Showing posts from October, 2013

Music at Midnight

Simone Weil writes that 'absolute, unmixed attention is prayer' and, thus, you can see how George Herbert's poem, Love (III), became for her the 'most beautiful poem in the world'. It is a poem focused on the courtesy of attention where a person stumbling into a feast, feeling themselves unworthy, finds themselves invited in and invited up into the bosom of hospitality. It is an event that is commonplace. People refusing to be burden or a nuisance having to be persuaded by a different standard to relax and partake. It is one that Herbert knew well and one that he raises to a beautiful account of God's all embracing love. All blame, all trouble is absorbed by the welcoming host and, thus, is the guest liberated to enjoy the meal with out guilt or shame.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin,
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A gu…

Different world

Fa Ruozhen, Landscape, 1692
Yesterday I went to 'Masterpieces of Chinese Painting' at the Victoria and Albert Museum - a beautiful constructed survey from 700 to 1900. You immediately recognise that you are in a different space. 
The devotional imagery of Buddhism that greets you in the earliest surviving exhibits is unfamiliar to most yet it is devotional and that (if not its meaning) remains recognisable. However, their material medium, that is silk, gives a whole different texture and colour to the paintings. 
Recently I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels, in their Durham home, a work of a similar time devoted to the sacred and found myself contemplating the difference. Both carry images of life at its utmost liveliness - the Enlightened and the Gospel. The former seem to flow in a dynamic unfolding cosmos, the latter stand as emblematic gift. The former is becoming, unfolding, the latter being, enfolded, given. This shift of 'metaphysical' emphasis, I realised, is inherent i…

Mortal Love

When I was fifteen, I went on a road trip with my father during the October half term through Somerset, Devon and the northern tip of Cornwall. It is the only time I have visited Tintagel. It was a murky, mist swirled day, the season ended, the rather tawdry gift shops and cafes empty or closed.

However, I remember standing in one of the ruined cells of what had been a 'Celtic' monastery on the site itself with the uncanny sense of both having been there before and that 'being there before' coincided with now, not simply a 'memory' but a presence, of stepping across a threshold of worlds and of being more than one identity, then and now, and yet the same 'person' then and now. It is the only time I have had a glimmer of what it might be to feel in terms of 'reincarnation'.

Cornwall, where I spent many childhood holidays, has that effect on you - a place of its own culture, isolated, surrounded by the ocean on three sides and what an ocean: maje…

Mary Magdalene restored

'Was Jesus's most important disciple a woman?' asks the publisher's blurb to Cynthia Bourgeault's 'The Meaning of Mary Magdalene'. To which the answer that Bourgeault gives is yes, possibly.

On the way to this conclusion (that I will expand upon), she must rescue Mary both from orthodox reductionism and heterodox hype.

By the orthodox, the woman who anointed Jesus into his death and was the first witness of his Resurrection has been subtly trivialised - an exemplar of a justified sinner rather than as a powerful, adept teacher, witnessing to a transformation in wisdom.

By the heterodox, she has been at once literalized (as Jesus' wife) and source of titillation (Did they or did they not have sex, children?) or inflated into a 'goddess' figure and floated off outside any meaningful Christian context, denied a life of her own.

Is there a way of keeping Mary foursquare within the Christian fold while allowing her story to transform that fold, expa…

The favourite ten

Inspired by The Guardian current series of the best ten xxx (romantic, action, comedy etc) movies and by having to begin sorting and discarding for a forthcoming move, rummaging through my DVD collection, and idling, I came up with my favourite ten films.

Defying the convention of reverse order, I will start with the film that I would want to keep if all the others were to float away (Desert Island Disc style).

This would be Denys Arcand's 'Jesus of Montreal' that cleverly, movingly recapitulates the story of Jesus, in deeply human terms, through telling how a group of avant garde actors re-create a Passion play at the main shrine in Montreal. It is pitch perfect - funny, biting, moving - asking how might we see Jesus' life, here and now, though stripped of the supernatural, it speaks utterly to the human.

At number 2, 'Paris, Texas' by Wim Wenders. For the extraordinary way Travers confesses to his estranged wife, through the telephone wire of a peep show, an…

Poor Economics: Doing the good in minute particulars

I am enjoying 'Poor Economics' by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo's - the founders of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab ( - the home of the random control trial.
I enjoy the genuine sense of wanting to find answers to well-crafted questions and answers that are driven by data rather than ideology. The outcome is a continuing sense that you do the good in minute particulars (to quote William Blake), that there is no magic bullet to achieve a solution to poverty, only carefully crafted webs of solutions that edge forward, build cumulative knowledge and are open to more inquiry and surprise.
You can see how difficult that this is to achieve because the authors are as capable of slipping into received wisdom (and ideological drift) as soon as they step out of their field of enquiry. It seems an inherent natural trait to spin speculative narratives as soon as we can relax from the evidence (and many of us relax from the evidence all too …

Symbolist Landscape

'Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880 -1910' was an exhibition that I sadly missed (in 2011) and have been contenting myself with the catalogue that is good of its kind, though dwells, as usual, more deeply on describing the paintings and their technique and their place in the artificial categories of art historians than on describing their meaning, origin and reception. When this balance is reversed in art history, I will be truly delighted.

However, be that as it may, it was informative and the reproductions well made.

Three things struck me, in particular, as with the first wave of industrialisation (and its attendant materialism) gave rise to Romanticism as response, here too, at the end of the nineteenth century, was a reaffirmation of the subjective, of the life of inner consciousness and its ability to transform what is seen. But unlike Romanticism, it was a more fragmented, less philosophical, more impressionistic response that could be allied wit…

The great deceivers of the world

"The great deceivers of the world begin by deceiving themselves," to quote Moliere's 'The Imaginary Invalid'. Convinced of his own fragility, the invalid persuades others of his persistent illnesses, not consciously and thus utterly convincingly.

I was reminded of this, finishing Linda Proud's wonderful Botticelli Trilogy, 'The Rebirth of Venus' her three novels tracing the rise and fall of the Medici and the impact of the New Learning on a rebirth of culture - most especially in philosophy and in art.

The third novel traces the fall of the Medici, the sundering of Ficino's restored Platonic Academy and the career of Savonarola.

Savonarola, the Dominican friar and a prophet of a purified Florence, Linda sees as a tragic figure. A man convinced, by self-deception, that God speaks to him, a man with a mission, himself pure in intention but not in insight, a fatally narrow vessel to hold any such vision and whose Godly intentions lead to disaster, n…

Poets in the Park

Sitting in the park at the rapidly advancing dusk of autumn, wrapped warm in the turning air, reading Yeats, watching the world and their dogs pass by. Wind in the trees providing the music, the alterations of air and feeling, allowing your sedentary poise not to turn to restlessness, allows your eyes, heart, mind to focus on the poems (in that order).

For my money there are three English (language) poets of the first half of the twentieth century who truly matter to me and they are Hardy, Muir and Yeats. By which I mean that were I allowed to keep only three, these would be the three I kept.

All three sought roots in communities that were threatened by the onrush of modernity and celebrated them (as they lamented their passing). They saw them with clear eyes, none are sentimental, and all three looked for ways of resistance, Muir and Yeats more effectively than Hardy. 

For Muir and Yeats had given their heart and soul to a transcendent tradition. Muir intuitively, Yeats as a dedicated l…

Latter day icons

On Thursday, I went with an old friend (and family) to the National Gallery in London and we agreed to go our own ways for a couple of hours. I realised that many of my visits here are time constrained, raids between meetings, where the tendency is to visit the familiar. It is a long time since I have granted myself a whole two hours. The first thirty minutes was traditional - Pierro della Francesca's 'The Baptism of Christ' and Rembrandt's late self portrait - but then I gave myself permission to wander.

Usually I avoid the Impressionists/Post-Impressionists who, I confess, have never excited me particularly since Gauguin imploded in my sight at the major Tate exhibition held recently. There was a moment in Brittany where cultural understanding, theme and colour coalesced in extraordinary vibrancy and meaning then (for me) it dissolved in Tahiti. There he was a painter of extraordinary gift standing outside his place, painting it colourfully and yet utterly cold. His…

A friend of God

After an intense period of work in Russia in 2000/01 that laid the foundations for Forus Bank (, I decided to take a sabbatical. Having been acclimatised to a continental climate (in Russia), I found myself by the shores of Lake Michigan, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, at the Friends of God Dominican ashram, an experimental contemplative community of a small group of Dominican Friars and a Sister. It had been founded by Father Don Goergen OP, former provincial, theologian and holy man (with a puzzling but endearing fondness for rabbits - one of whom, John Dominic, plump and indolent [or highly contemplative] shared the library with us)!

I spent a fabulous six months in prayer, fellowship and nature (the lakeshore was a two minute walk from the house) and learnt much. Most compelling was the gift of hospitality - people came to the ashram of all kinds, gifts, dispositions, needs and offerings and all, like myself, were welcomed…

Parents and the Daily Mail

One of the first things my mother did after my much beloved father died was cancel their subscription to the Daily Mail! Though as a newspaper, it did reflect my father's opinions, it never reflected his person as a kind and generous man. We are, thankfully, never simply our own opinions!

I was thinking of this when I saw reference to the piece that the Mail penned at the weekend on Ralph Miliband, the father of Ed Miliband, the leader of the UK's Labour party.

I cannot myself summon up much enthusiasm for Marxist intellectuals as a group (as Ralph Miliband was), though I am sure some are quite delightful as individuals, especially those fortunate enough not to live under the system that Marx's ideas and ideals helped to construct (however, arguably far those systems were and are from Marx himself). Nor, in fact, can I summon up a huge amount of enthusiasm for the current Labour Party (or indeed party politics of any kind that presently gives me the impression of ever mor…