Showing posts from September, 2013

Presence and living into the Future

Yesterday I was discussing, in the staff canteen, what our future role as an international NGO might look like with an intern who is helping us explore new 'business models' through which to deliver our work.

In the course of which, I noticed coming towards me, out of the dialogue, a prospective future of how the organisation might look: a future possibility. If only we had paused there, allowed the presence of it to take shape, but the flow of the conversation moved on in the urgency of time (and limited by what we both thought of as 'the brief').

How often do these moments come to us when we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be a new whole, only for the veil to fall back into place and we return to our past-embedded agendas?

Usually the idea of reading a 'management' book is akin to being invited to occupy a circle of hell that even Dante had not envisaged; however, 'Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future' (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworsk…

Novel Zen

Dostoyevsky famously tried to write a novel about a saint, and notably failed. Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is a holy fool and the Brothers Karamazov leaves the potential of Alyosha incomplete.

The Romanian novelist's, Petru Dumitriu's, remarkable 'Incognito' has, at its heart, a 'secular' saint, Sebastian, who discovers God in a prison camp and infects others with his discovery of the unconditioned love of the world by example rather than through word.

Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' has not one but four saints or four characters who carry different dimensions of the possibility of one, whole, saintliness.

Enter into this company, the Scottish novelist, Alan Spence's recently published, 'Night Boat'. In a sense he cheats because his is an imaginative realisation of an actual saint, embodied in a historical fiction (akin to Nikos Kanzantzakis' St Francis), in the Zen monk, Hakuin, one of the most important, and beloved, figur…

Remembering the Acropolis

I was sixteen, tall, thin, scared with acne and full of romantic yearning when I first saw the Acropolis. I was on a school cruise, it was April, the sun was brightening in its warmth, the flowers of Spring were out. I had been reading poetry, seriously, for the first time (Auden) and I found myself enraptured by new places discovered, externally and in myself. There was a language, I discovered, that helped you see through feeling, and it was good.

On that trip, it was Greece (not Venice, nor Turkey, nor Egypt) that I fell in love with. Most especially with the theatre at Epidauros and its accompanying temple of Ascelpios; and, the notion you might fall asleep, dream of gods and be healed (and watch drama with virtually perfect acoustics)!

Yesterday, I was drawn to the temple of the god of healing, both on the slopes of the Acropolis and those key remnants preserved in the new Acropolis Museum (a fabulous building that no doubt creditors believe was paid for with money that the coun…

Innovating with rather than for

In Athens for the weekend for SciCo and the British Council exploring social enterprise and innovation. Here the interest has been spiked by the post 2008 crisis and the need to develop sustainable responses to social problems.

A common theme is how reluctant we are as social organisations to genuinely consult our clients/beneficiaries and allow them to shape what we do. We talk the talk of participation but often fail to walk the walk.

I was reminded of launching Basic Needs in South India ( in 2000. We asked three highly competent disability charities whether they had people with mental illness (defined as a disability under the Indian Disability Act)  in the villages in which they worked. Two said no, one said they did not know! When challenged on this, they all gracefully agreed to look again and lo they all found significant numbers of mentally ill people. It was a vivid illustration of how our assumptions about the closeness of NGOs to 'the people'…

Suzuki meets Swedenborg

It is not immediately apparent why D.T. Suzuki, the great scholar of Japanese Buddhism, would translate (and write a book on), the great eighteenth century Swedish scientist and visionary mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. Though Swedenborg was both a pathbreaking scientist and one of the most original of theological minds (and deeply influential on nineteenth century artistic culture), he is undoubtedly (and unforgivably) obscure. His status as a 'heretic' might make him appeal to Suzuki's questing mind to find affinities between Christianity and Buddhism but (like Meister Eckhart until recently, on whom Suzuki also wrote) it is not one likely to elicit a mainstream cultural or theological response from 'the West'.

However, closer inspection reveals that the affinities are striking and deeply suggestive.

First, even though couched in the language of visitations to heavens and hells, Swedenborg retained his empirical bent. Everything he wrote about was tested on the anvi…

The Forbidden Book

It begins with a bomb desecrating a church that itself contains a desecrating image of the Prophet Muhammed (drawing upon Dante's depiction in the Inferno). The image exists in reality in the church of San Petrino, Bologna and has been the subject of Islamist plotting.

It proceeds from there to contain several well appointed houses, a murder, a kidnapping, an esoteric tome of Western alchemy, a misfired love affair,  a bungling Italian police investigation, an American Catholic professor of Italian literature as hero, a right wing Italian baron as villain and a political plot pursued through magical means.

Such is 'The Forbidden Book' a novel that is the combined work of a distinguished professor of music and scholar of Western esotericism (Jocelyn Godwin) and a published novelist (Guido Mina di Sospiro).

It definitely lands in 'Dan Brown territory' excepting that all the scholarly references are, well, scholarly and that we genuinely are in a world that takes the…

A transfigured window

When I was at university, there was a 'university mission' to which I went. On three consecutive nights, there were three presentations of the Christian faith from four distinguished Christian bishops. It was an extraordinary line up - Michael Ramsey who had been Archbishop of Canterbury and a distinguished theologian, followed by the famous double act of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Warlock, and his Anglican opposite number as Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, and finally, on the last night, Metropolitan Anthony, the charismatic and holy, Russian Orthodox prelate!

Ramsey struck me then as a man both holy and wise with a way of making complex truths simple. They all radiated a sense of holiness that detracted not one wit from their own humanity, and indeed eccentricity.

It was a surfeit of riches and today in Durham Cathedral a friend had directed me to a new (2010) stained glass window dedicated to the Transfiguration and offered in memory of Michael …

Artists as tormented souls

Yesterday I went to both "The Crisis of Brilliance' at the Dulwich Art Gallery and 'A Revolution in Art Mexico 1910 -1940' at The Royal Academy (where the catalogue is on sale already, a bargain at £7.95).
This is Tata Jesuchristo painted on the Mexican Day of the Dead by Francisco Goitia (of whom I had not heard or knowingly seen). This painting was not on show but on the evidence of the two that were - a hanging man in a tree (painted during the Revolution) and an elderly man, serenely sitting on a pile of rubbish, oblivious to his apparent poverty, he was a remarkable painter and himself lived in voluntary poverty, seen as a 'mystic' and seen as tormented. I expect the last may have been projection on the part of the world faced by a recluse who is not abiding by their rules. Wild he does look in his photographs but tormented no, though alert to it, the pain in a broken world.
The artists that formed the Crisis of Brilliance too, I feel, were being frog march…


Whilst attending a conference, I remember standing at the main entrance to the Hall at Dartington, looking out across the courtyard, on an autumn day, at the tall beech tree that stands opposite. I found myself joined there by the poet, Jeremy Reed, who in public compensated for a shyness, whose depths made mine feel shallow, by piling on a histrionic act that was (and may still be) off putting to say the least (as I had witnessed the evening before). But now, with just the two of us, looking at the same object, he quietly began to talk in dense yet startling and beautiful metaphor about what he was seeing. It was a compressed masterclass in the art of poetic sight.

Today in the Oxfam Secondhand bookshop, I was reminded of this moment as I purchased a copy of his 'Selected Poems'. His is an imaginative giftedness that does not sit at ease in the world. I find myself wondering what has become of him and will internet him down.

It has been a morning when my book acquiring compu…

Gandhi - the Esoteric Christian?

I might like to think that my future biographer (sic) would attribute my knowledge of Plato to a careful study of his works, read repeatedly over time. Whereas, in truth, though I have indeed read him, his influence has been most deeply experienced through reading a book called, 'The Third City: Philosophy at war with Positivism' written by Borna Bebek. The book was born in obscurity where, I confess, it sadly has remained!

But even if it had flourished at the time of its publication, it may have disappeared by the time a biographer arrives on the scene. What shapes our perceptions, our philosophies, our world views, even in the most famous, disappear from view with the passage of time (and our unwillingness to entertain the notion that our 'heroes' have dieted on anything less than the most exalted fare).

So it is with Gandhi, maintains Kathryn Tidrick in her absorbing biography, 'Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life'. We all know, if we know anything about…

Caretaking the cosmos

Gary Lachman in a stream of books has admirably both described aspects of the Western esoteric tradition and its influence on Western culture and written biographies of some of its key exponents, most recently on Madame Blavatsky (as described here,

However, in his most recent book, 'The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World', he explicitly sets out his own views of what it means to be human and why we are here? This being Lachman his views are set out lucidly, engagingly, tentatively and accompanied by a cloud of illustrious witnesses from the Hermetic tradition and the the Kabbalah, to Blake and Goethe through to Berdyaev and Cassirer (amongst many others).

He begins with the Hermetic and Kabalistic notion that in creating the world God left it purposely unfinished and that humankind's task was to complete the world through repairing it. In the Kabbalah such repai…

Soil and Soul

When I was eighteen, I went with a friend on a visit to two islands in the Inner Hebrides - Eigg and Rhum. They were islands that my friend had known since childhood. They were woven into the fabric of his spirit and both vicariously through that attachment and through their translucent beauty, I drank from their wells.

However, on Eigg I was aware of a human conflict between landlord and community. The then landlord, Keith Schellenberg, was eccentric, volatile and an exemplar of how 'landlordism' was both oppressive, arbitrary and a brake on the development of vibrant, self-sustaining communities, never perfect but real.

Reading Alastair McIntosh's fabulous book, 'Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power', I discovered the history of Eigg's liberation as one of the first communities in Scotland to effectively buy itself out and embark on a new life as a community land trust. It is a complex story of empowering a community to enable it to take control of i…

The icons of Remedios Varo

The difference between fantasy and imagination is coherence. The 'imaginal' world (to use Henri Corbin's expression for the world poised between the transcendence of intellect and the flowing formations of sense) has a precision of signing that reminds you of language. This world is real, not a fantasy, even as it takes you beyond sense. Remedios Varo may have begun in the fantasy of surrealism, a liberation into the 'unconscious' but she emerged with her own defined world of the 'imaginal'. She represents a challenge to the traditional world of the 'imaginal', that is religious art, because her signs are not immediately recognisable within a tradition of making. They need both a more patient and individual approach (and they are often a gifted with a greater sense of humour) yet they are continually recognised as importing something known and as important.

As here above with the moon's light a dynamic presence in a sheltering, mystical wood, g…