Character Strengths, Prayer, Spirituality, Storytelling

St Francis, a failure and a friendship

We think of Francis as a saint. But Francis didn’t think of himself that way, I suspect saints never do. Francis saw himself as a failure and this story is the story of one of those failures. It is a story set nearly 800 years ago, in fact it will be 800 years next year. It is the story of how Francis tried and failed to stop a war.

The war was the 5th Crusade. It is worth remembering that Christians have not always been people of peace. The 5th crusade was a crusade by Christians, against Jews, Muslims and heretics and it was breaking Francis’ heart. Francis had once been a soldier, he knew what violence was and he knew what it was to be a prisoner of war. But when Francis fell in love with the Risen Christ, he fell out of love with everything that puts barriers between people, the barriers of pride, power and wealth.

And in 1219 pride and power and wealth had already killed many people. To try and end the bloodshed, Francis went first to the Christians, begging Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused.

So then Francis, and his friend Brother Illuminatus, went to the enemy instead, to the Muslim army against whom the Christians were fighting. They went to stop the war and they went to try and change the hearts of the enemy so that they would follow the Risen Christ.

And they walked, the two of them, unarmed, through the camps of that enemy. They were captured and they were beaten. They were taken, finally, to the Muslim commander, the leader of their enemy, to Sultan Malik-al-Kamil of Egypt, an enemy leader who had offered a gold piece for the head of every Christian. And when Francis was led into the Sultan’s tent he said ‘May the Lord give you peace’. It is said that the Sultan was startled to hear a greeting so close to the traditional Muslim greeting of peace, Assalam o alaikum (as-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum), Peace be upon you.

And in the meeting that followed, I am first going to tell you what Francis DIDN’T DO, because I think it’s important.  Francis did not try to deny the truths of the Muslim faith. He did not insult Islam. He did not argue or attempt to convince this enemy unbeliever that he was wrong.

What Francis respectfully did was to tell the Sultan the truth of why he was there – that he was there because of the gospel of love, that he was there because of his love for the Risen Christ, that he was there because he had been sent there by the God who IS love, And that he was there because of his love for his enemy – for Sultan Malik – al- Kamil. And the Sultan listened to this gentle, foolish, ridiculous man of God, sitting in his tent, speaking truth about love.

And then, in his turn, the Sultan told Francis, truthfully, about the faith and the prayers and the practices that HE loved.  And the gentle, foolish ridiculous man of God listened in his turn. Because that is what love does, that is what friendship does, it listens.

And then Francis left. And the war continued. And the Sultan continued to be a Muslim. Which meant that Francis had failed. He had failed to stop the war. He had failed to convert the Sultan.

But it is said that the Sultan was changed by his encounter with Francis, with the gentle, foolish follower of the Risen Christ. It is said that after meeting Francis he treated Christian prisoners with unusual and unexpected kindness and respect. And perhaps that is as much because of what Francis didn’t do, as what he said. As much because of what Francis WAS – a gentle, foolish, ridiculously loving man of God.

And it was not only the Sultan who was changed. Francis loved the fact that the Muslims prayed 5 times a day. So when he went home he asked his brothers and sisters to do the same. And though Francis refused the many rich gifts that the Sultan offered him, because Francis was not terribly interested in stuff, he did accept the gift of a horn used to call Muslims to prayer. And when he got home he used it to call Christians to prayer. Five times a day.

And perhaps he listened, too, to the beautiful Islamic tradition of the 99 names of God. Because when he got home he wrote a song, the song we are about to share, called the Praises of God. There are not 99 names in it. But then Francis was a humble man. But, if you count carefully, there are 33 names in it. 33 names of the God Francis loved, the God who sent him not to argue with his enemy but to listen and to speak truth about love and to be changed by his enemy, to become his enemy’s friend.

Francis saw himself as a failure. I think that the Sultan and the Risen Christ saw Francis as a friend.



Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality

Prayer, social justice and children

A reflection inspired by the following passages….

 ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ Julian of Norwich

‘The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity…we can retain and transmit our own heritage only by constant remaking of our own environment’ (Dewey, 1922, p. 13)

‘People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’’ (Luke 18, 15-18)

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ (John 12, 24-25)

The Third Order: Doing things in threes

I am a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, or TSSF, which means that I try to follow Jesus Christ, after the example of St Francis and of St Clare, who was Francis’ close friend and guide. At the heart of Francis’ life there was a tension which reflects a tension many of us experience, that of the balance between inner work or contemplation and prayer and outer work or activism. This lived out tension was one of the things that attracted me to the life and example of Francis and to the Third Order. And I draw on the example of St Francis as I try to live out a commitment to social justice in my home, in my work and in my church.

An underlying theme behind the work that I do, and behind my home life and my spiritual life has always been well-being and in particular the well-being of children and young people and those who care for them. In work, home and church I try to create an environment in which people, old and young, can be well – and can experience the Divine, the source and giver of Wellness.

In the Third Order, we do things in threes. We have three aims, three pathways to achieve those aims and three key notes. Our three aims are firstly, to share the love of God in Christ as we understand that; secondly, to spread a spirit of love and harmony– or to work for social justice – and the breaking down of barriers between people; and finally to live simply. The three pathways through which we try to achieve those aims are work, study and prayer. Our three keynotes are love and joy and humility, and without these three characteristics or graces, we believe we cannot achieve our aims.

We are not all required to pursue all the aims equally or to practice all of the pathways to the same extent. Each person finds their own balance in their own particular circumstances and across our community overall we hope that we will also achieve balance.

Social justice in education: our cultural view of children

My own particular interest and focus in thinking about social justice is in the area of adult/child relationships and how children are viewed in our society.  I have worked with children and young people throughout my life and I have been a parent for 27 years. And I think that, culturally, adults in Britain have a problematic relationship with children. Both in the way that we educate children and in how we parent children our attitudes often seem to me to be characterised by injustice and by a lack of love, joy and, indeed, humility. In Britain we tend to either idolize and worship our children or demonise them. On the one hand we can worry too much about our own children, paying them excessive amounts of attention and letting them dominate our lives and thought and hopes. On the other hand, encouraged by the media, we can see them as problems, as ‘feral’ or simply as ‘terrible twos’ or ‘terrible teens’ respectively. We focus on what children lack, on what they cannot do or cannot do properly.

I think that this view of children and young people as a ‘problem’ and somehow ‘lacking’ rather than as fellow travellers and full and unique human beings can lead to unhappiness for all of us and to a lack of mutual respect.

One of the quotes above is from the philosopher of education, John Dewey, an American professor writing in the 1920s. Dewey is an interestingly radical philosopher. His views of education are still regarded as dangerous and subversive by politicians of the right and the left and he is alternately demonized and idolized by politicians and by educators, almost none of whom know anything about what he actually said.

But what he said WAS radical and I think it was profoundly influenced by a deep commitment to social justice. Two of his ideas are particularly important to me and underlie how I see children and how I have tried to parent and to work with children. One is that we never educate directly, only indirectly – we create the environment in which learning takes place. The second is that true learning is mutual – I learn from YOU as you learn from ME and we are both changed by it. And what is particularly radical about Dewey is that he applied those principles equally to children and to adults – he didn’t think that children are, so to speak, a separate species to be educated and treated in a way that is radically different to how adults should be educated or treated. So he didn’t start, as I think our education system largely starts, from a sense of what children LACK or CAN’T do, but from a sense of what they already know and can do. He thought children could think for themselves and had views and experiences worth paying attention to.

When I first worked with 4 year olds at the start of my career, as a very young teacher, I hadn’t read John Dewey. But I did have an instinctive sense that children were worth taking seriously. I very much treated my class of 4 year olds the way I would have treated a class of adult learners – though we perhaps had more fun sometimes – and the children, for the most part, behaved accordingly. Yes, sometimes, everything went pear shaped but mostly they responded to being given responsibility, trusted, listened to, treated with respect by behaving responsibly, being trustworthy, listening to me and being respectful. In other words, usually they behaved with and showed an immense maturity that all too often they are seen as incapable of showing.

I tried to create a safe, respectful, stimulating environment and took what I now realise was a relatively humble view of my own ability to directly TEACH them anything and a correspondingly high view of their ability to learn and for me to learn from them. I studied the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with my 4 year olds when they were all watching it on TV, ignoring the horrified comments of my colleagues that ‘they wouldn’t understand it’. The comments I overheard in my play area/White Witch’s Palace showed me they understood it perfectly. And I quote, ‘If YOU don’t do as you’re told I’LL turn you into stone!’

That was one simple way I tried to put into practice what I would now see as a commitment to social justice. Later in my advisory work with schools I deliberately used democratic teaching methods with younger teachers, such as P4C, or community of enquiry. This is a dialogue based teaching method which involves respectful listening and requires the teacher to listen as much as the children. And I used oral stories and storytelling – another democratic teaching method. When we tell an oral story the meaning or interpretation of the story is not imposed on a listener, whatever their age. Rather the listener creates meaning for his or herself and interprets what they hear in the light of their own lived experiences. It is why all of our great faith teachers told stories and left us to work out what they mean – to us.

Social justice in the home: learning from our children

When I had children of my own I consciously tried to take these principles of equality and mutuality into my parenting. As a young parent I read a book by the contemplative Christian writer Henri Nouwen, who said that children were the most important guests we would ever have. And that phrase stayed with me. I was a far from perfect parent as my children would be the first to say. But I did always at least try to make the space to listen to my children, to treat them, fundamentally as equals, and to be willing to learn from them and to be changed by them. I always apologised when I got it wrong and aimed to create a hospitable, loving environment in which they could learn, in which they could be well. That willingness to be changed by my children is even more important to me now that I am aging. I find myself very deliberately asking my young adult children to challenge my thinking, particularly in the fast moving and changing arena of gender and sexuality. The temptation as we age is to cling to the past and to narrow in our thinking and it is listening to the prophetic voice of the young that can help us resist that temptation.

Children in church?

I attend an Anglican church. And it seems to me that the Church of England, by and large, tries to educate its children about the Christian faith the way that our state education system educates our young about history and chemistry. The traditional Sunday school model separates children from adults, older children from younger children and, I think, defines children by what they LACK, seeing them as potential Christians – not by what they already ARE, which is children of God with a knowledge and experience of God to share with us. There is a tendency, even in churches, to see children as a problem.

When the children go out the back and leave the main service, as they sometimes do in my own church, I feel that we are diminished as a community and I feel it as an injustice. And while the injustice is being done to both groups, since both groups suffer by it, children are not in a position to challenge or change the system and adults, at least some adults, are.

But what I propose as an alternative is NOT going to win me any friends! If the children stay IN the service, and even play a full part in that service, the children won’t necessarily thank me for it. They won’t thank me because they will have to learn to respect the adults’ needs for occasional order and quiet, to listen to stuff that may seem quite boring at times and NOT run around yelling, as they can now, or playing with the toys out the back. And that will require effort on their part. And some of the adults won’t thank me because the children will bring noise and disruption into our nice quiet ordered worship and they may perform their leadership roles, if they are given them, imperfectly. And accepting that will take effort on OUR part. The easy option is to carry on as we are.

But is the easy option, when it comes to the life of faith, the one to take? I question whether it is. I question it partly from a pragmatic view point. It is the case that a large number of children who go through that traditional ‘children out the back’ model of Sunday school give up on church when they reach their teens. And I am not surprised. While they were ‘out the back’ they were not being given responsibilities, listened to, engaged with as equals, as fully ‘children of God’ – so they were not really fully part of those churches and never learned to ‘be’ church for themselves. And if you are not a full part of a community why would you continue attending once you have the freedom to choose for yourself?

But mostly I question the wisdom of the easy path from a social justice view – we need children to be fully part of our communities of faith so that we can listen to them, learn from them, be changed by them and so that they can learn to listen to, learn from and be changed by us. And that may – it almost certainly will – be messy, disruptive and uncomfortable. As is perhaps appropriate in the life of faith. But we need our children to become, as Dewey says, links in the endless chain of humanity. Just like us. So that all of us may be well and all may be well and all manner of things may be well – for all of us. Our children may be small links, short links, but they are important links all the same.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Dewey, J., 1922. Human nature and conduct. 2012 ed. Online Publisher: Publishing.

This post is based on a talk given on April 7th 2018 at the ‘Responsible Stewardship for our Times’ Event organised by Rumi’s Circle


Prayer, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique

Prayer, the body, the Alexander Technique and bad backs

What’s your body got to do with prayer? Isn’t it the soul that prays, anyway??

Over the years – and in different traditions – the way we stand or sit or kneel to pray has changed and some would say it doesn’t much matter what our bodies are doing when we pray. But perhaps it does matter and perhaps thinking about how we stand or sit or kneel might even deepen and enrich our prayer lives. IMG_20140814_140412

The bible has a lot to say about bodies. In the Old Testament, when the people of God ignored God’s law it says, ‘They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their necks’ (Nehemiah 9. 29). The psalmist exhorts ‘Do not harden your hearts’ (Ps 95) and tells us to ‘Stand in awe’ (Psalm 4) and ‘Lift up your hands in the holy places and praise the Lord’ (Psalm 134).

The Alexander technique also has a lot to say about bodies. Many people, myself included, first encounter it because it can help to ease or prevent bad backs. And happily, after a few lessons, my bad back got a lot better, But what made me carry ON having lessons was noticing in myself psychological and emotional changes – I felt calmer, less likely to over-react to situations. I decided to train as a TEACHER of the Alexander technique – which is a 3 year full time training – at least partly because of the psychological – and spiritual – depths it seemed to offer. And also because it is undoubtedly a good way of helping other people with bad backs!

The Alexander technique, which has been around for over 100 years, was first seen as a voice or breathing technique and only later became associated with the relief of chronic back and neck pain. Really, it is about the WHOLE of you – body, mind, emotions, spirit – and how you do the things you do every day – how you ARE in the world. As you become more aware of how you do the things you do, you also become more able to keep calm and think and notice and choose how to respond to the things life throws at you.

Which brings me to the body and prayer. Prayer is sometimes called ‘paying attention’ (Simone Weil) – paying attention to God, to what is really there. In the Alexander technique you learn to pay attention to your usual patterns of thought, movement and behaviour – and gradually to notice what is really happening. And you can learn to press the pause button, to quieten down and choose not to move carelessly, not to react without thought, not to get drawn into endless rumination.

All of these are skills we can use in prayer. In prayer we are choosing to open our eyes rather than to close them, to open or soften our hearts rather than to harden them. We can choose to give ourselves permission to let go – of unwanted thoughts, of unnecessary tension. And we can choose to pay more attention to ourselves and our bodies, which God has created and which God delights in. When I teach the Alexander technique, either in 1:1 lessons or in groups, my underlying aim is always for people to enjoy their bodies – and their lives –their whole selves, a little bit more.

Learning the Alexander technique has certainly changed how I pray. I now tend to keep my eyes open, rather than to close them, as it helps me stay alert and tuned into the world and myself. St Francis prayed that way too so I am in good company!  I vary the position I pray in. When I notice tension creeping in I allow myself to let it go.

So, is there a right way to pray, physically speaking? In terms of position, no. We can pray in any position at all – lying, standing, sitting or kneeling. If you are tense or uncomfortable, however, then it matters because YOU matter.

Here are some ideas to play with to deepen your awareness of your body while you pray:

  • Consider whether your posture suits the kind of prayer you want to practice. If you are engaged in confession, a position with bowed head might be suitable. But is it as suitable for praise? Or for thanks giving?
  • Play with different positions for prayer and consider introducing more variety into how you pray.
  • Pray while moving, walking, bread making or dancing even! I have learned some prayers to say by heart so that I can say them while running in the hills in the morning.
  • Notice tension in your body as you pray and just give yourself permission to let it go.
  • Ask God for a soft, open heart. What might that actually feel like physically?
  • Smile when praying – it lifts the spirits and softens the heart
  • Try praying with your eyes open – like St Francis – so that you can enjoy God’s creation

Fundamentally, consider how you treat yourself, in body, mind and spirit. Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. So that means treating our neighbour – AND ourselves, ALL of ourselves – with consideration and respect.

As well as being an Alexander Technique teacher, Jenny is also a member of the  Third Order of St Francis and part of a lay leadership team in in the Church of England.

Character Strengths, Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being in education

Character Strength of the day : spirituality – the season of advent


Today, with the help of my pupil project team, I led the first Advent assembly at St Paul’s Poynton (ok, a little early, Advent starts this Sunday!).

The children came into a dark hall. They listened and watched as we started to tell the story of the Road to Bethlehem, hearing ancient words from the prophet Isaiah, ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’.

We lit a candle, for Isaiah, to light the road to Bethlehem. We sat in silence, by the light of that candle, enjoying the silence, enjoying the beauty of a moment with nothing to do, nowhere to go, just quietly waiting – waiting and watching.

Why did we ‘waste time’ like this this morning? Why were the children not cramming an extra 5 minutes of literacy or numeracy into their day? Why bother with a difficult character strength like ‘spirituality’ and why bother with advent in a multi-cultural society?

Well, when I first developed the Road to Bethlehem story with Riddings Infants School, in Scunthorpe, in 2004, we felt that 5 minutes silence, stillness and beauty was an important experience for today’s children – and for today’s teachers, too. We wanted the children to learn to read and write – and to be able to be still and reflect, to notice the beauty of the world around them. We wanted the staff to have a moment of stillness to reflect and breath.

So I invited the staff to explore the ancient Christian festival of ‘Advent’ – a time of preparation and waiting – in the run up to Christmas. During the weeks of our Advent Festival there were moments to be still, moments to pause from the rush and the busyness of the Christmas term, moments to think that perhaps there might be more to life than numeracy and literacy, valuable though these are. Waiting is not a priority today – we want everything to be ‘now’ and ‘instant’ – but in the past, people valued the skill of waiting and we wanted the children to experience it for themselves.

And we wanted the children, the pupils of Riddings Infants, to have magical memories of school, of beautiful moments, so that when they become parents, they will feel positive about their own children’s schools, perhaps breaking a cycle of fear and mistrust about education that can be handed down the generations.

Spirituality is a difficult word to define; it is about things of the spirit, the spiritual life. I sometimes say it is to do with thinking about things ‘bigger’ than ourselves. It points us to something beyond ourselves, beyond our own desires and wishes.

This morning it was my privilege to tell, with my fellow #pupil #storytellers, the first part of an ancient story that we will continue over the coming weeks; to sit, with children, in silence and wait for something magical, something spiritual – the birth of a child; to remember the ancient story of the Road to Bethlehem and to look forward, in hope, to the weeks ahead.

We didn’t talk about religion, we shared an ancient story and we enjoyed a moment of silence together.

We practiced ‘spirituality’ rather than worrying about what it meant. And we did a very unfashionable and counter-cultural thing – we waited….

My version of the story, The Road to Bethlehem, was inspired by Young Children and Worship by S. Steward and J. Berryman, 1989, London: Westminster John Knox Press