Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Monday, March 31, 2008

Whirling Dervishes

During the recent consultation on the theology and practice of reconciliation that I was periodically writing about before things fell apart pre-Easter, Derek Poole from the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, made one of his usual "where did that come from" asides. For those who do not know Derek, he has a unique ability to speak apparently off the cuff (though I believe he practices for hours at home, pontificating to the bathroom mirror) at length, on almost any subject... and generally sounds like he knows what he is talking about! But quite often, one image or sentence will stand starkly out from the rest, having a greater resonance than that around it, and, since he never writes anything down, unless you have been taking verbatim notes, it will be nigh on impossible to trace the reasoning that tied this brilliant, but tangential comment to the rest of his stream of consciousness. For those who do know him (and indeed Derek himself), am I being unfair?

Anyway, this time, one of the things that stood out was a comment concerning "whirling dervishes". These are a sect within the Mevleviye, one of the most well known of the Sufi orders, founded in 1273 by the followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a 13th century Persian, poet, lawyer and theologian. "The Whirling Dervishes", perform a "dance" called the sema in honour of Allah. It apparently represents the mystical journey of a man's spiritual ascent through mind and love to the "Perfect" before returning from this spiritual journey, as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation. At least that's what Wikipedia tells me, and we all know that is never wrong! (Actually I checked it elsewhere and it will do for the purposes of this blog!)

But meanwhile, back to the point, what Derek said was that, as the participants dance around their sheikh in a precisely prescribed symbolic ritual, each participant raises both hands with one palm pointing to heaven and the other to the earth. As such they are engaged in a something that both bridges the eternal and the temporal, the deeply mystical and intensely physical, a dance that is both centred and traces out a wide and increasing circumference.
That is what we, as Christians should be engaged in... Something that bridges heaven and earth; something that is centred on Christ, but which reaches out further and further as the dance continues...

That is the theory... Sadly, in reality the "Whirling Dervishes" have at times become a tourist sideshow, or even a Turkish "Riverdance", trailed around big concert venues on the whirling dervish world tour. Before long it may even become a TV reality show, fronted by Graham Norton.

And our attempts to bridge heaven and earth can also become devalued... We become "whirling dervishes" with no mysical centre, no spiritual choreography to our dance, just whirling around with no rhythm, rhyme or reason... OK, so there may be reason to it, but sadly it often just gets lost in the madness...

As I return to work today after a brief post Easter break, I took a look at my upcoming diary and asked myself "Am I dancing to the glory of God... or just whirling aimlessly?"

Monday, March 24, 2008

Under the Shadow of the Cross

For Holy week this year the BBC produced a version of "The Passion" which I will largely refrain from commenting on as I only saw the Good Friday "post watershed" episode through being otherwise engaged the rest of the time. If the rest of it was as good as that then I may get the DVD for future viewing. I would appreciate other people's refelctions if they saw more of it than I did. But it set me thinking about previous dramatic versions of Jesus' life and death. The obvious comparison is with Mel Gibson's "spiritual snuff movie" but it was Sally, my wife who reminded me of Dennis Potter's "Son of Man", a decidedly sceptical view, but one with some interesting insights... and particularly of the following part of Act 2 Scene 3.

Jesus and his disciples have been having a discussion in the shadow of a cross. Then, almost absent-mindedly Jesus wanders over to it and starts to caress it.

JESUS: Good timber, this. Hewed with the grain from the heart of the tree. I could fill a room with tables and chairs with wood like this. [He chops the air with his hand.] Cha-ow! Split, it would, straight as ever you could want. Yes! There’s nothing like a bit of wood in your hands. Chaow! Not a knot in it, see? Good stuff. [He puts his head against the cross, as though it were a pillow, momentarily closes his eyes and whispers] Father. Father. [His shoulders start to shake, as though in sobbing.]
[ANDREW steps forward anxiously to comfort him, putting his hands on Jesus’ shoulders.]

ANDREW: Oh, Master, please...
[But JESUS turns swftly, and we see that, far from sobbing, he is in fact shaking with laughter.]
JUDAS: Wh-what is it?
JESUS: A tree! A t-tut-tree! [He laughs out loud, then speaks, still smiling.] God puts it in the soil. A tiny little seed. He sends the sun to warm it. He sends the rain to feed it. He lets the earth hug the little plant like a mother with a baby. So it grows. Years and years it grows. Little roots like veins twisting underneath our feet. First it’s a sapling, tossed by the wind, a feeble thing. But still sun, rain, still it grows. And grows. Oh, a huge thing. A great, strong tower climbing towards heaven. Older now than a man, than two men. What has it not seen? Eh?
PETER: [child-like] Go on — go on!
JESUS: Cha-ow! Down it comes! Crash! Oh, great tree, brought low by the axe. Eh? But God doesn’t mind -
JUDAS: [aloof, still] Doesn’t he? How do you — ?
JESUS: No-oo. What are trees for? Wood. God wants us to build. To have tables to eat off. Chairs to sit on. He has filled the earth with good things, all for man, for me, for you. So He doesn’t mind, does He? No-oo. All that sun. All that rain. All those years. All that struggle from seed to giant — well, tables and chairs are fine things too! But look what we do. Look! A cross! To kill a man! All that sun. All that rain. And here is the end of it — something to hold up and stretch out a man while he dies! [Again, he throws back his head and laughs. The others are paled, and even rather disapproving.]
JOHN: But what is funny about that, Lord?
JESUS: [angry rhetoric] Man! That’s what is funny about it! Man, silly, stupid, murdering man! We take the good things God gave us in order to hurt each other!…
[The scene continues… then, towards the end of it…]
ANDREW: I didn’t even see it – I didn’t even…
JESUS: [harshly] It is part of the landscape.

It set me wondering, whether we are blind to the many instruments of murderous cruelty littering our landscape.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Where Happiness is Only a Curly Fry Away

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But anyone who opens their eyes whilst wandering around any city in the United States will see that while our Creator theoretically made us all equal, something has gone wrong in practice. Certainly my first morning in Pittsburgh showed that some people were finding the unalienable right to pursue happiness a little difficult in sub-zero temperatures... turned away from one city-centre church by an armed guard because they were likely to frighten members of the congregation. Other churches ran cold weather shelters, but they only kicked into action at 20 F, and kicked their inhabitants out at 7am. So what if the founder of the church also had no place to lay his head... Unless it was seriously sub-zero he'd have little chance of finding somewhere to sleep in the centre of Pittsburgh...
Happy are the poor... Jesus says in Luke's Gospel. Or do we prefer Matthew's account where Jesus clarifies things for us and specifies that he meant the poor "in spirit"?
Round the corner from this welcoming church however, was an Arby's... which, for the uneducated among you, makes subway seem like haute cuisine, and due to the limitations of the budget I was operating on I, and a colleague had a slap-up Sunday lunch there... And it was there that we discovered (see the comment on an earlier post) that "Happiness is just a curly fry away."
The sad thing is, for many of the poor of Pittsburgh, even a curly fry is too far from their grasp...
But I'm not sure that Pittsburgh is much different in that from much of the western world. In our headlong pursuit of a happiness that has more to do with unalloyed hedonism than Jesus' Beatitudes, how many get left behind and simply give up...
All men may be created equal, but when we go to meet our creator are we still equal?

The Confession of Judas

On preparing a Holy Week reflection on the anointing of Jesus as recorded in John 12 I remembered this version of part of the medieval mystery cycles that I rewrote as part of a production entitled "Testaments" staged in the grounds of Queens University, Belfast in 1999.

I Judas, was unjustly injured by Jesus, the Jew
And now am I perjured all of history through.
I tumbled to temptation, that much, sirs is true
I diddled the disciples of their dole.

From the twelve’s total my own tenth I took
Twas easy to do for I balanced the book
Jesus never gave me a momentary look
But now look at him... Damn his soul.

But in Bethany betimes my bale did begin.
When a woman named Mary just wandered right in
Bringing beauteous box with best unction within
I wondered what she was wanting to do...

Bowing by his bed, and breaking open the box
She then larded the lot on your lordship’s long locks!
For a man such as me twas the worst of all shocks
And I got into a bit of a stew...

What I waste! I did wail, that woman hath wrought
Sire certainly censure her, What could she have thought?
What blessing to t’burdened that balm might have bought
Its pretty price provide plenty for t’poor.

Please, please, for one more moment I pray you still stay
And listen, your lordships what our Lord did then say
"O Judas the poor shall be present alway
But I will soon go away."

The poor’s plight pricked me not, to play no pretence.
What pricked me and pined me was the loss of my pence.
300 silver pence t’would have fetched at a fence.
And a tenth of that would have been mine

But now tis made up
And I go to sup
On the money I got from the chief of the Jews -
30 fine siller pence I did take as my dues.
And one thing alone I must do...

I'm Back...

Apologies... Didn't actually post anything while in America or in the two weeks since I have returned... But I will rectify that over the next wee while as I mull things over. But just for the record, the reasons were:
1) I was astounded that in the 4 years since I have been over in the US on business, technology has changed so much that everywhere is wifi and cyber-cafes are now no-where to be seen. And guess who hadn't taken his laptop in the expectation of finding an internet cafe on everycorner!
2) Our schedule was more packed than I had expected... and I believe more profitable... but more of that anon...
3) I managed to catch a dreadful lurgy when there which made me feel awful for a few days while there and then floored me when I got home... Even today, two weeks later, I woke with the king of all headaches... Everyone say "Ahh!!"
4) My computer managed to catch a dreadful lurgy when I came back... erasing all my carefully documented notes and pre-prepared blogs that I had scribbles on my Palm as we wandered round Pittsburgh... Arghh! I hate technology...
5) On getting out of bed, my time this week has been taken up just getting ready for Holy Week Services...
Anyway... I'm back and will be posting on a number of subjects over the next few days, D.V. ad technology permitting.