Monday, January 27, 2014

Signs of Hope

Yesterday, while I was doing some pruning between showers, I found the first snowdrop. It was a  heart-stopping moment, and made me vow to plant more. I wasn't aware that there were any in the garden, so to come upon this one was a revelation.

It's been a warmish winter so far, but the wind is due to back around to the east and temperatures to drop, so I hope and pray that the shrubs that are budding enthusiastically won't be blasted by frost: last year I lost a clematis that way.

It seems to be a strange time in the world: peace talks that aren't peace talks; black holes that are no longer black holes; vaunted 'progress' that isn't; floods that won't recede. It is grimly amusing to listen to people talk about improving flood defences, when global warming will eventually overwhelm any feasible projects.

On Friday I went to hear Rowan Williams lecture and have a conversation with broadcaster Jon Snow. He spoke on themes familiar to readers of this blog. He talked about beholding in terms of 'gaze': '...we turn away our gaze to domesticate and compartmentalise God.' My favourite line was '...the being of God drawing us to echo its own liberty.' He drew a big laugh in the conversation with Jon Snow when he said, '...when I grow up I'm going to be a Quaker.' Very much my feelings of late as the liturgy gets drearier and drearier and there seems to be an impasse among the clergy as to where to go with it. Jon Snow was puzzled by the account of silence; he kept asking where the activism was. It's difficult to explain to someone who hasn't tried it, as difficult for Rowan as anyone else: both that the attentive receptivity and perseverance require a good deal of effort (though of a different sort), that it's not pure passivity, and that what is normally thought of as 'activity' arises—or should arise, if it is not to be destructive—from stillness.

These lectures—there are two more next week—are sponsored jointly by Oxford and Cambridge and were filmed. I highly recommend them. They will be posted on the Humanitas website:

Tomorrow I'm going off to Devon/Cornwall for a badly needed break as I haven't been out of Oxford for six months. I hope to throw my restlessness into the restless sea, and return with a fresh perspective.

Happy Candlemas, everyone!

Saturday, January 18, 2014


I apologise for having been somewhat neglectful of this blog. I can only plead the necessity of getting Silence: A User's Guide finished. It is wholly preoccupying, and I haven't had time or space for much else.

Also it is the armpit of the year, and the weather here in England couldn't be more dismal—and it's been this way since before Christmas. Not conducive to creative thinking!

Add in several deaths and one funeral, all of which cut very deep, and, well. . . 

But there is positive news: Wipf and Stock have agreed in principle to reprint The Fountain and the Furnace. I say 'in principle' because I haven't signed the contract yet (it's at the lawyer's). I am not sure when it will appear but I hope it will be before the end of the year. It will have a new jacket and a new preface. The idea to reprint was triggered by my friend and fellow-scholar Kevin Johnson, who informed me that it was being used in a university course, and that it had lost none of its impact in spite of the fact that my thinking has developed considerably since it was written. My thanks to Robin Parry, my editor at W & S, for shepherding it into the right hands. I have thought a number of times of doing a revised version but every attempt has failed, and I have finally bowed to the rule that it isn't a good idea to try to rewrite books published in a different time and place.

Also I am re-reading Sebastian Brock's The Luminous Eye. The book is as luminous as the eye it describes. This is an introductory account of the writing of Ephrem the Syrian (4th century). This book has lost nothing of its impact, only this time around I am picking up all sorts of images and thinking that shows up in the later Pseudo-Dionysius, who was a Syrian writing in Greek. Most studies of Pseudo-Dionysius emphasize his borrowings from Neo-Platonism, but reading Louth's book on this author, along with having just read the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus in its entirety, makes  it clear, at least to me, that he is equally indebted to his illustrious Syrian ancestors, Ephrem and John the Solitary. 

What comes through again and again is Pseudo-Dionysius' playfulness (which echoes Ephrem's playfulness), and he is playing several traditions off of each other: the surrounding Greek culture, the Syriac inheritance, and the Bible. For example, when he speaks of 'the One', the reader shouldn't jump to the conclusion that he means only the Neo-platonic 'One'. It could equally be the 'One' of the Hebrew Shema or the One alluded to repeatedly in the Gospel of John, many of which occurrences are themselves allusions to the Old Testament.

As Sebastian Brock pointed out in another context, we make some of these texts needlessly complicated. And I would add that in doing so we also miss some of the depth of their allusions.

Term begins on Monday so doubtless my feeble brain will find some new bones to chew on, but in the meantime, I can't recommend the above books highly enough!

Thank you, dear Readers, for your patience.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

In Media Vita

Cathedrals have different personalities, none more so than those in England. Durham is chthonic, huge, Romanesque, crouching like a dragon on its high hill. Ely, also Romanesque, is on a mound in the fens of East Anglia. Its architecture is relieved by its famous lantern tower which projects light into the gloom. Salisbury is chaste, austere, a bit too self-consciously so. Canterbury, with its various levels and crannies is a bit of a hodge-podge, filled with light. Wells is graceful with its miraculous arch. But the only cathedral I know that has an 'air of suppressed merriment', as Marion Glasscoe says, is Exeter.

Exeter is one of the simplest in design, though its elaborately decorated west front might lead one to think otherwise. Inside it is symmetrical, divided by a screen with the organ on top. There's something about this lovely space, be it the minstrels' gallery, or the many-ribbed columns, or the acres of glass, that speaks of joy, of divine play, even on the most sombre occasion.

This past week I was there for the funeral of a dear friend who died just before Christmas. She was Orthodox, so there was a vigil the night before in the tiny 14th century leper's chapel on the other side of town that had been converted into an Orthodox church. The vigil was deeply moving, intimate, and for me the real leave-taking, far more so than the funeral the next day in the cathedral.

The Orthodox chants, the sense of leisure as we moved through the prayers, the unhurried waiting as people took their leave one by one while members of the tiny choir took turns reciting psalms—if only the churches of the West could understand and incorporate some of this contemplative leisure. In addition, the Orthodox liturgy looks death square in the face, one of its great strengths, even while it is lacing its mourning with a myriad of alleluias.

The funeral proper was in the choir of Exeter cathedral. My friend had been very active in church circles—Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox—so the congregation was sprinkled with habits and collars. The service, an extended version of the vigil the night before, was led by a clutch of Orthodox clergy, including Kallistos Ware, who had been a close friend, and who wept unashamedly through the entire rite. The Orthodox liturgy, with its balance of mourning and rejoicing fit perfectly into that glorious yet gentle cathedral space.

There was a gathering in the chapter house after the service; I wish I hadn't gone. While many of the congregation genuinely mourned and shared reminiscences, there were an equal number, if not more, who were there to preen and display. It made me feel rather sick. Human nature, I tell myself; be charitable. But really, it isn't human nature: human nature is something much more exalted. That sort of behaviour is rather the consequence of a series of choices.

'In the midst of life we are in death' and it isn't only the death of friends, the confrontation with our own physical death: it can also be a warning of the death of the spirit.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

Yesterday the eagles screamed their lust.
There's no mistaking it. Their mating cry
is like none other. The small male trusts
his hulking feathered bride to balance his spry
motions on her back. Orgasmic joy
shatters the sullen chill. Afterwards
he sits a little taller, she looks coy,
shoulders touch, yellow eyes turn seawards
waiting for the fish. Starvation time.
Above the dirty snow, in endless rain
the eagles mate in hope. The winter's grime
wracked beach and rotten leaves and hunger's pain
are all forgotten in exploding light
and twisting talons of their wedding flight.