Friday, July 31, 2015

A Sunlit Absence

In the well-trodden path of Hollywood sequels, Fr Martin Laird's 'A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation' is not as riveting as his 'Into the Silent Land'
http://ncolloff.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/into-silent-land.html. This is, I think, one of the most exemplary introductions into the contemplative life, from a Christian perspective, that I have encountered.

Thinking as to why on the plane home this morning, I was struck by its opening Introduction, subtitled, Hedgehogs and Foxes. This is a reference to a famous essay by the philosopher and intellectual historian, Isaiah Berlin, on the philosophy of history in Tolstoy, that invokes the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Fr Laird proceeds to suggest that St Teresa of Avila is indeed a hedgehog, knowing one big thing, revisiting it continuously from different perspectives in her writings, with regards to the relationship between God and the human person, "it is all about love melting in love". "The union between Creator and creature is so utterly convincing that Teresa says it, 'is like rain falling from the sky into a river or pool. There is nothing but water. It's impossible to divide the sky water from the land-water."

This is so, and yet reading it, I felt a concurrent wish to uphold an abiding foxiness. We may be, in the ultimate grounding of our being, one. We may step into this ground in the heart of our contemplative experience, though as Laird beautifully notes, the actual practice of our prayer may not feel like this, and why this is so is gracefully explored, but the answering response to this disparity may not simply be: keep praying.

Laird is too wise and gifted a director of souls to say this but you do come away with the sense that this 'one big thing' will do most of the heavy lifting of transformation and I think that is a perspective in need of correction and that the complex, fox bound nature, of our actual, psychological and physical lives deserve their rights!

In Zen, this would be called 'polishing the stone', the task of cleaving to the unitary experience and the freedom it confers whilst working on the difficult task of untangling all the personal knots and obstructions that yet remain.

This reminded me of Robert Forman's wonderful book: 'Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be' that is a brilliant exploration, grounded in his own life and experience, of this 'gap' between spiritual awakening and personal transformation.

The former may attract the latter, creating space for it, but does not guarantee it. The structure of our consciousness: how we see and hold the world may be transformed - we live in a new spaciousness - but it does not guarantee a 'personality transplant' - that requires of us a different work, on the level of our own psyches and in relationships with one another - at home and in the workplace. (See here: -http://ncolloff.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/enlightenment-aint-what-its-cracked-up.html )

The hedgehog may know 'one big thing' but the bringing of that into the actual world of our lived lives, in the here and now, needs the acute attention and awareness of the fox that attends to the multiplicity of things, often living in complex contradiction with each other, that is everyday life. Love may be melting in love but will I remember to put out the dustbins?

[Putting out the dustbins is an image I carry ever since a friend in Oxford noted that living next door to a renowned author on spiritual intelligence did not guarantee that they would remember to put the garbage out, forgetfulness leading to unholy, unneighbourly smells]!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Founding archetypal psychology


Dick Russell, a journalist, who co-writes the volumes of Jesse Ventura, former wrestler and independent governor of Minnesota, maybe an unexpected author of a (first volume) biography of the founder of archetypal psychology, James Hillman, but his style, structured conversational, with a fine line in interviewing key figures, including Hillman himself, works beautifully (if lengthily, we are only half way through his life, at his key transition of returning to America, after over 600 pages)!

It is gifted at sketching the background - especially of a boyhood spent in Atlantic City and studying in Paris and Dublin in the 40s. You taste the ferment of existential Paris down to the compulsory black turtleneck sweaters and the exaggerated characters of Dublin that you might think imagined yet truly existed. I had thought that it was an exaggeration until my first trip into Dublin (from the airport) on a bus (in the 80s) and found myself in a spontaneous conversation with an elderly gentlemen on credit cards, usury and St Thomas Aquinas. Given Ireland's recent travails with banking and debt, it was, in fact, a prophetic conversation!

Hillman was the first director of studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich at a strikingly young age and, as an American, an outsider. This speaks to his gifts both intellectual and organizational but, whilst always honouring the tradition, he was to depart from the paths of Jungian 'orthodoxy'. This is a departure that might have encouraged (part of) Jung himself but not his worshippers nor, in later times, those Jungians who crave for 'clinical' or 'professional' credibility (as part of Jung himself did), and narrow the practice down to a 'fixation on one archetype' (to quote my own 'Jungian' analyst) and begin to sound strikingly psychoanalytic (just as that world too loses its grip on credibility - long winded, expensive and of uncertain medical outcome).

Hillman (but this is for volume two, in production) wanted to free the 'therapeutic' from the coach or the face to face chairs and liberate it into a way of seeing the world - as a vale of soul-making (to quote Keats as Hillman often did) - and away from 'healing as fixing' to 'healing as bearing dark as well as light, wounds as well as accomplishment'.

What would it look like if we re-inhabited the world seeing that every event partakes of an opportunity for making meaning and that everything in the world has its effect, nothing is neutral, not the arrangement of our workplaces nor the qualities of our architecture nor whether we walk, cycle or take a car to work. What is the story that each thing, person, animal or situation we encounter, tells? How do we relate to the story and how does it change our feeling state or sense of meaning?

Hillman was not given to highly valuing 'empirical science', not least because it leads too quickly to the generalized and the abstract, but I expect he might have smiled on recent research that your 'well-being and health' will be enhanced if you live in a street with trees or that the occupants of mental asylums tend to trash abstract art but leave landscapes untouched.

The last section of the book, however, deals with a sobering subject - his expulsion from the Institute. He had undoubtedly transgressed having had an affair with one of his clients: a fact he never hid (unlike many of his fellow analysts). It became, however, a lightening rod crystallising a whole interrelated network of conflicts within the (small) Jungian world whose hypocrisy was breathtaking and instructive. The cultivation of a 'conscious awareness' of psychological dynamics does not ensure you against behaving like a narrow-minded, self-interested fool. This can afflict anyone, anywhere, especially if in an exclusive group cultivating self-importance!

And, finally, somewhere Russell quotes Hillman about the nature of dreaming - an underworld we would rather not visit creates a sense of it eluding us - 'I never dream', 'I always forget', 'I should write them down' etc - but (in my experience) as soon as you pay them attention, they come, resonant and willing to be engaged (if always perhaps flirtatious, after all understanding must be won with a certain amount of effort).

It reminds me of something Metropolitan Anthony says of God - why would we imagine that God should pay us attention when we do not pay attention to God? Relationships are for attention and work, not spontaneous assimilation!



Saturday, July 25, 2015

Poems at bedtime



It is fascinating how habits form unawares. I cannot now remember when I decided that before sleep I should read poems and that I should slowly work through a collection yet it has become established. The timing determines the poems to be read seeking shorter rather than longer and if not simple with a translucence of image that can enter in, rest and abide.

My present bedside reading are the Collected Poems of Frances Horowitz (shown here) that are gems in themselves and perfect for the moment.

She died at 45 and, it so happens, the only poetry workshop I have ever attended was with Roger Garfitt who was one of her two husbands.

The volume is slim, only 120 pages, but of crystalline beauty. She writes of nature, of myth saturated history and the complexity of human relationships. There is a heart breaking poem from visiting her father, hospitalized, towards his end, when father and daughter confront each other in mutual perplexity still not knowing what word might be spoken that frees both.

But it is her reimagination of place and history that I find so beautiful as here in 'Brigomalos, a Christian, Speaks...'

    ' Some say they saw the Bull
stamping under the skyline
with the new sun rising between his horns.
They say the black blood flows like water...
   
     I don't believe them,
It was only the officers,
     never the men
(any god would do for us
      till the White Christ came).
They'd see anything, anyway,
stumbling out of their caves
dizzy with darkness and the stink of blood.

Strange how they thought they brought the light to birth.

    We pulled their temple down in the end,
opened it up to the proper light
-plenty of black birds flapping around
but never their Raven that flies to the sun.

    We have the Sun,
our Christ is the Son who is brought to birth,
He is the White Dove
     who walks in fields of light,
brighter than snow-light or water-light.
His light burns in us.
He has engraved our souls like glass
to hold the seeds of light.

    Those old gods should keep their place
under the dark of stones
or in the deep wood.
They should fade like the last wood-ember
or the last sputtering flame of the lamp,
be echoed only in children's songs.

   In sleep they crowd
riding the uneasy edge of dreams...'

A temple to Mithra has been dismantled and a new religion has come and in a compressed few lines we learn why.

It is democratic, open to all, and its light is white and is carried in our souls irrespective of ritual even if re-enacted in ritual. The old gods have been banished to the 'pagan', the pastoral, the outside of civilized boundaries and yet...

They return. The repressed invade the unconscious and haunt our dreams.

In a 'mere' few lines, she has the 'success' of Christianity, its attraction and its shadow, carried forward in time in the mouth of a new believer, and, held as hunting image for the reader. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

St Ignatius advises the Labor Party

When was it I wonder that politicians decided that a defeat meant that they should resign?

Nixon was serially defeated for the Presidency of the United States but did not resign himself to obscurity (though perhaps you might have wished he had)!  Gladstone, Churchill, even Harold Wilson kept bouncing back, returning to win, sometimes after monumental defeats - the Labor landslide of 1945 in the UK, comes to mind, booting out Churchill  even after he had 'won the war'! Why have politicians come to take defeat so personally (and why have we come to expect it)? All three 'defeated' parties in May's UK General Election immediately announced their resignation (though Nigel Farage recanted) plunging their parties into contests before even the dust, let alone the shock had settled.

It especially came to mind watching the Labor Party in the UK scrap over who its next leader should be and how 'everyone' in that party's establishment has taken fright at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn, eternal left-wing 'rebel', fronting the, highly unreliable, polls. If he wins we will be unelectable, they cry, for elections are won in the U.K. from the center. (Though, in truth, they are more often won by whoever can mass a sufficiently concentrated number of votes in the right constituencies under our rickety first past the post system and who best appeals to pensioners who are more likely to vote. 40% of actual voters in the May election were over 55).

This is before anyone in the party seems to have either come to terms with its defeat or understood why. This is a bad moment to be making a decision.

As St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits would advise - never take a major decision at a time of 'desolation'. He was applying it in his Spiritual Exercises to individuals, but I have no reason to imagine that this should not apply to collective bodies. How do you move from 'desolation'?

For St Ignatius, you return to your core value - the recognition that you are loved by God and that God is in the facts and, however, the appearance to the contrary the facts are kind (as Gerry Hughes SJ one of the great modern interpreters of the Exercises would put it).

Though the Labor Party used to be more Methodist than Marxist, turning to a recognition that they are loved by God might be a stretch, but they might try to rest awhile in what they perceive not as their 'policies' but their core values. For what and for whom are the Labor Party for? If those values matter, are in some sense 'eternal verities', then they are still there amongst the facts (and wreckage of a failed campaign) and transcend them. I suspect one of the 'kind' things the facts will reveal is that answering that question has become obscure and the narrative clouded.

So, St Ignatius would advise not embarking on a decision-making campaign but a retreat to ponder anew what are we for and who? Refreshed one hopes from this, then one could begin to discern who should be the leader, the best possible embodiment of their values, who, I suspect, will be better equipped to win elections and as an outcome, not as an aim.

They might find a party too, better equipped to answer the questions of the twenty-first century than refight the battles of the twentieth.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Maurice Nicoll and the work of truth


I first 'met' Maurice Nicoll anonymously. He was the unnamed psychotherapist to whom the editor of 'The New Age', A.R. Orage sent the poet, Edwin Muir, to on Muir's arrival in London. It was an analysis that Muir vividly describes in his own 'Autobiography' that prompted him to a series of extraordinary waking visions that sourced his poetry and gave him a lifelong attention to the revelatory nature of the dream. Nicoll, however, was more circumspect and suggested they discontinue the analysis, after all Muir was highly sensitive, and given the trauma of his adolescence, fragile. It was a decision Muir wondered at ever afterwards but, on balance, may have been wise.

Nicoll was a neurologist, who did important work on 'shell shock' in the First World War, and was an early follower of Jung. His book 'Dream Psychology' was one of the first books to introduce Jung to the English reading public. He is best known, however, as a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, having spent time with the former at the Institute in Fontainebleau and with the latter as a lifelong friend.

I have read his philosophical magnum opus, 'Living Time' see http://ncolloff.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/living-time.html

and his two books of esoteric exegesis of the Gospels - 'The New Man' and 'The Mark' (The former volume comes from the library of the novelist and playwright, J.B. Priestley, who was a friend of Nicoll's, and, who retired to my home town, from whence his library, on his death, was inherited by the local antiquarian and second hand bookseller and, thus, to me)!

I had possessed 'Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait' written by his long-time secretary, Beryl Pogson, for years but had never read it before, until now. It was obviously a labour of love and it gives a vivid picture of his life and character. One of the people quoted, having been a student of Ouspensky, joins Nicoll's study group on the Work and describes Ouspensky as the 'philosopher' and Nicoll as 'the family doctor' and that seems utterly apt.

Nicoll comes across as a highly gifted doctor of souls (and minds) whose very considerable culture is bent always to the practical: what will allow a person to live to their full potential? For this thought is necessary but no idea lives unless it transforms a person in practice. And you must be able to withstand the coming of an idea as well as understand it ( and here the example of Muir is instructive).

He is closer to Gurdjieff than Ouspensky in tone. He shares with the former his slyness and a sense of humour (though differently expressed) and delightfully gives much of his individual teaching (as the photograph suggests) at the local pub, pint in hand. My own first spiritual director - Sr Amelie - a remarkable French nun always used to drive me out (from Salisbury) to a lovely 'puub' for lunch to listen and respond, glass of red wine at hand. Akin to Gurdjieff, driving with her was an 'experience' - not for speed, Gurdjieff's passion - but for stopping abruptly, without warning, to admire some arresting glimpse of God's beautiful creation - a tree, a woman with a pram, the way the light struck the post office window! It was the same with Nicoll. There was no moment that was without the possibility of instruction or of sign.

There are many arresting moments in the book. One especially resonates namely a passage on Hitler. It is an extraordinary text, written in 1939, suggesting that the only valid approach to Hitler can be the one of a psychologist. Hitler has identified himself with the suffering of Germany to the extent that it has brought him to the point of paranoia. The only way through is to understand that suffering and that identification. Neither reinforcement nor opposition will change its character. The only way to change it is if you can find a way to show that it is understood. Nicoll never shifted from this view. Hitler was not mad nor evil but possessed by an identification. The consequences of which wrought disaster and suffering. Yet, like all of us, he was striving for the good that he knew and the suffering was real. If you argue merely that the interpretation of that suffering was wrong, you never free the person. It is not the interpretation (the content) that matters, first and foremost, but our identification with it (the how). Truth (and goodness) first are about the how of our holding truths before the what of a particular truth emerges.

The underlying question is how is it possible to be free of our identifications, whether positive or negative, for this is what falsity feeds on?

This would be genuinely revolutionary.

Imagine, for example, the recent debt negotiations with Greece if the room had been occupied by people free of their identification with their current truths, who held them as possibilities and yet were open to what might emerge; and, who could look at everyone in the room as their neighbour in a shared reality, equally trying to find a solution?

Think of how much work on oneself that this would require and how it could be helped by a community engaged in this common search and you have the inspiring notion of the Work that Nicoll envisaged (as well as, sadly, a realistic vision of whether it might emerge).

The invitation is always there and in Nicoll's books the processes for its acceptance are laid bare.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

The fragility of common homes

I recall a conversation with the then Archbishop in Skopje that proceeded on wholly civilised lines until a gear shifted and we found ourselves talking about Greece and the ongoing dispute about Macedonia's name. 'There are a million of us in Greece (Slavic speaking Macedonians) that is why they fear us,' he declared, eyes stalked, composure gone.

At the same time, an American friend holidaying on Patmos, tried sending me a postcard to my flat in Skopje. At the post office, the card was flung back at her: 'We do not send anything there!'

In the same period, buying a train ticket in Thessaloniki instead of asking for a ticket to Skopje, I said 'Macedonia' (the train only stopped once in the country on its way to Budapest). I obviously, realising my mistake, went pale but the ticket seller smiled and said, 'Do not worry! I am one of the few who do not care'!

I was reminded of these reactions reading Mark Mazower's 'Salonica, City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950'. This is an exemplary history of a city that managed to be a parable of toleration, one that is wholly realistic. For the whole period of its life in the Ottoman empire, its communities jostled along in imperfect relationship in which there was nothing utopian except it's flawed working!

And then along came competing national identities that allowed no space for multiple identities. You had to choose and searing conflict became inevitable.

In his evocative conclusion, he notes how nationalist histories are 'all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendezvous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny.' Whereas, in truth, the vast majority of Thessaloniki's population is barely three or four generations old in the city and before 1912, when the city was absorbed into Greece, the majority of the population was not Greek but Muslim and Jewish. The first were mostly transferred in the post- First World War 'exchange' with Turkey and that saw a major influx into the city of displaced Greeks from Asia. The second were deported and murdered by the Germans in 1943.

As I read, I could not but help think about Greece's present emergency and the crisis it brings to the European Union. For here too amongst the arcana of economic plans and financial deals (that most people appear not to understand including many of the people who are apparently meant to be addressing their challenges), is a conflict about identity; and, the failure of the Union to forge a sense of a common home, where in however flawed a manner, the preservation of the home triumphs over the separating identities of its members.

When the chips are down, we are apparently more Finn than European (exchange nationality at will)...

Mazower's book closes by noticing that all three communities in Salonica had given thanks to God for bringing them to or conferring upon them the city but his last sentence is, "Yet is it not said that where God is, there is everything?"

This reminded me that the EU's architects were essentially Christian Democrats who did believe that there was an identity that could bind beyond nation - a shared value set that was universal. It is a continuing dream, sorely being tested presently; and, yet it is a persistent one, that manifests imperfectly in history and is then dismantled. To re-emerge again one hopes, but how quickly do we forget!

Meanwhile, its care and nurture is no small task and I wonder whether the current guardians are up to the task - or even recognise its importance in a world distended by national and economic priorities. The pressing present crowding out any long term vision.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Beauty sits in imagined places

Ledbury Angel by Andrea McLean

The painter, David Jones, used to be invited by his patron, Helen Sutherland, to visit her in Cumbria. Her house was in a prominent but wild place as greatly removed from the passages of human history and story as it might be possible to imagine in England. He found it a difficult place in which to paint because of this absence of human history touched by myth, and both woven into the fabric of a nature shared.

I am reminded of this each time I see one of Andrea McLean's beautiful, luminous paintings, so intricately are they woven of the givenness of a place - that is both of a natural patterning and a place of human dreaming and story. They are imaginative maps and both of those terms are essential. Imagination as a seeing through the threshold of nature into another world which is, as yet, enfolded in this one, and a map because anchored in the particularities of a place. As here, an angel hovers embracingly over a place, Ledbury, that is not just any place or a no place, but is a particular town in Herefordshire, England.

Like her beloved Blake, vision does not take you out of your place but transforms it so you see it aright. Angels sit in the trees of Peckham Rye.

Sometimes I am led (and occasionally go myself) into the hallways of 'contemporary art' and usually emerge dispirited given that there are only so many one dimensional, clever concepts that I can absorb  - though I confess I can absorb Robert Ryan's white canvases with undiluted pleasure - or of video installations - only one of which, I can confess, to ever being able to remember - elderly naked women in a Hungarian Turkish bath their bodies inscripted with the burdens of age, hauntingly beautiful. But this, I realise, is not the whole story - art making of beauty and compelling meaning continues to be made (Andrea is a great example) but somehow passes the 'mainstream' assumption of what 'matters'.

The problem here appears often to be about the troublesome word 'beauty' banished as an evaluative category, not even perhaps belonging to the beholder's eye, wholly orphaned and yet, of course, it is the cornerstone rejected.

Beauty does indeed belong in the eye of the beholder, so we better get to work ensuring that our eyes see, that the doors of our perception are cleansed, and that beauty, rather than orphaned, becomes the recognisable starting point for appreciation. It would, if nothing else, allow our minds to relax and our souls to see.


A Memory of Mexico by Andrea McLean

Saturday, July 4, 2015

John, the beloved, long lived disciple





We meet them on a forbidding island, in banishment, as Diocletian's persecution flows around the Roman world. They are a band of exiled Christians, led by a blind man, once visionary, now ebbing tired. He is the Apostle, John, the beloved disciple. His followers cling to the hoped for coming of Christ but the waiting takes its toll. Alternative beliefs, skillfully manipulated, grow up to challenge John's leadership and schism occurs, Matthias leading most of the younger men into a gnostic cult, with him conveniently at its head.

Niall Williams' novel, 'John' grapples with the core question of how does love endure through the hardship of a necessary disillusionment - when Jesus fails to appear in the manners expected either in small miracle or grandiose Second Coming - and how does faith develop around story and community. Why is love shared ultimately enduring in spite of people's continue seeking of sign and confirmation?

Though it is not, of course, for everybody so the drama of the novel is both the exterior struggle over the abiding interpretation of the faith and Jesus' meaning and the interior struggle of remaining faithful, and developing faithfully, what one has received. Some of the best passages are John's recollection of his life with Jesus and Williams captures both the impetuosity of John's faith and its maturation under Jesus' liberating spell.

In essence, the answer is that of Dame Julian of Norwich that the meaning of Christ was love, a love held in spite of all, and the alternatives offered to John's witness continually fail this test. They are all in some way corrupted by power and do not come to settle and work themselves out in the complex embodiments of everyday life. (It was a fate in prospect for John's Gospel too, in the course of time, a continuous temptation). Williams very skillfully weaves the birth of what becomes John's Epistle, that extraordinary hymn to love as the measure of all things, out of a very believable scenario that of being a response to a fragmenting communion in danger of losing its way and in need of reaffirmation, a bolstering word.

It is a beautiful novel - delivered in Williams' high poetic style where the language lures you on in its singing and where the unexpected, marvellous, indeed miraculous can appear everyday and be believed.

John is renewed, and with the lifting of the persecution, returns to Ephesus to renew the faith from its reduced circumstance, and to a final confrontation with Matthias, and where, after a stroke, he decides to recite (and form) the words of the Gospel. There is nothing 'historical' in this account (though Williams has done his homework) but as an expression of a person come to a critical moment and the need to speak a final truth, it is beautifully and authentically wrought.

It could be true or, alternatively, its truth is in its imagination.

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