Thursday, 29 March 2012


Quite by chance I plucked Daphne Hampson's After Christianity from the shelf, and it has proved to be one of those books which makes your mind go "Ping!" as you read it. Although starting from a position which is not where I am (feminist theology), it ended up seeming to articulate all sorts of things which I recognized as inchoately present in my own mind. Among other things, its carefully presented non-dualist position offers a bridge between God and Zen, and demonstrates a possible path for losing the parts of Christianity I can no longer accept while retaining the parts I am reluctant to leave behind.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A slight shift in perspective

Imperceptibly, something has changed. I entered the New Year of 2009 with the feeling that I had lost my grip on faith, and this feeling grew on me until, after a bout of mild depression in the summer of 2010, I was beginning to think that I might have to resign myself to atheism. My resort was to silence, and in particular to zazen, which I have now tried to sit with for a year and a half. By Christmas 2010 I was trying to decide whether I was a radical post-theist Christian, a heretical Buddhist, or a crypto-Taoist. But over the holiday, Mrs Bookworm drew my attention to a couple of old BBC TV programmes, "The Big Silence" (about a group sent on a traditional silent retreat) and "The Monastery" (a group live at a Benedictine Abbey for a month). The latter I watched when it first came out, attracted to it especially as I had an old fondness for Worth Abbey myself. This time, watching others experience the richness of silence, I heard for myself the resonance of something that Dom Christopher Jamison said:

Silence is the gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God.

He also commented to one of the participants:

Maybe the God you don't believe in doesn't exist.

I have not encountered any new arguments, or had any new experience, or heard anything that I have not heard before. Nothing has changed; but somehow everything has changed. For no clear reason, I had lost some underlying confidence on which the scaffolding of spiritual endeavour was based. For no clear reason, I have regained it: some vague acceptance of the possibility that the universe might have meaning beyond that which I project upon it. I am still an agnostic in most respects. My approach to faith must now be based on a more tentative, more experiential, more subjective approach. I had long thought that much of the idea of a "personal" God is a projection of our own personal being, and I feel this more strongly now. And church services still seem mostly boring and verbose, though that may just be because I do not (for family reasons) have the option of selecting one more congenial to my taste.

On the Feast of Epiphany 2011, I actually got up early and went to a Cathedral Eucharist. The simplicity was refreshing, and I boosted the number in the congregation to four (all the others, plus the celebrant, being women). My sense of personal loyalty to the figure of Jesus had taken a bit of a bashing from considerations of early Christian mythmaking, but maybe a more post-modern reading of biblical texts and of the Christian myth may be possible. I'll see how we go.

One thought struck me from the Epiphany sermon on the tale of the Magi: we are called to go home by another road. I'm off down that road now, chasing the ever-elusive ox.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Books and rolling stones

I have just discovered that the American Zen teacher Robert Aitken died a couple of days ago. I was slightly surprised to find that I don't have any of his books, though his name is well known to me. Maybe I should honour the occasion by going out and buying one.

I haven't had time for blogging here for a long while, as Tiny and TinierBookworm have been occupying most of my energies, and we have also had a major house move. I am now living with at least two thirds of my book collection in storage, which would be frustrating if I actually had time to do much reading. As it is, I scarely have a chance to read the ones that I do have on the shelves.

Moving house has also meant moving away from the small Zen sangha to which I had become affiliated. Having returned to my cushion last summer, I am still there (still struggling*). I am now casting around for a Zen group in the area that will tolerate the patchy commitment that my family duties will allow. I have attended one zazenkai (day of silent Zen meditation) with a fairly local group. It was nice, among all the upheavals of changing location, to find something familiar in the zendo; but all zendos are different, and this group doesn't meet often enough for their way of doing things to become quickly comfortable. By the end of the day I was finding it somewhat gruelling, mainly just because the physical discipline eventually gets to my back.

* Zen has been likened to polishing a rock into a mirror: I am still chasing the rock.**

**I know: it is not the rock that is moving.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Consonants and Folk Music

Sho' Auntie Di! Some of Tiny Bookworm's tuneless singing can be a bit baffling. I am used to hearing fragments of nursery rhymes, but it took me a while to work out what "Sho' Auntie Di" could possibly be. After a while, however, a fuller version came out, and I realized that the folk music CD in the car was beginning to make its mark. "Sho' Auntie Di, sho' Auntie Di", warbled the child, "Twenty hats and Tor ishen why". Having been listening to the Yetties on practically every car journey for the past two months, it didn't take much to decode this as "Shall Trelawney die? Here's twenty thousand Cornishmen shall know the reason why!"

The initial syllable "tor" of "Cornishmen" is an interesting one, as it is shared not only (as expected) with "tor'akes" (cornflakes: consonant cluster "fl" omitted as too difficult) but also with "tornower" (lawnmower). Most words are now converging on a more standard form, though "lant" has only recently expanded to "elephant", there is still a little confusion over "the hungry callapitter", and the African animal with a long neck is still a "wirarsh".

I'm now just hoping that TB doesn't start producing recognizable sections of some of the other songs on that CD: I'm not sure what the nursery staff would make of "The Foggy Foggy Dew" or "Still her answer to me was No", and though "John Peel" is a piece of English heritage, I'm a bit uncomfortable with humming along "from the chase to the view, from the view to the death in the morning".

Monday, 5 October 2009

I am never merry when I hear sweet music

Music occasionally makes me cry. While I was driving to work this morning, the radio launched into "Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes" from Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker. 'OK', I thought: we had the suites on record when I was growing up, and I've always liked the music. However, I very rarely hear it, and had completely forgotten how this particular section went. I listened a bit mechanically, noting dispassionately how good an orchestrator Tschaikovsky was, even set against such masters as Rimsky-Korsakov, and enjoying the music's chiffon layers of chuffing flute decoration, which well enough suggested falling snowflakes. But the sudden entrance of the wordless female chorus caught me utterly by surprise and (as they say) "blew me away". It brought tears to my eyes and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It may not perhaps be truly great music, but it is hugely effective, though the image it brought to mind was not realistic falling snow, but the artificial magic of the ballet stage, with the coloured lights, imitation snow, and smiling and gesturing dancers. Maybe that's why the music caught at me so, tapping into hidden memories of seeing Nutcracker on stage in London as a child.

My list of those magical moments when music has made my hair stand on end is thus now extended by one. Others include (in no particular order):

the restatement of the main theme near the end of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra;
the key change near the end of Ravel's Bolero;
the moment when the heroine is presented with the rose in Strauss's Rosenkavalier;
a particular descending melisma partway through Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending;
and the natural trumpet solo in his Pastoral Symphony;
the moments in Borodin's String Quartet when the rising scale passages miraculously arrive at exactly the right note to begin the next phrase of the melody;
the last phrase of Walton's A Spotless Rose;
the "sliding" theme in Nielsen's First Symphony;
the opening of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2;
and so on.

There are other Vaughan Williams moments: "walk out with me" in Toward the Unknown Region; the "city with her dreaming spires" in An Oxford Elegy; and my title phrase from the Serenade to Music. And there are other moments which may not produce an obvious thrill to the ear, but which are incomparable when you are actually preforming them: unforgettable little corners in pieces like Lotti's 8-part Crucifixus, Barber's Agnus Dei, Pearsall's Lay a Garland, Faure's Requiem, or Harris's Faire is the Heav'n.

It's funny how much of the music I enjoy performing (renaissance polyphony, baroque and early classical choral music) may be the sort of thing I am good at, but is not really what I want to listen to. I can spend a day happily enough working through some chaste piece of Byrd or Bach, but when I get home what I want is to be engulfed in billowing swathes of Bax or Richard Strauss!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Hills, Tents, and the Turning of the Year

Autumn arrived on Friday. It was a nice day, and the trees are still green; but there was just something about the angle of the sunlight slanting across the road at 8 in the morning which said to me that the year had turned. Summer has made a couple of late showings since, but it's on the way out.

Squirmle I is now eating raspberries, and we're trying to stay cool about his general faddiness (and aversion to vegetables). Squirmle II is trying to drink Mummy dry. We all had a great day on Bank Holiday Monday, with a picnic on the hills and a shared mint choc chip ice cream.

Our day trip to Greenbelt was also a success, though I think I only got to one complete talk, and spent much of the time chasing the Squirmle. I'm now catching up by listening to MP3s. I have again got the feeling that Greenbelt speaks more directly to me than any other religious gathering in my experience: its openness to discussion of practically any issue, its willingness to accept a huge range of liberal Christian viewpoints (and agnostic and non-Christian viewpoints), and its refreshing debunking of all the kinds of Christianity with which I have little or no sympathy.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Idylls of the Dad

Thursday was marked by one of my best moments since the day we were first sent home with a small pink alien. The weather was my favourite kind: a sunny day with a few clouds in a blue sky, and a decent breeze to make the trees wave and keep the temperature comfortable. I took Squirmle I up to the swings, a walk which started extremely slowly as we ambled along, pushing the empty buggy and inspecting plants, stones, and lamp posts. Eventually he tired of this, and requested a ride. We had an energetic swing in our favoured fashion (with me holding the swing back and counting to the requested number before letting go). As is now usual, this was followed by a short walk through the woods to the railway. As we reached the fence by the track, I noticed some discarded fruit on the ground, and a tree hung with small round yellow things. I thought it might be a crab apple, and sauntered over in case it would be a useful source for jam-making. It turned out to be laden with small yellow plums, just ripening, and twined below with a lethally spiky bramble, also just coming into season. Somewhat to my surprise, the Squirmle (whose unvarying response to raspberries and strawberries is to say "Daddy eat it") consented to accept a proffered blackberry and gingerly nibbled his way through it. He wasn't even perturbed by the deep purple colour of his fingers after this process. I ventured to offer a plum, and he solemnly ate that too, while I munched my way through about four, all the while watching him nervously hoping that he wouldn't swallow the stone. We were greeted by a friendly passing spaniel, whose owner said that he had played there as a boy and was off to look for his former den. And we saw five trains, including a goods train.