Friday, 28 October 2016

THE SHAPING OF CHARACTER and SOUL-SHAPING

WHAT MATTERS MOST IN LIFE 


In the 2012 Preface to his book The Shape of Living, Regius Professor of Divinity David F Ford comments that 'it was liberating to be thinking as directly as possible about what matters most in life, and to reach out to a wide audience'. Mark Oakley, whose wonderful book The Splash of Words finally saw the light of day this year and has already reached a wide and appreciative audience, has this to say towards the end of a chapter on R S Thomas' poem Raptor:
We are far from being an atheist culture: indeed, there is a hunger for the sacred that persists, even intensifies, in an era when knowledge is exploding. This hunger I believe is rooted in something more fundamental than intellectual confusion. Regardless of religious orthodoxies, it seems that people cannot brush aside the sense that there are things that matter and that this mattering is not a mere question of knowledge or social convention. It implies an orientation of one's life towards what lies outside it, a recognition of values that transcend the individual and even the culture ... 

Heart and hospitality: shadows of the stricken

Earlier this year we saw in Ford's Chapter 1 (Shaping a Heart) that the degree to which our 'community of the heart' is hospitable towards those who differ most from us is the best test of its quality'.  Writing (the original edition) in 1997, Ford's words, picking up a phrase of Micheal O'Siadhail about relationships and hospitality across personal boundaries, are weirdly prescient of our continent and country in 2016, where intruders threaten to disrupt 'normal' life:
The boundaries of our being continue to shift as each of us introduces new faces and voices, and the scope for border disputes is endless.  ... We constantly meet with faces and voices which appeal to us to help, to have compassion, or to take some practical responsibility that goes beyond what our commitments or inclinations oblige us to do. 
He quotes from a poem by O'Siadhail called 'Intrusion':  'But what if between our gazes/ shadows of the stricken fall,/ the stares we seem to veil/ keep on commanding us?'  And the last stanza asks: 'Is love a threadbare blindfold?/ 'Yes,' say our shadows, 'unless/ you turn to face the faceless.'/ Who'll re-envisage the world?'  Tempted to shield our comfort and security, we 'recognise the hard heart, the cold heart, the closed heart, the paralysed heart, even the dead heart'.

In a world of good and bad 'overwhelmings', Ford asks us what could convince us one way or the other. In his own testimony to the possibility that love might be the ultimate reality, O'Siadhail in his poems, The Other Voice and Out of the Blue, superficially about romantic love, seems to be reaching towards something universal.
My love is your freedom.  Do or die or downfall,/  it's all or nothing and I have chosen all. 

The most intimate aspects of our self which we call our soul

In chapters 3 and 4, he turns to The Shaping of Character, with discussions of power, virtue and wisdom, and Soul-Shaping, with explorations of the 'secrets' and 'disciplines of intimacy' - including a poem where St Francis addresses St Clare - and 'practices of excess', which includes a paean to the fruitfulness of silence as 'the perfection of secrecy and of discipline together'. Quite a recipe. But as Ford says:
Dealing with secrets shapes the most intimate aspects of our self which we call our soul. And as modern psychology and psychoanalysis have stressed, many of our life-shaping secrets are ones we are not even conscious of - they are repressed, forgotten, denied or deposited in our unconscious.  Our disciplines of living must take account of these depths too. 

Divine Comedy - a story of multiple overwhelmings

Jumping ahead to the final chapter, we find the subheadings 'Joy', 'Feasting', and ... 'The Hospitality of God'.  Ford introduces us to the Greek term Perichoresis, which describes the circling and interweaving of a dance. 'It was daringly taken up by the early Church to suggest what goes on in the very life of God,' he says. 'It is worth trying to understand why ...'  We then get quotations from Dante, Ezekiel and O'Siadhail. No wonder that last chapter is titled Kaleidoscope.


Join us, however much - or little - of the book you have managed to read, at Wychwood Library on Sunday, November 6th at 7pm.  The circle will be open, intimate and informal. 

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