Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Mad Farmers' Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready-made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head. 
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer. 

When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you 
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something 
that won't compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor. 
Love someone who does not deserve it. 

Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed. 

Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. 
Say that your main crop is the forest 
that you did not plant, 
that you will not live to harvest. 

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. 
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees 
every thousand years. 

Listen to carrion -- put your ear 
close, and hear the faint chattering 
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful 
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men. 

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child? 
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 

Go with your love to the fields. 
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts. 

As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn't go. 

Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction. 
Practice resurrection. 

Wendell Berry.

This is the first Berry poem I ever heard, being read at Dartington Hall in Totnes in Devon by Berry himself in 1986. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Till We Have Faces

'Till We Have Faces' is C.S. Lewis' imaginative retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche told from the perception of one of Psyche's two 'evil' sisters (in this particular case, ugly too). It was a myth drawn from Apuleius' 'The Golden Ass' that had haunted Lewis throughout his life and this is a compelling and beautiful late work.

It deeply coheres as a whole - Orual, the sister, tells her story in Part One as an accusation against the gods for sundering her relationship to her beloved half sister, Psyche. In Part Two Orual is reshaped by the gods accepting her complaint and responding in such a way that transforms and redeems Orual's story. Nothing in the past is fixed until it is seen in the light of a redeeming future.

Like his beloved George MacDonald, Lewis has reconfigured myth and faery and given it a contemporary accessibility of meaning. He does so with both psychological insight and metaphysical grace (and shows how the two co-inhere - you cannot ultimately have the one without the other).

The book is laced with moments where you recognise this. There is, for example, the moment when the book's title is revealed. Orual is talking of speaking to the gods and recognising that this is only possible when we speak from our utmost self. How can we expect the gods to listen until we stop babbling, how can we be seen until we have faces? I was reminded of the sage words of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on prayer: Why do we expect God to be present when we want God to be present when most of our lives are spent in absence?

Orual spends her time in flight from her self and what she perceives she has inflicted on the life of her beloved sister, Psyche, and yet, as the story unfolds, she comes to realize that even her errors have been put to use and woven into the fabric of both Psyche's and her redemption.

The message, through the filter of a Greek myth, is understandably a Christian one. There is nothing that you can do to escape the forgiveness of God except maintain the pretence that you are doing so. As soon as the veil falls you are released not into judgement but love.

It is only we and our stories that bind but God comes to us accepting our stories and releasing us from our histories.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pure Act

Robert Lax's vocation was first and foremost as a poet though he spent his life as many other things in people's perceptions. He was, for example, a friend of Thomas Merton (whose cottage industry was given further impetus by Pope Francis who recently singled him out for praise to the U.S. Congress). He was a reclusive saintly hermit on Patmos though like many saintly reclusive hermits before him, he was anything but, in truth, travelling and traipsing and hosting visitors aplenty. He was a 'failed' editor - an uncertain youthful fumbling after a literary career at the New Yorker and a deeper abiding presence, if sometime impractical, at Ed Rice's Catholic journal, 'Jubilee'.

But as Michael N. McGregor shows, in his exemplary biography, 'Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax',  Lax truly came alive when he realized that he could write nothing that was not simply for himself and that self was only authentically alive and present when it sought to rest in God and in those people and things, that seen aright, most directly, simply witnessed to God's abiding presence in the world. As the Desert Fathers and Mothers knew, you become more truly transparent when you become ever more truly yourself - the Robert Lax you were created to be and only him (or her).

The people who witnessed to this for Lax were those whose lives were rich in skill, a skill that was honoured and ran so deep that it took on the character of a spontaneous gracefulness. He found this first in the circuses to which his father took him as a child and with which later, he travelled, living with the performers, occasionally performing himself, observing and interacting with them, apart yes yet at home. He, also, found it in the poor - not the broken or destitute - but people whose circumstances stripped them to bare essentials - the sponge divers or fishermen of the Greek isles (that became his home) or in his especial friend a woman carpet weaver on one such isle.

In a sense such seeing was an idealization - people are people, completely human and Lax was to suffer their capacity for falling out, vindictiveness, suspicion. On one of his Greek islands, his departure, just before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus with its threat of war, convinced many of the islanders that he was an American spy! But who is to say that such a 'projection' is not an invitation to people to respond with the best they are? An idealization that is a seeing through, an invitation for renewal. After all it was Lax who famously told Merton that you could become a saint by wanting to; and, perhaps you could become a saint by being seen as one too?

And respond they did.

Leading the life of a poet, only lately acknowledged as a genius, is a poor way to earn one's crust, even if you were a man whose desires extended happily to crusts; and, having dived into this precarious life, he was supported through it. Money usually appeared when it was necessary, meals were cooked, clothes mended or given, indeed part of the testimony to a life aligned may indeed be the generosity it evoked. It was also a life marked with compelling gifts of friendship.

The world answered too in a different way. This second way was his focus on 'things' in which Lax gave testimony to God's worldliness. This was beautifully reflected in his 'vertical poetry'. Words on a page, one under the other, often rhythmically repeated, that were once described as either baffling or beatifying the reader, possible both, with minds bewildered into truth as they read on and the focused simplicity sinks, sings, dances into them.

As one page of his long sequence 'Sea and Sky' has it:





the sea-

the sea-

the sea

They are poems to be read aloud, musically and performatively, reminding us that the meaning of poetry (as in mysticism) is in the singing tone as in the text itself, in the spatial juxtaposition of words as in the building of sentences, in the silences as well as in the sounds.

It is a deeply moving book concerning how one man followed his own golden string to heaven's gate, one tug at a time, and how such a path does not lead to certainty but to the open vulnerability that is love, his love, a gift wrapped in God's. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

An Inspector Calls

Yesterday I watched the new BBC television adaption of J.B. Priestley's play, 'An Inspector Calls' with the admirable David Thewlis as the inspector. (The accompanying image is from the film version with the equally admirable Alastair Sim in the title role).

The inspector arrives at the intimate dinner party of a northern industrialist. The dinner is celebrating his daughter's engagement. The inspector announces that a young woman has committed suicide and as the investigation unfolds we come to see that all five of the dinner's participants have played a role in the woman's unhappy downfall to this ultimate misery. A role, that in each case, reflects badly on each of the individuals who are present. We watch as each person wrestles with their conscience and how that conscience is, in each case, more or less obscured. Ultimately, however, it is held in the objective gaze of an 'external' judgement namely that of the inspector, and all stand convicted in their own eyes, at least for now.

The inspector, however, is not what he seems because, as we discover, the woman has not yet committed suicide and, when questioned on the telephone, the chief constable denies the inspector's existence. This allows some of the party to begin to backtrack on their fragile realisation of moral culpability and for others to recognise it makes no difference. The girl has been sorely maltreated even if she has not been driven to the ultimate act and what matters is our internal recognition of this, not the status of its message bearer or its potential for social scandal.

And there is a twist. No sooner has the telephone call been made to the chief constable than a second call comes - a woman has committed suicide and the police would like to ask the family some questions... At which point the play ends.

Like any great work of literature (and this is, I think, Priestley's most enduring), it can be read in multiple ways - one such would be to focus on Priestley's obsession with time.

This time, however, I found myself thinking about 'conscience'. For Priestley, conscience is real and objective and it observes everything. We see the inspector, after leaving the family, observing the woman's suicide to reinforce this point. It is on one level powerless. It does not intervene instrumentally. It is on another level extraordinarily powerful because it is ever present and when you allow yourself to see it transformative. Allowing yourself to see it, however, is a difficult task. The path is strewn with every conceivable strategy for distraction accompanied by self-justification. The play beautifully explores many of these.

I was reminded of an evening, years past, when I gave a talk to a combined meeting of the Institute of Criminology and the Faculty of Theology at Cambridge on work I was doing with people in prison and the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers. I was reproved by my chair, a distinguished sociologist, for suggesting that conscience was a reality, not a 'social construct' and I responded by suggesting that the phenomenology of conscience suggested the former and not the latter. It was something, with struggle, you could unveil and focus your attention on and it universally arose within people who practised the ascesis of attention, intending a loving transformation. I wish I had remembered Priestley's play because it comes from this same stable.

For Priestley was deeply influenced by a tangential tradition to that of the Desert Fathers namely that of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky as mediated by Maurice Nicoll (and I am the inheritor of at least two of Nicoll's books that originally were owned by Priestley). Here the awakening of 'conscience' is a fruit of the development of a rigorous self-awareness and one of the ways of reading 'An Inspector Calls' is as an invite, a touch of grace, to do just that (and a recognition of how difficult a sustained response might be). Or to put in other words as a commentary on the parable of the Sower in the Gospel (as understood by Nicoll in 'The New Man') as an invitation to awareness and of all the ways such awareness can be thwarted.

I suspect the power of the play is in its ability to recall us, however momentarily, to ourselves and to ask ourselves what quality of soil do we have and can it bear the sowing of conscience.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Gun crime

Following the thread of a discussion on an American friend's Facebook thread on the recent tragedy in Oregon, one of his interlocutors was an irate 'responsible' gun owner (also American) who questioned whether he (my friend) wanted the government to take her guns away? After all, she had not nor ever intended to kill anyone. The question was sidestepped by returning to the more politically plausible response of saying, 'No, what we need is more effective background checks etc.'

Reflecting on this, I thought, well maybe the answer, in fact, ought to be, 'Yes, I do want to take your guns away from you'. Individually you might indeed be a 'responsible gun owner' but the truth is societies with massive gun ownership tend to be societies where they are more often used violently (and by accident create accompanying mayhem). The question is not about individual responsibility but why do you as a responsible citizen want to live in a society awash with weaponry where the consequences, for society as a whole, is clear. Selfishly you want to own guns even as the communal reality of this decision is the death of the innocent.

Now I recognise the limitations of this argument. For example, you could apply it to cars - cars after all cause many negative externalities - social and environmental - whereas the universal adoption of public transportation would minimize many of these; however, cars are, at least, useful and their utility may offset (for the time being) their liabilities (and the car is capable of adaptation - to electricity for example or being made to drive slower in built-up areas).

Meanwhile, the guns purposes are only useful in very limited spheres - to go hunting, or as a farmer to manage pests, or as a form of sport in hitting a target and in defending a community from others either in law enforcement or conflict. All of these are susceptible to being limited by effective regulation and governance - and only the latter require the ownership of semi or fully automatic weaponry; and, then only by people commissioned and trained by society as a whole to do so.

The real question it seems to me is why this is not self-evident in America and why people are obsessed with their own protection (and being unable to hand this over to their community) when it is exactly that obsession that undermines their safety. It is a viciously decreasing circle.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I was a very factual child who read mostly history and studied maps (and watched Westerns and documentaries). It was not until I was si...