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.

Rescued by Patience Gray!

Good Friday is supposed to be the traditional day for planting potatoes in the UK – which is a slightly dodgy proposition because the date can vary by about five weeks between March 20th and April 23rd if I’ve got my golden numbers right (you’ll have to look that one up!). Ours have been in for a couple of weeks but we cover them in fleece because the emerging leaves are liable to be nipped by a late frost. A short frost doesn’t necessarily kill them but it certainly sets them back. Early potatoes are a treat and they’re a better bet than main crops because they’re out of the ground before the blight season.

I have tremendously warm memories of childhood Good Fridays. It was a bank holiday – one important reason why the long Easter weekend was, for many people, the beginning of the new season’s gardening. The earth is starting to warm up, the days are getting longer and there’s a four day long weekend. All the best religious festivals relate in some way or another to seasons or big life events and Easter is no exception; the fundamentalists will deny it, of course but that’s the general way of it. And in any case planting a potato is, from my point of view, a spiritual act; an act of trust in the power of nature to produce food out of dirt. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Your handful of Good Friday earth was present at the beginning of the universe;  its smallest particles have shared in the inventory of all created things since then and will continue in their vagrant journeys until the end of time.

But this isn’t an ordinary Easter – for a start the churches are closed because there’s a pandemic, or is it a plague? I woke up thinking of my brother in law who became one of the statistics a few days ago, another number on a spreadsheet.  I woke up knowing that there will be no proper funeral, no prayers, no gathering or best clothes or meeting people we haven’t seen for years.  No nervous laughter outside the crematorium, no stories and catch-ups, no space where tears are allowed and impossible dreams of meeting again are permitted. No compassion; just disease control. social distancing and efficiency. Somehow it feels all wrong, it leaves our grieving rudderless and incomplete, we need a proper goodbye.

There’s a name for all this but I don’t know whether I dare type it. Idolatry sounds like such a religious word as if were owned by a Strict and Particular Baptist sect (yes they really do exist!) – but it’s a perfectly simple and non religious idea.  If you worship (and that means not much more than if you make it your highest guiding priority) – so if you worship something that’s only a part of the whole you’re committing the sin of idolatry, and bad things always follow.

Idolatry isn’t something that exists only within religion then. I’d say that the worship of money, power, profit, technology, even of nature or human beauty is dangerous and wrong because it takes a tiny part of what it means to be human, sets it up on a pedestal and demands that we all worship it. All too soon the world we live in becomes distorted and things start to go wrong. Species extinctions, genocides, climate catastrophe are the symptoms of idolatry because they measure life and diversity through a powerful but very narrow ideology.

“Without worship you shrink” – that’s a quotation from Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”  and it’s true.  But we need to situate our principal human values within the whole and not the partial. We need to ditch the partial gods altogether and build a belief in the interrelatedness of all living and material things because we are all made of the same stuff. Of course it will be culturally inflected worship, but we surely can list some of its general qualities  –  there are loads of lists out there. Our basic problem began at the moment we evolved the belief that our human selves are somehow separate from the rest of the created world –  the grand-daddy of all idolatries – and that’s the point at which this post shouted at me – give me some space won’t you!

IMG_20200410_170856I started writing it on Thursday and hit a brick wall, but now I’ve deleted a great chunk of what I initially wrote because I think I got lost in the memory of my old friend Eddie’s dad. It was his garden I was thinking of when I wrote about planting potatoes on Good Friday. It was the smell of his garden, the murmuring of his pigeons in the loft at the top of the steep slope and seeing him, in my memory, bent over his spade and puffing on his pipe as he dug. And in the way that these things work, there was the perfume of wallflowers in there somewhere too.

I was cross; so cross at what’s going on that I wanted someone to shout at; to blame them, to accuse them for the situation we’re in. But I also wanted a way out of my sense of paralysis. I suspect I’m far from unusual in the progression of my moods  during this crisis.  At the start, I was all action; gathering up all that we needed and putting our survival plans into operation. That was almost the fun bit; but then after a month of lock in (we were early adopters) next there was an awful ennui – a great yawning what’s the point? – and that’s where I was all weekend until Patience Gray came to my rescue with “Honey from a weed”.

IMG_20200412_171609It’s not a cookery book it’s a peculiar, almost spiritual, classic about being human.  In particular it’s a book about being human with very few material possessions but within the rich culture of the southern mediterranean. We’ve worked hard all weekend – I was driving vine supports nearly a metre into the ground in the hot sun.  We watered, sowed and transplanted and magically, Madame said this evening as we ate our supper – “Do you know. I think we’ve eaten better than ever since the lockdown began”.  Our supper was a flan made with our own broccoli spears picked this morning, our own asparagus, radishes and salad leaves.  There was fresh bread cooling down, made with the new sack of flour. We’ve feasted on what we had around us and it’s been a revelation. Of course there are staples we rely on – we’re absolutely not self-sufficient – but every day we have eaten food we’ve grown, cooked, preserved and stored.  I reckon we’ve got through 13 litres of home cooked tomato sauce, for instance, over the winter months.

The governance of this country may be shambolic but there’s no point in driving myself half mad with recriminations.  We survive – that’s all that matters, and if I never saw another newspaper or listened to another news broadcast I’d survive – probably happier than ever. There will always be cheats, liars and chancers and in the way of things some of them will probably be running the country.  As long as we’ve got some dirt to tend we’ll be OK.