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Showing posts from August, 2011

Nineteen years

Nineteen years since Ann Wetherall died and tomorrow is the annual memorial by her graveside in Bibury, followed by breakfast at the Bibury Court Hotel at the hospitality of her sister, Tigger.

I first met Ann on the telephone. It was not an entirely happy encounter. She had an inflection in her voice that could relay a vivid impression of impatience. She was impatient, in fact, by her own admission (though this was mostly disguised by long practice and a natural graciousness).

I was not giving her what she needed - a fully catered weekend at the Abbey (an experimental Christian community at which I was resident programme co-ordinator) for a gathering of people she had come to know working in prison who could help her in her work of providing spiritual support to people in prison.

As result of working on a research project with Sir Alister Hardy at the Religious Experience Research Centre investigating spiritual experiences arising from imprisonment, Ann had found there was a spiri…

"I have sunk my hearing in the deafness of mortals"

"There is a tale that a man inspired by God once went out from the creaturely realms into the vast waste. There he wandered till he came to the gates of the mystery. He knocked. From within came the cry: "What do you want here?" He said, "I have proclaimed your praise in the ears of mortals, but they were deaf to me. So I come to you that you yourself may hear me and reply." "Turn back," came the voice from within. "Here is no ear for you. I have sunk my hearing in the deafness of mortals."

This vignette of 'divine encounter' is told in Buber's 'Between Man and Man' (that being German should more accurately translated 'Between human and human [or person and person]').

By it Buber wanted to suggest that any word we might want to speak to God will go astray if it does not include address to one another, that all true, living speech, is that which sees the other person, reverences the other person, as God's ima…

Christ Dharma

A more formal review about to be published of two books I have written about before...

Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian: Paul F. Knitter: One World Publications 2009: ISBN 978-1-85168-673-5: £12.99

Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness: Ross Thompson: O Books 2010: ISBN 978-1-84694-336-2: £14.99

An apocryphal story has Jesus traveling to Kashmir during his missing years to learn the wisdom of ‘the East’. He would have found there a flourishing Buddhist culture the embrace of which would transform the way he presented his mission.

This story aside, both the authors of these compelling and rich books, perceive taking such a journey now as a necessary and fertile one both autobiographically to enrich their own Christian faith and within the wider encounter between both traditions and between these traditions and the modern world.

Paul F. Knitter quotes his once teacher, the great German Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, suggesting that if Christianity is to survive, it …

Sorting the canon

Now that the books are all up on shelves, the next stage is to decide how to organize them. I remember a friend being advised (by their interior designer) that this should be by size and colour (presumably to match the decor). However, this does not strike a chord!

The art books are simple as the available shelving, with their size, determines where they should go. Everything else presents a challenge.

In the main bedroom will go 'the canon' - not on the whole the 'works of great literature' but the works grown meaningful with time, that define something critically about me and my apprehension of the world.

It is a diverse group! The English Jungian analyst, Helen Luke, masterly commentator on literature is there with Tagore, painter and poet, at once a devotee of the sacred and a skeptic, social reformer and privileged landlord. The American farmer, Wendell Berry, is there: essayist, novelist and poet whose fictional Port William feels one of the most closely imagined…

Innovation is more than geeky technology

All real living is meeting

Finishing Mommaers and Van Bragt's "Mysticism Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec",  I was fascinated by its discussion of 'natural mysticism' by which Ruusbroec meant contemplation that is achieved without grace, that focuses on internal stillness, that rests in an indwelling sense of unity (with God, with reality).

Of this form of contemplation, Ruusbroec is deeply critical, partly because it was associated in the fourteenth century with sectarian traditions that the orthodox Ruusbroec saw as heretical on other, doctrinal grounds. However, it is mainly because it does not see the heart of mysticism as a deepening of the ability to act in the world charitably, with love. It is anchored in an annihilating of self into a stable absolute not by falling into a dynamic union of love with the Creator that enhances the unique reality of the person and its relationship with others.

One of the questions the book asks is on which side of this contem…

St Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath
them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.


Galway Kinnell

I love this poem. We all need to be reminded from time to time of our …

Uncivilisation

The second volume of 'Dark Mountain' has been published as an exercise in 'uncivilized writing', edited by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. The 'Dark Mountain' project was their conception of a movement or network of people, culturally preparing for collapse: the end of civilization as we know it.

Whether it be climate change or peak oil or general ecological overload (or a combination of these and other factors), the assumption either that it did not matter (solutions could be found) or it could be saved (we could unravel our living circumstances and make a more sustainable future without fierce encounter of limits) was misplaced. There was no great evidence either of technological salvation or ecological change of heart: we needed to begin weaving new narratives that allowed us to re-imagine our lives and societies that gave us the cultural resilience to endure and navigate the challenging realities of wholesale change.

The "Dark Mountain" manifest…

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

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Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell by Denise Levertov

Down through the tomb's inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.

All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shr…

Jan van Ruusbroec

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Prejudice (in spite of Hans Georg Gadamer's spirited defence) is not always an entrance into understanding (the necessary pre-judgement that frames knowing - see dense Germanic text: Truth and Method for further detail. I spent a happy summer reading this in a time far, far away)!

Prejudice kept me from reading, "Mysticism: Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec" by Paul Mommaers and Jan van Bragt until now. It is their photographs in the back flap: they both look like rather severe bank managers trying to look amenable whilst they deliver the news that no, you cannot have a loan!

I picked up the book in Hay on Wye - first hand but remaindered - and it sat on my shelf languishing. However, it caught my eye in the move and against the background of recent prior books on Buddhism and Christianity, I overcame the image of financial administrators and took the plunge.

Early days but so far so good.

Ruusbroec, as the authors acknowledge, is not well known i…

Conscience

I remember giving a talk to a joint meeting of the Institute of Criminology and the Faculty of Theology at Cambridge University held at Trinity Hall where I got into difficulty talking about ‘conscience’.

I was thinking about this today, partly because next month I have to give a similar talk (to a very different audience) on people in prison and their practice of the spiritual life (principally through meditation and yoga); and, partly in relation to the outbreak of lawlessness occasioned by last week’s rioting (where conscience could be said to be absent either pathologically not present or held in temporary abeyance).

I got into difficulty because the working assumption of my sophisticated audience at Cambridge (including the chairman, the distinguished sociologist, Tim Jenkins) was that ‘conscience’ was a social construct, developed (or not) in response to different people’s patterns of socialisation. Meanwhile, my understanding was that of the desert fathers and mothers of the e…

Books revealing

With admirable help at the weekend, I find myself in a virtually coherent living room with shelves assembled and slowly organizing books. Reassembling them gives you an opportunity to linger over titles - either remembering the contents or expecting them or both.

Looking at them as a whole, I ponder what is the thread that flows through them - given their immediate eclectic appearance - and the answer to that question I find has to be ' the sacred'. This is not exactly 'religion' (though once in conversation with a Dominican friend I admitted that 'religion [if anything] was 'my thing') because that expresses (to most minds) an organized reality or belief system. 

The best I can do is a bundle of core intuitions bundled with the thread that each person has (to quote George Fox) that which is of God in him or her - and every him or her live in a living world that is an expression of divine grace.

It was Martin Buber who gave thanks that the word 'religi…

A riot of explanations

One feature of last week's rioting that must be obvious by now is that nobody knows why it took place (indeed many of the rioters appeared not to know why they had taken part, except the perception, wrong in many cases, that they would not get caught)!

Another feature of the analysis is that it appears strangely 'unhistorical' as if people rioting should come as a surprise. As Morris Berman, the American cultural commentator, reminded me in one of his comments - British political culture has historically carried a burden of violence, and that violence if perpetrated by a perceived underclass is always seen in the words of Mr Cameron as 'criminality pure and simple'.

Crime is neither pure nor simple - except in the aftermath of events that have embarrassed the political class and they are in need of a 'response': anything will do as long as it can jerk into action quickly and be apparently doing something!

When John Paul II called for a decade of evangelism…

The Towers of Silence

Towers of Silence are funerary towers in Zorastrianism where the dead are exposed to the elements, to be eaten by carrion birds, and their bodies are kept from contaminating the earth.

A failed burial is a heart thread of Paul Scott's third novel of the same name in his Raj Quartet. Mabel Layton, according to her companion, Barbie Batchelor, wanted to be buried next to her second husband in Ranpur. These wishes, expressed to her, were not communicated to her step-daughter who buries her in Pankot. Barbie, who barging into the morgue, has seen the body being shifted into an appropriate pose after a post-mortem examination, imagines its extended features to reveal Mabel's present torment: a vision of hell and displacement.
This scene of heightened emotion and surreal viewing is beautifully controlled and evoked by Scott in the context of an apparently realist novel, unfolding with documentary like precision.
Indeed the closer you read Scott the more he diverges from a 'straig…

Book shelving

As well as needing to construct more (a Saturday task), unpacking books offers opportunities for distraction.

The first has come as a second opportunity to engage in a purge of things unread or never to be read a second time (and that, in some cases, you wished you had never read a first time). As I went about this task, I felt a further tightening of what I might in the future read. This was not of the same kind as when, a few years ago, psychotherapy fell out of my attention. This was quite a dramatic and particular divestment of a long standing interest that only Jung, Robert Johnson and Helen Luke survived, and primarily for their central interest in religion (rather than the mechanics of therapy).

This time it was not whole subjects that disappeared but certain strands. I do not expect, for example, to read early texts of Indian philosophy or the lives of Jain saints. I might carry an image of a person who might do this (or should) but I think now I can safely say that the need …

Michael Graham Jones a friend and mentor

Today was Michael's funeral, held in the beautiful and simple Anglican Church at Northmoor where he worshipped. He died this month at the age of 91. It was an occasion both celebratory and moving.
I met Michael when I was at The Abbey, Sutton Courtenay. I was a young man pondering what to do with my life and spending it in a fruitful and exasperating lay religious community with which Michael was intimately associated (and on the Council).
I recall cycling from the Abbey to his home at the Limes for tea where in customary fashion Michael's hospitality went beyond tea and cakes to an attentive listening, accompanied by probing intelligent and compassionate questions of some project or other that I had conceived and long (wisely) abandoned.
It was a style of encounter that multiplied over the years, and led to diverse introductions to others. He had a particular and precise mind that made good connections. If he could stray into pedantry, it was always subsumed into a wider, more …

Don't Panic, don't panic

This catch phrase of Corporal Jones in the archetypal comedy of my childhood, Dad's Army, comes to mind today as our global leadership wonder whether to abandon their beaches and 'do something' about our gathering global financial crisis. Jones, of course, was always panicking when adopting this phase.

Since they have patently failed to do very much that matters in the past, except apply band-aid and wishful thinking, the signs are not good.

What I continue to find extraordinary is that what they might do is restricted to more or less effectively responding to what 'the market' dictates. Since the 'market' is seriously dysfunctional, even an effective response is only a temporary measure.

No one appears seriously ready to restructure what is, after all, a human artifact, namely the market.

Today the Chinese have demanded that the US get to grips with its debt addiction. This is rather akin to a drug dealer deciding that their premier addict not, on any acc…

Hanging a painting

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A long week both at work and at home. The latter has comprised moving house - a work in progress.

But this evening, amidst the chaos, I was able to hang my favourite painting - 'The Dream Bearer' by Thetis Blacker. It was painted for me using her own original technique a transformed, unique version of batik. It is a technique that makes her work instantly recognizable and luminously beautiful.

We met originally at breakfast at Dartington Hall during the first Temenos conference. We found ourselves sitting opposite one another and having been introduced by the poet, Kathleen Raine, Thetis inquired, "Are you a poet? You look like a poet". "Sadly not," I replied, "but I do dream"! What possessed me to describe myself thus I do not know but it hit exactly the right, a perfect, note.

Thetis was a remarkable dreamer (indeed she produced a book of them, and they read like short stories) and we exchanged dreams over the breakfast table and became firm fr…

Coming to Our Senses

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Morris Berman's "Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West" is one of my favourite books since I read it first in a caravan on the west coast of Ireland pretending not to be staying with a nun and a would be nun. It was a different Ireland - a man in a van with two women, neither of whom were his relation: unconscionable to the caravan park administrator! Together with a subsequent volume, "Wandering God", it is a compelling account of a naturalistic spirituality of embodied wonder in the everyday: a horizontal spirituality that eschews 'special experience' or 'transformations of consciousness'. The books, along the way, open up a radical questioning of many aspects of our dominant culture. The chapter on creativity in Coming to Our Senses is exceptional in this regard as it explores the difference between creating from what you lack, creation as an attempt to solve an existential problem; and, creati…

Without Buddha I could not be a Christian

It appears that there is an outbreak of Buddhist Christianity following a reading of Ross Thompson's 'Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness' (http://ncolloff.blogspot.com/2011/07/buddhist-christianity.html), I have finished reading Paul Knitter's 'Without Buddha I could not be a Christian'.

They cover similar territory and both weave into their spiritual-theological accounts pertinent autobiographical detail.

But Knitter's last chapter stakes out very different territory. If Thompson's book is characterized by inwardness, Knitter seeks to expound why Buddhism allows Christianity to more deeply occupy its 'unique' territory - that radical concern that God is perceived to have for those who are most deeply marginal, suffering or poor. God in Christianity is biased - we find God when we attend to the needs of those whose need is greatest. This vitally contrasts with Buddhism's universalizing compassion. Compassion does not take sides, ju…

Whiffs of the fall of Rome

The Fall of the Roman Empire that highly intelligent film of imperial demise directed by the gifted, if flawed, Anthony Mann, ends with an auction of the emperor's throne. This is seen as the beginning of the end.

When I was last in Washington, I recall a discussion of the 'price' of ambassadorships. That becoming an ambassador has often involved service to the relevant political party in the United States (which has included fund-raising) is a long living truism but that a particular country comes with a particular price is (if true) a new departure (or descent)!

The end of Rome is an increasingly tempting analogy for the United States. An analogy promoted by the on-going events in Congress and between Congress and the office of the President. That certain factions within the former (whether conservative or liberal) can imagine technical default (and the uncertain consequences to the world financial system) as a result of political ideology not involving the measured sens…