Sunday 30 December 2012

... and bless when I understand

Three quotations for the new year - with thanks to Mark Oakley and his chapter on Discovery in The Collage of God

I greet him when I meet him, and bless when I understand.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (Wreck of the Deutschland)

We had the experience, but missed the meaning.
T S Eliot (The Dry Salvages)

We never catch
him at work, but can only say,
coming suddenly on an amendment,
that here he has been.
R S Thomas (Adjustment)

Friday 21 December 2012


a new poem by Joanna Lynham

Some hold love in their hands
weigh it with care
isolate it from the fabric
of the mind,

Some tame love with soft words
fill it with hope
use it for the service of

Some turn their backs on love
slamming the door,
afraid to let its magic change
their lives,

Some bind with hidden threads
holding it close
protecting it in order to

For me, love is inspiration
a window open
                         to the sky

Fulbrook, 2012

And Wisdom's born in secret

CAROL - Written in 1946

Flocks feed by darkness with a noise of whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
And lull the solemn night with their weak bells.

The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.

God's glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom's born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.

And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;

While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet-smelling hay
Beside the wise men's golden jars.

Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

Thursday 13 December 2012


A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
by Dr Eben Alexander

Fiona Walthall recommended this book at the recent discussion on December 9th. She writes: 

Eben Alexander is an eminent neurosurgeon who spent 15 years as associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.  He operated on many patients with life-threatening brain conditions.  He has often heard stories of Near Death Experiences, or journeys in other worlds, but has always put it down to that person’s own consciousness creating these experiences.  On 10th November 2008 he was struck down out of nowhere by an extremely rare form of e-coli bacterial meningitis.  Survival rates are less than 10% and most of those end up in a vegetative state.  As he slipped ever deeper into a coma the last words he spoke were “God Help Me”.

Over the next 7 days, Eben was given antibiotics and all his fellow neurosurgeons came to give their advice on treatment.  He was on life-support machines, and by day 7 the decision was made that all the machines should be turned off and nature should be allowed to take its course.  A member of his family said, “Hang on, let’s just go and see him one more time”.  While they were there his eyes opened, he sat up, and he said, “What are you all doing here?”

After he made a full recovery, Eben looked at his own medical records and could see no evidence of any activity whatsoever in the outer area of the brain which is where ‘the bit that makes you human’ resides.  From a medical perspective it was totally impossible that his brain could have been functioning so that he could be having any thoughts or experiences at all.  Yet throughout that 7 days he was in another world, experiencing things with a beautiful companion guiding and leading him.  He had a complete memory of his experiences on his return.  The only way this was possible, this experienced neurosurgeon reckoned, was if ‘he’ had actually been there.

This is a fascinating and very readable book.  Indeed it is one of those you can’t put down.  It provides much food for thought, particularly once you read the nice little twist at the end ... but please don’t go straight to the end!

Saturday 24 November 2012


The Archbishop of Canterbury's address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome
Archbishop's address in Rome

Carol Penn offers this quotation from Rowan Williams' address in October:

“… contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do:  it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.  To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.”

The link above gives a longer quotation as well as the full text.

Monday 19 November 2012


"The principal human tendencies that lead us away from living well" 
Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps to a Fulfilling Life Abbot Christopher Jamison
We are now into the Eight Thoughts listed by John Cassian (later sensationalised as Seven Deadly Sins).  Central to them according to Jamison (yet left out by Pope Gregory) is “Acedia”, the spiritual carelessness which we would all recognise.  What is the relevance of the list, from gluttony through to pride, in our twenty-first century existence?  Jamison suggests that it provides a framework within which people can develop their self-awareness – which he carefully defines to mean “attentiveness to my way of relating to people and to things”.  Hard to quarrel with that, from a spiritual or a secular point of view.

 As we now turn (not without a barely repressed snigger) to the three chapters on Gluttony, Lust, and Greed, we can agree or not that an interior discipline of thoughts is needed or that “spiritual hygiene” is as vital as medical hygiene.  But we can learn at least something about ourselves and how we want to live our lives if Jamison’s suggestions help us to “recognise our demons while also helping us to contain them”. 

Do join us.  

Sunday evenings at 7, monthly at Wychwood Library (OX7 6LD), open to all 
December 9th :  Gluttony, Lust, Greed
January 13th :  Anger, Sadness
February 3rd:  Vanity, Pride - and a summing-up of the whole book with the participation of Fr Geoff van der Weegan, Prior of the Order of Anglican Cistercians 


Tuesday 6 November 2012


Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life by Abbot Christopher Jamison

On November 11th we embark with Father Christopher on the first of John Cassian’s Eight Thoughts, which Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century took upon himself to transform – for the benefit of lay people – into the more famous Seven Deadly Sins.

Interestingly, Pope Gregory left out Acedia, possibly on the grounds that it was too spiritual a concept for ordinary people like you and me, but Abbot Christopher Jamison places it first in his 8 chapters of Thoughts, for reasons which he explains.  The Seven Deadly Sins are only useful, says Jamison, when seen as describing “the principal human tendencies that lead people away from living well”, and their insights, he says, continue to challenge us to “greater personal honesty about our innermost thoughts.”

Acedia (sometimes known as accidie) means ‘carelessness’ in Latin.  The monks and nuns of the Middle Eastern deserts in Cassian’s day or in Gregory’s early monasteries would probably have defined it as ‘spiritual carelessness or apathy’, while we might recognise it as simply a loss of any enthusiasm for the spiritual life – not an uncommon trait in our modern Western culture.  

Indeed, Jamison bemoans Western society’s “catastrophic loss of understanding of the need for self-awareness” and sees our children in the 21st century growing up “in a culture that suffers from collective acedia.  He goes on to draw a parallel between care for our physical hygiene (born relatively recently of the discovery of germs in medicine) and spiritual hygiene, which ideally requires just as much daily attention as brushing your teeth or taking exercise.

How are those of us who are not monks or even church-going Christians going to respond to this, supposing we accept the picture Jamison paints of our condition?  Jamison’s answer – in the chapter on Acedia and in the previous one, provocatively entitled “Blessed are the pure in heart” – is repeatedly to emphasise the central role of “the interior life”.   Thus, we can “choose an interior life that is more integrated”, we must seek “self-awareness” (carefully defined to distinguish it from introspection), and “constant awareness of the interior life” is essential.

How does this relate to the Seven Deadly Sins?  After all, next month, Gluttony, Lust and Greed will be queuing up for their turn in the limelight!  The answer lies once again in Jamison’s brilliant re-definition of an ancient, and therefore largely discarded, notion: purity of heart, which we might today describe as freedom of spirit.  Echoing modern commentators from Karen Armstrong (whose book on Compassion we read only recently) to the Dalai Lama (whose tweets regularly return to this theme), Jamison suggests that “careful practice” is required in order to allow our “innate capacity for goodness … to flourish”.  And the way to “inner freedom” is to examine “the thoughts and demons that lie between us and the happiness of a pure heart.”

The next Wychwood Circle discussion – based on the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Jamison’s book – is on Sunday November 11th from 7pm to 9pm at Wychwood Library OX7 6LD.  Anyone is welcome to come, to listen, to contribute or just to ponder.

Friday 2 November 2012


LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel

The first monthly book recommendation, made at the last meeting of Wychwood Circle by Ian Cave:

As the narrator in the book says, this is a story to help you believe in God. Like Yann Martel's other book "Beatrice and Virgil", this book can be read on two levels. The first and most obvious is that it's about a man in a lifeboat with a tiger. This is in itself a facinating story about animal behaviour. But the second is a story where the only animal is the tiger inside the man, that makes him do inhuman things to survive. At the end of the book, two insurance investigators conclude that either story accounts for all the observable facts about the shipwreck and the state of the lifeboat. Just as science and religion account for the world around us. So it's up to you to decide which view of the world you prefer to have.
Wikipedia's entry about the book is worth reading if you want to know more details of the story. Martel's other book, "Beatrice and Virgil", is very different and much, much more deeply disturbing. In many ways it's a book to help you believe in evil. 

Life of Pi - Wikipedia

David adds:  Also worth looking at, this very interesting interview with Yann Martel in 2005 by Jennie Renton.
It would be good to have other reactions and views on this.  Click on "Comments" below and add your bit.

Monday 29 October 2012


From George Herbert in town to Helen Waddell in the sticks

If you live in Oxfordshire or within reach, you will be spoilt in November with a feast of speakers available to nourish your soul and feed your mind.  Fresh from putting on a splendid series on Benedictine Wisdom at St Giles, OCSG will be laying on a reflective day on Saturday 17th November, exploring the work of George Herbert, Poet and Priest, with the help of a Professor of English at Oxford and Mark Oakley, a Canon at St Paul’s.  It takes place all day at Corpus Christi College and you can find details on their website,

Out west beyond Woodstock in the gorgeous Evenlode valley,   you’re just about into the Cotswolds when you reach Spelsbury.  The imaginative Chase Benefice has laid on some Advent suppers (delicious home-cooking, if last year is anything to go by) every Wednesday from November 21st as well as a line-up of Oxford-based speakers who will come to talk about “people in whom they have seen Christ incarnated.”

Thus Ed Newell, Sub Dean of Christ Church, will talk about Sir John Betjeman, Professor George Pattison about Etty Hillesum, Mark Chapman (Ripon College, Cuddesdon) about Charles Gore, and Canon Angela Tilby about Helen Waddell.  Book soon from as half the tickets have reportedly already gone.

Helen Waddell, Northern Irish poet, playwright and translator of medieval Latin, was a scholar and an authority on the church in the Middle Ages.  Her translations as well as her poems have been set to music by composers from Holst to Paul Spicer.  A prize-winning biography was written of her in 1986 by a Benedictine nun … which brings us back to those wise Benedictines (every Thursday at St Giles until November 29th).

Tuesday 23 October 2012


Benedict at St Giles' - Michaelmas Term 2012

Thus Father Stephen Ortiger at St Giles' Church in Oxford last Thursday!  Silence, he pointed out, can be empty or eloquent, depending on how we approach it.  Injunctions to pray can be counterproductive.  Instead we should listen expectantly, or "attend" - Benedict uses the word at the very beginning of his Rule - before, as Fr Stephen enjoined us, "bringing our reality to God".  

Addressing the topic of Holy Listening - the second talk in a weekly series on Benedictine Wisdom - he began by explaining that Benedict's vow of stability (so different from the Franciscan way) was designed to facilitate the interior journey, the "journey to the centre".  As someone once said, the longest journey is from the head to the heart. And Fr Stephen encouraged his audience to keep making that journey. 

Another former Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison (as seen on TV), echoes that Benedictine desire to "step back, be still and look inwards" in his book Finding Happiness - Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life, which is our current focus at Wychwood Circle's monthly discussion forums.  His emphasis is on "internal freedom" - freedom from the constant exercise of our much-prized external freedom, seen in such happiness-seeking activities as 'retail therapy' which involves "choosing and choosing again".

This, says Jamison, can become and end in itself, distracting us "from that interior world which is the true source of happiness".  Blest are the pure in heart? A contemporary version might use the expression "freedom of spirit" which, he goes on to say, "describes the condition of human beings at their best".

Benedictine Wisdom: Timeless Guidance for Today's World 
Thursday Lunchtime Talks at St Giles' Oxford  Oxford Centre for Spiritual Growth

Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life
Abbot Christopher Jamison  Orion Books 2009

"The interior landscape of our life
A discussion based on the second and third chapters of Finding Happiness
November 11th 7-9pm Wychwood Library OX7 6LD

Sunday 21 October 2012



Good to see that the scientists at CERN (where the so-called God particle was finally found) are asking the big questions. They come up with very different answers, but is it more a case of varying perspectives than any real disagreement? 

Where one says that science "can only gain by looking at the bigger theological picture", another says that claims about God are "not falsifiable" and therefore "highly non-scientific".  The link above includes an audio clip where Professor Krauss (Arizona State University) and Professor Lennox (Oxford University) are quoted giving seemingly opposite views on the roles of science and religion. Yet it is the same science which "points away from God" for one, and "points towards God" for the other! 

The Director General, Professor Heuer, wants particle physicists to continue to talk to those with very different answers to the very big questions.  He says: "There is a need for us as the naive scientists to get a little bit educated about what other people in philosophy and theology think about the time before and around the Big Bang."

John Lennox, professor of Mathematics at Oxford, echoes this sentiment in saying how "understanding the place of science in the big picture" will enable "a dialogue with people of different world views."  

How vital is that?...

Monday 15 October 2012


"Regardless of your religion, cathedrals can have their own language and logic, of generosity and grace"

Within a culture of "deep diversity", cathedrals offer the ability to "meet and bond across boundaries". Nick Spencer - clearly a man after my own heart -  might have been listening in to our discussions yesterday evening, both about the value of monasteries in their wider community and about the role of cathedrals in their diocese.

In today's Guardian, he quotes research contained in a new study called Spiritual Capital.  It seems that nearly half of people questioned agreed that "cathedrals reach out to the general public, not just those who are part of the Church of England". More than half (53%) agreed that "cathedrals are welcoming to people of all faiths and those who have no faith"

It seems to be perfectly possible, he says, since cathedrals  are known as Christian institutions and yet successfully reach out to the general public, "to be both confessional in your identity, and inclusive in your operations".  Cathedrals, he goes on, "have their own language and logic, of generosity and grace, hospitality and holiness, worship, love and sacrifice, words and ideas that are formed by Christianity and not social policy."

Guardian article by Nick Spencer

Our cathedral in Oxford offers a number of open events to feed the mind and - maybe - nourish the soul.  Currently the Sunday evening After Eight series is called Across the Faiths.

Thursday 11 October 2012



On Sunday 14th we begin to base our monthly discussions on Abbot Christopher Jamison's Finding Happiness (Phoenix, 2009). Jamison traces the history of happiness from fertility and luck, through the fulfilment of our deepest desire, to the classical tradition of virtue. And he warns: "Monastic steps across this territory will involve being wary of signposts that point to happiness as feeling good and will look out for paths that lead to the joy of knowing the good and the delight of doing good."  Heady stuff...

Join us this Sunday at Wychwood Library (OX7 6LD) from 7pm to 9pm.

Sunday 7 October 2012


Cheltenham was lovely and autumnal this weekend for the start of their literature festival. Mary Robinson was an unassuming but impressive figure at the event to mark the publication of her book, Everybody Matters: A Memoir (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012).  She mentioned very early in the interview that she has been inspired by her Christian faith and how she has stood out against convention and expectation numerous times in her already long and full life. 

As the blurb described it, “Mary Robinson has spent her life in pursuit of a fairer world. Here, the former UN High commissioner joins us to discuss her life and her memoir, Everybody Matters. In a fascinating interview she reveals what lies behind the vision, strength and determination that has helped her to achieve so much for human rights around the globe, and what it is like to be a member of The Elders - the smallest club in the world.”

Her Cheltenham talk was hosted by an organisation which is very relevant to Wychwood Circle, the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, also known as simply “Coexist”( David Ford - who is speaking at Christ Church Cathedral’s Sunday evening After Eight series in Oxford - introduced the session and described the aim of the Programme as, amongst other things, trying to increase "religious literacy".  I perked up when I heard this,  and was also struck by Coexist's tag, which reverberates well into West Oxfordshire: "Making sense of religion today" - worth following up. 

Since leaving her post at the United Nations, Mary Robinson has moved on to campaign for what she calls Climate Justice.  This is also worth pursuing: The Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice (MRFCJ) describes itself as "a centre for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change who are usually forgotten - the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world."


I hope to get to at least one of Christ Church’s October After Eight series entitled “Across the Faiths”. David Ford starts it off this very evening.  In November the theme will be “Taking a Stand” and is subtitled:  Four Christian activists on issues that matter.