Spirals / Formation…

Hopeweavers Beeswax Candle

Hopeweavers Beeswax Candle

A few weeks ago I went on a retreat at Hilfield Friary, led by Jacqui Lea from Hopeweavers, inspired by St Clare of Assisi. It was perfectly timed; I handed in my last second year assignment at college on my way to the retreat. I have to admit I was rather frazzled as I arrived, it has been a pretty intense couple of years with work, college, family, life in general all happening at the same time. On the first evening someone else on the retreat talked about the spiral nature of our journeys, and how we often come back to things from a new angle. This is an image that resonated with me, and one that I’ve explored in the past too; but it sort of sank into my head on that first night, and I decided to continue to explore it in the morning.

In the morning it was suggested that we might like to do a weaving. Having done some weaving previously, I decided to continue playing with the spiral picture in my head, and try and create a 3D version of it. My intention was then to add some string to it, and possibly weave into it, and hopefully incorporate some mirror somewhere. In my head, this seemed like a fairly straightforward project, and something I could achieve in the morning…

Trough to soak willow

Trough to soak willow

I had a look around and found some basket weaving willow in the art barn that could make the spiral shape and some bits of tree branch to make the base into which I could fix the spiral. All looking good… Geoff kindly helped me create a sturdy base out of a slice of the large branch, and attach a smaller branch into the centre as the ‘trunk’. I was able to use a branch that still had leaves on the top. For me this represented Christ, and also the imagery of the tree of life.

I’d not worked with basket weaving willow before. It turns out you have to soak it in water for an hour or two before it is soft enough to shape it without it breaking. Fortunately there was a large trough, so the willow went into the trough… and I had to wait a while… (For those of you that know me, you’ll know I’m not very good at waiting, I like to just get on with things.)

Watching Bees

Watching Bees

So I waited for it to soak, and spent some time outside, watching the bees, and soaking in the beautiful place. (And it was OK, because after lunch I would be able to get on with it again…)

Well, after lunch I was able to get on with it (for a bit…). I attached the willow to the base, and gently formed it into the spiral shape that was in my head. It took quite a bit of wrestling with the willow, and various bits of string attached to the willow, and the branch in the middle, to persuade it to stay in a spiral. There was quite a lot of tying of string, and retying, adjusting tension to form the willow into the shape in my head. (Well, actually not quite the shape I had in my head, but realising that I had to work with the willow, and find the shape it was happy to take.)

At this point, I also slowly realised that it had taken an hour or two for the willow to get soft enough to be pliable and pulled into shape. Having got it into shape, it was then going to take several more hours to dry again, so that the shape would be robust enough to start adding further string to it. Hmmm… more waiting.

At this point I started to spot the irony. This spiral form was intended to be about my formational journey, and how that journey spirals around my image of Christ. As I contemplate Christ and meditate on him, I seek to be transformed. And yet this formational journey isn’t instant. There is no fast-track path on my journey. It involves a lot of waiting, and working through things, and revisiting things. Many years ago, I naively thought that as you worked through an ‘issue’, that would be it; and in the future you would just encounter new / different issues. As I grow up, I realise that actually the things that I have worked on in the past, the issues that I need to address are part of who I am. And yes, although I have worked on them, as I journey forwards, I make my way round the spiral and sometimes return to a similar issue, but from a slightly new perspective. And my formational journey, much like the spiral I was trying to create, involves much tying & retying of string, adjusting of tension, trying to move forward a bit at a time, trying to be the shape I think I am made to be.

Spiral in progress

Spiral in progress

Ah, I think… clearly I’ve found the lesson I needed to learn from constructing this spiral… yes, I’m going to have to do some actual waiting, while I make my formational spiral that is about waiting, and revisiting and slowly learning and being transformed. OK… lesson learned, now I can just get on and tie the string into the shape I had in mind and finish the sculpture…

Well, it turns out, that even once the willow is dry, there is still quite a lot of give and flexibility in it. Which means that attaching the string in the ‘Barbara Hepworth-esque’ design that I had in mind was going to be a test of my patience. Much tying, and retying of string later, and I had finally managed to create the shape I had in mind. For me it was important that the strings connected the lower (earlier) parts of the spiral (journey) to those higher up; in the way that our current journey is connected to the journey that we have been on. And it was important to me that those strings all touched the central ‘Christ-tree’, and that their direction was slightly changed / shaped/ transformed by that encounter. Several hours later, much muttering, and much tying and retying of string, I had managed to get the form in place.

Spiral string

Spiral string

OK… surely that’s enough waiting now… surely I can just get on and complete this spiral sculpture… (by now it’s nearly the end of the second full day, and we go home on the third day!)

The final thing I wanted to incorporate into this image was some mirror. The retreat itself was entitled ‘Gaze Upon That Mirror’, and mirror is an image that Clare had used.

“Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!

Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!

Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance and,

through contemplation, transform your entire being

into the image of the Godhead Itself…”

(St Clare of Assisi 1238, the third letter to Agnes of Prague)

With the sculpture I wanted to place some mirror on the base, so that it was possible to view it from different angles. In particular I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and see the central tree / godhead image reflected. From some directions, this would involve looking back through the spiral, looking through the string, looking back through my journey and seeing Christ’s transforming love at work through my earlier journey. But it’s also possible to look in the mirror and focus on the leaves above, on the central trunk, and to see where the spiral might be going, as the journey continues; and to focus on Christ in that mirror.

Mirror, mirror

Mirror, mirror

The materials that I found to use for this part of the sculpture were some broken pieces of mirror tile, and some air drying clay. I was able to mix the clay with some PVA glue, to help the tiles stick to the piece of wood underneath. As I put the mirror tiles into the wet clay, and assembled it, the mirror pieces became covered in a layer of clay and glue. Once I’d got all the pieces in place, I tried to clean the mirror pieces. It turns out my waiting wasn’t over yet. As I tried to clean the mirrors, all I did was keep smearing more wet gluey clay back over the mirrors.

I needed to leave the clay to dry overnight, and it was only on the very last morning that I was able to clean each mirror piece individually, so that they were able to reflect clearly.

Spiral from above

Spiral from above

So finally, as the retreat drew to a close, I finished my ‘first morning’s spiral sculpture’, exploring my formational journey. I hadn’t expected the process itself to be so formational, as I faced up to my impatience, my desire to move forward and resolve things, and my frustrations at revisiting earlier parts of the journey.

Creating this spiral, meditating on it during construction and praying with it now I’m home has also started to give me the confidence to keep finding a way forward. I know there are aspects of my journey that I have visited in the past that I need to visit again. The additional stresses of juggling work, college and family have helped me to realise that our journeys are never complete, and that issues I’ve explored before need to be looked at again, albeit from a different angle, a new twist of the spiral. I’m optimistic though, reflecting on my journey thus far, that contemplation does indeed lead to transformation, and that I just need to have the courage to keep exploring and following that journey.

Formational spiral

Formational spiral

Wildness & Warmth

Wow, where is time going?

I had a really useful meeting with my spiritual director a few weeks ago – reflecting more on this control / apathy thing. In particular, I realised that for me, when I lean towards apathy it’s a health thing too. It’s like I literally throw my arms back and opt out of everything – including bothering to look after myself. It’s not a helpful, healthful trait of mine, and I think I’m also starting to realise the impact this has on other people too. When I choose apathy, I zone out from other people – for my friends this tends to mean I withdraw; at work this means I don’t show up because I’m ill. I guess I’ve tended to think of my health just being ‘my problem’, but realising this helps me to see that I really need to learn to stay hold of who I am, to keep on top of myself /my health, because I don’t want to cause this impact on other people too.

In talking it through with my spiritual director we reflected on the phrase ‘the wildness and warmth’ of God, from Jim Cotter. I think in my quest for control, it’s like I want to ‘control God’; to categorise / confine / understand him, and then put him in a box. This phrase has been particularly helpful to me; I’ve been dwelling on it / letting it seep into me over the last few weeks. As I’m doing my studies it’s opening it up even more to me, just how big this God is, and how wild… how he challenges the status quo, he challenges our assumptions – yet there is a warmth to him – this is a message of love, of salvation, of becoming the people he truly created us to be – if we’re willing to let him change us / live in us / breathe in us.

It’s just such a challenge to me at the moment, to really let this hope / love live out through me, and to let it speak to my behaviour. I’m still muddling along /messing about with this whole food thing. I know I have a problem with food; and I’m pinging again between control and apathy. It makes me feel really cross. I know there are better ways to be; but it’s like I start eating some chocolate / bread or pasta and I turn into this addict who just craves more and more. I had a bit of a wake-up call yesterday, (having started eating carbs again), when I saw the nurse for my asthma review, and my peak flow was down to 450 (the predicted one was 490 for me). I had hoped it would be higher than this. I really need to stop this messing about. I don’t even really know why I start putting these things in my mouth. Part of me feels like I ‘deserve’ chocolate / treat / that it’s not fair that I should have to go without these things. However, I think I need to somehow wake myself up. The negative consequences for me, when I first start eating something like chocolate / carbs are:

  • My brain turns into a chocolate obsession, and I start finding ways / obsessing over when / how / where /what I will eat next
  • My breathing starts to get worse
  • My neck, chin start to get itchy
  • My nose starts to get more blocked, and my ears seem to get more itchy too
  • The weight starts to go up again (and then I start to feel bad)
  • I feel more tired
  • I feel more lethargic, and am more likely to spend the evening watching telly than doing something I actually find satisfying / productive /interesting
  • I start to withdraw from others, as I feel bad / guilty
  • This tends to lead to more extreme apathy
Hmmmm, I guess I should balance this with how do I actually feel when I eat the things that really work for me – meat / veg / carb free / vlcd
  • I feel full of energy
  • My weight starts going down
  • My breathing is better, and I rarely need to take any inhaler
  • I wake up in the morning full of beans and ready to start the day
  • I feel good about myself
  • I feel in control
Argggg, so why do I ping from this state of healthfulness, to one where it all starts to go wrong. I know in the past I have identified myself with the former state, and saw myself as fat and unhealthy, and didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. But having lost 8 stone and feeling so much better, I thought I’d got past that. I’m not quite sure what is drawing me back or why I’m behaving in these ways that I know lead to a negative spiral for me. There must be some payoff somewhere… otherwise I wouldn’t keep doing it. So what is it that leads me to convince myself that the first piece of chocolate is a good idea.
Hmmmm, something for me to think about /work out. For now, I need to go and get little one from nursery.

Control

I think the last few days I’m facing up to my desire for control. I mentioned it in my last post a few days ago; it’s refreshing to find that the local learning group I need to facilitate I can’t actually control. There have also been some recent things both at work and with my family, where my first reaction, particularly when I am feeling unsure about something is to try and control it. When I get into that mode, I also then start to get more anxious and feel more stressed; I also, rather arrogantly start to assume responsibility for more than is actually mine to be responsible for. Although I don’t like to hear it / face it / recognise it, my desire for control is also not necessarily great for other people. At times it can suppress others gifts / involvement / skills / talents, which is a real turn off for other people, and isn’t doing anything to spread love, faith or hope. When I get in that mode, it’s also not bringing out the best in me either.

I think I need to learn to recognise more quickly when I’ve made that switch; especially as it’s not great for me or anyone else! The danger for me, though, is if I decide that I’m not in control I can get quite black & white about it, and almost ping from ‘control’ to ‘apathy’ and totally switch off – a not particularly attractive streak in myself, and again, also not particularly helpful for anyone I’m around.

As I’m starting my studies, I can feel myself pinging between these two states of ‘control’ and ‘apathy’. I feel that I need to discover a new, greyer area somewhere in the middle, a healthy state of balance; where I can feel part of what’s going on, fully engaged, but without trying to unhealthily control or take over situations.

When I look at my family, things have been better recently when I have made a conscious decision not to overstep that mark and not to try and take responsibility for things /people / situations that are not ‘mine’ to do.

It reminds me of a phrase that Wanda Nash gave us at a retreat a few years ago ‘Do not feel totally, irrevocably responsible for everything, that’s my job, love God.’ How true it is, and how much I still need to take that in and let it take root in me.

The other aspect of this control for me is the area of self-control. As someone who has been seriously overweight for many years, this is an area that I have let get totally out of control. Since this time last year I have been dieting, and have made serious inroads into sorting out my weight problem (my bmi has now come down from 45 to 28); however, I still need to work through this issue of self-control. I have lost most of this weight through a very low calorie diet.  I feel fantastic when I am on it, and totally in control – but then I get this black and white thinking… either I’m on the diet, and sticking to 3 packs a day; or I’m off the diet and it’s fine to eat an entire packet of chocolate buttons and half a tub of ice cream… pinging from extreme control to a completely free license to indulge. Again, I know the route forward long term is finding a path of balance, of some degree of self-control, but not total control.

Having said that, I am opting to go the control route to lose the last two stone, to get me all the way to a healthy bmi. I know I feel good on the diet, and I believe I can actually achieve this weight loss if I follow the plan. (Part of me still believes some of my old ways of thinking where I didn’t believe it was even possible for me to be ‘overweight’, let alone to set my goal of being ‘healthy’)

Hmmm, anyway, enough waffling about control tonight. Time to exert my last bit of control and nearly meet my aim of going to bed by 10pm, to try and reduce the tiredness!

Week One

Well, I’m a week into it now. The first weekend at college was last weekend. It was great to meet the other students on the course; 28 of us in total, and only 5 chaps in the group. I feel happier having met the other students as well as the staff on the course, to start putting faces to names and to start getting more of a feel for the course. It also feels like a real time of transition. It’s taken me 10 years of pondering, prayer and faffing to get to this point; it’s been a potential future for such a long time, but now it’s time to actually get my head down and get stuck into the study.

It was good to sit down with my training minister this week, and to talk through expectations. I was also really relieved to meet my tutor this week. I will be having a 1:1 tutor, as there are no other tutees in this area. I was a little nervous going to meet her in the week, as 3 years 1:1, I really hoped that we would hit it off, and that the conversation would flow / we’d be able to work together. It was a good sign when I said that I was nervous and she said that she had been too. I hadn’t really thought of it from her side, but I guess equally unsure what I would be like and whether I would engage easily in conversation.

I’ve found this week quite hard, getting my head into the studies. It’s a long time since I’ve read books in an academic way; i.e. where I need to actually take in & digest what I’m reading, and potentially be able to do something with the information. I’m slowly finding my way back into taking notes, and that heavier concentration while reading to get my head round the concepts. We have our first assignment already; to pick a prayer, hymn or psalm and reflect on our response to it. I’m unsure at the moment which text to pick; I’m also feeling a little nervous about putting together my first assignment -particularly a reflective one. It will be good though, to try and work out my response to a text, and work through my affective response to it – I think I find it easier to hide behind the head type response rather than the heart.

The other part of the course that I’ve started to get my head round is the local learning group. I need to create / facilitate a small group of people as we go through the course. The aims are to help keep me grounded in reality! And to help me bring theology into conversation / discussion with others. In preparing /thinking about it, I’ve realised that my strong desire to control things is rearing its head again; especially as I’m feeling unsure about what the group will be like, and what we will discussing. Almost the more unsure / insecure I feel about something, the more I want to contain it, control it and direct it. I’ve deliberately invited some people to join the group that will challenge me on that; and will pick up when I’m doing it too! However, I’m still feeling that need / want to control. So for me, at the moment, I know when in the next year the groups will happen, but other than the first group, I don’t have any idea what we will be asked to do within the group. I like to get my head around things, to plan; and also I feel like I want to be able to share that plan with the group… now part of that, I think, is that I want to be in control of what we will be discussing, and where that discussion might go… I’m feeling the need to control what God might do with the group, and direct it…. eeek, how arrogant is that?! So I need to continue to learn to let go, to trust God and to trust the other people. To use this group as an opportunity to let the group develop its own way; for me to truly facilitate it, to listen to those within the group, and be guided by them. (I have a lot of learning to do.)

Getting Started

(I actually wrote this last week, but it’s taken me a week to get started in actually setting up a blog!)

I’ve decided it’s time to start a blog. For the last year or so I’ve been using an online diary within a weight loss support forum, and it’s been really helpful for me to capture what I’m thinking, and to see trends in how my thoughts are changing / how I’m working things through.

Several times people have suggested spiritual journalling to me, and I have a shelf with many notebooks on it, with the first 3, 4 or 5 pages written in, and then I’ve given up / forgotten about it / abandoned it. Having realised I’ve almost started this process with the online weight diary, I think a blog may be the next step for me.

Particularly I want to start it today, as I step out on the next step on my journey. This evening I go to STETs for the first time, so officially I think I am now an ordinand, in training for ministry in the church. It’s been a long journey to get to here. I feel really humbled to look back over the last ten years of my journey and see how God’s hand has been in so much, how he has supported me, guided me, been gentle with me, and helped me to discover who I am and the dream that he has given me.

Yesterday, the following thought was on Sacred Space:

God is not foreign to my freedom.
Instead the Spirit breathes life into my most intimate desires,
gently nudging me towards all that is good.
I ask for the grace to let myself be enfolded by the Spirit.

When I think back it is amazing how gently God does work with us, the patience he has as we slowly come to understand things, and to reach for what is good.

Haggai 1:1-8
Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.’

  • Human endeavour and toil are brought into perspective in my prayer. All my busyness and all my concerns are distractions if I lose sight of what really matters.
  • What would it be like for me to be satisfied with less? What difference would it make to me? To others? I ask God to help me to let go a little more, to trust.

This really spoke to me, when I look back, how do I let the Spirit in, to let the Spirit really breathe life into my most intimate desires, instead of trying to control them myself. On more than one occasion in the past, I understand this desire from God, this way I need to go; but then I try and seize control of it, make myself really busy trying to implement my version of it, and get distracted in the process from God at the centre of it. Somehow I end up thinking I know better and want to control it, take responsibility for it, and generally own it, rather than letting God breathe his life into it, and trusting God to actually know best.

I also know there is a danger zone for me… to get lured by other things, by having, by doing…. and not on being… on focusing on what really matters.

A quote I came across today
‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’ (Stephen Covey)

God, I think I need you to help me to realise what the main thing is for me right now. To understand what happens when I live, breathe and focus on the main thing… what I can achieve (beyond my wildest dreams)  and what happens when I try and control it, take total responsibility for it…. anxiety, hardened relationships, non-delivery, distraction, stress.

I think back on the last year. This time last year I dared to set the goal of getting to ‘overweight’… which then became a goal of getting to a healthy weight. Subsequently I then set the goal of cycling the 45 mile Palace to Palace cycle ride. I have now lost 8 stone, and have successfully completed the cycle in 5 hours. I am so proud of these achievements, of listening to the Spirit and becoming aware of what I needed to do. I’m so glad that I’ve persevered with these goals, even though some days / weeks I really felt like I couldn’t do it, didn’t want to do it, wanted to give up and questioned whether it was worth it.

I want to remember these feelings, and the decisions I made, to persevere through the days when I really didn’t fancy it; to focus on what the main thing was, what was really important to me (rather than the tempting bowl of chocolate ice cream in the freezer)

Everything has the potential to draw forth from me a fuller love and life.
Yet my desires are often fixed, caught, on illusions of fulfillment.
I ask that God, through my freedom
may orchestrate
my desires in a vibrant loving melody rich in harmony.

How true, I so easily get caught up on ‘my illusions of fulfillment’ and put a cap on what that would be, or focus too clearly on a very specific, small thing or a particular way of how I think something should be. Help me to be open to what God desires, that his Spirit can work through me and that I will be open to those possibilities, to see the opportunities and the next steps to take in my journey.

In my conversations with Maggie (my spiritual director) she has helped me to see the amazing two years I have had, since the birth of our daughter (well, probably the 8 months leading up to that too) – these have been an incredible few years of happiness, consolation, joy; a real gift from God. Part of this has been because I have been prepared to listen to God and to live in the present, to actually appreciate the gifts as they come, rather than miss them because I was focused on a different future.

As I embark on this next step, I want to write a note to myself (to capture my learnings at the moment)

  • Live in the present, take the time to look at the sky, to notice the sunshine, to splash in puddles
  • Enjoy the time that I have with dh and little one, take the time to really enjoy them, to nourish those relationships and to play (don’t let study become an excuse not to be fully a part of my family)
  • Take things one at a time; even when there is a lot to do, work out what needs to be done today, tomorrow and this week.
  • Stick to my commitment to do this study; enjoy the time I have to study and do the work each week that I need to do.
  • Remember that this journey is what God has called me to; that he has given me the skills and gifts that I need to accomplish this, and that the future is in his hands – I need to be faithful to this next step and not be worried about what might come next.
  • Enjoy it :)

I am really excited, and slightly nervous as I set out on this next step. I am curious to see how this journey will change me, what I will learn through the studies, through the people I meet and the situations I find myself in. I ask for God’s help to stay true to him, and to always remember his love for me, and that his love always wins; and to let that carry me through the difficult times, the challenging times, the tired times, the exciting times, the interesting times that lay ahead.