Isn't it amazing how, even though we may not knowingly prepared for it, we can often enter a space set aside for intentional spiritual growth and be caught up, affirmed and transformed by it? This was again my experience this week as I put the finishing touches to a new website I am creating - which will share something of the growing spiritual resources and reflections being produced by transgender Christians across the world, together with others of my own. Focused on thoughts of this, I made my way to the beautiful Chapel of the Holy Spirit here on our college site. What I encountered brought fresh joy to my soul, placing in greater profile and context the purpose of that work. For it was a powerful reminder to me, as a transgender person, not only that, in the words of Psalm 139, I am 'fearfully and wonderfully made', but that all of us, whoever and whatever we are, exist in a mystery which is both far beyond our understanding (certainly more than straightforward binary ideas of good and evil, male and female) and yet also closer to us than the identities we have or for which we struggle. Such is the gift of loving spiritual intention, in people, place and prayer...
It was a delight last Saturday to share in one of the first official workshops of 'Praying in Anglican Ways': a resource I developed last year, with Penny Jones' and Jonathan Sargeant's assistance, for the 360 series of educational resources produced through the Anglican Church Southern Queensland. The aim has been to provide an introduction to the depth and variety of Anglican spirituality which forms part of the extraordinary rich Christian tradition as a whole. For so much is taken for granted, confined to narrow channels, or simply not explored. Using Dr Corinne Ware's Spirituality Wheel as one way in, and employing some of my own 'Whole Body' approaches to faith and spirituality, four broad pathways are highlighted (what, in 'whole body' terms, I call 'head', 'heart', feet' and 'hands'). This offers participants opportunities to share together something of the wide range of Anglican spiritualities, deepening and widening their own journeys and understanding better those of others. It is also adaptable to other, less denominational groups, but that may be something for the future. This is part of the work I hope to be further involved in when I begin my new role next year. For more information about the 360 courses and ACSQ educational work, check out the Formed Faith website, or check out some of our You Tube clips on the link below...
In our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural society, one challenge is how we find both meaningful and inclusive ways to celebrate, commemorate, lament and strengthen bonds of peace and harmony. On the one hand, erasing spiritual expression in the name of secular unity impoverishes and leaves us short of the depth and connections which community ritual can bring. On the other, it is not enough today simply to settle regularly for one expression of faith leadership, however well tried, nor just to include several such expressions (at the risk of length, tedium, and exclusion of other 'minority' voices). In Toowoomba, we have employed various approaches in recent years for important community gatherings and recognition of disaster and tragedy. Depending on circumstances, through the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, we have both used traditional means and venues and multi-faith representation, and have also begun to create new pathways.
One of the most moving explorative community rituals was at Acland on Australia Day 2015 - see further here - but we have also developed a number of 'community affirmations' for special occasions, including Harmony Day - see here for a well-established example. Last Sunday was another wonderful step forward. Together with Toowoomba Regional Council, it was a delight, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, to work with the Nepalese Association of Toowoomba on a commemorative event to mark the Nepal earthquake last year. Using the lovely new Civic Square space at the new Toowoomba Library, we shared stories, music, video clips from Nepal, and a moving candlelight vigil - first lighting and circling the area with candles and then placing them by the water. It was a powerful expression of lament and commitment to renewal and of the binding of our different lives and backgrounds together to celebrate, support and heal our shared city and world.
My own contribution to the event is below - a new community affirmation for such occasions I hope we can develop further with other elements in the future:
TOOWOOMBA STANDING TOGETHER
Community Affirmation in the face of disaster and emergency
We meet today to affirm and support each other.
We acknowledge the first peoples of this land and their continued gifts among us.
We welcome all who join us in our shared journey of peace and harmony.
May we always celebrate our diversity as central to our common life and fruitfulness.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to share and honour our pain and sadness.
We hold with tenderness all that is hurting among us and in our broken world.
We offer up our sorrow, heartache and compassion.
May our tears and grief be transformed into healing and renewal.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to strengthen hope and solidarity.
We pledge ourselves to rebuild with love and courage.
We seek to do all we can to rejuvenate what has been destroyed.
May our hearts and hands always reach out to those in need, wherever they may be.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together:
many outlooks, many cultures – one community.
The Hills Hoist is one of the great Australian icons. It is in many ways redolent of much of modern Australia: happily and effectively secular, suburban and spiritually practical and pragmatic. It is simple, straightforward and sensible. It is easily owned by all cultures and backgrounds and found across the continent, from the cosmopolitan coast to regional backyards, to outback and desert landscapes. It requires no special insight, ritual or tradition. Yet the eye of faith may contemplate its cruciform design with wonder. Grounded in the sacred earth, clothed with humanity, raised to the heavens, its ordered, waiting, being is open to the dynamic grace and play of the elements, not least the sun and wind – metaphors of the life-giving Word and Spirit. Unassuming icon – heaven in ordinary.
One of the most shocking aspects of many true mystics is the use of erotic imagery in accounts of their spiritual experience. Neither Reformation Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism found this comfortable and their legacy of repressive suspicion continues within much of Western culture today. In recent times however there has rightly been a gradual rediscovery of this vital tradition.
Within Christianity this has been aided by the rise of Christian feminism which has sought to honour the long despised lives and experiences of women. This has brought about a slow but significant re-evaluation of the place of the body, touch, tenderness, desire and the sensual in spiritual expression and symbolism. In the process, the very earthy nature of most biblical experience has been highlighted, including the typically sensate character of most of Jesus' encounters with women and men, even/notably in the accounts of the Resurrection. Female mystics such as Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechtild of Magdeburg have also been happily 'rediscovered' and acclaimed.
What is often less prominent, perhaps because it is arguably even more subversive to patriarchal religion, is the acknowledgement of similar experience and tradition among men. This has been greatly aided by gay men's experience but is no mere contemporary novelty or confined to sexual orientation. Admittedly somewhat corralled by Neo-Platonist and ascetic concerns, it was after all Origen (the greatest of the earliest church theologians) who was the great founder of Christian erotic spiritual symbolism and it was Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval monastic reformer, who was its greatest champion. More widely however it is also found, often in unacknowledged and awkward silences, in the experience of otherwise 'ordinary', heterosexual men. For me, this has always been powerfully expressed in Billy Bragg's song Tender Comrade, speaking evocatively of the anguish, vulnerability and bonds of love of otherwise very masculine men in the face of adversity. In St Luke's Toowoomba, it is similarly poignantly seen in the Warriors Chapel side window, where a struggling soldier reaches out to touch the feet of the crucified Christ. This is no denial of the toughness of God and of human conflict. It is however a pointer to the deeply intimate nature of love at the heart of all our being. For Christians, male and female, gay and straight, are called to be both lovers and transforming soldiers of Christ: tender comrades of deep intimacy.
Mary Oliver's beautiful poem 'The Summer Day' encapsulates so much of the real challenge of a spiritual life. As she writes elsewhere, in 'Wild Geese': 'You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./ You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.' How hard it often is for us to believe, and, still more, trust and live this. We have so often allowed ideas of exile, death, sin and punishment to predominate in our psyches, rather than welcome, life, grace and forgiveness, which are so much more central and eternal. All too often even so-called rebels, rakes and critics have protested, and lived, a false dichotomy between the material and spiritual, the now and beyond, the human and divine. Mary Oliver instead calls us to attention, to the mystery of the everyday and everywhen, and to living of life in all its fullness.
The final words of the poem 'The Summer Day' have also been ringing round my consciousness for the last two and a half months: 'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' Perhaps this blog and website is but one small step for me in responding to that challenge, an expression of my own call to attention, and to expression of the mystery and meaning I glimpse and seek to live. Maybe my good soul-friend Graham is right, self-effacement can be a frustrating buried treasure. Graham introduced me to Mary Oliver's work and a wild and precious life certainly demands more. That phrase also came alive for me this weekend as I pondered two men whose funerals I had been asked to lead. One died only a year older than I am now. Like Bob Dylan's admission about Lenny Bruce, 'maybe he had some problems, maybe some things that he couldn’t work out', but he was more spiritually awake than many. Bruce Laurie was somewhat wild in several senses, but he was also precious and he lived life to the full. The other man was a Toowoomba country man of the old school but of a high intellectual calibre. His late wife Olwen was a weekly communicant in our Anglican parish but Reid was more complex, not just more shrewd but more sparing, in his spiritual commitments: perhaps his very unpretentiousness kept him from expressing publicly, or aloud, the deepest longings and experiences of his heart. He was full of life and virtues however, which shine on in his grieving children. He paid attention and seized life's opportunities and challenges, passionately but graciously. Now he rides his wild horses beyond the western sunset and into a new summer's day. He, like Bruce, would have loved to have argued and agreed with Mary Oliver's poet-forerunner Horace, drowning a beer together on the verandah (or in Bruce's case perhaps something stronger in a nightclub): Carpe Diem. May they rest in peace and rise in glory, and may we attend and let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.