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Holiness

Posted by Simon Parke, 18 October 2018, 5.34pm

I’d like to ponder holiness, but start with a question that often confronts me.

We cannot always change our circumstances. So how are we to be free?

Philaret of Moscow might be able to help us.

He lived in the 18th century and said, ‘Our visible but unreal virtues impede us from fighting against our invisible but real sins.’

What is his point?

We all create artificial or unreal personalities for ourselves which we present to the world. These personalities are designed to protect us from our unresolved terrors; and offer an alternative identity to see us through.

The poet Ted Hughes called this our ‘secondary selves’.

It’s a mask which replaces our true selves, and a pretty shabby one – yet we end up believing it entirely, imagining this mask to be our adult selves.

We might laugh at someone who wears a physical mask and believes it to be who they are. We’d think them mad. Yet it is rare to meet someone who does not do the same with their mental perceptions.

It is how we survive…or so we imagine.

(And here lies my interest in the Enneagram, a remarkable friend in this exposing and jewel-laden journey.)

If someone is to help us – and only the sane realise they require help - we need them both to expose the mask; and to see behind it to the figure in us God sees.

There is no magic in this journey to self-realisation; just kind and compassionate dismantlement.

Leonid, an 18th century Russian starets, put it nicely: ‘If you were as simple in heart as the apostles were, you would not hide your human faults, would not appear pious and would live without hypocrisy. This way, which seems so simple and easy, is not given to or understood by many.’

Most casual conversation I hear in the street is concerned with people justifying themselves; explaining their rightness in some dispute or other. ‘So I told him straight etc etc…’

Most do this without thinking; constant self-justification, their imagined selves to the fore.

But all judgement is hypocrisy; and all self-righteousness denial…it is better to stay with our own fractures, and not worry if they are on public display. This is what it is to be free.

And in this manner, the mask begins to dissolve, becoming unnecessary; and something more beautiful and freer begins to appear.

We cannot always change our circumstances. But freedom lies within our grasp, as we ease the redundant mask slowly from our faces.

I suspect this is holiness.

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On being a lake

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 October 2018, 5.40pm

Some of us are easily upset, whether it’s a remark, an unexpected event or even a look.

Our equilibrium is disturbed and our peace destroyed. Like salt in our tea, small events can ruin everything.

Of course, if you put spoonful of salt in a cup of water, it has a horrid power. It may well make you sick.

If you put a spoonful of salt in a jug of water, however, there’s less impact. The salt will be noticed, but not to the same degree, because there’s simply more water to absorb it.

In the jug, the salt will be struggling to gain your attention.

But here’s a thing: if you put a spoonful of salt in a lake, it won’t be noticed at all! Really not. The lake is too large a mass of water for it to have any effect, with the salt being exposed as a spoonful of not very much.

However you look after your wellbeing, when upset arrives, remember the enormous lake; breathe in its depth and capacity, it’s glorious size.

It’s a bigger, truer and happier place than the cup.

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Julian of Norwich reviewed by artist

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 October 2018, 10.08am

The American artist Brett Butler reviews ‘The Secret Testament of Julian’:

‘Several years ago, while watching a short film about Chinese special needs adoption, I was stirred by a quote from St. Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Vagaries notwithstanding, perhaps in my sixth decade, I clamour for simplicity, but this particular quotation moved me to investigate Julian’s life.

One may rightly suspect that personal details about 14th century anchoresses are in short supply, but what is known is compelling on several levels.

First, Julian wrote the first published work by a woman in English.

Secondly, her devotion was such that she actually asked God - prior to the four decades spent walled up in a tiny enclosure - for a near death experience that she might better understand His suffering on the cross.

The resulting work, Revelations of Divine Love is miraculous if only for the fact that it survived during a particularly cruel phase of persecution in the church. Too, the theme of God’s pervasive kindness is taken to extremes - and this reader is ever thankful.

Simon Parke has taken the shell of Julian’s world and filled it with rich imagery, compassion and even - though it hardly seems possible in the closet in which she elected to live - adventure and humour.

Saints are a most difficult subject matter to embrace: The quicksand of hyperbole always lurks, yet Parke describes all that must be abandoned to embrace this most personal of relationships - that between a human and her Creator.

I’m an artist who flies constantly between coasts, and this is how I read The Secret Testament of Julian of Norwich - on Kindle, between airports and fretting about very contemporary problems.

Still, I lingered over every word in this beautifully written book, all too aware that its subject was finally getting the biography she deserves. It’s like getting a love letter seven hundred years late - and right on time.

Postscript: To those who’ll correct me about the actual title of “saint” - Technically, I’m a Protestant and ignorant about the exact steps needed for canonization, but will say that - apart from Jesus Himself, of course - no other life has affected me as much as Julian’s. That may not be grounds for a miracle, but it feels like one from here.’

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As we walk by the light of the moon

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 October 2018, 9.19am

For a while, and with some happiness, we walk by the light of the sun.

The luminosity and dazzle of long summers, playful and bright

All is clear on the horizon of our plans, ‘We love the sun!’ everyone yells.

And we say we love it too and run and strive in its light.

We see everything, know everything, our path broad and wide beneath this lustrous yellow blaze.

No shadows noticed on the way, shadows are for wimps, we’ll get there, we imagine so

Though one day, hot and tired, skin dry, jaded eyes,

And gasping for breath from the journey, oppressed by trickling sweat and somehow sad, somehow cracked

We find a different light, (it happens unbidden) where the obvious is now less so, though simpler, a good deal simpler, and one step at a time.

It proves a more hidden way - ‘More like darkness than hidden!’ the sun people joke.

Though, as our walk reveals, it is sometimes a darkness brighter than the sun

As we walk by the light of the moon today

As we walk by the light of the moon.

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On my death

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 October 2018, 5.09pm

The second half of life includes a conversation with death, which is difficult for me, and tears help.

It is a conversation between my embodied soul, with its sense of entity, and the vastness of the absolute, quite beyond entity.

The two are one, but the two are different, as I know even now - for sometimes, in particular moments, entity gives way to non-entity, personal life gives way to endless life, and this is a cause for both fear and wonder.

I cannot speak lightly of the matter, all eager to be free from this life. The thought of death brings sadness, for it is my particular life I will leave and the next paragraph is difficult to write.

I will leave my family, my history, friends, the sky, fish and chips, this aching with laughter, my chair, my piano, touch, roses in autumn, sex, appreciation, writing, kindness, whisky, hot baths, a robin in the snow, the fire on a cold night, a train leaving on time, carrying me home.

It is not annihilation I fear, but the loss of these things which my soul entity, this clothed and struggling life, loves to high heaven.

So there are tears at such leaving, a contraction of hope… self-pity and a scream.

Though my embodied soul and the absolute are one, there is no distinction; made for each other they could not be less at war…and as the soul shell melts, this surface being gives way to a warm dark flood, a black light of intimacy that is the absolute.

This is a death but not death.

It is a death to love become attachment and delight become entitlement.

It is a death to jaded joy, to a worn out body, to mannered behaviour and a mind made small by labels and structures, when neither truly exist.

A death but no death… for beyond my structured soul, a deep and pervasive melting and mending, my soul now un-bodied, a more original truth, something freed, a shaft of cobalt blue in this vast mystery.

Some Simon beyond Simon, though, in truth, he was always there and with me now.

And yes, I cry at the thought; for I love my constraints, blessed in them and through them.

So there are tears…and a beyond the tears.

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They call it retreat, though most advance

Posted by Simon Parke, 08 October 2018, 5.37pm

To go on retreat, you have to be brave. ..or foolish.

To set aside unstructured time, three or four days of it, without the scaffold of busy-ness to hold everything together – it isn’t normal and possibly quite dangerous.

And surrounded by people you don’t know! Can it get any worse?

And they all look either dull or mad, this is the thought on the first evening….though in my experience, it takes less than twenty four hours for judgements to melt and community to form.

But on the opening evening of my recent Beautiful Life retreat at Llangasty, you can be sure there are at least four people in the circle thinking, ‘Why the hell did I come? This is the last place I want to be.’

So everyone has their escape plans: ‘I don’t usually last more than a couple of days on retreat,’ someone jokes on the first evening. They need to put down that marker to feel safe, and fair enough.

Sometimes some deep and unknown lower case wisdom takes us to a place; and then on arrival, our upper case terror drowns it out and it seems just the worst idea.

Such bravery not to run out of the door there and then!...especially if the retreat leader is not soothing my carefully-maintained self-image.

‘Soothe my self-image - or else!’

I mean, sometimes our self-image is all we seem to have, there’s not much else going right in our lives; and so to have it questioned or undermined – it’s not the best feeling.

Though beyond my tired self-image, polished with increasing difficulty, is a joy and energy I’ve lost; and many discover this on retreat, and with some liberation… while others close up.

Yes, the terror wins sometimes; you watch the drawbridge of the soul raised in some as one day becomes another.

‘Nothing fresh allowed through!’ say the old psyche guards.

Another time, perhaps, it’s not everyone’s moment; and there’s a season for everything…

But meal times buzz, with our view across the lake; and the silence is deep in the meditations; the walks, wonderful; and the honesty in the sessions compelling.

And no one mentions Brexit, because sometimes the news behind the news is more important.

In a climate of safety and acceptance, we dare to contemplate the truth of ourselves, the mess and the magic, the place to which our journey has brought us.

And with the mist on the mountains of Brecon, we ponder trust; the two halves of life; the forgotten inner child; the mindful life; the victim, the activist and the contemplative; and what it is to be conscious…

...and other stuff and other stories. Though we mainly contemplate our own story, with compassion.

(We do need to ponder our story with compassion. Or we don’t hear it at all or hear it askew.)

And on a couple of evenings we sit with Julian of Norwich – our guest retreatant. ‘His meaning is love’, she says from her cell, which is good to hear when my self-image is in shreds. 

Oh, and after some homegrown entertainment, we talk and drink round the bonfire on our final evening together, (and some dance, dancing is optional, not exactly Strictly) unable to remember when we hadn’t known each other.

You do travel a journey on retreat, alone and in community - and both are important.

We don’t depend on people, that’s never wise; but they can be such grace on occasion.

And the one who said they probably wouldn’t last more than two days, on the fourth day kindly says, ‘I’ll be recommending this, you know.’

They’re called retreats, though most advance.

Thank you, Llangasty.

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Kidnapped by worry

Posted by Simon Parke, 08 October 2018, 6.51am

Sometimes I declare myself worried.

‘I am so worried!’ I say and quite believe this to be so. ‘And haven’t I every reason to be worried? Look at these circumstances!’

Worry seems somehow inevitable…even morally correct.

So like a dark cloud passing across the sun, a worry clouds my psyche, and I begin to hallucinate, imagining the worry is me.

Yes, I somehow seem defined by it; it has taken over. I move from noticing a concern passing through me to the sense that this is who I am: I am this worry!

By now, I’m well and truly kidnapped by this emotion.

Though I am not this worry. Like most distressing emotions, it is a distant memory acting up, a childish panic resurrected – latching on uselessly and damagingly to present circumstance.

Cracked bells are jangled, old ghosts stirred; but they don’t come to help.

The deeper truth is that I am peace; that is who I am.

Perhaps I can arrive there today for a moment, just for a moment, letting the worry go, releasing it into the big sky. I let it pass through me like a charmless visitor greeted - but now asked to leave.

And so I touch reality.

Peace…our truer identity.

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'Another Bloody Retreat' reviewed

Posted by Simon Parke, 28 September 2018, 5.42pm

Reviewing ‘Another Bloody Retreat’ in the Church Times, Fiona Hook writes:

‘Fans of Abbot Peter who pick up this book expecting another crime in run-down seaside Stormhaven are in for a delightful surprise with this backward glance at the years the abbot spent in the desert, heading the down-at-heel monastery of St James-the-Less in the shadow of Mt Sinai.

From the deliciously comic opening pages, where the Abbot, at his Writer’s Group, is advised to change the setting of his memoirs from the desert to a counselling centre in a city – ‘because that’s where people’s lives are’ – it is an entertaining and absorbing treat.

Parke, making a change from his normal third, to first-person narrative, has found a wonderful voice for his protagonist: erudite, sardonic, witty and full of self-knowledge. 

Sent to close down the ancient monastery, Peter manages instead to prevaricate for decades, building a community peopled by those with nowhere else to take their creaking lives.

There’s New York designer Tear-Sing, raised in a Chinese orphanage, and the irritating Dalip, who runs from his own problems by imposing his help on others, whether they want it or not.

Peter also has to deal with visitors to the monastery, like the wonderfully-drawn Carol, who hopes soon to be a bishop. Superficially, so clever and assured… and underneath, leading a life of quiet desperation.

The sparring provoked by their obvious but unexpressed attraction provides some of the book’s best lines.

But this is more than a lovely piece of satire with some great jokes.  When the monastery is invaded by the psychopathic Skarit, the calm of daily routine is overthrown, and people react to violence and terror in a way no one could have expected.

There are moments of genuine pain and horror and Parke makes you wonder what you would have done in the circumstances.

An absolute triumph.’

‘Another Bloody Retreat’ is published by White Crow Books and available from all half-decent outlets.

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The two halves of life

Posted by Simon Parke, 26 September 2018, 4.52pm

Evidence suggests that if we wish to flourish in the second half of life, we’ll need to adjust.

As Carl Jung wrote, ‘What is a normal goal in a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.’

It was Jung who popularised the phrase ‘the two halves of life’. His clients were approaching life with the same mindset they’d grown up with and it wasn’t working.

As he said, ‘One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning. For what was good in the morning will be of little importance in the evening and what in the morning was true will by evening have become a lie.’

The first half of life is crucial for our development, providing us with an identity to take out into the world. These early years are about success, security and the affirmation of our peers.

In this first period, we build a strong sense of self through achievement and the applause of others. Perhaps we find fulfilment at work, or in bringing up a family, or in sport, church or amateur dramatics.

It is important we find an identity to give us a sense of purpose; to feel we have a role; that we matter on earth.

The second half of life is different and might arise through crisis of some sort – whether inner or outer. Something happens to make us look at life differently. Or it may arise simply through a desire for psychological and spiritual growth.

It’s the moment when we stop asking our personality for solutions, and allow ourselves to live the mystery.

In the second half of life, we cease to be defined by our achievements or the opinion of others or the labels we (or others) have stuck on us.

Previously, our ego was made to feel safe around a role we played or a perception we had of ourselves or a perception others had of us.

What was it for you? Mother? Father? Carer? Office joker? Shoulder to cry on? Provider? Everyone’s helper? Sports champion? Author? Feminist champion? Wise man? Strong person? Dutiful daughter? Decent bloke? The creative sort? Hard-headed business woman? Social activist? Mr Bloody Grumpy? Sizzling socialite?

Labels give us identity in the first half of life, which is important. But in the second half of life, we discard these clothes of self-definition, like we might discard old prison clothes.

We no longer have need.

But such radical shedding of attitudes, such letting go, does not suddenly make us useless. Indeed, in the second half of life we may become more useful rather than less.

Differently useful.

And the difference is this: our sense of self is not now tied to these things.

Instead of saying, ‘I am my achievements’ or ‘I am what people think of me’ or ‘I am my role’, we can simply say, ‘I am.’

The human ego does not warm to this change, so many do not make it to the second half of life. It’s not inevitable, and age in itself does not bring it. You can be a ninety-year-old narcissist; live to a hundred and still be a determined first-half-of-lifer.

The process can start from about the age of thirty onwards, though this is unusual. It starts when it needs to, when we’re ready, when we want it.

It is a challenge, of course, and not suddenly arrived at; we can drift between the two for quite a while.

It can feel like we’re standing over an abyss at first.

If I imagine I am my achievements, that they define who I am, then to let go of them is like letting go of myself.

Or if I imagine I am what others think of me – in other words, if they hold the key to my self-worth, then without their praise, I might cease to exist, surely?

These are real fears and pose the age-old question: who am I?

But we’re kinder, happier and freer people when we come out from behind our labels and discover they are armour we no longer need.

We will sometimes forget this, and regress a little. But this is OK, it’s a normal emotional half-holiday…

...we’ll notice and return to health in due course.

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When hope got me into trouble

Posted by Simon Parke, 25 September 2018, 5.28pm

I was conscious recently that hope had got me into a little trouble.

And I think this is what happened.

(Just in case hope has ever got you into trouble. You know, when you say, ‘That’s the trouble with hope – it’s the feeling of being let down! Better to give up hope completely!’)

Hope is a good thing…I believe so. The idea that however bad things might seem, they can get better.

Sometimes it’s important to know that; that this present state is not the end of the story.

‘This too shall pass’.

St Paul liked the idea so much he placed it in his famous trinity, alongside faith and love.

‘Now faith, hope and love abide; these three.’

High praise.

So if hope’s so good, why did it get me into trouble?

This is what I’m pondering now, for my own sanity; because I did feel hurt. And all I did was hope, surely?

But maybe there was more to it than that.

Hope is an invigorating emotion, characterised by energy and openness.

These are the calling cards of hope: energy and openness.

So while it is strong, it isn’t specific; hope is open to things being better without prescribing exactly how that will be.

But here’s the rub: my egoic structures can’t really handle that.

They can’t handle that openness, that non-specificity about the future.

So in the hands of my ego, a tragic alchemy occurs; my hope transmutes into something different: it becomes desire.

This occurs without my noticing; but I now have a very different companion within.

Desire is different from hope, a more focused thing, more specific.

It takes the energy, openness and unknowing of hope and turns it into something more manageable, more sensible, more goal-centred.

‘This is what I want to happen,’ is the approach of desire. ‘And anything other than this is not acceptable!’

Strong inner leadership at last!

But all of a sudden, I am very vulnerable.

Oh dear me, yes.

Because when what I want to happen doesn’t happen, I am angry, despairing, frustrated, self-pitying.

This is how I know hope has become desire, for these are its calling cards: anger, despair, frustration, self-pity. And probably cynicism.

The flame of hope burns regardless of outward circumstances; but desire relies on them completely.

Hope does not have particular outcomes in mind; desire is dependent on outcomes.

And if they are not as they should be, then quiet hell breaks loose inside us.

‘Why me!? Bastards! What now?!’

So to return to where I started: I recently got into trouble because of hope; and it happened because hope transmuted into desire…

...and made a fool of me.

It happened without my noticing; but the two are noticeably different.

And now, as I slowly ease the vicious voice of desire from my being, (as one might invite an intruder to leave) I seek instead the deep silence of hope.

There is no silence in desire; but there is in hope.

This dark emptiness contains nothing I can name; and everything I need to proceed.

Can I get there?

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