Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Pool at Bethseda

Arriving back from Israel/Palestine, I went to the Post Office to collect my accumulated uncollected parcels and the highlight was a second hand copy of the Hayward Gallery's 1985 catalogue of their Edward Burra show.

It is a balm for the soul. He is a strikingly accomplished painter with a unique, instantly recognizable vision.

First that each and every figure in his work is uniquely themselves and a character: personality exudes. He allows the people he sees their voice. He is noticeably a painter of bars, cafes, night life beyond the 'respectable' and paints with compassion, engagement and liking.  He paints 'blacks' at a time (has it changed) when they were the discriminated other in the very places of their marginalization without any trace of anything other than an equality of regard.

Second, and it is connected to the first, he is one of the most compelling twentieth century painters of Christ (as above). His Christ is one fully engaged in the world struggling after its healing, sharing in its suffering. His is a Christ that fully adopts each person; however, at the margins, and sees them at the centre of the life who he is.

Third he delights in the simple - a casual conversation on the street, a cup of coffee in a cafe as dawn breaks, a plate sitting on a table, tilted. What makes the world is converse, meeting and enjoying the texture of things. In Burra is no ideology beyond the compassionate enjoyment of the world.

A balm because it was the felt antithesis of my working trip in Palestine where others are seen as enemy, where the individuality of each unique person is easily flattened by the mechanics of oppression and the world is not a place of enjoyed pleasures, shared intimacies but to be shaped to ideological purposes serving the impositions of God or the exigencies of man.

Never more deeply  have I been encouraged to see Jesus option for those at the margins as the place from which you judge your own humanity and Burra as a painter asks you to do precisely this - to see anew people that do not mirror yourself, that are other, and to delight in their uniqueness. He was gay but solitary, endowed with the gift of friendship, and crippled with pain, made an observer, he imparted life in his observations.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wine not to buy from the wicked monks

The Cremisan Monastery that self-describes itself as juxtaposed between 'Israeli tower blocks and Palestinian luxury villas' (http://www.cremisan.org/index.html) in fact stands on land donated by Palestinians in the nineteenth century from a village slowly being encircled by Israel's new security fence.

The 'luxury villas' are, in fact, houses, belonging to Palestinian refugees who have seen most of the territory of their village illegally incorporated into Israel and whose property is often subject to demolition orders by the Israeli authorities (as they will not grant the permits that would give, even their school, a legal status). When having tried and failed to get a permit, the Israelis do demolish your home (or, in one case, your pigeon coup), they send you a bill, and if you do not pay it, you find yourself banished from such incidentals as access to health care! Many people apparently demolish their own homes (when all legal delay is expired) to save them the cost and the banishment.

The security barrier is presently under construction and, when complete, will both virtually surround the village and cut it off from its remaining agricultural holdings. The barrier has been moved closer to the village both so as not to run too close to the zoo in the valley below (presumably the animals were objecting to yet another fence obscuring their view of freedom) and so as not to encroach on the land of the monastery. Is this latter incidence a coincidence? As Private Eye would say, 'We do not think so' nor do the villagers. A suspicion that is given further confirmation by the fact that the monks are getting their own road so that they will not have to negotiate the security barrier. A side deal has obviously been struck to the detriment of the refugees, to the benefit of the monks, and if Jesus had not been resurrected, he would most certainly be rotating in his grave.

The Salesian Order to which these monks belong was founded by Don Bosco to work on behalf of the poor (especially children of the newly beggared industrial poor), that these monks can be so detached from their surroundings to believe that their neighbours are 'living in luxury' defies belief, that they collude with oppression is so beyond contempt that we need a new category for 'transcendent contempt'!

I suggest they get out of their wine vats, put on their sandals, take a short walk down the hill and visit one of the families in their 'luxury villa' preferably one of the outlying houses to the village which is going to get its own barrier. The main barrier cannot be diverted so this solitary house will have its own fence and manned gate (presumably). The mother of this family has been told that it might be an electrified fence which if her children touch it, they will die!

I wish I was making this up -as a Catholic myself, you do not know where to put your shame!

A walk in a divided city

There is a both a synagogue and a mosque on the same site, honouring the Patriarchs: Abraham, Issac and Jacob. It is the place traditionally held to be their tombs. The roots of Judaism are here. The foundations of Islam are here. They are in the centre of the city of Hebron, where David founded his renewed kingdom of Judea. It is a place charged with conflicting religious meanings and competing historical narratives. It is, thus, a place of violence.

In the modern era, two moments stand stark to opposing memories - the massacre of 1929 when 67 Jews were killed by Arabs (though more than 400 were saved by being sheltered by their Arab neighbours) and in 1994 when a Jewish doctor entered the Ibrahim mosque and killed 29 Muslims at prayer. Since when the site has been closely supervised with two different entrances - one for Jews (and as I found 'the rest') and one for Muslims. You quickly notice that the indignities of 'security' are preserved for the Muslims - the back, gated entrance, the intensified prospect of search.

It is the second largest Palestinian city on the West Bank (in the occupied territories). It is home to a cluster of Jewish settlements, occupied by those who settle from the most earnest of religious motivations: that to do so is to hasten the coming of the Messiah by ensuring 'the Land', the whole of it, is filled with the presence of the race.

I was given a tour by two former Israeli (and Jewish) soldiers from 'Breaking the Silence' (http://www.shovrimshtika.org/index_e.asp). This is an Israeli NGO formed by ex-soldiers, who have served in the occupied territories, and who oppose the occupation: both for moral reasons (that the control of the Palestinian community it represents is 'state violence') and for the harm it does Israel
itself - militarizing the country and eroding its own civil rights (and its long term security). To say this is a controversial (and minority) position to hold is an understatement.

That the tour was, in fact, remarkably balanced, even dispassionate, made it all the more effective, and affecting. You were confronted with the facts on the ground in a way that will continue to haunt.

I saw streets, so called 'sterile streets', where Palestinians could not drive, some where they could not walk, some where the front door of their houses as a result were barred and useless. A once thriving centre was reduced to an eerie quiet.

I saw where during the second intafada Palestinian gunman had, each night, fired down into the nearest Jewish settlement; and, from where the Israeli army fired into the Palestinian settlement, a fire designed to silence the gunman by overwhelming the whole community. A fire once directed by one of our guides. You heard of the intended randomness of house searches that unfold on a daily basis to keep the level of anxiety and fear at the appropriate levels synonymous with control. You heard of the success of this strategy and its accompanying tactics - Hebron is controlled. No one dies, mostly, days pass in an imposed calm - except for periodic bouts of settler violence, rarely if ever lethal, directed either at Palestinians or the Israeli police (but never the army).  As a counter-balance, you stood in the market place, at the memorial to people blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber. A market now closed.

Most moving and saddening was the direct testimony of the soldiers themselves of the erosion of their own morality, their own behaviours in fulfilling the obligations of occupation and the perceived defence of Israel.

All the way we were accompanied discretely by the police to protect us from the settlers. Our guides are 'infamous' in the area and seen as 'traitors' by the settlers. As it happens all we got was casual abuse from passers by who stayed safely in their cars. One woman calling out, "Hear the other side of the story. There were Jews here long before the Arabs came." This, as my guide acknowledged, is perfectly true. As a statement of history, it is indisputable but what does it add up to. If the descendants of the Canaanites were to materialize, pitch home in the midst of Hebron, and make a similar claim, would the settler depart? No, because then, of course, she could fall back on theology, after all 'God' gave the land of the Canaanites to the Jews!

It reminded me of a similar tour of Belfast that I had undertaken with a friend who was, at the time, working to bridge the barriers (and silences) erected by sectarianism.  Here were the same minute demarcations of territory, the same colourful grafitti of insult and threat, similar behaviours of intimidation by the army and the same competing appeals to history and to God!

It would be easy to despair after such a tour (as it was in Ireland) and though the Irish comparison is tempting, look you could say there was a perceived intractable situation that did move, here it did feel, viscerally feel, more engrained, more resolutely 'stuck' in deep rooted fears and anxieties, competing narratives and hostile claims.

I did notice how tempting it was to think of the settlers as 'crazies' or 'fanatics' (in my own mind, never in that of my guides, who though 'opposed' to the 'settlers' were never anything more than courteous in their descriptions of their positions, if critical of some of their behaviours). But this leads you into a cul de sac: it is a comforting effort at dismissal, a failure to understand. 

I was equally tempted to wonder that you should be careful what you pray for - the settlers might not receive the Messiah they were expecting. It was Martin Buber who translated YHWH as 'I am there as whoever I am there' or in other words God appears in precisely the way in which God chooses to appear and that manifold of appearances are always subversive of our narrowing fantasies. If at the heart of YHWH is justice, it is a heart that weeps over Hebron.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Riding in the Chariot: Not for everyone!

When Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' was first published, he records in his autobiography being telephoned one day 'out of the blue' by a person carrying a thick accent from somewhere in Central Europe asking him whether he wanted to 'go further'. He understood this to mean an invitation to more deeply explore the Kabbalah of which Himmelfarb (one of the book's central characters) becomes a student and whose imagery underpins the frame of the book itself.

White declined and it was only when he was putting the receiver down that he realized who the voice belonged to; namely, the relative of a friend, whom he had seen occasionally at social gatherings, out of place, carrying more than a flavour of the 'shtetl' and whose 'presence' had intrigued him. He was immediately filled with regret but equally felt that the moment of invitation had passed.

He possibly sensed that there is a significant difference between the intuitive, felt grasp of a subject for the purposes of making art and the steady, cumulative study and practice of a tradition for the purposes of holiness. A rightful distinction, I feel, but you have to wonder what future fruits might have be born out of such a collaboration.

'Riders' is the most penetrating study of evil that I know, and the most convincing literary attempt at portraying 'mysticism'. That the book takes risks with its material is clear: imagining convincingly a drunken re-enactment of the crucifixion in the yard of the Brighta Bicycle factory is only the highest of these, that he succeeds triumphantly is, to me, equally clear in fashioning one of the great novels of the twentieth century that is both utterly of its place and time, and by being so transcends it.

I love the marshaling of the lives of the four central characters into a meaningful whole, where each contributes to the gathered final sense of wholeness (even as they may fail in any particular action, in this our wounds can be a source of being blessed unawares). Each character is a bearer of a different quality: sense, intuition, feeling and thought - and each of these dimensions is both honoured and placed in dynamic relation to the others, and each character shares the vision of the chariot that binds them and yet makes them vulnerable to the world.

It is also extremely and caustically funny. White can have an eye that strips all our pretentions bare, dismantling our defensive social selves to expose us to a deeper potential freedom, that most of us, most of the time, fight shy of, at best!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Foxy Montaigne

'Man cannot make a worm,' wrote Montaigne, 'yet he will make gods by the dozen.'

This is quoted by Morris Berman in an essay entitled 'The Hula Hoop Theory of History' that reflects on our human capacity for conversion to the next new idea, convinced that we now have not an answer to a particular contextualized question but 'The Answer' that supersedes all previous answers (until, of course, the next Answer comes along)!

Montaigne is suggesting, I think, that rather than be humble in the face of reality, contemplating it in its complexity, enterprising after ways of seeing it that never foreclose, we are more comfortable with total solutions - better to create a god in our own image (or ideology) than contemplate the mysteries and actualities of a worm: that which is gifted, present.

I was talking to a friend on Friday who is a highly gifted consultant on organizational development (a description that comprehensively fails to do her justice) and she was lamenting how people would keep referring to the absence of a 'silver bullet' to resolve complex situations. 'This is such a complex situation, 'they would say, 'for which we have no silver bullet' as if complex situations are amenable to 'simple technical solutions or finding the answer' rather than needing to be lived into, and with, making adjustments towards more favourable outcomes, and continually adjusting on the way.

I am reminded of Isaiah Berlin's famous essay on Tolstoy's philosophy of history: 'The Hedgehog and the Fox' where the hedgehog knows one thing, the fox many. Certain thinkers (artists etc) wish to comprehend the world within a comprehensive system (hedgehogs) and others believe this is an impossible task, you can essay after the truths but never find 'the truth' (the foxes). Berlin wanted to argue that Tolstoy longed to be the former but the texture of his vision was towards the particular, the anomaly, the individual. He kept lapsing into foxiness!

Montaigne was of the fox's party and I find so am I. It may not be a question of finding the truth that sets you free but being freed from the need for 'the truth' that binds you up.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Off to Israel

My last visit to Israel was under the auspice of the World Bank to look at provision of micro-finance in the Palestinian territories. I duly wrote my report that was duly ignored. I did get a stream of queries for six months afterwards. None of which required me to provide an answer beyond a page reference to my prior report. I felt a career as a consultant to the World Bank was not one that was fruitfully pursued!

I vividly remember being so arduously pursued by an Armenian shopkeeper (of jewelery) that I had to take refuge in a bookshop (in the Old City of Jerusalem)!

Equally I remember a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where I noticed one of the ushers doing something unusual with his feet. He was dribbling an empty plastic Coke bottle to the head of a set of stairs, leading to a portion of the Church administered by a rival denomination, down which he surreptitiously kicked the said bottle! A vision of the religion of agape in inaction!

This time a first week is devoted to holiday (in the north of the country), the second to our six monthly management meeting, exploring 'fragile states' in Jericho, in what might be described as a 'fragile non-state' (namely Palestine).

I have absolutely no 'position' on the conflict (except a resolute belief in the bankruptcy of violence, perpetrated by whichever party). When I try to contemplate the realities of now, and the history that has woven now, I sense that the complexity refuses easy positions. I wonder whether that is not itself an invitation to solution. There is not, nor can be, a resolution of the injustices of the past and that seeking such is an exercise in futility. You can only seek to find a common standard of justice out of which to build a possible future.

This common standard (with a deep and abiding irony) is embedded in the inheritance of Abraham of the three faiths that bear that inheritance, each in importantly different ways. The sadness is both that we focus on the difference rather than the commonality and, in truth, prefer the egotistic identities of our histories to the call of transcendence that is the compassionate heart of our traditions.

The problem, as always, is that we do not take our traditions seriously enough or, more accurately, the call that is at the heart of our traditions.

I vividly recall a Muslim friend, a scholar of Sufism and inter-religious dialogue, asking an audience whether anyone could truly claim to be a Muslim: one who is 'islam' fully submitted to the will of God. To which the answer is probably no, and if yes that person would not claim that yes! His point being that none of us can truly claim the identity with which we justify our hostility to the other, their not being us.

It is the tragedy of our traditions that we refuse the freedom they offer.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mobile decay

Sitting on the train, the man beside me answers his mobile and explains that he is on the train and apologizes that he may lose his signal. He continues to explain the particular business problem in detail until mercifully his signal is severed. There is no consciousness of an apology to the person who he is sitting next to, for carrying out a 'noisy conversation' and disturbing his reading. It is an apparently trivial act of 'social violence'.

Ironically his neighbour (me) is reading an essay by the American social critic, Morris Berman, on a meeting he attended at the Independent Institute in Washington to discuss how America could withdraw from Iraq. A meeting (one Saturday afternoon) at which, Berman observes, half the audience were disengaged from the speakers, occupying their own space, and texting or answering e-mail! It would never have occurred to them that this disregard for others' space in pursuit of self-enclosed interest was mimicking at a micro-level the very attitude that America was exhibiting in Iraq, an exhibition to which they were (given the particular audience) vehemently opposed!

It is for this kind of observation - that our values (often seen in the minute particulars of our lives) are precisely the building blocks out of which we construct our wider actions - for which I value Berman. It was Blake who said that the good is done in minute particulars but the converse is equally true the bad is the consequence of a wide path made of micro-decisions.

I am sure that the man sitting next me would be affronted by the thought he was, in truth, being strikingly rude (given how acceptable such behaviour has become - technology always has consequences that require (and rarely receive) moral assessment) and I too find myself noticing moments of creeping moral decay in my own behaviours that will need attention!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Oscar Vladslas de Lubicz Milosz

An evening reading the poems of Oscar Vladslas de Lubicz Milosz (one of the more glorious names in the annals of literature). He was a distant cousin of the Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, whom he treated as a son. Born of a Russian father and a Polish Jewish mother at his family's estates in Belarus, he was educated by solitude and in France and chose to write in French. France became his home after the Russian revolution though he originally chose the citizenship of Lithuania and represented them as a diplomat at Versailles and subsequently.

His closest poetic antecedent is a writer he probably did not know: William Blake. He is a poet of visionary intensity who seeks to offer a different world perspective from that of scientific materialism. He evokes a world of symbolic meaning where everything is translucent to a sacred ordering.

I encountered him first in the third edition of Temenos and one of his aphorisms in particular has always sung through my mind:

"To be free is to have the power to recognize that the nobler one is, the less one belongs to oneself and that one can only give because one has first of all received".

It is once so simple and yet, of course, works on a number of planes  - we are given into being by multiple actors - divine and human - and we give to others more deeply from the gratitude we feel for what we have received. That freedom too is not freedom from but freedom for and that freedom is deepened paradoxically as our obligation to others' gifts deepens.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Job: a just man

For a dedicated agnostic, Vaughan Williams wrote some of the most strikingly beautiful religious music of the twentieth century both framed within the liturgy - his Mass in G - and within 'secular' settings as with the piece I listened to as I drove to visit my mother: Job: A Masque for Dancing.

When I was nine or so, my mother found me, to her great surprise, propped up in bed reading the Bible! A surprise doubled by finding that I was reading the Book of Job with fascinated incomprehension! I was engaging in sibling rivalry as my older brother had embarked on reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation (a task I believe he completed).

I have no idea why I chose Job but it was my first acquaintance with that haunting text that had so drawn the attention of my beloved Blake, as here, with Job's complaint:

Friday, November 5, 2010

A meeting that made a difference

Out of the multitudes of meetings endured few survive to the memory of the following week (or, I am afraid to say, day) but one in 1999 is deeply memorable.

I walked into the office of Chris Underhill, then CEO of Intermediate Technology Development Group, now Practical Action, in their grand (but practical) office in Warwickshire, with grandly delighting views of the surrounding countryside in search of ideas. I had been re-appointed as the director of WIN (now Andrews Charitable Trust) that acted as a 'venture philanthropy' fund (before this appellation was invented). We aimed to start new charitable ventures that tackled either new problems or engrained old ones in new ways.

Nobly Chris tried to interest me in ITDG as was his responsibility as CEO. I fear I had to disappoint him: we did not work with established organizations (unless spinning off a new, innovative structure). We parked ITDG and began a discussion on the challenges of mental illness, compounding people's poverty and being exacerbated by it, especially in developing countries.

It had been a theme privately pursued by Chris since his days as founder of Action on Disability and Development and his trustees' probably wise refusal to enter the field - physical (and learning) disability being enough of a complex task, now as then.

I was immediately engaged recognising people in poor communities who are mentally ill being potentially amongst the most marginalized (and stigmatized) of people. I was more deeply personally engaged because of my own, mercifully brief, encounter with mental illness.

Out of that initial engaged, engaging conversation came 'Basic Needs' that celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. From time to time, you realize as you navigate the cycle of meetings that from some conjunctions, extraordinary things can emerge. Thousands of people have accessed treatment, found or renewed livelihoods, discovered new lives out of the wide collaborative effort that flowed from that meeting.

You can follow one of the stories of people helped, that of  Lucy Akinyi Were, here:


Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  http://www.theppt.org.uk  and resonant with this rece...