Welcome to my Blog. On this page you will find notes about the kind of things I do, for example writing, speaking, fly-fishing, railway interests and almost anything else you can imagine. Visit often and you might be surprised to find an article that will captivate your interests.
A Certain Shredder
Ruth and I have become possessors of a brand new, neat looking , manually operated shredder. It has slots for shredding paper, credit cards and CDs. We have not used it yet; we received it yesterday.
Personal items such as medical records, very old receipts and so on can be shredded.
Now we need to establish a home for it. We have a room we call "The Den." It looks out through a bay window onto our front garden of shrubs, annuals, bulbs and, in the appropriate season, roses. It is our writing, relaxing and meditation room. That is where it will probably find a home.
I'm hoping that, because it is manually operated, it will be more reliable than the electrically operated shredder it replaces, a shredder which has proved to be next to useless.
The thought occurs that it might be a fine thing if we were able to shred our many mistakes in life. It might be a cleansing experience to visualise them going through a kind of spiritual shredder so that all that was left was a pile of detritus. Is there anyone alive who does not live with regrets over mistakes he or she wishes had never happened? Sometimes we hear a person expressing the wish that he or she could turn the clock back and do those historical things differently. Yes, we'd probably all be turning the clock back if the opportunity were on offer.
Is there another side to this? Yes, I believe there is. Our errors remain. The thought, "I wish I had done things differently," remains but it can be modified.
Recollection of the mistakes enables us to learn from them, so that "I wish I had done things differently" becomes "I can do things differenttly." There is a positive element to the absence of a post-mistakes shredder. The mistakes lead us to learning. We might always regret them, but we learn how we can avoid repeating them, and perhaps grow in the process.
This is gain in the loss.
John's Gospel and 1 John
W.F.Howard (page 54, 'Christianity According to St John') notes that the fourth verse of John's Gospel provides the text for the first 'letter.'
'...in him was life and the life was the light of men' is certainly the subject matter of the rather convoluted first paragraph of 1 John.
Those who find spiritual depth in the Johannine writings will already have noticed that Life is a major, if not the major theme of both the Gospel and the First Letter. The Gospel speaks of the Logos (Word) being in the beginning, being toward or with God and being God. That isn't easy to sort out, but it becomes manageable when we read that 'The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,' which means we can see the Logos in the life of a man. There we can study it.
The life was and is so extraordinary, so beyond all that we have previously experienced of life, that the writer of the First Letter of John declares, almost in amazement, if not actually so, 'This life was made visible; we have seen it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.'
This life, amazing in its origin, its quality, its timelessness, its nature as a gift, is that which the letter assures us is available to all who are open to it in discipleship of Jesus the Christ.
Nowhere in the New Testament, in my judgment, is the reality of that life discussed at such depth and made so immediate as in the Johannine writings. If you wish to deepen your understanding of Christ, faith, and the life manifest in him, then careful reading of John's Gospel and the three letters will not leave you in regret. To study the Johannine writings carefully, open-mindedly, is to be in a spiritual bathysphere in the depths of divine life.
The pleasures of the Murray-Darling river system
A couple of days ago, Ruth and I received the good news that the operator of the Overland train that runs between Adelaide and Melbourne had issued us with a voucher enabling us to use the fare we have paid for a return journey to transfer to the same journey some time in the future.
We were going to travel to Melbourne this month to catch up with some friends at Armagh, the headquarters of Initiatives of Change, a fine organisation to which we both belong. The COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria has made that journey unwise for the present.
However, the series of COVID-19 problems in Victoria do mean that we are enjoying South Australia, though we did manage to fit in time at Bright and Phillip Island between Victoria coronavirus outbreaks.
We have enjoyed Arkaroola, Port Lincoln, Coffin Bay, Clare, the Barossa Valley, the west coast of Eyre Peninsula, Kangaroo Island and various locations on the Murray.
The river aways feel me with renewal of spirit. I am familiar with the river in many places and fairly recently we have spend time at Milang, Mannum and Overland Corner. The river offers a different world, away from the madness of buying, selling, consuming and commerce.
Besides enjoying the river on Murray Princess, Oscar W, Marion and Captain Proud cruises, it has been my great joy to fish with the fly rod many parts of the Murray Darling system, including the Murray (especially at tranquil Tom Groggin), the Kiewa, the Goulburn, the Murrumbidgee (particularly at remote Rules Point near its source), the Tumut, the Goobragandra and Gilmore Creek.
Yes, I love the rivers of the system, though I mustg confess never to have fished the Darling.
Part of the joy of the rivers is that they flow chiefly well clear of the great conurbations. Often when we are by them, we see few if any other persons. We can enjoy the peace of being at one with the natural world.
I look forward to our next planned time on the Murray, not far from Overland Corner on the other side of the river. How beautiful it is going to be!
Autumn Leaves in the Beauty of Death
On May 1st, while in the high country of Victoria, I wrote the following in the early hours of the morning:
'Today we see autumn leaves upon the ground. Yesterday, we saw a radiant, dramatic display of leaves on the deciduous trees near Bright. The leaves are reminders of this very special season and my mind goes very easily to autumns I have known in England and Wales, both countries of deciduous trees.
As we look at the leaves we can be kept from the truth of what we are seeing. The vivid colours are good disguises of the fact that the leaves are dying. Foliage is beautiful, no matter what stage of its life it is in, but the leaves of deciduous trees are at their most beautiful in their dying. They have a very beautiful death.
Richard Rohr writes of God being in everything, including being in us and we in him. This, if i understand him correctly, is what he understands En Christo (in christ) to mean when it is thought through carefully. This suggests that it is possible for human death to be beautiful on the ground that God is in us and we are in God in the experience. I think Rohr would perhaps agree that human death can be beautiful.
This notion has to be contemplated very carefully because many deaths are extremely painful, or rather, I should say that the lead up to many deaths are painful; some are in terrible cicumstances. Most deaths are distressing for those left behind. Yet if we accept Rohr's implications of En Christo, an element of beauty has to be recognise. I shall see the loveliness of the autumn leaves as a message of beauty in humn death - of at least the possibility of it.
We That are Left Grow Old
Some years ago, Ruth and I served for a couple of weeks as volunteer wardens at Talbot House in Poperinge, the rest, recreation and spiritual centre for troops on breaks from the trenches of the Ypres Salient during the First World War.
Late one afternoon I made the lengthy walk in search of the Lijssenthoek military cemetery. Eventually I found it and spent some time there, not leaving until early evening. On the walk back I was deeply affected by the loss of life that cemetery brought into focus.
Later, I wrote the following.
'We who are left grow old.' The thought would not leave me alone as I walked the dark roads of Flanders after sunset from the Lijssenthoek military cemetery to Poperinge.
We who are left are the privileged ones, those who have the good fortune to reach an advanced age and enjoy deep reflection on days that have been. The experiences of the unfolding years were valuable at the time; now they are mines of discovery as we seek in deep thought their meanings and perhaps ask if we have learned from them, grown by them, or let them go by unexamined.
The meditative years might seem to be backward looking. Not so. Plans there are aplenty, plans more likely to achieve their objectives because they are drafted in the light of careful learning from negotiating our way through much life.
We who are left are the privileged possessors of many colours, a kaleidoscope of the bright and of the sombre, all contributing to whom we are. We who are left remember with gratitude the intimacy and steadfastness of devoted love. We who are left have seen our children grow up and grandchildren arrive. We have immersed ourselves in the miracle of life and though we might not, like Thoreau, have retreated to Concordia woods, we have perhaps endeavoured to suck the very marrow of life.
What of those who were not left? Lijssenthoek military cemetery is a place that looks so neat, so tidy. The graves are on parade. There is not the slightest bend in their straight lines, and all wear the white uniform of the headstone with the name and service of the one buried. It looks military, it looks neat and tidy, but it's a place of waste. The waste is not in their effort, not in their commitment, not in their courage, not in their sacrifice; the waste is in the loss of life on so vast a scale. At Lijssenthoek alone there are 10,784 burials, among them a lone woman. There are thirty nationalities including Australian, New Zealand, British, American, French, German. They did not grow old. Mostly they were, at their deaths, very young men, some barely beyond boyhood.
'Age shall not weary them, nopr the years condemn.' That was exactly what they were so cruelly deprived of - age and years. They did not have the good years of age that we who are left possess. They knew youth and war and death. That was the totality of their life - youth, war, death. A pitifully small sample of existence. They did not grow to the joys of age, as we who are left feast on age.
Each French grave is surmounted by a cross on which is inscribed, Morte de la France. No doubt they did die for France, and there is honour in that, but they had the right to live for France and have granted to them the blessings of French days. The wonder and beauty of age were denied them.
We who are left have it all. We have learning, we have loving, we have family, we have the everyday wonder of living. I watched the going down of the sun at Lijssenthoek. They did not.
I watched it in wonder.
As I walked the dark roads back to Poperinge I knew a mingling of spirits. Their loss weighed upon me; yet I was lifted by my own good fortune in being old. Yes, it is immensely good fortune.
A hundred years after they had their lives brutally cut short I watched the sun go down where they lay, and at the going down of the sun I did remember them. I remembered with gratitude their sacrifice but with sadness their terrible loss.
I wish they could have seen that going down of the sun. The golden glow behind the trees in the flat, open country of Flanders was beautiful beyond all description.
I shall remember always that going down of the sun at Lijssenthoek.
Living the Depths or Living the Surface
Richard Rohr, in his stimulating book, The Universl Christ, p.112, writes,
'...great love and great suffering (both healing and woundedness) are the universal, always available paths of transformation, because they are the only things strong enough to take away the ego's protections and pretensions.'
As I thought about those words this morning, it became abundantly clear that they demand attention. That great love and great suffering are the only things strong enough to take away the ego's protections and pretensions amounts to a large statement.
It is an uncomfortable one because it demands personal application. Rohr has, among other guideposts, the conviction that one of our major choices in life is to live on the surface or to live deeply. I think it probable that to live deeply requires courage. We do not often wish to dig too deeply indside ourselves. Our protections and pretensions come under threat. Yet not to do so is to miss the richness of living.
I don't know if Rohr would use the term holistic, but I think it might be appropriate for a way of living that finds God in all our experiences, and perhaps especially in the depths of the good and the bad. With God as the common factor in all our experiences it is, in my view, possible to risk saying that he is core in the holos of life. Lest this might seem to have the ring of pantheism, I must clarify the position as panentheism, that is, God in all of life, or God in everything. It is, after all, his creation and God saw that it was Good, as the first aetiological creation story of Genesis puts it.
None of this takes away our individuality, nor does it remove our freedom of choice. It means that whatever we choose, God is in the experience at the time and in that which ensues. Nor does it mean that there is divine approval of our choices; rather, it means that God cannot be dismissed in the moment of choosing.
The point for me is that the personal investigation in the deep waters of self applies to me. It places more importance than ever on the initiatives of Change practice of The Quiet Time during which we are open to God, receptive to his leading and insight for us. The Quiet Time is more than introspection, as is Rohr's advocated practice of living deeply where our intimate protections and pretensions can be curtains to be pulled aside, allowing us to know ourselves in a way that surface living does not allow, and to permit our relationship with God to become more personal.
Rohr's living in the depths is, if I am not mistaken, an inward journey with God while making an outward difference. It enriches not only ourselves, but our contribution to the world.
Two Major Threats
Two essentials of our western democracies tradition are in dire trouble. Each is moving toward the verge of extinction. Each is in need of rescue before it is too late.
One is the presumption of innocence in our legal arrangements.
The other is free speech in the life of the nation.
The former is at the heart of what it means to be a just society. It has been a cherished element in our legal system for a very long time and is protection against false verdicts of guilt by insisting that a person is innocent until he or she is found guilty beyond reasonal doubt in a court of law. The emphasis is upon proving guilt, not proving innocence. That prized principle is coming under greater and greater threat. George Pell was denied it by large swathes of the media, electronic and print. Moveover, he was condemned to prison for many months before the Hight Court declared his innocence. There are many who wondered how on earth it was possible for two courts in Victoria to find him guilty. Christian Porter is currently under seige by the media and some of his political opponents who, it seems, do not like the presumption of innocence in cases where it appears they would like him to be guilty.
None of us can swear to Mr Porter's innocence or guilt. We do not have the evidence to make a clear decision. We can, however, adhere to the precious legal dictum on innocence unless and until proven guilty. If we allow anything close to guity by allegation, then we might as well have no legal system at all.
Freedom of speech is surely the key to all meaningful freedoms. There has been a developing movement, still gaining in strength, that would confine our language and views to those which the would-be controllers of ideas would have us embrace.
At the heart of the danger is the easily-argued truth that to allow others to determine my volcabulary or yours is to allow those others to influence our thinking without the need to convince us in rational argument supported by evidence. Various words ending in "ist" and "ism" are used to close down discussion. Yet the health of our society needs open discussion of ideas, a principle as important in democracy as the right to vote, perhaps more important.
A current example is that of Israel Folau, who has indicated a wish to return to rugby in Australia. It has been suggested in at least one part of the media that any return should depend upon his being controlled to ensure that he does not express publicly his religious views. Such a public expression was, of course, the cause of his rugby playing days in Australia being curtailed. If even rugby is an arena for controlling the expression of views, how serious has the anti-free speech movemnt become?
If these two principles of free speech and presumption of innocence are to regain their prominence in Australia, we each need to support them in whatever ways come our way. A good question is, Who can I most effectively make my view known to?
Memories of Rome
Noticing a book on Rome lying on a glass table in our lounge this morning, I began to think about that extraordinary city. I realised that my last visit was a very long time ago, probably around 2007. True, I had stopped over for overnight sleeps a couple of times since, but I had only travelled from the railway station to the hotel and from the hotel to the airport.
I began to think of the places that had been particularly important to me during those days when visiting Rome was fairly frequent and I was familiar with the streets, the piazze, the monuments, the parks, etc. of Rome. What were the emories that came most easily to mind?
I found myself thinking of walking on the old Appian Way, of visiting the catacombs of San Callisto, of exploring the necropolis below St Peter's cathedral, of looking down on Piazza del Popolo from the Pincio, of tea at Mrs Babington's tea rooms at the foot of the Spanish Steps, of walking Via Quattro Fontani to the church of the Holy Trinity, of wonderful ice cream at Giolliti's, of the fall of Jerusalem, a thought stimulated by standing by the Arch of Titus, of enjoying the great department store, Primavera, and so much more.
The Appian Way was particularly important. As I walked over its uneasy stones I was conscious that the Apostle Paul had to walk over them on his journey to Rome, where he spent his last days. H.V. Morton wrote a lovely book called "In the Steps of St Paul." I felt I was walking in Paul's steps as I walked the Appian Way. I was also conscious that it was not unusual in the days of the empire for there to be many crosses on both sides fo the road, each one supporting a dying man suffering the horrors of Roman execution.
The Catacombs of San Callisto were reminders, as I descended to the various underground levels, that these were burial grounds for Christians in the very early days of the Church. There was a certain sacredness, therefore, to the catacombs, and I was acutelyaware of it.
The necropolis beneath St Peter's was an intense experience. One of the graves is immediately below the high altar. It is thought to be the grave of the Apostle Peter. For various reasons I see that as quite likely - no, very likely.
As I touched the stones I felt a link with the apostle the Catholic Church claims as its first Pope.
The Arch of Titus? The crushing of the Judea by the Romans in 70AD, accompanied by the destruction of the temple, was the most traumatic event in the history of Judaism. The events of 70AD, followed by The Roman crushing of Bar Cochba's Jewish revolt in 135AD brought the destruction of the Jewish State.
The Arch of Titus commemorates the Roman victory over the Jews in 70AD, and has reliefs of the seven-branched candlestick and of Jews being led away as slaves.
The Jewish tragedy was very real to me every time I stood by the triumphal Arch of Titus.
Those, then, are some of my memories of Rome. There are very many more.
An Unusual Visitor
It's nice to have friends in our home, but recently we had a very unwelcome visitor.
A brown snake made itself at home in our laundry. Ruth saw it first and called me. Within a few minutes I saw it twice, once slithering under the washing machine and once beginning to come out but changing its mind.About half an hour later, a snake catcher arrived. He spend some time searching but could not find it. So we were left with the possibility that the snake was still somewhere in the house.
Two days ago, on Friday, I saw evidence of it in snake body waste on the carpet of our 'den', a downstairs room that serves as both a study and a relaxing room. Once more we needed a snake catcher. Two people arrived, a man and a woman. They entered the den and found it immediately. After videoing it they caught it, bagged it and took it away. It was a one metre brown that we are glad now to be without.
It interests me that in the babylonian version of creation in the third chapter of Genesis, the snake or serpent is the evil in the garden of Eden. Was the snake (or serpent) chosen because we feel ill at ease when one is in a place too close to home? In the wild they are fine. I have seen far more snakes at close quarters in the wild than I could possibly remember, mostly because I am a fly-fisherman who spends time by rivers in wild, lonely places. And I have come to appreciate them and study them. In the wild they are where they belong and are only dangerous for us if we are aggressive to them or accidentally come too close and the snake thinks we are aggressive. As long as the snake does not think we are a threat it is no threat to us. All we have to do, as a fly-fisherman or just a wanderer in the wild is mind where we place our feet.
But this snake of which I write was in the house. That's quite another matter.
Ruth and I both felt real relief when the snake was caught and transported elsewhere.
A warning: They are very active at the moment. Keep doors closed. Close them when you go out. Close them when you come in.
Ephesus and the Johannine Tradition
Yesterday, I mentioned that there would be a longer article on Ephesus and the Johannine faith on the site. That article is now posted. You can find it in the Faith section. I hope you find it enjoyable and profitable reading.
John's Rich Vision of God
To say that Johannine Christianity is the most developed in the New Testament is to say that which is likely to be obvious to readers of the Gospel which appears under the name of John and the three letters of John.
The Gospel and the letters taken together enable us to build a picture of the beliefs that form the faith of that strain of Christianity we call "Johannine."
One of the insights into the personal God of Christians appears in the Gospel, where the statement is made by Jesus, "God is Spirit." This speaks to me very powerfully and certainly spiritually. It forms part of my daily prayer and sometimes I incorporate the reference to God as Spirit by using the hymn-words, "Breathe on me, breath of God; fill me with life anew." That God who is Spirit touches my spirit, is no less than the grace of God sharing life. God as Spirit in my experience is the assurance of the reality of Emmanuel - With us, God. The writer of the Gospel has reflected on his faith for many years and has given us the fruit of his reflections.
The First letter of John has two insights for us which fill in more of the Johannine vision. The first is that God is Light, "and in him there is no darkness at all." It is as much as anything a moral statement. There is a purity in the person of God, and I find it immensely helpful to seek God's light to search out and remove any darkness in me, so that I might be more able to reflect the divine light as a kind of mirror in the world. Jesus is presented in John's Gospel as the Light of the world, and perhaps we might, each of us, be reflectors of that Light in seeking God's searching Light within us.
The second insight in the letter is that God is Love. It should come as no surprise that Jesus pointed out that the two great commandments were both to do with love. We are to love God with all that is within us; we are to love our neightbours as ourselves; but he added another, less easy but as spiritually important - we are to love our enemies and pray for those who have ill-will toward us. That is so much more possible when we ungerstand that God is Love. Perhaps in the light of that truth, loving a neighbour and loving an enemy become an outflowing of God's love through us.
So there are three great insights of Johannine faith:
God is Spirit,
God is Light,
God is Love.
A longer article of Johannine faith will appear in the Faith section of this website in the next 48 hours. Look out for it.
Faith and COVID-19
Faith won't keep you safe from COVID-19.
The virus is a problem to health that we are all susceptible to, and we rely, quite properly, on our medical advisers to tell us how to take the best possible precautions. How important that is in South Australia today in the light of the stringent lockdown announced and effective from last midnight.
We are largely confined to our homes, with one member only of a household being allowed out for the sole purpose of essential supplies purchasing, medical treatment or other necessary objectives.
So what has faith to do with it, when we are to some degree isolated from one another and perhaps enduring other inconveniences?
Harry Emerson Fosdick, sometime minister of the great Riverside Church in New York, wrote a good many years ago in his book, "The Meaning of Faith", that faith is the minister of health. The word 'minister' is not well understood today. It means servant. Fosdick's meaning, therefore, is clear: faith is the servant of health. It is not the doctor's stethoscope, blood-pressure instrument, thermometer, scalpel or drugs resource. It can be, nevertheless, a support of that which the doctor does in assisting us.
Yet more than that, in this time of restriction of freedom, it can help us to remember that we are not as alone as sometimes we might feel. John's Gospel speaks of God as Spirit, a truth which speaks of God's omnipresence, that is, the Divine person is with us wherever we find ourselves and in whatever circumstances life places us in. God as Spirit breathes into our spirits and assures us of Divine friendship.
The First Letter of John speaks of God as Love. Faith takes hold of that and rejoices. Love is constantly with us in the Divine person, no matter the circumstances,
Faith is no less efficacious in serving health than that. It facilitates confidence, wholeness and serenity because it is the working of God within us.
Psalm 46 gives fine advice on the matter:
"Be still, and know that I am God."
To include a few minutes each day being still in quietness is a daily faith investment.
The Wounded Healer
I recently re-read Henri Nouwen's 'The Wounded Healer. It is an interesting and powerful flowing together of leadership and healing.
Henri Nouwen has, I suspect, been both in his personal relationships. Every page of the book presents a strong impression that he is a natural leader and a devoted healer. I'd like to have met him. I doubt if his monastic calling kept him from those person-building contributions. His monastic community must have gained immensely from his presence.
Henri's writing in 'The Wounded Healer' calls for the courage to face ourselves, our stgrengths and weaknesses, successes and failuresd, good characteristics and bad, joys ajnd pains and be ready to share our fallible, wounded selves with those who need lifting up and to be encouraged. To know ourselves well, on the positive and negative columns of the ledger, fits us for leadership and for facilitating healing in others. Personal sharing has always been powerful in helping others to come to terms with themselves and their circumstances. He or she who doubts might well be confirmed in doubt when we speak of our unshakeable faith, but that person might be encouraged along the road by the sharing of our doubt as well as of our faith.
Leading and healing might be focused upon that which seems to be so simple an idea, namely, to share ourselves. The reality might not be as simple as the idea. To share ourelves can be a complex matter which requires the courage to be open and the critical judgment to know what will build and what will destroy. Bad judgments in those matters can have devastating effects upon another.
Everyone is wounded. We don't spend our lives tending our wounds, but they sting from time to time. It is that very wounding we experience that enables us to help and encourage other wounded souls. It can so often open a channel of healing and leadership.
Does this time of the year bring your thoughts to the garden, either because you know there are jobs to do or you simply take pleasure in things growing? If so, you might enjoy the short article on our garden in the 'Writing' section of this site. Just clisk on 'Writing.' I hope you enjoy the brief article.
A Welcome Visitor
Yesterday, while sitting in my recliner chair during my 'get well' time after hospitalisation, and lookingout from the bay window at our front garden, I noticed two birds I had not seen before flitting among the roses. They are not rare; in fact, my reading informs me they are quite widespread on the Fleurieu Peninsula, but I had not seen one before.
My visitors were European goldfinches, pale breasted with a red band above the eyes, a black band stretching over the head from one side to the other, and some lovely yellow wing feathers, They sent me hunting through my bird books to confirm their identity. I searched Peter Gower's beautiful book, 'Fleurieu Birds,' and there I found one, Carduelis carduelis, the European Golfinch, introduced into Australia in 1860, and known in South Australia from the 1880s.
It is as much a migrant as I am. The European Golfinch and I are both natives of another continent. I am glad the European Goldfinch has made a home in South Australia. The two I saw yesterday brought me great pleasure in my time of compromised heath. The truth is, I needed a bit of cheering up. Carduelis carduelis brightened my day. I was reminded that the natural world so often is a source of good cheer, of restoration of an out of sorts spirit; it overflows with beauty and wonder; my avian visitors reminded me of that as they took me out of myself and into their special world.
I look forward to the next time their breed comes my way
A Morning in Church
On Thursday last week, Ruth and I spent half an hour in the Newland church building. The organ was playing. We sat and listened. We prayed. We contemplated.
It was a special time and we were glad the opportunity was made available. That God is met in undisturbed contemplation and prayer is to me beyond question. Sometimes I am alone in my study; sometimes I am sitting quietly in a place which overlooks the sea; sometimes I am in a quiet place in the country, perhaps Kuitpo forest. The important element is that I am in quiet contemplation, able to open myself up to God. Our best example is Jesus, who so often found 'a lonely place' to be in the direct company of God. It seems to have been his precious way of being spiritually nourished in communion with his heavenly Father.
We are inhabitants of a society in which quiet and solitude have to be sought. Many forces try to keep us in a world of noise, and mostly they succeed. But solitude is necessary for our deepest times with God.
But the gathered church can also be where we experience God. It was so for Ruth and for me at the 'open church' last Thursday, a time enriched because other Christians were with us in the peace of the building, all of us open to God who is Spirit. It was a special experience of sharing with others silently as each person reached out to God who was reaching out to him and to her. I felt blessed as I reached out to God who was reaching out to me.
I am thankful to those who arranged for the church to be open and for the sensitively chosen music to be played. That means gratitude too to the organist who contributed so beautifully to the experience.
Be still. and know that I am God
'Be still, and know that I am God,' is a gem of advice for any age. It can be more relevant today than ever.
This is the age of noise and mental battering. Unless we make time for insulation from the hammering of our minds there can be no being still.
Television, Facebook, Twitter, cellphones and more provide those who want to persuade us with countless opportunities by using relentless access to our minds.
A number of years ago, Vance Packard wrote 'The hidden Persuaders,' a book which had a strong effect upon my thinking. It was then, some decades ago, that I realised, in reading the book, how insidious the persuaders are and how much worse they would become. If Packard were to write a book today, it would be a confirmation of his insight in the earlier book. He might say, "I told you so." So strong has the persuading become and so much a part of the normal of life, that a person is primarily a unit of consumption to be exploited, perhaps unwittingly. So successfull has the exploitation been that people are not, it seems, alarmed but take up the opportunities to purchase every latest gadjet that exposes them to the mental battering that they accept as part of life.
In the midst of all this, silence and stillness are our supreme ways of knowing that God is in our experience of life.
Closely related to the advice to be still are the words, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." That, too, is a gem in the sentence book of faith. It is an experience of renewal, more than welcome in a world of cares. In the present COVID-19 restrictions, both gems from the Hebrew Bible, have important things to say to us. The restrictions bring their own frustrations. Frustrations bring their own enervation. To wait upon the Lord, that is, to spend time in closeness with God, and to be still before him, is to be renewed and to know that God is God. That is faith for any age.
The Value of Good Men
My wife Ruth and I have begun watching on VHS video, "Goodbye Mr. Chips." It's the fictional story of a special, good man, a teacher. He has a beautiful humility and a deep love for his school. He values the opportunity of influencing for good the lives of the boys he teaches.
Mr. Chipping receives the name "Chips" from his wife very soon after their marriage. The common room (staff room) hears of it and it sticks. "Goodbye Mr. Chips" is a powerful story because its chief protagonist is a thoroughly good man.
"Sorrell And Son," a deeply moving book, is powerful for the same reason. Captain Sorrell, his life committed to the wellbeing of his son Kit, is wholly good.
I became a lover of the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope mainly because of the beautiful character of the Warden, Septimus Harding. In the television series he is played superbly by Donald Pleasance.
"Call The Midwife was a television attraction for me chiefly because of the deep goodness of the nun in charge of the midwifery house of service.
Is it because the world is so populated with people of more questionable motivations that stories of good people are compelling? I will certainly read or watch all that I can of good people.
Mr. Keating of "Dead Poets Society" comes easily to mind when thinking of good fictional men. He also is a teacher in a boys' school.
I think also of David Powlett-Jones in R.F. Delderfield's "To Serve Them
All My Days," another example of a teacher in a boys' school, this time Bamfylde.
We don't have to look for fiction to find good people. This time of COVID-19 has brought good people to light for me and for Ruth.
We are spending as little time as possible outside our home because our son
Richard is in the vulnerable category. There have been extraordinary examples of people willing to help us by doing shopping, including a lady who shopped for us during her work lunch hour.
I wonder if others are attracted to stories of good people? Of course they are.
The books about good people sell. Films and television series about good people are watched.
Goodness shines as a lighthouse in a world of darker matters. That makes the statement in the First Letter of John that "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" an especially important claim. It means that we live in a world which has goodness and light as its essence, opposed to darker aspects of life, and God is on the side of removal of the dark shadows. John's reflective gospel presents Jesus as "The Light of the World," another assurance that we are not left in the darkness. Christ shines as a lighthouse when we feel we are engulfed in darkness.
Our faith is a faith of Light.
Have you wondered about how deadly nightshade and a railway are connected? Of course you haven't. Yet there is one part of the world where they are. If you are curious enough to want to find out, go to the Writing section of the website and you will find an article under the heading, "The Vale of Deadly Nighshade."
I hope you find it interesting.
Wonder in a Field
I am reminded every day of how good it is to live where we do. There is so much of the wonder of God around us.
The kangaroos in the field on the opposite side of the road from our house are endless fascination for me. It is a rare day that I don't see them. On most days I can watch them through out kitchen window.
At times, though not always, they are to be seen in threes. When they are, the joey keeps close to its mother and often interacts with her. Three times I have seen a joey feeding from its mother. It is one of the truly beautiful sights. Once I saw one playing with its mother. Yes, I know there are those who would tell me I should ascrtibe human behaviour to an animal. But why should playing be understood as human behaviour only? this joey was playing with its mother, patting her on her nose.
Sometimes I an watch a group of two or three bounding at great speed across the field. It is a thrilling sight, the more remarkable because, if there is a joey involved, it keeps up with its parent kangaroos.
On warm days, the shade provided by a large tree opposite our house is populated by half a dozen or so kangaroos.Occasionally, one will slowly tail itself out of the shade, munch grass for a while, then return to the shade and lie down with the others. Somehow there is a beauty about it I am at a loss to desribe.
Sokme time ago, I watched a mother kangaroo jump the fence between two fields close to us. Her joey, very young, could not leap high enough to clear the fence, and knew it. The joey tailed back and forth through or under it. then, as though with a flash of inspiration, after five minutes or so, it bounded up to the other side of the tree shade and went through the fence gap it seemed to have remembered existed there. It was reunited with its mother.
I look for "my" kangaroos each time I am at the kitchen sink. They are so much part of the pleasure of living here.
Whenever I see them, and that is most of the time I'm in the kitchen, I marvel at the creation of God in all its wonder, and so visible in the field I look at daily.
Seeing more than is visible to the eye
In yesterday's blog I mentioned the incident in which Turner received a comment from a woman on the clouds in one of his paintings. Let me refresh your memory. A woman, looking at the painting, said to him, "I don't see clouds and water like that." Turner replied, "Don't you wish you could, Madam?"
The secret, I think, in seeing "the unseen", or seeing the poetry, is to look at a scene and let the imagination run with it. In doing so, one might well discover a truth not revealed by a scene seen simply as a scene. There is, I am sure, always Truth behind the veil of that which is immediately available to the eye.
Were Beatrix Potter still here so that I could ask her opinion on my view, I am sure she would agree.
As I look from my recliner through the large lounge window, I see the early morning sun glowing upon the tall shrub by our garden room. I see the dark eucalypts by the sea; I see the pale, grey-blue ocean; I see the equally pale sky with streaky-grey cloud. All of this is available to the eye. But there is more than that. The whole is acting together. There is a truth that is not fanciful.
This part of creation before my eyes consists of all rejoicing together at the birth of a new day, with all benefiting from the morning light, the morning air, and all contributing by their functions to the wellbeing of the earth and its atmosphere. There is a chorus far more celebratory than the Choral Symphony, Beethoven's ninth, happening at this very moment. No score is needed for its choir's members. It is spontaneous. I can hear it. It is the laughter of joy in tune. This chorus is 'new every morning.'
Turner sees a train. It is travelling at speed through the landscape. That is all that is available to the eye. Far more is available to the imagination. So Turner paints, and the train recedes. It is in the painting, but only just. From it appears a painting, not so mucu of a train, but of speed, of wind, of steam, of a whole landscape translated into velocity.
Yes, Mr Turner, show me how to see the world as you see it.
Our God of Wonder, our World of Wonder
Albert Einstein once wrote,
"Whoever is devoid of the capacity to wonder, whoever remains unmoved, whoever cannot contemplate or know the deep shudder of the soul in enchantment, might just as well be dead for he has already closed his eyes upon life."
Yes, wonder is at the depths of life! Wonder is the imagination and sight working together with stirrings of the soul - or, to use Einstein's wording, shudderings of the soul.
A woman, looking at a Turner painting, once said to him, "I don't see clouds and water like that." He replied, "Don't you with you could, Madam?" Turner saw, when he set out his canvas and paints, that which was behind the scene. His imagination stirred his soul and he saw what was not visible to the eye only, but was there when the spirituality of the soul engaged with it. It led to wonder.
Wonder is an essential ingredient of Christian faith that inspires.
An important part of my earlier life as a soldier in the British Army was spent on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, one of the most fascinating places on earth for one immersed in history. On Friday afternoons I attended lectures at a college in Salisbury. Before doing so, I always spent some time in the cathedral close and the cathedral itself. The cathedral took 70 years to build, a remarkably short time for stone cathedral building. It is in early English gothic, with no compromise to its integrity. It is one of the finest structures in england. When I first visited it, I was overcome by the wonder of its spire, the tallest in the country at 404 feet to its pinacle.
I still look with wonder at that spire. It inspires. Yes, I still look at it with wonder when I visit it.
For me, the Christian religion documents consist of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures and the world of science. Both fill me with awe. I read in the First Letter of John and in John's Gospel that God is Spirit, Light and Love and I am caught up in wonder. Those truths focus upon God's relationship with us. Yes, wonder is at the heart of our religion.
Two British scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, made the most extraordinary and perhaps the greates discovery of the 20th and 21st centuries, namely, that our genes are stored in that which we abreviate to DNA. DNA is so compacted and shallow within us that all our genes in each of our body's total number of cells would, if unwound and joined, stretch to the sun and back over 400 times. If that does not bring wonder, what will?
So I look with wonder on all that I know of God, discovered in Jesus of Nazareth, the Old and New Testaments and in science. And I recognise that while these times of restrictions brought about in confrontation with the coronavirus COVID-19 are difficult, our God of Wonder, of Spirit, of Light, of Love, is still God who is with us, inviting our trust and staying firmly in our midst. That, too, causes the soul to shudder in wonder.
Songs of Praise
Some members of congregations will have ben watching 'virtual' Christian services Sunday morning and missed the ABC's "Songs of Praise." The purpose of this blog is to urge you to make up for the missing of the programme.
I believe it is available on Iview. Ruth and I did see it and are compelled to say it was very special. It all takes place in Jerusalm. The singing is extraordinarily inspiring, so if you can make the time to watch, I think you'll be glad you did. My exclamation at the end was, "Wow!"
This is the year's most special day. It is a day when Life is celebrated more joyously than at any other time.
Why? If the Bible accounts of the resurrection are read simply as indications of something that happened a couple of thousands of years ago in a country in the Middle East, then it becomes no more than reading history, which is not without value, but the chief profit lies in allowing it to be a renewing influence in our lives. The Risen Christ is at the centre of Christian faith, and for a very good reason. The resurrection is the victory of life over death.
I have posted a short Easter article on the Faith section. Just click on the Faith section to read it.
The symbol you see above is the Hebrew word for Life
That seems to me to be especially appropriate as we begin to think about tomorrow, Easter Day
It is easy to think about resurrection as just something in the Church calendar that we usually go to Church for a special service that focuses upon it but forget that it is a remembrance of and celebration of the most astonishing event in the history of the Church
An empty tomb is not an everyday event
For us on Easter Day it is a message of new life
The Jewish people have a wonderful toast which is connected with that word for life that you can see at the top of this blog and the toast is, To Life
Ruth and I will make sure at some time tomorrow we make a toast To Life as part of our celebration of Easter
You could think about doing it too
If we want to be totally prosaic about it, we can say that Easter follows the first full moon after the equinox. But that doesn't really tell us very much about it. In fact it says nothing really useful about it.
A more useful thought is that the Jewish pesach (Passover) and Easter are linked. That isn't surprising. Jesus had gone to Jerusalem very specifically to celebrate Passover. Practising Jews still aim to go to Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime for Passover. So it was at that very important time of the year that Jesus, in the holy city to celebrate Passover, was arrested, tried and crucified. Good Friday and Easter naturally are associated with the Jewish celebration.
On this day we think especially about the death of Jesus and what that means in our faith. The sacrifical system of the Jews was essentially about the death of beasts and their offering to God as making atonement for sin.
In the classical Christology of the Church, that emphasis is followed, with one important difference. The Church teaches that Jesus was Divine; the offering therefore, if the crucifixion is seen as an offering, is that the offering is man and God. The Jewish temple cult could not possibly have come at that.
There are no doubt many ways of thinking about the Cross, remembering of course that the story does not end there. Easter is yet to come. I find myself thinking of the Cross as a symbol of love - Divine Love, because Jesus taught us of the love of God as no other person so powerfully or so persuasively taught it. Jesus' whole mission was characterised by Love in its Christian sense (Jesus was before Christianity of course) of agape, the total concern for others. He seemed to spend himself daily in love, and had he abandoned the path of love, he could probably have escaped crucifixion. But nothing could deflect him. His course was set, and he stayed on it to the end. Yes, I find it easy to think of Love in its Divine sense when I think of the crucifixion.
To use the Johannine terms for the Divine Father, God who is Spirit, Light and Love be with you this Good Friday, this Easter, and every day.
Michael Mayne, in his 1995 book, "This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey," wrote,
'Ours is a world that is unimaginably more than the ordered mass of atoms and molecules obeying the rules of their separate fields. For it is a world in which matter is capable of being the bearer of spirit - which is what people mean when they use...another of those tricky words that need unpacking and talk of a "sacramental universe". The word "sacramentum" began to be used in the Latin West about the third century, the equivalent of the Greek word "mysterium". While the latter spoke of a hidden or veiled reality, discovered by means of initiation, "sacramentum" was a term applied to any action or object which was believed to mirror the Divine."
I find that a very stimulating statement. As I look around me at any time, how much of what I see and hear mirrors the Divine? It is a good way of taking in the events and sights of the day. When someone does me a kindness, it mirrors the Divine, and it is sacramental because of it.
This morning,as we looked out of our kitchen window, we saw, as on most mornings, a number of kangaroos in the field on the opposite side of our road. Some of them are often no more than 20 yards away. This morning a very young kangaroo and its mother were together in the shade of a tree. I watched the young one ease up to its mother, who then became upright on her hind legs ands tail while her young offspring came right up to her and for some time fed from her. The sight was certainly sacramental. The care of the mother for her young offspring mirrored God's care for you and for me.
More than that, the concept can transform our relationships. To look for something in another person that mirrors the Divine can add the sacramental to relationships. There will be something in the other to be thankful for.
"The Sunrise of Wonder", to use the title of Michael Mayne's book, can be found in others, if we are prepared to look for it. It's liberating for us to look for the good to be thankful for rather than to look for the bad for us to crticise.
Let's thank God for one another.
Thinking of Others
The most recent communication from the Primo Levi Centre, includes the following, in the context of the coronavirus:
"While some of us can stay home, others are out providing "essential" services at the risk of their lives...today they are shielding others from possible death...There are times, perhaps this one, when people can lay the foundation of change. The way in which we act today, our fears, and our resolve will determine the world in which we live tomorrow. Those who are lucky to be able to pause, can take this time to consider if what we have regarded as "normal" until yesterday, is truly desirable or unavoidable.'
The piece reminds us that in our isolation we are in the most secure position, and we need to be grateful for those who are essential workers in our medical facilities, senior citizens' homes, police services and so many others who are at risk. We are grateful to them and remember them in our times of reflection or prayer.
But the piece also focuses our thoughts upon the clearly discernible fact that tomorrow will not be as yesterday; the coronavirus and its societal effects have determined that. It also points out that this is not only a time of restrictions in the interest of public safety; it is a time of opportunity. We can assess all that was wrong as well as all that was right in the pre COVID-19 world. Was it all as we would have liked it to be? What do we want the post COVID-19 world to be? Do we want it to be a world more clearly of justice and equity, compassion and mercy, love in the strong sense of commitment to the wellbeing of others, of a significant narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, of no person receiving obscene incomes beyond any reasonable need? In short, we have an opportunity to commjit to a better world than the one we knew prior to the virus.
This is especially an opportunity for the Church. Will it respond to it? The Church is an over-conservative institution, or group of institutions. Will it rise to the opportunity of overhauling its practices, making greater prophetic contributions to society, revising its theology to meet the challenges of the new world post COVID-19? lThis could be one of the greates opportunities the Church has had. Will we use it?
Some Good News
Good news is especially good in difficult times.
In the Leprosy Mission's magazine, "Action," there is a good news story coming from Nepal. It concerns a young woman called Parbati.
Parbati has been cured of leprosy, but has been significantly disabled by its effects. She has lost the front of both feet and her hands are deforemed. That might be enough to leave anyone in a depressed state. However, Parbati's picture shows a woman in a wheelchair with a radiant smile. She is clearly someone who is living life as fully as she can.
Despite the loss of her fingers, she had taught herself how to knit, and has established her own shop in her village. She is motivated and purposeful and has been able to make the very most of her life. She has not let misfortune hold her back.
It's a very positive, very good, story that shows me, coronavirus restrictions notwithstanding, churches closed being a reality, and many inconveneinces characterising these times, I am among the most fortunate.
Parbati inspires me, and I am grateful to her.
Faith in Trying imes
We all have to make adjustments and live with restrictions for the forseeable future. However, there are positives. God as Spirit, God as Light and God as Love are realities that are part of our lives always, whether we are aware of them or not.
ON THE FAITH SECTION OF THE WEBSITE I HAVE JUST POSTED AN ARTICLE ABOUT FAITH IN TRYING TIMES. IT DEALS WITH THE TRUTH OF GOD AS SPIRIT, LIGHT AND LOVE. You can read it by clicking on the FAITH section. When you read it, you might find it worthwhile to ask yourself whether there are circumstances in your life where the truth of God as Spirit or as Light or as Love might be really helpful. Then spend a few minutes (at least five) in silence, allowing your mind to be as free as possible for God as Spirit, Light or Love to lead your thought. You are likely to discover that it is prayer at greater depth than you might have imagined. It is a good way of following any thoughts on spiritual matters. You'll find before long you want to spend more than five minutes, because the experience can become one of a real sense of being in the presence of God.
May God bless you in the reading.
Tony Gates email@example.com
The Beauty of a Rose
I'm looking at perfection in the form of a rose. It is in a vase on my desk as I sit here this morning, keyboard at my fingertips.
Some would marvel at the complexity of the computer. Why not? It represents a great advance in technology. However, it cannot come near my rose, put on the desk for me by Ruth, in the sheer wonder of perfection.
It is a delicate pink, beautifully circular, with countless petals grading only slightly in depth of colour from one another. I've forgotten the title of the rose. I know only that it is from a climber in our front garden and it could not be lovelier.
It is my welcome companion on my desk as I work. It is a miracle just a few inches from me, and it tells me, if I am sensitive to it, of the wonder of God and the beauty of his creation. Do I believe in miracles? I certainly do! I am surrounded by them every day, and one of them is my rose on my desk.
If you have roses in your house or your garden, sit before one and gaze at it for two or three minutes, drink in its beauty, and let God speak to you through it. Look at a rose that way and it will lift you far above the mundane.
The kingdom of God is like a delicate pink rose.
It opens slowly to reach full bloom
and reveal its perfection of colour and form
to bring joy deep in the human heart.
Jouneying in Faith
From a second hand book, fell two railway train tickets. I hadn't expected to find anything more than the book when I bought it. I dare say the author would not have expected me to find in his book somethng more fascinating than his words in. But I did!
The tickets had printed on them,
EURELIA & RETURN
Both had been clipped, indicating they had been used.
So they are.I'm looking at them now. Who were those two adults, and why were they on the train? For that matter, what kind of train was it? Was the locomotive steam-hauled or diesel-hauled? when was it? I have to confess, I'd have to look at a map to discover where Eurelia is.
What do the tickets tell me tell me? Only that two adults, either related or friends (both tickets fell from the page in the book), made a journey at an unspecified time from Peterborough to Eurelia and back. The tickets could be the trigger for a mystery novel, couldn't they?
Our walk of faith is full of unknowns. We don't know where it will lead us.
We don't know what experiences will befall us on the way. If we were to have a ticket for the journey, it might be stamped,
The one thing we can count on is that God walks with us.
At the close of a Sunday service in some churches the blessing, "May the feet of God walk with you" is sung. When we speak of God walking, we are using symbolic language, of course. But the fact we believe is that God is ever present with us.
Is there a "walk" you are dreading? God is wholly with you. Does the "Destination Unknown, Route Unknown" cause anxiety? God is wholly with you.
Faith can fine the journey exciting and challenging. We believe God is with us wherever we are or go. He never fails us. His constant presence can make the destination unknownm route unknown journey an adventure. Faith is empowering.
The Power of Symbols (2)
I wear around my neck a cross, but it is not the usual form of a cross. It looks as much like an anchor as a cross.
It is a "Camargue" cross; I bought it in the French town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer at the south western point of the great wetlands that lie between the two arms of the River Rhone. The cross captures the three major elements of life in the Camargue - Christian faith, cattle-tending horsemen and fishermen. It does this by incorporating into the cross a heart, tridents and an anchor fluke.
What wonderful symbols those three are, for the life of the Camargue, a heart, tridents and an anchor fluke. You could say "Well, they are only symbols." But symbols are powerful. My Camargue cross reminds me of the love of God in the heart, faith in the tridents and hope in the anchor fluke. They are all important in this time of "social separation" and efforts to contain the coronavirus that is so great a global threat. We cannot meet for worship; we cannot call at a bar or cafe for coffee; we cannot assemble with numbers greater than two. The usual spiritual and social activities are in susension for some time. So my Faith, Hope and Love Camargue cross is a symbol that God is involved in the difficulties of this time with us.
And because it embraces the life of the Camargue community. my cross reminds me that my thoughts, my quietnesses, my praying moments, must be inclusive of community.
Symbols are powerful. Perhaps you have some of your own, or you can devise or find some of your own.
In the meantime, stay safe.
Shalom (the deepest peace and most complete wholeness)
The Power of Symbols
A few weeks ago, while clearing some things out, I came across my old army sailing pennant. It's small because of its purpose and contains crossed swords on a red background.
It is used at the top of the mast of a yacht or a sailing dinghy to show what is known in sailing circles as "the apparent wind." It indicates the wind the dinghy or yacht sails by, and is the product of the actual wind blowing, modified by the speed and direction of the vessel. It is the "apparent" wind that drives the boat.
It takes me back to my sailing days as a young man, when to be on the water under sail, tiller in hand, was living on another plane. I was on the water as often as I could, whether it be for racing or just for the pleasure of sailing.
I'm looking at the pennant now, and it leads me to think of the wind which "blows where it wills" and the parallel Jesus drew between it and the Spirit of God, or, to put it another way, God who is Spirit. In these days when we look for encouragement as COVID-19 dominates so much of our thinking, we can find it in the wind that blows where it wills and the Spirit which touches us unexpectedly, and perhaps from a quarter least expected. It might be kindness from another, it might be a new insight from our reading or from our observation of all that is around us, it might be a new understanding as we rest in quietness, as we meditate, or as we pray, it might be the presence of the Spirit in an aspect of a relationship. My own experience of
God is that he breaks into my life almost always when I least expect, and often from unexpected "directions."
The Spirit is as the wind, blowing as it (he) wills.
We trim our sails and adjust the tiller and sail into encouraging waters.
Be open to the unexpected (but never absent) God.
A New Way of Seeing
One of my interests is painting. I try to make a passable watercolour or two.
This morning I was browsing through a book on watercolour and read these apparently not especially important words, except to an artist:
"The true key to success is the careful building of a new way of looking at life."
It is certainly true that creativity looks for truth behind the immediately seen. A picture produced with brushes and colour in not intended by the artist to be a photograph made with paint. The painter looks for different ways of composing a scene, or different mood effects to represent a deeper insight he or she sees in the subject being painted.
Creativity needs to be part of faith, too. Circumstances have their obvious reality, but can there be truth inherent within the circumstances not seen by the naked eye? Does faith look for truth deeper within the circumstances that a surface look reveals?
We are now well into the coronavirus COVID-19 emergency. We are beginning to see how it is progressing through the communities of Australia, and certainly feeling pleased that so far we have been kept clear of the catastrophic rate of increase of cases in Italy, Spain, the United States and the unfolding speed of increase in Iran.
The invisibility of the enemy is a major aspect of the war against the virus' virulence. We can't build a wall to keep it out, any more than Europeans during the devastating outbreaks of bubonic plague could confine it to specific areas.
We are in a different world from the one we knew just a month or so ago. So what do we do? Let's look at it differently. We can see, if we choose to, simply a circumstance in which we are at risk of a deadly infection, in which we have serious restrictions of movement, in which we cannot be in physical contact with any but our immediate families, in which employment is being curtailed for many, in which older people and those with compomised lungs are especially at serious health risk. But can we look at it differently, without denying for one moment the serious nature of what is heppening?
Can we see it, for example, as an unprecedented opportunity to bring love to those in serious straits by encouraging them in their great need of enheartening? We don't have to be in direct, physical contact to bring some welcome light into the lives of those at present much in need of it. To put it another way, without a significant change of sense, the circumstances, if we change our way of looking at them, offer us opportunities of serving one another.
Can we see in this opportunities for personal growth? If we are observant inwardly and ready to put ourselves out for others, we might discover that we are capable of much that we never dreamt we could do. Today Ruth and I were subject to an overwhelmingly beautiful act of kindness. Because the person we have reason to be grateful to has requested anonymity I cannot mention the details of the act. Suffice it to say, Ruth and I were emotionally overwhelmed by the kindness shown to us. It was something we never thought could ever happen. Acts of kindness can be part of our personal growth, and when these COVID-19 days have passed, we shall be better-developed people through the compassion we have been able to exercise. We should not miss the opportunity.
Can we recognise in the circumstances the need for spiritual health, even though our physical health is threatened? Some are certainly frozen in fear, and there is no criticism of that. There is much to fear. But God is in this virus danger as our guide, our companion, as our pledge of love in the midst of it. The First Letter of John in the New Testament tells us that God is Love. That truth nourishes our spirits. It is a wholly different way of looking at what is happening in these very difficult times.
Let's practise looking at life in a new way. There has never been a better time for doing so. And let's keep the habit of looking with new eyes once the virus has been tamed. It' all about a way of being.
Faith and our Hopes
In these days of social restrictions, closed borders and health concerns, we are hoping for better times. In fact, for many, hope will be the most positive part of living today. Thoughts of, "When this is all over", "The churches will be open again", "Weddings with the guests we want will take place again", "football will be played again", and all sorts of hopes. We just want to see this time over.
I'm working through the Greek of the letter to the Hebrews at the moment. It happens to be a letter which has some important things to say about faith.
The eleventh chapter commences,
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen. (RSV)
The anonymous writer lists some of the great names of Jewish religion who stepped out in faith to achieve their hopes. One of the most important was Abraham who is commended as one who responded to a call of God to go to a land at that time unspecified where he and his offspring would have a special divine purpose. Hebrews tells us,
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not
knowing where he was to go. (RSV)
His faith that God had called him and made him a promise was sufficient assurance for Abraham that his hope of a place he was to settle would be realised.
Faith is a way living; among other manifestations it is the conviction of the realisation of hopes yet to be fulfilled. Our faith in God is very important part of that.
Ruth and I have recently (three days ago) booked our next holiday. The dates are later in the year. There is a good deal of faith that our hopes will be fulfilled. It is in a place which is for us a kind of heaven on earth. Making the booking is our way of faith having substance. Our conviction is that it will happen. There is no guarantee of course. The COVID-19 virus is unpredictable. It might go on for longer than we anticipate. But the act of faith is important for us.
When we get to the "other side" of the virus' disturbance of our lives, we shall enjoy our time of rest in a beautiful setting. No doubt a glass of champagne will be raised in thankfulness and drunk in celebration.
These are times when endurance, discipline and community care are needed. Caring for one another, living by the necessary rules, sacrificing some freedoms will help us through these virus-dominated times.
Faith is the assurance of things hopes for.
The better days will come in time.
Faith is the conviction of things not seen.
Faith allows God into our lives, strengthening our resolve, nurturing in us compassion for others, ensuring that even in these times there can be blessing, learning and growth in character and knowledge.
Have the glass and the bubbly ready for the day, however far ahead it might be, when, in the knowledge that God has been with us through the trying days, he is also with us in the celebratory days.
Tony Gates firstname.lastname@example.org
Light in a dark time
I find the reality of God as that reality is expressed in John's Gospel, and the First Letter of John, immensely helpful at any time. It sems to me that it is especially helpful at this time.
John's Gospel and the First Letter of John speak of God in a threefold reality of God as Spirit, God as Light, and God as Love.
This blog concentrates on the reality of God as Light.
Do you fee at the moment that you'd life a great global torch to help you through the darkness of uncertain days? They certainly are uncertain. The COVID-19 spread is invisible and therefore insidious in our minds. It has not been experienced anywhere before. It is an entirely new enemy in the world. It is global. We do not know if this person or that whom we see here or there in incubating the virus. That he or she can be infectious without symptoms produces anxiety at high levels. Perhaps the worst aspect of it for you is that it is invisible. If only there were the kind of torch, the kind of light that would expose its presence and enble us to deal with it more effectively.
The First Letter of John proclaims, very near its beginning,
"This is the message we have heard from him (Jesus the Messiah) and
proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all."
The point being made is that God is pure, there are no impurities at all. It is inherent in the Essence, or Spirit, of God. And so God exists in the spiritual heart of the world, as all the purity that the virus is not.
Does God who is Light, help us to find our way in this COVID-19 world?
We are not foolish enough to claim that any aspect of Christian faith is going to present us with a solution to the virus' existence and a means of eradicating it. We rely upon our medical researchers to work at that, and we have reason to be grateful for them
Yet, can God who is Light enable us to navigate the days as safely as we are able? About a week ago Ruth and I were driving through Airey's Inlet on the coast of southern Victoria. We were staying there last year. It was good to see, from the road, the lighthouse which I climbed during that stay. The view from the top is magnificent. However, lighthouses were not built to provide fine views; their purpose was to keep vessels at sea clear of coastal dangers. Each lighthouse shines out a different light pattern from its lamp and lenses. A mariner will therefore know exactly which lighthouse the light he sees is coming from. He will recognise the light. It doesn't remove the rocks or shoals that might be the greatest danger to shipping on that part of the coast. It gives the mariner the means of avoiding them. But note that the mariner still has work to do. He must do his calcultions according to the light's bearing and according to his charts.
God who is Light enables us to find our way. He does not remove the dangers. And we play our part in that.
Can we recgnise the Light who is God?
John's Gospel is a reflective document that comes from the mind and faith of a deeply spritual author around the turn of the first and second centuries. His narrative presents Jesus the Messiah as, in a deeply spiritual way, God in the world, God in our midst.
At one point in John's narrative, Jesus declares, "I am the light of the world." I think he is telling us there that to follow him is not to walk blindly. The statement was made in the context of a contact with a man who was born blind.He brings about a cure for the man's blindness, using the agency of the man washing his eyes in a pool, after first coating his eyes in clay.
It al took place on the sabbath, which infuriated the religious leaders, who believed that even healing was sinful on the sabbath day. The man was subjected to serious questionning about the healer who could be a sinner in their eyes. The man answers,
"Whether he is a sinner not, I do not know; one thing I know, that
though I was blind, now I see."
The narrative presents a physical sight restoration, but John always has a spiritual purpose behind every action in his Gospel. The Messiah Jesus removes spiritual blindness and restores spiritual understanding.
The Light of the world, then, is the identifiable spiritual light that leads us through the shoals, helps us avoid the dangers, and can be to us, light in the current COVID-19 darkness, not by bringing a miraculous ending to it, but by giving us courage to face all that still lies ahead, wisdom in conducting ourselves appropriately in the crisis, compassion and care for one another in the uncertainties, faith that the dawn will follow the darkness and the spiritual sight that perceives God to be with us at every step.
God is Light, perceived in one who, as priest of the Divine Light, is Light of the World. Spiritual illumination, above all, is the light that matters. In daily communion with God in Messiah Jesus, spiritual clarity often illluminates the next step.
Let's care for one another, observe the requirements the best medical minds are asking of us, keep an eye open for those especially in need, and walk humbly with our God who is Light.
Living in difficult days
We have not encountered anything like COVID-19 before.
There is therefore no direct experience of it to guide us through these days. No previous outbreaks have left us with information to help plan the virus' defeat. It is no respecter of persons. National leaders as well as thousands of unknowns have tested positive to it.
So do we despair? There is no reason to do so, though it could certainly seem that there is. Numbers of cases continue to multiply in countries where no peak has yet been reached, including Australia. Yet strong action is being taken here in Australia by the Prime Minister, and States and territories leaders in the newly-formed National Cabinet. Political divisions don't seem to be getting in the way, as Labour and Coalition heads of governments meet via electronic media sometimes as often as four or five times a week to plan and to implement ideas for our safety, and medical researchers work all the hours they can to find areas of break-through to safeguard our health. I am confident that all the people who are working to defeat COVID-19 are putting their best efforts into their tasks - and there are very, very many such people from many disciplines. The National Cabinet is taking advice from the best-informed people.
We cannot meet in the churches, and that is a proper restriction. Yet we can be in touch with one another via the various forms of electronic technology available to us. We do not lose personal contact if we commit to keep in touch in this way. It will also keep us aware of needs in others so that we can care for one another where that is necessary. Jesus said that we are called to love God with all that we are, love our neighbours as ourselves and love our enemies and pray for those who despitefully use us. Yes, we can do all of that, and in doing so be part of a mutual strengthening, mutual encouraging, mutual sharing. Our God is with us in all of this, and does not at any time abandon us, even in the worst of circumstances.
This is a time to remind ourselves of the word used of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, Emmanuel. "With us, God." Let's keep in touch with "God with us" in the opportunities of quietness with him, in prayer with him. This is a time to remember the resources of faith available to us in our religious communion with God, as we understand him in Christ.
Keep safe, keep in touch with one another, keep in touch with God.
Freedom of Speech, Action and Choice?
The current state of freedoms or lack of them in Australia seems to me to be truly alarming. Most alarming of all is that in modern Australia, truth of the unacceptable kind cannot be spoken without negative consequences ensuing.
Barry Spoor, the literary editor of Quadrant, wrote in the November 2019 issue of the journal, an article under the title, "The Cultural Curse of the New Censorship." other commentators, particularly in The Australian, have written pieces concerning the loss of freedom of speech in the community generally and loss of freedom of expression of 'unacceptable' views in universities in particular. For me, this places the countgry in serious danger of much of what remains of free speech being lost, and certainly increasing restrictions on the expression of views which are not acceptable to those who would control our thoughts, were they able.
Spoor wrote, "The university, once the stalwart and outspoken defender of unfettered freedom of thought and expression, has now become the principal persecutor of those freedoms. Convincing examples are given.
It is truly shocking that the universities have become the blocks to expressions of views outside the acceptable (to whom?), and therefore blocks to knowledge and defenders of ignorance. In my mind they have ceased to be universities because of it. Will the day come when vice-chancellors, professors and fellows will recommit to being educators, liberal-minded adventurers in thought, defenders of free speech and free thinking?
The defence of shutting down freedom of speech is able to flourish behind a modern tendency to sprinkle speech with ists and isms. all someone an ist of some kind, or accuse him or her of being guilty of some ism, and discussion is curtailed. These are dangerous times in Australia. A kind of thought police force, unofficial of course, has a very Orwellian sinister side. Conditions are generated that make possible worse than exists now. Restriction of fundamental freedoms is more possible than ever.
We are entering a kind of dark age where fear detgermines that strongly helkd views and perceived truth are not spoken. Possible consequences of such expression in clude summary loss of employment, a hearing before some "Star Chamber" and widespread villification.
The Prime Minister has legislation in process to establish religious freedom in Australia. I believe he is wrong. His focus should be upon freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of choice for every resident of Australia. This would avoid accusations of the Church or churches having a privileged positionh within our society. All residents would enjoy the same rights to freedom.
We are in worse than a mess. We are under the dangerous influence of power-seeking people who are being given far too much field in which to exercise control.
The Bounty of the Earth
Yesterday, Ruth brought in from the garden a bucket full of magnificent peaches. We have a wonderful crop of stone fruits this summer from our three net-covered apricot, peach and nectarine trees. We have never had so fine a crop. Perhaps the recent very high temperatures have been beneficial. I am no orchadist, so those who know the ways of fruit growing much better than I do might see it differently.
Whether I am right or wrong, I am enjoying the fruit immensely, as Ruth is. We surely live in a part of the world where the earth offers us abundance.
How do we deal with the large quantity of fruit all coming at the same time of the year? In order to make the best use of it, we engage in the work of squirrels. They put away in their chosen storage places nuts in summer so that they have food through the winter. We shall be engaged now in eating some of the fruit fresh, perhaps using some in recipes, and stewing a good quantity of it, putting the stewed fruit into containers and placing them in the freezer. Thus, we squirrel Gateses will have stone fruit for the winter. Our crop will spread over the year.
We can't do that without being aware that in many parts of the world there is terrible hunger and thirst. In some parts, starvation is common. Homelessness, inadequate clothing and sometimes separation from loved ones characterises the days.
As we consider our great good fortune in Australia, even though we have suffered terrible bushfires, let's remember those in desperate circumstances in countries not as abundant with food as ours, and consider what we might be able to do to recognise universal brotherhood and sisterhood. What can we do to help?
The question also applies nearer to home concerning firefighters and the victims of the flames.
We are bonded in a human family.
People Met on Travels
Ruth and I have spent a good many pleasurable days in southern Victoria in recent years.
The Mornington Peninsula and Phillip Island have attracted us, partly because I lived in Mornington for a couple of years and learned to love the peninsula. It is truly one of Victoria's most pleasant places, provided you don't go there in the tourist season.
Most recently we spent some time in Port Fairy, Airey's Inlet and Bellbrae. It meant that we drove parts of the Great Ocean Road, with some spectacular land and sea scapes. As is almost always the case, we meant fine people with whom it was a joy to converse. So often when we are away we meet people who turn out to be long-term friends. I am reminded of a French couple we met eleven or twelve years ago at Gare de l'Est in Paris who are now dear friends. A week or so ago we met a charming young Frenchman in Victoria. We loved meeting him. We hope he too will become a long-term friend. Within a few days of that meeting we encountered two delightful Australians who run a resort. Their warmth and outgoing natures made them very special to meet. We also met a lady who runs a cafe, a person who seems wholly focused on making her customers welcome, comfortable and satisfied. She too will live long in our memories. And there have been many others.
That's one of the truly fine things about travelling. The people you meet can bless your lives for so long afterwards. Keep travelling, and keep meeting people!
Tumut, Beautiful Tumut
I have just put an article on the Tumut area on the TRAVEL section of the site. It's an area I know very well, having fly-fished the rivers for a number of years. It's always a joy to return to Tumut. This time it was during the autumn when the town's great number of deciduous trees transform the streets into artists' palettes. It's a sight never forgotten. If you'd like to read the article, click on the Travel picture on the right hand side of the home page.
Enjoy the reading!
By the Thredbo River
A few days ago I lay on a grassy bank of the Thredbo River absorbing the peace of the day. It was a beautiful experience in a place well off the beaten track. So many of the places of deep peace are where few people go. That isn't to say that we should be hermits, but I do say that time spent in quiet places not only induces deep peace within, it equips us for relationships when we return to the world of people.
At the end of that day by the Thredbo River I wrote a short article on the experience. You might like to read it. You can find it in the FAITH section of this website. I hope you enjoy it.
A Eucalypt Forest and Contemplation
Yesterday I put a short contemplative article on the website in the FAITH section. It concerns the beautiful eucalypt forest around Jindabyne in the fly-fishing country I love. It is about the spiritual experience of places of nature. My experiences of deepest spiritual growth have usually been in places where I am in closest contact with nature. A lonely place or in the midst of a natural environment almost always heightens my sense of contact with a transcending presence. The eucalypt forest around Jindabyne is no exception.
If you'd like to read the short piece, go to the FAITH section of the site. I hope you find the reading worthwhile.
It has been a real joy over the past few weeks to eat apricots, peaches and nectarines from our own trees. Somehow they are sweeter and more packed with juice than any fruit I can buy retail. They seem to declare how wonderful the world is, how fecund it is, how bursting with good things.
Of course that experience of the earth's goodness is enhanced by living in one of the countries blessed with plenty, a country in which we are free to grow our own food, a country in which we have the natural resources to do so. There are, therefore, other thoughts too that enter my mind when I see the fruit on our trees and taste them. There are others far less fortunate. There are those who scramble for the least scrap of food they can get to stay alive. There are those whose lives are constantly threatened by lack of clean water. There are those who have not even the most basic sanitary arrangements.
But I have all of those things. And I have the bonus of our fruit trees. Fresh fruit is one of my privileges. It would be irresponsible if I were not to give thought to those who have next to nothing, and ask what it is I should do in response to their needs.
Courage and Integrity
Thomas Aquinas defined courage as the strength of mind which conquers all that gets in the way of attainment of the highest good. The highest good is likely to be a little different for each of us. For me it lies in the emphases of the great prophets and of Jesus of Nazareth. The prophets called for justice, equity, compassion, love and a reformed life. Jesus of Nazareth called for love of God with all that we are, love of neighbours as we love ourselves and love of enemies.Put together they offer a demanding way of life. It is not for the fainthearted.
Yet it is in practice a major contributor to mental and spiritual health. Inward peace will always be flawed here or there without commitment to that highest good.
Paul Tillich wrote about and preached about the Courage to Be. I think he meant to courage to act with integrity according to the values we consider to be preciousand to which we are committed.
To act with integrity is to be predictable in the best sense. People will always know thatno matter what the circumstances, we'll always act with integrity.
That's an attainment worth working towards.
A Merry Christmas
Dickens had a wonderful ability to invent names which described his characters. Scrooge was one of them. His transformation from "a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone,...squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" into the generous wisher of a merry Christmas to everyone is the charm and delight of "A Christmas Carol." The story is part of Christmas for many of us and we wouldn't miss reading it.
I know of course every year what the next paragraph will be, but I wouldn't miss reading it as one of the central foci of Christmas. I think of it, too, when I decorate our Christmas cake, a pleasant task I completed yesterday. The mixing and baking of it is a pleasure, and the decorating is a delight. As I put Merry Christmas on the cake, I thought of Scrooge. And the question came to mind, not for the first time, What is it that causes Christmas to be merry? To put it another way, What is it that causes Christmas to be joyhful?
Many people will have many answers. But here is mine. The answer is in a word and the word is Emmanuel. It is made up of two Hebrew words, Immanu and El. The first word means "With us." The second means "God." So the meaning is, "With us, God." The New Testament relates that the child to be born at Bethlehem would be known as Emmanuel.
As I read the teaching of the adult Jesus and his life of love and service I have no difficulty in experiencing God with me. It is an adventure I would not trade for anything, The richest lottery win could not rival the experience.
Every day is an adventure of discovery and of God sharing the road with me. I wouldn't miss it for quids.
Yes, there's the joy of Christmas, the "merry" that is God with us, Emmanuel.
So, to use Bob Cratchit's and Tiny Tim's toast in "A CHristmas Carol,"
A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!
God bless us every one!
A Special Christmas Present
Many descriptions are given for Christmas in the media and in advertising material, few if any having much to do with Christmas ("Christ-Mass). I read of the Festive Spirit, a term which is used without explaining what feast it is that attracts the adjective festive. It was in print recently as the Giving Spirit, a term which I take to mean giving Christmas presents. It is, of course, a season of giving, the prime giving and receiving being Divine generosity and grateful receiving in faith. The gift is highlighted in Matthew's and Luke's Gospels, the finest description of it being Emmanuel, 'God with us.' The present is God himself, which makes very clear the spirit of Christmas and the season's central focus. When compared with the gift of God's presence, the commercial spirit so emphasised pales.
Even so, I have had another present in this time which leads up to Christmas. It is a precious one and it will last over Christmas and into January. My sister Jean and my brother-in-law Roger are in South Australia. It has been so good to see them. They both live in the UK, so we can't drop round for a cup of tea when we feel like it. Our meetings are limited by distance. This, then, is the first time for many decades that we have been together over a Christmas period. Jean and Roger are among the most important gifts I receive this Christmas.
They highlight the importance of people over things. Is there a person who needs a human contact this Christmas, someone you know?
Christmas wishes to that person and a little time spent with him or her will enable you to offer a gift beyond price. And it won't cost you a single dollar.
Peace, hope, and loving spirit be yours this Christmas.
A World on Phillip Island
One of the considerable benefits of travelling is the opening of gates of learning.
Ruth and I have just returned from a week in Phillip Island, as part of our most recent exploratory journeys into Victoria. A week was seriously insufficient. We had so fascinating a time there that another week or two would have been well spent.
We did one or two of the 'tourist' things, such as visiting the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory (an experience far more interesting than I had expected). However, visits to the conservation reserves and the National Vietnam Veterans Museum have led me to do some serious learning research as well as recall the pleasures of experiencing them.
Despite being for many years a cultural tour leader in Viet Nam, I learnt a great deal about the country and the Australian involvement in the conflict we call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War. The museum showed me how much I don't know and therefore how much I need to learn.
The conservation reserves are diverse, and all, it seems, homes to Cape Barren Geese and echidnas. One of our sacred moments was standing to one side of a track in the Scenic Estate Conservation Reserve as a family of two parent Cape Barren Geese and their four offspring walked slowly past us. We loved the Rhyll Inlet boardwalk and Lookout, the conservation park at The Nobbies with its fine boardwalk and stunning views. But mostly the benefit is the research that comes out of it. I want to discover more about Cape Barren Geese, about Mangroves and their exptraordinary ability to deal with salt, pneumatophores and their 'breathing' function. There is much more to learn from our Phillip Island journeyings. As always, it is nothing less than privilege to engage in it.
The newspapers are filled with headlines and news items that appear to have come from desires to produce the most depressing views of the world possible. Certainly terrible things are happening, but good things are occurring too. And there are good people as well as those less attractive ones the papers tell us about.
It is my privilege to have associations with two important groups, Toc H and Initiatives of Change.
In both of those movements there are people who are committed to working for a better world. They want to see and are committed to a world of justice and equity, of peace, of compassion and mercy, of love in its most potent and best sense. It is a joy to be part of both movements. Each works quietly and sincerely with yearnings for the best life for all.
There are, of course, good people in many areas of life other than Toc H and Initiatives of Change. They don't make the headlines and would not want to.
Give thanks for every good person you know.
All Saints and All Souls
Today, the 1st of November, and tomorrow, the 2nd, are dates of celebration of All Saints and All Souls in the Christian calendar.
Some churches, including our own at Newland, Victor Harbour, will be having this evening a service where there is opportunity to remember those people important to us who have died and whose memory we cherish. In the Christian Church we believe that the reality of those who have gone before us lives on, and we celebrate that this evening. My wife Ruth will be remembering a number of people, especially her late husband who died of cancer some years ago; I. too, shall be remembering people important to me, including my late wife who also died of cancer. Such a time of remembering, within the communion of others who are remembering deceased loved ones, can be very significant in our journey through life.
Are there deceased persons precious to you, whose lives you would like to celebrate at this special time of remembering? Why not find out if there is a church near you with an All Saints / All Souls service this evening?
Blind Bartimaeus and Enlightenment
It was a pleasure today to lead the service at the Yilki Uniting Church, a congregation of very warm, welcoming people. The sermon was to do with blind Bartimaeus who calloed out for healing on the Jericho road. As with all stories of healing in the New Testament Gospels their major point is an overarching spiritual or compassion meaning. Bartimaeus' story is no exception.
The sermon is on this website in the FAITH section. Just look for Bartimaeus in the heading and you'll find the sermon. It has been edited to make it as much as possible a document for reading rather than for delivery where projection and rapport with a congregation are important. The various notes for delivery have been removed, though it might still have an occasional ring of delivery to it. Even so, I hope you find it worth reading and gain some value from it. Read and enjoy the experience.
Most of us can remember special people who have affected our lives very positively.
Iris was one of the kindest persons I have met. I can't supply her surname because not sure that it's right to identify her. It's sufficient, perhaps, to say that I met her many decades ago when my wife and I and our young family were living in Colonel Light Gardens, a southern suburb of Adelaide. Sadly, Iris has been dead these many years.
She was a member of a church I had a strong association with, and for reasons I have never known, Iris 'took to' our family. She offered us the warmest of friendships and became a kind of supporter of our endeavours.
Iris didn't drive, and every Saturday morning she came by bus from a northern suburb to our house to teach our children and me to play the organ on an instrument she gave us. It was a concert-pitch instrument which I enjoyed learning on. She also gave great encouragement to our children to play stringed instruments, one the cello, the other the viola. She sacrificed every Saturday morning to come to our Colonel Light Gardens home, having to use the buses, including a change from one route to another in the city.
It continued that way until we moved from Adelaide to Whyalla, and I shall never forget the love expressed by her actions on those Saturdays.
She was also very kind to me, a youngish man in those days of study. One of the most precious gifts I have is a set of 12 commentaries which have been wonderful resources to me over all the many years since. I shudder to think what the financial cost of them must have been, but far more than the cost, the value lies in the love that is enshrined in the gift. She had nothing to gain, only kindness to show.
I use the commentaries regularly still, and whenever I do I remember, as I take a volume off the shelf, a wonderfully kind lady called Iris.
A Place of Contentment
What makes for contentment?
James Thomson, 1700-1748, once wrote,
'An elegant sufficiency, content,
Retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books.' *
It is my joy to have all of those, and contentment therein there certainly is. I choose to think of contentment rather than happiness because the latter is much misconstrued. The base of happiness is the word hap, which is to do with chance. In Yorkshire they get that right with the expression, 'Happen it rains' or 'Happen we are in Ripon sometime' and similar expressions. Happenstance is chance. Contentment is lasting.
So yes, retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books, are all part of my contentment. But I have to add to that list the love of a devoted wife, and a different kind of love with family and the closest friends. Faith, too, defined as belief married to courage, is part of contentment.
I live in a place of rural quiet which infuses me with an inner peace that seems to be part of the earth around me. I have just looked out of the kitchen window, as I frequently do, and watched our special magpie pair flying their shuttle service to a lofty eucalypt to feed their young in the nest. I have watched a dozen kangaroos in the field by our road feeding and also on the move. I have watched honeyeaters feeding from native shrubs in the garden. I have drunk in the nectar of the morning scene, and as I do every morning, known the contentment of simple things, and perhaps also of sharing the world with those creatures.
As I sit here now at my computer I look out of a different window at the ocean not far away with its shadings of greying blue under a blanket of cloud, and I know that life is good. It's the simple lesson of the simple things that starts the day.
* Thomson J. The Seasons (1746), 'Spring'
Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor who died in 2016, wrote a piece in a symposium, The Future of Prophetic Christianity (Orbis, 1993), under the title, Lot's Wife. His article included the following:
'Only if we remember the other can our own identity remain redeemable. It is through the other that it is given to us to attain a higher dimension of humanity. We are who we are and what we are because of the other and our respect and compassion for the other.'
Today a friend sent me an email in which he shared with me a Zulu word, 'Abuntu', which means I am because you are.
When I put those two concepts together, and remember Martin Buber's I and Thou writings, I am reminded that none of us is really isolated from others. John Donne wrote, 'No man is an island, intire unto himself,' another reminder of the intertwining of any of us with others. That intertwining has a great deal to do with the identity of each of us. Wiesel tells us that the gift of the other is given that we can attain a higher dimension of humanity, a dimension where we live respect and compassion for the other.
The message is certainly a call to recognise the sacredness of the other, but it is also a recognition of our common humanity.
Chief Seattle is credited with presenting a statement to the American Congress in the late 1800s when the United States sought to purchase his nation's land. The statement, which enshrines the Chief's unhappiness with the inevitable loss of the land, ends with these words:
'One thing we know
our God is the same God.
This earth is precious to Him.
Even the white man cannot be exempt
from the common destiny.
We may be brothers after all.
We shall see!'
The United States government sought land for profit. Chief Seattle sought recognition of common humanity and common respect.
Chief Seattle leaves us something to think about.
Way back in the 1960s my late wife Ann and I called at Overland Corner while staying at Barmera. We enjoyed it, but thought no more about it for some time.
In those early 1960s I was a young sergeant in the British Army, posted to Australia. In 1964 I was posted back to the UK and my wife and young children took up residence on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. One evening we were watching an Australian programme on television and saw that a small group of people in the drama visited Overland Corner. We were both excited to see that special place on television while we were on the other side of the world.
A few weeks ago my current wife Ruth and I spent a few days in a cottage at Overland Corner. It was idyllic. I sat by the river painting, we watched glorious sunrises and sunsets, enjoyed the pelicans on the river, breathed in the sweet air and enjoyed a visual feast of eucalypts. Yet it was within easy driving of Barmera where we could shop and enjoy the local library. And at Overland Corner we enjoyed lunch at the pub.
Overland Corner is a very special place for us. Within the next two or three days a fuller article will appear in the travel section of this website. I hope you enjoy it.
The theology study group which meets fortnightly at our home has just commenced studying the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew's Gospel.
After some good introductory discussion at the first session on the subject, it was decided to look at the Beatitudes. commencing at our next meeting.
As I think about the Beatitudes my mind goes very easily to "Blessed are the peacemakers." Has there ever been greater need for peacemakers than now? Those committed to peacemaking are among the most important people to be found anywhere. Peacemaking is very different from peacekeeping. In fact, peacekeeping is a strange term because logically you can't keep peace unless there is peace to keep. In our culture we usually mean keeping warring factions apart when we speak of peacekeeping, i.e., there is no peace to keep.
Peacemaking is a good deal more positive than that. It is the active work of building peace where it does not exist. It requires searching thought, careful listening, increasing understanding and strenuous effort and commitment. It is work for the truly dedicated. The product of that work can be the opening of lines of communication, deepening understanding of situations by those at odds with one another and commitment to build bridges of friendship. Fortunately, there are such people, many of whom are ordinary citizens who commit themselves to the creation of a better world. They are people of goodwill.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Looking at the Sermon on the Mount
The theology group that meets at our home approximately fortnightly has made the decision to study the Sermon on the Mount. It appears in Chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew's Gospel.
As most people know, the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of the teachings of Jesus rich in material about the deepest and most satisfying ways of living. But it's also a collection of teaching which shows us a great deal about the love of God, and that's what makes it a theological discussion.
It contains much that is familiar to those who don't attend church services. For example there are those statements we call the Beatitudes, the sentences commencing with 'Blessed are...' and there is the great prayer of the Early Church which we call the Lord's Prayer or the Our Father, depending upon whether you are Protestant or Roman Catholic. Less well known and more demanding are requirememnts to love our enemies and pray for those who wish us harm and to be peacemakers. Note that the requirement is to be a peacemaker, not a peacekeeper. To be a peacemaker is a much more active calling and one well-needed in today's world. I have an association with a group called Initiatives of Change, in which peacemaking is a very important work. Some members are involved in faciltating Peace Circles in places where danger is ever-present (South Sudan, for example).
The Sermon on the Mount, then, is a wonderfu study which challenges the reader at every point. I look forward to the study in our theology group.
Too much to chew at Great Tew
What is it like to live for a few days in a village which consists of about a dozen or so houses, a pub, a church and a small primary school? I found out on a recent visit with my wife Ruth to the delightful Cotswold village of Great Tew. Great Tew is an easy drive from Oxford and is one of a group of three Tews, namely Great Tew, Little Tew and Dun Tew. With Great Tew being so small a village, Ruth asked, "How small is Little Tew?"
Our stay was in the beautifully named "Bluebell Cottage", an appropriate appellation for our time there given that the bluebells were in bloom wherever we looked. Like all the houses in Great Tew, Bluebell Cottage is thatched roofed and pleasing to look at. In fact, as I looked at the roofs of many of the other cottages in Great Tew I became an admirer of both the skills and the artistry of thatchers. Such beauty of lines and understated decoration have their own satisfaction for the eye.
It was our good fortune to see thatchers at work on a cottage roof near the pub. How impressive it was to see how deftly and confidently they work.
Concerning the pub, "The Falkland Arms", named after a Lord Falkland who owned the local estate, it's a quintessentially English country "local". We had drinks in the pub, and one morning had their sumptuous breakfast. Timber beams of great age, chairs and tables in cosy corners and gregarious landlord and landlady, plus good English ale make for a special experience.
So many places of beauty are within easy driving distance. We visited Broadway, Bourton on the Water, Stow on the Wold, Chipping Camden, Chipping Norton, Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaughter, the Rollrite Stones, the Hoar Stone, Chastleton House and stopped for many views on our journeyings.
When we left Bluebell Cottage to move on to our next place of exploration, we were saddened to say Goodbye to our thatched heaven, but knew we had more to digest than we'd expected. But what fine memories we have.
The Camargue Cross
I have above my desk a small Camargue Cross. It measures about 6 inches by 4 inches, is black and made of metal.
What is a Camargue Cross? It is the cross that characterises and belongs to the Camargue wetlands area of southern France, the territory of the grand and petit Rhone rivers which form the delta of the great River Rhone which makes its way from Switzerland to the Mediterranean Sea.
It is a singular area, characterised by two principal occupations, fishing and raising bulls. Many of the bulls are used for Provencal bullfights, competitions which do not endanger the bulls in any way. They are not in any way like Spanish bullfights which bring the bull to so cruel a death.
The Camargue Cross features both of those occupations. At the base of the cross are anchor flukes and with the upper cross-piece the cross looks like an anchor. In that way the fishermen's occupation is noted. At the top of the cross, the ends of the cross-piece and the end of the upright conclude in tridentrs. They repesent the tri-pointed lances used to control the bulls. Those elements recognise the occupation of the Camarge cowboys who control the bulls and their raising.
And so the cross is located in the Camargue. It is seen on buildings throughout the region, including the fine little church in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la.Mer.
It has a double recognition. Halfway down the cross upright (or the shank of the anchor) is a heart. With the other elements it enables the cross to delcare faith, hope and love. It speaks, then, of some of the most powerful and renewing forces in the world.
By recognising the professions of the fishermen and the Camargue cowboys, the cross is located in the Camargue. That reminds us that wherever we are, the qualities of faith, hope and love, gifts from God, need to be built into our communities, wherever we are. God becomes real when we make those qualities our own and exercise them in our own parts of the world. When we do so we learn more surely than ever that God is not only Spirit, but is also Love.
The Blessings of Silence and the presence of a name
It was my great joy to attend a little while ago, with Ruth, the Quaker Meeting House in the village of Come To Good in Cornwall. It is one of the oldest Quaker meeting houses in England. I had wanted to visit it for some time since including it in my Kindle novel, "Cornish Pastiche. A Murder Mystery." I was not disappointed. It's a lovely Grade One listed building, thatched with whitewashed walls in the loveliest imaginable wooded grounds. What a wonderful experience it was to be there!
The Sunday morning meeting was an hour of silence broken only by the briefest of verbal contributions, spontaneously made, thoughtful and wise, to feed our thinking. It was an hour of listening to the voice within, an experience of deep spiritual reflection.
At the end of the hour there were announcements, welcomes, coffee and biscuits. At that time we had rich conversation and a very warm welcome.
After the meeting we wandered through the grounds, filled with unmarked graves. Bluebells and wild polyanthus formed the carpet through which we walked. Only the songs of birds could be heard. It was not only a case of "The heavens declare the glory of God," it was also the woodland and flowers, the birdsong and the clear air declaring his glory.
Because the graves are unknown and are unmarked, everyone walking in the grounds is walking over graves. There are, however, five headstones and only five. They are all graves of Magors. This is quite exciting for Ruth, who was a Magor, a family with its roots in the Cornish village of Mithian, less than ten miles from Come To Good. She is engaged in following it up to see whether those five Magors in the Come To Good Meeting House grounds might be distant relatives.
It was a wonderful experience to be at the Meeting House, to experience the silence and to commune for a little while with some Magors.
Incident on a Train
I was thinking this evening of an incident involving a train Ruth and I were travelling in toward the end of last year. In December we were passengers on The Overland to Melbourne. Close to Cressy the train was bowling along at a very good speed. We felt two jerks to the motion, then some metalic sounds below the carriage. The train came to a standstill and within a few minutes we knew what we had expected. The train had collided with an object. Very quickly we learnt that the object was a car and there had been a fatality. The driver, a lady, had, it seems, not seen the train when she drove onto the level crossing.
Our immediate feelings were of great sadness for the vehicle's driver, but also for friends and relatives. The waves move widely when there is loss of life.
The train remained stationary for a number of hours before checks were completed, the car's remains removed to clear the track and the police work brought to its on-site conclusion. Our own inconvenience was a miniscule matter compared with the tragedy the car driver's family and friends were facing.
Now, as I remember it some months afterwards, I still think of those effects upon the people who mattered in the woman's life, but I think too of the fragility of human life. Terrible injury or death can come without warning for many reasons. That ought to make us grateful for every day of life.
The thought was reinforced recently with the death of Stephen Hawking. From all that we can discern, he seemd to have retained gratitude for life until the end, even though his physical condition might have caused some, were they in his shoes, to have entered a milieu of despair and perhaps resentment. Instead, Stephen Hawking continued to make a massive contribution to the store of human knowledge. I was very interested to read that in his will he made provision for homeless people. Within his physical limitations he thought of the needs of those who have no place to call home. That kind of compassion suggest gratitude for life and a place to belong.
Yes, life is precious. No doubt many things can make it a rich experience, but one thing, it seems to me, can always bless it, namely, to be grateful for it.
Let's make each day a good one to live. Let's be grateful for life where we can.
I don't want to give the impression that life is good for everyone. There are some for whom life is a struggle economically or is an experience of constant pain, physical or emotional.
So perhaps the best way to put it is to say that we have everything to gain by being grateful for good health, for those who love us and whom we love, and for life we are privileged to experience, while also living compassion for those whose life is not as privileged as our own, and may well be an experience daily of struggle and of pain.
Compassion, empathy and gratitude go well together.
Cornish Pastiche, a Murder Mystery
It's said that a writer writes because he is impelled to do so; he or she is not at ease when not writing. I'm sure that claim is correct, at least to some degree. I set my alarm for 4.45am each day simply to be sure that I can have a little over three hours to write before breakfast when I know that no-one will disturb me.
Why do I write each day? I don't know. I know only that I have to do it.
What do I write? I write about many things and many places. My current project is completing a book on Italy. It will finish at a little over 100,000 words. It is reviving many exciting memories of that beautiful country and reminding me of so many Italian experiences that have been part of my formation. In saying that, I suppose I am modifying my statement that I do not know why I write. As the words flow to the page, I learn more abot myself. Whether a writer intends it or not, who he or she is is partly revealed on the page. That is certainly happening in the writing of the book on Italy.
It happened also in the writing of Cornish Pastiche. Yes, it's a murder mystery, a work of fiction, but it also is a case of Tony Gates at least in some ways appearing on the page. I don't think there is an entirely objective piece of writing, no matter who the writer is. In the case of Cornish Pastiche, it was a labour of love to write it. And I was fortunate enough to have a first rate proof reader and editor, my lovely wife Ruth. The story comes out of my deep love for Cornwall, and especially the areas around St Agnes, Boscastle and Morewenstow.
CORNISH PASTICHE. A MURDER MYSTERY. BY A A GATES, is available on Kindle and from all Smashwords outlets.
All Change Here
At a theological group meeting today I remarked that the world is changing at a more rapid rate than ever before, and that presents challenges to all voluntary organisations, a challenge to present their case in the context of change, rather than trying catch up with the new world.
Change is certainly one of the most powerful phenomena we have to deal with today. On January 21st, I preached a sermon under the title, "All Change Here!" It was designed to indicate that the world is an arena of change and we need to see what change in inevitable and what constants still exist for us to incorporate into our living. The sermon can be read in the FAITH section of this website. I hope it makes encouraging reading for you.
Must Peace Always be Illusive?
As last night I watched on television what is happening to innocent people in Syria I found myself thinking of the words of Tacitus (c56 - c.117AD: "They make a wilderness and call it peace."
Who does not long to see peace in Syria. Our hearts are pained by the sight of young children suffering the horrors of bombing. And we feel powerless. If peace is achieved in Syria, will there be much more than "wilderness" left?
It was my privilege to meet, last month, a group of young people who want to see the world becoming a better place. And they are committed to the idea that "The change I want to see begins with me." A remarkable movement known as Initiatives of Change is working for peace quietly and effectively, if the growth of numbers of committed agents of change is effectiveness. Its Australian headquarters is at Armagh, a fine large house in Toorak, Victoria, beautifully set up for workshops.
My wife Ruth and I have been to Armagh for workshops twice during the last three months. The first was a workshop in November for adults above 35 years of age. The range of ages at the workshop ran as high as the 80s. It was satisfying to be part of a group of more senior people prepared to work for change. The workshop we attended in January was for people 35 and under. If you are cynical about young people in our society, take heart from the fact that there are idealistic young people who want to promote the best values, want to see change in our world and in themselves, and are ready to work for peace.
If you want to know more about Initiatives of Change, Google he title and the website will come up.
One of the greatest blessings we could hope for in the world, perhaps the greatest blessing of all, is peace. Let's work for it.
Is God Concerned With Religion?
William Temple (1881-1944), once said, "It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion."
To some that will be a jarring comment, yet it raises questions for faith and for living.
The first is Temple's taking-for-granted existence of Divinity. For some that is an irrational assumption. For others it is an experienced everyday reality. 'God' is a word which, as all other words, represents something or someone. Words are symbols which stand for meaning. God is no exception The word stands for meaning. For the Hebrew people of that which Christians are accustomed to call the Old Testament, the notion of God (there are many Hebrew words for the Deity) went through a lengthy period of development, but was always a personal God of the Israelite people.
In the early Christian period, the apostles and disciples of the early Church no doubt had many conceptions of God, but the common factor was that God was seen as personal, and 'Father' stood for a reasonably accurate representation of him (the pronoun serves to emphasise the personal nature). God was seen as the Deity manifested in the life, teaching, healing, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (known in his own language in his own day as Yeshua bar Yosef - Jesus is an English translaion of the Greek Yesous, itself a translation of Yeshua). Thus, a "filling-out" of the concept of God was seen in Jesus the Galilean. Today the nature of society, our knowledge of the world, our increasing interest in philosophical issues, has led many theologians to explore other ways of thinking about Deity.
One of many is the late Paul Tillich, a German philospher-theologian, who, to put his conception at its simplest, sees God as the Ground of our being. That does not mean abandoning the manifestation of God as Father seen in the teaching of Jesus, nor does it mean abandoning his teaching of the kingdom of God and all that it tells of the nature of God and the adventure of discipleship. But it does give us a ground upon which to build faith. It deals with the deep question of the essence of our being and from there to grasp Divine Reality.
But what about the question of religion and deity?
Religion is another word vague in meaning. There are those who say they are not religious. It's unlikely to be true. If organised religion is set aside, religion is best described as what a person does with his or her solitude. It might be that only those who avoid solitude altogether can claim not to be religious, but they, I suspect, are very few. The word itself comes from the Latin religio, which means 'to bind'. That also suggests that most people are religious. For most who claim no religious views it is likely that they mean they do not believe in God and/or they have no religious affiliation with a group.
Is that what Temple meant? It is likely that he meant forms of organised religion with creeds and liturgies, rites of passage and established forms of worship. If so, I understand the point he is making. They are likely to be for the benefit of the affiliates rather than to be a concern for God. Religion is both a personal and a public matter. It is not public in the sense that public displays of piety count; they are not helpful at all. It is public in the sense that the religion which has its roots in the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is concerned with social justice, social compassion and a prophetic call to Government. Its private aspect is the strengthening of life which is fed through personal contemplation, solitary awareness of the presence of God, prayer which develops a close relationship with God and a deeply spiritual link with Divinity, the Ground of our being. Jesus taught us not so much about what or how to do, as how to be. There is the spiritual depth of religion. It is a matter of being. That is certainly a Divine concern, as it is a human concern. It is to do with walking daily with God, with living "in God".
The World in the Room
It has been a joy for the past few days to be a facilitator at an Initiatives of Change "Life Matters" workship at Armagh, the house in Toorak which is the headquarters of Initiatives of Change in this part of the world.
It has been inspirational. The workshop was for young people under the age of 35 and has consisted of people from many parts of the world and many cultures. At one of the sessions, a participant said, "The world is in this room." And it was. We were people of many colours and backgrounds and many histories, sharing our convictions that change for the better starts with us, and then, we hope, moves out from us.
The intelligence, commitment for peace and change for a better world, and enthusiasm of the young participants was a thrill to behold. I watched them, as my wife Ruth watched them, having great fun together, and working intensely together studying and learning ways for them to make a difference for the better. I am certain of one thing, and that is that the young people present are so committed to being positive change agents in the world and working for peace that they will not easily be detered.
Yes, the world was present in the room. And the world will gain from these fine young people. I rejoice that I met them, worked with them, learnt from them, and was inspired by them. They give me confidence for the future. The world needs them and others like them.
The Inner Voice
The property known as Armagh, at 226 Kooyong Road, Toorak in Victoria, is a special place.
It is the headquarters of a deeply spiritual yet clearly practical movement called Initiatives of Change. Its spirituality is based upon the Inner Voice we can all listen for. As I thought about it today I was reminded that the prophet Elijah found his closeness with God in his hour of need as a 'still, small voice.' That surely is the deepest of all experiences of God or, for those for whom the word "God" does not carry much meaning, the deepest of all experiences of transcending Spirit or Reality.
I read today some words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. He was commenting on the Shema, those words of Deuteronomy commencing with, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." He wrote concerning the Shema that he did not see it as revelation, but he saw in it the necessity of listening for the music beneath the noise. I like that concept of listenting for the music beneath the noise.
The noise can so fill our minds that our spirit hears only it, and fails to listen for the music beneath, that is, the voice of God, perhaps still, perhaps small, but insistent if we hear it, and persuasive. The clamour for most holds the field, so much so that restaurants, railways stations, almost every public meeting place "protects" us from silence, and if possible from solitude. Beneath all of that the Voice can be heard.
Elijah had the noise to contend with. The thunder of the storm roared outside his cave of refuge. But the still small voice could still be heard beneath the noise. Listen for it and you might hear it. Solitude is the best arena for it of course. But if solitude is not possible, don't let the noise obliterate the Voice beneath it.
Religion, Rabbi Sacks said, is the voice beneath the noise.
Obituary for Cricket
As I write this blog, a Premier League match is being played between Arsenal and Chelsea, a London 'derby' that has been pulsating thus far. The second half has just started after a 0-0 first.
Oddly, much as I love football, the match has taken my mind to cricket. Why? Because both games have suffered terribly, in my view, from the advent of sponsorship, cricket especially.
Football has suffered from the formation of the FA Premier League from the First Division of the Football League as well as from sponsorship. There have been a number of negatives, including the conversion of the game from teams principally of locals to teams of mercenaries. The latest transfer deal has given the footballer concerened 300,000 pounds per week, that is, 15.6 million pounds a year. For kicking a ball?
Cricket has been the greater sufferer. My strong view is that the game died some years ago, and this is my obituary for the wonderful game that was so much an enjoyment of my life.
At this date of writing there is much media speculation about whether Steve Smith will equal or better Sir Donald Bradman's 88-years-old record. He won't. I have no doubt that Steve Smith is one of the most pleasant men of the world and probably a fine captain. I wish him well in all that he does in the current game. His difficulty in my opinion is that Don Bradman played cricket and that game is no longer played. Its fatal poison was given some time ago when well-known players and a media magnate colluded to take over the game. In the process they killed it. The game currently played is, in my appreciation of things, pseudo-cricket. It bears the name, but not the substance.
Cricket was a value. It stood for mutual respect and sportsmanship. The result of a match was important, but most important of all, the game had to be played by those who saw the importance of character and the value of respecting the umpire's decision. The game was so much a value that poor conduct in any area of life was described by the expression, "That's not cricket." Yes, cricket is dead, and I mourn its passing.
There were occasional falls from "Grace", of course. The bodyline series was infamous and a cause for shame. But it was clearly seen to be "not cricket" and the game recovered.
I remember fine games of County Cricket, fine games of Sheffield Shield, fine test matches. Players such as Lindwall, Miller, Bradman, Dexter, Hutton, Washbrook, Barrington, Laker, Lock, Valentine, Rhamadin, Sobers and so many more who brought honour to the game besides their considerable skills. They reminded us that there are important life-values reflected in the game they played. They would have wanted no numbers on the backs of their shirts, no sponsor's logo on the front, no rights to challenge the referee's decision, no electronic replay to check on the referee's judgment, and certainly would have been embarrassed by any prancing around the field that is seen today when a wicket is taken or a century scored.
Yes, cricket is dead, and my grief remains.
I wish Steve Smith well. I hope he does well in the "pink" test. He is a delightful character and deserves success. But Bradman's record is in no danger. He played a different game.
Good luck, Steve. You are a much-admired man.
Success to your bat!
It's hard to imagine a more depressing statement about life than the assertion, 'Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.' It is found, of all places, in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, a book which I am very fond of, but I don't identify with this remarkable assertion about the misery of life. It is included in the service of the Burial of the Dead. If life were that bad I think I'd want to be dead.
My own experience is that life is exciting and immensely satisfying. It's certainly too short for me to do all that I want to do and learn all that I want to learn. There is no time to be bored. Every hour is planned and full of interest.
I am, however, well aware that I am fortunate. Good health helps. For those who are continually in bad health or are severely handicapped in their mobility, life can very unexciting. For those with financial woes life is a struggle. Perhaps those of us to whom life has been kinder need to remind ourselves of the need to be grateful for our good fortune. I doubt if we could be sufficiently grateful.
Life is not good for everyone. There are those in this country and elsewhere who need all the compassion we can offer. Some are homeless; some are in very poor health; some have lack of medical facilities in their own countries; some suffer serious loneliness; and there are so many other causes of seriously compromised life. Can we support those who provide the most effective help? The Salvation Army, World Vision, Anglicare, Oxfam, UNHCR, the Fred Hollows Foundation, and so on.
Is the New Year a good time for us to look at where and how to support those who serve those in serious need?
A Dream of Wales
A couple of days ago I read an advertisement on the back cover page of the October 2017 edition of Writers' Forum magazine. It concerned writing courses, so inevitably I read it.
The courses advertised are held in North Wales at a large country house called Ty Newydd, a property which stands in spacious lawned grounds at Llanystumdwy in the vicinity of Criccieth. Those who know North Wales will know that Llanystumdwy is in an area of stunning beauty.
My imagination took off. I saw myself attending a writing course for a long weekend or a week in that place of open fires and tall chimneys, wide windows and views of woods, engaging in one of my very favourite pastimes, writing. Moreover, in the process of writing, I would be being taught skills of the trade. Yes, to study at Llanystumdwy would be idyllic.
There is more than scenic beauty in the attraction of Ty Newydd. The other powerful factor is that Llanystumdwy was home to one of the greatest men of words in the history of British politics, David Lloyd George. Lloyd George was a fascinating man for many reasons, not the least of which was his way with words. It is a strong Welsh characteristic, that gift with words. But Lloyd George had it in greater measure than even most Welshmen, and the Westminister Parliament was blessed with his glittering language. When Lloyd George spoke in the House, students of writing and oratory were wise to listen.
At Ty Newydd I would be very conscious of the ghost of David Lloyd George, a man who has fascinated me for most of my adult life. I think if I were to attend a course at Ty Newydd, I would take with me a supply of Lloyd George speeches, and whatever else I learned I would read a speech a night before sleep. I don't think Westminster knew his oratorical equal until the rise of Winston Churchill to the prime ministership of Britain. Now there is a pair for a writer to learn from. Both politicians found a rhythm of speech unmatched by others. That is what most writers rightly strive to do - find a unique rhythm of words.
Well, I can dream. Ty Newydd, Lloyd George and the magic of words.
The Inner Voice
We seem to me to be living in a time when, in Australia, we have to be protected from silence. Silence is treated as though it were a dangerous enemy.
In restaurants, music is more often than not played in the background. Those who decide to pipe it for the customers seem unaware that one person's music is another person's cacophony. Rarely is the sound coming through the sound system in a restaurant that which, for my tase, is music. Even if it were, I would still prefer not to have it.
Shopping centres have it, supermarkets have it. It is everywhere.
Silence is precious for me, and I suspect for a good number of others too. I get very few chances to go fly-fishing these days because in South Australia there are very few opportunities. When I was living in the eastern states I fished weekly, sometimes twice a week. It is an occupation which provides lots of quietnes, when the only intrusion is the gentle swish of the stream, an occasional bird sound or the gentle zephyr of a line cast.
I am, however, able to enjoy three-and-a-half hours of silence each morning as I contemplate and write from 4.45 until 8.15. The world I am in during that time is a qujiet world, usually interrupted only by the warbling of early-up-and-about magpies, an intrusion I welcome because it puts me immediately in touch with the magical miraculous world that the deliberate manufactured noise of the day keeps me from.
Why is silence important? The moments of quietness allow me to be in communion with myself and with God. They are moments when contemplation occurs with no distractions. They are moments which enrich me and prepare me for the day ahead. As is sometimes said, it allows opportunity to listen to 'the voice within.' It's the experience of the inner voice which contributes much to balancing life. The Old Testament has advice which runs counter to much that happens in mkodern olife. The advice is, 'Be still, and know that I am God.'
Yesterday's blog described an incident on our journey to Melbourne on the Overland a week ago, an incident which sadly cost a woman her life.
Most train journeys are without incident, as our return journey on the Overland was on Tuesday this week. Being a train lover I would not have been disuaded from travelling by rail no matter what kind of train it was. However, the Overland, despite not being the greatest train in the world, has one very considerable attraction for me. It's an all day journey, taking approximately ten hours. For me that's as satisfying a day as possible. I sat in my seat and used my time looking out of the window at the passing scene that driving a car does not allow. Someone else has to concentrate on the driving with a train. And I also spent my time writing. Writing is a passion and the thought of having a day when I do no writing is not a pleasant one. So I spent some considerable time with my seat table set in front of me with a pen in my hand. That was a fine opportunity. On a train there are none of the responsibilities to be seen to at home. I could just write, when I was not looking at the scenery or talking with Ruth.
Yes, I've travelled on trains with far more modern rolling stock, including the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Bernina Express, the Glacier Express, the Rocky Mountaineer, Eurostar and many TGVs and Thalyss trains in Europe. Yet the Overland was still special. For a day I was travelling in the world created by Trevithick, the Stephensons, Gooch, Stanier, Brunel, Dugall Drummond, Bulleid, Johnson and all those others who built the railways up into what became a Victorian value. Great day!
An Overland incident
Last Friday (3rd November), Ruth and I travelled to Melbourne on the Overland. Ruth, being the reasonable and understanding woman that she is, agreed to travel on the Overland rather than fly because she is very well aware of my love for trains.
The journey should have taken 10 hours and 5 minutes, arriving at Spencer Street (Southern Cross these days) at 1850. It would have given us 70 minutes to reach a property in Toorak for the commencement of a workshop we'd gone to Melbourne to attend. However, an unhappy incident during the journey caused the train to be five hours and ten minutes late. The train arrived at Spencer Street at midnight.
About 60 kilometres from Geelong the train struck a car on a country level crossing, causing the instant death of the car's driver and only occupant, a lady who was only two minutes from her home near Cressy. The tragedy left a husband and two teenage daughters in mourning, and no doubt for a while in deep shock.
The accident was a sharp reminder of how tenuous our hold on life can be, and how important it is to empathetically enter into the suffering of others, even though we might not meet them. It's sufficient to know that we have a common humanity and be reminded of John Donne's words, No man is an island. When any person leaves the world before his or her time it is tragic. A unique personality, the only one the world will ever know, has left us. The smaller world of the relatives and friends of the deceassed person is characterised by grief that is not cured; learning enables it to be lived with and life functions again.
So I think of that family which has lost a wife and mother in a terrible way. And I know that we must in our own ways remember them, though we don't know them, and commit them to the care of God who is Love.
Toc H Campsite Open / Infrmation / Volunteers Day.
Yesterday, October 21st, we held our Open Day at the campsite in Victor Harbor to provide information about Toc H, about the campsite and about tasks which require the time and effor of volunteers.
We were lower in visitor numbers than we had hoped, but our pleasure in recruiting new volunteers outweighed by are any disappointment concerning the numbers. It is always exciting to have people come forward to help us with the tasks we have to carry out, and it's especially so when the volunteers are excited about what Toc H stands for and tries to do in the community.
The Victor Harbor City Band were wonderful contributors to the success of the day. They are enthusiastic as well as skillful and joined in the happy feeling that was evident at the site.
We had a fine continuous display of images on the large TV monitor in the hall, a display put together with great skill in Power Point by my wife Ruth from her own photographs. The images were all her own photographs taken in Belgian Flanders, and included World War One military cemeteries, including Paschendaele and the Ypres Ramparts Cemetery, the city of Ypres, including the Menin Gate and the St George's Military Church, Talbot House in Poperinge, from which Toc H gets its name, and fine images of the Talbot House centenary in 2015.
Many people took the opportunity of enjoying our unique area of scrubland, using the boardwalks.
They also had the opportunity of listening to an exposition from Michael Thomas, until very recently National Director of Toc H, of the Greenhouse close to completion, a facility which will have a very important role in propogating plants for the grounds, including especially the bushland.
We were delighted, and so I think were our visitors, by what was available - oh, and a sausage sizzle, tea, coffee and cake, too.
The function was organised and co-ordinated by stalwart members of Toc H. How grateful we are to them all.
If you would like to know more about Toc H, feel free to ring me on
0412 333 944.
Toc H 6 To Love Widely
The next point of the Toc H Compass I have to comment on has the title, TO LOVE WIDELY.
Love is a word which is understood in many different ways. In Toc H our understanding of love is the sense in which the Church understands it and the New Testament teaches it, and it's summarised by a Greek word, agape. Agape is a love which is always concerned for the wellbeing of others, and he or she who practises it is prepared to sacrifice his or her interests in care for others.
Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love God with our whole selves and to love our neighbours as ourselves. In fact, it is through loving our neighbour that we love God. Hence, it is one of the points of the Toc H Compass. Yet there is more to it than that. Jesus also taught that we should love our enemies. That says immediately that Christian love (agape) does not depend upon love being returned. In fact, Christian love is disinterested in love being returned. It is an outflow of God's love to others, and God loves all equally and without limit.
And so we try to live out those commandments to love God with all that we are, to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to love those who offer us only enmity. Love is without limit. We don't claim always to achieve that in every way. But it is our aim and we give that part of our culture our best effort. And we welcome people to join us, no matter whether they have our faith, some other faith, or no faith at all. But having said that, it is important to note that we are unashamedly Christian. We are above all a Christian service movement. We always have been and will continue to be. Jesus of Nazareth is our model for Christian living and culture.
Don't forget: Open / Information / Volunteers Day
Saturday, 21st October 2017
11.30am to 3.30pm
Toc H Campsite, Waggon Road, Victor Harbor.
We'd love to see you there!
Toc H 5 Service
The next point of the Toc H Compass I want to comment on is that which has to do with service. We call it in Toc H, To Build Bravely. I think of that as building service opportunities, which in themselves build bridges, which can also lead to peacemaking. To build bravely is a powerful concept that can be transforming in communities.
"Tubby" Clayton, the British Army Chaplain at Talbout House in Poperinge during the First World War, and founder of Toc H, had many sayings well-known to the troops and still well-known to Toc H members. One of those sayings, is "Service is the rent we pay for our room on earth." That, too, is a powerful concept, because it reminds us that we enjoy the adventure of living under obligation to make our contribution. It leads to the questions, What can I do to serve my community? Whom do I know who is in need and would value a few hours of my time to lend a hand? Are there "shut-ins" to whom I could bring a breath of life outside of their doors? What can I do to play my part in making the community a better place, a more humane place?
Have you thought of how we can enrich the lives of others through acts of service? It might mean sharing yourself for a while here and there with someone who is lonely? It might mean doing a few jobs for someone whose physical limitations mean that the jobs are beyond them, but still important.
Is there someone in your church or club for whom a letter in times of stress or grief would be an assurance that someone cares? The opportunities to serve have no limits.
We have a room on earth that we enjoy and have the privilege of being. By that, of course, I don't mean a phsyical room in a house. The word is a metaphor for our time and place of life, a time and place which are our privilege in our time on earth. Paying the rent through service is a great opportunity. It gives us a wonderful purpose, it gives our lives another element of meaning, and it enables us to contribute. They are all important.
At our Victor Harbor, South Australia, branch of Toc H we have a fine volunteer opportunity of supporting the campsite which serves, primarily, the handicapped, disabled and marginalised your people of South Australia. That is another area of service available in addition to those mentioned above. Would you like to be part of it?
Come to the campsite on Waggon Road, Victor Harbor, on
Saturday, 21st October, between 1130 am and 3pm. You'll enjoy the site, learn a little more of Toc H, and be able to see the kind of things volunteers do in maintaining the site.
We'd love to see you there.
Italy - I can't help writing about it.
As some of the readers of these blogs know, my murder novel, CORNISH PASTICHE, A Murder Mystery has been available via Smashwords outlets and Kindle as an ebook for a few months.
I can't help writing, so I am currently in the process of writing not a novel, but a book on Italy. This is inevitable in a way because I've had a love affair with Italy form some decades - well, actually most of my adult life. I'm not planning on this one being an ebook. I shall at some time hunt for interest from a publisher, knowing of course how difficult a market that is to break into. So it might see the light of day in published form, or it might not. Whether it does or doesn't, I shall continue to write it for what seems to me to be the best of reasons - I can't help writing about Italy. It is a place of the most extraordinary fascination. It has captured me.
I plan on the book consisting of 13 chapters (it could possibly stretch to 14 if the Venetian section demands a couple), and I have 5 completed. Some work has been done on a further three. The work done so far has taken the book to over 53,000 words, so the final product will be, I think, in excess of 100,000 (Cornish Pastiche runs to just under 100,000).
That does not mean I won't write another ebook novel. I shall, and already have some ideas for more than one. However, Italy is my focus at present. It will cover most areas of the country and will be the product of the excitement I have found in extensive travelling in the beautiful land. It is not going to be a tourist book. I want readers to discover the essence, the heartbeat of the country.
I'll keep you posted on progress.
In the meantime CORNISH PASTICHE, A Murder Mystery, by A A Gates, is available in ebook form from Kindle or Smashwords outlets including I Books, etc.
Toc H 4
I've visited Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgian West Flanders, five times in all. Each time I have found myself in direct contact with the spirit of Toc H.
On the first occasion, I arrived at Poperinge railway station from Ypres (It appears on the map today as Ieper, its Flemish name) with my late wife Ann. It was pouring with rain, as perhaps only West Flanders when it's in a wet mood can rain. We had something of a walk from the station to Gasthuisstraat, where Talbot House is located. With not a stitch of dry clothing on our bodies, we knocked on the grand front door of the house. The volunteer wardens opened the door, saw us dripping all over the already sodden pavement, ushered us quickly into the house, brought us electric heaters and towels and made us piping hot cups of tea. They welcomed us into the house as though we were the most honoured guests they had ever had.
We discovered in those moments important aspects of the Toc H ethos. It stands for and lives a welcoming spirit, it exists for service, and it demonstrates the value of every human person. We knew from that moment, many years ago, that we had tapped a spirit at Talbot House that was very precious. To become part of Toc H was for me, as I look back on it now, a natural and inevitable part of that experience. It was, though, some years later that I became a member. I read a good deal, and sought to practise its values, simply because they were too important not to practise, and are entirely consistent with the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. My full membership came when I was invited to be part of the Victor Harbor branch.
In 2013, my fourth visit, my wife Ruth and I spent two weeks at Talbot House as volunteer wardens. It was a wonderful experience. We met fine people on the staff, many fine visitors who came to see the house and experience its fine World War One museum, and to examine for themselves the Upper Room where so many thousands of troops took communion, and where Chaplain "Tubby" Clayton worked so faithfully to build faith and hope.
We had the opportunity to serve during those two weeks as wardens, sleeping in the house, and praying each day in the Upper Room. How many cups of tea did we serve? More tea, I think, than could be drunk without straining the tea-production of Sri Lanka! We had water boiling on the Agar all day long. And we had the chance to mix with so many visitors, to make friends with the staff and with the lady who operated the bakery and chocolaterie opposite Talbot House in the same street. It was one of those experiences of life that neither Ruth nor I can ever forget. It is not too much to say that I have learnt to love Talbot House and all that it stands for.
It is the Toc H spirit: service, fellowship, fair-mindedness, living the kingdom of God.
Saturday, October 21st, 1130am to 3pm, Open / Information /Volunteers Day at the Toc H campsite, Waggon Road, Victor Harbor, South Australia.
We'd love to see you there.
Toc H 3 To think fairly
The Toc H Compass is our guide for service within the movement and we hope in all our living. It is throughly Christian way of being and living.
In this blog I'm commenting on one of the four points of that Compass - To Think Fairly. To think fairly is to consider all points of view. We are not committed to adopting all or any, but certainly to consider them. In particular we need to look for evidence to support arguments which are contrary to our own. In doing so, we might legitimately be persuaded to change our minds. In considering other points of view and looking for supporting evidence we are reminded of the need for evidence for our own points of view on many issues. In that we we contribute to the benefit of a group, we assist in positive, creative decision-making, and we contribute too to peacemaking and so reflect the Beatitude in the 'Sermon on the Mount", Blessed are the peacemakers.
To think fairly is not to be weak-minded; in fact it is to be strong-minded. We look for sound solutions to problems rather than for easy, ineffective ones.
To think fairly is also to put yourself into another's shoes, to try to see the situation from his or her perspective. It is to recognise that there is a world outside our own perceptions that is as valid as our own. That, too, can be a peacemaking revelation.
So in Toc H we are committed to thinking fairly. It is part of our Toc H Compass.
Saturday, October 21st, 2017.
Toc H Open / Information / Volunteers Day
at the Toc H Campsite, Waggon Road, Victor Harbor, South Australia.
1130am to 3pm.
Refreshments. City Band. Information. Inspection of Camp Site. Enjoy the experience.
A Ship, a Missile and Building Character
Building character is one of life's hardest tasks. It is, of course, a lifelong one. We can be grateful for the people who have been examples to us. They have often been our inspiration. I am certainly grateful for those who have been examples to me.
In the Travel section of this site there is an article on character building and those who have inspired us. The article is called, A Ship, a Missile and Building Character.
Why is it in the Travel section. Well, for no better reason that it takes in my time at sea when I travelled world-wide, and my time in the British Army when I spent four years in Australia and time on army testing ranges in Wales.
I hope you enjoy the article.
Toc H 2
Yesterday it was my privilege to be able to speak about Toc H (=T. H. = Talbot House) at the Yilki Uniting Church. It's always a joy to me to able to share Toc H values and the Toc H story with people.
Toc H's Christian orientation ensures that it remains a service movement, seeking to provide servant leadership in the community and being always on the side of peacemaking.
As I pointed out at Yilki yesterday, peacemaking and peacekeeping are not identical. Peacekeeping is a poor term because if you have to 'keep the peace' there is no peace to keep. The logic and the reality are undeniable. To make peace is an entirely positive activity and a necessary contribution in a world become excessively dangerous with loud voices for anything but peace. How positive it would be to have a peacemaking seminar at the Toc H campsite!
I also spoke at the Yilki church about the Toc H Compass, which consists of the four emphases that make up the ethos of the movement -
* to love widely
* to think fairly
* to build bravely
* to witness humbly.
I'll take those four points of the Toc H Compass up in a future blog. To continue this blog, though, I want to state one of the most potent comments made by the Talbot House Army Chaplain and founder of Toc H, 'Tubby' (Philip) Clayton. He said,
'Service is the rent we pay for our room on earth.'
It is a fine concept because it reminds us that service is not a luxury but is our due to the community. That is certainly the Toc H view. If you are looking for a way of serving in a specifically Christian movement, then think about joining Toc H or serving through Toc H as a volunteer. Wherever you are, find out where your nearest Toc H branch is and make contact.
At two schools where I recently spoke at chapel assemblies, I left the senior students with the words,
'Toc H members seek to ease the burdens of others through acts of service.' The words are not original to me. They are Toc H words and they tell us by implication that to devote our lives to the service of others is to find meaning and purpose - a discovery that changes life for us.
A reminder to those in the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia:
Saturday, October 21st, 2017, is Open Day / Volunteers Day at the Toc H Campsite in Waggon Road, Victor Harbor. We'd love to see you there. Why not come along at about 1130 am and enjoy the beautiful site, listen to the town band, enjoy refreshments and learn more about Toc H and its service opportunities?
Toc H Invites You - Toc H 1
On saturday, October 21st, Toc H in Victor Harbor invites visitors, volunteers and potential volunteers to an Open Day / Volunteers Day at the Victor Harbor Toc H Campsite.
If you want to discover how fine a facility the campsite is, want to walk a little of a unique piece of scrubland and learn the exciting story of Toc H, why not come along to the site on that day between 11.30 and 3 O'clock? There are refreshments there, the town band will play, and a visual display of Toc H and its First World War origins will be playing.
Toc H had its origins in World War One at Poperinge, a town in BelgianFlanders a few miles from Ypres (known as Wipers to the troops, and today by its Flemish name, Ieper). The trench warfare was demanding, exhausting, wearying and in almost every way imaginable miserable. Into that area of urgent need came an army chaplain known to all as Tubby Clayton (real name, Philip). His task was to set up a rest and recreation house for troops on leave, troops going to the front and troops on rest from the front. He succeeded brilliantly. A house in Poperinge owned by a hop-grower was leased, and there he set up a facility that more than met its objectives. It was decided to call it Talbot House.
In the signallers' code of the day the letter 't' was called toc. This distinguished it from 'd' so that there could be no mistake. The initials of Talbout House are TH, so true to soldiers' form they began to call it Toc H. The name survived the War and the Christian service movement of Toc H expanded rapidly and made huge contributions of community service all over the world.
More will be said about Talbot House in the next blog, and more about the service movement in blogs to follow that. Keep looking at the site!
And don't forget - Those who read this blog in Victor Harbor and its hinterland - the Open Day / Volunteers Day at the Campsite in Waggon Road is October 21st. Love West to see you there.
Preaching at Yilki
Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching at the Yilki Uniting Church at Encounter Bay. The congregation is formed by a very warm, welcoming group of people.
As is my custom, I used and preached from the lectionary readings set for the given Sunday. In this case the two principal readings were the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew's Gospel and the Exodus story of the Israelites in the wilderness receiving manna from heaven.
In both cases, the stories focus upon the grace and generosity of God, if God is taken to be the owner of the vineyard in the Matthew story, and that is surely how Matthew intends us to understand the parable.
Only a fool would ignore the fact that the world knows its great share of suffering and brutality, but the Christian experience is of the generosity and grace of God in the life of every day when it is lived in faith. That does not mean that faith has to be a selfish quality. We are called in the Church to be those committed to justice, equity, love, mercy, compassion and faith. And that means concern for the injustices, the inequities, the brutalities, the suffering peoples of the world.
The sermon is concerned with the Christian experience of the generosity of God part of that calling. It can be read on this website under the Faith heading.
A School Visit
It was my privilege and pleasure to be invited to speak about Toc H, a Christian service movement, at the Tyndale Christian School, Strathalbyn, yesterday morning. My speaking appointment was during the 9am Assembly for senior students.
I very quickly discovered that the Tyndale School is a very special place. Besides speaking, I was able to listen to others involved in that clearly very important part of the school day. The teachers and the students left me in no doubt that faith is a key part of the life of that important educational facility.
The morning devotion, during which I was a willing learner, was led by one of the students, a young lady who spoke of learning from failure. It was a moving presentation that led me to think of my own failures and what I hope I have learnt from them. Perhaps failures themselves are in some way gifts from God, given that they are opportunities for growth, as Kirrily, the student leading the devotion, pointed out so well.
It was a pleasure to speak with a small number of the senior students at the close of the assembly. They were impressive young people.
The principal and the staff present welcomed me graciously and warmly. I am grateful to them for the opportunity to be, if briefly, part of the life of a school where something very special is happening.
Faith is for Everyday
Faith is either for everyday and for every circumstance or it is not for serious consideration at all. When it is understood to be a way of life it becomes revolutionary.
One of the best-known sentences in the New Testament is found in the letter to the Hebrews, one of the two major documents left to us from the early Jewish Church (the other is the Gospel of Matthew). It reads in the RSV, 'Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.'
That says to me that faith, when it is effective, is a constant way of thinking for both the present and the future, and that it affects how I plan and execute actions. I live in trust in God for every day if I take that sentence seriously. It also means that while I engage in the sensible rule of decision-making by testing the evidence to hand, I am conviced that there are realities behind that which I see each day. The reality includes the deepest and most life-changing of all, namely that God who is Love and Spirit is present in his world and in my life. Yes, that is for everyday.
It was my privilege to know a special man of firm faith some years ago. I worked with him for a short period in the leadership of the Flinders Street Baptist Church in Adelaide. His name was Cliff Magor. In 1987 Cliff completed writing a fine monograph called 'An Unexpected Life'. He achieved completion of the writing after suffering a stroke, which made the task very much more difficult. Faith was needed in order to believe that he could complete it. The short book is an inspirational read.
I respected Cliff as a man of integrity, and recall him (He died some years ago) as one of deep faith that guided all he did, and as a finely-educated person. At the time of my acquaintance with him I had no idea that one day I would marry his daughter. That is one of the other great privileges of my life; his daughter Ruth is now my wife.
A short article on a quotation from Cliff's book appears in the FAITH section of the website.
The birds are nesting
The spring equinox is only three weeks ahead and before long our fruit trees will be covered in blossom.
The later winter / early spring is a beautiful time to experience. The magpies have been busy at their nests. The pair which uses the nest in the tall eucalypts opposite our home on the other side of the road have been getting very busy of late, nesting in the same lofty place they use year after year. It's as high as it is possible to build a place for their young. I love to see the parent birds leaving their nest. Mostly they don't move their wings at all until they have flown over our roof, gliding majestically from nest to grass. In a few weeks time we expect to see the young on our deck. In my ignorance, I don't know how many eggs the hen lays, but I have a notion that it is from one to three.
Some other birds are beginning to build their nests under our eaves. Mostly they appear to be swallows.
The same unvocalised question comes to my mind at this time every year. How do they know that this is the time to breed? I anticipate that the answer a professional ornithologist might give would be, "It's instinct." I could be wrong, of course. He or she might give me a much more technical and (if I could understand it) more convincing one. Could it be that when we are told that creatures do some thing by instinct that we are really being told that the speaker doesn't know why it does it?
For my part, I accept that at least for me it is a mystery, a wonderful one at that. I look with deep pleasure at the birds gathering their nesting materials. I gaze with admiration at the hen sitting on the nest, being fed by the cock bird. I see with a spiritual stirring the parent birds feeding the young. Then comes the exciting day when the fledglings fluttger out of the nest and learn to use their wings effectively. It is a miracle-story repeated year after year nd I am captivated each time, as though it were the first time. And it's happening again now.
Faith or Fossilisation?
It was my privilege to preach at the Newland Uniting Church in Victor Harbour yesterday. The set Lectionary reading was the chapter in Matthew's Gospel which tells of Peter's declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, and the response that the Church would be built upon the rock of his faith.
Faith is perhaps the most potent force we have, no matter whether it be pratised in a religious setting, a business setting, a setting of science or technology, in the setting of marriage, or any setting whatever. Faith is that conviction of the mind and heart that keeps us moving forward, exploring new possibilities, expanding our knowledge, developing new skills and techniques, nurturing character and igniting the flame of hope. Faith is present and future focused. While it might be fed from known experiences of yesterday, it is not geared to the past. It is our major force for the future.
Faith is exciting. It asks me what I can achieve next. It invites me to look at what abilities and capabilities I can put to work. It invites me to see the future in a positive way, and should there be cause for anxiety in tomorrow, faith enables me to build internal tools for dealing with that.
The sermon can be found in the FAITH section of the website.
I hope it speaks to you.
Tony Gates and Writing Magazine
In the August edition of Writing Magazine (a UK writing journal) there is a short article featuring my writing Cornish Pastiche, my murder mystery novel available as an Ebook for US$3.99 via Kindle and Smashwords outlets. I enjoyed writing the article in which I set out why I chose to write the book, the enjoyment I derived from producing the plot and the less exciting hard work of editing for publishing.
The one thing that I can say above all else is that the completion of the novel and getting it into the marketplace brought a fine sense of achievement. It was a very lengthy task and that added to the feeling of pleasure in getting the book into the public arena.
The next book will, I hope, require less editing. The experience of the first should aid work on the second. It was an extensive learning exercise which was itself very profitable. The learning will go on, and it should make subsequent books subject to shorter gestation times.
For now, I can say I'm glad of the experience and looking forward to getting into the next book. You might like to read Cornish Pastiche, meet Chief Inspector Jim Hatchard, absorb the atmosphere of Cornwall and try to work out the 'Who dunnit".
Toc H Campsite, Victor Harbor
Toc H is a movement which excites me when I think of its founding, its many decades of service and its current opportunities. I value my involvement in the Victor Harbor branch in South Australia, a branch that will be 82 years old later this year.
Toc H had its genesis in the terrible days of trench warfare in the Ypres Salient during the First World War. The movement which emerged was and is committed to peace and community service.
In the town of Poperinge, a few miles to the west of Ypres (present day Ieper), the British army leased a house from a brewer in order to make available to troops taking a break from the trenches a place of rest and recreation. The army named the establishment, TALBOT HOUSE. The army signallers' code for TH, the initials of Talbot House, was Toc H, and that's how the movement received its name.
Talbot House was a great success. It provided a place of good comradeship, fun and relaxation. The most important room in the house was on the top floor where once hops had dried. The chaplain, one Tubby Clayton, converted that floor into a chapel to which he gave the title, The Upper Room. In that place many thousands of soldiers took communion. It became the most sacred place in the house.
After the War,Tubby Clayton was keen to see the spirit of Talbot House at work in the community. He gave great energy to promoting and developing Toc H in England and beyond. Before too long, the movement came to Australia, and in time to Victor Harbor. Its guild church in London is All Hallows by the Tower. In Australia it is the cathedral in Newcastle, New South Wales.
More of this in another blog tomorrow.
A Boyhood Dream Realised
Almost three weeks ago,a dream from my schooldays was realised.As early as I can remember, the most exciting location in the place where I was brought up was for me the railway station. When I first discovered that magical place (as a very small boy) I knew there was nowhere to match its excitement for me. It was then a station on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, it having been before 1923 the main line of the Midland Railway into St Pancras, its London terminus. From 1948 onwards it was a station on the natioinalised system of British Railways, the amalgamation of companies that nobody but Labour politicians of the day wanted. But it made no difference to a boy's excitement at watching trains steaming through, either on their way to St Pancras (passengers) or Cricklewood (mineral traffic) if southbound, or the Midlands, the North or Scotland if northbound. A Beyer Garratt hauling a seemingly endless coal train, a 2-6-4 tank engine hauling a commuter train or a fleet-footed Jubilee hauling an express were all wonderful machines to me, as were the various other classes of locomotive seen on the once-Midland line.
Very early I had a longing to drive a steam locomotive. They were so alive, so dramatic, so thunderous, so magical to me, a schoolboy.
The dream was realised last month in Victoria. Members of my family combined to pay for a day of steam locomotive driving for me as a birthday present. There could not have been a better present for me.
The driving experience was on the Bellarine Preserved Railway, a line which runs from Queenscliff to Drysdale. The day consisted of instruction, of driving the whole length of the line, and shunting. It was a simply wonderful day. It will live for a long time in my memory. A very, very special day.
Cornish Pastiche and Tony Gates appear in Writing Magazine
The current edition of Writing Magazine (August 2017) has a half-page column on my detective novel, Cornish Pastiche, under the heading, 'Corpses in Cornwall', a rather clever title supplied by the editor. The column has a photograph of me and a photograph of the ebook cover.
I am pleased with the way the half-column has appeared. It can be found on page 49.
In the piece, I describe my experience and pleasure of writing the novel, and of the hard work of editing once the story was completed. It is accurate to say that for me at least, the process of writing is sheer pleasure. I love crafting words and creating worlds. However, editing is another matter altogether. It took far longer than the writing, but the discipline is valuable. And it is necessary, no matter how fluently one writes.
The story takes place entirely within Cornwall, a county for which I have a great love. The half-column in Writing Magazine ends with my words, 'I have particularly enjoyed building a sense of place in Cornwall. I'm looking forward to writing the next story, and soon.'
Yes, I am looking forward to writing the next story, but for the moment I am well into writing and editing a non-fiction book on Italy. I love Italy as well as Cornwall. Once that book, whose title will be something like, Kaleidoscope of Italy, is completed and in search of a publisher, I shall get quickly into the next novel. How could I not?
There are no forms of transport that can possibly rival the train for me. I know that to leave Australia I have to use an aeroplane or a ship, but wherever possible I take the train. It has ben my good fortune to travel by train in many parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand. Canada, the UK, Ireland, and many parts of Europe.
I have traveled on many fine trains, including Eurostar, the Rockymountaineer, the French TGVs, the European Thalys services and the Venice Simplon Orient Express (4 tomes). So I consider myself to be very fortunate. Why do I travel so much by train? Firstly because there is the excitement of living a Victorian value. That is what the railway is
Secondly, I am using one of the fastest developing modes of transport in the modern world
Thirdly, I am using one of the simplest yet most brilliant inventions of transport history. And of course I just love trains. I am always anticipatingy next one
Oh,and there's something special on the horizon. Later this year I dhal be having a day's steam locomotive griving. Can't wait!
Our Journey (9)
From Alfriston, leaving beautiful Sussex, a county deeply etched into my experience from the age of 20 when I spent my first week there among the South downs, we proceeded by train to London where, at Victoria Station we had merely to leave the train and check into our hotel whose entry was from the station concourse. One night there and we walked back onto the concourse the next morning to board the Venice Simplon Orient Express, first for the Pullmans journey to Ashford International in Kent, then by Eurostar to Paris, followed by the Orient Express Wagons-Lits train to Venice.
Why the Eurostar? Because there was track work going on at the Folkesone end of the line that the Orient Express normally uses from London. Therefore the Pullmans took as to Ashford to join Eurostar.
There was a bonus linked with the inconvenience. Because we had to use Eurostar for part of the journey, Belmond, the operators of the VSOE, offered us a free Orient Express journey from London to Paris at a time of our choosing. A delightful bonus!
The journey between London and Venice was magnificent. The Orient Express is surely the very best possible in train travel.
There was no sadness, however, in leaving the train at Venice's Santa Lucia station. We had our favourite hotel in Venice, Palazzo Priuli, to check into and a week in Venice to enjoy. Venice is a magnificent city. I do not know how often I have been there, some of the visits being with Ruth, but I know that for me it can never pale.
And so we completed our journey in the city of St Mark, the Queen of the Adriatic, the Most Serene Republic, the city of architectural magnificence, of glittering history, of sumptuous churches, of rich artwork, of glass blowing and lace making, of La Fenice opera house, of Florian's fascinating restaurant, of compelling museums, of the finest main street in the world (the Grand Canal).
We arrived back in Adelaide with memories to share, relationships made, some renewed, and a treasure of exciting experience.
Our Journey (8) Alfriston
Following our brief time in London we took the train from Victoria to Eastbourne where we took a taxi to the lovely village of Alfriston. It is one of the delights of rural England.
We spent our first night there at the lovely Dean's Place Hotel and on the following morning (Sunday) walked across the Tye (the village green) to the church of St Andrew for the morning service. A peel of bells called us across the Tye as we walked to the church. Inside we were able to watch the bellringers exercising their skills. The ropes come down from the belfry to the crossing, so we watched with fascination as the ringers engaged in their fine teamwork.
After church we enjoyed a stroll around the village before checking out of Dean's Place and checking into our base for the next six nights, The Star Inn, the oldest continuously operating inn in England. We had selected our room many months before, the one most character-filled. Its extra bonus is that it looked out onto the high street so that we could look at the high street life of Alfrison from our perch.
Alfriston is an idyllic place. We did a good deal of walking, including a delightful stroll across the river Cuckmere and up the hill on a public footpath to the tiny Lullington church. We were the only people there, and in the little church we prayed and confirmed our marriage vows, ten years after our wedding day. It was a very special moment.
While billeted at Alfriston we enjoyed an outdoor lunch at West Dean, followed by a wonderful walk out to the estuary of the river Cuckmere and the stunning cliffs known as the Seven Sisters. This was made possible because the day after our attendance at the church in Alfriston I picked up a hire car in Eastbourne, so we were as mobile as we needed to be.
While in Alfriston we also went out to Wilmington to look again at the remarkable Long Man carved into the hillside. It is huge, and impressive. While there we were looking for a burial chamber we knew to be there because our Ordinance Survey map showed it. It seemed however to exist only on the map. Then I realised that the high mound we were standing on was the burial chamber. Oh well, it keeps me humble.
We enjoyed other pleasing drives around the lovely country of the South Downs and some fine meals at the Star Inn.
We were not immune from shopping. In the little shop opposite our room on the other side of the high street, I bought a beautiful tie which I knew would be the perfect complement to two shirts that I possess, one pink, one very light grey. To my delight I discovered later that Ruth had bought for me, at the same shop, cuff links that matched the tie. What a fine present they were. I have worn the tie and cuff links with the pink shirt since, and loved the combination.
The time came to leave lovely Alfriston. We returned the car to the Eastbourne depot and took the train back to Victoria, where we had an overnight at the Grosvenor Hotel before boarding the Orient Express for our return journey to Venice.
Yes, it was sad to leave Sussex, but exciting Venice lay ahead.
A Murder Mystery
My new novel, Cornish Pastiche: a Murder Mystery, became available on Smashwords distribution retailers and on Kindle this week. Smashwords retailers include Apple Products, Barnes and Noble, etc.
The action of the novel takes place in Cornwall and centres on Detective Chief Inspector Jim Hatchard, an educated policeman who has his own prejudices and inner issues. As the investigation into a country death and the search for a murderer who intends to kill again draws him closer into the action, his demons threaten to disrupt his thinking and calm.
The novel enters the worlds of an extreme religious group, the darker side of sex and the challenges of crime detection. The reader becomes progressively involved in the mystery of the case, and is caught up in the tense, fast-moving denouement, in which the greatest threats to success are time and the topography of Cornwall.
In the novel you will meet DCI Hatchard and his wife Betty, whose love for each other maintains a broad ray of light through the darmness of crime. You will also meet DI Arthur Brosnan of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, and DS 'Foxy' Fox, a Londoner who has made his home in the south-west.
I think you will enjoy this story; I certainly enjoyed writing it. It runs to a little over 98,000 words. On Kindle and other outlets it retails at US$3.99.
I hope you find it a satisfying read!
Our Journey (7) London
Arrival at Victoria station, not far from Buckingham Palace, and disembarkation from the Orient Express, was sad in one way. We were of course sorry to leave the VSOE, but we had England, or our chosen part of it, to enjoy.. Our hotel for two nights was on Euston Road, a taxi ride from Victoria..
Our journey was principally to celebrate ten years of marriage and Ruth's birthday. Our wedding anniversary occurred while we were in London. We had therefore chosen the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, a truly magnificent place to be. It is the refurbished old Midland Grand Hotel, the hotel part of St Pancras Station, the London terminus of the old Midland Railway. The hotel was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, one of England's foremost architects of the 19th century. It is Gothic revival and truly one of London's finest buildings, as well as a place of extrtaordinary luxury. And in that place we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.
We discovered that our room was in the best possible part of the hotel. Our windows looked out directly over the station platforms, into the fine, elegant train shed designed by the great engineer Barlow. It is a massive arch, the largest in the world at the time of its building. I spent a lot of time looking through the windows at the Eurostars leaving for and arriving from Paris and Brussels.
The following day we woke up on our anniversary in the St Pancras Renaissance. At one point during the day we wandered around the station, itself an elegant, even sumptuous place. As we always do when we are in St Pancras, we said Hello to the statue of Sir John Betjeman, the man who led the campaign to save the station when foolish British politicials sought to have it razed to the ground. Betjeman and the overwhelming majority of Londoners would have none of the politicians' foolishness and persevered until the threat was defeated. St Pancras is now one of the world's greatest stations. if not the greatest.
That evening, our second at the Renaissance, we had our anniversary meal in the wonderful Sir Gilbert Scott restaurant in the hotel. It was a memorable evening. We went back to our room grateful for ten years of marriage and a superb evening of celebration. The following morning we were due to leave for Sussex.
On Stones and Bread
Sundays are important for Ruth and me. They give us a focused opportunity for contemplating realities beyond the material or, to put it another way, the deeply satisfying exercise of sitting aside from the consuming society. Instead, Sunday provides us with the invitation to give attention to nurturing spiritual health.
Yesterday, the first Sunday in the season of Lent, it was my privilege to be invited to preach at the Yilki Uniting Church in Encounter Bay. The theme of the sermon was Stone or Bread? The background was the words of Jesus, "Man shall not live by bread alone." The sermon is on this website in the FAITH section. Should you choose to read it, I hope you find benefit in doing so.
The Bread really stands for focus upon material matters in our consuming life. The stone is symbolic of focus upon spiritual depth, building spiritual resources and nurturing our relationship with God who is Spirit.
My novel now available as an ebook
Yesterday my new novel, 'Cornish Pastiche: a Murder Mystery', was uploaded to Smashwords. It is available now from the Smashwords store, and should within a few days be available from Apple ibooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Scribd and Gardners. Next week I intend uploading it to Kindle, and it should be available from that source about 48 hours later.
The ebook is priced at US$3.99. In a search it is helpful to put in the book title and the author. A A Gates.
The book concerns a murder investigagion which takes place in Cornwall during a Christian convention. The novel delves into the darker sides of human psychology, sex and extreme religion. The centre-of-interest character is Detective Chief Inspector Jim Hatchard who, quite innocently becomes involved in the web of the enquiry while he is on holiday in Cornwall from South Australia. He is a detective who has his own inner demons which could easily take him over during such an investigation. The final act is played out in circumstances where the topography of Cornwall threatens to work in the murderer's favour. The ending is highly-paced and dramatic.
If you decide to read the novel, I hope it brings you real enjoyment.
The Beauty of Pens
Pens don't appeal to everyone. Some would probably say, if I spoke to them of my love for pens, 'What's wrong with a word processor?' Of course, there's nothing wrong with a word processor if all you want to do is put words into print. Others might say, 'What's wrong with an SMS? I'd have to say, 'There's nothing wrong with an SMS, provided you don't want to send more than 140 words, or however many it is.'
But I want to do more than just send words; I want to savour them, feel them flowing from my hand as well as my mind, and see them on the page in ink in my own handwriting. By that you might have guessed already that when I speak of pens I don't mean ball-point instruments or others of their like. I mean pens that use real, flowing ink that takes a few seconds to dry on the page. I might describe them as instruments which provide the sensual pleasure of smoothly flowing across the page, sending a smooth and sensual effect back into my body. I mean beautiful in their use and beautiful in their appearance.
I have on my desk before me two fine, glass-fashioned, dipping pens. Both were bought in Venice, the most recent one in Calle delle Rasse, a product of the fine Bortoletti craftsman's workshop. Its slender elegance captivates me. The other was bought, I seem to recall, in the Mercerie, the collection of streets which run from the clock tower on the edge of Piazza di San Marco to Rialto. I love both the pens and look at them each day as I work at my desk.
I have also a collection of fountain pens. One is a fine Scheaffer product, a present from one of my sons. Another is a Parker once owned by my wife's father, a very smooth instrument to use. Another is a Ferrari fountain pen, red of course, with the prancing horse insignia. It is a reminder of my visit to the Ferrari headquarters and museum at Marinello. It has quite a fine nib, which makes it ideal for writing Greek characters. I also have a number of older Parker pens, and four or five calligraphy fountain pens with various widths of broad nibs. Every one is sheer pleasure to use.
Yes, the pen is not everyone's pleasure. But it is certainly mine. I recognise, of course, that I could not have written and posted this blog with a pen!
Our Journey (6)
Santa Lucia station in Venice is always an exciting place. I feel a growing sense of excitement when I walk onto one of its platforms to board a train to travel to another part of Italy or another country of Europe. This time the journey was very special. Ruth and I were to board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
It was not the first time. Nine years before, we had travelled on it from Brussells Midi to Venice, a magnificent experience. So we knew that a wonderful time awaited us on the VS-O-E.
Orient Express employees arrived at our hotel and took our baggage to the station. We didn't have to give it another thought. We waited until boarding time and were then welcomed on board in our car, resplendent in its royal blue and gold livery. The pale blue uniform of our car attendant was no less splendid.
On arrival at our cabin we found our on-board bags waiting for us and my suit in its holder already hung up.
When the train moved off, it was an almost undetectable start. Had I not been looking out of the window, I might not have noticed the movement.
Words can't describe the sumptuousness of the experience. Sufficient perhaps to say that our meals were 5-star restaurant and perhaps better, our sleeper was beautifully appointed, I slept well, and the journey was one where it was very satisfying to dress up for the part. The Orient Express literature makes the point, "You can't overdress on the Orient Express." That suited us very well! I got well into the spirit of that by buying a pair of Orient Express cuff links at the train shop to match the Orient Express tie and tie pin I already had from our VS-O-E journey nine years before.
The journey, first over the causeway from the Venetian islands to the mainland, then northwards through the Dolomites into Austria, with a brief stop at Innsbruck, was spectacular. The journey continued into Switzerland, then into the lower country of northern France where, very early the next morning, we made a short stop at Paris' Gare de l'Est station. The journey continued northwards from Paris to Calais, and on the way we were served a fine breakfast in our cabin. At Calais buses took us from the train to the Shuttle for the Channel Tunnel journey, after passport formalities. Britain, of course, maintains border controls that other EU countries do not.
At Folkestone the buses took us to the railway station where we awaited the arrival of the British Pullmans which were to take us to Victoria. The journey to London took about two hours from Folkestone and they were two hours of luxury, including a glorious morning tea.
Arrival at Victoria was very easy. Our hotel had an entrance within the station. Hardly any walk at all!
And so we were in London, for me the world's most fascinating city. On the way we had met some good people - Paolo the train manager, Christian the head chef, Mark 1 and Mark 2 (as Ruth knew them ), wonderfully friendly stewards, and so many more people. It's one of the joys of a significant train journey - you can be certain to meet some fascinating people if you are prepared to be friendly.
So we left the Orient Express after our very special journey from Venice. Were we sad? No! We had the return journey to make in ten days time.
For now, we had London and Sussex to look forward to. As always we were going to enjoy every moment of it!
Studying Matthew's Gospel
I am finding an early morning study of the Greek of Matthew's Gospel immensely satisfying. Over the past few years I have worked methodically through the Greek of John's Gospel, of Paul's letter to the Romans, and through the Gospels of Mark and Luke. This current study of Matthew is therefore the last of the four Gospels in my study programme.
I start writing at about 4.45 each morning, 7 days a week, every day of the year, no matter where I am. It is a fine way to use part of the mornings and I feel privileged to be able to do it. I write whatever comes into my head on any subject at all for the first 25minutes of the day, then I start my study of the Greek of the New Testament.
Matthew is particularly interesting in the light of its very 'Hebrewness'. It is a Gospel written by a Jew of the Jesus movement for Jewish members of the movement. Today we might call them Jewish Christians of the last quarter of the first century. That provides a fascinating background for working through the Gospel. The only other New Testament document that is so obviously by a Jew and written for Jews is the Letter to the Hebrews.
Matthew has structured his Gospel around 5 great teaching sections, the best-known being chapters 5, 6 and 7, known collectively as 'The Sermon On The Mount'. In its way it is an exposition of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew's expression for the kingdom of God) lived out by disciples. The core of it is the 'beatitudes' set out in the first dozen verses of chapter 5. If you want to know what the kingdom of Heaven looks like in human behaviour, attitudes and even inner life, read the beatitudes and reflect upon them.
The teaching sections are connected by passages of preaching and healing.
The Gospel is introduced by a genealogy which has as its very obvious purpose declaring Jesus to be in the line of David, the great king of Israel's memory. That theme of son of David comes up again as the Gospel is worked through.
Between the genealogy and the baptism and temptations of Jesus comes a birth narrative which speaks of a virgin with child, Matthew wants his readers to know that this was no ordinary birth, neither was the child an ordinary person. Matthew shows Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, the long-expected one.
The Gospel concludes with the Last Supper, the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion and the empty tomb.
It presents a remarkable story which, if we read it carefully and thoughtfully, provides us with treasure to be valued and to be grateful for. I have just commenced chapter 11 which links charges given to the pairs of disciples who are to go out teaching and healing, and material concerning John the Baptist, material in which we see the non-baptizer vis-a-vis the baptizer. There is much that is mentally and spiritually stimulating here.
So, this being the year of Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary, why not set aside some time each day (It does not have to be before the sun comes up!) to study the Gospel from beginning to end. Take a week or two for each chapter. You might study it a paragraph at a time and at some points take a couple of sessions to go through one paragraph. But read it daily, prayerfully, with a good commentary or two at hand. Not everyone can study it in the Greek of the original, but without Greek it is still a fascinating study if you decide that you are going to dig. Of all the documents that I know, none more obviously demands careful study than the Gospels. Their richness is revealed through careful, systematic excavation. One last point, though: Serious study needs a translation which renders the original documents as faithfully as possible into English. Don't use a paraphrase - that already provides an interpretation of the text - the paraphrasers! My on favourite study Bible is the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Its translation is not perfect, but my opinion is that it's the best available. If you don't have an RSV you might get one second-hand from Amazon.
I wish you profitable studying!
Our Journey (5) Anticipating the Train (Venice Simplon-Orient-Express)
On leaving Carcassonne we made a number of connections in order to reach Venice prior to boarding the Orient Express for London.
First, we made a relatively short journey from Carcassonne to Marseilles by train. It meant that we could have a leisurely breakfast at Hotel de la Cite before taking a taxi to the railway station. We were therefore able to enjoy reflecting upon the wonder of being in the old walled city with its Cathar associations before bidding it farewell.
Marseilles was used only for an overnight bed.
Second, we made the journey by rail from Marseilles along the Mediterranean coast to Nice, a city with which I have some familiarity. A connection at Nice put us on a second train, this time to Ventimiglia, the town that tells us by its name that European boundaries are always subject to change. The word means 20 miles, and was once that distance from the French/Italian border. Now it is on the border and so is one's entry by rail into Italy. Whence Ventimiglia we took a third train to Genoa along the line that follows the wonderful series of tunnels and viaducts that take trains through the rugged country of north-western Italy. Genoa was also used as an overnight before making the last leg to Venice. At a comfortable hour the next day we took two Al Italia flights to Venice via Rome. We could of course have taken far more direct means of travel from Carcassonne to Venice, but we were both familiar with the magnificent Mediterranean coastline between Marseilles and Genoa and wanted to experience it again.
We arrived in Venice at a convenient time mid-to-late afternoon. It was good to be in La Serenissima again, even if only overnight. Venice is in my blood. It is one of the most irresistible places on earth for me. Its history excites every cell in my body, its glorious architecture, its sumptuous works of art, its ingenious linking of the 130 or so islands to make a city, its extraordinary larch post foundations for the buildings, its bustling vaporetti, the city's water buses, and the fine major waterway we know as the Grand Canal, a broad thoroughfare which follows the bed of the Brenta river, all thrill my imagination. There is of course so much more to the wonderful city of St Mark and I'll write more fully of that when this series of blogs reaches the end of our journey when we'll have returned to Venice.
But now we were in the glittering city again. Time was limited; however we made a point of doing something which we always do when we are in Venice. We walked via the Ghetto to our favourite bar not far from the church of San Zaccaria and the Greek church, for our nightcap of limoncello. Before we arrived, the bar owner, Freddi, saw us walking towards him and came to us and embraced us with his wonderful warm smile. "Limoncello", he said, and followed us into the bar and poured the delicious liquid into two glasses. The questura (police station) from which the fictional Commissario Guido Brunetti works is close by, as is the church of San Lorenzo which he sees from his office window. Equally close is the wonderful old hotel, Palazzo Priuli, where we usually stay when in Venice. This time, however, we'd booked into a hotel much closer to the railway station so as to be handy for the next morning's boarding. The compensation was that we were booked into Palazzo Priuli on our return to Venice after some time in England.
We went to bed with beautiful thoughts of the next day's Venice Simplon-Orient-Express experience. Nine or ten years before we'd travelled on the VS-O-E from Brussels Midi to Venice. This time the journey was to be from Venice to London via Paris, Calais, the Channel tunnel and Folkstone. Only one more sleep before the experience began!
Our Journey (4) Carcassonne
From Narbonne we made the short train journey to Carcassonne, one of the most stunning places in all of the south of France. We had visited Carcassonne some years ago, staying the in Hotel Cite located on the site of the old Bishop's Palace next to the cathedral. We fell in love with Carcassonne on that first visit and we are still in love with it.
I should point out at this point that to enjoy Carcassonne you need to stay in the Cite, the medieval city within the fortified walls, entered through a drawbridge over what used to be the moat. The moat earthworks are still there, though now dry and partly used for car parking. Entry of motor vehicles into the within-the-walls city is severely restricted and allowed only within certain hours. Thus, Carcassonne is for the most part vehicle-free. The hotel shuttle is one of the very few vehicles allowed within the walls.
The hotel pre-booked a taxi from the station for us, so that when we arrived the taxi driver was waiting at the foot of the stairs from the platform with a placard bearing my name. That made it easy. He took us from the station to the part of the moat used for car parking and there we were met by the small hotel shuttle vehicle driven by the same cheerful man who had met us on our previous visit. He handled all the baggage, which we didn't see again until we went to our room, where it was waiting for us.
The room was magnificent, as we knew from our last visit it would be. But we had a special bonus. We found that we had a terrace and were able to walk out onto it and enjoy a magnificent view of the countryside below (the Cite is on a lofty hill) and the battlemented walls of the city.
Carcassonne is in the midst of Cathar country, the area of influence of the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians because the Cathar movement had its birth in the town of Albi. It was a medieval movement which swept the Occitain area of the south of France. Its adherents sought to live the purest lives they could (Cathar is from the same root as cathartic). The movement was regarded as heretical by the Church leaders of the day and the members were hunted and put to death. The last Cathar leader, a man called Belibas, was put to death at the stake in the village of Villerouge Termines, not far from Carcassonne, where our two very good French friends Jean-Louis and Elisabeth live. It has been our delight to stay with them twice in the past and they have stayed with us at Encounter Bay.
How beautiful it was to walk through the winding streets of the Cite! There is a charm to it that is, I think, without peer. Due to extensive restoration the walls and towers and medieval streets are wholly intact, including the fortress and bailey.
One of the high moments was lunch with Jean-Louis and Elisabeth in the hotel restaurant. They drove over from Villerouge Termines to see us, and how good it was to be with them again.
Another high moment was a little time spent in the cathedral listening to a Russian singing group. I'd heard singing coming from the cathedral as we walked out from the hotel one morning and so we walked the few steps to the church to discover that the voices were those of a very talented group of four male singers performing unaccompanied. We were lifted for a little while into another world. We have one of their CDs at home now to enjoy.
Our time at Carcassonne was wonderful. The time came to leave, and while there was some sadness to that, it was modified by the knowledge that there were wonderful things yet to come.
The next stage was a series of train connections and a flight to Venice, then one overnight in the Serenissima before boarding a rather special train. The route was Carcassonne - Marseilles - Nice - Ventimiglia - Genoa - Venice. More of that in the next blog on the subject. 'Our Journey (5)' will follow soon.
Our Journey (3) Narbonne
We left Paris for the south of France with the sense of pleasant anticipation I always feel when I know I am headed for Gare de Lyon and a journey on a TGV (Train Grande Vitesse - very fast train).
This time we were headed for Narbonne over a route with which I was familiar. I was very familiar with the major part of it, having travelled by TGV many times between Paris and Avignon. The TGVs are comfortable and smooth-riding. The speed means that journeys in them are never tiring. Narbonne is 849Km (528 miles) from Paris. The journey took a little over 4 hours, including three stops on the way. That's a normal speed for a TGV.
Our booked accommodation was at an apartment in Narbonne, very conveniently located so that it was only a few minutes walk from the railway station, and a few minutes walk to the city centre'
We had a thoroughly pleasant few days in Narbonne (Occitan Narbona, Latin Narbo). The city is built on a pleasantly open plan at the centre, through which runs the Canal de la Robine, which connects with the Canal du Midi.
One of the fascinations of the city is the Halle, the covered food market which sells every kind of food imaginable at stalls manned by hawkers who are filled with humour and cheerful banter. We struck up some repartee conversations with one or two.
I was particularly interested in the unearthed section of the Via Domitia, the Roman road from Rome to Spain, which we had looked at on a previous visit to Narbonne. The Roman Narbo was a road junction where the Via Domitia met the road to the Atlantic coast. It was not difficult to imagine Roman militia using the road, as well as local traders. How fascinating it is to touch the work of an ancient civilisation (you can walk on the small unearthed section - there are no restrictions). The other wonderful Roman monument we visited was the Horreum, the former grain warehouse built below ground and known as a cryptoporticus.
We visited the cathedral, a remarkable building dating from 1272, the Palais des Archeveques (Archbishops' Palace), the Musee Archeologique (archeological museum) and the bishops' garden. I especially loved the cloister of the Palais des Archeveques.
We also spent some time walking the narrow, winding streets where the local people near the city centre live. That was an especially interesting experience.
In brief, our visit to Narbonne was immensely satisfying. It was not on our original itinerary, but we are both glad we put it in. One of the great values of being an indendent traveller is that you can do that kind of thing.
Our next stop was also in the south of France - Carcassonne. More of that in the next blog.
Our Journey (2) Paris
Paris, the place I always feel my pulse rate increasing!
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle from Dubai and took the easy way into the city - by fixed-price (50 euros) taxi to our hotel, the Panache just off the Grand Boulevards.
The Panache has recently changed its name from the Madrid Opera. We have made it our default hotel in Paris because of its very convenient location and its presence in one of the areas of kosher shops. While not being Jewish, Ruth and I are both very interested in Jewish affairs and studying the culture of areas with specific character.
While in the city we did some of our favourite things, including visiting wonderful Galeries LaFayette, a short walk from the hotel. It is surely one of the most exciting stores in the world. We always spend more time in the store than we plan to. Its glorious atrium is a spectacle unequalled anywhere. As usual we had lunch in its fine cafe high in the building, followed by a little while relaxing on the roof terrace and gazing at the Opera Garnier close by, the Eifel Tower in the distance and, in a quite other direction, Montmartre.
One of our most exciting times was a visit to the Marais, the Jewish area on the right bank of the Seine. This is a place of compelling fascination. One Jewish shop after another line the streets. And there is the gracious Place des Vosges. We had a very pleasant lunch in a small cafe on the edge of the place. It is one of Europe's most elegant open spaces where buildings with very satisfying uniform architecture of great beauty surround a calming grassed and treed space.
Paris always enchants me. I love the glorious straight lines of plan, one from the Louvre, through the Arc de Triomphe to Defense, the other from the Ecole Militaire through the Tour Eifel to the Trocadero. If nothing else, Paris is an example of the finest planning. I love, too, walking the Latin Quarter, the streets around the Sorbonne, sitting in the Arena (Roman), visiting the Museum of the Middle Ages at the corner of Boulevard St Michel and Bouldevard St Germain. I enjoy browing in Shakespeare and Company's bookshop on the Left Bank, of taking in the wonder of the St Chapelle, of wandering the Luxembourg Gardens, of taking in the atmosphere of Montmartre, of visiting Printemps, the other fine department store on Boulevard Hausmann. Being rather odd in some people's eyes I also love visiting the great Paris railway stations of Gare St Lazare, Gare du Nord, Gare de l"Est, Gare de Lyon, Gare Austerlitz and Gare Montparnasse. I'm still a little boy who loves trains. I love. too, the fine galleries of the Orangerie, the Marmottan, the d'Orsay, the Louvre and many others.
Yes, we had a wonderful time in Paris. We always do.
The next stage of our journey was to Narbonne by train from Gare de Lyon. More about that in a following blog.
Our Journey (1) A Dubai Sleepover
Ruth and I have recently returned from a very special time away.
Our purpose was to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary by selecting the best experiences we knew. In future blogs I'll talk about those. It's sufficient here to say that our time in Europe was wonderful, the best time we have had on any holiday.
We left Adelaide in October bound for Paris and being unimpressed by many hours of flying with only a short break for change of aircraft, we took a sleepover in Dubai. The Dubai International Hotel is "airside", so it is not necessary to go through security and immigration. In fact, it is important not to because once through you are not allowed back into "airside" for at least 36 hours.
The hotel is built for comfort and it certainly offered it. That isn't all, though. There is a delightful, warm registration at the reception desk where you are made to feel very welcome and important. That never does any harm.
And so we were able to enjoy a good sleep in a very comfortable bed before commencing the next leg of the journey to Paris. There is no doubt that a good sleep, a good breakfast and a good bath before boarding the next aircraft is a fine preparation for the following stage of the journey. We went on our way refreshed.
The wonderful smiling staff said goodbye to us, wished us well and expressed the pleasure of anticipating our return to the hotel for a sleepover on the return journey.
Another advantage is that when leaving the hotel, being "airside" we had only to walk to the departure gate. There was no security to pass through, in fact no checks except for passport and boarding pass to present at the gate.
And so we commenced our next leg to Paris, Charles de Gaulle.
More of that in the next blog.
Guido Brunetti's Venice
A few days ago I finished reading Donna Leon's novel, Falling In Love. It is of course one of her series of novels featuring Commisario Guido Brunetti, his Ispetore (inspector) Vianello, the brilliant secretary at the Questura (police station) Signorina Elletra and Brunetti's wife Paola and family. The novel is up to her usual standard, and that's high. On our visits to Venice, one of my favourite places, Ruth and I usually stay at the fine old hotel, Palazzo Priuli, which dates to the 14th century, very close to the questura where the fictional Brunetti works. Being lovers of the Brunetti novels, which capture so much of the spirit of Venice, we popped our heads into the questura during one of our visits, just to say to ourselves that we'd been into Brunetti's place of work.
Palazzo Priuli was the palace of the noble Priuli family for some centuries. The family supplied three doges (dukes) of Venice, three cardinals of the Church and fourteen procurators. Such a family owned the fine palazzo that so attracts us and we so enjoy when we are staying there.
Close by is the bar where Brunetti and Vianello drink coffee and/or prosecco. We like to go into the bar for our own nightcap of limoncello and sit in the very seats where, in the novels, the two detectives sit. Freddi, the proprietor, has become a friend and knows immediately we go in that we'll have our limoncelli.
Brunetti's Venice is a place where he knows the levels of corruption in high places, he knows the ways of the vestiges of the Venetian aristocracy, he knows the crowds who make the vaporetti (water buses) like sardine tins, he knows the spirit of the city which is formed by its illustrious history, its stunning architecture, particularly its Venetian Gothic, its rich art collection, its more modern places for coffee or prosecco or grappa, and he knows Veneziano, a language which other Italians find very difficult.
He loves his wife Paola, who teaches at university, and who discusses many issues with him. She is the daughter of one of the aristocratic families.
These are the elements which make up Donna Leon's crime mysteries which involve Guido Brunetti. If you haven't tried them, if you enjoy crime stories and would like to get a feel for Venice, try one. They are in paperback, and not expensive. You could have a whole new world of crime and detectives before you. If you try one, I hope you enjoy it. Maybe your local library has one or two.
Les grands diseurs ne sont pas les grands faiseurs
Les grands diseurs ne sont pas les grands faiseurs, runs the French proverb, and it can be argued that it is generally the case that the great talkers are not the great doers.
There have been eloquent men who have achieved much - Winston Churchill comes easily to mind, and a careful consideration of the matter would no doubt bring a good number of others onto the mental stage. However, the talkers and the doers are not always the same persons.
We have a collection of babblers, it seems to me, in the parliaments of Australia, babblers who rant and rage, squabble and quibble, fulminate and postulate while Australia's problems and opportunities go largely untouched. I see no-one in Australia's political life at present who is likely to achieve in any significant measure.
Despite observed truth in the proverb, Les grands diseurs ne sont pas les grands faiseurs, an effective leader becomes yet more effective if he or she has the fluency, imagination and eloquence to paint a verbal picture of vision. That isn't all that is necessary, of course. A leader of substance has to bring those in his or her team into the envisioning, planning and analysing processes. Yet eloquence certainly helps. Who, having read the story of the civil rights struggle in the southern states, could fail to see the power in Martin Luther King's speech, I Have A Dream? Shakespeare gives us the playwright's view of inspiring eloquence on the lips of Henry V before the battle-winning charge at Harfleur, Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or fill the wall up with our English dead! In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as honest stillness and humility, but, when the blast of war sounds in our ears, then imitate the actions of the tiger... Yes, eloquence enhances leadership, as leaders such as David Lloyd George, Anuaren Bevan, Margaret Thatcher and Robert Menzies, and others have shown.
Even so, there are and have been great talkers who are not great achievers. I have not yet seen any great eloquence in Theresa May, for example, but she shows some signs that she could be an achiever. One of the men I most admire, whose name remains unmentioned in this blog, was a very quiet, considerable achiever. He built, as Managing Director, a very successful construction company. He had no eloquence. Those who knew him would agree with me that he was not a great talker at all. But he was certainly a great achiever.
There are great talkers who do not achieve at the same high level as their eloquence. Enoch Powell comes to mind. He was among the most eloquent orators ever to have graced the House of Commons. In my estimation he was one of the most far-sighted politicians of his - or any- day. In his ability to use his classical education to good to show inevitable effects of causes, he operated as a kind of modern prophet in the Lower House. He had rhythm and illustrative power that no other since Churchill has possessed. That he did not persuade his party and the parliament might be that he lacked other vital leadership qualities.
The proverb remains generally true. Great talkers (speaking very generally) are not the great doers. But when the eloquent and the practical are found in the same person, leadership not only emerges, it achieves.
The Closing of the Jungle
The newspapers and the television newsreels are showing pictures of the smoke and flames of The Jungle, the migrant camp at Calais being closed and dismantled by the French Government.
In England, the media is largely describing the people in the camp as migrants. There is a good deal of sense in that because no assertion is being made that they are refugees, economic migrants or any other migrant description. It would be helpful if that restraint were exercised in Australia concerning migrants attempting to come to our shores.
There are important issues to face in a case such as that of The Jungle. Compassion, border control and careful assessment are all important elements in making decisions concerning those attempting to reach the UK. Compassion should never be absent. Care for those in serious need should always be a very high priority. Genuine refugees need all the help they can be given. Children even of those who are not refugees are in need of compassion. There are suggestions that there are many children separated from parents among those being moved from The Jungle. They have, in that mess, no home.
Yet the situation and its requirements are not as simple as some of us would like them to be. Border control is non-negotiable. There cannot be open, unrestricted access across the Channel for whomever wishes to make the journey. There are important considerations for British society as a whole and for British communities severally that cannot be set aside. A Government which regarded those considerations as of no account would be failing in its duty to its citizens.
Assessment is more than common sense, though it includes that. To determine who are genuine refugees and who are not is critical. Unfortunately it is a slow and meticulous process. We would love to see it speeded up, but the need for meticulous checking and investigation does not make that very likely.
One last thought is that those who for any reason are refugees flee from a country, not to particular country of preference. Migrants, for reasons important to them and known to them, seek to move to a particular place on the globe. Many in The Jungle were determined to go only to Britain. That is not the way of the refugee, but it does not mean that there were not genuine refugees in the camp.
Compassion has to find where it can be effective.
I'm always excited by fine writing married with philosophical insight. Over recent weeks I have been sharing with my wife Ruth my love of the writings of Thoreau, Frost and Emerson. I could add Elliot and Tillich to those names and perhaps also Kierkegaard.
They are all writers who try to find their way into the essence of life. They do so with extraordinary literary fluency and when they discover a nugget of life they react to it and with it with great precision. Sometimes it is done with the poet's tongue as when Thoreau, speaking of a very young America, writes of the great rock formations as the cathedrals of his country and by implication invites his readers to contemplate the transcendent possibilities of Being.
All the writers mentioned above are accessible to us as scholars. Perhaps it is necessary for a person to be a scholar in order to write of deep things.
Speaking at Harvard in 1837 on the subject, The American Scholar, Emerson noted some aspects of scholarship, all of which are to do with investigating life.
He noted first that the most important influence on the mind of the scholar is nature. Second in importance is the mind (sic) of the past, books being among the best type (sic) of the influence of the past. Third, the scholar is speculative, but practical. Action is with the scholar subordiante, though essential.
The objective is to become Man Thinking. This is different from becoming a thinking man. It is to do with the deeper truth of attaining the contemplative state of our highest intellectual possibilities, and in a sense identifying with the highest activity of our species. Emerson's view that the scholar aims to become Man Thinking has, in my view, nobility as its colouring and excitement as its magnet. It comes to my mind as achieving that which as a species we are given the capacity to be. Perhaps, as a social responsibility, we have a responsibility to aim thus. If life remains unconsidered (to allude to Socrates), we have wasted life's great opportunity.
The influences of nature, of the past, the power of a speculative mind and a bent for action, appear to be Emerson's climate of scholarl self-actualisatoion, the groundwork of Man Thinking.
This is to delve into the essence of life.
If You Like Shakespeare...
I was talking with some locals many years ago in a pub not far from Stratford. You might not expect locals in a pub to be Shakespeare students. These locals, though, were passionate. "Shakespeare wrote them all," one of the drinkers said to me, speaking of the whole corpus of his work, "They had nothing to do with that streaky bacon fella!" At that time there was a body of opionion that Bacon might have been responsible for some of the work. As the talk continued, many of those present quoted from plays and sonnets. At least in part, they knew their Shakespeare. It was a lively discussion and it went on until closing tme (10pm in those days). I went to bed (I was staying the night at the pub) thinking how remarkable it is that powerful words can enliven a group of men and engage their minds so comprehensively.
Shakespeare, it seems to me, was remarkable in his ability to spin words into a web of vibrant, imagination-firing, life, set in, for the most part, iambic pentameter, but he also had the great talent of merging fiction with fact to carry us into the worlds of his creation. Perhaps mostly, though, his ability to build drama defines him. That gift is seen powerfully in Lear and Hamlet, among many others of his works. For me, the greatest of his plays is Lear. Shakespeared takes us deep into the tortured mind of Lear and the invevitable playing out of the tragedy. We all, no doubt, have our favourite acting performances, and mine is Ian Holme playing Lear. For me, he was Lear. I have seen many fine acting performances, including, many years ago, Donald Houston as Henry V at the Old Vic, and Dorothy Tutin in Pericles at Stratford. Ian Holme, as Lear, though, remains for me the peak Shakespeare performance. I have also very pleasing memories of Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier as Henry V, Branagh being, rather surprisingly, the better. I have seen fine presentions of The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Coriolanus, but the more I think about those and others, the firmer I am in my belief that Ian Holme's Lear is the finest Shakespeare I have experienced.
How grateful I am for the excitement of the works of the great man of words and drama.
Birthdays and Special People
Ruth has just had a birthday.
I know there are some people who would say, "So what? Birthdays are just days like any other days." In one sense, that is true. A birthday is simply a date on a calendar. You go to work as normal. You read the morning paper as normal. You eat your three meals in the day. Maybe you go for your daily walk as normal. So what's different?
I think this is what's different. A birthday offers a fine opportunity for letting someone who is really important to you know that he or she is precious. That isn't marked by the size or price of presents. In fact, I doubt if presents per se are all that important at all in making someone feel special. Spending time together does a good deal more than giving or receiving things.
Do we need to feel special? Absolutely! We have a good deal of life's harder side, and sometimes we feel unappreciated. We cope with that, of course. It's part of what it means to be adult. From time to time we have difficult times with which to cope, and it might be that some hard times have tried us seriously.
How good, then, on at least one day a year to feel very special because someone or more than one takes the trouble to remind us that we matter. Maybe in trying to make a birthday special for someone, we shall be reminded that we can do it on any day of the year. It doesn't have to be only on a birtday.
Know someone special whose birthday is coming up soon? Maybe spending time with that person doing something he or she really loves will show more than any present how special you believe he or she is. Make a 'Happy Birthday' wish into a commitment. Now there's a thought.
The Courtesy of the French
I do not know how many times I have visited France. The first visit was many years ago, or perhaps I should say very many years ago. I love returning to that land for many reaons, not the least of which is the wonderful courtesy of the French.
In the days that I was lecturing on France to adults, it was not unusual for somone - sometimes more than one - to speak of his or her difficulty with the rudeness of the French and to ask me how to deal with it. I had a fairly standard reply, 'I have not met a rude Frenchman or Frenchwoman, so I can't help you. I have no experience of dealing with French rudeness.' I still listen with amazement on the few occasions now when I hear people speaking of the rudeness of the French.
It is the courtesy and warmth of the French that I miss when I leave France. In hotels, in restaurants, in markets, on trains and buses I am enchanted by the niceties of relationships that are practised. My wife Ruth and I have young people give up their seats for us on buses. Bonjour, Bonsoir, are said as a matter of course. I receive spoken thanks for anything I do, even the slightest thing. Courtesy, it seems, is simply part of being French.
There are other reasons for loving France, of course, too many to enumerate in a short blog. But one which demands a mention is the material evidence of the country's fascinating, but not always pleasant, history. France is rich in museums and in monuments of its past. Examples are the Musee Moyen Age on a Roman site in Paris' Boulevard St Michel, the fine Roman theatre and triumphal arch in Orange, the wonderful preserved fortified city at Carcassonne, and many more.
As a train lover I am in excited by French trains. I have loved travelling on them, especially the TGVs, but not only them. They are efficient, for the most part comfortable, and have a fine record of keeping to time. The TGVs of course are fast. The journey from Paris to Narbonne, for example, is a little over 800 km, and is covered in 4 hours and 32 minutes including four stops. That's the sort of train travel that I like.
That's just the beginning of why I love France. Each time I leave I look forward to my return. I hope you enjoy France too.
Seneca, Noise, Nero and Me.
"I cannot for the life of me," wrote Seneca, "see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as is usually thought to be." Given that he was living above a public bathhouse at the time, it seems he could claim some authority for his view.
There is, I am sure, a difference between working with my mind when there is noise and trying to concentrate when I am addressed or even when something is happening which interests me. I can work with noise, but should something of real interest intrude I shall be distracted. To illustrate, if there is general background noise of conversation or traffic while I am working with my mind, it won't bother me in the slightest, but should I hear the sound of steam locomotive I shall be distracted immediately. I have a passion for steam locomotives.
Even so, though general noise does not distract me, I still find that the best time for thinking is my early morning time when the world around me is asleep. I start work writing and thinking at 4.45 am; it is a wonderful time to be having a pen in my hand, in my case a fountain pen. There can be some background noises at that time of the morning. For instance, there can be a soft hum from the refrigerator, or there might be the sound of rain on the roof. Perhaps a vehicle passes (rarely at that time of the morning). While I hear those sounds, they don't engage my mind. Like a falling leaf on a running stream, they touch but they don't interfere with the flow. My intention is glued to the writing that is flowing from my pen.
Generally, I am in agreement with Seneca on the matter. Early morning silence, while it is my best time, when I get the most concentrated work done, is not necessary. I have studied, at various times in my life, in the midst of very noisy activity, though, I hasten to say, never above a bathhouse.
Seneca lived in tumultuous times. As tutor to Nero he might or might not have had silence. Should Nero have wanted quiet, it would have been a perilous thing for someone to break it with noise. But I suppose Seneca would not have minded at all. After all, he claimed that silence was not necessary for working with the mind.
Today noise is the norm. It pays, therefore, to be someone who is not distracted by it. Occasionally I work in a cafe. The one thing you can be sure of in a cafe is that there will be noise. Piped music will be playing which means that the customers have to speak more loudly in order to be heard. Sometimes there is even a television receiver blaring. But it doesn't matter. I am concentrating very nicely on the words my mind and pen are producing. It certainly pays, in a world of noise, to learn the art of ignoring it and getting on with the task of thinking. It relegates the noise to the doesn't matter level.
Yes, friend Seneca, I agree with you.
Tillich, Theology and Philosophy
If I say that for me Paul Tillich is the most important theologian to work during my lifetime, and I do, it is because he brings his methodical German mind to the task and combines theology and philosophy.
He was already known to students of theology when, many years ago, John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, popularised Tillich's thought in his book, Honest To God. The book had a mini-sensational appearance on its publisher's list, as it was always going to do because it departed from the traditional popular treatment of faith and the Bible.
The best way to understand Tillich, if his systematic theology is not consulted, is to read his sermons. He was a fine preacher who, in almost every sermon he delivered, demonstrated a remarkable clarity of mind. Every sermon shows a philosopher at work in the world of the search for spiritual truth.
I cannot prescribe how others should approach theology; I can establish the ground for myself only. I openly confess to Tillich's influence when I say that it is necessary for me to combine philosophy and theology because both are, for me, critical in the search for Truth. Each is, in the workings of my mind, incomplete without the other. If theology should be based only upon revelation and at points lack philosophical credence, then it is destructive to the faith of an intelligent person. If philosophy is without a reference point of faith, it is an empty vessel.
In this I am not talking of philosophy of religion; I am dealing with philosophy in religion. Not only are philosophy and theology partners in the pursuit of Truth, they are partners in the validation of faith.
That is one of the enduring values of the Gospel of John, perhaps of all the documents of the New Testament the most philosophically aware. In introducing the Greek concept of the Logos, the writer was recognising that any reflection upon the life and the teaching of Yeshua bar Yosef (known to us as Jesus of Nazareth), and the influence he, Yeshua, has on the formulation of theology, needed the seasoning of wisdom in the writer's presentation of it. The Greek Logos concept - Word and Wisdom - enables the theology of John's Gospel to stand. It is the Gospel of the philosopher as well as the Gospel of the theologian and man of faith. Tillich has much in common with the Gospel of John.
Memories of Wales
It was my good fortune to live twice in Wales, once in the south, once in the north. During that time I came to love the principality very deeply, both for its extraordinary beauty and for the character of its people. I have so many fond memories of that lovely country. They include sailing on Bala Lake, at various places on the Anglesey and west Wales coasts and at Tenby, enjoying the warmth of congregations in four churches, of fine railway journeys on many trains, including The Pemrokeshire Coast Express and the Irish Mail, of breathtaking journeys through the Brecon Beacons, of relaxing in the Prescelli hills, of the lovely beach at Newport Pembrokeshire, of the mountains and lakes of Snowdonia, of fine old buildings including St David's Cathedral, of the warmth of Welsh villagers who made me so welcome in their communities, and so very much more.
Wales is a land of legend, and as part of my deep attachment to that beautiful land, I have written a short piece about my meeting with Snow White. You might like to read it in the Writing section of this website.
I hope you enjoy it.
BREXIT & champagne
The results of the British referendum on to remain or to leave the European Union have just been declared. The outcome is a Brexit victory. The United Kingdom will leave.
I recognise that 48.2% of the voting British population have a view on the issue which is different from mine. However, as an English expat I am rejoicing today and will be celebrating with champagne this evening. One of my pleasant tasks tonight is to ring one of my brothers in England to verbally celebrate with him. He has been hoping as fervently as I for a Brexit victory. We have both hoped for many years to see Britain regain its sovereignty, so much of which has been conceded to Brussels over recent years.
I understand the disappointment of those who had hoped so strongly that the referendum would result in continued British membership. While I cannot agree with them I have some empathy for and with them. It will be a bitter pill for them to swallow, and no one can take pleasure in that. However, one side was bound to suffer great disappointment. I am fortunate in being on the side of those who celebrate the outcome.
In the end it seems to me that it was a head-to-head confrontation of values. The primacy of the value of financial wealth competed with the primacy of the value of national sovereignty. There could be no pleasing both sides. The respective values were held very strongly, as the record voter turnout of approximately 72% showed.
Now a new phase in British history commences. My hope is that it is a good phase for every British person, resident in the UK or expat.
A Peterborough Experience
Ruth and I were in Peterborough in South Australia's mid-north recently. We journeyed up on the rather dilapidated Indian Pacific train. We used it because I am a train-lover and would use just about any train in order just to be onboard and enjoy the sensation of steel wheels on steel rails and the personal space that no other form of non-waterborne transport gives you. So the journey up from Adelaide was very pleasant for me, despite the Indian Pacific's limitations - it was a train!
What both enjoyed Peterborough and are still talking enthusiastically about it. One of the great attractions is the old printing works of the Times, once the journal that kept the community of Peterborough and its hinterland informed. Today the wonderful Peterborough History Group keeps the old printing works in good repair and provides visitors with a fascinating tour of the machinery.
We met Heather Parker and Judy Evans, two women who are committed to keeping the history of Peterborough alive and accessible. Both gave us liberally of their time, both shared fascinating information with us and both made us feel very welcome. Heather, a local artist, invited us to call at her home that afternoon, an invitation we took up on the spot. We had a very pleasant time enjoying her artwork and admiring her skills.
At the printing works and the offices of the History Group (the next room of the same building) we saw and were greeted by a team of committed volunteers who where sorting and cataloguing information from many sources, and I thought how indebted we are to so many people who work methodically behind the scenes to ensure that history is preserved.
A long time since you've been to Peterborough?
Don't leave it too long before you go again. It's a friendly place. On my first night while out walking I saw the lights on in the Anglican Church in Kitchener Street, so I went inside. I was welcomed very warmly by Marghy, a music teacher who was using the piano. She was the second person who had greeting me in a very friendly way on my evening walk. So many were friendly. Richard the motel operator where we stayed, two guides at the Steamtown railway preservation centre, the ladies at the History Group, Anita the taxi-driver, and many others helped us to feel that we were very readily accepted in the town.
Yes, go to Peterborough before long and enjoy that wonderfully friendly place.
A Great Reading Opportunity
Sand Writers, a writing group based in Goolwa, South Australia, recently published its 5th volume of Speak Out, a collection of writings largely by its members. The very high quality content includes short stories, poetry, commentary, reviews, profiles and short articles. Many subjects are covered, all with passion and writing talent. The intriguing thing about the collection is its variety. Whatever mood you find yourself in, you will almost certainly find something compatible with your frame of mind.Every writer has a distinctive voice.
At $10 it is an extraordinarily fine bargain. Copies can be purchased at South Seas Bookshop at Port Elliott, South Australia (situated on the Port Elliot to Victor Harbor road). Copies can also be obtained by contacting one of the following, all of whom have given permission for their names and details to be published:
Judy Baghurst 0447 037 867 email@example.com
Helen Ellemor 0415 469 918 firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger Rees 0419 850 386 email@example.com
Heather Webster 0401 715 895
Tony Gates 0412 333 944 firstname.lastname@example.org
It's amazing value. Why don't you treat yourself?
Writing a Novel
I'm in the final stages (I hope!) of editing a novel that deals with murder and detective work. I've learnt something important from the process. It's hard work!
That needs just a little clarification. The writing is not hard work. That's fun and quite exhilarating as the story moves on towards its conclusion. The hard work is the editing which follows. The editing phase takes a great deal longer than the writing, and being concerned with so much technical detail it isn't the free-flowing experience of the writing. In fact, at points it's a grind.
Yet I wouldn't give up writing no matter what the price of continuing. When I have my pen in my hand or my fingers on the keys, I am delving into life. I am creating a world, but in doing so I am moving more deeply into the real world I live in. It's always a profoundly satisfying occupation.
There is so much to write about. Life is a patchwork of rich experiences. Some are burdensome, some are painful, some bring anxiety, but some are thrilling, some lift us to new heights of living, some fill us with exciting possibilities. They all contribute to our life of learning, give us skills and tools, and enrich our understanding of life.
The action of the novel takes place in Cornwall. It's a county of special interest. For one thing, it is a Duchy. That in itself makes it different from most English counties. It's the heartland of Celtic England. While Cornish is not spoken, Cornish names appear alongside the English names of many places. It's a country with a smuggling, china clay and tin mining history. In fact, I first visited Cornwall as a merchant seaman serving on a cargo ship called the Highland. We berthed at the Cornish port of Fowey to load up china clay to take to Italy. My interest in railways leads me to add that Cornwall once had a very significant network of railways to serve the china clay industry. It's a place associated with some fascinating people, including Daphne du Maurier and the most eccentric Anglican clergyman of all, the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow. It's a county of an extraordinary abundance of unofficial saints (for example, St Agnes, St Austell, St Ives, St Just and so many more). And there is Bodmin Moor, filled with mystery, and the scene of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn.
How could I resist such a setting? I know the county fairly well, and that helps. I can imagine the places the characters operate in because I have become familier with them.
Yes, I've loved writing the novel. I'm glad that the discipline of the editing stage is coming to its close. It will be good to know that it's a completed project.
Justice, Equity and an Election
I don't pretend that others see the looming election as I do. I am not excited.
I am not excited because I don't hear any political party talking about moral leadership, political philosophy, justice, equity, compassion, mercy or in fact anything that makes for a better society. A great deal of talk is going on about economic matters, but litle about reducing government spending.
I want to discover leadership as a political priority because it is the best contribution that a politician can make. Leadership at its best, it seems to me, offers moral example, serves those led and involves those it serves in the issues, while being open to expressed opinions supported by verifiable data.
I want to hear political philosophy discussed because that, I hope, is the arena within which politicians act. It enables me to understand the nature of the parties who seek my vote. To understand a party's philosophy might be to understand the kind of programmes it will implement. I am not interested in promises and therefor I do not get upset when they are broken, but I would like parties to be groups of their word. From philosophy policy should grow, and from policy programmes.
I want to see a political party committed to justice and equity, compassion and mercy. I don't see a great deal of evidence of those things. My hope is that they would be part of a party's philosophy and policy. I hope yet that I might trace some sign of those human, moral qualities in the rhetoric of the election campaign, but I am not sanguine. Even so, I shall be looking for some indication that these things matter to a candidate, as they matter to many decent Australians.Why don't we ask our candidates how they view these things and where they stand?
Change, Survival, or Extinction?
Lylle Schaller, in his 1972 book, The Change Agent. The Strategy of Innovative Leadership, wrote, 'Every organisation, but especially non-profit organisations which do not have easy-to-read evaluations of fulfillment of purpose, tend to move survival and institutional maintenance to the top of the priority list.'(p.138)
How many churches, I wonder, are in survival mode? I find myself asking, how common is it for a church to have a clear sense of purpose? How common might it be for churches which do have a clear sense of purpose to have embraced a purpose unsuitable for the community in which they operate and that is doomed to frustration?
I do not know the answer to my own questions, perhaps because I have not accepted invitations to be part of the administration of any local church. I believe that my best contributions are in other fields. Yet I can't help the feeling that few churches have framed objectives and criteria for their measurement. If there is no mechanism for evaluation of purpose, and if there are no measurable objectives, there is likely to be no change in the church. I venture to say that to operate in survival mode reduces very significantly the prospects of survival.
In a time when interest in institutionalised religion is at an all-time low, planned change is not an option so much as an imperative. There needs to be a renaissance for the Church that has to go back before the birth of Christianity but include contemporary understandings of achievable change and the needs of the society of the day and the national culture in which it operates - but not to be a mere mirror for the value and attitudes prevailing at any given time. It is my hope that such a renaissance will occur.
Agrigento -another world
I have been thinking quite a lot about Agrigento recently. I don't really know why, except that at some time in the future - not the immediate future - I intend to return there, this time to paint in the valle dei templi, the valley of temples (though it's not a valley at all, but a ridge).
I first went there about 15 years ago, while spending some tme in Taormina in Sicily. I was captivated by the Greek remains in the ancient setlemet known at the time of the building of the temples (6th and 5th centuries BC) by its Greek name, Akragas. It has been known by a number of names since then - the Roman Agrigentum, the Arabic Jirgent when it ws conquered by the Carthaginians, Girgenti by the Sicilians who localised the Arabic name and, since 1927, Agrigento. Mussolini, who had illusions of Roman grandeur decided to give it an Italian form of its Latin name, though Sicilians still call it Girgenti. So when you visit Agrigento you will hear two names - Agrigento derived from Latin and Gigenti derived from Arabic.Perhaps that is appropriate given that, since 1861 Sicily has been part of united Italy and Africa is not very far across the water.
The real thrill of Agrigento lies in its seven Doric temples, two of which are well-preserved, the temple of Juno and the temple of Concordia. The latter is especially fine because it is virtually intact.
Yes, I remeber the sheer pleasure of sitting at a slight distance from the temple of Concordia and admiring the architectural and building skills of the Greeks who had fashioned it - and of course the other six temples on the ridge.
To sit there and paint it will be deeply satisfying.
Memories of Bruges
I first went to Bruges many years ago. As a young man I was on a cycling holiday in Belgium and the Netherlands.
It was my good fortune to find myself in the town during Mardi Gras, so though I have no record of the dates, it was obviously spring, the last day before the 40 days of Lent. It was a town in celebration with everyone in carnival ('Farewell to meat") mood. I have never forgotten it. It was as though the whole town was celebrating for all it was worth before the more sobering 40 days ahead, culminating in Easter.
I have revisited Bruges twice since that occasion so many years ago. The most recent was last December. With my wife Ruth I was on my way to Ypres (Ieper) and Poperinge for the Centenary of Talbot House, a rest and recreation centre for troops during World War One and of Toc H.
I was reminded during that most recent visit of its fourteenth century wealth as a cloth centre and of the more modern lace industry. The industrial revolution brought great poverty to Bruges through unemployment, and to compensate a cottage lace-making industry grew up in the town. Today there are many lace shops in Bruges. They all have intricate pieces for sale, many of them very beautiful. Ruth and I stopped more than once to gaze in admiration at their wares.
I also remember with great warmth the fine churches of Bruges. One of them, the Church of Our Lady, situated by the Maria Brug (bridge), presents a fine Gothic structure. Its present form evolved over the 13th to 16th centuries and so is a good study in the history of architecture, particularly ecclesiastical architecture. The tower, completed in 1440, has a height of 122 metres.The jewel of the interior is Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. We walked past the church often on our walks between the Grote Markt and our hotel in Wejngaardstraat. Mostly we walked in light rain that provided a beautiful ambience. Viewing the church from the inside was exhilerating.
The Christmas markets were in full swing on that recent visit. They are wondefrul places and great continental customs. The Christmas markets of Bruges (there were two of them) and for that matter the Christmas market of Ypres (Ieper) will remain strong in my memory for a long time. The first one we visited was in Simon Stevin Plein, the closer of the two to our hotel. We wandered among the stalls, loving every minute.
The other Christmas market was in the Grote Markt. It has an ice rink, a Christmas market custom, set up with wonderful illuminations and many Belgians were showing their skills on skates. There was music for them to skate to. To watch them was to experience moments of magic. The Christmas market in Ieper was also assembled around an ice rink. The Belgians and the Dutch love their ice-skating. We bought some cheeses at the markets.
But Bruges (Brugge in Dutch, the language of West Flanders) is famous for another reason. It has wonderful chocolate shops. On our walks between our hotel and the Grote Markt (the market square) we passed one superb chocolate shop after another and yes, we failed to resist the temptations.The displays are irresistible and we had the pleasure of selecting chocolates to fill paper bags. And of course there was the immense pleasure of eating them under the discipline of resisting the temptation to eat them all at once. The displays in the windows were rich in artistry, gaeity (it was almost Christmas) and come-in-and-buyness. Chocolate sculpures were in the forms of Christmas decorations, Christmas trees and much else besides. One of the prominent names of chocolate shops is Leonidas. We visited a couple of those. It was suggested to us that we should find a chocolate shop called Dominique Person. We did so,and were rewarded for our trouble with magnificent chocolates. It's as well were doing plenty of walking.
There were many other reasons for enjoying Bruges. I hope to return some day.
A Few Days at Lakes Entrance
Ruth and I have just enjoyed a few days at Lakes Entrance. We had not visited the area before and were astonished at the extent of the waterways.
I think we shall both remember with pleasure the view down upon the lakes before making the descent into the town as we arrived from Bairnsdale.
We began to understand how huge the lake system is when, on our second day there we treated ourselves to a two-and-a-half-hours cruise that covered only a small area of the connected lakes. That they are spectacular is beyond doubt.
One of our best experiences was a two-hours-and-five-minutes walk from the town, over a lengthy footbridge, along the beach of pounding surf to the entrance, then back along the footpath which follows mostly the crest of the long strip of sandhill that separates the lakes from Bass Strait. When the walk was over we made straight for the ice cream parlour on the Esplanade and enjoyed generous serves in cones!
The entrance is man-made. The lakes had always been separated from the sea by the sandhill that runs as a very long wall for their whole length. Half a dozen good rivers empty into the lakes. Fresh water only entered the sea when the level of the lakes, watered by the rivers, rose high enough to spill over the lower levels of the sandhill wall. The lakes formed their own ecosystem.
That has now changed. A canal was cut through the sandhill to connect the lakes with the sea. It has provided the local fishing fleet with a safe harbour, but of course salt water now enters the lakes. Worse, the ocean pushes large quantities of sand into the lakes and this has to be continually pumped back into the ocean. The salt water and sand have had a significant effect upon the once-natural system and the living creatures whose habitation is the lakes and their area.
Even so, Lakes Entrance is a magnificent place. We made it our home for the few days we were there and left reluctantly. But then, wherever we go we leave reluctantly. However, we left with a good deal more knowledge than we possessed on arrival.
My Writing Mornings
Summer is the time of shortening days and that suits me very well.
I start my with a fountain pen in my hand. I begin writing at 5 am and write until 8.15. My first place of writing is a familiar chair in the house. I have a hot mug of tea by my side, made with loose-leaf tea in a teapot.
What do I write for the first half-an-hour? The first thing that comes into my head. I have no idea what I'm going to write until I pick up the pen. The result is a considerable number of exercise books containing writing on a miscellany of subjects.
Then I move to our garden room called, because of its octagonal shape, the chapter house. I write in my spiritual journal for about an hour. When that's done I lay down my pen and take up a laptop to work on a current writing project.
Those early morning hours are pleasant times of solitude when the world around me is asleep and there are few if any distractions to inerrupt my thinking and my writing. As the hours of morning darkness increase, my time of solitude before the world around me awakes increases. Winter is the best time of all, when almost all of my three-and-a-quarter hours of writing are spent in darkness.
Solitude and writing go together to form a deeply satisfying experience. I am able to think issues through while getting to know Tony Gates. One of the greatest blessings of solitude is the opportunity to think without interruption and to explore one's deepest self.
I listen to the world awakening around me, just a little later each day. The magpies are the first of the creaures to let me know they are around. Their chortling reaches me in the chapter house before sunrise. The other birds greet the world just a little later.I've come to love the magpies as my first companions of the day.
Solitude, thinking, contemplating and writing together make a wonderful beginning to the day.
Stone Age Etches
The current edition of New Scientist indicates that etching approximately 13,800 years old has been discovered on a slab of rock about 50 kilometres west of Barcelona. The etching might be of a group of huts, but the important thing to me is that it is, it seems, the oldest example of Mankind's recording pictorially the living environment. The etching was made 10,000 years before Abraham's migration from Ur.
Some things don't see to change. Still we like to record our living environment, sometimes in words, sometimes in drawings, sometimes in paint, sometimes in sculpture, sometimes with the camera. We might or might not be good at it. I'm working at becoming competent in watercolour. Shall I succeed? I don't know. But I do know that I am doing what I suspect most artists do, whatever their medium. I and they are expressing the wonder of the world around us. There are exceptions. One of the most effective photographs I know is of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing in terror from the effects of American napalm bombing. There is no wonder in that subject. It depicts horror and human tragedy. Yet we are profited by having a pictorial reminder of the worst we are capable of as well as the best. It is salutary. There is just a chance that we can modify our foolishness if we are confronted with its effects.
I don't know what those artists of 13,800 years ago were like. I don't know what their human aspirations were. But it's clear that they shared with us a desire to depict something of the life they lived. Perhaps both historians and artists will be excited by those Spanish discoveries. It suggests to me that they were reflective people, and that, too, makes them a bit like us. I love the thought that we could have some spiritual or psychological connection, not matter how slight, with those people of so long ago.
Reflections on London
To walk in London is to know the old town in a way that is not possible when driving or using the tube or the buses. You absorb it slowly, and therefore in greater detail. It is much the same with other cities. You know Florence, or Rome or Paris or anywhere else best by walking its streets.
When I was a boy I walked the streets of London with one of my most precious possessions - a map of the streets. Sometimes I rode my bike, and that was good too, but that did not beat walking. I recall that on one occasion I started walking home from a little to the east Highgate Archway, at about 11pm. I arrived home at around 1 in the morning tired, but with a greatly increased knowledge of the streets I had to take on my walk. I did such things in those days when energy was not in short supply.
Walking London reminds you that it was not always the large size that now it is. Charing Cross was once the village of Charing. Highgate was once a village. Mayfair, now in the heart of the West End, was once the field where the May fair was held. The Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields is now in the bustle of Trafalgar Square where once wild flowers grew. Tally Ho Corner on the busy road from st John's Wood to Finchley reminds us that once a hunt rode there. The name St John's Wood is itself a giveaway. Haymarket is a street which reminds us that rural bargaining once went on there. Now it runs from just to the west of Trafalgar Square to Picadilly.Fleet Street reminds us that once the River Fleet ran above ground there through fields. Cornhill runs through the very heart of the city. Paddington was once a village with a green. Then there is Cricklewood. These are no more than a selection of the indications of the rural settings out of which modern London has grown. Walking the streets takes you through villages and sometimes hamlets that once were.
Now it is all the bustle of London, a great city whose fascination deepens the more you take the trouble to study it. Sometimes I try to imagine what it was like 2,000 years ago when Romans walked the streets of its much smaller area, known then as Londinium. Latin was spoken in it streets then. What was it like in its medieval days when walls surrounded it? What of the Norman days when the Tower of London was built and Norman French was spoken? That reminds me that sometimes the French influence is disguised by modern names. Rotten Row, for example, sounds like a street of decaying rubbish. The street was once rue du Roi, the street of the king. Rue du Roi has become over the yeas the much easier name for Londoners to pronounce, namely Rotten Row.
I might be expected to love London, as indeed I do. It is my city. I was broought up in the metropolitan area of London and loved it from a very early age. I visit it now as often as I can, but it's a long way away from Australia. Even so, I manage to get there about every 18months or so.
I repeat that as for anywhere, the more you study it, the more absorbing it becomes. What can youj get from this? You get a piece of advice. Be a traveller, not a tourist.
Standing with Belgium
When the multiple-location attacks occurred so recently in Paris, following so closeluy upon the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the words Nous sommes Paris came automatically into my mind. That is how I felt. We all, or at least a great number of us, wanted to declare our oneness with the people of Paris. Yet I refrained from stating it publicly. It seemed to me that it could sound rather hollow. There was, after all, nothing practical that I could do. Or was there?
Now the crisis in Europe has moved on and Belgium is the receiver of barbaric treatment from terrorists. Do we say, Nous sommes Belgique, or Nous sommes Bruxelles? It can sound just as hollow, yet we want to say it because we feel the distress of Parisians and of Belgians.
We are also aware that it could and might happen without warning in Australia.
Is there, then, nothing that we can do? If that which the journalists are telling us is true, and the cause of terrorist atrocities is that they hate our western way of life, then it is incumbent upon us to declare our belief in the essence of our mode of living and the values around which it is built. There are exceptions, of course. The greed that so easily emerges and the materialism which so easily shows its face are not to our credit. But the freedom for which we stand is precious; our form of democracy might be far from perfect, but it is a useful check on the power of politicians; the right of a person to choose and practise his or her own religion or to choose none is inviolable for us; the value of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law is a value not to be traded lightly. There are many other aspects of our way of life which declare its importance for us. Less easily defined, but just as important are our beliefs in justice, equity, compassion and mercy. This is a way of life that must be promoted and defended. It defines the people we are.
It is true that freedom of speech, once an absolute in our society in Australia, has been significantly watered down in recent years. We should be doing everything within our power to persuade parliamentarians to reinstate that freedom in the without-qualification form that it once was. If we overstep the mark the courts will decide on matters of slander, etc. Politicians should not.
So can we support the people of Brussels and the people of Paris? It may be that the best way we can support them and oppose the terrorists guilty of such barabarism is to be utterly committed to and ready to declare and promote the values they have been attacked for.Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, is a values flag we can be proud to fly. Let's stand with the Belgians and the French with pride in those values.
An Empire? Roman? Holy?
In his 1904 book, "The Holy Roman Empire", James Bryce described the Holy Roman Empire as "the wonderful offspring of a body of beliefs and traditions which have almost wholly passed away from the world."
It is not my purpose in this blog to agree or disagree with Bryce concerning the claim that the Holy Roman Empire was a "wonderful offspring", but I do say that to follow its nascence and development is a fascinating study. The well-known claim that it was not holy, was not Roman and was not an empire has become rather hackneyed now, but there was always some truth in the claim.
When the Pople, in 800AD, crowned Charlemagne "Emperor of the West", there was no doubt more than a little political convenience in the event. There was already an emperor in the east at Constantinople. The eastern emperor could claim at least a spiritual Roman descent from Constantine who moved the power centre of Rome's empire from Italy to the Golden Horn. It was also significant that Arianism was still an annoying religious system of belief from the Pope's point of view and Charlemagne and the Franks were Catholic.
Much was to happen before the fledgling empire of the west was to become the Holy Roman Empire, leading to the enormous prestige, in its last days, of the Hapsburg family and the glittering centres of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.
Whether I see the HRE as a good or bad development matters little. Whether I agree or not that it failed to be holy, failed to be Roman and failed to be an empire, is equally unimportant. What is really important about it is the study of human behaviour that its history opens up. I have long believed that the person who wishes to understand human behaviour should take up the study of history as the major discipline for learning what we humans are about. The HRE is a magnificent study for such understanding. It takes in almost every kind of human behaviour, good and bad, and I believe we are the wiser for studying it.
If the HRE reminds me of anything, it is of how complex our human behaviour is and of how complex our human motivations are.
You could do worse than take up the study of human history with an open mind. It enriches our understanding of the people we are as perhaps no other discipline can.
The Sunrise of Wonder
It seems to me that a key to living well and finding depth in being is to retain the sense of wonder of the world.
I am one of those fortunate people who is happy to set the alarm early and rise well before dawn. I write a page on almost any subject fromabout five o'clock. It takes me about half an hour, then I go out to our garden room where I write in my spiritual journal for anything betwen one and two hours. In any case, after writing in the journal I engage in other writing activity so that I don't put my pen down until eight fifteen.
My current spiritual journal project consists of working through the Greek of Luke's Gospel, having just completed a similar project with Mark..The exercise is one which fills me with wonder, both at the complexity of the Greek and the extraordinary spiritual power of that which I read. The evidence of authentic faith and experience of God is very powerful. It is a source and cause of wonder.
My early rising means that I never miss a sunrise. The pre-sunrise and the surnrise are among the most wondrous moments of the day. As I write in the garden room I face east and see the glorious colours of the pre-sunrise, sometimes reflected in a calm sea. Is there anything more awe-inspiring than the moment of sunrise when, after the glorious colours of the pre-sunrise period, the rim of the sun appears over the horizon? If there is, I don't know of it.
I have a fine book in my library called The Sunrise of Wonder. I love the expression. Wonder is always like the sunrise. It sweeps over you and fills your spirit with light. Wonder at anything is like the sunrise. It lifts you above the mundane into a new world, thoughh it's the same one.
When I finish writing in the garden room I walk round to the front of the house o pick up the daily papers. I look over into the field on the opposite side of the road and there, on nine mornings out of ten, are at least three kangaroos, sometimes a good many more. They are wonderful creatures and from time to time I see them in families of two adult animals and one young bounding over the field and sailing majestically over the farmer's fence with apparentlyh no effort, but with pure grace.
The dawn chorus serenades me every morning when I sit in the garden room. There are so many varieties of birds in our garden that there are many instruments in the avian orchestra. It is a magical sound. Many of the birds nest in our eaves, so I see them gathering nesting materials, building their nests, and later feeding their young.
The wonders of the day are not confined to the morning, though so much of the magic of the day happens then.-I am a fly fisherman, and when I get the chance to go over to New South Wales to get my line on the water, I'm sometimes on the bank of a river after dark. Kookaburras send their thrilling "laughter" over the evening air waves and I wouldn't miss it for the world.
I've mentioned examples, but really the wonder of life is with us everywere you look.
Allow the wonders of life to infiltrate your spirit. You'll be glad that you did.
A Love of Cornwall
I have visited Cornwall a nuber of times and loved it more on each occasion. The fact that my wife Ruth is of Cornish descent has increased my interest, but I would have found it fascinating anyway.
Perhaps, though I would not have been back as often, had Ruth not been of Cornish blood. I certainly would not have discovered the lovely village of Mithian, not far from St Agnes. It was in that village that Ruth's Magor ancestors dwelt and had their being. And how lovely it is!
Do I have a particular interest in Cornwall apart from Ruth's assocations with it? Well, yes. I have long found its mining industry fascinating, and its railway history even more fascinating. I also have a love of following through on investigations into ancient monuments and Cornwall is not short of those. And those who know Cornwall will be aware that it has its own unique religious history. It has its 'age of saints', often wandering preachers who spread the Christian message throughout the area, and whose names are remembered in towns and villages such as St Ives, St Agnes, St Austell, and many more.
I have put up the first of a series of short articles on Cornwall. You can find it by going to the Travel Section of this website.
I hope you enjoy it.
Talbot House, Poperinge
Remembrance Day has just passed. We have remembered with gratitude the service and sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their countries including, of course, for Australia. We owe them more than we could possibly repay.
The First World War saw the creation of a very important Every Man's Club at Poperinge, a little to the west of Ypres (Ieper). The story of that club and its extraordinary chaplain, is not as well-known as it ought to be. The club was established in Talbot House in rue l'Hopital (now Gasthuisstraat) in Belgian West Flanders. The story deserves to be known. I have posted a short article on it in the Travel section of this website. I urge you to read it, and become aware of the major impact and contribution of Talbot House and its chaplain Tubby Clayton.
The Best Way Out is Always Through
Robert Frost wrote, in 1914, "The best way out is always through." The wisdom of that can hardly be challenged. We all find ourselves from time to time in circumstances which we wish we could escape. The time would come when many Americans would wish they were somewhere other than in theatres of war against the Germany. True, in 1914 that had not occurred. America was late into the war, but nevertheless the fighting was to come for men who could wish themselves anywhere else. For British and Commonwealth servicemen 1914 brought those days of terrible fighting on. Soon they would be in the trenches, thousands losing their lives and thousands more being seriously wounded. There was no way out but to serve through it to the end, or until an enemy round provided its own way out.
Frost's aphorism is sound. It is often the temptation to attempt to flee from difficult circumstances. It is rarely possible, and never the best way. To work our way through a difficulty always results in our being stronger. It might be said that dia (through) is better than ek (out of). To face a threatening issue is to diminish its size; to turn away from it is to magnify it.
An example of the truth of Frost's words is provided by the alcoholic. To take another drink seems to be the way out from the craving, a means of escape. The result is another "bender" and the problem is magnified. To face the problem and confront the craving is the beginning of working through it and becoming a stronger person. AA provides the environment for doing that.
Whenever we try to run from a problem, no matter what it is, weakness is fed and strength starved.
This aphorism from Frost is economical with words and has power because of it. Perhaps it ought to be on the fly-leaf of a diary: "The best way is always through." It's worth imprinting it on our minds.
The Australian Outback
Recently I saw the film, 'The Last Cab to Darwin'. Anyone who has seen it will find it hard to forget Rex, the Broken Hill cab driver. There were some fine acting performances, but perhaps the real star of the film was the multi-redded outback which provides the setting for the film.
I am a regular visitor to Broken Hill for no other reason than that I love the town. I also love the dry semi-desert of the area. I feel a quickening of spirit as I drive up through the varying countryside and the pastoral lands of South Australia's mid-north give way to the harsher country in which no crop grows. On a recent drive to the Silver City I passed countless emus some wild goats and the farther from the farming lands I found myself, the greater the horizons became. It is always that way, of course, when I take the road to Broken Hill, by car, by bus or by train. It is an annual exhileration, a kind of feeding of the spirit.
I have found the same quickening of the heart in the red centre. The deep reds shading almost to rust or orange are everywhere, and there is a deeply spiritual contact with the land which declares that it will always be in charge. It is timeless.
So it is in 'The Last Cab To Darwin'. I sometimes take the time to paint, mostly watercolour. But I could never reproduce the seemingly infinite number of shades of red and near-to burnt orange seen in the film and seen on the ground in outback Australia.
If you haven't seen the film, do so before it's too late. Just as importantly, go to the outback country if you haven't already done so. But spend some time alone while you are there. Let the red earth speak to you.
Every day is a marriage day, of course, for those enjoying a happy marriage relationship. But you can do things to celebrate marriage. One way of celebrating it is described in my article, Marriage Day, published in the Special 100 issue of The People's Friend, published in Scotland but on sale in Australia too.The issue in which the article appears was on sale in South Australia some months ago now, so is only available as a back-issue. It might be possible to purchase it online at the website of The People's Friend.
The article points out that if marriage is the most important relationship in life, as it ought to be, then we should do all that we can to keep it fresh and fulfilling for both husband and wife. Our was of doing it is to make one day a week - the same day each week - our Marriage Day. Our whole focus on that day is our relationship, the relationship between Ruth and Tony. It is a celebration day, and nothing can be allowed to compromise it. We always do something special, and just as importantly we accept no engagements. Marriage Day is for spending with each other, from waking in the morning to sleeping at the end of the day.
It is a day when we concentrate on thankfulness for each other and the many blessings of being together.
Can that be an idea you are able to adapt to your own marriage in your own way? Life is at its best when it is lived in the milieu of love in a marriage relationship.
Thursday is a great day for us!
The Abominable Tea Bag
I was watching an episode of The Antiques Roadshow not so long ago and enjoying an expert's assessment of a fine teapot which had been brought to him. It was a fine teapot, one I would love to own (as an owner of many teapots). During the discussion with the owner he said that the teapot was far less used now than was once the case because so many people use tea bags. "We all do it," he said. Well, no, we don't. I use tea bags only when I can't use loose leaf tea in a teapot.
I start my day with tea. At 5 am I make a pot of tea, put milk in a mug, then pour tea into it. That makes a fine drink of tea. My first pot of the day is made with Dilmah. At other times durng the day the tea might be Yorkshire, Amgoorie, Tetleys or some other. Each tea is different from the others. I always use a pot. Tea tastes better when it is made in a pot and allowed to brew before being poured out. If the truth be told, I also like the ritual. There is something civilising about making a pot of tea, though I can't define what it is. Perhaps it's just that it feels good.
Loose leaf tea is becoming increasingly difficult to find on supermarket shelves. Once there were plentiful supplies of it on display. Now I have to hunt for it, and some that I'm particularly fond of, such as Yorkshire tea, are virtually available only in the abominable tea bag form.
On occasions when, in recent years, I have been foolish enougt to ask for tea in a cafe or restaurant, I have most often received a cup of hot water with a tea bag sitting in the saucer ready for me to "jiggle" it in the cup. That which I get for my trouble is an insipid drink which provides a mere suggestion of tea on the palate. Therefore I order coffee, which is not as much to my taste as tea is.
In the end, whether tea comes loose leaf or in tea bags is unlikely to be a world-shaking matter, but the difference can stand for the ways we might look at life and how we do things.
The tea bag has, for instance, one important thing going for it. It's convenient. It's a quick way to get a cup of tea. The quick and convenient are attractive options in life. Why take the long road when the short is available? Quick gratification without much effort has something going for it.
The great disadvantage of the tea bag however, is that it does a very poor job when compared to the drink produced by loose leaf tea in a teapot. That principle applies to many circumstances and projects in life. Writers who neglect research and get straight down to writng a piece are unlikely to impress an editor with quality of work. A preacher who does not do the spadework of study but simply sits down to type whatever he or she believes to be the pulpit communication for Sunday is likely to sound shallow. The builder who cuts corners and uses inferior materials will often get a job done quickly and at the lowest cost, but before long run out of contracts. That approach does not attract repeat busines.
So let the tea bag be a handy metaphor for achievement or lack of it. Groundwork, preparation, time spent on research and / or necessary digging are as important as imagination, creativity, inspiration. Enjoy your pot of tea.
Advice from a Londoner!
Thoughts on Christian Leadership
Henri Nouwen wrote in "The Wounded Healer" in 1972, "...no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others." Those words, though they were written 43 years ago, retain their vitality and indicate with great clarity how Christian leadership differs from other kinds of leading.
The leader worth his or her salt invests himself or herself in the person or the team being led. This makes a leader vulnerable, but it can also make a leader very effective. It is a commonplace to say that a person is not a leader if no one is following, and it raises the question,"What kind of person are we ready to follow?" I think it fair to say that most of us are ready to follow a leader who reveals himself or herself to be one of us. If we understand the humanity of a leader - and that means a readiness to be vulnerable with us - then we are ready to follow because we are involved in a process which, if successful, meets our common interest.
The vulnerable leader who enters into a given situation exhibits that vulnerability and sharing of pain as well as joys through a concern for the wellbeing of the person or persons led. He or she will support and encourage, and be available when needed. Such a leader not only gains a following; that kind of leader is a team builder.
It might be argued that if we are talking about a team, then achievement is a crucial requirement. The leader can't just encourage and make sure that a person is happy in his or her work, or church membership. A team has to achieve. Yes, there is no argument with that. Teamwork only occurs when there is achievement, and the achievement has to be greater than any individual is capable of. There has to be a sparking off of ideas. That, however, is still the work of the leader who invests himself in the team. He or she is concerned that each team member finds fulfilment in the role, and that includes a church member, for a church also needs to be a team if it is to achieve. A person involved in a task is happy in that task if he or she is working well and making an effective contribution. It is a recognition that each person has a unique picture of a problem or task, and each can contribute a perspective that no other can offer. When that perspective is supported by facts that all in the team can test, then the contribution is invaluable. The leader worth his or her salt will seek the effectiveness of each person in his team and will exercise care and encouragement. In short, the Christian leader is a servant of those to be led.
To be a servant of the led is the highest form of leadership, and it is strongly Christian.
A RED FOUNTAIN PEN
I wrote some months ago about my Ferrari fountain pen. It's a very special one because I bought it as a result of visiting the Ferrari museum at Marinello last year. It's red, as might be expected of a Ferrari product. The clip on the handle has the black Ferrari prancing horse on a yellow background. Its other unusual aspect is that it is magnetic and is therefore the only such fountain pen that I have. It's special because whenever I use it I remember that exciting day in Marinello.
It also has the attraction of being a lovely pen to use. The words flow out of it. You might think that a silly thing to claim. But I think it's not a silly thing to say at all. When a pen runs easily over a writing surface, putting the ink down as a sensual experience through the fingers, the words do just seem to flow. It is one of the reasons why I make sure that I write with a pen whenever I can, using a word processor only when there is no alternative. And of course it's always a fountain pen. Such is my good fortune that I own a number of them. Each has it's different "feel"; each is different from the others. My ferrari fountain pen has a medium nib and so it allows for varying widths of line, but does not put down excessively broad or thin strokes. It has its special place.
My view is that a freely-flowing fountain pen on good paper encourages a kind of kinetic imagination, the brain and the fingers working together in a creativity that I don't find in the use of the word processor, at least not in the same way.
One possible reason for that is my habit of starting the day with a pen. At five o'clock, while the world outside is still dark, my pen is putting words on paper. I can't think of a better start to the day.
Winter in Echuca
Last week Ruth and I spent some time in Echuca on the Upper Murray.
I recall well my first visit to that fascinating town. It was during the summer tourist season and the place was so packed with people that it was difficult to find a seat in a cafe for coffee, and there were queues for many things. Even so, there was an excitement to Echuca that was irresistible.
This time the visit was in the winter, and so the town was quieter. I have always enjoyed Echuca, but this time it was even more special because there were few tourists in the streets. It was possible to enjoy the port and the Murray and Campaspe rivers in a more leisurely way. No crowds meant a much more relaxing time.
The port has a number of original paddle steamers, some of them with special interest. The diminutive Etona, for instance, operated as a mission boat for the Church of England in South Australia and was the location for many weddings and Christenings. The Pevensey was used for the film, All The Rivers Run, when she was given the name Philadelphia. The spotlight at the moment falls on the Adelaide, the oldest original paddle steamer still operating on the river, and the oldest wood-fired paddle steamer operating anywhere in the world. Next year, 2016, she will have her terjubilee. She will be 150. I imagine there will be some active celebrations in Echuca.
There are more modern vessels which have no connection with the cargo-carrying days of the Murray-Darling paddle steamers. One of the more interesting is the Emmylou. Ruth and I enjoyed a lunch cruise on her. the river is a good deal narrower in Echuca than it is in South Australia, but the cruise is very relaxing, with some fascinating wild life to be seen. For those interested in the mechanics, the steam engine which drives her can be seen by any passenger who wantes to gaze at it as it silently does its work. It was manufactured at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire and is a truly beautiful piece of machinery.
The Interpretive Centre in the old port area is special. There are many fine exhibits and a walk beneath and upon the reconstructed wharf. The walk includes a bridge which provides fine views of the old Echuca Wharf railway station, a spur from the main line. There is also an area of fine operating steam engines that I wouldn't have missed for the world. Kevin, operating the machines, was a mine of information, freely shared.
I look forward to the next time I am able to be in Echuca. Will it be in Adelaide's special anniversay year?
Two Morning Sparrows
A few mornings ago, at 7.15, before the sun had shown its face, but a glow was present in the eastern sky, I saw two sparrows perched on the top of a large rose bush in our back garden. The bush was once which contains a bird feeder, but it was too early for birds to be breakfasting.
The two, perhaps a foot apart and facing each other, were chirping loudly and continuously. I stood on the path between the garden room in which I write in the mornings (we call it the Chapter House) and the back door of the house, and looked at the two sparrows as they perched in black and white outline against the eastern glow. their silhouettes were dramatic. I do not believe I have seen a more moving sight for many years. It was very, very special.
As I think of those two birds in that early morning moment, I make.a comparison. Some spend great sums to travel to Canada to see Niagara Falls or spend equally impressive amounts to see the Taj Mahal. But having never seen either of them, I know that I gazed upon a more wonderful sight by far that morning. Alas, I did not havem.y camera at hand.
Odd, some might say. The sparrow is a small bird. Moreover, it is a very common bird. Introduced. You can see them in large numbers in any garden in any day. Yes, but the magic was in the moment. And there were only two. Their chirping was the sweetest music.
Each was a little life.But each was precious. My heart warmed as I stood still and watched, listened. The rose bush was no longer a rose. The scene was no longer our garden, and yet it was. This was a transfiguration, for I stood in a state of holy spirit as the two sparrows told me in their chirping and in their silhouettes that they were the wonder of life itself.
Easter and Simnel Cake
There are more important things about Easter than simnel cake, but nevertheless I engaged in a long English Easter tradition by baking and decorating one a day or two ago, and today we cut it and ate the first slices.
My wife Ruth, my son Richard and I went first to church. Easter is, in our family, a rather empty concept if it is divorced from the Christian celebration. We went to church to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. We cannot know what form that resurrection took, but whatever the nature of it was, it was and is a message of hope, perhaps the greatest message of hope that is ever proclaimed.
Back to the simnel cake, a confection which has a long history, although its origins are not clear.
There is a legend that it was named after Lambert Simnel (1477 - 1534) who, as a boy of 10, was a claimant to the throne of England, though almost certainly he was being used by ambitious others. Henry VII, founder of the Royal Navy, was king in 1487 when Simnel's claim was promoted. The legend does nothing for understanding the origin of the cake, which was known at least two centuries before Simnel.
There is a 1226 reference to 'bread made into a simnel' (John Harland, Thomas Turner Wkilkinson, 'Lancashire Folk-lore, 1867').
The word 'simnel' is from the Latin 'simila', meanig fine wheaten flour. Is 'made into a simnel' referring to simnel cake? It isn't possible to be definite about it, but it seems strongly likely that it refers to at least an early form of it.
And so as I made my simnel cake a day or so ago I was baking a cake whose history is at least eight hundred years in total, but perhaps longer. The fact that simnel is mentioned in a 1226 document suggests that it was well-known by then, so it is likely to be significantly older.
The recipes for this ancient cake vary a little between those associated with towns well known for making simnels, towns such as Devizes in Wiltshire, Bury in Lancashire and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. It became commonly known at one time as Shrewsbury simnel cake because the Shrewsbury bakers were said to make finer simnels than those of any other town.
The light fruit cake has two layers of almond icing, one being a centre layer, so that fruit cake is above and below it. The other layer decorates the top. I make my own almond icing. It beats anything that can be bought prepared from a supermarket. The almond icing top is decorated with eleven small eggs, which are often made from almond icing, though I put small chocolate eggs on the top. They number eleven because at the time of the resurrection, there were eleven disciples, or apostles, rather than the twelve pre-crucifixion group. Judas, of course, was no longer counted among them.
The cake is eaten at Easter (a season adapted for Christian purposes from the old pagan celebration of Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility and springtime) and is traditionally the treat which follows the gastronomically lean period of Lent. It has been an English Easter tradition for a very long time.
Why is there a layer of almond icing in the middle of the cake? I don't know. However, I'm prepared to guess at a reason. As well as at Easter, many centuries ago it was also eaten on the middle Sunday of Lent when the dietary restrictions were relaxed a little and simnel cake could be eaten on that Sunday only during the Lenten season. That middle Sunday of Lent is known as Laetare Sunday and also as Refreshment Sunday. It has also been known as Sunday of the Five Loaves and as Simnel Sunday. My guess is that the middle layer of almond icing represents the middle Sunday of Lent. So as I make the cake I think of Laetare Sunday when I place the middle layer of almond icing in and of Easter when I place the top layer on.
I baked a simnel cake for Easter last year as well. I enjoy tradition, and it's good to be part of something which has been done for so long. The celebration of Easter is much older than the eating of simnel cake. 2,000 years ago a resurrection transformed dejected followers of Jesus of Nazareth into men and women of hope. Sadness was turned to rejoicing.
And so our family joins in that rejoicing today. As we ate our simnel cake slices we drank a toast in champagne: "Christ is Risen!" "He is Risen Indeed!"
Last week Ruth and I were in New Zealand. It was the first time I had been in that lovely country for many years. On that only other time I was a merchant seaman sailing out of London on a refrigerated cargo ship. We visited Invercargill, Port Chalmers, Duinedin, Lyttleton (Christchurch) and Wellingfon.
This time the visit was not to coastal ports but to the very special town of Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. We stayed in the Novotel and our view from the window was onto the lake. On so many days the mountains were magnificent as they merged upwards into the clouds, and their peaks stood out above the cloud, sharply etched against the blue sky. While there we visited Alexandra, Barrowtown and Glenorchy, and Ruth took a trip down to Milfored Sound.
It was one of the most relaxing times I can remember. I spent a good deal of my time trying to capture the magic in watercolour and Ruth made the attempt with her camera. For both of us, the lake reflections were a dream in art! I cannot recall seeing such depth of reflection anywhere else.
One of our days was spent at Walter Peak, a special place of green trees and garden and a fine restaurant where we enjoyed a very special lunch. We went there on a steamship which has seen many years of service, but was comfortable enough. It made for a very special day out. On that occasion I used my pencil for some sketching rather than paints for watercolouring.
It's good sometimes just to do something thoroughly relaxing, and painting around Queenstown, Alexandra, Glenorchy and Arrowtown was just that. At the end of our week around the lake we were as relaxed as we've every been, and we'd been thoroughly in touch with the wonder of creation.
We'd love to go back there take in more of its beauty.
The Revised Common Lectionary used for preaching during the 2014-2015 Church year determines that Mark is the gospel for the year.
One of the difficulties of readings during church services is that they are read as stand-alone passages, and of course they don't stand alone . They are all part of longer documents which provide the context for the readings.
It seems to me that there is little value in simply listening to a reading from the Bible if there is no context for it. To take Mark's gospel, if we don't know anything about how or why it was written, we can hardly expect to make very much sense out of any given Sunday reading.
Today I've put onto the Faith section of this site the first article on Mark. There will be more from time to time. My hope is that the article and subsequent ones will make Mark live for you during those Sunday readings. You might even be tempted to read the gospel right through during the week. That is certainly one of the best ways of gaining some understanding of the kind of document it is.
So dip into the article and enjoy it.
Cricket and Mr Orwell
"Will cricket survive?" wrote George Orwell in the days when it was still played. He was reviewing a book. "Cricket Country", by Edmond Blunden whom he describes in the reveiw as "a true cricketer."
"The test of a true cricketer," Orwell wrote, 'is that he shall prefer village cricket to good cricket." He doesn't spell out in the reveiw what he means by 'good' cricket, but it is inferred that it is cricket played in a leisurely way, thus refecting leisurely village life rather than the increased pace of life in the town.
I am not convinced that the village is the best template for judging cricket, but I do believe that there are village values which lead us to what cricket was all about, especially when the game of the village green is contrasted with the frenetic pace and ugliness of that obscenity produced by Messrs Packer, Grieg, Benaud and Chappel, some of whom never knew the essence of cricket, some of whom forgot it in a moment of carelessness. My view of course is a minority one, and I respect those who disagree. However, the view's minority status does not invalidate it.
My most precious memories of cricket are located at a ground whose facilities were no more than a small wooden building for shelter, a sight screen and a toilet. The pitch, however, was flat and green, tended with the greatest care, almost as a worship sancturary might be cared for. And indeed it was a worship sanctuary in a way, because certain values were honoured there.
It was a ground next to Elstree village, a beautiful settlement in itself. Lovely as its mock Tudor houses are, enchantng as its climbing, twisting main street still is, the jewel in its crown was its cricket ground, and the village knew it.
What were the values so honoured on that one chain of greensward and its outfield?
The values of cricket were exemplified in one action repeated many times during the course of a match. When a batsman was dismissed, he was applauded by the fielding team. You might think that this was reserved for those who had made big scores. Not so. The batsman, big scorer or small, was clapped because he had come to the wicket and entered into sporting battle. Preparedness to compete was accorded respect. This is the very point of cricket. It is, or rather was, about values. Without those values there is no cricket. There is another game which can have superficial appearances of cricket, but in fact it is as far from cricket as vaudeville is from the church of St Francis.
Those cricket values were the principles for living we learned at school. To respect the umpire's decision was a lesson in life. The only time the umpire was wrong was when he failed to see that you were out when you knew that you were. And off you walked from the wicket because sporting behaviour was so far above cheating that it wasn't cricket to stay at the crease.
The game that today is falsely and blasphemously called cricket is one where captains are allowed to challenge an umpire's decision up to three times in an innings, where names and numbers are worn on the backs of shirts, highlighting individuauls rather than the team, where sponsors' names are even on the stumps, where batsmen wait at the crease until the umpire gives them out, where batsmen's concentration is undermined by verbal abuse by close-in fieldsmen, and where winning is all that matters. It is of course a travesty.
When grown men dance and hug and jump up and down like children in a hopelessy tangled maypoledance when a wicket is taken, they are perhaps behaving in character. Integrity goes with adulthood. It also goes with sporting attitudes.
Has something like cricket survived on village greens? Perhaps somewhere. I keep an eye open just in case something other than the pseudo game might still be seen. However, I fear that the only conclusion available to me is that cricket did not survive. Sadly, Mr Orwell, cricket, lovely cricket, has been laid to rest.
The World Around Me
We live in an area where we see kangaroos almost daily. As I look from our kitchen or lounge window across the road to the field opposite I see, more often than not, kangaroos feeding and occasionally drinking. At times I have seen up to a dozen from one of those windows. Sometimes there is one family of two large roos and a joey. I love the sight of them and the beautiful way they move when they do so at speed. It is a precious contact with another world of creatures.
We have a family of magpies appearing on our deck each morning, the young squealing to the parents to be fed. A crow has in recent days joined them, and even more recently a pair of Murray magpies. The garden always has sparrows in great numbers, pigeons, numerous honeyeaters and blackbirds. On most days a pair of blue wrens can be seen among the shrubs and on the grass and pavers. It is a rich experience to enjoy their presence and observe their habits. Swallows frequent the place too, and occasionally finches and wagtails. Nests are made in more places around the garden and house exterior than I could possibly name.
At five in the morning, when I start my writing day, I hear them starting their day, the magpies first, then the wonderful dawn chorus when more birds than I can identify join in the welcome to the day.
Yes, it's a wonderful world, and life is abundant.
Thinking About Peace
Three and a half centuries ago John Milton wrote,
'Peace hath her victories
no less renowned than war.'
Do we admire men and women of peiace more than those who can claim great military victories? I have to say that I am not a pacifist. I could not be. I have served in two armies, the British and the Australian. But I am among those who believe that those who can lead us to a just peace are the people to whom we owe the most. I find the words of Alijah Izetbegovic, then President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, spoken on the occasion of the signing of the Dayd on accord with representatives of serbia and Croatia in 1995, impressive in their wisdom and their pragmatism:
'And to my people I say, this may not be a just peace,
but it is more just than a continuation of war.'
Questions are raised by his words, of course, not the least significant being the avoidance of acute injustice. In a world in which absolutes are not always helpful. The question raised by the quotation of how just it is to allow people to go on suffering. Ending suffering is its own form of justice.
The Brazilian Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva saw the need for widespread support for peace if striving for it is to be successful. In a speech to the United Nations in 2003 he said,
'A war can perhaps be won single-handedly. But peace - lasting peace -
cannot be secured without the support of all.'
That seems to put the matter into a useful perspective. Peace requires grass-roots support and convinced commitment by leaders and their teams.
Perhaps the best hopes for just and lasting peace in a world which has known very little of it lie in recognising the sacredness of human life and rights of all to justice and equity. Maybe individuals who hold such values and convinctions can have greater influence than is generally recognised. Every human life is a miracle. Every person is or ought to be an inheritor of the right to a dignified life of peace and opportunity.
That injustice and inequity are abroad everywhere is undeniable. What are the causes of inequities and injustices? Why is it that we in Australia (there are injustices and inequities here too) live so well while in other parts of the globe mothers struggle to keep their children alive while famine and disease bring death? There are no simple answers that I know of. Lula da Silva's words are apt, emphasising that there needs to widespread support for peace. Widespread support for the search to causes of and remedies for justice and inequity in the world is necessary.
I do not know of any answers, but I am convinced of the importance of the question of what the causes of the rarity of peace are. As always with social problems, localised, national or universal, there can be little progreas without a careful search for causes. Commitment to search for them is perhaps the starting point. It's a question that can occupy the minds of all of us.
None of this suggests that we should be complacent about those whose actions are intrinsically evil. Terrorists fall into that category but they are not alone in it. Vigilance, deterance and appropriate punishment are all necessary in a time when terrorism in particular has become part of the political landscape. Understanding terrorism and other extreme forms of evil can be understood only by better brains than mine. But that does not stop us working for peace when and where we can.
The words, 'Lord, make me an instrument of your peace' have been attributed to Francis of Assisi. Whether he said them or not, it make far more sense to be an instrument of peace in the world that a spreader of hatred and conflict. They are good words to take into this year. To do all that we can to be instruments of peace might have surprising consequences.
The Beauty of Wales
I read this morning in a writers' magazine of a 5-day writers' retreat at Ty Newydd at LLanystumdwy in North Wales. My mind raced to the exhilerating beauy of the principality and my two periods of residence in Wales.
To spend a week at the writers' centre there studying more of the craft is tempting, to say the least, but quite impossible at the moment. But the future...? The thought is tanalizing.
My first period of residence in Wales was in Pemrokeshire. My first house there was in Tenby on the edge of the harbour. At Tenby I had the great privilege of enjoying one of Britain's loveliest towns. At Manorbier, the other part of Pembrokeshire where I lived, I was in the village described by the great Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis) as the loveliest place in the loveliest county of Wales. He was surely right. The bay of Manorbier has Manorbier castle (where part of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was filmed) on one side and the fascinating parish church on the other.
My second period of residence in Wales was in Anglesey in the north of the country. I remember vividly the drives to and from London which took me through some of the most stunning scenery of Snowdonia, especially in the vicinity of Llyn Ogwyn and the towering peak of Tryfan.
While in Anglesey I did a great deal of exploring of North Wales, including the area around the Lleyn peninsula, where Llanystumdwy is found. It's country to make the heart race. I always felt there that I was in one of the world's special places.
Llanystumdwy is the birthplace of one of Great Britain's most colourful prime ministers of the early part of the 20th century, David Lloyd George. That adds an extra touch of fascination to he area. He was one of the most skilled orators the House of Commons ever experienced. He knew how, with his beautiful Welsh vowels and rhythm, to weave a word-picture that cast a spell on those privileged to listen.
Will I find the opportunity to improve my own use of words at a Llanystumdwy retreat at some time in the feature? I don't know, but I hope so.
Je suis Charlie
There has rightly been great horror expressed after the murders carried out at the offices of Paris' Charlie Hedbo journal.
There have been many other atrocities committed during our time, some with far greater loss of life. Yet none, perhaps, has drawn such a united response from many nations at the attack on Charlie Hedbo. Few of us will forget the picture of many national leaders with armes linked expressing unity with the people of France in that great rally of millions in the French capital.
The French people, as we know so well, responded almost as one with JE SUIS CHARLIE and NOUS SOMMES CHARLIE placards.
Why, then, has this atrocity brought so overwhelming a response? Two elements seem to be prominent. One is the hatred which appears to have been involved and its attendant lack of the concept of the sacredness of human life. The other is the clear attack on freedom of speech.
Whether we agree with the points made by the cartoonists of Charlie Hedbo or not is immaterial. The freedom and right to make their points is the issue at stake.
In Australia we do not have the freedom of speech that once was our precious possession. Section 18(c) of the Racial Discrimination Act has removed that. We can no longer express opinions publicly on certain issues, with the effect that there is no freedom even to openly discuss some critical questions.
Nevertheless, we properly and passionately indentify with the Je suis Charlie people of France. It is a nation which has long cherished Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite*. The French are a freedom-loving people.
Freedom is crucial for an effective democracy. Salmon Rushdie, who knows more than most about the enemies of freedom of expression, wrote in The Weekend Guardian in 1990, "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." It seems to me that those words are salutary for us, and for that matter for all who value freedom. Once freedom of expression is lost, much else is lost with it.
Another contribution to The Weekend Guardian, this time from Arnold Wesker in 1989, is apposite re the Paris murders: "To murder the thinker does not murder the thought. The perpetrators have made us more than ever aware of the precious nature of freedom of speech and the importance of freedom to express thoughts with which we may disagree.
We have been reminded of the words of the late William Ralph Inge, "The enemies of freedom do not argue; they shout and they shoot." That, surely is the compelling argument for reinstating freedom of speech in Australia and defending it in France.
* Please excuse the lack of acute accents. I can't seem to produce them for my blogs. It might be because I need to increase my undersanding of computers!
James Elroy Flecker
James Elroy Flecker is a (was a) poet who ought to be better known. I cannot help asking what he might have achieved had he not died at the ago of 30. On January 3rd, 1915, consumption ended his brief life at Davos. He is buried at Cheltenham in the west of England. I should like to see his grave and one day might do so. He is a poet whose work enchants me.
How bright a star death claimed that day in 1915! For me, he was the Poet of poets.
He first came to my attention many years ago when I discovered his masterful poem, The Golden Journey to Samarkand. I am familiar now with most of his more important works.
He was a romantic of the most intense kind and that was probably always going to make his work attractive to me. Romanticism permeates most of his writings. He did not neglect the romance of man and woman . A fine example is The Ballad of the Student in the South. It is a moving ode to the compulsion of physical love which makes scholarship a limited matter.
Other fine examples of his romanticism are Yasmin, The Ballad of Camden Town, Santorin and many others.
He shows himself also to be an accomplished classicist. Classical themes run through one poem after another.Mythology in particular, but not Greek legends alone, enrich his work. His themes constitute a wonderful miscellany.
How fine a brain he had is indicated by that miscellany which, with no exception that I know of, rises to great heights of imagination, knowledge of subject and scintillating use of language.
James Elroy Flecker is a great gift to the literary world.
The Appropriate Present
With Christmas now two-and-a-half weeks behind us we are probably getting used to the presents we received on Christmas morning. Some perhaps are "just what we wanted", others might be less appropriate. Some might even have been just what we needed.
My experience is that there are some people for whom it is easy to choose presents and there are others for whom the task is difficult. We need to know quite a bit about a person in order to choose an appropriate present for him or for her.
When I go out I am in the habit of having in my pocket a present I was given a few years ago by someone very important to me. It is a pair of writing instruments. One is a propelling pencil, the other is a ballpoint pen. Each is a beautiful steel and gold colour combination and made by Schaeffer in the United States. My name, Tony Gates, is inscribed very beautifully in copperplate style in each instrument. Thus the present was made very personal by the giver.
In my study, or anywhere else in my home, I use a fountain pen. As a previous blog indicates I have a collection of them. When out and about a ballpoint pen is perfect. There is no thin ink to spill and stain clothing, and in this case the elegance of the pen makes it a pleasure to use. The pen has its obvious uses. The propelling pencil is perfect for making notes which will not be permanent.
Not only is the present of the pair of instruments personalised, it is as appropriate as a gift can be. It is for writing, and writing is what I do. Not surprisingly, I value the gift very highly. It is not only "just what I wanted", it is also what I needed.
I'm left with the thought that when we take the trouble to get to know someone well, we can contribute a great deal of pleasure to that person.
A Family of Magpies
Because I start work at five each morning, I am able to enjoy the wakings of the birds in the garden.
We have a pair of blue wrens, the male looking magnificent, who have made our garden their major place of abode. To see them flitting among the shrubs and flower beds and occasionally across the pavers is a lovely thing. We also have a number of honeyeaters who frequent our native shrubs at any given time. Occasionally we see a blackbird. Less welcome visitors are the seagulls. We try to avoid having food around when they are in the area; we don't want to encourage their presence. I leave food for the magpies on our deck when I get up at 5 o'clock.
By 5.30am I am writing in our garden room, and I hear, not long afterwards, the arrival of the magpies. At this time of the year their presence is unmistakable. The young are squealing for food from their parents. Being the first birds up and about, the magpies enjoy the food on the deck, as I intend them to. No othere birds are around when they have their breakfast. When they have eaten they fly to some nearby pasture and I have the pleasure of watching their graceful gliding to a landing.
Such pleasure to be had from the magpies. Such wonder all around us every day.
To save or not to save; that is the question
"Free", says the advertisement, thus grossly misusing the word. All forms of advertising seem to misuse it. Radio, newspapers, dodgers, television, internet - all carry advertisements using the word "free". They also use the word "save". Both words are used in ways that are parodies that add up to dishonesty. Both are used with the assumption that listeners and readers will not think about what the words really mean.
"Buy one, get one free" or "book three nights and get a fourth free" are both nonsensical. How can you get anything free if you have to pay money? One of the most ludicrous advertising pitches that I've seen appeared on a chocolate bar: 'free 25% extra.' If you believe that the extra 25% truly is free, ask the retailer for only the free 25%. Ask him or her to cut it off for you. Free of course is what it isn't.
If you have to pay for any item or group of items, then no part of the item or package is free. You have to pay for it. No matter that the price you pay might be very small, it is not free. You cannot get a third item that might be called free unless you pay for two and that means not that any item is free, but that the price of three is the price the retailer asks for. Free means paying no money at all.
In the same way " save" is used in a misleading way. "Pay $19.95 and save $2" is intended to suggest that the normal price is $21.95. That might be so, but is immaterial to the misuse of the word. You and I cannot save money by spending it. To save is the opposite of to spend. There might or might not be a genuine discount or price reduction on the deal offered, but there is no act of saving. Saving belongs to the piggy bank or the savings account, not to passing money over the retail counter.
The next time an advertisement offers us something free or a saving of some kind, we can put the advert into perspective by thinking about the meaning of the words "free" and "save".
Standing common values on their heads
I'm working my way through the Greek of the apostle Paul's letter to the Christian Church in Rome. I've been doing so for about four months, and I'm about halfway through chapter 12. That makes my progress not quite two-thirds of the way through the letter.
Greek, of course, is the language in which the New Testament was written, and from which our English New Testaments are translated.
Yesterday morning I arrived on my jouney at this remarkable command:
'Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.' (Revised Standard Version)
This is consistent with an equally remarkable command in Matthew';s Gospel where Jesus is depicted as saying,
'But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' (Revised Standard Version).
Those lines from Romans and from Matthew are among the most extraordinary to be found in the Bible. There is no 'warm fuzzy' feeling about them. Their requirements are as demanding as I can imagine and they distinguish sharply between Christianity and the societies in which it is a living faith. What possibilities there are when commands such as these are taken seriously!
Revenge is a prize quite commonly sought in our communities. When it is, the worst of human nature is on public display.
A Christian is commanded by Paul and by the Sermon on the Mount (in which the quotation from Matthew appears) to act in a quite different way. To love enemies and pray for or bless persecutors is an utterly different way not only to act but to be.
The verb to bless in Greek is a combination of two words meaning good and word respectively. So the command is to say a good word about or to speak well of the person who persecutes you. Now that does cause you to think seriously.
The command of Paul in the letter, even though addressed to the Christians of Rome 2,000 years ago can be applicable to us with profit. To think carefully about those words can have an important influence on how we shape relationships and how we view interpersonal conflicts and problems. Are there better ways than returning slight with slight, insult with insult? Maybe goodwill is a stronger force than we think. To speak well of any who speak ill of us can have a profound change in our approach to people who wish us ill rather than good.
Paul certainly made me think when I read the words.
A New Fountain Pen
I am a sucker for fountain pens. I can't resist them.
I bought one this year as a result of visiting the Ferrari museum at Marinello. It's a handome red fountain pen with the Ferrari black prancing horse on a yellow background. The pen is magnetised and that makes it different from any other fountain pen I own. The other factor making it different is the obvous one - it's a Ferrari product.
Whenever I use it I am reminded of a wonderful day at Marinello. To see so many Ferrari models under one roof and so see the wonderful display of the many Ferraris that won world championships is thrilling for a fan of Formula One motor racing. When I use my Ferrari fountain pen many memories of Marinello are stirred.
I started by saying that I am a sucker for fountain pens. I have a number, the result of many years of writing with that kind of instrument. They include a fine Parker pen passed on to me by my wife Ruth. It was her father's and has his name inscribed upon it. Also included is a fine fountain pen given to me by my elder son for a very special birthday. And there are many others - Parkers, WH Smiths, calligraphers etcetera.
That isn't the whole story. The fact is that they are the pens I use whenever I can. I start each day at 5 am with a fountain pen in my hand. I do so because to write with one is an experience of deep pleasure. The ink flows freely and the nib width allows my own handwriting to be emphasised whereas a ball-point pen is no more than functional. There is sensual pleasure in using a fountain pen.
I like to see the inked writing on the page. The pen strokes vary in width according to the angle of the nib and the ink sits more pleasingly on the page than the product of a ball-point pen ever could. For that reason I write letters only with a fountain pen. I use only a fountain pen for writing in cards. I'd like to say that I do so simply to bring pleasure to the receiver of the letter or the card, but the fact is, I do so for my own pleasure. The fountain pen offers me a selfish reward.
So yes, I spend my first hours of the day with a fountain pen in my hand and i wouldn't have it any other way. Whether I am at home in Australia, abroad in Italy, France or wherever it might be, that is how the day starts.
My fountain pens are treasures. They are my instruments for the pastime I dearly love - writing.
To Be A Janus?
I have a Janus watch. That isn't its official name of course, though I think it's an appropriate one. It was not advertised as a Janus watch.
I have forgotten its official description. It was probably called something like a dual-time watch or something similar, but certainly not as precise or suitable as my epithet for it.
My watch is two-faced: therefore I call it a Janus. It has exactly the characteristics of a two-faced person. One face tells me one thing: the other face tells me another. I get certain information from one face: the other gives me some other information entirely. If I am in New South Wales, for example, one face will tell me Eastern Standard Time and the other will tell me Central Time. Should I be in England, one face will tell me Greenwich Mean Time: the other will tell me Adelaide time. It is totally two-faced.
Two-faced people are difficult to do any kind of business with, personal, commercial or any other. Their speech is designed to manipulate. That which is told to person A is not that which is told to person B. Janus can never be known. You can never know who he or she really is. Janus is entirely without integrity.
Integrity means that you always get the same person. He or she is morally, ethically, spiritually and emotionally integrated. Relationally that person is integrated too, so that what he says to person A on a given matter is what he says to person B. A person of integrity is a gem, a deeply satisying person to know.
Not so Janus. However, my Janus watch is very useful. If I am in a country other than Australia I can, with Adelaide time on one of the faces, have a good guess about what people I love are doing. I can be sure, too, that i won't wake someone in Australia in the middle of the night with a phone call!
Most importantly, my Janus watch reminds me of the need for integrity.
Design for the Job
From my very early days I was familiar with St Pancras station, the London terminus of the Midland Railway. It was and is a magnificent station consisting of a huge, single-span train shed, passenger facilities, booking hall and a hotel of great grandeur which faced out onto Euston Road. The Midland Railway was a justifiably proud company.
By the time I used St Pancras regularly the Midland had been absorbed into the massive London, Midland and Scottish Railway which in turn had been absorbed into the nationalised British Railways.
My journeys were on local stopping trains from the outer suburbs into St Pancras. At certain times during the morning and late afternoon they were commuter trains for those who worked "in town".
Those trains were perfectly designed for the job they had to do. They were required to spend as little time as possible in the stations en route and to have effective acceleration from every stop. Given that on the journeys out of St Pancras they had to climb out of the Thames Valley with well-loaded trains, they had to be hauled by locomotives with good traction and effective pulling power.
To achieve those objectives the passenger carriages were divided into compartments accommodating, say, eight-to-ten passengers, with each compartment having its exit door onto the platform so that there was no queue to get off the train and those on the platorm could get on quickly. Carriages with exit doors at each end only would have been very unsuitable because it would have taken much longer for passengers to get off the train and those on the platform to get on. A corridor would also have restricted the number of passengers who could be accommodated on seats.
The locomotives used were either 2-6-4 or 2-6-2 tank engines with driving wheels of moderate size but not small. The figures indicate the wheel configuration. A 2-6-4 tank engine, for example, had at the smokebox end a pony truck of 2 wheels, then there were 6 driving wheels, then a bogie of 4 wheels beneath the driver's cab. The moderate sized driving wheels allowed for rapid acceleration, and still a good turn of speed. They also gave the engine good hauling capacity. They were called tank engines because they carried their water in side tanks on the locomotive chassis without the need of a tender and their coal was carried in a bunker, also on the locomotive's chassis. They were designed to be driven smokebox-first or bunker-first, so there was no need to spend time taking them to a turntable for the reverse journeys. On the local stopping trains which ran between St Pancras and Bedford (those with which I was most familiar) they were always driven bunker-first into St Pancras and smokebox-first to Bedford.
The successive Chief Mechanical Engineers responsible for the designs of locomotives working into St Pancras bore the names Fowler, Fairburn, Stanier, Ivatt and Riddles. They were men who knew that the most effective way to design a product to achieve a task or solve a problem was first to understand the task and to define any problems standing in the way of success. The resulting products by those men were locomotives and carriages which suited the task and solved the problems so well that the objectives for local stopping trains having to negotiate Thames valley gradients were attained daily.
The more I think about St Pancras and those commuter trains I knew so well, the more obvious it becomes that those engineering principles can be transferred to just about any area of life. The principles can be applied to writing, to marketing, to art, to gardening, to fly-fishing, to relationships - to just about any area of life. To understand the task and to spell it out is to give ourselves the best chance of working out a plan for success. To identify a problem and set out its components is to pave the way for devising the most appropriate solution.
They are not the only components of effective living, of course, but I believe they are valid, nevertheless.
This Ethics Question
This morning, my wife Ruth and I had a breakfast discussion on the matter of ethics. Perhaps i should have said the difficult matter of ethics.
Some years ago, Ruth led a discussion group at an Adelaide city church on the subject of situation ethics. As is her habit, she prepared thoroughly for the group, doing a good deal of research and using such ethics studies as those by Fletcher and Barclay, both of whom reject notions of absolutes as answers to ethical questions - or at least to some ethical questions.
I too have difficulty with absolutes. One of the problems with them is that they make philosophical positions more important than persons and that surely is an error of significant proportions. Every day I find myself in situations where the options open to me have the potential to hurt someone, and even to undermine another person's faith. They can be situations concerning which I have very strong moral convictions. Do I simply say, "I believe you are wrong"? In some circumstances it might be necessary for me to say that, but in others little may be gained and great hurt caused.
Yet situation ethics has the potential to lead into such a relativism that nothing is absolute and one comes to believe in very little. Relativism is an aspect of 21st century culture in Australia and I believe we are the less for it.
Our discussion at breakfast was quite a lengthy one, and it didn't produce great answers to the question of ethics. However, we agreed that the best starting point is the one taught by Jesus of Nazareth - Love the Lord our God with all that we are and love our neighbours as ourselves. It might not be a developed ethical system, but it has the strength that it can inform us in every ethical dilemma we face.
My Janus Watch
I have a Janus watch. That's not its correct name, though my opinion is that it certainly ought to be. I've forgotten what description it was sold under. It was probably called something mundane like 'a dual-time-keeping' watch. I think my title is better.
My watch is two-faced, you see. like the mythological Janus. Moreover, it has the characteristics of a two-faced person. One face tells one story; the other tells another story entirely. From my very young days I have heard duplicitous people described as 'two-faced'. Sometimes the accusation has been made with some verbal venom.
I decide what stories the two faces of my watch will tell. Each one is a normal watch face with Roman numerals. One very useful combination for me is to have one of the watch-faces set on South Australian time, the other on Greenwich Mean Time. That is useful because my two brothers and two sisters live in England, and I can see very readily the time in the UK and be sure that if I make a telephone call I won't be waking them in the middle of their night! But I can set the two faces to indicate whatever times I want them to tell.
The watch has another value. It warns me metaphorically not to be or become a Janus. Another way of putting it is that it reminds me of the need for integrity. I don't recall ever being asked on what basis I choose my friends, but if I were I would answer that I like to have friends who possess integrity. Yes, that's how I choose friends. They are people on whose word I can rely and when I talk with them I know that what they tell me is the story they would tell anyone else. They are 'one-faced'.
Two-faced people are difficult to deal with because you can never be sure where you stand with them. They are people whose word cannot be trusted because the stories they tell depend upon the person to whom they are doing the telling.
But a one-faced person is a gem. His or her word is sacred. That person knows that when all is said and done the only thing he can give is his word, the only thing she can give is her word. When you deal with such a person you always get the same person. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what day it is, the person you get is the same person. Integrity makes the person. To work for such a man or woman is good fortune. A boss who can be relied upon not to be changeable is a boss to respect and to work for with pleasure.
Such are the thoughts generated by my Janus watch.
A Tourist or a Traveller?
Why do I travel?
I can travel as a tourist, and provided there is intent to learn, there is nothing wrong with that. Even so, I prefer to call myself a traveller. I like to travel purposefully.
From time to time it has been my misfortune to be seated next to a tourist of a certain kind on board an aeroplane. I have been told never to drive in Sicily because drivers there are lunatics; I have been told that Venice stinks (standard talk of that kind of tourist), that French people are rude (I must have been very fortunate in not having met those rude French during many visits to France) and that all the world loves Australians (a nice thought, factual or not). I listen to those things in the hope that the accumulating in-flight hours will claim my next-seat bore in sleep.
So why travel? To learn is the best reason of all, and that can be done whether you call yourself a tourist or a traveller. The world is an exciting place for those of us fortunate enough to have our home in a wealthy country. It is also a world of inequities and suffering for many. Travel offers the opportunity to learn about cultures of many kinds, of art, or architecture, of faiths, of political systems, of critical needs and problems in some societies and so much more. All such learning informs our efforts to influence movement towards a better world and to make us more informed people.
None of this denigrates travel for the sake of relaxation or a holiday. That is legitimate and valuable. However, this blog is an attempt to draw attention to other travel benefits. There are rich cultures to experience and from which we can learn a great deal.
The powerful learning benefits of travel are reasons for my preference for the word 'traveller'.
A Bad Bishop and Good Friends
Chess has some interesting terms. One of them is "Bad Bishop."
A bad bishop is a bishop which is unable to move freely because friendly pawns, themselves unable to move, hem it in.
Is there a picture of life there? Can well-meaning friends get in the way when something important needs to be done, or a certain state of mind is important to adopt?
The book of Job is a good story of friends getting in the way. Job has lost all of value and is suffering from a terrible disease. The story-teller has Job's friends imposing their view that his misfortune is the result of great sin of some kind and that he must confess and repent. Job, however, knows that he has one thing left, his integrity. He will not surrender his integrity by confessing to a non-existent wrong, despite the constant urging of his friends. They have cornered him into being a bad bishop, unable to get a hearing in defending his integrity. Despite them, he strives to remain a good man.
Friends have made bad bishops of many good people while themselves having only kindly intentions.
I wonder how many adventures, how many dreams, have not been attempted because kind-hearted friends have urged caution?
Then there is the precious gift of solitude, sometunes needed above anything else at a given time. He or she who needs solitude has to be careful not to be seen by kindly friends who want to make sure he or she is not deprived of company. The picture of Shirley Valentine being "rescued" from what kindly people perceived to be her loneliness comes readily to mind. She had found a table for herself in a Greek restaurant on the island of Mykonos because she wanted solitude above all.Her rescuers were being friendly, They made her a bad bishop.
The trick is that when friends make bad bishops of us, to still be grateful for their friendship and the caring spirit they are showing.