Cosmic Walk, Cabragh Wetlands Centre, Tipperary

Cosmic Walk, Cabragh Wetlands Centre, Tipperary

Near Thurles, on the road to Holycross, one finds Cabragh Wetlands Centre, which is the site of the transformation of the marshes around an old Irish Sugar factory into a wildlife sanctuary:

Like many heavy industries of its time, however, it had an unwelcome environmental footprint. Sugar beet was washed before processing, and the sludgy effluent was, at first, released directly into the River Suir.

Initially, this was considered of little consequence when so much wealth was being created locally. But the Suir was renowned for angling, and during the 1960s the almost inevitable happened, and the effluent wiped out many fish. The series of kills drew attention to the untreated discharges, and a local angler, Bob Stakelum, spearheaded a campaign to clean the effluent before it was released.

In response lagoons were built that allowed the sludge to settle before the waste water was discharged. These “settling ponds” stopped the fish kills – and brought an unintended but welcome consequence. Waterfowl took an immediate shine to the lagoons, and wigeons, plovers, lapwings, gulls and curlews began to overwinter there.

Cabragh is a wonderful site which I have visited many times. It has a great variety of fauna and flora and recently has added a new feature – a Cosmic Walk.

The Cosmic Walk concept is influenced by the thought of Brian Swimme, and indeed this approach to reconciling evolutionary, cosmological and religious mindsets features in Peter Reason’s“In Search of Grace”, much-cited on this blog.described here:

The Cosmic Walk is a ritual created by Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm in New Jersey. It has been modified and facilitated by many people around the world. The Cosmic Walk is a way of bringing our knowledge of the 14-billion-year Universe process from our heads to our hearts.

There is a leaflet on the Cabragh walk available here. One doesn’t necessarily have to embrace the concept overall to enjoy a walk around some striking sculptures … but the overall concept gives these works a deeper resonance.

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From “Forgiveness”, by Herbert McCabe

From the sermon Forgiveness by Herbert McCabe:

It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve.

It is not, I suppose, really odd that other people should; I suppose it is the commonest way of thinking of God, for God tends to be just a great projection into the sky of our moral feelings, especially our guilt feelings. But I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.Take the famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In this, the younger son goes to a distant country far from his father and squanders all his father’s gifts in debauchery and generally having a high old time. After a bit he sees himself for what he is, so as to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”What his sin has done is to alter his whole relationship with his father; instead of being a son he now should be treated as one who gets his wages, gets exactly what he deserves. But there are two things here; there is the fact that this is what his sin has done, and there is the fact that he recognises this. To make sure you see that this is the crucial point of the story, Luke has it repeated twice. The vital thing is that the son has recognised his sin for what it is: something that changes God into a paymaster, or a judge.Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.It is very odd that so much casual Christian thinking should be a worship of Satan that we should think of the punitive satanic God as the only God available to the sinner. It is very odd that the view of God as seen from the Church should ever be simply the view of God as seen from hell. For damnation must be just being fixed in this illusion, stuck forever with the God of the Law, stuck forever with the God provided by our sin.

“Fearful of My Joy” – Adam deVille on cooking, feasting and the sacramental

I am running the risk of turning this blog into nothing but reposting of Adam deVille, but I could resist this 2013 post on cooking, feasting, joy, and the sacramental by way of Chesterton, Waugh, Jennifer Patterson, Alexander Schememann, and Babette’s Feast

Cooking (which, bizarrely, people watch constantly on TV but rarely do themselves) is of course far more than a utilitarian necessity. It is a deeply, uniquely human activity the absence of which increasingly today can only be greeted with alarm–not only because of what its lack does to us psychologically as families and communities, but also physiologically: some studies have recently shown that the failure to cook regularly not only has deleterious effects on the family as such, but also on our physical health through the rise of diabetes and obesity even in very young children. The failure to eat together as humans is equally destructive in related and different ways.

But I am not here, schoolmarm-like, to hector you about nutrition. Such busybodies are the most tiresome people around. As an unabashed fan of Evelyn Waugh, I firmly believe with him that “food can and should be about enjoyment. As for ‘nutrition’–that is all balls.” And I would note that when Jennifer Patterson, one of the two gloriously grand, uproariously funny and hugely incorrect “Two Fat Ladies” died of lung cancer in the summer of 1999–while still smoking in the hospital and eating caviar and drinking champagne apparently–I used some of their recipes to make a special dinner for some of my friends in honour of Patterson–a devout Catholic and parishoner at the glorious London Oratory of which I have such fond memories from a 1997 visit. (During that dinner, and too many others, I have often bored myself by quoting Chesterton too frequently: “Catholicism is a thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar!”)

Some days I am tempted to write a book “Towards an Eastern Christian Theology of Feasting and Fasting” but you will be spared the dyspepsia that would come from reading such a turgid volume because I think it has largely been done better by others, including Robert Farrar Capon (an Episcopalian theologian actually) in his Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating and his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

Among Eastern Christians, the best person to write on the connections of food-feasting-sacraments is of course Alexander Schmemann in his For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, which I have been reading this semester with my students. Schmemann beings by observing that

man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table…. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life (11).

I recently tried to illustrate the centrality of the banquet by watching with my students a charming movie from 1987, Babette’s Feast. If you’ve not seen it, go and watch it. It’s a marvelous illustration of the importance not only of feasting, but of the very sacramental nature of human life even in ways not often thought of in those terms–opera, dancing, music, and of course the preparing and enjoying of both food and wine. It also wonderfully illustrates the joy of cooking good food and, in doing so, the joy of giving joy to others–the joy of gracious hospitality graciously conveyed and received. (Mary may think she had the “better part” but there’s a lot of delight for the Marthas of this world being in the kitchen.)

The movie raised some difficult questions for my students–and I daresay for most of us today in our absurdly over-busy age–not least because of its languorous pace: each course (of seven) is focused on as each diner enjoys every bite slowly and deliberately. How rarely, they admitted, do they feast like that–even on a much less grand scale–at such a pace, and without doing so while texting, watching TV, or playing on the computer. What are we losing by not doing this regularly? Why do we deprive ourselves of one of the most basic and joyful of human encounters qua human? (One answer to that was provided many decades ago now, but all the more important today: Joseph Pieper’s splendid work Leisure: The Basis of Culture.) Good food, wine, and conversation: what more could one ask for? Why would one absent oneself from that or pick oneself up from the table only to hurry back to what–the Internet or some ghastly bit of ironically so-called “reality” TV?

The lost world of Amity Cadet

The lost world of Amity Cadet

The works of the Vietnam-born French composer and pianist Amity Cadet have all but vanished from public consciousness. Of her innovative and eclectic body of work from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, only one song – “Romances” has made it into the era of YouTube:

and Spotify:

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Cadet was born in Saigon on the 7th of May 1954 – symbolically the day of the fall of Dien Bien Phu which would mark the end of the French presence in Indochina. Cadet’s father was a railway engineer working on the maintenance of the North-South Railway Line, her mother a teacher in the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat:

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Amity Cadet’s destiny was to move from lost world to lost world; it is not clear when exactly the Cadets left Vietnam, but they next were in Algeria, just in time for the escalation in the Algerian War of Independence that followed the Philippeville Massacre. They stayed in Algeria somewhat longer, until the mid-1960s. After all the Cadets were not pieds-noirs, and it seems that Mr Cadet secured employment with the post-Independence. In 1964 the Cadets relocated to Quebec City. At that point, Quebec remained a highly traditionalist, Catholic province. This suited Mrs Cadet, who at this point had become intensely devoted to the Most Immaculate Heart of Mary, but in the familiar pattern Quebec too was about the change, if not as violently as Vietnam or Algeria just as decisively.

Cadet’s teens spanned the years 1967 to 1974, but contemporaries did not recall her seeming terribly affected by the supposedly epoch-making events of the time. “She was a calm, placid girl. She liked slightly cheesy music – Neil Diamond, John Denver, that kind of thing.” She had begun learning the piano in Algeria, and kept up her lessons with Madame Press, a legendary Quebec City music teacher of fearsome repute. Yet, uniquely among Press’ students, Cadet had a calming effect on the irascible, ancient woman who had been been brought to Canada by her parents fleeing an Odessa pogrom in the year 1881. “Things that, from anyone else, would bring forth a hail of Yiddish curses and blows from tiny fists, would be greeted with a benevolent smile if Amity did them,” recalled a contemporary from the Quebec City Conservatory.

It was in 1975, aged 21, that Amity Cadet began to release albums on the legendary Montreal label Les Enfants d’Esprit. The pioneering dronerock act Nul and the “extreme singer songwriter” Benoit de Boniface (whose ninety five minute strums on open chords had so divided opinion during the first Festival De La Sagesse held in 1972) were the best-known acts on this label. The Les Enfants d’Esprit archives, including the cover art for all records released on the label, were destroyed in a fire in 1983.

All known copies of Amity Cadet’s debut, Piano de l’Enfer were destroyed in the flames. Perhaps, somewhere in a mouldering jumble sale or in an attic, there remains a copy of this album described by Canadian music critic Doug Bundle as “at the same time terrifying and arousing, like the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon” (to which Amity Cadet reportedly replied “What does that even mean?)

Whatever the merits of Bundle’s clotted prose, Amity Cadet’s debut was a milestone in the development of minimalist music. One contemporary said that the best way to imagine it is “Ligeti’s Musica Ricercerta II – played in hell by a pianist being slowly disembowelled by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon”

The years went on – Charles Manson and Richard Nixon became somewhat lesser cultural touchstones – and as the 1970s became dominated by punk (according to ageing music critics) and the Bay City Rollers (in reality), Amity Cadet found herself swimming against a musical tide of triviality, swimming against a cultural tide of cynical materialism, and swimming against a personal tide of repeated bad relationships. In 1979 a nightmare date with Donald Sutherland, followed by a nightmare date the following Saturday with Leonard Cohen, was immortalised in her minimalist piece “Threnody On Nightmare Dates with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Cohen on Two Successive Saturdays” She persuaded Les Enfants D’Esprit to release this fifteen hour work in a twenty-LP set, no small vote of confidence in a work that consisted of Cadet repeatedly pressing all 88 piano keys at the same time using a length of wood.

The album “Romances” appeared in 1981. It is from this that the one surviving Amity Cadet track that appears on Spotify and Youtube comes from. Along with Tubular Bells, it is regarded as the high water mark of New Age music. “Romances”, the song, is the paradigmatic piano relaxation song, one whose structure however contains hidden repetitions of note sequences that encode the opening verses of the Books of Revelations.

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Later in the 1980s, Amity Cadet renounced music. The death of her mother in a train crash, for which her father, who had been unaware his wife was on the train, was later held criminally negligent for, deeply affected her. She used what royalties she had gained to buy up her records and destroy them, and to pulp entire runs of magazines that mentioned her career. She, like her mother before her, was to devote her life to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and music played by the lovechild of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon in hell did not quite fit this aspiration. Some tender impulse, however, led her to spare “Romances” from the memory hole, and to this day we can enjoy this epitome of piano relaxation.

“the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want” – Adam deVille on prayer and psychoanalysis

I have linked before to Eastern Christian Books, the blog of Adam de Ville. One of deVille’s recurrent themes is the unnecessary and unhelpful perceived antagonism between psychoanalysis and religion.. I recently linked to a brilliant post on the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and the idea of the “normotic” self.

DeVille’s most recent post is a particular highlight. Again he draws on Bollas, but also the theologian Herbert McCabe. I particular love the line on prayer from McCabe that deVille cites here, contrasting the worthy things our superegos tend to direct us to exhort the Almighty to do with the “vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want”:

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that “psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives,” as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is “disconcerting” for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas … says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand “subverts the analyst’s natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient’s wish to be dominated.”

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of “spiritual direction,” much of which consists of attempts at “mind control” as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one’s narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself–a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better–start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn’t come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I’ll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the “fundamental rule” (cf. Freud’s “On Beginning the Treatment”) of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be “the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want,” instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we’re distracted during prayer, it’s because we’re not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to–the “proper and respectable and ‘religious'” things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, “you could let world peace rest for a while.”And while you’re at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they “are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer.” (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain “ordinary regression to dependence” for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

Two Views on the Nature of Language: Nietzsche and Auden

I drew on this blog post for much of the post I just wrote, so it seems only fair to highlight it here by reblogging. I have just discovered this blog which seems to have a lot of good stuff worth exploring….

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That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts,” says Nietzsche. “There is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” Language, then, is a substitute for the inexpressibly rich and the unfathomably deep. It is a perpetual reaching-forth towards something (beauty? love? truth?) that recedes even as we attempt to trap it in the web of our words. It is translation, and something is always lost when we translate. It is a faded window onto the world, into our hearts. And it is associated with a kind of suffering that is born out of a sense of incompleteness, a sense that no matter how hard we try, no matter how beautifully and evocatively we use the language that we have, the inexpressible (truth or beauty, the Grecian urn would say they are one) remains ever elusive, beyond our grasp; something that we…

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Silence and the limits of language

“That for which we find words in something already dead in our hearts. There always is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”

Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols

Some popular sayings about education and mastery reflect a intuition that what is remembered is not always the full truth, or even the essential. There is the saw that “education is what remains when you have forgotten what you learned in school”, one of those quotes ascribed to multiple authors from Einstein to Lord Halifax. There is near-taunt that, on topic X, “I have forgotten more than you will ever know”.

The Nietzsche aphorism above is the epigraph of Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare the Invention of the Human”. In another translation, the full paragraph is as follows:

We no longer have sufficiently high esteem for ourselves when we communicate. Our true experiences are not at all garrulous. They could not communicate themselves even if they tried: they lack the right words. We have already gone beyond whatever we have words for. In all talk there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented only for what is average, medium, communicable. By speaking the speaker immediately vulgarizes himself. — Out of a morality for deaf-mutes and other philosophers.

Over the years, I have often essayed (in the sense of attempt) a philosophy of silence:

A few years ago I realised that silence is a thing in itself. It is not just the absence of sound, or the absence of noise.

There are anthropological texts on silence in different cultures , social history texts on the invention of silence and the constructed nature of concepts such as silence, sound and noise, there are audiological and acoustic texts on sound and how it is created in our brains.

All seem beside the point. Silence is.

Silence is a force, a power. A philosophy of silence will, after all, always be expressed in language, and always trap itself in language.

We are told that absolute silence is unattainable, and in our modern world even relative silence is close to impossible to find. Still, silence is free, and silence is everywhere, in the gaps.

Silence is the punchline of every unspoken joke, the conclusion of every unformulated argument, the summation of all unspeeched thoughts. In the beginning was the word and in the end there is silence.

Through various crooked paths, Ihavetried to explore through various quotes and passages. Much of this has related to nature, to religion, to mysticism, to reflection.

Perhaps a common thread through all this is this sense of silence surrounding and pervading all our noise. The idea that forgetting can be a marker of the richness of original knowledge, as hinted at in the pseudo-Einstein quote and the forgot-more-than-you’ll-ever-know rhetoric, also implies the vastness of what we do not know. Another near-cliché is that the more one knows, the more one knows what one doesn’t know.

Perhaps my thoughts on silence from nthposition some years ago could be better expressed as silence is not merely an absence, but the positive presence of all that we do not know, do not perceive, cannot find words for.

Nietzsche is a powerful thinker, though one whom I have always found it necessary to “divide through” his rhetoric a little. In the passage from the Twilight of the Idols one can see why Bloom felt he was among the greatest of psychologists, a precursor of Freud, as he expresses the vast domain of the inexpressible that underlies our motivations and actions, and for which we often devise plausible reasons after the fact.

At the An Enduring Romantic blog, we find other Nietzsche thoughts on this, and the contrasting thought of Auden. As An Enduring Romantic concludes:

To try and gather up these scattered remarks into some kind of conclusion: I suppose that we can either view language as the eternal, futile reaching-forth towards an inaccessible essence, doomed to perpetual failure; or we can view it as a mode of creation, creating and evoking a different kind of response from a deeply private, personal sense of awe. On this view, language isn’t partial or incomplete, always falling short of – shall we say – the ideal. It is simply a different manner of response. As Auden says, both kinds of imagination are necessary. The imaginative awe, on its own, will not and cannot give us the forms of beauty that are so integral to the aesthetic experience, because the imaginative awe doesn’t exist through those forms. And so, it is not the case, as Heine says, that “where words leave off, music begins“; and nor is it the case that “the only valuable thing in art is that which you cannot explain.”

The media landscape so many of us inhabit (and of which this blog is a tiny part of, but a part of nevertheless) is one militates against reflection and the silence and space necessary for reflection. Silence has become a countercultural force, possibly the one true countercultural force in a culture in which rebellion and self-conscious individuality co-opted by corporate interests. Both of the kinds of imagination described by Auden are under threat by this radical undermining of any space for reflection and silence.