Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A past year of discovery

Yesterday, I referred to a rediscovery - of the work of Aldous Huxley - tasted, enjoyed, left for a long time and now reawakened with a renewed intensity.

Today, on the cusp of the year, I thought I would celebrate three discoveries of the past twelve months (apart from the new country and the employment)!

In chronological order the first was David Hinton's 'Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape'. Hinton is a lauded translator of Chinese texts and I am enjoying his translations of 'Chinese Wilderness Poetry' now as my bedside accompanier to sleep. 'Hunger Mountain' traces Hinton's meditative walks around his local mountain so named (in Vermont) and reflects on how Chinese philosophy and poetry have embodied a radically 'unitive' 'flowing' relationship to the natural world - not an 'environment' but the spatial and temporal matrix in which we live and move and are our being. It is one of those books that saturated in an abiding scholarship take you beyond academic knowledge to a felt apprehension of how others have seen (and do see) the world.  Favourite amongst my images was that of a female poet who wrote her verses on leaves, allowing the wind to take them, scatter them and the world to reabsorb them. They emerge from Tao and rest back into Tao. Speaking out of and into transiency yet speaking nonetheless.

The second discovery was 'Parzival' - not Wagner's opera (though I expect I may get to that in time, treading on reluctant feet and with suspicious ear) but Wolfram von Eschenbach's original text and two contemporary retellings (and commentary) by Lindsay Clarke and Martin Shaw and

The first realization of which was an ability to patiently enter a medieval text (if only in modern translation) helped by previously allowing master storytellers to entrance you into (and illuminate) the story. I hope this is a signal of fruits to come.

The second realization was how powerful this story resonates in my psyche. Here sits an ailing king, whose illness resounds through his kingdom with all withering power, waiting upon the simple, yet difficult, task of being asked the right question at the right moment: what ails you? It is a meditation on (amongst much else), the power of the question and the ability to find it in oneself. The question is not only about its content but also about how and when it is asked and how the answer is received. How often in contemporary culture (or our own minds) do we hear the right question being asked with the time and space for an answer to be genuinely heard? Reading your daily newspaper will quickly disabuse you that this is a simple, oft repeated reality, cumbered as they are by streams of 'opinions', colliding, jostling with each other but never still enough to have emerged out of (and be a response to) a real question (and for contemporary culture, I can unhappily substitute my own mind)!

The third realization is that this text has a long way further to travel in my own mind and I am already accumulating other voices, gathered round this story, to explore it, with them, from other perspectives (and I may even get to Wagner)!

The third discovery were the novels of the man, whom C.S. Lewis called the greatest modern re-teller of the Grail myth in English, namely Charles Williams. They are haunting strange, an admixture of 'magic' (of which Williams had been a modern day practitioner), theology and adventure. There is nothing, I think, quite like them. At one level they are 'clunky' (the plots, with variations, all have the same basic underpinning), dated (the language and surface mores reek of the 1930s in an oddly clanging way) and yet are transformed by the seriousness of their thought and the power of an underlying imagination. They brilliantly weave the commonplace, everyday reality with the magical such that disbelief is suspended and the set pieces of confrontation between power (and evil) and love (and the good) are astonishingly accomplished. They make you feel the reality of the choice, not simply see or think it. Importantly to, they are saturated in humour. As Lao Tzu would say if it cannot be laughed at, it would not be Tao. There is something important, all important in the humanising nature of humour.

This brings me neatly to the 'nicest' thing anyone has said about me (and to me) all year which was, 'You are wise, have a lot to bring here (to this organisation) yet you never take yourself too seriously'. I do not know whether this is true but it is certainly a quality the world needs more off, more than ever. There is no humour in rendition and torture, or Mr Putin's repeating falsehoods, or in ISIS and that is because in them, there is no truth, for truth always carries with it the realisation that it can never be wholly said, no one can be its possessor, and thus when it comes to truth, it can only ever tread lightly, with compassion, because whenever we have spoken it, we know there is always more of it, that we do not know. Truth is more a questioner than an answer.

Let us hope for a new year in which there are more shared questions, than answers, and that we together unveil, ever deeper, what ails us, so that a genuine healing might be birthed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Point Counter Point

One of the happy rediscoveries of 2014 has been Aldous Huxley. I had read his dystopia, 'Brave New World' and his utopia, 'Island' many years ago and enjoyed both, not least for their prescience, and Nicholas Murray's excellent biography but had not gone further. I think I rather prissily disapproved of his experiments with psychedelics - enlightenment must never be on the cheap - disregarding his fundamental seriousness; and, was not quite sure what to make of his 'origins' as a fiercely satirical writer inhabiting a restricted, intellectually artificial, milieu, as if people cannot finish well beyond their starting points! Ah well we mature slowly...

Now, I find myself slowly reading my way through, in no particular order, as I notice him making his way into my wholly unofficial 'canon'.

I have just finished 'Point Counter Point' that is, I suppose, a transitional novel - the satirist is masterfully in place but the emphasis is on the ideas unfolded in the stream of his characters' talk. Indeed he has one of them, Philip Quarles, a novelist that borrows many of Huxley's own features, comment on this tendency in a novel of ideas for the characters to talk too easily in well-formed sentences of structured argument; and, how such a focus tends to narrow down on only a small cross-section of any society, locking out (except as deus ex machina) all those who do not find their lives dominated by (or with the leisure to) the recounting of their thought in sustained argument.

It is, however, a wonderful unfolding of the times and mores of England in the 1920s of a society shattered by the horrors of conflict out of its Victorian moral certainties (though they more than linger as a continuing framing reference point) and stumbling on its way to finding other ways of being and, with Huxley the pessimist at this point, mostly failing! He later became, I think, what I call an 'idealist realist' - you may hope for all because it, transformation, indeed transfiguration, is possible but you must expect nothing -  as you know not the hour of its coming (if at all a sceptical remnant reminds). It is a position akin to my own!

What struck me most was the aching gulf that Huxley depicts between aspiration and reality - in both noble and hypocritical forms. A search is on in his questing mind for not simply new ideas but the ways in which such ideas could be animators of life. The truth, if and when it can be found, must involve a transformation of being: to know is to be in a certain way of living. You can see the glimmering of his conversion to a practical mysticism.

However, the character here, who gets the best tunes, is Mark Rampion, novelist and painter, who carries more than an echo of D.H. Lawrence, and the celebration of the 'instinctual man' who neither aspires to be more than a man - lost in the unfulfillable idealism of Christianity - but nor less trapped in the moloch of materialism (and unfulfillable nature of grasping desires after progress). It is bravura performance but it remains that, simply, nobly performed. How it might actually be lived is left insecurely dangling in wishful thinking.

Finally, I, also, noticed the continuing thread of humour and, magnificently, its target is humanity in the whole, including the foibles that Huxley himself knows he carries. It ultimately has a humanising, compassionate purpose but that too you can see is a work in progress (on himself). There is a wonderful moment when one of his most unappealing characters finds himself distracting himself by reading a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica - a habit for which Huxley was famous!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Night Journey

‘Greetings to the solitary. Friends, fellow beings, you are not strangers to us. We are closer to one another than we realize. Let us remember one another at night, even though we do not know each other’s names.’ is the gentle ending to David Gascoyne's beautiful poem (written for the BBC) 'Night Thoughts'.

It is a call to solidarity, a recognition that underlying our apparent loneliness is a commonality of spirit and that underlying our disenchantment from the world is a wonder that is calling us home.

I was reminded of this when looking at this: one of the painter, Lorna Graves', beautiful solitary images of a magicked figure travelling across a landscape in which it is at home yet tantalizingly fragile, as if the message of an enfolded transcendence plays hide and seek with us.

This is one of Lorna's angels, travelling at night within sheltering wings, towards an orientating moon and stars. It is both inherently mysterious and yet strangely comforting. This is what transports at night, weaving meaning, whether we know it or not, bringing us closer to the wonder of things.

She was a remarkable artist and I met her for the first time at the same conference at which I met David Gascoyne - at the Temenos Conference on Art and the Renewal of the Sacred at Dartington Hall in 1986. We all three of us together found ourselves sharing a table in the White Hart Bar - three different generations, united in a shared introversion! It could have been a disaster! But under Lorna's gentle questioning, Gascoyne happily held forth on poetry and existentialism that we all brought round together to Berdyaev and Buber!

In which the common theme was unfolding presence in which God was not taught as much as caught fleetingly within the fabric of speech and image as a touch that lured you on, framing each and every potential action compassionately, for how could you respond otherwise, if everything, held aright, was God's speaking to you, showing you, asking a response?

In her art, Lorna, happily moved betwixt the commonplace shot through with wonder and the wonderful shot through with the commonplace, holding the two together in mesmerizing images, that are by their very nature a  'binding' of two worlds - the root meaning of religion.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On being blue, like us...

Yesterday The Guardian reported on the Sami reindeer herders who live in Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and adjacent parts of Russia and their struggle to keep their language alive (as a critical component of their cultural identity) faced now by mostly indifferent public bodies (and as recently as the 70s active hostility) and casual racism:
see here:

As I was lying awake, waiting sleep, I was reflecting on how, of the many unjust indignities in the world, this one, the rights and well-being of indigenous people still sits at the margins of our attention. Perhaps I thought because though 'indigenous' has become a recognised category, its boundaries do remain 'fuzzy' and because though there is a commonality of struggle - land rights, the incursion of mineral and other companies seeking exploitation, violence and cultural assimilation on the terms of the dominant society - it is difficult to give it immediately recognisable face. The struggle of a Yanomami in Venezuela, often life threatening, is more dramatic than the insidious indifference towards the Sami in Sweden and you do not immediately connect the two, as you would if it was a question, say, of being a refugee, of human trafficking or of a gay rights violation.

Thus did I find myself dreaming last night that every indigenous person had become 'blue'. They are in 'Avatar', if I recall, correctly from my inattentive watching once on an aeroplane! You could then talk about the global rights of 'blue people' etc and their common struggle for freedom etc. Absurd as it sounded on waking, it does, I think, have a grain of truthfulness: how to see indigenous people weave a better common narrative between themselves so as better to put a 'face' on their story.

However, perhaps becoming 'blue' would be too distancing! For it is increasingly clear that our moral lives are shaped by common feeling and accompanying imagination, rather than the cold calculation of reason and utility (or for that matter of 'rights'). Witness how campaigners for gay marriage in the US turned the tide by transforming the message from 'the right to marry' to do not Bill and John or Jane and Janet (who look like you) deserve similar happiness and protections? Well, when you put it like that?

So as well as a common identity running through indigenous people (being blue), their lives need narrating so that they increasingly appear 'just like us' - not exotically different but carrying the everyday concerns that everyone does - am I safe in my home (and do I have one)? Do I have a say in the way my life is governed and organised? Etc We need domestic and social texture that provides for hooks of recognition. Yes, the chosen cultural patterning of that life is different (but then it is different in Switzerland than it is in the UK) but the core, recognisable concerns are not. The cultural patterning is infinitely precious but its best hope of preservation maybe in seeing a carried over 'social sameness'.

I am not sure that even the best of intentioned agencies, such as Survival International, have got this quite right and it is a difficult balance: you have the right to be different but only when, at some level, we see you are not! Put like that it does sound deeply compromised! But the, possibly sad, truth appears to be that we care for what we can love and we love most deeply what we can recognise!

We have to continually, as Mencius wrote, expand the circle of that imagination to embrace all but he was realist enough to see that this was an expectation that would make everyone a sage, so let us be realistic about how far seeing will go in any one society!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Happy Christmas

The angel gently touches the sleeping Joseph's shoulder, signalling with the other hand the focus of the dream transferred message, namely Mary, also asleep, arms cradled around a sleeping Jesus.

All is peaceful stillness but the message is not. Herod is coming in search of the infant to exterminate him (and all like him to make assurance double sure). So at the beginning, as at the end, Jesus' life is to be occasioned by violence.

The function of a gargoyle in a medieval Church, was to make the ugly, the distorting, the evil visible such that, as you approached the temenos, the holy space, you would recognise that, though a sanctuary on the inside, it was, on the outside, the place you would most likely encounter the dark, the disfiguring and so be vigilant. Something it is in us, about us that does not like the good and struggles against it just at that point where it is most deeply present.

How often do we find ourselves sabotaging our good because the vistas it opens up in us are freedoms too far? Scuttling back into the safe boundaries of our own comfort zones (or complacencies).

So too out in the wider world perhaps the intensification of chaos, uncertainty and violence we have seen this year is our negative, answering activity to something new seeking to be born? As the great theoretician of the evolution of consciousness, Jean Gebser, suggested, when a new evolutionary form become efficient, the old way becomes 'deficient'?

And the new form, ever new form, is the turn towards 'experience' - the inward authority of what George Fox would call the inner light - and the gathering recognition that 'my' experience is strikingly like yours and that this experience is gathered in a deeper unity of one knowing and one love. No wonder this inward turn receives a withering back lash from the appeal to an or any externalised authority. This authority may have worked once but now it is degraded into fundamentalism. The kind of fundamentalism that this week, sadly, horrifyingly generated its own massacre of the innocents in Peshawar.

When Pope Francis asked about homosexuality replied, 'Who am I to judge?' he was referring to this shift from outer rule to inner conscience. A conscience that is conscious of its shared unity with everyone and all things.

Jesus' gift, he told the disciples, was this unifying love. We all would be amazed into the recognition that we are made of the same stuff, are all branches of the same vine, we are all friends, friends in God, as god; and, as Francis new encyclical on ecology will emphasise this friendship is extensive with the whole gifted creation.

A Christmas message is that this reality is, and is on the way. The resistance to it, in all of us, is strong but is futile for the last word is always the angel's touch, Mary's sheltering arms and God's voice luring us on.

P.S. The Pope, George Fox, Gebser and the Borg all in one Christmas greeting...and, oh, Shakespeare...

Discovering Taoist China

It began with three books - Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching purchased as a Penguin Classic, when still at school, to add to my eccentric collection of those black spine books that were three parts fascination to one part pretension. I never did finish Nietzsche's 'Ecco Homo' though I did the Koran (though I confess to never wanting to make a second attempt - it is a text so wedded to the rhythms of its Arabic origin that its truths fail to sing in any other language, not for nothing was the Angel's first command to recite). I now have no less than four translations of this enigmatic, endlessly suggestive text. The second was John Blofeld's beautiful, whimsical yet profound study 'Taoism: The Quest for Immortality' with its entrancing accounts of visiting Taoist hermitages in 1930's China. The third was the 'beat philosopher' Alan Watts' 'Tao: The Watercourse Way' a dazzlingly opinionated contemporary appropriation of philosophical Taoism for the West.

It was a thought world that percolated through my young unformed mind - the importance of observing the unfolding flow of things, trying to discern when to act at the most beneficial, harmonious moment, knowing the world was an unfolding offering of gracefulness, beautifully just so; and, the importance of not taking anything too seriously. Perhaps after all I am only a butterfly dreaming that I am Nicholas - to use Chuang Tzu's illuminative illustration. Taoism must be the only 'philosophical/religious system' whose two key founders (one of whom may or may not have 'existed') that has a consistent, present, upfront sense of humor.

Over the years this 'thought world' has continued to bring out its treasures, from time to time. I discovered that both Martin Buber and Thomas Merton made 'translations' of Chuang Tzu - and the latter rests by my bedside still - and were necessarily influenced. Who cannot see a resonance between Buber's stance of 'I and Thou' of allowing each and every particular thing to speak its uniqueness and that of 'li' recognizing the inherent unique patterning of every form coming to birth?

But this year, I have noticed, it has taken on a wholly renewed presence (and force, if that was not quite the right word, for the reality that flows). It has been obviously present in reading David Hinton's beautiful translations of Chinese wilderness poetry but less so in Charles Williams' 'The Great Trumps' where the remarkable Aunt Sybil (quite unconsciously to Williams) emerges as a beautifully exemplar of a follower of the Way.

Now I find myself reading Edward Slingerland's 'Trying not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity' - his popular accounting of 'wu wei' (effortless action) and te (virtue that arises from being aligned in the Way) and its relationship to modern cognitive psychology.

I think this may be a trend...and I have still never visited China!

Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon
Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.
No one else here, I ladle it out myself.
Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,
though moon has never understood wine,
and shadow only trails along behind me.
Kindred a moment with moon and shadow,
I've found a joy that must infuse spring:
I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.
Sober, we're together and happy. Drunk,
we scatter away into our own directions:
intimates forever, we'll wander carefree
and meet again in Milky Way distances.
Li Po (translated by David Hinton).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Happy Valley

It was a Saturday afternoon, a student at university, and I called into Watkins, the esoteric bookshop in Cecil Court, and found a copy of 'Temenos: A Review Devoted to the Arts of the Imagination 2'. One of its four, and principal, founding editors was the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, whose work I knew and admired, I bought it and brought it back to my room in the Hall of Residence where I lived.

The first essay I read - I recall even now - was by the French poet and ex-Jesuit priest, Jean Mambrino, entitled, 'Dining with Isaiah: On the early novels of Patrick White' (shown above). It was to lead to a lifelong love of White's work, beginning with my reading of 'Riders in the Chariot', his extraordinary novel of four marginalised mystics against the backdrop of their individual histories and how those stories collide in a post-war, distant, suburb of Sydney. It remains the most penetrating exploration of the nature of evil and the possibilities of redemption that I know.

One of the novels, referenced in Mambrino's essay, was difficult to access during White's life, because White had suppressed its republication: his pre-War novel, Happy Valley. Death knows no such scruples and in 2012 it was reissued by Jonathan Cape. I am reading it now with fascinated recognition of how it is so utterly White and yet utterly White in the making.

There are many of his key themes - most especially the distance between true expression and words - but not yet clothed aright, in ways recognisable.

One shift is in the texture and the visuality of the prose. I often thought that White would have preferred to be a painter - he was a friend and distinguished patron of artists - and one of his best novels, 'The Vivisector' is woven around an artist's life. The painterly layers of envisioned sight that is a hallmark of his later novels is here more or less absent. Here he is following the 'streams of consciousness' of his characters rather than the embodied realities of his characters' every move and gesture and you find yourself reading White yet not being slowed into the steady, encompassed seeing of his mature work. It is fascinating.

I can see why he chose to suppress it not because it is not good but because it is not him. He is not simply a set of themes but a way of saying, a certain kind of performance in which there is no idea separable from things. He is an iconographic novelist, not a symbolic one, nor a realist.

Every stroke must contribute to a wholeness of seeing. I was reminded of a painter with whom White, I think, shares much in common - Edward Burra - who explores, through different images, the marginal bearers of truthfulness, the meetings and miss-meetings of life, the edges where violence dwells and landscapes that speak - and their mutual hostility to 'interpretation' - what carries meaning is the gesture, the texture not the reflected packaging of words.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Close to the bone

When I was involved in researching mental health care in South India, we asked three highly competent local disability NGOs whether there were people with mental illness in the villages in which they worked (and note that mental illness was classified as a disability under the relevant Indian legislation). Two of the NGOs said no, one said we do not know!

Since they were highly competent and committed, we were able to query whether that was a truly probable conclusion and whether they would mind actually looking. All three did and came back to us with the not unsurprising answer that yes, every village had people, until now 'invisible', who suffered from a mental illness.  It was the beginning of Basic Needs in which all three organisations take, to this day, a noble part.

But it was a reminder that even the most dedicated organisations can 'miss' or 'travel past' their true constituents.

The 'spoof' video (above) is an exaggerated reminder of this, yet like any 'spoof' partakes too closely from reality for true comfort.

I remember once, when I worked for Oxfam, arriving in a village in Ethiopia to be greeted with banners that welcomed the village's friends from Save the Children! I did not confess their error (and hoped that my colleagues from Save did likewise). On the same trip, I was told that what as organisations, we had most in common was that we were always in a hurry! Like Cathy we never paused and lived awhile.

It was and is a stark reminder that we should listen more deeply to every and all people and places to which we might want to offer help in growing solutions.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Saying the Unsayable

Sometimes you rediscover things you have written and wonder! This is an admirably dense review of an exceptionally challenging but rewarding book. Michael Sell's 'The Mystical Languages of Unsaying'. I am unsure as to whether I would have the philosophical stamina to read it now but I am glad I did and its arguments have permeated my thinking (though I would be friendlier to William James now I think)!
"The notion of 'mystical experience' as a discrete kind of experience to be described and defined over and against other kinds of experience has come under considerable scrutiny in the past twenty years. It is an approach most notably articulated by William James. An approach that can be located historically as a response to the steady erosion of confidence in society to provide patterns through which people acquired stable identities. If institutions fail to provide, as Martin Buber observed, a locus for confidence to the question who am I, we retreat to the inner landscape of our feelings and the more 'interesting', 'lively' or 'morbid' they are the more they may assure us of our existence and its value. Religion for James was both private and secured in the possibility of exceptional experience.
This starting point, however, gives us little access to understanding what mystical writers themselves were doing particularly those whose historical context was radically different to our own. As Sells notes, 'mystical experience' is a modern category. None of the writers examined here would have recognised it; and, indeed, if they had, they would have subjected it to sustained criticism. Their objective is not to describe a particular kind of experience but to create an understanding of the context in which anything at all takes place; and, how we are situated within that totality. "Mysticism is often associated with the extraordinary, there is indeed a sense of the extraordinary, but the extraordinary, the transcendent, the unimaginable, reveals itself as the common. For Eckhart, any act of justice, however humble it might appear, is nothing other than the one birth of the son of God that always has occurred and always is occurring."

Sells seeks to explore how his selected writers use language to body forth that reality and its contours. Each language demonstrates a commonality of strategy to achieve its intent. This is to use patterns of 'apophasis' that literally means 'speaking away'. Traditionally, 'apophatic theology has been described as a way of 'negation' and in this has been set opposite 'kataphatic' theology as a way of 'affirmation'. Sells cogently argues for a way of seeing 'apophasis' not as a direct negation of prior affirmative statement but as a way of 'unsaying' them. 'Kataphatic' theology is the necessary context in which 'apophasis' can take place.

Unsaying is a response to a problem. If I posit the existence of an unlimited, ultimate principle, then how can I refer to it? Names by their very nature delimit. To name something I create a boundary between it and what it is not. Names are finite. Our consciousness is conditioned by the use of names to see delimited entities or beings. Thus, does the ultimate become a 'some-thing' amongst other things.

How can I free myself from this tendency inherent in the nature of language? I can use language against itself. If no single proposition can be made of the unlimited, I must use two, the second statement frees the first from fixity. For example, to say it is beyond marks it off from within. To say it is thus marks it off from the not-thus. Yet, what Sells calls, a 'meaning event' can be achieved in the tension between two statements such as 'It is utterly beyond the world and utterly immanent, completely other yet one.' Apophasis is a language of double statements yet each of the writers explored recognises that we tend only to fix upon the single statement to the neglect of its twin so each double statement must be placed within further statements in order to achieve an infinite regress, a referential openness rather than defining the referent. This referential openness in the text evokes the openness and vulnerability to the ultimate necessary to practice the 'perpetual transformation', in Ibn Arabi's words, that the divine life requires.

The particular strategies of 'apophasis' described are:
* the aporia of transcendence
* a language of ephemeral, double propositions
* the dialectic of transcendence and immanence
* disontology and nonsubstantialist deity
* metaphor of emanation, procession and return
* semantic transformations
* meaning event

Sells examines these in demanding yet lucid detail in the works of Plotinus, John Scotus Erigena, Ibn Arabi, Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart. His primary focus is on how they work within their own literary form and their broader theological and cultural context whilst drawing illuminating, if tentative, comparisons.

These close textual studies enable you to understand that texts of this kind are performative. They are designed to 'trigger' in the reader a comprehension of the way of being that the text itself mirrors in its performance. Comprehension is participation in the truth that the text reveals according to both Eckhart and Porete. The description 'reader', however, is misleading for most of the texts analysed either actually were performed (as sermon, poem or drama) or are structured as performance (as lecture or dialogue). These texts are themselves practices that seek to 'bewilder' the mind into truth (Ibn Arabi).

Sells closes thus: "To arrive at the kind of unknowing spoken of by the five mystics in this volume is not an easy task. On the literary level, unsaying demands a full utilization of the literary, theological, and philosophical resources of the tradition. Its achievement is unstable and fleeting. It demands a rigorous and sustained effort both to use and free oneself from normal habits of thought and expression. It demands a willingness to let go, at a particular moment, of the grasping for guarantees and for knowledge as possession. It demands a moment of vulnerability. Yet for those who value it, this moment of unsaying and unknowing is what it is to be human."

His volume is itself no easy task yet continually repays close reading because it invites us to reconsider mystical language as a powerful tool for liberating us from the continuous tendency to reify truth built into the very structure of our ordinary language. It is a fixity that, as Ibn Arabi taught, allows us to assume positions around our beliefs that leads to intolerance and conflict. Mysticism is an invitation to discover our common humanity not in a common experience or doctrine but in a vulnerability that continually breaks us open to a ground beyond grounds. And ultimately it can only be lived not said - but the skilled writer who is 'there' can offer us a performance that leads us in."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Into the silent land

"A young prisoner cuts himself with a sharp knife to dull emotional pain. 'As long as I can remember,' he says, 'I have this hurt inside. I can't get away from it, and sometimes I cut and burn myself so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside.'"

Realising this in himself, he approached the Prison Phoenix Trust, that teaches yoga and meditation in prison, that allows a person to reconfigure the unlikely site of a prison cell as a place of retreat and reflection, and after only a few weeks of diligent practice begins to see something new, beyond the pain and the pain displaced in self-harm and, "for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something in myself that I can like."

This moving example of the potentially transformative nature of contemplative or meditative living is given in Martin Laird's beautiful and concise book, 'Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation' that I read yesterday on the plane to and fro Amsterdam (that speaks for its conciseness).

This example struck me in a three fold way.

First because as the co-founder of Prison Phoenix, it was a delighting acknowledgement of what valuable work we embarked on (with a mixture of insight, faith and unknowing, particularly in the latter camp of the mechanics of running a charity and the awful slog of raising money).

Second because it stands out as a testimony that this way of life, however approached, is for everyone because we all of a communal nature anchored in the one sacred reality that births us into shared being. 'Into the Silent Land' is written helpfully from a wholly Christian focus but like fitness is to any sport, meditation is a practice that fertilises all traditions though this is an analogy I recall 'inventing' for an uncomprehending Chaplain General to the UK Prison Service and we often found our route into prison was through the education department rather than the chaplaincy service. Silence then, as now and ever, is not always perceived as a friend to our ego bound religious orthodoxies.

Third, because I became aware of what a profound metaphor self-harm is for what we all do - an extreme version of daily happening. We find ourselves immersed in some repeating, distracting, harmful pattern of inward fear or anxiety or outward anger or aggression (or merely irritation or spite) because we cannot sit with an aware regard for that pattern without the impulse to act or bury it in commentary or replay in a looped video in the mind but to see beyond and around it, to a reality in ourselves that we can like. A reality that is embraced in a deepening mercy that is at the heart of things.

Reading Laird's book was a beautiful reminder of the invitation to go deeper into that mercy and learn the liberating forgiveness of sins that accompanies it, You discover that you are always forgiven because, as Julian of Norwich startlingly remarked, 'In God there is no forgiveness'.

In God there is no change, loving now and always, 'all' one need do, in the simple yet difficult act of contemplation, is to let oneself sink into that unchanging awareness.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Shadows of Ecstasy

"The Shadows of Ecstasy" was the first novel Charles Williams wrote (and it shows, I fear) but not the first published.

It has a familiar conceit - a magical object of power that can be exploited ambiguously - will it be for good or ill? The Grail cup, for example, or a pack of Tarot cards. Except in this case, the ambiguous object of power is a human person, Nigel Considine, who claims to be over two hundred years old, and may be either the world's savior or the Antichrist!

Considine's power is attributed to magic - in this case a process by which a person, rather than dissipating the energy of love and beauty outwards, takes it within, stored as it were, with transformative effects. It is a form of self over-coming. For generations Considine and his followers have been consolidating their grip on Africa and now seek to liberate it from colonial control, so that it becomes a vast laboratory for their experimental ambitions. The principal ambition being the conquest of death, rather than the achievement of mere longevity.

The drama unfolds in England, as Considine executes his plans, he comes into contact with a 'family' group - Sir Bernard, a doctor, phlegmatic and ironic, his friend, Caithness, an Anglican priest decent but infected with self-importance, Sir Bernard's son, Philip, Philip's intended, Rosamund and two young married friends, Roger, a literary scholar and his wife, Isabel. Finally there are two sets of 'outriders' - a kingly Zulu released from his enchantment to Considine by Caithness and two elderly Jews, inheritors of a fortune, with which they plan to rebuild the Temple and await the Messiah's coming in Jerusalem. (And, yes, the novel's fabric does become too baroque for its own good)!

This group proves to be schismatic - Sir Bernard, deeply impressed as he is by Considine, refuses to imagine that any vision as grandiose, and unhindered by humour and irony, could be anything other than ultimately catastrophic whilst Roger falls under the spell of discipleship.

It is William's (developing) brilliance to allow the supernatural events to feel utterly natural and allow them not to simply throw out a melodrama but to sound deep questions of metaphysics and morals.

Roger is attracted because Considine treasures the reality of the imagination, a reality Roger finds at the heart of the poetry he loves. A poetry that is emphatically not at the heart, in the pulse, of modern civilisation. He sees in Considine, Shelley's boast that poets might be the (unacknowledged) legislators of the world. Sir Bernard is repelled not because such a vision is not inspiring (and the Prime Minister, with whom he deals to allay the crisis, is anything but inspiring) but because it is too self-enclosing. It is an imagination that feeds on experience rather than liberates it into a shared communion. Considine's way of life is subsumed under the rubric of power and control (to apparent noble purpose) not under that of love.

Williams allows you to feel the difference - mostly notably in Isabel's response to Roger's pursuit - she wholly loves the impulse in him but refuses to follow him, knowing that in genuine love there is vulnerability and a self-giving, shared. Considine for all his passionate intensity and noble ambition is a closed being.

The irony is that Considine is felled not by his just opponents but by a disgruntled disciple whose desire is driven by the Jew's wealth (in jewels). Irony has the last word - unless, of course, having conquered death, Considine returns?

All Williams work, amongst much else, is an extended commentary on Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor - what if the world, broken, sorrow filled, might yield to beneficent control? Would this not be a better, improving option? It is Williams' genius to always allow that question to be both answered by the free invitation of love and yet left wide open.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Pope and statistics

The Pope Emeritus, Benedict, conditioned by his experience of Catholicism in Europe, imagined a Church in decline or retreat, so pulling up the drawbridge, the faithful remnant, anchored in a renewed idealized faith, would keep the circulating secular wolves at bay.

The new Pope Francis, conditioned by his experience of Catholicism in Latin America, imagines the Church as an abiding presence in the midst of the world, so Catholics should be confident, outward looking and engaged, after all the secular wolves are, in fact, ineffectually snapping from the sidelines, unable to make significant inroads amongst the thronging sheep!

Neither I expect based their views on the actual numbers but had they done so, Pope Francis would be more nearly right than his predecessor - one in every seventh person in the world is a self-reporting Catholic. If current trends hold, in 2050, one in every seventh person will be a self-reporting Catholic. I know this because on my desk is a thorough piece of number crunching that tells me so (though, of course, past performance is not always an indicator of the future). It is heartening, however, that the researchers themselves were surprised by this (and I am surprised that it is only every ten years or so that anybody asks them to conduct research of this kind, especially since none of it was original. They only used extant sources)!

Now, of course, the figures do demonstrate all kinds of regional variation. Europe does have the flavor that Benedict attributed to the Church as a whole (that only goes to show that, as with other areas of life, the locus of  the world, the engine of its history, is no longer located in Europe. It has gone multi-polar in fascinating and challenging ways - especially if you are a multi-national organization, like the Church)!

Nor do statistics answer the deeper question of if vibrant and vital, vibrant and vital for what?

However, I was struck, as many times before, with our ability to prioritize our 'experience' over evidence; and, how we all build walls around that experience to ensure that it bears only the reality our assumptions wish to welcome.

It is a powerful reminder of the absence in public life of evidence based decision making.

Leaders, to manipulate T.S. Eliot, cannot bear reality any more than the rest of us!

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...