Monday, October 28, 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 guest," I answered, "worthy to be here";
Love said,"You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made your eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them:; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert continually pulls off this quiet miracle of poetry, enabling the commonplace, the simplicities of the everyday - of court, church, community and garden - to be transformed into an attentive seeing into both his own soul - in dark doubtful stresses and joyful releasing lights - and that of God's dealing with us (in wrath or indifference sometime as well as predominantly in liberating movement and in love).

John Drury's ' Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert' beautifully shows us why and how he did this. Beautifully written, lucid and informative, it guides us through the life, times and poems in a gifted act of scholarship. The poet, Kathleen Raine, once asked her PhD supervisor, none other than C.S. Lewis, whether he had learnt anything from 'literary criticism'? "Not much," he replied, "But from scholarship, yes." By which he meant, I think, work like Drury's that sympathetically elucidates the poems, their meaning and method and tells us by what way it succeeds or fails, so that we the reader may be helped to make better judgements regarding their sense, technique and meaning, and read them again with better attention, improved insight.

Herbert's own wish for his poems were that they provide comfort and consolation. In Simone Weil's case, they undoubtedly did. They helped her see through the crushing burden of her persistent headaches to place herself at the disposal of others, to place her thinking in a space that allows one to consider what it might be to consider and receive the grace of Love's hospitality. This is a poem's fine, consoling achievement.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

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 in the chosen materials. Banners flap, pages (or icons) stand. Silk allows colour to flow, vellum stands figure into pose. Both contain energy flowing into life but form, shape it differently. This is not to say that the metaphysics is determined by the materials but does suggest that metaphysics chooses different paths of craft, selecting the most appropriate.

Nor is this a sharp division. Each (as in the classic Yin and Yang symbol of China) carries the seed of its opposite. The Bodhisattvas manage imperious pose in their flowing movement. In Celtic Christian imagery, the life of its characters threaten always to break out from the page. Each sacred tradition carries all within it yet speaks with different emphases.

Of my favourite images was from the 'apparition school'. These were paintings of Chan (Zen) monks of broad, even crude, brushstrokes that appear to materialise out of the void of no-thing yet present presence formidably. 

This one is attributed to Shi Ke and is entitled 'Two Chan Patriarchs Harmonising their Minds'!

One feature of Chinese painting that is arresting is that often they were made as painted scrolls to be rolled out, admired, rolled up and stored. Looking was not a casual good. My favourite of these was Chen Rong's Nine Dragons from 1244. 

Nine dragons playfully weave a cosmos from their dance. Seen rolled out entire it is stunning and captures another element in Chinese painting - a persistent reference to humour that flows with the grain of things. The dragons exhibit smiles, surprise, concern, curiosity at their activity. In Taoism, dragons are images of the cosmic forces that bring forth the world. It is hard to imagine a Western sacred painting (of a similar or indeed later period) depicting genuine humour and a tolerant sense of this maybe so!

Finally, the landscapes, such as that by Fa Ruozhen (above) are always a reminder that we live in the world's imagination and care. There are no boundaries here between viewer and viewed: what is seen is a mutual arising in a shared subjectivity that we celebrate in both image and song (as so many of the paintings are accompanied by beautifully written poems). Nature is greater than us, mine is a transient stay on the world; and, yet we are it. We share a common unfolding nature that grants meaning to the whole, once we surrender 'mine-ing' it. 

It was a beautiful transport to a different place, geographically, culturally and otherwise...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

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: majestic and mysterious.

Sidhe by AE George Russell

I recalled this reading Elizabeth Hand's novel, 'Mortal Love'. Here the differently identified but same woman, appearing over time, is not a human reincarnation but a 'faerie queen' and decidedly not of debased modern fantasy but a vital, charged, inspiring and dangerous being. The novel traces from the nineteenth century to the present her impact on the lives of a series of men whose lives, through the intricacy of the novel, come woven together. She is the weft of their deepest desires. The final denouement, appropriately takes place in Cornwall, where she is reunited with her estranged faerie lover and returns to that other world that is enfolded in this one.

It is a testament to Hand's skill that she weaves what is a radically contemporary 'faerie tale' into a perfectly realised set of historic and present realities - realistic magic, magicked realism.

All the principal men are, in some form artists or obsessed with art, and the haunting woman becomes their muse. She comes from a world where time is different, it does not have the swiftness and consciousness of passing and loss that gives our world its edge and for her this edginess is delight. It gives birth to a desire to create, to make things that hold memory, that defeat time. Her desire is to inspire such making. Yet though her world and its beauty is inspirational, it also opens up the pits of unfulfilled desire for those bound to human worlds. She is beautiful and dangerous as faeries are.

So, the book becomes an extended meditation on the relationship between art and inspiration and how the latter, though source for the former, ultimately cannot be contained by it. It, also, becomes a provocative essay on the relationship between madness and art: how costly to the normal is the 'affliction' that is inspiration? Are some of those made mad by the unbearable weight of illumination?

It is, also, full of beautiful, if rather lush writing, and has characters that do feel like characters in a faery tale - symbolic actors rather than psychologically delineated moderns (which I offer as a complement not a criticism); and, some of whom are historical, most notably the poet, Algernon Swinburne, who rather delightfully gets to play a diminutive hero at an asylum fire. It is, also, fun that the faerie queen's guardian companion masquerades in the present as a Jungian analyst!

This is modern Gothic of a very high order. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

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, expanding and deepening it? This is Cynthia Bourgeault's thoughtful, scholarly and moving quest.

To do so, we must first get straight a picture of Mary as she appears in the canonical Gospels (and Bourgeault's careful unpicking of the way in which the Church's 'grand narrative' has obscured her role as apostle is brilliant). Then we must take a deep breath and plunge into her role in key non-canonical texts including the gospel named after her. To my mind this is the most radical proposal of her book.

The idea that Christianity leapt fully formed from Pentecost on, and only later faced challenge from heterodox ideas (often labelled gnostic), neither gives an effective narrative of what we find in the New Testament nor to history. In truth, the revealing event that was Jesus set off a firestorm of speculation, exploration, sense making and practice and our efforts to 'control' by exclusion have led us down the tragic path that is church history. We could have been more 'oriental' and allowed different schools to emerge, linked by family resemblance, undoubtedly argumentative, but more richly creative and notably more tolerant.

That I expect would be Bourgeault's hope and her sensitive readings of the Gospels of Mary Magdalene, Phillip and Thomas help us to see what might be possible.

What emerges is a tradition of 'Wisdom' that the Gospels (as a whole) invite us to a path of concrete transformation of life and consciousness and that Jesus and Mary's life together was an exemplar of a 'bridal mysticism' and 'conscious friendship' that invites us to unite with 'Wisdom' that imaginal place and dynamic that is where the created order meets its divine image. In doing so it restores a notion of the importance of loving relationships as an integral part of the work of transformation. Celibacy is one path, a noble one, but not the only path and possibly not the more effective.

There is much detail in Bourgeault's text that I cannot treat of here including a detailed account of in what such a path of conscious friendship might consist built essentially around the notion of 'kenosis' - the ability to empty oneself of self regard such that you might behold in oneself the fullness of the other - but to note finally that she is on to something!

Even if the mainstream tradition has difficulty with this, the apocryphal keeps nudging it (with a return of the repressed) as above in this beautiful contemporary icon of Mary by the Franciscan Friar, Robert Lentz. It refers to a legend of Mary that has her, because of her 'high birth', travelling after Jesus' death to the court of the Emperor Tiberius. Here she lays complaint at the way Jesus life has been dealt with by Roman authorities and points to its ultimate futility for life is stronger than death and Jesus is resurrected. The Emperor declares that resurrection is as possible as this white egg turning red. Mary takes the egg and as she does so it turns red!

A conventional legend of miracle - except, of course, it has a 'high born' Mary witnessing to the resurrection as Apostle to the depths of worldly power!

So "yes, possibly"! Yes because the evidence points to Mary as a beloved disciple and friend, core witness to resurrection, not only as 'the Resurrection' but as the ongoing invitation of every life to come through love to their eternal embodiment. Possibly because both her repression and inflation are powerful forces obscuring a quieter, more transformative option and who can tell whether we will find the courage to contemplate that alternative?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

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, and restores her son to her without thought of a redeeming 'happy ending' for their relationship. Redemption is neither a cheap nor easy ticket.

(3) 'There are more important things than happiness', declares the church sacristan to the principal character in Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Nostalgia'. This was the first of his films that I saw. I was mesmerised and am still. The extraordinary moment when Gorchakov, at the behest of a 'holy fool' carries a candle, fragile light, continually threatened, across a shimmering hot pool, so that the world might be redeemed. In small, ritual acts might everything be contained. A film that is visually stunning.

(4) But if the world cannot be saved, run away! 'Mediterraneo' has a group of Italian soldiers take over an obscure Greek Island (from which all the able bodied men have been forced into labour elsewhere by the Germans). The war passes them by and they adjust, more or less, to their displaced fate. It is a beautifully observed film and is dedicated to 'all of those who are running away', sometimes it is the best medicine.

(5) But wherever you go, grace will find you. Babette's Feast is a film about the extravagance of grace. A church sect in Denmark gathers to celebrate the anniversary of its founder's death, presided over by his two, spinster daughters, both of whom have denied the possibility of being someone other out of loyalty to their father and to one another. They have sheltered a Frenchwoman as their housekeeper, who, unbeknownst to them, was the chef at a famous Parisian restaurant. It is she, who uses a lottery prize, to cook the celebratory meal. The meal is utterly beguiling and it draws all the participants into a pattern of reconciliation that is magical. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury called it, the most Christian film he had seen. I concur.

(6) 'Les Enfants des Paradis' - Marcel Carne's wartime homage to the disparate patterns of love and homage. A film whose very act of affirming the value of the all too human was a furtive yet resounding riposte to France's occupation by a power that could not see the individual, let alone value it.

(7) Like 'Les Enfants', Sam Peckinpah's last western celebrates values that are both threatened, yet eternal, In ' Ride the High Country', Randolph Scott continually challenges Joel McCrea to surrender his integrity to ensure his future. A challenge, out of duty and integrity, he refuses. They are both enforcers of the law fallen on hard times. They are in a West that is changing and they are given a poorly paid job to escort gold from a mine. Scott sees the opportunity of earning a fast buck, absconding with the gold, and justifies it with all the good he has done in the past that has reaped little reward. McCrea adheres to his duty and in the end it is his witness that succeeds and to which Scott returns. Both actors, veterans of the genre, produce performances that are sublime.

(8) But duty is an internalised good rather than an external demand as Kapadia's 'The Warrior' demonstrates, where the warrior eschews violence at great personal cost but finds, possibly, a renewing future. It is another film heightened by the beauty of its setting (in Rajasthan and the mountains).

(9) 'Chariots of Fire' was released just at the moment when I had come to university, hope filled and with young ambition, both of which are captured beautifully in this account of the English running team at the 1924 Paris Olympics and who can forget the Vangelis score!

(10) Building on  a childhood of Star Trek, 'Galaxy Quest' is the perfect spoof. A group of aliens imagine that a terrestrial sci-fi series (modelled on Star Trek) is an historical documentary and recreate the ship in response to an existential threat to their civilisation. They come to enlist the Galaxy Quest characters, who are eking a living attending sci-fi conventions, to man the ship, imagining them heroes, when, in truth, they get failed actors (who, of course, rise to heroic status)! It is so perfectly structured, magnificently acted and full of in jokes - both about Star Trek and the Star Trek cast (in real life) yet works completely on its own terms!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

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 quickly).

Now, of course, the poverty action lab methodology itself is not a magic bullet. It is expensive and time consuming to run. There may be moral imperatives to action that exclude the possibility of using 'control groups'. It works best when the questions are discrete - what is the best way to help the uptake of insecticide drenched mosquito nets or to have children vaccinated - rather than where the challenges are systemic and complex by their very nature and where we need to act into an unknown future - what are the best approaches to addressing climate change? 

However, at its centre, it is a heartening journey into helping people to recognise what it means to be poor and why people make the choices they make? For example, why would you (with a small increase in income) choose tastier foods over more nutritious. Answer because, like anyone, you want variety and status in your eating as well as 'health benefits'. For example, why would a poor family scrimp and save to buy a big TV screen? Answer because it provides the cheapest form of entertainment over time for your children. And so on...insight flows after insight into people's actual lived lives.

It is a book that humanizes the faces of poor people and shows us (the wealthier reader) that they are people both like and unlike us, given the different contexts and constraints in which we live, but always utterly human - the same admixture of intelligence and folly managing the hand they have been dealt the best way they currently know how. How better to deal that hand and to manipulate what is given is the theme of the book.

Finally, they have an enjoyable sense of pitching the Sachs (Jeffrey Sachs) and the Easterly (William Easterly) against each other - the 'left' and 'the 'right' of development thinkers - and showing how a greater attention to the texture of things and the realities of people's actual lives might be more effectual than their mutual posturing. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

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 with many varied forms of thinking from anarchism to devout Catholicism, from Charcot and Freud to Theosophy.

Second was the very real presence of esoteric tradition (or invention), most especially Theosophy, as a key well-spring with its polymorphic patterns of thinking and its sense of spiritual evolution that paradoxically chimed with, yet as it sought to correct Darwin (and Madame Blavatsky was Darwin's Russian translator - she needed the money). Piet Mondrian, Kandinsky and the Czech painter, Frantisek Kupka, to name but three, fed from its table, developing theories of colour that moved them through landscape to deeper abstraction (and purer spirituality).

Third was how strikingly beautiful was the art that was made, as here with Jens Ferdinand Wilhumsen's 'Sun Shining on the Southern Mountains', which though it was influenced by a particular place, in this case the mountains falling into Lake Geneva, was re-created in imagination (and the studio) to take on a universalism of theme.

Of the sun that creates life for all and is the engine of the cosmos, gathering all into a unity. A unity that embraces human beings whilst recognising that their position in the scheme of things is humble. Of a world that is both held in eternity, the transcendent light, but yet is always changing. The light plays across the waters and the mountains were once yet something other. In one image it both wishes to affirm a magisterial ordering sacred otherness and pay its debts to an emerging, evolutionary account of the world. A putting together what wider forces in society and in culture were attempting to sunder. Symbolism both expresses and seeks to heal a gathering anxiety. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

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, not least because its executors, his companion friars, are less pure than he and that the wider situation he creates is open to the exploitation of darker forces than he can comprehend. It is so easy to paint him in the black and white of his Dominican habit but he is more complex than that neither a martyr of a Christian republic nor demagogic scourge. It is to Linda Proud's virtue (as it was to George Eliot in her great novel of Renaissance Italy, 'Romola') to grant Savonarola's his complexity.

Savonarola is a great reminder to me of an adage that my (Jesuit) professor of philosophy repeated often: that you cannot simply read out of the Bible a moral or political position. It needs to be anchored into a wider philosophical and practical conversation.

The book works as beautifully as novel, as introduction to the neo-Platonic philosophy that birthed humanism and as an exploration of its rippling effects on art, governance and our view of what is Man?

She defends it against both the narrowing doors of fundamentalism and the complacent cynicism of materialism, giving it, understandably a modern resonance.

The book, also, anchors itself in an assumption that a unifying culture is expressed best in the images it births forth. On that mark, there can be no doubt that the Renaissance was a testimony both to the importance of humanity, its divine origination, the importance of how that origination is uniquely gifted to each and every one of us; and, how the truth always leads us to beauty. Our unity in and with God calls forth singing - in sound and colour.

At the heart of the book is a call to recognise that it is here and now that the truth is realised and it comes in beholding the world aright. A great painting, such as Botticelli's 'The Rebirth of Venus' (seen above) is precisely so because it is a gift of that realisation, whatever else we may read out of its complex symbolism, the starting point is in the wonder of its beholding. It stills us towards contemplation, as all great art should. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

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 learning. Their's was a vision rooted in timelessness, Hardy surrendered this to his own agnosticism, all he was left with was the matter of time, and his particular matter, the way it was arranged and lived, was unravelling fast, leaving him with tragedy (and snatched celebration).

But what a poet Hardy was - to have abandonned one career as a novelist and enlivened a second as a poet - and to have produced a body of work in both mediums that stands comparison with the best to be found anywhere, is a rare achievement. I try to think of others. There is Tagore in India (who throws in social reformer, educationalist and artist, alongside his poems, songs and novels) and Hesse, whose poems in Germany are as valued as his novels. 

Hear Hardy...

At Lulworth Cove a Century Back 

Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there:

"You see that man?" -- I might have looked, and said,
"O yes: I see him. One that boat has brought
Which dropped down Channel round Saint Alban's Head.
So commonplace a youth calls not my thought."

"You see that man?" -- "Why yes; I told you; yes:
Of an idling town-sort; thin; hair brown in hue;
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do."

"You see that man?" -- "Nay, leave me!" then I plead,
"I have fifteen miles to vamp across the lea,
And it grows dark, and I am weary-kneed:
I have said the third time; yes, that man I see!"

"Good. That man goes to Rome -- to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie." 

Thomas Hardy on John Keats.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

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 understanding of Tahitian culture an aborting projection. Impressionism was a necessary, bold and extraordinary movement of gifted painters but the surface of things has never been a place I wanted to rest overlong.

However, within this section of the National Gallery were placed two paintings that I have seen before and which arrest my attention (but, for some reason, had forgotten were there).

The first was Vilhelm Hammershoi's 'Interior' from 1899 (shown above). It is utterly typical of the artist. A silent interior, suffused with northern light, a still figure seen from the back (in fact, as often, his wife), completely poised, quiet, and mysterious.  The room is orderly through which flows a composed life, hinting contemplation. The surfaces are realistically present and yet transcended by light and mood. When I saw Hammershoi for the first time (at the Royal Academy), my viewing was slowed to his rhythm. I emerged from the exhibition (which I went to see three times) quietened. The world is composed of utterly domestic acts transfigured. 

The second (shown below) is more obviously transcendental. Casper David Friedrich's 'Winter Landscape' where a man, abandoning his crutches, sits prayerfully before the Crucifixion. My pain is absorbed and transformed in His. The world, trapped in winter, is yet hopeful both through the church that emerges in the distant mist and in the grass that resiliently pushes through the snow. We may inhabit a bleak world yet it is penetrated with signs of another world waiting to be born out of the surrender of faith.

Thinking about this, on the train home, I had one of those moments of revelation that seem obvious only once they have arrived. That in the art to which I respond there is a necessary stillness, an icon like quality of revealing an eternal world, enfolded in this one, and in which 'action' is brought to a minimal point, even of colour (which I expect is why the Impressionists do not work with me, even in their portrayals of the same place, Cezanne's mountain, for example, all is held in shifting light, in transience, not eternity). 

I am an inveterate seeking after icons, even, especially, when made modern.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

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 and acknowledged as unique persons bearing God's image and each person called to fashion that unique personhood after the divine image. A journey beautifully captured in the talk, given earlier this year, on divination (see the link above).

Don is in London tomorrow on a trip to celebrate his 70th birthday and I am greatly looking forward to seeing him (after too long a hiatus). A mutual Dominican friend said to me recently that Don was the person he would go to should he come to the end of his tether. I concur.

Friends of God was an Dominican appellation coined after those who followed in the path of Christ, nurtured by the teachings of the great Dominican mystical theologian, Meister Eckhart but, in truth, it is a simple statement of the invitation of the Gospel. I call you not servants but friends as Jesus washes the disciples' feet. We are called into friendship and in the binding of that friendship, God is.

It is a truth to which Don's life is a happy sign.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

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 more precisely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic).

However, if it is possible, this article (and the newspaper's reaction to being persuaded to publish Ed Miliband's spirited and righteous defence of his father) takes us to new depths in the history of journalism in this country (which admittedly is not too difficult).

First, by assuming that a father's opinions determine the son's. They will undoubtedly influence them but in what direction? Mine sent me off in quite opposite directions. Second, in taking the quote of a newly arrived refugee of seventeen as indicative of the person's formed and sustained opinion - how many of us would survive our opinions at seventeen? Our aspirations and hopes are a different matter! Third in comprehensively failing to imagine what it might actually look like to be a seventeen year old refugee in an alien country whose ability to welcome the stranger is haphazard at best (and this was wartime) and where anti-Semitism was entrenched. Fourth to simply gloss over the fact that Ralph had indeed fought for Britain in its darkest hour. He was in the Royal Navy and at D-Day. Fifthly deciding to editorialise Ed Miliband's response as 'tetchy and menacing' (not a characterisation that occurred to me) This is an interesting, possibly ancient tactic, whereby having been gratuitously offensive, if your insulted party is anything less than heroically 'Christian' and turns the other cheek, he is obviously being 'defensive' and, thus, the allegations must ring true!

The Daily Mail does know how to translate fad (see their health pages), prejudice and fear into tills ringing at the Mail (globally the most successful English language news website). It is probably the most influential newspaper in the UK. This probably says a great deal about us, sadly.

One of the signs of the coming of the kingdom will be when people follow my mother's lead and decide that their life can do without its pollution (her word)! As my mother would recognise loving one's country must be subordinate to a greater love and such love demands we see that which is of God, of the good, in every person. A singularly sad failing of the Daily Mail.

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...