Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Found


I read the story I have read a thousand times, of Moses and Aaron doing magic tricks before Pharoah, and then the anguish of the Egyptian mothers and the hurried meal and the impasse before the vast waters. Perhaps because I am reading it all in one piece, I notice for the first time, the rhythm of the repeated motifs and the beat of the language and the rising cadences of powerful emotion. This is a masterful piece of storytelling.
****
I wrote the paragraph so long ago I hardly remember it, but I am struck by how clearly it speaks to me now. This insight has, I now realise, been sitting with me, unrecognized, for a very long time.
****
I flick through the tens of thousands of pictures on my hard drive, looking for one in particular. I don't find it, but I stumble across others which I have taken and then never looked at again. They are so long forgotten it is like looking at someone else's work. And, like someone else's work, it refreshes and feeds me.
 **** 
It's one of those events which fills my daily schedule, a meeting to plan a meeting, It must be done and I am pretty sure how it will go. She smiles and sits across the table from me, and as we exchange pleasantries, says something she has said many times before; but this time, for the first time, I hear her and understand. And there, over the coffee cups, the light shifts and falls on my soul from an entirely new angle. I see the contours  and the shadows afresh. 
****
Everything is there, waiting for me to learn to see it. Waiting for me to forget my forgetfulness.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 

Monday, 28 November 2016

Advent

I took this shot in St. John's Roslyn years ago. The chalice was  placed on the floor and positioned to catch the reflection of the window
Yesteday Noah engaged his mother in a conversation about belly buttons. The whole business of placentas was explained with the sort of honest and brilliant simplicity Bridget is capable of, but one thing led to another and he asked "If Amma is your mummy, then who is Amma's mummy?" So he was, for the first time in his life, given the name, Valerie Underhill, which meant so much to me. Which led to the question beyond the power of simplicity to mask: "Where is she?" Which led to tears. Deep, wracking, sobbing tears.  He knows about death; he knows that dinosaurs are dead and that it's just their bones in the museum, but yesterday a pretty major penny dropped for him, about the universality and inevitability and permanence of death. Bridget talked about heaven and afterlife, which helped somewhat and he has asked some brilliant questions since, including the one which is my personal favourite because of its unintended profundity: "Is heaven before or after space?"

Noah is in the stage of faith development which Fowler names mythic literal. Everything is, for him, literally and materially true (a stage, incidentally, some never grow out of) so out of the facts and metaphors he has received he has constructed for himself a kind of medieval tiered universe in which there is the earth, and above it the sky, whose border is marked by the clouds; and above the sky is space, that amazing realm of rocket ships and aliens and stars and Luke Skywalker.  At the moment he is examining the sky pretty hard to see if he can spot Jesus's house in the clouds, and his question is part of him trying to order his layers. But for me it functions as a kind of koan.
****
When I left my first parish I was given a purple chasuble. It's a lovely thing, made by the women of the parish, and hand embroidered onto it, purple on purple in a script so faint it can't be seen except on close examination, are the names of the churches I served: Waihao Downs Presbyterian; St. Michael's; St. Matthew's; Morven Presbyterian; Glenavy Presbyterian; Nukuroa Methodist. All these except one are now gone, as, in fact, is the parish itself. I wear the vestment now in Advent, carrying on my shoulders the long history and the beauty and the power and the death of the church as we move towards the birth of the Christ child. It cloaks me and warms me and holds me as I move into the last Advent of my ministry as Priest and as Bishop and into all the promise which lies beyond.
****
After celebrating St. Andrew's Day in Maheno yesterday I drove a couple of hours to Milton to pray at the beginning of an archaeological dig. Long ago the town of Milton was moved to take advantage of the newly built main road and the Anglican church with its little cemetery was left behind. Eventually the church and vicarage too followed the rest of the town but it was not easy to take the cemetery, so it remained alone in the middle of farmland to be almost forgotten and given over to neglect. Cattle grazed it and knocked over headstones. At some stage it was fenced off with scant regard being paid to the actual location of graves. But now it has been surveyed by the University of Otago, and the old resting places rediscovered. Those outside the fences are being gently and respectfully excavated. The remains will be examined before they are re-interred in a more easily maintained place. There will be a wealth of information garned from the DNA and isotopes of these bones, and from the artefacts buried with them. People whose names have long slipped from remembrance will inform us, and, in a way, live again.
**** 
In Advent death and life seem to run together in an inextricable emulsion and all of it is shot through with poignancy and meaning. Is heaven before or after Space? Great question, Noah. Great question.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

House and Garden

In 2006 we were looking for a house to buy. We'd seen a collection of smallish villas within our price range, but all of them suffered from one of Dunedin's real estate traps: shade, wind or the ravages of old age. On a whim Clemency dragged me off to see this place, substantially out of our budget. It had a large garden, laid out to the sun with a school on one side and a reserve on another. Macrocarpa and blue gums towered 80ft into the sky to the South, sheltering the wind but not taking away any sun. It had a view to the harbour. Inside the house was tired, but it was light and airy and warm and even though it was small it felt spacious. It had two bathrooms and wooden ceilings soaring, in places to 20 ft above the floor. Every room was on a different level. It felt right. We bought it. it's been a stretch but we will retire without a mortgage.
After renting it out for a few years we moved in 6 years ago. I built a study on one side which is my happy place. Clemency has the garden for hers. It is sheltered from every wind except the Nor' Easter, and on days when we see the city on the other side of the harbour shivering in wind and shadow, we are in stillness and sunshine with our French doors open onto the deck. The woodburner or the heat pump quickly heat it on the coldest days. I have a list of things which need attending to once April rolls around. It needs painting, and the kitchen needs a revamp, and the deck is a bit grey. But East West and all that, and it's the garden which is the real hospital for tired souls.
 






 It has all been laid out well, and it has grown past its  original formality into a kind of tangled wildness. There is greenery at eye level everywhere, but because it slopes gently away towards the sea it never feels enclosed. It is a place which invites presence



We toy with the idea of moving, but really, why would we do a crazy thing like that? We have every part of our lovely city within 10 minutes drive, and within 20 we can be standing on any one of 20 different beaches. Where would we find anything like this, anywhere else? We are happy to approach our codgerdom, reveling in our memories,  right here. So, I'll leave it to another bunch of boring old farts to reach into their memory bag, and mine, to express it for me.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Commited and Liberal

Sometime soon Clemency and I will have to choose a church to belong to, and at the moment we're not sure which one that will be. I'm not going to try and speak for her in a discussion we haven't reached the end of yet, but for myself, I guess one of the deciding factors is that I'm a liberal, or at least, that's the label that is least inappropriate for me. On all of the litmus test social issues I can be found on the liberal end of the spectrum, and have been there even when I was a card carrying charismatic/evangelical. On theological issues, things are not so clear cut; although I'm certainly no fundamentalist, I usually feel more at home in theologically conservative churches than in theologically liberal ones. Some of that is about music. True, many modern choruses are musically and lyrically terrible, but modern liberal hymns can be just as bad, or worse, even. For example, I keep my mouth shut instead of singing:

"Peace was your plea, and peace your loving theme, 
let peace be our passport, peace a living dream."

 or, even worse,

"I'm a fish-bowl Christian, watch me flutter my fins;
I nibble at the virtues and I gulp at all the sins.
Sometimes I dream of swimming in the ocean of your care:
to be an ocean Christian is my fish-bowl prayer."

As time has gone on my tastes have got older and older and now most of what really moves me was written so long ago that it was even before the time when  Hymns Ancient and Modern was an accurate title.

But it's not just about music. In conservative churches there is something indefinable: a sense of certainty and clarity which can be reassuring and attractive even as I am disagreeing with a great deal of what is being said. Us Liberals don't do certainty. Partly that is a function of the stages of faith thing. Most of us who call ourselves Liberals didn't begin that way. We started, in our youth, as keen and very certain Christians and over the years we mellowed, giving up our sureties as we realised that issues were more complex and answers less clear cut than we first assumed. We moved, many of us, past middle age and into the time when we grew more reflective and open about many things besides our spirituality. We Liberals are very good at on the one hand this and on the other hand that and seeing the other person's point of view, which is all very caring and sharing of us, but it means we seldom have a cutting edge. Liberalism is bland. It's bland to me who belongs to the club and its even blander to those who don't and who want to know what we believe and what we stand for.

We Liberals are critical. We are very good at stating what we don't believe. But we are pretty reticent when it comes to stating what we DO believe, and that is because on many, many things we just don't know. We even take a kind of pride in not knowing what we believe, making openness a virtue. "We are so open minded our brains fall out." But if we can't articulate what it is we stand for why should anyone listen to us?

And now the ground has shifted under our feet, and to our surprise, all over the world, the political and social victories we thought we had won long ago are proving ephemeral and temporary. We, who dominated the mainstream of political and social thought in the West for decades now find ourselves unseated and marginalised. And it's time for us to wake up.

In the church the Evangelical wing has lost a huge amount of credibility, specifically because of the American election, but more generally because of popular perceptions of their stand on social issues, particularly those of  sexuality and gender. And now is the time for us Liberals to step up to the plate.

Speaking of the American election, one of the founders of Sojourners, Bob Sabath recently wrote
Yes, Bob. Exactly.

We are liberal Christians. We need to preserve our passion for justice (or kindle it) and keep faithful to the perspectives garnered over long years of prayer and thought. But we need, desperately, to recover our foundation in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. We need to do this. The church needs us to do this. The world needs us to do this. Which is why I'm re-reading the Bible from start to finish. Which is why I'm rediscovering the power of the little old prayer,

Lord, renew your church, beginning with me.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Reading the Bible

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

In my time in the Christian Church, ie 43 years, I've heard some pretty stupid things come out of the mouths of preachers. Back in the day, for example, I was once taught that all music in a minor key was evil. And there was a pastor who taught, albeit briefly, that peacocks and owls were "of the devil", whatever that might mean. I've heard various specific dates for the end of the world promulgated, and listened as people have debated, earnestly, the precise order of events in the last few years of the late, great, planet earth.  Lately, of course, there has been the one about the weight of sin causing the earth to have convulsions. All of these teachings were "Biblical", backed up in some ingenious way by Bible verses, and taught in "Bible believing" churches. Pastors can preach this nonsense, with a certain air of authority and without fear of contradiction because they are confident that pretty much nobody in their audience is actually reading their Bible.

For, the truth is, Christians, by and large, don't read the Bible, which is odd because of what we claim the Bible to be. You'd think, wouldn't you, that if we really did believe it to be the Word of God, it'd be pretty hard to tear us away from it. But the opposite is true; it's very difficult to get people to pick it up, even those who have a whole  line of Bibles on their bookshelves. Some of us read bits of the Bible, but that's not quite the same thing. We who regard ourselves as serious about the Bible may dip into it regularly, perhaps even daily, but generally have some pattern of daily Bible study in which a few verses of scripture are chosen for us, and presented to us with a commentary usually longer than the passage being commented on; we are, in other words, being told what to read and what to think about what we are reading.

There are some stereotypical ways of using the Bible in the church, which, even though they are glosses, do carry a bit of weight. At the Evangelical end of the theological spectrum, the use of the Bible in sermons often involves a smorgasbord of texts being taken from all over the place and scattered throughout the message in order to back up the ideas that the preacher has arrived at by other, non Biblical processes. At the polar opposite end of the spectrum are people who may have deep knowledge of those few parts of the Bible which they studied intently during their theological education, but who show no sign that the Bible is, for them, a source of personal guidance and enrichment. In between, we in the established denominations follow a lectionary, which is yet another exercise in selective reading, moving cyclically through the same little bits of the Bible year after year after year in a semi-connected way.

All of these ways of approaching the Bible rest on the assumption that reading it is a daunting task: that there are parts of it which are puzzling, or even downright offensive and are best left alone; that the language is odd and the concepts contained in the language odder; that we can't be trusted to form our own opinions about what we may encounter in its pages. Which is all true, at least partially but our piecemeal approach to the Bible means that we are ignorant of context and ignorant of the narrative flow not just of the Bible as a whole, but also of individual books or even chapters. And the narrative, the great story of humanity and God encountering one another with ever evolving levels of challenge and understanding, is the principal treasure which the Bible has to offer us.

Which is why all people serious about the Bible need to make, at least once in their lives, and preferably more frequently than that, a great pilgrimage. They need to sit down with a version of the Bible which is accessible to them and, beginning at Genesis 1:1, read the thing right through to Revelations 22:21, in the same way that they would read a novel or any other kind of book. It's not an easy task. There are 31,102 verses in the Bible, if you don't count the Apocrypha,  so reading it in a year would require reading an average of 85-86 verses a day, or about 3 or 4 chapters. But while it is not an easy task - what great pilgrimage ever is? - reading the Bible through from cover to cover will give some powerful spiritual benefits:

  • You will "own" the Bible in a way you never have before.
  • You will be surprised at how entertaining it is, at least in parts. 
  • You will be able to put the whole Biblical narrative into context, and see the great unfolding story as it unravels over the centuries of Biblical history.
  • You will be confronted with the very obvious errors, inconsistencies and contradictions in the text. The best cure for Fundamentalism is for people to actually read the Bible.
  • You will be confronted with the whole range of human experience, and with their struggles to discern and understand God
  • You will, consequently, have to rethink for yourself, in what way the Bible is the Word of God. 
  • You will find for yourself the truth contained in this ancient narrative.
  • You will find a connection with the divine which you never expected, manifesting itself in  ways which surprise you, and in places where you never thought it would be possible. 
  • You will be inoculated against the twaddle of preachers.
This is a pilgrimage, and should be treated as such. It is a journey which seems daunting but can be achieved if one step is taken at a time, day after day until journey's end. I have traveled this way many times, and beginning this Advent, I am doing it again. There are specific reasons for my doing this, and I will talk of them soon, but for now, I invite you to join me as I travel, in this new year,  from Eden to Patmos.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Prosperity

This photo has nothing whatsoever to do with what follows. I just like it. 
St. Kilda Beach
Many years ago I lived in a flat in Westminster St., Christchurch. Just around the corner from us was a small Brethren chapel, attended by a couple of friends of mine, and I visited it occasionally. It was a fairly standard, generic Protestant type of church except for one thing: the people who attended  were wealthier than average, and those who weren't comfortably off when they started attending, generally became so after a while. The people in the church were quite clear about why this phenomenon occurred, and several of them were quick to point out to me that it was NOT because they were particularly favoured by God. Rather, they recognised that once a person gave their life to Christ and started to try and live after the style of Jesus, and once people became part of this community, they acquired a set of spiritual and/or cultural values which were, actually, commercially advantageous: thrift, honesty, integrity, truthfulness, hard work, faithfulness and sobriety for example. As well, on joining the church they instantly acquired a sizeable network of trustworthy people who were always looking for like minded customers/clients/subcontractors/employees. In other words, the good people of the chapel, while rejoicing in the unexpected material benefits of their faith, were quite clear about its origins in the connection between prosperity and work and integrity.

Jump forward forty years and the connection between these things in our culture is fraying. For large sections of our society it seems that there are people who get inordinately wealthy with only a modicum amount of  work, and sometimes with no integrity whatsoever. One such even gets to be President of the United States, for goodness sake. And there are some who are honest and hard working and yet face a life of grinding, relentless poverty. For a young working family in Auckland these days, struggling to pay an exorbitant rent, and the costs of traveling to work, it doesn't matter how hard you work or how honest you are, you are never going to save the required 20% deposit for a house, let alone be able to afford the mortgage even if you did. Many have grown depending on a benefit of some sort for all or part of their income, and  have never quite made the connection between work and money. Many are handicapped by the schools they went to, or the strictures placed on them by family or friends or experience and many do not even realise that they are handicapped. For many in our society it is no longer true, if ever it was that if you work hard and do right you will succeed. So people look around and see the houses that some live in and the cars that they drive  the clothes that they wear and notice that the distribution is pretty random. It's pretty natural to ask why? Why them and not me?

And there are some in our society only too willing to give an answer.

Over the last few decades, originating in the USA but now present in all parts of the Western world is a cynical parody of the Christian faith known as "The Prosperity Gospel". This teaches that prosperity is a blessing, given by God, and that the more you honour God in your life the more God will bless you by showering on you all those things you find so attractive. And, of course, one of the best ways to honour God is by supporting God's work in the form of donations to the church, particularly this church you are in right now, which, unlike all those other crappy churches out there, is one of the very few which teaches the truth. And do you want proof that this works? Well, just look at the pastor. Listen to him. He is a person much like you, but he honours God, and just see how wealthy God has made him! Check out the house! The suit! The Harley Davidson!

This teaching is the very antithesis of the Good News proclaimed by Jesus whose life of selfless service to others and his eschewal of all that people generally use to bolster their sense of self - wealth, power, influence, reputation - pointed to the ever present reality he came to proclaim: the Kingdom of God. Jesus practiced an unstinting acceptance of all and taught that true blessedness was there for the taking, regardless of our level of wealth. The prosperity Gospel bases itself in a few warped interpretations of a few Biblical texts, preached in the confidence of the target audience's Biblical illiteracy. It plays on the misery and hopelessness of many in our culture and on their fondest aspirations. It is a cruel hoax, established and maintained for the benefit of a very few at the expense of the most vulnerable.

It is not just unChristian. It is anti-Christian.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Porkies, Brian, Porkies!

Leviticus is not an easy read. It's all about purity, and how to achieve it and it's full of advice on things like how to avoid mildew, and whether baldness is bad for you, and who you may or may not have sex with, and  how to tell if someone has leprosy and which earlobe to rub the lambs blood on if they do. Most Christians, and let's be honest here, have never actually read it, including, if his sermons are any evidence, "bishop" Brian Tamaki.

In the public arena at the moment is a video of one of Mr. Tamaki''s talks: (or at least there was. It seems to have disappeared from Youtube)
Here he says that, according to Leviticus, the weight of human sinfulness causes the land to convulse, and, lets forget all that bollocks about tectonic plates,  this is the real reason for our recent seismic events.

Now you can read Leviticus if you want, or you can take my word for it, it makes no difference either way - you won't find the verse Mr. Tamaki is referring to because  there is no verse in Leviticus which says this. There is no verse in the entire Bible which says this. Mr. Tamaki is making it up. He is telling porkies.

I'm guessing here, but I think Mr. Tamaki may have been basing his remarks on a very uninformed interpretation of a cursory reading of one particular Levitical passage. In Leviticus 18 there is a reference to the land vomiting, which is a  metaphor with a very specific context: Leviticus was written when the people of Israel had been conquered by a foreign power and large percentages of the people had been taken into exile. The land was left untended, and the people were traumatised and asking themselves why? Why had this terrible thing happened? The writers of Leviticus were telling them that it was because the people hadn't kept themselves pure. The land had ejected them just as it had ejected the Canaanites before them. So, Leviticus 18 is speaking about military defeat originating in the moral turpitude of the people, which might, I suppose, have some merit as a theory. Mr Tamaki tells his people that Leviticus 18 means that God sends earthquakes because there are gay people in the country, which does not have much merit as a theory.

If he'd read further, into Leviticus 19, he would have seen a whole chapter on how God gets really pissed off when people take money from the poor. I'm looking forward to seeing how he interprets that one.

Monday, 14 November 2016

South Island

 Lake Dunstan

Today the ground shook again. Mountains fell and rivers were stopped. I watched the pictures of the wrecked roads, all of which I have recently driven. I saw the fearful people and heard the perpetual question. 

This is where I live, the South Island. I was born here. Most of my family live here and those that don't wish they did. When the word "home" is uttered, it is images of mountains and lakes and beech forest and tussockland  that come, unbidden, to mind. These are the places which formed me and which hold me. 

And today we are reminded that it is all so beautiful because it is all so dangerous. Below our feet a couple of vast slabs of rock are floating on top of a seething sea of slowly boiling magma. They are grinding against each other as the currents move slowly but inexorably below them. Where they meet, they course together, jostling and pushing each other skyward in a jagged seam which forms the mountains and the lakes, and from which flow the braided rivers. They strive,  and lock and let loose in those periodic shudders which form our middle part of Pacific's Triple Star. Well, all of them, actually. 
 
 Lake Dunstan
 Cromwell town and Lake Dunstan

It is all so spacious. And so still. Or so it seems to us, only because we exist in such a different timescale, with such a different set of perspectives. In fact the land is as alive and as mobile as a cat.
 Akaroa

 Lake Waihola

This too shall pass. These trees and the lake which feeds them. When we look at our nurturing and exacting land we are looking at ballet, not sculpture. 
 Dunedin

What a gift to be here, even if the fare for this journey is a periodic reminder of the fatal power which formed our land and forms us.

St. Kilda Beach, Dunedin

Friday, 11 November 2016

Hope Springs Eternal

Leonard Cohen died today. I've mentioned my admiration of him before (more than once, actually) but, today I feel strangely unmoved. We all die. I think he would understand why I feel this way.

I'm listening, as I write this,  to a new album  by Future of Forestry. I like it. A lot.  Deeply Christian lyrics and superb musicianship. It's an unfortunately rare combination in contemporary music.

I charged my flat camera battery and found ten unknown, unremembered pictures. The view is from my deck, goodness knows when, though the EXIF data would tell me if I cared to look. Anyway, a  gift from outside of my memory.

I watched the video of Trump and President Obama quietly loathing each other before the assembled press. One of them a President and the other who campaigned, not to be president, but to be autocrat. One of the most worrying things for me in all this last few months has been the vitriol heaped on the good man and the willing adulation of the corrupted one. It is here, and not in Trump's dim grasp of reality, that the real danger lies.

I look at my forgotten photos. A rainbow earths itself in my lovely city and God speaks as reassuringly to me as he did to Noah. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Verse for the Day

Hagley Park, Christchurch, 2012. 
(Nikon D300; Nikkor  AF-S DX 18-55 @ 55mm; 1/200"; f7.1; iso 200)

What Have You Done To Us America?

If the phrase "Leader of the Free World" means anything at all, which, actually, it does,  Donald Trump is my president too even if I didn't get to vote for him. So I woke this morning, sick to my stomach. In a nation of 318.9 million people; in a country which has produced Lincoln and Susan B Anthony, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, Bob Dylan and Billie Holliday, Martin Luther King and the Obama family, this ignorant, unread, shallow, dangerous buffoon is all they can come up with? Really? The only one of my several degree certificates which actually hangs on a wall is from an American seminary. I love the United States, well, bits of it at least, almost as much as I love my own country. But right now, though I now greatly fear it,  I cannot respect it.

This nightmare is a sobering reality check. Last night my brother Guhyavajra wrote on his Facebook page,

"The myth of politics is that it can ultimately sort out the human predicament and it can't. Trump is simply the latest Emperor in a corrupt empire and no President, even Obama, is above the workings and machinations of a nations political process and bureaucracy. Another myth is that the liberal politically correct left is synonymous with spirituality and enlightenment itself... [it is a ] a fact that the social democratic liberalism of the first world has an ecologically unsustainable belly of consumption based in other peoples poverty..."

Here is the proof, if ever we needed it, of our spiritual bankrupty. Guhyavajra is right. We, all of us in the West, have lost our way.  We watch and read dross. The brightest of us confuse our intellectual fashions with enlightenment. We hold to the obscene parodies of the Gospel promoted by Creflo Dollar or Pat Robertson. We rejoice in the cheapness of our clothing or our iPhones and try not to think too hard of the lives of those who made them for us. We get, as always, the leadership we deserve. 

Last night as the news unfolded my three children Skyped and we held a glum, shocked, disbelieving conversation from Dunedin and Christchurch and Sydney and London. Then Clemency and I went and lay on our bed and, so that we might think of something else, I read her a chapter from Middlemarch. From 140 years ago, an intelligent and well informed woman spoke, with eloquence and wit, deep into the human condition. It was a draught of clear cool water. The world still turns. This too will pass. 

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. (Psalm 20:7) For now, all that is left to me is prayer. 

God bless America. God bless us all.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Middlemarch

Personally, I blame Donald Trump. With the evening news filled with American election stories we ended, in disgust, the one last vestige of our regular television watching: the 6 O'Clock news, which used to run while we sat companionably on the couch, and sipped wine, and ate dinner. We began to watch videos instead. The Lord of the Rings, extended version, all of it, bit by bit. Then George Eliot: Daniel Deronda, and Middlemarch.

And I was smitten once more by the work which the Guardian names as the greatest British novel of all time. This adaptation of Middlemarch is a six part mini series, shot in 1994, and it does, superbly, all those things the BBC is so good at: casting, costumes, scripting, editing, lighting, acting and directing. We saw the last couple of hours last night, after driving home from Winton, and I was a bit disappointed that it was over, so I found my copy, the Penguin paperback which I bought, new, for my class on the Victorian novel back in 1972.

I've read this copy perhaps 3 or 4 times, but not for at least a decade. My name is written on the flyleaf in some unknown female hand, and again in Clemency's familiar one; there's a story there if only I could remember what it is. There are underlinings I made back in the day for the purposes of some long forgotten essay. Paperback books have a use-by date which would be, looking at this one, about 40 years, I'd say.  The glue on the spine has dried out and is powdering which means that  the front cover and the first few pages are falling off. The paper is yellowing around the edges and down the centre, but, despite the care I'm having to take, I'm reading it, even though I have the complete novels of George Eliot on my Kindle (cost $0.0) where the pages are brighter and the typeface cleaner. It really is a wreck, with no value, and no use other than to fill up about 2 inches of shelf space. But the words it contains are soul building and entertaining and challenging.

When commentators refer to George Eliot almost all of them mention her looks and her libido of which she had, apparently, not much and quite a bit respectively. Par for the course for many writers, I would have thought, but a defining issue only for the greatest woman writer of the era. Her father, recognising that her chances of making a good marriage were not great, gave her as best an education as he could manage, and she lived a life  of intellectual accomplishment in company with some of the brightest and best minds of the Victorian era. She managed to scandalize pretty much everybody and produced a shelf full of wonderful writing. Middlemarch, her greatest work, was published exactly 100 years before I bought it. It has a complex plot and characters who are intricately nuanced and so believable that Dorothea and Rosamond and Rev'd Casaubon and Will Ladislaw and  Mr. Brook and Nicholas Bulstrode and Mary Garth are all as real to me, more real in some instances, than many historical people. Her prose, as it must, seems convoluted and dated to the modern eye, but give it a few pages for familiarity and it reveals itself in all its deft and clever balance.

Mary Ann Evans, as George Eliot was born, or Marian Lewes as she sometimes called herself in the 20 years of one of her unconventional relationships, was an outsider; someone who didn't fit. Her novels are filled with such people, particularly women, struggling to find a place for themselves undefined by the powerful men who surround them. She is knowledgeable about politics, religion, literature, the classics. She is interested in the power of birth, rank and class, and of money and how technology and the rise of new professions was changing English society.   Her erudition is everywhere on display, as is her eye for telling details of speech and manner. Her wit is deliciously understated  

"...but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them."

This is as good as the English novel gets. Better, in fact, says the clever folk at the guardian. Thank you Donald Trump.  

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Companions

We have not spoken in months. He posts a comment and I see that we're still at it, keeping pace; keeping, almost exactly, the same step in what we are thinking and even what we are reading.

We both laugh aloud at the unexpected pleasure of seeing each other.  She tells me she's reading Dylan Thomas; I am reading Malcolm Guite but the poems which have pulled us both up short cover the same ground. Another one added to our long list of synchronicities.

I read his news from the other side of the world. The wisdom he gives to others answers my own question for the day. I notice that the issues in his Buddhist community are the same ones wracking my Christian one.

There is no need to ask, for I know what she will want, but I do anyway, just for the reassuring sound of her voice. She makes a joke which renders me helpless with laughter but which I doubt any other person would notice. We plan, with unspoken agreement, the day ahead.

There is a trajectory to my life; a pattern which I see in retrospect more clearly than in prospect. I know this line when I am diligent in making it clear to myself; which is when I take the time every morning and every afternoon to do the simple, but not easy, task of sitting still for long enough to abandon all questions and all attempts to find the pattern. I am not the only one who is following this long arc. I have companions: those with whom I break spiritual and emotional bread. And, as often as not, the edible kind as well.

Companions are discovered - I don't have to seek them out. New companions appear often, Unexpectedly, and in the most surprising places, but the ones who speak with greatest clarity into my soul are those with whom I have been walking for many years.

An ancient metaphor: As I walk up my assigned path on the mountain others are walking also, on their own paths. As I draw closer and closer to the top, the paths of others get closer to mine. As long as we keep following our path; as long as we are moving towards the goal set for us, we will naturally draw closer to each other.

Companionship is one of the ways in which the path makes itself known. As we work out our shared life, especially in those relationships which time or birth or commitment have established as unbreakable, my companion and I are doing spiritual work. But, always, the path we are each walking leads to something far greater than each other, and if the fascination of our togetherness takes over our attention we will begin to meander and, ironically, end us further apart.

Or, another metaphor. When we walk the labyrinth we take, each of us, the same twisting convoluted path towards the centre.
At various points in our path we find others who are walking in parallel with us. At other times we find other travellers who appear to be close, but who are actually far from us or even outside of the labyrinth altogether: their connection is illusory and temporary. With those on the path with us, we draw close, and pull away and draw close again. We recognise each other's journeying and rejoice in our community, but will find that deep companionship which is one of our heart's great desires only in the centre.

Or another metaphor. Or perhaps it is a sacrament. On the Camino, of the thousands who start the path with me there are a few, a dozen at most with whom the bonds of the road become deep and firm. These are the ones with whom I share bread and drink wine. These are the ones with whom, night after night I share a roof and day after day I share the path and the sky. We find each other because we walk at the same pace, and like the same kinds of stopping places, and eat the same kinds of food. Mostly, perhaps, because we instinctively recognise that we are carrying the same kinds of burdens.
Camino del Norte. Companions on The Path of Miracles. 
French, Italian, German, Kiwi, French, Spanish and 
another Kiwi pressing the shutter button. 
No common language, but deep understanding and acceptance



Thursday, 3 November 2016

What I've been reading lately - 3 November 2016

I used to have a little carousel widget which displayed the books I was reading, but Amazon don't offer that anymore. So instead, I'm going to post, occasionally, a list of what I'm reading at the moment. Starting today. I'll give a brief outline but not a full review of each book. The graphic will sometimes contain a link to the book's Amazon page.

So, first up:


Malcolm Guite's collection of sonnets is slow reading because each is so rich and deep. an example;

O Sapientia

I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of Being, always grounding me,
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

David Bentley Hart: The Experience of God. I've been reading this for a long time. Hart's usual erudite, verbally agile style is a delight and his material takes some thought.


Robert Lanza is a Cellular Biologist with an impressive list of peer reviewed works to his credit, but this is written for a popular audience and addresses the "Hard Problem" - the ink between consciousness and matter. Which it does provocatively and profoundly


Hungarian Novelist Magda Szabo's evocative, profound, engaging and somewhat bleak 1987 novel.













And a children's novel, Lakeview Cottage by Mary Crossan. That's right, the Mary Crossan from St. Matthew's Dunedin.It's available from Mana Christian Bookshop in Moray Place, Dunedin