Spotted outside a hotel in Victoria (London) on a walk this morning. For those with high expectations of their hotels.
Seen this morning, Lambeth North tube station. "Behind every money transfer there is a dream". Really? What about money laundering, divorce settlements, unexpected, crippling bills? What goes on in the minds of these copywriters—and the outfits that commission them? They seem to specialize in the casual debasement of language and thought.
I have always been suspicious of people who like to speak of their 'integrity'. I have observed how often this indicates something else, a rather overweening self-preoccupation. Treat these integrity-claimers with great caution. People of true integrity display that fact obliquely. They evidence it, rarely, if ever, claim it explicitly. They are to be trusted.
To Clinic 12 (Retina), Moorfields Eye Hospital, London for the (roughly) biennial check on my right eye where a haemangioma, a vascular oddity, lurks. It was first discovered by the zealous students in the ophthalmology clinic of the university I attended, and when I moved to London in 1983 Moorfields took an interest. I have never needed treatment to it (‘we will leave it alone until it causes trouble’) and their interest was as much a teaching aid for their own students. I’ve been going for an astonishing 38 years. And today, I was discharged. Quite a rupture to a relationship if you ask me. And without warning. I was discombobulated only for a few seconds. I admire and value the NHS (concept and reality) and have no wish to tie up resources unnecessarily.
Over the years, I have come to know the professors, though the students turn over quite quickly. Clinic 12 is in the basement of the building that dates from 1899, a warren of corridors that are hard enough to navigate with decent vision. Others have to be guided. Over the decades, I have seen improvement in medical photography and diagnostics (Fluorescein Angiography was the only one I found disagreeable). At the start of our relationship, photographs were hard copy. Now they are available on screen, and with remarkable depth, seconds after being taken.
My abandonment was done in a kindly way, and they will see me again whenever necessary. Of course, it was no abandonment, just the proper use of resources and a decision based on reasoning. I’ll get over it. Thinking about this, I concluded that the relationship with Moorfields over these years has represented, in some way, being cared for (always the same lead medic), and that this stands in contrast to my experience of GP practices nowadays. Thanks Moorfields. It’s been great knowing you.
Related post — The Eyes Have It
The tendencies and inclinations of organisations have always interested me. Not from some academic angle — far more pressing than that — but because they are such powerful shapers of human experience. I have sold my labour to them, volunteered for them, encountered them as customer, client, patient, penitent, complainant, consumer — beggar, even. The lives (open and hidden) of organisations provide fodder for the social sciences and for journalism, and for popular over-the-fence expressions of discontent and resentment. How could we survive without them? They provide purpose, meaning, and wages. They drive innovation and bring things 'to market'. They can enhance our cultural capital, achieve a redistribution of wealth and get things done.
But, my, they have their dark side. They can reduce people to robots and objects, they can crush and consume lives, they can come adrift from their original purpose, they can become a means to an end.
As we can't live without them, we best learn to be alert to their dangers and committed to making them human, as far as that is within our power.
These observations apply to the churches as to other organisations, and they present some unusual aspects to consider. One is the tendency to 'spiritualize' power (to suggest that its hierarchy is divinely licensed, for example, or possessed of spiritual gifts others don't have). It can embody attitudes that cause harm (examples include traditional attitudes to women and their roles and to gay people and their place in the life of the church, indeed, the world). Churches have tended in some matters to be socially conservative, when you might expect them to be leading change. They have taught (this is implicitly for the most part) that their followers should be pure and free of any chaotic, troubling thoughts or desires. It is not impossible that this kind of institutional repression creates the ground for abusive practices now uncovered in many of the denominations.
As noted, all organisations have a dark, or shadow, side. The question is, how are these managed, how are the risks mitigated, how can organisations be vehicles of value for the common good? Part of the answer is in checks and balances. Another is a true egalitarianism in the spiritual adventure that is following Christ — an end to clericalism's traits (I've written about this elsewhere). Jung wrote of the unintegrated shadow side and its potential for harm: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected." (Psychology and Religion, 1938, Collected Works 11).
This line of thought does not write off the achievements of the churches, and it certainly does not deny the countless men and women, lay and ordained, who have brought light, love and multitudinous good things to others. It is a call to be alert.
R S Thomas
A pen appeared, and the god said:
‘Write what it is to be
man.’ And my hand hovered
long over the bare page.
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word ‘lonely’.
And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: ‘It is true.’
R S Thomas (1913-2000)
Open Air pulpits can seem to me melancholy and dispiriting...
Not many churches have them. There was one at the church I worked at in London's West End, reportedly paid for by friends of The Revd McCormick in 1904 in the hope that, with his strong Irish voice, he would attract the crowds that passed along Piccadilly. But the sound of horses' hooves on the cobbled stones of Piccadilly drowned him out.
It is possible that my dislike of outdoor pulpits derives from my feelings about indoor ones. There was a time (before microphones and when larger numbers attended church) when sticking the preacher on a platform to be more clearly heard made sense ('pulpit' comes from the Latin pulpitum, meaning platform or staging). That no longer applies, and placing the speaker 'six feet above contradiction' seems inegalitarian these days.
I recently re-read Colin Feltham's Keeping Ourselves in the Dark. His career has been mostly in the field of counselling, and he has come to doubt some of the claims of talking therapies; his degree is in theology, and he is a certain atheist; he entertained many hopes for a better world reached by politics and human goodness and now embraces what he calls 'depressive realism'. It's a brilliant book. A tonic for shallow optimism about the human race. His title gives the clue: Keeping ourselves in the Dark.
He coins various terms, including anthropathology. And he develops that to speak of 'anthropathological enmeshment' which he defines as “the common experience of (i) finding oneself in a difficult, painful situation; (ii) recognizing the high costs, perhaps impossibility, of extrication, and (iii) experiencing a sense of impotence”. He gives this example: “you are stressed by working conditions but are trapped by financial constraints and, even as you visualize an escape, such as downshifting, you recognize that such a move will simply enmesh you in a different set of difficulties. Most of us are enmeshed in the conditions of capitalism but recognize that the alternatives of homelessness, voluntary austerity, communism, or anarchism also have their unattractive aspects.”
A superficial reading will make you conclude that this is a gloomy book. In fact, it's gloriously liberating.
Lockdown. Gloucestershire. Working ‘remotely’ as they say. At lunchtime, I drove to St Nicholas’ Church, Oddington, not having the time to walk the couple of miles there. We call it St Nicholas-in-the-Woods, but that is not its proper name. It sits in a magical spot half a mile from the village, the original settlement around the church having relocated up the hill, possibly because of plague. The building has no electricity and is not used for regular worship (there is an 1852 Victorian church in the ‘new’ village). St Nicholas dates from the 11th century and gets a mention in Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches. It has a Doom painting covering almost the entire western half of the north wall of the nave and thought to have been painted in or around 1340. The oldest bell is dated 1684.
We have visited dozens of times, in all seasons. I sometimes go alone, as today. It was unlocked and empty. I love the interior space, and although I don’t buy in to the ‘holy spaces where the walls are saturated by centuries of prayer’ mantra, which I regard as both nonsense and sentimental, I find this space very conducive to attentiveness, wonder, and imagination — which is prayer. I name before God the people and causes on my mind. The churchyard is also magical. The many gravestones serve their true and proper purpose of reminding mortal beings of their mortality and transience. The wind sings through trees. Here are some pictures I have taken over the years.
Thank you to those locals who look after this building and keep it open.
I am moved by this film about Herbert Fingarette, made by his grandson. Herbert worked as a philosopher and in one of his numerous books had concluded that the fear of death was irrational. Years later, the prospect of death began to frighten him. You can read the story here, in The Atlantic, and see the film, below.
On watching it I wondered if perhaps the subject of his fear is in fact loss rather than death.
And what a shining example of the film-maker's art: to observe and record and to let the story speak for itself.
I attended an All Souls Eucharist, but did not stay the full course. It was the sermon what done it. A collection of unexamined clichés delivered in a sing-songy voice. I was not surprised. And the accompanying Faure Requiem I also tend to regard as clichéd these days, a victim of its cosy popularity and Classic FM promotion. But the sermon. It was not good. Laced with a liberal cleric’s references to the bereaved’s pain (grief no longer serving as a description, all inner distress is these days ‘pain’) and references to ‘those on the other side’. The delivery was sugary, the cadences of the sentimentalist, the preacher giving hints that they had never really experienced the horror of bereavement, or of the attachments and intimacies that give rise to it.
I have written of my friend John Murphy elsewhere on this blog (you can read it here). He occasionally had gently provocative letters published in The Times of London. Here is an example.
This BBC Radio 4 programme - one of the 'Something Understood' series, is a delightful reflection on the value of written letters. If written letters have fallen out of your life in favour of texts or emails, it is especially worth listening to. "American broadcaster Julie Shapiro began a long correspondence with her great aunt Lill following the death of Lill's husband twenty-five years ago. It lasted until Lill's own death seven years later. These letters, read by Irma Kurtz, form the central part of a programme that examines the rituals, intimacies and sustaining qualities of old-fashioned letter-writing". Link to the BBC site and programme.
"The meaning of Jesus Christ is God's concern for and presence in this world. The Christian faith is not about some god who is an abstract presence somewhere else, but about the living presence of God here and now, in this world, in exactly this world, as people know it, and see it, and touch it, and smell it, and live and work in it. That is why, incidentally, all the well meant talk of ‘making the gospel relevant’ to the life of the world is obscene: it secretly assumes that God is a stranger among us, who has to be introduced to us and to our anxieties and triumphs and issues and efforts. The meaning of Jesus Christ is that the Word of God is addressed to people, to all people, in the very events and relationships, any and every one of them which constitute our existence in this world. That is the theology of the incarnation."
The Spurgeon Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle dominates London's Elephant & Castle. It is said to draw a large crowd.
They kindly dropped an explanatory note through my letterbox this week. It's about this C19 pandemic thing. Apparently its from God:
"THESE are momentous days when we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide 'discipline' or warning from God, calling us to acknowledge and seek Him. And although we shrink from the thought, this is the reason for all unexpected catastrophes, whether epidemics, floods or vast fires. The Bible says these things will come more often in the 'last days', when atheism abounds and people generally have no thought or prayer to their Creator. A warning from God is not like the last judgement, because it is an expression of God's love, urging people to turn to Him, whereas the last judgement will finally close the door of mercy...."
I've heard this line of Christian thinking many times before. Who hasn't? It is easy to make fun of it because it is in fact rather silly. For those susceptible to this kind of distorted theology it is also rather dangerous: it can do harm.
It's hard to know where to start. First, such a framework simply does not fit within my faith-as-a-working-hypothesis-to-live-by understanding of the Christian God. Not even a bit. God, we are told, is love and such love is not reflected in endless, subtle, multiform 'disciplining'. Love has better methods at its disposal. Second, such a view paints God as a rather poor communicator, doesn't it? If "all unexpected catastrophes, whether epidemics, floods or vast fires" are warning from God intended to 'discipline us' its a bit of a scatter-gun approach. Can't God do better?
Those who elevate the entire canon of scripture into a coherent, God-dictated set of certain facts and instructions naturally approve of this kind of disciplinarian interpretation. Those who are drawn into the mystery of God as made known in and through the short life of the Nazarene and who seek understanding from a canvas far wider than the words of scripture (human experience and understanding, the material unearthed by an adventurous and curious life, reason, beauty) will see it for what it is: a narrow theology of sin and salvation free of wisdom and heart.
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.
Spotted on the Old Kent Road this week. 'The Light of the World' Church, currently neither receiving nor transmitting much light because of building works. That points to good and sensible stewardship of their building. Even so, the irony of it made me chuckle. It also made me think of the various ways in which the Church in many of its denominational forms* can blur the message of the Gospel by things architectural. I understand why some churches are big and tall, 'pointing to God in majesty' as I've heard it said, yet sometimes they seem only to make mere mortals feel small, and not in a good or necessary way. Others appear solidly unwelcoming and fortified.
*Quaker Meeting Houses and comparable Non Conformist places of Worship are sometimes exceptions, the buildings appearing both modest and inviting
Many things appearing in my email inbox depress me (please, Asian Babes, give it a break) though among the most unwelcome is the dreaded subject line "XX has sent you a Jacquie Lawson ecard". These combine sentimentality with convenience: an especially toxic combination in my book.
Jacquie Lawson may sense this, and so offers the hapless recipient the opportunity to "skip to end".
Should we be worried when risky behaviour seems cosy? My friend Fr John Rowe felt that church life - unintentionally - ran the risk of 'trivialisation by repetition' in making the Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Mass) so common a feature of its liturgical life.
Repetition can be a good thing, or at least carry good effect, and my own regular celebration of the Eucharist, and participation in it, has had many good, habit-forming effects (I believe). But I see his point, and it is one I share and like occasionally to highlight, by commenting, when asked, that I celebrated the Eucharist and 'no-one was hurt'.
I don't want anyone to be hurt. Of course not. But I want us to be changed by it; even shocked and shaken (or if not shaken, stirred). And that's, surely, the danger of too much repetition of this central liturgical happening of Christian life: the weight-carrying, meaning-carrying message and narrative which the Eucharist embodies and asserts ought not become 'just a thing'.
I have sometimes heard other clergy speak in emotive and disturbingly cosy terms of celebrating the Eucharist "and encountering Jesus there" and of finding such daily liturgical adventures to be essential to life. I am uneasy with this kind of perspective. Encounters with the Risen Christ are not confined to liturgy (there's surely a case for saying the Risen Christ might be far more interested in speaking to us in the ordinary business of living). And liturgy should shake us up from time to time. Hard hats on.
I'm indebted to my friend David P for introducing me to this magic poem/insight by Les Murray
The Meaning of Existence
Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.
Les Murray from Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002
"A Reason To Stop Worrying - Watch This Whenever You're Stressed Or Anxious"
On the 0832 from Paddington to West Ealing. Various announcements, including an interesting variant on the now all-too-common ‘if you see anything suspicious call the Transport Police: See it. Say it. Sorted’. This is usually said over the London Underground's PA system in a bit of a ‘cor blimey’ voice. Today, on the overground service from Paddington, it was more Hyacinth Bucket. And it was slightly different in detail: If you see something you not happy about, contact the…’. I was looking out of the window at the time, at a c1970s brutalist sky-grabbing tower block, feeling sympathetic to the poor sods living in it. I was not happy about it. Taking the good woman at her word, I got on the blower….