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Tuesday 30 June 2009

Bread & Fishes

It's summer at last in England, and to capture it perfectly, here is one of the most beautiful versions of a very beautiful song with a brilliant and simple message:

Sunday 28 June 2009

The Importance of Language

Isn't it interesting how the founders of every major religion in the world today came from the East? Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, the great Gurus of Hinduism and Sikhism, the Patriarchs of Judaism were not of a Western culture at all. They all spoke in languages which are not easily translated to the Western mind. They had (and still have) a language which is quite distinct from dividing everything into boxes, carefully labelled and everything in its scientific place. There are words in Sanskrit and Hebrew which simply cannot be translated to an equivalent European word (in much the same way as the French 'ennui' cannot be accurately translated into English, though the sense of it is understood; or the Italian 'disponibile' doesn't ring quite so true in the English translation) but can only be understood.

It seems that many centuries ago the Western world developed along such patriarchal/thinking in boxes lines that we curtailed our language to fit that pattern. We all went along with it and let it become our natural way of thinking. In the West, things are black or white, good or bad, one way or another. It's limiting and stifling as is our language. We have alphabetically ordered dictionaries that explain everything, every word we speak - and they are useful but there are so many things for which we don't have sufficient language. In the East, the language goes deeper, is more powerful and has a more profound resonance. We waste our words. We write dross about any old rubbish and call it poetry. The Eastern mystics chant the same word repeatedly and find the meaning and power in it and that is real poetry: the power of sound finding its way to expression of things which cannot be simply labelled and classified.

Language is surely so much more than the basic communication of needs and wants, or the throw-away words of social chit-chat. Language is something incredibly powerful and sacred. What we speak is what comes from within us. How many of us would be ashamed to pass water, to burp, vomit or break wind in public, yet we pay so little attention to what comes from our mouths, to the words we form and to what we express? All the time you hear people expressing all kinds of negative notions, paying so little regard to the words they are using. Drift through a typical shopping centre and hear the many conversations and hear how many people are speaking negatively of their health, their circumstances (and if you're in England, they're bound to include the weather, whether it's sunny or raining!!) and life in general. So much of it is taken up by social niceties or people just speaking for the sake of having to have something to say. Why waste words? ("By your words you will be acquitted and by words you will be condemned," said Jesus). People lie about global warming and other people respond by being very careful about their so-called (nonsensical!) 'carbon footprint' but how few people in the West take care about what we actually express in our everyday conversations?

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Glib Lines Without Meaning

I wonder why it is that multi-faceted people find it so easy to write off other people of the past in glib one-dimensional lines. Imagine if someone were to describe you in one short phrase - your whole life experience with all its ebbs and flows narrowed down to that - and worse, if that short phrase were so often repeated that it became generally accepted as 'truth'.

How many times have I read such phrases regarding the last Imperial Family of Russia? "Nicholas was a weak Tsar." "Alexandra was psychologically unsound." Serge was gay." "Ella was cold." These things are written on blogs and websites all over the place and they are as far from the whole truth as the popular (and untrue) myth that Queen Victoria was puritanical and seldom amused.

Happily, there are also many people who are not so trite in their descriptions and understanding. Most of the people whom I know who have any depths of understanding of that family, eventually come to a point of giving up trying to refute these easy statements so the glib lies continue uncontested. It would be possible to write at length of all the reasons why these statements are inaccurate but there is little point in doing that among people who prefer to make everything black and white and are constantly seeking someone to blame for all the errors of the past.

There are many examples to illustrate that Nicholas was not weak. There are many examples of Alexandra's strength of mind and character, and happily other people write of these with such knowledge and insight. Very few people have even heard of Serge and Ella, and it is so unjust to see how often they are passed off with those lines: "Serge was gay. Ella was cold." Personally, though I don't give two hoots about whether he was or he wasn't, I don't believe that Serge was gay. Nowadays, a person's sexual orientation is happily a matter for that person and not anyone else's business. In late 19th century Russia (as elsewhere) it was a criminal offence and to accuse someone of being homosexual was a means of shaming them. So many accusations were levelled against Serge because of his political stance. It was difficult to contradict his views politically and so much easier to make such an accusation about his sexuality simply to demean him! That aside, it must be remembered that his servants were utterly devoted to him. Not many people inspire such devotion in their staff. The diaries of Css. Tolstoy - no great fan of the Grand Duke - include references to his kindness when she asked for help for her son to gain a commission in a particular regiment. She also writes of how, trying to make a request to him in St. Petersburg, she couldn't reach him because he had made the very long journey to Moscow simply to attend the wedding of one of his servants, to which he had been invited. But Serge, according to the myth was 'gay, a sadist and a control-freak' - Funny that, since all the gay men that I know are far from being control-freaks or sadists. So, please would those who make up or repeat these stories decide which stance they are taking before making such glib accusations?

Then, 'Ella was cold'. What is cold? Numbed and shocked to the core by witnessing the horrific death of her husband? Crikey!! Wouldn't you be cold with shock and horror if you saw someone you loved in such a mutilated state? Obviously, the glib accusation of 'cold' cannot apply simply to that moment. So she was generally cold? Hmm....Ella, who, on being parted from her sisters 'cried like a child'...Ella, who wrote to Nicholas in such extremely effusive tones: "Darling boy, dearest, darling Nicholas, may I call you so?" Ella, who 'sobbed' after her final meeting with Alix. Ella, whose letters are filled with effusions: her descriptions of her feelings in the Holy Land or at Sarov; her 'boundless' love, her 'longing'...are these the words of a cold person?

If people dislike people of the past, that's fair enough. If people have issues or disagreements with people of the past, that's fair enough too. But to narrow a person down to an often repeated statement is just so shallow! Nicholas was weak, Alix was psychologically disturbed, Serge was gay, Ella was cold...take it back further, Richard III (so loved by the people of Yorkshire!) was just the wicked uncle who killed his nephews (yeah right!! where was Henry Tudor in this?)...King John was evil; Richard the Lionheart is a hero (though he virtually bankrupted England and spent hardly any time here)....Please, if we write of people, let's at least get the wider picture....

Sunday 14 June 2009

Trooping the Colour

Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Marie of Roumania, wrote of her grandmother's almost childish excitement about the theatre troupes or circuses that came to Windsor, and how it was lovely to see that thrill and hear her laughter. When the present Queen smiled yesterday at the red, white and blue flowing from the Red Arrows, there was something of the same effect.

The military aspect apart, the perfection of the Trooping of the Colour inspires such a sense of history and respect for the values of Her Majesty. We have gone through a lot of wishy-washy stages in this country in an attempt to remain up to date and it is good that we have discarded ancient prejudices or the ideas of Empire, but, at the same time when we seem to have 'thrown out the baby with the bath water', it is truly wonderful to see the pride that the young men, who marched with such perfectly choreographed steps, feel in marching before the Queen and all she represents. After all the scandals and shame of our Parliament, and the constant and continuing bickering between different political parties, to watchthe Trooping of the Colour, with all the history it evokes and the seemingly timeless way the tradition continues year after year, was like hearing what Robert Louis Stevenson so brilliantly described as a quiet mind marching at its own private pace like 'a clock in a thunderstorm'.
In the crowd a few politician snuffled to and fro, but the real reflection of this nation came in the persons of the Queen and Prince Philip - who at 88 years old stood tall in his busbym, saluting at the National Anthem - Princes William and Harry, who saluted and behaved impeccably, and the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal and the Duke of Kent, riding behind the Queen's carriage, and still more in the young men who upheld the tradition of centuries.

It is truly tragic that all these ceremonials are based on old military ideas. We all long for a time when there is no call for soldiers or any sense of the need to kill other people. But I pray, with all my heart, that when humanity no longer requires people to be at war, this brilliant pageantry, and the respect behind it, will continue. The respect for the Queen isn't about militarism or empires or anything of the sort. It's about the real values of altruism and individual freedom and all the noble ideas for which our monarchy stands.

Friday 12 June 2009

Beautiful Animals

From a lecture 'way back when', I think it was Piaget who drew attention to the endearing ego-centricity of small children (along the lines of asking a little a girl if she had a brother. She said, "Yes." He asked, "Does your brother have a sister?" She said, "No." She wasn't part of someone else's life - her brother was part of hers. She was the centre of her own universe). It's very lovely in a child, and it often seems that humanity goes through the same stages.

A few hundred years ago, ego-centric 'earthlings' believed we were the centre of the universe and the sun revolved around us. So terrifying was the realization that we were not, that those who spoke the Truth lived in fear of their lives (and eternal salvation!). But, happily, we moved on and grew up a bit.

The other day, I had a conversation about vegetarianism with someone who said, "But what other purpose do animals serve? God put them here to feed us." Having just returned from stroking the lovely goat (in the photo), that seemed to me a startling thing to say! What purpose do animals serve? The same purpose as humanity, surely! Sentient beings who care for their young, who feel pain, who feel trust, who often care for their elderly far more than humans do, and who deeply enhance our lives by the beauty of their presence...Do animals cause wars? Have corrupt Parliaments? Follow fashion? Listen to hype? No, of course they don't! They go beautifully about the business of being who they are. A gentle cow in a field, only becomes aggressive when protecting her young. A pig is content to be a beautiful pig. As expressions of the Divine, they appear far closer to the 'Plan' than humanity does. Yes, they squabble among themselves and there is the predator and the prey - there are so many gory battles going on every moment between the spider and the fly, the ant and the anteater, the lion and the wildebeest, but it's interesting how, in our great, wise, superior humanity, people choose for the most part to eat the most docile creatures - cows, sheep, lambs, pigs, fish, even little rabbits. Nowadays, there are so many alternatives that are far more beneficial health-wise, and far less cruel to sentient beings who seem to understand the earth and Nature far better than we do. Perhaps the reason that humanity is so often at odds with itself - wars, anger, corruption, cruelty, power-grabbing - has a lot to do with the turning of human bodies into an animal necropolis.

Kahlil Gibran wrote a beautiful line: "Make me, oh God, the prey of the lion, ere you make the rabbit my prey." How lovely!

Saturday 6 June 2009

Dear Alix

Alix of Hesse-and-by-Rhine is probably one of the most famous women in history and also probably one of the least known or understood. Just about everyone has heard of the tragedy of the Romanovs, and anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s knows the Boney-M song, "Ra...Ra...Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen...."

Rasputin appeared as a grotesque picture (taken from the cartoons of the day) as a photo-plate in the history books we studied for 'O-level' alongside the photos of the tragically murdered family and the brief line about the so-called 'weak' Tsar, some stuff about who won which battle, and 'a sickly son'. Then came the films about the survival of one of the Tsar's daughters, Anastasia - from Ingrid Bergman to Disney, and various TV productions in between. It's all so haunting and all so little understood, and I do not claim for one second to understand the reality of how it was to have been Alix of Hesse-and-by-Rhine - Tsaritsa, Empress of all the Russias, mother of a nation and of a haemophiliac son, wife of the the most powerful and yet the most genuine ruler of Europe - but when you find yourself immersed in this family, it becomes so clear that nothing is anything like the way it is presented in history books!

These are just my views and I am totally open to receiving criticism and disagreement and lay no claim to understanding it all. Alix was a beautifully happy child, known as 'Sunny' for her brightness. She was well-educated, brilliantly intelligent, beautiful in appearance, and deeply spiritual. She also, like so many members of her family, seemed to have the trait - as seems to happen a lot with those who go deeply into their inner life - of a sense of darkness and fear. Her close friend and cousin, Marie Louise,mentions this and writes of her sense of foreboding, and it is clear that Alix took nothing at face value, was never superficial but was absolutely true to herself, to those she loved and to her sense of duty. What is much misunderstood, to my mind, is the idea that she somehow was desperate to cling to power. Alix would surely have been so much happier had she and Nicky (Tsar Nicholas II) been able to simply steal away and follow their own Lights. Everything...absolutely everything she did as Tsarina, was done from a sense of duty and the belief that, having accepted that role, she must live by it. It's simply beyond the comprehension of most people (myself included!), how difficult it must have been to have had to appear in public as some kind of leading light in the social superficiality, while knowing the son, whom you love so deeply, is suffering an agonising and life-threatening episode of his illness. It is difficult enough for the average spiritual seeker to spend time in a small social world, and that must be magnified hundreds of times in Alix' situation.

There have been countless armchair psychologists dissecting this woman and I don't want to add to that. She has been vilified and adored. She has been maligned and sanctified. It would be lovely simply to respect her and allow her the privacy that she so sought. No more digging up bones. No more nasty arguments about who was right and who was wrong. Simply, on the birthday of this beautiful, loyal Empress who deeply loved her husband, her children, her adopted country and who lived through such tumultuous times...Happy Birthday, dear Alix!

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Saints and Suffering - an oxymoron!

As a child, I loved reading the lives of the saints. They intrigued, inspired and utterly fascinated and absorbed me but something always bothered me: so many of them suffered from horrendous and grotesque illnesses. Those who weren't mauled by lions for the entertainment of the Roman mob, or hanged,drawn and quartered, or cannibalized or crucified upside down, or flayed alive or beheaded, often developed mysterious growths, tuberculosis and consumption and a large percentage of them died at a young age. Of course, the books and the images - young men pierced by arrows or saintly virgins holding their eyes (or even their breasts!) on a platter to show the means of martyrdom! - were quick to point out, that these saintly people were so holy because they participated in the suffering of Christ.

It's a heady concoction for a child. To go several times a week into a church and see the crucified Jesus with nails protruding from his hands, his body writhing in agony, and then to be told, "This is because you are a sinner and God loves you so much!" To hear that 'He gives His crown of thorns to his friends" creates the weirdest notions of Love and of who or what God is. This loving Father, whom we were to worship, somehow can only be appeased by suffering? This God who is omnipotent, somehow requires His children to endure all kinds of agony in order to be cleansed? When my mother wanted me to be cleansed, she put me in a bath and quoted poetry to me, then hugged me dry in a towel. But the Supreme Parent saw His (there was never any Her in it) children as needing cleansing by feeling such guilt that they could only assuage it by tremendous physical suffering.

Good grief! What an utterly nasty and unnecessary concoction that was! Look what it did: the child abuse scandals coming from various parts of the world, instigated by those in positions of religious authority! The burning and murder of many men and women as witches. The burning of heretics. The massacre of Jewish people not only by Hitler's holocaust, but by other so-called Christian nations - even here in the north of England (with a timely excuse for a scapegoat that 'the Jews killed Christ' while quite forgetting that Jesus was Jewish! The centuries of religious feuding and wars. And not one single word of it comes from the mouth of any of the truly spiritual founders of any of the most prominent religions. Had suffering been something required, would Jesus, for example, have cured so many people? Of course not, he would have patted them on the head and said, "Your suffering is good and holy!"

To this day, all the time, I hear 'religious' people saying, "Those who suffer are close to God.." and so many well-meaning people resign themselves to the will of a tyrannical God and think that is good, while others pander to the illness and think it is a sign of sanctity. Well, I utterly refute it! God is synonymous with Life. Does Life ever think it needs to destroy itself? It wouldn't make sense. The saints who suffered and died young, did so because they believed it was holy to do that. They brought their own illnesses on themselves by the belief that it was what God wanted. To my mind Life is Life. Life is the freedom to express our gifts fully, without any need to appease a stroppy Deity. That Life, the Life that lives through us, that expresses so purely and beautifully in Nature, in the love between people, in all that is healthy and pure and whole is what we call God. Surely, this whole notion of God was born of a series of minds that had so many issues of their own about guilt, and somehow they infiltrated the whole religious world and led people to suffer or inflict suffering on others through some totally bizarre notion that that is pleasing to this idol, who bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Buddha's vision or to Jesus' vision or Mohammed's vision, or to the vision of the great Sikh, Hindu or Judaic visionaries.

There is nothing holy or 'whole' in suffering. It is surely not the Divine view at all. Well...I watch the ducks on the lake at Temple Newsam and this is how it seems to me...