In Search of Workington Man

From the Rectory you can hear the weekly match. Rugby League, here in Workington. A game that began – according to legend – when William Webb Ellis, schoolboy, picked up the ball in 1823 at a prestigious public school that gave the game its name. When it was declared that players couldn’t be paid, Rugby League was formed in 1895 for those (largely northern town) players who needed to earn money for their efforts. A faster game resulted, that took off in the north – symbolising the different priorities of an affluent south and a north that went its own way. The Workington ground hosted the Rugby League Four Nations match between Scotland and New Zealand in 2016.

Supporting Rugby League is a defining characteristic of the latest political type created by the thinktank Onward as the General Election draws near. As The Economist has it:

Past elections have seen parties target archetypes such as “Mondeo Man”, “Worcester Woman” and “Pebbledash People”. The 2019 contest has already coughed up “Workington Man”, a rugby league-loving, Leave-voting northerner who, by coincidence, holds many of the same views as Onward, the Tory think-tank that discovered him. (November 2nd-8th 2019, p. 26)

Here’s Will Tanner, the Director of Onward, telling us about it.

https://twitter.com/ukonward/status/1189827767631785985/video/1

Lisa Nandy, MP of another Rugby League town, Wigan, has this to say.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/31/workington-man-swing-voter-north-rugby-league-towns?CMP=share_btn_link

She is tired of southern media comment that constructs the north and northern people according to their own assumptions. Northern towns are complex places, and perhaps the truth might be more evident if there were more investment in local journalists, or even if London-based think tanks moved closer to the caricatures they create ‘and establish a relationship based on respect, that essential ingredient whose absence voters can sense a million miles away, and which is worth so much more than the carving up of the electorate for electoral gain’.

The local BBC reporter went out onto the streets here in Workington. His report is here.

There’s something deeper going on, though. Look at the results of the local council elections here in May this year. The swing to independent candidates, away from Labour, is marked. Peter and I were there at the Carnegie Hall for the changeover of Mayor. Former Labour Councillors were smarting. New Independent candidates – many of them completely new to the business of government – were jubilant. There was tension in the air which almost broke out into a fight.

This shift to independence marks a significant move away from the traditional parties, revealing a lack of confidence in both Labour and Conservative. That’s likely to be mirrored on 12 December.

With fifty MPs standing down – exhausted, as so many say they are, particularly the women, by the constant aggression and hassle – they are likely to be replaced by Members motivated by issues and the identity politics of Brexit. Perhaps the radical programmes, and Corbyn’s own Euro-scepticism, will win the day for Labour in Workington. Closely followed, I’d say, by Brexit. Either way, the constitutional democracy that values our MPs for their independence of mind, regardless of the fickle Will of the People, and which has stood this nation in such good stead for centuries, is set to receive a further battering.

Peter and I have just returned from Taiwan. Two weeks holiday was a luxury, following the engagement ceremony of our son to his long term partner who had met at University in Scotland, graduating in 2015. It was a time to relax – but also to think more deeply about this blog. I’ve plans to change its name to reflect a change of location and focus. A Naked Thinking Heart comes from John Donne’s poem “The Blossom”.  I’ve always liked its suggestion of the heart that is rational and vulnerable. See my chapter on Thoughtfulness in Full of Character.

And “Word from Workington” the subtitle. Those who know of Ronald Blythe’s writing over the years for the Church Times will hear the resonance. It’s good to be here, in the very North West, with the Solway Firth a stone’s throw away and the mountains around Buttermere full in sight. I’ve felt for a while the need to write on a regular basis – stuff from my deepening study of Edmund Burke (like David Brooks, in his latest 2019 book Second Mountain, I call myself a Burkean conservative) and reflections on living here, particularly as I get more involved in parish life early in 2020.

There’s a close neighbour – let’s call her Dora – who is happy to provide me with words like ‘skop’, ‘niuk’, ‘boggle’, to chew over, bringing to light the local dialect of Workington. It will be good to hear from Workington Woman. So watch this space.

On the long flight home over Russia I binged watched four films that have stayed in my mind. The Hours stirred me to think more deeply about my own need to write to do something with the depression and anxiety I can succumb to – much as Virginia Woolf depicted Clarissa Dalloway, her tenuous hold on life and determination to hold things together, whatever the cost. A great film, interweaving the lives of three women, acted brilliantly to capture how hard it can be to fulfil expectations and sustain others in life, as women tend to do. Then Casablanca  – one of those films that you can see again and again. Dated, yes, but still potent in the way it captures the pain of love requited and unrequited against the backdrop of a global war that shapes the personal in irrevocable ways. Then the marathon Dr Zhivago. Again, I was caught up in how the personal is lost in the maelstrom of Revolution, in the destruction of civilisation and trust, where poetry survives to tell another story, but to a new generation that no longer cares. Fourth, and last, Tolkein. Again, the arts and writing enable an emotional intelligence to develop as four schoolboys find friendship that transcends the trauma of the First World War.

It was a rich cocktail of films that has continued a conversation in my imagination; a conversation about the power of word and image to make sense of an unpredictable world, where internal and external pressures disrupt the surface of life and one’s peace of mind.

So I’m planning to write around 1000 words a week to capture life and thought – a Word from Workington. Nothing too personal about other people, to be clear. But I’ll strive for a fresh voice on whatever stirs the attention of this naked thinking heart.

Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (5)

Good Friday Sermon

Once upon a time there was a little boy. He was precocious and wanted to get the better of his aged teacher. One day he caught a butterfly and ran to the wise old mentor, seeking to catch him out. ‘I have a butterfly here – I bet you can’t tell me if it’s dead or alive!’ If the old teacher said that it was dead, he planned to release it to fly away. If the old one said it was alive, he would squish it to death. The old man gazed long and hard at the young boy, until he became uncomfortable. ‘It’s in your hands, my son.’

We hold much in our hands.

Take a moment to gaze at yours. The lines on your palms, the veins. Nails, cuticles, scars. So familiar, holding so much. They tell the story of your past; the years of care, of work, of labour. The times of holding – the hands of others, bodies, children, parents. The times when hands are midwives, when they bring things to birth, carrying; soothing and gentle. Our hands shape and mould. Sometimes they do bad things too. They hit. Or steal. They write cruel words. They bear the scars of mistakes, of worse. They kill butterflies.

Jesus stood before Pilate, silent, hands hanging uselessly by his side, a passive victim who also is the Truth, which cannot be dominated by force or power. Pilate can do nothing against him.

Pilate washes his hands of him.

Thomas could not believe. Unlike Mary the Magdalen, whose heart was ready to receive her Lord, Thomas is clouded, muddy with doubt. He needs to reach out his hands, even into the wounds of Christ, into the reality of what lies beneath the surface of the events that have happened. Until he meets his Lord and his God, he will not, cannot see more deeply into the love and new vision that is offered.

We wash our hands of goodness. We are clouded in our faith. We do worse.

The poet Elizabeth Jennings captures this, in her poem Friday.

We nailed the hands long ago,
Wove the thorns, took up the scourge and shouted
For excitement’s sake, we stood at the dusty edge
Of the pebbled path and watched the extreme of pain.
But one or two prayed, one or two
Were silent, shocked, stood back
And remembered remnants of words, a new vision.
The cross is up with its crying victim, the clouds
Cover the sun, we learn a new way to lose
What we did not know we had
Until this bleak and sacrificial day,
Until we turned from our bad
Past and knelt and cried out our dismay,
The dice still clicking, the voices dying away.  (Friday by Elizabeth Jennings)

Throughout this Holy Week we have considered our responsibility as stewards for the natural world, God’s creation. The future is in our hands: we can seek to bless the earth, rather than curse it. We can choose to use our hands to destroy or heal. To relinquish what is not needed; to restore the world around.

Jesus was not so concerned about whether his disciples washed their hands before eating; he wanted them to use their hands to touch the poor, the blind, the crippled. As he used his. His held the power to heal, to help people move from darkness to light. In all times, he brought a holy touch, whether the time was to be born, or to die; to break down or to build up.

Our hands are his hands in the world today. They are required to heal the world, this fragile earth.

This Holy Week we have considered the gardens, as a metaphor for God’s creation, now so under threat.

We have recalled that first garden, the garden of innocence, the garden tended by Adam and Eve before their fall from grace and banishment, where God walked in the cool of the evening.

On Tuesday we were in the garden of Gethsemane, remembering how Jesus reached the place and said to his disciples: ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial’. Jesus, in extremis, contemplating what lay ahead. As he retreated to the garden of Gethsemane, what did he go to find? This was no wilderness, no place of fasting, but rather a place where he could know again the strength that sustained him. A garden for the prayer of anguish, watered by his sweat that fell like great drops of blood down on the ground. We were with him in the darkness of our fears for the future. Remembering how, as the poem goes,

Into the woods my Master went,
Clean forspent, forspent.
Into the woods my Master came,
Forspent with love and shame.
But the olives they were not blind to him,
The little grey leaves were kind to him:
The thorn-trees had a mind to him
When into the woods he came.

Out of the woods my Master went,
And he was well content.
Out of the woods my Master came,
Content with death and shame.
When death and shame would woo him last,
From under the trees that drew him last:
‘Twas on a tree they slew him – last
When out of the woods he came. (A Ballad of Trees and the Master Sidney Lanier)

We have been in the garden of the tomb, and watched as Mary stretches out her hands to touch, although now is not the time. Noli me tangere, she is told.

She takes him to be the gardener, up early.

The first time the risen Christ is encountered is as a gardener.

Christ, the saviour of the world, a gardener. Indicating God’s care for the natural world, delight in beauty, concern for the smallest flower, the largest tree.

The gardener-Christ entranced Julian of Norwich. She wrote:

Outwardly, he looked as if he had been working hard for a long time, but to my inner understanding he seemed to be a beginner, a servant who had never been sent out before. Then I understood: he was to do work that was the hardest and most exhausting possible. He was to be a gardener, digging and banking, toiling and sweating, turning and trenching the ground, watering the plants the while.

And by keeping at this work he would make sweet streams to flow, find abundant fruits to grow; he would bring them to his lord, and serve them to his taste … I thought that in the Lord there was everlasting life and every goodness, except the treasure that was in the earth. And that treasure, too, had its being in the wonderful depth of his eternal love.

So, Julian of Norwich, speaking of the sweet fruits of life in Christ. The Christ who is gardener. Who seeks us to respond and nurture the natural world around us. To live within a new heaven, a new earth. A new vision, everlasting life, the treasure that was in the earth.

This time of the year is the time to be in the garden, pulling weeds, digging, planting out geraniums, snapdragon, forget-me-not, flowers to enjoy now and in the months to come.

Our hands, trimming and pruning, tending and nurturing, sore with cuts and blisters.

Our nails dirty with soil. As we throw away the stones, and gather the stones together, keeping and throwing away, restoring and destroying, we seek to return, perhaps, to that first garden of bliss, where God walked with the man and the woman at the time of the evening breeze. A place where we can know ourselves, and be known, as if for the first time.

We are in the garden of Gethesmane, in anguish at the state of our planet; deeply agitated as we contemplate a future we cannot know.

We are with Mary in the garden of the tomb, where Christ cannot be contained.

Richard Crashaw writes of the gift of freedom that is ours, because Christ was bound, hand and foot.

Thy hands to give thou canst not lift,
Yet will thy hand still giving be;
It gives, but O, itself’s the gift!
It gives tho’ bound, tho’ bound ‘tis free!  (Christ Crucified         Richard Crashaw)

We might imagine the hand of Christ holding open the gate to the garden, ready and waiting. Imagine the wounds still clearly there. The stigma, the wound, not healed, still flowing, lifeblood for the world.

Let us remember Christ’s hands, pinned to the tree, from which flowed life, from which rich gifts of grace and joy, through pain and suffering.

He challenges us to risk losing our defences, to stand before God without disguise. The God whose love does not let us go, but demands to prune us of the branches that bear no fruit. Our greed and disregard; our polluting ways; our carelessness and cruelty.

Let us hold out our hands towards God’s grace; empty of all but desire to hold the future of the earth, safe for our children and our grandchildren. Holding out our hands for grace to change, aware of our need to relearn innocence and live in harmony with God’s creation. Holding out our hands that we might allow Christ to garden us, to tend and watch over our souls, waiting for new growth.

Holding out our hands for the bread and wine that sustains us and makes us whole that we might garden the world around as we are gardened by Christ.

Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (4)

Christ the Saviour of the World: Maundy Thursday sermon

This night we remember. We remember Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed and was obedient unto death, gathering his friends around him, washing their feet, and sharing a meal. Bread and wine, such ordinary foods, both made with yeast, leavened with life. He takes the bread and says ‘This is my body’. He takes the wine and says ‘This is my blood’. A meal; fruits of the Spirit which sustain us through the ages.

Simple, so simple an action, and yet it takes us to the profound truth that Jesus is the Saviour of the World. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Jesus: who redeems the world, who offers up himself that we might have life, and have it to all eternity. This is a true story for all creation, that we are redeemed through the life and death of Jesus.

When we consider God’s creation, all is not well. This week we have explored how it suffers as a result of human activity; forests felled; fossil fuels consumed; carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere and into the oceans. We know the polar ice caps are melting; how sea levels are rising; how flooding is now a reality for some; drought and desert, a lack of water, a disaster for others. The world is suffering, and humanity with it. St Paul’s words have a real resonance today:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 22-25)

How can we understand this? Someone who can help us was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He died in 1955, a French philosopher and Jesuit who trained as a paleontologist and geologist. Scientists today are reading him anew for his insights as they realise just how mysterious the world is. Teilhard de Chardin believed you could find God in all things. The entire world is the divine milieu, he said.

In the early 1920s, Teilhard wrote The Mass on the World. He was a devout priest and he was miles from any church or altar on which he might celebrate mass. He was in a wild land, far from civilisation. But the whole of creation around him seemed to sing with the presence of God. The body of Christ, the blood of Christ was there, to be discerned in the land which surrounded him.

Since once again, Lord – now in the steppes of Asia – I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world. (p.19)

He imagines everything taken up, with all its immense heartache and suffering, as the bread and wine are lifted. As Teilhard, the priest, holds up the chalice and paten of the world around him, all the pain and joy of the created order is there, as it groans inwardly to be one with God.

This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted – of this I am sure, for I sense it – a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike: ‘Lord, make us one.’ (p.20)

Teilhard believed that there is an underlying unity to all things, sustained by the love of God which spends itself again and again for the creation. That sacrificial love is at the heart of things; it is the Mass on the world.

What might we take from this? Yes, the world is sacramental; infused with the creative love of God. More; it is through suffering and self-sacrifice that this love gives life. God emptied himself, became human, became matter, that matter might be reconciled. Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate, (23) writes Teilhard. The living, dying and rising again of the Christ is an action that is continually repeated within creation, within each of us. There is a larger story going on, a story that tells us that death is never stronger than love. Like the yeast that leavens the bread, that ferments the wine, but which dies in the process, the sacrificial love of God in Christ gives life.

We see life, the fruit of the Spirit, all around us. In 1962 Rachel Carson predicted a silent spring, as humanity continues to exploit the natural world. In fact, nature provides a raucous summer, given half the chance. Forests regenerate; species return; nature recovers. When, we, the human race responds to God in love and respect for the integrity of creation, with a much stronger sense of stewardship and responsibility, we find ourselves not pilgrims through an increasingly barren land. Joyful pilgrims, rather, in a rich and abundant world, the divine milieu, which reflects the love and glory at the heart of God.

Our own lives become richer too: relationships strengthened in peace and love; a sense of purpose and meaning in life; inner joy; a wild patience that lives in hope.

As we receive the cup of salvation, the bread of life tonight, and every time, we participate in a Mass on the world which brings hope to the whole created order. We experience the release from helplessness and despair, we see a glory about to be revealed. Our desire, as those who consume the sacrament of Christ’s body, is for union with God beyond life, beyond death. This union with God belongs to the whole of creation, of which I, you, are but parts.

This is my body. This is my blood. We receive Christ this night, remembering that he goes to his death. His self-sacrifice lies at the heart of the love of God. This is a God in Christ who gives, and gives, and gives again in order that we and all creation might have life. Let us not take, and take, and take, in return, but grow in self-sacrificial love ourselves, for the sake of God’s creation.

Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (3)

Talk Three:  The Garden of the Tomb (Holy Wednesday)

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’

Supposing him to be the gardener …

We find ourselves now, in the garden of the tomb, where, like Mary, we have hurried on the first day of the week, not knowing what we will find. We do not know where we are going; only that this garden calls us to be there, close to the loved one we have lost.

It is early morning. Morning has broken, blackbird has spoken. The light is green gold. We come, as Mary did, acutely aware of the human propensity and knowledge of good and evil. We come, straining to see through our tears, caused by the state we’re in. We come, full of fear and trepidation at the challenges that the natural environment faces, and humanity with it.

We come, and the peace of the garden begins to delight us. We come to find a gardener, who tells us to have resilience, to relinquish what’s not needed, to restore what is needed for a fruitful future. In the garden of the tomb we anticipate the resurrection that is to come. The garden of the tomb holds the opportunities and promise of life.

The garden of the tomb is bathed in a different light. It promises delight, colour: a riotous range of greens, yellows and white. The shimmer of moisture in the air; the soft, intense light. We recall Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who walked and noticed, who wrote of the thrill of a world charged with the grandeur of God; how nature is never spent; of the dearest freshness deep down things, and how the Holy Ghost broods with warm breast and bright wings.

This experience of life, abundant life – surging all around us in colour and vibrancy like a Stanley Spencer painting – gives us a glimpse of the Resurrection life in which heaven and earth rejoice. This is the life to which we are born, and in which we continue to live and move and have our being. We find ourselves in the garden in which life began, in which Mary found the risen Christ. The natural world sings the glory of God. It shapes our desires; breaks our heart and remakes us.

It inspires poets, painters, writers. C S Lewis described it like this in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Caspian and the children are at the end of the world.

And when the third day dawned … they saw a wonder ahead. It was as if a wall stood up between them and the sky, a greenish-grey, shimmering, trembling wall …

This was the frontier between Narnia and Aslan’s country, a potent boundary between our desire and the fulfilment of desire.

Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why?” said I, “Was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.

It would break your heart.

St Augustine, too. He knew this light too. To wrote in Chapter X of his Confessions:

There my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. That is what I love when I love my God.

It is a time, as Augustine did, to consider our desires, and how best to respond.  At a time when people are campaigning because they know the natural environment to be at breaking point, we are inspired by the promise of the Resurrection to consider the dearest deep down desires we have.

When we hear God’s call in our lives; so often we don’t understand. All we have is this nagging, yearning for something else, something more to life. We can’t put words to it, but it’s there, prompting and urging us towards we know not what. Baptism has begun the work of grace in us; and like the world around, we come alive as the ordinary becomes extraordinary. We need to follow the joy.

Michael McCarthy is a contemporary nature writer who struggles with the way the natural world of his childhood has become so degraded. Nevertheless, he commends a sense of joy. Like other natural writers, he encourages humanity to recover the wonder of elation. He is not a churchgoer; not a believer – but he knows something essential about the joy of life. In his book The Moth Snowstorm he describes a blackcap singing in a tree in his garden:

Here was this God-given, blossoming snow-white tree, which was breathtaking in its beauty; and here was this God-given, breathtaking sound coming out of it. This tree, this tree of trees, was not just an astonishing apotheosis of floral beauty. It now appeared to be singing.

The rational part of me couldn’t cope. It was all too much, and it fell to bits. I had gone way past simple admiration into some unknown part of the spectrum of the senses, and there was only one possible response: I burst out laughing. And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it. (McCarthy 2016, p.154, abridged)

‘And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it.’ This is a sense of fullness that so often describes the experience of awe. A fullness that overflows the normal boundaries of the self into something delicious, exciting, unmistakeable. Lovely, good and true in a way that can’t be explained, but takes us into an ineffable realm. A realm where poetry comes into its own, and language opens out beyond control to dialogue with others, to seek to express a sense of praise and thanksgiving to the transcendent God.

To anticipate the resurrected life is to know ourselves surrounded by the grace of God – sight, fragrance, light, embrace. It is to hear the word of the Lord calling us to abide in him as he abides in us. Rooted and grafted into Christ, the true vine, we then bear fruit, fruit that will last.

It is not always easy, to follow Christ, and bear Christ’s fruit. We need to suppose him to be the gardener. Jesus Christ, who prunes and shapes our desires; who tends us as we live through suffering and pain. We will live with anxiety and fear that feels unbearable, that keeps us awake at night. We will continue to abide in the Garden of Gethesmane. We will know the pain of loss, of despair. We need to remember that baptism is through the deep waters of death. When we abide in the vine, and allow Christ to dig deep in the soil that is our lives, we know that rejection and pain is part of a greater story that gives meaning to suffering. Behind all words and experience we may endure there is God’s purpose which is life; the eternal life in which we abide. In which we are fruitful, even in our suffering and pain. Christ the gardener calls us by name. Our hearts are broken that we may know the life that is stronger than death.

Let us listen for that voice in the garden, calling us by name. A vocation to abide more deeply in God’s love, giving of ourselves in service, and in prayer. We can hear that voice in the wastelands of the world, in our churches, out walking, or in the garden. We hear it in the wild, undomesticated corners of the world. We see it in the weeds that grow abundantly – the ferns and flowers that spring up through the cracks of pavements, in the walls. We hear it in the raucous sounds of gulls, the first swallow of summer.

There are reminders all around us – from the natural world, in the words we hear, the sounds and sights that speak of God’s grace. As we join Mary in the garden of the tomb, we know that we abide in God, who is the Love that does not let us go. The love that breaks our heart, that we might know the abundant life of God.

Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (2)

Talk Two: The Garden of Gethesmane (Holy Tuesday)

It is easy to romanticise the garden as a place of innocence, of peace. This evening finds us in our next garden, where all is chaotic, and betrayal is in the air, taking us to the very depth of fallenness from grace. Jesus has withdrawn here, to the garden of Gethsemane. We hear him as he prays those words from Lamentations, so familiar to him:

Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
For a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage.

It is all the more shocking that the violence begins in this place of retreat, as Judas comes, accompanied by the crowd, with swords and clubs, and kisses his friend. Jesus is deserted, and the passion begins.

Last evening I mentioned Professor Jem Bendell’s work, anticipating climate tragedy. How now we must face into the real possibility – indeed, likelihood – of climate-induced societal collapse, with long-term repercussions for life as we know it. Some scientists argue that we are in the end game: that Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction is going to happen. Whether we choose to believe or not is up to us: for me, the impacts already cause enough concern for me to lose sleep at night; to live with anxiety levels that are deeply uncomfortable. No longer can I bury my head in the sand. I feel the need to face into my fear, and work out, as best I can, how my Christian faith can resource us to face what is on the horizon, indeed already here. To be in the garden of Gethesmane, awake with insomnia, as Jesus prays for a comforter to be near, one to revive his courage, is where I need to be.

For the anxiety is real; the atmosphere is tense. This garden is not one of peace and plenty; of innocence and romance. I recall the servant in Shakespeare’s Richard II, who grumbles about the state of the nation, as the queen listens in:

our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin’d,
her knots disorder’d, and her wholesome herbs
swarming with caterpillars? (Act III, scene IV)

A lament for order and stewardship lost; for care and nurture that is no more, recalling humanity’s devastation of the fragile earth.

To be in the garden of Gethesmane is to know our fall from the grace of the garden of Eden. It is to enter the saeculum, the in-between time; to be banished to live disordered by thoughts and feelings that are hard to bear. Nationally, internationally, it’s an anxious time to be alive; with all we are and hope to be clouded by threat. Our knowledge now of good and evil is to take responsibility for the garden of creation – this fragile earth – as it faces the most extreme degradation, with the story of its future a bleak one, as we watch, seemingly helpless, as the environment copes with the accelerating impact of climate change.

The Paris COP21 Agreement of 2015 saw 195 countries adopt the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. The agreement set out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C. It all seemed so hopeful at the time. But where is the political action? It’s not surprising that people are marching and campaigning in London and major cities around the world. This is so much more important than Brexit. There’s no avoiding how global warming is melting the ice caps – and not just polar ice, but also vast regions of tundra, releasing dangerous methane into the atmosphere. How the sea becomes more acidic, and polluted. We see the major extinction of species, increased use of pesticides and herbicides in modern agricultural systems. Pollution, particularly plastic, is a real problem in the oceans, rivers, air and land, caused by personal, industrial and chemical wastes and residues. Soil erosion and desertification mean increasing shortages of drinkable water and other natural resources and ‘commons’. Extreme and disrupted weather threatens crop production.

It’s enough to make us all extremely anxious when we think of how the environment is under threat as never before. Instead of moving towards greater global co-operation on issues that require global solutions – on the environment, on security, on poverty –everything becomes more tribal, with nationalism and regionalism on the increase. The best global leadership in recent years has been offered by the Pope in his encyclical Laudato Si of May 2015. But otherwise the nations of the world retreat from international co-operation into silo mentalities. It’s hard not to be completely over-anxious and scared about the future of the planet, this blue planet that is God’s greatest gift of creation.

T S Eliot, wrote The Wasteland in the early 1920s. With images of the trenches and No Man’s Land in mind, he penned one of the greatest epic poems of the 20th Century. The Waste Land is disjointed in structure, as Eliot jumps from one voice or image to another without clear explanation, creating a world of confused voices, from a range of foreign languages, perhaps recalling the story of the Tower of Babel.

Professor Jem Bendell advocates a deep adaptation agenda to enable us to face the reality of a heap of broken images – the future – with hope. He commends Resilience – the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances with valued norms and behaviours. Relinquishment – where people and communities let go of assets, behaviours and beliefs that are not helpful; and Restoration, which is the rediscovery of approaches to live and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation has eroded. So we must actively re-wild landscapes; change our diets back to match the seasons; rediscover non-electronically powered forms of play, and increase our engagement in our local communities. How do we keep what we really want to keep? What do we need to let go of in order not to make matters worse? What can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies? His deep adaptation agenda.

TS Eliot said that humanity cannot bear very much reality. We face unprecedented challenges wherever we look – whether it is in our own lives; the Church of England today, and the rate of decline; the state of our national life, with its deep divisions; the future of the planet, and the Waste Land it looks like becoming.

Perhaps like me, you find yourself saying over and over again Christe Eleison, Lord, have mercy. For our prayer life is crucial as people of faith. We live in the world, surrounded by broken images, broken lives. We bear in our bodies the scars of our own lives, and we bear for others a little of the pain they feel. We hold the anxiety of the world, as much as we can – and through it all, we offer a reminder of God’s grace. We hold out a glimpse of God’s goodness and active grace in the world around.

To find ourselves in the Garden of Gethesmane is to remind ourselves of loss and betrayal; of what it is like to have little hope; to be alone and facing the utter wasteland of death and destruction. It is to return to the deep knowledge of God and know that we are not in control, as Jesus relinquished control over his life into the power of violence. It is to go with him to the Cross, and not know what lies ahead. Only faith, love and hope sustained him in the God who makes all things new.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

As we wait and pray with Christ in the Garden of Gethesmane, so we take the whole world into our heart and mind, placing the wastelands of this world in the heart and mind of Christ, to be taken through the days that lie ahead, and onto that most awful place of death and destruction, the Cross.

 

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Carlisle Cathedral Holy Week (1)

Talk One: The Garden of Eden  (Holy Monday)

My mother, who died too early in 2005, knew the power of gardens. She would take every opportunity to quote the words of the Victorian Manx poet, scholar and theologian Thomas Edward Brown (1830-97)

A Garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot,
The veriest school of Peace; and yet the fool contends that God is not—
Not God! in Gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign:
'T is very sure God walks in mine.

Since Peter and I moved to St Michael’s Rectory in Workington last summer the garden there has been calling for more attention. Last summer we dug a pool, which is now fringed with pansies, narcissus, astilbe; with water lilies beginning to break the surface, full of the promise of those superabundant blooms later in the summer. The tadpoles have hatched and are now finding their own way on their journey to frogdom, the water is clear, and settling down to its own ecosystem. It’s a start. Sometimes at night we have owls in the sycamore trees; every so often a woodpecker comes to the peanuts; the chickens lay eggs in the back garden, and take it in turns to be broody. Yes, there’s a lot to do – but I like to think that gradually, over the years, the Rectory garden will become a veriest school of Peace that speaks of God.

Not God! in Gardens! when the eve is cool?

The story of the relationship of God with God’s people begins in a garden, as our foundational myths tell us. Adam, created from the dust to which we all return; Eve, his partner in tilling the soil, and later in crime. Both given a garden full of the richest abundance and diversity of creature, fauna and flora, to care for in harmony, in peace. Not to take and exploit, to plunder and ravage. Not to take and eat where will and desire tempt, succumbing to the false delight of the eye, the greed of the stomach. Not to distort and spoil the gift of innocence.

At a time of escalating environmental crisis – even catastrophe, if David Wallace Wells has it right in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, or Climate Tragedy as Professor Jem Bendell of the University of Cumbria calls it – we need to think about the environment as never before. Yes, there are all sorts of excuses and denials that we can use to defend ourselves against the anxiety and fear we face if we consider the worst possible scenarios. We can listen to those who caution one way or another that there’s no need for drastic action, and that fear demotivates. Or we can believe the trajectories and learn to live with the possibility of catastrophe. Professor Bendell in his article Deep Adaptation, which is trending throughout social networks, counsels that research and evidence shows that our future is bleak as a human civilisation. ‘We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war,’ he writes. The garden of Eden – the fragile earth that we are given in that foundational myth of our faith – is under extreme threat. How might we respond?

Remember how it all went so very wrong for our forebears. The garden of Eden was a world of innocence, where God delighted to walk, in the cool of the evening.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Adam and Eve represent our humanity, with our all-to-human propensity to destroy what we’re given – to do what human beings do. They trespass where they are forbidden, and are banished from the garden of delight. They are forced to roam the world, knowing both good and evil, working the ground in toil, in thorns and thistles, until to dust they returned. From a harmonious relationship with God, walking together in the cool of the evening, now humanity lives alienated, yearning always for that far-gone memory of peace and plenty.

St Augustine knew the life of banishment from the true life of togetherness with God. He describes how he was on the outside, one of a gang of ruffians that raided a garden just for the sheer hell of it. ‘There was a pear tree near our vineyard, loaded with fruit that was attractive neither to look at nor to taste. Late one night [we] went off to shake down the fruit and carry it away … We took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs. Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.’ (Confessions, BkII.4)

There is something profound here, that Augustine captures, about the nature of yearning and desire. We see a tree, laden with fruit, and we want it; even when it is not ours for the taking. This is concupiscence; desire, out of hand. Adam and Eve took; St Augustine took. We take too – of the rich resources this beautiful creation provides. In our banishment from the garden, we look over the wall, full of yearning for the home that was once ours, and some worm turns within us. Our desire for that beauty and goodness and truth turns sour and destructive.

And so, when given something beautiful, too often we want more; or we turn away, or we destroy. We find it so hard, simply to receive, and cherish.

We know it in our souls; we hear the call of the garden of Eden. We seek that garden all our lives. It holds the reality of redemption, of the fulfilment of desire.

We find the true reality in the fulfilment of all our desires in God, whom we too might find, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.  Fulfilment does not lie in the distortion of desire in greed or destruction. So the impulse to garden is a deep and fundamental one, I’d suggest. It is the recognition of the desire to co-create with God, to nurture a space over time that speaks of the fulfilment of desire such as we experience as we return to the God who creates the world in love, for love. To create a garden is to create a lovesome thing, God wot.

We see the impulse in literature.

Perhaps our mind goes first to Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.

Remember that moment when the neglected and lonely child Mary first encounters the robin?

She stopped and listened to him and somehow his cheerful, friendly little whistle gave her a pleased feeling–even a disagreeable little girl may be lonely, and the big closed house and big bare moor and big bare gardens had made this one feel as if there was no one left in the world but herself. … the bright-breasted little bird brought a look into her sour little face which was almost a smile. She listened to him until he flew away. … she liked him and wondered if she should ever see him again. Perhaps he lived in the mysterious garden and knew all about it.

She imagines the garden from outside, as St Augustine did; not yet able to find her way in. When she does, the mysterious garden offers her the opportunity to nurture growth, with the disabled Colin, and find redemption. Her loneliness, his trauma and his father’s pathological grief are transformed.

Or remember Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. How the garden was closed off to children, “Trespassers Will be Prosecuted” said the sign. Winter came and stayed.

‘I cannot understand why the Spring is so late in coming,’ said the Selfish Giant, as he sat at the window and looked out at his cold white garden; ‘I hope there will be a change in the weather.’      But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant’s garden she gave none. ‘He is too selfish,’ she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind, and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees. One morning the Giant was lying awake in bed when he heard some lovely music. … It was really only a little linnet singing outside his window, but it was so long since he had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world. What did he see? He saw a most wonderful sight. Through a little hole in the wall the children had crept in, and they were sitting in the branches of the trees.

Gardens are there, throughout literature – imaginatively, poetically articulating the yearning for return that we experience from beyond the garden wall, as we listen out for birdsong; as we wait for life to emerge after winter. It is a God-given metaphor for our Christian journey, as we realise our sinful state and seek to return to the reality of the full love of God. We are outside the garden, as we watch the environment suffer from our sinfulness – our greed, pollution, ceaseless, nervous haste. As we recall that, since records began in 1850, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years have occurred since 2000, we glimpse the garden from which we are banished, and yearn to walk with God in the cool of the evening,

Tomorrow, we find ourselves in the garden of Gethsemane.

Godliness, or Holy Attention

(a paper given to the Clergy of Carlisle Diocese, January 2019)

I’ve been reading Richard Hooker – as one does! – the most significant thinker of the 16th Century who gave the Anglican Church our distinctive imagination, liturgy and ecclesiology.

He says, towards the beginning of book 5 of his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that

godliness [is] the cheifest top and welspringe of all true virtues, even as God is of all good thinges. (BkV, ch1, p.17 FLE)

Godliness is the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues.

Which got me thinking – if that’s the highest virtue: What is godliness? What is it to be a godly person today?

Perhaps it depends on what we attend to.

What grabs and holds the attention today is big business.

Cultural commentators and theologians, like Matthew Crawford, Jaron Lanier, Mark Clavier and James Williams describe today’s world as information abundant (unlike previous eras) and attention scarce. Anything that’s scarce has a value, and our attention, now, is a marketable commodity. The attention economy is upon us, where every moment, particularly our engagement on the internet, offers opportunity. Who can live without a phone these days? As soon as you turn it on, subtle and not-so-subtle advertising is there. Clever advertising, designed to make the most of any transaction you make.

Mark Clavier says this

Our emotions, imagination, and desires can’t avoid expertly designed appeals for us to pursue an ideal of happiness that we’ve already been disposed to desire. Over and over again, we’re faced with these appeals, reminded how happy we might be, and are presented with a choice: to buy or not to buy. Like it or not, we now perpetually live in the marketplace. (Mark Clavier: (2019) On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight,  London and New York, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019, p. 5)

His book – just out – describes the powerful rhetoric of the marketplace, designed to persuade. He offers a great analysis of the rhetoric of Cicero, and reads Augustine too, for insights on consumerism.

He encourages the Church to be truly counter-cultural today, because there’s a great deal at stake. We are challenged at the heart of our humanity. For the attention economy changes what we attend to, and how we attend to it. Our desires are captivated, and consequently, our intention and will is changed. The key question he pursues, from his reading of Augustine, is what really delights us.

James Williams was a former Google strategist at the top of his game. He looked around one day and wondered why he and his colleagues – the best brains of his generation – were focused entirely on strategies to develop ‘clickbait’. Clickbait refers to the sophisticated algorithms that are designed to ‘hook’ users (you and me) to buy the product, to play the game. There’s a four stage model: the trigger, the action, the variable reward – all designed to ensure the user’s ‘investment’ of time or money. The variable reward is the key – it can be a ‘surprise’, or some other device, designed to capture the attention, then create a habit or addiction. It’s the stage that makes you say, ‘one more go!’ ‘One more click!’

It’s not only your attention that’s hooked. Your intention, or will, is also compromised. Who hasn’t played just one more game, searched just one more site for what you really, really want, instead of doing the dishes, getting ready for a meeting, picking the kids up? Or preparing a sermon? Jaron Lanier, from his experience of Silicon Valley, describes graphically the subconscious manipulation at the heart of social media.

Take gambling. Matthew Crawford describes how gambling changes the will. A binary decision gives you a great sense of control.

Your action of pressing a button produces an effect that aligns perfectly with your will, because your will has been channeled into … press or don’t press. You give yourself over to the logic of the machine and are rewarded by a feeling of efficacy. That is, you lose yourself, and thereby gain control. (91)

Crawford discusses Natasha Schull’s book on gambling in Las Vegas, Addiction by Design, and how she interviewed gamblers whose addiction was deadly. One woman made sure she wore dark clothing when she went gambling so it didn’t show when she urinated. (96) The machines and every aspect of the casino environment are deliberately engineered to induce people to play “to extinction.”(111). This is the far end of a spectrum in which we are all caught.

When it comes to the Web, we think we’re spiders, but really we’re flies.

Williams gave it all up and went to Oxford to study philosophy, then wrote his 2018 book Stand Out of Our Light. He argues that the next-generation threat to human freedom is the systems of intelligent persuasion that increasingly direct our thoughts and actions. The “attention economy” makes us think we’re powerful when we can access more and more information, exercising our choice in binary clicks. But really we’re pawns in a highly sophisticated marketplace, where instead of attending to goals for our lives, ones that will give us real delight, we are distracted, and ever more distracted.

The poet Mary Oliver died a few weeks ago. I thought of one memorable line she wrote, in the poem “The Summer Day”, that pulls us up short, wondering if we’re living life to the full:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mark Clavier says Christians – the Church – is faced with a choice, a dilemma, even.

The rhetorical and religious nature of consumerism confronts the Church with a dilemma. Either it accepts consumer culture and simply tries successfully to express its own rhetoric within it or it must find a way to challenge consumerism’s hold over individuals and society. The first approach involves the Church effectively becoming a consumer tribe and employing the same means and methods that other consumer tribes use to attract clientele. … Christianity therefore becomes a lifestyle, an accessory for self-expression, and little more than a way for individuals to become religious-consumers-by-vocation. … The second approach … seeks to stand apart from consumer culture, perhaps even to understand its own mission as converting people away from consumer identities. (14/5)

The Attention Economy thrives when our attention is redirected to what we really, really want. For then we forget how to want what we really want to want – the deeper desires of our lives, which make us human. When we are distracted, and stop training ourselves to attend, our human will, both individually and collectively, is undermined. We aren’t thinking of our one wild and precious life.

Williams writes that we need to reclaim our attention:

The liberation of the human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time. Its success is prerequisite for the success of virtually all other struggles. We therefore have an obligation to rewire this system of intelligent, adversarial persuasion before it rewires us. Doing so requires … the courage necessary for advancing on it in inconvenient and unpopular ways. (p. xii)

Those inconvenient and unpopular ways should involve the Church. We’re used to inconvenience and unpopularity, after all.

James Williams isn’t the only one. In The World Beyond Your Head Matthew Crawford speaks of a cultural iceberg in which our mental lives are fractured, where we have diminished attention spans and a widespread sense of distraction, as our brains are rewired by new habits of information grazing and electronic stimulation. We lack time and space for serious, concentrated engagement. We have allowed our attention to be monetized by advertisements, by hassle, by information, such that ‘if you want your [attention] back you’re going to have to pay for it’ (p.12).

Like Williams, Crawford says we now lack ‘the sort of guidance that once would have been supplied by tradition, religion, or the kinds of communities that make deep demands on us’ (pp.4–5).

He refers to Simone Weil to argue that ‘attending to anything in a sustained way requires actively excluding all the other things that grab at our attention. It requires, if not ruthlessness toward oneself, a capacity for self-regulation’ (p.15).

Let’s remind ourselves of Simone Weil. A French mystic who was born in 1909 and died in 1942, she was brought up agnostic. She remained all her life outside the Catholic Church, though she had a deep and fierce faith and intelligence to match.

She once famously described how she first learned to pray. She wrote, in Waiting On God:

Until last September I had never once prayed in all my life, at least not in the literal sense of the word. I had never said any words to God, either out loud or mentally.

Last summer … I went through the Our Father word for word in Greek [with my tutor]. We promised each other to learn it by heart. I do not think he ever did so, but some weeks later, as I was turning over the pages of the Gospel, I said to myself that since I had promised to do this thing and it was good, I ought to do it. I did it. The infinite sweetness of this Greek text so took hold of me that for several days I could not stop myself from saying it over all the time. A week afterward I began the vine harvest I recited the Our Father in Greek every day before work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard.

Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention. Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse.

The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition.  …

Sometimes … during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, his presence is infinitely real, moving, clear … (37/38)

This is the cultivation of a habit of prayer that becomes deeply formative of the human person. It takes self-control – that fruit of the Spirit (perhaps the most important one). Without such self-control, we become open to manipulation – or so James Williams says. And he should know.

Williams and Crawford both describe how the digital age is shaping our attention to such a degree that the self becomes fragmented, and forgets how to attend to anything with deep concentration.  We become habitually distracted away from the deeper desires for human fulfilment and wholeness in our one wild and precious life. The human self ends up all over the place, unable to sustain attention for any length of time, and ultimately unable to grow as human persons.

Williams and Crawford regret the loss of religious practice and habits that cultivate the ability to attend. Those religious practices go right back. St Paul struggled with the tension between attention and distraction. Romans chapter 7:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

St Augustine expressed how hard it was to attend, fully and wholeheartedly, when he prayed. How distracted he was by the concerns of the ‘flesh’, sarx, – the word Paul used. The flesh demands satisfaction of its wants, lusts, its greed and envy, and distracts us into sin.

God’s attention is very different, says Augustine.

Unlike us, He does not look ahead to the future, see the present before him, and look back to the past. Rather he sees events in another way, far and profoundly different from any experience that is familiar to our minds. For he does not variably turn his attention from one thing to another. Hence all events in time, events that wil be and are not yet  and those that are now, being present, and those that have passed and are no more, all of them are apprehended by him in a motionless and everlasting present moment … Nor does it make any difference whether he looks at them from present, past or future, since his knowledge, unlike ours, of the three kinds of time, present, past and future, does not change as time changes … Neither does [God’s] attention stray from one subject to another … De Civitate Dei, 11:21

All time, things and events are present to God’s all-loving, comprehensive gaze.

Clavier wants us to counter the sophisticated rhetoric of the marketplace with a deeper rhetoric that goes to the heart of our desire and delight: He writes

So according to Augustine, delight goes right to the heart of our sense of freedom and our identity. We feel most free and most ourselves when we get to do whatever most delights us. … for the most part, we don’t choose the delights that shape our sense of freedom (39).

True delight,

For Augustine, delight’s source is God himself. … a quality that arises from the shared love of the Trinity, the ‘inexpressible embrace.’ (On The Trinity, 6.12). (Clavier 69/70)

Here is real delight. The only way to overcome the power of the marketplace.

Clavier is right when he says it begins with us, what we give our attention to. Our prayer life. He commends that the faithful person attend to God, as Simone Weil did, with as pure an attention as possible. We know how difficult this is, to free ourselves of the distractions that preoccupy us. We seek – my soul in stillness waits – to gaze on God, and by grace to share, if only in some small part, in the gaze of God on the world around, on our neighbour, particularly with compassion on those who are afflicted. When we worship, we attend to God, lost in wonder, trying to forget ourselves in God’s loving attention that redeems us. We seek to be transformed by the gaze of God’s redemptive love.

Simone Weil argues that our souls would much rather do anything than attend to God in prayer. We actively seek to be distracted. It is a human propensity. Lead us not into temptation. Lead us not into distraction.

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (ch.7: 14-20)

Christians through the ages have prayed, as St Paul did, for grace to begin the prayer. He knew that prayer only happens with the necessary intervention of grace. God’s grace is required to break the human vicious circle of an attention distracted away from God.

As Paul wrote to the Romans, he begins with the need for the Holy Spirit to break into the all-too-human distractions that so easily control us.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans, Chapter 8, 26-27)

It is only by asking for the Spirit to intercede that the human person can begin to attend to God, and find freedom from the distractions of the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to do it again and again, though. For Clavier is right when he says this of the power of the ubiquitous marketplace which seeks to seduce us back in every waking moment:

And even if we choose not to shop, we must make that choice repeatedly – we’re like alcoholics trapped in a distillery choosing not to accept the constant offer to enjoy a drink. (53)

Grace is necessary to attend in prayer to the delight that God gives. Then, not only do we find freedom; there is also transformation.

The tension between attention and distraction offers a frame for sinfulness and redemption. In so far as we are distracted, we slide away from God’s love; we lose ourselves – ultimately kill ourselves – in any number of tempting sins.

David Marno argues that this tension is at the heart of John Donne’s devotional poetry. In his book Death Be Not Proud, he explores how Donne worked sonnets to take us from distraction to attention, from sinfulness to redemption.

Donne uses the structure and language of the poem to gather the attention of the reader. When we are engaged in faithful prayer, we receive God’s grace with thankfulness for the gift of redemption. Instead of the distractions of sarx – the body with its cravings and appetites – the poem enables a human, incarnate attention to grow in a grace that incorporates distraction, just as God took on the frailties and death of human flesh in Christ.  As we arrive at the end of the poem, we are able to assert ‘Death, thou shalt die!’ – and as we do so, we affirm the reality of the Resurrection. Eternal life is ours, here and now.

John Donne’s holy sonnets were a deliberate exercise in holy attention. As we attend to the sonnet, our attention becomes holy, and we grow more deeply into the knowledge of faith, transformed to become more Christlike. We grow in godliness.

Simone Weil describes the same process when she encountered George Herbert’s poem Love.

[a young English Catholic] told me of the existence of those English poets of the 17C who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem … called Love. I learnt it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me. (35)

We have all the resources we need, within our Christian tradition, to enable us to pray in a way that transforms us. Those resources are prayers or biblical passages, creeds, psalms, or hymns we know off by heart, or particular art that enables us to gaze with a holy attention, or poetry. Or music – Bach’s Cantatas, perhaps. We will each have our own icons that capture and shape our attention towards God.

The ability to gather attention becomes, as Williams and Crawford suggest, a political and moral imperative in a world that now turns on an attention economy. How can those traditional practices of our Christian heritage enable humanity to find itself in its ability to ignore distraction and attend to God, with a holy attention?

One way is to celebrate the craft of preaching. Preaching commands attention at the heart of worship. With phones switched off, and the intention to worship God, the sermon can gather those present into a greater awareness of God’s grace transforming their lives. If we preach, we have a God-given opportunity to enable listeners to encounter Jesus Christ, away from the distraction of wandering thought and restless sense. The Word, heard and preached, should, hopefully, stir a response of thanksgiving, an awareness of the deeper reality of God’s gifts, including the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Together, Word and Sacrament, the worshipper becomes a member of a Body that is caught up into God’s grace and able to withstand the forces and pressures that fragment and atomise the human self today.

This is to understand how fragments are gathered, like grain once scattered in the fields and grapes once dispersed on the hillside. It is to pray that ancient prayer that the whole Church be gathered from the corners of the earth into God’s kingdom. It is to show a way for fragmented selves to find wholeness instead of all that distracts us in life. The Church gathers the fragments  as morsels collected into twelve baskets after the feeding of the five thousand. For though we are many, we are one body, sharing the one bread. We are reminded of the profound reality that humanity finds its fulfilment in the wholeness of God. As we attend to God, we find our place within God’s desires and purposes for us to be together in Christ’s presence.

How might we – priests and ministers – enable attention to be gathered and focused on God, bringing alive the Gospel of redemption, offered for all time by Christ’s life and death?

It is to offer something different to the clickbait that commodifies our attention and seduces our intention, our very selves, in today’s market economy. It is to gaze on the living Christ, crucified and risen, and attend to the transformative power of the love of God in each of us, in the Church and the world. God claims our attention as we contemplate the promise of eternal, abundant life, instead of becoming distracted away and dissipated in a shallow morass of trivial and false gratifications.

As we contemplate God, we grow in godliness. We are transformed. The impact isn’t just individual. The whole of society is involved. James Williams writes, after he realised what the impact of the digital economy was:

I knew this wasn’t just about me – my deep distractions, my frustrated goals. But when most people in society use your product, you aren’t just designing users; you’re designing society. But if all of society were to become as distracted in this new, deep way as I was starting to feel, what would that mean? What would be the implications for our shared interests, our common purposes, our collective identities, our politics? (2018, p.10)

The broader consequences for society of a human attention that commodified to distraction, are becoming apparent. Williams warns that ‘[F]uture generations will judge us not only for our stewardship of the outer environment, but of the inner environment as well’ (2018, p.127).

There is a role here for the Church to offer a different way of being human in society. The place to start is our own holy attention. Perhaps there’s no better way than by a ministry that is noted for its godliness, its holy attention to God.

Bibliography:

Mark Clavier: (2019) On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight,  London and New York, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019

Matthew Crawford, (2015) The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. London: Penguin Random House.

Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen (2017) The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, MIT

Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (including the Preface, Book I & VIII) Ed. Arther Stephen McGrade, Cambridge University Press, 1989

Jaron Lanier Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now Penguin 2018

David Marno (2016) Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention Chicago University Press.

Natasha Dow Schüll, (2014) Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Princeton University Press.

Simone Weil (1951)  Waiting on God [in French, 1950] trans. Emma Craufurd, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

James Williams, (2018) Stand Out Of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

Burke, not Rousseau

Lord Patten of Barnes – Chris Patten – was speaking about the inevitable national obsession yesterday (Sunday) on Radio Four. He talked a lot of sense – advising the Prime Minister not to attack Tony Blair (who also talked a lot of sense on Radio Four on Friday morning), but rather to consult with all the past prime ministers, and current leaders of all the other parties about what to do to get us out of this Brexit mess. He was in favour of delaying it all, and recognised that a second referendum was gaining traction. My ears pricked up when he said that May needed to attend to Burke, not Rousseau – and of course, anyone who has read my Why Rousseau Was Wrong (Bloomsbury, 2013) will know what he meant.

Rousseau, in The Social Contract, outlined his conviction that in the pure state of nature, human individuals are free and equal. It is only because of the ties and responsibilities of society that Rousseau can write ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’. Rousseau describes, to dismiss, different sorts of societies including those that depend on force, and those where the citizens are subjects. Rousseau himself commends the society where each equal individual gives their sovereignty to the community, in an original contract which forms the body politic. This social pact means that each member of the body politic remains sovereign because each is an equal, giving equally. Rousseau describes it thus:

Since each man gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one; and since there is no  associate over whom he does not gain the same rights as others gain over him, each man recovers the equivalent of everything he loses, and in the bargain he acquires more power to preserve what he has. (Rousseau, The Social Contract, p. 61.)

In this mutual contract a republic is created, which has ‘its unity, its common ego, its life and its will’. The state exercises sovereignty, which remains the possession of each citizen, on behalf of the people by the people.

The appeal of this is attractive, and one can see how influential these words were to those who struggled under absolute monarchy, particularly in France as the 18th century drew to its close. Rousseau was particularly anxious to avoid the condition of slave, forever under the despotic rule of a tyrant, and to locate sovereign power with the people themselves, as equal and free citizens, coming together to form society as a mutual collective. The sovereign power, because it belonged to everyone, could not go against, or hurt, the people.  And each individual will not want to go against the common cause, or General Will, as Rousseau called it. If an individual did want to exercise such independence, Rousseau said – that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free . . .

Forced to be free? The cracks in this benign view of politics start to emerge.

And commentators have struggled since, as well, with how the General Will of the body politic is to be discerned. It is inalienable, and indivisible, and always rightful, but ‘it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally right’. Ibid., p. 72. Rousseau found he needed to introduce another character onto the scene: the lawgiver. He also proposed the need for an intermediary body, the government.  When the individual no longer feels attuned to the General Will, then the government has the task of ‘forcing an individual or a group to comply with a sovereign ruling’. Ibid., p. 91.

We have here, then, an understanding of society where individuals contract together and, as they do so, sovereignty is pooled willingly by each, although each still retains that sovereignty. The General Will is created from the wills of each citizen. Government comes into being, and the lawgiver is introduced to ensure the smooth running of the affairs of state. If, however, any individual dissents, they can be forced, for their own good, to comply.

It’s an idea of society that commends itself by its very simplicity. To be fair, Rousseau always thought it should be applied to small communities. But when it came to be adopted by the Jacobins who led the French Revolution, all sorts of flaws – dangerous flaws – came to light.

Burke was the first to identify them.

Burke saw through Rousseau. They probably met briefly in London in 1766, shortly after Rousseau’s arrival there in the company of David Hume (before Rousseau wrote spitefully to Hume, breaking the friendship). Burke did not take to him.

Burke had independence of mind and he championed the oppressed of his day against his own self-interest. For example, he unearthed far-reaching and terrible abuses of the Indian people by the East India Company, under the leadership of the Governor General, Warren Hastings. Burke argued that Warren Hastings should be impeached for his contempt for the lives of the Indian people, and so began one of the most prolonged legal proceedings of history, lasting from 1788 to 1794. In the end Hastings was acquitted (because there was no law upon which he could be convicted), but Burke’s campaign marked the end of the hegemony of the company that had exploited the people of India over decades. Burke set a precedent for probity in public life. He showed himself to be generous to a fault with others. He fought for those who suffered, like the Irish Catholics. He stood by the principle of doing the right thing, often to his own cost.

He lost his seat as an MP for Bristol because he insisted that he was not the  delegate of the constituents, but their representative.

That principle and that courage it would be good to see in more of our MPs today.

Burke looked over the water to France, as Revolution was underway, and penned his Reflections on the Revolution in France in1790, offering a clear defense of British constitutional government against what he saw. (What would he see today, as Macron concedes to the Gilets Jaunes?)

In defense of British political life he commends the importance of a representative democracy which ensures a system of government which, through checks and balances, prevents the arbitrary exercise of power – whether by monarch or mob.

Why is this important today? Because there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of how a representative democracy like ours works, and what its strengths are. The most salient is that once elected, Members of Parliament are trusted to use their judgement to serve the best interests of the nation, as representatives, not delegates. That means they are not to be swayed by fear – of losing their seats, or vilification on social media.

Representative democracy guards well against the exercise of arbitrary power, whether held by an absolute monarch or a dictator, or, as happened in France, the arbitrary power of  direct democracy, Lord Demos, as Burke called it.

Burke argued that the Magna Carta, which he called ‘our oldest reformation’, had started the process, when the monarch, King John, had to accept the authority of the barons. In Burke’s time this had evolved, and the strength of the British system lies then, as now, in the checks and balances that prevent arbitrary power from taking hold in a way he observed in France.

The House of Lords, for instance, is not morally competent to dissolve the House of Commons; no, nor even to dissolve itself, or to abdicate, if it would, its portion in the legislature of the kingdom. Though a king may abdicate for his own person, he cannot abdicate for the monarchy. By as strong, or by a stronger reason, the House of Commons cannot renounce its share of authority. The engagement and pact of society, which generally goes by the name of the constitution, forbids such invasion and such surrender. The constituent parts of a state are obliged to hold their public service with each other, and with all those who derive any serious interest under their engagements, as much as the whole state is bound to keep its faith with separate communities. Otherwise competence and powers would soon be confounded, and no law be left but the will of a prevailing force. (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, J. M. Dent, London, 1910 edition, p. 19.)

Direct democracy is not the only source of authority. Burke  thought that the institutions of society are fundamental to enable individuals to flourish and to protect their freedoms. He did not hold that direct democracy delivered the best kind of society. The trend in Britain today is taking us towards an idea of democracy that is closer to Rousseau’s than Burke’s, and we should be cautious, I believe, of losing confidence in the traditions of constitutional, representative governance that have offered stability and continuity as political and civil institutions have evolved over centuries.

The wisest thing I’ve heard this week – and thank heavens there is now a much greater appreciation of the difference between direct and representative democracy – was the commentator who said the best route would be for the House of Commons to take responsibility to vote as each Member really judged to be right (and we all know most were Remainers), for the sake of the nation’s best interest. But as they are unlikely to take that responsibility seriously, we need to consult again with the Will of the people to confirm it has not changed since 2016.

Instead of a narrative of ‘betrayal’ – which is SO unhelpful – a second referendum can be understood as not turning over the first, but rather confirming it … or expressing a different ‘Will’ now everyone has had a chance to explore the consequences of Brexit.

A second referendum would be advisory, not mandatory, as the only authority lies with our duly elected members of Parliament, as Burke so clearly understood.

Do we really want, as a nation, to move further towards democracy a là Rousseau? Now is the opportunity to renew the representative democracy, that Burke was so instrumental in establishing, that protests us against arbitrary power, the tyranny of the Will of the People.

Being English?

I was born in Australia. An enduring trope as I grew up was that of the “Pommy Bastard”. There was a real antipathy to all things English – to the way the English assumed too much of their place in the world. That colonial mindset that unconsciously expressed innate superiority.

We moved to England when I was seven. I learned a valuable lesson about my new home: I saw how straightforward it was to be English. The people I met, the friends I played with – simply knew their place in the world.

Somehow, though, I could never quite assume that mantle. I was always from somewhere else.

When I went to University in Scotland the antipathy was there too. Then it was useful to have been born in Australia. I wasn’t a Sassanach; nor was I a ‘Yah’ – one of those Oxbridge failures who came to St Andrews as the next best University in the (upper) middle class pecking order. They stuck together, with their own social circles, that seemed so arrogant compared with the disparaged Wee Marys and Wee Alistairs, who, after highers, went through university working hard within their own very different culture.

In those days, ‘England’ was sure of itself; it didn’t have to agonise about national identity. Nor did it have to worry about how it was perceived in the world. You just knew, if you had a British passport, the world was your oyster. As Jeremy Paxman says

Being English used to be so easy. They were once the most easily identified peoples on earth, recognized by their language, their manners, their clothes and the fact they drank tea by the bucketload. (The English: A Portrait of a People, 1999)

The worry started, though, when the other nations of the UK began to pull away, seeking devolution. It was then that a puzzlement set in: why don’t they want to belong to us any more? What does it mean to be British? That nice, easy federation of the English, the Scots, the Welsh and yes, well, the Irish, became seriously problematic. ‘The British Isles’ began to fall apart.

The lack of clarity about what we were had worked; didn’t any more. We had been a cake of different ingredients, with the English at the heart of the United Kingdom, always been rather understated, even empty of content. Perhaps the butter that melted away. It was something you apologised for; no need to boast – because, of course, everyone just knows what it means to be English. Don’t they?

It’s gone, pretty much. To be ‘English’, now, is to be shrouded in a cloud of confusion. It’s to be uneasy in your own skin, unfamiliar and uncertain about how to behave, unsure how to expect others will react. So the behaviour can be bad; the expectation, arrogant.

What’s changed? Well, no longer is the Commonwealth a significant place to belong. When we joined the EU, the links were severed – often rather brutally – with ‘the colonies’, who had to look elsewhere to develop new markets, different independent economies.

We have an opportunity to learn to be English in a different way.

The Brexiteer imaginary thinks those Commonwealth links can be re-established; that the benefits of an Empire long gone can be recaptured. I don’t think so. Why should they want us? And the last 40 years of belonging (sort of) in Europe has shifted things. We can’t go back. Ireland, Scotland know this. They feel European; know the value of being in Union. What is it about the English that wants to pull away?

It’s interesting how Edmund Burke is so often claimed by the Brexit Camp. If you read Daniel Hannan, for instance, Burke is used to support the Brexiteer passion to live again an Englishness that is beyond dispute. Hannan tells how he was born in Peru, and one of his first memories was the threat of eviction from his family farm, with no hope of protection by the state. He has seen Englishness from the outside, and knows what he likes.

Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin. (How We Invented Freedom, 2013: 10)

Edmund Burke was significant in the development of this polity that Hannan values so much (and so do I). Hannan argues, using Burke’s attitude to the American Revolution as evidence (Burke thought the colonies couldn’t be ruled over such distance) that Burke would now want the UK to withdraw from the EU, to regain the sovereignty so hard won, so exceptional.

I don’t agree. Burke, today, would argue with a political imagination for increased global government, not diminished. He would argue that being English, being British, takes us further into Europe, to get the governance right, because there are global issues that require global politics. Climate Change – Burke would have been a leading light at Paris in December 2015. Terrorism. Developing new economics, with moral content, now that neo-liberalism is so defunct – just as he waged legal battle against Warren Hastings for his extreme, aggressively commercial exploitation of India.

Leading Brexiteers propound aspects of ‘Englishness’ that take us in a nativist direction, appealing to populist sentiments that are easily stirred when a nation is uncertain. The latest Guardian series on Populism draws on Cas Mudde’s definition:

What is populism?

Populists tend to frame politics as a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt elite – and insist that the general will of the people must always triumph. The Guardian is adopting the classic definition of populism proposed by political scientist Cas Mudde. Populism, he says, is often combined with a “host” ideology, which can either be on the left or right.

A binary outlook will dominate within populism: defining something by what it isn’t. The conflict between elite and the will of the people is one aspect; nativism is another.

The will of the people, betrayed by the established elite. The English native, swamped by others who come in their hordes to  threaten the very idea of Englishness. Nativism identifies the stranger in our midst, and declares she or he doesn’t belong. Nativism judges who is on the inside of community; who is out. To call a nativist “racist” doesn’t really work – it simply prevents the nativist from speaking, and renders her resentful. Much better, surely, to engage, and listen. To hear that resentment into words and then show the rich heritage of kindness and trust that the confident English of the past exhibited as the expression of a deep and open hearted hospitality. Which made yesterday’s strangers today’s natives.

Contemporary populism expresses how hard it is to know how to belong anymore – and so appeals to left and right. Party politics collapse.

A new imaginary is required – a re-romanticising of Englishness that brings out the best of British. Yes, the list Hannan supplies – but more. A sense of irony and self-deprecation when there is conflict and division; a pragmatic approach to seemingly unsolvable problems; the ability to compromise. Other things too. Where Left and Right are transcended into the search for global governance to tackle global issues.

What would it be to re-romanticise Englishness? Withdrawing from Europe won’t do it; splendid isolation has been tried before, and doesn’t work. Born in Australia, I’ve come to value the following

  • The countryside, now so threatened – so in need of global solutions to pollution, decreasing biodiversity, climate change
  • The literary and artistic and musical traditions – the wit, and depth of the moral and emotional knowledge
  • Our governance, that puts the rule of a rich concept of natural law at its heart – so valuable in today’s world, where arbitrary power is increasingly exercised
  • A refusal to be tribal or engage in identity politics
  • An openness to the Other, so we are not defined by our self understanding, but always transcend it into something greater and more generous
  • Doing things for their own sake – like education, friendship – and so resisting the commodification and instrumentalisation of life
  • Kindness, fairness, the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes in all humility (loving kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with God)
  • Finding national identity as English as part of something bigger, not over against Others
  • Being European and bringing our common European culture to the world.

The Welsh, the Scottish, the Irish have a strong romantic sense of national selfhood. What might it be to find a common English culture that draws the English together into a cohesive core at the heart of a renaissance of a re-united Kingdom? One that belongs firmly with our European neighbours, looking outward from Europe to the world?

Divided and Torn Apart by the Ravages of Brexit

Saturday 17 November 2018

On Thursday Theresa May published her draft Withdrawal Agreement, kindling a day of turmoil.

Will she survive? Will this government survive?

Her best option to survive is to agree to another referendum, with three options:

  • Her ‘deal’
  • No deal, hard Brexit
  • Remain within the EU

When David Cameron declared a referendum for June 2016, he had every expectation that it would be a no-brainer, and the nation would solidly vote remain.

The danger of referendum democracy is it assumes ‘the Will of the People’ is where power lies. The notion of ‘the Will of the People’ goes back to social contract theory, and particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas that all government is exercised directly as an expression of the General Will of the people. That sort of direct democracy doesn’t work, though, for large and complex nations such as the UK. (Indeed, he didn’t write The Social Contract with large, complex nations in mind, but rather small, face-to-face communities where mutual accountability was a reality. Even then, he had to invent the figure of the ‘Governor’ to oversee processes and keep in line those who dissented.)

In large and complex nations, something more sophisticated is required: democracy that votes in a representative government.

The development of constitutional, representative democracy in this nation has long and interesting roots, which stretch back to Edmund Burke, who was its finest architect. He, in turn, owed a debt to Richard Hooker who argued in Book I of his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that the consent of the people is required for government, but this can be held indirectly by others. (The best brief introduction to this aspect of Hooker is in Paul Avis’ book Beyond the Reformation? (2008: 142ff; or read book I of his Laws.)

In Burke’s hands, this meant that the Member of Parliament, who was elected by the people of his (and now her) constitutency, held authority by consent, not as a delegate, but rather as a representative. What’s the difference? Delegates vote in parliament the way the electors require and tell them to. A representative is elected to use their judgement, and vote according to their reason and conscience. Edmund Burke lost his seat as MP for Bristol over this issue – principled person that he was. In doing so, he established the precedent that our UK MPs are representatives, rather than delegates.

Unfortunately, since the Referendum of 2016, most MPs (Ken Clarke excepted)  have acted as delegates, either through fear of losing their seats, or through a misguided understanding of their own authority. So we have a elected parliament whose members are largely ‘remain’ and yet who trot out the mantra of respect for the Will of the People, as if the referendum result were a direct and unambiguous mandate and executive decision.

Theresa May and her colleagues have done the best job possible to deliver under the terms she laid out for herself, given the constraints (Northern Ireland border, EU negotiators, etc), the potential disasters of crashing out, the pressure of ideologues, and the ineffective opposition. She has done her best to serve the Will of the People. No one could have done better. She has held her ground with commendable dignity and integrity.

She would strengthen her personal position by accepting the need for a second referendum to test her withdrawal agreement.

No one should fear or refuse a second referendum. If it goes Leave again, Brexiteers would prove they were right in their initial gut-driven vote.  If another referendum confirmed the Brexit impulse, I for one would accept it – because now, at least, the Will of the People has had two years of proper opportunity to understand what Brexit would mean and the divisive, disastrous consequences. If the nation still votes Leave, then remainers really do need to sit up and accept that Leave is where we’re going, with all the damage to our nation entailed, in a world where old orders are changing in frightening ways (climate change, Russia, China, the US). If, now it knows what it voted for, the Will of the People takes the opportunity to change its mind, then at least the nation could be confident in the result. All the polls suggest that the mood of the nation has shifted decisively towards Remain. So what exactly is the Will of the People now? Perhaps it isn’t written in stone, as so often implied …

Cameron was fool-hardy and thoughtless to call the referendum in the first place (if for understandable reasons, like fulfilling his promise). Having done so, however, the result (either way) should never have been given executive status.

It should have been taken as a wake-up call that the state of the nation is deeply divided on some crucial questions like immigration and border controls, European legislative systems, agricultural and fishing agreements (and any number of fears and anxieties that were not honoured by a liberal political class that was out of touch). It might have been the opportunity to make helpful progress, working together as a nation that took this opportunity to re-assess what it means to be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish – British in a United Kingdom in a world of change, where pressing issues, such as climate change and terrorism, require more global governance, not less.

Immediately after the Referendum in 2016 MPs should have had more confidence in their own authority as elected by the people within a representative democracy. They should have taken courage in their judgement that staying in (and arguing for reform on key issues) was best for the nation, and worked with a clear understanding of their representative, rather than delegate, status. The Will of the People is always going to be confused and divided, and fickle – that’s why we need MPs to make informed and courageous judgements for us.

Theresa May’s most courageous act, now, would be to call for a second referendum.

And then to pass a law making ‘referenda’ illegal, or at least ever only advisory.