Within hours of each other
Three giants were gone.
Kennedy, Lewis and Huxley,
The politician, the theologian and the philosopher,
Humanist, theist and pantheist
Together approaching Peter at the Pearly Gates.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.
Every year I become increasingly angry with the extent to which I am expected to not only tolerate, but admire, the tawdry trash competing for the Turner Prize. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, I’m told - a phrase with the power to silence all complaint. ‘It does not exist on its own, it is created by observers.’ Margaret Hungerford has, innocently, much to answer for.
Are we really saying that nothing is ever more beautiful or more ugly than something else? If so, then we are in great danger of trivialising the very topic of discussion. And might a reluctance to engage in debate be a symptom of lack of confidence in our own taste?
And does this, in the same way, apply, for example, to issues like music and food? Is music, then, in the ear of the listener? Few, I believe, would have difficulty in asserting that a Beethoven symphony has an edge over 'The wheels on the bus go round and round.'
It may be that the ‘beauty’ phrase was intended as a protective shield against high handed ‘experts’ - those holding the cultural reins and shaping taste with belittling authority. Yet, still we are told what to like and almost all dissent is treated with distain. An inability to talk sensibly and publicly about beauty condemns our society to the perpetually ugly.
As I understand it, art gives form to concepts and is the portrayal of reality, where intersecting and interacting topics comprise the world views of each artist. If so, the message of today’s art, as portrayed by the Arts Council and the Tate Galleries, and personified by their doyen, Sir Nicolas Serota, seems one of despair and subjective meaninglessnesss.
The voice told me this ancient story; precious blood intoned this ancient tale.
“A certain man had two sons. One was rich and the other was poor. The rich son had no children while the poor son was blessed with many sons and many daughters.
In time the father fell ill. He was sure he would not live through the week so on Saturday he called his sons to his side and gave each of them half of the land of their inheritance. Then he died. Before sundown the sons buried their father with respect as custom requires.
That night the rich son could not sleep. He said to himself, ‘What my father did was not just. I am rich, my brother is poor. I have bread enough and to spare, while my brother’s children eat one day and trust God for the next. I must move the landmark which our father has set in the middle of the land so that my brother will have the greater share. Ah—but he must not see me. If he sees me he will be shamed. I must arise early in the morning before it is dawn and move the landmark!’ With this he fell asleep and his sleep was secure and peaceful.
Meanwhile, the poor brother could not sleep. As he lay restless on his bed he said to himself, ‘What my father did was not just. Here I am surrounded by the joy of many sons and many daughters, while my brother daily faces the shame of having no sons to carry on his name and no daughters to comfort him in his old age. He should have the land of our fathers. Perhaps this will compensate him for his indescribable poverty. Ah—but if I give it to him he will be shamed. I must awake early in the morning before it is dawn and move the landmark which our father has set!’ With this he went to sleep and his sleep was secure and peaceful.
On the first day of the week—very early in the morning, a long time before it was day, the two brothers met at the ancient landmarker. They fell with tears into each other’s arms. And on that spot was built the city of Jerusalem.”
This is one of Ken Bailey’s pieces from his combined book ‘Poet and Peasant’ and ‘Through Peasant Eyes’. It has quite a relevance given recent political decisions.
And Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem with Mary, his espoused wife, who was great with child. And she brought forth a son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. And an angel of the Lord spoke to the shepherds and said, "I bring you tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
"There’s a problem with the angel," said a Pharisee who happened to be strolling by. As he explained to Joseph, angels are widely regarded as religious symbols, and the stable was on public property where such symbols were not allowed to land or even hover. "And I have to tell you, this whole thing looks to me very much like a Nativity scene," he said sadly. "That’s a no-no, too."
Joseph had a bright idea. "What if I put a couple of reindeer over there near the ox and ass?" he said, eager to avoid sectarian strife.
"That would definitely help," said the Pharisee, who knew as well as anyone that whenever a savior appeared, judges usually liked to be on the safe side and surround it with deer or woodland creatures of some sort. "Just to clinch it, throw in a candy cane and a couple of elves and snowmen, too," he said. "No court can resist that."
Mary asked, "What does my son’s birth have to do with snowmen?"
"Snowpersons," cried a young woman, changing the subject before it veered dangerously toward religion. Off to the side of the crowd, a Philistine was painting the Nativity scene. Mary complained that she and Joseph looked too tattered and worn in the picture. "Artistic license," he said. "I’ve got to show the plight of the haggard homeless in a greedy, uncaring society in winter," he quipped.
"We’re not haggard or homeless. The inn was just full," said Mary.
"Whatever," said the painter.
Two women began to argue fiercely. One said she objected to Jesus’ birth "because it privileged motherhood." The other scoffed at virgin births, but said that if they encouraged more attention to diversity in family forms and the rights of single mothers, well, then, she was all for them.
"I’m not a single mother," Mary started to say, but she was cut off by a third woman who insisted that swaddling clothes are a form of child abuse, since they restrict the natural movement of babies.
With the arrival of ten child advocates, all trained to spot infant abuse and manger rash, Mary and Joseph were pushed to the edge of the crowd, where arguments were breaking out over how many reindeer (or what mix of reindeer and seasonal sprites) had to be installed to compensate for the infant’s unfortunate religious character. An older man bustled up, bowling over two merchants, who had been busy debating whether an elf is the same as a fairy and whether the elf/fairy should be shaking hands with Jesus in the crib or merely standing to the side, jumping around like a sports mascot.
"I’d hold off on the reindeer," the man said, explaining that the use of asses and oxen as picturesque backdrops for Nativity scenes carries the subliminal message of human dominance. He passed out two leaflets, one denouncing manger births as invasions of animal space, the other arguing that stables are "penned environments" where animals are incarcerated against their will. He had no opinion about elves or candy canes. Signs declaring "Free the Bethlehem 2" began to appear, referring to the obviously exploited ass and ox. Someone said the halo on Jesus’ head was elitist.
Mary was exasperated. "And what about you, old mother?" she said sharply to an elderly woman. "Are you here to attack the shepherds as prison guards for excluded species, maybe to complain that singing in Latin identifies us with our Roman oppressors, or just to say that I should have skipped patriarchal religiosity and joined some dumb new-age goddess religion?" "None of the above," said the woman, "I just wanted to tell you that the Magi are here."
Sure enough, the three wise men rode up. The crowd gasped, "They’re all male!" and "Not very multicultural!"
"Balthasar here is black," said one of the Magi. "Yes, but how many of you are gay or disabled?" someone shouted.
A committee was quickly formed to find an impoverished lesbian wise-person among the halt and lame of Bethlehem. A calm voice said, "Be of good cheer, Mary, you have done well and your son will change the world." At last, a sane person, Mary thought. She turned to see a radiant and confident female face.
The woman spoke again: "There is one thing, though. Religious holidays are important, but can’t we learn to celebrate them in ways that unite, not divide? For instance, instead of all this business about ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,’ why not just ‘Season’s Greetings’?" Mary said, "You mean my son has entered human history to deliver the message, ‘Hello, it’s winter’?" "That’s harsh, Mary," said the woman. "Remember, your son could make it big in midwinter festivals, if he doesn’t push the religion thing too far. Centuries from now, in nations yet unborn, people will give each other pricey gifts and have big office parties on his birthday. That’s not chopped liver."
"Let me get back to you," Mary said.
I came across this a few days ago when I was clearing out some old files. I'm fairly sure that it came originally from Mike Yaconelli's '"The Door". The spelling is certainly American.
Life’s autumn time
A time of great gathering
Harvesting the fruit of my experience.
Whatever I have sown, I will now reap
In these, my autumn days.
The things that happened in the past,
The experiences sown,
Will now begin to yield fruit.
Within that harvesting I bring together
Forgotten moments and experiences
And hold them as one.
Aging is not about my body losing its strength,
Its poise and self trust.
It is not about the demise of my body,
It is the harvest of the soul,
That natural shelter around my life.
As linear time quickens, memories remain
Caught and held in the soul’s net.
Autumn is the beginning of my journey
Back to the temple of memory
Where I can wander through its rooms
Visiting the days of both enjoyment and sorrow.
While time may make me older
There is a place in my soul which time cannot touch.
With thanks to Meister Eckhart and John O'Donohue