Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The wounded celebrant

I was once accused by an Anglican Benedictine Abbot of, "being a victim of my own articulacy". This stung because I suspect it was true. It stung too, as I later realised, because it was said with all the rapacity of a person describing themselves! Of all the encounters in my life, I remember this one as perhaps the least pastorally sensitive!

It came to mind reading Monica Furlong's short, pithy and accomplished biography of Alan Watts - philosopher, trickster, showman of the 'counter-culture'. He was both a man of rare gifts and insight and profoundly wounded such that he reminded me of that saying of a Siberian shaman: that the gift of shamanism was also a curse.

Watts was preternaturally gifted. His first book, 'The Spirit of Zen' being published when he was nineteen. Yet running through his life was a thread of self displacement, self destruction that he never allowed himself fully to see. Every misstep could be justified with graceful, articulate sophistry.

He deliberately sabotaged his entrance into university justifying it by imagining that self-directed study would be more valid yet it deprived him of a place of stability that inwardly he sought. He renounced his Anglican ministry, itself a sophisticated, if possibly necessary, exercise in insincerity, only when his, and his then wife's behaviours, culminated in the inevitability of his dismissal. Finally he wore himself out working to pay the alimony for past wives and children and to 'survive' this effectively drank himself to death.

The religious scholar, Huston Smith, once engineered a meeting between the novelist, Aldous Huxley, and Watts. After Watts had left, Huxley and Smith returned to their seats and, as Smith reports, Huxley delivered his verdict. "What a curious man! Half monk, half race track operator". When this was later reported to Watts, he was delighted!

Yet Watts reminds us that holiness is never simply to be equated with 'wholeness'. Wholeness was never to be granted him but he carried everywhere a remarkable ability to see the contours of what a life lived in grace and unity looked like. An ability to recognise how we deny ourselves a life in flow through an isolating act of fantasising ourselves as 'egos in a bag of skin' rather than as waves in tumbling ocean, connected to everything.

Not only could he recognise this but in publication after publication, talk after talk give people ways of understanding it for themselves that were both intellectually robust and yet wholly accessible.

His articulacy may have blocked ways of seeing himself but in recompense, turned to others, it became a gift of showing forth. A gift that many continue to be grateful for, inviting them to dance with the creativity of their world.



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