Saturday, November 29, 2008

Building a cathedral

Oh, I’ve been so thoughtless.
Do you remember my friend, Samar? The Palestinian, who teaches at London University? Yesterday, I’d invited her to tea, and it wasn’t until she was sitting down that I realised it was Ramadan. She couldn’t possibly eat any tea. How stupid of me to have forgotten.
How did human beings ever come to devise such a minefield of different, and often conflicting, religious practices?

When I was quite a small child I remember complaining to my family that we were only Christians because we were born in a Christian country. If we'd been born in India, I argued, we would have all been Hindus.
I was told that these arguments were not helpful for a small child.
"And if Jesus had been a cow," I concluded defiantly, "we'd all worship cows!"
This was more than enough for my family, who sat me down on my own to enjoy the totally uncontroversial world of “The Wind In The Willows”!

Talking of reading, have you read this week’s ‘Letter’ from Bishop Spong? I know that we all of us have a tendency to admire the writings of those we agree with, but how could anyone fail to warm to the wisdom of Bishop Spong?

I’ll let him speak for himself, “The Bible .” he writes, “has been used for centuries by Christians as a weapon of control. To read it literally is to believe in a three-tiered universe, to condone slavery, to treat women as inferior creatures, to believe that sickness is caused by God's punishment and that mental disease and epilepsy are caused by demonic possession. When someone tells me that they believe the Bible is the "literal and inerrant word of God," I always ask, "Have you ever read it?"”
. . . see what I mean? In a previous ‘Letter’ he also wrote that he felt the Bible should be an ‘open’ collection of books, not something that was ‘closed’ irrevocably two thousand years ago. There should, he declares, be room for more recent Christian thinkers.
I completely agree. What of Dame Julian of Norwich . . . or Bishop Spong himself? It’s an excellent idea.

All of this got me thinking about the Bible. It occurred to me that, in structure, it's rather like one of our ancient cathedrals. These cathedrals were originally created from individual blocks of stone, trunks of trees and sheets of glass. All these components were worked together, first by manual labour, then by skilled craftsmen. The resulting building was an imposing, man-made structure. It had the inevitable flaws inherent in any man-made artefact, but it was impressive.

Over the years this building was occupied by many other human beings, but these human beings had not come to work on the building, they had come to worship. They brought their prayers, their brought their hymns of praise, they brought their anxieties and their confessions. The centuries passed and their prayer and worship began to alter the building in a very subtle way. The building itself became a repository of the numinous. The walls absorbed the frequencies of the prayers, the vaulted ceilings took to themselves the outgoing waves of praise. The building became sacred. It was a man-made building, it had all the flaws inherent in a human artefact, but the very humans who inhabited it had brought it closer to the divine. Each human who visited it drew from it something to satisfy their own needs - they gave their praise and their prayers, the cathedral gave back comfort and inspiration.

Man, as God, had expressed his unity with God in stone, wood and glass - and made it sacred in its own right.

But, and this is an important point, it was never considered complete. The wisest of the humans who took care of these ancient cathedrals appreciated that the structures were still being created. They willingly accepted additions from different centuries, improvements and alterations. Rather than being an ancient, mummified body, the cathedral grew to fulfill the needs of each succeeding generation of worshipers.

I think the Bible should be the same. . . . open to reinterpretation, open to addition and change. What do you think?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thin sticks

It doesn't seem possible that it's two years since I fell down the stairs and sprained my ankles. Do you remember? It all came flooding back this morning when, very stupidly, I caught my toe on a paving-stone and nearly measured my length on the pavement. Struggling to regain my balance, all I could think of was those two months on crutches. Who knows, it was probably the memory that kept me upright!
Nonetheless, I was also reminded of something else. Do you remember my reflection on thin sticks . . . ?

I’d never recommend falling down the stairs. Nor am I fool enough to suggest that there’s anything but discomfort and inconvenience in spraining both ankles. But that accident changed my perspective. It made me recognise an everyday miracle that I'd never noticed before.

Now, as I look around me, I see myriads of talented people - people who are totally unconscious of their incredible abilities - people who stand, and walk, and run, people who leap and dance, all whilst balancing on two very thin sticks at the end of their legs. They seem completely unaware of how wonderful this is, how totally amazing . . . what a feat of balance and faith.

But you only have to watch for a while, to look at the size of those thin sticks, and note the often very heavy weight balancing above, to recognise the miraculous when you see it. They don't topple over, these talented people, they don't end up with their thin sticks broken or swollen . . . it's a daily miracle that is vastly under-valued.

When I could only hobble, I vowed that, on recovery, I'd give thanks each day for the blessing of two, fully-functioning, thin sticks.
I may not always remember, but, as I regained my balance this morning, that's precisely what I did!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sunset over Monte Carlo

Have you a spare moment to share some thoughts on Monte Carlo?
Why Monte Carlo? Well, my god-daughter, Caroline, phoned this morning. She’s just returned from a conference that was held in Monte Carlo. It had all come as a great surprise. The senior partner in her firm had been unable to go . . . someone else couldn’t make it . . . finally, rather like a modern day Cinderella, Caroline had found that she was the one to be going to this highly-desirable ball! Scarcely believing her luck, she’d packed her bag and rushed off in a taxi to Heathrow.
What is the twenty-first century equivalent of a pumpkin coach . . . ? A helicopter!
Sure enough, a helicopter was waiting at Nice airport to whisk her off to the luxury of L’Hermitage and a two-day, high-powered meeting of the mighty.

But the clock struck midnight yesterday, and Caroline is home again, wondering if she’s imagined it all. Apparently, I should be receiving a post-card in the near future - the glass slipper to prove that neither of us has been dreaming!

Caroline's adventures revived my own memories of Monaco. Distant memories from when I was just a few years younger than she is now. On a whim, a friend and I had taken off to see if we could keep ourselves for a year on the fabled Cote d’Azur.
True, we’d had no helicopters - we travelled everywhere by train or by local bus. True, we’d had no luxury meals at L’Hermitage - we’d frequently had a second breakfast when funds wouldn’t rise to a lunch. But when it comes to sheer fun . . . well, I think our experiences could rival Caroline’s any day!
Have you a moment to share my lost youth . . . ?

After grape-picking in Frejus, we turned down the opportunity of picking chestnuts in the mountains in favour of seeing what Monaco had to offer. Monaco charmed us from the moment of our arrival and, on our first Sunday, we attended St. Paul’s, the Anglican church.
It was entirely thanks to he vicar of St. Paul's that we found our first job in the Principality. A man of great charm and persuasion, he later went on to become the Bishop of Gibralter. His persuasive powers must have been stretched to the limit in convincing the committee of the Monte Carlo Golf Club that these two stray English girls were just what they needed.
"I'll put in a word for you," he said, "they can always do with caddies."
And so it was that, with little or no knowledge of golf, but a great need for income, we found ourselves caddying on a golf course more designed for mountain goats than portly millionaires.
Way up in the mountains, with an almost sheer descent to the Mediterranean, it was spectacularly beautiful.
From a golfing point of view, I doubt whether it was a good course. The fairways were too short and too steep, the greens too small. But, as a breathtaking scenic viewpoint it couldn't be surpassed.

I caddied for a wide variety of the privileged and the wealthy, the most eccentric being Monsieur Philippe, the genius behind an empire built on stylish footware. After teeing off with at least six balls from every hole, he would then go in search of the one that had taken the straightest and longest line.
"Ah. zee eentelleegent ball! " he would enthuse happily . . . before hitting it, with great confidence, into the rough.
But I wasn't caddying for the genial Monsieur Philippe on the day that disaster struck. Most unusually, I was caddying for someone who actually cared about golf, who wanted to win. We had reached the eighteenth green and he was in the lead. Success lay just one putt ahead.

It was a beautiful evening, even by Riviera standards the sunset was spectacular. Slipping down slowly into the Mediterranean, it stained the sky crimson and gold and demanded an awed response. There was just one problem, a solitary tree was slightly barring my view.
I stepped back in order to see better . . . and kicked the ball off the green!

It was instantaneous. We were sacked there and then.
I don't remember what the vicar said, but he probably used the good advice of 'keeping one's eye on the ball' for a future sermon at St. Paul's!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The holy mountain

I was reading in the papers today about the major cutback in road projects. Have you heard about it? Dare I suggest that this economic downturn might have its bright side? Less roads could mean less invasion of the countryside. Less roads could even mean more walking, more climbing.
Thinking about it all, I was reminded of the story of the holy mountain.
Have I ever told you the story of the holy mountain?
That's right, take a deep breath, you're going to get it!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Once upon a time, there was a holy mountain. It was revered by the many pilgrims who took at least a week to climb to the summit. On the way up they sheltered overnight in caves, where they were ministered to by monks who tended their blistered feet and led their prayers. Those who reached the summit returned with their faces alight with joy, awestruck by the experience.
Not all the pilgrims reached the summit of the holy mountain, but for those who only made the first or second cave there was no sense of failure. On the contrary, they returned home with the glow of achievement. Some day, some lifetime, they would reach the summit; for this lifetime, the experience of their climb was reward in itself.

For centuries the holy mountain offered revelation to all its climbers. Then, one day, the Powers That Be decided, in their wisdom, that it was neither democratic nor politically correct that only the pilgrims should experience the view from the summit. So they took powerful bulldozers and dynamite and they blasted an incredible, curving, modern road into the side of the mountain - a wide road, a fast road, a road that would whip anyone up to the top of the mountain and back again all in a matter of hours.
And the tourists came, and the curious came, and they built a coffee-shop at the top of the mountain to accommodate all these people. And the pilgrims, who were horrified by these developments, stayed away. But the tourists and the curious who stood, coffee in hand, gazing out over the view, were mystified. They could not understand why anyone should have struggled for days to come and look at what was, frankly, such an uninteresting view.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Did you enjoy it? I love that story.
So, if it's not so many roads . . . not so much travel . . . the economic situation isn’t all bad! What about a little gentle mountain climbing next year . . . ?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The fish man cometh . . . and goeth

Oh dear, I do hope I'm not upsetting the apple cart . . . or, in this case, the fish pond. At least this story should give you a laugh.
I've just received a phone call from a fellow member of the Garden Committee. A neighbour in a nearby street has, so she told me, a pond full of valuable coy carp. Would we like to take her overspill? There are now, it seems, too many coy for the size of her pond and the surplus fish need to stretch their fins elsewhere.

It's such a kind offer . . . we have a pond and, as of this moment, we only have nine remaining fish (remember how the heron came in the winter and devoured ninety per cent of the pond’s inhabitants?).
BUT . . . what would the shell-shocked survivors think of an invasion of coy? Would it put their noses out of joint? After all, glorious and heroic they may have been to survive the massacre, but there's no getting away from the fact that they was originally very humble, rescue goldfish. These coy are valuable, might they also be bossy . . . and combative . . . and definitely not the sort of thing that the surviving goldfish would like to contemplate? We don't want a Balkans War in the pond!
But it was a kind offer . . . I couldn't really turn it down without sounding ungrateful . . . and these young coy carp need a good home.
I told the intermediary that we'd have them.
Think of me in half-an-hour introducing the new arrivals to the pond! I'll keep you up-dated.

(ten-minutes later)
I've had another phone call. They're not coy carp. Apparently they are small, and black, and are known as 'invisible fish'.
"The only thing that concerns me," I said, "is that they're not aggressive. If they come in peace, and don't upset the existing fish, they're welcome. If they cause trouble, then they go straight back!"

And so it's all arranged. The fish man (have you ever heard of a fish man?) will be here after lunch tomorrow, at which point I shall tip the 'invisible fish' from their bucket into the pond. (How do you know if you've tipped them in if they're invisible? Ah well, we'll doubtless find out!).

(two days later)
It was rudds that we were being given. Rudds, so I'm told. are a native British species, and much to be desired in any British pond. They are, apparently, quiet and peaceful, rather timid, and totally non-aggressive. We'll hope so!

After an uncertain morning, come yesterday afternoon, events speeded up dramatically, as you'll see . . . I was having tea with Jeri when, at four-thirty, the fish man arrived. We hurried down to the garden.
I've never met a fish man before and, if this one was typical of the breed, they are imperious and unpredictable. Fish men would seem to be one of the products of our over-affluent age. Along with dog-walkers, they have sprung into existence to cope with the aspects of our lives that we find time-consuming. Fish men come with second homes and second cars, and, in employing them we miss out on one of the great pleasures of life, that of going down on our knees and getting thoroughly mucky!
This professional fish man was young, of a strong physique, and garbed appropriately in waders and elbow-length rubber gloves. He carried a bag full of fish.
Before I knew what had happened, not only had the fish been released into the pond, but, without so much as a "Shall I?" or "May I?" the fish man had lowered himself over the edge and waded in to join them.
I was shocked - although I tried hard not to show it.
All right, it was kind to come and bring some fish, but that didn't give him the right to go striding, uninvited, into someone's else's pond for no reason whatsoever.
As politely as I could manage, I urged him to come out.
But the fish man was having a whale of a time (sorry for the pun!). He was groping around under the water and discovering all sorts of broken bricks and large stones that had found their way to the bottom.
I was not amused. He was stirring up all the sediment and making it impossible to see where the new fish were hiding. Not only that, what sort of treatment was this for the surviving goldfish? Already suffering from post-traumatic-heron-stress, this was the last thing they needed.
I finally persuaded the fish man to return to dry land, and peered into the now murky depths to see what had happened to the new arrivals. Needless to say, they had vanished from sight.
I'll go down later this morning to see if the sediment has settled, the newcomers have acclimatized, and the old guard have not been too put out by all these disruptive goings on

Was I once foolish enough to say that visits to the pond were peaceful . . . ?!

No sign of the new fish . . . the original inhabitants, renamed Dad's Army, came for their food, but seemed a little flustered . . . broken lily pads marked the fish man's point of entry and exit.
The gardeners, who come once a week, stood beside me looking down into the muddied depths. Our decision was unanimous and heartfelt . . . no more fish men, thank you!!

(Friday afternoon)
What a relief, 'Dad's Army' are fine and eager for their fish food. Of the new recruits there's little evidence - just the occasional shy, dark head waiting on the fringes for any of the food that Dad’s Army have spurned!

What a relief . . . you, I hope, have had a laugh, and peace has returned to the pond!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Curious Tale

Once upon a time there was a lady and her cat. And the lady and her cat were rather tired and exhausted at the end of a long, wet summer. And the lady and her cat decided that a three-day holiday was just what they needed to recharge their batteries for the autumn. So they got into their car, and they went off to Box Hill.

The following day, thinking that they would like to drive up the hill, they once more got into their car and turned the key in the ignition. But this time the car spluttered and refused to start. The lady 'phoned the AA, who quickly came to her rescue and put a new battery in the car - the old battery having proved to be exhausted and worn-out.
The lady and her cat drove the revitalised car up the hill, and prepared to take some photos. But the camera registered a sign saying 'Batteries Exhausted'. Fortunately, the lady had some new batteries in her bag, so she put these in the camera which, with renewed energy, worked perfectly.

The next day a friend came to visit the lady and her cat, and when the friend said that she really must leave as it was getting late, the lady reacted in surprise. She looked at her watch and said that it was still early in the afternoon. The friend pointed out that the lady's watch had stopped - the battery had given out.

The lady and her cat have now returned from their holiday, both with their energy renewed. The car, the camera, and the watch have also returned with renewed energy - all are ready to face a demanding autumn.

Had the car and the watch expired a week later, they could have caused the lady immense problems. As it was, Box Hill, as always, solved all energy deficiencies and sent its devotees away happy and renewed!