Monday, 2 March 2015

I Know Your Face


There is a scene in The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King in which Peter Jackson improves on Tolkien. At the battle of Pelennor Fields, King Theoden leads the Riders of Rohan to assist in the defence of Gondor. His niece, Eowyn whom he loves more dearly than a daughter is forbidden, because of her gender, to fight. She disguises herself as a man and rides to battle where, by a mighty deed of arms she guarantees victory for the men of the West. Her uncle, King Theoden, redeems himself from the cowardice and corruption by which he has been enslaved  but in the process he is mortally wounded. As he lies dying, Eowyn finds him. He opens his eyes and sees her and looks at her with joy. "I know your face....Eowyn...." he whispers.

I know your face. In that tiny phrase is contained all the love between them; all the long years of connection they have. It is a scene which despite my having seen it a dozen times still moves me deeply. I know your face. To know and be known. This is perhaps the real goal of all wholesome human interaction.

I have sometimes thought knowing was a synonym for love, but this is not so. It is possible to know someone you don't love, or even someone to whom you are antipathetic. But knowing is a synonym for connection. The more you know someone, the more you are connected to them for good or ill. So the whole process of bonding in romantic love or in friendship is about acquiring knowledge of the other. The knowledge, of course, can be conscious and cerebral: lists of facts and impressions and memories of the other. It can also be intuitive and instinctive and unconscious: that deep understanding of who the other is, and why they are as they are, that sometimes defies explanation. When people are enemies, or when one person oppresses the other there is also acquisition of knowledge and this knowledge too, bonds the antagonists together. This is one reason why prisoners sometimes are so attached to their captors or a beaten spouse to her tormentor. It is the reason for forgiveness: to relinquish knowledge of the one who has hurt you so that you can cease being connected to them. To dwell on the hated one, obsess over them, think of them day and night means in a perverse sense to know them and therefore to bind yourself to them ever and ever more tightly.

I am deeply connected to my little grandson, but  he is less connected to me. Why? because I am more capable of knowing him than he of knowing me. At 21 months, once separated from me he forgets about me, for all intents and purposes, in a matter of days. I on the other hand who witnessed (at long distance admittedly) his gestation and see in him shades of myself at his age, and who can compare him to his mother and look in him for the echoes of his father, and for whom every word of his and every action is a delight know him well and grieve his absence.

Of course sometimes we think we know someone but don't. Sometimes we have a projection which we have laid on the other: a mask of our own design which fits the other only approximately if at all. We can know our projection and thus be very connected to it, while simultaneously not knowing and not being connected to the one on whom we have laid it. This dynamic is at the heart of many, many relationship problems. 

When someone truly knows us we are validated, affirmed, accepted. If no one truly knows us we quickly lose our place in the world and can eventually descend into madness. We know we are known and we know we are connected. So the recipe for growing in connection is to maximise knowing: listen to, watch, spend time with, think about, talk to the other, dismantle the walls that keep you safe and alone. Share time and experiences each with the other. To disconnect means to lessen our knowing:  ignore, lie to, guard yourself from, forget, unlearn the other. Don't talk to them and don't talk about them. This holds true for spouses, lovers and friends, parents and children.

I know your face. It is one of the most powerful, healing  things in the world we can hear. Or speak.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

It's All a Matter of Timing

The second question new meditators ask (after what do I do?) is how long do I do it for? And there is no set answer to that. Five minutes would be pretty good if you are not currently doing any time at all, but really, to have an effect it's got to be a reasonable length of time. Twenty or thirty minutes is a good start: long enough to require some discipline but not impossibly long. It takes most people a few minutes to get settled, and to get into the inner routine required. Then you will need some time to go about your particular discipline, and then to rejoin the world again. Thomas Keating says, and I think he is right, that the body seems to have a sort of rhythm that goes in 20 minute cycles, so blocks of 20 minutes - 20, 40, 60 - works well. It's a good idea to decide on the length of time you are going to commit before you sit down. Deciding to finish "when it feels right" is an invitation to distraction and impatience. Which then raises the question, how will I know when my time is up?

For those who meditate with their eyes open that's easy. Put a clock of some other timing device (An appropriately sized hourglass, a marked candle, the shadow of the sun on the wall...) where you can see it. For those who meditate with eyes closed, you will need something with an alarm. And that's where your smartphone reveals yet one more function that it's pretty good at. Most phones have a timer function which works just fine, but there are scores of meditation timing apps out there and over the years I've had a look at most of them.

The one I settled on as the best is Insight Timer, available for Android and IOS. It is a basic adjustable countdown timer which allows the user to set a time for meditation or to store any number of presets. It rings a nicely authentic bell at the beginning and end of your session and allows you to set interval bells at appropriate points of your choosing. It can be set to turn off your wifi and phone while meditating so you won't be disturbed. Where it differs from the others on the market is that it is linked to a website which acts as a kind of online meditation community. You can see how many people in the world are meditating using the timer right now, and see their locations (or at least, the cities they live in) on a little map. You can make friends with others and send them encouraging messages. You can form groups and have little chats. All very cosy, if you have the time. It also assiduously collects your statistics and awards prizes (variously coloured stars) for your achievements. You can look back and check your progress, as far as time spent in any given day, week, month of year goes anyway. The statistics are a great incentive, but actually they are also a great trap. The idea of meditation is to let go of the things that bolster our false sense of self, and the collection of data, while it might be a helpful spur very early on in the development of  a meditation practice, soon become an invitation to pride or guilt, neither of which is going to help very much.

I deliberately ignored and subverted my statistics - by using a different timer on some days, but lately I have given up Insight timer entirely in favour of Contemplative Outreach's little Centering Prayer app. This gives me a timer with customisable bells, a prayer to begin and finish, access to a range of reading material, and a newsfeed on events being run by Contemplative Outreach. And as a special bonus, it doesn't keep statistics.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Why I won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey

In even embarking on this post I am heading into a Catch 22. I have not read the Novel by E.L James and neither have I any intention of seeing the film which is based on it. So I am caught between two accusations: on the one hand, "how can you comment on something you have never read?" and on the other, "Oh I see you have read it - so good enough for you but not for others, eh, you hypocrite." In my defence I think I'd have to have been living under a rock for the last couple of years not to have heard of the book, and to have a pretty fair idea of what it's about. And I have read a couple of the many reviews whose estimation of its literary value runs the whole gamut from mediocre to abysmal.

The main reason I won't be going to this film, if I'm being honest, is that I expect it would be mind numbingly, backside achingly, eye glazingly tedious. But there's more to it than that. To put it bluntly this is a dirty book, in the way that term was used in the old days before the Internet turned sexual practises I had never heard of until I was 30 into spectator sports for teenagers. This is a work which sells by titillation, and therefore stands in the same line of evolution as Frank Harris' My Life and Loves, a dog eared copy of which was passed surreptitiously and enthusiastically  amongst my schoolmates and me when we were in the fourth form. Frank Harris broadened my sexual horizons well beyond those set by the grainy black and white educational films shown in a sort of embarrassed hush by our PE teacher, and even beyond the Playboy magazines which were my other main source of  erotic information. So, I suppose I owe My Life and Loves a kind of debt, except that for every ounce of knowledge imparted came a ton of ignorance in that the book had a sub text which was absorbed along with its various lurid tales of erotic derring-do. I was taught that women were objects; they were prey to be hunted down and captured and used; they were a resource that I was free to plunder for the joys that they could give to me, me, me. If I gave pleasure in return, so Frank Harris taught,  it was only in an attempt to render women more cooperative. I was tricked, in other words, sold a shoddy little bill of goods that I later learned fell far short of the beauty and joy of the  relationship of body mind and spirit that was possible between loving, absolutely equal and mutually respectful partners. The presence in my life of real women of spirit and intelligence soon showed Frank Harris' Victorian romps for the nonsense they were but I'm not sure the sub text of 50 Shades of Grey will be so easily dealt with. E. L. James' grubby little book is about sado masochism, bondage and discipline in a relationship between an immensely rich and powerful man and one of his employees. It is a relationship in other words in which there is a vast imbalance of power and in which the controlling power of the man is used for his, and eventually, her sexual gratification.

It's easy enough to find books about sex if that's what you are looking for. It's easy enough to find books about BDSM if that's what takes your fancy. But none of them have become the media sensation that 50 Shades of Grey has, because for all it's literary failures this is a slick book and it dresses its unsavoury message up in the gloss which passes for success for so many of us. The characters live aspirational lifestyles, and the sexual behaviours, which are popularly imagined between fat, sweating, pathetic, middle aged men and cartoonish caricatures of women in leather boots and chains, suddenly take on a whole new aura of sophistication and desirability. Like all pornography 50 Shades of Grey reduces human beings to objects, so a complex and intelligent woman becomes a couple of breasts and a number of orifices, all conveniently provided for the pleasure of men, but of course it's not alone there.  The added dimension of this grubby little tome is its emphasis on pain and humiliation as avenues for sexual gratification. I see on tonight's news that the sale of handcuffs and restraints and whips and so forth is a bit of a boom industry at the moment as people read the book and see the film and think they might like to give all this stuff a whirl. I guess for most of the purchasers this is all a bit of harmless, private fun, but I can't help but feel a little alarmed. A relationship in which one partner seeks to have power over the other; in which the powerless partner is regarded as an object for obtaining sexual gratification; in which causing pain and humiliation are avenues for pleasure. This is an invitation to catastrophe for many people and by people I mean women.

Glorifying and popularising sexual violence is something that I don't think can be tolerated in a healthy society. And that's why I for one won't be going to see 50 Shades of Grey. Today I figured out how much a night at the movies would cost for Clemency and me and I gave that amount to Women's Refuge. Their website makes donations pretty easy. I know you probably weren't going anyway, but how about joining me in this? Maybe our disgust at this tawdry little excrescence might turn to some good after all.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Photos

I've taken to carting my camera around with me again. This morning the harbour was still and the light was a diffused silver. So, what with it being my day off and everything, I drove to Aramoana.

 Otago Harbour.  
Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom (18mm) 1/250 f8. Post processed

Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 50mm 1/400 f10

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 70mm 1/800 f5.6

Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 95mm 1/800 f5.3

 Can't go anywhere without running into a Red Billed Gull 
Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 70mm 1/640 f6

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 90mm 1/640 f6.3 C/Pl filter


And Earlier in the month I drove to Gabriel's Gully after visit to Lawrence. In the hills above it I encountered Blue Spur. Once a town with a population of 500, shops, a school and two churches, nothing much now remains.

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 34mm 1/400 f6.3

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 69mm 1/55 f5.6

 Nikon D7100; Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200 zoom 82mm 1/400 f4.8






Saturday, 31 January 2015

Font

Recently I deconsecrated the church of the Holy Trinity in Lawrence. This small brick church is very pretty and contains some remarkable objects. A small pipe organ for example, and a beautiful brass altar cross given by the second bishop of Dunedin, Isaac Richards, in memory of his two sons killed in the first world war. But most interesting is the font.

This is a plain piece of worked limestone about a metre high. Around the base is an inscription in Latin, the translation of which is "Jesus is the name which is above all names". It has a wooden lid and the bowl is lined with a light metal, perhaps zinc. It is quite unremarkable except for one thing: its age. This font is about a thousand years old. It is Norman, and would have been made in England or France at about the time of the  conquest in 1066, when the new regime in England had a flurry of church building as part of their colonising strategy. The bowl and base are made from Caen stone, a French limestone in common use in England at the time, but the central column is of something else: my guess, local Otago limestone. It is all in very good condition indeed,  considering how old it is.

This wonderful object sat in the doorway of  a parish church and was used, for about 600 years to baptise goodness knows how many hundreds or thousands of infants: the children of serfs, freemen, squires and knights and merchants and priests and nobles and townspeople. Then at the reformation it was thrown into a field in one of those acts of vandalistic piety for which the reformers were infamous. At the restoration a new font was installed in the church and the old one was brought inside where it languished in the crypt for another 200 years or so until it was bought by Bishop Samuel Tarrant Neville who intended it for Dunedin Cathedral. It was shipped across the globe but when the new cathedral was built in the early 1920s the little Norman font was not deemed to be big enough or fancy enough, so a newer bigger brighter better one was donated by the old girls of St. Hilda's school, and the English one found a home in Holy Trinity Lawrence. Now with the closure of the Lawrence church the font is again homeless.

It is only a piece of limestone, but it is also a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings. It has survived through much of the history of the Anglican Communion, and now it waits to find out how it will carry that history forward. I'm not sure quite what to do with it, though a couple of suggestions have been made to me. But it seems to me that this is a symbol of our diocese; of the faith we have inherited and which is needing a new home and a new expression. We will talk together about what we are to do with the Norman font and our discussion and our final decision will have, I am sure,  a powerful catalytic and symbolic depth.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Co-operative loopholes.

I was intrigued to read Bosco Peter's Liturgy website this morning and see this post. Basically Bosco is saying that Anglican Priests serving in Co-operating Parishes (those in which several denominations join together as one congregation) give precedent for people who wish to circumvent the constitution of the Anglican church by, for example, performing a blessing service for a same sex couple.

As bishop my heart sinks a little when Bosco opens this can of worms - or more exactly draws attention to a can of worms that has been open since the early 1970s - but as a priest and a Christian and a human being I loudly applaud him.

My first two parishes (Waihao and St. Francis', Hillcrest) were both Cooperating Parishes combining Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist elements in one church. At a congregational, everyday level these worked pretty well. At an administrative level they were a nightmare, and my failure to live with the difficulties imposed on us by our parent denominations was the main reason I left ecumenical ministry after about 9 years of largely successful and happy life within them. Let me give you two small examples of the nonsense we had to try and negotiate.

1. The Anglican Diocese required me to send in quite exacting statistic returns. I was told not to include Presbyterian or Methodist figures in these, but only the "Anglican Element". Ok. Right. So, is a Eucharist conducted by an Anglican Priest in a Methodist Church,  using a Presbyterian order of service, and attended by a largely Presbyterian congregation Anglican? What about an Anglican liturgy conducted by a Presbyterian? How do I count the children of Anglicans baptised by a Methodist, and now growing up with no sense of denominational loyalty whatsoever? Letters to Church House asking for clarity were generally ignored.

2. At a confirmation in Hamilton, the bishop turned up to do the task, as is required by the Anglican system. Except half the 20 or so confirmees were Presbyterian and the appropriate confirmer in the Presbyterian system was the moderator of the session; in our case this was the lay chair of the parish council, whose performance of that task would have run seriously counter to Anglican doctrine. Further, this lay person was required by his own tradition, in the circumstances, to preside at the Eucharist, which was absolutely forbidden by Anglicans. In fact,  because he didn't hold a bishop's license as lay Eucharistic minister, with the bishop present he couldn't even distribute the elements of holy communion. Trying to work our way through this nonsense was not helpful as I simultaneously counselled the young confirmees, some of whom, an hour before the service,  did not know which denomination they wanted to belong to, didn't particularly care, and were upset at having to make a choice.

By and large the confusion between denominations was a license for me to do as I pleased. What was forbidden under one set of church polity was often permitted under another, so I became adept at changing hats to suit pastoral circumstances. (A wedding in the park? Sorry, but as Anglican Vicar I cannot do that. However my colleague the Methodist minister would be only too happy to oblige. And who is he? Why, me, of course. ) This license caused me to question the whole rationale for having rules and systems in the first place. Further, I found it corroded my relationship with my own denomination and imbued in me a deep disrespect, which persisted for years, for the procedures of my own church. I am more respectful now, but I do note that we persist in heartfelt allegiance to our constitution and the simultaneous, systematised breaching of it on a weekly basis.

For year after year I would sit in synod listening to earnest debates on the legality of forms of worship knowing that whatever was decided I (and, in fact, about a third of the clergy of the Diocese of Waikato at that time)  was going to ignore it next Sunday, not out of any sense of rebelliousness but because the role to which my bishop had licensed me required me to do so.The earnest discussions on the necessity of episcopal ordination seemed  bizarre to me when my Presbyterian and Methodist colleagues publicly received their episcopal licenses to pastor, to preach and to preside at the Eucharist. Sunday by Sunday we in the parish worshipped together and generally ignored the ambiguities our denominations dumped on us. The parish functioned very well indeed, grew and prospered and the passionate discussions on liturgical and constitutional matters which I encountered at synod seemed to me to me more bizarre and empty with each year that passed.

For decades we Anglicans have participated in cooperating parishes. For decades the mere existence of these units has removed any credibility we might pretend to with regards to arguments over the inviolability of our constitution. Yes Bosco, you are right. There is a loophole. It's big enough to drive a truck through - several trucks abreast, in fact - and it's been there for at least 40 years.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Consciousness

I don't like giving photos twee titles. In fact I hate that practice with a passion. But, against all my instincts I call this Birds with Truck, because although the truck is obvious the birds aren't and I want people to see them. This is a crop from a bigger picture. When I took it with a long lens I was  interested in the sky and I didn't notice the birds. Turns out they are the best bit. And none of this has anything in the slightest to do with what follows

Sunday. I was up at dawn and got my duty to God and his church finished early. Other people in our house, having just come back from Christchurch late last night rose later They were wandering round in dressing gowns and making coffee so I took Noah outside. I let him go where he wanted and do whatever he wished while I played guardian angel. He kicked a ball, pushed his car around for a bit and then made a beeline for the gate while I hovered. "Door, door," he said, rattling the gate. His intentions were clear. I let him out into the reserve beside our house and floated along behind him as he tottered off. We were joined by Frank, the world's most intelligent cat, and the three of us, led by Noah, took a slow downhill walk along a cracked concrete path, through the piled up leaves, across the tiny stream and under the dark trees until about 15 minutes later we reached the playground.

Noah and I talked about all we encountered. His vocabulary consists almost entirely of nouns and a few adjectives but this limited auditory palette still allows for quite a bit of conceptual interchange. Frank is largely constrained to body language, but he too is eloquent. He was quite chipper about being part of the adventure until we got to the school boundary, and therefore the edge of the known world, when he strongly advised  against continuing this foolhardy quest. His worst fears were realised when we got to the playground and there was a dog and there was an endless expanse of mown grass stretching to the horizon in every direction with nowhere a sentient being could secrete himself. Don't say he didn't try to warn us. Noah had had this end in mind all along of course. He wanted to sit on a swing, and have me push him, standing in front of him and pushing him by his gumboot clad feet so that as he swung we could discuss the environment; Birdies, flowers, dog, Frank! Frank? Wet..... And to protest our eventual departure in the strongest possible terms.

Three of us. All conscious. All, to some degree or other,  in communion each with the others. All of us communicating, more or less. Frank is currently more aware of the world, more rational, more intelligent than Noah, but there will very shortly come a time when Noah will surpass him, and then, later, I hope a time when he will surpass me also, in knowledge and wisdom and self awareness and achievement. Each of the three of our intrepid band of explorers has our view of the world shaped by the perceptual software hardwired into our brains and by the instincts and drives implanted in us by the countless generations of our ancestors' struggles. Each of us has a certain level of intelligence decided by and measured by the physical configuration of our brains and their stages of growth. But each of  our individual consciousnesses; those windows in each of us through which the universe perceives itself is equivalent and of the same sort. I have a room full of books in my house. I've read at least bits of all of them. But increasingly it is this common possession of consciousness, and not possession of all those countless words, which tells me why I am here, and what and who I am.

We walked back up the hill. Noah's rage at the injustice of being denied his swinging rights was soon ameliorated through distraction. I can see two cars. Look. A red one and a green one. And there is the water. Can you see flowers? Frank advised against the dangerous practice of walking along Highcliff Road as there was, again, no adequate cover and he was proven right when yet another dog and a couple of completely unknown humans appeared, but he accepted my reassurances and followed, albeit reluctantly. Sometimes, says Martin Buber, the I-It relationship we have with the objects we encounter in the universe is supplanted by something deeper; we recognise that the thing we encounter is also a point of consciousness and is looking back at us in an I -Thou relationship. Such awareness comes sometimes in the course of a pilgrimage to the swings; to the end of the world and beyond; to the tiny piece of reserve about a half kilometre from my back door. Especially when such a pilgrimage is made in the company of known and trusted friends.