Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in original creative, scholarly and journalistic publications and events. Our work has strong themes of well-being, sustainability, cultural enrichment and community building.


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Poems by Jenny Johnson

Jenny’s poems capture some of the poignant moments we experience in nature, moments which, on the one hand, are reminders of our alienation from the natural environment (and from one another) and of the inner unease and loneliness this causes, but equally, moments in which we humans uniquely create meaning from nature’s dynamic but unconscious processes.

We are moved to reflect on both the blessing and curse of human self-consciousness.

Jenny’s poems reflect her view that “everything is permeated by spiritual energy, even so-called inanimate objects.” It is a perception many have shared before. Perhaps when people talk of a universal “spiritual energy”, they are getting at the potentiality in all of nature, right down to the atomic and subatomic levels, for human generated meaning.

I hope this collection resonates with your experience as much as it did with mine.

Anastasia Somerville-Wong, The Editor


 

SHANKLIN RAIN

All this July day, soft rain has soaked

my orange American cotton:

I have walked through a chine

that is like a subtropical biome.

Under the platform’s roof,

the station clock makes dripping sounds.

A small woman talks to herself on a painted bench

to assuage the loneliness –

her voice, like that of a radio broadcaster,

switched on and off … and on …

Behind us, a waiting room is locked.

Outside, mist nets the east cliff;

while diesel and steam, with their different

rhythms and gauges,

take visitors, commuters, backwards and forwards

like a pendulum, a tide.

 

ON THE OTHER SIDE

On the other side of the track,

you pass through a second kissing gate.

Canopied by a beech, you negotiate the rising of steps –

the unevenness of five.

A six o’clock breeze punctuates your heat:

the moon turns half diaphanous.

On the other side,

old wildness comes in purples and golds; soft whites.

The crickets are in their grasses:

 branches embrace, safe within their archways.

A white bird glides over the water, moving west:

a black crab hastens towards an estuarial stone.

In your own good time, you will accompany this river, Isca,

as it falls into the sea.

“Not now,” you say aloud.

Later on, turning round in a homeward field – turning west –

 you notice those roses, those vermilion heads above the hedgerow.

From the other side of the railway track, they are calling you back….

You are warned.

“Not now,” you repeat.  “Not now.”

 

CAMARADERIE IN THE MARGINS

I rest in my sleevelessness,

watching the sea mist silver the sun:

two canoeists make for what is left of its reflection.

Young men sit in their fearlessness,

bragging about exam grades –

till one of them, desperate for balance,

indicates an insect on his skateboard.

“Come and see the ladybug,” he pleads….

Camaraderie in the margins:

I have noticed it before,

on the borders of lochs and forests –

 

even in dystopian twitchels and ginnels.

 

THE HOST OF THE HOLLY

To a host of sparrows, home is the holly bush….

By the end of December, between storms,

the twilight sound of it tastes like raisins, orange rind.

The following morning, each bird

claims its place on the neighbouring rooftop –

sensing the river, the Exe, which has risen with the downpour.

The plumpness that comes is an East Devon herring gull:

the purpose is to bully,

to usurp the community perch.

But the host is used to this:

its rapid wings carry it to and fro between ridge and ridge –

till the game becomes dull.

Whenever a bird flies solo from its line –

perhaps to alight on the cowl or the aerial –

familiar sidesteps close the gap.

In spite of the heft of her tartan trolley, her birdcage umbrella,

the woman treads quietly on the twilight pavement:

she approaches the feathery belly of the holly – its prickly guards.

An only child, she is drawn towards extended families:

she choreographs for community dancers:

her poems are appreciated most when read aloud.

(First published in Poetry Salzburg Review)

 

TEMPEST

This titan of a gale

makes pendulums out of shop signs.

The road’s bollards are disabled.

Lifted over the licked stone

by promenade gusts,

 flotsam is a kiosk – candyfloss, lollipops!

Beneath where it used to stand,

 a bomb, unexploded for seventy years,

silences at once those tidal spectators.

Electric flexes go wild in the heightened water:

sparks are launched into quarrelsome sky.

In response to this crescendo of extremes,

the town is alight with euphoria, with terror –

not knowing one from the other.

As the sea lays claim to the plains it once covered,

the people become eccentric; chaotic:

are seduced by the drama of it all.

After the panic, there follows the need

to control, to capture –

if only in pictures on the screens of their phones.

(First published in Poetry Salzburg Review)

 

CROUCH

Just before the black van parks in the square,

panic begins with herring gulls piercing the sky:

most of them no longer keep their nests

close to the sea.

The Harris Hawk comes complete with his falconer’s glove,

 with jesses attached to his brilliant feet:

the man has a dream about freedom from scavengers.

In intelligent bursts, the bird flies hither and thither

at the word of his master, the command to scare:

herring gulls, pigeons, are not to be devoured….

Prized for his performance, he dines on steaks.

 “Crouch,” cries the falconer.  “Crouch….”

All of his hawks have footballers’ names.

Children are amused: they are queuing like fans:

they long to touch feathers, the leather of the glove.

From time to time, this particular raptor delays his return:

he alights on an outdoor table, waiting to be photographed,

or makes for the indoor market, the souvenir stand.

Banished from the square,

from its human detritus,

the herring gulls move to the cliffs.

 

NOT KNOWING

“Life is no longer a feast of

distractions from death:

all I can sense are those

twin grizzly roads: at no point do they meet.

You are here, my friend, not only for tea and raspberries

 but also to make enquiries, to listen.”

 “Tell me what grows within your gray,” you say.

“A pink rose.” I surprise myself.

 “But I still don’t wish to live,“ I remind you.

“I don’t wish to live like this,” you respond.

It’s the not knowing I can’t cope with….

 “When I have done with both bone and brain,” I continue,

“will consciousness remain…?

What if it won’t? What will have been its point?”

“Does there have to be a point?”you challenge.

“This vision of parallel roads,“ I persist –

“roads without even one byway between them –

is anathema to me.

 Death has become a distraction from living –

from interconnection.”

“Though not for the rose,” you observe.

 

CHIAROSCURO

The moment July is in the ascendant,

an assortment of sky-lit tenants

needs to be hypnotised by the heat.

In the iced blues of January,

south-facing windows permit slanting sun

to investigate much closer to the ground….

 It alights on every cheekbone and pin.

Walking south-east along a three o’clock street,

those who once longed for the prime red-yellows of July

are quite astounded at themselves – at how soundly they are absorbed

 into that shadow play, that chiaroscuro.

 

Copyright © JENNY JOHNSON  April, 2019


Devon based poet, Jenny Johnson, was born in Bristol in 1945 and educated at The Red Maids’ School (now Redmaids’ High School) – the oldest girls’ school in England.  She has written poetry since the age of five and has also created eighty dances for circle dance groups: see www.jennyjohnsondancerpoet.net for a sample of her poetry and a list of dances and musical sources.

All the above poems are on a waiting list for publication in the magazine Sarasvati. Jenny’s work has been published or accepted for publication in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Salzburg Review, Orbis and Stand. A large collection of her poetry – “The Wisdom Tree” – was brought out by Salzburg University for use by students in the Department of English and American Studies. Jenny is currently writing a series of poems based on her own dreams.

“I believe that the media concentrates far too much on the negative: the latter needs to be acknowledged, but it also requires the positive in order to provide a balance.  From the friction between these polarities, creativity flourishes.” (Jenny Johnson)

JENNY JOHNSON (portrait by NAA AHINEE MENSAH)

Jenny Johnson


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An Interview with Elizabeth White

While the focus of the SLN&F is on secular liturgies and liturgical events, as opposed to religious ones, we nonetheless take inspiration from the insights and reflective practices of many of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions, especially from the more progressive and inclusive streams and schools of thought.

With this in mind, I approached Elizabeth White, a Spiritual Director in the Ignatian tradition and Pastoral Supervisor, to learn about her approach to spirituality, reflective practice and pastoral care. I hope you will appreciate, as much as I did, her thoughtful responses to the questions I sent her.

A small group of us within the SLN recently adapted a Buddhist text on compassionate speech to make it a Secular Buddhist text, and then we applied a modified version of Lectio Divina (a Benedictine practice of scriptural reading) to study it, meditate upon it and engage creatively with elements of it. Similarly, many of the pastoral concepts and reflective techniques Elizabeth uses, such as the imaginative approach to a text inspired by Ignatious of Loyola, are inclusive, or can be adapted for use in a secular context.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong (Interviewer and Editor of Secular Liturgies)

 


Elizabeth White is a spiritual director, trainer and senior accredited pastoral supervisor. She previously coordinated the adult learning programme for the Diocese of Edinburgh (Scottish Episcopal Church) and now works freelance under the umbrella of Reflective Spaces, with a variety of individuals and groups, in person and via her online platform.

https://www.reflectivespaces.org.uk

Les Mis EW crop

Elizabeth White


 

What are the personal reasons and experiences which led you to your work with Reflective Spaces?

Growing up in church, I became unwell in my teens and in my twenties began to meet with a spiritual director – an ancient way of being accompaniment on our inner journey. At a time when my own life experience and my experience of church did not connect, I greatly valued the companionship of another as we talked and listened together. It was a safe place to hold on – however fleetingly – to the things I still wanted and believed in, and to let go of others; to slowly rebuild my relationship with myself, others and God and to redefine my experience of faith and community. 25 years later I have more sense of being enabled to hold together my experiences of what I might call brokenness, grace and gratitude. And out of this I offer various ‘Reflective Spaces’ to others who come with their very individual ‘spiritual’ stories.

What methods do you use in your Reflective Spaces work to facilitate reflection and spiritual exploration?

Having received spiritual direction for several years I trained to accompany others and this contemplative listening undergirds a lot of my work in Reflective Spaces. Spiritual ‘direction’ is a bit of misnomer; the image I like best for accompanying is that of a midwife helping to birth what is already seeded and emerging within us, rather than the instructional teaching we might see in some faith traditions. Also in spiritual direction, people can bring anything to the (usually monthly) space, it can encompass all things, not just the ‘spiritual’. The ‘direction’ does not come from the director, but is in the direction your life has the potential to take at its fullest and most free. And it lies with ‘Spirit’, the true director of all. So we listen together for how people experience their soul; their deepest, truest self – perhaps experiences which are already within a person but they may not yet know it. Together we notice where Life, Spirit, Kindness, God etc is in all aspects of life, and what that might mean for the person.

Later, I completed a diploma in Creative and Pastoral Supervision and added this as a resourcing support to my portfolio of Reflective Spaces across helping professions, often one-to-one but also in small groups. I sometimes use cards, images, objects, somatic/body awareness and various other ‘tools’ to go ‘behind the scenes, beneath the words’ – it’s amazing what we become aware of when our heads gets out of the way! There is more about my supervision and reflective practice work on my website www.reflectivespaces.org.uk/supervision

What ideas, traditions and people inspired the Reflective Spaces work?

My spiritual direction training was in the Ignatian tradition and I had also previously made the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius – a series of mostly scripture based meditations, often using ‘imaginative contemplation’ (See the short article included below entitled ‘Praying with Scripture’). Together with the Ignatian guidelines which offered me a revolutionary approach to discernment and how I could make good decisions those years were a really formational time, which offered a different framework to hold alongside my evangelical roots. www.ignatianspirituality.com/what-is-ignatian-spirituality

Around 2003 I set up a fortnightly reflective prayer group with a friend, which I was involved with for six years. Writing and learning how to ‘hold’ 45 minute meditations was a large part of what formed my way of being with others – because I came to see that I could only offer what I had just lived that week; it’s the only authentic way to offer reflective material I think, so I was processing a lot of my own relationship with God, self, contemplative journey as well as my vulnerabilities by writing material with a very immediate theme for those who came to the group. We found a real hunger for stillness and ‘a different way of seeing’ in those who came over the years, and it’s absolutely true that what you give out is actually your own teacher. On a practical basis I enjoyed networking and began to send out news to this group of other reflective or spirituality events in and around Edinburgh which I was involved with or had links to. This email list still exists for new sign-ups today, and as my work has grown with individuals and groups it is all now hosted under the umbrella of Reflective Spaces.

On your website, you use terms such as ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘God’ and ‘prayer’. What do these words mean to you personally, and how do you approach your work with clients who have different views and understandings of these things?

l’ve just spent this weekend listening to a webinar conference with the Center for Action and Contemplation: “Incarnation is the oldest Christian Story; through Christ, God is pouring God’s self into all of creation. To be a Christian, then, is to see Christ in every one and every thing” (Richard Rohr). I’m still digesting this, but I think it says something of the shift in me from coming at life via the lens of who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, gay or straight, subject and object, heaven or hell, Christian and non-Christian. If I’d been born in India I would probably be a Hindu or a Muslim; I happen to have had a strong Christian upbringing and have moved away from a more black and white belief system to an experiential sense of ‘the other’. This is mediated to me most often through the familiarity of Christian symbol and story as well as nature, dance, relationship etc. At the same time I often ‘don’t know’, and I’m much more OK with that – living with not knowing, mystery, and paradox. It concerns me much more when poor church teaching or other influences leave people trapped in a ‘system’ of oughts around belief, prayer, behaviour and especially in unhelpful images of god etc.

I suppose I’m motivated as a personality by truth and freedom – so, truth in terms of starting with where people actually are not where they feel they should be (and sometimes that truth is buried under quite a lot of layers and takes gentle love and compassion to reveal), and freedom in terms of each of us being utterly loved, reconnecting with our ‘original goodness’, being freed slowly from old patterns that hold us back towards fullness of life. It’s the quiet, compassionate yet transforming contemplative traditions of different religions or philosophies where people can most happily and supportively ‘meet’ – whether that’s Christian or Buddhist meditation, Sufi practices, a deep yoga etc. We have much to share and offer each other,  I love to work with people who are searching, self-reflective and open to exploring whatever their ‘faith’ is – or isn’t. Language is often limiting and misunderstood which is maybe why I gravitate increasingly towards the wisdom of the body work and the use of more creative ‘ways in’ to what some might call our ‘spiritual’ lives. But I hope I can both show a face of ‘Christ’ to those I work with and meet ‘Christ’ in them, however they name or imagine the divine; we meet through experience rather than definition.

What are the key principles and methods of spiritual direction and supervision, and how do they differ from mainstream therapies such as counselling?

I’m not formally trained in theology or psychology; the principal of a theological school once told me that my theology was ‘sound and profound’, in the sense that I ‘speak of the things of God’ most days of the week – in my inner self, and for and with others. And having received personally from many gifted therapists over the years I work in a therapeutically-rich way. Good Spiritual Direction can at times be as deep as the best of theology and the best of therapy. A book written by a colleague ‘Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction: Two Languages, One Voice?’ puts forward the perhaps contentious question of whether Spiritual Direction is really ‘just’ another psychotherapeutic method. Whatever the answer to that, I think the key principles are initially similar – establishing a working alliance, building trust, confidentiality, inclusivity; my original direction training was person-centred so unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence as well as awareness of transference issues and unconscious process are all important.

The methods differ slightly in that direction (and supervision) happen usually every 4 – 6 weeks whereas counselling might more likely be once a week. Also direction often continues for many years, sometimes a lifetime, whereas counselling takes the time it needs until the ‘problem’ has resolved, or the client has built enough of their own resources for them to move on from sessions. Spiritual direction doesn’t so often use the relationship that is in the room in the same way that counselling might to work with issues (this does depend on the counselling tradition too) but it points more to the relationship with ‘the other’, the ‘more than’, with ‘God’.

So, overall good therapy can be ‘spiritual’ and spiritual direction can be ‘therapeutic’, it largely depends on who you work, how much of their own spiritual or therapeutic journeys they have engaged with and also what the person comes seeking as a directee or client. Perhaps one topical  distinction to note – which I have a particular interest in currently – is that there is more of a culture of accountability around counselling and therapy i.e. accreditation systems, insurance and CPD as ‘expected norms’ whereas Spiritual Direction is just beginning to grapple with these questions, perhaps where therapy was 40 years ago. Some training course and local groups have codes of practice and most (but not all) directors will now be supervised. But there is far less of a ‘professional’ culture around direction, which is linked to its roots growing up through religious communities, and because it is seen as ‘ministry’ which for some people is not compatible with professionalism. I’m involved in a fairly new project looking at the possibility of a national accreditation organisation for spiritual direction www.reflectivespaces.org.uk/consultation. The Association for Pastoral Supervision and Education already exists in this role for pastoral supervisors   www.pastoralsupervision.org.uk. Accreditation is an issue which raises very strong feeling for people in all sorts of ways, yet as our society changes and becomes more accountability-conscious perhaps even this ancient ministry needs to develop in new ways to support and enliven best practice. Watch this space!

What benefits do your projects bring to individuals and to wider society? Or, put in another way, what problems do they help to solve?

This reminds me of a story from Anthony de Mello (Jesuit priest who lived in India www.demellospirituality.com) about a spiritual seeker who came to him asking for a definition of spirituality, and de Mello answered with the word “awareness”. The seeker, said “oh you’ll have to give me more than that”. And Anthony de Mello replied “awareness, awareness, and awareness”. If my work can be a small part in helping people become more aware of their own inner lives and how they choose to live that out wisely and lovingly, whether related to how they pray, or in work, relationships with others, as a parent or activist, then the world – their world and the butterfly effect around them – will be changed. As soon as we become aware we have choice. And choice in wise hands can be a huge power for good.

Ignatius-Loyola

Ignatious of Loyola

Praying with Scripture by Elizabeth White

‘Tradition is large. It is crammed with a wonderful range of pictures of God – as seamstress sewing clothes for Adam and Eve, as architect designing the ark and the temple, as a dinner party host, as wind, as fire and rock and water. We need such storehouses of images to elaborate our own views.’

~ Ann and Barry Ulanov: The Healing imagination ~

A Bigger Story Meets Our Own

In a society of high stimulation, moving images and rapid change, how can we pray in a way that also brings colour, creativity, surprise and is an anchor in our lives? I have found that ‘Imaginative Prayer’ opens doors to new experiences of myself and of God. When I think prayer ‘should’ be quiet and holy but my being yearns for a more obvious life-impacting connection, praying imaginatively with Scripture has brought something visceral or yet deeply intimate.

Let’s take Jacob, for example (Genesis 32:22–32), locked in a battle with an angel? With God? With himself? I’ve prayed with this story many times when I’ve felt tossed about by life, wrestling with myself or others. I’ve found companionship with Jacob who ‘wins’ – in terms of keeping his life – but who is wounded. I have come through alive, but changed forever, and bearing the scars. And like Jacob I have been touched by God.

Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46–52) calls on Jesus passing by and, in imagination, I have heard Jesus’ same question to Bartimaeus echoing in my own life: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Surely Bartimaeus’ answer was obvious, with his unseeing eyes? But as I imagined this character from long ago I have discovered come to some unexpected responses of my own. What it is that I reallywant of God?

And Mary, oh Mary, the womanly ally and motherly friend I have come to know through imaginative prayer using various passages: a small cosy stone house, baking bread in the kitchen, Jesus popping in occasionally, a stone window seat and a carpenter’s rocking chair, places I return to talk and find comfort ‘when all else fails’ (and why not sooner?). I know this place well.

Scripture is full of symbol and metaphor: Jesus’ sermons, parables and life stories often bring unexpected images – a camel through the eye of a needle, pigs flinging themselves over a cliff, a bleeding woman. Imagination, like our senses, is a gift from God. Used reflectively with discernment, it leads us to insight and ongoing revelation of self and of God.

St Ignatius, in particular, encouraged the use of imagination in his 16th-century ‘Spiritual Exercises’, a series of prayerful and deepening meditations around the life of Christ. Rediscovered by today’s spiritual seekers and pilgrims, you can ‘Pray Now’ using this same imaginative method in simple steps:

  • Choose a passage – narrative stories from the Gospels are often a good place to begin.
  • Find a comfortable yet attentive place and allow yourself to simply arrive. I often light a candle and take a couple of slower breaths, beginning to touch in to wherever I find myself on the inside and to the sense of ‘the more than’.
  • Take a few moments to consider what you hope for as you begin this prayer. Ask God for what you most desire in your heart: what is the gift you are seeking today?
  • Read the passage several times until you are familiar with the story. Don’t try to make anything happen, but just listen to the story as a content child might listen at bedtime.
  • Then slowly allow the scene to arise within you, taking your time. What initial images comes to mind? What do you see? Is it hot or raining? What do you smell, touch, hear? Use all your senses to ‘see’ the story.
  • Who is there? And begin to notice where you are in the story: one of the characters, or someone looking on. Which part of the story do you identify with or see yourself in? Let the story unfold, without consciously directing it. Don’t worry if things surprise you, or if the story develops a little differently from what you expect; God can come to us in many ways.
  • What happens next? Is Jesus there? What do you find yourself saying or doing? How are you feeling as you are part of all this? Stay with the story as long you want to, waiting as it evolves.

In my own praying, I sometimes find surprising things strike me, and sometimes not much at all. But in either case, often a shift comes as I close the imaginative prayer and speak with God about what has just happened– or not happened! The more honest I am with God, the freer I feel, and then a new awareness may come; I am met by God – and Jesus’ story meets my own.

(‘Praying with Scripture’ first appeared in Pray Now: Word of Life, Copyright © Resourcing Worship Team, Mission and Discipleship Council, The Church of Scotland 2017)

 


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Did Leonard Woolf get sad too? by Connor Hansford

Dear Virginia,

I didn’t say this while you were alive

Because you were always too busy

And it didn’t feel right but I gave up so

Much to make you happy, Virginia and –

Is it healthy? I wanted children, you didn’t –

Fine. Not fine. You didn’t ask, or, if you did

I lied. But it doesn’t matter now. It did.

I suppose you will say, if you’d wanted

Them that much, you should have said.

You’re a writer and a reader, you should

Have read. But no. That’s fine. It’s not but

Now you’re gone it matters not a jot and I

Can buy as many crystal palaces as I like

To put my plants in, which sounds like I

Disliked or didn’t love you when I did but

You didn’t make it easy, alright? Loving you

Was like reading one of your books. I love

Your ways – loved, I should say, but some days,

What I like best of all is to enjoy myself

Without having to think too much.

But living with you every day was a crossword,

Which incidentally I never could do without

Wondering where you were or if you were

With her in the garden at Sissinghurst.

The sun shines out of her arse, you think

But sod me! What the hell have I ever done

For you except give you somewhere to sleep, breathe,

Things to do. BREATHE. Your name. I wouldn’t go so far

As to say I made you but for Christ’s sake, Virginia,

Please – think. It’s not – was not – all about you.

And I did mind that you slept with Vita and the

Other one. Ones. I just didn’t say anything

In case you tried to – you know, which anyway

You did, in the end, even though I told you to

Speak to me speak to me. Sometimes you did and

Sometimes now I feel bad because I preferred you when

You were out, alive, chatting, acerbic, witty.

Words words bloody words.

Funny that because now I only want you back

Whichever way you come. And despite what you wrote,

I still sometimes think, was there more I could have done?

I get sad too you know and always have but you never

Asked, or if you did, I never said because it’s easier

Not said than done this depression thing.

Women can talk about it, men can’t.

I’m dead without you.

 


Connor Hansford

Connor Hansford is a stage-three English with Publishing student at the University of Plymouth who aspires to become a professional book editor like his hero Maxwell Perkins. Additionally, Connor hopes to one day start a small press in his home town of Dorchester where he also hopes to work on his golf swing and angling skills. Connor runs the University of Plymouth Journal INK and a WordPress blog which he updates sporadically called Memoirs of a Snowflake. Connor is a Quaker who is descended from a long line of Cree Indians.