Friday, July 26, 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 love, which we are always free to do, we remain in Hell. The invitation of God's love is relentless however and, therefore, we can hope that Hell will be empty at the fulfilling end of things, what the Orthodox tradition calls the paraousia.

The importance of a religion of experience that embraces the signals of transcendence that are often labelled the 'paranormal' most commonly on Lewis and Harris, the gift of second sight (vivid examples of which Alastair gives). If we are going to have renewed confidence in the realities of the spirit, we need to faithfully build communities where stories of such signals can be told and welcomed.

These themes, and others, are woven into a compelling account of what the islands' traditions may have yet to teach us and how such an act of cultural criticism and recovery may be of value in other contexts. It is a real joy to see history woven with such insight from theology and both together making a wider, more embodied whole.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

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, a more measured sense of time and a restraint of passion that is slowly cultivated not imposed. It is a recipe that ought to be carefully pondered - it speaks to an age so earnest upon activity that reflection is squeezed out and that is measured in value only by what we consume.

It is an alluring utopia whose prospect for success is left at the end tantalisingly open ended. It deserves a sequel.

Monday, July 22, 2013

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 at night creating patterning sounds of the estraging in an unfamiliar place, it can to be accompanying a sense of being wrapped round in forces other than those purportedly at the will's command. There is another world wrapped around this familiar one that invites attention (to adjust the words of the poet Celan) that you can lie in the early morning, listening to, ' Monsieur wind, what are you saying?' as you wait for your companions to wake, having indulged a shared fantasy last night that it would be early!

Friday, July 19, 2013

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 are a precious resource and yet a threatened one - one's in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire have closed this year - and Holland House must weave 'commercial' business into its space as well as the spiritual in order to survive. I devoutly hope that it will flourish, and I have signed up, and joined my mother, as a friend

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

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 owe to this remarkable man and thinker (and not only in recusing me from the highways and byways of modern doctrinal thought).

Friedman was the pre-eminent interpreter of Buber in the English speaking world, his biographer and his friend. This was his own last book before he died. He shows that he was a man who walked his talk, that sought to concretely embody his philosophy in his life. He was a great man as a result, if not a saint.

It is always difficult to encapsulate in a few words the richness of Buber's thought not least because it is a kind of thinking that is best assimilated through living it out in your own particular context.

Whenever I manage to overcome my impatience and irritability and present myself humanely to the person at the Sainsbury checkout counter or in answering fully a question put to me by a colleague - I think of Buber. Buber is present in my valuing of democratic dialogue between persons as the basis of any meaningful social intercourse, in my sense that a true social order begins in the quality of personal relationships. When I find God in what presents itself in the daily round requiring a loving and just decision, I think of Buber. When I recognise that God is "I am there as whoever I am there" a confirming demanding presence that can be addressed and responded to, but not talked about, I see Buber's hand.

I cannot think of a person whose thinking has more influenced my own, taught it and tested it - I am deeply indebted to him, not least that in reading and practising him, some (if not all) of that arrogance has been worn away to show glimpses of a person capable of listening and contending with another in faithfulness and humanity.

Monday, July 15, 2013

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 is un-admirably single minded - it is God's will that her son should inherit the throne and everything that happens is bent towards that interpretation. That it happens is true but I suspect that is wholly accidental to her wishing it so! Her long suffering second husband strikes me as much the most sensible character in the whole drama - avoiding conflict where at all possible and only going into battle when one side represents the possibility of a lasting future order.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Woodville, the Winter Queen, has inherited her mother's gifts of magic and together, they use it to influence events (I suspect this is the fictional bit, though you never know). Magic does appear more effective than prayer in this case (though carries no absolute certainty) but it too can fail and Elizabeth's family will suffer many reverses - her sons famously will be murdered in the Tower of London though her daughter in marrying Henry will help bring the conflict finally to an end.

I think the whole could be seen as a compelling parable of our success in manipulation and the failure of its effects - even when we succeed, events unravel our victory! The only true course is to put  aside our egotistical imaginings and pursue a course of either genuine feeling or true principle. It is only when they do that as Elizabeth does in her love for her husband and he for her or in Beaufort's husband's principled search for peace, do people genuinely become human.

That humanity, however, is exceeding fragile and the grim engines of history often ride roughshod over it (as well as our illusion of control)!

It is too a beautiful piece of costume drama - though the actor who plays Edward IV, whilst charmingly pretty, is sadly a bit 'chinless'!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

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 refusal to allow a country to fall into the hands of 'the enemy'.

As with reading accounts of the Russian revolution, what strikes me is the dammed up violence that a break down in the political order released. The social revolution that accompanied the rebellion against the Republican government was stark in its willingness to punish the oppressor whether rich or bourgeois or religious. Equally, the rebellion's response was to systematically kill or violate its opponents.

Into this chaos stepped the idealism of many who sought to shore up the prospect of a better, more humane, more equal world only to find that idealism is good propaganda but a poor organizer. The organization on the Left slipped towards the Communists who, pragmatic as ever, were willing to use every and any means to try and impose their will. In the end the conflict excluded any prospect of the 'compromising middle' or the 'anarchical journey' and took its course towards the Right's victory and the suppression of any dissent.

What struck me reading this too was what James Hillman would call, 'the terrible love of war'. Many of the volunteers had missed, by youth, serving in the First World War, and whatever their thoughts about the wasteful terrors of that conflict, they felt, as Orwell remarked, left out, less of a 'man' as a result. It is as if our consciousness is made for a greater intensity than the ordinary patterns of life usually afford us and war is a luring compensation. The continuous presence of risk, the idealism of honor and politics and the comradeship of shared danger, reliance on others and intimacy, all drew them on and in.

There is no answer to war that does not find an answering activity to that needed intensity - only a deepening of consciousness and felt communion that can sit on the edges of death and see through can compete for men's affections. If one wants to avoid war, we must intensify the experience of peace and as Gandhi suggested make it a moral and mental struggle every bit as challenging.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

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 from the tradition is brilliant. It is not the first book I would recommend to a beginner but undoubtedly the second at the moment the practitioner begins to taste and see the reality of silence and how through it God restores us to our loving image as god's image.

It, also, beautifully captures the natural normality of this - meditation brings us to a recognition that we, with all our frailties, are the subject of God's love - not some hoped for perfection. We meet holiness in the wholeness of everyday life.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

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, minority interest.

It does so with both clarity and with enjoyable, illustrative detail including introducing us to the fascinating Apollonius of Tyana, at the time, a more famous wandering teacher than Jesus and one who, it was claimed, was resurrected from the dead, but who failed to get traction for (a) not being rooted in a place, (b) having a more hesitant 'message' and (c) not having such a brilliant and creative publicist as St Paul.

I expect that Grayling would like us to infer (having meditated suitably) that had the sociological (and historical) conditions been different each and every religion would not come to be in the way that it has (which is a truism) and, thus, they are simply products of human imagination responding to specific circumstances, fundamentally transient, even if some are more resilient than others (which does not necessarily follow). Traditions may be humanly imagined but what are they responding to?

Thus, the problem with this thesis is, first, some do come to be predominant (often against heavy odds) and that predominance (though creative) has been remarkably stable and, second, that this kind of explanation, whilst telling us, what conditions did help fertilisation (and shaped the traditions accordingly) does not tell us why. What is it that those who receive the tradition find in it and why does it make the difference that is a difference?

O'Grady's treatment of Saul/Paul captures this failure beautifully. Paul is the recipient of an experience that transforms him from persecutor to promoter. What is the nature of that experience? Whatever it was, we can assume that it was not probably the resolution of a sociological conundrum, inventing a religion that helped resolve Paul's dichotomous identity as Jew and Roman (however much or little such a dichotomy played in the subsequent reception and interpretation of his experience).

Once again we are trying to 'explain religion' without taking consciousness seriously - what states of mind (and being) does religion give access to - prior to their consequences in shared, social space? How that plays out in shared social space is fascinating but, as every major religion would claim, ultimately not the critical issue (even Confucianism has recognised the need either to sit alongside religion that offered a change in consciousness or for itself to go 'neo-' to offer a complete picture of what may be possible). A religion as a cultural phenomena is extrinsically interesting, religion as a transformer of consciousness is intrinsically compelling.

What is so fascinating about the book is precisely leaving that question unanswered - what is it in the sustained technologies of transformation that a religious tradition offers that makes it continuously attractive (even as it comes bundled with endless flaws)? That is what gives religion its heart, its revelation.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

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 Ankara. Many of the public officials (from member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference) seemed woefully ill-informed of the lives and, importantly, the potential of poor people. They were people to which things should be done rather that people who were authors of their own lives, with rich coping strategies and many assets (social, natural and financial). My 'partner' expert recommended 'Poor Economics' as articulating many of the points I was seeking to make, so I ordered a copy.

The Count of Monte Cristo was ordered off the back of watching the most recent film version late one evening in my hotel and realising that I loved the story (even in this compressed form) and especially a French television version with Gerard Depardieu as Edmond Dantes but had never read the book (though I have read The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask). It is a mite bulky for the beach but some other time...

Out of such diverse connections is a library built!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

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 the way home.

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 countries and now faced a long wait before being able to fully rebuild their lives. Some did not wait and we met Hannah who volunteered in no less than six different places to bring her energy, skill and humour to bear on helping others.

These are the people 'demonised' in our newspapers and it is a stereotyping that CofS hopes to unpick one relationship at a time. In Swansea it appeared to be working and everyone present acknowledged what a welcoming place, on balance, it was.

I was also fascinated by the juxtaposition of coming from Ankara to Cardiff. The former exceptionally neat, ordered, with a felt energy of abundance and growth, a self-confident place emerging. The latter post-industrial, a bit battered, with an over-dependency on government expenditure and a kind of tiredness as if trapped in a cycle of decline.

I am sure that this latter perspective is ill conceived if you had time to look more closely but it is the externalised impression - and these count (and indeed can become self fulfilling). When you travel to 'emergent Asia', you come back wanting to infuse a huge jolt of energy into home.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...