Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

From The Theologians, Jorge Luis Borges

The opening lines of The Theologians:

After having razed the garden and profaned the chalices and altars, the Huns entered the monastery library on horseback and trampled the incomprehensible books and vituperated and burned them, perhaps fearful that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, which was an iron scimitar. Palimpsests and codices were consumed, but in the heart of the fire, amid the ashes, there remained almost intact the twelfth book of the Civitas Dei, which relates how in Athens Plato taught that, at the centuries’ end, all things will recover their previous state and he in Athens, before the same audience, will teach this same doctrine anew. The text pardoned by the flames enjoyed special veneration and those who read and reread it in that remote province came to forget that the author had only stated this doctrine in order better to refute it.

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The Empathy of St. Francis

A wonderful essay by DeForest London on St Francis (of Assisi) and the power of empathy:

“When people were around St. Francis and his empathy, they felt this lightening of their burden because they knew (they felt deeply) that someone was sharing the load with them. They found rest for their world-weary souls in a similar way that the followers of Jesus found rest in his empathetic presence.

The beauty of this quality is that we do not have to be especially intelligent or wise or wealthy to cultivate it. In fact, according to the Gospel, this quality often eludes the wealthy and the wise. Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The Greek word for “infants” is nepios, which can also be translated as someone who does not speak or someone who needs training (which sounds kind of like our pets).

Empathy is a quality available to all and is often found among those from whom we least expect it (or don’t expect it at all). Empathy is available not only to humans, but to all sentient beings (Francis might even say to all of creation). Personally, one of my most profound experiences of empathy was not from a human. Several years ago, my cat, Frisky London, passed away at the ripe old age of 20 (which would be equivalent to about 96 in human years). Before she passed away, she comforted me. The last time I said goodbye to her at my parent’s house, I cried, knowing that I might not see her ever again. She was not really eating or drinking and was very unresponsive. But when I cried, I cried into her beautiful fur coat. And as I was oozing out my sadness onto her, she responded by licking my tears. And, I felt, very powerfully, that she knew she was going to die and she knew that I was going to miss her and she showed me empathy and she comforted me and she eased my sadness. Frisky was my St. Francis.”

DeForest London

There was a discussion in a First Grade religion class focused on St. Francis of Assisi. After school, a First Grader came home very excited about what he had learned and blurted out to his mother, “Guess what, Mommy? Today, I learned that St. Francis was a sissy!” Now one practical way to ensure that we don’t go home thinking that St. Francis was a sissy is to practice the proper pronunciation of the saint’s hometown: Not “Asisy” but “Aseesee.”

However, even with the proper pronunciation of his hometown, I wonder if many of us still do think of this saint as perhaps a little too kind and too gentle for his own good. He was known to have cried every day, he preached sermons to birds, he rubbed sticks together as if he were playing the violin, he called the sun his brother and the moon his sister, and…

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“Of Smelly Monks and Annoying Neighbours” – Hannah LeGrand in Comment Magazine

Hannah LeGrand has a review of Kyle David Bennet’s Practices of Love in Comment Magazine which is worth reading. I’ve posted before on the romanticisation of monasticism. Both those who romanticise and criticise the monastic life tend to have a misconception of it being a retreat from community into isolation. As LeGrand writes:

There is a common misconception of the monastic life, that it was an escape from human society, a retreat into a solitary life and the personal cultivation of one’s relationship with God. The monk, we tend to think, was turned inward and upward, a strange and almost mystical figure—barely of this world.

The reality of the monastic life, however, was often quite different. Indeed, far from being plagued by an excess of solitude, the aspect of medieval monasticism that would most likely horrify modern sensibilities is the oppressive lack of privacy many cloisters afforded. Monks slept together in one open dormitory. They worshiped together, ate together, and worked together. The monk or nun who committed their life to God was rarely afforded the luxury of being alone with God.

As Bennett notes, “Monks and nuns make vows not to a cloister but to a community. And they do so not to escape the world but to enact a different one.” The monastery was not a rejection of community. Rather, it represented a commitment to enacting a new sort of community, one in which all members strove, with the help of the spiritual disciplines, to not only love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds but also to truly love their neighbours as themselves in all the patterns of their working and resting, their sleeping and rising, their meals, chores, and worship. It is to this end that the spiritual disciplines were employed.

LeGrand discusses contemporary “self care”, into which this romanticised view of monasticism can be fitted. She is endearingly self-deprecating about her own attempts at “spiritual practice” and how this was a form of spiritual pride:

As a high school student, I went through a brief and rather misguided period of fascination with the spiritual disciplines. In practice, my discipline of choice was most often that of silence. Being naturally a quiet sort of student, holding my tongue was no great burden to me, and as I fancied myself following in the footsteps of ancient Christians, my shyness and tendency to retreat inside myself seemed to take on a weighty and pleasing spiritual significance.

Thinking back on this high school practice while reading Kyle Bennett’s Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, I realized with an embarrassed sort of horror that throughout all those stretches of pious silence I had never really paid any special attention to listening. If anything, the weightiness of my own discipline cultivated a disdain for the shallow conversation around me, and I’m sure I barely paid attention to the day’s petty lessons on differential equations and the Meech Lake Accord that had, no doubt, been carefully prepared. In this way, I think it is safe to say that I was doing the spiritual disciplines wrong.

Bennet’s book looks like it will join my ever-burgeoning to-read list – it sounds like a bracingly practical approach to what can often be an over romanticised practice.

Indeed, Bennett does not spend much time on grand ideas or theological arguments. Practices of Love reads—in some ways much like the original recommendations of Cassian himself—as a practical manual on the spiritual disciplines in modern life, full of concrete habits to incline every waking hour toward love of one’s neighbour. His suggestions are often unexciting, sometimes downright intrusive, and, in their own way, radical. He recommends inviting neighbours to join in our precious Sabbath rest even when all we want is a long nap and a movie. He recommends setting aside time to think positively about that co‐worker we really can’t stand, and using our own silence as an opportunity to listen very carefully to even shallow conversation.

In this way, Bennett’s take on the spiritual disciplines offers us none of the seductive charm of a minimalist wardrobe. Rather, in true monastic spirit, there is only the strange and uncomfortable, day in and day out enactment of a new sort of community, one in which love for one’s neighbour is not just a beautiful idea or even a political position, but something sunk deep into muscle memory, something that fills even the in‐between moments of ordinary days.

One of the many things I have enjoyed about Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace is a certain honesty about the curmudgeonliness that can go with the pilgrim spirit (especially in the modern world, where pilgrimage is more of a Great Event than the norm of previous times)

All The Time In The World: Disconnecting to Reconnect

Trailer – All the Time in the World from Suzanne Crocker on Vimeo.

All The Time In The World is a charming documentary which follows a Canadian family of five over 9 months in the Yukon wilderness.

Directed by the family’s mother, Suzanne Crocker, and featuring three children aged 10, 8 and 4 (at the time), the film is an engaging story of the challenges and joys and a life without media, or much in the way of contemporary technology. The life is not sentimentalised, nor is there any fake drama for the sake of “narrative” as seen in so many documentaries.

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Apart from its unusual setting, the film is also an unaffected portrait of ordinary family life – again without sentimentality or fake drama. There is much to reflect on about time, busy-ness and our connection with nature – but more importantly, this story engaged my own troupe of similarly aged children.

Often I find documentaries off-putting when they have all too transparent slants towards a specific narrative or message. Obviously All the Time In the World has a narrative, and the film has a message – but both emerge from a simple story told affectingly and well.

Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.

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It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies of so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …

“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine

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I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.

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But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!

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Eleanor Parker on myths about the Middle Ages

An interesting piece that touches on anti-Catholic myths, historical myths, and science vs. religion myths.

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The medieval Church, let’s be clear, had no objection to scientific progress. Throughout the Middle Ages, scientists and scholars – many of them monks and friars – explored their curiosity about the natural world, debating, reasoning, theorising and delighting in learning of all kinds. Medieval scholars studied many varieties of science, including subjects we would now call astronomy, mathematics, engineering, geography, branches of physics (such as optics) and, yes, medicine.

They didn’t define these subjects precisely as we do today, and they didn’t approach them by the same methods or draw the same conclusions. Scientific knowledge and methods change and develop over time. But to suggest that because the various medieval ways of approaching these questions were different from ours they must be an obstacle to “progress”, a sign of “stagnation”, is to impose a kind of intellectual conformity which refuses to see value in any culture but our own. That’s a worrying attitude to teach to schoolchildren.

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Equally troubling is the sense of cultural superiority implicit in that term “superstition”. What value can there be, for teaching history, in using such a label unless you explain what you mean by it? The term is both inappropriately pejorative and far too broad, since people have different views of what qualifies as superstition.

What most people intend when they talk about medieval superstition is probably a vague reference to the devotional practices of medieval Catholicism – pilgrimage, a belief in miracles and saints’ relics, visits to holy wells, and so on. These practices were not confined to peasants in the Middle Ages, or to the uneducated. Social and intellectual elites engaged in them as enthusiastically as anyone, and for centuries they were an unchallenged aspect of learned as well as popular faith. To understand medieval religion, it is essential to try to explore why such practices held meaning for so many kinds of people – not just to dismiss them as superstitious.

Generally speaking (and bearing in mind the difficulties of generalising about a period of 1,000 years), the worldview which underpinned such practices was of a universe in which every created thing held the potential to be a vessel for God’s grace. There was nothing in the world so trivial that it could not be of importance to God. Everything had its purpose and place, from the planets to the tiniest herb. There were blessings to be said over the fruits of each harvest and the tools of everyday work, prayers for every hour of the day and every possible human need.

Medieval scientists calculated times and calendars, developing intricate theories about the interlocking cycles of the natural year, the movement of the stars and the Church’s calendar; and for ordinary people those cycles were woven into their daily lives, so that every day of the year belonged to a saint whose story might point one to God.

It is this worldview which lies behind the kind of miracle stories some people smile at today, where saints cure sick cattle, find lost property or alter the weather. No human concern was beneath God’s notice, or too small to be the occasion for a miracle. When faced with more serious difficulties, it was not fatalism which led people to seek God’s help in illness; it was faith, which believed God could and did intervene in the world.

Pilgrimage can provide genuine health benefits (if not quite in the way medieval Christians would have explained it), as well as being an opportunity to travel, meet new people and have profound spiritual experiences in places hallowed by centuries of devotion.