Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 22

For an introduction to this series, look here

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard         

  Are sweeter

That’s Keats of course, appropriately from the Ode on a Grecian Urn, but it expresses nearly perfectly a fragment from Heraclitus. His idea is that there is a deep structure, a profound harmony to all things, which we may not be able to perceive but which holds the whole cosmos together.

The problem is that all too often the evidence doesn’t seem to support the theory. Keats was not writing to back up Heraclitus, but expressing the Romantic longing for the sublime, the experience beyond the normal range in which the normal limitations of human life feel as if they have been transcended. But one might criticise Heraclitus by saying that he has no more objective evidence than Keats: maybe this idea of cosmic harmony is just something from his own subjective experience, with no purchase on external reality.

There is no lack of people, now and throughout history, who have argued the case each way with equal conviction. In the end, I suspect that alongside listening to the evidence, each one of us will be swayed in adopting the position we take by less tangible factors. Personal experience, the views we hear around us, recent events – all of those and others have a huge effect on how we feel about the world in which we live.

It may be worth taking a moment to reflect on how your worldview has changed during 2020. I doubt if many people have decided on the basis of this year that the world is more ordered and harmonious than they had thought. Many will probably have moved in the opposite direction. If your view has changed, and you think rightly, it’s probably worth recognising explicitly that it has, and what has caused it. Or if you feel you have been pushed away from what you truly believe by the pandemic and its effects, it’s all the more important to rediscover what you truly believe.

Evidence is important, experience likewise, but there is also an element of will, and of faith, in each of us which helps determine how we see the world. If we criticise Heraclitus for following his own instincts rather than sticking strictly to the evidence, we need to recognise that every human being, including ourselves, does the same.

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

Fragments on Fragments 21

For an introduction to this series, look here

Fire will come; it will catch, and judge

For Heraclitus, fire is a central concept – far more than just a physical phenomenon. There are several fragments which refer to fire, fire as a central symbol of the justice of the universe, of the order underlying all things. Fire is not purely destructive – it tests, and judges, but can reward as well as condemn. Paul says something very much the same in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.

There’s more than one sort of fire. The coronavirus has spread around the world like wildfire, and it has exposed governments especially. Those whose main concern was for the health of their people, and those who were more focussed on financial success, are now clearly seen to be different. It has been widely observed that countries with women in leadership seem mostly to have responded more quickly and firmly in protecting their people.

On a more local level, in communities and families, the same judgement will have been in play. In my own setting in the Church of England, there is a continuing process of judgement going on as to how we will be reshaped for the future (and ongoing discussion about how well we have responded so far). We are all open to judgement.

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

Fragments on Fragments 20

For an introduction to this series, look here

Seekers of gold dig up much earth and find little


People dig tons of earth to find an ounce of gold

My suspicion is that Heraclitus is intending an unfavourable comparison between gold diggers, and the equally demanding search for truth. But I am also reminded that Jesus used a similar comparison in a more positive way:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

The desire which compels people to give all their time and energy in search of earthly reward, in Jesus’ view, is not so much wrong in itself as directed towards the wrong end. But whereas Heraclitus might be inclined to write off the people who waste their time on such efforts, Jesus’ parable challenges them, and challenges us, to turn that energy towards more lasting rewards than gold.

In theory, when everything changes that should be a good time to reflect on what our real and deepest values are, and whether our lives are really directed towards them. In practice, it’s a time when it feels all the more needful to cling on to what’s nearest at hand and provides obvious security, whether financial or psychological. If, when and whenever the stress begins to abate, that may be the right time to think again about whether our practice is really reflecting our ideals in the things we value. Are we spending our time and energy digging for something which in the end we don’t really need or want? Maybe we’re not even sure what our real, deepest needs might be. Another saying of Heraclitus encourages us not to stop looking:

Lovers of wisdom must be good at enquiring into many things

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

Fragments on Fragments 19

For an introduction to this series, look here

Not knowing how to listen, neither can they speak

This fragment must be a warning to any writer or speaker. Listening is the essential skill without which speech cannot connect with reality – the reality of the external world or the internal reality of another person. Although we can’t be sure of the original context, other fragments show us that Heraclitus was insistent that we should pay attention to what is really there in front of our eyes (and ears), and is quite uncomplimentary about the ways in which most people don’t do so.

The pandemic has had radical effects on all of us, in very different ways. Some have found themselves suddenly out of work, whether temporarily or indefinitely, while others have been hectically busy. But whether with more time on our hands or less, I think many of us have found it difficult to be still – to be receptive enough to really listen. I have certainly found it hard enough work listening to myself. As things to do flit across my mind, it’s hard to be aware of what’s going on in myself, let alone anyone else or the world of which I’m part. It’s much easier to be still inside when the world around is calm and secure; and that has not been the experience for any of us.

Rediscovering listening can happen through many routes. It can be mediated by time in an external environment in which we can slow down, or through deep conversation with a friend, or by being still within ourselves in meditation or prayer. The important thing is to find ways of recovering or holding on to that capacity to listen. Only as those who have some idea of what is going on within ourselves, between ourselves and others, and in our external world, can we begin to help each other live well. Only as those who can listen are we given words to speak.

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

Fragments on Fragments 18

For an introduction to this series, look here

All things follow from this word / the Word

This phrase, from the longer fragment which probably set the scene for Heraclitus’ book, tries to get at the ambiguity he was exploiting – and to ask the same question of ourselves that he was asking of his readers in the fifth century before Jesus.

Heraclitus uses the word ‘logos’, which previously had been used by writers just to indicate a piece of writing, and is maybe the first to connect it to something deeper, eternal, universally true: ‘the Word’ with a capital letter. For Christians of course it is impossible not to make the connection with Jesus the Word of God, but John’s gospel was five or six centuries in the future when Heraclitus was writing. Logos as he seems to have meant it indicated his key belief that there was a deep underlying order to the universe, that all things are part of one coherent whole. The other point he makes rather forcefully is that human beings are very poor at grasping this truth, even after they have been told about it!

One of the most demanding questions all of us have been asked in the light of the pandemic is whether we are able to make that step of believing that there is order in the world, of any sort. Are we able to live according to a belief in something of which we see little sign? Or will panic, or despair, overwhelm us? It’s a real, and practical question. I have heard ‘theology’ used as a synonym for ‘useless theory with no real world consequences’. It has the advantage of being shorter, but the disadvantage of being completely untrue. The ways in which we act in the world reveal what we really believe about where our security lies, and what is fundamentally real.

For me, the pandemic has made me ask again whether I really believe that the world is genuinely ordered by the God whose face is revealed in the person Jesus Christ. In digging into that question my own faith has changed, in what I believe are good and helpful ways. But it has not been a simple or quick process, and the writing of these fragments is an important part of it.

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

Fragments on Fragments 17

For an introduction to this series, look here

This is the peculiarity of the present day, in which every sea and land has been thrown open to travellers; and in which, therefore, one can no longer employ the evidence of poets and fabulists, as my predecessors have done on very many points, “offering,” as Heraclitus says, “tainted witnesses to disputed facts”

The opening sentence here comes from the ancient Greek historian Polybius, who himself quotes Heraclitus. Polybius’ main intention was to denounce other historians, but along the way he says something that really struck me in this time of restriction, lockdown, quarantine.

It’s all relative of course. Polybius was writing as the Roman Empire expanded across the Mediterranean, and as it did so travel became far more straightforward – at least within those boundaries. For those of us who have become used to holiday flights every year, or even more to those who have become intercontinental commuters, Polybius’ world might seem quite small. And the contrast was all the greater for us, when we were suddenly told to stay in our homes as much as possible, not to meet anyone, to only go shopping for food once a week …

There has been plenty of conversation about ‘the new normal’. I am writing these fragments in the form they are because I don’t think anyone can claim yet to know what that might look like. The chances are, though, that travel will be much more complicated, and sometimes restricted, than it has been over these last few decades in which increasing numbers of people have flowed to and fro across the whole world.

Polybius is warning against believing travellers’ (tall) tales, and in favour of getting the evidence direct. As we have seen, conspiracy theories and unfounded rumours spread pretty well in any case, and now we don’t actually need to travel in order to see with our own eyes what is happening elsewhere. And we may discover a virtue we didn’t even know existed. St Benedict, when he wrote the rule for his monks, included as essential a vow of stability. His rule is generally very merciful to human frailty, but he had no time at all for “so-called monks” who couldn’t stay in one place.

After (many of us) getting so used to travel as a basic form of activity, what would it mean to learn to live in one place? As even the commute into city centres begins to diminish with increasing work from home, how can we recalibrate our lives to have some balance of work and rest? They’re tough questions to answer. But whatever the new normal may be, it would be well for us all to be ready for a life in which we aren’t so much on the move, and to look for the ways in which that can be a cause of joy and not frustration.

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