maggi dawn

Lockdown and the lack of inspiration (or: why I need to take a nap).

Today I had a call from the National Shielding Helpline to ask whether I needed anything. I said no, thanks, I am doing fine so far. Of course I should have said a new car, a lifetime’s supply of chocolate, and a case of champagne, but I never think of these things at the time. The truth is that I really am not doing too badly with lockdown — not flourishing, exactly, but OK given the circumstances. But I do feel a certain pressure to be doing something special, unusual, extraordinary. I keep hearing on the radio, or on social media, tales of people who have learned to make sourdough bread, crochet a blanket, or teach their dog to dance. Me, though — I find that working from home feels just as intense as it is isolating, and I cannot believe quite how tired I am. And as for all those writing deadlines just asking to be met — well, I congratulate those of you who have written your new novel since lockdown began, but I am struggling merely to focus on the footnotes for something I wrote in January.

I have, though, been forcing myself, when my brain feels incapable of other things, to sort through old files, dumping what I don’t need and putting the rest in order. And here I found an old sermon on the Holy Spirit, inspiration, and — yes! — the necessity to withdraw, chill out, and WAIT! If you, like me, are feeling deeply lacking in inspiration, maybe this will help you too. If not, just take a nap. I don’t think it will do any harm.

PENTECOST 2011: Waiting for inspiration

The Holy Spirit is often referred to with the somewhat dull-sounding label “the third person of the Trinity”. But the imagery that both Luke and John use is far from dull. Luke describes a rushing, mighty, violent wind, and tongues of fire – both images of transforming and even frightening power. Mighty winds – gales, tornadoes – are destructive forces, and we all learn at our mother’s knee that if we play with fire, we might get burned. Luke’s imagery is far from gentle, mild or passive: this is a God to be reckoned with.  John, though, uses the image of breath – “Jesus breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit.” This is an intimate scene – you have to be close to someone for them to breathe on you. But it’s also a theological point: the Greeks used the same word – pneuma – for spirit , breath, or moving air. Jesus’ breath, the breath of life, the spirit of God – they are all inter-connected ideas.  The same ideas play out in the English word ‘inspired’, from the Latin verb spirare (to blow into or upon, or to breathe into) which, added to the preposition in- gives the sense of filling with, or directing into.  Dante used a variation on this in 1308, giving it the sense of suggestion or prompting, and by the 16th century “inspiration” had come to be associated with creative work.  

Everyone who works on creating something out-of-the-ordinary hopes for inspiration — the poet needs a muse; the preacher hopes for unction, the painter waits for illumination. Even scientists speak of the flash of inspiration – the idea that seems to come out of nowhere – that will suddenly lead them down a new avenue. Inspiration is that something-extra, the mysterious connection, the new angle, the missing piece that pulls all the ideas together. We can work as hard as we like, but without inspiration our work remains nothing more than workmanlike. Where do we find inspiration? Perhaps there is a clue, not only in the action, but in the location of the Pentecost story. 

Both Luke and John tell us that the moment of inspiration came when the disciples were all together in the Upper Room – a kataluma, a large, all-purpose guest room where people would gather to eat, socialize, or have important meetings, and then at the end of the night they might roll out their sleeping rolls and sleep there too.  This particular upper room was where the Last Supper took place – where Jesus had told his friends, “I am going away… but another comforter will come” (it’s worth noting, by the way, that “comforter” in 17th century English wasn’t anything like a duvet, or comfort food, or any of the other things we associate with making ourselves feel better… it meant a motivator, or a jab in the ribs to get you moving! ) 

At the Ascension, Jesus had told them that they would be witnesses to all they had seen and heard, but first they had to go to Jerusalem and wait. What for, exactly, he didn’t really say – he was a little vague on the details. And neither did he tell them when it would happen; we, with the benefit of our liturgical year, know that Pentecost always comes ten days after Ascension Day. But the disciples had nothing much more to go on than to wait in Jerusalem, not knowing what for or how long.  So rather than rush out to try to make things happen by themselves, they did what he said: and the Upper Room, where they had said their farewells to Jesus, was where they waited.  

When Pentecost eventually came, whether it was with the drama of wind and fire, or the intimacy of feeling a friend’s breath on their faces, they suddenly found that they had the power, energy and inspiration to carry on the work of Jesus without him: not by trying harder, not by following instructions, not by finding a replacement for him, nor even by trying to imitate his work.  Instead, in some mystical way no-one was able adequately to explain,  all the pieces come together and they were filled with the same energy and vision and stamina and urgency as Jesus.  

There’s a classic episode of the comedy show Morecambe and Wise – one of those that’s sometimes replayed at Christmas – where the star guest was a youthful André Previn. After Morecambe introduced him as Andrew Preview, they agreed to play Grieg’s piano concerto, and Morecambe quite brilliantly created a performance in which he missed all his cues, so that it seemed like an amateur catastrophe (he was, in fact, an excellent pianist in real life!). When Previn stopped the show and pointed out that he was playing the wrong notes, Morecambe memorably replied,  “I am playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order.”  

It’s been my experience as a writer that the elusive moment of inspiration, when the words seem to come in the right order, only comes along if you punctuate work with moments of retreat. If you don’t work, and simply wait for inspiration, it doesn’t come. If you work too hard and too long, inspiration can be equally elusive. But if you work in a pattern (whether that’s every day or in seasons), and then take time between to wait and rest, it seems inspiration can catch you unawares, and suddenly it’s as if the pages seem to write themselves. The right words come in the right order, and there’s some extra, glowing quality to the work.  

Malcolm Gladwell would say that it’s an interaction of the spheres of the brain – that if you train one part of your brain to take precedence, the creative part recedes. It’s only when you allow the other side of the brain space to do its lateral work that the mysterious, instinctive ability kicks in. That’s why when you’ve been working all day long it’s sometimes when you’re washing the dishes and not thinking about anything in particular that the great idea suddenly comes to you. I always recommend to students and writers alike that they take plenty of breaks. Work hard and intensely, but take breaks to walk around the garden and let the brain relax. The learning, and the writing, and the processing goes better if we make space for inspiration.  It may be a geographical place, or it may be an activity that we do regularly (like running or swimming) but it needs to be somewhere the brain can withdraw from work and the worries of life to allow for subconscious mental processing.  

The Upper Room, then, becomes symbolic of respite, relaxation, withdrawal from the world: and the place they said goodbye to Jesus at the Last Supper later became the place they were filled with such force of inspiration that they went out and quite literally changed the world.  

If we want to be inspired, and not just impressive; if we want to be world-changing and not just workmanlike, then we too will need to find our equivalent of the Upper Room, and withdraw often enough to give room for inspiration.

Mothers Day

It’s Mother’s Day in the USA. Its origins were in politics and peacemaking; women’s groups in the US tried to organize special days and activities to promote peace, and especially to reunite families that had been divided by conflict in the Civil War. Ann Jarvis organized one such day in 1868, and she is usually credited with founding Mother’s Day.
 
Now, however, it is nothing more than a Hallmark holiday–one of those dreadful occasions that purport to celebrate a group of people, but is in reality counter productive in a thousand different ways. It causes all sorts of distress when ‘mother’ is clumsily elided with ‘woman’, creating the ridiculous and wounding idea that motherhood is the single supreme expression of womanhood. It stirs up just as much pain as joy — for those whose mothers are no longer alive, those whose relationship to their mother is or was destructive, those who wish they were mothers but are not, those for whom motherhood has been traumatic, and for bereaved mothers.
 
But it can create an odd dynamic even in families where things are more or less OK. For one thing, I hear people speak about it in terms of it being their mother’s “annual day off”. (Annual day off? Come on people, roll up your sleeves and share the chores on the other 364 days. Cooking the dinner and washing the dishes is not part of the contract of being a mother. You eat here? You join in with the cooking and clean-up.) Or, it imposes an expectation that certain rituals must be observed that you would never, in a thousand years, do the rest of the time, just because people want to sell you cards and chocolate.
 
Maybe some women want chocolate. I don’t — it makes me fat — and I don’t want an expensive card with a soppy greeting manufactured by someone in a factory. I’d rather have a personal message on a post-it, and time to spend hanging out with my grown up son. He’s a student, and broke, as students usually are. But he has planned our trip to the movies this afternoon. It’s the kind of stuff we often do when he’s home for the weekend, not just once a year. Lovely, heartwarming, and real. I’ll take that over sentimental any day.
 
I say celebrate your family every chance you get, if you are lucky enough to be doing OK. And celebrate your life with the people you love, whatever your circumstances, even if you don’t have family. But let’s rebel against this obligatory sentimentalization of motherhood, especially at Church where it can feel doubly pernicious.

Annunciation, Denise Levertov

Here is a poem for the Feast of the Annunciation. Those of you who know me will know that I work a lot with poetry and visual art around the Annunciation. The beauty of poetry is that, rather than analysing the mysterious moment of annunciation with a logical, systematising approach, it can walk in sideways to just one small question. And one of the questions that has washed around the Annunciation since #MeToo is whether Mary had a choice. There are several poems that deal with this–Noel Rowe’s Magnificat is one, another is Edwin Muir’s The Angel and the Girl are Met. But today, for the Feast of the Annunciation, I am reading Denise Levertov.

I love this grand, bold statement that Mary was not fearful, not coerced, not a slender little pushover of a woman, not a mere ‘vessel’, but a strong, courageous woman whose power to make decisions and set the tone changed the world.

Annunciation
‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn,
Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.

The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
____________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?

Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.

More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
____________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,

Spirit,

suspended,

waiting.
____________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.

Denise Levertov
from A Door in the Hive [New Directions, 1989]

Blue

I recently did that Facebook thing where you post the cover of ten albums that had a huge influence on you. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is one of those albums for me. The title song, along with several others, stand alone as memorable tracks. But to my ear, Blue is an album much more than Jonimitchellbluetanlabel150909_1it’s a song – the songs are so bonded together that they are more like movements of a symphony than individual songs. Blue was a life-changer for me: it changed the way I wrote, the way I played, and in some ways was the doorway to thinking about the whole of life in a different key. Joni is right – songs are like tattoos. They get under your skin and become part of you, and once they are there they are almost impossible to erase.

 

Honest Thomas

It’s the feast of St Thomas today–July 3rd being the date Jerome chose to celebrate him.

Doubting Thomas is the uncomplimentary title that Thomas has often been tagged with, and his story is often told as a rebuke to those who doubt, or perhaps more kindly, an encouragement to have more faith.  But it would be more accurate, I think, to call him Honest Thomas. He was a man of integrity; he was the disciple that asked the awkward questions everyone else was thinking but didn’t say out loud. “We do not know where you are going, Lord, how can we know the way?” asked Thomas, at the Last Supper. And by the same token he didn’t pretend to believe things that he didn’t really; he didn’t say the words everyone else was saying just to feel part of the crowd. It’s hard to own up to being the odd one out among a group of friends, and it was brave of him, when he found he was the only one not to be convinced of the resurrection, not to go off and be by himself. For a whole week he went on meeting up with the other disciples. Their faith, their joy, their stories of visions of the resurrected Christ, must have made him feel uncomfortable and left out. But he still hung around. Eventually, Jesus came and met him in person. His integrity paid off; when faith came to him as a gift, it was his own and not someone else’s.

Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe, whereas doubt is an honest owning up to not being convinced, and finding that the people and the ideas we encounter in this life can knock holes in our faith. To admit to doubt is to stay alive; there is nothing more wooden than a so-called “faith” that is really a repetition of ideas through obedience, coercion, or the desire to fit in, rather than conviction.

Dostoyevsky described the difference well, when he wrote: “I do not believe as a child does; my Hosanna has passed through the crucible of doubt.”

“Dubious questioning”, wrote Coleridge, “is a much better evidence than that senseless deadness which most take for believing. People that know nothing…have no doubts. Never be afraid to doubt, if only you have the disposition to believe, and doubt in order that you may end in believing the truth.

Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks says that “In Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of a lack of depth.” Sacks encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, he says, “not because we doubt, but because we believe.”

If you are looking for certainty, then I guess you want to eliminate doubt. But faith is not certainty: it’s the pursuit of truth that must inevitably include episodes of doubt. And those episodes are, in the end, what open us up to fresh revelation. So Thomas’s doubt is not a rebuke, I think, but an encouragement to us to recognize that faith is the uncomfortable space between asking the awkward questions, and waiting on the answers.

(Originally posted in 2009)

 

The Accidental Pilgrim

51IzOHruJWL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_A couple of quotes from my fourth book – a history of pilgrimage written as a memoir. Click on the book cover for a link.

Pilgrimage is not just for the benefit of the pilgrim: it’s for the world:

“Anthony the Great, sometimes called ‘the father of monks’, set the example here. He went to live in complete solitude in the desert in about AD 285 and attracted plenty of followers. After twenty years in the desert, he left his hermitage to act as spiritual father to a group of coenobites. Five years later he again retreated into solitude, where he remained until he died at the grand old age of 105 – except for two occasions when he visited Alexandria, once to encourage Christians who were under persecution there, and again in 338 when Athanasius called on Anthony to help him stand up against the heretical teachings of Arius – thereby making it clear by his actions that pilgrimage is not just for the pilgrim, but for the wider world, the ‘other’.”

Pilgrimage is about more than just going on a long walk – in fact, you can be a pilgrim without going anywhere, or walk a thousand miles on a pilgrim route and never be more than a hiker:

“For me there was, perhaps, a touch of irony in falling accidentally into pilgrimage only just at a point in my life when circumstances began to limit my freedom to travel. As a result, it seemed to me that even as I was learning the rules, I was rewriting them. But I have come to the realization that pilgrims have always rewritten the rules. The impulse to travel and the urge to find transformation have collided in different ways, so that a great patchwork of interpretations has given shape to the idea of pilgrimage both as a journey to illuminate life and as a journey through life itself.  Abraham, Jonah, Helena and Brendan needed to make actual, physical journeys to find the key to life, the Desert Fathers and monastics chose the wilderness, while Luther called people simply to stay exactly where they were. St Paul spent his life travelling, but preached that the true journey was in another dimension. But of all the examples available to us to follow, and of all the writers who have left a record of their own pilgrimage, none of them suggests that we should simply follow their instructions; each one has also left us a mandate to break with convention and reinvent pilgrimage just as they did.

Whether inspiration comes from the reckless adventures of the peregrini, Helena’s concern for historical connection to the place, the lateral, imaginative vision of a poet, or the solitary pursuit of a hermit, the common thread is that every kind of pilgrimage pushes us into uncharted territory, either mentally or physically, and the end result is a transformation of a kind we couldn’t have anticipated. In the end, whether by accident or on purpose, it’s not where you go but who you become that makes you a pilgrim.”

Mothers’ Day in the USA

“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment.”

“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment.”

The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into “nice people.”

Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart (p. 120).

walking on water

a joke for theologians

Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich are taking a break together, fishing on Lake Geneva. They are having a lovely time, smoking their pipes, chatting idly.

It’s hot, and soon they get thirsty. So Karl Barth gets up, steps out of the boat, and walks across the water to the shore, gets some beers and returns.

It’s quite hot so the beer doesn’t last long. Barth tells Tillich: “your turn, Paul”. Tillich gets up, steps outside the boat, walks across the water, and fetches some beer.

It is getting really hot now, and the beer is finished once again. Bultmann is beginning to sweat particularly profusely… and finally Barth asks him too: “Come on, Rudolf, your turn now.” With a slight tremor in his knees, Bultmann gets up, steps out of the boat, and sinks like a stone. Fortunately he is a good swimmer; he drags himself back into the boat and sulks at the far end.

Tillich turns to Barth and says: “Do you think we should have told him where the stepping stones are?”

Barth looks at him in astonishment and replies: “What stones?”

I have not yet done that for which I was made

I wrote this a really long time ago, on September 7th, 2005. Today I found it in my diary, and thought that I could equally have written it today. So here it is:

A friend sent me this prayer. I love the line in the middle – “I have not yet done that for which I was made.” The tenor of our society seems to be that the best days of your life are pretty much over once you hit 30, and thereafter everything will be a little duller, a little less exciting, a little less important. I like the idea that even when the bones creak a little, you’re still only in preparation for your task in life. I have been contemplating lately what direction I might go in a few years’ time, in order to focus what I’m doing right now. It feels good to me to think bigger, to be a learner not an expert, to be on an adventure and not settled down in boring comfort for the second half of life.

O Lord my God
teach my heart
where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
O Lord you are my God
and you are my Lord

and I have never seen you.
You have made me and remade me,
and you have bestowed on me all the good things I possess
and still I do not know you.

I have not yet done that for which I was made.

Teach me to seek you
for I cannot seek you unless you teach me
or find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you in my desire,
let me desire you in my seeking.
Let me find you by loving you,
let me love you when I find you.

St Anselm