Tag Archives: God


Lest we forget

Lest we forget (Photo credit: Parksy1964)

In my thoughts about Remembrance Sunday has been the use of modern mass warfare against civilians.  Syria is a recent example. We sometimes forget that only one in ten who die through war will be combatants. So whilst it is right that we remember today the heroes who have fallen in battle and the survivors who are mentally or physically scarred, we should also remember the women, children and men(not in active service), who happen to get in the way of weapons of mass destruction. Realists airbrush this horrific reality as ‘collateral damage’. 

In the desert of New Mexico is the site of the first atomic explosion, which took place on July 16, 1945. Dr Oppenheimer, the man who oversaw the building of the first atomic bomb, called the test site Trinity, in honour of a sonnet by the seventeenth century poet John Donne, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’. Twenty years later he couldn’t remember exactly the reasons why. Perhaps he was influenced by the words “break, blow, burn, and make me new” describing in simple terms the sequence of events in a nuclear explosion.

Here is the full text of Donne’s poem,

John Donne, one of the most famous Metaphysica...

John Donne, one of the most famous Metaphysical Poets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

John Donne was deeply divided between religious spirituality and a physical lust for life. Many of his poems, mix the language of the spiritual and the carnal; or the holy and the secular. In this sonnet, the poet is in a passionate conversation with God. Donne asks the “three-personed God” to “batter” his heart, for as yet God “knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend.” He needs God to overthrow him and bend his force to break, blow, and burn and make him new. Like a town captured by the enemy, he seeks unsuccessfully to allow God into his heart. Reason, like God’s viceroy, has been captured by the enemy, and proves weak or untrue. Yet he says that he loves God dearly and wants to be loved in return; but this self-proclaimed false lover is betrothed to God’s enemy. He asks God to divorce him, “untie, or breake that knot againe” to take him prisoner; for paradoxically, until he is God’s prisoner, he will never be free, and he will never be chaste until God ravishes him. Extraordinary stuff from a Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The nuclear test at ‘Trinity’ is the subject of “Doctor Atomic,” an opera, with music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars. In the final scene of Act 1, Oppenheimer is alone and the bomb is behind a veil, a white curtain, with the shadow of the bomb projecting onto it. Oppenheimer can hardly look behind the curtain. He tries to reason with God, attempting reconciliation and forgiveness. The librettist uses the words in John Donne’s poem.

We live in a technological age, homo sapiens has become homo technologicus. A creature that is now counter-nature or even anti-nature. Technology has become anchored in the idea of the unfettered will displacing all transcendent frames of reference that might have limited technology’s influence. A contemporary of John Donne was King James’ Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon. Bacon claimed that the development of the ‘useful arts’, a medieval term, which included the “mechanical arts”, was  growing and becoming more perfect. He said that humankind’s mission to remake the world was in reality “but the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.”

In his book, The Religion of Technology, David Noble says that the atomic engineers and scientists viewed the ‘Trinity’ project and themselves in an almost divine light and as saviours of mankind. They believed that the atomic bomb signalled a beginning as well as an end, “a weapon of death that might redeem mankind”. Mesmerised by their achievement the atomic pioneers behaved as if they were walking in the footsteps of the Creator towards divine-likeness, as much redeemers, as redeemed; the illusion of ultimate and unlimited power, like being God. Oppenheimer, after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, quoted the Bhagavad Gita, part of Hindu scripture, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The realist tries to argue that the ownership of nuclear weapons by rational governments, prevents the world from becoming destroyed. But what if these apocalyptic devices were to fall into the hands of irrational people, like terrorists, would they be used and with what consequences? And should we worry about the inherent instability in regional conflicts such as Israel and the Arab nations, India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea?

Whilst the momentum towards abolishing nuclear weapons has increased in recent years, long-range conventional ballistic missiles and missile defence technology such as drones have increased. But even if this gives super powers such as America confidence to reduce its arsenal of nuclear weapons, other states may feel even more vulnerable. So nuclear weapons remain the ‘great equalisers’ in global strategic relations.

The realist may argue that war and violence is rational but there is nothing rational about a nuclear bomb even if today it acts as more of a deterrent. There is something hugely cynical and morally unacceptable in the belief that the choice is between being ready to will the deaths of many millions of  civilians or give up our concern to keep world security and peace.

For a thousand years, the imago die, the divine likeness, has been a vision that has impelled technological advance, the vocation to be co-worker with God in the establishment of God’s kingdom and in sharing God’s dominion over the earth.

But the kingdom of God is justice and peace.  It has to do with right relationship. The kingdom of God is about collective well-being. 

Whilst the identification and advancement of the ‘useful arts’ towards the politics of perfection is a part of Christian history, the Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’, [Proverbs 1.7].  Scripture counsels treating God with utmost seriousness, that is, being attentive towards God.  Biblical wisdom does not begin in human autonomy, but in deep reverence for God. It is not just about intellectual capacity.  Intellectual capacity needs to be counterbalanced with discipline, practicality and common sense. Wise people make a difference for good in the world by the way they speak and act; by their honesty, hard work, faithfulness and reliability, tempered by thoughtful insight and generosity of spirit. Not by making bombs.

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November 10, 2013 · 07:03

At the end of the rainbow

Nov-embering Mull. This was meant to be a silent retreat (sort of) to quieten the thoughts that had been pummelling my brain recently, the interior soap opera that Martin Laird talks about [Into the Silent Land, OUP, p.15]. It was not a good beginning. A nightmarish journey from the ferry to my cottage at the other end of the island on the back of a single track road. In the pitch black. Torrents of raindrops glaring back at me in the headlights. A slippery, tarmac switchback road, rising, rising until, for a moment, I thought that I had been carried by a Valkyrie from the battlefield to Valhalla. Instead I found myself deposited outside a former blackhouse at Haunn. I stepped into the….. dark, dark night of the soul.

The next day was all sunshine and smiles. Sheep safely grazing in the garden. A hawk [buteo buteo] rising over the hill, mobbed by some ‘hoodies’ [corvus corone corvix]. My cottage was one of three built by fishing families, who would have used the natural harbour at Port Haunn. I descended the cliffs, now smoothed by the relentless battering of the Atlantic Ocean. Little sign of human presence save for the flotsam of ships’ detritus on the shore. Looking out over to the horizon to the flattened Treshnish Islands, just a few miles out to sea spoke of a creative edge of fragility. A fragment of the original chaos, elements of liminality, permeable and calming. The surrounding cliff sent out a frisson of fear. Not in the sense of terror, but the experience of wonder and awe and the indifference of the wilderness to human safety.

I walked along the raised beach, along a footpath that took me round the headland for about one and a half miles.  I stopped to take every opportunity to explore the beach, keen to find the infamous Whisky Cave, the site of an illicit still. A glance over my shoulder reassured me that I was not alone. A rainbow had risen out of the grey sea and arced over the headland. However, several, more anxious glances later, as I continued my heroic scramble, revealed that the rainbow was following me. Just above the infamous cave the track came to an abrupt halt as the cliffs ran sheer down to the sea. It was high tide so there was little point going down to the cave and along the shore.  I turned to go back the way I came. The shock of being confronted by the rainbow, much closer now, had me scrabbling down the hill and jumping the stream back to the flat headland.

The OS map revealed this to be the site of a ruined chapel so I dug out the guidebook from my day-bag. It spoke of possible mediaeval chapel ruins, and perhaps a burial ground, but little else was known. To my mind’s eye it was just a pile of stones. But to my heart’s ‘eye,’ I had a strong liminal sense of ʻplaceʼ and my ʻplace in the worldʼ which intimately connected me with my journey so far. Somehow this seemed just as important spiritually as my arrival at this sacred space. I became sensitised to Godʼs presence and said the Daily Office using the Universalis ‘app.’   A God particle on my iPhone. “How lovely is your dwelling place,  O Lord of hosts!” [Psalm 84.1] In this silent contemplation I left behind my connections with the world. The words on the faux parchment of the app echoed around the stones and reconnected me to my mainland sadness but also led me out of it. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,  to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways  and that we may walk in his paths.” The Canticle from Isaiah 2.3.

I walked on. A wood on the hill and a waterfall signposted the way, so I set off following a steep path up the valley. The ruined crofting villages of Crackaig and Glac Gugairidh lay beyond.  They wanted to tell me their sad story.  Unusually, not the highland clearances this time, but of how they had been abandoned after a deadly outbreak of typhoid. And I wanted to listen. A natural tragedy and I remembered the book by Annie Dillard I was reading,

“I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

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Pilgrim at Kinnoull

“I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from no place rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loosen: I walk on my way.”
— Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The scarf presses on my shoulders. The scroll intones my duties and responsibilities. No longer ‘in formation’ but the timetable requires final attendance at summer school with the ordinands and lay readers in training at Kinnoull. We begin the week with a silent retreat except that it has been structured around a pattern of worship, compline on Sunday night, morning prayer, midday prayer followed by Eucharist, evening prayer and then compline. A bit like a stained glass window. Sacred spaces held fast like the jewels of a medieval window. What best to do? How best to spend my time?

I try reading a worthy book on moral philosophy in the context of climate change but my eyes soon become tired and I drop off to sleep. I try listening to sacred music. Then, reflecting on the advice the retreat director has given, opening my eyes to St Benedict in a way I haven’t experienced before, I think about developing up a Rule of Life. In the ‘groves of academe’ I had felt an antipathy toward St Benedict, as a result of a too selective choice of literature, preferring the ecological spirituality of St Francis, a rich vein to be plundered for my dissertation. Oh for shame! Now St Benedict is appealing for more sympathetic attention and, remembering what I have just heard about balance and not getting too ‘prissy’ in the silent retreat, I take my binoculars and decide to go birdwatching.

Birdwatching in July! When the birds are silent, the parent birds exhausted and skulking, the fledglings moulting. Madness! I decide instead to go the usual path up to the viewpoint. As I set off I quickly discover obstacles in my path. Climbing over another dead tree, victim of a recent gale, I find this woodland labyrinth increasingly troublesome and turn back. Just as I am about abandon the project, a faint route signposts a tangential opportunity for quiet reflection. A small mound of smoothed rocks, moss and grass. I sit here and wait for God to reveal herself in her Creation. Like John Muir, nature is often my cathedral.

The usual woodland birds seem reassured that my presence is not a threat. Blackbirds, wood-pigeon, robin, wren, a family of blue tits, and then treecreeper, woodpecker and, circling above, the mewing of a buzzard, probably a juvenile. The dappled shade is infused with a deep sense of peace.

A wind from no place rises. Warm, sensuous, calming. And like Annie Dillard I feel the bonds of my existence fall away. A sense of the real exalts me. Invisible, yet very present. Caught in this precious moment of time, the bonds of unpleasant memories become gossamer threads and I brush them away. But then…a disturbance…I catch the glimpse of an approaching figure. The reverie ends. I am unsettled by I a new sense of purpose. I get to my feet. Something has changed. I have changed. The leaves beneath my feet sound like shibboleths being shredded and I return to the monastery by a different path.

Coming up the stairs I meet our retreat director, and ask if we can discuss how I to go about finding a spiritual director. A spiritual director!! The one thing that in all my meetings with my training ‘minders’ I had resisted doing anything about. We arrange to meet in half an hour. I eat my buttered currant loaf, drink a mug of tea. Ready for a new journey. A new path. Three months later I am now on the train home from Auld Reekie. I’ve got a soul friend and we have agreed to meet again.

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