St Francis of the boot rack

Our youngest son has a fine sense of irony

I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:

  • Tea in bed
  • Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
  • lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
  • Supper: Chicken fajita

The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!

And so to St Francis.

I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?

I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???

Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.

Pop. There goes another one!

So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.

Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?

I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .

Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.

For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.

The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.

Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.

Can you eat it, drive it or rub it in your skin?

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I was tempted to add “can you smoke it?” but that would have been gilding the lily and, in any case, three’s work better than four’s in headers. I’m talking about virtue here, and it seems to me that a great deal of human effort has gone into the packaging of virtue, so that we can save ourselves the bother of making our own. Sadly it’s proved impossible over the millennia – notwithstanding fortunes, fame and power awarded to those who’ve successfully managed to convince large numbers of paying customers that eternal happiness lies just one standing order away.

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece mentioning my interest in the monastic life (in spite of my incapacity to actually follow it) and I left a small detail out.  The small detail was the fact that I was once a Franciscan tertiary, a member of the so-called “Third Order” a secular, i.e not ordained, order of lay-people who live under a simple rule of life inspired by Franciscan spirituality. My membership lapsed under the pressure of theological college and then parish work, but the idea of living a simple rule of life lingers on in my heart – like the Cheshire cat’s grin.  I was probably the worst member around.  The only rule I could keep properly was poverty (no choice!) , with chastity a complete minefield and obedience beyond reach.  I still treasure the paradox of making my vows in an army camp, that at least was truly Franciscan; but I couldn’t engage with the endless aspiration of some members to be allowed to wear the brown habit (robes) – obviously only at meetings. “We’re meant to be invisible – drrrrr” I’d say, thinking to myself that it was like wearing Friday night drag. Membership of the Society was quite secretive although no-one had been persecuted for many decades, and that, in itself, fostered a dangerous inwardness if you weren’t careful. I discovered early on that there was no genuine virtue in wearing sandals in the snow.

We were definitely doing something – faint, intangible but essential, struggling to live out our individual simple rules of life in the midst of the everyday – partners, children, jobs and neighbours. One of the commitments was regular prayer and that, I discovered, could mean anything from recitation of the daily offices to lying on the stone floor of an empty church in silence and darkness. I once tripped over a nun who was doing that and I don’t know which of us was most surprised.

Much of the time I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.  There seemed to be some intangible spiritual ecology that could be damaged by people being angry, greedy, envious – you know, the whole seven deadly sins bit. The interesting thing was that this misbehaviour didn’t just affect the person who was doing it, it leaked out like an infection, so my anger made other people angry and my greed created a greedy ambiance that could spread. The underlying principle is that just as individuals can create disturbance and lack of balance in their immediate environment, and that the imbalance could spread through human networks all the way up to a whole society; then the religious houses, closed orders and even a few gormless Third Order members, living within their rule of life, could somehow repair at least a bit of that damage. Loving, forgiving and accepting was radical, dangerous and it worked. Why is this all bubbling up in my mind at the moment? – isn’t it obvious? how can we be a force for good in a delusional and dangerous society, without resorting to the same tactics of anger and division and trying to use even more force?

At the heart of the challenge is the way that even virtue has been monetised and marketised. High capitalism is a ponzi fraud that demands more and more subscribers to make it work. The ploy is to turn us all into consuming monads and so, alone and without real friends to show me that I’m beautiful just as I am, I have to buy my beauty off the shelf.  I have to buy my aura of success by driving the right car or eating the right food, in fact food instead of being a sacrament of human community (don’t worry, this isn’t a supernaturalist thought) becomes divisive.  When my virtue inheres in what I eat I have to defend my diet by redefining my neighbours as heretics.  When my skin is dry I owe it to society to anoint myself with almond milk (whose principal ingredient is drought and forest fires) in order not to cause offence.

So am I going to round this off with a religious flourish and an appeal to join some kind of organised religion? No way! The best way of catching norovirus is to sit in a doctor’s’ waiting room. What I am saying is that turning away from, refusing to buy synthesised virtue  by living reflectively, meditatively, using any spiritual tools to hand seems to me to be a radical form of resistance, maybe even a more powerful resistance than we expect. Just to take one obvious example from Tai Chi – to use the anger and force of the attacker against them by turning deftly. I remember my teacher (I was never really any good) telling me about his Master who was filmed in a park inviting people to attack him. It was hilarious, he said,  – they just seemed to fall over before they were close enough to land a blow.

Isn’t this all rather idealistic? In my view we’re only in this dark place because we’ve lost any sense of the ideal; any sense that it’s possible to resist the onward march of Moloch using nothing more than what St Paul – in one of his brighter moments – called the “armour of righteousness“. That doesn’t mean subscribing to the thirty nine articles, or whatever dogmatic local expression of religious oppression you’ve suffered from; so if I dare express it more colourfully with a phrase I overheard on a bus, in reference to a certain councillor – “That Jack B – he can’t tell shit from pudding!” Well yes, and nicely put. Ernest Hemingway wrote once to his daughter telling her that the purpose of an education was ‘to recognise bullshit’ – I too think that the ability to tell shit from pudding is the prerequisite of living under a simple rule of life that stands a chance of healing the earth and turning swords into ploughshares. The ponderous and faltering ideology of fear and greed is already looking a bit unsteady – the constant shouting and lies are a giveaway.  There’s a sense in which the darkest forces in our society are actually fed by our anger and disillusion – so let’s starve them of that. First sentence in a simple rule of life!