Saturday, 18 May 2013

Francis Spufford is unapolagetic

As a secular, or "humanist," celebrant, why am I recommending this book to you, when it is about the nature of Christian belief in the modern world - at least, as far as one believer is concerned?

Two answers to my own question (sorry, it's an irritating rhetorical tick, I know, but somehow one has to get started...)

Firstly, I'm not a secular, or humanist, or anything else, celebrant. I'm a funeral celebrant. The whole belief/non-belief thing is, I feel, a huge red herring. (Red basking shark?) My beliefs are usually entirely irrelevant. I will do what a family wants. If they asked for a priestly function such as a formal blessing, which would make me feel inauthentic, I would ask them to call for a priest. 

I'm not an ordained minister, I can't and shouldn't do "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.." etc. The issue hasn't arisen yet because I'm usually simply asked to organise a hymn or two, or lead The Lord's Prayer. People have the sense to ask for a priest if they want one, and someone like me if they don't. Last week an out-and-out atheist, next week a "possibilist," week after a non-Church-going sort of Christian, week after a mostly-ex Muslim who wants some religious music played. Fascinating work, no room for useless polarisations. What I believe in, as a celebrant, is good funerals.

Secondly, because this bloke:
has written a really useful book, which I also thought was a very good read.

He explores, in an entertainingly firm, conversational way, why he finds it makes emotional sense for him to be a Christian, and he comes at you with all guns blazing if you try to hide behind the usual liberal laziness. He's very cross about the way our increasingly secular society responds to Christian beliefs. He makes me feel that he is often right to be cross.

There's a bit where he is sitting in a church contemplating - well, infinity, I guess - looking for the presence of God - which is a terrific read, and relates, for me, to a mindful awareness of the universe in the present moment. 

There's another bit where he re-tells the story of the woman taken in adultery - the one they were all about to kill by chucking stones at her - which I found intensely moving.

His is not the voice of the apologetic fence-sitting cleric, nor the wearying clamour of the evangelical bore. He just goes straight for it in a way that certainly made me, a non-Christian in most senses of the word, sit up and think. 

One of the things that drove me away from Christianity when I was a lad was the teacher, allegedly a Christian, who looked for an easy rationalist excuse for miracles. Walking on water? Lots of sandbanks in the Sea of Galilee. Burning bush? Spontaneous combustion of subterranean methane. Oh, FFS, as we say these days, either they were miracles or they weren't. Francis Spufford is:

I salute him for it. Don't sneer at Christians unless you've read this book. (Well, don't sneer at them anyway, it's not nice - but you know what I mean!)

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Is Big Ju-Ju Tabu for Unordained Celebrants?

Interesting discussion recently with some colleagues about"juju." No disrespect to people's beliefs intended - I first heard the word from an Anglican priest. He meant, of course, the power and authority wielded, for believers, by ordained ministers of faith.

Some of us unordained ones will happily lead a prayer and sing a hymn, but most of us without one of these:

will stop short of a full-blown blessing or prayer in the deity's name, i.e. "In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I..."etc. That's big ju-ju. That's for the Cloth. Isn't it?

And yet some of us, without getting too spooky, do report a feeling of authority, a special responsibility and resonance, which comes from speaking about the Big Things of Life and Death, whether or not we are in an area of discourse referring to religious belief (such as a hymn or a prayer). 

We have, perhaps, at some moments and if we are any good, a degree of hieratic function - that stops short, of course, of the power a priest has amongst those who believe in her faith. 

But if we can't summon up at least a degree of authority - which comes only from doing the job well - then are we any good? 

And how are we to work any ju-ju at all amongst people who have no religious belief, even if they will open their mouths just a little bit to sort of sing TLMS, if we can't find a semi- (?pseudo?) hieratic function?

This is nothing to do, BTW, with taking control away from the family and Doing Your Big-Shot Own Thing. (The sort of role assumption, happily less common than it was, that caused a lot of people to choose an Unordained Celebrant rather than a priest.)

Let me sum up: I think a funeral needs to be a transformative ceremony, even if it isn't, or is only in a small way, a religious ritual. To make it such, something special, apart, powerful, needs to happen, when possible. This may or may not involve words from a religious tradition, or indeed a new faith such as Paganism.

How far into religious form and usage should an unordained celebrant go? 
1) No ju-ju
2) Little ju-ju
3) Big ju-ju, provided the celebrant is authentic in her role at that moment

And: can any of us create juju without any religious form and usage?

Or is it futile to try - is Ju-ju Tabu, unless you are



Dammit, I can't work my pictorial way round all the world's faith systems, I'm sure you get my point, so this is the last one:


There may be no simple answer, but despite my flippant manner, ha ha, I think it's a pretty important area, because it raises yet again the question: what is a funeral for, and how does it do its work? If we haven't thought about juju, I submit the idea to you, in all arrogance, that we don't really know how "do" a funeral, or what it is for.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Balance - a feather does it

If you watch this- and I hope you do, it is so eleoquent - do watch it right to the end.

Thanks to Kim for the tip-off.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Nao, now - with thanks to Ruth Ozeki

I'm in the middle of a fascinating novel:

Its author:

Here is the teenage Nao Yatsutani remembering how, at the age of six or seven, she tried to grasp the present moment, as she is being driven in the family car:

..."and I kept the window open so the hot, dry, smoggy haze could blow on my face while I whispered Now!... Now!....Now!...over and over, faster and faster and faster, into the wind as the world whipped by, trying to catch the moment when the word was what it is: when now became NOW.

But in the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It's already then.

Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn't. It's like the word is committing suicide or something. So then I'd start making it, ow, oh, o until it was just a bunch of little grunting sounds and not even a word at all. It was hopeless, like trying to hold a snowflake on your tongue or a soap bubble between your fingertips. Catching it destroys it, and I felt like I was disappearing too.

Stuff like this can drive you crazy."

It seems to me that Nao is discovering for herself the great paradox about the present moment: it has no dimension, no length. You can't measure it, and if you try to conceptualise it, even, as she found out, to name it, it becomes then, something you did, in the past. So where and how is the present, now?

And yet I keep banging on about presentmomentness, about mindful meditation creating a state of mind which is not our stream of memories, or our anticipations, or our fantasies; a state of mind which is in the present.

But the present can't be captured in concepts, or measured. It is not a conceptual thing. It isn't a verbal construct, or amenable to such a thing. You have to do it to be in it, and you need to bring yourself gently and calmly back to it, during meditation, whenever your mind starts up is usual thought-train.

"The way that can be named is not the perfect way."

This ancient statement isn't obscurantist, or difficult for the sake of appearing superior, profound, secret to an elite - it's trying, like this post, to suggest via verbal concepts what isn't a matter of concepts.

It is a state of being.

There really is "no time like the present." 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Einstein the Mindful?

OK, he was one of the great geniuses of scientific thought, but I didn't realise he was a closet Buddhist!

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space.

He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
                        Albert Einstein

The jaw fell open when I stumbled upon this, though that's probably more a reflection of my blinkers than any reflection on Albert's range of thought.

He seems to me to be writing here about an aim of mindfulness, of meditation: to feel part of the universe, not a separate ego detached from it; to widen one's perception and escape the repetitive and routine nature of our semi-conscious trains of thought, to develop a calm and compassionate view of the living and the dead.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Us and the world's otherness - Mary Oliver's insights

Here is a benign face for you:

The American poet Mary Oliver.

“I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything - other people, trees, clouds. 
And this is what I learned, that the world's otherness is antidote to confusion - that standing within this otherness - the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields 
or deep inside books - can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

She's new to me (thanks Annee.) I feel sure she has more to tell me about the world's otherness as an antidote to confusion. Otherness, a wider perspective, letting go of our routine reactions, is being in the present, finding a mindful mode of being. 

And how can we accept ourselves if we cannot accept our place in the family of things?

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.” 

I like her use of the journey, and it relates to the book referred to in my last posting, "The Old Ways." Any path really worth walking is so much more than a mark on a map; it will have so much more to offer, if we are entirely in our walking of it, if the path moves through us as we move along it. If we can do this, then we walk in the otherness the poet refers to.


In "The Old Ways," Robert MacFarlane writes about Nan Shepherd's book The Living Mountain. "She went into the mountains searching not for the great outdoors but instead for profound 'interiors,' deep 'recesses.'  On the mountain, writes Shepherd, "I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy...I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. That is the final grace accorded from the mountain."

What a pity some people use the hills as a sort of outdoor gym, against which to prove themselves, and advance their muscular fitness. The hills will do that stuff for you anyway - but they can do so much more. Any path, any track can.