Two or three weeks ago I reminisced about libraries I have loved! Recent visits to various places sparked a further chain of memories. I still remember an April evening
sitting in the Carluke library (near 40 years ago!) reading an outline of
European History to get a handle on the Benevolent Despots. The sunset
streaming through the glass sided windows, the place virtually to myself, as an
18 year old about to sit Higher History having studied at night class, there
seemed nothing more important than sorting out the policies of Maria Theresa,
Catherine the Great of Russia, and the other guy from Prussia. (The photo is from the current Carluke Library website!)
By the time I got the Highers, and
was offered a place in the Glasgow MA course, books had simply become an
essential fact of my life, and one of its indispensable nutrients. But of
course there are books, and then there are books. The first book I bought at
University was for the Moral Philosophy class – it was Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, a masterpiece of political realism
that anticipated the excesses of contemporary democratic decay such as cynicism
and truth-bending, power mongering and self-serving, and suggesting legal and
contractual restraints to channel and constrain political power. Actually, not
all that far from the allegorical connections to be discerned in Watership Down, the odd Western, and the
rise and decline of the Benevolent Despots!
During my time at Glasgow in the 1970’s, theology and philosophy were
on Floor 6 of the University Library. I still remember that first encounter
with hundreds of metres of books, set out in shelves, under subjects, every
volume findable if you could use the new technology of microfiche and translate
Dewey System into the kind of mapping code that took you to the very volume. Here
were more books than all the other libraries I’d known, all put together. I spent a whole evening handling,
browsing and reading bits of the multi-volume Encyclopaedia of Philosophy; reference books have always drawn me
like iron filings to a magnet. The idea of an encyclopaedia, a repository of
authoritative knowledge, isn’t very popular now, in the post-modern climate of
suspicion about overarching frameworks of knowledge. Did anyone else love and
wade through the Children’s Encyclopaedia of Arthur Mee?
In those first few weeks at
University I took down off the shelves books whose titles I had no way of
interpreting since I hadn’t yet encountered the currency of philosophical
discourse - metaphysics, epistemology, the categorical imperative, empiricism,
theodicy, utilitarianism, - or names like Immanuel Kant, Benedict Spinoza, Duns
Scotus, G W F Hegel. I was both ecstatic and terrified – so many books, most of
them crammed with words I hadn’t ever had need of before. Like everybody else
today, I surf the internet – but the battery hen approach to knowledge much of
the internet represents has never replaced for me its organic free range
alternative - the serendipity and random purposefulness of browsing in a
library with more books than you can ever read, but with enough time to touch,
handle and peruse, and perchance read.
Since then I’ve gradually built my
own library, housing on its shelves books that are now important clues to my
story and character. As a self-confessed, unembarrassed bibliophile, I’ve no
difficulty admitting my entire grown up life (and much of my childhood) has
presupposed a book budget – by which I mean money to purchase, time to read,
space to shelve and freedom to choose. From those childhood days when my
sainted Aunt Edith sent a ten bob note (10/- or 50p in today’s money) for
birthday with clear instructions to do what I liked with it – which meant books
– to now, books have simply been an existential presupposition, an assumed
necessity for human flourishing, that without which I could live, but not
without near fatal diminishment of soul.
Amongst those I have to thank for
endless and now uncountable hours of joy, work, learning, questioning and at
times finding, are those librarians of school, university and public libraries, whose
choices and suggestions opened up entire worlds of knowing and wanting to know.
I suppose it's hard for a market driven culture hyper-sentistive to the health and long term prospects of wealth creation, wealth retention and thus wealth possession, to come to terms with the reality that no one is immune to the transience of wealth, the permutations of market forces and the capricious fears and greeds of investors.So earlier this week, when financial landmarks were flattened, centuries old institutions liquidated overnight, and vast electronic share monitors were glowing red across the board in all the major global share indices, the cause was identified and named by the US spokesman, responsible for announcing the remedy.
The cause, we are told, was toxic debt.
Now I know what he means, I think. Debt that has become a poison in the system, liabilities that have no matching assets, commitments so overstretched they could never be met, and this not with the odd maverick money-grabbing risktaker, but as a pervasive practice that has become systemic. Toxic debt is a phrase that sounds like an unfortunate set of circumstantial events no one could have predicted, something that has happened to otherwise repsonsible people. But that isn't the truth,is it? Does unregulated greed, irresponsible decision-making, blind faith in money's power to create wealth regardless of human caprice - are these irrelevant?
Here's an odd, scary, perplexing and morally outrageous story. Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world, has seen his personal wealth tumble from $50 billion to $12 billion in the past six months. A personal loss of $38 billion - or around £20 billion.How can someone lose $38 billion and still have more money than it cost to buy HBOS? So is there something called toxic wealth?
You could be forgiven, in the context of the frantic, fevered, frenetic money markets of our globalised greed, for thinking that the Sermon on the Mount has little to say. "Consider the lilies" seems a tad inadequate as advice to a culture busy manufacturing and breathing its own life-diminishing, and life-threatening toxins. But I still want to place alongside the nonsense, (I mean "non-sense" as irrational foolishness), of making money into a golden calf, the words of the clearest thinking and most forward looking wealth analyst ever to comment on the human lust for accumulation -
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven......"
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these..."
"You cannot serve God and wealth".
Unless of course you make wealth into your God - which brings its own judgement, of toxic debt and toxic wealth.
Just been listening to Classic FM and the preview of this Requiem by Howard Goodall. I've ordered it from Amazon on the basis of that one track. Why? Two immediate reasons. First I liked it. Second, I was intrigued by the composer's description of what he was seeking to do. Here's an extract.
The writing of a Requiem is a special challenge for any composer. The
great Requiems of the past by composers such as Mozart, Verdi, Fauré
and Duruflé interpret the sacred Requiem text literally, and represent
a prayer for the salvation of the departed soul(s). Howard Goodall's
Requiem, by contrast, is intended to provide solace to the grieving.
The composer said, "For me, a modern Requiem is one that acknowledges
the terrible, unbearable loss and emptiness that accompanies the death
of loved ones, a loss that is not easily ameliorated with platitudes
about the joy awaiting us in the afterlife. ... Musical expression can
I hope provide some outlet, some reflection, some transportation, even
some comfort....This was to be a Requiem for the living, a Requiem
focussing on interrupted lives."
Once I've listened to it I'll let you know whether impulse buying is to be recommended as a way of discovering what new music you like by listening randomly to Classic FM!
Amongst my treasured literary possessions are several carefully sought out, frequently handled, and regularly read editions of The Temple, George Herbert's matchless contribution to Anglican Spirituality. For my 40th birthday I was given a leather bound early Victorian copy by my friend Kate. It was given as a prize for Arithmetic, to Master W L Riddell, in 1864, while a pupil at Mr Crerar's School,13 Forth Street, Edinburgh. It was published by the Edinburgh firm of James NicholI, around the time they started issuing those famous sets of the works of Standard Puritan Divines such as Thomas Goodwin and Richard Sibbes. The book has copper engraved borders within which each poem is placed like a framed word picture - which much of Herberts verses are. In bookseller's parlance, the condition is "used, no marking, previous owner's bookplate (the prize label), finely bound in tooled and gilt leather with signs of some use." Perfect - and it couldn't be in safer, more appreciative hands!
Nearer my 50th Birthday I uncovered another Victorian edition, maroon cloth, elaborate gilt celtic tooling, and used enough in the past 150 years to make me feel that reading it is an act of recognition, that someone else, numerous someone elses, have enjoyed the look and feel, the smell and heft, as well as the contents of a favourite book. This edition has copper engraved prints(an example here) as well as page borders, good illustrations of how the Victorians imagined seventeenth century English life, and now enjoyed by a 21st century bibliophile. One example of Victorian devotional book illustrative art shows the choir singing 'Let all the world, in every corner sing, My God, and King'. I've never visited Bemerton where Herbert was country parson, but later this year, as part of several sabbatical pilgrimages, I'm going looking for Herbert's church of St Andrew's, Bemerton. and Leighton Bromwold. Salisbury Cathedral which I've never seen is nearby and will be enjoyed as an enduring expression of devotion to God through archtecture on the grand scale. But the little church Herbert restored bears witness to a different scale and quality of devotion - in my imagination I see Herbert being as careful about the details and care for restrained beauty of expression in the restoration of God's house as he was about the selection and arrangements of words and images in The Temple.
I remember on a warm June evening, singing that Herbert psalm, 'Let all the world, in every corner sing', in the magnificent setting of Coats Memorial Church, with the choir (who didn't look anything like in the picture above) and a small gathered congregation. I've never forgotten the coincidence of mellow late evening sunlight, the soft authority of the great organ, the harmony of choir and congregation, and the aesthetic beauty of a building that is itself an historical accident. It was built in 1894, when the finest material and the most skilful craftsmen were affordable, when Victorian confidence was still high enough to build without thought to cost, and before the turn of the century move away from large scale gothic towards more functional, modest places of worship. But that night, the glow of late sun-soaked oak, the clear handmade glass, the sanctified spaciousness outwards and upwards from the chancel, allowing light to be shaped and toned by warm sandstone and carved wood, all of which was part of the architect's intention - it all makes for a memory still sharp with the sense of smell, touch and sound. Reading George Herbert's hymn still has the effect of collapsing time into vivid memory of sight and sound.
Aesculus hippocastanum, the horse chestnut season is here again. I remember as a wee boy in Ayrshire going looking for chestnuts, with all the excitement and anticipation of a child looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or the half crown lying neglected on the pavement would do. I've always felt when, under autumn trees I've picked up a newly dropped chestnut, that I've found something absolutely worth having. Every year I pocket a few; but they don't keep well. Their real beauty is in their newness, and in their promise of renewal - after all a chestnut is a seed. The colour something between red and brown but with contours that make the surface look like a polished spherical ordinance survey map traced on the grain of burnished wood; the shell smooth, glowing warm though cold to the touch; and the play of light on the naturally varnished shell, like a brown gem not so much reflecting the sun as absorbing it, and bearing witness to promised life.
And yes, I know it was a hazelnut that did it for Julian of Norwich, but every year chestnuts do it for me. So with apologies to Lady Julian:
And in this he shewed a little thing, the size of a chestnut,
lying in the palm of my hand, and it seemed to me round as a
ball. I looked thereon with the eye of my understanding and thought,
"What may this be?" And it was answered generally thus: "It is all
that is made." I marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might
suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my
understanding: It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it. And so all things have being by the love of God.
As soon as it's light I'm off for my slow trot around the park - to gather a few sacraments of created smallness which witness to the being all things hath by the love of God. As I hold them and gaze on them, I will be engaging in brown theology - seeing in their burnished glow, the prodigal promise of life instilled in a world that was only ever intended as gift to be enjoyed. 'All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made...'.
Such sacraments of created smallness rebuke the destructiveness and waste of our way of living by their sheer incongruence. Give it time and that 1 inch nut becomes the 70 foot tree; for so all things have their being by the love of God.
"God's initial offering of holy friendship occurs for us at the edge of the baptismal waters. in the initiating rite of baptism, we become disciples of the One who personifies God's friendship for us. Baptism interrupts our way of forming friendships based on what we hope to get out of them. in our new life of discipleship we learn a language that defies conventional wisdom about friendships: stories that tell of welcoming strangers, loving the enemy, and describing as family those for whom water is thicker than blood". (Page 63).
The Church, its organisational life, structures and functional groups:
"We believe it is essential that we offer both our prayers and our devotion to the healthy institutions that need to be preserved, the diminished or dispirited ones that need to be healed, the dying ones that need to be let go, and new ones waiting to be born." (Page 151).
The Excellence that matters
"Excellence in the Christian vocation is a sign and instrument by which creation is healed, reconciliation is experienced, and justice is practiced." (Page 49).
"For the mind often lies to itself about itself and makes believe that it loves the good work, when actually it does not, and that it does not wish for glory, when in fact it does." (Gregory the Great - cited Page 43).
"Interpreters are a community's custodians of both memory and hope, people who help set the challenges and opportunities of the present within the much larger context of what God has done in the past and where God is leading in the future." (Page 130).
My current enthusiasm for bringing theology and poetry into conversation, means I'm reading and re-reading poems I mistakenly thought I already understood. Here's one by Emily Dickinson - a poem that is theologically charged, and which recognises the tensions between learning and ignorance, and exposes our childish attempts to expound with great certainty the things we hardly begin to understand.
It is one of the great gifts poetry bestows that it challenges the mindset that always, everywhere and everything must explain and expound - the needed reminder that our intellectual grasp can never be sufficient to the richly textured tapestry and mystery of our all too human existence. And indeed, the word grasp is encoded throughout with the idea of possession and control - but it may be that the most important things remain beyond our grasping grasp. That's true of both theology and poetry, forms of human speech which imply more than they say, reveal much less than their whole, just as what is visible of Atlantic icebergs is superficial, above the surface, implying unseen mass and weight.
Emily Dickinson - Poem 531
learned the Whole of Love -
Alphabet - the Words -
Chapter - then the mighty Book -
- Revelation closed -
in each Other's eyes
Ignorance beheld -
than the Childhood's
each to each, a Child -
neither - understood -
that Wisdom is so large -
Truth - so manifold!
The same general point is made with remarkable force by Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his meditation on the 'simplicity of sight' that is essential in all true seeing.
Here, finally it becomes clear why it is crucial to stress "simplicity of sight" (Mt 6.22; Lk11.34) so much when we encounter the form of Jesus. The Greek word for the simple people, haplous, means here both "lacking convolutions" and "healthy". For only the healthy / simple eye can see together the apparent contrasts in the figure of Jesus in their unity, only the little ones, the poor, the uneducated, are not seduced by an ever-increasing accumulation of nuggets of knowledge to consider individual traits only for themselves, thereby missing the figure because they are lost in pure analysis. (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Epilogue, page 96)
"Christians are like the several flowers in a garden, that have upon each of them the dew of heaven, which being shaken by the wind, they let fall their dew at each other's roots, whereby they are jointly nourished and become nourishers of one another."
(John Bunyan, Christian Behaviour, quoted in Bunyan the Christian, Gordon Wakefield, Collins, 1992).
Gordon Wakefield was a lifelong Methodist, and passionate ecumenist. He had no hesitation in affirming the valid and rich diversity of the Christian tradition, while holding with careful intent to his own Methodist convictions. Like John Wesley, he exemplified a devout eclecticism, and urged amongst different Christian communities the nurture of 'a Catholic Spirit'. Reading yet again Wesley's great sermon on this theme was one of the diversions of my time at St Deiniol's. The anti-ecumenical stance of some contemporary evangelicals is deeply embedded in some strands of the Evangelical tradition - but it is also challenged by others, including the Wesleys, John Newton, Charles Simeon, and if we include the Puritans then Thomas Goodwin and of course Alexander Whyte. Indeed Whyte defined Evangelical spirituality as Christ-centred and hospitable hearted - a balance that both encourages and enables fellowship, avoids small minded and exclusive claims, and maintains the place of Christ without displacing others.
The text for Wesley's sermon comes from Second Kings, "And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of
Rechab coming to meet him, and he saluted him, and said to him, Is
thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab
answered: It is. If it be, give me thine hand." 2 Kings 10:15.
Now we might have some exegetical hesitations about the use of such a text as a justification for the Catholic spirit, and ecumenical engagement. But right hearts and extended hands does seem to suggest a willingness not to see 'the other' as a threat, or one who must think as I think. There's something grudging about giving someone the benefit of the doubt - why not give them the benefit of our goodwill that is willing to take risks? One of the consequences of celebrating, lamenting or simply conceding the onset of "post-denominationalism" is an impatience with difference, a nervousness about what is distinctive in how various groups of Christians have understood the call of Christ upon their lives. Diversity need not be competitive, exclusive, negative; it can be co-operative, inclusive and positive - and not in any way that need minimise the call of Christ to each of us to be faithful in following Him in the way He has called us to be. Indeed John Bunyan, who knew in his own experience the consequences of offending the rampant rightness of those who used power, exclusion and coercion in their efforts to standardise Christian behaviour and practice, makes exactly this point in Pilgrim's Progress.
"Behold the flowers are divers in Stature, in Quality, and Colour and Smell and Virtue, and some are better than some: Also where the gardener hath set them, there they stand, and quarrel not with one another." (Quoted in Wakefield, page 67)
I am deeply, probably now indelibly dyed as a Baptist Christian, for whom "our Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour is the sole and absolute Authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures....". The Baptist tradition, with its radical and separatist history, has much to offer the Church of Christ, much to teach and much to live up to as a stream in the Christian tradition. But we also have much to receive from the Church of Christ, much to learn, and much to discover and value in what others have experienced and come to know of the fullness and richness of Christ. Here are three verses of a longer hymn from Charles Wesley - they say so much........
Weary of all this wordy strife,
These notions, forms, and modes, and names,
To Thee, the way, the Truth, the Life,
Whose love my simple heart inflames,
Divinely taught, at last I fly,
With Thee and Thine to live and die.
Forth from the midst of Babel brought,
Parties and sects I cast behind;
Enlarged my heart, and free my thought,
Where'er the latent truth I find
The latent truth with joy to own,
And bow to Jesus' name alone.
Join'd to the hidden church unknown
In this sure bond of perfectness
Obscurely safe, I dwell alone
And glory in th' uniting grace,
To me, to each believer given,
To all Thy saints in earth and heaven.