Archives for category: Spirituality

As I write, I am listening to Tavener’s music, some of which I have found relatively impenetrable, but much of which is sublime.

Tavener died earlier this week. He had Marfan’s syndrome, which explains his ‘ethereal thinness’, and had a long history of illness, including a heart attack six years ago from which he almost died.

Tavener recently commented that he had lived longer than anyone, including himself, had imagined possible.

He was 69.

Today, I listened to what came to be his final radio interview, which took place last month from his home in Dorset with Radio 3’s Tom Service (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03hk1y9).
In the interview Tavener, who sounded frail, spoke of his physical suffering, and also of his spirituality within the context of such suffering, which constantly informed his writing and his perception of life.
For Tavener, in the context of not knowing what comes after death, faith and doubt co-existed. Such non-knowing necessitated a humbling of the mind, and Tavener, who was deeply religious, believed that life and death, doubt and darkness, all existed alongside each other.
Illness, and particularly the almost fatal heart attack six years ago, facilitated a renewed seeing of the world and 0f Tavener’s place within it, with an enhanced clarity.
Rather than escaping from suffering through his writing, Tavener, throughout his life and career, chose to deal with issues such as death head-on. Thus, his music was informed by suffering, but, perhaps perversely, the creativity thus produced served to energise.
Of late, his music, as stated by the artist himself, became more terse and austere. He expressed a wish to be remembered as an austere composer.
God returned to Tavener in a distinctly different way following his heart attack. This was no longer an external deity, but an internal one. Since then, every piece he wrote was informed by this, and by via negativa – ‘where there is nothing, there is God’.
In recent years, as illness escalated, Tavener felt much closer to the non-knowing, and faith became more complex for him, and much influenced by pain and suffering.
Pain significantly affected his capacity to work, struggling of late to work for more than two hours at a time. Tavener believed that his last pieces were particularly important, not least because of the physical effort they involved. When unable to work due to illness, he described such times as days of darkness. When he could work, a divine darkness was alive within.
Tavener quoted Tolstoy, who believed that one had to suffer to be heard as an artist. The composer clearly subscribed to a similar view.
I was impressed and moved by the clarity of Tavener’s vision himself, and of his life and work. Tom Service commented at the end of the interview that, despite the seriousness and darkness of the topics that Tavener spoke of, the composer smiled as he spoke. Tavener concurred, and laughed at this observation…
CQ

The BBC foreign correspondent Helen Fawkes has ovarian cancer. She was first diagnosed 12 years ago and had been in remission until recently. She has now been told that she has incurable disease (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01j9ghq).

Twelve years ago, once chemotherapy had been completed, Fawkes wrote a list of 10 things she wanted to do on the back of an envelope. One of the items was to become a BBC foreign correspondent, which she duly achieved. When she was told the diagnosis of recurrent and incurable cancer, she initially focused on the unfairness of it all. Yet, alongside the upset and the anger, she also became determined to live her life that remained to the full. She has written a 50 item to do list, which she prefers to call a list for living rather than a bucket list…

As she ticks off the items – things that celebrate being alive, mostly experiences shared with those dear to her – Fawkes finds that the list has made her excited about life. Now finding herself in a situation where control and structure have largely been eroded, she sees the list as a way of prioritising her time, of minimising regrets, and of helping to ensure that the time she has left is spent truly ‘alive’ rather than on autopilot.

Fawkes questions whether such an approach to life, as in living it ‘to the full’, is inherently selfish, or whether it might in fact be spiritual. There is no simple answer, but I do concur with the psychotherapist Philippa Perry, who suggests that there is something of the shopping list about bucket lists, a sort of consumerist approach to buying one’s way out of feeling what one is feeling…

The artist and senior TED fellow Candy Chang created a thought-provoking visual piece of work around the notion of what we really want to do and to achieve with our lives (http://www.ted.com/talks/candy_chang_before_i_die_i_want_to.html).
Chang turned the exterior of a derelict house in her neighbourhood in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard, where passersby were invited to complete the line, ‘Before I die I want to…’
Within 24 hours, the board was filled with hundreds of messages. The idea has now moved to many other countries, where it has been just as popular. Clearly, people do stop to consider what they would like to do, or perhaps what they dream of doing ‘someday’. Whether this translates into an actual ‘doing’, particularly before one becomes aware that death is much closer than anticipated, is another important and as yet unanswered question.
Chang sees life as ‘brief and tender’. She sees death as an intrinsic part of how we live, and believes that preparing for this inevitable event can not only be empowering, but can also serve to clarify our lives as we live through them.

CQ

This film was highly rated at the 2012 London Film Festival. I saw it yesterday, in a relatively packed auditorium for a Saturday midday screening.
I was hugely impressed. This is great, and essential, cinema. Shocking? Yes. Distressing? Yes. But some truths need to be told, and told again, and again, until they get the attention they deserve. Tragically, atrocities within the Catholic Church just don’t go away.
Mainly focusing on sex scandals within the Catholic Church in America, much of the film deals with the sexual abuse of deaf boys by Fr. Murphy in a school for deaf children in Wisconsin. Years later, the adult victims began a campaign to have Fr. Murphy removed from the priesthood. While this did not happen, the campaign achieved much to bring the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church into the open. The campaign continues to gain strength.
The reason why priests who abuse children remain not only active as priests, but continue to have open access to children, is beyond comprehension, yet it appears to be how the Catholic Church deals with such heinous crimes (at worst the ‘offenders’ are deemed ‘sinners’, never criminals). The hierarchy within the establishment mostly responds to allegations of sex abuse against its priests with silence. A sad irony indeed, as we learn in Mea Maxima Culpa of the abuse of children who were already vocally silenced and isolated by their deafness.
The intricacies and complexities of the conspiracy within the Catholic Church at the highest level to publicly ignore the suffering of the abused is astounding. As is the money – billions – ┬áthe institution pays out annually via ‘fixers’ to ‘settle’ sex scandal cases.
There is an on ongoing movement, led by the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson, to remove the Vatican’s right to exist as an independent state (granted by Mussolini…the Vatican’s position in the war is surely the stuff of another film…), a status that currently gives it diplomatic immunity and puts the Pope outside the jurisdiction of the law. It is truly absurd, and wrong, that such a situation exists. It is also absurd, and personally shocking, to see clips of various Heads of State paying homage to the Pope during their special audience…
Nonetheless, I do have a sense of the Vatican imploding. I hope that I am not being overly optimistic…

CQ

I was pretty shocked to hear the results of this study, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry recently, on religion, spirituality and mental health (http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/202/1/68.abstract?sid=8d0ecbb5-0c71-4852-93cb-8babb1525759).

The study analysed data obtained from interviews with 7403 people in England. Overall, 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious, and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual. The results suggest that those with a spiritual understanding of life without a religious framework are ‘vulnerable to mental illness.’

I have not read the entire paper, so a critical analysis is impossible. I do not know, for example, how spirituality was defined, or what constituted a ‘religious framework’. But over 7000 participants is a pretty impressive number. As a devout atheist and someone who considers herself a spiritual being, the results are certainly interesting, and just a little shocking.

I listened to a Radio 3 Night Waves programme on the topic, and the participants included one of the paper’s authors, Michael King. The study raises the question inevitably whether the possible association between spirituality and mental illness is causal or consequential. King mentioned an ongoing longitudinal study of ‘well’ spiritual people who are not religious, and who appear to demonstrate an increase in mental illness over time.

Spirituality, the discussants suggested, is now big business, lying within the consumerism framework. It’s providers attempt to tackle the most serious of issues, include mental and physical ill health, reflecting perhaps an increasing dissatisfaction with what religion can provide.

There is nothing new about spirituality. Originally embedded within organised religion, it now seems to have evolved into an entity in its own right. A contemporary phenomenon of sorts, current notions of spirituality and leading a spiritual life can feel more reactive than constructive, and as a result, it is perhaps also weighed down by the needs of those who seek alternatives and a new way of being.

Life is challenging, increasingly so, and society’s expectations of entitlement are often hard, if not impossible, to meet. Organised religion has floundered in the midst of this. Spirituality, as one of the discussants suggested, is a potent force, and by definition therefore capable of conferring both harm and good.

I am intrigued by the fact that spirituality always seems to be discussed within an ‘either/or’ religious context. For me, atheism and spirituality feel quite separate, albeit connected, but only in so far as all my beliefs are in some way interwoven, and ultimately define me.

It is good to have such issues openly discussed. Whether a scientific approach can define the norms of religion and spirituality, and where they might lead, I have no idea.

But my (non-defensive) spiritual instinct currently says, probably not…

CQ