Monday, 24 December 2012

Advent Women 9

The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can't describe myself I can't ask for help. We are alone in this quest, and Fortunata is right not to disguise it, though she may be wrong about love. I have met a great many pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves. Perhaps I'm missing the point - perhaps whilst looking for someone else you might come across yourself unexpectedly, in a garden somewhere or on a mountain watching the rain. But they don't seem to care about who they are. Some of them have told me that the very point of searching for God is to forget about oneself, to lose oneself for ever. But it is not difficult to lose oneself, or is it the ego they're talking about, the hollow, screaming cadaver that has not spirit within it?

I think that cadaver is only the ideal self run mad, and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete.
Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

My mother has a theory that JW wrote this novel as a sort of explanation/apology for Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. JW's mother was furious at Oranges and never read another book by her. It's sad because there is a tenderness in the mother-child relationship (almost obsessively portrayed by JW) in this novel that might have undone some of the damage. This book has a special place for me because it was the starting point for my phd, as an inspirational example of literature deploying theological themes and narratives. The funny thing is that I read it to help my mother who was writing an essay (and later teaching a course) on feminist myth-revision. I'm not going to say any more about this...

Christianity is not the only thing that JW revises, there's a whole lot of myth, fairytale and literature that gets picked up and twisted to her own ends. But the theology is what intrigued me. Her (foster) mother raised her a brethren and so Christianity and the mother have fused together into a complex ambivalent relationship. She memorized a lot of Scripture in her youth, along with T. S. Eliot and plenty of other Christian writers. Weirdly the very thing she ended up rejecting (Oranges tells a pseudo-biographical story of how her sexuality led to her being rejected [notably it's this way round] by her church) is what gives it so much depth. The passage above resonates significantly with the mystical tradition and she has (sort of!) described the novel as a reading of Four Quartets (which is sort of a reading of St John of the Cross's Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul). 

I chose this passage mainly because it highlights the central feminist issue with mysticism. How can you balance mystical kenosis and the assertion of feminine identity that feminism requires? I think there are options and she hints at directions here. The garden she mentions is surely the garden at Burnt Norton where Eliot finds his still point with Emily Hale (who he almost but didn't marry). The mountain is surely Elijah's, discovered at the point of exhaustion again in the silence after an earthquake. JW herself is complicated here. On the one hand, she frequently signals that the path for the soul is independent self-discovery; but then why are all her novels about obsessive love? Anyway enough mansplaining - it's Roaring's fault who's been too busy to write this month; all these Advent women have begun answers to this question much better than I could. There are doubtless many ways to create and discover yourself, just as there are the divine; they are necessarily the same question at the end of the day, whether or not that also means finally losing yourself and God again.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Advent Women 8

"Hell is the seventh name 
Of this Love wherein I suffer.
For there is nothing Love does not engulf and damn,
And no one who falls into her
And whom she seizes comes out again…
To be wholly devoured and engulfed
In her unfathomable essence,
To founder unceasingly in heat and cold,
In the deep, insurmountable darkness of Love"
Hadewijch of Antwerp

Hadewijch is one of my favourite theologians and poets. She's like John of the Cross on acid. Full of romance, gender-bending and self-abasement; it's gripping, moving and very clever. In the same tradition of St Denys, with St Bonaventure's more human and Christological elements, but grafted into the medieval narrative of the questing knight:

"He must march far who presses on to Love – 
Through her broad width, her loftiest height, her deepest abyss.
In all storms he must explore the ways;
Then her wondrous wonder is known to him: 
        That is – to cross her desert plains,
To journey onward and not stand still;
To fly through and climb the heights,
And swim through the abyss,
There from Love to receive love whole and entire."

'She' has become a 'he', Christ has become a 'she', the mountain is partnered with her deepest abyss; there is a complementarity of images that is pretty damn sexy. Never has the journey of the soul been so exciting.

"My soul melts away
In the madness of Love;
The abyss into which she hurls me
Is deeper than the sea;
For Love’s new deep abyss
Renews my wound:"

And the knight errant narrative is matched by a love story. She is the Elizabeth Wurtzel to John of the Cross' Plath. There's a terrifying chaos to the writing, but not without careful thought. The mystical journey is a kenosis, an emptying of the soul and the medieval period learns to describe this passionately. The danger is great - especially for women - and others like Marguerite Porete learned this at great cost, but this self-abandonment to God runs like a seam of coal through Christian history. And it's anything but miserable:

She always wishes to hear
And to give herself to rejoicing and sadness;
Love cannot be without either;
She is always mingling both in a wonderful way;
So strongly active is Love’s nature
That she cannot rest one instant.

The qualification of the active life of love prevents her from disappearing into self-absorbption, and with all that passion there is joy as well as sadness. Grace Jantzen drew attention to the natal aspect of the abyss in her writing, finding it to be a site of nourishment and plenitude. This is true, but to return to the quote with which I began the abyss is equally a place of self-destruction and the womb of creation possesses the vagina dentata; it is the place of making and un-making. People always go to Julian for the female metaphors of God. Hadewijch may have been from Belgium but she definitely provides a more exciting place to begin uncovering some traditional feminist theology...

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Advent Women 7

‘We have no female trinity. But as long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own… If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a god who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity’
Luce Irigaray, 'Divine Women''

A friend told me a while back (2nd hand), that Luce Irigaray was not a very nice person. I found this really disappointing. She is a great writer and, more unusually, a writer whose writing has done a lot of good. One shouldn't pay much attention to gossip, I suppose, but that sort of thing always colours how I see people. Sometimes it works the other way. Anyone who has met, say Denys Turner or Janet Soskice, would be more inclined to read their work. I imagine many have struggled through After Writing or Theology and the Drama of History purely on the basis of a well placed crush. 

What is most pleasing about Irigaray's work is the pragmatic and imaginary slant. She takes a work like Fiorenza's In Memory of Her, a feminist biblical attempt to reclaim the position of women in the gospels, to recover the equality of women in Christianity, but then asks the important question: equal to whom? In a way this cuts to the heart of the question of women bishops. Equality, after all, has two opposites: inequality and difference. Inequality is obviously a problem but the question of difference brings us into a difficult area. Difference can suggest gender essentialism, it can smuggle in inequality by the back-door, but without difference the political voice of women is lost, the distinctive ways of being are in danger of elision and the battered ark of feminism is run aground. 

Feminism's work is not done. 'Slavery is ours, not in a merely symbolic sense but absolutely. Woman is, from birth, a slave until she is able to decide for herself as a civil person. this is how it still is for us today.' That means, even if you fear that a great deal of femininity is passed as natural when it's cultural, you cannot give up women and you need to keep listening for their voice. But Irigaray takes this further in setting sexual difference as the preliminary test for opening ourselves to all forms of otherness: 'Sexual difference is perhaps the hardest way, but it is also the key, to achieving civil coexistence between other forms of difference. An apprenticeship in respect for the other at the most instinctive, emotional level, leads to peaceful coexistence with all forms of otherness.' Some might object to setting feminism as the basis for all social inclusion but it kind of makes sense.

Once you accept this insistence on difference, the next question is how do women redescribe our world. For theology the question is vital - can such a male God save women? Can He even speak to them or for them? But the point at which I think it gets really interesting is when we start clearing away our presuppositions, when we try to begin theology from a different place. This is an ethical task: 'I also ask how we can rethink our tradition, particularly the religious one, in order to be able to love each other here below, making of the other a horizontal transcendence, an absolute which cannot be gone beyond insofar as it is irreducible to oneself', but also a theological one: 'Man sets the infinite in a transcendence that is always deferred to the beyond, even if it be the beyond of the concept. Woman sets it in an expanse of jouissance here and now right away'. Like Cixous earlier who is breaking in a female voice across all different genres, appropriating and transforming, Irigaray begins to look at what a female theology might look like. Now I can see the proverbial Dean of Peterhouse wagging his finger intoning "heresy, heresy, heresy", but it needn't be. There are of course many ways in which doing theology in this way could deteriorate into some sort of New Age nonsense, or shallow political correctness, or some embarrassing wishy-washy materialism. What could be discovered, however, is a way of expanding how we think about the divine, a critique of prevailing mythologies and a new vocabulary for saying something about God, humanity and the world. This is exciting and should be what theology is all about rather than a bunch of stale old men shrouded in cigar smoke discussing Barth. It might even bring a spark of life back to the academy. After all who could disagree with Irigaray that ‘sociology quickly bores me when I’m expecting the divine’. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Advent Women 6

In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real... The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair... It is a task to come to see the world as it is.
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I remember reading an interview with a philosopher many years ago, perhaps Barthes or Foucault, and they mentioned reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment - a very passionately written and hypnotic work. Their comment was though that it did not significantly affect them because by the time they had read it they were beyond the age of "intellectual discoveries". 

The phrase stayed with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it disturbed me that you reached an age where you no longer made "intellectual discoveries" and secondly because I understood what he meant by it and it's a good phrase. Because there are some things you read which affect you profoundly - that significantly change the way you think. It may be an odd conjugation of life events and current affairs, a girlfriend or a city, or a teacher - but certain books in the right circumstances change you, form you even. It turns out he was right as well about getting beyond the age. It's not that you don't keep learning or expanding how you see the world, but the really dramatic formational intellectual moments, I suspect, run parallel to our emotional development and experience of the world. When the mind is least formed on subjects it has the greatest potential for growth and change. Be careful what you read in your early twenties...

Anyway I only thought of this because reading the above book reminded me so much of Don Mackinnon, who I found very formative in my early twenties. Turns out he taught Murdoch yonks ago. Clearly they both liked Cezanne. Speaking of Mackinnon, I was told once by someone who knew him, how his wife had once come home, gone upstairs and found his trousers on the bed. She ran downstairs ready to call the police because she thought her husband had finally lost the plot and gone out without his trousers. Eventually he turned up at home and it turns out he'd bought himself a new pair of trousers. "Nice anecdote" I hear you cry! But it does kind of suggest that actually Mackinnon just wore the same pair of trousers every day without fail for years. Which is a bit odd. I guess they didn't have H&M in those days.

Well I thought I'd put in Iris today since she fits very well with Weil and Rose. The same emphasis on attention and acceptance, the same intellectual curiosity, here in relation to art. What is beginning to strike me about all these female writers (which I'm choosing more or less at random) is their ability to stick with difficulty and a certain sense of renunciation, in a way which is not so evident in male writing. 

Anyway I liked Murdoch's essays because they are really about transcendence, even though she is reticent or even hostile towards God. Secularizing Plato doesn't work but she does describe the task of the philosopher and writer really very well. People are often averse to these concepts today. Culturally speaking it's very easy to be lazy, to accept the dominant mythologies, to listen only to familiar music, to give up on morality and to stop believing in better and worse. The people who criticise these things equally often end up sounding like snobs, conservatives and hypocrites. Especially if their defense is based on formality: the opera is the right place to go, getting married is the right thing to do. Murdoch is pointing to a realism, which requires us make the effort to see the world as it is; that achieving depth - in relationships, in appreciation of art, in discerning the right thing to do - is a task. It is difficult. That's why her primary enemies in the essay are scientists (who think everything can be explained simply by cause and effect [determinism]) and existentialists (who believe it's all about an abstract 'will' that has freedom to do whatever, whenever rather than learning to see the world truthfully). The frailties of our egos and wandering attentions will always distract us from this task, but the pursuit of perfection remains the goal of the soul. Humankind cannot bear very much reality but 'the humble man (sic), because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are'.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Advent Women 5

Let me then be destroyed. For that is the only way I may have a chance of surviving. Let those feelings uniquely called forth by sexual love, my life's passion and pain, my learnt desirability figured out of my primeval undesirability, let them prevail. Now I am not dissociated from my ululation. I hear the roaring and the roasting and know that it is I. Resist the telephone! Even though help is only a few digits away. For the first time, I say "No" to any alleviation, to the mean of friendship, to the endlessly inventive love of my sisters. I don't want to be justified. Keep your mind in hell and . . . I want to sob and sob . . . until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.

"Loss" means that the original gift and salvation of love have been degraded: love's arrow poisoned and sent swiftly back to the heart. My time-worn remedy has been to pluck the arrow and to prove the wound, testing its resources with protestant concentration. This time I want to do it differently. You may be weaker than the whole world but you are always stronger than yourself. Let me send my power against my power. So what if I die. Let me discover what it is that I want and fear from love. Power and love, might and grace. That I may desire again. I would be the Lover, am barely the Beloved.
Gillian Rose, Love's Work

A couple of weeks ago I took Gillian Rose's The Broken Middle on retreat with me. Fortunately I had other books with me for in the end I only read one and a half chapters because it is such hard going. Every now and again you get some encouragement, but most of the time the strain of reading is immense. I've fought through Hegel, I didn't have the heart for Heidegger, but I feel I should continue with Rose, if only because she has influenced this generation of theologians so much. It's a bloody hard business though. I met up with my old tutor from theological college the other day who wrote her phd on Rose. She claims that Rose is playing with you. I didn't find this particularly encouraging. 

She has written more accessible books though and Love's Work is deceptively accessible for the depth it contains. Similar in tone is her unfinished, posthumous Paradiso, in which she defines the philosopher's task as one of 'eros', 'attention' and 'acceptance'. Eros by which she means intellectual curiosity; attention as in careful concentration; and acceptance as a refusal to make an easy closed-off conclusion - to remain with the problems and conflicts without seeking a way out. The passage above shows how her attitude to love and sex bears the same marks. The eros is pronounced, the passion, the ululation, the shriek and sob; but so is the attention - the rapt concentration of feeling, the honesty of self-assessment, the awareness and analysis; but finally it is the 'acceptance' that is most striking. Refusing to call friends or sisters, staying with the pain, refusing distraction or lies of denial. The refusal of consolation - to 'prove the wound'. The reward is to discover what I want and fear from love, for love not to be diminished and cheapened. 

Many years ago I spent several months with St John of the Cross, endlessly reading the poems and prose. The intention at the time was academic but I gained an interesting spiritual insight. St John teaches a sort of detachment. Not in a not caring way, what might be called indifference, but more like what Rose here calls 'acceptance' (T. S. Eliot takes this up in 'Little Gidding' in the hedgerow and St Julian: All shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well.). The point is that if we can let things go we are freed from the anxiety, the weight of our fragility. Reading him this became I kind of prayer - I looked at what I was most terrified of - for me beginning with things like losing my job, my vocation, mobility, vision, the ability to read, to communicate, enduring unassailable discomfort. It was a sort of process of burning away, meditating upon fear until it dissolved; staying with pain and humiliation rather than running from it. Imaginatively I came to a place of assurance where I truly felt that whatever my conditions I could live in the simplicity of what remained of my mind and its relationship with God.

In a sense this is very close to a negative form of control. When I am on trains and planes I usually spend some time imagining they crash and thinking through my actions. This is of course an idle fantasy and a sort of anxiety displacement exercise. This is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about acceptance - that whatever comes to be the case, it will be ok, or in Rose's celebrated borrowing: 'keep your mind in hell and despair not' (or as Jessie J profoundly reminds us: 'It's ok not to be ok'). This will be tested in greater depth of course. Most of us will endure the slow decline to the body's end, when our assurance is tested. Only time will tell the success of our preparations. Rose was struggling with the cancer that finally killed her as she wrote this work. The great success of it is that she articulates a theology, a spirituality, of suffering, of abiding with conflicts in love and friendship, of staying with the problems of philosophy and politics, and of bearing with the reality of suffering and not turning away:

[New age spiritualities] burden the individual soul with an inner predestination: you have eternal life only if you dissolve the difficulty of living, of love, of self and other, of the other in the self, if you are translucid, without inner or outer boundaries. If you lead a normally unhappy life, you are predestined to eternal damnation, you will not live.

This is the counsel of despair which would keep the mind out of hell. The tradition is far kinder in its understanding that to live, to love, is to be failed, to forgive, to have failed, to be forgiven, for ever and ever. Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Advent Women 4

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-- 

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not 
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two--
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
from 'Daddy' by Sylvia Plath

No one matches Plath for emotional distress. I'm still reading Birthday Letters, one a day. It should probably be classified under 'horror'. It's like a groundhog day of repeated self-violence, a scratched record that jars continually on the note of a scream. Plath's father died just before her 8th birthday following complications after an amputation of his foot, after unrecognised diabetes. Still, as a figure, a figure of death, he looms through Hughes' as well as Plath's work. This last week of mine has been characterized by death and grief for various reasons. It is of course the cold weather but Advent seems to bring the most incongruous combinations of events and emotions together: consuming parties of over-indulgence in a penitential season, the formality of carol services set against the kitsch of decorations and the innocence of nativity plays performed on the barely-cleared floors of funerals and wakes. It makes sense though. Advent ends in birth and it looks towards the end of time. It is the season of life and death.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Advent Women 3

Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs. They have made for women an antinarcissism! A narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven't got! They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove. We the precocious, we the repressed of culture, our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies - we are black and we are beau-tiful. We're stormy, and that which is ours breaks loose from us without our fearing any debilitation. Our glances, our smiles, are spent; laughs exude from all our mouths; our blood flows and we extend ourselves without ever reaching an end; we never hold back our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we're not afraid of lacking.
Helene Cixous 'Laugh of the Medusa'

I should have begun with this essay as it contains some of the most impressive writing I have ever read. It's also related to one of the most awkward moments I've ever had. I was in another English MA seminar; I can't remember the subject. Anyway, for some reason I brought up style and started talking about this essay because one of the beautiful things about it is that she is trying to write differently. Her point is that writing is male, and women need to find a way of writing female texts. So even the female writers of the past have written as men: 'the woman who writes cuts herself out a paper penis', or haven't written publicly; the woman writes in 'white ink'. Cixous is trying out writing as a woman though, writing bodily (hence white ink/breast milk) and rewriting myth, psychology, philosophy, politics and theology as a woman: 'in the beginning are our differences'. She even manages to pre-empt mobile phones: 'we're going to show them our sexts!'. And part of this is reflected in her style which is highly rhetorical and runs in waves over the reader, the entire essay is a long drawn out, pulsing orgasm, reflecting playfully a metaphor between women's writing and women masturbating. Anyway halfway through my explanation I realised that I was about to talk to a class full of people about women masturbating. Awkward. Well I pressed on and regardless of my dislike of the word itself (sounds too much like masticating, which makes me think of cows) I made my point. This wasn't the embarrassing bit though. At the time I had developed a new side to my relationship with my mother by discussing these classes each week (she has a phd in English - helpful common ground). And in the evening I'd call her to discuss the seminar. well somehow I didn't see it coming and once again started making my point, realising with horror the approaching wreck where I was taking the conversation. So yes I am one of the few boys who has managed to discuss women masturbating with my mother. Awkward.

Anyway, all that is pretty irrelevant (although in a pleasing meta- way it's nice to have managed to have a third chance to relive this experience), because until you have read this essay, you do not know what beautiful, powerful writing is. This essay made me jealous of women. Think Martin Luther King's speech, but wait! 'The new history is coming; it's not a dream, though it does extend beyond men's imagination, and for good reason. It's going to deprive them of their conceptual orthopedics, beginning with the destruction of their enticement machine.' Think the Communist Manifesto, but 'A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is vol-canic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there's no other way. There's no room for her if she's not a he. If she's a her-she, it's in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the "truth" with laughter.' This is the laugh of the medusa reclaimed: 'You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing.' Think of the sexual revolution but taken further: 'We will rethink womankind beginning with every form and every period of her body. The Americans remind us, "We are all Lesbians"; that is, don't denigrate woman, don't make of her what men have made of you.'

This essay should have changed the world. It should have been played on every radio station, when it was written in the summer of 1976. It should not be possible to be sexist in the way that society and the church remain sexist - as if one were to say that no black man can be a bishop. The writing here is not on the wall, it is on the body; and that body is the female body of Christ. What I would like to see is a legion of women in synod on the terrace laughing; laughing so hard that all the women-haters, men and women, could no longer speak. Laughing to destroy all this anti-love with an orgasm that will send waves of jouissance throughout this flacid, impotent structure.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent Women 2

Christianity should contain all vocations without exception since it is catholic. In consequence the Church should also. But in my eyes Christianity is catholic by right but not in fact. So many things are outside it, so many things that I love and do not want to give up, so many things that God loves, otherwise they would not be in existence... Christianity being catholic by right but not in fact, I regard it as legitimate on my part to be a member of the Church by right but not in fact, not only for a time, but for my whole life if need be...
(Simone Weil, Spiritual Autobiography)

As T. S. Eliot said, while everything Weil writes is worth reading, we might not always follow her arguments to their conclusions. What defines her work though is a honesty that is as sharp as a quadro-blade Gilette razor ("The Best a Man Can Get"). Absolutely everything is cut through - ideology, politics, pragmatism, doctrine, received wisdom - even if it seems pretty or pleasant or just necessary to get along, it is tested, whittled, sliced until every inch of paradox, hypocrisy and superstition is filed to a stump. But you can still hear the love. The desire for total inclusion. The solidarity with any misshapen lump that might have been overlooked. 

It's unclear whether she was baptised. If so, like Gillian Rose, a similar figure, it was a death-bed baptism. But what more powerful sign of Christian redemption could there be than a refusal of a sacrament in solidarity with those whom the Church has not recognised but are full of the grace of God?

It's an interesting conundrum. Whatever you think, though, Weil is a prophetic voice of truth that dared to cut itself against doctrine and it's voices like these that continue to call the Church to account and make it anywhere close to being worthy of the name.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Advent Women 1

Well there you are. It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten. Even the one moment that you thought was your eternity fades out and is forgotten and dies. This is what makes life so droll – the way you forget, and every day is a new day, and there’s hope for everybody, hooray…

Now our luck has changed and the lights are red. 
(Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight)

Whenever I hear Jean Rhys's name I smile. I was at an MA seminar in the School of English at Exeter University and an American girl was giving a seminar presentation on the above novel. The only problem was that she had, at some point, assumed that Jean Rhys was in fact a French man (repeat the name in Joey Barton comedy French accent...). By the end of the twenty minute presentation the room temperature had gone through various levels of surprise, confusion, embarrassment, humour till finally settling upon excruciation. As her words trailed into silence everyone stared at the desk in front of them wondering how, HOW could anyone not check the gender of the writer they were presenting on in a postgrad seminar (especially when this novel is a first-person woman's narration). The lecturer, all wry grin and charm, deflected the situation with a rhetorical interrogation of the significance of the author. I don't know whether the girl ever recovered her own dignity, but in a way it was a telling indictment that she assumed male gender, especially in this case. 

Well, there are enough reasons in stand on your chair a la Caitlin Moran and declare yourself a feminist. I myself have been wrapped in black these past weeks mourning the sad cases of so many young men (and women though I do not personally know these) who are so young and yet on the wrong side of history. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. They are already middle aged and already condemned in their own smallmindedness. Anyway and I must publish this as I only have two minutes before midnight, but we have decided to celebrate great female writers and thinkers this month and so we have a treat of an Advent 24 days of the very best wisdom of women...

Oh and let's hope our luck changes again and the lights go green.

Monday, 24 September 2012

London Fever

London can be bad for your mental health. It can make you quite unwell. This weekend took me to the middle of the country, a train to Winchester then a half hour drive to some dark space between the galaxies, far, far away. Working with horses early at 8am on Sunday, it was a simple day-trip to the country.

First signs
Going abroad used to be a longwinded process. Vaccinations and visas are of course no longer usually required to go to France but you used to have to make plans over which currencies you might need, there was a time before e-tickets, you had to phone to confirm your flight, the whole thing was just a lot more of an ordeal. My God, people actually used to buy travellers cheques. I had them once - money that you have to change before you can use it and which you have to pay for. What was that about? The first sign of London fever is where you start seeing leaving London in this way. Before catching the train I withdrew £100. The nervous anxiety that outside London there's only one cashpoint per county, that nowhere accepts plastic, that a beautiful ancient antique built by a druid would have to be returned to the shelf because the medieval bank was only open in the morning at dawn when everyone else trades their wares for cash still attached to the gold standard, had taken hold. Twenty minutes after the train's pulled away you see for the first time the unadulterated natural world. In the heart of Exeter you can always see the hills; in Cambridge you never really feel that you've left the countryside. In London you can go months without seeing an unmanicured stalk. And then you arrive in pretty little Winchester.

Winchester is designed to confuse you. There was a sign for the cathedral where I was meeting a friend to drive on to the wedding. After that no more signs. I asked a local who pointed me in the right direction advising me to turn right at Monsoon, where she clearly bought all her clothes. There were some comforting reminders of London, like Thieves and Crooks (Gieves and Hawkes), but I was as unable to afford anything there as in London; and I was surprised to see a Loch Fyne restaurant, mainly because I figured that by the time the fish had made the two-day wagon ride from Southampton they probably wouldn't be in great shape. The centre was full of people, all very casually dressed. I suspect many of them had been out back earlier on making butter. It turned out then that my friend had been "joking" so I went back to meet him at the station. There were plenty of signs for this but they had been clearly designed to take you on the most circuitous route possible past every single shop (of which there were at least nine). Which was annoying. I did however pass an AMAZING bakery and had the most delicious sandwich IN THE WORLD, in which the bread was infused with cheese. INFUSED. CHEESE. Amazing.

A Very Big House in the Country
My friend has devised an amazing strategy for navigation. He goes to google maps to note every turn off, but the clever thing is he then goes to street view and memorizes the scene so as to remember it when driving. Clever huh? I've no idea whether I could manage it but he didn't make a single mistake and we were genuinely in the middle of nowhere. I was a little concerned that the trip back would cost a fortune as a solo-taxi is not the most economical way to travel. When I got to the house I went through the list of local companies. The first three "companies" didn't answer the phone. When I phoned the next one it was a clear the "company" really was just a bloke with a car. He couldn't take me - my guess is that he was staying in to watch the X-factor. Amazingly the next company also refused to take me - this is 10pm on a Saturday night booked at lunch time - you'd think it would be a little more straight-forward. Anyway after some umming and ahhing I got an old man to agree to come fetch me. Turns out he was an old dear and chatted amicably while I drunkenly jibbered at him all the way home, mooning over having to leave an excellent party early. The wedding was awesome - there was a cupcake wedding-cake and they had boule and hoopla in the garden. Old school. It only took two hours or so to get home. Not actually that long. Try and get home from Dulwich "village" on a Sunday, a mere 8 miles away and you won't be in bed much sooner. Then again Dulwich and Winchester have more than a little in common, and quite possible a significant overlap in population.

So London-fever, can be overcome. You just have to try not to be a dick and give in to zone one or even zone six snobbery. Definitely take out a lot of money - that taxi was pricey. And buy a sandwich. INFUSED WITH CHEESE.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 7


Last day. Technically the first day of the week, but since there was no sun, moon and stars at the time, I think it's a little anachronistic to call the first day Sunday. Nihiloday would be more appropriate, or perhaps 'Abyssday' or 'Lightday'. I wake up, grudgingly getting out of bed, and heading down for a cup of tea. Clearing up wine glasses and kebab wrappers has a cleansing effect on the soul, bringing order to the chaos. Checking the fridge I realise Mr K. has eaten all my cheese. Gobble, gobble, gobble. And the cheddar was very good. I shower and pick up the paper which doesn't get read, bar headlines. All the Sunday papers are unreadable. Getting into church 45 minutes before the service I light up the incense, sort the sound system and microphones, get the flutes out, help set up Kids' Club and other little things. We do a sweet blessing for the kids' first week in school and they get blue and pink pencil cases. It's busy - the fullest the church has been on an ordinary service since I've been here with well over 200. It goes on a bit long and the sound system is still playing up a little but there's a good atmosphere and a lot of people are back for the first time so there's a lot of catching up. The music is big with flute, clarinet and bassoon in addition to the recently doubled choir. Handel's 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' lends an awesome rather than reflective time of communion. My heart is in the sixteenth century and I'll don't think I'll ever get used to big anthems, but it's certainly impressive. The after service rush is kind of exhausting and kind of energising, especially with cake and champagne; you're trying to get round as many people as possible but you're also being drawn into engaging and helpful conversations, and, of course, always being charming.

When I get back Mr K has successful foraged for almond croissants but we head out for lunch, meeting up with a curate from Birmingham down for Roaring's mass. A delicious pub lunch with good English ale, followed by coffee and croissants on the roof. Some rubbish is playing in the park; I missed Kylie the day before, which is just the saddest thing. Speeding across London carrying our splendid white and gold cope we get to Roaring's church and I head in for choir practice. They're very pleasant and with a few additions from friends we seem to make a pleasant noise. Roaring is stumping around the building having serious conversations and looking smart in her little grey suit. The mass is marvellous. After being quite stiff while practising she is now relaxed and it's a joy to behold. Everything about the evening is beautiful and I have to fight back tears three times, especially when receiving communion. Obviously mass is not supposed to be about the priest but vocation is personal; Roaring has a vocation to say mass and watching it happen in front of you, you see a condensation of someone's life, reflected in the faces of all the gathered congregation, in all it's joy, conflict and difficulty, which is appropriate to the story she is telling.

Afterwards there's wine and little snacks, my collaborator from Wednesday is present and with light fingers lifts a bottle for the huddle of clergy at the back. Clergy can take any of the collective nouns used for birds. Following owls a congregation of clergy is acceptable, but much better is the crow: a murder of priests. Sausage rolls abound. We retire to chez Roaring and i don't throw wine on any walls. Baby Roaring happily gallops about and all is jolly. Looking around I notice that clergy have quite defined political views. There is a fairly even split of right and left wing - most of the left having voted liberal or green at the last election - but there are very few I couldn't tell you straight away their inclination, which is not true of my non-clerical friends. Amusingly my boss is in full agreement with a Southwark curate about the present government even though their voting habits are sharply opposed. Liberalism can be a uniting front. Baby R gets lots of cuddles but eventually we have to go home and the Boss is driving which is marvellous. Mr K. arrives from his reading in Peterborough around the same time and chicken kebabs from Cafe Helen are the order of the day. More wine and an impromptu full album performance of Queen's Greatest Hits on cello and guitar climaxes on 'Fat Bottomed Girls'. A late audition for the X-factor, if they'd accept a 4am audition after 2 bottles of wine, may or may not be on the cards. A mouse emerges to judge our performance but doesn't linger. It's been a long day and tomorrow I have a full day's staff training in Soho, starting at 8am with breakfast at the Savile, but I don't see Mr K. enough so we plough on, chatting and singing, all through the night till the broad daylight. I have kissed Christ's Roaring hands and for the moment all is well with the world.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 6


No one can imagine meeting the entire family Roaring all at once. It's like suddenly finding yourself in the Spice Girls movie, but they're clever. (Disclaimer: the Spice Girls may be clever; I've only ever seen them jumping around.) Fortunately before confronting extreme girl-power I had a quiet morning with the FT - the best paper of the week. I actually woke up on time for once with a cacophony of alarms probably waking up the street, all before some sweet George Clooney coffee sent me into the brave new world of outer London. The trains were a mess and I had to run off one train half way through the Old Testament lesson. The Common Worship app is well suited to unpredictable train journeys. After a quick cuddle with baby Roaring, on arrival, it was to St Mary's to drop off my church's vestments - Roaring's church's have gone strangely missing in the last twenty years, the legacy of wicked evangelical ministers. Roaring ran through bits of the mass with me providing tips and applause.  By our return Family Roaring had arrived and there was a lot of whooping and hollering. Baby Roaring and I went out to sit and in the sun. She casually gnawed a bone. The good news is that I'm back in Mother Roaring's good books as I have painted over the enormous wine stain I left at Roaring's first ordination, so I was allowed to share a taxi to St Nicholas. The service was lovely. Lots of singing - the highlight "And Can it be" with the excellent lines " 'Tis mystery all: the Immortal dies; who can explore his strange design?". The hands went down, the oil went on. She arose Roaring, priest. The after-party was all very jolly - tea and cakes - and what fine cakes! But no wine. Disaster. In protest I gobbled down three magnificent cupcakes with splendid icing. Dinner was marvellous but the return home predictably took an age. Emerging at Marble Arch I was greeted by hordes draped in Union Jacks literally singing at the tops of their voices such classics as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" with a bit of "Oggy, Oggy, Oggy". At first I thought it must have been revellers after the closing ceremony for the paralympics, but a neigbour informed me that this is tomorrow and these were all coming back from the Last Night of the Proms. So many parties... Evelyn Waugh would have been impressed - nearly naked parties in Hyde Park? With sunburn? He almost mentions them with his Vile Bodies. Unfamiliar to him, however, in Hyde Park tomorrow Cold Play will be singing Ricky Martin's classic Livin' la Vida Loca. It will be tough to pull myself away to Roaring's first mass but friendship will have its sacrifice. Having changed and settled down to X-Factor before bed, I was interrupted by an "exuberant" Mr K. fresh from reading bits of his new novella attempting to let himself in but instead double locking himself out. Eventually he got in with the wondrous gift of a priceless Cafe Helen's Kebab for each of us. I'm sure I must have mentioned these before, but they are simply the most delicious things on the planet. We settled down to second dinner with a glass of wine. Mr K. spoke poetically, as he always does, but that's because he's a prose poet. It's much easier. He'd recently seen some pre-digital age photos of us when we lived together and was horrified at how fat he was that year - repeating several times that he actually looked like Boris Johnson. I reminded him that he used to get up at midday and have a pasta snack breakfast laden with cheese, and that in the evening we'd eat a large domino's pizza each, a feat neither of us would manage or even dare now. We talked for far too long until eventually the looming threat of Sunday demanded retiring for the night, slipping down to the cave sometime around 3.30am.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 5


I’m not sure whether I managed to sleep through four alarms involving light, radio, annoying tunes and beeping, or if there was a strange technological black-out across W2, or if I am simply incompetent, but I wake up with a lively spirit at not quite nine o’clock. Not a disaster as it’s my day off but much regretted later. Friday is a good newspaper day with Ms Treneman and Caitlin Moran’s Celebrity Watch in The Times, plus a chap who’s marrying a friend of mine this New Year’s Eve with a very good piece. He includes a delightful quote from a Bank of England Governor who was asked by parliament his reasons for a policy and responded: “Reasons Mr Chairman? I don’t have reasons. I have instincts.” I say the morning office from my phone while listening to “U don’t dans 2 Tekno” by the Alabama 3. Both these facts make me feel slightly guilty. Afterwards to make up for missing Wednesday I take a 15k run around the many parks of Westminster. At first I feel good and cruise across Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens into Holland Park. It’s seriously swanky here - enough to make the Hyde Park Estate look positively Council. Cutting through it leads down to Kensington High Street which joins up with the bottom of the gardens. The long stretch in the baking midday sun is torture. Mad dogs and Englishmen. I regret sleeping late. The loop round Green Park is much more pleasant but St James’ is still Olympified and so forces me into a wider arc, which is the last thing I want. Getting past the palace is the usual obstacle course and I finally sweat my way up back through Hyde Park pleasantly overtaking the most absurdly slow cyclists the world has ever seen. It still feels good. Running is probably my most helpful spiritual practice. I find it easy to focus my mind on a single subject so whether it’s working through an idea or meditating on Scripture or whatever it can be very productive. The emotions of long distance running work as a sort of crucible - going through agony and endorphic ecstasy with your mind locked on Romans 7 is an experience - who will save me from this BODY OF DEATH?!

After a shower my beginning of term haircut is a success though it means washing my hair three times in one hour which seems ridiculous. I HAVE to fully shower after a haircut, the itching, the itching… Popping into town I pick up Roaring’s ordination present on bike, then head back for juice and coffee. When Roaring was first ordained I sent her my thoughts on getting ‘made’ deacon. Having failed to remember to send her a card to her retreat, I promised to put down how I feel about ordination. I think about this as I get the tube to London Bridge reading ‘Little Gidding’. I meet a friend for a glass of wine and a cigarette by the river and then head to a lecture by Sarah Coakley at Southwark Cathedral. It’s on the sex crisis in the Church and is interesting but much the same as what she has written in the past. I’m wary of seeing sex and love of the poor as a mediating form for the real object of God and my sympathy is more with Romantics like Buber and Schleiermacher, finding God within the concrete expressions of human desire and experience. Her ascetic view of marriage as martyrdom and the emphasis on marriage and celibacy don’t ring very true to me; but then I am very modern. We have dinner with another couple of friends afterwards and it’s all very jolly.

When I get home I scramble my thoughts together on priesthood.

First of all, there is only one priesthood, on this everyone agrees: the priesthood of Christ. Everyone also agrees that all Christians share in this priesthood, the priesthood of all believers as we are all part of the body of Christ. There is also a specific vocation to the priesthood; a calling. I am not interested in magic though, in some hocus-pocus metaphysical alchemy of the soul. Symbolically it would make more sense for the congregation with the bishop to lay their hands on the priest of their election, rather than a clerical web of power-infusion. The so-called ontology of priesthood is, I believe, a mythology, obfuscating the significant act of a developing relationship between God, priest and church that has been lived out by the deacon in her first year. It is easier, more clearly bounded, to define a moment of power and change - those magic hands, just as it is fetishized in the eucharist as a decisive moment with the words of power (institution). It is more true, though, to understand the entire action as a transforming relationship, a participation of the priest and people in the divine life; A new calling to participate in an old relationship. The retreat provides a sort of liminal phase, the caterpillar in the chrysalis, but for the people as well as the priest. The first mass completes the action. But it is always the priesthood of Christ - if I were Roaring I would kiss my own hands after her first mass for they are Christ’s - he has no hands on earth but yours. A gift and an awesome responsibility. You are a walking sacrament because God has chosen you to this calling and inhabits you as part of the body of Christ through God’s own actions.

Anyway rather than getting caught up in a prosaic list of priestly actions, let’s have some Eliot instead:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make and end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from. And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree

Are of equal duration. A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always—

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

The unspoken image, borrowed from Donne’s ‘Valediction Forbidding Mourning‘ is a compass. The Quartets are full of circular images, the blood, the stars, the seasons, sex and death, everything created moves in circles. The compass draws a circle that ends at his beginning, for him near the Mississippi or, for his ancestors, East Coker where Eliot is actually buried. But it is not just that death is a sort of beginning for the faithful, but that when we understand our end then we will understand our beginning and the rest of what follows - the shape of the circle gives away its centre. How we understand our end - our death and our point if you like, for every moment is also an end understood in relation to the centre - characterizes our entire existence: ‘Lord let me know mine end’. This is the very root of vocation. Our calling, the drawing of Love comes from our end as we achieve the person God has given us to be. Here this calling is a new beginning as a priest. The calling has ever been with you though.

For Eliot this vocation is bound up in language as he is attempting to articulate the relationship of the soul with God. Reality never stops, it constantly changes, and so therefore does our need to rearticulate and rediscover that relationship with God. Every point of the circle, every moment of life, has a tangent that is immediate to the divine, but we cannot bear very much reality and our lives and our words fall short of capturing the divine. Every step then is a movement towards death, Eliot is thinking of Charles I and the civil war as he is in Little Gidding but the illegible stone is the grave of us all who pass away in time. But his point is that the tradition preserves these actions and they continue to live with us - history and canon mean a lot to Eliot. But even more than this because every moment is in touch with God - remember the image is a compass and so every point of the circle is connected to the still point at the centre - every moment touches transcendence, the divine life. Eliot finds God in love and death - the rose and the yew tree, the rose symbolizing love in the garden of Burnt Norton with Emily, and the yew tree of the generations of life and death in East Coker, the village of his ancestors. Each are moments in time, but each take hold of eternity. But this is not dualistic - there is not time and eternity - we cannot get rid of time. Time gives us a pattern of timeless moments, it is every moment. Eternity crouches alongside us waiting to sweep us off our feet. So while light fails on an a winter’s afternoon - three images of the movement of time, light, season, time of day, History is now and England - eternity is there hidden in the midst of time. This then gives us an image for ordination - while light fails on an autumn afternoon in an English church, not much dissimilar to where Eliot is kneeling - in the dance of time, God is present, History is now and England. The calling is in time but also out of time as the compass branches up and back to the centre of the circle, touching every point. God is calling you Now and Here.

Notice then how the line taken from the Cloud of Unknowing, With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling, breaks out of the verse, standing alone, physically representing the in-breaking of transcendence, of the love that moves the sun and other stars, and it is achieved by the voice of this calling, the divine word that speaks into creation in the beginning and calls each of us to our vocation, to our end which is also our beginning.

The calling of priesthood then is a call for exploration, to discover again and again the divine activity in every moment, that gives shape to the whole from the garden of Eden to the New City. And to understand that journey, as the journey of each soul, to be a pattern, a constellation of moments, that touch the divine life as they pass through the gate, (“I am the gate, if anyone enters through me she shall be saved”.) the gate which is the hinge of the compass. This is what Eliade refers to as ille tempore - a sort of return to mythic times of closeness with God - God with us - described by Eliot in Edenic terms but redolent with the love experienced at Burnt Norton with Emily, the innocence of children in love in a garden, refigured as the drop away between waves at the Dry Salvages of Massachusetts; reading between the lines to find the real meaning. And as love and death are by nature simple they cost everything that we have. Such is the case with priesthood. As Paul writes - if there is no resurrection then we of all people are most to be pitied. Ordination seizes our complete commitment, whether we like it or not, otherwise the forces of doubt and resentment will be overwhelming. My Westcott tutor was right to tell me that I was committing myself to a way of life that few would really understand and value. There are of course ways of being a cool, successful, rich priest, but at the heart of priesthood is a renunciation - costing not less than everything, regarding it as garbage compared to the love of God. But this cost is irrelevant in the light of our end, our beginning. As Julian understands, the wealth of Christ’s victory leaps over all sin and fault, all pain and suffering. Eternity which waits always on the edge of reality promises both its final fulfilment and the full restoration of every moment in the plenitude of God - not to diminish the world’s suffering, after all it is a crowned knot of fire; the crucible of Christ’s passion promises a hallowing of suffering not its erasure; but the fire and the rose are one. Suffering meets love and the final image is of the pieta, where the suffering of Christ is met in the love of Mary (the fire and the rose; also the suffering king), transformed under the pentecostal fire of the Spirit which makes all things new.

What does ordination mean? It means kneeling in a church, where prayer has been valid, stepping into the river of a tradition, with every intention of guiding it to its re-incarnate future discovered in the will of God. It means discovering in this time the brush of eternity that graces every moment and hearing the vocation of God and God’s church. It means submitting to the cost of everything in faithfulness to the end that shapes our entire history. It means recognising the constellations of God’s activity in the world and teaching others to pay attention to these heavenly movements. It means following the path drawn by God, and listening to the voice of that calling. It means being brave to the point of death (which is every moment) and faithful to the love of God, discovered in all its many forms in this passing world. Most of all it is the call to take up the historical remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ, sharing the gift of love under the sign of suffering, and proclaiming the presence of eternity in the midst of us.

ugh. 2.42am. Where does all the time between 12 and 2am disappear?

Friday, 7 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate Day 4


The phone is ringing and I wake up at 8.45am, Roaring returning the favour of last night's call. It's just as well though otherwise I might never have woken. The entire morning is out of kilter. The booze bear has savaged me. I'm a lot poorer, my skin has aged 3 years, and I look terrible. I attempt restoration with an eye-stick I reserve for emergencies, while my partner in crime scuttles out and across the park to enjoy his holiday. I make it to playgroup feeling like Jack Whitehall in Bad Education. Fortunately I have a very sympathetic co-leader who gives me German aspirin with miraculous effects and when followed by 2 coffees and a biscuit I'm back to form. We rattle through the songs, guitar playing a bit clumsy and voice as gravelly and weedy as a Welsh driveway. Afterwards I take the Sunday School leader back to my house and put on CBeebies for her blonde twins - straight out of a Roald Dahl book - perched attentively on the sofa, while we go through the Kids' Club's plan.

Then I take a brief nap. Praise the Lord. On the way back to church I pop into a few restaurants hoping for vouchers and prizes and it's all very friendly. It's irritating this begging tour of every business in the area every year, but it does mean you do get to know everyone in the neighbourhood, which is handy and quite nice. Most of the rest of the day is taken up with emails and admin. Arranging someone to fix the house, sending photos to a local newsletter and Time Out, a coffee appointment, trying to sort out funeral arrangements for a parishioner who died in prison, putting up an even larger poster with our service times in the porch, as an elderly priest peering in claimed he couldn't make them out last Saturday (the only day the church is shut - apparently also unable to check the website or the Church Times). The vicar tells amusing stories about being in America, chortling that on his flight back he met a man in the first class lounge complaining that he couldn't get a copy of The Guardian.

After evening prayer I haul our white vestments home and change quickly to head out to Bromley for a choir rehearsal for Roaring's first mass. I change my mind when I'm at the bus stop and miss a bus. Then decide I should go and it will be fun and get the next one to Victoria. I'm reading a book on Tragedy and Theology which is due for a review by the end of last month. The traffic is appalling and I just miss a train which means I won't stand a chance of getting there less than half an hour late. Despondent, I go and buy a Whopper meal which both cheers me up and makes me more miserable. The vestments languish accusingly on the floor casting aspersions on my priesthood and general fitness as a human being. I bus back reading 'East Coker', a manual on transcending the London gloom, then fall asleep on the couch.

I manage to pull myself together a little later and put in an hour's cycle while watching Bletchley Park and reading an LRB article on The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both are very good. I sing through Roaring's music and then watch episodes of New Girl and Bad Education. I read the paper but it never feels worthwhile in the evening. It's a relief to have The Times today and Ann Treneman's sketch is excellent as usual. Almost as good as yesterday's Mrs Cameron's Diary, which is the very pinnacle of journalism. Productivity wise, not a great day. I resolve to be more useful tomorrow. Go to bed with The Neigbour and his Irish chapter (he is half Irish) - his alzheimic grandmother's last advice: "whatever you do, son, don't marry a Catholic." Eyes shut. 2:26am.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 3


Pottering out of bed this morning, the ritual of tea, papers, prayers &c. begins as normal until a text reminds me I was supposed to be in Kensington Gardens with my running buddy. He has a real job so we meet in the park at 7am, which is horrendous at least until you're back and in the shower. The unusual service for the school has distracted me and I missed our date. He forgives me but, although I enjoyed half an hour more sleep (otherwise a 6.30am wake up), I'm pretty irritated. I try and run at least twice a week and having someone to go with is helpful. We have agreed to do the Grizzly next year and he's sent me information on a 200mile week long race called "The Dragon's back" in the welsh mountains, which looks "interesting". A letter arrives from an estate agent (these are very regular) saying that they've just rented a 2 bedroom house in my street for £900 a week. I briefly fantasize about moving in with the vicar and renting the house. A very quick way to more than triple my salary...  Meanwhile the gas board are digging up the street and have decided to begin their work immediately in front of my kitchen. My recently planted flowers will probably die from the dust, if general neglect does not finish them first. I read another articulation of guilt, anger and shame by Hughes, learn briefly about the marginal revolution in economics, and then head to church. The service is actually very nice - I quite like Common Worship morning prayer and we have a couple of hymns which give it a lift; our new organist is very amenable. The homily is brief but seems to go down well. I'm finding it easier to take in a sentence at a glance and keep my eyes up.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the early Christian communities, on the one hand fearful of persecution, on the other hand growing quickly and taking the name of ‘Christian’ for the first time.  We also hear of how these early Christians took this social and religious identity seriously, giving what they could for the relief of their fellow Christians in other places. It should give us pause to think that here we are so far removed from Turkey and the Middle East, and two millennia later, yet carrying on this same name, “Christian” - as Christianity and latterly the Middle East have come to West London. But what does it mean for a school to call itself ‘Christian’ and ‘Church of England’?

We live in an age that hates institutions. Membership of the Conservative Party has fallen in the last 60 years from 3 million to 175 thousand. The RSPCB now has more members than all the parties together.  With the new social media people feel little need to belong to anything serious beyond casually ‘liking’ and ‘following’ a celebrity or show. We are so far from making the life and death commitments of the early church that our only point of contact with this seriousness-of-life is the terrifying news reels from Syria, which seem unimaginable, a different world. This is hardly to be regretted, but I’m reminded of those snarky comments you hear about the middling banalities of the English - that ‘they’re always willing to admire anything so long as they can queue up’; that ‘an Englishman thinks he is being virtuous when he is only being uncomfortable’; that ‘the English think incompetence is the same thing as sincerity’.  And yet the last two years, the wedding, the jubilee, and most of all the Olympics and Paralympics, has touched a passion for deeper solidarity and belief, some genuine shared cultural identity in Team GB, that is a recognisable good. People talking on the tube? National pride instead of self-deprecation? And London, now a glorious picture of success, hospitality, openness, energy? The weather may bring us back down, but for now at least we bask in a delightful Indian summer.  

What gave the early Church its enthusiasm and enough energy to blow it across the known world within two generations was the discovery of a shared sense of purpose, solidarity founded on the belief of God’s unconquerable love.  A universal message of reconciliation, peace and charity in a truth that sort to communicate a message of hope in the darkness of poverty and suffering. The Church of England is the Church of this realm. This is a position of privilege but it should not be a position of control and exclusion. It is called to serve this country with those same values of solidarity, hospitality, openness and generosity experienced in London this Summer, welcoming all, being present for everyone. As a Church of England school we have an opportunity at the start of this term to foster these values. To push the sense of pride, collaboration and friendliness between old friends and newcomers, as well as the individual excellence that earned our medals. 

We also celebrated 150 years of this historic school this summer, a testament to the faith and hard work of generations - teachers and staff who believed in the Church’s ministry of education and pastoral care, children who were shaped and grew out of these values. Building on what has gone before, let’s continue to foster the legacy of team GB and the deserved reputation of a great world city. This means not turning in on ourselves in fear like those early Christians after the death of St Stephen; but supporting one another joyfully like those in Antioch, who in seeing the needs of others gave, ‘each according to their ability’.

After the service a colleague and I head over to the estate coffee morning. It's largely an event for housewives and the elderly, fuelled by gossip, caffeine and the admiration of each other's houses. Most of the chatter today is about holidays so it has a slight back-to-school feel. When I first arrived these things were hard work. It's mostly small talk with occasional narrow-mindedness and complaints about how people in the area 'can't even speak English'. As you get to know the people though it actually becomes really quite fun and you pick up on the internal politics and class struggles of eyebrow raising and posture. Today we are graced with a veritable banquet, which neatly becomes lunch.

Stella is at the house cleaning when I get back so I hit the roof for some sun before heading down to watch the beginning of Prime Minister's Questions. He looks harried and while it would be almost impossible for the opposition not to come off better, Miliband is now looking a little more like a politician and less the gawky, bolshy school boy. Having said that I suspect if an election were held tomorrow no one would bother voting: 'shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labor. And here I am... perhaps the last island of beauty in the world...'. Perhaps.

It's the children's confirmation class in the afternoon so I spend some time thinking of how to explain the Bible to 9 year olds and devise some games to get them to learn the books and how they fit together. The class actually goes really well; it's a lot more fun than I expect and most of the knowledge is there even if it's not always tied together very well. You always get funny and amusing tangents from kids and although they have real trouble saying "Deuteronomy" they are quite insightful about subjectivity and how the same thing seems different with different eyes. The vicar has returned having had a particularly good holiday and is in fine form.

After a speedy evening prayer I head off to meet a fellow Roman curate in King's Cross. I've found a sherry bar in a nice little courtyard which is marvellous. Roaring would most certainly approve with her frequent trips to Malaga. My comrade prefers cocktails however so we go next door first for a pair of French 75s each. The staff condescend because we don't choose their own cocktails. After a large sherry we go for steaks found on google maps, where the staff condescend because they think they're very fashionable. The steak is the bloodiest I've had and comes on a big board. Unfortunately the board is too big for the table and my plate is pushed right to the edge. Disaster occurs when the plate flips steak on to my lap and plate, loudly, on to the floor. "Would you like a new plate sir?" The staff condescend further and I cover my shame with a red wine filter. After a brief interlude involving mojitos we end up St Pancras hotel where the staff turn condescension into an art, though to be fair we are a little rowdy and it's past midnight. They do, however, provide delicious snacks with our drinks. My fellow lush has missed his last train and comes back to the house for a final glass of wine. At 4am I call Roaring to see how her retreat is going. She is pleased to hear from me and I drift off to sleep sometime following...

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 2


The beginning of the day reads as yesterday. I bled out of bed at 7.25am somewhere between amoeba and jellyfish on the evolutionary scale. For some reason I don't get tired at night but look and feel every lost second in the morning. Being a simple and very immediate creature I haven't learned to curb my late nights, regardless of the fact that they are usually unproductive (e.g. watching Total Recall). Anyway my lost time meant I forgot my poem and economic idea which annoyed me periodically the rest of the day. I am wholly and obsessively a creature of routine. The exciting development, however, was that news has returned with the cabinet reshuffle so the Guardian was mildly less full of nonsense. Polly and George, however, did appear, but so did the delightful Hadley Freeman so it wasn't a total disaster.

Anyway, I struggled into church just after ten as playgroup began. This is an hour and a half of gossip over babies and coffee with a ten minute guitar session in the middle. We don't do Christian songs which I'm convinced is right. It's not why people come and insisting on 'worship' in everything gives the impression that the church should only be doing church. Since school hadn't started some alumni turned up which was most delightful and my blues version of Down in the Jungle was surpassed only by the hopping bunnies and snapping crocodiles.

The jollyness was all cut short by a distressed visitor. The most disturbing thing about the parish is the number of entrapped women, some very visible, some less so. The most horrifying examples are the beggars on Edgware Road that are moved about by gangs, given injuries and have babies passed between them. This is a very direct form of slavery that is difficult to walk past. There is also the infamous Sussex Gardens, destination of the curb crawler, littered with 'vice'-cards and prostitutes, also often trapped in inescapable situations. Finally, however, there is another class, a couple of which I have had long conversations with in the last week. These are kept women. In some cases there are complications with visas, sometimes they have become financially completely reliant on some man, sometimes children are involved, sometimes heartbreak and manipulation. These women can be easily threatened with eviction, with being cut off, abandoned, and in some cases face extortion and violence. The vagaries of life can throw them between first class flights and outright imprisonment. Anger, depression, misery are all too evident. I am looking into what more I can do; there are some shelters and charities available, but often these situations are bound up with invisible ties in carefully constructed cages.

The life of clergy is necessarily ironic. This is not cynicism but often you are forced to shift from the utter seriousness of human misery to the banal or frivolous. So the shift to the business of the car park and administration is frustrating but inescapable. Mugs and stuffed horses will not order themselves, nor will classes for children for a Confirmation service that is really much sooner than is practical. Equally urgent was the task of putting together a Mattins service for the school staff tomorrow and a blessing for the children's first week at school on Sunday. Our faithful administrator was on hand to proof, print and staple but putting services together and formatting takes longer than you might expect.

Lunch had me back on the roof with a pizza before a 10 minute power nap, hoping to dream up a sermon for tomorrow morning. Back in the office the service sheet is finished; some colleagues email suggestions for a title of an edited collection due to be published next year. The back-log list of things I haven't done increases and I begin to feel quite stressed. I've been doing some work for a trust for the past few years and the accounts are due, I've a funeral to arrange, and begging letters for prizes from the local restaurants. On top of this I have an adult confirmation class tonight and a sermon to write for the morning. I finally get through to the stables who are on track for the end of the month, say evening prayer and get to Waitrose for catechesis snacks.

After scrambling to tidy the house the confirmation class goes quite smoothly, though I worry that I am talking a lot. The subject is the Bible and I explain something of how the canon was formed, the Four senses of Scripture, dealing with problematic texts and how we read the Bible, how it can help and how we orient ourselves as Christians by engaging with the stories. At times I wonder whether my own horizons have so fused with Scripture, after years of reading narrative theology that the class will think I'm mad. It is clear that they find Scripture hard to relate to. I surprise myself by realising how much I value Scripture as an encouragement and an orienting force in my life. Dangerous admissions for a liberal! The group is forcefully honest, which is fantastic, but they will not accept easy answers or empty platitudes. There is a real sense of wanting to make sense of what faith is about.

They are gone by 10pm and I change gears to write the school staff sermon listening to Chopin Nocturnes. It comes relatively quickly, having been sporadically on my mind for the past 24 hours. The staff are not always enthusiastic about church so I try and keep it brief and engaging. Will see how it goes tomorrow. I have not gone beyond snacks so I'm hungry going to bed but I'm pleased to have bought a Lynx Final Edition deodorant, which amuses me.

I slip into bed at 1.34am.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate

This is a little experiment. I’m quite often surprised, and made anxious, by the curiosity people have when you tell them you’re a curate. You’ll often get a muted question to test the water and then, very often, you’ll get the “so what do you actually do all day?” question. In no other career would you get this - can you imagine someone asking a lawyer, or a banker, or a civil servant? No. And I have no idea what they do do all day. This gives away the fact that actually people really do think that it’s basically a one-day-a-week job with a few cups of tea and old darlings between mattins and evensong. (And that’s if they’ve had the benefit of an Oxbridge education where they read those words on the chapel noticeboard, or if Daddy lives in a Cathedral close somewhere rural and nice.) Whenever I’m asked this question my mind goes blank. Partly this is the blind panic that is induced by a question that seems to ask me to justify my existence, partly it’s because so much of my week is inherently forgettable, partly I think it’s because I’m scatty and while I have just about learned to cope with multi-tasking, asking me to remember what I’ve done afterwards is simply one thing too many. So, anyway, being the first week in September, in the transition between the Summer lull and the back-to-school frenzy, I thought I’d take a look at what I get done in a day and assess whether my life is actually worthwhile.


It’s the start of the week. i wake up in my own bed, alone. It’s 7am. Listen to Radio 4, make a cup of tea and tidy the kitchen. I like to start the week leftwing so the Guardian arrives through the letterbox. After Special K and coffee I say the morning office, getting the readings of an app because I’ve lost my lectionary. I manage to do about 30 minutes weights, though I’m in a reluctant phase because I haven’t watched enough action movies and the Olympics are a distant memory. During this time I read my poem of the day which is ‘The Minotaur’, one of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. While I’m reading it I’m listening to Katie Perry. The ‘Economic Idea’ of the day today is ‘supply-side economics’ which fits rather ill with Jackie Astley, Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot, who I suspect are only read by sixth-formers and geography teachers. Have shower and shave. On way into office bump into charming welshman from congregation. We talk about the weather and how beautiful Swansea is when the sun is shining. The rugby hasn’t started yet. Most of the rest of the morning is spent moving large boxes of Sunday School resources around, clearing out a cupboard and laminating posters for our annual festival. This year I have included a marvellous picture of myself on a horse. This might seem somewhat self-aggrandizing. I then sort out parking for a number of builders. The car park is a continual distraction, especially on Monday mornings, but it raises enough money by itself to run a small parish. I then write a brief note of condolence before photocopying notes for next week’s Sunday School leader and the anthem for Roaring’s First Mass on Sunday so I can have a quick practice. After chatting with the administrator and fellow curate over tea, I write the dates for readings in Sunday School and then go home for lunch.

For lunch I have raspberries, granola and low-fat yoghurt. I notice that I have now eaten two foods in Sunday’s Times’ article on how supposedly healthy foods are not good for you. I really don’t understand this - how anyone diets anymore is beyond me - I would have no idea what to eat. I sit in my eerie above my house in my boxer shorts and shirt. The sun is bright but partly behind a tree, lawnmowers and sprinklers hum and whistle on one side, The Neighbour is bustling about in her office below and across the street, while planes cross from left to right towards Heathrow. It is a very pleasant spot. After lunch I phone a lot of people about confirmation classes and Horseman’s Sunday but no one answers. I fire off some emails and hear that the parents are all returning from abroad but the children will be there on Wednesday. More parking. More tea. I suddenly panic when I realise that I haven’t really thought about the start of year school staff service on Wednesday. I decide on Mattins as most of the CoE school staff don’t receive communion, and at that moment the organist walks in and it turns out he can come and play a couple of hymns. Which is nice. All Things Bright and Beautiful? Since the vicar is away I chair the staff meeting and we go through last week and the week to come, with the dawning sense that there is little let up until Christmas now. On the plus side it looks like a lot of champagne this month.
The day finishes with a mass for St Gregory the Great. Afterwards I run home and change before rushing out to the Barbican (tube reading: my friend Mr K’s The Necropolis Boat). One of our choir is in Carousel which finishes in the next week or so. She managed to get some cheap tickets and I go with the director of music’s partner and his friend. The show is fantastic - wonderful singing, great staging and brilliant choreography with a truly moving dance sequence from Billy’s daughter, Louise. The show totally left me cold though with a seeming apology for domestic violence. I looked it up when I got home and found little reference in wikipedia and elsewhere, even the Guardian review, while claiming it deals with the issue head-on underplays the sinister aspect. The most chilling scene is when the dead Billy slaps his daughter’s hand. The daughter claims the slap felt like a kiss, or like nothing at all, which her mother corroborates understandingly. It doesn't hurt if they love you. Contrary to Michael Billington’s review this sentimental scene does sweep the issues of domestic abuse under the carpet, and the easy ending which shortly follows, with Billy seemingly finding redemption without any penitence, reconciliation or amendment, seems a little cheap despite great singing (albeit of a rather sentimental song). The very good recent Porgy and Bess did much to counter the difficult elements of that show so it can be done. Never see Fame. It is a pernicious collection of stereotypes.

Anyway, I made it home, made a fishfinger sandwich with homemade Caesar dressing (totes deliciado) and then watched Total Recall (the original) over an hour of leisurely exercise biking. Then wrote up the diary and ... faff, faff, faff, ... went to bed. 3.52am.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Breaking News: Anglicans threaten rift with government over mixed fibres

Human rights activists and clothes manufacturers geared up for a huge increase in demand this week as government ministers look set to push through the legalization of clothing made from mixed fibres, despite mounting opposition from within the Conservative party and the threat of a split with the Church of England.
Are the foundations of our society under threat?

While a poll by a leading fibre-mixing rights group PolyCotton showed that four out of five people under 50 support the move, Anglican bishops were quick to issue a condemnatory statement. The church’s submission to the debate declared that “it must be very doubtful whether limiting the wearing of mixed fibres to non-religious people could withstand a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights”.

In a 7000-page document, the church warned that canon law only permitted clothing made out of a single type of fibre, and that the government’s proposals would alter the intrinsic nature of material and its use throughout human history, damaging the very foundations of society. The church’s established role as purveyor of religious clothing would be threatened.

One Guardian writer, who also happens to be an Anglican priest, was outraged, accusing the church hierarchy of “scaremongering”. While he admitted that he did not himself wish to wear mixed fibres, he “defended to his last breath” the rights of people who wished to wear such clothing. “Not in my name”, he fumed, stating that as he could no longer call himself an “Anglican” he would have to call himself a “journalist”.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The purpose of this consultation is to enable us to listen to all views, including all religious beliefs and fashion sensibilities.

“Clothing is what makes this country great. We have been clear that we will not make the bishops dress up in anything other than pure silk.”

Monday, 11 June 2012

New Adventures in Sex

I watched a show last night called Tell Me You Love Me. I’d just watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall and on failing to locate my Get Him to the Greek Dvd a friend and I opted to watch a light comedy show. Duly progressing through the BT Vision free TV section to the comedy genre, being an unabashed lover of romantic comedies, I chose the WRONGLY CLASSIFIED aforementioned show, in heady expectation of one-liners, mistaken identities and double entendres. What did I get? Graphic sex. Actually the most graphic sex I’ve seen on TV.

What was interesting about the startlingly candid hand-held all angles presentation was that it suddenly made you realise how weird the rest of television and film’s depiction of sex is. I once watched a great black comedy, which has since proved impossible to get a copy of, called Amanda and the Alien, which had a very typical hollywood love scene. The amusing thing though was that through it, at the bottom of the screen, a stop-clock was running. Being a predictable movie romp the scene was over in about 23 seconds. As the voyeur, this seemed quite natural and right - after all, unless you’re basically after porn, that’s about as much sex as you need to see to get the point. Interrupting a romantic movie for 40 minutes of fumbling about until both parties are finally satisfied is likely to disrupt the standard rom-com plot. Anyway, in this scene, the woman rightly bemoaned her partner’s lack of stamina - and, though I only vaguely remember the film, probably murdered him or took over his body.

Well Tell Me You Love Me at least shows sex without the soft lighting and smoothness - a sort of ‘bollocks and all’ approach which acts as a demystifier of the hallowed glamour given by most of the industry - even the explicit and violent fellow HBO shows True Blood and Game of Thrones. If anything these shows are shown in greatest relief; mythologising rape and abuse in soft lighting, scarless, bruiseless, ecstasy takes us a long way from reality.

Anyway, the motif of this episode seemed to be that when couples stop having sex they start hating each other. A young couple basically screwed their way through an issue which clearly is set to destroy their relationship further down the line. A childless couple covered their inability to communicate with robotic child-begetting sex. A couple with children had stopped having sex and had lost their zing, and an old couple were merrily screwing and seemed happy. Clearly taboo busting is in on this show as again seeing old people have sex on TV was another first for me - shocking but not for any obvious reason than its novelty - you’d need very good lighting to make old-people-sex holly-woodable.

The moral of the story then? Keep having sex. This got me thinking about how people attempt to sustain their sex lives with more and more exotic/taboo eroticism - you see it in films like Bitter Moon (Hugh Grant’s finest/weirdest hour), 9&½ Weeks, Last Tango in Paris etc. It struck me though that really it’s a peculiar thing to do. Maybe when you’re a teenager and you have no idea what your body is capable of, but this reversion to fetish looks very much like the sort of fantastic mythologizing you get in Hollywood sex scenes - an attempt to make sex something it’s not - some transcendent, meaning giving end in itself. It’s notable that all the above films end kind of badly (though they are films!), but sex really is a finite pleasure - even when suffocating in a suitcase or hanging from the ceiling with a slice of lemon between your teeth - and attempting erotic transcendence seems more likely to end in death than ecstasy.

All this is not to get prudish about whatever fresh sexpressions you’re into, but my suspicion is that trying to reinvigorate your relationship by having new adventures in sex seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The reason sex is so good in the first six to twelve months is that you’re still learning someone, there is mystery, you anticipate a reaction but you don’t know what it will be. You’re negotiating, you’re trying to impress, you’re pushing and pulling at the boundaries that define where one stops and another begins. Love involves a wrangling of intimacy and difference. The reason sex stops being interesting is that you get lazy and those boundaries get set. But the boundaries are not just sexual - they’re psycho-sexual! If you’re only interested in penetrating a new part of someone’s body you’ll get left flat - you have to penetrate their soul. The laziness isn’t about sex, it’s about staying interested and involved in someone. Somehow staying alive enough in yourself and in the other person to sustain a passion that, however expressed, is still connected to the emotional relationship that’s going on out of the bedroom.

The same is evidently true of spirituality. Last Sunday I got asked if I prayed in tongues and someone came over and, without my consent, started praying for me - grievous spiritual harm - in what I thought was a mainstream Anglican church. Not cool. But I think a lot of people are into New Adventures in Spirituality and this easily becomes a grotesque spiritual tourism. Whether this is better or worse than sex tourism I don’t know. In any case, I think Tell Me You Love Me’s right - metaphorically or not: keep having sex; but don’t just do it for the sake of it: wake up and smell the citrus. ‘it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Which is to say that the externalities are not the real issue; it’s the inner characters involved, and how they relate, that makes it work: ‘Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me’.
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