Friday, October 14, 2011

The Pursuit of Truth

Friday afternoon and I am pulling a few threads together for the sermon at Evensong on Sunday and trying to finish before pushing off to the Quiz Night this evening.

Well - it is a work in progress: but here it is anyway.

The words of the anthem for this Evensong beautifully complement the glowing intimate sense of love that permeates the Epistle we know as 1 John.

O thou the central orb of righteous love, pure beam of the most High,

eternal light of this our wintry world,

thy radiance bright awakes new joy in faith, hope soars above.

You will notice how the anthem holds images of light, of brightness, against the implicit dark of a ‘wintry world’. John (who in the Gospel associated with his name speaks of light shining in darkness), in this epistle uses another image for light – but this he names as ‘love’ – and he holds this against that ‘darkness’ that he names as ‘the world’. Notice how he puts it: ‘let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts... you are from God... they are from the world.’ Against the images of darkness and world, John sets the images of light and love and maps out a whole way of being, a total orientation of the self.

The mental juxtapositions and inner dialectic inherent in the tensions that John works with should feel very familiar to us. What is the truth? Do we not wonder what life means, whether there is a God or not, whether there is anything such as ‘meaning’? Do we believe that the scepticism of our post-modernity is really so much more advanced than a reasonable thinker in the ancient world? Are our spiritual convolutions so unique? Obviously they are contextually different; the advance of science ensures that. But, in our raw humanity, I doubt that much has changed. Humankind still fears death, needs companionship, and struggles to make sense of the world and our place in it. We all come with questions. We hunt for truth – philosopher, scientist, theologian – we all seek to make sense.

This of course is the reality that lay at the heart of Professor Murray Rae’s inaugural professorial lecture at the university last Thursday evening when he spoke on ‘Theology and the pursuit of Truth’. From a well crafted lecture that began with Socrates I took away a real appreciation of what Rae suggested best describes the scholar’s attitude toward one’s discipline. He suggested, I hope I recall him correctly, that it was ‘love’. The word sounds surprising in the academic context but it ‘fits’. Love is a word that suggests a stance that is respectful and which regards the subject in such a way that there is no room for the intrusion of the ego and its follies, its posturing and arrogance. One may even say that love as we describe it here – and, goodness knows, the word ‘humility’ comes to mind - such ‘love’ is associated with an enhanced perspective on reality; it is open to the ‘truth’ whatever that may be or how that may appear. This is, of course, all disputed ground. What names we give to ‘truth’ and how we understand it all differ. We may not even be convinced that what we seek is ‘there’ – but each discipline pursues truth with that ‘love’ which provides the light essential to understanding.

Which brings us back to the light and love that John speaks of in his Epistle: it is a transforming way of being in the world and of approaching the truth. One way of illustrating this would be through the mystics of the church – and one immediately thinks of Dame Julian in her Revelations of Divine Love. Her calm, attentive and loving approach as an anchoress, simply waiting on God, ‘contemplating’ Christ, caused her to experience the series of ‘revelations’ that she recorded. I am particularly fond of what is one of the most famous of the revelations – one in which she is shown the ‘littleness of the cosmos’: (Chapter IV)

...He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of his hand, it was as round as any ball, and (I) thought, “What may this be?”

I was answered generally, “It is all that is made.”...

The loving orientation of Julian is a disposition of being that allows her to see herself and the universe in perspective against the immense otherness and mystery of God. There is no fear in this, no existential horror or vertigo at the abyss of being – instead she notes:

He (Christ) is our clothing: for love wraps us and winds us, embraces us and causes us, and hangs about us for tender love that He may never leave us.

In the deeply-felt knowledge of such love, no wonder – as the anthem puts it – ‘hope soars above’.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Heeling to the Wind - the poetry of Brian Turner

I've been doing a spot of reflection and some writing on Brian Turner's poetry and I'm posting it here in case anyone shares my enthusiasm for the way a poet's struggle with words and experience is also a work of the Spirit - while stepping beyond creed and doctrine.

Born here, buggered it up.

(‘New Zealanders, a definition’)

A one line poem delivered in the dry tone of an ordinary Kiwi bloke – just one of Brian Turner’s ‘voices’: you might ask, is this poetry? Well, hardly - not if that was all he wrote! However that one-liner has a huge metaphysical embrace! It holds much more than we, at first glance, appreciate. It is a summary - a tragic vision – reminiscent of theology’s image of ‘The Fall’. Here Turner’s laconic indictment covers both a sense of wonder at what has been given and an anguished sense of loss, whether at the destruction of the environment, the shock of mortality, or the individual messes of poor choices and botched relationships.

A sense of wonder streams through Turner’s landscape poetry – he is after all a well established poet of the Central Otago landscape. Fortunately he resists the platitudes and sentiment that choke much landscape poetry and instead has a sense for the familiar details that can speak and hint at something more. That ‘something more’ can be found in ‘Autumn Song’ where the poet begins:

'On the road again to somewhere west,

the morning’s sun badgering the fog

cloaking the Poolburn, and over the hill

in Ophir where evening primrose

and tall hollyhocks sway by the roadside.'


These sharply realized details establish the poet’s sense of place and his intimate bond with it. Memory and experience have so embedded the place in him that it remains with him as a real presence through the journey.

'It’s as if one’s rooted to the spot as well

as moving through the countryside...'

This powerful spiritual location becomes more clearly pronounced on the afternoon’s return journey back up the Ida Valley to Oturehua as the visual images cluster thickly and become almost overwhelming, almost luminous with presence.

'...while mobs of ewes lie like maggots

beside glassy ponds, sedated by the sun.

To the northwest the long line of the Dunstans

are a buff brown, Mt St Bathans blue-tinted,

and the crinkled Hawkduns bar

the way at the head of the valley. White

butterflies dither in off-white yarrow

and alight amongst the last of the mauve clover.

There’s a softening of the light as the sun slides

further and further west and I drive

slowly up the valley towards Oturehua

dreaming of love and peace, listening

to Domingo singing Bach’s Ave Maria

and Franck’s Panis angelicus, and I think

at last I know what is true, what wonder is.'

Turner’s loving, careful marking of detail in the softening light is a spiritual communion, almost casually registered in the allusions to Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus. The delighted hopefulness of the last line is however tempered by his pointed balancing of the ‘I know’ against the ‘I think’ of the line above. While Turner has used the device of the journey through the familiar landscape to become a journey into the holy, he keeps space for ambiguity and space for things to stand as they are in themselves.

This, Inside Outside (2011), is Turner’s latest collection and it is divided into five parts. In the last sequence, labelled ‘Post-Operatives’, Turner becomes particularly personal as he reflects on major surgery that he had to undergo. This is difficult and high risk material to manage. Here the poems assume a starker tone, as in ‘Face to Face’ where the recollection of fear and helplessness is barely contained by his word-play. The human condition, the poet’s condition, is without ‘a fix-it pill’.

'You’re given the facts.

You hope it’s not a sentence.

It seems too early somehow

and somehow means

more than somesuch.

Right now the past

won’t sing to the present

and croon that there is

a fix-it pill for every condition

available online,

and every dinner

friends put on

seems like

the last supper.'

This foreboding work is balanced by the insights that follow in the poems that emerge after the operation. In these poems an overt metaphysical interest is clear. For instance, in ‘Making Up Your Mind’, Turner reflects on the shock of his mortality and complains of the uncertainty he now experiences, and of ‘feeling you’re someone else’s experiment’. For him the possibilities of what to believe or hope in seem neither obvious nor satisfactory.

' ... Then,

disgruntled, you start picking away

at your life as if it’s muesli

and you’re sorting out the particulars,

the bits worth eating from the rest

that seems sourced in a desert of dross.

No wonder you’re looking for somewhere

that feels more stable, that might serve as a

pleasing aura before you vanish into the ether.'

That spiritual search for ‘what feels more stable’ is not simply answered but ‘Lakeside’ shows the post-op Turner anchoring himself in the natural world once more and with renewed appreciation for his hold on life.

'A sharp, puffy southerly

blows up the lake

so I sit in the sunny

front seat of my car

and watch a small yacht

heel, periodically

wave surrender.

At the roadside edge

of the gravel beach

birds chitter and sing

in a scraggy tree, peck

the last, reddest wild apples

of the season.

It may be autumn

but today it feels

like spring to me.'

A keen yachtsman, Turner finds hope in the yacht heeling before the wind. He expands the image in ‘Secular Yet Sacred’where his freshly honed awareness of mortality and his longing for the transcendent now fuse in what may be a renewed sense of the poet’s calling. The raw unchurched life of the spirit - ‘the wind in your sails’ - commands the poet to speak, to ‘bear witness’. Here there is a hint of grace and faith, though not comfortably packaged in the words of religion but instead enacted in surrender to ‘the wind in your sails’.

'There’s this clear insistent voice

commanding we bear witness

to how fleeting such is, ...

... But don’t

despair, don’t. Be what you are,

heel to the wind in your sails.'