Body, Mind and Spirit – further reflections on how spirituality intersects with our minds and bodies

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This blog is a further reflection on the book Cure: a Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant. In my previous review, I noted how people who meditate have more highly organised and coordinated brains with higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex. When I read this it felt a bit like a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me, “Ahh! So that’s why I so frequently have good ideas when I pause to pray about something, especially when I pray by just putting myself consciously but silently into God’s presence”. No sooner had I thought this, than a second rather more disturbing thought came along: “so where does that leave the Holy Spirit? If praying or meditating is simply a way of making my brain function better are the ideas I have or even the sense of God that I have, simply a result of me harnessing my own psychological resources?”

In other words where is the place for the spiritual in all of this?

When I teach about skills for mental well-being I often draw the diagram above. I explain that we are not merely a body nor are we merely a mind but we also have a spirit. Each of these three parts of ourselves inter-link and each affects the other two in ways I think we do not begin to understand. Marchant’s book explores the connections between only two of the circles: the body and the mind. She appears to find no place for the spirit. She is not a Christian, so why should she?

When I draw this image I use it to teach three skills.

1. Relaxation – learning to relax is a physical skill which is good for our bodies.

2. Changing our thinking – learning to challenge negative thinking is a skill which is good for our minds.

3. Learning to pray (and by inference learning that there is someone to pray to and who or what that someone might be). This allow us to connect to an objective reality which is beyond ourselves.

Those who have no faith in God (of any variety) would only draw two circles: the body and the mind. These are lonely places to be. Sex, at its best, is a union of two people which brings us a deeply comforting sense of connection with another person. In conversation with ‘like minded’ friends we can sometimes sense a ‘meeting of minds’ which is also deeply affirming. But for the most part only we alone know how it feels to live in our own body, and only we alone have any understanding of the internal landscape of our own minds. These are lonely places. If there is a third part of me and it is my spirit then I see that as the part which allows me connect to God. God’s promise to us is that he himself will be present with us through the Holy Spirit, who fills us when we invite him to do so and brings to us the assurance that we are God’s children, known and loved by him (her). (Romans 8:16)

Nowhere in the Bible is it explicitly explained that human beings have these three circles but they are mentioned frequently in different places and it is a model I find convincing not least because the Bible teaches that we are “made in the image of God” and God is also “three in one”

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Here is an image meant to help us understand the Trinity. Can you find the second image inside the first?

The second reason I have for believing in the existence of my spirit comes from watching people die. Something happens at that moment, something that isn’t merely physical and it’s not to do with people’s mental capacity being lost because frequently this is lost well before death anyway. But at the moment of death, something changes, something leaves. The essence of us departs, it does not die. This is what Christians mean by being “called home”.

So for these two reasons I do believe there is a space for the spiritual, which brings me back to the question I originally asked of this book “where is the place for the spiritual in all this?”

The risk of a book like this is that you come away from it with a very much better view of your body and mind’s potential to work together for your own well-being. In other words you think more highly of yourself. This is, of itself,  not a bad thing because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. But we are missing out on something when we think so highly of ourselves that we rule out any need for God. Or should I say, we are missing out on “someone”?

There is a huge amount of value in meditation but it is still a singularly lonely activity. I admire my Buddhist friends for the sense of calm detachment they can achieve but their doctrine has no personal god only an inner state of transcendence which, admirable though it may be, doesn’t seem to offer any personal meaning to my life.

Anyway Buddhists aren’t the only ones who meditate. The writers of the Psalms, those ancient prayer poems of the Jews, frequently recommended meditating.

So what is meditating? I find it helpful to think of it as ‘exercise for the mind’. If I wanted to have strong abdominal muscles I would need to exercise them by doing sit ups. If I want to have a mind that works calmly, coherently and at its best then I need to exercise it.

Christians have a very odd relationship with their minds. Partly this is to do with their strong belief in the supremacy of the influence of the Holy Spirit but partly it is also fuelled by fear. Fear that if you think too hard, you may become too impressed with yourself or too self-reliant, that maybe you might rationalise away the spiritual.

When Gordon Fee a well-known Pentecostal theologian first began to talk about the possibility of taking theological training he was advised by some of his fellow Christians that it wouldn’t be a good idea, that it would kill his spiritual passion. “Better to be a fool on fire” they said “than a scholar on ice”. Personally I find the idea of being a ‘fool on fire’ terrifying – think radicalised muslim extremist killing people in the name of their religion and you have a picture of where passion without insight can take you. Thankfully those aren’t the only two choices open to us- any number of Christian theologians could be described as “scholars on fire”.  Passionate about their faith but also loving God with all of their minds, not just their soul and strength.

Some Christians avoid their minds by preferring to pray about things instead of thinking about things. ‘Looking for a sign’, rather than ‘thinking things through’  can make us superstitious in our faith and doesn’t strengthen the foundations of why we believe. Becoming aware of the presence of God through the resource of prayer is undoubtedly a powerful tool for transformation in our lives but it is not the only tool. We need to use it AND think! When, for example, we say we want to lose weight; we might pray about this but we know full well that we can’t simply pray about it we have to do something about it  as well i.e. reduce our calorie intake. Similarly, if we want to get fit, we might pray about it but no amount of prayer will make us physically fitter unless we are willing to get off our bottoms and do some exercise. We understand this interplay between the body circle and the spiritual circle – we get it. But when it comes to the mind circle we get easily spooked and think that “simply praying about it” is all that’s needed.

In fact there are plenty of skills and exercises that can help us to train our minds (to say nothing of helpful medications that can help us stablise them when we have got seriously out of kilter). Scripture recommends that we should “take captive every thought”. There is nothing unscriptural about learning techniques that help you control anxious thoughts or help you stop yourself rehearsing and ruminating over regrets, recriminations or revenge. Learning to be peacefully aware of all the stuff that is going on between your ears is a helpful first step towards getting rid of that stuff which is destructive or damaging mentally.

So if my mind needs fixing and let’s face it most of our minds do, why should I find myself prejudiced against skills such as meditation? or even hypnosis? Not the kind that gives someone else power over my  mind or actions but the kind that helps me access the unconscious parts of my mind.  I found her definition of hypnosis and her explanation of the history of it very useful and interesting.

So did Marchant make any space for the spiritual?

In a fascinating final chapter called “Looking for God” she visits Lourdes and uncovers what she calls the ‘real miracle of Lourdes’. Even as an unbeliever,  even having debunked at least one of the so-called miracles which has taken place there, she acknowledges that “seeing ourselves as part of something bigger, or having a meaning and purpose beyond ourselves can help us do better physically”. She felt for herself a ‘powerful sense of connectedness’. She goes on to describe the kind of friendships, full of hope and companionship that are forged at Lourdes, the dignity and respect shown to human life in all its frailty. She points to the ‘miracles’ of strong social support, people sharing their lives openly with complete strangers because they meet on the  common ground that everyone is broken in one way or another, being treated with respect, making friends immediately, the sense of equality experienced by everyone – these are the miracles. She doesn’t actually say it, because she doesn’t know of it, but I wanted to shout “YES! This IS the miracle! This IS the kingdom of God in action: people being treated holistically as more than cells and molecules, people being listened to, people engaging in an act of worship that encompasses their physical senses, engages their mental energies and recognises that simply being human is their core identity.

For me being human is synonymous with being a child of God. It is my core identity, it is God’s spirit within my spirit who reassures me that I was created for a purpose, but I am part of something bigger than myself but that I am also known and loved for my unique individuality. I am ‘beloved’.

 

“Cure: a journey into the science of Mind over Body” Jo Marchant – Book Review

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This is an absolutely fascinating read. Written by a scientist, it explores the research into ways our minds influence our physical well-being, our tolerance of pain and our immunity. The first chapter is all about the placebo effect. So far so good, most of us have heard of this and feel slightly self-conscious about the truth that simply taking something we think will do us good, might actually do us good. But we think we have to be conned into thinking we might be getting the real thing in order for placebos to ‘work’.  However in chapter 2, we get into really interesting territory: how placebo treatments can still be effective EVEN when we know they are placebo treatments!

In these two first chapters Marchant has laid the foundation for the simple truth which she then  explores throughout the rest of the book and the truth is this: your mind can influence your physical well-being. There are psychological resources which can be harnessed which will materially affect our recovery from an illness or our ability to manage the symptoms of a chronic condition.

She is NOT talking about “the power of positive thinking” which is a concept that makes me cringe and I feel can load unnecessary guilt onto people who are already weighed down by their pain and the distress of their condition. At the extreme end of the “positive thinking” spectrum there are those people who would eschew normal and appropriate medical interventions, in my view a very foolish step. This is not a book which makes any suggestion along those lines, in fact it carries (in the final chapter) a very stark warning story about the dangers of relying on positive thinking alone.

The story that Marchant tells is about non-medical treatments and interventions which, used alongside appropriate pharmaceutical intervention, can make a huge difference. The kind of conditions she discusses are lupus, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue, IBS and pain management for burns victims.  The kind of psychological treatments she explores are: (warning, if you are from a conservative evangelical Christian background some of these will give you the ‘heebie-jeebies’) placebos and the power of rituals, hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, counselling, the power of empathic communication (positive suggestions and visual imagery) and biofeedback.

The astonishing part of the story for me was not that these treatments merely “feel” effective but that over and over again she demonstrates from research that such treatments can physically change our bodies. For example, people who regularly meditate actually grow their cerebral cortex. In other words, the physical structure of their brains changes – in a good way!

It is a deeply fascinating book, and not only if you happen to be suffering from an illness and are wondering what you could do to help yourself. A chapter entitled “Fountain of youth” explores how social isolation is as dangerous for our health as obesity, inactivity or smoking, possibly even more dangerous than these. Alongside this information she reports that in the US 32 million people live alone-27% of households. In 1985 another American survey showed that in general people said they had three confidants, when this study was repeated in 2004, 25% of people said they had none! (This theme is also very fully explored in the book “The Village Effect” which I have already blogged about Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker ).

Every chapter had something new and thought-provoking, it would be hard to choose a favourite but from my personal perspective chapter 7 “Talk to me: why caring matters” gave me ideas I could immediately apply to those I care for. Chapter 9 “Enjoy the Moment: the Power of Meditation” was also extremely helpful. Mindfulness and meditation has been shown to reduce chronic pain and anxiety, also to reduce stress and improve our quality of life. It has been shown that when monks meditate their brains are highly organised and coordinated with neurons firing together and an increase of activity in the left prefrontal cortex which is the seat of positive thoughts and emotions.

Of course, as I’ve already said, some Christians have heebie-jeebies over the subject of meditation and mindfulness simply because those monks may not necessarily be Christians, they may be Buddhists. This book is written by someone who is not a Christian so she clearly doesn’t feel any need to justify meditation but she does tell the story of how a Buddhist medical researcher Jon Kabat Zim, recognised that many people were missing out on the benefits of meditation because they were put off by the religious baggage that surrounded it. So he stripped it of its spiritual aspects, developing a program called MBSR ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’.

To keep this blog from becoming too long (and also because some readers will not be interested in where spirituality fits in to all this) I will write a second reflection about how the book challenged me on a spiritual level. In her final chapter, Marchant turns her attention to whether or not religious experience and belief can also affect our bodies and our brains. I confess to feeling nervous about what conclusions she might reach but suffice to say that while she wasn’t entirely ‘converted’ neither does she debunk or reject the value of spiritual belief.

To conclude this review though, I heartily recommend this intriguing and well-written book. I read it as someone who teaches people skills designed to enhance their mental well-being (the Keeping Health in Mind Course http://www.keepinghealthinmind.org.uk) and I found in it much good common sense as well as a great deal of fascinating science.

 

What is a Christian?

I had a most interesting conversation yesterday with a friend around this question: “what is a Christian?”
We were discussing the phrase “practising Christian”, she accepts that she isn’t one of those but she does understand herself to be a Christian. The phrase ‘practising Christian’ is generally taken to mean “church goer” but being a “church goer” is no guarantee of living out Christian values such as generosity, forgiveness, compassion or thankfulness.
In fact people who don’t go to church frequently cite the ‘unchristian’ behaviour of “church goers” as a reason for not going. And it’s true – the church is as rich a mix of sinners and saints as anywhere else.
There are a lot of people who are innately Christian in their values. Their lifestyle, generosity, voluntary commitment to good causes are all exemplary, so much so you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking there might be as many Christians outside the church as within it. (In fact I hope you CAN be forgiven because I do think this!)
One of the most moving responses to the atrocity in Manchester this week was the reflection on how immediately after the explosion, terror, carnage and horror a huge number of people responded in a way that was totally in line with Christian values – you might almost say that the kingdom of God had broken out. People were spontaneously generous, altruistically compassionate and desperate to make some difference in the face of such horror. Of course, it needs to be said that the values they demonstrated are venerated just as much by all other religions.
So was there something distinctively Christian going on? Or is it just that the darkest of deeds brings out the best in people?
My Christian view of the world includes the idea that all human beings are made in God’s image therefore all of us have a vestige of God’s likeness and the capacity to demonstrate his compassion. All of us though are also flawed and it is classically those who are most damaged who are capable of inflicting the most damage on others.

Which brings us back to the original question “what is a Christian?” It clearly can’t be someone who behaves perfectly all of the time, because none of us do.

If we were to take that question and ask it of the entire spectrum of the Christian church, from catholic mystic through to charismatic evangelical and all shades in between (because of course, you can have a Catholic charismatic or an evangelical non-charismatic) you would get ALOT of different answers.
In the church scene that I grew up in we thought it was highly unlikely that a catholic could be a ‘saved/born again believer’ like us. How blinkered we were – people who smoked or went to dance classes were equally suspect!
We are notoriously bad at deciding ‘who is in and who is out’ – no wonder Jesus said “do not judge” and thank goodness he did. But for those of us who want to be a Christian the answer to the question still matters.
Here are some answers
A) A Christian is someone who has been baptised.  This answer might surprise some readers steeped in post reformation understanding but it was the only answer for thousands of years and may well be the first answer given by the majority of the world’s christians. (that’s just my opinion, I can’t prove that) . If it does shock you it might also surprise you to know that Luther, that great champion of the ‘saved by faith alone’ school of thought, leaned heavily in his darkest moments of self-doubt on the fact of his baptism.
B)  A Christian is someone who has had a conversion experience. How you define ‘conversion experience’ can vary greatly (which is partly why the ‘being baptised’ test is so much easier, it’s objective not subjective, you either have or haven’t been baptised). Defining a conversion experience is far trickier but this answer suggests that at the very least being a Christian is a conscious active choice, a decision made either in a single moment of time or over a period of time. It also suggests that faith is experiential i.e. something we experience not just a cerebral consent to a set of beliefs or values.

or here is a third definition (preferred by many, my friend included)
C)  A Christian is someone who lives out Christian values regardless of A) or B)

So what do YOU think?

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I think it’s not either A or B or C but, preferably, all three. I say preferably because being a Christian is not about making sure you tick all the boxes and someone with these three boxes unticked might still be a Christian but that’s God for you  – not picky about his friends!
Here’s my definition: a Christian is someone who knows Jesus and reflects his character, lives by his teaching and is most likely baptised.
The ‘knowing Jesus’ bit for me implies an encounter, a moment of personal commitment, a relationship that began in an experience. It might be a Damascus road style event or it might simply have been a warm inward sense of God in church one day but something mystical, spiritual, personal and relational has happened at some point that has created a connection between you and God and in being a Christian you are seeking to sustain and grow that knowledge and connection. This is the admission that there is an ‘other’ in the Christian faith. I know that many can experience positive change in their lives through practices such as mindfulness or beliefs such as Buddhism where adherents are encouraged and given tools to harness all their own inner resources. I’m not underrating our own inner resourcefulness but my Christian faith is me reaching out to connect with the reality, a personality, who is above and beyond me but infinitely loving and accepting of me.  This connection is the power dynamic, the spark of life, the presence of God permitted to be at work within me. Without it the other side of being a Christian, the living out and reflecting God’s character in our lives, might become just so much “trying hard”.

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Yes Christians should be recognised by their character. Jesus said “by your fruits you shall know them”. None of us can be perfect but even so if someone consistently fails to change at all as a result of their knowledge of Christ that would be surprising.

So where does baptism come into this? I would say that it’s important but not that important – because clearly so many who are baptised never go on to live out their faith or reflect God in the world. But it’s important because the Bible says it’s important it’s a public declaration of faith and commitment that ought to be an outward reflection of an inward reality.

Why Worship Matters

“Let man’s soul be a sphere and then, in this, 

the intelligence that moves, devotion is”

These are lines from a poem by John Donne (1573-1631), hardly contemporary but still wonderfully insightful. We have all sorts of words for worship these days: praise/adoration/contemplation but I think loves this phrase, worship or ‘devotion’ is ‘the intelligence that moves us’.

Worship might also be described as the act of putting ourselves in God’s presence with the express purpose of appreciating ‘him’ or being with ‘him’ (sorry pronouns bother me, God is not him or her, God is just God).

But even the word ‘appreciate’ feels weak – you appreciate your granny when she knits you some socks, you appreciate a friend or neighbour who helps you out with a chore.

To appreciate God is something far stronger than a moderate sense of reasonable gratitude. To really worship is to spend time opening your heart, mind and soul to God’s qualities and attributes, to put yourself consciously in God’s presence and to bend your heart, mind, soul and strength to worship – to acknowledge the superiority and strength of the ‘other’, of God himself.

Donne’s definition of worship has, almost by accident, a surprisingly modern feel. He writes that we, being like spheres are pulled in one direction or another by either external forces: “being by others hurried every day”; or by internal forces: “pleasure or business” whirl our souls.

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These feel like good descriptions of the phenomena that is modern life so often conspiring to keep us from worship.

I say ‘by accident’ because Donne had in mind the idea of the universe being a set of nested spheres the earth at its centre. But even in his day astronomers had begun to notice that planets followed erratic courses and “scarce in a year their natural form obey”.

This image and this phrase reminds me of those whose faith only finds expression at those annual pitstops of Christmas and Easter.

Donne’s image of a sphere makes me think of a set of weighted carpet bowls that my parents used to own. Holding an internal bias, not one of them would ever roll in a straight line. To help them reach their goal you had to remember to roll them with regard to their internal weighting.

All of us have a natural internal bias that rolls us away from God.

It therefore takes conscious effort and a certain degree of discipline to practice what Donne calls ‘devotion’ but there is a rich benefit when we do spend time in worship, adoration, praise or contemplation. As we do so we gather ‘the intelligence that moves us’. Use the word intelligence in the way that you would find it used in spy dramas i.e. ‘information’ and we realise that worshipping God allows us to see the world and ourselves through the lens of knowledge, insight or information about the world’s creator. In essence when we worship we see things as they truly are.

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Take time to worship and you may be surprised that a whole world may be contained in a drop of water.

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Struggling towards the light

I have learnt a spiritual lesson from growing potatoes.  Just when they begin to show little green shoots just above the surface of the soil like this:

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you are supposed to dump another inch or two of soil on top of them!

I was so excited to see these little shoots begin to appear, it felt very counter intuitive to cover them up again just as they’d reached the light, so I consulted my gardening friend Roy.

“Yes” he said, “cover them up as soon as they appear, don’t leave it too long or when you do cover them up you might break the stem”

So having done all that hard work growing, struggling towards the light, along I came with my shovel and drowned them once again in soil.

I was thinking about this process when I woke up this morning.

“It doesn’t seem very fair” I said to God, the poor little plants must feel like they are only just getting somewhere when ‘whoosh, all the lights go out again’.

There was silence from the the divine end of this conversation… he was waiting for the penny to drop.

Finally it did, with a clunk almost loud enough to be heard outside my brain:

It makes them more fruitful – the deeper the soil you bank up the more potatoes you will grow in your pot”.

So if life feels like one step forward and two steps back at the moment, try to remember that when the lights go out and you feel buried in a deep dark hole, you might be growing in a way that will become far more fruitful than you could ever have imagined.

About 18 months ago I found this flower growing straight out of the hard, dry ground on a hillside:

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I took the photo and adopted it as an image of me on my phone screen to remind me that beauty and life can flourish in unexpected places.

Growing Potatoes

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Life is not plain sailing

Life is not plain sailing and I am not a sailor.

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But life is like consenting to a journey in a little sailing boat.

I am not keen on boats in general, little boats in particular: too vulnerable, too open to the elements.

There is only room in this boat (which is my life) for two – one of us is the passenger and one of us is the captain. Knowing who is who and where to sit are the essential basics when it comes to sailing.

I have consented to be the passenger If you don’t believe in God then you believe yourself to be alone in your little boat: good luck to you. However, if you do believe in God but think he’ll tolerate being the passenger: good luck to you.   Bearing in mind his proven ability to walk away on water, conceding the captain’s seat would be wise.

I do not know where we are going, nor do I know how long the journey will be.

I do know that the things that affect our progress are out of my control; the force of the currents under us (culture, economic forces, the state of the world) the strength of the waves around us (the drag and draw of people’s expectations, their hopes and the gravitational pull of their needs, legitimate or not). Nor can I control the energy that fills the sails: sometimes the winds of life’s circumstances leave me battered or extended at full stretch. Sometimes my sail hangs listless as I am becalmed by a dead space of dull routine.

I am often frustrated by what I do not have: I do not have an engine, I do not even have an oar.  I am powerless to drive things forward.

At such times I need to remind myself that I HAVE consented to make this journey and I have consented to be passenger not captain. To turn and see calm eyes fixed on a destination unknown to me, to allow the gentle pressure of a far wiser hand on the tiller, to follow instructions on how to trim or set my sail to either catch or survive the prevailing winds, to learn to lean to one side or the other allowing the boat to rise over the waves rather than sink under them, these are all that I am required to do.

The rest is plain sailing.

A place of ‘holy mystery’

In Luke 7 there are two stories of resurrection. Jesus raises the nearly dead, the centurion’s servant, and the very dead, the son of the widow of Nain.

Immediately after the young man sits up and starts talking there is a moment of stunned silence. Before the expression of noisy opinions or the blustering of the pharisees. Everyone is simply ‘awe-struck’. Eugene Peterson expresses this moment in this way: ‘They all realised they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them. They were quietly worshipful and then noisily grateful’. 

It was only a moment before the discussion and doubts set in again. No wonder Jesus became weary of them and would later comment (11:29) ‘the mood of this age is all wrong. Everyone is looking for proof, but you’re looking for the wrong kind. All you’re looking for is something to titillate your curiosity, satisfy your lust for miracles’. 

The crowd wanted to be entertained but not changed, be given something to talk about but not be given a mission to live for.

A life-changing encounter with the Holy is always possible and infinitely more likely than we might think. There are two reasons we don’t have such an encounter. The first is that we are so frequently preoccupied about the past or living anxiously in the future that we are rarely present in the present. And if God is anything he is present tense.

In his poem ‘The Bright Field’ R. S. Thomas writes

‘Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush’

Are  you rushing along through every day, living with constant noise/music/news/commentary? Without stillness you will miss the holy encounters offered to you: in beauty of nature, the smile of a stranger or the taste of a meal.

The second reason we miss ‘holy moments’ is that before we have even fully allowed us to enter them (or them to enter us) we have begun to rationalise and debate the experience. We worry what might be required of us or what it all means when actually all that God desires is that we live with grateful awareness.

I love the story Pete Greig tells of walking along trying to be conscious of God and sensing God saying to him ‘look at that tree’. He stood stock still in rigid expectation of some great divine revelation, a powerful prophecy…. Nothing happened. Eventually he asked God what it was he wanted to reveal to him through the tree.

‘Gee, Pete, you’re so intense… I just thought it was a nice tree’!

Life can be full of moments of holy mystery and wonder if only we walk around with our eyes open, our spirit’s alert and our sense of humour in tact.