Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The search for understanding

Kent Nerburn received a call. It was a Lakota Indian woman on behalf of her grandfather. Would Kent come and visit him? Dan, the grandfather, had read texts that Nerburn had helped compile of the oral histories of other Indians on a given reservation. It was an unusual request, a bolt from the blue, but Nerburn responded and his life was never the same.

Dan, now in his eighties, wanted a book framed around his cumulative thoughts that might be listened to by the 'white' world, if not now when it was ready. But he emphatically did not want to be seen or portrayed as simply a 'wise Indian' speechifying, yet another stereotype in a landscape littered with them. At one point he declares better be seen as a drunk and despised than as a wise one and patronized or falsely appropriated.

In Nerburn's crafting of his book, "Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder", Dan found his man. What unfolds is a compelling, thoughtful text that allows an elderly Indian to be both seen in the round and heard as in varied, often incongruous contexts (to Nerburn at least), he imparts the contents of his heart and mind, long pondered and shaped in joyous recognition of his own identity and in the suffering that identity has carried with it - for Dan directly and for his people and culture. It is framed as both as a testament and a teaching as Nerburn learns in graced vulnerability (and often self confessed confusion) about the Lakota way and how it differs, often at sharp angles, to the way of the 'white'.

Sadly, the sharpness is a story that is ongoing, well beyond the shores of America, wherever indigenous people are to be found, where their lives are ignored and despoiled in equal measure, where the pressure of the restless appetite of the 'West' (now, in that wider context, not exclusively white) presses on relentlessly - stealing land and dishonouring culture.

I cannot think of a better text that exposes our dominant, domineering narrative. To see it through the eyes of this particular other. And what eyes, mind and heart! It is a chastening, humbling experience.

Dan is a born philosopher who has pondered centuries of displacing, fraught, woeful cultural encounter and tried, not always successfully, to distill its potential meaning. At one point, he openly confesses that he cannot comprehend how the Great Spirit allowed this to happen to his people, but it did. The Great Spirit's ways are not simply our ways and patient discernment is required, possibly stretching into generations.

But mainly his observations are sobering illumination on the ways of both Lakota and whites that exposes their differences and in doing so it hopes to create pathways of future understanding. Here we find radically different ways of seeing the land, the pattern of ownership, the prioritising of community over individual, the misapprehension of what it means to lead - a chief is only such if the people follow and that depends solely on the quality of leadership, there is no other authority - and on the difference of living in a world saturated with meaning, where everything is potentially story and sacred contrasted with a world that is simply there to be used, with care or none.

I thought his most moving intervention was on our two uses of history - history as fact and history as meaning - and the way white culture devalued the Lakota use of history as meaning, demanding always factual verification, even when it extolled the centrality of Jesus whose history is one primordially that of meaning. Another sad example of duplicity! He beautifully suggests, for example, that it would be of greater benefit to carry Abraham Lincoln and his example in one's heart as a liberator from slavery than to know when the abolition was actually signed whilst still failing to embody its significance in daily living. 

The book ends in a wonderful encounter at Wounded Knee site of what would now be called a 'mass killing' where soldiers exterminated defenceless men, women and children and the two men share a ceremony of pipe and prayer and Nerburn tastes something of the depths to which Dan has descended in his own life and that of his culture and receives a sign that it is time to begin to write. It was an auspicious sign because the resultant book is a treasury of the insights necessary to embark on a journey of a deeper comprehension of what it might mean to be an Indian and what those cultures might actually offer us if, finally, we took the time to listen and learn.

** (Interestingly throughout Dan refers to himself either as Lakota or simply as an Indian. In the discussion of this, Dan argues that yes, it is a sign of a cultural projection but one where simply a change, say, to Native American is of little improvement. After all what is the difference between being named after a false geographical location or after an Italian explorer? Not much since both illustrate the reality of the gulf that exists between a people being labelled and one that is genuinely seen and heard).

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Fake news is always with us

If you imagined that 'false news' was a contemporary phenomena, think again! It is a recurrent theme. Wherever competing interests exist to be communicated, there it will be. This was brought home to me whilst reading Kent Nerburn's excellent, "Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce".

The Nez Perce first encounter with the white man was peaceable (and ennobling). It was with the expedition of Lewis and Clark as they made their way to and from the Pacific. The Nez Perce lived as independently minded groups in what is now Idaho, Montana and Washington. Intermingling with other tribes, through trade and marriage, differentiated from others by enmity.

As the pressures of white settlement mounted, much nobility evaporated and under increasing pressure, some chose the way of agriculture and Christianity, others, however, found themselves on an epic journey of months as they fled the pursuing US Army (and assorted vigilantes including other indigenous tribes, often lured by the Nez Perce's wealth especially their exceptionally well-bred horses). This flight was necessitated by an atypical act of violence against white settlers when the Nez Perce's patience at white depredation finally snapped.

The journey ended (after successful flight and fights) near the Canadian border. The Nez Perce were encircled, too exhausted to fight their way out, and reduced to a bare rump. They were shipped to Kansas and a reservation where they suffered further indignities (including at the hands of a Quaker Indian agent) until they finally find themselves either back with their settled Christian kin or in another tawdry reservation in Washington, trying to follow the old ways, ruptured by defeat and displacement.

One of the ironies Nerburn explores is that Chief Joseph though singled out by the press (and subsequent mythologizing) as the leader of the Nez Perce (and brilliant military leader), in fact, was only one amongst a number of chiefs, by no means, until the very end, the most important and spent most of his time on the flight looking after the needs of the elderly, the women and children; and, rarely having the opportunity to fight himself! You see compellingly (and dispiritingly) how the news about this unfolding event was simply and radically distorted by its reporting - savage Indians on the rampage or noble victims of bungling US government policy - with very little attempt (on any side) to arrive at balance or rounded judgement. A balance of which Nerburn's book is a beautifully written example.

Sadly, not only 'false news' is an ongoing reality so is the plight of indigenous people - as I write they are being widely either deprived or patronised. Their land stolen for resource extraction, their way of life condemned as primitive. In both cases standing in the way of 'civilisation' - for Joseph this was agriculture and Christianity - now, no doubt, it is wage labour and atomisation compensated for by the prospect of shopping!

If we do make progress, it is slow. Towards the end of his life, we find Joseph discovering the power of the media, and the image, for himself; and, interestingly the employment of the law to file for 'land rights' for a community rather than for individual property rights. Both of which have been, and continue to be deployed, to argue for indigenous rights, with some, if too little and fragile success.

It is a sad, instructive book - of the resilience and fragility of culture, of the realities of discrimination and power, and of a noble soul who endured it all and died defeated 'of a broken heart' and yet had never, in that same heart, surrendered.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

When the English Fall

A solar storm has knocked out much of the world's electronic/electrical systems only fragments of that world, so unthinkingly familiar, survives. Mobile phones fall silent, your credit card is useless and indeed redundant as your bank account, nesting in the 'Cloud', has disappeared! Just in time delivery means that nothing is stocked where it is needed, the cities and their citizens, go hungry and slowly, steadily citizenship, itself, crumbles.

Meanwhile, though not wholly unaffected, even they have made compromises with modernity, the Amish and their life continues to unfold. It is late summer, moving into autumn, there is harvesting to be done and the subsequent milling, canning, preserving. All of this shot through with scenes of community help, community gossip and, most importantly, for this ancient Anabaptist group, worship and prayer.

But even though they have 'separated' themselves, no one in the world is truly separate and the world's chaos closes in; and, the community must find ways to respond, to suffer and to survive.

David Williams' "When the English fall" is a post-apocalyptic novel woven around this scenario. It takes the form of a journal, kept by Jacob, an Amish farmer, who lives with his wife and two children, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, heart of the original Amish settlement in the U.S..

In his simple, reflective, measured prose the events slowly unfold until most of the community decide that to survive, without sheltering under their neighbours' defensive violence, they must go west to their newer fellow communities, where land is more plentiful and cities, with their emptying, threatening, desperate outflows of people, less numerous.

It beautifully captures the dilemmas of a community, wedded to non-violence, in a darkening age and, of course, uses the scenario to quietly question our growing 'connectivity' and whether it genuinely builds the resilience of community that we need.

It, also, interestingly weaves into the narrative hints of a gathering challenge, not as immediately catastrophic as a solar storm, but nevertheless already profoundly dislocating, namely climate change. It is cunning of the author to unobtrusively slip it into a farmer's journal recognising that it simply now, sadly, belongs there. Mr Trump in his golden tower might not believe in it but it is, as study after study shows, what every farmer now knows.

All of this is rooted in a narrative saturated with the community's Christian faith, a faith that, in the past, and now again, was and is much tested. A faith that indicates that though the world is a divine gift, our collective and individual handling of that gift leaves much to be desired. A handling that requires more reverence and humility than we have afforded it.

This mystery at the heart of things is most readily shown through Sadi, Jacob's daughter. She is 'fey'. She foresees. Growing up this is seeing simple things such as a forthcoming accident to a friend but as the storm approaches, she foresees the oncoming crisis, interpreted through her lights. Her promptings, when acknowledged, help the community take its next step but, equally, on their own can only ever be one among many sources of guidance. Even the 'magical' must take its place amongst an ordering of the world that is meant to serve the witness of community to its life and faith.

Along the way, you gain vivid insight into the ways of a living community and some sharp, if compassionate, asides on some of our current cultural predicaments; not least, the strange disconnecting angriness one finds on social media.

It is a dark novel - but with significant indicators to where light might lie: in faith, in resilience, in reconnecting with a gifted natural world, in scrutinising our default to violence; and, most simply, in preparation, nothing is as complacent as complacency!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The naturally holy

I remember when Rowan Williams was made Archbishop of Canterbury his staff had to persuade him to cease his previous practice of opening his own mail not only because of its increase in volume but also because often nestling within was the vituperative poison of the disgruntled and disaffected!

Avril Pyman in her accomplished biography of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh gives her own examples of this surprisingly common 'Christian' art form that this particular saintly bishop accrued to himself through his own management of the Russian Patriarchal Church in Western Europe that was his responsibility over many years. The disappointments of Judas, sadly, are always with us.

Since the organisational life of the Church absorbed so much of Anthony's attention and energy, likewise it must occupy his biographer but I confess it is, for me, the least interesting part of the book. The parsing of denominational difference especially when it is within Orthodoxy (rather than betwixt Orthodoxy and other dimensions of Christianity even) can only truly interest the specialist!

But the book comes truly alive when it continually steps back into the reality of the man.

I remember the first time I saw him. It was at a University London mission - the first night had been Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the second night was the Liverpool duo, David Shepherd and Derek Warlock, Anglian and Roman Catholic Bishops of Liverpool respectively; and, the third and last night was Metropolitan Anthony. Whilst the previous speakers had sought to explain to you why you might be a Christian in undoubtedly lively ways, Anthony simply was it. This is how the world is - God's gift - and you lived into that gift by following Christ and to follow you prayed. I had never met anyone, to that time, who radiated such holiness and did so with such charm, serenity and wit.

Afterwards I read his books - all of which carry the same straightforwardness of an experienced conviction that never talk at the reader, simply invite them in (rather akin to the photograph above). They, also, as the philosopher, Jacob Needleman noticed (in his book, 'Lost Christianity') have a strikingly 'objective' feel -unsentimental, direct, alive - as if sharing a discovery that anyone can discover if they place their attention and will in the right direction. Grace is ever present waiting to respond. Faith is a matter of observation and experience, not of belief.

This too was my experience of the man when we subsequently met (and I discovered through the book that by this stage - bearing on his age and health - this was a privilege). There were not many meetings but he taught me prayer (which is after all rather like saying he taught me the one thing necessary)! I remember each time we met (and the last time was in the more public forum of a Diocesan conference), I always found myself oscillating between embracing him and running away because he had a way of looking at you that saw through you. There was I felt to be no hiding place - especially not from my own conscience!  I also had that sense that though I stored up questions to ask, actually what mattered was not the 'answer' as such but a presence that let the reality he witnessed to unfold, dissolve the question.

It was a similar sense I had with the only other person I have met (as yet) who carried quite the same embodied, objective holiness: Dom Bede Griffiths. When we met for the first time, after a prolonged correspondence, likewise I had saved up all manner of question, all of which seemed to evaporate as we simply enjoyed lunch together, bathed in his kindliness!

Perhaps it is a mark of sainthood - that you step with them, however, momentarily into the world seen aright, made its true self again, all cleansed and transfigured; and, there is nothing striking about this except its naturalness from which usually we stand estranged in our myriad complications. We see the difference that makes the difference and, hopefully, re-gird our loins to dispose ourselves to the closure of that gap.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The world turned inside out

When I first came to live in Switzerland as a present to myself (for landing in 'tax efficient' Zug), I bought the two volumes of Kathleen Raine's 'Blake and Tradition'. Beautiful volumes now sadly out of print unlike 'Blake and Antiquity' the foreshortened version of these her Paul Mellon lectures. Last night, after a three year pause, I managed to finish the second volume.

They are masterly and beautifully illustrated.

Under her PhD supervisor at Cambridge, none other than C.S. Lewis, she set out to read everything that Blake was known to have read or reasonably supposed, from textual evidence, might have read; and, against this back drop, read the poems and the paintings. Her argument is, simply put, that Blake was the conscious inheritor of a tradition, a Christian esotericism, woven of elements from the Bible, Neo-Platonism, Christian Cabala, Boehme; and, more closely to hand Bishop Berkeley and Emmanuel Swedenborg and was writing in opposition to the new materialism of Locke and Newton.

Blake is a visionary poet and painter but he never stops at his art for the art has a sacred function that is nothing more nor less than redemptive. Just as he argues one sees through the eye, not with it, for the world is the body of imaginative perception, so too do you see through art to the nature of the real (and the manner by which the real is obscured from sight).

And Blake is a thinker - even when his mythology is being obscure, when reference builds upon reference, when untangled you recognize his precision. Nor is he a passive inheritor, he is as likely to correct Swedenborg, in many ways his inspiring master, as he is to criticize Newton or Locke! Though at times irascible, he is also generous, even Newton squeaks into the restored kingdom at the end. For the 'hells' we may find ourselves in are 'states' we pass through not places of permanent entrapment.

At Blake's heart, Raine effectively shows, is a sophisticated 'idealism' (as it would come to be known). The world is because it is perceived, nothing exists that is not perceived. The world is a creation of mind and that mind, ultimately, as Berkeley argued, is the 'mind of God'. Nothing does, or indeed can, exist outside this but what is critical is how one perceives.

Is your viewing open to, and aligned with, the divine in which case everything is seen as holy, and whole, within a unifying imagination? Or is it bounded by self-interest that sees one self as separate, over against the world, a world that itself is seen composed of separate things bumping up against each other in space? The choice is yours, rinse your seeing clean and see whole or limp through life seeing separation.

Every sinew of Blake's mythology, argument, image and song is bent towards the ability of the former. Read aright he literally turns your world around. The inner no longer dwells as a by product of the outer but the world is seen from the inside out - an imaginative reality rather than a 'real thing'.

This is, of course, a way of seeing the world that is deeply implicated with both Buddhism and Hinduism but if one were to imagine that this was simply the preserve of the 'religious' (however apparently unconventional as Blake's was), you would be heartily wrong. Idealism as a philosophical position is happily making a comeback, robustly and lustily helped upon its way by the strange worlds revealed by quantum mechanics and neuro-physiology.

Czeslaw Milosz reports that at an unnamed American university last century, the physics faculty opposed the appointment of a Blake scholar in the English department (!) because of Blake's criticism of Newton! It may well turn out that Blake will have the last laugh. (My favorite current defender of this position can be found here:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The wounded celebrant

I was once accused by an Anglican Benedictine Abbot of, "being a victim of my own articulacy". This stung because I suspect it was true. It stung too, as I later realised, because it was said with all the rapacity of a person describing themselves! Of all the encounters in my life, I remember this one as perhaps the least pastorally sensitive!

It came to mind reading Monica Furlong's short, pithy and accomplished biography of Alan Watts - philosopher, trickster, showman of the 'counter-culture'. He was both a man of rare gifts and insight and profoundly wounded such that he reminded me of that saying of a Siberian shaman: that the gift of shamanism was also a curse.

Watts was preternaturally gifted. His first book, 'The Spirit of Zen' being published when he was nineteen. Yet running through his life was a thread of self displacement, self destruction that he never allowed himself fully to see. Every misstep could be justified with graceful, articulate sophistry.

He deliberately sabotaged his entrance into university justifying it by imagining that self-directed study would be more valid yet it deprived him of a place of stability that inwardly he sought. He renounced his Anglican ministry, itself a sophisticated, if possibly necessary, exercise in insincerity, only when his, and his then wife's behaviours, culminated in the inevitability of his dismissal. Finally he wore himself out working to pay the alimony for past wives and children and to 'survive' this effectively drank himself to death.

The religious scholar, Huston Smith, once engineered a meeting between the novelist, Aldous Huxley, and Watts. After Watts had left, Huxley and Smith returned to their seats and, as Smith reports, Huxley delivered his verdict. "What a curious man! Half monk, half race track operator". When this was later reported to Watts, he was delighted!

Yet Watts reminds us that holiness is never simply to be equated with 'wholeness'. Wholeness was never to be granted him but he carried everywhere a remarkable ability to see the contours of what a life lived in grace and unity looked like. An ability to recognise how we deny ourselves a life in flow through an isolating act of fantasising ourselves as 'egos in a bag of skin' rather than as waves in tumbling ocean, connected to everything.

Not only could he recognise this but in publication after publication, talk after talk give people ways of understanding it for themselves that were both intellectually robust and yet wholly accessible.

His articulacy may have blocked ways of seeing himself but in recompense, turned to others, it became a gift of showing forth. A gift that many continue to be grateful for, inviting them to dance with the creativity of their world.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The value of stretches: Yoga in Prisons

To coincide with the launch of a new book: Peace Inside: A Prisoners Guide to Meditation, its editor, Sam Settle, was interviewed on BBC 4's 'All in the Mind' here. The piece starts at 10.20 minutes into the programme.

More details on the book can be found here:

And the Prison Phoenix Trust (that I helped found) here:

The book is beautifully constructed and the explanation of how to meditate one of the clearest and simplest I have read necessarily so given it may be the only source of information a prison inmate might have at their disposal. But like any good account it is suitable for all - inside or out under any number of conditions of our 'imprisonment'!

The search for understanding

Kent Nerburn received a call. It was a Lakota Indian woman on behalf of her grandfather. Would Kent come and visit him? Dan, the grandf...