Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Dom Anu

I had this surprising dream.

Heheh – even writing that makes me smile, because there’s this wonderful poem Buzzfloyd wrote:

Rondeau redoublé РAn Anecdote Unwanted

Please don’t tell us your dream.
As you bend my poor ear,
I’m trying not to scream.
Nobody wants to hear!

I wonder why I’m here,
Watching you fondly beam.
We could be stuck here all year –
Please don’t tell us your dream.

As you warm to your theme,
You then shift down a gear,
Detailing every scheme
As you bend my poor ear.

Please let the end be near!
I see how your eyes gleam
While mine threaten a tear;
I’m trying not to scream.

Did this, at some point, seem
Relevant – the point clear?
This is a mutant meme
Nobody wants to hear.
Please don’t tell.

Hahaha! Always makes me laugh!

Anyway – tough – I’m going to tell you about my dream.

I think what triggered it was my beautiful mama telling me yesterday that Songs of Praise on the telly came from Ampleforth last week – the Benedictine monastery in Yorkshire that’s more or less in the place where St Alcuins is in my Hawk & Dove novels. In my misspent youth I studied at York University and was part of an interdenominational lay community there. Father Fabian Cowper (an Ampleforth monk) was our chaplain, and he was the university’s Roman Catholic chaplain. Fabian was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I saw the Christlight shine through him (I mean that literally). We visited at Ampleforth sometimes, and it has a special place in my heart. So when I discovered I’d missed watching Songs of Praise from there it triggered a certain electrical twitch of some kind in my brain which probably accounts for the dream.

Because I dreamed I went to Ampleforth. It had been Christmas – which is (I hope you know this) not, as some people mistakenly think, the feast of Christ’s birthday, but the feast of the Incarnation. Those two things are understandably easily confused but not in fact the same. So, in my dream it had been Christmas, and I’d been sent Christmas cards and gifts from two or three Ampleforth monks. This is not a thing that in real life ever would happen. I have been in brief correspondence with their abbot, and he and some of the Ampleforth monks have read my books, and the abbot spoke graciously of them – but there is none of them would think of me even as an acquaintance let alone a friend.

But in my dream, I’d had letters/cards at Christmas, thanking me for my books and saying they liked them. One was from the Infirmarian – and I think I knew his name in my dream, but it eludes my memory now.

This Christmas correspondence included a special gift from Dom Anu. I have never called a monk “Dom”, though it is a title the Benedictines use. In our lay community we had some breviaries from deceased monks, with their names in, and they would all be “Dom Gregory Brown” and “Dom Hugh Moore” (made up names) and so on.

We would say “Father” in English – “Father Gregory Brown”. “Dom” is short for Dominus, which is Latin for “Lord”.

And in my dream, I had this gift from Dom Anu. It was a small stained glass panel. Apparently Dom Anu was (in my dream, I mean) a stained glass artist, and he chose something he made, to send me.

The panel was leaded, and made of roughly rectangular pieces of brownish glass – a central piece surrounded by smaller pieces, of which one had a short poem/poetic extract painted (and presumably fired) on, in italic script. I don’t remember reading it in the dream, and don’t now know what it said, but I know it related to the central section of the panel – a cleverly chosen piece of glass representing the starry sky, the universe. It looked like one of those pictures you get from the Hubble telescope – something like this (described here). And I know that’s what the poem was about too, but don’t know what it said.

I was delighted with this gift. It was beautiful and unusual and wonderfully crafted. And Dom Anu had sent it with a message to say that he loved my books, and thank you for them. But apparently Dom Anu didn’t speak English, so one of the other monks had written the letter for him. 

Then in my dream I visited Ampleforth, and I wanted particularly to meet the Infirmarian, and Dom Anu, because they had written to me. I wasn’t so interested in the monk who’d written the actual letter for Dom Anu, because he was only representing Dom Anu really.

I think I did meet the Infirmarian briefly, but I can’t properly remember that now. But then in the refectory (in the guest house I think, because the table was crowded with lots of people who were not monks) I was introduced to someone I took to be Dom Anu (one has to wonder why, since I’d never met him). I reached out to shake his hand and thank him for his lovely letter and gift. And he said he was not Dom Anu, but he was the monk who had written me the letter on Dom Anu’s behalf, and his name was Christopher.

He was a Benedictine monk, but I think he didn’t say “Father Christopher” (and certainly not “Dom”) just “Christopher”.

Some more details and conversation followed, but this could go on forever so I won't tell you all about that – briefly, the conversation was evaluating the differences and similarities between marriage and monastic community, and took place with me, a couple of monks, and my parents-in-law from my first marriage who were sitting with me in a large bed. I suggested that the primary requisite for both marriage and monastic community was kindness.

And then I woke up.

Filled with curiosity about the name Dom Anu, I wondered if Anu is, in fact a name or word in any language. I looked up Anu and got nothing useful. I typed “Anu” into Google translate and got . . . “Anu”.

Then I searched on Anu + name. Well, it does exist. Anu, it turns out, is the God of Heaven, a sky-god, lord of the constellations, inhabiter of the highest heavenly realms. This is in Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, none of which I have ever read, studied or come across in any way, shape or form whatsoever.

And Christopher means, of course, “bearer of Christ” or “He who holds Christ in his heart”, from the Greek Christophoros. The “phoros” part of that word means “to bear” – not in the sense of “to carry”, which you might think from the legend of St Christopher carrying the Christchild over the river, but in the sense of “to bear fruit”, to be fruitful. So, it means more like Christ-revealer than Christ-carrier, though I didn't know that until I looked it up this morning.

Having looked all this up, I sat in bed thinking. Gosh. Whoever was it I met last night? I’m jolly glad they liked my books. Well – Dom Anu anyway. Christopher was only speaking on his behalf (which I think was always the case).

Thursday, 14 August 2014


The three pillars of Gandhi’s philosophy of life:

The satyagrahi – who practiced satyagraha – were those who gripped truth with a firm hold. Satyagraha has been translated as “strength through truth and love”.  It resonates with the Quaker concept of “speaking truth to power”. It’s at the heart of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance – civil disobedience – as a means of reforming corrupt society.

Ahimsa is described usually as non-violence. That’s a negative term, and ahimsa is a positive thing. It has tenderness. It is the insight that all living beings are members of our family. It lives kindly in the world. It resonates with the beautiful words of the Buddha in the Metta Sutta. This is described as "the Buddha's words on loving-kindness", and that positive description offers a better understanding of Ahimsa than the more negative term "non-violence"; it's more than that. Gandhi’s vegetarianism was part of his practice of ahimsa, and he required it of those who followed him.

Those two aspects of his teaching and practice are the well-known ones: Gandhi, vegetarianism and nonviolent protest, could be a fair summary of what most people know about him. He made the words ahimsa and satyagraha widely known in the West even if not exactly common parlance.

But what about the third pillar, Brahmacharya? Brahma is “God” and charya is “conduct”.  Brahmacharya is the renouncement of all worldly things in orientation of one’s life around God. It’s like Jesus said, you cannot serve God and Mammon. You have to choose. Gandhi thought so too. He saw everyday life as religion; “My life is my message,” he responded to a journalist who begged him for a quick statement of his message, as the train he had boarded was starting to pull out of the station. How you live can in no way be separated from what you believe. In a sense, there is no such thing as hypocrisy. How you live simply reveals what you believe in your heart, no matter what persona you may choose to hide behind. Though of course, we all do stumble and fail. Expecting perfection is unrealistic. One has to work patiently with human nature. Brahmacharya also often means “celibacy”, and I believe Gandhi did become celibate as part of his renunciation of the world, but I don’t think he required it as an essential for following him.

As an expression of Brahmacharya, Gandhi insisted on simplicity in his ashrams. He said:
“Whoever joins me must be ready to sleep on plain floor, wear simple clothes, get up early, live from undemanding nutrition and even clean his toilet.”

Well, when I was reading about Gandhi and his philosophy, I was nodding along – yes, yes – everything seemed normal and as expected until I came to that word “even” – as in, “even clean his toilet”.

Why it arrested my attention, startled and intrigued me, is that the word “even” identifies it as, in Gandhi’s view, the most extreme thing on his list. A further reach to attain than sleeping on the floor, getting up early, plain dress and eating veggie.

What’s odd about that, to me, is that cleaning the toilet after you’ve used it is the only thing either you do it yourself or someone else has to do it (assuming it’s a shared toilet – most are). If you get up late and have a penchant for fancy threads, I don’t really see how that has any impact on anyone but yourself. But the toilet you don’t clean is a filthy job passed on.

The other things on Gandhi's list take a bit of work and thinking about for me; but all my life I have cleaned toilets for both myself and other people. If you are a woman, and especially if you are a mother, I bet you have too.

The day Gandhi started cleaning his own toilet was the day someone else could stop. A woman, probably. Though Gandhi did have a big domestic row over this, when he insisted that his wife also take her turn at cleaning the toilet and she cut up rough – because in India it would have been a dalit’s job. It was a huge caste statement for them, an act of humility for which I think we have no true comparison.

So that interested me.

“Even”. A little word can say a lot.

Sunday, 10 August 2014


I learned two things that have stood me in good stead from Tom Cullinan. He is a monk, Benedictine, one-time of Ampleforth Abbey, and lives in the woods on the edge of Liverpool, his life an abiding witness to simplicity and intercession for the wellbeing of creation.

He said, “It’s a good idea to want things other people don’t want.”

This is shrewd advice for anyone who aspires to live simply, quietly and frugally. If you look for what is left over and cast aside, you avoid much jealousy and competition, and are allowed to go your way in peace. As well as to material things, this applies to time. If you rise early – 4.30am, 5.00am, before the world gets up – and finish your day correspondingly early, you are blessed with large tracts of solitude and quiet, alone with the wind and the birds, with the peaceful arriving of the dawn.

And Tom said, “Don’t talk about it.” 

This is the soundest advice ever. In the past I have tried to talk to people about the way of simplicity, and found only argument and incomprehension. Recently – stupidly – I tried once more. I never will again.

Sir Percy Blakeney (fictional character – the Scarlet Pimpernel – good role model for those who would live simply) said, “If we are to succeed we must persist with our anonymity”; and I say, Amen!

The way to proceed is modestly, hiddenly, a small, inconsequential, insignificant track, of no greater account than the path the fox leaves in his passage across the meadow.

“Life slips by like a field-mouse, not shaking the grass,” said Ezra Pound. So it does, too: and if one is to really taste life, find the ambrosia of it, one had better find the way to be as small and quiet as the field-mouse, as the grass.

To succeed in radical simplicity, it is wisest to be almost impossible to find, virtually invisible, effaced, the merest faint mark on the edge of society; a smudge. Silent.

I know this; and I resolve entirely to learn it into my life as a daily practice. To be burrowed in to the earthy quiet of life, hard to find, and to talk about the way of simplicity only to those who have already seen its precious shine revealed.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

When evening comes

They come in completely bushed at the end of the long working day; office politics or the classroom jungle, a commute in heavy traffic, body and mind stretched beyond, just tired tired tired.

And they switch the telly on, collapse in the armchair and fall fast asleep. “Fall asleep in front of the telly,” they say. In front of the telly.  What?

Television is meant to be for information and communication, entertainment and stimulus; connection. Fall asleep in front of the telly? What’s with that?

I think there’s a hunger for sound and images without meaning – with no message or content. There’s a comfort in the general burbling and murmur of its voice, the light and flicker of its images.

They’re sitting by the fire, really, aren’t they? That’s what the primitive soul of them wanted. To sit by the ocean and hear the whisper and thunder, the boom and hush of its voice, see the waves form and disperse and the light dancing on the water.

To sit quietly as darkness falls, and watch the last light of the sun reflect against the clouds.

They wanted the komorebi – the interplay of light through leaves, the soughing of the wind in the tall trees, the careless occasional song of woodland birds.

The ancient heart of humanity wants the flicker of flames, changeable, fascinating and restful at the same time, comforting and fragrant, a glow you can look into and never tire of it, the sound of burning wood and settling embers.

The eternal soul of humanity didn’t mean TV, for the end of the day. It meant this.