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Go to your cell

I’ve recently been studying about the Desert Christians, women and men from the third century who escaped popular culture to go into the desert to dedicate their life to God.  This was a time when Christianity had become the religion of the Roman Empire.  You might think that this was a good thing.  However, mixing Church and State meant in reality that with ‘serving’ the church came a life of wealth and prosperity, it was often socially and materially beneficial to associate yourself with the Church and people ‘decided’ to become Christians often to further their own ends.  Such a situation meant that the Church became more secular than spiritual, it was a friendship club rather than a place of prayer . It was focused on serving ambition rather than humbly serving others and sharing the good news.  Therefore, those keen to live in humility and simplicity in a close relationship with God decided to move into the desert and live either in single cells near to others or in community.  They spent much time in silence, prayer and simple work but communities also provided hospitality and spiritual direction to Christians wanting to walk in a closer relationship with God.

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Their time in prayer and listening to God gave them immense wisdom and sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, although written 1700 years ago, are still relevant to us today.

Lets take the example of a saying from Mary C. Earle’s book The Desert Mothers.  She quotes Amma Syncletica:

“If you find yourself in a monastery, do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on  prevents them from hatching, so the monk or nun grows cold and their faith dies when they go from one place to another.”

As Mary explains, this is not just a message for monks and nuns in the third century, it ‘is addressing a universal temptation – to miss our lives by living completely on the surface’.

Our culture encourages competition and ambition.  We are highly mobile, with it often being common to flit from one job to another, one relationship to another, and to move from place to place.  There is an inner kind of rootlessness. Even when we are at home we are rarely still, if we get bored we move on to something else.  We don’t take time out to be still and go deep, we live our lives on the surface.

Amma Syncletica taught that faith was like hatching eggs, it needs us to be still and patient and to wait out the boredom.  There is temptation for us to go and do other things, but at what consequence?  Our chicks will never hatch.

We need to give time to our spiritual life.  We need to go to our cell each day (any quiet place where we will not be disturbed) and be still, encounter the divine and pray. It may be prayers of word, or silence, or a combination of both, but in doing so we will root our lives in prayer and faith. If we get bored, we must persevere because we will miss the deeper spiritual life if we are always on the move.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers told followers of Jesus to let their cell be their teacher.  Mary C. Earle explains:

Staying the in cell, or ‘sitting on the eggs’, means noticing our appetite for over stimulation. The cell teaches us to slow down, to be less of a slave to our impulses, to notice what is right in front of us. The wisdom that the desert mothers offers us is that by staying with ourselves, with our inner ups and downs, with our hurts and our fears, we will bring forth the new life that God is creating within us. The cell teaches us to trust in the Presence even when it feels like absolutely nothing is happening. The cell helps us to see that skipping from one activity to another, from one interest to another, from one focus to another results in never putting down roots, never getting into deeper meaning and purpose, never going beyond the surface reality.”

Where is your cell?  Do you have a space, a particular chair or area in your home that you can go into each day to be still and root yourself in the Presence of the Divine?  A place where you can ‘be’ rather than ‘do’? Why not give the wisdom of the desert mothers a try and spend some time each day rooting yourself in God? Doing so will enable you to live life in depth and fullness – not just on the surface.

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Treasures of History

Where am I?

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If you look carefully in this picture you’ll see some clues.  Yes, its a church, although the vaulted ceilings and the tomb may indicate that it is in fact a crypt.

Perhaps you recognise this symbol on the chair by the altar.

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Yes, its the cross of St John’s Ambulance or in fact of the Order of St John.  The Order had its origins in 11th Century Jerusalem when in 1080 it founded a hospital to look after sick pilgrims.  By 1113 the religious Order was registered with the Church as the Order of Hospitallers. After the Crusades it took on a more military focus and its members became know as the Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

This crypt dates back to the 1140’s but its not in Jerusalem; it’s one of London’s historic treasures situated in St John’s Square in Clerkenwell and was the London Headquarters of the Order.

When King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and established the Anglican Church, the Order in England was dissolved and all its lands and wealth were seized by the Crown. The Order was briefly restored by Henry’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, who granted it a Royal Charter. However, with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Order in England was dissolved for good.

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This tomb dates back to the 16th century.  However, the buildings in Clerkenwell were put to different uses in the years that followed. They were used as the offices of the Master of the Revels. Thirty of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed here. However, they quickly reverted back to religious use as a chapel and in the early eighteenth century, a Presbyterian meeting house. In 1721 it was rebuilt giving it much the appearance it has today.

The church became the parish church of St John for some years until 1921 when it was given to the new order of St John of Jerusalem who use it as their chapel. The new Order of St John in England had been granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria in 1888. Humanitarian in its aims and purpose, it recognised the need for public First Aid and ambulance transport services, as no such system existed in newly industrialised England. In addition, the Order established an eye hospital in Jerusalem, following the principles of the Order’s first hospital, treating all those in need regardless of faith or wealth.

During the Second World War the church was badly bombed, by the end of the war it was left a blackened shell. The Order of St John restored and rebuilt the church afterwards, although not to original designs.

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The new church building is not amazing but there is a cloister garden built in the 1950’s.

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However the crypt itself is spectacular and not to be missed.

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So if you are in London and looking for ‘free things to do’, don’t miss the peace, tranquility and history of this Christian place of worship.  Nearby you can also visit the Museum of the Order of St John (another freebie).

Reviews available on Trip Advisor.

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Posted by on October 12, 2013 in Church, cities, History, Travel

 

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The Wesleys – founders of Methodism

My understanding of Methodism has been rather limited, experienced until recently only through interdenominational services in my youth.  My teenage observations were that there seemed to be a greater emphasis on the Bible and preaching (longer bible readings and sermons than in our church) and less of a focus on the sacrament, with greater engagement of lay people in ministry.

As a new board member of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund, I thought I had better find out a little more about Methodism.  I grew up worshiping in an Anglican church so I’m well versed in the words of Charles Wesley, singing many of his hymns during my time in the choir.

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Favourites include:

And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
   And the famous wedding hymn….
 
Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heaven, to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling;
all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation;
enter every trembling heart.
But what of the other brother, John, and the principles of Methodism?  This week, while I was visiting London I stumbled upon the Wesley Chapel and Wesley’s House (free entry) and took some time to explore.
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John was born in Epworth in Lincolnshire in 1703, the 15th child of parents Samuel and Susanna (buried opposite the Wesley Chapel in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground).  Samuel was the Rector, so John experienced life in the church from a young age. Educated at Charterhouse School in London and then Oxford University, he was ordained as an Anglican deacon (1725) and priest (1728) at Christ Church Cathedral, and became a tutor and Fellow of Lincoln College.  He was a member of the ‘Holy Club’, a group of like-minded people who disciplined piety, but it was not until 1738 that he had a spiritual experience that convinced him of his salvation through Christ and made him want to preach the Good News. John Wesley is estimated to have travelled 250,000 miles in 50 years to preach the gospel.
Perhaps one of the most famous quotes of Wesley is:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can!”
He was committed to preaching a gospel that stood up for living a life based on scripture and standing up against injustice. He would start his day with prayer and devotions for at least an hour.
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Christianity was not something to be kept within the four walls of the church, but to reach out to others, particularly those in need, bringing them the love of Christ.  He placed an emphasis on personal faith and holiness. Justification by faith, forgiveness and redemption through Jesus Christ, was the essence of his theology. Sanctification (defined in terms of “pure or disinterested love”), is found through the Holy Spirit. Its characteristics are to love God and one’s neighbour as oneself; to be meek and lowly in heart, having the mind which was in Christ Jesus; to abstain from all appearance of evil, walking in all the commandments of God; to be content in every state, doing all to the glory of God.
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This is the foundation for the Methodist interest in helping the poor and promoting social justice and Wesley led by example. During his time at Oxford, he took courses in basic medicine and first aid and ventured into London during much of his free time to work with the poor, providing medical aid where he could.  Wesley and his Methodists worked hard to raise the money to provide food and clothing for the poor.  He introduced interest-free loans to the poor in London and Methodists devoted themselves to helping the poor to find jobs.   In a time and place in which many viewed poverty and sickness as an indicator of the worth of the individual, Wesley preached God’s love for all mankind and demanded unrestricted love for one’s neighbour. Long before the Quakers introduced anti-slavery legislation to Parliament, Wesley was convinced that slavery was an atrocious blot upon mankind.  In 1774, Wesley wrote Thoughts upon Slavery, presenting his case for abolition.  Wesley’s staunch opposition to slavery heavily influenced abolitionist members of Parliament such as William Wilberforce.

Wesley’s famous Sermon 50: The Use of Money, stated ”gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” demanding his followers be good stewards of their wealth.  In fact, Wesley earned quite a bit of money from his published writings, and yet lived and died in relative poverty.

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But this life of preaching and service took a toll on his family life.  Wesley and Mary Vazeille, a well-to-do widow and mother of four children, were married in 1751. By 1758 she had left him—unable to cope, it is said, with the competition for his time and devotion presented by the ever-burgeoning Methodist movement. Molly, as she was known, was to return and leave him again on several occasions before their final separation. Due to her husband’s constant travels, Molly felt increasingly neglected.
In 1778 he built the Wesley Chapel and the house next to it where he lived until he died in March 1791.
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Despite John Wesley’s claim ‘I live and die a member of the Church of England’, by the time of his death the Methodist movement (which, by then, was largely associated with John Wesley) had grown apart from the national church.
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He is buried in the grounds of the Wesley Chapel, but has left a long legacy behind him of Methodism, people who walk in the footsteps of Christ, caring for the poor and standing up for injustice.
If you want to carry one the work of Wesley how about starting by studying the Bible, showing kindness to your neighbour and making a donation to the work of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund?
 
 

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Experiencing Reality – Communion with God

As a Christian, it is one thing to promise to obey God, it’s yet another to understand clearly what He is saying so that you can be obedient. Evelyn Underhill’s book ‘Practical Mysticism’ has helped me to understand how to start to become more open to what God has to say and live my life accordingly.

To fulfill our purpose in the world we need to be open to God’s voice and guidance, and to live in communion with Him. Only then will we get a glimpse of the awe inspiring wonders of His reality, His will and His wisdom.

So how do we do this?

James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

Firstly we need to have a willingness to learn more about God, to be one with Him and ask Him to reveal His wisdom.

The next step towards experiencing Reality, which could also be described as have true communion with God, is Meditationwiping away our turmoil of thoughts and focusing on experiences of the senses, giving space for God to reveal his will to us. For example, focusing on an idea such as joy or an object such as a flower and being in awe of its beauty created by the hand of the Almighty….

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or meditating on a symbol of faith and letting God speak to us through it

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or a verse of scripture, spending at least a quarter of an hour, without distraction or invasion of other thoughts.

Thinkers and analysts may find this immensely difficult, whereas those with greater sensory appreciation such as artists may find it a little easier.  However, to begin on the road to communion with God we need to regularly practice mediation, i.e. holding concentration on a single idea or object without distraction. As our meditation becomes deeper it will help us defend against the assaults of the outside world.

The next stage is using times of quiet for Recollection, contemplating ourselves face to face, revealing our true motives – stripped and measured against eternal values, our unacknowledged indulgences and irrational loves and hates.  When we see who we really are in comparison to the model of Christ we will be compelled to remodel our existence.  The light dawns….

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We have been accustomed to the idea that we want or ought to want certain valueless things, status and power.  Our treasures have become material things and we are chained to longing for things of this world. But as we recollect we gain a glimpse of something other, something special, the land of peace, the heart of God and as we spend brief moments in communion we are enticed with every fibre of our being to be part of it. Yet to reach it we need to prise ourselves away from the old comfortable life of the material world, like a limpet being detached, we must sever old habits, old prejudices and self-interest. “Selfhood must be killed before Reality can be attained.”

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Meditating on scripture, God can use His Word to highlight what it wrong in our life, correcting our values and behaviour; He can work in us to break the bonds of sin and draw us to Himself. This remodelling of character is known as Purgation or Detachment, it’s a slow process that does not happen overnight, so we need persistence and patience. The chief ingredients of this new life are love, courage, singleness of heart and self-control.

So through meditation the mind is quietened from the buzz of the outside world and through recollection and purgation the heart is re-orientated. It can be a painful process, but as we gain brief visions of ‘beauty’ and ‘the land of peace’ we long for Communion with God, so our will becomes to do the will of God and we begin to develop a more intensively loving heart.

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This process changes two things in our attitude towards life. The first is that we become more observant, we perceive a truer universe and then, released from obsessions that have governed our heart, will and mind, we are able, in union with the spirit, to pour forth love.

Take the example of a homeless man on the street. Whereas before we may have made judgmental assumptions and walked on by, now we are struck with humble compassion. We are now observant and touched by the person in need, a person created by God in His image. We cannot walk passed without at least praying for this person through which we can then be open to what God has to say about how we respond.  Is it to give a friendly smile and pop some money in his pot? To stop and talk? To buy him a coffee or food? Or some other action of kindness?  Whichever way, whereas before we may not even have noticed the man or just given him a brief glance, now God has instilled in us His love for this person and a realisation that to be one with Him and to do His will means doing acts of compassion and being a blessing to others.

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James 2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Because ultimately, following the will of God is walking with Him and showing His love in the world.

These are just the first few steps towards communion with God and understanding the ultimate Reality; but they are steps that will change our life and will bless others.

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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in Church, Reflections

 

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A day exploring Pondicherry (of Life of Pi fame)

Pondicherry, it is believed, is a French corruption of the more ancient name of the town of Puducheri. The French were the fourth colonial power to reside on these Indian shores, following the Portuguese (16th Century), the Danes (c. 1616) and soon after the Dutch with whom the French battled for control in the late 1600s. Then they then were conquered by the British in the late 1700s and Pondicherry was eventually returned to them in 1816. French rule continued for another 138 years, with them clinging on to the territory even after the rest of India gained independence from the British in 1947. It was not until November 1st 1954 that Pondicherry finally became a Union Territory under Indian rule.

This Indian coastal city on the Bay of Bengal, 160 km south of Chennai, still has evidence of its former French colonial roots. Take a walk along the 1.5km promenade….

Promenade Pondicherry 210813

and you come across the French War Memorial

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 and Le Café

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side by side the 4.25m statue of Gandhi – just to remind you that you are still in India!

Gandhi (2) Pondi

Gandhi Monument Pondi

‘White town’ houses buildings with French Style architecture and tea rooms like ‘La Maison Rose’ where is it more common to hear French spoken than Tamil.

La Maison Pondi

In fact there are over 55 languages spoken in the 290km2 area with Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, French and English being the five official languages, many of which can be heard as you wander down the promenade, either during the day….

Icecreams Pondi

Or during the hustle and bustle of an evening….

Evening promenade Pondi (11)

Peace and quiet is not easy to find in Indian cities, streets are not only the domain of cars, bikes and autos beeping their horns, but also dogs, people….

Coconut sellers

And cows….

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Including those being milked on the street.

Milking roadside

It is no wonder that churches and temples are so common.

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Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges (The Church of Our Lady of Angels), Pondicherry

Sacred Heart of Jesus Basilica Pondi inside

Temple close up

Temple corner Pondi

….places to try and escape the noise of the horns, traffic and chatter to concentrate on the divine.

Other spaces to escape the struggles of daily life and meditate on the Almighty or to spend time with the family include gazing at the waves from the promenade….

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or sitting under the trees in Bharat Park….

Bharati Park

Although even here your peace is likely to be disturbed by the caws of the House Crows

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and the squawks of the Common Myna birds.

Common Myna Pair Pondicherry 210813

If you are lucky you might get to see a Tawny Coster butterfly as you tuck into your ice-cream.

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There is no zoo in Pondicherry (despite what the Life of Pi may have led you to believe) so another option to try to escape the city noise and get back to nature is to visit the rather dilapidated Botanical Gardens.  A lot of it is overgrown, but if you are lucky you can get glimpses of Common Crow and Dark Blue Tiger butterflies.

Common Crow Butterfly 2 Pondi 180813

Dark Blue Tiger Pondi

And you might get green fruits landing on your head as the Rose Ringed Parrokeets pluck them and throw them from the trees.

Rose ringed parakeet Pondi 180813

Make sure you don’t get run over by the ‘Joy Train’ through.

Joy train Botanical Gardens

This mix of Indian and French makes Pondicherry an interesting stop on a trip around India.  Don’t miss drinking the juice of a green coconut….

Coconut Pondi

pleasing the children by taking their photo…..

Lads in the park

and exploring the stalls on the promenade in the evening….

Evening promenade Pondi (17)

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And as your roam the streets at night…. watch out for Bengal Tigers 😉

Then after a tasty Indian feast return to The Richmond, an oasis from the heat, noise and smells of this cross cultural city.

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Before sleep kneel down and thank God for blessing you with the wonderful luxuries you have compared to the many thousands of people, just outside your door, who have no air conditioning, limited food, no clean toilet and no refreshing shower in their makeshift homes or on the street.

Children in the street

We are truly blessed!

Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges (The Church of Our Lady of Angels), Pondicherry Crucifix

 

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