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)