Monday, July 31, 2017

A stain on the blood, an opportunity missed.



Sir Kenelm Digby (pictured) was dealt a rough opening hand. His father, Everard, more from friendly commitment than conviction, found himself embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot. He was tried, convicted and hung, drawn and quartered. This was an especially gruesome form of death. When it was described to me, as a child, by my English teacher, it led at least one classmate to actually faint!

Kenelm grew up, a recusant Catholic, motivated, so Joe Moshenska argues, to make for himself a life so splendid that the stain would be removed. How he did so is the subject of Moshenska's "A Stain on the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby".

It is a well written account that introduces you to a lost figure of seventeenth century English history who, as a person, is admirable. A myriad minded man he was scholarly, adventurous, an accomplished diplomat and, helpfully, for story telling, had a deeply passionate engagement with Venetia, the woman who became his wife; and, whom he deeply mourned on her early death. A death immortalised by Sir Anthony van Dyck, one of Digby's friends.

Digby was a genuinely transitional figure. A man as deeply interested in alchemy and astrology and a member of the newly founded Royal Society. A passionate Royalist and friend of Charles I and a man who found himself, on his voyage, questioning difference and tentatively considering the equality of men. A Catholic and a man who probed the viability, truthfulness of other traditions.

The problem with the book is, however, twofold.

First it tends to "over claim". Though he is undoubtedly worthwhile recovering, equally his disappearance is wholly fathomable. Even though he was compared to Descartes, so myriad minded was he, it is clear that none of his individual contributions to scholarship lasted. Indeed the book is strangely muted on what, in fact, Digby actually did think about the critical ideas of his time.

Nor was his voyage, though undoubtedly a success for him, especially remarkable historically. Yes, he was the first English sailor to directly release captives, among his countrymen, from slavery in Algiers (through the force of personality and good diplomacy alone). He collected a lot of manuscripts that enhanced the collections of Oxford but none were groundbreaking discoveries. He made a lot of money as a successful privateer and from buying wholesale antiquities from Greece. He helped reform the Royal Navy. But the sum of the parts does not appear to make up a compelling whole.

Second because it misses a 'trick'. Digby was a transitional figure between worlds and wrote voluminously and reflectively about them. Might we not learn something more about what that looked like: the magical and the new sense of the 'rational' jostling side by side and in cognitive dissonance?

We get a glimpse of this when Moshenska discusses Digby's development of a recipe for a 'sympathetic powder' by which by treating the harming instrument, a friend so harmed by the very same sword was apparently cured. Since this is "impossible'' (by current standards), it is described, though sympathetically, as belonging to the realm of the fabulous (or superstitious). But it was not so for Digby, it was simply an unusual but real element of science, waiting upon explanation (or refutation). What might it look like to inhabit this world? A world that, in many ways, feels more exploratory, and wonder filled, than our own. Likewise Digby is described, too briefly, utilizing alchemy to approach his wife's death, to explore the essence of soul. So briefly is it described as to sound intriguingly weird but what it meant for Digby (and how it was meant to 'work') is left unexamined.

Thus we are left with a rather one dimensional picture of Digby - the person pursuing his family's lost name in successful adventure - but not as a scholar, thinker, a man from a very different age of thought but one that birthed our own. This was a man, for example, who accompanied virtually his whole life by casting his own horoscope - now what did that mean for his biography (and in that he was no way unusual to his century)? We are not told. Sadly, it appears to follow too closely the failure of much contemporary biography of staying on the psychological surfaces and being fundamentally uninterested in the visions and ideas that make (some people at least) really tick. A recovery of that might have made for a truly fabulous journey in the history of lived ideas.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

In God there is no forgiveness



Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English anchorite and mystic, writes that in God there is no forgiveness. This, on first hearing, sounds unpromising. Are we faced by a deity so uncompromising that there is nothing that we can do to be saved except the impossible practice of perfection? Or a deity so arbitrary in their judgements that salvation is a lottery?

But, in truth, Julian is expounding two simple and related truths. The first that it is in the nature of God to be unchanging and that second God's forgiveness is the unconditional ground on which we all stand. Forgiveness simply is the reality of God.

I was reminded of this whilst reading Beatrice Bruteau's "Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World" when she draws our attention to the unconditional love that God offers and the invitation is, as Bruteau puts it, to 'relax back' into it, to allow it to unwind the complexities of our own defensive egos, with their endless, wound up, complex descriptions of 'how we are' and in doing so discover who we are. We discover that we are divine ourselves and our selves are divine. We are the dancer and a particular, precious dance, wholly and uniquely ourselves.

What Bruteau wants to do is to demonstrate that a traditional 'non-dual' view of reality, drawing on Vedanta, can be modified through both an evolutionary and trinitarian lens, to capture diversity in unity, the unique nature of each person bound together in an enfolding unity. And to make this view not only comprehensible but practically useful (and in 136 pages).

This she does, I think, triumphantly. It is a model of lucid compression.

For me the most beautiful and compelling part is where she discusses the dynamic between God's unconditional love and our own tendency to imagine that it is not - we must win it, deserve it, outsmart it - anything but simply accept it as the ground we dwell in. We spend so much energy building up descriptions of our selves in order to justify and compare our existence to our selves and others, to show that we are 'worth it', when we could settle back into our worth, our divine imaging, and learn to dance with our descriptions instead.

That we need to be described is an essential feature of being in time but the need to identify with them is not for we are the dancer as well as the dance. Our essential self is timeless and beyond all descriptions. Seen from this perspective, our descriptions become simply that - experiments - that should pass as soon as their usefulness is over - and never become closed or complete. We are an actor passing through our plays - each one a real and meaningful encounter - but none ever the final truth. Such a liberation it is when we catch our selves out in some drama in which we have fully disappeared only to realise it is not, nor ever can be, the whole story; and, we look at the situation we find ourselves in with renewed, wider attention and compassion.

Bruteau writes of this from a clear, uninhibited, Christian perspective but one that is always open to worlds of other perspectives. In her skilful hands, Christian life becomes ever more deeply simply life, described whole, and a Christian life open to the amendment of deeper insight as it proceeds, an evolutionary way, not a closed way. It is a delightful achievement told in the quietest of clear voices.

Bruteau is not, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes here http://www.contemplative.org/a-tribute-to-beatrice-bruteau-by-cynthia-bourgeault/ the best known of twentieth century contemplatives, though she knew and indeed mentored many of them, but she deserves to be, I feel, better known and more deeply appreciated. Her writing style - clear, calm, wry not emollient nor especially personal, takes a little getting use to, as does its blend of philosophical rigour and spiritually applicable content but once acclimatised she reminds me most of the early Church Fathers where theology, cosmology and spiritual insight come as a bracing whole and where 'knowing' is absolutely linked to the quality of 'being'.

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