Author Archive

North American Native Spirituality   Leave a comment

I am currently living through a stressful time and causing stress for those who love me and live with me.  I am having to live with a number of complex health issues which have all got worse other the past month necessitating frequent visits to the doctors/nurses/ psychologists/psychiatrists.  Amid all this I am in the process of setting up a Social Enterprise called Technology for Disabled People (TDP), see: martyncooper.com

In all this stress and concern I  reached out to a friend, who has his own experience knows something of what I am going through, and after about an hour or so sent me this:

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all of my ancestors are behind me.
Be still they say.  Watch and Listen.
You are the result, of the love of thousands.

Linda Hogan (b. 1946)
Native American writer.

Such profundity in four short lines! I could, and probably will, reflect on that for months.

 

I will conclude two short quotes.  These illustrate to me a key pointa in trying to learn from cultures other than your own.  That is, that you need to be willing to not seek to change their culture but to change yourself. This time the quotes come from another great world culture that has been a huge influence on me since I was about 13 and took on the works of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (this was 1974 and he was often in the news), I did not study Classics at school, but met Classical thought through Solzhenitsyn (who like me as an engineer by training).  However, of prime relevance here, it  was that it was because Solzhenitsyn quoted from the Russian literary canon, he inspired me to work my way through it over the next 10 or so formative years.  These quotes are from one of Russia’s cultural and political giants: Leo Tolstoy (who also became a hero of mine).

“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy
(b. 1828 – d. 1910)

 

 

Reflections on why I found a little delight last night   Leave a comment

Last night I watched with delight a television documentary called “Photographing Africa“. It is a rare thing to experience that emotion in response to a TV programme and I want to examine why I felt that way and explore if that has any implications. The perennial desire to write something had also been rising and perhaps this gives a focus for a little exercise in that.

“Photographing Africa” followed Harry Hook, a white English film director and photographer, who grew up in the Sudan and Kenya, on a project of simple conception, if not execution.  In the 1980s he had taken a series of portraits of five young women then living in different traditional tribal contexts across East Africa.  The project was to see if he could go back and find these women and discover what had become of their lives 30 years on.

Africa has had a fascination for me since my childhood.  My Uncle and Aunt spent 4 years in Kenya teaching at a high-school with Voluntary Services Overseas and my cousins were born there.  Those were days of much slower communications; the 1960s. I have vivid memories of making and receiving reel-to-reel tapes as a key way the two young and growing families kept in touch.  Birthday and Christmas presents were exotic things from far away places, carved animals and models of tribal huts.  I still have a Maasai club (name in their language forgotten) which has a head carved from the root ball of a small tree and its shaft the stem of that tree.  This was always my most beloved item because it was authentic. It had been bought by my Uncle direct from the herdsman who had been using it to protect his cattle.  I used to tell school friends “look you can see the blood stains on it”.  However that is doubtless the romantic imaginings, and the desire to impress peers, of an 8 year-old.  Despite this childhood introduction to a little bit of Africa  I have not yet visited any of the continent.  The fact that the programme was about Africa was probably a factor in me deciding to watch it, I certainly had yet further vicarious experience of it in doing so, however this was not the source of my delight, only the context for it.

It is time that I identify and describe what it was I delighted in.  It was that across the programme a gentle, beautiful, respectful side of humanity was shown.  Harry Hook, was no “bwana” left over from colonial times but someone who was genuinely interested in the lives of others and did not set himself in any position of superiority.  He spoke with huge respect to the subjects of the film and those through who he sort to find them.  He had a gentleness of manner that stood in such marked contrast to the angst filled noise that seems to dominated the media, social and mainstream, over this past year.   Although the film was directed by him, it was not about him.  I am sure he was not trying to tell his story.  However, what it revealed about him made me think there was a man I would like to meet; to listen to.

This was not a film that idealised the experience of those still living in tribal or pastoral contexts.  It covered the devastating impact of drought and HIV/AIDS.  One of originally photographed young women had died of AIDS leaving a young son and the grief of her brother, brought to the fore by seeing her photograph, was palpable.  It covered the pull of the city and the increased urbanisation of Africa and touched a little on problems associated with that. Some living in a tribal  context reported a separation from the urban and indeed a fear that their throats would be slit if they went to the city.  However there were also examples of those living a modern city based life returning and valuing tribal custom.

My greatest sense of delight in the programme was reserved for the encounters with the 3 original subjects of his photos from the 1980s that were located.  They were all shy. One denied that is was her and had to be convinced by relatives. Another was mocked joyfully by her children seeing for the first time  photo of their mother as a girl.  Harry Hook asked each of them the same question. I thought this was very probing and I wondered about the social etiquette of asking it.  However he asked “when were you most happy in your life”.  All three of them answered the same “now”.  This stood out for me firstly as a sign of hope but also as a challenge to myself who finds that question difficult to answer in the same way.  So the stimulation for reflection was in asking what they were finding their happiness in, which from the brief interchanges seemed to be family, and why that was not so for me.

A trailer to the documentary is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBODpBlaySw

To those who have access to BBC iPlayer, and within its time constrains, the whole programme can be viewed there: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03xsjb9/photographing-africa

I commended it to all to watch and maybe share in some of the delight I experienced watching it.  Some might be upset by brief scenes of hunting and butchery but if that is likely to be you I hope you can get past that.

Posted November 22, 2016 by Martyn Cooper in Uncategorized

Farewell to Glasshampton / Books I have read while here   Leave a comment

I am getting ready to leave Glasshampton. God willing I will be back sometime next year.  For my final blog post of this retreat I thought I would list the books I have been reading while here:

From the library at Glasshampton:

  1. The Bible (New Revised Standard Version – Anglicized Edition)
  2. Norman Autton (1967) “The pastoral care of the bereaved” SPCK – My father died 1 month ago and I was interested to learn more of my own, my mother’s and my brothers’ anticipated journeys of grief
  3. Jeffery Satinover (1995) “The empty self – Gnostic and Jungian Foundations of Modern Identity”, Grover Pastoral Series, Grove Books – The title attracted me when scanning the library because I have always preferred Jung to Freud and find the Gnostics and the whole early church history of deciding what was orthodox and what heresy fascinating.  Surely we all have an interest in Identity, at least our own if not in the general sense.  I referred to this booklet in my blog post on Solitude.
  4. Brother Anselm (2002?) “Memories” Self Published – bought from the monastery shop for £2. -A lovely 10,000 word memoir of a friar, now in his mid 80s about his family and his life in the Society of Saint Francis.  It was good to get to know Anselm a little while on retreat.
  5. Richard Rohr (2005) “From Wild Man to Wise Men – Reflections on Male Spirituality” St. Anthony Press – I borrowed this book because another guest had mentioned the author as an interesting Franciscan writer and I had not heard of him before.  I only had time to dip into the book but I do believe there needs to remain in the church a space for a distinct male spirituality as many churches become feminised because fewer men than women now attend church.
  6. Kathleen Raine (1970) “William Blake” Thames and Hudson – I got this out of the library just because I love Blake; his art, poetry and mysticism.  Interestingly he was cited in the Satinover book above.
Then from home I brought and looked into the following books:
  1. Vernon Staley (1893, reprinted 1993) “The Catholic Religion” Mowbray – A standard text for me on Christian orthodoxy that I have brought on most retreats.  I used it in preparing for my confession.
  2. Sinclair McKay (2010) “The Secret Life of Bletchley Park” Aurum Press
  3. Anon (2015) “The Nikon Camera Book” Imagine Publishing Ltd.
The last two I brought because I find in important to have some non-religious reading while on retreat.  I also brought a novel with me but did not start it.
I finish writing this blog post in a pub near New Street Station in Birmingham.  I am breaking my journey, people watching and enjoying a beer.  Returning to the wider world is as much a part of the retreat experience as the mini-pilgrimage to the place of retreat.  In some way my senses are assaulted by the noise and bustle of a big city and I notice the female presence in the world particularly after four days in almost exclusively male company.  If I wasn’t married and didn’t feel my work was a vocation perhaps I could be a monk but that is not my calling.  Until sometime next year that is the end of my retreat.

Sunday at Glasshampton   1 comment

Today is the last full day of this retreat and is a Sunday.  I can’t remember ever having been at Glasshampton on a Sunday before because for family reasons in the past I have retreated mid-week.  Sunday is a more relaxed day, not that the atmosphere here is ever tense or intense.  There are no scheduled work periods for the brothers, although some have preaching commitments etc. elsewhere from time to time, and someone has to do the cooking and make things ready for the services.  The day though follows its normal rhythm around the 5 services: Morning Prayer; the Eucharist; Mid-Day Prayer; Evening Prayer and my favourite Night Prayer.  The Eucharist is slightly more grand (they get the incense out, as they do on major Saints days) and the liturgy is slightly extended.  Then we had a full roast beef lunch today.  I have entered into this more relaxed atmosphere which seemed appropriate after yesterday’s time in solitude.  I have not done any heavy reading today, I have allowed myself to make a few Facebook posts and engaged in brief conversations with some of the brothers and fellow guests.  The rest of the time while on retreat I have remained mostly in silence only speaking when necessary to ask for something or when meeting with my retreat guide.  I should not give the impression that I have been as noisy and chatty as I would be at home.  I have still spent most of the day on my own and in silence.  Those that know me as a gregarious chatterbox might think I would find that hard, but I don’t, instead I find it refreshing. And even at home I spend a lot of time in just my own company but there I would normally have the radio or TV on neither of which I have here (some of the brothers have a radio and keep up with the news

Those not used to monastic retreat might think that the life of a monk (or monastic friar as at Glasshampton) is one shut away from the world but for most this is not the case.  They are deeply interested in world affairs and will pray intelligently and in an informed way about them.  I remember when Br. Ramon was being a hermit, isolated in a caravan in West Wales he later told me that a thing he prayed about a lot was nuclear weapons and for world peace.  This coincided with a period in recent history when disarmament treaties were being signed and tension between the major powers was being reduced.  Who am I to say that the prayers of a ‘mad’ Welsh friar, living as a hermit did not have a role in that?  I will save it for another blog post to set forward how I have come to an understanding of how intercessionary prayer works.

I return to this blog after we have said and sung Night Prayer.  As I said above it is my favourite service; its liturgy is just right for the ending of the day.  So, as it approaches 10pm I feel very tired but content. I will be soon in bed, at least two hours before I would normally do at home.

It has been a good Sunday at Glasshampton with a healthy balance between rest, prayer and worship.

Posted July 26, 2015 by Martyn Cooper in Uncategorized

Solitude – Glasshampton – Saturday 25th July 2015   3 comments

Today I am spending the day in solitude in a little hut and demarcated area of the garden at the bottom of the grounds in Glasshampton Monestary.  It is a privallage to do so.  This place is very special to me for a number of reasons:

  1. Before the area was created as a separated off place, it was my favourite part of the monestary.  I used to come down here to sit and think and just be.  There is a lovely view over farmland, then a wooded hillside, up to the church tower at Astley the next village to the North.  That church has a special place in my heart because the vicarage was the home of Frances Ridley Havergal, the C19th hymn writer, and she lies buried in the church yard.  She is one of my Mum’s spiritual heroines probably most famous for writing “Take my life and let in be consecrated, Lord to Thee”, but she was quite prolific. The view to the church has to be glimpsed through the trees and shrubs now which have grown markedly since I first used to come and sit here in the late 1980s – early 1990s.
  2. This area was created as a separated off area for Brother Ramon (d. 2000) when he was exploring the hermit life.  Ramon I first met in his books.  Then when I first retreated here he was the Guardian (the Franciscan equivalent of Abbot) and he became my first formal Spiritual Director and was my Confessor.  I learnt so much from him and although I am a lowly pupil a long way behind him on my spiritual journey there is a lot of commonality between our journeys.  We both started off in the Nonconformist tradition; he was Welsh Chapel and I from the ages of 6 to 18 was brought up in Wantage Baptist Church but have two Welsh grandfathers so really identify with his tradition and have strong memories of visiting Welsh Chapels in Abertillery (where I have relations) and when holidaying in Wales.  We both eventually found a home in the Catholic Tradition but continued to draw on our roots.  He was a noisy, jokey, activist who learnt to love and be fed by contemplative prayer and I am the same although compared to him I feel I just dabble in contemplative prayer.
There are lots of reminders of Ramon in the hut (think of a garden shed with a bed, desk and chair in it) where I sit and write this.  There is a plastic container labeled “Adam’s Ale – Ramon” – I suspect it referred to water but I seem to remember he took a little home brew on high days and holidays.  Then on a simple shelf to the left of the desk there are various Bibles, service books and hymn books. Who else would have Keswick Praise (you can’t get more conservative evangelical than that!); Hymns of Faith published by Scripture Union (again conservative evangelical) alongside The Weekday Missal (Roman Catholic) and The Catholic Hymn Book?  There is an old label on the same shelf saying “Ramon – Altar Linen”.
I was on retreat in Glasshampton in 2000 when Ramon lay dying in his bed and then went to his funeral in Worcester Cathedral, which was a wonderful service. To me he was a saint and a great spiritual guide, I loved and still love him deeply.
All the above was by way of introduction to what I am doing today; that is spending from breakfast to supper in ‘Solitude’, following the rhythm of the monastery but on my own.  There is second shed next door which is laid out as a simple chapel where in about half an hour I will go and say the Midday Office at the same time as the Brothers and other guests are saying it in the chapel in the monastery. Then after lunch I must spend time reading, thinking and praying.  I will record some of my thoughts later in this blog post so I can reflect on them again at a later date.
<Pause>
Before I came I didn’t have a particular agenda for this retreat so I did not know what books to bring to read.  Anyway I brought half a dozen or so from home that I thought I might look at and have picked up a few more from the library here at the monastery. One of the later is a Grove Booklet from their Pastoral Series: Jeffery Satinover (1995) “The Empty Self – Gnostic and Jungian Foundations of Modern Identity”.  I am only part the way through it (on page 10 out of 28) but it has sparked off some thinking that ties in with thoughts provoked at this morning’s services before I entered my short period of solitude.  It is the sort of book my wife Jackie would dislike; it is pure intellectualism and expresses its ideas densely in academic language, but being an academic I am really enjoying it.
The central thesis of the book, at least so far, is that with the Renaissance, Western Man (and it is probably more a sin of men than women) has put self at the centre of their lives; made self their god rather than the God of Israel. This sense of self importance came up in the Gospel reading at the Eucharist this morning.  It is the Feast of St. James the Apostle today and we had read the account, from Matthew Ch. 21 vs 21-28, when James’ and John’s mother came to Jesus and asked that her two sons be designated to sit at his right and left hand when he came into his kingdom.  This angered the other disciples but Jesus puts them all straight by saying: ” … whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” [Matthew 8 vs 26-27]. Now it seems James learnt to deny himself and was probably the first of the disciples to be martyred for the sake of the Gospel in AD44 as Herod Agrippa tried to suppress the new religion then referred to as “The Way”.
The New Testament reading at the Eucharist this morning was from 2 Corinthians Ch. 4.  I quote verse 7:
 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
I know this verse by heart and have done since my mid-teens.  When I was about 16 or 17 Jackie (now my wife) asked me to go and give a talk to the Christian Union at her school which was less than 1 mile away from mine.  I spoke on this verse, basically a talk I had ‘pinched’ off an evangelist at a Christian Houseparty I had been on the previous summer holiday.  The picture used was of a flowerpot (the jar of clay) that contained a beautiful plant.  No one looks at the flowerpot they look at the plant and it’s flowers.  We are like the flowerpot, cracked, dirty and ordinary.  However, we can contain the light of God.
Now recognising the irony that this represents I am going to give an account of how these readings have related to myself in my thinking while in solitude; i.e. put my ‘self’ back at the centre of this blog post.  One of my besetting sins is that I like to feel important.  I will give an example that illustrates this.  At work I used to be Head of AEM (it does not matter what AEM stands for for the purpose of this account).  After a reorganisation of my Institute AEM ceased to exist and I was no longer head of anything.  In reality my role had changed little but I lost a title that made me sound important.  That grated with me and if I am honest still does quite a few years later.
All this relates to my current stage of life.  My work at the Open University comes to an end at the end of this calendar year (I am taking voluntary redundancy).  Next year I hope to generate an income though a variety of means: I have recently accepted an invitation to be a Director of a company; as a consultant; and hopefully part-time as a researcher at Southampton University.  Now, I know what these readings mean for that context.  I need to watch my ego, avoiding trying to show off what I know or what I can do but rather seeking to serve those that employ me and in turn the disabled people and others that that work seeks to enable.
Jesus’ teachings are never easy but I know He points to a better way.  God give me the strength and wisdom to walk in that way.  Amen!

Morning Prayer Friday 24th July 2015 at Glasshampton   Leave a comment

Today is the first full day of my retreat at Glasshampton Monastery.  Having arrived about 3:30pm yesterday, I have now settled into the rhythm of the place.  This morning, as every morning, the first service of the Daily Office was Morning Prayer.  It was a service that was familiar both in its pattern (I have retreated here many times before) and in the Psalms and other pieces of scripture and liturgy (many of which I have known since my youth) that constituted it.  I want to record some of them here and do so with a warm glow and smile of familiarity.  Not a familiarity that breeds contempt; rather one that reminds me of God’s promises and love. The Psalms were Ps 17 and Ps 19; read in the Franciscan way.  That is in antiphon (one side of the chapel reads one verse the other the next, and so on) and with a pause not between verses but midway through each verse.  It is a very contemplative way of reading.  The standout verses for me were:

Ps 17 v 8 – Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings

And

Ps 19 v 7 – The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple

Later in the service we said the Benedictus which contains one of my all time favourite liturgical phrases:

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

And then goes on:

To shine on those that dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

I don’t want to spell out my thoughts provoked by these pieces of scripture in this blog post.  It was more a feeling than an internal monologue in words anyway.  However, I am sure if I return to this blog post in the future I will be readily able to recall how the service spoke to me and met me where I am.  Maybe it will touch others who read this post too.

Posted July 24, 2015 by Martyn Cooper in Uncategorized

On route to my retreat at Glasshampton   Leave a comment

I am travelling to what is about my favourite place in the whole world: Glasshampton Monastery, Shrawley just north of Worcester.  I try and go on retreat about once per year and have done since the mid 1980s with a few breaks when in spiritual deserts (spelling? – I never get the difference between a sweet and a dry barren place the right way round!).  For the first time I intend to blog about this retreat, although I might not post the blogs until I return home.

The journey is part of making a retreat, it is like a mini-prilgrimage.  This morning I packed my bags which was also part of the experience as I gathered together the things I would want while staying in the monastery.  So as well as the essentials of clothes, wash kit and tablets I have packed a selection of books, my camera and a sketch pad and pencils.  I am planning to fill the time between services with reflective activity and rest.  This is the first time I have brought my camera on retreat but I love photography and it is something I learned from my Dad who died a few weeks ago so it seemed appropriate.

So, this short blog post is the first of a series I plan to make, say one per day, over the four days of my retreat.  The main reason for blogging is as a self reflection tool but if others read them and draw benefit from them that is a bonus.

Posted July 23, 2015 by Martyn Cooper in Uncategorized