Back to normal?

“What’s the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?” asked the young enquirer. “About ten years,” replied the vicar with characteristically dry wit.

Despite often being at the forefront of social change and community action, the church is often seen as being behind the times and, sadly, it doesn’t take much interaction with some congregations to see the truth of the vicar’s wry observation.

Churches are also perceived as places where change is resisted: “The previous vicar did it that way.” “We’ve always had our service at 9.30.” “At the PCC meeting on 23 March 1973 we voted against that.” There are plenty of people with toys poised, ready to throw them out of the pram (yes, including me). The desire to be ‘doing church’ sometimes appears greater than to be ‘doing God’ – being witnesses to God’s love through the way we live our lives and in encouraging each other in faith. Of course, ‘doing church’ is easier and safer…

So, these recent months have seen a breath of fresh air wafting through the sometimes stale surroundings that conceal the full extent of that love. From phone networks to help people keep in touch, to loving our neighbour by shopping for them and, more radically, coming together as the church online.

In the Church of England alone, there are now over 5,500 online services taking place each week as live streams through Facebook, Zoom etc or pre-recorded and available online at YouTube, Vimeo or elsewhere.

‘The revolution in online worship has meant many people who have been excluded from the life of their local church – (due to) infirmity, disability, phobia, mental fragility – feel included,’ tweeted Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich. ‘I’m ashamed we did not realise this before.’ (my italics)

There’s a danger that those who are not on the internet remain excluded so it’s important to address that and online services are not the same as gathering with others for worship – but they have opened up a tremendous opportunity for creativity when it comes to bringing people closer to God.

Alongside other lockdown easings, this weekend sees the gradual reopening of places for worship. While cathedrals and some churches will be ready to do so, many will not – and that’s good: it’ll be better to be safe than sorry.

Now, I, for one, have been dreading hearing the phrase, “It’ll be good to be back to normal”.

Of course, there are good things in the familiar trappings of church as we know it. They provide the security of social contact with others and the rhythms of prayer and worship. A steady port in the storm providing stability in times of change which is so crucial to our faith as well as our wellbeing. But, as with a lot of things, church will not, and maybe will never be the same, and that will be difficult for many. There will be a new normal.

But that phrase also causes me to reflect on what else comprised the ‘old’ normal. It was Tertullian, a 1st/2nd Century Roman pagan who wrote, ‘See how these Christians love each other.’ As I look at the church generally, I find myself deeply saddened by how these Christians talk about each other. Clergy and laity alike criticising others seemingly for the sake of it. Grudges are grown and forgiveness is forgotten. Is that the normal we want to go back to?

‘After the pandemic, some parishes and Fresh Expressions will go to the wall, never to be seen again,’ writes Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. ‘Churches that have gone to sleep will stay asleep. Those who have risen to the task will be ready for service and proclamation.’

Unimaginably tragic as the circumstances are, the current time opens up possibly the greatest opportunity in generations for God’s message of life-giving, unconditional love to become known by all, churchgoer or not. If you are one who prays for revival, could this be the time?  Do we take that opportunity, or do we lose all that we have gained in these last few months by simply going back to normal?

 

 

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Anxious Times Again

In the beginning was the word, and the word was… anxiety.

My wife, Jane and I had just returned from some lovely winter sun in southern Spain when just a week or so later, the first impact of Coronavirus was being felt. Suddenly, things changed and things changed suddenly. It all seemed very unreal – rather like those feelings which accompany bereavement when we think we’re going to see the loved one we’ve lost only to remember that we have indeed lost them.

Indeed, there has been so much loss for so many. Loss of loved ones. Loss of liberty. Loss of the familiar. Loss of the activities and social contact that gave life to life. Loss of sleep. Loss of hugs. Loss of certainty.

It’s felt like life has had to begin again. Walking has become like driving along a country lane and finding ‘passing places’ to maintain social distancing. We’ve washed our hands til they’re sore. Some have been shielding while others clap. Every cough is significant and there’s a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Is it me or is it hot in here?’

I thank God I live where I live: far away from socially-crowded cities. I thank God the ten o’clock news is covering other stories again. I thank God I am a natural isolate. I thank God for God.

Yet now several weeks on, maybe the word is still anxiety. These are anxious times again. Anxiety about the easing of lockdown. Anxiety about going out. Anxiety about wearing a face covering. Anxiety about returning to school, the workplace, the shops, to church. Anxiety about becoming closer to others.

There is a difference between having anxious thoughts and having clinical anxiety (and if those feelings are affecting the ability to function then help may be needed [sooner rather than later]). But feeling anxious about the current times is perfectly natural and having anxious feelings does not make any of us a lesser person nor does it mean we are one of little faith.

God knows our anxieties. They are not hidden from God because God’s light is always there to overcome the shadow of their darkness.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him (in that Word, that Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not (and does not, and will not) overcome it’ (John 1:1, 4-5)

 

This post is an extended version of some thoughts for the Diocese of Exeter’s Pause & Pray initiative.

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Faith Seeking Understanding

One of my all-time favourite radio programmes is The Goon Show.

While not old enough to have heard the original broadcasts in the 1950s, I listened to countless episodes in my 20s and 30s in particular. Their surreal storylines, absurd logic, puns, catchphrases and groundbreaking sound effects influenced my own, at times rather weird, sense of humour. The Goons wouldn’t have been The Goons without all three of Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellars – and yet they were also each brilliant as individuals in their own right.

Similarly, in a weird sort of way, one can’t think of the travellers from the East without thinking of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – three separate gifts but all part of their singular worship of the young Christ.

June 7th is Trinity Sunday – the beginning of a lengthy season when we reflect on how God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, individually and together, play an important part in our life and faith as Christians. (Here’s a short film you may like watch as well.)

Many have tried to explain the Holy Trinity and many more have been confused by it. There are some Christians and even clergy who don’t even accept the concept of the Trinity. Others think Christians believe in three Gods and yes we perhaps don’t help ourselves by using phrases such as ‘Three in One God’.

Many have suggested ways of how we might understand the structure of the Trinity. Some have drawn a parallel with H2O – we find it in water, ice and steam – all different but still all H2O. You may like to think of the Trinity as a 3-stranded cord – each cord, each person of the Trinity is distinct but together are indivisible and mighty.

But none of those give us the whole picture because none show us the relationship between the three and that is an important aspect of understanding the nature of the Trinity.

As human beings, we have a natural disposition towards wanting and needing to understand things. We like to know the whys, the whats, the whens, the wheres, the hows. Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of our lives is when things happen or don’t happen and we don’t understand why it was or what was going on. Many of us perhaps have those feelings right now in this time of Covid 19 and all that has happened in these last few months. There are probably other things which have taken place in your life about which you still don’t understand.  There certainly are in mine.

Paula Gooder is a theologian who specialises in the New Testament. She has the ability to convey tremendous academic knowledge in very plain, easy to understand language. Last September I heard her speak about the parables and how we are constantly looking to understand and to explain what Jesus was meaning through the telling of them. Paula Gooder pointed out that even the disciples didn’t always get what Jesus was talking about – and they were with him all the time.

‘Most parables are meant to make us go “What?”’, she said. ‘The problem is that we put an interpretation and meaning on them – we struggle with parables because we think we know what they mean.’

For me, that’s the same with understanding the Trinity.

In other words, we do not have to understand absolutely everything about the Trinity, or any other aspect of our faith.

I have often reflected on and quoted to others the serenity prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

And I wonder if in our ability, inability and perhaps lack of necessity to fully understand things we can substitute the word change with the word understand:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot
understand;
the courage to
understand the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Our belief is, as St Anselm put it, about ‘faith seeking understanding’ – whatever that looks like for each one of us

 

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Will we remember them?

On 8th May 1945, with the end of war in Europe, the country celebrated (or at least this country did – others did not).

The previous years had seen horrendous loss of professional and civilian lives. Medical services overwhelmed. Businesses disrupted and closed. The economy shattered. Public movement limited. Many were unemployed, homeless, injured and seeking limited food supplies. Politicians were ridiculed and praised. There were heroes and villains. Many gave their lives for the common good. The country, the world, was never the same again.

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

On 8th May 2020, 75 years on, we are called to commemorate (sadly, some say celebrate). While all around us… well, just read the second paragraph again.

75 years on from now, I doubt any will remember those who gave their lives for the common good in these current times. Indeed, apart from family, friends and colleagues, will any remember them in 25, 10, 5 or even 2 years time…?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?

The last post reflected on a renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways. Public applause on Thursday evenings acknowledges the work of NHS and care staff together with others who are designated as key workers. As a society, we are, finally, recognising the essential role of refuse collectors, postal workers, telecom engineers, road repairers, supermarket assistants, domiciliary carers and care home staff, bus drivers and all whose work is often disregarded. Blessed are the meek.

Over 100 of those have died due to their work and many others have been attacked undertaking it. They probably knew the risks and took precautions but they didn’t set out to give so much.

Even in wartime, when many set out knowing they may not return, they and all around hoped they would. ‘My father had been killed in an air raid so for us the end of the war didn’t mean he’d be coming home,’ wrote one person recalling VE Day. ‘For many of us, the end of the war didn’t mean life would go back to what it was before 1939.’ (Radio Times 2-8 May 2020)

And so it is for many today, life will never be the same again.

In contrast, another contributor recalled the unexpected: ‘Before VE Day I had never been out after dark. The lights were on in all the windows, and, magically, I could see people inside… it was the beginning of something much more exciting – lights.’

And now candles burn in our windows from 7pm on Sunday. A light for those who work, who suffer, who grieve. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we may or we may not remember them but the light of Christ shines on all for eternity.

 

 

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Life begins again

Well, you don’t need me to tell you what strange times we are living in. And how much life has changed since the last full blog post on Ash Wednesday. Little did we know what we would be giving up for Lent.

Along with ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’, terms such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ have entered our vocabulary as if they have always been present. We’re told to ‘stay at home’. Many are being ‘shielded’. Others are called ‘key workers’ – and doing far, far more than ‘just their job’.

There is death. And plenty of it. Death on a scale not seen in this country (and many others) since the Second World War. Death has not lost its sting. Families are unable to be with their loved one. People dying, sometimes alone, sometimes with the strangers who cared for them. Mourned in public by few or none.

And yet, within it all. Within all the tragedy, the grief and the fear. There is, remarkably, hope.

  • A reduction in air pollution (civilisation being given one more chance to address the causes of climate change perhaps…).
  • In some places (but not in all), people are slowing down (a helping hand to deal with increasingly poor mental wellbeing maybe…).
  • A resurgence of communities caring for one another (an antidote to modern society’s self-isolating behaviour…)
  • A renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways (blessed are the meek…)
  • The Church, the community of believers, rediscovering and discovering other ways of being one in Christ. As Luke Coppen put it, ‘Christianity began amid defeat and despair… this won’t be the end, rather a new beginning.’ (The Spectator 11.4.20)

And yet, within it all. Life for most people has been turned upside down. Many are finding aspects of the current times difficult. Gone are all the normal activities and usual freedoms. Many are struggling with unprecedented change. Many find it frightening. Many are anxious and worried.

All those are normal feelings and having them doesn’t mean your faith is lacking – nor does it mean that God is absent (even if it may feel that way at times).

In some respects, life is beginning again…

Finding stability in times of such change is key to living in these current times and beyond. Many are writing about the relevance of St Benedict’s teaching to our modern day lives and experiences – so much so, there’s been at least four books published in the last year. Laurentia Johns OSB writes about the ‘blessings of beginnings’ and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written about how ‘Benedictine stability is the context in which we learn to sit still with whatever company arrives, in the confidence that God in Christ sits still with us.’

In helpful contrast, award-winning, American journalist Judith Valente reflects on the Rule of St Benedict in How to Live: a book which is ‘about living—not just surviving… a book about how to live a balanced, meaningful, and conscious life rooted in the ancient and time-tested wisdom of the Rule.’

The Rule of St Benedict provides a rhythm for prayer and reflection through its four-monthly pattern of daily readings. That pattern is also about to begin again – on 2 May – and you may like to use my book of everyday reflections,  Life with St Benedict as a way of building such a rhythm of stability: one that  relates this ancient Bible-based wisdom to the ordinary and not so ordinary aspects of life. (There are some films to help you find stability in these times of change and uncertainty also).

There is nothing good about this pandemic but there is good that is coming out of it. And it’s to be hoped that when this is all over, we don’t completely revert to how things used to be as we learn how to begin life again.

 

 

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Finding Stability in Times of Change

At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.

Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.

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All Change

We counted them in and we counted them out. 77 boxes packed up by Wotton’s wonderful removal people and unpacked by two rather tired occupants in less than a week. So much other stuff too – furniture, pictures, books, things that have moved untouched from attic to attic, garage to garage. For Jane and I, it was our eighth move together in 28 years of marriage. We’re well-practised!

Having myself moved 21 times, in one sense I can’t even begin to understand what it’s like for people who have lived in the same place for 20, 30, 40 years or more. I guess to an extent I thrive on change – whether that’s a change of place, a change of job status, a change in being the person I am. I find it invigorating. A time to begin a new chapter in life. Yes, there are unhelpful aspects to that personality trait: I regret immediately cutting loose from school friends (it’s a long story…), for example. And in the intervening years, losing contact with many others I’d hoped would stay in touch – people I thought I meant something to. That said, I’m not very good at maintaining contact so it cuts both ways… change can also be hard.

Many people find change difficult, of course. I think of the Ford engine plant workers in Bridgend and the local cafes, shops, suppliers, contractors, child care facilities and many others who will lose customers as a result of its closure. Then there’s the elderly man diagnosed with a terminal illness. The small business owner whose partner disappears leaving her to run it single-handed. The person about to start a new job (like my wife…). Change can be daunting and unsettling.

Our own move also brings to mind the people who will be affected by our arrival. There will be expectations of us and comparisons with others. We will please and we will disappoint. Change can be humbling and also a privilege as we become temporary, fellow travellers.

It’s very easy in times of change to be swept along by the uncertainty and the unknown. To be consciously incompetent. We can also just as easily forget that that which stays the same provides stability – whether it’s furniture, pictures, books… and, for us, our dog, Pip. Albeit in a poorly state, she has made this house her home more quickly than we did (finding a dead blackbird on her first venture into the garden probably helped!). Pip has been a constant companion in a time of change.* In times of change there is often plenty that remains the same.

If we allow it to be so, God’s constant companionship provides stability in times of change. A stability built on trust in God. A stability built on intentional prayer – spending time with God. A stability which abides in God’s love.

Now you’d expect me to say all that. Indeed, it’s easy to say things such as ‘trust in God’, ‘spending time with God’, ‘abides in God’s love’, isn’t it. They can become clichés. Phrases that trip off the tongue. Spoken without truly, inwardly knowing the full and enormous depths of the total and absolute truths they contain.

Trusting God in times of change.

Spending time with God in times of change.

Abiding in the love of God in times of change.

With God, we become increasingly aware that in order to change, stability is needed; and in order to be stable, we are also to change.

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*Postscript: the day after this post was first published Pip moved peacefully to her heavenly kennel. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.

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What are you searching for?

The World Cup, Meghan Markle and the Royal Wedding. The top three searches on Google in 2018. The most popular question: ‘What is Bitcoin?’. Ones about Brexit only coming ninth behind Diwali and upskirting.

As one year ends, it’s natural to reflect on what we looked for in the last 12 months – and what happened (or didn’t). The highs and lows. Joys and disappointment. Failures and fulfilment. Times of change (or lack of). Regrets and missed opportunities. Separation. Reconciliation. Loss. Beginnings and endings.

What kind of year has it been for you? Is it one that ends saying ‘Was that it?’ or proclaims ‘That was it – and that was good!’?

And what might the next 12 months hold? Certainties and uncertainties. Hopes and fears. Waiting and wishing. Health and happiness. Stable relationships. A more balanced life of work, rest and pray. A deeper faith.

At Christmas we remember those who searched for the Christ-child. Shepherds from the hills and the wise ones from the East. For the shepherds, the search lasted a few hours or days. For the wise, a couple of years. They encountered difficulties along the way. But they knew what they were looking for – and they knew when they had found it.

No doubt some were sceptical. “What? The Messiah – in a cattle trough?” “Oh yeah, so I suppose you know exactly which star it is, then?” Some would have wanted to stay just where they were. Seated on the ground  watching their flocks by night. Not wanting to traverse afar. Afraid that life will be different. Seeing this Jesus business as too much of a risk.

Just like the shepherds and the wise, searching for the really important things takes time. It is often confusing and rarely straightforward. It involves uncertainty and difficulties. There are challenges and instability. It takes effort. Little wonder we’re tempted to give up searching at times.

And yet it is those very components which help us discern what we are looking for for ourselves and what God’s plans are for us (the two are not mutually exclusive, by the way).

There’s also clue in a word we hear a lot at Christmas. Immanuel. It means ‘God with us.’

Anselm Shobrook, a Benedictine monk at Alton Abbey, talked about how the core of the Gospel message is a mystery and a paradox: ‘We can’t have one without the other: suffering makes God with us authentic.’

It is within our searching, with all its uncertainties and difficulties, that we can most deeply experience God with us.

Across the world, the most popular verse in 2018 on the YouVersion Bible App is from the Old Testament book of Isaiah: ‘(The Lord said) do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.’ (Isaiah 41:10).

UK users of the same app looked to another Old Testament prophet for  assurances  about the past, present and future. Jeremiah wrote: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ (Jeremiah 29:11).

Immanuel. God with us. God grants the strength we need. God wants the best for us: plans to give us a future with hope.

Maybe at some point in the Christmas period, why not take a while to consider what you’ll be searching for in 2019? And how you think you’ll know you’ve found it.

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Retirement: Stopping & Starting

If I’d had £5 every time someone asked what I’ll be doing in retirement, I could have bought myself my own gold watch.

Play on repeat: ‘Writing books and blogs, learning the piano, photography, family history, U3A, joint ministry with my wife…’ But how upset I’d be if nobody asked. I am so grateful for and humbled by the interest and love shown in these last few months.

Preparing for the next stage of life – as I prefer to call it – started five years ago. You only get one go at this, I thought, and I want to make it work.

Having spent 30 years helping people with phased returns to work, I’ve taken a staged approach towards retirement. Five to four days a week three years ago. Three days since January. Changing the balance of life. Getting used to less structure. Less contact with people. Building new routines.

It’s worked. This writer approaches the next stage of life with a sense of calm. And for one for whom it is an elusive emotion, there’s even some excitement.

At work itself, the last three years have seen succession planning (a far too grand a title, really). We’ve crossed a few hurdles on the way. Many have helped in the process. That’s worked too. Achieving what we wanted. In full and on time. Recruiting replacements. Handing over to successors. Spending less time with immediate colleagues: enabling them to work together, develop and flourish. It’s going to be even better. Wow.

Unexpected, though, has been the return of ‘that Sunday evening feeling’. A loss of motivation sitting in tension with the calling and enjoyment of the vocation. Apprehension alongside anticipation. And a reduced irritation threshold…

A season of stopping and starting. The last client appointment. The last employer meeting. The last conference. The last training course delivered. The last team meeting. The last times of working with and learning so much from others. The last time I’ll see people who have meant so much to me. (Sorry. The hurts of history have made me sceptical of fond farewell, keep in touch promises.)

In all this, I’ve not been counting down the days. So this week’s realisation that there’s just six working ones to go came as a shock. The calmness shaken. The boat rocky. A strange time. The nearer it gets, the less believable it becomes. Such is the nature of change.

But it’s a time to give thanks for the privileges God has given. The privilege of making a difference. The privilege of playing a part in the lives of others. Seeing people make progress – especially in the small ways. Never ignore the small ways: they are always bigger than we think. The privilege of the next stage of life and all that will hold.

I’m writing this on retreat at Alton Abbey, a community of Benedictine monks in Hampshire. There’s a storm blowing outside. There’s one blowing inside too. But this is a place where the clock runs slowly. Where the silence of mealtimes is comforting. The routine of prayer is steadfast. The presence of God is everywhere. There’s sanctuary in the stillness. A place of stability in the stopping and the starting.

‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, in you I trust.’ (Psalm 25).

Play on repeat. It works.

‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Oh my God, in you I trust.’

 

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Stability in times of change

‘Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, Turn and face the strange’ David Bowie’s lyrics reflect the way that change is a constant and often unsettling companion.

Over the last 30-40 years, the workplace has changed beyond all recognition for many people. Technology, the internet and social media has brought massive change. Organisations go from one restructuring to another restructuring. Gone are the steady 9-5 routines, the lunch break and personal work space. In has come a long hours culture, hot desking, unachievable targets and 24/7 e-mails.

Part of the difficulty in ‘turning to face the strange’ is that while the world around us changes at a very fast rate, as human beings we often change much more slowly. The core characteristics of who we are take years to develop as we go through life being shaped by events and other people. I’ve been preparing to make the change from employment in to retirement for 2-3 years and I have no doubt it’ll take a few more months to fully adjust. It takes time to change. You may like to think about how you’ve changed in the last 5, 10, 20 years – and how you would like to change further in the next 5, 10, 20.

Whether of our own choice or not, it is often the waiting and the uncertainty of the prospect of change which is the most difficult characteristic of this unsettling companion. We like to know where we stand. The bigger picture remains blurred as we focus on the detail. We may accept the office move but what we really want to know is ‘Where will my desk be?’ or indeed, will I even have one? In such times, we want to hold on to that which remains the same. Hence why sometimes we are often resistant to change, be that at work, home or church.

This need for stability is reflected in one of the main principles, or vows, of Benedictine monasticism. Stability for the nun and the monk is about remaining in a specific community for life. For those of us living outside such settings, stability often finds itself dependent on many things: our house, family, job, finances, the place we live, the people we know or the church we go to, for example. And when something threatens those things, such as change or uncertainty, life becomes unstable.

The Rule of St Benedict retains a relevance to our lives in a world where change is often feared, stability can be elusive and busyness interferes with listening to God. For all seeking a deeper relationship with God, stability is found by becoming increasingly rooted in the one with whom that relationship is sought. This is further enhanced by two other Benedictine vows: listening to God and conversion of life. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this conversion, or change, is necessary for our relationship with God to grow. Whether a monastic or not, the principles of these vows can be viewed as threads running through our faith.

So how do we experience stability in God, particularly in times of change? Through prayer, in part, yes, and you would expect me to say that. But what does that prayer look like?

The principle of the ‘daily quiet time’ so beloved and valued by many Christians finds it source in the times of St Benedict and well before then. We see it in Moses going up to the mountain top and Jesus spending time alone in prayer. Setting aside times of giving intentional attention to God.

Crucial to experiencing stability in God is making such specific times to pray (as well as the ongoing prayers which act like punctuation marks in the sentences of our lives). It is the daily rhythm and the place for doing so that are key. To enable such times to become as natural as all the other rhythmical practises in our life – in the same way as times for eating, getting dressed, travelling to work or watching our favourite television programme. Such daily practices and routines provide us with a sense of stability. And it is often in those stable times that we experience the closeness and love of God more clearly and deeply.

As we do so, and as we listen to God, we become increasingly aware that in order to change, stability is needed; and in order to be stable, we are also to change.

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