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.
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.
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….
Can I attempt a summary? I love so much about life and the world. I am often moved by responses within me which can be captured by the words awe, compassion, reverence and wonder. In equal measure I experience horror, shame, fear and contempt. I can be very patient in some settings, very impatient in others. I know moments of wonderful peace, and moments of an internal rage. I am largely unmoved by many plays, novels and popular drama, finding them all less interesting than the drama I experience life to be.
Come, ye thankful people, come, / Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in, / Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide / For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God's own temple, come; / Raise the song of harvest home!
I was driving to the next village for the paper and some provisions when BBC R4 started its Harvest Festival Sunday Worship. I've always had a sense that the broadcasting of church services does not really work. To say its like overhearing other people having sex isn't quite the thing, but has a hint of it. In both cases, I'm happy for them, but don't wish to be an aural partner to the proceedings. And whereas the latter don't (usually) want you to hear, and are not addressing you as an attendant third party, the church gig is addressed to you. They are polite and welcoming, as if you were visiting their house.
Church services are alien events to the majority. The players in broadcast services tend to be keen to talk of welcome (fair enough of course) and also of the ever-present God with whom they are on intimate terms. A common ploy, I've noticed, is to talk of their church buildings as where 'prayer is valid' (cf. T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding) and where the very walls are saturated with it. The implied message is that God appears to be domiciled in churches, and one is left with the impression may not often venture out. But the Gospel is not concerned with what happens inside churches, but what one makes of life in light of the claims and accounts of the man Jesus. And when did you last hear a church service broadcast that featured intelligent, sharp accounts from faithful lay Christians about being the church beyond the building?
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’.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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 appetite for - and easy recourse to - violence horrifies me. We see it lurking in virtually everyone. We must acknowledge it in ourselves if maturing beyond it is to be at all possible.
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.
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.
Walking along an unknown trail near Mendocino in Northern California I rejoiced in being enveloped in its Pacific fog and in being alone. I think about the human invention of ‘time’. The earth gets about its business of revolving and seeks no encouragement, no feedback, no risk analysis, no performance assessment, no under-writing, no audience, no consultant’s improvement advice, no nothing.
The practice of gratitude may be one of the best ‘enhancers’ we can find. I know it runs two risks in the way such a claim is perceived: one is that it is ‘religious’; the other that it belongs to a middle-aged or elderly view of things. It may well be that the best insights of our various religions have come to see its value as an orientation and attitude; and ditto with the wise-older amongst us. So what?
If I want everything then what I do possess will always show a deficit against that target; if I see all as gift (life, senses, other people, what possessions I have, and the fact of the universe, this planet, its without-which-we-would-not-be here Sun) then the formula behind the equation becomes a positive, a credit.
When all things are viewed from this perspective, gratitude seems to spring up and change how we experience things. Certain ‘I wants’ transform into ‘I haves’, though the condition this brings about (it seems to me) is better described as ‘we haves’, since the all-dominant I appears, too, to undergo some welcome change in this marvellous alchemy.
A thought came into my head just now, that ‘worship’ really never occurs in church, and that what is called ‘worship’ in church is more like the short-cut on a modern computer’s ‘desktop’ – a cipher, a link to something actually sitting (and happening) elsewhere. I see that this is not an entirely satisfactory view, but it is, I think, fruitful. ‘True’ worship – or maybe I should say immediate, responsive, purposeful and unselfconscious worship – occurs in and through our engagement with life, and that (let’s be honest) happens outside the church-as-building far more than inside it. Think of the numberless moments in life when we act responsibly and conscientiously and generously out of care, wonder, responsibility, delight and truth.