Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ich habe genug

Christmas cards! You know: those things you send and receive once a year from people you haven’t met for ages. “We really must meet up in 2012.” Not a hope! When you get to my age there’s always the risk that one of the people you send a card to will be dead before it arrives.

It’s no wonder that in the far off days before antibiotics, Charles Wesley should write a hymn for the New Year which began on a note of slight surprise, “And are we still alive?” !

In April 1911 my grandmother, the wife of a Moravian missionary in Jamaica, was in this country bringing two of her sons (including my father) to the church’s boarding school near Leeds. She wrote a letter to her husband back in Jamaica giving him news of the boys who were already here and asking after those she had left behind with their father. They had seven sons by then and she was pregnant with the eighth. She did not know (communication being what it was in those days) that, when she posted the letter, her husband was already dead.

Enough already. Happy Christmas!! Who needs presents other than this gift – to be gloriously alive!

The old man takes the baby in his arms and sings softly:
Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace .....

The old man is Simeon. The baby he holds is Jesus, the gift of life, even to an old man on the point of death.

Nearly 1700 years after Luke wrote that song (or put it in his gospel at any rate) Johan Sebastian Bach, has the same cameo in mind as he writes a cantata in which Simeon begins with the words: ich habe genug – I have enough.

My children complain that I am difficult to buy Christmas presents for because there’s not a lot that I really want. I have the gift of life, both in the simple literal sense of being alive as well as the spiritual sense of being aware of that profound presence we call God. Ich habe genug.

If we human beings are to survive on this fragile planet, ich habe genug is the attitude we must cultivate. And thank God for the glimmering of hope just kindled at the Durban conference on climate change.

If we are to work towards a more just society, ich habe genug is the attitude we have to discover – bankers, financiers and politicians as well as trades unionists and urban rioters.

It is the failure to grasp the wonder and beauty of this Christmas gift of life in its most profound sense that leads to inequality and injustice.

We are used to complaining about the commercialisation of Christmas and I’ve watched it developing within my lifetime. But it’s not just Christmas, nor is it exactly commercialisation. There’s nothing wrong with commerce. It is the consumerisation of human beings. It has happened because our capitalism depends on a feeling that I do not have enough. There is therefore a sense in which we get the kind of capitalism we want/deserve. As the Chief Rabbi said in Monday's Times, “Instead of the market being framed by moral principles, it comes to substitute for moral principle. If you can buy it, negotiate it, earn it and afford it, then you are entitled to it – as the advertisers say – because you’re worth it.”

And we were more or less happy with the set up so long as we felt that our worth depended on it; so long as there was enough in the kitty to go on trying to bolster our worth in this consumer way. Suddenly it’s all gone pear shaped and people are getting anxious, cross, envious of those who get more than ‘their fair share’.

In a recent meeting of our Beyond Words group we looked at the similarities between England in the 14th century and now:
Wat Tyler led the peasants revolt against the flat rate poll tax. At one stage rioters took control of London. Tyler’s collaborator, John Ball wrote: “... the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common and that there be no villeins nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that lords be no greater masters than we be.” (He could have been camping outside St. Paul’s Cathedral!)
There were catastrophic harvests; oh! and there was trouble with Europe!! The hundred years war started. (Perhaps it’s still going on!!?)

And in the midst of it all small groups, mostly of women, in north Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and here in England, were struggling to find oneness with God in that time of great dislocation. Among them was Julian of Norwich who spoke of a God in whom there is no wrath and a Christ who dwells peaceably at the centre of the human soul. Like Simeon she understood the gift of life.

Wir haben genug. We have enough. Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Who am I?

Mark Zuckerberg was talking about his Facebook on television last night: such energy, enthusiasm and all-American confidence, not to mention total dedication to a vision! You might say he fulfils Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s definition of chastity: the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal. Chastity in this sense can serve all sorts of ends and his make me vaguely uneasy. What began as a college website helping young people get to know each other could next year be floated on the stock exchange as a commercial business worth millions of dollars. Why might it be so valuable? Because it’s a web site on which millions of us around the globe reveal personal details about ourselves and these details are valuable to advertisers. The possibility of tailoring adverts precisely to my personal tastes and interests must be very tempting to businesses that want to sell me things. People reveal astonishingly personal details on Facebook because, apparently, they trust Mark Zuckerberg. Already some employers have stumbled on the possibility of discovering truths about potential employees which might not be revealed in interviews.

The source of my unease with Mark Zuckerberg’s vision lies in the question: Who am I and how do I relate to other people? Trawling through this blog, or looking at my profile, you can unearth clues and hints about me and my life, but does that mean you know me? Can you ever really know me if you have never met me, seen how my body language enhances (or contradicts) what my voice is saying: how, indeed, the very tone of my voice can contradict or enhance the words I am uttering. How much detail about my life do you actually need, before you can say, ‘I really know him’? Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who I am?

Then it gets scary. Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who you are yourself? All the major religions answer, no you cannot; not at least by gathering ever more information; not by emphasising the roles you play, the job you do, the things that interest you and so on and so on. The truth about us lies beyond, beneath all this and cannot be contained in lists of information. But it’s a scary truth because all information about us seems to add up to a sense of who we are. If we let it all go we feel naked, lost, vulnerable.

The diarist Anais Ninn used to start each day by saying to herself, ‘I am nothing. I have nothing. I want nothing.’ She did so because she wanted to begin each day in an attitude of hopeful, expectant waiting. She was pretty close to the challenge of Jesus of Nazareth: if you want to be a follower of mine leave your self behind. Such a self emptying reveals the abundance of the universe (or God if you wish) which lies hidden beneath all the information we think we need about ourselves and others.

Facebook and all the other social websites are wonderful tools but let’s not get carried away by inflated ideas about their potential for us mysterious and infinitely rich human beings who need each other in all our hiddeness and mystery if we are to know who we truly are.

Monday, 21 November 2011


I have been reading Helen Luke's, 'Old Age: Journey Into Simplicity'. In her introduction to the book, Barbara Mowat writes:
“Drawing on the masterworks of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot; reading those works with an understanding formed through years of absorbing and reflecting on the insights of Carl Jung; and speaking as a wonderfully conscious individual making the transition herself into old age, Helen Luke teaches us that a point comes in our lives at which we choose how we go into our last years, how we approach our death. The choice, as she describes it, may be painful, requiring ( should we choose to continue to grow old, instead of merely sinking into the ageing process) that we let go of much that has been central to us, even to our inner lives.”

“.... a point comes in our lives.....”? I want to qualify that assertion. I have not, so far, (I am now in my 81st year) experienced a single point: just a gradual process as the evidence of ageing bodies (mine and my contemporaries) accumulates. Furthermore the response required is not, in my experience, different from the response required at any point in the truly human life. Dying to self, letting go and letting God and so on are good at any age and ideally are best developed and practiced long before the onset of old age.

The unavoidable evidence of ageing can be a powerful trigger for some but not for everyone. I heard a wonderful exposition on Saturday by David Runcorn of Moses and the burning bush. He wondered how many burning bushes Moses had missed and painted a hilarious picture of a breathless angel rushing about igniting bushes as Moses meandered by with his sheep leaving a scorched earth trail behind him.

As a footnote, I recall the novelist, C.P. Snow giving the opinion that the ageing process proceeded in a series of drops from one plateau to the next, each plateau giving a false sense of security. Again I can only say, from my own experience, I have not recognised such a process. It seems that we each speak from our own experience and it is unwise to generalise from it too confidently.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Pitch Perfect

I don’t suppose they planned it but the Occupy London protesters could not have chosen a better site for their tents. The symbolism of a protest about mammon and democracy pitched on land jointly owned by the Corporation of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral is exquisite. What they want is a more just society. Confusion about their message arises from their failure to distinguish between two aspects of justice: the legal and the moral.

Their tents may be illegally pitched. Lawyers for both sides are making a strong case so the law must be unclear. But both sides are appealing to justice as legality. As I understand them the protesters want a better congruence between moral justice and the law, for example in financial institutions. Breaking the law can sometimes be justified on moral grounds provided the issues are carefully thought through. Neither side seems to have thought through the confusion between justice as law and justice as moral virtue.

It is a pity that St. Paul’s Cathedral Chapter appears to have concentrated too much on the legal side of justice. I presume Canon Giles Fraser has resigned because he could see this and knew that the Cathedral was missing a chance to engage with the protesters about justice as morality and thus help them to clarify exactly how they would like the law to enshrine greater financial fairness and how democratic institutions might better represent the wishes of the people. Many people feel that capitalism isn’t working as well as it might (as well as it should?). They suffer the consequences of capitalism’s unfairness while its masters smile, pull the levers and pocket too much of the profits.

There is a sense however in which we get the kind of capitalism we all want. We allow ourselves to be defined as consumers rather than human beings (or perhaps we could say spiritual beings on a human journey). Capitalism brings enormous benefits to a lot of us (but by no means all of us) human beings. Some of us are beginning to say, let’s examine where we have got to and see if some course corrections are needed.

On Saturday 19th November Southwark Cathedral will host a day of workshops on prayer one of which will be on Prayer and Justice. I hope the symbolism of the Occupy London site will help us to discern how best to serve both God and mammon.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

More listening

How much of what goes on in your head is actually useful?
How much of it is about the past which cannot be changed (though of course we can learn from it)?
How much of it is worrying about the future (as opposed to planning for it)?
How much of it is designed to help you avoid the present (which is actually the only point at which we live)?
For many of us what goes on in our heads is considered normal. We rarely examine it and we assume there’s not much we do about it.

At last night’s meeting of the St. John’s Waterloo Contemplative Prayer Group we extended last week’s reflection on listening to include noises in the head, usually known as thoughts.
The contemplative tradition in all major religions emphasises the discipline of getting used to observing our thoughts without judgement. As we practice meditation we gradually get to know the familiar pathways down which our unobserved mind loves to roam and thus we begin to have some choice about where it goes.

Here’s an example of something that happened to me yesterday morning.
The following sequence was triggered by a slight contact between my heel and the foot of another pedestrian walking behind me.
Phase 1. A slight feeling of annoyance erupts in me.
Phase 2. As the man overtakes me, I give voice to the feeling by saying with a hint of sarcasm, “excuse me!”
Phase 3. He turns and says, “You stepped straight in front of me!”
Phase 4. As he continues on his way I continue the exchange in my head, thus amplifying the original trigger feeling. “Do you thing I’ve got eyes in the back of my head?” “How could he have been so arrogant?!” and so on.
Phase 5. I realise that I am off on this fruitless internal dialogue which is keeping the original rather minor feeling going and thus continuing to amplify it.
Phase 6. I add to my affliction a feeling of guilt that I have succumbed in this way to a simple temptation to retaliate. I berate myself for not practicing present moment awareness. So far the process has occupied perhaps 15 or 20 seconds during which I have crossed a busy road.
Phase 7. I finally get into a non-judgemental listening to this racket in my head, just a straightforward acknowledgement of it all, and find that I have returned to a degree of centredness in the present.

That primitive part of our brains, the amygdala, provides hair trigger responses to most situations by asking, do I eat it, mate with it, fight it or run away from it? You can see how useful it must have been to our very earliest ancestors and it still has its usefulness. It proves troublesome however when we lose the capacity to monitor it or when it triggers other bits of our brain so that we rush or roam down well trodden pathways. Eventually I could become a cantankerous old man, always ready to take offence when someone intrudes upon my personal space.

The practice of meditation and contemplative prayer is in part, the discovery of fresh (neural) pathways leading to the great open vistas of love, joy and peace. As our practice deepens, those other distracting paths are less used. The pathway of love becomes clearer. The road less taken becomes a highway to the present moment in which we are free from all that unnecessary, unexamined mental chatter and distress. But let’s not talk about progress here: that’s another bit of alluring mental distraction. Always the secret is to come back to this present moment because this is the only place where Presence, what Jesus called the kingdom, is available.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


LISTEN!! – mostly these days a demand to be heard, not an invitation to dialogue. But several recent ‘coincidences’ have reminded me of the importance of true listening.

A couple of weeks ago my lovely yoga/meditation teacher at Morley College, Donna Malcomson, took us (her class) into the nearby Tibetan Buddhist Peace Garden (appropriately, beside the Imperial War Museum, here in central London). She invited us simply to listen to whatever we could hear: traffic, planes overhead, a referee’s whistle at a nearby football match. Now, in this blog, I am telling you what I heard but then we were invited to avoid labelling any of the sounds that our ears picked up, to avoid identifying the sounds but just to listen to them. Doing this I began to relax, to feel more peaceful. I became aware of a deep stillness at the centre of myself.

So at this week’s Beyond Words Contemplative Prayer Group at St. John’s Waterloo, I reminded the group that our core activity, lectio divina, is basically a process of listening, in this case to words from the Bible read aloud in the group. We avoid rushing to a conclusion like, ‘Oh I’ve heard this before. I know what it means!’ in order to leave space for hearing the words afresh, without judgement, allowing them to seep into the synapses of the brain and marinate there in the shared silence.

Introducing this week’s session I spoke of the Marriage Enrichment weekends my wife and I used to run back in the 1970s for couples who wished to deepen their relationship. A highlight of such events was telling 'the story of my marriage’ to one’s partner. The ground rules were that each partner had an equal amount of time to speak while the other one was simply to listen while keeping eye contact, resisting the desire to interrupt by saying, “that’s not how it happened”, or even, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” As we introduced the session people would almost invariably say, “Don’t you mean the story of our marriage?” “No,” we would reply, “this is an opportunity for each of you as an individual to tell your story and for it to be heard by your partner. It’s a chance for you to be truly listened to.” I was delighted to discover that Thursday’s Times 2 supplement carries an account of similar events based at St. Paul’s Church Kensington in London. See

Meanwhile, on Tuesday at the St. John’s Waterloo meeting of the Isaiah Community, we heard an address from Ruth Scott about reconciliation through story-telling, reminiscent of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I dug out a short paper hidden away in my files for perhaps 30 years by the Revd Morton R. Kelsey titled simply, 'Listening'. I’ve forgotten who he is or was but he writes:
“The first step in listening is allowing oneself to be with other people and to be silent with them. We are silent not only with our lips but also in our inner response. We listen to them and are silent inside. ..... Real listening is a religious experience. Often, when I have listened deeply to another, I have the same sense of awe as when I am alone in the church at night. I have entered into a holy place and communed with the heart of Being itself.”

Let today be one in which you just ..... listen.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


An e-mail yesterday from a friend whose writing and living I admire. He writes:

November 1st is a big day. It's All Saints day, obviously, but also marks the publication of my new book, "Solitude: Recovering the power of alone". Ahh! Can't you just feel the frisson of Luke-warm excitement!?

Traditionally, this is the day when light recovers its poise after the dark and dangerous happenings of Halloween the night before. So it seemed an appropriate moment to free this 280-page child of light into the hushed and waiting world.

The book is a quiet revolution, as all the best revolutions are. Defining solitude as "the active path towards inner silence" and using a Q and A format, it leads us to the life beneath our life and charts the inner movements from loneliness to solitude, from confusion to identity, from busy to still, from fear to discovery, from madness to sanity and from separation to union. There's more to us than meets the eye.

And here's the thing: I'd like you to join the quiet revolution by ordering the book on November 1st, the day of light. That's the book's birth day. That's the day -- if you've so far resisted the temptation -- to skip merrily towards your computer and click on Amazon or some other online outlet and say, "Solitude, please! And in double-quick time, my man!" (You don't have to use these exact words.)

And the history of the book? I started writing it while on holiday beneath a large mountain and a scorching sun. I continued writing it to the sound of breaking glass, violence and burning buildings in my Tottenham neighbourhood during a week of insanity and fear over the summer: a contemporary Halloween.

But wherever I was writing, nothing felt more topical than our need to re-learn the lost art of solitude and to recover the power of the alone. "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone," observed Blaise Pascal in the 17th century. It's an unfashionable diagnosis, but it has never felt more true.

So why do we find it so hard? Partly our education. As parents fill the lives of their children with activity and external stimulation, it creates a half-developed adult. When this is all you know and all you long for, then silence – the silence we enjoyed in the womb – becomes a fearful thing. Untutored in stillness, we have unwittingly been trained for loneliness and distraction and we now pass this condition onto the next generation.

It's time that changed. It's time solitude became a delight and a friend and a revelation once again, both for ourselves and for our children. Solitude brings kindness and awareness in its wake; and a coming home to ourselves.

So can you join the quiet revolution – and the silent barricades – on November 1st?

To mark the day, there's a little launch party -- OOOH! in large letters! -- that evening in The Coronet on the Holloway Road in London N7, because web friends like yourself have been very kind while I was writing. You even appear in the acknowledgements.

Here's the venue... I'll be in The Coronet from 6.30 to 9.00pm. I may be alone, of course, but then how entirely appropriate that would be.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Waking up

“It’s too bad,” says Henderson in Saul Bellow’s ‘Henderson The Rain King, “but suffering is about the only reliable burster of the spirit's sleep. There's a rumour of long standing that love also does it." I would add: age can sometimes do it too. Seventy five years old, I was, before it happened. (See the first two entries in this blog back in 2009.) When the AIDS epidemic erupted here in the UK some decades ago there were moving stories about young men with only a year or two to live discovering too how to live that remaining time with a fullness and richness they had never before known or believed possible. The realisation that life is a vulnerable, fragile business can be a ‘burster of the spirit’s sleep’.

Increasingly however, it seems that people are waking up into reality without the pressure of pain or loss. For whatever reasons they are discovering a way to live which is fully awake. Mostly they do it through meditation and contemplative prayer. Some apparently just .... do it. They don’t wait until something awful happens to them, or until they get old. They just ‘get it’: the truth, I mean, that the only time we have to live is now. They realise that they have been spending far too much time and energy dealing with the past or anticipating the future.

In theory most of us would all agree that it's not a good idea to wait: until things are less pressured, until I can get away on holiday, until I have the space to get around to it, until.... until....

Eckhart Tolle writes, ".... you don't have to wait for your world to shrink or collapse through old age or personal tragedy in order for you to awaken to your inner purpose."

Sometimes I find myself beset by resentment, anxiety, fear and thinking at the same time, ‘I must get home and meditate, then things will be better’. Tolle also reminds us, don’t look for any state other than the one you are in right now. In ‘Stillness Speaks' he records the following dialogue:
Accept what is.
I truly cannot. I’m agitated and angry about this.
Then accept what is.
Accept that I’m agitated and angry? Accept that I cannot accept?
Yes. Bring acceptance into your non-acceptance. Bring surrender into your non-surrender. Then see what happens.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Mental ecology

Stuff lies around in our brains: the detritus of years of experience including the pain – perhaps especially the pain. Do you, like me, find it more difficult to access pleasant memories? I have to make an effort to recall them. The painful ones keep popping up, unwanted, like adverts on the websites I visit. If advertisers could imitate our brains they would love it. They do their best to engage our emotions but that’s nothing compared with the way our brains flash up the emotions that went with the experience we are unwillingly recalling. In this week’s St. John’s Waterloo ‘Beyond Words’ group we pondered verses 4 – 8 of chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
“The peace of God which is beyond all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts .....”
Distracting thoughts are part of the human condition and the contemplative tradition in most major religions has developed ways of dealing with the problem. For most people the word ‘mantra’ goes with yogis or Buddhists. The ancient Christian tradition of a ‘prayer word’ is less well known but performs exactly the same function: it gives the memory recalling part of the brain something to do while we get on with the task of going ‘beyond words’ into that silent land of Presence and peace which passes our understanding. Writers on contemplative prayer advise the use of just one word or at most a short phrase. Anything else will provide food for the hungry brain to seize and worry with like a dog with a bone. It helps, in my experience, if the repetition of one’s prayer word can be coordinated with the breath, for example repeating it mentally on each out-breath. Gradually, with persistent practice, the ecology of our mental landscape is purified and calmed.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Found in human form

The quotation in the title above is from Paul's letter to the Philippians (chapter 2, verses 5-9)
Let the same mind be in you that was in in Christ Jesus
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.
This is one of the readings set for Church of England worship next Sunday. We used it as a basis for our meditation at St. John's, Waterloo contemplative prayer group on Wednesday, this week, here in central London.

We use a meditation method known as 'lectio divina' (Latin for sacred reading) borrowed from ancient Christian monastic practice. A short passage (usually, but not exclusively, from the Bible) is read aloud very slowly. A short silence follows before the passage is read aloud again, slowly. Following this second reading each person is free to drop in to the communal silence a word or short phrase from the passage which is resonating with them. The passage is read a third time, slowly and we enter a longer period of silence. This is not an intellectual excercise; not a time for discussion or airing doubts or problems about the passage. This is reading with the heart, or allowing the words to seep into the synapses. There is no discussion: no one asks, 'why did you choose that word?' The mood is one of trust and openess.

For two people in our group the resonating phrase was, 'being found in human form'. It was not the phrase which struck me personally but it has stayed with me since. There in the second line of the passage are the words, 'though he was in the form of God'. So here is 'the form of God' ....'found in human form'. Here, in the headwaters of Christianity, is the shocking idea that the place to look for God is in another human being and therefore even more shockingly by implication - in myself. Presumably, that's why Paul begins this passage, 'Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus'. How did the Christian church manage to bury this insight under such a weight of dogma that for centuries God has seemed to be so far from us humans? Fortunately it was never completely buried. Throughout the centuries there have been those who have tried to express this conviction that the Presence of God is what fundamentally defines us.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Why are you here?

Why are you here? That's the question we asked ourselves at last night's first meeting of the autumn series of the St. John's, Waterloo, meditation/contemplative prayer group. It was the question faced by that Old Testament prophet, Elijah.
Elijah's in real trouble – Jezebel threatens to kill him. He flees into the desert, sits down under a bush and wishes he was dead. But something happens while he sleeps: according to the story an angel touches him and says, ‘have something to eat’; so he does but then promptly lies down to sleep again. But this dratted, insistent angel prods him and urges him to travel even further into the wilderness. This time it’s a forty day journey to the sacred mountain, Horeb. Here he finds a cave to spend the night in. The question comes, ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’, and he pours out his troubles. ‘Israel’s in a mess and I have been trying very hard to put it right. I’m the only one left who knows what’s right and my life’s in danger’. Suddenly there’s a hurricane. Then there’s an earthquake. Then .... nothing.... silence.... no! wait! ... a still small voice! After that the future suddenly looks hopeful once more. There are things to be done: not grand schemes but quite specific tasks.

So, why are we here in this group, in Waterloo, central London? We have each come from somewhere with desires, needs, fears, grand schemes which don’t appear to be working out. Something is prodding us, something that won’t let us rest. What? enter this wilderness?! How’s that going to help?. The world’s in a mess and I really ought to be part of something that will help to put it right: you know, something really dramatic, earth shattering.

Wait. Keep on waiting in the depths of this silence. Let go, be still. The next step will become clear: something quite specific, just for today.

(Later in our meeting we meditated on Paul's great hymn in his letter to the Philippians. I'll say something about that tomorrow.)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Men only?

A pretty young woman passes and, even at my age, I notice her figure. I can understand why the fourth century monks in the Egyptian desert stressed the need to keep away from women and why, so I am told, a 21st monastery somewhere won’t even have hens on the premises. What do they do for eggs, I wonder?! I also wonder if the Sermon on the Mount was intended only for men? “If a man looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And: “If a man divorces his wife for any cause other than unchastity he involves her in adultery.” There are no injunctions intended specifically for women in this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.

With, I hope, great respect to those 4th century desert fathers (and any egg-less 21st century monks) I think they got it wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, defined chastity as “the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal.” The goal is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God: that state of being in which the presence of God is discovered in everything and everyone. With practice one learns to discern that Presence in the most unlikely places and people. I learn to see that black hoodie, that begging homeless person, that raucous half drunk teenager as a bearer of the Presence, part of the kingdom of God. I do so in spite of my instinctive reaction. I may not like their mode of dress or their behaviour but I have the capacity to see beyond what is being presented to my eyes.

Human biology being what it is I have an instinctive male reaction to a pretty woman. But beauty must be a problem for the bearer of it because, like being drunk or homeless or behaving outrageously, it can hide the real person inside. To enter the kingdom is to find myself in that realm where the Presence is discernable. The Gospels record several occasions when Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” Do I see the real person, a bearer (just like me) of the Presence? Thank goodness I don’t need to find a desert place miles from the nearest female.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Spaced out.

I wonder what Richard Dawkins would make of me, a spiritual person, finding some of his writing inspiring? Yesterday’s Times science magazine, ‘Eureka', has extracts from his latest book, ‘The Magic of Reality’. He writes,
“Suppose we represent the nucleus of each carbon atom in the [diamond] crystal by a football, with electrons in orbit around it. On this scale the neighbouring footballs in the diamond would be more than 15km away.” “But,” he goes on, “each electron on our football scale, is much smaller than a gnat, and these miniature gnats are themselves several kilometres away from the footballs they are flying around.”

We human beings, likewise, are mostly empty space. So why can't we walk through walls? Ah - this is where Dawkins talks about 'forces' which I don't understand. I tell my daughter (a geo-physicist) about this article and she responds that if the whole human race were to be crushed together so that all the atomic space was squeezed out, the resultant mass would be no larger than a hazel nut. And, she reminds me, it was a hazel nut that Julian of Norwich imagined held in the palm of God’s hand. My daughter is a poet as well as a scientist. We share a lack of belief in God but we both manage to combine it with the kind of trust in the universe which Julian’s image of the hazel nut expresses. Neither of us can bring ourselves to adopt the description ‘atheist': too aggressive, while 'agnostic' is a bit wishy-washy. I prefer Richard Kearney’s term ‘anatheist’. (See his book ‘Anatheism') But why did William Blake write, "every stone breathes forth its joy..."? or why did David Waggoner write, "Stand still, the forest knows you are here..."? or why do so many speak of an 'atmosphere' which some places and buildings seem to exude? Maybe Richard Dawkins is so busy being an evangelical atheist that he doesn't have time to stop and appreciate what contemplatives and mystics of many religions have known about this universe all along.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


‘Wording A Radiance’ is the title of a remarkable book about the sudden death in 2007 of a theologian, Professor Daniel Hardy.The title is taken from a poem by Micheal O’Siadhail part of which actually reads:
‘Some love is mine
And always mine. A peace. A radiance
I wanted to word but can’t.’

Poets who try to ‘word’ a radiance? There are lots of them. They are the cryptographers of the enigma code of the universe (see my post dated July 15th).
Here is Wordsworth entranced by a radiance as he crosses Westminster Bridge (just a few hundred yards from my flat) in the early morning sun:
Earth hath not anything to show more fair
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still.

Two hundred and nine years later, it is still possible to cross Westminster Bridge in the early morning and know that peaceful radiance. Even more remarkable: Daniel Hardy, dying with a vigorous brain tumour, knew that same peace and radiance.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Smash and grab

At yoga/meditation this morning I appreciate deeply the importance of savouring each pose and the mindful rests and transitions between them. Words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians come to mind. Speaking of Jesus, Paul writes, “yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God...” – that ‘snatch’ is the New English Bible version: much better than the Revised English Bible’s, “he laid no claim to equality with God” (the King James Version having made a complete hash of it with, “thought it not robbery to be equal with God”). ‘Snatch’ is just exactly right in this week of riots and looting in English cities. Spiritual smash and grab raids are just as bad for the human soul as the activities we’ve seen this week in shopping centres. Waiting, savouring each moment, is of the essence, even when one has to wait so fast that one “appears to be hurrying at breakneck speed”.

It's not that this week's rioters are 'bad' while meditators are 'good'. There is spiritual acquistiveness and looting as well. Anyone, looter, shop-lifter, meditator, churchgoer, can know the fear or envy which whispers, 'there's not enough to go round', 'I deserve this', 'what the hell - it doesn't matter what I do'. There is the human global economy driven by the 'not-enough-to-go-round' fear mentality and there is the economy of what Jesus called the kingdom of God: an economy of abundance and excess. But the only credit card you can use in this kingdom of abundance is a giving away card, a letting go, giving away, not storing up card. Snatching - at anything - is not just 'bad manners' as my parents used to tell me, it's the antithesis of being human.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Enigma code

All those cryptographers working in secret at Bletchley Park during the war were honoured by the Queen this week. They weren’t the only ones working on an enigma, among them a strange Russian mystic called Gurdjieff. His writings are almost as impenetrable as that Nazi code. A relative sent me a book about him. I have tried reading it but as the sender feared I felt bound to return it with the following comment:
“You were wise to be uncertain about my reception of this book. There are many ways of encoding the truth about Being but Mr. Gurdjieff’s is not one that I can easily access. At my stage of the proceedings known as ‘life’ I have enough cryptographers to help me on what remains of my way.”

We are bound to use code when talking about ‘God’ and the meaning of life. In last Saturday’s Guardian the Archbishop of Canterbury is reported as saying, “We must get to grips with the idea that we don’t contribute anything to God; that God would be the same God if we had never been created. God is simply and eternally happy to be God.” Now that is code I cannot decipher. Could we substitute the word ‘universe’ where the Archbishop uses ‘God’? I don’t know and I cannot ask him (the Archbishop, I mean, not God).

In the same interview the Archbishop says he prefers the word ‘trust’ to ‘faith’. That I do understand. In this morning’s yoga/meditation I find myself distracted by the Archbishop’s words and other thoughts about the meaning of life. I feel pulled away by fears arising from the state of a friend now in hospital with acute depression. Nothing makes any sense. Then I come back to this present moment, just as I am, fears, intellectual doubts and all: simply accepting it all as it is, now. It’s not that I find ‘faith’. It’s just that suddenly I am at peace. It’s a kind of trust: in what? Well, I suppose simply this moment and the next and the next. Sometimes I can find words to talk about it and some cryptographers write about it in ways that make sense to me, but mostly the enigma, the mystery requires a trustful silence. I think it's what Jesus meant by the 'the Kingdom of God', or in the words of a well known hymn: 'the silence of eternity interpreted by love'.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Beauty and the afflicted

Most people suffer in silence and privately. (Was it Thoreau who said, “Most adults lead lives of quiet desperation”?) Our media, TV as well as newspapers, like to try and uncover that suffering. ‘Human interest stories’ appealing to our emotional voyeurism are good for the media business plan. So-called ‘reality TV’ programmes depend on participants’ willingness to put themselves in stressful situations when they will inevitably display emotion. Now the News of the World’s long running habit of feeding that voyeurism is about to end.
But we are addicted to pain. We enjoy it – especially if it’s someone else’s. We’ll find some other, hopefully more scrupulous, media outlet to satisfy our addiction.

Good journalism, on the other hand, also brings us another kind of silent but very public suffering: hidden only because it’s happening a long way away. Fortunately (if that’s the right word) the plight of perhaps 8 million people would be almost impossible to hide even if they all wished to avoid media attention. Even so I wince when the cameras focus on some emaciated woman cradling a dying child. Does she want that kind of intrusion? Did the reporter ask her permission before the cameras zoomed in? I don’t know but here I am a few thousand miles away in comfort unimaginable to her.

Who said,
“There is beauty and there are the afflicted and whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I wish to be unfaithful neither to the one nor to the other.”?
Google doesn’t recognise the quote as my memory has preserved it (I think it may have been a French philosopher. Anyone know?) Anyway, even if my memory is faulty it presents me with a valuable maxim. There’s a hell of a lot of human suffering around (including, I try to remind myself, the pain of News of the World reporters and executives). What can I do about it? Thanks to some reporters in Kenya I can donate to the Disasters Emergency Relief Fund. More generally I can refrain from adding to the sum total of human misery by dealing with my own so that it doesn’t spill out and infect those around me; so that I don’t satisfy my latent emotional voyeurism by buying newspapers which feed it. I can recognise my own addiction to pain and unhappiness and find beneath it the truth about myself and every other human being. You want me to spell that truth out? That’s what this blog keeps trying to do!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

How do you know?

“But how do you know?” the man kept insistently asking, “How do you know!”
I was at St. James Church, Piccadilly, in the heart of London last night to hear Simon Parke talking about living in the present. Simon had been speaking about what we are not: not our passing thoughts and emotions, not our worries and resentments and anger, not our plans for the future, not the roles we assume (husband, wife, athlete, hairdresser, executive and so on). So what are we and how do we know it? You could hear and feel the man’s anxiety in the aggressive and insistent repetition of his question. Perhaps like most of us he had always been able to identify himself with the things we can know about ourselves. We can build a personality and identity out of these things that we know. We can even measure some of them: I am chief executive of this company and I earn this much per year and I can afford this house. Other things we know about ourselves are intangible and even sometimes dangerous to us and to people around us. ‘I am this poor little person who is always downtrodden’. ‘I am this invalid’, this ‘hard man not to be trifled with’, this expert in some field or other, even this expert in myself.

But suppose we are not, essentially, any of these things. Most of them are only semi-permanent anyway: some are mere fleeting shadows. Suppose I am not anything – any ‘thing’!

Suppose I simply AM?! Suppose this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will find it.”

‘Who am I?’ is the question human beings have been asking ever since we became self-conscious. Cogito, ergo sum, is the answer the philosopher Descartes came up with: “I think, therefore I am.” Simon Parke was inviting us to approach that ultimate question from the standpoint of Jesus. Underneath all the thinking is a deeper more fundamental reality. The problem is actually talking about it which is why it is easier, and safer, to talk about what it is not. Have the courage to keep stripping away all that we think we are and the result is not (or not necessarily) a hopeless empty nihilism. It does involve emptiness, but a hopeful, creative kind of emptiness. The address of this blog is www.spacesilencestillness. Keep stripping away what we know and we find a spacious stillness. That’s who we are.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Forgeries and truth.

Lunch with a dear old friend: theatre chaplain, Shakespeare lover, retired Anglican priest. We share stories of the consummate skill of good actors reading a Bible passage aloud: their economy of expression producing the maximum expressiveness and meaning, shedding light on familiar words. We bemoan the scant attention paid in most local churches to the task of reading the text appointed for the Sunday service or, indeed, the training of lesson readers. Musicians practice, actors rehearse, only lesson readers step up to the lectern in church with the minimum of voice preparation or any rehearsal of the passage to be read. My friend reveals that he spends about 90 minutes preparing a reading, including writing the passage out by hand, however familiar it may be. Sometimes, he tells me, a choice of words leaps up and really hits you, as for instance, the line from A Misdummer Night’s Dream when Titania says, “These are the forgeries of jealousy”.

It so happens that I have been returning this week to one of the most familiar passages of the Bible in the English language: chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. For once the incomparable English of the King James Version obscures the impact for me of verses 5 and 6. “[Love] is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;” becomes in a modern translation: “Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth.”

Hmmm: what is this truth to be rejoiced in rather than keeping censorious scores to give myself some so-called satisfaction? I am reminded of the simple statement in Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’: “Create no more pain in the present.” What can feel like the pleasure of score keeping is in fact a dysfunctional reaction which simply prolongs the pain of the encounter I am recalling. Worse, I may be saving up the unpleasant memory in the hope of getting my own back sometime; cradling present pain to create more pain in the future. How balmy can I get?!

But still I hadn’t got at the truth I can rejoice in: until now, that is. Suddenly this familiar passage reads, not like a series of impossible standards to be aimed at, but as a fundamental truth about myself and therefore about every human being on the planet. It is our nature to love. Whatever the appearances to the contrary, (and yes, I know there are plenty) our brains are wired for love (love, that is, in the sense of the rest of this famous chapter). That’s the easy bit. The hard bit is remembering the easy bit when it really matters.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Sheer plod

Next month I will be 80. The last five years have been a wondrous time of discovery and growth; a miracle of rebirth for which I am profoundly thankful. George Herbert, towards the end of his life, wrote:

“Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greenness? ....
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain, ....”

There is a sense, now, in which ‘I know it all’. Yes I realise that sounds – well – ‘know-it-all’, but more facts, more knowledge won’t help me practice what I call the Now Show, that ‘recover’d greenness’ Herbert speaks of. I know how to do it, how to react to circumstances. Reading more books or going to more lectures won’t add anything to my understanding. They might help to confirm the direction I am taking in these last years of living; they might remind me of insights I lose sight of from time to time. Essentially, however, my task, the meaning and purpose of my life is to live what I know. Accepting the isness of each present moment, including feelings of boredom, or thoughts of meaninglessness, is as always the way forward.

It takes about twenty five trips from the kitchen sink through the living room on to our little patio here in central London to water the forty six flower pots there. We’ve had at least six weeks drought now so I have to do it more often. Today I begin the task in one of those moods of, ‘what’s the point of it all’. Then the line from Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, The Windhover, springs up:
“Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine.”

Life goes on being green even when the exultant soaring flight of inspiration departs.

“No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Right royal weddings

We have entered one of those interludes of national....what shall we call it? – frenzy? No, that’s too animated; euphoria? Still not quite right! I don’t know but it does feel as if a lot of people are caught up in some shared mood. I recall similar occasions: Princess Diana’s death for example, when a mood sweeps through and carries us off. It’s not the same when there’s a fierce political debate going on, as in the preparations for the invasion of Iraq: dossiers on weapons of mass destruction and all that. Then there are sides to be taken. Now, yes, a few folk are vehemently opposed to what they see as an upsurge of nationalistic monarchism but otherwise there’s not a really tangible position to oppose. There’s just this .... this mood: a kind of deep yearning which perhaps is always there in a majority of people and now finds a focus, a symbol, which animates it. Is it a yearning for some better way of living and being? A yearning for what the writer Simon Parke calls ‘the beautiful life’ in his book of the same title. (Now re-issued as ‘The Journey Home’.)

So this time it’s a wedding which is the catalyst: the spectacle of two lovely young people starting out, full of hope and promise, on a journey of commitment. It’s a vision of the beautiful life. I’m glad that Simon has called the new edition of his book ‘The Journey Home’. Home, the place where it feels utterly natural to be. If we are not there we feel exiled, strangers in a strange land. It starts, on this royal occasion, with a wedding but of course weddings are not the norm for many of us.

Or (hang on!) perhaps they are! Perhaps we are all wedded to something – an ideal (person or cause), a forlorn hope, a frenzied search for the truth, an insatiable desire for wealth or power, or health or sex or food. We can be wedded to almost anything if we imagine it will satisfy our yearning for home, for the beautiful life. But such weddings have happened without our realising it. There was no ceremony, no formal commitment, just a gradual orientation of our life to a goal which appears to promise something better than the state we want to escape from.

Ah! the crucial point! We want to escape from where we are, or what we are, now. We want to be somewhere, or someone, else. Tomorrow’s royal wedding reminds us: there’s something missing, something we're looking for. The truth however, is counter-intuitive. There’s no escape – or rather the only escape is to stay where we are because that’s the only place where ‘home’ is found. We are already there. We just didn’t recognise it. Nothing in the future, no new commitment, no royal spectacle, no ideal will satisfy the yearning which can almost be felt today as the royal wedding approaches. The chapter headings of Simon Parke’s book give us the clues for the treasure hunt: Be present; Observe Yourself; Be Nothing; Flee Attachment (yes, even when celebrating a wedding!); Transcend Suffering; Drop Your Illusions; Prepare For Truth; Cease Separation; Know Your Soul; Fear Nothing.

Welcome home.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Book retrieval

Dear Simon,
About the time I attended the retreat you ran at Wyredale Hall several years ago now, I bought a copy of The Beautiful Life. A couple of days ago I decided I had too many books about the beautiful life and it was time I got rid of some because I didn't need the props any more. The Beautiful Life went on the discard pile.
Then, as one does - you know - I idly picked it up again, opened it at random and was struck by several arresting statements. Browsing further I came across the following on page 11,
"During your relationship with such a book it should probably be ..... retrieved from the bin at least twice."

ALL RIGHT THEN!! I surrender. I've only retrieved it once.
Incidentally I've noted in my diary that you will be speaking at St. James Piccadilly on July 4th. I look forward to it.

That first Easter (whenever/whatever it was) the garden was empty when Mary got there. She didn't get it at first and when she did, the men got a grip on things and relegated her to a bit part.

May you (continue to) know that utterly still emptiness.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Endings and beginnings

Somewhere on the far side of the planet (Taupo, New Zealand to be precise) a friend is dying.

Nearly 60 years ago we were part of one of those vibrant, life-changing groups of young adults: in our case Main Street Methodist Church Young Peoples Club. Where? Bulawayo, in what was then Southern Rhodesia: while apartheid still reigned; before Harold Macmillan’s ‘winds of change speech’; even before Dr. Hastings Banda had begun the transition from Nyasaland to Malawi. Those were the dying days of the British Empire, just after the end of World War 2. Endings.

But for me a beginning: an ecstatic experience of conversion which transformed my life. I still have the Bible concordance the club members gave me when I returned to the UK to train for the Anglican ministry. Later those young people were scattered by the winds of change and I lost touch with them. Campbell, who had been instrumental in my conversion, turned up in Canada and we are now back in touch. Dorille, who is dying, looked me up here in London a couple of years ago on a visit from NZ. Another ending. Together, via e-mail, we return to those formative days in Bulawayo: those beginnings.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploration
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
The essence of that Bulawayo experience remains valid even though the words I now use to describe it (in this blog for example) could not possibly have been guessed at then.

“Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion.
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

For Dorille it is a final ending. For us all it is, as always, also a beginning.

“Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

(All the quotations are from T S Eliot's The Four Quartets)

Thursday, 31 March 2011

HELP!! ?

I live near Lambeth North tube station in central London. Visitors often emerge on to the complicated road junction here, on their way to a local hotel or the Imperial War Museum. They stand, bemused, unsure which way to go. Sometimes I smile and ask, ‘Can I help?’ I get a mixed response: the name of a hotel, spoken in broken English, or ‘no, thanks, I’m fine’. It occurs to me that, as a visitor in a strange city, it can be an enjoyable challenge to do your own route finding, and anyway a smiling stranger might be seen as a possible threat. Whose needs am I satisfying? - my own to be a helpful person, or theirs to be given useful guidance? Suspecting my own motives, I’ve more or less given up trying to be ‘helpful’ in this way.

There are plenty of ‘beggars’ on the streets in this part of London. Last night I gave £1 to a young woman carrying a copy of The Big Issue who obviously wasn’t a registered vendor. Later another young woman accosted me. It’s always obvious if they are going to ask for money. Thinking that she might be the same young woman I walked on. “Won’t you be a gentleman and help me?” she called after me. Should I have helped? I know all the arguments for and against ‘helping’ those who call for it on the streets. Somehow they don’t add up to a hard and fast rule that I can apply in every situation. Of course there isn’t one. What matters is that I ‘see’ this person here in front of me, without pre-judgement, and respond accordingly.

Then there’s a neighbour of ours who lives in appalling conditions in a rent protected house. This winter she has been getting more and more ill. She refuses all offers of help, official and unofficial, to be re-housed. We do what we can, dropping by most days to make sure she’s ‘all right’ (whatever that might mean in such dreadful housing conditions). I am reminded of an amusing postcard from the 1970s which said, “If things don’t improve soon I shall have to ask you to stop helping me.” There's often an element of control in the desire to help ("Better to do it my way rather than yours.") Thank God for the old adage, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ which means that officialdom is very reluctant to step in and force people to do things they don’t want to. But, as with those on the streets around here who ask me for money, what really is the best way to help? Leaving people alone can induce guilt but it does leave open the possibility that they will find a way out of their problematic situation; provided always that my leaving them alone is not simply avoidance but emerges out of 'seeing' them; out of some real human encounter no matter how fleeting.

Hmmm! Come to think about it – isn’t that not just an issue between one human being and another but also between nations? Libya?!!

Thursday, 10 March 2011


The season Christians call Lent has begun. I have a problem with it (What? Only one?) I can’t fit my personal, human experience into the church’s calendar. Lent is supposed to be a preparation for Easter. So it tends to encourage a looking forward to Easter forgetting that everything we do happens after that mysterious event which Christians have labelled the Resurrection. Easter didn’t happen two thousand years ago (a mere historical event): it is happening, now, timelessly in us. The final stanza of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, contains the following line:
“Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us,”
I like that: Easter as a verb, an activity happening now.

What comes next in this blog is going to sound like a massive digression but – patience, dear reader – the connection with Easter will emerge.

The brain is an astonishing storage system. It’s all up here in my head: that row I had with my mother/father 20, 30, 50 years ago; the way I snubbed that poor woman last week. And it’s not just a bare record of the facts: it’s the accompanying feelings. Post traumatic stress syndrome is not something which happens only to soldiers home from Afghanistan. There are a fortunate few human beings who have never had any really unpleasant experiences but most of us have not been so lucky. Most of us have stored away in our brains some unpleasant experience which can wake up and trip us up at any unexpected time. It’s no wonder the ancient Christian prayer speaks of ‘your adversary the devil,’ who goes about ‘like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.’ Lions sometimes come roaring out of our sub-conscious and swallow us up. Some people have to spend a lot of their time and most of their energy dealing with wild beasts of one sort or another.

Lent is supposed to be a time for dealing with lions but, like I said, mine don’t wait meekly until the appropriate slot on the Christian calendar. Now, here’s the good news: Easter doesn’t wait either (this year for example, until April 24th). Easter isn’t an historical event, it’s a process, going on now. Just as coping with lions can become so much a part of someone’s ‘normal’ living, so can Eastering. We’re talking about states of being – processes. The brain is not only a brilliant storage system, it is also infinitely plastic, adaptable. The neural pathways leading to lions dens can be by-passed (slowly, slowly, with persistence and patience) so that Eastering becomes more and more the dominant mode of our being. The lions are still there but even they can become part of the Eastering process: one roar and we are reminded (yes! Re-minded!) to find the vast, vibrant, expectant stillness of the Easter garden within us: both an absence and a presence. The practice of meditation is part of that process. In the stillness of our centred prayer, even when nothing seems to be happening and it all feels pointless, new pathways are being gently trodden out: new ways to the depths of who we truly are. We are Eastering people. That truth about us trumps all the lion aces our brains hold. Happy Easter – Now! Today!

Friday, 4 March 2011

Anti-freeze treatment.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman. For sheltering Jews she and her sister Betsy were consigned to a Nazi concentration camp. Corrie survived. Her sister did not. Sometime after the war Corrie visited Cologne cathedral. Imagine her consternation as she was confronted by the smiling face and outstretched hand of one of the camp guards – now presumably a worshipper at the cathedral! Corrie froze and in her heart said, “Jesus, I cannot forgive this person. You must do it for me.” She felt herself relax and was able to take the proffered hand.

Two things are essential to mindful living in the present moment: they are encoded in the Christian words ‘confession’ and ‘forgiveness’. Decoded, these words reveal a more or less universal experience, summed up in Eckhart Tolle’s words, “Enlightenment is saying ‘yes’ to what is.” Corrie’s frozen arm was thawed because she tapped into that centre of conscious awareness available to every human being underneath any words we might use to describe it. In practice it is a process of simply noticing what is going on in us at any given moment: especially a stressful one. With practice we begin to recognise, not only thoughts but also emotions and the physical sensations that accompany them (raised pulse rate; ‘butterflies in the stomach’, etc). Christians have labelled this simple, but not always easy, process ‘confession’ – ‘this is how things are for me at this moment’: no pretence, no avoidance of the reality, just unadorned, non-judgemental, witnessing acceptance.

The miracle known as ‘forgiveness’ seems to happen almost simultaneously. Result: unfreezing, fresh flow, a real choice about how to respond. Given a choice, a real choice, how might Corrie have responded? As she took that person’s hand she might have said, “You don’t recognise me do you?” and so initiated a conversation that might have been healing for both of them. Almost anything was possible, and still is.

But suppose we miss the moment and stomp off filled with unresolved emotion? All is not lost. As soon as we recognise what has happened we can witness what is now going on in us. The original anger, resentment, or whatever, might now be mixed with regret or guilt or annoyance with ourselves about having missed the opportunity. There is always the miracle of the Now. Any aspect of our experience, fully acknowledged becomes anti-freeze treatment.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Sour Grapes?

It’s half term and central London is filled with mothers (and grandparents) with young children. Two young women are sitting in my local Cafe Nero on the comfy armchairs. One is breastfeeding while two more toddlers trot around between the tables of the coffee drinkers making a merry noise. Wait! There’s a squawk from the nearby buggy and a fourth infant makes its presence known: a demand for food, which is immediately answered by the provision of another breast. I sit in presence, aware of the energy of my inner body: that subtle charge and vibration of life that I share with these six fellow human beings. They have an outer energy which I no longer possess, yet we share this hidden pulse of life.

According to Dr. Shanida Nataraja, a neuro-physiologist, the predominant brain wave pattern in children aged two to five is that of theta waves which are prominent in both dreaming sleep and deep meditation. In her book The Blissful Brain she writes,
“At no point in our lives are we more creative and imaginative than in our early childhood. Children can create entire worlds in their minds, escaping into this fantasy landscape when awake and asleep. This is the consequence of strong theta wave activity.”

Another neuro-scientist, Dr. Adrian Raine, speaking at this year’s gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presents evidence from MRI scans suggesting it is possible to predict future criminal activity in children as young as three. Such emergent human beings are already showing signs of indifference to adult correction.

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”, goes the Biblical adage. Thank God for these two women in Cafe Nero.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Familiarity breeds ..... ?

It’s easy, driving in familiar city streets, to estimate when one is doing 30mph. Something about the flow of familiar sights past the windscreen enables us to know without checking the speedometer. Routine is helpful and comforting even for the most adventurous of us. Every sadistic interrogator knows that: first get the prisoner disorientated. That’s why, also, it is usually fatal to move an elderly person out of familiar surroundings unless it’s medically imperative.

After three difficult disruptive days I end up feeling a complete failure, teetering on the brink of that helpless, zombie-like old age that I see in care homes. I open Helen Luke’s ‘Old Age’ and find (‘chance upon’!) a passage from Jung’s ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’:
“The older I have become, the less I have understood or had insight into or known about myself....When Lao-tzu says:”All are clear, I alone am clouded”, he is expressing what I now feel in advanced old age.”
And Helen Luke comments (page 77):
“This is the archetype of the old man who at the end faces the growing realisation that he knows nothing. Then comes the moment when he either succumbs to the despair which threatened Prospero – or passes beyond all meaning and meaninglessness to that “something else” which is, in Jung’s words, the eternal in man and kinship with all things......
Prayer, Forgiveness, Exchange, Mercy and Freedom – these five are brought together here, and if we penetrate to their meaning for every human being we find light in the darkness of increasing age.”
It’s no use trying to outstrip my spiritual and physical capacity thinking, ‘at my age I ought to be able to cope with this’ (whatever ‘this’ might be). The most helpful thing I can do, for myself and others, is find the place within myself where there is “light in the darkness of increasing age”. For me that means keeping, as far as possible, to a daily routine of prayer and study and simple ‘being there in the Presence’ amongst my familiar surroundings.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Being human

The approach of my 80th birthday and the recent news of the inhuman treatment of some elderly patients in hospital create worries about my future. I remind myself of what I said in my last blog (13th Feb) and simply witness these worries going on in my head and let them be. They subside. Angela Tilby’s Thought For The Day this week says all I would want to say on this subject, coupled with an article in yesterday’s Times newspaper by Raymond Tallis a retired doctor. We are talking simply about how one human being treats another: a problem not confined to the way medical staff treat old men and women.

What’s the difference between an elderly human being and a younger one? Almost nothing. For example we ‘wrinklys’ have this in common with Olympic champions: we are living at the limits of our physical abilities. There is of course the wisdom which the elderly are supposed to possess but T. S. Eliot was on to something with his words from East Coker:
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
And the next two lines are:
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Medieval scholastics dissected wisdom into three parts, memoria, docilitas and solertia. Against the pull of nostalgia and remorse memoria enables a positive and creative use of the past leading to integrity. We all (young and old) have painful, embarrassing, guilt ridden episodes which have a habit of suddenly popping up to distract us. The older one is the more of the past there is in which these memories lurk and the present can afford less distraction, for example in the form of paid work, to keep them buried. Dealing with them is part of the work of memoria at any age.

Docilitas is the capacity to be alert and attentive to the present: impossible unless the work of memoria has been undertaken. A week after retiring to my home town I thought I recognised a childhood friend. Fortunately before I said anything I realised that what I was ‘seeing’ was a recollection of the friend as he or she had been forty years ago. I was looking at a youth when I should have been looking out for someone with wrinkles. Searching for favourite childhood spots along the riverbank, I realised that trees grow a lot in fifty years! The view had been completely transformed. The riverside is still dear to me (therapeutic even) because of its childhood associations but the trick is to have developed sufficient objectivity about my memories to enable a certain docilitas: a kind of recollected or meditative stance offering a surer footing in the present moment including the riches of one’s past. Paradoxically, in spite of the shortening future, the older person has fewer time pressures. Standing in the supermarket queue I can forget about imagined deadlines or the insult to my self esteem which being kept waiting might suggest and simply observe and meditate on what I see around me.

Then there is solertia: a simplicity, openness and flexibility which is good for human flourishing at any age. Getting rid of things, which ‘might be useful’ is part of it and so is resisting the blandishments of consumerism. Solertia is akin to poverty, which, together with chastity and obedience was an essential part of the monastic life. One cannot be open and flexible in the present if one is encumbered about with too many cares of this world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined chastity as ‘the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal’. We might redefine obedience as being true to the goal of becoming truly human. Then we would be able to make hospitals (and the ‘big society’) places where everyone is given the dignity due to them.

Archbishop Trevor Huddleston told the story of how he said to a friend, “You know I’m getting to the age when I think twice about buying a new suit.” “Really?” replied his friend, “I think twice about buying green bananas!” So that’s what distinguishes the elderly from the young!!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The truth, the whole truth and ....

..... nothing but the truth? The catch is in the last phrase of that oath in court: ‘nothing but the truth’. The witness may not give an opinion. ‘I saw the accused strike the victim’ – statement of fact. ‘I think he intended to kill him’ – opinion! opinion! Not allowed in court. I notice how BBC correspondents often say, ‘I haven’t been able to verify this’, when reporting something they haven’t actually seen with their own eyes. By contrast I notice how often newspaper headlines confuse fact and opinion. They want to sell their newspaper. They know we’ll go for opinion rather than simple unadorned fact.

Mentally, we spend most of our waking lives in the opinion field. Coming quickly to moment by moment decisions based on opinions is what we’re good at. Our minds are stocked with a huge database of past experience. Faster than most computers we can access our mental hard drives and compare what we find there with the situation we are currently facing. We do it more or less instantly a million times a day.

The trouble is that, like most computer hard drives, our minds are cluttered with bits and pieces of old data, some of it corrupted by years of storage and over-writing. And the human brain stores not only facts, nor even only opinions. We store the feelings, the emotions that we experienced when we were first forming the opinions. “Young people nowadays .....” (opinion coming up!). “Men/women are .... “(opinion coming!) “I always ....” (opinion coming!). “You never ....” (Wait for it! Opinon coming!). And it’s not just what we say, it’s part of so-called ‘normal’ mental functioning. A million times a day we whip up a commentary on what’s going on, not only out there in the world but here in the hidden labyrinth of the mind. Without even realising it we will have walked a hundred yards mentally going over a conversation we’ve just had which didn’t go the way we wanted it to. We can experience a sudden pain in the chest and in ten seconds we’ve got ourselves mentally into hospital with a major heart attack to be followed by a restricted life and an early death. The fact that we are continuing to walk in a healthy manner entirely eludes us!

Maybe that’s why Jesus said we should become like little children if we want to enter the Kingdom. (And, yes, that’s my opinion because no one knows for sure exactly what was in Jesus’ mind when he said it). Children certainly don’t have so much experience to go on and that is both an advantage and a disadvantage for them. The advantage is that they can approach each new situation with a fresh mind.

Suppose what Jesus meant by the Kingdom is a state in which it is possible to be much more a witness rather than a commentator? Suppose there’s a place, deep within us from which it is possible to witness all this mental chatter without any commentary? Actually from this still centre within us we can witness the commentary itself and just let it be. The miracle is that it doesn’t seem to harm our capacity for living effectively in this complex world. On the contrary, finding our witnessing centre actually enhances us: makes us more fully alive, our judgements and actions surer and much more compassionate. The database is still there. We have learnt how to access it more helpfully. We learn to do it through meditation.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The economy of the Kingdom

The Primates of the Anglican Communion recently met in Dublin under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To be more accurate, some of them met there. Fifteen stayed away. Twenty two attended. What divides this Communion (sic) is the question of the place of women and gay people in the church. The Archbishop has employed all his skill, holiness and learning to try and hold together a worldwide fellowship of Anglican churches. He has, according to his own words, placed unity above truth. It is now clear to most people that the unity he has laboured so faithfully to uphold will not survive.

The time has come to recognise that the economy of the Kingdom trumps the unity of the church as an institution. The word economy comes from a Greek word, oikumene which in the New Testament can mean the whole world or human race. Its root is the Greek for house: oikos. English borrows the Greek word as ‘ecumenical’. The ecumenical movement which came to prominence in church circles back in the 1920s has been largely concerned with the reunion of separated churches.

It is clear that Christians must now abandon this narrowly ecclesiastical view of what it means to be ecumenical in favour of an urgent search for a deep sense of what it might mean to recognise the unity of the one human race within which we might have a creative role to play using our understanding of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. We have never before been so aware that we live in one ‘oikos’ and that it’s getting crowded (not to mention polluted). This demand makes Anglican Christian squabbles over the place of women and gay people fade into trivial inconsequence. The Archbishop has become trapped in a churchy view of unity. He could put his wonderful personal qualities at the service of a wider, deeper and older understanding of the 'oikumene' where unity and truth have an equal footing. What a wonderful contribution he could make!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Knowing me, knowing you.

To judge from media articles, interest in meditation appears to be exploding. This week the Guardian has a series of podcasts about it. Earlier this month New Scientist published an article on research into its measurable benefits. If all this translates into individuals’ established regular practice of meditation we should have a totally transformed planet in a few years time. The snag is that, in my experience, the interest is largely confined to white, middle class people. That’s not a bad place to start, of course, but let’s not get too excited just yet.

Meanwhile the meditation group that I run at St. John's Waterloo in London has just started a new series of meetings. Again, to judge from media interest, you might suppose that only Buddhists know how to practice meditation. Somehow the 2,000 year Christian tradition of it has got lost. Strip away the mythology in which both the Buddhist and the Christian approach is encoded and you have basically the same techniques and practices. Perhaps Christian mythology is too close to many of us western Europeans and we can’t see the wood for the trees.

At this week’s meeting I used a phrase from a Psalm as a sort of mantra (known as a prayer word in the Christian tradition): “Be still and know that I am God.” In Hebrew scriptures the word ‘know’ has some unexpected uses. For example, when Adam ‘knows’ Eve it means he had sexual intercourse with her. The Psalm is not advocating sex with God (Bernini's statue of Teresa's ecstacy notwithstanding): just that there are different ways of knowing.

The Jewish philosopher/poet, Martin Buber, was exploring the rich implications of the Biblical word ‘know’ when he wrote (In I And Thou) that there are two ways of expressing it. One he called I-It. Without this sense of knowing we cannot live. We must, observe, analyse, distinguish one thing from another, categorise, list, calculate and so on. The second way of knowing Buber called I-Thou. It is possible to have sex in the I-It sense but it is tawdry and manipulative and any sensible man or woman will not have much to do with that kind of relationship. In an I-Thou relationship each gives themselves to the other in unconditional vulnerability, without calculation. We can enter into that kind of relationship in any situation, not just sexual ones and not just with other human beings but with any aspect of our life on this planet. Buber sums it all up (in the non-inclusive language of the 1920s): “Without I-It a man cannot live; without I-Thou he is not a man.”

Then yesterday a friend showed me her i-Phone. With suitable ‘apps’ she can find almost any piece of information she likes – instantly. Her capacity for I-It is vastly increased. The internet is a wondrous thing. Here you are using it to read this and perhaps to click on the links provided in this blog. Our capacity for I-It increases exponentially every year. We know a hell of a lot.

Thank goodness more and more people are also discovering that other way of knowing through meditation.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


The new term begins at Morley College and I resume rehearsing Stainer’s The Crucifixion with our choir. I am profoundly disturbed by it.
“O come unto me, this awful price, Redemption’s tremendous sacrifice, is paid for you...”
“Yet in the midst of the torture and shame, Jesus the crucified, breathes my name.”
Both of these quotations are from hymns which Stainer stipulates should be sung by the choir and (significantly) the ‘congregation’.

Most classical composers of Christian religious music have managed to produce something which manages to transcend the specifics of Christianity. Byrd, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven have all written ‘Masses’ which a Japanese, and even a Muslim, choir could sing without too much offense. But Stainer’s is a piece of nineteenth century evangelicalism that proclaims a substitutionary version of the atonement, glorying in a Scorcese-like focus on the physical details of the process aimed at producing guilt and repentance in the listener. I will continue with the rehearsals because of the friendships I have developed with choir members but I cannot participate in a public performance.