Tag Archives: Christianity

Words, words, words …⤴

from @ blethers

I've been reading. Of course, there's never a time when I don't have a book on the go, but that's fiction. As it's Lent I've tried to be a tad more disciplined, and to that end saved up a book that I bought some months ago. At the time, I posted online that it had been a bargain - and it was: it cost me about £70 less than its published price.

Saturday's Silence is an academic study of my favourite poet's work with reference to Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Day. And when I embarked on the introduction, I found myself nodding in agreement with much that the author had to say, about poetry in general and Thomas in particular. And it's not that I've stopped agreeing as I move through the body of the argument - quite the reverse.

I'm struck by how intense, line-by-line scrutiny of a poem kills that poem stone dead. This isn't a new thing floating into my consciousness - it's something I was terribly aware of when I was teaching English lit, and especially teaching poetry. But in my latter, more experienced days, I had learned the trick of teaching the "how" rather than the "what" - teaching the basics of poetic understanding* via snippets of examination so that the individual pupils could do it for themselves, and reach the point where it would be in the first instance instinctive, even if further study produced deeper and more detailed appreciation. It was that approach, I believe, that had S4 boys (15-16 years old) learning and loving poems by not only Thomas but also John Donne, reciting them off by heart and lovingly examining what it was that had so attracted them.

I've never really stated all this on paper before. Perhaps it's struck me as blindingly obvious without my labouring the point. But why I'm doing it now is because I've linked it in my mind, thanks to Richard McLauchlan, with religion, with faith itself and the nature of faith.

Think of all the tedious sermons you've listened to in your day. (Obviously, I'm addressing a somewhat targeted audience here - you know who you are...) Do you ever consider, perhaps when you give up actually paying attention, what's wrong with them? I bet some of them at least were lectures, telling you what words in the bible signify in terms of what you, the punter, ought to believe.  Lectures, instead of actual communication, kill faith as dead as academic study kills a poem.

I'm not going to chase this further. I want to emerge with today's little epiphany which is probably more of a realisation of something I've known for decades.

Prose can kill.

Which is why poetry is important, why the practice needs to be done to acquire the eyes with which to grasp it.
Which is why I approach faith as the poet, or as the lover of poetry who spots symbolism at a hundred paces.
Which is why music is so important.
Which is why it was a combination of music and poetry that brought me to faith.

I'll finish the book. It's had the merit of taking me to revisit some dearly loved poems, to feel once again the sudden stab of recognition that Thomas's last lines can so often create. But it's the poetry that matters.

Always.


*I'm talking here about such technical features as caesura, enjambement - all the stuff you make a part of your perception so that you don't need to think about it.

An icon evolves⤴

from @ blethers

A couple of weeks ago, I went on an icon workshop. I spent four nights in one of my most familiar places, the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae, doing something completely new; something that feels as life-changing as that January day in 1973 when I sang at the funeral of a friend who was also a priest and a mentor and came away changed for ever.

The first milestone was choosing my icon. Tatiana, our teacher, had brought some illustrations for those of us who had not already decided what they wanted to copy. I had downloaded a few versions of the Christ Pantocrator icon, as well as a photo of one I'd loved when I saw it but felt unequal to trying - one of the Noli me tangere moment, all facial expressions and sweeping robes. But when I saw the A4 sheet with a totally striking Pantocrator image, I was captured. Tatiana saw my face. "That is your icon," she said.

She explained that it was very old - probably 7th Century - and came from St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. And right now the less ignorant reader will visualise what I'm talking about, because it's famous. But I didn't know this. I only knew that the face was really two faces - one the stern judge, one empathetic, looking right at ME. I took the sheet away to my room. By the time I went to bed, I was aghast at what I'd taken on.

Work on an icon begins with tracing - at least, that's the way I took. Another person at my table, an artist in a way I could never claim to be, drew hers freehand with her original only for inspiration. Me, I was out with the carbon paper, trying to trace significant lines from an icon that was far more naturalistic than any I'd ever seen. And I didn't make very many lines.


Then we had to etch the lines onto the white surface of the prepared board. Hindsight tells me I didn't etch enough - too few lines, too lightly scored. By the time I'd done the gold leaf halo and bible cover and "puddled" paint onto the garment and the face, I couldn't see any of the facial features. At all. "Leave it to dry,"said Tatiana. It'll probably be clearer in the morning - and the light will be better..."

I spent that evening chatting to an old friend who'd turned up - a musician, from my other life as a singer. I told him how Tatiana had brought 3 eggs in a bowl for us to paint with - she broke them, separated yolk from white, took the whites back to the kitchen and left us the yolk with which to mix our pigment. I told him about the pipettes, the brushes, the feeling of being 14 again. Jonathan took my mind off my impending struggles, made me laugh - and I went to bed much later than I'd intended.

The second full day began with rain, less sunshine than I felt I needed - and only an eye visible on the face of my icon. By some miracle I managed to draw more or less freehand, with a hard pencil, the lines I was going to need to guide me. Then I returned to a more orthodox way of icon-writing, with brush and egg tempera and a plate to mix my pigment on. I felt like a real artist, in a terrified sort of way. But I was on my way, and during that day, and evening - for some of us returned to the studio to continue painting after dinner - I began to see the face of Christ emerging under my hands.

And it was that last realisation that grew throughout the third full day, by the end of which Titus, Tatiana's partner, had sprayed two of the necessary three coats of varnish - outside, in the gathering dusk, because of the fumes - on my icon, and it was almost finished. That day was spent on the background - which further research on YouTube has taught me shows the domes of the monastery of St Catherine, but which I modelled on the honey-coloured stone of an Italian town as I tried to realise what on the original was too blurred to be distinct - and on painting the border, and the sides and back of the board. Every now and then, as I'd been warned I would, I wailed for Tatiana to come and help me with an intransigent line, or the miraculous effect of painting a wash of unadulterated egg yolk over a whole area of my icon and leaving it to dry. And all that time I felt those eyes on me, boring into me as I stroked pigment over the cheeks, highlights on the sleeves, shadows under the palm of the raised hand.


The final morning was busy with varnish, photographs of each other's work, packing, paying - and praying. We took our finished icons into the cathedral, where they they were individually blessed with holy water before we took them up to the altar and left them there during the Eucharist.
One of my fellow-iconographers presided; others served and read; my friend Jonathan played the organ for us. It was over. I have never felt more exhausted, physically and emotionally. I wanted it to go on, but I knew I was too tired to do another brush-stroke.

Now my icon sits in an alcove in my house. I look at it every day. It has become a part of my life. And I can't wait to do another one.


Another Advent⤴

from @ blethers


Another Advent

For Andy, who suggested the possibility.

From the darkness that returns
each year we sing our plaintive song
and ask that God will come again
and fill our lives with what we know
and hardly know is all we need.
The fire burns low, the night is long,
and yet we feel in some way held
within the circle of this flame
that still we tend with anxious care
in some place hidden from the eyes
that mock and laugh and turn away
with restless ease towards their end.
The world too turns, and we await
the power that fills our life with light
and let our alleluias ring
within the darkness of the earth.

C.M.M. 12/17

Defective articles and the Love of God⤴

from @ blethers

I've been catching up on an unread bit of a Sunday paper, and found an interview with actor James McCardle. In the light of what I've been involved in recently, this struck me:
People who live a heteronormative life might feel they are free but until we life a life that includes equality of sexuality, gender, equality of class, equality of race then no-one is free.
There's no freedom at all unless there is freedom for all. I understand there have to be labels when there is still a fight to be had, but that shift has to be cultural and it's never going to work if you keep dividing people.
Yes, you say - or do you? Not yet, it seems, if you're a certain kind of church member. And it pains me, as a member of the church for the past 44 years, to have to say that. Especially after the relief many of us felt when my own denomination (and yes - that's another division) decided at last to remove the barriers to equal marriage in our churches. And then it came to deciding where these marriages would be celebrated.

I don't want to go into agonising detail of my latest discoveries - the how, the when. But I want to ask a question. What in God's name is going on in the minds of the people - and I think and pray that indeed they are a minority - who stand, grimly or miserably, in the way, barring the use of "their" church buildings for the celebration of a same-sex marriage?

"It's the word 'marriage'" they insist. It means a man and a woman."

I can think, as my mind flounders in the face of their intransigence, of two things that I didn't get the chance adequately to point out. The first is that such a meaning of the word is but one of four in the quite elderly Concise Oxford that I consulted. The second is that it's a word. Not the Word of God, whatever I believe that to be, just a word. A different word in all the languages of the world, from the close relations of the Latin languages to the intricacies of Russian ... and take a look at this, from an excellent blog:
The word «брак», of course, has another meaning in addition to “marriage”. Its second meaning is “defective articles, discards”. While some marriages do end up discarded, the two «брак»s are not linguistically related.
Language is fascinating, but if I were to enter into any such detail in conversation I'd be accused of being intimidatingly clever, far too fluent for my own good. But for anyone to bar the way to an equal sharing in the love of God in the poor house that we humans have built to gather so that we can feel we are together in sharing that love, for anyone to use a pathetic, human concept, expressed in language that humans have made in order to communicate with each other as an excuse to reserve that space for their own selfish use - is that of God? We don't even need to use language in our deepest communication with what we call God - God who knows the secret of our hearts...

So I'll put it simply:

Language is not of God.
Love is of God.


A Treaty with metaphor⤴

from @ blethers



I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

A Treaty with metaphor⤴

from @ blethers



I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

Remembering on All Souls⤴

from @ blethers

Holy Trinity Dunoon: All Souls

This evening we remembered. We lit candles in front of the altar for family and friends lost. We considered our mortality, and our human response to it. We were reminded how faith and raw emotion can make difficult bedfellows. And I remembered a poem I wrote over a decade ago.

Communicating

Today I would have phoned -
wished to share the small
details of my life, the
safe return, the laughing
at the rain which fell
as if the Flood would come.
But had I rung the number
as familiar as my name
you would not be there.
A stranger’s voice would say
your words, and the strangeness
would be too much to bear.
And contemplating this
a glacial shifting in my soul
gave promise that in weeks not lived
the frozen tears would find the way
and spill into a distant sea like
drops into the ocean of my love.

C.M.M. 4/05

Remembering on All Souls⤴

from @ blethers

Holy Trinity Dunoon: All Souls

This evening we remembered. We lit candles in front of the altar for family and friends lost. We considered our mortality, and our human response to it. We were reminded how faith and raw emotion can make difficult bedfellows. And I remembered a poem I wrote over a decade ago.

Communicating

Today I would have phoned -
wished to share the small
details of my life, the
safe return, the laughing
at the rain which fell
as if the Flood would come.
But had I rung the number
as familiar as my name
you would not be there.
A stranger’s voice would say
your words, and the strangeness
would be too much to bear.
And contemplating this
a glacial shifting in my soul
gave promise that in weeks not lived
the frozen tears would find the way
and spill into a distant sea like
drops into the ocean of my love.

C.M.M. 4/05

Remembering on All Souls⤴

from @ blethers

Holy Trinity Dunoon: All Souls

This evening we remembered. We lit candles in front of the altar for family and friends lost. We considered our mortality, and our human response to it. We were reminded how faith and raw emotion can make difficult bedfellows. And I remembered a poem I wrote over a decade ago.

Communicating

Today I would have phoned -
wished to share the small
details of my life, the
safe return, the laughing
at the rain which fell
as if the Flood would come.
But had I rung the number
as familiar as my name
you would not be there.
A stranger’s voice would say
your words, and the strangeness
would be too much to bear.
And contemplating this
a glacial shifting in my soul
gave promise that in weeks not lived
the frozen tears would find the way
and spill into a distant sea like
drops into the ocean of my love.

C.M.M. 4/05

Tea-parties and bigotry⤴

from @ blethers

I've just been reading a most unedifying church magazine. It's called SATNav, and purports to help the good people of Ayr to navigate the life and witness of Holy Trinity Church in the centre of that town. The very first item is, unsurprisingly, the Rector's letter, which begins thus:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3: 16
The July/August edition of SAT Nav contained a press release about The General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s decision to move, over the forthcoming two General Synods, toward the introduction of same-sex marriage being permitted within the SEC’s churches. I thought it appropriate that I let you know my views on this matter…

... And then he reveals that he has signed the declaration of the statement of the Scottish Episcopal Evangelical Fellowship issued shortly after General Synod. This states:
In contrast to [the decision of General Synod to "delete any reference to marriage as being between a and a woman"], we reaffirm the doctrine of marriage as given in the Old Testament in Genesis 2:24, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and by Paul in Ephesians 5:31 - ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’

At the end of the statement, he invites people to add their names to it by email. Lest they should hesitate over this step, he adds:
What General Synod has done then, is not only to take a major departure from authentic Biblical Christianity as practised by the overwhelming majority of churches worldwide, but to hasten the decline and possible final extinction of the SEC.

He backs all this up with this sweeping assertion:
As the SEEF statement makes clear above, God’s wish since the dawning of time for all humanity is that marriage between one man and one woman is the only place for sex to take place and that everyone else, irrespective of their sexual orientation, should lead a life of celibacy. That is because, in God’s design, through marriage, men and women are meant to complement one another in many ways, not just for reasons of procreation; ways that are just not possible in same-sex relationships.

I become terribly worried when people assert that they know God's wishes in this fashion. We could all do that, could we not? No. Surely such dogmatic insistence trivialises belief. For Christians like me, only one command comes through with that kind of clarity, and that is the demand that we love one another as God has loved us. Heaven knows, that's hard enough without adding man-made conditions (and yes, I mean man-made).

We are then assured that there will be no same-sex marriages in his incumbency, but that anyone who comes to the church will be loved and cared for regardless ... etc etc. Presumably his flock will conveniently forget that they will only experience this care up to a certain point - or might indeed simply note that no priest in the SEC is allowed at the moment to conduct such ceremonies and wonder what he's going on about.

The letter ends thus:
As a church, ahead of forthcoming Diocesan and General Synods, there will be plenty of opportunity to further discuss General Synod’s decision.

On an entirely different subject, I am looking forward to the Holy Trinity tea parties we'll be hosting at the rectory and in members’ homes from this month. (You'll find more about this on the back page.)

If you read my blog post of yesterday - which I wrote about an hour before seeing the above - you will know that the scones and stereotypes kind of mission is alive and well in Ayr, but that's a wry comment rather than the main point of my putting all this stuff here. What I'm asking is this: How would you feel if this arrived in your inbox, as a member of Holy Trinity Ayr? What happened to all the thoughtful discussion that went on at Synod? What happened to the care for ministry to all  that would prevent a rector from coming out with such a bold statement of personal prejudice? Did he, I wonder, tell the vestry who appointed him that he was mired in the first century and would admit of no further growth in understanding?

He refers to the imminent demise of the church if it chooses to remove the clause about men and women from the canon on marriage. Does he know that that specificity was a recent addition to the canon?

But I'm becoming incoherent. I'm putting this stuff here because I am realising what we're up against when it comes to moving forward in the church I want to remain in. The person who forwarded the newsletter to me did so with the comment that now I would know why she was never going back to Holy Trinity Ayr. She's not a stereotypical agitator - she's a straight woman in her 60s who is furious. How is she being ministered to? She can't just go down the road and find another church - it's not easy when a team rector's influence covers a wide geographical area.

I know how fortunate I am at the moment. My local church is ministered to by a thoughtful, forward-looking priest who is careful to take everyone with him and who thinks about the consequences of his words. This could change in the future, for clergy move on. But to my mind, tea-parties and bigotry make up the poison that is eating at the credibility of our church, and if numbers indeed flock to hear their ignorant prejudices confirmed on a weekly basis it's not a church that I want to have any part of.

So - a sour note to start the week after the exuberant joy of Saturday. God help us.