Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. This refreshing claim I found as part of The Manifesto of The Dark Mountain Project. ("The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself"). Christians have a special difficulty with this claim, the story being that God made humankind for a special and superior purpose, and that all creation is in subservience to them. A good deal of harm seems to have followed.
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.
A first visit to Seville. We were bowled over. Magnificent museums, friendly people, good food. It was Lent. We encountered a number of weeping Madonnas. And this rather retro 'corseteria': straightforward, nothing risqué (at least in the window - I didn't venture inside) and geared, it seemed, to the Spanish equivalent of Hyacinth Bucket. I liked the way the items appears to be levitating. All very no-nonsense and barely a hint of eroticism, against a backcloth of winceyette.
Yesterday, walking down Regent Street towards Piccadilly Circus, I spotted in my peripheral vision to the right a man who at first I thought had been taken ill. He looked pained, seemed to be losing his balance, as if some force had struck him. In the milliseconds it takes for us to absorb data, I noticed a woman a few yards away, who was obviously connected to him, and a possible storyline emerged. It seemed unambiguously the case that she had delivered some words to him, and the effect dealt him a mortal blow. 'I've met someone' maybe. Or 'I don't love you anymore'. Or 'I want to end it'. I hope I was mistaken, but I think not. They were in their twenties I should reckon; the age where love affairs seem inescapably tempestuous and sometimes a little violent. The hot and coldness of it all, the testing and the provocations. I felt deeply for him.
I knew John in the early 1980s in Bradford. I was at the university and John was a friend of some of my friends. I liked him. He was gruff, the way male Northerners could be – and can be still. There was also, I picked up, a sensitivity there. I forget how many times we met though I remember we had some good conversations and I seem to recall one walk with mutual friends ending up at his West Yorkshire cottage.
We lost touch when I moved to London, as I lost touch with other people in that circle: Andy, Sue, Julia, Rose, Paul. Some years ago I heard that he had become a counsellor in Keighley, and easily tracked him down via the internet and we exchanged a couple of friendly emails. In a recent telephone call to one of that group – Rose – I heard that John had died just a month before. He was in his early sixties. Another search found his website and a reference to a book he had written about both his illness and his work. I ordered it, and have just read it. Fields of Freedom: Breaking through fear in personal and professional life.
Whether correctly attributed to Socrates, the claim that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ rings true for many of us. I also value John Ruskin’s claim that ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way’. John’s adult life and his book – testament is the right description – pay honour to both these insights. Early experiences of humiliation (father, school teachers, another boy) left their mark. As an adult his response to these appears fundamentally creative: professional work first with wayward youngsters, then becoming a counsellor and therapist. His book records a near constant interest in ‘personal development', taking in group encounter (some with the men’s movement) and a good deal of study of various schools of thought and practice from radionic healing to transactional analysis.
The book was written with death on the horizon. It is a worthy testament to a life lived with the intention of turning trauma and hurt into a life authentically lived in the service of others. John, I am so sorry that life was cut short.
I don’t recall when exactly I became alert to the easy and self-referential use of the possessive, but it was very many years ago. I am perfectly happy with it in some settings: my daughter/son; my partner, my home – though personally I’d use ‘our’ for two of those. I have always disliked the use of ‘my’ when used by people to describe their colleagues - especially subordinate ones. I was once in a lift at the headquarters of the social services department I had just joined, to be introduced as ‘one of my social workers’ by the Area Director. As a rooky I had no business taking offence, but I did.
Is the use of the ‘my’ possessive such a problem? I think so, for it defines the speaker as the reference point of all things. Me. Mine. The human ego is a slippery critter and does much harm. Ownership is one of its favourite claims. Do I have life or does life have me? The latter I think.
I shiver very slightly when people speak of ‘my career’. For two reasons. One is the ‘my’ again; the other is the pretension of it. I’d rather speak of the work I do. I realise this line of thinking – and reacting – goes against the modern grain. The modern grain is concerned with me and mine. The egotistical self, again.
In church circles I flinch at the very common ‘my ministry’ as used by clergy. I had always thought it was Christ’s ministry. And what is wrong with work – the work I do (in the church)? Language defines and too often divides what ought not to be divided. Too many things – phrases, privileges – already separate the clergy from the laity in the life of the church. A trend so entrenched hardly anyone notices it.
But the church is small fry in the scheme of things. The tendency to think and act in possessives – me, mine – harms us all and all human activity - indeed, it is harming our irreplaceable planet. Is it fanciful to think that violence in its many forms is often brought to birth by it?
Plot D. Row 11. Grave 24: Uncle Hugh's burial location, expressed with impressive though slightly chilling precision by the War Graves Commission. The rest of the address is Ameland General Cemetery, The Netherlands. Hugh was an RAF Flying Officer, service number 129140 and was killed in action on 20 September 1943 at the age of 27. Today is Remembrance Day. The human appitite for - and easy recourse to - violence horrifies me. We see it lurking in vitually everyone. We must acknowledge it in ourselves if maturing beyond it is to be at all possible.
To be a ‘pilgrim’ means to be a traveller. The root meaning is ‘to come from afar’. And the direction of travel is towards a holy place.
Little harm is done, and often much good is found, in this traditional model of pilgrimage: of leaving our homes and our routines and travelling as an outward expression of our being travellers who are seeking to make God our destination.
And little harm, and often much good is found, in a variation on this established model. We could call it the ‘stay at home’ pilgrimage, but that would be to short-change it. Maybe 'interior pilgrimage': the simple decision to regard ourselves as pilgrims, and to see our everyday lives (at times humdrum, at times exciting, often somewhere between the two) as avenues of pilgrimage. And to see ourselves as embarked upon the adventure of moving towards the holy.
There is only one pre-requisite, and it’s a big one. We have to find a way of leaving behind the small world of our ego and its incessant preoccupations. That applies too, of course, to those geographical and blistered pilgrims pounding the well worn routes. To arrive at Santiago de Compostela, or Rome or Jerusalem with our egos still comfortably in charge means we haven’t travelled very far at all.
The best kind of pilgrim knows from the outset that in order to arrive she must leave something behind. And so it is with that part of ourselves which is endlessly preoccupied with itself and in the process is constantly defining, predicting, judging, whispering, acquiring, defending and expanding. This noisy and always fundamentally fearful part of our make-up has to be firmly patted on the head and told to go to its basket. And the first step is for us to stop identifying with this noisy voice, this ego, which we so often mistakenly identify as our essential self.
Pilgrimage viewed in this way can be undertaken within our usual routines, making them, miraculously, unusual. And it does not even have to be 24/7 as the jargon has it. If that seems too much, be a pilgrim every Tuesday and see what happens. Pilgrimage is a way of seeing differently, and of journeying towards greater awareness of God and God’s world and away from our rather small worlds of ingrained opinions and dubious certainties. It is, fundamentally, the way of following Christ in our lives. And it can be a tremendous adventure.
I was grateful to be invited to address a conference of self supporting (unpaid) priests recently. It was a good day and I met many inspiring people. One of the things I found myself saying was that the church needs more feral clergy - this as an antidote to the dangerously inoffensive, ‘nice’ and only peripherally relevant tendencies of many a Church of England cleric. Feral can mean ‘having returned to an untamed state from domestication.....’.
I am not good company in art galleries. The majority of pictures do not impress or detain me. I have no interest in chit chat about the exhibits. But from time to time a work or image stops me in my tracks. This was one such, encountered last week in the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Subway (1950) by George Tooker. I did not know of the artist and have since enjoyed discovering more. It is said that he responded to and portrayed modern day alienation and anxiety. He does it brilliantly, and menacingly. He died aged 90 in 2011.
Today we visited the 9/11 Memorials in Lower Manhattan. Already too many words, so we kept silence. The names of all those killed are etched into iron sheets surrounding the two pools formed in the footprints of the destroyed towers. So many names. What startled me was the reference below: and her unborn child. Somehow it deepened the horror.
Awareness of the potential impact on our planet of our greed and carelessness is slowly gaining ground. Whilst having been as ignorant as everyone else of the scale of the harm being done through our consumption and dumping, I had – for as long as I can recall – a sensibility towards the Earth. Seeing people drop litter, for example, has always occasioned something of a wince, not only of anger towards the dropper, but anguish for the creation, such easy littering indicating as it does the contempt of the species towards the planet which is so generous a host.
When I was 15 my eyesight went from good to seriously myopic in what seemed like no time at all. Suddenly I was viewing the world from behind a pair of thick unflattering NHS glasses. The frames of these 'affordable' offerings were common enough in those pre-designer days and gave every appearance of having been produced behind the Iron Curtain. In my twenties I ventured into the exotic world of contact lenses: a seemingly miraculous notion which must have helped (they still do) countless miopes gain a renewed confidence as well as making being out in the rain a delightful experience, at least for a good while. Much later I chose laser surgery and found it an even more miraculous event. The blind saw. I felt reborn. Running alongside this was an abnormality in my right eye. An haemangioma, a vascular oddity lurking hidden inside. It was discovered rather by accident in the late 1970s and resulted in my being a Moorfields patient these past 30+ years. An appreciative one, too. My positive experiences of the remarkable NHS infinitely outnumber the poor ones.
We hear a lot these days about disability, and it is a good thing that so significant a fact, once shied away from, is now spoken of. But little seems to be said of the impact on miopes, especially during their formative teenage years, of having to see the world - and being seen by it - through thick glasses. It has an impact on how we see... ourselves.
I have been thinking lately of Alan Ecclestone's pioneering 'Church Meetings' in his Darnall parish and the business of vertical and horizontal relationships in church life.... (follow 'Read More')
Observed yesterday on a visit to see someone at St Thomas' Hospital, a sign pointing to the 'Dreadnought Dental Centre'. Inspirationally named.
The Ward I visited offered a panoramic view across the Thames and down on to the Houses of Parliament. A party was in full swing on the terrace. It had been the State Opening earlier in the day, causing severe disruption to travel and traffic. Westminster Bridge was still visibly choked with traffic moving at a gnat's crawl, hours after the event. I pondered the impact on countless people and the environment: missed appointments, longer journeys, extra exhaust fumes messing up the air we breath. All for an event in which a person who by lottery of birth reads a text not of her drafting from a government not really of our electing.