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Archive for November, 2019

Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian

More disturbing news about the climate crisis in an article by  in this week’s Guardian. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Head of World Meteorological Organization says ‘no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline’

The concentration of climate-heating greenhouse gases has hit a record high, according to a report from the UN’s World Meteorological Organization.

The jumps in the key gases measured in 2018 were all above the average for the last decade, showing action on the climate emergency to date is having no effect in the atmosphere. The WMO said the gap between targets and reality were both “glaring and growing”.

The rise in concentration of greenhouses gases follows inevitably from the continued surge in global emissions, which was described as “brutal news” for 2018. The world’s scientists calculate that emissions must fall by half by 2030 to give a good chance of limiting global heating to 1.5C, beyond which hundreds of millions of people will suffer more heatwaves, droughts, floods and poverty.

But Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, said: “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change. We need to increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of mankind.

“It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of carbon dioxide was 3-5m years ago. Back then, the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now.”

Three-quarters of the emissions cuts pledged by countries under the Paris agreement of 2015 are “totally inadequate”, according to a comprehensive expert analysis published earlier in November, putting the world on a path to climate disaster. Another report has found that nations are on track to produce more than double the fossil fuels in 2030 than could be burnedwhile keeping heating under 1.5C.

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Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

Transcending the divisions within and between us

I closed the previous post with a question.

If we are going to be able to hold firm to a compass of compassion and steer a consistent course between the many temptations and deterrents that will lie in our way, what do we have to do? For most religious people prayer and meditation are obvious prerequisites, as well as obedience to the laws and observance of the rituals of their Faith.

In this divided world we need to do even more than that if we are to transcend the prejudices that prevent us from co-operating with our fellow human beings and rise above the quarrelling voices inside our heads.

Bahá’u’lláh has made it abundantly clear how high a level of unity we must achieve and how much this depends upon the degree of detachment we have developed. I am now going to spell out a key set of processes that, within the Bahá’í community and beyond, are critical to this.

Bahá’ís place great weight upon a group and community process called consultation. This goes far beyond the lip service paid to it all too often in the modern world where canvasing opinions that are then ignored is described as consultation. The success of this process depends to a great extent upon how far the participants have travelled along the road to detachment, and detachment meant in a very specific sense in this context. The link is in fact so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality, expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without a complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Kitáb-i-Íqán]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences as a mirror captures what’s in front of it. A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people. I owe a debt to an existentialist thinker, Peter Koestenbaum in his New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy for this way of describing reflection and consciousness.

He states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes it. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

By disciplined practice of this skill we can begin to move beyond our divisive identifications, and become more able to work in unity with others. This is a skill and spiritual discipline that appears in various forms and with various labels in other religions as well as the Bahá’í Faith. Consultation, on the other hand, is not so central, as far as I know, in any other Faith.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

The Power of Consultation

Shoghi Effendi, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explaining that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [`Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ Unity, justice [‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43]

This makes for a powerful positive feedback loop which will immeasurably enhance our decision-making processes. Detachment is of course the core prerequisite of the three, and can be developed in us by various other ways as well. However, it is also the axle around which the wheel of consultation and reflection revolves, as well as being strengthened by them in its turn.

Michael Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

If we are going to be able to join together to determine what course of action to take in the increasingly complex situations that confront us, from a Bahá’í point of view which I think is well worth careful consideration, we need to develop these two core skills to the highest possible level. If we do not I fail to see, for example, how we can ever effectively tackle problems such as the climate crisis or the gross inequalities endemic in our global society.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

So, in all that I have said in this sequence of posts, I hope it is clear that I am not seeking to persuade anyone that the explanations of spiritual reality have to be adopted, but I am urging everyone who shares our goals of unity and connectedness to enhance their effectiveness by testing in practice the powerful consciousness-raising processes I have described here.

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Last time we had a brief look at Jennings’ life. Now for the poems.

The poem above flags up at certain points the key concerns of this post.

It makes her sense of vocation clear: ‘It’s when I fill/Pages with what I think I’m made for,/A life of writing poems.’ Part of her rationale for writing poems comes next: ‘Then may they heal//The pain of silence for all those who stare/At stars as I do but are helpless to/Make the bright necklace.’ Consolation is clearly part of the mix, but she goes further still: ‘May I set ajar//The doors of closed minds.’ It’s at the end of the poem that she clarifies how far she would like this opening to go: ‘in the large flights of imagination//I see for one crammed second, order so/Explicit that I need no more persuasion.’

Because of her own suffering, as we shall see in more detail, she empathises strongly with the suffering of others and hopes her poetry will bring them some comfort. The gap between stanzas at the word ‘heal’ points up that she does not feel this will necessarily be easy. A similar gap between ‘ajar’ and ‘the doors’ flags up a similar sense of difficulty. Both of these aspirations are expressed in the form of prayer, so they are not expressions of arrogant overconfidence but appeals for the support of a higher power, a power that she feels she can sometimes detect in glimpses of order behind our chaos.

As we will also see her compassion works at several levels: empathy for the earthcompassion for animals and compassion for people.

There is no doubt the suffering she experienced early in life was keen and disruptive. Proof of this is in her three suicide attempts. Dana Greene describes the circumstances of these desperate actions (pages 81-83):

. . . the prospect of her parents’ departure terrified her. . . . A week later when she was at Spode House [in late 1962]. . . she was overwhelmed by fear and took an overdose of Nembutal. . . . probably in late winter or early spring of 1963 . . .for the second time Jennings took an overdose of pills . . . [by early summer frightened by the prospect of sleeping alone in her new flat she] wrote a note saying, ‘God will understand,’ and clutching her rosary beads turned on the gas and put her head in the oven. . . . In the unpublished poem Taking Life Jennings attributes her suicide attempts to the fact that she could not face being alone, could not bear ‘being simply one.’ . . .From the summer of 1963 Jennings was a patient in Warneford Hospital.

Greene’s introduction explains a possible link between suffering and Jennings’ poetry (page xviii):

[Her parents’ move away, her spiritual director’s transfer and the resulting ‘terror of loneliness’] were is the immediate causes of the cri de coeur, the three attempts at suicide which brought her to the Warneford Hospital. . . . If these events had any positive consequence for her creativity, it would be that they prompted her to enter more fully into the sufferings of others.

She amplifies this point later (page 71):

In Passage From Childhood she relives the agonies of youth and her guilt.… She goes on to write that this agony taught her compassion for the suffering of others and it was this she needed to share.

Her experiences in Warneford were therefore not without benefit (page 88):

[In the poem Voices] Jennings asserts that it was the fear of a lonely life which prompted her earlier desire to die. . . Her religion at times gave her solace, that God was often absent and remote. . . . Although life in the Warneford nearly destroyed her, it brought with it an increased compassion for all those who suffered and were misunderstood. This new sensitivity would find its way into her poetry.

Ultimately, according to Greene (page 84) ‘[In Diagnosis and Protest] . . . she speculates that her pain may be the price of her art.’ In a sense in the end (page 95) ‘Poetry reputedly ‘saved’ Jennings’ life.’ Echoes here, for me, in the way his art saved Munch’s life possibly. Later in life, (page 116) ‘[Jennings] considered suffering essential to the poetic life.’ Her unpublished notebook poems (page 138) ‘express her desire to help a world in pain and her hope that her poems might give consolation.’

When we later come to look at what led to the popularity of her poetry, this is something we will need to bear in mind, as Greene spells out (page 121):

Her capacity to resonate with [the disadvantaged] was one of the unique qualities of her poetry and in part explains its popularity.

Compassion

One of the sources of her compassion for people, during her stay in Warneford, was her relationship with one of the nurse’s, something she seeks to capture in her poem Night Sister (Collected Poems – page 88):

You have memory for everyone;
None is anonymous and so you cure
What few with such compassion could endure.

It’s impact on Jennings is described in the last lines:

But you listen and we know
That you can meet us in our own distress.

She acknowledges in her poem On a Friend’s Relapse and Return to a Mental Clinic (page 90) that there is ‘So much to learn/Here.’

This perhaps not so surprising. What is more so is her compassion for the earth.

In Sermon of the Hills (page 181) she speaks for them saying ‘There are quarries hacked from our many sides/Oxen who plough out ledges.’ In Worth (page 194) she poignantly asks:

When were we worthy of the ground we tread?
When grateful that we are a presence in
A world we prune and wound?

This is so close to the sense expressed in the Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (V) that it feels uncanny:

[The beloved of God] should conduct themselves in such manner that the earth upon which they tread may never be allowed to address to them such words as these: ‘I am to be preferred above you. For witness, how patient I am in bearing the burden which the husbandman layeth upon me. I am the instrument that continually imparteth unto all beings the blessings with which He Who is the Source of all grace hath entrusted me. Notwithstanding the honour conferred upon me, and the unnumbered evidences of my wealth—a wealth that supplieth the needs of all creation—behold the measure of my humility, witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men…’

This identification with our home planet naturally extends to other occupants. In a series of poems in her 1985 Collected Poems (pages 164-177) she speaks as ladybird, sparrow, thrush, fieldmouse, hedgehog, sheep and deer. At the end of that sequence, speaking again as a human being, she writes in Finale for the Animals (page 168):

Do not haunt zoos too often, do not demand
Affection too often from rabbits or cats or dogs,
Do not tame if taming hurts.
Be grateful for such variety of manners,
For the diverse universe.
Above all respect the smallest of these creatures
As you are awed by the stars.

This perhaps leads naturally on to the question, ‘What for Jennings was the purpose of poetry and to what extent did she achieve it?’ This will involve factoring in the claim of some critics that she wrote too much, and though her poetry was popular is was not worth much.

This will have to wait for next time.

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Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

One Family

Humanity is one family. We are interconnected at both the material and the spiritual levels.

Interconnections at the material level are obvious and sometimes overwhelming. From the internet through the dynamics of our economic system to our impact upon the environment we cannot escape the fact of our global interdependence.

In terms of spiritual interconnectedness the evidence is anything but evident to most of us!

David Fontana’s book Is There an Afterlife? marshalls a wealth of data collected under carefully controlled conditions, all pointing to something impossible to explain in purely material terms. He is aware, as is John Hick, that even this amount of evidence for the transcendent is not compelling.

In his book The Fifth Dimension Hick explains why, in his view, it never will be. He contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

As an additional complication, he talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.

The near death experience of the initially skeptical Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, as recounted in his book Proof of Heaven, is strong anecdotal evidence of mind-brain independence at the very least. In terms of interconnectedness at a spiritual level Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light, (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287) is as cogent as you could get:

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

None the less these intensely felt personal experiences cannot compel, in those who do not wish to believe it, an acceptance of the spiritual dimension, with our consequent interconnectedness at that level.

Even at the material level there is a strong case that all prejudice and gross inequality must be abolished: the spiritual case, which is unfortunately more elusive, is potentially an even more powerful a motivator. And this sense of connectedness, of essential unity, needs to extend beyond our species to the planet as a whole. The earth, our homeland must be nurtured not exploited.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

Bahá’u’lláh could even be said to have anticipated the way our planet is kicking back against our mindless greed and ruthless exploitation. He wrote: ‘My earth is weary of you, and everything within it shunneth you.’ (Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh)

So, exactly what does our unity mean in practice?

The Welfare of the Entire Human Family

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored it together in a workshop at a Bahá’í Summer School.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

If we are going to be able to hold firm to this compass of compassion and steer a consistent course between the many temptations and deterrents that will lie in our way, what do we have to do? For most religious people prayer and meditation are obvious prerequisites, as well as obedience to the laws and observance of the rituals of their Faith.

Next time I’ll be looking at two important ways of increasing our capacity to work more effectively together to change this complex and divided world.

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My trigger for this sequence of posts was finding I had copied one of Elizabeth Jennings’ poems into my notebook. I had no memory of having read her, though my copy of her 1985 Collected Poems was riddled with my highlights and glowing comments.

I began re-reading her poems and ordered her recent biography by Dana Greene – Elizabeth Jennings: ‘the inward war’. My excitement carried over into the Death Café even before I had done more than just begun the biography.

The 1964 poem I read to them there was VII: For a Woman with a Fatal Illness out of Sequence in Hospital  (Collected Poems – page 80):

The verdict has been given quietly
Beyond hope, hate, revenge, even self-pity.

You accept gratefully the gifts – flowers, fruit –
Clumsily offered now that your visitors too

Know you must certainly die in a matter of months,
They are dumb now, reduced only to gestures,

Helpless before your news, perhaps hating
You because you are the cause of their unease.

I, too, watching from my temporary corner,
Feel impotent and wish for something violent –

Whether as sympathy only, I am not sure –
But something at least to break the terrible tension.

Death has no right to come so quietly.

Another member of the Death Café group immediately recognized the book I was reading from.

‘I’ve got that one,’ she said.

‘Do you like it?’ I asked, as possessing a book is no guarantee that you like it. I speak from experience.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said.

Why it matters that two people, out of the six attending that evening, both had copies of her Collected Poems and liked the poems in it, will become apparent later. Incidentally, the others seemed to appreciate it too.

As I read further into Greene’s book and revisited more of Jennings’ poems, I came to realize how closely her thinking about poetry mapped onto mine and differed from the critical consensus which seems to favour obscurity over accessibility.

I collided with this issue at the end of my sequence of posts on Machado. I will recap briefly here.

I acknowledged that coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights and that ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post, is a crucial function of poetry, with which Elizabeth Jennings would not disagree. But there is a problem.

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I was happy to go with them up to a point, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I now plan to explore at greater length. And I am not happy to blindly accept that popular poetry cannot, at least sometimes and perhaps more often than we think, take us beyond ‘our present state of awareness.’

The debate sparked by Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry frequently touches on this issue, albeit indirectly at times. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Nonetheless the book won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, which was generally written in strict form.’

I can’t join Hatcher and Hemmat again, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

This is also something this discussion of Elizabeth Jennings and her poetry will return to.

Poems too obscure or repellent to match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is. However, poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either, no matter how many people read them.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Elizabeth Jennings, as well as Machado, rises to this challenge in many of her poems.

And what follows will try to explain why. Stick with me. It might be worth it.

Some Basic Information

I need to start with a few basic facts about her life and poetic career before plunging into the issues I want to address.

Greene’s introduction confronts us with some fairly startling facts about her obsessive productivity (page xiv): in addition to what she published there are ‘30,000 unpublished poems and autobiographical writings.’

She was clumsy as a child, and kept falling over (page 11): ‘By the time she was ten she had had six severe blows to her head.’ She convinced herself she was therefore unlovable. Her relationship with her parents was not close, especially in terms of her father, which caused her problems with both people and God (page 16): ‘Fear of her father and God the Father dominated her psyche.’

Poetry, religion and relationships had both positive and negative effects on her state of mind (page 17):

There were three major turning points in Jennings’ life: her discovery of poetry, her sojourn to Rome, and a mental breakdown.

While, as we will see, poetry helped her in many ways, the intensity of her pursuit of it, fuelled by her need for money at times, led to dangerous levels of exhaustion. Religion constituted the same kind of double-edged sword: in the positive experience of Catholicism in Rome she found solace to compensate for and to some degree counteract her fear of God, but in the end (page 146) ‘[s[he confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

Before we look at the main issues we need to explore in a bit more detail two other important aspects of her life: the effect on her of her attitude to sex, marriage and relationships, and the impact of suffering.

Neither are straightforward.

Sex, Marriage and Relationships

Sex was a paradox for her (page 23):

She convinced herself that sex was filthy and something to be feared, but at the same time she was intensely interested in it.

This was something that contributed to her reluctance to marry (page 33):

. . . she saw marriage as tedious drudgery… This, plus her lingering fears about sex, limited her interest in marriage.

But that was not the only thing holding her back from tying the knot. In To a Friend with a Religious Vocation, as Greene describes it (page 71):

Jennings directly explores her quandary over the vocation of artist. She writes that she has no desire to have children or to be a nun.

Her conflicted position extended beyond the sexual though (page 131):

The principal psychic issue Jennings wrestled with . . . was how to love. She considered the need for love a part of the human condition which demanded that one be in a relationship with another. But love raised the problem of possession, both being possessed and possessing.

Love was further complicated for her by her religious beliefs (page 132):

For Jennings, the issue was not merely how to love someone purely, but how to love both God and another human.

Which brings us back to the quote I used earlier (page 146): ‘She confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

When we look at her experience of and ideas about suffering in the next post we will begin to see that all these conflicts served as fuel for her poetry. Popular it may have been, but trivial and superficial it was certainly not, at least at its best.

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A man uses a garden hose to try to save his home from wildfire in Granada Hills, California, on 11 October 2019. Photograph: Michael Owen Baker/AP

Just over a week ago  wrote a powerful piece in the Guardian reporting a recent statement from the science community. Below are two short extracts: for the full post see link.

Statement sets out ‘vital signs’ as indicators of magnitude of the climate emergency

The world’s people face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless there are major transformations to global society, according to a stark warning from more than 11,000 scientists.

“We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” it states. “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”

There is no time to lose, the scientists say: “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”

The statement is published in the journal BioScience on the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference, which was held in Geneva in 1979. The statement was a collaboration of dozens of scientists and endorsed by further 11,000 from 153 nations. The scientists say the urgent changes needed include ending population growth, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, halting forest destruction and slashing meat eating.

Prof William Ripple, of Oregon State University and the lead author of the statement, said he was driven to initiate it by the increase in extreme weather he was seeing. A key aim of the warning is to set out a full range of “vital sign” indicators of the causes and effects of climate breakdown, rather than only carbon emissions and surface temperature rise.

. . .

As a result of these human activities, there are “especially disturbing” trends of increasing land and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather events, the scientists said: “Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have have largely failed to address this predicament. Especially worrisome are potential irreversible climate tipping points. These climate chain reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”

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The peaceful and uplifting simplicity of the interior of the Methodist Church in Ludlow

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

The Oneness of God

For present purposes I am of course assuming we can all accept that a power we label God in English actually exists. It would take too long to deal with that issue fully right now. What we can deal with briefly is to confirm the essential unknowable nature of God: in the end it is the words we use to describe this Great Being, the Ground of Being, that divide is.

‘McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary explains (page 193): ‘Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.’ Similarly with painting: Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (Prideaux’s biography – page 201): ‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

When we try and capture such an immense ineffability as God, we are in the country of the blind where the one-eyed man is king, as they used to say. Imagine two adjacent countries, the one a culture of cooks, the other of gardeners. For the land of cooks, the colour red has been explained to them by the one-eyed king as chilli: in the land of gardeners, their one-eyed king has said that red is like the perfume of a rose . When people from these two different countries meet they quarrel bitterly, sometimes killing each other for not believing in the rose or in chilli, when in fact they are talking about the exact same thing but do not know it. So . . . .

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

The Oneness of Religion

This is not a new idea, though. John Donne, an Elizabethan poet-priest in Tudor England, wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. Only when someone’s idea of God takes them downhill, perhaps killing others in His name, or at least hating them as misguided deviants, should we realize their God is not ‘worthy of worship,’ to use Eric Reitan’s phrase, and is not God at all. Theirs is not a true religion. All the great world religions are in essence one. It is only when we mistake the cultural trappings and rituals for the core that we think this is not true.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.’

A material symbol of this essential unity is the Bahá’í Temple.

Bahá’í Temples, as the world community of Bahá’ís grow larger, will be surrounded by ‘a complex which, as it unfolds in the future, will comprise in addition to the House of Worship a number of dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits.’ These will be open to all.

I will explore the oneness of humanity next time.

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