Sunday, May 29, 2011

More Language Matters

Lest, Gentle Readers, you think the previous post was merely an aesthetic rant:

The way we use language affects the way we think, the way we pay attention, and ultimately, perhaps, the structures of our brains.

'The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world'. [The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, Yale, 2009, p. 5. This book is a far cry from the clichés of the 1970s about left brain/right brain, much of which has proved wrong; the situation is far more complex and subtle.] 'The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focused attention. This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a 'whole': something very different'. (pp. 27-28) In other words, the left hemisphere works with a representation of the reality the right hemisphere sees whole and direct.

'And it also turns out that the capacities that help us, as humans, form bonds with others—empathy, emotional understanding, and so on—which involve a quite different kind of attention paid to the world, are largely right-hemisphere functions'. (p. 28)

If we choose language that opens the mind of the receiver, such as the American version of the prayer in the previous post (without the repeated word 'ones'), or the proclamation 'Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us' (without the British interpolation of 'lamb'), the multi-layered meanings contained in them force the listener to suspend the everyday schematizing mind to be receptive to what I have called the 'deep mind', the part of the mind which is out of our sight. (see 'Jesus in the Balance' in this blog, 8 March, 2010 and the discussion in October 2010 about 'experience').

'The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language . . .This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances'. (p. 49)

The spiritual task could be stated in non-religious terms as the need to relocate the energy centre from which we live from the self-conscious mind (which can hold perhaps 40 items at any one moment) to the deep mind (which can hold perhaps 11 million, according to one account). While we must not make the mistake of thinking simplistically that there is a direct correspondence between mind and brain, in the sense that the self-conscious mind and the left hemisphere are really the same, or the deep mind and the right hemisphere, yet the brain is, as McGilChrist puts it, 'the place where mind meets matter'; what we do with our minds affects that matter.

The way we use language, especially in a liturgical setting, can facilitate the task of what I have called 'the work of silence' by helping the mind into the self-forgetful receptivity of the hidden, deep mind; or it can make the task more difficult by throwing the listener back into the self-conscious mind, reinforcing the concerns of the left hemisphere, which is what happens when the interpolations are made in the prayer and the proclamation mentioned in the previous post ('heal the joyous' vs 'heal the joyous ones'; 'Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us' vs 'Christ our Passover lamb is sacrificed for us').

The same can be said of music. There is nothing subtle about rock and hiphop: they are self-conscious music forms, and make the listeners self-conscious. While most rhythm is handled by the right hemisphere, the repetitive thumping — 'basic metrical rhythms' (p. 74) — of pop music are handled by the left hemisphere. These are but two of the reasons that pop music is inappropriate for liturgy, which, if it is doing its job, is opening us to the liminality ('betweenness' p. 72) of the apophatic and opening the apophatic to us.

But there is more: the way we think has an impact on the formation of our brains. For example, 'brain areas in individuals may actually grow in response to use. . .the right posterior hypocampus, the area of the brain which stores complex three-dimensional maps in space, is larger in London cabbies, taxi drivers with extensive navigational experience.' (p. 24) There are also well-known studies on changes in brain structures and functions of people who have meditated or prayed all their lives.

There are implications in these studies for everything we do in Western Christianity: the language of liturgy, the language of translation, the kind of music we use, the amount of silence within the liturgy, the gestalt—for the right hemisphere misses nothing. We speak of religion as communicating with reality, but if it is making us more self-conscious, focusing us on superficial details and virtual representations, shattering us with noise, then it is less than useless; it is destructive.

McGilchrist's book is fascinating, if somewhat hard to get into at first. It is essential reading for anyone who has a serious interest the relationship between mind and brain; how these affect the way we see the world and the way we create it for ourselves. And particularly for those with a serious interest in pulling Western Christianity back towards its empirical base, lest it die of triviality, banality, and an excess of words piled on words that have no longer have any referent.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Likewise, I'm Sure

Gentle Readers, please bear with me for one more rant about the language of liturgy.

It just gets worse and worse.

The follow prayer appears in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer (I have seen it attributed to St Augustine but do not know if this is correct):

'Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake'.

It's a beautiful prayer, and was warmly welcomed; it has been adopted by many other denominations.

But in its trans-Atlantic migration to the C of E's Common Worship (and in my view this service book is common in the worst sense), whoever is writing liturgy for the poor Anglicans has violated every principle of the translators of the KJV, which I have sketched out in recent posts. This timeless and inclusive prayer now sounds like someone throwing bricks. It reads:

'Tend the sick ones, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary ones, bless the dying ones, sooth the suffering ones, pity the afflicted ones, shield the joyous ones'. I duck every time I hear it.

Even worse, "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us" (American BCP 1979), said at the Fraction, a phrase which transcends time and is refulgent with meaning—for example, that Christ is the way our passover is accomplished through his passover—has, in the dreadful Common Worship, become 'Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us'. Oh puh-lease. The addition of the animal means that Christ is history, a sanitized OT/Apocalypse reference, a cutsey fluffy lambkin in a stained glass window; the addition makes material what is meant as spiritual. So much for the climatic moment of the Eucharist in which the two halves of the bread are held apart: the addition of the word 'lamb' reverses the apophatic moment: we are dragged back into and bound in time, dropped with a thud into linearity and the hamster wheel of our self-consciousness. It is a cringe-making change, and sometimes celebrants choke over having to use it, as well they should.

I have heard that the new translation of the RC liturgy is even worse than the last one, if that is possible, with the possible exception that 'and with your spirit' has been restored. This surely is a step in the right direction. I remember talking to Madeleine L'Engle about the phrase 'and also with you' when it was first inflicted on us. She insisted that it would automatically provoke the response 'likewise, I'm sure'.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sunday Evening at St Mark's Cathedral, Seattle

Sunday night Compline in St Mark's cathedral in Seattle: it is the same this Sunday evening as it has been every Sunday evening for more than fifty years. Just before 9 PM, dozens of twenty-somethings gather outside the great west doors. Among them are university students, street people, young professionals. There is a sprinkling of older people, but the vast majority of the crowd is under thirty-five years of age.

As soon as the doors open, they file quietly into the semi-darkness to find places in the pews, sitting on the floor along the walls, sprawling in the sanctuary. The crowd continues to pour through the west doors in a seemingly endless stream until the great space is nearly full. As the people gather, the silence seems to grow, not diminish. There are a few whispers, but most people are content to let the silence seep into their bones. Cell phones are off; iPods unplugged. There are no signs asking for silence, no officious ushers, no clergy smiling tightly through their teeth.

At 9:30 a door opens to the right of the altar and a robed choir files in, pacing the length of the cathedral to stand at one side under the organ loft where they cannot be seen. Their leader sounds a note, and a clear unaccompanied tenor voice spins the opening line of the ancient service of Compline into the reverberating darkness. Another voice answers, complementing the silence. The choir picks up the ancient Gregorian rhythm of the psalms. The group sing a motet; a solo voice chants final prayers. The choir files out the way it came in.

When the choir has disappeared, the huge congregation sits motionless in the stillness, reluctant to move. The moment passes; people begin to get up and leave, their movements languid and gentle, as if waking from sleep. Some stretch and yawn. Many hold hands. At the west door two greeters stand with collection bowls, but their focus is welcome, not money. Scraps of conversation float by, "Mystical.... healing.... peaceful.... mysterious....." The half hour long service has been broadcast on the radio, silence and all, to a listening audience of more than 100,000 people, supplemented by unknown numbers tuned in on the internet.

It would not do to analyse this weekly phenomenon too closely but it is perhaps significant that the person who began it was a musician, a cathedral organist imbued with the play of sound and silence, and the resonance of stillness. It was a stroke of luck that the cathedral clergy refused to participate (perhaps they thought a lay-founded service was beneath them); it would now be inappropriate for them to do so. Whatever the motives, those who have continued the tradition have created an environment that has enormous respect for the innate ritual sense of the ordinary person.

It was this respect that was lacking two Sundays ago at the event that was so upsetting to the congregation, young and old alike. Beyond that particular event, however, Sundays in general are tough for a lot of people; Sunday afternoon is the haunt of "the noon-day devil". There is no reason that the fine speakers whom I have not gone to hear because of the raucous context could not make their presentations in the context of Compline in the St Mark's Cathedral fashion. Their remarks could be spoken in the semi-dark—forget the dais and the show-biz razzle dazzle.

As St Mark's has demonstrated, there is a real need for something like this on Sunday evenings. One would be forgiven for wondering why other churches have not taken a page from St Mark's book—but in these deaf and competitive days, that is probably too much to hope for.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Hartwell, who for a time was Brother Isaac, SSF. Steve died last Saturday morning, the 21st of May, 2011. Along with his partner Ray, who survives him, he was one of the greeters mentioned in the above description, a pillar of St Mark's. He was multi-talented: vestment-maker, master of ceremonies, above all a kind and generous friend to anyone who came to the cathedral, and, in his private life, hospitable and generous almost to a fault. He would not have seen himself in this way, but his entire life was self-gift. He wanted to make people comfortable with God, helping to ensure that the worship had dignity, and flow, and beauty without being oppressive or pompous or kitsch. He was no stranger to suffering, and provided comfort to people without number. He will be sorely missed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Language and Meaning

In the wake of the Bath marathon reading of the Authorized Version of the bible (KJV) and in preparation for the discussion at Hay, I've been reading Adam Nicholson's wonderful book, When God Spoke English. His prose is worthy of the book he is writing about, and he has a way of voicing the unease that many people feel about contemporary religion and especially contemporary bible translations.

On p. 152-154 he discusses the evolution of Luke 1:57 from the Bishop's Bible to KJV to the New English translation. Translation by committee, however, has its drawbacks. One of the translators suggested the phrase 'was fulfilled', which was rejected. "The phrase . . . was a brave attempt at just the kind of lexical enrichment the Jacobeans enjoyed, and on which the King James Bible, almost subliminally, often relies. it carries a double hidden pun: not only had the time come for Elizabeth's son to be born, but she was both filled full with the child in her womb and fulfilled in her role and duty as the mother of the Baptist."

This layering of meaning is, incidentally, a very medieval way of writing. Middle English is full of such tropes.

Nicholson continues: 'The idea is marvellous, but the word is not quite right, a little dense, even a little technical.' It is replaced with 'full time came', which Nicholson says '. . .is irreproachably English, simple, accessible, conceptually rich, full of potent and resonant meanings as Elizabeth was with child. In Jacobean English full can mean plump, perfect and overbrimming, and all of these meanings are here. It is difficult to imagine anything being better done, but it wasn't thought good enough for the twentieth-century translators of the New English Bible. They settled on: "Now the time came for Elizabeth's child to be born, and she gave birth to a son."

'That is a descent to dreariness, to a level of banality . . .The modern world had lost the thing which informs every act and gesture . . of the King James Bible . . . and of that incomparable age: a sense of encompassing richness which stretches unbroken from the divine to the sculptural, from theology to cushions, from a sense of the beauty of the created world to the extraordinary capabilities of language to embody it.'

In other words, the intent behind KJV is thoroughly incarnational and, as Nicholson points out, embraces what seem to be all the wild incongruities of the age, the full range of what it means to be human.

Nicholson continues: 'This is about more than mere sonority or the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammer. The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. [italics mine] Language . . which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language, in other words, which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority. . . .It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died.'

Monday, May 16, 2011

Publication and Hay Festival

"Maggie Ross clears away the 'white noise' that so often attends writing
and talking about faith. She invites us into real quiet, which is also real
presence, presence to ourselves and to the threefold mystery that
eludes our concepts and even our ordinary ideas of 'experience'.
A really transformative book." —jacket comment by The Most Rev'd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

"This book is intended for everyone who has had enough of 'spiritual
writing' and is looking for something that will make sense of normal human experience and integrate it into the knowledge of God through Christ." —from the Foreword by The Rev'd Professor John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford

Although the publication date for Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding is Friday, May 20, some shops, including Blackwells, already have it in stock and on display.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Why has the event described in the last post hit me so hard? I am still struggling with outrage. On reflection, what happened seems to have been a microcosm of what is going on in institutional religion in general, but in the C of E and Anglican Communion in particular.

Here was a rare opportunity to listen to the sort of person who comes along only about once in a century. Did the context in which he was to speak encourage reflective listening? It did not. Rather, it made one wish one were deaf; it was a physical relief when the atrocious, aggressive, self-centred and ego-generated 'music' finally shut up. Even then, the shattered atmosphere made it hard for people to settle.

If that weren't enough there were further distractions before we got to the main event and even then, the creative possibilities were choked off by the canned questions. Why didn't they have the sense to just let him talk? Give three short addresses on this darkest and deepest of psalms, interspersed with silence? Set them in the context of a reflective Compline? Ego again, and the need to control, control, control—and show off.

In short, the evening wasn't about gaining new and deeper insights from Rowan or an exposition of Psalm 88; it wasn't about exposure to humility and peace. Rowan's presence was an excuse for the perpetrators to parade what they stand for, which, sadly, is exactly opposite to everything Rowan stands for.

It has frequently been said that Rowan's gifts are wasted on the C of E and the Anglican Communion. I haven't wanted finally to believe this—I still had a modicum of hope—but after what I saw on Sunday evening, I have to agree. There was plenty of sycophancy, but there was little respect. Rowan was treated as a cipher, not a human being, much less the extraordinary teacher and person he is. The event only confirmed my sense that the Anglican situation has gone far beyond the point of no return.

It is not difficult to imagine an 'at large' role for Rowan, such as Tutu and the Dalai Lama used to have before they retired. In the event, the people who most want to hear what Rowan has to say, and are in sympathy with what he stands for, have, for the most part, already departed the institution.

Maybe he should stop wasting his time.

Monday, May 09, 2011


'My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me; and darkness is my only companion.' (Psalm 88:19)

So reads the end of one of the bleakest psalms in the book, the one on which Rowan Williams was speaking last night. He was in the middle an official visit to the Oxford diocese on a schedule that would have killed a lesser man. By 8 PM last evening he was clearly under considerable strain. His evident exhaustion was not helped by what he was about to endure.

I'd only been to this series once before—last Sunday. Once was enough: I wouldn't have come again except for Rowan. The current focus (the series is held only during Term) is on the psalms on which I'm speaking at the Hay Festival; and while I know what I am going to say, I was interested in other approaches. That I was underwhelmed last week doesn't even begin to express my response, not because of the speaker, who was adequate, but because of what surrounded the speaker. The event was sparsely attended, about fifteen people (as opposed to last evening when hundreds came to hear Rowan—and I doubt that any of them will return).

Eight PM on a Sunday evening in a quiet cathedral is neither the time nor the place for the sort of deafening, banal, puerile guitar-and-vocals blatting or piano elevator music that one associates with the worst evo-factories [to misquote Annie Dillard: 'Who gave the poor Anglicans guitars?']. But last Sunday that was what we got. The event attempted to be a combination of so-called evening worship entwined with three sets of canned questions and answers. From a liturgical point of view it was incoherent; it was impossible to figure out who the intended audience (I use the word advisedly: we certainly weren't a congregation) might have been or what the point of it was.

Last night was infinitely worse: there was the added torture of a rapper. The volume was ratcheted up to physically painful levels. The caterwauling was an assault: physical, psychological and liturgical torture. This isn't just me being an old fogey: even the twenty-somethings sitting behind me were appalled, remarking how inappropriate such yammering was to a cathedral, much less disrespectful to Rowan, much less contemptuous of the audience, much less unacceptable in the context of the sombre material of Psalm 88, much less to the hour of the evening when one is trying to wind down in preparation for sleep. Poor Rowan: I can't even begin to imagine what he must have been feeling under his always-gracious exterior.

There are several future speakers in this series I'd like to hear, but after what happened last night, never again. Frankly, I was quietly rude. (I wish I'd had the courage to be disruptively rude). While the perpetrators of this noise pollution were playing, in their full view, I held my ears. After Rowan had finished speaking, under cover of the audience standing to sing the Lord's Prayer (to a nauseating contemporary tune), I walked out.

There was a report last week that attendance at cathedrals on weekdays is increasing. Weekday liturgies in cathedrals tend to be low-key, full of silence, and accompanied by music of great beauty, carefully performed—in other words, entirely opposite to the nightmare that was wished on us last night. The organizers of this Sunday series should take note.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Also Relevant . . .

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Death of a Terrorist and Unanswered Questions


The Guardian, Thursday 5 May 2011

Your correspondents have rightly been critical of the questionable legality of American action against Bin Laden and Nato attempts to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi (Osama bin Laden and wild-west justice, 3 May). Some 65 years ago US prosecutors and politicians led the way in rejecting the idea of simply identifying and then executing Nazi leaders when they fell into allied hands. Justice Robert Jackson insisted that if the western allies wanted to hold the moral high ground they had to be seen to behave differently from the defeated axis states. The Nuremberg trials gave an opportunity through due legal process for the victor states to demonstrate that the rule of law had to be applied even to the most lawless acts.

How the wheel of history has turned? Instead we have extra-legal murder squads, concentration camps, torture of suspects, wilful disregard for legal sovereignty. No one will shed tears for Bin Laden or for Gaddafi, but if the rule of law was good enough for the Nazi leadership, responsible for the greatest mass murders in history, it must be good enough for our current conflicts. It is time to put an end to the idea that lynch law is a legitimate form of international justice and to try to base Obama's limp claim that "justice" has been done on a restoration of international behaviour that respects those rules and sets aside the unconvincing assertion that the western killing is the archway to democracy. Robert Jackson would be turning in his grave.

Professor Richard Overy


• Although the killing of Mr Bin Laden appears to have been received positively in the west (Cheers, tears and beers..., 3 May), I for one struggle to understand on what basis the US can attack and kill a person in another sovereign state.

Bin Laden has not been convicted in any court, other than the court of public opinion. The US is not at war with Pakistan. As far as I am aware a state cannot declare war on an individual. What possible legal basis, other than "might is right", does the US have to kill this man, without even the cover of acquiescence by that state in such a killing? Can we expect Black Hawks to descend on the home counties in search of Julian Assange, I wonder? The US needs to provide a legal basis for this action or be held to account.

David Enright

Solicitor, St Albans, Hertfordshire

• Two things about the connection between waterboarding and the killing of Osama bin Laden (Report, 3 May). First, it is not essential to the case against torture that torture is ineffective; the case against torture is that it is prohibited legally and morally as an abomination, whether it yields useful information or not. Second, even if former vice-president Dick Cheney and Professor John Yoo are right about the effectiveness of waterboarding in this instance, their claim should be understood for what it is: that the unlawful use of torture helped facilitate the unlawful use of death squads. It is no justification for the commission of one crime (torture) that it helps facilitate the commission of another crime (assassination), even when those crimes are committed against people who are themselves dangerous criminals.

Jeremy Waldron

Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, All Souls College, Oxford

• So after 10 years US special forces finally killed Osama bin Laden. The evil genius is dead! He was a genius for taking questions to the empire's military, political and economic heart, but an evil one for the murderous methods he asked them. But as you cheer, please tell us one thing. We are malnourished Indian children, Palestinians corralled in Gaza, Bangladeshis sandwiched between Himalayan floods and inexorably rising sea, HIV-positive Kenyans with no access to retrovirals … we are all those clinging to the underbelly of this wickedly wonderful world system. How do we get answers to the questions of economic, social and environmental justice that Bin Laden so inappropriately asked?

Dr Jeph Mathias

Landour community hospital, India

• Now retribution has been exacted and the US has taken its "pound of flesh", it is time to sit down and talk (Brain food, 3 May). Even the British managed it with the IRA. And if the world has learned one thing over the last 15 years, it is that al-Qaida hardliners are so hacked off they are prepared to strap bombs to themselves and kill anyone.

So why doesn't the west do something about the legitimate issues that induce Islamic fundamentalism? Like remove western airbases from Saudi Arabia? Like initiate a Middle Eastern peace talk mechanism involving Hamas, without kowtowing to the US Israeli lobby? It would be much cheaper – in both human and financial terms – than continuing to fight a losing global battle. If we engage and negotiate – fairly and unilaterally – there is no "war on terror".

Nick Hopewell-Smith

Stradbroke, Suffolk

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Responses Worth Foregrounding

In response to the article in the previous post, John Barton wrote on 3 May:

I am not sure why this article is a must read. It tries to tarnish and defame President Obama by alleging, without factual support, that the US violated international law by not capturing Bin Laden rather than killing him. The author himself, however, provides the obvious answer: Bin Laden "would have refused any offer to surrender. . . ." Indeed, reports regarding the raid confirm that the US forces would have taken Bin Laden into custody if he did not offer resistance (NYT: "American officials insisted they would have taken Bin Laden into custody if he did not resist, although they considered that likelihood remote. 'If we had the opportunity to take Bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that,' Mr. Brennan said."). When a criminal who has killed thousands of innocent people chooses to die rather than surrender and submit to the legal process, President Obama is correct when he states that justice has been done.

To which MR responded:

Thank you, John. What you say is quite true. But what is at stake here in my view calls the whole notion of justice into question and goes far beyond the issue of bin Laden or a putative trial. It is not a question of whether Obama (whom I support wholeheartedly) was right or wrong—and the planning of this action seems to have been considered and expertly brought off. If it needed to be done, hats off to him for doing it well and guiding it with a firm and considered hand. But the image of Americans (and I am one) acting like Munchkins at the death of the Wicked Witch of the East is all too apt, too typical—mindless and shortsighted. And why should anyone rejoice at another's death? Grieve, rather, over the human brokenness that makes such a military action necessary. The revenge mentality is the same mentality that was behind the disastrous retaliatory hit on Iraq after 9/11 on the trumped up excuse of weapons of mass destruction. I'm not sorry Saddam is gone, but look what a mess has been left in the wake of this un-thought-through intervention. This revenge mentality is the same mentality that underlies the death penalty, still in force in a country that regards itself as civilised. And every execution further degrades America and our humanity. While eliminating bin Laden may have been a strategic necessity, and while he was a symbolic figurehead of a terrorist mentality, the USA historically has been all too eager to engineer or carry out the removal of leaders of governments, whether or not they have been responsible for attacking the USA directly: Allende, for example, Lumumba. One then might ask, if the action against bin Laden was justified, why hasn't the black ops brigade gone after Mugabe or Assad, both of whom have murdered thousands of their own people? Why were governments so slow—perhaps too late—to respond to the slaughter in Libya? In Ivory Coast? Few people would weep at the death of any of these tyrants; even so, rejoicing would still not be appropriate. Rejoice, rather, at the gift of opportunity for freedom and the creation of a system of real justice. Such situations as that concerning bin Laden are so extreme that the very notion of 'justice' is badly skewed—to the point that it is questionable whether the word should be used at all. I would rather Obama had said something like 'the situation has changed', or shifted, or resolved, or some other neutral word or phrase that did not claim any moral high ground. I would rather that Americans had mourned their dead anew and honoured their troops, than dance on bin Laden's watery grave. It's the triumphalism I find so appalling. And while this operation was sophisticated and by all accounts necessary, it is uncomfortably close to the wild west mentality that has motivated the USA to act in far less appropriate circumstances.

To which John Barton graciously responded on May 4:

Mea culpa. I again mistakenly believed that White House statements are entitled to the presumption of truth. The Times this morning is reporting that bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. Even though the White House indicates that does not mean that he surrendered, it certainly appears that he could have been taken alive rather easily, although I guess if I were a Navy Seal that would be a difficult judgment to make. I, like many Americans, again feel let down by an administration in which we had put such great hopes. The only consolation is that the matter was clarified quickly and not buried as I probably would have been under other Presidents. Thank you very much for your insightful response to my reply to your post yesterday. I certainly agree with your analysis of our country’s reaction to bin Laden’s death and our sense of triumphalism. My only defense would be that, while the media focused on the “Munchkins”, many others had a more muted, thoughtful and nuanced response as I am sure you aware. Hopefully, our country (and the world) will ultimately realize the cycle of violence must be broken if we are find the peace for which we all yearn. I look forward to reading your future posts, which I enjoy so much.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Comment on Osama Bin Laden's Death

Here is an article everyone should read:

'Every man's death diminishes me' — and that includes bin Laden's.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Wisdom from P.D. James, the Abbot Tashi, and Langland

Death in Holy Orders, Penguin, 2001, p. 180, p. 537.

'Father Sebastian said, "What is it that you want? A Church without mystery, stripped of that learning, tolerance and dignity that were the virtues of Anglicanism? A Church without humility in the face of the ineffable mystery and love of Almighty God? Services with banal hymns, a debased liturgy, and the Eucharist conducted as if it were a parish bean-feast? A Church for Cool Brittannia?"

Not that I have any sympathy with the sort of misogynistic attitudes and ecclesiology represented by Fr Sebastian and the fictional St Anselm's.

And James succinctly describes our present cultural decline:: '"[We] live in a dying civilization . . . . the death of beauty, of scholarship, of art, of intellectual integrity . . ."'

To which could be added another thought for which, alas, I cannot find the source: that 'elitism' is today frequently used as a euphemism to denigrate education and the pursuit of wisdom, while simultaneously attempting to excuse the speaker's/writer's own laziness and loutishness.

The charge of elitism also has been used over the centuries as an indictment of pure contemplation of the sort described by the Cloud-author. People may be quite willing to start out on the adventure, but when they find that not only is the goal not to acquire pleasurable or extravagant or 'special' experiences but rather to relinquish all claims to experience, whether 'good' or 'bad'; that contemplation requires a radical interior simplicity that will—because the distinction of 'interior' and 'exterior' is a false one—of necessity require an equally radical shift in living conditions, friends, activities, they are unwilling to pay the price. They love too much the chains of their limited perspective. Alas, they do not realize that if they had not counted the cost, a way of being in the world far more wonderful than any isolated 'experience' or lifestyle would have been theirs.

Colin Thubon received insights similar to those of the Cloud-author from the Buddhist abbot, Tashi (To a Mountain in Tibet, Chatto and Windus 2011, p. 135-136), although the tantric method may seem, at a superficial level, quite different from that described by The Cloud of Unknowing:

'. . .The gods were only guides to the enlightenment that would erase them. His [the abbot's] arms unfolded impotently from his chest, trying to explain. "I think it is a science. Anyone can do it. I think you can do it. . . ." But tantrism [the marriage of wisdom and compassion] was a way to be lived, Tashi said, not a doctrine to be learnt. You could not know it until you experienced it. Though by then, perhaps, it would be too late to return.

'He said: "In this meditation you find above all great strength and eventual peace, the peace we all seek. Once you start out yes, you know it will be foolish to give up. You will lose too much . . . nothing would be left."'

Plus ça change . . .

Here is Liz Herbert McAvoy on Langland's Piers Plowman (Rhetoric of the Anchorhold: Space, Place and Body within the Discourses of Enclosure, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy, University of Wales press, Cardiff, 2008, p. 2.):

'At the opening of the Prologue to Piers Plowman, William Langland firmly establishes the vocation of the solitary as offering an ideal for the faithful to follow and throughout the poem it is the anchorite who consistently manages to escape the poet's acerbic criticism of religious and social hypocrisy, self-seeking narcissism, and degenerate consumerism.'

Or, to draw on a draft of the paper I am working on for July, 'It is only by accessing the silence and allowing it to do its work that human beings can come to the 'kynde knowyng' that Langland's Will so greatly desired, and which Holy Church so signally failed to teach him. It is only by learning to drawing one's life from this kynde knowyng that the outward forms of living change, not the other way around (Cloud ch. 61; 63/11-13).' (citing 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ' by Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255.)