St Bernard of Clairvaux: To love as much as possible.

O God, my Strength,
I know I will not love you as much as you deserve,
But only as much as you will make me able to.
This will surely not amount to all the love I should give,
But it will amount to all the love I can give,

Because it is impossible to love you
Beyond the power to love that I possess.

I will love you more
If you will make me able
Even though this never will amount
To as much as you are worthy to be loved.

~ St Bernard of Clairvaux, my trans.

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Elegy to Another Year (A New Year’s Day Walk)

Goodbye, fair corpse.

A twinge of remorse

Grips me as I place my boot downwind

The frozen moan

Your twisted, blistered mouth uttered

Once upon a snowstorm

Not many days ago.

 

Sweet 68, according to your driving licence,

And you’re in your Gucci padded men’s down jacket,

Swing tag still on,

With your Scarpa Phantom walking shoes,

Still stickered,

That had never seen the sun

Before they saw the snow,

And your iPhone,

Fresh unboxed,

Wrapped in the warranty leaflet and the plastic protector film

(Not that you’d have got signal at this altitude).

A first-aid kit lies overturned

At your naked, blanched-white ankle

And a thermos cup sits palliatively

At your clenched, outstretched Sherpa glove.

And that is all.

 

You had dreamed of seeing your youngest son marry

And your grandkids graduate,

Then you sucked in your last breaths

And howled them out

Homebound

Until the bitter end.

 

Their love for you just didn’t run warm enough, my friend.

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The Season’s Greetings

‘Happy New Year’:

The brassy, stand-alone shout

Of a snowflake-spangled round-robin,

From a self-made virile voice

Bristling with existential hubris,

In his starched, crisp-collared suit,

Sharp-edged and clean-cut a little too close to the skin,

Like the tell-tale redness

Of a freshly-sheared

Ex-beard.

 

You would not know

That a week ago, in his wake,

Had stood a bumbling old oaf

Dusty and musty and engulfed in cobwebs and tat,

If you had not invited the grey head to your hearthside

And watched your innermost longings commune

In the hallowed light of his sad, wise, warm eyes

With all the broken things of this world,

And fallen in love a little,

 

Before looking away

And quietly locking him back in the attic for the next eleven months

With tree, and tinsel, and plastic Santa Clauses,

Like a dirty secret.

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How to Kill your Special Song

I discovered that I can’t listen to Pachelbel’s Canon anymore. Continue reading

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‘Something More Gender Neutral’

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There’s little you can do on the internet that has the potential to get your tender emotions more badly hurt, than publishing a blog post that is bound up in deeply personal desires, beliefs, insecurities and raw wounds, and will be viewed as being on the wrong side of public opinion. But here it is. Please try to be gentle.

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By the Waters of Babylon

Come sit by the waters of our land of captivity;
Defy its profiteering smile police: weep for Zion.
Turn your tear-stained face from this crass entertainment empire
Lest placated you forget how truth and freedom feel:
Lest you let them make a circus of our Christ-song.

If I should forget thee, O true Kingdom of my God,
Then let my freedom song cease altogether.
Grieve by the waters for the real and the right:
Don’t let them numb the pain with their ephemera.

Come brother, hang your harp on the willow tree with me,
The Lord’s song to them is just a curio.
Don’t let them win a submissive grin lest the winds should change
And you forsake your home, your God, your heart.
Don’t let the culture-colonizers quench our sorrow.

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Is Islamic Extremism Really Representative of Proper Islam, Or Is the Religion Just a Pretext? Transcription of an extract from an interview on BBC Radio Oxford with former Muslim Dr Nabeel Qureshi

Having talked about the difficulties Nabeel had with his family after becoming a Christian, I wondered how he felt when he heard some of the terrible news stories that we get now about Isis and other extremist groups – so many of them claiming to act in the name of Islam.

Islam is a very complex entity, and it really depends on how you come at it. Isis, for example, is taking a stance that is very, very reflective of the original traditions in Islam. If you read the Hadith, which are the traditions of Mohammed, if you read the commentaries of [Tafsir?] on the Qur’an, you will see why Isis does what it does. And in fact, they put out a magazine every month called Dabak, which explains why they do what they do – [it] is rooted in Islamic tradition. But the Islam I grew up with is a pacifist Islam, and the motto of our sect is “Love for all, hatred for none”, and so it’s not reflective of what all Muslims believe.

This is so difficult, isn’t it? Because as you explained there, there is somewhere in the writings a justification for what [Isis and other extremist groups] do, and yet you don’t have to go very far at all to find a voice of moderate, modern Islam to say “No, no, this isn’t us at all!” Is there a fixed truth somewhere, or is the problem that it’s all down to interpretation and just which bit you choose?

That’s a great question, and the issue of truth – a lot of people will just assume that there just is none and that it’s a matter of preference. I take the position that Islam is as Muhammad intended it to be. Given that there is a prophet named Muhammad who started the religion of Islam, I think that the real Islam would be what he intended it to be, not what it has become over time. And that is where the real disagreement lies. Those progressive Muslims – some of whom I studied under while I was in university – they will say that Islam develops over time and that the accreted tradition is part of the religion, and they can justifiably say that Islam is a religion of peace. But those who, like Isis, who revert back to the reformists, who revert back to the original form of Islam, they end up being very literal in their reading of the Qur’an and the Hadith, and that ends up looking the way it does today.

Of course it’s fair to point out that if you restrict your biblical readings to the Old Testament, some of it’s pretty brutal too.

That’s true, if we just focus on certain components of the Bible then it can look pretty violent in certain cases. But the difference between Islam and Christianity is that the Christian message – the culmination of the Christian message – is Jesus’ grace on the Cross; his command to love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you; if your enemy is hungry give him something to eat, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. That’s the culmination of the Christian message. Whereas if you look at historical Islam, the last major chapter of the Qur’an to be revealed according to Islamic tradition is chapter 9, and that’s the chapter which says “Slay the infidels wherever you find them. Lay siege to them and take them captive,” or, “Fight the Jews and Christians until they pay the Jizya.” So the chapter that appears the most violent on the surface is the culmination of the Qur’anic revelation.

My reflections on this, from the point of view of one who identifies as Christian…

It can be seen, here, that the source of violence in the name of Islam is in many cases the religion itself (although I’m not entirely convinced that none of the violence in the UK is committed by angry young people who feel betrayed by their country and government and are using the religion as a pretext). Where it is down to the religion, this leaves us to draw our preliminary conclusions. What is the problem here? What do we need to eradicate to safeguard our society from it? A lot of people will point the finger at any form of conservative religion that doesn’t diverge from its roots into a form of liberal progressivism. But I don’t think it’s possible to make a blanket case against conservativism – or even extremism – and Nabeel Qureshi has further convinced me of this.

From a Christian perspective, by being more ‘purist’ in your commitment to the original teachings of Jesus  – the ‘Real McCoy’ stuff that you read straight out of the New Testament, not the stuff that people said about it afterwards (if the culmination of Jesus’ teaching is, as Qureshi said, ‘love your enemies’ and the main pedagogical example is the one he sets by dying on the Cross as an act of grace to pay off the debts of infidels and let them live), then you end up with something very different. As a logical extension of this description, Christian extremism would lead to people radically loving their enemies, and extreme devotions to its leader and founder would lead to copycat acts of costly self-sacrifice, rescue and mercy for the undeserving. These things, as I say, were not the things that were written into the Christian religion afterwards by theologians of humanistic or liberal persuasions, but were at the core of the original first century teachings of Jesus: if you read Jesus ‘by himself’, this is largely what you get.

Where the oppression and violence of the Church has exploited the powerless and laid communities low (as all institutions of centralized power tend to do as a natural consequence of the social make-up of the human creature unless this tendency is checked by the Holy Ghost or by human safeguards and interventions or a mixture of the three), I would wager that this was not because the Church was too radical or too extremist about Jesus. It was not because of an extremist approach to Jesus that the Church was an oppressive and destructive power in the world. Rather, I would like to posit that it was for the opposite reason: it was because the Church was not radical or extreme enough about the way it handled Jesus’ original teachings and example. It was that the Church did not allow for an extreme commitment to Jesus to inoculate it against the natural forces of the human condition by which it was otherwise bound to become an oppressive power. Although the New Testament variously depicts Jesus denouncing the religious leaders of his day for arrogantly flouncing around in their fine clerical robes whilst bleeding the poor dry, the Church for centuries seemed to have forgotten to check itself in the mirror. As far as I can gather according to what I’ve read, it was too busy hating its enemies. I would say that in those instances where the Church did not apply Jesus’ teachings back on itself, it was being too extremist about itself at the expense of its own ostensible object – an object that could have prevented it from becoming the tyrant that it was if only it had listened to him.

Humbling yourself under the authority and reign of a self-crucifying and self-emasculating God-man, making such a God-man the model and ruler of your life and the dictator of your conduct in the knowledge that he expects your conduct to imitate his; ascribing total glory, honour and power to such a God, and standing up for his cause through the insults, derision and persecution of the world around you which you have a duty to respond to with love at the expense of your dignity – it takes a self-crucifixion in kind to even be able to worship a self-crucifying God. There can be no room in this extreme sort of worship for the tyrannical behaviour that critics of the Church wheel out as ad hominem attacks against the person, work and teachings of Jesus Christ. It is this game-stopping imitatio of self-crucifixion – a divinely modelled drama of death to self and death to ego – that Islam lacks, because, it seems from conversations I’ve had with individual Muslim apologists, the notion of God becoming man and crucifying himself is aberrant to what the Islamic idea of God is about. They do not believe that God did become a man, because that would mean that he would have to humble himself to the level of his creation and become as weak as a man and this would dishonour him; and they do not accept that he was crucified for the sake of the world, because they perceive crucifixion to be too great a dishonour for even a prophet, let alone a god. It is essential that their god’s honour not be compromised; it is essential that he remains in heaven, untouchable, and at a remove from sinful human beings. And yet for Christians, the willingness of God to become weak, to condescend to the level of his own creation and live among it, to be dishonoured by it, to be killed by it, and to die and rise from the dead that it might live again – is precisely his glory, because condescending to come down from his heavenly throne and get his hands dirty for the sake of the world and bleed and die for it tells of the intimate, interested and passionate kind of love that he has for it. I may be wrong in my assertions about Islam, but self-sacrifice seems contrary to all that I have heard of the Islamic notion of what a loving god is like, whereas to the Christian notion it is central. The Church, unlike the Islamic faith, had no excuse not to imitate this kind of love. Insomuch as the Church is self-seeking, greedy, violent, deceptive and oppressive, it is not merely at fault for being these things, but it betrays its own object of worship, the very heart of its foundation.

I should now like to look away from the Church and towards the global situation – the bombings, the atrocities of the present day. I don’t think the problem, ultimately, is extremism itself. I think that there are good extremes and bad extremes, and that the goodness or badness depends on the object of that extremism, not the fact that it is extreme. Nourishing and caring for your enemy is extreme. Giving up your life for the sake of someone who doesn’t deserve it is extreme. It takes something extreme to counteract the raw will to power of the natural human self. If the world’s social ills are ever resolved, which I believe they will be one day, it will be a result of something regarded as extreme, radical and different; not because of something comfortable, mediocre and much like what we have now. In ousting extremism itself, I feel, we throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that where there is a problem with extremism, the problem lies in the nature of the thing that people are being extreme about.

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To the Blood

O blood that rests on fruitless heads
And sets and pays its price for souls as sin-slaves born,
And sows and glows and grows the wandering dead,
And clothes them, live, with scarlet for sin’s frosty morn,

O blood of Jesus, blood of life,
Blood that bears me home to God;
Come save me from my sin-ridden plight,
That I may go out gospel-shod.

 

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Identifying with Mary’s Mission

I have travelled many moonless nights
Cold and weary with a babe inside
And I wonder what I’ve done
Holy Father, You have come
And chosen me now to carry Your Son

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now, be with me now

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of Your plan
Help me be strong, help me be, help me

Read more: Amy Grant – Breath Of Heaven Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Because of this song, the figure of the Virgin Mary inspires me tonight.

She had every reason to mistrust or take fright, yet all she did was obey. That vulnerable young figure travelling to Bethlehem on a donkey, a long, wearying journey day after day and night after night, with a commission from God conceived and growing and deepening in her, ready to come to light any moment. All she had to trust in was the Word and the promise from God, and the growing load of the holy child filling her belly and transforming her body, which she could not see, understand or determine. She could not speak to her child; she could not seek succour from any church. She was alone with a unique and unprecedented commission from God of which she only had a vague outline, and which could endanger her life on multiple counts. Such was the first disciple of the incarnate Christ.

The revelation from the angel was such a solitary moment. Who could affirm the authenticity of her mission? Who witnessed his word to her? Was there any more vulnerable or lonely position as that, to bear a Calvary all her own and unlike that of any man or woman in history, to be led there, powerless before her own body, whilst being alone privy to its workings? For a time, even Joseph would have forsaken her. All she had was the Word, the promise, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit growing inside her to confirm that it was even real. The social and existential toll would have been crushing. Nothing else could tell her how her mission would take shape or what it would be, and nobody would stand by her in fellowship, except Joseph, Zechariah, the prophetess Anna, Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist, who leaped in his mother’s womb.

The church of Christ was so small, so ill-defined. Bearing the person of God alone, could she have been the loneliest person in the world as what no eye had seen and no ear had heard, was implanted in her womb and grew there? Not even her own eyes could see, not even her own ears could hear, not even her own mind could understand the person of the commission she bore: the blind, dumb forces of her physiology worked animally in spite of her, as her mission unfolded and the sword that would pierce her own heart drew ever closer while she waited powerlessly for the will and the plan of God to come to pass as angel and prophet had promised. Pregnant and waiting on her uncertain commission to come to light, her fate was ruled by her biological clock, the angel’s announcement, the words of prophecy: she had no control, and no options, but was a vessel to God. Blind, isolated and paralysed, she had no agency beyond the act of consent and the willingness of faith to carry on going, for beyond that affirmation of faith, there was nothing that was within the power of her will to determine or influence. All she could do was have faith, submit, and patiently receive the scourges and afflictions of life as they came to her. She could only sit on the donkey for the sake of Joseph’s obligation, listen to the rejection of the innkeeper, lie in the stable that had been assigned to her as she awaited the pains of childbirth. She did not need to go in search of her mission: the mission came to her; the journey to Bethlehem was decided for her; the place of the birth was neither of her choosing, nor even within her power to know in advance.

In assenting to the angel’s annunciation she had signed a blank cheque with God, and in faith she let herself be carried wherever she needed to be carried, like a leaf in the wind, for all that needed to be wrought on her body and her person, to be wrought. The magi, the shepherds, the angels would come to her, the escape to Egypt would be the angel’s prerogative, as long as she clung onto that Word and that promise. Besides the Word and the promise she had no other assurance, no other grounds for faith when she was alone and helpless with an ill-defined mission that would take over her life and break her, in the face of all that surrounded her, determined her days and threatened to oppress her.

Mary was astonishingly brave. Her faithful, patient submission to the workings of God was her only recourse in her time of vulnerability. Her courage is a lesson and an encouragement not to fear the Lord’s task even if it is only partially revealed and bears on an uncertain and potentially frightening future, and to trust that the Lord will both provide, and work all things according to his will, as long as you continue to say yes in faith; to respond at every turn with ‘I am the Lord’s servant’, to feel the privilege of his favour on you, no matter how uncertain the future, how profound the solitude, or how great your own powerlessness in the face of it. Mary was not passive: endurance and submission are not passive works. It is about saying ‘yes’ in faith to your commission and letting it grow in you, bearing your Calvary, alone in the dark if you have to, whatever shape it takes, because you know and trust that God is good and that all that he has revealed and planted in you is real, and believe in what you cannot see because it is yet to be revealed.

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Emotional Healing at the Alpha Course

I want to share that after an Alpha Course evening on healing, in which I received prayer for my psychological dependencies…

…  I went home, tuned into one of my usual nostalgia-triggers, feeding the addiction for the illusory out of mechanical habit, and out of that draw of longing in my heart and my mind for emotional satisfaction in anything, anything but God…

… I put the music on, hoping for the wash of dopamine to come as the familiar memories and imaginations came into my mind…

But tonight, now, after receiving healing prayer at Alpha, something else happened instead. Every time my mind tried to go to those thoughts, the rhythm of that enduring bass line pounded in my head, frazzling it. Where my thoughts tried to gravitate back to the idolatrous images, that solid, pacing beat caused the front of my head to ache. I could not send my thoughts to where my psychological addiction wanted them to go, without it hurting. So I stopped trying. And I let the peace of God wash over me. And you know…? Through that song, which I had used again and again to take me away from my consciousness of God and into the illusory, imaginary world of self where I would give free reign to my psychological addictions and emotional dependencies  – I actually managed to worship with a clear head. Tentatively, I saw and touched the divine through my trigger-music. I even enjoyed it more. Now I feel empowered. I feel empowered and I feel real, and I feel immersed in the present. How long will this last before I relapse? I don’t know, and I don’t want to imagine. But I’ll be getting more prayer as and when, and if. Thank you God for all that you did at Alpha tonight, and for your beautiful music, and for all that you do and continue to do. You are totally amazing.

The piece of music is below. My apologies to the wonderful pianist whose playing and ad-lib style I greatly admire. Your playing is beautiful, and I’m sorry that I misused it.

 

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Our debate was censored this week. Here’s our side of the story

 

My introductory comments to this reblog are not brief – and they are not brief because this is a matter that is very close to my heart. It concerns an instance of political freedom of speech being institutionally suppressed by my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford University, and I speak as an alumnus with a strong affection for the place I came to know as my intellectual home. As a student I had felt welcome and safe to make my voice heard no matter how esoteric or controversial my views were. From French and Italian literature tutorials to ad hoc discussions with friends and acquaintances in the Junior Common Room in the early hours in the morning, no matter how sharply we disagreed there was usually an abiding bond of respect for each other’s right to hold their perspective. It was a bond that I treasured, because it gave me the room and the freedom to grow into what I am today, and it pains me to see in light of recent events that it is the ones who would see that bond dissolved who are holding the greatest sway over the college’s powers that be.

I found out few days ago about a high profile abortion debate that was to be hosted within the grounds of my old college, and was cancelled by the college authorities on spurious grounds of ‘security’. This was after a radical feminist group within the college had threatened a disruptive protest over Facebook in their insistence that male pro-life voices had no right to a public platform in the college and expressed their aim to have the event shut down at all costs and by all means. Sympathisers roused support from the undergraduate democratic body to the effect that their representatives should convince the authorities to terminate the debate in view of potential ‘welfare issues’ and ‘security risks’. The college authorities, in spite of possessing the power to act against the student body, granted their request on the rationale that had been presented to them by the representatives, and shut down the event before the protests could take place. The high profile debate was to be held between two prominent male journalists, one pro-choice and one pro-life, and was organised by Oxford Students for Life. The story has been covered in student, national, international and transnational media and the institutional suppression of discussion that it constitutes, as well as effective success of what was a deliberate plot by the radical feminist group to institutionally suppress the right to freedom of political expression in a university setting, has outraged many individuals, Christian and non-Christian, students and non-students, left-wing and right-wing, and of pro-choice and pro-life persuasions.

I was appalled by the way my alma mater used its power to silence voices rather than to nurture them, and to censor thought rather than promote it. It was to a large extent Oxford that taught me how to think, and how to express myself through my thinking. It shaped me – like a nourishing mother – by growing and liberating my mind and my voice, and it did so especially when it engaged with that voice by disagreeing with it and challenging it. For this, I have the deepest respect and a warmth of regard towards all who personally taught me, and it would be irrational – let alone unfair – to tar them with the brush of the institution.

But in a broader sense I feel betrayed by her. By using paltry excuses to shut down discussion between these two male journalists at the bidding of the politically protected pro-choice feminist party that wanted to ensure the suppression of pro-life voices, I feel that she has by extension illegitimized the voices of all those who differ from the liberal orthodoxy by signalling that our time is up, our toleration as dissenting voices is over, by sheer force of majoritarian muscle the door to the debating platform has been slammed in our faces to force a close on the negotiations, our voices are no longer worthy of being heard, and we are no longer welcome to live and move and have our being in the context of this forum of intellectual life. These are voices that were still being developed and shaped within her walls by the internal instruments and organs that had been ordained to do so – voices like mine, who sing similar songs as mine, who had trusted in the sustenance she provided for our minds, and the space to grow into what we were destined to be. By removing this sustenance, shutting down this space and giving in to the pressure to silence, censor, cancel, abort, she has struck out at her own progeny rather than equipping it for its eventual carriage into a world that would strike out at it for her. The title of the debate would have been “This House Believes that Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All”. Whether Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all is evidently still be up for debate – but I will lend my voice to say that even in the meagre form of my alma mater’s intellectual termination, it has hurt me, and hurt me deeply.

For the original story I’ll just post a few news links – a piece by each of the guests of the debate, one righty and one lefty, an apparent insider scoop from Buzzfeed with a lot of primary material, a further break-down of the arguments from later after the outbreak of the news, and a broader politico-ideological commentary from First Things from a more US-centric perspective.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11239437/Oxford-students-shut-down-abortion-debate.-Free-speech-is-under-assault-on-campus.html

http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9376232/free-speech-is-so-last-century-todays-students-want-the-right-to-be-comfortable/

http://www.buzzfeed.com/alanwhite/heres-what-happened-when-two-men-decided-to-debate-abortion

http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/11/the-top-students-who-are-too-lazy-to-argue/

http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/11/when-does-the-left-like-sexism

Image credit: Tom Quad, Christ Church 2004-01-21.jpg, photograph by Toby Ord, taken from Wikimedia Commons

 

Oxford Students for Life

quadaugust360

We didn’t ask to be in the middle of a free speech controversy. But free speech does matter, and we’d like to set out why we think Tuesday’s planned debate – between Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill  on ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’ – should have gone ahead.

While we have hosted two all-women panel debates over the past year, this motion was about the wider social questions raised by abortion, and Tim and Brendan were invited as well-known commentators who have something to contribute to the discussion. But last weekend, a Facebook page was set up by OxrevFems denouncing us for our choice of two male speakers and threatening to sabotage the event by using ‘oh so disruptive instruments’.

In one exchange on the page, a student of Christ Church – where the debate was to be held – asked a campaigner from Abortion…

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