Revisiting the River Lea painting
The great fiery green
The poetic imagination
I went to a wonderful talk given by James Harpur yesterday at the University of Wales in Lampeter. James is the editor at Temenos Academy Review, the poetry journal that has published more of my poetry than anybody else, so I feel an affinity.
The talk was on enchanted landscapes, particularly apt when we are staying just outside Brecon on the Northern side of the Brecon Beacons, surely an enchanted landscape if ever there was one. I love it here, the hills , waterfalls and valleys are beautiful and have such a presence which always excites my creativity. We come most years.
James quoted from Blake who had been a huge inspiration to me when I was younger and studying his poetry for my English A level at school. There was a circularity in returning to that early excitement at discovering Blake’s idea of the poetic imagination which locates truth in experience , particularly a level of experience in which the soul and imagination is fully engaged . It resonated much more deeply than any quest for abstract or conceptual truth devoid of human perspective. My scepticism of ideology, dogma and even science, developed further as I became interested in Existentialism at University and travelled in India.
Later in my 20s I remember visiting the Sisters of Bethany outside Winchester with my friend Anne. She was an associate of their order. I had not long come back to my faith and one of the sisters was excited about this and asked me to go for a walk in the countryside near to their convent and to open each of my senses in turn carefully and attentively .
In my heightened state of attention or openness I was experiencing vividly what it was like to be in an enchanted landscape . Everything was communicating , everything was alive and I had a profound experience of the unity of all things which has stayed with me ever since.
It marked a changed relationship , in which there is no gap between my inner world and external reality. Nature and other people are not commodities to serve the self, all is in relationship . Everything is communicating. It is the belonging for which my soul yearns , the love which unifies., a glimpse of heaven. James talked about St Colombo who lived in this unified way and had an easy affinity with animals and nature. An understanding which is now all the more prescient with the emerging environmental and mental heath crisis’.
The crisis necessitates a change in our relationship to the natural world. As Jung says , through science the world has become dehumanised, people feel isolated in the cosmos . Nature no longer speaks . God has been silenced. The poetic imagination allows us to respond to our experience of nature with all our faculties, not just reason , to hear what is being communicated, so often a joy in being alive , that is easily missed. Poetry is layered , ambiguous, paradoxical, outside of concepts but resonates with us deeply . Like all amazing art , there is revelation at it’s core.
Reason on the other hand is deductive and can be a blunt and divisive instrument . It is only a tool which can be used for good or ill. Like science, like money, though necessary , they are not God and should not consume us or direct the way we live our lives.
We need to start paying attention, I think this is happening, the move towards mindfulness is key. We need to listen. We need to rebuild trust, this will be our healing. The world, nature, God is speaking to us if we keep open and pay attention with all our senses, as the Sisters of Bethany showed me so wonderfully all those years ago .
You are a spiritual person ?
We were listening to the moral maze on radio 4 on the way back from an evening celebrating my sister in laws 60th birthday at the weekend. The debate was the argument around suffering and the existence of God. A few of the contributors were commenting on the way some of the families in Turkey and Syria had cried out their thanks to God when their loved ones had been brought out alive, from under the rubble left by the devastating recent earthquakes in the region. One participant seemed astounded. How could people be thanking a God that allowed such devastating suffering to happen in the first place ?. If there was a God, He/She must be cruel or impotent. What about the people whose loved ones didn’t make it and whose cries were not heard. Its a difficult one. Why do people have to endure such suffering ?
I don’t think anybody can wisely answer this. No body wants to suffer or see people we live, suffering. Its horrible and has been the crux around the debate over the existence of God for centuries.
To try and justify suffering in God’s name seems glib and deeply unsatisfying.
A priest on the programme tried to say a belief in God is more like a cry from the heart in times of suffering than a theological argument about the creation of the world or the existence of an omnipresent being.
This made me think about my own journey and why I am continually called a spiritual person. I’m happy to be called that but isn’t everybody spiritual ? Isnt everybody trying to find a way to live with pain ?
My belief is not principally a theory or an intellectual framework. I grew up in the Catholic Church with loving parents who taught me to respect and be sensitive to the needs of others, to tell the truth and to value my life. I was lucky and religious language and ritual was familiar to me.
However I am also a product of the age and went to a liberal school and university that were very left wing and openly anti religious, which meant I had a lot of questions. I was a pretty confused teenager and 20 something.
I stopped going to mass at 16, ‘church was square and boring and full of hypocrites and it was outrageous to expect me to turn the other cheek. If someone hit me, then I’d hit them back !’ I remember saying this to my poor Dad with painful clarity.
He tried to tell me about the aspiration for a kinder world, for the heights of human expression and beauty found in religious art, especially architecture and music, which were his passions.
I was rebellious but his words have always stayed with me.
Then my world shook. I went to work in a kibbutz in the north of Israel when I was 18. The founders of the kibbutz were child survivors from Auchwitz. They were haunted people and so human. Their suffering and their humanity and warmth had a huge impact on me.
Then I met philosophical Brian, my husband to be and studied Existentialism and went to India. After a month my Dad died, my strong matriarchal mother crumbled and the foundations of my world shattered.
I felt alone and unsafe. The gravity of the evil of the holocaust, especially as it linked directly to Christianity tore me up inside. The fact that my Dad who had been such a key figure in my life, was there one minute and suddenly disappeared from the earth in the next, was a grief and a mystery so overwhelming I had to completely recallibrate to try and accomodate it.
And then India, the reality of brutal, devastating poverty , coupled with this deep contradictory messy spirituality, was another shock to my being I struggled to absorb.
However I was also inspired. I met some amazing people. Religion was present in many guises . I was exposed to Christians of other demoninations, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, many of whom had a light that drew me. People were searching and yes, trying to live with suffering as well as the love, awe and celebration of life. As my sadness deepened so did my overwhelming sense of the astonishing beauty and sanctity of life. The beauty of nature, art and the magnificence of people trying, in the face of so much suffering, to live better lives, all really moved me.
I met Anne, working in a nursing home at night, who had a light in her face I recognised from my childhood and had so deeply missed. She listened to me deeply and helped me find my way back to faith. She helped me to pray, to drop under my chaotic thoughts and drop into the silence.
I met a nun who was a Sister of Sion, an order of nuns who work primarily for reconcilliation between Christians and Jews, who became my spiritual guide. She continued this teaching on prayer and to recognise guidance when it came from a source bigger than my own self. I had always been ‘spiritual’ but this was becoming a conscious effort to live more spiritually. I was trying to cope with suffering and to find a way back to my Dad who I missed so much.
She taught me to develop my prayer life and make it a habit, to believe the murmurs of God inside me, to link them to my own Judeo/ Christian tradition and to take my inner life seriously.
Ironically my philosophical training, namely Existentialism, principally the work of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, also encouraged me to heed more closely the workings of my inner world, locating truth more as an experience of being in the world than as any unobtainable objective fact, devoid of human perspective.
In my quiet times which have become the anchor of my life since then, I find a unity, the love I miss from people who have died and I miss so badly and yes a presence I recognise that is also so much bigger than myself. It gives me a poise and an anchor through the storms of life and usually a hope and belief in the fundamental beauty of people and nature. Religious dogma is a framework, necessary at times to keep a structure and a discipline because there is much to sway us towards a less hopeful, shallower more selfish and destructive life. There is no absolute truth in dogma, there are different journeys and ways of living a spiritual, more unified life. Once you start to think I’ve got it right and everybody else, except the select few, has got it wrong, you can be sure you have gone astray. And to try and justify suffering is another mistake, I think. I just think its important to try and live the best way we can and as the Jewish prophet says, suffer what there is to suffer and enjoy what there is to enjoy. There is after all, as my dear Dad was trying to tell me all those years ago, so much beauty in the world and in the deeply valuable vision and human aspiration for a kinder, more compassionate world.