Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A spiritual frame of mind

Many years ago, when Eddie was still small, the prospect of being taken to church of a Sunday morning brought about tantrums. He did not want to go. Yet when on holiday in Przemyśl, friends of ours suggested we all go to a Greek-Catholic Ukrainian mass, Eddie came too, and at the end of the mass he wanted to stay for the next one, so entranced was he by the whole show.

In particular the music. When I first watched Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter in the late 1970s, one scene struck me as being entirely unconvincing. The portrayal of the Ukrainian-American community certainly squared with my British-Polish upbringing, but... this church? This singing? All too Hollywoodsy - the choir must have been professional singers. And yet when I visited Ukrainian churches in Poland, the first thing that struck me was the wondrousness of the music; polyphonic, otherworldly, intensely mystical. A different world to that which one hears sung in Polish Catholic churches. Then there's the decor, the feeling that one is sharing in a profound mystery behind the gilded iconostasis - something incredibly uplifting.

Certainly having the Catholic mass in the vernacular (post Second Vatican Council) takes away from the majesty and communion with the eternal. (And the change from the King James Version to the New English Bible has had a similar effect, replacing majestic, well-loved wording, so deeply embedded in the English language, with something that reads like government health and safety guidelines.)

Before moving to Poland in the late 1990s, I'd take Moni to Ealing Abbey, a Benedictine church, where one mass each Sunday was said in Latin, and the singing by a choir of monks was quite different in quality to the tones heard at the Polish church down the road.

And while children's masses are family-friendly, when hordes of screaming four year-olds are tearing around the aisles squirting Ribena at one another, it is difficult to get into a spiritual frame of mind.

And it is this that's needed for one's consciousness to reach out to God. The right atmosphere, one conducive to prayer, leaving a space for dialogue, being open to that elusive back-channel.

For me, a 13th Century cathedral, be it Anglican or Catholic, in France or England or Poland (with a decent choir) does the trick. Modern churches, shorn of the decorated stonework, without the stained glass, with oaken pews replaced by bean-bags, and filled with angular, gimmicky modern art fail me in this extent.

Frankly, I find it far easier to communicate with the Infinite in the countryside or outdoors on a starry night.

Ritual without the right spiritual attitude, to me at least, has no intrinsic quality. Doing for the sake of doing, rather than genuinely seeking communion with one's Maker. A genuine search for spiritual meaning requires concentration, and an mind uncluttered by external distractions.

This does make me ask whether it is possible to seek God in the presence of many people, or whether it is a solitary quest.

Thus endeth the second week of Lent.

This time last year:
Sunday in the City

This time two years ago:
God's teachings

This time four years ago:
In praise of blue skies

This time six years ago:
(For Molesworth fans - Ronald Searle's obituary in the Economist is a must-read)

This time seven years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Monday, 2 March 2015

Speaking to God, listening to God

In The Doors' song, The Soft Parade, Jim Morrison states categorically that YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD WITH PRAYER. Well, apart from me having an issue with the concept of 'Lord' (so feudal - why not 'Chief Executive Officer of the Universe?' - equally laughable), I disagree with the late Jim. Indeed, God is not a cosmic wishing-well to pour in our wants. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof asked God whether it would spoil some vast eternal plan if he were a wealthy man. Evidently it would have, as his plea was not fulfilled by the end of the musical.

But petitioning God for higher levels of awareness and understanding is right and proper. And basic human needs - health, work, companionship. Nationhood? "If you will it, it is no dream," said Theodor Herzl of the State of Israel. "Ojczyznę wolną/Rać nam wrócić Panie", the last line of the hymn sung at Mass during Poland's partitions and communist occupation. Does God listen to patriots, or is strong will in itself enough to alter history?  If we pray for peace, will our prayers be answered? Why Auschwitz...? Is prayer an individual matter or a collective one?

Prayer is a dialogue; I do believe there is a back-channel, but you must be prepared and open to listen to it. Ask the right question, in the right, spiritual, frame of mind, reflect upon it in silence, and listen to the wisdom embedded in all those atoms of which you are made. The moment you realise that you are listening to God is the moment that an unbidden thought - one that you have not cogitated upon - enters your consciousness. It may not be what you have been seeking. It may only be a partial answer, or a clue to consider another way. You may find the answer disappointing, confusing, exhilarating. But you must know that it is the answer. You must be sure of its authenticity; that it is not wishful thinking nor self-justification. It may take weeks, it may even take years to hear that real voice.

In answer to my questions as to the nature of the afterlife, many years ago I heard the answer: "We are part of a continual whole." Unbidden. Just like that. Those words.

But such occurrences are rare; you have to be in the right state of consciousness, ready to receive.

And - recorded on this blog (here), another unbidden explanation, coming to me on a day of numinous wonder: "There is a seamless continuum which our souls observe through myriad eyes". Marvellous; the close presence of the Divinity.

I wrote about disasters happening when least expected. Prayer should also be about being on your guard; about considering the possibility of personal disasters, in order to avert them. Or just postpone the inevitable, postpone to a time when you are more ready to deal with them.

Next: getting into a spiritual, or transcendent, state of consciousness.

This time two years ago:
D3200 shoots X100
[One of my most popular blog posts!]

This time three years ago:
Weekend with the Fuji X100

This time six years ago:
Sublime sunset, Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Dramatic sunset, Jeziorki

Sunday, 1 March 2015

How does God speak to us? Signs, tokens - coincidence?

This is such an important question. Does God show us signs, tokens? If so, how should we interpret them?

There are people who believe in all kinds of signs - does the mysterious disappearance of the Southern Equatorial Band on Jupiter four years ago really mean the Age of Aquarius is almost upon us? Attributing significance to things we see or experience

Today, I saw a flock of five magpies - traditional birds of omen - fly overhead. "One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver..." Does this mean I'm about to come into wealth? And even if I do - would there be any connection with seeing five magpies today?

A Serious Man - the Coen Brothers' best, most meaningful, film - examines the this question in detail. Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota Jew, finds his comfortable life unravelling about him, and seeks answers from three rabbis. The first offers nothing but banality "It's about perspective." The third refuses to see him. But the second rabbi, the Rabbi Nachtner, offers tall tale to illustrate how God speaks to us. Best we see this - one of my favourite scenes from any film I've ever seen.

We are biologically conditioned to seek patterns in the world around us, to seek meaning in coincidence. But is there meaning in coincidence? Is this how God speaks to us?

Mankind has a tendency towards superstition. Black cats crossing our path, avoidance of the number 13, breaking mirrors etc. A superstitious mind sees an object of ill omen; should something bad then actually happen, the relationship between the two unrelated events becomes causal.

Good luck is also believed to be brought on by unrelated factors - placing a lottery ticket under a 'lucky object' is not going to shorten the odds on winning. Wearing an item of red underwear while sitting the matura (final school exam) will not improve the scholar's results.

Causal links between actions and events that aren't justified by reason and observation boil down to wishful thinking or superstition.

And yet, and yet. I have often felt that the Universe is held together by a web of coincidence; that there is meaning to be found in the relationship between events. Is it? Should we seek it?

On the basis of my experience, I see it this way: if you see a rare occurrence, it lodges in your consciousness. See it again, and it should be a call to thought, thought that can prevent disaster (dis-aster - from the Latin word for star and the prefix for 'to split' or 'to reverse'. Disasters are unforeseen; causing "loss, upset or unpleasantness."

Seeing meaning in coincidence should not be taken as an omen that something bad will happen - it should be seen as a wake-up call to shake us out of complacency, to consider that the ways things are right now will pass; to a better state or worse state. Coincidences may be read as flashing beacons that warn. (Read the post Balancing on the Edge of Chaos.)

Next: speaking to God, listening to God.

This time last year:
Spring makes itself felt in Ealing

This time two years ago:
Waiting for the warmth to return to Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Remembering Poland's 'Accursed Soldiers'

This time four years ago:
Getting the balance right between work and play

This time six years ago:
Sublime Jeziorki sunset

This time seven years ago:
Sunrise getting earlier

Friday, 27 February 2015

How do we perceive good and evil?

This is where it gets tricky for me. Many questions, few convincing answers. So bear with me, this will not be a particularly coherent post! If you'd have asked me once what 'evil' means, I'd have said 'absence of God'. However, I'm now more likely to say that 'God is everywhere', and by that I mean at the subatomic level, throughout the Universe[s].

How would I define evil? Essentially, by intent, a lack of good will. An ill will, indeed. But bad things happen naturally; the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 that claimed the lives of 230,000 people. Was this the work of Satan? Or just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Disease? How about the Holocaust? The work of one evil man, leveraging the incipient evil that resided within the dark heart of a nation?

Worth taking a look at this Wikipedia article on Theodicy, man's attempt to explain the existence of evil in a world governed by God. In its simplest form, the argument goes like this: Man is judged by God on the basis of whether or not he is good, or evil. Man is given freedom of choice. Man can choose to be good, or to be evil. If he has no free will, he cannot be judged. So evil is the result of man's freedom of choice, upon which he is ultimately judged by God. But why is this evil visited upon good people?

Let's go back into the cosmic realm again. Supermassive black holes, with a mass that's many thousands of times greater than our sun, are found in the centres of galaxies, sucking in matter, including entire solar systems, presumably along the civilisations that may be found on them. Imagine an advanced world being dragged inexorably towards an event horizon, beyond which nothing can escape; the only outcome, the destruction of everything. Where is God in all this?

I would like to return to the theme of consciousness, and in particular. A few years ago, I stumbled upon the concept of the philosophical zombie. Now, dear reader; if you - like me - consider yourself to be aware, conscious - do you think every human being has the same degree of awareness? The philosophical zombie thought-experiment posits that there are those among us who lack consciousness, but in every other way are, and behave like, humans. When I first came across this notion, I immediately thought of a corporate boss I worked for, insanely driven by the urge to make money, trampling rough-shod over the the lives of his underlings and demanding they they too flog their underlings harder to make him more money... a man I believe to be bereft of consciousness (though with a sharp intellect). I can see this type of man at work within Hitler's holocaust machine, like an Adolf Eichmann. The banality of evil? Maybe something that's merely alive, responding to stimuli, but lacking a consciousness.

When setting out to write this post, I was aware that it would be a mess - far more questions than answers. But one point I intended to make was this: there is no Satan stalking this world. No Devil, no equal-but-opposite to a Good God. People inclined to see Satan everywhere are the types more prone to believe in conspiracy theories and in general are not particularly successful in life.

As I wrote earlier, my personal view of God is not of an omnipotent Supreme Being, but rather of a tendency, a direction towards perfection, towards omniscience, total awareness of all. If the Universe is evolving spiritually towards perfection, it suggests that it is not, a yet, perfect; nor will it be perfect for many eons to come. But we can strive internally to distance ourselves from anger and violent emotions that are rooted in our biology; the reptilian part of the brain, instinctive.

The fight-or-flight reaction. Something tips a trigger, something in that primitive brain kicks off. Raised voice. Clenched fist. Anger that triggers anger; violence that triggers violence, lashing out mindlessly. Within the individual, this behaviour affects those in his or her immediate vicinity - family, workmates, people in the street. But the evil we saw in the Third Reich, the evil we see today in Islamic State and in Putin's Russia - is where an ideology is forced on people via indoctrination, propaganda, and hatred is inculcated until it can be turned into deadly violence. The Western World, Shi'ites, Christians, "Fascist Ukrainians". We need to be on guard against those who play to our base instincts, but also to guard against those who seek to play that game against us.

The Western World, for all its faults, is about tolerance, diversity, compromise, consensus; strong signals that hatred and hate-speech are no longer acceptable are positive drivers for a better society. But should the Western World tolerate intolerance? How should it respond to brutality?

I hope to return to some of the questions posed here, if not this Lent than in years to come, if not with answers, then maybe with a more nuanced attitude.

This time last year:
Civilisation and a civil society

This time three years ago:
Strong, late-winter sunshine

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands freeze over
[Average temperature for that week was -9C. This week; +3C. Not once this winter did the wetlands freeze hard enough to walk across, let alone ride a motorbike over.]

This time five years ago
Kensington, a London village

This time six years ago:
Lenten reciples

This time seven years ago:
A walk through Sadyba

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The infinitely long path from Zero to One

In our childhood, the world around us consisted of shapeless blocks, vague monoliths, from which, with age and experience - and the chisel of thought - emerge statues of understanding. From out of crude lumps of unhewn observation they emerge, honed ever more finely, delicately nuanced, catalogued more precisely, with each passing year.

Watch an infant's wide unfocused eyes play over an unfamiliar room, pulling together sense and structure from what is around him. Have they seen this all before. No...?

We edge slowly along from uncertainty towards certainty, from darkness to light - yet we are not even the tiniest fraction of the way along the infinitely long road from Zero to One. One life, one consciousness, one brief chance - is to be our only glimpse into this process?

I don't believe this is the case. The journey is long and much learning lies ahead. We must all learn to overcome the reptile in the brain, that dim, brutal and selfish animal within us, and allow in the angelic; this is spiritual evolution; willing yourself ever closer along that multi-billion year-long path towards God-ness, towards absolute understanding; total Universal unity and infinite consciousness.

We will all die, but the atoms that make us, those atoms maintaining formation within the molecules of our DNA, within our protein - those atoms will keep on spinning as they have done so for many billions of years. What will we have taught them? For when they return to the soil, they will spin on, bearing with them fragments of memory and will and consciousness.

And they return from the dark collective of that rich loam once more as individual and conscious life, they will be another tiny step closer to God. The following phrase popped unbidden into my mind one day: "There is a seamless continuum which our souls observe through myriad eyes". We live, we learn, we die, we are reborn; it must happen many times.

The daughter of a famous Polish author, buried at Powązki cemetery in Warsaw, told me that each time she visits the grave, she finds objects left on it by his fans. One year, she noticed a plant growing by the headstone. She decided to leave it, and to let it grow. It grew into a plum tree. She realised that the fruit was nurtured by her father's body, and took some plums to her own garden, to let them grow into trees. This reminded me of a passage from Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything. And I quote:
"[Atoms] are fantastically durable. Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of atoms - up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested - probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed...)
So we are all reincarnations - though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere - as part of a leaf, or other human being or drop of dew. Atoms themselves, however, go on practically for ever."
Is this how consciousness flows from one living being to the next? I don't know. Nice as it would be to construct a theology around this, all I can only honestly say: "I don't know, but I want to know, and will continue to seek."

So - if you wish to hurry your atoms to get recycled quickly into another conscious human being soon after your death - is it better to be buried or cremated?

Again, I haven't a clue; it's futile trying to work it out. There are billions of years to go before our sun fades and dies and billions more before the Universe slows down before beginning to contract. Conjecture; one for cosmologists to work out. In the meantime, the spiritual drive, the quest for higher awareness, drives us onwards.

Next: dealing with evil on the universal scale

This time two years ago:
Images of God

This time last year:
City-centre living, Warsaw-style

This time two years ago:
Communist plaque on Zygmunt's Column

This time five years ago:
Three weeks into Lent