Monday, March 31, 2014

Three AM Thoughts

It's been the sort of night I used to have a lot of but haven't had for a long time: fitful, waking up every 45 minutes or so. I have been laying in bed trying to figure out why, and certainly the failure to post weekly on this Blog has something to do with it. With apologies to you, Gentle Readers. But my creative juices have been entirely soaked up by finishing up Silence: A User's Guide Vol. 1.

The good news, however, is that it is finished. I'm just nit-picking now. The editor wants it on May 1st so I have a deadline. Rowan Williams, bless him, has written the most wonderful Foreword. We are looking to have books in November. The book will also be available on Kindle, but when you see the cover—O my—you may want to own the thing. It will be published in paperback. Watch this space!

I don't know yet when the reprint of The Fountain and the Furnace will be available, but I'm guessing on no basis at all that it will probably be this summer. In the meantime there is Vol. 2 of Silence: A User's Guide to write, which is promised for January. But I am still going to try to do better on the posts here, even if it is only exegesis.

The Society for the Study of Theology conference in Durham is Monday-Wednesday of next week and I will be there only because the subject is Speech and Silence and two of my colleagues insisted that I go. Any of you who are in the area: I'd love to see you. Let me know by a "Do not post" comment and we'll find a time to meet up. I will present a 20-minute account of the book there. I will be wearing armour . . . at least, spiritual armour.

We have just had two of the loveliest days imaginable; very warm for March. Both days I puttered happily with a trowel in the garden planting lupines and snapdragons, and doing odd chores, enveloped in the perfume of hyacinths. After years of soil amendments the garden, and even the bags of compost, are full of fat worms. There are few things that make me happier than sitting in the soil planting seedlings, my hands black with it, smudges on my face, basking in the sun as each tiny plant is set on its journey in the great outdoors. The tomatoes have had a hard time with the damp weather—I started them from seed—but I think there will be enough . . . and some to give away as well. Alas, the wet winter was hard on the birds: the robin population was hit hard, including the one that has visited us for several years. At least we have a pair of blackbirds.

But the thought that finally dragged me out of bed was this: I have given up on the church. Finally. Probably permanently. I had great hopes for the new Dean of the cathedral, but the election did not produce the correct result to generate a renaissance, and all the things I find most depressing are probably going to get worse. I shouldn't be so pessimistic, perhaps, but the trajectory for the last half-century has been forever downward.

One of the wonderful things about Rowan's Foreword to my book is that he agrees with me on these specific points—there's no need to enumerate them; you all know what they are. It isn't just that he is agreeing with me; rather that it reassures me I am not just grousing for no reason, or being self-deluding. There is always this niggle of self-doubt—which I think is very healthy—when I really get going—and of course in the book I really do get going!

I have forced myself to go to church every Sunday this Lent as penance: one shouldn't have to use the institution that way. I've attended even when the person the mere sight of whom makes me lose the will to live has been there, though thankfully not presiding. The one Sunday this person did preside I had the happy excuse that a friend from Germany was preaching at another church. But I have been trying to recognize the former person as a human being; just sitting in church trying to realize that fact in my mind, even though I know through his/her preaching and refusal to engage that this person regards all laity as idiots and ciphers. I don't apologize for my difficulty; I'm in good company: at a recent public lecture Rowan was only half joking when he said that in his next life he was going to be a Quaker. But that's not a live option, either, at least not in this life: the Quakers are just as riven with divisions and schlock as we are.

But it was a shock to realize how far my feelings about institutional religion had gone. I thought I had already hit bottom a long time ago. Evidently not. I quit going to church for much of the winter: in part I couldn't risk my feeble chest in the bad weather; but I wasn't sorry. But then missing the liturgy, which I always do, and the lack of singing hymns, overwhelmed me to the point that, like an addict in need of a fix, I started going again under certain conditions, even though I realized how really reprehensible this was; even though there is no genuine worship. Even though I normally feel that it is better to stay away than be cranky from despair at what goes on. Or doesn't.

I am really looking forward to Holy Week when I go to Devon. At midnight on Easter Eve we will light our own new fire in a brazier of medieval design, outside under the Paschal moon, with the owls calling and the new lambs bleating in the night, and the dogs having hysterics because we have locked them in the house. We will do it even if it pours with rain. My friend will come up with wonderful and wholly appropriate contributions for the liturgy and the haunting chant of Exultet will pour of its own accord from what is left of my throat. We will hear the stories of creation and the dry bones, and Christ rising from the dead.

We will do all this, and, only a stone's throw from us, the exquisite 14th century church that is—or was—at the heart of this hamlet will be dark.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spring Weirdness

We have in fact had two days of spring: Sunday and Monday were warm enough to work in the garden in a T-shirt. The winter blahs disappeared; there was a sense of energy and purpose as bulbs burst into bloom and the buds on the pear tree swelled almost to flowering.

Now, of course, we are back to cloud and drizzle and it is said that it will turn cold again towards the end of the week. There's an old joke in England that I also heard in Alaska: "When will it be spring?" "We've had spring—the two days of warmth in March."

In the meantime pushing to have my book ready for the editor by Easter, which has produced the realisation that I am gradually forgetting American spelling and syntax.

But this is trivia compared to the two events dominating the news: Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the Crimea's vote to return to the Russian fold (one might perhaps better say the iron fist)—which, in my view, is short-sighted. I have always felt that Putin's long-term goal is to re-establish the Soviet Union both in terms of territory and the rule by terror. Is the invasion of Ukraine the first step in that direction? It makes all the Russian good will toward the winter Olympics and paralympics seem very hollow and cynical indeed.

The other big news story, of course, is the loss of the Malaysian airliner. How is it possible to 'lose' without a trace a 777 with more than 200 passengers and crew? The Russian invasion was almost predictable; this latter event was not. A thousand questions swirl in the back of my mind: why are you not looking in the piracy capital of the world, the Horn of Africa? If the plane flew for seven hours, did it have time to fly that far? If it flew for seven hours, then the intention, at least, was not to ditch. If the southern Indian ocean is one of the suspect areas, then it would seem that the idea of the Horn of Africa is not so far-fetched. What country would risk receiving a hijacked airliner? What has happened to the innocent passengers? There is nothing original in these questions but they bother me. I feel, as I suspect many other feel, as if a hole has opened up in reality, which has swallowed this airplane and who knows what next? Very unsettling. Very. 

Pray for them all.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Happy Lent!

Happy Lent!

For some reason it's always a relief when Ash Wednesday rolls around. There's something comforting about hearing the words 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...' It's a reminder that all those imagined burdens and the weight of the world are most definitely not on my shoulders. I can fast and pray and try to make peace in my life and community, and respond to the requests made to me, but in the cosmic picture I am an insignificant speck, a speck, however, that is beloved of God. And because of that love, our prayer matters, far more than we can ask or imagine. Let us all pray for peace in this time of crisis.

Recently Graham Edwards gave me a translation of a poem by De Guileville, a tribute to St Benedict and his sister, Scholastica. You may recall that Gregory the Great in Dialogues 2.33 recounts the story of their meeting. She desires him to stay longer so that they can talk 'of the joys of heavenly life [de caelestis vitae gaudiis].' When he shows reluctance to remain, she prays with tears that miraculously set off a thunderstorm, thereby preventing his departure. [Apologies for the formatting problems]

Inundacio pluvie                           I ask that the downpouring rain
Dei misericordie                            Of the mercy of God may now
Adsit michi per sororem;               Assist me by thy sister's act.
Per vos ambos fons gracie             By both of you may grace's fount
Stillaque dulcis venie                    And the drip of gentle pardon
Recreet me peccatorum;                Revive me, sinner as I am;
Per vos spernam mundi florem,     By you I shall spurn the world's bloom,
Eius vana et honorem                    Its vanities and its honour,
Erecta mentis facie                         Having raised the face of the mind
Ad bonorum largitorum                 To the bestower of good things
Et pium distributorem                     And the pious distributor
Donorum regnil glorie.                   Of the gifts of glory's kingdom.