Wednesday, 30 December 2015

12 days of Christmas? Really?

Is there any connection, do you think, between the way in our culture there is so much commercial activity - advertising about Christmas so ridiculously far in advance - and the way people pack Christmas away so soon after the 25th? Are we a bit weary of the idea by the day after Boxing Day?


Chuck away the wrappings, ditch the tree, bin the the turkey bones (never did make that stock...) and get ready for a knees-up on New Year's Eve - or an evening of pre-recorded TV programmes, e.g. Jools H urging us to enjoy ourselves.

But Christmas has, we're led to believe by an old song, twelve days to it, culminating in Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany for Christians, which was the day the three kings visited the baby Jesus. All of these twelve days made up Christmastide.

In "Village Christmas," a delightful if idealised evocation, Laurie Lee makes it plain that, when he was a lad, nothing much happened until the night before Christmas Eve, when everyone swung into action. But then his childhood Cotswold Christmas was all very local - no-one driving hundreds of miles on waterlogged roads to see family!

 OK, we're not any longer, despite Mr Cameron's remarks, a majority Christian country, according to assorted opinion polls. But we seem to have swapped a lovely idea - that there are twelves days of Christmas - with an almost hysterically commercial build-up weeks before The Day, and then a flat few days until the next year starts.

Twelfth Night was, in Tudor and Elizabethan times, a right old party, overseen by the Lord of Misrule. The usual order of things was re-established at midnight. Shakespeare wrote one of his greatest comedies for Twelfth Night at court. 

Happily, there are still some madnesses around on Twelfth Night, some with quite possibly pre-Christian roots. People go wassailing around then, and mummers do their extraordinary stuff to increasingly enthusiastic crowds.

 We can't turn the clock back. But in our house decorations will stay up and candles (or their electric replacements) will stay lit until Twelfth Night. And who knows, we may even have a drink or three on the 5th.



Sunday, 20 December 2015

Gold, and Christmas ships

 The old (c. 17th century) carol "I Saw Three Ships" has Jesus and his mother in them, sailing into Bethlehem. As Wikipedia points out somewhat prissily, it's 20 miles from Bethlehem to the nearest large body of water - and that's the Dead Sea... So it's all impossible, I hear you snort - which is part of what makes it so stimulatingly mysterious.

 The Sunday Times ran a competition in 1940 for a new carol; this brilliant reworking of the Christmas Day ships motif was the entry from a Mrs Addington: 

I saw a ship, a little ship 
sail like the crescent moon
And at the helm there sat a girl 

singing a cradle tune

But though she lulled a tiny child 
great was her majesty
And all the flowers and all the stars 

were not as fair as she

O keep your grimness and your gold 
for right across the sky
We’ll sail until we reach the land, 

she, the child, and I.

For wealth is dry and men must die 
but still our day is dawning
I saw a ship come sailing by 

on Christmas day in the morning.

It's like a visionary painting, isn't it? Jesus and his mother aren't even named. It's a song of hope, with a clear message: it's not grimness and gold that'll help us sail across the sky, but a visionary hope symbolised by Christmas (whatever you do/not believe.) 

It's so gentle, but it's also tough-minded. "Men must die;" no matter how much we order from Amazon, no matter how many adverts scream at us from our exhausting TV sets, we're mortal, and wealth, on its own, is dry. Isn't it, Mr Osborne?

We have to believe our day is dawning. Perhaps it's easier to do so at Christmas. 

I wish you not just a merry but a Happy Christmas.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

sadness and joy at Christmas

I'm helping with a funeral early next week, just a very few days before Christmas. The family are a bit torn - the man loved Christmas, and liked nothing better than to sing his way through it with a glass in his hand and his family around him. So they feel they should set out to enjoy Christmas in the same spirit. But they feel very sad.

Maybe as we get older, there tends to be more sadness mixed in with seasonal festivities, or at least, more thoughtful acknowledgement of those who are no longer with us. This isn't some sort of gloomy killjoy reaction to the relentless commercial trumpetings and media bollocks at this time of year. We are not simple creatures, and we can celebrate and be sad, miss someone and laugh at our shared memories of them, all at the same time.

Some families do the "empty chair" thing, either because they want to feel s/he is still with them, or just to acknowledge and remember. Sometimes people raise a glass. Sometimes they may just look back and talk about past Christmases.

In any case, I think it's unwise to pretend that sadness within us can't also be part of Christmas celebrations, part of the beauty of a true Christmas spirit, whatever you do or don't believe actually happened a couple of millenia ago in Palestine.

The year turns, the years turn; we lose and we gain; we celebrate and we remember.

Bring Christmas Life

Bring in a tree, a young Norwegian spruce,
Bring hyacinths that rooted in the cold.
Bring winter jasmine as its buds unfold -
Bring the Christmas life into this house.

Bring red and green and gold, bring things that shine,
Bring candlesticks and music, food and wine.
Bring in your memories of Christmas past.
Bring in your tears for all that you have lost.

Bring in the shepherd boy, the ox and ass,
Bring in the stillness of an icy night,
Bring in the birth, of hope and love and light.
Bring the Christmas life into this house.

                                                                           Wendy Cope

Monday, 14 December 2015

floods and our own natures

If I lived in Cockermouth, I'd not want lectures about the follies of building on a flood-plain, which may indeed be folly, but the town wasn't built on such a daft place. It had the misfortune to grow around the confluence of two rivers, and has suffered in recent years from floods caused by what were up to now truly exceptional rainfall levels.

The river, TS Eliot tells us, is a strong brown god; it is a problem to solve for the builders of bridges, or merely a useful way of transporting goods, but "sullen and intractable, untrustworthy," "waiting, watching and waiting." And he also tells us that "his rhythm" is part of our lives, part of us, present "in the nursery bedroom" and other domestic places.

He's reminding us, perhaps, that we are part of the same natural forces and processes that make the rivers flow - and flood in rage sometimes. Bit like Dylan Thomas with his "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, drives my green age."  

This correlation between natural powers and what we are suggests that there are within each of us sullen, intractable, untrustworthy forces - the potential to rage and flood, as well as burst through in green springtime. 

It seems to me that it is when we don't acknowledge, understand and to some degree accept these forces within us, as opposed to ignoring or trying to repress them - or projecting them onto people around us - that is when we rage and flood and generally bust things up. 

Water will find its own level, the lowest channel it can; it works round things when it can.

But when it can't.... 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The weather and the temple - actualities rather than preconceptions (Swarthmoor 7)

En route to Swarthmoor by train, I was looking forward to crossing the top end of Morecambe Bay for the first time - great views across the sands, that's what I expected.

The above is what I got. So I was disappointed at first, grumping up with thoughts like"what do you expect, it's November in the North-West of England." So not only was the weather letting me down, it was my fault for not expecting it. Harrrrumph!

Well, in a way, it was my fault. I realised this when I stopped being grumpy and simply looked at what was there. The mindfulness thing seeped back in: being with it, bringing my thoughts back from what it could have been like, or what it might be like on the way home (pretty much the same, as it turned out..) 

The place and the weather were unique - not because I hadn't been there before, but because every moment in every place is unique.

I began to enjoy it for what it was.

(I'd hardly expect some poor soul with a flooded home in Carlisle or Cockermouth this week to feel the same, but then they've got more to do than sit looking at the weather!) 

Similarly with a Buddhist temple we visited briefly from the retreat. Conishead Priory. I suppose I thought of something like a cool, peaceful little meditation hall, minimal furniture, plain, even a little pleasantly austere. Instead:

Huge, gaudy - like a comparison between a Catholic cathedral in  Spain, and a simple whitewashed CofE parish church in England. Their Buddhism is derived from Tibetan Mahayana sources. It looked to me much more like a religion than the Zen approach. Lots of
this sort of thing. But we sat and meditated with a pleasant monk with a rather charmingly diffident way of talking; it was very quiet, very calm in there. Comparisons and expectations fell away. It was good to be in the moment, and it was a helpful experience. Maybe I'm an eumenical mindfulness practitioner? I'll have to think about that. Or maybe I won't bother with conceptualising and comparing, maybe I'll just - meditate...

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

"Mysticism" and Einstein - Swarthmoor

I'm a bit off the terms "mysticism" and "mystical;" for me, they are a bit care-worn. They are usually applied, it seems, to writings that are seen as apart from the common herd, aimed at a spiritual elite, those wise enough to receive secret knowledge.
Or else things "mystical" and "magical" are simply used as design motifs to sell stuff.

I'm more interested in writings that try the difficult - ultimately impossible - task of expressing in words an ultimate reality that is above, or beyond, words. A state of mind, a state of being, that is not to be achieved through rational concepts or ordinarily descriptive language. The writers of these texts are often called "mystics."

We had plenty of really valuable examples of such texts on the Swarthmoor retreat - usually described as mystical, but arguably, intensely practical. They added, and continue to add, a lot to my contemplations.

Here's a vision of an ultimate reality from a mighty genius who can see the immediate practical consequences of living by that vision. Not a "mystic," but a scientist.

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space.

He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. 

This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
                                                                      Albert Einstein

Bert, you little beauty!