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

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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

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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

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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, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 15

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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

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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