Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nineteen years

Nineteen years since Ann Wetherall died and tomorrow is the annual memorial by her graveside in Bibury, followed by breakfast at the Bibury Court Hotel at the hospitality of her sister, Tigger.

I first met Ann on the telephone. It was not an entirely happy encounter. She had an inflection in her voice that could relay a vivid impression of impatience. She was impatient, in fact, by her own admission (though this was mostly disguised by long practice and a natural graciousness).

I was not giving her what she needed - a fully catered weekend at the Abbey (an experimental Christian community at which I was resident programme co-ordinator) for a gathering of people she had come to know working in prison who could help her in her work of providing spiritual support to people in prison.

As result of working on a research project with Sir Alister Hardy at the Religious Experience Research Centre investigating spiritual experiences arising from imprisonment, Ann had found there was a spiritual hunger among prisoners that was not being met. She felt if prisoners were introduced to disciplines like meditation and yoga, and supported in their efforts, they might feel differently about themselves. This work, stepping beyond research, had spread and it now needed formalising.

But I had no cook available so she would have to cook - an activity that she did not wholly enjoy! I felt myself branded (probably out of my own paranoia) unhelpful!

Nevertheless I went to the meeting that weekend and was inspired. I volunteered to 'stuff things in envelopes' and would cycle into Oxford once or twice a week to do so, and more. I became the first employee (and effectively co-founder) of the organization (the Prison Phoenix Trust) of which I remain most proud.

It was an extraordinary friendship - too brief, lasting only five years - but utterly enriching. We used to work in an 'office' - a lean to at the back of her house - and stop everyday at 4pm for tea and conversation! What conversations - on the work, on India (where she was born), on life (the older, life experienced woman and the inquisitive insecure younger man) - woven deeply into the fabric of who I am. The day ended in guilty secret - we both became addicted to "Neighbours' and I used to watch it with her before going home!

In remembering her tomorrow, I find myself remembering my own better portion: the one she was so instrumental in bringing out and to life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"I have sunk my hearing in the deafness of mortals"

"There is a tale that a man inspired by God once went out from the creaturely realms into the vast waste. There he wandered till he came to the gates of the mystery. He knocked. From within came the cry: "What do you want here?" He said, "I have proclaimed your praise in the ears of mortals, but they were deaf to me. So I come to you that you yourself may hear me and reply." "Turn back," came the voice from within. "Here is no ear for you. I have sunk my hearing in the deafness of mortals."

This vignette of 'divine encounter' is told in Buber's 'Between Man and Man' (that being German should more accurately translated 'Between human and human [or person and person]').

By it Buber wanted to suggest that any word we might want to speak to God will go astray if it does not include address to one another, that all true, living speech, is that which sees the other person, reverences the other person, as God's image.  God is found in the everyday, and if God is not so found, God cannot be found at all.

It is no use 'being holy' and failing to respond to the woman at the Sainsburys checkout as a person!

My natural impatience was explicitly reminded of this on Saturday,  when coming around the corner of an aisle, there was an elderly woman restocking some of the shelves, and our eyes caught each other and she launched a simple, beautiful smile, that lit her eyes glancingly, and ignited mine. It was one of those moments of simple encounter that are divine.

Buber's whole work could be seen as how do we take seriously in our relationships and our society that each unique human person is a divine image bearer, and the whole world is a speaking forth of God. This puts a great weight on the world that it appreciably fails but I keep returning to it as the standard.

It could create (in me at least) considerable amounts of guilt, except that it also reminds that you are always 'greater' than the sum of what presently rests on your heart. Guilt may be present but the 'I' always contains possibilities of transcending it, work through and past it.

You always had to be specially cautious of the people in prison with whom I worked if they told you that they were guilty - I am guilty often meant that their whole 'I' was wallowed, subsumed in guilt feelings. There was no space in there to work on restoration and transformation. What was important was the guilt, not the challenge that guilt represented to become yet other, to restore their true depths as a human being.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Christ Dharma

A more formal review about to be published of two books I have written about before...

Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian: Paul F. Knitter: One World Publications 2009: ISBN 978-1-85168-673-5: £12.99

Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness: Ross Thompson: O Books 2010: ISBN 978-1-84694-336-2: £14.99

An apocryphal story has Jesus traveling to Kashmir during his missing years to learn the wisdom of ‘the East’. He would have found there a flourishing Buddhist culture the embrace of which would transform the way he presented his mission.

This story aside, both the authors of these compelling and rich books, perceive taking such a journey now as a necessary and fertile one both autobiographically to enrich their own Christian faith and within the wider encounter between both traditions and between these traditions and the modern world.

Paul F. Knitter quotes his once teacher, the great German Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, suggesting that if Christianity is to survive, it must become a church of mystics. People who place at the heart of their journey not subscription to set of saving beliefs but a faithful practice that leads to real, abiding and transformative experiencing. Salvation that is felt and embodied as well as believed in and hoped for. A critical encounter with Buddhism can radically aid Christianity in this mission.

Both books cover similar territory from their own perspectives. Thompson’s book I would characterize as the more interior of the two while Knitter’s long term commitment to work on justice and peace demands that he explore the social and political dimensions of the encounter.

At that heart both offer Buddhism as a way of teasing Christianity away from imagining that its doctrinally expressed truths are ‘the truth’. Buddhism has a deeper and more central recognition that all language is symbolic. It can only point to, show forth the moon, it cannot be a substitute for experiencing it (and often we found ourselves more interested in the hand that points than the way pointed to).

In this both have to tackle re-visioning  of who Jesus is. If one is a Christian, in some fundamental, grounding sense, Jesus must be unique but if you are to be open to the truth embodied in other traditions, He cannot be the only way to salvation.

For Knitter it makes sense to see Jesus as ‘the Awakener’ that Jesus’ divinity was not something that was dropped on him from above (or something that he has that we do not) but that divinity, being the Son of God, was something he grew into, a realization that deepened as an abiding conviction and way of life, that he radically shared with others unto death and beyond. In this ‘salvation’ for us is not something that we, having claimed Jesus as our own, wait around for, trying to keep out of trouble and doing good works, before being lifted into heaven but a continuous process of opening ourselves to, and assimilating, the divine life through spiritual practice and love of neighbour.

For Thompson it makes sense to see Jesus as a ‘Bodhisattva’ - a being who has refused entry into Nirvana until all beings, until ‘the last blade of grass’, has entered enlightenment.  But a radical kind of bodhisattva, one who has taken upon himself the bad karma of others so that we recognize that our salvation is not an individual task but a corporate struggle: “It is a struggle carried by the community of those committed to sharing his death in order to share his life with the whole world (2 Corinthians 4:11) (Thompson page 151).

One of the most valuable features of Thompson’s book is that he uses a ‘Buddhist Christian perspective’ to re-vision possibilities for both traditions. In probably his most illuminating chapter he explores the construction of desire. Christians tend to see a disordered desire transformed by redirecting it towards its proper place in God. Buddhists sees the need to still the whole structure of desire and to step into desirelessness. But both tend to see the problem of desire as that of the individual. Thompson shows that what we desire is constructed communally: we learn what is to be desired from the social structures we inhabit. Both traditions need to develop a more robust understanding of how corporately we transform the communities we inhabit that in turn liberate individual opportunities for transformation.

This is a place from which Knitter can add his own most interesting contribution. He seeks to expound why Buddhism allows Christianity to more deeply occupy its 'unique' territory - that radical concern that God is perceived to have for those who are most deeply marginal, suffering or poor. God in Christianity is biased - we find God when we attend to the needs of those whose need is greatest. This vitally contrasts with Buddhism's universalizing compassion. Compassion does not take sides, justice does. Knitter beautifully suggests how both are necessary and both enable each other.

If we are to pursue justice, we need to understand how our capacity to be peace, to wait upon opportunity, helps us achieve justice.

In this Knitter has a compelling discussion of anger - that it drives us towards pursuing justice but must be contained within a capacity to be detached, to let go. To bring us to a space where we can allow ourselves to release anger, and move towards clarity and charity.

Christianity is the intention of justice, Buddhism is the practice of peace. To achieve justice, we must be peace, but individual peaceful attainment must be suffused with the need to transform the structures of injustice. In this Knitter’s last chapter, Christianity and Buddhism, from radically different perspectives, dance towards a common transformation, enabled by each other.

This is only to capture one related theme from the two books. There are many other strands such as the radical similarity between the ethical teaching of Buddha and Christ rooted in radically different biographies and contexts or the comparative exploration of ‘sin’ and ‘karma’; ‘heaven’ and ‘reincarnation’. All of these themes are enriched in both texts by the narrative of a personal unfolding story that makes the engagement between high thinking and illustrative story an accomplished achievement in both.

Both authors, I think, successfully avoid either being simplistically syncretistic or pulling the same rabbit of a ‘perennial philosophy’ out of the very different hats of two living, embodied, complex traditions. Knitter’s image of passing over to Buddhism to return to a renewed Christianity holds true for both authors.They may not win plaudits from either mainstream Christians or Buddhists, even as both remain resolutely clear about the radical differences that obtain between them but for those of us who think that neither tradition is finished or complete that both can and should remain in what Thompson calls ‘a passionate openness’ both to each other and the world both books are beautifully written and passionately held contributions to an on-going exploration into the truth of things.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sorting the canon

Now that the books are all up on shelves, the next stage is to decide how to organize them. I remember a friend being advised (by their interior designer) that this should be by size and colour (presumably to match the decor). However, this does not strike a chord!

The art books are simple as the available shelving, with their size, determines where they should go. Everything else presents a challenge.

In the main bedroom will go 'the canon' - not on the whole the 'works of great literature' but the works grown meaningful with time, that define something critically about me and my apprehension of the world.

It is a diverse group! The English Jungian analyst, Helen Luke, masterly commentator on literature is there with Tagore, painter and poet, at once a devotee of the sacred and a skeptic, social reformer and privileged landlord. The American farmer, Wendell Berry, is there: essayist, novelist and poet whose fictional Port William feels one of the most closely imagined spots on earth. There is William Blake, radical, visionary, poet and painter, whose imagined worlds are spotted with heaven. There is Kathleen Raine who opened Blake to me and befriended me when an (even more) insecure soul! 

But at its heart are Edwin Muir and Martin Buber. They are virtual contemporaries from radically different worlds. The one the son of a evicted farmer from islands at the edge of Europe translated, as a child, to genteel poverty in Glasgow, ripped from an agricultural paradise. The second the privileged son of a wealthy Jewish family, abandoned by his mother, into the hands of his grandparents' orthodoxy. Muir went to work at fourteen. Buber traversed several central European universities before emerging as an academic.

Remarkably their life intersected, not directly, but through Kafka who interacted with Buber in his early maturity and who was translated first into English by Edwin (and his wife, Willa)!

Both were essentially spiritual, rooted in native traditions of Christianity and Judaism, and both wholly allergic to religious forms or organizations.  They differed radically in the nature of their works - Muir first and foremost a poet and critic, Buber first and foremost a philosopher. Muir the master of lucid prose and accessible yet symbolic verse. Buber a scholar often burdened with making his challenging simplicity complex to satisfy the demands of the academy (though when he breaks free of this, capable of remarkable feats of concise story telling). Both important as translators - Muir of key figures of twentieth century German literature - Broch and Kafka in particular; Buber of a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German. Both were gifted educators (though not renowned for adhering to a syllabus) and utopian socialists with communitarian or anarchist sympathies (and a distinct horror of all totalitarianism).

Why them both (discovered, as it happens, virtually at the same moment)? Because they credibly chart ways of seeing the world that reflect, amplify and deepen my own.

From my earliest sense, with Muir, I have sensed that we live in a fallen world that is yet always on the boundary of being transfigured into paradise and that our dreams, our finest experiences point to that reality.

With Buber, I have found that if God is to mean anything, God is to be found in the hallowing of the everyday, and that God has sunk God's hearing into the deafness of mortals, into the fabric of a living world. God will appear in precisely the ways God chooses too - and none of our tidy belief structures will capture the reality that is God.

I am here as whoever I am here as Buber translates YHWH.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

All real living is meeting

Finishing Mommaers and Van Bragt's "Mysticism Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec",  I was fascinated by its discussion of 'natural mysticism' by which Ruusbroec meant contemplation that is achieved without grace, that focuses on internal stillness, that rests in an indwelling sense of unity (with God, with reality).

Of this form of contemplation, Ruusbroec is deeply critical, partly because it was associated in the fourteenth century with sectarian traditions that the orthodox Ruusbroec saw as heretical on other, doctrinal grounds. However, it is mainly because it does not see the heart of mysticism as a deepening of the ability to act in the world charitably, with love. It is anchored in an annihilating of self into a stable absolute not by falling into a dynamic union of love with the Creator that enhances the unique reality of the person and its relationship with others.

One of the questions the book asks is on which side of this contemplative demarcation does Buddhism lie - the quietism of a surrendering of any notion of self or a dynamic transformation of identity that centres on the practice of compassion? The authors, rightly in my view, decide on the latter.

In both religions (in different metaphysical modes) there is a temptation to renounce the world and rest in an identity with the absolute - this is often especially true in its theological/philosophical structuring but this is often denied when both traditions are inspected as dynamic religions. Thus, in Zen, for example, just sitting, resting in the Buddha nature is an ideal but one undermined in practice by the Bodhisattva vow that requires you to surrender nirvana/liberation to pursue the liberation of the 'last blade of grass'. There is a higher nirvana than the one that brings you rest outside the world. Its reality is in the world: nirvana and samsara are one!

I was greatly reminded of Martin Buber's surrender of religiosity. This he had identified with the exceptional, the other worldly, with opportunities for ecstasy. Until one day, after a period of exalting religious celebration, a young man came to him in search of meaning, of confirmation. Buber writes that he was not unsolicitous of the man's questions, and talked with him for a long time, in a way thought to be helpful. Yet Buber says he failed him. He failed to listen deeply to the questions the young man did not ask. He was not present to him and let him depart unconfirmed, the world still bereft of meaning.

"Since then," Buber writes, " I have given up the 'religious' which is nothing but the exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy; or it has given me up. I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery is no longer disclosed, it has escaped or it has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens. I know no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness of claim and responsibility."

Buber often criticized 'mysticism' in his later life as an evasion of this responsibility to the other person (and it is a criticism not without foundation, now as ever, as people claim for themselves 'unique exceptional experiences) but it is a criticism that van Ruusbroec, probably the greatest 'mystic' of the Christian west, would have been fully affirmative of. For him 'mysticism' was the transformation of our natural faculties by and in God such that charity - the unique care of each person or thing - could become the ground out of which we responded to every moment's claim upon us.

All real living, to quote Buber, is meeting and for Ruusbroec that is true: we genuinely meet one another when we are grounded in the love that is of, with and in God, and of which we partake. In that grounding, we come to see clearly, with passions transformed, and a desire to embrace and liberate the other.

Monday, August 22, 2011

St Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath
them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.


Galway Kinnell

I love this poem. We all need to be reminded from time to time of our true self blessing: the giftedness of our creation.

Uncivilisation

The second volume of 'Dark Mountain' has been published as an exercise in 'uncivilized writing', edited by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. The 'Dark Mountain' project was their conception of a movement or network of people, culturally preparing for collapse: the end of civilization as we know it.

Whether it be climate change or peak oil or general ecological overload (or a combination of these and other factors), the assumption either that it did not matter (solutions could be found) or it could be saved (we could unravel our living circumstances and make a more sustainable future without fierce encounter of limits) was misplaced. There was no great evidence either of technological salvation or ecological change of heart: we needed to begin weaving new narratives that allowed us to re-imagine our lives and societies that gave us the cultural resilience to endure and navigate the challenging realities of wholesale change.

The "Dark Mountain" manifesto was greeted with both anger and disdain. Anger from mainstream environmentalists for being defeatist and with disdain from those who imagine all environmental alarm is misplaced but it did for a small, but growing, group strike a real chord.

If the measure of value is not man but a viable nature: we cannot simply subsume the realities of the latter, under the needs of the former, even to apparently 'save it'.

I am I confess readily ambivalent about it. But I do think there is something here - more than a kernel of truth.

If we are to navigate change, there is a deep need for different stories of who we are and what essentially matters against which we need to measure our future choices.

I am reminded of the fundamental question in an Amish community: what will this (proposed change) do for the health of our community? We need to learn to ask that question of value about our world. Does a proposed change nurture or denude our natural home? Does it weave or unpick the ecological fabric of a sustaining?

In order to ask those questions, Dark Mountain proposes that we need more than technical assessments of environmental impact. We need to reanimate our 'animism': our sense that the world is alive (as a whole) and its health requires us to relearn a gentle touch, an ability to walk light. To do this we need different stories, new dreams - and that is the function of their writing.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell




Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell by Denise Levertov

Down through the tomb's inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.

All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy 
of giving Him food--fish and a honeycomb. 

This is a typical poem of Denise Levertov: a transcendental purpose woven into a poem that touches the everyday. The people trapped in hell are us, the whole spectrum of us - from the innocents, naively lost, to the redeemed criminal, stepping into new life. And Jesus returns to us, in resurrection, with a new body, to illuminate our path, as he has made a path for the dead to new life. The world is resistant but he knows that, has lived that, and yet he remains a lighting path. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jan van Ruusbroec

Prejudice (in spite of Hans Georg Gadamer's spirited defence) is not always an entrance into understanding (the necessary pre-judgement that frames knowing - see dense Germanic text: Truth and Method for further detail. I spent a happy summer reading this in a time far, far away)!

Prejudice kept me from reading, "Mysticism: Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec" by Paul Mommaers and Jan van Bragt until now. It is their photographs in the back flap: they both look like rather severe bank managers trying to look amenable whilst they deliver the news that no, you cannot have a loan!

I picked up the book in Hay on Wye - first hand but remaindered - and it sat on my shelf languishing. However, it caught my eye in the move and against the background of recent prior books on Buddhism and Christianity, I overcame the image of financial administrators and took the plunge.

Early days but so far so good.

Ruusbroec, as the authors acknowledge, is not well known in the English speaking world. This is partly, as they say, because he wrote in the vernacular rather than Latin and a vernacular that is a 'minor' language. Partly, as I imagine, because, unlike Meister Eckhart, he died quietly in his bed, lauded and at a great age, rather than under suspicion of heresy! There is nothing like controversy to ignite a sustaining interest.

I have always liked him because he marries the affective and the intellectual. Or in Buddhist terms, compassion and wisdom that an understanding of the world can be entered from either direction. Love leads to knowledge, knowledge imparts love.

So far, I have been reading the book's theoretical underpinnings and they are clear and contestable. It is right to imagine that mysticism is about a transformation of awareness but wrong to imagine that this does not have metaphysical implications. We not only feel the world differently through the experience but see it rightly and that seeing is a completion of knowing.

The book captures one of the dilemmas in Christianity: how does God relate to the world?

Is the world a distinct creation into which God intervenes or is it a manifestation of God's grace of which we are a part?  Is mystical awareness the seeing of a bridge over the divide or is it a realization that the divide, in truth does not exist?

The book appears to fall on the side of the former, I fall on the side of the latter. However, the books lucidity means that you engage in this debate fully. It promises a rich exploration.






P.S. He might be added to that elusive list of famous Belgians... He ought to be: such sanity is at a continuing premium in the world!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Conscience

I remember giving a talk to a joint meeting of the Institute of Criminology and the Faculty of Theology at Cambridge University held at Trinity Hall where I got into difficulty talking about ‘conscience’.

I was thinking about this today, partly because next month I have to give a similar talk (to a very different audience) on people in prison and their practice of the spiritual life (principally through meditation and yoga); and, partly in relation to the outbreak of lawlessness occasioned by last week’s rioting (where conscience could be said to be absent either pathologically not present or held in temporary abeyance).

I got into difficulty because the working assumption of my sophisticated audience at Cambridge (including the chairman, the distinguished sociologist, Tim Jenkins) was that ‘conscience’ was a social construct, developed (or not) in response to different people’s patterns of socialisation. Meanwhile, my understanding was that of the desert fathers and mothers of the early church that it was a faculty of the soul, that obscured by sin, had to be cultivated in the practice of self-scrutiny, stillness and the cultivation of agape/compassion.

It was a fascinating experience, finding myself a neo-Platonist in an audience of post-modernists and I am afraid I stumbled.

I should have said that whereas I recognised that the operation of conscience is affected (either amplified or distorted) by upbringing (and that is a rich and complex story in itself: the development of empathy) if you paid close attention to the phenomenology of how conscience arose as a result of the practice of meditation, the best explanation was to see conscience as constitutive of human nature, rather than constructed. Time and again people find that as ‘space in mind’ develops, they gain an enhanced ability to navigate their lives, and recognise that they are being held captive to a distorting pattern of vices. These they could now see arise as thoughts before they act them out and thus have a renewed opportunity to make meaningful choices. These choices too are more deeply grounded in a developing empathy with and compassion for others. Whereas before they were captured by their thoughts, with no space between thought and action, now their stillness allows thought to detach from emotional reaction and a space for choice enters. Likewise you begin to see yourself as the occupant of a shared field of being with others, rather than a separate entity, isolated within a fragile skin.

Our recognition of the difficulty of doing this fully grows as our stillness and scrutiny deepen, and space widens. Hence, as you grow in spirit, you deepen in repentance. Your ability to miss the mark of your being, the fullness of your possibility is brought home to you.

Recognition of sinfulness is a mark of holiness.

With regard to the riots, there is much to be said for methods of restoring order, and indeed of cultivating a socialisation around the virtues but a true transformation can only arise if people have the interior space from which genuine empathy and choice can arise, and in which it can be anchored.

This is a challenging space to develop but it is a necessary one.

As a coda, I had one participant in Cambridge get very hot under his collar at my suggesting that we could compare people in prison, 'criminals,' with the saints of the early Church. This outburst I thought quite extraordinary - first because more than one desert fathers began their lives out of biographies that were criminal and second because as you become a saint you become ever more aware of your compromised humanity and thus your compassionate identification with all beings, most especially criminals. It is only Christians who imagine that saints are not one us and we, as Christians, are not one of them - criminals or perverts or party-goers or take your pick - that seem to have a difficulty with the shared sinfulness of us all.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Books revealing

With admirable help at the weekend, I find myself in a virtually coherent living room with shelves assembled and slowly organizing books. Reassembling them gives you an opportunity to linger over titles - either remembering the contents or expecting them or both.

Looking at them as a whole, I ponder what is the thread that flows through them - given their immediate eclectic appearance - and the answer to that question I find has to be ' the sacred'. This is not exactly 'religion' (though once in conversation with a Dominican friend I admitted that 'religion [if anything] was 'my thing') because that expresses (to most minds) an organized reality or belief system. 

The best I can do is a bundle of core intuitions bundled with the thread that each person has (to quote George Fox) that which is of God in him or her - and every him or her live in a living world that is an expression of divine grace.

It was Martin Buber who gave thanks that the word 'religion' does not belong to either the Hebrew Bible or tradition. The 'sacred' is (as Buber might say) an existential stance towards what is that hallows it, sees it as holy: the dynamic reflection of transcendence. 'Everything that lives is holy' to quote Blake (notably represented). This exploration is explicitly apparent in the books that thematically are on religion but implicitly virtually everywhere - in the novels of Patrick White, in the poems of Robert Lax or in orientation of the books on art. There is little that is obviously secular - even George Eliot formidably agnostic as she is, remains an articulate describer of the tangent of faith in the direction of lives (and a firm believer in moral realism).

I expect a second strand is the seriousness of the books. There is not much by way of light reading! No detective stories or comic fiction or biographies of celebrities. Am I truly that serious? The answer is no but if my mind wants to 'veg out', it does not read. It goes to the screen and does not watch documentaries!

I find myself playing 'Desert Island Discs' and wondering which volume I would ask to accompany the Bible and Shakespeare. This undoubtedly shifts according to one's mood (and the length of expected stay)! But broadly it oscillates between a desire for the encyclopaedic - so a complete set of the Dictionary of National Biography or Joseph Needham's monumental 'Science and Civilization in China' lest I find myself deprived of sheer text or poetic depth. Here I think it is between Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' whose regular re-reading reveals new depths and whose four principle characters each reveals an aspect of the mystery of being human and becomes a combining picture of wholeness or Edwin Muir's Collected Poems whose unfolding vision is the closest accounting of my seeing of the world: of Eden and the Fall and the long journey back, accompanied by transfiguring light.




Sunday, August 14, 2011

A riot of explanations

One feature of last week's rioting that must be obvious by now is that nobody knows why it took place (indeed many of the rioters appeared not to know why they had taken part, except the perception, wrong in many cases, that they would not get caught)!

Another feature of the analysis is that it appears strangely 'unhistorical' as if people rioting should come as a surprise. As Morris Berman, the American cultural commentator, reminded me in one of his comments - British political culture has historically carried a burden of violence, and that violence if perpetrated by a perceived underclass is always seen in the words of Mr Cameron as 'criminality pure and simple'.

Crime is neither pure nor simple - except in the aftermath of events that have embarrassed the political class and they are in need of a 'response': anything will do as long as it can jerk into action quickly and be apparently doing something!

When John Paul II called for a decade of evangelism in the lead up to the millennium, I could not help thinking that a decade (or even an initial year) of silence would be a good idea - of listening to one's self, to pondering in our hearts our reality, before we proclaimed anything, and that any proclamation we did make would be grounded in real, living experience of the mystery.

The same might apply here that before we begin pronouncing (and acting), we remain silent, and listen to all the strands of evidence, and only begin to formulate enterprises after the truth, when we begin to see what has actually taken place (rather than apparently). Obviously there must be the immediate response of reasserting control, of a semblance of order, and of reconstruction but before we respond to underlying causes, lest us have the humility to come to ground and listen.

In that let us all not imagine we are immune from responsibility for what emerges. The irony of an MP pontificating in urgency on moral decline and feral youth who had claimed for an £8000 television set on his parliamentary expenses (precisely how is this different from looting other people's property would make a fine essay in moral vision) was not lost on me (as it appeared to be on him)!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Towers of Silence

Towers of Silence are funerary towers in Zorastrianism where the dead are exposed to the elements, to be eaten by carrion birds, and their bodies are kept from contaminating the earth.

A failed burial is a heart thread of Paul Scott's third novel of the same name in his Raj Quartet. Mabel Layton, according to her companion, Barbie Batchelor, wanted to be buried next to her second husband in Ranpur. These wishes, expressed to her, were not communicated to her step-daughter who buries her in Pankot. Barbie, who barging into the morgue, has seen the body being shifted into an appropriate pose after a post-mortem examination, imagines its extended features to reveal Mabel's present torment: a vision of hell and displacement.

This scene of heightened emotion and surreal viewing is beautifully controlled and evoked by Scott in the context of an apparently realist novel, unfolding with documentary like precision.

Indeed the closer you read Scott the more he diverges from a 'straightforward' narrative. The book breaks out of both history and personal psychology into deeper realities of vision and spirituality. Unfolding prosaic events take on the status of symbols.

Mabel Layton's 'failed' burial becomes a parable of displacement. This woman, an embodiment of English tradition in India, who has come to disbelieve in the colonial project, survives her disbelief by withdrawal into her garden, her tended flowers and her deafness. She does not mention her wished burial to anyone, except her eccentric companion, socially displaced by Mabel's family and their peers and wholly doubtful of her own career as a missionary and its failed impact on India. It becomes a sign of the whole project - apparently busy, hoping to come to rest as if to a native place, and, in fact, a retreat and a final disillusionment.

Barbie is (as we read on) to lapse into withdrawn, haunted silence in sight of the towers - where the illusion of embodiment and permanence (against which the British in India are fighting a losing battle) gives way to vultures and dismemberment.

It is such a satisfying read, and on so many levels, historical, psychological and spiritual.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book shelving

As well as needing to construct more (a Saturday task), unpacking books offers opportunities for distraction.

The first has come as a second opportunity to engage in a purge of things unread or never to be read a second time (and that, in some cases, you wished you had never read a first time). As I went about this task, I felt a further tightening of what I might in the future read. This was not of the same kind as when, a few years ago, psychotherapy fell out of my attention. This was quite a dramatic and particular divestment of a long standing interest that only Jung, Robert Johnson and Helen Luke survived, and primarily for their central interest in religion (rather than the mechanics of therapy).

This time it was not whole subjects that disappeared but certain strands. I do not expect, for example, to read early texts of Indian philosophy or the lives of Jain saints. I might carry an image of a person who might do this (or should) but I think now I can safely say that the need is to go deeper in spiritual exploration rather than continue to expand. Islam long since fell away, so Hinduism (and Jainism) can follow. Even within Buddhism, I think I can primarily concentrate on the two polar strands of Pure Land (of ‘other power’) and Zen (of ‘self-power’) in both Chinese and Japanese traditions.

Nor do I feel any need to keep reading contemporary fiction for the sake of being contemporary. This need has been on the wane as to reading for a long time but not always as to buying. I do have a strong intuition for the novels that will resonate and I add authors slowly (and usually only after being overwhelmed). Nor do I feel any need to fill up gaps in my knowledge for the sake of the gaps. There is no sense that I want to be educated into any canon (traditional or alternative). I have silenced any qualm that I have never read D.H. Lawrence (with apologies to Margaret if you are reading this) and that I find James Joyce a monumental modernist bore! I am aware that all is (or can be) change and any opinion may change in time, what I find myself shedding is any embarrassment over my current opinion!

I can keep my diet of ‘management books’ light unlike either philosophy or history, they rarely manage to help me think either about people or organizations.

The second has been moments of reaffirmation. This is intrinsically much more interesting. Yesterday it was the turn of Martin Buber. I rediscovered a remarkable book on Buber called ‘I and Tao’ that explores Buber’s deep and idiosyncratic encounter with Taoism that led him (like Merton and Ursula le Guin) to make his own versions of Taoist texts, in his case of Chuang Tzu through which he sort both to be authentic witness and creative interpreter. Since my own love of Taoism has been deepening (with reading John Blofeld’s oeuvre and the Tao Te Ching before sleep), it struck a resonate chord. I dipped in and marked it for a future re-reading. I keep returning to Buber – if I have a ‘master’ it is he.

The third is to be reminded of unfulfilled promises. I had made a New Year’s resolution to re-read Dante and read Goethe’s Faust. This sounds on the face of it very canonical! But they both emerged out of personal memory and felt sense which reminded me that I have a very feeling driven attitude to reading that has often conflicted with a ‘super-ego’ of what I thought I should read. I expect this gives me a very personalized and eclectic pool of knowledge (and the shadow of a reluctance to engage with anything that does not make that felt connection, even when it might be helpful or necessary)





Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Michael Graham Jones a friend and mentor

Today was Michael's funeral, held in the beautiful and simple Anglican Church at Northmoor where he worshipped. He died this month at the age of 91. It was an occasion both celebratory and moving.

I met Michael when I was at The Abbey, Sutton Courtenay. I was a young man pondering what to do with my life and spending it in a fruitful and exasperating lay religious community with which Michael was intimately associated (and on the Council).

I recall cycling from the Abbey to his home at the Limes for tea where in customary fashion Michael's hospitality went beyond tea and cakes to an attentive listening, accompanied by probing intelligent and compassionate questions of some project or other that I had conceived and long (wisely) abandoned.

It was a style of encounter that multiplied over the years, and led to diverse introductions to others. He had a particular and precise mind that made good connections. If he could stray into pedantry, it was always subsumed into a wider, more generous purpose.

It was through him that I acquired my first 'real' charitable sector job, following a phone call from him that was so discrete as to leave its actual purpose unrevealed! He introduced me to a second Michael (Feilden), whose widow and children I saw today, who was to be my much treasured chairman with whom I launched Opportunity International UK.

Michael GJ was a man of catholic tastes, wide interests, with passions both musical and theological. He was a man of broad and intense sympathies. He was the first 'public' figure I came out to.

I am and will always remain deeply grateful for his friendship, his confidence in me, and his love.

I will always recall him telling me that he grew more, not less, radical with age. It is a position I can identify with; and, as more than one person remarked today, it was difficult to imagine him as old - frail yes, in his last months terribly so - but always opening into the world, continually inquiring, always growing in a stature carried with great modesty.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Don't Panic, don't panic

This catch phrase of Corporal Jones in the archetypal comedy of my childhood, Dad's Army, comes to mind today as our global leadership wonder whether to abandon their beaches and 'do something' about our gathering global financial crisis. Jones, of course, was always panicking when adopting this phase.

Since they have patently failed to do very much that matters in the past, except apply band-aid and wishful thinking, the signs are not good.

What I continue to find extraordinary is that what they might do is restricted to more or less effectively responding to what 'the market' dictates. Since the 'market' is seriously dysfunctional, even an effective response is only a temporary measure.

No one appears seriously ready to restructure what is, after all, a human artifact, namely the market.

Today the Chinese have demanded that the US get to grips with its debt addiction. This is rather akin to a drug dealer deciding that their premier addict not, on any account, overdose.

It profoundly misses the point.

The need is to consciously, deliberately, and not without a degree of pain, restructure our financial system. We need to return finance to the function of a utility, aiming to support productive goods and services, and to localize it. Money should be attached once again to direct, known and communal transactions. The notion that money can make money out of money should be (as both true Islamic finance and Catholic tradition would suggest) relegated to a quaint footnote of historical accidents that we will not re-vist.

An approximate to this system was partially in place from the post second world war settlement to 1970. Incomes rose and were fairly distributed, equality was enhanced.  Money was cheap but difficult to attain, and relatively immobile. This architecture was sacrificed on the altar of greed: wanting to have one's cake and eat it or in this case wanting to fight a war and not sacrifice for it (the Vietnam war and the United States). The subsequent deregulation has fueled a world where slower wealth accumulation has been disproportionately allocated to the rich in ways that accelerate instability. Money is liquid but expensive, and feeds on itself.

Sadly, I have absolutely no confidence that there is any consensus to undertake such a reconstruction. We are not as the Chinese imagine addicted to debt, we are addicted to a whole system that we imagine as the 'only one'  as if we were mesmerized by Adam Smith's invisible hand, not knowing that it is a form of puppetry fashioned by us.

We imagine that we should manage its complexity by ever more sophisticated measures of risk management rather than by taking more and more complexity out of the system. We need a return to boring banking and the more challenging task not of making money but of sustainably making real things and actual services that will accommodate the needs of the world, without destroying it in the process. We need to be more aware of the limits of our knowledge and act with propriety within those limits.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hanging a painting


A long week both at work and at home. The latter has comprised moving house - a work in progress.

But this evening, amidst the chaos, I was able to hang my favourite painting - 'The Dream Bearer' by Thetis Blacker. It was painted for me using her own original technique a transformed, unique version of batik. It is a technique that makes her work instantly recognizable and luminously beautiful.

We met originally at breakfast at Dartington Hall during the first Temenos conference. We found ourselves sitting opposite one another and having been introduced by the poet, Kathleen Raine, Thetis inquired, "Are you a poet? You look like a poet". "Sadly not," I replied, "but I do dream"! What possessed me to describe myself thus I do not know but it hit exactly the right, a perfect, note.

Thetis was a remarkable dreamer (indeed she produced a book of them, and they read like short stories) and we exchanged dreams over the breakfast table and became firm friends. It was a deep pleasure to visit her at her Surrey cottage, overlooking the Downs, where she worked, for lunch and conversation.

Her art is rooted in an exploration of myth as heightened and personalized in her own dream life. The learning soaked into her consciousness and dream responded with a motif, a starting point, which then unfolded with its own inner spiritual logic, movements of vision. As she herself wrote:

"Because I am an artist, and many of my friends are artists, when we are together the conversation always returns to this same subject: Vision. That mysterious, marvelous, illuminative, unpredictable, astonishing gift. The artist strives for complete and constant perception, and to enact as well as to SEE that Vision. Yet what we do experience, even great seers such as Blake, is a series of peep-holes into that unified and greater reality. When we are in a state of vision we can see the pattern and meaning of things. These times come in waking or in sleeping dreams. Winifred Nicholson called them "Glimpses". Almost always they come unexpectedly. They are moments of truth, not flimsy fantasies, these moments of perception become "touchstones" to which one can always refer. "


'The Dream Bearer' is of a fabulous bird that flies from the dark of night into the light of day, a greeting sun, and in its beak it carries a twig of olive. Night dreamt rightly is a carrier of peace.


Her's was an art that could be both intensely personal and public and celebratory, as here in Winchester Cathedral, her banners on the old and new creation, that decorate the space each Lent in the movement towards Easter when the creation is made new.



"The artist should be able to open the eyes of the viewer to that divine, sacred nature within everything,"she wrote and that was her pilgrimage.

It was a painting of Thetis' that was the first I ever bought - a seed, flaming and brilliant, descending from the cosmic tree to earth the world with sacred life.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Coming to Our Senses

Morris Berman's "Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West" is one of my favourite books since I read it first in a caravan on the west coast of Ireland pretending not to be staying with a nun and a would be nun. It was a different Ireland - a man in a van with two women, neither of whom were his relation: unconscionable to the caravan park administrator! 

Together with a subsequent volume, "Wandering God", it is a compelling account of a naturalistic spirituality of embodied wonder in the everyday: a horizontal spirituality that eschews 'special experience' or 'transformations of consciousness'. 

The books, along the way, open up a radical questioning of many aspects of our dominant culture. The chapter on creativity in Coming to Our Senses is exceptional in this regard as it explores the difference between creating from what you lack, creation as an attempt to solve an existential problem; and, creation from fullness, creating from a 'de-creation' of the self to allow reality to present itself.


It is the difference between the accelerating intensity of a Van Gogh landscape and a Morris Grave's flower painting. The first is visionary pumping of a space into emotional drama (that is deeply familiar) and the second is a stepping back for just as it is reality to unfold. The first wants to seize heaven, the second want to rest in what is and discover that earth is heaven, seen aright.


I confess to a certain disappointment when he turned to more direct cultural criticism, especially of his 'home land' the United States, seen now from his voluntary displacement in Mexico. This is not because there are not very interesting things in his subsequent (and forthcoming) books on America's decline (as in the accompanying blog: http://morrisberman.blogspot.com/) but because they don't wholly respond to my own guarded optimism about the future (held often in the teeth of serial depressing facts).  

I expect that the fundamental difference is that his 'mysticism' remains naturalistic, mine is unbounded by the groundless reality of being inspirited by God. This rather gives one a sense that there are possibilities remaining to us not implicated in Morris Berman's vision of the world - even as those possibilities are severely compromised by a world that would rather be consumptive than contemplative, and a world as consumptive of notions of God that secure and serve our identities as it is consumptive of goods (and of itself).

In God there is no identity only what is.


 


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Without Buddha I could not be a Christian

It appears that there is an outbreak of Buddhist Christianity following a reading of Ross Thompson's 'Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness' (http://ncolloff.blogspot.com/2011/07/buddhist-christianity.html), I have finished reading Paul Knitter's 'Without Buddha I could not be a Christian'.

They cover similar territory and both weave into their spiritual-theological accounts pertinent autobiographical detail.

But Knitter's last chapter stakes out very different territory. If Thompson's book is characterized by inwardness, Knitter seeks to expound why Buddhism allows Christianity to more deeply occupy its 'unique' territory - that radical concern that God is perceived to have for those who are most deeply marginal, suffering or poor. God in Christianity is biased - we find God when we attend to the needs of those whose need is greatest. This vitally contrasts with Buddhism's universalizing compassion. Compassion does not take sides, justice does. Knitter beautifully suggests how both are necessary and both enable each other.

If we are to pursue justice, we need to understand how our capacity to be peace, to wait upon opportunity, helps us achieve justice.

Knitter has a fascinating discussion of anger - that it drives us towards pursuing justice but must be contained within a capacity to be detached, to let go. To bring us to a space where we can allow ourselves to release anger, and move towards clarity.

Christianity is the intention of justice, Buddhism is the practice of peace. To achieve justice, we must be peace, but individual peaceful attainment must be suffused with the need to transform the structures of injustice. Christianity and Buddhism from radically different perspectives dance towards a common transformation, enabled by each other.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Whiffs of the fall of Rome

The Fall of the Roman Empire that highly intelligent film of imperial demise directed by the gifted, if flawed, Anthony Mann, ends with an auction of the emperor's throne. This is seen as the beginning of the end.

When I was last in Washington, I recall a discussion of the 'price' of ambassadorships. That becoming an ambassador has often involved service to the relevant political party in the United States (which has included fund-raising) is a long living truism but that a particular country comes with a particular price is (if true) a new departure (or descent)!

The end of Rome is an increasingly tempting analogy for the United States. An analogy promoted by the on-going events in Congress and between Congress and the office of the President. That certain factions within the former (whether conservative or liberal) can imagine technical default (and the uncertain consequences to the world financial system) as a result of political ideology not involving the measured sense of re-crafting both budget and system is indicative of how far the US is traveling on the path to terminal decline.

The fact that they got to this budgetary impasse by fighting wars (from Vietnam onwards) while believing nobody should sacrifice anything (not least the wealthy) is another indicator of imperial over-reach (and accompanying political fantasy).

It is all rather depressing and however much you hope that sense will prevail, there is no obvious purveyor of it.

The best analogy I heard today of the now agreed non-deal in Congress was of 'the can being kicked further down the road'! Nobody wants to be the first to genuinely pick it up, and dispose of it correctly, especially when it can be used as an object of political play.

This is wholly understandable given that genuinely thinking through the mess we have got into, and building support to address it, is such a complex challenge (both for the problem's own complexity and for the air of political unreality it inhabits) no wonder nobody rises to it.

Better wait for collapse to shake us to our senses. Oh Lordy...the pain of that!

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

When Goethe was a student in Strasbourg, he became fascinated by the cathedral which, for two centuries from its ‘completion’, had be...