Today I went in to Glasgow to lead a session at a poetry writing group at Kibble Palace, in the Botanical Gardens. I very much enjoyed it. A lovely group of people, all of whom write beautifully, so much so that I felt like a fraud being asked to ‘lead’ them. I hope that I might yet connect with them again.
I set a couple of writing tasks, one of which involved taking some time to walk out in to the park and write sometihng from the perspective of an object or plant that they encountered. People wrote as fish, as park benches and, of course, as trees.
I too chose a tree. It was a rather odd one; a highly scented tree that seemed to have two different kind of blossoms on it at once. A laburnum perhaps and something else. At first I was fascinated, wondering what miraculous wizardry or natural phenomena had formed this exotic oddity. Here it is, at distance so as not to interupt the girl sitting beneath it;
It reminded me of one of those creatures popular at Victorian freak shows; half rabit and half cat, or the woman whose legs were that of a deer or a goat.
The tree seemed to me to be a beautiful abomination.
A few weeks ago I went with some old and new friends to a small island, for our annual ‘wildernss retreat’. These trips are very special to me, connecting me, grounding me and shaping me in ways that are sometimes only understandable in hindsight. Always I come away with things that need more thought, in the sense of things that have inspired me, or have troubled me. (The latter seem, if anything, more important.) One of the things that has stayed with me this weekend was the memory of a number of questions about hope.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend towards the melancholic and few of my friends would regard me as an optimist. Despite all of this, I found myself in a conversation with one of my island friends in which he seemed increasingly frustrated by what he apeared to regard as my blind, unenlighted, unrepentant desire to pursue this thing called hope. With hindsight perhaps I pushed back too hard, but he seemed committed to a gospel of nihalism that I found profoundly troubling. He spoke about it on an intellectual level and I made the mistake of replying in the same vein, forgetting that we often intellectualise deeper emotional states. I am not even saying I fully disagreed with him. After all, there is so much to feel overwhelmed by at the moment.
But this seems to me to be neither the whole truth nor a very useful lens with which to examine the world.
This song comes to mind;
Perhaps hope, when imposed or dictated in the way that I ofund myself in danger of doing, will always feel like a toxic cloud.
But I have walked this tightrope of hope and hopelessness for a long time. I am hoping to put the finishing touches to a book of poetry which charts some of this journey. This begins with the election of Trump and his pound-shop imitator this side of the Atlantic, and was then poured out into a series of protest poems about the state of the world; climate change, widening inequality, injustice, a loss of community and the rise of individualism. However, the pandemic shifted something in me. I feel those injustices as keenly as ever, but I decided that anger, unyoked from hope, achieved nothing. As we all stopped during the lockdowns, a different way seemed possible.
It is of course possible to point out that any hope for meaningful change that began during the cataclysm of the global pandemic (when we seemed to be rediscovering community and realising that collective action was not only possible, but the only way to survive) has been thwarted. Business as usual is now the name of the game, and a new war has pushed us further towards the abyss. Despite all this, I found myself writing poems of hope, like this one;
They say that hope comes
Only in the harshest times
When we need it most
I see it there in your eye
Feel it as our fingers touch
As our minds entwine
Inside this skin that bottles me
It moves like a liquid
Waiting for your cup
Not just the hope with feathers
But also sinew and carved stone
It is bone on bone
And when friends meet
Hope has breath
Hope has viral load
From ‘After the apocalypse’
Back to those conversations on the island. Because our group has (mostly) a shared faith background, even if this has taken us in very different directions, the lack of hope seemed all the more acute. Is that not what our faith is supposed to be based upon?
There is the rub, and perhaps this was the core of the debate with my friend. He is still very much within the institution of Church, frustrated at how the core messaging that Church contains still has not begun to engage with the unfolding stories that society tells itself. My impression is that this is pulling him towards his own adventure outside the institution, because if our faith has become irrellevant not only in the way the message is delivered, but in the message itsef, then how can it ever be a source of hope?
Christians talk a lot about hope, but this tends to be only the hope of being saved from the consequences of sin, and the punishment we are due for our own sinfulness waiting for those who do not heed the call to repent. There is also a hope that arises from ‘goodness’, measured mostly in seperation from the world in an enclave of holiness, but this offers no hope of the general kind, only an escape pod for a select few.
Meanwhile, the world is still warming. Rich people still get richer and poor poorer. Politicians profit from lies and corruption. The fabric of our society is threadbare and coming apart and the old Durkeim glue of religion has lost its stickyness because it has nothing coherant to say about any of this, right?
So why do I still feel hope and where do I see it? What am I hoping for? These are difficult questions to answer, which is why I grapple with them in poetry. However, I sense in myself and in the wider society a hunger for a different kind of spirituality that I think is starting to emerge. Partly this is a consequence of the large numbers of church leavers who are still striving to live out a meaningful faith journey, but also because we are all of us spiritual beings, seeking meaning and truth despite all the distraction.
I think we might characterise this emerging spirituality in two main ways;
Non duality, by which I mean a rejection of the old in/out, good/bad, sacred/profane, saved/unsaved dichotomies for something more fluid and generous.
Connectedness and the one-ness of all things. The Christ who is another name for everything. The source and substance of every created thing who live and move and have their being in him.
Of course, I have no evidence to support these ideas other than my own flawed perceptions, but if I am right, I think the emergence of this spirituality is the source of a new hope. For the first time in the post modern age, we have a story to live by that directy engages with the challenges of our times.
Sectarianism and hard inflexible doctrines
The ‘problem’ of the other, particularly the black other, or the Muslim other
Plurality and difference
Poverty and inequality
Our place in the natural world
Perhaps this all seems like incoherant rambling to you, and you may be right, but I will have one more go. I mentioned earlier that I can only make sense of much of this through poetry, so I will re-post a poem in which I was reaching towards these same conclusions.
The great Becoming
How small we made you.
How constrained by our constraints;
We wore you like a lapel badge,
Pocketed you like a personal passport, then
Raised you at our borders like a flag.
We locked you in the pages of
Our Book, then threw away the key.
But how we worshipped you.
How we pointed at you with steeples.
You asked us to follow you, to
Give away our second shirts, but instead
We made a million icons, each one framed in gold.
We swayed and raised our egos, singing love songs-
Not to you, but to idealised versions of ourselves.
How is it that still, you love things by becoming them?
How was it that this brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman
Took upon herself another name for everything, so we could
Encounter her in all these beautiful things and bleed with her when she
Lies broken? And just when all seems lost, she whispers still;