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.)


Blogger Unknown said...

I am reminded of these lines from Tagore:

Time after time I came to your gate with raised hands,
asking for more and yet more.
You gave and gave,
now in slow measure, now in sudden excess.

I took some, and some things I let drop,
some lay heavy on my hands,
some I made into play things and broke them when tired;
till the wrecks and the hoard of your gifts grew immense,
hiding you,
and the ceaseless expectation wore my heart out.

Take! Oh take! – has now become my cry!
Shatter all from this beggar’s bowl:
Put out this lamp of the importunate watcher:
Hold my hands!
Raise me from the still-gathering heap of your gifts
into the bare infinity of your uncrowded presence…

[Now] you have set me among those who are defeated.
I know it is not for me to win, nor to leave the game.
I shall plunge into the pool,
although but to sink to the bottom.

I shall play the game of my undoing.
I shall stake all I have,
and when I lose my last penny, I shall stake myself,
and then,
I think,
I shall have won through my utter defeat…

2:40 am, May 03, 2011  
Blogger Bo said...

I thought you would like Thubron's book. I read it recently. In wholehearted agreement, of course.

9:37 am, May 05, 2011  

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