Language leads into experience or may lead out of it – head first, as it were! Words may express longing or wisdom, weariness or despair. As Yeshua/Jesus showed, the journey with him into God is one of gradual realisation and recognition, re-shaping and shift. Changing the consciousness and guiding metaphors that nourish and direct our lives can bring about new perspectives, new hopes, bold opportunities.
The beckoning of the holy, the celebration of the presence of ‘God-in-the-midst’, is one of the threads in the patterning of Contemplative Fire. In an incarnational faith, the body is intricately involved, as is the Spirit. ‘From sole to soul’, you might say. It’s a matter of having the courage as a community of faith in each generation to open up Scripture and tradition. Why? So that members of the community can best witness to the sacramentality, the inscape, of all things as we learn to resonate with and sing from inner and outer truth.
Alastair McIntosh puts it superbly in his Soil and Soul: “… to walk barefoot, and to realise that you’re not thinking, but reverberating; that your mind is now resounding to the power of having paid heed, paying heed to an old, old passage: ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ (Exodus 3.5 KJV) … You realise, afresh, why we evolved toes, their function in giving balance. You experience a harmony of body, soil and soul. You become more … incarnate.” (p128)
Consider the water beetle
We celebrate the invitation and the freedom to deconstruct ancient metaphors and formularies of faith and then to reconstruct them, locating new ways of telling our stories and the story, of learning the path of mercy and forgiveness. It is the journey of unknowing, before and after knowing. Alastair McIntosh writes in his Afterword: “As people concerned about the Earth and all that it contains, we are required to look courageously into the darkness. It is a daunting task; one where it is all too easy to burn out, or sell out, or to sink to the bottom, paralysed, when faced with the enormity of our own limitations and hypocrisies … The darkness, after all, is a place of gestation. From here, life and consciousness grow. Consider the water beetle. The dance takes place precisely because these creatures have the capacity to carry, into deep and dark places, just sufficient oxygen for their needs. And it is the same for us. We too potentially have the capacity to live life to the full, to be the remnant, to hear the music quicken and to make community.” (pp 279-280)
We are called in Contemplative Fire to commit to locate and articulate ways that best express the reality of the burning bush in the everyday ordinary/extraordinary. This is one way of describing the point and process of the wide variety of Contemplative Fire’s groups: Pilgrimage to Now/here and Wisdom on the Way, Open Circle and Still Waters, Way beyond Religion group and Gatherings for song, stillness and eucharist.
Can we allow ourselves to be drawn closer to a ‘wonderstruck beholding’ of the beauty of the earth? In Contemplative Fire, we may frequently be nudged from ‘pattern recognition’ to ‘pattern interrupt’ and on to ‘pattern enhancement’. This is the discernment of Jesus’ Way of Love. He, alongside us, rests and wrestles at the edge and at the centre. He and we dwell in the parameters and parables, in the exercises and encounters of daily life.
The sweet water well
A seminal story for our work together unfolds like this: ‘Once there were two farmers from different parts of the world, who had just met up to compare notes and swap stories. The American farmer said to his Australian counterpart: ”My ranch is so large and I have so many cattle that it’s just cost me a fortune to put barbed wire around the whole property.” The Australian replied: “You think your farm is big. My farm is vast and I have thousands of head of cattle. There’s no way I could afford to put up barbed wire fencing to keep the cattle in, even if I wanted to. I just have to make sure that the sweet water well that is at the heart of the property is kept pure and sweet. Then the cattle don’t want to stray too far away. They want to stay in contact with the sweet water well.”
Here, there is a shift of understanding which is made possible if and when we transfer our allegiance from one particular metaphor to another: from the containment of property and cattle by means of barbed wire fencing, to the nurturing of the livestock by means of a sweet water well, placed and sustained at the heart of the property. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the barbed wire metaphor has been deconstructed. The reconstruction, the opening up, the transmuting, happens with the metaphor of the sweet water well.
Suddenly, we find ourselves de-constructed, inspired, shaped and re-constructed by an alternative picture. This implies a great deal of freedom and adventure. The awakening to the inner significance of a new sign or parable gives us an unequivocal sense of what it means to belong to and contribute in different ways to an open community. We come to learn that we can enjoy the same radical choice as the mystics, activists and artists – the heady opportunity to delight in discovering for ourselves new ways of becoming who we already are.
In other words, the metaphors that we choose to use are highly significant as communicators to ourselves and to others of what we hold most dear. If we hold to a sweet water well model of prayer, study and action, of a ‘wonder-struck beholding’, of love-in-action on the way of Christ, this will be very different indeed to a barbed wire fence model. Seeking to hold in creative tension the paradoxes inherent in the wisdom stream of which we are a part, will introduce us to a dialogue between flow and form, spontaneity and structure, creativity and tradition.
Sue Knight, one of the finest trainers I’ve had the privilege to work with, wrote recently to those on her mailing list: ‘What we represent in our thinking shapes the acts of which we are capable. The words we use imprint themselves on our own and others’ minds … Are you aware of the words and images you are using (no matter how they are packaged)? And are you choosing (yes choosing consciously) words that truly convey what you really do want (not what you don’t)? … We change the world from within. … Choose well …’
Over the years I have been inspired and heartened to learn of and from the lineage of the great spiritual tradition – the golden thread, as it has been described – that runs from the Scriptures through the saints and mystics, theologians and musicians, artists and dancers, scientists and story-tellers. As then, so now. There is for us an ever-present prophetic task of resting, wrestling and responding. This task needs to remain vibrant and focused as the weeks, months and years of our journey together unfold.
Deconstruct and reconstruct
As Contemplative Fire came into being in 2003 and 2004, I was very aware within myself of the invitation to ‘deconstruct and reconstruct’. This approach presents us with a vital and vibrant nudge forward in digesting and developing what God is calling each one of us to be and do as we explore mystical Christianity. The invitation can beckon us at an individual and at a group level. How do we re-configure and texture our believing and our praying? How, in planning, presenting and participating in Contemplative Fire events, workshops and Gatherings for the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, can we best embody our vocation to be a pioneer community? If someone asks ‘What does Contemplative Fire (or what do you) believe’, what is to be our grounded response?
Exploration and quest
The parish and people of St Michael and All Angels, Amersham on the Hill, provided the soil within which the vision and values, processes and paradigms of Contemplative Fire took shape in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One of the initiatives that I was able to introduce there as vicar was the series of Millennium Lectures. These attracted a number of thought-provoking speakers and rejoiced in significant interest from the parish and surrounding area. One presenter who filled St Michael’s on two occasions was the radical US bishop Jack Selby Spong. Jill and I were delighted to offer the bishop and his wife overnight accommodation and we had great conversations over prolonged breakfasts!
In his lectures and books, the bishop puts all the seminal ideas and beliefs of Christianity under the spotlight with no holds barred. During the course of a meal on his second visit, I ventured to say, ‘Jack, you take great delight in throwing up in the air our beliefs and in challenging traditional understandings. You rigorously deconstruct the language, metaphors and stories of faith. What is also needed now, surely, is reconstruction – of language and faith?’ I shall never forget his bold and yet invitational reply: ‘That is your task, Philip. I have done what I am able to.’
New Ways of Being Church
This strong and somewhat scary ‘nudge’ from the bishop to engage in reconstruction after deconstruction provided one of the essential threads in the fabric and DNA coding of the experimental community of Contemplative Fire. It proved timely that, not long afterwards, in 2003/2004, came a national call from the senior staff of the Church of England for experimentation and creativity in exploring new ways of understanding and following Jesus and embodying ‘new ways of being church’. This built upon and affirmed the ‘Cutting Edge Ministries’ initiative begun by the Diocese of Oxford which authorised and supported Contemplative Fire’s ‘launch into the deep’. To cut a very long story short, at this point, Contemplative Fire as a network community of Christ at the edge was being brought into being by the grace of God and some good strategic thinking!
The creative and dynamic tradition that is our proud lineage is not a clear-cut either/or, but far more a both/and. As Simon Ings (2018) in his 14 July 2018 New Scientist article “Glimpses of Everything” writes in response to his visit to the “reimagined, renovated and rehung World Gallery at London’s Horniman Museum”: “Cultures do not follow each other like buses. They nudge up against each other, blend and spark, wear each other’s motley, hide and then re-emerge, often thanks to a healthy dose of reinvention.”