Books that Changed Our Lives – 25/04/21
Opening Music: ‘Cello Suite no 3’ by Bach – Performed by Abby Lorimier (2.12)
Opening Words: ‘Come, Come to This Place’ by Daniel Budd (adapted)
Come, come to this place, whoever you are:
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of learning,
All seekers after what is true,
All who seek a community of compassion and diversity.
Come, come to this place, whoever you are:
Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times
And you’re too busy and you don’t have the time.
Come, come to this place, whoever you are:
Lovers of wisdom, lovers of humanity, lovers of beauty,
Come to this place where a Love we do not make
Surrounds us and lifts us and nurtures us.
Come, come to this place, whoever you are:
Ours is not a community of despair, but of hope,
Not a place of pious judging, but of glad thanksgiving,
Not a place of certainty, but of searching.
Come, come to this place, whoever you are,
Come, yet again, come.
These opening words, written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Daniel Budd, and inspired by Rumi, welcome all who have gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in our Sunday service. Welcome to regular members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today – also those who might be listening to our podcast, or watching this service on YouTube, at a later date. For those who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and having been part of the congregation for about 22 years I’m now the Ministry Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians, and (for one-more-week) your ministry-student-on-placement, as I finish up my training with Unitarian College.
The theme of this morning’s service is ‘Books That Changed Our Lives’. This is an idea that came out of one of our online coffee mornings a few weeks ago where – for reasons that have already escaped me – we each started picking random books off our bookshelves and talking about them. It was a great conversation starter and one I thought we could bring to Sunday morning. So a few weeks back I put out a call to a number of congregation members to ask if they might be willing to talk about a book that changed their life – maybe something spiritual, philosophical, or ethical (or maybe not) – and to share a little of their own life story in doing so. And thankfully a few kind volunteers came forward. So I’ll be leading the service with help from Pat, Marianne, Maria and Hannah – who will each offer their personal reflections on the theme – we’re going to be hearing about a fascinating selection of books that made a difference in their lives. Great stuff!
Before we go any further, though, let’s take a moment to make sure we’ve fully arrived. Do whatever you need to do to settle in – you might want to wiggle and stretch first – scrunch your shoulders up and let them go – or perhaps take one conscious breath… Set aside, if you can, anything that you don’t need to think about for the next hour. And do feel free to turn your camera off if that makes it easier for you to focus – of course we like to see all your lovely faces – but if you prefer to keep a low profile that’s fine. There’ll be various opportunities to join in as we go along but all are entirely optional. Whoever you are, however you are, you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are.
Chalice Lighting: ‘Why We’re Here’ by Erik Walker Wikstrom (adapted)
And now I’ll light our chalice, as we do each Sunday, and at other times when we gather. This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.
Here, today, in this place and with these people,
May we listen so that we can hear;
May we hear so that we can feel;
May we feel so that we can know; and
May we know so that we can change ourselves, and this world, for the better.
May this chalice flame that we kindle light our Way.
Candles of Joy and Concern:
Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words about what it represents.
When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. And if you seem to be having trouble unmuting yourself please wave and one of the co-hosts will try to help with the unmuting. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s enough time for everyone who might want to speak. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.
I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… all those little windows into our shared human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now.
Prayer: based on words by John Saxon
You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)
Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
in whom we live and move and have our being.
As we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy presence within us and amongst us. (short pause)
Our words fail us – our minds fail us –
when we ponder the enormity, diversity,
complexity, wonder, and beauty of the universe and this world.
And yet we sense, more than know, that our lives are part of a larger Life,
that we are indeed connected with everyone and everything
in one interdependent web of being, and that there is something,
both immanent and transcendent, that nurtures and sustains our lives and Life itself:
something that calls us and all life to greater wholeness and harmony.
We give thanks this morning for all of the gifts and blessings of life:
for this day, for the beauty and wonder and mystery of creation,
for our families and friends, for health and work,
for opportunities to learn and love and grow,
for the care and support of others in times of illness or despair.
But we remember, too, that others,
here in this room, in this city, and around the world,
live in poverty, hunger, fear, illness, isolation, violence, and insecurity;
so many are ground down by systems of injustice and oppression.
In the silence of this gathering and in the silence of our hearts,
may we hear the call to a wider perspective and a deeper resolve.
May we live with greater compassion and care for ourselves, others, and creation.
May we touch each other more deeply, hear each other more clearly,
and see each other’s joys and sorrows as our own.
May we strive to be and become more than we are:
more loving, more forgiving, more kind, more honest,
more authentic, more open, more connected, more whole.
And yet, paradoxically perhaps, may we accept ourselves,
just as we are in this moment, and know that we are enough.
May we heal and be healed.
May we face the uncertainties and tragedies of life
with hope, faith, and courage, knowing that
Life is good and that we are not alone.
And in a good few moments of silence now,
may our hearts speak silently all the prayers of our lives—
our souls’ greatest joys and deepest sorrows, our triumphs and failures,
our regrets and fears, our disappointments and losses, our hopes and dreams. (long pause)
Spirit of Life – God of all Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close,
we offer up our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears,
our beauty and brokenness, and call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.
As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen
Hymn: ‘Come and Find the Quiet Centre’ by the Unitarian Music Society (2.18)
Our first hymn today continues the prayerful mood: ‘Come and Find the Quiet Centre’ speaks of making space in our often busy and complex lives to be still, to focus on what matters most, to connect with the spirit, and with our common humanity, as we do each time we gather together here. The words will appear on screen in a moment for you to sing along – and we’ll try to make sure you all stay muted – but if you don’t fancy singing it’s absolutely fine to just listen instead.
Come and find the quiet centre
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the space where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.
Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace;
God it is who speaks and names us,
knows our being, touches base,
making space within our thinking,
lifting shades to show the sun,
raising courage when we’re shrinking,
finding scope for faith begun.
In the Spirit let us travel,
open to each other’s pain;
let our lives and fears unravel,
celebrate the space we gain:
there’s a place for deepest dreaming,
there’s a time for heart to care;
in the Spirit’s lively scheming
there is always room to spare.
Reflection: ‘The Magic of Findhorn’ chosen by Pat Gregory
It was my birthday in August 1978 and I was living a very reclusive life in a bedsit near Finchley Road tube station. I had stopped working and was living on benefits so money was tight. A nice neighbour who lived in the bedsit next to mine knocked on my door and gave me a card which contained a £5 book voucher. I was so touched by his kindness and also excited about getting a new book. I took myself off to WH Smith in Finchley Road to see what was on offer. I was there a while looking at novels and could find nothing of interest. I must have disturbed the bookshelf as a book fell to my feet and when I looked down I saw “The Magic of Findhorn”. I picked it up and started to read straight away – this was a book about a community of people in North Scotland who lived in harmony and co-created with nature. They spoke with nature spirits and listened to inner guidance. I bought the book and read it from cover to cover in a few hours. From when I was a child I had always known of other realms and spoken to nature spirits so I knew I had to visit this place. I had just enough money to take me there and stay for a week. I booked my place.
When I arrived I was overwhelmed – I had not expected so many people and I was out of my comfort zone. I did not really like being with people and I had expected a nice quiet time with nature. I had to share a room with a stranger and there were no locks on any doors except the bathroom so I spent quite a lot of time there on the first day. Over the week I gradually and slowly opened up in this loving community and embraced their work as “Love in Action”, learnt more about “Inner Listening” and definitely enjoyed “Co-creating with Nature”
It was a wonderful , if somewhat uncomfortable experience, and I knew I needed to be there longer but I had no money. I was told that I could stay and pay them when I was able. So I stayed for another fortnight and spent my time there working in the gardens. This included communicating with moles to ask if they would dig their hills in nearby fields so that our plants could grow undisturbed! On arriving back in London there was a letter for me from the Inland Revenue containing a tax rebate which exactly covered the cost of my extended stay!
This book – the Magic of Findhorn – took me on a journey that transformed my life. It was a way back to trusting myself and realising the importance of community. I later went on to be employed as a Community Worker in a neighbourhood centre in Hammersmith and loved working there for 25 years.
Jane: Thank you Pat for telling us how chancing across this book took you on a life-changing adventure. Our next reflection is from Marianne on the impact that a translation of the Psalms had on her.
Video Reflection: ‘The Psalms translated by Paul Claudel’ chosen by Marianne Harvey
When I was teenager at school, we had one hour of ‘religion’ per week. Few of us took it seriously, because even a total fail in the final exam, did not mean that you would be prevented from moving up a class. Like the others, I did not take the class seriously, until a new young priest was appointed. He was a very gentle soul and was the butt of endless jokes which he seemed to be quite unaware of. I like him a lot. One day he brought a book by Paul Claudel entitled ‘Psalms Translations’ and from then on, he read a psalm to us every week.
Paul Claudel was a French poet, dramatist and diplomat, and the younger brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel. He was famous for his verse dramas, such as ‘The Tidings Brought To Mary’ and ’The Satin Slipper’, which convey his devotion to the Catholic faith. Often accused of misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, he was also regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest dramatists.
Thomas Merton described Claudel’s poems based on the Psalms as the themes of the Psalms getting “re-stated in his own words.” Merton said the Psalms “entered the poet’s whole life and being,” became “part of him,” and then they came forth “from the poet’s heart brand new”. He described Claudel as “a twentieth century psalmist, saying over again what David and the others said thousands of years ago”
As a girl of 16 , prisoner of a strict catholic austere upbringing revolving around mortal sin and the wrath of a vindictive God, I was completely transfixed by the beauty of the psalms and their strange mix of brisk rawness with the sublime. And how did the writer dare talk to God in such a familiar tone, using the French ’tu’ ? His direct address to a very personal God, haranguing, cajoling, despairing, calling for mercy, brought me close to the loving God I longed for.
Then came the long years of doubt until I discovered, at the cusp of my 50th birthday, the whirling dervishes of the Study Society here in London. A friend of mine invited me to see the ‘turning’ ceremony as we call it, at Colet House, the home of the Study Society in Barons Court. He explained to me that the tradition of whirling had been brought at Colet house in the early sixties by a senior Sheikh of the Mevlevi Dervish order in Turkey. The Mevlevi Turning was inspired over 700 years ago by the great Sufi mystic philosopher and poet Jalaluddin Rumi who would praise God whilst whirling. This dance was then formalised by his followers into the ceremony you can still see today, unchanged, at Colet House.
I remember being shaken to the core by the austere ceremony, the white robes and the lament from the pipe Called ney. Very shortly after, I dreamt that I was turning. When I woke up, I knew that I wanted to be a Dervish and lo and behold, the yearly training was scheduled to start the following week. Soon, I was in the tube at 6 am, ready for a gruelling training over a period of 6 weeks, until I was finally allowed to wear my white robe and fly. “Come, come, whoever you are” said Rumi. At the time, the Sheikh was Norwegian, the Semazen Bashi who keeps everyone in order, was British Jewish; there was a Jordanian, a Venezuelan, several Turks and a few Brits. I loved the turning with all my heart and accepted the pain for those wonderful glimpses of stillness in which I found a deep rest.
I think that the reading of Paul Claudel’s psalms so long ago did change my life and awoke in me a devotion to a God of all love, a devotion which was to be lost for many years and found again in the cosmic dance of the dervishes and Rumi’s passionate poetry.
And what of that passion today, you may well ask. Devotion has waxed and waned throughout my life but, today, I feel comfortable drifting from knowing to unknowing in our spiritual home. “Come, come, whoever you are’ said Rumi. Come, come, whoever you are’, echoed my Unitarian Church.
Meditation: ‘Life-Changing Books’
Thank you Marianne for sharing your thoughtful reflections with us all.
We’ve come now to a time of meditation. You might like to have a wiggle and get as comfortable as you can in your chair (if you’re in a chair!) – put your feet flat on the floor to help ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes. In a while we’ll have our virtual chalice flame on screen.
There’ll be a just a few words – some simple prompts – to take us into our time of meditation. They will be followed by a few minutes of shared stillness during which we’ll have a virtual chalice on screen so you can watch the flame. The silence will end with beautiful music, ‘Sicilienne’ by von Paradis, performed by our music scholar Abby Lorimier on cello and Peter Crockford on piano.
As ever, of course, you are free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way.
So as we enter into this time of meditation I invite you to ponder on the books that have changed your life – maybe in dramatic ways – maybe in ways that are more subtle. Perhaps there are books that were read to you in childhood that shaped your sense of right and wrong. Or which gave you a sense of possibilities, hopes, and dreams which you have held before you. Maybe as you grew up you were challenged by reading of lives, experiences, worldviews that were quite unlike yours, which expanded your horizons. Or maybe you were affirmed by reading stories which resonated with your own and which helped reassure you that you were not alone. Perhaps your life has been changed by books too many times to count. I encourage you to just follow wherever your mind leads you as you meditate on the transformative power of books.
Silence: [3 minutes silence]
Musical Interlude: ‘Sicilienne’ by von Paradis – Abby Lorimier and Peter Crockford (2.46)
Reflection: ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ chosen by Maria Petnga-Wallace
I had to think about this for a day or two: was it Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know why the Caged Bird Sings’? or Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’? No, they were both too recent. In reality, and on reflection, the book that really changed my life was the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. Reading this book at the end of secondary school in 1992, was part of my teenage rebellion and awakening. I found Malcolm’s oratory more compelling, intriguing and relatable then Martin Luther King, who he was often compared to.
A few years earlier I learned about transatlantic slave trade. I was devastated. It changed how I felt about myself, my family, my history, my identity and the world. Malcolm’s no-nonsense response based on self-determination and education seemed an adequate radical response to a very radical situation. He wrote: “The common goal of 22 million Afro-Americans is respect as human beings, the God-given right to be a human being. Our common goal is to obtain the human rights that America has been denying us. We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans.” Though attributed to America, it felt real to me in the UK and still very real now sixty years after he wrote those words.
His unquenchable thirst for knowledge, intelligence and ability to convey the feeling and frustration of the oppressed was an inspiration that fuelled my own choices to this day. He wrote: “My alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.”
I found his journey, continuum of developing identity and self-reflection equally intriguing and inspiring. From Malcolm Little to Malik El-Shabazz, from Harlem to Mecca, where his radicalism became fuelled by peace and love. His conversion led to my respect for Islam. The peacefulness and poetry of the Quran. Through Islam I continued to search for a spiritual practice that reflected my passions and values, which I did when I discovered Unitarianism via the BBC website on religion. I have Malcom’s autobiography to thank for igniting that search for the missing jigsaw piece. One of my favourite words from the book are “We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience and patience creates unity.’
Jane: Thank you Maria for that powerful echo of Malcolm X’s call for self-determination and education. Our final reflection is from Hannah, who in true Unitarian style, has taken a slightly different approach, with a presentation on her love of books which she’s titled ‘The Librarian’s Daughter’.
Video Reflection: ‘The Librarian’s Daughter’ by Hannah King
I grew up in the library. Lucky enough to have a public library at the end of our quarter mile lane in the countryside, one of my earliest memories is walking down the lane with my mother, my brother, and a big empty red wagon trailing behind. Between the three of us, we would fill it up with books and haul it back home for weeks of entertainment.
Although there weren’t rules to limit anyone’s reading in my home, on one of those trips to the Nile library, I apparently picked out a grown up book (an anthropological tome with a bright red cover entitled, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind). As the librarian checked out our books, she told my mom she would quietly set it aside thinking I wouldn’t notice (as I was, apparently, too young to read it in her eyes). I, however, did notice and was upset. Not even two years old, I saw that book was missing from my red wagon and I stomped all the way home! Needless to say, there was no further censorship of my reading, accidental or otherwise.
Around the same time, although I don’t remember personally, my mom tells me that one day I was meant to have a nap. Instead, she and my older brother both fell asleep on the bed and later awoke to find me sitting there happily beside them surrounded by a pile of books!
It is sometimes suggested that people shouldn’t eat alone. I say, you can’t be alone if you have a book. As a young girl, my book of choice was called Tatterhood. It was a collection of folk tales, but I came back over and over to the story of the young woman, riding her goat and branding her wooden spoon. Looking back, it’s no wonder that I felt brave enough to charge out into the world. I had no idea, but in preparing this little piece, I discovered that the subtitle of that edited volume was ‘Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World.’ I wonder how much my desire to explore, to travel, to learn about languages and cultures, was cultivated in those moments, feet folded under me on a tall stool as I flipped pages with one hand and ate with the other.
As a young reader, when I found an author I liked, I devoured book after book until their collection was exhausted. I’m not sure now what I saw in Walt Morey or Cynthia Voigt. Perhaps it was the local connection, Walt Morey’s books being set predominately in the Pacific Northwest of the US, and featuring connections between animals and humans –that interdependent web of all existence. Or maybe I just loved the idea of people setting off into the wild to ‘discover themselves.’ While Cynthia Voight’s work was never short on adventure, so maybe I owe some of my own independence to 13 year Dicey, the brave leader of journey after journey with her 3 siblings in tow.
Later, my reading was more obviously shaped by cultural and political forces, such as an interest in books written by Middle Eastern women that grew from 9/11. I wanted to understand what life was for others. As I have moved around the world, I have toured the world’s literature, finding comfort and joy in names that once sounded foreign like Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Haruki Murakami. In fact, these interests were apparent early, as evidenced by a very loved copy of Unicef’s Children Just Like Me book. As a child in a small town, I travelled by reading.
The Little Prince has shown me that you can love a book without even knowing if you have ever actually read it cover to cover! In our home library, there was a beautiful, illustrated copy of The Little Prince. It belonged to my mother, before she was my mother. Perhaps loving that book isn’t so different from loving my mom. I started collecting it. In Spanish and French first-as I studied them. Then in German, Korean and Italian-languages whose pieces I picked up along the way. Then even in Hebrew and Hindi-whose scripts were beyond my grasp. Thus, The Little Prince has been with me, as has my mother, the librarian, as I carried those stories with me–physically, spiritually, and intellectually–on every last adventure.
Hymn: ‘With Heart and Mind’ by Unitarian Music Society (2.33)
Thanks Hannah for sharing your story. We’ve got one more hymn, ‘With Heart and Mind’, to sing together now – not one we sing that often as far as I can recall – but I think the words are lovely. They speak of the human search for goodness, and truth, and freedom – a search that’s perhaps echoed through some of the stories we’ve heard today – the qualities we’ve found through books. As always we’ll try to make sure you’re muted so feel free to sing or listen as you’d rather.
With heart and mind and voice and hand
may we this time and place transcend
to make our purpose understood:
a mortal search for mortal good,
a firm commitment to the goal
of justice, freedom, peace for all.
A mind that’s free to seek the truth;
a mind that’s free in age and youth
to choose a path no threat impedes,
wherever light of conscience leads.
Our martyrs died so we could be
a church where every mind is free.
A heart that’s kind, a heart whose search
makes love the spirit of our church,
where we can grow, and each one’s gift
is sanctified, and spirits lift,
where every door is open wide
for all who choose to step inside.
Thanks to Jenny for co-hosting today, to Abby and Peter for the wonderful music, and of course to Pat, Marianne, Maria and Hannah for their great contributions. I reckon we could do another of these services later in the year so do get in touch if you might like to take part.
There are a number of opportunities to connect in the week ahead: Coffee morning on Zoom at 10.30 on Tuesday. You can still sign up for Heart and Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering – one or two spots for tonight and for Friday – on the theme of ‘Healing’.
Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time afterwards, chat in small groups, if you’d like. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music so stick around.
Poetry Sharing on Zoom with Brian on Wednesday 28th February at 7pm. Please let Brian know (or email me and I’ll pass it on) so you can get the Zoom link. These groups have a simple format: choose a poem you like, or have written yourself, and would like the group to hear. And let Brian have the poem in time to collect them all together and send round in advance.
Next Saturday, 1st May, the West London GreenSpirit group have their Beltane event on Zoom. Gathering from 2.50 for a 3pm start, ending by 4.30pm at the latest. All are welcome to join this celebration of earth’s fertility and spring’s greening – in music, words and silence, sharing and time for individual contemplation. To book your place please contact Sarah Tinker on firstname.lastname@example.org or David Carter on email@example.com
We’ll be back again on Zoom next week at 10am so tell your friends. It’s fine to share the link. And feel free to drop us a line during the week to get in touch if you’d like to say hello. Don’t forget we’ve now got our fledgling Pastoral Network set up and there’s more information about that in the weekly email and on the website if you’d like to arrange a chat with one of us.
We’ve just got some brief closing words now, followed by more lovely music from Abby and Peter to end. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point so we can all see each other and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness for this closing.
Closing Words: by Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson
I send you out now, to share yourself with the world.
May its promise and complexity set your mind ablaze.
May you hold fast to what your life has taught you.
May you question everything.
And when you have changed the world,
And the world has changed you,
May you return again, to this place,
And share what you have learned with us. Amen.
Closing Music: ‘Spring Song’ by Bridge – Abby Lorimier and Peter Crockford (2.05)
Jane Blackall and Members of the Congregation
25th April 2021