Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Marionette

The Secret Life of Puppets reminded me of Edwin Muir’s short novel: ‘The Marionette’ that can be read comfortably in an evening (and was yesterday). Muir was a great poet, a fine perceptive critic but, by his own estimation, a disappointed novelist. Re-reading this, his first, you feel that it was a road of great promise not travelled, diverted into the two later, more realistic, offerings that have their many merits but never cohere as a whole and do not, unlike here, show his poetic , imaginative gifts in their best light.

The central character of ‘The Marionette’ is Hans who is, in the language of the day, feeble-minded. His birth was attended by the death of his mother and his father has retreated from him both because of his disability and for the painful memories his presence and his wife’s absence entails. Hans grows up in his own world, touched only by the sufferance of a succession of nursemaids and the pragmatic, compassionate, if uncomprehending, help of housekeeper, Martha.

Until one day, on his teenage birthday, Martha presents Hans to his father, demanding the father’s acknowledgement.

What follows is the journey of both of them towards a place of reconciled understanding and the medium through which this is obtained is first Hans engagement with his dolls and subsequently with the much more alive reality of the marionettes of Salzburg’s famous puppet theatre.

Whereas the dolls could be seen, in Winnicott’s terms, as ‘transitional objects’ enabling Hans to negotiate a precarious sense of connectedness between his self and the outer world (often perceived by him as threatening), the marionettes open up a wholly new space of ‘imagined reality’ with its own dynamic and logic – another world enfolded in this one, with its own inherent draw towards wholeness – a draw that, however, necessitates suffering and illumination on both Hans and Martin, his father’s, part.

I am tempted to see this as a progression from Freud to Jung! One offers a perilous, ever-negotiated grasp on a reality that is at some deep level disappointing (or heroically stoical, depending on your point of view). The other offers a pattern of integration that is by no means cost free but which fundamentally sees the world as saturated with meaningful order into which we are invited to participate. The first might be a necessary disillusionment – Hans wants to be the master of his dolls and manipulate their world and they disappoint. The marionettes are their own imaginative world and even Hans startling attempt to break into their mystery by crucifixion (of his formerly beloved but fundamentally uncontrollable Gretchen marionette) cannot subdue. The imaginal can only be participated in on its own terms.

It is a beautifully realised fiction that has many of Muir’s signature elements – a paradise lost and regained in a deeper, more conscious appropriation achieved through journeying that is both interior and exterior; of the healing nature of dreams and that it is the imagination that is the faculty of both empathy with others and a faculty that can tease one out of thought with images of eternity. It is a faculty that connects you both with the world and beyond the world.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Secret Life of Puppets

Wandering along a street in Edinburgh last October, I found myself wondering why we were so obsessed with vampires whether being slain by Buffy or lingering doe-eyed in the twilight.

The next day I went to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (and their fabulous Surrealism show) and picked up a copy of Victoria Nelson’s ‘The Secret Life of Puppets’ that now, belatedly read, provides a partial answer.

Nelson’s argument is rich and complex (and does not focus on vampires). It argues, with a rich tapestry of supporting example, that, "In the current Aristotelian age the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognized boundaries of religious expression". Our "repressed religious impulses," in a secular society, can be found in "fantastic novels and films." Hence, she writes, "we can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways that human simulacra—puppets, cyborgs and robots—carry on their role as direct descendents of graven images in contemporary science fiction stories and films".

Along the way to this conclusion, the reader is given a primer in neo-Platonism and the Hermetic tradition, an incisive glancing account of its breakdown in the Renaissance and burial in the Reformation; and, what happens to the ‘repressed tradition’. On the surface the insight it carries is split – the positive awe at creativity in the world passes to the artist (most especially in his Romantic incarnation) and the negative fear passes to the ‘scientist’ whose knowledge is welcomed but its consequences often feared (enter the ‘mad scientist’ whose creations turn on humanity, Frankenstein’s creature being only the most prominent example). Underneath the surface, the ‘daemonic’ – the notion of a reality beyond that which is sensed – because demonised (most especially in the Protestant world) – the supernatural, outside the prescription of churches, in a secularized ‘west’ becomes the Gothic , the ghostly and the horrific.

Like all good arguments, you can think of counter examples – the nineteenth century is home not only to the gothic but also to spiritualism – the contacting of the bereaved, but usually friendly, dead (though Nelson, I expect, would argue that this was a particularly ‘Aristotelian’, empirical approach to the other world, to immortality that flattened and sentimentalised it ).

But, on the whole, Nelson’s is rather gripping, always erudite, account of where these repressed desires go and how mainstream secular culture tries to frame them in ways that make them acceptable but ultimately unreal – it is a ‘projection’, he was ‘mad’ while assaulted by visions, is this real or is she dreaming being three of the most obvious.

The last chapter of the book, "The Door in the Sky," makes her case most explicitly. She argues that contemporary ‘secularized’ societies, both American and European, are moving away from Aristotelian rationalism and back toward Platonism. This "new sensibility does not threaten a regression from rationality to superstition; rather, it allows for expansion beyond the one-sided worldview that scientism has provided us over the last three hundred years". This shift in sensibility, Nelson holds, offers nothing less than "the exciting moment of opening up" "that is ushering us into a new Renaissance—not so much a technological one (our overvaluing of technology, like our exalted notions of materialist progress, is part of the perversion and displacement of the religious impulse) as one of expanded intellectual and artistic possibilities." It is, she concludes, "precisely . . . when we become completely conscious of the boundaries of the worldview we have comfortably inhabited for several centuries that is also, inevitably, the moment we abandon it".

Her evidence for this is fascinating – not only does the language of cybernetics, virtual reality and the aspirations of artificial intelligence mimic neo-Platonic tropes – the real world behind the world of the senses, the world of the senses shaped by primary forms that are transcendent to sense, the aspiration for immortality carried by the ‘idols’ that are androids, cyborgs, dematerialised intelligences – but the ‘daemonic’ slowly returns as a bearer of light, not only dark.

That returns me to vampires, not an example that Nelson herself uses, from the unremitting to be feared of Bram Stoker to the more complex bearers of light and shade in Twilight –not only do we perhaps dream of vampires as bearers of a displaced wish for immortality but we want our vampires as redeemed or the glimpsing potential of it at least.

Along the way in Nelson’s book are strewn many pleasures – the critical ability to assess both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and why (following Chesterton) both are necessary, even when flawed; the difference between ‘repetition’ as a necessary component of folklore and ‘repetition’ as a failed attempt at confronting necessary truths; and, a beautiful, erudite skewering of Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ as a defence of Aristotelian empiricism.

The final accolade of any criticism is that it returns you to the works explored (and the world explored by them) with new eyes and Nelson’s book most decidedly achieves this. Most notably it asks you to recognise that the way we deploy certain aspects of popular (and high) culture is what the sociologist of religion Peter Berger would call ‘rumours of transcendence’ – that the desire for transcendence and the hope for immortality is deeply necessary (whatever the truth of their final subject) and they do not go away simply by being disbelieved.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Way Back

Peter Weir's latest film is unusual because it treats of the gulag. You are used to prisons on film (in the 'West') and prisoner of war and concentration camps but the realities (and meaning) of the gulag is little explored.

All three forms of imprisonment are represented here: ordinary criminals (with their privileged status),  captured Polish soldiers seen as politically dangerous and Russians (and others) accused of varied political acts - from espionage to sabotage.

The darkly surreal nature of imprisonment in Stalin's paranoid purges is lightly but effectively sketched. Infinitely more difficult is showing the hardships of gulag life: you simply cannot act yourself into that level of stripped, humiliated degradation and physical suffering.

What the film principally achieves (beyond Weir's signature ability to make you feel land (or sea) scape in its inexorable indifference to your (man's) purposes) is showing the endurance of the escapees. On they walk across Siberia, across Mongolia and the Gobi desert and into Tibet, the three survivors finally arriving in India and freedom more than a year later.

One reviewer complained that they do this with no more inter-personal friction than he (the reviewer) has experienced on an afternoon hike with friends. But that I think (dear obtuse reviewer) is the point.  The American prisoner (and yes there were those in gulag, lured by Stalin as propaganda during the Great Depression, and swept up in the maelstrom alongside everyone else) remarks on the leader's (a young Pole's) kindness and how it may be the death of him (a remark, in different forms, he makes more than once).  This is the point, I feel, it is precisely that robust kindness that rather than be the cause of death is their salvation. He is able to keep everyone - even the 'actual criminal' escapee - attached to a common mission with a necessary zeal of shared hardship endured.

There is a telling moment at the Mongolian border where the criminal (played by Colin Farrell in need of an accent transplant) stops and will go no further: he cannot leave Russia. It is (the) prison he knows and his identity is too bound up with being just that - a wider freedom is not for him.  It is probably too much to note that he is the only Russian amongst the escaping prisoners - and the other potential Russian escapee, stays behind in the gulag, though sustained by the fantasy of escape, he cannot make the actual one real. It is implied that freedom is a fragile good, once tasted not easily forgotten, but if absent long enough, the will for it withers.

The film is necessarily too long: you have to glimpse the distance (in time and space) somehow; and, the scenery through which they pass is hauntingly beautiful (and when we get to the Mongolian border, for me, deeply nostalgic).

It is not the best of Weir's films but maybe it may set a trend and encourage others to explore and bring into the light a reality of our past history, whose oldest survivors now pass away, and which contemporary Russia still does not know how to treat.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Holding identities

First, before we get started, I am wondering what in the content of yesterday's post, 'The Atom of Delight' launched such a positive stampede of 'interest' from Pakistan! A mystery! A secret valley of Neil Gunn lovers exiled to the Hindu Kush!


To include a copy of Christ Mocked to a Christmas greeting might be seen as the first glimmerings of onrushing senility: confusing my festivals!

But it is a testament to one of this year’s most compelling moments: a guided tour through Hebron with two former Israeli soldiers both of whom had served in this deeply divided city during the period of the second intifada.

The tour began at the tomb of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over which has been built both a synagogue and a mosque. They have separate entrances for Muslims (round the back through the security screening) and for Jews (and Christians and others…though one of our party’s ‘Hindu’ status created category confusion in the young Israel soldier questioning him)!

This questioning sparked different reactions in the party, some like me had walked on, ignoring the soldier’s interrogation, including Mamadou (Mohammed) from Senegal , some answered his questions politely and affirming their non-Muslim status were allowed on, others refused to participate in this act of separation, perceiving it as unjust, and walked back towards the bus. The very reality of having these choices differentiated us from the local Palestinian community (around the back, through the revolving gates, and the searches).

I was tempted to imagine what would Jesus do (not I confess a usual temptation) – as a Jew he could have had a hassle free entry to the synagogue but you can only imagine him identifying some non-violent provocation that illuminated the stark injustice. Insisting, as a Jew, that he would go around the back with the local residents, who, though in the majority, are the most marginalized by the grim realities of living in their land occupied and subject himself to search.

The option that bears witness to humanity, that what counts as humanity, is identifying with the world when and where it is most absent. Christ is mocked at Hebron because it is a place where humanity is denied.

To be fair, since not one of us is free from sin, our guides were scrupulously fair and gave account of Palestinian violence directed at settlers (however, both they [and I] would recognize the sheer disproportionate balance of violence, lying currently towards the Israeli side; and, that the settlers themselves lives are conditioned by systemic acts of aggression against their neighbours).

The sorrow of Hebron for me was that our identities had captured our humanity distorting it out of shape, allowing it to certain people and not others; and, of course, this is precisely what we have done to Christ, making of his humanity, that essential reminder of our own, not an invitation to a renewed community of love and compassion, but into a religion: Christianity, one more identity to burden ourselves with. Identities ought to be fun differentiators – masks that disguise and reveal – that spice variety into life, that colour the light of our one humanity, made in God’s image and likeness, instead we tend to carry them as weights of significance, weighed down to brokenness.

The choice of Edward Burra is equally deliberate. Here was an artist that lived at the margins – gay, single, wracked with pain, equipped with a great gift for friendship, he was a consummate observer , an observation often satiric and witty but ultimately strikingly compassionate and embracing. Some of his finest paintings are of people his own utterly respectable upper middle class white identity ought to have recoiled from – street walkers, shady people of the night, blacks. He embraces them all and celebrates them – both what makes them uniquely themselves, strutting their happy, carrying their unhappy identities – and their common humanity, caught in a compassionate eye.

It is an eye hard to cultivate – but our Christ mocking earnestly want to put it out – but we need its naked, vulnerable innocence and its resilient edge more than ever – and it is ‘our’ eye as these two poems of ‘incarnation’ of Angelus Silesius makes clear:

“Hail Mary!" so thou greetedst Her:
Yet, Gabriel, what doth this avail
To me, unless thou likewise come
And greet me with the self-same "Hail!"”

“I also am God's Son. I sit beside His knee.
His Spirit, Flesh and Blood are known to Him in me.”

Let us carry our many identities this year lighter, sassier, with more fun, and more translucent to the light of the Son that we all carry within and without and beyond!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Atom of Delight

The Atom of Delight’ is Neil M Gunn’s autobiography , though an unusual one, like Jung’s it focuses on the unfolding of his ‘inner’ life: His realization of an ‘essential self’ that transcended his everyday patterning of identities. It is a realization grounded in experience, key moments of illumination, that polished in reflection, transformed his way of seeing, allowing the world to rest in its creating, transfiguring light. The sheer ‘normality’ and simplicity of these moments, many rooted in childhood, and affirmed later are striking: breaking nuts by a burn side and ‘coming’ on himself doing it, witnessing himself in the naked sense of ‘being there’, what Gurdjieff would call, ‘self-remembering’. Gunn wanted to avoid and evade any charge of ‘mysticism’ as ‘fuzzy’ or ‘esoteric’ and he took markedly later to reading and contemplating Zen precisely for its matter of fact, embodied quality. Realization is seeing that there is another world but it is wholly enfolded, enfolds this one.

I have been reading Gunn’s biography (by F.R. Hart and J.B. Pick) and one of the affirming delights is to discover that all the key illuminating experiences woven into my favourite novel (thus far as I am happily ploughing through the work with that special pleasure of discovering a new companionable author) ‘The Well at the World’s End’ are either autobiographical or related to Gunn by a trusted friend. In the novel, they have the texture of the imagined real, of authenticity, and here, in the biography, this is confirmed.

‘The Well at the World’s End’ is both a book about spiritual liberation that each individual has to come to by him or herself (and one of Gunn’s companionable books, unsurprisingly, was Hesse’s ‘Siddartha’) and the renewal of a marriage, a renewal grounded in being offered the opportunity to go away in self-discovery that deepens the realities of return.

The sadness of Gunn’s life was that he lost his readership. His early (and possibly deceptive) social realism – novels rooted in Highland life of great incident – the clearances, the drama of the fishing boom – won an audience that was bewildered by the inward turn (that was implicit from the outset) and the biographers’ speculate (as did Gunn) from his desire to bear witness to the light – to the upside possibilities of what it means to be human at a time (the 40s and 50s) when, especially in Europe, there was both the confrontation with the ugly realities of the downsides of human beings and an urgency in the arts to confront the ugliness (as being the site of what is ‘real’)!

He was ripe for a 60s rediscovery but by that time his books had mainly fallen out of print and his brand of mysticism was not as arrestingly exotic for that generation as Hesse’s or Huxley’s but you do feel more deeply grounded in actual experience, and more measured in its embodiment.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


An uncanny day where every significant inner thought met a virtually instant (un-caused) external response!

The last example - eating my supper, thinking I must be more social (I have been a mite eremetic of late, an old tendency) and my mobile phone immediately flashes a text with an invitation to the carol concert at Christchurch this very evening!

I was reminded of an eight day silent retreat I took at St Bueno's when this phenomena got utterly out of hand. My favourite occasion, in this instance, was telling my director that though I liked our music at mealtimes, perhaps we could have a variation from the storms and stress of nineteenth century Romanticism (not wholly conducive to the cultivation of attentive silence)!

On my walk that afternoon, I found myself with Elgar's Cello concerto resonating in my mind (which is not untinged with late Romanticism) and there it was at dinner, on the turntable, accompanying the meal as if summoned by magic. The whole week was like that: stumbling over significant coincidence.

It does have the effect of making you feel cradled or, at least, that you are attentive to your own unfolding life in a way that appears to confirm you are on 'the right track'. Heartening.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Of monks and 'me's'

Watching 'Of Gods and Men' brought back to me vividly that for a long time the 'insanity' (as Dom Christian de Cherge calls it in the film, at one point) of the monastic choice was my question. The one that shaped and conditioned my choices even as it remained implicit. 'There is a place I cannot go in you,' one very close friend told me once, 'It is occupied by a lover I cannot compete with'! It was true.

In the film, the doctor-monk is talking to one of the young women who helps at the monastery. 'How do you know you are in love?' she asks; and, the old monk tells her. 'Have you ever been in love?' she gently challenges. 'Yes,' he replies, 'many times until I surrendered it for a greater one.' (I think I would say different and including).

When my question finally became explicit, tested against an actual community, and the answer, mutually arrived at, was no, I feel rather than turn away in either disappointment or relief, that part of me occupied by 'Presence', by God simply went blank, a 'service interruption of the soul', put on hold.

Manifold have been the joyous discoveries with this question answered, a freedom in life that has been liberating and challenging but the Presence has returned. The 'me' to whom it has returned seems different from 'me' whom it left: one indication being how remote from 'me' that monastic option now seems. I looked on at is loving description in the film with gratitude for its existence but realizing that the forms of my piety have become different; not least, in taking loose from any institutional formalization. My attempts at making anything other than a 'mere' Christian of myself, and then a poor one, seem at an end.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Of Gods and Men

Imagine you are a teenage girl on a bus, thinking you usual thoughts, as it carries you from school to home, and you are stabbed to death because apparently you are not wearing the 'hijab' which your murderer believes you should. Now imagine that your murderer may not have believed this, but only wanted the wider world to believe that this was his motivation. He is an agent provocateur of the security forces of an embattled state that wishes to full blacken its enemy, hoping to alienate the 'people' from them.

This was the reality of the Algerian civil war that erupted after a second round of elections were canceled in 1991 after the first were won by the Islamic Salvation Front. It was a strikingly brutal conflict where nothing was as it appeared. An army roadblock might be a 'terrorist' one, the 'terrorists' in disguise but who, more deeply, are terrorists and who the army? In all more than 160,000 people were killed including the seven Cistercian monks at the Monastery of Notre Dame at Tibhirine of which this compelling film treats.

The film beautifully evokes the monastic life of a poor monastery, close to its Muslim community, assisting the villagers in diverse ways - as creators of employment, as managing a dispensary, as sharers in poverty. The film's slowness works effectively, enabling you to glimpse the reality of these men, their different textures, abilities, outlooks. Since you know the story's end: seven of the nine are going to die, it does manage to allow you to sense the gathering tension as the situation around them worsens and their safety becomes more greatly imperiled.

Most importantly it helps you to see why they stayed. At the outset I (as a natural coward) found this hard to imagine. I was with the monks who wanted to depart, as a majority did at the outset. The authorities most decidedly wanted them to go, though not, critically, the villagers who saw them both as part of them and as a possible protection - both spiritual and material - from the gathering storm.  They did not seek martyrdom, short of leaving, and sought every path to avoid it (as did two of the monks at the end by effectively hiding away).

Ultimately they did not leave because they were convicted of a two-fold identification: with Christ who did not refuse the cup of suffering that He was offered and with the villagers, with whose lives of poverty, they were so intimately bound.

Though the film effectively focuses on the monks, it does do so at the cost of either truly seeing the lives of the villagers they accompany or a wider picture of the conflict that engulfed them. The former is truly a flaw, the latter ultimately works to great effect, as it gives you a feel of a conflict that, in truth, at some deep level was not, at the time or since, truly comprehended.

At one point Dom Christian, the community's head, is talking to one of the monk's who is most wracked by the anxieties of staying and compares the insanity of staying with the original 'insanity' of choosing to be a monk. Both are choices that 'the world' has difficulty comprehending but genuine Christianity has always been a choice of foolishness.

There is only one moment when you suspect your emotions as viewer are being overtly manipulated. It is near the end, what is portrayed as a final meal, when one of the community has returned from a trip away. The monk who runs the dispensary brings out two bottles of wine and places in the tape recorder a recording of Swan Lake so that the meal might not be accompanied by reading (as would be traditional) but music. The camera dwells on the faces of the monks resonantly as the music unfolds. It appears too 'sentimental' or 'contrived' to be true - but was apparently in fact, sometimes fact behaves like fiction (or perhaps good fiction is simply recognizing the heightened, patterned nature of reality)!

The monks were taken apparently as hostages by an Islamasist group to negotiate with the French government the release of one or more of their own - though virtually every subsequent step and how they actually met their deaths is a mystery.

I can only end with Dom Christian de Chergé's extraordinary letter anticipating his death and forgiving his future murderer. It has become a classic text of witness.

"If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.

This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!

And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Being a genuine fake

Thinking of Merton that extraordinary energy of a man: monk and writer. A hermit who craved company; vowed to chastity, given to falling in love; and given to silence and charged with the burning need to communicate.

There is an essay by Alan Watts, a contemporary of Merton's, equally living in paradox, called, 'How to be a genuine fake.' I cannot remember its specific content but I have adopted it as a category of my own. I recall in Kuala Lumper being offered a 'genuine fake Rolex' and when I asked the difference between 'fake' and 'genuine fake' - I was told that the latter would actually work!

To return to Merton he strikes me as a' genuine fake'. A man with a real taste of the contemplative heart, a profound grasp of its intellectual credentials, articulate in its promotion and defence and yet by virtue of his position (and the projections of others) carrying a saintly image that often cost him his humanity, and the possibilities of his transformation. He was a victim of his own articulateness (as many of us are, especially me).  The modern world tends to imagine this as 'hypocrisy' but that seems to me the product of an impoverished sense of aspiration: we tend to outrun our own best selves - they are slower to engage - but that does not imply we should not try to embody them, and possibly in acting them out, imitating our best selves we move closer to them!

I remember lunching one day with Rembert Weakland, then Archbishop of Milwaukee, Benedictine monk and present at Merton's untimely death in Bangkok. He made a compelling contrast that day between Merton and Dom Bede Griffiths, monk and pioneer of a contemplative Christianity at home in Asia, infused with a deep response to Hindu patterns of thought and experience. This contrast was to suggest that it was Dom Bede who was the 'genuine article' that the wholeness/holiness that he represented went deep and permeated the whole of him. He was a man without sides.  Merton saw deeply but his seeing continually outstripped his capacity to absorb what he had seen and allow it to leaven him with new life.

The difference may have been of approach that Dom Bede peeled away slowly the layers towards the truth, each time shedding a confining skin. Merton went to the centre, plunged,  and the confining layers resonated with the centre tasted, loosened but not stripped away.

Maybe it was only a matter of time, Dom Bede's life was long and slow and held in a continuous frame of human warmth. Merton's life was broken by early loss and an accidental death when he was at the threshold of new life as his great experience at Polonnaruwa makes clear. This from the Asian Journal (the full text of which I would like read at my funeral)!

"I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika,* of sunyata,** that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument. (* the middle way; ** the emptiness of form)

The thing about this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no "mystery." All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya*… everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely with Mahabalipuram** and Polonnaruwa** my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. (* the eternal nature of life; ** ancient towns in India and Sri Lanka, respectively)"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.

Thomas MertonCertainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift."

From 'Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander' by Thomas Merton

To which the only response is simply: yes!

On drinking a glass of wine

Drinking a glass of Gewurztraminer in celebration of good news from a critical donor (as if I needed an excuse), I was happily reminded of my first encounter with this Alsatian wine that has become my favourite. It was not sampled first in some street side Strasbourg cafe but in a German restaurant by the side of I-94 near Kenosha in Wisconsin, near one of the great 'outlet shopping' centres in the mid-West. Wisconsin is a state that was greatly populated by German immigrants in the nineteenth century; hence, the brewing industry of Milwaukee, a short drive north. The wine was a recommendation of a dear friend, and Dominican friar, Don Goergen, whose family origin is Alsace.

From a glass of wine at a particular restaurant to the reason for being in Wisconsin: a six month sabbatical at the Friends of God Dominican ashram (then in Kenosha, now in Adrian, Michigan) settled by the shores of Lake Michigan and a long stretch of public park down to the harbour and its lighthouse, the repeating target of my daily walks.

It was a small community, three friars and a sister when I arrived, dedicated to renewing a contemplative dimension to Dominican life and to the wider community, beyond denominational boundary. It was a place of virtuous hospitality, simply offered, that rapidly welcomed me to its heart.

I expected that in my six month break - I would rest, advance in my reading and settle into a pattern of liturgical life that would be nourishing and restorative. I found in truth an intensity of silence that reignited wonder, a sense of being at home that was deeply restful and a dream life that went into overdrive - having no responsibilities beyond cooking on Thursdays was the only way I could navigate the drive of my unconscious!

In my first week I was lying on my bed one afternoon 'focusing' (a way of paying attention to the felt sense of your deepest needs) on what I hoped for from the sabbatical. An image arose that creased me in laughter: of God as a large, elderly man with a long flowing white beard, leaping with bounding strides from cloud to cloud, bearing in his hands giant florets of broccoli, and in a booming voice declaring, "Nicholas, Nicholas, behold the broccoli of God"!!!

It reminded me of George Herbert's poem: Love III

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 answered, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the 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.

The striking first line: Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back captures a deep reality: that it is the invitation to our graced freedom that is the most difficult gift to accept. The uncertainty of that freedom, and what it might ask of us, held against the safe  boundaries of our certainties; however disfiguring and confining, they are 'ours', often have I felt it, my resistance - to sitting and tasting my ever present, much neglected, freed self.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Garrow's Law

Based on the pioneering eighteenth century lawyer, William Garrow, this BBC series though it follows all the expected pathways of such programmes (a tortured love interest, backroom corruption by the elite and an implausibly noble lead) is wonderfully compelling.

It has a highly literate script that does give you the feel and texture of eighteenth century speech, context and mores. It powerfully evokes the difference between then and now - a child hung for thieving pennies, slaves thrown overboard as they are seen as chattels and the offence of sodomy as a capital one.

You find yourself giving thanks for progress and then are brought up short.

You recall the street children of Bogota who each night took shelter in drainpipes and sewers lest the police 'solved' the problem they represented by killing them (as I remember from a visit in the mid-90s). You know that somewhere now a leaky vessel, packed with migrants, illegals, is being transported across a treacherous sea. You know that in many countries sodomy remains either a capital offence or an imprisonable one.  

The world does progress - but fitfully and in fragility - our humanity is quickly unwound under pressure but Garrow's life is happy testimony to the worth of trying: of lighting a candle and not debating whether it will dispel all darkness. It will not but the light will be cast and some of the world will be illumined if only for a time.

Drinking deep at the well

I finished Neil M Gunn's 'The Drinking Well': stepping out of its world with the reluctance of leave taking.

It is a beautiful novel of one young man's awkward awakening and precisely captures the slow, stop-go, forward-back nature of growing awareness.

There are wonderful set pieces - herding the hoggs (yearling sheep) back through a late winter storm in which every detail is well-wrought: the effect of cold on the body of man, dog and sheep; how snow falls in deceptive blankets that yet with time and experience can be read; and, how close stalks death in such elemental encounters and how it can either spur or sap will.

As with all Gunn's work there is both a political edge, explicit here, about ownership of land and the depredations of landlords; and, a metaphysical subtlety that, as it developed, rather bewildered his readership, used to his earlier social realism.

Here it is partly carried by Mad Mairag - the local eccentric who speaks as easily with the dead as the living and who owns a well of crystalline water whose attraction acts as a 'metaphor' of Iain's (the main character's) desire for the land - that the land be a place that could be worked fruitfully rather than fled but more deeply can be loved.

It also lovingly evokes 'community' not as some sentimental ideal but as the necessary place of work to build and maintain values, always balanced between what is received from tradition and what might be new learnt. There is nothing romantic about Gunn's depictions of real people attempting to make this so (and failing to do so) - his are communities of diverse folk, light and shadows.

Last night I dreamt long and involved - but part of what I took away was my own longing for 'fixity' an address - a place to be my own. It runs counter to an equally vivid 'wanderlust'!

I am also intrigued at how I have come by a cluster of Scottish writers of whom I am so deeply fond - Edwin Muir principally but also his one time student, George Mackay Brown and now Neil Gunn.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All not about sheep

It has been a long wait but finally I have found a second great novel where incidentally you learn a great deal about sheep!

The first is knowingly famous: Halldor Laxness' 'Independent People' that extraordinary exploration of the failure of 'independent living' in a world that requires community, and the intimacy of family.

The second is a more neglected book: Neil M. Gunn's 'The Drinking Well' which is a beautifully crafted story of a young man's coming to maturity in travelling away from and return to 'the land' and a recovery of community. It is a community known innocently at the start, later recovered in conscious experience.

Both books are utterly rooted to a place, in time - late nineteenth century Iceland in the former, between the Wars Scotland in the latter, neither strikes you as especially experimental in form, adopting a comfortable realism, even though both are tinged with the transcendent and the uncanny.

Both too are saturated in nationalism and socialism - a recovery of national autonomy as a prerequisite to a rediscovery of equality, an equality rooted in history and culture as much as in political theory.

Gunn writes with alternating grace and a kind of pedestrian efficiency that carries story (and argument on).

The opening is breathtaking as the dawn light interrogates the valley revealing its features until it alights on the face of Iain's, the main character's, mother, whose desire for her children to better themselves, away from the land so lighted, is the desire that drives the story forward. He, also, writes beautiful of our ability to lose thought in the practice of skill, in Iain's case his ability to play the fiddle, and, in the pursuit of adventure: the poaching of salmon.

Then there are the sheep...

However,  I find Gunn a prescient writer - not only for having 'anticipated' the '60s' rediscovered linkage between the personal and the political - that a new age requires a shift in consciousness, a spiritual renewal as well as institutional change; but, in recognizing the virtue of the small, the regional, the national that unless people have control over the resources of their community, there can be no lasting change, that is sustainable - and that begins with the 'land'. In our gathering 'resource constrained world' - the importance of the land will become ever more critical and who owns it essential to our future prospects. Gunn recognises the dual importance of the community and the nation state; and, I expect would have been keen on the dismantling of 'globalization' - peacefully and intelligently before it implodes in ways that will be messy, ugly and conflictual.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas party

Annual party at the Prison Phoenix Trust -  

It is lovely, as always, to see what has been achieved and for the quality of the people involved: both staff and volunteers.

I could not imagine when we began in the lean-to behind Ann's, the founder's, house that we would grow into such a well-established organization.

I came home with a warm glow.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fluted Enlightenment

You can play the Magic Flute in different ways with the central challenge being how to balance the initiation of Tamino and Pamina with the comedy of Papageno and Papagena.

This balanced tension was rather lost in last nights Welsh National Opera production and the whole was suffused with the atmosphere of pantomime (as perhaps befits the season). It was well executed (and beautifully sung) but both the sharper elements of struggle between dark and light, and the haunting elements of transformation clunked into and sat rather uncomfortably for a while before comedy reasserted itself!

The opera is often seen as Mozart's paean to the values of the enlightenment (of which Freemasons were implicated as the champions). The light of reason banishes the superstitions of the past (though the tendency to identify these with 'the feminine' is an ancient superstition of its own)! But it seems to me that the opera (and the history) is more complex than that. There is (or was) in this pattern of Freemasonry a resurgence of the 'esoteric' - a belief in the sacred transformation of human being to which all potentially had access if the 'doors of their perception' were cleansed - even Papageno sees this, every time he settles for a quiet life of simple material pleasures, some 'magical' pressure leads him on to his own image of contented fulfilment in Papagena and family life.

Nor does a simple humanist reading work to explain the initiatory or the magical. It is not simply a metaphor of change, they work as symbols of transformation, nor is it a transformation of human consciousness alone, as it is the whole of nature that shares in the promise - most clearly expressed when Tamino playing his flute, like Orpheus, summons the animals whose life is restored to harmony and paradise.

And simply because it is, I think, the most haunting moment - the pit of the dark where the Queen of the Night demands of her daughter the priest, Sarastro's death on pain of banishment and the breaking of all maternal ties. No trace of pantomime in this performance:

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...