Monthly Archives: March 2012

Old Canvas and Holy Blood

On Wednesday we had a memorial Mass for David Atkinson. I did not know him well or what he did as an MP except that he seemed often away on Council of Europe business but it seems as if he was a bit of a hero. He constantly put himself out and sometimes in danger to help democracies in the East and persecuted Christians.

On Saturday I was searching around for an old canvas to paint on and found the outline of an Annunciation – the figures so poorly drawn that the only way to make the picture bearable was to smudge it heavily and make all the outlines hazy. But I suppose that is what faith, or my faith, is like: if the details are too sharply drawn, they don’t make sense.

The reading on Sunday was about a grain of wheat having to die so it can produce wheat. That was happening to my picture: by the time the picture was nearing completion on Monday, in all its naivete, it was the feast of the Annunciation but isn’t Annunciation about acceptance?

On Tuesday before our debate on assisted dying that I spoke in, we went to Micky Mosley’s funeral. A brilliant man, with private wealth, he could have done anything. He chose to look after others. I think we won the debate on euthanasia. Ultimately, true worth cannot be measured by humans.

On Friday I went by chance into the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges when the exposition was taking place. We were asked to approach the relic, pray, and leave money. I couldn’t get as spiritually involved as I would like. But even if a DNA test proved that the ‘blood’ came from the tenth century, that’s still centuries of devotion. I was however suddenly inextricably moved by Simon Marmion’s Mater Dolorosa and the Man of Sorrows, a powerful ‘primitive’ Dutch masterpiece.

On Saturday, I came across a truly inspiring part of the biography of John Bright by Bill Cash. Bright is offered but refuses high office in the Palmerston government. Not primarily because he disagrees with Palmerston, even despises him, not just because he is disinterested in the frippery of office, but because he thinks it much more important to help educate the people about ideas for freedom than just make existing institutions work better.

But then I thought surely it was different then, those were heroic days. Bright was fighting for free trade and the secret ballot, but I realised too that the people are enslaved today, too. They are taxed, their money forcibly taken at an infinitely higher rate than in Bright’s day. They have to go (unless they are very fortunate) to state schools where a politician decides what is taught, who teaches, who can come to school, where they are prevented from using the money they have to give to the state towards truly independent education. A bureaucrat decides what drug you can be given irrespective of a lifetime paid in taxes to the health service. A prime minister can decide to re-define everybody’s marriage. We really are not free, there is freedom’s work to be done!

As I was walking around Palace Green in Durham that evening, to the backdrop of the great Norman cathedral, I thought that it was an open-air version of the darkened abbey church at night where the spirit could soar and be closer to God.

Existence and Being

As always in the monastery the atmosphere takes hold slowly, only with some chance repetition of words does it begin to take hold, but I found something in Thomas Merton’s book Elected Silence that made a great impression on me. As a young man by chance he reads about medieval philosophy and in particular the notion of Aseitas. Aseitas (aseity) simply means the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, require no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can be only one such being: that is God. And to say that God exists a se, of and by reason of Himself, is merely to say that God is Being itself. “Ego sum qui sum.”

Like the young Thomas Merton this explanation immediately made a big impression on me. I have always been troubled by the existence of God because I have seen Him as, like us, doing things, as a kind of prime mover. As I went to sleep I now had a view of him in my mind’s eye as being at the centre of all things but unmoving complete, not making or unmaking, caused by nothing, fulfilled in itself by its own existence. With no more a beginning or an end than the concept that 2 and 2 equals 4. I began to see, however vaguely, that when everything else in the universe moves and is moved, there must be something at its heart that never moves, just is.

On Monday morning, sitting in the quiet of the monastery, I read:

“When God says that He is being, if what He says is to have any intelligible meaning to our minds, it can only mean this: that He is the pure act of existing. Pure act: therefore excluding all imperfection in the order of existing.”

“Beyond all sensual images and all conceptual determinations God affirms Himself as the absolute act of being in its pure actuality. … Being is being,”

It seemed almost suddenly that years of my mental buffeting around the notion of God were mere illusions. Merton quotes St Paul: “The letter killeth, but the spirit gives life.” My mind was still fumbling, still confused but a step seemed to have been made.

On Monday I was dreaming gently on this theme that God is just actuality, complete in Himself or Itself. In my dream, I saw God as a kind of crusty rock, vast, immovable, but then in my dream something seemed missing. I realised it was love. God was not just a Rock of Ages nor a mathematical formula from physics nor a philosophical concept. God was love. But a certainty remained at the source of the message there must be something unchanging.

In Tuesday’s reading, the lame man asks Jesus to cure him, because every time he tries to go into the pool by Bethsaida.

“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool. For when the water is disturbed and I am going down, another goes down before me.”

My faith is like that: the water is disturbed for an instant, I believe, and then before I can immerse myself I am too late.

The Third Week in Lent

On Sunday I listened to the Provincial of the Jesuit order in England give one of the finest sermons I have heard. The reading was about Jesus flinging the money changers out of the Temple. But we were asked to visualise the different courtyards of the Temple. The outer, open to gentiles, and many changes, and the inner courtyards ending with the Holy of Holies. We have in Lent to look at these inner courtyards of our soul. What is it that is going wrong, that is selfish? What is keeping us from God?

In Monday’s reading, Jesus reminds us that a prophet is never listened to in “his own country”. That night I was thinking on this and in a half doze had my “wall” dream to follow on from the “room dream”. I stopped for a moment and looked hard at an old wall, only a small part of it, at the delicate colouring of the brickwork, the loose bits, the clumps of growth, and stayed for some time in front of that wall. I have no idea if God exists or if we really exist as entities or are we just part of everything, but in reality the wall does not exist.

Therefore whether or not God exists, this is a pointless ‘rational’ argument. For us, in our minds, He exists. The passage in this week’s psalms that stayed with me was the ninety-fourth – in particular these words: “O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert.”

It seems to me that the worst thing we can be guilty of is indifference. If we feel depressed, start grumbling like those Israelites who grumbled at Moses at their fate, that is the worst outcome. Never despair.

On Thursday the reading of the Gospel dealt with the two people who come into the Temple: the tax collector who beats his chest and the satisfied one who thinks he is virtuous. Which one are we? I fell at the first step because I am still not blessed with faith absolute in its certainty. And do we love other people as ourselves? No, but we can start to love them as individuals, if not yet as groups or impersonal objects.

I was thinking of this on Friday when meeting people and on Saturday visiting a college. Everyone, individually you meet has a worth, an interest, but I am still a longer way from even aiming at the first two steps: loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbour as myself. Perhaps the soothing balm of the water of the Samarian well on Wednesday is the only hope. This is surely a potent image. The water from the physical well that sustains our thirst for a time, the water from the spiritual well that is everlasting.

On Saturday evening there was a programme about the novelist William Golding. One thing he said struck me as true: there is a division between the spiritual and material self but neither ever goes away. In Lord of the Flies he investigates the power of evil in all of us, lurking below the conventions of society but perhaps also there is another way at looking at it – the power of good is in all of us.

Turning Our Gaze Outward

The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks

The second week of Lent

I was talking to a priest in confession and as usual admitting my lack of progress with selfishness. Of course we cannot give up selfishness for Lent like we can give up chocolate. It is the very essence of our being. But he reminded me of the words of the Chief Rabbi that in pursuing religion thought we move away from selfishness. Here was a particularly powerful phrase. I turned it over and over in my mind during the night. And then next morning I had forgotten it entirely and try as I might for days it eluded me.

On Wednesday I was talking to a friend. He gave me some useful advice that we can give nothing to God. Obviously He needs nothing from us, whether he exists or not, but all we can do is to offer up our selfishness in trying to help others. Easier said than done.

On Thursday something I had to do the next day was irritating me. Then I listened to the story of Lazarus and Abraham. This always has a disturbing effect on me. Because the point is that the rich man was not a bad man. He did not do anything wrong. He just did not see Lazarus. I often feel I am like that.

And then on Friday, reading through an article by the Chief Rabbi, wading through it at last at the very end, almost giving up, I found the phrase: Faith is the redemption of solitude. The Chief Rabbi writes “I once described faith as the redemption of solitude. It sanctifies relationships, builds communities, and turns our gaze outward from self to other, giving emotional resonance to altruism and energising the better angels of our nature.”

As the second week in Lent came to an end on Saturday I dreamt that I had to take some important business colleagues to a vital meeting. But, as in dreams, I continued on wandering off on my own into a room and spending hours waiting and wasting time. I call it my “room” dream. Instead of getting on with the essence of things we waste time on superfluities and ourselves. In the dream, as a result of this time wasting, the business project goes disastrously wrong.

The Mikhailovsky Palace

In the Michael Palace of St Petersburg there is an extraordinary collection of Russian historical painting. Perhaps through a nation’s art you can get closer to the soul of the nation than in any other way.

I know that “Holy Russia” is only part of Russia and was for seventy years undermined by the state but it is re-emerging and it may be a good thing that it is.

The fragile conundrum of silence, hypnosis, and faith

The first week in Lent

I had a dream in which I was talking to my father. When we try and remember dead people they are indistinct. But when we dream about them it is as if they are really present – they are as if alive.

Why is this? Is it because by some trick of the brain, we can delve deep inside, where perfect memory resides? Is it because there is, in fact, no place of perfect recall, but the brain tricks us or is it because the dead person is actively still alive to us? In this fragile conundrum of silence, hypnosis, and faith lies the essence of the religious question. We can only pray.

On Tuesday, the Gospel reading asks us to pray and gives us the Lord’s Prayer. On Wednesday at early Mass I listened to the story of Jonah and his efforts to avoid his fate as we all do. On Thursday, as night was falling, I was in Red Square in Moscow at the end of a tiring day of travel on an electoral monitoring mission. At one end of the square fairground music was booming out for dancers on an ice rink. At the other end, softer chants were coming out of St Basil’s Cathedral.

I went in and immediately was overwhelmed by the total immersion of Orthodoxy in sight, smell, and sound. The interior was dark, lit by candles, packed; chanting alternating with readings. Rationality is not needed here. Russians in their art seem much more conscious of their history intertwining it with religious themes. A typical example is Repin’s The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter – there is some stamp of a nineteenth-century concept of Holy Russia.

On Sunday I called into a brand new Orthodox church on a bleak housing estate. It was packed, and the singing as spirited as any cathedral, indeed there is a vibrancy lacking in museum-like cathedrals like the Cathedral on the Spilled Blood. This profound faith is difficult to understand.