Thursday, 31 January 2013

Looking back

Our classroom, when I was nine years old, was quite special.  Our school stood on the top of a steep hill, with two playgrounds that we called Up Top and Down Below.

Up top had the main school, a red-brick Victorian building with high windows and impressive doorways.  At playtime, groups of friends would try to get lucky and bagsie one of the large, wide doorsteps as a base to congregate and chat.  High iron railings (how did these escape being requisitioned for war-time munitions?) set into walls surrounded Up Top.  One side looked down onto the street, and the School Dinner children could look out through the railings for the Home To Dinner children returning, bearing the purchases of lemonade powder and Fruit Salad Chews and Black Jacks they had been importuned to get at the sweet shop, pocket money pennies pressed into their hands by the eager prisoners Up Top.

On another side of Up Top, leading to the doorway into Infants One, the milk crates stood in stacks with the small (a third of a pint I think) regulation bottles of milk provided, one per child, by the government to build healthy bones (Ha! Little did they know!).  The milk tasted shudderously vile in its unrefrigerated state – though interesting when frozen, humping the foil top of the glass bottle upwards – but happily there were a few children who actually liked the stuff and could be persuaded to drink the milk of those who found it unbearable.  At this side of the playground, the view through the railings looked down on the Thursday cattle market, where children watched solemnly as the men crammed the panting sheep with their rolling eyes into metal-railed pens, and the pigs screamed as they were prodded with sticks and dragged about by their ears.

A wall bounded the third side of Up Top, with a way through to a house containing the staff room, the headmaster’s office and the music room.  This was a place of dread.  A child would be sent to stand there in the corridor in shame for misbehaving, under the eyes of passing teachers.  Here I had my violin lessons with Mr Li (he said the second part of his name would be too hard for us to say) until the day when he buried his face in his hands and said “Oh my Christ!  Oh my God! Can’t you play better than that?” And I realised the violin and I were not partners made in heaven.

Then the fourth side of Up Top had high iron railings with no wall, with a view and a way through to Down Below, a big grassy playing field for rounders (like baseball) in the summer, a huge loving oak tree whose ancient spreading roots made steps in the dust for children to sit on, a variety of other trees whose fallen leaves in the autumn could be gathered into floor plans for imaginary houses, an orchard beyond the playing field bounded by the ubiquitous railings and a river. 

The path came down steep from Up Top to Down Below alongside big shrubs that stabilised the earth of the hillside, so steep that on icy days our teacher Mrs Weston had to crouch down with a child holding onto her on either side, to make the descent in her stiletto heels.

Her classroom, built into the hillside underneath the main school building, had a charm of its own – and its own small playground.

Mrs Weston, an artist, wore a wonderful cardigan – mainly black but with two bold rectangles of colour knitted into the front – who knew a cardigan could be a cubist work of art?  She had long black hair – annoyingly, in trying to paint her portrait, having no black powder paint, I could achieve only purple.

In her classroom, we had the old Victorian two-seater desk-benches.  I sat with a boy whose dare-devil exploits I admired – but he couldn’t spell so I, who could reliably spell even MEDITERRANEAN, came in handy.

I’d like to say I was happy at school, but in truth I was not.  I hated its petty injustices, its profound emotional violence.  It did not feel like a safe place to be.  Every day I longed for hometime.  A child had no redress.  I watched boys being caned.  I stood and listened while Mrs Thomas with her olive skin and curly black hair lectured me “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, and knew full well what she said was not true. 

But of the time I did at school, that year in Mrs Weston’s class was surely the best, in the little classroom tucked away under the hill, coming out at playtime to the trees and grass of Down Below, the scent of leaves and grass, of dust and rain.  Mrs Weston played us classical music, that we listened to with our heads cradled on our arms upon our desks.  She let us paint more than other teachers, she read us stories and told us about the badgers that visited her garden at home.  I don’t remember any other teacher ever speaking about their home, and to hear about the badgers meant a lot to me.

She was frightening, of course, as teachers always are, and her wisdom felt approximate and her justice expedient to my nine-year-old self.  Looking back I know that in our home, where our mother was the final arbiter of all things, I was favoured always (and often unfairly, though our mother always did her very best; I was quite a wily child) above my older sister.  The more impartial judgement of a schoolteacher probably felt shockingly unaccustomed. Nonetheless I adored her frankly.  I thought she was wonderful.

I remember the morning we arrived in the classroom to see her sitting up in the teacher’s desk without speaking.  This puzzled us until one by one we eventually noticed the sign she had written on the blackboard in her perfect handwriting: “Mrs Weston has lost her voice”.

She taught us all (well – she tried) to write in italic hand.  We had special work books, their page lines subdivided for calligraphy.  I know now, which I didn’t then, that it’s a darn sight easier to write in italics with an italic nib in your pen.

At Christmas time, she gave each of us a card she had made by hand.  I remember mine – I kept it for years, right into adult life.  Tall, thin, rectangular, uneven artist’s card, the front bearing a wax resist image, the simplest outline of the Virgin cradling the baby Jesus, the wax design revealed by the wash of red/brown/purple watercolour.  Inside her greeting, penned in her beautiful italic hand.  I thought it so beautiful.  In my mind’s eye I can still see it now.  A treasure.  I took it home to show my mother at the end of the day, delighted.

Well anyway, about ten years ago I met Mrs Weston again in Cambridge.  She went on from teaching to become a potter, and had a stall in the little market in the garden off Jesus Lane.  Her husband, whose love for her was tender and apparent, sold volumes of his (excellent) poetry there too.  After this meeting, she sent me photographs of our class the year we were her class too, the playground of the classroom in Down Below.  The big building of the cattle market is visible behind the long shed that forms the backdrop to the group of children.  I am the half-head between the tall fair child and the short dark child.  So long ago, but I remember these children, their personalities.

The child on the right, just next to Mrs Weston, was a lovely girl.  She would stand firm for others against bullies and, a doctor's daughter, she surprised me by being completely unembarrassed about taking her clothes off when we shared a changing room at the swimming baths - wooden cubicles along the concrete edge of a blue-painted unheated pool.

Then just last week, Mrs Weston found her way to me along the snaky paths of the internet, with the help of a canny daughter, to say that having moved, she had some remnants of school work to pass on.  She sent me photocopies of a prayer I had written in my own round hand, and a short composition in attempted italic hand.

For the prayer, we had evidently been given free choice.  There’s the prayer of another student (whose face instantly came clearly to mind) on the same photo-copied page, and hers is nothing like mine for subject matter.  For the composition, we had been set the task of imagining ourselves in fifteen years’ time – a stretch of the imagination indeed for nine-year-olds!

This was my prayer:
“O Lord it is our duty to help others so let us fill in that duty.  Let us remember not to treat animals as slaves but be kind to them.  Let us help people everywhere and let us be kind to all things. Amen” 

My name (then), Penelope Stephenson, is written at the end.  Evidently a budding Christo-Buddhist even then!

And the composition, in a seriously bad italic hand, went like this:
“In fifteen years time . . .  Penelope Stephenson

I will be twenty-four in fifteen years and still living with my parents.  I don’t know yet what my job will be or even if I shall have one.  I shall get married when I am twenty-six.  I will buy a King Charles Spaniel.  I’ll get a motorbike and paint it black with blue handlebars.  I may write books but only as a pastime.  I would have a bookcase full of the books I had written, but not one of them published.  I would not wear a mini skirt and frilly underwear!  I do not know much about grown up life but what I do know is that at first it will be a bit confusing.”

Well, I never did get the spaniel, and once I reached adult life motorbikes just looked really dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.  I wrote the books, but all of them were published.  But now I know about grown up life I can confirm that it is, at first and always forever, extremely confusing.

Looking back on it now, on my childhood and the childhood of my children, above all I feel a sadness for the things we did not get right - my mother with her children, me with my children - and the consequences that had.  We did our best with what we knew no doubt; but it strikes me now that the areas we failed were precisely the moments we felt most sure of ourselves, where arrogance supplanted wisdom.  If there is one virtue a parent needs, it is humility - to listen, to accept, to understand.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The less I own the better I feel

The other day, Daisy asked about my 365 chuckout – this was where I disposed of one possession for each day of last year, and got rid of two things for every thing I acquired.

“How do you feel about it now?” Daisy asked. “What difference has it made?”

Good question.

Well there are two domestic layers to my life – the Big House and the Tiny Room.

In the Big House, the chuckout has been helpful.  We had a lot of extra stuff from putting two households into one, that we didn’t want to get rid of because the things were all useful or beautiful.  During my chuckout I got ruthless with possessions in that category, which has left the house a very peaceful space to be.

Although we are all family members living here, because we decided to live together as adults we don’t have the thing you get in most family houses of accumulated unquestioned junk that no one sees any more because it’s always been there.

We keep our personal possessions in our own rooms mainly, except for a few bits and pieces that stop the areas of common use looking bleak and unlived in.  So we have bookshelves with the Badger’s (mostly) books on, and on the wall some pictures either painted by or belonging to different family members.  We have Hebe’s dysfunctional clock, and a Turkish lantern (only a bit of tat but it’s pretty), the Wretched Wretch’s toys, and one or two other odds and ends.

So the 365 chuckout left the Big House with much more room to breathe, all the paraphernalia gone and nothing left that’s not in frequent use.  Talking about this over supper, one of us also commented that she has acquired the habit of looking at everything she has with a question in her mind “Do I still want to keep this?”  Sometimes the answer is simply “Yes”, but she’s found an increased inclination to just pass things along.

Then in my Tiny Room, not a lot has changed – I swapped quite a lot of clothes both in and out during the year, but have ended up with spaces on the shelves and things to wear that I like and feel like who I am.  The clothes I have now speak to the Plain yearnings of my soul while fitting in with the culture in the midst of which I live.  So they are loose-fitting, solid colour, practical, modest and unpretentious.  They look a bit medieval steampunk lagenlook amish zen troll or something.

I had a while right at the end of that year when I went a bit English Lady.  I got some elegant, fitted (still modest) skirts and tops from eBay, and some tights and lady shoes.  Well, that didn’t last. I found I couldn’t move easily and freely, I never felt like dancing in those clothes, and the waistbands dug into my tummy if I was gardening or doing housework.  So I sent those along sharpish.  And also at the end of that year I bought on eBay (and kept) some very pretty porcelain and silverware, because our things did all look unrelentingly rustic. 

So things came in as well as going out, but more out than in as planned, so we ended up with not much stuff but what we do have, we like.

It wasn’t life-changing or anything like that.  When my first marriage fell apart I moved from a manse into a two-roomed apartment, most of the time shared with one member of the family or another, which meant keeping tight controls on the levels of belongings.  Then when I married Bernard and moved into his cottage, all I had was one cupboard and half a chest of drawers at first for my belongings, so I got rid of most of what I had. 

When I married the Badger, it was two households into one, so most of my stuff went because he treasured his belongings.  Then when he and I moved into our present home, most of what we had left had to go because we’d be sharing with three other adults.

So last year’s chuckout was one of a series.  Everything I have now, I like; but I still think I have too many belongings, really.  More ought to go.

My online friend Julie Graff posted on Facebook a beautiful photo of woods in snow, the trees opening onto a wide track of untrodden white.   Across the photo was a banner with the words “The less I owned, the better I felt”.  I made it my computer desktop picture, because that expresses just how I feel.

I am made such that I am easily overwhelmed, and too many stimuli – whether events, people, ideas, suggestions, complexity of surroundings or belongings – makes my nervous system crash so that I become confused and unable to think.  Though I love the things I have – my woolly red dress, the dark brown blanket on my bed, the remaining music in my CD collection, my books – I am open to parting with whatever I can prise off my soul, because the idea of it sticks to me like pitch and clogs up the works of my mind.  The less I own, the better I feel; and I like the peace of a home with very little in it, and the freedom of being able to pack up and move on at any moment’s notice.  We are only sojourners.

Books on top
Underwear next down
Large handy space, tops and skirts.
Scarves, tunics, jackets, sock box and a few toiletries.
Winter fleeces, fleece gilets, nightwear and a couple of dresses.
Handy space (with some socks lying about in it), boots and stationery box

Then these little shelves by my bed have a few books and writing paper and whatnot.

In the Big House I have  some china and my outdoor cooking things, one or two paintings.   In the attic I have the Quarantine Box that Maria suggested - the items waiting to go or still awaiting a final decision.  That's all.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Hot water and School. And Barack Obama


I was going to tell you about something really really interesting and now I forgot completely what.


Anyway, apart from that thing I forgot, I wanted to share a bright idea for saving water and keeping warm.

Last summer I wrote some thoughts about saving water, and after a few months went by I was encouraged by a friend on Facebook posting to say she had been putting some of these into practice, and her family had a big rebate on their water payments – about $150!

I am less keen on washing in cold water during the winter, especially first thing in the morning when I’m still all warm from my nice cosy bed.  But with all the winter rain and snow, we don’t need the water saving up for the garden.  Plus, running the hot tap while the water gets warm takes longer in winter, because the house and all the pipes are cold after the long night – just in passing, non-UK friends; you do realise that here in England we are on the same latitude as parts of Scandinavia?  That it gets dark by 4pm in winter here, and the sun doesn’t rise until 8am – we have   l o n g   cold nights in winter. 

So – dilemma!  I don’t want to wash in cold water.  I don’t want to waste water.  I have no use for the water running off while the hot comes through.  What to do?

Aha!  Idea!

In the evening, I can make a hot drink and fill my very well insulated hot water bottle, and save money on heating by reading books or using my laptop to go online or watch TV, sitting in bed.    Then in the morning, I can take my still-warm hot water bottle, and tip the water into the wash basin for my morning wash.  With a bit of forethought I can even use the same water to flush the loo (I am back to water-closeting for the winter too).

The water smells faintly rubbery when it’s first tipped into the basin, but the fragrance of my lovely organic handmade soap soon overcomes.

I am very pleased with this new plan.

On a completely different topic, I don’t understand why schools have to be so all-or-nothing about attendance.  Colleges and universities allow people to sign up for specific courses – why can’t schools?

Where I live, the tiny children usually start on a half-day, and are fine with that.  Then it all goes mad and they have to go all day and every day until they’re eighteen, not just attending all day long but filling up evenings and weekends with homework.  And usually they are sent home for the holidays with a pile of assignments to complete for the start of the new term.   

I think it would be great if school participation could be a pick’n’mix system.  Children could sign up to the classes they were interested in with the teachers they liked.  Priority might be given to the full-time students, but home-schoolers or part-time students could come along as much or as little as they wished.   I think many children might enjoy going to school just in the mornings and with no homework. I just can’t see what would be wrong with that.

This morning over breakfast, we were talking about falling asleep.  Since I’ve been studying Eckhart Tolle’s teaching, I’ve become much more aware of my internal thoughtscape, and my lucid dreaming has very much increased.  Last night I was snoring in my sleep, and I registered that inside my head, my consciousness shrunk back from the external world, snoring sounds different from when awake.  I knew I was asleep, knew I was aware of the snoring, but also knew I was withdrawn to some extent from the regular perceptions of my waking self.  How cool is that^

So at breakfast time we were chatting about this, and Hebe started talking about falling asleep – about it being like a computer shutting down.  She demonstrated what it feels like, like this:

Then we got onto talking about work deadlines, and working late while simultaneously falling asleep, experiencing that repeated shutting down.  Hebe said she usually just goes to bed and gets up earlier – then she remembered sometimes starting school essays at ten o’clock at night – necessitated by having just so much homework to do.

And it seems to me that this is a real failing of school education – there is a great deal of input and output, but almost no time at all for the reflection, the digestion of ideas, which results in really good quality work.  In my work as an adult, as a writer, I should say the bulk of it is done while I am to all appearances doing absolutely nothing – drifting, being, wondering, imagining, roaming the internet looking at pictures and films and reading articles, reading books, sitting by the fire or by te sea, walking in the woods, just thinking. 

Hebe pointed out that in school the main idea is that you regurgitate the data the teacher has just passed on.  Sure.  But what’s the point of that?  This is what we have reference books for!

All creative thought, ingenious imaginative original thought, needs time without pressure to wonder and reflect.

Changing the subject again - I loved Barack Obama's second term inauguration speech.  I've only read the transcript - it's here - but I'm going to look for a video of it to watch and listen to.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013


When Jesus taught the people, I wonder how he sat?

There’s a famous painting by Rembrandt of King David and the prophet Nathan.  It captures the moment in which the prophet says to the king, “Thou art the man.”

An interesting exercise if you ever have to think up church group work, is to read the story (it’s in 2 Samuel 11 and 12) about this together, and then ask the people in the group how they would direct the interaction between David and Nathan if it were to be portrayed on stage.

“Thou art the man!”

Some would have the prophet entering the throne room, with some trepidation.  Others seem him with pointing finger and arm outstretched, denouncing David in a dramatic gesture.  Almost always people envisage distance between the two figures.  That’s what makes Rembrandt’s painting so extraordinary.  The artist sees them sitting on the same level, close together, as equals and as friends, talking quietly.

How does God come to us?

If I come across a teacher of truth whose work I admire, I like (if I have the opportunity) to watch them, watch how they go about an ordinary day, how they conduct themselves when nothing special is happening; how they behave towards people who are unimportant, who don’t matter.    

One of the things I look for is how the teacher of truth sits in relation to those around him.

If s/he is elevated on a dais, distanced from the people who have come to hear and see, it is a disappointment.  This almost always happens, if only for practical reasons – so that the audience can hear and see.  It is meant for accessibility, but it also smuggles in separation.  The unimportant ones sit close together.  The one who matters sits up there.  When I have been a preacher, it was no different - up high in the pulpit, or standing up in front of the people.  One accepts it, as though it had to be this way.

The snapshots of Jesus in the Bible are about where God sits.

Sleeping in the food trough for oats below the hayrack.

In the dust, resting his back against a well, hoping someone will come along with a cup so he can beg a drink.

Tired – exhausted – crashed out in the stern of a boat, asleep on a cushion.

On the grass.

On the lake shore.

On the hillside.

In the living room of a friend.

We do see him elevated, once, with a special placard saying “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”.

It's what “Emmanuel” means.  No separation.  One of us.  Unassuming.  Humble.  Beside us.

We are all in this together.

Saturday, 5 January 2013


Descartes famously said ‘I think therefore I am’, but Tolle and others rightly point out there’s more to it than that – there’s also an inner observer of the thoughts and thought processes, over and above the thought processes themselves, and operating in the gaps between thoughts as well.

Tolle speaks about the mind – what I have heard described by Indian thinkers as the ‘monkey mind’; the incessant inner chatterer.

He speaks also of the pain body – the reactiveness in us caused by the accumulation not only of our own personal suffering, but the suffering of any group with which we identify.

And he speaks of the ego or false self – what St Paul calls the flesh: the vain, anxious, competitive, grasping, conflicted inner Gollum creature.

Behind/below/beyond all these, Tolle identifies the real self, the observer, which paradoxically is in a sense not myself but God – the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Lest this seems arrogant, it’s helpful to recollect that this is precisely what the Bible teaches – in the Old Testament, God forming Adam from the dust of the ground, then breathing into him so that he became a nephesh –a living soul.  Thus human being is formed of a fusion of the substance of the earth (hence the name Adam, a play on the Hebrew word for earth) and Holy Spirit (for spirit, wind and breath are all the same word in Hebrew, so the breath of God in Adam = the Spirit of God in Adam).  And in the New Testament, when Jesus says (of a denarius) ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’, he is saying that the denarius belongs to Caesar because it bears his image and must return to him, but that a human being belongs to God for the same reasons.  So the real self is the touching-point with the formless, the eternal, the infinite, the Spirit.

Tolle teaches (in my reading and listening so far) of these four elements that can be discovered within, simply by paying attention to our internal dynamics:
The mind
The ego (false self)
The pain body
The real self / observer / the ‘I’ who sees – what the Quakers identify as the ‘divine spark’ within each of us.

I concur with this.  I look inside, and find these elements within me.  But then this evening, I found a fifth.   The mind, the pain, body, the ego and the real self, yes.   But in struggling to apply some of the beautiful teaching that builds kindness, honesty and compassion, the ‘I’ that is not the pain-body, the ego or the mind – the core reality of me, turned to something else with which it is in contact, something contacted from within me but even so existing beyond me, and said: ‘I’m going to need your help with this.’

The ‘I’ turned beyond itself to a ‘you’ and requested help.  I think we call that prayer.

I guess someone reading this could be forgiven for saying ‘Duh – yeah – what were you thinking?  Have you not heard of God?  Remember Jesus?’

Well, the point is, I believe in God, and I believe in Jesus.  In fact I’d go further than that – I believe that I know God, that I know (have personally met) Jesus.  So I know that I know Him, and I know that I believe in Him.  And I know that His Spirit lives and breathes in me.

But what intrigued me was that in getting to grips with Tolle’s lucid and well-observed breakdown of inner mental structure,  I had expected to find out more about what one might loosely call the ‘I’ – find out more about how a human being works; but I had for some reason not particularly expected to stumble across this vivid evidence of relationship, the natural, instinctive turning of the ‘I’ to a dear familiar ‘you’, like a child turns with confidence for a parent’s help, like a man turns to a trusted friend.  And this was not so much the observer, the I’, observing a lesser aspect of the self reaching out - it felt more as though the ‘I’ itself turned to a ‘you’ existing, chiaroscuro-fashion, beyond the frame.

As Martin Buber put it: ‘I and Thou’ – the irreducible minimum of relationship. 

Even though ‘I’ is Spirit-breathed, the image of God, the property of God, the emanation of God, there is also ‘Thou’ – the God to whom I turn.

Friday, 4 January 2013

"Jesus, remember me"; what that might mean.

Sometimes I go back and read the books I have written, because they remind me of the principles I try to live by.

Recently, perhaps triggered by our recent conversations here about forgiveness and healing, I have been thinking about what makes a person whole/well/holy (words sharing the same root).  I went back and re-read a section from my novel Remember Me, which tries to put into words my perspective on this, showing the connection between the healing of the soul and the building of the Kingdom.

Here's the passage I mean, and then, to follow it, a song to help hold the thought in mind:

"While William faced his personal demons in the solitude of his cell, Abbot John dined alone in his house, feeling the need for the solitude to frame his homily for the following morning, and glad to turn his thoughts to something other than accounts.  He allowed the complexities of pressing concerns to recede from his mind, turning his attention to the preparation of his thoughts for his duties tomorrow.  He had been thinking about the Eucharist all that summer, and still bringing its myriad aspects and insights before the faithful at Chapter Mass now in October.  His novice master’s request that he address the community on that subject had set him off along that train of thought, and he was still turning it over and over.  The longer he gazed on the rich and intricate tissue of grace and redemption he saw there, the deeper and more beautiful it seemed to become in his eyes.  He found himself falling in love with Christ in the Eucharist in a new and more profound way than he had experienced before, and this he hadn’t expected.  He had accepted the obedience of the abbacy as God’s call on his life, but out of a sense of duty rather than any kind of enthusiasm.  He found it humbling and daunting and hard.  As his personal agonies of grief gradually settled and healed over, he had focused on learning the shape and rhythm of his work – and fielding the earth tremors that William sent his way, of which this last was surely the worst.  So it took him by surprise to discover that in the midst of all of it he still heard the song of God’s love, still experienced the wonder of the story of salvation as it unfolded in the everyday life of his community.
He found himself tracing the skein of resonance running from the telling of the Last Supper to connect with other moments and events in the New Testament.  Alongside giving his mind to untangling St Alcuins’ financial dilemmas, as he slowly chewed the raised pie and bean salad of his supper, he allowed his soul to expand into the glory of God’s loving-kindness, the grace that reaches down and touches every living soul.
“I don’t flatter myself for a moment that you stow away in your hearts every homily I offer you,” he said to them at Mass the next morning, by which time the thoughts that had been developing had distilled into definite form: ‘but maybe you recall me speaking to you a while back about the Eucharist, and how Christ’s command ‘Remember Me’ is obeyed in the living fabric of our lives in community.
“His words have stayed with me, ‘Remember Me… Remember Me…’ and then I came across them again in my own devotional reading in the gospels, ‘Remember Me’, in a connection I had never made before.
“Jesus ripped the bread apart and poured out the blood-red wine in that last supper with his friends, and the grisly death he foretold caught up with him swiftly enough.  Mocked and tortured, nailed by his hands and feet to the cross, he was raised up and left to sweat out his agony in the blistering heat of the sun.  Crowned with thorns, blood trickling down into his eyes, a notice tacked above his head, Jesus Christ King of the Jews, Pilate’s strange acknowledgement of what had happened.  Either side of him, two thieves endured the same execution, in punishment for what they had done.  Punishment in their case deserved – in as much as anyone deserves punishment more than understanding, or human being can do anything that deserves being nailed to a cross.
“And the gospel story relates that one of the thieves mocked and jeered at Jesus.  Personally, I’m staggered he found the strength or motivation – I think under those conditions my thoughts would have been occupied with myself.  Anyway, apparently that’s what he did: but the other thief took issue with him, and defended Jesus against the unjust raillery.  ‘The Good Thief’, we’ve come to call that second man.  We don’t know what he’d appropriated that wasn’t his to handle, whether it was only trifling things or amounted to a great deal; we only know he’d taken something he shouldn’t have and now he was paying the price.  The Good Thief.  It’s very pleasing to me that we hold those two words together – there’s always more to a man than the things he’s done wrong.  I like it, ‘The Good Thief,’
“It’s what The Good Thief said that I’ve been turning over and over in my mind: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
“The same words, d’you see?  ‘Remember me.’
“The cross as an instrument of torture pulls you apart.  You hang on your arms.  They dislocate unless you shift your weight to your nailed feet.  The soul of a young man is not ready to leave his body.  It takes something severe to tear the living soul out of a strong young man – they do not die easily.  This really was a dis-membering; the man was being torn apart – his soul ripped out of his body, his body dragged apart as his strength ebbed away.  And he asked Jesus, ‘Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’
“Jesus promised him, of course, that he would that very day be with him in Paradise.  He did what the man’s community seems to have been incapable of doing – he forgave him.  He healed him of his sin and its consequences, laid it to rest, finished with it, stopped its power right where it was, so that it could not follow him and make a hell of his eternity.
“So the story holds out to us a hope that even if this life tears a man apart, dismembers him, the power and grace of Christ will remember him, make him whole, heal him entirely, the other side of the grave.  That’s a wonderful hope.  It feeds our brothers in the infirmary here as they gradually relinquish their strength and ability to the decline of illness or old age.  As they feel their vitality ebbing away, they lay hold on the good hope they have in Christ, knowing that once the labour of dying, like the labour of being born, is over, they will have all things in the One who has gone ahead of them, redeemed them, won them by the steadiness and the sacrifice of his love.
“But, as I pondered this and turned it over and over in my thoughts, looking at it, looking into it, I found myself thinking Wait on! There’s something more here for us in this story; this is not just about the final healing of death.  It’s about another kind of healing that finds us right here.
“The Good Thief said, ’Remember me when you come into your kingdom’.  That says to me that wherever and whenever Christ comes into his kingdom, we can confidently expect people will be healed.  They will be re-membered.  What they have lost will be restored – innocence maybe, or humility, or generosity, or faith, or hope: men lose those things along the way.  They don’t mean to, but life hurts them, events are too much for them, and before they know it sourness and cynicism, aridity and unbelief have grown over the eyes of the soul like the cataracts that cloud the eyes of an old man.  And the things that came apart, that they looked down in horror and saw dismembered, will be made whole again – a sense of vocation, maybe, or their good intentions, or wholesome discipline and faithful practice of their calling.  Those things unravel easily enough, and we discover, dismayed, that we cannot put them together, have nothing in us that can glue what is all unstuck and good for nothing any more.  They need making whole again.  They need re-membering.  And where Jesus comes into his kingdom, that can begin.
“So – where does Jesus come into his kingdom, then?  When I asked myself that, I saw that we don’t have to wait until we die.  We don’t have to watch the atrophy and withering of what we might have been, as the harder realities of life obtain their hold on us and knock out of us the hope and innocence we once had.  We can start now.
“Jesus comes into his kingdom wherever and whenever a human heart says he can – it’s as simple as that.  We can’t finish the kingdom in what we choose and build and practice here – but we can surely begin it.
“Wherever we choose to be honest with each other, and allow our vulnerability to be seen: wherever we choose to be gentle when we could have been exacting; wherever we choose to forgive when we could have borne a grudge – the kingdom of Jesus grows, his reign extends, hope and life are raised up in us and the grip of all that sours and diminishes us is weakened.
“It is as we are faithful, as we are gentle, as we are humble and kind, that we remember the human, and open the way for the kingdom of Jesus.  So I – or you, can be the Good Thief in our fragile and faltering humanity, begging him: ‘I am lost, I am broken, I am done for.  Please put me back together again.  Please heal me. Forgive me.  Please remember me’; and in so doing we also open the way for the kingdom to begin.”
As always, when he had finished speaking John folded his hands into his sleeves, closed his eyes and allowed his brothers to sit for a while with what he had said to them.  He found this a difficult discipline, as though he attached weight to his words when he thought really they were not worth much of anyone’s attention.  But Father Theodore had said he must do this, must give the brethren space to stay with the teaching he had brought them – and he remembered that this had been Father Peregrine’s practice always – so he did it too."

From the novel Remember Me by Pen Wilcock - please only quote sections longer than 100 words with permission.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


My attention stops on something the preacher says.

Turns its head.

Asks: “What did you say?”

The rest is forgotten.

Last Sunday, there came a moment in a prayer when the preacher said “it doesn’t matter if our faith weak or if it’s strong” – and my attention, moving right along there with the prayer, suddenly found its coat-sleeve caught on the doorknob of that phrase, jerked right back – “What did you say?”

I stayed transfixed on the thought: weak faith versus strong faith – what does that mean?  Is it a viable distinction?  Can faith be quantified?

Romans 14:1 “Him that is weak in the faith, receive ye . . .”  But this refers not to whether the believer’s personal faith in Jesus burns bright or dim, is muscular or limp – it is about scrupulosity inhibiting freedom; about being weak in the faith, ie not yet established in the cultural/doctrinal norms of the new religion.

Strong faith or weak?  Quantifiable?

Matthew 17:19-20.  Equally puzzling.
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’
He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’

What’s odd here is that Jesus seems to contradict himself.  First he identifies the problem as the diminutive size/amount of the disciples’ faith.  Next he says, even if you have faith the size of a mustard seed (which in Mark 4:31 he calls ‘the smallest of all seeds on earth’) it’ll serve to move mountains.

What does Luke say?

(Luke 17:5-6)
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’
He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.

Hmm.  In this, it’s the disciples who regard faith as a size issue – Jesus says it’s about what you have (faith) not how much you have of it.

Yet in a number of places, Jesus comments on the great (or little) faith of those who turned to him – a quick and easy way to see this is to do a keyword search for ‘faith’ through the books of the New Testament on Bible Gateway – here.

In my explorations of Eckhart Tolle, my attention was caught by something he said about awakening – becoming enlightened.  Rather wistfully his interviewer asked, having heard Eckhart's own story of being suddenly and permanently catapulted from chronic anxious depression into a permanent awakened state, what the rest of us could do to find our way into such a state of mind.

Tolle replied (my paraphrase) that if you have begun to long and to look and to search, you are already waking up – the process has begun.  If you were not already awakening, the whole proposition would seem either laughable or completely opaque – nonsense.

Perhaps this is the ‘little faith’ – the grain of mustard that is not yet a plant; still waiting to be planted and nurtured and germinated into what it has the potential to be – but nonetheless, all mustard.

And then maybe the great faith is the daily practise of the wise and kind – those who have learned how to forgive, how to transcend what Paul calls ‘the flesh’  the meaner, baser aspect, the egoic false self, the ‘life’ of self-interest that Jesus says we must lose (here and here)to enter the abundant life streaming from God that he offers us.

I have no idea whether my faith is great or small.  I have no measure to hold against it, and I cannot see if it fluctuates or not – I think it does.   But I do know that mustard has an unmistakeable flavour.   I will follow the flavour and hope the amount will grow by itself.

By the way, there is no point in the photos I post here – they don’t mean anything.  It’s just that I personally like pictures and am always disappointed if there aren’t any.  I am wary of using the intellectual property of others, and it is just me, here in this small room.  That’s why you get all these photos of . . . er . . . me, here in this small room.