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!