Friday, June 29, 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 Meanwhile, all is concentrated on the figure of Christ, even the vegetation behind him appears blasted, withdrawn into itself.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 recall from last time of the substantial remnants of fifteenth century frescoes. They were gorgeous.

There is something about the art of fresco that I find deeply appealing from my first real introduction to it living in Macedonia to now. There is physically its resilient fragility - there, in place or, as here, rescued - but often with pieces missing, haunted by the transition of time. From this period especially what you notice is the humanity of the figures, gone is the stiff formality of the Byzantine icon or the more poised brilliance of oil painting, they appear lighter, more embedded in free flowing narrative and often of actual human scale. Here was St Catherine of Alexandra bowing to her wheeled martyrdom with steeled graciousness, here was a man, a very particular man. zealously forging her manacles out of unthinking obedience to his king and here was a life size, gentle, scholarly St Nicholas (who else) surrounded by smaller tableau of his vivid, saintly life.

Again, unlike Florence, I was on my own, quietened, in a space both gallery and sacred. I was reminded of Wittgenstein's advice that you should on visiting a gallery go and see one picture only. It is a little too austere for me but you can see what he is reaching after, opportunities to be with rather than do art; and, you are more likely to find this possible in the smaller gallery. Dostoevsky says somewhere that it is the smaller, poorer churches that are best for praying, perhaps this is true of galleries too, for the unmixed attention they allow you is a form of prayer. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

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. The Dukes acquired a lot of art that is now displayed, exhaustively, and rather badly, on the walls of their palace. The one thing that immediately struck you about the collection (in their apartments) was how parochial it was. Now in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italy was the happening place but like all happening, you forget how much of it was mediocre. In most modern galleries what is displayed is the best: a carefully edited statement. Here it all hung out: what is the best and what people at the time equated with it, may possibly even have preferred. Myriads of trooping and drooping Virgins and her Holy Bambini and then the Mother emerges with her, our infant Jesus and you look, and recognize: here is a Botticelli or a Rubens! Interestingly Rubens and van Dyck were the only two artists that I noticed here that were not Italian! And it was overwhelmingly either religious painting or portraiture, the third great strand: the mythological was a very subdued third note except as decorative painting on the walls. Mythology should know its place as background to an incarnational, historic foreground?

More interesting perhaps, but by this time we were flagging, was the gallery of 'modern art' (post-Renaissance until the late nineteenth century). Here were lots of Italian artists of whom I had never heard (or knowingly seen) and, like Russian nineteenth century art, little known outside its own country. The baton of 'happening' has clearly moved elsewhere - France and Germany - (and was washing back) but you glimpsed real treasures - and familiar themes; for example, a discovery (or re-discovery) of the peasant and the worker and a yearning to show their lives in the round, including the misery of new industry or failing agriculture; and, of course, landscape. More locally was the desire to show the struggle for the re-union of Italy: bold red shirts bash perfidious white coated Austrians again and again and again...

But then it is the unexpected that truly captures the eye: two small exhibitions on Japan. The first on Japanese craft in the context of modern art and the second the influence of Japan on Italian art at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. In the first an extraordinary display of ceramics, lacquer and textiles both as functional items and things of beauty, especially a bowl where a star burst of aquamarine blue moves from its centre into embracing golden-yellow light, simply called 'Birth'. I noted too that all the work was from the National Gallery of Modern Art in Japan: craft remaining integral to 'high' art.

In the second exquisite post-impressionist/expressionist paintings weaving in or boldly addressing Japanese themes including a fabulous, dramatic painting of a kabuki actor all humour in menace.

Finally the heat overcame us (as it appeared to be doing to the air conditioning in the gallery) and we repaired to a square and a long, late lunch at a restaurant we noted frequented by the great and the good including the omnipresent Mr Clinton. (You wonder if he has a sideline in restaurant endorsement complete with faked newspaper cuttings. I keep seeing him everywhere)!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

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 St Francis knelt, marked by a bareness of rock, enclosed in glass, and an oil lamp burning. I sit awhile pondering one of the things that Father Bede said of Christ's words at the crucifixion: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' Bede asked which God was being forsaken and answered the God of the prevailing tradition. The jealous God who is always stepping in to make things different, that we hope will always be on our side, over and against them, whether as people or our always unjust tribulations. The God into whom Jesus breaks through, in this moment of self-sacrifice, is the loving God who always accompanies us, in whom we dwell, whose hands and feet, to quote St Theresa of Avila, are our own. God of infinite compassion and mercy who is the space where we are, accompanying us throughout.

I sat awhile praying into this mercy and bringing to it people actually loved and known.

From La Verna, I went to the Camaldoli monastery, located deeper inside the national park. First I visited the monastery and then, after a long walk through the quiet woods, the hermitage further up the mountain (shown above are the small cottages in which the Camaldoli hermits live).

Founded by St Romuald in the early eleventh century, they follow a modification of the Rule of St. Benedict, and it is to this congregation that Fr Bede Griffiths' ashram in India belongs. A photograph of him, with the monastery's then abbot, sits in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. They are framed by a doorway: the abbot in traditional monastic dress, Bede in the ocher robe of a sanyasi: both smiling radiantly. (

I was struck by the difference in the monastic shop here and at La Verna. Here the emphasis was on products of both mind and hand (rather than mass produced religious artifact). The bookshop was substantial and very catholic (with a small 'c'). The works of Fr Bede were there, and of his great friend, the theologian, Raimundo Pannikar but also works of Buddhist and Hindu spirituality (inter-religious dialogue is one of the themes of the Camaldoli monks' charism). But also there were the traditional goods of the monastery - soap, honey and wine - all three of which I purchased.

I visited the original cell of St Romuald - small, austere but comfortable in its simplicity. On my own here again, I simply stood absorbing the silence and stillness that in such places feels cumulative, acquired. Out again into the courtyard, I looked wistfully up at the eremetic enclosure where nothing stirred: monks probably at siesta I thought. Sleeping can be prayer too.

Monday, June 25, 2012

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 gospel writers, two of whose key texts resonated with Bede at the end. Jesus' prayer to the Father that we all be one as he and the Father are one and that love of God and of neighbour are the summation of the good news. Indeed I would add John's deep commitment to friendship that Bede had in abundance.

And in serendipitous irony on the cloister wall of the cathedral is a fifteenth century wall painting depicting scenes from the life of St Benedict, whose order Bede had embraced.

I sat awhile in the dark peacefulness of the church saying the prayer of the heart and giving thanks for Bede's life - both as told by Shirley and in our lengthy correspondence and singular meeting. The descriptions of his presence in those last years was so resonant with how I found him.

I even 'lit' a candle - one of those electric plug in ones that disfigure Italian Catholic Churches of which both he and I heartily disapprove but forgive!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

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 apartment here for sale, just to sit on the balcony, looking out across the courtyard and be greeted by the neighbour's flapping washing obscuring the fading medieval wall painting in the corner!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

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 not exploited. It is a vision much needed after a week at work exploring social justice in a resource constrained world, exploring our planetary limits, and how to balance human need with our greed and a fragile earth.

I have included in the burgeoning suitcase Rosamund Bartlett's biography of Chekov that takes as its conceit his love of place (and his nomadic nature) as the lens through which to see his life and work and in recognition that one of his closest friends was Issac Levitan, the great Russian landscape painter. We think of Chekov as a writer of people yet those people populate very particular places to whose shaping life they respond.

Two further slim volumes have made the cut. A series of essays by Helen Luke that extraordinarily prescient and wise Jungian analyst who only began to write in her late fifties and whose sentences slow you into pondering and illuminate both the literature she is exploring and the reader. She has a five page essay on Lear in her book, 'Old Age' that says more about what it means to transit from productive working age to the contemplations of ageing than any number of 'helpful' books.

The second is Thomas Hardy's Selected Poems (never leave home without poetry). The poems are the achievement of the second half of his life and are beautiful explorations of the myriad ways of being human against the backdrop of a traditional, rural society. It is rare to be both equally accomplished as poet and novelist: Hardy is the greatest.

Days of art, evenings of reading: holiday.

Friday, June 22, 2012

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 tradition is a making of human hands through a particular lens, embedded in a particular history. Such making embodies truth, but is not the truth. The truth resides in a mystery that can only be experienced and shown, not told, and whose witness is a complete compassion that embraces all beings. It is a careful balancing act that sees your tradition as a fulfilment of truth and recognising that fulfilment can be found through different routes if trodden with the same openness and vulnerability.

He was an extraordinary man and yet a quiet, unassuming witness to whom we might all become in our own particular way. When we met, I remember carrying a burden of potential questions I might ask. The burden slipped away in his presence: he witnessed to the answer, silently and in the grace of his presence. I cannot recall being so silenced in an individual's presence - not over-awed but simply wanting to sit and be with another, themselves a transmission of the truth. The marvellous conversation which I am sure we had has left primarily the sense of the Presence through him.

Shirley's biography eloquently bears witness to the process of that making. It was hard: holiness is not acquired lightly but it was achieved. I remember having lunch with the Archbishop of Milwaukee who had known both Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths. Merton, he said, was a remarkable person yet Bede was the 'real thing': a saint.

We are all saints in the making: Bede was a delightful witness to our destination.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

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 identification with the peasants' simple life was accomplished in tailored smocks (carefully fashioned in Moscow) is but one (and a simple) example.

Yesterday at a day on Tolstoy and Chekov by Rosamund Bartlett, biographer of both, that was brilliantly executed, she said that Tolstoy was a man you could admire but Chekov was one you could love and that I think captures it exactly. There was an episode she related when Tolstoy went to visit the ailing Chekov in hospital no doubt with the best of intentions but ended up haranguing him so forcefully that it brought on another haemorrhage! I had a vivid image of being stuck in a lift with Tolstoy where he would challenge your use of this mechanical contrivance and upbraid you for it all the time forgetting that he was in the lift himself! Meanwhile, being stuck in a lift with Chekov, you felt, would be an unalloyed pleasure!

However, Tolstoy was an undoubtedly highly principled and courageous man who continuously challenged an oppressive state both in word and deed. For example in the 1890s, while the government fiddled in the face of widespread famine, Tolstoy was setting up soup kitchens and feeding people, raising money, attacking the government into action and persuading his friends, including Chekov, to muck in and help!

And a deeply influential one, you only have to ponder his influence on Gandhi to see this. However, not a prophet honoured in his own country, the centenary of his death was a muted affair in Russia (in 2010). An anarchist, a supporter of minorities, a non-believer in violence and in the Orthodox church is not one likely to endear himself to Mr Putin even if he is Russia's most famous writer (internationally)! It did not endear him to the Communists either who were happy to have him as a proto-revolutionary and a great writer but 'religious' 'anti-authoritarian' 'agrarian' thanks...and relentlessly persecuted the Tolstoyan communes that sought to bring his ideas to life.

The opportunity to share and contrast Tolstoy and Chekov was a good one. Tolstoy was a typical Russian writer in telling you what you ought to think and do. Chekov (especially at the time) an atypical one in showing you what people believed in and did but without telling you want to think. He invites you to have compassion on people who inhabit (as we all do) worlds of varied shades of grey (and of colour) rather than the black and white of certainty. It makes him (for me at least) enormously attractive.

In one part he reminds me of my beloved George Eliot: for the compassion but also for being a person who having put aside his explicit faith, drilled into him in childhood, retained, in the bones and texture of his seeing, a recognition of its importance. Something about it matters even if this is not its objective truth...

Like all good talks about literature, it left you tight in your traps waiting to spring back into the works themselves, with new ways of seeing, new possibilities of understanding.

Friday, June 15, 2012

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 sitting on my swaying bunk read that strange admixture of lyricism and cynicism, faith and realism. 'So this is poetry...'

It opened a door. I walked through. The world changed. I fear I quickly abandoned Auden for deeper fare (sorry Wystan) but will always remain grateful for the door...

As it flowed back through me in the station car park this morning, it was one of those moments of deep, abiding gratitude, when I realise that life is absolutely extraordinary and alive in all its complexities; and, that poetry is the language of the world (and our being with one another) even as we persist in imaging it in prose.

Celebration by Denise Levertov

Brilliant, this day – a young virtuoso of a day.
Morning shadow cut by sharpest scissors,
deft hands. And every prodigy of green –
whether it's ferns or lichens or needles
or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes –
greener than ever before. And the way the conifers
hold new cones to the light for the blessing,
a festive right, and sing the oceanic chant the wind
transcribes for them!
A day that shines in the cold
like a first-prize brass band swinging along
the street
of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds
with the claims of reasonable gloom

Thursday, June 14, 2012

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 once neighbour (his old house is within a short walk) and who was friend and teacher of two people who 'taught' (and inspired) me: the monk, writer and pioneer of inter-spiritual dialogue, Fr Bede Griffiths, and the poet, Kathleen Raine.

I have never wholly understood why Lewis has developed such a place in the affections of Christian evangelicals as if he were 'one of them'. He was not: he adhered to a mainstream Anglicanism infused with the light of his learning in (and love of) both myth and Platonism.

In one of his great earthy images of heaven - of people on a bus so distracted that they repeatedly miss their stop - he implies that no distraction (or evil) is great enough finally to prevent any of us finding the mark of our being in the love of God and stepping off into redemption. He hopes for the salvation of all in the end. The hells may be eternal (to quote Blake) but a soul's presence in that eternal state is not.

It was as a supervisor of her PhD on Blake that Kathleen knew and grew to greatly admire and respect Lewis - and for all their differences of temperament and conviction - they were fundamentally on the same side, knowing that this world is a reflection of an eternal one that required certain standards of action and quality of being to be seen and lived. Those standards were objective, demanding and inhered in the good, the true and the beautiful. They were, in different ways, both its defenders against a triumphant materialism (much in evidence in Out of the Silent Planet).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

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 meaning, each valuable in its own space.

My favourite chapter, on this reading, was 'The Idea of Prayer' that in a mere ten pages gives you a lifetime's programme of practice!

Prayer must be persistent and sincere and its focus is on establishing a bridge to that higher world that is the source of our evolving transformation.

Christ describes its persistence as like a widow who asks for justice from a judge who only acts because he is forced, in order to save himself trouble (Luke 18, v 1-5). It reminds me of my dearest friend, Ann Wetherall's, research on answers to prayer that demonstrated a connection between persistence (intensity) and being answered. In the gospel of Luke the word translated 'importunity' (Luke 11, v 8) means literally 'shameless impudence'. It is with 'shameless impudence' we must ask and not ask for 'ourselves' but out of love of neighbour, that place in us that is beyond self-regard.

You immediately see how difficult it is to pray from the 'right place' and yet we can always catch ourselves at it, unawares, as I did driving home today. I am passed by an ambulance and whilst pulling aside find myself offering a prayer for those travellers, carers and cared for, without 'thinking'. Such is the importance of habit - the perseverance of a certain regard - so you can fall into it and ask for your neighbour out of nothing, no self, and trust that God will answer.

And the difficulty, the desire to praise oneself for doing it subsequently... but you keep on habitually practising so as to become so regular as to achieve a normality beyond any desire for self-praise!

And in that paradox you live!

Monday, June 11, 2012

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. There is no back story. Whereas in 1976, we are treated to an extensive back story that locates this particular group of Germans as 'decent' (They are from an elite parachute group sent to work on dangerous experimental work on Alderney because their commanding officer has tried to save a young Jewish woman).

In the 1942 film the villagers are much more proactive in liberating their village - they take to arms indeed the postmistress hurls pepper into the eye of her guard and then lets him have it with her wood chopper. It is somewhat unrealistic and yet strangely stirring - we will fight them on the beaches and up every lane and into every cranny of the kingdom (This is 1942 after all).  In 1976, the villagers are much more passive victims of the plot - the background against which the conflict unfolds between the German paratroopers and the nearby American forces (I suppose the film had to be sold to the States so they get to rescue Churchill).

Though the actual resistance is melodramatic in 1942, however, it does capture the reality of the Second World War more closely than the 1976 version. The war's casualties were overwhelmingly civilian. This was a war fought against 'civilisation' not within it.

The other striking difference is class. In 1976, all the people we are meant to identify with are 'posh' - German and English (oddly though the Americans are critical to the outcome, they singularly fail to take root as people, except a tragi-comic turn from Larry Hagman as the combat frustrated and incompetent US commanding officer). The only working class character from the village who emerges into any reality is boorish and surly. In 1942, the whole village is in this together and all emerge with equal credit. Class differentiation is inescapably there (and referred to) in 1942 but does not matter when the chips are down. It is unconsciously there in 1976 and does appear to matter to who is heroic and who is not!

This strikes me as an inversion of what we might imagine - though Cavalcanti the 1942 film's Brazilian director was a communist, and Greene was a sympathiser, I do not think it wholly accounts for the very real difference in spirit between the two films. Class is much better addressed when we recognise it exists than when we pretend it does not (a reality that especially applies I think to America where they pretend it does not and end up significantly more hierarchal, not less, than the British).

For all its obvious propaganda elements, Went the Day Well, is a wonderful film - intelligent, literate and beautifully made - and its value as propaganda, I expect was enhanced by the detail of its observation, its strands of humour in diversity, and the glimpsed vision of precisely, in some of its complexity, what was being defended.

It, also, has the final touch of beginning and ending at the memorial to the German fallen, buried in the graveyard. We might be fighting (and when the film was made at our most precarious and desperate) but we would still bury our opponents decently. We are apt to be cynical at such observations but that rebounds to our discredit. Better to have ideals, and fail them, than not to have them at all!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

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, no organised religion!

Meanwhile, remarkably, given what I had re-read in Needleman's Lost Christianity this same week, the grail is guarded by the angels who, when there was war in heaven, between 'good' and 'evil', stayed neutral. They are the guardian point within us, within the cosmos, from which we see the forces that gather up and those that dissipate and from that point offer reconciliation. They are the point of "apatheia' (see that allows us to see and create the space whereby out of this purity of heart, we can reconcile the warring forces within us into a renewing wholeness.

To come across this so nakedly present in the next text read (without any expectation) is one of those nurturing moments of synchronicity that life throws you way, and encourages there by.

Clarke is an admirable writer both as a novelist and, as here, a re-teller of others' stories. I am, I confess, a poor reader of medieval literature, wanting a greater interior psychological realism inhabiting more rounded characters, but Clarke, in an afterword on the story, offers a very illuminating way of reading these texts as archetypal, as you might read a dream, embodiments of aspects in your psyche. It is a suggestion that gives me hope that I may be able to read more, and the originals, profitably.

Parzival is, read like this, an illuminating story of a journey from an unknowing fool to a wise one - and  a hymn to the importance of listening to the heart and a genuine obedience not to our projected self, approved by others, but to the more complex listening that is an awakened conscience (itself not a social construct but an inner, abiding image of the good).

Friday, June 8, 2012


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 play, dwell in the uncertainty of the game, stay.

What does it require of us to be genuinely vulnerable? An ability to play, seriously; an ability to believe and yet hang loose to particular beliefs; and, a willingness to explore.

It is too, from its opening shot where the commune members celebrate the death of Franco, a very funny film, a humour particularly carried by the children. For example, two boys discover though playing war may be frowned on (stereotypically bourgeoise), you can play at torture - the evil Pinochet defeated by the sterling resistance of his leftist victim! The boyhood thrust towards violence remains the same but disguised!

At heart 'Together' celebrates the messiness of being together in a way that is seductive, charming, celebratory and realistic - people do leave, they cry and bend, but mostly they carry on carrying on in myriad and good patterns of being human and loving.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

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, baldly and 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 an answer towards what had happened when, in truth, the only answer could be to bring us back to our condition: a humanity that is unable to sustainably will the good.

It is a condition to which the practice of religion is meant to be an answer, a therapy, but one that comes about fitfully. Something is missing namely not only an understanding of what we aspire to but of all the forces that not only support such aspiration but that conspire within us to thwart it. An ability to rest in detachment and see what is at stake. Too often an idea 'grabs us' and in the excitement of being carried away, we do not notice that, in fact, we have not changed. The emotion ebbs away returning us to square one.

Having said this (or similar) I was looked at a mite strangely, surely I was not criticizing these initiatives? They are a great response to what has happened etc etc.

I was not criticizing them but querying the spirit in which they were held and the realism with which they were seen. Could we implement them without expectation of result (exterior or interior)? Could we deliver them dispassionately for themselves rather than answering our own need to be seen to be doing something?  I doubted it and yet this is what religion is meant to realize in us.

I realize that this line of questioning was amplified in me by reading Jacob Needleman's 'Lost Christianity'  of which it is a core question. I was reminded of this as I read that remarkable book once more.

What is necessary for Christianity not simply to be believed in but to be effective in its depths? Part of the answer is a deeper realization of who we are and the forces that compose us and how we struggle with those forces to allow grace to be present and effective.

It is an invitation to the practice of what used to be called apatheia - an ability to see ourselves without passion - to see how thoughts arise within us and are drawn into effective emotions (positively and negatively) so that we have the space in mind to ground decisions that lead towards the light (rather than the dark). Too often in the lack of internal space our emotions have us in a way that even when they are positive have no staying or deepening power.

What the world needs is more apathy, correctly understood, and less enthusiasm! It was a curious sermon to be offering in that week of all weeks when the pressure was on to be doing something (anything)! But a necessary one.

Monday, June 4, 2012

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 always been known: that the heart has its reasons that reason cannot fathom though it could help if it learnt to play the servant role not the master of our intelligence.

The first part of the book sets out to show, if not convince, our usual manner of thinking that there is something more, that the heart is an organ of perception, indeed one third of its cells are neuronal, and deeply integrated with a more holistic, multi-dimensional way of knowing than 'brain alone' allows for. It appears that many of the key hormones that regulate the well-being of the brain, and shield it from stress, are released from the heart. The heart sets the tone in which the brain works (though we learn to surpress and interfere with this from an early age).

Meanwhile, we sit in a continual flow of communication with the world (interior and exterior) whose patterning is non linear and fractal. It comes to us through the senses but the senses are wider than the traditional five - at every moment waves of communication pass over, through and from us electromagnetically, and Buhner explores some of the ways this matters, and how that mattering works.

The second part of the book explores, with the rigour of poetry, how the direct perception of nature works, and what it demands of us. It demands a continuous practice of learning to see (not simply look) and listen (not simply hear). It requires that we address all the aspect of ourselves that are not seen or listened to, and whose emergence when we sit down to genuinely attend to the world, claim their right to be heard too. It requires, as Goethe recognised, a moral purification - not through the imposition of some top down, imposed creed, but recognising where we are (in and of the world) and the discipline to live that uprightly. It is not easy which is why it is increasingly not common (except with children who often do it 'without' knowing, which is one way in which they delight us).

It is a beautifully written book, arresting in its cumulative vision, and I left with sense of all that I miss seeing for not dwelling more deeply in the heart and in the world. We surf the surfaces but there is always an open invitation to the depths.

The descriptions of Goethe et al's actual practice is deeply interesting and with the inclusion of Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver and Masanobu Fukuoka graced with very real results in the tangible world of growing stuff including many new plant varieties and growing it sustainably. Not flaky at all but not commensurate with the canons of reductionist science either that says let us not believe that which is before our eyes (unless it has been peer reviewed first)!

It was too, for me, a showing of how one of the more puzzling features of the life of indigenous people came to pass. If you ask them, how they knew what to do with this or that plant, they say 'the plant told me' to which the reductionist scientist guffaws and says 'trial and error' without answering the obvious question, why out of all the plants available try ones so unpromising including the deadly poisonous?

Here, in Buhner's book, is the outline of a methodology that an indigenous person might use naturally to allow the plant to speak, offer its knowledge for respectful use. Flaky, but which is more flaky? An empirical approach to listening to plants or the fantasy of generations of people sacrificing themselves on the off chance a plant might prove useful?

Three provincial centuries indeed: the mind locked up in the province of the brain rather than consciousness embodied by the world.

"We all walk in mysteries. We do not know what is stirring in the atmosphere that surrounds us, nor how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain - that at times we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits; and a presentiment, an actual accorded to it." Goethe

Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  and resonant with this rece...