Tuesday, 15 February 2011

WISDOM'S PATH OF PEACE : a monument to interfaith hope

Why, in my blog subtitle, have I said I am seeking 'Wisdom's path of peace'?

'Holy Wisdom' by Hildegard of Bingen 12th C
 There's a quote from one of the Apocryphal books of the Bible, Baruch 3:12-14, that says
'You have forsaken the fountain of Wisdom.
If you had walked in the way of God,
you would be living in peace forever.
Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding,
so that you may at the same time discern where there is length of days, and life,
where there is light for the eyes, and peace.'

There's a lot about Wisdom in the books of the Apocrypha, which is I suspect one of the big reasons they have been marginalised over the years. Wisdom is, at her most developed, a feminine personification of God, and a rare source of spiritual literature for those hungry to hear 'She' as well as 'He,' in relation to God. In the quote above, Wisdom's fountain is synonymous with God's path.
Wisdom is equated with Christ - pre-existent Christ that Paul talks about in Colossians 1:15-20,
'He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and earth were created ...'
compared with Proverbs 8:22-9:6,
Wisdom says 'The Lord created me at the beginning ... ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth ... happy are those who keep my ways ...for whoever finds me finds life ...'
or the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 7 -
'For Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things, for she is a breath of the power of God ...'

Holy Wisdom - Greek Hagia Sophia - was much venerated and the texts which describe her (Wisdom of Solomon in particular) were held in high regard by early Christians and it seems by Jesus himself. Churches were named after her - notably the famous Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, once converted into a mosque and now a museum where Christian icons and Islamic calligraphy proclaiming the name of God, sit side by side.
Although the place is closed for worship now, as a museum, whatever the conflicts that took place in the past, all there is to see now are the prayers and praises of the ages, suspended from the walls, together.
Just suppose that building outlived our current 'civilisation.' People in the future might find it and conclude that people of different faiths were able to worship God together, in mutual respect. It's not impossible, after all - I've seen it done.

Wisdom's path is God's path, and it is a path of peace for all.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

BRITISH NATIONAL IDENTITY? - the Green Man and the Three Hares

There's a lot of talk these days about 'British Identity.' It seems quite difficult to define; do we look to our industrial heritage, our colonial arrogance, our romanticised pastoralism, the residue of that famous 'wartime spirit,' a propensity for sarcasm?  Or how about our 'island identity'? Read this interesting article by the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12244964 that describes 'The moment Britain became an Island,' caused by a huge tsunami, around 8000 years ago ... (more on being an island, below.)

Or another idea, could chould we look to our parish churches? Some of our politicians are hoping to look to them for crucial practical community support in these hard times, as part of this 'Big Society' scheme - (see http://commonwealthnetwork2010.blogspot.com/2011/01/big-society-on-small-gloucester-estate.html for the implications of this plan)
Well, the old churches and cathedrals that punctuate our landscapes, certainly used to provide much of the focus for daily life for a good thousand years or more, for good or ill, so perhaps they are not a bad place to start. And what could be more evocative of good old traditional 'Englishness' than medieval roof bosses?
(Roof bosses are carved nodes, at the meeting point of timbers and stone pillars, decorated with all kinds of fascinating designs, it seems opportunities for craftspeople to show off their imagination and dexterity.)

Two of the most evocative roof-boss designs of all, which sometimes appear side by side and which seem to be steeped in British folklore and the forests that used to cover the land, are the Green Man (also beloved of pub signs of course) and a circle of three hares or rabbits, joined by the ears.

Although the inspiration for both the Green Man and the Three Hares seems to come directly from out of our green and pleasant land, in fact, both motifs made very long journeys to get to Britain, long ago.

The earliest evidence of a Three Hares motif is in a Buddhist temple in China, dating back to the 6th Century CE. The motif gradually finds its way along the ancient silk-trade routes from China - ancient highways and sea-ways that linked up the known world.
The Three Hares appeared in numerous locations along the route through Asia and Europe, decorating both Islamic artefacts and Jewish synagogues, as well as European churches.
Travelling craftspeople, perhaps caught up in the monstrous machine of the crusades, seem to have seen the design and liked it, and brought it back with them. Whether they also brought with them any sense of the motif's symbolism we do not know; we are free to reach our own conclusions about what the hares represent, but there they are, on the rooves of our churches, as their sisters continue to decorate the holy places of others cultures and faiths.

Visit the excellent site about the Three Hares, for fascinating photos and further information: http://www.chrischapmanphotography.co.uk/hares/index.html

a 12th century version from Syria / Egypt
The journey of the Green Man seems very similar. Read about Mike Harding's discovery of the motif as far away as Jain temples in India, which greatly pre-date our own - http://www.mikeharding.co.uk/greenman/the-green-man-in-india . We might have named the Green Man as one of our nature sprites or folk characters, Jack o' the Green, or other local variants, but he has older brothers by different names across the world.
As Mike Harding says, it's not at all surprising to find communication of symbols and myths, designs and know-how as well as languages, across Asia and Africa and into Europe, naturally following trade routes.

The Green Man and the Three Hares say something to me about 'British national identity.' We are and always have been part of a wider world that has inspired 'us' and enriched 'us' culturally, throughout history; in fact 'us' makes no sense unless we consider that the population itself is an amazing gathering of peoples from all places too, stretching back to the time of the last ice age. Even the very first people here didn't spontaneously generate from our beloved rocks and soil, they walked here  from the continent along with lots of animals, over a land-bridge that now lies under the sea.

the land bridge, 10 000 years ago
  And before that, how did people get to Europe? They didn't spontaneously generate there either, they walked, over thousands of years, from Asia and Africa, the ancestral homelands of all humanity.

It seems to me that there is such a long history of fluidity and cross-cultural communication concerning the make-up of Britain, as the Three Hares and the Green Man illustrate, that it is almost impossible to pin down one definition of identity - unless it is 'fluidity' and 'cross-cultural communication' itself.
Our ancestors seem to have given us a beautiful icon for our times, by bringing the gifts of the wider world firmly into their holy places, and welcoming them as their own.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

IMBOLC AND CANDLEMAS: spring-time holy days

It's interesting how the Christian calendar interweaves with the European pre-Christian calendar which is often now known as the 'Celtic' year. Some people say the Christians just 'took over' old holy days and holy people to stamp their own identity on the old and that was that, but I'm not convinced it was always so straightforward. Sure, some Christians through the ages have done a lot to wipe out indigenous spiritualities, a fact of which I am ashamed, but others prefer to respect and even to preserve traditions, in their own way. Take the Celtic saints - some chopped down sacred oaks, others like Brigid, whose holy day was yesterday, built their monasteries deliberately close to oaks but refused to harm the trees.There has been an ongoing and insurpressible popular interest in the old ways and a need to keep loved traditions. How else do we get Easter eggs, Christmas trees, May Queens and All Hallows Eve (Haloween) falling when it does?
Today the Church celebrates Candlemas, the day Christ is brought to the Temple in keeping with Jewish law at the time to dedicate each first born to God. He had to be brought forty days after his birth, hence the fixed date of February 2nd. It strikes me as such a massive coincidence that I doubt that it is a coincidence at all, that this celebration of the newborn 'lamb of God' coming to the temple falls on an older 'Celtic' holy day, Imbolc, when the birthing of the lambs and flowing of ewes milk was celebrated.
If I were going to decide on a day to celebrate the dedication of the holy child Jesus this is the best day I can think of in the whole earthy year. It almost compells me to meditate on the rich symbolism of the lamb who died, ('a sword will pierce your own soul too,' says Simeon to Mary), the lamb who stands before the throne in the temple, the lamb who is both willing sacrifice and victor over death ... I can even meditate on the flowing milk and the many Christian thinkers who described Jesus as our mother, whose blood is our milk.

Mary Cassatt:
Mother and Child

This depth of symbolism I believe did not escape earlier Christians as they sought to bring the Gospel story into the lives of the people in a way that would be meaningful. There is a sensitivity here, to my mind, not a heavy-handed appropriation, as though the Christian liturgists could not imagine a time when people would not celebrate the lambing, and the lambing would naturally draw their minds to the stories of the lamb of God, the sacrifices and gifts of maternity and the free-flowing milk of God's nourishing grace.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


One of the things I really love about the legends of St Brigid of Kildare  is the way they tease literalism and send us back to the archetypal, the world of symbol and 'deep story,' and the rich grey area where Christianity meets other spiritualities and allows itself to be enriched.

Brigid is said to have been one of the generation of Irish Christians following St Patrick, which places her in the 5th -6 th century and legitimately 'Celtic.' Accounts vary, but she is widely said to have been born of a slave woman on the doorstep of her master's house. Brigid infuriated her father-master by repeatedly giving his posessions away, and endeared herself to the people by her generosity and the miracles of healing and abundance associated with her. Refusing marriage, she entered a convent but according to legend, when the priest came to recite the necessary prayers to dedicate her as a nun, the words to consecrate a bishop slipped out instead - the priest attributed the error to the Holy Spirit, thus making Brigid the first woman bishop. She established monasteries in Ireland, most famously the one at Kildare which means 'place of the oak,' perhaps the site of a more ancient indigenous shrine.

Shiskin:Oak Grove

Here, a perpetual flame was kept burning by the women - no man was allowed to approach. Why is that? We do not know, but this and the oak-grove location of her monastery is a give-away that there is more to Brigid than meets the eye - for there are as many pre-Christian legends about her as Christian (if not more); she was clearly a holy figure in the pagan faith of that time too.

But there is more... Brigid was said to have been midwife to Mary as she gave birth to Jesus, even Jesus's nurse and foster-mother ( an important role in 'Celtic' society). This of course is an anachronism, so we can't 'believe' it, but at another level it has an innate truth. The people who wove the legend into the nativity narative brought their own human care into the story - their own favourite lady there with the holy family, giving earthy, practical, kindly service, modelling love in the blood and sweat of ordinary life. Later contemplatives such as Ignatius of Loyola taught people to do similar in their devotions, imagining themselves into the gospel stories to experience them at an intuitive level. Ignatius asks us to consider, “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?” 
Brigid goes further though, in her role as midwife to Mary. Midwifing is one of the images used of God in the Bible -
'Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
  you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.'
(Psalm 22:9) 
Even Eve in Genesis, declares that she has given birth to her first son 'with the help of God.' (Genesis 4:1)
It is not just a question of how we can serve God, but of how we can allow God to help us, be midwife for us, as we labour away, day in day out.

( For more on Ignatian spirituality visit http://ignatianspirituality.com/ )

For further inspiration on the theme of St Brigid go to Jan Richardson's  http://paintedprayerbook.com/2009/01/31/a-habit-of-the-wildest-bounty-the-feast-of-st-brigid/

Friday, 28 January 2011


I have always been drawn to things pre-historic, for which I should thank my parents - childhood camping holidays took us all over the British Isles and France, from the neolithic village of SkaraBrae in the Orkneys, to the menhirs of Carnac, Avebury, the White Horse at Uffington, the ancient footpath the Ridgeway ... although brought up as a church-goer, my earliest memories of a sense of 'sacred,' 'awe' and 'other' came from being in these places- often very beautiful, natural places- and absorbing the atmosphere.
I grew up associating spirituality with the outdoors, and the ancient. The image above is of Wayland's Smithy; it is a tomb. I imagine people standing around it mourning their dead - people who loved and were loved. Human lives that mattered - and when has there been a time when this was not so?

Ancient sites interrupting the landscape connect us with essential human needs - to form community, to be safe, to understand the land and the life it holds and be able to survive in it peacefully without destroying it or it destroying you,  to be able to travel, trade, explore, create, form relationships, tell stories, make music, art and love, look beyond ourselves out into the mystery of the universe; be alive ... we have not come so very far really, our needs have not changed in essence.

To discover more fully what it is to be human, what true humanity is no matter when, where or who, this is what interests me. It is surely a path to understanding one another at the deepest level, and discovering our natural affinity and mutuality - empathy, sympathy, compassion, acceptance ... for we all know what pain is, and fear, and love and awe ... surely here is something deeper than cultural, religious, credal, economic, historical divisions.
Personal faith, to be of enduring value, has to help us to discover the rich depth of humanity within and around us and help us to draw out the best of what humanity can be - the impulse towards compassion - rather than the violent and fearful worst, which spirals us and the planet into degredation. 
Discovering how to be most fully and wonderfully human, humanity at its most profound, seems to me to be the essence of the spiritual path, whichever faith - what else can we do, after all, except try to walk this earthy life well?

There is a beautiful quote from the prophet Micah (6:8), said to summarise the whole Hebrew scripture, that says it all, to me:
'Hear O Mortal, what is good, and what does God require of you,
but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.'
That humble walk with God, to me, is radical spirituality.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Scrolling through google images this morning on the theme of the Conversion of Paul (celebrated today), it struck me how the theme seems to have been a great excuse through the ages for painting huge, rearing stallions and muscular torsos.

Even elderly Pauls have a great phisique which does not really match his own description of himself at all. Eventually the paintings of horses and muscular males (sometimes even armoured) thin out and souped-up car conversions take over - an interesting continuation of the theme.

In short, I felt it was all quite needlessly

As an antidote here is an extract from Haderwijch of Antwerp, a 13th century Beguine, (a Medieval lay sisterhood devoted to good works and prayer - see below for link), about her conversion experience. It is perhaps less spectacular than Paul's, but all the same beautiful. Haderwijch often -including here -  writes about Divine Love as 'She.'

[The opening of Vision 13:]
On the Sunday before Pentecost, before dawn, I was raised up in spirit to God, who made Love known to me; until that hour, she had been hidden from me. There I saw and heard how the songs of praise resounded, which come from the silent love humility conceals ... 

There I saw and heard how the songs of praise resounded and adorned the Love of all loves.  

For more information on the Beguines, whose aspirations and spirituality were not unlike that of the Franciscan Tertiaries established by Francis of Asissi, here is an interesting essay by Elizabeth T Knuth: http://www.users.csbsju.edu/~eknuth/xpxx/beguines.html

(see links: Other Women's Voices http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/hadewijc.html)
image: drawing of a Beguine, 1489

Friday, 21 January 2011


The picture is of a dying Hungarian Jewish woman and was sketched by the artist William Congdon, who you can read about at http://imagejournal.org/page/journal/articles/issue-14/selz-visual-arts
Congdon is an artist who interests me greatly - he began as a safe, comfortable and well off American, everything on a plate, but witnessed terrible suffering and death as an ambulance driver during World War 2 and was shocked into a deeper  and more spiritual engagement with life, expressed through painting.
This particular picture is reflective of his horror at entering the concentation camp Bergen Belsen, on its liberation. It was one of the events which radically changed him.
I post it here because it reminds me strongly of a fascinating and moving book I read recently while researching the Feminine Divine: 'The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust' by Melissa Raphael. (http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/73/2/577.full.pdf  for a helpful review) She says, among many other things, 'Presence is the key to a good death.' In the face of women caring for one another in the suffering of the death camps, giving the only comfort they can simply by sitting alongside, here, Raphael says, is God's presence revealed. To quote again, 'the suffering of the Shekhina ( Presence of God - feminine) is that of one who, being among us, suffers with us ...'