Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A surprising read



I do not know whether I am more surprised by the book itself or my reaction to reading it (Lewis Thompson's 'Fathomless Heart').

When I was in my school sixth form, aged from sixteen to eighteen, occasionally, about the middle of the day, I would be seized by a complete reluctance to stay at school. It had exhausted my patience. This was often triggered, I confess, by either a double period of physical geography or of economics (more usually the latter)! I would develop a nascent cold and feigning sickness go home, sit in bed, feeling luxuriously sorry for myself, and reading William Blake. Later that day (after the final school bell would have tolled), I achieved a miraculous recovery.

I cannot claim to have understood what I was reading but I was captivated by it and a sense that it was striking something in the depths of me long before anything was apparent on the surface. I was doing, without knowing it, what T.S. Eliot commended, reading poetry for its sensing sound before coming to comprehension.

In Guy Watson's review for this quarter's 'Resurgence' of Thompson's 'Fathomless Heart', he suggests that it is not a book to be read whole, from start to finish, but one to dip into, savouring its aphorisms and short essays. It is one approach but not the one to start with, I feel. It should be read first, as Eliot suggested, in its wholeness and for its felt texture before beginning to fathom it. Have it sing within before attempting the slow process of understanding.

My surprise is both in my reaction as I am completely arrested by the text and have not felt so compelled to keep reading such strangeness since my teenage encounter with Blake and by the content of the text itself. It is a beautiful accounting of how, at heart, we dwell in the one divine reality, our self-ing a gift of that Presence to which the only invitation is to surrender into it. The simplicity of the invitation is such that it eludes our endlessly clever, ego bound, sophistication, whose stratagems Thompson lays bare in pellucid prose. It is a text that could not have been written without a deep intuitive understanding of Vedanta and yet it is a text that is wholly, resonantly 'Western' and 'modern' and unique; and, where the principal figure of the realised person is Christ. Christ not as a figure to be believed about but one to be seen through as a full imaging of Reality.

Like Blake, he uses language in a radically personal yet objective way. Thus, his word for 'enlightenment' (or salvation) is Luxury. With this word, he wants you to see how any meaningful liberation is one into the world, seen aright, with the perceiving eyes rinsed and cleansed, to quote his (and my) beloved Blake. Wallowing in a world of wonder, a world transfigured into true self! There is no Presence that is not present and Presence presents itself always as gift, a gift that seeks you out, reveals itself, which you can only find through surrender. Likewise he has a beautiful use of the word, 'Hypocrisy'. I had a Latin master at school who famously once exclaimed (as a reproof to his misbehaved class), 'Every time I open my mouth some damn fool speaks'! For Thompson any attempt to say (rather than to show truthfulness through living it) is a failure - language is by its very nature hypocritical - claiming to something it can never arrive at - but owning truthfully this hypocrisy, tuning our soul to it, is part of the process of recognising our need to surrender through and beyond it.

I have finished my sensing reading of Thompson's text. Now comes the slow path of appropriation, supported by reading both the two volumes of his Journals and his poems; and, of critical engagement. He is not wholly free of the inward intellectualisation of spiritual life, and its devaluing of the just so-ness of the everyday world, which he criticised in Vedanta and his understanding of solitude veers into the neglect of relationship. You want to remind him that Blake had his beloved Catherine.

I do not know why I am surprised that he is not better known after all Blake died in equal obscurity yet you, wrongly probably, imagine in this new age of 'communication' it should not be so! Alas it is though the path of correcting this is being laid out. If Blake had Alexander Gilchrist, Thompson has Richard Lannoy as a faithful chronicler (and with a deeper appreciation of his charge than Gilchrist had of Blake)!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Early Music First Love


David Munrow and his Early Music Consort was a key driving force in the rediscovery of early music in the United Kingdom (and further a field) in the 1960s and 70s.

It was his records that I purchased first when at university I found myself studying next to the Wigmore Hall in London and attending early music concerts.

I bought his 'Music of the Crusades' recently (on CD) and was listening to it on the way to the office this morning. How extraordinarily precise can audio memory be - I had not heard this collection for more than a decade but could anticipate each new track. The joy of medieval music is its capacity to be wholly reverent and irreverent at the same time. A four part song can be three part reverential, fourth part subversively bawdy and yet you sense both are meant. There is a time and place for both dispensations (and they can live side by side). It is a living reproof to fundamentalism (and Puritanism).

Tragically Munrow, in a time of dark depression following the death of his father, committed suicide at the tender age of thirty four. It was a deep loss to music: you can only imagine how his voyage of rediscovery would have developed and deepened in time.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Synchronicity

Two weeks ago, I am passing by Watkins, the long running esoteric bookshop in Cecil Court, London and drop in for a moment, not thinking to buy or indeed look for anything in particular.

In the comparative religion section, I see a book, 'Fathomless Heart' and take a look. It is by a Lewis Thompson (of whom I have never knowingly heard) and is subtitled, 'The Spiritual and Philosophical Reflections of an English Poet-Sage'. Further looking tells me that he may be of some interest having been a writer who went 'East' (in this case to India) in the 1930s and whose work grew out of his dialogue between India and a Western poetic tradition, a mention that this tradition included Blake and Yeats and my attention is arrested and deepened.

I open a page in Richard Lannoy's biographical introduction and discover that his first living contact with India was watching a performance of Uday Shankar's dance troupe in England as a young man. It is watching the same troupe in India, some years later, that led my dearest friend to learn dance with Shankar as his only permanent English pupil.

I look at the endorsements on the back - they are from eclectic sources - writers, poets, Indian scholars and comparative religionists. Four of the six I recognise (and trust).

I buy the book, expecting to put it on the never ending pile of things to be read in some due course that sometimes never quite arrives...

But I am intrigued and keep dipping in. The book is organised in discrete sections of aphorisms and (very) short essays. The language, though pellucid and precise, is being used (akin here to Blake) in a very particular and personal way (and key words are capitalised): what does he mean by Luxury for example?

I need to read it, beginning with the preface and introduction, but have already decided to read his journals as well, that I see are also in print, and order them and take the book to South Africa with me.

I have little time in South Africa but I do find time to read the introductory material and begin the text. I am excited by what I think I am understanding. I arrive at home to discover three packages - the two volumes of the Journals (that I know as I have ordered them) and the latest edition of the magazine 'Resurgence'.

I open all three, put the Journals aside, and open 'Resurgence' at random at the page where Guy Watson is reviewing, 'Fathomless Heart' (which was published in 2011)...

I love the world's sense of humour (and confirmation)!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The disappointed taxi driver

He drove us to the airport yesterday. He was a big man with straggling beard in a crumpled white pin stripped suit.

He was garrulous - occasionally announcing that he had better shut up now and concentrate on getting us to the airport only to start up again in the hairbreadth of a moment.

We learnt first that he had studied mathematics and physics at university (in Zambia) but failed the last two courses (in quantum theory) and, because he did not have money to re-sit, had to leave university without a degree. I was reminded of those business cards you used to see (in India) with BA (Failed) on them. The person, at least, had made the attempt and that was a source of justifiable pride. The taxi driver had his transcripts, he told us, fourteen of sixteen courses passed. The mixture of pride and opportunity lost in his voice was breakingly sad.

He was now 52 and his life had clearly lurched from one unsuccessful venture to another as if this early failure had left a culpable mark on his life. For the past 5 years he had been in South Africa driving a taxi.

He was one of those people whose avuncular manner seemed to skate, thinly, over a deeper inner sadness.

Now he had decided to turn his mind to preaching the Word. He offered us a complex account of why the world must have been created in seven days. This appeared to revolve around the fact that though days, months and years are natural cycles, the week is an invention; and, thus, must be a gift from God (as is described in Scripture). The novelty of this argument (and the complexity of its delivery) rather slipped by me given that I had spent the previous five days in virtually continuous 'facilitator/training' mode and as we explained to him we were, sadly, pretty much brain dead even though his captive audience.

But even here the role of pastor appeared to be eluding him. He told us that all the communities he had consulted told him he needed a clear calling from God but he rejected this, feeling it was sufficient to simply put oneself at God's service which may be a sensible, straightforward view but not one destined to convince any likely community that he had the necessary charism. You could see, feel further disappointment in the making.

Meanwhile, if he is to be pastor, he will need to work on both his swearing and his uncharitable (and colourfully expressed) views of his fellow men and women (when they are behind a wheel)!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dissatisfied then poison the CEO



There is an established Benedictine tradition that the 'Rule of the Master' which is a long, ponderous, prescriptive and punitive text was St Benedict's first attempt at establishing rules for a community.

So 'successful' was it that the community demonstrated their 'satisfaction' by trying to poison Benedict.

God, as the ultimate arbiter, recognized in Benedict a hidden gem and so, helpfully, warned Benedict of the plot against him and saved his life.

But also saved from an early death, Benedict listened to this radical expression of 'employee' views and changed.

At the heart of the Rule of St Benedict -  a slimmed down, compassionate and framing (rather than prescriptive) version - lies the importance of 'listening'. It opens with the invitation to listen with the ears of the heart to the words of Christ. It sets the tone for the whole.

Today, I was giving a talk on 'Christian leadership' using St Benedict as my exemplar.

I focused on three things in the Rule.

The first is to listen with the ears of the heart - and to recognize that whenever two are together, there is always a third: what does happen to our conversation if we realize that God too is a present listener?

The second is that we learn from diversity. St Benedict tells us that we should canvas our views from the whole community - and that God often imparts wisdom to the outrider that in Benedict's case is the young but it might be the old or the disabled or any other category of the different and marginalized. I used to especially like the focus on the young but alas now...

The third is that every guest is to be recognized as Christ. What would this do to the customer relations of any micro-finance institution (the management of which were the audience of my talk)? Each and every person bears the image of God: how does that revolutionize the compassion of our attention (and, sadly, fails to)?

The Rule of St Benedict is possibly, after the Bible, the most influential text in the history of Western civilization and it is a tragedy it is not known more widely (accompanied by an intelligent, sensitive, contemporary commentary).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Winter sun

I arrived in Johannesburg this morning to a bright, sun filled day in the medium twenties. The roads peaceful of an early Sunday morning, I drove past the varying skyscapes, landscapes that make up the city. From the distant skyscrapers of downtown Johannesburg which, the last time I saw it ten years ago, had effectively been abandoned by fleeing whites and looked sad, battered and empty to the nearer sight today of the township of Alexandra with its neat, brightly coloured, new houses each with a solar water heater perched on top.

At the hotel, the solar water heating was creating something of a challenge - both the shower and the bath appear to be directly serviced by it. So about midday, after a reviving nap, the water emerging from faucet and tap was extremely hot, unsuitably so. In the end I had to run a bath and cool it down with a combination of water ferried from the sink by way of a kettle and patience.

On the flight I had read Rumer Godden's late novel: 'Cromartie vs the God Shiva' which is not her finest achievement but entertaining nonetheless and the story centres on a family run hotel on the south east coast of India. Make yourself at home was the welcoming declaration on the piece of paper handed me at reception. My near neighbours took this to heart by holding a fully fledged 'domestic' in full hearing. 'Get out you bastard and don't come back' was the last phrase I heard before falling asleep.

Godden's novel culminates in a murder (failing) to secure a secret among friends. I hope life does not imitate art.

The book is saturated by a sense of what Shiva might mean within the strands of Indian life - and its chronic failure to separate 'religion' from the ordinary flow of life and indeed separate religions from one another - why, asks the narrator, must religion have edges?

It is the theme of my next reading assignment - the Fathomless Heart by Lewis Thompson. Thompson of whom I had never heard before last week was an English poet and writer who came to India (in the 1930s) at the tender age of 23 and died at 40 (of sunstroke in Benares). He wanted to forge a meaningful dialogue between the poetic, spiritual impulse of the West (Rimbaud, Yeats, Blake) and the practice of liberation in Hinduism. He appears (on surface acquaintance) a hidden gem that I will enjoy uncovering and polishing.

Off to the shopping mall for a massage and dinner and, sadly, as this is Johannesburg, by taxi even when it is in walking distance.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Saint and/or bloody nuisance


Simone Weil is dead of tuberculosis - a disease helped on its way by her refusal to eat properly (as she wanted to keep to the rationed diet that she believed her French compatriots suffered in occupied France).

Her exemplary biographer, David McLellan, eloquently disposes of the charge that this pattern of restricted diet betokened anorexia rather it was a penitential sharing of affliction.

There is something rather beautiful in this austere pattern and something rather perverse (after all the French population, in actual fact, were engaged in a very pragmatic set of strategies to avert living on the official ration)!

This paradox runs throughout her life. She is one of the most compelling writers about the need to 'decreate' the self: to stand empty, selfless so that one might be God's vessel and do God's will. Yet she clung to the belief that it was only her scheme (for front line nurses), for which she was wholly unsuitable, that represented a viable way for her to serve the war effort. A clinging that she kept to, alienating many well-disposed people on the way. She would not allow others, more experienced, to judge how she might best serve.

You might describe this as the egotism of sainthood - that you can only achieve the renunciation of something that you have in spades! She had an utter self confidence in her own sense of being true to herself coupled with a deep need to align that sense with one of being surrendered to God.

I greet this with both wanting to bow in awe and scold her and take her off for a big meal and tell her that, surprisingly, we might find our place by not imagining that it is anything other than quite humble, a bit compromised and messy around the edges!

Yet too what an imaginative thinker, and prescient. Her only full length book, published posthumously, was 'The Need for Roots'. It was offered as a blueprint for the reconstruction of France after the war's end. A blueprint that we can safely say was wholly ignored yet remains utterly worth reading  for its emphasis on the importance of scale and decentralisation, for work that is meaningful as well as remunerated, for the need to balance freedom of expression with truth telling; and, more controversially, a critique of the emphasis on 'rights' over the importance of the obligations we bear towards one another. It is a document that, at once, manages to be conservative and radical - one that I tend to think is the 'right' political space and yet one which is, in practice, inhabited by no one. The 'right' have sold their souls to capitalism or xenophobia or both and the 'left' have no genuine comprehension of community and have sold their souls to capitalism too (either the market, state or hybrid version)!

Meanwhile, there is one phrase of Weil's that always resonates through my mind that 'complete, unmixed attention is prayer' - that whenever you are able to see another without preconception or prejudice, when they simply are, and they enter you, as they are, this is what prayer is - there is the possibility of grace. For her writing on this, and her capacity to practice it, testified to over and again, she is wholly admirable and a gift: a saint.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flowers for St Valentine's Day



A third century Roman martyr whose date and place of death we know yet nothing else seems strangely appropriate for a day devoted to love whose reality is just so, and yet remains an endlessly unfathomed mystery!

For flowers, I thought this painting by Winifred Nicholson: two pots of honeysuckle and sweet pea, both standing apart, as themselves, and yet also together, tendrils reaching out, offering to entwine. And loved for themselves - for their colour, radiance, life - and yet, paradoxically, as soon picked, transient, passing away.

Yet, as with all of Nicholson's art, the suggestion that each and every particular thing dwells in yet something other. Transience dances across a field in eternity. Every loved moment rests in a memory everlasting.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Utopian Pessimist

Simone Weil was fiercely intellectual, socially awkward, a strange admixture of generosity and vehemence,  of sensitivity and thoughtlessness.




She was one of the great religious thinkers of the last century whose lucid, penetrating prose, slowly emerged after her death (at thirty four) to great acclaim.

It is never 'easy' prose: you find yourself as easily in vehement disagreement as affirmation but she makes you think, and even in her political articles, written in response to particular situations of the 1930s, and published whilst she lived, there is, at work, a way of seeing that remains timely; not least in arguing that it is not the ownership of production that oppresses but the manner of production and the technology used. The Soviet Union switched the ownership from private capitalist to state bureaucrat but the worker remained oppressed by the obsession for production in factories that denied people any sense of autonomy (or pride) in their work and kept them harnessed to the machine. It was Albert Camus who said of her Oppression and Liberty, published only after her death, that it was the most penetrating critique of Marxism (and its distant cousin, Communism) ever penned and anticipated 60s critiques of over-determined workplaces that treat people as one dimensional objects of economic striving.

I am reading David McLellan's excellent biography of Simone Weil. Why is it that political scientists make such good biographers? One of the best studies of Martin Buber as both religious and social thinker is likewise by a political scientist. Is it the juxtaposition of both ideas and their necessarily human dimension that is politics that makes them sensitive to both the life as well as the intellect?

I have reached the period when she is on the threshold of 'conversion' to a highly personalised form of Christianity that trembled on the edge of her becoming Catholic until she decided that she must always remain on the threshold because truth was to be found 'outside' (and the then dogmatic formula of there being no salvation outside the Church was to her anathema)!

She is perhaps a patron saint of 'outsiders' - and certainly was repelled by, in the Church's history, a too easy temptation to confuse power for truth, a failing of which it had not/has not repented!


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dwelling wherever let in





It is not often you can read two books in one morning on a short trip to London! They are both short (and one richly illustrated) and by intellectual giants of the last century.

Martin Buber's 'The Way of Man according to the Teachings of Hasidism' is six short chapters, each built around a parabolic episode in the life of an early Hasidic master with commentary and related sayings. It is a beautiful distillation of both Buber's interpretation of this tradition and through its lens of his fundamental attitude towards life's meaning. Through it we discover that each of is called to our own particular way that requires us ever again to find a unity of soul and intention and to live directed towards others, beginning now from wherever we presently stand.

"In the world to come I will not be asked: why were you not Moses? I will be asked: why were you not Susya?" declared Rabbi Susya on his deathbed.

Buber's historical interpretation of Hasidism was seriously questioned but that, I think, rather missed the point. Buber was creatively reinterpreting a tradition for a contemporary age and in the process offering a deeply attractive way of appropriating the world.

It is the world and its liberation that is for Buber the Hasid's aim. God is present in the world, to quote the Rabbi of Kotzk, wherever we let him in! The whole short works asks where, today, in our concrete situation, have we let God dwell?

God's dwelling in the world, and where He is shut out, kept at the gate, is a continuous theme in the art of Georges Rouault, subject of my second book and an essay by Jacques Maritain, the great French neo-Thomist scholar and intellectual. It is a small second hand copy of a series called 'The Pocket Library of Great Art' complete with colour illustrations and fold out pages.



It makes the case for Rouault as the greatest religious artist of the twentieth century and I concur. Both in his explicitly iconographic work and in his depiction of the natural world whether landscape shot with glory or prostitute driven into pain, his world is suffused with a yearning for
redemption and a confidence in God's abiding presence in the world, in the heart of our souls. It is a presence of celebration and of judgement. Rouault was consistently concerned with the poor and oppressed and the simply saddened, he was on their side, recognising that how we respond towards them is the measure of our required holiness (or lack thereof).



Maritain's prose captures the journey of Rouault's art from 'dark night' to glorious transfiguration in a sensitive and intelligent (and compact) synopsis!

All three - Buber, Maritain, Rouault - whatever their divergences of belief - wanted to act in such a way that God was allowed in, to our redemption and that of the world.



Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The War of the Worlds




The original book - not the films transposed to America in which people (at least the central characters) behave more heroically and appear more religious than H.G. Wells imagined - whatever else his English victims are, they are not particularly stiff in the upper lip nor impressed by organising God!

Indeed Wells life long fear of disorder is prominent in the book - we are only a step away from social chaos and once the full horror of Martian invasion dawns, people collapse, for the most part, into panicked fear.

It was said that Wells picked the baton of science fiction from Jules Verne but as Borges noted whereas Verne extrapolates from the known - a submarine, rapid transport around the globe - Wells injects the radical break of the wholly speculative - time travel, an invisible man, life on Mars.

But, akin to much science fiction, they are extended thought experiments designed to reveal ourselves to ourselves and in 'The War of the Worlds', this is focused on our complacency. We imagine ourselves to have arrived at the top of an evolutionary tree but what if we are seen by another species as we see our supposed 'lower orders of animal' or indeed humans (and Wells makes an explicit reference to our own acts of genocide, specifically here against the Tasmanian aborigine). We must think harder about both what characterises moral responsibility to the other (and Wells was one of the original drafters of what became the UN Declaration of Human Rights) and, paradoxically, what allows us to continue our evolutionary ascent (which included not only global governance but also, uncomfortably, eugenics)!

The novel too is strangely prophetic - written before the First World War - he has the Martians use poison gas effectively against the defending human soldiers - and in describing vividly the exodus from London in the face of alien attack paints a scenario that will become only too familiar, especially in the Second World War.

It is good that Penguin have reprinted Wells' work. It deserves to be fully accessible and read. He was not in any way experimental as a writer (that is reserved for his content) and strove to be read by 'the masses' - being always touched, and more than touched later on, by the didactic - and, at times, you feel the text clunky and laboured but the overall impression remains of claustrophobic excitement and fear as the Martians relentlessly take over - only to be felled not by us but by a 'mere' microbe to which they have no immunity.

It is a denouement that even when known in advance never ceases to impress the core message of a necessary humility and a recognition of the uncertainty of our place.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The World Until Yesterday

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/03/jared-diamond-clash-tribal-peoples?INTCMP=SRCH

When I was much younger, I nearly had a career as a documentary film maker (as unlikely as it might sound), for I and a friend submitted a proposal to the BBC for a series of programmes on what 'we' in the West might learn from traditional or indigenous societies. The proposal went right to the last hurdle and fell because Alan Yentob, then Controller of BBC2, had not liked my friend's previous work for the Corporation. Channel 4 subsequently made (badly) a series with a similar theme and this strand of opportunity was lost (to the world, and to me).

The subtitle of Jared Diamond's latest book is 'What can we learn from traditional societies?' which Stephen Corry of the human rights group, Survival International, finds unobjectionable, it is the title itself (as well as the content) that has sparked controversy; namely, 'The World Until Yesterday'.

This implies that indigenous people live in a world representing our pasts (and by implication in the world of ersatz evolution are more 'primitive' than ourselves). This is, I am afraid, to coin a technical phrase 'bollocks'. Indigenous people live, surprise, surprise, in the present and whereas they offer vividly distinct and different forms of life, both to one another and 'ourselves', they do so as responses to the complexity and challenge of our actual world, now (as we do ourselves).

Stephen Corry has dissected the book in greater detail here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/30/savaging-primitives-why-jared-diamond-s-the-world-until-yesterday-is-completely-wrong.html

That their world is exceptionally challenging is a given because they continue to be subject to colonisation, expropriation and marginalization to a degree that is a painful witness to precisely the kind of institutionalised, sanctioned violence that Diamond suggests is a feature of indigenous societies (more so than our own).

Diamond's response to this criticism has been to first to suggest that Corry is idealising indigenous societies (the reverse of Diamond's own black/white vision) for which there is no evidence in any of Corry's work that I have read. It is usually a sustained plea for recognising people as people in all their complex diversity: an exercise in thinking in colour. Second, to point to activities, such as  infanticide or disposing of the old, that undoubtedly exist within all societies, including our own. And, finally, third suggesting that his text has been read by anthropologists and they have found it unexceptional. This is akin to saying I have had a text read by my friends, who agree with me, and look I find they agree with me!

Nevertheless I look forward to reading the book for myself partly because I suspect that at one level Diamond means well (tiptoeing along the path of good intentions into hell's mouth) and second because it illustrates how deeply ingrained are our assumptions about our status quo (at the top of a presumed evolutionary ladder). This is odd coming from Diamond as his excellent book, 'Collapse' showed, complacency is a very real threat to the sustaining reality of any culture.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Dalai Lama meets a Christian



'Merton and Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness and Everyday Mind' is a volume in the excellent Fons Vitae Thomas Merton Series. It began as a series of papers delivered at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky and then has been shaped into an illuminating and, with its sensitive selection of photographs and quotation, a beautiful book.

I came away from reading it with the phrase 'embodied practice' running through my mind - not only the practice of spiritual living that is (or can be) monasticism (both Buddhist and Christian) but critically that of the arts too. Merton was an accomplished artist, photographer and poet and the discipline of each was put at service both of itself and illumination.



As here, with one of his ink brush drawings, a fish eagerly swallows you up. The only thing to do now is to surrender and lose yourself in the belly of the whale! It is utterly itself - a fish of gaping mouth - and yet one with which you can interpretively play - of Jonah and the whale, of Christ as the fish who is the only place in which life can be found.

What I most liked about the book was the way in which it filled out, supplemented Merton's Asian Journal. A book whose importance to me I cannot measure. For here were considerations of how those that he had met, considered by him in the fleeting texture of his notes, considered him.

Three things emerged.

The embodiment of open, vulnerable, sincerity, a man carrying questions rather than answers, questions that lived. Merton, himself, said that you could judge a person by the questions they asked, not by the answers they carried.

That he conveyed what it meant to be a Christian to several people that he met, that they recognised its potential and reality for the first time. This is what the Dalai Lama felt - this was the first person that he had met that gave him a real insight into what Christianity is.

The man on the threshold of illumination - teetering on the edge of 'getting lost' in the reality that finds you. As Simone Weil pointed out, with regards to the New Testament, the story is never about you finding God but of God finding you, often, I might add, when you shed the illusion that there is a something to be found rather than an everywhere to fall into.

I loved the shimmering, tantalising thought of the Tibetans that after Merton's shattering, sudden death (in Bangkok, electrocuted by a fan) he might be reborn amongst them - and find the next stage in his journey towards enlightenment there. Whatever its 'actuality', it shows the high regard in which they held him.




And here is the man with whom Merton made the deepest connection on that journey: Chatral Rinpoche - a great teacher of the Dzogchen (a strand of Tibetan Buddhism that emphasises the tasking simplicity of realising that you are, right and now, enlightened). They saw each other immediately as vulnerable and open and on the threshold: what might not emerge from that encounter?

I love this photograph - the guru with the packback  - it is so Merton like full of ordinariness and humour. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In community...

I spent the last two days visiting community development trusts in South Uist in the Western Isles and in and around Glasgow run by deeply committed and quietly imaginative people seeking to reweave the possibilities of community and develop practical projects that will provide facilities for their community, whilst generating employment and income. This latter piece of the picture is increasingly critical given the shrinkage of support from the state. It has never been more important to be self-reliant.

But self-reliance is grounded in collaborative sharing within communities and between them and my two days were spent exploring how the trusts could be supported with common services increasing their availability to each by sharing their development and cost.

I was struck by how we have a common addiction to 'headline' projects that will be 'the' solution. Politicians are especially fond of them - not simply I think because of 'ego' and their glossy contribution to profile and their all important bid for re-election but because they are simpler to execute - spending a few million on one project 'carefully planned' not to go obviously wrong (even though they can and do) is easier than allocating the same amount of money to a range of projects (some of which will manifestly fail and on these failures, ripped from context, our omnipresent media will inevitably focus). There was in South Uist a splendid wall apparently protecting the causeway road from an encroaching sea - built at the coast of several million pounds - christened by locals as the "Maginot Line' as the sea was washing around at both ends! There were more cost effective, yet complex measures, the local authority could have taken but these would have been less noticeable and would have required, frankly more thought and community negotiation: all too difficult apparently! 

I was struck too by the importance of work to our identity. We met a woman, small bird like, quietly talkative, in the kitchen of one of the organisations I visited. It was only afterwards I was told that when she first came to work there, she could barely look at a stranger. Our guide there told us of a talk she had heard the day before at a conference of a woman entrepreneur who had abandoned working at a government sponsored programme for the long term unemployed that focused on building up a person's 'self-esteem' and 'making them employable' when she realised that what the people she was working with actually needed was a job. So she started an enterprise and got those very same, societally labelled 'unemployable' people into work! It did wonders for their self-esteem.

And, finally, I was struck by how land and buildings are so important to the regeneration of local communities and it should not, wherever reasonably possible, be left idling in the hands of people who do not know what to do with it (or more culpably sit on it hoping for its value to rise). We should have a simple rule - use it or lose it (and in Scotland, at least, the community can trigger buy outs though they remain, outside the Highlands and Islands, consensual). 

This brings me to the evil Tesco who using a shell company bought up the town centre of Linwood and squeezed out the shop owners by racking up the rents and left a derelict shell for several years while they planned (machinated) over where to build their next store (a process that is ongoing). At least, now, they have been forced to demolish the dangerous eyesore but still, as yet, have no plans for what to do with the empty space.  Frankly I would have the government sequester it and sell it off to someone who does know what to do with it (and without compensation). We need a reverse land grab act...  


The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commi...