January 31, 2012
Another visit to a psychiatic ward in England, where we meet Michael.
Episode 2) Clean living
Michael suffers from OCD and is constantly washing his hands, brushing his teeth, changing his clothes, washing them and cleaning his room.
He doesn't take part in any other activity on the ward as his cleaning commitments prevent this. It's a question of priorties. Keeping his room clean and himself scrubbed leaves no time for conversation with others.
His hands are red raw from cleaning and his face is very red also.
The only plus side for the staff is that his room is the nicest on the ward. Most of the other rooms stink but not Michael's.
But he doesn't like anyone else in his room and so sits alone for most of the time between cleans.
Michael ventures out into the dirty world of the ward only to ask for more toilet roll, towels or sheets.
January 30, 2012
The doctor's unfortunate ward round
This week, courtesy of a psychiatric worker, we're going to spend some time in a psychiatric unit in England.
These are no urban myths. Every story told is true but then you will know that even as you read them. I knew it because I was there in each story. Insanity is a continuum we all share and remains our normal state - though sanity does occasionally show itself.
And so we laugh and we cry as we read in recognition as much as anything else.
And sometimes, of course, it's not the insane who are the problem...
Episode 1) The doctor's unfortunate ward round.
The doctor makes weekly ward rounds in the psychiatric unit. It's probably true to say that he's not at the top of his game this afternoon. After all, these people are all quite mad so in a way, who cares?
He gets to Frank and glances quickly down at his notes.
'Hello, Frank,' he says.
Frank says hello in return.
'And I see that last time we met, Frank, you told me that you had a penis sticking out of your head.'
Frank does not react well to this observation. He starts to rant furiously and has to be calmed down by the staff. In the end, he's taken away.
'Ahh,' says the doctor, studying his papers more closely. 'I'm looking at a different person's notes.'
January 26, 2012
Inappropriate by the organ
In the final episode from this series of 'Rev Life', we enter the netherworld of coffee and biscuits after the morning service:
Inappropriate by the organ
Coffee and biscuits after the service takes almost as long as the service itself and for a few, it's a good deal more important.
'It's where I catch up with everyone!' says Milly. 'You can't talk so much during the service.'
This is true though Milly does her best. She probably talks through films and she certainly talks through the prayers, which drives some people crazy. Silence is a vulnerable child.
Everyone has their reasons and initially Milly came to church because it was a place where she could go to sleep in the warm, while her children were looked after by someone else. It was win-win-win, really.
But soon Milly started talking as well as sleeping and has been ever since. Indeed, I haven't seen her eyes closed since the bishop was last here, over-estimating our interest and under-estimating our intelligence.
'You'll never guess what!' I hear her saying excitedly.
But I hear no more, for she moves away and I'm busy behind the serving counter. Yes, the coffee rota has broken down again and so it's off with the robe and on with the urn. Coffee? Tea - normal or herbal? Squash?
'The squash was quite weak last Sunday,' says a posh little boy. 'Rather like water.'
That will have been the parsimonious Maureen on duty who believes more money should be sent to Africa and less money spent on squash. Her servings of Tescos Value orange can be seen only with the aid of a very strong microscope.
Churches aren't in competition, of course, because we all love one another, but obviously we are in competition and I have heard that one church nearby is offering fresh orange juice after the service, which is a bit of a body-blow. I mean, how can we compete with that? It's probably the Catholics; another subversive stunt like the Gunpowder plot.
And then Ronald is standing in front of me.
'All very modern, vicar!'
'What's modern, Ronald?'
Ronald is in his 70's, a former church warden and endlessly positive about all things modern. If a technological gadget exists in the world, he thinks we should have it in church.
'Got to be modern, vicar!' is his general solution to a problem, which explains his delight at the new Health and Safety notices that have appeared, unbidden, in the church kitchen.
'Where on earth have these come from?' I say, gazing at the notices in shock:
'DON'T PUT KNIVES IN SINK.'
'FAT FIRE? DON'T USE WATER!'
'DON'T TRY AND CATCH SHARP KNIVES - STAND BACK AND LET THEM FALL.'
'It's the way of things now, Vicar,' says Ronald. 'Everywhere has to be safe. It's the modern way.'
'Not good news for jugglers,' I say.
But Ronald's not on my wavelength.
'Jugglers here?' he asks. 'Good idea, vicar. We need to find new ways to make the show more entertaining.'
I look again at the signs and remember the famously ambiguous church kitchen instruction:
'WASH TEAPOTS AND THEN STAND UPSIDE DOWN IN THE SINK.'
The trouble with notices like these is where do you stop?
'DON'T SPREAD GERMS. PLEASE WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE WASHING YOUR HANDS.'
Janet appears suddenly and demands a word in my ear. She's one of our present church wardens, middle-aged and methodical.
'What about Martin?'
'He's making inappropriate comments.'
'What sort of comments?'
'He just commented on a lady's breasts.'
'No, it's not OK.'
Martin is a bearded man in his thirties who's in and out of psychiatric units. When keeping to his medication, he can function pretty well; but he struggles with boundaries and can get violent - him and the rest of the world.
'I just think you ought to go over,' says Janet.
'I'm serving the coffee at the moment.'
'Then I'll do the coffee.'
By the time I get to Martin, who's with a group by the organ, things are all fairly jovial. There's plenty of laughter and Milly is in the middle of it.
'What are you like?!' she's saying.
Apparently, it's her breasts which have received the compliment which is strange, because she has the face of an angel but the bust of a middle-distant runner.
'I said my breasts are my business, thank you very much!' she says recounting the event. 'What is he like!?'
What is Martin like? He's like someone who just says what he's thinking, without edit, malice or disguise which makes him offensive to some but something of a role model to the rest of us.
January 24, 2012
Should animals get oscars?
Should there be Oscars for animals?
There's talk of it with the current success of 'The Artist' and 'War Horse'. There's a great dog called Uggie in the former and a horse called Joey in the latter. (Real name 'Finder')
9-year old Uggie is an established film star, mobbed at the Golden Globes this year and a seasoned veteran of films like 'Water for Elephants'.
If Finder won, however, it would be a full stage at the awards ceremony as at least 14 horses - and an animated version - played the role of Joey. (They painted the 'subs' with non-toxic paint to ensure likeness.)
So should animals receive Oscars?
My feeling is 'No', if only for their own sake. It's only the charmless human ego that is thrilled by defeating another, by coming out on top; it would be a shame to pass this disease onto our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom.
The only advantage I see is the improvement to the acceptance speeches. Given the choice between an emoting celebrity - 'Oh my God, what a night!' - and a simple 'woof, woof', I know which I'd go for.
January 23, 2012
Men dressed as women
Rev Life: Episode 4
Men dressed as women
I'm sitting in St Pauls Cathedral at some important service or other. The importance of a service is gauged by how many men are dressed as women up at the front and there are loads of them.
These days, there are women dressed as women as well, of course, though somehow they end up looking like men. It's a perverse alchemy. But as a portly man mixes well-crafted anecdote and advice from the pulpit, my mind wanders back across eternity to when I was ordained in this very place. Ordination is the commissioning service for priests, when traditionally two things happen: the bishop lays hands on you and your backbone is removed. I could remember it like it was twenty six years ago, which it was.
Ordination services bring out the worst in the institutional church. I recall a lot of pomp and a lot of prancing around by clergy old enough to know better. Like Ascot, there's a gorgeous sea of large hats on display and that's just the bishops. There's also a great deal of ceremony, a host of proud mums and an equal number of weeping dads, wondering what happened to the future England striker they'd once held in their arms. What was he to say in the office on Monday morning?
'So what does your son do, Mike?'
'I said, what does your son do, Mike?'
'Well, he's a - he's a - I mean, the important thing is, he's happy.'
'Great, Mike, that's really great - but what does he do?'
'He's a - er - he's a cl - (choking cough) - man.'
'Sorry, Mike, I didn't catch that. He's a what?'
'He's a cl - (more coughing) - man.'
'Let me get you some water, Mike and then you can tell me all about what your son does for a living. Hey guys, I'm just getting Mike some water and then he's going to tell us all what his son does for a living. Gather round!'
The organ's playing, of course. It may have been Mozart's favourite instrument but it isn't mine. I loathe its dominating noise and here in St Pauls it dominates all over the place, killing the silent seeds. And then there's the very high ceiling which I remember the preacher gazing towards as I set out on my priestly career all those years ago. Perhaps he too was surprised at just how high it was. Or maybe he was seeking inspiration. If he was seeking inspiration, I can confirm that he never found it. He would have done better to join the congregation in checking his watch - or a calendar. He was a long way from being brief and to the point.
To be honest, instead of a service with such a vastly inflated ego, I'd have preferred a little chat with the bishop over a cup of tea and a slab of fruit cake. After which he could give me a hug and send me out into the world with the words:
'Simon, you old bugger - it's time to go. You're a follower of Jesus who was on the wrong side of the powerful but on the right side of life and love. So hang in there. Take people seriously but don't take the church seriously. Risk everything and fear nothing! And remember always - you are beloved of this earth.'
Once upon a long time ago, that may have been the commissioning service, verbatim, but no longer. Now the service is just one more example of the church's ability to make the simple complicated, the interesting, dull and the profound, religious.
'Give me your first blessing, Father, I need your first blessing!'
These are the first words you hear when the Ordination service is over. There are those who imagine special power in a priest's first blessing and gather round the freshly ordained like the pigeons in Leicester Square around the bread man, kneeling in cooing expectation.
The needy soul who approached me had touched down at least three yards too early and slid the rest of the way on his knees. With such confidence, you sensed he'd done this before.
I'm shocked from my reverie of remembrance by my phone going off. It's a book publisher and not wishing to miss the moment, I mutter - 'Hang on a sec' as I make my awkward way along the row towards the side aisle. I hope the message on my face is: 'I've just been informed of a terrible tragedy.'
In the shadows of the pillars, I can speak at last.
'This isn't a bad time, is it?' asks the publisher.
'No, not at all, not at all - it's very good time.'
For freelancers the world over, there's no bad time to be offered a job; though fair's fair - had I been listening to the Sermon on the Mount, I'd probably have said, 'I'll call you back.'
'Who's the man speaking?' asks the publisher.
'Oh, it's just some nonsense on the radio,' I say uncharitably as I nestle by a tomb in a quiet cathedral enclave and try to avoid the verger's disapproving gaze. 'Now, to business...'
January 21, 2012
I spy with my little eye
I was on the tube yesterday, returning from lunch with a friend near Leicester Square.
I was sharing the afternoon carriage with a very merry bunch of school children, and after a while a teacher got a game of 'Eye Spy' going.
Eileen was eager to have a go.
'All right, Eileen, off you go.'
'I spy with my little eye something beginning with..(much thought)...'T'!
'Tube!' said one child.
'Train!' said another.
Eileen shook her head excitedly. This was her moment, and they we both wrong, which was brilliant!
'Toes!' said a boy.
It was true that he and his friend had been playing a game which involved them taking their shoes off.
'No!' said Eileen
One or two other suggestions came in but no one could get it right and the game was losing momentum. In the end the teacher asked Eileen to reveal all.
'Toothpaste!' she said.
'Toothpaste? Can you see any toothpaste, Eileen?'
'No - but we have some at home. I did see it'
'OK,' said the teacher moving swiftly on, 'does someone else want to have a go? Jacob? All right. And remember, Jacob, you have to be able to see it...It's 'I spy', not 'I Remember'...that would make it a bit difficult for everyone...'
January 18, 2012
Terry's All Lies
Rev Life: Episode Three
Terry's All Lies
Being a vicar in the Church of England is not all tea and cucumber sandwiches on the bishop's lawn. Indeed, expectations today mean it's never been harder to wear the dog-collar. And one of the problems is this: people want you to be like them, to make them feel better about themselves; but also to be unlike them, so they have something to aim at.
Thus the priest must be a professional schizophrenic. He or she must be fashion-conscious, materialistic, TV-absorbed, follow football, spend hours on meaningless facebook relationships and chat rubbish; whilst also being a shaven-haired saint, head in the heavenly clouds and careless of all things worldly. Finding this split-personality too challenging, most clergy opt for one or the other. They're either 'Matey-matey-swear-like-a-trooper-next-door-neighbour.' or 'Rank religious nutcase'.
But whether you're Matey or Nutcase, sooner of later you'll face Terry. Terry may not always be his name; but he's the man who comes to your door with a story of woe, and you know from the outset where it's leading. In fact, that's where I'm standing right now, at the vicarage door and Terry's story is well underway.
'My mother's dying of cancer, you see Father.'
'My poor mum dying of cancer.'
'Must be a difficult time.'
'Means the world to me, she does.'
'I'm sure; a good mother is a great gift.'
'And only one leg.'
'You've only one leg? I'd never have known.'
'No, my mother only has one leg.'
'Oh I see.
'Never stopped her though; take more than that to stop my mum!'
'Brought up seven of us on hope and a prayer - '
'- and one leg - '
' - and now she just wants one last look at her family photos.'
'I can understand that.'
'Who'd deny her one last look at her family photos?'
'Only problem is, Father - my dear mum's in Brighton.'
'Why's that a problem - it's a lovely city. The Lanes, the sea front - '
'Oh, it's a lovely city all right. But the photos are in Inverness.'
'In Inverness? That's some distance.'
'Town of her birth.'
'And she'll never see the dear old place again.'
'And never see the photos again. It's a very tragic situation, Father.'
There's a pause, as we approach the end game.
'And so if your mum's in Brighton, Terry and the photos are in Inverness, why are you here in London?'
'Because I have faith, Father!' he says with new energy.
'You're an inspiration to us all.'
'The Lord's my shepherd; I shall not want!'
'Oh, I've always had faith, Father; and in particular, faith in the kindness of the church folk of London.'
'I was told you were particularly kind.'
'Right. But I don't quite see what you're asking,' I lie.
'Just the return fare to Scotland,' he says, 'if you could see your way to that, Father, plane or train. And perhaps some money for food along the way. I expect you like a drink yourself, Father!'
I offer Terry tea and a sandwich. He storms off with the traditional curses and a veiled threat of violence. Call me Pastor Buck, but I never give money on the door; particularly if it involves mothers with cancer, disability, dying wishes and long train journeys. I've heard all the combinations and many would make great films - in the 'really unconvincing fantasy' genre.
January 16, 2012
For better or for much worse
Rev Life: Episode Two
I really don't like taking weddings and I'm hardly alone in that. Ask any priest whether they'd prefer a wedding or a funeral and they'll all say the latter. There are glorious exceptions of course but that's the rule: funerals trump weddings.
As one of my colleagues said to me, 'There's more life at a funeral - and they're more permanent.' He found weddings rather tense and tight affairs, built on the dubious foundations of control-freakery and unreality, redeemed only by alcohol.
And so it's bad news all round that a young couple have come to see me wishing to get married in my church. This in itself is a miracle, for my church building is no 'Vicar of Dibley' idyll in the countryside designed for Christmas cards. Instead it's a modern building in an unglamorous corner of London, cheaply erected and ugly as sin, variously described as 'The swimming pool' or a very large public toilet.
I discovered on arrival that it was designed by an architect who specialised in libraries, which made a lot of sense: inside, it does look like a library but with no shelves. It was an appalling job and he was sued soon after it was finished when the first fall of rain left the whole place flooded. Sadly he died before the full vengeance of the law - and the archdeacon - could be wreaked upon him. We must resist all talk of a God of love and hope that hell remains a real option for poor architects, who punish communities for years after they have gaily upped and left.
Meanwhile Peter and Louise sit before me with their whole life ahead of them. They are a genuinely nice couple - which is always unnerving - who shrug off my discreet attempts to steer them towards another church. After all, I have no desire to throw away a Saturday afternoon now the football season has started. It's just not right.
'We're not the most beautiful church, of course,' I suggest.
'We don't mind,' says Louise who is a school teacher. 'We've always regarded it as our church.'
'Even though you never come?'
It's a casual observation, made as I brush some imaginary dust from my lap.
'We'd like to come more but somehow we just never get round to it.'
God knows, it's a pathetic excuse but somehow Louise says it with such charm I nearly believe her. I persist with my polite awkwardness however.
'And you're sure you want to get married - it's a big commitment.'
'Oh yes, we've had a pretty rough time as you may know - I think we know our feelings are real.'
I'm aware of their rough times. Louise had been a teacher at the local secondary school where Peter had been a pupil. And if she wore skirts in school as short as the skirt she wore now, I could see how there might have been trouble.
And of course there was trouble. She was deemed to have had an inappropriate relationship with Peter and she lost her job. But they had now been together for three years and had a baby girl. It was a local scandal and Peter's family weren't over the moon but the two of them seemed very happy together. How could I possibly not marry them?
Of course, taking marriages was easier in the early days. Back then, as a new priest on the block, you just can't believe your luck that you're able to preside over such a happy and optimistic occasion, building up to that grand announcement: 'I therefore proclaim that you are husband and wife!' You then allow them a kiss - 'You may kiss the bride' - before holding their hands together high in the air and declaring: 'That which God has joined together, let not man divide.'
It was all such heady stuff that it would have been entirely appropriate for the scout master and his Gang Show to appear singing 'We're riding along on the crest of a wave.'
Fifteen years on, however, things have changed. Everyone you married is now divorced and living with a new partner. And in the dark hours before dawn, you start wondering whether God did join them together or whether they just bought into an impossible dream perpetuated by the church, florists and wedding dress manufacturers.
'We'd really like to get married here,' says Peter.
I'm surprised at these words because men don't usually speak during marriage enquiries. Relationships are for women just as fishing rods are for men.
'Then I would like to marry you here,' I say and I mean it which is remarkable. My hard heart is melted by their simple shining goodness. Sometimes even the most world-weary cynic is reduced to hope.
January 13, 2012
Let me be wise
The wise person does not limit them self by assuming they already know it all.
They are always open to the possibility of learning from their experiences.
They treat the familiar and the new with the same respect.
They know that you can never step into the same flowing water twice.
They notice subtle differences which they allow to shape their thinking.
They accept that their earlier theories may just be stepping stones to new knowledge.
They know a mind that is set and full of it's own importance can not learn.
They know it limits growth, it limits love, it limits life.
Let me be wise today.
January 12, 2012
The case of the missing vicar at graveside
It's now over eight years since I stopped being a vicar, and perhaps time to blow the dust off some of my dog-collared memories.
So over the next week or so, I'll be posting some episodes from my priestly diary, 'Rev Life'.
For a secular nation, there's an awful lot of God about in Britain when you look under the stones. I mean, whether it really is God or some pleasing hallucination the reader must decide for them selves. But without being mercenary about, as a priest, I'm paid to believe it's all true - or at least most of it.
Not that I don't understand when people doubt. I certainly doubted on a grey Thursday last week when I managed to lose a coffin-bearing hearse in the traffic. What happened? I'll tell you.
I had taken Jimmy's funeral in the church and now we were to take his large body to the crematorium. He'd been a plumber in life but dust to dust, ashes to ashes is the way of us all and I was to handle these mysteries. Not a believer in life, Jimmy had finally made it to church in the end because his family wanted a 'proper send off' and like a loose woman, the Church of England finds it hard to say 'No'.
I ask the undertaker which crematorium we're using; there are quite a few options. I'd normally have written confirmation of the venue in advance, but this particular firm had rung me out of the blue and failed to send anything.
'Just follow the hearse, Father,' he says, dismissively.
He was a fidgety and restless soul for an undertaker; they tend to be the smoothest of operators with 'gravitas' as a middle name. He was also wearing pink socks. Indeed, the question that came to mind as he stood at the back of church discreetly fingering his flash mobile was this:
'Are you really an undertaker?'
But I never asked the question because there was no way back from there, and other people would die, we'd work together again and there are so many ways an undertaker can take his revenge. Vicious gossiping tongues some of them; almost as bad as clergy. And the other thing was this: I was leading the coffin out of church at the time, so it wasn't the moment for a stand-up row.
And you know what? I think Pink Socks would have had a smart answer. Something like, 'At least I know the Lord's prayer!'
It was true - I had missed out a couple of its famous lines in the service. Shit happens and it was about to happen again.
With Jimmy safely settled into the hearse and weeping family members in the accompanying black limousines, we set off for the crematorium at a funereal pace. I am to follow the cortege and at this pace, there should be no problems. Really, what can possibly go wrong?
The answer to that question is 'Traffic lights'.
We approach the busy junction slowly, which is just as well as there are lights up ahead. We could wait for the lights as one and then proceed as one, which presumably was the plan. But then suddenly, our pace is quickening. It's as though Lewis Hamilton has just taken over at the wheel of the hearse, looked at the big engine under the gleaming black bonnet and thought: 'Hell – let's go for it!'
And so it was he and his fellow limousines accelerated away and the flying funeral cortege just made it through the lights before the last dregs of amber became red. But I didn't make it. No, they were deep red by the time I got there and I could only watch as Lewis and his Formula One co-drivers disappeared into the big beyond.
Were I the police or an ambulance crew I could just stick a siren on my roof and barge through the traffic as cars cowed in deference all around. But vicars aren't that important.
'Let me through! I'm a social irrelevance, a throwback to some by-gone age of belief when people were happy with the 'six day creation' story and God's largely English heritage!'
It wasn't going to work.
I showed willing, though and didn't give up. When the lights turned green, I followed as best I could but I was following fresh air. There was no sign of them at the next junction. Had they gone north, south, east or west? Being London, there were crematoria in every direction and as far as the eye could see.
Finally, I turned the car round and headed for home, full of questions about God's handling of the matter, which I interrupted only in order to hate Pink Socks.
What happened at the crematorium? I don't know. There has been no word from anyone. I suspect Pink Socks will have deflected his sense of guilt onto me. It would be the obvious thing to do:
'And another thing - he couldn't even manage the Lord's Prayer. Ye gods!'
All in all, last Thursday was neither a PR nor pastoral triumph . The secular tide will not be turned back by vicars failing to make it to the graveside. I still hear the family in my dreams:
'All we wanted was a proper send-off for Jimmy. Is that too much to ask? And I mean, what else do clergy have to do?'
January 11, 2012
In days of absence
Sometimes there are days of absence.
Sometimes, like a damp and grey winter's day, life doesn't come and cheer us up or offer us warm and hopeful gifts, all beautifully wrapped and intriguing.
On days such as these when our spirit can become flat, questioning or disturbed, we remember our first calling: to be the gardener of our soul. On such days, we simply tend our inner garden and trust the cold soil.
The sky is grey and the outlook dull. But there is holy seed in the chill earth which will grow if we keep the garden free of weeds.
You are your own best gardener, of course, for you know the weeds that most afflict your plot and strangle beauty.
In days of absence, we will be patient gardeners and make all things well.
January 10, 2012
Beyond the battle
I was struck recently by a tweet from Anthony Wilson. (Awilsonpoet)
He was reflecting on how the press report a celebrity dying of cancer. The phrase used is always: 'So-and-so finally lost his battle with cancer.'
But what a huge assumption is being made here.
If the journalist fears death, this is a natural line to take but also a lazy one. Perhaps so-and-so didn't 'battle' with cancer. Perhaps they allowed their dying, found life in their dying and accepted the path before them.
There are many such stories, each glowing with nobility.
Happy are those who stop making a battle out of life - and death.
January 08, 2012
A seed sown
A different century, but another haunting poem written by Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy to mark the conviction of two of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence.
Cold pavement indeed
the night you died,
but the airborne drop of blood
from your wound
was a seed
your mother sewed
into hard ground
your life's length doubled,
till one flower, thorned,
in her hand,
love's just blade.
Tragic, beautiful and a tribute to a Mother's determination, righteous anger and never ending love.
January 06, 2012
A cold coming we had of it
To celebrate the 12th day of Christmas and the epiphany of the Magi, here's perhaps the most famous - and perhaps most haunting - poem on the theme, written by T.S.Eliot and published in 1927.
Journey Of The Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again but set down this, set down this:
Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
January 05, 2012
Footit and Chocolat - hilarious
'The Railway Station' was one of the most popular circus acts in Britain for a while in the 19th century.
It featured Footit and Chocolat. Footit was a clown called George Hall and Chocolat was a negro stable lad he'd met on tour in France. Chocolat was paid 800 francs a month for being slapped without flinching.
This was how the scene played out: Three passengers arrive at a station. Footit is the grandiose guardsman consulting his large watch and announcing train about to depart.
The first passenger is a horseman, travelling first class - utter respect shown, cap in hand, every wish anticipated in grovelling fashion.
The second passenger was a stable boy, travelling 2nd class: he's treated in a dismissive manner and told to hurry up as one of little importance.
The third passenger, Chocolat, watches these things, scratches his head and wonders 'What will the guardsman do to me?'
We soon find out.
Footit asks: 'What class are you?' The poor wretch cannot speak for fear. 'What class are you??!'
Chocolat finally confesses. '3rd class, sir'.
Footit then turns on him with slaps and blows, finally flinging him to the ground and dropping all his luggage on top of him.
As Footit walks away, he asks the laughing audience if he's expected to keep a train waiting for a negro - and a third class one at that!
As I say, it was very popular in it's day. So perhaps two cheers that after 18 years, two out of five racist murderers - who all would have loved the show - have been convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The cover-up by the police at the time means that three still walk free, of course.
In the end, though, it's bigger than colour. In our daily demonising of people, we play the part of Footit all over again.
So tomorrow, why don't we stop?
To Victory and Beyond
How many layers need to be peeled away?
As many as possible
How many disapointments need to be faced?
All of them
How many tears need to be cried?
All you have for yourself and some spare for the world
How much pain needs to be released?
Every single bit
Sit with each guest as they arrive, invited or uninvited, it does not matter
Sit, listen, allow and then let them go
There is no time scale, no due date
Little by little, it just needs to be done
No short cuts, no borrowing someone else's notes
This needs to be all your own work
My story is my story
No one else can claim it
No one else can liberate me
I am the victim and the villain
I am the wise man and the fool
But ultimately I am the hero
With my sword of truth
I slice through the nonsense and I slay the lies
With my healing balm
I tend the wounds and I comfort the crying
With my light of courage
I go to the dark places and set the prisoners free
I am ever grateful for the hospitality of friends along the way
The food of kindness always renews my strength
I receive and give back as I am able
Sometimes it is good to rest with others
Whilst rembering that this journey is mine
Brother, Sister I kiss you as we part and wish you well
A salute to all those who bravely travel their own path
'To Victory and Beyond'
May it be on Earth as in Heaven
January 04, 2012
New Year letter
Below is my new year letter to all those on my 'Contact' list. (You join by clicking 'contact' on the site and following some simple instructions. I write letters every six weeks or so.)
If you're already on this holy list, then how blessed you are and you will have the letter already.
But if not, you may want to postpone taking the decorations down for a moment and have a quick read...
Dear Web friend,
Welcome to this wind-swept and rain-spattered New Year letter. And a particularly vigorous nod to you if this is your first such email; you join a community of daily search and occasional discovery; a monastery without walls... and habits only you know about.
But my New Year hero knew both walls and cowl. Meister Eckhart was a 14th century monk - Don't leave! Come back! - who like no other writer before or since combined the Eastern ideal of mindfulness with the Christian concept of grace. It's a marvellous fusion which allows him to explore silence and emptiness with both joy and daring and frees him to insist that we leave our false selves for the purifying silence we knew before time began.
Here are some of his words on the subject:
'When I preach, I am accustomed to talk about detachment, saying we should become free of ourselves and of all things.
He who would be serene and pure needs but one thing: detachment. Human perfection consists in becoming distant from creatures and free from them; to respond in the same way to all things, not to be broken by adversity nor carried away by prosperity, not to rejoice more in one thing than another, not to be frightened or grieved by one thing more than another. You could not do better than to go where it is dark; that is, unconsciousness.
We must sink into oblivion and ignorance. In this silence, this quiet, the Word is heard. There is no better method of approaching this Word than in silence, in quiet: we hear it and know it aright in unknowing. To the one who knows nothing it is clearly revealed.
Start with yourself and take leave of yourself. Truly, if you do not depart from yourself, then wherever you take refuge, you will find difficulties and unrest, wherever it may be.'
A couple of years ago, I worked on a book called 'Conversations with Meister Eckhart' in which my questions were imagined but his words were not; they were all Eckhart's. I didn't know him well when we sat down together, apart from a few well-quoted quotes. But three months later, when I left his side, I realised that no other individual had had such a profound effect on me. Perhaps most of all I appreciate the link he makes between humility/self-emptying and understanding.
So it's nice to see that seven centuries later, the good Meister is winning new friends, even becoming a regular in someone's ruck sack! As a recent Amazon reviewer says:
'I have tried a number of books on Eckhart... but there is something about the immediacy of this book - and the conversation is a brilliant concept, very well executed with this difficult subject. I carry the book around with me in my rucksack and open it often. I can't lavish higher praise! Thank you Simon.'
Another reviewer was coming to Eckhart for the first time:
'This was the first time that I've taken a journey with Meister Eckhart... this book, in this conversational format, was a joy from the very beginning. Simon Parke has found a way to highlight the meaning that lies beneath the text, his prompts and probes take you deeper into the message that Eckhart is expressing. Some of the questions I might have asked myself had I had the opportunity but most I would have missed. The intimate bond that Simon has with these teachings is obvious and my journey without his help would have been much, much poorer.'
If you'd like to make a friend of my German New Year hero, book or e-book:
Meanwhile, three frequently asked questions over the past month:
1. Are there still places on the March 'Beautiful Life' retreat in Glastonbury? Yes, there are. Six, I think.
2. If I came to see you, how much do you charge for consultancy? I ask for £45 for an hour and a half meeting.
3. How come there are two glaring misprints on the first page of 'Solitude'? Because I'm a rather average proof reader. OK?
And now to the finale. In my last letter, I asked you to send me tweet-length (140 character) pieces about your self or something that mattered to you. Like an insanely greedy person - or perhaps a vulnerable Oliver Twist - I want more. So do send yours.
For now, however, here's some 140-character wisdom from Karen Daly: 'Live well. Trust in goodness & let life be your teacher. Respond in imaginative & skilful ways. Forgive the mistakes. Receive & share love.'
Thank you, Karen and a kind New Year to you all. We'll warm each other in the cold. A monastery without walls is wonderful but can get chilly in the early months of the year.
P.S. Oh, and if you're gaunt and inconsolable at having missed my Boxing Day piece in the Daily Mail on Solitude, then weep no more, my friend. When you can't get to the mountain, the mountain comes to you.
To have integrity is something on my journey that I strive for. When I am no longer affected by why what is happening around me or manipulated or controlled by others, I will be free.
And so it is with this in mind that I look at my child in awe. She is still very small (and sleeping so I am able to write this) and currently lives in a free state. She is generally content however when upset, angry or just feeling a bit lonely, she will let us know and once her needs are met, she will once again resume her calm state. She does not bear grudges nor can she be controlled by anyone.
Last night after she had had her immunisations, I also learnt that she has no self pity. While I may feel sorry for myself when ill, she crys for her Calpol and then carries on happily once it is given.
Of course, when you get older, things do get a bit more complex and it is harder to remain free. Despite this, we will strive to enable her to remain as free as possible and I hope that one day I shall be free to.
January 02, 2012
Shift. It's simple.
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and theologian, started a letter with the following line: 'I didn't have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.'
Any fool can be complicated; but being simple, that takes time and genius.
So we've just made it into the New Year and I note the annual hysteria of the season, both global and personal. The media replays endless clips of 'events that changed the world in 2011' and soon after all that, we're plunging into grandiose dreams of our own with new year resolutions of heady ambition.
Like all illusion and hysteria, it's very convincing and exciting until it ceases to be - after which it just appears a bit silly. 'Did I really believe/say/imagine that??'
Particularly poignant this year were the live reports of the uprisings dubbed 'the Arab Spring'. Hard-bitten journalists, caught up in the moment and the surge of the crowd, echoed the line in the lovely 'Cowboy Carol': 'There'll be a new world beginning from tonight.'
Really? Or 'Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.'? We'll need surely to freshen up our news telling this year because referring to current events in the Middle-East as the 'Arab Spring' must soon be in contravention of the Trades Description Act. Spring brings beautiful flowers into the sunlight and presently, they're conspicuous by their absence in the politics of the region.
The old maxim, 'Slavery does not prepare you for freedom' stands true for every revolution down the centuries. Changing governments is easy; changing patterns of behaviour in people, less so.
Supermarkets are always repackaging their products. They don't change the product - just the packaging and that's what they call change. Supermarkets get away with it because they don't make moral claims for themselves in the way revolutions do.
This also explains the short and unhappy life of that other annual revolution: the New Year resolution. Like political revolutions, they're born from frustration. Fair enough. Frustration conceives with great energy but it cannot then nurture beauty it's never experienced. We're asking a damaged pattern of behaviour to sort out a damaged pattern of behaviour. Don't hold your breath.
In the mid-50's, a Swedish man called Gillis Lundgren was trying to put a new table into the back of his car. It was proving impossible and then he had an idea. He took the legs off the table with the plan of reassembling it later. It worked and Gillis then wondered if it might work for others as well. So he took the idea to IKEA, his employers. As Maurice Saatchi says in his book, 'Brutal simplicity of thought', 'It was 1956 - and the dawn of the flat back.'
It's not a story of an exotic visionary but of a man who had a simple idea that was possible for him and truthful with regard to his need. And enlightenment dawned not in an ideas meeting but in a car park where things weren't working out.
Shift occurs when at the end of our tether, we choose the simple, the possible and the truthful. That's genius. Impossible things may happen as consequence; but its not where we start.
I wish you a simple, possible and truthful New Year.