Showing posts from July, 2013

Island Spirituality

One of the joys of a beach bumming holiday is being able to catch up on one's reading, between dozing in the leisurely heat and with swims to revive.

Alastair McIntosh's 'Island Spirituality' is a short book, built around a lecture and extensive and fascinating endnotes, on the spiritual values of Lewis and Harris. It is an exploration that is biographical, historical and theological.

Three themes emerged for me.

The continuity of a Creation-centred spirituality through striking historical change as if the beauty of the Isles always demanded a more than natural explanation and response.

The way in which the austerity of a Calvinist interpretation of Hell can be not simply rejected, watered down or evaded but responded to by taking the reality of Hell up with renewed seriousness. Hell is 'the place' we inhabit with all that we are temptingly not - our egotism and selfishness - and where we meet the purifying burning of God's love. As long as we refuse that …

Lost Horizon

Moderation in all things is Chang's summation of the underlying philosophy of Shangri-La in James Hilton's novel, 'Lost Horizon'.

I have seen both film versions - the great Frank Capra one and the rather odd 60s musical version - but have never read the book until now. It is a captivating read, fast paced, admirably focused on the central character, Conway, and why he might make a successor to Father Perrault, the community's founder, and just sufficient seriousnessness in the proffered philosophy to arrest attention, prompt thought.

There is in Shangri-la both a tolerant sense of understanding as a enterprise after knowing, where even certainty is held in moderation, and a prescience about the immediate prospects of the world that is compelling.

The world is going to hell in a handcart (Hilton is writing in 1933) and there is a necessity for cultural preservation that is more than the simple accumulation of past glories but a way of life rooted in contemplation, …

Monsieur wind what does he say

These were the first reported words of Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk and writer, recorded by his diligent and cerebral mother. Given that he became an accomplished listener to the Spirit that blows where it chooses, shaping his remarkable vocation and life, they may be thought of as highly symbolic if not prophetic. It is no doubt why his biographers (of which there are no apparent end) love them so!

They often spring to mind when I find myself listening to the wind of which there is plenty of opportunity here in eastern Crete! It is memorably fierce, springing up seemingly unbidden by any obvious weather condition, and blowing robustly for hours. It does have a pleasing variability, multiple voices, rather than the persistent drone that is Provence's Mistral - a wind that can bend the mind round obsession and to madness (You can even use it as a mitigating circumstance in murdering your partner in French law - disgruntled lovers take note)!

But though it can be disturbing a…

A quiet garden: Holland House


This is my mother's favourite retreat house, located in the Worcestershire countryside, near Bredon Hill, an outlier of the Cotswolds. It is a beautiful setting, at the heart of the peaceful village of Cropthorne, a thatched house (with modern annexe) with a still and beautiful garden running down to the banks of the Avon.

I spent two days here this week attending a strategy meeting (that was energised, productive and engaging) but beyond that the whole space contrived to draw me both in, to a guiding contemplative stillness, and out into a quiet, background appreciation of the natural world as gift.

On both of the mornings I went for a pre-breakfast walk (and the food is excellent), up to the fringe of the village and a view of Bredon Hill, whose attendant village of Elmley Castle's church has the marble tomb of my ancestors, and down to the river's edge, listening to the flow of water, the dance of fish and bird song.

Diocesan retreat houses …

My friendship with Martin Buber

When I was a theology student, I discovered an abiding dislike of Christian doctrine, after the tenth century (with honourable exceptions),  for after this time there is a break of relation between being and knowing, of doctrine being therapeutically concrete, rooted in prayer. Theology becomes not of God but about God: abstract, intellectual and rational.

My tutor in modern Christian doctrine found this dislike perplexing, after all I was a highly intelligent student so why would I fail to answer the questions set, wanting to probe their presuppositions from a philosophical and existential direction? In this probing my understanding of Buber's philosophy was critical. In exasperation one day my tutor exclaimed, 'I have not read Buber' at which point he was treated to such a hollowing look of contempt that only an arrogant twenty one year old can deliver!

Reading Maurice Friedman's 'My Friendship with Martin Buber', I find myself recalling the ongoing debt I o…

God is a slow learner

Repeated claims notwithstanding, God clearly does not know which side S/he is on. The menfolk ride off to war and their womenfolk settle down to prayer (and in the case of the Woodville women magic of which more anon) but the outcome appears to be decided by the unfolding of events - planned and chaotic. Perhaps confronted by so many conflicting prayers, God sits on his hands or washes them of the strange behaviour of mortals!

Thus does it go in the War of the Roses and the BBC's 'The Winter Queen' - an adaptation of the novel of Phillipa Gregory. The series compellingly takes the women's part, seeing it through their perspective, and how they are both subject to and, sometimes, manipulate the men.

My favourite is Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the future Henry VII, a monarch I have admired since I studied him for A-level, a perspicacious blend of controlled mercy and ruthlessness and a non-admirer of war (for being too expensive apart from anything else)! Margaret …

I am Spain

In the 'A Crisis of Brilliance' David Boyd Hancock addressed how a group of British artists had responded to the cultural break, social crisis and human tragedy that was the First World War.

(The artists are subject of a fabulous exhibition at the Dulwich Art Gallery: )

In Boyd Hancock's "I am Spain" the focus is on the Spanish Civil War - that rehearsal for the Second World War that the First purportedly was being fought to end - and on the focus is on writers rather than artists.

It is a very compelling account of how people, knowing nothing of Spain, its people, culture and history, were drawn into opposing Franco's rebellion against the legitimate, elected Republican government because it was seen as THE place to resist the advancement of 'Fascism'. The people are both famous (Orwell, pictured here) and unfamiliar (a long list) but all connected by a refus…

Christian meditation

On the train to Lugano (for a second impact investing conference this month), I was reading James Finlay's 'Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God'.

A student of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, at the Gethsemani monastery, he eventually left the monastery and became a clinical psychologist and counsellor. He has a unique writing style that evokes the state of being he is seeking to describe.

Its circling, repeating of its themes can, on first encounter, feel repetitive and yet they allow you to feel your way into the reality of meditation. The quietly sitting in open, vulnerability to the presence of God in stillness. The mind's continuous attempt to elude this presence, rooted in its ego's distractions. The continuing invitation of the God who loves us into being and wants to bring us into the full realisation of the union with all things that this loving makes possible for us.

It is a book of arresting image and his use of representative voices…

And Man Created God

Selina O'Grady's 'And Man Created God: Kings, Cults and Conquests at the Time of Jesus' has the philosopher and 'new' atheist, A. C. Grayling, declaring that it is, 'A must read...No one should be allowed to lay claim to Christian or indeed any religious faith who has not read this book first, and meditated on its import.'

This, if taken literally, would do untold wonders for its sales (as well as being a mite illiberal); however, having read it, I am not sure why Grayling is so earnest.

It does a highly competent job of exploring the inter-actions between religion and state in the 'known' ancient world - from Rome to China - and seeks to explain why, sociologically, certain traditions took root, as universalising traditions, such as Christianity and Confucianism and others did not such as the cult of Isis. It, also, seeks to explain why Brahmanism succeed locally, in India, leaving Buddhism uprooted in its birthplace and Jainism only a compact…

A Magpie mind

The Count of Monte Cristo - 1243 pages. Andrew Mango's biography of Ataturk - 539 pages. Thank goodness Poor Economics is only 273.

These were today's arrivals from Foyles (as Amazon are now out of bounds for playing fast and loose with their tax obligations).

All three's purchase was fuelled by being in Turkey.

Ataturk is an obvious connection. His image is everywhere in Ankara - the city he made his capital - and his legacy is now in deep contestation. His 'secular' republic is either under siege from Erdogan (if those protesting are to be believed) or being amended to be less aggressively secular and allow space for belief in the public square (as the Justice & Development Party would maintain). As a new member on the forming 'advisory council' for Oxfam in Turkey, I thought I ought to know more about the formation of the modern state (and some of its fault lines).

Poor Economics emerged as a recommendation at the conference I attended whilst in Ank…

Arvo Pärt - Prayer after the Canon

This composition by St Andrew of Crete is sung in Orthodox monasteries at the break of day where the coming light is associated with the coming of Christ.

Here is the setting composed by the incomparable Arvo Part: a composer of continuing integrity, fertility and prayerfulness.

It is a composition of repentance, speaking of change and transformation, as the darkness of night gives way to day, so might we put aside our shadows and embrace the light.

Listening to it this evening, driving home from dinner, I found myself recalling an instance, years past, when my unconsciousness and callowness caused true offence to two friends and fellow students who had been very kind to me. It is one of those moments that you would most deeply love to roll back in time and relive thoughtfully.

Alas that is not possible, all one can do is continue to struggle to carry what light one has forward into one's dark and in the confidence that, in time, a greater light will embrace yours and show you th…

Another day, another capital

After Ankara came Cardiff where I spent two days visiting programmes of Oxfam GB's UK Poverty Programme and considering, with colleagues, how we can build programmes effectively to scale so as to help more people, more effectively.

My field visit was to Swansea and to a charity called the City of Sanctuary that helps community groups, public and private organisations to create a welcoming space for people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the UK. We met representatives from organisations that had been helped by City of Sanctuary and asylum seekers themselves. Our focus was on how they had used their limited resources to lever change by building effective networks of support.

In the process, we heard of the 'Byzantine' nature of our asylum system where people can find themselves in 'limbo', unable to work, waiting uncertainly for the 'system' to decide their fate. These were people, many of whom had been tortured, persecuted, threatened in their own…