A collection of short-form meditations, anecdotes and nuggets of insight gleaned from Silf's work, travels, family and spiritual life, this volume aims to highlight God's appearances in ordinary life. A British retreat director specializing in the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, Silf (Close to the Heart) asserts, "God isn't as elusive as we think." Her meditations are sparked by events as diverse as travel through the American West, Wales and South Africa; pastry made by a old friend; or even an Internet story about a race for children with special needs. Wherever we journey, she says, we will discover that God awaits us "through every point of the compass." Some of the illustrations she uses are compelling. Some are, frankly, rather dull. This is not her richest or most reflective book. But Silf fans will find the writer they know and have come to depend on for grounded ideas on how to incarnate one's faith in daily life. (Apr. 1)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Compass Points: Meeting God Every Day at Every Turnby Margaret Silf
You can find God as easily at the car wash as you can at the cathedral.
For many Christians, it’s relatively effortless to experience God in special places, such as a church or a mountaintop; or at special times, such as the birth of a child or the wedding of two people deeply in love. But it can be quite a challenge for us to meet God in the
You can find God as easily at the car wash as you can at the cathedral.
For many Christians, it’s relatively effortless to experience God in special places, such as a church or a mountaintop; or at special times, such as the birth of a child or the wedding of two people deeply in love. But it can be quite a challenge for us to meet God in the most ordinary of places, in the most ordinary of times. God in the magnificent? No problem. God in the mundane? That’s a bit harder.
In Compass Points, best-selling Ignatian spirituality author and beloved speaker Margaret Silf leads us to discover God beyond the grandiose and to find the Divine in our daily lives. Through short but powerful meditations and vignettes based on her own authentic spiritual experiences, Silf reveals the interior process of Ignatian mindfulness—of which a core tenet is that God can be found in all things.
By joining Silf on her journey through real life in the real world, readers will have their own eyes, minds, and hearts opened to the Divine experience and will come to more fully recognize God’s active, abiding presence in everything that they see and do.
- Loyola Press
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- First Edition
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- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Read an Excerpt
God has escaped from the sanctuary.
Is that bad news or good news? For some people it might be a terrifying thought, because if God isn’t confined to our holy places, how will we know where to find God? Will we ever be able to find God at all? For others it is a liberating thought, because if God gets loose, then God is potentially to be found everywhere, including, of course, the sanctuary.
God is in all things—this is a well-known observation. It’s the kind of thing we say without really knowing what we mean. It’s the kind of thing we wish we could really believe. If God is indeed in all things, then why does God often seem to be so elusive? Why do we so often have to ask, “Where is God in all of this?”
Compass Points is written out of the conviction that God isn’t as elusive as we think, and certainly isn’t stuck in a holy box that we visit only on Sundays. Like the light shining through the image on the cover, the God who runs through Compass Points is likely to turn up just about anywhere—on a boardwalk, in the movement of water, in the energy and curiosity of a child, and in the sparkling presence that flickers through a fountain. God is in the big story of our human journey on planet earth, in our origins and in our destiny and in every moment in between. And God is in all the smaller but equally amazing stories of how our individual lives move on, step by step and day by day. God is in the light and in the shadows of our experience, in what we rejoice in and in what we grieve over. God is both the dream we follow and the inspiration for our quest. God is in every choice we make, always urging us, prompting us, and coaxing us to choose life. When our lives fall apart, God is right there, waiting and longing to lead us beyond breakdown to breakthrough.
The first time I held Alexa Storm, to whom this book is dedicated, she was only a few minutes old. I felt closer to her than to my own next breath, and yet I knew I was also gazing upon a new human life packed with mystery. The same paradox is present in our sense of the divine. God is in the everyday details of everything we are and do, feel and think, and yet God remains and will always remain utterly mysterious. And, like Alexa, God evokes a personal response from us. A child calls forth our deepest desire to nurture and guide and love. God calls forth our deepest desire, not just to strive to know God better, but to seek to love each other with the kind of love God reveals.
As we journey we will travel through all the points of the compass, reminding ourselves that God is waiting to meet us in every possible direction. Yet in all our journeying what matters most is not where we are going, but how we are being, here and now in this present moment. God is ever-present—not, as we may have grown up believing, either ever-past or ever-future. The ever-present is a dynamic reality that can’t be boxed in or defined, but can only be experienced. Compass Points pauses in every direction, catches snapshots of God’s footprints, and invites you simply to “look here,” wherever you happen to be and however you are feeling.
The reflections in this book are very personal and are gathered from my own daily journeying. Your encounters with the living God are your own. They will be different. They will be unique. Don’t follow my footprints, but make your own. And maybe share them too, with trusted friends, because God encounters multiply when they are shared, like seeds falling on fertile ground. My only desire in sharing some glimpses of my daily journeying is to encourage you to seek God in your own, and perhaps to help you recognize and respond to the divine present-ness wherever you meet it.
Readers who are familiar with the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola will readily recognize the debt this book and its author owe to the Ignatian tradition. The journey round the compass points reflects the most important themes of the Spiritual Exercises. However, this dynamic is not confined to any one approach to the spiritual journey. It is powerful precisely because it reflects the dynamic of most people’s search for God, whatever their spiritual background. Compass Points is a brief excursion to show how reflective prayer on our daily experience might look in practice. Keep in mind, however, that there are as many ways of praying as there are people trying to pray. Let your own ways suggest themselves, and trust them to lead you into your unique pathways with God.
Thank you for joining me in this adventure of awareness that doesn’t ask you to make long journeys, read erudite books, or attend expensive programs, but simply to be present to the life you are actually living, and to discover for yourself the myriad ways in which the light of God shines through your minutes and your days.
Nantwich, England, August 2008
Where do I come from? The question is as old as humanity and as new as every inquiring child. The longing to discover our deepest roots stirs in every human heart. We want to know who gave us birth. We want to know the name of the soil in which we were first planted. To know where we come from is another way of exploring who we really are. It is also a way of saying that we know we are not islands in this great ocean of being we call life. We know that we are all interconnected, part of a continuum, single strands in a mighty tapestry.
We begin our journey here at North, our origins, and we will end it by returning to North, our destiny. But the journey will change us, and when we come full circle we shall know ourselves anew. As we saunter through our earliest beginnings, we meet ourselves, each other, and God, in the depths of the canyons, in the vast expanse of the stars, in the Australian deserts and the African plains, on mountain tops and in rushing rivers. And we awaken to the startled awareness that all we are, and ever shall be, is also mirrored in the minutiae of every day—in the ultrasound scan, in the vegetable plot, and even in the car wash.
Welcome to who you are. Let God introduce you to God’s best-kept secret.
The Baobab Tree
I have a baobab tree, or at least a handcrafted representation of one, which I brought back from South Africa. The importance of the baobab first caught my attention when I watched a television documentary filmed in Tanzania. In a remote rural village stood an ancient baobab, already completely hollowed out by the passing of the centuries. Its roots reached deep into the African earth. Its branches stretched out to the brilliant blue skies and the star-laden canopy that have captured the human imagination since Homo sapiens took their first bipedal steps here and told their stories around the campfire in the equatorial night.
This was a sacred tree, not only because of its ancient lineage, but also because it was the community’s birthing tree. Whenever a pregnant woman came to her term, she would enter into the hollowed-out sanctuary of the baobab, give birth to her child, and remain there with her young until the umbilical cord fell away. Every child in the village had first seen the light of day within the enfolding shelter of that tree. It had literally borne the fruit of the human family in that place, delighting them with its large white flowers and nourishing them with its gourdlike fruit.
My own baobab sits in a very different rural community, in the heart of the English countryside. Yet, because I know something of its history, it takes me back, every day, to a place of origin, deeper than the soil of our planet and deeper than human memory—a space before and beyond space-time, where all is One, and the One is birthed within the arms of God.
Weathered into Glory
Bryce Canyon, in Utah, is magical in the predawn hours, when the light of the just-rising sun sets the rock columns alight, as if with an inner fire.
You could almost imagine that this inner fire is the living afterglow of that first flaring forth of our universe, billions of years ago. The hoodoos are so amazingly beautiful, not because they have acquired layers of grandeur through the millennia, but because they have lost so much. Their beauty is revealed because they have suffered aeons of erosion, as the biting winds and the flash floods stripped them down to their essential core. When you go down to the depths of the canyon at dawn, you can meet the Creator at work and tune in to this great paradox: creation and destruction are the yin and yang of the one life-generating power we call God.
Could it be that our personal diminishments might also, sometimes, reveal a deeper beauty we never guessed was there? I reflect on a few people I have known, whose lives seem to illustrate the truth of this proposition. At the nadir of their lives—perhaps in terminal illness, or in the throes of some tragic event—they have seemed to be shining with an inner light that has illumined the lives of those around them.
A story is told of a young girl who had a good singing voice. Her parents didn’t want to put her through the stress of professional musical training unless they were assured that she had a special talent, so they asked a musician friend to give her an informal audition in their home. When she had sung for him, he sat back and considered his verdict. “She sings beautifully,” he said at last. “When her heart has been broken she will sing sublimely.”
The hoodoos tell the same story. These pinnacles were always beautiful. But after having suffered the lashings of wind and water for countless millennia, they have indeed become sublime. Locked up in every rock is a work of breathtaking wonder. Only hardship and erosion, or the sculptor’s chisel, can release it.
Global politics can sometimes have unexpected, and very local, side effects. I guess it’s a bit like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings over the Indian Ocean and causing a tornado in Kentucky. Events that seem remote and impersonal can cause tidal waves in the lives of very small people.
Take the case of Josef, for example, who lived in Berlin during and after the time of the Communist regime in the former East Germany. He was just a humble citizen who, like many of his generation, became disenchanted with the way things were going in his home country. Along with many thousands of others, he decided to make a break for the West. He packed his bags and made his escape, leaving behind just a small, well-tended garden in the heart of the city, where he grew his vegetables and dreamed his dreams.
After Josef’s departure, those few square yards of earth sparkled not just with the abundant harvest of beans and cauliflower and cucumbers, but also with the promise of seriously profitable real estate. In short order the state authorities seized the opportunity, appropriated the little garden, and erected no less an edifice upon it than the East German television tower. Authorities were adamant about the specifications: the tower was to be higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris but suitably lower than the Moscow television tower!
And that might have been the end of the matter, had the regime not collapsed a quarter of a century later, at which point the humble gardener returned to take possession of his vegetable plot once more, only to find it occupied by the huge bulk of the national television tower. The ensuing clash of wills has been keeping the legal profession gainfully employed ever since.
This incident gives me pause. The television tower was built on stolen ground—on a dishonest foundation. What about my own life? Have I built my life on values and principles that are not truly my own? Have I spent my life living someone else’s dream? Have other people taken over my heart’s soil and used it for their own ends? Have I done this to anyone else?
Is our Western world as a whole built on stolen ground, like that television tower? Have we taken what we desired at the cost of generations still unborn—a profligate present stolen from our children’s future? Has the pursuit of our dream of extravagant wealth been the cause of nightmarish poverty elsewhere in the world? Have we constructed our affluent lifestyle on the vegetable plot of our Third-World brothers and sisters, and robbed them of their rightful space in which to grow and flourish?
In the heart of a city under occupation lies a tiny garden, where a man grows his food. In the heart of each of us is a garden where all that is true and genuine within us and among us is seeded and nurtured by God. Let it not be usurped or compromised. It is our Eden.
The scene is the former Yugoslavia. We are camping beside a river. One of my companions is wading barefoot in the shallow waters, hopping from rock to rock. The rocks are easy to identify, their smooth gray bulk rising above the water’s surface. But one of them isn’t what it seems. There is a well-camouflaged reptile lying across it. My friend is about to jump onto it when it swims away, expressing its displeasure as it goes!
I make many such leaps of faith as I go through life, trusting that the rock I am trying to land on is solid ground. I have sometimes trusted the rocks of health and wealth, of status and power, of the undisturbed continuance of familiar relationships, career and established “securities,” only to find that these footholds have crumbled beneath me. To my detriment, I have learned that such stepping stones are not as reliable as they seem.
Imagine now an innocent-looking sandy beach. The tide is going out, and the sand lies uniformly firm and smooth. But suddenly I find myself up to the ankles in shifting sand. It’s a scary moment, and what shocks me most is that there is no way, by merely looking at the sand, to tell where it is truly firm and where it is quicksand. The surface gives no clue as to the possible hazards concealed below.
Our walkways through time are no less deceiving. Sometimes my journey will be safe and sure, and other times it will have the potential to suck me into destructive places and situations. Rarely will I see in advance which paths are which. It calls for constant attentive awareness to notice the destructive suction and step back from it promptly. And this in turn is possible only if I am not obsessed with a blind desire to walk precisely there, perhaps because “there” holds some promise of short-term gain or pleasure for me.
How trustworthy are my own foundations? Am I attentive to any signs that the basis of my life may not be as sure as it looks? Am I taking risks and shortcuts that may lead into quicksand?
These are questions for all of us, the whole human family. Urgent questions.
Moments of Truth
I still remember the day, back in 1953, when Mt. Everest was “conquered.” At the time there was great rejoicing, as Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay set the first human footsteps upon the virgin snows of the mountain’s peak. Many years later I heard the story of how differently the two climbers reacted to their achievement: Hillary planted the flag of conquest at the summit, and Tenzing knelt in the snow to beg the mountain’s forgiveness for disturbing her peace.
I also remember the day of the first moon landing—a memory indelibly imprinted on the psyche of all who were alive to witness that “small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Then, too, a flag was placed as a statement of conquest, and great rejoicing broke out, at least in the Western world and especially in the United States. But then too, a new mood was awakened, not of conquest, but of awe and wonder. Later, astronaut Edgar Mitchell would call us all to a deeper level of reflective awareness and collective responsibility as he described his emotions on seeing the earth for the first time from outer space:
“ . . . gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious. . . . My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.”
These are moments out of time, moments when humankind glimpsed divinity. And when we glimpse divinity, however momentarily, we are forever changed by the encounter. Nothing can ever be the same again.
I give the car a treat today. It hasn’t been washed in ages, so I drive it to the local car wash and sit quietly inside it as the machine covers it with suds. Suddenly my familiar world is blotted out. This is not a disagreeable feeling at all. In fact, I luxuriate in my briefly silent, curtained universe. It is like a personal whiteout, and it takes me back to magical childhood days when we used to have proper winters and I would awaken to frosted windows and a crisp and snowbound world.
Whiteouts like this bring a blanket of peace. All sounds are muffled, and every breath seems like a prayer. I am grounded, and when a few minutes have passed I may begin to resent this helplessness. But right now
I am so happy to be taken back to a long-buried sense of wonder, stillness, and reverence.
Heaven doesn’t last for long—soon I am off and away in my clean car. But those few moments of silent enclosure fuel my whole day.
My grandchild is six millimeters long today!
I gaze at the copy of the first ultrasound image my daughter has given me, the picture in which she and the technicians could see the miniscule heart beating.
Six millimeters of humanity. Just a little cluster of cells throbbing with the overwhelming impulse for life, and packed with unimaginable potential.
I never guessed how much you could love a little cluster of cells.
I never knew how such a tiny being could get inside your deepest dreams, and change things.
The moment is timeless: standing at Mather Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, watching the sun rise.
Ever so gently the light spills down the canyon sides, illuminating each hidden crack and crevice with the gold of dawn.
Sometimes our inner awakenings are like that, very gentle, almost imperceptible, so that we hardly realize we are waking up to ourselves. And sometimes they are sudden, like the startled awakening after oversleeping, to discover that we’re lying in the full light of a day we never expected.
We don’t have to respond, of course. We can choose to turn over and ignore the beckoning light. There are parts of the Grand Canyon that will never see the light of day.
Do rocks have feelings? Is that a silly question? In one sense how could they not have feelings?
If they could look up to the stars, they would be gazing at their grandmothers, the source of their being.
If they could look at the myriad life forms teeming around them and upon them they would be gazing at their grandchildren, the countless life forms that have evolved from their primeval solidity.
But rocks cannot gaze as we do. They lack reflective awareness, which is God’s gift to Homo sapiens. Yet surely that gift, and we ourselves, were bound up inside those rocks, those stars, from the beginning of space-time, until we were released by the midwife of evolution.
Truly we are part of one another—the stars, the rocks, you and I. Yet we alone, upon this planet, are gifted with eyes, hearts, and minds to see the miracle, and to respond.
The word saunter evokes for me the sense of holy ground, where a pilgrim might linger and reflect on the wonder of life.
I needed a small child to teach me how to saunter. The day had passed by without my realizing it. Soon it would be dinnertime, and the shops would be closing. Hastily I dressed my little girl in her outdoor clothes and rushed off with her to buy some food for a meal.
Rushed? Well no, my child had other ideas. All at once I felt a tug on my hand. Her silent request for a pause in the onward rush was insistent. The journey was well and truly stalled, as she guided me with implacable determination to the edge of the sidewalk, to gaze in rapture as a beetle crossed the road. She was watching this wonder for the first time in her life. She was teaching me to do the same.
I needed a little child to read the map of this world’s holy ground and to make me take off my shoes as I tread its sacred pathways through the ordinariness of every day.
All ground reveals its holiness, if I walk upon it with gentleness and mindfulness. God is in every particle.
The mighty monolith of Uluru (often called Ayers Rock) in Central Australia is spirituality in solid form. Every crack and crevice has been sanctified by countless sacred ceremonies carried out there by the local Anangu people. Every fissure and formation tells a story, and every story conveys a meaning, an inspiration, a law, an example, a piece of history.
Uluru didn’t rise up from the earth in a dramatic volcanic eruption, nor was it forced skyward by shifting tectonic plates. Rather, the surrounding land sank, or eroded, and exposed the bedrock. It strikes me as nature’s parable of our own egos. The true self, the bedrock of our being, emerges through time and experience as the illusory world of the ego gradually erodes away. And the more the true self of each of us emerges, the more we will discover that at the core of our being we are united in the heart of the mystery of God.
Today, Western tourists still insist on clambering over this mighty rock, deaf to the pleas of the Aboriginal people to respect its holiness and walk around the base instead. The local people look on from their tribal lands as, daily, the miniscule figures climb onward and upward. “Look at the ant people,” they say. But they speak in sorrow, not in anger. Their chief concern is not so much for the sacrilege being committed on their holy ground as for the risk of injury and death to the climbers. “When someone dies on the rock,” they tell us, “we grieve for them. We feel responsible for them.”
And we, the ant people, although we might desist from climbing a sacred mountain, still spend most of our waking moments tending our ego-worlds. Do we understand that there is an Uluru in each of us—a bedrock place where we stand face-to-face with our true self and with the author of our being? Why else do we flock to such liminal places and gaze in silent wonder as the sun rises and sets on a rock in the desert, casting its ever-changing light and shadow over everything we are?
Here is a star-filled night in the middle of the desert. I wake briefly and gaze up through the tent roof at the Milky Way, which spans the heavens immediately overhead. The stars are like sparks from a celestial campfire, and yet here we stand, the children of just one such spark. Even more amazing, we have the ability to reflect on these immense mysteries so much greater than ourselves.
Every possibility and potentiality of God’s Great Dream was present in the first sparks of the flaring forth of our universe. The supernova deaths of their ancestors, the first generation stars, ten billion years ago, flung forth all the elements that now form the bedrock of our planet and the bodies of all the creatures on this earth. The rocks surrounding this little camping ground are the grandchildren of the stars and our own grandparents. In a very real way, every living thing was locked up in the Dreamtime of these rocks.
Will the story continue to unfold? If so, what unguessed-at manifestations of that Dream are still locked up inside ourselves? And how will they come to birth?
Will they lead to transcendence, or will they be stillborn? Can we become more than we dare to dream, more fully human, more close to God and to each other, or does the future spell only extinction? Perhaps the choice is ours.
Meet the Author
Margaret Silf travels widely in her work as a retreat director and speaker on Ignatian spirituality. Her books include Compass Points, Inner Compass, Close to the Heart and Going on Retreat. She lives in Scotland.
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