It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. I can scarcely believe it’s a fortnight since we left Arran. In some ways, I can close my eyes and think myself back there in an instant, then at other times, it seems like a distant memory from another life. Such are the vagaries of human recall. I have very little news of any consequence to report this week, because I have had my head down, working, getting caught up on my enormous self-created backlog. I’m now at the stage where if it weren’t for the trees in the way, I could see the wood at the end of the tunnel, or something. It wasn’t helped by the accountants asking me for a whole heap of additional stuff which took me ages to get together. I wouldn’t mind having to provide this level of detail (under the threat of being fined for non-compliance by HMRCE and Companies House) if it was applied with the same rigour across the board. To MPs, for instance.
Anyway, don’t get me started, or we will be here all night. Let’s talk about something non-controversial, at least for a while. The weather has been dull as the proverbial ditchwater all week, and it looks, today, as I type this, as though we’re heading into the first of the usual equinoctial storms, as gales and rain appear to be heading down from the North. Matilda has been distinctly unimpressed, on the mornings when I have opened the conservatory door for her to go out on to the decking, and she has been almost splatted on the head by a massive drip of rainwater from the guttering. Like every other cat we’ve ever had, she thinks I am personally responsible for the weather, and complains long and loud to me that she is no longer able to spend most of the day round the corner, in front of the garage, in her little garden suntrap where she curled up for hours on end, this summer.
I think Misty, meanwhile, is still confused by the fact that someone seems to have stolen her beach, and she can no longer go out and play “stones” first thing in the mornings. She has, however, had the compensation of some long, blustery walks up Castle Hill, or through the woods to the quarry, or, yesterday, along the canal bank to Milnsbridge, where she managed somehow to fall in the canal and had to be fished out by Debbie. We don’t have a very good track record with that stretch of canal. The first time Zak saw it, it was covered in a film of green algae, and he thought it was just a continuation of the grass, and kept on running. He was quite surprised, to say the least. Misty seems to be settling back into a routine, anyway, which can only be a good thing, though she still does have the odd aberration: the other night, instead of following Debbie upstairs to bed, she jumped on the end of my bed, the other end of which was already occupied by Matilda, and a Mexican standoff ensued, which Debbie had to referee. She, and Matilda, were very impressed, as you can imagine.
Debbie’s been girding her “lions” ready for the start of teaching proper, which all kicks off from tomorrow, but unfortunately the game of playing academic sillybuggers has already begun, in that she was asked to cover a class last Monday, spent all of Sunday preparing for it, and then got there to find it had been cancelled! Dear Mr Arse, allow me to introduce you to Mr Elbow. I was tempted to type things can only get better, but I resent giving Dr Brian Cox the oxygen of publicity.
I know you are all dying to know the outcome of the imbroglio over the camper van, so I will keep you in suspenders no longer. At the time I was writing last week’s Epiblog, it was all over the garage floor in pieces, and there was some doubt – some considerable doubt, actually – about whether those pieces would ever go back together again. It was definitely in the “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men territory”. Fortunately, during the week, a solution did eventually present itself. Owing to the kindness of others, and negotiations with the garage, we arrived at a compromise, whereby it was agreed that the urgent problem with fitting a new end housing would be tackled straight away, and the other problems they had discovered, some of which they admitted were to do with stuff they had fixed previously, would be re-done by them, at a later date, on a pro-bono basis.
This meant that we could (just) afford to pay the still rather eye-watering bill for the repair that was absolutely and immediately necessary, and keep the camper on the road. So all was well – sort of, anyway, until the garage man came round to collect the cheque, and Misty, misunderstanding his friendly hand reaching out to pat her on the head, gave him a “collie dog nip” on his left knee! Argh! I apologised fulsomely, and, luckily, he was very good about it. The fact that I’d just handed him an humungous cheque probably sweetened the situation somewhat, but even so, Misty… Actually, you can’t really blame the dog. If I’d been through some of the things she’s probably been through, I’d want to rip the throat out of every representative of the species responsible, never mind give them a sharp nip on the patella. It’s probably my fault - I should have told her to go on her beddies and stay there, but she was wandering round, sniffing him, and wagging her tail, good as gold, until he made the fatal mistake of a sudden gesture. No doubt the next garage bill will include a charge for a pair of trousers. And/or possibly a new leg.
So the camper rumbles on, like the rest of us, into an uncertain future. Watch this space. In fact, rumbling on has been the order of the week. The crisis in Syria rumbles on, and I had two separate mobile phone calls from Unicef acknowledging my donation to their Syria appeal this week. This is odd, because a) I didn’t recall donating and b) if I did donate, I’d like the money to go to Syria, and not to paying some pongo in a call centre in Droitwich to phone me up about it. I might well have texted them £3.00 in a moment of weakness, and when I get a minute, I will check my phone. Or Deb might have picked up my phone and done it, but either way, it’s a salutary warning. The money you give to Unicef does not get to the people you think you are giving it to. Ethiopiaid is another, similar organisation. As it happens, I do remember giving them some money. I got a mailer from them, and I printed out my usual letter saying basically, look, we’d like to help, but at the moment we’re a charity case ourselves, and we’re so brassic that the church mice hold collections for us, so I’m sorry we can’t donate on this occasion. As I folded this up to put it in the envelope to send back to them, I noticed 63p in loose change lying around on the table, so I scooped that up and put it in the envelope. This week, they have written me a letter thanking me for my donation of £0.63, which is an act of crass idiocy because the postage alone will have cost them the thick end of 50p, and by the time you add on the stationery, and their time, they will have lost money on the deal! This is yet another reason why these days, (or at least in the days when we were still able to give to charity) I only gave to those causes which were small and local, and where I knew that all or most of the money went to the cause itself, and not on poodlefaking administration.
Talking of poodlefaking administrators, this week I also heard back from the Press Complaints Commission about my having reported the Daily Mail to them, for its disgusting coverage of the Philpott case [“Vile Product of Welfare UK”, in case you’ve forgotten]. I wasn’t the only person to complain of course, there were thousands of us. But, despite this, the PCC has ruled that (inter alia):
The article acknowledged the fact that Mr Philpott’s case was an extreme example, and the Commission did not consider that the article had suggested that his conduct was representative of welfare claimants as a whole. Whilst the Commission noted the complainant’s position that it was unclear which of Mr Philpott’s characteristics were being referred to in suggesting that these were widespread, it did not consider that this had resulted in the article being significantly inaccurate or misleading. The columnist’s view, that tens of thousands of welfare claimants were “scroungers” and his view that these individuals’ lifestyles constituted an abuse of the system, was clearly distinguished as an expression of his opinion.
To be honest, I didn’t really expect much else. The head of the PCC is Paul Dacre, who also, coincidentally, happens to be the editor of the Daily Mail. Draw your own conclusions. And, in the wider sense, the Daily Mail is a newspaper with which I would not sully my arse by using it as bog-paper. But nevertheless, it would seem that you can say what you like about whom you like, as long as you make it clear that it’s an expression of your opinion. So the Daily Mail can write article after article suggesting all welfare claimants are feckless scroungers who should be made to wear yellow stars and herded into camps (and probably will do, come election year) and as long as it’s clearly set out as a matter of opinion, the PCC will sit on its hands and do nothing. I would, therefore, like to clearly set out my opinion, that the journalists who draw money under false pretences by recycling any questionable old shit that Iain Duncan-Smith cares to lob them, should be set to work breaking rocks in a quarry till they apologise, in person and in print, to everyone who they have traduced unfairly by association with Philpott.
And in any case, who are the real scroungers? Consider the following list:
A Chinon armchair: £331
A Manchu cabinet: £493
A pair of elephant lamps: £134.50
A Loire table: £750
A birch Camargue chair: £432
A birdcage coffee table: £238.50
A dishwasher: £454
A Range cooker: £639
A fridge-freezer: £702
A Kenwood toaster: £19.99
A cot mattress from Toys ‘R’ Us: £34.99
8 coffee spoons and cake forks, £5.95 each
These are just some of the items claimed on expenses by Michael Gove MP, the current education secretary, who is known for pontificating about too much being spent on welfare, and “living within our means”. These items were claimed for his second home, using the additional costs allowance. Then in 2006, Michael Gove bought himself a house in his constituency at a cost of £395,000. He charged taxpayers £13,259 for the move, plus over £500 for a night at the Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa. He then flipped his second home allowance to the house in his constituency, and routinely claimed the maximum amount MPs were entitled to claim from the Additional Costs Allowance: £22,110 in 2006-2007, and £23,083 in 2007-2008. Further proof, if proof were needed, that we’re all in this together, of course.
Once more I find myself teetering on the brink between commenting on my own life and commenting on the world at large. As usual, I am on the horns of a Dalai Lama. Which is more important, my spiritual life or the fact that there’s suffering and injustice in the world? And what do we do about the fact that some religions are seemingly content to womble along and ignore the suffering and injustice on the premise that it will all be corrected in the next world. It’s the same dilemma that currently preoccupies The Archers of all things: do they raise £35,000 to restore the church organ, while there are dossers sleeping rough in the bus shelter.
Not everyone in an organised religion is content to sit on the fence and equivocate, however. According to the BBC News Magazine web site:
A Spanish nun has become one of Europe's most influential left-wing public intellectuals. This year, thousands have joined her anti-capitalist movement, which campaigns for Catalan independence, the reversal of public spending cuts and nationalisation of banks and energy companies.
The nun in question is Sister Teresa Forcades, the unlikely star of local television chat shows, plus Twitter and Facebook. The people who have signed up to the movement she started, Proces Constituent, which has signed up around 50,000 new members alone this year, are mainly non-believing atheists of a left-wing persuasion. Her 10-point programme calls for:
• A government takeover of all banks, and measures to curb financial speculation.
• An end to job cuts; fairer wages and pensions, shorter working hours and payments to parents who stay at home.
• Genuine "participatory democracy" and steps to curb political corruption.
• Decent housing for all, and an end to all foreclosures.
• A reversal of public spending cuts, and renationalisation of all public services.
• An individual's right to control their own body, including a woman's right to decide over abortion.
• "Green" economic policies and the nationalisation of energy companies.
• An end to xenophobia, and repeal of immigration laws.
• Placing public media under democratic control, including the internet. [I am not entirely sure I agree with her here – for me, part of the power of the internet is that politicians have tried, and failed, to understand or control it]
• International "solidarity", Spain leaving NATO, and the abolition of armed forces in a free Catalonia.
Sister Teresa also believes the Roman Catholic church should be thoroughly modernised for the 21st Century including a welcome for women priests and gay people allowed to serve openly in the church. She admires Gandhi, and some of the policies of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Bolivia's Evo Morales. She also advocates the economic model of Benedictine nuns creating useful goods to sell. I must admit, I am all in favour of the Benedictine order creating produce to sell, especially if the produce in question is Benedictine. Needless to say, Catholic bishops loyal to the Vatican have been criticising her radical stances on everything from abortion to banking, but for now at least, her own bishop at home has allowed her to continue. We shall see.
I was interested in this story of a feisty woman going her own way in the church because today [Sunday 15th September] is the feast of St Catherine of Genoa. That’s Genoa as in, “my wife went to Italy!” “Genoa?” “Of course I do, I’m married to her!” St Catherine of Genoa [Caterina Fieschi Adorno, 1447 – 15 September 1510] was a saint and mystic, admired for her work among the sick and the poor, and remembered because of various writings describing both these actions and her mystical experiences. She spent most of her life and her means serving the sick, especially during the plague which ravaged that city in 1497 and 1501. She died in 1510.
I was struck by the resonances with what I wrote last week about pantheism, and about those moments when you know inexplicably that all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, in the words of Juliana of Norwich. It is this direct personal experience of the otherness of what some might call the Almighty that seems to be at the core of the mystical experience. Or rather not the otherness, but the unity with the otherness, where in fact you come to the realisation that everything is all one, and you too are part of it. Sometimes there is no place where “you” ends and the rest of it begins, which is very like the Buddhist concept of Satori. We’re getting into territory here where words themselves start to break down and become less than useless, because the Tao that can be described is not the Tao.
In the same way that the Zen writings describe people experiencing Satori as literally shaking with fright and with beads of sweat appearing on their brows, Catherine’s experience of God and purgatory is not pretty, or comfortable, and not for the faint-hearted. She consistently uses the metaphor of a refining fire, for the process of stripping away everything that prevents the soul from uniting with what she calls God.
Sin's rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing.
When gold has been purified up to twenty-four carats, it can no longer be consumed by any fire; not gold itself but only dross can be burnt away. Thus the divine fire works in the soul: God holds the soul in the fire until its every imperfection is burnt away and it is brought to perfection, as it were to the purity of twenty-four carats, each soul however according to its own degree. When the soul has been purified it stays wholly in God, having nothing of self in it; its being is in God who has led this cleansed soul to Himself; it can suffer no more for nothing is left in it to be burnt away; were it held in the fire when it has thus been cleansed, it would feel no pain. Rather the fire of divine love would be to it like eternal life and in no way contrary to it.
The same image of the refining fire is also used by Eliot in Little Gidding, from Four Quartets, though his prime source is probably Dante.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit proceeds,
Unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
Catherine was converted by a mystical experience during confession on 22 March 1473; her conversion is described as an overpowering sense of God's love for her. After this revelation occurred, she abruptly walked out, without even finishing her confession. This, instead, marked the beginning of her life of close union with God in prayer, without using the more common forms of prayer such as the rosary. She began to receive Communion almost daily, a practice extremely rare for those outside of the clergy in the Middle Ages, and she underwent further remarkable mental and mystical experiences.
You can interpret “an overpowering sense of God’s love” to be something akin to the oneness felt by the Zen pupil when he realises Satori. I don’t think I have ever experienced what the Zen masters would call Satori, in the same way as I don’t think that those moments, those times when I have felt an increased sense of oneness with the universe have been truly mystical experiences. Partly because you begin to realise the enormity of what you are thinking, what you are experiencing, and then shy away from it – or at least I do. But if ever I had the courage to continue down the road to Satori, the road to the life-transforming mystical experience beyond which there is no return to the old “you”, that is the path I would look to go down.
St Catherine’s mystical experiences led her to change her life, and the lives of those around her, because she began offering unselfish service to the sick in a hospital at Genoa, in which her husband joined her after he, too, had been converted. He later became a Franciscan, but she joined no religious order. He and Catherine decided to live in the Pammatone, a large hospital in Genoa, and to dedicate themselves to works of charity there, and she eventually became manager and treasurer of the hospital. She died in 1510, after a prolonged illness with many days of pain and suffering as she experienced visions and wavered between life and death. For the last few years of her life, following the death of her husband in 1497, Catherine, who had previously defined her relationship with God as one of “interior inspiration”, agreed to have a spiritual advisor, in the form of one Fr Marabotti, who compiled her Memoirs.
She was actually declared a saint on the strength of her writings alone, especially on purgatory, as this excerpt from a 2005 paper presented to the Renaissance Symposium at the University of Mississippi sets out:
Purgatory, however, was more than a doctrine for Catherine; it was also a metaphor for her daily life. As described in her vita, "She saw the condition of the souls in purgatory in the mirror of her humanity and of her mind, and therefore spoke of it so clearly. She seemed to stand on a wall separating this life from the other, that she might relate in one what she saw suffered in the other" (ch.37). Yet this description does not fully capture the nature of her experience of purgatory, since it does not mention the way God, according to the vita, made a purgatory out of her body (ch.38).
In Catherine's life, purgatory manifested itself in an unusually strong antagonism between spirit and flesh, an antagonism so great that it made her physically ill. As the vita explains, "When the spirit found itself obliged to yield somewhat to humanity, if it had not been restrained by a divine power, it would have reduced that body to dust, to obtain the liberty to be entirely occupied with itself; and the body, on its side, would rather have endured a thousand deaths than suffer so much oppression of the spirit" (ch.38). It is not inappropriate therefore to say that Catherine underwent her purgation in this life, rather than in the next.
So what am I saying here? Why am I so interested in this dead Italian? We seem to have a situation where someone had an experience of God [check] which inspired them to do something [check] and who took their inspiration direct from a relationship with God without the church as the intermediary [check]. In this respect, Sister Teresa Forcades is another of the same, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t become St Teresa Forcades one day.
We seem to have someone whose direct mystical experience of God seemed to them to bridge this world and the other [standing on the wall, looking over into purgatory] in a way that reminds me very strongly of some of my own experiences, or rather, what some of my own experiences could have been like, if I had had the courage to allow them to progress, mindful of their implications, instead of ducking the issue:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin
As George Herbert puts it. But what does it mean? We can’t all be mystics, surely, or it would be like a football team with eleven wingers, all winging it. Very entertaining to watch, for those few minutes while you have the ball at your feet, the wizard of dribble, but who organises the midfield, the defence, and the goalkeeping?
Good old Milton has one answer:
Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
So maybe we should be content to be one of those who only stand and wait. Not everybody gets to the mountain top and peeps over into the promised land. As long as the standing and waiting doesn’t become an end in itself, and you remember why you’re standing and what you’re waiting for, I guess.
I can’t spend all my days in a state of permanent ecstasy, I have things to do and promises to keep. What I suppose I must do is accept the limited glimpses I get now and again, and, in the interim, be one of those who also serves. But is that a compromise too far? Where do I draw the line? Would it be better if I did actually give in to my tendencies, open up some of these metaphorical unanswered direct personal messages from Big G and spend the rest of my days wearing a hair shirt and raving to the sky in a cave somewhere? I complain long and loud (like Matilda about the rain) when he doesn’t call, but when he does leave a message, it seems I’m scared of the content!
It would certainly be a very different world if we all sold all that we had, gave it to the poor, and headed off into the wilderness, but would it be better, or worse? Or, indeed, just different? And what about those times when I don’t feel close to Big G, when I feel silent and morose and bolshy? Those times when I must stand and wait.What do you do then, if you're in a cave, half way up a mountain, like St Molaise on Mullach Mor?
Still, there’s a lot of serving, and standing and waiting to do, whatever. I noticed, during the wind and rain this afternoon, that one of the greenhouses has now got a hole in the top, so really what it needs doing is either re-covering or taking to bits and disposing of. I’ll add it to my list. There are dozens of these minor outdoor jobs that need doing, battening down the hatches before winter howls through the garden again. The weather today would certainly have tested any pantheist. It’s hard to believe that “the world is full of the grandeur of God” when you see your greenhouse being shredded before your eyes.
And, as well as the minor outdoor jobs, there are some major indoor ones, like all the books I am supposed to be working on, plus last year’s accounts, plus the forms I still have to fill in to tell the crematorium what I want doing with my parents’ ashes. So that’s next week sorted, then. And at least we’re all here, Sunday teatime, gathered round the stove, the dog steaming slightly from the rain, Matilda snoozing, and the camper van parked outside in the driveway. I suppose we must be thankful for these small mercies, and remember that without the humdrum, we can’t properly evaluate our experience of the exceptional. Thank God, I need to go and get some coal in, then.