Friday, 5 December 2014

Eikon: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World ART GALLERY OF BALLARAT

Philip Harvey
Twenty-seven people travelled to Ballarat on Friday for a viewing of the Eikon Exhibition currently being shown at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. This was under the guidance of the Carmelite Centre and Carmelite Library. Our happy band left by train from Southern Cross Station (Melbourne), departing at the off-peak time of 9.08 am, arriving in Ballarat at 10.33 am. It is a five minute walk to the Gallery and there are twenty cafes for lunch within a short walk. Tickets allowed re-entry again after lunch to view other parts of the collection. A Gallery Guide gave an excellent account of the theology and history of the works on display. There was also plenty of time for solitary meditation with the icons. The Exhibition continues until the end of January, so I encourage anyone who can go to Ballarat for the day to consider the trip this summer.

Put simply, ‘icon’ is Greek for image. When we touch an icon on our gadget or click an icon on a screen, we are hitting a little image. But the original, ancient use of the word in English is specifically to do with the holy images of Christian Orthodoxy. As one traveller to Ballarat put it wryly, “When I hit an icon on my iphone I am not opening a ‘window on heaven’. Sometimes I’m going in the direction of the other place.”

To walk into this exhibition is to encounter the results of a profound human argument about the creative act. Christianity is not just a long history of agreements, it is a long history of arguments and, rightly understood, non-violent argument is an inheritance from Christianity that we all live with to this day. The main argument about icons was, and still is, whether humans can make an image of God, what in Latin is called Imago Dei. While we may be comfortable with the idea that the entire created universe is an icon of God, humans are more conflicted about whether they themselves can or should create such a thing themselves, an icon of God. The eighty icons in the Exhibition at Ballarat exist because one side of an ancient argument, that of the iconophiles, won out over the arguments of the other, the iconoclasts.

Ballarat has a superb timeline history of this argument on the walls of the Gallery entrance. Three main facts are salient. First, in the Roman Empire, early Christians confronted idol worship. It wasn’t just that the ‘pagans’ had need to find the One True God, the gods they did worship (if they bothered worshipping at all) were in objects. Their temples were filled with these objects, whereas the Christians taught that God cannot be found in an object but is in and behind and above all. This cohered with their own Jewish understanding that they must not make graven images of God or bow down to them. For later iconoclasts, an icon was tantamount to a graven image. Secondly, there was Saint John of Damascus. John and his friends succeeded, at the Second Council of Nicea (787 CE), in winning the argument for icon making. Councils were not just big committee meetings of bishops, there to iron out a few issues. They met to resolve huge arguments going on in the Christian world and of course in 787 the world was held together by Byzantium, an Empire which had as its head, Jesus Christ. The conundrum of this awkward imperial position comes alive when we meditate on the meaning of Christ’s words about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. However, Nicea determined the following, and I quote at length: "As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honour accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented." That John lived in Damascus in Syria is not an accident, for he was involved in the very same arguments with followers of the new religion of Islam, adherents of which were pressing the borders of Byzantium. Nicea is a significant date, for even though iconoclasm rears its head again over the centuries, it is here that Christians choose the incarnational way of Imago Dei, while the Muslims refuse to have images in their places of worship, or anywhere, something that remains the case to this day. The third important date is the Schism of 1054, when Greek and Latin Churches went their separate ways, thus isolating Orthodoxy from the rest of the Christian world, and with it, the central practice of icon writing.

The shock of the new is now a cliché of art history, but walking into this Exhibition is to be confronted with the shock of the old. Works from the 11th to the 19th centuries fill three rooms of the gallery. To gaze upon an artwork of wood and paint made one thousand years ago is in itself a shock. Even more of a shock when we learn that the makers of the icon did not consider it an artwork and had no interest in signing their name on the back. For them, it was a means to prayer, a reading of scripture or tradition, a reminder of the ‘prototype’ that is represented in the image. By ‘prototype’ is meant the original saint or martyr or great holy person or event that is our example toward life in all its fullness, a truly more perfected holy life. Most significant of all ‘prototypes’ is Jesus Christ, the Logos, and the main Pantocrator icon in the third room of the Exhibition confronts us with the shock of the New.

It is well to remember, when you visit the Exhibition, that each one of these icons was not intended to be placed on a Gallery wall, unless we think of the Art Gallery of Ballarat as one of those “conspicuous places” defined by the Second Council of Nicea. Icons are used for worship, in particular for personal devotion. Indeed, most icons are confronting in a one-to-one relationship, where the person at prayer engages with the icon in order to deepen their relationship with God. One of the ironies of having such icon shows is that the works themselves are being treated as artworks, which was never their original purpose. The temptation to grade icons according to effect is human, whereas each icon on its own is a means to veneration and adoration of that which it points to. Each icon could be used for a lifetime’s reflection, which is why there is something superficial about spending eighty minutes looking at all eighty of them. Most of these icons would have been venerated in such ways for centuries by generations of human beings, long before they were sold to private collectors. And even today, the icons themselves live a life and present meanings that go outside the temporal expectations of those who visit them in Ballarat.

That said, it is worth the trip. History and liturgy and art and human imagination and theology and philosophy and Scripture are all at work on the walls of this show. Rather than just being confronted, or baffled, or overwhelmed, or even turned off by what I saw, my approach was to treat each one as a sign both of what the past tells us and what is speaking to us in our hearts. Most of my time was spent in front of about half a dozen of the icons that said something to me in the here and now. Rather than adopting the consumer view of “all very interesting”, which will not get you far when looking at icons, I asked myself what the icon was telling me, what did I understand from being placed in front of such a remarkable object. Though even ‘remarkable’ is a comical word in the context, one I have been confronted with lately. Because icons are not there as works upon which we pass remarks in a gallery, though any amount of such wordplay is going on. Icons do not invite remarks, but our attention and our prayerfulness, when properly viewed. Once we get past the guide notes and the contexts of the stories that are their background, once we get past the remarks, we are into that space where the icon may put us in communion with what has been called ‘the ground of our being’, where we live and move and have our being.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Little Essays on the Rules (9) Scanners and Skimmers

Philip Harvey

Today we received all titles on order in the Princeton series ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’.  This is a wonderful initiative by Princeton University Press in which writers offer ‘biographies’ of very famous, indeed foundational, works. Garry Wills has written a ‘biography’ of Augustine’s Confessions, John Collins has done similarly with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth. The Library intends to order all titles in the series as they appear. One of the early releases is Martin Marty on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and papers from prison. And it was Marty’s book that arrived soon enough in front of the cataloguer.

The downloaded record contained an error, almost a trick of the eye, such that you would miss it if you weren’t watching the details closely. The title of Marty’s book is presented thus in the Library of Congress’s MARC data: ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and papers from prison : a biography.’ The same layout is found, not surprisingly, in the book’s own CIP on the verso of the title page.

The error is instantly obvious to anyone halfway well-read in theology, who knows that the German theologian had a collection of his writings published posthumously under the title ‘Letters and papers from prison’. The book came out in German in 1951 and in English in 1953. Like all of his main works, it has never been out of print since. So how is it that the people who put together the catalogue record were unaware of this? Or, at least, they seem to be unaware because a standard rule that has crossed over from AACR to RDA is that the title of an individual work has the first letter capitalised when it appears in another title. By so doing the cataloguer distinguishes the work itself and reduces confusion.

Two conclusions can be reached here. The first is that whoever did the checking of this record was not aware that saying ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and papers from prison’ is not the same as saying ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and papers from prison’.  Martin Marty’s ‘biography’ is not a collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and papers from prison, but a study of the book by that name.

The second conclusion is that no one did any checking at all, that the title page was scanned or copied by a well-meaning scanner or copier, and sent forth into the world as the correct title according to the rules. This is the risk we now live with in a world where bulk loading and scanning are done without attention to the necessary editing of those bulk loaded and scanned records. The assumption that the publisher or cataloguing agent must have got it right the first time is no more than an assumption and the reason why we have cataloguers. Blind faith in the computers and electronics to get it right is only good as long as the words being scanned already fit the library rules, or are intelligible to an English user.

As it is, only the sentient being at her or his non-sentient computer (I refer here to the cataloguer) will know where, when and why a certain word must be capitalised. This is a simple example of why libraries must keep their cataloguers right where they are, at their work places, in order to display and share the natural and grammatical intelligence that we are all blessed with. There are times each day when neither scanning (machine) nor skimming (human) is enough. Curiously, this simple maxim has not changed just because we are now born-digital.

The Bibliophile, by Max Jacob

Philip Harvey

Le Bibliophile

La reliure du livre est un grillage doré qui retient prisonniers des cacatoès aux mille couleurs, des bateux dont les voiles sont des timbres-poste, des sultanes qui ont des paradis sur la tête pour montrer qu’elles sont très riches. Le livre retient prisonnières des heroines qui sont trés pauvres, des bateaux à vapeur qui sont trés noirs et de pauvres moineaux gris. L’auteur est une tête prisonnière d’un grand mur blanc (je fais allusion au plastron de sa chemise.)

This enigmatic prose poem was written by Max Jacob sometime in the first half of the twentieth century. It is an entertainment, not unlike the writings of Dame Edith Sitwell living across the Channel in England at the same time. It is an artful diversion for the bohemian salons Jacob visited in the years before it was risky in Paris to be a cubist-surrealist and a Jew. The Francophile poet John Ashbery has made this translation, complete with American spellings.

The binding of the book is gilt wire mesh which imprisons cockatoos of a thousand colors, boats whose sails are postage stamps, sultanas with bird-of-paradise feathers on their heads to show that they are very rich. The book imprisons heroines who are very poor, steamboats which are very black and poor grey sparrows. The author is a head imprisoned by a great white wall (I allude to his shirtfront).

The book is commonly regarded as a liberating cultural creation, not so frequently as  a prison. We like to think of the book sharing its riches and find puzzling the idea that here the book holds back its gifts. Even the author lives in some kind of prison, or his head does anyway. While the ‘gilt wire mesh’ contains various exotic and unusual things that we may admire while they are on show, we are left with an unsettling sense that the book as object is here presented as a constricting control mechanism with no known means of escape.

What a curious Parisian poem! Would an inward incarcerated Bastille not require a revolutionary act? Would the ill-gotten gains of a cruel empire not ask to be set free again so they could return home? Would a decadent Paris fallen under foreign occupation not desire liberation, if it were the last thing on earth? Is life inside a golden cage containing every marvel known to world exploration still, after all, life in a golden cage? Rich and poor, old and new, exotic and local exist side-by-side in awkward juxtaposition.

Perhaps the poem is a satire directed at an unnamed author, but time has rendered any such secret meaning obsolete. We treat the author in the poem as a type, a kind of role player who must play out his part in a slightly absurd cultural game. Maybe the author is Max Jacob himself. If so, then the poem may be read as self-mocking. His relationship with his book is one of shared imprisonment: they are trapped together and cannot escape the implications of their shared existence as ‘a great white wall’.

Is the author in the poem the same person as the bibliophile of the title? On face value we assume this to be the case, but if not then the poem takes on other meanings as well. For indeed, the aesthetic and collecting habits of a bibliophile may well be those of capture and imprisonment, where the purposes of the book maker are secondary to the bibliophile’s purposes. The poem gives little away in this respect and all we can do is contemplate the possibilities.

John Ashbery would not have been aware of the meaning of the sporting Australianism ‘shirtfront’ when he worked on this poem, anymore than the Prime Minister of Australia when this year he threatened to shirtfront the President of Russia. Such political farce could well have been working material for a Max Jacob poem. Shirtfront in the translation is a contraction of a much longer phrase in the original, ‘plastron de sa chemise’, which sneaks in at the end but is critical to our understanding of the whole poem. In some ways the poem devolves to the word ‘plastron’ which doesn’t just mean, as in English, shirtfront, but has implications of being a breastplate, even a jacket that keeps everything in check. When an inmate wears a ‘plastron de sa chemise’ we imagine he may even be in fact wearing a straitjacket. Or perhaps we are being told he is stuff-shirt?

We are amused by the idea that the author of a book is imprisoned by ‘a great white wall’. We think of the wall as the white page that may simultaneously be his outward expression, but also the very fact that defines and restricts him. This thought passes through our minds, until we are told (in brackets) that Jacob refers to the shirt worn by the author. We picture Buster Keaton or similar figure of the period, locked absurdly into the very garment that should make him liberated but in fact permanently entraps him.        

Max Jacob leaves his enigmatic book for our amusement, or puzzlement, or frustration. We begin making up stories about the fascinating things imprisoned inside his book, just as we do when spending time over a box by Joseph Cornell. We wonder if the women ever met, where the ships sailed, and whether the birds’ descendants are still picking away to their hearts’ content. And why.

This is the sixteenth in a series of essays about the book in poetry, first released at this site.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


This month is the start of the centenary year celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Teresa of Avila. The community at the Carmelite Monastery in Kew, Melbourne held Morning Prayer on Tuesday the 21st of October to celebrate the start of the jubilee year, with a talk afterwards given by Sr Paula Moroney. Sr Paula’s address is here reproduced, with kind permission.
 Celebrating an anniversary, particularly a significant 500 years, makes us recall the blessings that flow into our lives in its wake. St Teresa certainly made a mark on history and she loved to celebrate. She captivated many hearts across the centuries and presented prayer as a desirable and sure way to live in the joy of God’s unfathomable love, pointing the direction and opening a gateway to a spiritual treasury. From her own deep experience she shared the wisdom she discovered in the depths of her heart and encouraged us to do the same. With Teresa we discover the value of contemplative prayer in our lives for the Church and the world; it expands the mind and heart to make men and women bearers of light within history.    
                Today St Teresa invites us to walk her Camino – not by foot and mule cart, but a Camino in spirit, an interior journey with her, as she steps out of the pages of history and forges a path to union with God in prayer mapped out in her writings. We shall meet her as a joyous and loving person, a woman of prayer, of wisdom with the ability to understand and explain her experiences, generous and warmhearted, confident in trust, noted for her humility and truth, her honesty and candour, perceptive and vivacious with a wit that charmed and won others for God. These are the gifts she shares with us in her writings which place her among the greatest of Christian mystics. Her books are brilliant revelations of spiritual teaching, though she was a reluctant writer occupied with the daily business of her monasteries yet always pressing on to new horizons and further foundations.
                As she took up her quill pen to begin the Story of her Life words spilled over in prayer: “May God be forever blessed!  … We hope to see more clearly the great things He has done for us and praise Him for ever!”   Her life focused on God, always committed in faith, confident in love. 500 years later we celebrate with her in joyous gratitude, warmed by the ardor of her love and friendship with God which she shared with others so generously.
                The more deeply she entered into God’s love the more Teresa’s heart expanded in prayer and in her Carmelite calling her love embraced the world.  Love will not be idle, and prayer is not idle. It was urging her to reach out to others and bring them into the ambit of God’s plan by opening their lives to grace and contemplative prayer which is the deepest source of energy and compassion for a needy world.
                So began the adventures of her Foundations – a story that brings us to the present day. Her first venture was in inauspicious circumstances when she moved secretly from the large Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, to live her Carmelite life of simplicity and poverty in a humble little house with four young Sisters in this same town. Not only did this cause an uprising of the local population and a heated   law suit, but Teresa had to return to the Incarnation and await the verdict until she was permitted to return to her four orphan sisters. Her faith prevailed and her work continued.
                It would be a challenge to set off in her company along the Camino she travelled in 16th c. Spain by hot dusty roads, in bumpy wagons to inhospitable rooms at the end of the day but on she went to make 17 new foundations, from Avila to Medina, Toledo to Salamanca and much further in those last 20 years of her life, despite wretched health and with limited means. Convinced it was in the Divine plan she sought light in prayer and hastened on.
                To be fully human is to be at home with God who dwells within us and draws us into the mystery of love. Teresa is recognized as a teacher of mystical prayer, the first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 and so in this introduction we open our hearts and minds to walk with her in spirit along paths of prayer and learn more of her teaching from some of the main themes of her writings.  Fresh and inspiring as ever, these classics of spirituality are still studied for the wealth of wisdom they contain, particularly the four major works, The Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle and The Foundations.
                Each reveals rare treasures of the spiritual life and shows us how to find Christ in prayer – but be warned! Before we can arrive at the goal we must build foundations on a life of virtue.  Teresa, the realist, writes of real proven love for one another, of the detachment that makes us free and of humility which is truth. She seems to converse, spontaneously and intimately, her vital personality shining through the homely digressions. How much poorer we would be without the personal account of her spiritual journey, written in her original, inimitable prose, with interruptions and repetitions. The freshness of her creative imagination impresses lively images and authenticity.
                Time was a luxury for Teresa even in the 16th century, but she continued to write hundreds of letters long into the night, instructing, enquiring, requesting, nursing her newly-founded communities with a mother’s concern. She was a leader who inspired others besides being the astute business woman with an eye to quality. Usually she was discerning of character though sometimes she was disappointed, as her letters make obvious.
                In the ‘Book of her Life’, an early spiritual autobiography intended for her confessors, Teresa describes her mystical experiences with clarity and frequently addresses the Divine Majesty as if in colloquy. It is reassuring for us when she explains: “Mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time to be alone with him who we know loves us.” (Life 8:5)  This invitation is for all and no one is excluded. Grace is God’s gift of Himself, His presence in our lives. “God’s gift of All  gives meaning to the Nothing that we are.” (Ascent 11:v)  The motivating force of her life was pure and constant fidelity to her Divine Lord and this friendship animated all her relationships so that she could give others ‘the look of love they so much desire.’ Strangers became friends, for all received genuine care and consideration.
                She was absorbed in Christ, the intimate companion Teresa found as she lived the Gospels. She liked to place herself in scenes where she could be close to Him, like that other great lover, Magdalen, and this was often her habit after Communion.  She wanted to be faithful to the end and to greet him, the living and Risen One, after the Resurrection in the joy of Easter dawn. 
                She had an affection for the Samaritan woman and would imagine herself at the well asking for that living water to satisfy her thirst for love so that she would have more to give to others. (L.30:18)  The image of water fascinated her: we can think of the flowing fountains and aqueducts in Moorish palaces, cooling waters which refreshed the arid landscape of Spain.
                In one of her most famous allegories she describes the stages of prayer as four ways of watering a garden. In this case the garden is the soul and it is the Lord who is cultivating a beautiful creation, where seeds of virtues are planted and tended for His pleasure. There are four different ways to water this garden. Water can be drawn up from a well laboriously or it may be brought by means of a water wheel and irrigation channel with less effort. It may flow from a river or stream more plentifully or, best of all, the rain falls and soaks the ground without any labor of ours and the garden flourishes.
                In the early stages of the spiritual life one must apply oneself to become recollected. We tire easily but with ‘determined determination’ must persevere until the season when the gardener is ready for new growth. Where the streams flow there is great reward until eventually the rain falls abundantly and freely. The Prayer of Quiet leads to the Prayer of Union. It is sheer grace we cannot earn but which brings forth fruit and flowers to the delight of all.  (Life Ch 11-22)
                She loved to pray the Our Father, given to us by Our Lord Himself. In the Way of Perfection she advises on how to proceed gently, remaining in the Lord’s company, praying slowly over the words and pondering them as we are moved. Thus vocal prayer leads to contemplation. (WP Ch 27-37)  She herself had extraordinary experiences which are not given to everyone and there was an intensity about her spirit, a quality often found in those who must go ahead and lead others.
                Towards the end of her life after 15 intensive years of travelling and setting up foundations, she found herself back in Toledo in 1577. Time was running out and Fr Gracian requested her to write more about the ways God leads souls since the earlier Book of her Life was not accessible while it was under examination by the inquisition, wary of holy women who might stray from straight paths. Remember it was the period of the Council of Trent and Spain under Philip 11 took up the task of reinforcing the Church and unifying the Catholic kingdom. (The Book was nevertheless declared to be free of errors)  The fact that she was a woman, not an educated theologian, caused suspicion, but Teresa had learned from life’s experiences and her observations are so acute that she saw beyond narrow walls to authentic and lasting values.
                So came about her masterpiece, the “Interior Castle”, written in great haste between journeys, interrupted for several months. Of all her works it is the most coherent and organized. Teresa encourages us to explore the richness of our own interior depths which she compares to a magnificent diamond or crystal of many facets, reflecting light and inexhaustible wonders. The soul is like a castle of many rooms which fascinate and draw us inwards, where we are free to wander at will. The further we go the more we discover. The Spanish word, ‘moranas’, is more comfortable than mansion, which suggests grandeur and pretentious wealth. It seems that St Teresa had in mind the 14th chapter of St John’s Gospel: “There are many rooms in my Father’s house” and “All who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we shall come to them and make our home (our dwelling) with them.” (Jn 14: 2, 24)  As we read further we recognize ourselves and patterns of behavior which help or hinder progress for Teresa was a realist with a practical genius, for all her mystical gifts. For us, God, the Supreme Being and most profound mystery, has a name. We know him in Jesus, his Incarnate Word, the Beloved who shows us the Father’s love and gives us His Spirit.  In fact God lives within us unbounded by space and time; as St Paul taught: “In him we live and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28)
                When we come to the Third Dwelling there is more security and in the Fourth the Lord takes over more of the work as we are drawn to be more still and silent. Gradually a transformation is taking place and the soul enters into more delicate awareness of its relationship and encounter with the other. “We can suffer any disquiet,” she says, “if we find peace within” (IC iv, 1,12)
                She is always full of surprises:-  
                One of Teresa’s most brilliant illustrations appears in the Fifth Dwelling.  She thinks of the silkworm growing from a minute seed, (the egg), feeding on the mulberry leaves and then spinning for itself a cocoon where it will enclose itself and die. Eventually it will emerge, a small fragile butterfly with wings and now it can fly. It has newfound freedom and beauty. A wondrous transformation has taken place. Teresa likens this to our dying to self and rising with Christ, as we live the Paschal mystery through suffering to the glory of Resurrection. Can you believe it? Just look at creation.
                The culmination of the mystical journey upon reaching the Seventh Dwelling is Spiritual Marriage when the soul is totally at one with the Beloved sealed in a permanent union. As rain falling into the river becomes that river or the stream flowing into the sea or light streaming into a room from separate windows cannot be separated. Truth enlightens all and the three persons of the Trinity communicate love and peace in silent embrace.  God is both Noun and Verb.
                What is more, to have participation in the life and love of the Trinity means that one can share that life with others without it diminishing in any degree, for those who draw near to God do not have to withdraw from real life but rather become truly close to others. The harmony within opens the person to compassion and unselfishness and enables that one to grow as a person, being totally at peace with itself and the world. ‘This is the reason for prayer…the birth always of good works…’ (IC VII 4:15)  Let us not underestimate the influence we have on each other because it is in the here and now that God becomes present to us. Our companions on the same journey might even be other little Thereses, unrecognized and unappreciated!    Indeed both Teresa and Therese discovered that “The Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done.” (IC VII 4:15)  Above all she had a relationship with Christ that enabled her to overcome obstacles and accomplish so much. Christ is her ‘Living Book’, the source of her generous life of love. 
Teresa, that ‘undaunted daughter of desires,’ ever open to God’s stirring in the human heart, was transformed with sanctity and the radiance of her intimate friendship with God. This is ultimately the essence of her lasting attraction. This is our deepest desire too, yet it is a rare gift to find someone who can communicate it with Teresa’s sincerity and candor.
As we celebrate and rejoice in the blessings that have come to us personally and the far-reaching graces across the centuries through the fidelity of this great friend of God, we can go forward in confidence knowing that Our Incarnate Lord has come to meet us. When we dare to go beyond our own narrow boundaries true love flourishes and light shines, revealed in the Gospels when we listen attentively and ponder them faithfully.
 Pope Francis gave us the Gospel of Joy, ‘Evangelium Gaudii’ so that we encounter Christ in a joy that frees and illuminates us. St Teresa shows us how we can live in that joy which enriches our lives and inspires heroism to overcome obstacles, surmount barriers and experience  supernatural  grace capable of transforming the whole being. The Carmelite Way, St Teresa’s Way, gives everyone the encouragement to cultivate the contemplative dimension which holds the promise of the past, the passion for the present and the courage to look to the future, as Pope Francis has suggested. (cf. EG 199 & Homily 16.12.13) Thus we return to our Carmelite tradition and see Love as “Allegiance to Jesus Christ”, and taking up Teresa’s desires, treasure the beauty of intimate friendship with the One who loves us into being and transforms our lives to be prophets of hope in our 21st century.  Teresa beckons - her Camino leads us to live love to the full and carry it to our world.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Divine Landscapes: The Writings of Ronald Blythe

Susan Southall

Picture of Ronald Blythe at home,  via the Daily Telegraph (London)

“In the Village Church where I often preach there are two kinds of window, that filled with clear glass and that with painted glass. In heavenly terms both have to be looked through, not at. Through the clear glass we glimpse nature — a cloud, a yew, a passing bird. Through coloured glass we glimpse other worlds than this.”

Spiritual Reading Group met in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday 21st October, where Susan Southall gave this introductory paper on Ronald Blythe, who is considered to be England’s finest country writer. He is a cathedral canon, lay reader, and preacher. He belongs to a tradition which sees the divine hand in a landscape filled with nature, history, literature and art. He calls himself ‘a listener and a watcher’: his unique style curves this way and that, relaxed and exact, both dreaming and real. Prayer, he says, is part of the pattern of life. Here is Susan’s opening paper, with quotes from some of Blythe’s work.

Early in 1947, Ronald Blythe was living near Aldeburgh, in a rented house found for him by the woman he describes as his muse: Christine, wife of the painter John Nash. Christine Nash had met Blythe while he was working in Colchester Library as a reference librarian, but he was leaving his job to undertake a career change while still in his twenties. John and Christine Nash became patrons to Blythe, who was determined, in his shy and quiet way, to become a writer.

On this snowy day, Blythe saw in the street E.M. Forster, who was staying in Benjamin Britten’s house for the Aldeburgh Festival. When Blythe got home, there was note from Forster inviting him to Britten’s place and when he got there, he found the living room covered in paper, pages spread over every available surface. Forster was writing a biography, and he had no idea how to construct an index. This was simple for Blythe, who made quick work of the pages, and that was his introduction to working at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Ronald Blythe is in his 93rd year now, in 2014. In 2013 he published the memoir of his association with the Festival, the artists, painters and musicians he knew at that time, for the centenary of Britten’s birth, and this book was received with much acclaim. A number of his books are collated from his weekly essays for Church Times, his diary entries, and sermons he preaches in his parish church: three of them! His latest volume records some 33 published works, most of them non-fiction, though he has written three novels and a book of short stories. He views himself as an essayist and poet, and the book that brought him early and lasting success is a longer work, Akenfield.

Akenfield (1969) gives voices to a vanished way of life, the agricultural world of rural villages that was passing away by the 1950’s. It was a world that revolved around the church in its daily, weekly and seasonal ceremonies. The world of The Book of Common Prayer. The artisans and farm workers Blythe interviewed lived in deep poverty, but they held a strong spiritual connection to the land. Akenfield was made into a film by Peter Hall, (with music by Michael Tippett, as Britten was too ill to contribute), and it has now become a classic.

The Blythe family has lived in Suffolk for centuries, near to the river of that name. Ronald Blythe has spent most of his time in East Anglia, in the house he inherited from John and Christine Nash, called Bottengoms Farm. It is by observing the passage of seasons through the surrounding countryside, the birds, plants, animals and weather, and the ritual year of the church, that Blythe gives expression to his spirituality.

Introducing Wormingford, the place where his farm is located, Blythe first says that it was the home of John Constable’s people. Blythe is said to write landscapes — and part of the landscape is the inhabitants — through history, literature and art. History isn’t linear but depth, layer after layer, over the landscape. He’s president of the John Clare Society, and has written about George Crabbe, the realist poet- parson, all these references slipping into the landscape and the seascape around him. In an essay about the sea, he says:

“There is Benjamin Britten's house. Sea-trained by his Lowestoft origins, he would have found the interior silences of my native scene sterile, maybe. No thud and crash of water, no pitiless distances, and an absence of drama. No glitter to life. What was sometimes wearying to me was reviving to him. George Crabbe, the great realist poet, heard the Aldeburgh sea calling to him wherever he went. He would make long journeys to it, just to breathe it in. His snowy bust looks up at Britten's memorial window in Aldeburgh church, and away from congregations.

“The Revd George Crabbe was given a hard time when he re- turned to Aldeburgh as a curate. But the mighty sea solaced him, and while he could be said to have taken his revenge in The Borough, an exposé of a poem if ever there was one, in his head the sea put all human behaviour in its place. And so here it is once more, diminishing, yet somehow praising us mortals.

“There are no oceans in the King James Bible, only seas, and these abundantly. Awe accompanies the many references to them. It was St Paul who used the word "peril" in relation to them. Most scriptural references show humanity acknowledging the sea's supremacy. Those who wrote them would not have heard of the Pacific or the Atlantic. They would have seen them as roads, and the Gospels have a marine flavour to them.”

This shows a little about the way Blythe works. He begins with something autobiographical, his own experience, with its interior silences, which immediately brings to mind Crabbe, whose poem The Borough inspired Britten to write his opera Peter Grimes. And from there he goes directly to the church, and its stained glass windows. And from there to the sea, the way humanity is put in its place. And from there to the King James Bible, and how the sea was anciently perceived: with awe. And then to the Gospels, and the voyages of Paul, who travelled on sea roads bringing the church to the world. So the church is central to his spirituality: it means he doesn’t have to be complicated about it. He isn’t going to be a person who says “”I’m spiritual but not religious.” He doesn’t even think he is particularly religious, either. And yet he is a churchman.

Blythe was once invited to become a priest, but he pointed out that he was far too quietly disposed ever to be able to run a parish. He spends hours, he says, daydreaming. He says he’s a Reader who happens to be a writer, and so there’s this deep well of sensibility to draw on. The oration for his honorary doctorate from the University of Essex says: he talks of “the living, the departed, the abundance, the dearth, the planets, the prayers, the holiness of things.”

An editorial from The Guardian for Blythe’s 90th birthday in 2012 notes that “tucked away on the back page of the Church Times each week is one of the most elegant and thoughtful columns in British journalism. Word from Wormingford mixes acute, elegiac rural observation with a strand of English mystical thinking that often seems to reach back to its 17th-century roots.”

From Word from Wormingford:               

“Reading has always been my way to the Way, always my way of knowing anything. I read the poet John Clare for his authoritative village sounds. One has only to open a page of him to hear every day of that Northamptonshire year, the cries, the grind, the song, the humanity, the creatures… I tell the flock about St. Thomas, that so-like-us man, who demanded physical proof of a spiritual reality. A week before him there was St. John of the Cross, Spain’s Traherne, with his daring Christian imagery, and who found that the very waiting for Christ enchanted the landscape, making the beautiful river country at Baeza distractingly lovely. For this writer scenery became the physical proof of his Lord. I have to make the best of outdoors on lessening days.” (17)

He’s telling us about his spirituality by telling us about other people’s spirituality. A domestic scene from Village Hours (2012):

“Forget the economy: the big question is: can I say at St. Andrew’s this Sunday what I said at SS Peter and Paul last Sunday? Would this be sloth, or a fair distribution of genius? The white cat sits in the window, grumbling at green woodpeckers devouring Waitrose chicken strips. It really is the limit.

“The day is grey and sweet. The wood is full of snowdrops. The study is piled with books. Epiphany is fading into Before Lent. There isn’t a sound except little animal-grousings…

“I have an ancient ash on which ivy has created or founded a kind of leaf city for countless creatures. It feeds on pond water, and generously sheds dead boughs for kindling. It has been here for ever: since 1900, say. It sings, along with its birds.”

There’s just this simple security. He writes: “A Medieval King would keep his Christmas at Woodstock or Westminster, or wherever he happened to be.  And God keeps us, wherever we happen to be.” He tells about the Christmas festivities when James I saw the play Twelfth Night, and Lancelot Andrewes was the preacher. And Andrewes forgot his lines. He says, “Nobody was more understanding than James, for whom the word ‘baby’ was so wonderful that he went on calling his son and lover this when they were in their 20’s, signing them ‘Your Dad and Gossip’. Seated below the pulpit, he heard Bishop Andrewes approaching the stable on Christmas morning with his theology pat, his severe face all set for the great occasion, his notes crackling in his hand.  And then — a newborn boy. The Saviour of mankind. The preaching went out of his voice, King and court went silent. Not a sound in the freezing chapel. But Andrewes was not in it; he was in Bethlehem. ‘An infant —the infant Word— the Word without a word— the eternal Word not able to speak a word— a wonder sure…” And Blythe says, “One should long ago have been surfeited with all this. How does it all stay so fresh? How do babies cause one to be at a loss for words? How strange it all is.”

All words quoted here are copyright Ronald Blythe. The Carmelite Library has a good and growing collection of his writings.

See also his blogspot: