Saturday, September 27, 2014

A genuine fake

I was in a market in Malaysia once, looking at a display of 'Rolex' watches. The salesman asked me, 'You want to buy Rolex? Genuine fake'! 'What is the difference between a genuine fake and a fake Rolex I asked'? 'The genuine fake will work', he replied!

The religious scholar, Huston Smith, once engineered a meeting between the novelist, Aldous Huxley, and the spiritual writer, Alan Watts, both Englishman abroad in America. After Watts was gone, Huxley and Smith returned to their seats, where Smith reports he could virtually see Huxley sorting his mind. "Then his verdict: 'What a curious man! Half monk, half race track operator." When I (Smith) later reported this assessment to Alan, he loved it and acknowledged its accuracy."

It was Watts (in a essay) who coined the notion of being a genuine fake (and it was the title for Monica Furlong's biography of Watts). How you find yourself both the bearer of understanding something, able (in Watts' case) to convey it beautifully to others in wit laced, illuminating writings (and talks) and yet to carry this in a time bound, fractured mind-body, flawed through and through. Your admirers see the truths and pass over the flaws but you know you are 'faking it' and are haunted by the possible moment of exposure.

It points to the reality of any 'religious life' that it is lived always with a measure of two faced doubt - towards the reality of the quest and to the reality of myself faced by the immeasurable  challenge of the quest (if true).

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, admitted to doubt. The secular (and mostly religiously illiterate, when not simply hostile) press assumed that this meant that even the 'high representative' did not believe in the truth of the religion he so obviously thus pedals. He was committing the last remaining sin of the post-modern age - that of hypocrisy.

However, hypocrisy is, at least, a diminished sign that a person believes he or she ought to appear to believe something (or aspire after a different state).

What Welby was eloquently (if unguardedly) admitting to was that he too was a 'genuine fake' - that in any genuinely spiritual journey, we become aware of the distance between what is hoped for and who we are and that gap can as easily turn to doubting it might ever be closed (or indeed be real) as to spurring us on to greater efforts to dispose ourselves to its luring reality.

Indeed the two are deeply related for doubt keeps us honest about the difference between the truth and any one person's capacity to embody it and show it forth. We know we are one part monk, one part race track operator and are immunized against any pretense of fundamentalism and the trails of woe they bear in their wake (with which history is only, sadly, all too familiar)!

So, let us be as genuine as we can be in our fakery, being the real thing is not in our gift.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Many Dimensions in one

A Persian prince argues unhappily with Sir Giles Tumulty for the possession of a stone (set in a crown). Sir Giles has purchased it from the prince's relative in what he believes was good faith. He is damned if he is going to return it, after all the stone contains magical properties. With it, you can travel in space (and possibly time) and it cures the sick. The prince leaves disappointed, threatening consequences.

Thus opens an early novel by Charles Williams - 'Many Dimensions'. It has all his future ingredients - a sacred object capable of magic over which there is a struggle for control. Yet, at the heart of the object, is a divine reality that transcends and, finally, allows the virtuous actors to overcome (if only temporarily) any thought of control.

The virtuous actors in this case are Lord Arglay, the Lord Chief Justice and brother in law to the odious, manipulative Sir Giles, and Chloe Burnett, Lord Arglay's secretary, whose willingness to serve the stone's true purpose leads her to the ultimate sacrifice: her death restores its unity.

Along the way the stone (and its capacity to be divided and yet retain its integrity) generates all kinds of set piece problems, arguments between contending parties, moral dilemmas and political machinations. As it is a William's novel, there is a seamlessness between the metaphysical and the natural - it is a world in which magical stones can, of course, give untoward practical problems to trade union officials! (If the stone allows people to travel without transport, what happens to the jobs of bus drivers and railway guards)?

Finishing it, as well pondering its remarkable ability to capture the essence of complex moral and theological ideas, I continue to consider why, as a writer, he has fallen into abeyance (or a niche) unlike his friend, C.S. Lewis?

Possibly first is the fact that his writing is 'archaic', it has a dated feel to it rather than an antique one. Unlike Lewis, Williams is driven by image and feeling and thus some of his ideas lack a controlling ordering whilst never, alternatively, finding themselves wholly immersed in the texture of the narrative. They pop up awkwardly in the unlikely speech of particular characters. Thirdly, unlike Lewis, he was never adopted by a firm and particular audience - Christian evangelicals in Lewis' case (however, sometimes improbably), for Williams was more suspect - too Christian for pagan fantasy (or secular science fiction), too magical for the straight laced Christian.

However, none of this belies his great virtues - the plots sing along, he is endowed with a fine sense of humour, he writes beautiful and magical set pieces such as the culminating moment when the stone is restored to its unity and he makes you think (and wonder) that the world is not as it appears and the deepest ordering is a sacred one.

It is a deepest ordering that is found in the harmonious, free surrendering of the will into the way of the whole that miraculously returns you to a deep, identifiable self that is uniquely you.

The fulfillment of the person is a union in diversity.

Monday, September 22, 2014

An Honourable Woman

This extended television drama was an accomplished thriller wrapped in the charged politics of the Middle East.

The Stein children witness their father's, staunch Zionist and armorer of the new state of Israel, murder and grow up with a different vision of how Israel's fortunes can be secured - by building interconnections between Jew and Arab, particularly educational, as a contribution to a lasting peace.

However, enmity and suspicion are deeply set, and though Nessa Stein (the honorable woman) imagines their course set fair and each of their steps is conducted with the requisite integrity, her brother's path is a compromised one. Though often acting out of the best of motives, he lays himself open to a corruption by a vortex of competing passions and paranoia.

Out of which is woven the elements of thriller against an abiding backdrop of sorrow.

The sorrow is the continuing belief that violence (whether actual and brutal or in the more subdued tones of manipulation and deceit) is a route towards some kind of solution, rooted in victory. Sadly this route continually arrives at deadly ends that lead nowhere except deeper into the labyrinths of enclosing (and disorientating) hatred.

The best performance is given by the magnificent Stephen Rea as a disillusioned MI6 official, responsible for the Middle East desk, who acts as a 'deus ex machina' slowly untangling the mystery and enabling Nessa to (temporarily) escape the net that has enclosed around her. One of the sub-stories is Rea's attempts to reconnect with his estranged wife and the closing scene is the offering prospect that he has done so. It is as if as a counterpoint to people being lost in causes is the truth of a reality where people can be genuinely lost in one another.

Because in the final analysis, there is always the question: where do we actually want to find ourselves? In the face of a loving other, with all the risk and vulnerability that entails, or in a highly defended identity that offers us ersatz security? Why do we collectively keep preferring the latter, when we know the real joy is always in the former?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Le point vierge

"At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely... I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere."

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: Thomas Merton

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Selecting letters

When I was in Burkina Faso recently, during the long flights and the small gaps in work, I was reading, 'Distant Neighbours: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder' and realising that (for me) reading such collections only work if you are deeply familiar with the life and work of the authors. Then the intimate snapshots of an unfolding life (or lives) adds a deepening colour to your understanding of them, and more than a touch of humanising grace.

The continuing tale of the friendship between Berry and Snyder was deeply moving. Both are animated by a deeply concrete spirituality that lives in the practice of making themselves at home in a particular place (a Kentucky farm and a Californian homestead) that vividly contrasts with my own exceptionally peripatetic life. Both weave their vocations of writing on the woof of those places and how the practice of care for those places imply universal truths. One (Snyder) is deeply versed in an 'Oriental' tradition: Buddhism, the other (Berry) stands four square within the Western tradition and a (rebellious) Christian framing. They understand and love each other, even, though at times they vigorously disagree, because their traditions drive them inwards to a core of shared humanity and outwards to a reverence for the creation that sustains and gifts their (and all) our lives.

Reading the letters, I came to the conclusion that we must go beyond notions of 'environmentalism' as if this was some other thing that we should care for (among a long list of similar responsibilities) and finally recognise that there is only one true way of becoming fully human and that is by being responsible to our created giftedness and that if we genuinely want to reverence ourselves, those selves mutually arise with all that is. The reverence of all that is begins with the practice of making ourselves genuinely at home. Being at home implies caring for the particularities of our place and time, in making love manifest in the daily acts of our abiding.

Given the complexities of an entangled (and despoiling) economy (and world), we will undoubtedly find this caring a highly responsible burden (with many opportunities for hypocrisy between intention and act) but it is a yoke whose burden, freely accepted, is light - as the joy inherent in both the authors' lives shows.

The book gave me a taste for letters and I began looking about for other volumes that I might (re)read and noticed (and, given my addiction also purchased) several. One of the latter arrived today - the Selected Letters of Aldous Huxley. In a way I feel more deeply comfortable with Huxley (who shared many of Berry's and Snyder's key concerns) because he was inescapably a peripatetic intellectual, rather than a writer embedded in the care of places! Utopias and dystopias are for me imaginatively safer than the demands of lambing sheep, actual floods and the effect of this particular Spring on the blossoming (or not) of one's apricot trees! But each to his especial vocation!

They meet in the deeply shared concern that no inward turn (of a spiritual life) can authentically be imagined without external consequence - what does this mean in practice for the ordering of the world? And no external work can be imagined as bearing good fruit unless it is conducted from the inward placing of reverence for oneself and all others.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Seven Storey Mountain

There are only three books I have read, more than once, where I can remember the exact circumstances of my first reading. On all three occasions, it is because I read them, with gathering excitement, at one sitting. In the first case - Andre Gide's slim novella, 'Straight is the Gate' this is not a surprising achievement, for the other two - Morris Berman's lengthy study of cultural exegesis, 'Coming to Our Senses' and Thomas Merton's thick autobiography, 'The Seven Storey Mountain', it was a case of enthusiasm conferring endurance.

I took Merton's book home with me on a Friday evening when at university. I was consumed by the romantic aspiration to be a monk and here was the autobiography of a modern exemplar (whose other, multi-faceted work I did not know). I sat down to read it, after supper had been cleared away, in my comfortable, if dismal, room in Stoke Newington and did not finish until in some mid hour of Saturday morning, I tumbled into bed, transformed.

The book was originally published at exactly the right moment to propel its author to fame (selling over a million copies in fairly short order). This was the immediate post-World War II world where people were in search of new values (and ordering meaning) after the chaos of conflict and the barbarity that it enfolded. A monastic life, even if an option only for a minority, was counterpoised to a world whose bearings had come adrift. Let us retreat into different possibilities and begin anew, it said, following the traditional function of monastic life.

In Merton, it found a brilliant expositor - a thoroughly modern man - running through 1930s liberalism, hedonism and a dash of (none too serious) Marxism to disillusion, a discovery of God, the Catholic church and the renunciation of the Abbey at Gethsemani (in Kentucky). Merton was a brilliant writer. This was his first vocation, one that settled into a comfortable duel with his second as monk. The book sings with both a rigorous intelligence and the poignant searching of a complex, myriad minded man. Its rather pious conclusions were to be tested and transformed by later explorations but never (or almost never) does the piety submerge this questing, unique individual, who is simply lovable.

For many it became the igniter (or confirmer) of a vocational quest.

Merton's reputation has swung back and forth (including in his own lifetime). The brilliant merchandiser of traditional spirituality became the questing soul of the 1960s replete with searching social conscience and a radical taste for inter-faith dialogue and experience. He even fell in love with a nurse in his 50s though ultimately settled for continuing as a monk until his untimely death in 1968 on a visit to Asia - his first prolonged trip out of the monastery since he had entered.

The book made me restless (even more so) with the rational niceties of 'studying theology and philosophy'. What was the point if reality only showed itself in its fullness through a transformation of being? That was itself the fruit of grace emergent in the context of practice. It was the book that unsettled my life and may in the process of changed it. It pointed me back to the core - to the quiet, constant, faithful practice of meditation (that I had been neglecting, having picked it up at the tender age of thirteen) and set me back on my way - not as a monk but as a contemplative (of a kind) in the world, wrapped in the world in way that Merton was not.

Like his reputation, my reading ebbs and flows.

At the moment it flows as I am reading Roger Lipsey's 'Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton'. Merton, like Tagore, came to the full practice of art late, in what proved his last decade (though both his parents were artists), and it proved a deep path of expression, both, paradoxically, of the concrete reality of the Spirit that transparently animates all (but that often goes missing in words). and, also, like Tagore, its abstraction allows spaces for the presence of doubt.

Merton loved Zen and he reminds you of a Zen monk, gifted with the brush, that adds a whole dimension to his contemplative teaching.

Like Zen, it tends towards a sense of emerging and disappearing within a sustaining emptiness. It tends towards reminding us of the transiency of the whole, that everything is unfolding, connected movement. It takes us to existential anxiety - if everything is flux do 'I' not dissolve? It takes through that anxiety - if everything is flux do 'I-ing' not dance?

For the world is verb, not a noun. Contemplation is the act of recognising this world's grammar - the beauty in it, the flowing connectivity of it, that arouses the love that is it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In Burkina Faso

The rather charming, village like capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, apparently is insufficiently modern. It needs a high rise, business district to attract 'foreign investment' so the government, according to the in flight magazine of air Burkina, has allocated a huge central plot to accommodate this thrusting modernity. It is most depressing to imagine that the best image of prosperity remains the displacing rationality of an anonymous architecture stripped of any reference to culture or place.

This in-flight magazine was a wonderfully anachronistic product, wholly fashioned to the need to 'puff' Burkina, more than specifically reflect the airline (though it happily did tell us that it is the only sub-Sahara African airline to have every recognised international safety standard)!

More up beat was the news that Burkina was getting its first major solar plant with the help of the European Union to meet growing energy needs more securely and cleanly.

I found myself skimming the magazine as we circled and circled and circled the airport in a manoeuvre more familiar to arrival at Heathrow than to Ouagadougou whose airfield is literally in the middle of the city but hardly busy or bustling. We could only imagine the ever going President was arriving at the same time.

The ever going one (he is attempting to change the constitution so he can run yet again in elections scheduled for November 2015) can be credited with maintaining a degree of peace and stability (until his ever presence begins perhaps to unpick this) that becomes ever more important (and an achievement in the region). So to is the delivery of 'development' that is making real gains in a country whose people are delightfully forthright, direct and proud.

The country too has a played an important role in providing a neutral space and conciliation services in a number of its neighbours' conflicts - indeed my hotel is flowing with colourful Touareg delegates to a conference trying to navigate the crisis in Mali. Meanwhile in the 'shadows' there are a number of clean cut Americans who cannot hide their obvious allegiance to security services (broadly defined). It is akin to skirting another 'great game' with significant ideological stakes at hand and, sadly, too many people's lives.

Meanwhile, we happily chug on with our small contribution to the country's inclusive economic development. The business planning competition appears embedded and now planning its third cycle.  The SME bank guarantee fund is moving along with a more swinging step and its general manager is significantly more upbeat. The social investment fund is poised to make its first investment. If the good is done in minute particulars, we are doing good! Though we do still have 10 tonnes of organic cotton that nobody appears to want! Any takers? Knockdown price...

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Breakdown of Nations

Leopold Kohr, friend of E.F. Schumacher, wrote an insightful book in the 1960's setting out a vision for the benefit of small, compact, homogeneous nations. His Chapter 11 (if I recall correctly) responded to the likelihood of his vision coming to pass with a singe word: No!

With the news that the Yes campaign in Scotland finds itself in the lead (though within the bounds of statistical error) and the natives of Catalonia restless, one wonders what Kohr would have made of this if he were still alive.

Reading a few excerpts of the relentless commentary, one thing is certain, not only does no one know the outcome, no one knows the outcome of the outcome. However, whatever the result on the 18th is, nothing ought to be the same again.

For it is clear that one of the attractions of independence is one (as Kohr rightly noted) of voice, of the felt opportunity it affords of participating again in a real conversation about one's future and the runaway world that we have created of globalisation, relentless economics and political nattering does not provide this (and Kohr would argue could not).

Real conversation requires a meaningful sense of experienced community within shared rules and freedom from alienation. It needs 'face time' - the opportunity to interact with one's representatives and create and witness to shared bonds. None of which is of course guaranteed by a small state but the prospect is moved nearer. It is this prospect that makes it so attractive.

So whatever the outcome only genuine subsidiarity will do. Decisions made as close as possible to those affected. A subsidiarity that is only made possible with a solidarity that seeks the common good. Otherwise the forces disrupting scale will only become more agitated not less with all the sad possibilities of real disintegration that entails.

Revolution is always a deceitful form of democratic renewal.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Contemplation and the body

Fresh out of university, I went to Taize, the ecumencial community in France, drenched in romantic notions of religious life on which I was to embark...immediately! This was a remarkably unformulated notion that evaporated in the first conversation with one of the brothers.

However, in my second week there, having followed the standard programme in the first week, I went to the retreat house to spend a week in reflective silence and discovered my true home. This was not, I realised, in the church, beautiful as its ecumenical liturgy is (expressed in the chant above) but in the forest that lay on the other side of the valley and in which everyday I went for long walks.

I knew at that time, what has taken a long time to slowly percolate through, that I feel most comfortable amongst trees, that they speak to me of presence much more fruitfully than anything else I know. They are so fully themselves, embodied, unique yet placed in a community. It is there that silence works on me most deeply.

I remember sitting under a tree, a beech if memory serves, one of those days, resting in the stillness of the heat, and a butterfly, intensely blue, came, fluttering onto my knee, resting there, vulnerable yet wholly itself, poised calm, a blessing.

I remember too returning that day to the church and the thronging mass of young people for the evening service. The beautiful chants rolled on, the formal part of the service came to an end, and some of the people present sought to stretch out, lie down, absorb the flowing atmosphere with their bodies wholly relaxed and yet they were discouraged from doing so by the brothers. The official explanation for this being that they may fall asleep (though what difference that would make was wholly unclear).

Here was a fault line that has haunted me ever since - between the reality of being fully embodied and present - the tree, the butterfly, myself poised between the two - and a worship that, deeply moving as it is, fundamentally distrusts our presence, our being there, in the fullness of bodily reality. What could have been more beautiful than to fall asleep, together, into the arms of the living God?

This week I was at a conference discussing 'human dignity' and the highlight for me was not the learned presentations nor even the impassioned descriptions of practical work but an experience and an image.

The first was singing with colleagues, guided, as it happens, by the wonderful artistic director of the Vienna Boys' Choir, where you were drawn into an encompassing enjoyment of your bodies ability to make harmonious sound, together. The second was of a charity in the UK where middle class ladies that lunch (to use a parochial expression) teach long term people in prison embroidery, producing beautiful products out of a deep embodied discipline of care and attention.

Contemplation is not a programme of a rule bound mental life but an unmixed bodily attention in presence.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Red Shambala

Nicholas Roerich is oft depicted as a spiritual seeker, peace visionary, author of numberless paintings, and a brave explorer of Central Asia. However, Andrei Znamenski in his 'Red Shambala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia' has him perform another role - that of geopolitical schemer.

The scheming did have at its heart a religious vision - of a coalition of Buddhist races in Central Asia that would establish a budding utopia - the Shambala of the title - from which the truths of Buddhism (and co-operative labour) would flow around the globe. This would require the usurpation of the 13th Dalai Lama to be replaced by the Panchen Lama guided by the heroic saviour (Roerich) who appears above dressed for the part.

In the achievement of these aims, the Roerichs (including his wife, Helena, who had a visionary connection with 'Mahatmas' whose cryptic messaging guided their steps) were willing to entertain strange bedfellows that at one time included the unlikely tacit support of the Soviet Union and the US Secretary of State for Agriculture! The Roerichs proved incompetent prophetic revolutionaries, transcendent guidance notwithstanding, and pursued by tax claims in the US and hesitant to be fully embraced by their erstwhile homeland in Russia, settled in India and for more painting (for which we should be grateful).

The Soviet Union in the 1920s was only too happy to seek to exploit local prophecy of a coming 'Buddhist' utopia to advance the causes of their own brand. This did have noticeable success amongst some of the indigenous groups of Siberia and in Mongolia until a tougher minded, more brutal Stalinist era took over and replaced power for the lure of prophecy. Helpfully the prophecy had the new Buddhist saviour coming from 'the North'.

The Dalai Lama skillfully avoided these siren like overtures, playing off Russia with the British (and the Chinese) to keep his country intact until a more strenuous Marxist wave engulfed Tibet in the 1950s.

Znamenski tale is an extraordinary one, though told in a pedestrian manner, and has an extraordinary cast of characters. Most of the Russian ones being swept away by Stalinist terror. Thus, you had the leading Soviet cryptographer, a member of the guiding council of the OGPU (a prior acronym for what would become the KGB) financing experiments in telepathy and an eccentric esoteric scholar's search for Shambala in the hope it would unlock the secrets of human development and the moulding of a higher calibre 'Socialist man'! He (Gleb Bokii) was a naturist to boot - to add yet more colour! Reality often is stranger than fiction.

Emerging from the book, I realised how fluid the first era of the Russian revolutionary period was and how in that fluidity, people both projected their own aspirations and sought to manipulate events in often quite remarkable ways and how in the second phase such diversity, occasional imagination and much fantasy was extinguished.

I, also, was reminded that in times of great uncertainty people are deeply vulnerable to ideological manipulation; and, as we appear to be in one of those phases of history, a radically unsettling one, sadly, we can expect the same to be true, no doubt in very different guises.

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...