Play as spiritual practice

I was, when it first launched, not a fan of the Hungry Little Minds campaign: its wording reminded me to the point of embarrassment of the platitudes I have spouted at Parents’ Evenings, and the refrain of every little thing you do together will help set them up nicely for the day they start school suggested that none of the aspirations of the 1980s and 90s about Early Years not being a preparation for later schooling had been heeded. This link, for example, takes you to ECF, the Early Chidlhood Forum, or at least to an overview of its history, and this takes you to its 2016 charter.

However, there are two things I see on the two posters I pass regularly: two wonderful smiling children. In this first one, Is there a tiger under the flap? the child is focussed, excited, showing (it seems to me) a real enjoyment at the experience of sharing a book. Resolutely Early Years in its focus, this sums up, for me, some key elements in these stages of learning to read: enjoying their own expectations, engaged with a book the image at least suggests they found engrossing and funny.

And in this one, I’m so glad we had this chat, the happiness is accompanied by what looks to me to be a smile of recognition: along with the excitement of entertainment is the absolutely vital element of relationship. So I am revising my feelings about these posters and the Hungry Little Minds project in total, and seeing them, as we stumble through the treacle of guidance – and lack of it, and mendacity, and goodness knows what – as a real contribution to recognising some of the wonderful work that relating to children does at home and in settings.

In the light of some very odd interventions – the SoS suggesting children should face the front, plans from serving teachers being given some prominence (and cash for the project, extending into next year), and rhetoric from both major parties about children losing out and catching up, not to mention sight of the new EYFS for the “early adopters” (a helpful comparison is in this blog post) – it seems to me that these posters show an important element in young children’s communication: delight.*

A long time back in my blogging history I did some thinking about spirituality and proposed writing about Play as spiritual practice for young children and I return (as I have in lectures; as I did time and again as a practitioner with 3-5 year olds) to Tina Bruce’s idea of play having a strong theme of wallowing in ideas and feelings.

In control of their ideas yet sending sparks with their imagination (a far cry from the new Goals, where imagination is apparently subordinate to cultural replication), a child at play is a learner alive with possibilities. Interesting to note, I think, how many metaphors I felt I needed for that one sentence: to be more straightforward, play is complex, dynamic – and I am sent back again to the post I wrote about teaching spirituality. I have asked before (in my old blog, linked here) about whether the idea of “dizzy” play and Roger Caillois’ model of the whirlpool are referring to the same phenomemon; whether play is in the ownership of the child because the child is wallowing out of the reach of the controlling adult. More metaphors; and they don’t hold together. Some steps back, then…

…and I come back to this notion of delight. When I wrote (about four years ago) that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities perhaps what I might now add is that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its potential to delight. Why might this be important?

I suppose “delight” seems better than “fun.” Is this just a deep-seated Puritanism in me? Perhaps – but it also has an idea of irresistible attraction (St Augustine cites Vergil with the line Trahit sua quemque voluptas, everyone is drawn by their own delight although the context for the original [the dementia of hopeless love] is not especially apt). Lost in the magic of play, rather than giggling at the comic exploit.

Tina Bruce’s ideas come in here very well, and the final of her twelve features of free-flow play is of especial relevance:

Children at play co-ordinate their ideas and feelings and make sense of relationships with family, friends and culture. Play is an integrating mechanism which allows flexible, adaptive, imaginative, innovative behaviour. Play makes children into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

Tina Bruce (2004) Developing Learning in Early Childhood – this itself is an expansion of ideas in, for example, her 1991 book Time to Play.

Interiorised, relational sense-making, holistic formation of the human, seems an important part of most recent definitions of spirituality – and helping, by this, to create a way of balance. Very close to the notion of the spiritual I have explored before where Tony Eaude writes of personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose.

Jerome Bruner’s (complex, lengthy) essay on Why Play Evolved in Animals and Man in his (et al) compilation Play (Penguin 1976) discusses Bentham’s use of the phrase Deep Play:

Deep play is playing with fire. It is the kind of serious play that tidy and even permissive institutions for educating the young cannot live with happily, for their mandate from the society requires them to cary out their work with due regard for minimizing chagrin concerning outcomes achieved. And deep play is a poor vehicle for that.

Serious play. A vehicle for teaching the nature of a society’s convention and a contest between troubled human culture (“degrading the biosphere, failing to cope with population, permitting technology to degrade individuality, and failing to plan” [Yes this was written in 1972]) and modelling new lifestyles. This is a window into children’s play and adolescent play that looks at play as sociological formation and interpretation. The links to spiritual development seem to me to be about the kind of relational aspects I have garnered sources for recently. Where do I fit in? What is the world I am working to shape, and which is shaping me? These are much like Helen Hedges’ questions in her chapter Whose Goals and Interests? in Engaging Play (Brooker and Edwards 2010):

  • What will I do when I’m bigger?
  • What do intelligent, responsible and caring adults do?
  • How can I make special communications with people I know?
  • How can I make and communicate meaning?
  • How can I understand the world I live in?
  • How can I develop my physical and emotional well-being?
  • What is special about my identity in the place I live in?

These are not a million miles from the concerns that run through a lot of books – from, say, Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, and one of the problems about such a broad spread of notions around spirituality is that everything can be seen as having a spiritual aspect, and we run the risk of nothing being particularly spiritual. It’s a real risk: when everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody, as Gilbert’s Grand Inquisitor puts it. But play (according to Bruce) is an integrating mechanism with intrinsic motivation and deep concentration that allows a child to be immersed in their activity, an activity arising from their own agenda. Intensely personal, rather than a space for a child to conform to an adult need. While “adult agenda” often suggests to Early Years practitioners the more formal, teacher-led aspects of school experience, there is also a danger in describing play in terms of a forum for children to ask big questions. Eaude, cited above, has a warning when he talks of fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose. His idea that this exploration and development is conscious or otherwise means, for me, that we do not have to squeeze our theoretical expectations out of children like this.

I am reminded of my first class, a Reception class suffering the visitation from a local Secondary Head (incidentally my first experience of secondary mansplaining in that he told us all [including my own headteacher] that he was in charge of all our curricula), where he bent over one child and asked “So what have you been learning today?” to which the child replied “That’s a very difficult question to ask someone who’s only four.” For children engaged in play the answer at the end of a nursery day might be “I went in the garden with Sam,” or “I got paint on my shirt.”

So let’s look again at these charming and photogenic children. They are shown engrossed and delighted in their activities: sharing a book, having a chat. Similar expressions are well known by anyone who even looks at a child gazing out of the window on a bus. The adult response – the serve and return of communication is crucial, and in the best cases, returns the same delight. When in the observations culled from being with my grandchildren I see something delightful – something that gives me joy – I hope I respond well enough. I often remember with a pang a child who came up to me to ask me something, took one look at me and said

Is this a “in a minute” minute?

Sue Waite’s 2011 article in Education 3-13 looks specifically at a pedagogy founded in a reawakening of joy in learning…the positive emotions encoraged by a rich sensory environment. She is outdoors of course: this is Sue Waite – but she makes a point applicable throughout Early Years pedagogy when she warns, in the tradition of Bruce and others that,

Contributing to, without commandeering, play situations for learning is a delicate skill and may run counter to practitioner’s expectations…The values expressed by practitioners included freedom, fun, authenticity, autonomy and physicality and were reflected in examples of child-led, real-life experiential pedagogies engaging the enthusiasm of children and adults. Nevertheless, these examples were framed by an acute awareness of external requirements and at times conflict was reported between personal aspirations and practice, the ideal and the real.

Teaching and learning outside the classroom: personal values, alternative pedagogies and standards (Education 3-13 Volume 39, 2011)

Neither the child glad to have had this chat nor the one looking a for the tiger under the flap could, I believe, have shown that delight without an element of shared enthusiasm. Our awareness of external requirements should not be allowed to chip away at what is the core of education for me: the spiritual aspect of working with children helping them grow into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

But maybe this isn’t just the mission of the Early Years educator: maybe this is how we should look at our lives, in our families, in the shop queue, when we tun to social media. And we are back to my friend and colleague Jon Reid’s examen I have mentioned before: three ways I have shown myself some care; three ways I have cared for others; three ways I have experienced some care from others. Back to the compassion at the heart of ethical practice…

***

*It is worth noting that Alison Peacock – who contributed to the new EYFS and welcomes the changes to the curriculum – writes of the task of Reception as “joyful,” in part, I think, because of the restored primacy of teachers’ freedom to use their knowledge of the children and their expert judgement to offer a wonderful Early Years experience for all.

Religio

Perhaps I should simply amend my blog post(s) on Spirituality and Belonging (such as this most recent or this from not-so-long before) but that would confuse the things I was trying to say. This might stand, in grand language, as an autoethnographic codicil to these ideas. The grand language just isn’t necessary, of course: this is just a couple of thoughts and two links.

Link One: I was struck this morning reading Michael Sadgrove’s reflection on his blog on a missed “last sermon,” as he turns seventy around the date of his anniversary of ordination, where his challenge is worded with typical thoughtfulness:

I’m especially thinking of the ‘heart-work’ that begins when we realise that the most basic question we can ever ask ourselves is, what does life expect of us? Or if you like, what does God ask of us? What is the work of God in the world and what is my part in it? How do I go on responding to God and to life before I die, become the best self I am capable of being? It’s a question that, like the Hound of Heaven, pursues us down the years, though we don’t always face it in our busy working lives.

Michael Sadgrove: A Last Post. http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com/2020/06/a-last-post.html

and then there was this, Link Two. In an extraordinary piece of homiletic poetry, John Farrell preached at Blackfriars this morning, we are invited to see our religion as anchored in history, for we do not belong to an angelic Church where the angels sing their Sanctus; it is made up of people. Here is the link to his full sermon; I can’t do it justice.

Can we see these two as connected?

John Southworth

This where it gets personal. Yesterday was the feast day in Westminster of St John Southworth a priest who risked his life in C17th London on two accounts: by flouting laws that forbade his working as a priest in an England hostile to Roman Catholicism; by working among the sick in a London sick with the plague. And yes, I know he looks like Christopher Lee in this picture.

His metaphorical presence in “my” family was an important factor – my grandma was a Southworth – in determining a number of key choices for me, both religious and secular. This is why I chose the title of this blog post (and for once will reference Wikipedia for an exposition of the term). We all make our choices about where we stand, where we belong; this is not something specific to the kind of signed-on-the-dotted-line which makes membership, conformity and belonging more or less synonyms.

But here I come back to Michael Sadgrove’s questions, relevant, it seems to me, both within a Christian framework and in other ways of looking. The “heart-work” he talks about for older people (like him; like me) is a process of lived reflection, involving being more present to the here and now: family, friendships, the pleasures of nature and art, the cycles of times and seasons, the goodness of ordinary things. He also suggests welcoming the perspectives we gain later in life when when we can look back and recognise patterns and connections that have run through our personal histories. And this is where I would add something in. I would suggest it is a peculiarly Catholic insight, were it not that the writer was Dean of Durham, successor to the Priors and Benedictine community: time to set my RC exceptionalism aside. However, I am reminded – partly by John Farrell‘s sermon – of an important part of Belonging: and that is belonging to a culture and its histories.

Plural histories, or a single interlocking and messy history: over my shoulder are not only heroes like John Southworth, but intolerance, anti-Semitism, Avignon, a Rome that picked up the very marginalised people the Empire had killed and used them for its own ends. It is very true to say – as Michael Sadgrove underlines in his quoting Kierkegaard – that ‘Life must be lived forwards but understood backwards.’ I understand where I am by looking back at all these insofar as I can. And this is where his final point is so relevant as we all wade through the morass of cultural inheritance: a challenge to radical compassion, becoming more attentive to ambiguity, darkness and suffering.

Sing the Same Delight

We are in that odd time between the Solstice and St John’s Day: caught between astronomical and ritual midsummer? Similar disjunction happens at the Winter Solstice and Christmas/New Year, and while plenty of scholars comment on this (Hutton being most obvious), it made me stop and look about.

The meadow at midday is bright with flowers. Or come to be with Kipling’s Puck, out in the woods all night, a-conjuring Summer in, or get up early and see a fox as the mist is dispersing. The Brook is loud after the sudden, welcome rains. Hungry young Jackdaws squawk in the trees, and incautious young Great Tits inspect the remains of our breakfast. We are a long way – as far as we can get – from Cooper’s poem and Ellis’ artwork: deep shadows and people trudging through snow. That cold Standing-Still is now maybe the most powerful for Northern European culture; I cannot speak for any other.

A long way, too, from the wheeling round of yearly celebrations of the garlands of May, the fires of Midsummer and the feasts of Harvest and Midwinter – and from the births of Jesus and John the Baptist at opposite sides of the cycle. It is as if we have given them away with no thought as to to their worth – only to find, I think, that isolation in this time of crisis shows we have very little to substitute them. We lost much of the communal aspects Easter and Whitsun to COVID19, and we see what so much of our brain is occupied by – or at least what mine is taken up with – social media and telly and shopping. God help us.

If I look at what remains of the folk-Christian crazy paving, I see light and the play of light on growing things. The two photos in this post show my preoccupations: the carnival of flowers in what we might call “Churchill Meadows,” the grassland by the Churchill Hospital on the way to the woods and fens of the Lye Valley, and that very last glimmer of light on that very last day when the days are growing longer. We have a mix of festival fullness and a hint of what it to come.

Quite why the Winter Solstice is seen as a time of crisis – will the sun come back again? – when the sunset of the Solstice seems like the first intimation that in the midst of life we are in death Media Vita in Morte Sumus I can’t quite figure out. Perhaps I am simply lugubrious.

Plenty of evidence exists (and Ronald Hutton has a lot of them) for the Midsummer Fires being a major celebration. Ou sont les feus d’antan? A bonfire: is it a boon fire, a bane fire, a bone fire? It may be, as Hutton suggests, that Midsummer was about purification: a spiritual and physical (if we may distinguish) cleansing when the greatest fire in the traditional cosmos, the sun, was putting out most strength after being cooped up in the cold and wet. Maybe the cleansing follows after the Christian introduction of St John Baptist – and then I am back in Garner Country, and his hinting and probing the relationship between the cult of St John Baptist – Jenkin – and non-Christian rites. It is the bull-cult crowd that in his great novel Thursbitch Garner depicts as power and glory and terror as Nan Sarah looks down at the crowd gathered in the moonlight, celebrating sacrifice:

“Oh bonny Bull. Come thy ways…”

They were one swarm of noise…

Something was in the field. It grew from the mass, and yet was it, yet made it more, drawing the dark writhing to its own purpose , the yelling to its own tongue. What was there grew to reach the moon and gave one cry such as Nan Sarah had not heard in all her days: the cry of man and bull.

Alan Garner, Thursbitch, Chapters 12 and 13.

Garner has the mindset just right: the numinous presence that grows from the crowd; the celebrating – remembering that the roots of the word are in crowding, joining together – making something more. The crowd knows it at a Rugby match; at the singing of the Christus Vincit; it was felt at Leonard Cohen’s singing Hallelujah at Glastonbury; the crowd engaged in mystery sensing, in transcendence. Joining in; belonging; being there together.

Spirituality is about belonging in many ways, and celebrations show a communal aspect to a range of concerns. So we make celebrations out of what we can: birthdays, ours and others; arbitrary days to thank parents, teachers and so on. But such calendar points are double-edged. We encourage children to participate – and maybe indirectly to feel guilty when they don’t quite hit the mark? The ambiguity of the recent clapping for NHS workers is one example: thank you for this and that, but not in a way that acknowledges the enormity of your tasks. Or (as in my case) they take the edge off my family’s desire to celebrate Fathers’ Day by my finding it rather uncomfortable. But where else do I belong? As lockdown is relaxed more and more I feel its tensions more keenly in my desire to be united with people with whom I feel I belong, making ordinary places thin – full of something bigger than just me and my paltry resources, as I have discussed before. Mercer (cited in this Thin Places blog post) sees spirituality as having in its components

meaning-making, to relationships with others and to relationships with the sacred/transcendent

Mercer, J  (2006) Capitalizing on children’s spirituality: parental anxiety, children as consumers, and the marketing of spirituality

and I think I would add to this in that the relationship to the transcendent and the relationship with others having the actual or potential aspect of physicality. Belonging, it seems to me, is what we do by scent and touch as much as by sight and hearing: we are animals, after all, not disembodied ghosts.

So – although this is a short dash and still, like a dog in a field, off at so many different tangents – this is really only a quick dash into a very deep idea: that belonging has physical expression deep in its veins.

In the Winter Solstice

They carol, feast, give thanks,And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.

and this Summer evening I will raise a glass to the people I love whom I can’t be with, and hope they are singing the same delight, and the same hope for wholeness once again.

St John Baptist Eve: Old Midsummer Eve.

***

Postscript: I got up for the dawn this morning.

Guiding Principles, Graduating Students

Very much a Brookes Blog this, albeit entirely unofficial, but inspired partly by the surfacing of the annual Cthulhu of Nursery Graduations, something I’ve railed at before. What is graduation about? And this year, what takes its place? I know some places have gone entirely virtual, while others are looking at postponement.

If I had my way I’d be standing in my cap and gown at a lectern reading names. People I know well, or people I have at least taught, and sometimes people I haven’t taught, would file past me, and I would try and balance the tricky bit of reading their names and giving them a little smile before they launch off across the platform to where the Vice-Chancellor would be all smiles and shake hands somewhere in the middle of a platform. I am missing some notable students this year – and I was especially looking forward to the award of a doctorate to my friend and mentor, Dr Julie Fisher. I would inevitably get some names wrong despite the prompt card, and as Reader have no time to play the “Have they ever worn those heels before?” games of spotting ten foot tall women and suited men unused to shoes without trainer grips tottering or tripping along. 55 mins pretty much every time, depending on the guest speaker. 

Ah yes, the guest speaker. A notable, hopefully someone the graduands will recognise and, if not, at least someone who can speak about what graduation means. The ones who find it hardest to win the crowd haven’t really understood the cohort they are addressing and think “education” in the School of Education means teachers or teachers-in-the-making; some of the best warm the audience up with something light hearted and then hit them with something that is so inspirational you wonder why you even tried for three or so years when someone so talented has lifted the spirits of “your” students in 15 minutes. There are speakers who have that gift, and have thought and prepared and picked the right phrase or poem or saying and everyone leaves on a cloud. 

I don’t think this cohort will get this experience, not this year – or maybe not right at the end of all that hard work, at any rate. Up in my little study, I could put my kit on but it wouldn’t be the same. I could make a hash of the names, too – but we would be missing the ceremony. So what does a ceremony do? I’ve asked this question before, and I wonder about the ceremonial that accompanies what is, in effect, a representation of an older set of rituals that are about being allowed to do something after a ceremony that you were not allowed beforehand. Marriages are like that in many cultures, permission to be or join (or start) a family, and graduations similarly reflect the older view that a degree is a license to teach, permission to go out and replicate the educational project of which the student has been the recipient. 

In the post-1992 Universities – and perhaps in all UK Universities except the most ancient – the ceremony itself is not in any way the conferment of that license, even for people training to be teachers, although it echoes it; it is more accurate to be viewed as a ritual representation of a lot of work. Work by administrators (from admissions to room bookings) feeds into work by lecturers (teaching) which feeds into work by students (reading, experience: learning); more work by students (producing assessable work) feeds into work by lecturers (marking), which then translates into the filtration system of exam boards (or committees, or whatever) which are in turn reported to complex administration systems (involving humans and computers). These systems are checked and rechecked and a result is determined, and the student gets their BA, BSc, MA, whatever. If you want a sense of the complexity and the life-changing, hectic nature of this, try reading this paragraph in one breath. 

And then the ceremony. Lots of clapping, lots of little speeches, a queue to meet a University leader for a handshake or other greeting. Pre-ceremony there has been dressing up; post-ceremony there is a bit of a party: photos, meeting relatives. Parallels with weddings are again pretty obvious. 

At Brookes we talk about graduands (people ready to be given a degree) and graduates (people who have been moved up a step by being awarded their qualification), although actually a student “has their degree” when the results are published. What are we saying the student now has?  Graduates are connected to their degree by the learning outcomes of the degree that they have undertaken; they are connected to the University by the way that degree has been dovetailed into the organisation’s aims, visions, hopes and fears. I sometimes think we don’t talk enough about these broader aspirations: they become, if we’re not careful, a way of selling the University more than a way of looking at the time the student has spent with us – and, in this context it is worth remembering that that these aims are a way of thinking not so much about what the students have done so much as what the graduates can now do: not a million miles away from the old license to teach idea. What does the University now think you (graduates) can do?

Brookes has a set of what might be thought of as “family values” by which it couches its Guiding Principles as ideas which “shape the character of our graduates” thus:

Generosity of spirit: the principles say the University has positive working practices…built on the various ways we give time and attention. 

Connectedness: where the heart of staff and student experience is the deep rotts of Brookes history and the city in which it is situated

Confidence: in the ability of the student body. 

Enterprising creativity: time at University should be a sustainable and life-changing route for student participants and support them as they graduate. 

…and so let me just note that this implies that graduates will have been given time and attention, with compassion at the heart of the relationships and confidence in the ability of the student body, to be flexible and creative as they leave their study time at Brookes. And this is where I have a problem.

Things like Student Satisfaction Surveys function like Trip Advisor: Have you had a good time? or Were they nice to you? All very well in their way – some might argue key to how an organisation sees its work and improves. But they also put the onus on the organisation to talk in terms of what it’s doing or done: Were the towels clean? and Was the Reception Area easy to find? Perhaps we could turn this around a bit, not to shift blame or to avoid those things that in a really difficult time need to be looked at with a keen eye, but to look at whether guiding principles have behind them a spirituality that they seek to impart to students. It’s not necessarily a spirituality of transcendence, unless we thing of that as being part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is about connecting and compassion, and by this being able to make sense of our lives. It’s then not enough to think about whether staff were available when students wanted them, or what a University could do better, but what a graduand might do to look at themselves:

Enterprising creativity: Can I think flexibly and in an adult way, using the skills I have practised to make the world better? We are going to need this so badly: economic and political crises, ecological pressures… Am I set to be compliant and get my own job done, or can I see myself as something bigger, something needing my energy?

Confidence: Do I know at least something of my own abilities, and can I build a community around me of people who trust me and whom I can trust? When my confidence fails me, or when society looks unsafe, can I find ways to inspire myself and others?

Connectedness: Is compassion at the heart of my experiences and the decisions I make? Can I see how people different from me are still people with yesterdays and tomorrows to face? Are my choices about me and the here-and-now or do they look around to see wider implications?

Generosity of spirit: How do I give time and attention to people around me? People close to me, people I work with? People in the shops or on the bus? This year above all years do I have an eye for the marginalised, the sick?

If as I said before a graduation ceremony is about belonging – and this year we can’t say we belong in quite the same obvious and physical way – then we might ponder how we belong.

And I might suggest we belong in Brookes by being the embodiment of these principles. It’s not so much about having a license to teach, or any of the other things that we might be empowered do so with our MAs or BAs or wot not – but about how the “family values” are translated in our own lives.

Belonging

A short video piece from DfE about some of the thinking behind more children returning to school and schools working on the arrangements they have put in place – note I am not going to go for the mendacious (or at least woolly) language of “reopening” – is revealing and heartening. Of course, it’s a promotional video, but I rather hope they will keep it up, although I recognise that this link may be superseded and in any case I am looking forward to a time when this kind of advice will no longer be needed. The language of the piece is interesting: lots from staff, parents and children about wellbeing and friendship. There is mention from a parent that she worried she couldn’t teach like the teachers do, and a word from a member of staff about routines, but overall the message is about children’s happiness, children’s friendships.

Joyce Bellous, in a recent and very rich article, calls spirituality – or at least one part of human spirituality – “a human capacity for connection:”

The assumption here is that spiritual work is grounded on our ability and willingness to make meaningful connections with others, and under favourable conditions, to do so in a way that improves a situation or makes the world a better place.

Joyce Bellous, An inclusive spiritual education

It is therefore part of an educator’s task

to offer children narratives to meet spiritual needs that arise in them naturally. These narratives allow children to live in peace (without anxiety) until they make workable narratives for themselves.

Bellous

I would suggest that her ideal here is worth pondering:

Spiritual work wraps itself around a willingness and ability to name ourselves authentically and situate that identity within a community of people who matter to us – to whom we are committed.

Bellous

Tony Eaude is part of this same line of thought that sees an important part of spirituality as relational:

…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…

Kathleen Harris (whose article on reconceptualising spirituality has been a mainstay of my children’s spirituality theme in the Brookes MA) suggests that school needs to be a

warm, hospitable, environment that fosters caring attachments among the child, teacher and peers, in which all children are accepted, embraced and provided authentic learning experiences.

Kathleen Harris, Children’s spirituality and inclusion

This is not a wooly utopia: she is clear, in the SEND context of her research, that this is a thoughtful and complex inclusivity which draws on major theorists’ views of development and learning and makes the plea that:

…educators must believe that the child can call upon his or her own capabilities, resilience and relationships when facing challenging situations. As this occurs, strengths support children in forming connections to the school environment and community.

Harris

…and this is where we come back to the schools featured in Department for Education’s video of schools widening their intake. Cleaning routines, different start and end times: these are important (and, yes, in some measure contestable – but this is not a blog about those tangles) but one of the parent voices has it clearly:

Oh, my child has loved it – loved seeing her friends again, loved being in the school environment: she’s very happy.

Jennifer

In other words, the message here is about the connection (multiple connections, perhaps) between happiness, wellbeing and belonging. We do not need to focus entirely on these relationships in school, but my gut feeling is that lockdown has accentuated our need for something we do well in educational contexts: provide “lots of interesting things to do and lots of interesting people to do them with.” Drumming; climbing frames; maths lessons.

It is in this day-to-day relational being that we find much of our purpose – and in which children coming back into schools will (if we get it right) find joy. This is the everydayness of compassion that we need. I hesitate to call it practice because that has, for me, the undertone of a self-conscious “doing:” we do mindfulness in schools (I’ve explored this before) rather than just try to be aware; we do belonging rather than belong; we do compassion rather than just try to be kind. The return to school systems and routines should help us simply belong, rather than the fraught attempts of a web-based Zoom, Skype, Meet or whatever: having stuff to do, the smell of the cloakroom, the sound when the ball hits that wall, seeing our friends… God, I know that need, as do lots of people who express this on social media. So it comes down to this: simply being with others who care for you.

Not every school is perfect in this, not every family, or classroom – not every University course, or retail outlet management, either. But we try, and educators have to try with a great deal of thoughtfulness over the next month or so – and I suspect ten times harder if all schools are back to full capacity in September.

To conclude, a final quotation, this time from Richard Holloway, whose Looking in the Distance is a series of essays on the possibility of a search for meaning in a world where the traditions of Christianity no longer hold sway: a very good text indeed for looking at spirituality, the roots (intellectual, linguistic, even musical) of which are so often embedded/entangled in a Christian theology it no longer espouses:.

We could choose to live as though the best meaning and purpose we can find for our own lives is the very meaning and purpose of the universe itself. We could pay the universe a compliment it probably does not deserve by living as though its purpose were love…

Richard Holloway, “Looking” in Looking in the Distance

Some sources:

NB: this blog post is very quotation-heavy because not all the sources (in terms of online journals) are readily available, and hearing the ipsissima verba of these writers seemed more important than me melling on.

Bellous, J (2019) An inclusive spiritual education. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2019.1675603

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development Exeter: Learning Matters

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/13644360701714936

Harris, K (2015) Children’s spirituality and inclusion: strengthening a child’s spirit with community, resilience and joy. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2015.1086728

Texts for Difficult Times

Just a quick comment to contextualise these quotations: they are otherwise presented without interpretation – just in case anyone needs them in days when we need hope. Boy do we need it at the moment, and this weekend in particular seems a hard time. As I have prepared them it strikes me how almost scriptural they are: patristic and matristic readings for an Office of another culture.

I suppose I’m really putting them here because I need them. I have used them all before in various ways: the texts are referenced (sort of) by the URL embedded in the title: the URLs to elsewhere in this blog indicate where I have discussed the quotation or the writer in another post. Not all of them have such a link, of course.

I’m hoping, really, that they also stand as an advert for the longer texts from which they are taken. However, if you own the copyright for any of these extracts and don’t want these texts used like this, tell me and they’re gone.

So the first sees the characters whose adventures are set in Sutcliff’s vision of the “collapse” after the withdrawal of Rome: treachery, cowardice, offset by compassion and heroism.

“It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again.

Morning always grows again out of the darkness though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

Rosemary Sutcliff The Lantern Bearers https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2019/11/11/hope/

And the next is the charge given to the children at the end of the sequence of The Dark is Rising, as Merlin, like Gandalf before him, prepares to sail away, with humanity very firmly in charge of its own destiny:

“For remember…that it is altogether your world now. You and all the rest. We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth…

For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and joy.”

Susan Cooper Silver on the Tree https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2018/02/07/end-of-the-matter/

“Sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold.” Rob Macfarlane, half a mile under Yorkshire, discusses what is left by previous lives:

We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the mist leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes in fact all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Robert Macfarlane Underland https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2019/06/25/underland-thoughts-i/

And (hard to choose a section from this book: Sara Maitland on a wood in Scotland; Alan Garner deep (physically and spiritually) in among the alder near his home [where else?]); the question What should we do? from Richard Mabey then Paul Kingsnorth and a call to action:

If there is one thing that the current ecological crisis teaches us it is that we have got our relationships wrong, with woods as with nature more broadly. If we see a wood as a machine, we will behave very differently to the way we would behave if we saw it as an animal. Alive or dead, resource or living place: our attitude, our understanding, directs our behaviours.

Perhaps the old indigenous ways of seeing and the new revelations from scientific investigation might slowly help to change our attitudes, which in turn may help to change our behaviour. It might be a long shot, but it seems the best shot we have; maybe the only one. And I think it begins where so many of the best and oldest stories do: the woods.

Paul Kingsnorth “Forest of Eyes,” in Arboreal https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2020/02/20/the-first-tree-in-the-greenwood/

And Mary Oliver? Her poems are full of lines and sections of hope, of staring at a sudden bird or fox and seeing something of beauty and compassion in the event. There is a challenge in The Summer Day that is worth putting into this little gallery; the final idea in When Death Comes, too, is hard-nosed but hopeful; Why I Wake Early is oft-cited and very positive. Hard to choose just one, but I chose the last of these simply because this morning I was awake early, and out seeing fox and muntjac, and listening to all the birds:

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early https://nicktomjoestory.news.blog/2020/05/15/dipping-for-meanings/

And finally, in part to say “thank you” for all these paragraphs and their creators, Alice Walker, from her collection Living by the Word, on the continuing presence of people from history/”herstory” who have helped her and us:

The spirit of our helpers incarnates in us, making us more ourselves by extending us far beyond. And to that spirit there is no “beginning” as we know it (although we might finally “know” a historical figure who at one time expressed it) and no end. Always a hello, from a concerned spiritual ancestor you may not even know you had – but this could strike at any time. Never a good-bye.

Alice Walker “A Name is Sometimes an Ancestor Saying Hi I’m With You.”

Assorted Immortals

Some interestingly synchronous arrivals today.

I am reading – and enjoying – Dara McAnulty’s book Diary of a Young Naturalist. Quite apart from his candid dissection of his own mental states in a time of change, and what “nature” (my shorthand) gives him, Dara has a gift for a brilliant turn of phrase. He observes the origami of a bat taking flight; he points out that When you visit a familiar place it’s never stagnant. And so one arrival (I’m cheating here, so as to include this book) is my arrival with Dara and family at their new home in County Down.

We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion. Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Down, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock. But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.

Diary of a Young Naturalist, 14th August

I was also greeted – halfway through scrubbing the kitchen floor – by two books by Flora McDonnell: her collection of writing on Depression and her Out of a Dark Winter’s Night.

And a recommendation of another book – David Lucas’ The Wonderbird – suggests to me I might look again at spirituality and children’s literature. I will reserve The Wonderbird for another time, but want to think about spirituality in books at least accessible to children and young people.

Dara and his writing demonstrate powerfully and painfully his struggle with identity and mental health. Flora McDonnell likewise depicts her small child wandering in the dark, a moving image, beautifully illustrated, of a self not knowing but never giving up in search of personal integration, of “home.” So while this isn’t a review of Dara McAnulty or of either Flora McDonnell book, I do want to look again at some of the complex relationships about literature and spirituality these books lay open to view.

Of the various definitions of spirituality I’ve explored with students, the ones that talk about wrestling with a sense of meaning are often the ones I stumble over. It works for some – maybe it works for older readers. When you are four, there are questions that will lead up to this, but making sense of your life may not elicit challenges to a set of abstracts, but will very often concern affections, attachments, food, bedtime. An ‘ultimate sense of the meaning of life’ is seriously imperilled when a favourite toy gets lost in town or someone needs to buy a present and feels they cannot. These are everyday occurrences but in a good storyteller are recognised as having tremendous significance in the life of a young person. The line from Bettelheim I cited previously (and I’ll be coming back to Little Pete in a bit) about the all encompassing nature of a child’s emotional landscape needs to be taken into account when thinking of a child’s spirituality – but so, I think, does the complexity of that landscape: it is not a two-dimensional fairy tale, but a rich set of interlocking patterns, something Kathleen Harris likens to a kaleidoscope:

“Just as the images produced by the kaleidoscope are extremely complex, varied, and continuously changing, a young child’s spiritual development is similarly intricate, mysterious, and imaginative in nature and relational, interconnected, and directive to both the self and others within a community of learners that is continuously transforming.”

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality Vol. 12, No. 3, December 2007, pp. 263–275

This is what makes children’s literature an amazing repository of dilemmas and questions around spirituality – and also a rather hard place to see the fundamental questions. Even defining spirituality is a maze of wordings, ideologies and ideas.

Older readers in the Primary phase – we might return to Gwyn in the Snow Spider – can encounter questions of the transcendent and of belonging frequently enough; what is now termed Young Adult literature has dilemmas in authors from Alan Garner to Patrick Ness. When dealing with spirituality, we have to look at the explicit and implicit ideologies of formal religion, and similarly at thinking that would usually reject those structures; at mental health and wellbeing, compassion: assorted gods* indeed! To simplify (or at least cut short) the argument, this is another of the authors I would present to the MA class on children’s spirituality: Tony Eaude’s definition of spirituality as

“…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…”

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development, Exeter: Learning Matters

and it is perhaps with this definition that I can look at Children’s Literature and spirituality. It’s not about “making sense” or “struggle” but about finding a place for personal integration.

This is brilliantly illustrated by Dara McAnulty’s moving home: he does not spare the reader his anxiety or sense of loss, or the careful negotiation of new spaces and new relationships, and so good is he at the description that I am back in the move I found so difficult when I was but thirteen or so (a sort of reference to W J Turner). Of course, as a teenager writing a long text in diary form, what Dara gives us isn’t strictly speaking “children’s literature,” but the vivid self-searching, and the political uncertainties of his (and our) worries about the environment are very pertinent. Here, he and his family are settling into their new life, and watching bats and moths in the garden:

This is us standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and re-lived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering starts calmed a storm in all of is.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist, 1st August

Flora McDonnell’s Out of a Dark Winter’s Night is also a tricky book to put in here because the illustrations – bold steps into dramatic landscapes with a child protagonist – might be seen a children’s literature, but then again they might not: is this about dual audience, or the use of one genre (reminiscent of John Burningham) for a different audience? I’m including it here, but I am aware of the complexities of that decision. It stands with Charlie Mackesy‘s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse as having some place in both the world of the illustrated children’s book and being a book dealing with adult themes illustrated in a style accessible to children.

[As an addendum, I might point anyone who is looking at this post towards my good friend Mat Tobin’s detailed and engaging blog post on looking at picturebooks: his post crossed with mine {hence my insertion here} and the illustrations I have used from Flora McDonnell are best understood from his development of theory around “picturebook codes.”]

The links to mental health would be a blog post – or a book or two – in their own right! Images themselves (a bit of a digression here) are revelatory: the wide sea like in Corey’s Rock, the marvellous play of light – and its absence: there is a shock in Flora McDonnell’s book of a dark sky with just a sliver of moon way up on the top left, and the threat of ultimate extinction – the pages were so dark I couldn’t do them justice. In thinking about evening and night it’s interesting to note how sunsets and bat flight seem to be part of a set of positive and calming images – batflight reminding me of that paean to Light in T S Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight, 

Moon light and star light, owl and moth light…

T S Eliot https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/choruses-ôç£the-rockôçø

I said it was a digression – but of course beauty has facets that connect with/reflect back nature; spirituality likewise is interpenetrated by natural occurrences. Hopkins says it much better.

While there are books for a young readership that explore beauty and nature, there are books that are specifically “to do with spirituality,” too, of course: I think of Simon James’s anthology Days Like This, which presents beautiful vignettes of a child’s life, or the religious work of Tomie de Paola: there are others that look at Big Questions about love or death: Chabbert’s The Day I Became a Bird or Lunde and Torseter’s My Father’s Arms Are a Boat. I’ve tried to explore the possibility of existential threat elsewhere, but other questions also arise: Who am I? Why am I like this? Why are things the way they are? At one level, most high quality picture books will ask this kind of question.

I may be creating a circular argument here: high quality texts are in some way “about” spirituality because they ask these questions: the issues of spirituality in texts for children are a marker of high quality. I need to think about this – but certainly subject matter, wording and artwork do contribute to effective communication around the Big Questions. They don’t need step-by-step clarity, still less a glib answer; but they need an affective element, something to draw in the reader, to lead us to an appreciation of beauty, or belonging, or transcendence.

Little Pete‘s succession of good days takes an interesting turn in story 11, Pete and the Sparrow. Chasing a cat that is after a bird, Pete ends up walking on a wall and finds a baby bird.

Pete looked at it. It was a very little bird.

He sat down on the wall, and put his face quite close to it. The bird blinked its bright eyes at him.

Very slowly Pete put out a finger and stroked the little bird on the head. It was soft and warm and knobbly.

Then he put out his finger and did it again, because he had never done such a thing before. Then for a long time he looked right into the bird’s eyes and the bird looked at him.

Then he jumped off the wall and started to walk up the hill again

This quiet, unplanned encounter is a wonder: a wonder to Pete in the story, but also to us as readers: while the story, as ever, has Pete complaining when the bird spotter he meets doesn’t say “please,” central to it is this quiet awe and concern for the baby bird. His reactions are understated – the author, Leila Berg, does do well in not giving us a long explanation: Pete leaves the bird once, and then again when the baby bird is settled, but the chapter ends, tellingly:

Yes, that was a special day.

There is a healing in the ways in which nature impinges on the crises in these narratives. Dara’s world turns a little as the origami of a bat unfolds and flies, and the moths and the stars come out; Flora’s tired, journeying child turns to home. And Pete goes on his way singing.

*The title of this blog post? It’s a laconic quotation from U A Fanthorpe’s poem “Water Everywhere.” In a comic/serious voice she explores the role of water in the modern society:

Officially they do not acknowledge this god.

Officially they honour assorted immortals

In stone buildings with pioneering roofs.

A mention of water when thinking of spirituality does not come amiss. Maybe this is for another day…

Little Pete

It is a sort of running gag with me that my Goodreads account ought to have a shelf on it marked “Books Mat Showed Me That Made Me Cry.” Mat has the great gift of seeing a book through and through, welcoming the shadows as well as the sunshine: often he suggests I read a book so moving, so poignant, that when I have finished I have a lump in my throat. It is good, therefore, to move from these wondrous books that wrench the heart, to a very old but certainly gold collection: the Little Pete Stories by Leila Berg. Mat, thank you for these, and for the joy they have brought as I’ve shared them with my granddaughter.

When Pete is disturbed playing at not treading in the cracks in the pavement he rails at the lady in the Bath Chair who has interrupted him:

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” he cried.

“You don’t look like an elephant,” said the lady who sat in the chair.

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” Pete shouted. “You’ve made me tread on hundred and millions of lines and now I’m an elephant and I wasn’t going to be an elephant till I got to the top of the hill, so I could run all the way down!”

Leila Berg “Pete and the Letter” (Little Pete Stories ch 7)

There is a knowing wink to the reader here: we all know he isn’t a elephant, any more than his personification of his shadow (which occurs throughout) is someting that is actually “true,” and we also know that Pete understands that he isn’t an elephant, but that he is expressing his dismay at an imaginative game being interrupted. The rational adults who encounter Pete’s anger and impatience usually get round it in some way, and very often this is by their involving him in something – such as posting a letter, the subject of this story – and this strikes me as crucial in Berg’s vision of childhood. Pete is not to be told “don’t shout:” it doesn’t work, although practically every adult tries it; Pete, they discover, is best distracted and redirected, but in a very specific way, in that the adults find ways of engaging him in meaningful activity.

The child’s despair is all encompassing – because he does not know gradations, he feels either in darkest hell or gloriously happy…

As Bettleheim puts it, describing the role of the Happy Ever After of becoming a King or Queen in the finale of a fairy tale:

There is no purpose to being the king or queen of this kingdom other than being the ruler rather than being ruled. To have become a king or queen at the conclusion of the story symbolizes a state of true independence in which the hero feels… secure, satisfied and happy…

Bruno Bettleheim ‘Transcending Infancy with the Help of Fantasy in “The Uses of Enchantment”

Pete is given agency from the start – Berg allows him to express his frustration when he is crossed – and in the denouement of his narratives of crisis, and that leads to the stories’ punchline invariably being about that day being “good.”

He has quite a lot of agency. He is out on his trike on his own, going to the shops, watching builders: this neighbourhood is full of interesting things for a small boy to do. He even gets a lift to buy a notepad from a man on whose car he has been writing with a stick, although in the version I have (1971) he asks his mum, who does check and allows him. The stories thus stand as testament to a childhood I think we rarely see in the UK these days – at least, one that is not recorded. This is the same world as the US childhood depicted in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (from 1′ on in this clip, in the 80th birthday tribute to Maurice Sendak), although Sendak’s is much more social. Pete’s world was described maybe ten years before I experienced it, and the world was changing. I felt sad having to explain this to a seven-year-old when I started on sharing these stories, in much the same way as a discussion of lifts from strangers feels like a necessary introduction to The Elephant and the Bad Baby (lots more to say about that story!).

Pete explores with confidence and copes with the events that thwart his plans. He reacts with an unregulated anger or impatience – and in some ways the best thing about this is how the narrator allows this expression of anger. He has the much-pined-for freedom that is deep in the narrative of nostalgia: in some ways his physical and emotional freedom is the epitome of this version of childhood freedom. It is one I recognise from my own childhood: my own tricycle when I was three or four, the casual interactions with people I knew or at least who knew me: Harrogate; Charlton Marshall and Blandford Forum in Dorset, even before the freedoms of bike-friendly Harlow in Essex when I was eight (two-wheeler by now! – I still have the scars)…

So in Leila Berg’s 1950s we have a small person – just beginning to write (and that and the trike suggest he is four, but I’m happy to be corrected) out and about with adults keeping a regulatory eye but not systematically organised on his explorations. Pete is a lone hero with odd cats and dogs and sticks – and of course his shadow – for company. The interactions with adults are gradually – very gradually – teaching Pete about the world around him. For me the most touching is Pete’s interaction with a builder. It starts with Pete being cross about how people build – up, he thinks, with walls, not down into foundations. But the builder gives him some time:

“Well,” said the man, “if you’ll listen very carefully – and quietly – and lave my spade alone – I’ll explain it to you.” And he wiped his hands on his trousers, for there were feeling rather sore and sticky.

And because Pete could see that what the man was going to tell him would be the truth, he stopped being angry and listened.

Pete and the Whistle.

The man was going to tell him the truth. That is one of the most insightful lines in the book: and if we expect the dance of adult and child regulation to be success, it is at the heart of our parenting and pedagogy.

In The Sign on Rosie’s Door the regulation more or less comes from the group of children; the flock keeps the flock safe, although it is interesting that joining a group and leaving it is very casual. There is freedom here too, freedom for slightly older children, freedom of a different order from Little Pete – freedom from the ties of the adult. The entertaining autobiography of David Benjamin has similar insights, reflecting on Wisconsin (of maybe a slightly older child) from a similar period:

Kids are instinctively feral. Unleash them from school and church and home, as every kid was invariably set loose every summer in the Little-League-less Fifties, and kids will hunt down whatever wild game crawls into their territory.

The summer hunt is an ecstasy of freedom. Suddenly, the last days of May, after a useless morning in class, school ends. The doors open and kids stumble, blinking, into the sun. We hear our first robin sing. We see our first forsythia. We breath chalkless, nunless, heathen air. We break into a run…

David Benjamin ‘Koscal’ in “The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.”

In the branches and among the stones

Sitting in the garden this morning (such is my practice, especially at the moment in these sunny days at the end of Eastertide) I could hear the birds – mostly blackbirds and belligerent robins, I think – in the trees and bushes: all that singing made me think of the great Pentecost sequence we hear (this year at live-streamed Mass: the Dominican melody and a translation are at the end of this blog post) – and that in turn sent me to check the Latin of the psalm in front of me, Psalm 103 or 104 depending on which version you’re using.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys…

The wild asses quench their thirst.

On their banks dwell the birds of heaven:

From the branches they sing their song.

It is a great hymn to the natural world – I think, sometimes, in a more humanistic age, certainly a post-Romantic one we think less about how much “nature poetry” there is in the Bible. Job is magnificent; the Psalms – as well as having all sorts of other issues and emotions – are a wonder.

However, in this case there is an interesting discrepancy between the Vulgate translation of Psalm 103 (104) and the revised psalter and Grail Translation. It comes down to the Vulgate saying that the birds sing “from the middle of the stones” (De medio petrarum dabunt voces) and the 1945 revision of the Psalms having them in the trees “inter ramos.” My Hebrew really isn’t up to going back to the orginal, but with the help of Bible Hub and a dictionary it seems “among the branches” (mibben ‘opayim) is right.

I will develop this as a less overtly theological reflection in a minute, but my first point is this image of the birds in among the rocks, rather than in the lush vegetation of my allotment or beside the flowing waters that so often are the Biblical image of peace and fecundity. That’s because it strikes me as apt and poignant that this Easter we have been singing in among the rocks, like little birds picking at odd seeds in dry stony places.

I don’t think this is simply a Christian image – or if it is, that’s because that imagery is so deep in our psyche that it is inescapable. There is another side to this in that at a very deep human level we crave the lush, damp woodland, and the fertility that it promises, whether an external grace or the lavish generosity of nature:

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray

Morning Prayer, Mary Oliver

But this has not been a lush time for many, faced with huge boulders of limitations or tiny pebbles stuck in our shoes. Loudest we have heard (and rightly listened to) narratives of impotent rage in the face of suffering; fierce political rhetoric in the face of duplicity and mismanaged expectations; fear, at the most basic of dying or losing people we love. We have been lucky, here in middle England, to have a hot, sunny spring time to give us joy, but underneath it has been the fear of extinction, of never seeing a dear friend again. When writing to someone recently about the death of our Dean and friend Brian Findlay I used the phrase “losing touch” to someone, and thought what a strange image that is in these non-tactitle days. Then I read Susie Dent on the language of touch, where she acknowledges the double life of these words seems oddly fitting: unbidden, a wish-list of hands I want to hold, people I want to hug flooded in. Stony times of loss and bereavement.

Today, I like the idea that we are little birds picking for seeds in among the stones, so here (for me at least) in this great hymn is one of those seeds. In the Christian context this might be seen as the proper gift of the Holy Spirit: at a very human level and without religious affiliation, this is the gentle breathing of meditation, especially in vv 4, 7 and 8, cooling me when I am het up, comforting, a break in the heat of the day; something that washes, that irrigates. A lush place, cool, private and cleansed beneath the trees (Mary Oliver again). An event or a force (are either of these the right word?) for Compassion.

Tremit Absens

Just having dipped into Paulinus a blog post or two ago, I thought I’d crowbar in a reference to his friend Ausonius. Here he is writing of the way the vineyards of the Moselle are reflected in the river:

…tota natant crispis iuga motibus et tremit absens

pampinus et vitreis vindemia turget in undis…

And again it is Helen Waddell who brought this to a more recent readership, in the Medieval Latin Lyrics and in her novel Peter Abelard. Here it is from the latter, late in the story, where Heloise ( a good brief biography here) , spiritually empty and missing the husband who cast her off is meeting the linchpin character Gilles de Vannes:

“Yet a man’s palate should have no patria.”

“Are you sure, Gilles? I think you used to quote me a lovely line, about a vine. Tremit . . . tremit——”

“What did I tell you? ‘Tremit absens!’

“Trembles the absent vine and swells the grape

In thy clear crystal.””

Although I have given three examples of it before, absence in the literature of Helen Waddell’s medieval world seems to me deserving a little bit more of an explanation today. That she is writing to the most important person in her life is clear – but for my point here it is the line after that is most telling:

A consolatory letter of yours to a friend happened some days since to fall into my hands. My knowledge of the character, and my love of the hand, soon gave me the curiosity to open it. 

The Letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35977/35977-h/35977-h.htm

The letter she refers to is, we assume, the lengthy account of his [sic] disasters: English text here. He complains that his walks are on the inaccessible shore of a sea which is perpetually stormy (a neat piece of psychogeography, I think, or at least a brilliant metaphor): I am at a loss to think how stormy her life was. And then some time after writing this, his autograph copy falls into Heloise’s hands, and in Waddell’s novel, Gilles de Vannes’ is acutely aware of this sudden news.

Gilles, with the small shrewd eyes, the reader (and hence representor of Waddell’s own scholarship) of classical and contemporary poetry and theology. Gilles whose role is to speculate, to guide, to offer food and wine and sympathy and then love for the younger generations who pass through his room. The linchpin of Helen Waddell’s version of the time Heloise and Abelard meet and fall into their life-wrecking relationship. The Canon of Notre Dame who observes all, and at the end of the book finds that he remains moved by the story he has witnessed years before.

And now I need to be honest. Gilles has always seemed to me to be a fictionalised version of the bookish, witty, music-loving character, hard-drinking man whose presence in Magdalen College in the late 70s made Magdalen what it was for me: a genuine Alma Mater. Waddell’s creation Gilles de Vannes predates Brian Findlay, our Dean of Divinity, I know – indeed it was Brian who taught me that Waddell was more than the writer of the novel Peter Abelard; he introduced me to her Medieval Latin Lyrics; he taught me about beer (I was not fond before College); he was accepting and sympathetic with my emotional turmoil; he could – and did – listen and joke and be serious and sarcastic and sing with us or share poems with us all in an evening until we moved out into the quad and off to our (usually several) beds. Go to him for a brief break in some work crisis or broken heart and find “something nourishing” (a nice malt, or a glass of port) pressed into your hand, and talk of Alcuin or a terrible chasuble. O blessed Gilles, as Pierre the Cluniac monk reflects, who always spoke of things and not of sentiment. And then onto why you had really dropped by. A good liturgist, an excellent preacher, a mentor. To sit with Gilles was to sit with Time himself, to whom a thousand years were as yesterday. “Hearing you talk,” he said suddenly and without embarrassment, “is the best thing I have got out of Paris.”

I got to know Brian well in my umpteen years as an undergraduate and graduate student, and it is Gilles who notes that It is hard to forgive one’s god for becoming flesh. For me the biggest gift (but in some ways a road less travelled, a path into the clouds) was the myth of medievalism, a carnival approach typical of Brian, which took in liturgy and music (that harpsichord!), and something much more – erm- Rabelaisian, perfectly pitched at the undergraduate mind. Distinctly complex: a man of stories and shadows who for me – even more than Garner or Cooper – explains why Oxford is the seed bed of British fantasy. Having Brian take me facsimile by facsimile through the palaeographical work on English court hand A.D. 1066 to 1500 when I was a young graduate student was a great time. I do wonder maybe if sitting listening to him – on matters political, musical or spiritual (or in his love for Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor, which encompassed both the last two) – was the best thing I got out of that particular part of Oxford. I certainly owe him a great debt for his throwing open the chapel to students not part of the Foundation Choir: part of why I still open my breviary in the mornings is down to his regular practice of the Office. Tomorrow I will, all being well, say Morning Prayer pro defunctis, although with a heavy heart.

In domum Domini ambilavimus in consensu.

And with him I found my friends. My God, I found my friends, and he was one and they have changed my life.

So tonight I have ‘phoned around and fielded some emails and had dinner and read a story to a granddaughter – yet I am flooded with memory of a time long gone. His beautiful parlour with hundreds of books on the wall is gone, and if our shadows roam the garden gravel still, I do not really think they will come again. So here I am with Waddell’s Gilles himself in remembrance of a glorious time of books, mentorship and piety:

At that memory it seemed to Gilles that he opened a door into an empty house that had been fire-lit once, and now was naked rafters under sky.

Rest in piece, Brian. In the heaven you worked for there is “Mass all day long, with breaks for Benediction in between.” And so at the end even of this, there will, I hope, be an invitation for us to have coffee.