Friday, 26 June 2009

Letter to an old friend

Thank you for giving us a celebratory meal last night. One of the (many) things I like about you is – no nostalgia! (and not much medical talk either) which is refreshing and necessary at my age as we approach our 50th wedding anniversary.

It occurred to me this morning that next year will also be the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a Church of England priest but I have no inclination to mark that. One of the reasons why is contained in the book I am sending you. I first came across this French philosopher [Andre Comte-Sponville] when I was doing an OU course on virtue ethics about four years ago and read his ‘A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues’. This latest book [A Little Book of Atheist Spirituality] is a compassionate contribution to the somewhat sterile debate sparked off by Dawkins et al about the existence or otherwise of God.

For me the core of the book is on page 192: “Whether they are believers or not, mystics are those who no longer lack God. But is a God who is no longer lacking still God?” To discover in my mid 70’s that I no longer lack God (or as Martin Laird puts it in ‘Into the Silent Land’: “God does not know how to be absent.”) has been one of the most profound gifts of my life; my only regret being that I did not get it when I read Honest To God in 1963. But then I suspect even John Robinson himself didn’t fully realise the implications of what he was saying. Bishops, as well as us priests, had too much invested in keeping the institution going to see the implications of a ground of Being approach. Plus, nobody taught us the simple ‘how to’ of contemplative prayer. It was considered too otherworldly, too monkish, and what we wanted above all was to be relevant, God help us. (See, there I go again, expecting help from outside when it’s already here inside.)

Looking back I can see that, like a goldfish nosing against the side of the bowl, I was looking blindly for this insight. It caused grief to [my fiance] during our engagement because I felt torn between marriage and ordination. I hadn’t understood Bonhoeffer’s definition of chastity: ‘the total orientation of life towards a goal’. Nor had I understood (along with almost everyone else in Christian churches) what Jesus may have meant by ‘deny yourself....’. Just think how much unnecessary grief and suffering that verse has caused sincere Christian people! It has taken two non-Christian writers to help me over this threshold into the promised land – Eckhart Tolle and Andre Comte-Sponville. Of course since then, armed with their insight I have rediscovered that ancient Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. The irony is that those who are now teaching it in ways which ‘ordinary’ lay people can understand and practice are mostly Roman Catholic monks. Does the Vatican know what they are saying? I hope not because their most holy and reverend father Ben would probably silence them.

Perhaps with your combination of psychotherapy and Shakespearean insight you have avoided the worst excesses of our spiritual inheritance. Perhaps you have known much longer than me how to “take upon’s the mystery of things”. I hope so dear friend.
My love to you

Thursday, 18 June 2009


My daughter gives me a book of haiku for my birthday (The Everyman's Library of Pocket Poets. Edited by Peter Washington with translations from the Japanese by R. H. Blyth). Suddenly I realise that haiku are of the essence of the Now. Here are two by Basho:
Summer in the world -
floating on the waves
of the lake

I sit here
making the coolness
my dwelling-place.

Here's a modern one by Kerouac:
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
it closes anyway.

Then there's a section of haiku-like passages from what you might call 'traditional' western poets,like this one by Adlington:
A young beech tree
on the edge of the forest
stands still in the evening.

Or this from Walt Whitman
Far in the stillness
a cat
languishes loudly.

Monday, 15 June 2009


So, on my 78th birthday I make two resolutions. One, to stop telling people how old I am. It’s either a boast or it’s manipulative. Two, to be wary about reminiscing. The past is dead and gone. My experience may or may not be relevant to a younger person. The skill is to discern the relevance of what I have to offer, with a presumption that silent attentiveness is better.

I notice worries about not being able to remember details of some recently past events. Worries are like greenfly. You see one or two and if you don’t do something immediately, before you realise it, they have multiplied into thousands.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

When things go wrong.

Surfing, I stumble upon Fr. Thomas Keating on youtube He's a Roman Catholic monk from the USA. I have heard of his method of 'centering prayer'from Cynthia Bourgeault. These are people who practice what, in Christian terms, is called contemplative prayer. When I was a young man contemplative prayer was seen as an esoteric, other-worldly discipline practised by people shut away from the 'real' world in monasteries. It turns out, of course, that contemplative prayer is simply the Now Show in Christian tradition and it is, in fact, the most practical of human disciplines, instantly transferable to everyday life. For people who like to use the word 'God', Fr. Keating explains it in simple accessible language.
For centuries the Christian tradition suffered from the idea that God is not here. He's somewhere else and getting in touch with him involves an arduous journey away from everyday life into special places, using special language and religious ritual. So, when things went wrong on this journey, we blamed ourselves. We were sinners who needed to repent. Someone has said, 'most of our anxiety comes from our search for tranquility'. We get upset when things 'go wrong'. Then we add a distressing story about what has happened so we have two layers of 'upset' and then the mind can really have a field day making us feel bad. There's a telling line from a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, written when things were really going wrong for him. He begins,
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring."
It's a vivid evocation of the kind of mental distress we can get into if we start blaming ourselves when things go wrong.

Thomas Keating is one of those people who, in rediscovering the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer, is helping us to connect with folk in many religious traditions (and non-religious too)who understand that we have all the resources we need to cope with life already deep within us. Now, when things 'go wrong' there's no need to beat myself up. I just notice without judgement what is happening, let it be and let it go. It's a simple discipline. Sometimes when things really go wrong is not an easy one to practice but in essence it is simple.