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Thursday 23 August 2012

Princess Alice Battenberg

A documentary – The Queen’s Mother-in-Law – shown on Channel 4 last night, told some of the story of the life of Princess Alice Battenberg, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and mother of Prince Philip. It was a respectful and balanced presentation, which included interviews with people who knew the princess, but at the end of it I had a strong sense that something very important was missing and also that there is something not right in the way in which certain details of the princess’ mental state are discussed and dissected. It was also a little odd that Alice was described as one of the royal family’s best kept secrets when it’s clear that there was never any attempt by the present Queen or Prince Philip to hide her away. She was very visible at the coronation and at their wedding so she was hardly ‘a secret’!

Princess Alice must have been an extremely intelligent woman to have been able – since she was born profoundly deaf – to lip-read in several languages and speak with no evidence of her disability. It is a well-known fact that she suffered for a while from a mental illness in an age when mental illness was seen as taboo, and consequently spent time confined in sanatoria. In one such place she was visited by Freud whose diagnosis and recommended treatment leaves me wondering: who was the mad person here? The woman who had endured enormous stress – nursing soldiers in horrific circumstances in the Balkan Wars, and had seen her husband sentenced to death (a sentence which wasn’t carried out) during the overthrow of the Greek monarchy - and might have been going through various delusions (described variously as religious mania and schizophrenia) or the man who prescribed such a ridiculously damaging treatment?

What was missing from the programme was any attempt to understand her spirituality and, more obviously, her connection to her godmother, Ella, Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Basically, Alice’s spirituality was more or less dismissed as her mental illness and, while it’s impossible to deny that some aspects of it manifested in ways which were not helpful to her or to anyone, her entire spiritual journey was put down to delusion. Her sudden conversion to Orthodoxy (as Ella converted); her desire to found a religious order (significantly named Sisters of Martha and Mary, after Ella’s convent in Moscow); and her appearance in a nun’s habit at the Coronation (in a pearl grey habit – the same colour as that of Ella’s order) were all mentioned but no reference to why Alice might be following such ideas. At the end of the programme one commentator said, “Alice has one final trick up her sleeve...” (or something to that effect). She requested that she should be buried on the Mount of Olives. This was stated as though it was merely a whim – no mention was made of the fact that she wished to be buried near her Aunt Ella, whose life she obviously tried to emulate.

Interestingly, too, there was an interview with a German lady who had been a child when Alice stayed at her parents’ boarding house. The princess, the German lady said, spent a long time just gazing at the sky and when asked what she saw there, she replied, “St. Barbara....” I couldn’t help wondering if she actually said ‘saint’ or was referring to Ella’s companion, Barbara, who died with her in the mineshaft in Siberia.

Yes, Princess Alice suffered for a while from a mental illness, but I think it is quite wrong to put down her entire spirituality to that episode in her life. Fortunately, the documentary also included information about her devotion in caring for the wounded soldiers, for orphans and for many people in need; and also her courage in hiding a Jewish family in her home in Greece during the Nazi occupation.

I think she was a deeply sensitive woman woman who overcame many obstacles and whose heart was most definitely beautiful.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Truly Inspirational

If you can possibly spare an hour, I can almost guarantee that this incredible message will be life-changingly beneficial! A massively inspirational man who speaks so brilliantly and leaves you with no excuses not to live your dream and be the best you can be. It's funny, moving...just wonderful really...

Friday 10 August 2012

Spirituality and History

It often struck me when I was at school that history, which I loved, was filled with whats and wheres and hows but so few answers to the question, ‘why’. I don’t mean the glib answer of,  'this nation invaded that nation because they wanted this piece of land', or even 'this king persecuted this religion because he wanted a divorce,' but rather why the people involved acted as they did. For a long time it seemed that to understand anything at all about history it was vital to understand motivation and psychology but now I think it is even more vital to realise that history comprises two stories: the actual physical events and actions and the spirituality behind those actions. By 'spirituality' I don’t mean a particular religion. This has nothing to do with separate denominations, beliefs,  wars of religion or anything of the sort. It is, to my mind, a hugely overlooked aspect – perhaps even the most vital aspect – of history and what it means to be alive in any age. By spirituality, I mean the very essence of a person; the essence and purpose and driving force that sustains life and the awareness that there is something so much more powerful and beautiful that sometimes shines through but is often concealed within the physicality of life. It is so vital and so powerful that it is amazing that the spiritual aspect of people of the past is so often misunderstood, dismissed or even ridiculed.

It has been very clear for a long time that something very dark occurred in the early years of the 20th century; to misquote Shakespeare, it was clear that ‘something is rotten in the state of Europe and beyond...’ Perhaps it began before that when the industrial revolution – which, of course, provided us with many benefits, too – led to a dehumanisation of large sections of the populations of many countries, but it exploded in its full horror in the two world wars. Prior to that, regardless of any particular religion, there was a greater awareness and appreciation of spirituality. Of course, as with anything, it had often been distorted by darker minds but many more people were aware of their connection to Nature and to something greater than the everyday physicality of life. Churches were central to village life, as were wise women who understood the uses of herbs and their healing properties, and the relevance of the seasons and their connection to the rhythms of life. These are symbols of our innate spirituality and the awareness that there is more to us than just our bodies or who we appear to be. Whether you call the greater aspect God or Allah or Higher Being or any other name, that knowledge is intrinsic in all life.
In the early 20th century Russia was (and, I believe still is) a deeply mystical country. Holy Fools, holy healers, Shamans and Staretz were a natural part of life and sat comfortably with the Orthodox Church in the same way as the wise women of England sat comfortably in their villages alongside the more orthodox religions (apart from the brief spell when James I became obsessed with witches!). These different aspects of spirituality were perfectly compatible. They were not ‘mad’ or ‘deranged’, nor were they superstitious in the general sense of the way in which that word is used; they were an essential aspect of life and one which has so often been demeaned to our detriment.
It would be amusing, if it were not so bizarre, that I have read on several sites that Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia ‘turned to religion’ to find comfort after her husband’s murder, or worse that she was completely unhinged by his death and that is why she devoted the rest of her life to her faith. Anyone with even the slightest understanding can read her letters and see that this was no sudden whim nor the act of an unhinged person. Could an unhinged person have created such a haven for the poor, established such a wonderful foundation to bring relief to the sick and orphans or worked out such amazing plans to provide work for young people as messengers etc, etc,?

But this is as nothing compared to how Empress Alexandra Feodorovna has been described and vilified! Throughout the war years, ‘Alix’ – a deeply intuitive and very spiritual person – seemed to have realised more clearly than anyone that something very dark was happening. It was difficult to know whom to trust when it was clear that something extremely sinister was occurring and there was a definite plot afoot to destroy the Tsar and his dynasty. For this reason, I believe, she became quite frantic in her awareness of what was happening but was unable to ‘put her finger on it’ exactly. Alix was absolutely right. There was a plot afoot to destroy Tsardom and to destroy the soul of Russia. I, with the advantage of hindsight, think she might have been mistaken as to who her enemies were but who at that time could possibly have suspected the magnitude of what was happening? The Bolsheviks, funded by international bankers, did not represent the Russian people. The revolution did not spring from the discontent of the masses. It was planned by some of the wealthiest people in the world, and promoted by bribes and lies and its purpose was to allow those international industrialists and bankers to get their hands on Russian resources and – even more sinisterly – to destroy the soul of Russia by closing the churches, ridiculing spirituality as superstition and twisting the spirituality into a worship of human idols such as Lenin and Stalin.
Within a couple of decades came the Second World War and it is well known that the Nazi leadership practised dark rituals which, again, distorted the beautiful natural spirituality of the Rhineland and the German people. There is so much more to all of this than first meets the eye and it is clear that a hugely important aspect of the past has been omitted from history books and will continue to be omitted as long as the importance of spirituality is overlooked by historians and the spirituality of people of the past is dismissed as superstition or treated as insignificant.
You simply cannot look at the world or at history without looking at the real force behind and within everything. Happily, I believe that ultimately evil is powerless and empty – it is simply the absence of good – and one day we will be able to view all the events in a very different and far more real light.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Fellow Creatures

Yesterday while driving along, I stopped to let a truck reverse and then saw a few sheep in a trailer attached to the truck. One beautiful, healthy creature was close to the edge of the trailer and we were so close that I saw its noble face and eyes and, to my horror, I realised the truck was reversing towards an abattoir. It seemed so abhorrent on such a sunny morning that the same people who are rejoicing in a rare summer’s day and the beauty of nature are condoning the slaughter of beautiful creatures like that! I wished I could buy the sheep or do anything to say, “We are better than this! We are not savages who need to kill innocent beings...” And I did nothing except ‘pray’ for the animals and apologise to them in my mind for what people do to them.
A few months ago I saw the newly born lambs at Temple Newsam. People – maybe the same people who now eat them – were cooing over their loveliness and bringing their children to see them. It’s amazing that something like one in every three people in England feeds the birds; wildlife programmes are really popular, and we are known as a nation of pet lovers. How can it be that a people who, in many ways, recognise the dignity, individuality and amazingness of animals, can then continue to eat them when there are so many kinder and healthier alternatives?
Animals are renowned for their intuition and it is therefore obvious that they know they are on their way to the slaughter-house. The natural physical response to that fear is the production of chemicals within the body and so, when someone eats a dead animal, they are eating those chemicals and eating the animal’s fear.
I was told as a child that animals do not feel as humans do; that they did not miss their babies when they were taken from them and that they don’t feel fear or have souls. Have you ever seen footage of mother animals crying for their babies or risking their own lives to protect them? Have you ever seen an animal in pain? Have you ever watched a nature programme to see how wonderfully so many species work together? Have you ever looked into the eyes of a bull or a cow or a sheep and felt the presence of something far wiser than you are? Or befriended a creature and seen their loyalty and willingness to communicate? Have you ever seen a truck driving to an abattoir and felt ashamed of being human?
When we seen films about the Romans and the entertainment in the coliseum, or read of some of the tortures and punishments of the past, it is difficult to believe that people – good people! – accepted these things as normal. I believe that at some future time – perhaps a century from now, though I pray it will be sooner – people will look back at these practices in horrified amazement, in the same way as we look back on some of the barbaric practices of the past, and say, “Did my ancestors really do that? How could they? Oh, the grossness of eating the flesh of another creature!”

You don’t die if you don’t eat dead animals. You don’t become weaker. You don’t become less healthy. You don’t lack protein or calcium. You just can walk among our fellow creatures and feel the awe of being a part of the wonder of creation...and you feel a lot healthier for it!    

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Happy Yorkshire Day!

August 1st is Yorkshire Day and so what better day to sing the praises of this beautiful county! Contrary to an opinion I recently heard, the people of the north of England do not all go down t’pit, wear flat caps and keep whippets or ferrets, but we do have a fascinating history, a plethora of wonderful historic sites, beautiful landscapes and interesting coastlines and can boast many wonderful artists, musicians and writers! Of course, York itself is an amazing place for anyone interested in history since, apart from the original Roman walls, the Medieval Shambles and the presentation of the Mystery Plays, it is reputed to be the most haunted city in Europe.

If you enjoy stately homes, we have dozens...perhaps one of the most impressive being Castle Howard, where Brideshead Revisted was filmed; and the county is littered with the abbeys which Henry VIII destroyed, one of the most beautiful and evocative being the fabulous Fountains Abbey or the somewhat spooky Whitby Abbey of which the remarkable St. Hilda was once abbess. It was also, of course, in Whitby that Bram Stoker wrote ‘Dracula’. Whitby, once famous for jet, is a unique seaside resort, quite different from Scarborough and Filey...the entire Yorkshire East Coast is filled with many wonders!

Alan Bennett, J.B. Priestley, Arthur Ransome, Ted Hughes and the Brontes are but a few of many Yorkshire writers; Ben Kingsley, Dame Judi Dench, Sean Bean, Michael Palin are among many famous Yorkshire actors; both Delius and Barry were Yorkshiremen, as was the brilliant artist, John Atkinson Grimshaw, and the contemporary artist David Hockney...(I could have mentioned Henry Moore, too, but I don’t feel so proud of that kind of art!).

So, if you are an overseas visitor, here perhaps for the Olympics, please remember that England extends quite some way north of London and Yorkshire, a county filled with very friendly people, is well worth a visit!

Happy Yorkshire Day!