Showing posts from June, 2012

Piero della Francesca and the frescoes

Not Italian supporters after a night celebrating their win over Germany yesterday but a detail from Piero della Francesca's Resurrection that hangs in the Civic Museum of his home town, Sansepolcro, where I am staying. The four figures slumped by the tomb as Christ stands triumphant are both wholly real, earth bound and yet painted as if yet even here translucent to what is happening above. It is shown so artfully as three sleep, one in the foreground here, covers his eyes, as if he knows but will not look. Meanwhile, all is concentrated on the figure of Christ, even the vegetation behind him appears blasted, withdrawn into itself. A great event has occurred, breaking into a world that does not, has not, continues not to fully comprehend it. It is a triumph yet in the making.

As with Florence the day before, there was an unexpected pleasure, one of the guides pointed out an unmarked narrow staircase to the roof  and standing in a high vaulted loft was an exhibition I do not recal…

In Florence

Forewarned about driving in Florence and its parking (both the difficulty and the cost), I decided to park at the airport and take a taxi in and out as the airport is close to town. How difficult might it be to find an airport? Markedly because the signage appeared designed to conceal rather than reveal the entrance. I could see the airport, glimpsing it as I dodged and weaved in the morning traffic, but where was the entrance? It was only on my third circumnavigation past Ikea and imprecations (I mean invocations) to St Antony (things that are lost) of Padua (whose reply was probably: how do I know where the Florentines keep their airport, come to Padua instead!) that I slipped into long term parking, walked over to the terminal (as it is that size of airport) and was on my way into the city.

It has been a long time since I was there and I met a Russian and an American friend and we went off to the Ducal Palace - seven galleries in one - to do art. Doing was probably the right word. T…

A pilgrimage in the National Park

I began the day in La Verna where St Francis received the stigmata. It stands on an outcrop of rock at the southernmost point of a national park. You arrive up a winding road that appears to be empty but when you arrive, as if by magic, the shrine throngs with visitors: Italian families, elderly couples, youth groups in sturdy hiking gear and the odd foreigner! It comes with the requisite restaurant and shop selling religious paraphernalia. Every conceivable version of St Francis (except cuddly toy and inflatable doll) beckons less than enticingly from the shop's walls plus sacred cards, rosaries, candles and incense.

The chapel of the stigmata is away, along the side of the hill, from the main church. In the main church, Mass is starting where a young bearded Franciscan with tapping feet and strumming guitar is trying to tease a response from a small congregation. 
The chapel is quiet, small, cool and empty, except for a dominating crucifix and at its feet the spot itself where …

Completing Father Bede's life

I finished Shirley du Boulay's moving biography of Dom Bede Griffiths over lunch sitting on a quiet side street. A gentle breeze dispelling midday heat.

The last years of his life were extraordinary culminating in a series of strokes that were once physiological events and accompanied by trans formative experience that brought him to a new wholeness: a marriage of rational mind infused with spiritual intuition and permeated by a deeper than ever capacity to love. Inward experience was outwardly visible to all who knew him and, paradoxically, as Shirley notes, this deeper holiness allowed him to be more human, even the irritating quirks and twists of his nature, including his anger, found their appropriate place in the life of his last years.

It awakened in me old yearnings for the contemplative life and I wandered up from my table into the streets of Sansepolcro and into the arms of the awaiting cathedral. This is dedicated to St John the Evangelist that most mystical of the four…

Goose breast in Sansepolcro

Memory is highly selective. It allows you to shape past history, editing it to wishful desire.

When I was last here, in Sansepolcro, I had a rabbit pasta at a restaurant around the corner that lingered across my memory as something so splendid that it closed in as my best ever dining experience. Afterwards I told myself that I must be mistaken, not least for trying rabbit pasta elsewhere and being disappointed (including at a fabulously famous and expensive Italian restaurant in Moscow. It was good but not that good).

This evening newly arrived I dropped by, no rabbit pasta on the menu, but a goose breast carpaccio that was equally extraordinary, bursting with flavor, the contrast between meat, fat accompanying oil and balsamic vinegar caught to perfection. It is a treasured spot and the proprietor is so welcoming and enthusiastic (and continues to charge you for wine by how much of the bottle you have consumed)!

It is so lovely to be back, though alas my friends have put up their ap…

Holiday reading

It is hot in Italy so the prospect of sitting late on the balcony waiting for the cool to sleep and reading (reading even more than usual)...what to take?

The Kindle has Broch's 'Sleepwalker' trilogy: three novels charting the disintegration of values that led to the horrors of the Second World War from which Broch was a refugee. They were translated by my beloved Edwin and Willa Muir.  I have read them before: they are haunting and complex.

But I fear too that I am still wedded to the earlier technology of the 'book'!

There are the two (of three) volumes of C.S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy to read and the biography of his friend, Dom Bede Griffiths, to finish. I will take a slim volume of Dom Bede's essential writings because the biography has re-energised my love of his way of allowing 'Eastern' traditions to illuminate and deepen a Christianity both contemplative and interested in re-imagining the world as a peaceable kingdom, lived in but no…

Saint making

It was on his last visit to England, before his death, that I finally met Dom Bede Griffiths. We had corresponded for years, between Oxford and his home, Shantivanam, a Christian ashram in India. He had become a patron of the Prison Phoenix Trust and though he was, geographically, its most distant patron, he was its most active: writing to prisoners, speaking of the trust's work regularly in the talks he gave both in India and around the world; and, writing words of counsel to me that were always apt, treasured and wise.

I am re-reading his biography by Shirley de Boulay and pondering a remarkable life. An intense, obsessional, emotionally contained individual slowly unwinding and being unwound into holiness. A holiness that was both utterly Christian and completely open to the reality pointed to by other traditions, especially the Hinduism of his beloved India.

He was a 'universalist': each and every authentic tradition bears witness to the ultimate truth but each tradit…

Tolstoy and Chekov

Tolstoy was a passionate rationalist and rationaliser.

No sooner had he completed six years of work on War and Peace than he began work on a primer of Russian grammar designed to make acquiring literacy more possible for the newly emancipated peasants, simplifying and rationalising the teaching of a language as he went.

He adopted a similar approach to Christianity. Out went the miracles, the Trinity and the Church leaving Jesus a radical pacifist, close to the earth, living a simple life and hostile to organised religion, radically close to Tolstoy's own self-image!

The passion had its shadow side. He could drop a cause or strand of work as quickly as he had adopted it. A raid by the secret police on his estate (whilst he was away) so outraged his dignity as a nobleman that he abandoned for a number of years his experiment in schooling for the peasantry (which was the secret police's target)!

Implicit in this is that Tolstoy was a man of contradictions. That his identificati…

A message in a bottle

Proust's madeleine catapulted him back into a specific moment of time so perfectly realised that a whole narrative flowed from it, that re-creation of a life, lives.

I cannot claim quite the same impact as a result of listening to The Police and 'Message in a Bottle' (caught on a random browsing of the radio on the way to the station this morning) but it does project me into a moment so vividly remembered that it feels uncanny.

The SS Uganda. I was on a school cruise starting from Venice through Greece, Turkey and Egypt and finishing in Athens. An onboard disco and an awkward adolescent (me) dancing with the abandon induced by smuggled brandy and the romance of being at sea and (secretly, hopelessly) in love...

Even now I can taste the air, sense the swaying body and feel the emotions (fuelled by a first reading of Auden as well as the fumes of cheap Italian brandy)!

For it was on this trip that I discovered 'poetry' - I borrowed a friend's copy of Auden and s…

Out of the Silent Planet

When C. S. Lewis was a child he designed, with his older brother, a whole world, planned in exceptional detail and reality. Some of that childhood love is evident in 'Out of that Silent Planet' - the first book in his 'Cosmic Trilogy' of adult science fiction (as contrasted with children's fantasy or Christian apologetics).

It does rather dwell on the description of 'Malacandra' (or Mars) to which his hero, Dr Ransom, is kidnapped in a little too great (and suffocating) detail. But its benefit is a realised world, complete with philological side steps, and a great yarn, with serious undertows. For example, Ransom is being 'sacrificed' by his kidnappers for an imagined 'greater' good that dissolves in fact into their different arrogances - of material greed and scientific aggrandisement; and, there is a wonderful aside on the epistemology of angels!

It is the first time I have read it and thought I would like to pay homage to a man who was o…

The New Man (Person)

'The New Man' is Maurice Nicoll's book that interprets some of the parables and miracles of Christ, first published in 1950. I own a copy that belonged to the novelist, J.B. Priestley and his archaeologist wife, Jacquetta Hawkes (who was a governor of my school).

It is a remarkably compact book that in its 150 pages probably says more and more of value than many commentaries that weigh in at many multiples of its size (and weight).

It shows the evident influence of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (Nicoll was a pupil of the former and a friend of the latter) but, more importantly, like the Church Fathers, Nicoll reads the Bible for its inner, esoteric not its literal meaning. If it has a weakness, it is that it wholly devalues the literal meaning, a devaluing that the subtler minds of the Church Fathers recognised as having an important influence on our outward behaviour and dispositions, even as they saw that the ultimate meaning lay elsewhere. A text can have multiple layers of …

Went the Day Well

Jack Higgins in writing the novel (and subsequent film): 'The Eagle has Landed' was being, in the words of Monty Python, 'a very naughty boy' as his essential conceit (and many details of plot) had been lifted from Graham Greene's story, made into a film in 1942, 'Went the Day Well'.

German paratroopers occupy an English village disguised as Allied troops on an exercise: in the former case they are there to assassinate Churchill, in the later case to interfere with British radar ahead of a planned German invasion. In both the villagers discover the German plot, which is assisted by a fifth columnist - a respected member of the village, are confined to the church but manage to alert the outside world, and are rescued by outside military intervention.

But watching 'Went the Day Well' yesterday, I was struck by the real differences between the two films. In 1942, the Germans are needless to say bad and we discover nothing about them as individuals. Th…

Parzival and the neutral angels

Fresh from contemplating 'Lost Christianity', I read Lindsay Clarke's fabulous re-telling of Wolfram von Eschenbach's poem, 'Parzival and the Stone from Heaven' from which 'Christendom' is lost!

Von Eschenbach was a sacred poet but one of ecumenical sympathies where not only is Parzival's final battle (unknowingly) with his brother, the piebald Saracen, Feirefiz, essential to his self-discovery but the two of them enter the Grail castle together and are granted together a vision of the 'stone' that is the Grail.

When Feirefiz asks whether it is permitted to see this Christian mystery, Parzival answers (in Clarke's version) yes for, "all Nature's increase is there, so I think that this stone from Heaven must be a living emblem of the earth itself, which is mother and father to us all."

There are knights, ladies, sorcerers, hermits and wise old hags abounding in Eschenbach's world but interestingly for a medieval text, n…


It is is 1975 and Elizabeth calls her brother in distress. Her husband has hit her and she needs refuge: her and her children. Her brother lives in a commune whose free flowing, inchoate ways are certainly not those of the nuclear family.  She arrives and no ones' life is unchanged.

'Together' is a beautifully observed, Swedish film, resonant of the period and yet like all good art transcends it. Here are a group of people trying to work out what it means to live together where the 'traditional' boundaries do not work (and they probably never did). There is something profoundly important about the passionate connection between two people (so open relationships are difficult) but they cannot be confined within the fantasy of the 'nuclear' family (that is, I fear, too simple minded and improbable).

As the stories unfold, there is a weaving moral. The people who adhere to a binding principle (whether political or personal) decide to leave, the people who can …

Dark Mountain 3

Some of the most stimulating and challenging writing on how to respond to our gathering environmental crisis is being developed by the cultural project: Dark Mountain that as well as a web-site and a festival, each year is a book. I have both 1 and 2 and have subscribed to 3. The contents of 3 are outlined by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the editors, here:

The book's funding is crowd sourced ahead of publication and if you would like to order a copy (and make the book happen), you can do so here:

There is my act of virtue for the day (as well as the day job of slaying global poverty of course).

The need for apatheia

Sitting in the chapel of the Forest of Peace monastery in the week following 9/11, the assembled group were exchanging reflections on the unfolding events (as part of the Mass).

These revolved, understandably, around trying to find a silver lining of meaning to that dark descended cloud.

The outpouring of initiatives to build inter-faith, cross-cultural understanding (and indeed protect the integrity of minority communities and individuals from harm) featured prominently.

This, I noticed, made me surprisingly nervous, especially in that contemplative setting. It was a nervousness I tried to articulate, baldlyand badly.

This seeking after doing good (though good in itself) had a quality of over-enthusiastic neediness around it. It might, I suggested, distract you from a still, quiet interior self-examination into the forces within ourselves that lead to results of such sinfulness; and, why this surge of attention and concern would not last precisely because we were clinging to it as a…

Listening to plants with Goethe and company

I had seen 'The Secret Teaching of Plants' (by Stephen Harrod Buhner) on the kitchen table of a friend last summer, a beautiful long length wooden table that overlooks a wild capacious garden from which much of what I was eating came.

I had glanced at it enquiringly, attracted by the sub-title: 'The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature' and enjoyed a number of the quotations from  Fukuoka, Goethe, Thoreau and others that liberally, and very effectively, accompany the text. I ordered it, put in my new bookshelf, and from time to time eyed it feeling I should read it yet thinking that it was not what I usually read and maybe it is a bit flaky!

Finally I took the plunge and it is flaky by the judgement of the linear, rational mind that sits in the head: arbiter of what it considers as 'knowledge'. From an older and newer perspective, as hopefully we emerge from Yeats' 'three provincial centuries', we simply recognise what has a…