Joy to the World. Once More.

The story is told of a little boy, terrified as the bombs rained down, who was told by his mother that if he believed in Jesus everything would be OK. His nanny, the Prussian Fräulein who brought him up, gave him a beautiful carved knife that made him feel safer than his prayers ever did.

Established churches are presiding over the greatest haemorrhage of congregants for hundreds of years. The Pope is retreating into his Jesuit cave, secure in infallibility and the authority of two thousand years. Welby, the well-intentioned, primus inter pares, is presiding over an Anglicanism riven with schism and dithering,  slithering  into indecision because nobody can agree whether queer is sinful or women bishops are a Good Thing.

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Hillsong Sydney December 2017

And yet, there is a willingness to believe. Modern churches with lights and bands, spectacle and motivational speakers are mushrooming. Outfits like Hillsong put on an annual event which may be more attractive to a modern worshipper. It’s spectacular, inclusive and youthful. And yet, the numbers of non-aligned, the unbelievers, the dazed, confused or indifferent, continue to rise because in the clamour for our attention, there are precious few still, small voices.

Atheists seem to be the flavour of the decade, indeed, so far, of the millennium. Faithfulness in its original meaning sounds quaint and stiff, like Victorian moustaches.

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Hillsong Sydney December 2017

Our celebrity culture has no room for faithful people, especially Christians; only Islam appears to enjoy that privilege in our brave, new, postmodern world. In 1966, Time magazine shocked its readers with a cover that asked whether God was dead. Henry Luce, the media influencer par excellence, the man who shaped what America read and the owner of the magazine which dared to print such blasphemy, died soon after.  Was there a hidden message? But Luce was a devout Christian and a great believer in the Almighty, unlike the late Christopher Hitchens, whose favourite targets were priests, Mother Teresa and God, a Christian God whose followers turned the other cheek, so Hitch could slap that one as well. I wondered if his antipathy had something to do with the fact that his mother entered into a suicide pact with a defrocked clergyman and Hitchens blamed God for the loss. The Hitch had comparatively little to say against Allah or indeed Mohammed because he knew the latter’s followers didn’t take kindly to cheap remarks against him, consequently he tended to keep his powder dry, reserving his grapeshot for softer, less totalitarian targets, with a few notable and quite delicious exceptions.

Hitchens despised Christmas celebrations, describing them as ‘the collectivisation of gaiety’ and ‘compulsory bad taste’, a view with which I have to admit to having some element of sympathy. In the social constructivist’s view, these days atheism gets you in through the front door whereas Christianity is reserved for the tradesman’s entrance. Hitch hated the ‘confessional drool’ that families mailed to each other, especially all those simple people who believe in love, forgiveness and angels from the realms of glory.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an atheist who is, I have to admit, hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes across as quintessentially British and even if you foam with rage at some of his opinions, they are usually presented with a quite charmingly reasoned diffidence. He’s an expert at Socratic questioning – a useful skill when debating against people who don’t really know what they are talking about. The first modern to go atheist and announce that God had truly fallen off His perch was Friedrich Nietzsche, who later on “lost his reason”, I think it was described as. In fact, he lost all grip on reality and trotted willingly into the fruitcake zone, from which he was never to emerge. Given his views on the press and mass culture leading to conformity, mediocrity and the decline of the human species, whatever would he have made of the Kardashians?

What of the others; John Stuart Mill, Voltaire…so many. Even Freud and Picasso, both quite crappy human beings if history is to be believed, were atheists, as were French fries like Michel Foucault – not the pendulum guy, the one who died of AIDS – H.G. Wells. James Joyce and Philip Roth. One thing all these talented writers and thinkers supposedly had in common, apart from their disbelief in the Almighty, was great physical ugliness. That being so, I myself should be down there among the catamites and the howling. What a cheap shot that was.

But, we continue to ask certainty of ourselves in an increasingly uncertain world. The bedrock of belief has shifted to be replaced with a quicksand of situational ethics. The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich wrote that to believe that God is active at all times, being ‘out there’ somewhere, dwelling in a special place and being affected by events, is a shallow supposition: ‘Literalism deprives God of his ultimacy.’ That’s where ‘there is no God’, the cry from the heart of those who have lost a loved one, comes from and also the weary old chestnut that you need God in order to be good. No, you don’t. God is what makes us understand the difference between good and evil, to paraphrase C S Lewis who understood better than almost anyone else the value of myth.

Charles Darwin – what irony as the father of all the confusion – said he believed in God. Most really intelligent people hold to some kind of belief in God, or are at least prepared to entertain the possibility of His existence, as have most world leaders in the past. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ he called the proposition self-evident. It was a very Christian thing to say because not all men are created equal. What he really meant was that they have equal rights under God, and it is only a Christian God that ensures that such rights can be protected. As we watch what radical Islam is doing to its adherents, how it has cheapened life to the extent that people drive into traffic, attack armed men with knives or volunteer to blow themselves up in order to get rice and virgins, then compare that to Christianity. The idea of the preciousness and equal worth of every human being is largely rooted in the life and work of the Nazarene whose birth is celebrated by unbelievers too. Have a very happy Christmas, defend the faith and, if necessary, carry a knife.


Yerushalayim Shel Zahav

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Let me be clear – I am not a flag-waving fan of the current President of the United States. His public pronouncements have generated a constant stream of criticism, derision and sheer dismay amongst a worryingly large number of Americans, both allies and enemies. However, he has rather surpassed himself on this occasion and it has taken some time for his famous announcement to sink in. In case you’ve been living under a stone for the last few days, he has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to the consternation of most of the rest of the world, jubilation in Israel and fury of the Palestinians. He has offered no reason for his decision, apart from vague references to ‘new thinking’.

The Palestinians are having hysterics about all this because, for the first time, a weapon of western complicity is now threatened. If the Jews are entitled to regard Jerusalem as Israel’s capital then it sets at naught the spurious Palestinian claim that Jerusalem is theirs, as is the whole of the land “from the river to the sea”.  Their claim is based on two separate untruths. Firstly, the claim that “we were here first”. This sometimes gains traction with people in the West who can’t be bothered to learn a little history and it is, after all, a convenient untruth. Secondly the assertion that Jerusalem – of course holy to Jews and Christians – is also one of the most holy places in Islam is again a manifest falsehood. Al-Aqsa is no more the ‘furthest mosque’ than Finsbury Park and Islam was in its infancy when Mohammed decided that they should direct their prayer to the Ka’aba instead – thus in fact presenting their rumps to Al-Aqsa every Friday. The violence of the Palestinians’ reaction, the call for ‘days of rage’ ‘new intifada’ and so on simply underlines the fact that they’re not prepared to share Jerusalem with the Jews, in fact, their express purpose is to make the whole region Judenrein, exactly as happened in Gaza after the Gush Katif giveaway. This is entirely consistent with the Islamic belief that  from Mohammed’s own sunnah he would “expel all the Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim”. In other words, it is inconceivable to a pious Muslim that Israel itself exists, an affront to the Prophet’s own verbal testimony, despite the fact that he was probably referring to what he believed to be the peninsula – a coastal strip from what is now Jeddah down beyond the Yemeni border – Islam spreading to the south rather than the north. Yes, there will be violence and it would be naive to assume that incendiary threats will not be translated into action, they assuredly will. Appeasement, however, does nothing to prevent bloodshed, in fact it encourages more of it because the cause of the terror is religious fanaticism, no more and no less. Trump has not foreclosed any possibility of a Palestinian state, nor indeed the further possibility of Palestinian control over East Jerusalem, he has, in fact, simply stated the obvious. In the last few days, the Palestinians – or at least those determined to incite violence –  have shown their hand beyond all doubt. Their fury at the endorsement of Jerusalem at all shows how much they depend on the west facilitating their strategy, reinforcing their politics of victimhood. There is a feedback loop between Palestinian violence and Western pressure for change; the more violence, the greater the outcry in the West and the greater the leverage against Israel; effectively, the Palestinians are trying to get the West to do their political dirty work for them.  But no longer. In spite of the dismay of America’s allies, appeasement ended when Trump opened his mouth.

Of course, there will be those who simply wonder what all the fuss is about. The Knesset has been in Jerusalem since 1948 – it is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that the seat of government resides in the capital, along with many judicial and nationally important institutions, including the residences of the Prime Minister and the President. Far from the Israeli presence there being illegal, the Jews are the only people who are entitled to the city as a matter of international law, historical truth and natural justice. And yet, the rest of the world screams ‘foul’.

The West’s refusal to follow the American lead is small minded at best and malevolent at worst. By doing so, they genuflect to the men of violence who are attempting to prevent Israel from recognising and asserting its own capital city. If the Germans, for example, demanded that the British relocate their capital to Sheffield, it would be met with derision. What is more sinister is that by aligning themselves with the Palestinian view, the British, French, and Germans and others are saying that they don’t think the Jews have any right to Jerusalem either and it can be bargained away as easily as playing a hand of poker. Their argument rests on the belief that there can be no peace unless Jerusalem is negotiated away – the reverse is true. Trump is playing a card from the bottom of the deck; there will in fact not be peace until there is recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – an essential step. Unless, of course it is a Pax Romana, one that embraces capitulation, surrender, dhimmitude, conquest and ultimately, extermination. The Jews have been there before. Never again.


Awe and Wonder

Horsehead Nebula

Of all the physics I taught – from electrostatics to harmonic motion – I think the greatest satisfaction came from dipping a toe into the panorama that is astrophysics, where astronomy, poetry and mathematics converge. We are, after all, just as Carl Sagan once described us as “starstuff”, the little blue dot we call home was forged in the furnace of an explosive supernova a very long time ago. The final retrospective photograph taken by Voyager, as she left the solar system for ever, was a little dot in the midst of a wide, limitless ocean of black, sprinkled with stars. Everybody we ever knew, or heard of, fought against, befriended, made love to, looked up to and celebrated, was found on that little dot – tiny and fragile.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart which is, perhaps quite an unusual way of looking at it. And in this game of hide and seek, of trying to flush out the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, apparently in cosmic conflict, in fact are virtually identical. But the question has always been concerned with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two jousting protagonists – or, perhaps, secret lovers –  and the methods of approach they employ.

An ancient and powerful way to engage our religious sensibility, our childlike sense of awe and wonder, is to look up on a clear night. In this part of southern France, light pollution is minimal and last night yielded a view, a panorama, Hamlet’s ‘brave, o’erhanging firmament’ writ huge across a cloudless sky. Unusually for me to assert a “belief”, I really do believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe looking at the sky – if you ever watch people doing it, notice that they often allow their mouths to fall open. The sense of the vast is tangible – the panorama of space and time unfolds before us like a glittering carpet. We see not as things are now, but as they were, sometimes millions of years ago as the light, blindingly fast as it can travel, takes centuries, millennia and more to cross the immense desert of space to reach us. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. From Albert Einstein: “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So, if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of being right.

Palmyra, Syria

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that statuary and temples to various gods are always larger than life, as if we are smaller and less important than they. Gigantic, squatting Buddhas in Thailand, a great Christ with outstretched arms, the Redeemer of Rio; there are so many examples and even when we know that a religious building has been erected to a long-defunct god, or celebrates a decayed and redundant religion, we hate to see its destruction. ISIL wantonly destroyed the temple to Bel or Baal at Palmyra, erected in the period of the Crucifixion – an act of senseless vandalism. We do not call down strange fire from Baal or any other Canaanite gods in our day, yet the world mourned the loss of a priceless, irreplaceable artefact, and quite rightly. The worship of Baal is part of the journey towards our own tradition, reminding us that for the most part, hopeful travel is more useful than arrival. Indeed, there is impermanence, woven into the fabric of our religious practice as well as the cosmos we inhabit, just the timescales are different. Furthermore, when we understand something of astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognise that although we cannot capture them on the great cosmic timescales in which they operate, worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as we humans do, and therefore there is death in the cosmos as well as the possibility of life. There is destruction on cosmic scales – little suns such as ours will balloon, becoming one day red and swollen, swallowing little Earths in the fires of their cooling. Yet, our God took pains to preserve us, for now, on a little island of creation – our theology is terracentric and it is beyond our wit and piety to speculate much on the creations beyond our own. Gottfried Liebniz – the great intellect that rivalled Isaac Newton’s argued that God should be the wall that stopped all further questioning, as he famously wrote in this passage from ‘Principles of Nature and Grace’:

Why does something exist rather than nothing – for nothing is simpler than ‘something. Now, this (is) sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, having no need of any other reason(there) must be a necessary being, else we should not have a sufficient reason with which we could stop.

Yet, we shall not. It is in our DNA never to stop, despite the certainty that we shall never truly find that which we seek, the eternal Fact, exalted above all others, the mind of God.


Fertile Solitude

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 17.14.11Death brings its own surprises, not always pleasant. A recent bereavement has brought with it a series of unfortunate consequences. A promised legacy has not materialised and this creates unbearable internal tensions of guilt, rage and abandonment.

Long before modern psychology awakened us to our own interior furniture, Rainier Maria Rilke wrote on how great sadnesses transform us and bring us closer to ourselves. Sadness has a way of penetrating to the bottom of the glass, to reach into and beyond comfort zones, shaking them.  He writes “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” We are creatures of order. Satisfaction is only guaranteed when the explanations are neatly bookmatched surrounding the facts and corralling them all into their proper places. Loose ends are disturbing.

Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet is among those very few texts that can be read as if they carry an almost scriptural authority. In the century since its publication, his reflections and encouragement have proven timeless and timely, in countless human lives – a wealth of enduring ideas. Long before modern psychologists extolled what some call the ‘creative benefits of fertile solitude’, Rilke explored the value of melancholy as a clarifying and focusing force for our own interior lives. He turns his gaze to the vast swaths of life we spend completely opaque to ourselves, the Johari window of unknown unknowns, and writes to a young aspiring poet over a century ago with piercing insight:

“You have had many and great sadnesses, which passed. And you say that even this passing was hard for you and put you out of sorts. But, please, consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the centre of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? … Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.

Almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralysing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason, the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.”

When the moon crumbles and the stars fall like sparks, injustice, breathed in like foul air, clogs our soul and blisters its walls with its harsh, unreasoning burning.  Only time alone will assuage the scorching and calamity.

Auf Wiedersehen. Etc.

It didn’t take long. Air France is comfortingly familiar and the mid-flight sandwich fresh. Paris was soggy and overcast and Birmingham crisply, optimistically cold. A rental car that was so new that the interior still smelt strongly of the showroom, with unfamiliar buttons and switches and voice recognition. I just floored the accelerator and drove on the rev counter, trying to remember not to change gear with the door handle.

Many years ago, the hotel where I stayed in Rugby used to host Rotary dinners and Conservative Club meetings, a leisurely watering hole for the well-heeled, waistcoated, golf-clubby types who used to bray discreetly behind their Gs and T. The bedroom was a cupboard with a TV the size of a handkerchief and contained, of all things, a vintage trouser press.

The town seemed changed, but subtly – the twin bifurcations of Sheep Street and High Street were still there, but the shop fronts were tedious 70s, gloomier and  uninteresting, lacking the optimistic ebullience of Windsor, the great rival. Some were abandoned altogether, all being presided over with pomp and order by the majestic oaken presence of the Oriel gateway to the School, four hundred and fifty years old this year. Girls – we had none of that when I was there – clad as if for a dressage competition, were a novelty as they swished their long skirts at lesson change, passing in and out with the easy familiarity of extreme privilege.  A notice pointedly reminded the hoi-polloi that their malodorous presences were not permitted inside the hallowed Georgian portals.

A long, grey, sleek Mercedes-Benz hearse, containing four gentlemen of similar height dressed in morning clothes and a tiny, cheap-looking coffin plus a few flowers, majestically eased its way out on to the highway, traffic respectfully stopped by the massive dignity of a top-hatted funeral director. A short ride to the crematorium. However tastefully such places are tricked out, there’s always a whisper of  Auschwitz or Dachau about them. A minister with lugubrious, spaniel eyes, a soft, infrequent smile and a slight speech impediment got things under way. His slight glossal elision was made worse by a badly mixed sound system operated by a cheerful moppet at the back. “All creatures great and small…”were both occupying the pews and trying to sing it. Family – five step family plus me – to the left, everyone else, the curious, the half-blind and the not-quite-familiar to the right. I forgot to count; fifteen perhaps, some looking at me with guppy eyes as if wondering what had happened to me. Who were these strangers? Eulogies, prepared by those who knew and mercifully left more or less unedited, were read by the minister. The usual exaggerations and half-truths.

Somebody had the stellar notion that the proceedings could most conveniently be concluded with a chirpy little Rodgers and Hammerstein number from the wildly successful postwar musical ‘South Pacific’, racial overtones notwithstanding. They did things differently in 1949. The juxtaposition of the curtains closing with dignified slowness and the strains of ‘Happy Talk’ will stay with me…

I didn’t hang around. What for? But, I was the last to leave – there seemed no rush. There was a sad sort of clanging in the back of my mind as I said ‘so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye’ overlooking the fields in the crisply silent afternoon, finally exhaling.

Mumming and Ghouls

Spot the ghoul.

I blame the Germans. November 1st took over from an earlier Celtic tradition which, it seemed, liked to remember the pious departed who suffered grisly deaths, in April. At the beginning of the 8th century, churches were already hijacking the in-house festivities, celebrating All Saints Day on 1 November to coincide with or replace the Celtic festival of Samhain which was nasty, pagan and involved drink. Today’s rites, while sombre, are supposedly benevolent, in spite of invoking horned gods and, although centred on death, do not involve human or animal sacrifices which does come as something of a relief, I have to say. After watching and listening to the screaming of the lambs during the ritual slaughter that is Eid, having more beasts slain in the name of religion is really more than one can bear.

The ‘Aos-Si’ or fairy folk have transparent passage from their world to this one on Samhain and the practice of ‘mumming’ where people went door to door, often in disguise, reciting poetry in exchange for food, was widespread, although the significance of such an activity is lost in antiquity. Dead people showed up at their former homes – just to check that people were looking after them properly, one supposes – and are invited to dinner. I’m not sure if Elijah gets an invitation in addition to Pesach. One imagines not.

Apparently, the feast of All Saints achieved great prominence in the 9th century, in the reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI – ‘the Wise’ (866–911). His wife, Empress Theophano, lived a devout life, spending lots of time on her knees in draughty chapels being shriven by monks. After her death in 893, her husband built a church, intending to dedicate it to her. When he was forbidden to do so – history is rather dark about who forbade him –  perhaps the troubled Pope Formosus, he decided to dedicate it to “All Saints”, so that if his wife were in fact one of the righteous, she would also be honoured whenever the feast was celebrated; quite a good call really, all bets being suitably hedged. According to tradition, it was Leo who expanded the feast from a commemoration of All Martyrs to a general commemoration of All Saints, whether martyrs or not. Everyone included then, the only criterion being you had to be dead.

And all this is the basis for kids dressing up as ghosties and ghoulies – hammering relentlessly on their neighbours’ doors, demanding excess sugar, without even the courtesy of a line or two of Keats. It must by now be clear that I’m not in favour of this sort of thing. I bar my gate with a broomstick and write runic incantations I got from the Internet on the doorposts, on the grounds that I will not be held responsible for the spike in dental caries as a result of overindulgence. Happy, er, Hallows or Toussaint or… to one and all, martyrs or not.


Do It Yourself. Please.

I know a man in Canada for whom power tools are simply an extension of his hands and the thought of using filler is as sacrilegious as spitting on a crucifix.

Would that we were all so gifted.

You had one simple task. Just one.

Oh, yes. And, while achingly fresh in my mind, a word of caution. I would entreat you, with all the earnestness at my command, to resist. Do not for one moment – a half moment, consider it. I refer, of course to what you might consider doing if your plumbing leaks, your electricity fails, you need a door re-hung or even a shelf put up, more or less horizontally. The same applies to any and all electrical appliances in need of refurbishment. Do not call me. Ever. I can change a light bulb and even a fuse and I’m very proud of myself that no lives have been lost. As yet.
Should you, in a moment of madness, with honeyed words and (if you happen to be female) Cleopatrine charm offer me a flight to somewhere exotic (business class) plus emolument rich beyond dreams of avarice as payment for  repairing a leaking washer, you will see a small, receding cloud of dust on the horizon.
In short, I don’t do DIY. I have spent the best part of today re-learning this very simple truth. Irritatingly, houses are not made of rectangles, they suffer from shrinkage, cracks, warps and so forth, making them bloody difficult to fix. Plaster falls like pigeon droppings when I attempt to fill holes. The hammer I actually need is eight hundred kilometres away and all I have is a massively headed stonemason’s tool which isn’t terribly useful for knocking small panel pins into delicate woodwork. Despite having a Master’s degree in a discipline requiring the ability to measure to the nearest hundredth of a nanometer in reciprocal space, I am not capable of using a tape measure to accurately mark a length of wood with any real certainty of accuracy.

All my own work.

In common with every other optimistic incompetent on the planet, I bought a new saw, with three separate blades, in the vain hope that it might raise my game a little bit. Rather like the retired golfer playing off plus thirty-six who fondly imagines that by buying the very latest set of clubs they will miraculously shrink his handicap to single figures. In attempting to use my new saw, I almost severed a thumb.
Any task requiring the use of something more sophisticated than a Swiss army knife is beyond my ability. Be advised.

Joy in the Journey

Scott Martin, adventurer, on the Ottawa River

“It’s probably wise to bury losses” was a remark I made to myself a week or so ago. Careless, perhaps, a too-cavalier, throwaway approach to something that deserves to be taken more seriously. After further reflection I came to realise that loss is not like a paper napkin, discarded after use, it is a panorama of unfolding that has defined us all – a vast data set – where does one begin to catalogue what we have lost? Relationships, love, career, opportunities, youthful good looks, loved ones through the inevitable visitation of death. The scenery of life continually changes, like watching from the window of a train. In order to keep our emotional footing we are blessed with two gifts. Memory allows us to look back and recall wisps of sensory information, half-grasped and poorly held as we reach out to touch, to hear, see and smell vaporous ephemera of who and what really was, blurred by time. Anticipation allows us to imagine and peer into the nebulous cloud of space between the present and the horizon, filled with possibility. Rewind and forward buttons; they’re the only two that work. If we can’t bury losses we may do well to box them up, tie them with a bow, and archive them in places only we allow ourselves to go.
And what then about the loneliness of the journey? Life is full of small comings and goings, some leading us far from the place we call home and into spaces about which we know nothing, but we can only imagine and hope, hope for the best. And why possibly our greatest human need is to feel understood and cherished by and relevant to at least one other person on the planet. Without that, we are horribly, dangerously alone in the darkness where the lost gibber and moan.
One of our greatest fears is of being forgotten and irrelevant, hence the human need to connect. The need to share memories of the past and visions for the future, the pain and the joy, the ridiculous and the sublime. We look and touch and listen so as to create a virtual reality, a hologram that we can walk around, rosily familiar and warm, an image of another in our mind for future reference. We need to interact because we need to learn the choreography of altruism and where we can spend the spiritual currency of friendship, loyalty and love that redeems our solitude. Subconsciously it all gets stored away for anticipated change and loss.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. There is a strange sorrow to this, to being a creature that carries its fragile sense of self on an endless tearful pilgrimage to some promised land of belonging. We are willing to erect many defences, marmoset-like, to hedge against the emptiness and buttress our fragility. But every once in a while, we encounter another such creature who reminds us with a persistent yet undemanding affection that we need not walk alone and there is joy in the journey.



Between Earth and Heaven

Soyuz returns to Earth, Kazakhstan 2015 (Bing image detail)

There is, it would seem, no right way to experience bereavement, the neither here nor there between earth and heaven. Which of itself is a comforting thought. I recently wrote that I had lost two people close to me – yesterday I added a third. To say “lost” of course is absurd, they were not mislaid like a bunch of keys which could be rediscovered at some later time, neither did they disappear on the magician’s stage to be spectacularly reincarnated with a drum roll and a tinselled twirl from his assistant, but “gone for ever”.

I suppose some people derive comfort from visiting a funeral home and “viewing” the deceased, as if they were a work of art, which in one sense, they have become – a statuesque representation of what they once looked like – if you want to drop twenty or more years all you have to do is die and the undertakers make you look really good. I hope people find closure in so doing; I do not.

But, they have departed, which is a much more meaningful term. Looking at a dead body, serenely presented in its little box, brings the stark realisation that, in the words of the famous meme ‘Elvis has left the building’. It is as if they have left behind a breath of half-familiar perfume, a wisp of blue cigarette smoke, easily dissipated and so very ephemeral. Whoever they were has begun the journey and there in the funeral home it’s clear that they’re a long way away now and the carapace left behind is merely a representation of who they once were.

It was, of course, my mother, old and grey, full of sleep and memory, who slipped away like a tiny ship casting off in the fog, almost unnoticed in her sleep, five years short of a century. She was born on a Wednesday, on a spring day as England was just beginning to stand unsteadily on her feet in the aftermath of the Great War and the world shifted a little on its axis. She lived through Hitler, the Sixties rebellion, mass immigration, the birth of the Internet and a million other cultural shifts and nuances, much of which rolled off her mind like dew off a cabbage leaf. And, what is left? As people age, their belongings dwindle. She had, it seemed, a few scraps of clothing, trinkets and gewgaws each holding some shred of sentiment for her, perhaps, otherwise, nothing. What little there was will be collected and stored until someone picks them up or leaves instructions what must be done with them. The room in the nursing home will be cleared for another occupant today, a metaphor for the fact that life grinds mechanically along and another aged individual will sit in the same chair and wait for the reaper’s visitation.

Everything has been taken care of. Lawyers and undertakers are processing without emotion, which is probably for the best. I am the detached bystander, waiting to exhale.

A Time to Dance

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One, is a twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment) for observant Jews. It is traditional for them to say the Shema as their last words and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.

Who or what is this ‘one’, whom we anthropomorphise so readily? An external being – separate, discernible as we discern neutron stars or the behaviour of butterflies? Perhaps not.

The notion of panentheism lies at the heart of much rabbinical thinking. It is the belief that the “divine”, whatever we conceive that to be, pervades and interpenetrates every part of the Universe, extending beyond time and space, thus obviously not detectable by telemetry, spectacularly sensitive though it is.

Gravitational Waves (Artists impression) CalTech

The Nobel Prize for Physics this year was awarded to three men who built a detector so sensitive it could detect the ripples in the fabric of spacetime as two black holes collided over a billion light years away – Einstein’s century-old prediction finally vindicated.  But not enough to find God. A God beyond and greater than the Universe, perhaps? Is God its ‘soul’ as we imagine ourselves to have souls. Two people I knew well have departed this life in recent times and as their earthly tent is rolled up as a scroll so I imagine them to have begun a journey outside of space and time, slipping silently through a shimmering barrier to another country where things are so different that imagination provides us with nothing more than blind speculation.

Just after ten o’clock on the Sunday morning of October 3, fifty-nine people died and over five hundred were injured in the deadliest mass shooting in US history. It was as if Passchendaele had torn a hole in spacetime and had visited itself afresh on a sunny American street. A man waited, having stockpiled automatic weaponry, for three days, then calmly and systematically opened fire from a room on the thirty-second floor of a hotel on to a crowd of people enjoying a country and western concert in the open arena below. As of this moment, the crime seems motiveless, cruel, evil beyond description. It seems almost irrelevant that he took his own life as a final act of rebellion.

Where was God, and, more importantly, what kind of theodicy are we supposed to use to attempt an explanation?

Perhaps the easier route would be to reasonably argue that there is none. Yuval Hariri in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind writes “As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning, humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary (and sociological) processes that operate without goal or purpose.” Presumably therefore, death by random shooting is simply an event, like a melanoma, merely unfortunate, something that happens without rhyme, reason or purpose. The atheists and even the agnostics can breathe a sigh of relief – here is an explanation, our intellectual honour has been satisfied and we need look no further.

We hate a loose end, when it doesn’t make sense. But, what if we were to speculate that God is present throughout all existence, that Being or YHWH -related to the word for existence or being, underlies and unifies by processes outside of reason all that is. At the same time (and this is panentheism as distinct from pantheism), this whole is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent componentry which may of course not exist, cramped as it is by dimension and structure.

So, given that God is part of the great evolutionary panoply which we dismiss as ‘nature’, or ‘astrophysics’, we can perhaps discern or at least imagine that the entire process of the evolution of the universe and ourselves rolling out along with it is “meaningful“. There is a One that is constantly revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life, the shadow of death and the tragedies of our failures. That One is Being itself, the only constant in the endlessly changing parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to the discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. We have not found the One. If we had, we would know why men do as they do, dealing death and destruction from hotel windows or slashing throats on a street in Marseille and why children have cataracts and why people die from disease and on fields of battle.

And yet, we are creatures of hope since we ourselves have created it, it belongs to us, Pandora’s evils were all released when the jar was opened, leaving hope alone inside after she had closed it. We hope to understand, one day, why bad things happen to good people, why bad people are as they are and what moral laws govern the Universe so we can tell the difference. Until that time, we can only weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn in the hope than one day, there will come again a time to dance.