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Showing posts from April, 2012

An Obscure Man

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I first read 'Coup de Grace' which described a three-cornered relationship on the fluid front as the Baltic states fought for their independence as part of Russia's post revolutionary civil war. It beautifully captured the tension of waiting that any conflict inspires: short bursts of intense activity are preceded and followed by long periods of waiting.

Years later I read Yourcenar's masterpiece, 'The Memoirs of Hadrian' - one of the great novels of the last century: the only historical novel that I know that allows no contemporary thought or feeling to obtrude. There is no hindsight in the writing - the Christian sect persecuted and briefly alluded to is just that, a minor tremor in the consciousness of the Emperor. His perception and values are allowed to speak as if the conceit were true: these are his memoirs. It is a remarkable achievement.

I read yesterday her novella, 'An Obscure Man' set in seventeenth century Holland (and England, the West In…

Dim in the twilight

On the plane back from Yerevan, I caught a fragment of the seemingly endless 'Twilight' saga - the one in which the heroine is about to be married - and was puzzled.

She wants to marry the pale, intense Edward and lose her soul, be frozen in her current body, and live with a friendly 'family' of vampires. The younger members of the family seem to endlessly repeat their last High School year, cannot go out in the sun (where the glow suspiciously rather than fry) and with whom vegetarianism is not an option. She cannot change nor have children nor grow old, accumulating the wisdom that comes of bodily ageing (or of experience outside the woods).

She choses this in preference to the hunky intense Indian guy with whom she could go out into the sun, have little Indians, and pass over at the end into the happy hunting grounds, soul intact and luminous. He is, also, a werewolf - how cool (and warmly furry) is that!

I am obviously missing something...

The Chaplain supports sharia

Fr Chaplain, the Head of the Department for Church and Society in the Moscow Patriarchate, has made a statement suggesting that the Russian Orthodox Church does not have any objection to the Muslim community establishing sharia courts (within clear limits) in the Russian Federation.

I wish I could imagine that his motivation is purely directed at supporting the Islamic community establishing parameters for organizing family and community life in alignment with principles understood and agreed by that community for their betterment and wholeness. This would be in line with a similar (though more tentative) statement floated by Archbishop Rowan Williams in the United Kingdom that was genuinely aimed at measures that might reduce the felt alienation of recently arrived immigrant communities. It was genuine in its intention, if, I think, misguided in practice.

However, on past form (including actual encounters with the said Fr Chaplain), I fear his interest may be more self-interested - …

The Glorious Art of Peace

The Glorious Art of Peace is a highly informative book, written with admirable clarity. It consciously sets out to re-balance our perception: to allow us to see that peace has been as important as war as a feature of human life and that ways of making and sustaining peace has absorbed the minds of our history's most important thinkers.

There is an informative contrast between Erasmus and Machiavelli both widely read in the sixteenth century (and influential) but it is Machiavelli's realpolitik that you will find in a contemporary bookstore (and on the tips of people's memories). He resonates in a age grown weary of conflict, and cynical of idealism.

I sense, however, that Erasmus is not 'down and out'. His compelling vision of the benefits of peace re-emerge periodically, and I dare to hope gain ground. For example, it was he that first formulated the notion of arbitration - a feature of life that we now take for granted.

We do need to celebrate images of (and arg…

The road to Yerevan

We went the 'quiet' route - through the hills of Georgia, down narrow valleys, bursting with Spring, along fragile roads, to a border post where we were the only one's crossing. The Georgians had a better post, spruced clean, computerized and efficient courtesy of the EU and the Armenians had the better road. Their new post was imminent, promised by UNDP. I delayed things as I noticed my name spelled wrongly on my visa, necessitating calls to the boss for clarification on what needed to be done.
The countrysides were a stark contrast - the lived in, human scale of Georgia gave way to the bleaker, higher mountain views of Armenia, with snow capped peaks and treeless expanses of brown, showing green. Both beautiful after their own fashion - though the Armenian villages were very poor in comparison (and indeed simply very poor). But prettier as you descended towards Yerevan as the blossom - cherry, apple, apricot - is out.
We stopped at a motel on the way down - it was making…

Christ's robe and the True Cross

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Today I went to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta where the robe that Christ wore at the Crucifixion is buried, accompanied by the mantle of the Prophet Elias and a fragment of the True Cross. This abundance of relics has made it the most venerated site within Georgia and the religious home of the Patriarch.

We were shown around by a vigorous elderly lady, dressed in somber black, who knew no English but had learnt her tour by rote and had it by memory. She had been a history teacher, we discovered, and now supplemented her meager pension by giving tours.

There is an operatic story of the cathedral's reconstruction in the middle ages, symbolized outside, and high up, by a bas-relief of a hand holding an architect's instrument. The said architect was young, arrogant and fatally in love with the same woman admired by the King. Through the machinations of an older, displaced architect, the King had the young architect's right arm severed leading to his death. The Chur…

Politics and the Occult

As with 'exoteric' religion, esoteric (or occult) forms lend themselves to supporting initiatives of right or left (or indeed centre). For example, Freemasons could be found on both sides of the revolutionary divide in France (and neither acquits itself well). This is the main thrust of Gary Lachman's account in his ' Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right and the Radically Unseen' that occult/esoteric traditions lend themselves to political solutions across the spectrum; not only the better known (and overblown) connection between the occult and Nazi Germany. 

It is an informative and entertaining progress through the political aspirations of the occult practitioner from renewing the world through the humanist unifying tendencies of the Rosicrucian manifestos in the seventeenth century (whose intentions were swallowed up by the Thirty Years War) to the post- Second War World of Julius Evola inspiring Italian rightist terrorism.

Lachman is, as always, a balance…

Third time lucky

The first time I tried to visit Georgia I had a fire in my apartment in Moscow that waylaid any travel plans. The second time inconveniently there was a war. So yesterday clinging wood and crossing toes, I embarked on the bmi flight to Baku and Tbilisi...and arrived!

The flight was emptied at Baku of its burly, Scottish accented men (oil engineers) and a more diverse group carried on.

I cannot claim to have seen anything of the country as yet - a day work-shopping in the office was followed by a hospitable dinner at the Senate restaurant. Here I was introduced to the Georgian custom (not in evidence in Russian Georgian restaurants) of piling plate upon plate of food literally...and fabulous food especially the cheese and the wine, both unique to their places.

In the workshop, I was exposed to the challenges of working here, especially with the current government. In many ways it is set on a well-intentioned course of reform but carried out at breakneck speed and without attending to …

Inner River - a review

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The language of mysticism is performative. It not only seeks to convey content about the nature of the divine but is configured to trip the mind into a realization of that divine. Its strategies are many fold but one of the simplest is the dialogue form. A charismatic elder seeks to impart their wisdom to one or more listeners. The wisdom is didactic but shaped by the living presence of receptive listeners and their particular personalities. We, the reader, are invited into imaginative sympathy and identification with the listener (s) and, thus, made more existentially receptive to what is being said. Undoubtedly the greater the diversity of different type of listener the greater the chance that one or other sparks a recognition in the reader: this is ‘me’ we can say, this is my question, and my listening deepens in this empathy.

It is a form of writing that is explicit in the distinguished books that Kyriacos Markides, a sociologist of religion at the University of Maine, has produce…

A Place on Earth, not in Church

Two books helped disarrange my neat path to priesthood and religious life.

The first was Ursula Le Guin's 'The Telling' that I found myself reading and re-reading at critical junctures in the process of vocational testing and reaffirmed my sense that no narrative is a closed account of the truth. Each story is an enterprise after knowing and truth is embedded in the gracefulness, poise and vulnerability of the telling. The story is offered compassionately to the world as a way of seeing and it is judged by its fruits - in the wholeness and harmony it grants to a society. It is manner of story telling that the church, sadly, has often failed even though it is embodied in the parables of its founder.

The second, I realised on re-reading it now, is Wendell Berry's 'A Place on Earth'. This is a marvellous telling of a community bound to a place and to one another who lives are measured by their responsibility to one another and to the care and use of their place (…

The Divine Image

The Divine Image


To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, pity, Peace and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.


William Blake


As if my prior sermon was insufficient, a reminder from Blake that 'all must love the human form' as is appears in difference, for ultimately there is no difference only a common human form. There is no prejudice in love.

Propaganda and vulnerable children

The 'propaganda bill' presented to the Russian Duma this week, seeking to prohibit gay 'propaganda' targeted at minors, modelled on legislation already passed in St Petersburg, reminds me of our own, now notorious 'Section 28', passed under Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. This prohibited local authorities 'promoting homosexuality' (and what promotion meant was left suitably vague).

The only known effect of this legislation, under which, to my knowledge no one was ever prosecuted, was to ensure that young people, in many instances, had no access to information or support as they came to terms with their sexuality. Meanwhile, many schools fought shy of tackling homophobic bullying because to do so they feared would fall foul of the legislation (though, sadly, more generally, many schools are extraordinarily bad at addressing any kind of bullying). It imposed a form of self-censorship.

The already significant tendency for young gay and lesbians to suffer menta…

The Whisperers

"Wonderful...I've rarely read anything like it," proclaims Claire Tomalin on the front cover of the paperback edition of Orlando Figes, 'The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia".

It is not the epithet I would immediately reach for. Antony Beevor's 'heart-rending' on the back cover is a more accurate summation of this terrible text.

Terrible in a literal sense - both the terror of people, caught in a system that devoured its own (and many of its victims, at one level at least, appeared resigned to its justification, in a recurrent phrase, 'you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs') and terrible because it seems so beyond comprehension; not least because the broken eggs were not making an omelette! For all its vaunted achievements, Russia stayed behind the living conditions of the West on virtually every front (as it does today).

There is no reason for believing that the liberal/social democracy inaugurated by the February …

Happy Easter! The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

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Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harv…

The Monk by the Sea

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The Monk by the Sea by Casper David Friedrich


William Vaughan's book on Friedrich was the first volume I had read in Phaidon's Art & Ideas series. It is a series that seeks to put art back into its historical and intellectual context and write art history from the perspective of the art's meaning as well as its formal characteristics and to do this in language that is accessible and jargon free.


If this volume is any indication, it is an excellent idea admirably executed. Vaughan's reading of the paintings (and the man) are sympathetic, intelligent and illuminating. His simple, but not simplistic, account of the different uses of the 'the sublime' and 'the beautiful' in the Romantic period are worth the price of the book on their own. He confirmed for me that the brilliance of Kant (in aesthetics) dissolves the closer you bring him up against the texture of living examples. The generalizations of this philosopher are alluring, captivating until you pu…

The Haunted Woman

If you want to know what it felt like to be a second century Gnostic, convinced that the world was a prison forged by an evil (or incompetent) demiurge, keeping you apart from the truth, and that the ascent to that truth was a path of stripping away ever-subtler illusions, whose intensity of suffering and, thus, quality of illumination, deepened with each level achieved, read David Lindsay's 'The Voyage to Arcturus'.

It might not be a fully digested as a spiritual text but as a summons (or sounding) of the depths of alienation and a calling to a vocation of search, it is brilliant. It has become a minor classic of imaginative literature.

His novel, 'The Haunted Woman' is an attempt at describing a similar imaginative space but within the confines of a more 'normal' landscape. Here there is no voyage to a distant star but within a novel about the conventions of a proposed engagement (in the 1930s), a haunted house and an ultimately tragic relationship betwe…