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A healing journey: Reflections for January 2021
The Revd Dr Gillian Straine
Week one: A healing journey
It is a dark time of year, we’re in lockdown again, and in any case January in the UK is a tough month for many as the Christmas sparkle fades and we find ourselves still in winter. Those who walk the Way of the faith know that the celebrations continue into Epiphany and beyond, but the pandemic is yet unwithered and it is hard to know how 2021 is going to work out. Perhaps you are a fan of New Year resolutions and the fresh start of a clean calendar, but how do we look ahead positively when the uncertainty and loss persist?
In these meditations over the next four weeks, I want to take us on a healing journey to explore how to flourish faithfully in 2021. After all, God calls us to live the resurrection hope, and to be a positive force for good in the world, irrespective of what we are going through: whether we are young or old, healthy or living with illness. So, our question is this: how do we bloom in 2021 for the sake of ourselves and our community in the name of God?
We begin this year in the dark shadow of the Covid19 pandemic - but there are well trodden spiritual paths that lead from darkness into light as we seek to flourish for God. I suggest that we think of the journey as the growth of a seed in the dark earth and that we are waiting through this difficult part of the year, and indeed human history, and ask God to help us grow into the light and be part of a flourishing spring.
In the soil beneath our feet, as we walk on frozen ground or across muddy parks, there are millions of seeds and bulbs waiting in darkness to break out and stretch green shoots into the light when spring arrives. So, let’s take our cue from nature and from our spiritual and biblical traditions – and begin by preparing the soil.
To flourish faithfully we need to be brave and we need to be honest with ourselves. What do you feel about yourself? What holds you back from being the person you know you are? Are you prepared to grow and burst into the light – what do you need to let go of, or start believing in, to make this possible? There is something deeply liberating about this honesty, because God knows us entirely – all the good bits and the bad bits – so how do you live with a deep sense of your value in the eyes of God? Ask these questions confidently because the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s assurance that each of us is absolutely worth it.
This week, why not sit with this question and the affirmation and see what God is saying to you.
Question of the week: God thinks I am worth it – do I?
Affirmation of the week: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 1 John 4.16
Week two: Seeds
Let’s continue this week to meditate on the seed planted in the darkness – the seed is beginning to push down roots as winter progresses inevitably towards spring. But it is still waiting in the dark earth, and without this period of apparent inactivity there would be no growth and no chance for it to mature into a plant. Nature knows that growth takes time and often happens in dark places.
We live in a society that values acquisition, beauty, achievement, and instant gratification. Our world today is less attuned to handle things that take time to emerge, and less willing to face up to the reality of suffering, death and things that go wrong. Covid19 has offered a real challenge to a world that demands quick answers, and easy solutions to problems. It has been a particular challenge to our society’s unease and unfamiliarity with death. Media and the government have struggled to present the pandemic in terms of easy solutions; perhaps because there are none. It will take time.
In the Christian spiritual tradition, there is a well-trod path through darkness and silence that gets to God – the via negativa. One hero of this way is St John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish priest and mystic.
St John of the Cross followed a spiritual path that enables Christians to locate God in experiences that go beyond human description, and that when we strip away everything that we think we know we will find God as the foundation of everything. So rather than sitting with accepted ideas about God (such as God who is forgiving, loving and eternal, all of which are true), we rather just sit, clear our minds, and instead try not to project ideas on to God. It not about ignorance, but rather about openness. This is a spiritual approach best done in the darkness.
The openness to God is at the heart of the via negativa, and it is a way that helps us pay attention to what is happening around us. Take the parable of The Good Samaritan. The priest and Levite ignored the injured man and missed an opportunity to experience God in the care of another, because they had their religion neatly sorted out – God was in the Torah, and the temple, in the law and in the buildings. And so they missed God. The Good Samaritan, who doesn’t ‘know’, is open enough to respond to the other in need and to provide healing – and he finds God there.
Question of the week: How open am I to God and to finding God in my experiences this week?
Affirmation of the week: In the inner stillness, where your meditation leads, the Spirit secretly anoints the soul and heals our deepest wounds. St John of the Cross.
This week, why not sit with this question and the affirmation and see what God is saying to you.
Week three: A trace upon our souls
The seed in darkness continues to push down roots and push up shoots, as it waits patiently for the sun to warm the earth and for it to seek light. For now, we continue to wait in the darkness. But there is expectancy and hope.
We are an Easter Sunday people. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave is the foundational miracle of the faith. It makes sense of everything that has gone before – the prophecies, the miracles of Jesus, the teaching of our Lord, and, most significantly for us today, the suffering of Jesus while on earth.
St Paul writes in Romans 8: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Have you ever wondered why the story doesn’t go straight from the cross to Easter morning? Presumably, the miracle of resurrection could have occurred immediately. But that is not what happened, and it is important to reflect on why creation had to wait and why we have the day in between that we call Holy Saturday.
In the time of profound suffering that the pandemic has brought, and in all times of trial and suffering that we go through, we have Holy Saturday to proclaim what St Paul said in Romans – that because of the journey from the cross, to the grave, to a period of waiting before Easter Sunday, God is with us always, even when we are forced to wait and endure. There is no suffering that cannot be healed, and we know this because of the suffering Jesus himself went through before the resurrection.
I wonder to what extent you might be willing to hold on to this great truth, while looking back on your story of suffering? Simone Weil wrote that suffering produces a trace upon our souls. That is why it is important – it changes who we are. And unless we take time to consider the way in which we have been changed by what we have gone through, we do not understand our own souls and miss an opportunity to grow in the wisdom of God and find the peace that such a relationship might bring.
Find someone you trust to speak to, call a friend, pray to God, or simply sit in silence with it knowing that God is at the foundation of the world and also the one who created us in our mother’s womb – the universal and personal collide, and God will heal.
St John of the Cross writes:
Growth in the desert -
That eternal spring lies hidden,
How well I know its hiding place,
Even when it is night.
Question of the week: What suffering have I been through that needs healing?
Affirmation of the week: I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139)
Week four: Being here is magnificent
We have been on a gradual journey following the seed as it waited in darkness and began to grow. Healing is often slow. Of course, occasionally miracles do happen but for reasons beyond our comprehension they do not seem common. Most stories of healing take time, and they so often also involve spiritual growth, sometimes even a positive change of heart and a new start. And perhaps those are miracles anyway.
Seeking to flourish in 2021, given what we have been through personally and as a country in 2020, is not going to be a quick and easy fix but I feel that as we look ahead to the year there is opportunity to flourish in the faith if we ground it in healing of body, mind and spirit. This takes seriously the depth of suffering, and the resurrection truth at the core of our faith. It offers the opportunity for each one of us to grow in the wisdom of God.
What does this flourishing look like, and how do we keep going on this life-long journey that will end in the final and greatest moment of healing – our reconciliation with the God who made us?
Once the seed has sprouted, put down roots and emerged into the world above the soil, it needs water, light and air to continue to growth.
What do we need to energise us this year?
Firstly, growth is best supported through a living and open relationship with God. Plants need carbon dioxide; we need the spirit of God. As the hymn writer says, ‘Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, That I may love what Thou dost love and do what Thou wouldst do’.
Secondly, we need to capture the amazement of Spring in our hearts. Personally, even though I know it is coming, I still feel delight at the snow drops pushing through the soil and the clumping cherry blossom weighing down the branches of trees. We need to remain amazed as an act of defiance and resistance to the darkness of this world.
Take a moment to express wonderment; awe at the beauty of creation; the individuality of each soul, and the real opportunities we are given each day to make the world a better place. Seize these moments and be as that newly grown shoot – growing despite the challenges. Be the most enthusiastic and life-affirming person that you know – you know your faults and so does God, but God loves you anyway. Find the freedom that this gives you because, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, ‘Being here is magnificent’.
This is to flourish in 2021; this is to walk The Way of the Faith today, amidst the complexity and challenge of a world in which disease, war and suffering will not disappear.
Let us flourish as a people of God to the glory of God and help the world around us flourish too.
Question of the week: How can I make a positive impact in my community today?
Affirmation of the week: ‘Being here is magnificent’.
The Revd Dr Gillian Straine is a priest, scientist, theologian and cancer survivor. She runs GoHealth a Christian organisation focused on holistic healing.