Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 16

For an introduction to this series, look here

Don’t listen to me but hear my word, and agree that all things are one

Many surprising things happen in Christian ministry. One that has stayed with me was a phone call I received from someone I scarcely knew. She’d rung me because she was sure that I had a word for her – a divine message. I really hope that what I said was what she needed to hear. I remembered that moment in reading this fragment. Heraclitus doesn’t want followers who will uncritically accept whatever he says. He is trying in his own word (logos) to express the underlying unifying principle of all creation (also logos). What he wants of his hearers and readers is to apply their own reason (logos again), to really understand the truth of what he is saying.

Two things strike me: firstly, that I too hope you will take from my words what strikes at a greater truth than just my own prejudices and preconceptions. Secondly, and much more importantly, that you too will find something helpful in this, one of Heraclitus’ fundamental principles. Heraclitus was not a Buddhist (he lived about the same time as the Buddha, or just before), and the oneness he sees in all things can’t be collapsed into contemporary Eastern-influenced philosophies. But it does at the least point us towards a way of thinking about the world as more than a collection of separate entities.

Heraclitus’ vision pushes us away from a competitive view of our identity, and that’s a significant counterweight to the individualism which so insidiously infects us, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not. The other is not our enemy, but the one we may need in order to hear the word which will speak to us.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus

No thorns, no throne; no cross, no crown. (William Penn)

Coronavirus – or to translate the name into English, ‘crownvirus’. So called because of the shape of those famous spikes with which the virus attacks human cells. But as we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, the title makes me stop and wonder. Who is really in charge – who is the king? Certainly not we human beings at the moment: that supremacy over creation which we take for granted has been rudely and pretty successfully challenged by a tiny piece of genetic material. Biologists disagree about whether they’re really alive, but whether or not, they’ve changed all our lives immeasurably, and not for the better. Some of us have suffered from COVID19 ourselves, and some of us have been bereaved of friends or family. I don’t think many of us feel much like monarchs of creation right now.

But – of course – we Christians don’t think of us as being monarchs anyway, at least in theory. We know that it is God who reigns over all things not us. A lot of the time we don’t really act on that belief, but it’s there. And now? What effect does the coronavirus have? It could drive us in two very different directions.

Christ the king is the one in whom we can put our trust – which means we don’t need to measure our future by the success of vaccines (however much we hope they will work as well as promised). We are secure at a much deeper level because the most fundamental battle has already been fought and won. Only Christ wears the crown, not a virus nor human beings nor anything else in all creation – all is subject to his just and gentle rule.  

The first option is to hand over the crown to the virus, and then fight to get it back. OK, for now all we can do is to remain spaced out and locked down, but a vaccine is coming and then we’ll be back on top. And that keeps God out of the story. The second option is to think differently about the story as a whole.

If Christ really is the King, we’re offered a different perspective – or a renewed one. We’re offered the chance to think again about all we’ve been going through, not as a struggle for the crown of creation between humanity and a virus, but in the light of a God whose rule over creation is shown on a cross.

The kingship of Christ is the opposite of human rule, because it is expressed completely through love, through service. Christ our king was incarnate among us, taking the form of a servant, in order to lead us back away from our crowning of ourselves as lords of creation. He invites us to recognise his kingship, and to find our place again in creation as the stewards of all God has made, the sons and daughters of our creator God.

Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 15

For an introduction to this series, look here

The way upward and the way downward is one and the same

This fragment was one of the two that T S Eliot placed at the beginning of his Four Quartets. The final section of the last of the Quartets begins:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

One of the advantages of fragments is that they can be taken to mean many things. Eliot makes them his own, just as I have been doing in my own way, for his own purpose and his own time. So without claiming that Eliot is giving the ‘correct’ interpretation, we can use him as a way in to this saying.

I think Heraclitus and Eliot would agree on one thing: this saying doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter which way you go, you’ll end up in the same place anyway. What I take from Eliot is the idea that in any discovery, in any new understanding, there is an element of re-discovery. What we know now for the first time was there waiting to be seen and grasped all the time. The trivial example of jigsaw puzzles comes to mind; the piece can be sitting in plain sight, but until you see it as the piece for a certain place, it doesn’t have any helpful meaning.

So I am led to wonder what it is that I need to see differently, understand otherwise, in order to bring myself back into internal order. Probably it won’t be anything I can see easily or immediately, and it won’t happen without effort, even if the effort is the effort to be still. But the encouragement of Heraclitus (and Eliot) is that the effort is worthwhile. However disordered it may feel at the moment, the world will come back together again, it will make sense again. We will rediscover a place of freedom and harmony.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 13

For an introduction to this series, look here

What comes after death is not what people expect or imagine

I am reminded of one of the prayers of the Anglican tradition:

Merciful God,

you have prepared for those who love you

such good things as pass our understanding:

pour into our hearts such love toward you

that we, loving you in all things and above all things,

may obtain your promises,

which exceed all that we can desire;

Whatever Heraclitus may have intended, for me this fragment is pure promise. Compared to the all-encompassing love of God, our horizons are so short, our hopes so weak. The promise of God in the Christian tradition is of a new life after death which is better than we can either imagine or hope for, not worse. It is one of the tragedies of the history of the Church that it became obsessed with trying to threaten people into the kingdom with the torments of hell, rather than learning to invite them in with a vision of paradise.

If the pandemic makes us reflect more on our own mortality, perhaps it may be with a sense of hope. While death is always grief and loss, and before its time is tragedy, it need not be despair. The prayer above claims that what God has prepared for us is beyond our understanding or our desire, and it is true that we are often mistaken about our own deepest and best desires. The many stories of the granting of three wishes to some lucky (or usually unlucky) person illustrate the fact: there’s always a twist, an unexpected outcome which turns the tables. The challenge of the prayer is to place ourselves in the hands of the God who knows better than we do what it is that will most completely fulfil our potential and give us greatest joy.

Doing that – and this is the trickiest bit – involves recognising that we can’t do it ourselves. In this time in which we have realised that we aren’t as powerful as we thought, it’s possible that a little humility might begin to grow in our souls; and that might be the ground in which the seed of God’s promise can grow.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 14

For an introduction to this series, look here

Make a good death, and your destiny will be the best

Death is back. The increase brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has put death back in the headlines for us all. Far more painfully, the bereavements many have suffered have made death a personal reality in the lives of individuals and families.

Death never went away, of course, but people in Europe and North America particularly have been getting better and better at pretending it doesn’t really exist. Funerals are replaced by memorials: saying farewell to a person who has died is replaced by celebrating the life they lived. Both may be very good things, but they are not the same, and one is not a substitute for the other. The dealing with death is left to each individual and family, while the public event celebrates life.

What is a ‘good death’? For many people it’s almost impossible to think of those two words together, but all religious traditions have had their different ideas about what it means to die well – not glorifying death, nor hiding from it. In this shared tragedy, might we be able to find new ways of dying well? The first step would be to reverse the move towards the privatisation of dying (and grieving). I have been with many people at their deathbeds, and the most peaceful and least anxious have been the ones in which death’s coming is acknowledged, both by the families and the dying person.

I am convinced that it is more healthy for us as we deal with loss, death, bereavement that these realities are named for what they are. What we name and recognise is less scary than the lurking terror we can’t quite see but know is there: every horror movie bears witness to that. The work of grief is difficult enough as it is, but when we feel that we can’t acknowledge what’s really happening, the burden becomes greater, not less.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 12

For an introduction to this series, look here

Living and dead are potentially the same thing, and so too waking and sleeping, and young and old; for the latter revert to the former, and the former in turn to the latter

Heraclitus was known as ‘the Obscure’; this fragment reminded me of the equally difficult poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”. The title gives fair warning of what is to come! Hopkins loved language, a love which was expressed through coining brand new words, and asking the reader to work hard on understanding the sense behind the music of his poetry. Here he mourns the inevitable coming of death, and the forgetting that overcomes all of us as time goes on:

But for Hopkins (and for me), Heraclitus’ vision of eternal interchangeability of life and death is interrupted, broken by the message of resurrection. The poem continues:

Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.

and a few lines later

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am

Resurrection for me is not something which signifies an unimaginable far future beyond death: it’s about a different way of living now, as if life had moved into a new dimension. In some form or other, Heraclitus believed that there was an eternal circle of life and death. For Christians, as for many other faiths, that cycle is broken by the promise of a different sort of life beyond death That promise also gives a completely different quality to the life we live on earth.

Hopkins contrasts the natural cycle, in which fire is a central component for Heraclitus, with the resurrection life. The world’s wildfire may leave but ash – but the matchwood of humanity is transformed into immortal diamond. It’s impossible to say or imagine what that might look like; the point is the promise.

With shelter at home orders and social distancing restrictions, and the anxiety of rising numbers infected and dying, the world can feel as if it is closing in. Hopkins invites us to see it instead exploding outwards into something utterly other, eternal and beautiful.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018.
Photo credit: Alison Clark

Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 11

For an introduction to this series, look here

Even those sleeping are working, co-operating in making something of the world

What might it mean for us all if the sleeping work of each of us, in our own private world, were really contributing to the waking world we share? The norm in individualist societies is to assume that our dream world is just about us, but that of course is a cultural assumption. In many societies, past and present, dreams are assumed to tell the community something about its life together and what the future holds.

So maybe we could think about what it would mean if both were true? Not so much the idea that dreams are predictors of the future for society, as the thought that maybe in our sleeping work we are doing something which will always have an effect beyond our own selves. Asleep we live again, sometimes more acutely than when we’re awake, the things going on in our lives – our shared lives in community as well as our individual issues.

As we sleep, we are doing our own individual work of trying to make sense of what our waking selves are experiencing. And that work can also contribute to our communal work. In these fragments, I am trying to do exactly that. I’ve been wrestling myself with all the issues I’m writing about, even remembering a few dreams, which is very unusual for me. Now in this writing I’m sharing and stretching those thoughts. I don’t have any definitive answers, but I hope I can contribute to our common task. It was as I was going to sleep that this fragment reached its finished form in my mind.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 10

For an introduction to this series, look here

The fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings

This is possibly not the most optimistic of Heraclitus’ sayings! I include it though because it is a lesson in humility, especially for those like me who like to make sense of things, to build systems, to understand what’s going on.

While it’s really important (for all of us, though some more than others) to be able to order and understand our experiences, it’s dangerous to do so prematurely. When the sand is shifting beneath our feet, when we really don’t know where things are heading, when it’s all too confusing, it’s so tempting to try and establish some firm ground. I’ve certainly been tempted to do that during this pandemic. I try to re-organise my understanding of the world, of what’s possible and what’s not, only to find that next week everything’s changed again. Added to the anxiety about whether I or my loved ones are going to become ill, it’s hard work knowing how to keep afloat on such choppy seas.

What I’ve tried to do, in order to deal with this uncertainty and anxiety, is to find spaces in my life which I can do something about, and use them to provide islands of stability. For me, it has been about the rhythm of prayer, about taking exercise regularly, about keeping up with my reading. All of them would be easy to lose in a welter of obsessively checking the latest news. But insofar as I have managed to keep an even keel over the last months, I think those practices have been essential. If I had given in to the temptation to come to premature conclusions, in the long run I think I would have felt even more disordered and even depressed. When the situation really is uncertain, it’s learning how to live with the uncertainty which is essential.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 9

For an introduction to this series, look here

The waking have one world in common. Sleepers turn aside, each into a world of their own

The pandemic has changed how many of us sleep, not usually for the better. The private worlds of sleep, in which we usually work through the past day and prepare for the next, have often been unable to cope with the uncertainties and anxieties of these past months. For some of us sleep has eluded our grasp completely; others have slept fitfully and only in the shallows, never properly resting. The ordinary strangeness of dreams has become still more bizarre.

One reason perhaps is because we have not even been sure that Heraclitus’ first statement is true. Do we really have one world in common, even when we’re awake? As conspiracies swirl and advice is continually revised, and governments argue and haver uncertainly between difficult options, it’s hard even to be sure of the nature of the waking world. How can we safely enter sleep, if we are not certain what it is we will wake up to in the morning?

I am writing these reflections on one of the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. The swallows are beginning to gather, in preparation for their migration to Africa. As I watch them hunting balletically around the house, I am again in a shared world, one world in which the beauty of a bird’s flight connects me to a reality deeper than myself. The world we share is not just composed of human beings, but the whole of creation. In a time of uncertainty, re-connecting with the natural order, wherever we may encounter it, may also help us to enter the world of sleep as a place of peace and refreshment.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 8

For an introduction to this series, look here

Stamp out violence more quickly than a wildfire

Just like a fire (or a virus), violence is catching. In close-built cities, fire out of control was one of the greatest threats to a community; Heraclitus suggests that giving in to violence is an even greater danger. Giving up on the shared accountability and mutuality of community and resorting to the rule of the strongest destroys the humanity of each of us as well as the bonds that tie us together.

But what if those bonds are also ties of injustice? The Black Lives Matter movement has exposed – as if it were not in plain sight already – the structural injustices suffered by people of colour in predominantly white societies. It is one thing to try to root out individual instances of injustice, but how do you reconfigure unjust systems?

It is clear from many lessons of history that violence does not root out violence, though it may change around who are the perpetrators and who are the victims. The challenge is to loosen the bonds of society enough that those who are oppressed are released, but the whole body of a community does not dissolve. It is to loosen, and then retie those bonds in a shape that more resembles justice.

To see what justice looks like is hard work, because it involves rooting out the desire for violence in ourselves. Whether it be the violent defence of privilege, or the desire for revenge for injuries suffered, when in the grip of the desire for violence it is impossible to see what justice looks like.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark