Labore est orare

diggingI’m not entirely sure that posting this rather unflattering picture is a good idea but it illustrates the theme I’ve been worrying at –  like a dog at a bone – for a few days now.

The problem about getting very cross is knowing what to do about your anger – aside from driving your closest friends around the bend by shouting about it constantly. I suppose we can just about tolerate our society being imperfect as long as the possibility exists – however faintly – of learning our lesson and moving on.  The environmental crisis, for instance, is maddening – especially when the beneficiaries of our crazy exploitation of the earth. the corporations and governments – do everything they can to frustrate positive change.   But if you add to the environmental crisis the fact that the economy is at the point of collapse and there is a world-changing pandemic going on and governments seem to have no idea what to do about it; then the sense of powerlessness can become overwhelming.

This is the time when the urge to withdraw starts to emerge, and I know all the arguments about hanging on in there, but when after decades, after a lifetime of struggle it becomes clear that the values you’ve tried to live to are being trashed relentlessly day by day and seemingly there’s nothing you can do to stop it, then perhaps there is a moment when a tactical withdrawal is justified – if only to give us mental and spiritual space to preserve all that’s important about the memories and dreams, the insights and the culture that are being eroded.

Our poisonous work ethic, our sociopathic narcissism, our spiritual deadness, our greed and materialism, our inability to love one another and our disconnection from the earth from whose dust we are formed have become so embedded in our culture that we are all becoming political prisoners of the way we do things round here.

You don’t need to be an expert in alternative therapies or martial arts to see that the key to a society that thrives and that allows us to thrive – is balance.  We talk about work-life balance as if achieving some kind of equity in those two aspects would solve all our problems. But what kind of work? what kind of life?  I always think at this point in the argument about the person who invented the terrible weapon of modern war called the flechette.  This is a bomb that explodes into thousands of sharpened needles that pierce and rend the flesh of its victims. Would the people who worked on that weapon have been better people if they’d had longer holidays or worked a four day week? Is the destructiveness of weapons of war proportionate to the everyday stress of the working environment?

St Benedict – (don’t worry, this isn’t a sermon) – came up with his rule of life in 516 CE – at a time when withdrawal was on the agenda in the midst of the decline of the power of Rome. It was he that came up with a pattern for life that’s been the basis of almost every other rule since.  What he was striving to do was to link three of the most essential features of a full human life in creative balance. The three factors were (are) work, prayer and study.  The monastic life was an attempt to draw those three elements (there were more, but these were the central ones) into balance. They’re all important, but if any one of them becomes ascendant – let’s say you might want to spend your whole time studying, or maybe 24/7 praying floats your boat, or working without a break; any one of them worthy activities but when unbalanced become dangerous. One of Benedict’s famous sayings is – orare est labore, labore is orare. In the nature of these things it’s famous in spite of the fact it doesn’t appear in the Rule and he probably never said it in so many words. The closest he gets is describing the life of a monk as work, prayer and study.

I’m really attracted to that balance – I always have been, although notwithstanding my vocation I found work and study easy enough, but prayer? – that always seemed to me to correspond with standing alone and projecting the words WTF? into the darkness and silence.RS shrine at Llanfaelrys

Maybe that’s why I love the poetry of RS Thomas so much.  This photo was taken inside a little upper room in the church at Llanfaelrys on Lleyn. It’s been converted to a pilgrim stop for those approaching Bardsey Island along the coast path. You can just see the humped outline of the island through the window in the middle left pane. RS could articulate those “WTF” thoughts more beautifully and more painfully than any other 20th century poet.

But is there some point in adopting a way of life that embodies the disciplines of monastic life without the stultifying culture that so often accompanies it. I was born, it seems, to search for the meaning and the practice of such a life. To work is to pray – and I understand that.  The fork, the spade, the physical effort and the labour and joy of growing things, these are work of an altogether greater significance to fullness and thriving, than driving a bus – and I speak from experience of both! – and yet I look back on the bus driving days, after art school, as rewarding in their own way, and I think that there are many occasions when things go well and you fall so deeply into the rhythm of digging, or throwing a pot or even driving a bus, that you are overwhelmed by the sense of closeness to the heart of things. It’s a knowledge without language.  So I get it – to work is to pray (whatever that means – but it absolutely means something!).

And I get that to pray is to work because putting yourself in that position of vulnerability and dependency; abandoning any hope of self sufficiency and demanding a blessing in the language of the gutter – WTF?! – that’s grim work – much harder than driving a bus ever could be. After all, Jacob broke his hip doing it!

So I suppose that living by a rule does have something to do with the Potwell Inn. Maybe the Potwell Inn is the perfect little monastic community of my mind.  The allotment, baking bread day by day, cooking and sharing food, treasuring the books that remain and still finding silence, time and space to wonder what it’s all about? are these the components of monastic life, stripped of the ornamentation and clutter? Stripped even of any recognisable religion?

Llanfaelrhys church

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!