Saturday, November 27, 2010


No sooner had I posted this morning than the snail-mail dropped through the slot. In it was this gem:

Happy Clappy

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways,
For most of us, when asked our mind,
Admit we still more pleasure find
In hymns of ancient days.

The simple lyrics, for a start,
Of many a modern song
Are far too trite to touch the heart,
Enshrine no poetry, no art,
And go on much too long.

O for a rest from jollity
And syncopated praise!
What happened to tranquillity?
The silence of eternity
Is hard to hear these days.

Send Thy deep hush, subduing all
Those happy claps that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call.
Triumphalism is not all,
For sometimes we feel down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strummings cease.
Take from our souls the strain and stress
Of always having to be blessed.
Give us a bit of peace.

Breathe through the beats of praise guitar
Thy coolness and Thy balm.
Let drum be dumb, bring back the lyre,
Enough of earthquake, wind and fire
Let's hear it for some calm.

Byrd, Couperin, and Circus Music

Every night this week I've taken my guest to a different college chapel. Last night we went to one of my favourites from both architectural and musical points of view. The former chaplain, who was a lovely, saintly, prayerful man, has, alas, retired. I can't tell from the college website if a new one has been appointed, but last night a feeling of dread crept into my bones as just before the service began a clergyman strode in to fiddle with something at the Officiant's stall. In procession he wore a doctor's hood over his surplice, which seemed a bit much; most of the clergy I've seen with doctorates usually just wear the MA hood.

The service was lovely: Couperin, Radcliffe responses, Byrd canticles. So far so good. But then came the first lot of said prayers and when I heard the anal tenor speaking voice, my sense of dread returned. There is something about the voices of a lot of evangelical clergy that makes them sound like there is some kind of stricture in their throats, coming up from beneath, rather than a high throat choking. I don't know how to describe it—strangulated? When we got to the second set of prayers, my fears were confirmed: sermonettes for Christianettes, as one of my old profs (Lewis W. Spitz of Stanford) used to say—the usual wordy pap, so out of place in that lovely chapel. But the worst was yet to come.

The hymn was an evo favorite, just about bearable in its New English Hymnal version, but that wasn't the tune used. Instead, the organ scholar literally pulled out all the stops and made the concert tracker sound like a Wurlitzer. The tune was one I'd thankfully never heard before, and I kept my mouth shut. It sounded like circus music, and between each verse the organist did a few calliope riffs. The choir belted it out with gusto, but did I detect a bit of irony in both the organ playing and the choir's singing? And in a college known for its wonderful music, how could someone be so insensitive as to insert this raucous banal gutter music in the midst of the contemplative atmosphere created by Byrd and Couperin?

It will be a long, long time before I go to that chapel again.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Flock of Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving, to those who keep the feast. Here in the UK it's business as usual—except in Oxford, it's not.

Last night some students occupied the Radcliffe Camera. They are protesting the government's proposal to convert grants to loans and to allow universities to charge up to £9000 pounds tuition. This may not seem a lot of money for a university education to some Americans, but the economics of this country are not like those of the USA; people live much closer to the line.

The students are still in there, and as a result, the Old Bodleian is closed as a precautionary measure until they come out. It's the end of 7th week and work for all scholars is at a critical juncture. This morning I cringed when an American graduate student, blocked, as I was, from going into the Old Library, proclaimed in the loud voice Americans seem always to use, oblivious to the fact that their words penetrate all the other noise and voices, "Nine thousand pounds is NOTHING for a university education".

Until last night's occupation of the Camera, my sympathies were with the students, but now have vanished. The beautiful 18th century Palladian Camera is much too fragile to be the site of student protests; it is a privilege to be able to work there in the first place, instead of being confined to some sterile modern space. There even have been reports that the students occupying it were standing on the tables. If these students so value and appreciate education then they should know better than to use a World Heritage Site for their shenanigans, disrupting the work of the serious scholars who are teaching them or will teach them. They have shot themselves in the foot. When they finally do come out, I hope they are taken off and booked and jailed for trespass and whatever else the University can think up to throw at them.

The UK has produced many fine scholars, in part because of its policy of financing university education for all. The professors—in the sense of holding named chairs—I have worked with the most over the years are both from very modest backgrounds: one is the son of a postman and the other, as he once put it, came from East London where ". . . DLitt.s were not exactly lying around on the ground." It is questionable whether without the system that was until now in place, either of these people could have attended university at all. But now the Tory ideologues are heading this country in the direction of educational failure such as the USA is experiencing, and of which the rise of the Tea Party and the support for the idiocies of Palin and Fox news are evidence.

If my support for the students has ebbed, my support for what they are protesting has not. Far from it. I think all the educational reforms the Tories are proposing, as well as the benefit changes, are for the most part merely ideological, without regard to human compassion, much less common sense, and that their poorly thought through slashes will set this country back economically and socially. The rise of VAT to 20% is also folly, and will slow the process of recovery; its effects on the people at the bottom of the economic spectrum are unimaginable. Or all too imaginable. Taxing the banks and the super-rich would make much more sense.

Hard not to be in an apocalyptic frame of mind these days.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Winter has arrived. It's -4C outside; there's snow is in the forecast. The hens who live two gardens away have not ventured out—or perhaps have not been let out—yet; I hope a fox didn't get them. Their cockerel has also been silent for a couple of days; I miss his crowing. I hope neighbours didn't complain! To have a little farm-life in town is a touch of sanity.

Apologies for lack of a post this week: I have a guest in town until Saturday.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Human Dignity

Winter is drawing in: hard frost and freezing fog over the weekend, cold rain today. Sunday was Remembrance Sunday, always deeply moving; in my view, one of Britain's greatest gifts to the world, if only it would pay attention. Normally I watch the Cenotaph on Sunday morning, but since I've moved I'm near the war memorial in St Giles and so went to participate in person for the first time.

Mist hung over everything, muffling further the already half-muffled bells that were ringing out over the city, this world calling to the next, the echo floating back from the other side. The Remembrance ritual ran the entire gamut of human emotion from hilarity to tragedy, all mixed up together and overflowing.

The cadets in their fatigues didn't know their left foot from their right; they looked as if they'd been culled from every special needs class in the city, and good for whoever it is who thought of this way to make these kids feel competent and included and that they mattered. It was heartening to see them do their version of marching at the same time that it was funny and poignant.

But then some older men and women in dress uniform came by and they weren't much better at telling left from right, in spite of being shouted at in the traditional way: 'Left! Right! Left Right Left!' Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was two bands—Salvation Army and a military band—playing in contrary rhythms. Then came the veterans, no problem marching for these old hands, who strode along as if they'd never left the Services. They were wearing mostly civvies with bits of uniform—a beret here, a cap there—and their service medals. They bore in their upright confidence such a freight of emotion as the rest of us could only guess at.

The entire procession was led by the Bishop of Oxford and representatives of various faiths. There were large contingents from the City and the University as well, complete with enormous maces, red robes with their tatty bits of fur, wonderful academic hats and gowns and one indomitable tiny don in full regalia being wheeled: she must have been well over a hundred years old. All gathered around the memorial, while the rest of us stood about behind some flimsy barriers that were little more than a polite reminder to make room. Someone had thoughtfully provided service sheets. It was all very home grown instead of oppressively formal, very dignified but very human in the best sense.

Singing under these circumstances is always a trial because one can't allow oneself to think about the words without breaking down, and those who can sing have an obligation to encourage those who are shy. I did my part but there were one or two lines that disappeared into hoarseness and then silence.

Then the tragedy: a very tall, older, well-built man had a stroke or a heart attack, I'm not sure which. Two people quietly helped him to the wall a little way down from where I was standing where he slumped to the pavement while someone ran for the ambulance corps. British kindness and restraint kicked in; no one made a fuss to attract attention either to him or to themselves, but everyone was concerned as much that he was not embarrassed by what had happened to him (which had the potential of disrupting this solemn occasion) as that he was seen to; and everyone made sure he had enough space. He never lost consciousness and was quietly taken away in the interval between the service and the march-past.

St Giles parish waited to have their service until after the ceremony, but Mary Mags was already full of incense, with the choir singing the Sanctus when I slipped in, seeking a respite from the crowds and the military, and needing the ritual to help me settle. I'd already been to the Eucharist in one of the colleges and so stayed at the back . . . .and slipped out again as at the end of the service when flocks of clergy with noses in the air gathered near the door. I love smells and bells, but not what often goes with it.

Home to a hot cuppa and a quiet read in my aerie while the rain began to pound against the skylight in earnest, and I gave thanks once more for the deep values that have enabled this country to endure.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No Place for Silence

As I was away over the weekend I missed the third episode of 'The Big Silence' on the BBC, so I've just watched it on iPlayer here in the library, my old computer at home not being up to the task. It was a well-done series, I thought; but Jamieson's sadness and puzzlement at the end about people's alienation to putting what they had found in silence into traditional words and church structures seemed the only disingenuous moment. He was right on when he pointed to the relationship between silence and the evolution of doctrine, but oblivious of how those doctrines have been divorced from silence, twisted, and used to beat people up, keeping them immature and dependent, narrowing the parameters of what it might possibly mean to be human.

How can Jamieson stand the conflict between what deep silence teaches and what being a Roman Catholic forces you to assent to? Does he just glaze over, tune out, the way so many RC monastics do when confronted by contradiction (as opposed to paradox)?

I'm a professed religious and my sympathies are all with the alienated. Organized religion has become so embarrassing that it's not surprising people don't want to be associated with it. I'm not willing to use the fossilized language, either, not unless it's ringed about with explanations and caveats and provisionality. Some of it can still be useful, but only as it is understood in its wider relationship to silence and as it is restored to its relationship to silence and, most of all, as it yields to silence.

Encouraging these five people to look for support for the practice of silence in religious communities such as parishes is an exercise in futility: Jamieson should know better, but of course he has the Holy Office breathing down his neck, so he probably feels he has to say something about local churches. But most parishes are about noise, banality, programme, class, manners and keeping everything frozen in any fantasy time other than ours, using liturgies with too many words, never a pause for breath—anything to keep silence at bay.

Few of them have anyone knowledgeable about silence or able to teach it, not as just another programme ('On Wednesdays there is a meeting at Mrs. X's house for coffee, to pray for people and then have some silence'), but rather integrated wholly into the life of the parishioners, into the liturgies and life of the parish. Instead it's a class-ridden system where the church is about the clergy and the laity are nothing but bums in pews who are forced to support the clergy life-style and admire the same old tired old names who are brought in to spout the same old tired wheezes in trendy consumer-speak, or to pontificate, encouraging people to wallow in their complacency while the world crumbles around them.

The bottom line is that if you want support for deepening your silence there is no place to go.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Saturday Madness

I usually avoid the centre of town on the weekends but on Saturday I had to go there. Turning into the Cornmarket from the High was like walking into a rather more tame version of the Garden of Earthly Delights. In the centre of the street a crowd was watching an obviously unwell man seated in a chair subjecting himself to faith healers. A little farther down and off to one side, a slack-rope walker was playing a fiddle, swaying gently. Next, in the middle of the street, was a shouter standing behind a folding card table, bearing a sign that read "God is a lie". Beyond him a very large crowd was standing around a fire-eater. The main smorgasbord was bounded with lashings of a saxaphone player, a small band, vendors selling scarves, teeny-boppers and a few early halloween celebrants in costumes that looked slightly foolish in the broad autumn sunlight.

I have been reading Brueggemann's An Unsettling God. He is writing of the 'embarrassing particularity of the interpersonal' relationship between God and his people, and the dangers of 'final interpretations' that lead to 'final solutions'. 'Scholastic temptations in theology tend to freeze the relationship and to stifle its dynamism. Vague spirituality tends to compromise the sharp over-againstness that is generative of newness. This dialogic faith does not aspire to settlements and final formulations, though it may come to some of those (that remain provisional) through the transaction. What counts is the performance [italics his]. The performance continues to extend the transaction into all kinds of new situations,a nd is capable, always again, of surprise and innovation.' [p. 16]

"The kingdom of God is actually nothing other than the reciprocal union of the soul with all the world. This union of the soul with all the world occurs in thanksgiving, and the kingdom of God comes in this union . . . " [p. 12]

He sums up by saying that it is impossible to solve problems in relationship with technology.

Contrast with A.C. Spearing writing on Marguerite Porete:"The mind is defeated, reason is defeated, by these assertions; and my point here is that they exceed the sevenfold division into which they are forced. This is not , as we might expect and hope, a conceptual framework for the whole text." And that is one of the points I have been trying to make about these sorts of texts: they require a different methodology; we cannot approach them 'expecting and hoping' for a conceptual framework because contemplative texts are transgressing (See Hart's The Trespass of the Sign) the boundaries between the reasoning brain, which is self-conscious and very limited in capacity, and the deep brain which is not directly accessible by us (but can be influenced by intention). These texts break into a realm where expectation, hope, and evaluation have no place, where 'more than we can ask or imagine' can occur. Porete's text is precisely about breaking through all the boundaries imposed by reason and language so that grace can have free rein/reign. Her text is not heretical although it is novel and she enjoys employing extreme language. She is not saying anything that Richard of St Victor has not said or the Cloud author will not say.

We do violence to such texts when we try to analyse and confine them conceptually. We can and must approach them critically, but we will understand them only if we are willing to suspend the attitude McKendrick ( Immemorial Silence) describes: "Many of us [scholars] scoff at the ineffable, at the very possibility of ineffability." To scoff at ineffability is absurd since we know that the suspension of self-consciousness, excessus mentis, happens frequently every day in the normal course of things. It is only when it is sought that it becomes 'rare' because the paradox of intention comes into play [The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving up the Attempt to Reach It by Marvin Shaw, American Academy of Religion, 1988]: think the word on the tip of the tongue, only in this case the seeker must learn to forget words so that the Word, more, the Spirit that animates the Word, can do its work in the depth of the soul. It is not elitism, as Spearing asserts in the following quote; it is simply that few people are willing to let go to the degree Porete reminds us is required. In studying such texts, scholars too need to let go of their obsessive ideas and methodologies and work with these texts on their own terms. They are not irrational but require both analytical and non-linear thinking.

Spearing not only seems to scoff at ineffability; ["Marguerite Porete: courtliness and transcendence in The Mirror of Simple Souls" in Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages ed. Carolyn Muessig and Ad Putter, pp. 120-136] the modifiers he uses and his sarcasm are quite shocking in their evident bias in what purports to be a scholarly paper [the reference numbers to the edition he is using have been omitted in this quote]:

"Reason, we have been informed, 'understands only the obvious, and fails to grasp what is subtle' [...], and Love has told her, 'Ah Reason, [. . .] you will always see with one eye only, you and all those who are nurtured by your doctrine' [...] Those who are nurtured by Reason's doctrine are, in a word, the Church—the Church as an earthly institution, described by Porete as 'Holy Church the Less' by contrast with 'Holy Church the Great', which consists of the few elite souls like herself who are moving towards union with God [...] In chapter 87 the Soul sensationally asserts, 'I am and I shall always be without fail, for Love has no beginning or end or bounds and I am nothing but Love, and this statement so appals [sic] Reason that she dies on the spot, with the soul callously commenting, 'Alas! why did she not die long ago?' [...]

Elite? Sensational? Callous? What person doing the work of silence wouldn't rejoice when thoughts fell away?

Remember John the Solitary (5th c)?

‘How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not in the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I depart from the voice, no longer remaining in things which the voice proclaims? When shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things, when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring.’ Quoted in ‘John the Solitary, On Prayer’ by S. P. Brock, The Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, Vol. XXX, part 1, 1979, p. 87.

Or, closer to Porete and influencing the spirituality of her day, Richard of St Victor, who speaks of the fainting, or falling away (deficio) of reason: "The fainting of the three disciples represents the failure of sense, memory and reason in this highest contemplation. The parallel in the patriarchal imagery is the birth of Benjamin,, which is accompanied by the death of Rachel, also intepreted as the failure of reason in . . . contemplative ecstasy. (Ch 80)" [From Grover Zinn's introduction to the volume on Richard in the Classics of Western Spirituality series]

Spearing goes on to comment: "(If the Soul's reason were to die, then she would be unable to see any reason why her reason had ever existed.) Yet in chapter 98 Reason reappears, alive and well, without a word of explanation . . .It is surprising how many commentators on the Mirror emphasize Reason's death but fail to mention her resurrection." It is amazing that Spearing doesn't seem to have any awareness that Porete is writing about a process that repeats itself; that it is through repeated "death", of yielding to the redemptive silence, that the soul is transfigured into greater life in this life.