Losing my religion II – a visitation

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So I’m in a familiar church where I once worked and there’s a communion service going on. The celebrant who is an old friend and mentor comes across to me and mumbles a few incomprehensible words over my chalice. I ask where I’m supposed to take it and he says something like “oh, go and find someone” but when I look down at the chalice it’s filled with milk and not wine. I know that I need to find some wine so I go down the stone stairs into the vestry which is thick with dust; a long abandoned room, and everywhere I look there are empty wine bottles as if a party had been taking place but which has been over for many years.

It turns out, then, that growth and change in personal faith – if it involves discarding some previously important positions is – far easier than letting go of the religion and its rituals.  I don’t miss the constant anxiety about heresy and I certainly don’t miss bishops and what an old friend once called “stamp and circumponce” , but I still occasionally ache for the beauty of the music and the way the worship could draw people together, even in the most terrible circumstances.  It is worship in its truest sense when it reaches beyond the words and into a place without the restrictions of language, a place where theological orthodoxies become redundant.

I don’t analyse all my dreams but this is clearly another significant one, following so closely after my earlier posting “Kaddish” a week ago. You may think that dreams are just a load of random stuff, auto generated by an idling brain, but then you you might be missing out on ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ – as Freud put it. The dream tells me that the sacramental wine is spent and there’s nothing in the old way left to share. So what’s to replace the unbearable absence without compromising?

As the French poet Paul Valéry said

“A difficulty is a light ; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun .”

I’m not trained to take the problem by siege, and so I have to take the poet’s path – stalking the quarry for months, following its signs and leavings. As R S Thomas put it, to put my hand into the depression of the empty hare’s form and, feeling its warmth, know that it was there; edging along by inference with the occasional bold step. 

Yesterday morning, on the allotment, Madame was picking broad beans and there he was, drying his moist wings in the sun; slowly unfurling them in the warm light. She called over to me and we both spent minutes watching the emerging emperor  – the largest UK dragonfly and not one you bump into every day. In fact, short of finding one in this semi torpid state, I doubt if you’d ever actually bump into one. It would be so tempting to reach for the alien metaphors; there’s not much we share in common, looks-wise, with a dragonfly. But my thoughts hovered around the question of who, or what exactly was playing the part of the alien in this meeting.  He’d been around vastly longer than me and looked far better adapted to our broad beans than we do, even though he was several hundred yards away from the river or more likely the large pond on the other allotments beyond the lane. He was the emperor, and we can normally only watch his imperious cruising from a distance as he snaps up his lesser prey. He has the power and presence greatly to enrich our world and we, in our arrogance, usually diminish his.

I used to think that this was a reason for requiring some sort of god – someone to say thank you to, as well as someone to clean up the mess when we screw up, someone to come galloping over the horizon like the Seventh Cavalry and smite our enemies.

Madame and me once collected thirty pounds of blackberries – far more than we could possibly eat – but we couldn’t seem to stop ourselves. It was one of those occasions when I felt the overwhelming desire to thank someone for this generous gift, but since they were growing wild and without human intervention we could not.  I wish I could weave a morally improving tale around this snippet of history but in truth we made a very large quantity of the worst chutney ever confected from a surplus and a bad recipe. Then, to make matters worse, we gave it away as gifts to friends who deserved better.

I suppose our instincts generally lead us to invent an invisible but useful entity to thank and cajole for the way things are but I’ve increasingly come to believe that we don’t need to look beyond the created universe. Maybe the great spiritual challenge of this age is to bring to science – which can only deal with mathematics, measurements and testable hypotheses – an opening for wonder and worship that can takes the whole of creation for its object without resorting to gods, whether kindly or malevolent; because humans are not just vulnerable to viruses but to the idolatry of wealth and power. We suck up nature and turn it into electric light, and cars, and plastic and murderous weapons of destruction.  We turn the basic matter of creation into chemicals and fertilisers because we are besotted with power and have no eyes or ears for the suffering earth.

So maybe we do, after all, need to repurpose some of the old things. Maybe we need structures for penitence, thanksgiving and reconciliation. Maybe we need to recover the sense that the food we grow and prepare is properly seen as sacramental rather than instrumental.  Just imagine the impact that nontheistic prayer and meditation might have on our behaviour.  Imagine the impact of compassion as a basic human virtue taught to us all as children. In fact none of the traditional virtues require enforcement by omniscient and omnipotent gods and their agents.

But enough.  Spring drives on, and we are struggling to keep up. We re-pot seedlings and in days they double in size; this extraordinary vitality in which we share and which feeds us – and could house and clothe us too if we could find our right minds – this huge encompassing force in which we live and breathe is vulnerable and there is no invisible Seventh Cavalry to ride over the horizon and save us.  We have seen the enemy – it is us. 

Today we ordered more glass bottles and jars for the preserving season. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything it is that subcontracting our food supply to the supermarkets was a deadly error. For us at the Potwell Inn and, we hope, for many others, we won’t be going back to the old normal. We’ll grow and save and store, buy locally and try not to waste, but not from fear but from a bigger vision, one that transcends extreme materialism and ancient dualisms, and is is content to say that the whole of creation, including the earth, is our mother and father and our grand and great grandparent back to the beginning of time. One family that includes all that is, all that has been and all that will be.é

Amateur botanist fails to notice breakfast

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I can hardly believe that while I was getting down and dirty with this Sheeps bit – Jasione montana and a macro lens, there was a field mushroom, about twenty times bigger, right behind me, and which I failed to notice until I looked at Madame’s photo. She thinks my tendency to lie down on public footpaths draws unnecessary attention and strikes fear into the heart of innocent ramblers who think they’ve found a corpse.  No-one has actually poked me with a stick yet but I’m sure it’ll happen one day. With warmer weather kicking off again we’re seeing more and more edible mushrooms and they really do taste better than the ones you can buy.  When we lived in South Gloucestershire there was a field next to the church where mushrooms always grew prolifically. There was an undeclared race between me and the village milkman to get to them first.  We never spoke about it as a competition except to brag quietly when we’d had a good haul and I think in the end we came out pretty equal.00100lPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190914114544753_COVER

Here on Lleyn we’ve found an equally reliable spot near the cottage but our main rival is the sheep. There are plenty of other edibles around like the Shaggy Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota rhacodes which, I confess, I’ve never eaten, and various puffballs -which I have.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we think about couplets like ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’, and yesterday we were in one of those puzzling places which on one measure was about as wild as it gets, and yet on another had signs of human occupation back to the bronze age, field boundaries almost as ancient, an ancient holy well, the remains of what looked very like a medieval rabbit warren, and a hard concrete road lingering from the second world war and ascending to a derelict observation post, scanning the Irish Sea.

For me, the knowledge that the Uwchmynydd headland, overlooking the pilgrim island of Bardsey feels all the richer for its millennia of human occupation. Neither pristine wilderness (whatever that means) nor intensively cultivated, but populated mainly by sheep and walkers, this is a landscape that puts us in our place, reminds us of just how fleeting our fourscore years are. As we were coming back along the coast we passed the rusting remains of a large pulley lying in the corner of a field and just beyond it the ruins of a winding house, probably used to move whatever was being mined there down to the sea. P1080824At the start of our walk, looking down at the spring that constitutes St Anne’s well, you could see the ancient remains of a settlement that would have given access to fertile south facing soil, security and a good view of the sea and its potential harvest. The landscape has become a palimpsest whose history can be both sensed and actively read through its overlapping scars, whilst still being a rich ecosystem for wildlife, plants and birds.

The temptation to try to press the replay button on a landscape and return it to some notional wild state seems completely misguided to me, particularly if the motivation is to set up some kind of ghastly nature reserve/visitor attraction. The gathering climate catastrophe and the terrible impact of chemical/intensive farming can be addressed better not by doing nothing at all but by doing less of some things and much more of others.  At its simplest, we need to be caring for what we’ve got; caring with every ounce of commitment we can summon up. There’s no technological ‘fix’ around the corner that’s going to allow us to continue in our selfish ways as if the earth existed purely at our disposal.

History and its traces are good for us because they recount both triumphs and failures, the cruelties of child labour, the poisoning of the streams by mining waste, the wealth and poverty side by side, the shame of the enclosures and the theft of common land – all these are written in the landscape and it’s as important to preserve them just as it’s important to protect the wildlife that lives in the remains. This is a landscape for artists and poets as well as farmers, walkers, and birdwatchers.

This poem by RS Thomas must be one of the most commonly quoted on blogs with any interest in spirituality (of any denomination or none), and it’s a personal favourite especially today since we’re staying within a few miles of his parish in Aberdaron.

The Moon in Lleyn
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.
But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
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‘There we are’

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Poem by T Arfon Williams Tapestry Pandora Vaughan

Bearing in mind everything I said  about words and drawings yesterday, today we visited the Porth y Swnt exhibition in the National Trust building in Aberdaron and for the umpteenth time in a week we were blown away by the vigour of artists in Wales. Yesterday it was Jonah Jones, today Pandora Vaughan and all the other artists who contributed to the installation who managed to remind me that even Tracey Emin managed to combine words and images with great power.  In fact she may be one of the exceptions to my criticisms of the rather bloodless artworks that have stolen the foreground in the UK over the past decades. Consider my hand slapped. In the light of our total cultural immersion this week I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that there is no more English poet than RS Thomas and, if I’m pressed I’ll explain why I’m coming to think it.

But I wanted really to lament the fact that yesterday when I went to get some propane gas I didn’t take a photograph. Like most real places, Lleyn has it’s share of breeze block and corrugated asbestos buildings, and any such building used as a garage is pretty much bound to be surrounded by more or less rusty cars and caravans turned green with mould; abandoned to perpetual storage by the almost dead on their last ever holiday. I say this with no malice, how could I? – I’m shuffling to the front of the queue myself. (Thanks, Rose for that most evocative phrase). In high season the aspiring saints only have a couple of miles to drive to the point of departure for the Bardsey ferry, but on a point of information, the churchyard is almost certainly closed.

The key thing about isolated rural places is that everyone knows you’re there whether you know them or not. We once caught a bus from Cork to Clonakilty and by the time we arrived we were greeted by someone on the bus stop as ‘the English people from the ferry’. The second of those words was the most worrying, given that the Troubles were raging at the time.  So today when we turned up at the local garage to buy a bottle of gas for the cottage – we were expected. Having rehearsed the pronounciation of the address which – being extremely remote – needs triangulating from three nearby places  – my linguistic efforts turned out to be completely unnecessary from the moment the owner said “Frank said you’d be coming”.

IMG_5053He was wearing the usual dark blue boiler suit and holding a broken numberplate as a palette on which a pile of freshly mixed filler paste was resting. The aromatic perfume of fibreglass filled the garage as he prowled the perimeter of a very old pickup truck, applying large quantities with a flexible palette knife. “I’ll just finish this mix” he said, and I was only too pleased to watch him working. All the lights had been taken off along with a busted wing panel, and the grey filler occupied more than a third of the remaining panels. “Seen a bit of life then?” I asked.  No reply invited or received. The pickup was a kind of motoring palimpsest, with the earliest trace of its original owner, the word cenedlaethol, barely visible under layers of more recent paint. That was the moment at which I should have taken the photo – it would have made a wonderful, almost abstract drawing.  Long pause……. “Selling it on?” I added…… “Yes”.  He was no great conversationalist, but sensing the remote possibility of a sale he said “How do you like it here?” . “Oh I love it but I couldn’t live here.”

And then he said it – “There we are”.

I fell into a pool of delight. That, I thought, must be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language.  ‘There we are’. uttered by a Welshman for whom English is almost certainly a second language and meaning ” I really can’t understand why anyone would not want to live here but he’s making an effort to be honest, bless him, and so I’ll sell him some gas and make him feel welcome, before he drives back to that dreadful place beyond the rivers of Babylon, the place without song……. “There we are”.  “There’s nothing else I can say.”

It’s impossible to be insulted or annoyed by there we are .  It’s a phrase so pregant with patoral care that it can turn a canoe around at the top of the Niagara Falls and send it safely back to dry land. As he said it, inflected by his local accent, I felt myself being cared for, and when the gas arrived just now he tapped on the window and gave me a thumbs up with not least least clue I was writing about him as I waved back.

Last night I used the phrase myself. I had to explain to an old friend how, inexplicably, I had believed her to be dead for forty years because of a mistaken message, and having attempted to write the unwriteable I ended my message “There we are – I’ve said it”.

Basta.

 

In the bleak midwinter – good news for meditators!

It must have been three weeks ago when I first caught what I thought was “only a cold”; but after a week of sneezing and nose blowing it took up residence in my chest and provoked a bout of asthma that lasted for another week and then – just as I was feeling better another opportunistic virus sandpapered the back of my throat and left me sleepless and unable to swallow.  Meanwhile Madame caught the intial cold off me and consequently we’ve been doing a deathly gavotte keeping one another awake with our snoring and spluttering.  The solution has been to circulate individually between the living room, the bathroom and the bedroom alternately sleeping and reading, while the viruses occupy our vital organs and conduct the viral equivalent of a stag weekend in an Airbnb flat.  Our bodily furniture is trashed and the carpets will never be the same again, the curtains torn down and don’t even mention the sink. How on earth can such a tiny thing as a virus be so awesomely destructive?

Anyway, all is not bad news – apart from the enforced silence online that was so uncharacteristic of me I had an email to make sure I was alive! Am I that noisy usually?? – the upside was an unprecedented amount of reading time and I’ve been ploughing through Owen Flanagan’s book “The really hard problem” as well as Byron Rogers’ biography of RS Thomas, “The man who went into the West”. I’m not even going to try to summarize the Flanagan book except to say that if you’re interested in human flourishing and/or you’re a Buddhist or, like me, (and RS Thomas) still searching, then it’s worth the effort.  “Can you teach virtue?” – here’s a book that tries to answer.

The RS Thomas biography is brilliant but can’t really penetrate the enigma of the poet.  Of course, what the book does is excite a longing to get back to Lleyn that’s almost overwhelming. I did meet RS once at a reading at Atlantic College, and I thought he was delightful and very funny, but the more I read about him and especially about his first wife Elsi and their relationship the more bewildered I get. Was it a generational thing that so many incredibly talented women artists subjugated themselves, or were subjugated by their husbands?  Elsi Eldridge, Rose Hilton, Winifred Nicholson, all swept aside by their partners’ ego.

But apart from the ill-advised trip to the Littleton Wassail that just made things worse, I’ve been confined the the flat unable to think about cooking the Seville oranges and sighing helplessly at the prospect of sowing the chillies in the propagators – until today – when we ventured up to the allotment and found it frozen solid.  I picked a good week, it seems, to be hors de combat.  The Timperly early rhubarb and the broad beans in their fleece cloches are all growing merrily but everything else (apart from the  snowdrops in the windowboxes) is taking a break. The worms had chewed through another six inches of kitchen waste while we were away, undeterred by the low temperatures.  Perhaps they’ve got a warm nursery somewhere deep at the bottom.

And the good news for meditators?  Well it seems that some research has suggested that when vaccinated with the flu vaccine, skilled meditators produced significantly more antibodies than those who didn’t meditate.  It’s all the rushing around that’s making me ill – I’m not kidding either!