Disappear so that genius can appear: Life behind the Mask.

When I went to the first Temenos Conference on art and the renewal of the sacred at Dartington Hall, one of the highlights of the program was a studio performance (with masks but no costume) of Japanese Noh drama with an accompanying lecture. I was transfixed. For two hours I sat (in their remarkably uncomfortable theatre) simply absorbed in the compelling flow of engaged feeling, bound in a ritual of gesture, sound, and music. This was surprising since most of my ventures to the theatre (before and since with notable, if rare, exceptions) are best characterized as ventures in patience, followed by disillusion!

Thinking it might be a 'fluke' of place and circumstance, the next year, I discovered a Noh troupe was in London and here I could experience a full, costumed, ritualized performance. No fluke, once more I was mesmerized and left the theatre a few inches from the ground, thinking, 'This is what theatre is'.  A world beyond simple naturalism, an archetypal world.…

Peaks and Lamas

The Wheel of Existence, 18th century, Eastern Tibet.
Marco Pallis was a myriad gifted man: a mountaineer, a musician, and a metaphysician. His book, 'Peaks and Lamas' is an enthralling account that draws on all three gifts.

It is, as the author forewarns at the beginning, a composite book where we literally climb to the limits of the sheer physicality and mental toughness that a mountaineering ascent requires; and, explore inwards into the subtlest dimensions of the human spirit. In the middle rests how both the topography and the religion of the Himalaya have shaped diverse cultures but, most importantly, the Tibetan.

The book was written out of two expeditions in the 1930s, neither of which, to Pallis' deep regret, involved permission to enter Tibet (that would come in 1947) but ones that both, in Sikkim and Ladakh, enabled him to taste the depths of place and tradition.

Tradition was a deeply important word for Pallis as a Traditionalist, a member of the 'school…

St Dorothy Day?

When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress in 2015, he chose to single out four 'morally exemplary Americans'. The first two were obvious, known choices; Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. However, the second two, Catholic choices, probably had many of the journalists present scrambling for Google search. They were the Trappist contemplative monk, Thomas Merton; and, the founder of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day.

None were chosen as moral exemplars of family life but of their social witness grounded in a living faith. This may have been part of Francis's point as he repositions the Church from a focus on the bedroom towards social action. They all remind us that to be an exemplar does not mean for us to be perfect.

Dorothy Day, for example, had, to put it in the vernacular, 'one heck of a life' that is ably told in John Loughery and Blythe Randolph's new biography, 'Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century'.

She was born into a p…

A hairbreadth decision, a lifetime lived under its shadow.

At the risk of turning this blog into 'The Claude Houghton Appreciation Society', herewith a fourth of his novels reprinted by Valancourt Books, 'A Hair Divides'.

Gordon Rutherford is an aspiring writer who in a split moment must decide whether or not to admit to the accidental death, in unlikely circumstances, of a recent acquaintance in fear that he will be accused of his murder. He decides not to, hiding the body, with fateful consequences. For twenty years, his undiscovered act follows him, reaping its ably described psychological consequences until an encounter with a third person, his acquaintance's female companion at the time, the book rolls to its denouement: with its potential for exposure, prosecution, and death - and yet hauntingly, in t…

Harrowing at every moment

"Half way along the road we have to go, I found myself obscured in a great forest, Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way."
So opens Dante's Inferno, the lines echo through the title and the opening pages of Claude Houghton's novel, 'Julian Grant Loses his Way' except in Grant's case the forest is rendered contemporary, we are in the West End of London in the 1930s; and, as we are to discover towards the end of the book, this is not a vision of the afterlife, it is a vision from the afterlife.

Grant finds himself adrift, on his way to a destination, yet unsure which. He stops off in the Metropolitan Cafe to drink a cocktail and gather his wits because the world has been behaving unwontedly strange. He has had a crystalline vision of memory - two people stand on a beach in Cornwall, looking out to sea. It is deeply familiar and he finds himself moving towards them to get a better perspective, to aid memory. As he approaches, he realizes that one of the…

A lake bound journey of liberation

On a visit to the monastery of St Naum, on the shores of Lake Ohrid, I remember standing alone in the small side chapel that houses his tomb. I was looking at one of the frescoed images of his life and meditating. Suddenly, an adjustment was made to the pattern of my breathing, and its association with the mantra, as if an instruction had been given from without, though silently. It was a micro-adjustment, so gentle and subtle, but one that gave me then, continuing now, a renewing focus. I only have to stand there in my imagination again to receive the helpful 'nudge' once more, to go more deeply into the breath of things.

It is that kind of place for those who recognize or are recognized by it, as Kassabova does, is.

It is at St Naum that Kapka Kassabova finishes her journey in her remarkable book: 'To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.' It continues and extends her reflection on borders of her previous book: 'Border: A Journey on the Edge of Europe'…

Yoga's surprising journey

When I learned Transcendental Meditation in my early teens in the 1970s, I kept it quiet from my peers for fear of appearing weird. A decade later, when helping to found the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT) to provide opportunities for inmates to learn yoga and meditation, the situation had not greatly improved. The work being fitfully supported within pockets of the prison service and looked upon with varying degrees of suspicion by its chaplaincy service.

Fast forward and the landscape is transformed - yoga is a multi-billion dollar industry and mindfulness is practiced in the boardroom. Happily too, the work of the PPT enjoys widespread support from the Prison Service, it appears to have entered the mainstream.

Yet too there is a legitimate concern with this explosion of interest. After all, is not yoga meant to be an exacting spiritual discipline enabling the practitioner to discover their fundamental, underlying reality as one with the Self that manifests all that is?

Not necessarily …