Friday, 25 June 2010

Planets, plants and people.

I don’t know who Edmund Spencer had in mind when he wrote the following sonnet in 1595 but even if it was simply a woman, like all good poetry it means more than it says.

Lacking my love I go from place to place,
Like a young fawn that late hath lost the hind:
And seek each where, where last I saw her face,
Whose image yet I carry fresh in mind.
I seek the fields with her late footing signed,
I seek her bower with her late presence decked,
Yet nor in field nor bower I her can find:
Yet field and bower are full of her aspect.
But when mine eyes I thereunto direct,
They idly back return to me again,
And when I hope to see their true object,
I find myself but fed with fancies vain.
Cease then my mine eyes, to seek herself to see,
And let my thoughts behold herself in me.

We look in lots of places (even in monasteries and churches) for the truth about ourselves and then finally, if we are lucky, we find it in the depths of ourselves; and this leads, not to introspection, but to a sense of our being one with all that is: ‘planets, plants and people’ as someone said to me only this morning.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”. He coined the words ‘inscape and ‘instress’; ‘inscape’ meaning, “....that individually-distinctive form (made up of various sense-data) which constitutes the rich and revealing ‘oneness’ of the natural object....”; ‘instress’ meaning, “.... that energy of being by which all things are upheld...that natural (but ultimately supernatural) stress which determines an inscape and keeps it in being .... but not only the unifying force within the object; it connotes also that impulse from the inscape which acts on the senses....”

It’s relatively easy to appreciate the beauty of the so-called ‘natural’ world without allowing that human beings are part of it. (Planets, plants and people.) Wordsworth, another poet deeply moved by nature, allowed the inscape and instress to lead him into the depths of himself:
“Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: - that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, -
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.”

(From ‘ Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey.’)

To ‘see into the life of things’ (including people) is to be aware of their instress (their ‘thisness’) and their inscape (that which holds them, as well as me, in being) and this awareness constitutes the beginning of compassion.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Promises, promises

Like the debris which now floats in space the internet is littered with abandoned blogs. I am aware of not posting anything for weeks now. If anyone out there actually likes to read what I write, I apologise for disappointing you. But what to do? My wife, Yvonne, suggests promising just one posting a week. I’ll try it!

We’ve just returned from two weeks on the Greek island of Symi. Above the magnificent harbour is the church of Evangelismos with its tessellated pavement and tall cypress trees, each surrounded by a little wall exactly the right height to sit on. There, in the shade, with a gentle breeze to cool me, and a view across the water to the tumbled mountains of Turkey, as the yachts of the rich came and went below, I took to settling down for a daily meditation. I use a prayer word (or mantra) to help me focus: ‘Be still’, with ‘be’ on the in-breath and ‘still’ on the out-breath. It’s a phrase which has echoes of Psalm 46: ‘Be still and know that I am God’, and of Jesus’ words in calming the fears of the disciples when caught in a storm on lake Galilee. After a while I noticed that the pigeons on Symi have a simpler coo to those in London. It’s a three note call: a short beginning, a longer middle, and a much shorter third note – coo-cooooo-co. I heard, ‘be s-t-i-l-l now’. There was no need for me to repeat my prayer word. The pigeons were doing it for me!

The word ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day’ in the days when Christian festivals provided the only available break from work. Holidays on Symi are a bit like that. Life is simplified; no newspapers or television; and not much in the way of ‘entertainment’. I had taken with me, Martin Laird’s book ‘Into The Silent Land’. I know it well; in fact I had become over-familiar with it. This time, I read it slowly and mindfully, re-discovering its hidden treasures, and understanding, for the first time really, what he means by ‘the liturgy of our wounds’.

Stuff is stored away in our brains from earliest times and it’s the painful bits which seem to float up (or sometimes erupt) into consciousness; it’s the persistent annoying mental tics which never seem to give up, especially when one is trying to ‘be still’. I learnt this time to be compassionate with all that; to let it be, to forgive myself; to understand that this human body with its marvellous mental apparatus, its persistent weakness and failure and, ultimately, its death, is also the vehicle of – what? Some call it God but that word presents so many difficulties. Martin Laird is fond of paradoxical statements like ‘depthless depth’ and ‘the groundless ground that is the core of all being’. He writes,
“The very attention that gazes into this vastness is itself this vastness, luminous depth gazing into luminous depth. You are the vastness into which you gaze.”

Buddhists can describe this sort of thing somewhat less paradoxically but then they don’t have to cope with a tradition of God as an object out there. Still you cannot be much more direct and simple than Martin Laird’s, “God does not know how to be absent”.
See you next week, I hope (promises, promises).