Wednesday, 25 December 2013

God's Wisdom

“the thicket of God’s wisdom and knowledge is so deep and so broad that the soul, however much it has come to know of it, can always penetrate deeper within it”

St. John of the Cross

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Overview Effect

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

 Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot

I have recently seen some amazing documentaries and articles which have made me reflect on an experience I had over 30 years ago. I was camping overnight in the forest close to my house. This fact may have given my experience its distinctive character, as I had plenty of time to contemplate the myriad branches and networks of the trees all around me.

In this experience I profoundly realised my own interconnectedness with every other living thing from the inside, in the domain of thought. That is, I believed I was able to see the connection of what I saw as my thoughts with the 'thoughts' of everything else around me, as a direct perception or intuition. I was not 'imagining my thoughts as branches of the tree above me'; rather, my own consciousness - the thoughts that were coming to me - were revealed to be part of the same consciousness everything else had. Following these connections led me to an ecstatic awareness of the whole, interconnected in all its parts.

                                                  (dark matter next to fungal mycelium)

At the time I called it my vision of 'the all', and likened it to the Tree of Life of Jewish Mysticism. Now I might use other analogies for this web of connectedness - such as mycelium (the 'root structure' of fungi), which according to Paul Stamets 'is in constant dialogue with its environment, reacting to and governing the flow of essential nutrients through the food chain'. At the time this experience profoundly altered my own relationship to the world outside me, as well as made me reorient myself in relation to my own interior world. It was formative for my teenage self, and set me on a search for a more complete grasp of what I had glimpsed so briefly.

                                                                         The internet

So when I saw this video about astronauts viewing the earth from space it made me revisit my experience. The idea that the most important reason to go to the moon was actually to look back at and rediscover the earth is the subject of this documentary. The experience of awe they had was a letting-go of themselves, a sense of total unity and oneness with all life. They called it the overview effect'.

I think the thing it brings most clearly is a very real sense of grounded humility, humility that comes from the humus, the leaf-mould on the floor of the forest, a sense of being part of a web. And it brings a wisdom, because the insight that is gained, that we can think no thought, which does not have some effect, never again allows us to cultivate a dangerous illusion of separateness from every other living thing.

Which leads onto the second documentary; this video on the intelligence of plants. In particular I was fascinated by this discussion on why rice has more genes than human beings (at about 12 minutes): "Plants and animals are not in a race, we can't say that plants have overtaken us. In reality its a strange kind of race because one has gone left, the other has gone right, their strategies are inverse. So now we have to recognise that on their journey , plants have gone much further than we have on ours."

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Way of Beauty in Evangelii Gaudium

"Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. This has nothing to do with fostering an aesthetic relativism which would downplay the inseparable bond between truth, goodness and beauty, but rather a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it. If, as Saint Augustine says, we love only that which is beautiful, the incarnate Son, as the revelation of infinite beauty, is supremely lovable and draws us to himself with bonds of love. So a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith. Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new “language of parables”. We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others. "

Monday, 25 November 2013

By their fruits you shall know them.

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them."
Matthew 7:16-20

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.
Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report

One of the really effective critiques of Christianity has to be that of Friedrich Nietzsche. Like any effective challenge, it doesn't underestimate the power of its opponent. Nietzsche knew that Christianity was mythos as well as logos. Jonathan Macintosh, on his blog The Flame Imperishable, writes,

"In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, an early work that ended his career as a philologist while confirming his calling as a philosopher, Nietzsche argues that the fundamental being of things, so far from constituting a universal harmony, instead embodies an original, violent, and terrifying discord and chaos, one that the Greeks symbolized (Nietzsche argues) through the originally Asiatic god Dionysus. Pitted against the annihilating abyss underlying reality, human existence and experience are a “terror and horror,” an ultimate futility and suffering in which consolation may nevertheless be found through a heroic effort of self-assertion and the artistic creation of meaning, value, and order."

Nietzsche rejects the view of the cosmos as fundamentally ordered and harmonious, and instead claims that existence is futile - any meaning is imposed by humans. So against Ratzinger's art and saints we have Nietzsche's modernist solution - the ubermensch and his self-assertion. The choice is an aesthetic one because it comes down to whether we view chaos or cosmos as primary.

My own choice is clearly with cosmos - ie. order and harmony. A pagan friend said to me "The experience of obedience is not central to one's experience of the universe." The problem with the pantheist viewpoint is that given that our experience of the universe is ambivalent - sometimes we suffer, sometimes we thrive - and given that the universe is all there is - there is no reason to see the world as of any inherent value or goodness in itself. It is something terrible, implacable, to be feared and propitiated, as the animists do. Or it is something pitiless which we have ultimately to extricate ourselves from, as in the aim of much Hinduism, Buddhism or Gnosticism. But it is not a gift of a good God, an overflowing act of generosity, to which the proper response is indeed praise and thanksgiving, and ultimately obedience.

Ratzinger is right to see this theistic and Christian viewpoint as producing the strongest apologia - art and the saints. Time and again, the view of the redeemability of suffering, the belief in the eucatastrophe - the sudden happy turn when all seems lost, provides us with strong foundations to bear good fruit. And the encounter with Christ, in whom all of God's generosity comes to meet us, is a fountain of living water that springs up eternally within us, enabling the poorest and most broken to be the inheritors of the Kingdom.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Bonaventure's Philosophy of Creation

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead (Romans 1:20 KJV)

                                             (Photo by Jennuine Captures on Flickr)

For Bonaventure creation is like a stained-glass window - the sense of the infinite comes from beyond the world and can be seen lighting up creation from within.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Wisdom - thoughts on the Magnificat readings Thursday 14th November

"Life is effort, firm and persevering action, and duty accepted and accomplished, the heroic conquest of the body by the soul, the serenity nothing can disturb, and eyes fixed on God. It is charity taking possession of us little by little, banishing everything that is not love."
Elisabeth Leseur

"Within Wisdom is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, active, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp, irresistible, beneficent, loving to man, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying; penetrating all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits; for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God's active power, image of his Goodness. Although alone, she can do all; herself unchanging, she makes all things new.
In each generation she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and the prophets; for God loves only the man who lives with Wisdom....compared with light, she takes first place, for light must yield to night, but over Wisdom evil can never triumph. She deploys her strength from one end of the earth to the other, ordering all things for good."
Wisdom 7:22 -8:1

"This thing is the strongest of all powers, the force of all forces, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance." Tabula Smaragdina, 9

"The sun, moon and stars therefore lend their assistance to acts of divine magic aspiring to the Resurrection."
Unknown Author, Meditations on the Tarot

To co-operate with Wisdom is to allow our lives to become works of art dedicated to God. To become mindful through constant prayer and adoration of the source of our being, to thank God for everything that comes to us, is the first step in allowing our nature to be penetrated with Wisdom.

The reward is serenity nothing can disturb; the path begins with daily perseverance, the conquest of the body by the soul. The spiritual law of renunciation enables these fruits to appear. When we renounce something below, we gain something above. This is nothing more than obedience, which brings the unfallen aspect of our nature - the image of God within us - into alignment with the divine purpose.

The words of the Virgin speak to us here: 'Ecce ancilla domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum'. Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, Let it be done to me according to your Word.

In the Orthodox Church this process is known as theosis - or deification. Irenaeus says: "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself."

The quotations above from the book of Wisdom and elsewhere give some sense of how this process might occur. Wisdom, or force, as the Tabula Smaragdina would have it, overcomes all subtle things and penetrates every solid substance, quicker than any motion, pure emanation of the glory of God, reflection of eternal light, in which is nothing impure, enfolds all things and allows even the violent wrenching of things out of their own place which is the Fall to occur without allowing this discordancy to overtake the harmony of Her song. Indeed she takes up these clashing notes and makes them a part of a higher music.

In prayer and contemplation we aim to still the ceaseless disturbance of our thoughts, to become like the sea of glass around the throne of God. Contemplation is thus to participate in the imitatio christi, to crucify our will, that the Will of God may work through us. If we say this no to the lower desires which threaten to sweep us away in the currents of evolution and biological life, we say yes to a higher form of life. This participation in what Tomberg calls zoe rather than bios (both Greek words for life, but the latter having the sense of spiritual life) is to reject a Nietszchean self-assertion which sees creation as the imposing of self in a violent act and to recognise it for what it is - disobedience to the real creation narrative, which is one of harmony and peace.

There have been few greater exponents of this insight in literature than J R R Tolkien, especially in his work the Ainulindale. It is theology, myth, literature, true sub-creation in one. A creation myth of the highest order. The work of Alison Milbank (Radical Orthodoxy) and the website of Jonathan Macintosh, The Flame Imperishable, are excellent places to draw the connections between all these things.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Day by Day reading from Magnificat magazine, Sunday 3rd November

'Not only do we become by means of the sacraments contemporaries of a past that is the very source of our salvation, but we become capable of recuperating the past, of retaking and reconstructing our life by giving it a new unity. We know that there is a distance between "me" and my history, between the depths of ourselves and our acts. Our actions commit us; but once they are performed, they escape us and accumulate behind us and form the chain of our history. And this past can be crushing.

The sacraments continually permit us to transcend this history, and to judge it, and to a degree, to change its meaning and the value of the whole by means of new acts....

The sinner who has been reconciled to God in his person nevertheless drags behind him in his past a failure towards God, a failure towards love; it is true that at one moment in his history he failed the order of charity which should be reflected in every human undertaking. The event, this sin, remains a fact for ever; but by means of the sacraments it can take on another meaning in the entirety of its history, and this by means of new acts repairing the disorder; it is possible for us to restore God's honour, not only in our heart, but in the course of our history which is still being written. It is possible to change the profile of our past acts by means of new compensating acts. This is a marvellous conversion which the sacraments place within our reach! We become capable of offering to God a life really ordered by love. This is where the reflection we mentioned above concerning healing the past by means of present actions takes on its force. The sacraments do not only remove the sickness from suffering; they go infinitely farther; they transfigure and transvalue what was perversion and evil into an occasion and fruit of divine friendship.'

Father Bernard Bro, O.P.

The Gospel reading was the story of Zacchaeus today, who as everyone remembers if they ever heard the story as a child, climbed a sycamore tree to get a look at Jesus in the crowds. In the Magnificat magazine, Robert Barron quotes Thomas Merton, who said that many are in the grip of a 'promethean attitude' when it comes to morality. A belief that only a heroic stoicism will earn us divine love - if we live out certain moral commands then we will be worthy of God. He says that this is to get things backwards, as the story of Zacchaeus shows. Zacchaeus was a sinful tax collector, Jesus called to him "come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." Then he promises to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone he has wronged. So the moral reformation of Zacchaeus was preceded by the inrushing of divine grace - the encounter with Christ.

Without the encounter with Christ provided by prayer and through the sacraments, we are bereft of the opportunity for grace to touch us. And a prayerful and sacramental life gives us the opportunities we need to keep returning to the wounded place within us where we hurt, and where we keep choosing to do wrong, and facing it with clear sight and a calm heart. Jesus calls us to make a descent into an interior abyss, there to be closer to him, so that he can come and stay with us today.

As Pope Francis said: "Christian morality is not a 'never-falling-down', but an 'always-getting-up-again'.

Monday, 7 October 2013

The Rule of St. Benedict

'Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work as the ideal. Monastics would spend time in prayer so as to discover why they're working, and would spend time in work so that good order and harmony would prevail in the monastery. Benedictines should not be consumed by work, nor should they spend so much time in prayer that responsibilities are neglected. According to Benedict, all things-eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working, and praying-should be done in moderation. In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily , Sister Joan Chittister writes that in Benedict's Rule, "All must be given its due, but only its due. There should be something of everything and not too much of anything."'

Read more here

Friday, 13 September 2013

All Things Made New: The Mary Prayer

Over on Stratford Caldecott's blog:
All Things Made New: The Mary Prayer: Today being the Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary, it is appropriate to reflect on the Marian prayer that complements the Jesus Praye...
This is a beautiful meditation on the Hail Mary

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Quiring to the young-eyed cherubim

 "...see how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold!
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim;
Such harmony is in immortal souls!
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in we cannot hear it."

Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice Act V sc 1

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The question of images

Where do we go from here? Today we are experiencing not just a crisis of sacred art, but a crisis of art in general of unprecedented proportions. The crisis of art for its part is a symptom of the crisis of man's very existence. The immense growth in man's mastery of the material world has left him blind to the questions of life's meaning that transcend the material world. We might almost call it a blindness of the spirit. The questions of how we ought to live, how we can overcome death, whether existence has a purpose and what it is - to all these questions there is no longer a common answer. Positivism, formulated in the name of scientific seriousness, narrows the horizon to what is verifiable, to what can be proved by experiment; it renders the world opaque. True, it still contains mathematics, but the logos that is the presupposition of this mathematics and its applicability is no longer evident. Thus our world of images no longer surpasses the bounds of sense and appearance, and the flood of images that surrounds us really means the end of the image. If something cannot be photographed, it cannot be seen. In this situation, the art of the icon, sacred art, depending as it does on a wider kind of seeing, becomes impossible. What is more, art itself, which in impressionism and expressionism explored the extreme possibilities of the sense of sight, becomes literally object-less. Art turns into experimenting with self-created worlds, empty "creativity", which no longer perceives the Creator Spiritus, the Creator Spirit. It attempts to take his place, and yet, in so doing, it manages to produce only what is arbitrary and vacuous, bringing home to man the absurdity of his role as creator.

From The Spirit of the Liturgy, part three, Art and Liturgy, by Joseph Ratzinger.

“The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!” wrote Josef Pieper in Learning How to See Again.

St. Augustine calls this desire to see without reflection on what is seen as 'concupiscence of the eyes'. Our technologies multiply the opportunities for mere luxuriation in the experience of seeing. Witness the obsession with HD, 3D, big screen hyper-real visual experience. This is one type of maximisation of visual concupiscence. Surfing the web can another, where the emphasis increasingly becomes focused on the digital device used to view diverse forms of  content, from ebooks to web browsing to streaming video. The temptation to be a 'visual magpie' and hop from one shiny new experience to another in search of a 'hit' of novelty can be powerful, and prevents any deep reflection on the thing seen. 

Obedience to the gods of new technology is almost standard amongst most of my generation. I am one of the worst offenders. As well as having a tablet I have a tablet phone, and spend most of my free time flicking through the different apps on them. I do however have some friends who are purposeful luddites, who only carry old brick phones, or none at all. I have an upgrade date approaching on my phone contract. Do I dare to reject it all? 

C S Lewis argues in the Abolition of Man that in modernity "there is something which unites magic and applied science [technology] while separating them from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”

There is much of this also in Tolkien, inevitably. The magic of Saruman is really technology, machinery, a worldview of nature-domination, even more, a denial that things have a nature of their own, that they have an end towards which they are made, and in the void that creates there is implanted the will of the magician. This inability to see things as they are in themselves, even the denial of this possibility, which comes about in a Post-Kantian rationalist age has an antidote, which I have talked about elsewhere (in particular here ). 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Via Pulchritudinis

"The Beauty of the Arts
If nature and the cosmos are the expression of the beauty of the Creator and bring us to the threshold of a contemplative silence, artistic creation possesses its own capacity to evoke the ineffable aspects of the mystery of God. The work of art is not "beauty" but its expression, and it possesses an intrinsic character of universality if it obeys the canons, which naturally fluctuate for all art is tied to a culture. Artistic beauty provokes interior emotion, it silently arouses astonishment and leads to an "exit from self," an ecstasy.
For the believer, beauty transcends the aesthetic and finds its archetype in God. The contemplation of Christ in the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption is the living source from which the Christian artist takes inspiration to speak of the mystery of God and the mystery of man saved in Jesus Christ. All Christian artwork has such a meaning: it is, by nature, a "symbol", a reality that refers beyond itself which leads along the path that reveals the meaning, origin and end of our terrestrial journey. Its beauty is characterised by a capacity to move from the interior "for self" to that of the "more than self." This passage becomes real in Jesus Christ, who is Himself "the way, the truth and the life," (Jn 14, 6) the "complete truth." (Jn 16, 13)"


The picture that I am currently working on is an illustration for my story 'The Woe Water'. It features the narrator, a monk in his cell, working on an illuminated manuscript. The scene is framed by the Romanesque arch of the doorway, with a stained-glass rose window illuminating the cell and sunflowers and bees outside.
The symbolism of the scene draws on various ideas that are currently occupying me , and which I have been thinking about for some time. I wanted to include the stained glass rose window as a reference to Bonaventure's analogy of stained glass with creation, illuminated by the light of God, an image of the the way of illumination or cataphatic way, whereby the meditation upon created things leads like a ladder to the creator. Beauty is reached by the beautiful.
The rays coming through the window can also be an image of the Awen, the ancient bardic symbol for inspiration, which illuminated the pre-Christian seers of these isles at midsummer when the veil between the worlds was thin. It brought the sweetness of wisdom and enabled the bard to sing truth.
That is also why the bee is in the picture, as a link between these two manifestations of the same idea in pagan and Christian culture. For the Celts, the bee was able to travel between the worlds at midsummer, and in creating honey was a symbol of wisdom which is sweet. But the bee is also there because the Christian monks have long kept bees, and the association goes beyond the simple material one of providing beeswax and honey. Bees live together in community, diligently working for the greater good of the hive, yet working individually, carefully gathering pollen. The individual work of each monk in his cell also gains its meaning in relation to the whole monastery, work and prayer joining them together in their orientation to God.

Friday, 21 June 2013

St Augustine on Beauty and Desire

"Late have I loved you, O beauty, so old and so new, too late have I loved you! You were here and I sought elsewhere; I was deformed, drowning in those fair forms you made. […] You called. You shouted. You battered my deafness. You shone. You glistened. You shattered my blindness. You radiated and I breathed in your spirit, and I desired you. I tasted you and hungered, thirsted after you. You touched me and I burned for your peace"

Confessions, St. Augustine

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Chesterton on Postmodernism

"Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought."

From Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton

Monday, 18 March 2013

Blake on sight

"What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?

O no no I see an Innumerable company of the
Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight, I look thro it & not with it.”

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Ancient Rites

The ancient rites have lost their effectiveness since Christianity appeared in the world. The Christian and Catholic religion, in fact, is the legitimate daughter of Jesus, king of the Mages. A simple scapular worn by a truly Christian person is a more invincible talisman than the ring and pentacle of Solomon. The Mass is the most prodigious of evocations. Necromancers evoke the dead, the sorcerer evokes the devil and he shakes, but the Catholic Priest does not tremble in evoking the living God.

Catholics alone have Priests because they alone have the altar and the offering, i.e. the whole of religion. To practise high Magic is to compete with the Catholic Priesthood; it is to be a dissident Priest. Rome is the great Thebes of the new initiation … It has crypts for its catacombs; for talismen, its rosaries and medallions; for a magic chain, its congregations; for magnetic fires, its convents; for centres of attraction, its confessionals; for means of expansion, its pulpits and the addresses of its Bishops; it has, lastly, its Pope, the Man-God rendered visible.
Eliphas Levi

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Lack of originality

“Lack of originality, everywhere, all over the world, from time immemorial, has always been considered the foremost quality and the recommendation of the active, efficient and practical man.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

A mark of modernity often referred to is the craving for constant novelty. There has been a clear increase in the sheer availability of new experiences that have opened up to the average person over the past 50 years. Technology, from radio through television and into the internet age has opened up a rapidly expanding flood of content for people to consume. Cheap travel has enabled people to get to many places once considered inaccessible, and the free flow of goods and information has provided an inexhaustible supply from which to draw novel things and ideas.

An even more recent development is the appearance of devices and software such as smartphones, tablets and browsers aimed at streamlining entertainment, shopping and knowledge content and making it even easier to get hold of. This is a superficially enthralling world, we are like children let loose in sweet shops with a never-ending supply of goodies to get our hands on. And we all know that too many sweets are bad for you. "Distracted from distraction by distraction" wrote T S Eliot nearly 100 years ago, words that were prophetic for an increasingly pick and mix culture enabled by high-speed internet access and handheld devices.

There is nothing particularly original in these observations. They have been made many times in recent years, especially in books like The Shallows and others. I want to focus on the pre-eminence of novelty that seems to come with modernity, where progress and the new are the only criteria of value. I believe they are the concomitants of a focus on knowledge as power, of a narrow definition of truth as that which you can use to predict behaviour or events. Almost the only response you hear to any challenge to the predominant naturalism inherent in the modern west is that the model must be true as with it you can make accurate predictions.

With such a ratiocination of truth you begin to accept a more quantitative approach - what matters in the question of a theory's truth is the amount of predictions it makes and how much power it gives us over the natural world. The aim is absolute mastery of the sheer otherness of things by making them into copies of ourselves. First we empty them of their otherness by calling them matter - and meaning by it a blank colourless formlessness - mere extension in Cartesian terms, and then we fill this with our own desires, making the world into our plaything. In such a world of phantoms, we quickly tire of each new game, as they are merely the flickering of shadows on the cave wall, and we yearn for the new experience to come along and replace the emptiness at the heart of things, which we know is our eternal boredom with staring at our own reflections. This disenchantment is central to the modern experience of the world.

It is manifest in the deadliness and addictive power of technology, which draws us further into the world, offering greater and greater control. It is the promise of the serpent in the book of Genesis: "You will not die - you will become as gods", and it is the lure of magic, which is merely the art of causing changes in accordance with the will, according to the Great Beast himself, Crowley.

How do we free the world from our deadly grasp? We have been given a Midas-like gift and mired ourselves deeper in the illusion of what Buddhists call maya, the play of appearances. We have hoarded the world, so that we don't have to see it anymore.

One thing we can do is to champion the tried and tested, the old, unoriginal and traditional. Doing things how they've always been done is not always such a bad idea. There's usually a reason why they're done that way. If the tradition you are brought up in recommends prayer and sacramental worship, then give it a try. If it recommends meditation, try that. Don't immediately scorn the familiar just because it is familiar.

In art this will lead to an appreciation of the value of many things which seem old-fashioned. In education the same. Something of this is actually in the air in the these spheres anyway. For example in the world of art the old-fashioned atelier is making a reappearance, with its painstaking emphasis on verisimilitude and realism, and the old-fashioned virtues of grace and beauty high on its list. In the sixties many art schools rejected such practices as deadly and barren, with the result that a generation of artists only had a minimal acquaintance with drawing, which I think explains the work of Damien Hirst (and perhaps someone can explain to me why Tracey Emin has been made an RA prof. of drawing? See here for an entertaining piece of self-delusion re Emin - the comments are the best bit! ).

If this was the twenties and I was a Futurist, or it was the 1890s and I was a symbolist, I would put out a manifesto. As it's now I will be content with this blog post. It can function as a kind of manifesto for my vision of art. Here is my vision for my art:

1. It will not seek originality as a virtue.
2. It will have instead as a virtue the creation of the beautiful
3. This will not be for its own sake, but rather for the sake of truth and goodness
4. Its practitioners will continue serenely with their work when people mock them for seeking to express such things as the good, the beautiful and the true in their work.
5. It will be a humble art, inasmuch as it recognises that the work of creation of an artist is a simple re-working of a prior greater creation
6. It will seek to free things from the tyranny of our perception
7. It will thus make use of fantasy
8. However it will not seek the fantastic for its own sake, but will be grounded in the real
9. Through this method the fruits of recovery, consolation, and clarity will be established in the soul of the practitioner

Medieval Cosmology

C S Lewis on this here

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Art reconciles us with life

"Art reconciles us with life. If an artist does not accomplish the miracle of transforming the soul of the spectator into an attitude of love and forgiveness, then his art is only an ephemeral passion."


"There is no such thing as a creative type. As if creative people can just show up and make stuff up. As if it were that easy. I think people need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time consuming verb... If you're doing it right, it's going to feel like work."

Milton Glaser

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Art and Scholasticism

In the powerfully social structure of mediaeval civilization, the artist had only the rank of artisan, and every kind of anarchical development was forbidden his individualism, because a natural social discipline imposed on him from the outside certain limiting conditions. He did not work for the rich and fashionable and for the merchants, but for the faithful; it was his mission to house their prayers, to instruct their intelligences, to delight their souls and their eyes. Matchless epoch, in which an ingenuous people was formed in beauty without even realizing it, just as the perfect religious ought to pray without knowing that he is praying; in which Doctors and image-makers lovingly taught the poor, and the poor delighted in their teaching, because they were all of the same royal race, born of water and the Spirit!

Man created more beautiful things in those days, and he adored himself less. The blessed humility in which the artist was placed exalted his strength and his freedom. The Renaissance was to drive the artist mad, and to make of him the most miserable of men -- at the very moment when the world was to become less habitable for him -- by revealing to him his own peculiar grandeur, and by letting loose on him the wild beast Beauty which Faith had kept enchanted and led after it, docile.

Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Old Road

The poet should be rooted in a tradition. "Man has always lived in myth, and we think we are able to be born today and to live without myth: that is a disease, that is absolutely abnormal, because man is not born every day, he is once born in a specific historical setting, with specific historical qualities and therefore he is only complete when he has a relationship to these things. It's just as if you are born without eyes and ears when you are growing up with no connection to the past. From the standpoint of natural science we have no connection with the past, we can wipe it out, and that is a mutilation of the human being." 
C G Jung

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Tolkien and Tradition

Edit Jan 25th: This was rather hastily written before I had read the whole of Tomberg's letter IV: The Emperor, in which he clearly is saying the same thing as Tolkien, and not hoping for a political solution. Anyway, the post still works as an exploration of Tolkien's thought.

My previous post was an attempt to bring together several spheres of my life: my interest in the coherence of theism, my professional role as a teacher of religion in a secondary school, my love of the work of Tolkien, my interests in thomistic thought and the conflict between the political and the spiritual in the modern world.

I want in this post merely to explore the connections I have been making between the thought of J R R Tolkien and some of the ideas of the 'Perennial Philosophy'. In some senses it is a continuation of my 'Father Christmas' post.

 Part of my job is to be aware of philosophical and theological issues and the way they are approached by different thinkers, so that post may have come across to some as mental masturbation, sophistry for the sake of it, but I don't really care about that. I find that writing something knowing that it is going to have some kind of audience, even negative, motivates me, and I find that the process of writing helps me to order my thoughts, so I will keep doing it.

Over on another forum there is some talk of a comment by Valentin Tomberg on the Tarot card 'The Emperor' in his book Meditations on the Tarot. He said something to the effect that Europe is haunted by the shadow of the Emperor, and that without the Emperor hierarchy collapses and leads to the tyrannies that he saw around him in the sixties of communism and socialism, aiming at a levelling of all, in which the heights and the depths are lost - the vertical axis he calls it - the axis of spirit/form, and this is something that Tradition naturally abhors and obviously so did Tomberg. Clearly, communism is no longer the presence in Europe as it was in Tomberg's day, but Europe is still facing a crisis.

 Many Traditionalists trace this to the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and materialism, the dominance of liberalism in economies and a prevailing relativism which has the same flattening effect on the vertical axis as before.

However, the problem for many is that it seems that any attempt to actually restore hierarchy will lead to medieval style feudalism and as the writer puts it: "would you have wanted to be a peasant or a serf in the Middle Ages?". He says that Tomberg seems to want us "to follow some fossilized notion of political order drawn from the Middle Ages". I don't have any answer to this. I wanted to delve into this very issue in the work and thought of Tolkien though. Who knows, it may throw some fresh light on the issue.

I mentioned previously a thread in Tolkien's work - what he called in a letter 'God and His sole right to divine honour.' It takes the form of the usurpation of true Kingship and is obvious in many forms in LotR for instance. Aragorn is the heir of Isildur the true King of Gondor but is unable to assume the throne. Sauron demands obedience, and while Sauron lives, the people are forced to worship a power that has usurped the throne. Saruman operates a policy of appeasement and use of the power that Sauron represents, and brings technology to support him. Aragorn's healing ability is a sign of his true kingship - he represents hierarchy. This is meant to be a good thing. Hierarchy is the realisation that there are greater things than ones self, even simply the realisation that there are things other than ones self. Aragorn as a kind of suffering servant, messianic figure is meant to show that true authority is rooted in the spiritual realm. Tolkien says:

“in The Lord of the Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God … Sauron desired to be a God-King … if he had been victorious, he would have demanded divine honor”

This is Tolkien's view on this. He also said of democracy:

"I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the effort to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power -- and then we get and are getting slavery "

So he seems profoundly Traditionalist in outlook. He also seemed to believe in a long slow decline from a Golden Age, as reflected in his four World-Ages in his legendarium which echo closely the Four Ages of Hindu philosophy. I am not saying Tolkien was some kind of esoteric occultist however - it is clear that a person who was as profoundly Catholic and thoughtful as he was would arrive at this conclusion without need of studying some kind of perennial philosophy separately. In a letter he says:

"Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory."

There is an interesting post on this here .

Anyone who has read Guenon's Reign of Quantity will find all this familiar. Tolkien lived through and experienced at firsthand one of the most horrific wars of the twentieth century. He could not help but be sceptical about ideas of progress and technological advancement.

However he would not have hoped for some kind of political messiah. His Catholic faith meant that he could only hope for what he called the eucatastrophe outside of history - “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

It seems that Tomberg may have hoped for something more historical and concrete.

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Hanged Man

I stood shivering under the stars
under the trees and looked
there was frost around the bowl of the earth
when i first looked up from the ground i saw only the night sky hung with gemstones
the earth was a hard cold
and my fingers gripped it
as if knowing i might be thrown off and slip upwards at any time into that great cacophony

why did the stars sing?
high and chill their sound, I couldn't let them go
they had me
absolutely struck,
stricken for their sake
they caught me up
I ascended the tree and shook

waiting for their voices to end

nine days I hung
they took my entrails and replaced them with a belt of blood
my hands were pierced
Acubens took my left
Scorpius my right

I sung with terror
they placed a crown upon my head
a pathway for the sun

five wounds I received for their sake

know this they said:
you shall not go forward in the place of another
neither shall you retreat
you shall not take from another
neither shall you give

you shall not place yourself above another but
you will be lowest of all things

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Father Christmas and the theology of the gift

Recently I watched a debate between Richard Dawkins and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks televised on the BBC. You can find it here

 There is an interesting discussion from 19.30 minutes about the story of Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis. Dawkins puts his usual case that the God of the Biblical scriptures is an abhorrent tyrant, arbitrarily demanding that Abraham sacrifice his only son to him as a burnt offering. This particular story is obviously a useful one for those such as Dawkins who want to argue against the rationality of believing in the Biblical God, and it has been controversial among philosophers and theologians for centuries. Kant for instance said of the divine command:
"It is quite impossible for a human being to apprehend the infinite by his senses, but in some cases the human being can be sure the voice he hears is not God's; for if the voice commands him to do something that is contrary to moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, he must consider it an illusion."

In the debate about reason and obedience in morality Kant argues that we can never be certain that an experience of God is genuine, and where it appears to contravene a moral law, it will always be better to go with reason and disobey the command. He believes Abraham fails morally in not questioning it.

Theists usually claim that this is a test, a demand of obedience by God, and is thus a good thing. Indeed, in the God Delusion Dawkins says that a teacher told him that too. In the debate Dawkins says that to test someone in this way is morally abhorrent. I believe Dawkins has a point! I know many teachers of religion explain it this way, and I think they could do better. I have seen firsthand how unsatisfactory a group of thirteen year old students find this explanation of the story. Who wants to say that a perfect, wholly good God would put such a clearly faithful man who has devoted everything to God through such a horrific test, let alone the trauma the innocent child underwent on his way to the death sentence.

 One explanation is that it was a record, a folk memory hidden in a story, of the early Jewish people's rejection of child sacrifice, which was a commonplace amongst the cultures of the middle east at that time. Ultimately, God commands Abraham to replace the child with a ram, sending a clear signal to the people of the covenant that the burnt offering must not be human. This would place Judaism within the context of a developing religion amongst others, and coheres with the Jewish people's awareness of their unique relationship with the one God.

Rabbi Sacks' answer to Dawkins challenge on this point in the debate is also essentially the one given above, that it is a rejection of child sacrifice, but he develops it. He mentions as well as the widespread practice of child sacrifice in the ancient world, the prevalence even into Roman times of a similar worldview expressed in the principle of patria potestas in Roman law, which makes a child the property of the parents to dispose of as they will.

Sacks believes the story is fundamental to Judaism, with its emphasis on the importance of children,
and explains that in this story Abraham has to disown the child he has spent so long waiting for, the most precious thing in his life, to give him up. In doing this, God gives the child back to him, but now Abraham is aware that the child is a gift, on loan, and is not his to own. This emphasis on the nature of the child as a gift from God, which can never be hoarded, takes the child-sacrifice model and turns it on its head, forever marking them as a people that realise their radical dependence on God.

Clearly this realisation is an essential part of Christian theology as well, in particular the thomistic emphasis on  God as Being, and creation as a free act of love in which the overflowing generosity of God's goodness results in creatures who have being themselves, but in a limited, contingent way. God as sustainer in Aquinas upholds the world of creation in each moment. Creation is a gift.

To me the story now made more sense, but things really fell into place when I read Alison Milbank's book Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. In particular the discussion of gift-giving and Father Christmas.
For Milbank Father Christmas is a mediatory figure. Necessarily as he inhabits the world between the parent and the child, and in his way of entering into the house, down the chimney, being an opening to the realm of the sky, he embodies that which comes from beyond. As this third person in the parent-child relationship he can prevent the appropriating tendency of the adult from making the child into an image of itself. Father Christmas gives back the child to the parent as a gift because he reminds them that they and the child are themselves dependent on something beyond themselves for their existence. In Numbers 18:15-18 is found the origin of the Jewish custom of offering the firstborn son to God. Echoing this in modern culture the Father Christmas ritual seeks to express the sacredness of the gift-response relation in ways inimical to capitalist cultures, Milbank says. Father Christmas disallows the pre-modern absolute right of the father over the child that treats it as a form of property.
In the discussion I found many of the ideas that I had been thinking about in relation to Abraham and children taking on a new significance. In particular light was thrown on much of Tolkien's work as it related to what he called 'God and his sole right to divine honour'. This led me to reflect on obedience in the Abraham story and why many in the modern world have such an abhorrence of obedience to any authority other than the self.

The theft and hoarding of what belongs to the divine is a thread running through much of Tolkien. In The Hobbit Smaug the dragon coiled around his treasure hoard represents this monstrous appropriation. Gold in fairy tales is only valuable when freely passed on - as soon as it is hoarded it becomes cursed. In some sense Tolkien's diagnosis of our fallen condition is that we are tempted to do this epistemologically, to make the world we know ours and thus forget about it as it is in itself (Tolkien was aware of Kantian scepticism about the possibility of this and presents a novel answer to it), as a wondrous gift. This is explored in numerous ways in Tolkien's work, perhaps more obviously in his creation story the 'Ainulindale' and other stories in his Silmarillion.  The cure he offers for this tendency of habitual familiarisation and disenchantment is fantasy or fairy tale. Chesterton explains:

"That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream."

For now it will be good to finish with this:
"Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them" - Alison Milbank.

Reflections on the Feast of John the Baptist - Sunday 24th June 2012

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
John 1:4-5

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 4:13-14

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 
John 7:37-8

The feast of the birth of John the Baptist can be one of those windows into the interior mystery of the Christian faith - this year as I sat in church and listened to the readings I became aware of the close link between the births of Christ and John the Baptist at opposite times of the year - one at the winter solstice and one at the summer solstice, as well as the words of John himself: "He must increase as I decrease" (John 3:30). So if the sun at the summer solstice will only decrease from that point on then we surely must associate John the Baptist with the withdrawal and interiorisation of that principle, whereas at midwinter the sun begins its long process of increase, so Christ is associated with that moving out and exteriorisation of the solar principle.
But what does this mean? What truth is this intended to convey? The link between light and dark is evident here - when the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not receive it. And Jesus and John are placed in the position of the Tanit lord of darkness and lord of light that would do battle with each other in the old pagan year. But who decided to put them in that relationship to each other? Was it really so there would be an easier transition for the pagan converts?