Ian Cowley, author of The Contemplative Struggle, reflects on the arrival of spring after a particularly challenging winter.
Ian Cowley has written three books for BRF, The Contemplative Minister: Learning to Lead from the Still Centre (2015), and The Contemplative Response: Leadership and ministry in a distracted culture (2019). The third book in the series, The Contemplative Struggle: Radical discipleship in a broken world has just been published. Here he follows up the blog he wrote last May with a reflection on the arrival of spring after a uniquely challenging year.
A new way of being
Yesterday, from the window of my study, I saw two trees in a neighbouring garden suddenly clothed in glorious pink blossom. It has been a long winter and all the trees around us have been bare and empty for months. This week, for the first time this year, I have felt the arrival of spring. Everything is changing. Life is springing up anew.
This spring of 2021 is like no other spring that any of us have known. As I write, over 50% of adults in the UK have received their first jab of Covid vaccine. There is a sense of a way out of this awful time of the Covid pandemic, maybe, maybe, just around the corner. But what will life be like when we emerge from all this? We know that things will not be the same as they were before. We have all been changed by what we have been through. But no one knows what these events will mean for our lives and for our world.
It is clear that many people are hoping for a slower, saner and more sustainable way of being. Many have been enjoying the beauty of the countryside and exploring footpaths and new walking routes during these times of lockdown. Most of us have had to slow down in one way or another, and have had more time for family, more time at home, more time to reflect on our lives and where we are heading.
I am part of a local spirituality group which has been looking at how we might respond in the coming months to the needs of churches and individuals emerging from lockdown. We can’t simply go back to everything we had planned at the beginning of 2020. We have to start again. The world has changed, and the needs of people for spiritual support are not what they were before all this happened.
I was immediately struck in our Zoom meeting by the unanimity amongst the group about the essential importance of silence and contemplation as a means of deepening our experience of the presence of God. We looked at how we might be able to help both clergy and lay people in the post-lockdown period by providing days of shared reflection and contemplative prayer. There was a strong emphasis on listening, slowing down and learning to be more attentive. We recognised that many people, particularly those in leadership, are tired, stressed and to some degree burnt out. This is a time for listening to what people have been feeling and going through. If we can offer this to others, this will be a timely and much-needed gift. This is a time to be gentle and patient with one another, a time for the deepening of relationships with one another and with God.
As we emerge from lockdown, many of us will find that returning to a life of meetings and gatherings of people will be unexpectedly difficult. Our church, which used to be full every Sunday, now often has empty seats even though only a small number are permitted to attend. How many of those who used to come to church on Sunday are now more comfortable doing online church in their own time and at home? Many dread the idea of returning to the rat race, the busyness, the endless meetings and events. That, to some degree, is how many churches used to be.
My hope is that after the pandemic we will find a new way of being. Many of us now recognise that things have to change. Our addictions to long haul travel and exotic holidays, to carbon fuels and wasteful consumption cannot continue. There is a great longing for a more just, more sustainable, less violent way of being.
Perhaps as we move forward through the coming months, we will see church life and our own lives being built in new ways on silence, on kindness and care for one another, and on a simpler and more honest way of living. Silence is a wonderful gift. Certainly, you can have too much of it. But in the past year many have rediscovered the value of quietness, of listening and noticing the birdsong and the blossom, the smiles and frowns.
Last Sunday our local church services were focused on the ministry of what is called Fresh Hope. This is an umbrella project for a wide range of services provided by or through our church for disadvantaged families and individuals. I saw in a new way a local church where the message we proclaim is not primarily about words. Instead what we heard and saw was people and families who have faced immense struggles and have found compassion and help through the church. This is how it was with Jesus. His was not primarily a word based ministry. What came first this was his actions, his compassion and his love for people, especially the forgotten, the lost and the marginalised. His words flowed out of his deeds.
On Sunday we listened to the parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother. We were reminded that you can spend a lot of time in the Father’s house, and yet miss the Father’s heart. A new way of being church will start with a new attentiveness to the Father’s heart. This is not possible unless we are willing to slow down. We have to take time to be still, to listen and to learn anew how to love as Jesus loves. Could we see a church emerge that is built on this as a core value? Could we see a church where depth of relationship, with God and with one another, comes first instead of busyness and programmes?
This is a time when there are many reasons for hope. This is springtime: new life and resurrection are in the air. But there are choices to be made, for each one of us. Will we learn the lessons of the past difficult, awful year? Will we be willing to let go of that which we now know is not life-giving for us? Are we ready to change and to choose life? I pray that we are. I pray also that the church will be ready to show the way by being a church that does not under any circumstances allow itself to miss the Father’s heart.
Ian Cowley has been a parish priest in Natal, South Africa, and in Cambridge and Peterborough. Before retirement, he was Vocations and Spirituality Coordinator for the Diocese of Salisbury, where he set up and developed the Contemplative Minister programme. He now writes, speaks and leads retreats.
Today, many church leaders are looking for a different way of being in ministry, a better way of serving Christ than the relentless busyness and pressure that have become the norm. But how? Ian Cowley finds answers in the disciplines of the contemplative tradition. Click here for more details and to order.
Following on from the success of The Contemplative Minister, Ian Cowley offers new insight and greater depth for church leaders in a distracted world. Click here for more details and to order.