Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Time to be Born

My first ever public speaking event was at a meeting of the 'Friends of the Centre'. This had been founded by a woman called Alison Barnard who had sadly died before I met her. She was by all accounts what would now be known as a consummate networker. This she did amongst a particular kind of person in the post World War II world - the spiritual alive, questing, who may or more likely may not belong to an established tradition (or if they did, felt a freedom in transgressing boundaries in their quest for the truth at the heart of things).

One of the people in the audience in the hotel in Hove (where later that weekend I succumbed to my first ever bout of food poisoning) was Lois Lang-Sims, seeker and author, who, also, had briefly served as one of Charles Williams' intense attractions - young women who he guided and who became swept up into his intense mythologizing (see http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2015/11/the-third-inkling.html ). For her, this was an intense yet short lived relationship.

I have been reading the first volume of her autobiography, sadly now out of print, and it is an extraordinary book.

First you notice that it is without chapters, two hundred and fifty-one pages of the most intense, scrupulous self-scrutiny flow as if in one seamless image of a self.

Second you come to realise that it is dominated by one central obsession - Lois' relationship with her mother. The tone of which was set at Lois' birth, as the book's title implies, for she arrived in the world just at the point when her much older (and only) sibling, John, had died. She was a substitute, wrapped in the longing, resentment and desperation of loss, felt by both parents but especially keenly by Lois' mother. They entered a life of mutual dependency, love and hate, that continues until the last page of this (first) volume that describes her mother's death (and almost certainly beyond).

At times so all consuming is the analysis and description of this relationship, you want to cast the book aside and say something like, 'Lois, do get a grip. Grow up!' 'Leave'! 'Get a job in a tea shop'! Virtually anything to escape the claustrophobia of this mutual encirclement. But I feel this is part of the point, the reader is being invited to taste what it is like to be caught within a binding complex, to have your identity partly confiscated by another as you in turn confiscate, to sense the real inertia in such relationships that are especially strong whenever one seeks freedom. If ever there was a book that unpacked the Jungian notion of a 'complex', this is it!

Third, however, the book would be too claustrophobic if this dominant reality was the only one shown forth, even if so vividly and with such remorseless honesty. You are invited, as well, into a past world of discrete hierarchies not to be transgressed, of a world of Anglican clergymen of diverse eccentricity, of the challenges of 'going over to Rome'; more domestically, of leasing cottages for ten shillings a week and rooms for less; and, more historically of the depredations of wartime and the raids on Canterbury (in retaliation for similar raids on Cologne).

Fourthly, there is the underlying story of a remarkable and serious religious quest that is strikingly individual and yet captures a common shared reality. It is a quest rooted in experience and imagination, not belief. It takes Lois through religious institutions, gathering their given grace and having her break out when the institutional compromises are seen too clearly to obscure that grace; and, it is grace that comes to her. As Simone Weil remarks of the Gospels, it is a story of being found, not of finding. She is also resolutely clear how this quest, and the self it addresses, transcends the psychic complexities of her actual life. Holiness does not, of itself, embrace a making whole though it is a key departure point and necessary reference.

Finally, there is the account of her brief, intense encounter with Charles Williams and I feel she gets him right, so right that it explains his ultimate discomfort with her. She describes him as a 'genius' not a saint (despite people's desire to make of him so). A genius because his ability to delineate some of the key features of the world seen from his Christian vision, enriched by his encounter with the magic of the Golden Dawn, is compelling, truthful and enriching; and, yet, he remains too caught in his vision (and too enamoured of capturing up others into it) to touch the everyday earth where true holiness is ultimately born, lived, suffered. It was his function to uphold such ways of seeing, a necessary one, but such necessities can conflict with the deeper one of being simply present, compassionate with whatever is, where the holy finds.

I can happily admit to both looking forward and not to the second volume (which I have) and will need a respite before another dose of such intensity (though her key may have changed) and I regret not seizing my opportunity of better acquaintance in person but happy that our paths crossed and can only wonder at what she made of my callow talk!

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