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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 Whenyou 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 Bettleheim 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.
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:
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…
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.
Turn but a stone and start a wing as Francis Thompson put it: another chance comment on Twitter starts a quick anthology in my mind, just three poems: two from C5th and C6th CE and then one from C9th CE, brought together in Helen Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics. The distances suddenly and recently created – when even the distance of a short bus ride seems impossible – can be painful in our instant-gratification world, and when this dilemma – how to be kind at a distance – came up in the context of Mental Health Awareness week, I thought at once about how people in less connected cultures might have expressed this kindness. Letters are slow, uncertain things in the early Middle Ages, poems only go as letters: no posting a quick quotation on the Internet for poets like the three below. Less connected? Well, differently, perhaps. So here they are:
Here, first is Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, writing to Rucco, a cleric in Paris:
and while I might think Helen Waddell in her translation makes rather a lot of this friendship, the words divisis terris alligat unus amor are key to why I’ve included it: our worlds are split apart, but one love unites. The “love” word can be contested as we translate, and it’s kept coming back to me since writing first of all about the sacredness of friendship and then about the relationships depicted in Emmett and Caleb: what language can any of us use to express affection over a distance?
Paulinus is more robust about his feelings in his poem to Ausonius:
I , through all chances that are given to mortals,
And through all fates that be,
So long as this close prison shall contain me,
Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven,
Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face
Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,
Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken,
And from the earth I shall have gone my way,
Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me,
There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me,
Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee;
Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin,
Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections,
Hold them as dear as life itself to be,
Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.
We might tend to look for a reason to express our feelings: “Are you OK?” “Just checking in to see if things are all right…” and this is all to the good – but in times before quick post and even quicker emails friends could not always, it seems to me, waste time on the tentative. Paulinus – and Waddell is clear that his going broke his friend’s heart – has some terrific turns of phrase:
Maybe if we need to “know how to show kindness at a distance, I guess, at the moment,” as a good friend put it recently, I might make a plea for the explicit act of kindness, and if they send a poem without hope of a return ping on a ‘phone screen, two clerics from a long-gone period at least know how to say how they feel clearly, elegantly. But does this need us to have a real reinvention of our language of affection?
Anthologies can be deceptive: much depends on the selection, and here it is also linked with Waddell’s perception of how she might translate this word, this phrase – or more importantly this relationship, that emotion. So to give a bit of balance to these wonderful poems of love and separation here is kindness-at-a-distance of a tender, everyday kind. A little later than Venantius and Paulinus – more than a little: three centuries later – Walafrid Strabo dedicates his book on gardening with fond remembrance of Abbot Grimold and the monastery school children in the green darkness of the apple trees in the summer garden:
A very paltry gift, of no account,
My father, for a scholar like to thee,
But Strabo sends it to thee with his heart.
So might you sit in the small garden close
In the green darkness of the apple trees
Just where the peach tree casts its broken shade,
And they would gather you the shining fruit
With the soft down on it; all your boys,
Your little laughing boys, your happy school,
And bring huge apples clasped in their two hands
Something the book may have of use to thee.
Read it, my father, prune it of its faults
And strengthen with thy praises what pleases thee.
It is an image not too far away from Margaret McMillan‘s Nursery Garden with its “wholesome memories.” It makes me think of my discussions with friends over the last month, or my Dad sending photos of the three fox cubs that visited last week (update: they were back last night).
Common to all three poems, across all the years between them, and the years between them and us is the one thing I would say in answer to the idea of communicating kindness: it is in communicating that we bring kindness, it is in telling it from the heart that we uncover the weakness in the phrase “social distance:” these three people (six with their audience, loads more readers since then) find it a mere physical distance. And in this communication is the compassionate act – maybe even the self-caring act too, as we share our joys, our hurts and our fond memories.
Now, however, it’s time to go and water the garden.
I presented the work of Geoffrey Bache Smith earlier this week, and I was wondering about who I might look at among other poets and writers of various kinds that explore their environment. Other poets? OK: I was browsing Mary Oliver’s second volume I came across this poem. No less plangent than Bache Smith in many ways, and with a great, straightforward look at a little bird she saw so long ago. Some thoughts follow, but the poem really does say it without my squawking.
Once I saw
in a quick-falling, white-veined stream,
among the leafed islands of the wet rocks,
a small bird, and knew it
from the pages of a book; it was
the dipper, and dipping he was,
as well as, sometimes, on a rock-peak, starting up
the clear, strong pipe of his voice; at this,
there being no words to transcribe, I had to
bend forward, as it were,
into his frame of mind, catching
everything I could in the tone,
cadence, sweetness, and briskness
of his affirmative report.
Though not by words, it was
more than satisfactory way to the
bridge of understanding. This happened
more than half a century ago –
more certainly, than half my lifetime ago –
and, just as certainly, he has been sleeping for decades
in the leaves besides the stream,
his crumble of white bones, his curl of flesh
comfortable even so.
And still I hear him –
and whenever I open the ponderous book of riddles
he sits with his black feet hooked to the page,
his eyes cheerful, still burning with water-love –
and thus the world is full of leaves and feathers,
and comfort, and instruction. I do not even remember
your name, great river,
but since that hour I have lived
in the joy of the body as full and clear
as falling water; the pleasures of the mind
like a dark bird dipping in and out, tasting and singing.
And the first thing I wanted to note was that WordPress – measuring characters and words alone – says that this poem will take a minute to read. Scan down that, highlight a bit, move on. If I’m honest, Morning Prayer was a lot like that today. Did I actually say the Benedictus? I remember when I was seventeen (in the 70s) assisting at an old rite Mass – what would now be called the Extraordinary Form – where the priest got through the whole liturgy in ten minutes: a liturgical patter song I found it hard to keep up with. Such, perhaps, is familiarity, or maybe such is reading until we fine-tune that as something that is reading for the deepest meanings possible.
And with Dipper there are two I want to think about.
The first is MO’s choices of image and words. She is a writer who is wildly in love with each day’s inventions (“Of What Surrounds Me”) and who looks – as in Dipper – for the moment that excites the human response: gratefulness, compassion. One of her most popular poems, “Why I Wake Early” is, like Dipper, of this kind: a noticing of a something; a realisation of the importance of that event; an answer from the writer, and similarly the poem “Wild Geese” – with the line You do not have to be good which first brought her to my scattered attention – and “Landscape,” quoted here, where the crows as seen as realsiing thier dreams as they break off from the rest of the darkness/ and burst up into the sky. She challenges with these perceptions of natural events; the reader is confronted with the suggestion, the question sometimes, of how to seize the world with the same freshness as a grasshopper, or a bird.
Even this cannot be read quickly, or if it is skimmed through – I find I cannot read more than a couple before I “feel full” – I find I miss the impact of these sermons from nature, even from lines like these, from “When Death Comes.”:
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
The second is an occurrence which suggests why this poem appeals to me. Visiting my daughter Lizzie in Edinburgh we went on a bus trip to Penicuik and off into the Pentlands. We saw a Dipper. I had known them since I took the Tell Me Why magazine in the 60s; I had seen them in Scotland once before. This, however, was a chance to sit and watch as the little bird zipped about and hopped in and out of a little burn just below the reservoir. I now recognise, having read the Mary Oliver poem above, those attributes of sweetness, and briskness she writes about. Slow watching of a bird – slow reading of a poem – the appreciation of the poem having observed the bird – the reading of the poem enlightening the memory of the bird: a virtuous circle in which understanding of the natural event and the reading of the poem are mutually supportive.
And then what about these Mary Oliver challenges to live life to the full? How does this first yes not negate a whole load of other choices? How do we distentangle “what comes with the package” from other choices we just let happen when we make a choice for A rather than B? Choices I made in my teens or twenties have implications even today, and life in my sixties seems just as precious but carries with it the ache of mistaken choices, baggage of all sorts. Hard not to feel like this at the moment: all those pre-lockdown times I went to a Garden Centre rather than out onto the hills – but then how would the allotment have been dug? I suspect Mary Oliver would suggest we look over the shoulder of such anxieties to the dippers and heron and crickets, or the jay as I dig, or Mat’s discovery on our trip of a Bloody Nosed Beetle?
Another final set of lines, then, from Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day:”
Doesn’t everything die and last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
But it is a Summer morning, and maybe I need to do more than write about it.
Only a story gathered from the hills And the wind crying of forgotten days, A story that shall whisper, “All things change- For friends do grow indifferent, and loves Die like a dream at morning: bitterness Is the sure heritage of all men born…
In that this post presents a melancholy young poet, this is a sadder blog than many – and less of a sermon than many of my posts too, I hope.
Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s small collection of poetry, A Spring Harvest (which forms a pivotal sequence at the end of the Tolkein biopic) suggests that GBS was lonely, frustrated, but aware of the power of language to conjure emotion and fantasy. A clever depiction of a friend, a tentative exploration of sexuality before WWI, and love and religion and class, and… and… and a lens for the film to show the ways in which some people can delight and fascinate: almost, it seems, an explanation of the ways in which the writer of Lord of the Rings (and so much more) learned to charm. A film of the student Tolkien learning Icelandic would have been less likely to win over an audience (I would have gone), or to explain how a boy with an unhappy childhood grew and blossomed into such a creative influence in C20th literature.
Just like his poem of the Downs – not Uffington although for me it evokes those memories, and I can hear Chesterton’s poem in Bache Smith’s – the young man is himself a track half lost in the green hills. It is a sad shame – a tragedy, a waste, a horror – that Geoffrey Bache Smith did not live and grow: maybe he might have blossomed into a greater poet, or a thoughtful adult scholar, or whatever. These poems, and a footnote in the young adult life of a great writer, are what we have left : a voice heard once, and heard no more, as GBS himself suggests in a Commemoration poem. For us Only a Story is hardly a story at all, and we pass on.
This sense of sic transit, of the fragility of life and fame and love runs through so many of his poems, made all the more poignant by his death in 1916. And here we are, not at war (despite the rhetoric) but in trouble in a world where sickness and greed and neglect and politics have combined to bring about a major crisis, the aftermath of which I doubt I shall live to see wholly resolved, where the call to compassion has to be repeated over and again. We look daily at death as though numbers are all we can make of tragedy. Media vita in morte sumus. It is therefore a bittersweet thing to look at these poems – I first read them in the cellars of the Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian, but now find them online – and wonder about all the missed opportunities and times of sadness that GBS explores. Here, in his poem The Last Meeting, he preceded a very similar idea from Yeats, and tells us something that Oxford was imbued with for me as an undergraduate: that many things fade, but that some are more than transitory, loves that shall break the teeth of Time:
We who are young, and have caught the splendour oflife, Hunting it down the forested ways of the world, Do we not wear our hearts like a banner unfurled (Crowned with a chaplet of love, shod with the sandals of strife)? Now not a lustre of pain, nor an ocean of tears Nor pangs of death, nor any other thing That the old tristful gods on our heads may bring Can rob us of this one hour in the midst of the years.
The poem I cite at the top of this blog almost stands as a rebuke to Tolkien, suggesting that GBS is writing about love, not the great deeds of history or legend. The one that follows, while still with a melancholy feel, is at least a seasonal celebration
Because the twittering of birds Is the best music that was ever sung
so here is Geoffrey Bache Smith’s Sonnet:
There is a wind that takes the heart of a man, A fresh wind in the latter days of spring, When hate and war and every evil thing That the wide arches of high Heaven span Seems dust, and less to be accounted than The omened touches of a passing wing: When Destiny, that calls himself a king, Goes all forgotten for the song of Pan: For why? Because the twittering of birds Is the best music that was ever sung, Because the voice of trees finds better words Than ever poet from his heartstrings wrung: Because all wisdom and all gramarye Are writ in fields, O very plain to see.
The wish for restoration in the Passover Seder “Next year in Jerusalem” was poignant this year. Where will we be when the words are next used at the end of September? There is a great desire for a new dawn, a new day, but looking at the political landscape I can see bigotry and mauvaise foi, and I cannot see the wide spread of justice like an everflowing stream that so many of us desire. Utopias are precisely that: places that are ou-topoi, no-places. The British Library, in its excellent trail through the literature, explores a possible play on words between eutopia, a good place, and utopia, asking “Can a perfect world ever be realised?”
If, as Kathleen Jamie suggests of St Kilda, “their way of life broke on the wheel of the modern world,” it may be that this also signals how little validity there is in the harking-back of current political rhetoric. The eutopias of the past are Ealing Studio films (Comedies?) only: ou-topias. However, it’s possible to find personal places in a “when and where were you happiest?” sort of way. In Looking in the Distance, Richard Holloway is at his most plangent as he describes his “fierce and sorrowful anger” on a return to his old theological college: We know that nothing lasts yet the sudden awareness of our own finitude can surprise us into grief… But not always grief: they can be places of beauty and joy. The woods in Spring and Autumn above Nettlebed with Maggie might be such a place for me. Iconic for me (as anyone who has read back in my posts) is the visit just before we were were asked to stay home when Mat Tobin and I went to Uffington, the memory of which has sustained me when I have felt miserable during lockdown. Aberlady, Gradbach, Wychwood, Nettlebed… all sorts of places can do this, and can be the cloud of witnesses that surround us on a grey day or in a time of confinement. Here is a collage of photos of such places – places that are some of my eutopoi:
I notice how selective I am when choosing these photos: the hill of Ludchurch, Aberlady Bay, Uffington, the Lye Valley: outdoors places rather than, say, the churches of Rosslyn, Cordoba or Durham, or the Bodleian, or Magdalen.
These eutopoi suggest something about where I feel wholeness. However, I look at these airy, quiet places and see they are not the places I am regularly: the kitchen; the allotment; my preferred social media platforms… They are outdoors, rural or semirural heterotopias, where difference is key. I am often accompanied by people dear to me: I experience both the Kaplan’s notion of escape and a social aspect that I think is connected – for me – to their idea of fascination (the link here takes you to one of my explorations of their work). These good places might be a delight of solitude, but often for me have a human presence, a human perspective to them – but it is easy (maybe – under normal circumstances, at least), to pick a friend and go somewhere like this. The “human aspect” of fascination is about a compatible voice, a hand to hold.
So when I look to wholeness, wellness, I have to ask what the human aspect actually is. It’s a tough question when dealing with mental health, not just because, thrown on our own resources I come back time and again to my own mental health, but to a bigger question about “When This Is All Over:” what will wellbeing be like? I hope it will include pubs, hugs, time together, as well as all the bigger societal things, but thinking personally (and irrespective of the broader political machinations particularly) here I am struck by a suggestion from Jon Reid on Twitter today that has brought me right back to the present, a brilliantly simple humanistic examen that asks us to identify:
Three ways I have looked after and cared for myself and
Three ways I have looked after and cared for others
It is really tempting to see September (or January or 2022 or even the next scheduled General Election) as a time when everyone will vote for a humanity-based society where peace and justice take into account the needs of the most vulnerable, where society is a seen as a whole entity, full of interconnections and mutual dependencies, where truth is embedded in politics more than vote-grabbing, where care workers are paid properly… and yet I don’t believe it will come. So let’s take the “next year” wish and (to nick an idea wholesale from William Blake – but he is not alone in wishing it) build our own places of wellbeing and belonging, around three daily occurrences of self care and three of care for others. It will be up to us to kindle that hope into something bigger.
It is a start at least. Each pool of light might connect with others.