Tag Archive: belief


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A short introduction to the life and work of Stevie Smith for the Spiritual Reading group meeting at the Carmelite Library in Middle Park.  After a short talk to contextualise the work of the artist we read some of the works aloud and hold shared discussion reflecting on what they might mean…

Stevie was born Florence Margaret Smith in 1902. At 3 years of age, the marriage of Stevie’s parents broke down and she moved with Mum, Ethel and big sister Molly from Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire to Palmers Green in North London. Contact with her father, who was in shipping, became single line postcards saying things like: “Off to Valparaiso, Love Daddy”

Contracting tuberculosis peritonitis  at 5, Stevie was taken to a sanatorium at Broadstairs in Kent for 3 years. Being separated from her family was hard and Stevie has said that this is when her preoccupation with death and fear arose.

When Stevie’s mother Ethel became ill, Madge Spear, affectionately referred to as “The Lion Aunt” came to live with them, raising Stevie and Molly.  A feminist who had no patience with men, formidable Aunt Madge raised a family of women attached to their own independence counter-cultural to the ruling Victorian idea that “father knows best”. When she was 16, Stevie’s mother died.

Stevie studied at Palmers Green High School then went to Mrs Hoster’s secretarial academy – the North London Collegiate School.  It was around 17 the “Stevie” moniker came into common use arising from riding in the park with a friend who commented that she reminded him of the champion jockey Steve Donoghue.

Stevie suffered depression all her life that expressed as nervousness, shyness and intense sensitivity.  Straight out of the Collegiate school Stevie became a secretary at a magazine publishing company, and eventually became the private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson with Sir George Newnes and Newnes Publishing Company where she worked 1923-1953.  In this time Stevie had published 3 autobiographical novels and 4 of the 9 volumes of poetry published in her lifetime.  The themes of her work traverse: loneliness, myth and legend, absurd vignettes, war, human cruelty and religion.  Stevie’s line drawings, which she called her “higher doodling” often weren’t published with her poems, that happened later when collected works were published, and the pictures weren’t necessarily drawn to go with particular works but she would merely pick out whatever seemed appropriate.  They often lend a note of whimsy to words of touching depth or sharp parody to her satirical set-downs.  Stevie used comedy to talk about dark things and used the tools of her craft to resist domestic ideology around class, religion, marriage…

While her early novels and volumes of poetry were a great success, the work of the 1940s and early 1950s had been less well-received. She was seen as eccentric and the style of her poetry out-of-fashion.  One account suggests Stevie invalided out and was given a full pension following a nervous breakdown at work that led to her attempting suicide at her desk after an incident threatening her boss with a pair of scissors but another says perhaps more discretely that Aunt Madge became bedridden and Stevie left work to care for her. Stevie perceived death as she did god, someone perhaps to have a dialogue with ‘scolding for taking her loved ones and those whom the world will miss’, someone she had to acknowledge and comes to terms with the existence of. Stevie has said that she was “so consoled by the idea of death as release” that she didn’t have to commit suicide it was enough to know that death was there to look forward to. This god death is often expressed as kinder in her writing than the God of church and religion.

A come back after the period 1953-1955 when Punch was almost exclusively the only established periodical willing to publish her work. Stevie undertook a collaboration with Elisabeth Lutyens and Heidi Anderson when she struggled to find other outlets for her writing.  The arrangement and performance of her poems between her own readings were very engaging for audiences and led to Stevie eventually developing her own unique performance style of singing her poems.

Between readings Stevie would often sing, using sonorities and tonalities for effect, 2 or 3 of her works to familiar tunes she borrowed from Anglican hymns, folk melodies, popular music hall songs, a military march or tunes she made up in these styles.  While setting hilarious captions to the table book “Cats in Colour” in 1959 was I’m sure, a highlight, it may have been surpassed by receiving the Queens’ Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. The last decade of her life saw her increasingly in demand to give readings not only to societies but schools.

Stevie died from a brain tumour 7 March 1971

Katherine Firth’s thesis on “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration” provides insightful context of the time and place of Stevie’s writing.  The influence of modernism in the 1920s-30s had a destabilising effect on meanings – skilled practitioners were able to create works that reflected their own ambivalences, scepticisms and self-criticisms and you see a lot of this in Stevie’s writing – especially on the subject of religion.  Resisting her High Anglican and Tory Aunts’ influences with her lefty friends. This group of friends were influenced by Aristotle’s writing on poetry on the root word for poetry and action being the same so there was a sense that the words should be working to explain or impart something.

While Stevie lived a largely secluded and celibate life, aside from a few flings with both men and women, Stevie was a resolutely autonomous woman and rejected the idea that she was lonely.  Intimate relationships with friends and family kept her fulfilled. This was a time of cliques and gangs – groups of writers, producers, painters, composers, performers and critics that interacted socially and professionally in overlapping circles while retaining distinct identities.  Stevie corresponded and socialised widely with other writers and creative artists. She was chief bridesmaid and Louis MacNeice the best man at the wedding of the novelist Olivia Manning to the poet Reggie Smith. George Orwell was close and Sylvia Plath a fan.

New West End venues, technological advances and the rise in the role of the BBC in disseminating music were changing performance media.  Contemporary composers were looking to their poet-peers for lyrics, there were a range of styles of popular music and they borrowed from each other.  There was a desire convey Modernist idioms to reach a broader social and cultural context, making music and poetry relevant to the political and economic circumstances of the audiences listening. There was an idea that a poems words will do its work on someone if it is palatably wrapped as a hymn or cabaret tune.  The music groups of the day wanted audiences to be improved AND entertained.

Susan Thurman’s thesis provides this concise synopsis:

“Smith’s poetry reveals three major attitudes toward religion, which sometimes overlap: first, she is the agnostic who cannot make up her mind–she has faith in a god in whom she does not want to believe, yet she loses faith in a god in whom she does want to believe. Second, she often writes poems which confidently reject God; she is the atheist expressing approval of the decline of organized religion, strongly attacking both the Catholic and Anglican Churches. She vehemently rejects God and Christianity in such atheistic poems as being untrue, but if possibly true, then cruelly unfair. Third, however, she is a believer who replaces the Christian God of eternal damnation with what she views as a more merciful God of her own making. She tries desperately to create a God for herself in whom she can believe.” As she says of herself in her image on the poster for today’s event: “In yielding and abnegation I spend my days”.

Stevie often attracted labels like “eccentric”, “odd”, and “difficult” with causality attributed to her gender… Not Waving But Drowning is one of Stevie’s most well-known works speaking to our individual isolation within society.  Between the poem and the paradoxes of Stevie’s own life: participant or observer, believer or atheist, here to live or here to die? Cynthia Zarin draws a parallel – saying “she is at once the stranger and the traveller, both waving and drowning” – we’re going to wrap this up with Stevie reading that piece, it runs for about 2 mins and you’ll hear her at the start describing what the work was about…

References/Further Reading:

Anne Bryan. “Stevie Smith and God
Katherine Firth. “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration on Art Song 1939-54”
Stevie Smith. “Some Are More Human Than Others.”
Stevie Smith. “Stevie Smith Collected Poems”
Stevie Smith. “Two in One: The Frog Prince and Other Stories/Selected Poems”
Susan E. Thurman. “The themes of God and Death in the Poetry of Stevie Smith
Cynthia Zarin. “The Uneasy Verse of Stevie Smith”

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1  Me nolentum fata trahunt is a play on a line from the Roman Seneca: Ducunt volentem Fata, nolentem trahunt. This means “Fate leads the willing, and drags the unwilling”. So, Stevie Smith’s line means “because Fate drags me, unwilling”.

 

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All rights to this work belong to the Stevie Smith Estate with Faber & Faber and have been reproduced here for educatonal purposes only.

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Rubem Alves tells a story of a spider, safe and happy over empty space – building her house – no hesitation and with precision. Fragile yet perfect, symmetrical, beautiful, fit to its purpose.     “…I did not see her first move, the move which was the beginning of the web, the leap into the void…” (p.3)

What the spider needs to fulfil her intention is within her body. “Her body knows, her body remembers. But we have forgotten it.” (p.4)

Rubem Alves tells a story of a boy who found the body of a dead man
washed up on the edge of a seaside village.

There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried.

In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial,
so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral.
As they did, the women began to talk and
ponder about the dead stranger.

He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses.
His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder.
His hands… they were big. Did they play with children
or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body.

The women laughed
“and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection:
a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead,
returning… their bodies alive again”. (p.24)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening,
became jealous of the drowned man
as they realised he had power which they did not have.

And they thought about the dreams they had never had…

Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man.
But the village was never the same again.

“The dead man did not say one single word.
He was full of silence.
And his silence was the space of remembrance.
His dead body was full of their lost memories…” (p.31)

“Hoc est corpus meum. This is the bit of my flesh which became alive again by the power of the silence of this dead man…

What are we without the help of that which does not exist? – Valerie”  (p.35)

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

(NRSV)

Reading 1: (Read through twice) What word or passage touches/speaks to you?

Reading 2: How does this word/passage touch your life/experience?

Reading 3: How are we called into being/doing by this word/passage?

 

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We come together today to walk the way of the Southern Cross, and visit seven sites from our shared history.  There is suffering in these events, and there are questions for us to grapple with.  We will hear the words of Christ on the cross, what might his words spoken in pain tell us?  We seek to participate in a process of learning, repentance and healing in our land.

We acknowledge that we gather today on the land of the Marabalak people of the Wurundjeri tribe of the Kulin Nations – people who have known the Creator Spirit, shared stories, and walked in this place since time immemorial – our elders past, present and future.

With the Creator Spirit
We walk the way of the Southern Cross
Under the Southern Cross
We hear again the words of Christ on the cross
With God deep among us
We seek healing and justice in our land

 

Site 1: A thirst for justice

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We are standing outside a house.  As every person has a story, so does every house.

This house was a house of comfort.
It belonged to a woman called Sally Russell Cooper. In the 1930s’s she opened its front door as a low-income boarding house and welcomed Aboriginal people to come and live with her. There were three bedrooms inside and a spare room out the back. Sally kept her front door open to her people until the 1970’s. For many Indigenous Australians, this house was, as Elders Larry Walsh and Reg Bow once said, “a refuge from loneliness and homelessness for more than 40 years.”

This house was a house of protest.
The 1930’s onwards were a time of momentum for Aboriginal people. During the Depression and the Second World War many Aboriginal people came to Melbourne seeking work. The growing political movement for Aboriginal rights also attracted people to Melbourne’s west. Sally’s father, William Cooper, was a significant local figure in the Aboriginal political movement fighting for basic civil rights. For many of the Aboriginal people who stayed in this house, there was hope of work at Kinnears Rope Factory and other factories nearby.  But the stronger hope was the hope of justice.

This house was a house of light.
Sally held lots of beautiful parties in this house. This was an important opportunity for Aboriginal people to socialise and support one another as society made it very difficult for Aboriginal people to gather together in groups.  This house was well loved as a safe gathering place.

Consider this house. The door. The windows.  The memory. Remember its story.

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Action
Choose a bushflower tube-stock from the basket, as an Indigenous version of the Hyssop plant, and take it home to a place of earth of your choice. Remember the story of the Aboriginal people in this country as you watch it grow.

 

Site 2: With and with each other

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328 family violence incidents were reported in Maribyrnong in 2013 rising to 974 in 2016 – that increase in incidents, nearly tripling, is largely due to more people speaking out.  We know that a woman is killed in Australia by her male partner or ex-partner nearly every week.  The most common myths are that violence against women is caused by alcohol and drugs, a man’s violent upbringing, living in poverty, anger management problems or mental health problems but for violence against women to become a thing of the past we need to change the causes: gender inequality and rigid gender stereotypes.

This sculpture is called With and With Each Other by artist Tom Bills and it feels like a fitting place to stand to think about equality.

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Action
Let’s take hands and Pass the Peace – exchanging these words:

Say: Peace be with you…
Answer: And also with you.

How can we be doing this amongst our family, friends and neighbours? We need to know what safe touch looks and feels like through education and role modelling.

In making a circle with our arms we are symbolically acknowledging the widening ripples of the impacts of family violence on individuals self esteem, self-worth, physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing… The impacts on individuals, families, neighbours and communities… As we release our hands the circle opens, representing our commitment to breaking the cycles of violence.

Let’s walk with someone new, someone you don’t know or someone you don’t see as often as we move to the next station.

 

Site 3: Finding a place to call home

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We are standing outside Foley House. This is a facility run by the Salvation Army that provides accommodation and support for 46 residents – all of whom have been homeless, and all of whom are living with a disability.

Finding a place to call home is one of our most basic needs. For our Aboriginal friends the trauma of being removed from their homes is still very real and present. For asylum seekers dislocation comes at great cost and much grief.

But homelessness does not discriminate – our social dysfunction makes it a real possibility for anyone. The loss or casualisation of a job, the breakdown of a family, the rent increase from a landlord, the need to flee violence in the home, the disintegration of health, the history of abuse or neglect that is relived on a daily basis, the self-medication through drugs or alcohol: these are all social realities that can thrust any of us into homelessness.

There were 762 people who were homeless in the electorate of Footscray on Census night in 2011. Things are getting worse: this figure is 29 per cent more than in 2006. Across Victoria, there are 22,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night.

Even this is just the tip of the iceberg. A skewed housing market benefits some greatly but places unbearable pressure on those at the bottom end. The injustice is often felt most strongly for those enduring the uncertainty of the private rental market. We live in a community where houses are seen as investments, rather than homes in which to live and thrive.

Action
Walk with a stone in your shoe as we move to our next location; as a reminder of the constant pain and anxiety faced by those who are struggling to find a place to call home. Are you facing this anxiety yourself? Give your stone to a friend to hold.

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Site 4: Room for all

Sometimes coming to Centrelink can feel like our own crucifixion; Our dependence on a system for which we detest; An experience of isolation and abandonment, judgements from ourselves and others about how we do and don’t fit in; About whether we are enough. A painful waiting that only allows you to survive – and gives no kind word, no compassion, and no understanding of who you really are.

Inequality and poverty in Australia are growing. There are now about 2.9 million people living in poverty, including 731,300 kids.  Centrelink will never be enough (not that that is new to anyone). It is like a well from which we draw water, and in Australia, it seems to be an increasing drought not only of money, but of healthy soil, and healthy people; people whose lives are rich in compassion, joy, generosity and the types of kindness that sows grace amongst the powers.

Today we remember that Christ became that spring when he called us into his family as he called John into his both spiritually and literally. He seeded in us the knowledge that we are duty bound to honour our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters in faith. To know that our own growth and ability to live is intrinsically caught up in family; a family that transcends bloodlines, a family that invites us to make bigger our sense of home, that calls us to dig our own wells.

Action
Place a dollar (provided) on the note at the foot of Centrelink:

For our debts and for their debts, we cannot pay.
Christ is enough.
Power remember Mercy;
Remember where we grow.
Remember those who hold us.
Remember those who raise us.
Remember those who crush us.
Woman here lives your son. Son here lives your mother.
Remember your way home. Remember Me.

 

Site 5: Seeking refuge and finding welcome

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Footscray is a community that generation after generation of migrant has made home. These days it is a multicultural hub with service providers such as the ASRC and community groups such as the Welcome West Wagon working alongside smaller community groups and individuals as well as movements such as Love Makes a Way to create welcome for people seeking asylum & refugees. People come to Australia with the hope of a better life but they are often left in limbo for many years.

A friend of ours, Maria, is an East Timorese woman who through a combination of civil war in her homeland, loss of family members and marriage breakdown has found herself stateless and alone with her young son in a foreign country. Under the terms of her temporary protection visa, she has limited work rights and little way to support herself and her son. She is reliant on friends and community agencies such as the Red Cross and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre for accommodation, legal advocacy and food. At the present time she’s been in limbo for over five years, with little idea of when a decision may be handed down by the minister for immigration. She may be granted permanent residency and begin the process of building a life here, or she may be forced to leave. She prays every day for a permanent home in Australia. She lives generously in our community household, lovingly raising her son and extending friendship and help to others.

We acknowledge the perseverance of those seeking asylum and the commitment of all those who go out of their way to create a sense of welcome to refugees and those seeking asylum.

Action
With this chalk we leave our mark and remember that in this multicultural neighbourhood, we are mixed together: rich and poor; Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Italian, Scottish, indigenous; students, workers and non-workers; believers, agnostics and atheists; children and adults of all ages. We acknowledge the tensions and divisions that often exist between us.

We celebrate the diversity we see around us, and how it reflects the beauty of God. We leave our symbol of welcome to be reminded that we are created for connection; for family, for friendship, for shared work, for love. We leave our mark to remember that we need each other and that we are stronger.

 

Site 6: There is a place for you

IMG_5096On a Friday night in November of 2016, three LGBT+ people were assaulted in Footscray after being chased by three men. Security did not step in to stop the attack, and the three LGBT+ had to wait for 25 minutes before deciding to walk to the police station because no patrol car showed up. When the victims reported that the assault was a hate-crime against transgender and queer people, those details were not included by police officers. Like so many others in history, the hatred against these people for their diversity was ignored. The identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people has been ignored and persecuted in Australia.

When I was attending church, I was also asked not to raise my own questions, my doubts, my insecurities and my suffering as a gay person of faith. I was told, in person, that I was broken, and that my capacity for love was corrupted. After an act of honesty, the leadership of the church wanted me to silently accept that I would only be embraced in that faith community if I lived by standards which violated my own conscience and divine design.

We reflect on Jesus’ words to remember that ignorance, fear, and pride often stand in the way of our choice to extend Godly hospitality to our LGBT+ neighbour. In our own lack of love we fail to love our neighbour as we would ourselves. We reflect on the ways that we have excluded and silenced our LGBT+ neighbours, like the authorities attempted to silence the gospel. We reflect on the way that LGBT+ have been forsaken, like Jesus himself was on the cross.

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Action
We now stand in silent prayer for 30 seconds to honour the suffering of LGBT+ people who were forsaken.

Together we pray aloud, ‘Help us, Lord of all, to no longer forsake our LGBT+ neighbour’.

Place the rainbow crucifix with a prayer on the wall of the police station as a sign of the visibility of LGBT+ suffering.

 

Site 7: Earth out of Balance

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We all rely on the earth and its natural systems for life itself.

Its resources sustain us and grow us, yet our actions and failure to be good custodians continues to push things out of balance.  Taking more than we need, prioritising short term gain over long term sustainable thinking – we are seeing mountains and rivers be given legal identity so that they can be given a voice to speak in their own best interests.

Human activity is altering the climate, changing rainfall patterns, reducing water availability, and increasing the frequency of severe weather events such as bushfires and storms such as cyclone Debbie and Cook, we acknowledge those yet rebuilding and recovering in the wake of these storms.

To emphasise this imbalance, sea levels are predicted to rise by at least 600mm by 2070… that’s within most of our lifetimes.  At projected levels, this change in sea level will widen the Maribyrnong River, flood lower lying areas, and begin to change the face of our locality. A sea level rise of just 1m would threaten the surrounding homes and businesses and displace thousands. It would flood all of the city’s major cargo shipping docks and surrounding cargo storage areas, many of which are in our neighbourhood.

The call to be “custodians of creation” is a critical one, which drags us from the crushing weight of a global disaster to a place of restoration, respect and gratitude.

Action
Look around for something that doesn’t belong in this place; perhaps some rubbish or some weeds. Carry it with you as we start to travel to the next site, until you find a spot better suited for your rubbish to be placed.

Reflect on the ways your actions may keep creation out of balance.

Consider your role as a custodian.

Plan some simple steps to begin the healing process.

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Photo credit: Maya Stark

Closure

Creator Spirit
Help us to uncover our hidden stories
Suffering God
Help our tears to flow for the pain
Reconciling Spirit
Heal our shame and our wounds, and call us into action.
Remember that justice is coming; God’s reign is coming

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Acknowledgements and Story

Aunty Doreen Wandin renamed Spencer St station to Southern Cross because they were able to see stars at the homestead in Coranderrk. Aunty Joy Wandin named Wurundjeri Way… We identify this constellation with “home”, and commit to the journey of finding and following the way home under these stars.

Uncle Wanta Jampijimpa has preached on the correlation of the stars of the Southern Cross to the wounds on Jesus’ body… We acknowledge the terrible and complex legacy of the church as colonisers in this place and give deep thanks for elders wisdom and grace in leading us to deeper truth and understanding the Creator Spirit who has always been here in this place.

Bill Wylie Kellerman, co-author of “Resistance and Public Liturgy”, role models and teaches us that liturgy implicates. Undertaking activism on high holidays gives layers of meaning to the action. He said: “We believe God has already intervened, breaking in to break out on behalf of human kind.  We recognise the authority of God [as bigger/beyond figureheads of power], we believe this is the meaning of the resurrection and we have come to say so”…  What does it mean for us – in this time, this place, this context – to be mindful of and respond well to matters of justice from a framework of hope as people of all faiths and none?

The Indigenous Hospitality House (IHH) community who shared their resource with us based on the work of Dr Norman Habel, the author of “Reconciliation: Searching for Australia’s Soul” which outlines the model for combining storytelling to action as a means for right relationship between people and with the land… We seek to participate in a process of learning, repentance and healing in our land.

 

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“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

You have to start

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You have to start
knowing you might not finish
You have to start
knowing you might not get very far
You have to start
knowing it might not make any difference
You have to start
You have to start

Talitha Fraser

God of the all and the nothing

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God of the all and the nothing
the making and unmade at the same time
the span of the universe and the seed
You believe in me and I must believe in You
the wheel turns, the fire burns
Allelujah, Allelujah

Talitha Fraser

A light

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A light comes into the world.
A life comes into the world.
And the world cannot
extinguish it.

Dance

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Dance fears,

dance anger,

dance failure,

dance sorrow.

Lead, and I

will follow

the steps that will

lead me to You.


Talitha Fraser

 

My way is all trust and love
– St Therese of Lisieux

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p.44

I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood
I see that the elementary laws never apologise…
I exist as I am, that is enough
If no other in the world be aware I sit content…
I know the amplitude of time
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains
of hell are with me.

 

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Who need be afraid of the merge?
Undrape… you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded.

 

Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass

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I have believed

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I have believed
in things unseen
for as long as I
can remember
I remember fairies,
Borrowers, Father Christmas,
and more…
In the believing
one knows
the power of things unseen
to work to our good,
and the good of others,
whether they believed or not.
The seeds of faith were born here,
among flowers and thimbles,
cycles and stockings,
the seeds of faith were born.

Talitha Fraser