Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Christmas to All

Christmas arrived last week.

A friend (thank you, Beth!) took me to hear The Sixteen at the lovely St John the Evangelist Church in East Oxford, now a concert venue. It happened that this formal concert took place on the same day as the Bodleian carols at the library, which is very informal: the community of scholars gathers to sing carols and listen to readings, led by a choir and scratch orchestra drawn from the staff. This year there was a trumpet for the first time, which made for a spine-tingling finish as we sang the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah.

Bodley carols always makes my Christmas, but to be able to listen to The Sixteen in addition was something close to heaven. The end of the first half of the concert left me in floods of tears—two versions of O Magnum Mysterium sandwiched around Bethlehem Down. My friend's eyes also were damp as she ministered to me with hot mulled wine from a thermos during the interval.

What is it about this musical group that is so deeply affecting? Perhaps in part it is that the twenty singers have a broad age range from twenties to ??? fifties? sixties? The span of ages makes for a particularly rich sound. Perhaps it is the perfection of the singing? Yet the listener is aware that the music goes far beyond perfection. The group is intensely human in the best sense. It is never artificial. Spontaneity charges the music with what I can only characterise as kindly passion. Does the passion give rise to the perfection or vice versa? The integration in the music of The Sixteen means that the whole is far, far more than the sum of its parts. The listener is so caught up that it becomes impossible to analyse either in the moment or in retrospect. As Beth remarked, Harry Christophers is the sort of conductor for whom you'd sing your heart out. 'Who sings, prays twice', the hearts of listeners singing silently with the group, mirroring that spontaneous perfection.

And yes, the whole experience was a parable of the incarnation, which resonates far beyond the musical moment—as does the Feast itself, far beyond the twelve days of Christmas. It will continue to resonate as I leave for my retreat in Scotland on January 6. There is no wifi at the retreat, so this blog will be suspended from that date until late March. I hope to keep a journal of the retreat, which I will post on my return.

May all of you, Gentle Readers, have a most blessed Christmas season and every joy in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Great O Antiphons

Today in England the Great O antiphons begin. If you don't know them, go to the link below for a wonderful essay, far better than anything I could write!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Happy St Nicholas Day

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Book of the Year

I am happy to report that Diarmaid MacCulloch has named Silence: A User's Guide as one of his best books of 2014 in the Guardian roundup.

Click on image to enlarge.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Curmudgeonly Advent Grumblings

Watery sunshine; unseasonable warmth from a low-angled sun; mists and mellow fruitfulness. Best to concentrate on what is left of the natural world. Best not to turn on the news which shows Black Friday scenes of violence involving people demonically possessed by consumerism, the abject terror of a boy about twelve years old down on his hands and knees as he fights to avoid being trampled by the crowd pushing from behind. Is there no more to life than clawing and pushing fellow human beings in order to possess a 40-inch flat screen TV?
Tomorrow is Advent Sunday. Whatever  happened to the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell, appropriate topics for reflection as the natural world sinks into the quiet of decay, and the long winter's night? Judgement and hell have been airbrushed out of the picture, and in cities the night is as artificially as bright as the day, in a sorry parody of the psalm. 
The four last things have been replaced with the first four Harry Potter films, along with B and C rated Christmas movies that began to flicker across the diabolical box two weeks ago. Someone more interested than I am might check back on the broadcast schedule to see how many times "It's A Wonderful Life" has already been shown. Is no one paying attention to climate change and the news that frogs are spawning and snowdrops blooming months ahead of their normal cycle?
The town, the markets, the supermarkets are jammed with excess, with stuff, to the point of nausea. I'm not a great lover of Christmas to begin with, except for the traditional music and memories of the profound silence of monastic observances. Usually I can enjoy bits of the secular feast, a few favourite foods on Christmas itself, a sense of merriment that breaks through the desperation here and there. But this year I find I'm already surfeited. I just wish it were over. It seems so pointless. Maybe it's my age, maybe it's the new clarity with which I see since the last cataract was removed—I can hardly bear to go outside the house.
Don't get me wrong: we need a winter festival, especially at these northern latitudes; we need times of celebration with friends and families—relaxed times, reflective times, but these seem nowhere in sight. Insane consumerism and mad partying marked by binge drinking hardly fill the bill. What we don't know, we fear. And I find myself deeply afraid of the world I see collapsing around me, just as those who live in that world become increasingly afraid of what is simple, and natural, and quiet. Most of all, perhaps, afraid of the paradox of the divinely human and the humanly divine, at least in potential, and what incarnation might require.
Amid all these reasons to stick my head under the pillow for the next month there was one sign of hope this morning as I made my way through a crowded Marks and Spencer to buy a few vegetables. At the head of an aisle was a cardboard stand with Advent calendars. Most were completely secular, based on Disney's Frozen and similar pop icons. These compartments were full. But the one that had nearly sold out was a traditional one of the journey through Advent ending at the manger. Maybe it's just a sign of the older demographic of this particular store. 
On the other hand, maybe I'm not as alone as I think I am.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Now Available in the UK and Europe

Silence: A User's Guide is now available in the UK from Darton, Longman, Todd

It is also available in the USA and the rest of the world from Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock

Monday, October 20, 2014

We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning IV

The antidote to all these false paths can be summed up in a single word: behold. It is arguably the most important word in the bible, and the most important aspect of the shifting of attention I have described. It is no accident that Julian of Norwich sums up her Long Text not in the catchphrase "all shall be well" but rather, "seke to the beholdyng." Beholding sums up everything the bible teaches, everything about seeking the divine over which millions of words have been written, and reservoirs of ink have been spilt. Beholding is our covenantal reciprocity with the divine. It is the means by which God, who is beyond being and time, allows us to hold him in being and time, even as he is holding us in eternity. The major theme of The Cloud of Unknowing is not unknowing but rather beholding: the author uses the word thirty-five times. The Cloud-author is trying to teach the reader not to be fooled by or trapped in lesser "beholdings"—that is, experiences—but to seek the beholding.
There is a lot of talk these days about the "new monasticism," which is neither new nor monastic; about fluffy "spirituality," about self-indulgent "contemplation." We need to remember that in sharp contrast all this self-seeking exceptionality, God works through the ordinary. Meister Eckhart gives us a word here: "If you are doing anything special, you're not seeking God."
Simply having the intention of silence, and reinforcing that intention by eliminating as much noise from daily life as possible—but without being artificial—will teach us more than any "experience" staged by a celebrity guru. Cultivating the unself-conscious habit of reaching for the silence of the heart beneath words, beneath everyday tasks, at the core of relationships, the environment, our own minds, will bring more illumination than reading a thousand books.
Sit in the cell of your heart and "seke to the beholdyng," and all the rest shall be added unto you.