Friday, June 24, 2016

The spiritually alive of no fixed address

I once read in an article in 'The Church Times' the expression, "the spiritually alive of no fixed address" and was startled because I had, or so I thought, invented this phrase myself to describe those that were compellingly concerned with the sacred and the spiritual life but did not belong to any specific religious tradition.

It was I thought a growing category and I had used it, in part, in reference to the men and women I was working with in prison (through the Prison Phoenix Trust) as they explored new patterns of living opened up to them by some form of spiritual practice (usually meditation and/or yoga).

Until I suddenly realised, noticing the author, that there was a wholly credible route from me to him!

I was reminded of this reading Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal's "The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained" (that requires a blog post of its own) because there Kripal articulates (in crystallised form), three basic markers that seek to distinguish the religious from the spiritual.

The first is where do you locate religious authority is it outside, resting in a scriptural authority or institution (religion) or inside with the authority emerging from within the self (and I would add through an attention to the phenomenology of one's own experience).

The second would be on the nature of revelation is it singular-perfect (religion) or multiple-partial (spiritual). Are the words of the text a recitation of God or their messenger or an experiment after knowing that captures an aspect of the truth?

The third is the temporal locus of full revelation whether it is in the past, resting on a sacred text or in the textures of a particular life (religion) or is it in the future. "The spiritual but not religious might appreciate multiple past revelations, but they do not consider any of them absolute in the present and fuller revelations may appear in the future."

I thought it an excellent matrix of discrimination, with reservation.

I found myself walking to the office (distracting myself from contemplating the fallout of the UK's EU referendum) and applying the matrix to George Fox, the founder of the Quakers.

Famously Fox was bedevilled by the various sects claims to hold an exclusive interpretation of the Bible: who to believe? Until turning from them all, he recognised that even now, here and now, in his inner light, there was one, namely Jesus Christ, who spoke directly into his self and to his condition. This was the litmus test of spirituality. Does the inner light communicate with me, here and now, for only through such communion can the Bible be properly scrutinised and assimilated; and, critically its interpretation is open ended, being always enriched by the careful, consensual witness of a community of practitioners, attuning singly and as a community to the light. A light always refracted through the prism of difference in a community as well as uniformity.

It is here I enter my first reservation because the source of authority is the self yet it is a self (in the Society of Friends) that is radically shared with, and tested against, the wisdom of equals. If 'the self' alone is the authority, it can so easily fall prey to illusion and narcissism. The Friends, imperfectly, have pioneered a way of faithfully allowing for individual discrimination while testing its spirits against a wider whole, without usually falling prey to an institutionalisation of that testing (as binding rules).

My second is, of course, to note that full revelation is in some sense always now, here, in the present, in the presence. The challenge is that we see through a glass darkly but the dark may clear, here, now and always, such that we behold the world in a grain of sand and eternity in this hour. We see ourselves as dually held in the light and refracted in a particular world.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

To leave or to remain?

It is undoubtedly true that the Leave camp in the EU referendum to be held in the UK next Thursday have the better emotional momentum. The world is becoming ever more uncertain, complex and, frankly, scary. What better than to retreat into the security of the familiar, the nation state, and regain 'sovereignty' and 'control.'

The problem with this scenario is that all the challenges that press so insistently (and often unconsciously) on our nerve endings - whether stalled living standards or migration, financial instability or climate change - require collaborative solutions, working intelligently with one's neighbors, beginning with those closest to you, whose values you most deeply share.

And that inescapably - both historically and geographically - means Europe.

Europe is undoubtedly going through a rough patch at the moment - the Euro is an economic experiment gone awry and this coupled with the breakdown of the financial system (only patched up and on life support even now) - has disrupted the economy and soured the political space, compounded by imploding states at our boundaries - and frankly the political elite has failed to respond with either honesty or intelligence to these crises. This might begin with the admission that, at present, we are genuinely clueless about what to do next and that we need to embark on a much broader and deeper dialogue as to what we need to do and what kind of society can we fashion that is flexible and intelligent enough to respond to our multiple challenges. This, of course, assumes that 'we the people' can bear our leadership confessing to uncertainty (given that so often we prefer trumpery).

This said the Europe that has been built is a quite extraordinary achievement - a common home, the most prosperous economic block in the world that has been able to assimilate and aid many of the countries of the collapsed Communist (counter) experiment and share values across that space, enshrined in law, and continuing to take hold in practice. Would that Moldova, from where I write this, enjoyed such a space.

To walk away now, seeking after an illusion, is, however, comforting (briefly) in its emotional content, simply a mistake. The future lies through the transnational and collaborative. Yes, it needs to be married to greater devolution of power and far smarter and responsive channels through which that power flows.

But imagining that a nation state can 'go it alone' (or that somewhere over the rainbow there are a better set of friends - China anyone?) is simply a folly too far and a fleeing of the hard realities of a shared home, in need of transformation, but yet a home.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Fellowship of the Inklings

"The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings" by Philip & Carol Zaleski is an accomplished book: well-written, informative and balances a sound accounting of the lives of its protagonists and of their literary production.

But it does remind you never to judge a book by its cover. The cover offers you the names of the four key Inklings -Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams - in equal quadrants; however, their account is dominated by Lewis and Tolkien.

This is partly a reflection of the prominence of the former over the latter in terms of recognition and 'cultural weight' (as of writing) but partly too because the authors have a pronounced difficulty with the 'esoteric' with Williams practice of ritual magic and Barfield's Anthroposophy.

They rightly indicate Charles Williams' engagement with ritual magic (within the context of a Christian esotericism) and how it runs through his worldview (often played down by Williams' more mainstream Christian admirers) but the authors, sadly, fail to engage with its meaning to Williams.

For Williams it was a critical recognition of the three fold structure of reality - spiritual, psychic and material - and the importance of taking the 'middle' dimension seriously, recognising its real effectiveness in our lives and its ambiguity given its potential for good or evil; and, its need to be seen framed and held within a wider and deeper, spiritual vision. Without seeing this context, you cannot appreciate Williams' novels where the imaginal or psychic is continually erupting into the apparently ordinary lives of people and must be met both on its own terms and within a more transcendental frame of reference. It was something radically other than the escapism (rooted in an immaturity) that the Zaleskis' imagine.

In passing, they also decide (without showing) the failure of Williams as a poet - though this is neither the assessment of Rowan Williams (whose appreciation of their book is quoted on the back) nor of Charles Williams recent magisterial biographer, Grevel Lindop.

This discomfort with the 'esoteric' however becomes especially marked when dealing with Owen Barfield and his conversion to Anthroposophy and the work of Rudolf Steiner. Nowhere do you really see the Zaleskis grapple with this - neither a consideration of what brought it about nor what sustained it. This sits uncomfortably with wholly compelling and intelligent accounts of Tolkien's abiding commitment to Catholicism and Lewis' own conversion (ironically in which Barfield played an important role). They do a good job of explaining how this came to be reflected in Barfield's work and what it in itself might mean but always leave you with the sense of a barely suppressed incredulity; and, this profoundly obstructs their accounting of the man and his works. It, also, leads to  periodically jarring condescension and not a little silliness.

Barfield rightly recognised that his championing of the 'evolution of consciousness' had resonance with emergent patterns of scientific thinking - in quantum mechanics for example - which leads the authors to remark that 'quantum mechanics' has not, however, impacted how we see day to day reality. To which one can only respond that as with Descartes or Galileo, these things take time! It is, also, apparently not the done thing to be 'taken up' by the 'counter-culture' (that ipso facto appears to be in all regards shallow). And so on and so forth...

This leads them too, I think, to underplay Lewis own interest in the esoteric. They quite rightly observe that he kept it 'at bay' (rather like Jung disowning it in his public life) but it is there nonetheless - not the least in his admiration of Williams' work. When the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, found that her doctoral supervisor at Cambridge was to be Lewis her heart sank, imagining the 'beer and beef' Christian apologist only to find in Lewis a sympathetic and engaging ally in tracing the 'hidden wellsprings' of Blake's vision!

So a good book - especially on Tolkien and the Lewis' brothers (and they make Warnie, Lewis' elder brother, feel like a real person rather than a cypher or a merely a retired soldier) - but flawed because out of imaginative sympathy with key dimensions of some of their subjects' lives. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016


'Incognito' is an appropriate title for a novel (at least in the English speaking world) barely anyone has heard of, let alone read! It is by the Romanian author, Petru Dumitru, who defected from Romania in the 1960s, settling first in Germany and finally in France, where he died in 2002.

I read it first at university having seen it quoted in Bishop John Robinson's 'An Exploration into God' - a sequel (if theological texts can be described this way) to his famous (or notorious) 60s tract, 'Honest to God'!

It struck me then, and remembering it now, as one of the most significant (and accomplished) novels of the last century. It tracks the life of a privileged family in pre-World War II Romania through the war and out the other side into a new Communist world.

On its surface, it is an exemplary novel of social realism that skewers the true reality of the emergent 'Socialist' society where the cynical and the manipulative have out manoeuvred the idealistic believers (think Stalin versus Trotsky - though in Trotsky's case idealism was no inoculation against an addiction to violence). Its account of party political antics, literally deadly in their seriousness, are the most compelling I have read.

But below the surface is a parallel account of a very particular person.

You follow Sebastian's, one of the family member's, trajectory from idle bourgeois to capable soldier to idealistic party member to critic to...

Saint. A very particular saint in an age without God (or where God is apparently silent). You follow Sebastian's emergence as confronted by power, his fall, imprisonment, he discovers, in his confinement, an overriding obligation of conscience - namely to love the world. It is a love that may or may not be anchored in anything beyond itself - either in God or nature - but there it is, emerging at precisely the moment when everything appears lost, degraded.  'All' you have to do is step into love and will it towards your fellow human beings. The account of this is probably one of the most accomplished descriptions of a conversion that I know (and of a 'mystical' experience).

This, of course, creates consternation in his world. First because there is no ideology involved, nothing to believe, merely a practice of love. Second because how do you identify and condemn such freedom from the party's point of view if not formulated as an 'opposition'?

As Dostoyevsky discovered, it is notoriously difficult to write about a saint but Dumtriu beautifully does so because essentially Sebastian's perspective emerges fully from his experience and makes no claim on the beliefs of the reader only their witnessing and assent or dissent.

Love or not is a simple, if challenging, choice.

Meanwhile, 'Incognito' languishes unread in English at least (though it remains in print in French) which is a deep and abiding pity.

Once I met a fellow reader and we fell into an entranced conversation that felt timeless!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An approaching anniversary

Forty years ago my mother went to the Town Hall in Stratford upon Avon to a talk and life was never the same. The talk was an introduction to transcendental meditation (TM) that had been developed and brought to 'the West' by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (with undoubted propulsion provided by the Maharishi being, temporarily, embraced by the Beatles in the late 60s).

The talk made a deep summoning sense to my mother and she decided to learn undoubtedly helped by the charism and sincerity of the husband and wife team who were the TM teachers.

The effects were instantaneous such that next month my father (a much more sceptical proposition) learnt and, a month later, so did I!

I remember that particular afternoon in the hot, dry summer of 1976 as if it were yesterday. I remember the small room at the back of a semi-detached house in Wellsbourne, my offering of flowers, the simple ceremony and receiving my mantra. I remember my first meditation session and how it was not helped by someone mowing the grass at a neighbouring house!

I remember stepping into a world that was to be intensely private - as a thirteen year old in 70s Britain announcing you meditated was not an option! My mother recalls a teacher of mine at parents' evening interrogating his perceived change in my confidence and performance and my mother in smiling acknowledgement refusing to offer a possible explanation!

But it was not essentially about the psychological benefits (even as these were real, if more noticeably in others than myself), for me it was about stepping into a daily routine of silence, quietly seeking stillness for which I will ever remain deeply grateful.

With time, this process became 'baptised' with a different focus and intention but that, as they say, is different story.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Journey to Ithaca

Anita Desai's novel, "Journey to Ithaca" has, as its frontispiece, Cafavy's famous poem of the same name.

It is a compelling poem - it is the nature of the journey that matters, not the destination, the destination is in your imagination and what it compels, leads to in experience, the arrival may disappoint, be poor, but look at what it has inspired. No actual place can sustain, bear, those that are imagined. No single place can fulfil all the possibilities of experience. It is a testament to the 'romantic' nomadic (for actual nomadic people live in circumscribed, described spaces and may be expansive but not restless).

Desai's accomplished novel has three central characters - an Italian couple who travel to India in the 1970s, Matteo, the husband, inspired by an adolescent reading of Hesse's 'The Journey to the East" (and adolescent in both literal and metaphoric senses). His wife, Sophie, in his train. He dreams of enlightenment, she dreams of this worldly idylls. They are a mismatched yet bound pair. Matteo finds his way to an ashram presided over by the spirit of the Master and the yet living Mother, his spiritual consort. For The Mother, Matteo falls as guru and guide and immerses himself in ashram life. For the Mother, Sophie has contempt wrapped around a core of intrigue. The intrigue is who is this woman - part Egyptian, part French, who has wound up in India as a leader of a community. The second half of the book has Sophie going in search of the Mother's, Laila's, early existence, hoping to expose her as simply a woman with a history, not an 'immortal'.

The story carries resonances (but only these) of the Mother, who was the consort of Sri Aurobindo, and her journals are referenced in the acknowledgements as places from which Desai has learnt.

Sophie does indeed discover an ordinary woman with a passion to become a dancer, who has a lover, Krishna, the handsome and charismatic and flawed leader of an Indian dance troupe. They pass through all the obvious adventures of such a group - artistic patronage given and withdrawn, a failing tour as 'Oriental exotics' in a post-World War One America, the squabbles and resentments of any group, even the squalid guesthouses in obscure places that no romanticism can uplift. But Sophie, also, discovers, even as she resists it, a woman led by an aspiration of gathering force, not towards dance, but to the divine, seen first in the titles in an obscure Orientalist bookshop, then in dance and subsequently in an imagined, then realised India. Or did she? What do we truly know about anyone's discoveries? 

This is the tantalizing point on which the book closes - with Sophie pursuing Matteo, who with the Mother's death, has journeyed on to the mountains, the scene of the Mother's apparent enlightenment. 

Yet the book too has a strange paradox - the two Europeans are always journeying, the ideal receding but are they enriched in the way the Mother is (who appears to have arrived)? 

The journeying may be rich with experience but neither Matteo nor Sophie appear ever to rest to savor it? There may be something about arriving after all, bedding down on an Ithaca, however, poor, for as the Mother insists the divine can be found anywhere yet, as our Italians show, we have a relentless propensity to turn an anywhere into a nowhere through our restlessness. 

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...