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Category - "Life’s lessons":

Working Together in Harmony: an anthology of prose and poetry


Apropos of nothing in particular, I have been thinking about getting people to work together effectively for the common good.

Take the Church of England, for example. The Bishop of Sherborne suggested its members should aim to be grapes, as alike as peas in a pod. But they aren’t, are they? They are more like the stones in the arch in this illustration- different shapes and sizes but, in an ideal world, linking together to form a constructive whole.

Do you know ‘Two Men from the Same Town‘ by Brian Patten?

Based on a traditional story, it tells us about a man standing at a crossroads who was asked by a passer-by what it was like in the town up ahead.
The narrator responds by asking what it had been like in the town the passer-by had come from: Oh, it was a dreadful place, was the reply.
The narrator says: You will find the next place just like the last.
A few minutes later, another man approaches; he too asks if the place ahead is a good place to stay.
The narrator again asks him what it had been like in the town through which he had passed. Oh, it was quite wonderful, was the reply.
The narrator again says: You will find the next place just like the last.


Rabbi Haim of Romshishok was a preacher who traveled from town to town delivering religious sermons:

I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables was laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament. Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it. Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell — row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal. As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat? As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favour by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor. I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other. I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving man, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely feed you.’ ‘You expect me to feed that detestable man sitting across the table?’ said the man angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!’ I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.

As Luciano de Crescenzo observed: We are all angels with only one wing; we can only fly while embracing one another.

Geese understand perfectly the need to help each other for the sake of helping the group as a whole, and thus helping themselves, as Louise Durack here describes:
When you see geese flying along in a V formation, you might consider what science has discovered as to why it is they fly that way. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in the V formation, the whole flock adds at least twenty per cent greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. People who share a common direction and a sense of continuity can get where they are going more quickly and easily because they are travelling on the thrust of one another. When a goose falls from formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to do it alone. It then quickly gets back into the formation, so as to take advantage of the lifting power of one another. If we have as much sense as geese, we will stay in formation with those people who are headed the same way as we are. When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wings and another goose takes its place. It is sensible to take turns with long demanding jobs, whether with people or with geese flying south. Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. What messages do we give when we honk from behind? Finally and most importantly, when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out of formation with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies; and only then do they launch out on their own or with another formation to catch up with their group. If we have the sense of geese, we will stand by each other like that.

Like geese in formation, we can perhaps sympathise with the problems that beset the Court of Appeal in the nineteenth century:
The judges discussed the draft of their address to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her opening the new court.

To the words ‘Conscious as we are of our shortcomings’ it was objected that they ill fitted the dignity of the Bench. ‘Suppose’, said Lord Justice Bowen, ‘that we substitute ‘ Conscious as we are of one another‘s shortcomings…’

Biography of Bowen by Sir Henry Cunningham…


But most of the time, charity reigns and, with John Wesley, we all endeavour to:

Do all the good we can.
By all the means we can,
In all the places we can,
At all the times we can,
To all the people we can,
As long as ever we can.

A good resolution, but one that is difficult to carry out unaided. A well-known morning prayer by ‘Anon’ recognises this:

So far today, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy or grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I’m very thankful for that…but in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed. And from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot more help…

Brian Patten’s literary agents (Rogers, Coleridge & White) only allow one quarter of the poem to be quoted . It is quoted in full in ‘Favourite Wisdom’ by Deborah Cassidi, page 116, and the hyperlink will take you to the extract from this page from her book.

The illustration is ‘Stone Formation’ by Menna via Shutterstock.

‘June, The Time of Perfect Young Summer’


What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfilment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade. 
Gertrude Jekyll
, ‘On Gardening’

I admit that I have been waiting all month to post this piece, one of a series I have written on ‘God in our gardens’. Today is the last day of June and finally the sun is shining. Intermittently. We are no longer in ‘young summer’, perfect or otherwise, but the roses are at last out.  It would be monstruous to complain about the weather when our gardens are singing their hearts out to give us pleasure and proclaim the gl0ry of God.  If you are an atheist, you are welcome to feel that they are proclaiming the glory of Nature, or themselves, or whatever, but the collect for tomorrow, the fourth Sunday after Trinity, includes:

increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;

The sweetness of an English June would not be complete without our awareness that ‘this too will pass’ and we are reminded us that we really are nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth – clichés are so often true, aren’t they – and the word ‘garden’ derives from the Persian word for paradise, so this is not a new idea. Cardinal Newman clarified:
By a garden is meant mystically a place of spiritual repose, stillness, peace, refreshment, delight.

And a 20th century Thomas Moore included gardens in religion and art:

The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul.

For most people, a garden’s foremost purpose is to give us pleasure:

God Almighty first planted a garden; and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks.

Francis Bacon

Admittedly, the pleasure has to be set against occasional disappointments and setbacks. In the first place, as Ogden Nash ruefully acknowledged:

My garden will never make me famous: I’m a horticultural ignoramus.

The best approach is to take it all philosophically, like May Sarton:

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself. But everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

For once George Bernard Shaw was uncontroversial when he said:

The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.

And Frankfort Moore added:

I think that if ever a mortal heard the voice of God, it would be in a garden at the cool of the day.

A Garden of Peace

Do you know the –only slightly tongue-in-cheek– Gardener’s Prayer?

O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day,
Say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning,
But, You see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak in.
Grant that at the same time it would not rain on
Campion, alyssum, lavender, and others which
You in Your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants
(I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like).
And grant that the sun may shine the whole day long,
But not everywhere (not, for instance, on the
Gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron) and not too much;
That there may be plenty of dew and little wind,
Enough worms, no lice or snails, nor mildew,
And that once a week thin liquid manure may fall from heaven. Amen.

Karel Čapek

There has long been a debate over whether a garden is to be appreciated on aesthetic grounds as a work of art – Gertrude Jekyll described herself as painting living pictures and controlled very carefully the components of her gardens– or whether English gardens, in particular, are beautiful because they look like Nature, according to Immanuel Kant.

Of course, cottage gardens or so-called wild gardens are usually edited a great deal more than their owners admit: the most successful are only imitations of a wilderness. But whichever category of gardener you fall into:
A garden really lives only insofar as it is an expression of faith, the embodiment of a hope and a song of praise. Russell Page, ‘The Education of a Gardener‘.

And hard work is always needed, as Lou Erickson pointed out:

With any luck, though, the perspiration will lead to inspiration. As Kenneth Druse said:

When gardeners garden, it is not just plants that grow, but the gardeners themselves.

And John Erskine claimed:

I have never had so many good ideas day after day as when I worked in the garden.

But perhaps the key requirement is hope for the future:

The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have ever done before.

Vita Sackville-West

There is of course a cycle of gardening. At its winter nadir we can still dream, with Helen Hayes:

All through the long winter, I dream of my garden. On the first day of spring, I dig my fingers deep into the soft earth. I can feel its energy, and my spirits soar.

And at its midsummer zenith, we can rejoice with Andrew Marvell:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Kipling well understood that, as Lawrence Dossey said: the garden is a metaphor for life, and gardening is a symbol of the spiritual path:

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.
And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.
Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:–“Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives
Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.
Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!

Empire Avenue: Navigating The Moral Maze

Does Your Moral Compass Need a Work-out?

How many times a day do you find yourself making moral decisions? I am guessing that, for most of us, the answer is not very many. Empire Avenue , on the other hand, challenges us to break several commandents: the ones about not taking the Lord’s name in vain (no shrieks of ‘OMG!’); remembering the sabbath day (most of us cheerfully play on a Sunday); not coveting thy neighbour’s ox, his ass (or his Empire Avenue score); not bearing false witness (how many of us routinely give Ks to people who don’t influence us at all?); and- perhaps most seriously- not stealing. (Not you, not me, but some people do simply take the money from missions without doing what is asked of them).

As you play the game, you will be posed a series of moral questions, not once but repeatedly:

  • What are you prepared – and what are you not prepared – to do for money?
  • Would you buy shares in someone just because they offered high dividends – in other words do you treat people as means to an end or an end in themselves?
  • Will you be generous with your time and energy to help someone you know online?
  • Are you your brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?

When you have played for a while, on a consistent basis, you will either have strengthened your will power to do good and resist evil, or you will truly know yourself as someone who all too readily gives in to temptation. Are you up for the challenge?


What is Empire Avenue?

Empire Avenue is a  means of measuring one’s involvement in social media (twitter, facebook etc). It is also a game in which users buy and sell shares in people, using an imaginary currency. The first part of this blogpost, explaining about Empire Avenue for those who are not already signed up,  was on Digidisciple on 5 June. The key is in ‘Expand, engage, evaluate’: you will not continue to expand unless you constantly evaluate what you are doing and engage with other people. Each progression involves increasing your interaction with others. At its most basic level, saying ‘thank-you’ and ‘well done’ to others, commenting on their blogs and doing their ‘missions’ will increase your overall score.

Only the most basic rules are given. It is rather like learning how to play chess simply by being told the moves of the various pieces. Did you read Richard Bach’s ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘? He found there was no readily available set of rules, but that each apparent impasse contained its own way through.  Empire Avenue is a game that nudges you to ‘fly’, that is to say make a leap of logic, imagination or faith which will take you to the next level. Here are some hints from our seagull mentor:

“Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight – how to get from shore to food and back again…For most gulls it was not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight… Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”


Metaphor for Life Itself

Empire Avenue reminds me, more than anything, of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. A motley group of people, who find themselves travelling together along the road of life, fall into conversation, form friendships and band together in small groups to talk and laugh and make music together.  It is impossible to imagine assembling a more diverse range of people: young and old, tall and short, fat and thin; of all races and creeds; and living in every habitable part of the world.


EAv was set up less than two years ago. I imagine that its founders did not predict the way it would become a force for good in the world. It’s the old story about the total being greater than the sum of its parts. Although there are forums on Empire Avenue itself, most of the conversation about the way this hugely diverse network operates and can be used for good takes place on Facebook.

Just in the last month, I have become involved in dicussions about how to spread awareness of environmental problems, a bid to save whales, a planned and co-ordinated system of random acts of kindness, the dangerous side-effects of Diethylstilbestrol, and female genital mutilation and forced marriage. These are all concerns of people I know on Empire Avenue, and since they concern them, they concern me. It is personal involvement. Truly this is the global village at work in a way Marshall McLuhan could scarcely imagine.



The photograph below depicts the rehearsal of  Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’; downloaded from wikimedia under licence.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: A Parable for the Eurozone?

You remember Aesop’s fable, don’t you, about the grasshopper who whiled away the summer months, singing and making  music , while the ant worked to store up food for winter?  As we watch events unfold in Europe, and Greece seems fated to become the scapegoat for the turning of blind eyes during years of EC financial shenanigans, it is as if we are watching Europe divide itself along North/South lines much older than any political divisions.

It has been called the bread line: the languages of Northern Europe use some version of the word bread (brot, brod) and the languages of southern Europe use some version of the French pain (pan, pane). The architecture of northern Europe was Gothic, while the architecture of the south was Romanesque.  France was notionally divided between the langue d’oc  (the south) and the langue d’oïl (the north). The Italians of the north refer somewhat disparagingly to the south of Italy as the  mezzo-giorno, ‘the land of the midday’ [sun], by inference where not much work gets done.

Zorba, the character created by Nikos Kazantakis, played by Anthony Quinn in this clip from the film, personifies the understanding of life in Southern Europe. The ‘suited and booted’ Alan Bates, on the other hand, typifies the hard-working northern European, willing to be seduced on annual holidays by the dolce far niente of  the Mediterranean, while continuing to return to the serious business of living (and the Protestant work ethic) at the end of summer.

The beaches of Greece fill every year with holidaymakers from the north of Europe. It is these same people, personified by Angela Merkel, who now play the role of the self-righteous ant:

I like best the version by  Jean de La Fontaine

La cigale ayant chanté
Tout l’été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue :
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.
Elle alla crier famine
Chez la fourmi sa voisine,
La priant de lui prêter
Quelque grain pour subsister
Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
« Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,
Avant l’août, foi d’animal,
Intérêt et principal. »
La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse :
C’est là son moindre défaut.
« Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud ?
Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
— Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
— Vous chantiez ? J’en suis fort aise :
Eh bien ! Dansez maintenant. »


The story is used to teach the virtues of hard work and the perils of improvidence. Some versions of the fable state a moral at the end, along the lines of “Idleness brings want”, “To work today is to eat tomorrow”, “Beware of winter before it comes”. The point of view is supportive of the ant, as in the  Book of Proverbs: “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest” (6.6-9).

But, as Christians, we should perhaps also look at this story from the point of view of the ant’s morality. Gustave Doré  illustrated the story thus:

As Wikipedia has it:

The readers of his time were aware of the Christian duty of charity and therefore sensed the moral ambiguity of the fable. This is further brought out by Gustave Doré’s 1880s print which pictures the story as a human situation. A female musician stands at a door in the snow with the children of the house looking up at her with sympathy. Their mother looks down from the top of the steps. Her tireless industry is indicated by the fact that she continues knitting but, in a country where the knitting-women (les tricoteuses) had jeered at the victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution, this activity would also have been associated with lack of pity.


Well, what do you think? On moral grounds, whose side do you take? Can it be right that rich northern Europeans leave some of the Greeks now unable to eat?


What would Jesus do?


‘The cricket had sung her song all summer long but found her victuals too few when the north wind blew. Nowhere could she espy a single morsel of worm or fly. Her neighbour, the ant, might, she thought, help her in her plight, and she begged her for a little grain till summer would come back again. “By next August I’ll repay both Interest and principal; animal’s oath.” Now, the ant may have a fault or two But lending is not something she will do. She asked what the cricket did in summer. “By night and day, to any comer I sang whenever I had the chance.”“You sang, did you? That’s nice. Now dance.” Tr. Don Webb

And A Little Child Shall Lead Them…

Maybe it takes a child to make us all pull together.
One, two, three: ‘All for one, one for all…’
That’s all.

We All Dance To The Music Of Time

The Sardana

In Barcelona’s Plaça de Sant Jaume, there is always a group of people dancing the Sardana. According to wikipedia, this dance was banned during the Franco régime as a Catalan nationalist symbol, but in this at least they are wrong, for in 1965  I was among a group of students who went to the square and joined in the dance for a few minutes. It is not as easy as it looks, and we soon dropped out in favour of watching instead. I am tempted to say, looking at the age of the participants in this youtube video, that some of them look as if they have themselves been dancing continuously since 1965 but, generally speaking, the dance goes on while the dancers come and go to the music of time.

The River that is Twitter

This is how I think about social media, twitter in particular. You can decide to while away the afternoon in the twittersphere but you cannot predict what turn the conversation will take. Beyond the rule about 140 characters, every twitter session is different. Sometimes it is like watching one of those complicated opera arias, with perhaps four different people singing their hearts out about completely different topics simultaneously. It is exhilarating -and sometimes surreal- to try and participate in four conversations at once, with subjects ranging from the sublime to the mundane. Sometimes there are a dozen or more taking part in or looking in on the same conversation. But there are also conversations which take place in different time zones. If someone in the USA tells a joke at tea time, you may be asleep and unable to LOL or even ROFL until the following morning, perhaps ten hours later, by which time any repartee you can offer has rather lost its point. My twitter stream may be more homogenous than some people’s, because I choose to follow chiefly those involved in the Church or politics. I like the fact that most of the people I follow are also followed by the people who follow me (still with me?), in other words I enjoy being part of a network, which others in the network also seem to enjoy.


You Cannot Step into the Same River Twice

But, as Heraclitus  almost pointed out, you cannot step into the same twitter session twice. If you have a conversation over breakfast with a group of congenial people, you cannot pick up the conversation over dinner. This is partly because the twittersphere, like the river, has moved on. But it is also because you have moved on. You are a different person at dinner from the one you were at breakfast, albeit infinitesimally so. The cells in your body have changed and the world has changed with you. Wait a week, a month or a year and the differences are more marked.


What Has All This to do with the Christian Life?

In case you are wondering whether I am ever going to get to the point – whether indeed there is a point to this post –  here it is: we have just begun what is for me my 63rd church year. On the face of it, when it is the sixty-third time you have been told a story, you might think it is difficult to pay attention, let alone get excited. BUT I am not the same person – I have been a different person every year for the last sixty-three years. And it is not the same story. The story changes every year because I see different things in it.

Brother Charles, an American Franciscan priest, expresses this better than I possibly can, and will I hope not mind my quoting him:

…we exist in time, but God is eternal. So there is no before or after with God; there is nothing that God is doing tomorrow that he is not doing now. With God there is only a Now, a nunc stans¸ as the scholastic theologians liked to say… This is why the presence of God  always seems new and fresh, and is refreshing for the soul, because God is always Now. This arriving presence in our hearts is the real desire of our souls—a desire we so often squander on things that are less than God and will not satisfy…   Let’s begin again, for the first time, to wait for the God who wants to speak the Word of his own self from within each of us.



This post was written for The Big Bible Project as a Digidisciple on 5 December 2011.

The photograph of a Sardana was taken at La Verema in September 2010 by  Natursports /

The picture is by Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, which formed the title and  backdrop to the Anthony Powell series of the same name about a group of people over a period of years, and is made available by wikimedia under a creative commons licence.

A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread, and Thou (and Thou, and Thou)

To paraphrase Edward Fitzgerald‘s paraphrase of Omar Khayyam:

‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou, and thou and thou
Just add some brie, and we shall have a paradise enow’

In the 1970s I, like many others, lived a relatively bohemian life (it was, after all, the decade after we went to San Francisco, being sure to wear some flowers in our hair – see bch1_Ep5M1s – even if only in our imagination). One of the best aspects of life in that period is that hospitality was much simpler. People would drop in after work for a drink, perhaps bringing friends (and a bottle if you were lucky), and stay for a pot luck supper, sitting on floor cushions. Not that there was a pot. I used to buy a whole Brie, which looked impressive and fed an elastic number of people, and a couple of sticks of French bread. I don’t recall having plates or table napkins (probably we had paper ones) – certainly I don’t remember having to do any washing-up except glasses.

Fast-forward forty years. A few days ago, Robert and I had lunch with old friends, just the four of us. She is an excellent cook, and had prepared a delicious and elaborate meal, exquisitely served. However, it meant that she spent most of the meal in the kitchen ensuring that the food met her very high standards. Her husband spilt a glass of red wine, which meant that he spent most of the meal on his hands and knees under the table trying to mop it up and applying various home remedies to avoid a stain. My husband and I perforce made small talk to each other across the table. Everyone gritted their teeth not to show the irritation or discomfiture they felt, and we all kept smiling through. But we had gone to their house in the hope of enjoying a relaxed and convivial interlude – and we presume they had invited us for the same reason.

Social norms dictate that, after a short interval, we will return the invitation and we will all go through a similar exercise, the main difference being that it is in our house and not theirs. And so on and so on ad infinitum and ad , well not nauseam but perhaps to the point of exhaustion. It was even worse in the 1980s, when there was magazine after magazine urging people on to ever greater efforts to produce food that looked almost too beautiful to eat. In retrospect, it was all ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess’:

To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Now, anyone who has been paying attention knows that the next couple of years/decade/foreseeable future are going to be years of austerity in the West. While I of course feel for those who will genuinely suffer as a result, I have spent much of my life living in countries and cities, notably Calcutta, where many people lived a life of extreme simplicity, forced on them by circumstance. You might think that they were miserable? Well, I have good news for you. If you compared their facial expressions en masse with those of a rush-hour queue at a London bus-stop, it was the Londoners who looked miserable.

‘Faites simple!’, cried Escoffier.

Simplicity is relative – he was trying only to get away from the excesses of Carème, and would no doubt be horrified by what I am proposing. But, for at least some of the time, let us use the more austere times that apparently lie ahead to simplify the way we entertain each other.  If you want to recapture the simple joy of fellowship as you break bread with your friends, may I suggest a return to a jug of wine, a loaf of bread (and a crumb or two of cheese) as the only necessary fuel?






The illustration is a still life by Vincent Van Gogh, made available under a creative commons licence by Wikimedia.



Social Media May Prove The Key To Christian Unity

Die, Heretic Scum!’ I expect you know the “joke” that has been doing the rounds on the internet for a while, of which this is the punchline? This is a particularly effective version of it on You Tube. I put the word ‘joke’ in inverted commas because its essential truth is too painful to be really funny: we are all apparently born with a strong desire to keep only the company of people whom we think, as Margaret Thatcher put it, are ‘one of us’. Another equivalent, this one ascribed to Anon, is

‘All the world is queer, save me and thee. And even thee’s a little queer.’

As we saw in the past only too clearly in Northern Ireland, for example, Christians have been strongly identified with this: Catholic children went to school with other Catholic children, grew up next to Catholics and married other Catholics so as to produce Catholic children of their own and continue the cycle. Protestants did the same. In its most extreme form, great care was taken to see that never the twain should meet.

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Time for the Burning of the Leaves?

Now we have reached October, most of us feel two conflicting moods about this season of mist and mellow fruitfulness. You can be like Jeremiah 8.20 and say: The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved or you can glory in the beauty of the season and feel re-invigorated by the beginning of the new year – in education, fashion, politics and, from next month, the Christian calendar. First, though, it is out with the old in:  Laurence Binyon, ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ :

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock´s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek…
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,…
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind…
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour…
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.


For Binyon, as for our next writer, autumn is a time for spiritual spring-cleaning. They saw stripping the spirit bare as a necessary part of the cycle of life, but found it impossible to mourn the death of summer without simultaneously exulting in the coming rebirth of spring. Whereas Binyon draws no conclusion about a divine purpose to this cycle, John Masefield in The Everlasting Mercy is exhilarated by his vision of being purified and renewed by Christ:

O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after.
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.


Edwin Way Teale, in  ‘Autumn Across America’, ponders the cosmic dance of the seasons:

Thinking of autumn and spring in the same breath, as opposite sides of the wheel of creation, we remember that whereas ‘for man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together, for nature it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.’ And sowing and scattering abroad is of course what mankind does in spring. The wheel keeps turning. Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was, is not, and never again will be; what is, is change.

For the Bible tells us so: Genesis 8:22
While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease

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Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?

Love means never having to say you’re sorry. So said Ali McGraw to Ryan O’Neal as she lay dying at the end of ‘Love Story’, coining a catchphrase which summed up attitudes at the end of the flower-power decade of the 1960s.

It’s not true, of course: anyone acting seriously on this relationship advice is going to end up without any relationships, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox knew:

There’s one sad truth in life I’ve found
While journeying east and west –
The only folks we really wound
Are those we love the best.
We flatter those we scarcely know,
We please the fleeting guest,
But deal full many a thoughtless blow
To those who love us best.


‘Repentance Becomes a Trend as Thousands Tweet #SorryJesus’, reported Emma Koonse in the Christian Post on 27 September 2011. However, she did not attempt to analyse any possible reasons for this. The tweets began on Monday 26th/Tuesday 27th, according to where you are in relation to Greenwich Mean Time, and are continuing as I write this post. Well, maybe there is something in the air, to which the collective unconscious has responded via social media, since twitter and facebook are increasingly the outlet for the collective unconscious – always supposing you believe there is any such thing, of course. Some of the tweets are silly, but some are genuinely moving including the heartfelt:

‘Sorry Jesus for nailing you back to the cross for the wrongs I do.’

I think it is no coincidence that October 8th this year is the Jewish ‘Yom Kippur’ or Day of Atonement, which the Church of England might do well to copy (after all Christmas is linked with Hanukkah, and Easter with Passover) – though perhaps ‘Day of Apology’ would sound more Anglican? – Our own lectionary for the day after Yom Kippur, October 9th, is all about repentance and forgiveness. Confession and Absolution are already, of course, firmly embedded in the liturgy but: whereas once Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent, Christians, says Dom Anthony Sutch:

must recognise their own need for help and ask for forgiveness. St Benedict in his Rule expects the individual to acknowledge his wrongdoing in the presence of the community. St. Benedict thought this the best way for men to repair broken bonds. In the same way, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is initiated by the person seeking forgiveness, who is then forgiven in the name both of God and of the community…this is of enormous importance, since any fault affects everyone else. Sin is not a private zone.

Frank Sinatra has a lot to answer for in what became his theme tune, adopted by several truculent East End gangsters for their funerals:

And now, the end is here, And so I face the final curtain…
Regrets, I’ve had a few – But then again, too few to mention…
I’ve lived a life that’s full; I’ve travelled each and every highway;
And more, much more than this,
I did it My Way.



Edith Piaf famously regretted nothingneither the good anyone has done me, nor the evil, it’s all the same to me – it’s been paid for, swept away and forgotten. I start again from zero. However, although she intends to be every bit as truculent as the gangsters, she in fact crystallises the Christian message: our sins are redeemed (or paid for) by the sacrifice of our Lord’s crucifixion, enabling them to be swept away and forgotten so that we can start again at the beginning, washed in the blood of the Lamb.

And what have you been up to this week? Committed any murders in Middlesbrough? Is Aylesbury awash with adultery? Are you all stealing from each other in Swansea? No, I thought not. When we look back at our sins, they are not the major, headline-grabbers of murder, adultery and theft: what we do all have in common, surely, is ‘something to expiate, a pettiness’. In one of his best-loved poems, D H Lawrence describes beautifully just this feeling of remorse:

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me…
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth…

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness

‘The Snake’ Taormina, 1923

And then, like John Donne, we must be ‘done’ with sinning: John Donne’s ‘Hymn to God the Father

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive those sins, through which…..
And do them still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy sun
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done; I have no more




The illustration is by Jan Martin Will via Shutterstock and she has entitled it ‘Emperor Penguin gets rejected by another Emperor Penguin.’

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