Saturday 29 September 2012


(Piatkus 2011,

MARK WILLIAMS and DANNY PENMAN: Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011)

ABBOT CHRISTOPHER JAMISON:  Finding Happiness – Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008; Phoenix, 2009)

 As we look forward to hearing Chris Sole on “Mindfulness and Compassion: a Buddhist’s view” on Sunday 30th September at 7pm at Wychwood Library, I have gone back to Bloom’s inspiring book whose subtitle is: “How to live a life of compassion and personal fulfilment”.  It could almost be a bridge between our discussions of Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and our next study-text,  the Abbot of Worth Christopher Jamison’s Finding Happiness – Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life (Introduction and Ch 1 to be discussed at Wychwood Library on October 14th, 7pm-9pm).

When asked ‘What is your religion?’ in the UK Census last year (only 17 spaces allowed under ‘Any other religion’) Bloom says he really wanted to put ‘spiritual but not religious’ and would have liked to use words like holistic.  Someone else suggested universalist, and others suggested that since diversity is the essence of modern spirituality it would be wrong to try and describe it in a box or single word at all. 

Modern spirituality for Bloom is made up of Connection, Reflection and Service.  And in the section on Connection he identifies four core skills, which are the ability to: 

  • Pause and be mindful;
  • Relax, centre and ground in your body;
  • Observe what is happening in a kind and good-humoured way; and
  • Yield to the feeling of connection. 

In the light of the current trend for Mindfulness – in our schools, in our local library, as a tool in cognitive behavioural therapy, in meditation – it was interesting to see that the practice of mindfulness for Bloom was only a start in a longer and deeper process.  I recommend the whole book, which as well as being instructive has a number of ‘exercises’ which are worth spending time on. 

Professor Mark Williams, speaking to a full house at the Christ Church Cathedral (Oxford) Summer Lectures last month, seemed to be making a similar point.  As the Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre he was well-placed to give a thorough introduction to the practice and relevance of Mindfulness.  Given the time constraints – and the non-specifically-religious nature of the context – he did not take us any further than a brief practical session to give us a flavour of the experience, but his parting words hinted that this could be – and presumably for him as an Anglican priest it is – a preparation for meditation, prayer, contemplation, or call it what you will. 

We know from Karen Armstrong that the practice of mindfulness features strongly in the contemplative practices of Buddhism and Chris Sole will no doubt enlighten us further.  Should we also plan to invite Mark Williams, or maybe even the Abbot of Worth who as a Benedictine monk will be extremely experienced in contemplation and Christian prayer? 


Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was on good form again on Friday’s Thought for the Day on Radio 4.  (I do hope he has now taken the place of Lionel Blue;  adorable though he is, our Lionel is getting past his sell-by date for public broadcasting purposes.)

Sacks is worth listening to ( as he makes his familiar distinction between the roles of science and of religion in looking at the world. But if you just want to read it, here it is: 

For Jews the festival season is well and truly on us. We’ve just celebrated the New Year and the Day of Atonement, and next week we have Sukkot, known in English as Tabernacles. It’s difficult to explain Sukkot in Britain, especially this year, because it’s a festival of prayer for rain, whereas here we’ve had all too much of it, including the floods still doing damage in York, Liverpool and Wales. But in the Holy Land, where the Bible is set, rain was and still is the scarcest resource and without it there’s drought and famine.
So on Sukkot we take four kinds of things that need rain to grow: a palm branch, a citron, and leaves from a willow and myrtle tree, and holding them we thank God for rain and pray for it in the Holy Land in the year to come – even if we happen to be living in the soggiest of climates. Sukkot is, if you like, a festival about the fragility of nature as a habitat hospitable to humankind.
The natural world is something science and religion both speak about in their very different ways. Science explains; religion celebrates. Science speaks, religion sings. Science is prose, religion is poetry and we need them both.
Science continues to inspire us in the way it reveals the intricacy of nature and the power of the human mind. Rarely was this more so than earlier this year with the almost certain confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, which someone with a sense of humour called the God particle on the grounds that it exists everywhere but it’s so hard to find.
But science can sometimes make us think we’re in control, which is why we need moments like Sukkot to restore our sense of humility. We’re so small in a universe so vast, and our very existence depends on an extraordinarily delicate balance between too much and too little, whose symbol is rain. Too much and we have floods. Too little and we have drought.
So as well as knowledge we need wisdom, and the better part of wisdom is knowing that we are guardians of a universe we can easily endanger and which we still don’t fully understand. Perhaps it’s not crazy, once a year, to lift our eyes toward heaven, the way we do when we’re praying for rain, and remember how dependent we are on things beyond our control. The more scientific knowledge and power we have, the more humility we need.

Rabbi Sacks's own website has more besides, naturally:

Wednesday 26 September 2012


Grace and Mortage (shown below) was written by Peter Selby (former Bishop of Worcester) in 1997.  Is it still, or maybe more, relevant to us in 2012?

Chapter 2 is largely about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian who spoke out against the Nazis and was eventually imprisoned and later put to death in 1944. He left a tantalising selection of poems, sermons, letters, fragments which suggest that he was feeling his way towards an approach to Christianity which would mean something to a world which had "come of age" and was largely "religionless".

Towards the end of ch 2 Peter Selby writes this paragraph:
"... The new day brings new perplexities in the form of issues about democracy, about the economy, about the vision of humanity, in short, that informs our common life. Among those who face the new day will be those who have a question and a perplexity about the identity of Christianity, and indeed of Christ himself, in our time. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer we have someone who was both close enough to his own culture to feel its perplexity in the face of its coming of age, and yet sure enough of the claim of the Christ among the excluded of his time to be a disciple. Sometimes tensions paralyse us, and in particular cause us not to see the possibilities of a new day. Sometimes, however, we need the determination to hear two voices clearly, the voice of the culture that has given us our questions and the voice of those who have no part in that culture. That, I am suggesting, is probably the only way we shall be able to speak of Christ authentically in our time."
The book goes on to discuss the subject of credit and debt - which of course rose hugely after the Big Bang (financial deregulation) in the Thatcher/Lawson era and the period leading up to this book, and has loomed even larger in recent years. For those of us who meet people in variously worrying degrees of debt through working at the CAB, it couldn't be more relevant. Selby then addresses the equally big topic of international indebtedness which constrains the lives of nations as well as individuals.



Roger Scruton is worth reading in this old article from 2008 on religion and conflict. Propect magazine have been digging up some of their best from over the years.  This is one of them.
He makes quite a lot of the French anthropologist Rene Girard - who came up once in a Wychwood Circle discussion - and clearly sees him as a big influence on current religious thought.  Girard also comes up a lot in the writings of the Catholic theologian James Alison. In this article Scruton is interested in Girard's argument that religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to it. 
In passing Scruton refers to caricatures of religion by people like Christopher Hitchens and sets the scene for his discusssion of "the anthropology of religion" by pointing out that post-Enlightenment thinkers realised that "religion is not, in essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that might be..."


Welcome to Wychwood Circle

Wychwood Circle meets once a month at Wychwood Library in the village of Milton under Wychwood in West Oxfordshire. It is an open forum attended by people from many miles around, with a range of philosophical, theological and spiritual standpoints.  Our tag is that we discuss what we believe and what we believe in.  Initial discussions centred on the concept and practice of compassion, with or without a religious approach or motivation.  On September 30th, instead of basing our dicussion on chapters from a book, we will be playing host to Chris Sole who will present the theme "Compassion and Mindfulness: a Buddhist's view" as a starting point.

Meetings are from 19:00 to 21:00, usually (with the exception above) on the second Sunday of the month.

More information is available on or from