I knew about Montaigne’s Cat. Now, Murphy (the Dog) teaches me about prayer and living. Strange how these things happen. He lives entirely in the present moment; he never bears a grudge; he is capable of devoting his entire attention to a single phenomenon – a toy, a scent, a breeze, me. We go for a walk and he is light as a feather, free of earthly care. I almost shuffle along, unconsciously carrying with me the accumulated worries, regrets, anxieties of the tangled mind. Combining the walk with the Office of Evening Prayer I silently intone ‘O Lord, open thou my lips..’ but without much joy. Murphy jaunts ahead and every step betokens delight. His gait provides the response ..and our mouths shall proclaim your praise’.
It is simply amazing how organised religion can bugger up prayer. It is not just the often sterile content. The sheer quantity of it is distressing. Endless, endless words.
I am an admirer of the American William Stringfellow (1928-1985). On prayer he writes: “The event of prayer, certain acts called prayer, the very word ‘prayer’ have gathered such ridiculous associations. That is not only the case with the obscene performances, which pass as public prayer, at inaugurations, in locker rooms, before Rotary luncheons, and in many churchly sanctuaries, but also the practice of private prayer is attended by gross profanity, the most primitive superstitions, and sentimentality which is truly asinine…. When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried ‘Jesus’ and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout ‘Fuck!’ and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance” (A Second Birthday, pp. 99, 108-9).
And not unrelated, a recently found comment on prayer by A J Heschel: "The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. . . . Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods" [my emphasis].
'Committed suicide' or 'took her own life' rather than, plainly and more accurately, 'ended her life'. And 'lost his faith' rather than simply, and again quite possibly more accurately, 'stopped believing', or even 'gained new understanding' or even simply 'changed his mind'. I have an amateur's interest in language and especially turns of phrase, and these examples, in their common form, irritate me, as does 'committed Christian' (rendered useless by association with the fervent end of things) and 'self-confessed this or that'.
John died at the very end of 2017. He has been a friend and an inspiration. He is properly described as a worker-priest and he realised that unusual calling to a far greater extent than most of today's self-supporting priests. His experience of selling his labour (he worked for most of his life in Truman's Brewery on East London's Brick Lane) eventually made the church, as conventionally understood, a difficult environment in which to operate. This is an extract from a 2010 document John wrote, and recalls something of the tension he felt and the challenges he squared up to, as well as the clarity of his thought.
"So my quarrel with the Church is not at the level of this evidently fascinating, but unproductive issue of "whether there is a God" or not. It is, rather, about the claim of the Christian religion to represent Jesus and the "values" and norms of the "Kingdom of God" which he embodied and served. This is not a new complaint. But, perhaps for any Christian such as myself, who has always wanted to know how to devote himself more genuinely, there's a natural "term" to the business of being committed to an association which, in effect, trivializes its own awesome objectives and speaks so relentlessly in a language nobody else can understand.
In case anyone is interested (after all, someone reading this may well ask "What's the big deal? why all these words, only to arrive where so many of our contemporaries have long since ended up?) the question I feel obliged to face is: in the short time that remains to me, how am I to fulfil the obligation to Jesus and his "Kingdom of God" which I am unable to shake off despite my repudiation of the Church's theology? Certainly I cannot pretend that the Church has no value or never comes near to the Kingdom of God. The churches are often to be found doing, with a good will, the things which, as Jesus said, ought not to be left undone.
Perhaps the same sort of claim could be made for the many movements of protest that are available. Should I not be content with the opportunities of the present times for political involvement? My natural commitment is to the anti-war, anti-nuclear (power as well as bomb), anti-imperialist movements. I share the widespread revulsion against what amounts to a Zionist hegemony in Palestine. There is no end to 'progressive' causes and to aspects of the campaign to deal adequately with global warming. These sorts of commitment were associated, in the past, with the socialist hope. Why should I not be wholehearted about one or more of them now?
It may be because I have come to see that protest inevitably implies a sort of self-righteousness. Who can honestly face the dubiousness of his own self-interest – the possibility that there are grounds for surrendering the privileges and securities by which he makes himself irreproachable as an independent citizen? In fact, it is precisely as an "independent" citizen that I might, for example, come forward to protest that others should not lack the same sort of amenities as I enjoy. But, when it came to the crunch, how much would I allow my security to be threatened by the consequences of this kind of advocacy?
So, knowing myself, I am not likely to abandon altogether either the Church or my favourite causes. However, I am on the lookout for some better way of (and some deeper reserve of courage for) affirming the Good News than "by word and sacrament", or by public demonstration - some authentic and unromantic way of joining those who, being society's rejects, are, unknown to themselves, the passport-holders of the Kingdom of God."
I was privileged to meet Bill - Father Bill as he was universally known - in 1987. I was on placement with him as part of my ordination training. We became friends. His priestly work was beyond the church-as-institution though firmly rooted in the church as a spiritual reality. He took the church seriously but was never a prisoner within its confines. He died in January 2018 after a dreadful ten years of suffering a psychotic illness compounded by dementia.
He is probably best remembered - and loved - for his work with those living with and dying from AIDS, in Earls Court, London in the 1980s and 90s. His early training had been in nursing and the spiritual dimensions of care were very important to him. He accompanied and supported countless people as they approached death. It seems a terrible tragedy that his own decade-long illness of mind prevented him from being able to fully receive such support in his final years. His books included AIDS: Sharing the pain, Cry Love, Cry Hope and Going Forth: A practical and spiritual approach to dying and death. What a wonderful man.
Father Bill Kirkpatrick; 16 June 1927 - 4 January 2018
Click 'read more' to see tribute
Today the Executive Director of the Aston Business School sent me a cheery email, addressing me by my first name (we have never met) and beginning: "I hope you’re well. As a senior professional at [my place of work] are you looking to take your role to the next level and become a thought leader in your field? If the answer is 'yes', then the Executive DBA (EDBA) - the highest internationally recognised business qualification available - from triple accredited Aston Business School could be just what you're looking for."
I replied: "Dear Ann: No, I’m not, but thanks for asking. I have no wish to become a ‘thought leader’ and rather regret that any sane person might even think in such terms. I do understand the pressure on universities to market themselves, but it can make for very dispiriting reading. And no mention anywhere of improving one’s skills for the common good or in the service of others..."
I once viewed universities with respect. Something pretty serious seems to have overtaken them.
I sent an email today, and in describing someone I thought less than bright, used the fine term bonehead (Cambridge online dictionary: a stupid or silly person). On hitting 'send' I immediately received a message saying my email had been quarantined because "Words in body triggered rule "CONTENT POLICY: Block Sexual Content" (Words found: bonehead)". I suppose whatever turns you on.
At the junction of Cirencester and London Roads in Cheltenham is a Victorian Drinking Fountain. It carries - as you might expect of pious Victorians - a carving of Christ with the woman at the well and the inscription "Praise God from whom all blessings flow". What I especially like about it is this further inscription on its north face: "The Public are expected to protect from Injury that which was erected for the public good". It made me think of the NHS. It is a remarkable and marvellous conception, a credit to the United Kingdom and its people. And one being injured by muddled public policy and the interested of private providers and their shareholders.
I wonder very often at the pervasive presence of violence and violent impulses in our species. Think here less of outward and physical violence but of harmful intentions and responses and the myriad ways in which these permeate so much of human encounter: suspicion, gossip, denigration, undermining, sarcasm, blaming, cold-shouldering, false witness. What is the root of all this? I have long suspected that our species transmits violence, from generation to generation. If so, this explains its endurance and persistence. Perhaps it is a delusion, this idea many of us hold, that we are reasonable, rational and well-adjusted. What if we begin with another premise - that virtually all humans sustain harming traumas and experiences during our formative years, and that these remain at work in us, largely unconsciously, throughout our lives? In the more extreme cases, we see these - they are made manifest. But what if the situation I have described is endemic, and in most of us largely 'contained' (or so we might think) and so disguised? And what if we never find ourselves able to join up the dots - the 'standard' reactions we observe within us, the ways we conduct ourselves at work, in groups, how we handle intimacy, how we react to adversity and (often imagined) threat - and so remain unaware of enduring wounds which clamour for healing?
For the record, this has no connection, in my thinking, to so-called 'original sin' - a doctrine I cannot take seriously. But what if very many people suffer some kind of 'original harm' in their developmentally vital years, say from birth to early adulthood? Such events are vitually unavoidable, however loving our care givers: experiences of separation, of various forms of abandonment, of 'friendly' teasing or sarcasm, of rejection by other children in the way typical of other children. What if all these and more - things virtually inescapable in this world - leave negative imprints, things that shape us and remain alive as we move into adult life, even as (perhaps especially as) 'well adjusted', 'responsible', socially adept and outwardly 'successful' humans? Just a thought.
I saw jesus on the cross on a hill called calvary
"do you hate mankind for what they done to you? "
He said, "talk of love not hate, things to do - it's getting late.
I've so little time and I'm only passing through."
Funny how you can miss things. Yesterday I came across the term 'overtalk'. Hugely serviceable; I don't know how I managed without it. The phenomenon, of course, is well known: people who talk too much; and not only that, but use too many words, too many sentences, to make a single point. I am much happier knowing that it has an official description. Funny that. My impression is that people generally use more words now than they did. Can that be true? Perhaps it is because the world is noisier (internet, social media, 24/7 TV, blah blah. Blah. blah indeed). Apparently the origin of 'overtalk' has been traced to the mid 19thC, used by one Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). So people were at it even then.
When facing a seemingly endless eleboration and repetition of a simple point I have found myself interjecting 'understood'. But to little benefit. The speaker is on a roll, or perhaps too locked into a fantasy of some sort. I suspect anxiety to be at work.
I visited Macclesfield this week, a not-quite mid-way location for a meeting with a friend I see too little of. Virgin trains had whisked me there on time and in comfort and with clear and comprehensible in-train announcements, wondrously free of 'the next station stop will be...'. Next stations were - well, simply - the next station will be.. God bless them. And what a relief. But the company's thoughtfulness did not stop there. Whilst waiting for the 19:36 return train to London I gently walked the length of Platform 2, thinking. This must have sent the wrong signal because a uniformed voice from across the track enquired 'excuse me - are you all right?'. 'Yes, thank you', I said and went on to enquire in reply 'And how are you?' before realising that he had interpreted my mindful pacing and lost-in-thought-ness as signs of a possible railway suicide. Nothing had been further from my thoughts. Still, the enquiry seemed rather touching, and was far more welcome than, say, an unexpected rugby-tackle to the ground by zealous emergency service operatives. Maybe part of the distant look that worried him was when I caught sight of the Macclesfield supplier - visible from the platform and pictured below - which turned out to be a DIY shop.
I see that GoogleDocs offer templates – thousands of them. As I browsed them, and on the very first page, there is listed a template for a “Personal Firearms Inventory”. The explanatory note helpfully exclaims “Keep track of up to 99 weapons in this handy inventory spreadsheet.”
We met in a crypt of all places. In 1984 it still housed the Central London Samaritans and we were on the same evening shift. John lived in Stepney Green, at that time on my way home, so I started giving him lifts. I was soon invited to meet Lesley, and their daughter Alex (Libby was to arrive later). John and I became friends. And 33 years later his death makes the world feel empty to me.
Meeting John in a crypt, a place of death, was paradoxical, for John turned out to be – for me and so many others – a bringer, a re-invigorator, of life. Like all the most valuable of people he is not easy to describe. Australian, but anglophile and with a strong sense that Scotland was home (he visited it as often as he could but couldn’t I think ever have lived there). A former alcoholic who became a therapist, and although with no formal qualifications was a tremendous healer of bruised hearts and minds. Both a misanthrope and a lover of people. Wry and penetrating in his observations of the world and its inhabitants and with persistent, self-deprecating humour. He ran courses on assertiveness (at one stage for the Bank of England no less). He could be withering and had no time for phoney people but for others the power and depth of his attention and care was transformative.
When invited to any event involving more than two people he would, inexplicably, have a previous engagement. Like Kierkegaard, he sensed the untruth in many a crowd and formulaic exchange. As a boy he’d been beaten by Australian nuns and had no religious allegiance in adulthood, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find many others capable of such appreciative wonder and awe. “Have you been out yet? It’s the most magical day you ever saw in your life”. John was a disciple of gratitude. The ordinary could thrill him. He majored in childlike glee over a new sky, a discovered (or rediscovered) poem or insight, the tenor voice. We loved his oft-repeated line in self-mockery: “I know, I’m a great disappointment to myself”. I think, too, he knew fear, even despair.
His body, he always insisted, was a temporary vehicle. He respected but did not sentimentalise or (heaven forbid) immortalise it. “My soul has its roots in the soil/It’s my calm belief/That I’m just a leaf, this thing called ME/And will fall from the tree”. For John the human ego was something to make fun of. “Poor little ego says/‘where shall ME go when I am dead?/I’m filled with dread”. He adopted the saying attributed to the Roman playwright Terence: I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me. It summed up something central (and hard won) about John.
Over these 33 years we have spoken to one another more or less at least every other day. Often the 'phoned exchanges were brief – a few minutes. But my, how I treasure the memory of them.
Order of service from John's memorial gathering
The other day I met some former colleagues for lunch. I am usually ambivalent about events like this, but these were people I had liked and wanted to see again. We exchanged news, bridging the intervening years with ease and producing names we beleived we had forgotten. 'Do you remember X?', 'What ever happened to Y?'. I suddenly remembered Louis, who'd been an Admin Clerk. 'Didn't you know, he's dead? He killed himself'. I did not know. Louis was perpeutally untidy, and with a mop of wayward hair. He was socially awkward but obvioulsy intelligent. I got the impression that navigating through the ordinary demands of every day was exhausting for him, as was expressing himself. I remember him laughing but in an awkward way, as if every aspect of communication was costly of his energy. I liked him, and respected his struggle and the effort that getting through daily life seemed to be for him. So in a sense the news was not a surprise, but it was sad. Later I found confirmation on the web. He had jumped in front of a tube train at Leyton tube station. A friend was quoted as saying he had been depressed. I deeply regretted his being driven to that action, and felt (as I always do at such news) that we had failed, collectively, in some serious way. The extent of mental distress in its varied forms continues to be under estimated, and our care for each other far too inadequate.
Spotted recently on a Bakerloo Line tube carriage (on the door to the driver's cab). Someone has gone to the trouble of replicating the London Underground house style, to great effect. For those who actually read it, it resulted in both a big grin and plenty of eye contact.
* 'Custody of the eyes' (oculi custodiam): many of the saints in their zeal for purity would never look anyone in the face. “To avoid the sight of dangerous objects, the saints were accustomed to keep their eyes almost continually fixed on the earth, and to abstain even from looking at innocent objects,” says St. Alphonsus de Liguori. Not very practical but perhaps ready for a modern day adaptation in a world where our visual senses are bombarded by often manipulative and even misleading advertising and media images. We might add 'custody of the ears' too. In the meantime, let friendly eye contact and smiles prevail.
“Because of the dog’s joyfulness,” says Mary Oliver “our own is increased. It is no small gift.” Many people will understand this. Quite a few won't. Nat Johnson ("singstress, maverick, fighter") certainly does if her song Dog is anything to go by - see her official video below. Murphy would agree. Below the video are pictures of his (+ our) stay in the Landmark Trust's Culloden Tower in Richmond, North Yorkshire. It was a brilliant holiday.
I am nearly always inspired by Richard Holloway. I was struck by a particular recollection of his, found in this BBC Hardtalk interview at 4 minutes 22 seconds. He speaks of the shame he felt at having sent his hard-working labourer father a ‘pious’ letter urging him to embrace Jesus, RH remarks (with tears in his eyes) ‘religion gives you permission to perform these discourtesies’. Indeed it can. The whole interview is worth watching.
I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 Sunday service which came from an English Cathedral. The Dean and the Precentor were the emcees, and it all seemed, well, a little too pleased with itself. The worship got close to being worship of the cathedral. It reminded me of hearing another dean from another cathedral say in some TV programme that 'people come to [our] cathedral to find God'. This is not an uncommon line in the discourse of cathedral functionaries and indeed in the narratives a number of cathedrals develop about themselves in print and media. It seems unappealing as well as heretical. Clergy often talk about churches in these terms - people coming 'to find God' there; maybe cathedral clergy think churches only a second best location compared to their own. But it is this notion that God (the God of the institution, clearly) is domiciled only - or particularly - in churches and cathedrals that seems misleading and fundamentally so anti-incarnational. It may be but another manifestation of the narcissism some institutions can - sometimes - develop.
Murphy the Cocker Spaniel likes to take it easy but give him open space and he is off like a rocket. Here seen on his favourite Cornish beach. Or rather, above it.
A link to what I regarded as a valuable warning about some aspects of the Christian practice of spiritual direction has gone dead - the dreaded but common '404: page not found'. Luckily other copies exist of the article by the late Ken Leech and I have copied it below the line for those who are interested (follow 'read more'). I have always gently declined requests to become someone's spiritual director. It is not that I don't respect the function (I do). It is more that it can drift into an unhelpful compartmentalisation. I have, though, always been ready and very willing to meet and talk; to be the bearer of another's secrets and worries and an affirmer of their calling and value. An accompanist, not a director.
I visited the dentist today in Bermondsey and had to wait to check in whilst another patient was leaving and settling his bill at the desk. He was older - retired I should think. 'You've got my name wrong' he said to the receptionist after checking the print out. She apologised and went to correct it on the system. He inspected the result. 'Can I be pernickerty?' he asked, 'It should be The Reverend Doctor'
I am no longer surprised by the fondness I observe in fellow clergy for titles and honorifics, though it still disheartens me. We didn't enter the world with these baubles and they are not going to carry much weight when we depart - except possibly when too great an attachment to them harms our transition from life to death. In relation to the matter in hand, they bore no relevance to the state of his teeth. I had to chuckle as I found myself wondering if he would have be so keen on his indentifiers had we been in the queue not at the dentist but at the local sexual health clinic. Somehow I think not, but you never know.