I’ve been having some time out with leisure to read and re-read some of my old favourites. A sentence from one of my favourite thinkers, Ken Wilbur, jumped out at me on a day when I was trying to avoid knowing what news of disaster, human misery and insensitive ineptitude were filling the airwaves and media. Ken Wilbur wrote that: “Every single thing you perceive is the radiance of Spirit itself, so much so that Spirit is not seen apart from that thing: the robin sings, and just that is it, nothing else…”
And yet when I wrestle with the harsh prospect around the world, terrorism in the name of ‘God/Allah’, threats of war, lack of love, and try to accept that this is Spirit, that everything is perfect, I also see that man has created so many seeming imperfections that these beautiful words are hard to swallow. Violence has spread from strife between people and nations to the destruction of our planet and robins singing are harder and harder to find.
This violence and lack of reverence for all forms of life has meant tampering with our world’s ecology; from re-shaping the climate by destroying forests and draining lakes and rivers; spraying with chemicals which interfere with wild-life as well as food, to over-stocking, whether it’s Mongolian tribesmen whose herds die from starvation in a terrible winter there, or New Zealand farmers cramming fields and hills with livestock- all these actions and many others in order to make as much profit from the land as possible.
All this is not the radiance of Spirit, is it? And yet all is perfect the mystics tell us… that paradox that sometimes seems resolvable, and sometimes isn’t. In fact, to resolve it, one has to rise above it, and accept that there is a bigger picture. If one could understand the Mind of God, all the human circuits of the mind would probably blow.
As I mulled over these negative ideas an unlikely gentleman cheered me up and led me into another train of thought on how to live in, and on our tiny world… I’ve been reading an interpretation of Crito’s and Phaedo’s Dialogues about the death of Socrates.
After Socrates’ trial when he was found guilty and sentenced to death for corrupting the young, and the impiety of inventing new gods – neither of which charges he was guilty of – Crito, a friend, urges Socrates to escape and go into exile. But Socrates refuses, and discusses his philosophy.
He says that the important thing is not just to live, but to live well, which means doing no wrong. He explains that by evading the sentence of the court, he would be breaking the laws of Athens, which he has agreed to live his life by. To run away would break the contract that he has with the state, and would be dishonourable.
Phaedo then describes Socrates’ last hours in prison before taking hemlock. (It’s always seemed to me the most humane form of death sentence I’ve heard of. Just a herbal drink, and slow coldness and paralysis until it reaches the head, and death. I hope they invent a hemlock pill quite soon for those us who have no ambition to dwindle into helpless old age)
Socrates, while he waited for the hemlock to be delivered, had a bath, said goodbye to his wife and children, and then discussed with his friends, his acceptance of death. He felt that our souls are immortal, and that a good man had no need to fear death.
The prison guard came in apologising for what he had to do, but Socrates told him not to delay. As the poison worked, Socrates’ last words were to Crito, telling him to sacrifice a cock to Aesculapius. Aesculapius was the god of healing, and sacrifices of gratitude were made to him by those who had been healed.
What a way to go, with gratitude! After a life of integrity, a death with serenity. What a man! I’ve read this account many times, but it has never struck into my heart before. Socrates joins the short list of heroes I love, which includes the Venerable Bede, William Penn, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi, I admire, but do not find lovable.
I look at this list, and wonder if there’s a common denominator… Bede I love for his trust in God, goodness and erudition, Penn for his trust in God, idealism, determination and courage, Wilberforce for his trust in God, goodness, courage, and compassion for animals and all people, as well as slaves. Lincoln, I loved for his goodness and courage, and compassion, and Sam Grant for his integrity and simplicity, love of animals and commitment to civil rights for black Americans and American Indians. Mandela also, for his courage, and for living his beliefs. They all had integrity. What is interesting is how many of them were involved in the struggle to make a better world for black people, from Wilberforce through to Mandela.
When I look for women who inspire me, the list of specific women is shorter, for historical reasons, since we know less about women, and their achievements. Also, because women’s heroism is often the hidden sort, caring for the young, the handicapped, the old, the sick, quietly at home for no reward or recognition … nurturing the talents and gifts of husbands, and sons, who so often had better opportunities for public deeds, heroism or philanthropy.
My short list of heroines includes Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker who revolutionised the treatment of people, especially women, in prison, worked to abolish the death penalty, and among numerous other philanthropic deeds, opened a school for training nurses. She is said to have inspired Florence Nightingale, who I admire for her fierce intelligence, compassion, and persistence, but don’t find lovable. Then there’s Edith Cavell, the English nurse shot by the Germans for helping British soldiers to escape from Belgium into neutral Holland in the First World War.
Knowing how dangerous this was, she persisted, saying: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” Before she was executed, having also helped wounded German soldiers, she spoke the famous words: “Patriotism is not enough”, words of insight and spiritual understanding which were probably not appreciated or understood in those days of jingoism and chauvinism, and maybe, not even today. Another woman I love and admire is Helen Suzman for her courage, persistence and compassion in a life-time of resisting Apartheid, and then there is the utterly lovable Kwan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. So the thread which binds these women is courage and compassion, not so different from the men I admire.
The courage and compassion of my heroes and heroines are the inspiration for me to try to live Christopher Fry’s words: ‘We must each find our separate meaning in the persuasion of our days until we meet in the meaning of the world’. To understand those words and the meaning of the world is also the path to understanding that radiance of Spirit which Ken Wilbur describes. Like all great truths, it’s very simple and yet very puzzling, until it’s felt and seen. So I’m still working on it…
PS So many pictures by Van Gogh are shining with radiance of Spirit, and it’s so hard to choose just one….
Food for threadbare gourmets
One of our winter favourites is macaroni cheese – a nice cheesy thick sauce stirred into macaroni, and the top grilled to a golden brown. I try to make it more interesting as the weeks go by… adding chopped hard boiled eggs, or stirring through onion and tomato fried until soft. Or I sprinkle the top with grated parmesan which makes a lovely crisp topping. And then there’s the trick with leftover bolognaise sauce. The macaroni and the cheese sauce transform it into a sort of poor man’s lasagne – just three layers, meat, macaroni and the cheese sauce poured over and stirred through the pasta. Quick and easy and comforting! I’ve also tried this with a tin of salmon as the bottom layer, and the macaroni cheese on top…
Food for thought
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere.
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size…
It takes so many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake? Christopher Fry