Showing posts from March, 2013

On the fringe of Kathmandu

Today I traveled to the outskirts of Kathmandu to visit the refuge for children not yet able to be returned to their parents. It was a place rapidly urbanizing yet still with the open space of fields, vegetable gardens and the uncleared, forested tops of hills. It was above the punishing smog of the Kathmandu valley that today obscured any view of the mountains. All there was a pallid white-grey opacity.

The refuge was basic, simple but adequate and the children all go to an excellent school up the hill. The staff are caring yet in need of better training to address the psycho-social needs of children whose short life stories (and the youngest is six) have been scared with trauma. The trust's new office, further down the hill, is in the process of acquiring the space to sustain extra-curricular activities and provide confidential, safe counselling spaces.

On the journey up, I was able to see, for the first time, traditional Nepalese architecture, as here,  restored and sometimes …

Practice resurrection

The Resurrection by Sandro Botticelli.

"What you do to the least of these," said Jesus, "you do unto me" pointing to the children gathered about him.
If we practiced resurrection, living within the boundary of this Christian witness, my Easter weekend would have been very different. The stark reality of 'child trafficking' would be a thing of our collective past.
Sadly it is not and, therefore, such organizations as the Esther Benjamin Trust ( must exist- to rescue trafficked children in Nepal (and from Nepal in India), either to return them to their homes or care for them until capable of an independent life and to work on the causes of trafficking both in poverty and education and in changing the law and its enforcement.  
For a busman's holiday, I find myself in Kathmandu helping the committee and staff of EBT's Nepalese partner think through its strategy and explore ways of taking up new opportunities to implement tha…

Prayer without ceasing until the sun goes down...

I arrived in Kathmandu this morning and stood smiling amiably at the Buddhist monk as we waited for our luggage to emerge on the carousel. He was every inch the modern monk with his lap top case and smart baggage.

Welcomed at the airport, I stepped in the car and discovered an array of Buddhas and Buddhist symbols to offer protection from the vagaries of the Kathmandu traffic including a solar powered prayer wheel (as depicted here, and available on Amazon).

'Is this cheating?' I thought but did not ask.

I do remember the poet and novelist, Lawrence Durrell, leaning over his breakfast table at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in France and telling an earnest Australian visitor that indeed you could get battery powered ones now. The Australian apparently had been at risk of repetitive strain injury given the fervor of his hand propelled spinning. But this is the first one I had seen.

St Paul tells us to 'pray without ceasing' to be so attuned to the Spirit's presence t…

Even Larry Elliott... The Guardian writes of 'capital controls' as if they represented some kind of failure. It is true in the case of Cyprus that there sudden and drastic imposition (and pretended 'temporary' nature) are a response to failure (both of the Cypriot banking system and of the bailout of that system) but they are not, in themselves, intrinsically bad.

I mean if they had been in place all along, we would not have built up a banking system whose inherent irresponsibility has led to the current crisis.

Indeed the last capital controls in the UK were only abolished with the first Thatcher government and with their general global dismantling, post-1971, various things have happened.

The world financial system has grown increasingly unstable, it has generated less actual wealth year on year (measured in GDP terms) than the preceding decades but has contrived to allocate that wealth increasingly unequally.

Are these facts in anyway possibly connected? To which the answer is yes…

The Silver Darlings

The Silver Darlings is a novel by Neil M Gunn that became a film and (as here) a play.

It is an essay in social realism. It tells of the clearances that forced many to live at Scotland's edges and take to the fishing of herring. It was a fishing that offered both the prospect of modest prosperity and cruelly the unpredictability of the sea.

Set in the early nineteenth century, the story revolves around Catrine who loses her husband to a press gang, takes refuge with a relative, finds a new man, who she eventually marries on learning of her husband's death, and determines that her son, Finn, will not be taken by the sea.

But both her lover and her son have the sea in their blood, try as she might, she can keep neither from it nor persuade Finn to take up the path of education (using a small legacy she has acquired).

She is a typical 'Gunn mother' in that her version of her son's betterment (usually entailing escape through education) clashes with the son's desi…

The paradox of blackmail

Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German Finance Minister, yesterday declared that he would not be blackmailed by anyone (presumably, in this case, Cypriots) only to say in the same sentence that he must do everything to preserve the euro (and its rules). You do not let yourself be blackmailed by actual people but are quite happy to be straight jacketed by a made up financial mechanism.

This is, of course, a very common pattern in our human experience where 'abstracts' become more real than actualities. Plato called it 'sophism' - the tendency of the human mind to prefer its conceptual frameworks rather than the hard task of continually creating 'notional' responses to the world as it continually presents itself to our embodied minds, to people in action.

Ideally, we should be fashioning and re-fashioning the rules to meet the demands of actual needs as people. Currency was made for man not man for the currency (where have I heard that before)!

Memories, Dreams, Reflections

It must be one of the better childhood 'visions' - God sending down from His throne on high a giant turd to shatter the beautiful roof of His cathedral in Basel one bright, shining summer's day - and have one of His children, in this case the precocious Jung, both tested and graced as a result.

It is extraordinary story, told in Jung's 'autobiography': 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections'. The potential 'vision' was so disturbing to the twelve year old Jung that he spent several days in frustrated distraction lest he commit the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. But when he did finally think his way into surrender, he tells us he felt an extraordinary moment of enfolding grace. Apart from anything else it is a beautifully told story of childhood neurosis - have I committed a sin of which I am unaware? I am clean?

What matters, he tells us, is not following the outward signs of religion, including God's own recorded commandments, but being…

The Flagellation

I saw the Flagellation by Piero della Francesca in Urbino last year. It is a very strange, yet beautiful, painting because the central narrative: Christ being flogged before the crucifixion is placed at the back and to the foreground are three men, variously identified.

The traditional view is that it is a complex allegory concerning the fall of the Byzantine Empire that happened twenty years before it was painted; however, it is wholly modern in allowing Christ to appear in a picture not as the central figure and as an allegory relating to some other event (rather than the other way around).

Or is it? I am reading Marilyn Aronberg Lavin's book on della Francesca in Phaidon's consistently excellent series: 'Art & Ideas'.

Her reading of the painting is a highly satisfying one because she capture a dynamic that you can see in all Piero's art namely the transformation of particular persons and places, either historical or contemporary, in the light of sacred narr…

Agreeing with Mr Putin and The Economist

This is unfamiliar territory.

Mr Putin described the proposed bailout of Cypriot banks, where depositors holding over 100,000 euro would be charged a one time 'fee' of 9.9% as part of the agreed bailout package, as "unfair, unprofessional and dangerous".

The Economist described it as "unfair, short-sighted and self-defeating." (

I confess to agreeing with this unlikely concord.

By nature, I am mostly un-shockable but this 'agreement' has genuinely surprised me and my own adjectives would be mendacious, unjust, immoral and unbelievably stupid!

Immoral because it violates a much vaunted and now betrayed claim to trust on the part of the European Union. This is because it will effect people below the promised 100,000 euro threshold of depositor security with a proposed 'levy' of 6.25%. This 'levy' is now being negotiated downwards but the principle has been breached and t…

The multiple lives and mystery of Arthur Rimbaud

The unknown English poet, Lewis Thompson, was deeply influenced in both his poetic and metaphysical pathway by the exceedingly famous (or notorious) French poet, Arthur Rimbaud.

Could an intense focus on the practice of poetry disassemble the 'I' as ego and liberate a transparency of consciousness that allowed 'Reality' to shine through whole and in all its coloured particularities? Or would you come to realise that, however, deftly and intensely explored, language, in the words of Thompson, was always, however well intentionally aimed, Hypocrisy, falling short of capturing the truthfulness of things?

If you did realise this would that relativise your practice of poetry, making you seek an embodied surrender into the wholeness of truth in your life (as Thompson sought) or would you, tragically, abandon poetry for a different kind of life as Rimbaud did? And where would the meaning of that life be in relation to one's whole life journey? Did Rimbaud's poetic si…

A new Pope

Apart from congratulating myself on my perspicacity on predicting a Latin American Pope on the basis that it needed to be shipped out of Europe safely and that meant to a place that mirrors Europe and speaks a Latin based language hence the Americas, I, like many, am pondering what this particular election means...

What it does not mean is any radical shift in the doctrinal teaching of the Church on matters beloved of liberals and obsessed over by conservatives. Sex remains conflicted. The Church will continue to exhort and the faithful will nod politely and continue to ignore the Magisterium.

The chinks of light are that Pope Francis is a Jesuit and committed to social justice.

The former gives him a commitment to a conscious, disciplined and structured pattern of spirituality that is designed and meant to deliver concrete results. Jesuit spirituality is not a path of exhortation and wishful thinking but a measured, thoughtful and imaginative path for evoking, responding to and chan…

Children, place and possessions


Given the content of this excellent piece by my friend, Jules Pretty, I can be forgiven for recycling it!

The importance of our attachment to particular places can never be underemphasised. For the important reasons articulated here as well as, I would add, their stimulus to creativity, not only the unstructured play, mentioned here, but of poetic response.

We often write (or paint or compose music) in a dialogue with particular places that inspire, frame and creatively bound our thinking. This is obvious with nature poetry or landscape painting or programmatic music but even quite 'cerebral' poetry can be and is rooted in conversations with particular places.

I think, for example, of Eliot's exploration of time and eternity in his Four Quartets, each of which is coupled to a place for more than simply the reasons of naming. Something in the nature of those …

Live and Let Die

Maybe because it is the first one I saw (at a cinema in Aviemore, Scotland I recall when on holiday) but my favourite James Bond film (if not my favourite James Bond) is Roger Moore's first outing as 007.

It is undoubtedly politically dubious - mostly white virtuous people pitched against mostly black criminal people - and the trashy Voodoo and Tarot running theme is a travesty of both (and how they became to be interconnected is a mystery) - but it is simply so enjoyable.

From the opening scenes of the dispatch of three British agents, especially the New Orleans funeral shifting from slow mourning to jazz infected celebration through the memorable chase scenes with the decrepit double decker bus and the speed boats in the Louisiana bayou to the denouement on the train with the thug with the artificial arm, it is simply magical (and graced with a Paul McCartney inspired score that is fun too)!

Even the astonishingly wooden Jane Seymour (as the Tarot packed seer) is splendidly, en…

A Gift for the Magus

According to Alberti in his book, 'On Painting', a masterpiece of the Florentine humanism of the fifteenth century, 'to be a good painter you must be a good man'.

Fra Filippo Lippi (believed to be self portrayed above) was, by the standards of the age, notorious. Orphaned at an early age and placed in a Carmelite Friary, he proceeded to a life of disobedience, fornication and strong liquor and yet became one of the greatest painters of his age, whose paintings are graced with a harmony between heaven and earth. A new realism shot through with adoration.

He kidnapped (or rescued) a nun (or woman in the care of nuns), who had modelled for him, and she became his wife and the mother of a son, destined himself to be a distinguished painter. His most long lasting pupil was Sandro Botticelli.

Linda Proud has woven about this story both a fine historical novel and an extended meditation on the nature of goodness, the interface in art between inspiration and patronage and on …

Spine tingling...

Rather randomly, over a decade ago, you walk into an office in search of ideas and in the course of that discussion (and much subsequent work) help bring an idea, already hatched but looking for a home, to fruition.

Today you are sent a link by a friend you did not know then about today's Women's Hour on BBC Radio Four. It is a report she has helped produce. It is about two women in Ghana - one suffering from bipolar disorder, another who suffered from post-natal depression - both of whom have found the support they needed from the organisation Basic Needs that sprang out of that discussion more than ten years ago!

The accounts of their suffering and their path ways out are very moving (and can be found starting at 16 minutes 41 seconds into the programme).

It is moments like these, listening to their voices of renewed hope, that remind me that changing the world in a more compassionate and just direction is always possible.

It, also, r…

Authority junkies

Only Jesus, when wholly transparent to the Father, can teach with authority (that of the Father) and only when that teaching is absorbed in the uniquely transformative experiencing of each person does it have any purchase on the soul.

What the Church needs to discover is not its 'authority' - better it abandoned that notion once and for all since it has singularly, persistently failed it (as it can only do, being unable to possess it)  - and find the humility to consistently point to the reality inherent in Christ - a reality brought to bear in its saints.

The Church, as Karl Rahner observed, needs to become one of a practiced mysticism - or nothing at all.

Aiming to recover its 'authority' is rather like an alcoholic convincing himself as he breaks his dryness for the umpteenth time that this time it will be different! The only way to deal with power is to surrender it by distributi…

Consulting the Genius of the Place

Wes Jackson's 'Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture' ought to be required reading by virtually everybody (though it could be helped by a touch of smarter editing).

It makes a simple, but cogent, case that we live by way of deficit and have done so ever since the invention of an agriculture, ten thousand years ago, based on crops made of annual, rather than perennial, plants. This deficit has been disguised first by our capacity to move elsewhere as soils collapse, secondly by improving plant varieties and thirdly by huge (and increasing) artificial inputs of non-renewable energy (actual and transformed) like the ability to convert natural gas into fertiliser, without which, it is estimated, 40% of the world's current population would be unfeasible!

Annual plants tend towards monoculture and are grown by disturbing the soil. Such disturbance can be managed more or less effectively but virtually never without incurring soil los…

The inconvenience of voters

This week's Economist cover (and accompanying article) garnered almost a thousand, mostly hostile, online comments and deservedly.

This was not because some of its criticisms were not germane (especially of Mr Berlusconi whose attraction to Italian voters remains to me a complete mystery except when you consider the immense media tailwind afforded by his owning much of it)!

It was because of its unconcealed contempt for voters - democracy is theoretically applaudable unless it gives the 'wrong' answers and like many centre-right newspapers that means if the voters (either in their pain and bewilderment or their intelligence or a confused mixture of both) question the dominance of the market.

This peculiar entity, 'the market' (always reified) is not fashioned by human hands and is apparently to be worshipped at all costs lest it wreak terrible revenge - like destroying the euro in a fit of wrathful peek! (It should, I think, never have been invented and should now…