Monday, 31 October 2016

Ducks and Drakes

It is my day off so earlier today I drove out along the peninsula with a bag full of camera gear. I turned into the carpark at MacAndrew Bay, thinking that perhaps a leisurely coffee at a table overlooking the beach would be a good way to start taking photos but I had to swerve to avoid a great knot of ducks writhing its way across the tar seal. A young female, small and exhausted, was stuggling beneath a jostling mass of drakes, perhaps six or eight of them who were all striving to copulate with her. They grasped her and climbed on her, pushing each other aside, not fighting but careless in their single mindedness. I asked myself if I should intervene? Here was nature, red in tooth and claw, doing its normal everyday thing, and who am I to impose my anthropomorphistic disgust on a perfectly natural phenomenon? My inner struggle lasted about as long as it took to put the car in neutral and turn it off. I opened my door and approached them. They were so intent  that I got within an arm's length before they took notice of me. I could have reached out and banged a few heads together, but I clapped my own hands instead and they scattered, leaving the young female dazedly staggering across the car park. The drakes, some, fully mature with their dazzling green heads, and some no older than the young duck, looked briefly at their forsaken prize, then at me, and flapped energetically off in all directions. The duck looked at me, her saviour, and recoiled in fear, flapping tired wings and rising crazily into the air, at about head height,  flew straight past me and into the side of a passing truck. So much for intervention! There was a sickening thud and a tangle of feathers. She fell, dazed to the ground and lay there for a bit. One of the drakes returned and nuzzled her briefly and, slowly,  she rose and walked at his side across the road and into the sea. She looked, from a distance, anyway, to be OK and they looked fairly well bonded. So why hadn't he fulfilled his part of the bonding agreement and protected her from what might have proven the injurious or even fatal attention of the others? Weak or stupid, I guess. Or maybe just as young and inexperienced as she was.

I had lost any taste for coffee. I had lost any taste for taking photos. I drove home aware of my own deep measure of disturbance, and thinking about why this bothered me so much. You don't have to look far for evidence of people behaving with as much self interested disregard as those drakes, and, as often as not, justifying their cruelty with appeals to the naturalness and healthiness of their impulses.

Those drakes know no better. They are innocents. We do. We are not.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Codex Calixtinus

The Bay of Biscao: Basque Country. 
I have been reading the Codex Calixtinus, or at least a translation of it and commentary on it by William Melczer. The codex was written in the 12th Century and is the first substantial record of the Camino Santiago. It consists of 5 short books which have independent origins but have been combined by an unknown editor/author, who has appended a pseudepigraphic introduction to each in the name of Pope Callixtus II. They are all to do with the development of the cult of St. James in the early middle ages.

Book 1 is a collection of liturgical bits and pieces and Book 2 a collection of miracles attributed to the saint. Book 3 records the miraculous transfer of the saint's body from Palestine to Galicia and Book 4 is an account of the military expedition undertaken by Charlemagne and Roland who attempted to drive the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. Book 5, the one which I am really interested in, is a pilgrim's guide to the Camino: the first one ever written. It is in fact the first tourist guide book ever written.

The Codex is written by a Frenchman, and it is marked by a chauvinism which makes Donald Trump look positively open minded, tolerant and accepting by comparison. Speaking of the Navarrese, for example, he says,

"Navarrese eating and drinking habits are disgusting. The entire family - servant, master, maid, mistress - feed with their hands from one pot in which all the food is mixed together, and swill from one cup, like pigs or dogs. And when they speak, their language sounds so raw, it's like hearing a dog bark...These are an undeveloped people, with different customs and characteristics than other races. They're malicious, dark, hostile-looking types, crooked, perverse, treacherous, corrupt and untrustworthy, obsessed with sex and booze, steeped in violence, wild, savage, condemned and rejected, sour, horrible, and squabbling. They are badness and nastiness personified, utterly lacking in any good qualities. They're as bad as the Getes and the Saracens, and they despise us French. If they could, a Basque or Navarrese would kill a Frenchman for a cent..." And he then goes on to describe their sexual habits in a most...surprising... fashion.

The book lists the best hostels to stay in, and all the must visit shrines. There are warnings about the unsafe rivers and the food and the locals, and an extensive description of the great cathedral of Santiago Compostela. For an ancient text the codex is a lot of fun - laugh our loud quaint at times - and I loved reading of places I have visited and seeing how much, and how little has changed in a millennium. But what was most interesting was tracing the development of the cult of St. James, as the product of a French attempt to extend political influence beyond the Pyrenees. This is very much a French, not a Spanish book. The perspective is French. The saints described are French as are most of the shrines associated with them. The peoples of Navarre, Cantabria, the Basque Country and Galicia are counted as evil or otherwise depending on how closely their culture and customs approximate those of France. As the needs of French influence required it, the pilgrimage and its mythical under girding was invented and developed. It is an object lesson in the development of cult; of religion. So the stories of James and his magical posthumous trip to Galicia are first recorded only in the 9th Century, and the various places associated with his cult were discovered just when the political needs of the time required them to be.

Now all this could be a little disillusioning if the experience of the Camino was somehow tied to the historicity of its associated mythology. But off course the skeleton in its silver box in the crypt of the great Cathedral isn't really that of St. James, but we all knew that already didn't we?

The Camino is a human invention, and knowing how it arose and developed  says nothing about the incarnate God who can be experienced and known in the observance of this ancient and very human artifact, the great pilgrim's route. Our God is incarnate, that is, our God takes form in the midst of our lived reality and invites us into relationship. The path of miracles is no less divine for the fact that it wasn't originated by a stone boat without oars or mast carrying a headless corpse miraculously to Spain, but rather was forged by thousands of people over several centuries acting out of  a vast range range of human motivations and interests. In fact, it is more divine for being so.

Thursday, 20 October 2016


Last Saturday I drove to Duntroon, to celebrate the 1700th anniversary of St. Martin of Tours in St. Martin's Church. On Sunday  I drove to invercargill to celebrate St. Luke's day in St. Luke's church. On Monday I drove to Nelson. 1500km in 3 days. I left home at 5.30 am. In Rolleston I called on Bridget, and Ada ran to meet me. I picked her up and she pressed her tiny body into my shoulder in the deepest, longest hug that a 1 year old can give. I stopped in Murchison in the middle of the afternoon and slept for a while, sitting in my car in the car park of a cafe, and got here in time for dinner.
I spent Tuesday with my family. I sat at a table on the waterfront at Mapua for an excellent lunch of squid. I sat in my mother's serviced apartment in the Earnest Rutherford home and let her explain, again, a picture from her childhood. A group of my long dead kin stares resolutely at me from 1930: the men with moustaches and fedoras and rustic looking suits, the women in aprons, and upright in the middle a 3 year old girl in a white dress: my mother. Beside each of the faces there is small, spidery writing: Howard Kippenberger; Eric Rollinson; Joan Rollinson; Pat Rollinson.The names are talismans of my belonging in a stream that reaches far back beyond my memory, and, increasingly, beyond my mother's. 
I am in Nelson to attend the Tikanga Pakeha Ministry Council. There are 18 of us in the room, and if I was told I had to go to a national church meeting and had to pick one, this would be it. These are smart people, and good with it. And some I have known for a very long time. Sue relates to me, in surprising detail, a conversation we had in Hamilton about 20 years ago and tells me how significant it was for her. She tells me, also, of a workshop she attended recently with the poet Malcolm Guite. We talk about poets. And Irishmen. I have dinner with them all in what is certainly the best Indian restaurant I have ever been in. I ask myself why I am not living here. 
I wake in my sister's beautiful house. Outside the tuis and bellbirds and warblers are greeting another gorgeous morning from their vantage points in Val's and Mike's many trees. I eat the eggs from the hens at the bottom of the garden, lightly poached and served on oat toast with pesto and sun dried tomatoes. There are long, hard edged, early morning shadows in the vineyards which stretch across the plains beneath us to the Tasman mountains in the far distance. Val and I talk out of the acceptance of one another that can only come from a lifetime of knowing. I ask myself why, exactly, I am not living here. I have no sensible answer. 
Alistair texts from Perth where he is visiting his daughter, my niece Tracy. We all agree. Tracy can have Nan's dinner set, the old Doulton one which was given to her when she and Pop left the Pleasant Point district in 1927. It's pretty much unused and Tracy is overjoyed to have this link with her forbears. 

Belonging. Being known. Being accepted. Having a part in the lives of others you know and care for. These are treasures beyond reckoning. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A couple of poems

The conversation today turned to poetry and I was introduced to some poems new to me. One by Seamus Heaney who I was familiar with and several by Malcolm Guite who I was not.

The Rain Stick - Seamus Heaney 

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And a diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

The subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again. 

Trinity Sunday - Malcolm Guite
In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.

He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us, and within.

Monday, 10 October 2016


I own quite a few Bibles, a shelf of them in fact, and every few years I get a new one which becomes my main, working Bible. The translation and edition of those first amongst equals copies of the scripture give a sort of map of my Christian path over 40+ years.

My first Bible was a New English translation, reflecting my Methodist upbringing, but that was frowned on in Pentecostal circles so it was quickly replaced with a King James Version, a Schofield Reference Bible with the generally approved floppy black leather cover. At St. John's College I bought an Oxford Annotated Bible, Second Edition, which I still use and which bears the scars of  my long encounters with the text and with God.
Since acquiring it in 1977, I have used it but it has been eclipsed for a while by, variously, The Jerusalem Bible, the New International Version, and most recently a third edition of the Oxford Annotated Bible, which now uses the New Revised Standard Version in place of the former edition's RSV. As a parish priest the lectionary readings for Sunday were my main study during the week, but I also maintained a cycle of readings which took me through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice every year.

Since the late 80s I have used an electronic version of the Bible, and for the past decade or so  that has been the Olive Tree Bible App, which allows me to have any number of translations, including the Biblia Hebraica and the NA28 edition of the Greek New Testament. I can have two bibles open at the same time (say the NRSV and NA28,) and linked so that turning a page on one automatically does it on the other. I tap a word and the appropriate dictionary opens. I can make annotations and have access to any number of critical tools. I have this app on my desktop computer, my laptop, my iPad and my phone. Over the last maybe 5 or 6 years I have found myself seldom using an actual paper Bible, except when reading in public and not always then. 

Well, at least that was true up until a few months ago. I'very begun again, picking up my old Oxford Annotated RSV, for the memories it holds and for the familiar tactility of  those softly worn pages and of the frayed old ribbon bookmarks, which I glued in decades ago.

And lately there has been something else. I acquired a Nonesuch Bible. This is an edition of the King James Version in 3 volumes printed by the Nonesuch Press in 1963. Mine is in a finely tooled cloth binding, printed on fine paper and it is in beautiful condition. The text has no verse numbers and no critical apparatus, and there are a few woodcut illustrations strategically scattered through it.
It is a beautiful thing to hold and to read. And this is the Bible I am now using personally. I am all for Biblical Scholarship, but, when it comes to engaging with the Bible as the Bible,  I am glad to be rid of the weight of all that thinking, and to be present just with the text; to engage, as I haven't done in years, with the magnificence of language and the power of narrative; to read it and let it read me.

Sunday, 9 October 2016


Francesco Tuccio with one of his crosses in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, where is was recently received, blessed and installed.

For some of this week I was in Alexandra, on the team of a 3 day Cursillo event. Cursillo is a lay led programme of spiritual renewal which has benefitted many thousands of people since its beginnings in Spain in the late 1940s. I was present as a Spiritual Advisor to the team of women and men from across the diocese who were running the event. My role meant I delivered a number of  short addresses and was engaged in several very deep conversations. I will write of this experience later in the week, but suffice it to say that I arrived home late yesterday afternoon, had a light dinner and then went to bed and slept for about 10 hours straight.
This afternoon I went to Mornington Methodist Church to be present at a service of dedication for a Lampedusa Cross. Lampedusa is a tiny island a few miles off the coast of North Africa, and the destination for many of the refugee boats leaving North Africa. A carpenter on the island, Francesco Tuccio, has been heavily involved in the rescue of the many thousands whose insecure craft come to grief in the treacherous waters surrounding the island. In an attempt to make the plight of refugees more visible he has crafted crosses from the timbers of wrecked refugee vessels and these have found their way to many places around the world. Today we received one in Dunedin in a brief service in Mornington Methodist church. I read a prayer written by an old friend, Archbishop David Moxon

O God of the seven seas and of all who venture forth on the great waters
Look with your love and saving grace on all who are in peril on the sea,
come to the assistance of the lost, the last and the least
who risk their lives in small boats looking for a new home
free from tyranny and oppression.
use us as willing agents of your compassion and help.
may your cross and resurrection speak to all who suffer
and all who mourn the loss of loved ones drowned.
may the Lampedusa cross witness to a life that is stronger than death,
and a calm that stills the raging waters.

I have never read the Koran, but I have always intended to. At the service I sat next to a member of the Dunedin Muslim community, who had just read from a large, beautifully bound, and, by all evidence, new and expensive Koran. I leaned across and asked for his advice on buying a Koran. Unhesitatingly he said, "Here, take this one. It is yours." I was gobsmacked. Flabbergasted. 

This is not the first time I have been humbled by the generosity, kindness and hospitality of Muslim people. I came home with this extraordinary gift, pleased to be able, at last, to read it.