we can be certain that the “Celtic church” were aware of such debates (and others), there are sufficient hints that Cassian’s middle road may have been the norm in Celtic theology as Palladius was sent to root it out in Ireland and David was thought to be anti-Pelagian.
25 May 2015
Celtic Theology: Will the real Patrick ….
By Lauren Salerno
It would be easy just to restate the traditional legends and tales of any of the Celtic saints but I prefer to draw out something from their “history” which is more relevant to the journey some or all of us take.
Patrick, or at least the Patrick we know best, we are told was born in 387 and was the son and grandson of clergy. Despite being brought up in the church we are told his faith was at best dormant until after captured by the “pagan Irish” and sold into slavery as a swineherd.
Having reached “rock bottom” he eventually came to personal faith, escaped and after training in France as a monk returned to evangelise Ireland. He is also often seen as the first Celtic missionary and even founder of Celtic Christianity. What we know and can deduce is that he was a Romano-Briton and quite possibly more Roman than Briton given his father and grandfather’s names. If born in 387 he was alive at the time of the Church Councils (Nicea having happened in 325) and was a generation younger than Pelagius (the British theologian condemned for heresy) and Ninian. He also knew of and is said to have used the Latin Vulgate (the acknowledge version of the Bible used in Catholicism for almost 1500 years).
As for being the “apostle to the Irish” well we know that others had ploughed the field first. Palladius (whose own history is often merged into Patrick’s), Ciaran and others had been and were already working and bishops in Ireland. It is therefore probably as accurate to see Patrick as the “face” of evangelism in Ireland and that somehow he came to embody the work of many.
What then can “Patrick” teach us?
Firstly, the church we know in Ireland worked and grew often in the face of great opposition especially from the establishment of the time. Secondly, that whilst “foreigners” came to mission often it was home bred evangelists like Ciaran who took the lead and were able to communicate an “alien” message in a way that was culturally relevant and contemporary thus leading to change. Finally, that this change was not quick, the “age of Patrick” lasted from approximately 350 to 500 and far from being “Celtic” was part of the growth of the universal church in the “Celtic nations”.
Patrick himself shows us that someone who is born and brought up in faith may not himself develop faith even if perhaps he shows all the externals. Our knowledge, our understanding, our theology does not create faith. It took something to awaken the divine in Patrick and regardless of your viewpoint on being “saved” or realising the inner divine there was something, that at a point in your life, turned an understanding into a revelation, and that perhaps is an ongoing lesson for us all
11 May 2015
Celtic Theology: And did these feet…..?
By Lauren Salerno
Legend has it that Christianity was brought to Britain my Joseph of Arimetheia possibly around 47 CE. Personally I find this implausible as too many presumptions are involved. Similarly legends point St Alban being the first Christian martyr but then his date of birth is so uncertain (anytime between 200 and 300 CE) that even this can be doubted.
The Hinton St Mary Mosaic dating to the 4th Century seems however to indicate that Christianity had arrived in Britain by the 4th Century and we know that a British bishop, Pelagius, born around 350 CE was a noted theologian though his doctrine of “free will” fell foul of the Western patriarch (the pope) and that he was, in the west at least, declared heretical. We also are aware of St Ninian the “apostle to the picts” who is said to have first planted Christianity in lowland Scotland and was said to have visited Rome and been a contemporary of Martin of Tours.
Whilst none of this is directly “Celtic” it does demonstrate that there was a history of Christianity in Britain long before the so called Celtic Church and that Celtic Christianity did not spring out of thin air. Even Patrick was said to be the son of a deacon and grandson of a bishop. I suspect however that in Britain as in the rest of Europe 4th century Christianity was largely an urban expression. The word pagan originally meant country dwellers, a latin version of the word “yokel”, and came to mean “unbeliever” as pre Christian practice persisted in the country long after it died out in the cities and town.
What we have here then is the foundation of what came to be called the “Celtic church”. An established Christian community in roman Britain; a church perhaps more urban than rural but one developed enough to develop theologians and in full communion with the rest of Europe. Did all this change with the last of the legions in 408? I doubt it.
What is perhaps more likely is that over the course of the 5th century invasions and social pressure saw the gradual diminishing of the urban church, more mission to the edges of Britain and the emergence of new traditions and approaches more appropriate to the changing face of this nation.
Now we need to walk with the people who best exemplify this new mission, Patrick, Samson, Illtyd, Columba, David, Bride, Hilda ; the age of the Celtic saints.
06 May 2015
The Mystic Way of Voting
By James Karran
Tomorrow is the British General Election, where every eligible British citizen has the opportunity to vote for who she or he wants to form the next government. Everyone who takes advantage of this opportunity will have a whole list of reasons as to why they want or do not want to vote for particular parties – this is the blessing of democracy – but I want to add something new to the mix, something I would encourage you to consider.
I’ve heard far more ‘who would Jesus vote for’ sermons in my time than any person should be morally subjected to, and that is definitely not the road I’m going down. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ box to mark your X in on the ballot paper, these concepts are purely subjective. All I would encourage you to consider is the place from which you make your decision.
We are all prejudiced. Every one of us. We have preferences based on our experiences, upbringing, even genetics. From these things we create a sense of identity, and from this identity we make our life decisions – everything from where I choose to shop to what friends I choose to have. This constructed sense of identity is not bad in itself – indeed it’s necessary – but it can lead us to making decisions that sometimes result in hurt and pain for both ourselves and those around us. However, this constructed sense of identity is just that – constructed. It is not real. It is not who we truly are.
There is a deeper identity that each of us have. Call it what you will, the Essential Self, the True Self, the Soul, every spiritual tradition from every part of the world recognises it in some form or other. In the Bible it’s called the Holy Spirit, and is God’s own Self dwelling in each person. The True Self gives us a different narrative from that of the Constructed Self. Where as the the Constructed Self might want us to make decisions based on past hurts, anger, bitterness, frustration, intolerance etc, the True Self knows that we are each loved, accepted and valued for exactly who we are, and that everyone else is as well. The goal of all true religion and spirituality is to put to death the constructed, false self so that the True Self – from which springs joy, peace, kindness, generosity and goodness – can be our reality.
So here is my plea. Whoever you vote for tomorrow, let your decision be from your True Self, the Real You, not the self you have created. If the nation could do that, then whoever we find ourselves lumbered with in number 10 on Friday morning, we know that all will be well.
27 April 2015
Celtic Theology: Was there ever a Celtic Church?
By Lauren Salerno
Like every person and part of creation I am on a journey some of which is behind me some ahead and today each step is a new experience. Part of my journey has been an exploration of Celtic spirituality and more particularly the “Celtic Church”; I have however reached the conclusion that the Celtic Church never existed.
It’s ok though I am not going mad or ignoring evidence; it’s just that I don’t see a church in the sense we think of today. Over the last 1500 years “church” has become an organisation centralised around a leadership structure or set of doctrines, the Celtic church however seems to be more fluid without either. Leadership seems more organic and relational crossing geographical barriers and doctrine whilst agreeing on basics such as the trinity was less “worked out” and analytical but instead more mystical; we believe because we accept not because we understand.
In part this reflects the history not only of the Celtic church but the wider church and world around it. Read early church history and you will find not only a wide variety of belief and debate about the minutiae of “doctrine” but also the lack of an agreed “canon” of scripture. Each congregation seemed free to believe and follow a teacher (often one local to them) but not prescriptively; each could (and did) accept certain books as scripture and others not . This changed with the era of the church councils from the 4th century on and even then “true doctrine” changed with almost every council. Conformity to a single doctrine, single leadership, single bible, single liturgy started to become encouraged as orthodoxy and centralisation around patriarchs (including the Patriarch of Rome) the norm.
This too was the era when Rome began to pull back from its borders and churches at the edges tended to remain less centralised and more heterodox. Relational leadership and doctrine based on a shared heritage adapted to fit the culture around it continued for longer and whilst of course communion with the rest of the empire and church continued these older more established practices of heterodoxy and relationship were ongoing and dominant.
So here we start the journey of exploration ….. how did the Romano – British church of the 2nd to 5th century become the Celtic Church of the 5th to 11th …..
(Pictures: Top – The Church of Llanilltud Fawr, Llantwit Major; Bottom – St Govan’s Chapel, Pembrokeshire)
26 January 2015
The Prodigal Son (18/1/15)
“When you don’t have your identity in the Kingdom of God, you seek smaller kingdoms” – Richard Rohr
After watching Richard Rohr’s video on the Sacred Dance, we then studied this Rembrandt painting of the Prodigal Son returning to his father.
The short video suggests that there are two ‘dances’ in life – survival and spiritual. The survival dance is where you learn who you are, what makes you important and build yourself up in the eyes of the world i.e. develop your identity. This is a valuable part of life and of maturing. But, he continues, it is important to develop from that dance and to be ready and willing to change. As followers of Christ, we should want to put our identity and willingness to learn in the Kingdom of God as Christ himself did. He didn’t bother with minor allegiances with political parties or social groups. His whole identity was built on the security of the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is a never ending fountain of knowledge and wisdom. The foretaste that we have of it in this lifetime is just that – a foretaste, a glimpse, a shadow of what is to come.
Entering into a meditative period, we were shown this Painting and challenged to see ourselves in the place of the Prodigal Son – with our dirty, torn clothes; On our knees and helpless after being disappointed with the best of what the world had to offer. But, notice that the father has his hands around his son, accepting him unconditionally. This is as our Father in heaven accepts us – totally loving and unconditional.
After some time for reflection we were again challenged to imagine an ‘enemy’ of ours or someone we disliked in the son’s place. To imagine that whatever their wrongs against us, not to mention God, they are like us – accepted wholly by God.
This was the challenge
25 November 2014
Hi! I’m new here!
That’s the great thing about Llan is that everyone’s there because they want to be there – to build each other up, build friendships and experience God in a way that’s become foreign to Western Christians. A big part of this is eating together on a Sunday evening at The Gate Centre. It really helps break down any barriers and gives that rare opportunity for quality conversation.
I’m totally new to Christian meditation, so meeting with Llan has been an eye opener in more ways than one. It gives that insight into God that can’t be found when you’re concentrating on your prayer. That awareness of God’s presence is profoundly different to ‘machine-gun praying’ that many of us are used to. Christian meditation also takes the focus away from ‘me’ and puts it firmly on God. It’s opening up to God through scripture or words of a prayer or thought and experiencing God’s response and presence in light of those words.
Finally and possibly most importantly, the emphasis is put on the fact that being a follower of Jesus is a way of life rather than a once a week Sunday event or even praying once a day. It is about living in the knowledge that Jesus Christ has died and was resurrected as a covering for our sins and is living today. It is about being aware of God’s presence everywhere we are and in everything we do.
21 July 2014
Some tips on Meditation
The deeper Llan goes into meditation, the more profoundly it is opening us up to the Divine. It is difficult at first, and like everything worth doing takes practice. We are by no means experts, but here are a few things that we have found to be helpful for both individual and group meditation.
1) Create space. To properly enter into a meditative frame of mind and ‘the present moment’ requires a bit of time, so try not to rush through it. Find an adequate space so that you are freed from the need to clock-watch.
2) Do not be afraid of silence. Silence is a place of encounter with God, so discipline yourself to enter and remain even if it feels unnatural to our noise-filled sensibilities. It is precisely because it’s so subversive to our culture that silence can be powerful.
For groups: So people don’t feel too uncomfortable, consider stating a time limit to the silence at the start of the meditation. (“we’re now going to have 10 minutes of silence…”)
3) Focus on emotions/feelings. Our analytical left-side brains naturally want to pick apart and understand, but the point of meditation is to open up our emotions and deeper senses – to exercise the right-side brain. Take notice of feelings and emotions that are aroused through the meditation, instead of trying to understand and analyse what is going on.
4) For groups: Sharing, not critiquing. Again, our brains are much more comfortable objectively critiquing in response to a stimulus, allowing us to remain at a distance from any deep emotional connection. It is good to have a sharing time at the end of the meditation, but encourage people to do just that – share their experience – rather than critique and analyse the style/content of the meditation itself.
Remember, it is wholly possible to connect with God without giving in to the desperate human need to pin down, box, package and understand. Releasing us from the tyranny of these ‘needs’ is indeed the point of meditation.
Hope these discoveries are of some help!