Feb 10, 2013

Blog - Deep Down Thoughts

It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees

Summer 2015


No matter how many times I try to re-think life in general, I find core Jewish values and ways of doing things return to me as simple and wise and hopeful. I am thinking about Falling in Love. How heady and wild that sensation is. The things I have done because 'I fell in love'! Like being thrilled even by the slightest glimpse of the beloved from afar - the heart leaping, the brow heating, the tearing sense of bliss yet panic. The subsequent chastising: Pull Yourself Together. Why does falling in love mean we fall apart? And why do we say we 'fall' in love - falling like a stout brick chimney, hit by explosives placed at the base: bang, crash, and all the steady bricks of who we are tumble in a heap. We say and do things that are quite unlike the person we think we are so dazed are we by emotion. Yet any powerful feeling hits us like this. Grief. Rage. Outrage. Fear. Our emotions are like the sea: huge masses of feeling which change from calm to storm within us in an instance and de-stabilise our steady selves. Jewish teaching says: embrace it all and go deeper. Good inclination; bad inclination. Who is wise enough to know which in the end will bear fruit? My favourite saying: the path to hell is paved with good intentions. My second favourite: no good deed goes unpunished! My third favourite: Wittgenstein - we must plunge again and again into the waters of doubt.

When I swim beneath the waves - I can feel the currents and swell beneath the surface of the sea but also down there underwater, I feel the buffeting of the surface much less. In the slow motion of underwater swimming, where all is subdued and yet hypersensitive - the slightest movement propels me - I have time to think and distance to gain perspective on the wild events going on at the surface of my life. Falling under water is a very soft experience, the sea holds us up and supports us, as do our depths, so often hidden from our sight. The surface self, the deeper self. They do need to be in touch with each other. Our religious lives help us to do this though liturgy and meditation: falling doesn't have to mean falling apart.

Winter 2014


Yes. It may snow in May or that pretty white stuff on the trees may be Hawthorne blossom. So May promises much - spring may be upon us,on the other hand, winter's sudden re-seizure of us is all the more brutal for being untimely.

But this is the nature of all 'mays'. Nature and ourselves are slung across the gorge of Maybes like a fragile bridge. This may happen, or it may not. We may do that, but we might not. May is possibility, hope, choice. But also kindness. May I borrow your pen? Yes you may. You give me choice in the ask. You don't just assert your need - I need pen, your pen, now. It is spacious. Contingency is good! We are not sure. So we ask. It may snow this spring. Let Nature decide. My Hawthorne though, it will blossom this spring, no maybe about it!

Leaving the map at home

Tube maps, maps of the night sky, ordinance survey maps, street plans, maps of the globe, maps of my village - what I like about all maps is how they telescope the far and microscope the near not as it is seen by the eye, but as it is rendered elemental in the mind.

Our mind processes in abstractions and representations: we picture the world as we see it, we do not picture the world as it is of itself. This does not mean the world has no reality outside of our perception of it but that our experience of it is mediated through our conceptions about it. Therefore our representations of it are always provisional approximations subject to revision. We create our world, not the world. We each have a different perspective and grid which we apply. The world – thank goodness – is elusive and maps show us this.  A great myth about maps is that they are accurate! You measure and you trek, you mark and you work it out as carefully as you can, yet when I follow your map, I still get lost!

The greatest statement I ever heard about maps was part of this conversation: ‘We really are lost now, please can I check the map?’, ‘Jess, if you check the map, you will ruin my walk...’

So perhaps the best thing we can do with maps is to enjoy them as works of art but when out on a walk in the country or the city, bask in the joy of being at the mercy of what we do not know lies ahead. Rather than getting frustrated by not knowing where we are, we can delight in the element of surprise and the marvels we find when we are lost. As with maps, so in life.


September 2013

How hard it is to view life as meaningful

As the days collect, and the weeks pass by (unnoticed), I find myself marching like an enslaved soldier through Time which more beats a harsh rhythm than chimes a gentle clock. We speak about: slowing time down, time running out, not having enough time. But Time is elusive and if we follow it like a storm chaser in a fast car, we will see our dwelling places disintegrate as its force, behind us and ahead of us, obliterates all things, in the end. So Time creates meaningless and endless loss? Yes.

But we can counter-balance this. We can go to the end of Time, like to the end of a length of string and draw it back to ourselves and tie it together with where we are now and create a time-eternity knot.

The goal is to touch eternity while living in time. It is not enough to live out my days, die and go to heaven (the realm of the eternal). It is neither enough to know that up there right now in the highest blue sky is an infinite dark space full of stars and angels. We have to make the effort to reach out and touch those stars from the point wherever it is where we are standing now.

A tree, a ladder, an upright human being, a standing stone, a high place  - anything which elevates us, brings us closer... a painting, a poem, a piece of music - these things act as psychopomps (passing between realms). Our hearts miss a beat in awe and in the space of that missed beat, a huge eternity blows in and chases out the storm of time.

Life is re-directed inwards and outward at the same time. A new alignment of the self to the world is experienced and from this perspective, time runs back to us. We have all the time in the world. Time and eternity were after all made of the same stuff!

We use the expression 'to make time'... Time runs away from us like a bolting horse, but we can catch up with it and overtake it and grab its eternal harness and pull it back. One thing we can be sure of: if we do not make time for eternity, life will remain meaningless.

August 2013

Magicians and metaphysicians

There are three basic schools of Hindu metaphysics: dualist (dvaita), non-dualist (advaita) and qualified non-dualist (visisti advaita).

A dualist view separates matter from spirit. The former is invariably problematised and in terms of a human being, the religious practice which results from such a view tends towards extreme monastic acseticism - the body as matter must be subjugated, the soul as spirit, elevated. In short, matter is bad, spirit is good. In non-dualism, everything is ultimately divine. The world we see is an illusion. There is a sense in which therefore everything is basically good, if only we could see it as such. We may as well be a carpenter or a cleaner as a monk or nun, as ordinary life is already transfigured life, if only we knew it.

In qualified non-dualism, the relationship between divine and mundane is more compelx and mediated. Devotional religions which focus on an intermediary like Jesus or Krishna or Kali, locate the divine walking among us but not of us. Partly like us and partly unlike us. The divine and the mundane coincide in them. By joining to them in love, we connect our deep being to them, and unite our nature to their nature. We open up in ourselves, their divine potential. These intermediaries act as the junctions through which the divine is revealed and walks on our muddy planet but also the alchemistic means through which human beings can themselves realise their divine potential - In 'Him', Through 'Him', With 'Him' as the Catholic liturgy proclaims as the climax of the Mass. However, there is always a difference. We humans are not God, or gods. The incarnations are. So there is a displacement, a qualification of non-dualism. Divine and mundane are potentially united, but not identical. There is always a falling away and a gap to be bridged.

Surpisingly, these theories of how the mundane world is in relation to the divine can be applied to painting. If God is incarnate in Jesus, Brahman (the ultimate reality in Hinduism) in Krishna or Kali, - if matter exists absolutely, and the divine exists ultimately and yet they can co-join, a parallel process happens also in painting? The painter takes mud and refines it into pigment, oil or egg and wood and chalk and boils the skins of rabbits to make glue, weaves linen, plucks pig bristle and clips squirrel hair... Such earthly things, such unpromising materials - this heavy matter is what the painter transfigures into sublime images through which we think we see another world. A painting is an incarnation. In it, the divine and the mundane are united. The early icon painters knew this, and their icons were venerated and regarded as sacred objects.

Whether painters like it or not, see it this way or not, even when they insist on the utter secularization of art in their work from the Renaissance onwards, the fact remains, they take materials and transmute them. Like the gods, or God, painters are either magicians or metaphysicians.

June 2013

Fox and Magpie

In the evening, I am watching the foxes as they emerge out from the under-growth and begin their evening walkabout. One of them is large, aged, ragged and slow. He sniffs the dry grass and gnaws on something... I cannot see what it is or imagine what it could be... a snail? A flower-head? A young fox darts forward and trots purposefully on her way... She pauses, sniffs and she too munches on something. Carrion. As she chews, a magpie lands about three yards behind her: what the fox has found or killed, the magpie will fawn to share. The fox turns and faces the magpie. The magpie struts immediatly two steps backs. The fox returns to her snack. The magpie bounces nearer - pushing its luck a little. The fox turns sharply. The magpie leaps up and retreats. The fox moves on and leaves a morsel for the slave bird. She trots in a dead straight line - the same line every evening, across the field and up the hill. Vermin. Coming for your chickens and your dustbin bags. The rabbits return to their field and the gulls fly out to the evening sea. 

March 2013


I remember myself as a strong limbed child running down the white sand-dunes on Embleton beach in Northumberland, racing across the ridged beach at low tide and hurling myself into the freezing cold North Sea breakers, delirious with a heady mix of self-abandon and self-assertion. The beginning of life. Exuberant. Care-free.  The self shot like an arrow into an endless future. But today I am also thinking about the end of life: times limit, in particular, my times limit.

Mindful of this end, the distant arrow becomes a boomerang and returns to the here and now with a jolt. The end is not nigh but now. The span of life is no longer set on a linear path but drawn back on itself full circle and the present is pierced like a wound with The End.

And that is as it should be. Life: a staged journey from birth to death, days, weeks, months, years and the expectation of continuity? Or a collection of Days. Put another way, One Day repeated 20,000 times. When we die, we reach the ‘end of our Days’. We live the same day over and over again  -  an unwritten letter which arrives in the morning, inscribed all day and then read out aloud before we go to bed like a closing prayer.

If we live our life in terms the One Day, Today, then the concept of a times limit comes in to play. Our time is limited. My time is limited. But I live as if my time is unlimited. As if life will go on and on.

We cannot put off death by projecting it away to the end of our life. It is not far off but very near. Times limit is an awakening, just as being unlimited puts us to sleep in endless putting offs.

As time limits, so life intensifies. As the end boomerangs back to us in our here and now, we get a jolt in the right direction: no longer the endless care-free horizon year after year, but the vertical axis: ascent and descent. Ascent to all that matters, and descent into our depths - who am I really and what bring meaning to me.

Far from eternal slumber, Death wakes us up to each new day.


A sermon delivered at BHPS: Places are states of mind: not empty but spacious

In the Parashah today we read what have come to be called ‘the Ten Commandments’. But this phrase is not used in the Hebrew Bible rather we read: ‘God spoke all these words’ Ex.20.1  – Words – kol ha-devarim. It is the Talmud that coins the phrase Ten Words and then Ten Commandments - Aseret Divrot.

But the point is WORDS! What would Judaism or Jewish life be without WORDS! Our Torah scroll and our translation, the Bible, roll out the words long-hand, one words after the other, one story after the other and so on in a linear fashion. Judaism is about words, readings, study, arguments and not images and icons. Is this because of the Second Commandment:

 You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth, you shall not bow down to them or serve them....Ex.20.4-5

 What distinguished the Hebrews from the Egyptians was the prohibition on idolatry. The belief that gods and goddesses are incarnated in stone or wood or paintings or wafers of bread is common to many religions, not least the non-Protestant forms of Christianity especially the Russian and Eastern Orthodox, Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism.  These objects are not only holy but are believed themselves to be locations of the divine. People bow before them, kiss them, and revere them. God is made material and dwells with us in our realm. The gods and goddesses, Krishna and Jesus are themselves made of the same stuff as we are – incarnations of the divine.

 But hang on a minute – according to Genesis (Gen.1.27) are we not also made in the image of God? So maybe the two ways of viewing the relationship between the divine and the human are not so far apart as we think?

 And this is also why Exodus 19, the Chapter which precedes the Ten Commandments is so interesting. God does indeed come down from heaven to earth and visits Moses in our world:

 The Eternal came down upon Mount Sinai Ex.19.20.

 I want to explore how this story uses, not words, but key images to create layers of meaning deeper than the linear words that tell the story and these layers create not only a catalogue of commandments, but a paradigm about how to live our lives.

 How does the Hebrew Bible use images to describe the relationship between the eternal and the human, between heaven and earth? What are the in-bewteeners?

 Anything upright that had its feet on the ground and its head in the clouds – a tree, rainbow, a mountain, the hills, Jacob’s ladder, a human being. Birds who dwell in the heavens near to God and act as messengers – Noah’s dove, Elijah’s raven. The angelic cherubim and seraphim. But in our story today the key intermediaries are not angels but The Mountain.

 In the Hebrew Bible, I am interested not so much in what God is reported to say, the usual focus of the story, but where and how God says it.

 So I want to go back a bit in the story to the beginning of our parashah to remind us where we are:

 ‘... the Eternal had brought Israel out from Egypt’. Ex.18.1

 God brings Israel out of captivity. If places are states of mind – what is Egypt? A place without freedom or self-determination. A place where all our effort and energy is chained to something that we have no choice about. Enslavement. Enslavement can an historical experience or a psychological one or both together.

 Simone Weil, the great 20th century Jewish-Catholic philosopher famously describes the human condition as a battle ground between Grace and Gravity. Left to ourselves, we fall like an apple to the ground and rot. This is the Fall – Adam and Eve. But all is not lost. God’s grace, as it were, chases after us and falls softly upon us like snow flakes or manna from heaven and shrouds us in blessings.  Here we see Catholicism overtaking Judaism in Simone’s thoughts: the primacy of grace. The power of God’s deliverance of us over our ability to save ourselves.

 ‘... the Eternal had brought Israel out from Egypt’. Ex.18.1

 But hang on - the Hebrew slaves and the mixed multitude were not set on eagles wings, were not delivered by God. They had to run, and they were chased.

 There is a metaphor for this in Hinduism that describes these differing paths: is God like a mother monkey or a mother cat? The baby monkey clings with all its might to its mother whereas a kitten hangs passively gripped gently in its mothers teeth.

 Judaism is firmly in the ‘God is a mother monkey’ school!

 The people marched out of Egypt. The people roused themselves and made an effort to shake of their enslavement.  But where did they go?

 From enslavement: a short hop into the Promised Land: milk and honey all round? No. We read:

 ‘...the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai’ Ex.19.1

 They journeyed from a place of enslavement where options were closed by human dominance to a place where choices are restricted by physical, geographical impediments.

 What is a wilderness? It is not a place devoid of life. On the contrary, you only have to sit still on a rock at dusk in the Judean desert to be over-run with mice, insects, rabbit-like hyrax, goat-like ibex, desert foxes, leopards, and soaring eagles. The wilderness is not devoid of life but human settlement. So when we enter it, we leave behind our fixtures and fittings, our home, our life, our routines.

 That is why we can think of the wilderness as a place of freedom: freedom from our cumbersome life-baggage. The wilderness – whether Sinai, the Judean Hills or the South Downs – is not empty but it is spacious and in that spaciousness we can breath, reflect and think again about ourselves.

 The story continues:

 ‘... the entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain and Moses went up to God.....’ Ex.19.2-3.

 Places are states of mind: we are brought out of Egypt and captivity. We enter Sinai – spaciousness. We wait at the foot of the mountain.

 ‘Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down upon it in fire, the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.’ Ex.19.18

 If places are states of mind, the mountain is a location of encounter, but also fear and trembling. Encounters with the Eternal are meant to shake us, awaken us, sear us – otherwise how will we change? How will we recognise our enslavements to self and others, how will we find the lever to exert movement away from our damaged psychological patterns?

 And when we encounter the world afresh, our eyes are opened! It is a revelation. What a journey the book of Exodus takes us on. The Ten Commandments are the Words but the setting of the story - away from captivity, journeying through spaciousness, to encounter and revelation – these elements create for us a deeply spiritual and psychological paradigm to follow alongside the Words.

 And this brings us back to the beginning – baby monkeys and kittens. The injunction against idols is not a directive against the use but misuse of images and objects. If we worship an object, we once again hand over responsibility for ourselves entirely to the god and goddesses in front of whom we bow. Indeed, in becoming slaves of that god or goddess, we become the kitten and let go of the struggle of the baby monkey. But if we use the wonderful images found in the Bible as paradigms or moulds, we reclaim them for their proper purpose: not as idols but as models against and within which we can shape ourselves into our true likeness and we know already that the Bible tells us we were originally made in the image of God.  Enslavement, spaciousness, revelation: that is the journey the Exodus can model for us.


February 2013

Apples as Portholes on Eternity

On my wall in my studio, I have two postcards of paintings of apples. Apples, as seen by Cezanne. Apples, as seen by Courbet. How much more different could those apples look, and these apples do not look like the apples in my fruit bowl! They have been transformed by the eyes and hand of the painter. They are apples from heaven yet still I feel I could pick one and crunch on it!

These paintings of apples are the culmination of the development of Renaissance painting. Further and further away from representing explicit religious themes have these painters journeyed. This is secular art. No longer is Moses or Jesus or a Greek god the subject of the painting but the humble apple. Yes! These two painters show us not theism but pantheism. The eternal is everywhere and anywhere.

Look at my apples, says Cezanne, are they too not divine? When a painter tangles up his or her vision with mundane objects, the process of painting them (wrestling with the paint, representing them this way or that, re-creating them thought art) re-submits the world, albeit a tiny part of it,  to heavenly Creation. Yes, even the humble apple, when painted by Cezanne or Courbet, becomes a porthole to heaven.

The secular, voided of the divine – finds itself full to the brim once more, but in a new way.


January 2013

So Many Greens

The painter sees or thinks colours not in terms of primaries: blue red yellow or a mix of them: green purple but in terms of pigments. This reminds me of snow and Eskimos and how many words they have for snow which nuance our simple unfamiliar singular designation: snow.

The painter sees or imagines the world of colour in terms of how to match it in pigments. Here are the pigment names for the spectrum called green: viridian (blue green), umber (brown green), cerulean (aquamarine), oxide of chromium (rich yellow green), terra verte (thin yellow green), emerald green (poisonous lead intense luminous green) etc.

This picture is made more complex when the painter then mixes their green (one of the blu-ish pigments plus one of the yellowish pigments) or creates a green in the eye through optical mixing (either painting a red which creates in an adjacent grey its complementary, a ghost of green or by snuggling up a blue so close to a yellow that from a distance the eye merges them as a green - the impressionist used this technique).

Why does this matter? The painter's job is to see what is overlooked in daily vision, to associate what is perceived to be separate, to see and represent nuance and difference among the homogeneous. I have always experienced the role of the painter as a religious one and overlapping that of a religious minister or put better, the religious mediator.

The artist and the minister create visions and share the mission of exploring the No Mans Land (sic) between this world and the world to come, the here and now and the transcendent, the material and the spiritual and the painters use of colour is one of their chief tools. Hinneh (Behold - See!) Green and all colours! Bridges between the worlds.


December 2012

Blessed Rains

Rain. Why are we moaning? When I returned from 4 months in Israel - 4 months of dry dusty parched bare earth, hot baking sun, scorching heat extinguishing the green, the delicate, the fruitful.... I longed for moisture.

Lovely green England and her gardens and cottage flowers, her little brooks, ponds, lakes and swimming rivers. The wet. I love it in all its flowing forms. Humans are water. We are fluid. We are not meant to live in deserts but in oases. And the characteristic of an oasis is water.

To drink. To bath in. To quench our souls and saturate the skin of our being and our animals. No water, no trees. No trees, no birds.. People live without food but die without water. Plunge your hand in a bucket of rain water! It is soft, gentle, silky. It is transparent, beautiful, and neutral. It works as a penetrating partner to sun and soil. Blood and bone. It gives growth. It is life.

Beloved, blessed rain!