in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 29 May 2020

Renewal of the Spirit: The Blessing of covid?

Renewal of the Holy Spirit: The Blessing of Covid?
With what we have been through these last few months I never thought I would write the above title – but as before the clues were in Blake’s drawings. We now move some way forward to Job’s sacrifice. The plate illustrates the passage from The Book of Job 42: 8 when the Lord addresses the ‘comforters’:
‘Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up yourselves a burnt offering, and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.’
Job’s posture is now one of open acceptance to the will of the Lord and the open book below gives us the injunction from the sermon on the Mount:
‘Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those that hate you and pray for those that despiseth you and persecute you’
Throughout the series of prints of Job’s trial the heavenly forces have been represented figuratively: first Satan with his dancing, grinning gait and then the old bearded figure of God the Father ‘speaking from the whirlwind’. In this print no heavenly (or hellish) apparitions appear. Round the edges are our old friends the angels but now the movement is from earth to heaven as a great plume of smoke arises in Job’s heart and moves up to meet the great Sun of Creation. This is the first sun we have seen since the beginning of the series when Satan appeared as the sun set. His wife and the comforters adopt a suitably penitent pose at Job’s feet. Wheat begins to grow as new life emerges from its sleep.
          In the last plate we encountered the Trinitarian problem at the heart of Blake’s message – the absence of Jesus Christ can be troubling for many Christians. Yet here, to my eyes anyway, just as in the previous plate Christ was implied so the third ‘member’ of the Christian trinity is implied here – the Holy Spirit. According to Christian theology the ‘comforter’ comes to help convey our prayers to the Creator. After His dramatic appearance in the whirlwind the Creator has now returned to his inscrutable presence at the ground of all creation (‘unless I go He cannot come’). From Job’s breast, now renewed and upright, the Holy Spirit arises and, as Job decorates the margins of the plate, exhorts us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
          We began our covid vigil at the beginning of Lent and for many of us the lockdown now begins to an end as we approach Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the spirit of Blake’s plate let us pray for the renewing force of the Holy Spirit to help us rebuild our lives, cities, relationships and world as the ‘curse’ of covid reveals its ‘blessings’
Peter Tyler, Pentecost 2020

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Sons of Morning

Blake’s Job: The Sons of Morning
As the world begins to wake from its covid sleep we come to Plate 14 in our journey with Job and Blake through covid. The Plate illustrates the lines of renewal from the Book as God describes the creation of the world:
‘When the morning Stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for joy’
As is fitting for the subject Blake produces one of his most beautiful and profound plates. Job, his wife and comforters all kneel in suitable astonishment as God for a brief moment unveils the mysteries of creation. The six days of creation from the Book of Genesis are depicted around the edges as within we see the morning stars and the ‘Sons of God’ dancing and singing together in what appears to be a rather stately 18th Century galliard. More stars appear on the edges: the belt of Orion and the Pleiades, ‘the Seven Sisters’. And as these heavenly beings all rejoice in their renewal below we see the dark forces of chaos and creation, the leathery scales of Satan and his dragons, lying obediently and meekly tamed.
          Much has been made of Blake’s fourfold division of the central panel between earth, heaven, the moon and the sun and Jungian commentators point to the ‘mandala’ of this fourfold representation.
          For the purposes of these reflections two points come to mind. First is the sheer inevitable renewal of creation. As we slowly begin to throw off the shackles of covid who can deny that nature has been one of the great sources of comfort in these difficult times. Here in Northern Europe we have enjoyed one of the most beautiful springs we have had for years and our towns and cities, cleared of pollution, have sparkled with morning and midnight stars. A robin has been nesting in my garden and now daily brings food to the chicks while goldfinches have feasted on the forget-me-not seeds in the beds. One of the ‘blessings of covid’ has surely been our renewed appreciation for the natural world and God’s creation around us.
          The second point is more theological. Christians may be troubled perhaps that Christ does not appear in Blake’s Book of Job. If Christ were to appear then this plate would be the point at which it would happen. The last plate depicted the awesome ‘otherness’ of God the Creator – speaking ‘out of the whirlwind’ as a great cosmic force. ‘The Sons of God’ depicted in this plate are therefore the natural response to the ‘abyss of the Father’ – the intimate touch of the divine in our own hearts as represented by Blake as the ‘sons’. Religion seems to evoke two responses – the awe of the transcendent and the intimate passion of devotion, what the Sanskrit tradition calls bhakti. For Christians there is but one ‘Son’ who mediates between the transcendent unknown ground of Being and ourselves and is the focus of this devotion. For the past six weeks after Easter, Christians have been enjoying the presence of the Risen Lord. Soon, on Ascension Thursday, we shall celebrate the ‘return of the Son to the Father’. However Christ states that ‘unless I go the Holy Spirit cannot come’. We shall explore this promised coming of the Holy Spirit in our next post.
Warm wishes

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

A Journey through Covid with William Blake and Job

A Journey through Covid with William Blake and Job
Plate 13: Then the Lord answered Job out of the Whirlwind
Welcome back to the next instalment of our journey through the Book of Job with William Blake, genius illustrator, as our guide. We are now more than half-way through the plates when God finally makes an appearance. God had been in the earliest plates in the court of heaven but as yet has not manifested to Job himself – although as we saw earlier Lucifer certainly has by means of plague, pestilence etc.
It is worth spending some time pondering this first appearance which is why I include the close up of the central plate as well as the whole surrounding image. The relevant passage in the Book of Job (Chapter 38) is as follows:
          Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
          ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?...
          Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
          Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who has not felt a whirlwind of emotions these past few weeks? Have we not gone from denial to anger to frustration to loneliness to helplessness to depression? Yet out of this whirlwind something new, and yet very old, emerges. It is the ground-beat of creation. Throughout our cities, towns and villages nature has reasserted itself. Here in the Northern Latitudes the inevitable return of spring has brightened our dark covid days and each evening, over London anyway, Venus and the great spring stars of Regulus and Spica have shone through unusually clear skies. Nature has returned, and with it the renewing force of creation.
Blake depicts the Creator with a compassionate gaze as he blesses Job and his wife. Using medieval iconography which he was very aware of, Job and his wife are put on God’s right hand, the traditional side of the blessed – Those ‘accusers’ who used all sorts of sophistry to bend the truth go on the left-hand side with the unrighteous. They are even closer to blindness and not seeing – let’s hope they too will eventually see something of God’s wisdom and compassion. Job’s rough woollen ‘comfort blanket’ slips away to reveal his nakedness beneath – ‘naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I return, Blessed be the name of the Lord’. The Lord’s whirlwind has a placental shape and he points away to the distance. This is the moment of renewal and new directions – Job is being prepared for the next phase of his life. All masks have fallen now, we are faced with the truth – Satya in Sanskrit – a word that combines the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘being’.
          If nothing else the covid crisis has returned us to the fundamentals of life – what and who really matters. As much as Job we have had an encounter with the foundations of being, nature and creation. It is up to us now to grow wise from this encounter so that from now on we cease uttering ‘words without knowledge’.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

'Let Him Easter in us!'


Some thoughts for Holy Week in a time of covid:
‘Let Him Easter in Us!’
Easter 2020 will go down in history as the year the churches closed. In the 2,000 years of Christianity there have, of course, been other times when churches were closed in cases of war, famine and civil rebellion. Yet there must be few people living in Western Democratic countries today who have experienced this in their lifetimes. I certainly haven’t.
So how do we react to this? What do we do?
Well I suppose we can go online and watch services and liturgies enacted by solitary clergy in cavernous empty churches. I’m afraid this is a little too voyeuristic for me, and besides, I have a sneaking feeling that this is not where we are being called to now. Rather, in the words of The Wreck of the Deutschland by the great English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J., I believe we are being called towards the ‘granite of being’. Or, as he addresses it in the opening lines of the poem:
Thou mastering me
                   God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
                   Lord of living and dead;
The poem is about the terrible sea-wreck and death of the passengers of the German steamboat, The Deutschland, off the Kent coast in December 1875. Amongst the passengers were five Franciscan tertiaries, driven from Germany by the Falk laws, all of whom drowned: Mothers Barbara Hultenschmidt, Norberta Reinkober, Aurea Badziura, Brigitta Damhorst and Henrica Fassbaender. One of the them, ‘the tall nun’, was heard to cry before she perished: ‘Mein Gott! Mach es schnell mit uns!’ (Philip Martin 1976). Poignantly, for Hopkins, they were finally laid to rest near his childhood home at St Patrick’s Cemetery, Leytonstone. Whilst discussing the incident with his rector Fr Jones at the Jesuit house of St Beuno’s, North Wales, where he was resident at the time, the priest opined that he ‘wished someone would write a poem on the subject’. This was all Hopkins needed to rekindle his writing career and within a few weeks he had produced the great ode of 35 verses.
          The genius of Hopkins’ work, a true Paschal drama, is how he turns this disaster into a witness of Christ’s loving work in the world. This I have recently argued is what we can call the ‘symbolic’ aspect of the Christian message. I am influenced heavily here by the French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu O.P. who describes the symbolic element of Christian life as revealing: ‘the profound truth that lies hidden within the dense substance of things and is revealed by these means’ (Chenu 1957: 99). The Christian view is thus a way of seeing reality – a symbolic truth especially open to the discerning eyes and ears of poets, artists and creators.
          What then is the symbolic meaning of our present covid crisis? I have tried to explore this in other recent blogs using the symbolism of Blake’s Book of Job, and hopefully I will continue this in the coming weeks. However for today, this special Paschal day when we lay aside our everyday lives and enter for three days into the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, I return to Hopkins and his exhortation at the end of the Deutschland: ‘Let Him Easter in us.’
For sure the next few weeks will see a great deal of suffering, tragedy and death, it has already begun. But as Christians I believe our role now is to see the ‘symbolic’ hand of God in this suffering as we are led down the Seven Steps into the Underworld of Holy Saturday.
The shorthand for this symbolic form is, of course, ‘the Cross’. The Cross, for the Christian, straddles the two realities of despair and fulfillment. The Christian, as Edith Stein suggested, thus becomes the symbol as they face the Cross in an act of faith, or as Chenu put it:
To join two realities within a single symbol was to put the mind into secret contact with transcendent reality… the result was a double resonance within the single grasp of a ‘dissimilar similitude’ (Chenu 1957: 131, c.f., Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy: 2
Therefore, rather, than sitting at home waiting for the churches to reopen we are called today to find Christ in our hearts, our homes, our families, our everyday lives. ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’ says Hopkins, and why not in your living room or garden? Also, during this difficult time we are asked, I believe, to find Christ in each other and to pay particular attention to small acts of love and consideration. J.R.R. Tolkein famously said at the completion of his epic Lord of the Rings cycle that the world will be saved by small acts of kindness. Accordingly, during this special Paschal time let us each see 2020 as an invitation to enter the symbolic reality of the moment in small acts of kindness to those around us and in a deepening sense of the presence of Christ in our lives through prayer. Let us take time each day to perform these acts, and especially to contemplate Christ’s message for us through them. The covid crisis will then become an invitation to let Christ 'Easter in us' so that ultimately He becomes for us, as Hopkins concludes his epic poem:
'A dayspring to the dimness of us, be
 a crimson-cresseted east...
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our heart's charity's hearth's fire, our thoughts' chivalry's throng's
Happy Easter when it comes! Love Peter

Monday, 6 April 2020

Passover--Easter--Ramadan 2020 in a time of covid

This month three of the major world religious celebrations of 2020 occur one after another in quick succession: Passover, Easter and Ramadan. Like the annual renewal of Spring it is reassuring that these ancient ceremonies repeat with their familiar summons to repentance and soul-searching. Yet, this year all will be different. Communal gatherings will be banned - mosques, synagogues and churches will be closed. In terms of the covid crisis we have reached midnight. Deaths are predicted to peak this month around the world as families will be shaken by the illness and death of loved ones.
In reflecting upon this I have turned once again to the Blake prints I commented on earlier in the crisis. In the former blog we looked at the arrival of the angel of pestilence – Satan – with his poetic pose and his halo and we saw then that, like the Israelites of old, we were being summoned upon the journey of Exodus out of our familiar world of ‘onions, cucumbers and melons’ to the harsh landscape of the desert. Yet, as we discussed in the previous blog, in the desert we can see wonders happen and like the silent bird of the Upanisads we are being called to listen to the silent song within our hearts.
In the cycle of Blake prints we also reach midnight. Job, like our modern technocratic world, lies prone at the bottom of the picture. All is seemingly paralysed, he can neither move forward nor back. However, in the central panel he has now adopted a different attitude to the one we saw in the last plate. He is attentive, humble even. He realises that he has nowhere else to go. Even the three ‘accusers’ are silent, his wife sits next to him with her head held in despair. Yet in contrast to these five pitiful figures Blake introduces a new figure – Elihu, the young man who will lead Job out of this mess. He begins his speech:
‘I am Young and ye are very Old wherefore I was afraid to declare my opinion before you.’ The scriptures tell us he ‘was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God, he was also angry at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer though they had declared Job to be in the wrong.’ After the denial and depression, as Kübler-Ross tells us, anger is the next stage in our mourning for what has been lost and in these few weeks as people lose their livelihood, cannot find health services or even simple foodstuff there has been a rising anger. But Elihu’s anger is different, this is what used to be called in the old days ‘righteous anger’. It is the anger of youth that has ‘waited for words, listened for wise sayings’ and found none. Blake makes him a prophetic figure full of vitality and vigour in contrast to the five ‘oldies’ in front of him – this is the Parrhesia that authors as diverse as Michel Foucault and Hans Urs von Balthasar talk about – ‘speaking truth to power’ as we would call it nowadays, the traditional role of the prophet. Blake makes him a prophetic figure full of vitality and vigour in contrast to the five ‘oldies’ in front of him. He stands proud and upright pointing to the heavens while his other hand is a rebuke and a blessing at the same time. The five listeners look suitably impressed and hear him out. In contrast to Job and his crew he is half clothed in shade and he occupies the same space as the twelve stars that Blake has thoughtfully wrapped around him. It is clear that this is no ordinary young man.
In psychological terms we talk about two aspects of the psyche/soul; the senex or ‘old man’ and the puer or ‘youngster’. Elihu is clearly a representative of the puer – to my eyes Blake also seems to make him sexually ambivalent, he is neither male nor female with his long hair and his gentle step. This is a figure from the part of the psyche that has not been operative up to now. Again, as in the previous plate, Blake gives us more clues as to what is going on in the surrounding to the panel. Yes, the old figure asleep at the bottom seems unconscious but look what streams from him: a series of naked free-flowing figures, again sexually ambiguous, leading us up to the declaration at the top of the plate: ‘In a Dream, In a Vision of the Night, in deep Slumberings upon the bed. Then he openeth the ears of Men and sealeth their instruction...’ The unconscious is now speaking via the puer-figure of Elihu and Job and his tribe are both entranced and terrified. They know that however unpalatable the message this is what they must hear...
Which brings us back to Passover, Easter and Ramadan.
The Passover celebrations will begin this week with the Seder meal, normally held at home with the family. Towards the beginning of the meal the youngest child asks the famous question: ‘How is this night different from all other nights?’ Like Elihu, wisdom will come from the youngest as all look to them to start the ceremony. Likewise, in the Christian version of the Seder, Christ’s Last Supper in Jerusalem, also celebrated this week on Maundy Thursday, at a crucial moment in the meal Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that around him’ (John 13: 4 – 5). The disciples were shocked and scandalised, Peter even refusing to have his Master suffer this indignity to which Jesus replies ‘unless I wash you , you can have no share with me...’
All this, starting with Elihu, points the way out of our present crisis – like Job in this picture we have to accept with humility what is happening to us and our societies and realise that the Master must now become the Servant. Senex must give way to Puer if we are to allow the human spirit to emerge from this crisis. One world is dying and a new one is arising. As in Blake’s print it may seem that we are at midnight, but this is where the seeds for renewal lie – in our societies, in our homes and in our hearts. Let us continue to pray for all the human family at this difficult time – especially that we may all experience the renewing humility depicted by Blake, whatever our race, creed or religion. That we may listen again to the young and those on the margins of society. For the dawn will surely come again and let us be ready for it when it does.
To close I leave a link to the astonishingly beautiful depiction of this scene in Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Mindful Living in a Time of Covid

Many of us wake up today to the new normal: churches, mosques, synagogues and temples closed; restaurants, bars and theatres closed. Even parks and home visits off limits. In response to my blog last week some people have asked that I say a little more about the ‘mindful living’ I mentioned earlier. I am happy to do this if it will help us to come through this extraordinary and unprecedented situation.
Accordingly I take as my ‘text’ a verse from the 2,500 year old Sanskrit ‘Svestasvatara Upanisad’, chapter 4, sloka 6:
dvā suparā sayujā sakhāyā samāna vka pariasvajāte / tayor anya pippala svādv atty anaśnann anyo abhicākaśīti
[personhood] is like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, perched on the branch of the same tree.
One of them tastes the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the other, tasting neither, calmly looks on.
I mentioned in the last blog our ‘animal’ reaction to the covid crisis: fear, anxiety, the need to get enough food, protect loved ones etc. This is the bird that ‘eats the sweet and bitter fruit’. Edith Stein, the 20th Century German philosopher calls it the ‘me-self’. Sigmund Freud and his followers call it the ‘ego’. And it is important. In fact many branches of depth psychology are called ‘ego psychology’ as they help us to develop and strengthen the ego. Many spiritual practitioners today talk of ‘getting rid of the ego’. Which is a) not possible and b) probably not desirable anyway... There are two birds on the branch - we cannot kill two birds with one stone! Rather the ego must continue to eat its bitter and sweet fruits – rushing around trying to get enough protective kit, cans of soup and avoiding all contact with everyone else. This is a survival strategy that is part of our make-up. Note that this bird has ‘golden plumage’ too – it is just as important as the other bird...
          But all the time the other silent bird looks on – this is what Edith Stein and others call ‘the soul’. It is the eternal part of us that can observe silently what happens in the ego. Now, this is the part of the self that is normally hidden in our day-to-day lives. In fact for most of us it often only a crisis – a bereavement, unemployment, sickness – that can enable it to emerge. Well we have a big crisis now – in fact all three rolled into one. Now is the time to listen to the song of the silent bird (as St John of the Cross said). As we sit at home or out on our solitary walks let us devote 10 – 15 minutes each day to listening to this song. Why not dedicate the traditional time of sunrise and sunset to this practice? From this perspective we can begin to redress the balance in our personalities – away from the ‘me-self’ to the soul.
          One last thing. I mentioned in the previous blog the Sanskrit notion of the ‘tirtha’ or ‘crossing place’ and suggested we are at such a crossing place now. As well as a physical crossing place – a pilgrimage – the Sanskrit texts talk of ‘tirthas of the heart’. There are six of these ‘crossing places of the heart’: truth, charity, patience, self-control, love and wisdom. As we stay at home with our loved ones and family, as we interact with each other in the coming weeks and months, let us aim to nurture these six qualities in our social interactions as we move into the mystery we are all being invited to enter.
          Yesterday I was able to work in the garden, planting vegetables for the new season and sowing the first seeds of the season on a bright spring day. As I watched the inevitable renewal of the earth I remembered some of the last words of the Viennese composer Gustav Mahler in his ‘Song of the Earth’, written as he was dying of heart disease in 1909. I shall finish with these, thinking and praying for us all:
The well-loved earth everywhere and always
Blossoms again in spring and grows green anew!
Everywhere and always the horizon glimmers blue...
Forever... Forever... Forever...Forever...