Sunday, 27 September 2009

Seraphine


You have to hand it to the French: they know how to make movies. I watched this one in a tiny theatre underneath the town hall. There are only 8 seats, there is a line down the middle of the screen where it joins, and the soundtrack from the next, bigger theatre boomed through the wall , but none of that mattered. Neither did the fact that the dialogue was in French, for this is one film that could have got by without any dialogue at all. Two things carried the power of this masterpiece: the stunning cinematography of Laurent Brunet and an achingly beautiful performance by Belgian actress Yolande Moreau.

The story is a fictionalised account of the life of Naive artist Seraphine Louis (1864-1942). In the title role, Yolande Moreau is present in almost every shot of the film. Seraphine is first seen gathering seeds and roots and mud and blood as ingredients for the paints she has invented. Her movements are slow and ponderous, her footsteps heavy, but she glides through the countryside in absolute communion with rocks and trees and flowers; she is as much part of the landscape as the components of it she gathers. Her rough natural theology is channeled through an ecstatic, experiential christianity which gives rise to the voices of saints and angels who command her to paint. She works as a domestic servant, unregarded by those for whom she cleans until one of them, a German aesthete and art collector discovers her paintings. Under his encouragement she develops and grows until she attains a measure of popular and financial success, and it is this success that destroys her. Separated from the almost pagan communion with nature that feeds her soul, she gradually loses touch with reality and descends into psychosis.

The editing and cutting are masterfully done. Small shots are crafted together without dialogue or comment to suggest bigger wholes. The director, Martin Provost has not been afraid to use very lengthy shots from a single static camera to give a studied, unhurried pace to the film. The pallette is wonderful, echoing as it does the colours concocted by Seraphine for her paintings. There are some lovely, understated portrayals : of a French village which can accept an eccentric in their midst and love and support her; of a cultured and refined man whose nationality and sexuality make him as much of an outsider as Seraphine; of a convent of nuns who know the real power of spirituality. All is portrayed at a leisurely, almost contemplative pace and with costumes and sets which make every shot an artwork. The end of the film is sad but not devastating; the film remains a testament to an innocent who has discovered the something that the art and religion of the broader society is aching to find through all its mannered aesthetics and rituals. It's a film which speaks deeply about being human. It has sat with me all day, and I suspect it will for a while: at least until I can see it again.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Dancing With Your Shadow

Christian books on meditation do not lie thick on the ground. There's Anthony De Mello, of course and John Main and Laurence Freeman. There's a wealth of classic material if you can find it and if you can come to terms with the archaic language. Morton Kelsey has a couple of titles which include some reference to meditation, but after that my own knowledge of the literature is starting to wear a bit thin. Which is why I was very pleased to be lent this book a week or two ago. As far as practical advice on beginning and continuing meditation goes it's the best I've come across. There are some useful chapters on the theory of meditation and some advice on what is likely to happen as you settle down to a committed practice.

Kim Nataraja has had a varied spiritual journey which began in Christianity and took the scenic route through various world faiths before arriving back where she started. She is now a leading member of the World Community For Christian Meditation. She is a spiritual director and teacher of meditation of many years standing. Her book has all the marks of rising out of year after year of coaxing people into growth in the art of arts. It is very readable and practical in its advice but doesn't skimp on the deeper stuff either. Mrs Nataraja's advice comes from a well worked philosophy of the whole person in which integration seems to be a recurring motif. Something which particularly pleases me is her use of story: points are illustrated by stories from all manner of traditions, always apt and always enjoyable for their own sake.

A quick glance at the table of contents tells you the scope of the book:
  • Foreword by Laurence Freeman OSB
  • Introduction
  • Prologue
  • CHAPTER ONE: Meditation – the art of arts
  • CHAPTER TWO: Stilling the body and the mind
  • CHAPTER THREE: Conditioned thoughts
  • CHAPTER FOUR: The interplay of the ego and the deeper self
  • CHAPTER FIVE: The worldview – old and new
  • CHAPTER SIX: Purifying the emotions by watching the thoughts
  • CHAPTER SEVEN: The spectrum of consciousness
  • CHAPTER EIGHT: Ultimate Reality
  • Epilogue: The Roots of Christian Meditation
  • Appendix I(Scriptural references to meditation)
  • Appendix II( Practical advice on how to meditate )
  • Bibliography
  • About The World Community of Christian Meditation
It is available on line at a reasonable price from the World Community of Christian Meditation For members of my parish therre is one in the parish library.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Poem


Below is a poem by American poet Mary Oliver, which is, of course, copyright to her. This morning, after our Wednesday Eucharist, I had coffee with Wes who talked to me about the Vacuum: the thing that most of the universe is made of. Wes is a physicist, and I can usually just keep up if he talks slowly enough and repeats himself a lot. He described the nothingness which is not, and never can be nothing. Later, in the afternoon, I had more coffee with Kathy and Murray, in order to continue a conversation we began on Sunday night. We looked at Murray's laboratory, where he makes very small holes for a living. A lovely woman sat at a desk making titanium needles so small they can't be seen, even with a microscope. Then I had a soy latte to Kathy's evident disgust but despite my phillistinism, she gave me some information on labyrinths and the poem. I liked it a lot. The poem, I mean, not the latte though that wasn't bad either and I haven't read the stuff on labyrinths yet. Labyrinths, nanotechnology, and a nothingness from which all things come. Talk about your Daliesque days!

In trying to figure out the big stuff, more and more I am finding the poets and the artists and mystics more helpful than anybody else, although admittedly the physicists and technologists are sounding increasingly like poets and mystics themselves, these days. Anyway, Mary Oliver seemed to catch the essence of the day. So here's the poem:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
or a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Consciousness and Jung


No one should take up meditation unless they are prepared to deal with the consequences and nobody warns you before you start what is likely to happen. At least, no-one warned me. You sit in the quiet and get the chattering machine to be still for a while. Sometimes you succeed, admittedly not as often as you'd like to be able to boast about in a blog post, but sometimes. And sometimes is often enough, especially when you are diligent about getting in some practice every day over a lengthy period of time. Every time the stillness comes, unknown to you, a small drill starts and a tiny well is sunk down into the dark bits of your mind: the bits that lie forty fathoms deep beneath the moving, shallow surface. And when there is enough of the tiny wells, the flow from them becomes steady and continues even in the parts of your day when you are not meditating. Especially in the parts of the day when you are not meditating. Life changes happen. Old issues are raised. Light is cast into previously dark and dank corners. Connections are made and (far more importantly) other connections are severed. There is the sound of creaking and groaning as the rusted wheels start to turn and you are aware of movement. Something big and good stirs and your whole self shifts.

Much of what is going on for me is not stuff I would share except with a very few people, and much of it I would not be capable of sharing anyway, because it is so hard to put it into words. Putting it into words is important, because it's only when you can name it and describe it, at least to yourself, that your new learnings become conscious; that is, become part of who you are and how you live your life on a daily basis. Having a good friend or two who can listen and encourage you to articulate what is going on is important, but failing that, good books can help. I've been reading a good book lately, one given to me by my old friend Alden. It is a collection of Jung's writings on the world and on nature, and part way through a description of a trip to Africa. Jung describes a moment he had sitting on top of a mountain and watching huge herds of animals graze on the plains beneath him. He talks about the magnificent spectacle which has gone on for millennia and about the fact that for most of the time there has been no one to observe it: that is, no one to be conscious of it; that is, the happening has been unconscious. And being unconscious is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the events not occuring at all. He talks about the role of consciousness in creation: that in being conscious of the world we acknowledge what is there; we give it an objective reality which it otherwise would not have had. He speaks of consciousness as part of the process of creation, and that in being conscious of the universe we become, in a sense, co-creators of the universe.

Now I'm sure I have not done Jung justice here, neither the effect his words had on me. For he voiced something I have been dimly aware of for years;a description of which I have been trying to feel my way towards for a long long time. In meditation I had been wrestling, in both practice and content, with this puzzling issue of consciousness and what it meant. And here in a couple of paragraphs C G Jung articulated it perfectly. I'm grateful for the way that the events of my inner life spilled out into the outer world: in the chance happenstance of reading the book at the same time I was asking the questions, at Alden selecting that book some months ago and me deferring the reading of it until the most strategically appropriate time. But that synchronicity is just one small example of the sort of thing that has been happening on a fairly regular basis since I started sitting around doing nothing. So let me warn you. Don't meditate. At least not if you like sitting comfortably where you are. Not if you don't want those rock solid foundation stones that have stood you in such good stead for so long dynamited.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Back To Church Sunday


Back to Church Sunday is something dreamed up somewhere in Britain. The idea is simple really: get the parishioners to each ask someone to church on a designated day. Help them out a bit by providing a nice looking invitation card, and encourage them by showing some preparatory materials in church in the weeks ahead. It seems to have worked well in the UK, and, over the last couple of years, here in new Zealand. This year we thought we would give it a try, and I'm very glad we did. Our main congregation, at 10 am on Sunday morning, has typically had about 130 people present. Over the past year, my foot has been off the gas pedal and attendances have dropped back to about 100. I knew it was time to take stock and think about our direction as a parish, and we had drawn up and distributed a parish survey as part of a wide ranging review. Back To Church Sunday happened along at just at the beginning of the whole process.

The introductory videos were useful. They were mostly short clips from the TV series Desperate Housewives which raised some questions about churches and what they are here for. The clips got our folks talking, and wondering about such things as how we welcome people, and how we make them feel at home if they should wander in off the street. We made the invitations available and around 60 of them were taken away and (I assume) offered to friends and family.

Today we had 136 people at the 10 am service. We had a lot of people present who had once been regular attenders, but who had not been around for a while. We had a few spouses and children of parishioners making a first time visit. We had a few who were completely new to St. John's. It was great to see our little church more or less full again. I managed to speak to many who had come because of the invitations, and in most cases, they told me they were thinking of coming anyway. There were pressing life issues for some of them which were causing a rethink of priorities and an invitation to church was just the catalyst they had needed to make the move. Whether this will translate into an increase in regualr attendance will depend on how well we follow up over the next week or two, but I am optimisitc.

In terms of its stated aim, Back To Church Sunday has been a rip roaring success for St. John's Roslyn. In terms of the bigger issues, it has been a success as well. Firstly it has encouraged us to look at ourselves and make changes where necessary. Most importantly it has encouraged people to think about why they themselves come to church and to talk about those reasons with people they live and work and share bits of their lives with. Of course we will be signing up for next year's Back To Church Sunday, but I hope we can translate the learnings into the other 51 Sundays until then.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

E-Day

It was E-Day today. All over the country collection points were set up for gathering old bits of electronic junk together so that they can be recycled. So I gathered my bits of electronic junk. I laid the back seats of the car flat, opened the basement doors and began to move back and forward like an ant at a picnic carrying treasures from one spot to another. I filled the car. Filled it! It was piled to the roof and I had four large banana boxes on the front seat beside me. There were four Commodore 64s and three Atari STs dating from the mid 1980s. There were monitors and PCs and bags of old, nameless cables and power supplies. There were boxes and boxes and boxes of floppy disks. The people at the recycling station were fairly impressed with the quantity and mystified by the machinery; after all, they were mostly students doing a day's worth of community service and some of the stuff I gave them was manufactured before they were born. Today I dumped stuff that I had once yearned for, and bought and been pleased with. Stuff that had been carefully chosen after reading the brochures and visiting the showrooms. Stuff whose merits I had vigorously argued against competing brands. Stuff that was worthless and useless today, and, if the truth is known, on the day I acquired it. These bits of plastic and wire will be shipped to China and dismantled and melted and turned into other stuff which will be lusted after and bought and used and shelved and discarded all over again.

The recyclers took it all, PDAs, dot matrix printers, and video boards, and families of mice but left me with the disks. Apparently old floppies have little recycling value. So, I went home, hooked the trailer filled with old gardening waste to the car and drove to the tip, where I put the decaying green matter into the compost and the blue plastic squares into the landfill.

I stood on the edge of the concrete ditch and threw them by the boxload into the air, watching them fly and crash and scatter onto the floor. Games. Data files containing bad poems and half finished stories. Games. My doctoral dissertation and the program I had used to write it with. Games. Parish magazines and sermons and back ups of stuff that, once upon a time in a universe far far away, had been crucial. So many hours of work and thought; so many wasted moments, so many hopes and triumphs and losses all there, and all released back into the nothingness they came from: old ideas going the same way as the old bits of electronic hardware. I don't know why I hung onto all that junk for so long.

A few years ago I made a private retreat in a house by the beach. One evening, after a day of fasting and prayer, I walked up a hillside and saw the still water stretch out beneath me in the dusk. In a small moment I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place until I ruined the moment. I tried to photograph it, to record what I had seen and felt. Of course I failed. The photographs were pretty enough, I suppose, but they caught nothing of the sense of eternity which had opened in a moment and disappeared again as quickly. The important stuff; the really important stuff can't be captured and kept.

There is no other reality than the present. The past has gone and the future is not yet here, and all we have is this singularity, this infinitisimally small pinprick of consciousness continually held in the tension between them. We take photos and hang onto the crud from the past and cling to momentarily useful ideas in a vain attempt to preserve the present but of course the very effort is futile. In as much time as it takes for us to notice it, the present has turned into the past and is gone. It is a wonderfully liberating thing to know that and to just let it slip away; to discard the rubbish means to be a little bit freer of the non existent past and thus be just that much more able to savour the present.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Wedding



Last night I acquired a son in law. This was an event that was supposed to have happened in about a year's time, but events have an odd way of surprising us. My daughter Bridget has been seconded by her employer to their new branch in Qatar, and if she was to take her fiancee Scott with her, what with Qatar being an Islamic state and everything, a marriage certificate had to be produced. So, a wedding was organised with about two weeks notice. This was not going to be the main event, you understand but a sort of mini wedding: a prequel. But events have a way of surprising us.

The idea was to have a small informal gathering with just ours and Scott's immediate families present and do the formalities, while a bigger grander wedding reaffirmation would be held on their return to New Zealand. We thought we might have a small family dinner back at our place afterward, but nothing fancy. So, I made sure the church was free on Friday night. A license was applied for and a dress selected. Caterers were booked and some rings were carefully chosen. We phoned and skyped every night and finally, last Thursday gathered the two who would make the vows and the nine who would witness it. We went through the practice; arranged the service and the cutlery; found a table big enough for 11.

Then on Friday we married Scott and Bridget. At 7 pm at this time of year Dunedin is absolutely dark, and our little church was lit by about 300 candles. It glowed with warm yellow light and the air was soft. I waited in the sanctuary with Scott and his family, while Clemency and Catherine walked over with Bridget. My beautiful, accomplished daughter and the fine young man she has chosen to spend her life with held hands and exchanged words that 4 centuries have not improved on for dignity and beauty. I declared them husband and wife and prayed for them. We took photos and walked back over to our house to eat and talk.

No one stood to make speeches. Between courses some of us spoke: Scott's father Richard, Catherine and myself. We looked around the table and talked to each other, simply and seriously, about what this young couple meant to us. Nick was present as a skyped in image on a Macbook, and he made a lovely tribute to his sister. There was nothing prequel or mini about it. Even discounting my own prejudices this was one of the most beautiful, gracious, warm, dignified, cohesive, friendly, enveloping, comfortable, loving weddings I have ever attended, and I have seen a few.

Today we have all sat around and talked and eaten more than is good for us, and got to know the people who are newly related to us. In about ten days my daughter and son in law fly out to the Persian Gulf and into a brilliant life together. Late in 2010 we will gather again, probably with a venue and a band and morning suits and many many people. It will be an event to look forward to, but I can't imagine how it could ever match the power and beauty of what we shared on Friday night.