Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)

Good Friday

Good Friday. We all dash to the shops. The year’s extra bank holiday. Its purpose it seems all but forgotten. And yet the world fifty years ago (and for many centuries before of course) shut down on Good Friday. Today and Christmas Day were the quietest days of the year.

I will sit quietly at 3pm this afternoon, in a church somewhere – I don’t know where yet – taking part in a meditation on the crucifixion – traditionally celebrated at the ‘ninth hour’. It will be a time to think quietly about the Christian message at its very heart – release from all that bears us down and all the evil in the world. Whether we take it literally, as an act of supreme sacrifice, or not, the crucifixion is a remarkable symbol, and it connects God and man, the spiritual and the material, in a way that still strikes home for countless millions.

So it’s also a day not be cynical. Even if you’re a humanist or atheist.

Do we need symbols? you might ask. Reminders, connectors, pathways – they take us beyond the everyday. We all have our own private symbols. But the crucifixion is a worldwide symbol. We share it with the world, and at 3pm this afternoon (with a few allowances for timezone changes!) we will be sharing it at – almost- the same moment.

Superstition? – no – that sharing is powerful, and real.

Militant atheism and the spiritual path

Now that is quite a a title for a post…

I’ve just finished reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up – subtitle ‘searching for spirituality without religion’. When he claimed Chris Hitchens as a friend, I was instantly worried. And then I had the usual stuff about religions being mutually incompatible so no-one can possibly believe that ‘all religions are the same’. Well, we don’t believe they’re all the same – but we do find an underlying unity. He should have asked us first – but he hares off on the hackneyed ‘violence of religion’ tack, and even finds a Zen story where a disciple hacks a finger off – and then is suddenly enlightened.

The sad thing is that Harris has gained some kind of spiritual understanding over many years as a seeker and meditator, and he’s especially keen on, and good at describing, Dzogchen Buddhism (‘focusing on the intrinsic selflessness of awareness’). But he fails completely to recognise that it’s a specifically religious search for understanding in this life that led to the revelations that he now, as a militant atheist, has the benefit of.

And then we have the following on drugs: ‘The power of psychedelics is that they often reveal in a few hours depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.’ Having been down that route, and experienced the ecstasy, I know that selflessness – the experience of non-self, anatta – and drug-induced ecstasy are two very different things. The path – I almost want to say ‘true path’, but that really does sound too religious! – is step-by-step, unfolding, learning, consolidating – I say learning, but it’s not learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge – it is simply that awareness that opens up beyond self. And where you find a differently kind of joy and peace from anything you’ve experienced before.

And a final grumble – no, more than a grumble. This is serious stuff. Reading a review of John Bew’s book, Realpolitik: A History (premise – pragmatism dictates that the overtly and obviously moral route can’t always be the one to follow – politics has sometimes to be about compromise), there’s a reference to Barack Obama drawing on the wisdom of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama has tried to articulate a liberal realist world view – avoiding misconceived adventures on the one hand and isolation on the other…

Why is that relevant to Sam Harris’s book? Because Harris and his like go on about the evils of religion but overlook that it’s not violence but compassion that drives religion. And that the spiritual without compassion is selfish and not selfless. Compassion has to be at the heart of politics, and I believe that Obama has tried to do just that, and his successes and failures are indicative of how hard it is to follow that path in today’s world – and yet how essential it is to try.

Religion when taken over by the power-brokers of the world for their own ends has caused many a disaster. But religion allied to compassion, in the minds of a follower, disciple or believer (however you wish to describe yourself), has been the ultimate force for good in the world. (Now that I admit is a challenging statement – and meant to be such!)

I heard Steven Pinker speak about his then new book, Better Angels Of Our Nature, a year of two back. It’s predicated (and brilliantly argued) on the role of violence in human history – how over centuries and millennia we’ve created social and political structures to contain that violence, allowing the creation of stable, or relatively stable, societies and government. (And how violence continues to decline, even allowing for two world wars and many other horrific events.)

Pinker argues that the primacy of reason and enlightenment values from the 18th century onwards allowed empathetic values, not least compassion, to find expression. The pattern of history for me is very different – violence and compassion have existed side by side throughout recorded history – compassion is hardly a recent phenomena, and it’s in the exercise of that compassion that we as human beings have found our greatest fulfilment.

Compassion and religion have always been closely interconnected. And if you’re a militant atheist, that poses a problem.

My recommendation to Sam Harris would be – get off your podium, stop preaching, and get out there in the world. And if you do, you’ll find yourself working alongside some wonderful people – of all faiths, and none, including humanists. We all work together. We just don’t call each other names.

Compassion – Zen Master Dogen and the Pope take on the world

Zen Master Dogen (writing in Japan, in the 13th century) has been a favourite of mine since I first came across him, maybe ten years ago. Discussing compassion he writes:

Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to try and argue and defeat them. On the other hand if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward. It is best to step back, neither trying to correct others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively and let go of the conflict , others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. 

Don’t act competitively – that may seem hard, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

You make the community’s heart your heart and their thought your way of thought. You make the parental heart your heart and the heart of children your heart. If you practise in this way you will be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river, or like rain in a time of drought.  

There are countless other contributions on the subject down the centuries. In recent years there’s been Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent Communication, and the worldwide movement that it’s inspired. And Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion – which I’ve signed up to.

And as of today – there’s the Pope’s comment about the wall that Trump would build along the Mexican border: “a person who thinks only about building walls… and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” And one Republican response, one Jerry Fulwell Jnr: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.”

From that we deduce that compassion isn’t easy. In our private lives we may find that compassion can indeed be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river. But in public – the Pope’s is a simple statement, and the only comment a Christian could make. Build bridges don’t put up walls. (Israel has not understood this – to its long-term cost.)

Religious leaders do best to keep out of politics – but when there are egregious failures of morality at a high level – when the ordinary norms are behaviour are compromised – they have to speak out, and this is such a time.

‘Make America great again,” is Trump’s lunatic war cry. America was great and can still be great if it realises that it won its previous greatness by working with and supporting countries and communities and being part of alliances round the world. Not by waving a big stick.

This is a vast subject, and best to leave it here for now. But there’s a danger that populism can shift a country dangerously right, or indeed left. And ‘stepping back’, or ‘turning the other cheek’, won’t always be the right action.

As indeed Zen Master Dogen recognises. “…if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward.” Or if you stay silent.

Obama chops Trump down

Lovely to see – to hear – Obama chopping Trump down. Being president is not about a being a talk show host, about marketing, about publicity, it’s about making difficult decisions, and some are unpopular, some will hurt people, and being well-briefed in your dealings with other world leaders – they too have ‘their own crowds back home’. That last point I especially liked – you, Donald, are not alone in this world.

There’s a piece in the Economist on American conservative talk radio, hosted by the semi-crazed (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck) who somehow in the rarefied air of the prairies don’t just to get a hearing but strike a few big chords – or a few bum notes. If bum notes are all you hear, would you recognise a chord?

Does it give joy to Trump to be supported by such people – how much of a conscious game is he playing with them – feeding them pap?

Ted Cruz is no better, but while you feel that for Trump it is a big game, and a big ego, for Ted Cruz it is deadly, evangelically serious. He also feeds the talk shows with great material. The trouble is – he believes it all, and he can express himself with a degree of coherence. And he is so sure he’s right that compromise and balance, which is what the American constitution requires, gets shown the door. And America becomes ungovernable, as it halfway is now.

What also bugs me is Cruz’s call on the Bible, and Jesus, to support him. He sure as hell – almost literally – wouldn’t get close to the pearly gates. America has always been too good – the prairies again – at creating its own religions.

Only one small pleasure in all this – a little bit of humour – Fox News almost the good guys. They do at least have a small idea that politics is about governing – and governing, as John Kasich the best of the Republican contenders has made clear, is a serious matter, about results and balanced budgets and not public platforms.

The UK is – to use totally the wrong expression – a different ballgame. But we also have the same populist right-wing nonsense to deal with and it’s big in the media – thank God we’re spared talk shows. But we do, sadly, have the Mail.

Obama mentions that one aspect of government is looking out for the underdog – ‘standing up for people who are vulnerable and don’t have some powerful political constituency’. And that is the ultimate litmus test of any politics.

To quote Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, which I’ve done before:

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed/ For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse/ An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Camino – all about symbols

The Camino runs in, pretty much, a straight line, but I love the way it weaves itself into your life, with reminders here and there of that extraordinary heritage into which I tapped last autumn.

We stopped in Ludlow ten days ago, and visited the wonderful parish church, which has held on to its medieval heritage better than most. A palmer was someone who’d completed the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the palm was his symbol. Ludlow’s Palmers’ Guild was formed in 1284 and with wide commercial interests across the area they became very wealthy – and they put that wealth into the church.

But, curiously, I noted that another symbol of pilgrimage, which appears more than once, is the shell, rather than the palm.

The palm had other symbolic meanings, not least triumph and victory. The shell, very much the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage, had become a symbol for all pilgrimages.

Once you’ve walked the Camino and knowing how many routes cross-cross Europe you’re always on the look out for the shell symbols. It’s there even in biblical representations of St James with no pilgrimage associations – his supposed burial place wasn’t discovered until eight centuries after his death.

I found one in an unlikely place last week, on a muddy track, just off Offa’s Dyke. It was – a large shell-shaped fungus, of guaranteed impermanence, and a clear case of the symbol being in the eye of the beholder.

Camino reminders don’t only come fungus-shaped.

The chancel of Leonard Stanley church near Stroud has a carved capital depicting Mary anointing the feet of Christ, his hand raised in blessing. There’s a wooden head of Christ at South Cerney, a little further east into the Cotswolds, that’s comparable, and it’s thought likely this was brought back by a pilgrim to Compostela in the mid 12th century. The way the beard curls apparently gives the clue: I love that kind of detail. A curling beard another symbol? (Acknowledgements to David Verey’s Cotswold Churches for this information.)

And finally, guess what I’m cooking for supper tonight – scallops, with bacon, and it’s clear from one or two looks in my direction that it’s time I headed for the kitchen…

A day of innocence

The subject is innocence (sounds like I’m an old-style, tub-thumping bible preacher – but do read on!), with Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV (1914) my starting point:

Never such innocence,/Never before or since,/ As changed itself to past/Without a word – the men/ Leaving the gardens tidy,/The thousands of marriages/Lasting a little while longer:/ Never such innocence again.

Larkin’s poem, to which I’ll return, is about innocence lost as we went to war, an innocence of the consequences, an innocence we could never see again.

But here is also another innocence, what I’ll call ‘found innocence’, which we find by looking within, and which helps us to understand a little more about ourselves.

For me the quiet interiors of country churches are places of innocence, where we stand simply and openly and innocently before God. In one church, Winstone, in the Cotswolds they invite you to say the collect of the day, aloud, so the church is prayed in every day, even if no priest or congregation is there to read or witness. So that’s what we did, and I felt a strange and special innocence that moment, as if I was a middle man, briefly connecting God and the world.

If that’s too spiritual, there’s another innocence, the innocence of animals, from which we can learn about ourselves, and which should determine our attitudes toward animals. There’s a letter in the Economist on behalf of the Nonhuman Rights Project in New York which expresses this beautifully: ‘The Nonhuman Rights Project does not demand human rights for animals. Rather, it wants chimpanzee rights for chimpanzees, orca rights for orcas, elephant rights for elephants.’ Animals may be in our terms cruel or violent, but they act as evolution dictates. We may choose to eat animals but that doesn’t mean that we should act with cruelty toward them, or deny them a ‘natural right’ to live in their natural state.

We are in this case not so much intermediaries between God and the mankind, but between nature and mankind. We have a responsibility both to the animal world and to our own species. If ultimately we mistreat animals we mistreat ourselves, and devalue our own innocence.

And, finally, back to Larkin. I read his poem, MCMXIV, for the first time at lunchtime today. Immediately after lunch I drove to a local supermarket, and put on my car radio. It was a programme, Brain of Britain, that I hadn’t listened to for many years. And the first question: the quote I’ve printed above, and the question – from what poem with a title in Roman numerals does the poem come?  This was all too much of a coincidence for me. If I innocently believed coincidence to be no more or less than an accident of timing, the absolute perfection of this coincidence challenged that belief as never before.

How it can be explained I simply don’t know. But if ever a day was a day of innocence – me thinking on the subject, rather than consciously acting innocently! – today was that day.