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My glorious failure

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 February 2018, 4.41pm

I’m talking with a group.

I sense some short-cuttery in the air, some impatience.

We’re ten minutes in, and I sense they’re losing energy for me.

What do they want? They want to bounce ideas around.

They want something or someone to deliver the answer to their door, neatly wrapped.

They want a work sheet, some bullet points.

‘Here it is, guys - this is the answer!’

And to that extent, I’m failing.

Gloriously.

I don’t want to bounce ideas around…and God spare us from bullet-pointed truth.

And why?

Because no one can taste a mango for you.

The idea of someone describing its taste to you is - well - ridiculous… no, really…and not at all refreshing.

We need to taste it ourselves.

In the same way, no one can help you with anything that really matters…other than getting out of the way.

Only your own power of discerning the truth can help you… if you can stay with it, in the dark before the dawn.

This is a power we may squander, in search of something easier, something quicker, more mass-packaged.

In a bid for short-cuttery, we ask others if we can borrow their truth; this is what we do.

‘Can I borrow your truth please?’ we ask.

(We wouldn’t do this with their clothes.)

But there is no borrowed truth that can help us here; no quick download.

There is only your inner experience in relation to this present unfolding.

So the invitation is to patience and courage.

Honour the capacity for seeing that resides in you…

...until the golden light of meaning spills across your floor.

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Abbot Peter describes his vicar

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 February 2018, 4.22pm

In the Prologue to ‘Another Bloody Retreat’, before taking us to the desert, Abbot Peter describes his new vicar, doing his best to be polite…though failing.

‘I’m not unhappy with my present home, far from it. I run daily along the seafront and then follow the white cliffs towards Cuckmere; the views are magnificent.

And the little church nearby puts up with me, in the main. I don’t criticise the sermons and neither do I molest children, so they really should be grateful.

The vicar is a good man in his own small way. He’s emotionally narrow, with only a few responses available. He also lacks imagination in his handling of the mysteries – oh, and he’s criminally negligent towards the communion of saints, whose skulls so crowd the earth.

He ignores the past in some insane rush to ‘do church in new ways’; this is his phrase, God help us.

‘We are not separate from our history!’ I do try and tell him this, in his sprint to be modern. ‘History is not some classroom activity – and exam we pass – but something we are in, up to our eyeballs. We sit on its shoulders…like monkeys screeching nonsense on the back of a sage.’

He did take offence at this, and I had to reassure him that I was not comparing him to a monkey. He is a busy man, full of energetic plans and deeds.

But his language is drawn from the shallowest of wells and diluted with desperate sentiment, as he tries to drum up interest and support in his wares.

He reminds me of a fish, thrashing on a shoreline, as the ebbing tide departs.

Or perhaps I am the fish. Things have changed and left me behind. These days, the church has business plans, targets, goals and mission statements; it has a corporate identity, a logo and press officers.

The church, like a software company, now talks about the market place. It must be more eager, more thrusting and noisier than its rivals.

It must dance, skip and run marathons dressed in amusing clothes – anything to gain attention – to place the product of Christ before people’s eyes.

Product?!

‘We are sales people, God’s sales team!’ said the vicar last Sunday. ‘And our product is Christ!’

At which point, I quietly left. I have never believed a salesman in my life.

‘Another Bloody Retreat’, Abbot Peter’s Desert years, is published by White Crow and available now.

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My big fat registry office wedding

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 February 2018, 11.05am

It’s her wedding… and understandably, she’s nervous.

Only this isn’t the bride – it’s Susie, who’s taking the service.

She’s talking too much and scribbling details on post-it notes, which she sticks in her service order, while the registrar, Mary, a calmer soul, fills in our forms.

‘There seem to be a lot of people out there!’ exclaims Susie.

We’re in the registry office, Shellie and I, it’s our wedding day, our guests are gathering in the hall – and Susie is nervous.

Outside, it’s the worst weather in the history of the universe; the sort that brings out the inner Noah in everyone.

‘We should probably build a boat…and gather some animals.’

Yesterday was bright and sunny, and golden sun is forecast for tomorrow – but today the rain lashes at the windows, driven by 60 mph gusts of wind…while buckled brollies drip crippled in the registry office stands.

Someone says ‘It’s the weather in your heart that matters.’

Yep, tell that to the photographer…but when Shellie walks in to Adele singing ‘When the rain is blowing in your face…’... everyone laughs.

Though Susie is not laughing, too tense to laugh and she messes up her opening paragraph. She’s doing her best to smile a lot, but struggles to do that and read her lines.

‘I’m sorry – I’ll go back and start again,’ she says.

And her second attempt is better, slightly, though she’s soon having problems with the word ‘solemnly’ in the vows.

There are several attempts made – ‘solemny…solly…etc’... as we drift, like a car across ice, into Rowan Atkinson/Four weddings territory.

She finally gets it out – solemnly! - but her nerves are now transferred to Shellie who has similarly problems with the word.

Why can’t we just ‘declare’? Why do we have to ‘solemnly declare’? Is anything gained by this?

I’m also noticing Susie’s physical performance. She has lined us up in a way that blocks her from the guests…which is a problem.

She tries to rectify this, on and off, by suddenly moving to her left, to get a quick sighting; or bending like a tree in the wind, her feet staying still, but her upper body and head leaning past me.

‘How can someone who does this job not have thought this through and found a better place to stand?’ is a question playing on my mind, as I stand up front on my wedding day, in my smart charcoal-grey suit.

The verbal wheels come off again in the marriage vows, with Susie cocking up the words around the giving of the ring. She’s desperately consulting her post-it notes… though maybe the wrong ones.

Her desperate smile remains while we await the right words.

But all is forgotten as we sit down to sign the register. Yes, we have made it to the signing! Praise be! What can possibly go wrong now?

Though I sense a further cloud on the already cloudy horizon.

I watch as Mary, the registrar, moves over towards my brother Andy, who is my marvellous best man, (and also controlling the music from his phone. Genius.)

‘Is this music from Mozart’s requiem?’ she asks.

‘It’s Berlioz,’ he says. ‘The shepherd’s farewell.’

I have chosen this because when I heard it as an 11-year-old, it was the first clue that there just might be love and kindness in the world.

But I knew the risk.

In our preparation meeting, the slightly Hitler-esque man handling our application had told us that we weren’t allowed any mention of ‘God or angels or anything spiritual’ in the music or reading.

And I must confess my first thought was, ‘Oh no – not another Kahil Gibran reading! Kill me now.’

‘We need to pass your choices,’ he said.

But for reasons outlined, I wanted the Berlioz and I really don’t warm to being told what to do - and so we sneaked it in on Andy’s miraculous phone. But Mary, the registrar, has noticed something amiss.

‘Is this music from Mozart’s requiem?’ she asks.

‘It’s Berlioz,’ he says. ‘The shepherd’s farewell.’

‘You do know that, technically, this music is not allowed.’

I’m now wondering if she’s going to rip up the freshly signed marriage certificate…which would make for an unusual wedding photo.

‘Well, no one’s going to hear the words,’ says Andy casually, like some trained UN negotiator… and Mary, after a moment’s pause, decides to take it no further.

And so remarkably, despite my lack of qualifications, we are married.

And as I look back on the day, none of the above matters, but the bit about love and kindness, for it held us throughout, spilling all over the place in a hundred different ways.

And Susie and Mary were part of that, kind spirits both of them.

Susie did later apologise to Lisa, Shellie’s best woman.

Lisa, slightly concerned for her, asked her if she was all right.

‘I’m fine, but I do apologise - I was just a bit nervous. This is only my fourth wedding.’

(One can only speculate what happened at the other three.)

But as I say, love and kindness trump words, every time and everywhere, and when I think of the day, that’s all I know.

Amid tempestuous storm, cracked words and soaked clothes, the power of the heart – the power of many hearts – utterly and beautifully prevailed.

 

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Who are you?

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 February 2018, 5.55am

When someone says ‘Who are you?’ what do you say?

Do you give your name and address?

Do you say something clever like ‘I’m a collection of molecules worth around a pound.’

Or something spiritual like ‘I am a human soul’ or ‘A child of God’.

Or something earthier like ‘I’m a husband, a father, an NHS safeguarding officer and I support the mighty Leeds United.’

There’s nothing wrong with any of our answers, they all do a job – it’s just that they are not present.

They are all using memory concepts, which like armour, give us definition and perhaps protect us.

But can also prove heavy and airless.

When someone asks me who I am in the here and now, I’m caught out – for no answer comes.

Just silence… a wordless sense of existence unbound by the sort of concepts already named.

There’s nothing to say.

Although my mind ferrets around for a concept, to give myself shape or meaning, my body, staying present, won’t allow.

There is just my existence, wordless and perfect, in this moment…and breathe.

This can be a liberating and truthful Lent practice when your armour is weighing heavy or claiming too much.

Go happily wordless…and free.

 

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So much to let go for

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 February 2018, 5.19am

THE one thing demanded of us today is that we should know the state we are in. While this may not seem like a very holy commandment, it could be the holiest of them all.

We are required to know the truth of ourselves, in this moment, as we make our assessments, deliver our sermons, manage our meetings, and offer counsel or advice. If we don’t, we are potentially dangerous people, inflicting our unexamined turmoil on the world.

It is not, of course, expected that we are always in a state of virtue or self-mastery. This isn’t a call to feel bad about ourselves (religion needs no training in that department). But it is a call to be accurate about the state we’re in, whether we’re jealous, happy, angry, joyful, anxious, irritated, hopeful, lustful, sad, disturbed, numb, content, peaceful, or in despair.

And this is all that is realistically possible for us, in this moment, as humans: to know our state; to be accurate about how we’re feeling. It may not be everything we could be; or what is ultimately meant for us. But it does mean that, if we speak, we speak without illusion, without mixed motive, and without being disingenuous. And that’s a great blessing, both to ourselves and to others.

SUCH present-awareness might guide me away from talking, prompting silence or withdrawal until a healthier horizon appears in me. I construct my reality out of my state, so it’s important that I know what I am in this moment, because what I am is the window for the brief take on reality that I call “Now”.

With such awareness, we will proceed more honestly, more accurately, more kindly in the world. . . so far, so obvious. But how is such awareness possible, when many of us are temperamentally trained to avoid true feeling?

“I don’t know why I’m here — I had a very happy childhood,” is the most common opening line in the consulting room; but I cannot remember an occasion when it was true.

Or take the extraordinary lengths people go to, to avoid admitting they’re angry. “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”; “I’m not angry, I’m just sad”; or, “I’m not angry — I just don’t have an opinion on the matter.”

Denial, as the saying goes, is not a river in Egypt. And this is where mindfulness can bring such extraordinary grace into our lives; and it is down this path that its visceral connection with Christianity gradually becomes apparent.

MINDFULNESS is not a belief, but a process. Simply defined, mindfulness is awareness of this present moment with acceptance; and the last word is important, for awareness only arises in us in a climate of acceptance. If I believe anger is a bad emotion — if I do not accept it in myself — I will not see it in myself, however huge a presence it is; or I will re-name it. Mindfulness is allowing things to be as they are in our consciousness, without judgement; and then releasing them — letting them go, creating ever new space within us.

Letting go is the opposite of clinging — whether to a physical object, an idea, a feeling, a person, or an outcome. It’s not abdicating responsibility, or saying that nothing matters. It’s simply noticing an attachment which exerts some manner of control over us and our emotions. . . and letting go of it. This is health.

I notice that I am jealous of you. I read about you on social media, and you seem to have everything I want, or to be everything I want to be. So I notice I am jealous, which is fine: no feeling is in itself a crime. But then I have a choice: I can either run you down to all my friends as some sort of pay-back. Or I can greet my jealousy as my own low-grade insecurity, laugh at the comedy of it all, and gently let it go.

IF WE cling to an attachment, there is pain. We become controlling of our environment, and we experience resentment, stress, or vindictiveness when our attachment is threatened and our desired outcome does not materialise.

Mindfulness, however, is about kind noticing and prompt letting go. When we let go, we become space for change, rather than anxiety for change. These are different states, and they shape the world around us differently. This, of course, is a process echoed in life. Before we can breathe in, we must first breathe out; before we can fill our hands, we must empty our hands. Letting go really is at the heart of things.

There is an agony to letting go, which is why we struggle with it. To let go of a thought, a feeling, a person, or a hope, brings from us a scream of abandonment. It is a small ripping of our identity, and the agony of the cross re-lived in us; this is holy ground.

But the agony of letting go, whether in small ways or large, brings us to the doorway of emptiness: a vulnerable space through which life may enter. And here is the visceral connection between mindfulness and Christianity. Mindfulness gives us a language and a process for letting go; or, as it’s called in the Christian tradition, kenosis, or self-emptying.

AT THE heart of Christian experience — the lost energy of Christianity — is the self-emptying of Christ, who did not cling to equality with God; but who, in the agony of letting go, created new space in the world.

All truth is God’s truth, however labelled; so it should not surprise us that, beneath the argumentative surface, these ancient traditions greet each other in recognition around the process and act of kenosis.

They greet us too, with the offer of compassionate, stripped-down, simple, hopeful space within us. And the kind and present awareness of the state I am in — which is all that can be asked of me.

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Daffodils in the snow

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 February 2018, 6.00pm

There are daffodils in the snow outside my window.

Two seasons, with a claim on my life, struggle for power.

‘I am the truth!’

‘No, listen to me!’

This is both winter and spring… and I live the white and the yellow, the chill and the warm.

One season would be easier, more binary.

I could say ‘This is winter!’

Or I could say ‘This is spring!’

But binary is always a lie, a ham-fisted truth and clunky and stupid as hell.

And the daffodils in the snow allow me no such refuge, inviting keener, more accurate eyes…a blend of seasons…both the emptiness of winter and the hope of spring.

And, in truth, they are one…there is no struggle at source.

I am winter and spring, emptiness and hope, snow and daffodil.

It is good to come home.

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Suffragettes, pardoned?

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 February 2018, 10.12am

People are asking the government to pardon the suffragettes who risked everything to give women the vote in the 19th and 20th centuries.

With ‘deeds not words’ as their slogan, they smashed windows, spat in the face of policemen, jumped in front of horses – to get themselves noticed, to correct an injustice, to expose a madness.

So they were law breakers, there’s no question of that… and (harshly) imprisoned.

But should these brave women now receive a pardon?

It sounds like a good cause but Amber Rudd says it’s complicated, and I don’t warm to that idea at all.

I mean, how can you pardon someone for being sane?

This is the issue.

If sanity is the only crime, then it’s the law makers who best beg for pardon, not the sane.

The suffragettes don’t need anyone’s pardon, because they did nothing wrong. They are guilty only of refusing to collude with societal madness.

And they certainly don’t need it from a government that doesn’t have a moral leg to stand on.

It would be like emotional pygmies forgiving spiritual giants for being bigger than them.

Governments never have been and never will be moral arbiters.

So I don’t imagine Jesus, another law breaker, still petitions hopefully for a pardon from the Italian government.

He’s not bothered.

Sanity is its own suffering and reward.

The sane do not crave pardon from the morally compromised; they do not hanker after such patronising and self-serving domestication.

They don’t wish to come in from the cold, to be part of the team.

No, in a world of mad laws and bankrupt authority, the greatest accolade is to remain…

... ‘an unpardoned law breaker.’

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The glory of the Dutch banker

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 February 2018, 10.00am

I am with a group of bankers in the Netherlands.

I arrived the night before, I have not yet met them… we are strangers; and now I have a morning session with them.

These are busy individuals, on their phones at every break, dealing with this and that, global reach.

So how shall I start?

Shall I hit them with something fast, funny and financial? A pithy anecdote about emerging world economies? An amusing story about mortgages?

I tell them this story…and I tell it to you as well.

‘There is a seeker.

He goes to see the wise woman because he wants to see the glory.

‘I want to see the glory!’ he says.

‘Then be still,’ says the wise woman. ‘Stand by the water and do nothing… and you shall see the glory.’

And with that she leaves.

The seeker stands by the water but due to recent rain, it is too muddy to see anything.

And so he wades in, to see if he can find the glory there. Perhaps that’s what the teacher means - this is a call to action!

The wise woman returns.

‘What are you doing?’ she asks.

He’s standing waist-deep in the water. He shrugs.

‘I told you to be still, to stand by the water and do nothing…and you shall see the glory.’

The seeker nods, wades back to shore and the wise woman departs once again.

The seeker stands by the water, as instructed…the water recently disturbed by both the rain and himself.

But there is still no glory.

He feels stupid standing still, and frustrated…he wants to do something. The teacher must be testing him and he is determined not to let her down. He will go searching again! He will not give up!

So once again he wades into the water, just as the wise woman returns.

‘What are you doing?’ she asks

The seeker’s not sure.

‘I told you to be still, to stand by the water and do nothing…and you shall see the glory.’

The seeker can’t look at her as he wades back to shore…and she departs once again.

This time, however, the seeker stands by the water…and stays still. Soon his restless body is even enjoying it.

And as he stands, and stands still, the water itself becomes still… and the mud slowly sinks

Undisturbed, the unclear water becomes clear and he can see the myriad glory of life on the lake bed.

Wonderful! he thinks.

And now the water is so still, it becomes like a mirror…a mirror in which he sees the reflected glory of the sunset.

Wonderful again! he thinks.

And then - yet more wonderful still - he sees this watery mirror reflecting himself.

‘I see myself!’ he declares.

‘Behold the glory,’ says the wise woman.

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My unhelpful fantasy life

Posted by Simon Parke, 02 February 2018, 1.08pm

Mark Godson and I were with some wonderful head teachers yesterday, able just to be themselves for a day.

As one of them said at the end: ‘It was great not being spoken to as a head teacher – but as a human.That’s rare.’

At one point, Mark was reflecting on the dangers of our fantasy life - our fantasies about people or institutions, which might involve the expectation they’ll look after us in some way.

It reminded me of a woman who had worked both for the church and the NHS.

She’d become furious with them both for ‘not looking after her’... revealing significant abandonment issues from her past.

‘I’m aware now that institutions can’t be substitute parents,’ she says. ‘It’s not what they do. And maybe now they’ve failed, I can learn to exist more happily in myself.’

My fantasy might project hope onto another: this person will save me.

(Though this leaves me as vulnerable to disappointment as a balloon in a pin factory.)

Or my fantasy might project negativity onto another: this institution/person is useless and terrible and despicable.

(Or, ‘it’s not being what I want/need it to be!’)

So really, God help anyone caught up in our fantasies, whether it’s our partner, children, stamp club president or employer.

The moment we label someone, defining a role they must play in our lives, (probably unbeknown to them,) the end is nigh for a healthy relationship.

We can even put time in our fantasies.

If we label the day as bad at 8.00am, it probably will be. It’s now appearing in our negative fantasy, from which there’s no escape.

(We need an attention shift here…give the brain a different focus.)

It’s a good day when we allow people and institutions to step out of our fantasies and free them to be as they are… neither saints to save us nor demons to scream at.

We release them from our fantasies for their sake, certainly, it’s a wretched imprisonment…

but even more, for our sake, and the freedom beyond.

 

 

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My letter to some head teachers

Posted by Simon Parke, 31 January 2018, 10.33am

In anticipation of a day together pondering stress, I wrote this letter to some head teachers who are daring to pause to consider their own well being.

‘Life is difficult.’

These are the opening words of Scott Peck’s classic self-help book, ‘The road less travelled,’ and they are a good place to start.

Life can be very difficult, though also very beautiful.

And the difference between the two depends largely on what we find inside ourselves, because we do create our own reality.

Your genius is unquestioned; you have all sorts of gifts which you bring to your work.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t game-changing truths out there to be discovered to help you live and handle the remarkably challenging and creative role you play as a Head.

So in a safe and non-threatening environment, we will together ponder the science of the brain and from there, look at how we work and the emotional patterns within us - profoundly influential, yet hidden from sight beneath the surface.

We have a tendency to imagine that we are normal, but this is not so. There is no normal.

We are each a freak (love the freak) with very particular patterns shaping our thoughts and our moves. And these are much more happily handled and lived in the light of awareness.

We will listen to stories and look at what we can do as anxiety arises or depression grasps us; some mindfulness practice can help us here.

We will go behind the scenery of this talk about resilience; and consider how we might develop it in ourselves.

The truth is, though we might wish it otherwise, we cannot change anyone but ourselves. But how might this happen?

This day isn’t a tick-box exercise; instead, it’s a day about you and your ‘one precious life’ – because you utterly deserve it.

This day is run by The Mind Clinic, hosted by Mark Godson and Simon Parke

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