Ken Smith ran a conference workshop with this title and his article offers a ‘Why’ to live for, can cope with any ‘How’!
Fifty years ago, in those heady, hearty days of the 50’s and early 60’s as adolescence gave way to manhood, I was given a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship by a local Anglican priest who was concerned about my exuberant Fundamentalism. It still sits on my book shelf and my eye still strays there from time to time. Particularly, I recall the sentence that even now sums up for me the theme of the book: ‘When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.’ A maxim that Bonhoeffer both lived and preached.
I took the book with me into theological college – still pretty fundamentalist, and over the decades watched helplessly as such biblical certainty succumbed to confusion, doubt, often scepticism, sometimes despair. In due time I came to see it as a liberation, a freedom to be myself. I think I can see now, although I didn’t then, that I was dragged half unwillingly into paid ministry. God had spoken – who was I to question or disobey? But for better or worse my life has been shaped by those early experiences. It’s a wise man who can, without bitterness or regret build all his past into his present, and who doesn’t lose his adolescent idealism, throw out the ‘baby’. I sometimes worry about the way we demonise the opposition, especially when we used to be the opposition. Believers and atheists are often alike in this, but it’s an insult to what we’ve been to scorn it. Worst of all it’s a denial of non-duality, that bedrock of a Sea of Faith philosophy, that points out the blindingly obvious truth that all is one and, as the Hindus tell us, –‘Thou art that’ – we are it. So I like to think that what binds me to the past, sustains me in the present and takes me into the future is a profound sense of shared humanity. And if I forget that, it matters not a smidgen which platform I pontificate from.
The Greek poet Pindar put it succinctly when he wrote some two and a half thousand years ago.
Some pray for gold, others for boundless land.
I pray to delight my fellow citizens
Until my limbs are wrapped in earth
Even in those heady, hearty days I preferred Jesus to Paul. In my devotional life, my recital of the Lord’s Prayer was always a divine ache for human kind. I continue to feel guilty about the gap between the comfort of my middle class western life style and the needs of a screaming world; latterly exacerbated by bemusement that our elders and betters can sometimes sink to depths of apathy and smallness of vision that make men like Osama bin Laden into saints.
I responded strongly to the idea that love was supreme, that priestliness was both a witness and a key, and that suffering love was alone redemptive. ‘Would that all God’s people were priests.’ Though no longer an active priest of the Church of England, I remain one in my understanding of the nature, the essence of priesthood. The arguments going on, as I write, among the bishops of the Anglican Communion, seem to ignore the obvious truth that it’s life that produces priests (as opposed to people called priests) –not the institution. Even the traditionalists must believe it is God that makes a priest. Those rare souls who give up their lives for their enemies, without a thought for the Apostolic succession, know all about priesthood. ‘Father, forgive them, even though they know what they are doing,’ is an even richer teaching than that ascribed to Jesus, still continuing to divide, friends from enemies.
I remember being impressed in those early years by a radical priest who boasted that his church was only open for Mass on Sundays – the rest of the time he expected his congregation to disperse and disseminate themselves in the world. He knew the layers of meaning attached to last words of the liturgy –Ite, missa est. He said the world was where the sacred was. Not trapped in a building, still less some institution. He would have been an admirer – as I later became – of Primo Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, Holocaust survivor, novelist and poet, who wrote in his ‘Song of Those who Died in Vain’:
Sit down and bargain
All you like, grizzled old foxes
We'll wall you up in a splendid palace
With food, wine, good beds and a good fire
Provided that you discuss, negotiate
For our and your children's lives
May all the wisdom of the universe
Converge to bless your minds
And guide you in the maze
But outside in the cold we will be waiting for you.
There’s an ongoing debate about the relationship between the heart and the mind in SoF circles –born perhaps in our genes, but leading us to stress one more than the other. Some accuse us of not having a heart; others fear our mind is not sharp enough. But clearly there can be no ‘either/or’. Just a challenging, demanding ‘both/and’.
When I first sat down to pen these words, seeking inspiration I held in my hand a piece of volcanic rock I picked up on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily earlier this year. My mind’s eye, sharpened maybe by the proximity of the date to the day a year ago when I awoke and discovered I couldn’t walk nor would for some months, turned that scrap of black rock, that earth, that dust, that stuff, into a symbol of truth’s essence.
I was once sneered at, by a man who claimed to be a follower of someone who said it was wrong to sneer – to cause a little one to stumble – a millstone should be cast around his neck – when I hesitantly tried to talk about my mystical, intuitive response to the world. They all say that, he said – his purple stockpiled high in the world’s esteem. Not easy to be arrogant amidst such smugness. But smug I am too, and so with him, I’m working on it. The piece of lava continues to sit in my study on my multi-religious shrine, partly because no scientist can tell me what it is and traditionalist creationism leaves me unsatisfied.
Sometimes I feel that mental pain is the price people pay for asking and rarely receiving answers to the big questions; and physical pain the spur for continuing to ask them and live with the frustration. I’m fortunate in having people around me who often tell me how much they appreciate my angle on things, coupled as it is with a great depth of feeling for humanity; my calmness in the presence of disaster and tragedy – that a few misinterpret as coldness. Inwardly of course, it’s not quite like that – inwardly I’ve always lived (like most people if they’re honest) on the edge of my own volcano.
Last year a rogue protein invaded my skeleton and bit a hole in my spine. Within a couple of weeks of starting chemotherapy, my treatment ate another hole – this time in my brain and sent messages hither and thither round what other people knew as Ken Smith. In some ways, in those awful days, that Ken Smith died and was replaced by the one who is now typing these words. In other ways it’s the same me, only dragged kicking and screaming into the world that’s always been.
In a variety of contexts, I’ve lived with dying (and the dying) for a large part of my working life. For the last 14 years it has been a very specific matter of choice, training as a bereavement counsellor and selling my heart and brain to local funeral directors. As a result I’ve learned to treat the dead gently – the living too – except for fools whom I find it hard to suffer. And even they get more gentleness than they deserve.
But last year I personally looked death in the face – decided I didn’t like it very much, but kept looking anyway, even when it looked back with that triumphant grin, that leer, upon its face. And when I turned my back on it, I sensed it continuing to leer at me (like Yama the god of death in the Hindu pantheon) – and so confidently. Professionally I know from years of experience, that my dying may be terrible – either for me or my family, so there’s every reason to postpone it as long as possible.
As Dylan Thomas said to his dying father:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Bit by bit the experience stripped me of the desire to possess (or rather be possessed by) anything, to be labelled as anyone, to be expected to do or say anything. Both belief and unbelief finally dropped away.
I turned in my days of rehabilitation (when I could only move with difficulty and discomfort) to my computer and trawled the wisdom stored there – much of it in the form of poetry – some of it my own – most of it from the many perceptive souls I’ve encountered on life’s journey. So I’m grateful for poetry – especially I like its denseness, though strangely it was a wordy philosopher who set me on the path of trying to be a poet.
It was Bertrand Russell who, when I read his work as a sixth-former, began to teach me about the insubstantiality of the empirical world and that if I wanted to talk about it, it would have to be with the obliqueness, subtlety, hesitancy and sometimes obscurity of the poet.
Recently I’ve also appreciated Dinah Livingstone’s latest poetry collection Kindness – a work that reminds us that the word has both a meaning in common parlance – a sentiment, a warmth, a way of being with each other, behaving towards each other, and a meaning lexicographers remind us of, when they point out the word’s kinship with the word kinship! Further, philosophically I see it as another word for non-duality because that kinship extends to everything, binds us to everything – even my piece of volcanic rock.
So where am I in Sea of Faith and why? I keep coming back to the word ‘religion’ – its root meaning – not its practice. That which binds; that which unifies; that which holds. It seems to me that the biggest error of traditionalist God-talk lies in its idolatry. It’s a paradox, but it’s the monotheists who run the biggest risk of blasphemy; something they share with second rate Science talk. The sometimes acrimonious debate across the so-called Science/Religion divide can be a futile exercise, when the protagonists forget that all the time it is going on, we, every single one of us, remain in thrall to that which is, that which we may dimly apprehend, and that of which necessarily, inescapably, we are a part. The self that makes itself the fulcrum on which everything pivots/ balances is so insubstantial, certainly so extremely short lived and marginal to what is going on out there, that we should always be wary where and how we tread.
But in company with many in Sea of Faith, I continue to acknowledge the power of the Christian myth into which I was born and to which I gave a huge amount of my working life. The following extract from the poem ‘Poet’s Fulfillment’ by the surrealist poet David Gascoyne –has inspired and haunted me for the last 30 years with its powerful slant on Suffering and Creativity, Death and Resurrection:
Lodged in a corner of his breast..
like a cross to which his soul was to be nailed,
He bore alway …..
A grief which nothing could explain but which some nights
Would make him feel that he could fight no more…..
Change immersed him in disorder and decay.
For he knew how the extremity of night can crush the final germ of faith.
Yet when he lay at last exhausted under his earth stained lids,
The constant burden of his breath, long work of yeast, arose with joy
Into its first full freedom… released.
People should live like that, hope to die like that, and with all our creative humanity, rise again like that in what I leave behind. On the other hand lest you think that’s all traditionalist piety, I end in the here and now, with friends and family, the background of the stress and strain of a giving life.
I walk along a lamp lit street
My feet a-tripping at the thought of somewhere warm
A comfort room
A haven from the storm of words and things
And wings grow from my heels and speed me home
’Til, only me, I say
I’m glad – you say
A why for living can cope with any how.
Ken Smith is the Editor of Portholes and Sofia Letters Editor.