Saturday, September 28, 2013

Presence and living into the Future

Yesterday I was discussing, in the staff canteen, what our future role as an international NGO might look like with an intern who is helping us explore new 'business models' through which to deliver our work.

In the course of which, I noticed coming towards me, out of the dialogue, a prospective future of how the organisation might look: a future possibility. If only we had paused there, allowed the presence of it to take shape, but the flow of the conversation moved on in the urgency of time (and limited by what we both thought of as 'the brief').

How often do these moments come to us when we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be a new whole, only for the veil to fall back into place and we return to our past-embedded agendas?

Usually the idea of reading a 'management' book is akin to being invited to occupy a circle of hell that even Dante had not envisaged; however, 'Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future' (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers) is undoubtedly different. It is a four handed account of how a new theory of change (theory U) emerged from their conversation and mutual exploration (separately and together) and is very compelling.

Theory U begins with sensing, in observing how the world is, allowing ourselves to bracket our assumptions and see how the world is present to us, delving deep into the facticity of things. The second phase, at the bottom of the U, is to stand back and reflect, what does the patterning of the world suggest as a whole, a new whole, as new possibility, allowing inner knowing to emerge. The third phase, the upswing in the U, is acting swiftly to realise what is being recognised with a natural flow that genuine seeing and greeting of the new allows, like a martial artist, embodying years of practice in acting out of what is seen.

Unsurprisingly embodying the theory requires inner work, it asks us to see beyond analysis, with the mind of the heart and though difficult to describe in the cumulative examples offered is perfectly recognisable. For example, the team struggling to meet a programme deadline that pauses and finds the honesty to admit that they cannot see the wood for the trees. A pausing honesty that allows people to go deeper and redefine what the programme might look like built on future prospect rather than past guidance.

It has been particularly striking reading the book today. The day after the IPCC report on climate change was released. Here, like no where else, does it require us to allow a future scenario to guide present action (rather than relying on what has been known in the past) and here, like no where else, can we see the difficulty of stepping into the U. Our bound vision of things is wound tight. We will not let go easily. But that is the task, not an argument about the 'facts' but offering paths that allow people the felt security to step into the facts. There has never been a moment in human history when working on our collective potential for emotional literacy and empathy for the other has been more important. The crisis we face is a spiritual one before it is a material one.

Presence is an account of how that crisis might be addressed in the context of organisations and, therefore, is both a radical and timely book (and was followed by others outlining both theory and practice in greater detail).

I was struck too with the parallels that might be drawn between theory U and Benedictine spirituality. For Benedictine spirituality is radically concerned with living into a future that comes towards us. There can be nothing more radical than living into resurrection and the coming commonwealth of God! How does the living of the Rule in community illuminate theory U and would theory U make the cumulative experience of living the Rule more explicit?


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Novel Zen



Dostoyevsky famously tried to write a novel about a saint, and notably failed. Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is a holy fool and the Brothers Karamazov leaves the potential of Alyosha incomplete.

The Romanian novelist's, Petru Dumitriu's, remarkable 'Incognito' has, at its heart, a 'secular' saint, Sebastian, who discovers God in a prison camp and infects others with his discovery of the unconditioned love of the world by example rather than through word.

Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' has not one but four saints or four characters who carry different dimensions of the possibility of one, whole, saintliness.

Enter into this company, the Scottish novelist, Alan Spence's recently published, 'Night Boat'. In a sense he cheats because his is an imaginative realisation of an actual saint, embodied in a historical fiction (akin to Nikos Kanzantzakis' St Francis), in the Zen monk, Hakuin, one of the most important, and beloved, figures in Japanese Zen from whom all contemporary Rinzai practitioners are descended.

It is a compelling and beautiful book. I am not competent to judge its 'historical accuracy' but Hakuin himself would be sceptical of such a notion. How faithful can we ever be to 'telling the factual truth', what matters is whether you perceive the compassionately real. There is a wonderful story of Hakuin being accused of fathering a child and rather than deny it, he simply says. 'Is that so?' and takes the baby under his care, as his reputation disintegrates around him. Ultimately the young mother confesses and, with her embarrassed parents, takes the child back to which Hakuin's response is the same, 'Is that so?' What you live out of and towards is the essential not how you represent yourself or are represented. It reminded me of similar stories of the Desert Fathers in early Christian monasticism whereby the Father or Mother takes upon themselves, uncomplainingly, a false accusation for are we not all one of another - the parent of all, a sinner with all.

He was poet, calligrapher and artist, as well as Zen master, and the beautiful simplicity, humour and grace of his work can be seen here in one of his most famous representations - of blind men on a bridge. We can only feel our way, step by step, wholly alert to the texture, body of the bridge until at the end, the image suggests, we must jump, surrendering into the real.

There is only the 'support' of gravity which is grace in the moment. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Remembering the Acropolis


I was sixteen, tall, thin, scared with acne and full of romantic yearning when I first saw the Acropolis. I was on a school cruise, it was April, the sun was brightening in its warmth, the flowers of Spring were out. I had been reading poetry, seriously, for the first time (Auden) and I found myself enraptured by new places discovered, externally and in myself. There was a language, I discovered, that helped you see through feeling, and it was good.

On that trip, it was Greece (not Venice, nor Turkey, nor Egypt) that I fell in love with. Most especially with the theatre at Epidauros and its accompanying temple of Ascelpios; and, the notion you might fall asleep, dream of gods and be healed (and watch drama with virtually perfect acoustics)!

Yesterday, I was drawn to the temple of the god of healing, both on the slopes of the Acropolis and those key remnants preserved in the new Acropolis Museum (a fabulous building that no doubt creditors believe was paid for with money that the country did not have)! There is something deeply reassuring in knowing that dreams speak and symbols translate you (if seen aright) into your better possibility.

I ambled paths that I had not stepped for over thirty years and dialogued with my sixteen year old self. I was struck by how much is the same - the same yearning for experience of transcendence, the same willingness to be caught up in enthusing wonder, the same sense of a present past and of questions that are responded to not in being answered but in being deepened.

You find a vulnerability to the world that allows it to step forth and speak and that requires you to answer not in the confining certainty of words but in deed. I found the world afresh and it was beautiful.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Innovating with rather than for

In Athens for the weekend for SciCo and the British Council exploring social enterprise and innovation. Here the interest has been spiked by the post 2008 crisis and the need to develop sustainable responses to social problems.

A common theme is how reluctant we are as social organisations to genuinely consult our clients/beneficiaries and allow them to shape what we do. We talk the talk of participation but often fail to walk the walk.

I was reminded of launching Basic Needs in South India (www.basicneeds.org.uk) in 2000. We asked three highly competent disability charities whether they had people with mental illness (defined as a disability under the Indian Disability Act)  in the villages in which they worked. Two said no, one said they did not know! When challenged on this, they all gracefully agreed to look again and lo they all found significant numbers of mentally ill people. It was a vivid illustration of how our assumptions about the closeness of NGOs to 'the people' they serve are flawed. To their credit, and with our help, all three organisations took up the challenge of mental illness and helped us to design with mentally ill people themselves, and their carers, an innovative model of community based care that has gone global.

So too here a diverse group of enterprising people, with exemplary enthusiasm and conscience , aim to help others but the 'others' the one's to be helped are still 'other' out there. The task today has been to help people realise that the others are part of the solution to be embraced within innovation processes that can co- design and create practicable solutions. It does take people beyond the zone of their comfort but thankfully you can see the notion slowly taking root and people planing new ways of designing their social ventures with, rather than around, their client base.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Suzuki meets Swedenborg



It is not immediately apparent why D.T. Suzuki, the great scholar of Japanese Buddhism, would translate (and write a book on), the great eighteenth century Swedish scientist and visionary mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. Though Swedenborg was both a pathbreaking scientist and one of the most original of theological minds (and deeply influential on nineteenth century artistic culture), he is undoubtedly (and unforgivably) obscure. His status as a 'heretic' might make him appeal to Suzuki's questing mind to find affinities between Christianity and Buddhism but (like Meister Eckhart until recently, on whom Suzuki also wrote) it is not one likely to elicit a mainstream cultural or theological response from 'the West'.

However, closer inspection reveals that the affinities are striking and deeply suggestive.

First, even though couched in the language of visitations to heavens and hells, Swedenborg retained his empirical bent. Everything he wrote about was tested on the anvil of his own interior experience. Heaven and Hell are 'inward states' that constitute our world and its potentiality: they describe possibilities of consciousness and the quest for freedom. This is precisely the statues they occupy in Buddhism: real because inward.

Second, in spite of the apparent ethereal nature of 'vision', Swedenborg was strikingly concrete. All that he described was rooted in a recognition that all understanding tended towards deepening our practice of love and compassion, here and now. Zen is expressed in washing the dishes or, as Swedenborg would say, a tendency towards love would be revealed by the care a cobbler repairs the shoes entrusted to him or her.

Third, everything is trending towards unity, the One, in which our liberation is found. The more deeply we are bound in joy to and with one another, losing our self-centredness, the freer we become. Our ego shed, we discover our selving in a binding of love and wisdom at the heart of life.

It is absolutely true that Swedenborg's language is Christian - much of his writing is a revealing of the inner meaning of Scripture - as Suzuki's was of Buddhism - but both are explorers of the empirical nature of our inner lives that are unfolding from a deepening unity and as searching accounts of human frailty and abundance have deep commonalities.

All of this came back to me in reading Wilson Van Dusen's 'The Presence of Other Worlds: the findings of Emanuel Swedenborg' which is a remarkable book in its own right. Written from the perspective of a clinical psychologist and student of Swedenborg, it acts both as an illuminating introduction and a challenging act of thought to consider Swedenborg seriously as a master of the inner life. This, I think, he was.

Simply to consider his foundational insight that we are drawn to the outer states that we most inwardly love is to bring us face to face with the question: what is it that I love? The answer can be humbling if you can get behind your egotistical assumption and quietly sit with the realities revealed in the contours of your daily life. What do I truly value for this, in a radical sense, will determine the unfolding of my fate, one that rests wholly in my hands dependingon how I respond to the divine offer of freedom?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Forbidden Book

It begins with a bomb desecrating a church that itself contains a desecrating image of the Prophet Muhammed (drawing upon Dante's depiction in the Inferno). The image exists in reality in the church of San Petrino, Bologna and has been the subject of Islamist plotting.

It proceeds from there to contain several well appointed houses, a murder, a kidnapping, an esoteric tome of Western alchemy, a misfired love affair,  a bungling Italian police investigation, an American Catholic professor of Italian literature as hero, a right wing Italian baron as villain and a political plot pursued through magical means.

Such is 'The Forbidden Book' a novel that is the combined work of a distinguished professor of music and scholar of Western esotericism (Jocelyn Godwin) and a published novelist (Guido Mina di Sospiro).

It definitely lands in 'Dan Brown territory' excepting that all the scholarly references are, well, scholarly and that we genuinely are in a world that takes the reality of magic and the sacred seriously, that looks at it from the inside out rather than reading it across the surfaces as the basis of conspiracy. It, also, has Catholics as its heroes rather than its enemy!

It is a highly intelligent entertainment that captures at its heart the realisation that all power is corrupting when not bound by love and that, therefore, it can only be exercised either when dispersed across a range of mutually correcting actors or by the selfless, acting out of an ego (s) sacrificed to love.

The former path is one of a genuinely democratic polis of which every current example is an imperfect reflection. The latter path is that of the saint and the initiate, which is arduous indeed, and infused with many possibilities for error. Both, however, at their best contain a recognition, a humility, that we may be wrong and so, by their nature, proceed gently, tentatively and with much opportunity for critical self-reflection.

Evil in the book has no such correcting mechanism - it is convinced of its certainties and seeks domination, manipulating events against a background of certitude.

But it is defeated because it radically underestimates, until it is too late, the virtues of the hero - love for the subjugated, resilience in defeat, undisplayed intelligence and tenacity.

I can wholeheartedly recommend it - and you learn about Renaissance alchemy as well - a clincher!




Monday, September 16, 2013

A transfigured window


When I was at university, there was a 'university mission' to which I went. On three consecutive nights, there were three presentations of the Christian faith from four distinguished Christian bishops. It was an extraordinary line up - Michael Ramsey who had been Archbishop of Canterbury and a distinguished theologian, followed by the famous double act of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Warlock, and his Anglican opposite number as Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, and finally, on the last night, Metropolitan Anthony, the charismatic and holy, Russian Orthodox prelate!

Ramsey struck me then as a man both holy and wise with a way of making complex truths simple. They all radiated a sense of holiness that detracted not one wit from their own humanity, and indeed eccentricity.

It was a surfeit of riches and today in Durham Cathedral a friend had directed me to a new (2010) stained glass window dedicated to the Transfiguration and offered in memory of Michael Ramsey for it was in Durham where he had taught, been bishop and to where he retired.

It is a beautiful window that no photograph can begin to do justice, especially as a whole. A central light, of the transfigured Christ, permeates creation. It offers a witness to the world's true nature as cosmos and to our actual participation in the divine. It points towards a hoped for, ever deepening, realisation of that grace such that every corner of the world might be illuminated, remembering its status as continual divine gift, and recover its wholeness.




It was a central theme of Ramsey's theology, as it was of Metropolitan Anthony's Orthodox faith, that we are participators in the divine nature. 'All' we need to do is to surrender into that light, an ever present offering if we have eyes to see.

As I sat there, I pondered the disciples reaction of amazement, bewilderment and an offered construction project namely to make booths for the three figures, Christ, Elijah and Moses!

This latter action struck me as a wholly perfect analogy for my own reaction to the proffered freedom of God: yes, please, but only if I can safely hedge it in with my own boundaries and worship its possibilities from afar, thank you very much! In that case, and only in that case, I can accept!

What might practicing the acceptance of transfiguration mean?

I suppose it starts with genuinely recognising it as gratuitous gift. This is how the world is, not created in 4004 BC or indeed in a 'big bang' but fundamentally held and given into being, always, now, at this moment. It is a gift of which I am wholly undeserving and yet it is wholly fitting. The only thing one needs to do with a gift is to accept it in gratitude. Yet how difficult it is to receive and be grateful and yet how necessary. The first spiritual act is to say 'thank you' - the difficulty appears that we are still like children to whom this does not come naturally or like adults for whom it has become merely perfunctory.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Artists as tormented souls



Yesterday I went to both "The Crisis of Brilliance' at the Dulwich Art Gallery and 'A Revolution in Art Mexico 1910 -1940' at The Royal Academy (where the catalogue is on sale already, a bargain at £7.95).

This is Tata Jesuchristo painted on the Mexican Day of the Dead by Francisco Goitia (of whom I had not heard or knowingly seen). This painting was not on show but on the evidence of the two that were - a hanging man in a tree (painted during the Revolution) and an elderly man, serenely sitting on a pile of rubbish, oblivious to his apparent poverty, he was a remarkable painter and himself lived in voluntary poverty, seen as a 'mystic' and seen as tormented. I expect the last may have been projection on the part of the world faced by a recluse who is not abiding by their rules. Wild he does look in his photographs but tormented no, though alert to it, the pain in a broken world.

The artists that formed the Crisis of Brilliance too, I feel, were being frog marched into the category of 'torment', which was true for some but not for all of this exceptionally gifted, pre-First World War group of Slade trained artists, bound by over lapping friendships and shared artistic problems. Two, Carrington and Gertler, did commit suicide from complex patterns of personal tragedy and unfulfilled potentials as artists, one, Nevinson, lost his momentum, one, Blomberg, lost his nerve but became a gifted and influential teacher, and two, though they both looked back at moments made halcyon, sailed triumphantly on - Nash and Spenser. 

Of all of them, it was startling clear that Stanley Spencer was the greater painter, bold, imaginative, and remarkably diverse. We imagine him as bound to Cookham and translating Cookham into the place of spiritual drama and hoped for transfiguration but he was equally capable of those searching, yet compassionate nudes, of himself and his second wife and those hyper-realistic, beautiful landscapes that he threw off to make money!

The revelation of the show, for me, was Gertler, a gifted portrait artist, with an imaginative insight that wanted to step across the threshold of the 'realistic' and when it gives itself permission, creates wonderful paintings, as this one of God creating Eve.


The wonder on Eve's face, the anxiety on Adam's and the inquisitiveness of God and the animals as to what to make, will be made, of this new combining creation of things.

The tragedy of Gertler is that, unlike Spenser, he had no sure language in which and out of which to allow this imaginative vision to become a sustaining one; and, a language that a discerning few might have collected and cherished, enabling him to continue. He, unlike Spenser, neither had the innocence or the means or the abiding Christianity (or a Judaism in his case, a complex inheritance for a visual artist) to find his flow. It was a tantalising window into what might have been.

Equally running through the Crisis of Brilliance's commentary was how bad much criticism is, not only because in the fullness of time, its shallowness is exposed but because it is unkind. I was reminded of Edwin Muir's principle of never reviewing a book unless you could say something helpfully good about it. I wish many of the critics on display here had kept to this (though one suspects if they had done so, they would have found themselves unemployed)!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bookaholic

Whilst attending a conference, I remember standing at the main entrance to the Hall at Dartington, looking out across the courtyard, on an autumn day, at the tall beech tree that stands opposite. I found myself joined there by the poet, Jeremy Reed, who in public compensated for a shyness, whose depths made mine feel shallow, by piling on a histrionic act that was (and may still be) off putting to say the least (as I had witnessed the evening before). But now, with just the two of us, looking at the same object, he quietly began to talk in dense yet startling and beautiful metaphor about what he was seeing. It was a compressed masterclass in the art of poetic sight.

Today in the Oxfam Secondhand bookshop, I was reminded of this moment as I purchased a copy of his 'Selected Poems'. His is an imaginative giftedness that does not sit at ease in the world. I find myself wondering what has become of him and will internet him down.

It has been a morning when my book acquiring compulsion was in full flow. I went to the Post Office Delivery Centre (my second home) to collect, 'Music at Midnight', John Drury's new biography of George Herbert. A man who, though prominent in his life, was only posthumously published as a poet. And what poetry! Exploring the complexities of love in many of its guises - sacred and secular -and a man in whom sacred task competed with the prospect of secular advancement. The man who wrote my favourite poem-prayer:

Love

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
      Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
      From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning        
      If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
     Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
      I cannot look on Thee.'  
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
      'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
      Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'  
      'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
      So I did sit and eat.

Back at Oxfam, I also bought 'An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum' that remarkable memoir (my last copy of which I gave away) of a life moving slowly into the jaws of death: Etty being a Jew in occupied Holland. It is a story of a life lived with freedom and scrutiny, being refined in experience and reflection, towards insight into love, forgiveness and compassion and wrapped in a narrative of a remarkably ordinary, extraordinary young woman.

Then onto Blackwells and two more additions to the pile - the first is 'Entering the Circle: Ancient Secrets of Siberian Wisdom Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist' - which sounds like a Castanenda like tale of spiritual derring do (and possibly as improbable) - but having encountered Siberian Shamanism myself in Tuva, it was an opportunity I could not pass over.

Meanwhile, more soberly spiritual, was 'Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression' by Taigen Dan Leighton which I bought because of the praise of Brother David Steindl Rast O.S.B describing it as 'A sparkler amongst contemporary Buddhist writings'! Given that the quality of those is, I think, exceptionally high, it is highly promising recommendation.

Finally I get home, look on the back seat of my car, and discover the book I bought last at Blackwells (sic) and had completely forgotten... The Man who Plants Trees ... which I loved for both its cover and its theme. Trees being essential, beautiful and 'thoughts of God' (to quote Jung)!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Gandhi - the Esoteric Christian?

I might like to think that my future biographer (sic) would attribute my knowledge of Plato to a careful study of his works, read repeatedly over time. Whereas, in truth, though I have indeed read him, his influence has been most deeply experienced through reading a book called, 'The Third City: Philosophy at war with Positivism' written by Borna Bebek. The book was born in obscurity where, I confess, it sadly has remained!

But even if it had flourished at the time of its publication, it may have disappeared by the time a biographer arrives on the scene. What shapes our perceptions, our philosophies, our world views, even in the most famous, disappear from view with the passage of time (and our unwillingness to entertain the notion that our 'heroes' have dieted on anything less than the most exalted fare).

So it is with Gandhi, maintains Kathryn Tidrick in her absorbing biography, 'Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life'. We all know, if we know anything about Gandhi, the influence that reading the Gita, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin had on Gandhi but what about Kingsford and Maitland's 'The Perfect Way, Clothed with the Sun' or Henry Salt's 'Plea for Vegetarianism'?

Tidrick wants to show us three key dimensions to Gandhi. First his political life was utterly shaped by a core set of spiritual convictions that saw him, Gandhi, as a world saviour in the making, though this he understandably did not make explicit. Second that this life was seeded in London, nurtured in South Africa and came to bloom in India. Third in examining to who and to what Gandhi was exposed in London, we discover that it was to heterodox patterns of belief - about health and diet, about the East filtered through Theosophy and 'esoteric Christianity' that were formative and his subsequent use of Hinduism was transformed in this crucible in very unorthodox ways.

So, for example, 'ahimsa' goes from being traditionally a passive notion of doing 'no harm' and is transformed into actively pursuing a willingness to suffer self-immolation in the service of others, non-harming gives way to a search for universal love in a language whose origin was constructed by seeing an Indian (Hindu and Jain) concept passed through a Christian filter. You can see how this presents difficulties to those who want their nationalist hero 'pure and unadulterated' but, of course, there is no such thing (except in the fantasy worlds of fundamentalists of all kinds).

It is, also, a book that shows how our values and beliefs may tend in one direction, shaping a mission yet whose actual outcomes are different from what was intended and that this is not necessarily 'a bad thing'! Gandhi was instrumental in bringing about Indian independence, he did so in a way that has acted as an inspiration to many other struggles for liberation, not least the career of Martin Luther King and his life probes and tests us to this day around issues of social organisation, economic 'development and the relationship between personal change and social transformation.

But if Tidrick is right Gandhi's primary focus was on preparing the ground for the spiritual transformation of humanity that meant etherealising and leaving the inherently sinful nature of the 'flesh' behind and this 'flesh' was harried in his private life in a manner that gives one pause - obsessional, controlling and undoubtedly cranky!

It, also, goes to show how deeply influential 'esoteric' traditions have been in history, not excluding the twentieth century, and to these Tidrick is an admirably lucid guide and amusingly one who is wholly unconvinced of their merit (as accounts of reality). Having given a very clear account of the beliefs of Kingsland and Maitland (and it was the former that introduced Gandhi to Tolstoy's work), she says that they are no more fabulously ridiculous than the orthodox Christian narrative!

Influentially ridiculous however...

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Caretaking the cosmos

Gary Lachman in a stream of books has admirably both described aspects of the Western esoteric tradition and its influence on Western culture and written biographies of some of its key exponents, most recently on Madame Blavatsky (as described here, http://ncolloff.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/a-genuine-fake-madame-blavatsky.html).

However, in his most recent book, 'The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World', he explicitly sets out his own views of what it means to be human and why we are here? This being Lachman his views are set out lucidly, engagingly, tentatively and accompanied by a cloud of illustrious witnesses from the Hermetic tradition and the the Kabbalah, to Blake and Goethe through to Berdyaev and Cassirer (amongst many others).

He begins with the Hermetic and Kabalistic notion that in creating the world God left it purposely unfinished and that humankind's task was to complete the world through repairing it. In the Kabbalah such repairing is done through continuous acts of loving attention that allows the world to be seen, handled and disposed aright. The intention with which we handle the world, the intention of repairing, transfigures the world suffusing it with meaning. This intention and attention may be very simple - treating the person at the Sainsbury checkout counter as a person in themselves or more radically imaginative, the poets Blake and Milosz beholding 'the spiritual sun'!

But in some important way, Lachman argues, the cosmos was made for man (and vice versa), our conscious beholding of it, the doors of our perception cleansed, brings it fully to life.

Such a viewpoint necessarily comes into conflict with both materialist reductionism and postmodern ennui and, I confess, the most entertaining parts of the book are when Lachman puts them to flight and he does so in the company not simply of airy poets and woefully neglected philosophers but in the company of hard core (Nobel adorned) physicists and neuroscientists. The gentle skewering of John Gray's misanthropic posturing is especially enjoyable.

However, I think, his most serious point is to notice that it is only since we displaced ourselves as cosmic guardians and saw ourselves, in an increasingly fractured way, as simply 'part of nature', an animal amongst other animals, that our serious despoiling of that very 'nature' or 'environment' began in earnest, without self-correcting limit. He quotes Louis Claude de Saint Martin, the Unknown Philosopher, to the effect that we have clothed ourselves in a 'false modesty' rather than seeking to be fully human and accept the responsibility that entails in a cosmos completed by us, a co-creation with God, we have settled for being 'only human' amongst the other animals, which has often meant, that we become less than other animals, wrapped in seeking identity, satisfaction and consumption, restless activity rather than a composed crafting, a repairing of cosmos.

Like his books before, you are set out upon new avenues of thought and reading. I came away knowing that I must (re)read Berdyaev that remarkable Christian personalist philosopher who sees it incumbent on us to exercise our freedom and creativity to create a home where God can dwell in the world, beginning with recognising that the glory of God is the human person fully alive. That life Lachman maintains is contagious and lights up the meaning of the creation as well as our own souls.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Soil and Soul

When I was eighteen, I went with a friend on a visit to two islands in the Inner Hebrides - Eigg and Rhum. They were islands that my friend had known since childhood. They were woven into the fabric of his spirit and both vicariously through that attachment and through their translucent beauty, I drank from their wells.

However, on Eigg I was aware of a human conflict between landlord and community. The then landlord, Keith Schellenberg, was eccentric, volatile and an exemplar of how 'landlordism' was both oppressive, arbitrary and a brake on the development of vibrant, self-sustaining communities, never perfect but real.

Reading Alastair McIntosh's fabulous book, 'Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power', I discovered the history of Eigg's liberation as one of the first communities in Scotland to effectively buy itself out and embark on a new life as a community land trust. It is a complex story of empowering a community to enable it to take control of its own destiny set within a wider context. The wider context is both global, the indigenous struggle for land rights, and spiritual: what does it mean for a community to rediscover its identity in belonging to a place?

The book explores the culture of the Hebrides, both pagan and Christian, as a place where nature is reverenced as revealing divine creativity and what a rediscovery of that reverencing may mean for contemporary society.

Equally, it explores how we come to live in a society that is displaced from reverence, eager to find meaning in consumption rather than contemplation. It explores too the dynamics of power that keeps that displacement in place.

The book beautifully uses the work of the American theologian, Walter Wink, to explore 'the powers'. Wink showed that we live under a system of 'domination' - the powers that were created good, are fallen and need of redemption. Every institution has an 'inner spirituality' that shapes its actions. An organisation, whether a church or a mining company or a bank, may indeed be composed of people, good, bad, indifferent, but its actions are greater than the sum of its parts and, thus, we can find ourselves struck by the paradox of 'good' individuals taking decisions that are bad (but out of our hands).

The first task of any campaigner after the good is to name and unmask the powers, to show how the consequences of collective actions tend towards negative outcomes, and awaken the conscience of individuals to collectively act after a redemption, to take a new course.

I am reminded of Wink telling of a church that for more than a hundred years (as its members' changed) had taken up, exalted, been disappointed in and spat out their pastor! The powers are formidable!

But Alastair shows how you can, creatively, engagingly, unmask the powers that be and find ways of shifting the dynamics of what is possible by helping people, individually and collectively, re-imagine their own possibilities. But you need to address people's spirits as well as their minds and materials. His book is a theology of community empowerment and as such is an unusual and necessary addition to how we see change happening.

My favourite moment must be Alastair giving evidence to a public enquiry (on an application for a super-quarry) with a prominent Free Church theologian and a Native American warrior. Three radical different spiritual arguments for reverencing nature undermining the inquiries presumption for 'rational evidence', not itself being compelling within the inquiry but generating such interest without the inquiry as to help swing the balance of public opinion against the quarry that ultimately proved decisive by helping people make a decision with their hearts as well as their minds and recognise that both give knowledge that it is important to honour.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The icons of Remedios Varo



The difference between fantasy and imagination is coherence. The 'imaginal' world (to use Henri Corbin's expression for the world poised between the transcendence of intellect and the flowing formations of sense) has a precision of signing that reminds you of language. This world is real, not a fantasy, even as it takes you beyond sense. Remedios Varo may have begun in the fantasy of surrealism, a liberation into the 'unconscious' but she emerged with her own defined world of the 'imaginal'. She represents a challenge to the traditional world of the 'imaginal', that is religious art, because her signs are not immediately recognisable within a tradition of making. They need both a more patient and individual approach (and they are often a gifted with a greater sense of humour) yet they are continually recognised as importing something known and as important.

As here above with the moon's light a dynamic presence in a sheltering, mystical wood, guarded by a feminine presence. The moon lives, and in living sways the moods and modes of human being.

Or as here below, where the shadow takes on the pre-eminent significance and the persona is left to trail as shadow. How accurate is this as a reflection on our continuing fate not to be the person we imagine and project but yet something other, drawn by forces that we do now acknowledge, do not know.


I think of her paintings as icons within a unique individual tradition that set us a task. No longer does our religious language set for us, immediately, effective signs. We are called to acts of patient, individual interpretation yet they bear, when seen, the same universal truths.

Time is strangely wonderful

Time is a River without Banks by Marc Chagall In Edwin Muir's poem, 'Adam's Dream', Adam beholds a vision of 'ti...