Showing posts from August, 2015

Transfiguring thinkers

The Transfiguration by Patrick Pye
The common thread that runs through Andrew Louth's 'Modern Orthodox Thinkers' is the unity of being and knowing. Knowledge in pursuit of spiritual life is never abstract. It can be reasonably, rationally argued, but it is fully truth only when lived out as the integral aspect in a transformed person, community; and, ultimately cosmos.

Louth weaves this thread deftly and with consummate clarity through the lives of a radically diverse group of people who yet belong to the same overarching tradition that of the Orthodox Church.

The story begins with the publication and dissemination of the Philokalia at the end of the eighteenth century that remarkable collection of practical texts on living the mystical life within Orthodox monasticism. What is striking is that most of these texts were meant for a monastic audience and meant to be read in conjunction with the live guidance of a spiritual elder; however, the editors took the risk of lettin…

The Face in Glory

"Any face, however, worn or almost destroyed, the moment we regard it with the heart's gaze, reveals itself as unique, inimitable, free from any repetition. One can analyse its components, take apart coldly, or cruelly, the way they are assembled, and thus consign it to the world of objects that one can explain, that is to say, possess. Regarded against the background of the night, of the nothing, the face is an inhabited archipelago. a disqualifying caricature. Regarded from the side of the sun, the face reveals an other, someone, a reality that one cannot decompose, classify 'understand', for it is always beyond, strangely absent when one wants to seize it, but which radiates from its beyond whenever one agrees to open oneself to it, to 'put one's faith' in it, as the old language admirably puts it."
'Le Visage Interieur' by Oliver Clement
An Old Jew: Rembrandt

Lamenting: a Filial Appeal to His Holiness

510061 signatures and counting (including 'personalities' - including a Polish MP and the Auxiliar Bishop of Astana that you are helpfully reminded is in Kazakstan) have attached themselves to a petition to Pope Francis ahead of the synod on the family in October hoping for a word to dispel the faithful's confusion.

This confusion, about the status of the family, known usually as the 'traditional family unit', is under sustained attack (apparently since the 'so-called May 1968 Sorbonne revolution') by dark forces that have resulted in rising fears "from witnessing a decades-long sexual revolution promoted by an alliance of powerful organizations, political forces and the mass media that consistently work against the very existence of the family as the basic unit of society." (The lack of understanding of the variegated history of the 'family' here is familiar and depressing as is the unwillingness to name and …

Does everyone have a ghost story?

For a period growing up to get to my (older) brother's bedroom, you had to pass through mine. One evening lying in bed (and before my brother had gone to bed), I lay awake and found myself listening to the drawers of my brother's chest of drawers open and shut, open and shut, in sequence, and with each drawer opening more than once. I was frozen in fear, jolted with excitement. Either there was a burglar with an unhealthy fascination for the contents of a teenager's cabinet or an unknown agency that was for unknown reasons opening and shutting the drawers. The problem with the first explanation was that he would have had to climb through a window suspended over a shared passageway at an hour unlikely to be undisturbed (and, in any case, it was winter, the window was shut and had as distinctive a sound as the drawers did).

A minor mystery that, though it remains wholly memorable, casts the kind of doubt that our cognitive conservatism sponsors. Draws do not open and shut b…

Tolstoy's paradoxical grave

A short walk from the house at Yasnaya Polyana you come across the green mound that is Tolstoy's unmarked grave. It was, when I first saw it, preternaturally green, standing out from its surroundings (as if a Tolstoyan came by night sprinkling fertilizer). It is an apt physical parable for the paradox at the heart of Tolstoy's life - a man who wanted to be self-effacing, to surrender his worldly possessions to the peasants and go anonymously a wandering like a pilgrim or strannik yet who was every inch an aristocrat, equipped with an overlarge ego who found himself a global celebrity, a status not wholly unwelcome!

Rosamund Bartlett's 'Tolstoy: A Russian Life" is an accomplished account of this multi-faceted man.
Tolstoy was a passionate rationalist and rationaliser.
No sooner had he completed six years of work on War and Peace than he began work on a primer of Russian grammar designed to make acquiring literacy more possible for the newly emancipated peasants, s…

Skillful post person arranging books

Back from a trip to Berlin (seven days) and I find my postbox full with skillfully arranged (and probably rearranged) packages as a result of my book buying mania having overcome the common sense of my approaching departure!

I can only be thankful that the curious nature of airline pricing (the true meaning of which will be one of the things that are revealed in the beatific vision) forced me home for a night before traveling onward to England.

I wish I could say that the cumulative pile offered an inner coherence but, sadly, my magpie nature, as usual, got the better of me.

The thickest book (one has to have some form of organizing principle) is a replacement copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch's 'A History of Christianity'. The previous copy having been lent out beyond hope of return, I thought I should acquire (and re-read) a replacement. It is as judicious and intelligent a study as one could hope for of the global religion which, despite the wishes of the new atheists, conti…

A poet's nurturing

Obviously I am in a mood to reminisce.

At the very same conference, the first Temenos Conference held at Dartington Hall in Devon, at which I met the artist, Thetis Blacker,, I met the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, for the first time, except in this case, the path of meeting had been prepared.

I was at university in London when, on one Saturday afternoon, I visited the Watkins Bookshop in Cecil Court, off the Charing Cross Road in London. I knew of it because it features in the second volume of Raine's autobiography, 'The Land Unknown', that I had read for the first time at school at the prompting of a friend. Watkins, which still exists, is a bookshop devoted to the 'alternative', the spiritual, the esoteric. That afternoon I found a copy of the second edition of 'Temenos: A Review devoted to the Arts of the Imagination' (published by Watkins) and edited primarily by Kathleen …

A painter of inner vision.

One morning, attending a conference:

"Are you a poet? You look like a poet" asked the deep, rich voice over the breakfast table. "No,"I replied, a little startled, "but I do dream"? "So do I! Tell me one"! So I did. Thus did I become a lifelong friend of the artist, Thetis Blacker, one of whose paintings for a series on 'The Conference of the Birds' is shown above. (This was, also, used, as illustration, in book form, in a retelling of Attar's poem by the Jungian analyst, Anne Baring).

She was a dreamer, and many of the starting points for her paintings, would begin, seen in dreams, to be elaborated consciously, using the batik techniques she had adapted from traditional modes in Indonesia.

Her dreams were 'big', complex, of the nature of stories and indeed she published a volume of these: A Pilgramage of Dreams. Mine, by contrast, were brief, jewel like (and, so she claimed, purer than her's, a somewhat embarrassing cla…

Ouspensky's burden

'The Strange Life of P.D. Ouspensky' is the title of Colin Wilson's brief, sometimes a tad breathless, account of the life of the Russian philosopher and esotericist. It is, however, a graceful and thoughtful portrait of a complex man, who became tragically entangled with the equally strange Gurdjieff. It was not a happy match and Wilson sets off to explore why.

At heart, Wilson pins the mismatch on Gurdjieff reinforcing, at a critical moment, Ouspensky's pessimism, suggesting to him that the possibilities of human development were so circumscribed by man's machine like nature that the possibilities of human evolution were remote, difficult and the practices towards them rigorous and communal.

Yet Ouspensky had already come to the threshold of illumination, prior to his meeting Gurdjieff and what he needed was assurrance of their validity and a better containing framework that would allow for their deeper reception and development. Ouspensky's world was grace…

Bury the Chains

A former colleague drew my attention to a key series of texts to read in the field of 'development studies', one of which I happened to be reading: Adam Hochschild's 'Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery."

Reading it you can see why.

First because it is a hopeful book where what was simply a commonly accepted reality became, within a relatively short time frame, a great injustice. Second because the great injustice was campaigned against utilising many of the now recognisable tools - the use of mass petitions, newsletters to keep supporters up to date, paid organisers and such like. These were invented first during the campaign against slavery. Third because this campaign seeded many others, for example, against child labour in Britain, where comparative use of  the imagery of slavery was an essential rallying point.

But also, on the shadow side, in the recognition that no campaign is ever fully complete. Emancipation was won but the material …