Solitude

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O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

 John Keats

Spiritual Hospitality

Hospitality is listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit and  is concerned with representing God’s kindness to guests, strangers or visitors and making them feel welcome. Most often we think of this in terms of offering food or lodging or fellowship, in other words offering physical sustenance and friednship to those in need.

 One of my favourite reflections on hospitality is given by Henri Nouwen in his book entitled The Wounded Healer, in which he focuses on hospitality as being an expression of Grace. He says that we are all weary travelers on a journey and from time to time we are all in need of hospitality, except that we can only really offer hospitality when we are comfortable in our own home. In other words, relaxed enough to allow the guest to simply be.

In this sense hospitality is a metaphore for our being spiritually at peace with ourselves enough to the extent that we feel no judgement of the other, regardless of ethnicity, creed, gender or sexual orientation or any other such characteristic that can make us feel very uncomfortable within ourselves. Viewed this way prejudice then is the antithesis of hospitality. Prejudice and intolerance are derived from a sense of separation from the other, we see the other person as different from us and judge this to be a bad thing. Deep down difference feels threatening, we don’t understand and that makes us feel uncomfortable. The ego steps in to protect our interests and rather than showing kindness and hospitality (spiritual or practical) we close the door and hope that the other will move on quickly.

The great commandments to ‘Love God with all you hear and mind and soul and strength and to love you neighbour as your self’,  are a formula which lead us not only  to feeling comfortable in our own home but also to a genuine desire to offer hospitality to our neighbour, whoever they might be.

Firstly Loving God with everything we have derives from that desire for intimacy and personal inner relationship, to such an extent extent that it pervades all aspects of our very being.  When we are on this path of seeking an ever closer communion with God we begin to discover that the edges between where we end and God begins are fuzzy – we begin to partake in the divinity and lose our sense of separation. Now when this happens we also begin to lose our sense of separation from others too. It is as if there is a growing sense of oneness within us. It is a transforming process that causes us to feel deep peace within our soul – or in other words, comfortable in our own home. From this place loving our neighbour as our self comes easily because we don’t feel those hard boundaries that mark us as different and we are no longer threatened. Our security comes from our relationship with God within us.

And so we come to a state where we can extend hospitality without any desire to judge. Or, as Henri Nowen puts it we become the host who gives their guests ‘a friendly space where they can be free to come and go, to be close and distant, to rest and to play, to talk and to be silent, to eat and to fast. The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of and empty pace where the guest can find his own soul.’

Autumn by William Blake

 O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

 The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

Zaccheaus

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In Luke  19:1-10  we hear the story of Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus as a chief Tax collectors would not have been a popular. Tax collectors were thought of as dishonest, fraudulent and  thieving with regard to the amount they would charge on top of the taxes they were collecting. Generally they they got away with this because as long as the taxes were paid then the Roman governor’s really didn’t care how much the collector were making. They were despised by those who worked and had to pay so much in taxes.  Quite right too we might think but of course this is not a literal event but an allegory pointing to a deeper mystery where we find Zacchaeus surprisingly closer to the truth than we might first think.

 One of the first observations we make about Zacchaeus is that he is short in stature. Actually the point here is not that he is short but that he could not ‘catch a glimpse of Jesus’.

 Difficulty in seeing in stories like this are usually metaphors that almost always point  us in the direction of lack of spiritual sight. It’s as if there is recognition that in Jesus that there is something profound and important but they haven’t yet ‘seen’ it for themselves. I remember being in this place in my own faith journey. I remember in Sunday school hearing stories of Jesus but try as hard as I might I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t catch a glimpse of it.  But somewhere in me a burning desire to see had been kindled.

 I remember too, in my late teens, watching a television programme about a prison chaplain who had been working with some of the most hardened criminals. The programme was about how one of the inmates lives had been turned around by by the chaplains approach. The chaplain began a weekly programme of meditating on stories from the gospels. To begin with these men saw this as a great opportunity to get out of their cells for an extra hour a week.  But this soon changed for one man who began to realise there was a transforming power in these stories. He didn’t yet get it but a desire to see was kindled and this desire became a yearning for more (rather than merely the opportunity to get out of the cell).

 He then described the moment when his spiritual eyes were suddenly opened and he saw who Jesus was, it was like an awakening for him.  This was a transformational moment when his spiritual sight because and his desire was realised.

 Desire for God is a powerful driving force in a person’s spiritual life – whether we are just beginning the journey or have become spiritually adept – this sense of yearning is a metaphysical process that enables the bond between God and the individual to be established. Indeed over time the yearning gets stronger it is experienced as a prayer and is designed to draw us into an ever deeper union.

 But let us consider Zacchaeus for a moment… Here was a man who was rich and had all the trappings of material wealth. One could imagine he could easily have been proud and arrogant.  And yet…

 Such was his longing to see Jesus that he was prepared to humiliate himself in front of the entire crowd by climbing a tree. How undignified was that! What kind of a fool would this wealthy man have made of himself amongst those who who already despised him.  Yet how great must have his desire been in order to drive him to humble himself before God.

 But in this undignified act of climbing the tree we discover  great keys to spiritual awakening…a yearning for God which humbles us as realisation begins to dawn. And even as we begin to  wake from our worldly slumber Christ is unveiled,  Zaccheus who has now seen and won’t ever unsee.

 ‘Zaccheus come down for I must come to your house today….’

 This is symbolic of the Christ energy awakening within Zacchaeus – not Jesus going to his literal house.

 That the crowds were scandalised show us that they were to busy worrying about other people’s lives (what Zacchaeus was doing and how Jesus was responding) to be personally awake enough, humble enough or desirous enough to want to experience the awakening within themselves.

 Judgement, pride,  lack of desire for truth and the soporific effect of literalism are the barriers that the human ego deploys in order to keep us as one of the crowd. Spiritual awakening begins with our burning desire to See God and our humility in approaching that sacred ground