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The wounded healer

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 August 2018, 11.32am

Life breaks us all.

But there are some who so enter their own suffering that - somehow - they become a help to others in theirs.

This is not their intention or their desire; they would prefer anything to this pain.

Yet these people, so weak, in some strange transaction make others strong.

Suffering touches every life. But some so walk it, in both vulnerability and courage, that they clear for others a path.

Broken by circumstance, they mend the circumstance of others.

I think Victor Frankl would be on many peoples’ list of wounded healers; a man who staggered out of a concentration camp, where he’d offered meaning to fellow prisoners, yet was still seeking it for himself.

There are other such folk, you’ll have met them, mostly unsung, local icons only.

I’d have Julian of Norwich on my list, though, because although she’s famous for her optimism, it was born in incredible darkness.

The visions which gave birth to her hope were received when she’d lost all sense in her body, both upper and lower; and had been given the last rights by her priest.

Her mother had declared her dead and Julian assumed herself to be so; indeed she wished it to be so, such had been the pain of her illness – ‘an illness unto death’.

Later – much later - she tells us that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’... and we nod appreciatively.

But while the healer draws the applause; it is the wounds, entered and lived, which create the climate for light.

The wounded healer…through the cracks in their being, light somehow shines out.

‘The Secret Testament of Julian’, my latest novel (published by White Crow), is an imagined life of Julian of Norwich, a story of wound and healing.

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Brexit: a letter to myself

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 August 2018, 5.33pm

I write this letter to myself.

You’re welcome to read it, of course; though whether it will make any sense, I don’t know.

It’s just that I’ve noticed I’m struggling to look at the news at present, which is sad; and this is largely due to the Brexit narrative.

No asylum built has ever contained such insanity; and I’m struggling to find a personal path through it all.

I see a thousand joyful ways for the UK to relate to Europe; just as there are a thousand such ways to relate to my wife.

And the original Brexit vote was an exercise in stupidity for this reason - because it reduced a thousand ways to two.

WTF?

The EU referendum made relationship a binary affair, when nothing of worth on earth is binary…apart from the number system.

Binary is simple; but in relationship to reality, it’s a jackass, crude and clumsy. It brutalises discourse.

It is either/or, this or that, in or out, sheep or goats. It’s keen on clear divides, high walls, with a penchant for hysteria and jack boots.

It’s essential crime against humanity is to encourage separation… when, as Rumi reminds us, ‘pilgrimage to the place of the wise is to escape the flame of separation.’

In Stupidland, a thousand ways to relate becomes two, with subtlety and nuance sacrificed in the lead-gloved fight.

And so I join the poet Matthew Arnold,  ‘here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,  Where ignorant armies clash by night.’

I live in a swirling cloud of unknowing, and with the fear that cloud brings – fear for myself and others.

And in the middle of battle, amid the confused alarms, no one knows the outcome or what the day will bring…no one; just as in the concentration camps, no one knew if they would live beyond tomorrow.

Yes, the camps spring to mind – forgive me, but they hold so much truth - because, as Victor Frankl reminds me, I don’t need to become desensitised to survive; in fact, almost the opposite.

And here I pause and I breathe.

In ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ Frankl observes that the more sensitive camp inmates may have suffered more physical pain, their constitutions sometimes weaker, ‘but the damage to their inner lives was less.

They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up, often seemed to survive camp life better than those of a more robust nature.’

So, maybe I am allowed not to be stupid as the Brexit farce reaches its denouement; I can light a candle for nuance, even if the brawl obscures it.

And I am allowed to look after myself and my inner riches, amid the struggle and flight.

I can entertain my views and act on them if I wish.

And I can ponder daily, in every aspect of my life, the meaning of Rumi’s pilgrimage to the place of the wise, which is ‘to escape the flame of separation.’

In myself, I can be the country I wish to be…and let the news unfold.

 

 

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Does your job fit?

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 August 2018, 5.58am

Understanding who you are and what you have to offer is an important aspect of growing up.

Some of us come to this awareness late, if we have no one help us.

Only trial and error brings this understanding, as we reflect on our experiences, good and difficult.

We can then begin to see patterns in our behaviour.

The thing is, (and employers sometimes forget this) you can’t be what you’re not; and it is exhausting and confusing trying to be.

Trying to fit into a template made for imaginary others is not a happy or creative place. To thrive, we need to be allowed to play to our strengths.

The person who you are offers particular qualities to any organisation or enterprise; and it’s good to know these and ‘sell’ them to your employer.

It’s even more important, however, that you know what you bring…especially in the teeth of rejection.

So while you need to be self-aware enough to know what you cannot be or do, celebrate also what you can do… because what you can do, is brilliant.

This is not an invitation to hunker down moodily and declare to one and all: ‘Take me or leave me – I won’t change!’

We’ll not give up on growing and developing as people: we can all be better versions of ourselves.

But we can’t be a different version of our self, and there will be an inner clash of gears if we try. This can lead to depression and loss of energy…it’s exhausting trying to be someone else.

There are many ways to wear a job; it is not a single fit. If possible, wear yours in a manner that fits you, and enables you to move freely.

Everybody wins.

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The Space Man

Posted by Simon Parke, 06 August 2018, 1.14pm

When the space man arrives in the busy city, there are problems.

He is a strong man, and needs to be, as he carries this wonderful space from town to town across the land.

He likes to offer it to the busiest places, knowing if they lack space, they will also lack tenderness.

But the space man is having trouble today because the mayor says the space is too large to get into the city.

‘It just won’t fit,’ says the mayor, scratching his head. ‘The streets are too narrow and there are too many cars and people going about their business. I can hardly stop
all this activity for a bit of space! How about making it smaller?’

‘You can’t make space smaller,’ says the space man. ‘It’s eternal.’

‘But we’ve got things to do and lives to lead!’ replies the mayor.

‘Without space, there’s no tenderness; and without tenderness, there’s no life,’ says the space man, who can only just be heard amid the din and the rush.

‘Next year, perhaps,’ says the mayor. ‘This year’s a write-off, too much going on - but we’ll try and have some space next year.’ 

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The Secret Testament of Julian

Posted by Simon Parke, 01 August 2018, 2.07pm

The Secret Testament of Julian, my new novel, is now available.

It’s historical fiction… and both those words are important, because there’s a lot of both within.

I imagine the life of Julian of Norwich, who you may be familiar with – the first woman to write a book in English, a stirring story in itself in our #metoo climate.

She also wrote those famously hopeful lines, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’

Julian lived in the 14th century, in the cosmopolitan city of Norwich – a trading centre with Europe and the 2nd largest city in England.

She shared the planet with Chaucer and Langland. But unlike them, she lived inside a cell for forty years, as an anchoress.

There are very few solid facts about her life; though we know some. And I always felt she gave away much about herself in her remarkable book, The Revelations of Divine Love.

The Secret Testament of Julian is written in the first person, as autobiography. And its 14th century setting means it cannot always be pretty. It was the roughest and most heartless of times.

But then none of our lives can always be pretty due to the circumstances we find ourselves in; and the circumstances we find in ourselves.

It was the same for Julian; and in my novel, her path is some way from a serene walk. The skies are sometimes dark and troublesome.

My excellent editor, Karl French, had never heard of her, which was a bonus for me. He brought fresh eyes to the narrative.

But having been ignored for six centuries, Julian is suddenly famous, finding a large following in the 20th and 21st centuries.

There are meditation books which use her writings; and there are Julian groups all over the world, gathering around her distinctive fire.

And such interest and appreciation is utterly deserved; she wrote remarkable things, which (and this I am in awe of) were quite out of tune with the prevailing theologies of her day, which built mainly on guilt and fear.

I’m not sure anyone has equalled her since in the grace implicit in her writing.

And I am familiar with her writing. Indeed, a few years ago I produced my own edition of her work, Revelations of Divine Love, published by White Crow.

But I wished to know her better, understand her better; and so, drawing on the self-revelation in her writing, I have imagined a life for her in a stark 14th century setting in which she knew love, fear, joy and terror.

Why as a child did she pray for a near-death experience? Why did she hide herself away in a cell?

And where – amid the ruin of plague, famine, misogamy, religious bigotry and political oppression - did she find such hope?

It’s called historical fiction because there’s much of both.

But beyond these categories, my hope for the book is the ring of truth; for that has been my experience of sitting with Julian.

I wish it for you as well.

The Secret Testament of Julian is published by White Crow and available from all the usual suspects.

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The victim, the activist and the contemplative!

Posted by Simon Parke, 31 July 2018, 5.38pm

Have you heard the one about the Victim, the Activist and the Contemplative? Yes, it could be the opening line of a joke.

And you will know these characters by their behaviour.

Victim – things are done to me.

Activist – I change things.

Contemplative – I behold things.

I don’t know how you feel about these characters.

Though the victim is probably not getting too much applause. ‘Take some responsibility for fuck’s sake!’ we say.

Though there are victims. My God, there are victims…

And at least the victim is aware of their feelings. They may, due to circumstance, be locked into a negative and avoidant interpretation of reality.

But at least they are feeling something, and naming it.

Whereas in an activist society, the activist is usually applauded: ‘They get things done! We need more of them!’

Though sometimes they’re so busy doing things, so busy striving for shift and change around them, (much easier than changing themselves) they’re slightly out of touch with their own feelings – apart from some messy mix of impatience, frustration and self-punishment.

And the contemplative can sound like a guru, super-spiritual and super-wise; though they may be a fraud – pretending calm on the surface, ‘I don’t do anger’.

When in truth they’re just control freaks, controlling circumstance, keeping difficult things buried and disengaged, while busying themselves with ‘very mindful meditation’.

I’m interested in all three of these characters because they all reside in me, where they remain in constant (and sometimes awkward) conversation.

I sense they can all learn from each other.

The victim reminds the other two to name what they feel. Accuracy about our emotional state is paramount to our health…and rare. I think of Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus.

The activist (not unknown in charities, though there are other versions) reminds the other two that there is much that needs changing, that things can be better, the prophetic cry, like Jesus raging at the money lenders in the temple

The world doesn’t need the activist’s shame, often a hidden feature in their lives. But it does need their clean anger to name and call out injustice.

The contemplative, when well, reminds the other two that all things pass; and encourages them to behold reality without judgement… starting with themselves. I think of Jesus on the cross, ‘Forgive them father – they know not what they do.’

The contemplative begins to teach the other two the freedom of delight and self-kindness.

The victim, the activist and contemplative…it sounds like the beginning of a joke.

And if they are talking inside us, learning from each other…

...then truly, it is a divine comedy.
 

 

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The Great British Funeral?

Posted by Simon Parke, 25 July 2018, 11.14am

Sky News presenter Colin Brazier has asked people not to wear bright colours at his wife’s funeral. He has told mourners to ‘leave their Hawaiian shirts at home’ and wear black.

What’s interesting is that he feels he needs to say this.

But then he’s ‘ill at ease’ with some of the modern conventions surrounding funerals.

He does not plan to deliver a gushing eulogy at his wife’s funeral and has ‘politely asked’ friends and former colleagues to wear ‘black please, if you don’t mind’.

‘It’s unfair on children,’ he says ‘to insist that a funeral should mean rejoicing in a life now passed. Maybe grown-ups can handle the cognitive dissonance required in ‘celebrating’ a life rather than, you know, being all morbid. But I seriously doubt children can.’

He says there is ‘nothing funky about turning death into a fashion parade and a free-for-all of self-realisation’, adding it can ‘inhibit the necessary catharsis of the grieving process’.

‘The old stuff - the black and the solemn - works because it distils the wisdom of ages,’ says Mr Brazier, who is a practising Catholic.

But he’s probably swimming against the emotional tide, for the Great British Funeral has been transformed over the last twenty or so years. Increasingly, the ceremony is a ‘celebration of life’ rather than an act of mourning.

Yes, death is changing its clothes before our eyes. Now it’s a time to be joyful.

Instead of pondering the sadness in our hearts and looking ahead to the afterlife, British funerals increasingly look back. They look back at the deceased’s life and celebrate the triumphs, idiosyncrasies…and their favourite songs.

The tone is happy rather than mournful, celebratory instead of sombre.

‘Everyone wear pink!’ as I’ve been instructed to do on more than one occasion.

In this new world of loss, wearing black is often discouraged and you’re more likely to hear Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side of Life than Verdi’s Requiem.

A survey of 2,000 people by ICM suggests that 54% wanted their funeral to be approached in this way.

And according to the not-to-be-missed Co-operative Funeral Care music charts, Always look on the bright side of life is presently the most popular song.

(When I was taking funerals, we’d have to sit through I did it my way more often than not. It was everyone’s choice…the irony was not lost on me.)

Meanwhile, back with the music charts, Queen is the most popular group with nine tracks requested, including Who Wants to Live Forever and Don’t Stop Me Now

Though the theme tunes to Coronation Street, Downton Abbey and Strictly Come Dancing also feature

While JCBs, camper vans, pickup trucks, skip lorries and double-decker buses are among the vehicles that have headed funeral processions

You may not be surprised to hear that I am uncomfortable when people tell me what to feel; when people plan their own funeral with ‘upbeat, self-knitted ceremonies’, and insist on a particular response.

‘I want no one in black, no one being sad - and I want you all to have a bloody good time! Go and get pissed!’

I’d prefer to be allowed to feel what I feel. This may mean I don’t wear pink. This may mean I cry. This may mean that I rage at the person who has died, for the things they did. Someone else’s predilections and instructions don’t help.

I also think that the creation of the funeral is a helpful and healing act for those left behind.

When I die, I’d like those left behind to plan the funeral, as they’ll know what’s necessary now I’m gone. I’m happy to pay for it…but I think they’ll create a better service than my ego.

The shift in tone is perhaps not surprising. We are a secular society and most don’t believe in eternal life, so looking back at the life is really the only way to go.

And people are paying undertakers for a service, and increasingly, they want the service personalised – whether it’s an Everton scarf on the coffin or a camper van for a hearse.

Van Gogh had a quantity of yellow roses on the white sheet that lay beneath his coffin.

They were chosen for him. ‘It was his favourite colour, if you remember,’ writes Emile Bernard. ‘The symbol of light he dreamed in our hearts, as in his works.’

Simple but effective.

Princess Diana’s funeral, with its Elton John soundtrack and public displays of grief, is often cited as a watershed moment, in which the British lost their stiff upper lip when it came to public mourning.

This could be true. But extravagant burials were a status symbol in Victorian times, it’s nothing new.

‘I believe my marble angel is bigger than yours.’

There’s just more money around now for people to play out their fantasies.

The journalist Hunter J Thompson had his ashes sent skywards in a rocket. He asked his friends to remember him with the clink of the ice in the whisky.

While Jesus asked to be remembered in the breaking of the bread.

What is important in any funeral is that we’re allowed to feel what we feel, and remember as we need to – whether fondly or in anger, sadness or both.

And we’ll find the symbols that matter to us, symbols personal to us, whether instructed to or not.

It may be that having ‘a bloody good laugh’ at the funeral, covered in pink, is just the best thing for you; or it may be that it isn’t.

Bereavement is a fresh and uncharted path, and a personal one, which we’ll walk with honesty, self-kindness – and whatever musical choice seems good at the time.

 

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Why go on retreat?

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 July 2018, 12.11pm

To go on retreat is a brave lunacy but also a rewarding one.

There’s much against going on retreat, of course.

It is difficult to remove ourselves from our ever-pressing present.

‘There’s so much to be done and so many people relying on me!’

How will they cope if I go?

And how will I cope if I go?

‘If I go on retreat the sky will fall in and the world will implode.’

These may not be our exact words but they sum up some of our background thoughts.

So we say, ‘It’s not quite the right time. And may never be.’

Though the brave do go and the sky doesn’t fall in and the world somehow proceeds without us. 

And the reward for this bravery?

I think we go on retreat to remind ourselves who we are, because many of us lose a sense of this, brutalised by circumstance.

Some have never had an accurate sense of this.

They always thought they were a jungle… but now discover they’re a clearing.

And so there is also discovery on retreat, a glimpse at least, of who we might be, something truer than the self we presently live.

These things are sometimes lost in the rush of life, where the deep truths breathe less easily.

Experiencing retreats has been important to me. They have, without question, been the single most significant influence in my psychological and spiritual growth.

They create the space for moments – and it’s moments which shape and change our lives.

When I offer retreats now, I offer only what I benefit from – safe space to experience what I am now ready to know, what is ready to be revealed to me, that which is pushing up from within.

It’s like unblocking a fountain.

These things don’t arise so easily in the rush, where we must edit, ignore and repress to keep our shaky show on the road.

Sometimes we need to withdraw.

It generally takes about twenty four hours for people to let go, to leave the world behind, to breathe a different air and relax into discovery.

Some people say it’s not real life, but I’d say it’s the most real life of all.

We return from retreat with a much profounder sense of reality to offer the world we left behind.

So the world benefits as well.

As I say, to go on retreat is a brave lunacy which, like all bravery, is rewarded.

I’m offering a number of retreats over the coming fifteen months, and they’re all there on my site, under ‘retreats’.

There are plenty of other wonderful offerings, however, so many different sorts, which might suit you better.

But whether it’s this year, next year, five year’s time or ten…

...it’s worth noting a retreat as one of your possible futures.

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Warmth in the cold sea

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 July 2018, 7.07am

When swimming in a cold sea, it is most wonderful suddenly to feel a warm current enveloping your body.

Perhaps you haven’t realised how chill you are until this gentle heat touches you.

You are not sure where it is coming from, and suddenly it is gone, lost as quickly as it was found.

It disappears into the depths and only the cold is real again. It is colder still for your recent experience of warmth.

You wonder where it goes.

Then your foot again finds the warm, elusive but there, felt and experienced. One leg and then the other is touched.

And slowly you begin to understand the nature of the warmth in the cold sea. Sensing its origin and flow, you find you are able to hold yourself for longer in its kind grasp.

Though sometimes it is lost.

Our true self, our substantial self is the warm current in the cold sea.

We are happy indeed if we learn to hold ourselves there.

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Rest

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 July 2018, 6.41am

She has just left her job and waits to start another in a few weeks.

These in-between days have been important space. She feels battered and bruised by her employment over the past three years.

It’s left her hardened and brutalised, with life more about survival than anything else.

Her spirit is crushed and she uses the word ‘depression’.

This is not who she wants to be; but she can’t suddenly dismantle the walls of self-protection that she’s erected across the years.

And so these few weeks of rest feel important.

I ask her where God is in all of this.

She says ‘God is in the rest.’

So our meditation today is towards rest; for whatever we do, we are the better for not doing it sometimes.

Everything is better for not being done for a while.

Whether it’s a minute, a week or a month… sometimes God is in the rest.

 

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