Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

I have never been an habitual reader of the Bible.  This is a failing, I know, but my carelessness goes back to my childhood, at a time when I suppose I identified the Bible with school assemblies – and I more or less hated school.  It is the same with our great authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, et al ; I associate them all with school, and I have more or less ignored them all until comparatively recently.

As a result of all this, I am not like a cradle Christian, and for that I am somewhat grateful for my early life.  I am grateful not least because I spent so much time trying to make sense of the crazy world of the adults in my life that I became insatiably inquisitive about all things.  But, most of all, I became inquisitive about people and what makes them tick.  In other words, I am religious without being hampered by religiosity.

Of course, much of what I learned came from books ; for it’s all very well to observe behaviour in order to learn, but it is vain to try to invent theories that explain that behaviour without reference to greater minds who have given the matter more thought.  And in the course of my explorations, I have learned that it is also vain to trust the theories of others uncritically.  There are few experiences more depressing than a correspondence or a conversation with someone who quotes Shakespeare by the yard or the Book of Genesis by the metre ; or a blogger who pastes whole column-feet from Wikipedia.

With regard to my approach to learning, I recently came across two kindred spirits, and I stress that they are both far more clever than I ; and the second of those spirits is possibly far more clever than most people give him credit for.

DH Lawrence is not particularly well-known for his philosophy and his religion.  But I do recommend his very last book, published a year after his death.  It is called Apocalypse.  In it he addresses the meaning of the book, and compares his understanding with the many other opinions that have flourished since the earliest times ; opinions which range from the scholarly to the downright loony.  I have skimmed through Lawrence’s Apocalypse, as I usually do with a new book, and have only just begun to read it.

In the Introduction, there is a quotation which caught my eye : Lawrence wrote this :-

I am no ‘scholar’ of any sort.  But I am very grateful to scholars for their sound work.  I have found hints, suggestions for what I say here in all kinds of scholarly books, from Yoga and Plato and St. John the Evangel and the early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos down to Frazer and his ‘Golden Bough,’ and even Freud and Frobenius.  Even then I only remember hints – and I proceed by intuition.

Now here we have someone who is no mere book-learner.  He gathers information and proceeds to think about it ; and from his thinking he receives trustworthy intuitions – spontaneous realizations about the meaning of what he has read.  He does not feel bound by what he has read, but uses his readings as a springboard to deeper understandings.  He is a true seeker of knowledge.

Also he writes elsewhere that you can divide books into two classes : those that do not bear re-reading : and those that do.  A good book, he says, will offer new revelations at each successive reading.

Now all this is just what I should have said if only I had Lawrence’s skill with thoughts and words.  For, surely he is right on both counts.  For books by even the great writers are not there to be taken at face value ; they are not there to be slavishly believed and slavishly quoted from.  Even the greatest books are there to be intelligently interpreted and re-interpreted ; this is the secret of their greatness ; this is the seat of their power ; this is the key to the evolution of human consciousness.  Any other approach comes close to idolatry.

But there are limits to interpretation.  The aim is to allow the meaning of the original text to evolve ; to keep its spirit alive ; for it is the spirit that gives the text its life.  The aim is not merely to change the meaning of the text, for that is not evolution, but substitution, and that is likely to end in meaninglessness. I regret that many interpreters make that mistake.


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I have only visited a convent once ; it was in the middle-north of England where the friend of a friend was serving.  I was fairly young at the time and knew next to nothing of religious life, so I had only a jumble of ideas of what to expect.  My first surprise was that they let me into the convent at all ; I had half expected that I would be required to wait outside while my companion went in to chat with her old school-friend.  But, in fact, there is a homely and comfortable reception area made for the purpose of entertaining all kinds of visitors ; and we were both made very welcome.

I began to wonder what on earth I could contribute to this meeting of old friends.  Are nuns allowed to speak to men?  Or even to listen to them?  I prepared to make my own vow of silence for the duration but I needn’t have bothered, for the sisters were only too eager to chat ; not, I hasten to add, out of a wish to discover news of the wicked world beyond their walls, but out of simple friendliness mixed (I think) with a charming politeness.  They understood my dilemma.

The talk was of many things, but mainly about news of the girls’ mutual acquaintances ; but this broadened by degrees until even I thought of something to say.  The nuns spoke mainly about their work, which reminded me that even they had to earn their living.  All this was unexceptional.  And there was absolutely no talk of religion or vocations or the good life.

Perhaps it was that delightful visit of forty years ago that silently prompted me to buy a DVD which explored further the life of the religious.  It concerns the lives of the sister at the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Notting Hill ; in the heart of London. It is called No Greater Love, which reminds us of Jesus’ words that there can be no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.  And that is what these girls do ; they devote every minute of their lives to the betterment of the world and its people – their friends.

Of course, a worldly cynic might say that there is no great sacrifice in retreating from the world in order to work and pray.  Some might even say that it is abandoning the harsh world so as to lead a comfortable life ; and is it possible to deny that some, at least, have done that?

But when you consider more closely the training that the sisters have been through, it is not easy to be so dismissive ; for their transition to religious life, and then their everyday lives, are far from easy by our standards.  I received an insight into this when I watched another film, The Nun’s Story,  in which we meet Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch in leading roles.  This film is based on a true story and, as far as I can tell, is pretty much true to form.

It concerns a Belgian girl who comes from a prosperous family and whose father is a leading medical doctor.  We follow her from her decision to decline a comfortable life, through her pains at telling her family of her decision, on to her fairly terrifying training, and further to her years in Africa as a nurse.  We also see her assigned (to her disappointment) to escort a sick patient back to Belgium by sea ; she has no choice because she is the only nurse who has the necessary medical knowledge.

To her immense disappointment, she was to have no return to Africa and the patients she loved.  Being a nun, it seems, is the surest way of learning to cope with personal anguish ; of learning to find happiness through losing one’s self and one’s desires – in the service of a greater good.

The end of the story comes not in the safety of the convent.  And it comes as a surprise.

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I have so often wished for the gift of being able to write as the great writers do.  And, together with that gift, I have wished for another ; that of thinking as they do.

As you probably know, Jonathan Sacks is our Chief Rabbi.  Read here what he says about how our Judaeo-Christian heritage has shaped us and so much of the rest of the world.

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“We are not better than the others, and yet we have a better time of it. We, the small minority who live in peace and affluence, must tread a quite different road to heaven from the great majority, who face death in poverty and fear, in suffering and hunger.

And yet I believe that these suffering souls will be happy for all eternity, because they are the least of His little ones and so God’s most beloved children.”

Fr Werenfried van Straaten


I read Fr Werenfried’s Thought for the Day every day ; because I have come to understand that there is more to his life than preaching good.  He has actually done good, so that many, many people have had cause to thank him.  And I thank him.

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In search of the Light

You steadfast sentinels who guard the heart
Of England fair, stand ready yet, amid
The fallen of your number ; ne’er to part
From sacred duty.  Loyalty unhid.
And yet, what life have you, our standing stones,
That turn their faces to the new-born sun?
As if to capture clouds of glory, tones
Of Heaven’s colour, counting all well-won.
Does blood run freely in the veins of rock?
In hearts of stone, does deity choose to dwell?
Is spirit content in granite to lock
The forces that all ills may sure dispel?
You played your part as vanguard of the quest
That found the light and kindled us, the West.

Jamie MacNab 2011

Standing guard


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For all the faults


For all the faults, though ne’er so grievous, borne
Upon my soul so perfect made but marred
By misdirected hopes and fears so long,
My prayer attend, O Lord, with mercy sworn.
Thou  know’st of whom I speak so no retard,
By extra words, impede or do aught wrong.
Thy faithful servant all her life has loved
And honoured Thee in heart and mind and deed ;
But now lies low, so hurt by fate ungloved ;
And of thy healing hand so much doth yearn.
Pour out on her what things may do her good ;
What goodness that might be is no concern.
If we were best in wisdom to decide,
What need had we to tame and quench our pride?

[For Sr T]

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Whatever we might think of religion, we cannot deny that it fascinates us.  Almost any post on the subject, except the most anodyne, risks attracting undue attention.  That, I think, is a sign of our times, which bear an uncanny resemblance to former, pre-Christian ages.  And yet, religion endures as ever.  Perhaps that is because its writings contain some ideas which still have the power to rather startle us – after we have had first thoughts about them.

“Whatsoever you did to one of the least of my brothers, you did unto me.” Fr Werenfried van Straaten, of the ACN, thinks these words should be dearer to us than all earthly wisdom

It is generally taken for granted now that Jesus was referring to the weakest members of a society – the poor, the humble, the incurably sick, and so on.  Whether we be religious or not, we generally see now the merit of the sentiments involved ; but it was not always so.

At around the time of the Incarnation, it was common to live life with a starkly Darwinian perspective on life – although that name was unknown to people then.  In Greece, for example, weakling babies would be taken to the hills and ‘exposed’ ; left to die either of starvation or aided by the teeth of animals, to be consumed and forgotten.  And, for the Romans, any manifestation of weakness was despised ; their world was only for the strong, the ambitious and the ruthless ; and the more one fell from those ideals, the less regard was paid.

And, even in that gentlest of all religions, Buddhism, it is still held that a person does not live so as to help the poor and the weak, but for his own personal advancement towards a state of blessedness – and forgetfulness.  “It is my destiny that matters, not yours.”  Similarly for Hindus.  This explains, I think, the abject misery of so many amid the fabulous riches of the better off.

Taking all this together explains the extraordinary resistance to the Gospels in the early days ; for the message, the Good News, ran counter to the prevailing orthodoxies.  It was subversive and threatened the powers of the great.  A pacifist, a do-gooder was not merely someone to be derided, but someone who had to be eliminated along with his dangerous notions.

Many questions arise from this doctrine concerning “the least of my brothers.”  But, of all the questions, perhaps the most puzzling is this, “Why on earth should almighty God be in the least concerned with the least of his people?”

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