Sunday, February 21, 2016

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy

After the histrionics of 'Black Narcissus', enjoyable as they are, as is the accompanying famous film, the novelist, Rumer Godden was to write two more novels rooted in the life of a convent (indeed she converted to Roman Catholicism and saw both works as making a more realistic amends for that first book)!

'Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy' (which is a reference to the cycles of the Rosary) is set betwixt a brothel, more than one prison and the Dominican community of the Sisters of Bethanie. The Sisters were founded out of the prison experience of Father Lataste in nineteenth century France and became an order that welcomed as full members people who found their vocation at any age and any background, most especially those that resonated with the life of Mary Magdalene - all kinds of brokenness in search of redemption, not least out of prison. No one in the order ever knew their fellow members backgrounds - what mattered was not who you had been but who you could become.

The central character is Lise who as a young, naive woman finds herself in Paris on the day of its liberation, lost and vulnerable, and is seduced by the charms of Patrice, older, manipulative and the owner of a brothel into which Lise finds herself drawn. What I always find remarkable in Godden is her ability to marry plots that strike you as commonplace, often a touch melodramatic (and she herself worried 'middlebrow') with a wonderful psychological acuity, sense of place and an underlying girding of realism (often born out of patient research and in many cases her own autobiography). You see and feel what it might mean for a person, Lise, starved of love, coming from a narrow life in England, to fall in love with a man such as Patrice and sustain that even when he, periodically, and with acute, dark judgement, turns violent; and, even turns her over, later, in favour of a younger, even more damaged and manipulable, girl, Vivi.

Realistic too in how all Lise's subsequent attempts to help Vivi escape her fate into the possibilities of a new life run aground on the depth of Vivi's wounds and lead to a confrontation with Patrice and a perceived crime of passion - in Lise killing Patrice believing herself to be protecting Vivi, a protection she discovers too late that Vivi clearly does not want.

In prison, Lise discovers the Sisters of Bethanie who come and visit and which lead to her vocation. This story is expertly told, its turns and difficulties, the necessary disillusionment and discovery of community as a real, hard, rewarding, occasionally deeply blessed life. It beautifully balances the psychological unfolding and an openness to a world that, if we look and sometimes when we do not, can receive grace, into which miracle can break. It, also, reveals Godden as a master of describing space - you taste the unfolding seasons, sense the routines punctuated by the grace of feasts, the complexity of living together and the boredom and holiness of the routines and graces of prayer.

Returning to prison, many years later, now as a visiting Sister, inevitably, for this is a drama, she must encounter Vivi, now a prisoner herself, and reconnect with her long nurtured vindictive hatred, a hatred that will end in tragedy for one of the nun's and the book's open ended question as to whether redemption is possible for every one? Is it the case that every soul, God's image, will find it? Or as the 'pagan' but sympathetic, warden of the prison Lise visits, puts it that the 'devil' too is divine and she has seen him in full, resonant occupation? Can we be so broken by the traumas of life, as Vivi appears to be, that no healing is possible, this side of the grave?

For me, reading this, was deeply resonant - all my years first working with, writing to and supporting people in prison and subsequently helping others to carry the work forward and seeing the same patterns and questions embodied here; and, second emerging with the abiding conviction that if healing ultimately belongs to God, God has no other hands, to quote St Theresa of Avila, than ours and so we witness, so do we reap. We can never expect transformation, we can only hope, and work.

It, also, re-energised my contemplative ache - never far away - and in the cool, quiet lucid descriptions of the celebrated feasts and in them God's presence. It went a little way to deepening it while, paradoxically applying balm.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The levitating saint

A miracle, to quote St. Augustine, "does not occur contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know of nature.” So what happens when a miracle occurs, repeatedly, what can it tell us about the nature of the nature we inhabit and, more importantly perhaps, about its meaning?

This is the subject of Michael Grosso’s searching, beautifully written and challenging book. The repeated miracle in question is a seventeenth century Franciscan priest’s ability to levitate, not once or twice, but repeatedly over years, observed by hundreds of people, many of whom originally were skeptical. These repeat performances, accompanied by other manifestations of psychic skill, were an embarrassment to the Church not interestingly for their plausibility (after all St Joseph was not the first flying religious) but for the temptations of pride and self-advertisement in which Fr Joseph might become ensnared. For this reason he was investigated more than once by the Inquisition, always being exonerated but always presenting a difficulty to the Church hierarchy who forced him into ever more remote priories until he spent the last period of his life virtually a prisoner in a single room. It is ironic or perhaps emblematic that establishments of all kinds find anomalous experience difficult (though for different reasons). This inquisitorial interest, however, is a boon to subsequent researchers given their scrupulous bureaucratic attention to detail.

Needless to say our still established scientific materialism too finds St Joseph’s experience confounding so it must be a consequence of a known mechanism - mass hysteria or conscious fraud say. Grosso patiently sifts the evidence, weighing it carefully in the balance, and leaves you with no other truly reasonable conclusion than that St Joseph could indeed, under particular and described circumstances, levitate. It would be erroneous to think of this as ‘defying gravity’ as Grosso argues as if the ‘the laws of physics’ were legislative rather than the best possible available descriptions of what can be taken to be the case.  If Joseph can fly, the question now is how - what force or dynamic can act in certain contexts such that the ‘normal’ rules of gravity are transformed? What might that look like and how does it effect how we think about the nature we inhabit?

The first thing it asks us is to revisit is the relationship between mind and matter (and indeed whether those neatly divided categories are not grossly misleading). For Joseph’s ability to levitate was connected with the achievement of certain, circumscribed patterns of ecstasy when, forgetting himself, all his concentration was on the religious trigger of his intense devotion.  Our minds appear not simply to be contained epiphenomena of our material brains but casually effective. Grosso takes us through a graded ascent of those abilities - from everyday intentionality through to levitation - in order to make the case for their plausibility - differences in degree and commonality but not of kind.

If this be so, where might we go to discover what the eminent physicist and early explorer of the ‘paranormal’, William Crookes, called, ‘a psychic force’ by which under certain conditions and, within as yet unknown boundaries, a person with ‘a special nerve organisation’ can enable action at a distance, without muscular effort shift objects or, in the case of St Joseph, levitate? Has our understanding of consciousness and matter advanced since Crookes’ nineteenth century speculation grounded in observed phenomena. Yes, argues Grosso, if slowly, because with the development of quantum mechanics, consciousness has undertaken ‘a return of the repressed’ rather than being seen as a quirky (and limited) epiphenomena, it is becoming potentially a constitutive, structuring reality that permeates everywhere. In his penultimate chapter, Grosso explores a number of approaches to mind in quantum mechanics that are a suggestive basis for a renewed interest in consciousness as a non-local, unifying reality that transcends and configures 'matter'.

If this is so, what might it mean? The final section of the book turns to what Grosso describes as a parapsychology of religion. I recall attending a science and religion conference many years ago and being embarrassed to find myself the only empiricist there. All the conversation was on whether religion and science in their most abstracted forms were or were not compatible not on the ground where they might actually meet which, as Grosso articulates, is in the space of the ‘psychic’ where the study of the paranormal begins to extend and deepen our understanding of human possibility.

This parapsychology of religion will not simply confirm the ‘realities’ confessed to by any particular religion, indeed they might be as challenging to them as they are to ‘mainstream’ science, but they offer a fruitful path through the thicket of incompatible claims to the normative. In a modest yet compelling way Grosso sketches how this might be so in reinforcing the belief in a spiritual world, a belief in the power of belief itself, in the power of prayer, in a life after death and in miracles. It advances William James request in his ‘Pluralistic Universe’ to put empiricism at the heart of religion once more such that, “a new era of religion as well as philosophy might begin,” one that experiments after the truth, modest, wondering, humble as befits the temperament of a saint who could fly yet placed all his emphasis on the devoted love that at its heart triggered it.

"The Man who could Fly" is not only an exemplary case study of a levitating saint but an agenda both for further research, search and reconfiguration of what it might mean to be human in a universe the knowledge of which remains enticingly and enjoyably uncertain, open and inviting.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Peter Camenzind and Re-envisioned Christianity

I was inspired to re-read Hermann Hesse's novel, 'Peter Camenzind', after many years, having completed Barry Stephenson's admirable book, 'Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism'. Hesse is often seen simply to be in revolt against his family's perceived narrow and moralistic Protestantism. Its strictures were such that they triggered his adolescent revolt from his seminary and their persistent mishandling of his poetic aspiration deepened his antagonism towards them and their background culture.

The truth, as is often the way, was more complex. German Pietism often sat alongside a deep appreciation of the wider culture (and in the case of German Romanticism actively contributed to the development of that culture). Though German Pietism was arguably in its decline by the time of Hesse's birth, becoming more conservative and identified with state nationalism and bureaucracy, the strand with which Hesse's family identified had a greater breadth and retained its internationalist and quietist flavour towards politics. Stephenson convincingly shows that Hesse remained in lifelong dialogue with it, that it shaped many of his attitudes, positively as well as negatively; not least in ultimately bringing Hesse to describe himself as a Christian - though in Blake's terms, a Christian radical embracing a truth that ultimately was one and unitary, enfolding all authentic traditions. Stephenson's criticism is beautifully nuanced and a model of the interplay of religious, historical and literary study whose complexity I cannot contend with here but re-reading Peter Camenzind I could see its value.

Value not least because you realise how deeply Christian Camenzind is even if this is always perceived with a certain ironic detachment. Peter born in a high Alpine village lives a quasi-paradisical life steps out into the world of experience - of art, journalism, thwarted love - and returns to his Alpine world wiser yet suffused still with a bewildered innocence about the world's ultimate meaning. Yet the journey is a validated one, he would not have wished it otherwise and two patterns of revealed meaning abide.

The first is that of nature itself - the world into which we are born and connects each and every one of us. It is a world both majestic and grand, wholly itself, and yet one that can be greeted as 'brother', whose moods, whatever they are, can be welcomed. Here the archetype is St Francis with whom Peter is in love and whom he greets as a fellow spirit. St Francis embraces the world in all its diversity - light and dark - as companion. There is a self in all of us that steps beyond time and difference and sees unity in every particular moment.

The second is care for one another - beautiful when reciprocated but beautiful too when simply offered with no expected return. Peter comes to befriend and care for Boppi, a handicapped man, who initially repels him, and yet they become friends, companions on the way, until and into and through Boppi's death. But equally Peter returns to his village and cares for his father, whom in the past he has never loved, without regard for a returning affirmation, simply because here lies obligation freely entered into.

Thus does the book follow a transformed Pietist motif - paradise inhabited, lost to experience and regained in a recognition of a deeper, binding unity and in the service of others - the irony being that here there is no discussion of 'sin' of the need to break the will of the sinner into repentance - the patterning is a natural one, lived out of the self-propelled, reflective nature of a human being, being themselves, attuned to the natural gracing of meaning, not a busying anthropomorphic God. We are in the world of original blessing rather than original sin and God as the munificent holder of unity in diversity, striving with their creation towards wholeness, not an outside entity peering in judgementally (but that too, as William Blake found, was one of the possibilities of 'Pietism' too, as expressed in one of its mystical founders, Jacob Boheme).

It too is a book of the most wonderful descriptions of nature - in which we live and move and have our becoming - of mountains and lakes, of trees and flowers and, most especially, of clouds minutely observed in the ways in which they reveal the changing patterns of weather and time.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Sandy, who is in his seventies, has returned from the sea to a croft, a home resembling his childhood, where with his dog, a cow and some chickens, he lives a quiet life, content, contemplating life's end and whether death is an absorbing return or a translation to a different state of being.

One of his occasional visitors is a young man, Allan, who, with his friends, uses Sandy's place (and Queenie, his dog) as the departure point for their innocent and youthful poaching trips, always sharing the spoils with their wider community.

But his appearance now is anything but innocent for in a fit of jealous (out)rage he has killed a man, Robert, and, on the run, one of the pursuing police officers is Robert's brother, Nicol. Ignoring abstract duty, Sandy provides help to Allan while watching in distress as hunter and hunted regress ever deeper to more primal levels as the complexities of justice and love are overcome with the singular dynamics of revenge and survival.

To complicate matters, hearing of Sandy's accident with a rutting cow, Lizzie, the girl who is the source of Allan and Robert's deadly argument, pregnant by Robert, turns up and finds shelter at Sandy's croft, having been in the eyes of her family, disgraced.

At the end Nicol gets his man but as man not as policeman, observed at a distance by Sandy, he kills Allan in a struggle. We are left, however, not knowing the outcome for Sandy decides not to report what he has seen of Nicol murdering in his turn. Duty once more succumbs to love - sheltering Lizzie from further pain (now that her child is born) and allowing Nicol the dignity (or otherwise) of his own conscience.

This was Neil M Gunn's penultimate novel and is a story heightened as if myth, yet never departing from the psychologically convincing. Many of Gunn's traditional themes are here - the contest of love and duty, women as idealised yet not sentimentalized weavers of community bearers of a continuity of survival and goodness, the importance of community even as it carries the shadow of tribalism and the healing, gifted nature of nature even as it carries the shadow of indifference to our fate. It too bears his trademark ability to weave tragedy and comedy together - the incident with the cow, integral to the plot, is yet light relief as is Sandy's affectionate struggle with his helpful widowed neighbour.

Gunn too is the master of mysticism in the ordinary - Sandy carries a number of moments when he recognises another self enfolded within that carries the potential of receiving illumination and those illuminations come woven into the very everyday - as, for example, sitting on a hillside, light shifting bearing an existential trust hard to communicate yet recognisable in the fabric of the world. Sandy is everyman, waiting patiently for his ''end'' having accomplished a rounded life who is drawn back into another cycle of obligation and decision. At first it is resented until relenting, he realises this love expressed is what rounding is for.

Gunn writes beautifully too, poetically in common speech, with insight and an abiding compassion. It is a great late work and a very fine novel by any standards of comparison.

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...