The Battle Between Spring and Winter in England March 2018

In England we do love talking about the weather and so  during the last few weeks we have had several heavensent opportunities to express a wide range of thoughts and feelings about it.

But beauty is everywhere, and there are few things more poignant and touching than signs of fresh new life juxtaposed with a blanket of virgin snow.

In the last few weeks we have enjoyed bright sunshine and beautiful fresh blossom, interspersed with treacherous ice and white-outs!

So here I share some images of these contrasts in the natural world.

 

What does Eadfrith, artist-scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, have to teach creative writers and artists today?

Nothing much, you may think – because Eadfrith was a seventh century monk in a monastery on an island, and we live in the fast, materialistic, time-pressured world of 2016.

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sunset on Lindisfarne

I’ve just spent three days on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island), just off the Northumberland coast, where Eadfrith sat in the monastery scriptorium and scribed and decorated the Lindisfarne Gospels every day for two years between  696 and 698 AD, in order to commemorate the elevation of St Cuthbert’s relics. 

So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart  from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?

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Display in the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre, Holy Island

I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.

Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.

St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.

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Sculpture in St Mary’s Church Holy Island, showing the monks who carried Cuthbert’s body to escape from Viking raiders

The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.

The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion. preface to St Mark's Gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels

For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere20160829_112732 – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).

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Detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, in St Mary’s Church Holy Island

In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”

The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.

Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.20160829_123557

After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!

I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.

To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Australia: Binna Burra, Rainforest Resort in the Gold Coast Hinterland

As my daughter Abigail and her friend Gaby have just flown out to Australia to stay with my sister in Brisbane for the next few weeks, I’m thinking of Australia – and of the times I’ve visited that continent, and of the four and a half years I spent living and working there.Binna Burra 2007

 

I’ve written before about the Gold Coast Hinterland, Queensland in my Places of Inspiration.  series, along with several other locations around the world.  What all these places have in common is spirit of place.

I found this spirit in India, at Uluru in Australia, in London, in the White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, and in Sydney Opera House. Today let me show you another part of Australia – Binna Burra.

On the border of Queensland and New South Wales, behind the Gold Coast, you may find a beautiful mountain range. This is known as the Gold Coast hinterland. The road winds up via many mountain passes from Southport, just north of Surfers Paradise. You travel via the town of Canungra where you may choose between two roads, going to two mountain resorts: Binna Burra and O’Reilly’s. I have spent time at both these resorts but here I’m concentrating on Binna Burra.

Binna Burra is special to me. Why is this so?

Binna Burra holds many memories; and it is a very important stage on my spiritual journey. I’ve been up there on my own, and in company with others, and have always found it a very powerful place, full of spiritual resonance. I remember standing there listening to the birdsong echoing across the mountain range, their peaks and valleys hazy with eucalyptus vapour; of waking up early in the morning, stepping outside my cabin, and tasting the mountain air as if it was fine wine.

I remember going on the Coomera Circuit, the longest of the many rainforest walks visitor may take from the lodge, which passes the beautiful Coomera Falls. there was the time we went out on a night time walk to see the luminous fungi, and another time we went to see the glow-worms.

I remember when I went on my own to Binna Burra, and found a table of other single visitors, who were so welcoming and fun and friendly. Then there was the occasion when I visited Australia with my friend Alison and my daughter Abigail and we met up with friends who lived on the Gold Coast, Paul and Mark, and we all went up to Binna Burra and had lunch in the clifftop dining room with its panoramic views of the mountain scenery.

And then of course there’s the wildlife; the possums and rainbow lorikeets and the red-eyed tree-frogs. And of course the snakes that may be lying across your path; and are a good reason to take a torch with you when you walk by night.

Do you have a special place that means a lot to you, a place of inspiration, that you believe you will constantly revisit, or at least remember for the rest of your life? Please share in the comments below!

 

Book Review: “Earthed” published by Mystic Christ Press: Bridging the Gap Between Christianity and Paganism

This fascinating book came into my hands because I belong to a Facebook group called Mystic Christ and heard about the publication of this collection of essays by authors with both Christian affiliation and a desire to express spirituality through nature connection.

Earthed - Christian Perspectives on Nature Connection
Earthed – Christian Perspectives on Nature Connection

This sounded like a book after my own heart. For many years I was greatly drawn to a spirituality very close to pantheism/nature mysticism; and one of my chief objections then to the Christian faith was what I saw as its “black and white” stance and its refusal to recognise the validity of this kind of spirituality. I remember years ago a certain Tory politician being asked if he was religious or a churchgoer, to which he replied, “No, I don’t go to church, I feel much closer to God walking in the Yorkshire Dales”.

In the view of the authors of “Earthed” this is a valid spiritual position to take.

The book, edited by Bruce Stanley and Steve Holllinghurst, brings together the views and experiences of several authors who have a range of different approaches and outlooks but all believe that Christianity’s relationship with nature matters.

The earlier essays provide an overview and then move on to more detailed accounts of personal experiences. I must admit I found some of these read a little like vicars seeking to justify to their evangelical colleagues why they are moved by pagan religious rituals in nature.

However,  I was pleased to see a chapter by Annie Heppenstall, “Do I Not Fill Heaven and Earth?” Annie led the Celtic Christian celebrations I attended at Morton Bagot church in Warwickshire. There is also a very good article by Anne Hollinghurst about St Francis of Assisi.  “A creation-centred spirituality,” she writes, “should also include St Francis’ rule of compassion for the poor, a rejection of the pursuit of wealth, status or reputation in favour of simplicity and poverty of spirit.”

To me there’s no problem in the idea of worshipping God in and through nature.This has always been a spirituality very close to my heart. But I do acknowledge that some people find the natural world wild, disorderly and threatening.

I enjoyed the chapter about The Green Man by Simon Cross, in which he draws a thread connecting the story of the Garden of Eden with the Legend of the Holy Rood, the Frankenstein story, North American Indian spirituality and its understanding of the Great Spirit, through the 1800’s resurgence of interest in occultism and onto fear of little green men from Mars, space research and exploration and the current fascination with wilderness survival skills (as demonstrated in various TV programmes).

The theme of this book was highlighted from a different source on Sun 16 November 2014: I was watching a BBC TV programme presented by Sue Perkins from a remote rural community in Cambodia, where she was spending time with people who have “a relationship with the natural world that many of us crave.”

Another outstanding chapter for me in this book is “Oceanic God” in which author Nick Thorpe writes about things he has learned from the power of the sea and from the people who earn their living by chancing their lives upon the sea.

“After my sea pilgrimage,” he says, “I resolved to allow myself a broader, more open-handed belief; less fretful about the details of doctrine, more willing to let complex realities clash, and mysteries remain.”

There is also a lovely piece by Paul Cudby on “Friendships Across the Divide: A Theology of Encounter” which I strongly identified with. I have myself felt the spiritual sense of nature connection which he describes, on several occasions throughout my life. The experiences he describes follow the principle that whatever you practice regularly becomes almost intuitive and then new possibilities spring up.

In conclusion I’d say that the premise of this book is correct: that in western forms of Christian worship many habitually cut themselves off from this kind of nature connection; and this is a totally unnecessary source of alienation from those who find themselves naturally drawn to pagan and mystical spirituality.Instead, we end up creating a division between those whose spiritual practices might otherwise find many points of similarity.

If any of this rings a bell with you, I highly recommend this book.

Rocky Hillsides, Dark Valleys and the One Voice You Can Trust

In our lives we can often find that there seems to be one poem or a prayer which has been most helpful, most meaningful to us. For me this has been the 23rd Psalm: The Lord Is My Shepherd.

In times of strong negative emotion, the words though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil are the only ones which have the strength to meet the greatest spiritual and psychological challenges.

Last Monday I went to a Quiet Day led by Rev. Anne Hibbert of  the Well Christian Healing Centre.

The Rev Anne Hibbert, whose vision led to the creation of The Well Christian Healing Centre
The Rev Anne Hibbert, whose vision led to the creation of The Well Christian Healing Centre
Hampton Manor, Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire
Hampton Manor, Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire

It was held in the gracious surroundings of Hampton Manor in Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire. The theme was Following the Good Shepherd in 2014.

Anne is one of the most inspirational speakers I have ever listened to.  During the course of the day she opened up for us the reality of life as a shepherd in Israel, which the psalmist based his poem upon: nothing at all like our concept of sheep and shepherd in the enclosed fields of green fertile England.

The shepherd in Israel, I learned, is responsible for his sheep all the time, in a harsh, challenging environment, on brown, rocky, barren hillsides; he will build stones around caves to act as a sheep-fold; he will drive the sheep to fresh new pasture, going ahead to club the snakes and scatter salt to provide extra nutrients for the sheep. The voice of the shepherd is the one voice the sheep will respond to; ringing out over a great distance, to call in the sheep even from the furthest point to which they have wandered.

Additionally, the oil which the psalm uses as a metaphor, would be a concoction of olive oil, sulphur and spices, which would be daubed on the heads of the sheep to banish flies, gnats and parasites. Sheep, too, I learned, have a “butting order”; this disappears when the shepherd is present.  The hills of the Judaean terrain might be bright and sunny and scorching; the valleys fearful and cold; as you go under the overhang, the darkness can be overwhelming.

Several of these details of the shepherding life in Israel were previously unknown to me. Anne used each element as a metaphor for different stages of our life journeys. Now I know what inspired the psalmist to use the images he did, the meaning of the psalm is enriched enormously – as well as its application for my life.

Try having another look at the psalm here and forget about green velvety meadows, a romantic-looking figure with long flowing golden brown hair, and white fluffy sheep. Think instead of rocky hillsides, dark overhangs and snakes, and you’ll be getting closer to what the writer had in mind when he wrote those words.

Friends At Last: Building Trust in the Animal World

Molly has now overcome her resistance  to the idea of an alien cat in the house with her (albeit her mother)

But it took  Willow a little while to overcome her annoyance at her daughter Molly’s initial rejection of her.

Willow and Molly 27 Oct 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Willow and Molly 27 Oct 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

She spent a few days expressing her annoyance, and trying to exert some discipline.

She was a strict mother,and we watched her setting the boundaries.

“Behave!” she would say to Molly.

And then she discovered what it’s like to have your young one defying orders.

And later I was reminded of  one of those classic situations which many young mothers bemoan; the toddler who won’t even let her mother go to the toilet alone.

Molly has been pushing at the door of  the litter tray while Willow is in it, trying to jump in with her.

“Can’t I even go to the toilet in peace?” cries Willow.

Now we hear the scampering of feet across the floor as the two play-fight with each other and chase each other from room to room.

Relaxing? No. And sometimes those play-fights look horribly real.

But I reassure myself that the claws are retracted.

Otherwise the squeals and  squeaks and cries that  come from 8 week old Molly would be screams of pain.

Watching a relationship of mutual trust being built in the animal world has made me reflect on how this may apply to us humans too. Suspicion breaks down, the first tentative steps are taken; building trust is a process of experimentation and small moves forward. So we see ourselves and our own characters partially reflected in animal behaviour.

And You Will Be Like a Watered Garden…

Enjoying a shady 'small enclosed space' in a private Kenilworth garden open for the National Gardens Scheme 1 Sep 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Enjoying a shady ‘small enclosed space’ in a private Kenilworth garden open for the National Gardens Scheme 1 Sep 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

A well-watered garden is a powerful image of creativity, abundance, fruitfulness.

When asked to describe or picture heaven, I often see it as a garden.

The Prophet Isaiah, wrote these words:  And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.

Isaiah’s choice of a garden for his image here is perfect, as are many of the images he chose for his prophecies: an image which is profound and powerful.

A few months ago during a visit to Hidcote Manor Garden, one of the National Trust’s greatest gardens, we heard the Head Gardener say that because we’ve had a late spring this year, 2013, the plants, like people, benefit from “a good long kip” and so later on, when they flower, they will be more plentiful, more colourful and more abundant.

And so it has proved in three outstanding gardens I’ve recently visited: Upton House, near Banbury; the garden at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon; and a private garden in Chase Lane, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, part of the Open Gardens event  run by the National Gardens Scheme.

flowers in Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
flowers in Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

As I spend time wandering around these gardens I reflect upon what engages me most in gardens I love:

* a series of small enclosed spaces which are like outdoor rooms – little ‘dens’ where you may sit and contemplate or dream or write or do anything else creative, which are shady, secret, beautiful, tranquil, hidden;

Spending time in the garden - contemplating, dreaming, in a little 'den' (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Spending time in the garden – contemplating, dreaming, in a little ‘den’ (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

*  a number of vistas and points from which you may glimpse things either near or distant which may intrigue or surprise;

* in a grand garden with a stunning planting scheme, I’m most enchanted by combinations of depth & colour & shape which evoke different emotions in the beholder; low misty feathery plants in front, then the tall bold gold shapes behind, and finally the purple spiky angular plants at the back: a profusion of different contrasting and complementary shapes and textures.

This is what I saw in the gardens at Upton House when I visited on Friday 23 August 2013.

A predominance of pink and gold with occasional glimmers of white, lilac, purple, burgundy.

A gentle, warm fragrance filled the air; butterflies flocked to the lavender, bumble bees feasted in every direction I gazed.

Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013  photo credit Abigail Robinson
Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 photo credit Abigail Robinson

The whole  was in dynamic motion, appearing to me as a vibration of life, shimmering above and around the blossoms.

We are all indebted to those whose gift is to design gardens, select plants, and work hard to create paradise on earth: surely the goal of all the great garden designers. In this life, there is a place for all of us; those who work, those who act, those who  are practical, and those who come to see, and to drink deeply, who dream, who draw inspiration, who see visions, and who believe.

Great gardens are places that feed the imagination, provide a source of inspiration, nurture creativity, enrich our dreams, lift our hearts to the divine.

For paradise is a garden.

Flowers for John Clare, Poet of Rural England: ‘The Peasant Poet’

This weekend my daughter and I visited family members in Northborough and attended the John Clare Festival in Helpston, Northamptonshire.

The children of John Clare School bring their flower cushions to lay on the poet's grave at Helpston Church (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
The children of John Clare School bring their flower cushions to lay on the poet’s grave at Helpston Church (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

We thoroughly enjoyed sharing in the community celebrations of John Clare (1793-1864), their local poet.

JOHN CLARE was born in Helpston in 1793 and deeply loved the natural world. During his life he wrote both poetry and autobiographical prose celebrating rural life and scenery, yet he suffered a series of severe breakdowns in later life, and spent his last 20 years in an asylum in Northampton.

He is now  recognized to be as great as his contemporaries Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Blake.

Yet in his time, despite an early ‘false dawn’ when he enjoyed a brief fame and his  first volume of poems outsold Wordsworth and Keats, Clare was marketed as ‘the peasant poet’ meaning ‘ill-educated and poor’, hinting that it was remarkable he could write poetry at all, let alone great poetry.

Now in his own community, The John Clare Society ensures he is celebrated, and I highly recommend John Clare Cottage in Helpston. A visit here to learn about the poet, his work and his life  is fascinating.

As you enter the Dovehouse in the beautiful cottage garden, you listen to recordings of some Clare poems, recited by adults and by children. Many must be deeply touched by these words of Clare’s:

I am – yet what I am, none cares or knows,

Local schoolchildren bring flowers to John Clare's grave in Helpston Churchyard (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Local schoolchildren bring flowers to John Clare’s grave in Helpston Churchyard (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

My friends forsake me like a memory lost;

I am the self-consumer of my woes

They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host…

How comforted and reassured John Clare may have been if he could have looked into the future and seen not only his greatness as a poet fully recognized, but also his memory honoured in such a beautiful way today in his own community.

We listened as a choir of children from John Clare School sang to us, and watched as prizes were awarded to the winners of a poetry competition for a poem about the natural world,  in the tradition of John Clare.

This event, together with others held during the John Clare Festival  in Helpston,  made an inspirational weekend; local bards and poets laureate competed in a poetry slapdown with poems that were not only very funny but also thought-provoking.

The children's flower cushions on John Clare's grave (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
The children’s flower cushions on John Clare’s grave (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

And I reflected, that in this life, sometimes people who live by their imagination, in order to inspire others, suffer  as John Clare did, with lack of recognition, with social and class prejudice, with mental ill health; often the creative life can bring suffering. Yet creative people ultimately are  driven forward by a deep love of their subject; so it was in the case of John Clare.

I for one cannot read his exquisite poetry about flowers,woodlands, open fields, birds, animals and insect, and then  observe the very things he wrote about, without feeling this.

In Search of Authenticity: Our True Selves and Our Essential Need for Community

How can we be true to ourselves?

And how can we live in ways  that are true to what  we believe?

And how can we mix up our inner and outer worlds, so we are not compartmentalised like a waffle, but rather, more like a bowl of spaghetti?

These were just three of the questions posed to us at a weekend conference I’ve just attended, as one of 80 from my church, St Mark’s in Leamington Spa, at the Hayes Conference  Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.

our group from St Mark's in the main conference hall at Hayes Conference Centre Swanwick 29 June 2013 (photo credit: PaulMileham www.st-marks.net)
our group from St Mark’s in the main conference hall at Hayes Conference Centre Swanwick 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham http://www.st-marks.net)

And in between enjoying the beautiful gardens in the sunshine, drinking in the bar, wandering by the lakes, going kayaking, cycling or walking, we listened to an excellent speaker, Annie Naish from the Lee Abbey Community.

The theme was Authenticity.

Annie invited us to consider how as members of a Christian community we can be “real” with each other,  our authentic selves, sharing our sorrows and troubles, recognizing we are all wounded people, and that we all need each other.

To illustrate our need for community, she played a video clip from the BBC TV documentary narrated by David Tennant, showing the solitary Emperor Penguin in the icy wilderness of Antarctica, who became separated from his community, but struggled on alone until he reached them again – and the life-saving comfort of their body warmth.

Annie Naish (photo credit Paul Mileham www.st-mark.net)
Annie Naish (photo credit Paul Mileham http://www.st-mark.net)

And just so, said Annie, should we live this out, through our relationships with each other in our community: by showing sincere and practical love; looking for the good in people; putting others first; being willing to be vulnerable; listening; and showing humility and practising forgiveness.

Anybody who ever seeks to understand this life and our place in it, will have to engage with this search for our true authentic selves.

This is the work of a lifetime, and it runs through many religions and faiths, through psychology and philosophy, through psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counselling.

Annie herself lives as part of the Lee Abbey Community, and every member has to work through their relationship with each other within the community. Churches, said Annie, should be full of wounded people, places where people can weep, and share the tough times they’re going through. The authentic Christian life is  “systematically unsafe”. It’s a risky business, and sometimes it’s like a bungee jump over white water rapids. And she showed us a breathtaking video clip to demonstrate this.

Annie suggested we should be intentional. An authentic Christian faith is a long obedience in the same direction.

And if we are to be authentic in relationships, we have to bring what is hidden into the light. It’s costly, because  we’re vulnerable.

The young people having fun at Swanwick (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)
The young people having fun at Swanwick (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

Annie gave us practical guidance. We have to listen and reflect before leaping to self-defence. This applies in many situations in life.

Annie called for us to think of everything we do as a task done through relationship.

And the goal for each of us, as Elrond said to Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” , is to “Become all that you were born to be.”

the lake at Hayes Conference Centre 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham www.st-marks.net)
the lake at Hayes Conference Centre 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham http://www.st-marks.net)