Friday, 22 February 2013


...I'll learn ya!" Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar.
"Lemme go or I'll hit you again," shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing.
"Fine! Be that way," said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes.
"I'm gonna kick the stuffin' out of you," Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.

We form an attachment when we develop the belief that our happiness depends on a particular person or a particular thing. Once the attachment is formed we are subject to two powerful emotional tangles. On the one hand there is a temporary buzz of pleasure whenever the object of our attachment is attained. On the other there is a sense of  fear that we will lose the object of our attachment. These sensations, in combination with the myriad other attachments to which we are prone dominate and control our lives. When we realise that this attachment is doing us no good at all we quite naturally want to get rid of it and try to push it away, and we learn our first valuable lesson about de-attaching namely, that as it is with tar babies, so it is with attachments. We screw up our reserves of courage, we resolve to deny ourselves, we push and shove. So, along with the pleasure, and the fear there is now a whole set of new emotions concerned with rejecting, disciplining, denying - and of course the inevitable guilt when none of the above seems to quite work. We have, in other words, greatly multiplied the emotional cloud surrounding the object of our attachment and thus increased the degree to which we are glued to it. Rather than the traditional course of discipline, rigour, positive thinking, goal setting, cold showers and all the rest, detachment requires another approach entirely.

In another of his books Anthony De Mello says there are three basic principles of spiritual life: 1) Awareness; 2) Awareness; and 3) Awareness.. Detaching requires the application of all three.

Firstly we need to be aware of ourselves.  We need to be aware that we have developed a preposterous belief, namely that without the object of our desire we cannot be happy. We need to be aware of how this belief has shaped our actions and thinking. We need to be aware of the amount of emotional investment, both positive and negative we have made in this attachment, and the extent to which this attachment has limited and defined us.

Further we need to be aware of the thing or person to which we have become attached. Because habitually we see this thing or person through the lens of our own attachment it will not be easy for us to get a realistic picture of their reality. As we see them as they are the person or thing is seen as incapable of bearing the load of expectation we have of them. As we relinquish our desire for what we imagine she/ he/ it can give us, we are, oddly, free to enjoy them perhaps for the first time ever.

And further still, we need to be aware of the nature of our attachment itself. As we become more realistically aware of the object of our attachment we can sometimes take the step of discerning more accurately what is is that we think we so desperately need. Is it the desired person or the intimacy/ affection/ esteem we imagine we may obtain from them? Is it the alcohol or anaesthesia? Is it money or the security we imagine may accrue to money? Is it the desire to help or a need to be significant?  And understanding the need will help us to the realisation that the need itself is illusory and a product of our own programming.

The attachment can be thought of as a gesture of clinging. To get rid of it requires not that we push and shove and fight, but merely that we open our arms and let it drift away. It is so simple, but so difficult. For me the daily practical practice in the art of release that comes in silent meditation has been crucial but there is no denying the size of the task that lies ahead if we truly wish to take up our cross and follow into resurrection and freedom.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Today was not atypical. I drove nearly 5 hours, 2.5each way for the sake of one conversation. I did fit one or two other small jobs in as well, but I wanted to talk to Penny Sinnamon about the future of the parish, Dunstan, in which she has been a local priest for a very long time. Dunstan encompasses a large swathe of Central Otago including the towns of Alexandra, Roxburgh and Omakau. It has several picturesque little churches, some of which are potential seismic risks and a declining population of Anglicans, although the population of not Anglicans seems to be doing just fine.

The day was hot. The schist and tussock baked under an inky blue sky in that clear dry light so typical of Central. It was a pleasant few hours dancing the Subaru through the Manuka Gorge and past the orchards and over the Clutha to Penny's place. We sat in her kitchen and sipped lemonade while she gave me an analysis of her region, sharpened by a lifetime's residence there. She talked of the social changes of decades and the interdenominational tensions with which the area was riven in generations past. She summed up the current economic and social trends and the reasons why we Anglicans have been a little flat footed in our response to them. She spoke of her own finely honed, open and well informed faith. It was a conversation well worth the drive.

It was still 29 degrees when I left at about 4.30 pm. Penny gave me directions for a quicker way home, one that I had not travelled before, through the Ida Valley to Ranfurly before joining the familiar road through the Pigroot. The Pigroot is so named because in the old days it was mile after mile of churned mud along which waggons were dragged to the goldfields. One notorious hill was named Dead Horse Pinch because of the number of horses which died of exhaustion struggling up its steep and sticky sides. Today it's a gently winding road  with ticket tempting straights between pleasant, gentle hill climbs. In the old days the journey to Dunedin could take days and might cost your horse and your load. Today its about 2 CDs long. And there's the difference. Living in Central Otago isn't such a struggle anymore: we have gained so much but at a cost of a loss of engagement with life of which we hardly even realise the lack.

We built a parish when horses died on the Pinch and we placed our churches so that people could reach them within an hour or two's ride. People went to them to make sense of the harsh Otago weather and the vagaries of war and depression and untimely accident. But it's easier now. For many, it's possible to pretend that life is safer and so the big questions slip further and further away from the ways we have traditionally formulated our answers. So we find ourselves with more buildings than we can profitably use and fewer answers than people can profitably comprehend. If our diocese is going to survive in this astonishing, huge landscape, we must change and we must change soon. How, I am only partly sure, but I'm glad that all over the place the Holy Spirit has set among us people of wisdom and depth and common sense. I was reminded today of my need listen to them more often.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Day Off

It's Monday and the harbour, a few hundred metres from my home is rippling in a light breeze. The low sun is back lighting clouds of small insects swirling over the water. It's time to drive around the bays and see if anything is crying out to be photographed.

Nothing is really. Or nothing I haven't shot a thousand times before. There are boats sitting picturesquely above their own reflections and quaint old boathouses ditto. There are Southern Rata trees with the sun behind them and a clear blue sky and a flat horizon. But nothing to point a camera at, especially.

I do notice, outside of the range of the gear I own, that  seabirds are gathering in a great moving cloud above the water: Black Backed and Red Billed gulls, Terns and Shags. No doubt there are schools of small fish beneath them. I stop to watch and am fascinated by the shags. They swim with their necks protruding from the water but with the rest of their bodies submerged, bobbing along as though a ship full of champagne has gone down leaving thousands of  corked bottles floating in the tide. Their legs are at the backs of their bodies in the way evolution has crafted all birds which swim under water as opposed to on top of it. Through the clear sea I watch them duck and weave amongst the seaweed in pursuit of some small prey. They don't photograph easily - my shortcoming, not theirs - so I take a picture of the seaweed instead
Then the Red Bills around me are fighting and squabbling over fish they have managed to drag ashore. Small slim fish, translucently silver as though they have been chrome plated.
It is all so beautiful: the calm sea, the clear sun, the small silver fish, the weaving and diving birds. And yet it is all so full of death. The birds are diving and swooping in order to kill. The exquisite fish are dying that the birds may live.

Lent. When we remind ourselves of the interconnectedness of life and death. When we acknowledge that the gift of living comes simultaneously with the guarantee of dying. When we undertake some small death to help ourselves know at depth the utter joy and beauty of life

Sunday, 17 February 2013


I set out this morning to try and define attachment. Rather than use my own words, I've borrowed the following from Anthony De Mello.

"Now if you look carefully, you will see that there is one thing and only one thing that causes unhappiness. And that is attachment. What is attachment? An emotional state of clinging caused by the belief that without some particular thing or some person you cannot be happy. "

"Has it ever struck you that you have been programmed to be unhappy and so no matter what you do to become happy you are bound to fail?"

"Everywhere people have actually built their lives on the unquestioned belief that without certain things - money, power, success, approval, a good reputation, love, friendship, spirituality, God - they cannot be happy.... once you swallowed your belief you naturally developed an attachment to this person."

"Who is responsible for the programming? Not you. It isn't really you who decided even such basics as your wants and desires and so-called needs. Your values, your tastes, your attitudes, it was your parents, your society, your culture, your religion, your past experiences that fed the operating instructions into your computer. Now, however old you are or wherever you go, your computer goes along with you imperiously insisting that its demands be met by life, by people and by you. "

"Look at it this way. You see persons and things not as they are but as you are. If you wish to meet them as they are you must attend to your attachments and the fears that your attachments generate. Because when you look at life it is these attachments and fears that will decide what you notice and what you block out. Whatever you notice then commands your attention... you have an illusory version of the people and things around you. The more you live with this distorted version the more you become convinced that it is the only true picture of the world because your attachments and fears continue to process incoming data in a way which will reinforce your picture"

Friday, 15 February 2013


On Ash Wednesday I went for a walk on the beach. It was one of those silvery late summer days when the sand and the clouds and the sea all seem to be made of differently worked bits of the same stuff. There was a wind from the South, cool and insistently strong but also in an odd way, gentle and enfolding. I didn't want it to go around me; I wanted it to go through me and open me and unsettle me. I wanted it to turn me inside out and help me unattach.

I had made my Lenten resolutions. This year I am not giving anything up; I am adding. As well as my customary morning meditation I have added another of equal length late in the day, and where my timetable permits, also one at noon. I have also added a daily reading from one of my favourite books, Anthony De Mello's The Way to Love. This Lent I want to let the wind blow through me; as much of it as I can stand, so it's as well to build into my life some more opportunities to stand in the breeze.
At the end of the beach is a small cave. I walked through it, under the black damp rocks towards the light which was marking a turning point, back along my own footsteps and towards my home.

This little pilgrimage, there and back along the beach; this little pilgrimage of 40 days, following the footsteps of my master towards the cross and resurrection, will be about attachment. Or rather, will be about releasing attachments. The Way to Love is, amongst other things, about attachment. It is a series of addresses  recorded at a retreat, and, I would guess, transcribed pretty much verbatim long after De Mello's death. The small essays (about 3 1/2 pages each) are not very literate. But they are orate. I read them and I can catch the Indian accent and the oblique  structure  of a gifted storyteller. I read them and I can feel De Mello's gaze as he speaks unflinchingly to my heart, laying open truths so obvious I would have seen them years ago had not my own illusions and vanities prevented me.
The wind carves patterns in the sand as I walk back to my car. Already this has been one of the biggest, busiest weeks of my life. I have so much to relinquish and some small things still to acquire. Life is short and there is so much to be done. I covet the patterning of my own soul.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow...

...Lord, Holy Spirit
in the love of friends you are building a new house,
Heaven is with us when you are with us.
You are singing your song in the hearts of the poor.
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father
(James K Baxter)

Thursday, 14 February 2013


 My friend and colleague Dr. Gillian Townsley, the Chaplain at St. Hilda's Collegiate School in Dunedin played this as part of  her Ash Wednesday chapel service. It's worth a look.

Sunday, 10 February 2013


Over the years I have paid attention to my dreams, sometimes more, sometimes less. I know enough about dreaming to realise that telling another person a dream is an invitation for them to see more of my inner working than I may be comfortable with , and perhaps more than I see myself at the moment. So, when I have recorded dreams they have gone into journals hidden behind lock and key or fairly robust passwords.

But on Wednesday night, and a very few will know the significance of that day, I had a dream like no other I had ever dreamed in my life.

I dreamed I saw a piece of paper, old and slightly yellowed like parchment. On it was drawn a perfect circle. 

That's it. It seemed to me to be a very long dream, but as there was no story and no characters, and no movement, who can tell? It was one of those big dreams, whose import lingers well into waking consciousness. I relay it here not as an invitation for people to guess it's meaning but as a kind of record, perhaps mostly to myself.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Being a Body

This picture hasn't got anything to do with anything. I took it when we were camped recently in Surat Bay.

This last weekend I was in Auckland for the last of the hermeneutical hui that the Anglican Church has been holding over the past 4 years to address issues of Biblical interpretation as they apply to matters of sexuality. I hadn't been to any of the others, so didn't know quite what to expect. We met in Auckland's Holy Trinity cathedral, a quite lovely building that is, oddly, designed so that the best view in the place is the one from behind the altar. In other words, it doesn't draw the eye in toward the altar so much as lead it out, through the stained glass to the city beyond,  which is an interesting theo-architectural statement, and perhaps for the hui, a profound one.

The past hui had addressed themselves to the usual Biblical texts used by those seeking divine authority for their views on sexuality. The arguments over those passages have all been fairly well rehearsed, and I don't intend to add to the pile of ash already obscuring a fairly dimly glowing ember by saying here what has already been said by many others. After three hui, we in the Anglican church realised that we were at an impasse; and it was one we weren't going to find our way out of by exegesis. All of us bring to the Bible our own particular set of predispositions. We are culturally, familialy, biologically, genetically preprogrammed to see everything, the Bible included, according to our own particular lights; so while we all read the same book, we are going to find there quite incompatible messages  and we will continue to do so for just as long as we continue to be human.

The question then becomes not one of refining and increasing our Biblical knowledge, but of recognising our differences and finding ways in which we might live together in one communion despite those differences. The hui did fairly well at that. We had several superb presentations, the two most outstanding, from my point of view,  being that from Dr. James Harding Scripture and the Theology of Sexuality: A Question of Discipline and from Bishop Victoria Matthews, Marriage.

James' paper was 43 pages long, far too lengthy for the half hour slot he was allocated, so he gave us a Reader's Digest Condensed version. I had read the complete paper on the flight on the way North. I idly flicked through it, intending to browse enough to get the gist of his argument but found myself riveted, reading 40 pages on the plane and rushing to my hotel room as quickly as possible to finish it off. He argues that the key relationship for us Christians is not actually the one with our partner, but the one we have with God. We are disciples of Jesus Christ and all our behaviour should spring from that central reality. After a thorough examination of Old and New Testament passages relating to human relationships, he suggests Romans 14 and 15 (where Paul gives advice on how to deal with a controversy contemporary to him, that of eating meat offered as sacrifices in pagan temples) as a place to start looking for principles to  guide us through our current controversy.

Bishop Matthews examined marriage as an act of worship (worth-ship) and again located the marriage relationship securely within the wider Christian context of  our relationship with God. As, within a marriage the partners express the worth of each other, the life they are called to is also an expression of the worth of God. She acknowledged her work as a preliminary examination and begged the church to do its theology before making drastic changes.

The small group discussions and the informal conversations over meals reinforced to me the intractability of  opinions on the many sides of the debate on sexuality; but gave me hope that the Anglican Church could live together with integrity despite the different and apparently mutually exclusive views of some of its members. As Bishop Jim White pointed out, we do this already on such issues as Pacifism, which could be argued to lie closer to the real heart of the Christian Gospel than the issue of ordination of people in same sex relationships.

We are usually pretty good at spotting the biases in worldview which lead others to hold the opinions that they do. What we are not so good at is recognising the biases in ourselves which lead us to formulate and cling tenaciously to our own versions of the truth. As in so many things, perhaps a little more self knowledge would go a long way towards  helping us live together despite, or even because of, our differences.